Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville)

8/20/13: Blaine Gabbert has won the Jaguars’ starting quarterback job, but don’t draft him. He’s not very good and will likely cede multiple starts to Chad Henne, like he did last year. In 10 games last year, Gabbert threw for 1662 yards and 9 touchdowns, with 6 interceptions and 56 rushing yards. I wouldn’t bet on him doing much more than that this season.

Projection: 1800 passing yards, 10 passing touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 70 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns (105 pts standard, 125 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB Maurice Jones Drew (Jacksonville)

MJD returns from an injury plagued season in which he played just 6 games and saw just 86 carries before going down with a foot injury. It’s possible he could bounce back this season, but he is going into his age 28 season and after all the work he had from 2009-2011 (1084 touches), it’s possible he’ll never be the same back again. He’s still suffering through lingering effects of that injury.

Projection: 250 carries for 1150 rushing yards 8 total touchdowns 50 catches for 370 yards (200 pts standard, 250 pts PPR)

WR Cecil Shorts (Jacksonville)

Shorts averaged 2.31 yards per route run last season, 8th in the NFL behind Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson, and AJ Green. In his 9 starts, he caught 47 passes for 774 yards and 5 touchdowns, which extrapolates to 84 catches for 1386 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games. He probably won’t reach those aforementioned extrapolated stats because defenses will key in on him more this year, but he has a very good chance to be Jacksonville’s first 1000 yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005.

Projection: 70 catches for 1100 receiving yards 7 touchdowns (152 pts standard, 222 pts PPR)

WR Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville)

Blackmon had a good rookie year, with 64 catches for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns, as the 5th overall pick exceeded the average production for a 1st round rookie. However, he had over a quarter of his production in one game (a 7 catch, 231 yard performance against Houston) and he was, as you can imagine, very inconsistent. His 4 game suspension for substance abuse is a real concern, especially since he also has a DUI history and it will put a damper on his potential production this season. He could also find himself very much behind the 8-ball when he returns.

Projection: 48 catches for 640 receiving yards 4 touchdowns (88 pts standard, 136 pts PPR)

TE Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville)

With Blackmon missing 4 games and their lack of depth at wide receiver, tight end Marcedes Lewis will be leaned on more in the passing game this season. Lewis was overpaid with a 5-year, 35 million dollar contract after an uncharacteristic 58/700/10 season in 2010, but he’s not a bad player. He’s a good blocker and his receiving numbers would be better if he had better quarterback play. Last season, he caught 52 passes for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns. He should see an increase in receiving production this season.

Projection: 50 catches for 600 receiving yards 5 touchdowns (90 pts standard, 140 pts PPR)

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Jaguars won just 2 games last season. Usually teams who are that bad bounce back at least somewhat the following season. It’s really hard to be that bad for that long. Going along with that, the Jaguars also have a pre-season over/win total of 5.5 wins and teams with an over/under win total of 6 or fewer usually see the over hit about 2/3rds of the time, largely due to the aforementioned reason.

However, it wouldn’t really surprise me to see the Jaguars once again be one of, if not the worst team in the NFL again. There is nothing to suggest they were much better than their record suggested last season. They had the 2nd worst Pythagorean Expectation in the NFL at 3.4 wins, thanks to a -189 point differential that was 2nd worst in the NFL. They faced a pretty easy schedule and ranked a close worst 2nd to Kansas City in DVOA.

They didn’t get destroyed in turnovers, losing the turnover battle by only 3 and actually had a 59.5% fumble recovery rate that is more luck than anything. They got outgained by 1300 yards, worst in the NFL. They did lose the 2nd most adjusted games to injuries out of all teams, but aside from Maurice Jones-Drew and solid safety Dwight Lowery, they weren’t really missing guys who would have made much of a difference had they been healthy.

Unlike teams who usually win so few games, they did nothing to address the quarterback position this off-season and while they had the 2nd pick in the draft, it was in an unusually weak draft in terms of top level talent. #2 overall pick Luke Joeckel will slot in at right tackle for them this season and I don’t know how much better that makes them. On top of that, they lost 3 starters in the secondary and will be filling them with rookies and journeyman. On paper, there might not be a less talented team in the NFL this season. The 5 wins they had 2 years ago in 2011 seems like a realistic ceiling right now.

Quarterback

As I mentioned, the Jaguars didn’t bring in a quarterback at all this off-season, opting to let Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert battle it out for another season. In the long run, that might not be such a bad move. It’s very possible that no quarterback in the 2013 draft turns out to be a functional long term starter and not drafting one allows them to go after a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater early in 2014, a much better quarterback class, if the opportunity presents itself. Plus, with Gabbert and Henne, it’s very, very possible that they’ll be picking early enough for the opportunity to present itself.

It’s unclear if this was new GM Dave Caldwell’s plan, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. According to reports, Caldwell plans to spend much of the year scouting top quarterback prospects, including Bridgewater and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. They were also reportedly thrilled that the Jets and Bills took quarterbacks early in 2013, because it eliminated two competitors for top quarterbacks in 2014. It’s also very possible that he wanted to see one more time what Blaine Gabbert has since he is just 2 years removed from being a 1st round pick, but he was a misguided 1st round pick in the first place. They never should have drafted him there. That was clear from the day they drafted him. He was a media hype kid and nothing else.

Gabbert might not even get another opportunity to see the field if the coaching staff and front office see everything in the pre-season and Training Camp that they need to see from him to know he’s not a viable solution. Chad Henne could very well win this starting job, which would be bad news for Jaguars fans. You know what you have in Chad Henne. He’s probably the better of the two, but only by enough to possibly help them win too many games to play themselves out of a top-5 pick and nothing more. They might as well sink or swim with Gabbert.

In two years in the league, Gabbert has completed just 53.8% of his passes for an average of 5.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Henne, meanwhile, has completed 59.1% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 42 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions in 5 seasons with the Dolphins and Jaguars since going in the 2nd round in 2008. The Jaguars moved the ball better when he was in the lineup last year, but he was also wildly inconsistent, as he always has been, and very turnover prone.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The Jaguars drafted Luke Joeckel with the 2nd overall pick, largely to give themselves the best situation in which to evaluate Gabbert. Joeckel was a collegiate left tackle, but he’ll make the transition to the right side this season and once he gets it down, he should find it an easier position to play because you’re generally not facing your opponent’s best pass rusher. It’s tough to project above average play from rookies, but the Jaguars should get that from Joeckel this season.

He’ll certainly be an upgrade over the Guy Whimper/Cameron Bradfield duo that has been playing there over the past 2 seasons. Whimper was ProFootballFocus’ 54th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2011 (allowing 14 sacks in the process) and then he ranked 74th out of 80 eligible in 2012, despite playing just 392 snaps. He’s now in Pittsburgh, thankfully for Jacksonville’s sake. Bradfield played most of last season at right tackle after impressing in very limited action in 2011, but the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 56th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible. He’ll serve more of a swing tackle role this season, which is much better suited to his skill set.

The reason the Jaguars will be playing Joeckel at right tackle is because they actually already have one of the better left tackles in the NFL in Eugene Monroe. Monroe is by far the Jaguars’ best player and he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle last season and 6th ranked in 2011. The 2009 1st round pick doesn’t get a lot of recognition because he plays in Jacksonville and poor quarterback play makes him look worse than he is. The 14 sacks he’s allowed in the last 2 seasons have more to do with quarterbacks holding the ball too long and displaying poor pocket presence than anything.

He’s going into a contract year this off-season and even after drafting Joeckel, the Jaguars should do everything possible to lock him up, even if they have to franchise tag him. It doesn’t make any sense to do Joeckel just to let Monroe go. That’s a completely horizontal move and, plus, NFL teams can come at the quarterback from both sides more than they ever have been able to before so having two good tackles is an asset.

Unfortunately, things aren’t as good on the interior of their offensive line. Right guard Uche Nwanari is consistently an average to above average and dependable guard, though overpaid on a weird 5 year, 24 million dollar extension signed before the 2010 season. The concern here is that he’s coming off two knee operations and had to have stem cell treatment on the knee this off-season. It seems fine now, but that’s never what you want to hear. Still, he’s by far their best interior offensive lineman.

At center, Brad Meester has been a solid and dependable center throughout his career, all with the Jaguars, but he’s heading into his age 36 season, which will be his 14th with the Jaguars. He looked pretty done last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked center and he considered retirement this off-season. He’s back for one more year, but it’ll probably be his last in the NFL and I don’t expect him to really play much better.

At left guard, things are even worse as the Jaguars used 3 players there last season, Mike Brewster, Eben Britton, and Austin Pasztor, two of whom (Brewster and Pasztor) were undrafted rookies. Brewster certainly played like one, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked guard despite playing just 556 snaps. Britton might have been even worse. Playing just 273 snaps, he wasn’t eligible for the rankings, but if he had been, he would have ranked 5th worst at the position, despite such limited playing time. Pasztor started the final 3 games of the season and played alright, but it’s tough to count on him going forward.

Will Rackley will return to at least get the first crack at what was once his starting job. However, the 2011 3rd round pick struggled mightily as a rookie in 2011, grading out as by far the worst player at his position. He could be better now that he’s not a rookie, but he’s also coming off an ankle injury that cost him the entirety of his 2012 season, so it’s very hard to count on anything other than poor play from him. He’ll face a little bit of competition from Pasztor and Brewster, but it looks like it’s definitely his job to lose. Brewster may slot in as the 2nd string center, moving back to his collegiate position. Things are a mess on the inside of the line, which will hold them down, as good as their tackles are.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Jaguars’ poor interior offensive line play will not help Maurice Jones-Drew out much. MJD returns from an injury plagued season in which he played just 6 games and saw just 86 carries before going down with a foot injury. It’s possible he could bounce back this season, but he is going into his age 28 season and after all the work he had from 2009-2011 (1084 touches), it’s possible he’ll never be the same back again. He’s still suffering through lingering effects of that injury.

It’s very important that MJD stay healthy because, once again, they don’t really have a backup plan. The Jaguars tried Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens, Jalen Parmele, Richard Murphy, and Keith Totson in MJD’s absence last year and none of them did well. A few of them even got hurt themselves. The Jaguars managed just 3.8 yards per carry last season, 24th in the NFL. If you take out MJD’s production, they averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. It was so bad that Jones-Drew actually still led the team in rushing in just 6 games on 86 carries.

None of those guys return, but neither Jordan Todman nor Justin Forsett seems well equipped to handle being the lead back if Jones-Drew goes down again. They also added Denard Robinson in the 5th round of the draft, but the former quarterback is much too small to carry the load at running back. At best, the player they’re describing as an “offensive weapon” will see a few touches per game as a running back/wide receiver hybrid and he probably won’t make much of an impact, regardless of MJD’s injury status. Back to Jones-Drew, he’s in a contract year and could be in his final season with the team. The Jaguars look smart for not giving him the money he asked for last off-season, heading into the tail end of his career.

Grade: B

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

At wide receiver, the Jaguars do have a possible budding star in Cecil Shorts. When your quarterbacks are Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert, it’s tough to put up big time numbers as a receiver, but 2nd year receiver Cecil Shorts did a good job of that in 2012 as the 2011 4th round pick caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns. He caught his 55 passes on 101 targets, which is a low catch rate of 54.5% and he did drop 9 passes, but he was a big time big play receiver, averaging 17.8 yards per attempt and quarterbacks threw 7 touchdowns to 4 interceptions when throwing to him.

That’s good for a 94.5 QB rating when thrown to, 15th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers, which is absurd considering his quarterbacks were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, who combined for a 74.7 QB rating on the season. How did he manage that? Well, he ranked 10th among eligible wide receivers averaging 6.7 yards after catch per catch. Only Percy Harvin caught more passes and averaged a higher yards after catch per catch than Shorts.

Even more impressive, he did this despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL behind Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson, and AJ Green. In his 9 starts, he caught 47 passes for 774 yards and 5 touchdowns, which extrapolates to 84 catches for 1386 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games.

On top of that, it didn’t seem to matter to him which crappy quarterback was throwing to him. In his 3 starts with Blaine Gabbert, he caught 12 passes for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns. With Chad Henne, he caught 35 passes for 532 yards and 3 touchdowns. That’s good news because the Jaguars could go with either Chad Henne or Blaine Gabbert this year and will probably have both start at least one game.

In 2013, Shorts will be in his 3rd year in the league, a frequent breakout year for receivers, and he’ll be the starter from week 1. Provided he stays healthy, he should make 16 starts. Justin Blackmon is suspended for the first 4 games of the season (more on that in a minute), so Shorts will see plenty of targets. He’ll also see more attention from defenses and he won’t seek up on anyone this time around, but he should be fine. He probably won’t reach those aforementioned extrapolated stats  because defenses will key in on him more this year, but he has a very good chance to be Jacksonville’s first 1000 yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He’ll probably need a real quarterback before he can reach his true statistical potential, however.

Shorts will play opposite Justin Blackmon, once Blackmon returns from his 4-game suspension of course. Blackmon had a good rookie year, with 64 catches for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns, as the 5th overall pick exceeded the average production for a 1st round rookie. However, he had over a quarter of his production in one game (a 7 catch, 231 yard performance against Houston) and he was, as you can imagine, very inconsistent. His 4 game suspension for substance abuse is a real concern, especially since he also has a DUI history and it will put a damper on his potential production this season. He could also find himself very much behind the 8-ball when he returns.

The Jaguars have very little depth after Shorts and Blackmon, a concern considering Blackmon will miss those 4 games. Depth receiver caliber talent Mohamed Massaquoi will probably start in Blackmon’s absence in those 4 games, though he’ll face competition from Mike Brown, an undersized 2012 undrafted free agent from Liberty who didn’t catch a pass as a rookie. He’s gotten praise from the coaching staff, but the fact that he’s involved in this battle shows just how little depth the Jaguars have.

Brown will also compete with Jordan Shipley from the slot role. Shipley showed well in that role down the stretch last season, catching 23 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, but prior to that, he had bounced around for almost 2 years because of injury problems. He has an extensive history of knee issues that date back to his collegiate days at Texas. He could be a decent slot receiver if he could stay healthy, but that’s not likely.

With Blackmon missing 4 games and their lack of depth at wide receiver, tight end Marcedes Lewis will be leaned on more in the passing game this season. Lewis was overpaid with a 5-year, 35 million dollar contract after an uncharacteristic 58/700/10 season in 2010, but he’s not a bad player. He’s a good blocker and his receiving numbers would be better if he had better quarterback play. Last season, he caught 52 passes for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns and graded out overall as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked tight end, largely due to the fact that he was 5th at his position in run blocking. He should see an increase in receiving production this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

New Head Coach Gus Bradley was formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle so he will be using the same concepts that the Seahawks use on the defensive line. Unfortunately, the talent is nowhere near as strong. Tyson Alualu will convert from defensive tackle to defensive end to play the Red Bryant role. The surprise 10th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Alualu has struggled mightily in 3 years at defensive tackle, grading out 60th out of 77 eligible defensive tackles in 2010, 85th out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 79th out of 85 eligible in 2012. The collegiate 5-technique defensive end has especially struggled against the run at 6-2 292, so a move to defensive end could help him, but it’s hard to get your hopes up. He’ll be primarily a run down, base package player.

Andre Branch will probably play the Bruce Irvin role and come in on passing downs. Branch was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but struggled mightily as a rookie, especially as a pass rusher. He had just 1 sack, 2 hits, and 11 hurries on 258 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 5.4% rate, and was the 11th worst player at his position in pass rush grade, despite limited playing time. He’s got athleticism at 6-6 259, but it doesn’t seem to be a role that will suit his skill set.

Jason Babin looks like the starter and possible every down end opposite Alualu, which would be the Chris Clemons role. Babin was ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2010 with the Titans and 9th ranked in 2011 with the Eagles, but last year he graded out just above average and was cut mid-season by the Eagles, before being claimed by the Jaguars. Going into his age 33 season, his best days are clearly behind him.

Jeremy Mincey led this defensive line in snaps played last season, but seems to be in positional limbo right now after being benched out of the 1st team. He’ll probably play a little bit on both sides of the line at end and also some defensive tackle as a pure pass rusher, in the Jason Jones role. He was given a big 4 year, 28 million dollar contract after a strong 2011 season, but he had never done anything like that before and proved to be the classic one year wonder in 2012, when he graded out below average, especially struggling as a pass rusher, but making up for it some as a run stopper.

At defensive tackle, the trio of CJ Mosley, Terrance Knighton, and Tyson Alualu is gone, with Mosley and Knighton elsewhere and Alualu at end. The Jaguars brought in 4 defensive tackles this off-season, but they’ll probably be disappointed in them, especially since Mosley and Knighton actually gave them good production last season as the starters.

Sen’Derrick Marks comes over from Tennessee and figures to get one starting spot. He’s awful, however. Last season was actually his best season in 3 years as a key contributor, ranking 73rd out of 85 eligible. He was a bottom-10 player in 2010 and 2011. Roy Miller will start in the other spot. He also had his best season last year, when he ranked 67th out of 85 eligible. He was 83rd out of 88 in 2011, 75th out of 77 in 2010, and 74th out of 87 in 2009. He’s a one dimensional run stuffer who doesn’t get any pass rush whatsoever. That’s a pretty poor starting defensive tackle pair.

They also signed Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick from New England. Both are one dimensional run stuffers, and while Love is the better player above the very mediocre Deaderick, he’s also been diagnosed with diabetes, a big part of the reason why he was cut. We’ll see how he handles that. Any way you look at it, there’s just not a lot of talent at defensive tackle and on the defensive line in general. They won’t get much pass rush or stop the run well.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Things aren’t much better as you go into the back 7. Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but largely did so cleaning up everyone else’s messes and had just 58 tackles for a stop (with 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down). He was 47th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus. He’s been better in the past though so he could bounce back.

Outside linebacker Russell Allen is in a similar situation. The every down linebacker had a bunch of tackles, but just 56 of them were for stops and he ranked 34th out of 43 eligible at his position. Unlike Posluszky, the 1st year starter has not been better in the past so I expect him to continue to struggle. Geno Hayes will be the 3rd linebacker and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s not much better, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 42nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible in 2011 and then playing just 141 snaps last season.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

The secondary might be the worst unit of them all. They lost 3 starters in Derek Cox, Aaron Ross, and Dawan Landry and while none of them were very good, their replacements don’t figure to be much better. At cornerback, unproven 3rd round rookie Dwayne Gratz will compete for playing time with Alan Ball and Marcus Trufant, with all 3 playing in sub packages. Ball has played just 508 snaps over the past 2 seasons after struggling mightily as a starting safety with the Cowboys in 2010, his only starting experience.

Trufant, meanwhile, played pretty well on the slot for the Seahawks last season, but did so on just 365 snaps and struggled mightily before moving to the slot, grading out below average in each season from 2009-2011 as an outside cornerback. Going into his age 33 season with a history of injury problems, it’s tough to count on him, though he does have familiarity in Gus Bradley’s scheme, following him over from Seattle. Mike Harris will be the 4th cornerback and could very well see action. He struggled as a 6th round rookie last year, grading out 88th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks and isn’t a good fit for the new coverage scheme, which is why he’s 4th on the depth chart behind that trio.

At safety, Jonathan Cyprien will start as a 2nd round rookie. I like him more than I like Gratz as a rookie starter so he could have a positive impact as a rookie, but, once again, it’s tough to count on a rookie. The bright spot in this secondary is safety Dwight Lowery. He’s a returning starter and played pretty well last season, grading out 16th among safeties last season despite missing 7 games with injury. The year before, he was an average starter in his first year as a starter. He’s the only member of this secondary you can even come close to calling an above average starter. They figure to struggle mightily on defense again, after allowing 27.8 points per game last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. The talent is just not there as it’s replacement level talent across the board essentially. I like Gus Bradley, but unless the rookies have big 1st years, I don’t know what he can do in his 1st year on the job.

Grade: C-

Head Coach

As I said, I like Gus Bradley. You can attribute a lot of Seattle’s recent defensive success to him, as the Seahawks have turned Chris Clemons, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Brandon Browner from largely unwanted commodities to big time impact players. I just don’t know what he’ll be able to do with this mess in his first year on the job and I like to temper expectations for first year coaches anyway. There have certainly been plenty of good coordinators who have flamed out as Head Coaches in the past.

Grade: B-

Overall

I’m going to be honest. I didn’t put as much work into this write up as I normally do. After a while, it just felt like you get the point. There isn’t a lot of talent here and they are unlikely to win many games. I could have just said they suck. I only see 4 games on their schedule where they really stand a chance (vs. Tennessee, vs. Buffalo, vs. San Diego, @ Oakland) and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they only won a game or two again. It’s going to be a long rebuild from all the damage that Gene Smith caused and they’re essentially working from scratch.

Projection: 1-15 4th in AFC South

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Houston Texans 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Matt Schaub (Houston)

It’s hard to see Schaub playing much differently than he did last season, when he had 4008 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. He remains a solid QB2, albeit one who has missed 16 games in 6 seasons as a starter.

Projection: 4000 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 20 rushing yards, 0 touchdowns (226 pts standard, 270 pts 6 pt leagues)

RB Arian Foster (Houston)

Arian Foster averaged a career low 4.1 yards per carry in 2012, thanks to the loss of two starting offensive linemen. His YPC has been trended down since he lost fullback Vonta Leach and he’s also had a lot of work over the past few years. he’s had 1115 regular season touches, plus another 128 post-season touches.

Last season, he led the NFL with 351 carries which is bad news for his 2013. Since 1988, only 4 of 24 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. In that time period, backs who lead the league in carries have averaged 367.7 carries per season, rushed for 1620.4 yards, and scored 14.3 touchdowns. The following season, they averaged 266.0 carries per season, rushed for 1063.5 yards, and scored 8.9 touchdowns. Foster is already nursing a calf injury in Training Camp. He’s also seen his catches drop from 66 to 53 to 40 over the past 3 seasons. Let him be someone else’s problem.

Projection: 260 carries for 1040 rushing yards 11 total touchdowns 38 catches for 300 yards (200 pts standard, 238 pts PPR)

RB Ben Tate (Houston)

In the likely event that Foster struggles or gets hurt, it will open the door for Ben Tate. Tate struggled through injuries of his own in 2012, rushing for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 65 carries, but in 2011, he rushed for 942 yards and 4 touchdowns on 175 carries. In the 8 games he had double digit carries, he managed 721 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries. He’s a more than capable #2 back and fill in starter when necessary, assuming he doesn’t get hurt himself. He’s played just 26 of a possible 48 games in his first 3 seasons in the NFL thanks to various injuries. Still, he’s a very, very valuable handcuff.

Projection: 160 carries for 720 rushing yards 5 total touchdowns 16 catches for 110 receiving yards (113 pts standard, 129 pts PPR)

WR Andre Johnson (Houston)

The Texans got a vintage year from Andre Johnson in 2012, as he caught 112 passes for 1598 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards per route run with 3.01 and ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards overall behind Calvin Johnson (who played over 200 more pass snaps). Those yards were actually a career high and those catches were 2nd in his career, pretty impressive considering he has 818 catches for 11,254 yards over 10 seasons. It was also unexpected considering he was 31 years old and coming off a season in which he played in just 7 games with injury. However, Johnson has still missed 12 games in the last 3 seasons and is going into his age 32 season. The concerns about him before last season had merit. They just didn’t prove to be an issue, but they could be this season. He’s also never had double digit touchdowns and scored just 4 times last season.

Projection: 91 catches for 1300 receiving yards 7 total touchdowns (172 pts standard, 263 pts PPR)

WR DeAndre Hopkins (Houston)

Hopkins has a bright future, but he’s just a rookie. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season as rookies. He’s not a serious threat to eat much into Johnson’s targets or production. He’ll surpass the 41 catches for 518 yards and 2 touchdowns that Kevin Walter had last year though.

Projection: 50 catches for 650 receiving yards 5 total touchdowns (95 pts standard, 145 pts PPR)

TE Owen Daniels (Houston)

Owen Daniels is a very good pass catching tight end when he’s on the field and he’s only missed 2 games of the past 2 seasons, after missing 13 in the previous 2. In a weaker year for tight ends, he’s offers good value. He should be around the 62 catches for 716 yards and 5 touchdowns he had last season.

Projection: 65 catches for 740 receiving yards 5 total touchdowns (104 pts standard, 169 pts PPR)

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Indianapolis Colts 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Andrew Luck (Indianapolis)

Andrew Luck is an overrated quarterback in real life, but he was great in fantasy football last season and he should be better in both reality and fantasy next season. Pep Hamilton is coming over from Stanford to reunite with Luck as his offensive coordinator and will be installing an offense that fits his skill set better. He’ll also be better protected and another year more experienced. The Colts should still throw about 600 times, even with the team using more two-tight end sets, because both of their tight ends are comfortable pass catching, and Luck should be more efficient on those 600 throws. He also adds added value on the ground

Projection: 4350 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 270 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns (291 pts standard, 343 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB Ahmad Bradshaw (Indianapolis)

8/16/13: Chuck Pagano called Bradshaw an every down back. He’ll be their lead back, with Ballard serving as a backup. The only concern is injuries.

Bradshaw was cut by the Giants this off-season going into just his age 27 season because they grew tired of his laundry list of injury problems. It took him a while to get picked up this off-season, but he’s one of the toughest running backs in the NFL, missing just 7 games in 4 years despite all the injury problems.He’s rushed for 3687 yards and 30 touchdowns on 831 carries in those 4 seasons, a 4.4 yards per carry clip, and he’s added 125 catches for 1033 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air. He’s also averaged 15.9 carries per game over the past 3 years as a starter, so being able to work in tandem with another back will help him.

Projection: 220 carries for 920 rushing yards 8 total touchdowns 35 catches for 280 receiving yards (168 pts standard, 203 pts PPR)

RB Vick Ballard (Indianapolis)

8/16/13: Chuck Pagano called Bradshaw an every down back. He’ll be their lead back, with Ballard serving as a backup. Ballard is still a valuable handcuff because of injuries, but he’s moving down.

Ballard took over the starting job from Donald Brown week 5 and averaged 15.8 carries a game from that point on, rushing for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries with 17 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, but you can blame his offensive line for that somewhat (he averaged a decent 2.5 yards per carry after contact) and he’s the type of back who would be better in tandem with another back. That’s where Ahmad Bradshaw comes in. He’ll probably lead the team in carries, but both backs will carry the ball and Bradshaw will work on 3rd downs. Ballard will get short yardage and goal line looks, though Andrew Luck scored 5 of the team’s 11 rushing touchdowns last year.

Projection: 110 carries for 480 rushing yards 4 total touchdowns 15 catches for 120 receiving yards (84 pts standard, 99 pts PPR)

WR Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis)

Wayne turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns. He could have another big year, but let him be someone else’s problem.

Projection: 75 catches for 1020 receiving yards 6 touchdowns (138 pts standard, 213 pts PPR)

WR TY Hilton (Indianapolis)

8/26/13: It doesn’t look like TY Hilton is going to beat out veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey for a starting job. Hilton had 26 catches for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games last season, despite making just 1 start, but the Colts are planning on using more two-tight end sets and fewer three-wide receiver sets this season with Bruce Arians gone and Pep Hamilton coming in. They also won’t emphasis the deep passing game as much as they did last season, when Luck led the NFL in pass attempts 20+ yards downfield through the air, which is where Hilton wins as a route runner. He could still beat out DHB at some point this season and I think he’d be a better pick for the starting job, but he’s being overdrafted at his current ADP in the 6th round.

Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. And Hilton, a 3rd round rookie, greatly exceeded these first round numbers, catching 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns. In his 2nd year in the league, he should improve on those numbers. Donnie Avery is gone so Hilton is expected to be a starter and Reggie Wayne is aging. In his final 8 games of last season, he caught 26 passes for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games, almost more yardage than Reggie Wayne. He’s a dark horse to lead this team in receiving.

Projection: 58 catches for 940 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns (130 pts standard, 188 pts PPR)

WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (Indianapolis)

8/26/13: I don’t know why, but Darrius Heyward-Bey seems to have beaten out TY Hilton for the starting job. He’s not that great, but the Colts passing offense could make him fantasy relevant. Donnie Avery was incredibly inefficient last season, yet he still managed 60 catches for 781 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s worth a look as a depth receiver.

Projection: 57 catches for 850 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns (115 pts standard, 172 pts standard)

TE Dwayne Allen (Indianapolis)

Allen is not just a great blocker, but he also had 45 catches for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 368 routes run (1.41 yards per route run). Going into his 2nd year in the league in an offense that focuses more on the tight ends, he should exceed those numbers, though the Colts’ two tight ends will probably keep each other from being fantasy relevant.

Projection: 50 catches for 620 receiving yards 4 touchdowns (86 pts standard, 136 pts PPR)

TE Coby Fleener (Indianapolis)

He was pretty mediocre as a rookie and disappointed as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns on 252 routes run (1.12 yards per route run). Still, he’s a natural pass catcher who should have an improved 2nd season in the league. Having his old offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should help. However, again, the two tight ends will probably keep each other from being fantasy relevant.

Projection: 44 catches for 600 receiving yards 4 touchdowns (84 pts standard, 128 pts PPR)

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Tennessee Titans 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Jake Locker (Tennessee)

Locker still has upside and he’s not proven either way with just 11 starts under his belt, but I didn’t think he’d become a franchise quarterback coming out of Washington and the Titans have not seemed confident in him this off-season, saying that a “major goal” is preventing Locker from “feeling overwhelmed.” The Titans have added Ryan Fitzpatrick, a proven backup caliber talent, behind him this off-season, to replace Hasselbeck and he could see multiple starts, especially if Locker gets hurt again. Even if he does play all 16 games, he’s an inconsistent QB2 at best, though his rushing ability does give you added value.

Projection: 3500 passing yards 19 touchdowns 16 interceptions 400 rushing yards 2 rushing touchdowns (236 pts standard, 274 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee)

An improved offensive line has to be music to Chris Johnson’s ears because of how reliant on a good offensive line he is. He’s incredibly explosive through holes, but when there aren’t holes, he doesn’t do a lot to help himself, frequently dancing around in the backfield, and getting little after contact. It’s why he has such good games against bad run defenses and bad games against good run defenses. He’s as good as anyone in the NFL when the hole is there though so he could have a very good season. He could see fewer carries, but only slightly with Shonn Greene coming in. Unless he steals a bunch of touchdowns, he won’t hurt Johnson’s production too much. Johnson is also active in the passing game, catching 230 passes in 5 years and he’s missed just 1 game in his career.

Projection: 250 carries for 1200 rushing yards 7 total touchdowns 44 catches for 340 receiving yards (196 pts standard, 240 pts PPR)

RB Shonn Greene (Tennessee)

Greene will serve as primarily a backup and change of pace short yardage back. He is a marginal runner with minimal explosiveness, but he does fit his new role well, even if it was an overpay to give him 10 million over 3 years to serve in that role. He’ll get the goal line carries, but there won’t be a lot of those in Tennessee’s offense. He’ll need an injury to Chris Johnson to be fantasy relevant and should only be considered a handcuff. Johnson has missed just 1 game in his career.

Projection: 110 carries for 460 rushing yards 5 total touchdowns 13 catches for 80 receiving yards (84 pts standard, 97 pts PPR)

WR Kenny Britt (Tennessee)

8/27/13: I liked Kenny Britt as a sleeper because he was getting through the off-season without any off the field incidents or any injury problems. However, he’s going to miss the Titans’ final pre-season game with recurring knee problems and has reportedly had problems with swelling for a while. He might just never get healthy enough to make good on his talent. He’s still a nice sleeper, but he’s only a WR4 or WR5.

Before tearing his ACL early in the 2011 season, Britt caught 56 passes for 1146 yards and 12 touchdowns over his last 14 full games, despite inconsistent, at best, quarterback play. He struggled in 2012 with injury and off the field problems, catching just 45 passes for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns, but now he’s a year removed any off the field incidents and another year removed from that torn ACL. He’s had a great off-season and he’s still a former 1st round pick going into his age 25 season. There’s upside with him at his current ADP in the 8th or 9th round.

Projection: 55 catches for 880 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns (124 pts standard, 179 pts PPR)

WR Kendall Wright (Tennessee)

Wright caught 64 passes for 626 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 1st round rookie last year, which is above the average for a 1st round rookie. He should be better this year now that he’s not a rookie, but it might take until his 3rd year for him to truly breakout. He’ll battle with Kenny Britt and Nate Washington for playing time in an uncertain wide receiver trio and I think he’s the 2nd most talented player in that group. There’s upside with him, but he could end up being just a secondary receiver in a subpar passing offense.

Projection: 55 catches for 740 receiving yards 4 touchdowns (98 pts standard, 153 pts PPR)

WR Nate Washington (Tennessee)

8/27/13: With Kenny Britt remaining an injury risk, Nate Washington gets a stock up. He’s been Jake Locker’s preferred target this pre-season, as he was last season, but there’s not a lot of upside with him. He’s not the talent Britt can be when healthy and he’s unlikely to exceed last year’s 46/746/4 line by much in this receiving corps with the Titans’ quarterback situation.

Projection: 51 catches for 770 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns (107 pts standard, 158 pts PPR)

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Tennessee Titans 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

I made some incorrect predictions last season, as anyone would, but the one I am most embarrassed about is that I thought the Titans would make the playoffs. I thought Jake Locker would continue to be the improvement over Matt Hasselbeck he was in limited action as a rookie, that Kenny Britt would be the player he looked on his way to becoming before his torn ACL to give them a very underrated and talented receiving corps, and that Chris Johnson would continue the strong 2nd half of his 2011 season into 2012. I thought Locker and Britt had some Matt Stafford/Calvin Johnson lite potential and that the Titans’ offense had the potential to be like the 2011 Lions’ lite. Defensively, I saw a unit that was 8th in the NFL, allowing 19.8 points per game the previous season despite being one of the youngest units in the NFL.

Instead, their defense allowed the most points in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. Their offense improved slightly, but not much, scoring just 20.6 points per game, nowhere near enough to keep up with all the points their defense was allowing. They won 6 games, but they weren’t even as good as that would suggest, as they ranked tied for 4th worst in the NFL with a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.8 wins, getting outscored by 141 points on the season. That was despite an easy schedule and they ranked 30th in DVOA. And it’s not even that they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin or bad luck recovering fumbles. They got outgained by close to 1000 yards on the season. They were one of the worst teams in the NFL anyway you look at it.

What happened? Well Jake Locker missed 5 games with injury and struggled when he was on the field, displaying accuracy issues that date back to his collegiate days, completing just 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.9 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Matt Hasselbeck played in relief of him, but very much looked his age, completing 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Kenny Britt struggled to bounce back from his torn ACL, missed 2 games with suspension and injury, and poor play by his quarterback didn’t help. Chris Johnson bounced back from his poor 2011 somewhat, upping his yards per carry from 4.0 to 4.5, but he wasn’t quite the player I was expecting him to be. His overall numbers were pretty impressive, but not quite as good as they were in the 2nd half of 2011, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and he was way too inconsistent. While he had 5 games of 120+ yards, he also had 5 games of fewer than 30 yards and overall spent too much time dancing.

Defensively, their struggles were more perplexing as they allowed close to 10 points more per game, despite only two players really playing significantly worse than I expected, middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and safety Michael Griffin. Derrick Morgan had a breakout year on the defensive line, opposite free agent Kamerion Wimbley and the team actually graded out just below average on ProFootballFocus, better than they had the previous season.

McCarthy issues were caused by an ankle injury and a concussion that limited him to 7 games and hampered him when he did play, while Griffin is a notoriously up year/down year type player that should be up this year if history holds. That doesn’t seem like it would be enough to reverse all of this defense’s problems though, and while they did allow fewer than 20 points per game in 2011, they ranked 18th in the NFL in yards allowed. In fact, they really only allowed about 300 more yards last season than the year before so it seems like I just overrated them to begin with. In actuality, they are probably somewhere in between the 19.8 points per game they allowed in 2011 and 29.4 points per game they allowed in 2012, but they could be closer to 2011 than 2012 if things go right.

Offensively, it’s very possible that Kenny Britt could have a much better season this year, in a contract year, coming another year removed from the torn ACL and any off the field incidents. Chris Johnson should be helped by an improved offensive line that adds Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard and turns what was once a position of serious weakness at guard into a position of serious strength. The biggest concern remains Jake Locker and whether or not he’ll ever be accurate enough to be a successful NFL quarterback.

Quarterback

Locker still has upside and he’s not proven either way with just 11 starts under his belt, but I didn’t think he’d become a franchise quarterback coming out of Washington and the Titans have not seemed confident in him this off-season, saying that a “major goal” is preventing Locker from “feeling overwhelmed.” The Titans have added Ryan Fitzpatrick, a proven backup caliber talent, behind him this off-season, to replace Hasselbeck and he could see multiple starts, especially if Locker gets hurt again. Their quarterback play could ultimately be what holds this team back, even if the rest of the team plays well, as could happen.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Locker could be helped by a finally 100% Kenny Britt. In 2010, Kenny Britt, then a 2nd year receiver out of Rutgers and a former 1st round pick, caught 42 passes for 775 yards and 9 touchdowns. Those were impressive numbers for a 2nd year receiver, but even more impressive is that he did that in just 12 games and that he was just scratching the surface of his potential. Those numbers extrapolate to 56 catches for 1033 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Heading into his 3rd year in the league, frequently a breakout year for receiver, the 6-3 218 receiver with 4.56 speed looked poised for a breakout year in 2011, what was only his age 23 season.

Britt looked to be on his way to that breakout year early, but he tore his ACL midway through week 3 and finished the year with 17 catches for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns, impressive stats for 2 ½ games, but hardly what was expected of him. The following off-season, he got arrested again, bringing his career arrest total to 8, which earned him a one game suspension. He also had knee surgeries on both knees and was overall unprepared for the 2012 season. Despite his #1 receiver talent, he played the 3rd most pass snaps among wide receivers on the team, playing just 413 of 644 possible pass snaps. He did not play well when he did play, catching just 45 passes for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns, despite a career high 90 targets.

Now Britt is at a crossroads in his career, heading into the final year of his rookie contract. The writing is on the wall after the team used a 1st round pick on Kendall Wright, a receiver from Baylor, in 2012, and a 2ndround pick on Justin Hunter, a receiver from Tennessee, in 2013. However, he remains a starter and the #1 receiver job is his if he wants it. Britt is a more talented and experienced receiver than both of the young receivers and he’s more talented than Nate Washington as well. He has all the talent and he doesn’t even turn 25 until September. So far, he hasn’t gotten hurt or arrested this off-season and reports about him have all been positive, that he finally has things together.

If that continues, he’ll be over a year removed from any arrests or surgeries when week 1 comes around. If he puts everything together and plays all or most of his team’s games, he’s fully capable of having a thousand yard season or more. Quarterback play is a concern, but Britt has posted big time per game receiving numbers in the past with Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, and Rusty Smith throwing him the football. Britt’s skill set fits well with Locker’s desire to throw downfield.

It seems like I’ve been predicting a breakout year for Britt for each of the past 3 off-seasons, but if he keeps up this off-season, he may finally have one. Or this season could go the opposite way for him. He could get passed on the depth chart by one or both young receivers and work only as a 3rd or 4th receiver and not be welcomed back as a free agent this off-season. This season is as make or break as it gets for a former 1st round pick and it’ll all be on him how it turns out. For the time being, it looks promising and I’m leaning towards breakout.

Britt will play with Nate Washington and Kendall Wright in 3-wide receiver sets, with Washington playing his natural slot role, but other than that, it’s unclear how playing time will be divided between the trio. Britt seems like the favorite to be their top receiver, but it’s not set in stone. Wright caught 64 passes for 626 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 1st round rookie last year, which is above the average for a 1st round rookie. He should be better this year now that he’s not a rookie, but it might take until his 3rd year for him to truly breakout.

Washington, meanwhile, is a slot specialist who has been pretty productive over the past few years, catching 46 passes for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns last year, but with so much young talent blossoming around him, the arrow is trending down, especially going into his age 30 season. Earlier this off-season, there was talk that Washington would be traded for a late round pick and cut if no deal was possible, but now it looks like they’re going to hold onto him. 2nd round rookie Justin Hunter will be the 4th receiver. He’s 6-4 with 4.4 wheels, but needs to work on his route running, his hands/concentration, and bulk up. Early reviews out of Training Camp have not been positive for him, so this could essentially be a redshirt year for him.

The Titans did lose pass catching tight end Jared Cook this off-season, opting not to bring him back after he fell to 2nd on the depth chart behind blocking specialist Craig Stevens last season. He was an efficient pass catcher, but couldn’t block at all. To replace him, the Titans brought in Delanie Walker from San Francisco, undoubtedly a better blocker, but a very poor pass catcher. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked run blocking tight end last year, being used frequently (more often than any other #2 tight end in the NFL behind Houston’s Garrett Graham), but he had just 21 catches to 9 drops and has never caught more than 29 passes in a season.

He offers very little after the catch and has averaged just 1.08 yards per route run over the past 4 seasons. He’s not really that dissimilar from Craig Stevens, who caught 23 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown last season on 212 pass snaps, 1.30 yards per route run, while run blocking well. Stevens is already on their roster and, unlike Walker, did not cost 17.5 million over 4 years. Stevens looks like he’ll be headed to fullback this season.

It’s very unclear who will take over Jared Cook’s old pass catching role, but the Titans do have high hopes for 2nd year tight end Taylor Thompson. Thompson was a 5th round pick out of SMU, where he played defensive lineman, but because of his athleticism (6-6 259 4.59) and his soft hands in individual workouts, the Titans converted the collegiate defensive end to tight end, despite the fact that he hadn’t played receiver of any kind since he was a wideout in high school. He showed well as a blocker as a rookie, but caught just 6 passes for 46 yards on 83 pass snaps with 2 drops. Most of Tennessee’s receiving production will come from wide receivers, but they have a talented bunch. They just might need a different quarterback to show that.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Jake Locker should also be helped by what should be an improved offensive line. Going into last season, the interior of the Titans’ offensive line was a huge weakness, while their tackles remained a strength. A year later, the interior of their offensive line has been turned to a strength and their tackles remain sturdy. They might have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

What’s happened since the start of last season? Well, Fernando Velasco broke out in place of an injured Eugene Amano, who was one of the worst offensive linemen in the league prior to his injury. In his first year as a starter, Velasco graded out well above average as ProFootballFocus’ 11th ranked center. He’s still a one year wonder so I’ll need to see the 2008 undrafted free agent do it again, but he should be considered an above average starter.

At left guard, the Titans signed Andy Levitre this off-season. Levitre got 46.8 million over 6 years from the Titans, which is a lot for a guard, but it’s still less than Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans and Levitre is right there in that tier below them. He’s worth what they paid him and he fills a massive hole. The 2009 2nd round pick has never missed a start and can play left tackle in a pinch. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked guard in 2012 and 6th ranked in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over the aged and since retired Steve Hutchinson at left guard.

Also filling a massive hole is rookie right guard Chance Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Along with 7th overall pick Jonathan Cooper, that was the first time a true interior offensive lineman had been drafted above 15th overall in 15 years, but it wasn’t a bad move. They needed the guard help and it was a historically poor draft in terms of top level talent. Warmack is one of the best guard prospects in a long time and might have more Pro-Bowl potential than any player in the entire draft behind Cooper and maybe the top-two tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, even if he is just a guard.

Warmack will slot in immediately at his natural spot at right guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. He’ll be a massive upgrade over the Deuce Lutui/LeRoy Harris duo that split time at the position last season. Levitre and Warmack should upgrade their run blocking that graded out 16th in the NFL last season on ProFootballFocus and they’ll also help in pass protection, where they ranked 8th last season, including 5th in pass block efficiency. As I said, this could be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL this season.

Michael Roos and David Stewart remain on the outside. They’ve been starters since 2006 and both come from the 2005 draft class, Roos in the 2nd round and Stewart in the 4th round. It’s uncommon that you can find two offensive tackle starters in the same draft, let alone two that stay together as long as Roos and Stewart, are as dependable as Roos and Stewart, and play as well as Roos and Stewart. Both have graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons. Last season, Roos was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle, while Stewart ranked 28th. In 2011, Roos was 11th and Stewart was 3rd. There was some concern about Stewart’s slow recovery from a broken leg earlier this off-season, but he seems fine. The only minor concern is both are heading into their age 31 season. Still, it’s an offensive line with no holes.

Grade: A

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Running Backs

An improved offensive line has to be music to Chris Johnson’s ears because of how reliant on a good offensive line he is. He’s incredibly explosive through holes, but when there aren’t holes, he doesn’t do a lot to help himself, frequently dancing around in the backfield, and getting little after contact. It’s why he has such good games against bad run defenses and bad games against good run defenses. He’s as good as anyone in the NFL when the hole is there though so he could have a very good season.

In his rookie season, he rushed for 4.9 yards per carry on 251 carries, managing 3.1 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 11th in run blocking, grading out significantly above average. In 2009, he rushed for 5.6 yards per carry on 358 carries, managing 3.0 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 12th in run blocking, grading out well above average.

In 2010, he rushed for 4.3 yards per carry on 316 carries, managing 2.8 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked dead last in run blocking, grading out significantly below average. In 2011, he rushed for 4.0 yards per carry on 262 carries, managing 2.1 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 18th in run blocking, grading out below average. Last year, he rushed for 4.5 yards per carry on 276 carries, managing 2.0 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 16th in the NFL in run blocking, grading out slightly above average.

He’s done more dancing as his career has gone on and managed fewer yards after contact, but still has explosive ability to run through holes. This could be a top-5 run blocking offensive line this season, especially with their blocking tight ends and fullbacks factored in, so we could see Johnson average in the high 4s per carry even if he continues to average in the low 2s per carry after contact. It’s definitely a good situation for him.

He could see fewer carries, but only slightly with Shonn Greene coming in. Greene will serve as primarily a backup and change of pace short yardage back. He is a marginal runner with minimal explosiveness, but he does fit his new role well, even if it was an overpay to give him 10 million over 3 years to serve in that role. Unless he steals a bunch of touchdowns, he won’t hurt Johnson’s production too much. Johnson is also active in the passing game, catching 230 passes in 5 years and he’s missed just 1 game in his career. The running game will help move this offense, but Jake Locker under center could hurt their ability to go too much over the 20 points per game or so they’ve been averaging over the past 2 seasons.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While I don’t expect them to be significantly improved offensively, they’ll probably be significantly improved defensively, though it’s unclear how much. The talent is there though. On the defensive line, the Titans will be using a system similar to what Seattle and now Jacksonville use, as the NFL is a copycat league and this type of thing is catching on. Derrick Morgan will remain as an every down end in the Chris Clemons role. The 2010 1st round pick at one point looked like a bust, but he turned in a very good 2012 season.

Morgan had 9 sacks, 21 hits, and 42 hurries on 530 pass rush snaps, a 13.6% pass rush rate. He ranked tied for 5th at his position in pass rush productivity and ranked 6th at his position in pass rush grade. He also played the run well and overall graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends. While this was the first time he had ever played this well in the NFL, he was a 1st round pick in 2010 and a player who I thought was the top pass rusher in that draft class. He struggled with injuries through his first 2 years in the league, which is his excuse, but now that he’s healthy, I don’t see why he can’t, once again, have a strong season as an every down end.

Opposite him, Kamerion Wimbley will not remain an every down end, moving out of the starting lineup and into that Bruce Irvin type nickel rusher role. In the first season of his career playing 4-3 end (he’s played 3-4 rush linebacker and 4-3 hybrid end/linebacker), Wimbley continued to rush the passer well, with 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 47 hurries on 546 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pass rush rate. He graded out above average as a pass rusher, but his awful play against the run (2nd worst at his position) sunk his grade to below average overall. He’s undersized at 6-4 245, which is why last year was his first as an every down end and it looks like it will be his last, at least for the time being. The role change should be good for him.

Playing in base packages at that spot will be Ropati Pitoitua, who will be playing the Red Bryant role. Pitoitua is a 6-8 290 career backup who has played 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 throughout his career with the Jets and Chiefs since going undrafted in 2008. He’ll play the run well at that size, but he won’t get any pass rush and I don’t think he’ll have the same impact that Bryant has had in Seattle. He’s just not the same type of player.

At defensive tackle, the Titans will use a trio of players. Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin return and will largely play the same role. 3rd round picks in the 2011 and 2012 draft respectively, both played very well last season, Casey ranking 7th at his position on 789 snaps, excelling as a run stopper (2nd at his position) and Martin ranking 10th at his position on 435 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher (10th at his position.

The only difference is that Sammie Lee Hill comes in and will take the departed Sen’Derrick Marks’ old role, which played 691 snaps last season. Marks was awful. Last season was actually his best season in 3 years as a key contributor, ranking 73rd out of 85 eligible. He was a bottom-10 player in 2010 and 2011. Sammie Lee Hill was buried on the depth chart in Detroit behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but the 4th round pick 2009 was one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 3 years, grading out above average in all 3 years and topping out at 19th at his position on just 367 snaps in 2010.

He more than deserves this chance at a starting job and will give the Titans a 3rd talented defensive tackle for their trio. They also have Karl Klug, a good situational pass rusher, as the 4th defensive tackle. He’ll probably play around the 256 snaps he did last year. On top of that, linebacker Akeem Ayers also plays defensive end from time to time as a situational pass rusher and does a very good job. Overall, it’s a very underrated defensive line with lots of talented players who fit roles and rotate. They were among the best in the NFL with 44 sacks last season and could be similarly good this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Despite good defensive line play, the Titans did only rank 15th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. That has more to do with their back 7 play. As I mentioned, Colin McCarthy struggled mightily last season in the 7 games he did play. Struggling mightily through ankle and concussion problems, he was ProFootballFocus’ 49th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible on just 388 snaps, especially struggling against the run.

In his absence, Will Witherspoon and Tim Shaw had to see more action. Shaw wasn’t awful on 230 snaps, but Witherspoon looked completely done, struggling mightily both inside and outside on 393 snaps in his age 32 season, especially struggling against the run. McCarthy was better in a half season starting in 2011 as a 4th round rookie and showed promise for the future. If he can put his injuries behind him, he could be a decent starter, though he’ll have to hold off career backup Moise Fukou for the job. Fukou might just be limited to be a pass coverage job, which is the journeyman’s specialty.

On the outside, the Titans have a pair of recent 2nd round picks, Zach Brown from the 2012 draft and Akeem Ayers from the 2011 draft. Brown played well as a rookie and showed himself to be worthy of an every down job in 2012. He was one of my top linebacker prospects of the 2012 draft class and I thought he was a steal in the 2nd round for his coverage ability, blitz ability, and sideline to sideline ability. He might take a leap forward in his 2nd year in the league.

Ayers, meanwhile, is a solid two-down run stuffer who doesn’t cover well, but makes up for it by rushing the passer well. On 133 pass rush snaps last season, he had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries and he could see a bigger role as a nickel rusher in sub packages when he’s not playing linebacker this season. He’s the linebacker who comes off the field (or at least out of the linebacking corps) for an extra defensive back in sub packages.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

Along with McCarthy, safety Michael Griffin was the other starter for the Titans last year who was awful. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 86th ranked safety out of 88 eligible, only ahead of the two New Orleans safeties. He especially struggled in coverage allowing 17.1 yards per reception and 7 touchdowns thanks to a league leading 22 missed tackles. He’s been pretty much alternating good seasons and bad seasons, grading out 9th in 2008, 2nd worst in 2009, about average in 2010, and then 10th in 2011 before last year, so he could be due for a bounce back.

However, it’s also possible he struggles again and that his best days are behind him now that’s he’s gotten a big contract, as the Titans gave him 35 million over 5 million after franchising him before last season. He’s had work ethic concerns in the past and might have just coasted once he got paid. Obviously a bounce back year, even to an average player, would be very important for the Titans. If he plays like he did last year though, it could be his final year with the Titans as cutting him would save about 800K on the cap and 6.2 million in real cash. Obviously cutting him 2 years into a 5 year deal, with 15 million guaranteed down the drain, would be a huge disappointment, but at that point, they might have to just cut their losses.

Opposite him, Jordan Babineaux was not much better, grading out below average and ranking 60th out of 87 eligible safeties and getting benched down the stretch for Robert Johnson, who also didn’t play well. Babineaux has been cut and the Titans have brought in veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Pollard is the early heavy favorite for the job, but Wilson was the better player last season, grading out 8th at his position. However, he was never really that good in the past and he’s heading into his age 32 season so the Titans seem content with him as the 3rd safety behind Griffin and Pollard. We’ll see how quick they are to put him into the starting lineup if Griffin or even Pollard struggles.

Pollard is known best for being a Patriot killer, but he’s an inconsistent player who is going onto his 4th team since 2008 and has been cut/non-tendered 3 times. Pollard was once a promising young safety in Kansas City after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, but lasted just 3 years before being cut in training camp in 2009.

He then caught on in Houston in 2009, where he was so good the Texans tendered him at the highest possible level as a restricted free agent in the next offseason, but a year later, he was unwanted once more, as Houston non-tendered him. He was then forced to settle for just 2.7 million over 2 years from Baltimore. However, he played well enough in 2011 to get a 12.3 million dollar extension over 3 years. After a decent, but unspectacular first season of his new contract, he was cut by the cap scrapped Ravens and now heads to Tennessee for only his age 29 season.

At cornerback, the Titans have a pair of solid players in Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. They ranked 6th and 24th respectively in 2012 and 8th and 14th respectively in 2011, though both times a lot of that was run grade. In coverage, they ranked 46th and 23rd respectively in 2011 and 39th and 50th respectively in 2012. Run play is important and both of them are consistently among the best run cornerbacks in the NFL, but coverage is what they’re out there for.

Last season, McCourty allowed 63 catches on 97 attempts for 800 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, deflecting 11 passes and committing 2 penalties, while Verner allowed 53 catches on 84 attempts for 556 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 1 penalty. They’ve lacked a good 3rd cornerback ever since they lost Cortland Finnegan. There is a 3-way battle for that job this season, between Coty Sensabaugh, who struggled in that role as a 4th round rookie last year, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 3rd round rookie, and Tommie Campbell, a physical and much talked about 2011 7th round pick who has played just 68 snaps in his career.

There’s also been some talk that Verner is falling out of favor with the coaching staff and doesn’t fit the new coverage scheme. He may be demoted to the 3rd cornerback job if one of the aforementioned cornerbacks can establish himself. Verner has even gotten some looks at safety because of his run stopping ability, but that looks like just an experiment. At this point, I consider Verner the favorite to start. Overall, it should be an improved defense over last year’s last place finish, even if only because it’s way more talented than that.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Mike Munchak won 9 games in his 1st season with the Titans in 2011, the first time anyone other than Jeff Fisher had been their Head Coach since 1994. However, after last year’s disappointing performance, there were calls for his job, especially after Owner Bud Adams blew up at the team mid-season and said that something needed to change. I thought those talks were premature, but another rough season and he could be on the hot seat, especially since Bud Adams turns 91 in January. He fired already top executive Mike Reinfeldt, promoting GM Ruston Webster.

Grade: C+

Overall

The Titans look like another team that will play better this year, but not really have it show up in the standings. They were one of the worst teams in the league last year, maybe outside of Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Oakland and while they’ll be better, they’ll probably still allow significantly more points than they score. They have upside and talent, but I think Jake Locker’s deficiencies at quarterback will hold them back.

They’re not better than Houston or Indianapolis and will be lucky to win more than 1 of those games, though they’ll probably sweep Jacksonville, giving them 2 or 3 divisional wins. Outside of the division, they host San Diego, the Jets, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Arizona. San Francisco will be very tough, but they could split the other 4, which puts them at 4 or 5 wins at this point. However, they have to go to Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and Oakland. Oakland is the only likely win there, though St. Louis is winnable. I have them at 5-11.

Projection: 5-11 3rd in AFC South 

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Indianapolis Colts 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Colts made the 2nd biggest single season win improvement in NFL history, going from 2-14 to 11-5 last season. However, like the team who made the biggest single season win improvement in NFL history (the 2008 Miami Dolphins who went from 1-15 to 11-5 back down to 7-9 the following season), I expect the Colts to be significantly worse in 2013. In fact, teams with big win improvements generally regress about half the following season (and vice versa). There are two things about the Colts’ 2012 season that are unsustainable and that show they are an overrated team.

For one, they had a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 9-1 in those types of games. In fact, they had just 2 wins by a touchdown or more, and one came against the 2-win Jaguars. Meanwhile, 3 of their 5 losses came by more than 20 points and only one of those teams made the playoffs. They lost 35-9 to the Jets! Overall, they were -30 on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 7.2 wins. They made the playoffs because they were ridiculously good at pulling out close wins. Call it #ChuckStrong magic if you want, it’s not going to happen again this year. That type of stuff evens out in the long run.

All of those close wins would be more impressive if they weren’t against teams like Cleveland, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Buffalo. They had an incredibly easy schedule, playing just 6 games against teams that went 8-8 or better. While they went 3-3 in those 6 games, the wins were by 3, 3, and 12, while the losses were by 20, 35, and 12. Their season essentially consisted of them barely beating bad teams and getting blown out by good teams. They had just 1 win by more than a field goal against a team better than 6-10 and it was a week 17 game against the Texans. Once they got to the playoffs, they were just overmatched by the Baltimore Ravens, who beat them 24-9.

When you combine their ridiculous record in close games and their weak schedule, the advanced metrics do not like them. They ranked 25th in DVOA and had the lowest DVOA by an 11-win team in DVOA’s 22 year history, dating back to 1991. They had poor injury luck, ranking 29th in the league in adjusted games lost, but they weren’t really missing anyone who was a big time impact player, with the exception of maybe Vontae Davis. If they want to win 11 games this season or come close, they’ll have to play significantly better.

Fortunately for them, they had a good deal of cap room going into this off-season so they had a good chance to improve their roster. However, they completely bungled free agency, shelling out 3 years, 15 million for the oft injured Greg Toler, 4 years, 16 million the awful Erik Walden, 4 years, 24 million for the seen better days LaRon Landry, 4 years, 22 million for career backup Ricky Jean-Francois, and 5 years, 34.5 million for one year wonder Gosder Cherilus. Only a 4 year, 14 million dollar deal for promising career backup Donald Thomas represented a good deal among their 6 multiyear signings, while Ahmad Bradshaw and Darrius Heyward-Bey were added to the mix on reasonable one year contracts. I don’t know how much better the Colts really made their roster this off-season. It’s better, but not worth what they spent.

While the Colts had a very good off-season last year, drafting incredibly well, one off-season is not enough to rebuild this team into a permanent winner. While the Bill Polian era started out incredibly well, with Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Bob Sanders, all drafted by the Colts, among the best at their respective positions at one point or another with the Colts, the Polian-led front office failed to draft a future Pro-Bowler in any draft from 2006-2011. Their roster was completely barren when new GM Ryan Grigson took over. Peyton Manning’s injury exposed that in 2011, as they won just 2 games. While it’s better, it’s not where they appeared to be last season. This year, I expect them to play better, but have a significantly worse record.

Quarterbacks

Speaking of playing better but having a worse record, it’s Andrew Luck. Luck got a lot of credit for the Colts huge turnaround last season, but we’ve already established they weren’t as good as they seemed. Luck wasn’t either. Luck completed just 54.1% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 76.5, 26th in the league among eligible quarterbacks, one spot behind Blaine Gabbert. He led the Colts’ offense to just 22.3 points per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

ProFootballFocus didn’t like him too much either, grading him 24th among all quarterbacks throwing the ball on tape, right behind Jake Locker, though he saved his grade somewhat with his running ability (255 yards and 5 touchdowns on 61 carries). He also ranked just 25th in adjusted QB rating, which takes into account drops, yards after catch, throw aways, hit as throwns, and spikes.

You can say his 9-1 record in close games and league leading 7 game winning drives were impressive and make up for the raw statistics, but consider the level of competition he was doing it against. Is a game winning drive against Kansas City or Tennessee really that impressive? It’s not like his 4th quarter numbers were really that much better, as he completed 53.4% of his passes for an average of 7.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. His 4th quarter QB rating of 75.3 was actually worse than his overall QB rating. He’s not nearly in the neighborhood of Robert Griffin or Russell Wilson.

That being said, there are 3 reasons why Luck will play better this season. The first is that he’s just too talented. Rookie struggles hardly doom a career, especially for a talent like Luck. Peyton Manning had an even lower rookie QB rating, at 71.2, with 56.7% completion, 6.5 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, but he bounced back with a 90.7 QB rating in the following season, completing 62.1% of his passes for 7.8 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Luck might not be that good next season and he certainly might not have quite the same career Manning has had, but you can’t place too much value on his rookie year.

The second reason is he’ll fit the offensive scheme better. Bruce Arians is a great offensive coordinator and did a phenomenal job keeping this team together as Interim Head Coach after Chuck Pagano’s diagnosis. However, Luck was always a weird fit for his offense because his arm strength isn’t his best attribute and he very rarely played with 3-wide receivers in college. He was not meant to lead the league with 101 throws 20+ yards downfield or more, like he did last season. This season he gets back Pep Hamilton, his old offensive coordinator at Stanford, and he’ll install a more two-tight end, short to intermediate throw heavy offense that Luck will suit much better.

The 3rd is that he’ll be better protected. They may have not have allowed a ton of sacks last season, but that’s because Luck’s incredible pocket presence made them look better than they were as he took a sack on just 14.9% of pressured drop backs, 7th best in the NFL. When hits and hurries are taken into account, they ranked dead last in pass block efficiency and Luck was pressured in 38.1% of his drop backs, 5th most in the NFL. He completed just 39.9% of throws under pressure, 5th worst in the NFL. Gosder Cherilus might have been an overpay, but he and Donald Thomas will upgrade this offensive line. They won’t be great or anything, but they won’t be the worst again. I can definitely see Luck playing better, his team doing worse, and everyone asking what’s wrong with Andrew Luck.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

In addition to being dead last in pass block efficiency, the Colts also were ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked pass blocking team and 24th ranked run blocking team. Only Arizona was also in the bottom-10 in both. Donald Thomas was the smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He’s a career backup, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked guard last season, despite making just 7 starts in place of injured guards with the Patriots. He also graded out above average in 13 starts in 2 seasons from 2008-2009 earlier in his career with the Steelers. He’s a projection as a full-time starter, but at just 14 million over 4 years, he’s worth the minor risk and the Colts very well may have found themselves an above average starting interior offensive linemen, a huge need of their off-season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector.

Gosder Cherilus was the not so smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle last season, but he hadn’t done anything that good before. At 34.5 million over 5 years, the Colts are paying him hoping that he can keep up his elite 2012 performance and ignoring his only average to above average 2008-2011 performance. He was an older rookie too so the 2008 1st round pick is already going into his age 29 season.

He’s also just a right tackle, which is a less important position for the Colts and he has a history of knee problems. He’s had microfracture surgery in the past and had to go to Germany for treatment. It was so concerning that the Lions didn’t seem to want anything to do with bringing him back as a free agent this off-season, even though he’s only missed 4 games in 5 seasons. The upside, best case scenario is that the Colts have an appropriately paid elite right tackle, but there’s also a good chance they’ve wound up with a lemon. He’ll probably be an upgrade at right tackle, though incumbent Winston Justice wasn’t bad. Justice is gone so it’s unclear who would fill in should Cherilus get hurt.

The only returning starter who graded out above average last season is left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo, a 2011 1st round pick, improved on an average rookie season with an above average 2nd season and even better is that he had some of his best performances in the 2nd half of the season. He allowed just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 11 hurries in the 2nd half of the season, while committing just 2 penalties, as opposed to 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 24 hurries, while committing 3 penalties, in the first half of the season, all while run blocking well throughout. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could take another leap forward.

That’s where the good news ends for the Colts on the offensive line. Samson Satele graded out 4th worst among eligible centers last season, despite being limited to 642 snaps by injuries and AQ Shipley, who played well in his absence last year, is gone, replaced by 4th round rookie Khaled Holmes. Satele was better in 2011, but graded out below average in every season from 2008-2010, so he looks like one of the worst starting centers in the NFL.

Right guard Mike McGlynn was even worse, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst guard last season by a good amount. He started 15 games there and was equally bad in his one game at center. He’s been pretty bad throughout his career and should not be expected to play much better this season. The Colts will have to hope that 3rd round rookie Hugh Thornton can push for playing time at some point this season, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he can be as a rookie. Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz are other options at guard and they’ll probably be their top two reserve offensive linemen, but both were awful last season as well. Right guard is one of the reasons why this remains a below average offensive line, though they’ll protect Luck better than they did last season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned earlier that the Colts drafted really well in 2012. It wasn’t just Andrew Luck. It would have been pretty hard to mess that one up. But they found good values in the later rounds. Nowhere is that more evident than in your young receiving corps, as they wisely made building the skill positions around Luck a priority of their first draft. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the 2nd and 3rd round respectively give them two young tight ends and 3rd rounder TY Hilton showed well as a rookie wide receiver. They also got a nice value with Lavon Brazill in the 6th round, as he flashed as a rookie, though his roster spot is currently in jeopardy after a 4 game suspension for marijuana.

Fleener and Allen will be a big part of the Colts’ new two-tight end heavier offense. Allen was a later draft pick, but because he was an NFL ready blocker, he saw more snaps than Fleener, which should continue to be the case this season, with Allen playing in-line and Fleener functioning more as a move tight end. Allen showed very well as a rookie, blocking very well (both run and pass) and adding 45 catches for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 368 routes run (1.41 yards per route run).

Because of his all-around game, he was actually ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season. He also played the 12th most snaps of any player at his position, so he had a really big role as a rookie, playing 925 snaps. It only got bigger as the season went on as he played at least 73% of his team’s snaps in every game from week 7 on, after doing so just once in his first 5 games. He also played some fullback from time to time.

Fleener played about half the snaps that Allen did, playing 461 snaps, but in his 2nd year in the league, in Pep Hamilton’s new offense, he should see that number increase. He was pretty mediocre as a rookie and disappointed as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns on 252 routes run (1.12 yards per route run). Still, he’s a natural pass catcher who should have an improved 2nd season in the league. Having his old offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should help. Even with the Colts’ running more two-tight end sets, I still do expect them to pass often. Luck might not attempt 627 passes again, but he’s very comfortable throwing out of two-tight end sets and Allen and Fleener are both comfortable catching passes.

With the Colts playing fewer 3-wide receiver sets this season, TY Hilton will have to win the starting job opposite Reggie Wayne if he wants to have the breakout season he’s capable of. I predict he will. As a rookie in 2012, TY Hilton put up some pretty impressive stats for the Colts, catching 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns. He did this on 88 targets and while his catch rate of 56.8% is not very impressive, he caught so many deep balls and had so many big plays that he managed a very impressive 9.8 YPA. He also had the 7th highest catch rate (10 of 20) on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air among receivers who caught at least 10 such passes. In terms of quarterback rating when thrown to, he ranked 21st, as Andrew Luck had a 102.5 QB rating when throwing to him, nearly 30 points higher than Luck’s overall QB rating.

In his 2nd year in 2013, I have reason to believe he’ll be even more productive. For starters, he’ll obviously be more experienced. He doesn’t turn 24 until November and the 2012 3rd round pick has hardly peaked. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but significantly above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round.

Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. And Hilton, a 3rd round rookie, greatly exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should improve on those numbers. One area that can be cleaned up is drops, as he dropped 10 passes last year. Just looking at his game 9-16 splits, you can see that Hilton became a better player as the season when on, catching 26 passes for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games, 52 catches for 1012 yards and 10 touchdowns over 16 games.

The second reason I expect more production from him this year is that he’ll play more snaps. Last year, he worked as the 3rd receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and only played 49 total snaps in his first 3 games. This year, Avery is gone and, while they’ve added Darrius Heyward-Bey, he figures to be a backup and depth receiver with Hilton serving as the #2 receiver. Avery played 687 pass snaps to Hilton’s 508. If Hilton had played, say, 650 pass snaps last year, extrapolation off his rookie numbers alone gets him to 64 catches for 1102 yards and 9 touchdowns.

The third reason is that he figures, in addition to playing more snaps, to become a bigger part of the offense and get more targets per pass snap. That goes hand and hand with being a year more experienced, but he also has an aging Reggie Wayne opposite him. Wayne also had a huge season catching 106 passes for 1355 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he also received 179 targets and had the 6th highest targets per routes run in the NFL (TY Hilton was a modest 27th among 45 qualifying receivers).

Wayne also turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37.

Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns, meaning Hilton almost out produced him in the 2nd half of last year. Going into 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Hilton were this team’s leading receiver and even if he isn’t, he should still have a 1000 yard breakout year and he looks like a Pro-Bowl sleeper, again, assuming he wins the starting job.

With Wayne aging, Andrew Luck’s receiving corps still appear to be in good hands for the future with Hilton having the profile of a future #1 receiver. He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL, flashing 4.34 speed at The Combine, and is developing the rest of his game. His size (5-10 183) could be the one thing that holds him back, but receivers such as Steve Smith (5-9 185), Antonio Brown (5-10 186) and DeSean Jackson (5-10 175) have all developed as #1 receivers in spite of their lack of size. Hilton has a similar skill set. There’s a reason he was one of my favorite sleeper prospects of the 2012 draft class. At the very least, he’ll serve as a downfield complement to aging possession receiver Reggie Wayne this year. Darrius Heyward-Bey, a marginal receiver, will provide depth and play on 3-wide receiver sets, moving Wayne to the slot.

Grade: A-

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Running Backs

In addition to all of the good skill position players they added in the receiving corps in the 2012 NFL Draft, they also found a good value with Vick Ballard at running back in the 5th round.  Ballard took over the starting job from Polian-era 1st round bust Donald Brown week 5 and averaged 15.8 carries a game from that point on, rushing for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries with 17 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, but you can blame his offensive line for that somewhat (he averaged a decent 2.5 yards per carry after contact) and he’s the type of back who would be better in tandem with another back.

That’s where Ahmad Bradshaw comes in. Bradshaw was cut by the Giants this off-season going into just his age 27 season because they grew tired of his laundry list of injury problems, after he had a 4th foot surgery this off-season (to go with 2 career ankle surgeries). It took him a while to get picked up this off-season, settling for a 1-year deal with the Colts, but he’s one of the toughest running backs in the NFL, missing just 7 games in 4 years (the last 3 as a starter) despite all the injury problems.

He’s rushed for 3687 yards and 30 touchdowns on 831 carries in those 4 seasons, a 4.4 yards per carry clip, and he’s added 125 catches for 1033 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air. He’s also averaged 15.9 carries per game over the past 3 years as a starter, so being able to work in tandem with another back will help him. He’ll probably split early down work with Ballard and handle most of the passing down work, which is his strength at this point in his career.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Colts averaged just 22.3 points per game last season, 18th in the NFL, defense was the bigger issue. While they had young talent on offense, they had mostly replacement level talent on defense, a unit that ranked 21st in the NFL, allowing 24.2 points per game. There wasn’t really a thing they were good at last season other than winning close games against bad teams. In effort to fix their defense, the Colts spent a lot of money this off-season, signing 4 players to multi-year contracts. They could be better as they’ll likely force more turnovers (more on that in a second), but I don’t know if they’re significantly more talented.

Onto turnovers, the Colts forced just 15 of them last season, as opposed to 27 turnovers offensively (not a huge number). Still, they were -12 in turnovers on the season. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). I don’t know if they’ll cut down on their turnovers offensively (Luck’s development will help), because that’s not an unreasonable amount, but their defense should force at least 20 takeaways next season to get them to a more even turnover margin. So for that reason, they should be better defensively, but not by much. In terms of pure yardage, they were actually 26th in the NFL, allowing 5988 yards (23rd in YPA allowed and 31st in YPC allowed) and their off-season additions won’t help much. A return to form for cornerback Vontae Davis could be their biggest potential boost.

On the defensive line, their big off-season addition was Ricky Jean-Francois, who got 22 million over 4 years coming over from San Francisco. It’s a lot of money for a former 7th round pick who has played just 715 snaps in 4 seasons and hasn’t been all that remarkable on them. It wouldn’t be the first time a San Francisco player went from backup to above average starter with no indication in his past that a higher level was possible (Alex Boone, Ray McDonald, NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, etc), but all of those players did so with the 49ers. If Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke had felt Jean-Francois was capable of much bigger things, they probably would have shown more interest in trying to keep him around behind an aging Justin Smith, instead of signing Glenn Dorsey.

He could be an average starter (though he could be worse) and he’ll probably be an upgrade over the mess they had on the defensive line last season, but they’re paying him to be an above average starter and I don’t think they’ll get that. Opposite him, the Colts have Cory Redding, once an above average starter, but he struggled last season and going into his age 33 season, it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

In between them, Josh Chapman will probably start. The Alabama product fell to the 5th round in the 2012 NFL Draft because of injuries, but he’s healthy and ready to start now so it looks like another smart draft move from the Colts. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie though, so it’s unclear what kind of player he’ll be. He’ll face competition for the job from off-season addition Aubrayo Franklin, who hasn’t been the same player in 2 seasons since leaving the 49ers. He’d be a marginal starter at best if he wins the job. They’ll probably get better play than what they got from Antonio Johnson last year. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible.

The Colts could also have Fili Moala, Ricardo Matthews, Drake Nevis, and Lawrence Guy in the mix depending on how the starters do. They used a lot of rotation on the defensive line last season, though a lot of that had to do with how little talent they had. I think the Colts would prefer not to have those guys play a bunch of snaps again because only Nevis and Guy graded out above average, doing so just barely and on 264 and 189 snaps respectively. It’s not as bad of a unit as it was last year, but not by much.

Grade: C

Linebackers

In their linebacking corps, the big addition was Erik Walden, who signed for 16 million over 4 years. He’s essentially been a starter for the past 2 seasons, playing opposite Clay Matthews in 2011 with the Packers, getting replaced in the starting lineup by 1st round pick Nick Perry in 2012, but coming back into the lineup when Perry got hurt early in the year. He was absolutely awful in both seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons. He especially struggled as a pass rusher last season, managing just 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 12 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, a 6.2% pass rush rate.

He won’t start in Indianapolis, thankfully, because of the addition of Bjoern Warner in the first round of the draft, but he’ll still have a big role as the top reserve behind the rookie and aging veteran Robert Mathis. Werner is a very refined pass rusher for his age, but he doesn’t appear to have the natural athleticism to be a good fit to play rush linebacker in Indianapolis’ 3-4. We’ll see what he can do as a rookie.

Mathis, meanwhile, is an overrated player at this point in his career, making the Pro-Bowl last season. He did have 8 sacks, but he managed just 5 sacks and 16 hurries to go with those 8 sacks on 301 pass rush snaps, a 9.6% pass rush rate. He ranked just 16th out of 32 eligible in pass rush productivity at his position and, while he graded out above average rushing the passer, he struggled mightily against the run and in coverage and graded out below average overall. He also was limited to just 642 snaps due to injury. He’s heading into his age 32 season and doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the Colts’ new 3-4, after playing in a 4-3 for his whole career. His best days are probably behind him.

Things are better at middle linebacker, but not by much. Jerrell Freeman took the starting job and ran with it in his first season over from the CFL. He was among the tops in the NFL in tackles, though a lot of that was just mopping up messes. Only 55 of his tackles were for a stop (sack or tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) and overall he graded out as just about an average starter.

Freeman became the starter because Pat Angerer missed a lot of time with injury. When Angerer returned, he cut into the playing time of Kavell Conner, rather than Freeman. Angerer and Conner will compete for the starting job opposite Freeman this season. Conner struggled mightily in 2011 at outside linebacker, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 45 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. The 2010 7th round pick played much better inside in Indianapolis’ 3-4 in 2012 on 326 snaps. Angerer, meanwhile, has struggled mightily throughout his career since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. The best case scenario is that Conner can win the job and play as well as an every down starter as he did last year in a more limited role. It’s a big time projection.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

One of the free agent additions in the secondary was Greg Toler, who was signed to a 3 year deal worth 15 million, a serious overpay considering injuries have limited him to 308 snaps last season and caused him to miss the entirety of the 2011 season. He played very well last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 27th ranked cornerback and 15th ranked cover cornerback despite his limited playing time, as he allowed 17 catches on 41 attempts for 266 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 3 penalties. There’s upside with him, if he can ever stay healthy, but the Colts are taking a big risk.

Toler will start opposite Vontae Davis, who has his own injury history. They acquired him from the Dolphins for a 2nd and 5th round pick before last season, expecting the 2009 1st round pick to bounce back to 2010 levels, when he was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked cornerback. However, he was also coming off an injury riddled 2011 season in which he played just 699 snaps and because of durability and work ethic issues, the Dolphins actually demoted him out of the starting unit in Training Camp. It was a risk and it didn’t really pay off, as he graded out below average on 606 snaps. In 4 years in the league, he’s only made 16 starts once and he’s missed 10 games over the past 2 seasons. He played really well in 2010 and he could be a bounce back candidate going into his contract year, but there’s no guarantee.

On the slot, Darius Butler returns. A flameout as a 2nd round pick of the Patriots in 2009, Butler actually played well down the stretch once taking over as their slot back with the Colts, the 3rd team he’s played for in his short career. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked cornerback and 24th ranked coverage cornerback, doing so on just 380 snaps. He allowed 27 catches on 50 attempts for 309 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 2 passes and not committing a penalty. He ranked 2nd in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed and 4th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed while on the slot. Of course, that was very limited playing time and he has never been dependable in the past. It’s going to be hard to count on him.

Given that it’s going to be very hard to count on any of their top-3 cornerbacks, it’s very possible #4 cornerback Cassius Vaughn could see serious playing time again. He actually led the team in snaps played by a cornerback, playing 840 last season and he was awful, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst ranked cornerback, allowing 66 catches on 106 attempts for 794 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 9 penalties.

The other free agent addition in the secondary was LaRon Landry, who was signed to a 4 year deal worth 24 million. He was once one of the best safeties in the NFL, grading out 5th in 2008 and 15th in 2010 (with a 83rd out of 88 eligible ranked season in between), but those days could be gone because of injuries, going into just his age 29 season. Achilles problems limited him to 512 snaps in 2011 and forced him to settle for a one year deal with the Jets last off-season, where he graded out significantly below average, ranking 65th out of 88 eligible safeties.

He’ll play opposite Antoine Bethea, the Colts’ 3rd longest tenured player behind Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. He’s been better in the past, grading out slightly above average in every season from 2008-2011, but last year graded slightly below average. It’s possible he could bounce back, but he’s never really had a great season. He’s an average to above average starter, going into his age 29 season. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and he’s an incredibly reliable starter, which makes him pretty much the opposite of the rest of this secondary.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Bruce Arians won Coach of the Year for his work filling in as Interim Head Coach for Chuck Pagano last season and while Pagano coached just 4 games due to his leukemia diagnosis, he was a huge off the field inspiration to this team and locker room presence when his body allowed for it. On top of that, he put in all the work with this team before the season. You don’t just roll out of bed week 1 much improved team. He was their coach for 4 months from rookie camp to week 1 before he was even diagnosed with cancer and laid the framework for Arians to take over and have the kind of success they did. I argued the two of them should have split the Coach of the Year award. That being said, we’ve yet to see how he can do as the Head Coach of a team for a full year, so it’s tough to grade him. As I do with 1st year Head Coaches, it’s important to temper expectations.

Grade: B

Overall

Andrew Luck will take a leap forward offensively and they have added talent defensively, so the Colts will probably play better this season, but they only played about as well as a 7-win team last season, before you even take into account their schedule. Their schedule isn’t a ton tougher this year, but they are unlikely to make a 2nd straight playoff appearance, unless Luck takes a major leap forward.

In the division, they’ll probably take both games from Jacksonville, but they’re more likely to split with Tennessee (an improved team who they beat by a combined 10 points last season) than they are to beat Houston, a team who is on a higher level. I have them at 3-3 in the division. Outside the division, they do host Oakland, which should be a win, but Miami and St. Louis will be tougher and Denver and Seattle will both will very tough. I think they’ll win 2 or 3 of those games. On the road, they have to go to San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. They were -61 on the road last season, so they’ll have a tough time winning more than a game or two of those. They’ll probably be between 6 and 8 wins, but for parity’s sake, I have them at 6-10.

Projection: 6-10 2nd in AFC South

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