Bills Trades

Buffalo Bills trade WR Sammy Watkins and a 2018 6th round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2018 2nd round pick and CB EJ Gaines

Buffalo Bills trade CB Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for WR Jordan Matthews and a 2018 3rd round pick

The Bills made a pair of big trades that don’t just impact their roster in a big way, but also the rosters of the Eagles and the Rams, who they traded with. The Eagles sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams and replaced him with Jordan Matthews, who they acquired from the Eagles in a trade that sent top cornerback Ronald Darby to Philadelphia. Darby will be replaced in Buffalo by EJ Gaines, who was somewhat of a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins deal.

The Bills downgraded both wide receiver and cornerback, but get an extra 2nd round pick and an extra 3rd round pick in next year’s draft, which combined is the equivalent of a mid-to-late first round pick on the trade value chart, depending on where the picks end up. It’s not a bad strategy for a team that was not expected to be a contender this season. In my season preview, I had the Bills winning 6 games. I may adjust that to 5 in the wake of these trades, but the picks they received probably make this worth it.

Their trade with the Rams was a smarter move than their trade with the Eagles. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Watkins is a big name receiver who still has a monstrous upside, ahead of only his age 24 season, but he’s coming off an injury plagued season and was heading into the final year of his rookie deal. If Watkins had a big season this year, the Bills still likely would not have been contenders and they would have had to either pay him a boatload to keep him next off-season or lose him for a 3rd round compensation pick in 2019. If he had a down year or got hurt again and had to settle for a one-year prove-it deal, the Bills would have been lucky to get a 4th round compensation pick for him in 2019, given that compensation picks are largely based on the size of the contract that the player signs with his new team.

Instead, the Bills swap a 6th round pick for a 2nd round pick and acquire cornerback EJ Gaines, who could be a starter in Buffalo now with Darby gone. Gaines was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the league last year and missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, but was a pleasant surprise as a 6th round rookie in 2014 and has some bounce back potential now another year removed from that injury. He too is a free agent after the season, but, even if he has a strong bounce back season, he’ll cost significantly less to keep than Watkins would have if Watkins were to have a strong bounce back season.

From the Rams’ perspective, I do not like this trade at all. They needed a receiver like Watkins in a bad way, but a 2nd round pick is a lot to risk for an injury prone player going into the final year of his rookie contract and they are now thin at cornerback without Gaines. If Watkins gets hurt again or signs elsewhere next off-season, the Rams will have blown a valuable pick which could easily be in the top-40 if the Rams are as bad as expected. Prior to this trade, I had the Rams at 3-13 with one of the three worst records in football. Watkins may add a win or two, but he is unlikely to turn this into a playoff contender immediately, especially since he’ll have limited time to learn the playbook and get comfortable with his new teammates.

Best case scenario, Watkins plays well and the Rams keep him next off-season as a long-term building block, but he won’t come cheap. Next off-season is a strong off-season for free agent wide receivers anyway, so the Rams could have had their pick of guys like Alshon Jeffery, DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Terrelle Pryor, and Jarvis Landry even without giving up a 2nd round pick. It’s not a terrible trade for the Rams just because of Watkins’ upside and their need for someone like him, but they are giving up a lot and this trade could easily prove to be a mistake.

Darby, meanwhile, is not as big of a name as Watkins, but losing him could hurt the Bills even more because he still has two years left on his rookie deal. A 2015 2nd round pick, Darby burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 6th in the NFL in pass deflections with 21 and finishing 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t nearly as good in his 2nd season in the league, but still finished around average on Pro Football Focus and has the upside to develop into a long-term #1 cornerback, still only going into his age 23 season. Gaines is an obvious downgrade. Matthews is also an obvious downgrade from Watkins, though he could be Buffalo’s best receiver this year, ahead of 2nd round rookie Zay Jones and veteran Anquan Boldin.

Philadelphia had to surrender a capable receiver and a relatively high pick (3rd round) to get Darby, but I think they’re the overall winner here. Matthews is going into the final year of his rookie deal and likely would not have been re-signed next off-season anyway, so the Eagles are really only trading away a 2018 3rd round pick and the 2019 compensation pick they would have gotten for Matthews (either 3rd or 4th round pick depending on his contract). Unlike the Rams and Bills, the Eagles figure to be in contention for at least the division this season, so it makes sense for them to trade away picks. I have them winning 11 games and this trade makes them even better.

Matthews was also not really needed at wide receiver with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith coming in and 2015 1st round pick Nelson Agholor finally resembling an NFL receiver this off-season, while cornerback was a huge hole for an Eagles team that otherwise has one of the best rosters in the NFL. Darby becomes instantly their best cornerback by far and he has the upside to be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL long-term. Unlike the other players on the move in these deals, he’s under team contract inexpensively for the next two seasons. If he develops, he’ll be expensive to keep, but the Eagles have two seasons until then.

Grade for Bills: B

Grade for Rams: C-

Grade for Eagles: A

2017 NFL Season Preview

AFC East

New England Patriots 13-3

Miami Dolphins 7-9

Buffalo Bills 6-10

New York Jets 2-14

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5

Cincinnati Bengals 9-7

Baltimore Ravens 6-10

Cleveland Browns 4-12

AFC South

Tennessee Titans 11-5

Jacksonville Jaguars 9-7

Indianapolis Colts 8-8

Houston Texans 6-10

AFC West

Oakland Raiders 10-6

Los Angeles Chargers 9-7

Kansas City Chiefs 8-8

Denver Broncos 8-8

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles 11-5

Dallas Cowboys 10-6

Washington Redskins 8-8

New York Giants 7-9

NFC North

Green Bay Packers 10-6

Minnesota Vikings 9-7

Detroit Lions 6-10

Chicago Bears 6-10

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 11-5

Carolina Panthers 10-6

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8

New Orleans Saints 7-9

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 12-4

Arizona Cardinals 8-8

Los Angeles Rams 3-13

San Francisco 49ers 3-13

AFC Wild Card

#3 Pittsburgh over #6 Jacksonville 24-13

#4 Oakland over #5 LA Chargers 31-24

NFC Wild Card

#3 Atlanta over #6 Dallas 34-27

#5 Carolina over #4 Green Bay 24-20

AFC Divisional

#1 New England over #4 Oakland 31-24

#3 Pittsburgh over #2 Tennessee 24-20

NFC Divisional

#5 Carolina over #1 Seattle 27-24

#2 Philadelphia over #3 Atlanta 34-27

AFC Championship

#1 New England over #3 Pittsburgh 34-27

NFC Championship

#5 Carolina over #2 Philadelphia 24-20

Super Bowl

#1 New England over #5 Carolina 34-24

MVP: QB Tom Brady (New England)

DPOY: DE Aaron Donald (LA Rams)

OROY: RB Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville)

DROY: S Jamal Adams (NY Jets)

CPOTY: TE Rob Gronkowski (New England)

COTY: HC Bill Belichick (New England)

Atlanta Falcons 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons had one of the best offenses in NFL history last season. They picked up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate, significantly higher than 2nd place New Orleans (40.72%). In fact, the margin between 1st and 2nd was bigger than the margin between 2nd place New Orleans and 9th place San Diego. The Falcons were even better offensively in the playoffs, despite falling short in the Super Bowl, moving the chains at a 48.09% rate in their 3 playoff games, despite facing Seattle and New England, both of whom had strong defenses in 2017.

Their offense definitely bailed out their defense all year, as their defense ranked 27th in first down rate allowed and they still finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential. They had 12 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents in the regular season, 2nd best in the NFL. The Falcons finished the regular season 11-5 and with a first round bye, despite not having great luck in close games, going 4-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Falcons had just 1 loss by more than a touchdown all season, including the post-season, but 10 of their total 13 wins came by more than a touchdown.

Quarterback Matt Ryan led the way on this strong offense, en route to his first regular season MVP. He had one of the best regular seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, completing 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 117.1, 5th highest all-time in a single season. He finished 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus behind Tom Brady, but he arguably had a bigger impact on his team than Brady because he played all 16 games. His QB rating also exceeded Brady’s.

The concern is that last season was out of character for Ryan, who has always been a good quarterback, but not a great one. Prior to last season, his highest QB rating came in 2012 (99.1), when he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.67 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 240 touchdowns, and 114 interceptions, for a QB rating of 93.6, over 23 points lower than his QB rating last season. Making matters even worse, Matt Ryan lost talented offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this off-season when he was hired as head coach by the San Francisco 49ers. He’s been a top-10 quarterback on Pro Football Focus 6 times in 9 seasons, but I don’t expect him to be quite as good as he was in 2016 again in 2017.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The good news is their strong offense last season was not just the result of Matt Ryan, as they had a really strong supporting cast around him. They return all their key players from 2016, so they have a good chance to be one of the best offenses in the league again in 2017. Outside of Matt Ryan, the most important player to this offense is wide receiver Julio Jones, who is coming off of another incredible season. He finished last season 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards with 1409, despite only playing in 14 games and only receiving 129 targets (18th in the NFL). He averaged 16.98 yards per catch, 10.92 yards per target, and 2.94 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver, his 3rd straight season in the top-6 at his position.

Jones’ numbers in 2016 were actually his lowest over that 3-year period, as he finished with a 104/1593/6 slash line in 2014 and a 136/1871/8 slash line in 2015. The Falcons will continue spreading the ball around, so he’s unlikely to top the 164 targets he had in 2014, let alone the 204 targets he had in 2015, but he has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers if he can stay healthier and stay on the field more. The Falcons may also pass more in 2017, after finishing with just 537 pass attempts in the regular season in 2016, 26th in the NFL. The most talented receiver in the league when healthy, Jones should be considered the favorite to lead the league in receiving in 2017.

Jones was one of six pass catchers on the team to average more than 10 yards per target last season. Reserve wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson posted slash lines of 35/579/6 and 20/323/2 respectively on 49 targets and 32 targets respectively. Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo posted slash lines of 19/271/3 and 13/264/2 respectively on 27 targets and 19 targets respectively. And running back Tevin Coleman posted a slash line of 31/421/3 on 40 targets.

#2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was not one of those six pass catchers. In fact, he was pretty underwhelming in his first season in Atlanta, after signing a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Sanu’s slash line of 59/653/4 doesn’t look bad, but it is when you consider how good this passing offense was overall and that Sanu led the team with 480 routes run in the regular season. Sanu averaged just 8.06 yards per target on 81 targets and 1.36 yards per route run. The 2012 3rd round pick is a good run blocker, but has finished below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league.

Taylor Gabriel is just a slot receiver at 5-8 167 and Aldrick Robinson is just a situational deep threat that is no longer with the team, so the Falcons don’t really have another option other than Sanu to start outside opposite Jones. Gabriel should still have a role in this passing game as the 3rd receiver though. He role grew as last season went on, as he had 51 targets in his final 9 games of the season, including the playoffs. He’s unlikely to be as efficient as he was in 2016, when he averaged 2.30 yards per route run and 11.82 yards per target and finished 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he’s finished above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league and has developed into a dangerous weapon on the slot.

Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo both return at the tight end position and, with Jacob Tamme no longer in the mix, will both have big roles in 2017. Toilolo was efficient on limited targets in 2016, but primarily spent last season as a run blocker and has struggled as a receiver throughout his career. Toilolo has just 62 catches for 601 yards and 6 touchdowns in 4 seasons in the league, despite making 45 starts in 64 career games. 16 of those starts came in 2014, when he finished 64th among 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. At best a capable blocker, Toilolo won’t be anything more than the #2 tight end in 2017.

That leaves Austin Hooper to have a big role as the starting tight end in his 2nd season in the league. The 2016 3rd round pick flashed on 404 snaps as a rookie and the Falcons are excited about his potential. He could easily break out as a solid starter in 2017. The Falcons also still have running back Tevin Coleman to catch passes, as well as running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman did not average more than 10 yards per target last season like Coleman did, but Freeman has been the Falcons’ starting running back over the past 2 seasons and has caught 127 passes over those 2 seasons, so he’ll have a big role again in 2017. Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both weapons as runners too. The Falcons finished last season 5th in the NFL with an average of 4.58 yards per carry. Freeman has been the lead back for the past two seasons and will remain the lead back in 2017. A 2014 4th round pick, Freeman rushed for 1061 yards and 11 touchdowns on 264 carries (4.02 YPC) in his first season as a starter, but was more efficient in 2016 in a smaller role, rushing for 1079 yards and 11 touchdowns on 227 carries (4.75 YPC).

Coleman’s emergence was what allowed the Falcons to give Freeman more rest, as the 2015 3rd round pick had 118 carries in 2016, after getting just 87 as a rookie in 2015. He’s averaged 4.45 yards per carry in his career and finished last season 19th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, so he’ll obviously continue to have a role, but Freeman is too good to take off the field more than they do now, so Coleman’s role is capped as long as Freeman is healthy. Freeman has picked up 171 first downs in 2015 and 2016 combined, most by any running back, and has finished 14th and 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons respectively. He’s one of the best all-around backs in football and this is arguably the best running back duo in the entire NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Falcons also got great play from the offensive line in 2016, which helped both their passing and running games tremendously. The Falcons return 4 of 5 starters from 2016, with the only exception being right guard Chris Chester, who was the lone weak point upfront. Chester finished last season 56th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. The Falcons don’t have an obvious replacement for him though and could get even worse play at the position in 2017. Wes Schweitzer is currently penciled into the starting job, even though the 2016 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie. His competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Sean Harlow, who would likely be overwhelmed as a rookie. Right guard is still a weak point.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. The big addition that took this line to the next level was the addition of ex-Browns center Alex Mack on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal last off-season. That deal makes him the 2nd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but he was worth it, as he finished 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. That was the highest ranked season of his career, but he’s finished in the top-13 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league and has made all 16 starts in 7 of those 8 seasons. Going into his age 32 season, Mack could start to decline over the next couple of seasons, but should still be a solid starter at the very least in 2017.

Left guard Andy Levitre is also getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but he too is coming off of a strong season, finishing 13th among guards on Pro Football Focus. A 2nd round pick in 2009 by the Bills, Levitre was once one of the best guards in the NFL and signed a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal with the Titans following the final season of his rookie deal in 2012. Levitre continued his strong play in 2013, finishing in the top-13 among guards for the 3rd straight season, but struggled in 2014 and was subsequently traded to the Falcons, where he took a pay cut. Levitre has bounced back over the past 2 seasons with the Falcons though, finishing 22nd among guards in 2015 and then 13th last season. His age is a bit of a concern, but he’s owed just 12.25 million over the next 2 seasons, so he should stay on the team as long as he plays well.

The Falcons are strong at the tackle positions as well. Left tackle Jake Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has a huge upside, still only going into his age 25 season. He struggled as a rookie, finishing dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles, but has been much better over the past 2 seasons, finishing 19th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 37th among offensive tackles in 2016. His best days could still be ahead of him and he could someday be one of the best offensive tackles in the league.

Even though Matthews was a high pick, he’s actually been outplayed by right tackle Ryan Schraeder, a 2013 undrafted free agent, over the past 3 seasons. Schraeder has made 42 starts over the those 3 seasons and has finished 22nd, 5th, and 13th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2014-2016 respectively. One of the best right tackles in the game, he was wisely kept on a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That extension still only makes him the 8th highest paid right tackle in the league. In his prime in his age 29 season, he should continue to play at a high level for another couple seasons at least. This is one of the better offensive lines in football, though their issues at right guard can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Falcons more or less bring back their whole offense from 2016, but are unlikely to be quite as efficient offensively again in 2017, so they’ll need their defense to be improved. Fortunately, they have a young defense that played better down the stretch last season and, with no pressing needs on offense, they were able to spend most of their resources this off-season upgrading the defense. The area most in need of upgrade was the pass rush, as they finished just 27th in the NFL in sack rate with 34 sacks on 689 pass plays (4.93%). Vic Beasley almost had half of the Falcons’ sacks by himself, leading the league with 15.5.

Even Beasley didn’t rush the passer consistently though, as many players with fewer sacks got more quarterback hits and hurries and were overall more disruptive in the passing game. Beasley actually only finished just slightly above average on Pro Football Focus overall because he was horrendous against the run. Because of his lack of size, the 6-3 246 pound Beasley rarely plays defensive end in base packages in the Falcons’ 4-3.

Beasley he plays some outside linebacker in base packages, but isn’t very good in that role either. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley has huge upside as a sub package pass rusher, even if he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested last season, but may never develop into a good base package player at any position. So far, he hasn’t shown the ability to hold up against the run on the defensive line or play run and chase linebacker on run plays. He’s still a valuable player though, especially given their lack of another edge rusher.

With no other player topping 4.5 sacks last season, the Falcons moved up in the first round to select UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley with the 26th overall pick. McKinley is similar to Beasley in that he has great upside as a pass rusher, but needs to get better against the run. He’s raw, but should have an immediate role in sub packages opposite Beasley and could finish 2nd on the team in sacks. He fills a big need and was a smart selection.

In base packages, the Falcons have a variety of options at the defensive end position. Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn are probably their best base package defensive ends, but the Falcons have experienced backups in Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, and Jack Crawford and like to rotate players on the defensive line. With Beasley playing linebacker part-time, Clayborn led the defensive line in snaps per game season last season with just 44.85 snaps per game (in 13 games).

Clayborn was brought back on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal this off-season and could lead this defensive line in snaps per game again in 2017. His size at 6-3 280 makes him a good fit for base packages, but he isn’t a bad pass rusher either. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, but has missed 31 games in 6 seasons in the league with injuries and is now coming off of a biceps tear that ended his season in the playoffs. He also had a knee injury that cost him 3 games during the regular season.

Shelby is also on a decent sized contract, getting signed by the Falcons to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, after what seemed like a breakout 2015 season, when he finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Shelby lasted just 6 games in 2016 though, before going down for the season with a torn achilles, and he wasn’t that good in the limited action he did play. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 undrafted free agent has some bounce back potential, but is still a one-year wonder, finishing below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. Like Clayborn, Shelby has good size at 6-2 280.

Courtney Upshaw and Jack Crawford also have good size, at 6-2 272 and 6-6 288 respectively. Upshaw was brought back on a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar deal after playing 310 snaps last season, while Crawford was signed from Dallas on a 3-year, 8.8 million dollar deal. Neither player is that good though. Upshaw was a solid run stopping outside linebacker in a 4-3 in his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to last season, but struggled in his first season as a 4-3 defensive end and has just 6 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. Crawford, meanwhile, finished last season 106th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 525 snaps.

The only defensive end they have that doesn’t have good size is converted linebacker Brooks Reed. The 6-3 254 pounder struggled in his first season with the Falcons in 2015, but played better last season at defensive end, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus and showing well as a pass rusher and against the run in limited action (425 snaps). He’s finished above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league and should have a similar role in 2017. With so many big defensive ends, the Falcons may line up 3 or 4 defensive ends at a time on the defensive line in sub packages, in an effort to get their best pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations, with guys like Shelby, Clayborn, Upshaw, and Crawford capable of moving inside.

Another reason why that makes sense is because they’re pretty thin at defensive tackle and starters Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are better run stoppers than pass rushers. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Jarrett flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie and then broke out in his first full season as a starter in 2016, finishing 18th among defensive tackles on 630 snaps, most on the team by a defensive lineman. He isn’t a bad pass rusher and is capable of playing every down, but his strength is stopping the run at 6-0 305. He’ll be part of a rotation like the rest of the Falcons’ defensive linemen, but he could easily lead this defensive line in snaps played again in 2017.

Poe, meanwhile, was their big off-season signing, coming over from the Chiefs on a 1-year, 8 million deal (with incentives worth up to 10 million). The 11th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Poe has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons and has averaged 862 snaps per game in 5 seasons in the league, but he had to settle for a one-year prove it deal in free agency because he’s coming off of a down year and has back problems.

In an effort to keep him fresh, the Falcons figure to significantly cut Poe’s snaps from the amount he was seeing in Kansas City. The big 6-3 346 pounder was an every down player in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense, but figures to primarily be a base package player in the Falcons’ 4-3 defense, in rotation with other players. He’s also reportedly trying to drop down to 330 pounds for the scheme switch and has bonuses in his contract for weigh ins.

He might not play more than 600 snaps, but he’s still going into his age 27 season and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2013, so he still has huge upside if he can stay healthy in a smaller role in Atlanta. Ra’Shede Hageman is listed as their primary reserve defensive tackle, but he’s averaged just 315 snaps per season in 3 seasons in the league and has been underwhelming, so the Falcons are likely to rotate some of their defensive ends inside in sub packages. With the additions of Poe and McKinley, the Falcons have improved their defensive line rotation, but they still have issues upfront.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As mentioned, Vic Beasley plays outside linebacker in some base packages, but isn’t very good in that spot. The Falcons used a 3rd round draft pick on an outside linebacker, taking LSU’s Duke Riley 75th overall, but he’s incredibly raw and is unlikely to do much beyond special teams as a rookie. Riley is a great athlete and has the tools to develop into a starter, but wasn’t even given a draftable grade from Pro Football Focus. At most, he’ll have a small base package role as a rookie.

The Falcons started a pair of rookies at linebacker last season, with 2nd round pick Deion Jones making 13 starts at middle linebacker and 4th round pick De’Vondre Campbell making 10 starts at outside linebacker. Both should be locked into every down roles in 2017. Jones was easily the better of the two, finishing 13th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while Campbell finished well below average, 60th out of 87 eligible linebackers.

Jones could be even better in his 2nd season in the league, although he’s still a one-year wonder and a sophomore slump is a possibility. Campbell, meanwhile, could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a starter. There’s a reason he fell to the 4th round of the draft. The Falcons have some young talent at linebacker, but this is still a below average group overall.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Falcons were one of the healthier teams in the league last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury. The one key player who they lost for an extended period of time was cornerback Desmond Trufant, who missed the final 7 regular season games and the post-season with a torn pectoral. However, the defense actually played better down the stretch without him. In 9 games with him, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 40.06% rate. In 10 games with him, including the post-season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.37% rate.

It’s not that Trufant wasn’t having a good season, but the young players on this defense played their best football down the stretch, especially at the cornerback position. 2015 2nd round pick Jalen Mills, who became the #3 cornerback down the stretch in Trufant’s absence, finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback. He actually finished higher than Trufant, who finished just 30th at the position. That made 2016 a career worst season for Trufant, even before the injury.

The 2013 1st round pick finished in the top-13 among cornerbacks in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, prior to last season, and made 57 consecutive starts to begin his career, prior to the injury. The Falcons seem to think he’ll bounce back, extending him for 68.75 million over 5 years this off-season, making him the 5th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Given that he’s only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he wouldn’t bounce back.

Undrafted rookie Brian Poole fared well as a starter in Trufant’s absence last season, finishing 43rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 834 snaps, but the Falcons paid 38 million over 4 years to re-sign Robert Alford, so Alford will start and Poole will compete with Mills for the slot job. Mills was a higher pick and played better last season, but Poole is a more natural fit on the slot at 5-10 211, so Mills could open the season as the #4 cornerback. The Falcons are deep at the cornerback position.

Given all of their cornerback depth, it’s a surprise they were willing to pay so much to keep Alford. He was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked cornerback last season, but that was the best finish of his career and he’s the 15th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. He should be a remain solid, but overpaid #2 cornerback. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished above average in each of the last 2 seasons (31 starts).

The Falcons are solid at the safety position too. Keanu Neal had a strong rookie season, finishing 32nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts, but he was actually outplayed by 3rd year safety Ricardo Allen. A 5th round pick in 2014, Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 30 starts in 2 seasons since and finished last season 23rd among safeties. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being as good as he was last season, but he could easily have another solid season. He and Neal are a talented young safety duo. The Falcons’ secondary is their best defensive unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It’s going to be tough for the Falcons to be as efficient offensively as they were last season, especially with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan no longer with the team, but they return all of the players who matters from last season’s offense, so they should be among the best, if not the best offenses in the league again in 2017 and their defense should be better. A young unit that played better down the stretch even without top cornerback Desmond Trufant, they get Trufant back and added a pair of much needed contributors on the defensive line in Takkarist McKinley and Dontari Poe.

The one key for them will be staying healthy. Aside from Trufant, they barely had any injuries last season, but that’s tough to do twice in a row and they aren’t as deep everywhere as they are in the secondary. They should be in the mix to go back to the Super Bowl, but chances like they had last season are not easy to come by and the history of teams after losing the Super Bowl isn’t pretty. \

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers bottomed out in 2014, finishing 2-14 with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback. That allowed them to get the #1 overall pick, which they used on quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since and hasn’t been bad. He finished 19th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 20th in 2016, and has completed 59.6% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, while adding another 378 yards and 7 touchdowns on 107 carries on the ground (3.53 YPC). Only going into his age 23 season, Winston still has an incredible upside and could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. A top-15 season would not be surprising for him.

Under the new rookie salary cap, getting a good quarterback on a rookie deal is so valuable to a team. The rookie salary cap has allowed for veterans to start getting paid more and a lot of the money has gone to veteran quarterbacks. There are currently 22 quarterbacks signed to contracts that pay them at least 15 million annually. Having a quarterback like Winston who makes just about 6.3 million annually gives you a lot more flexibility to build your roster around him. As a result, the Buccaneers entered the off-season among the top teams in the league in salary cap space, despite already having a solid roster, coming off of a 9-7 season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Armed with all of that cap space, the Buccaneers were aggressive in addressing needs in free agency this off-season and still have over 25 million in cap space to roll over to next season. Their biggest splash signing was wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who comes over from the Redskins on a 3-year, 33.5 million dollar deal. He gives them a much needed threat opposite Mike Evans. Evans caught 96 passes for 1321 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, the 6th most catches, the 4th most receiving yards, and the 2nd most receiving touchdowns in the league.

Evans is unlikely to get the 175 targets (most in the NFL) that he had last season again, with Jackson now coming in, but he should be more efficient on a per target basis with Jackson on the other side taking some of the coverage off of him. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Evans has topped 1000 yards in all 3 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 24 season. He’s been a top-19 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, with his highest rated season coming in 2016, when he finished 2nd at the position. His best days could easily still be ahead of him and he could have another huge statistical season in 2017.

Jackson, meanwhile, has topped 1000 yards in 3 of the last 4 seasons, with the only exception being 2015, when he was injured for most of the first half of the season. Even in 2015, he produced at a 1000-yard pace in the second half of the season. He also finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including last season, when he finished 36th among wide receivers. His age is a bit of a concern, as he enters his age 31 season, but he should have a couple solid seasons left in the tank. He and Evans could easily both top 1000 yards in 2017.

At the very least, Jackson should be an upgrade over Adam Humphries, who was underwhelming as the #2 receiver last season. Humphries will now be the #3 receiver, though he could be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie Chris Godwin at some point this season. Humphries had just a 55/622/2 slash line on 82 targets and 478 routes run (1.30 yards per route run) in 2016 and was underwhelming on 437 snaps as a rookie in 2015 too. The former undrafted free agent isn’t bad depth, but this passing offense is definitely better as a result of the addition of Jackson.

Godwin wasn’t the only pass catcher they added in the draft, as they also added Alabama tight end OJ Howard with the 19th overall pick in the first round. Tight end was not a big need for the Buccaneers, but Howard slid on draft day unexpectedly and was too good to pass on. He’s one of the best tight end prospects in years and will immediately compete for a role with incumbent Cameron Brate. Brate had a mini-breakout season in 2016, finishing 2nd on the team in receiving with a 57/660/8 slash line on just 441 routes run (1.50 yards per route run). Also a capable run blocker, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th overall ranked tight end. Brate was solid on 348 snaps in 2015 too, in the first significant action of the 2014 undrafted free agent’s career.

Howard is a better blocker and a better athlete though and he provides insurance in case Brate leaves as a free agent next off-season. Both players will have roles this season. The Buccaneers have the ability to pass effectively out of two-tight end sets and could use two tight ends frequently. With the additions of OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson, as well as Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers are much deeper and more talented in the receiving corps and Mike Evans is still one of the best receivers in the game. That will help Jameis Winston as he tries to have a breakout season.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Despite a slight improvement in the passing game from Winston’s rookie season to his 2nd season in the league, the Buccaneers fell from 10th to 17th in first down rate in 2016, as a result of a steep dropoff in production from the running game. The Buccaneers finished 2nd in the NFL in yards per carry in 2015 with 4.72, but averaged just 3.57 yards per carry in 2016, 29th in the NFL. They had just 2 fewer carries in 2016 than they did in 2015, but they totalled 546 fewer yards. The Buccaneers have improved the receiving corps for sure, but they will need to be better on the ground too. If they continue to struggle to run the ball, it will hold this offense back.

In 2015, Doug Martin and Charles Sims were one of the best running back duos in the NFL, finishing 2nd and 5th respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Martin rushed for 1402 yards and 6 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.87 YPC) and added 33 catches for 271 yards and another touchdown through the air, while Sims rushed for 529 yards on 107 carries (4.94 YPC) and added 51 catches for 561 yards and 4 scores through the air.

In 2016, both dealt with injuries. Martin was limited to 144 carries in 8 games and Sims was limited to 51 carries in 7 games. Both also struggled when on the field, averaging 2.93 yards per carry and 2.92 yards per carry respectively. Both finished well below average on Pro Football Focus. Martin and Sims are both still young, going into their age 28 season and 27 seasons respectively, so they have bounce back potential, but neither has been particularly durable throughout their careers.

Martin, a 2012 1st round pick, was a top-8 running back in both 2012 and 2015, but, in his other 3 seasons, has averaged a combined 3.39 yards per carry and has missed 23 of 48 games. Sims, a 2014 3rd round pick, also missed 8 games with injury as a rookie, before his strong 2015 season, and he averaged 2.80 yards per carry that season when he did play. Martin is reportedly having a strong off-season and Sims is at least a good pass catcher when on the field (3.26 catches per game and 10.01 yards per catch over the last 2 seasons), but Martin is also suspended for the first 3 games of the season and it’s unclear if Sims (3.85 YPC average in his career) can carry the load in his absence.

With Martin and Sims missing time, Jacquizz Rodgers actually led the Buccaneers in carries last season with 129 and wasn’t bad, averaging 4.34 yards per carry. The Buccaneers brought him back on a 2-year, 3.3 million dollar deal and he should be in the mix for carries, especially early in the season with Martin suspended, but he has a career YPC average of just 3.83 on 448 carries in 6 seasons in the NFL. He’ll be pushed for playing time by 5th round rookie Jeremy McNichols, who has some upside. The Buccaneers should be better on the ground, but a lot is still up for grabs at the running back position and I doubt they’ll be nearly as good on the ground as they were in 2015.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

It would help this running game bounce back if the offensive line played well, something they did not do in 2016. Signed to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal last off-season, guard JR Sweezy didn’t play a snap in his first season in Tampa Bay because of back problems, but his return won’t really help, as the 2012 7th round pick has never finished above average in his career. He’s plenty experienced, with 49 career starts, but was massively overpaid in free agency, even before the back injury happened.

Sweezy will play right guard this season, moving right guard Ali Marpet inside to center. Sweezy was originally going to play left guard last season, but he spent the first 4 seasons of his career at right guard with the Seahawks and they like Kevin Pamphile, who played left guard in Sweezy’s absence last season. It’s unclear why they like him though, as he struggled mightily in 14 starts in the first significant action of his career. The 2014 5th round pick finished 68th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s a weak starting option.

It’s possible Marpet could move back to guard at some point this season, but that would leave the Buccaneers with a weak starting option at center. Joe Hawley has made 29 starts at center for the Buccaneers over the past 2 seasons, in his first 2 full seasons as a starting center, but has struggled, finishing 28th out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 28th out of 38 eligible in 2016. Regardless of where Marpet plays, the Buccaneers will have at least one hole on the interior of their offensive line and JR Sweezy is a shaky starting option as well.

Fortunately, Marpet should play at a high level wherever he plays, which elevates the level of play of the interior of this offensive line. A 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Marpet is off to an impressive start to his career. He finished 34th among guards on Pro Football Focus as a 13-game starter in 2015 and then finished 13th at the position as a 16-game starter in 2016. Leaving him at guard for the sake of familiarity seems to make more sense than changing his position, but he could easily develop into one of the best centers in the league. His stay at center could be short lived though, if Sweezy gets injured again or Pamphile struggles again.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was also a 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but has not had nearly as good of a career as Marpet. Smith has started all 32 games at left tackle in 2 seasons in the league, but has struggled mightily, finishing 71st among 77 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 and 66th among 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2016. Only going into his age 24 season, Smith still has upside, but is entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and could easily never develop into a capable starter.

Demar Dotson rounds out the offensive line at right tackle. He’s been a solid starting right tackle for a while, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons. The concern is he’s going into his age 32 season and has had some injuries over the past couple of seasons. He’s missed 13 games over the past 2 seasons combined and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014. If he can stay healthy, he could easily be a solid starter for another couple of seasons, but he’s a shaky bet going forward at this point. The addition of JR Sweezy won’t help this offensive line much, so the Buccaneers will need Dotson to hold up for another season and Marpet to be comfortable at his new position. Even if they do so, it could still be a tough season for the Buccaneers upfront.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

Even though the Buccaneers declined on offense from 2015 to 2016 because of their struggles on the ground, they still improved by 3 wins, going from 6-10 to 9-7. That’s because their defense was much improved, going from 31st in first down rate allowed in 2015 to 20th in 2016. There are a lot of reasons why they improved, but one of the biggest reasons is they got a bounce back season from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who finished 7th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after an uncharacteristically average season in 2015. The bounce back season wasn’t a surprise though, because he was a top-2 defensive tackle for 3 seasons from 2012-2014. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, McCoy should have another strong season in 2017.

Another reason why they improved was the addition of defensive end Robert Ayers, who came to Tampa Bay from the Giants in free agency on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Ayers missed 4 games with injury, but played pretty well when healthy, finishing 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. He’s been a top-14 player at the position in 4 straight seasons, but is going into his age 32 season and hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2013. He could have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With plenty of available cap space remaining, the Buccaneers also added to their defense in free agency this off-season, so they could be even better defensively in 2017. Defensive tackle Chris Baker was their biggest defensive addition, signing for 15.75 million over 3 years. Like DeSean Jackson, he comes over from the Redskins. Like DeSean Jackson, he’s getting up there in age, going into his age 30 season, but is still playing at a high level. A late bloomer, Baker has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons.

In Tampa Bay’s 4-3, he’ll be a defensive tackle and he has true three down ability. He has good size at 6-2 320 and stops the run well, but also has 9.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons and has rare movement ability for his size. His age is a bit of a concern, but he and McCoy both should play every down at defensive tackle, with veteran Clinton McDonald sprinkled in as a reserve. Once a solid rotational player, McDonald is now going into his age 30 season and finished last season 119th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus on 485 snaps.

The Buccaneers also used their cap space to bring back William Gholston on a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal this off-season, following the expiration of his rookie deal. A 4th round pick in 2013, Gholston plays the run well at 6-6 281, but has just 10 sacks in 4 seasons in the league and has finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons on Pro Football Focus, so the deal he received looks like an overpay. Primarily a base package player, Gholston only played 586 snaps last season and probably won’t have a bigger role in 2017.

Gholston will split snaps with second year defensive end Noah Spence, a 2nd round pick in 2016. Spence finished below average on 566 snaps as a rookie, but flashed as a pass rusher and could be better in his second season in the league in 2017. The Buccaneers also get Jacquies Smith back, after he missed all but 2 snaps in 2016 with a torn ACL. Smith has never finished above average in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but he won’t have a big role and he should be an upgrade over DaVonte Lambert, a 2016 undrafted free agent who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end on 374 snaps as a rookie and now could be on the outside looking in for a roster spot. The Buccaneers are deeper and more talented on the defensive line in 2017.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Another reason why this defense was improved from 2015 to 2016 is because Lavonte David had a bounce back season as well. A top-7 4-3 outside linebacker in each of his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014, David fell to the middle of the pack in 2015, particularly concerning considering the Buccaneers had just locked him up with a 5-year, 50.25 million dollar extension before the season. David didn’t have his best season in 2016, but finished 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers and is still in his prime in his age 27 season. He’s had issues against the run over the past 2 seasons, but is still as good as any linebacker in the league in coverage and is incredibly athletic at 6-1 233.

Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander having a breakout 2nd season in the league also helped this defense. Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked middle linebacker as a rookie, Alexander shot up to 27th in 2016 and made all 16 starts. He was only a 4th round pick and he’s still a one-year wonder, so he could regress in 2017, but he could also continue developing into an above average starting middle linebacker. Like David, he has issues against the run, but is great in coverage at 6-1 227.

Daryl Smith, the 3rd linebacker last season, is no longer with the team, but he only played about half the snaps (475) and didn’t play all that well, but so he won’t really be missed. Third round rookie Kendell Beckwith is a candidate to replace him, but he’ll face competition from 2016 6th round pick Devante Bond. Bond missed his entire rookie season with a hamstring injury, but the coaching staff reportedly likes him and he has a legitimate chance to earn a role.

Whether or not Beckwith beats Bond out could depend on his own health, as he returns from a torn ACL suffered in November when he was at LSU. That injury probably dropped him a round in the draft and he could develop into a capable run stopping linebacker long-term if he can stay healthy, but he’s questionable for the start of his rookie season and is missing a lot of valuable off-season work. Regardless of who wins the 3rd linebacker job, it’s just a part-time base package role, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so it’s not a huge deal. The Buccaneers will need David and Alexander to play at a high level as the every down linebackers.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The single biggest reason for the Buccaneers’ defensive improvement was probably the addition of cornerback Brent Grimes. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks were terrible in 2015 and Grimes, signed to a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal, finished as Pro Football Focus’ #4 ranked cornerback in his first season in Tampa Bay. Grimes is going into his age 34 season, so he’s unlikely to play as well as he did in 2016 again, but he’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the last 7 seasons, with 3 seasons in the top-4 among cornerbacks. He could easily have another good season in 2017, though any decline from him hurts this secondary.

Grimes wasn’t the only cornerback the Buccaneers added last off-season, as they used the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Hargreaves did not nearly have as good of a first season in Tampa Bay as Grimes did. He made all 16 starts, but finished 89th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He still has a bright future though and could be much improved in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. They’ll need him to develop with Grimes aging.

Safety was a position of need this off-season, with Bradley McDougald (16 starts) and Chris Conte (11 starts) set to hit free agency. Conte was re-signed, but he was Pro Football Focus 89th ranked safety out of 90 eligible in 2016, so they still needed safety help even after bringing him back. They took the same approach at safety this off-season as they took at cornerback last season, signing veteran JJ Wilcox to a 2-year, 6.25 million dollar deal and using a high draft pick on Texas A&M’s Justin Evans, taking him 50th overall in the 2nd round.

Conte has finished above average just once in 6 seasons in the league and was brought back inexpensively on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal, so he’s unlikely to have a starting job. Wilcox and Evans are the favorites for the starting jobs. Wilcox was Pro Football Focus 27th ranked safety last season, but only played 553 snaps in 13 games as a part-time safety with the Cowboys and struggled mightily as a starter in 2014 and 2015 (29 starts combined). The 2013 3rd round pick is now going into his 5th season in the league and may have turned a corner, but he could easily struggle as a starter again. Evans has long-term upside, but the rookie could also struggle in 2017. Keith Tandy could also be in the mix. He flashed in 5 starts down the stretch last season after Conte got benched, but has made just 12 starts in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s very unproven.

Tandy could also be an option on the slot too. The Buccaneers completely lack depth at the cornerback position and don’t have a clear #3 cornerback. Behind Grimes and Hargreaves, their leading returning cornerbacks in terms of snaps played in 2016 are Jude Adjei-Barimah (289 snaps) and Javien Elliott (185 snaps). Adjei-Barimah is a 2015 undrafted free agent and Elliott is a 2016 undrafted free agent. Neither player has impressed in limited action in their career and both would be weak options as the #3 cornerback. The Buccaneers still have a shaky secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers should be improved both on the ground and in the air on offense this season and have a good chance to be improved on defense as well. The Buccaneers added several useful veterans in free agency and should hopefully be healthier at the running back position in 2017. That could easily get them into the post-season in 2017. However, they still have glaring flaws on the offensive line and in the secondary and the NFC has a bunch of teams competing for wild card spots, so the Buccaneers will have competition to make the post-season. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in NFC South

Carolina Panthers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers have had some strong seasons in recent years, going 12-4 in 2013 and 15-1 in 2015, but they haven’t done a good job of following up those seasons, falling to 7-8-1 in 2014 and 6-10 in 2016. Their 9 win decline from 2015 to 2016 was the biggest in the league. What happened? Part of it is just that they weren’t quite as good as their record in 2015 or quite as bad as their record in 2016, as they went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015 and just 2-6 in those type of games in 2016. However, they were still significantly worse from 2015 to 2016. After finishing 3rd in first down rate and first down rate allowed in 2015, they fell to 22nd and 15th in those two metrics respectively in 2016.

The biggest single difference between the two seasons was that Cam Newton played at an MVP level in 2015, but did not come close to doing so in 2016. Newton finished the 2015 season 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while rushing for another 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on 132 carries (4.82 YPC). In 2016, he fell to 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while rushing for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.99 YPC).

While 2016 was the lowest rated season of his career, his performance last season was much more in line with the rest of his career than 2015 was. He finished 14th, 11th, 15th, and 8th among quarterbacks in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, so his 2015 MVP season looks like an obvious outlier when you look at his career as a whole. He also had off-season shoulder surgery and could miss the entire off-season. He’s unlikely to miss any games, but all that missed practice hurts his chances of a bounce back season.

Newton is starting to pile up the injuries and is no longer a spring chicken, going into his age 28 season. All of the injuries he’s suffered are not a surprise, given how much he runs with the football and how many hits he takes as a result. Last season, he had a career low 90 carries, after topping 103 in his first 5 seasons in the league, and that could become a trend, as the Panthers try to preserve Newton long-term. The problem is running the ball is such an important part of his game, so his transition to more of a pocket passer might not be good for this offense. It’s very possible Newton doesn’t age nearly as well as guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre, but he should have several solid seasons left in the tank.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Another thing that really hurt this offense was all of the injuries they had on the offensive line last season. They had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury of any offensive line in the league. Michael Oher was supposed to be their left tackle, following a solid 2015 season, after which he was rewarded with a 3-year, 21.6 million dollar extension. However, he was limited to 232 snaps in 3 games by concussions. When he went down, the Panthers had to move right tackle Mike Remmers to left tackle, where he struggled, finishing 51st out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, and they had to plug in 2015 4th round pick Daryl Williams at right tackle. The first-time starter was alright, but also finished below average, 45th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, and also missed some time with injury, finishing with just 10 starts.

Oher has still yet to get clearance to return from his concussions and there’s some serious doubt about his long-term future. Oher has had some alright seasons, but has been very inconsistent throughout his career and the Panthers seem to have moved on, signing ex-Viking Matt Kalil to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He will take over as the new left tackle, though he too is coming off an injury plagued season, missing all but 2 games last season with a hip injury.

Kalil made all 64 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to 2016, but has dealt with several nagging injuries and off-season surgeries over the years and hasn’t finished above average since his rookie season in 2012. Kalil was the 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but is already going into his age 28 season, so he’s no spring chicken anymore. Now the 12th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary, Kalil was definitely overpaid this off-season, by a Carolina team that desperately needed left tackle help.

Remmers signed with Minnesota on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season, so Williams is penciled in as the starting right tackle again in 2017. He’s an underwhelming option though, so he’ll face competition from 2nd round rookie Taylor Moton, who was a solid pick at #64 overall and profiles as a long-term starter. It might be best for him to sit a year though, so Williams should be considered the favorite for the job. If Oher were to return from injury, he’d probably start at right tackle, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on him ever playing again.

The Panthers also were without starting center Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil’s brother, for the final 8 games of last season with a shoulder injury. He was replaced by veteran journeyman Gino Gradkowski, but then he got injured and was replaced by inexperienced 2014 undrafted free agent Tyler Larsen. Neither Gradkowski or Larsen played well, so Kalil will be a welcome re-addition. Kalil wasn’t great in 2016, finishing 18th among centers on Pro Football Focus, but he still finished above average for the 7th time in 8 years. Kalil is going into his age 32 season, so he might be on the decline a little bit, but he should remain a solid starter for at least the next couple of seasons.

It is fortunate both of the Panthers’ starting guards played all 16 games last season because they have one of the best guard duos in the NFL in Andrew Norwell (left guard) and Trai Turner (right guard). Both were worse in 2016 than they were in 2015 though, especially Turner, who fell to a career worst 47th out of 72 eligible guards, after finishing 23rd at the position as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and 7th at the position in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. He is only going into his age 24 season has obvious bounce back potential in his 4th season in the league. He could still be one of the highest paid guards in the NFL on his next contract, going into the final season of his rookie deal.

Norwell is also going into his 4th season in the league and the final season of his rookie deal. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2014, Norwell is much more consistent that Turner, finishing last season 11th among guards, after finishing 15th in 2014 and 8th in 2015. Also very young, going into his age 26 season, he could have his best season yet in 2016 and will also be very expensive to keep long-term. The Panthers have been hesitant to offer big extensions, so there’s a good chance that one or both of the Panthers’ guards leave in free agency next off-season. For now, they are one of the best guard duos in the NFL on an offensive line that should be a lot healthier and more effective in 2017.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The one benefit of the Panthers having a down season in 2016 is that they were able to get a high pick. That used that high pick, 8th overall, to upgrade their backfield, taking Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. For years, the Panthers have been a one-back offense led by Jonathan Stewart, with Cam Newton effectively being the #2 running back because of how often he takes off with the ball. They want to limit Newton’s carries though and Stewart is going into his age 30 season with a history of injury. Adding McCaffrey gives them a much needed other option out of the backfield

Stewart is still under contract for a reasonable 8 million total over the next couple of seasons, so he could remain on the team through 2018. He’ll see a sharp decrease in carries though, after averaging 17.69 carries per game over the past 2 seasons. That may help him stay healthy as he gets into the later years of his career, as he’s missed 26 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season since 2011. He has a career 4.42 YPC average, but he seems to be breaking down. Stewart is a power back at 5-10 235 and has just one season with more than 25 catches in 9 seasons in the league, while McCaffrey is a speedster at 5-11 202 and impressive receiving ability, so they complement each other well. They may split carries to start the season, but McCaffrey should at least have the bigger part of a timeshare by the end of the season.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

McCaffrey should see a lot of targets though, not just out of the backfield, but also lined up in the slot from time to time. The Panthers also used their 2nd round pick on a similar player in Curtis Samuel, who can be a speedster out of the backfield and also line up as a receiver. The Panthers are so thin at receiver that both should have roles in the passing game. It wouldn’t surprise me if they finished the season 3rd and 4th respectively on this team in catches, behind #1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen.

Ted Ginn and Corey Brown were their #2 and #3 receivers last season in terms of snaps played with 687 and 587 respectively. Neither was a great player, but they didn’t do much to replace them. Last year’s #4 wide receiver Devin Funchess is likely penciled into the #2 receiver role and they have no depth behind him and Kelvin Benjamin. The only other wide receiver on the roster with any experience is veteran free agent addition Charles Johnson, who has just 60 catches over the past 3 seasons. It’s very possible McCaffrey and Samuel could be their de facto #3 and #4 wide receivers. McCaffrey can also return kicks and punts, so he’ll get the ball often in a variety of different roles as a rookie, even with Stewart still on the roster.

Given how thin they are at the position, the Panthers need Devin Funchess to be better than he’s been and break out as an every down receiver opposite Benjamin in his 3rd season in the league. A second round pick in 2015, Funchess hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, spending each of his first 2 seasons in the league as the #4 receiver and failing to impress in limited action. He played 493 snaps as a rookie and then 494 snaps in his 2nd season in the league and he has caught just 54 passes combined between the two seasons. Going into his age 23 season, Funchess still has upside, but it’s very possible he never puts it together.

The Panthers will need Kelvin Benjamin to have a strong season too. Benjamin returned to play all 16 games in 2016, after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, but did not have the numbers many were expecting him to have, catching 63 passes for 941 yards and 7 touchdowns. The 2014 1st round pick had 73 catches for 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie before the injury, but he actually played better in 2016. The only reason he went over 1000 yards as a rookie is because he got 146 targets. He received the 5th most targets in the league that season, but only finished 20th in receiving yards.

Benjamin was less productive overall in 2016, finishing 31st in the NFL in receiving yards, but also put up those numbers on just 118 targets (27th in the NFL), so he was much more efficient. After finishing slightly below average as a rookie, Benjamin was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver in 2016 and his yards per target jumped from 6.90 to 7.97. Now another year removed from the injury, going into his age 26 season, Benjamin could be even better. He might not get that many more targets than 2016, as the Panthers are likely planning on being a run heavy offense in 2017, but he could get back over the 1000 yard threshold.

Tight end Greg Olsen is the favorite to lead this team in receiving for the 5th straight season. He is arguably the best overall tight end in the league and really bails out a thin receiving corps. Olsen has been an above average pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in all 10 seasons in the league, but he has been especially good in recent years, topping 800 yards in 5 straight seasons and 1000 yards in 3 straight seasons, while finishing in the top-6 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. Olsen is best as a receiver, but can also run block effectively and is one of the most durable players in the league, playing all in 144 games over the past 9 seasons. The only concern is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season. He could start declining soon, though he could easily have another strong season in 2017.

Outside of Newton, he is their most important offensive player. He’s made even more important by the fact that the Panthers have no depth behind him on the depth chart. Ed Dickson is locked into the #2 tight end job again, despite struggling on 480 snaps last season. He finished last season 52rd out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus, his first season outside of the bottom-10 tight ends since 2012. Olsen elevates this whole receiving corps by himself, but they still have a lot of problems. They need rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to be able to contribute in a big way in their first season in the league.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Panthers’ defensive line also took a big step back in 2016. In 2015, they were good because their stars played at a high level: defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and cornerback Josh Norman. In 2016, Norman was with the Redskins after signing there as a free agent last off-season, Kuechly missed 6 games with injuries, and Davis declined, leaving Short as the only one still on the team who was able to match his strong 2015 season. In fact, he was even better in 2016 than he was in 2015.

A 2013 2nd round pick, Short has played in all 64 games in his career and has improved in every season in the league, finishing 13th, 9th, 6th, and 2nd among defensive tackles in 2013-2016 respectively. The Panthers don’t like giving out big contracts, but made the wise decision to keep Short on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, after initially franchise tagging him. He’s just the 7th highest paid defensive lineman in the league in average annual value, so the Panthers are getting good value with him. Still in the prime of his career at age 28, Short should be one of the best defensive tackles in the league again in 2017.

The Panthers also drafted a defensive tackle in the first round in 2013, taking Star Lotulelei 14th overall. He’s going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, but hasn’t been nearly as good as Short and is unlikely to be re-signed, with a ready made replacement in 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler already on the roster. Lotulelei has started 59 games in 64 seasons in the league, but has struggled in the last 2 seasons, after flashing in his first 2 seasons in the league. The 6-3 311 pound Lotulelei has been better as a run stuffer than pass rusher in his career, but last season finished below average in both aspects and finished 74th out of 127 eligible interior defenders overall.

Vernon Butler is locked in as the #3 defensive tackle and the top reserve. He’ll likely be a starter in 2018 in place of Lotulelei, but he is too similar to Lotulelei to have a big role in 2017. The 6-4 323 pounder is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher and saw just 226 snaps as a rookie as a result. He should have a bigger role in 2017, especially since he should be healthier, after missing 6 games as a rookie, but his role is capped for now by the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. Given the Panthers’ lack of a plan to get him on the field in the first 2 seasons of his career, Butler was a weird selection with the 31st overall pick in 2016.

The Panthers also had a pair of free agents at defensive end, but brought Mario Addison and Charles Johnson back on deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 8 million over 2 years respectively and then brought back a familiar face, signing Julius Peppers to a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal. Peppers spent the first 8 seasons of his career in Carolina from 2002 to 2009, but spent the last 7 seasons with the Bears and Packers. With those three veterans locked into roles, the Panthers decided to move on from Kony Ealy, a bust as a 2014 2nd round pick, by sending him to New England in order to move up from 72 to 64 in the draft.

Mario Addison was the best of the trio last season and got the biggest contract this off-season, so he should be the favorite to lead the position in snaps. Addison only played 433 snaps in 14 games last season, fewer than both Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy, but he finished with a career high 9.5 sacks and was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Addison has only ever been a part-time player, with just 4 career starts, and he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he could prove to be a late bloomer. At the same time, last season was easily the highest rated season of his career and he could prove to be overwhelmed in his first full season as a starter in 2017, especially since he’s not that good against the run. Last season he only played on 99 run snaps, but he’ll have a tougher time avoiding run plays in a bigger role in 2017. He was a risky re-signing, but he could pan out.

Addison is actually the young one of the trio, though they did add Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall in the 3rd round of the draft as insurance and a long-term developmental prospect. Julius Peppers is the oldest of the trio, going into his age 37 season and his 16th season in the league. He’s obviously not the player he was in his first stint with the Panthers, but the fact that he’s still in the league is a testament to the future Hall-of-Famer’s talent.

Peppers looked done in 2013 with the Bears, when he finished 40th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but he signed with the Packers that off-season and finished above average in all 3 seasons in Green Bay. He played 584 snaps for the Packers last season and hasn’t missed a game since 2007. His continued effectiveness at his age is questionable, but he wasn’t a bad signing by the Panthers because he wasn’t expensive.

Charles Johnson has actually played more seasons in a Panthers uniform than Peppers, as he’s spent all 10 career seasons in Carolina. He and Peppers were teammates from 2007-2009, though Johnson didn’t break out as a starter until 2010. Johnson has finished above average in 9 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and, even though he’s going into his age 31 season and on the decline, he still finished last season 15th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus.

Johnson played 41.7 snaps per game last season, but missed 3 games with injury and has a total of 10 games missed with injury over the last 2 seasons. That combined with his age and declining effectiveness make him a risky option going forward, but he could continue to be a solid starter. With Peppers coming in and Addison taking on a larger role, the Panthers could have Johnson on a snap count this season, which could help him stay effective.

The Panthers may also line up all three defensive ends on the defensive line at the same time with Short in some sub packages, in order to get their best pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations. They don’t have another good interior pass rusher inside next to Short and both Johnson (6-2 275) and Peppers (6-7 295) have enough size to line up inside in passing situations. The rookie Daeshon Hall might also get a few snaps per game off the edge in passing situations and could see his role grow as the season goes in. The Panthers are pretty deep on the defensive line and are led by one of the best defensive linemen in the league in Kawann Short. They need a 2nd threat to emerge to take some of the pressure off him.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers get middle linebacker Luke Kuechly back from injury, after he missed the final 6 games of last season with concussions. Kuechly was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked middle linebacker before the injury, so he’s a huge re-addition. He was a big part of why their defense was so good in 2015. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been a top-8 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league and finished #1 in both 2014 and 2015, but concussions are becoming a concern. He’s missed 9 games between the last 2 seasons. If he can stay on the field, he should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, still in his early prime in his age 26 season, but he’s not a lock to play all 16 games anymore.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis was also a big part of why this defense was so good in 2015, but, unlike Kuechly, he’s unlikely to return to form. Davis is going into his age 34 season and has declined in every season since 2013. He finished last season 39th out of 87 eligible linebackers, solid, but not as good as he was in his prime and could continue declining in 2017. He’s owed just 4 million in the final year of his contract this season and he reportedly might hold out for an extension, but the Panthers are probably planning on letting him go next off-season anyway, so he’s highly unlikely to get what he wants. It’s a situation to keep an eye on.

The reason they’re likely moving on from Davis, in addition to the obvious age factor, is because they drafted his long-term replacement in the first round in 2015 when they selected Shaq Thompson 25th overall. Thompson only played 365 snaps as a rookie and 533 snaps last season, but has played very well when even the chance and looks like a future every down linebacker, still only going into his age 23 season. He outplayed Davis last season, albeit on fewer snaps, finishing 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He could start to cut into Davis’ sub snaps this season, but will open the season as the 3rd linebacker and a pure base package player, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations. He gives them tremendous depth in a still strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

The loss of Josh Norman to the Redskins in free agency last off-season definitely hurt this defense. Rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley both had to start and, while they weren’t bad, veteran Leonard Johnson had to spend most of the season as the #3 cornerback and was horrendous, finishing 104th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 436 snaps. The Panthers turned to an old face this off-season to replace Johnson, bringing back veteran slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career in Carolina from 2009-2013.

Munnerlyn, who spent the past 3 seasons in Minnesota, is already going into his 9th season in the league, but is still in his age 29 season, so he should still have a few good seasons left in the tank. He was a smart signing on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, with his best seasons coming in 2013, when he finished 10th among cornerbacks, and 2015, when he finished 18th among cornerbacks. At 5-9 182, he’s much better on the slot than outside and he should be very valuable for them in sub packages.

Bradberry and Worley remain the starters outside, now going into their 2nd seasons in the league. Bradberry actually had a pretty strong rookie season overall, finishing 20th among cornerbacks and making 13 starts. A 2nd round pick, Bradberry has a bright future and could develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the league long-term, but needs to prove himself again and avoid a sophomore slump. Worley, a 3rd round pick, wasn’t quite as good as Bradberry, but still finished above average and made 11 starts. He needs to continue developing, but looks like a future starter long-term. Their inexperience outside at cornerback is a concern, but they have plenty of talent and add a much needed slot specialist in Munnerlyn.

It also hurt this defense that safety Kurt Coleman did not play as well as he did in 2015, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked safety. Coleman finished 41st in 2016, which is still above average, but a significant decline from the season before. His 2015 season looks like a fluke when you look at his whole 7-year career, but he could continue being a solid starter in 2017, still only his age 29 season. He’ll be joined at safety by veteran Mike Adams, a free agent acquisition who will replace Tre Boston, a mediocre 10-game starter in 2016.

Adams is one of the oldest defensive starters in the league, going into his age 36 season, but he’s coming off of a strong season, finishing last season 19th among safeties on Pro Football Focus with the Colts. Adams has never been a great player, so last season was actually one of the best of his career. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2017 given his age, but he has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 6 seasons and could have one good more season left in the tank. He’s a risky starter, but could end up being a good addition. With him and Munnerlyn coming in and young players developing, this secondary should be improved in 2017.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Panthers had some bad luck last season with injuries and close losses, so they should be better in 2017. They’re not as talented as they were in 2015, but this is still a good roster. The Panthers declined by 9 wins from 2015 to 2016 and history shows that teams that decline by a large amount like that usually improve by about half that amount the following season. That would put the Panthers at about 10 or 11 wins in 2017. That’s definitely a possibility and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot at the very least.

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC South

New Orleans Saints 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for still playing at a high level late in his 30s, but Drew Brees deserves a lot of credit for the same thing. Now going into his age 38 season, Brees finished last season 7th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 70.0% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. That was his 11th straight season in the top-7 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, coinciding with his arrival in New Orleans from San Diego in 2006. Over that time period, he’s averaged 632 pass attempts per season, easily the most by a quarterback over that time period, and has missed just 2 games with injury total.

As a result of Brees’ strong play, the Saints finished last season 2nd in first down rate. They ranked 2nd in that metric in 2015 as well, when Brees completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 7.77 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and finished 6th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Last season, the Saints finished 10th in first down rate differential at +1.14%, which was 4th best among non-playoff teams. On the season, they had 9 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents.

The Saints finished last season 7-9 because they lost 7 games by 6 points or fewer and had a -4 margin in return touchdowns. Both of those are more the result of bad luck than anything, so, if the Saints play like they did last season, they should exceed their 2016 win total. However, that’s a big if, considering Brees’ age. If Brees’ ability starts to go south in a hurry like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre’s did, the Saints could be in big trouble because of how reliant they have been on him in recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had another strong season, but that can’t be guaranteed at this point in his career.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brees had arguably the top wide receiver trio in the league to throw to last season in Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead, who combined for 242 catches for 3205 yards and 21 touchdowns, most by any wide receiver trio in the league. However, this team has been so one-dimensional over the past few seasons, as they have finished dead last in first down rate allowed in 2 straight seasons. Even if their offense is as good as it was last season again, they need to be much better defensively to even have a chance at making a deep run in the playoffs.

Their offense is unlikely to be as good as it was last season though, because they traded Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for the 32nd overall pick in the first round (as well as a swap of 3rd and 4th rounders). Cooks was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver last season and finished the season with a 78/1183/8 slash line on just 117 targets. He finished 7th in the NFL in receiving yards, but just 28th in targets. Still only going into his age 24 season, Cooks will be a big lost. The trade did make some sense though, because Saints still have Michael Thomas and Willie Snead and because the extra first round pick could have helped balance out this team by adding to their defense, though ironically they ended up using that pick on an offensive tackle because San Francisco grabbed middle linebacker Reuben Foster one spot ahead of them after trading up.

Even with Cooks gone, Thomas and Snead are still one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL and both figure to see an uptick in production. Thomas caught 92 passes for 1137 yards and 9 touchdowns last season as a mere 2nd round rookie, just the 13th rookie to top 1000 receiving yards in the last 30 seasons. He joins a very impressive club that includes players like AJ Green, Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Mike Evans, and Amari Cooper. The only true one-year wonder on the list is Michael Clayton, who never came close to his rookie receiving total.

Thomas produced those numbers on just 587 routes run (1.94 yards per route run) and 122 targets (9.32 yards per target). His receiving yardage was 9th in the NFL, despite just receiving the 22nd most targets. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked wide receiver. You can never rule out a sophomore slump, but his best days should still be ahead of him. With Cooks gone, he should get more playing time and more targets as the true #1 wide receiver on one of the most pass heavy and effective offenses in the NFL. Barring injury, I would be surprised if he didn’t exceed his 2016 numbers.

Willie Snead should exceed his 2016 numbers too. As the 3rd receiver on this offense, Snead caught 72 passes for 895 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 targets (8.61 yards per target) and 514 routes run (1.74 yards per target). A 2014 undrafted free agent, Snead had a 69/984/3 slash line on 102 targets in the first significant playing time of his career in 2015, despite not getting regular playing time for the first month or so of the season. He’s finished 30th and 17th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. He has just 13 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but, with Cooks out of the picture, he’s now locked in as a starter and has a good chance to top 1000 yards for the first time in his career.

Free agent acquisition Ted Ginn will slot in as the #3 receiver and could have a big role because the Saints use 3-wide receiver sets regularly. He’s an obvious downgrade from Cooks, but isn’t a bad 3rd receiver. The 9th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Ginn never lived up to his draft slot, but is still in the league a decade later because he has rare speed and can contribute as a return man. He’s only finished above average on Pro Football Focus twice in 10 years in the league and his age is a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s been solid in recent years, posting slash lines of 44/739/10 and 54/752/4 in 2015 and 2016 respectively with the Panthers. He probably won’t have as big of a role in New Orleans, but could still provide value as a situational deep threat.

Tight end Coby Fleener is another player who should see more production with Cooks gone. Signed to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, many expected a big role for Fleener in this offense, considering how productive tight ends historically are in this offense (even an aging Ben Watson had a 74/825/6 slash line in 2015). However, he was eclipsed by the Saints’ top-3 receivers and only saw 82 targets, significantly less than the 109 targets Watson saw the season before. He finished 4th on the team with 50 catches for 631 yards and 3 touchdowns, solid numbers, but less than most were expecting.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Fleener averaged a 52/624/5 slash line in the previous 3 seasons with the Colts, despite splitting playing time with Dwayne Allen, so he’s a pretty good receiver and could have an expanded role as they try to replace Cooks’ production. Fleener is not much of a blocker, but has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the league. He’ll be backed up again by Josh Hill, who played 361 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. That was a career high for the 2013 undrafted free agent and he was pretty underwhelming, so I don’t expect him to have a large role in this offense. They’ll pass often and spread defenses out with Thomas, Snead, Ginn, and Fleener.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Saints may try to run the ball more this season than last season, at least that’s what their off-season moves would suggest. They signed Adrian Peterson in free agency and drafted Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the draft. Gameflow may make it tough for them to have a balanced offense unless their defense significantly improves, but they have improved their backfield. The Saints averaged 4.31 yards per carry last season (13th in the NFL), but that was mostly because defenses had to respect Drew Brees and the passing game so much. Including quarterback runs and sacks, Brees was involved on 723 of the Saints’ 1078 offensive plays last season, over 67 percent.

Mark Ingram returns and should be the lead back again, after averaging an impressive 5.09 YPC average on 205 carries last season and finishing 17th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Ingram was a first round pick in 2011, but last season was just his first thousand yard rushing season (1043) in 6 seasons in the league. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he’s missed 18 games in 6 seasons. Last season was just the second full 16-game season of his career and he’s never topped 226 carries in a season. He’s not the workhorse the Saints were probably hoping he’d be when they drafted him.

Ingram has averaged 4.68 yards per carry over the past 4 seasons though, so he should still have a big role, even with all of the off-season additions. He’ll probably have fewer than the 205 carries he had last season, but he is probably the favorite to lead this team in carries. He’s also become a much better receiver over the past couple of seasons and should still have a role in the passing game too. He’s caught 96 passes for the past 2 seasons, after catching just 53 in his first 4 seasons in the league.

Adrian Peterson is his biggest competition for carries. A few years ago, Adrian Peterson on the Saints with Drew Brees sounded like something that would only happen in Madden, but Peterson is going into his age 32 season and was greeted by a cold market this off-season, settling for a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with a team that isn’t guaranteeing him a starting job. Peterson has led the league in rushing 3 times in 10 seasons in the league and did so as recently as 2015, but he was limited to 72 yards on 37 carries in just 3 games in 2016 by a knee injury and he is at the age where most running backs start to break down, usually very quickly. I’m not ruling out Peterson having a strong season, as it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s proven his doubters wrong, but that’s far from a guarantee at this point in his career. The Saints will be happy if he can be effective in a timeshare with Ingram.

The one area Peterson has always struggled in is the passing game, as he’s topped 30 catches just 3 times in 10 seasons in the league. The Saints like their backs to be able to catch passew, so Peterson likely won’t play in many passing situations. Mark Ingram will see some targets, but 3rd round rookie Alvin Kamara could lead New Orleans running backs in catches. The Saints traded a 2018 2nd round pick to move up to get Kamara with the 67th pick atop the 3rd round, so they clearly have a role in mind for him, even with Ingram and Peterson ahead of him on the depth chart, and he was one of the most refined pass catching backs in the draft. 50-60 catches is definitely a possibility for him and he may see some carries as well. The Saints have a talented trio of running backs and could be one of the best running teams in the league if Peterson has something left in the tank.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Saints used their first round pick on an offensive tackle, taking Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. It was seen as a weird pick at the time because the Saints had much bigger needs on defense. The Saints had a solid tackle duo of Terron Armstead and Zach Strief and used a first round pick in 2015 on Andrus Peat, who primarily plays left guard, but moved to left tackle last season when Armstead missed time with injury. However, Armstead tore his shoulder labrum this off-season and will miss at least half of the season, so having Ramczyk as insurance turned out to be very useful. Ramczyk will likely start at left tackle week 1, allowing Peat to remain at left guard, where he was better last season. Peat finished last season just below average overall, but could be better in his 3rd season in the league in 2017.

Losing Armstead for an extended period of time is still a huge blow though, as he’s their best offensive lineman when healthy. Armstead finished 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in just his age 24 season in 2015, but injuries limited him to 7 games last season and he’ll be lucky if he plays 7 games this season. If he can stay healthy, he still has a bright long-term future, but he’s never played more than 14 games in a season and needs to be more durable. Ramczyk could be solid as a rookie, but will be an obvious downgrade from Armstead.

Zach Strief will remain on the right side, even with Armstead out, because that’s where he fits best. Strief has made 62 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons at right tackle and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles in all 4 seasons. Last season, he finished 12th among offensive tackles. He’s been one of the best right tackles in the game, but he’s going into his age 34 season, which is part of why they drafted Peat and now Ramczyk. That being said, he’s still playing at a high level and is owed a very affordable 4 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, so Strief will likely remain the starting right tackle for another 2 seasons, unless his abilities fall off a cliff during that time.

Armstead’s injury isn’t the only injury the Saints are dealing with upfront, as Max Unger is rehabbing after off-season foot surgery. His injury isn’t as serious as Armstead’s and he’s tentatively expected to be ready for week 1, but he could miss the entire off-season. Senio Kelemete, a career backup with 14 starts in 5 seasons in the league, would start if he were to miss time. Nine of those starts came last season at left guard and he struggled mightily, finishing 53rd out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Unger, who is an above average starting center when healthy. He’s going into his age 31 season, but has finished above average in 7 of 8 seasons in the league. Last season he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center in 15 starts.

In addition to spending a first round pick on the offensive line, the Saints also brought in one of the top free agent guards, signing ex-Lion Larry Warford to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. That should help offset the loss of Armstead somewhat. A 2013 3rd round pick, Warford has made 57 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including three seasons in the top-20. Warford dealt with some nagging injuries throughout much of his time in Detroit, which is a concern, even though he only missed 7 games, but he’s only going into his age 26 season and has a good chance to be a really good right guard for a long time if he can stay healthy. This offensive line is still pretty strong without Armstead, but his absence will definitely be felt.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As good as their offense is, this team’s potential will be capped unless they drastically improve defensively, as they’ve been the worst defensive team in the league over the past 2 seasons. None of that has been Cameron Jordan’s fault though, as Jordan finished 4th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and then 3rd at the position in 2016. He’s been a top-4 player at his position in 3 of the last 4 seasons and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. Jordan “only” had 7.5 sacks last season, but that’s mostly because he often lines up inside in sub packages. Even if the amount of times he actually got the quarterback on the ground isn’t that impressive, he was still very disruptive to passing games from multiple spots on the defensive line and he played the run at a high level too.

With Jordan frequently lining up inside in sub packages, edge rusher was a huge need for the Saints this off-season. No New Orleans edge rusher other than Cameron Jordan had more than a sack and a half last season and Paul Kruger, who started opposite Jordan last season, is no longer with the team. The Saints didn’t do a good job upgrading the position though. They used a 3rd round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson and signed veteran Alex Okafor in free agency. They will compete for snaps with Hau’oli Kikaha, who returns after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

Kikaha also tore his ACL twice in college, so his long-term durability is definitely in question. His knee issues were a big part of the reason why he fell to the 2nd round in 2015. Kikaha played in 15 games and played 621 snaps as a rookie, but didn’t play that well. He’s a complete mystery coming off of the injury, though he’s still only in his age 25 season, so he still has potential. Hendrickson also has potential, but could be overwhelmed in a large role as a rookie. Okafor, meanwhile, has 25 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus over a season and played just 231 snaps as a pure reserve last season. Defensive end figures to be a position of weakness behind Jordan on the depth chart again.

Last season, Jordan and Nick Fairley made a good interior pass rush duo in sub packages, one of the only good things about this defense. Fairley finished 20th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus on 723 snaps in 2016 and was re-signed to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal this off-season. However, he is expected to miss the entire season with heart problems and may have to retire. It’s a huge blow to this team, especially since they guaranteed him 9 million on his new contract, including an 8 million dollar signing bonus.

The Saints will be hoping that second year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins can step up in his absence. Rankins was the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but had a miserable rookie season. He was limited to 334 snaps in 9 games by a broken leg and did not look like himself when on the field, finishing 109th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Now healthy, Rankins still has a big upside and could easily have a breakout season in his 2nd season in the league, though that’s far from a guarantee.

The Saints signed Tony McDaniel after the news broke about Fairley and he will at least replace Fairley in base packages, with Jordan coming in for him in sub packages. McDaniel is an adequate run stuffer, so he’s not a bad addition, but his age is a concern, as he’s going into his age 32 season. David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison also had small roles inside last season, playing 393 and 438 snaps respectively. Neither player played well, finishing 81st and 117th respectively out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen, but both will return in depth roles. Onyemata was a 4th round pick in 2016, while Davison went in the 5th in 2015. Losing Nick Fairley thins an already thin defensive line and hurts their chances of even being a little bit improved upfront in 2017.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Saints had arguably the worst 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL last season, as they struggled across the entire unit, so they decided to completely overhaul the unit. Craig Robertson (970 snaps) and Dannell Ellerbe (443 snaps) are their top returning linebackers and they also brought in AJ Klein and Manti Te’o through free agency, on deals worth 24 million over 4 years and 5 million over 2 years respectively, and they brought in Florida’s Alex Anzalone in the 3rd round of the draft. They also have 2015 1st round pick Stephone Anthony returning from injury, after being limited to 133 snaps in 10 games in 2016. All 6 players will compete for roles in a wide open linebacking corps.

Klein was given a pretty significant contract in free agency, so he’s probably the most likely to win a starting job. However, the 2013 5th round pick was never anything more than a part-time player with the Panthers over the first 4 seasons of his career. He played just 350 snaps last season and didn’t see regular playing time until Luke Kuechly got injured. He’s an adequate base package run stuffer, but he’s not nearly worth what they paid him. He’d be best in a part-time role, but his salary suggests the Saints see him as an every down player. He definitely could struggle in that role. The Saints will start him at middle linebacker, but he has experience at outside linebacker too.

Robertson led New Orleans linebackers in snaps played last season, starting and playing every down in all 15 games he played. He’s plenty experienced, with 52 starts in 5 seasons in the league. He finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and 2015 (20 starts combined), so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s finished below average in the other 3 seasons in his career, including last season, when he finished 63rd out of 87 eligible linebackers, so he’s not a lock to keep his job. Robertson is also versatile like Klein is and can play both inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3.

Manti Te’o spent his whole career in a 3-4 in San Diego, but could also play both outside linebacker and inside linebacker in a 4-3. The problem is he isn’t that talented and he’s even less durable than he is talented. He’s missed 26 games in 4 seasons in the league, including the final 13 games of last season, after an achilles tear, and he’s finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. His worst season came in 2015, when he finished 93th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus and he was on his way to what looked like a similarly bad season in 2016 before the injury. The Saints fortunately didn’t pay him much, so he’s not locked into any role.

Stephone Anthony is a player they’d certainly like to earn a role, given that he was a first round pick just two years ago, but he was horrendous as a rookie, finishing 79th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts and then fell out of favor with the coaching staff in an injury plagued 2016 season, which is he why he barely played last season. Still only going into his age 25 season, Anthony will have an opportunity to win a role if he impresses the coaching staff, but is a longshot to develop into a useful player in 2017. He too can play both inside and outside linebacker.

Dannell Ellerbe is the veteran of the bunch, going into his age 32 season. He’s missed 51 games with injury in 8 seasons in the league, including a whopping 32 games just over the past 3 seasons. He played 443 snaps in 9 games last season as he was more or less an every down player when healthy, but he’s finished above average just once in 8 seasons in the league and is far from a lock to keep his job. Owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed in 2017, he’s not even a lock to make the final roster, with all the linebackers the Saints added this off-season. Anzalone, meanwhile, will likely start his rookie season on special teams, but could have a role by season’s end. Things are totally wide open in one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL.

Grade: D

Secondary

In sub packages, most teams go with 3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. The Saints, however, bring in a 3rd safety and move one of their safeties, usually Kenny Vaccaro, to the slot. Veteran safety Jairus Byrd led the secondary in snaps played last season with 900 and wasn’t bad, but isn’t with the team anymore and was replaced by Utah’s Marcus Williams, a solid selection in the 2nd round. He’ll spend his rookie season as the 3rd safety and play about half the snaps. Meanwhile, last year’s 2nd round pick Vonn Bell will play every down with Vaccaro. He was alright on 889 snaps last season and could be better in his 2nd season in the league.

Vaccaro was a first round pick by the Saints in 2013 and is going into the final year of his rookie deal. He will make 5.676 million this season and figures to get upwards of that annually on his next contract from someone in the next year, unless the Saints opt to franchise tag him next off-season. They may ultimately decide to do that. Vaccaro isn’t one of the best safeties in the game, but he’s an above average starter and a valuable chess piece on a defense that overall lacks talent. Vaccaro was horrible in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, but has otherwise been good, finishing 23rd among safeties in 2013, 27th in 2015, and 38th last season. He’s started in all but 1 of the 56 games he’s played in 4 seasons in the league.

While the Saints missed out on Reuben Foster at 32 and had to settle for an offensive tackle, they did add to their defense with their own draft pick, taking Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore at 11. Not only does he fill a huge need at cornerback, but he was a steal at that point in the draft. Widely considered a top-5 pick, Lattimore was the draft class’ top cornerback prospect and Pro Football Focus’ #4 overall ranked prospect. He should start day 1, with his only competition being Sterling Moore, who struggled on 805 snaps (12 starts) in 2016. Moore is a solid slot cornerback and could see a role on the slot in sub packages, but isn’t a real candidate for the outside job over Marshon Lattimore.

Starting outside opposite Lattimore is Delvin Breaux, who is hoping to bounce back from an injury plagued 2016 season. A CFL star, Breaux burst onto the scene in his first season in the NFL in 2015, finishing 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but broke his leg early in the 2016 season, wasn’t the same upon his return, and then dealt with a shoulder injury. He struggled mightily on just 293 snaps in 6 games in a very disappointing 2nd season in the NFL. Injuries are a big part of Breaux’s history and are the reason he was never drafted in the NFL in the first place and he is still a one-year wonder, but he does have obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. His return, along with the additions of Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the draft, make this an improved secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Saints lose Brandin Cooks and will be without Terron Armstead for most of the season with injury, which hurts this offense, but they could be more balanced this season with the additions of Adrian Peterson and Larry Warford in free agency. If Peterson still has something left in the tank and Drew Brees continues playing at a high level, this offense could be borderline unstoppable. Those are both big ifs though, considering the age of both of those players. This team also has considerable downside given how reliant they are on the aging Drew Brees. If he declines significantly, this team will struggle to win games because of how bad their defense figures to be once again. I could see this team making the post-season, but I could also see them finishing as one of the worst teams in the NFC. 

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC South

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since drafting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers have gone 137-71 in the regular season, the 3rd best record in the NFL over that time period, behind the Patriots (162-46) and the Colts (138-70). The Steelers also have 13 playoff wins, 3 Super Bowl appearances, and 2 Super Bowl victories over those 13 seasons. Roethlisberger has completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 301 touchdowns, and 160 interceptions in his career and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of his last 10 seasons. Last season, he finished 13th among quarterbacks.

Given all of that, Steelers fans must have had a mini heart attack this off-season when reports broke that Roethlisberger was considering retirement. Roethlisberger did not decide to retire, but is going into his age 35 season and could definitely decide to hang them up in the next couple of seasons, especially since he’s suffered a lot of injuries throughout his career. Roethlisberger has only missed 23 games in 13 seasons in the league, but has played through injuries in countless others and only has made it through three 16-game seasons without missing a game.

To prepare themselves in case Roethlisberger does decide to retire soon, the Steelers used a 4th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs has intriguing tools, but is very raw and could easily not pan out. He was worth a shot in the 4th round, but he’s not necessarily going to be their starting quarterback of the future. As a rookie, he might not even be the primary backup, as the Steelers like veteran Landry Jones, who they re-signed to a 2-year, 4.4 million dollar deal this off-season. A 4th round pick by the Steelers in 2013, Jones has a 82.8 QB rating on 141 career pass attempts (4 starts) and would likely make starts again if Roethlisberger misses any time in 2017. For now, the Steelers are set with Roethlisberger under center, but their long-term quarterback situation is concerning.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As important as Roethlisberger is to this offense, he does have an incredible supporting cast and running back Le’Veon Bell is arguably just as important to this team. Between Bell’s 3-game suspension, the week 7 game Roethlisberger missed against the Patriots, and their meaningless week 17 game where they rested their starters, Bell and Roethlisberger were not on the field together at the time as much as the Steelers would have liked last season, but when they were on the field together at the same time, this offense was one of the best in the league.

In the 11 games they played together, they moved the chains at a 39.83% rate, which would have been 4th best over the full season. By comparison, Roethlisberger played 3 games without Bell and the Steelers moved the chains at a mere 32.50% rate in those 3 games. That would have been just 25th best over the full season. When Bell left the AFC Championship with a groin injury, the Steelers didn’t stand a chance against New England, losing by a final score of 36-17.

Despite only playing in 12 games last season, Bell still finished 3rd in the league in yards from scrimmage with 1884. He finished the season #1 among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He also finished #1 at the position in 16-game season in 2014 then was #1 through 6 games an injury plagued 2015 season. Last season, he especially caught fire down the stretch and carried this team during their 9-game win streak, until he was injured in the AFC Championship. Bell didn’t play in their week 17 win, but, in 8 games, he rushed for 1172 yards and 8 touchdowns on 220 carries and added 34 catches for 259 yards and another 1 touchdown through the air. That extrapolates to slash lines of 440/2344/16 and 68/518/2 over a full 16 game season. That would break all sorts of records.

They’re unlikely to give him that many touches in an effort to keep him healthy and they used a 3rd round compensatory pick on a running back, selecting the University of Pittsburgh’s James Conner at #105 overall. That being said, if Bell stays healthy all year, 400+ touches isn’t out of the question. Conner is likely to be a pure backup and only see a few touches per game at most. He was mostly drafted as insurance for Bell, with Bell scheduled to play on the franchise tag this season and no long-term deal in place.

The Steelers likely want to see him make it through a full season without getting injured or suspended for marijuana before committing a long-term deal to him. He’s played all 16 games just once in four seasons in the league, is starting to pile up injuries, has already been suspended twice, and could be another failed drug test away from a season long suspension. He could easily prove himself in 2017 though, still only his age 25 season. When on the field, he’s the best all-around running back in football.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The Steelers might have the best all-around wide receiver in football to, in Antonio Brown, and they get a big boost with Martavis Bryant returning from a season long suspension. Brown has been a top-3 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 4 straight seasons and has caught 481 passes for 6315 yards and 43 touchdowns over those 4 seasons. That’s an average slash line of 120/1579/11 per season. Those numbers all lead the league over that time period. He incredibly has 81 more catches and 862 more receiving yards than any pass catcher in the league over the past 4 seasons and is still in his prime, going into his age 29 season.

Bryant, meanwhile, looked on his way to breaking out in 2016, but then failed another drug test and missed the whole season. He’s back now and last we saw him he had 50 catches for 765 yards and 6 touchdowns in 11 games in just his age 24 season in 2015. That’s a 73/1108/9 slash line over 16 games. The 2014 4th round pick also averaged 2.75 yards per route run on 200 routes as a rookie. A 6-4 211 pounder with legitimate 4.3 speed, Bryant is dripping with talent is could easily put it all together in 2017.

That’s far from a guarantee, considering he could be rusty after not playing all year, but he has 1000+ yard potential opposite Brown. The Steelers threw 143 balls to Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, and Cobi Hamilton last season, all of whom finished below average on Pro Football Focus, so there’s definitely room for Bryant to get targets. He and Brown might be the best wide receiver duo in the NFL by season’s end. Brown will work as a possession receiver and likely lead the league in catches, while Bryant will be a big play deep threat.

The Steelers also added a wide receiver in the 2nd round of the draft, taking USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster with the 62nd overall pick. Smith-Schuster doesn’t have a huge upside, but was a great pick because he’s an NFL ready slot receiver. He’ll compete for the slot receiver job with 2015 undrafted free agent Eli Rogers, who was underwhelming on 539 snaps in his first significant career action in 2016. Smith-Schuster is likely the favorite and could have a big rookie year role.

The only real weakness in this receiving corps is at tight end. Ladarius Green flashed on 140 snaps last season, but couldn’t play anymore than that because of ankle and concussion problems. He was let go this off-season and is currently unsigned and reportedly considering retiring. Jesse James made 13 starts last season and, without a better option added this off-season, will open the season as the starter in 2017. A 5th round pick in 2015, James is a solid blocker at 6-7 261, but doesn’t provide much in the passing game, averaging just 8.38 yards per catch on 47 career catches.

The Steelers other options are veteran blocking tight end David Johnson, who is going into his age 30 season with 31 career catches, and Xavier Grimble, a 2014 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming in the first 197 offensive snaps of his career in 2016. The Steelers may use more 3-wide receiver sets to offset their issues at tight end. This receiving corps is helped significantly by the additional receiving depth they now have and they still have Le’Veon Bell as a threat out of the backfield, though their lack of a good receiving tight end could be a bit of a problem for them.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Tight end might actually be their only real weakness on this entire offense, as they also have one of the best offensive lines in football, with no real weaknesses upfront. The Steelers have had strong offensive line play for years, but it looked like they would have a problem at left tackle in 2016, after Kelvin Beachum signed with the Jaguars as a free agent. Alejandro Villanueva was penciled in as his replacement, but he struggled in the first 10 starts of his career in 2015 when Beachum was injured and didn’t look like a good starting option. However, he took his game to a whole new level in 2016, making all 16 starts and finishing 26th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.

Originally not even signed as an undrafted free agent out of the US Military Academy, Villanueva has a very interesting story. He served 3 tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger and earned a Bronze Star for valor. After that, he was signed by the Eagles as a defensive end in 2014 when he impressed them in a tryout, but he didn’t make the final roster. The Steelers then snatched him up and tried converting him into an offensive tackle. Villanueva played offensive tackle some in college, in addition to linebacker, tight end, and defensive end, but needed to gain 90 pounds to play the offensive tackle position in the NFL.

He didn’t play at all in 2014, as he transitioned to the new position, but the Steelers’ experiment worked out very well, as the 6-9 330 pounder is now locked in as a starter. He might regress a little bit in 2017, already his age 29 season, but he should be a solid starter again. He’s probably the league’s best value salary wise, owed just $615,000 on an exclusive rights tender in 2017. Unhappy with his pay, Villanueva has yet to sign that tender, but the Steelers are working on locking him up on a long-term deal that pays him more fairly.

Villanueva might still be their worst starting offensive lineman, because they are strong across all 5 starting positions. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is coming off of an even better season than Villanueva, finishing 11th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. That was easily the best season of his career, but the 2011 2nd round pick has finished above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, including 23rd in 2014 and 28th in 2015. He should have another solid season in 2017, though it’s a concern that he’s missed 20 games in 6 seasons in the league and has played all 16 games just twice. He missed 3 games in 2016, which hurt this offense.

The Steelers also have arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. Right guard David DeCastro was a first round pick in 2012. He missed most of his rookie season with a bad knee injury, but has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 seasons since, finishing among the top-19 guards on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Last season, he finished a career best 8th and he’s still right in the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season. He was well paid on a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season, but he’s well worth it. He’s the 4th highest paid guard in average annual salary as of this writing, but he is coming off of such a strong season.

Left guard Ramon Foster is coming off of an even stronger season though, not allowing a single sack in 14 starts last season and finishing 2nd among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s not nearly as well paid, re-signed for just 9.6 million over 3 seasons last off-season, and he’s also not as young, going into his age 31 season. Last season was easily the best of his career, so he’s likely to regress. However, he’s made 89 of 96 starts in 6 seasons as a starter, finishing above average in 5 of those seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-18, so he probably has a couple more strong seasons left in the tank. He’s one of the best bargains in the NFL.

Completing this offensive line is center Maurkice Pouncey, who was fortunately healthy last season. He missed 31 games with injury from 2013-2015, but made 15 starts in 2016 and finished 14th among centers on Pro Football Focus. The 2010 1st round pick has finished above average in every healthy season in his career and is still only going into his age 28 season, so he could be a solid starting center for several more seasons, if he can continue to stay healthy. That’s not guaranteed though. His long-term durability is the only real issue on what looks like arguably the best offensive line in football.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Steelers’ offense is definitely their stronger unit, but they have some talent on defense as well. They finished last season 13th in first down rate allowed, despite arguably their top defensive player, defensive end Cameron Heyward, missing 9 games with injury. In Heyward’s absence, 2014 2nd round pick Stephon Tuitt broke out in his 3rd season in the league, finishing 9th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus and leading the defensive line with 765 snaps. Tuitt has gotten better in all 3 seasons that he’s been in the league, finishing 40th at his position in 2014, 14th in 2015, and 9th in 2014. Still only going into his age 24 season, it’s very possible his best play is still ahead of him. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Tuitt is an obvious extension candidate and could be franchise tagged next off-season if nothing gets agreed to.

Heyward returns from injury and should form a dangerous duo with Tuitt. Both will play defensive end on this 3-man defensive line in base packages and then terrorize offensive linemen from the interior in sub packages. Prior to last season, Heyward made all 48 starts in the previous 3 seasons and finished in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 3 of those seasons. Only in his age 28 season, Heyward has obvious bounce back potential. He and Tuitt will play basically every down, but nose tackle Javon Hargrave will also probably rotate in on some sub package snaps.

A 2016 3rd round pick, Hargrave didn’t play much at the start of the season, but took on a larger role in the 2nd half of last season with Heyward out and ended up playing a total of 494 regular season snaps. He flashed potential, finishing slightly above average, and should continue having a bigger role in 2017. The 6-2 305 pounder is not a traditional nose tackle because he can also rush the passer a little bit in sub packages, in addition to playing as a pure base nose tackle. He could easily take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Tuitt, Heyward, and Hargrave will command the majority of the snaps, but Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers may have situational roles. Alualu has been terrible throughout his career though and is going into his age 30 season, while McCullers has never played more than 215 snaps in a season and isn’t useful outside of jumbo packages because he doesn’t move well at all at 6-7 352. McCullers complements Hargrave well though and Alualu is unlikely to have to play much. Despite their lack of depth, this is still a strong unit because of how good their 3 starters are.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Outside linebacker in this 3-4 defense has been a problem position for the Steelers for years. They spent their 3rd first round pick on the position in 5 drafts when they drafted TJ Watt 30th overall back in April. Jarvis Jones, selected 17th overall in 2013, never became anything more than an adequate run stuffer and is no longer with the team, signing with the Cardinals as a free agent this off-season. Watt is more or less his replacement and should have a solid rookie season in a rotational role.

Additionally, Bud Dupree was the 22nd pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 109th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and then was limited to 7 games in 2016 by injury. He was noticeably improved when on the field last season, but still needs a lot of improvement and finished below average for the 2nd straight season. He still has a high upside, so the Steelers are obviously hoping he can stay healthy and have a breakout 3rd season in the league. That is a possibility, but far from a certainty.

Dupree will rotate snaps with the rookie Watt and the ultimate veteran James Harrison, who is going into his age 39 season. A former Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer, Harrison has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 10 straight seasons and is still playing at a very high level, despite his age. He finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 7th last season. He’s on a snap count, playing just 587 snaps last season and likely playing fewer in 2017, and his abilities could go south at any point at his age, but he could easily still be a useful player this season.

The Steelers lost long-time starting middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons in free agency this off-season, but his best years were several years ago and he finished last season 70th among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so he won’t really be missed. The Steelers will replace him internally with Vince Williams. Williams has always been a valuable reserve and special teamer and was re-signed last off-season to a 3-year, 5.5 million dollar deal, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016. The 2013 6th round pick has been serviceable in limited action thus far in his career (17 starts in 4 seasons) and will be a full-time every down player for the first time in his career in 2017. He’s not a bad player, but probably isn’t much more than a low end starting middle linebacker. He’s solid against the run, but has issues in coverage.

Fellow starting middle linebacker Ryan Shazier is a much better player. Also a former first round pick, Shazier struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league and missed 11 games with injury over those 2 seasons combined, but had a mini breakout season in 2016. He finished 24th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, though he did miss another 3 games with injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best years could still be ahead of him and he could have his best season yet in his 4th season in the league in 2017. His injury history is concerning and he’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s plenty talented and the arrow is pointing up for him. He’s part of a solid, but unspectacular linebacking corps.

Grade: C+

Secondary

In addition to the three former first round picks the Steelers have in their linebacking corps, they also used a first round pick on a cornerback in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking the University of Miami’s Artie Burns at #25 overall. In fact, the Steelers have used their last 5 first round picks on defensive players, as their offense has been strong for years and has rarely had pressing needs. Burns came into the league very raw and was better than most expected as a rookie, finishing 39th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 810 snaps. Still only 22, Burns could take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league and has a huge upside long-term.

Burns may be their de facto #1 cornerback in 2017, but the Steelers have a trio of solid cornerbacks. In fact, Burns was the lowest rated of the three last season, as Ross Cockrell and William Gay finished 28th and 15th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Cockrell figures to keep his starting job and play outside opposite Burns in base packages, as Gay is best on the slot and going into his age 32 season. A 2014 4th round pick that the Bills gave up on too quickly, Cockrell has been a top-28 cornerback in 2 seasons as a starter with the Steelers, making 23 starts. Only in his age 26 season and going into the final year of his rookie deal, Cockrell will get a big contract from someone in the next year.

Gay, meanwhile, is coming off the highest rated season of his career, but is unlikely to repeat that kind of season again in 2017, given his age. Still, he’s made 107 starts over the past 8 seasons and has finished above average in 6 of those 8 seasons, so he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, especially if he is a pure slot cornerback. The 5-10 183 pounder is one of the best slot cover cornerbacks in the NFL. He completes a talented trio of cornerbacks and the Steelers have 3rd round rookie Cameron Sutton for depth purposes.

Starting safety Malcolm Mitchell is also a solid defensive back, finishing last season 31st among safeties on Pro Football Focus. A late bloomer, Mitchell struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, but has made 62 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has finished above average in 3 of those 4 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Mitchell could start to decline over the next couple of seasons, but he could easily be a solid starting safety again in 2017. He’ll start opposite second year player Sean Davis, who is hoping for a better season in 2017, after finishing 68th out of 90 eligible safeties in 14 starts as a rookie in 2016. He’s the one weakness in an overall solid secondary and he has the upside to be better now that he has a season under his belt.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

With Martavis Bryant returning from suspension and Le’Veon Bell hopefully available for the whole season, the Steelers have one of the most complete and most talented offenses in the NFL. Their defense isn’t bad either and could be better in 2017, with Cameron Heyward returning from injury. This is one of the best and most complete teams in the entire league and they should be considered one of the top few Super Bowl contenders. They will be a real threat to the Patriots in the AFC if they can stay healthy. 

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC North