Seattle Seahawks sign DT Kevin Williams

I mentioned that Kevin Williams and the Seahawks could be a match in my post last month, “Remaining NFL Free Agents Who Could Have An Impact.” Williams came in 2nd on that list. Believe it or not, the Seahawks still needed depth on their defensive line, after losing Clinton McDonald to the Buccaneers this off-season. Before signing Williams, they would have been counting on Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who played 65 snaps as a rookie last season, to play a significant role on what was arguably the best defensive line in football last season.

The Seahawks are a young team that is going to get expensive fast over the next few off-seasons, but they’re also built to win now and signing a veteran like Williams cheap (about 2 million dollars) on a short-term deal was a good move for them. Likewise, Williams getting significant money at this point in the off-season and landing with a contender was a good move on his part. He showed decline last season and now is going into his age 34 season, but part of the reason he showed decline was he was so good to begin with. The future Hall-of-Famer was a top-3 defensive tackle in 2008-2010 and didn’t finish below 9th until last year. Even last year, he was 27th. He presumably still has another year or two left in the tank and can be valuable in a 500-600 snap role. This was a good move.

Grade: A

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New England Patriots 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Tom Brady arguably had the worst statistical season of his career last season, completing 60.5% of his passes (lowest since 2003), for an average of 6.92 YPA (lowest since 2003), 25 touchdowns (lowest in a full season since 2006), and 11 interceptions, a QB rating of 87.3. That QB rating was the 4th worst of his career and the lowest since 2003, when the NFL’s rules didn’t favor the quarterback nearly as much as they do now. Those numbers were all significant declines from 2010-2012, when he completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 8.02 YPA, 109 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, a QB rating of 104.6.

Part of the issue was Brady’s lack of supporting cast offensively. Rob Gronkowski played just 7 games and 390 snaps because of injury. Aaron Hernandez obviously is gone. Wes Welker is in Denver and free agent replacement Danny Amendola struggled through injuries, leaving Julian Edelman to step up as Brady’s primary option in his absence. Only Matt Stafford had more passes dropped than Brady (53), and those 53 passes were for 487 yards in the air, also 2nd to Matt Stafford.

The Patriots also had issues upfront on the offensive line as Brady was pressured on 32.1% of his drop backs, the highest percentage of drop backs he’s been pressured on since at least before 2007. That still ranked in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks, but that was more of a testament to Brady’s quick release than anything (2.39 seconds from snap to throw on average last season, 5th fastest in the NFL). Brady’s one weakness has always been pressure. Over the past 5 seasons, he only has completed 471 of 980 passes (48.1%) for 6281 yards (6.41 YPA), 43 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2050 for 2930 (70.0%) for 23969 yards (8.18 YPA), 187 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions while not under pressure.

However, part of the issue was also Brady himself. Brady was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback, which is very good, but he was 3rd in both 2011 and 2012. He’s also seen his QB rating drop from 111.0 to 105.6 to 98.7 to 87.3 over the past 4 seasons from 2010-2013. The decline he’s showing is a concern considering as he’s heading into his age 37 season. He’s getting to the point in his career where he could hit a wall in terms of his abilities at any time. He’s still a top level quarterback (for example, his actual passing grade was 5th among quarterbacks last season on Pro Football Focus), but I’d still rank Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and maybe Philip Rivers ahead of him. He could prove me wrong and have a vintage year this year, but that’s where I’d put him right now.

A lot of people like to mention the Patriots winning 12 games and going to the AFC Championship despite a weakened supporting cast as a reason why Brady is a top, top level quarterback and maybe even was the true MVP last season (he did get one MVP vote). I think that’s an overly simplistic view. The Patriots weren’t as good as their record suggested last season.

They had about 10.5 Pythagorean wins, 8th in the NFL, despite an unsustainable 62.50% fumble recovery rate. They finished 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including 6-1 in games decided by a field goal or less. They finished 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. If they had played last season the same way 100 times, they probably would have finished about 10-6 on average. They did win a playoff game, but that was on the back of an insane performance from LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns on 24 carries. Brady was only 13 of 25 for 198 yards in that game. That’s especially concerning when coupled with Tom Brady’s age.

The good news is the Patriots’ supporting cast around Brady should be significantly improved compared to last season. Part of that has to do with the fact that they should have fewer injuries last season, when they had the 4th most adjusted games lost, including serious injuries to Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo. They also added more talent this off-season, specifically upgrading the injury prone Aqib Talib with dominant man cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Patriots signed Danny Amendola to a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal last off-season to replace Wes Welker. Their logic was that Amendola was 4 years younger and had shown the potential to be for the next 5 years what Welker was for the last 5 years at a reasonable rate. That didn’t work out, at least in the first year of Amendola’s deal, so Julian Edelman had to step up as the Patriots’ #1 receiver. It took him a little bit, but he was very good in the 2nd half of the season.

In the first 8 games of the season, Edelman caught 48 passes for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns, which is good, but he was better in the second half of the season, catching 57 passes for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also caught a higher percentage of his targets in the second half of the season, catching 57 of 78 (73.1%), as opposed to 48 catches on 68 targets in the first half of the season (70.6%) He also had two games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in the first half of the season and two games in which he graded out well below average, while in the second half of the season he had four games in which he graded out well above average and none in which he graded out well below average. On top of that, had two more games in the post-season in which he graded out well above average, catching 16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown on 22 targets in two post-season games.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Tom Brady played much better in the 2nd half of the season, once he started to have the same kind of familiarity with Edelman that he once had with Wes Welker. Over his first 8 games, Brady completed 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.94 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. In the other 8 regular season games, he completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Brady graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 3 of his first 8 games. In the other 8 games, he graded out well above average in 5 games and well below average in 1 game. The Patriots averaged 33.1 points per game over their final 8 games, as opposed to 22.4 points per game over their first 8 games. The issue was their defense went from allowing 18.0 points per game to 24.3 points per game as injuries struck.

Overall, Edelman had a very strong season. Even excluding his strong post-season, he finished the regular season with 105 catches for 1056 yards and 6 touchdowns. He averaged 1.76 yards per route run. For comparison’s sake, Wes Welker averaged 1.64 yards per route run in 2013. Edelman did get more targets as he was a bigger part of New England’s offense, but he also caught a significantly higher percentage of his targets (71.9% to 67.0%) even though he commanded more of the defense’s attention.

As a result, Edelman was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade, while Welker came in at 37th. The Patriots offense wasn’t as good last season without Welker, but that was largely a result of the absence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They probably shouldn’t have paid Danny Amendola all that money, but they made the right decision letting Welker go. Welker is a declining player going into his age 33 season who missed 3 games with injury last season. Amendola deal aside, the Patriots are getting a better deal long-term with Edelman than Welker (who will make 6 million in a contract year in 2014). The Patriots gave Edelman a deserved 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, as he goes into his age 28 season.

Still, the Patriots do need to become less reliant on Edelman and have other receivers step up for Brady to throw to. Edelman is still a former undrafted one-year wonder who had 69 catches in the previous 4 seasons, while missing a combined 16 games over those 4 seasons. Rob Gronkowski would be the best candidate to step up, considering how good he is when he’s healthy. Gronkowski has been a top-3 tight end in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including last year when he graded out 2nd despite playing just 390 snaps in 7 games.

Gronkowski has caught 184 passes for 2709 yards and 32 touchdowns over his last 34 games, which is 87 catches for 1275 yards and 15 touchdowns over 16 games. He’s averaged 2.38 yards per route run over his career, including 2.47 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and 2.75 yards per route run last season. That’s insane for a tight end. For comparison, Jimmy Graham has averaged 2.19 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and he’s widely considered the best receiving tight end in the NFL. Gronkowski, when healthy, is a better pass catcher and he’s also easily a better run blocker. He struggled a little bit as a run blocker last season, after coming back from a broken arm, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked tight end in 2010 in run blocking grade, 1st ranked in 2011, and 4th ranked in 2012. When healthy, he’s easily the best, most complete tight end in the NFL.

Over the past 3 seasons, Tom Brady completes 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.07 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions when Gronkowski plays (36 games, including playoffs) and the Patriots score 32.8 points per game. When Gronkowski isn’t on the field, Brady completes 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and the Patriots score 28.0 points per game (19 games, including playoffs). Gronkowski played 6 of the Patriots’ final 8 games last season, which is a big part of the reason why Brady and the Patriots’ offense played so much better in the 2nd half of the season. He didn’t play in the post-season, when their passing game fell short.

The issue with Gronkowski is obviously injuries. He’s missed 14 games of the past 2 seasons combined and has missed the Patriots’ last 4 playoff games, not playing in a playoff game since the 2011 Super Bowl. He had back problems in college. He struggled in the Super Bowl through an ankle problem. He broke his arm in 2012 and re-broke it in the playoffs. He had 5 surgeries on that arm, including 3 surgeries to treat an infection. He also had another back procedure. And then last December, he tore his ACL.

He’s currently more likely than not to be back for week 1, about 9 months removed from his torn ACL, although who knows with the Patriots and how tight-lipped they are with injuries. The good news is he did seem to have put all of his past injuries behind him last season, when he was dominant in 7 games. This is his first major leg injury and he’s only going into his age 25 season. The bad news is that ACL injuries usually take a while to return to full strength from and he could be less than 100% all season even once he returns. Leg injuries also can lead to other leg injuries. He also doesn’t inspire confidence that he won’t suffer another injury. His durability is a serious problem. All that being said, it’s likely that the Patriots will have him for more games, more snaps, and more production this season than last year and possibly even than 2012 (55 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games on 743 snaps). More importantly, they’ll probably have him for the playoffs.

Another guy who should have better health this season is Danny Amendola. Amendola caught just 54 passes for 633 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, which obviously was a disappointment for the Patriots. He only missed 4 games, but he was limited all season with a groin injury. When healthy, he can be a great wide receiver. He averaged 2.04 yards per route run with the Rams in 2012 despite having Sam Bradford at quarterback. The issue is he’s never been able to stay healthy. He’s missed a combined 24 games over the past 3 seasons, not excluding the other games he’s been limited with injury. However, if I had to bet on it, I’d bet on him being more productive this season than last. He’s once again having a strong off-season (like he did last off-season) and he seems to be over that groin issue.

Aaron Dobson is another guy who should be more productive this season than last season. The 2013 2nd round pick caught 37 passes for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The average first round pick rookie wide receiver averages 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Dobson was able to post comparable numbers despite missing 4 games and despite being a 2nd round pick. It’s a testament to Dobson’s athleticism and upside and Tom Brady’s ability to get the most out of his receivers. He averaged 1.65 yards per route run. He had a serious issue with drops, dropping 9 passes to those 37 catches and only caught 37 of 71 targets (52.1%), but he definitely flashed. He should be better in his 2nd year in the league and could be a lot better.

Dobson was only one of three rookie wide receivers the Patriots had last season. Josh Boyce caught 9 passes for 121 yards as a 4th round rookie and now is on the roster bubble. Kenbrell Thompkins played a bigger role as rookie, catching 32 passes for 466 yards and 4 touchdowns on 355 routes run, but that’s just an average of 1.31 yards per route run and he only caught 32 of 69 targets (46.4%). The 2013 undrafted rookie is also on the roster bubble. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell are locked into roster spots.

LaFell and Dobson will compete to be the #3 wide receiver. LaFell, a 2010 3rd round pick, comes over from Carolina. He caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns in 4 seasons, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run last season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013. He’s a solid blocker and a big body at 6-2 211, but he lacks explosiveness. There’s some talk they could line him up at tight end kind of, the way they did with Aaron Hernandez, but there’s no evidence that they will.

The reason people are wondering whether or not they’ll do that is because they really lack a #2 tight end. DJ Williams is currently their “move” tight end in the old Aaron Hernandez role, but the 2011 5th round pick has 9 career catches and isn’t much of a blocker. Michael Hoomanawanui is a decent blocker, but offers nothing as a pass catcher with 37 catches in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. The 6-4 260 pounder can’t really play that “move” tight end role. This is a bigger issue if Gronkowski misses time, but not having a good #2 tight end will still hurt them either way. The Patriots will run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets this season.

The Patriots were planning on having running back Shane Vereen replace a lot of Aaron Hernandez’s production last season in a Darren Sproles type role, lining up all over the formation in passing situations. That didn’t work out because Vereen too was bitten by the injury bug, missing 8 games with a broken wrist. He’s someone else who should be more productive this year than last year as that injury is now long behind him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, despite only running 200 routes. He caught 47 passes for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 targets on 200 routes run, an average of 2.14 yards per route run that was 2nd only to Darren Sproles among running backs. He did that all in 8 games and could have a big season this year. Overall, barring major injuries and young players not developing, the Patriots’ receiving corps should be better than it was last season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Patriots also have a key contributor coming back from injury on the offensive line and it should make them a better unit as a result. That player is right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who only played 516 snaps in 8 games before breaking his leg last season. He was dominant before the injury, on his way to probably the best season of his career in his 5th year in the league. He still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher.

Vollmer has been a very solid player since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s been a top-23 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, doing so in 2011 and 2013 despite playing 6 and 8 games respectively. The issue is he’s never played a full 16 game season and he’s missed 25 games in 5 seasons. Having him back healthy will be a boost to this offensive line as Marcus Cannon, a 2011 5th round pick better off as a 6th offensive lineman, struggled a little bit last season when forced into the starting lineup.

Nate Solder will continue to start at left tackle. The 2011 1st round was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in his first year as a starter in 2012 and then took it to the next level in 2013, grading out 9th. He was abused by Von Miller, but there’s no shame in that and he was very good the rest of the season. The Patriots have already picked up his option for 2015 and he’s one of the best young blindside protectors in the game.

Logan Mankins will continue to man the left guard position, as he’s been doing since the Patriots drafted him in the first round in 2005. Mankins is already going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, especially since he hasn’t been as good over the past few seasons, struggling through various injuries and starting to show his age. A top-10 guard in every season from 2007-2010, including #1 in 2008, Mankins has graded out 27th, 18th, and 19th in the last 3 seasons respectively. Last year he run blocked well, but actually graded out significantly below average as a pass protector, allowing 9 sacks. He should have another solid season left in him at the very least, but he’s not the same player anymore.

The bigger issues are at center and right guard. Ryan Wendell, a 2008 undrafted free agent, broke out in his first year as a starter in 2012, after flashing as a reserve earlier in his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center. He really struggled in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked center in pass protection that season, which is an offensive linemen’s most important job, but he was #1 by far as a run blocker, so he made up for it.

However, in 2013, he still struggled in pass protection and wasn’t nearly as good as a run blocker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked center overall. Instead of replacing him, the Patriots gave him a 2-year, 3.25 million dollar contract this off-season, though they did draft Bryan Stork in the 4th round. Stork could push him at some point as a rookie if he continues to struggle. Another option is playing Marcus Cannon at right guard and moving Dan Connolly to center. Either way, they’re unlikely to get good play from the center position.

Connolly is currently at right guard. Like Mankins, he too is going into his age 32 season. Unlike Mankins, he’s never been that good. A marginal starter for a few seasons, last year was probably the worst year of his career, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. His days as a starting caliber player are probably over. Marcus Cannon could push him for the starting job.  It’s a solid offensive line, a better offensive line than last year, but there are more issues than you’d like for a team with a quarterback whose play declines as much under pressure as Brady does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2012 as the 2011 3rd round pick rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC). He was off to an equally good start in the 2013 season, rushing for 562 yards and 7 touchdowns on 131 carries (4.29 YPC) through 9 games. However, he lost a fumble in 3 straight weeks (4 total on the season) and got benched against Denver. The rest of the way, he had just 66 carries for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (4.24 YPC) in 7 games, including playoffs.

LeGarrette Blount took over as the primary back and combined to rush for 944 yards on 182 carries in the regular and post-season, an average of 5.19 yards per carry. He also rushed for 11 touchdowns. He’s gone, signing in Pittsburgh, so it looks like the Patriots will trust Ridley as their feature back again. Aside from his fumbling issues (9 fumbles in 3 years on 574 touches), Ridley’s biggest issue is that he’s not a receiving threat, with 19 catches in 3 years. He had just 17 in his collegiate career as well. Shane Vereen makes up for that as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations.

If Ridley’s fumbling problems come back, the Patriots options to replace him as the lead back aren’t great. They could give Vereen more of a role as a runner, even though the small 5-10 205 pounder has just 121 carries in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 (4.26 YPA). Brandon Bolden is their 2nd best big back. He’s flashed, rushing for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 111 carries (4.91 YPA) in his career as a 2012 undrafted free agent, but he’s had problems with injuries, which was a big issue for him in college as well. That’s a big part of the reason why he wasn’t drafted. James White is another option. They drafted him in the 4th round in this past draft.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Vince Wilfork is the big re-addition on the defensive line as he returns from a torn Achilles suffered in week 4 of last season. His absence was evident last season as their run defense up the middle was, at times, pathetic. Some of that had to do with Wilfork’s dominance against the run. Some of that had to do with how poor their replacements were. With Wilfork and fellow veteran Tommy Kelly out for the season, the Patriots had to turn to a pair of rookies, Chris Jones, a 6th round pick cut by the Texans in final cuts, and Joe Vellano, an undrafted free agent rookie. They played 792 snaps and 672 snaps respectively, which was a big issue.

Jones was the biggest issue. People can point to his 7 sacks as a reason why he had a good season, but that’s the opposite of reality. Those sacks were coupled with just 1 quarterback hit and 13 hurries on 440 pass rush snaps, a 4.8% pass rush rate. He probably won’t have close to 7 sacks on his next 440 pass rush snaps if he doesn’t improve his pass rush abilities. Rushing the passer wasn’t even his biggest issue as he got destroyed against the run, being pushed off the line with ease.

He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle against the run by far and their worst ranked defensive tackle overall. Vellano was better and actually pretty impressive for an undrafted rookie, but he still ranked 56th out of 69 eligible defensive tackles. Sealver Siliga got playing time down the stretch and impressed, but there’s no guarantee he could have continued that into 2014. The good news is that none of Jones, Vellano, and Siliga will start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart at defensive tackle.

Wilfork’s return will obviously help things. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, 23rd ranked defensive tackle in 2011, and would have been their composite 16th ranked defensive tackle in 2010 had he not played a fair amount of 3-4 defensive end that season. However, I’m skeptical that he’ll be the same Vince Wilfork, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn Achilles.

Tommy Kelly, meanwhile, is coming off of a torn ACL going into his age 34 season. He played alright on 223 snaps last season before going down, but he was awful in 2012, grading out 74th among 85 eligible defensive tackle. I’m very skeptical he can continue to be a starting caliber player at his age, coming off that injury. He’ll be pushed for the starting job in training camp by 1st round rookie Dominique Easley. Easley is coming off of his own injury, tearing his ACL in his final season at Florida, after tearing the other one back in 2011. He’s a serious injury concern already at such a young age and was a surprise pick 29th overall, but he has top-10/top-15 talent when healthy.

At defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will remain the starters. A lot of teams believe in rotating their defensive ends. The Patriots apparently don’t as Jones and Ninkovich were 1 and 2 in the NFL in terms of snaps played among defensive linemen as they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively. They only missed 24 and 52 snaps respectively all season and played 71.4 and 69.6 snaps per game respectively. It’s very impressive, but they definitely had a good amount of bad snaps as a result of overuse.

Rob Ninkovich is the more impressive of the two, grading out Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end, including #1 against the run, while Jones graded out 23rd. He had a good amount of pass rush production, but much of that was just because he played so many pass rush snaps. He had 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 46 hurries on 552 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% pass rush rate that is solid, but unspectacular. He also graded out below average as a pass rusher on Pro Football Focus. Jones also played much better against the run than as a pass rusher. He graded out 13th as a run stopper, but 12th worst as a pass rusher, with 13 sacks, 14 hits, and 39 hurries on 637 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.4%.

Both of them could be better this season if they played fewer snaps and got more breathers, which would be good as the Patriots ranked 2nd worst as a team in terms of team pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus last season. This is especially true of Chandler Jones, an incredibly athletic 2012 1st round pick going into his 3rd year in the league. I don’t know if Ninkovich can improve on the best season of his career as he goes into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 15th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, and 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. The versatile front 7 defender has found a home for himself in New England, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2006 and bouncing around from the Saints to the Dolphins back to the Saints from 2006-2008.

The issue is the Patriots don’t have very much depth at the position. Michael Buchanan struggled mightily on 122 snaps as a 7th round rookie last season. Jake Bequette was a 3rd round pick in 2012, but he’s played just 43 snaps uninspiring snaps in 2 seasons. Zach Moore was a 6th round pick in this past draft. Will Smith was a free agent acquisition, but he’s going into his age 33 season after missing all of the 2013 season with injury and grading out 2nd worst among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. He might not even make the roster. Their best option might be to have linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower rush the passer some in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Collins and Hightower are two young linebackers who could break out in new roles. Brandon Spikes is gone, which hurts because he was a very solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker in 2013, 9th in 2012, 18th in 2011, and 9th in 2010. However, he’s only a two-down player who has played 694 snaps, 742 snaps, 364 snaps, and 356 snaps in those 4 seasons respectively, while grading out 1st, 1st, 19th, and 4th in run grade respectively, in those 4 seasons since the Patriots drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010.

With him gone, their linebackers fit together better and might even be a better unit. Dont’a Hightower will move into his collegiate position of middle linebacker and have to play less often in coverage, which is good for him. That could allow him to rush the passer in sub packages more often, something he did in college and something he’s had moderate success doing in 147 career pass rush snaps. At the very least, the move will put him in a more natural spot and keep him out of coverage less. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in run grade over the past 2 seasons respectively and he played fantastic football down the stretch last season. He could be ready to break out.

Jamie Collins, meanwhile, could be ready to break out as well as he moves full-time into a starting role. The 2013 2nd round pick is a converted collegiate defensive lineman who flashed on 302 regular season snaps last season and then was dominant in the playoff win over Indianapolis, playing every snap, recording a sack, 2 hits, and a hurry on 9 pass rush snaps, recording 4 stops (tackling within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down), allowing 2 catches for 12 yards on 5 targets and recording an interception. He was also solid in the playoff loss to Denver. He could play some defensive end in sub packages, but if he continues to show himself as an all-around player, they might just make him a true three-down outside linebacker.

Another positive is that the Patriots get Jerod Mayo back from injury. Mayo missed 10 games with a torn pectoral last season. The concern for his health going into 2014 should be limited as the 2008 1st round pick had missed 5 games in 5 seasons prior to this injury. It was also an upper body injury instead of a lower body injury and he’s already a full participant at OTAs. When healthy, Mayo is one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012 and 7th ranked in 2011, after converting from being a 3-4 middle linebacker, where he wasn’t quite as good.

The one interesting and underrated free agent acquisition the Patriots made this off-season was the addition of linebacker James Anderson on a veteran’s minimum contract late in the off-season. Anderson isn’t a very good linebacker and he’s going into his age 31 season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and worst ranked against the run.

However, he was 6th at his position in coverage grade and could be an asset for the Patriots in sub packages if they decide they don’t want either of Collins or Hightower to be the primary 2nd linebacker in sub packages. That could happen because coverage isn’t the primary strength of either of them and both can rush the passer. Anderson could be a valuable, sub package coverage specialist in a limited role (200-300 snaps would be my guess). Despite losing Spikes, it’s a talented linebacking corps that fits together very nicely.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Easily the biggest acquisition of the off-season for the Patriots was Darrelle Revis. It’s a popular narrative that Revis Island is “done” after Revis tore his ACL in 2012 and then got cut by the Buccaneers after 1 year with the team. However, he was cut because he wasn’t worth his 16 million dollar salary to a Tampa Bay team that is transitioning to more zone coverage, not because he played poorly. He’s well worth the 12 million the Patriots are paying him this season to play in their man coverage based coverage scheme.

After the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis, I tweeted that the NFL’s top cornerbacks were #1 Richard Sherman, #2 Darrelle Revis, and #10 everyone else. There’s a huge gap between the top-2 cornerbacks in the NFL and the rest of the NFL’s cornerbacks. All of the top cornerbacks on the market this off-season had warts, even if it was a very strong cornerback market.

Brent Grimes was going into his age 31 season with an injury history. Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Sam Shields and Aqib Talib all had inconsistent histories. Alterraun Verner was the most consistent of the available free agent cornerbacks, making 64 starts in 4 years and grading out in the top-24 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, but he’s never finished in the top-10. All those guys are in the “#10 everyone else” range. Once Darrelle Revis hit the open market, he was miles better than everyone else who was available this off-season.

Showing the volatility of the cornerback position, just two cornerbacks finished in the top-15 on Pro Football Focus in both 2012 and 2013. One was Richard Sherman (#2 and #6) and the other was Jason McCourty (#6 and #10). Darrelle Revis probably would have been the other one if he hadn’t torn his ACL in 2012, which looks like a fluke injury when you look at the rest of his history, as he’s missed just 3 games in his other 6 seasons combined.

In 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons, he’s graded out in the top-3 on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks (he was #8 in the other season), incredible considering the volatility of the position and how difficult it’s become to be a dominant man coverage cornerback in today’s NFL. That includes a 2013 season in which he graded out #1 among cornerbacks, fueled by a first place finish in yards allowed per coverage snap, despite a poor pass rush in front of him. People still don’t throw on Revis. Another year removed from his injury, Revis should only be better in 2014. Since 2008, Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, a QB rating allowed of 50.5. He essentially turns every quarterback who dares to throw on him into a drunken Mark Sanchez. You can’t say that about anyone else.

Richard Sherman is probably a better cornerback because of his superior ball hawking abilities. He also doesn’t have a torn ACL on his record and he’s three years younger, with Sherman going into his age 26 season and Revis going into his age 29 season. However, Revis is right there as the #2 cornerback and miles ahead of everyone else. Short of acquiring Richard Sherman (which would obviously not have been possible), there’s nothing more than that the Patriots could have done this off-season to upgrade the cornerback position and replace Aqib Talib than signing Revis. The Patriots now have the legitimate ability to take away one side of the field on defense, something they haven’t been able to do since Ty Law. He’ll also help the pass rush get a few more coverage sacks.

Talib, by the way, has never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, nor he has ever played all 16 games in a season. Talib was 58th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 69th in composite grade among cornerbacks (between Tampa Bay and New England) in 2012. He was dominant for the first 6 games of the 2013 season, before suffering an injury, allowing 13 of 33 completion and picking off 4 passes in the process, but he’s never been able to sustain that. Revis can sustain high level play and give them the shutdown cornerback Talib was for those 6 games, when the Patriots allowed 16.2 points per game (back when Wilfork and Mayo were healthy as well).

Brandon Browner was the Patriots’ other free agent addition at cornerback. Browner will be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, but he should help them upon his return. Browner had graded out above average in all 3 seasons as a starter since coming over from Canada before the 2011 season. He’s graded out 37th, 22nd, and 42nd in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The concern is he’s missed 12 games over the past 2 seasons with a combination of injury and suspension and now he’s facing another 4 game suspension.

The good news is the Patriots have an absurd amount of depth at the cornerback position as a result of the Revis and Browner acquisitions. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan will compete to start opposite Revis in Browner’s absence, with Dennard being the early favorite. Dennard fell to the 7th round of the 2012 draft because of off-the-field problems and has had issues in the past 2 seasons as well, including spending time in jail. He had 2nd round talent though and was solid as a rookie, grading 30th among cornerbacks in 10 games. Last season, fell to 70th in 2013 in 13 games, which is a big part of the reason why the brought Browner in. Still, Dennard is an adequate short-term fill-in for Browner.

Logan Ryan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and impressed in limited action as a rookie, grading out 30th at his position despite playing just 608 snaps. The Browner acquisition will also allow Kyle Arrington to focus on the slot, which is the 5-10 196 pounder’s specialty. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 30th, 44th, and 19th ranked cornerback in the last 3 seasons respectively.

The fact that either Ryan or Dennard could be their 5th cornerback when Browner is back shows how much depth they have at the position. There’s been some talk that they could move Ryan to safety as a result of that. It’s unclear how the 5-11 191 pounder would fit at the position, but getting him more opportunities to be on the field is a worthwhile endeavor. Ryan would compete with another 2013 3rd round pick out of Rutgers, a natural safety Duron Harmon.

Unlike Ryan, Harmon wasn’t supposed to be a 3rd round pick. In fact, he probably wasn’t supposed to be drafted. The Patriots’ scouts told Belichick not to take him that early and that they could get him later and no major draft outlets were spending much time on him, certainly not as a day 2 pick, but the Patriots took him anyway. He impressed as a rookie on 431 snaps and is the front runner for a starting job now that Steve Gregory is gone. Tavon Wilson is also in the mix at safety. He was impressive on 476 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, but only played 17 snaps last season, despite all the injuries the Patriots had in the secondary and Wilson’s ability to play both cornerback and safety. It seems like Wilson, another player drafted earlier than everyone expected, was a mistake of a draft pick, at least at this point.

Whoever starts there will start opposite Devin McCourty. Revis isn’t the only top level defensive back the Patriots have on the roster as McCourty has quietly developed into one of the best safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. McCourty was a rookie All-Pro in 2010 and a deserving one, as the 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback that season. McCourty struggled in 2011, grading out below average, and then was moved to safety about halfway through the 2012 season.

In 2012, he was as good as he was in 2010, if not better, grading out 8th among cornerbacks on 534 snaps (no cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out higher) and 14th among safeties on 564 snaps (only Troy Polamalu played fewer snaps and graded out higher). His composite grade would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. 2013 was his best season yet as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety. Primarily a deep safety (9.1% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, fewest in the NFL last season among safeties), he’s New England’s version of Earl Thomas or Jairus Byrd. The Patriots don’t have a perfect secondary, but they have two big-time impact players and a lot of depth. It’s one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were lucky and unlucky in different ways last season. They had an unsustainably high fumble recovery rate (62.50%) and went an absurd 6-1 in games decided by 3 points or fewer. However, they also had the 4th most adjusted games lost in the league and had significant players miss time and/or be limited with injuries (Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo).

They’ve done a good job adding talent this off-season and are a significantly better team than they were for most of last season. They weren’t as good as their 12-4 record suggested they were last season, but now they probably are. I’ll do official record predictions at the end of all my previews, but the Patriots have a very good chance at another high win total as they are one of the most talented teams in the NFL and coached by arguably the best head coach in the NFL. In the last 13 seasons, the Patriots have had 12 seasons of 10+ wins, 11 division titles, 10 seasons of 11+ wins, 8 seasons of 12+ wins, 8 AFC Championships appearance, 5 Super Bowl appearances, and 3 Super Bowl victories. They should be right in that range once again, barring Tom Brady hitting the wall in terms of his abilities.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC East

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Pittsburgh Steelers re-sign C Maurkice Pouncey

I really don’t get this move. When the Browns gave Alex Mack 5 years, 43 million earlier this off-season, I didn’t love it because it’s a lot of money for a center, but I understood it because Mack is probably the best center in the NFL. Giving Maurkice Pouncey 44 million over 5 years (with a 13 million dollar signing bonus), however, doesn’t make any sense. Pouncey is perennially overrated because of the public’s inability to evaluate a center (you can’t exactly blame them).

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. Meanwhile, Alex Mack has been in the top-10 in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league and John Sullivan of the Vikings has been top-3 in each of the last 3 seasons.

Not only that, but Pouncey missed essentially all of last season with injury, going down with a torn ACL week 1. I don’t understand the rush to give him this record deal right now. Let him come back for a season and prove the dominance he’s never shown before paying him this. I can’t imagine the Steelers would have had to pay him more than this as a free agent next off-season and if they would have had to, at that point it’s better to let him leave. This is a serious overpayment for a team with serious cap problems.

Grade: D

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Oakland Raiders 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Raiders went 4-12 last season and even that might have been overachieving, given how poorly managed this franchise had been for years. The Raiders had over 56 million in dead money on their 2013 cap, which left them severely handicapped in free agency. They had a total of one first round pick on their roster from their 2001-2012 drafts, Darren McFadden. Of their top-10 cap numbers last season, 6 were dead money guys, 1 was a kicker, and 1 was a backup quarterback who was cut mid-season. They also were without top offensive player Jared Veldheer for most of the season with injury.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel for the Raiders though. They entered this off-season with the most cap room in the NFL, as a result of all that dead money coming off the cap. They also had yet another top-5 pick. What the Raiders did with that cap space was weird though. Instead of re-signing young building blocks like LaMarr Houston, Vance Walker, and Jared Veldheer, the Raiders went after 30+ year old veterans like Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Donald Penn, Matt Schaub, James Jones, Carlos Rogers, and Antonio Smith.

They did sign Tarell Brown and re-sign Pat Sims, two talented under 30 players, but they’re only signed to one-year deals. Austin Howard is another talented under 30 player, but he’ll probably be playing right guard for some reason, for the first time in his career. They also have failed to extend center Stefen Wisniewski, a talented 2011 2nd round pick, who is in the final year of his contract year.

Outside of Howard, their under 30 talent signed for 2015 and beyond includes #5 overall pick Khalil Mack (who was a very solid pick), 2nd year linebacker Sio Moore, and maybe DJ Hayden, Tyvon Branch, and Derek Carr. Hayden struggled as a first round rookie in 2013. Tyvon Branch is a solid safety when healthy, but he’s coming off of a serious injury. Carr was their 2nd round pick this year. The Raiders might be an improved team this season, but it came at the expense of their long-term success. Their whole off-season just seemed like selling out their future to go 6-10 this season. It’s the kind of philosophy that got this team in this mess, with short sighted trades for Carson Palmer and Richard Seymour made by previous regimes.

Quarterback Matt Schaub, as I mentioned, was one of these over 30 veterans. Schaub was acquired from the Texans for a 6th round pick even though they were just going to release him anyway. The Raiders guaranteed him 8 million dollars for his first year’s salary in his restructured deal, which is almost definitely more than anyone would have guaranteed him on the open market. They’ve been talking him up publicly as a bounce back candidate this off-season, but I’m skeptical.

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. I am hesitant to just assume that a bad 10-game stretch erases his strong play from the previous 69-game stretch.

For example, he had an interception rate of 3.9% last season after a 2.5% interception rate in the rest of his career leading up to last season. It’s hard to judge anyone purely on their interception totals because it’s such a small percentage of their snaps, so it’s can be pretty inconsistent. However, his 6.45 YPA shows a significant loss in arm strength compared to his 7.63 YPA career average. He’s also going into his age 33 season so, while he could bounce back a little bit, his best days are probably behind him. A revival like Philip Rivers had last season is possible, with a change of scenery and coaching staff, but it’s a remote possibility.

The Raiders clearly don’t view Schaub as a long-term solution, and rightfully so, as they drafted Derek Carr in the 2nd round. Carr is unlikely to develop into a starter in the NFL though. Recent successes of Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, and Russell Wilson as quarterbacks drafted outside of the first round are the exception to the rule. Of the 26 quarterbacks drafted in the 2nd-3rd round from 2000-2010, only two of them have ever made a Pro-Bowl. After Drew Brees and Matt Schaub, the next best quarterbacks in terms of career QB rating include the likes of Tarvaris Jackson, Josh McCown, Kevin Kolb, and Chad Henne. For every Wilson, Dalton, or Kaepernick, there are at least three Andrew Walters, David Greenes, Jimmy Clausens, and Drew Stantons.

Quarterbacks are so valuable in the NFL that if you have the baseline abilities to be a starter, you almost never fall out of the 1st round. If you fall out of the first round, there’s usually a good reason for it. With Carr, I believe there was. Carr had a great statistical season as a senior at Fresno State, completing 68.7% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. However, he struggled mightily when pressured, completing 30.9% of his passes under duress last season, according to ESPN stats and information.

He also struggled mightily in Fresno State’s loss in the bowl game to USC, completing 29 of 54 for 216 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, after beating up on weaker competition in the Mountain West all season. As I mentioned, there’s a reason he fell to the 2nd round. Carr could start a few games as a rookie if Schaub struggles, but most likely he’ll take over as the starter in 2015, as the Raiders can get out of Schaub’s deal penalty free this off-season, going into his age 34 season. Either way, the Raiders are unlikely to get good quarterback play this season, though they could easily have better play than last year, when Terrelle Pryor, Matt Flynn, and Matt McGloin combined to complete 57.4% of their passes for an average of 6.99 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

One of the other reasons I don’t see a revitalization from Matt Schaub this season is because he doesn’t have much talent around him. When Philip Rivers had his bounce back year this year, he had an improved offensive supporting cast. The Raiders, meanwhile, probably have less supporting offensive talent than Schaub did last season in Houston. The weakest unit of the Raiders’ offense is at running back, where Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew will split snaps.

McFadden was benched last season for Rashad Jennings mid-season. Jennings rushed for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns on 163 carries (4.50 YPA) and added another 292 yards on 36 catches through the air. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Jennings is now in New York with the Giants on a 4-year, 10 million dollar deal as the Raiders opted to go with another year of Darren McFadden and an aging Maurice Jones-Drew. Jennings, a 2008 7th round pick and career journeyman, might not have had the same season in 2014 with the Raiders had he been kept, but the Raiders are unlikely to be as good on the ground as they were in the 2nd half of last season.

The reason McFadden was benched last season was general incompetence, as he finished the season averaging 3.34 yards per carry. In 2012, he averaged 3.27 yards per carry. He has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.19 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 3 seasons since, he’s played a total of 29 games out of 48 and rushed for just 1700 yards and 11 touchdowns on 446 carries (3.81 yards per carry).

This season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked running back. Even with the big 2010 season, he’s never played more than 13 games in a season or had more than 223 carries or 270 touches. McFadden supporters always seem to make excuses for him, blaming the blocking scheme, and the lack of supporting talent, or injuries, but at a certain point he needs to be written off as a bust. Going into his 6th season in the NFL and his age 27 season, I don’t think he’s a starting caliber running back in the NFL. He was given a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal with 2.25 million extra available through incentives. He’s reportedly the favorite for the starting job, but he and MJD will probably split carries either way.

Maurice Jones-Drew might not be much better. MJD has seen a steep fall from his 2011 season, in which he led the NFL with 1606 rushing yards. That season, he averaged 4.68 yards per carry on 343 carries, added 43 catches for 374 yards, and scored 11 times. He did all of that on an otherwise abysmal offense during Blaine Gabbert’s rookie year, which makes it all the more impressive. That off-season, he demanded a contract that would have paid him among the best running backs in the NFL, holding out almost into the season when the Jaguars didn’t meet his demands.

It turns out that not paying him was one of the best moves the Jaguars have made over the past 5 years. After a 1084 touch workload from 2009-2011, MJD cracked in 2012, managing just 84 carries over 6 years, though he did average 4.81 yards per carry. 2013 was arguably worse as he averaged just 3.43 yards per carry on 234 carries, scored just 5 times on 277 touches, and had just 5 touches go for 20+ yards. Once a candidate to be the highest paid running back in the NFL on his next contract, MJD was met with a frigid market as a free agent going into his age 29 season, signing a 3 year, 7.5 million dollar deal with the Raiders that has just 2.5 million over 1 year guaranteed.

MJD’s rough 2013 season could be largely the result of the complete lack of offensive talent, and thus running room, around him in Jacksonville. However, he averaged just 2.2 yards after contact, broke just 26 tackles, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst running back in terms of pure running grade. Now going into his age 29 season with 2139 career touches, he’s unlikely to get more explosive going into 2014. He also won’t get much more running room in Oakland.

He’ll be an asset for the Raiders on passing downs because he still has strong pass catching and pass blocking skills, catching 43 passes and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in both pass catching grade and pass blocking grade, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd best running back in pass blocking grade. He might not be a better runner than McFadden, which is saying a lot, but he’ll provide some value on passing downs.

The Raiders don’t have many other options at the position either. Latavius Murray is someone they’ve been excited about for the past two off-seasons, but the 2013 6th round pick missed his entire rookie year with injury. Jeremy Stewart is the only other running back on their roster with experience and he only had 37 career touches. The one saving grace of their running game is fullback Marcel Reece, who has been a top-10 fullback on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons, maxing out at #2 in 2012 and coming in at #6 in 2013. He’s a solid blocker who can also contribute in the passing game and running game, with 290 career touches (152 carries, 138 catches). He’s only a power back at 6-1 255, but he has averaged 4.76 yards per carry in his career and is a candidate for carries this season (he had 46 last season). Either way, the Raiders are unlikely to average the 4.58 yards per carry they averaged last season.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Things are better on the offensive line, but they’re still not great. Jared Veldheer was a big loss. He didn’t play much last season, disappointing on 335 snaps after coming back mid-season from a torn triceps injury suffered in the pre-season, so in that sense Donald Penn will be an upgrade, over Khalif Barnes and a little bit of a less than 100% Jared Veldheer. Barnes was Pro Football Focus’ 59th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 11 starts at left tackle and struggled in 5 games at left guard as well.

Donald Penn, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked offensive tackle. That being said, letting Jared Veldheer leave on a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal to Arizona, in favor of signing Donald Penn for 9.2 million over 2 years, was a mistake. It wasn’t a bad value for Penn, but Veldheer was a young building block for a team still in building mode and the Raiders had money to splurge. Veldheer, a 2010 3rd round pick, was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, one of 7 offensive tackles to grade out in the top-17 in both seasons (Joe Thomas, Duane Brown, Eugene Monroe, Tyson Clabo, Michael Roos, Andrew Whitworth). Sure that was sandwiched in between a poor rookie year and an injury plagued contract year, but I have confidence he can continue his strong play on the blindside in Arizona.

Penn, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season, has had issues with his weight, and has shown decline, all of which led to his release from Tampa Bay this off-season. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 16th, 24th, and 31st ranked offensive tackle in the last 3 seasons respectively. He should have another solid season on the blindside left in his tank, but it’s a downgrade from what Veldheer could have been.

Austin Howard was the Raiders’ other big offensive line addition this off-season. Howard has been solid at right tackle for the Jets since taking over the starting job before the 2012 season. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 47th ranked offensive tackle in the last 2 seasons respectively, obviously unspectacular, but getting the job done. He’s been about average or above in each of the last 2 seasons. However, the Raiders have talked about moving him to right guard, where he has no experience, which would be a weird move.

The Raiders’ rationale for doing that was that they would be getting the best five off-season linemen on the field at the same time, but I don’t see another qualified starting right tackle on their roster. Menelik Watson would probably start at right tackle if Howard moved inside. The Raiders used a 2nd round pick on him in 2013, even though he was a few years older than most players in the draft class. He struggled mightily on 177 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he’s already going into his age 26 season so he might not be getting much better. Still, the plan seems to be for him to start at right tackle and Howard to start at right guard.

If Watson continues to struggle though, they could move Howard back to right tackle and start someone else at right guard. That someone else would probably be another veteran free agent addition, Kevin Boothe. Going into his age 31 season, Boothe has been with the Giants for the last 7 seasons, after one season with the Raiders in 2006, after they drafted him in the 6th round in 2006. Boothe has generally struggled in his career, but he’s stuck with the Giants as a reserve offensive lineman because of his ability to play any of the three interior offensive line positions. He’s only been a true starter for 2 seasons and he’s only graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 2 of 6 seasons since 2008. He struggled last season and he’s not getting any better going into his 30s.

Left guard is up for grabs as well. Khalif Barnes is the veteran option. Barnes, as I mentioned earlier, struggled mightily last season at both left tackle and left guard. That’s nothing new as he hasn’t graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in any of the last 6 seasons, including 3 seasons as a starter. He’s been primarily a right tackle and could be an option there. Likewise, the other three competitors for the starting left guard position (Tony Bergstrom, Lucas Nix, and Gabe Jackson) could also see snaps at right guard this season. The offensive line is obviously very much in flux.

Bergstrom was a 3rd round pick in 2012. He played 115 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of last season with injury. He’s already going into his age 28 season as he was another old rookie and he seems like a long shot for any serious playing time. In fact, early reports say he’s more likely to be a final cut than anything. Lucas Nix, meanwhile, was an undrafted free agent in 2012. He played 28 snaps as a rookie and was horrific as a starter in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst guard by a wide margin despite only playing 666 snaps in 10 starts. Finally, Jackson is a 3rd round rookie. It’s definitely a position of weakness.

Center is the only position other than left tackle that’s really set in stone. Stefen Wisniewski is probably their best offensive lineman. A 2011 2nd round pick, Wisniewski has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th and 10th ranked center in the last 2 seasons respectively, after playing left guard as a rookie. The Raiders would be wise to extend him long-term. He, Howard, and Penn are solid offensive linemen, but Howard might be playing a new position, Penn is aging with a history of weight problems, and their options to start at the other two spots are pretty poor. They might be better than last season (when they were 23rd and 28th on Pro Football Focus in team pass block and run block grade), but it’s definitely a unit with issues.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Raiders’ big off-season addition at wide receiver was James Jones. Jones is younger than most of their off-season additions, but even he is going into his age 30 season. Jones isn’t as good as the 14 touchdowns he caught in 2012 would suggest. That rate of 14 touchdowns on 64 catches was unsustainable and he proved that last season when he caught just 3 touchdowns on 59 catches. In his career, he has 37 touchdowns on 310 catches. He’s never put up big numbers despite playing most of his career with either Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre. He’s averaged 1.49 yards per route run in his career, which is pretty mediocre, though his 33 catches for 427 yards and a touchdown in 8 games without Aaron Rodgers last season should give Raiders fans some hope that he can produce with sub-par quarterback play this season. Still, he’s only an average receiver at best.

That being said, he could still be their best receiver. The Raiders have a good amount of receiving depth with a good amount of guys who are solid, but they really lack one dominant wide receiver. Rod Streater, Denarius Moore, Andre Holmes, and Juron Criner will all be in the mix for snaps this season. Streater and Moore will probably compete for the starting job opposite Jones. Streater, a 2012 undrafted free agent, has had two solid seasons in the NFL, averaging 1.69 yards per route run, despite poor quarterback play, including 1.80 yards per carry last season. Now heading into his 3rd season in the NFL, he could have his best year yet.

Moore, meanwhile, has averaged 1.65 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2011, but he’s a pretty one dimensional speedster who hasn’t played a full 16 game season yet and has been in and out of the starting lineup with injuries and other issues. He’s probably best as a #3 receiver, though he’s still a solid receiver. Andre Holmes is another former undrafted free agent, going undrafted in 2011. He had a strong finish to last season, catching 22 passes for 366 yards and a touchdown in his final 5 games and averaging 1.72 yards per route run. Juron Criner only has 19 career catches since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012, but the Raiders reportedly love what he’s doing this off-season. Either way, there’s talent at wide receiver, but not a true game breaker.

Things are better at wide receiver than at tight end. With things so bad at the position last year, Mychal Rivera had to be the primary receiving tight end, despite being a 6th round rookie, beating out fellow 6th round rookie Nick Kasa for the job. Rivera caught 38 passes for 407 yards and 4 touchdowns, while averaging a mediocre 1.20 yards per route run. Rivera split snaps with Jeron Mastrud, a blocking tight end who was mediocre at his job and caught 8 passes. The Raiders frequently ran 3-wide receiver sets as a result of their lack of talent at the position.

Kasa could be better in his 2nd year in the league and get a bigger role and Rivera could improve as a pass catcher, but it looks like things are pretty much going to be the same at the position this season as they didn’t add anything this off-season. They do reportedly have some interest in free agent Jermichael Finley, who is still available into June because he’s coming off of a very serious neck fusion surgery. The receiving corps might be the Raiders’ best offensive unit, but it’s not great.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The defensive line is where the Raiders focused most of their energy this off-season. They did lose LaMarr Houston and Vance Walker which will hurt, but they add veterans like Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, and Antonio Smith. The issue is that all 3 of them are going into their age 30+ seasons and Houston and Walker were talented young players. Houston, now with the Bears, was a 2010 2nd round pick and has been a well above average 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 3 seasons, grading out 19th, 9th, and 11th on Pro Football Focus among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. Walker, now with the Chiefs, was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 36th ranked in 2013, both above average.

Tuck will be Houston’s direct replacement, playing defensive end in base packages and moving inside to defensive tackle in sub packages, a role he played in with the Giants previously. Tuck has obviously had some great seasons, including last season when he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 4-3 defensive end, but he’s going into his age 31 season. He also was just about a league average starter in 2011 and 2012 and missed 5 games and was limited in several others during that time frame.

LaMarr Woodley, going into his age 30 season, will be the starter opposite Tuck. He’ll be an obviously upgrade over Jason Hunter, who started last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end. This will be Woodley’s first experience as a pro in a 4-3, though he played 4-3 defensive end in college at Michigan. Woodley was cut by the Steelers this off-season halfway through a massive 6-year deal because he wasn’t living up to expectations. He has missed 14 games over the last 3 seasons combined, maxing out at 641 snaps, and, while he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of those 3 seasons, he hasn’t graded out higher than 10th among 3-4 outside linebackers, which isn’t what the Steelers signed up for (he was #1 and #5 in 2009 and 2010 respectively). He’s probably a 600-700 snap type player at this stage of his career, provided he can even stay healthy, but when he’s on the field, he should still be a solid player.

When Tuck moves inside to defensive tackle in sub packages, Khalil Mack will move down to the defensive line and rush the passer from the edge, the Von Miller role. Mack was the 5th overall pick in the draft and is probably their most promising young star. Given their lack of young talent, they need him to turn into the star he can become. Sio Moore essentially played that role last season as a 3rd round rookie, playing 206 pass rush snaps. He was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Mack could see closer to 300 pass rush snaps, if not more, as a rookie, and Moore will also see some pass rush snaps, though he’ll focus more on being more of a traditional three-down outside linebacker.

Antonio Smith was the other veteran addition to this defensive line. The 6-3 272 pounder is undersized, going into his age 33 season, and has never played 4-3 defensive tackle in his career. He’s a great pass rusher who has excelled over the past 3 seasons in Wade Phillips’ defense in Houston, grading out 8th, 6th, and 17th in the last 3 seasons respectively among 3-4 defensive ends, including 2nd, 2nd, and 5th in pure pass rush grade. However, he’s shown decline, which is concerning at his age, he struggles against the run, and he hasn’t been as good in his career outside of Wade Phillips’ defense. He was actually Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 73 eligible in 2009. He’ll add to their interior pass rush as an older replacement for Walker, but I expect him to struggle against the run.

Pat Sims will be their other starting defensive tackle and play pretty much primarily in base packages. Sims was a 3rd round pick by the Bengals in 2008 and was a largely irrelevant backup in Cincinnati for 5 years before last season, playing a combined 481 snaps in 2011 and 2012. He broke out in Oakland last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season on 694 snaps, excelling against the run and grading out above average as both a pass rusher and a run stopper. He’s still just a one year wonder at this point, which is why he didn’t draw much interest on the open market, but it was still a smart move by the Raiders bringing him back on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal.

The Raiders also drafted Justin Ellis in the 4th round and the 6-1 334 pounder could contribute in base packages as a rookie if the Raiders decide they want to have Smith focus on being more of a sub package rusher. Stacy McGee, a 2013 6th round pick who struggled on 354 snaps as a rookie, could also be in the mix. The 6-3 310 pounder is more of a run stuffer. The organization seems to be pretty high on him for some reason.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

I already mentioned that Khalil Mack will play strong side linebacker in base packages and move to defensive end in sub packages. Sio Moore, as I also already mentioned, will be moving to more of a three-down role at weakside linebacker and rush the passer from the defensive line sparingly. That could be a very good move. While Moore graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, he actually was below average as a pass rusher and above average both in coverage and as a run stopper. He was 6th in run stopping grade and 10th in coverage grade, though he only had 94 coverage snaps so take that with a grain of salt. Still, he has the potential to breakout as one of the better three down 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL this season.

At middle linebacker, Nick Roach should be the starter for the second straight season, though he could get some competition from Kevin Burnett. Roach was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, struggling mightily against the run, grading out 2nd worst at his position in that facet of the game. He’s never been that great, dating back to his days in Chicago. Burnett, meanwhile, seems like a man without a job right now. He started at 4-3 outside linebacker last season, playing every down and grading out slightly below average. When the Raiders drafted Mack and moved Moore to more of a three down role, it sent Burnett to the 2nd string.

Burnett has had some good years, including 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and 2010, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked middle linebacker, but he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of a down year. If he can’t beat out the younger Roach for the starting job in the middle, he could be cut, which would save the Raiders 2.875 million in cash and cap space. They aren’t exactly pressed for cap space though and he’s still a contributor on running downs, grading out 2nd at his position in run grade last season (2nd worst in coverage). They could rotate him inside with Roach, whose weakness is obviously the run.

Grade: B

Secondary

Arguably the Raiders’ best off-season move was signing Tarell Brown. It was only on a one year deal, but they only are giving him 3.5 million and he’s under 30, which is a refreshing change of pace from the rest of their signings this off-season. Brown has been an above average starter for the 49ers in each of the past 3 seasons, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 13th overall in 2012, including 4th in pure coverage grade.

However, the worst of his 3 seasons as a starter was this season as he “only” graded out 32nd and missed 3 games with a rib injury that limited him upon his return. That’s why he had to settle for this one-year deal, betting on himself rather than taking a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal from San Francisco. He should be an obvious upgrade on Mike Jenkins, assuming he stays healthy. He didn’t miss a game in either 2011 or 2012 so that’s not a serious concern.

He’s probably their best defensive back. DJ Hayden, their 2013 1st round pick, will probably start opposite him. Hayden struggled mightily on 353 snaps as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible in pure coverage grade last season, despite his limited playing time. He was behind the 8-ball from the word go because of injury problems and rookie cornerbacks tend to take a year or so to develop anyway, so he could be better this season, but he also might have been over-drafted at 12th overall. Several league sources believed he was after the 2013 draft. He’s also rehabbing a serious ankle injury this off-season, which won’t help him play catch-up.

The Raiders’ 3rd cornerback is another former-49er, Carlos Rogers. Rogers is another aging veteran, going into his age 33 season. Rogers was a first round pick in 2005 by the Redskins, but he never quite lived up to his draft slot. He’s graded out just about average in every season of his career, with the exception of 2011, his first year in San Francisco. He was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback that season on a one-year deal and earned himself a big 4-year contract.

He’s declined in each of the past 2 seasons, ranking 46th in 2012 and 71st in 2013 (below average), which led to his release this off-season. He was especially bad in coverage, grading 86th out of 110 among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He’s a declining player who had a hard time finding work on the open market this off-season. He’ll definitely play on the slot this season and could even work as the #2 cornerback if Hayden can’t establish himself. Still, the Raiders cornerbacks should be better this season, as Rogers still should be an upgrade on Tracy Porter, Brown should be an upgrade on Mike Jenkins, and DJ Hayden should be at least a little better in his 2nd year in the league.

One other area they should be better at is safety, by virtue of Tyvon Branch returning from injury. Branch played just 66 snaps last season, going down for the season with a leg injury during week 2. Converted cornerback Brandian Cooks took over for him and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked safety in the league last season. Branch isn’t a spectacular player, but he’s better than that, as long as he’s healthy. The 2008 4th round pick graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter from 2009-2012, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked safety in 2011 and missing a combined 2 games over those 4 years.

The other starter will continue to be Charles Woodson, who is old even on a team of old players, as he heads into his age 38 season. The future Hall-of-Famer graded out slightly above average last season, a testament to the type of player he is. The converted cornerback also graded out slightly above average in 2012 with Green Bay, though he did miss 9 games with injury that season. There’s no guarantee he can continue to do that though and the Raiders depth at the position is suspect.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

Woodson is the Raiders’ oldest starter, but he’s hardly their only 30+ starter. They’ll have at least 7 week 1 starters going into their age 30+ season (Matt Schaub, Donald Penn, James Jones, Justin Tuck, Antonio Brown, LaMarr Woodley) and they have another 4 who could be week 1 starters (Carlos Rogers, Kevin Burnett, Khalif Barnes, Kevin Boothe), so they’ll have between 7-11 week 1 starters who are entering their age 30+ season.

They have more talent than they did last season, but they’re still among the lower half of the NFL in terms of talent and this really just seems like them selling out their future for one season of 6-10. They also run the risk of having a significant amount of players show serious decline this season. Their defense is their stronger side of the ball and they could even be an above average unit on that side of the ball if their old defensive line can hold up, but their offense has a lot of issues. I’ll have an official prediction after all of the season previews, but they should be below .500 and near the bottom of the AFC West. One positive thing for them, they have a Vegas wins total of 6 wins or fewer (5 wins). Teams go over the total about 2/3rds of the time in that situation, as it’s very hard to be really bad for a long time. The Raiders have been really bad for a long time though.

Season Prediction: 5-11 4th in AFC West

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Kansas City Chiefs 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

There was a time last season when the Chiefs were sitting pretty atop the NFL at 9-0 that Alex Smith was 29-5-1 in his last 35 starts. People like to give him all the credit for those wins, but in reality, he was lucky enough to face generally easy competition and have a strong running game and defense supporting him, both in San Francisco and Kansas City. In those 35 games, the offenses Smith led averaged about 24.1 points per game, above average, but not terribly impressive considering his offensive supporting cast and the easy schedule he faced.

Still, Kansas City at 9-0 looked like they would at least be what the 2011 49ers were, a 13-3 team that was a bounce of the ball away from the Super Bowl. They weren’t though, as the schedule got tougher. It wasn’t significantly tougher as they still finished the regular season with the #32 schedule of strength in terms of DVOA. However, their schedule to start the season was a joke. Only one of their 9 opponents finished the regular season above .500 and that was Philadelphia, who was still starting Michael Vick at that point. 4 of their 9 opponents finished the season 4-12.

Combined, those 9 teams finished 62-82 (.431) and that doesn’t even tell the whole story. They played 4 teams who were starting backup quarterbacks and had a 5 week stretch in which they faced Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, and Thad Lewis. Despite that, they won just 3 of them by more than 10 points and won two of them by exactly 1 point. The rest of the way, the Chiefs went 2-5 and then lost in the first round of the playoffs in Indianapolis. They finished the regular season with 1 win against a team that finished above .500, that Philadelphia win, as opposed to 6 losses against such teams (including playoffs).

Alex Smith was the main culprit, as he once again showed an inability to push the ball deep downfield and make the throws needed to beat good opponents. He completed just 35 of 92 passes more than 10 yards downfield outside the numbers or more than 20 yards downfield in the middle of the field, including 14 of 45 passes 20+ yards downfield. He’ll need to play better this season as the Chiefs schedule will be harder, by default, and they swap out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West. I don’t know if he can. He’s the type of quarterback that’s only as good as his supporting cast. In terms of passing grade, he was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The bad news for Smith is that his supporting cast is significantly worse this season. The Chiefs went into the off-season with their biggest weakness being at wide receiver. Not only did they not address that position, but they also lost 3 talented offensive linemen, their three best offensive linemen, who combined to make 28 starts last season. They won’t get much immediate help from their rookie class as they used their first round pick on Dee Ford, who will play behind Tamba Hali and Justin Houston and probably won’t start until 2015 when Houston could be gone as a free agent (side note, the Chiefs are going to regret passing on Teddy Bridgewater for Dee Ford and extending Alex Smith over Justin Houston. In a year when the Chiefs are stuck with Smith/Ford instead of Bridgewater/Houston, the Chiefs’ strategy won’t make much sense). They didn’t have a second round pick as they traded it the year before for Alex Smith.

It’s arguable that the Chiefs lost the most talent of any team in the NFL this off-season and nowhere will that be more noticeable than on the offensive line. Branden Albert, who was graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, is now in Miami and the Chiefs will slide Eric Fisher from right tackle to left tackle. He was Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season in 14 starts. Fisher could be better in his 2nd year in the NFL. After all, he was the #1 overall pick in last year’s draft and his natural, collegiate position is left tackle. That being said, he was the #1 overall pick in one of the weakest drafts in recent memory and the blindside is typically a tougher position in the NFL because you aren’t getting tight end help as often and you’re more often getting the opponent’s best pass rusher.

Fisher at left tackle is a minor concern, but the bigger concern is Donald Stephenson at right tackle. Stephenson, a 2012 3rd round pick, has struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play in 2 years in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible on just 377 snaps in 2012 and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible on 543 snaps in 2013. Furthermore, it’s telling about Fisher that, when Branden Albert missed a few games last year, they stuck Stephenson at left tackle instead of Fisher. If, for whatever reason, they do that going into 2014, they’re in even more trouble. Fisher should be able to lock down the left tackle job ahead of Stephenson, who isn’t qualified to protect a quarterback’s blindside in the NFL.

At guard, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah are gone, but Jeff Allen remains. That’s not a good thing though. While Schwartz and Asamoah were Pro Football Focus’ 8th and 20th ranked guards respectively last season, Allen was 61st out of 81 eligible. He struggled in 2012 as well, as the then 2nd round rookie graded out as the 3rd worst player at his position. He’ll start at left guard.

Sadly, he’s probably their top guard. Opposite him, Jeff Linkenbach is penciled in and will probably begin the season as the starter, out of lack of alternatives, not on merit. Linkenbach has graded out well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010, struggling at both guard and tackle. His only season as a full-time starter was in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus 7th worst ranked offensive tackle. He was under-qualified as a 6th, swing offensive lineman in Indianapolis last year and he’s definitely under-qualified as a starter. The Chiefs’ alternatives include Rokevious Watkins, a 2012 5th round pick of the Rams who has struggled in limited action thus far, and Laurent Duverney-Tardif, a raw 6th round rookie from Canada.

The only stable position on the offensive line for the Chiefs is center, where Rodney Hudson is the starter. Hudson, a 2011 2nd round pick, graded out about average on Pro Football Focus last season as their 17th ranked center in his first full-year as a starter, after converting from guard. He was also very solid in 3 starts in 2012 before going down for the season with injury. That being said, when he’s your best offensive lineman, and he very well could be, you’re in big trouble.

The Chiefs were 10th in the NFL in pass block efficiency last season. This season, they could easily be among the worst in the NFL in that facet, especially when you consider that their schedule will be tougher this season. That’s an issue considering Alex Smith completed 46.1% of his passes under pressure last season. They also will have more trouble opening up holes for Jamaal Charles than they did last season, when they were Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked team in terms of team run blocking grade.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned earlier that the Chiefs’ biggest weakness going into the off-season was their receiving corps. This was clear as Jamaal Charles, their starting running back, led the team in receiving yards, catching 70 passes for 693 yards and 7 touchdowns, all team leaders. Charles is a fantastic pass catching back, but they need someone else to step up as a receiving threat, particularly down the field.

Dwayne Bowe is supposed to be that guy, after the Chiefs gave him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal before last season, after franchise tagging him the off-season before. Bowe has always been able to put up big numbers, catching 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career before last season, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. However, last year with Smith, arguably the best quarterback he’s ever played with, he managed just 57 passes for 673 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Part of it was just that Alex Smith’s limited arm strength meant that he didn’t look often to the parts of the field to which Bowe often ran his routes last season, but part of it is on Bowe. He got 101 targets last season, which should have been more than enough for Bowe to establish himself as a threat more often. After finally getting a long-term deal, it looked like Bowe, who has a history of issues with motivation, let himself get out of shape a little bit and wasn’t always giving 100%. He’s also is going into his age 30 season so age is a bit of a concern. He’s reportedly changing his diet to try to stay in better shape for next season, which could help him, but I’m not expecting him to become a big-time receiving threat again in 2014.

Sadly, Bowe is still by far their best wide receiver. Donnie Avery, out of necessity, will be the other starting receiver again. Avery had a solid rookie year as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but a bunch of leg injuries that limited him to 3 catches in 8 games combined in 2010 and 2011 have really taken their toll on him. He appeared to have revitalized his career in 2012 in Indianapolis, where he caught a career high 60 passes for a career high 781 yards to go with 3 touchdowns, but he was actually one of the most inefficient receivers in the NFL. He graded 100th out of 105 eligible at his position on Pro Football Focus, had his position’s 3rd highest drop rate among eligible receivers (12 drops to 60 catches) and ranked 70th out of 82 eligible in QB rating when thrown to, catching those 60 passes on 112 targets with 3 interceptions to those 3 touchdowns. Last year, he wasn’t much better, grading out 105th out of 111 eligible.

In addition to not upgrading the wide receiver position, the Chiefs also lost slot receiver Dexter McCluster this off-season. He was a solid part of their offense and Alex Smith enjoyed checking down to him. He caught 53 passes for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and more than half of his yards per reception (5.1 per catch) came after the catch. AJ Jenkins and Junior Hemingway are now their top receivers on the depth chart after Avery. Hemingway, a 2012 7th round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 102nd ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season despite playing just 315 snaps. It’s hard to expect much more from him this season.

AJ Jenkins, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2012, but didn’t catch a pass in his rookie year in San Francisco and was traded to the Chiefs for another former first round pick bust Jonathan Baldwin last off-season. He only caught 8 passes last season, but he’s a better fit in Andy Reid’s offense than he was in Jim Harbaugh’s and he had a decent week 17 when the Chiefs rested their starters, as he caught 3 passes for 67 yards. Still, it would be very much wishful thinking for the Chiefs to expect him to have a 3rd year breakout year. He was a surprise first round pick to begin with and really looks like he never deserved to be drafted that high. If he develops enough to take Avery’s starting job, the Chiefs should count that as a win, but I’m not even sure he can do that. DeAnthony Thomas, a 4th round rookie, is a gadget player and slot option who is a long-shot for serious playing time. The Chiefs have a lot of problems at wide receiver. It’s slim pickings for Alex Smith.

Things aren’t much better at tight end. Alex Smith has to be missing Vernon Davis, a dominant tight end who he loved throwing to in San Francisco. Smith loves throwing short and over the middle, but doesn’t have anyone who can even come close to dominating in that part of the field. Anthony Fasano is the incumbent starter and will probably keep his starting job, but he only caught 23 passes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns last season and didn’t excel as a blocker.

Travis Kelce was the Chiefs’ 2013 3rd round pick. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie because of injury and, as much upside as he may have in terms of pass catching ability, he’s still completely unproven on the field. Sean McGrath, a 2012 undrafted free agent, also got in the mix last season, catching 26 passes for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Chiefs also do a fair amount of throwing to the fullback, as Anthony Sherman caught 18 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. He also graded out as by far Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked blocking fullback and #1 ranked fullback overall. And, of course, the Chiefs also throw a lot to Jamaal Charles. Overall though, it’s a very weak unit for the Chiefs.

Grade: C

Running Backs

I already mentioned the Chiefs’ dominant fullback Anthony Sherman and Jamaal Charles prowess as a pass catcher, but he’s also a hell of a runner as well. He’s the one saving grace of the Chiefs’ offense. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best running back in football. His 5.58 career yards per carry are the highest all-time by a modern era running back (1960-today). Jim Brown comes in 2nd and even the legendary Brown averaged “just” 5.22 yards per carry.

Last season, Charles averaged 4.97 yards per carry on 259 yards, rushing for 1287 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to what he did as a pass catcher. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back overall (behind LeSean McCoy) and 4th ranked in pure running grade (behind McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson). In 2012, on a bad team and a year removed from a torn ACL, he averaged 5.29 yards per carry on 285 carries, rushing for 1509 yards and 5 touchdowns, a season that would have gotten much more recognition if the Chiefs had been better and if Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning hadn’t had more impressive comeback seasons. Charles will probably never be a 300+ carry back under Andy Reid, but the Chiefs pass to the running back enough to make up for it.

There are some concerns here though. I already mentioned the Chiefs’ declining offensive line in front of him. It’s also just very tough to count on your star running back to do everything on offense. The 5-10 200 pound back now has 649 touches in 2 seasons back from that torn ACL and he could be wearing out a little bit going into his age 28 season. If anything happens to him, the Chiefs’ insurance policy is Knile Davis, a 2013 3rd round pick who had 88 total carries (regular season and post-season) as a rookie and rushed for 309 yards (3.51 yards per carry) and 5 touchdowns, while adding 18 catches for 108 yards. He’s basically just a goal line, short yardage back and the Chiefs would obviously be in trouble if he had to become the lead back. Most likely Charles stays healthy, has another dominant year, and tries to carry this offense, but the concerns with having a running back being such a big part of your offense needed to be mentioned.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Chiefs had big losses on offense this off-season, they didn’t lose much on defense. Tyson Jackson was probably their biggest loss as the former 3rd overall pick finally had a strong year in his contract year in 2013, only to sign with Atlanta this off-season. The Chiefs made the right move letting him sign for more than he was worth in Atlanta (5-year, 25 million), as he’s still a one year wonder who could coast now that he’s been paid and he’s also only a part-time, one-dimensional player, as good as he is against the run (10th among 3-4 defensive ends in run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013). They got better value by signing Vance Walker for 3 years, 13 million, even if he might not be as good as Jackson was last season.

Unlike the one-dimensional, specialized Jackson, Walker is equally solid as a run stopper and a pass rusher. He won’t be as good as Jackson was against the run in base packages, but he’ll play some sub packages, which Jackson never did. That will cut into some Allen Bailey’s and Dontari Poe’s snaps, which isn’t a bad thing because the former, a situational sub package rusher, ironically struggled as a pass rusher last season and did his best work against the run. Meanwhile, the latter played an absurd 66.9 snaps per game last season at 6-3 346 and could use more frequent breathers. Walker was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 36th ranked in 2013, both above average. One concern is that he’s never played in a 3-4 as a pro and at 6-2 305, he seems like a bit of an odd fit in the Chiefs’ defensive scheme.

Opposite Walker, Mike DeVito is essentially a more consistently, better version of Tyson Jackson, a pure base defensive end who excels against the run. Playing just 446 snaps, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher, and he was 4th in pure run grade. In 2012, he was 9th at his position on 554 snaps, including 7th in pure run grade. In 2011, he was 9th at his position on 414 snaps, including 5th in pure run grade. In 2010, he was 6th at his position on 552 snaps, including 2nd in pure run grade. Somehow, only Calais Campbell has also graded out top-10 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 4 seasons and DeVito is doing it despite playing only half the snaps. He’ll see almost no snaps in sub packages this year with Vance Walker, Dontari Poe, and, to an extent, Allen Bailey rotating at defensive tackle in sub packages.

Speaking of Poe, I mentioned he played an absurd amount of snaps last year. His 1004 snaps played led all defensive tackles and he did it in 15 games, despite being a monstrous 6-3 346. Only 5 other defensive linemen played that many snaps last season. The nose tackle stayed on the field for almost every single sub package snap, which is incredibly rare and incredibly impressive. He played every single snap in 5 games and missed 63 snaps all season, excluding the week 17 game in which the Chiefs rested their starters. In the playoff loss to Indianapolis, he dominated, while playing 59 of 67 possible snaps.

The 2012 1st round pick broke out last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked defensive tackle. He excelled against the run, but also played well as a pass rusher, despite his massive size. The big man has rare movement abilities. In his 3rd year in the league, only his age 24 season, he could be even better. He’ll probably be more efficient at the very least if they can get him a few more breathers, though he’s not exactly someone you want to take off the field.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned earlier the Chiefs’ deadly combination of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali at rush linebacker. Hali might be better known, but Houston is actually the better of the two linebackers. A 3rd round pick in 2011, Houston only fell because of a failed drug test at the combine. His off-the-field issues have been a non-factor in his career thus far, which has allowed him to dominate off the edge. He first proved his worth in 7 late season starts as a rookie, a stretch in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 7 games. Despite issues in coverage (worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage in 2011), he still graded out 13th at his position that season on 773 snaps, including 10th as a pass rusher and 5th as a run stopper.

That allowed Houston to lock down the starting job going into 2012, which was his breakout year on an otherwise abysmal 2-14 Chiefs team. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out above average in coverage, as a pass rusher, and against the run, while committing just 1 penalty all season. Meanwhile, teammate Tamba Hali graded out 15th at the position. Houston continued his strong play in 2013, which was his best season as a pro.

Despite missing 5 ½ games with an injury, Houston still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and would have been in the running for Defensive Player of the Year had he stayed healthy. Prior to his injury, he missed 7 snaps all season. His most dominant performances were week 3 against Philadelphia, when he had 7 tackles for a stop (within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down), including 4 sacks, and week 11 against Denver, when he had 10 total tackles, including 8 for a stop. If the Chiefs did draft Dee Ford in order to be Houston’s replacement long-term, freeing up money to extend Alex Smith long-term, rather than taking Teddy Bridgewater to be Alex Smith’s replacement and locking up Houston long-term, they’re going to really regret it. He’s one of the best players in football.

Hali opposite him is the “other” pass rusher, which tells you how good the Chiefs are at the rush linebacker position. There might not be a better pair of rush linebackers in the NFL and they might be the best pair of edge rushers in general, regardless of scheme. Hali was “only” Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. He was 15th in 2012, in a down year, but otherwise he’s been a dominant edge rusher since converting to rush linebacker in 2009.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th, 1st, and 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively. In 2010, he had arguably the most impressive season in terms of purely rushing the passer of any player in the last 5 years as he had 17 sacks, 16 hits, and 64 hurries on 543 pass rush snaps, an absurd 17.9% rate (basically he was pressuring the quarterback on more than a 1/6 of his pass rush snaps).

The biggest issue with Hali is his age as he goes into his age 31 season. He’s shown some small signs of decline over the past two seasons and, if he has a down year this year, (completely possible considering guys like Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, and Dwight Freeney have done similar things at similar points in their careers) Hali could be a cap casualty going into 2015. The Chiefs would save 9 million in cash and cap space by cutting him going into what would be his age 32 contract year, which would allow the Chiefs to re-sign Houston.

Either way, with the Chiefs drafting Dee Ford in the first round, it looks like this could very well by the final year of Houston/Hali on the edge for the Chiefs. As a rookie, Ford will work purely as a depth player, which was a need as Frank Zombo was previously their primary reserve, and he’s pretty mediocre. However, he’s unlikely to provide the immediate value for the Chiefs that they need considering all they lost this off-season.

At middle linebacker, the Chiefs have another stud linebacker, Derrick Johnson. Johnson doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Luke Kuechly, but he’s in that same class of player. Mr. Reliable, Johnson has been a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons, something only Patrick Willis himself can also say. Last season, he was 3rd. Even in 2009, the last season he was outside of the top-5, he graded out 8th and did it on 344 snaps.

Todd Haley did a lot of things wrong in Kansas City, but his biggest success was his ability to bring the most out of Johnson, a 2005 1st round pick, with discipline and toughness. Haley benched Johnson during 2009 for a variety of reasons and that served as a much needed wakeup call. He hasn’t looked back since. Even going into his age 32 season, he could easily have another strong season, as he’s yet to really show signs of aging, though his age is beginning to become a concern.

The only issue in the linebacking corps for the Chiefs is the other middle linebacker spot inside next to Johnson. Joe Mays is penciled in at that spot after the Chiefs lost yet another starter, Akeem Jordan, to free agency. Jordan wasn’t spectacular or anything as a part-time player and two down run stuffer, but he did grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked middle linebacker in run grade last season on just 489 snaps.

It’s not a particularly important position as it’s only a two-down position. Eric Berry usually comes down towards the line of scrimmage as a box safety in sub packages and essentially plays linebacker, with the Chiefs going to 3 safeties. However, Mays should be a downgrade. A 2008 6th round pick, Mays has graded out slightly below average in each of the last 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus, functioning as a fringe starter in both Denver and Houston. His strength is the run, but he’s not what Jordan was last season. Their other option is 2013 4th round pick Nico Johnson, who played 17 snaps as a rookie. He’s a long-shot for the starting job.

Grade: A

Secondary

Speaking of Eric Berry, the safety/linebacker is Kansas City’s best defensive back. The 5th overall pick in 2010, Berry was overrated for a while, undeservedly making the Pro-Bowl in both 2010 and 2012. Berry played well as a rookie in 2010, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety, but he wasn’t Pro-Bowl caliber. He could have broken out as Pro-Bowl caliber in 2011, but he tore his ACL 5 snaps into the season. He was solid again in 2012, upon his return, grading out about average on Pro Football Focus, but he still wasn’t Pro-Bowl caliber and still didn’t appear to be reaching his full potential.

In 2013, his 4th year in the league, Berry did reach his potential, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety and deservedly making the Pro-Bowl. Now completely healthy with 1 game missed in his other 3 seasons (a meaningless week 17 game last year), Berry is going into his age 26 contract year and should have another solid season. By virtue of frequently playing as a sub package linebacker, Berry primarily lines up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage (69.7% of snaps in 2013, 3rd in the NFL). That being said, coverage is still his strong suit. The only issue with him playing linebacker often is that it takes arguably their best coverage back out of the secondary in sub packages, but he can still add to their coverage in a significant way from middle linebacker.

The Chiefs lost a lot of depth at safety this off-season. None of the guys they lost were particularly good, but they need as much depth as possible given how often they use 3 safeties. Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps both graded out slightly below average last season on 1079 and 665 snaps respectively, but that depth will be missed. Husain Abdullah will now be the #2 safety. He was decent on 294 snaps last season after being out of the league in 2012 for religious reasons. He was a solid starter in Minnesota before that and is still younger than 30.

The bigger concern is their 3rd safety. There are five options. Malcolm Bronson was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and didn’t play at all as a rookie. Daniel Sorensen is an undrafted free agent rookie. Sanders Commings, a tweener cornerback/safety at 6-0 216, played 3 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season. Jerron McMillan actually has experience. The 2012 4th round pick was solid as a rookie on 609 snaps as a rookie in Green Bay, but struggled mightily on 196 snaps in 2013, leading to his release. He was a week 1 starter, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst safety last season despite his very limited playing time, if he was eligible. The fourth option is to convert one of their cornerbacks to safety in sub packages. Phillip Gaines, a 6-0 193 pound 3rd round rookie, is one option and Sean Smith, a 6-3 215 pounder, also has some safety experience.

The only way that could happen is if the Chiefs don’t cut Brandon Flowers. The Chiefs can get out of his 7.5 million dollar salary and spread out his 7 million dollar cap hit over two seasons if they cut him today as a post-June 1st cut, which is reportedly a consideration for them. That would save them 7.25 million on the cap. Trading him would reportedly be their preference. 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.

However, he struggled mightily in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, including 96th in pure coverage grade. Ironically, he somehow made the first Pro-Bowl of his career in 2013. If they keep him, he could have a bounce back year, but he might just be a horrible scheme fit under Don Sutton, who took over as defensive coordinator last season and generally did a great job. Flowers could be a bargain signing in the right scheme if he’s let go.

Sean Smith will slot in as the other starter. He had a strong season in 2010, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, but he had a horrible season in 2011, grading out 105th out of 109 eligible. Over the past two seasons, he’s settled in as an average starting cornerback, which is what he really is. Marcus Cooper is currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback. Cooper, a 7th round rookie, got off to a great start to his career, but got exposed down the stretch, including a 3 week span in which he allowed 454 receiving yards. He ended up finishing the season grading out slightly below average. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He could be pushed by 3rd round rookie Phillip Gaines. Gaines would also have a big role if they were to move on from Flowers. And, as I mentioned, one of their cornerbacks could play safety part-time. The secondary is the weakest part of an overall strong defense.

Grade: B

Overall

Everything suggests the Chiefs will decline this season. Teams that have big win improvements tend to decline by about half the win improvement total from the previous season. The Chiefs won 2 games in 2012 and 11 games in 2013, a 9 game win improvement. Obviously the addition of Alex Smith and Andy Reid had something to do with that, but the rest of the team is pretty much the same. History suggests they’ll decline by about 4 or 5 wins, which would put them right around the win total they had in 2011, when they went 7-9. That seems about right.

That’s not the only thing I’m basing my decline theory on though. The Chiefs were not as good as their record suggested last season. They played the league’s easiest schedule in terms of DVOA, which doesn’t even take into account the number of teams they faced who were starting backup quarterbacks. Now they trade out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West. They also suffered an unsustainably low amount of injuries, with the fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL last season. Yes, they did lose Justin Houston for 5 ½ games which hurt, but their other key players, Derrick Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, Dontari Poe, Alex Smith, Dwayne Bowe, and Mike Devito missed a combined 1 game between them last season, excluding the finale, in which the Chiefs rested their starters. That much injury luck is unlikely to happen again.

The Chiefs were also overly reliant on winning the turnover margin, with an AFC best +18 turnover margin. Winning the turnover margin consistently is hard to do, unless you have a top quarterback, and even then it’s hard. 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. These things are unpredictable. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to have success the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. The Chiefs are unlikely to recover 58.70% of fumbles again next season, 4th best in the NFL. The tougher schedule and the fact that they’ll likely have more injuries will also play a role in this.

In addition to the Chiefs not being as good as their record last season, they also have less talent than last season, because of all of their off-season losses. They lost their 3 most talented offensive linemen, who combined for 26 starts last season. They also lost valuable depth at wide receiver, safety, and middle linebacker. They’re unlikely to get much out of their rookie class this season, as their first round pick was used with 2015 in mind and they didn’t have a 2nd round pick. In terms of pure talent level, I have them closer to the bottom of the league than the top. Every year, one team goes from in the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer. The Chiefs are a prime candidate to do so if enough things go wrong. I’ll have an official prediction at the end of all the previews.

Season Prediction: 5-11 3rd in AFC West

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San Diego Chargers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After posting QB ratings of 100+ for 3 straight seasons from 2008-2010, Rivers saw his QB rating drop into the 80s in both 2011 and 2012. There were rumors of injuries and age, going into his age 32 season, was also seen as a factor. Aging, with just 2 years left on his deal, there was talk that the Chargers could draft a quarterback of the future behind Rivers. He wasn’t supposed to improve going into 2013. Instead, Rivers found the fountain of youth in 2013, completing 69.5% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, a QB rating of 105.5, tying his career high.

He led the Chargers to the playoffs with a record of 9-7, pulling an upset in Cincinnati in the first round, and came within a touchdown of knocking off the Broncos in Denver in the next round, which would have been the second time the Chargers won in Denver last season. The Chargers were able to do this despite a defense that ranked 28th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.36% rate, because Rivers led an offense that was 2nd in the NFL moving the chains at a 78.26% rate. Only Denver (81.09%) was better and the Chargers were over a percent better than third place New Orleans (76.98%).

How was Rivers able to turn it around? Well, for one, a new coaching staff led by offensive minded Head Coach Mike McCoy and talented offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt replaced the old Norv Turner led staff. McCoy and Whisenhunt built an offense more suited to Rivers’ strengths and the benefits were obvious. Rivers also had more talent around him. In the pre-season last year, I did a list of the top-200 players in the NFL. The Chargers had just one, safety Eric Weddle, the fewest in the NFL. They didn’t have a single one on the offensive side of the ball. Former GM AJ Smith screwed up the Chargers’ last few drafts horribly and didn’t do much to remedy the situation in free agency.

New GM Tom Telesco did a great job in his first off-season with the team, despite not much to work with. Drafting DJ Fluker in the first round helped, but the real steals were getting Keenan Allen in the 3rd round getting and King Dunlap and Danny Woodhead on cheap contracts in free agency. The Chargers also got vintage years from aging veterans Antonio Gates and Nick Hardwick and a breakout year from former first round pick Ryan Mathews. The defense was still a mess, as I mentioned earlier, but the offense was fantastic last season. Rivers did a fantastic job with a solid, but unspectacular offensive supporting cast and was, in my mind, the non-Peyton Manning MVP of last season.

Rivers and the Chargers’ offense might not be as good this season and fall back to earth a little bit. Rivers is going into his age 33 season coming off of a career year. Ken Whisenhunt is now the head coach in Tennessee. However, the offense will be the strength of the team. If they make the playoffs again, it’ll be on the strength of their offense. They will probably have to play noticeably better defensively to make the playoffs again.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned Keenan Allen earlier. Out of anyone outside of Philip Rivers, he was their most valuable player last season. Allen was seen as a likely first round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft going into the 2012 season, after catching 98 passes for 1343 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2011, but a down 2012 season (61/737/6) caused by knee problems plus a 4.77 40 time dropped him to the 3rd round.

The Chargers wisely picked him up and even though he didn’t play at all week 1 and didn’t move into the starting lineup until week 4, he still caught 71 passes for 1046 yards and 8 touchdowns as a rookie. Rookie wide receivers aren’t supposed to get it this quickly. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Allen blew those numbers out of the water and he was a 3rd round pick. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and didn’t come close to what Keenan Allen did this year as rookies (58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively). Allen continued this strong play into the post-season, where he caught 8 passes for 163 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 games.

Allen did all of this despite “only” running 510 pass snaps and seeing the bulk of the defense’s attention as a #1 wide receiver as a rookie. He averaged 2.06 yards per route run, which was 15th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers, between Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant. And it wasn’t like the Chargers were forcing him the ball. Allen’s 101 targets were 31st in the NFL (he caught 70.3% of them) and Philip Rivers had a 118.1 QB rating throwing to Allen, which was 7th best in the NFL in terms of wide receiver QB rating when thrown to. That’s a big part of the reason why Rivers was able to post a 105.5 QB rating in general and why the Chargers’ offense was so good last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked wide receiver overall and 8th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade.

Allen doesn’t have a ton of long-term upside because of his relatively limited athleticism. Billed as a pro ready wide receiver, Allen isn’t a phenomenal athlete and I see him more as an Anquan Boldin or Marques Colston type long-term (non-first round pick wide receivers who had 1000+ yard rookie seasons) rather than an AJ Green type (first round pick wide receiver who had a 1000+ yard rookie season). Colston and Boldin are both big bodied receivers who never really improved significantly over their strong rookie years, though both still have had fantastic careers. However, Allen should be even more productive this season simply by virtue of the fact that he’ll play more this season. An extra 50 routes run should be another 100 yards. I could see him in the 1100-1200 yard range this season, even if he doesn’t improve much in terms of his pure abilities.

Outside of Allen, they don’t have a ton of talent in the receiving corps though. Antonio Gates turned in a vintage season last year, thanks to the new coaching staff, Rivers’ improved play, more talent around him, and suddenly solid health injury wise. Gates caught 77 passes for 872 yards and 4 touchdowns, his highest receiving total since 2009 and played all 16 games, something else he hadn’t done since 2009. He averaged 1.59 yards per route run (on 549 routes run), 13th among tight ends and he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked tight end in pass catching grade, though he was horrible as a blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst in that regard.

He could have another solid season, but now he heads into his age 34 season. His 2012 season in which he caught 49 passes for 538 yards and 7 touchdowns is still fairly recent and relevant. He also missed 10 games from 2010-2012. If he starts to show his age more, it’ll probably be more snaps for Ladarius Green, a 2012 4th round pick and Gates’ heir apparent. Green only ran 141 routes last season, but impressed, catching 17 passes for 376 yards and 3 touchdowns, an average of 2.67 yards per route run.

If he had played enough snaps to qualify, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end last season, despite his limited playing time (370 snaps). He averaged an absurd 22.1 yards per catch (including 9.3 yards after catch per catch) and established himself as a dangerous weapon in the seam. His experience is still limited (409 career snaps) and the 6-6 240 pounder isn’t much of an inline blocker, but the future still seems bright for him, especially if Gates starts struggling and Green starts getting more playing time as a result. John Phillips, meanwhile, is their 3rd tight end their blocking specialist, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL suffered in December. When healthy, he’s alright at what he does.

Opposite Keenan Allen at wide receiver, things aren’t great. Vincent Brown was the starter last season and will probably continue to serve in that role this season. The 2011 3rd round pick was a popular breakout candidate going into 2012, after flashing as a rookie and in Training Camp, but broke his ankle in the pre-season and missed the entire season. He was healthy last season, but, in his 3rd year in the league, didn’t prove to be anything more than a marginal starter at best. He caught 41 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown on 518 routes run, 0.91 yards per route run, 88th out of 94 eligible. Much of that had to do with him just not being targeted a ton and he did catch 63.1% of his targets and grade out about average on Pro Football Focus, but he’s not a real asset in the passing game.

Eddie Royal will continue being the slot specialist. He ran 437 routes last season and 85.8% of them were on the slot, the 5th highest percentage in the NFL. His 8 touchdowns were impressive, but it’s ultimately unsustainable for a 5-10 slot specialist to continue averaging 8 touchdowns per 47 catches (10 touchdowns on his other 229 career touchdowns). He took those 47 catches for 631 yards, 1.43 yards per route run, which is pretty middle of the pack, though he did grade out above average on Pro Football Focus, catching 71.2% of his targets. Royal had a strong rookie year in Denver in 2008, catching 91 passes for 980 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he managed just 138 catches over the next 4 seasons combined before finally finding a fit last year in Mike McCoy’s offense. He’ll continue being solid in that role, but he’s a specialized player.

Malcom Floyd is the wild card in the receiving mix if he can come back from a serious neck injury. That’s up for debate though and it’s looking like 50/50 that he even plays next season, in what would be his age 33 season. Even when he was younger and healthier, Floyd was a marginal receiver, never going above 856 yards receiving, even in an explosive San Diego offense. He’s also only played in 90 games over 10 seasons in his career. He’s unlikely to contribute much this season. Overall, the Chargers’ receiving corps is only solid. Keenan Allen is one of the top receivers in the NFL and maybe Antonio Gates has another good year left in him or Ladarius Green can break out, but other than that there’s not much to be excited about. Philip Rivers still has the ability to get the most out of them though.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned King Dunlap earlier as one of the steals of the off-season for new Chargers GM Tom Telesco. Dunlap took a lot of heat in Philadelphia in 2012, when the 2008 7th round pick and career backup took over for an injured Jason Peters at left tackle. Dunlap was blamed for a lot of the Eagles’ problems on the offensive line and on the team in general. In reality, he actually played pretty well, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus, including 21st in pass blocking. Though he was a weak run blocker, he only allowed 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 18 hurries on 838 snaps, despite Michael Vick’s tendency to hold the ball too long.

The Chargers were able to get him on a 2-year, 3.95 million dollar deal and he proved to be more than worth it after he won the starting job in Training Camp. Despite missing 5 games with injury, Dunlap graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, allowing 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 13 hurries. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He was a huge part of why the Chargers were able to turn around what was the #31 pass blocking offensive line in terms of pass block efficiency in 2012. They still weren’t great (24th), but it was enough of an improvement to help Rivers look like his old self again. Dunlap might not be quite as good in 2014, but he could also be even better if he’s able to stay healthy and on the field for more games.

DJ Fluker was another big addition upfront. The 11th pick in the draft, Fluker graded out about average on Pro Football Focus, which was better than anything they’ve had at the position in a while. He was a better run blocker than pass protector, but he held his own in pass protection. Going into his age 2nd year in the NFL, only his age 23 season, the massive 6-5 319 pound bruiser could easily be better and is an obvious breakout candidate. He started last season strong, but struggled when forced to move to left tackle when Dunlap was hurt. He’s much better on the right side, his collegiate position.

The other big “improvement” on the offensive line for the Chargers from 2012 to 2013 was at center. There wasn’t a personnel change as Nick Hardwick remained the starting center, but the aging veteran had a vintage season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center. He has a history of being a solid center, grading out 17th in 2010 and 14th in 2011, but he graded out 31st out of 36 eligible in 2012. It’s possible 2012 was just an aberration and centers certainly can have longer careers than most positions, but it is hard to trust he’ll definitely have another solid season, now going into his age 33 season.

The Chargers’ biggest weakness upfront is at guard. Left guard isn’t quite as big of a problem. Chad Rinehart graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus last season. He could be better in 2014. After all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked guard in 2011. That being said, that was his only other season as a full-time starter as he’s struggled with injury problems throughout his career. He played in 15 games in 2011, but he’s never played all 16 games. Last season, he played 11 games. He’s still probably locked in as a starter.

At right guard, Jeromey Clary might not be locked in. A below average right tackle earlier in his career, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2011, the Chargers moved the aging Clary to right guard in hopes of making life easier for him inside and turning him into a solid starter. That didn’t work out as Clary graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible, despite making just 11 starts at the position (he made 4 starts at right tackle, where he wasn’t much better). Now going into his age 31 season, he could lose his starting job. The Chargers can save 4.55 million in cash and cap space if they cut him going into his contract year.

The issue is they don’t really have anyone to replace him. Johnnie Troutman is their reserve guard and 6th offensive lineman. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2012 thanks to injury, after getting drafted in the 5th round. However, he played quite a bit last season, seeing 648 snaps and making 9 starts (when Clary moved to right tackle and when Rinehart was hurt). He struggled mightily though, grading out as Pro Football Focus 59th ranked guard out of 81 eligible despite the somewhat limited playing time. He’d be cheaper than Clary, but he might not be an upgrade. Another option is 3rd round rookie Chris Watt, but it’s hard to trust a 3rd round rookie. It’s still an improved offensive line from 2012, but they have issues.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Ryan Mathews will continue being the lead back. Mathews was the 12th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft after the Chargers traded up for him. He had a disappointing first 3 years in the league, struggling to stay on the field (missing 10 games in 3 seasons) and totaling 564 carries from 2010-2012. However, he finally put it all together in 2013, rushing for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 carries (4.40 yards per carry) and playing all 16 games. He didn’t contribute much in the passing game (26 catches), but he’s shown pass catching ability in the past (50 catches in 2011). He graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. Mathews could have another solid season in 2014, but he could just as easily get hurt.

The Chargers did sign insurance for Mathews in the form of Donald Brown. It was an odd signing as Brown was one of the market’s top running backs and got one of the highest annual salaries on the open market this off-season (3 years, 10.5 million, 4 million guaranteed), but the Chargers didn’t have a real need at running back and didn’t have a ton of cap space to work with. Still, he was reasonably paid and will provide insurance as a backup. He’s expected to get about 5-10 touches per game, at least as long as Mathews is healthy.

Donald Brown has never had more than 150 touches in a season since being drafted in the 1st round in 2009. He averages 4.3 yards per carry for his career and he’s a liability on passing downs as he doesn’t offer much as a pass catcher or pass protector. He had a strong contract year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, catching 27 passes for 214 yards and scoring a total of 7 times. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked running back and ranked 1st in elusive rating. That being said, that was on only 102 carries and 379 total snaps and, given his history, it’s a major leap to suggest he could be a consistently successful lead back if needed. He’s probably best off in this backup role.

Neither Brown nor Mathews showed much as a pass catcher last season, but that’s fine because the Chargers have Danny Woodhead as a pass catching specialist. He caught 76 passes last season on 302 routes run for 609 receiving yards, an average of 2.02 yards per route run, 4th among eligible running backs. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade. Only 7 targets thrown to him were incomplete.

He was a big part of the reason why the Chargers were able to turn it around and have a strong offensive year last year. He was Darren Sproles 2.0 for the Chargers, a big part of their short, quick throw offense, something they and Philip Rivers had been missing badly since Sproles left. He’s not much of a rusher though. Woodhead had 106 carries last season, a career high, but only rushed for 4.05 yards per carry. Brown will eat into his carries, which is good, as it’ll allow him to focus more on pass catching.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

I mentioned how bad the defense was last season. They have a chance to be just as bad this season. Eric Weddle was their only top-200 player on defense going into last season and, while they’ll have some guys break into the top-200 on offense, Weddle will remain their only highly ranked defensive player and by a good margin. The Chargers didn’t have much cap room to work with this off-season and they used most of it on Donald Brown, so they were unable to add to the defense in free agency. They’ll need big performances from rookies Jason Verrett and Jeremiah Attachou, who were drafted in the first and second round respectively, as well as a few bounce back years from some guys.

Let’s start with some of the good defensively. Corey Liuget is one of their better defensive players and was one of just a few key role players on defense to grade out about average or above average on Pro Football Focus last year. The exciting part of this for Chargers fans is that last year could have easily been a down year and an anomaly as he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012. The 2011 1st round pick did struggle as a rookie, so 2012 still is the outlier when you look at his still brief career, but there’s a solid chance he bounces back and has an above average year. Part of the culprit for his down year last year might have been that he played the entire season through a torn labrum in his shoulder. The Chargers exercised his 5th year option, as he goes into his 4th year in the league, and a big season could set him up for a solid extension.

Opposite him, things weren’t as good. Kendall Reyes, a 2012 2nd round pick, was solid as a rookie, grading out slightly above average, but he struggled mightily in his sophomore year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end. He could be better this season, but it’s hard to trust him. Another issue at 3-4 defensive end is the Chargers lack depth. Cam Thomas, their starting nose tackle, is gone, meaning Sean Lissemore, previously a reserve 3-4 defensive end, will move to nose tackle. That will lead to a bigger role for Lawrence Guy, an unproven 2011 7th round pick who did impress on 128 snaps last season. After him on the depth chart is Damik Scafe, a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 14 career snaps.

Lissemore should do a fine job at nose tackle though and could even be an upgrade over Cam Thomas, an average starting nose tackle who left for Pittsburgh this off-season. Lissemore is undersized for a nose tackle at 6-3 298, but he has a solid history as a situational run stopper, excelling as a run stopper on 282 total snaps in 2011 and playing well as a run stopper on 216 total snaps in 2013, though the 2010 7th round pick did have a down year in 2012 on 329 snaps. Still, he seems suited to be a starting two-down part-time base player in San Diego’s defense. If he isn’t, the Chargers would likely have to turn to 5th round rookie Ryan Carrethers. Carrethers, unfortunately, is only a pure nose tackle at 6-1 337 and couldn’t really provide depth at any other defensive line position.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

At outside linebacker, the Chargers are banking on two outside linebackers coming off of serious injuries. One of them is Melvin Ingram, a 2012 1st round pick who tore his ACL last May. Ingram was decent as a rookie in 2012 on 475 snaps, but was unable to improve in his 2nd season in the league because of the injury. Ingram eventually returned for the final 4 games of the regular season (playing 122 combined snaps) and was close to a full-time player by the two playoff games, but he struggled and clearly wasn’t 100%. He’ll be 16 months removed from the injury by week 1, but there’s no guarantee he’ll have a breakout year this year. He’s still unproven and still might not be 100%.

Opposite him will be Dwight Freeney, who is coming off of a season ending quad injury suffered in week 4 of last season, the first season of a two-year deal. Freeney was once a dominant edge rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end as recently as 2010. However, he fell to 33rd in 2011 and he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012 out of 34 eligible. Last season, Freeney had a dominant week 1 against Houston, but was just alright in the other 3 weeks before going down. He could have another solid season left in the tank, but he’s going into his age 34 season coming off of a serious injury after three years of significant decline. If he or Melvin Ingram struggle, Jeremiah Attachou, their 2nd round pick, could have a significant role as a rookie. They’d probably prefer him to not have to play a serious role until 2015, after the aging Freeney’s impending free agency.

The Chargers have another aging outside linebacker, Jarret Johnson, a two-down run stopping linebacker who is going into his age 33 season. He’s been playing that role for a while, starting in Baltimore and now in San Diego. He played 446 snaps last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. It’s not a particularly important role, but he could easily be solid in it once again. At the very least, having Freeney and Ingram back healthy and adding Attachou to the mix will keep them from having to use the likes of Reggie Walker, Thomas Keiser, Larry English, and Tourek Williams in serious roles again.

At middle linebacker, they are banking on another player with injury issues, Donald Butler. Butler missed 3 games last season and has missed 23 games in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He also struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. That’s not the norm for him. He was better in 2011 and 2012, when he graded out 15th and 16th respectively, but I didn’t think he was worth much more than a one-year prove it deal this off-season.  Instead, they gave him 51.8 million over 7 seasons. The Chargers can get out of the deal easily after 11.9 million over 1 year and 21 million over 3 years, but those are also both overpays. Provided he’s healthy, he should be better this season, but this was a bad deal.

Manti Te’o will continue to start next to him inside in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense. A 2013 2nd round pick, Te’o also missed time as a rookie, missing 3 games and struggling through 538 snaps in 13 games. He could be better in 2014, but there are no guarantees. Overall, the Chargers should be healthier in their linebacking corps this season (3rd most adjusted games lost by linebackers last season), which is good because their lack of depth was exposed last season, but they still don’t have a ton of talent in the unit.

Grade: B-

Secondary

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. 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. Cox and Patrick were let go, while the Chargers retained Shareece Wright, a 2011 3rd round pick, for the contract year of his rookie deal and re-signed Marshall as a free agent. To help solve this problem, the Chargers used their first round pick of Jason Verrett, a cornerback out of TCU.

Verrett will probably immediately be their top cornerback, which tells you how dire their situation at the position is. Verrett could have been the top cornerback off the board if he was 5-11 instead of 5-9 and if he wasn’t coming off of shoulder surgery. He’s best on the slot, but will also have to match up against opponent’s top receivers on the outside. That’s going to be a big task for a rookie who will be behind the 8-ball in terms of practice this off-season as he rehabs that injury. Cornerbacks tend to take a year to get adjusted to the NFL anyway.

After him on the depth chart, everything is up in the air. Shareece Wright is currently penciled in as the other starter. He led Charger cornerbacks in snaps played last season (802 snaps) but, as I mentioned, he was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 102nd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. Last season was his first year as a starter and he played a combined 124 snaps in 2011 and 2012.

Richard Marshall is another veteran holdover from last season, who graded out 101st out of 110 eligible cornerbacks last season. He’s had some better years, like in 2011 when he graded out about average, but he’s going into his age 30 season, missed 12 games in 2012, and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst cornerback in 2010. Steve Williams, a 2013 5th round pick, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is also in the mix, but only out of necessity. The fact that he could see significant snaps in 2014 is just a testament to their lack of talent at the cornerback position. He’s unlikely to play well if he does see the field.

Fortunately, things are better at safety for the Chargers. It’s probably the strength of their defense. Marcus Gilchrist played well last season in his first season after converting from cornerback. The 2011 2nd round pick graded out significantly below average in each of his first two seasons in the league at cornerback in 2011 and 2012, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked safety last year. We’ll see if he can keep it up in 2014 in his 2nd year starting at the position. It would be in his best interest, obviously, as he’ll be in a contract year.

Opposite him will be Eric Weddle, who was one of the top players in the NFL going into last season and remains as one of the top players in the NFL. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety last season, which was his worst season since 2009, when he graded out 8th. He was 1st in 2012 and 3rd in both 2011 and 2010. He’s easily the only safety in the NFL to grade out top-8 in each of the last 5 seasons and only one other safety (Jairus Byrd) has even done that in each of the last 3 seasons. Weddle is also the only safety to grade out in the top-7 in each of the last 3 seasons.

Even in 2009, his “down” year, it was mostly because he missed 3 games with injury. He hasn’t missed a game since. He doesn’t get the recognition, but he’s one of the top safeties in the NFL. Unlike guys like Earl Thomas (12.8% snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season), Devin McCourty (9.1%), and Jairus Byrd (12.1%), who are primarily deep safeties, and guys like Kam Chancellor (69.2%), TJ Ward (65.7%), and Eric Berry (69.7%), who are primarily box safeties, Weddle is dominant in all facets of the game and can line up anywhere in the defensive backfield (46.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season). That’s incredibly impressive. He’s the saving grace on an otherwise weak defense.

Grade: C

Conclusion

I see the Chargers taking a step back on offense this season. Their supporting cast around Rivers offensively is pretty average and Rivers is unlikely to repeat the career year he had last year, especially without Ken Whisenhunt calling plays, in his age 33 season. It’s very hard for any quarterback to get this kind of supporting cast to be among the league’s elite offenses, but that’s what he was able to do last year.

Defensively, however, they should be a little bit better. They didn’t really add much talent to the unit this off-season and they still have a lot of problems, but they should have better injury luck after their lack of depth was badly exposed last season. The Chargers were 5th worst in adjusted games lost last season, 8th worst in adjusted games lost on defense, and 3rd worst in adjusted games lost at linebacker, which I got into detail about earlier.

Another area they were unlucky in was fumble recovery as they were 30th, recovering 39.39% of fumbles. Their -4 turnover margin might not improve drastically if Rivers throws a few more interceptions, but they should recover more fumbles and force more turnovers defensively. The Chargers should be right in the playoff mix right again. I’ll have official win projections at the end of all my season previews, but one thing that could keep them out is their schedule. They had the 26th hardest schedule last year in terms of DVOA. Now they swap out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West. That could lead to an extra loss and an extra loss would have kept them out of the playoffs last season.

Season Prediction: 8-8 2nd in AFC West

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New Orleans Saints sign C Jonathan Goodwin

The Saints needed a center, after letting Brian De La Puente leave this off-season. Tom DeLito was scheduled to be their starter at the position, but the 2013 undrafted free agent struggled through 162 snaps at right guard last season. Goodwin is going into his age 36 season, but he could have another season left in his tank. Interior offensive linemen tend to have among the longest careers in the NFL. While he’s shown decline, he still graded out above average as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked center last season, struggling some in pass protection, but continuing to excel as a run blocker. On run blocking alone, he was 7th at his position. Bringing him back on a one-year minimum deal was wise.

Grade: A

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Seattle Seahawks re-sign WR Doug Baldwin

Doug Baldwin hasn’t been incredibly productive in his career thus far, as the 2011 undrafted free agent has posted lines of 51/788/4 and 50/778/5 in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with a 29/366/3 line in 2012 in between. However, much of that is because of much of a run heavy team the Seahawks are. He averaged 1.83 yards per route run (on 425 routes run) in 2013, 27th in the NFL, and was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked wide receiver in terms of pass catching grade. In 2011, he was also Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked wide receiver and, even in 2012, he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He just didn’t see as much playing time. He’s averaged 1.91 yards per route run in his career.

He’s an underrated wide receiver and a real asset to a relatively thin wide receiving corps in Seattle. He’s a slot specialist (69.4% of snaps were on the slot last season), but he has the ability to start outside as well. He’ll be the #2 wide receiver next year with Sidney Rice coming off of a torn ACL. They are keeping him here at a very reasonable rate, 13 million over 3 years, a very smart move for a team that’s going to be very expensive to keep over the next few off-seasons. For comparison, Emmanuel Sanders got 15 million over 3 years, even though he averaged 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run in 2012 and 2013 respectively in Pittsburgh. This was a very solid move by the Seahawks.

Grade: A

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