St. Louis Rams extend DE Chris Long

Chris Long was due 10.31 million in the final year of his rookie deal, after going 2nd overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. This extension adds an extra 4 years, 50 million to the existing deal to essentially make it a 5 year, 60 million dollar contract, with 37 million guaranteed. Long is one of the rare picks that panned out in St. Louis under the old regime.

He doesn’t stop the run well, but he leads the NFL in quarterback hits/pressures over the next 2 years with 140, along with 21 sacks. Over the past two years, he has a sack/hit/pressure on 14.7% of his pass rush snaps, one of the best rates in the league. He’s a perfect fit for Jeff Fisher’s wide nine scheme as well, so the Rams did well to lock up him through his age 31 season in 2016.

This deal also frees up the franchise tag for James Laurinaitis next offseason, should they need it, though they are also working on an extension with him. On top of that, it undoubtedly clears up a good chunk of cap space as Long’s cap number was set to be 18.1 million this year. The Rams now have the cap room to go after Mike Wallace, should he become available and should the Rams decide to pursue him.

Grade: A

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Denver Broncos 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Broncos won 8 games with Tebow last year and he can’t throw. Now that they have Peyton Manning, they’ll definitely win 12 or more games. That seems to be the common opinion out there, but it’s flawed. Yes, they did win 8 games last year, but they did it on the strength of a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 7-4 in those games. Whether you want to call it luck or some sort of divine Tebow magic, that can’t be expected to continue this year.

Their -81 points differential was by far worst among playoff teams last year and one of the worst points differentials of a playoff team ever in the NFL. Their Pythagorean Expectation said they should have won 5.8 games, the 25th highest expectation in the NFL. Meanwhile, they ranked 24th in the league in DVOA. The year before, in 2010, this team won just 4 games, had a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, and ranked 26th in DVOA. Even though they improved 4 games from 2010 to 2011, this team didn’t really play that much better last season than they did in 2010. Teams that exceed their Pythagorean Expectation by between 2 and 2.5 games, on average, win 2.4 fewer games the following season.

They still have weaknesses on the offensive line, at running back, in the receiving corps, and in both the run and pass defense. I’ll get into all of those areas in more detail later, but the point is that their supporting cast is really not that much better than it was in 2010. It just seems like it, unless you want to argue that somehow Tim Tebow is significantly inferior to Kyle Orton (which even the biggest Tebow haters might not do).

Peyton Manning represents a fairly significant upgrade at quarterback over Tim Tebow. Even the biggest Tebow lover would have to admit that. But it needs to be understood that whatever addition Manning represents in terms of wins to this team should be added to a win total of 5 or 6 wins, rather than 8, unless they can somehow have the same kind of play in close games that they had last season. Logic, and Peyton Manning’s 51-37 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, both work against you if you decide to argue that.

The Colts exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation every year from 2002-2010, but only by an average of 1.4 wins per season. The Colts were a very good team in that stretch, winning 10+ games every season and 12+ in 7 of 9 seasons. However, good teams almost always exceed their Pythagorean Expectation. That 1.4 wins per season mark is pretty average for teams who average 12 wins per season.

This team doesn’t have the supporting cast that Manning had in Indianapolis and Manning might not be the same either. I don’t think they’ll win 12+ games so I don’t think we can predict them to exceed their Pythagorean Expectation this year any more than any other team. If the Broncos score 81 more points (their points differential last year) this season (5.0 more points per game) than they did last season, they can be expected to win 8 games. And that’s a completely reasonable estimation, albeit on the low end.

For the record, my opinion on Tebow is this. He’s not the 2nd coming of Christ. He’s not the worst quarterback in the NFL. He’s a quarterback incomparable to any quarterback in the league. He’s a good runner, a subpar, but improving passer, an exceptional leader, a clutch player, a genuinely good person, and most importantly, an incredibly fun and interesting story.

Instead of arguing about Tebow, we should just accept him for what he is and enjoy watching him play. His 6 game winning streak last season was one of the most fun, interesting, and unbelievable stretches of football I’ve ever watched, a guy who had won on every level and went in the 1st round, yet who had so many doubters for legitimate reasons, somehow pulling 6 straight wins out of his ass.

That win over the Bears was one of the most entertaining, unbelievable, memorable games I’ve ever watched and his win over the Steelers comes in at a close 2nd. I’ll remember the 2011 NFL season for 3 things. Tom Brady losing to Eli Manning in the Super Bowl again (damnit). Absolutely no one playing any defense whatsoever. And Tim Tebow.

And I feel we wasted that amazing stretch of entertainment by arguing, trying to put him and his unique abilities into a box, and listening to anything Skip Bayless had to say. I am as neutral on Tebow as you can be, agreeing and disagreeing with his greatest fans and his biggest detractors equally, and yet I’m verging onto paragraph 5 about Tebow and he’s not even on the team anymore.

He deserves to be starting somewhere in the NFL, but the Broncos absolutely made the right move signing Manning and trading Tebow. If a Peyton Manning becomes available on the open market and you don’t have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback, you go after him and the Broncos did not have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback. Not even the biggest Tebow fan could argue that.

I don’t care if he’s 36 and coming off 4 neck surgeries, you still go after him, though you try as hard as you can to keep it a secret (Denver somehow did that for a few days). And if you get him, you trade away the incumbent starter because he still has value and because all he does is serve as an unnecessarily expensive backup and a distraction. There is not a single thing about the Tebow/Manning situation that I would have handled differently than Denver did. If there were a grade better than an A+, I’d give them it. At the same time, I think the Jets got a steal by getting Tebow for just a 4th rounder.

Quarterback

But enough about Tebow and onto the guy who is actually the Broncos’ quarterback: Peyton Manning. We know, barring another neck injury, that Peyton Manning represents some sort of upgrade over Tim Tebow as a quarterback. The question is, how much, and what version of Peyton Manning they’ll be getting. I believe they’ll be getting an inferior version of Peyton Manning than his prime and I have several reasons for that, some obvious, some not.

I’ll start with some of the more obvious and work my way down to the less obvious. He’s 36 years old. His neck has been operated on 4 times in the last 2 years. He hasn’t played organized NFL football in almost 2 years. He is going to be forced to adjust to a new city, a new team, new teammates, and a completely new playbook for the first time in his career.

He no longer will be able to play half of his games in a dome, but rather he’ll have to play half of his games at high elevations. In 2008, when he missed Training Camp and the Preseason, he completed just 62.2% of his passes, averaged 6.8 YPA, and threw 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his first 8 games, as his team went 4-4.

He was also beginning to noticeably decline in 2010, with his lowest QB rating since 2002 (91.9), his lowest completion percentage since 2007 (66.3%), for his YPA since his rookie year in 1998 (6.9), his worst TD:INT ratio since 2002 (33:17), and his worst win-loss record since 2001 (10-6). He displayed weaker arm strength, both noticeably, and as evidenced by his 6.9 YPA and his 36.8% accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) on balls that go 20+ yards through the air, 26th out of 37 eligible quarterbacks. For reference, that statistic stood at 42.4% in 2009 and 43.6% in 2010. And that was 4 neck surgeries and 2 years ago with a much more familiar supporting cast.

Not only did he have a much more familiar supporting cast back then. He’ll also, as I’ve mentioned, have to work with one of the worst supporting casts of his career in 2012. It’s not like he’s throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, with Edgerrin James in his prime the backfield. He’s throwing to Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and his running back, Willis McGahee, is almost as old as Edgerrin James was when he retired after the 2009 season.

Offensive Line

Another weakness for the Broncos is their offensive line. They rated as the worst run blocking offensive line on ProFootballFocus last year and ranked 2nd to last in pass blocking efficiency. No quarterback was pressured more often than Tim Tebow, who was pressured on 43.4% of his drop backs. Some of that can be blamed on Tebow’s tendency to hold the ball for a long time, but, in 2010, they ranked 17th in pass blocking efficiency so they do have some problems of their own. They do return the same starting 5 as they had in 2011, but, for them, that’s probably more of a bad thing that a good thing.

In a way this is a big deal and in a way this isn’t. It’s a big deal because, if you have a quarterback with a 4 times operated on neck, you probably want to protect him well, which the Broncos’ offensive line isn’t talented enough to do. However, Peyton Manning has such good pocket presence and feel for the pass rush and makes decisions and gets rid of the ball so quickly that he essentially protects himself. He always makes the offensive line look much better than they are.

From 2008-2010, including the postseason, he took 46 sacks on 533 pressured drop backs, good for a ridiculously low rate of 8.6%, easily the best in the NFL over that time period. It’s not like he really had that great of an offensive line in Indianapolis either. They ranked just 18th in pass blocking efficiency in 2011, 15th in 2010, 11th in 2009, and 24th in 2008. Like he did in Indianapolis, he should be able to protect himself again in Denver and he probably won’t take too many more than 20 sacks, and possibly much less. However, the bad news is that any one of those sacks could potentially reinjure his neck and that might force him to retire.

Protecting his blindside is left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the most overrated players in the league. In 4 years in his career, the 2008 12th overall pick has allowed a combined 20 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 120 quarterback pressures. Last year was his worst year, as he rated 61st out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, allowing 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 34 quarterback pressures, while allowing 12 penalties and playing terribly as a run blocker, ranking 72nd on ProFootballFocus in that regard, 2nd to last.

The fact that he was not only was offered a 5 year, 50 million dollar extension this offseason, but also rejected said offer is ridiculous. He wants a deal similar to Joe Thomas’ 7 year, 84 million dollar extension, with 44 million guaranteed and he’s just not worth anywhere near that. I wouldn’t even guarantee him half of that. Fortunately for him, he gets to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside this season, which will make him look better, so the overrated 2 time Pro-Bowler (2009, 2011) will continue to be overrated and might even get his desired deal. At the very least, he’ll be franchised as teams don’t often let their left tackles hit the open market. That’s almost as rare as a team letting their quarterback hit the open market.

Opposite Clady, at right tackle, the Broncos have Orlando Franklin. Franklin, a mere 2nd round rookie last season, actually played the best of any of the Broncos’ starting 5 offensive linemen last season, according to ProFootballFocus. However, that’s not saying much and his -9.7 rating is hardly ideal. He allowed 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties and, though he was his team’s best run blocking starting offensive line, he was still slightly below average in that respect.

On the interior, things are even worse. Chris Kuper was the best of the bunch last season with an only slightly pathetic -11.5 rating. He was an above average pass protector, allowing just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 15 quarterback pressures, but he was awful as a run blocker, ranking 73rd at his position out of 76 as a run blocker. He’s also coming off a broken leg and dislocated ankle sustained late last season, which required 2 surgeries. He’s been cleared for camp, but that was no major injury. In his absence, Russ Hochstein played poorly as well. He’s really their only experienced depth, sadly.

The other two interior offensive linemen were the worst of the bunch. I don’t know why they didn’t do more to upgrade them. They used a 4th round pick on Philip Blake, who can play both guard and center, but that’s it. He’ll probably end up a starter somewhere before the end of the season, most likely at center, a spot which the Broncos tried to upgrade this offseason by unsuccessfully trying to bring in Manning’s old center, Jeff Saturday, from Indianapolis.

Instead, they’re stuck with JD Walton, who was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated center by over 13 points with a -32.9 rating and their worst rated run blocker at any position. As I mentioned, he could be replaced by Blake before the season is over, but he’s just a mere 4th round rookie so he’d probably only be an upgrade by default.

Meanwhile, left guard Zane Beadles ranked 73rd among 76 guards on ProFootballFocus, playing equally poor as a run blocker and pass protector. He allowed 7 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties. What the Broncos should do next offseason is add another offensive tackle, possibly move Ryan Clady to the right side, move Franklin inside, get a new center (unless Blake works out), and bench both Beadles and Walton.

The Broncos allowed 42 sacks last season, 9th most in the NFL. Going from Tim Tebow, who holds the ball a very long time, to Peyton Manning, who is legendarily good at avoiding sacks, should cut that number in half, but it won’t make them a good pass blocking offensive line. Also, there’s obviously an injury risk with Manning and they don’t have a proven backup on the roster.

On top of all this, there isn’t much Manning is going to do to make this a better run blocking team. Sure, he’ll open things up for the running game because they have to fear his ability to throw, but that won’t actually make them a better run blocking team. It’s weird to say that this was the league’s worst run blocking unit last year because they led the league in rushing, but it was.

Running Backs

One of the reasons why they led the league in rushing was because they led the league in rushing attempts. Still, their 4.8 YPC was very impressive. Tim Tebow’s absence will hurt that. Not only did Tebow rush for 660 yards on 124 carries (5.4 YPC), he also opened things up for their other back, Willis McGahee.

Mobile quarterbacks have a way of opening things up for running backs better than even the best passing quarterbacks can. Opposing front 7s almost always had to use a spy when playing the Broncos last year, for fear of Tebow taking off, which weakens and distracts their overall run defense as they try to stop running backs.

Just look at LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson. In the last 2 seasons, McCoy has carried the ball 375 times for 1954 yards (5.2 YPC) and 21 touchdowns in 24 games with Michael Vick and 105 times for 435 yards (4.1) and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without him. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2009, when Vince Young was his primary quarterback. In 2010, he rushed for 4.8 YPC with Young and 3.8 YPC without him. Last year, without him at all, he averaged just 4.0 YPC.

Tim Tebow was that for Willis McGahee last season. There’s a reason he rushed for 1199 yards and 4 touchdowns on 249 carries (4.8 YPC) last year, after rushing for just 380 yards and 5 touchdowns on 100 carries (3.8 YPC) the year before. Without Tebow, he could easily regress and heading into his age 31 season, his abilities could drop off a cliff at any time. On top of that, he will be running behind a poor offensive line.

With that in mind, the Broncos used a 3rd round pick on Ronnie Hillman, to compliment him and help him stay fresh. Both backs will get carries this season and Hillman, a much superior pass catcher, could easily get more playing time as the season goes on at Manning’s urging. However, he’s still just a rookie and he doesn’t have the prototypical size to carry a load if McGahee gets hurt, definitely a possibility. If that happens, either the mediocre Lance Ball, the always injured Knowshon Moreno, or the inexperienced Mario Fannin will get some playing time. Head Coach John Fox is a fan of two-back sets anyway.

They could go from one of the league’s best rushing teams to one of the league’s worst, especially since they won’t run nearly as much as they did last year now that they have Manning. Indianapolis ranked 29th, 32nd, 31st in rushing yards in 2010, 2009, 2008 with Manning. It’s not that important, but it’s worth noting that they won’t be very good on the ground this year.

Grade: B-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Peyton Manning might not be throwing to Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, but the Broncos do have a few intriguing young receivers and Manning should be able to make do with them. Demaryius Thomas is a very popular breakout candidate, to the point where he’s become a 4th round pick on average in fantasy drafts, despite the fact that he hasn’t accomplished much yet.

However, I like Decker at his current ADP in the 6th round much more. I think he’ll be their leading receiver. While Thomas had 25 catches for 448 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last 5 games last year, Eric Decker had 20 catches for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 4 games last year and that was with Brandon Lloyd opposite him stealing targets.

Just because Thomas had great chemistry with Tim Tebow doesn’t mean he will have great chemistry with Peyton Manning. Thomas is still a very unproven player and Decker has shown better chemistry with more traditional pocket passers. Decker is reportedly impressing in Training Camp, with some like SI’s Peter King saying he could be among the league leaders in catches this season. Meanwhile, Thomas is struggling to learn the full route tree, something Manning requires of his receivers that Tebow didn’t.

Manning has always been more comfortable with sure handed possession receivers who run routes well over pure athletes like Thomas and that will only become more the case as he’s now older with somewhat diminished arm strength and in a place where he’s not familiar with most of the receivers. It’s also worth noting that Peyton Manning specifically requested the Colts draft Eric Decker in the 3rd round in 2010, but the Broncos got him first. We know he thinks highly of him.

Manning has made lemonade out of apples before with his receivers. If Austin Collie can catch 58 passes for 649 yards and 8 touchdowns in 9 games on a more crowded receiving corps in 2010 with Manning, Decker can have a 1000 yard season. He’ll be especially valuable in PPR leagues. Thomas, meanwhile, has never had any success in the NFL without Tim Tebow. He also has very little proven success in general with just 54 catches for 834 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2 seasons. Thomas will produce as well, but he’ll be a disappointment based off of what people are projecting for him. He’ll be 2nd among wide receivers on this team.

He might even be behind tight end Jacob Tamme statistically. Tamme might not be a great athlete, but, like Decker, he has sure hands and runs routes well. He’s also familiar with Manning, catching 67 passes for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns in 10 games in place of an injured Clark in 2010. With less wide receiver talent around him than in Indianapolis, and no other receivers (other than the mediocre Brandon Stokley) that Manning has any familiarity with, he could be an even more frequent target for Manning this year. A tight end is frequently going to be the first option on this offense this year.

The Broncos also did well to bring in Joel Dreessen from Houston. Dreessen is one of the league’s most underrated players and best #2 tight ends. ProFootballFocus rated him as the 6th best tight end in the league last year as the #2 tight end in Houston. The Texans run more two-tight end sets than anyone in the league and Dreessen is an adequate pass catcher and a phenomenal blocker. In the last 3 years, he’s caught 90 passes for 1191 yards and 11 touchdowns. He won’t put up huge numbers, but, like he did in Houston, he’ll be an important part of an offense that uses a lot of two-tight end sets. The Colts also have Andre Caldwell, a decent slot receiver, as their #3 receiver.

However, like everywhere else on offense, the Broncos don’t have a lot of proven talent in their receiving corps. Decker and Thomas are still young and Tamme has never produced without Manning. Meanwhile, they have one of the worst offensive lines in the league and their only proven good offensive player is running back Willis McGahee, who is on his last legs. Meanwhile, none of the backs behind him on the depth chart are proven. Manning will make do just fine, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty talentless group, which scored just 19.3 points per game last season, worst of any playoff team by a full point per game. Manning, meanwhile, probably won’t be his old self for a variety of reasons.

Grade: B-

Defense

While the Broncos ranked 25th in points per game offensively, worst among playoff teams, they also ranked 24th in points per game allowed defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, 2nd worst among playoff teams behind only the Giants (25.0 points per game). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This team isn’t really that much better than they were in 2010 (aside from Manning of course). They just got incredibly lucky last year (or Tebow is magic, whatever you want to believe). Either way, that shouldn’t happen again this year. Manning will obviously upgrade the offense, but they’ll once again have a subpar defense and that will prevent this team from being the elite team many think they’ll be.

Defensive Line

The one good thing the Broncos have going for them is their pass rush. Including playoffs, they had 49 sacks last year, and, in their regular season, they ranked tied for 10th in the league with 41. Of those 49 sacks, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller each had 13, combining for 26 of their 49 sacks. They need someone to step up as a 3rd pass rusher this year, particularly on the interior of their defensive line, where starters Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley combined for just 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on a combined 493 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 2.2% rate.

3rd on the team in sacks last season was Robert Ayers, who had 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 389 pass rush snaps, good for a decent 8.0% pass rush rate. He also played well against the run, finally having a good season after looking like a bust in his first two years in the league after going 18th overall in 2010. Turns out all he needed was to play in a 4-3 defense, though there’s no way Josh McDaniels could have known that. It’s not like every scouting report in the world said that Ayers was a 4-3 only player (I miss bashing Josh McDaniels).

Ayers played left end in the base package and then Von Miller came down from linebacker and played defensive end on passing downs. Miller had an amazing rookie season. He ranked 2nd among all defensive players on ProFootballFocus with a 53.4 rating as a mere rookie, rushing the passer well, stopping the run well, and doing well in coverage. He had 13 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 468 pass rush snaps, good for an incredible rate of 15.0%. He should be one of the league’s premier defensive players for years and years to come.

Elvis Dumervil will once again almost always play at the opposite defensive end spot, only being taken out of the game for rest. He too had a fantastic season, with 13 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 33 quarterback pressures on 562 pass rush snaps, good for an above average 9.4% pass rush rate. He’s led the league in sacks before and should be considered one of the best pass rushers in the league, as should Miller.

While Ayers played defensive end opposite Dumervil last year, and played pretty well, the Broncos will be using 2nd round rookie Derek Wolfe at defensive end opposite Dumervil this year, even though he’s a natural defensive tackle and would fill a bigger need there. It’s unclear what Ayers’ role will be this season, so this is a pretty head scratching move. He’ll probably play the old role of Jason Hunter, an awful defensive end who had just 1 sack, no quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 202 pass rush snaps as a situational player, good for a pathetic 5.0% rate. He played the run well though.

Like Ayers would last year, Wolfe will be a base defensive end, but he’ll also move inside and play defensive tackle on passing downs, which will help their interior pass rush, which was non-existent last year. However, he’d be better served as a full time member of the defensive tackle rotation and a starter there.

At defensive tackle, the Broncos have lost starters Bunkley and Thomas. Neither could do anything as pass rushers, but both will still be missed as they were among the best run stuffing defensive tackles in the league, with Bunkley ranking 1st and Thomas ranking 14th in that aspect on ProFootballFocus last year.

Also gone is Ryan McBean, who led the position in snaps played. He won’t be missed at all though, as he was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated defensive tackle. He didn’t play the run well and struggled as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on 414 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 3.1% rate. Between Bunkley, Thomas, and McBean, the Broncos’ top 3 defensive tackles got a sack/pressure/hit on 2.6% of their pass rush snaps.

In 2012, they should be better than that, but maybe not by much and only by default. Penciled in as starters right now are Kevin Vickerson, a career journeyman who played just 206 snaps last year as the #4 defensive tackle (and did not play well), and Ty Warren, who hasn’t played in a game since 2009 thanks to various injuries. That tells you all you need to know about their weakness at defensive tackle. Why the hell isn’t Wolfe starting there?!

Wolfe will provide depth as a situational pass rusher and be part of the rotation. Also in the rotation is Justin Bannan, a veteran who could push for a starting job out of sheer need. Bannan played pretty well in a situational role in St. Louis last year, but he was cut by them this offseason and he is heading into his age 33 season. The Broncos should be a good pass rushing team again in 2012, but they could really struggle against the run and if anything happens to one of their top 2 pass rushers, they’d be left awfully thin.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

In base packages, the Broncos will start DJ Williams, Joe Mays, and Von Miller at linebacker. I already talked about how awesome Von Miller is under the defensive line section, he leaves the linebacking unit in two-linebacker sets in nickel packages and goes to the defensive line. Joe Mays leaves the linebacking unit as well in that situation, as he’s just a two down run stuffer. He’s awful in coverage, but stuffs the run pretty well.

Wesley Woodyard comes in during sub packages as a pure coverage linebacker, but he struggled in that role last year, ranking 45th among 53 middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus, despite his situational role. He also played outside linebacker last year when injuries hit Miller and Williams, but he wasn’t much better there.

DJ Williams was once one of their best defensive players, but he was pretty bad last season, ranking 35th out of 42 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, struggling in coverage and against the run. Heading into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to ever bounce back. He’ll also miss the first 6 games of the season after failing 2 drug tests and attempting to use a non-human specimen on the 3rd one. There was talk of the Broncos outright cutting him this offseason to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 11 million over the next 2 seasons, but nothing appears imminent. He still may be asked to restructure.

In Williams’ absence, Woodyard and Mays will have to play every down roles, unless 2011 3rd round pick Nate Irving can establish some sort of role for himself. He only played 7 snaps as a rookie though and the organization hasn’t seemed too impressed with him yet, so that’s unlikely. Woodyard and Mays will probably have to be the every down linebackers, which has proved to be a problem for them in the past.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

Things aren’t that great in the secondary either. There’s a reason why the Broncos allowed 7.4 YPA, 20th in the league, despite a strong pass rush. Champ Bailey was good as always, allowing 36 completions on 72 attempts (50.0%) for 552 yards (7.6 YPA), 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing just 2 penalties. He was ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated cornerback, marking the 4th straight year he ranked in the top-8 at his position. Only Darrelle Revis can say the same. However, he’s heading into his age 34 season so he could start to decline.

The problem last year was that Bailey’s talents were minimized by the fact that opposing quarterbacks could just pick on the opposite cornerbacks. Andre Goodman was terrible and was cut this offseason, heading into his age 34 season. He remains unsigned on the open market as of this writing, which tells you all you need to know. No cornerback surrendered more touchdowns in coverage than the 9 Goodman surrendered. The Broncos have signed Tracy Porter to replace him, in hopes that he can bounce back. Once a solid starting cornerback, Porter allowed 71.3% completion as the 3rd cornerback in New Orleans last season.

In the slot, free agent acquisition Drayton Florence will compete with incumbent Chris Harris. Harris was thrust into the nickel back role as a mere undrafted rookie last year and, while he impressed at times, he also often played like an undrafted rookie, allowing 51 completions on 70 attempts (72.9%) for 539 yards (7.7 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties.

Florence, however, looks pretty washed up. Heading into his age 32 season, Florence was ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 98 as a starter in Buffalo last year, allowing 44 completions on 73 attempts (60.3%) for 714 yards (9.8 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 9 penalties. His best days are behind him and, while he could play better now that he’s just on the slot, the Broncos would be smart to let Harris play there and hope that he makes improvements in his 2nd year in the league. Unfortunately, Florence looks like the favorite as of this writing.

At safety, the Broncos will miss Brian Dawkins, who has retired. He didn’t play all that well last season, which makes sense because he was 38, but he played solidly and provided great veteran leadership. Unwilling to give the job to 2011 4th round pick Quinton Carter full time, the Broncos signed Mike Adams, a solid and underrated safety, from the Browns. He should have another solid year this year. Opposite him, the Broncos will be hoping that 2011 2nd round pick Rahim Moore can bounce back in his 2nd season in the league, after ranking 67th at his position out of 84 last season. If he doesn’t, Carter could potentially push for his job, but he played every worse last year, ranking 74th at the position.

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. They were a little better last year, ranking 24th and allowing 24.4 points per game. However, the improvement was not as big as some seem to think as their defense is still subpar. They have major questions on all 3 levels of the defense and, while Peyton Manning will help things offensively, their defense will hold them back.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

John Fox has been in the NFL a long time, coaching 10 seasons, including 9 with the Panthers and last year with the Broncos. He has a career 81-79 regular season record and 6-4 postseason record, including a trip to the Super Bowl. He’s not one of the best coaches in the NFL and he’s had some awful years (2-14 with the Panthers in 2010), but he’s had some good ones too (11+ wins in 2003, 2005, and 2008) and he’s managed to stay around a long time.

Grade: B

Overall

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed, allowing 29.4 points per game, and 19th in the league, scoring 21.5 points per game. They had a points differential of -117 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, while ranking 26th in the league in DVOA.  Last year, they ranked 24th defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, and 25th offensively, scoring 19.3 points per game. They had a points differential of -81 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.8 wins, while ranking 24th in the league in DVOA. Though they improved 4 games, they didn’t really play much better last season than in 2010 and they still have a very weak supporting cast with questions everywhere.

Peyton Manning undoubtedly helps, but to say that this is a playoff team adding a franchise quarterback would be inaccurate because they didn’t play like a playoff team last year. Manning also figures to not quite be his normal self and he’s one bad hit away from being done for good and they don’t have a veteran backup on the roster. Should he stay healthy, the offense will play well, but they defense won’t.

In comparing the team to the Chargers, who I think are their primary competition for the division, at this stage in his career, Manning is comparable to Philip Rivers and I think Rivers has the better supporting cast, in addition to being more durable. Rivers did throw 20 touchdowns last year, but Eli Manning threw 25 the year before. Both were outliers and Rivers should bounce back like Eli did (well maybe not quite like Eli did). The Chargers had a points differential 110 points better last year, yet did not win the division on a tiebreaker. I don’t think Manning, at this stage in his career, is good enough, on his own, to make up those 110 points (6.9 points per game) and on top of that, I think the Chargers will be improved.

They do have a pretty easy division and should be able to go 3-3 or 4-2 in the division. However, outside of the division, they host Pittsburgh week 1, when Manning still figures to be getting his timing back). You know they’ll be out for blood after the playoff defeat last season. Their other 4 games at home aren’t much easier, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland. The latter two should be very winnable, but I think they’ll only win one of the first 3, especially since two are in the first 3 weeks. Meanwhile, they go to Atlanta and New England early, then Cincinnati, Carolina, and Baltimore. Three of those teams are very tough at home (going a combined 22-2 in 2011) so they should go 2-3 in those 5 games.

Manning should take at least 4-6 weeks to get right. They host Pittsburgh, go to Atlanta (always tough at home), and then host Houston and Oakland, before going to New England and San Diego. They could easily start 2-4. Then they host New Orleans after the bye (not easy), before going on the road for two more (Carolina, and Cincinnati), and then they host the Chargers. Could they start 4-6? Yes, yes they can. Their last 6 games will be easier (@ Kansas City, vs. Tampa Bay, @ Oakland, @ Baltimore, vs. Cleveland, vs. Kansas City), but it’s almost cruel that the scheduler gave them most of their tough games earlier in the season as Manning tries to get his timing back. I don’t see them winning the division. 8 or 9 wins seems more likely.

Projection: 9-7 2nd in AFC West

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San Diego Chargers 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

There was a time when the Chargers would make the playoffs every year and then disappoint once they got there. From 2004-2009, the Chargers won the division and made the playoffs 5 times in 6 seasons, going 67-29 over that stretch, but they went just 3-5 in the playoffs and never advanced past the AFC Championship.

Now they can’t even make the playoffs. In the last two seasons, they have gone a combined 17-15 and missed out on the playoffs both times. In 2010, they played really well, leading the league in yards and allowing the fewest yards at the same time, but finished 9-7. They finished with the NFL’s 5th best points differential with a +119 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.9 wins. They also had the NFL’s 7th best DVOA and were one of 4 teams to finish in the top-10 in DVOA both offensively and defensively (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, NY Giants). Every advanced statistic in the book said that would likely bounce back in 2011.

Well, they didn’t. Advanced statistics can tell you what’s likely. Sometimes things that are likely don’t happen. Philip Rivers randomly had a career high in interceptions (20) and his lowest completion percentage (62.9%) and YPA since 2007 (8.0 YPA), while the defense got old in a hurry and missed defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who took the Head Coaching job in Carolina. After ranking 1st in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed in 2010, they ranked 16th and 22nd respectively in those two categories in 2011. Advanced statistics confirm their defensive decline as they went from 7th in defensive DVOA in 2010 to 29th last year.

One other thing the Chargers used to be known for was starting out slow. Prior to last year, the Chargers were 14-12 from weeks 1-6 under Philip Rivers and 41-11 (41-11!!!) from weeks 6-17, before going 3-4 in the postseason. However, last year, it was the complete opposite. The Chargers actually started 4-1 before going on a 6 game losing streak, before finishing 4-1 and finally looking like their typical late season selves.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve conquered their early season demons. While they did start 4-1, their 4 wins were against teams that started a combined 4-16 in their first 5 games (Minnesota, Denver, Kansas City, Miami). They only won one of those games by more than a touchdown and didn’t win one by more than 10 points. Their loss, meanwhile, was by 14 to the Patriots.

They weren’t necessarily a good early season team. They just had an easy schedule and then when a 6 game stretch of teams that finished a combined 54-42 hit, they lost every single game, before finally finding their stride and winning 4 of their last 5, though the only playoff team they beat in that span was a Baltimore team that also lost to Seattle and Jacksonville on the road. The only team playoff teams they beat last year were Denver BT (Before Tebow) and the aforementioned Baltimore team. They went 2-4 against playoff teams and 3-7 against teams that finished .500 or better.

Quarterback

So why, in spite of all this, do I like the Chargers to bounce back? Well for one, Philip Rivers should bounce back (I’ll get into the 2nd and 3rd reasons later). Rivers had his 2nd lowest QB rating last year of any of his 6 seasons as a starter. He also threw a career high 20 interceptions. His 1st/2nd half splits show a drastically different Rivers in his final 8 games from his first 8, at least in terms of turnovers. In the 1st half of the season, he threw 14 interceptions as opposed to 6 in his final 8 games.

Rivers is still only heading into his age 31 season so he’s certainly not done. Last season should be dismissed as an outlier, especially since most of his poor play happened in the first 8 games when he may or may not have been hurt. In the last 8 seasons, the Chargers have missed the playoffs just 3 times. Discounting the bizarre 2010 season, those two seasons featured subpar quarterback play. Last year, Rivers struggled and in 2005, Drew Brees, then the Chargers’ quarterback, had one of the worst seasons of his career. If the Chargers are better quarterbacked in 2012, they should make the playoffs, especially in the weaker AFC.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

If anything prevents Rivers from bouncing back, it might be his receiving corps. Vincent Jackson is gone, leaving the offense without a true #1 receiver. However, Rivers played fine without Jackson in 2010, when he missed most of the season with a holdout and injuries, playing just 5 games and catching just 14 passes for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns. That year, Rivers completed 66.0% of his passes for 8.7 YPA and 30 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

In Jackson’s absence, Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem will start. Robert Meachem is a talented former 1st round pick who the Chargers gave a giant contract to this offseason (4 years, 25.9 million). They clearly think his best football is ahead of him and that he was underutilized and misused in New Orleans. The problem with that logic that the Chargers have been wrong about a lot of things personnel wise in recent years, while the Saints are one of the least likely teams in the NFL to underutilize and misuse an offensive player. Meachem never surpassed 45 catches in a season in New Orleans. He’ll have a greater opportunity in San Diego, but I don’t think he’ll be able to be a true #1 receiver.

Floyd, meanwhile, has definitely flashed talent in his career, but he’s also missed 9 games combined in the last 2 seasons and when he plays, he’s caught 3 or fewer passes in 14 of 23 games. He’s heading into his age 31 season and if he hasn’t been a #1 receiver yet, he probably won’t be able to be one into the future. He had his chance in 2010 with Jackson holding out and getting hurt and managed just 37 catches for 717 yards and 6 touchdowns. That was in only 11 games, which makes it more impressive, but he’s an injury prone player and that’s not going to get better now that he’s 31.

In Jackson’s absence in 2010, it was Antonio Gates, not Malcom Floyd, who was Rivers’ #1 receiver. He did only play in 10 games with injury, but he caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns in those ten games. In fact, in the last 2 years, he’s caught 114 passes for 1560 yards and 17 touchdowns in 23 games, insane numbers for a tight end. The problem is that he too is injury prone, missing 9 games himself in the last 2 years. The Chargers have an intriguing 4th round pick, Lardarius Green, waiting in the wings if/when Gates misses some time. He’s not much of a blocker at all, but he can contribute in the passing game. Randy McMichael still handles blocking duties.

Likewise, if/when Floyd misses time with injury, the Chargers have Vincent Brown to insert into the starting lineup. Brown was a 2011 3rd round pick who flashed some talent as a rookie, including a two game stretch where he started and caught 9 passes for 176 yards and a score. I actually like him the most of the Chargers’ wide receivers. If a Floyd injury doesn’t thrust him into the starting lineup, Meachem’s disappointing play could, though it’s unlikely the Chargers give up on a 25.9 million dollar investment this quickly. Either way, once Brown gets into the starting lineup, he has the talent to stay and I think he could have a breakout season.

The Chargers also have Eddie Royal, who will operate solely out of the slot. Royal caught 91 passes as a rookie in Denver in 2008, but he’s a very scheme specific player and never fit in Josh McDaniels’ or John Fox’s offensive system, catching just 105 passes combined in the last 3 seasons. He probably should have signed in Washington this offseason and reunited with Mike Shanahan or in Chicago and reunited with Jay Cutler, but the Chargers are reportedly very high on him. I still think he’ll be their #4 receiver and have a limited role out of the slot.

Rivers also loves throwing to his backs as Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert caught a combined 104 passes on a combined 138 targets last year. No quarterback threw to a back more than Rivers last season. Tolbert is gone, but Mathews is still here and ready to be an every down back. He could catch upwards of 60+ passes from Rivers, but it’s unclear which other back, if any, will take over Tolbert’s role as a receiver. Maybe that’s where slot receiver Eddie Royal will make his mark, catching a significant percentage of Rivers’ underneath throws.

Either way, I think Rivers can make do with what’s not a very good receiving corps. He’s done it before, most notably in 2010. In the 2nd half of the season in 2010, Rivers had a depleted receiving corps with Jackson, Floyd, and Gates all missing significant portions of that period of time. He was stuck throwing to bums like Legedu Naanee, Randy McMichael, and Seyi Ajirotutu instead. Rivers’ 2nd half stats in 2010: 67.7% completion, 8.8 YPA, and 15 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. I think he’ll be fine in 2012.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

A strong running game would also help Philip Rivers. Whether or not he has a strong running game supporting him this year is based almost entirely on Ryan Mathews’ ability to stay healthy and handle the load. Mathews is an incredibly talented back when healthy, averaging 4.7 YPC in his so far brief 2 year career, including 4.9 YPC last year. He’s also become a talented pass catcher who caught 50 passes this year. As I said in the receivers section, he could catch upwards of 60 passes this year given how much Rivers likes throwing to his backs. He’s a very talented player and there’s a reason he went 12th overall in 2010.

However, he’s dealt with injuries both in college and in the NFL and his senior year at Fresno State is the only season he’s ever not shared a load with another back. That year, he carried the ball 276 times. In 2007 at Fresno State, he carried the ball just 145 times and in 2008, he carried the ball 113 times. In 2010, with the Chargers, as a rookie, he carried the ball just 158 times and last year he carried it 222 times, splitting a workload with the now departed Mike Tolbert.

Mathews and Tolbert combined for 447 touches, 2469 yards from scrimmage, and 16 touchdowns last year. If Mathews stays healthy, he could approach 400 touches, exceed 2000 yards from scrimmage and score over 12 touchdowns. He’s more talented than Tolbert was and he’s got zero competition for carries. Ronnie Brown, who is completely washed up, and Jackie Battle, an aging career backup who was signed primarily for his abilities as a tackler on special teams, will compete to be the #2 back and spell him 3-5 times per game.

Norv Turner has always preferred single feature backs over running back committees, and if Mathews stays healthy, he could easily finish the season as the #1 fantasy football back, get some MVP votes, become known as one of the best running backs in the league, give Rivers an explosive compliment that he hasn’t had since LaDainian Tomlinson was in his prime, and end up on the cover of Madden ’14 (shortly after which he’ll tear his ACL, but whatever). He’s a budding superstar.

However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers are stuck with Ronnie Brown (31 years old in December, 3.2 YPC last year) and Jackie Battle (29 in October, 190 career carries, 3.8 career YPC) at running back and that’s fun for no one (especially not Rivers). I’m leaning towards the former, but it’s definitely worth noting that he’s no proven, sure thing and the Chargers didn’t really do a good job of giving themselves an insurance option.

Grade: A-

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Offensive Line

Unfortunately for Rivers, he is playing behind a very thin offensive line. Left guard Kris Dielman retired this offseason after suffering a seizure after a game last season. It was obviously the right move for him because long term health should always come before football. However, he was a very talented offensive lineman who will be missed. In his absence last year, Tyronne Green was awful, rating 61st out of 76 guards on ProFootballFocus despite only really playing half the season. He’ll compete with career journeyman Rex Hadnot for the starting job. Hadnot was a mediocre starter for the Cardinals last season.

Another offensive line mainstay is gone for the Chargers as they cut left tackle Marcus McNeill. McNeill was once one of the better left tackles in the league, but he won’t be missed as much. Injuries derailed his career and he played pretty poorly last season. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing. In his absence, Jared Gaither played incredibly well, making 5 starts and only surrendering 3 quarterback pressures, no sacks and no hits. He also committed 3 penalties.

Gaither has had an interesting career to say the least. A 5th round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft, Gaither developed into one of the better left tackles in the league in Baltimore, before injuries struck. Baltimore eventually cut him and he spent the beginning part of last season in Kansas City before being waived. He then signed in San Diego, who was so impressed by his 5 starts that they gave him a 4 year, 24.6 million dollar deal. That might seem like a lot to give someone after 5 games, but he’s still only 26 years old and if he can stay healthy, that deal will be a steal.

However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers don’t really have another option. Backup left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was absolutely awful last year, making 4 starts. He allowed 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 17 quarterback pressures, including 4 sacks, a hit, and 9 quarterback pressures in one game against Oakland. Somewhere, Kamerion Wimbley is still blowing past him and driving Philip Rivers into the dirt.

I don’t even know why this guy is still on the roster after that embarrassment, let alone the 2nd string left tackle. He should have been cut outright after that game. Rivers probably has nightmares about Gaither getting hurt and Dombrowski having to protect his blindside. Rookie undrafted free agent Mike Harris could challenge him for the backup job, but he’s only better by default.

Right tackle Jeromey Clary is not much better either. He’s been awful for years, but he’s Norv Turner’s boy toy, so he’ll continue to start. He was horrific last season, allowing 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 42 quarterback pressures, and committing 11 penalties, while struggling as a run blocker. He was ProFootballFocus’ 71st rated offensive tackle out of 73. Philip Rivers probably has sweet dreams about him getting hurt and someone else, anyone else having to play right tackle (except, you know, Brandyn Dombrowski).

Just like the Chargers didn’t find a suitable replacement for Dielman or find more reliable insurance for Gaither this offseason, the Chargers failed to upgrade Clary this offseason. AJ Smith has only used one pick higher than the 3rd round on the offensive line in his tenure in San Diego (since 2004) and that was a 2nd rounder on Marcus McNeill. It really shows.

The rest of the offensive line is pretty good, though. Louis Vazquez is one of the few times AJ Smith’s mid to late round offensive linemen panned out. The 2009 3rd round pick has become a solid starter at right guard for the Chargers. He pass protects well, but is a below average run blocker, part of the reason why the Chargers were ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked run blocking offensive line. Finishing out the offensive line is long time center Nick Hardwick, another player who is a good pass protector and a poor run blocker. Like Green, he was a mid round pick by Smith (2004 3rd round pick) who panned out.

Aside from Green and Hardwick, however, Smith’s strategy of ignoring the offensive line has not panned out. They have major weaknesses at left guard and right tackle and will have a huge weakness at the most important position, left tackle, if the injury prone Jared Gaither misses any time. If he doesn’t, however, his presence should lead to this being a better offensive line than it was last year, even with the loss of Dielman. Between Dombrowski and McNeill, the Chargers had terrible play from the left tackle position for the first 11 games of the season. It’s not a coincidence that this team played their best football when Gaither was the left tackle.

Last season, the Chargers’ offensive line ranked 19th in pass blocking efficiency, but a healthy Gaither really helps things there. Rivers also makes the offensive line look better than it is, taking a sack on just 16.0% of his pressured snaps last season, the 10th best rate among 35 eligible quarterbacks last season. That number is pretty consistent throughout his career (2008: 16.0%, 2009: 17.0%, 2010: 18.4%). There’s a reason he took just 30 sacks last season. In fact, that’s actually the 2nd most he’s ever taken in a season, behind the 38 he took in 2010. In 6 years as a starter, he’s taken a combined 167 sacks, impressive considering how much this team passes.

The biggest issue on the offensive line is how poorly they run block, but Ryan Mathews didn’t seem to mind last season when he rushed for 4.9 YPC. 3.2 YPC after contact (highest in the league last year of anyone with 200 carries or more) definitely helps. If Mathews stays healthy, he looks poised to have an amazing season. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers looks poised to bounce back and prove last year was just a fluke, despite a poor receiving corps and offensive line. If he does that, the Chargers should get back into the playoffs in the weaker AFC.

The Chargers averaged 25.4 points per game last season, their lowest total in the Philip Rivers era and only the 2nd time they averaged less than 27 points per game. In fact, from 2006-2010, the Chargers averaged 28.0 points per game. From 2006-2010, they ranked in the top-5 in points per game every single season. No other team can say that. In fact, only Indianapolis and Green Bay can say they did that 3 times over that stretch. Last year, they ranked tied for 5th, but only with 25.4 points per game, which would have ranked 6th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 9th in 2008, 8th in 2009, and 7th in 2010. This year, they should be back in that 27-28 point per game range and be a top-5 offense once again.

Grade: C+

Defense

The defense, however, could be a problem. Since 2006, the Chargers have ranked 7th, 5th, 15th, 11th, 10th, and 22nd in points per game allowed. A quick game of “find the outlier” lets us know that the Chargers, defensively, were not nearly as good last year as they had been in years past. From 2006-2010, they averaged 19.7 points per game allowed, while last year they averaged 23.6 points per game allowed, almost as many as they scored.

Their defense got old fast and they really missed Ron Rivera, their ex-defensive coordinator (2008-2010) who was hired as the Panthers Head Coach last offseason. Greg Manusky didn’t do a very good job in his first season on the job and was promptly fired this offseason and replaced with John Pagano, their long time linebackers coach and a former Rivera assistant.

With the exception of the bizarre 2010 season, every year the Chargers have ranked in the top-11 in scoring defense in the Philip Rivers era, they’ve made the playoffs, won the division, and won 11+ games. This makes sense considering how consistently good the offense has been. However, in the other two seasons, they have gone 8-8 both times and only made the playoffs in 2008 because the AFC West sucks. The offense should be improved, but the defense will need to get better too if they are going to go back to being an elite regular season team.

The Chargers clearly had improving their defense in mind when they drafted back in April as they used their first 3 picks on defensive players (Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor), even though it meant ignoring offensive needs such as offensive line, wide receiver, or running back. Given that Philip Rivers has been able to make do with thin supporting casts in the past, they were probably smart to focus on their 22nd ranked defense over their tied for 5th ranked offense in the draft. All three of those players, Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor, could have an impact immediately.

Defensive Line

Ingram, Reyes, and Taylor all fill needs at different levels of the defense. Ingram is a rush linebacker, while Taylor is a safety. On the defensive line, the new comer is Kendall Reyes. Reyes, a 2nd round pick, will play 3-4 defensive end for this team and represents the 2nd high pick the franchise has used on rebuilding the defensive line in as many drafts. In 2011, they used their first round selection on Corey Liuget, another defensive end.

Liuget didn’t play that well as a rotational player as a rookie. He was a decent pass rusher, with 1 sack, 1 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 208 pass rush snaps, good for a decent rate of 5.3%. However, he was used in more run stuffing snaps than pass rush snaps and really struggled in that aspect, ranking 29th out of 32 players at his position against the run. Still, a subpar rookie year hardly makes him a bust so he could easily have a breakout year this year. That would be a very welcome sight for the Chargers as they plan to give him a bigger role.

Reyes could start opposite Liuget if he beats out incumbent Vaughn Martin, who was thrust into the starting lineup in place of an injured Luis Castillo last year, despite being just a 5th round pick in 2009. He really played like it, struggling against the run and really struggling as a pass rusher, managing 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 319 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 2.5% rate. He ranked 31st at his position overall out of 32 players. Side note: one of my favorite quotes from the “can’t say anything mean” Jon Gruden during the 2011 season was when he said of Martin, something along the lines of “once he learns how to play, he’s going to be a great player.” Translation: you suck.

Martin will play more of a situational role this season, rather than leading the defensive line in snaps, with the addition of Reyes and with Liuget getting more playing time. The Chargers will also be having Antonio Garay play more defensive end. Garay was solely a nose tackle last year, but the Chargers would like him to move around the defensive line more this season.

Garay turned in another strong season in 2011, playing the 2nd most snaps of any player on their rotation heavily defensive line, and stopping the run and rushing the passer well. He was especially good as a pass rusher, especially for a nose tackle, with 3 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 263 pass rush snaps, good for a very impressive 11.0% rate.

He ranked 12th among defensive tackles as a pass rusher and could have ranked higher if he had played more snaps and maintained the same rate. His pass rush rate was 2nd at his position among players who played 25% or more of their team’s snaps and the only other true nose tackle in the top-10 was teammate Cam Thomas (10th).

He is, however, heading into his age 33 season, so that’s something to be aware of. Him playing more defensive end has allowed the Chargers to get rid of veterans Tommie Harris and Luis Castillo and possibly even veteran Jacques Cesaire. Harris played all right in limited action last year, but Castillo missed the entire year with injury and Cesaire has been mediocre for years.

The reason Garay is able to play more defensive end this year is twofold. For one, the Chargers signed Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin is two seasons removed from being the 49ers’ franchise player in 2010. In 2009, he was ProFootballFocus’ 15th rated defensive tackle and in 2010, he was their 13th rated defensive tackle, but he struggled as a situational player in New Orleans last year. He’s never been much of a pass rusher at all, but he can still stop the run pretty well.

He won’t really need to rush the passer much because of Garay and because of the 2nd reason why Garay can play defensive end more, Cam Thomas. Thomas, as I mentioned earlier, was the only other nose tackle in the top-10 in pass rush rate among defensive tackles. Thomas had 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 228 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 7.9%. He also stops the run well. He was a steal in the 5th round in 2010 by the Chargers and heading into his 3rd year in the league, he figures to have his biggest workload yet and could emerge as a breakout player.

The Chargers have done a pretty good job getting youth on what was once one of the better defensive lines in the league before age hit. Gone are Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo, and Igor Olshansky, but the next generation definitely looks promising. Cam Thomas is a budding star and Reyes and Liuget, while neither has played well in the NFL yet, were both high picks. With veterans like Garay and Franklin sprinkled in and Martin no longer having to lead the line in snaps played, this should be a decent group with upside in 2012.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chargers were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the league last year, managing just 32 sacks, tied for 23rd in the league. I already detailed their defensive line and that was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only problem. In fact, the only player who managed more than 4 sacks last season was Antwan Barnes, a situational pass rusher, who had 11. Like the defensive line, however, the Chargers’ linebackers should be better in 2012 than in 2011.

One major addition was Melvin Ingram, the 18th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He should be able to contribute right away as a situational pass rusher. Another “addition” is Shaun Phillips. Phillips has been one of the Chargers’ best pass rushers for years, but missed 4 games with injury last year. He played pretty well overall, ranking 9th at his position and stopping the run, rushing the passer, and even dropping into coverage well. On 271 pass rush snaps, he had 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures, for a rate of 10.7%.

He was on his way to an even better season before he got hurt. Through 6 games, he had 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits and 12 quarterback pressures, good for 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures in 16 games. His rating on ProFootballFocus through 6 games was 17.0. However, he then missed 4 games with a foot injury and wasn’t the same when he returned, finishing with just a 12.0 rating. In 2010, he had a solid 7.0 rating with 11 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures on 418 pass rush snaps, 9.6%. The only issue is that he’s heading into his age 31 season, but if he can stay healthy this year, he should once again be an above average pass rusher and all around linebacker.

The 3rd addition for the Chargers at linebacker was actually an addition, as they signed Jarret Johnson from Baltimore. Johnson played well in Baltimore’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense last year, as he has for years, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, including 2nd as a run stuffer. He also drops into coverage well. The issue for him is that he’s heading into his age 31 season and he doesn’t pass rush well.

He had just 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 222 pass rush snaps, good for a very mediocre 6.8% rate. In 9 seasons, he’s never had more than 6 sacks in a season and has 20 career sacks. He fit perfectly in Baltimore, but it’s unclear what his role will be in San Diego. Maybe he’ll play some middle linebacker, where he won’t be needed much as a pass rusher and can focus on just stuffing the run and dropping into coverage on occasion.

The 4th rush linebacker is Antwan Barnes, who, as I mentioned, let the team in sacks last year, with 11. He was the only member of the team with more than 4 sacks. Barnes was ProFootballFocus’ 8th rated 3-4 outside linebacker as a mere nickel rusher. He had 11 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures, good for an incredible 16.4% rate on 274 pass rush snaps. Among 3-4 outside linebackers who played more than 25% of their team’s snaps, Barnes ranked only behind Aldon Smith in that regard.

Barnes’ incredible season last year was completely unpredictable. A 2007 4th round pick, Barnes bounced around from Baltimore to Philadelphia to San Diego and had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons before last season, when he, of course, had 11. He’s only a situational player anyway and a one trick pony, but it’s definitely possible he regresses this season and proves to be a bit of a one year wonder. For that reason, it’s good that the Chargers brought in some reinforcements in Ingram and Johnson and that they’ll be getting Phillips back from injury.

It’s not entirely clear how the 4 will rotate, but the most logical way would be to have Johnson play on running downs, Ingram and Barnes split the passing downs snaps behind him and Ingram to occasionally spell Phillips, who still has the talent to be an every down linebacker, provided he stays healthy. Either way, they’ll get better production and pass rush from this position this year over last year when their top three guys were Phillips, who missed time with injury and was not the same when he returned, Barnes, and the mediocre Travis LaBoy, who remains unsigned as of this writing, heading into his age 31 season.

In the middle of their linebacking corps, the Chargers will start Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler once again. Spikes was a solid starter for them last year and an every down player, 2nd on the defense in snaps played. However, heading into his age 36 season, his play could drop off at any time. Butler, meanwhile, played incredibly well as a two down run stuffer last year. The 2010 3rd round pick ranked 16th both overall and against the run among middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

He was spelled on passing downs by Na’il Diggs, who was terrible in coverage. He’s gone now and 2011 2nd round pick Jonas Mouton, who missed all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury, will take over Diggs’ role as the #3 middle linebacker. He should come in on passing downs like Diggs did and should be better than Diggs was.

It’s also possible that with Spikes aging and Butler heading into his 3rd season, that the two swap role and Butler plays every down, while Spikes leaves on passing downs, especially since pass coverage is not exactly a strength of his. As I mentioned, it would make sense if Jarret Johnson played some middle linebacker too, but I haven’t actually heard of any plans for them to do that.

Grade: B

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Secondary

The Chargers’ secondary might have been their worst group in 2011, allowing 7.9 YPA, which ranked 28th in the league. Of course, their poor pass rush didn’t help matters, and with presumably a better pass rush in 2012, they should be a little better. However, of their 4 starters in the secondary, 3 of them were pretty bad and the depth was not much better. They used a 3rd round pick on Brandon Taylor, but he was only a 3rd round pick and he’s only a rookie so I don’t know how much that helps.

Starting at cornerback, the Chargers will once again have Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Jammer was once a talented starting cornerback, but he’s heading into his age 33 season and he’s already started to show his age. Last season, he allowed 43 completions on 66 attempts (65.2%) for 684 yards (10.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. He ranked 92nd among 98 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus and allowed the worst QB rating (129.9) of any cornerback in the league who played more than 25% of his team’s snaps. He won’t be much better this year, if any better, because of his age.

The other starting cornerback, Antoine Cason, was better, if only by default. Cason allowed 45 completions on 85 attempts (52.9%) for 535 yards (6.3 YPA), which is good, but he also allowed 7 interceptions to 2 interceptions, while committing 7 penalties. The 27th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Cason did have 13 deflections and he was better in 2010, allowing 52 completions on 100 attempts (52.0%) for 687 yards (6.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing 7 penalties. If he can avoid allowing so many big plays in 2012, should be able to bounce back and be their #1 cornerback. However, even if that happens, his value would be minimized because opposing quarterbacks could just pick on a washed up Jammer opposite him.

The primary nickel cornerback last year was Dante Hughes. He allowed 31 completions on 46 attempts (67.4%) for 421 yards (9.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 3 penalties and committing 1 penalty. He’s gone and will be replaced by 2011 2nd round pick Marcus Gilchrist. Gilchrist did struggle in limited action last year, allowing 26 completions on 34 attempts (76.5%) for 401 yards (11.8 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting a pass and committing 3 penalties.

However, he was just a rookie and could bounce back in his 2nd season. Gilchrist could also push Jammer for the starting job, but he’s no sure thing either. The Chargers also have Shareece Wright, a 2011 3rd round pick, in the mix, but he played just 4 snaps as a rookie and is currently 4th on the depth chart so predicting any sort of positive impact from him this year is a major projection. He is worth mentioning, however.

At safety, 3rd round rookie Brandon Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby by the strong safety job. Bigby was once a solid starter in Green Bay, but his career was derailed by injuries. He spent the last 2 seasons as a backup in Seattle. He probably won’t play very well if he’s forced to start, so the Chargers are probably hoping that Taylor can overtake him in camp, but he’s just a 3rd round rookie, so it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of big positive impact from him.

The opposite safety, free safety Eric Weddle, is the one redeeming part of this secondary. Weddle is one of the best safeties in the league. He’s been a top-7 safety on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player who can say that. Last season, he ranked 4th, playing well both in coverage and against the run.

He allowed just 11 completions on 27 attempts (40.7%) for 110 yards (4.1 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 7 interceptions, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 1 penalty. The 25.8 QB rating he allowed was the best of any defensive back, not just last season, but in any of the last 4 seasons. The 7 interceptions might have been an outlier as the 2007 2nd round pick had just 6 interceptions in the previous 4 seasons combined, but he still makes a strong case for being the top safety in the NFL.

The Chargers had the 22nd ranked scoring defense last year. They should be better this year. Shaun Phillips, one of the better pass rushers in the league, should be healthy this year. Meanwhile, the Chargers have used all 7 of their 8 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 2 seasons and 8 of their 10 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 3 seasons on defensive players.

In 2010, they took Donald Butler in the 3rd. In 2011, they took Corey Liuget in the 1st, Jonas Mouton in the 2nd, Marcus Gilchrist in the 2nd, and Shareece Wright in the 3rd round. Last year, they took Melvin Ingram in the 1st, Kendall Reyes in the 2nd, and Brandon Taylor in the 3rd round. That will start to be noticeable this year.

The removal of Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator should also help, especially since they replaced him with a former Rivera assistant and a long tenured and well respected member of the defensive coaching staff, John Pagano. They might not be the top-11 defense they once were, but they’ll be improved. Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. I’ll get to the 3rd one in a little bit.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

When the Chargers sat at 4-7 last year, I wrote something along the lines of “the good news for the Chargers is that they have finally been able to bottom out, which means that Norv Turner can finally be fired, much like the Cowboys bottomed out in 2010, fired Wade Phillips, and instantly improved.” Yeah, so much for that. The Chargers won 4 of their last 5 games, which wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, but it apparently was enough to save Norv Turner’s job.

Turner doesn’t have a bad regular season record at all with the Chargers, going 49-31, but his teams always seem to underachieve in general and lose to lower seeds in the playoffs. He also has a career record of just 107-113, including his time in Washington and Oakland, and just 4 career playoff wins, but he has a much more talented bunch in San Diego with Philip Rivers.

Grade: C

Overall

Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. The 3rd reason is that the Chargers didn’t exceed their Pythagorean Expectation last year. Behind the Eagles, no non-playoff team had a better Pythagorean Expectation than the Chargers’ 8.7 win expectation. That was 12th in the league and 5th in the AFC. They played like a playoff team last year. They just didn’t make the playoffs.

Now, I said the same thing about the Chargers last season and I ended up being wrong by predicting them in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean the logic was wrong. Nothing is a perfect 100% predictor, so I’m sticking with it this year. It’s possible that some Norv Turner idiocy was behind the team failing to meet their Pythagorean Expectation twice in a row. However, Norv Turner does have a good regular season record with the Chargers so that’s not going to scare me off of putting them in the playoffs (once they get there, well, that’s a different story).

I think the Broncos are overrated right now, which I’ll get into in their preview coming up next, so I have the Chargers taking the AFC West. The Chargers have one of the easiest divisional schedules and should be able to go 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Atlanta, Tennessee, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Carolina. The latter 3 of those games are after week 12 and this team is unbeatable at home after week 12. Philip Rivers is a whopping 13-2 at home during weeks 12-17. Meanwhile, of their other two home games, one is against Atlanta, not a very good road team. They should go 4-1 in those games.

They also go to New Orleans, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and New York to play the Jets. New Orleans early in the season looks pretty unwinnable, but the rest are after their week 7 bye and, other than Pittsburgh, none are that tough. 2-3 at least is possible there. I have them at 10 or 11 wins or so and I’m giving them the division. They could start the season 2-4 or 3-3 (@ Oakland, vs. Tennessee, vs. Atlanta, @ Kansas City, @ New Orleans, vs. Denver) before their week 7 bye, but after that, they’ll get their act together.

Projection: 10-6 1st in AFC West

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Bengals’ Jay Gruden expects Brandon Tate and Armon Binns to split #2 receiver reps

Bengals’ Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden says he expects Brandon Tate and Armon Binns to share the majority of the 1st team receiver snaps in Training Camp opposite AJ Green. It’s possible that he is just letting the veterans get the first crack, before their two rookies, Mohamed Sanu (3rd round) and Marvin Jones (5th round). However, it’s also a sign that Sanu might not be nearly the favorite some thought he was.

None of these receivers are draftable in fantasy. There’s no clear favorite and Cincinnati’s passing offense is really only good enough to have one fantasy relevant wide receiver this year (AJ Green). Besides, none of these guys are that talented. Sanu and Jones are mere rookies and rookies normally take at least a year to adjust to the speed of the NFL and learn a much more complex playbook.

Tate, meanwhile, has struggled whenever he was counted on in New England and things won’t get any better now that he has a worse quarterback. Binns is an inexperienced 2011 undrafted free agent who has never caught a pass in the NFL. There doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite right now, but whoever wins the job, the #2 receiver position should be a weakness on the Bengals’ offense at least for this season.

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Panthers, Eagles interested in Jeremy Shockey

Jeremy Shockey is one of the biggest name free agents still available as we head into August. Last season, the 4-time Pro-Bowler (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006) caught 37 passes for 455 yards and 4 touchdowns as a key contributor for a Panthers offense that used a lot of two-tight end sets with him and Greg Olsen. The Panthers really like the inexperienced Gary Barnidge to potentially take over Shockey’s old role.

However, they also haven’t ruled out bringing back Jeremy Shockey, even as he heads into his age 32 season, according to the Charlotte Observer. The Eagles are also another team that is interested and could bring him in for a visit. It wouldn’t be surprise me if a couple other teams were in on him. He’ll probably get signed sometime in the next week or so.

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Steelers’ Mike Wallace not available for trade?

After Antonio Brown signed an extension yesterday and the Steelers said they would no longer be discussing an extension with Mike Wallace, speculation picked up quickly that Wallace would be traded. According to ESPN’s Ed Werder, GM Kevin Colbert is denying that Wallace is available for trade. That may be true, but it may also be the Steelers trying to drum up a false report so they can get more in return for Wallace in any potential deal. If teams see the Steelers as feeling desperate to move Wallace, their offerings would likely be significantly smaller. Teams rarely confirm that they’re trying to trade a player and the ones that do often don’t get very much in return.

Meanwhile, if this report is true, we’ll just have to see if that remains the case if it’s a week or two from now and Wallace still has not reported. Obviously, best case scenario for the Steelers is that he reports and helps a team that is in win now mode and this report may signify that the Steelers are clinging to hope that Wallace reports. Either way, this report should not be as interpreted as Wallace won’t be traded. It should be interpreted as “Wallace won’t be traded… yet” or “we are trying to trade Wallace, but we don’t want to make it look like we’re selling him on Craigslist.”

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Buccaneers’ Head Coach Greg Schiano praises LeGarrette Blount’s work ethic

Discipline was a major problem for the Buccaneers under Raheem Morris, which is why they lost 10 straight to finish last season and why Morris was predictably fired. The Buccaneers hired Greg Schiano, a more disciplinarian coach, this offseason and he has already made his mark, trading Brian Price just 2 years after he was a 2nd round pick by the previous regime, after a series of issues dating back to his rookie year.

Two of the players who had the biggest discipline problems last year were Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. Both fell in the 2010 NFL Draft for that reason, as Williams went in the 4th and Blount went undrafted. However, both had amazing rookie years in 2010, especially for where they were drafted (or weren’t drafted). Last year, however, both were disappointments. Blount was frequently late to practice and put in no effort to improve as a blocker or receiver, while Williams would fall asleep in team meetings. Both were also out of shape and partied far too much, especially Williams.

While I don’t know about Williams, it appears that Blount’s discipline has gotten better with the new coaching staff in town. Schiano, in fact, praised Blount’s work ethic, singling him out by saying “LeGarrette has bought into what we’re doing, he’s working incredibly hard, and if you watch and you see the things he does from time to time, it’s great really great running back play.”

Rookie Doug Martin, who they traded back up into the end of first round to get, will get the majority of the carries and see most of the passing down snaps. However, they plan to run the ball a lot so there will be enough carries for both of them and, while he doesn’t pass catch well, Blount is a very good runner when motivated. He averaged 5.0 YPC as a rookie when he had something to prove.

Besides, just look at Joseph Addai (2009), Chris Wells (2011), DeAngelo Williams (2008), Marion Barber (2008), and Fred Jackson (2010). All of those guys arguably had career years the season after their teams spent early picks on a running back. Meanwhile, rookie backs tend to struggle, even ones drafted in the 1st round. Backs drafted in the first round since 2007 have just averaged 165 carries as rookies. I like Doug Martin a lot, but there’s some sleeper value with Blount at his current ADP in the late 9th round.

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