Seattle Seahawks 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Seahawks were an incredibly different team at home and on the road last season, going 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road. At home, they outscored opponents by 18.5 points per game (30.4-11.9), beating 4 eventual playoff teams, and on the road, they outscored opponents by just 2.3 points per game (21.1-18.8), despite playing just 1 eventual playoff team (a loss in San Francisco). It wasn’t just one unit getting significantly worse as their defense and their offense each essentially went a touchdown in each direction when they went on the road.

Things got better on the road as the Seahawks got better as the season went on (7-1 in their final 8 games) and Russell Wilson really came into his own, but only 3 of their final 8 games were on the road and while they beat Chicago and Buffalo, they also lost to Miami. In the post-season, they could have easily lost to the Redskins in Washington if Robert Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt up 14-0 and they followed that up with a loss in Atlanta the following week.

This isn’t a new thing. Going back to 2007, they are 15-37 on the road, getting outscored by 6.63 points per game, and 32-18 at home, outscoring opponents by 6.32 points per game. For that reason, I think the Seahawks aren’t as good talent wise as they appear. It’s not that they are an elite team that has issues on the road. I think that they’re a very solid team that plays like an elite team at home and shows their true colors on the road. Their incredible home crowd and home field advantage is a huge part of the team and makes them appear better than they are.

Fortunately for them, that crowd isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it’s only going to get louder and more powerful now that the team is in contention. They’re attempting to break a world record for stadium volume in their home opener week 2. On top of that, they appear to be a more talented team than the one that won 11 games last season.

They’re a young team that should be improved with another season of experience, especially Russell Wilson, who set the world on fire in the 2nd half of last season (albeit playing just 3 road games and 2 eventual playoff teams, both at home). They’ve added Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield and might now have the best slot cornerback and slot receiver in the NFL. An injury to Chris Clemons on their defensive line hurts, but they’ve added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help make up for that. Home field advantage taken into account, this looks like one of the most talented teams in the league on paper.

Also, despite their 11 wins, they still didn’t meet their Pythagorean Expectation last season, outscoring opponents by a total of 167 points and posting a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.4 wins, tied with the Patriots for best in the NFL last season. Given that they played a tougher schedule than the Patriots last season, you could easily make an argument that this was the best regular season team in the NFL last season and DVOA would agree. Not only were they DVOA’s top rated team last season, they were the 6th highest ranked team in DVOA’s history, dating back to 1991, behind the 1991 Washington Redskins (Super Bowl Champs), the 2007 New England Patriots (Super Bowl runner ups), the 2010 New England Patriots (eliminated in the divisional round at home by Mark Sanchez…wait what?!), the 1996 Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl Champs), and the 1995 San Francisco 49ers (eliminated in the divisional round).

So they were probably the best team in the NFL last season, despite being one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and they’ve added more talent in the off-season. So what’s the problem? Well, it’s fourfold. The first issue is that they were ridiculous lucky in terms of injuries, ranking just 4th in the NFL in adjusted games lost. This type of thing tends to be more luck than anything. For example, the previous season they were 27th.

They’ve already lost Chris Clemons for an undisclosed amount of time and Percy Harvin, who they added in the off-season, is one of the more injured prone stars in the NFL and already may need hip surgery. Sidney Rice also has a history of injury problems, as does left tackle Russell Okung, and I don’t have to tell you how much it would hurt if something were to happen to Russell Wilson or Richard Sherman. I’m not saying something will, but history suggests the injury bug won’t be as friendly to them this season as it was last season.

They also benefitted from a turnover margin of +13, with 31 takeaways and 18 turnovers. That tends to be unsustainable 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’m not saying that Russell Wilson is going to suddenly start throwing a bunch of picks, but, for example, Richard Sherman had 8 interceptions last season. That could easily be cut in half this season.

Interceptions are very unpredictable for defensive backs. A cornerback can have 8 interceptions in a season and 3 in another and not play any worse. That’s just the nature of the position and the pitfall of judging a cornerback purely on interception numbers. Darrelle Revis is one of the best cornerbacks in the game and since a 6-interception season in 2009, he has 5 total in 31 games. Part of it is teams will just throw away from him more. I know he has Brandon Browner opposite him, but Revis had Antonio Cromartie opposite him. Part of it is he’ll just get fewer good balls to pick off. Either way, he should have fewer interceptions and the Seahawks, overall, should have a less impressive turnover margin in 2013.

The third issue is just that teams that have significant win improvements tend to regress about half of that amount the following season. It’s just an average, but it’s just a rule of thumb in the NFL to note. The fourth issue is their schedule and the fact that they play most of their tough opponents on the road. Of the 6 games they play against reigning playoff teams from last season, 4 of them are on the road. They also go to Carolina and the Giants and have two nationally televised games against divisional opponents in Arizona and St. Louis that won’t be easy. Remember, those two teams beat them last season and, while the Seahawks are improved, so are they. Also, 4 of those games are 1 PM ET starts on the in the Eastern Time Zone (Indianapolis, the Giants, Carolina, and Atlanta).

There could be 4 or 5 losses on that road schedule so even if they go undefeated at home against (not unlikely considering they don’t face any tough teams outside of San Francisco and maybe Minnesota or a sucks on the road New Orleans team), they might not win more than 11 or 12 games. In any other division, that wouldn’t be a big deal, that might mean 2nd place in the NFC West behind the 49ers, which would mean winning the Super Bowl would once again require winning 4 games away from home. I don’t think this team can do that. If they’re going to win the Super Bowl, I think they’re going to have to win the division. The circumstances with the schedule and with San Francisco being in their division I think will prevent them from doing so.

Quarterback

As I mentioned earlier, Russell Wilson set the world on fire in the 2nd half of the season and even into the playoffs. After a 4-4 start in which he completed 61.4% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions (with 36 carries for 128 rushing yards), leading the team to 17.5 points per game, he went 8-2 the rest of the way, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions (with 488 yards and 5 touchdowns on 73 carries), leading the team to 32.4 points per game.

However, he’s just not as good on the road. He completed just 63.6% of his passes for an average of 7.5 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions on the road, a QB rating of 86.1. That’s opposed to 64.6% completion, 9.2 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions at home, a QB rating of 123.6. And I already mentioned the Seahawks scored about 9 fewer points per game on the road than at home. Wilson was better on the road as the season went on, completing 65.1% of his passes for an average of 8.7 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and an interception, a QB rating of 107.6, but it wasn’t as good. He still went just 3-2 (would have been 2-3 if Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt), and while he did score 29.2 points per game, that was down about 6 points from his 2nd half home stats.

And of course, I don’t expect him to keep up his 2nd half stats into the entire 2013 season because that would be ridiculous. He’ll still be a great home quarterback and I don’t expect him to lose a home game, but there’s no denying that he’s a noticeably worse quarterback on the road, no matter how well he’s playing. If he were drafted by any team other than the Seahawks, even if they had the same supporting cast, playbook, and coaching staff, he would not be as good of a quarterback. He wouldn’t be bad, but it would be noticeably worse (though you could say the same thing about Drew Brees). And I think there are at least 4 or 5 road games he’ll lose next season and I don’t think he’s capable of winning 4 straight away from Seattle to win the Super Bowl.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Marshawn Lynch has completely revitalized his career in Seattle. He was acquired from the Bills for just a 4th round pick in 2010 because he hadn’t lived up to his potential and because he had a history of off the field problems. He struggled in his first season in Seattle, with the exception of the beast mode run in the post-season against the Saints, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but in 2011, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 285 carries with 12 touchdowns.

In 2012, he improved that to 5.0 yards per carry on 315 carries with another 11 touchdowns as Russell Wilson’s arm and rushing ability took the defense’s attention off of Lynch. Everything has gone about as well as the Seahawks could have hoped when they acquired him in 2010, with the exception of a DUI last off-season. It looks like a change of scenery was all the 2007 1st round pick needed. His only real flaw is he’s caught just 51 passes in the last 2 seasons.

I don’t see why Lynch can’t do something similar again in 2013, though he may see slightly fewer carries heading into his age 27 season as the Seahawks used a 2nd round pick on a running back in Christine Michael. This marks the 2nd straight draft they’ve brought in a running back and 2012 4th round pick Robert Turbin isn’t exactly a poor runner either, rushing for 354 yards on 80 carries and adding 19 catches as Marshawn Lynch’s primary backup and a passing down specialist.

Michael just adds another talented back to their stable. With Russell Wilson adding 94 carries of his own, no team ran the ball more often than the Seahawks in 2012, who ran 536 times to 438 pass plays (including sacks). That means they ran on 55.0% of their offensive plays. Even with Wilson going into his 2nd season in the league, I don’t expect that to change this season and Michael’s addition only adds to that likelihood.

Even when Wilson broke out in the 2nd half of last season, he passed just 22.5 times per game, which was actually less than the 26.25 times per game he passed in the 1st half of the season. Part of that was they were playing with a lead more, but the point is, I don’t expect the Seahawks to pass much more than they did last season. They’ll still be a run heavy team with Lynch leading the way, two talented backups, and Wilson’s own scrambling ability. They’re a solid bet to lead the league in rushing.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight End

Another player who will add to their ground game production is Percy Harvin, their big off-season addition. The wide receiver Harvin has rushed for 683 yards and 4 touchdowns on 107 carries in 4 seasons with the Vikings and the run heavy, read option loving Pete Carroll could give him upwards of 30 carries this season. Of course, Harvin’s biggest asset will be his receiving ability, but those projecting big time numbers for him this season are mistaken.

Harvin has been very efficient on a per snap basis over the past 2 seasons. 1652 receiving yards on 651 routes run, which is among the most efficient in the NFL. And yes, he was doing that with mediocre quarterback play, but he was also his team’s only option and targeted relentlessly, which won’t be the case in Seattle. He was targeted 199 times on those 651 routes run, 30.6% of the time. With Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Zach Miller, and all them in Seattle, he won’t be targetted nearly as frequently and they also won’t pass nearly as much.

And, of course, he’s a solid bet to get hurt. While he’s only missed 10 games in his 4 year NFL career, he’s coming off a 9-game season last year, which also happened to be the first time in his career he was an every down player and not just a slot specialist. He’s never played more than 623 snaps in a season. He has serious durability issues and there’s already concern about his hip, as of this writing, on the first day of Seahawks Training Camp. He may need surgery.

I think 1000 yards receiving is incredibly optimistic for him. I think the best case scenario is the Seahawks run 500 pass plays (62 more than they did last season), Harvin plays 450 of those pass snaps (28 more than any Seattle receiver did last season), is targeted 100 times and catches 80 passes for 1000 yards (12.5 yards per reception, almost a full yard above his career average). More likely, he is somewhere below that, though, assuming he stays moderately healthy, he’ll save his fantasy value (if you’re into that kind of thing) with his rushing yardage and the fact that he should surpass his career high of 6 touchdowns.

Sidney Rice will line up opposite him. Rice played all 16 games for the 2nd time in his 6 year career last season and, while you wouldn’t know it from his stats, he played very well. He caught just 50 passes for 748 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he did that on 422 routes run (includes sacks). If he had been on a more pass heavy team like he was in 2009, his breakout season when he ran 547 routes for Brett Favre, he would have had 65 catches for 970 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked receiver last year. He’s a very solid #2 receiver, but with Harvin coming in and his history of injury problems (23 games missed in 6 seasons), the smart money is on him not matching even the 50 catches for 748 yards and 7 touchdowns he had last season.

Golden Tate also had a very solid year last year, as the 2010 2nd round pick broke out in his 3rd season in the league the way so many receivers do. Again, the stats didn’t show it as he caught just 45 passes for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he did that on just 378 routes run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 24th ranked wide receiver overall. However, with Harvin coming in, like with Rice, the smart money is on his production going down as he’ll be the 3rd receiver. The Seahawks ranked 26th in the NFL in 3-wide receiver sets last season, which shouldn’t significantly go up this season. His best shot at statistical and fantasy relevance is a Rice or Harvin injury, though that’s not unlikely at all.

Doug Baldwin will be the 4th receiver and while he’s talented, he’s unlikely to come anywhere near the 29 catches for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns he had last season. Still, he’s a more than capable 4th receiver and the Seahawks have come a long way from 2011, when Baldwin actually led the team by catching 51 passes for 788 yards and 4 touchdowns out of sheer necessity as an undrafted free agent rookie. Add in Zach Miller, a solid all-around tight end, and this is a talented bunch. 5th round rookie Luke Willson will serve as the 2nd string tight end, in place of the injured Anthony McCoy, who is already on injured reserve with a torn Achilles. Willson wasn’t a great blocker in college, but he has great natural receiving ability and can serve as more of a move tight end with Miller capable of serving as an inline tight end.

Grade: A-

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Offensive Line

The Seahawks’ weakest unit on either side of the ball is their offensive line and it isn’t really that close. While left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger are coming off very strong seasons, the rest of their offensive line is a mess and Okung and Unger might not even play as well this season. Okung graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, as the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft allowed just 1 sack all season (partially due to Russell Wilson’s mobility but still) and run blocked well, though he committed 13 penalties, 2nd worst at his position.

However, he has a history of injury problems, as he was limited to 556 snaps as a rookie and then struggled mightily through injuries in 2011, grading out below average on 799 snaps. He could have a 2nd straight strong season, but he could also get hurt again. Unger, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked center last season, but was largely a league average player before that. I don’t doubt he can have another strong season, but I’ll need to see it again before I can consider him a top level center.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends on the offensive line for the Seahawks. Breno Giacomini will once again line up at right tackle, where the mediocre career backup as ProFootballFocus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season. At right guard, Paul McQuistan is in a similar career situation, though he wasn’t quite as bad last season and he has the ability to play both right and left guard depending on where he’s needed. Still, he’s a below average player.

Opposite McQuistan at guard, the Seahawks tried 3 different players last season, James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and JR Sweezy. Carpenter was a first round pick in 2011 and the surprise pick looks well on his way towards being a bust. Injuries have limited him to 352 snaps in 2 seasons and he didn’t play well at all during those snaps and he’s already been moved inside to guard from right tackle, where he was originally supposed to bookend Okung.

Sweezy, meanwhile, saw 311 snaps last season as a 7th round rookie who played defensive tackle the year before at NC State and he played about as well as you would expect, grading out 71st out of 81 eligible guards despite the limited playing time. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made a lot of smart decisions, but I have to make fun of them for that one. Sweezy said he hadn’t played offensive line since middle school. How did they decide to convert him to offensive line? Did they watch his middle school tape?

Moffitt, a 3rd round pick from that same draft as Carpenter, has been absolutely awful thus far in his career, grading out as the 3rd worst guard in 2011 despite playing just half the snaps. He was only slightly better in 2012. Carpenter will get the first crack at being the starting left guard, but it looks like a position of major weakness, much like right guard and right tackle.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, Chris Clemons tore his ACL in the playoff win over Washington. He’s a very strong candidate to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury week 1. That would cost him 6 games and even when he returns, it’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old playing as many snaps per game as he did last season, especially with Cliff Avril being added to the mix.

An absolute steal in a trade from Philadelphia (he arrived as a throw-in in a deal that send Darryl Tapp to the Eagles for a 4th rounder), Clemons has been a top-11 4-3 defensive end on ProFootballFocus in all 3 seasons as a starter with the Seahawks, playing the Leo role in Pete Carroll’s defense. Last season, he had his worst season with the Seahawks, grading out “just” 11th overall at his position, though 4th in terms of rushing the passer with 11 sacks, 11 hits, and 37 hurries on 511 pass rush snaps, a 11.5% pass rush rate. However, his poor run grade (5th worst at his position) hurt his grade. He’ll see mostly pass rush snaps this season when he does play.

Clemons not being at 100% will hurt, but, as I mentioned, the Seahawks did add Cliff Avril to the mix this off-season. Avril is undersized, but was a natural fit in a wide nine scheme in Detroit and is a perfect fit for the Leo role in Seattle. He’s not the same pass rusher Clemons is when healthy, grading out well above average, above average, and average in the last 3 seasons in that aspect, and he also struggles against the run as well. He might be at his best and most efficient when he doesn’t play a full set of snaps (like he did in 2010, his best season, when he played 649 snaps), which is good because the Seahawks do have a lot of defensive end depth, especially when Clemons returns.

On the other side, Red Bryant will start in base packages. Bryant doesn’t get any pass rush, but that’s not what he’s out there for. He’s out there to hold down the edge against the run and he usually does a great job of that. However, last season he actually graded out below average in that aspect and because of his poor pass rush ability (0 sacks, 0 hits, and 11 hurries on 343 pass rush snaps, 3.2% pass rush rate), he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd lowest ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 641 snaps. That’s part of the reason why the Seahawks ranked 23rd in YPC allowed. He played through a foot injury all season though, so maybe he’ll bounce back. He did get off to a great start to the season in the first 3 weeks of the season.

In sub packages, Bruce Irvin will continue to come in and rush the passer. A surprise pick as the 15th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Irvin had 10 sacks as a rookie as a part time player. However, he wasn’t as good as that would suggest. To go with those 10 sacks, he had just 12 hits and 20 hurries on 344 pass rush snaps, an impressive 12.2% rate, but not as impressive as 10 sacks as a part-time player would suggest. He graded out above average as a pass rusher, but struggled against the run, grading out average overall. He especially struggled against the run in his one start against Atlanta, with Chris Clemons out. Michael Turner, who hadn’t done anything all year, trampled the Seahawks for 98 yards on 14 carries and Irvin was a big part of the reason why.

He must have proved to the coaching staff that he could never be a starter on the defensive line because the Seahawks converted him to linebacker this off-season. He’ll play the Von Miller role, playing the run as a two-down linebacker on running downs in base packages and then moving to the line to rush the passer as a defensive end in sub packages. It’s a better role for his skill set, but it could take him a little bit to adjust to playing linebacker and he’s also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for Adderall.

With Irvin and Clemons out early in the season, free agent acquisition Michael Bennett will probably play more end early in the season, though he was signed to be a situational rusher at defensive tackle, coming over from Tampa Bay. Bennett is incredibly versatile and well rounded, lining up at two positions (end and tackle) with the Buccaneers and grading out well above average both against the run and as a pass rusher.

In 2011, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated 4-3 defensive end in a more limited role, excelling against the run at 6-4 274, but also accumulating 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 338 pass rush snaps, a 11.2% pass rush rate. In 2012, he led the Tampa Bay defensive line in snaps, grading out 7th among 4-3 defensive ends again. Along with Cameron Wake and Greg Hardy, he was one of three 4-3 defensive ends to grade out in the top-10 as a run stopper and pass rusher and he accumulated 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 48 hurries on 600 pass rush snaps, a 11.8% pass rush rate.

Along with him at defensive tackle, the Seahawks have Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane. Mebane is a consistently above average starter who can rush the passer and stop the run. He’ll lead the position in snaps. McDaniel will take over Alan Branch’s old run stuffing role. Branch was a one dimensional player, but exceled in that role, topping out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked run stopping defensive tackle in 2011. McDaniel, a mediocre career backup, won’t do as well. He’ll face competition from Clinton McDonald, another career backup, and Jaye Howard, a 2012 4th round pick who played just 22 snaps as a rookie.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Bruce Irvin will be moving to linebacker and playing the 3rd linebacker role in base packages, a role vacated by veteran LeRoy Hill, who did alright in that role last season. In the 4 games Irvin will miss with suspension, Malcolm Smith will start in that role. The 2011 7th round pick has flashed in 236 career snaps in reserve, but he’s still a mystery. Fortunately, it’s not that important of a position.

KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner will continue to play the every down linebacker roles. Wright graded out above average in his first season in that role and the 2011 4th round pick also played well in the two-down linebacker role as a rookie. Wagner, meanwhile, played incredibly well as a 2nd round rookie last season, grading out 2nd on ProFootballFocus among middle linebackers. He finished 2nd in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Luke Kuechly and actually played better than Luke Kuechly at the same position. The Seahawks are in good hands with these two young every down linebackers.

Grade: A-

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Secondary

I mentioned Richard Sherman in the opening. After Russell Wilson, he’s their most indispensible player. In his 2nd year in the league, the 2011 5th round pick allowed 41 catches on 87 attempts for 634 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while deflecting 14 passes and committing 5 penalties. He was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback last season and, though he ranked below average against the run, he was by far their top cover cornerback. He might not pick off 8 passes again, but as I mentioned, that won’t necessarily mean he has a worse season. He played well as a rookie as well, grading 16th in more limited action and the 25-year-old might not have peaked yet. He’s arguably the top cornerback in the NFL. Darrelle Revis is more proven and has had better seasons than Sherman had last year, but he’s also coming off a torn ACL and 3 years older.

Brandon Browner does a solid job opposite him, grading out 22nd among cornerbacks, allowing 34 catches on 63 attempts for 421 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 7 penalties and missing 4 games with suspension. He improved over a solid first season in the league in 2011, coming over from the CFL, and he’s a young and very capable #2 cornerback opposite Sherman. Opposing quarterbacks will probably throw away from Sherman more this season and Browner looks like he can hold up to extra attention.

They might be the best outside cornerback duo in the NFL and they added arguably the best slot cornerback in the NFL this off-season, signing Antoine Winfield from Minnesota. Winfield was actually ProFootballFocus’ top ranked cornerback last season, though he wasn’t quite as good as that would suggest. A lot of that was run grade as he was by far the best run stopping cornerback in the league, but he only ranked 19th in coverage grade, allowing 60 catches on 90 attempts for 575 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties. He also didn’t cover much downfield and he’s going into his age 36 season with a recent history of injury problems, missing 17 games in the last 4 seasons combined.

However, he’ll be a natural fit as a part time player on the slot. He ranked 13th in the NFL in slot coverage QB rating allowed last season. He’s a great fit for the Seahawks physical man-to-man coverage scheme as well and, of course, he’ll help stuff the run. He’ll be a sizeable upgrade on the Marcus Trufant/Jeremy Lane/Byron Maxwell/Walter Thummond quartet who were their primary depth cornerbacks last season.

The Seahawks also have a great pair of safeties who complement each other well, with Kam Chancellor playing up closer to the box, playing 54.4% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, 7th in the NFL among eligible safeties, and Earl Thomas serving as the deep center field safety. Chancellor, a 2010 5th round pick, is one of the biggest safeties in the NFL at 6-3 232. He didn’t play as well in 2012 as he did in his breakout 2011 season, when he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked safety, as he ranked 21st in 2012, but he is one of the top-10 or so safeties in the NFL.

Thomas, meanwhile, is just a little bit behind that. He’s a little overrated because of his tendency to take bad routes to the ball and miss tackles (17 missed tackles last season, 4th in the NFL, and 29 in the last 2 seasons), but he was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked safety in 2012 and their 34th ranked in 2011. He’s clearly an above average safety though and they have one of the best safeties duos in the NFL. This might overall be the best secondary in the NFL. They ranked 3rd in the NFL allowing 6.2 YPA last season, ranking 1st in coverage grade on ProFootballFocus, and they could be even better this season.

Grade: A

Head Coach

Last season, I said in Seattle’s preview that Pete Carroll doesn’t get his name mentioned enough with the best coaches in the NFL, but he should. Now, a season later, he does. He’s rebuilt this team from a 5-11 veteran team to an 11-5 exciting, young team in 3 seasons (going 25-23 and winning 2 playoff games). Along with GM John Schneider, he’s discovered and developed a ton of young talent during his time with the Seahawks.

Chris Clemons was a situational player who he turned into one of the better pass rushers in the league. KJ Wright and Richard Sherman were 4th and 5th round picks respectively in 2011. Brandon Browner was in the CFL. He got Marshawn Lynch for a 4th round pick. Kam Chancellor was a 5th round pick. Bobby Wagner was a 2nd round pick. Russell Wilson was a 3rd round pick. Russell Okung and Earl Thomas were 1st round picks, but they’ve also developed into top level players. He also did a fantastic job at the collegiate level at USC.

Grade: A-

Overall

As I mentioned in the opening, with their home field advantage factored in, this might be the most talented team in the NFL, but they only get 8 home games and they could have a hard time winning more than 3 or 4 of their tough road games. They could once again run the table at home and still not win the division and have to go on the road throughout the post-season.

I have them going 4-2 in the division, splitting with San Francisco and dropping one in either St. Louis or Arizona, nationally televised games in places they lost last season. Outside of the division, they host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and New Orleans and they shouldn’t have much problem winning all 5 of those games. They also go to Carolina, Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta, and New York. That’s three 2012 playoff teams, a Giants team that won 9 games last season, and 2013 sleeper in Carolina, and 4 of those games are on the East Coast at 1 PM ET. They should lose about 3 of those games, to put them at 11-5 for the 2nd straight season.

Projection: 11-5 2nd in NFC West

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St. Louis 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Sam Bradford (St. Louis)

After an ankle injury limited to 10 games in his 2nd season in the league in 2011, Bradford bounced back from in his 3rd year in the league, playing all 16 games again and improving on his rookie numbers by throwing for 3702 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. With the addition of Jake Long, Tavon Austin, and Jared Cook around him, he looks poised to exceed all of those career highs in his 4th year in the league. There’s a lot of uncertainty with him, but he’s a high upside QB2.

Projection: 3850 passing yards 22 touchdowns 12 interceptions 100 rushing yards 1 touchdown (234 pts standard, 278 pts 6 pt td league)

RB Daryl Richardson (St. Louis)

8/20/13: Daryl Richardson has been named the starting running back of the St. Louis Rams. He shouldn’t feel too comfortable as Isaiah Pead and/or Zac Stacy could both steal carries and even starts from him this season, but he gets moved up. Steven Jackson’s primary running back, Richardson rushed for 475 yards on 95 carries and also caught 24 passes for 163 yards. He’s a solid bet to go over 200 touches. Pead will be the change of pace back. There’s still an opportunity for Zac Stacy to eventually become a starter at some point this season if the unproven players above him on the depth chart don’t impress, but he’s not really worth drafting. He might be a nice late season waiver wire pickup if anything.

The Rams have a 3 way battle for the starting running back job and all 3 should see carries. You shouldn’t use a high pick on any of them unless one starts to run away with the job. They’re all draftable though. I consider Richardson the favorite. He was Jackson’s primary backup last season, rushing for 475 yards on 98 carries, while contributing 24 catches for 163 yards. The 7th round rookie leapfrogged 2nd round rookie Isaiah Pead on the depth chart for that job.

Projection: 180 carries for 790 rushing yards 6 total touchdowns 35 catches for 250 receiving yards (140 pts standard, 175 pts PPR)

RB Isaiah Pead (St. Louis)

Pead is my 3rd favorite running back in St. Louis’ backfield. He’s draftable, but he had just 10 carries as a rookie. The 2nd rounder has talent and I’m not going to write him off or anything, but it’s certainly been a disappointing start to the career of a player who I thought was overdrafted (he’s a change of pace/passing catching back/return man).

Projection: 100 carries for 430 rushing yards 3 total touchdowns 18 catches for 130 receiving yards (74 pts standard, 92 pts PPR)

WR Chris Givens (St. Louis)

I think Givens will actually lead this receiving corps in yardage. As a mere rookie, Givens led the Rams’ nondescript receiving corps with 698 yards and caught 42 passes and 3 touchdowns. In his 2nd year in the league, he should be able to improve on them as he’s another year matured and another year more comfortable with the offense and Sam Bradford, especially since he figures to play more snaps. He averaged 1.90 yards per route run, 25th in the league out of 82 eligible wide receivers. This year, with Brandon Gibson and the oft injured Danny Amendola gone, Givens is by far the team’s leading returning receiver. Unlike the new batch of receivers, he has a year of experience in the offense and with Sam Bradford.

Projection: 56 catches for 820 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns  (112 pts standard, 168 pts PPR)

WR Tavon Austin (St. Louis)

Tavon Austin is overrated in fantasy circles. 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. Austin will do some nice things as a rookie and they’ll line him up in the backfield on occasion to get him his touches, but I think he’s at least a year away from being the type of player a lot of people think he already is. He might not even start as a rookie, focusing on the slot

Projection: 39 catches for 650 receiving yards and 5 total touchdowns, 20 carries for 150 rushing yards (110 pts standard, 149 pts PPR)

TE Jared Cook (St. Louis)

Jared Cook was underutilized in Tennessee and put up good per snap numbers as a receiver despite never really having great quarterback play. He has 1718 career receiving yards on 1057 career routes run, a rate of 1.63 yards per route run. For comparison, Owen Daniels had 1.63 yards per route run this season, good for 11th in the NFL. However, he doesn’t block, which is a big part of the reason why he was only a part-time player in Tennessee and he’s still relatively unproven. The Rams are paying a lot of money to find out if he can be an elite tight end in the right situation. They’ll give him every opportunity to live up to his contract, but I don’t think he will.

Projection: 45 catches for 700 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns (100 pts standard, 145 pts PPR)

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St. Louis Rams 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Football is a game of parity. A team sees an average change of 3 wins per season in either direction and teams that have big improvements on average regress about half of that the following season and vice versa. The Rams have been doing quite a bit of bouncing around in the past few years, going from 1 win to 7 wins to 2 wins to 7 wins and a tie. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to bounce into the playoffs at any point and if history is any indication, they are due to bounce back down, at least a little bit.

There were a couple unsustainable things that led to the Rams’ win improvement last season. They were 6th in the league in adjusted games lost, meaning they had significantly fewer injuries than the league average. This was a season after they ranked dead last in that category in 2011. They also exceeded their Pythagorean Expectations by a whole win (assuming a half win for the tie) as they were outscored by 49 points on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, 23rd in the NFL. They did have a really tough schedule last season, but things don’t look much easier this season.

The Rams will have to hope that all of the talent they’ve added through free agency in the past few off-seasons have paid off and that they will continue climbing the wins ladder because they are legitimately a more talented team. They’ve signed Harvey Dahl, Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Kendall Langford, Jake Long, and Jared Cook to significant contracts in the last 3 off-seasons, to go with Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, and Tavon Austin added in the first round of the last 3 drafts. Austin, Long, and Cook are the big additions of this off-season as the Rams made surrounding Sam Bradford with more talent the single primary concern of their off-season.

Quarterback

The Rams have a lot tied into Sam Bradford. They gave him 50 million guaranteed before he even took an NFL snap as they took him with #1 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, the final one of the non-rookie salary cap era. They also essentially traded Robert Griffin in favor of keeping Bradford as their quarterback when they had the opportunity to bring in Griffin through the draft last April. And so far, it’s really unclear what they have in him. There’s reason to be optimistic certainly, but he’s a big mystery.

Bradford had a very good rookie season, completing 60.0% of his passes for an average of 6.0 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, setting the NFL record for completions by a rookie, attempts by a rookie, and consecutive attempts without an interception by a rookie, leading the previously 1-win Rams to a respectable 7-9 record. However, 2011 was a lost season, as injuries caused him to miss 6 games and limited him to 53.5% completion, 6.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in a 2-14 campaign.

Bradford bounced back in his 3rd year in the league, playing all 16 games again and improving on his rookie numbers by completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in a 7-8-1 season. It was a respectable season by a young quarterback, but when you look at what even younger quarterbacks in Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick (technically Kaepernick is 5 days older), Andrew Luck, Matt Stafford, and even Andy Dalton (9 days older, but whatever) have done, Bradford’s young career pales in comparison.

He’s on better footing than Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, and Josh Freeman on the young quarterback totem pole as all 5 of those quarterbacks could lose their starting job this season, but at some point, Bradford will have to start proving he’s the type of guy who can win you a Super Bowl. That season could be this year as he has undoubtedly his most talented offensive supporting cast and you can give him a pass because of the crap he’s played with around him so far, but I need to see it from him first to make sure he’s not just Alex Smith, someone who is good enough to keep his job and that’s it. Needless to say, it’s a huge year for him.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

While Bradford has an improved supporting cast this season, I do think the players they brought in are being overrated, at least in terms of what they can add this season. It’s undoubtedly a better group, but there are still issues. For one, 8th overall pick Tavon Austin is still 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. Austin will do some nice things as a rookie and they’ll line him up in the backfield on occasion to get him his touches, but I think he’s at least a year away from being the type of player a lot of people think he already is. He might not even start as a rookie.

Austin is competing for a starting job with relative veterans Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, and Brian Quick. Givens is the one I’m actually most excited about and the player I think will lead this team in receiving. He was just a 4th round pick in 2012, but I had a borderline 2nd round grade on him coming out of Wake Forest, ahead of teammate Quick, a 2nd rounder in that same class, and ahead of 49er 1st round pick AJ Jenkins. After Kendall Wright, I thought he was the best speed receiver in the class, after a junior season in which he averaged 16.0 yards per catch on 83 catches for 1330 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has adequate size at 5-11 198 with steady hands, great route running ability, and recorded a 4.41 40 at The Combine.

As a rookie, he led the Rams’ nondescript receiving corps with 698 yards and caught 42 passes and 3 touchdowns. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round, as the statistic I mentioned earlier suggests. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. Givens, a 4th round rookie, exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should be able to improve on them as he’s another year matured and another year more comfortable with the offense and Sam Bradford, especially since he figures to play more snaps.

Givens didn’t see significant action until week 4 and only played in 386 of the team’s 641 pass snaps, which was 113 less than Brandon Gibson, who led the team. He averaged 1.90 yards per route run, 25th in the league out of 82 eligible wide receivers. This year, with Brandon Gibson and the oft injured Danny Amendola gone, Givens is by far the team’s leading returning receiver. Unlike the new batch of receivers, he has a year of experience in the offense and with Sam Bradford.

Austin Pettis, meanwhile, is actually listed as the other starter right now and that might continue to be the case going into week 1, with the raw Austin focusing on the slot early in his rookie year. Either way, he’ll see a lot of action. The 2011 3rd round pick is going into the 3rd season that is so often a breakout year for young receivers, but I don’t know if he has the talent to be more than a marginal starter at best going forward because he really lacks speed, athleticism, and after the catch ability. He’s probably best suited for a depth role. He’s caught 57 passes for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 2 seasons in the league as a depth possession receiver.

Brian Quick will also see a lot of action as the Rams figure to get all 4 of their young receivers action. Quick was, as I mentioned earlier, a 2nd round pick as a rookie last year, but he was very much upstaged by the 4th round pick Givens as a rookie, catching just 11 passes for 156 yards and 2 touchdowns. Still, he’s got a lot of talent and you can never write a talented receiver off after just one season, especially one that was always expected to be a project transitioning from Appalachian State to the NFL. He should be improved this season.

Jared Cook, by default, is the veteran of the group as the aforementioned 3 receivers are all in their 3rd year or younger. There might be too much youth here, especially with a young signal caller under center. Cook was given a 5 year, 38.5 million dollar contract this off-season, with 19 million guaranteed, but that looks like a serious overpay.

Jared Cook was underutilized in Tennessee and put up good per snap numbers as a receiver despite never really having great quarterback play. He has 1718 career receiving yards on 1057 career routes run, a rate of 1.63 yards per route run. For comparison, Owen Daniels had 1.63 yards per route run this season, good for 11th in the NFL. However, he doesn’t block, which is a big part of the reason why he was only a part-time player in Tennessee and he’s still relatively unproven. The Rams are paying a lot of money to find out if he can be an elite tight end in the right situation. They’ll give him every opportunity to live up to his contract, but I don’t think he will.

Also in the mix at tight end is Lance Kendricks, a 2011 2nd round pick. He’s not a bad 2nd string tight end, but he doesn’t complement Cook well because he can’t block at all either. He’s undoubtedly the 2nd best receiving tight end on their roster, catching 45 passes for 529 yards and 4 touchdowns in his 2nd season in the league last year, but he could lose playing time to blocking specialist Cory Harkey, a 2012 undrafted free agent who is a solid blocker, but can’t pass catch at all.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The other big time off-season addition they made was on the offensive line, where they signed Jake Long to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed to play left tackle. Long is a household name because he was the 1st overall pick of the Dolphins in 2008 and because he deservingly made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, after ranking 10th, 2nd, and 2nd on ProFootballFocus in 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively, injuries helped drop him to 21st in 2011 and all the way down to right around league average in 2012. There’s a reason the Dolphins didn’t seem too eager to bring him back and why the Rams gave him an extensive physical before signing him. If he can stay healthy, they’re getting a steal, but that’s a big if and this might look like a big overpay in 2 years’ time because of his injury history.

At the very least, Long’s presence on the blindside will allow Rodger Saffold to kick to right tackle. Saffold wasn’t happy about the positional switch earlier this off-season, but has since calmed down and I think it fits his skill set better. He’s been pretty good on the blindside when healthy in his career, though he’s missed 13 games in 3 seasons and been limited in several others with injuries, but I think he could be one of the better right tackles in the league if he were to stay healthy. That’s a big if however for the 2010 2nd round pick. He’s going into a contract year, so maybe he’ll have a big year. Worst case scenario, he’ll be better than the Jason Smith/Barry Richardson mix they’ve been trotting out there at right tackle in the last few seasons. The lead footed Joe Barksdale is his backup so they’ll be in trouble if he can’t stay healthy.

On the interior of their offensive line, the Rams have two other big money offensive linemen in right guard Harvey Dahl and center Scott Wells. Dahl has been with the Rams for 2 seasons and he’s graded out significantly below average in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s been a reliable above average starter for years dating back to his days with the Falcons and the only concern here is that he’s heading into his age 32 season. It shouldn’t be an issue yet though.

Wells, meanwhile, graded out as an above average center in the previous 4 seasons before coming to St. Louis from Green Bay last off-season, including top-10 grades in 2008, 2010, and 2011, topping out at 4th in 2011. However, injuries limited him to 434 below average snaps in 2012. There’s definitely potential for a bounce back year, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and, unlike Dahl, he’s shown signs of slipping up so there’s definitely reason for concern here, especially considering they gave him the richest contract ever for a center last off-season.

Rounding out the line at left guard will be one of three players, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, or Rok Watkins. Chris Williams is a former first round pick (2008) bust of the Chicago Bears who has bounced all over the offensive line before winding up with the Rams last season after being a mid-season cut. He once again struggled with the Rams, playing significantly below average on 88 snaps. Smith, meanwhile, graded out significantly below average on 360 snaps last season in the 2010 6th round pick’s first real action in the NFL. Watkins, meanwhile, was a 5th round rookie last season who played 37 snaps week 1, struggling mightily before going on season ending injured reserve. It’s a position of serious weakness on an overall improving offensive line. The talent is there though, more so than it’s ever been in Sam Bradford’s career.

Grade: B

Running Backs

While the Rams have made major additions to their receiving corps and offensive line, they actually had a significant loss at running back as long time bell-cow back Steven Jackson signed with the Atlanta Falcons this off-season. Jackson is on the decline and the Rams didn’t put forth much effort into trying to bring him back, but he leaves behind an uncertain situation. In his absence, the Rams will have a 3-way battle for the starting job and all 3 backs figure to see carries.

Daryl Richardson was Jackson’s primary backup last season, rushing for 475 yards on 98 carries, while contributing 24 catches for 163 yards. The 7th round rookie leapfrogged 2nd round rookie Isaiah Pead on the depth chart for that job. Pead is also in the mix at running back this season, after just 10 carries as a rookie. The 2nd rounder has talent and I’m not going to write him off or anything, but it’s certainly been a disappointing start to the career of a player who I thought was overdrafted (he’s a change of pace/passing catching back/return man). The 3rd back is 5th round rookie Zac Stacy who I think could prove to be a steal. The 5-9 210 pounder is a very hard runner. Whatever happens, it’s a position of much youth and uncertainly, much like most of their offense.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On the defensive line, the Rams have a trio of former 1st round picks and a big contract free agent signing and it’s a big part of the reason why they had an NFL best 56 sacks last season. However, that’s a little misleading. They were ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked pass rush team and while I won’t argue that they were the 17th best pass rush team in the league last year, looking purely at sack numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

Their most talented defensive lineman is Chris Long, the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Long is legitimately one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the NFL, with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and 55 hurries on 568 pass rush snaps, a 13.3% rate. However, he got destroyed against the run, which is nothing new for him. Since 2010, he’s been one of the worst run stopping 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, grading out dead last in that aspect in both 2010 and 2011 and 4th worst in 2012.

However, he’s simultaneously been one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the league since his breakout 2010 season, ranking 7th in that aspect in 2011 and 4th in that aspect in both 2010 and 2012. Overall, he’s graded out as a significantly above average defensive lineman in the last 3 seasons, but his run play prevents him from being considered one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL in my book.

Opposite him, Robert Quinn, the 14th overall pick in 2011 NFL Draft, had 11 sacks in his first season as a starter. That’s an impressive total, but he benefitted incredibly from Long’s presence opposite him and even with Long, he still managed just 8 hits and 26 hurries on the season on 541 pass rush snaps, a 8.3% rate. You can’t just look at sack numbers because they don’t tell you anything about how long the quarterback held the ball, what kind of blocking the pass rusher faced, and who actually forced the sack. Quinn benefitted from good luck in all 3 of those aspects and was not the pass rusher those 11 sacks suggest. He also got blown up against the run and overall he was ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible. The former 1st round pick could be better this season, however.

The Rams also frequently use 3 defensive end sets on passing downs with reserves William Hayes and Eugene Sims coming into the game on passing downs. Sims struggled mightily to get pass rush with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 4 hurries on 244 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 4.5% rate. Hayes was better, but still pretty average rushing the passer with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 11 hurries on 225 pass rush snaps, a 10.7% rate. He excelled as a run stuffer though, ranking 5th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect.

The 3rd former 1st round pick on the line is Michael Brockers, the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Injuries delayed his debut until week 4, but the rookie still started 12 of 13 games upon his return, playing 615 snaps and grading out above average, especially against the run. He should be even better in his 2nd season in the league as he’s healthy and he doesn’t turn 23 until December. He was really raw coming out of LSU.

Brockers will once again start inside next to Kendall Langford. Langford signed a 4-year, 24 million dollar contract last off-season, but got blown up against the run in his first season playing 4-3 defensive tackle after spending his early career as a 5-technique defensive end in Miami. He rushed the passer alright though, with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 13 hurries on 411 pass rush snaps, a 4.9% rate. That’s not great for a defensive tackle, but it’s passable. The Rams were obviously counting on more from him when they gave him that contract though, so they’ll have to hope he bounces back. They don’t really have much of another option at the position if he doesn’t as Jermelle Cudjo, a mediocre backup, is their only other experienced player at the position.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Before last season, the Rams signed middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar deal that was a real overpay. Laurinaitis is a great leader on the field and always puts up big tackle numbers, but those tackles are more often filler than substance. Of his 482 total tackles in the last 4 seasons, last than half, 221, were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on second down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. I’m not saying he’s a bad player, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his 4 seasons and he’s nowhere near the middle linebacker that Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, even youngsters Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are. His deal was a serious overpay for a team that’s spent a lot of money in the last few off-seasons and seems headed for salary cap hell.

Laurinaitis will play every down once again, as will 1st round rookie Alec Ogletree. Ogletree was regarded as having top-10 talent, but fell to the Rams at 30th overall (after a trade down) because of off the field and work ethic concerns. We’ll have to see how this works out for the Rams, but it was certainly a risk for them. It’s not like it wasn’t a position of need, however.

Jo Lonn Dunbar actually graded out above average as an every down linebacker for them last season, but did so on a very strong run grade (3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers) and a strong blitzing grade with 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 9 hurries on 135 blitzes (further reason why I think it’s unlikely they match the 56 sacks they had last season). He struggled miserably in coverage, as could be expected from him, grading out worst at his position in that aspect, and he’ll be a much better fit in the 3rd linebacker spot. He’ll certainly be an upgrade over Rocky McIntosh, who graded out 37th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in that spot last year despite being a part time player. Jo Lonn Dunbar has a chance to be one of the better two-down linebackers in the NFL. He’ll come off the field on obvious passing downs for an extra defensive back.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Rams spent big money bringing Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis and reuniting him with former Head Coach Jeff Fisher last off-season, but he was largely a disappointment in his first season with the Rams. After grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback in 2011, he was below average overall in 2012, allowing 77 catches on 105 attempts for 747 yards, though he didn’t allow a touchdown and had 3 interceptions. He also just deflected 3 passes and missed 11 tackles, though he was penalized just twice. He’s really been up in down in his career as he ranked 96th out of 100 eligible in 2010 before that great 2011 season and he was a slightly above average player in both 2008 and 2009. It’s tough to know what to expect from him this season, but a bounce back wouldn’t really surprise me. He covers the slot in 3-cornerback sets, in addition to starting and covering #1 receivers.

The other starter for the Rams is Janoris Jenkins, a 2012 2nd round pick. Jenkins kept his nose clean in his first season in the NFL as off the field issues got him kicked off the Florida team and dropped him to the 2nd round after he transferred to North Alabama. He did some good things and some bad things on the field as a rookie. He scored 3 times on interception returns, though his overall total of 4 interceptions isn’t particularly impressive. However, he also missed a position leading 18 tackles and allowed 66 catches on 107 attempts for 715 yards and 5 touchdowns, while deflecting 10 passes and committing 2 penalties to go with those 4 interceptions. Overall, he graded out below average, ranking 101st out of 113 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie, but he should be more consistent in his 2nd season in the league.

Trumaine Johnson is also a 2nd year defensive back. He’ll be the 3rd cornerback and play outside with Jenkins when Finnegan moves to the slot. Johnson took over that role about halfway through last season from veteran Bradley Fletcher and played extremely well on 366 snaps, making 3 starts. Despite the limited playing time, Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked cornerback, allowing 22 catches on 42 attempts for 308 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and not committing a penalty. The big 6-2 205 pounder also played the run well. He was a 3rd round pick last April, but not for lack of talent. The Montana product also had off the field issues. He’ll see more playing time in his 2nd season in the league and could really show himself as one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and set himself up for a future starting job.

It’s possibly Johnson’s future as a starter could be at safety, considering his size and the fact that the Rams have much bigger holes at safety than cornerback. In fact, they might have the worst safety duo in the NFL. Craig Dahl and Quentin Mikell do not return as starters. Dahl won’t be missed that much because he was one of the worst safeties in the league last season, but Mikell was still an above average starter, playing the run well and showing himself to be an exceptional blitzer (3 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 65 blitzes).

In their absence, the Rams will start Darian Stewart and TJ McDonald. Stewart was one of the worst starting safeties in the NFL in 2011, grading out 83rd out of 87 eligible before seeing just 82 snaps as a pure reserve in 2012. Rams fans shouldn’t be excited to see him back in the starting lineup after he missed 20 tackles in 2011. McDonald, meanwhile, is a mere 3rd round rookie and he was a reach at that. The next Taylor Mays, the USC product has great speed and size (6-2 219, 4.59 40), but he’s a penalty prone, undisciplined tackler who can’t cover. Both of their safeties will be exposed early and often.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Jeff Fisher was out of the league in 2011 after being fired by the Tennessee Titans, but he remains a solid Head Coach. He held out for the right opportunity and was a hot commodity on the open market last offseason, deciding on St. Louis over Miami. He finished with a 142-120 record over 16+ seasons in Tennessee and was the longest tenured Head Coach in the league when he was finally fired. In his 16 full seasons, he’s finished at .500 or above 11 times. He made the playoffs 6 times, finishing 5-6 with one trip to the Super Bowl in 1999. In his first season with the Rams in 2011, he took them from 2-14 to 7-8-1 and has made them a competitive young team.

Grade: B

Overall

The Rams are undoubtedly a more talented team this season, but they would have probably seen another bounce down (at least a few games) this season if they hadn’t added the extra talent. I just have a hard time seeing them improve on last year’s record in the loaded NFC. They have talent, but they’re not a great team or anything and you look at the rest of the NFC, I don’t know if there’s a single NFC team that you can say, they’re definitely worse than the Rams. Someone has to lose all those games. I’m not saying they’ll lose a ton of games, but it’s more likely they go 4-12 than make the playoffs. Overall, I have them somewhere in between and making a small bounce back down wins wise. They’ll be a pesky opponent for playoff caliber teams though, as they’ve proven with wins over Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco last year that they can pull upsets.

That being said, they’ll be lucky to win one game against San Francisco and Seattle this year. Both of those teams are just significantly more talented. I’ll give them one and a season split with Arizona for a 2-4 divisional record. Outside the division, they host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Chicago, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay. Jacksonville and Tennessee should be pretty easy wins and they could pull an upset over New Orleans, a poor road team. Chicago and Tampa Bay won’t be unwinnable either, so I have them at 3-2 in those 5 games. However, trips to Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Carolina, and Indianapolis will be tough. They’ll be lucky to win one of those games

Projection: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

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Arizona Cardinals 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

When a team has a pre-season over/under win total of 6 or less, the over actually hits roughly 2/3rds of the time. It makes sense. The NFL is a parity filled league in which teams’ win totals change an average of 3 games per season. Teams that were bad the previous season, which are usually the teams with low over/unders, are usually not quite as bad the following season (and vice versa). This season, only three teams have pre-season over/under win totals of 6 or less, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Arizona.

Jacksonville and Oakland make sense. They had 2 of the top-3 picks in the draft last season, winning 6 games between them last season (Jacksonville, 2, Oakland, 4), but Arizona won 5 games last season and, unlike Jacksonville and Oakland, they seem significantly improved overall this season as compared to last season. I don’t love going over the 5.5 number on any of those 3 teams, but Arizona is the only team I would consider putting money on, which, given history, isn’t a bad idea.

The Cardinals’ largely return the same roster from last season, but they are significantly improved at two crucial spots, quarterback and Head Coach. Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t a bad coach at all, but, despite trying a ton of different quarterbacks, the only one the supposed offensive genius had success with was Kurt Warner, who took them to a Super Bowl.

New Head Coach Bruce Arians, meanwhile, was probably the best Head Coaching hire of the off-season. It’s rare that someone like Arians is available on the Head Coaching market and it took a special set of circumstances. Arians was actually the Coach of the Year last season in Indianapolis, taking over for the cancer stricken Chuck Pagano after week 3 and guiding the Colts to a playoff berth and the 2nd biggest single season turnaround in NFL history. The only reason he was available was because Pagano is in remission and set to take over as Head Coach once again. He was the only option on the market who wasn’t completely inexperienced or a retread who had recently been fired.

Prior to taking over as Interim Head Coach of the Colts last season, Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, where he guided many successful offenses (including a Super Bowl victory) in 5 seasons in that role. In Indianapolis, his work with rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts’ young offense was noticeable and he also demonstrated incredible leadership in very troubling times. If anyone can get the Cardinals’ stagnant offense off the ground, it’s Bruce Arians.

Stagnant might be too nice of a term. In 3 seasons since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have scored 18.1 points per game (26th), 19.5 points per game (24th), and last season a pathetic 15.6 points per game (31st).  Last season, they ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.6) and yards per carry (3.4), while allowing a league leading 58 sacks. That’s the stagnant offense trifecta. Their leading passer had 1169 passing yards and their leading rusher had 356 rushing yards. The last team to average fewer than the 4.1 yards per play they averaged last season was the 2008 Cincinnati Bengals and every team in the league averaged at least a half yard more per play than they did last season.

Quarterbacks

Things were probably the worst under center. Kevin Kolb did well to start the season, leading a game winning drive week 1 in relief of an injured John Skelton en route to an improbable 4-0 start. He actually went 4-2 overall in his 6 games, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, guiding a solid defense (16.2 points per game allowed in those 6 games) and not making a lot of mistakes.

However, when he was lost for the season, things became so bad it was actually really funny unless you were a Cardinals fan. The terrible trio of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer combined to complete 228 of 425 (53.6%) for 2214 yards (5.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 53.2. You could have put a drunken Derek Anderson or a purple dranked up JaMarcus Russell under center and gotten better production than that trio gave you.

The only game they won the rest of the way required them to get two pick sixes, another interception to start a drive on their opponent’s 3 yard line, and a 4th down stop deep in their opponent’s territory followed immediately by a 31 yard touchdown run. They gained 196 yards all game. If they had to play another 16 games with that trio under center, I guarantee you they would have not won more than 2 games at best and both of them would have required multiple return touchdowns/acts of God.

John Skelton is now in Cincinnati fighting to make their roster as their 3rd quarterback. Ryan Lindley remains on the Cardinals’ roster for the moment as the clear 3rd quarterback. There’s a very small chance the 6th round rookie from San Diego State was just incredibly overwhelmed being thrust into action like that last season, but if you watch his collegiate tape his accuracy was miserable there as well. Brian Hoyer, the only quarterback of the 3 who looked like he belonged on an NFL roster, is now in Cleveland, competing with Jason Campbell for the backup quarterback job.

Kevin Kolb is also gone as the Cardinals decided they had enough of the overpaid, injury prone quarterback. As I mentioned, the Cardinals also have a new quarterback along with Bruce Arians to help them fix this stagnant offense. Kolb has been replaced with a more durable option in Carson Palmer. Palmer isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll still be a million times better than what they trotted out there in the final 10 games of last season.

The soon to be 34-year-old is what he is at this point in his career and could be on the decline. He is a better fantasy quarterback than real quarterback. In reality, he turns the ball over too much, is too inefficient inside the red zone, and produces too much of his production in garbage time, which is why he was able to throw for 4000 yards with a 85.3 QB rating on a 4-12 team that scored 18.1 points per game last season in Oakland. However, he’ll have a much better group of supporting playmakers (more on that in a minute) and a great offensive minded Head Coach in Bruce Arians who is going to give him a lot of opportunities to make things happen downfield and accumulate yards.

Wide Receivers/Tight End

At the very least, he’ll be able to get the ball to a good group of receivers, which, again, makes him a million times better than what they had last season. You never would have been able to tell from their stats, but this is a very talented receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the great receivers of his generation. However, he has sadly never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years, but he’s always produced. Last year, however, was too much for even him to handle as Arizona’s pathetic quarterback play limited him to 71 catches for 798 yards and a career low 4 touchdowns. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games and he’s only missed 4 games with injury in his career. I expect him to bounce back.

What was lost in Arizona’s miserable 2012 season was that wide receiver Andre Roberts had a breakout year, as so many receivers do in their 3rd year in the league, just no one noticed because his production was limited by the guys throwing him the ball. Roberts’ 64 catches for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns not only  were all career highs, but they are pretty close to what Larry Fitzgerald produced and he did so on 40 fewer targets and 80 fewer pass snaps. Like the rest of this Arizona receiving corps, Roberts will benefit from improved quarterback play. He’ll probably rotate snaps in 2-wide sets with promising 2nd year Michael Floyd, but there will be enough 3-wide sets and enough yards to go around for both young receivers to get on the field.

Michael Floyd is the really exciting one. Floyd was a 1st round pick of the Arizona Cardinals last year, taken with the 13th pick at the urging of Larry Fitzgerald, who felt that Floyd could be what Anquan Boldin once was, someone to take the bracket coverage off of Fitzgerald. However, because of this fantasy football centric/immediate results world we live in, Floyd was seen as largely a disappointment.

However, when you look at history, there is nothing disappointing about his rookie year. Receivers, even 1st round picks, take at least a year to come around.  Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Floyd’s 45 catches for 562 yards and 2 touchdowns are actually right in line with that and he got better as the season went on, catching 32 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in his final 8 games, culminating in a 8 catch for 166 yards and a touchdown performance week 17.

Plus, he did that despite some of the worst quarterbacking in the NFL. It’s no surprise that Floyd’s big game week 17 came in the first game he played serious snaps with even a legitimate NFL backup caliber quarterback under center in Brian Hoyer, who went 19 of 34 for 225 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. He and Palmer should be able to hook up for some good production, as he figures to see plenty of single coverage. He could have a breakout year as a complement opposite Larry Fitzgerald.

Rob Housler, meanwhile, is the tight end. Housler caught 45 passes for 417 yards last year, which isn’t much, but again, consider who the Cardinals’ quarterbacks were. His 1.07 yards per route run were just a touch under Larry Fitzgerald’s 1.18. With a legitimate quarterback under center now, heading into his 3rd year in the league, the athletic 2011 3rd round pick could have a breakout year and establish himself as a solid pass catching tight end. He doesn’t block much though. Jeff King, the blocking tight end, will continue to come in during two-tight end sets. It’s a highly underrated receiving corps and at the very least, Carson Palmer should be able to let that show.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Things are not as good at running back and on the offensive line as they are in the receiving corps, but they should be improved over last season at the very least. As I mentioned in the opening, the Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL rushing for 3.4 yards per carry and didn’t have a rusher go for more than 356 yards. They had optimism going into the season with 2009 1st round pick Beanie Wells and 2011 2nd round pick Ryan Williams. Wells was coming off a breakout 245/1047/10 season from the year before and Williams was set to return after missing his rookie year with injury.

However, both struggled immensely. Wells averaged 2.7 yard per carry coming off off-season knee surgery and Williams averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, coming off his own injury problems. Williams went down for the season with a shoulder injury after week 5 and Wells missed 8 games of his own with injury before coming back and continuing to struggle. He famously said before the final game of the season that he was auditioning for the other 31 teams in that game. He didn’t see the field at all, putting himself in Ken Whisenhunt’s doghouse with his comments and this off-season he was cut. He remains a free agent at still 24 years old this off-season (25 in August). All of this led to way too much of Alfonso Smith (3.6 yards per carry on 60 carries) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (3.2 yards per carry on 110 carries) in Arizona’s backfield.

Williams is set to return this season. Injuries have limited him to 58 carries in his first 2 years in the league. Throw in an injury riddled final season at Virginia Tech in 2010 and you’ve got the definition of an injury risk. He clearly came back too early from his torn patellar tendon last year, before that unrelated shoulder injury ended his season. At this point, his knee is probably as good as it’s going to get and he’s still a talented back with plenty of opportunity (at only 23 years of age) in Arizona’s backfield if he can prove himself, but he might be damaged goods at this point.

Williams will compete for lead back duties and split carries with Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall, a 1st round pick of the Steelers’ in 2008, rushed for 3309 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter in Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t as good as those numbers would suggest. He was largely a volume rusher, with 794 carries in those 3 seasons, an average of just 4.2 yards per carry and even that had a lot to do with his surrounding offensive talent. He also contributes very little on passing downs, with just 66 catches in those 3 seasons. Last season, a torn ACL suffered in January limited him to 51 carries for 182 yards.

However, he’s another year removed from that injury this year and he reunites with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and there’s some bounce back potential here. Williams has by far the most upside though. I expect Mendenhall to handle most of the early down work and Williams to serve as a change of pace and passing downs back, at least early in the season. The two of them don’t make a particularly impressive running back committee, but they should, at the very least, be an upgrade over the mess they had at running back last season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Things on the offensive line are very similar to how they are at running back, not good, but not as bad as they were last season. I mentioned the league leading 58 sacks allowed last season. Things weren’t actually as bad as that made it seem. When hits and hurries are factored into the equation in a measure known as pass block efficiency, they actually ranked 30th in the NFL (though they were ProFootballFocus’ worst rated pass blocking offense). That’s not good, but it’s a little bit better than dead last.

On top of that, while their starting offensive tackles surrendered 25 sacks in the first 8 games of the season (more than double any other starting tackles in the NFL at that point in the season), they surrendered just 7 in the final 8 games of the season. What happened? Well, for one, turnstile D’Anthony Baptiste, who allowed 12 sacks in those first 8 games, got benched for 7th round rookie Nate Potter and played just 75 snaps the rest of the way. Despite his limited playing time, Baptiste still managed to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 79th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible.

Potter wasn’t great or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle in his limited time, but he wasn’t as bad as Baptiste, allowing just 7 sacks. The 2012 7th round pick could be better in his 2nd season in the league. He’ll compete with Levi Brown, who is returning from a triceps injury that cost him all of 2012.

Brown isn’t good or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst rated offensive tackle in 2009 and worst rated offensive tackle in 2010, but he did show signs down the stretch in 2011 before getting hurt, grading out 57th out of 76 eligible for the season and allowing just 2 sacks in his final 7 games of the season, grading out positively in all 7. At the very least, he’s a good run blocker and he’s not D’Anthony Baptiste, though he’s nowhere near the “elite” left tackle Bruce Arians is trying to sell him to the media as.

Meanwhile, at right tackle, Bobby Massie somehow didn’t give up a single sack from their 9th game of the season on, after allowing 13 sacks in the first 8 games of the season, including 6 sacks in one game against St. Louis week 5. The 4th round rookie just hit his stride and though he still graded out as ProFootballFocus 72nd ranked offensive tackle, he graded out alright against the run overall and really improved in pass protection down the stretch. In his 2nd season in the league, he might actually be an above average right tackle. He unfortunately doesn’t have the foot speed to ever be considered a legitimate candidate to move to the blindside.

The developmental of Massie and Potter, as well as the return of Levi Brown, made the Cardinals not feel the need to draft an offensive tackle in the 1st round this off-season. That might not have been the worst idea considering they would have had to reach for one at 7th overall, though they should have really added one at some point. Instead, they used that pick to shore up the inside of their offensive line, drafting Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina.

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. Cooper 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 even if he is just a guard. The Titans made a similar move 3 picks later, taking Chance Warmack from Alabama.

Cooper will slot in immediately at his natural spot at left guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. Cooper will move Daryn Colledge to right guard. Colledge isn’t a bad player or anything, but it makes more sense to play Cooper in his natural spot. Colledge is a marginal at best starter who will compete with intriguing 4th round rookie Earl Watford for the starting right guard job. Watford has generated a lot of buzz this off-season, but the transition from James Madison to the NFL might be too much for him to win the starting job as a rookie. They’d be better off going with the veteran.

Meanwhile, at center, Lyle Sendlein will return from a season ending torn MCL. He too is a marginal starter, though he’s a well-regarded captain of this offensive line and a great locker room guy. Overall, it’s not a great offensive line and they still lack at the all-important left tackle position, but they should be better than they were last season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I said in the opening, the Cardinals’ defense only allowed 16.2 points per game in the first 6 games of the season. That wasn’t totally a fluke. The previous season, they allowed 18.3 points per game in their final 9 games. That’s a solid 15 game stretch where they were allowing in the teens in terms of points per game. They did allow 26.0 points per game in the final 10 games of the season, but you can blame the offense’s inability to stay on the field and to establish good field position for that. In terms of defensive DVOA, they ranked 6th last season (but dead last offensively).

However, there are several reasons why I don’t think they’ll play quite that well this season, the most prominent being the uncertainty of middle linebacker Daryl Washington with off the field issues, which I’ll get into later. Washington is one of 3 big time building blocks for this season, one in each level of the defense and without him, things just aren’t the same.

On the defensive line, the building block is Calais Campbell. Despite missing 3 games with injury last season, he still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end, behind only JJ Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson. That’s nothing new for him as he graded out 2nd in 2011, 8th in 2010, and 4th in 2009. The 2008 2nd round pick has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in football in relative obscurity in Arizona. He’s worth every penny of the 5-year, 55 million dollar contract the Cardinals gave him before the 2012 season, after making him their franchise player. He’s still only going into his age 27 season.

Opposite him, Darnell Dockett used to be a similar kind of player. In 2011, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but in 2012, he ranked dead last at his position. He spent a lot of time this off-season blaming ex-defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme for that, but Campbell didn’t seem to mind it and Dockett did just fine under Horton the previous season. It’s possible a switch to a more penetrating scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will revitalize him and he is a better fit for a scheme that allows him to move around, rather than plugging two gaps, but it’s also possible that going into his age 32 season, his best days are behind him.

At nose tackle, the Cardinals have 2010 1st round pick Dan Williams. Williams hasn’t been a bad player in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t been able to be much more than a part-time player and a pure two-down nose tackle. He stops the run well, but little else and he’s also had weight and conditioning problems that have earned him a spot in former coaches’ doghouses. Going into his 4th season in the league, he may be counted on to play a new career high in snaps (right now it’s 428) and play more passing downs and rush the passer with Dockett on the decline. We’ll see if he can handle it. David Carter is another option. The 2011 6th round pick has been solid in reserve the last 2 seasons.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, stud middle linebacker Daryl Washington has a laundry list of off the field problems. Washington is already suspended for the first 4 games of the season in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but he could be facing additional games as his domestic assault case plays out in court. He’s been working with the 2nd team defense this off-season and while he’ll probably regain a starting job whenever he returns, it’s a clear message that he’s walking a thin line.

In his absence, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Minter will be the starters. Minter is a 2nd round rookie so we’ll see what he has. Dansby, meanwhile, returns to Arizona after 3 seasons in Miami. He’s a versatile player who can play 4-3 middle linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker, and 3-4 inside linebacker, which will be his primary position in Arizona. He graded out above average as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker last season, but he was cut in favor of the younger Dannell Ellerbe and took a while to find a new home. Heading into his age 32 season, we might not be able to expect him to be anything more than an average starter this season.

Certainly, Dansby and Minter will not have anywhere near the kind of impact that Daryl Washington had last season, though it’s good to see that Paris Lenon, who graded out as the 2nd worst middle linebacker in the league last year, is no longer a starter. Washington was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker last season and the 2010 2nd round pick is only going into his age 27 season. He excels at pretty much everything, especially stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. The latter is actually probably where he’ll be missed the most.

No team blitzed their middle linebackers more last season than the Arizona Cardinals, with a rush linebacker usually taking their spot in coverage. It wasn’t just Washington. Washington’s 154 blitz snaps were actually 2nd at his position behind Lenon (who was not nearly as good). It’s unclear if the Cardinals will continue to do that under new leadership defensively, but as long as Washington is on the field, they’d be stupid not to at least utilize Washington in that manner. He’s much better blitzing than he is in coverage as he had 9 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on those 154 blitzes. No middle linebacker graded out better blitzing the quarterback and it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t a fluke either as in 2011 he was 2nd at his position in terms of blitzing grade, with 6 sacks, 5 hits, and 19 hurries on 141 blitzes.

The reason this will probably be where he’s missed most is because they have absolutely no one who can get to the quarterback from the outside. Despite Washington’s strong play as a blitzer and Campbell’s strong play on the defensive line, they still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked team in terms of rushing the passer. Even though rushing the passer is not their primary job, Campbell and Washington still combined for 16 of the team’s 39 sacks. They’ll really struggle to get to the quarterback without him.

Sam Acho was ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked rush linebacker out of 34 eligible, particularly struggling rushing the passer. O’Brien Schofield, who started just 9 games due to injury, wasn’t much better, ranking 26th despite limited playing time. The oft injured Schofield is now buried on the depth chart, but not behind anyone they can expect much from. Alex Okafor is a mere 4th round rookie, while free agent acquisition Lorenzo Alexander is a 30-year-old career backup and special teamer. Even Tim Fugger, a 2nd year undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap for the team last season, is ahead of Schofield. It’s not a promising group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Cardinals also suffered some off-season losses in the secondary, losing starting safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Wilson was a declining player who was benched in sub packages down the stretch, so he won’t be a huge loss, but Kerry Rhodes was actually ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked safety last season and he only remains unsigned as of this writing because of his age (31) and asking price.

In their absence, the Cardinals will start Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson. Bell had somewhat of a bounce back year with the Jets last season, grading out just below average, but that was because he rarely played outside of the box. In 2011, with Miami, he was ProFootballFocus’ 74th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. Heading into his age 35 season, he could be one of the worst starting safeties in the league this season.

3rd round rookie Tyrann Mathieu would get the first crack of replacing Bell in the starting lineup should he expectedly struggle, though he’s undersized and inexperienced. Johnson, meanwhile, is a below average career backup who saw some action down the stretch in sub packages last season in place of Wilson. The 2009 3rd round pick played just 115 snaps last season and seems unlikely to be anything more than a marginal starter at best.

Fortunately, the Cardinals should expect an even better season from Patrick Peterson, the building block of their secondary. Peterson is a little overrated right now. That’s not to say he’s not a good player. However, he made the Pro-Bowl as a rookie in 2011 for his return skills and not for his coverage skills, as he graded out 102nd out of 109 eligible cornerbacks and, while he improved to 18th in 2012, he still was not deserving of the Pro-Bowl nod he got as a cornerback. However, going into his 3rd year in the league, he has a chance to breakout as legitimately one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He has that kind of talent and he’s only 23. It’s unclear if he’ll continue to return punts now that he’s their legitimate #1 cornerback.

Opposite him, however, things are a mess. Incumbent starter William Gay is gone, which isn’t bad because he was ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible last season, but replacements Jerraud Powers (81st) and Antoine Cason (107th) aren’t much better. They’ll compete for the starting job with 2012 3rd round pick Jamell Fleming, who graded out below average on 277 snaps as a rookie last year. Javier Arenas, a decent slot cornerback and nothing more, will also be in the mix for snaps on the slot. Whoever wins the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs, they will be positions of weakness.

Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson are really the only two players on defense who you can expect to be something more than an average starter. Washington belongs in that sentence as well as long as he’s on the field, but that’s a question mark. However, as good as those 3 are, they just have a lot of average at best defensively, which is why I can’t see them being the 6th best defense in the league like DVOA said they were last year and why I can’t see them allowing in the teens scoring wise even if their offense improves as it should.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

I think I’ve already said everything I can about Bruce Arians. I can’t remember a time when a reigning Coach of the Year switched teams in the off-season. This was absolutely the best hire they could make and it gives them their best chance of turning things around offensively. Even though he has just one year of Head Coaching experience, he excelled in that one year and he excelled as an offensive coordinator as well prior to that.

Grade: B+

Overall

While I expect the Cardinals to surpass their over/under projection of 5.5 wins, it won’t be by much. This is a much improved team, but they play in a loaded conference and an especially loaded division so I don’t see much more than 6 or 7 wins for them. They’ll be lucky to take one from Seattle and San Francisco in those 4 games and lucky to split with St. Louis. They’ll win 1 or 2 divisional games.

Outside of the division, they host Detroit, Carolina, Atlanta, Houston, and Indianapolis. All 5 of those teams might be better than them so they’ll be lucky to get 2 wins out of those 5. So far, I have them at 3 or 4 wins. Fortunately, they have trips to Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia, with only a trip to New Orleans appearing unwinnable. They should be able to get another couple of wins there and get to that 6 win total.

Projection: 6-10 4th in NFC West

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San Francisco 49ers 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Last off-season, I predicted a down season for the 49ers for a variety of reasons. Teams that have huge jumps in win totals usually regress about half the total the following season (for the 49ers, that would have been 3.5, bringing them down to 9 or 10 wins). Teams that win 13 games like the 49ers did in 2011 on average actually only win around 9.5 games the following season anyway. The 49ers also won those 13 games thanks to virtually no injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball, an unsustainably good turnover margin of +28, and about 8 or 9 guys on the defensive side of the ball having career best seasons. My theory was that a significantly worse turnover margin, more injuries, and about half of those guys on defense having noticeably worse seasons would bring down the 49ers’ win total.

And I wasn’t completely wrong. The 49ers went from +28 to +9 in turnover margin. Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, and Donte Whitner all had noticeably worse seasons on the defensive side of the ball, as the 49ers gave up roughly 3 points more per game (not a huge difference, but significant). They didn’t have many injuries once again as they somehow managed to go from 8th in adjusted games lost to 1st in adjusted games lost. An injury to Justin Smith late in the season did really hurt their defense though, as in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game. That’s slightly skewed by the fact that, with the exception of a week 17 game against Arizona, they faced all playoff teams in that stretch, including New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta, but the injury really did hurt them.

What saved their season was actually another injury, however, as Alex Smith got hurt, allowing Colin Kaepernick to take over under center and make this a better team, in spite of the worsened turnover margin, defensive starter regression, etc. If you look at their respective records, it doesn’t look like Kaepernick really made this a much better team. Alex Smith went 6-2-1 in his 9 starts and, including playoffs, Kaepernick went 7-3. That’s not a noticeable difference, especially considering Smith did go 13-3 the season before. Even when you take into account that Smith was losing his final start to the Rams before Kaepernick came in and salvaged a tie, it still doesn’t look like Kaepernick was a significantly better quarterback just looking at records, but you have to go deeper.

While Smith played 3 eventual playoff teams in his 9 starts, Kaepernick faced 5 playoff teams in his 10 starts. That’s in addition to a game against 10-win Chicago and a trip to New Orleans. In addition, he had to go to Seattle late in the season, while Smith got to face them at home when Russell Wilson was still getting his feet wet. Even though Smith beat Seattle and Kaepernick lost his game to Seattle, they actually scored the same amount of points in those 2 games, 13. Smith also had more defensive support. In the 8 games he started and finished, the defense surrendered 12.9 points per game. In Kaepernick’s 10 starts, the defense allowed 23.5 points per game, largely due to a tougher schedule and Justin Smith’s injury. Smith also had the benefit of a defense that allowed 14.3 points per game in 2011.

How did he manage a similar record to Smith with much less defensively support? Well he led the offense to more points per game, despite a tougher schedule. While Smith led the offense to 23.6 points per game in 2012 and 23.8 points per game in 2011, Kaepernick led them to 28.8 points per game in his 10 starts. He did that despite less support on the ground from Frank Gore, who annually struggles in the 2nd half of the season. Gore averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed 4.0 yards per carry in the second 8 games of the regular season, though he did average 5.1 yards per carry in 3 playoff games.

With the schedule toughening, the defense about to start allowing more points, and Gore about to start struggling, the 49ers might have had a tough time making the playoffs had Smith started the 2nd half of their season, let alone getting to the Super Bowl. Had they not come back in that St. Louis game, they would have been 6-3 after 9 games.

They allowed 20.9 points per game in the final 7 games of the regular season. If they had continued to average around the 23 and a half points per game that Smith was leading them to for the past season and a half (optimistic considering Gore and the strengthed schedule), they probably would have gone 4-3 in those 7 games, putting them at 10-6. Seattle would have won the division and the 49ers would have been battling for the 10-win Bears and the 10-win Vikings for the 2 wild card spots in the NFC. They would have been much less likely to go to the Super Bowl.

If that’s enough to convince you that going from Kaepernick to Smith saved their season, Kaepernick also made throws of much higher difficulty and skill level. ProFootballFocus grades every throw a quarterback makes. In 7 ½ regular season games, Kaepernick graded out with a +12.8 throwing the football (not even taking into account his running ability). That was almost triple Smith’s score of +4.9 in 8 ½ games. In 16 regular season games in 2011, Smith was at +16.6, which fell to +10.4 after two playoff games. Kaepernick got better in the post-season, grading out at +20.0 with the post-season taken into account.

If Gore gets off to another hot start again this season and if the defense bounces back somewhat (I don’t think they’ll allow 23.5 points per game this season), they’re going to be near impossible to beat in the 1st half of the season and things aren’t going to get much easier for their opponents from there on out. They probably have the most non-quarterback talent in the NFL, even with a torn Achilles ending Michael Crabtree’s season, and now they actually have a top level quarterback who can win without the team needing to dominate the turnover battle.

There are a few concerns: one is the unlikely possibility that defensive coordinators have completely figured Kaepernick from an off-season of watching tape. The second one is more likely, it’s that their injury luck finally runs out (Crabtree’s torn Achilles could be just the start), but even then they should have to talent to compensate. There’s also the possibility that Justin Smith ages in a hurry (or gets hurt). He proved to be their most important defensive player last season. Without him, Aldon Smith and their secondary got completely exposed. They also probably won’t continue to recover 58.5% of their fumbles, though Kaepernick has given this team the ability to win without dominating the turnover battle.

Finally, no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. Still, I like this team a lot more going into 2013 than I did going in 2012. They should be among the best regular season teams and compete for a 2nd straight 1st round bye. And I won’t rule out them breaking that aforementioned trend.

Quarterbacks

I mentioned Colin Kaepernick’s throwing ability in the opening, but that’s only one side of him. He’s also, obviously, a very talented runner, rushing for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns on 75 carries in about 10 ½ games. His versatility is what will make it very hard for teams to adjust to him and he has a very low chance of a sophomore slump for that reason. Also, he has no history of serious injuries and at 6-4 230 he’s very sturdy running in the open field. He led them to 5 more points per game last season than Smith and should continue to lead the 49ers to the high 20s in points per game.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One player who should have been really helped out by Kaepernick’s presence last season is Frank Gore. Mobile quarterbacks from Tim Tebow to Vince Young to Robert Griffin to Russell Wilson all significantly helped their starting running backs because defenses have to worry about the quarterback’s ability to take off. However, Gore’s tendency to struggle in the 2nd half of seasons got in the way of that. In 2011, he averaged 4.9 YPC in his first 8 games and 3.6 YPC in his last 8 games, while in 2012, he went from 5.5 YPC to 4.0 YPC.

That makes sense considering Gore’s age as he heads into his age 30 season. The 49ers have drafted a running back in each of the last 3 drafts, adding Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and most recently Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore might not see a snap this season because of injury, but with Hunter and James maturing, they should cut into Gore’s touches even more this season, in an attempt to keep him fresher down the stretch.

49ers have cut his touches per game in each of the last 2 years, from 22.6 in 2010 to 18.7 in 2011 to 17.9 in 2012. Expect that number to shrink down even more in 2013 and he’s not as big a part of the passing game under Jim Harbaugh as he used to be, catching 45 passes in the last 2 years combined after averaging 51 per year in the previous 5 years. Colin Kaepernick, who rarely checks down, threw to him even less, as he caught just 11 passes in his 10 starts. However, fewer touches could help him on a per carry basis, as could Kaepernick’s presence for a whole season.

This will probably be Gore’s last season in San Francisco as they’re unlikely to want to bring him back for his age 31 season in 2014, when he’ll be owed a non-guaranteed 6.45 million. They seem confident in the trio of Lattimore, Hunter, and James for the future. There’s also a chance he could see his abilities fall off a cliff this season, but that’s not a huge concern as they have the running back depth to compensate.

Hunter has rushed for 844 yards and 4 touchdowns on 184 carries, with 25 catches for 255 yards, in 2 seasons since going in the 4th round in 2011. James, meanwhile, rushed for 125 yards on 27 carries with 3 catches for 29 yards in limited action as a 2nd round rookie as Gore’s primary backup in Hunter’s absence late in the season. He also rushed for 65 yards and a score on 11 post-season attempts. Meanwhile, fullback Bruce Miller is one of the best in the game, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked fullback last season after ranking 9th as a rookie in 2011.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Their running game is also helped by an unbelievable offensive line. They were much improved overall in 2012, as opposed to 2011. In 2011, they graded out 3rd in run blocking, 29th in pass blocking, and 24th in pass block efficiency. In 2012, they ranked 7th, 1st, and 17th respectively in those 3 measures. The right side of their offensive line was most improved. They went into 2012 with Anthony Davis, a 2010 1st round pick, looking like a bust at right tackle after 2 straight poor seasons, especially struggling in pass protection, and with an unknown at right guard. They “lost” incumbent Adam Snyder in free agency, but he was one of the worst guards in the league the season before. However, new starter Alex Boone was a converted tackle who had seen very little action anywhere since going undrafted in 2009 for character reasons.

Boone had a huge breakout season in his first year as a starter, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard, excelling as a run blocker. Davis, meanwhile, finally capitalized on his upside, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked offensive tackle (and 2nd ranked right tackle behind Andre Smith), excelling as a run blocker as well.

Also capitalizing on his upside and first round talent was left guard Mike Iupati, who broke out last season, ranking 5th on ProFootballFocus’ among guards, excelling in, yes, run blocking. Of the trio of breakout stars, he has the best chance of maintaining or even improving that level of play in 2013 and beyond because, even before his breakout season, he was ProFootballFocus, 13th and 11th ranked guard in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Boone and Davis are still one year wonders at this point, but they should continue playing well in 2013.

Their best offensive lineman was actually Joe Staley, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle on the blindside at left tackle. He’s another former 1st round pick, from the 2007 draft class, and while he never did anything like what he did last season before, he’s always been a solid starter so he should continue being one of the best left tackles in the game in 2013.

Their “weak point” was center Jonathan Goodwin. He did grade out 15th among eligible centers on ProFootballFocus, but he’s been inconsistent in the recent past and he’s heading into his age 35 season so there could be a falloff for him this season. However, if he’s your worst offensive lineman, you’re doing well. They will continue plowing open holes for their running backs and protecting Colin Kaepernick well.

Grade: A

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One thing that people are saying could lead to Kaepernick having a sophomore slump is the loss of #1 receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree and Kaepernick showed tremendous chemistry last season, leading to former 1st round pick Crabtree having a breakout year. Crabtree had 46 catches for 665 yards and 6 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season and then added another 20 catches for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 playoff games. However, top level quarterbacks can succeed without great receivers. Kaepernick should be able to just go to the next man.

That next man is probably going to be Vernon Davis. Davis faded away big time down the stretch when Kaepernick took over. In the final 11 games of the season, including playoffs, Davis caught just 28 passes for 428 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, that was more because Crabtree got so many more targets from Kaepernick. In those 11 games, Crabtree was targeted 95 times and Davis was targeted 43 times. It wasn’t necessarily that he played poorly.  He did catch 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in those 3 playoff games and with a whole off-season together with Kaepernick, he should take over as their #1 receiver, which will help make up for Crabtree’s absence. It’s certainly not like Davis is untalented or anything, as he averaged 67 catches for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns per season from 2009-2011. He’s also a great run and pass blocker.

Anquan Boldin’s presence should also help make up for Crabtree’s absence. Boldin was acquired from the Ravens for a 6th round pick as the Ravens couldn’t afford his salary. Boldin is aging, heading into his age 33 season, but he’s never been reliant on athleticism so he should age pretty well. His hands and body control won’t really age that fast. He caught 65 passes for 921 yards (both his highest totals since joining the Ravens) and 4 touchdowns last season and then exploded in the post-season, catching 22 passes for 380 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 games, along with at least a half dozen incredible catches that the Ravens would not have won the Super Bowl without. This year, he’ll serve as a solid #2 receiver on the last year’s Super Bowl runner up, though his days as a 1000 yard receiver are probably over.

The issue is, after him, they really lack depth in the receiving corps. The only other receiver on their roster with a significant number of career catches is Mario Manningham, a marginal receiver whose status for the season is in doubt after tearing his ACL last December. After Boldin and Crabtree, their projected next 3 receivers do not have a single career catch between them. That’s because two of them are rookies and one of them did not catch a pass in his rookie season last year.

Those players are Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, and AJ Jenkins. Jenkins and Patton will compete for the 3rd receiver job. Jenkins was a 1st round pick of the 49ers in 2012, but played just 47 total snaps as a rookie. The 49ers wanted to ease him into action, but I think they would have liked more than 47 snaps from him (with no catches). He just didn’t impress in practice at all. A questionable pick at the time (I thought Chris Givens, who went in the 4th round, was a similar style player who would be a better pro), that decision looks even more questionable now.

Patton, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie and he could prove to be a steal. He’s not overly athletic, but he’s a great physical possession receiver, catching 183 passes for 2594 yards and 24 touchdowns in the last 2 seasons for Louisiana Tech, including a 21 catch, 233 yard, 4 touchdown game against Texas A&M in a near upset in their biggest game of the season in 2012. While he looks to have a bright future, the transition from Louisiana Tech to the NFL might be too big for him to have much of an impact as a rookie. The 49ers also have Kyle Williams at wide receiver, but he’s a depth receiver coming off a torn ACL and while his 35 career catches are more than most of the team, they’re not impressive.

Vance McDonald is the other rookie and he’ll serve as the #2 tight end, replacing Delanie Walker. Walker is a loss. Considering how much they like to use two-tight ends, he was essentially a starter, but, as good of a blocker as he was, he had lead hands and very little athleticism in the open field. McDonald, however, is incredibly raw, though he has a ridiculous upside.

One of the stars of the Combine, he ran a 4.69 40 at 6-4 267 with 34 3/8 inch arms, 10 1/8 inch hands, and threw up 31 reps of 225. He’s got upside as both a blocker and a receiver and wasn’t utilized properly at Rice, where he was essentially a big slot receiver, which is why he didn’t really produce. We’ll see how much the 2nd round pick can contribute as a rookie. He’ll compete for the #2 tight end job with Garrett Celek, who will probably be the 3rd tight end again. He has 4 career catches.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned in the opening, the defense kind of fell apart last season down the stretch. The tougher schedule had a lot to do with it, but you can also blame Justin Smith’s injury for a lot of it. As I mentioned, in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game, though their schedule skews that number. Still, with him not on the field or with him playing at nowhere near 100%, they were not the same defense.

Smith didn’t really do a whole lot in terms of rushing the passer last season, even before the injury, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 21 hurries on 518 pass rush snaps, an uninspiring 6.0% pass rush rate, but he dominated against the run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run and 5th overall at his position. He also drew double teams with regularity, allowing Aldon Smith to see much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers, a big part of the reason why he had such a good season rushing the passer (more on that later).

However, in the post-season, he didn’t draw double teams, he managed just 2 hurries total in 3 games, and he struggled against the run. Overall, he saw a significant decline in 2012 from 2011, when he was ProFootballFocus’ highest graded defensive player overall, and, going into his age 34 season after a ridiculous workload over the past 2 seasons (2141 total snaps), he will probably continue to decline. He’s so important to their defense, so it’s a real concern for them this season.

If Smith gets hurt, it’s unclear who would take over his spot. They drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round to be his future successor, but he’s coming off a torn ACL of his own, suffered back in November. He was able to work out before the draft in April so he might be good to go for the start of the season, but it’s unclear at what level he can play. The other option is Glenn Dorsey, a free agent acquisition, but he was pretty uninspiring as a starter at 5-technique in Kansas City. Besides, he’s slated to be the starting nose tackle.

Dorsey might seem like an odd fit at nose tackle considering his best role would be as a one gap penetrating defensive tackle in a 4-3, but the 49ers use a nose tackle less frequently than any other 3-4 team because they’re in sub packages so much. Dorsey will get opportunities to rush the passer from the traditional defensive tackle spot in 4-3 under packages, spelling Smith and Ray McDonald. He also can’t be as bad as Isaac Sopoaga, who really struggled in very limited action as their nose tackle last season. Ian Williams is the other nose tackle option. He’s more of a true nose tackle, but the 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 39 snaps in 2 seasons with the team.

On the other side of the formation, the aforementioned Ray McDonald will remain the starter. McDonald had a breakout season in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in his first year as a starter, but, as could be predicted, he didn’t play as well in 2012, grading out 9th at his position. He wasn’t bad or anything, but it was a significant difference. He should once again be a solid starter who plays the run and rushes the passer well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned how much of Aldon Smith’s success was tied to Justin Smith. Aldon was 2nd in the league with 20 sacks and for a while looked on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single season record. However, because of Justin Smith, he saw much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers. ProFootballFocus takes all of this into account and they graded him out 3rd at his position overall and 2nd at his position in terms of rushing the passer. And when Justin got hurt, Aldon recorded one sack in his final 6 games of the season, including playoffs. If Justin starts showing his age or gets hurt again, it could really negatively affect Aldon and this pass rush as a whole. That’s an issue because of how dependent on the front 7 their secondary is, as you’ll see later.

Aldon also wasn’t as productive rushing the passer as his 20 sacks would suggest, even with Justin in front of him tying up blocks. To go with those 20 sacks, he had 13 hits, and 39 hurries on 538 pass rush snaps, a 13.4% pass rush rate that’s impressive, but not as elite as 20 sacks would suggest. In terms of pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per 100 snaps), he actually was behind Paul Kruger and 2nd at his position. Geno Atkins, Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson also did better than him in this aspect at other positions. Smith was also not an elite run player and committed 8 penalties, 2nd most at his position. He’s a very good player, but overrated. Justin Smith’s impact, meanwhile, is underrated.

Opposite Aldon, the 49ers have Ahmad Brooks. Brooks is not nearly the pass rusher than Aldon is, but he’s much more well rounded, excelling in coverage and against the run and being used in a variety of different ways for that reason. Overall, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He wasn’t a bad pass rusher, but graded out below average in that aspect, with 7 sacks, 10 hits, and 33 hurries on 492 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% rate. They also added Corey Lemonier in the 3rd round of the draft to provide depth and he’s a great athlete and pass rusher, but incredibly raw so I don’t expect much from him as a rookie. If Aldon Smith becomes less productive this season rushing the passer, they could have trouble in that aspect of the game.

Meanwhile, at middle linebacker for the 49ers, things are about as good as they get in the NFL. Patrick Willis is hands down the best middle linebacker in the NFL, grading out as a top-2 middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus for 5 straight seasons, something no one else comes close to. He was their #1 ranked middle linebacker both in 2009 and 2012 and he excels in all aspects of the game.

One of the seasons Willis didn’t rank #1 was 2011 and that was because teammate NaVorro Bowman ranked #1 that season. Bowman, a 2010 3rd round pick, slipped up a little bit in 2012 and he’s not on the same level as Willis, but no one really is. He certainly didn’t play bad, grading out as the #7 ranked middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus in his 2nd season as a starter. There’s not a better inside linebacker pair in the NFL.

Grade: A

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Secondary

I mentioned their secondary was exposed last season down the stretch as their front 7 and pass rush play slipped. Their secondary could be even worse this season. Dashon Goldson is gone. He’s an overrated player who wasn’t worth nearly what the Buccaneers paid him, but he was still an above average starter. 1st round rookie Eric Reid will start in his absence and he’ll probably be a downgrade, at least in his first season in the league.

Carlos Rogers could also be gone. Rogers had a down year in 2012 after a career year in 2011, as could be expected, but he still graded out above average. The 49ers are reportedly interested in making him a final cut, which would save them 4.25 million dollars. That might not be a bad idea considering he’s heading into his age 32 season and could be headed for a down season, but there’s no doubt that a top trio of cornerbacks that consists of three of Nnamdi Asomugha, Eric Wright, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver isn’t very imposing.

Brown is the only one of that quartet guaranteed a big role. Brown finished 2012 as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback, 7th if post-season is included. He didn’t allow a touchdown through the regular season, something only Cortland Finnegan and Antoine Winfield could also say among 16 game starters at cornerback. He was memorably burned for a touchdown by Julio Jones in San Francisco’s eventual NFC Championship victory over the Falcons, but that was the only touchdown he allowed all season, including playoffs, over 779 coverage snaps. He also missed just one tackle all season.

He finished the season allowing 61.1% completion on 113 attempts for 890 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 14 deflections, and 9 penalties. However, he really hit his stride starting week 8, grading out 2.0 (elite) or better on ProFootballFocus in 6 of his final 12 games, including 3 of 4 post-season games (Atlanta excluded). From week 8 on, he allowed 47 completions on 82 attempts (57.3%) for 551 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. In those final 12 games, he had 13 of his 14 deflections, including a 5 deflection game against Arizona week 8 that was his best game of the season.

While Carlos Rogers was technically the 49ers’ #1 cornerback, the 49ers have their cornerbacks exclusively cover one side of the field, rather than having one guy shadow the opponent’s best receiver, so Brown had plenty of chances to go against the best receivers in the league, especially down the stretch and he more than held his own. Working exclusively on the right side, Brown held Brandon Marshall to one catch for 8 yards on 3 attempts, Jordy Nelson to 1 catch for 8 yards on 2 attempts (in their post-season matchup with Green Bay), and Larry Fitzgerald to 1 catch for 15 yards on 5 attempts in 2 games.

Only Julio Jones, who burned him for 7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on 9 attempts, got the best of him among the elite receivers he faced down the stretch. With Goldson gone and Carlos Rogers aging and probably following him out the door, Brown could have his biggest responsibilities yet this season and could be San Francisco’s de facto #1 cornerback. Based on his play last season, he seems up to the challenge.

Eric Wright probably has the 2nd best chance to make the roster, if we assume Rogers is a goner, because he has the most experience on the slot, which has been Rogers’ specialty over the past 2 seasons. Wright was recently acquired from Tampa Bay for a late round pick and he’s not that good of a defensive back. When the Buccaneers signed Eric Wright to a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar contract last off-season, it looked like an absolutely ridiculous deal. Wright was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL the prior two seasons (just ask Cleveland and Detroit fans). There was a reason he was available for a 1-year deal the previous off-season before the 2011 season.

In 2011 with the Lions, he ranked 105 of 109 eligible cornerbacks by ProFootballFocus last season, allowing a completion percentage of 62.5%, 7.0 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, all while ranking below average against the run. He was actually thrown on more than any cornerback in the league except Jabari Greer, being thrown on 120 times. It was a move that reeked of desperation for a team with no defensive back talent and plenty of cap space to burn.

In 2012, he graded out below average on 518 snaps before the best possible thing that could happen for the Buccaneers happened: Wright got suspended for 4 games for performance enhancing drugs. That suspension voided all the guaranteed money on Wright’s deal and gave them all the leverage in the off-season, as they restructured his contract down to 1 year and a non-guaranteed 1.5 million for the 2013 season (rather than just cutting him outright).

However, he was arrested again for DUI earlier this month (he had a previous arrest last off-season) and that was apparently the last straw for the Buccaneers, who would have cut him outright (penalty free) and owed him no money, if they couldn’t find a trade partner. It was a pretty low risk trade for the 49ers because they aren’t giving up much (late round picks have a hard time making their roster because of their depth) and because he doesn’t have any guaranteed money, but he’s still not a great talent and there’s a chance he could be facing another suspension after another off-season DUI (last year’s was a felony and this was a misdemeanor, so that’s progress).

Culliver was their #3 cornerback, playing outside with Tarell Brown in 3-cornerback sets, when Rogers would move to the slot. He played 691 regular season snaps in that role last season because of how much they use sub packages. He graded out above average, allowing 36 catches on 73 attempts for 471 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 6 penalties. However, he struggled mightily in the post-season. He allowed 14 catches on 22 attempts for 252 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 3 penalties.

Asomugha is the other option and he’ll probably be on the outside looking out. He got old in a hurry after signing a massive deal with the Eagles 2 off-seasons ago. In 2011, he ranked 88th out of 109 eligible and in 2012 he ranked 101st out of 113 eligible. He’s going into his age 32 season this season and while he’s a better fit for the 49ers’ scheme than the Eagles’ scheme, he looks like the worst cornerback of the bunch. His speed is pretty much all gone.

Donte Whitner is the other starter in the secondary as he’ll play safety next to Eric Reid. Whitner made the Pro-Bowl last year, but only by association and because of the San Francisco Bay Area’s tendency to stuff the ballot box for All-Star games in all sports. He graded out below average and struggled mightily in coverage, especially in the post-season. In the regular season, he allowed 34 catches on 43 attempts for 330 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and not committing a penalty. In the post-season, he allowed 8 catches on 11 attempts for 86 yards, 1 penalty, 1 deflection, and another 4 touchdowns allowed. He allowed 12 touchdowns between the regular season and the post-season, a ridiculous amount considering the 49ers allowed just 26 passing touchdowns all season. He’s a box safety and that’s about it.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Not much explanation needed here. Harbaugh rebuilt Stanford’s football program, turning them from 1 win in 2006 to a perennial BCS bowl contender in 4 years and then won the NFL’s Head Coach of the Year Award in 2011, taking a perennial non-playoff team to the NFC Championship. The following season, he took them to the Super Bowl. He hasn’t been in the league very long, but he’s clearly one of the best.

Grade: A

Overall

Defensively, the 49ers won’t be the team that allowed 23.5 points per game in the 2nd half of last season and the playoffs and they definitely won’t be the team that allowed 31.8 points per game in the final 5 ½ games of the season. However, they are slipping on that side of the ball. Justin Smith, the most important cog, is aging and their secondary is really lacking on talent, which will be exposed if their pass rush struggles.

Offensively though, they averaged 5 points per more game under Kaepernick last season than they did under Smith in 2011 and the first half of 2012. Even if they start allowing 17-19 points per game, they’ll still outscore opponents by about 10 points per game because I expect them to also score 27-29 points per game. They remain one of the best teams in the NFL and they are built to win a Super Bowl more than they were at this point last season because they’re not as reliant on winning the turnover battle.

In the division, they should split with Seattle, an evenly matched team that is awesome at home and not as good on the road and they’ll probably sweep both St. Louis and Arizona, so I have them at 4 or 5 wins in the division. Outside of the division, they host Green Bay, Indianapolis, Houston, Carolina, and Atlanta. That’s a rough 5 games, but they should win at least 3 of them. They also go to Tennessee, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Washington, and Tampa Bay. New Orleans will be a tough place to win and Washington won’t be a pushover, but they should still win 12 or so games.

However, I won’t predict them to win the Super Bowl or even make it back to the Super Bowl because , no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. They could break that streak, but it’s more likely that it’s their turn to have a great regular season followed by a disappointing early playoff exit, following in the footsteps of Green Bay, Denver, and New England, who have done so in the last 2 seasons.

Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC West

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New York Giants 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Eli Manning (NY Giants)

Eli threw for 4933 yards in 2011, but other than that has never gone over 4021. He proved that 2011 was a fluke by throwing for just 3948 yards in 2012. It’s not that he’s a bad quarterback, but the Giants prefer a balanced attack. I do expect him to go over those 4021 yards this season because he’s got a loaded receiving corps with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Myers, and Reuben Randle.

Projection: 4200 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 50 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns (263 pts standard, 323 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB David Wilson (NY Giants)

8/29/13: I was already considering moving Wilson up because he was taking some of the goal line carries away from Andre Brown and because he was having an amazing pre-season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. However, Andre Brown is out indefinitely with a fractured ankle and might miss the entire season. It’s the same leg he fractured last season. He’s not draftable any more, while Wilson has minimal competition for carries and is as close to being a true feature back as you can be. There’s RB1 upside here. The Giants have averaged 16.6 rushing touchdowns per season since 2004. The last time a Giants’ starting running back was also the goal line back, he scored 15 times, Tiki Barber in 2004, before Brandon Jacobs and Andre Brown. Brandon Jacobs scored 15 times in 2008 despite splitting carries. Tom Coughlin runs on the goal line.

Wilson showed a lot of explosiveness as a rookie, especially on special teams, but he only got 71 carries. That should be closer to 200 this season. However, Andre Brown will continue to steal carries from him, especially around the goal line. The coaching staff doesn’t 100% trust Wilson get and Brown is the better short yardage and passing down back.

Projection: 280 carries for 1260 rushing yards 12 total touchdowns 28 catches for 200 rushing yards (218 pts standard, 246 pts PPR)

WR Victor Cruz (NY Giants)

Cruz didn’t match the 82 catches for 1536 yards and 9 touchdowns he had in 2011, but it would have been unreasonable to expect him to do that. He still caught 86 passes for 1092 yards and 10 touchdowns and he could do even better than that this season. His one issue last season was his 12 drops.

Projection: 84 catches for 1170 receiving yards 9 touchdowns (171 pts standard, 255 pts PPR)

WR Hakeem Nicks (NY Giants)

Nicks essentially missed 4 games last season and was limited in others, catching just 53 passes for a career low 692 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, remember, he averaged 78 catches for 1122 yards and 9 touchdowns per season in 2010 and 2011 despite missing 4 combined games in those 2 seasons. He’s never played a full 16 game set and I wouldn’t expect that to change this season, but I like his chances to get back over 1000 yards and give the Giants two 1000 yard receivers.

Projection: 71 catches for 1020 receiving yards 8 touchdowns (150 pts standard, 221 pts PPR)

TE Brandon Myers (NY Giants)

Giants tight ends always seem to be productive in the passing game, regardless of who they are. Tight ends coach Mike Pope is a big part of the reason for this, as is the offensive system and Eli Manning’s tendency to throw to the tight end. Myers caught 79 passes for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 101 targets last season with Carson Palmer throwing him the ball. He could match that, or even exceed that.

Projection: 74 catches for 790 receiving yards 5 touchdowns (109 pts standard, 183 pts PPR)

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Washington Redskins 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Robert Griffin (Washington)

Griffin is expected to be ready for week 1 of this season, but he has a history of knee problems so it’s unclear if he’ll be able to stay healthy for all 16 games and at what percent of his peak ability he’ll be able to play. They’re already talking about limiting his carries, which is such a big part of his game. He also shouldn’t be expected to maintain the 1.3% interception rate he had last season, even if he is healthy.

Projection: 3150 passing yards 19 passing touchdowns 9 interceptions 550 rushing yards 5 rushing touchdowns (269 pts standard, 307 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB Alfred Morris (Washington)

It can be easy to forget because of what Robert Griffin did, but RG3 wasn’t the Redskins’ only rookie sensation. 6th round rookie Alfred Morris surprisingly won the starting job week 1 and did his best Terrell Davis impression for the rest of the season, rushing for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 attempts. However, Morris owes a lot of his success to Griffin taking the attention off of him. Defenses had to focus on Griffin’s arm strength and running ability and, as a result, Morris had a lot of running room in their read option offense. Credit Morris for his vision, intelligence, and for wasting no movement, but it’s definitely worth noting that Morris rushed for just 3.2 yards per carry without Griffin against Cleveland. Morris’ running success will largely be tied to Griffin’s success and Morris also provides very little on passing downs, catching just 11 passes for 77 yards.

Projection: 300 carries for 1320 rushing yards 11 total touchdowns 10 catches for 70 yards (205 pts standard, 215 pts PPR)

WR Pierre Garcon (Washington)

Despite playing through injuries, Garcon had 633 yards on 215 routes run last season, good for 2.94 yards per route run, 2nd in the NFL among eligible wide receivers behind Andre Johnson. He was targeted 63 times, giving him a very impressive yard per target rate of over 10 per and with 63 targets on 215 routes run, he was by far Robert Griffin’s favorite target to throw to when he was on the field. Griffin was also very efficient when throwing to him, completing 69.8% of his passes for 10.0 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, a QB rating of 116.7, 14th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. It’s clear that Garcon has a ton of upside in his role in Washington’s offense. As long as he and Griffin can stay healthy, they he can put up big numbers. It’s a risk, but there’s a ton of upside here.

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

TE Fred Davis (Washington)

Tight end Fred Davis went down with a season ending torn Achilles early in their 7th game of the season. He was brought back on a one year prove it deal that could pay dividends if he’s healthy. He’s only played in 18 full games over the past 2 seasons thanks to injury and suspension, but he has caught 82 passes for 1110 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 18 games, despite playing 12 of them with Rex Grossman as his quarterback. We’ll see how he bounces back after his injury, but he has great natural receiving ability.

Projection: 55 catches for 750 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns (99 pts standard, 154 pts PPR)

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Philadelphia Eagles 2013 Fantasy Football Projections

QB Michael Vick (Philadelphia)

8/20/13: Michael Vick has been named the starter for the Eagles. The good news is he’ll have a better supporting cast than he did last season unless injuries strike at the same level they did last season and he has a new Head Coach in Chip Kelly who wants him to run more. Vick did look great in the pre-season in Kelly’s system and he has that Kelly has made him fall in love with the game again. That’s the good news.

The bad news is he’s almost a lock to miss 3-4 games with injury and I wouldn’t rule out him getting benched for Nick Foles or Matt Barkley later in the season, especially if the team is out of playoff contention. He’s averaged 11.8 starts per season over the last 4 years, starting 10 last season, and I think going into his age 33 season, the over/under for starts for him should be around 10.5. On top of that, he’s shown declining physical abilities as a result of age and his injury history and he’s more reliant on his physical abilities than maybe any quarterback in recent history. He was never going to age well. I think he’ll produce like a QB2 and it’s best to go with someone more reliable in a backup quarterback.

Projection: 2300 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 450 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns (191 pts standard, 219 pts 6 pt td leagues)

RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia)

McCoy had a very solid stretch from 2010-2011, missing just 2 games and rushing for 2389 yards and 24 touchdowns on 480 carries, with 126 catches for 907 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. He looked like one of the best and most complete backs in the NFL. However, in 2012, he struggled along with the rest of the Eagles’ offense, rushing for just 840 yards on 200 carries, catching 54 passes for 373 yards and scoring just 5 total times, only twice on the ground. He also missed 4 games with injury. He should bounce back this year.

Projection: 250 carries for 1150 rushing yards 10 total touchdowns 58 catches for 470 yards (222 pts standard, 280 pts PPR)

RB Bryce Brown (Philadelphia)

Andy Reid and his pass heavy offense are gone and Chip Kelly figures to have his offense run the ball a lot. Also, Kelly favors a two back approach much more than Reid, who preferred to have one back do everything. Brown will get plenty of action as the #2 back behind LeSean McCoy. He rushed for 564 yards and 4 touchdowns on 115 carries and caught 13 passes for 56 yards last season.

Projection: 120 carries for 560 rushing yards 5 total touchdowns 15 catches for 90 yards (95 pts standard, 110 pts PPR)

WR DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia)

7/28/13: With Maclin going down for the season, DeSean Jackson should see an increase in targets. He’s currently the 32nd wide receiver off the board on average, going in the 7th or 8th round range, but he should be his team’s leading receiver by far and he’ll give you added value on the ground as well. He’s a nice value.

Jackson has rushed just 54 times in his career in 5 seasons, going for 371 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he could see that number increase this season as he’s expected to be used somewhat in that DeAnthony Thomas role. He won’t get a ton of carries, but the Eagles will do a lot of things to get the ball in his hands because of his speed. He’ll probably also see more short throws and screens than he normally does, as they attempt to get him the ball in space, and could easily surpass his career high 62 receptions, though he probably won’t reach his career 17.5 yards per reception average.

Projection: 67 catches for 1000 receiving yards 8 total touchdowns 25 carries for 170 rushing yards (165 pts standard, 232 pts PPR)

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Philadelphia Eagles 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Eagles dubbed themselves the “Dream Team” after a “strong” off-season coming out of the lockout in 2011. Among the additions were Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, and Jason Babin. However, the team never lived up to expectations, going just 8-8 in 2011. Asomugha got old in a hurry, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struggled on the slot, and while, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin got to the quarterback a lot, their defensive line as a whole got destroyed against the run. That wasn’t helped by terrible linebacker and safety play. On top of that, they struggled mightily in close games, lost the turnover battle at an incredible rate, and were poorly coached, especially defensively where Juan Castillo was promoted to defensive coordinator from OFFENSIVE line coach.

In 2012, hopes were higher. They had a whole off-season together. They closed 2011 well. And history suggested that they wouldn’t be as bad in close games or lose the turnover battle as badly. After a week 4 win against the Giants, they stood at 3-1, giving them 7 wins in 8 games dating back to the previous season, but they would win just once more the rest of the way. Injuries on the offensive line to Jason Peters and Todd Herremans really hurt them and veterans Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, Jenkins, Babin, and Trent Cole all struggled. Juan Castillo did not improve in his 2nd year in the job and the team tuned out to Head Coach Andy Reid’s message.

They also once again struggled mightily with turnovers, turning the ball over 37 times and forcing just 13 takeaways for a differential of -24 that was tied for the worst in the NFL. It’s tough to win any games when you do that. However, that should turn around in 2012. Not only did they do a good job of personnel and coaching staff turnover, that type of thing is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis anyway.

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.

Fumbles were the biggest issue for the Eagles as they lost 22 fumbles to 5 recovered defensively. They should improve on their 35.1% fumble recovery rate from 2012. That’s more luck than anything. Of course, they’ll never dominate the turnover battle or anything, as long as turnover machine Michael Vick is under center and they also have Bryce Brown, who might have the least fundamentally sound running style in the NFL. However, they’ll do much better that -24 in 2013 and that will lead to more wins. On top of that, Jason Peters and Todd Herremans returning from injury on the offensive line will really help.

Quarterback

Everyone remembers that ridiculous Madden-esque game Vick had against the Redskins in the 2010 season, but in the past 2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, he’s completed 457 of 774 (59.1%) for 5665 yards (7.2 YPA), 30 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, while rushing for 921 yards and 2 touchdowns on 138 carries, while fumbling 21 total times. He’s also running less often than he’s ever run.

Michael Vick was never going to age well. He’s way too reliant on athleticism. While quarterbacks playing at a high level into their mid and late 30s isn’t unheard of, running backs and wide receivers doing so is pretty rare. There’s a reason for that and as Vick aged and lost some of his athleticism, it was predictable he’d struggle, especially after spending 2 years away from the game in prison. Injuries don’t help things. Vick has played all 16 games just once in his career and has missed 13 games in the last 3 years alone. Not only does that make him incredibly unreliable going forward, all those injuries have really taken a toll on him.

Andy Reid made him look better than he was, just like he did with Kevin Kolb, AJ Feeley, Donovan McNabb, etc, but even Reid couldn’t do anything with him last year as Vick had his worst quarterback rating since 2006 and the 4th fewest rushing yards of his career (behind his rookie year, when he barely played, 2003, when he missed 11 games with injury, and 2009, his first year in Philadelphia, when he barely played). There’s a reason Reid gave up on him last season, keeping him on the bench in favor of the rookie Nick Foles even when Vick was healthy and not allowing Vick to see the field until week 17, when he lost 42-7 to the Giants in the absence of an injured Foles. Going into his age 33 season, Vick is pretty washed up.

The Eagles brought back him for another season for two reasons. One, this was a historically bad quarterback draft and, aside from trading for Alex Smith, which they didn’t have interest in, there wasn’t another option to find a starting quarterback this off-season. Vick isn’t very good, but he’s still one of the top-32 quarterbacks in the NFL and deserves a starting job for that reason. Two, he is an incredibly intriguing fit in Chip Kelly’s offense and if anyone can salvage his career, it’s Kelly.

Vick won’t be handed the starting job though. He will have to compete with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley and the Eagles are doing a very good job of hiding their intentions in all phases of the game this off-season. Foles was a 3rd round pick in 2012 and, as a rookie, he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. However, he was a much better fit for Andy Reid’s offense than for Chip Kelly’s. While Kelly has expressed admiration for the quarterback he used to face in the Pac-12, he has no other ties to him and, with his lead feet, lack of pocket presence, and long release, he’s doesn’t do the things that are the fundamentals of any Chip Kelly offense.

Matt Barkley is a 4th round rookie and he could be an intriguing choice. Barkley doesn’t have the mobility that Kelly likes, but that’s not a necessity. He’s an accurate, smart quarterback with a quick release and quick decision making ability. Kelly wants to run 75-80 plays per game and a quarterback who can move the chains, make quick audibles, and run quick plays will really help you do that. He’s the only quarterback on this roster drafted by Kelly and, while he has his flaws, he’s certainly got strengths that Kelly can build around. And on top of that, remember that their offensive coordinator is Pat Shurmur, whose system Barkley would fit perfectly. Kelly is going to have a lot more influence on the offense than Shurmur, but his presence is worth noting.

Vick is the favorite for the job, but not guaranteed to win it. If he doesn’t win the job, he might not even make the final roster. In that case, the Eagles may see the 3.5 million they gave him as a signing bonus as a sunk cost and cut him to save the 4 million he’ll be guaranteed if he’s on the week 1 roster. That wouldn’t be worth it for the Eagles if he’s not going to start and if they don’t need a backup.

Even if Vick does win the starting job, I expect this to be his final season with the Eagles (maybe in the NFL) and we’ll probably still see Foles and/or Barkley either way because of Vick’s injury history. As I mentioned, Vick has played all 16 games just once in his career and has missed 13 games in the last 3 years alone. As he ages, he’ll only be more susceptible to injuries, especially if he runs more in Chip Kelly’s offense. There’s a lot of certainty at this position and it’s really going to hold them back this season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I mentioned in the opening that the Eagles lost their two starting offensive tackles last season. Jason Peters was the bigger loss. Easily ProFootballFocus’ top ranked offensive tackle in 2011, Peters didn’t play a snap in 2012 after tearing his Achilles twice in the pre-season. Demetress Bell laughably attempted to replace him, but he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst offensive tackle in 2012 despite only making 7 starts. King Dunlap took over after that and was better, but only by default. Peters will be an obvious upgrade even in his age 31 season as long as he can stay healthy and if he can reach even close to his 2011 form, he’ll be a huge asset for this team. His athleticism makes him an especially good fit for Chip Kelly’s offense.

Herremans played 7 ½ games for the Eagles last season before he went down for the season and he played really well at right tackle, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 29th ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. In his absence, Dennis Kelly filled in and was also laughable in this attempt, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible despite his limited playing time.

He returns this season and will move back to his natural position at right guard, which will help him as he goes into his age 31 season. He’ll be a huge upgrade there over the Danny Watkins/Jake Scott combination that played there last season. Watkins was a huge bust as a 1st round pick in 2011, struggling mightily in about a year and a half as a starter before being benched for Jake Scott, who was signed off the street mid-season. He wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, in Herremans’ old right tackle spot, rookie 4th overall pick Lane Johnson will start. He’s obviously got a ton of upside and, like Peters, he’s going to be a great fit in Chip Kelly’s offense because of his absurd athleticism, but he’s really raw so there will be growing pains in his first season. He’ll be an upgrade over Dennis Kelly though. The Eagles are essentially adding three big time “additions” to the offensive line this off-season and all 3 will be major upgrades.

Complimenting that trio will be Evan Mathis at left guard, who played all of last season and was the lone bright spot on the offensive line. He’s arguably the best guard in the NFL, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked guard in each of the last 2 seasons by a considerable margin, allowing just 1 sack total and plowing open big holes on the ground with regularity.

The only hole on the offensive line is center, where Jason Kelce also returns from injury. Kelce was ProFootballFocus’ 33rd ranked center out of 35 eligible in 2011 as a 6th round rookie and while he looked good to start the 2012 season, he played just 138 snaps before going on injured reserve with a knee injury. The undersized 282 pound Kelce is a good fit for Chip Kelly’s offense because of his athleticism, so we’ll see how he plays this season, and he probably will be an upgrade over Dallas Reynolds, who was ProFootballFocus’ 34th ranked center out of 36 eligible in 2012. If he’s your worst offensive lineman, you’re in pretty good shape.

This should be a much improved offensive line. In 2012, they ranked 6th in run blocking grade, 26th in pass blocking grade, and 24th in pass block efficiency. In 2011, they ranked 4th, 14th, and 15th respectively in those 4 measures. In 2013, they should be much closer to where they were in 2011 than where they were in 2012 and they could even be improved on 2011. One thing that’s very good to see: they have one of the most, if not the most, athletic offensive lines in the NFL. That’s what they need to run this offense.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

I mentioned Bryce Brown’s propensity to fumbling in the opening. Brown fumbled 4 times on 128 touches last season and his atrocious running style is to blame. It was almost as if he had never watched another running back play because I’ve never seen anyone run with the football in the careless way he did. It’s very possible that Brown suffered from a severe lack of coaching as he spent one season at Tennessee in 2009, one at Kansas State ineligible after transferring in 2010, and then left the Kansas State program early in the 2011 season before declaring early for the draft in 2012. To his credit, he did seem to correct the problem shown the stretch, not fumbling in his final 4 games.

Brown was the #1 rated high school running back prospect, but he had just 104 collegiate carries because the aforementioned story. The Eagles took a risk on his natural talent in the 7th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and it was a smart decision. A 7th rounder is barely anything to lose and with the exception of the fumbling issue, Brown looked incredibly explosive as a rookie, taking over down the stretch for an injured LeSean McCoy. He rushed for 564 yards and 4 touchdowns on 115 carries and caught 13 passes for 56 yards. He had 2 very impressive starts against Carolina and Dallas, rushing for 347 yards and 4 touchdowns on 43 attempts, but fumbled 3 times in those 2 games. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, but rushed for just 76 yards on 40 carries in those final 4 games.

Andy Reid and his pass heavy offense are gone and Chip Kelly figures to have his offense run the ball a lot. Also, Kelly favors a two back approach much more than Reid, who preferred to have one back do everything. Brown will get plenty of action as the #2 back behind LeSean McCoy. He’ll spell him often and occasionally he might line up on the field at the same time as McCoy.

McCoy, however, will remain the starter. McCoy had a very solid stretch from 2010-2011, missing just 2 games and rushing for 2389 yard and 24 touchdowns on 480 carries, with 126 catches for 907 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. He looked like one of the best and most complete backs in the NFL. However, in 2012, he struggled along with the rest of the Eagles’ offense, rushing for just 840 yards on 200 carries, catching 54 passes for 373 yards and scoring just 5 total times, only twice on the ground. He also missed 4 games with injury. He should bounce back this year. He will see at least double Brown’s carries and both backs are good fits for Chip Kelly’s speed based offense.

Grade: A-

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Wide Receivers/Tight End

In addition to McCoy and Brown getting a bunch of carries, wide receiver DeSean Jackson could also see carries. Jackson has rushed just 54 times in his career in 5 seasons, going for 371 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he could see that number increase this season as he’s expected to be used somewhat in that DeAnthony Thomas role. He won’t get a ton of carries, but the Eagles will do a lot of things to get the ball in his hands because of his speed. He’ll probably also see more short throws and screens than he normally does, as they attempt to get him the ball in space, and could easily surpass his career high 62 receptions, though he probably won’t reach his career 17.5 yards per reception average.

He’s got great long speed and great short area agility, but he’s not a great route runner and he doesn’t go over the middle well. In 71 career games, he’s caught 274 passes for 4785 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he’s only once played all 16 games in 5 seasons, missing 9 games total, including the final 5 games of last season. Because of the missed time with injury, he caught just 45 passes for 700 yards and 2 touchdowns last season.

His complement, Jeremy Maclin, is also fast, but he’s a better route runner. The 2009 1st round pick has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been very close in all 4 seasons and he’s caught 258 passes for 3453 yards and 26 touchdowns in 59 career games. Like Jackson, he’s only played all 16 games once, missing 5 games total, and he should get close to 1000 yards again. One of the draws to Philadelphia for Chip Kelly had to have been how many speedy players they have on offense, at all positions.

Jason Avant isn’t that speedy, but he’s a good slot receiver, who has caught 156 passes for 1900 yards and 2 touchdowns in the last 3 seasons in that role. He’ll continue to serve in that role this season, but it’s unclear if he’ll be utilized as much as he has been in the past. He’s heading into his age 30 season and the Eagles figure to use much more two-tight end sets than they have in that past. He’s unlikely to see anywhere near the 727 snaps (482 pass snaps) he’s averaged over the past 3 seasons.

It makes sense that they’d use two-tight ends more often because they plan to run more often. Kelly has certainly signaled a move in that direction with his off-season moves these past few months, drafting Zach Ertz in the 2nd round and signing fullback/tight end James Casey to go with decent incumbent starter Brent Celek. They’ll also throw out of this set to tight ends often because all 3 of those guys can catch passes.

Ertz was known for his pass catching at Stanford, catching 69 passes for 898 yards and 6 touchdowns last season as a starter. The 6-5 249 pounder ran a 4.76 at the Combine and put up 24 reps of 225 pounds. Casey moved all around the formation in Houston last season and figures to do the same again this season in Philadelphia. Primarily a fullback, Casey played 609 snaps last season, which would have led the position had they all been as a traditional fullback. He didn’t block that well, but he led the position in pass catching grade and caught 34 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns. Celek doesn’t block that well either, but he’s averaged 59 catches for 744 passes and 5 touchdowns. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of guys to throw to.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Defensively, the Eagles are switching up schemes in a major way too, going to a 3-4 from a wide nine 4-3, but the problem is their personnel doesn’t fit it well at all. Fletcher Cox remains on the defensive line, converting from a defensive tackle to a 5-technique defensive end. He has the size and athleticism to excel in that position and, coming out of Mississippi State, I thought that would be his best position in the pros. He’ll still play inside some at defensive tackle as the Eagles are expected to use a hybrid scheme with 4-3 under sub packages, but the scheme change will definitely do him some good. He’s also expected to play a fairly full set of snaps as he’s by far the Eagles’ best end after letting go of Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri, and Mike Patterson.

Cox finished the 2012 season as ProFootballFocus’ 18th rated defensive tackle on just 526 snaps, grading out above average as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. With 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 14 hurries on 303 pass rush snaps, he finished 13th among eligible defensive tackles in pass rush efficiency and he was also 20th in run stop percentage. Even better news for the Eagles, he got better as the season went on, especially as a pass rusher as he had 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries in weeks 10-16 (he didn’t play week 17 with injury). He could finish the year as a top-10 five-technique defensive end.

After him, things are pretty bleak on the defensive line. With Jenkins, Landri, and Patterson gone, Cedric Thornton is moving into the starting job opposite Cox after the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out negatively on 406 snaps last season. The Eagles drafted Bennie Logan in the 3rd round but the 6-2 309 pounder is not a natural fit for a 3-4 end position. He’ll serve primarily as a nickel rusher inside next to Cox in 4-3 sub packages, though it’s unclear how much of an impact he can have as a rookie. Thornton, meanwhile, will be a base end and I don’t expect him to play that well.

At nose tackle in base packages, the Eagles have Isaac Sopoaga, signed from the 49ers. However, Sopoaga really struggled in San Francisco on the rare occasions they actually used a nose tackle. He played just 335 snaps for them last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th lowest ranked defensive tackle despite the limited snap count, struggling mightily against the run and rushing the passer. Heading into his age 32 season, he’s unlikely to get better.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The one player who will most negatively be affected by a switch to a 3-4 defense is Brandon Graham. Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, finally was last season and came into his own in a big way. Despite making just 6 starts, he had 7 sacks, 7 hits, and 31 hurries, doing so on 220 pass rush snaps, a pass rush rate of 20.5%. His pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per snap * 100) was 17.3 which led his position. For comparison, the next highest player at any position was Cameron Wake at 12.9. He also played the run well and overall graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end despite his limited playing time, only behind Wake.

Graham played so well that the Eagles benched and cut Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks the season before and who was having a decent season. Once Graham took over as a starter for the final 6 games of the season, his play really flourished as he had 5 sacks, 3 hits, and 17 hurries on 131 pass rush snaps, a 19.1% pass rush rate. Graham, however, is a poor fit for a 3-4 defense and because of the scheme change, one of the league’s most promising pass rushers won’t even start this season. The Eagles signed Connor Barwin to a 6-year, 36 million dollar deal to start over him this off-season. Graham figures to only play in sub packages on clear passing downs as a pass rush specialist in a 4-3. That’s an immense waste of his talents. If I were a 4-3 team, I’d give up a 2nd rounder for him in a heartbeat.

Barwin has experience in a 3-4, playing in that scheme in the last 2 seasons in Houston, but he’s nowhere near the pass rusher that Graham was last season, even at his best. The 2009 2nd round pick had 12 sacks in 2011 in his first season as a starter, with 18 hits and 24 hurries on 520 pass rush snaps, a solid 10.4% pass rush rate, but he struggled against the run and overall wasn’t as good as the raw numbers suggested. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 28 eligible.

In 2012, he was even worse. He managed just 4 sacks, 12 hits, and 24 hurries on 570 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 7.0% rate for his position. He graded out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade and 3rd worst overall. That was not only a massive overpay, but he’ll block one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL from starting. This whole scheme change looks like a mistake.

Opposite him, Trent Cole isn’t a natural fit for the 3-4 either, though he’ll keep his starting job. Going into last season, Cole was one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. In 2008, he was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end. In 2009, he ranked 3rd and in 2010 and 2011 he led the way at the position. However, he struggled by his standards in 2012, grading 22nd. He had 4 sacks, 13 hits, and 29 hurries on 432 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pass rush rate, good, but well below his standards. Those 4 sacks paled in comparison to the 63 he had in the previous 6 seasons combined.

If the Eagles were still running a 4-3, I’d like his chances for a bounce back season, but instead he has to learn a whole new 3-4 scheme, one that he’s not a natural fit for at 6-3 270. Going into his age 31 season, I don’t see him getting much better this season. He’s reportedly looked like a “fish out of water” in this new system this off-season. He’ll probably only have a positive impact in sub packages rushing the passer from a 4 man front. With no guaranteed money on his contract after this season, this could sadly be his final season in Philadelphia.

Another player who doesn’t fit the 3-4 defense is DeMeco Ryans. In fact, the Texans traded him for a 4th round pick last off-season because he didn’t fit their 3-4. He was ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked middle linebacker last season in Philadelphia 4-3 playing every down, but in 2011, he was just a two-down linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 and graded out just about average, 22nd at his position. He can’t be happy about this switch. While he’ll continue to play every down, it’s really only because they don’t have another option.

The only returning linebacker who is probably happy about this switch is Mychal Kendricks, a 2012 2nd round pick who played in a 3-4 in college at California. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 42nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible as rookie in 2012, particularly struggling against the run. He should be better in his 2nd season in the league in a more natural position, but then again, he couldn’t exactly have been worse. I still don’t expect big things from him.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

As bad as the Eagles were defensively last season, 29th in the NFL allowing 27.8 points per game, their secondary was by far their worst defensive unit of all. Not only they did completely fail to force turnovers (as I mentioned earlier), they ranked 26th in the NFL allowing 7.6 YPA. They also struggled to tackle, missing 62 as a unit. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 98th and 101st ranked cornerbacks out of 113 eligible, while Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 84th and 85th ranked safeties out of 88 eligible.

Credit them for bringing in an entirely new starting crew in the secondary. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are both gone, while Allen and Coleman are mere reserves at the moment and might not even make the final 53 man roster. However it’s unclear how much of an upgrade they’ll be (though they should force more takeaways, if only because of how inconsistent that is on a year-to-year basis).

At cornerback, they brought in Bradley Fletcher from St. Louis and Cary Williams from Baltimore. Williams will probably be their #1 cornerback because he’s, by the default, the better of the two. The 2008 7th round pick has graded out as a league average played in 2 seasons as a starter though so there’s not a lot to get excited about here other than the fact that he’s not Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie.

Fletcher, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in the 2009 draft. His only season as a starter was 2010 when he graded out slightly above average. In 2011, he missed pretty much the whole season with a torn ACL, playing just 4 games. When he returned in 2012, it was in a reduced role as he played just 374 snaps, including just 20 in the final 7 weeks of the season after getting benched for rookie Trumaine Johnson as the 3rd cornerback. The Eagles are taking a chance that another year removed from that torn ACL will allow him to bounce back and become a solid starter again.

Brandon Boykin will remain the nickel back. He was the only defensive back who graded out above average for them last season, grading out just above average on 526 snaps as a rookie. He only fell to the 4th round because of an injury and because he was 5-9. If he was 6-0 and healthy he would have gone in the 1st round and I thought he was the best cover cornerback in that draft class after Morris Claiborne. He carved out a niche on the slot and will only be better in his 2nd season in the league. He’s a bright spot.

At safety, the Eagles rolled the dice with two injury prone safeties, bringing in Kenny Phillips from the Giants and Patrick Chung from New England. Phillips is one of the best safeties in the NFL when healthy, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th and 6th ranked safety in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Even in 2012, when he played just 304 snaps with injury, he still graded out as their 15th ranked safety despite the limited playing time. In addition to last season’s knee problems, he was also limited to 719 snaps in his first two seasons in the league in 2008 and 2009 with knee problems and he’s already had microfracture surgery. It’s a risk that could definitely pay off, but it’s a big risk nonetheless.

Chung, meanwhile, has missed 14 games in the last 4 seasons since the Patriots took him in the 2nd round out of Oregon in 2009. He’s played pretty well when healthy and the Oregon connection with Chip Kelly probably had a lot to do with why they brought him in. Kelly is going to know his former player better than maybe any other coach in the NFL. He’s still a risky addition. If either gets hurt, that would mean that Allen, Coleman, 5th round rookie Earl Wolff, or Colt Anderson, a special teamer who struggled in 4 starts last season, would see action.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Chip Kelly is the biggest Head Coach mystery in the NFL. Not only do we not know if his offense will work in the NFL, we don’t even know what type of offense he’s going to run. He’s done a great job of keeping things secretive this off-season. He’s clearly a smart man with innovative ideas (not just offensively, but in how he has his team practice). He has a great deal of collegiate success and he’s much more versatile than he’s given credit for, but it’s very tough to give him a grade. I have no idea how the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia will go.

Grade: B

Overall

The Eagles will once again struggle defensively largely due to an ill-advised switch to a 3-4 base defensive scheme that their personnel doesn’t fit, but they should be improved over last season as I expect them to force more takeaways. Offensively, their turnover number should go down and they’ll probably have better health with Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy all coming back from injuries that cost them serious time last season.

They won’t be a good team turnover wise, but even if they were to improve to -10 from -24 it would do them a world of difference. They actually outgained opponents by 174 yards last season, despite a 4-12 record, and were only -0.2 in terms of yards per play differential. They play in too tough of conference though to make the playoffs and they might still be the worst team in their division.

I have them going 2-4 in divisional action, splitting with 2 of Dallas, Philadelphia, or the Giants. Outside the division, they host San Diego, Kansas City, Arizona, Detroit, and Chicago. Detroit and Chicago should be tough ones, but San Diego and Arizona are easier so I could see them winning 2 or 3 of those games at home. They also go to Denver, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Green Bay, and Minnesota. They should win in Oakland and Minnesota and Tampa Bay will be winnable, but Denver and Green Bay won’t be. I think they’ll win 2 of those games and finish with 7 wins, an improvement, but not enough to get into the playoffs.

Projection: 7-9 4th in NFC East

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Washington Redskins 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Last season, the Redskins won 10 games, including their last 7 regular season games, and could have easily won at least one playoff game, up 14-0 before Robert Griffin hurt his knee and became a shadow of his healthy self for the remainder of the game, before eventually tearing his ACL late in the 4th quarter. Injuries were the story of the season for the Redskins. Three of their 6 losses (their first 3 losses of the season) were largely the result of injuries.

First, the Redskins lost Josh Wilson, Adam Carriker, and Brian Orakpo in a week 2 loss by a field goal in St. Louis. Then, they lost Trent Williams in an eventual loss to the Bengals. Finally, Griffin himself went down with a lead in an eventual loss to the Falcons. If not for those injuries, they could have had an even better record. Overall, they ranked 29th in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury last year. And in spite of that, they still made the playoffs with a good chance at a playoff win, and they finished the season as ranked 8th in DVOA (6th in weighted DVOA, which puts higher weight on games later in the season).

However, injuries remain a concern going into 2013. Brian Orakpo is expected to return and he’ll be a big time “addition” and they may, overall, on the season lose less to injury, the status of Robert Griffin’s knee is a serious concern. His knee knocked him out of action twice (after a concussion knocked him out the first time around), causing him to miss the end of the Baltimore game, the entirety of the Cleveland game, and severely limited him against Seattle in the playoffs, before knocking him out for good.

He’s expected to be ready for week 1 of this season, but he has a history of knee problems so it’s unclear if he’ll be able to stay healthy for all 16 games and at what percent of his peak ability he’ll be able to play. They’re already talking about limiting his carries, which is such a big part of his game. There’s significant sophomore slump potential for him for that reason.

The sophomore slump isn’t limited to individual players. Teams who have big win improvements usually the regress the following season, on average about half of the improvement. The Redskins improved 5 games last season so they can be expected to regress about 2.5 wins, though that’s obviously just an average. They could regression fewer or more wins than that or even improve, but the concept is worth noting.

I think they’ll lose fewer than 2.5 wins off that 10 win total, but I do expect some regression because they were so reliant on winning the turnover battle last season. The Redskins turned the ball over just 14 times in 2012, as opposed to 31 takeaways, a +17 differential. That tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, however.

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.

Griffin threw just 5 interceptions all season on 393 attempts, a ridiculous, but unsustainable 1.3% interception rate. For comparison sake, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have career interception rates of 2.7%, while Tom Brady has a career interception rate of 2.1%. Even Aaron Rodgers, who has the lowest interception rate in NFL history among eligible quarterbacks, has a career interception rate of 1.7%.

Griffin is good, but he’s not THAT good. Tom Brady had an even better interception rate of 0.8% in 2010 before seeing that “balloon” to 2.0% in 2011. Griffin will see his “balloon” as well, especially if he plays hurt. And if Kirk Cousins has to play several games, it will really hurt their team turnover rate. Cousins flashed in limited action last season, but still had an interception rate of 6.3%. That’s unsustainably high and a small sample size, but he’ll be a clear downgrade interception-wise if he has to step into the lineup for a significant period of time.

Griffin is never going to throw a ton of interceptions though, and not just because he’s a great quarterback. It’s because, at least the way they ran things last season, they are a run heavy team. They rely heavily on Alfred Morris on the ground and Robert Griffin taking off on his own, and Griffin averaged just 26.2 pass attempts per game in his 15 starts, among the lowest in the NFL. He could see that number increase if they want to cut his carries to protect him, but he’ll probably never be tossing it around 35 times per game.

However, when you run as much as the Redskins do, you run the risk of fumbling and the Redskins certainly did a lot of that last season, fumbling 26 times, tied for 4th most in the NFL. However, they lost just 6 of those fumbles and overall they recovered a league leading 67.4% of fumbles that hit the ground, best in the NFL. That’s unsustainable and largely luck. For example, they wouldn’t have even made the playoffs last season if they hadn’t recovered their own fumble in the end zone against the Giants in a must win game last season. I don’t think they’ll dominate the turnover battle nearly as much as they did last season and that will lead to some of the win total regression that usually follows big win improvements.

Quarterbacks

I wrote about Griffin’s unsustainable interception rate in the opening, but other than that I have nothing but positive things to write about him. He was the rightful Offensive Rookie of the Year in a stacked year for that award and if it weren’t for his injury concerns, I’d say he has the best future of any of the young quarterbacks in the NFL today. Here was my argument for him being Offensive Rookie of the Year.

I’d like to start this by saying that I don’t see Andrew Luck as a legitimate contender for this award. Stats aren’t everything, but sometimes stats are too blatant to ignore. Griffin and Wilson were 3rd and 4th in QB rating, Luck was 26th. He took the Colts from 2 wins to 11 wins, but he did it against an incredibly easy schedule and with almost no convincing wins. He won just 2 games by more than a touchdown and just 3 games against .500 or better teams. A 9-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less is impressive, as were his league leading seven game winning drives, but when you remember most of those came against the likes of Tennessee, Detroit, Kansas City, and Buffalo, it’s not so impressive.

So that leaves us with Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson from arguably the best rookie quarterback class ever. I’m going with Griffin. Russell Wilson was never counted on to be a savior. The Seahawks won 7 games last year with 14 games of a banged up Tarvaris Jackson (7-7) and 2 games of Charlie Whitehurst (0-2) under center. They had the #7 scoring defense in 2011 and the #1 scoring defense in 2012. Wilson, as good as he was, had plenty of help.

Griffin, meanwhile, was the Redskins’ savior. They literally put all of their eggs in one basket with him, trading away three 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick for him, naming him the starting quarterback about 2 days after the draft, and building their entire new innovative offense around him. They asked him to single handedly turn around a 5-win team and he did that.

The Redskins’ had the league’s 21st rated defense in 2011 and it was even worse in 2012, despite having much less pressure on them thanks to the offense, as they ranked 22nd. Injuries were to blame as they were without top pass rusher Brian Orakpo for most of the year and also lost starters Brandon Meriweather and Adam Carriker for most of the year as well.

Injuries weren’t limited to defense, as Griffin was playing without expected right tackle Jammal Brown all season, lost talented tight end Fred Davis midseason, and played without #1 receiver Pierre Garcon for most of the year. And he still took them to the playoffs, where they were leading Wilson’s Seahawks 14-0 before he got hurt (it’s not a post-season award, but this is worth mentioning).

Plus, unlike Wilson, Griffin played well all year. Through 8 games, Wilson had 8 touchdowns to 7 interceptions (with one touchdown that should have been an interception) and the Seahawks were 4-4. After a 5 interception in two weeks stretch, in which the Seahawks lost to the Rams and barely beat the Panthers, there were calls for Wilson to be benched. Griffin never played that badly. He never had a multi-interception game, throwing just 5 all year, and even when the Redskins were 3-6 heading into the bye, Griffin still had an 8 to 3 touchdown to interception ratio.

Again, injuries are the one concern. He takes a lot of hits because of his style of play and unlike guys like Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, he’s not particularly big and sturdy. He now has a concerning history of knee injuries dating back to his collegiate days and he might also be a walking (well…running) concussion. Injuries are the reason I even have to discuss Kirk Cousins here when I usually don’t talk about backup quarterbacks. We could be seeing him play significant action this season.

Cousins was an unconventional pick, to say the least, when the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in the same draft they traded 3 first round picks and a second round pick to acquire Robert Griffin. However, there’s nothing wrong with using a mid-round pick on a backup quarterback. Teams with established starting quarterbacks (Giants, Patriots, Steelers, etc.) have done it in the very recent past. If you’re drafting for starting needs in the 4th round, you’re in trouble.

There was never going to be any quarterback controversy considering their relative price tags and it was highly unlikely that Griffin would be threatened by Cousins. Griffin once had the confidence to say he’d go to Indianapolis and beat out Peyton Manning if that was what he had to do to start. It was a non-story. Any idiot could have seen that (hello Skip Bayless).

However, Cousins is now seen as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL and I don’t think that’s quite deserved yet. He’s known for leading the comeback against Baltimore and beating Cleveland in a spot start, but he attempted just 2 throws against Baltimore and the Browns are, well, the Browns. He also struggled mightily in relief against both Atlanta and Seattle, combining to go 8 for 19 for 142 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. There’s a reason he went in the 4th round and he’s yet to prove he’s anything but a backup quarterback in the NFL. If they have to count on him to play significant snaps in 2013, they’re in trouble.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

It can be easy to forget because of what Robert Griffin did, but RG3 wasn’t the Redskins’ only rookie sensation. 6th round rookie Alfred Morris surprisingly won the starting job week 1 and did his best Terrell Davis impression for the rest of the season, rushing for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 attempts. However, Morris owes a lot of his success to Griffin taking the attention off of him. Defenses had to focus on Griffin’s arm strength and running ability and, as a result, Morris had a lot of running room in their read option offense. Credit Morris for his vision, intelligence, and for wasting no movement, but it’s definitely worth noting that Morris rushed for just 3.2 yards per carry without Griffin against Cleveland.

Morris’ running success will largely be tied to Griffin’s success and Morris also provides very little on passing downs, catching just 11 passes for 77 yards. Even though Morris had 324 more carries than him, Evan Royster actually played 180 pass plays to Morris’ 293. Royster is the favorite to continue that passing down specialist role, but he’ll have to hold off the oft injured Roy Helu, who might be more talented. They also used late round picks on Chris Thompson (5th round) and Jawan Jamison (7th round) because that’s just Mike Shanahan’s thing.

I also have to give mention to fullback Darrel Young, even though I don’t normally mention fullbacks. Young had a major breakout season in his 4th year in the league last season as he was a perfect fit for the read option offense and their zone blocking scheme. He was as big a part of their offensive success as any fullback in the NFL. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked fullback, 8th in run blocking, and also contributed as a runner and a pass catcher, with 14 carries for 60 yards and 8 catches for 109 receiving yards.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

I mentioned Trent Williams earlier in the introduction in the injury section. He didn’t miss serious time or anything, but his absence for the majority of the game against Cincinnati really hurt their chances of winning that game in an eventual 7 point loss. That’s because the former 4th overall pick from the 2010 NFL Draft class has emerged as one of the best left tackles in the game. His movement ability makes him a perfect fit for this offense.

He was ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle last season, 13th among left tackles, and the prior season he graded out 26th overall despite missing 6 games with injury and suspension. He’s very good in both pass protection and run blocking and his only issue is penalties and he’s totaled 16 in 26 games in the past 2 seasons. He is their only offensive lineman who had a strong season in both 2011 and 2012 and he’s a strong bet for another strong season.

Overall, they were a better offensive line in 2012 than 2011 without a lot of difference personnel wise. They went from being ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked run blocking offensive line to their 9th ranked. They also improved in pass protection as well. They went from being 26th ranked in pass protection grade and 28th in pass block efficiency to 19th and 17th respectively in those two categories.

One of the big reasons for their improvement was the breakout season of center Will Mongtomery, who improved from a below average starter to ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked center in 2012. He’ll have to prove he can do it again, but he should be an asset for them. Chris Chester at right guard also had a big improvement, going from ProFootballFocus’ 8th worst eligible guard in 2011 to their 15th best in 2012. 2011 looks like the outlier when you look at his career, as he’s usually been an above average starter, though he’s never done anything like what he did in 2012.

Right tackle Tyler Polumbus is the only player on their offensive line who has graded out below average in each of the last two seasons, playing really poorly in both seasons. In 2011, he only played 289 snaps as a reserve and wasn’t eligible for ProFootballFocus’ rankings, but if he had been, he would have ranked 64th out of 77 despite such a limited snap count. In 2012, he ranked 76th out of 80 eligible and if he does win the starting job again this season, he won’t be any better. He’s been a terrible player whenever he’s been called upon in his career.

He will have to beat out Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos for the job, but that won’t be that hard, even for Polumbus. Trueblood ranked 72th out of 76 eligible in 2011 and barely played in 2012, losing his job. Pashos, meanwhile, is heading into his age 33 season and coming off a season in which he didn’t play at all due to injury so while he’s had some solid years in the past, those days are probably long behind him. Tom Compton, a 2012 6th round pick, could also be in the mix, but they seem to prefer him as the backup left tackle. Whoever starts at right tackle, probably Polumbus, it will be a position of serious weakness.

The other position of weakness on their offensive line last season was left guard, where Kory Lichtensteiger started after tearing his ACL and missing most of the 2011 season. Lichtensteiger held up very well in pass protection, but was terrible as a run blocker. There’s a reason they averaged just 4.4 yards per carry behind the left guard, as opposed to 5.5 yards per carry elsewhere. He was ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked run blocking guard and also commited 10 penalties, grading out 72th out of 81 eligible overall. He’s never really been that great. 2012 3rd round pick Josh LeRibeus could push him for the job in camp, but I don’t know how much better he’ll be. Like right tackle, it’s a position of weakness, but they have a strong starter at left tackle and they should get good play at center and right guard again. It’s not a bad offensive line.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One area particularly hit by injuries was their receiving corps. The Redskins gave Pierre Garcon a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract last off-season, even though he had never had a 1000 yard season, despite playing with Peyton Manning for most of his career. The Redskins took a major chance giving Garcon that kind of money, banking on his natural athleticism and skill set allowing him to break out as the X receiver in Mike Shanahan’s offense, as the #1 target out of the shadows of others in Indianapolis’ loaded receiving corps, with Robert Griffin leading a downfield throw based offense. Garcon was only 25 and that point and the Redskins were really expecting a breakout year from him.

Midway into the 1st quarter of the Redskins’ week 1 game against the Saints last year, the Redskins looked pretty smart. Granted it was very, very early in the season, but Griffin targeted Garcon on 4 of his first 5 throws, including an 88 yard touchdown, as Garcon had 4 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown midway through the first quarter of an eventual upset of the Saints in New Orleans. However, Garcon hurt his foot and left the game immediately following his touchdown and did not return to the game, playing only 8 snaps total.

Garcon would return for week 4 and week 5, but he would only catch 4 passes for 44 yards in those 2 games, struggling through his injury and would not return again until week 11. Garcon was still not healthy after returning, only playing in 306 of his team’s 445 snaps over those 7 games, not exactly what the Redskins were hoping to get from their #1 receiver. However, Garcon was still very productive, in spite of his more limited role, catching 36 passes for 480 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 7 games.

Overall on the season, Garcon had 633 yards on 215 routes run, good for 2.94 yards per route run, 2nd in the NFL among eligible wide receivers behind Andre Johnson. He was targeted 63 times, giving him a very impressive yard per target rate of over 10 per and with 63 targets on 215 routes run, he was by far Robert Griffin’s favorite target to throw to when he was on the field. Griffin was also very efficient when throwing to him, completing 69.8% of his passes for 10.0 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, a QB rating of 116.7, 14th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. It’s clear that Garcon has a ton of upside in his role in Washington’s offense.

Garcon’s issue remains injuries as his foot is still not 100% and in addition he had off-season shoulder surgery. However, the shoulder is expected to be a non-issue and his foot should be better than it was last season. Assuming he plays close to a full set of snaps and isn’t overly limited on the field by his foot, Garcon could have an incredibly productive season, though much depends on Griffin’s health. Griffin is expected to throw more and run less to protect himself from injuries so the Redskins figure to pass more than the 442 times they did last year. Garcon could easily end up as one of the league’s top-10 receivers and a Pro-Bowler in 2013, but this is all speculative.

Despite all his issues, Garcon still led the team with 633 receiving yards, which speaks to their lack of depth after him. It’s not that their other receivers are bad, but they lack another impact receiver. In Garcon’s absence, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson, and Santana Moss led the team in snaps played from the wide receiver position.

Josh Morgan, a marginal talent, had 48 catches for 510 yards and 2 touchdowns on 393 routes run and caught just 4 passes for more than 20 yards. Moss caught 41 passes for 573 yards and 8 touchdowns on 328 pass snaps as the primary slot receiver, but, at age 34, he could be very close to done. Hankerson, a 2011 3rd round pick, caught 38 passes for 543 yards and 3 touchdowns on 307 routes run. He’s got the most upside of the aforementioned trio, but may never be anything more than a decent starting receiver. He’s going into his 3rd year though and that’s when receivers tend to breakout, so we’ll see what he has.

Garcon wasn’t the only receiver they had miss serious time with injury. Tight end Fred Davis went down with a season ending torn Achilles early in their 7th game of the season. He was brought back on a one year prove it deal that could pay dividends if he’s healthy. He’s only played in 18 full games over the past 2 seasons thanks to injury and suspension, but he has caught 82 passes for 1110 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 18 games, despite playing 12 of them with Rex Grossman as his quarterback. We’ll see how he bounces back after his injury, but he has great natural receiving ability. He’s not much of a blocker though.

In Davis’ absence, Logan Paulsen moved into the starting lineup. He’s pretty much the opposite of Davis, a good blocker, but little else. He caught just 25 passes for 308 yards and 1 touchdown on 265 pass snaps. He and Davis would work well together on two-tight end sets if Davis can stay healthy and bounce back. If Davis and Garcon can stay healthy and play well, this will be an improved receiving corps.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

I mentioned Adam Carriker in the injury section. He wasn’t exactly a big loss, but he was an injury worth noting. A well below average starter in 2011, Carriker went down with injury week 2 this season so he barely saw any action. He was replaced by Jarvis Jenkins, who actually played better than Carriker did in 2011, though he graded out below average overall because of his inability to get to the quarterback. They’ll compete for that job this season, but Jenkins likely has the upper hand. He also has the higher upside, as a 2011 2nd round pick. Last season was his first in the NFL after a serious injury caused him to miss all of 2011. He could easily be better this season.

Whoever wins that battle will only play in base 3-4 packages as a 5-technique end. The other two starting defensive linemen, Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield, play every down and stay in when they go to sub packages. Cofield lines up on the nose in base packages, but he’s really playing out of position. The 6-4 303 pounder is undersized for the position and has never been a good run player even back when he played with the Giants in their 4-3. Last year, he was at his worst against the run, as only one player graded out worse than him against the run on ProFootballFocus.

However, his pass rush ability makes up for it and it’s what makes him a dangerous player in sub packages. He had just 3 sacks last season, but 15 hits and 17 hurries on 505 pass rush snaps, a 6.9% pass rush rate. He’s a decent starter overall. Bowen is a decent starter overall as well, grading out just below average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter, after excelling as a reserve in Dallas in 2010. Chris Baker is another player to note as a solid situational run stopper. He graded out above average on 206 snaps last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The big player returning from injury is Brian Orakpo, a top level rush linebacker who was also lost for the season in that week 2 game, tearing his pectoral. In 2011, he was excellent, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, struggling against the run, but excelling as a pass rusher. He had 10 sacks, 6 hits, and 43 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, a 15.1% pass rush rate. He ranked 4th at his position in pass rush grade and 5th in pass rush efficiency. His return to full strength would be huge.

Opposite him, Ryan Kerrigan stepped up big time in his 2nd season in the league. The 16th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft did struggle against the run, but had 9 sacks, 9 hits, and 51 hurries on 587 pass rush snaps, a 11.8% rate. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked rush linebacker overall, 7th ranked in terms of pass rush, and ranked 8th in pass rush efficiency. He could be even better with another year under his belt and with Orakpo back to take the pressure off of him. They could be a very formidable duo and, at the very least, they’ll benefit from Rob Jackson and Lorenzo Alexander not splitting reps at one rush linebacker spot. They did some nice things, but struggled to get to the quarterback. Alexander is gone and Jackson will be a reserve.

At middle linebacker, their situation is not nearly as good. Perry Riley, who played very well in the 2nd half of 2011 after taking over as the starter, did not continue that in 2012. He wasn’t bad, but the 2010 4th round pick did grade out below average. I don’t know if he’ll be much better than that in 2013. London Fletcher, meanwhile, is the bigger name, but he did not play well at all, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible.

He couldn’t cover or shed blocks in the running game at all. Only 34 of his 115 total tackles were 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 he also missed a position leading 21 tackles, among the most in the NFL at any position. He also allowed more receiving yards and receptions in coverage than any other middle linebacker and only Perry Riley allowed more touchdowns among middle linebackers.

He made his 4th consecutive Pro-Bowl, but only on name recognition (and maybe to make up for the fact that he somehow didn’t make a Pro-Bowl until 2009). Fletcher has had a great career and is arguably the all-time leader in tackles depending on who you ask and his 240 consecutive games streak is incredibly impressive. He’s been long overlooked and should be a Hall of Famer eventually and he might be the best undrafted free agent of all time, but now he’s actually overrated based on name. Heading into his age 38 season, he’s the oldest defensive player in the NFL and should hang them up soon. This is probably his last season.

If either Riley or Fletcher struggles to the point where they are benched, Keenan Robinson, drafted in the 4th round in 2012 to be a potential successor to Fletcher, would enter the starting lineup. I don’t know how much positive we can expect from him though. He played a nondescript 68 snaps as a rookie and 4th rounders rarely become starters.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Redskins ranked 22nd in the NFL, allowing 7.4 yards per attempt last season, and it doesn’t look like things will be much better this season. They only made one change in their top-3 cornerbacks, swapping out Cedric Griffin as the 3rd cornerback for free agent acquisition EJ Biggers. Biggers actually graded out above average last season with Tampa Bay, but the 2009 7th round pick was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league in 2011 and graded out significantly below average in the two seasons he saw significant action in Tampa Bay. He reunites with former Head Coach Raheem Morris, who is the defensive backs coach in Washington, but Biggers had his worst years under Morris so I don’t know how that will help.

The Redskins did cut starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall this off-season, but he returns after taking a significant pay cut. He couldn’t find much money on the open market and it’s understandable why. Hall has graded out negatively in 4 of the last 5 seasons after signing that massive contract with the Raiders before the 2008 season (he didn’t even last a whole season before being cut). In 2012, he allowed 76 catches on 114 attempts for 1050 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 8 penalties. Only Sean Smith was thrown on more than him, only Patrick Robinson allowed more passing yards, and only Cortland Finnegan allowed more receptions. He played the run well and blitzed well to save his grade, but he’s not good in coverage at all. He ranked 90th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in pure coverage grade.

The lone solid player they had at cornerback last season was Josh Wilson, their de facto #1 cornerback. He’s been slightly above a league average starter in the past 2 seasons since an improbable breakout season in Baltimore in 2010 landed him a 3-year deal. They also have 2nd round rookie David Amerson in the mix, but he probably won’t see much action this season. He was drafted more for the future with Hall and Biggers signed to 1-year deals and Wilson entering his contract year.

Things aren’t much better at safety. Their best safety is probably Brandon Meriweather, but he can’t stay healthy. He played just 44 snaps last season thanks to a lingering knee injury, which he had 2 separate setbacks on, including a torn ACL suffered week 11. His status for the start of the season is in doubt and it’s not like he’s that great of a player when healthy anyway. He’s made 2 Pro Bowls, but that was largely a farce and he bounced around to 3 different teams in a calendar year after being a final cut of the Patriots before the 2011 season. Before grading out positively on those mere 44 snaps last season, he graded out negatively in each of the last 2 seasons.

Assuming he’s healthy, Meriweather will start in one spot, but that’s a doubt and it’s unclear who will start in the other spot. None of the options are that impressive. Reed Doughty, Jordan Pugh, and DeJon Gomes have never shown themselves to be starting caliber players while Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo are mere rookies, Thomas going in the 4th round and Rambo in the 6th. Amerson could also be in the mix because he has safety size, but he’s just a rookie too and he’d be learning a new position. Thomas is probably the early favorite, and while he has talent, it’s very, very hard to rely on a 4th round rookie starter. There’s just not a lot of talent in this secondary overall.

Grade: C

Head Coach

There was some doubt for a while in his first 2 seasons in Washington, but Mike Shanahan showed last season why he is still one of the better Head Coaches in the NFL. He has two Super Bowl rings and while he hasn’t won one since 1998, he has the pieces in Washington that you could envision him eventually winning another one. Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris did their best John Elway and Terrell Davis impressions as mere rookies last season.

Grade: A-

Overall

While this team rightfully has very high hopes for the future, I think they’ll take one step back this season before taking two steps before in 2014 and beyond. It’s just how these types of things work. They’ll have a bit of a sophomore slump. While they’ll have better injury luck overall, Griffin’s situation with the knee and the fact that they were so reliant on winning the turnover battle last season will hurt them.

In the division, I have them going 3-3, either splitting with all 3 teams or splitting with one of Dallas or New York, getting swept by the other and sweeping the Eagles. They’re the 3rd best team in this division, though it’s a tight one. Outside of the division, they have the toughest schedule of any team in the division because they won the division last season. They host Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, Kansas City and San Francisco. San Francisco will be a really tough game, but they should win at least 2, probably 3 of the other 4 games. On top of that, they go to Green Bay, Oakland, Denver, Minnesota, and Atlanta. Green Bay, Denver, and Atlanta will be tough places to win, but they should win the other 2, giving them 8 total wins. That’s not quite that aforementioned 2.5-game expected decline, but it’s close. That sounds reasonable.

Projection: 8-8 3rd in NFC East

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