Houston Texans 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans went from 12-4 in 2012 to 2-14 in 2013. What happened? Well, for one, the Texans weren’t as good as that 12-4 record suggested in 2012. They finished 11th in DVOA in 2012, as they faced a schedule that was 26th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had about 10.2 Pythagorean Wins. They also finished 3rd in the NFL recovering 64.10% of fumbles, which led to their +12 turnover margin, which was powered by a +10 fumble margin.

In 2013, all of those unsustainable things that helped them in 2012 went the opposite way. Their schedule was 10th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less. As bad as their record was last season, they only lost 5 games by more than a touchdown and two of those came late in the season in their final 3 games after Gary Kubiak was fired and the team essentially quit. They had about 4.2 Pythagorean wins. On top of that they allowed 8 touchdowns off of returns, as opposed to 2 touchdowns off of returns for that. If we zeroed that out, they would have scored 262 points and allowed 372 points, which is a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.9 wins.

Speaking of turnovers, their turnover margin went to a league worst -20, as a result of a 44.44% fumble recovery rate, 26th in the NFL. They also picked off an absurd low amount of passes, 7, and they threw 22 interceptions. Turnover margins tend to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis though, as we’re talking about events that happen on such a small percentage of snaps. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.

Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well.

The Texans’ defense did fine, except for their inability to force turnovers, which should turn around this season. They played well in spite of losing Brian Cushing to a significant injury for the 2nd straight season. They ranked 11th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.40% rate. However, the offense was the issue, as they ranked 25th, moving the chains at a 66.87% rate. They still finished 21st in differential at -2.53%, which goes back to the whole the Texans were better than their record last season thing, but the offense was clearly the issue last season.

Matt Schaub’s performance last season was clearly the biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 for the Texans. Schaub had a QB rating in the 90s in every season from 2008-2012, but struggled mightily in 2013, completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.45 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 10 games, a QB rating of 73.0. He was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. The Texans’ other quarterbacks, TJ Yates and Case Keenum were not much better, as Texan quarterbacks combined to complete 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions on the season, a QB rating of 74.0.

Because of how bad they were last season, the Texans had the #1 pick in the draft and a golden opportunity to draft a quarterback #1 and potentially add a legitimate franchise quarterback into a strong supporting cast and get the team back to where it once was. Prior to this past draft, a quarterback was the #1 pick in 12 of the previous 16 drafts and only once did a team not draft a quarterback #1 and then draft a quarterback later, meaning only one team (the 2008 Miami Dolphins) felt they needed a quarterback and opted not to take one #1 overall.

The Texans made that two teams this year, taking Jadeveon Clowney #1 and waiting until the 4th round to grab Tom Savage. Clowney won’t help their miserable offense and he won’t elevate this team back into Super Bowl contender realm, but it’s hard to argue against taking a supposedly once in a generation player over a quarterback class that no one really seemed sold on. Clowney will line up at a position of need defensively and, along with the return of Brian Cushing, make their solid defense even better. Their offense could still turn the ball over quite a bit, but their defense should force way more than the 11 takeaways they forced last season, which will even out their turnover margin.

Tom Savage will probably sit most of, if not all of his rookie year behind veteran addition Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick isn’t great. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus every season since 2008 (he didn’t play in 2007), including 34th out of 37 eligible in 2008 and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012. However, he’s actually coming off arguably the best season of his career, as he graded out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus (21st out of 42 eligible). He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA (both career highs), 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and also rushed for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 carries (5.23 YPA). He helped lead the Titans to a 71.66% rate of moving the chains (Jake Locker also started some games before he got hurt), which was 17th in the NFL.

Fitzpatrick might not be as good as he was last season and he could really struggle. In fact, he could be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season. However, he should be an upgrade over what the Texans had at quarterback last season. He also has a fairly solid offensive supporting cast. The Texans are going to try to sneak into the playoffs on the strength of a strong running game and defense and limit Fitzpatrick’s impact on the game. They also have a new head coach, which should help them.

What should also help them out is their schedule as they play a last place schedule in arguably the worst division in football. They’ll get 4 games against the Titans and Jaguars. They’ll play Oakland and Buffalo. They also get the NFC East and the AFC North, so they’ll face the Browns, Redskins, Giants, and Cowboys. They play just 4 games against 2013 playoff teams (Colts twice, Bengals, and Eagles). That might not be enough for them to sneak into the playoffs, but they’ll be significantly improved in terms of win total from last season. Teams that have big decline in win total usually rebound by about half of that on average the following season. That would put the Texans at 7-9.

Grade: C

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Texans will be leaning on their running game, something they’ll have the luxury to do because their defense is strong. One thing that could help them is the return of Arian Foster from injury. Foster was off to a strong start to last season, rushing for 542 yards and a touchdown on 121 carries, an average of 4.48 YPC. He finished 23rd among eligible running backs last season despite playing just 334 snaps, before going down with injury.

Foster was breaking down before the injury though, largely as a result of the 1115 touches he had in the previous 3 seasons. His YPC went down from 4.94 YPC in 2010 to 4.40 YPC in 2011 to 4.06 YPC in 2012. Even his yards per catch was low in 2012, as he averaged 5.42 yards per catch, showing a significant lack of burst and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus. Now coming off of a significant back injury and going into his age 28 season, he could continue breaking down. At the same time, he could also continue playing well, like he was last season, now that’s he’s had some time to rest and rebuild. We’ll see.

Ben Tate, Foster’s long-time backup, is now gone, signing as the starter in Cleveland. The Texans made a shrewd move signing Andre Brown from the Giants to be Foster’s backup and a fallback option if Foster gets hurt again. Brown has his share of issues. He’s bounced around the league and has a massive injury history so he’s played 21 games since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009 and has 246 touches going into his age 28 season. He also averaged just 3.54 yards per carry last season and has a career average of 4.09 yards per carry.

That being said, he’s strong on passing downs as both a protector and a pass catcher and he’s a bruising north-south back who always picks up some sort of yardage and who is great around the goal line. He doesn’t have much explosiveness, but he averaged 5.27 yards per carry in 2012. He’ll be solid as Foster’s backup. If both Brown and Foster go down with injury, either Dennis Johnson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries as a rookie (3.73 YPC), or 6th round rookie Alfred Blue will get a significant role.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Texans have a strong offensive line that helps both their running game and their passing game. Blindside protector Duane Brown is one of the better offensive tackles in the game. Last year he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle in a “down” season. Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle in 2012, 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, and 19th ranked offensive tackle in 2010. Even after last year, he’s still one of three offensive tackles (Andrew Whitworth and Joe Thomas) who has graded out in the top-22 in each of the past 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick has graded out above average in every season since 2009, after a rough rookie year.

Chris Myers is also one of the top centers in the game. Myers has been a top-11 center on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2007, the only center in the game who can say that. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked center in 2011 and graded out 6th last season. He’s always been a better run blocker than pass protector, but he did struggle as a pass protector last season, grading out 30th out of 35 eligible in that aspect, as opposed to 2nd as a run blocker. He’s going into his age 33 season, but interior offensive linemen can often play well even in their mid-30s. His declining pass protection is a concern, but he should still have a solid season.

While Myers and Brown are established at their respective positions, the Texans also had a player break out last season. That player was right guard Brandon Brooks, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season, in his 2nd year in the league after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. He was only alright as a pass blocker, but he excelled as a run blocker at 6-5 343, grading out 3rd at his position in that aspect. He’s still a one-year wonder, after playing 111 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year this year, in his 3rd year in the league.

While the trio of Brown, Myers, and Brooks are very solid starters, the Texans had serious problems at left guard and right tackle last season. They might have fixed the left guard issue by drafting Xavier Su’a-Filo in the 2nd round of the draft, 33rd overall. He’ll be a day 1 starter and he should be an upgrade, even as a rookie, over Wade Smith, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season. He remains unsigned on the open market going into his age 33 season.

The Texans didn’t do anything about the right tackle position, where Derek Newton was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. He wasn’t much better in 2012, when he was 67th out of 80 eligible. The Texans are hoping that 2013 3rd round pick Brennan Williams can push Newton for the starting job at some point this season, but Williams has had serious issues with his knee since being drafted. He had microfracture surgery that cost him his entire rookie year and the Texans still don’t know if he’ll be ready for the start of Training Camp. Missing Training Camp obviously would severely hurt his chances of winning the starting job. He also missed most of his senior season at North Carolina with a shoulder injury, so he hasn’t played much football over the past 2 seasons and seems extremely injury prone. It’s a solid offensive line overall, but there are some issues.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Texans also had one of the top pass catchers in the NFL last season in Andre Johnson. Despite Houston’s issues at quarterback last season, Johnson still caught 109 passes for 1407 yards and 5 touchdowns and ranked 7th in the NFL in receiving yardage. He did that on 613 routes run and averaged 2.30 yards per route run, 9th in the NFL. He only caught 109 of his league leading 176 targets (61.9%), but that was still a significantly higher percentage than the 58.6% of passes Texan quarterbacks completed in general. Texan quarterbacks also averaged 7.99 YPA when throwing to Johnson, as opposed to 6.61 YPA in general.

The issue is that Johnson is holding out because he wants to be traded elsewhere. He’s apparently displeased that the Texans waited until the 4th round of the draft to take a quarterback. He’s missing valuable time with a new quarterback and head coach and he risks getting out of shape if his holdout goes into Training Camp. He’s also going into his age 33 season, which makes this holdout even more concerning.

Johnson’s 12,661 yards are 17th all-time and he could easily be Hall-of-Fame bound when it’s all said and done. However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Johnson isn’t quite there right now, but he’s at the point in his career where is age is becoming a concern.

It’s why he’s unlikely to be traded. The Texans aren’t going to get much compensation for him because he’s owed 11 million, 11.5 million, and 12 million in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively and he’s pretty much year-to-year in terms of when his abilities could fall off a cliff. He could easily be a one-year investment at those non-guaranteed salaries so someone isn’t going to give the Texans much for him. On top of that, there really isn’t a wide receiver needy contender that has the cap space to add Johnson. Unless he holds out into the season, it doesn’t really make much sense for the Texans to trade Johnson for minimal compensation.

Any production Johnson loses this season as a result of his holdout and his age should be the gain of 2nd year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Hopkins is working as the #1 receiver in Johnson’s absence, becoming better acquainted with the new offensive system and the new quarterback. Hopkins had a decent rookie year, catching 52 passes for 802 yards and 2 touchdowns on 629 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He caught 52 of 91 targets, 57.1%.

His yards per route run was below league average, his completion percentage when thrown to was below the team average, and he graded slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but he was still more productive than the average 1st round pick receiver as a rookie. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 lines respectively as rookies, both inferior to Hopkins’ rookie year. Wide receivers usually take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL and Hopkins could make a leap in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. Reports on him in OTAs and minicamp have been very promising.

The Texans’ depth at wide receiver is very underwhelming, which is a concern if Johnson’s holdout extends into the season or he gets traded. However, as long as Johnson is out there, their lack of depth at the position isn’t a huge concern. They rarely ran 3-wide receiver sets under Gary Kubiak and they’re unlikely to run many more now under new head coach Bill O’Brien, in favor of using more two-tight end sets.

Keshawn Martin struggled on 385 snaps as the 3rd wide receiver last season and on 268 snaps in that role as a 4th round rookie in 2012. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 99th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade last season and he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2012 if he had been eligible, despite playing just 268 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out lower, both overall and in pure pass catching grade.

DeVier Posey, meanwhile, has struggled on 413 snaps combined over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. Alan Bonner is a 2013 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Mike Thomas is the veteran option. He was out of the league last year, after struggling on 463 snaps in 2012, being traded from Jacksonville to Detroit mid-season. His composite grade would have been 5th worst among eligible wide receivers that season. He’s been better in the past, as the 2009 4th round pick caught 66 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2010, but he hasn’t graded out above average since that season. He’s reportedly impressing in off-season practice and could be the favorite for the #3 wide receiver job, but I don’t expect much from him.

As I mentioned, the Texans will use a lot of two-tight end sets. With the injury prone and aging Owen Daniels gone, Garrett Graham will once again be the #1 tight end. He rose to this role last season after Daniels went down for the season week 5. Graham was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which is weird because he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season on 786 snaps. He struggled as both a pass and run blocker and caught 49 passes for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 421 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run.

He was better on 646 snaps in 2012, grading out above average, though the 2010 4th round pick played a combined 30 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league. He should be a slightly below average starter in the biggest role of his career this season. The 2nd tight end role will come down to either Ryan Griffin or CJ Fiedorowicz, both of whom are better blockers than Graham. Griffin was unimpressive on 368 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2013 and Fiedorowicz is a 3rd round rookie out of Iowa. The tight end position is unimpressive considering how much they will rely on two-tight end sets, but it’s better than their depth at wide receiver. After Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, there are issues in the receiving corps and the former is holding out.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense was, by far, their best unit last season. Hands down, the #1 reason for that was JJ Watt. Watt didn’t get the attention he got in 2012 with 21 sacks on a 12 win team, when he won Defensive Player of the Year in his 2nd year in the league, but he arguably had a better season, even though he only had 11 sacks on a 2 win team. He’s the most dominant player in the NFL at any position and that includes Peyton Manning. Manning is obviously more valuable because of the position he plays, but no one dominates their position like Watt does.

Watt didn’t come close to matching the 21 sacks he had in 2012 nor the 15 batted passes, but he had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries (on 556 snaps), as opposed to 25 hits and 30 hurries the year before (on 610 snaps). Those 36 quarterback hits were by far best in the NFL. Only Robert Quinn with 23 even came close. As a result, Watt had a pass rush rate of 15.3% which not only blew out of the water the next best pass rush rate by an interior defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy with 13.5%), but it blew the 12.5% pass rush rate he had in 2012 out of the water as well. Sacking the quarterback is great, but getting to the quarterback consistently, getting in his head and hurrying throws is even better.

Watt didn’t match his absurd 17.1% run stop rate from 2013, but his 13.7% run stop rate was 2nd in the NFL among eligible players (percentage of run snaps in which a player records a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). Watt also actually had a higher run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013 than in 2012 and a higher grade overall. He didn’t post the flashy numbers he did in 2012 or play on a good team like in 2012, but the argument can still be made that he played as well or better.

I argued he should have been Defensive Player of the Year again, even though he had no shot of actually winning. The voters hate voting for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the only player to ever win it twice in a row was Lawrence Taylor and he did it in a strike shortened season. It wasn’t going to happen for the first time in a season of regular length with a guy who played on a 2-14 team and didn’t come close to matching his sack total from the year before.

Watt was once again both Pro Football Focus’ highest rated 3-4 defensive end and Pro Football Focus’ highest rated player at any position, doing so for the 2nd straight season. No defensive player in the NFL had a bigger margin between the player who was in 2nd place behind him at his position on Pro Football Focus than Watt in terms of raw numbers and only Quinn had a bigger margin in terms of percentage. Watt alone elevated this defense to one of the better defenses in the NFL and he could easily do so again this season.

The Texans did lose veteran Antonio Smith this off-season, going into his age 33 season. Even though he was aging, he still was a big contributor last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 defensive end. He struggled against the run, as he usually does, but he ranked 5th at his position in pass rush grade. It’ll be hard for the Texans to replace him, especially since it doesn’t look like they have anyone close to as good as him on their current roster.

Jared Crick is one option. The 2012 4th round pick might have been drafted with this situation in mind, but, after flashing on 220 snaps as a rookie, he struggled on 277 snaps this season. Tim Jamison has been an impressive career backup since going undrafted in 2009, but he’s only played 741 snaps in 5 seasons. Ricardo Matthews is a veteran option coming over as a free agent from Indianapolis, but the 2010 7th round pick has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including last year, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 45 eligible on 437 snaps, with no one grading out worse and playing fewer snaps.

The Texans also lost starting nose tackle Earl Mitchell though that isn’t as big of a deal because it’s only a two-down role and because Mitchell graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. The Texans drafted Louis Nix in the 3rd round. He fell in the draft because of injuries, but he practiced in minicamp. The 6-2 331 pounder should be able to play alright in a two-down nose tackle role in the middle of their defense, even as a rookie.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Texans did lose Antonio Smith, Jadeveon Clowney should be able to replace his pass rush production, even if he does play a different position. Clowney was a much needed addition because their outside linebackers sucked last year, particularly in rushing the passer off the edge. Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus played virtually every snap, playing 1038 and 970 respectively out of 1060 possible snaps. They ranked 2nd and 6th respective among 3-4 outside linebackers in snaps played, but they were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst and worst ranked 3-4 outside linebackers respectively. Both played the run alright, but struggled mightily rushing the passer. Clowney will instantly be, by far, their best edge rusher.

Whitney Mercilus will remain in the starting lineup, though he could play fewer snaps, and the Texans will be hoping that the 2012 1st round pick can finally breakout in his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t much better as a rookie, grading out 28th out of 34 eligible that season. Brooks Reed, meanwhile, could be moving to middle linebacker, at least in base packages. He’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out worst at his position in that aspect last season, but he graded out above average in run grade. This has been a trend throughout his career as he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He could be a better fit inside.

Another reason why Reed could be moving to middle linebacker is because they have a massive need at the position. Daryl Sharpton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, which isn’t terrible, but now he’s gone, as is Joe Mays, who was a two-down base package middle linebacker last season. Brian Cushing is back from injury (more on that later), but they still need someone to line up next to him. That’s where Reed would come in. He’d only have to play two-downs because safety DJ Swearinger comes down towards the line of scrimmage and essentially plays a coverage linebacker role in sub packages. That would allow Reed to still provide depth at edge rusher in sub packages if needed.

Cushing, meanwhile, is a dominant middle linebacker when he’s on the field. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2009, after going in the first round, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker. However, he missed 4 games with suspension in 2010, which put him behind the 8-ball and caused him to grade out below average.

That’s the only season in 5 years in the league in which he graded out below average, but he’s missed 20 games over the past 2 seasons combined with leg injuries, which is a serious concern. He should be ready to go for this season, but he’s very injury prone and, even only going into his age 27 season, there are no guarantees that he can be as good as he once was, even if he stays on the field. It’s still an improved linebacking corps though with Cushing back, Clowney coming in, Reed moving over, and Mercilus going into his 3rd year in the league.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, DJ Swearinger will play linebacker in sub packages, as the 5-10 217 pounder played 66.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season, 9th among eligible safeties. He’ll continue in that role, playing safety in base packages and linebacker in sub packages. The 2013 2nd round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

Chris Clemons will play every down at the other safety spot. Clemons was a steal on a 2-year, 2.7 million dollar deal, coming over from Miami. Clemons was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety last season and 25th ranked safety in 2012 in two years as a starter with the Dolphins, his only two years as a starter. The Texans didn’t have anyone like him at safety last season, where Danieal Manning and Ed Reed started the season as starters, before the former got hurt and the latter got cut. Then Swearinger and Shiloh Keo took over as the starters and struggled, with Eddie Pleasant playing 155 snaps as the 3rd safety.

That 3rd safety job is up for grabs. Pleasant, a 2012 undrafted free agent who played 3 snaps as a rookie in 2012, could keep the job after flashing on those 155 snaps in 2013. Shiloh Keo played 793 snaps last season and could keep a significant role, even after struggling last season. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out below average in every season he’s been in the league and only played a combined 76 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league combined.

Most likely, it’ll be veteran free agent addition Kendrick Lewis, who the Texans signed from Kansas City. Lewis has been a starter for 4 years in Kansas City, since going in the 5th round in 2010, grading out above average in 2 of them, though he’s graded out below average in the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same recently thanks to injuries. He’s missed 11 games in 4 seasons. However, he should be a better fit as the 3rd safety in Houston, provided he beats out the competition.

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph will continue to be the starters at cornerback. Jackson, a 2010 1st round pick, seemingly had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback and allowing 46.8% completion, after struggling in the first 2 seasons of his career. However, Jackson regressed in 2013, grading out below average. He’s now graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and that 2012 campaign looks like a fluke and makes him look like a one-year wonder. He’s still a talented cornerback though and could have a bounce back year this year. It would obviously benefit him as he’s in his contract year and set to hit free agency next off-season.

Johnathan Joseph is a veteran working on a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money since his first year on the contract in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback. However, even though he hasn’t been as good as that season or as good as 2009, when he was with the Bengals and ranked 6th among cornerbacks, he’s still graded out above average in every season since 2008. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback last season. He’s now going into his age 30 season so his best days might be behind him, but he should still be an asset for the Texans.

The 3rd cornerback last season was Brice McCain, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst cornerback on 633 snaps. The Texans cut him this off-season and his absence should be addition by subtraction. The issue is the Texans don’t really have a proven replacement. Brandon Harris will likely be asked to step up, going into the 4th season of his career and the contract year of his rookie deal, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He hasn’t really lived up to his draft status, only playing 415 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. We’ll see how he does this season. There are issues in this secondary, but there’s also talent and they should be improved over last season. It’s a solid defense overall.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense won’t be significantly improved this season because they didn’t seriously upgrade the quarterback position, but their defense should still be solid despite the loss of Antonio Smith, thanks to the addition of Jadeveon Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury. They aren’t significantly more talented this season than last season, but they were much better than their record suggested last year. They just got screwed by close losses (2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less), fumbles (44.44% fumble recovery), turnovers (-20 turnover margin), and return touchdowns (-6 return touchdowns), things that all tend to be very inconsistent.

They finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential and they could easily be a middle of the pack team this season, relying on their running game, a strong offensive line, and a solid defense to win games. They’ll have an easy schedule so there will be opportunities for them to win games and even make noise in the playoff race. I think they need to significantly upgrade the quarterback position before that happens, but they’ll be in the mix. I’ll have an official season prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC South

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Indianapolis Colts 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2 seasons in the league, Andrew Luck is 14-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, 15-2 if you include a one point comeback home win over the Chiefs in last year’s playoffs, before the Colts got demolished in Foxboro the following week. The Colts have won 22 regular season games over the past 2 seasons. 14 of them have come by 7 points or fewer. That’s not sustainable. The Colts once again significantly exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation by winning 11 games last year.

In 2012, their point differential suggested that they should have won about 7.2 games. In 2013, they were better, but their point differential suggested that they should have won about 9.4 games. They were clearly a better team in 2013 as they had a better Pythagorean Expectation despite a harder schedule (32nd ranked schedule in terms of DVOA in 2012, 23rd in 2013) and despite more injuries (31st in adjusted games lost in 2013, 30th in 2012).

The Colts should have fewer injuries this season and they play in arguably the weakest division in the NFL so their schedule might not get any harder. In fact, it could get easier as they swap out the AFC and NFC West for the NFC East and the AFC North. However, they can’t consistently count on eking out close victories. If they want to win 11 or more games this season and if they want to advance deeper into the post-season, they’ll have to be a better team.

Easily the biggest reason that the Colts were an improved team in 2013, as opposed to 2012, was Andrew Luck’s improved play. In 2012, Luck relied on close victories against bad opponents, rather than his own strong play to win games, as he completed 54.1% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. In 2013, he became a much improved quarterback, completing 60.2% of his passes for an average of 6.71 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He also improved as a runner going from 255 yards and 5 touchdowns on 62 carries in 2012 (4.11 YPA) to 377 yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries in 2013 (5.98 YPA).

Luck was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback, though much of that was because he was their 3rd ranked quarterback in terms of running grade, behind only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. In terms of pure passing grade, he was actually 20th, though that was up from 2012 when he was 24th in that aspect. Luck did this despite losing significant players around him to serious injuries. He had a slightly improved offensive line as compared to 2012, when they were horrible, but most of his improvement can be attributed to Luck himself. He should continue to improve going into his 3rd year in the league.

Luck’s play was a big part of the reason why the Colts finished 14th in rate of moving the chains, moving them 72.21% offensively. They still finished 14th in differential at 0.70%, 2nd worst among playoff teams, but that was more because their defense ranked 17th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 71.52% rate. If they’re going to improve from being the roughly league average team they were last season and become a team that can go on a long playoff run, they’ll need better play on the defensive side of the ball.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned the Colts had an improved offensive line in 2013. That’s true, but it’s really only by default. After ranking 31st on Pro Football Focus in terms of team pass blocking grade and 24th in team run blocking grade in 2012, the Colts improved to 25th and 23rd in those two measures. They still had serious issues up front, especially on the interior of their offensive line. One of the problems is they lost Donald Thomas to an injury. Thomas was signed to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal before last season to shore up a problem position at left guard, but he lasted 72 snaps before going down for the season with injury.

Having a healthy Thomas back should help this offensive line. In Thomas’ absence, the 3rd round rookie Hugh Thornton had to take over as the starter and he ended up grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. Thomas flashed on those 72 snaps and also has a history of some success. He graded out above average as a starter in Miami in 2009, barely played from 2010-2011 and then found playing time as an injury replacement in New England in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked guard on 614 snaps. No one graded out higher and played fewer snaps. As long as he’s healthy this season, he should be a much needed asset for them on the interior of their offensive line.

Thornton could still be a starter this season, but only because the Colts “lost” Mike McGlynn this off-season. I put “lost” in quotation marks because McGlynn was horrible over the past 2 seasons as a starter in Indianapolis, grading out 73rd out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and dead last out of 81 eligible guards in 2012. Losing him is a good thing even if it means Thornton has to become a starter. Thornton, as bad as he was last year, was still better than McGlynn and he could be improved going into his 2nd year in the league. The Colts also drafted Zach Mewhort in the 2nd round to compete with Thornton for the right guard job and to provide depth at every position except center if he can’t lock down a starting job.

Another player the Colts “lost” is Jeff Linkenbach, who has served as a utility offensive lineman over the past few seasons, often making starts at both guard and tackle. He’s struggled mightily in that role though, including last year, when he graded out 57th out of 81 eligible guards, despite playing just 368 snaps. On top of that, the Colts “lost” starting center Samson Satele, when they cut the underachieving starter. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 35 eligible last season. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by 2013 4th round pick Khaled Holmes, who played 13 snaps as a rookie. He could still be an upgrade, though there’s obviously no guarantee with an inexperienced former mid-round pick like him. Either way, the interior offensive line should better this year, even if it’s only by default.

While things were bad on the interior of the offensive line last season, things were pretty solid at tackle for the Colts, with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus essentially playing every snap at left and right tackle respectively (Cherilus played 1092 and Castonzo played 1088 out of 1093 possible). They graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th and 25th ranked offensive tackles respectively, both well above average. Castonzo was a 2011 1st round pick and is now going into his 4th year in the league. The Colts picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. He’s graded out above average in all 3 years he’s been in the league, improved every year, and has missed a combined 5 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined.

Cherilus is also a former 1st round pick, going in the first round in 2008, drafted by the Lions, and then signing a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Colts last off-season. Cherilus earned that deal by grading out above average in every season from 2009 on and having the best season of his career in his contract year in 2012, grading out 8th. It’s always risky giving a ton of money to a guy coming off of the best year of his career and he was just 37th among offensive tackles in 2011. There was also concern about Cherilus’ history of knee problems, even though he rarely missed games. It’s still very possible that 2012 will be easily the best year of Cherilus’ career, as he heads into his age 30 season, but he’s still an asset on the right side for the Colts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

I mentioned how much the Colts struggled run blocking last season. That’s part of the reason why Trent Richardson struggled so much once the Colts acquired him from the Browns for a first round pick. The 3rd pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Richardson averaged 2.92 yards per carry and scored 3 touchdowns on 157 carries in 14 games with the Colts. However, he averaged 1.90 yards per carry after contact and broke 47 tackles on 185 touches (he also added 28 catches for 265 yards and a touchdown), giving him the 10th highest elusive rating in the NFL. As a result, even though he struggled mightily on the stat sheet, he wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ worst running back last season (he was 10th worst, and 3rd worst in pure run grade, but still).

Donald Brown had a lot of success last season, rushing for 537 yards and 6 touchdowns on 102 carries, an average of 5.26 yards per carry, but he too had to rush for a lot of yards after contact and break a lot of tackles. Brown broke 29 tackles on 129 touches and averaged 3.28 yards per carry after contact, giving him the highest elusive rating in the NFL. Richardson has shown the ability to break tackles and pick up yards after contact dating back to his days in Cleveland, starting in 2012.

Richardson rushed for 3.56 yards per carry in 2012, but he ranked 16th in elusive rating, breaking 59 tackles on 318 touches and averaging 2.09 yards per carry after contact. In 2013 with the Browns, he rushed for 3.39 yards per carry. However, he rushed for 2.42 yards after contact and broke 16 tackles on 38 touches, giving the Cleveland version of him an elusive rating even higher than Donald Brown’s. Much of Richardson’s struggles last season had to do with the Colts’ offensive line and he ran better than his numbers suggested.

However, much of it also had to do with Richardson himself. Richardson showed poor vision and burst, which is part of why there were so few “blocked” yards from him to pick up. He wasn’t hitting the hole hard enough or in the right location, two things he’s had issues with since being drafted. He blamed a lot of it on not knowing the playbook fully, which would explain why he struggled even more upon his arrival in Indianapolis. That issue should be corrected this off-season and the offensive line should be better as well.

The 3rd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, there’s still time for him to turn it around, going into only his age 23 season and his 3rd year in the league. Richardson drew a lot of comparisons to Marshawn Lynch in the pre-draft process for his size, physicality, and violent running style. Lynch averaged 3.92 yards per carry in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, but he’s averaged 4.50 yards per carry over the previous 3 seasons. Richardson can still breakout as that type of running back.

Richardson will get competition from Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw with Donald Brown gone. Both Ballard and Bradshaw are coming off of season ending injuries. Ballard rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries in one game last season before tearing his ACL. A mediocre runner, Ballard was a 5th round pick in 2012 and rushed for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries as a rookie, an average of 3.86 yards per carry, grading out about average on Pro Football Focus.

Bradshaw, meanwhile, rushed for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns on 41 carries in 3 games last season before going down with a serious neck injury. Bradshaw is now going into his age 28 season, which is like 33 for running backs, with a significant injury history, missing 19 games with various injuries over the past 3 seasons and being limited in many others. However, he’s a tough running back who has averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 962 career carries, so he could be an asset this season if he stays on the field. Overall though, the Colts are going to need Richardson to improve this season if the Colts are going to average 4.26 yards per carry again, as Donald Brown is gone. We’ll see if he can do that.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned that the Colts lost two running backs and an offensive lineman early in the season to injury, as they were one of the most injury riddled teams in the NFL. They also lost a wide receiver and a tight end to season ending injuries fairly early in the season. That wide receiver was Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL in the Colts’ 7th game of the season, after 38 catches for 503 yards and 2 touchdowns in 7 games and on 255 routes run, an average of 1.97 yards per route run.

Wayne was the Colts’ most reliable player prior to his injury, not missing a game since his rookie season in 2001 and catching 1006 passes for 13,566 yards and 80 touchdowns in his career. Those 13,566 career yards are 11th all-time and he could easily be Hall-of-Fame bound when it’s all said and done, but he’s going into his age 36 season now and coming off of that serious injury. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Wayne showed some signs of decline last season and there’s no guarantee that he can be anything close to what the Colts are used to from him this year. He’s owed 4 million in the final season of his contract and this could easily be the final year of his career.

The Colts signed Hakeem Nicks to a one-year deal this off-season. Nicks, a 2009 1st round pick, looked like one of the best young receivers in the NFL from 2009-2011. He averaged 2.30 yards per route run in 2009 on 344 routes run and 2.32 yards per route run in 2010 on 453 routes run. In 2011, he “only” averaged 2.08 yards per route run on 572 routes run, thanks to the development of Victor Cruz opposite him, but he was still a big part of the Giants’ Super Bowl team. His development seems to have stagnated over the past 2 seasons though thanks to a variety of lower body injuries and he’s never played all 16 games in a season, missing 10 games over the past 5 seasons and being limited in many others.

Nicks averaged 1.74 yards per route run on 398 routes run in 2012 and 1.70 yards per route run on 527 routes run in 2013. Last year was especially bad as he didn’t score all season and struggled with his chemistry with Eli Manning. 7 passes thrown to him were picked off and Manning’s quarterback rating when throwing to him was 57.0, 7th worst among eligible wide receivers. All that being said, he still has plenty of talent, which still flashes, and even his down years weren’t awful. He’s only going into his age 26 season, so he could be an asset for the Colts in the passing game. At the very least, he’ll be the Colts’ #3 wide receiver this year, but he could start over Reggie Wayne.

Nicks will also be an upgrade over Darrius Heyward-Bey who struggled mightily on a one-year deal last season. Losing him will be addition by subtraction. He caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown on 58 targets (50.0%) on 382 routes run (0.81 yards per route run). He also dropped 9 passes and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked wide receiver overall, including 2nd worst in pure pass catching grade. Donte Moncrief was the Colts’ 3rd round pick, but the raw height/weight/speed wideout is unlikely to have an impact as a rookie as the 4th receiver. He’ll get his chance at playing time going in 2015, as Nicks and Wayne will both be free agents this off-season.

One positive of Reggie Wayne’s injury last season was that it allowed TY Hilton to have a breakout year as the #1 receiver in his absence. Hilton caught 82 passes for 1083 yards and 5 touchdowns on 533 routes run, an average of 2.03 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked wide receiver. He’s no longer just a deep threat reliant on big plays to make an impact, as he was as a rookie when he caught 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns on 479 routes run, an average of 1.80 yards per routes. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for wide receivers, Hilton could be even better. The 2012 3rd round pick is going into only his age 25 season. He was dominant in the post-season, catching 17 passes for 327 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 games. He’ll once again be the Colts’ #1 receiver in 2014.

The other Colts’ pass catcher who went down with a season ending injury was Dwayne Allen, who went down with a hip injury 30 snaps into week 1, after just 1 catch for 20 yards. That was a bigger loss than most people realize because of how good Allen was as a rookie in 2012. The 2012 3rd round pick only caught 45 passes for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he did so on 64 targets, meaning he caught 70.3% of targets, and on 368 routes run, meaning he averaged 1.42 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end in pass catching grade, but where he really excelled was as a blocker, both a run and pass blocker, and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end as a result. Essentially a younger version of Heath Miller, Allen could be a big boost to the Colts upon his return this year, going into his 3rd year in the league.

In Allen’s absence, Coby Fleener led Colts’ tight ends in snaps played with 834. Fleener was a 2nd round pick in 2012, going before Allen, but he’s not nearly as good as Allen, grading out only slightly above average in each of his first 2 years in the league. Fleener caught 52 passes for 608 yards and 4 touchdowns on 482 routes run, an average of 1.26 yards per route run. He caught 52 of 84 targets (61.9%) and only dropped one pass all season. He wasn’t much of a blocker though.

He’ll become the #2 tight end this season and work primarily as a move tight end with Allen working as an every down in-line tight end. The Colts rarely ran two-tight end sets last year after Allen went down as, after Fleener, the tight end who played the 2nd most snaps was Jack Doyle, who struggled on 198 snaps. They ran a lot of three wide receiver sets with TY Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and a combination of Da’Rick Rodgers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen last season, an underwhelming bunch.

They’ll run a lot more two-tight end sets this season and they won’t be afraid to pass out of them. Adding tight end guru Rob Chudzinski as an offensive assistant will also help. Getting Wayne and Allen back from injury, as well as the addition of Hakeem Nicks, will give Andrew Luck more weapons to work with and make this offense better. The Colts will also get guys back from injury at running back and offensive line that will help them on this side of the ball.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Colts also need to get better on the defensive side of the ball and they can’t rely on getting guys back from injury to help them improve. They did sign Arthur Jones from Baltimore though, on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal. A 2010 5th round pick, Arthur Jones developed from a solid reserve in 2011 on 255 snaps to a solid starter on 536 snaps to a breakout player in 2013 on 530 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end.

He was overpaid though, getting 33 million over 5 years with 16 million guaranteed. At his best, he’s worth that kind of money, but he’s still just a one year wonder at this point in his career. There’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be this good. He’s never played more than 536 snaps in a season and he’s never been the key cog on Baltimore’s defensive line, rotating often and playing alongside Haloti Ngata. He’ll be counted on for a bigger role in Indianapolis and he’ll instantly become the top player on their defensive line, which could be too much for them, though he will be reunited with one-time Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who is the head coach in Indianapolis.

The Colts made a big splash in free agency the previous off-season as well, signing Ricky Jean-Francois from San Francisco on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. It was a weird deal because Jean-Francois was a 2009 7th round pick who had played just 715 snaps in 4 seasons. He definitely flashed as a reserve in San Francisco, but he didn’t seem to be worth that kind of money. Jean-Francois played just 405 snaps in his first year in Indianapolis, missing 5 games with injury. He played pretty well when on the field, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked 3-4 defensive end, playing well against the run, but unspectacularly as a pass rusher. He’ll have the biggest role of his career this season, assuming he stays healthy. We’ll see if he can handle it.

Jones and Jean-Francois will work in rotation with veteran Cory Redding. Redding had a vintage year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 7th in run stopping grade, but he’s going into his age 34 season so it’s unclear if he can continue that. It’s also definitely worth mentioning that he graded out 29th out of 34 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2012. Jones, Jean-Francois, and Redding will play the vast majority of snaps at 3-4 defensive end and play inside in sub packages and rush the passer. This is because the Colts lost mediocre reserves Fili Moala and Ricardo Matthews, who played 513 and 437 snaps respectively in 2013, this off-season.

The Colts also lost the mediocre Aubrayo Franklin this off-season. He played 340 snaps as a two-down nose tackle last season. That role is all Josh Chapman’s now. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but he played 242 snaps last season and fared decently. He offered absolutely no pass rush, with 2 hurries on 114 pass rush snaps, but he played the run well and graded out about average. He’ll see probably 400-500 snaps in a base package nose tackle role this season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Colts’ top edge rusher last season was Robert Mathis, who tied for the NFL lead with 19 sacks last season. He’s a very talented player, but I’m going to pick him apart a little bit. While he had 19 sacks last year, he only had 5 hits and 39 hurries to go with those 19 sacks on 484 snaps, a rate of 13.0%. That’s impressive, but not nearly as good as someone like Robert Quinn, who also had 19 sacks, but totaled 21 hits and 54 hurries on 514 pass rush snaps, a rate of 18.3% which is much more impressive. It’s for that reason that I didn’t think Mathis deserved Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

Still, Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. However, he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s at the point where his age is something to take into consideration. That’s especially true when you consider that Mathis actually graded out below average in 2012. He graded out above average in every season from 2007-2011, so 2012 is the outlier, but it’s a concern that he had a season like that recently when you consider his age. He’s unlikely to play as well in 2014 at his age as he did in 2013, in what was one of the best years of his career. On top of that, Mathis is suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which will not only cost him 4 games, but could really put him behind the 8-ball this season.

Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden will have to play bigger roles in Mathis’ absence this season and both will play significant rotational roles even upon Mathis’ return. Walden was signed to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal by the Colts last off-season even though he was awful in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, grading out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons. He wasn’t as bad in 2013, but he didn’t live up to his contract, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible.

Colts fans hoping that 2013 1st round pick Bjoern Werner would step up into a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and turn Walden into a backup had to be extremely disappointed when they found out about Mathis’ suspension. Werner himself struggled last season, grading out 35th among 42 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on just 312 snaps. The 24th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Werner could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He will have a bigger role either way though.

Another big free agent acquisition was D’Qwell Jackson, who the Colts signed to a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. He’ll play every down inside at middle linebacker. The issue is he’s simply not worth that kind of money. D’Qwell Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season and 41st out of 53 eligible in 2012. Going into his age 31 season, Jackson is unlikely to get any better this season. Jerrell Freeman will continue to play every down inside and line up next to Jackson. Freeman has been a solid starter over the last 2 seasons since coming over from Canada, grading out 22nd among middle linebackers in 2012 and 17th among middle linebackers in 2013, while not missing a single game. The Colts should expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The biggest financial investment the Colts made this off-season was easily re-signing top cornerback Vontae Davis to a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal. That might not pan out though, as Davis has an inconsistent past. Vontae Davis had a dominant contract year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and 2nd in terms of coverage grade. However, the Colts are overpaying him based on his contract year. That type of move doesn’t usually end well.

Davis was a 1st round pick in 2009 by Miami and he’s never been able to consistently put it all together. He had a solid rookie year on 709 snaps, grading out 26th among cornerbacks, and then looked like one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2010, grading out 12th. However, he missed 4 games with injury in 2011, fell down to 37th, and then fell out of favor with the coaching staff when Joe Philbin came in, getting benched in the pre-season before 2012 for being out of shape. The Dolphins were able to trade him to the Colts for a 2nd and 6th round pick and it looked like the Colts got hosed in that trade, as he missed 6 more games in 2012 and graded out 74th. He put it all together for his contract year, but who is to say he won’t coast and get out of shape again now that he has 20 million guaranteed?

Greg Toler is penciled in as the other starting cornerback, but that’s assuming he can stay healthy, something he’s been unable to do his entire career. In 5 years in the league, he’s never played all 16 games, missing 33 games in 5 seasons, including 7 games last season. Toler also struggled last year when he was on the field, grading out below average, though he’s been better in the past, grading out above average in 2009 and 2012 and below average in 2010 (he didn’t play a snap in 2011 thanks to injury). He could be a decent starter if he stays healthy, but that’s a massive if.

Darius Butler is the 3rd cornerback and slot specialist. He’s only supposed to be a part-time player, but he played 704 snaps and made 7 starts last season because of the injury to Toler. Butler flashed on 380 snaps in 2012, which got him a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal, but he also graded out below average in 2 of 3 years from 2009-2011, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, maxing out at 497 snaps over that time period. There’s a reason he was available mid-season for the Colts in 2012.

Butler regressed a little bit last season from 2012, grading out slightly below average. He’s settled in as a marginal cornerback who can play the slot and start if needed. Josh Gordy, meanwhile, is the 4th cornerback and will see action if someone gets hurt, as someone probably will (Toler and/or Davis most likely). Butler had been decent over the past 2 seasons on a combined 401 snaps, but he struggled mightily in his one season of significant action in 2011, grading out 97th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks on 631 snaps.

The Colts also have issues at safety, as they lost decent starting safety and long-time veteran Antoine Bethea to free agency this off-season and didn’t really replace him. Right now it’s essentially a 3-way battle for the starting job between Sergio Brown, Delano Howell, and Mike Adams and none of them are really impressive. Howell has been unspectacular on 212 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2012. Brown went undrafted in 2010 and has played 63 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined and 506 snaps in 4 seasons combined.

Mike Adams is the proven veteran one of the bunch, but he’s going into his age 33 season. Adams lost his starting job to the unspectacular Duke Ihenacho last pre-season with Denver. He still played 703 snaps as an injury replacement, but graded out slightly below average. He was previously a solid starter, grading out slightly above average in both 2011 and 2012, but it’s very likely those days are behind him now. It took him until June to get signed. He’s probably the best of the trio though. We’ll see if he wins the job.

LaRon Landry is locked in as the other safety. He’s a decent veteran, but he’s missed 21 games in the last 4 seasons combined. He graded out above average in both 2010 and 2011, but he missed 17 games in those 2 seasons combined and that seems to have taken a toll on him as he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. The Colts overpaid him on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s their best safety, but only by default and he’s going into his age 30 season now so he’s not getting any better.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Colts have won 11 games in each of the last 2 seasons, but if they want to win that many again this season, they’ll have to become a better team as they can’t keep relying on winning close games. They’ve gone 14-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past 2 seasons, but that’s not sustainable. Offensively, they should be better this year. Andrew Luck will only get better as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and the Colts are getting significant players back from injury around him. Trent Richardson is the wild card, but they can become a better offense this season even if Richardson continues to struggle a little bit.

Defensively though, it’s going to be hard for them to be better this season, even after the off-season additions of Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson. Jones is still a one-year wonder, while Jackson is overrated and was overpaid. They aren’t getting any significant players back from injury and they didn’t have an excessive amount of injuries last season. On top of that, their three best defensive players last season were Cory Redding, Robert Mathis, and Vontae Davis. The former two are getting up there in age and could easily decline this year, especially since Mathis will miss 4 games with suspension. The latter, meanwhile, has an inconsistent past.

I don’t think this team has 11 win talent. I think in terms of overall talent, they are actually slightly below average, though a strong season from Andrew Luck can buoy them up and mask some of their issues, as good quarterback performances usually do. On top of that, they play in arguably the easiest division in football where, not only will 9 games probably win the division, but they get 6 games against the likes of Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, which will make it pretty easy to get to that 9 win threshold. I don’t like their chances of advancing deep into the playoffs until they fix that defense though. I’ll have an official win prediction after I do all of the previews.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC North

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers were one of the just three teams to finish in the top-15 in rate of moving the chains differential last season and not make the playoffs, in a rare year where everyone who made the playoffs actually deserved it. The Steelers could have easily made the playoffs, and not just if the refs had made the right call in San Diego/Kansas City week 17. The Steelers went 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and ranked 28th, recovering 43.24% of fumbles.

Of course, they were also lucky in that they had the 3rd easiest strength of schedule according to DVOA, although things aren’t much harder this season as they replace the NFC North and AFC East with the NFC South and the AFC South. They finished last season 15th in DVOA, 4th best out of non-playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains differential, they finished 13th with a +1.00% differential. They moved the chains at a 71.81% rate offensively, 16th in the NFL, and allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively. The Steelers went 6-2 in their final 8 games and lost by a combined 8 points in those 2 games and they had a +61 point differential in those 8 games.

So does that mean the Steelers have a good chance to make the playoffs this season? Not necessarily. The Steelers have been pressed up against the cap and aging defensively for several consecutive off-seasons and now enter the 2014 season with an overall slightly weaker team than they had in 2013. They lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery offensively, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, and Ryan Clark defensively and their replacements for those 5 are not necessarily adequate. They also still have an aging secondary.

One thing that remains the same is Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, as he enters his 11th season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback. Roethlisberger’s 2013 season was right in line with his career averages as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.0. In his career, he completes 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 219 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.6. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback last season. He takes fewer shots downfield now under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, which has lowered his YPA, but he completes a higher percentage of his passes and has a better touchdown to interception ratio. Going into his age 32 season, he’s still capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl, but everything has to be right around him, which it isn’t.

One thing Roethlisberger did last season that was unusual is play all 16 games, something he had only done once in his career prior. He’s missed 17 games in 10 seasons and will probably miss a game or two with some sort of injury this season, as his playing style leads him to take a lot of hits. If he does, the Steelers’ options behind him are questionable, after Roethlisberger attempted all but 2 of the Steelers’ passes last season (the other two were trick plays from the punter and the wide receiver). Bruce Gradkowski is a veteran option, going into his age 31 season. He’s completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 5.72 YPA, 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in his career. Meanwhile, Landry Jones was a 2013 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned that the Steelers lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver this off-season. Those were the Steelers #2 and #3 wide receivers last season, playing 810 and 648 snaps respectively. Those are big roles to fill. Sanders has caught 111 passes for 1366 yards and 7 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons as a significant contributor, including a starting role in 2013. Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively in 2012 and 2013 among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s now in Denver.

Cotchery, meanwhile, is now in Carolina. The veteran is going into his age 32 season, but he caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run last season, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out 45th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and excelled as a blocker. Markus Wheaton will probably be the #2 receiver in their absence. The 2013 3rd rounder played on 161 snaps as a rookie and caught 6 passes for 64 yards on 106 routes run, an average of 0.60 yards per route run. He graded out below average in his limited role. How he transitions to a bigger role this season is a mystery.

Lance Moore is a free agent acquisition from New Orleans and he’ll likely work as the 3rd receiver, playing in the slot. Moore is coming off of a down year, in which he caught 37 passes for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns on 334 routes run, an average of 1.37 yards per route run. Now he goes into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him. He’s only a season removed from a 65/1041/6 line in 2012, but he’s only played all 16 games once in the past 5 seasons, missing a combined 15 games and his 2nd best line over that time period is 66/768/8, so his 2012 was pretty out of character. He’ll be a decent slot receiver, but that’s about it. The Steelers also drafted Martavis Bryant in the 4th round. He’ll serve as the 4th receiver as a rookie and probably won’t have much of a role.

Because of their off-season losses at wide receiver, Antonio Brown could have even more targets this year than he did last year, when he was targeted 159 times, 4th most among wide receivers in the NFL. He caught 110 of those targets (69.2%) for 1498 yards and 8 touchdowns and averaged 2.37 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver, including #1 in pure pass catching grade. The only player who had more receiving yards than him last season was Josh Gordon, who is currently expected to be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

Now fully out of the shadow of guys like Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, Brown, 2010 6th round pick, is quietly one of the best wide receivers in the game. He’s caught 245 passes for 3394 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past 3 seasons combined and now he’s coming off of the best season of his career. He’s an excellent route runner and a perfect fit for Todd Haley’s system. He’s also a threat in the return game, if they choose to continue using him in that role. The 5-year, 42.5 million dollar extension they gave him 2 off-seasons ago looks like a piece of forward thinking genius. He would have been scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this off-season and he would have commanded 10+ million yearly, at the very least.

Heath Miller, the long-time Steeler tight end, could be 2nd on the team in targets. Miller was limited to 58 catches for 593 yards and a touchdown last season as he missed 2 games and was limited in others after tearing his ACL towards the end of the 2012 season. That should be behind him now and he was better towards the end of last season, as he caught 34 passes for 325 yards in his final 8 games. That extrapolates to 68 catches for 650 yards over 16 games.

From 2009-2012, he averaged 60 catches for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and he could easily have a year similar, if not better, than that this season as the Steelers’ 2nd option. He’s also usually a better blocker than he was last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should have another solid year. The Steelers don’t use very many two-tight end sets, with David Paulson being 2nd on the team in snaps played by a tight end, with 189. 106 of those were played in the two games Miller missed. Paulson struggled mightily on the season and had a combined 3 catches for 49 yards in the two games Miller missed. The 2012 7th round pick is not a good player and their depth at tight end is suspect. After Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, there are a lot of question marks in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Steelers actually had a decent offensive line last season as they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked pass blocking team and 20th ranked run blocking team. Things could be even better this season as they are expected to get Maurkice Pouncey back from a torn ACL that knocked him out 8 snaps into last season. The Steelers obviously believe he can return to form quickly, giving him a 5-year, 44 million dollar deal ahead of his contract year this off-season, making the 2010 1st round pick the highest paid center in the game.

He’s not worth that kind of money, even before you consider his injury. Pouncey is perennially overrated because of the public’s inability to evaluate a center (you can’t exactly blame them). He somehow made the Pro-Bowl and the All-Pro in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. Pro Football Focus can evaluate a center as they evaluate players on a snap by snap basis, for every snap of a season. They’ve had Pouncey ranked 21st, 19th, and 12th from 2010-2012 respectively, including below average in 2010 and 2011. He’s improved every year, but there are no guarantees he can continue improving this season, especially since he could be less than 100% in his first year back from injury. He’ll still be an asset for the Steelers, most likely, and an upgrade over Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace, both of whom struggled in Pouncey’s absence last season, but he is overrated and overpaid.

The rest of the Steelers’ offensive line should look pretty similar to 2013 this season, which is a big change for this unit. They finally seem to have some stability. David DeCastro is probably their best starter. The 2012 1st round pick missed most of his rookie year with injury and struggled on 138 snaps upon his return, but in 2013, fully healthy, he showed why some saw him as the best interior offensive line prospect of the decade, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked guard. He could be even better in 2014, in his 3rd year in the league.

Ramon Foster actually graded out higher than DeCastro among guards last season at the other guard spot, grading out 12th, but the veteran doesn’t have nearly DeCastro’s upside and that’ll probably end up being the best season of his career. The 2009 undrafted free agent struggled in his first two years in the league, but graded above average as a starter in both 2011 and 2012 before last season. We’ll see if he can keep last year’s strong play up. I’m skeptical, but he should still have a solid season overall.

Marcus Gilbert is also a decent starter and he’s locked in at right tackle. He’s graded out right around average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, though he has struggled whenever he’s been asked to play the blindside. He’s a decent starter at right tackle though and I expect more of the same from him going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year.

At the left tackle spot, Kelvin Beachum settled into the role last season. The 2012 7th round pick got playing time early in his career, in 2012 and early in 2013, as a utility offensive lineman, playing every position, but he struggled, strangely until he got to left tackle. Beachum took over as the starting left tackle week 6 last season and ended up grading out about average at the position, despite his struggles at right tackle as a rookie and guard and center early in 2013 and despite not having the stereotypical left tackle frame at 6-3 306. The Steelers are committed to another year of him on the blindside. He’s a better pass protector than run blocker. He’s definitely better than Mike Adams, a 2012 2nd round pick who struggled on 497 snaps at right tackle as a rookie and then struggled even more on 485 snaps in 2013. If Adams is lucky, he’ll be the swing tackle this season. It’s a decent, but unspectacular offensive line overall.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Le’Veon Bell, a 2013 2nd round pick, returns as the starter. He only rushed 860 yards and 8 touchdowns on 244 carries last season, an average of 3.52 YPC, but he broke tackles (46 broken tackles on 289 touches), got yards after contact (2.11 YPC after contact), and moved the chains (48 rushing first downs, 14th in the NFL). He also added 45 catches for 399 yards through the air. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked running back and finished 27th in elusive rating. He missed 3 games and struggled through an injury at times, but now he’s going into his 2nd year in the league and he should be healthier. He rushed for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns on 164 carries (3.52 YPC) and caught 28 passes for 252 yards in his final 8 games. 300 carries for 1200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns with 60 catches for 500 yards isn’t out of the question in his 2nd year in the league.

No other Steeler running back did much on the ground either last season, as they averaged 3.51 yards per carry as a team and, unlike Bell, their other running backs didn’t make up for that by consistently getting positive yardage, breaking tackles, and running through contact. As a result, they signed LeGarrette Blount from the Patriots this off-season. He’ll be a true backup to Bell. LeGarrette Blount is a big name after what he did to the Colts in the playoffs, rushing for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, people forget he had just 6 yards on 5 carries the following week in a loss in Denver.

Blount averaged 5.19 yards per carry last season, including playoffs, on a combined 182 carries, but he was also available for a late round pick and a minimal salary the off-season prior, after averaging 4.14 yards per carry on 225 carries in 2011 and 2012 combined. His career average of 4.68 yards per carry is pretty solid, but he offers nothing as a pass catcher (23 career catches), pass protector, has minimal special teams experience (17 career returns), fumbles often (9 fumbles on 579 career carries) and has a history of discipline problems.

That being said, the Steelers signed him purely as insurance and a backup to Bell and he’s easily their 2nd best running back. Now they won’t have to rely on bums like Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and Isaac Redman if Bell gets hurt again. Dri Archer could also be in the mix for carries as Todd Haley wants to develop the 2014 3rd round pick into what Dexter McCluster was for him in Kansas City, meaning he’ll see carries, play in the slot, and return kicks. He could work out in that role, but he could just as easily end up like Chris Rainey, a Steelers’ 5th round pick in 2012 with a similar skill set. The diminutive, but speedy Archer (5-8 173 4.26 40) probably won’t have much of a role on offense as a rookie.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As recently as 2012, the Steelers had 7 defensive starters who were 30+. The Steelers got rid of James Harrison and Casey Hampton last off-season and now Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, and Larry Foote are gone, leaving Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor on an overall younger defense. However, the question is whether they are nearly as talented as they once were. As I mentioned earlier, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively last season. That’s hardly traditional Steeler defensive dominance. This off-season, they lost two starters in Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark, in addition to LaMarr Woodley, who wasn’t living up to his salary on a cap strapped Steeler team.

In order to replace Brett Keisel this off-season, the Steelers signed Cam Thomas. Keisel, going into his age 36 season now, is still available on the open market after grading out about average on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end as recently as in 2011. Cam Thomas, meanwhile, comes over from San Diego, where he was a decent reserve in 2011 and 2012, grading out above average in both seasons. However, he never played more than 485 snaps in a season. Those 485 snaps were last season, when he graded out below average. He can play both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end and will see action at both positions in a rotational role this season.

The Steelers also lost Ziggy Hood this off-season, but that’ll be addition by subtraction. The 2009 1st round pick bust was horrific in 5 years with the Steelers, grading out as a bottom-5 3-4 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. He played 646 snaps last season and he’ll be replaced in the rotation by 2nd round rookie Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt might not be great as a rookie, but he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Hood, even if he struggles a little bit.

Steve McClendon will be their primary nose tackle this season. He’s graded out significantly above average in each of the last 3 seasons, though on only a combined 667 snaps. Last season, he played a career high 355 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked defensive tackle, including 25th against the run. He’s purely a two-down run stopper, but he could have the biggest role of his career this season.

The only true every down defensive linemen the Steelers have is Cameron Heyward, a 2011 1st round pick who played 845 snaps last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. Last year was his first year as a starter, but he showed well as a reserve on 198 snaps in 2011 and 267 snaps in 2012, before breaking out last year. The talented 5-technique could easily have another strong season next year. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2015. The quartet of Heyward, Tuitt, Thomas, and McClendon should play the vast majority of the snaps on the Steelers’ 3-man defensive line, but Nick Williams and Daniel McClullers could see action. The former is a 2013 7th round pick 3-4 defensive end who didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the latter is a 6th round rookie who is a pure nose tackle at 6-8 365.

Grade: B

Linebackers

With LaMarr Woodley gone, Jason Worilds becomes the de facto top edge rusher in Pittsburgh. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th 3-4 outside linebacker last season on 792 snaps. He had 8 sacks, 21 hits, and 21 hurries on 378 pass rush snaps, a rate of 13.2%. Woodley, meanwhile, graded out 10th on 582 snaps last season, but was cut because his salary was too big, he was going into his age 30 season, he can’t stay healthy, and he wasn’t quite living up to his contract on the field. Woodley was also cut to make room for Worilds’ new salary as the Steelers will pay Worilds 9.754 million on the transition tag this season, though they’ve been unable to reach a long-term deal with him.

Worilds is still a one year wonder, after the 2010 2nd round pick played a combined 979 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 501 in 2011. However, he graded out above average 2 of those 3 seasons, so it’s definitely possible that the one-time highly rated prospect could continue this strong play into 2014. He’ll have to prove himself on a one-year deal, but he could command a lot of money in free agency this off-season if he repeats what he did last season, which would probably put him out of the cap strapped Steelers’ price range.

Opposite him, Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, will have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league with Woodley gone, after playing 646 snaps as a rookie. Jones struggled as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The issue is that the Steelers have no real depth at the position behind Worilds and Jones, so both will have to play a ton of snaps, which could really tire them out.

Chris Carter, a 2011 5th round pick, has struggled on 235 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. Arthur Moats is a free agent acquisition who was a collegiate defensive end, but has largely played middle linebacker and 4-3 outside linebacker as a professional, maxing out at 401 snaps as a rookie. Jordan Zumwalt, meanwhile, is a 6th round rookie who can play inside and outside in a 3-4. The Steelers may consider bringing back James Harrison on a one-year minimum deal, for his age 36 season. He’s not much of a pass rusher anymore, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run last season on 383 snaps. The potential future Hall-of-Fame and long-time Steeler great has always excelled against the run.

The Steelers used a first round pick in this past draft on Ryan Shazier, taking him with the 15th overall pick. He’ll replace Vince Williams, a 2013 6th round pick, who struggled on 405 snaps in a base package role as a rookie. Shazier will play every down inside, which is something Williams didn’t do, as Troy Polamalu would often come down closer to the line of scrimmage and essentially play linebacker in sub packages. Now Polamalu can focus on being a pure safety going into his age 33 season and they won’t have to tap into their safety depth as much.

Shazier will line up opposite Lawrence Timmons inside. Timmons isn’t the same player he was in 2008-2010, when he graded out 5th, 10th, and 1st respectively among middle linebackers in those 3 seasons, which got him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension. However, since signing that extension, Timmons hasn’t been the same. He was 4th in 2012, but he was also 28th in 2011 and 25th last season. Shazier’s arrival could signal that the cap strapped Steelers are going to cut him and his 7.5 million dollar salary for 2015 next off-season. As for this year, he’s only going into his age 28 season, so he could bounce back, but expecting him to be as good as he once was isn’t realistic.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As I mentioned, Troy Polamalu would often play linebacker in sub packages last season. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 79.8% of his snaps last season, the highest percentage by a safety in the NFL. Polamalu will be a true safety this season, which should be a good thing because he’s probably their best coverage defensive back. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked safety last season, including 2nd in coverage grade.

The issue is he’s going into his age 33 season and he’s always been injury prone. He played all 16 games last season, but only 7 the season before and he’s missed 22 games in the last 5 seasons combined. When he’s on the field, he’s great. I mentioned how well he played last season, but he was also Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked safety in 2012, despite being limited to 402 snaps in 7 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 safety in 16 games in 2011 and #5 safety in 14 games in 2010. He’s graded out above average in every season dating back to 2007. However, he’s very injury prone and now, going into his age 33 season, it’s tough to know how much they can count on him.

With Polamalu now playing safety every down, Will Allen, the 3rd safety, won’t play as many snaps as he did last season, when he graded out about average on 376 snaps in 13 games. Ryan Clark is gone, going into his age 35 season. Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, grading out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012.

It’s unclear if Michael Mitchell, who the Steelers gave a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, can be an upgrade though. Mike Mitchell was a 2nd round pick of the Raiders in 2009 based on his freakish athleticism (4.39 40 at 6-1 216), but he never really put it together in Oakland, playing an average of 394 snaps per season, maxing out at 508 snaps, and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 3 seasons. He only played 334 snaps in 2012, his contract year, as a reserve and was forced to settle for a one year deal in Carolina worth about the veteran’s minimum.

He turned out to be a brilliant signing for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman as he became a 14-game starter (920 total snaps) at safety, a huge position of need for the Panthers, flashing often and showing his athleticism. He wasn’t spectacular, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked safety, slightly above average, and was a key part of a surprisingly good Carolina team, led by a stifling defense. This is the definition of buying high though. 12 months ago no one wanted Mitchell and now after one year he’s worth 5 million yearly? It’s not like he was incredible last year and much of his strong play was as a result of a dominant Carolina front in front of him, which, by the way, won’t be following him to Pittsburgh. Buy high deals like this rarely work out. The only good thing is the Steelers only guaranteed 6 million and one-year of his deal.

Polamalu is one of two remaining starters over 30 for the Steelers. The other is Ike Taylor, who is going into his age 34 season and coming off of an awful year in which his abilities seemingly just fell off a cliff. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 97th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, and he was 105th in pure coverage grade. He’s been better in the past, but he’s never really been fantastic. He could bounce back a little bit this year, but there’s a good chance that he’s just done. The Steelers slashed his salary to 2.75 million and this is the final year of his contract, so this could just be his final year with the Steelers, if not in the league.

Turner will be on a short leash and could end up being their 3rd cornerback as they have a pair of solid cornerbacks. They don’t really have a 4th cornerback who could take Taylor’s spot as the 3rd cornerback if he continues to really struggle though. Those two solid cornerbacks are William Gay and Cortez Allen. Gay was the best of their cornerback trio last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback, playing on the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages. However, much of his strong grade was because he played the run so well. In terms of pure coverage grade, he was only 31st at his position. Against the run, he was 3rd at his position.

Gay doesn’t really have a history of dominant cornerback play either. His best year in the league was in 2008, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, 16th in pure coverage grade. He’s always been decent in Pittsburgh’s defensive system, grading out around average in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but he was awful in one year away from Pittsburgh in Arizona in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He could have another solid year in 2014, but I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season.

Cortez Allen, meanwhile, is a 2011 4th round pick going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year. Allen barely played as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback on 563 snaps in 2012 and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked cornerback on 718 snaps last season. This year, he could become an every down cornerback for the first time in his career and line up against opponent’s #1 receivers, like Ike Taylor used to. He could easily have a very solid year that would set him up for a good payday next off-season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s talent here, but this is hardly the Steeler teams of old. I thought they were a playoff caliber team last season, but had some bad luck and missed out at 8-8. Now, I think they have less talent than they did last season, which is going to make getting back into the playoffs hard, even if their luck turns around. They’ll be in the mix for a wild card spot in the weaker AFC, but I don’t know if they’re going to make it. I’ll have an official prediction once I finish all teams’ previews.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC North

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Cleveland Browns 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last season, the Browns had more All-Pros than wins, going 4-12, but having 5 players make either the All-Pro 1st or 2nd team, tied with the 49ers for most in the NFL. That might sound absurd, but it’s not. Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, and TJ Ward were all among the best in the NFL at their respective positions. In 2012, the Chiefs had 6 Pro-Bowlers, despite going 2-14 and, after adding a new starting quarterback and head coach, they went on to win 11 games the following season.

The Browns come into 2014 with a new starting quarterback and a new head coach, but things won’t necessarily work out the same way for the Browns. The Browns replaced a talented coordinator with little experience at head coach in Rob Chudzinski with a talented coordinator with little experience at head coach in Mike Pettine, which isn’t exactly the same thing as replacing the tried and failed Romeo Crennel with the proven Andy Reid.

Meanwhile, adding Johnny Manziel to the mix isn’t as perfect of a fit as adding Alex Smith to the mix was in Kansas City. The Chiefs’ biggest problem in 2012 was a -24 turnover margin, an issue that probably would have corrected itself largely either way, but adding a careful, conservative quarterback like Alex Smith helped the Chiefs go from -24 to +18 in turnover margin, as did a cakewalk schedule. Manziel should improve the Browns’ quarterback play, but they had more issues than just that. The turnover margin wasn’t a huge issue in Cleveland, where they had a -8 turnover margin last season.

Their biggest issue was that, in addition to all the great starters they had last season, they also had numerous players in significant roles that were terrible. Greg Little and Davone Bess played significant roles at wide receiver. Willis McGahee lead the team in carries. Buster Skrine and Craig Robertson were among the league’s worst at cornerback and middle linebacker respectively. Tashaun Gipson struggled mightily at safety and the combination of Shawn Lauvao and Oniel Cousins was horrific at right guard. And, of course, they had issues at quarterback, as they completed 55.7% of his passes for an average of 6.42 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. Manziel could help that problem as a rookie, but he’s also just a rookie and whether or not they can become a significantly improved team this season will depend on how well they upgraded those other aforementioned spots as well.

I also do have to mention that Manziel is technically competing with Brian Hoyer for the starting job, but I think Manziel is easily the heavy favorite. Hoyer played decent in limited action, completing 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, grading out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. However, the 2010 undrafted free agent with 192 career attempts didn’t stay healthy long enough to establish himself as the starter and now he’s coming off a torn ACL. Better, more proven quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Robert Griffin, Carson Palmer, etc, have struggled in their first year back from a torn ACL.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Another thing that could be an issue for the Browns is that 2 of those 5 All-Pros from last season could easily not play a snap for the Browns this season. TJ Ward signed with the Broncos and Josh Gordon is likely facing a season long ban for marijuana. While the Browns made a solid attempt to replace TJ Ward, they made no such attempt to replace Gordon. Even though they knew of the potential ban long before the draft, they didn’t draft a single wide receiver.

Greg Little and Davone Bess are gone from the roster, which is good because they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst and 4th worst wide receivers respectively last season. However, there’s still not a lot of talent here. The Browns top three wide receivers this season should be a trio of players they brought in as free agents this off-season, Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, and Nate Burleson. Hawkins has the most upside as he’s the youngest, only going into his age 28 season.

Hawkins has flashed in 3 seasons with the Bengals since coming to them as an undrafted free agent in 2011, grading out above average in all 3 seasons and averaging 1.66 yards per route run in his career. However, he’s only run 598 routes in his career and caught 86 passes for 995 yards and 4 touchdowns. In the only season he got significant playing time, 2012, he caught 51 passes for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns on 384 routes run, 1.39 yards per route run. The Browns are hoping he’s a budding talent that was just buried on the depth chart in Cincinnati, giving him a 4-year, 13.6 million deal this off-season, but that might be wishful thinking. He could lead Browns wide receivers in receptions, but the 5-7 175 pounder might be purely a slot option.

Sadly, he’s probably their best wide receiver option. Nate Burleson is going into his age 33 season and coming off of a season in which he missed 7 games with a broken arm. He also suffered another broken arm this off-season, though he’s expected to be back for training camp. Still, he’s an aging, injury prone player who has missed 17 games in the last 2 seasons combined. He’s averaged just 1.31 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons combined, despite playing in an explosive pass offense in Detroit with plenty of opportunities against single coverage and plenty of opportunities to receive targets. The 2003 3rd round pick and 11-year veteran could just be done.

Miles Austin is going into his age 30 season, so he’s not quite as old as Burleson, but he’s had a similar recent history of injury problems. Hamstring problems have caused him to miss 11 games over the past 3 seasons, limited him in countless others, and seemed to sap his abilities last year as he caught just 22 passes for 244 yards in 11 games and averaged 0.76 yards per route run in an explosive passing offense in Dallas. He was Pro Football Focus’ 101st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade last season.

When healthy, Austin can be a solid contributor. He played all 16 games in 2012, catching 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns and recorded 1000 yard seasons in both 2009 and 2010. He’s still young enough that it’s conceivable he could have a few more good seasons if healthy, but that’s a big if. If he or any of the Browns’ projected top-3 wide receivers struggle, Travis Benjamin could have a significant role. The 2012 4th round pick has averaged 1.26 yards per route run on 320 routes run in 2 seasons in the league and is coming off of a torn ACL. He’ll be most valuable as a return man.

Given their issues at wide receiver, expect Jordan Cameron to lead the team in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Cameron didn’t make either All-Pro team last season, but he was a Pro-Bowler and rightfully so. Cameron broke out in his 3rd year in the league, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2011, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns on 622 routes run, an average of 1.47 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked tight end in pass catching grade, though he struggled mightily as a run blocker, grading out 9th worst at his position in that aspect.

Cameron was drafted as a high upside, boom or bust mid-rounder out of USC. After struggling on a combined 398 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, Cameron broke out last year, largely as a result of tight end genius Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski is gone and Cameron did get a lot of his production from being a volume receiver, getting the 3rd most targets by a tight end with 109 last season. The Browns should pass significantly fewer than 681 times this season with a running quarterback and a new run first offense coming in, which will hurt Cameron’s production. However, he should still be their best receiver. The Browns are hoping that Manziel and Cameron will function like Michael Vick and Alge Crumpler did early in their careers, though Cameron isn’t the same caliber of blocker. Meanwhile, Gary Barnidge will once again be the blocking tight end. The veteran graded out below average on 543 snaps last season.

Grade: C

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Willis McGahee led the Browns in carries last season, rushing for 377 yards and 2 touchdowns on 138 carries, a pathetic 2.73 yards per carry average. He broke just 12 tackles on 146 touches and averaged just 1.76 yards per carry after contact. His longest run was for 16 yards. The Browns still rushed for 3.97 yards per carry as a team, but that’s not very good and even that was largely the result of trick plays and quarterback runs, things that are hard to rely on.

Fortunately, the Browns should be better in this aspect this season, which they needed to be. For one, Johnny Manziel comes in, which helps their running game in two ways. Manziel will probably be able to accumulate a solid amount of rushing yards as a rookie, even if the mobile quarterback struggles as a passer in his first year in the league. Also, his presence and his ability to take off at any time will force the defense to use a spy more often, which will help the rest of their running game.

On top of that, the Browns added Ben Tate this off-season. Ben Tate was drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 by the Texans to be the starting running back, but broke his ankle in the pre-season, which opened the door for Arian Foster to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Upon his return from that injury, Tate impressed as his backup, averaging 5.09 YPC on 240 carries in 2011 and 2012 and got his shot to be the starter in 2013 when Arian Foster went down with a season ending back injury.

Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its head for Tate again as he broke several ribs. He only missed 2 games, the final two of the season, but was definitely hampered by the injury as he averaged just 4.26 yards per carry on 181 carries. Tate clearly has the talent and toughness to be a lead back in the NFL, but he’s also missed 24 of 64 possible regular season games in his career thus far and is coming off of an injury plagued season. Staying healthy will be the key to him potentially having a breakout year. The Browns used a 3rd round pick on Terrance West as insurance and he could have a significant role as a rookie in a run heavy offense behind an injury prone starter.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Browns had a serious issue at right guard last season. Oniel Cousins started the first 5 games of the season, but struggled mightily on just 322 snaps played, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. Shawn Lauvao then took over for the other 11 starts and wasn’t much better, grading out 70th out of 81 eligible on 771 snaps. In an effort to solve the problem, the Browns used a 2nd round pick on Joel Bitonio, who will be a day 1 starter. He might not be great as a rookie, but he should be an upgrade over what they had last season, both of whom are no longer with the team.

Other than right guard, the Browns had one of the best offensive lines in the league last season, particularly in pass protection, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked pass blocking team. They ranked 21st in run blocking, but that was largely because of the right guard position and their tight ends’ inability to run block. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack both were All-Pros last season and both are among the top players at their respective positions.

Mack was re-signed this off-season to a 5-year, 42 million dollar deal, which made him the league’s highest paid center in average salary before Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers got a bigger extension this off-season. It’s a lot of money for a center, but it’s hard to argue that Mack wasn’t worth it, as he’s arguably the top center in the NFL. He’s graded out as a top-10 center in each of his 5 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the first round by the Browns in 2009, maxing out at 4th overall last season. Only Chris Myers has also been in the top-10 in centers in all 5 of those seasons. Mack is also at the peak of his career, going into his age 29 season, coming off of a career year.

While Mack might be the top center in the NFL, Joe Thomas definitely is the top left tackle in the NFL. Joe Thomas has been a top-8 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in every season since he was drafted 3rd overall in 2007, something no one else can come close to saying. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle in 2009. He’s also never missed a game over 112 career starts. He especially excels in pass protection, which is more important than run blocking. Last season, he graded out 2nd overall at his position, but 1st in pass protection by a sizeable margin.

The Browns are solid at the other two offensive line spots as well, with Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle and John Greco at the other guard spot. There was talk that Schwartz would be moved to right guard this season, if the Browns drafted a right tackle in the first round, but they opted to take Bitonio to play guard in the 2nd round and keep Schwartz at right tackle. That’s definitely an acceptable option. Schwartz graded out above average last season at right tackle and, while he wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie, when the 2012 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle, he was still 30th at his position and he could easily have a bounce back year this season. He could also easily have the best season of his career this season, his 3rd in the league and his age 25 season.

At the other guard spot, John Greco is coming off of his first full season as a starter. He’s graded out above average in every season in his career since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2008, doing so on a combined 658 snaps from 2008-2011 and then making 10 starts and playing 714 snaps in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked guard. He wasn’t quite as good as a 14 game starter in 2013 (missing 2 with injury), but he still graded out above average. The Browns gave him a forward thinking 5-year, 13.2 million dollar deal before last season and have a starting caliber guard locked up at a very reasonable rate through 2017. His natural position is right guard, so the Browns could move him back there and flip Bitonio over to the left side. Overall, it’s a strong offensive line that got stronger this off-season, by drafting a player in the 2nd round to fill its only hole.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Browns didn’t have any All-Pros in the front 7 last season, but their front 7 is still one of the better ones in the NFL, particularly their 3-man defensive line and their edge rushers. Things could be even better now with Mike Pettine coming over from Buffalo. Pettine coordinated one of the better defense’s in the league, with their strength being in the front 7, in Buffalo last season as they ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.58% rate. They also ranked 2nd in the league in both sacks and interceptions as their pass rush tormented opposing quarterbacks. The Browns were 18th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 71.71% rate last season, but they should be better than that this season, thanks to the addition of Pettine and some other off-season moves.

The Browns have a lot of talented depth on the defensive line and use a rotation of 5 different guys on their 3-man defensive line. Phil Taylor is the only one who can play the true nose tackle position, but the 6-3 355 pounder moves well for his size and does sometimes stay on the field for sub packages. The 2011 1st round pick struggled as a rookie and then only played 273 snaps in 2012 because of injury, but he had easily the best season of his career in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked defensive tackle on 555 snaps, including 14th as a run stopper. The Browns picked up his 5th year option for 2015 and he should have another solid season, particularly as a run stopper, again in 2014.

Desmond Bryant should lead this defensive line in snaps played this season. He only played 588 snaps last season, but that’s because he missed 4 games with injury. He had a disappointing first season in Cleveland ended by an irregular heartbeat, but that problem seems behind him now. He graded out slightly below average when he was on the field last season, but he could easily bounce back in 2014. The 2009 undrafted free agent graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and graded out above average in 2010 and 2011 as a rotational player at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Last season was the first year he had ever played 3-4 defensive end, but considering his experience at both 4-3 defensive tackle and 4-3 defensive end and his size at 6-5 280, he should be a natural fit. He’s probably their best interior pass rusher when he’s healthy and right.

Ahtyba Rubin led their defensive line in snaps played last season, but I think he should have a reduced role this season. Rubin did grade above average as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but, while he graded out 12th at his position in run stopping grade, he graded out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade. This is nothing new, as he graded out above average as a run stopper and below average as a pass rusher in 2012 as well. He should only be a pure base defensive end this season and focus on his strength, stopping the run.

That would allow talented reserves John Hughes and Billy Winn to play bigger roles this season. John Hughes graded out best among all of their defensive linemen, even though he only played 402 snaps. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11st ranked 3-4 defensive end, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He excelled as a run stopper, grading out 7th at his position in that aspect. The 2012 3rd round pick is still a one year wonder as he struggled mightily on 530 snaps and there’s no guarantee he can be as efficient next season as he was in 2013 in a larger role, but they need to give him more snaps, going into his 3rd season in the league, even if it’s only in the 500 range. Billy Winn, meanwhile, was a 6th round pick in 2012. He graded out about average on 721 snaps as a rookie and then above average on 313 snaps last season. He’ll play a valuable rotational role again next season on this deep defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Browns also have a trio of 3-4 outside linebackers that rotate with Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo. Sheard has been with the team since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011. Paul Kruger was signed to a big 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. Barkevious Mingo was the 6th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Sheard was the best of the bunch last season in his first season in a 3-4, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He graded out slightly below average as an every down 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and slightly below average in that same role in 2012, before a breakout 3rd year in the league in 2013.

Paul Kruger was the opposite starter last season. He was overpaid on that 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. Kruger had a strong 2012 season, especially in the 2nd half of the season and the post-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012, excelling as a pass rusher, grading out 4th in that aspect. He then had a dominant post-season, particularly as a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 10 hurries on 148 pass rush snaps, a 13.5% rate.

However, he was just a one-year wonder, which is why he didn’t deserve that deal. He played just 724 snaps combined in 2009-2011, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and only graded out above average in one of those seasons. He wasn’t awful in his first season in Cleveland, grading out above average, but he wasn’t what they expected. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, slightly above average. Expect more of the same from him this season.

Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Barkevious Mingo 6th overall in 2013 even though they already had Kruger and Sheard. It was a luxury pick and one that didn’t really work out last season as Mingo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible on 668 snaps. He could be better in 2013, in his 2nd year in the league, but don’t expect him to have much of a bigger role. He’ll be a heavy rotational player at best as long as Kruger and Sheard are in the fold.

I mentioned, as much talent as the Browns have in the front 7, they didn’t have an All-Pro last season, but they did sign one this off-season, bringing over Karlos Dansby from Arizona. I mentioned Craig Robertson at middle linebacker as one of the starters they had to upgrade and rightfully so, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked middle linebacker last off-season, especially struggling in coverage, grading out dead last in that aspect and allowing separate 100+ yard receiving games to two different running backs, Reggie Bush and Shane Vereen. The 2011 undrafted free agent also graded out below average in 2012, the only other season in which he played defensive snaps.

However, the Browns found themselves in need of two new starters at middle linebacker when they cut D’Qwell Jackson this off-season. That was a smart move because Jackson wasn’t worth his salary and the Browns saved 5.23 million on the cap by cutting him. Going into his age 31 season, D’Qwell Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season and 41st out of 53 eligible in 2012. The Browns then used that freed up cap space and signed Dansby to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal, which was a very good move.

This was a fairly strong free agent class overall, but the one position where it was weak was at middle linebacker. Middle linebacker in general was a weak position in the NFL last season, as only 16 of 55 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus graded out positively last season. Karlos Dansby was, by far, the best of the free agent middle linebackers and Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker last season. Dansby might never have another year as good as last season again, as he’s going into his age 33 season, and as he had never been a top-10 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus prior to last season, but he graded out 12th in 2010, 11th in 2011, and 13th in 2012.

Dansby should still have a strong season and be an upgrade over Jackson. Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Christian Kirksey in the 3rd round to compete with Robertson for the other starting job. He might not be better than him as a rookie, but he also could easily be better than him, even if only by default. At the very least, the athletic Kirksey will play a situational role as a coverage linebacker, as coverage is his strength and Robertson’s weakness.

Grade: B+

Cornerback

Another spot the Browns desperately needed to upgrade was the other cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden, where Buster Skrine played last season. Skrine somehow managed to lead all cornerbacks in both tackles missed (20) and touchdowns allowed (9) last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 106th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out below average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league.

Having a cornerback as poor as him opposite Joe Haden makes having Haden less valuable because opposing quarterbacks can just throw away from the dominant Haden with ease. Skrine will be replaced in the starting lineup by Justin Gilbert, who the Browns drafted 8th overall. Gilbert is a talented cornerback and, while cornerbacks do take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL, he should be an immediate upgrade over Skrine.

The Browns also drafted Pierre Desir in the 4th round. Buster Skrine may still see some action as the slot cornerback, but he could also be as far down on the depth chart as 5th, which would put him on the roster bubble. Skrine is in a 3-way battle for the slot cornerback job, a spot manned last season by Chris Owens, who did a solid job, grading out slightly above average. Leon McFadden, a 2013 3rd round pick, seems like the favorite for that job and Desir is in the mix as well. McFadden struggled mightily on 247 snaps as a rookie last season, but could be better this season. They could easily see inferior play to Owens’ at that spot though.

As for Joe Haden, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and he was a deserving All-Pro last season. The Browns did overpay him on a 5-year, 68 million dollar extension this off-season though. Joe Haden is a terrific cornerback, but I don’t think he’s quite at the level of deserving what Richard Sherman got (4-year, 56 million). I think Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis are the top cornerbacks in the NFL and there’s a big gap between them and the rest of the league. In 3 years in the NFL, Richard Sherman has allowed 115 of 248 (46.4%) for 1621 yards (6.54 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while deflecting 34 passes and committing 26 penalties. Meanwhile, Darrelle Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, since 2008.

In 4 years in the league, Joe Haden has allowed 179 of 331 (54.1%) for 2250 yards (6.80 YPA), 17 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while deflecting 50 passes and committing 21 penalties. That’s very impressive, but it’s not at the same level as Sherman or Revis. Revis has graded out among Pro Football Focus’ top-3 cornerbacks in 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons. Meanwhile, Richard Sherman has graded out 2nd and 6th in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Joe Haden has never graded out higher than 6th in 4 seasons, doing so in his rookie year in 2010, and he came in 13th, 20th, and 18th in the last 3 seasons respectively. That’s still very impressive, especially considering the volatility of the cornerback position. He’s been one of Pro Football Focus’ top-20 cornerbacks in each of the last 4 seasons, something only the supremely underrated Jason McCourty can also say (Revis missed 2012 with injury and Sherman was still in college in 2010). Haden might be the #3 cornerback in the NFL and he’s definitely top-5, but he was overpaid a little bit.

The Browns lost an All-Pro at safety this off-season, as TJ Ward signed with the Broncos. He might be the top box safety in the NFL. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd and 6th ranked safety in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the only safety in the NFL to finish top-6 both seasons. He was also 13th in 2011, despite missing 8 games with injury. That was really his only injury plagued season as he missed 2 games in his other 3 seasons combined, playing 54 games in 4 seasons, starting each of them and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010.

The Browns replaced him with Donte Whitner this off-season, a downgrade, but still a solid player. He is an inconsistent player who graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus in each season from 2007-2010 in Buffalo and who allowed 12 touchdowns in regular season and post-season combined in 2012 on a 49ers team that allowed just 26 total passing touchdowns in the regular season and post-season combined. However, he graded out 8th among safeties in 2011 and 6th among safeties in 2013. He seemed to fix his coverage problems last season, grading out 5th in that aspect, and we’ll see if that continues. He’s an above average player and an asset, even if he is a downgrade.

The Browns also needed to upgrade the other safety spot, as Tashaun Gipson struggled last season, but they didn’t get around to that. He was Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season in his first season as a starter. The 2012 undrafted free agent played 377 nondescript snaps in 2012 as a rookie. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. That other safety spot should continue to be a position of weakness.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Browns desperately needed to upgrade two wide receiver spots, the running back spot, the quarterback spot, one guard spot, one middle linebacker spot, one safety spot, and one cornerback spot this off-season. They drafted a quarterback and a cornerback in the first round, a guard in the 2nd round, and a middle linebacker in the 3rd round so they have some young talent in the mix. They also drafted a running back in the 3rd round and brought in Ben Tate to be the starter. On top of that, they upgraded D’Qwell Jackson with Karlos Dansby.

However, they didn’t upgrade the wide receiver spots well or the safety spot at all and I don’t know how much they can rely on their rookies. They also downgraded TJ Ward to Donte Whitner and have likely lost Josh Gordon to a season long suspension. They also had very few injuries last season, the 5th fewest adjusted games lost, something they probably won’t be able to rely on this season. Their depth will be tested this year more than it was last season.

Still, I think in terms of non-quarterback talent, they are one of the top-15, maybe even top-10 teams in the NFL. Whether or not they can break into the playoffs will depend on how Johnny Manziel plays at quarterback as a rookie (or, technically how Brian Hoyer plays if he somehow wins the starting job). I’d feel more confident in him if I was confident in his weapons, but Josh Gordon getting suspended likely for the season really hurts. They’ll be an improved team this season, but I don’t have them in the playoffs, even if, overall, they have a playoff caliber supporting cast. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them after I do all the previews.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens made a post-season run in 2012 and won the Super Bowl, but they were still a flawed team, something that really showed in the regular season, when they went 10-6, tied for the worst record among playoff qualifiers. They finished the regular season 13th in offensive DVOA and 19th defensive DVOA. That was why I wasn’t concerned that they went through such a transformation last off-season. I thought the Ravens would be a better team in 2013 than they were in 2012, at least in the regular season.

Washed up veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were replaced with 1st and 2nd round picks Matt Elam and Arthur Brown. One year wonders like Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger took more money else and were replaced with cheaper, proven veterans Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb were coming back from injury. Bernard Pollard was gone, but he was replaced with Michael Huff, who seemed comparable. Offensively, the losses of Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk would hurt, but I thought that Joe Flacco would maintain some of his gains from the 2013 off-season because his own development and because he’d have Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and Jim Caldwell at offensive coordinator for the full season, two things to which I attributed some of his 2013 post-season success.

I was half right. The Ravens were an improved defensive team for a number of the reasons I outlined above. In fact, they were one of the best defensive teams in the league, finishing 7th in DVOA and 2nd in rate of moving the chains, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 65.97% rate. However, their offense was terrible, ranking 30th in both DVOA and rate of moving the chains, moving the chains at a 65.38% rate. As a result, they went 8-8, missed the playoffs and finished 17th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.59%.

Joe Flacco was pretty consistently a slightly above average quarterback in the first 5 seasons of his career from 2008-2012. His QB rating had always fallen between 80.3 and 93.6. His completion percentages had always fallen between 57.6% and 63.1%. His YPAs had always fallen between 6.66 and 7.41. His touchdowns had always fallen between 20 and 25 (with the exception of his rookie year) and his interceptions had always fallen between 10 and 12. He then had a fantastic post-season in 2012, en route to that Super Bowl, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions.

He followed that up with the worst season of his career in 2013, completing 59.7% of his passes for an average of 6.37 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, easily a career worst QB rating of 73.1. Part of it was his fault, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, but he really didn’t have much help. The losses of Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk really hurt him and neither left tackle Bryant McKinnie nor offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell proved reliable over the course of an entire season. The Ravens’ once strong running game also went way downhill, as both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce struggled mightily and they averaged just 3.14 yards per carry, the worst in the league. The Ravens have attempted to fix their offense this season in a variety of ways, in an attempt to get back into the playoffs.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight End

The biggest move the Ravens made to help their offense was signing Steve Smith to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. Smith is a big name, but he’s towards the end of his career. He’s unlikely to be the adequate Anquan Boldin replacement they are expecting him to be. Steve Smith had 64 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. Excluding the Jimmy Clausen season and his injury plagued 2004 season, those were his worst since his rookie year in 2001.

That’s just what happens to receivers this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Steve Smith is 19th in all-time receiving yards yardage, but he’s also going into his age 35 season. There’s a reason why the Panthers released him even though he still had guaranteed money left on his deal and even though they were thin at wide receiver. Steve Smith has had a great career, but there’s a chance he just falls off a cliff in terms of his abilities in his age 35 season.

He’ll line up as the starter opposite Torrey Smith. Smith appeared to have a breakout year last season in his 3rd year in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, catching 65 passes for 1128 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he’s a fairly incomplete volume wide receiver who wasn’t as good as his stats suggested last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked wide receiver last season. He only caught 51.2% of his targets (65 catches on 127 targets) and only caught 39 passes on balls that went 10 or fewer yards through the air, 71st most in the NFL. He’s pretty much just a deep threat who was overstretched last season.

He’d be best off with another talented option opposite him, but the Ravens don’t have that right now. He only caught 49 passes for 855 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2012 with Anquan Boldin opposite him, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked wide receiver. He’ll catch more passes in the Ravens’ new west coast offense under Gary Kubiak, but he’s not an ideal fit for the offense because of his limited route running ability. It’s possible he develops more this season, only going into his age 25 season, in the contract year of his 4-year rookie deal.

Marlon Brown will be the 3rd receiver this year after being the de facto #2 wide receiver last season. He’s not great, so in that sense it’s good that he’s not playing as much, but he still might be better than the declining Smith. He caught 49 passes for 524 yards and 7 touchdowns on 518 routes run, an average of 1.01 yards per route run (84th out of 94 eligible wide receivers) as an undrafted free agent rookie last year. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. Jacoby Jones is a veteran depth option. He’s been given chances, but he’s never caught more than 51 passes for 562 yards in a season, including 37 catches for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. He’s a pretty marginal receiver at best. He provides the most value on special teams as a return man.

The biggest “addition” for the Ravens offensively should be a healthy Dennis Pitta. Pitta missed 12 games with a hip problem last off-season and was limited upon his return. Still, he caught 20 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in 4 seasons, which extrapolates to 80 catches for 716 yards and 4 touchdowns over 16 games. He did that on 128 routes run, an average of 1.32 yards per route run. He caught a lot of passes in those 4 games, but showed little explosiveness.

Now he should be completely healthy, only going into his age 29 season, and going into a system under Gary Kubiak that benefits tight ends. The Ravens obviously believe in him, giving him a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. He’s never had more than 61 catches for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns in a season, which he did in 2012, when he averaged 1.69 yards per route run and graded out as Pro Football Focus 24th ranked tight end, 8th in pass catching grade. He could easily lead this team in catches this season. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Dallas Clark, who played his role last season and who has since retired. The only issue is Pitta isn’t much of a blocker at 6-4 245.

The Ravens will use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. In order to do that, Gary Kubiak brought Owen Daniels over with him from Houston, where Kubiak was the head coach for 8 seasons. Daniels’ best years are behind him, as he goes into his age 32 season, and he can’t seem to stay healthy, which is why the Texans cut him, rather than paying him 4.5 million in his contract year.

Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008, missed 11 games last season, and has missed 26 games over the past 5 seasons combined. He averaged just 1.21 yards per route run last season and he’s not much of a blocker, but he averaged 1.63 yards per route run in 2012 and 1.64 yards per route run in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over Ed Dickson, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked tight end last season, leading the team in snaps played by a tight end with 658. The Ravens also used a 3rd round pick on Crockett Gillmore, a tight end out of Colorado State, though he doesn’t figure to have much of a role as a rookie. Overall, there’s more talent in the receiving corps than last year with Pitta healthy and Dickson gone, but the Steve Smith signing probably won’t work out and there are still a lot of issues.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Ravens brought in Gary Kubiak to be their offensive coordinator this off-season, after losing Caldwell to the Lions, where he will be the new head coach. Caldwell might help the Lions, but his absence is unlikely to hurt the Ravens, considering how bad they were last season on that side of the ball. It was a strange hire by the Lions. Kubiak, meanwhile, could easily help the Ravens in two areas they need it badly, on the offensive line and with their running game. A strong offensive line and running game were always the staple of the Kubiak’s Houston teams, even last season when the team struggled.

The Ravens really struggled last season upfront, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive line in pass protection and their 27th ranked offensive line in run blocking. They lost Michael Oher to free agency at right tackle, which could be addition by subtraction considering how much he struggled last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. However, they really don’t have a suitable replacement as 2013 5th round pick Ricky Wagner is currently penciled in as the starter. He played 131 nondescript snaps last season as a rookie.

One option could be to move Kelechi Osemele back to right tackle from left guard and play either Jah Reid or Will Rackley at left guard, in attempt to find some sort of fix upfront. Reid and Rackley were both 3rd round picks in 2011, Reid by the Ravens and Rackley by the Jaguars, and both have struggled thus far in their career. Reid has struggled on 644 snaps in 3 seasons, while Rackley graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst guard in 2011 as a starter and 3rd worst guard in 2013 as a starter, with an entire season spent on injured reserve in between. If either of them has to see significant action, it’s a problem.

If Kelechi Osemele comes back healthy this season, it’ll be a big boost for them. Osemele, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out above average at right tackle in the regular season as a rookie and above average at left guard in the post-season as a rookie. He struggled at left guard last season before going on injured reserve with a nagging back problem that probably slowed him down and caused his struggled, which forced AQ Shipley on to the field, where he graded out 66th out of 81 eligible guards last season.  Osemele is a versatile and talented young offensive lineman, but you always have to be worried with back problems.

Another thing that should be a big boost to them is the addition of Jeremy Zuttah at center, who they acquired from Tampa Bay for a 5th round pick and then gave a restructured 5-year, 18 million dollar deal with 6.5 million guaranteed. You can question how much they gave up for him in terms of draft pick compensation and financial compensation, but you can’t question that he’ll be better than Gino Gradkowski was last season, as the 2012 4th round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst center in his first full season as a starter, taking over for the retired Matt Birk.

He and AQ Shipley/Kelechi Osemele with a bad back made a terrible duo on the left side of the interior offensive line, particularly in opening up holes on the ground, which is a big part of the reason why they were so ineffective running the football. A healthy Osemele and Zuttah, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked center out of 35 eligible last season and who has graded out about average in each of the last 4 seasons at both guard and center, will help things on the ground, especially if Gary Kubiak’s tutelage is able to bring the best out of them.

The Ravens best offensive lineman will continue to be Eugene Monroe, who the Ravens acquired from the Jaguars mid-season last year and to whom they gave a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal this off-season. Monroe’s presence couldn’t save the offensive line last season, but it did make things better. Monroe has been a top-16 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out as #6 in 2011. He graded out 16th overall this season, but playing even better once he was traded to Baltimore. The Baltimore “version” of Monroe was the #12 offensive tackle this season. Even if we use his composite grade for the 2013 season, Monroe is still one of just 4 offensive tackles to grade out in the top-16 on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons (Joe Thomas, Michael Roos, Andrew Whitworth). He’s one of the better blindside protectors in the game and the Ravens got him on a great deal.

The Ravens also have a talented starter locked in at right guard in Marshal Yanda. Yanda had a down season last season, which was unfortunate because the Ravens really could have used his best, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked guard. Yanda has played right tackle and right guard in his career. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in 2012 and their 3rd ranked guard in 2011. At right tackle, he ranked 6th in 2010 and 5th in 2007 as a 3rd round rookie.

In 2008, he played right guard and only played in 5 games because of injury, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked guard despite playing just 350 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher. In 2009, he was limited to 405 snaps and 7 starts at right guard because of some limited time at right tackle, where he played well, and some more injuries, but he still graded out 17th at his position, with no one grading out higher than him and playing fewer snaps.

Maybe moving him to right tackle wouldn’t be a bad idea considering it is a more valuable position, but the Ravens don’t seem to be considering that because of how good Yanda has been at right guard over the past 3 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Yanda has a very good chance of bouncing back from his “down” season. It’s an improved offensive line for the Ravens, with Osemele coming back, Zuttah coming in, and Kubiak taking over, but there are still some issues, particularly at right tackle. The terrible trio of Oher, Shipley, and Gradkowski shouldn’t be much of any issue this season though.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

An improved offensive line should help their running game, but they’ll also have to run better. It’ll be hard for them to run worse than they did last season, when they averaged 3.14 yards per carry, so they’ll be better by default, but they obviously will want to be a lot better. In 2012, they averaged 4.28 yards per carry. A return to that kind of form would obviously be helpful. A return to that kind of form would require a return to form from one-time star running back Ray Rice.

From 2009-2012, Rice averaged 277 carries for 1267 yards and 8 touchdowns and 70 catches for 610 yards and 2 touchdowns per season, an average of 4.57 yards per carry. The well-rounded feature back graded out as a top-10 running back in 3 of those 4 seasons, with the exclusion of 2010. However, in 2013, he rushed for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns on 214 carries (3.08 YPC) and caught 58 passes for 321 yards, showing a lack of explosiveness all around and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst running back. He broke 13 tackles on 272 touches and averaged 1.52 yards per carry after contact, giving him easily the league’s worst elusive rating.

Rice isn’t over the hill, only going into his age 27 season and his struggles last year are being attributed to overwork over the previous 4 seasons (1387 touches), a nagging hip injury, and him being overweight. He says the hip injury is behind him and he’s slimmed down this off-season and he’s been looking better in practice so a bounce back year isn’t out of the question, especially with a better offensive line and a new offensive system in place. However, he’s expected to face some sort of suspension for his alleged involvement in the assault of his now wife this off-season. That could hurt his chances at a bounce back year.

The player who can take the most advantage of Rice’s potential suspension is Bernard Pierce. Pierce, a 2012 3rd round pick, proved to be very valuable as a rookie en route to a Super Bowl victory, totaling 734 yards and a touchdown on 140 carries across the regular season and post-season, an average of 5.24 yards per carry. However, thanks to the blocking, an injury of his own, and his own struggles, Pierce averaged just 2.87 yards per carry last season and was unable to take advantage of a struggling Rice. He had a better elusive rating and graded out higher on Pro Football Focus than Rice though so more of his struggles can be attributed to the blocking.

Healthier, in a new system in his 3rd year in the league, Pierce could have a bounce back year. If he impresses as the feature back in Rice’s absence, he could remain in that role. Lorenzo Taliaferro was drafted in the 4th round to be insurance for both of them. There are still obviously questions about whether or not they can get back to 2012 form on the ground, but the arrow is pointing up, even if only by default, so they should be better on the ground.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Ravens’ defense was by far their better unit last season and one of the best defenses in the NFL. In spite of that, the Ravens still used their first three draft picks on defensive players. Timmy Jernigan was drafted in the 2nd round to replace to Arthur Jones, who signed as a free agent in Indianapolis this off-season. A 2010 5th round pick, Arthur Jones developed from a solid reserve in 2011 on 255 snaps to a solid starter on 536 snaps to a breakout player in 2013 on 530 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end.

He was overpaid though, getting 33 million over 5 years with 16 million guaranteed. At his best, he’s worth that kind of money, but he’s still just a one year wonder at this point in his career. There’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be this good. He’s never played more than 536 snaps in a season and he’s never been the key cog on Baltimore’s defensive line, rotating often and playing alongside Haloti Ngata. The Ravens had solid defensive line depth even after losing Jones and adding Jernigan to the mix makes things even better. Jernigan should play a fairly significant role as a rookie, playing 3-4 defensive end in base packages and 4-3 defensive tackle in sub packages.

The aforementioned Ngata should lead this defensive line in snaps played for the 5th straight season this year, playing at 3-4 nose tackle, 3-4 defensive end, and 4-3 defensive tackle. He played 714 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked defensive tackle. He’s graded in the top-18 among either defensive tackles or 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 7 seasons, dating back to 2007. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle in 2010 and 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2007. He’s primarily a run stopper at 6-4 340, but moves well for his size and generates some pass rush.

Brandon Williams, a 2013 3rd round pick, will have a bigger role this season after impressing on 93 snaps as a rookie. He’ll work primarily as a two-down player and can play both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end in base packages. The 6-1 335 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but moves well for his size and got some Dontari Poe-lite comparisons in the pre-draft process. Chris Canty will also play a significant role again this season, after playing 579 snaps last season.

Going into his age 32 season, Canty’s best days are behind him, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. The versatile 6-7 295 pounder is capable of playing 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end and is equally good as a run stopper and a pass rusher. He’s graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including each of the last 4 seasons. He’s only played 879 snaps in the last 2 seasons combined and he’s getting up there in age, but he still should be an asset and an above average contributor in a rotational role, as a versatile defensive lineman capable of playing in any situation. The quartet of Ngata, Canty, Jernigan, and Williams will play most of the snaps on the 3-man defensive line this season and on the interior defensive line in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens play a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense with a lot of 4-3 looks in sub packages, so edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will play a fair amount of defensive end in pass rush situations. Dumervil had a fantastic year last year. He only was a part-time player, playing 574 snaps, 332 pass rush snaps, 176 run snaps, and 66 coverage snaps, but he was an incredibly efficient pass rusher. He had 10 sacks, 11 hits, and 40 hurries on 332 pass rush snaps, a pass rush rate of 18.4%. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps. He was also #1 at the position in pure pass rush grade.

Signing him to a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season was a very shrewd move by the Ravens. He was only a league average 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and 2012 with the Broncos, but, the last time he was in a system in which he didn’t have to play pure defensive end, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th best 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of pure pass rush grade, back in 2009. He’s never been a good run player no matter what system he’s played in, but he can get after the quarterback in the Ravens’ system and he serves an incredibly valuable part-time role for them as a result.

Courtney Upshaw plays the base outside linebacker role, actually playing more snaps last season than Dumervil did, playing 650. He didn’t fare well, grading out below average as both a pass rusher and a run stopper and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible overall. He was better as a rookie in 2012, when the 2nd round pick graded out slightly above average. He sucked as a pass rusher, grading out 2nd worst at his position in that aspect, but he exceled as a run stopper, grading out 2nd best at his position in that aspect. He’s had weight issues in his career, with his weight sometimes ballooning into the 290s, but, as long as he’s in despite shape, he should be alright as a part-time run stopping linebacker in a role that’s far less important than Dumervil’s.

Terrell Suggs will continue to play every down on the other side in that hybrid rush linebacker/defensive end role. Suggs restructured his contract this off-season, coming off of a down year, but it was still a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed. He still had a good year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out average as a pass rusher and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, but he wasn’t as good he was previously was, when he was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and #7 ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2010. He’s now going into his age 32 season, so his best days are probably behind him, and he could have ruined his body playing through two serious injuries in 2012, when graded out below average. He should still be an asset though.

I mentioned earlier that the Ravens used their first 3 draft picks on defensive players, despite their defensive dominance last year. Their first round pick was on middle linebacker CJ Mosley out of Alabama, drafted 17th overall. It was a bit of a weird pick because the Ravens had just re-signed Daryl Smith to a 4-year deal worth up to 16.1 million and they also had Arthur Brown, a 2013 2nd round pick, waiting in the wings ready for a bigger role and Josh Bynes, who flashed in a part-time role in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker on 465 snaps played.

Still, Mosley will immediately play every down at middle linebacker next to Smith, with Brown and Bynes working as backups. Smith is deserving of his new contract. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker last season, after the Ravens signed him to a cheap one-year deal late last off-season. The reason he was available so late in the off-season was because he missed 14 games and only played 117 snaps the previous season because of injury. However, this type of strong play is nothing new from him, as he graded out above average in every season but one in Jacksonville from 2007-2011, playing both middle and outside linebacker. In his last healthy season before this year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011. He’s now going into his age 32 season, but he should still be an above average starter, especially excelling in coverage.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Terrell Suggs wasn’t the only player that the Ravens had returning from injury last season. While Suggs was returning from an injury plagued season which he still played through, Lardarius Webb was coming back from a torn ACL that ended his 2012 season. He wasn’t quite his top self in 2013, as is often the case after an injury like that, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked cornerback. At his best, he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, grading out 4th in 2011 before that 2012 injury. The 2009 3rd round pick was very impressive as a part-time player in 2009 and 2010 as well and played well before going down with injury in 2012. He’s only played 2 full seasons in the NFL as a starter, but he’s only going into his age 29 season and could easily bounce back to top form this season.

Webb will continue to start opposite Jimmy Smith, a 2011 1st round pick who broke out last season after failing to establish himself as a solid starter in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. He flashed as a rookie on 256 snaps and then struggled mightily in 2012 on 474 snaps. Last season, he graded out above average, which convinced the Ravens to pick up with 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. The Ravens did lose Corey Graham this off-season though. He was a solid 3rd cornerback who grade out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, on 588 snaps and 703 snaps respectively, as a slot specialist. He’ll be replaced internally by Chykie Brown, who has failed to impress on 283 career snaps in 3 seasons since going in the 5th round in 2011. It’s an obvious downgrade.

At safety, the Ravens lost both Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard before last season and they replaced them by getting younger at one spot, drafting Matt Elam in the first round, and by bringing in a seemingly comparable veteran at the other spot, signing Michael Huff to replace Bernard Pollard. Elam graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in coverage, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The Ravens are on record saying that they want him to play closer to the line of scrimmage this season, which would highlight his abilities against the run more. He graded out above average against the run last season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in coverage.

Huff didn’t work out at all though, as the veteran struggled on 97 snaps before getting benched and cut, even though the Ravens had already shelled out about 2.5 million dollars to him. He eventually ended up in Denver, where he played 42 snaps, and now remains unsigned on the open market, going into his age 31 season. Fortunately for the Ravens, veteran journeyman James Ihedigbo stepped up as the starter in place of Huff last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Ihedigbo signed with the Lions this off-season.

In order to replace him, the Ravens signed veteran Darian Stewart. Stewart, a 2010 undrafted free agent, struggled in 4 seasons in St. Louis and doesn’t seem like a viable starting option. He played just 196 snaps as a rookie, struggled mightily as a starter in 2011, grading out 83rd out of 87 eligible safeties, and then played just 82 snaps in 2012 as a result. In 2013, he was forced to play 583 snaps because of an injury to TJ McDonald and graded out slightly below average, though better than 2011. The Ravens used a 3rd round pick on Terrence Brooks as competition. Whoever starts, they’ll play the deeper safety position with Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but it should be a position of weakness on an otherwise very strong defense.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The offense was clearly the problem for the Ravens last season, but they still used their first 3 draft picks on defense. Why? Well, they brought in Timmy Jernigan to replace the departed Arthur Jones and Terrence Brooks to replace the departed James Ihedigbo. Both should be downgrades as a rookie. They also brought in CJ Mosley at middle linebacker even though it wasn’t a position of need, which was a strange pick. They also were unable to replace the departed Corey Graham. Their defense is unlikely to be as good as it was last season, especially since they suffered almost no injuries defensively last season.

Offensively, they did suffer injuries last season and they’ll get Kelechi Osemele and Dennis Pitta back from serious injuries, which will help their offense, but, at the same time, they didn’t have an unreasonable amount of injuries offensively last season and they had the 9th fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL overall. Adding Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator and Owen Daniels and Jeremy Zuttah at tight end and center should also help a little bit, and their running game should be better by default, but the addition of Steve Smith is unlikely to pan out. The Ravens don’t seem much more talented than they were last season and, while they’re a decent team, it’s likely they’ll be on the outside looking in at the playoffs once again this season. I’ll have an official wins prediction at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC North

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San Diego Chargers sign CB Brandon Flowers

The Chiefs cut Brandon Flowers earlier this month in order to save 7.5 million in cash, after he had a rough 2013 season in which he graded out 87th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was especially bad in coverage, grading out 96th in pure coverage grade, allowing 64 completions on 96 attempts (66.7%) for 846 yards (8.81 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and an interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 7 penalties. He was a really poor fit for new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s coverage scheme.

Still, he generated a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks on the open market and rightfully so. Flowers was once one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He was a top-7 cornerback in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 in 2010. No other cornerback was also in the top-7 in each of those 4 seasons. For some reason, he never made the Pro-Bowl until last season, when he was terrible. Only going into his age 28 season, Flowers could easily recapture his old form in a new system.

The Chargers landed him with this deal, which is worth up to 5 million over 1 season with 3 million guaranteed. That’s a lot of money for someone this late in the off-season, but he deserves it and this deal will allow him to test the market next off-season, still only going into his age 29 season. If he has a bounce back year, he could land a very lucrative multi-year deal. For the Chargers, this is a fantastic move for arguably the most cornerback needy team in the NFL.

The Chargers had probably the league’s worst cornerbacks last season, a huge part of the reason why their defense was so awful last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.36% rate, 28th in the NFL. Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall, Derek Cox, and Johnny Patrick were their top-4 cornerbacks last season. They ranked 102th, 101st, 104th, and 94th respectively out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Now the Chargers have added Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency. If Flowers has a vintage year, the Chargers could have a halfway decent defense and could push to make the playoffs again, even if their offense isn’t as dominant again, despite a tougher schedule.

Grade: A

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Cincinnati Bengals 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I thought the Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL going into the playoffs last season and were a good sleeper candidate to make a Super Bowl run (though their season long inability to win on the road was concerning). They finished the regular season 3rd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.81%, behind only Denver and New Orleans, thanks to a league best defense that only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 65.68% rate and an above average offense that moved the chains at a 73.49% rate, 12th in the NFL.

They won 11 games and, unlike most other teams that won a large amount of games, they weren’t overly reliant on winning the turnover battle to do it, as they were only +1 in turnover margin. Turnover margins are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.

Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. The fact that the Bengals were having success without being completely reliant on winning the turnover battle seemed to be a good thing for them going into the post-season.

However, turnovers, the great equalizer, got the best of them in the post-season as the Chargers forced 4 turnovers and didn’t commit one of their own en route to a 27-10 victory in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hadn’t lost all season. You can say this is proof that the Bengals were a flawed team going into the playoffs because of their inability to consistently win the turnover battle, but, again, this is something that is very unpredictable. In fact, the Chargers, who forced 4 turnovers in that game, had forced just 17 in the entire regular season.

A lot of the blame was put on quarterback Andy Dalton and rightfully so. After all, Dalton committed 3 of those 4 turnovers (2 interceptions and a lost fumble). He completed 29 of 51 for 334 yards, a touchdown, and those 2 picks. Dalton is now 70 of 123 for 718 yards, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions in 3 career playoff games, as Dalton’s first 3 years in the NFL have all ended the same way, with a loss in the first round of the playoffs.

What’s not rightfully so is judging Dalton’s entire career on those 3 games and ignoring the 48 regular season games he’s played. It’s way too small of a sample size to go on and I don’t really buy the notion that some guys randomly become worse quarterbacks in the playoffs. If he does, we definitely don’t have enough evidence yet to definitively prove that. Besides, Dalton and the Bengals were only favored and at home in one of those three games.

Dalton has completed 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 80 touchdowns, and 49 interceptions in 3 regular seasons in the league, making all 48 starts. One of his issues is his inconsistency. He had 5 games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus last season and 7 games in which he graded out well below average, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback. Dalton completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in the Bengals’ 11 wins last season, a QB rating of 101.8. Meanwhile, in 5 losses, he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 5.96 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, a QB rating of 67.7. And then, of course, there was his terrible game in the post-season.

It might not seem like Dalton is the type of quarterback that can catch fire and go on a run to a Super Bowl victory with a strong supporting cast right now, but that’s just because he hasn’t done it yet. I think he’s capable of getting hot for a stretch and leading this team to a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t look like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco could do that before they did it, but they still did. Dalton’s regular season track record is comparable to those two and, again, unless you believe that he randomly becomes a worse quarterback in the playoffs, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t win a Super Bowl.

Eli Manning hadn’t won a playoff game through 3 seasons in the league, but he went all the way to win the Super Bowl in his 4th year in the league. In fact, Manning has never won a playoff game in a season he didn’t win the Super Bowl. In his first 3 years in the league, Manning completed 54.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 54 touchdowns, and 44 interceptions. It was a slightly different passing league back then and you can argue he didn’t have as good of weapons as Dalton has, but they’re clearly inferior numbers. Even his 4th season in the league didn’t appear to be the start of anything great, as he completed 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions before a strong post-season, which ended in a Super Bowl victory.

Things won’t necessarily work out like this for Dalton, but I think the notions that you need a so called “elite” quarterback to win a Super Bowl and that you some quarterbacks randomly become worse in the playoffs are both false. Andy Dalton isn’t a top-10 quarterback, but he’s in the 15 or so range and the Bengals have a very strong supporting cast. The calls for Dalton to be benched or replaced this off-season were absurd and he’ll have every opportunity to prove himself as the quarterback of the future for this team in his contract year this year. The Bengals are on my short list of teams that could win the Super Bowl. The fact that they are 32-1 to win the Super Bowl right now seems like a cheap bet that much more likely than 32-1 will end up paying dividends.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One thing that could derail the Bengals in the quest for that Super Bowl is that they lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, to head coaching jobs this off-season. Gruden is less likely to be missed. He was a good coordinator, but he’ll be replaced by former running backs coach Hue Jackson, who has some experience as a both an offensive coordinator and a head coach in the NFL.

One major change that he’ll make is that the Bengals are going to become more run heavy. Under Gruden, they were a pass heavy offense that used a lot of quick, short throws to act as a running game. Jackson is going to make them a run heavy offense and use the run to set up the deep pass. Andy Dalton has 47 touchdowns to 29 interceptions on passes 10+ yards downfield in his career, so this is something he can handle. The Bengals attempted 587 passes last season to 481 runs and Dalton has attempted at least 516 passes in every season he’s been in the league. There could be closer to a 50/50 split this season, especially if the defense continues to play as well as it has over the past couple of seasons.

This is great news for Giovani Bernard, a 2013 2nd round rookie who was very impressive as a rookie. Bernard only had 170 carries as a rookie, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 4.09 yards per carry, but he also caught 56 passes for 514 yards and another 3 touchdowns. One of the more explosive players in space in the NFL, Bernard graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked running back overall and their 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade.

Bernard might not have quite as many catches this season, but there will be more opportunity for him to carry the ball in his 2nd year in the league. He’s the lead back and could have 300+ touches. Darren McFadden, a running back with a similar style skill set, but less career success, was great under Hue Jackson, rushing for 1771 yards on 336 carries, an average of 5.27 YPA, catching 66 passes for 661 yards and scoring 15 times total in 20 games from 2010-2011 under offensive coordinator and eventual head coach Hue Jackson.

Bernard profiled similar to Ray Rice coming out of college and Rice had a similar rookie year, rushing for 454 yards on 107 carries and catching 33 passes for 273 yards. Rice didn’t break out until his 2nd year in the league, when he rushed for 1339 yards and 7 touchdowns on 254 carries and caught 78 passes for 702 yards and another touchdown, after he had a full year in an NFL training system to add weight. Bernard could have a similar year in his 2nd year in the league.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually led the team in carries last season, but now he’s not even a lock for the roster. He rushed for just 756 yards and 7 touchdowns on 220 carries last season, an average of 3.44 YPC, and he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. He’s now averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. His career average is 3.88 yards per carry on 1008 carries and he has just 52 catches in 6 seasons in the league. He has one carry for longer than 33 yards in his career. He rarely fumbles and he can pick up yards that are blocked, but that’s about it.

His biggest asset to the team last season was his abilities as a goal line back at 5-11 220, making him, in that sense, a good complement to the 5-10 200 pound Bernard, but the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill in the 2nd round to be that big back. Going into his age 29 season, BJGE simply isn’t worth his non-guaranteed 2.5 million dollar salary. Hill is a talented 6-1 235 pounder and will serve as an upgraded complement to Bernard, because he’s more than just a goal line back, though he won’t have the same amount of carries as BJGE had last season. This is Bernard’s backfield now.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One other change that Hue Jackson is going to make to the offense is that he’s going to make Marvin Jones an every down player and stop messing around with lesser talents like Mohamed Sanu. Jones had a breakout game week 8 against the Jets, catching all 8 of his targets for 122 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 13 pass routes run. However, even that didn’t turn him into an every down player as he played fewer than 60% of the team’s offensive snaps in 5 of the Bengals’ 8 final regular season games.

Jones finished the season with 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 377 routes run, an impressive 1.89 yards per route run. Meanwhile, Mohamed Sanu caught 47 passes for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns on 463 routes run, an average of 0.98 yards per route run. Jones also caught 8 passes for 130 yards on 11 targets (72.7%) and 51 routes run (2.55 yards per route run). He played 77.8% of the Bengals snaps played in that game, a preview of the types of things he can do in the future as an every down wide receiver.

Gruden probably liked Sanu because he was there when the Bengals drafted him higher (3rd round vs. 5th round for Jones in 2012), but Jones is clearly the better player and Jackson won’t be afraid to make him an every down starter opposite AJ Green and relegate Sanu to a much smaller role as a slot receiver in a run heavy offense. There’s also talk that the Bengals could be using Sanu in a sort of hybrid h-back/fullback role, like Hue Jackson did with Marcel Reece in Oakland. The 6-1 211 pound Sanu is a willing blocker who has some experience carrying the football (115 collegiate carries and 9 as a pro).

Jones might not be quite as efficient this season in a larger role because he’ll see more attention from the defense and be more tired out, but he’ll have plenty of one-on-one opportunities opposite AJ Green. He could easily have a 3rd year breakout year and push for 1000+ yards. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver last season on 555 total snaps and their 9th ranked in terms of pass pure catching grade. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. Come season’s end, Green and Jones could be talked about as one of the better wide receiver duos in the NFL.

Jones actually graded out slightly better than Green did last season, as Green graded out 17th and 14th in pure pass catching grade. Green is probably the better overall player and he has the better track record, but it just shows what kind of player Jones can become. Green has been Pro Football Focus’ 22nd, 8th, and 14th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in his first 3 seasons in the league respectively. Green has averaged 2.25 yards per route run in his career. He’s only caught 59.0% of his career targets and had 26 drops, 19 penalties, and 22 interceptions when thrown to throughout his career, so he has some issues that don’t show up on a traditional stat sheet, but he’s still one of the better wide receivers in the game. The Bengals already picked up his 5th year option for 2015, which was a no brainer. Expect a lucrative extension soon.

One reason a run heavier offense might make sense to the Bengals is it would allow them to run their two former first round pick tight ends on the field at the same time more often, something they already did a fair amount of last season. Jermaine Gresham was drafted in the first round in 2010 and they added Tyler Eifert in the first round in 2013. Gresham has largely been a bust. His receiving numbers aren’t terrible, as he’s caught 218 passes for 2262 yards and 19 touchdowns in 59 games in 4 seasons, but he’s a terrible run blocker who has committed 19 penalties in the last 2 seasons combined, easily most in the NFL among tight ends over that stretch. His 1.37 yards per route run in his career is pretty mediocre as well. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end last season and he was their worst ranked tight end in 2012. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league.

Now going into his contract year, it seems pretty unlikely that the Bengals will bring him back for 2015 and beyond, with Eifert waiting in the wings as a potential long-term every down starting tight end. Eifert wasn’t flashy as a rookie, catching 39 passes for 445 yards and 2 touchdowns on 303 routes run, an average 1.47 yards per route run, struggling as a run blocker, and overall grading out slightly below average on 681 snaps. He could be better and have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2014.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bengals’ offensive line is their best offensive unit, even after losing Anthony Collins to free agency this off-season. Collins signed a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 15 million guaranteed with the Buccaneers. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle. Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action.

Still, he was essentially their 6th offensive lineman last season, only on the field because of injury to Clint Boling, so it’s not going to be that big of a loss. That should tell you how talented this unit is upfront. Boling is a solid starter in his own right, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons since the 2011 4th round pick took over as a starter at the start of the 2012 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked guard last season and their 22nd ranked guard in 2012. He also didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback hit last season, playing 788 snaps.

Andrew Whitworth is their most talented offensive lineman and coming off arguably the best season of his career. Playing 587 snaps at left tackle and 350 snaps at guard, he was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle and 7th ranked guard, with no one at either position playing fewer snaps than him and graded out better. His composite grade would have been 2nd at both tackle and guard last season.

While this was the first extended time he had played at guard since 2008, this kind of dominance is nothing new for him. Since taking over at left tackle in 2009, Whitworth didn’t miss a start from 2009-2012 and graded out as a top-12 offensive tackle in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle in 2010. He was outside of the top-12 last season, but only because he spent time at guard. He was still just as dominant, if not more so, last season, as compared to that 2009-2012 stretch. Even still, Joe Thomas is the only other offensive tackle to grade out in the top-15 in each of the last 5 seasons. Whitworth is going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but, considering how well he played last season, I’m not too concerned yet.

At right tackle, there was concern going into last season that Andre Smith would coast once he received the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal he got from the Bengals to re-sign in the previous off-season. In fact, that concern is part of the reason why he didn’t get a bigger contract than that. Smith had weight and motivation concerns coming out of college and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league. The Bengals exercised an option in his contract after his 2nd season in the league to cut it from a 6-year to a 4-year deal. That seemed to wake him up, as he graded out 28th among offensive tackles in 2011 and 4th in 2012. There was concern that he’d go back to coasting once he got paid, but he graded out 20th in 2013, so he definitely quelled some of those concerns. Now with 3 straight solid seasons on his resume, the naturally talented right tackle seems poised for another strong year.

They Bengals are also strong at right guard with Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 1st round pick who is going into his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard. He graded out 26th in 2013 and missed 4 games. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have a bounce back year. Either way, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t have another solid year at the very least.

The only position of weakness the Bengals have on the offensive line is at center. The Bengals cut Kyle Cook, a mediocre starting center, this off-season, simply because he wasn’t living up to his salary and he’s yet to be signed on the open market. Mike Pollak is penciled in as the starter right now. The veteran journeyman was impressive in limited action last season, 374 snaps, but there’s no guarantee he can be good again. He’s pretty marginal throughout his career and he didn’t play a snap in 2012. If he struggles, Russell Bodine, a 4th round rookie, he could get some snaps. Trevor Robinson, a 2012 undrafted free agent who has struggled through 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, is also in the mix.

The loss of Collins hurts their depth, but the Bengals still have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Andy Dalton was pressured on just 25.2% of his drop backs last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning. Part of this had to do with the fact that Dalton had the quickest release in the NFL at an average of 2.24 seconds from snap to throw. Still, the Bengals were #1 on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade (and 12th in run blocking grade), which is good because Dalton struggles under pressure, completing 38.5% of his passes under pressure last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. He was at 39.4% in 2012 and 38.6% as a rookie. Their pass protection will be even more important this season as they move to more of a downfield throw offense. They’ll have to block for longer as a result, but they should be up to the task.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Bengals also lost their defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. He’ll be replaced internally with Paul Guenther, who has been with the team as an assistant since 2005, last year serving as the linebackers coach. I like that they promoted internally, but they definitely will miss Mike Zimmer, who is one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in the NFL and fully deserved his new job as the head coach in Minnesota.

The Bengals will also miss Michael Johnson defensively, as the defensive end signed with the Buccaneers this off-season. Johnson is an incredibly athletic edge rusher who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again in 2013.

At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries, to go with 7 batted passes. He had a 10.6% pass rush rate on 575 pass rush snaps in 2013 and in 2012 he had 13 sacks, 8 hits, and 34 hurries on 533 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.3%, which was actually lower than 2013. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That’s obviously going to be hard to replace.

The man who they are going to try to replace him with is 2013 2nd round pick Margus Hunt. If his rookie year was any indication, that’s not going to go well. Hunt would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible last season, despite only playing 164 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, but he was also incredibly raw coming out of SMU. The Estonian former junior world record holder in discus has only been playing football for 5 seasons. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league and he has a ton of natural talent, but there are obviously no guarantees. He’s the definition of boom or bust.

He probably won’t come close to playing the 922 snaps that Johnson played last season either way though. He’ll start, but the Bengals have some other players who will play snaps. Wallace Gilberry played 520 snaps in a rotational role last season and graded out below average. He’s been a mediocre reserve thus far in his career and I don’t see that really changing. Will Clarke, meanwhile, is a 3rd round rookie who could see some snaps as a rookie.

Robert Geathers is a veteran option going into his age 31 season coming off of a season ending injury who shouldn’t even be on the roster, especially not at his scheduled 2.5 million dollar salary. He’s graded out well below average in every season dating back in 2008. He was a bottom-5 4-3 defensive end in 2009, 2010, and 2012 and a bottom-10 defensive end in 2011. He only played 22 snaps last season because of injury. He might not make the final roster because of his salary, but, if he does, I could see them giving him a role again for some reason.

Carlos Dunlap will remain an every down defensive end on the other side. Dunlap has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and he’s played an increasing number of snaps in every season, going from 287 snaps to 423 snaps to 601 snaps to 949 snaps last season. His best season was 2011, when he graded out 4th at his position despite only playing 423 snaps. No one graded out higher and played fewer snaps. He was 8th in 2012 and 9th in 2013 and should have another strong season this year, provided he doesn’t miss Mike Zimmer too much.

One “addition” for the Bengals could be defensive tackle Geno Atkins. I say “could” because Atkins might not be 100% in his first season back from a torn ACL that ended his season in the Bengals’ 9th game of the season. When at his best, Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the game and probably the best defensive tackle in the game. As a 4th round rookie in 2010, Atkins graded out 11th on Pro Football Focus 356 snaps and he ranked 2nd in 2011 and 1st in 2012, after taking over an every down player. Atkins was by far the top defensive tackle in 2012 and only JJ Watt had a better grade at any position, helping cement Atkins as one of the top few players in the NFL regardless of position.

He looked like he was on his way to another dominant season in 2013 before the injury and he still graded out 11th, despite playing just 458 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher than him. He still has age on his side, going into only his age 26 season, but an ACL tear sometimes takes a year to come back from fully and it doesn’t help that he lost his defensive coordinator. Still, having him on the field for the whole season, barring any re-injury, should help this defensive line.

The bigger issue is next to Geno Atkins at defensive tackle. Domata Peko will probably get the lion’s share of the snaps at the position because, even though he struggled mightily last season and even though he’s going into his age 30 season, the Bengals still gave him a 2-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season, rather than cutting him and saving 4.125 million in cash and cap space. Peko was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked defensive tackle last season and he hasn’t graded out above average in a season since 2007. Brandon Thompson, a 2012 3rd round pick, will also be in the mix. He graded out below average on 389 snaps last season after Atkins got hurt. He played 23 snaps as a rookie. Devon Still was also drafted in 2012, going in the 2nd round, but he’s only played 289 snaps in 2 seasons combined, struggling to get on the field even when there has been opportunity.

The opposite defensive tackle could be just a two-down role though because, like last season, one of their defensive ends could move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. That would allow them to get Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, and Wallace Gilberry on the field at the same time if they wanted to, rather than having the other defensive tackle play every down. It’s a trade-off and there might not be a right answer as the Bengals feel the loss of Johnson. Dunlap and Atkins are great, but the latter is coming off of a serious injury, their depth is questionable, and the loss of Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator could really hurt.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another heavily talented defender that the Bengals have is Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is an every down outside linebacker who broke out last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, in his 2nd year in the league. The Arizona State product was heavily recruited out of high school and profiled as a potential 1st round pick going into his junior season in 2011, but he had a down year, a poor combine, and did not get good recommendations from his coaches, causing him to go undrafted.

However, he’s shown his natural talent in Cincinnati, becoming a starter in week 3 of his rookie season, grading out about average as a rookie and then dominating last season. He’s still a one year wonder, which is especially a concern given his history. We don’t know how he’ll handle his success, even though he hasn’t gotten paid yet. There’s also concern that he lost his defensive coordinator. However, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have another dominant season as an every down linebacker. He’s played outside as a professional, but his natural position is middle linebacker and there’s some talk he could move back there and play every down there this season.

The reason for that is that middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been struggling mightily over the past 3 seasons, grading out 37th out of 51 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, dead last in 2012, and 38th out of 55 eligible last season. For some reason, the Bengals gave him a 2-year, 6.5 million dollar deal last off-season, after an awful season, but, even though he’s owed 2.25 million this season, he could still be demoted to two-down work and/or moved to the outside.

The 3rd linebacker job is also up for grabs. James Harrison played it last season, thriving in a two-down role, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run, despite only playing 383 snaps. Harrison is now going into his age 36 season and still available on the open market. The Bengals could bring him back on a one-year minimum deal, but there are no guarantees that he can still be successful at his age. He may just opt to retire anyway.

Assuming Harrison isn’t back, it’s looks like it’s a three-way battle for the 3rd linebacker job. Vincent Rey is probably the best of the bunch. The 2010 undrafted free agent played 113 nondescript snaps in 3 seasons from 2010-2012, but he excelled last season on 348 snaps, playing some backup snaps and playing every snap but 5 at middle linebacker in the 3 games that Rey Maualuga missed. Despite only playing 324 snaps at middle linebacker, Rey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and graded out higher. He can also play outside linebacker, but that’s not where he had his success last season.

The Bengals gave Rey a 2-year, 4.2 million dollar deal this off-season and they could have him play every down at middle linebacker and have Maualuga play only in sub packages outside. The other options are Jayson DiManche and Emmanuel Lamur. DiManche played 47 nondescript snaps last season as an undrafted free agent rookie, while Lamur flashed on 104 snaps as an undrafted free agent rookie, but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Rey is the best option of the 3.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another “addition” that could help the Bengals is Leon Hall, who only played 276 snaps last season, before tearing his Achilles. He was dominant before getting hurt though as he would have graded out 17th among cornerbacks had he been eligible, despite his limited snap count. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He allowed 18 completions on 36 attempts (50.0%) for 153 yards (4.25 YPA), a touchdown, and an interception, deflecting 3 passes and not committing a single penalty. He’s a very good cornerback when healthy, grading out 3rd in 2009 among cornerbacks and 21st in 2010.

His return might not help them much though because he’s dealing with his 2nd torn Achilles in 3 seasons and going into his age 30 season. He tore his Achilles midway through the 2011 season as well and wasn’t quite the same in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback, and missing some time with related leg problems. He was better in 2013, but then got reinjured and, especially considering his age, now it’s unclear what kind of explosiveness he’ll have upon returning. He might bounce back, but it could take him a little bit.

The Bengals’ other top 2 cornerbacks are also going into their age 30+ seasons, Adam Jones and Terence Newman. The former is going into his age 31 season. He was the 6th overall pick in 2005 by the Titans, but he had his career derailed by an off-the-field incident that got him suspended for the entire 2007 season. He then ended up in Dallas in 2008 and then out of the league in 2009. However, he’s had a revival over the past 4 seasons in Cincinnati, grading out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He did it first playing a combined 616 snaps from 2011-2012, but he’s been a key contributor over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012 on 608 snaps and 29th in 2013 on 994 snaps. He’s a naturally talented cornerback, but the concern is that his revival was possibly due to Mike Zimmer’s presence, which is especially a concern when you consider he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Terence Newman is a bigger concern, as he’s going into his age 36 season. Newman has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons with Cincinnati, grading out 19th in 2012 and 33rd in 2013. The issue is he looked close to done when the Bengals signed him, grading out below average in each of his final 2 years in Dallas, including 95th out of 109 eligible in 2011. Being reunited with his former Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati definitely helped him, but now with Zimmer gone and his age 36 season up next, Newman could really see his abilities fall off this season.

Because of the age of their top-3 cornerbacks, the Bengals used their first round pick on Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State. He probably won’t play much as a rookie, which is good because cornerback usually take a year or two to get adjusted, but he’s valuable to have waiting in the wings. Also waiting in the wings is 2012 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who has yet to be able to establish himself in 2 years in his career thus far. He’s played 352 disappointing snaps thus far. He was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season, despite only playing 309 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league and push Newman for a significant role, but there are no guarantees he can be an asset for them on the field.

Things are more set at safety, where George Iloka and Reggie Nelson started last season and where they will begin the season as starters again this season. Iloka was in his first year as a starter last year, after not playing a defensive snap as a 5th round rookie in 2012. Iloka graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety. We’ll see if he can repeat that in his 2nd year as a starter. Nelson also graded out above average, grading out 18th among safeties. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons since the one-time 1st round pick bust came to Cincinnati from Jacksonville before the 2010 season. His best season was 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Last season, even though they fell short in one game in the playoffs, in which they lost the turnover battle by 4, the Bengals were still one of the better teams in the NFL when you look at their whole body of work. They’ve had some losses this off-season, losing offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson, both on big deals to the Buccaneers and losing both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching jobs. They will get Geno Atkins and Leon Hall back from injuries, but it’s unclear if they’ll be 100%. They also had the fourth fewest adjusted games lost last season so, while they did lose top players to injury, they didn’t have unreasonably bad injury luck.

However, this is still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Losing their coordinators is the wild card, as it’s tough to know exactly how much that will negatively affect them, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has experience and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is an internal promotion and a Zimmer disciple. They are still on a short list of about 6, 7, 8 teams that I think can win the Super Bowl. Obviously Andy Dalton will have to play better in the post-season than he has in the past for them to do so, but I think he’s capable. They probably won’t end up being my Super Bowl pick, but getting them at 32-1 on a cheap bet might not be a bad idea. I’ll have official predictions after I’m done with every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC North

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