Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s almost impossible to find something talking about the 2014 Buccaneers without hearing about the Buccaneers’ “basketball offense” (and I guess now that I mentioned it, this isn’t the outlier). You hear it so much you’d think the Buccaneers were an NBA team. They talk about how they added Mike Evans (6-5 231) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-5 262) in the first and second rounds of the draft respectively to go with Vincent Jackson (6-5 241).

They talk about how the Buccaneers brought in quarterback Josh McCown from Chicago, who excelled last season in Chicago’s “basketball offense” with Brandon Marshall (6-4 222), Alshon Jeffery (6-3 216), and Martellus Bennett (6-6 259). They talk about how McCown will continue that success in Tampa Bay because he has tall receivers there as well. As a result, the Buccaneers are commonly mentioned as someone who could surprise this season (to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did) and yet the Buccaneers’ over/under win total remains steady at 7 wins. The Buccaneers are at the point where they’ve been mentioned as overrated so many times that they’ve become underrated. Because no one has ever thought of using tall receivers before.

There are two flaws in the “basketball offense” logic. The first is that McCown won’t just continue having the kind of success he had in Chicago just because his receivers are tall like they were in Chicago. McCown doesn’t get to bring Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer with him to Tampa Bay. Lovie Smith is the head coach in Tampa Bay. Smith was a good hire, but, as good as his defenses were in Chicago when he was head coach (2004-2012), his offenses usually struggled, especially at quarterback.

He also typically had issues hiring competent offensive coordinators to run his offenses. Going into his first year in Tampa Bay, he has tabbed Jeff Tedford to be his offensive coordinator. Tedford is a bit of a wild card. He coached 6 different future NFL 1st round pick quarterbacks while in college at the University of California, the University of Oregon, and Fresno State, but only Aaron Rodgers panned out as the other 5 included Kyle Boller, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and David Carr, who are among the biggest busts in NFL history (the 6th is Trent Dilfer). He also doesn’t have any NFL experience and was unemployed last season after the Golden Bears fired him mid-season in 2012. I want to give Smith the benefit of the doubt with his judgment of offensive minds, but he hasn’t earned that with his history. McCown is definitely downgrading in terms of the offensive minds he’ll be working with.

There’s also a very good chance that McCown would have regressed even if he had stayed in Chicago with Trestman and Kromer, though probably not as much as he will in 2014 in Tampa Bay. Going into last season, Josh McCown was a 34-year-old quarterback who hadn’t posted a quarterback rating of over 70 since 2006. McCown played very solid in limited action with the Bears last season, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception on 224 attempts, but it’s hard to believe that he suddenly just became a better quarterback at age 34.

Now he’s going into his age 35 season. Sure, a tried and failed quarterback suddenly having a legitimate late career breakout isn’t completely unprecedented. Rich Gannon is a name that comes to mind. However, that’s hardly the norm and even Gannon deteriorated very quickly once he got into his mid-to-late 30s and fell out of the tutelage of Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Now in Tampa Bay without Trestman and Kromer, McCown will probably struggle and it won’t matter how tall his receivers are.

If McCown struggles so much that he needs to be benched, the Buccaneers will have to turn to Mike Glennon. He’s probably the better option for the Buccaneers. Mike Glennon wasn’t perfect in his first year in the league last season, but he was the best of the rookie quarterbacks and showed enough that he deserved another chance to be the starter. He completed 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.27 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions.

He only graded out 33rd out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and the Buccaneers only moved the chains at a 67.20% rate in the 13 starts that Glennon made, but he showed some of the tools necessary for him to develop into the type of quarterback that can take this team somewhere. The Buccaneers have to hope that bringing in McCown and making him the starter doesn’t stunt Glennon’s development and confidence long-term.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The other flaw in the “basketball offense” logic is that just because the Buccaneers have tall receivers like the Chicago trio doesn’t mean they are good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett. Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are mere rookies. Evans is really talented, but he’s a raw rookie who doesn’t even turn 21 until the end of August. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

The same isn’t necessarily true for tight ends, but Seferian-Jenkins is a mere 2nd round rookie and won’t necessarily even start as the Buccaneers have yet to give him the starting job over Brandon Myers. That should remind you to temper your expectations for him in his rookie year because Myers isn’t very good. Myers has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 5 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2009, including in the last 2 seasons as a starter in Oakland and with the Giants. He ranked dead last in 2012 and 53rd out of 64 eligible in 2013. And if that doesn’t convince you he’s not very good, he’s only 6-3!

Vincent Jackson is the only proven one of the group. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 with San Diego in 2009 and #6 in 2012 with Tampa Bay. Over the past 6 seasons, he’s caught 351 passes for 6227 yards and 43 touchdowns on 624 targets (56.3%) and 2835 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He’s a deep threat and not a consistent volume receiver, but he’s one of the better wide receivers in the league. The one minor concern is that he’s going into his age 31 season, but that’s probably not a problem yet.

The Buccaneers don’t really have a proven #3 wide receiver and there are several players competing for the slot receiver role. Louis Murphy is reportedly the favorite, but he’s graded out below average in each of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. He also only played 100 snaps last season with the Giants. Chris Owusu was a 2012 undrafted free agent and has played 297 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined, struggling mightily last season on 272 snaps. Robert Herron is a mere 6th round rookie.

Tim Wright could also be in the mix. He played 626 snaps last season at tight end as an undrafted rookie. The 6-4 220 collegiate receiver struggled as a blocker, but graded out slightly above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes on 72 attempts (75.0%) for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns on 386 routes run, an average of 1.48 yards per route run, running 62.2% of his routes from off of the line, 6th among eligible tight ends. He could be a better fit in a situational role as a slot receiver, but he was also undrafted in 2013 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season. He could be a better blocker as a slot receiver this year, but he could struggle as a pass catcher. Overall, the receiving corps is not nearly as good as people think. The same thing is the case for the whole passing offense.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Buccaneers completely revamped their offensive line this off-season. They only have one starter locked in to the same role as last season. That starter is right tackle DeMar Dotson. Dotson has been a very solid starter since becoming a starter in 2012. He was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then he was even better in his 2nd season as a starter last year, grading out 14th among offensive tackles (2nd among right tackles). He’s still a one year wonder as a top level player so he could regress a little bit this season, but he should still be one of the better right tackles in the game.

The Buccaneers also upgraded the left tackle and the center position through free agency this off-season. Anthony Collins was signed to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. He’s been the Bengals’ swing tackle for years and he’s always shown well when given the chance, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle.

Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action. He’s unproven, but he should be an upgrade over last year’s starter, the aging Donald Penn, who graded out 32nd at his position last season, struggling in pass protection. The Buccaneers made the right move releasing Donald Penn, saving 7.4 million in cap space, and then signing Collins to that deal.

At center, they signed ex-Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith to a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal. Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. He’s still just a one year wonder, but it was absolutely the right move trading Jeremy Zuttah for a late round pick, saving 4.5 million on the cap, and getting Dietrich-Smith. Zuttah was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked center last season and was not worth his salary.

The guard position is a serious weakness and completely up for grabs. The Buccaneers cut Davin Joseph after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst guard last season and they cut Carl Nicks after he was limited to 605 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined by injuries, including just 150 last season. There are four players competing for 2 spots. Jamon Meredith is the only player involved in the position battle who played guard for the team last season, playing 488 snaps, primarily at left guard, in the absence of Carl Nicks last season. He struggled mightily, grading out 64th out of 81 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. That’s nothing new as the 2009 5th round pick hasn’t graded out above average since 2009, when he played just 265 snaps.

Last season, only 3 players played fewer snaps than Meredith at guard and graded out worse. One of those players was Oniel Cousins, of the Browns, who is also competing for a starting job in Tampa Bay. Cousins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 322 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. Prior to last year, he had played just 473 snaps in 5 seasons in his career and graded out below average in 4 of them.

The other two competitors have never played a snap in the NFL. Patrick Omameh was signed off of San Francisco’s practice squad last season and didn’t play a snap as an undrafted rookie. Somehow, he’s reportedly the leader in the clubhouse for one of the two starting spots, which shows you how bad things are here. 5th round rookie Kadeem Edwards is in the mix as well. Other than the guard position, the Buccaneers’ offensive line is very solid and better than it was last season, but their guards really hold them back.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Doug Martin, a 2012 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, 4.56 YPC, and adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back overall. His sophomore season was about the opposite. Martin lasted 6 games before going down for the season with a shoulder injury and in those 6 games, he rushed for 456 yards and a touchdown on 127 carries, 3.59 YPA, and added just 12 catches for 66 yards. Despite playing just 317 snaps, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst running back overall and no one played fewer snaps and graded out lower.

Given that, the Buccaneers didn’t really miss him when he was gone. All three of the backs who replaced him averaged more yards per carry than Martin did last season. All 3 also graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in rushing grade. Mike James was the best of the bunch, rushing for 295 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 attempts, an average of 4.92 yards per carry. That’s even better when you consider that the Buccaneers’ offensive line struggled to run block. James averaged 3.10 yards per carry after contact and broke 9 tackles on 70 touches. Despite his limited playing time, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in rushing grade if he were eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher in that regard.

Brian Leonard and Bobby Rainey, meanwhile, averaged 3.87 yards per carry (182 yards on 47 carries) and 3.88 yards per carry respectively (532 yards on 137 carries), largely being inhibited by this offensive line. The Buccaneers also drafted Charles Sims in the 3rd round and have mentioned on several occasions that they’re going to more of a committee in the backfield. Martin is highly unlikely to match the 368 touches he had in 2012, even if he stays healthy. Meanwhile, James and Rainey are battling for one roster spot as Martin, Sims, and return man Jeff Demps all seem locked into roster spots.

Martin should be healthier this season and he should bounce back somewhat as a runner, but he has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days and he’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a proven NFL running back. Martin’s 2012 seems out of reach for him at the moment, especially given how bad the Buccaneers’ run blocking could be this season. They ranked 28th as a team in run blocking grade last season and they could be even worse this season, given their pathetic situation at both guard spots. Something like 220 carries for 900 yards seems reasonable for Martin, with Sims and James siphoning off about 150-170 carries combined.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers also struggled defensively last season, though not as much as they did offensively. They finished 21st, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 72.95% rate. This was despite having the trio of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Darrelle Revis all grade out among the very best at their respective positions. All three players arguably showed themselves to be top-10 players in the NFL at any position. The issue is they were incredibly top heavy. As good as those three players were, they were the only three players they had who played more than 452 snaps and graded out above average.

The good news is threefold though. One, it’s easier to find several starting caliber players to fill out around top level players than it is to find a top level player to elevate the level of the defense. Two, the Buccaneers did spend a fair amount of resources upgrading their defense this off-season, losing Darrelle Revis, but adding Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald. Three, the Buccaneers added Lovie Smith, who is a fantastic defensive head coach.

Revis is gone, but, as much as he will be missed, he wasn’t an ideal fit for Smith’s defensive scheme and the talent the Buccaneers added this off-season will cancel out that loss and then some. McCoy and David, meanwhile, are ideal fits for Smith’s scheme. McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in 2010 and he has immense talent. He was limited to 19 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed when he was on the field in 2010 and 2011.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s graded out #2 and #1 overall respectively among defensive tackles and hasn’t missed a single game. He’s especially dominant as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 14 hits, and 56 hurries on 594 pass rush snaps (a 13.5% rate) last season as an interior defensive lineman, despite next to no help from the other Buccaneer defensive linemen. He’s the best defensive tackle in the NFL and the 6-4 295 pound one-gap penetrator is an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme, so he could be even better this season.

Clinton McDonald, who the Buccaneers signed to a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal coming over from Seattle, will start next to him. Clinton McDonald was a 7th round pick in 2009 and played just 794 snaps in his career before in 2013, failing to grade out above average in all 4 seasons in the league from 2009-2012. He was actually cut by the Seahawks in final cuts and re-signed in mid-September. Given that, it might seem weird that McDonald got that kind of money, but McDonald had a very solid season as one of the cogs on a Seattle defensive line that helped them win the Super Bowl.

McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked defensive tackle, grading out above average overall. He struggled against the run (58th out of 69 eligible), but he excelled as a pass rusher (16th), which is more important. The 6-2 285 pounder is also an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme. He’s still a one year wonder and you don’t know how he’ll do outside of Seattle’s system, but he should still be an upgrade over Akeem Spence, who started and played 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He played about as you’d expect, grading out 3rd worst at his position overall. Spence will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season, a role he’s better suited for.

McDonald wasn’t the biggest free agent acquisition the Buccaneers had on the defensive line, as they signed Michael Johnson to a 5-year, 43.75 million dollar deal. Johnson is an incredibly athletic defensive end who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end.

The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again. At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries on 575 snaps (a 10.6% pass rush rate, as opposed to 10.3% in 2012), to go with 7 batted passes. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end last season.

Adrian Clayborn will continue to start opposite him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible last season. The 2011 1st round pick has largely been a bust and the Buccaneers declined his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. However, he could be better this season. Much of his struggles last season could be attributed to the fact that he tore his ACL in 2012. He wasn’t great before the injury either, grading out below average in both 2011 and 2012 (doing so 187 snaps in 2012). However, in his only other healthy season (2011), he wasn’t as bad as he was in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. He still has some upside going into his 4th year in the league, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him. The Buccaneers should still be better at every spot on the defensive line around Gerald McCoy this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Lavonte David is another fantastic player who should excel in Lovie Smith’s scheme. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2012 and their 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. He might be the best linebacker from the 2012 draft class and that includes Luke Kuechly. The 6-1 233 pounder excels in coverage and he’ll be like a rich man’s version of Lance Briggs for Lovie Smith.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is a marginal talent who fits Lovie Smith’s defense like a square peg in a round hole though. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, grading out dead last among middle linebackers in 2011, 38th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and 32nd out of 55 eligible in 2013. Lovie Smith mentioned earlier in the off-season that he’d ideally be able to find a replacement for him in the middle, some sort of at least poor man’s version of Brian Urlacher.

The Buccaneers failed to do that, only bringing in career reserve Dane Fletcher from New England. Fletcher could still win the job though. He’s only played 634 snaps in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010, but he’s essentially been a league average player in limited action so he could end up being an upgrade over Foster. He’s also in the mix for the two-down outside role (as could Foster be if he loses the middle linebacker job).

Jonathan Casillas is currently penciled in there. He’s been decent on 455 snaps over the past two seasons, but he struggled in the only season in the league in which he saw significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible on 560 snaps in 2011. Most likely, he starts there, Foster starts inside, and Fletcher remains a reserve and a useful special teamer, but things are up for grabs in the linebacking corps other than the dominant David.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned that the Buccaneers released Darrelle Revis this off-season, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked cornerback last season. Obviously, the loss of him will hurt, but his talents would have been wasted in the Buccaneers’ new zone coverage scheme under Lovie Smith and new regime decided he wasn’t worth his non-guaranteed 16 million dollar salary. They opted to replace him with Alterraun Verner, who has spent 4 years as a zone coverage cornerback in Tennessee, on a 4-year, 26.5 million dollar deal. All things considering, including price tag and scheme fit, Verner is the better value.

Verner has never been spectacular, maxing out 10th overall in 2011 (he graded out 13th last season). However, he’s made all 64 starts since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 and he’s graded out in the top-25 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, something only Joe Haden and Jason McCourty can also say at the inconsistent cornerback position. The common opinion is that Verner broke out last season, when he had a career high 5 interceptions, after a combined 6 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league, but that’s the danger with just looking at interception numbers. He’s been a solid player in entire career in Tennessee’s zone defense.

Johnthan Banks will continue to be the other starter. He struggled mightily last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, finishing above average against the run, but finishing 107th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He was just a rookie and rookie cornerbacks do tend to struggle. He was a 2nd round pick so he has talent and upside. He could be noticeably improved in his 2nd year in the league, but there are obviously no guarantees.

Leonard Johnson also struggled last season, doing so as the 3rd cornerback, as the 2012 undrafted free agent unsurprisingly struggled in his first season of significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible on 711 snaps. He was solid as a rookie, grading out 34th at his position on 594 snaps, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone he flopped last season given that recently (April 2012) no one thought he was even worth a draft pick. The Buccaneers brought in veteran Mike Jenkins to compete for the 3rd cornerback job and he could easily win it.

Jenkins is a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick had a Pro-Bowl year in 2009, grading out 13th at his position, but it’s been all downhill from there. He’s already going into his age 29 season and he’s graded below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league. That being said, he’s never been horrible and he was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. That’s not great, but he should be an upgrade over Johnson.

At safety, the Buccaneers have a pair of players that they invested heavy resources into that haven’t really panned out. Mark Barron was the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Dashon Goldson got a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Barron has graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out 70th out of 88 eligible safeties in 2012 and 55th out of 86 eligible in 2013. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He could just end up being a bust.

Goldson, meanwhile, could easily end up being a free agent bust and 22 million guaranteed down the drain. He was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season. This is nothing new for him as he graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter in San Francisco, including 77th out of 88 eligible in 2009 and 64th out of 87 eligible in 2011. He was 20th in 2012, the year before he got that massive deal. The Buccaneers fell into the one year wonder trap and also signed someone who looked better than he was because of all the surrounding defensive talent the 49ers had. They’re stuck with him for another season as he goes into his age 30 season and he should struggle again. Outside of Verner, this secondary isn’t very good, but they have plenty of talent in the front 7 and a strong defensive head coach.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers should have a pretty solid defense this season. They lost Darrelle Revis, but they added Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald to a defense that needed all of those things and they added Lovie Smith as head coach. With the aforementioned trio and McCoy and David, they should be above average overall on that side of the ball. However, the optimism about their offense just because their receivers resemble a basketball team is unfounded.

Josh McCown goes from Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer to Jeff Tedford and just because the Bears’ pass catchers are tall doesn’t mean they’re going to be as good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett from Chicago. McCown will show his true colors this season as a journeyman in his age 35 season. The Buccaneers also have issues at guard. They had a well below average offense last season and I don’t see them being significantly better this season, which will hold this team back. I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: 7-9 4th in NFC South

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Carolina Panthers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers had a breakout year last year, finally getting over their issues in close games (2-12 in the first two years of the Cam Newton era, 5-2 last season) and overall improving in terms of talent and level of play. They finished 12-4, winning the NFC South and getting the NFC’s #2 seed and a first round bye, before losing their first playoff game at home in a hard fought battle against the San Francisco 49ers. They finished 4th in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.51%. They were the only team in the league to finish in the top-6 in rate of moving the chains and rate of moving the chains allowed, moving the chains at a 75.00% rate (6th) and allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.49% rate (5th).

However, no team suffered more off-season losses than the Panthers this off-season. They lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs from that dominant defense, a combined 3200 snaps played. They lost all of their wide receivers who played a single snap last season, with the exception of Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps last season. They lost their top blocking tight end, Ben Hartsock. They also lost their best two offensive linemen, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton. And they didn’t really have the ability to replace any of them this off-season because of cap reasons.

To make things worse, Cam Newton is coming off of serious off-season ankle surgery. It’s a minor issue in terms of his ability to be 100% this season, but it’s a major issue because of how much offensive turnover there has been this off-season. Missing practice time with a new offensive line and receiving corps could really hurt him and this offense. He’s back now for training camp, but he missed OTAs and minicamp.

In 3 years in the league, Newton has completed 59.8% for an average of 7.66 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 2032 yards and 28 touchdowns on 364 attempts, an average of 5.58 YPC. He’s gotten slightly better in quarterback rating in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th, 11th, and 15th ranked quarterback in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The Panthers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. He could easily have his worst statistical year this season though, as result of the lack of talent around him and the lack of chemistry he’ll have with them.

The Panthers are also in serious trouble if Newton has to miss regular season time. It’s unlikely, even after his ankle surgery, because he hasn’t missed a game in 3 years in the league. However, if he went down, they’d be stuck with backup quarterback Derek Anderson under center. Anderson has thrown 4 passes in 3 seasons as Newton’s backup since getting run out of Arizona. In his career, he’s completed 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 55 interceptions. Again, it’s unlikely he sees action, but it’s worth mentioning who Newton’s backup is considering Newton had serious off-season surgery.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The single biggest loss the Panthers suffered this off-season was left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired this off-season. Gross would have been going into his age 34 season this year, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle last season and he’ll be seriously missed. Also retired is left guard Travelle Wharton, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard last season. He would have been going into his age 33 season, but, like Gross, he’ll be seriously missed.

The good news is that Ryan Kalil is still here. He’s easily their best offensive lineman remaining. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season, in his first year back after being limited to 292 snaps in 5 games with a foot injury in 2012. Prior to the injury, he was one of the best centers in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, and 7th ranked in 2011. Now that he’s healthy again, he’s gone back to being one of the best centers in the league.

The rest of the offensive line is a mess though. Nate Chandler is expected to be the blindside protector. The Panthers really like the 2012 undrafted free agent’s upside, but I don’t really understand that. There’s no evidence to suggest that he can be even close to a solid left tackle. He was a collegiate defensive tackle and played defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012, struggling on 131 snaps, before being converted to the offensive line in 2013. He looked like a converted undrafted defensive lineman, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 501 snaps. This will be his 2nd season as an offensive lineman, so he’ll be more familiar with it, but I don’t see him finding an easier time at left tackle.

Right tackle Byron Bell isn’t much better. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season in his 3rd year in the league, after going undrafted in 2011. Sadly, that was the best year of his career, as he graded out 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 69th out of 76 eligible in 2013. I don’t envision him turning into even an average starter in his 4th year in the league and he could easily regress back to 2011-2012 form and be even worse than he was last season.

Amini Silatolu returns from injury at left guard. Silatolu was a 2012 2nd round pick so he has talent and he looked good on 171 snaps in 3 games last season, but he tore his ACL week 3 and missed the rest of the season, which is how Wharton came into the lineup and stabilized their offensive line. Now Silatolu coming off of a serious injury and the only full season he has as a starter on his resume is 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. He’s fully expected to get his starting job back with Wharton gone and he has some upside, but he could easily struggle again.

The right guard position is a three-way battle. Chris Scott was the week 1 starter there last season, but ended being so bad that he was benched for converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler after 8 starts. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 506 snaps. Garry Williams made 7 starts at the position in 2012 and 2 starts at right tackle, but graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in terms of composite grade. It was only slightly below average, but he also graded out 52nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2010, the other season in his career in which he saw significant action, making 11 starts at right tackle. Last season, he was limited to 15 snaps. The Panthers might just have to start 3rd round rookie Trai Turner week 1, which wouldn’t be ideal. Cam Newton is going to spend a lot of time under pressure this season thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in the league in front of him.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost every single wide receiver who played a snap for them last season except Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps. The Panthers’ wide receivers weren’t great last season (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon), but they had to re-tool the wide receiver position this off-season from scratch with little to no cap space to work with. As a result, they bargain shopped for veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery and drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, 28th overall.

Avant was cut by the Eagles this off-season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. Avant is a feisty run blocker in the slot, grading out above average as a run blocker in each of the past 6 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 5 of those 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 31 season. He’ll just be a slot receiver and a mediocre one at that.

Cotchery is expected to be one of the starting outside receivers. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he’s better than Avant. Cotchery was a very good wide receiver with the Jets from 2007-2009, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, catching a combined 210 passes for 2809 yards and 10 touchdowns, and maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver overall in 2009. However, he struggled mightily in 2010, grading out below average, including 101st out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade.

He ended up in Pittsburgh, where he played just a combined 553 snaps in 2011-2012. However, in 2013, he got a bigger role and caught 46 passes on 74 attempts (62.2%) for 607 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th wide receiver, though he was only about average as a pass catcher. Most of his strong grade was as a result of him being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run blocking wide receiver. Like Avant, he’s consistently graded out as a strong run blocker, but he’s an average pass catcher at best and probably below average as he ages.

As a result, Kelvin Benjamin could be forced into the #1 wide receiver role. Benjamin certainly has talent, but he’s very raw, as he only played two seasons of college football and only had one season where he had meaningful production. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Benjamin is rawer than most wide receivers drafted in the first round and was a very late first round pick. He could exceed those averages in terms of pure numbers because of the size of his role and the caliber of quarterback he has throwing to him, but he probably won’t play well or be that efficient. He showed himself to be incredibly athletic and physical both in college and at the combine (6-5 240 4.61 40), but he’s purely a deep threat at this point in his football career.

The good news is tight end Greg Olsen was their leading receiver last season and he’s still around. He will almost definitely lead them in receiving again this season. Last season, he caught 73 passes on 102 attempts (71.6%) for 816 yards and 6 touchdowns on 482 routes run, an average of 1.69 yards per route run. He ranked 9th among eligible tight ends in yards per route run and 4th in pure pass catching grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including above average as a pass catcher in all 7 seasons. He hasn’t always been a great run blocker, but there have been seasons in which he showed himself to be strong in that aspect. He’s an above average tight end and one of the Panthers’ best offensive players.

The Panthers will, however, miss blocking tight end Ben Hartsock. Hartsock is not a well-known player, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall tight end last season, despite playing just 324 snaps. He didn’t catch a single pass on 45 routes run and the 6-4 262 pounder has always been useless in the passing game, with 4 catches since 2009. However, he’s a dominant run blocker, grading out 1st in that aspect last season by a large margin, the only reason why he graded out #1 overall. Obviously take his #1 ranking with a grain of salt knowing that pass catching is more important to a football team, but know the Panthers will miss him.

The Panthers replaced him with Ed Dickson, who was actually Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end and their worst ranked run blocking tight end last season. Blocking isn’t his only issue, as he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s also graded out below average overall in 3 of 4 seasons, including last season and a 2010 season in which he ranked 61st out of 63 eligible. Not only is he a significant downgrade from Hartsock, but he’ll see a larger role as the Panthers than Hartsock did as the Panthers will go to more two-tight end sets this season, because of their lack of talent at wide receiver. The Panthers are in trouble in the receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

In addition to running more two-tight end sets this season, the Panthers will also call more run plays, given the sorry state of their receiving corps. The issue is the Panthers don’t have much talent at the running back position. Cam Newton does everything he can to make life easier for the Panthers’ running backs, both carrying the ball (an average of 121 carries for 677 yards and 9 touchdowns a season in 3 years in the league) and opening up running room for running backs, as defenses have to respect his deep ball and his ability to take off and run. In spite of that, the Panthers averaged just 4.19 yards per carry last season, including Cam Newton’s 5.27 yards per carry. They ran a lot last season (483 carries to 473 pass attempts), but they could run even more this season.

DeAngelo Williams will probably be the lead back again. Williams has had an impressive career, averaging 4.84 yards per carry over 1370 career carries. However, he’s now going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in rushing grade on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, averaging just 4.22 yards per carry over those 2 seasons combined. He’s clearly declining and could decline even more this season. He’s also only gone over 200 carries 3 times in 8 seasons (including last season) and doesn’t offer much in the passing game, with 173 catches in 111 career games, including just 39 over the past 2 seasons combined.

Williams has had some issues with injuries in his career, but Jonathan Stewart has had even bigger problems with injuries. He only missed 2 games in his first 4 seasons combined, but he was consistently playing through injuries and it appears to have caught up with him over the past 2 seasons, as he’s missed a combined 17 games and carried the ball just a combined 141 times over those past 2 seasons. He’s also been limited to 3.66 yards per carry over the past 2 seasons.

He’s a talented player when healthy, averaging 4.64 yards per carry for his career, despite his struggles over the last 2 seasons, but he’s rarely healthy. He’s also only gone over 200 carries in a season once in 6 years in the league and he’s only caught 105 passes in 77 games. With Williams aging and the Panthers’ run blocking expected to be a lot worse this season with Gross, Wharton, and Hartsock gone, the Panthers really need Stewart to step up. I’m skeptical whether or not he can do that and the fact that he’s already nursing a significant hamstring injury a few days into training camp doesn’t quell my skepticism.

The Panthers’ best back might be fullback Mike Tolbert, who led Panther backs with 606 snaps played last season. He only averaged 3.57 yards per carry (361 rushing yards on 101 carries), but that’s partially because he was doing a lot of the dirty work and short yardage running. He picked up 2.02 yards per carry after contact and 31 first downs on 101 carries. He also was their best pass catching running back, catching 27 passes (which led Panther running backs) for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns.

He was also a strong blocker (both run and pass) and played as their 3rd down back, leading Panther running backs with 352 snaps on passing plays. The jack-of-all-traits had at least 100 carries, routes run, snaps in pass protection, and snaps as a lead blocker, grading out above average in all 4 aspects and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback. This is nothing new for him as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked fullback in 2012 and graded out above average in 2 of his final 3 seasons in San Diego as both a running back and fullback from 2010-2012. For his career, the 5-9 243 pounder has averaged 3.94 yards per carry, picked up 136 first downs on 496 carries, scored 40 total touchdowns, and caught 163 passes for 1464 yards.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

I mentioned that the Panthers also lost essentially their entire secondary from 2013, in addition to all of their losses on offense. However, they can still have a very good defense this season. Their defensive front 7 is the best in the league and, while their secondary played well last season, all 4 of the players they lost (Michael Mitchell, Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell, Drayton Florence) were signed to close to minimum deals the previous off-season. Their defensive front 7 and the coaching of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (a finalist for the Washington head coaching job) probably made them look better than they were.

The best player on this defensive line and arguably on the whole defense is defensive end Greg Hardy, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end, after ranking 6th in that aspect in 2012. Hardy was franchise tagged as a result this off-season, though the Panthers have yet to reach a long-term deal with him. There is concern with Hardy because he was arrested this off-season and eventually found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend. Hardy is appealing the ruling and the NFL probably will wait until the appeal fails before suspending him, which means he should be fine for this season.

That being said, he fell to the 6th round of the draft in 2010 because of character concerns, primarily motivation issues, but the fact that this happened in the off-season right after he got franchise tagged is a serious concern. With 13.116 million guaranteed this season, there is concern that he might coast on-the-field as well, though there are obvious financial incentives for him giving 100% and putting up another dominant season, as he is set to hit free agency again next off-season. This could easily be his final season with the Panthers because of a combination of the Panthers’ rough cap situation and Hardy’s off-the-field problems.

The Panthers drafted Kony Ealy in the 2nd round, another sign that they might be preparing for life without Hardy in 2015. Ealy could have a significant role as a rookie, even behind Hardy and counterpart Charles Johnson, as an interior nickel rusher. The 6-4 273 pounder is a natural defensive end and that’s probably his position long-term, but he has the size to be an interior rusher in sub packages as a rookie. The selection of him in the 2nd round gives them even more talent on this defensive line and solidifies their depth.

Charles Johnson, as I mentioned, is the other defensive end opposite Hardy. He too could be entering his final year with the Panthers, owed 9.75 non-guaranteed in 2015 on a cap strapped team. Johnson signed a gargantuan 6-year, 76 million dollar deal with the Panthers following a breakout season in 2010 in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his first season as a starter, so the Panthers were paying for a one-year wonder and it hasn’t quite paid off.

That isn’t to say he’s been bad, as he’s been a strong pass rusher, grading out 18th, 2nd, and 11th in pure pass rushing grade in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. However, he’s graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons and has overall not proven himself to be the player he was in 2010. He’s not going to be worth 9.75 million and 10.75 million in 2015 and 2016 respectively, his age 29 and his age 30 seasons respectively. For now, he’ll continue to be a strong pass rusher who struggles against the run.

Defensive tackle used to be a position of weakness for the Panthers but they turned it from a weakness to a strength with 2 draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short in the first and 2nd round respectively. Both had fantastic rookie years, getting Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th and 13th ranked defensive tackles last season respectively. Both are obviously one year wonders, as they were just rookies, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one or both had an even better season this season.

Short is better than Lotulelei, not just because he ranked higher on fewer snaps (528 to 620), but because he was more well-rounded, while Lotulelei struggled as a pass rusher and excelled against the run. The 6-2 315 pounder might just be a pure two-down player (though an excellent one, grading out 5th overall against the run), which is how Kony Ealy’s role could come into play. Run stoppers are also less valuable than pass rushers in the NFL. That being said, he was a first round pick just last year so he could easily become at least a decent pass rusher and allow himself to stay on the field in every situation. Either way, Short is going to see a larger role this season. It’s an overall dominant defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Things are equally good in the linebacking corps. Luke Kuechly won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, though I don’t think he deserved it. Kuechly definitely had a great season, but he’s not nearly as flawless as people seem to think he is. Defensive Player of the Year usually goes to the best defensive player (or the most noticeably good defensive player) on a top defense, rather than the best defensive player in the league. Kuechly was definitely noticeable on a strong Carolina defense with 141 total tackles (115 solo, 26 assists).

As good as Kuechly is against the run, he can struggle in coverage. Only one middle linebacker (the Jets’ Demario Davis) allowed more completions than the 55 Kuechly allowed, as Davis allowed 56. Putting up a ton of tackles is great, but it’s an overrated stat because not all tackles are equal. If you’re tackling a guy after a 9 yard completion, you’re not doing a lot of good. Kuechly also missed 14 tackles, 6th at his position.

Kuechly had just 39 tackles for a “stop” against the run, meaning a tackle within 4 yards of the line of original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. He did this on 325 run snaps, a rate of 12.0% that was 7th among eligible middle linebackers. That’s certainly not bad, but considering his run play is his best attribute, it’s hardly Defensive Player of the Year material and he was helped by a fantastic defensive line eating up blocks in front of him.

All this might sound like nitpicking, but nitpicking is what you have to do when picking a single defensive player for an award. Carolina certainly has a great defense and Kuechly is a big part of the reason why, but he has a fantastic supporting cast. You could make an argument that he’s not even the best defensive player on his team with the way Greg Hardy played last year. Hell, you could make an argument that he wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team with the way Thomas Davis played. Still, he’s a very good player who graded out 8th at his position last season and 7th in 2012.

Speaking of Davis, he also had a fantastic season last year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, including #1 in coverage, as the 6-1 231 pounder looked as fluid as a safety in coverage and showed great closing speed after allowing a completion (the 7.1 yards per completion he allowed were 3rd best at his position). There’s definitely concern whether or not he keeps this up though, as he’s going into his age 31 season with 3 torn ACLs on his resume.

The fact that he’s even still able to play, let alone dominate like he did last season, is incredibly impressive, but his injury history is a serious elephant in the room with him. Thomas played a combined 9 games from 2009-2011 thanks to injuries. He’s missed just 1 game over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th at his position in 2012 and then 3rd last season, so he could be fine going forward. He was also good prior to his injury, grading out above average in both 2007 and 2008. It’s just hard to expect a player to repeat the best season of his career at age 31 with essentially 3 seasons lost to injury in his career.

The 3rd linebacker is Chase Blackburn and he plays a largely irrelevant role as a base package player. The Panthers rarely use 3 linebackers. Blackburn graded out below average on 199 snaps after taking over the role mid-season from Jon Beason, who was traded to the Giants. His history is inconsistent, as he’s graded out below average in 4 of the last 7 seasons, but, again, it’s largely irrelevant. The other 6 players in the front 7 are all very good at what they do.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs this off-season, a combined 3200 snaps walking out the door with Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Quentin Mikell, and Michael Mitchell. Munnerleyn and Florence were Pro Football Focus’ 10th and 19th ranked cornerbacks, while Mikell and Mitchell were Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 33rd ranked safeties. All 4 of those players were signed for close to the veteran’s minimum last off-season though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding bargains who fit their scheme and making them look better than they were with a combination of strong coaching and strong front 7 play. They’ll attempt to do the same again this off-season, which is easier said than done.

The one player who played a significant amount of snaps for the Panthers in the secondary last season who remains on the roster is Melvin White. Like the other 4, the Panthers found White in the bargain bin, but the undrafted rookie graded out only slightly below average on 693 snaps. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league or he could regress and show why he went undrafted in 2013. He’s expected to at least begin the season as a starter.

Free agent pickup Antoine Cason is expected to be the other starter. Cason fits the bargain hunting theme, but he might not work out. The 2008 1st round pick has largely been a bust in his career. He started out his career fine, grading out above average in each of his first 3 years in San Diego, but he graded out below average in his final 2 seasons, including 108th out of 113 eligible in his contract year in 2012. Last season, in Arizona, he was unable to establish a role and was limited to 169 snaps. He also graded out below average for the 3rd straight season. The Panthers are hoping he can bounce back and the last time he graded out above average he was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but that was in 2010 so those days could easily just be gone.

On the slot, the Panthers are expected to play Charles Godfrey. Godfrey was limited to 114 snaps last season by a torn Achilles suffered week 2. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008. He was especially bad in 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011 and their 82nd ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2012 and now he’s coming off of a serious injury. The Panthers are hoping that by moving the collegiate cornerback to the slot they can turn his career around, but it’s a serious long shot. The Panthers have 5th round rookie Bene Benwikere as their 4th cornerback to turn to if anyone struggles, which highlights how bad their depth is at the position.

At safety, they have a three-way battle for the two starting jobs. 2nd year player Robert Lester might be the best of the bunch. Like White, Lester was an undrafted free agent last season and, though he only played 301 snaps, he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety last season. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He could be ready for a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and emerge as a solid starter or he could show why he went undrafted and either lose a position battle in training camp or win the job and struggle afterwards.

Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper are the veteran options, coming over from Atlanta and New Orleans respectively this off-season, after cutting cut. The Panthers are hoping DeCoud can return to 2009-2011 form, when the 2008 3rd round pick graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons he was a starter in the league, which earned him the 5-year, 21 million dollar deal he was released from this off-season. DeCoud graded out below average in 2012 and 2013 after signing the deal and ranked 82nd out of 86 eligible in 2013. He should bounce back somewhat if he wins a starting job, but he could easily still struggle.

Harper, I think, is the worst option of the three, as he goes into his age 32 season. He was a very solid safety from 2007-2010, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, maxing out at 9th overall in 2007 and 2010 and earning himself a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal. Harper did not prove to be worth that deal, grading out below average as a starter in 2010 and 2011, ranking 86th out of 88 eligible in 2011. That got him benched and got his salary slashed. He played 374 snaps in 2013, grading out below average, and then was cut. He’s unlikely to bounce back and be even an average starter at his age. Overall, the Panthers need to work a miracle in the secondary. They did so last season, but they might not be as lucky this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

I don’t think it’s any question that the Panthers will decline this season. They simply lost too much. They’re easily the favorite to be this year’s team that goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs (there’s one almost every year). However, they might not be as bad as people think as they still have a lot of talent. As bad as their offensive line, receiving corps, secondary, and running backs are, they have an above average quarterback who happens to be one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the game and they have the league’s best defensive front 7.

It’ll be interesting to how this team fares as they are probably the top heaviest team in the NFL. They have 7-9 guys who could end up in my top-200 players list coming out next month, but they also have a number of guys in significant roles who simply don’t deserve to be in those roles. If I had to guess, they’ll still be the 2nd best team in the Cam Newton era record wise, meaning they’ll surpass the 6 wins they had in 2011 and the 7 wins they had in 2012. If I had to guess, they’re more likely to go over their 8 win odds makers projection than under (though a push is a really realistic possibility). I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC South

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New Orleans Saints 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Saints once again had an explosive offense last season. They ranked 10th in points per game allowed, but they were better than that, finishing 3rd in rate of moving the chains, moving the chains at a 76.98% rate. That’s nothing new as they are a consistently top level offense, ranking #1, #1, #11, #2, and #3 in points per game in 2008-2012 respectively. However, they haven’t necessarily been a consistently top level team. They won 11 games in 2010 and 2013 and 13 games in 2009 and 2011, but they also won just 7 games in 2012 and 8 games in 2008.

The years they’ve missed the playoffs, they’ve still had explosive offense, but their defenses struggled. For instance, in 2012, they allowed the 2nd most points in the NFL. That was something they needed to turn around and they did so last season as Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense got the most out of their defensive personnel. They ranked 10th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 68.85% rate. As a result, they were 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential at 8.13%.

They were even better than their 11-5 record suggested as they did that despite a turnover margin of +0. They weren’t reliant on the turnover margin to win, which is good because the turnover margin is so hard to rely on. As hard as it is to rely on, they should be better in that aspect next season because of how well quarterbacked they are. They only turned the ball over 19 times, as Drew Brees only threw an interception on 1.85% of attempts.

That’s really good, but he’s thrown an interception on 2.49% of his attempts since joining the Saints in 2006 so he should be able to keep that up. He may have a few more interceptions next season, but not too many. Defensively, they should force more turnovers after forcing just 19 last season, especially after recovering 44.83% of fumbles overall last season, 24th in the NFL. They should have a positive turnover margin next season, as tough as turnover margins can be to predict.

Speaking of Drew Brees, he’s obviously the engine that makes this explosive offense go. Since joining the Saints in 2006 and uniting with Sean Payton, he’s completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 283 touchdowns and 124 interceptions. He’s been a top-4 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, the only quarterback who can say they’ve had that level of consistent dominance over that period of time. Even in 2007 and 2008, he was #3 and #7 respectively. He’s going into his age 35 season, but he’s shown no signs of decline. Last season, he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Like Brady and Manning before him, Brees is another quarterback who could remain dominant into his mid-30s. The Saints will once again have an explosive offense this season because of him.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Brees did lose some weapons this off-season, as the Saints had to cut Lance Moore and trade Darren Sproles for financial reasons, with Moore ending up in Pittsburgh and Sproles ending up in Philadelphia. Moore didn’t have a huge impact in 2013 though and he was going into his age 31 season. Moore was limited to 452 snaps in 13 games. He did run 334 routes, but he caught just 37 passes on 52 attempts (71.1%) for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of just 1.37 yards per route run. He was hardly the player who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2008, maxing out in 2012 with 65 catches for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns.

To replace him, the Saints drafted Brandin Cooks and they have 2nd year wide receiver Kenny Stills, who could possibly be ready for a bigger role. Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. If Cooks can end up winning a starting job or a significant role, he could surpass those numbers, not because he’s more talented than the average 1st round wide receiver (or Johnson or Fitzgerald obviously), but because of the situation he was drafted into with Drew Brees throwing him the football.

Stills could easily win the starting job though. The 2013 5th round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible, including 87th out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade. He caught 32 of his 46 targets (69.6%) for 641 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he did so on 496 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He was a rarely deep threat. That being said, rookie wide receivers almost always struggle, as I mentioned earlier, and he definitely flashed at times, so he could be improved in his 2nd year in the league.

Marques Colston remains as the #1 wide receiver. He showed statistical decline last season, catching 75 passes for 943 yards and 5 touchdowns. It tied a career low for touchdowns and it was only the 2nd season of his 8-year career in which he went under 1000 yards, with the other season being a season in which he played just 11 games. However, he was still really efficient, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver, catching 70.1% of his targets and averaging 1.77 yards per route run. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since they began in 2007. He should have another solid season and probably lead Saint wide receivers in catches and yards.

Jimmy Graham is listed as a tight end, but he’s their de facto #1 receiver. I do agree with the decision by the league that he should be designated as a tight end. He did run 49.8% of his routes from the slot last season, but that was actually 16th out of eligible tight ends. The tight end position has simply changed significantly over the past 5 or so years. Graham is just a really, really good pass catching tight end that rarely blocks and isn’t great when he does it. Gronkowski is a significant better blocker and a more well-rounded tight end, but he has a significant injury history so Graham is the best pass catching tight end in the league.

In 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, he’s caught 301 passes for 3863 yards and 41 touchdowns on 454 targets (66.3%) and 1758 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He barely played as a rookie, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd, 7th, and 1st ranked pass catching tight end in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s “only” graded out 7th, 15th, and 4th in those 3 seasons respectively overall, but that’s because he’s graded out below average as a run blocker in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s their best pass catcher and a significant weapon for them in the passing game. He’s well worth the 4-year, 40 million dollar deal the Saints gave him this off-season, after franchise tagging him.

Graham wasn’t the only highly ranked tight end the Saints had last season, as Ben Watson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end on 507 snaps, flashing as both a pass catcher (16th) and a run blocker (8th). He caught 19 passes for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 attempts (67.9%) and 131 routes run, an average of 1.73 yards per route run. There are no guarantees he keeps that up. He’s graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus since their origin in 2007, but he’s going into his age 34 season.

While Moore won’t be really missed, they will miss Darren Sproles. Sproles didn’t do much as a rusher, carrying the ball 53 times for 220 yards in 2013, an average of 4.15 YPC. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, catching 71 passes for 604 yards and 2 touchdowns on 84 targets (84.5%) and 265 routes run, an average of 2.28 yards per route run (best at his position). They’ll miss that.

They still have Pierre Thomas to catch passes out of the backfield, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back in pass catching grade last season. He caught 77 passes for 513 yards and 3 touchdowns on 82 targets (93.9%) and 301 routes run, an average of 1.70 yards per route run. That being said, I don’t know how much more pass catching volume Thomas can take on. He’s also not nearly as explosive as Sproles is in the open field. The Saints will probably have to either transition to throwing downfield more often or to throwing screens to guys like Stills and Cooks more often. Brees will miss Sproles, but he was fine without him in New Orleans from 2006-2010. Brees still has plenty of weapons to work with in the passing game.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

I mentioned what Thomas does in the passing game. He also contributes as a runner as well and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back overall on 578 snaps played (390 in pass snaps, 188 on running snaps). He only averaged 3.73 yards per carry last season (549 yards on 147 carries), but he also averaged 2.20 yards per carry after contact and broke 43 tackles on 224 carries, giving him the 18th best elusive rating at his position among eligible players. On top of that, he’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry for his career and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at #2 overall in 2011. He’s going into his age 30 season and he’s only maxed out at 147 carries in a season (twice), but he’ll still have a significant role as a passing down back.

The running down back role will go to either Mark Ingram or Khiry Robinson. Most likely, one of those two will lead this team in carries. Ingram was a first round pick in 2011, but he’s been a bust thus far in his career. He’s had just 356 carries in 3 seasons, averaging 4.11 yards per carry (1462 yards) and scoring 11 touchdowns. He’s missed 11 games in 3 seasons and has shown nothing as a pass catcher, only catching 24 passes for 143 yards in his career.

Robinson, meanwhile, saw 76 snaps as an undrafted rookie and rushed for 224 yards and a touchdown on 54 carries, an average of 4.15 yards per carry. He doesn’t offer anything on passing downs either. The coaching staff really likes him though so, right now, I’d say that he’s the favorite to be their lead back right now. He flashed in the post-season, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, an average of 4.86 yards per carry. The Saints still lack the feature back they’ve been searching for as a complement to Brees and the passing game for years.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

In addition to Moore and Sproles, the Saints also lost two starters on the offensive line this off-season, making it four straight off-seasons in which they’ve lost at least one starter on the offensive line. Those two starters were left tackle Charles Brown and center Brian De La Puente. Brown won’t be missed as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and got benched down the stretch for rookie Terron Armstead. Armstead will now be the starter on the blindside. The 2013 3rd round pick played 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a complete unknown as a starting caliber player. It won’t be hard for him to be better than Brown was though.

They will miss Brian De La Puente. I don’t know why they didn’t re-sign him, given that he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season and signed with the Bears for close to the minimum. The Saints brought in Jonathan Goodwin on a minimum deal this off-season. Goodwin was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked center last season and he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of the last 6 seasons, but he graded out 22nd in pass blocking grade. He was 7th as a run blocker, but pass protection is more important. He’s also going into his age 36 season. Interior offensive linemen tend to have longer careers than most positions so he could have another season as a starting caliber player left in the tank. However, the Saints reportedly do not view him as the likely starter at that position, in favor of starting Tom Lelito.

That doesn’t make much sense. The 2013 undrafted free agent struggled through 162 snaps at right guard last season. Only one player at his position graded out worse than him and played fewer snaps. He surrendered 4 sacks and 5 hurries in two starts against Arizona and Atlanta. No one drafted him last year. He doesn’t have center experience. And he really struggled last season. He’s not a starting caliber player so the Saints would be wise to start Goodwin, but it doesn’t look like they want to do that.

The Saints did keep Zach Strief at right tackle, retaining him on a 5-year, 20.5 million dollar deal, which was a good move. The late bloomer has only been a starter for 3 years in his career (since the Saints lost Jon Stinchcomb after the 2010 season) and he’s already going into his age 31 season. He’s also missed 10 games in 3 seasons and struggled through injury in 12 games in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible. He’s also only a pure right tackle, which isn’t quite as valuable as someone who can play on the blindside. However, he’s been dominant in his other two seasons as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus 12th ranked offensive tackle (6th ranked right tackle) in 2011 and 9th ranked offensive tackle (1st ranked right tackle in 2013). He’s not perfect, but the Saints did a good job bringing him back on a reasonable deal.

The Saints’ longest tenured offensive lineman is right guard Jahri Evans, who has been a starter there for 8 years since the Saints drafted him in the 4th round in 2006, missing just 2 games over that 8-year span. He’s also their best offensive lineman, dominating throughout his career. Those 2 games he missed were last season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. That’s actually the 2nd lowest he’s ranked in his career, which is a concern, when coupled with his injury and the fact that he’s going into his age 31 season. He could be declining. However, he was so good in his prime (grading out in the top-30 in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009), that even a declining Evans is one of the best guards in the game.

The guard position is definitely the strength of this team. At the left guard position, they have Ben Grubbs, who they signed to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal after the 2011 season, replacing the departed Carl Nicks. Grubbs has been worth that, grading out 7th at his position in 2012 and 11th in 2013. Grubbs, a 2007 1st round pick, broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2009 and has been a top-16 guard in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Only Green Bay’s Josh Sitton can also say the same. This offensive line certainly has problems, particularly at left tackle and center, but there are some really talented players here. They’ll remain an explosive offense next season, despite some minor losses.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints defense was much improved last season under Rob Ryan. The biggest reason for that is because his schemes fit their personnel much better. The player who benefitted the most was 3rd year defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. The 2011 1st round pick was largely a large average player in his first 2 years in the league, struggling as a pass rusher and excelling against the run.

Last season, Jordan moved back to his collegiate position of 3-4 defensive end, from 4-3 defensive end, and the 6-4 287 pounder was a much better fit. He did grade out below average against the run, but his play as a pass rusher (2nd at his position) was enough to make up for it. That’s the most important part of a defensive lineman’s job and he’s fantastic at it. He’s just a one year wonder, but, only going into his age 25 season, Jordan could have another dominant year in 2014. The Saints picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Akiem Hicks will continue to start opposite Jordan. Hicks flashed on 383 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then became the starter in the new 3-4 under Rob Ryan 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 defensive end on 653 snaps. The 6-5 318 pounder is an ideal fit for a 3-4 and moves very well for his size. The Canadian prospect was seen as very raw, but very talented coming out of the University of Regina and he’s only going into his age 25 season. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could have his best year and his biggest role yet. John Jenkins remains as the nose tackle. Jenkins played 436 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year and ended up struggling, both as a run stopper and a pass rusher. The 6-3 359 could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there no guarantees. It’s a very young 3-man defensive line, but there is a lot of talent.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another player the scheme switch really helped was edge rusher Junior Galette, who broke out last season in his first season as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. The 2010 undrafted free agent flashed as a pass rusher in 2011 and 2012, grading out 31st and 17th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect in those 2 seasons respectively in a part-time role, but he was limited to 372 and 301 snaps in those 2 seasons respectively because the 6-2 258 pounder sucked against the run. Moving to 3-4 outside linebacker, the run game became easier for him and he was able to play 848 snaps. He still graded out slightly below average against the run, but it wasn’t as big of a deal at his new position, especially since he ended up ranking 10th at his position rushing the passer.

Galette is one of two every down players in the Saints’ linebacking corps, playing 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages and providing edge rush in sub packages. The other one is Curtis Lofton, a middle linebacker who led the Saints’ defense with 946 snaps played last season. He unfortunately struggled, grading out below average and ranking 29th out of 55 eligible at his position. He also struggled in his first year in New Orleans in 2012, after grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons with the Falcons after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He graded out 43th out of 53 eligible in that 2012 season. His strong play in Atlanta got him a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and, owed 6.9 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this could easily be his last year in New Orleans. For now, they’re stuck with him as an every down player, for lack of a better option.

David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson are two-down players in the linebacking corps, for the most part, as safety Kenny Vacarro comes down and plays linebacker in sub packages. Hawthorne had a bigger role than Haralson last season, playing 689 snaps (340 on running plays). Like Lofton, he was a big free agent signing 2 off-seasons ago, getting a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010, and 18th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 in 3 seasons as a starter in Seattle. Like Lofton, he’s struggled in 2 years with the Saints, grading out 35th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in 2013. Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this is likely to be his last year with the team.

Haralson, meanwhile, played 367 snaps last season (196 on running plays), grading out slightly above average in limited snaps. The veteran is going into his age 30 season and graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons as a significant contributor in San Francisco and only grading out slightly above average in the 2 seasons he was above average, but he’s decent at what he does. The good news for the Saints is they will be getting Victor Butler back from injury.

Butler missed all of last year with a torn ACL, which hurt the Saints because he was supposed to be a starter. The 2009 4th round pick flashed in limited action in Dallas, grading out well above average in every season from 2010-2012, but maxing out at 300 snaps in 2012 because he was stuck behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. His best season was 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on just 300 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. Torn ACLs are tough to bounce back from in a player’s first year back, but he should at least have a role as a situational edge rusher opposite Galette in sub packages. That’s something they really lacked last season.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, safety Kenny Vaccaro plays linebacker in sub packages. He played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 70.6% of snaps last season, 3rd most in the NFL among eligible safeties. He also played solid overall, grading out 23rd overall among safeties, including 3rd overall against the run. The issue is he broke his ankle week 16 and missed the final 2 weeks of the season and the playoffs, which hurt them. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, the 15th overall pick in 2013 should be healthy and could be even better than he was last season.

The Saints added Jairus Byrd this off-season, signing him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal. He’ll play safety next to Vaccaro and give the Saints arguably the top safety duo in the NFL. Byrd has been in the league 5 years, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and he’s been an above average starter on Pro Football Focus in each season. He’s been especially dominant over the past 3 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2011 among safeties and 2nd in 2012.

In 2013, he was “just” 8th because he missed 5 games to start the season, but he was just as dominant upon return as he was before the injury and he doesn’t have an injury history, missing 2 games from 2009-2012 combined. Even still, he’s one of just two safeties to grade out in the top-8 in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013, along with Eric Weddle. He’s the best deep safety in the NFL and arguably the best overall safety. He’s what everyone thinks Earl Thomas is (not that Thomas is bad). He had off-season back surgery, but he should still be able to have another strong season. He’ll be a perfect complement for box safety Vaccaro and a significant upgrade over the inconsistent Malcolm Jenkins, the previous starter who is now in New Orleans.

The Saints 3rd safety is Rafael Bush. He played a big role last season, playing 520 snaps as the 3rd safety, coming in when Vaccaro moved to linebacker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked safety last season in that role, grading out slightly above average. The 2010 undrafted free agent didn’t play a defensive snap in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed on 123 snaps in 2012. He’s a talented 3rd safety and good in his role as a sub package player, excelling in coverage. He was re-signed to a well-deserved 2-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests that they envision him having a significant role going forward.

Keenan Lewis was a big free agent acquisition last off-season, signing a 5-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He did a solid job in his first year with the Saints, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback, including 16th in pure coverage grade. The 2009 3rd round pick only played a combined 432 snaps in his first 3 years in the league, but he’s had two solid seasons as a starter, including a 2012 season in which he ranked 38th among cornerbacks, which is why he got that deal last off-season. He should continue being a solid starting cornerback this season.

The 2nd and 3rd cornerback jobs are still up for grabs. The Saints signed Champ Bailey this off-season to a 2-year deal worth 3.75 million dollars in base salary (500K guaranteed and another 3 million available through incentives). The common narrative is that Champ Bailey is done, after he struggled through just 333 snaps (193 regular season, 140 post-season) last season thanks to injury and with him going into his age 36 season.

However, he had a great 2012 season, at least in the regular season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback and he has such an impressive history (grading out in the top-17 on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2007-2012, including top-10 in 5 of 6 seasons) that it wouldn’t shock me if he had one more season in the tank, provided he can stay healthy. He showed enough in the post-season last year to suggest that’s a decent possibility. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was done. The Saints will find out in training camp.

Corey White is also in the mix for playing time, after playing 560 snaps last season. The 2012 5th round pick graded out above average last season, but he sucked in 2012 as a rookie, so it’s tough to count on him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked middle linebacker out of 113 eligible on 529 snaps in 2012. He’s currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback, going into his 3rd year in the league. Patrick Robinson is another veteran who could get a significant role, even though the 2010 1st round pick was limited to 22 snaps in 2 games by injury last season and largely looks like a bust at this point.

Robinson was also benched to start the season last year, even before the injury, because of a rough pre-season and a 2012 season in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He played well in 2011, grading out 19th among cornerbacks, after only playing 264 snaps as a rookie, so he could be decent this year, but he definitely has an inconsistent history and there’s no guarantee he even earns a significant role. Stanley Jean-Baptiste was their 2nd round pick in this past draft and he could also see playing time, but more likely they drafted him for 2015, when Robinson will be a free agent and Bailey will be going into his age 37 season. The Saints’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but it’s an overall solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Saints went 11-5 last season, but they were even better than their record suggested, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. They also might be more talented than they were last season. They lost Darren Sproles and Brian De La Puente, which will hurt their offense a little bit, but they should still have a strong offense. Defensively, they added Jairus Byrd, which could take a solid defense to the next level. This is one of the best teams in the NFL and they are one of a few teams that I think could win the Super Bowl. Obviously how far they go into the playoffs largely depends on whether or not they get home field advantage, given how much home field matters to this team. I’ll have an official wins prediction for this team when I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC South

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Washington Redskins 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Redskins declined significantly in 2013, going from 10-6 and in the playoffs to 3-13 and the 2nd worst team in the league last season. To make matters worse, they didn’t have their own first round pick this year, thanks to the RG3 trade made in 2012, so they don’t have the luxury of adding a top caliber talent to this team. Why did they decline last season? Well, teams that have big win total improvements, like the Redskins did in 2012, going from 5-11 to 10-6, tend to decline by an average of half that total. The Redskins obviously declined by more than that, but it’s just an average and it shows that teams that have big win improvements tend to do it on the backs of unsustainable things.

For the Redskins, that unsustainable thing was the turnover margin as they finished with a +16 turnover margin in 2012. That type of thing tends to be very tough to depend on. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04.

Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. It was unreasonable to expect RG3 to continue throwing an interception on just 1.3% of his throws. No quarterback has ever kept that up for a career (1.8% is the best all-time career interception rate). It was also unreasonable to expect the Redskins to continue recovering 67.39% of their fumbles, as that always tends to even out towards 50% in the long-run.

On top of that, RG3 declined significantly last season, and not just in terms of interceptions. As a rookie, he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while rushing for 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries (6.79 YPC). Last season, he completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 489 yards and no touchdowns on 86 carries (5.69 YPC). He went from Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback to their 26th.

He also was shut down for the final 3 games of the season and Kirk Cousins struggled mightily in his absence, completing 52.3% of his passes for an average of 5.51 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, effectively killing any trade value he might have had. Even in the 13 games when RG3 played, the Redskins moved the chains at a 71.73% rate, which would have been 17th in the NFL over a full season. That simply wasn’t good enough as their defense was horrific, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 74.56% rate, 24th in the NFL.

The good news is he should bounce back this season. Most of his struggles last season were the result of the torn ACL he suffered in January of 2013. He was able to make it back for week 1, but it clearly limited him. Even Tom Brady struggled, by his standards, in his first year back from his torn ACL and Griffin is much more reliant on his legs and had less time to recover (Brady’s injury was in September). Griffin won’t match his insanely low interception rate from his rookie year, but he should be noticeably improved over last season, both running and throwing the ball.

Griffin is still a special talent when healthy and will prove to be worth what the Redskins gave up for him over the long-term. The wild card for Griffin and the rest of this offense is that offensive minded head coach Mike Shanahan was fired and replaced with former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Shanahan is a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach and his system worked masterfully in 2012, but it didn’t work nearly as well in 2013 and he’s coached some other poor offenses in the past. Gruden, meanwhile, is an unknown as a head coach. We’ll see how he and his new offensive scheme affect this offense.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

While the Redskins did have a hobbled Griffin for 13 games last season and then they lost him for 3 games, they, overall, didn’t have a lot of injuries, as they finished 4th in adjusted games lost. Griffin should be healthier this season, but they will have more injuries around him, which is why I don’t totally buy that this team, overall, has the talent to get back into the playoffs. One player who missed a significant amount of time with injury in 2012 who stayed on the field in 2013 was wide receiver Pierre Garcon.

Garcon missed 6 games and was limited in others in 2012, in the first year of a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal that was highly speculative when he signed it because he had never had a 1000 yard season in four years with the Colts, three with Peyton Manning. However, Garcon still flashed in 2012 on 403 snaps, grading out well above average and catching 44 passes for 633 yards and 4 touchdowns on 215 routes run, an average of 2.94 yards per route run that was 2nd best in the NFL. Given that he did that with a bad foot, it was very promising for 2013.

He wasn’t quite as efficient in 2013, but that’s to be expected considering he had significantly more playing time and his quarterback play was significantly worse. He was still really good, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked wide receiver. He caught 113 catches on 174 targets (64.9%) for 1346 yards and 5 touchdowns on 615 routes run, an average of 2.19 yards per route run, 12th in the NFL. He was largely a volume receiver, catching primarily underneath targets, with only 25 catches 10+ yards downfield, and finishing 2nd in the NFL in targets, so he wasn’t quite as good as his numbers suggested. However, he should be even more efficient this season as a possession receiver with a healthy Griffin and DeSean Jackson coming in to take some of the defense’s attention off of him and open up the short-to-intermediate part of the field.

As I just mentioned, to help Robert Griffin bounce back, the Redskins signed DeSean Jackson, after the Eagles cut him. There were rumors that the Eagles cut him because of gang ties, but more likely, they cut him because they just didn’t feel he was worth his 10.7 million dollar salary, even coming off of the best season of his career. Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver last season, catching 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, all either career highs or tying career highs. He caught 68.9% of his targets and averaged 2.45 yards per route run, 6th in the NFL.

However, the Eagles still cut him because they felt he was largely a product of Chip Kelly’s system, because of his inconsistent past, and because of his salary. The Redskins are paying him less money, 24 million over 3 years, so it’s not a bad value, but expecting him to be the player he was last season is a little short-sighted. From his rookie year in 2008 to 2012, Jackson maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver. He’s not historically nearly as efficient as he showed himself to be last season. He could have another strong year, but I doubt he reaches last year’s numbers.

While the Redskins didn’t have a lot of injuries last season, one player who did miss a significant period of time that really hurt them was Jordan Reed. Reed, a 3rd round rookie last season, missed 7 games with concussions, but still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked tight end last season despite playing just 384 snaps. He was very well-rounded too, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked pass catching tight end and 13th ranked run blocking tight end.

Reed caught 45 passes on 60 attempts (75.0%) for 499 yards and 4 touchdowns on 228 routes run, an average of 2.19 yards per route run, 3rd in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he could have a breakout year in 2014. He probably won’t be as efficient as he was last season with more snaps, but he’ll have better quarterback play. He won’t be targeted as often with Jackson coming in, but he’ll have more room to operate in with Jackson downfield taking the defense’s attention off of the short-to-intermediate part of the field. Assuming the trio of Jackson, Garcon, and Reed stays healthy (as is the case with any player), they could be one of the best trios of pass catchers in the NFL.

After that trio, the Redskins have experienced depth in the receiving corps, but the talent isn’t really there. At wide receiver, they signed Andre Roberts to a 4-year deal worth 16 million this off-season. He’ll line up as their primary slot receiver this season. The Redskins really struggled for depth at wide receiver last season, as, other than Pierre Garcon, no wide receiver graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Santana Moss was Pro Football Focus’ 107th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade.

Things won’t be much better this season though, outside of Garcon, Jackson, and Reed. Roberts was a slot receiver last season in Arizona. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 102nd out of 105 eligible in 2012 and 111th out of 114 eligible in 2011. Meanwhile, Logan Paulsen will be the #2 tight end. He’s been the Redskins’ leading tight end in terms of snaps played over the past 2 seasons because of injuries to Fred Davis and Jordan Reed respectively. He’s probably better suited to be a #2 tight end, grading out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league and played more than 100 snaps, since going undrafted in 2010. Last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. There’s more talent in the receiving corps than there was last season, but there are still some issues outside of the talented trio of Garcon, Jackson, Reed.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the Redskins had very few injuries last season. Their healthiest unit last year was the offensive line. The same starting 5 played every snap last season except 20 snaps. No offensive line had fewer snaps missed by their original starting five last season and they ranked tied for first in adjusted games lost by an offensive line (tied with Chicago). That’s unlikely to continue this season, which is unfortunate for the Redskins because they had pretty solid offensive line play last season, ranking 4th in pass blocking grade and 9th in run blocking grade. The reason for that is twofold. One, they’re unlikely to have as few injuries as last season. Two, they are switching blocking schemes with Jay Gruden coming in and they will have maximum 3 starters from 2013 in the same position that they started 16 games in last season. They could have as few as one such starter if a couple things go a certain way.

That one starter locked into the same position he was in last season is Trent Williams and with good reason. Williams played 1170 snaps out of 1172 snaps possible last season at left tackle and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle last season. Joe Thomas was the better pass protector last season, which is much more important for a left tackle, and he has the more proven history, but Williams might be the 2nd best offensive tackle in the game. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, grading out 27th in 2011 and 16th in 2012.

The 4th overall pick in 2010, he has finally reached his potential and could easily continue be dominant in the future, only going into his age 26 season. He might not be #1 again, but I expect more dominance from him. He’s going into his contract year and the Redskins are reportedly in discussions with him to make him the highest paid offensive tackle in the league. He was the primary reason why their offensive line graded out so well last season.

Kory Lichtensteiger will continue to start on the offensive line, but, with the team transitioning from the zone blocking scheme they ran under Mike Shanahan, he’ll move from left guard at center. Lichtensteiger graded out slightly above average last season, but he’s never started a game at center and graded out below average in both 2010 and 2012, the other two seasons he was a starter in the NFL. In 2012, he was Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible. If I had to guess, he’s more likely to grade out below average rather than above average this season at center.

Taking his spot at left guard will be Shawn Lauvao, who they massively overpaid on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season. The new coaching staff likes the 6-3 315 pounder’s scheme fit, but he struggled mightily in the first 4 years of his career in Cleveland, after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He graded out below average in each of those 4 seasons, including 3 seasons as a starter. He was Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2013. He’s not a starting caliber player, even if the coaching staff thinks he is. The Redskins’ scheme change forced them to cut the inexpensive Will Montgomery (Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked center last season), move Lichtensteiger out of position, and sign Lauvao to a starter quality deal. It’s a downgrade overall.

The only starter to grade out below average last season for the Redskins was right guard Chris Chester. Chester, owed 3 million non-guaranteed, is a popular cap casualty candidate going into his age 31 season. He could easily be cut if he loses his position battle to 3rd round rookie Spencer Long. Having to start a 3rd round rookie wouldn’t be great for the Redskins, but it’s a possibility considering Chester is aging, struggled last year, and isn’t a good scheme fit. Chester was Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season, though the veteran had graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons from 2008-2012.

At right tackle, the Redskins have another veteran competing with a 3rd round rookie to remain at the same position where he started last season. That veteran is Tyler Polumbus, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle last season. As well as he played last season, there are legitimate reasons why he’s facing competition from 3rd round rookie Morgan Moses. The 6-8 308 pounder is a poor fit for the new blocking scheme and his history is not consistent with how well he played last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012, his only other season as a starter at right tackle, and graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons from 2009-2011. The offensive line is unlikely to be as good as it was last season.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Along with RG3, the other offensive player they need to get going again is Alfred Morris. Morris rushed for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 carries as a 6th round rookie in 2012, an average of 4.81 YPC, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of rushing grade. In 2013, he rushed for 1275 yards and 7 touchdowns on 276 carries, an average of 4.62 YPC, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked running back in rushing grade. That’s obviously not a bad season, but he wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie.

The good news is that he should find more running space with a healthy Robert Griffin functioning as a dual option at quarterback. The bad news is that Jay Gruden is coming in as head coach and wants to open up the passing offense. Morris has caught 20 passes in 2 seasons and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in each of his two seasons in the league. Gruden is on record saying that he wants to give passing down back Roy Helu more snaps. Last season, Helu played 547 snaps while Morris played 611 snaps. Morris will have a role similar to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had 472 snaps in Cincinnati, as opposed to 627 snaps for passing down back Giovani Bernard.

BJGE still had 220 carries last season and Morris is much more talented than him, while Helu is not as talented as Bernard. It could be a more even split in snaps and Morris could still see 240-260 carries this season, including all the goal line carries, and average a high YPC, but Helu will have a bigger role than last season. He’s only averaged 4.26 yards per carry in 3 seasons in the league, but he’s caught 87 passes for 675 yards and a touchdown, and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back on Pro Football Focus in 2 of 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2011.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Redskins had one of the worst defenses in the league, last season, ranking 24th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 74.56% rate. They also didn’t have a lot of injuries on either side of the ball and there’s no savior returning from injury to help them on this side of the ball. Fortunately, they did sign free agent Jason Hatcher to a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal. It was a risky deal because Hatcher is going into his age 32 season, but, provided he’s healthy (he had off-season knee surgery and is questionable for the start of camp), he should be able to provide them with value this season.

Hatcher is the only player on this 3-man defensive line expected to be an every down player, playing 3-4 defensive end in base packages and then moving inside to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. Hatcher has experience in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 and has been dominant over the past 2 seasons, playing in a 3-4 in 2012 and a 4-3 in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012 and 8th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He was a deadly interior pass rusher in a 4-3, but he’s probably better suited to be a 3-4. His all-around game was better in 2012 in a 3-4 as the undersized 6-6 285 pounder did struggle against the run in a 4-3 in 2013, grading out below average in that aspect. The late bloomer was also Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2011 as a talented reserve on 428 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher that season.

Hatcher isn’t the only player they gave a significant contract to this off-season, as they re-signed defensive Chris Baker to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal. It was a weird deal because the 6-2 325 pounder is only a two-down player and he’s not a proven player at all. The 2009 undrafted free agent out of Hampton had played a combined 216 snaps in 4 seasons before last year and then struggled mightily last year on 418 snaps as primarily a base package player, playing 3-4 defensive end and nose tackle. His composite grade would have been 6th worst among 3-4 defensive end and 9th worst among defensive tackles, despite his limited playing time. He wasn’t even good against the run. It was a weird deal.

The Redskins have another two defensive linemen on big contracts, as Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen signed a 6-year, 36 million dollar deal and a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal respectively in the off-season before the 2011 season. Neither has really lived up to it in 3 years. Cofield has been the better of the two, but last season was the first season he had graded out above average in 3 seasons with the team. He’s a great pass rusher, especially last season, when he graded out 6th among defensive tackles in that aspect, but he’s horrible against the run, grading out 8th worst, worst, and 7th worst among defensive tackles in that aspect in 2013, 2012, and 2011 respectively. That makes sense as he’s undersized for a nose tackle at 6-4 303, but the Redskins continue to play him there, at least in base packages. He led the defensive line in snaps played with 739 last season, but he should have a smaller role this season, going into his age 30 season with Jason Hatcher coming in.

Bowen has been even worse, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked 3-4 defensive tackle out of 32 eligible in 2011, 26th out of 34 eligible in 2012, and 39th out of 45 eligible in 2013. He’s been so bad that the Redskins have cut his snaps from 816 in 2011 and 808 in 2012 to 422 snaps in 2013, missing 6 games with injuries. Now going into his age 30 season, he should have a similar role and continue to struggle. He’s still not completely recovered from knee surgery. Kedric Golston and Jarvis Jenkins are also in the mix on the defensive line, after they played 472 snaps and 333 snaps respectively last season. Both played primarily in base packages and both also struggled mightily, grading out 40th and 35th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Adding Hatcher to the mix helps this defensive line, but they still have a ton of problems.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The star is this defense and one of the only things that kept it afloat last season is Brian Orakpo. Orakpo bounced back in a big way from a torn triceps injury that limited to him to 87 snaps in 2012. Last season, Orakpo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and showed a fantastic all-around game. He graded out above average as a run stopper, pass rusher, and in coverage, grading out 9th at his position as a pass rusher, 4th as a run stopper, and 2nd in coverage. The 2009 13th overall pick was also Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011. The Redskins franchise tagged him this off-season, as they obviously didn’t want him to get away, though they were unable to agree to a long-term deal.

Opposite him, the Redskins have another former first round pick in Ryan Kerrigan, who was the 16th overall pick in 2011. He’s also talented, though he’s nowhere near as good as Orakpo. He’s graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but only slightly and in the season he graded out above average, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012. He’s also excelled in pure pass rush grade, while grading out below average against the run in all 3 seasons and below average in coverage in 2 of 3 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in pass rush grade in 2011, 5th in 2012, and 12th in 2013, which is notable because the most important part of his job is rushing the passer. The Redskins have picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

The Redskins also have decent depth at the outside linebacker position. Rob Jackson graded out slightly below average on 114 snaps in 2011 and 186 snaps in 2013, but, in the only season in his career in which he saw serious action, he graded out above average. Playing 610 snaps in Orakpo’s absence, he graded out above average in 2012. He graded out slightly below average against the run and as a pass rusher, but he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage grade, playing 112 coverage snaps. They also have Trent Murphy in the mix at the position. The 2nd round rookie won’t see a significant role as a rookie and was mostly drafted as long-term insurance with Orakpo going into his contract year and Kerrigan having two years left on his deal, which is disappointing because it suggests they won’t try to keep both Orakpo and Kerrigan long-term, but he’ll provide solid depth in the short-term if needed.

Things aren’t nearly as good at middle linebacker. The Redskins re-signed middle linebacker Perry Riley to a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal this off-season. Riley, a 2010 4th round pick, has been starting for the Redskins at middle linebacker for about 2 ½ years, since the middle of the 2011 season. He was about an average starter in both 2011 and 2012, for the first 1 ½ year and a half of his career, but he struggled mightily in his contract year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Given that, the Redskins are overpaying. He could bounce back, but there are no guarantees.

London Fletcher was the opposite starter last season, but he retired this off-season. As good of a career as Fletcher had (he may end up in the Hall-of-Fame), him retiring gave the Redskins an opportunity to upgrade his spot, as he struggled mightily in his age 38 season last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked middle linebacker last season. The Redskins didn’t really make the most of that opportunity though.

Keenan Robinson is currently expected to be the starter, but the 2012 6th round pick played 69 snaps as a rookie and didn’t play a snap as a rookie. The new coaching staff reportedly likes his upside, but he’s still a complete unknown as an NFL player. Akeem Jordan and Darryl Sharpton are the veteran options. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker last season, including 5th ranked against the run, but he only was a two-down player, playing 483 snaps and grading out below average in coverage. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since going undrafted in 2007, but he’s primarily been a reserve and situational middle linebacker in his career, maxing out at 556 snaps in 2009.

Sharpton, meanwhile, has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010. He’s also missed 22 games in 4 season with injury and only played 550 snaps from 2010-2012. He appeared in 15 games in 2013, starting 8 and playing 743 snaps. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, which isn’t terrible, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked middle linebacker (out of 55 eligible) in coverage last season. He was 2nd as a run stopper, but coverage is more important. He should really be limited to two-down work, as should Jordan, which is, perhaps, why the coaching staff is pumping up Robinson so much. He’s the only player with the ability to potentially play all 3 downs opposite Riley. The middle linebackers sink this whole linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Easily the worst part of this team is the secondary and they have arguably one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. They don’t have a savior on the way as they had the 4th fewest adjusted games lost in the secondary last season. The biggest free agent acquisition they brought in was Ryan Clark, but he’s going into his age 35 season. The veteran safety graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season for the first time to 2008. He could be close to done.

He should still be their best safety and an upgrade on what they had last season, as Reed Doughty, Bacarri Rambo, and EJ Biggers graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th, 79th, and 80th ranked safeties respectively last season, out of 86 eligible, playing just 414, 340, and 432 snaps respectively. Brandon Meriweather was 77th, leading the position in snaps played for Washington, playing 748 snaps, but he’ll remain as a starter because they don’t have a better option. Now 30 years old, the veteran hasn’t graded out above average in a season in which he played more than 50 snaps (he was limited to 44 in 2012) since 2009. He’s also missed 23 games combined over the past 3 seasons.

At cornerback, the Redskins brought back DeAngelo Hall on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. It was a weird move. Last off-season, DeAngelo Hall was cut from his large contract by the Redskins and brought back on a cheap one-year deal worth about a million dollars. It made sense. He was going into his age 30 season and had graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of his last 5 seasons, dating back to 2008. The only season he graded out above average was 2010. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible and in 2012 he was 64th out of 115 eligible. He struggled again in 2013, grading out 85th out of 110 eligible and, now going into his age 31 season, I thought he’d have to settle for another cheap one year deal on the open market. I guess the Redskins had different idea. He should continue to struggle this season.

The Redskins didn’t bring back Josh Wilson this off-season. Wilson isn’t very good, grading out 76th among cornerbacks, but his absence will mean a bigger role for 2nd year player David Amerson, who graded out 84th last season (including 93rd in pure coverage grade) on 694 snaps as the 3rd cornerback. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle so the Redskins are obviously hoping that Amerson can be improved in his 2nd year in the league and turn into a functional starting cornerback, especially since they currently lack one of those on their roster, but there are no guarantees.

Wilson leaving also meant that the Redskins had to find a new #3 cornerback and to fill that role they, for some reason, gave a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal to Tracy Porter. Porter was Pro Football Focus’ 106th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season with Oakland and 91st out of 109 eligible in 2011 with New Orleans, with an injury plagued season in Denver in between (316 snaps in 6 snaps). He hasn’t graded out above average since 2009 and his career has gone severely downhill since he scored a pick six in the Super Bowl in his 2nd year in the league in 2009. He wasn’t worth much more than a minimum deal, but the Redskins overpaid him and locked him into a significant role. It’s an overall horrible secondary on a defense that should continue to be very easy to move the chains on.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

The Redskins will be better this season. I mentioned in the opening that teams that have big win improvements, on average, decline by half that amount the following season. Well the opposite is also true. That would put the Redskins at 6-7 wins if they fall in line with the average. Robert Griffin should be healthy this season, play the whole season, and resemble the quarterback he was as a rookie in 2012. New head coach Jay Gruden coming in is the wild card and he won’t maintain his absurd interception rate from 2012, but he should have a very good season.

The Redskins have a lot of offensive skill position players with RG3, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, and Alfred Morris, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to get the Redskins back into the playoffs. They had minimal injuries last season outside of Griffin. Their defense will be very easy to move the chains on once again. Their offensive line won’t be nearly as good this season. They won 10 games in 2013, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested that season. They should finish this season in between 2012 and 2013, near that aforementioned 6-7 win range. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them once I’ve finished every team’s write up.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in NFC East

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New York Giants 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants started last season 0-6, but they were able to finish the season 7-3 and end up at 7-9. A big part of that was that their turnover margin went from -16 in their first 6 games to +1 in their last 10 games. They still finished the season at -15 though, thanks to a 45.10% rate of recovering fumbles, in addition to a few other things. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, especially fumble recovery rates.

Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04.

Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. They also had a league most adjusted games lost from injury and they added a significant amount of talent in free agency.

Given that, it might seem like I think the Giants are going to be significantly improved this season. I think they will, but that might not show up in their record. They went 7-9 but they had a -89 point differential, ranked 27th in DVOA, and 26th in rate of moving the chains. Their 7 wins came against opponents that finished a combined 42-68-2, 24-55-1 if you exclude the two playoff teams they beat who were starting backup quarterbacks (Green Bay with Scott Tolzien and Philadelphia with Michael Vick).

The biggest wild card for the Giants is whether or not Eli Manning can bounce back to form. Manning was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked quarterback in 2009 and 2010, 6th ranked quarterback in 2011, and 8th ranked quarterback in 2012. He completed 61.5% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 113 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions over those 4 seasons from 2009-2012. However, last year, he struggled mightily, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible, completing 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions.

That could just be a down year, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so it’s a serious concern. His interception rate was 4.9% last season, which should fall back towards his career average of 3.4%. As I mentioned, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis and interception rates tend to be so as well, given that interceptions occur on such a small percent of plays. It’s more accurate to evaluate a quarterback on things like YPA and completion percentage and Eli’s were much lower than they previously were at 57.5% and 6.93 YPA.

If Manning can bounce back, it’ll really help them, as their offense was the main problem last year. They moved the chains at a 64.92% rate (31st in the league), while their defense was actually solid, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.77% rate, 13th in the league. The Giants fired long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (who was in New York for Eli’s entire career, 2004-2006 as quarterbacks coach and 2007-2013 as offensive coordinator) and replaced him with Ben McAdoo, previously a quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, in an attempt to get Eli turned around. I’m skeptical of whether or not that happens though, as he moves into his mid-30s.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

One thing that would help Eli is if his offensive line could play better. They had 9 players play 100 or more snaps on the offensive line last season and only one of them graded out above average, as the team ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst in pass blocking grade. That one did was first round rookie Justin Pugh. Pugh struggled in pass protection, but he played well as a run blocker and graded out above average overall at right tackle. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league and improved as a pass protector.

The Giants also added Geoff Schwartz at left guard and Weston Richburg at center this off-season. Schwartz could easily be their best offensive lineman this season. Schwartz is one of the most underrated players in football and the Giants got a steal getting him for 16.8 million over 4 years with 6.2 million guaranteed. He played well in 2010 with the Panthers, in 11 games at guard and 5 games at tackle. His composite grade would have been 5th among guard and 13th among tackles on Pro Football Focus.

However, he missed the entire 2011 season with injury and was relegated to reserve work in Minnesota in 2012, impressing in limited action. In 2013 with the Chiefs, he played 549 snaps at left guard, right guard, and right tackle and his composite grade would have been 7th among guards and 15th among tackles, despite the limited playing time. Now that he’ll be a full-time starter, Schwartz has the ability to emerge as a top-10 or even a top-5 guard in the NFL.

Richburg, meanwhile, was their 2nd round pick and he could easily be their week 1 starting center. He’ll compete with free agent acquisition JD Walton for the starting job. Walton got 5 million over 2 seasons this off-season, but he’s not very good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst center as a 3rd round rookie in 2010 and their worst center in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, he missed all but 4 games with an ankle injury and complications. Wichburg should beat him out, even as a 2nd round rookie, and if he can’t, it’s a concern.

The Giants have incumbents at left tackle and right guard to round out the offensive line, two players in William Beatty and Chris Snee, who are both coming off of disappointing seasons. Beatty was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and then broke his leg in the final game of the season. He’s expected to be ready for training camp, but that injury doesn’t help his chances of bouncing back. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, which got him a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar deal, but that’s looking like a mistake.

As good as his 2012 season was, he’s still just a one year wonder. He played a combined 1243 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s had a history of injury problems and, while he was solid from 2009-2011, he has only once been as good as he was in 2012. Now coming off of another significant injury, his chances of bouncing back to 2012 form is really unlikely, but I do expect him to be better than he was last season.

Meanwhile, at right guard, Chris Snee is coming off of a season in which he struggled and missed 13 games with injury. Now going into his age 32 season, there is still concern that Snee isn’t healthy and his status for the start of the season is in doubt at the moment. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard in 2012 and he has a history of dominance, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons from 2007-2012, including #1 in 2007, #2 in 2008, and #3 in 2009, but those days could easily be long gone, even if he can get onto the field.  There are rumors that he’ll announce his retirement in the next couple of weeks.

The Giants’ top reserve at right guard behind Snee is John Jerry, who was signed as a free agent to a near minimum contract. He’s started 32 games over the past 2 seasons in Miami, so he has experience, but he’s graded out below average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. Still, he’s never been terrible and, as far as backups go, Jerry is a pretty good one. The Giants are in semi-competent hands if Snee can’t get on the field or needs to be benched. It’s an improved offensive line, but there are still a lot of issues.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Giants also kind of remade their receiving corps this off-season. Hakeem Nicks is gone, after the once dominant wideout saw his abilities sapped by injury and graded out below average last season. To replace him, the Giants used their first round pick on Odell Beckham, a wide receiver from LSU. He’s talented, but rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Beckham will probably start the season as the 3rd wide receiver and guys like Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan will get bigger roles as a result of Nicks’ absence. Randle was a 2nd round pick in 2012 who graded out above average on 250 snaps as a rookie and below average on 589 snaps last season. He’s caught 60 of 108 targets (55.6%) for 909 yards and 9 touchdowns on 580 routes run in his career, an average of 1.57 yards per route run. The Giants will be hoping for a 3rd year breakout year from him.

Jerrel Jernigan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2011. He played a combined 41 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he was very good on 221 snaps last season, catching 29 passes on 42 attempts (69.0%) for 329 yards and a touchdown on 147 routes run, an average of 2.24 yards per route run. He’s still unproven, but he’s shown himself deserving of a bigger role. He’s currently the 4th receiver, but he could see 300-400 snaps, rotating with Randle and Beckham. We’ll see how he handles it this season.

Victor Cruz remains as the #1 wide receiver and an every down player. He also moves to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. The undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, Cruz didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Over the past 3 seasons though, he’s caught 241 passes on 376 attempts (64.1%) for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns on 1541 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He hasn’t been quite as good as his numbers have suggested, grading out 28th on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 44th in 2012, and 44th in 2013, but he’s still a very solid wide receiver.

The bigger issue for the Giants is at tight end. 2013 starter Brandon Myers wasn’t very good, but he’s gone and so is talented blocking specialist Bear Pascoe. They didn’t replace either of them. Adrien Robinson is penciled in as the starter. He’s incredibly athletic (6-4 264 4.58), but he was incredibly raw when the Giants drafted him in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s played just 3 snaps in 2 seasons, including none last season. The off-season reports about him haven’t been that great either.

The problem is their competition for him isn’t much better. Larry Donnell is the only tight end who played a snap for the Giants last season who remains on the roster, but the 2012 undrafted rookie struggled mightily on 109 snaps in his first season of NFL action. Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells are the veteran options, but neither is likely to make a positive impact. Fells is going into his age 31 season, after being out of the league last season and playing 308 snaps as a blocking specialist in 2012. Davis, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass catching tight end in 2012, catching 19 passes on 44 attempts (43.2%) for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns on 362 routes run, an average of 0.63 yards per route run. He also dropped 8 passes. Last season, he played just 156 snaps. There isn’t anything resembling a starting caliber tight end here.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Giants also added a new starting running back this off-season, signing Rashad Jennings to a 4-year deal worth 10 million with 2.98 million dollars guaranteed to come over from Oakland. Jennings was impressive last season, taking the starting job away from the struggling Darren McFadden mid-season. He rushed for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns on 163 carries, an average of 4.50 YPC, and also added 36 catches for 292 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back overall, on 567 snaps.

The issue is that he’s a one year wonder. He didn’t play a snap in 2011 thanks to injuries and then rushed for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries in 2012, 2.80 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 1677 yards and 13 touchdowns on 387 carries (4.33 YPC), catching 97 passes for 746 yards. He’s never played all 16 games in a season and has only played 53 out of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He’s also already going into his age 29 season, after being 24 years old when he was drafted. The Giants are counting on him to be a” bell cow” feature back, but there are no guarantees obviously.

If Jennings doesn’t work out, the Giants have Andre Williams, who they drafted in the 4th round of this past draft. David Wilson is the wild card of the bunch. Wilson was drafted in the first round in 2012 and, after 358 yards and 4 touchdowns on 71 attempts as a rookie (5.04 YPC), Wilson was set to become the feature back in 2013 with Ahmad Bradshaw gone and Andre Brown injured. However, he had issues with fumbling and then suffered a significant neck injury, so he was limited to 146 yards and a touchdown on 44 attempts, an average of 3.31 YPC. He’s expected to be good to go for 2014, but he’s a serious injury risk, he’s fumble prone, and he only has 121 career touches, so it’s really tough to know what to expect from him going into his 3rd year in the league, even if he was a high draft pick.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Giants had a ton of injuries last season. The biggest injury was to Jason Pierre-Paul, who had back and shoulder problems. JPP didn’t miss that many games, missing 5, but he was a shell of his normal self, grading out just about average on 583 snaps, grading out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper. Jason Pierre-Paul has 9 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined, after 16 sacks in 2011, but he’s only had one down year.

In 2012, he had only 7 sacks, but he also had 4 hits and 45 hurries, giving him a solid 10.7% pass rush rate on 523 pass rush snaps. He was even better against the run and overall graded out 3rd overall on Pro Football Focus among 4-3 defensive ends. That’s actually better than his 2011 breakout year, when he graded out 6th at his position. He wasn’t as good against the run and he only had a 9.7% pass rush rate, with 16 sacks, 14 hits, and 26 hurries on 580 pass rush snaps. JPP is expected to be 100% this season and, only going into his age 25 season, he has a very good chance to bounce back and be a top defensive end again.

The Giants will need him to be because they lost Justin Tuck, who had a vintage year last year, stepping up in JPP’s absence, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Tuck is now in Oakland. To replace him and the 896 snaps he played last season, the Giants will be giving a bigger role to 2nd year defensive end Damontre Moore and they added Robert Ayers through free agency. Moore was a 3rd round pick of the Giants in 2013 and struggled on 136 snaps as a rookie. How he’ll fare in a larger role is completely unknown at the moment.

Ayers, meanwhile, comes over from Denver. Robert Ayers was a bust as the 18th overall pick in 2009 because he never developed beyond being a solid rotational player, but he’s still a solid rotational player. He had his best season in his contract year in 2013, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end, excelling against the run, ranking 6th at his position in that aspect. He only played 514 snaps and he’s never been as good as that in the past, but it was still an impressive season from him. He At 6-3 274, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he also has the ability to move inside and play some defensive tackle in sub packages as sort of a Justin Tuck-lite for the Giants.

Mathias Kiwanuka will also play some snaps, though not as many as he did last season, when he played 892 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 42 eligible. He’s never been that terrible, but he’s going into his age 31 season and he graded out below average in 2012 as well, playing at 4-3 outside linebacker that season. The hybrid was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible in 2012. He’ll play a situational role as a 4-3 defensive end this season.

Along with Justin Tuck, the Giants also lost Linval Joseph to free agency this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked defensive tackle last season. He’ll be replaced by promising youngster Johnathan Hankins, a 2013 2nd round pick who excelled on 195 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he still would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle if eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better than him, both as a run stopper and overall. He’s still unproven and he struggled as a pass rusher, but, at the very least, he should be solid in base packages.

The Giants also have a pair of veterans at the position in Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. Jenkins is going into his age 33 season and has seen his abilities decline over the past 2 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and about average in 2013, doing so on 718 snaps last season. He’ll remain the starter, but he could easily see fewer snaps this season. Patterson, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in each of his last 2 seasons, doing so on 413 snaps last season. He’ll have a backup role again this season and could be pushed by 3rd round rookie Jay Bromley. Most likely, Bromley will have to wait for 2015 for a bigger role, when Patterson could be gone as a free agent and when Jenkins could be a cap casualty, owed 2.2 million non-guaranteed going into his age 34 season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As many injuries as the Giants had last season, one of their most injury prone players held up for the whole season. That player is Jon Beason, who they acquired from Carolina mid-season. After missing 27 of 32 games from 2011-2012 with a variety of injuries, Beason only missed 1 game last season and played in 12 of 12 games with the Giants. However, he suffered a foot injury this off-season and could miss the first month of the season, very concerning when you consider his injury history. That could really put him behind the 8-ball.

He’ll be replaced in the meantime by Jameel McClain, who has struggled mightily in each of the last 2 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 on 753 snaps with Baltimore. The Ravens only played him on 376 snaps in 2013, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He graded out above average in every season from 2009-2011, but those days seem behind him. He should struggle in every down work in the middle in Beason’s absence.

Beason won’t be much better though. He graded out above average in 3 of his first 4 seasons in the league from 2007-2010, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked middle linebacker in 2009 and getting a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal before the 2011 season, but he’s not the same player after dealing with all those injuries. He was demoted to two-down work in Carolina upon his return and then benched completely and traded to the Giants for a late round pick.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible with the Giants last season, including 52nd out of 55 eligible in coverage. The popular narrative by people who just look at tackle totals is that he got his career back together last season, but he’s simply not that kind of player any more. The Giants overpaid him on a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar extension this off-season. Things won’t be better for him as he comes off of a serious foot injury and after missing all of training camp, the pre-season, and the first month or so of the season. He’s also a significant re-injury risk.

McClain is expected to play a two-down, base package role outside when Beason is healthy, which is probably a better fit for him. The Giants also have Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, who played 707 and 622 snaps respectively last season, both grading out about average. One of them will probably be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. Paysinger is probably their best bet. Both were rookies in 2011, Paysinger an undrafted rookie and Williams a 6th round rookie. Paysinger only played 187 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, but he flashed on those 187 snaps. Williams, meanwhile, played 814 snaps over those 2 seasons and struggled. He should have a more limited role than Paysinger this season. Both will see the field at the same time frequently when Beason is hurt.

Grade: C+

Secondary

I mentioned in the opening that the Giants added a lot in free agency this off-season. The area they added the most to was their secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was their biggest addition, signing a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s a risky move considering his inconsistent history, but it could pay off if he plays his best. A 2008 1st round pick, DRC made the Pro-Bowl in 2009 and looked on his way towards cementing his place as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback that year.

However, 2010 was the exact opposite for him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked cornerback, which turned him into a throw-in to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade. His tenure in Philadelphia wasn’t good, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 84th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible in 2011 and 91st ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 as part of a massively disappointing Philadelphia secondary. That earned him a one-year prove it deal in Denver, worth about 4 million dollars, but he did prove it, grading out 6th among cornerbacks. There’s no guarantee he doesn’t struggle and coast now that he’s gotten paid though.

Prince Amukamara remains as the opposite starter. He only played 144 snaps as a rookie because of injuries, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked cornerback in 2012 on 741 snaps (missing another 3 games with injury) and then was even better, grading out 34th on 1108 snaps in 2013. The Giants picked up his 5th year option for 2015 and he could have his best year in the NFL this season. He’s a solid young player.

On the slot, the Giants have another free agent acquisition, Walter Thurmond. I was concerned that someone would overpay Thurmond, after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season on just 480 snaps, dominating on the slot, ranking 7th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks, allowing 0.85 yards per coverage snap on the slot on 229 snaps. He’s still a one year wonder, playing a combined 590 snaps in 2010-2012 after going in the 4th round in the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s only played a combined 1070 snaps in 4 years in his career. He has a significant injury history, dating back to his collegiate days. He also is only proven on the slot, not outside, and doesn’t have much experience without Seattle’s dominant defense around him.

The Giants didn’t overpay for him though, giving him 3 million over 1 season. The fact that it’s a one year deal means that there won’t be long-term issues with this deal if he gets hurt, proves to be a one-year wonder, or struggles without Seattle’s supporting cast. He joins a team that has two starting outside cornerbacks. It’s also inexpensive enough that the Giants aren’t committing a ton of money just to a slot cornerback. In the short-term, there are no guarantees he continues to be a dominant slot cornerback, but he could easily be solid in that role this season in a part-time role.

The Giants also brought back Stevie Brown this off-season to a 1-year prove it deal worth 2.775 million. Brown was a big part of their 2012 defense, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The 2010 7th round pick only played a combined 163 snaps from 2010-2011, but broke out in 2012 with the Giants, intercepting 8 passes and playing 846 snaps. He wasn’t quite as good as the 8 interceptions would suggest because you can’t go just on pure interception totals, but he was still an above average safety on Pro Football Focus, grading out as their 27th ranked safety in 2012.

He’s still a one year wonder and he’s coming off of a serious injury that could sap his explosiveness this season, which is why a one-year prove it deal made a lot of sense, but he could easily be an asset for them this season. He’ll essentially replace Will Hill. He won’t be nearly as good as Hill though, after Hill was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety last season. The supremely talented Hill went undrafted in 2011 because of character concerns. Hill showed that supreme talent last season, but he’s also shown his character concerns, getting arrested once and suspended three times since entering the league. He was suspended for 6 games for 2014 this off-season and the Giants waived him. Despite his talent, he went through waivers unclaimed, which suggests the league might just be done with him. Either way, Brown is likely a downgrade.

The other starting safety will continue to be Antrel Rolle. Rolle was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety last year, but that’s not typical for him. He graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons since 2007-2012, bottoming out in 2011, when he graded out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. He’s now going into his age 32 season, which makes it even less likely he’ll repeat what he did last season. I expect average play from him at best, though this is overall a solid secondary on a defense that has a good chance to remain an average stop unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Giants were one of the worst teams in the league last season, worse than their record. They should be an improved team this year with fewer injuries, a better turnover margin, and talent coming in this off-season through free agency. However, that might not necessarily show up in their record as they weren’t as good as their 7-9 record suggested last season. Eli Manning is the wild card here, given how important the quarterback position is. If Manning continues to decline, the Giants could be one of the worst teams in the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction for the Giants after I do every team’s write up.

Prediction: 5-11 3rd in NFC East

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Dallas Cowboys 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cowboys fans must be sick of going 8-8, after the last 3 seasons ended in the same way, with the team finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs after losing essentially a divisional play-in game week 17. The good news is that the Cowboys could be pretty bad this season, so Cowboy fans won’t have to worry about the monotony. This team was a lot worse than their 8-8 record suggested as they finished 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential, at -3.51%. They were very reliant on a +10 turnover margin and a 66.67% fumble recovery rate to be successful last season.

Their offense was really strong, moving the chains at a 74.15% rate, 9th in the NFL. However, their defense was horrible, ranking dead last in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66% rate. That should remain the case this season. The Cowboys spent their first round pick (16th overall) on Zack Martin, who will slot in immediately as a guard and help their offense. However, they also lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher on defense this off-season.

They have Henry Melton coming in as a free agent and Anthony Spencer coming back from injury, but both are coming off of serious leg injuries and the latter’s status for the start of the season is still very much in doubt. 2nd round rookie DeMarcus Lawrence is going to have to play a significant role as a rookie and their top defensive player, middle linebacker Sean Lee, is already out for the season with a torn ACL. Like last season, when they allowed 388 first downs and 50 touchdowns to 61 punts, they’re going to have a hard time getting off the field defensively without forcing turnovers, which obviously can’t be relied on.

Let’s start with the good though, meaning their strong offense. Tony Romo is obviously the quarterback of that offense. Romo takes an unnecessary amount of heat because he’s the Cowboys’ quarterback, so every mistake he makes is magnified and last season every mistake he made was especially magnified because of how bad their defense was. However, he’s coming off of a very strong season, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, a QB rating of 96.7. For his career, he completes 64.6% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 208 touchdowns, and 101 interceptions.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback last season, including 7th in passing grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since 2007, including 8th in 2007, 16th in 2009, 9th in 2010, 9th in 2011, 10th in 2012, and, of course, 13th last season. The concern with Romo isn’t a lack of clutch (whatever that means). It’s that he’s going into his age 34 season coming off of a significant back injury with his YPA declining in every season since 2011 (8.02 YPA, 7.57 YPA, 7.16 YPA) and his completion percentage declining in every season since 2010 (69.5%, 66.3%, 65.6%, 63.9%).

He had a strong interception rate (1.9%) last season, but interceptions happen on such a small percentage of snaps that it’s better to evaluate quarterbacks on YPA and completion percentage. That interception rate should be closer to his career rate of 2.7% this season. That’s not bad, but if he declines and throws an interception on 3% of attempts and continues to see his YPA and completion percentage drop as he ages coming off of back surgery, it’s an issue. I’m not that concerned yet, but it’s something to note.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Zack Martin was the Cowboys’ first round pick in this past draft, going 16th overall. He’ll instantly slot in at one guard spot, forcing Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary, the starters last season, to compete for the other starting job. He might not be an upgrade as a rookie over what either of those two was last season, but both of those two can’t be counted on going forward for different reasons and Martin has far more long-term upside.

Leary struggled last season as a 16 game starter, grading out 54th out of 81 eligible guard last season, after the 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie. He’s unlikely to get much better going forward given his history and his draft status, so Mackenzy Bernadeau is probably the better choice at the other guard spot. However, Bernadeau’s history is shaky as well. While he was the Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2013, he graded out well below average at both guard and center in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Before that, he played an average of 352 snaps per season in Carolina from 2008-2011 after being drafted in the 7th round in 2008, grading out above average only once, in 2011, when he played just 125 snaps.

There was some talk that Martin, a collegiate offensive tackle, could play right tackle for the Cowboys and move Doug Free inside to guard. That’s not going to happen, but Martin could still end up at right tackle at some point as Free will be a free agent going into his age 31 season next off-season. As for 2014, Free will line up at right tackle, but it’s tough to know what to expect from him. The 2007 4th round pick played a combined 17 snaps in his first 2 years in the league and then broke out as a starter at right tackle in 2009, grading out 30th on 571 snaps.

He was even better in 2010 on the blindside, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle. However, he then struggled in 2011, grading out 51st out of 76 eligible and was moved back to right tackle. That positional move didn’t really help him in 2012, as he graded out 68th out of 80 eligible. The Cowboys slashed his salary for 2013 and 2014 and he responded well, grading out 20th among offensive tackles at right tackle last season. There’s obviously no guarantee he can be as good as that again in 2014 given his history, but he saved his job for 2014 with a strong 2013 season.

The Cowboys also have a pair of former 1st round picks at left tackle and center in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick respectively, giving them three former 1st round picks on the offensive line, including Martin. Smith is the better of the two. The 2011 9th overall pick graded out 3rd in 2011 and 7th in 2013, with a down 2012 season in between, when he graded out slightly below average. He played right tackle as a rookie, had some growing pains at left tackle in 2012, but then put it all together last season. Only going into his age 24 season, Smith is one of the better young left tackles in the game. The Cowboys picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Frederick isn’t as good as Smith, but he’s still a strong offensive lineman. He was a surprise pick as the 31st overall pick in 2013, but he impressed as a rookie, grading out 7th at his position. He struggled in pass protection, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible in that aspect, which is unfortunate considering pass protection is more important than run blocking, but he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking center and he could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. It’s a strong offensive line overall.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Cowboys also have plenty of talent in the receiving corps. Dez Bryant is the leader of this unit, though he’s not quite as good as his numbers would suggest. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2010 as a first round rookie, 12th in 2011, 40th in 2012, and 14th in 2013. He’s averaged 1.97 yards per route run in his 4 year career and caught 63.1% of his targets, which is above average, but not fantastic. He’s averaged 2.09 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, but he’s also dropped 22 passes. Still, he’s going into his age 26 season only and he could have a very big contract year.

The Cowboys got rid of Miles Austin this off-season, after the injury plagued, aging former 1000 yard receiver caught just 22 passes for 244 yards in 11 games last season and averaged 0.76 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade last season. He could have bounced back this season, but it was his age 30 season and he was owed a lot of money so the Cowboys are going to move forward with some young receivers after Bryant on the depth chart.

The heavy favorite to be the #2 wide receiver is Terrence Williams, who was 2nd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season with 700, ahead of the injury plagued Austin. The 3rd round rookie caught 44 passes on 72 targets (61.1%) for 736 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns on 490 routes run, an average of 1.50 yards per route run, which isn’t great. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus overall and actually ranked 89th out of 111 eligible in pure pass catching grade. Still, he has upside and he could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league considering rookie wide receivers rarely do anything.

Meanwhile, 3rd year wide receiver Cole Beasley is going to have a significantly bigger role this season as the slot receiver. The 2012 undrafted free agent has played just 375 snaps in 2 seasons, but a ridiculous 312 of them have been routes run. He’s caught 54 passes on 76 attempts (71.1%) for 496 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. He has a lot of potential but the 5-8 177 pounder is only a slot man, running 293 of his 312 routes on the slot (93.9%) and he’s still unproven. We’ll see how he does as the full-time slot man. Their competition behind him and Williams is also really young as Devin Street is a 5th round rookie and Dwayne Harris is primarily a return man who has played 414 snaps in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2011.

At tight end, Jason Witten remains one of the best and most reliable tight ends in the NFL. Since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2003, he’s missed one game, missing one as a rookie when he broke his jaw. He played in the opener in 2012 less than 3 weeks after rupturing his spleen and needing to sign a waiver to get onto the field. Excluding his rookie year, he’s always been between 64 and 110 catches 754 and 1152 yards and 1 and 7 touchdowns.

He’s also a fantastic run blocker, as the 6-6 261 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker on Pro Football Focus in every season since they started keeping track in 2007. He’s also been a top-9 tight end in each of the last 7 seasons (something no other tight end can say) and a top-4 tight end in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus, maxing out at #1 in 2009 and 2010 and grading out 3rd last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, but he should still be a dominant tight end.

With a lot of youth at wide receiver, the Cowboys are probably hoping they can run more two-tight end sets this season than last season. They drafted Gavin Escobar in the 2nd round in 2013 for a reason, but he only played 207 snaps as a rookie. He wasn’t bad on those 207 snaps so he could be fine in a bigger role in 2014. If he can’t win the #2 tight end job, it’ll be disappointing and it’ll once again be up to 2012 7th round pick James Hanna to be the #2 tight end. Hanna has played 424 snaps in 2 seasons and struggled mightily on 315 snaps last season, especially struggling as a run blocker. Despite his limited playing time, he still graded out 59th out of 64 eligible tight ends last season. After Bryant and Witten there are question marks in the receiving corps, but there’s young talent.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Cowboys were able to have a well-rounded offense last season because they ran the ball well. They didn’t run that often, running 336 times to 586 passes (something that won’t change with Scott Linehan coming in from Detroit), but they were effective when they ran, rushing for 1504 yards and 12 touchdowns, an average of 4.48 YPC. That’s because DeMarco Murray had the best season of his career, rushing for 1121 yards and 9 touchdowns on 217 attempts, an average of 5.17 YPC. He also added 53 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown through the air.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back overall and had the 7th highest elusive rating last season with 53 broken tackles on 270 touches and 2.71 yards per carry after contact. The Cowboys’ strong run blocking offensive line helped, but he also showed fantastic running ability himself. I’m skeptical whether or not he can repeat that kind of season, given his injury history. He’s been banged up dating back to college, even missing 2 games last season, and missing a combined 11 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s never played more than 14 games in a season and the 270 touches he had last season blew his previous career high of 196 out of the water.

If Murray misses time, it’ll be a bigger role for Lance Dunbar, who could have a significant role either way. Scott Linehan, coming in from Detroit, sees Dunbar as someone who can be a Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead type weapon so he’ll have a significant role on passing downs and make Murray largely a two-down running back. He won’t see a lot of carries unless Murray gets hurt, but he could see 40-50 catches. The 2012 undrafted free agent has seen 143 carries in 2 seasons in the league.

The 5-8 188 pounder could have trouble carrying the load if Murray gets hurt though so the #3 running back position in Dallas is important. There’s currently a positional battle for that role between Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams. Randle is currently leading the battle, even after struggling mightily on 121 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season. Williams was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but injuries have derailed his career. He’s had injury problems dating back to his days at Virginia Tech and, as a professional, they’ve caused him to be limited to 5 games and 58 carries in his career and caused him to averaged just 2.83 yards per carry. There’s talent at running back with DeMarco Murray, but, because of his history with injuries, he’s unlikely to match what he did last season and their depth at the position is less than ideal given that situation.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense was strong last season, their defense was terrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66%, easily worst in the NFL. They had 20 players play at least a snap on the defensive line last season and only two of them graded out positively. As bad as they were defensively last season, they could be even worse this season. The Cowboys had 4 players play more than 100 snaps on defense last season and grade out above average on Pro Football Focus. Two of them (Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware) are gone, while another one (Sean Lee) is out for the season with injury.

When the Cowboys lost Jason Hatcher this off-season, their defensive tackles might have been the single worst position group any team had at any position in the NFL. Fortunately, they signed Henry Melton from Chicago, who reunites with former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL and a rough start to the 2013 season, in which he struggled mightily on 125 snaps before getting hurt.

He could return to form this season, back with Marinelli, and he’s still young, only going into his age 28 season, but ACL injuries are tricky. At his best, he’s a very good defensive tackle and the 6-3 260 pounder is a fantastic fit as a one gap penetrator in a scheme like Marinelli’s. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 (grading out well above average as a pass rusher and below average as a run stopper in both seasons), after struggling on a combined 353 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. A return to form would obviously really help this defense, but there are no guarantees.

After him, the depth chart at defensive tackle is pathetic. Nick Hayden led the defensive line in snaps played last season with 843. That’s absurd because Hayden was out of the league in 2012, played 33 snaps in 2011, and struggled mightily in his last significant action in 2010, grading out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles on just 484 snaps. He played about as well as you’d expect him to last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle, showing himself to be extremely overstretched in such a large role. I don’t expect him to be any better this season. He could have a smaller role, but anyone else who plays significant snaps at the position won’t be much better.

The biggest competitor for Hayden’s starting job is Terrell McClain, a 2011 3rd round pick who is already on his 4th team. He’s graded out below average in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s played a combined 203 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. In his only season of significant action as a rookie in 2011, he graded out 83rd out of 88 eligible defensive tackles on just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He won’t be much of an upgrade over Hayden if he wins the starting job. They really need Melton to stay healthy. If he can’t, McClain and Hayden would both have to start and the 3rd defensive tackle would be 7th round rookie Ken Bishop. The fact that Bishop is currently their 4th defensive tackle just reinforces how bad things are at the position.

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost DeMarcus Ware this off-season. Ware is on the decline, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, on an otherwise horrible defense. The Cowboys will attempt to replace him with a combination of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence. Spencer has a very impressive history. The 2007 1st round pick was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons from 2008-2012, including 4 as an every down starter and topping at #1 overall in 2012. As a result, he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys twice, but he played just 38 snaps on his 2nd franchise tag in 2013, missing most of the season with a knee injury.

He was brought back on a one year, prove it deal this off-season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of serious microfracture surgery and reports haven’t been good. He’s reportedly out of shape, not close to on schedule in terms of his recovery, and could begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games and put him severely behind the 8-ball. His health is something to monitor throughout training camp and the pre-season, if he’s even able to get onto the field then. Lawrence, meanwhile, is a 2nd round rookie who will be counted on in a significant role as a rookie, especially if Spencer can’t stay healthy.

George Selvie will remain the starter on the other side. In an overall very bad year for the Cowboys’ defense, one of the positives was Selvie. He wasn’t great or anything and he didn’t even grade out above average (grading out slightly below average, 27th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive end), but it was nice to see the one-time dominant college pass rusher finally make a positive contribution. He had 14 sacks as a sophomore in 2007, but he combined for just 8 sacks in 2008 and 2009 and ended up falling to the 7th round of the 2010 NFL draft. In the first 3 seasons of his career, he combined to play 662 snaps, struggling when on the field, but Rod Marinelli was able to get the most out of him last season and get him to give at least some positive contributions. However, he’s still very much a one year wonder so he could regress in 2014.

One defensive end who could get a significant role, especially if Spencer can’t play, is Jeremy Mincey, a free agent acquisition and their 4th defensive end. Mincey was a 6th round pick in 2006 and played just 166 snaps from 2007-2009, before breaking out as a solid starter in 2010 and an above average starter in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That convinced the Jaguars to give him a 20 million dollar deal over 4 years with 9 million guaranteed. Mincey then proved that his 2011 season was a fluke, grading out 47th out of 62 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and then getting cut midway through 2013, combining for just 304 snaps on the season between Jacksonville and Denver. He could bounce back this season, but he’s already going into his age 31 season. The Cowboys’ defensive line, overall, might be even worse than it was last season.

Grade: C

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost Sean Lee in addition to DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. It’s usually tough to know how a team will play without a certain guy, but Lee also missed 5 games with injury last season (this torn ACL will make it 31 games missed 3 games) so we have some reference point. The Cowboys’ defense was awful overall, but they were even worse without Lee, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 79.51% rate in the 6 games in which Lee played fewer than 50% of snaps, as opposed to 76.60% in the other 10 games.

Lee is incredibly talented, but has injury problems dating back to his days at Penn State, which is why he fell to the 2nd round in 2012. As a professional, he’s missed 18 games over the past 4 seasons combined with another 16 on the horizon, but he’s been dominant when on the field, grading out 7th in 2013 on 717 snaps and 8th in 2012 on 331 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher in 2012. He was 14th at his position in 2011 and excelled on 169 snaps in 2010, grading out 16th at his position, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher.

Lee will be replaced at middle linebacker by Justin Durant, who played 202 snaps in a two-down role last season, grading out slightly below average. Prior to last year, he had graded out above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2007. He averaged 620 snaps per season over those 6 seasons, playing both outside and inside linebacker. He’s never been spectacular, but he had always been solid prior to last season. He struggled last season, but he’s only going into his age 29 season, so he could bounce back. The issue is that he struggles in coverage, grading out below average in that aspect in 4 of 6 seasons, as good as he is against the run, so he could be limited to two-down work, as he often has been in his career.

DeVonte Holloman took over for Lee when he was hurt last season, but the 6th round rookie was horrible in 2013. He played just 214 snaps as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked middle linebacker despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. The wild card in the linebacking corps is Rolando McClain. The Cowboys took a long shot trading a late round pick to the Ravens for him.

McClain was out of the league completely last year after “retiring” after his 3rd year in the league in 2012. He got kicked off the Raiders’ roster in 2012 because of issues with his coaching, got signed by the Ravens, but then retired after his 3rd arrest since being drafted. However, he was the 8th overall pick in 2010, graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012, and is only going into his age 25 season, so it was a worthwhile gamble, there’s just no guarantee it works out. He’s had a variety of issues and is reportedly out of shape after his year off. The Cowboys also used a 4th round pick on Anthony Hitchens.

Any of the players who lose the middle linebacker battle can play the two-down role outside, where Durant played last season. Right now, the Cowboys have Durant as an every down player inside and Kyle Wilbur playing a two-down role on the outside. Wilbur, unfortunately, is definitely only a two-down player. The 6-4 246 pounder is a converted defensive end who has struggled at defensive end and linebacker on 529 snaps in 2 seasons after going in the 4th round in 2012. Things are very much up for grabs in the linebacking corps.

The one thing that is certain is that Bruce Carter will be an every down player on the outside. The 2011 2nd round pick was supposed to have a breakout year last year, but, like the rest of the defense, he struggled, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He struggled on 41 snaps as a rookie, but graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker in 2012. A lot of people thought he would breakout in his 3rd year in the league back at his natural position of outside linebacker, but that didn’t happen. His future now looks a lot bleaker than it did last season, going into his contract year, and, on top of that, he’s missed 12 games in 3 seasons due to injury. The 6-2 240 pounder played well in coverage, but struggled mightily against the run, showing a lack of physicality that’s been an issue for him dating back to his collegiate days. This unit is pretty bad without Sean Lee.

Grade: C-

Secondary

I mentioned that the Cowboys had 4 defensive players who played more than 100 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone, while Sean Lee is hurt. The 4th one was cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked cornerback. He struggled mightily against the run, but dominated in coverage, grading out 15th in that aspect. He was forced into the starting lineup (starting 15 games and playing 1118 snaps) because Morris Claiborne struggled and got demoted to 3rd cornerback.

He’ll compete with Claiborne to keep that starting job. The Cowboys traded up in 2012 to draft Claiborne 6th overall, but he’s largely been a bust through the first 2 seasons of his career. He graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, doing so as a starter in 2012 and as the #3 cornerback in 2013. There are no guarantees that Scandrick can continue to hold him off though and not even necessarily because Claiborne is ready to breakout or anything. Scandrick has a very inconsistent history at best. Scandrick graded out below average in 3 of his first 5 seasons in the league from 2008-2012 and never graded out above average in a season he played more than 395 snaps before last season. There are no guarantees he can keep it up and hold off Claiborne.

Brandon Carr remains locked in as the other starter by virtue of his absurd salary, 7.5 million. The Cowboys gave him a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar contract with 25.5 million guaranteed  before the 2012 season, but he’s only graded out about average in his first 2 seasons in Dallas. He got that deal because he was very good in Kansas City, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback in 2009, 12th ranked cornerback in 2010, and 30th ranked cornerback in 2011. That player seems to be gone so this could be easily be Carr’s last season in Dallas, owed a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2015.

Things aren’t terrible at cornerback, but they are at safety. Barry Church was their best safety last season and he is locked in at one starting spot. He didn’t even grade out above average, though he wasn’t terrible. The other starting spot has bigger problems, as JJ Wilcox and Jeff Heath will battle for the other starting job. They played 530 and 613 snaps respectively last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th and 62nd ranked safeties respectively out of 86 eligible. Wilcox probably has the better long-term potential, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2013, while Heath was an undrafted rookie last year, but it’s very possible that neither is the solution at that position. It’s a defense that has the potential to be truly terrible and once again the worst in the NFL.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cowboys were significantly worse than their record last season because of a horrific defense and this year their defense could easily be even worse without Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, and Sean Lee. That could make them one of the worst teams in the league, even if they have a solid offense. Last year, the only way their defense could get off the field was forcing turnovers, which isn’t sustainable, especially since they needed to recover 66.67% of fumbles to do that. They should be completely awful on that side of the ball. I’ll have an official wins prediction when I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC East

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Philadelphia Eagles 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Eagles made the head coaching splash of last off-season, hiring supposed offensive mastermind Chip Kelly from the University of Oregon. There was no doubt that Kelly’s offenses were explosive and revolutionary on the collegiate level, but it still remained to be seen whether or not that could translate to the NFL level. Things started out sluggish, but that was mostly because Michael Vick was the quarterback.

Kelly actually did a solid job with Vick given what he was working with, as Vick completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 8.62 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries. He did that despite grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible in passing grade, which suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him.

However, things with this offense really took off when Vick was benched for 2nd year player Nick Foles. Foles broke into the lineup because of a Vick injury (what else) and took the starting job and ran with it, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He led the league in QB rating at 119.2, ahead of even Peyton Manning, and finished with the 3rd best QB rating season all time. In games in which Nick Foles started and finished the game, the Eagles moved the chains at a 78.69% rate, as opposed to 70.04% in their other games. That’s the difference between the 2nd and the 20th best offense last season.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback, which is less impressive than his statistics, which again suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him. Still, he had a strong season last year and the Eagles have a great combination of quarterback and head coach. The Eagles probably won’t move the chains at a 78.69% rate again next season. It’ll be near impossible for Foles to repeat the 3rd best quarterback rating season all-time, especially not over a full 16 game season.

He definitely won’t throw an interception on just 0.6% of his passes again (2 interceptions on 317 attempts). Opponents also now have a full season of tape of Kelly’s offense, so they won’t catch opponents off guard as much, though part of what makes Kelly so great is his ability to adapt. The Eagles will also have a tougher schedule after they faced the 4th easiest schedule last season in terms of DVOA. Still, they should be one of the top offenses in the NFL, possibly top-5.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One other thing that could easily hurt the Eagles’ offense is the loss of DeSean Jackson. Jackson was coming off of the best season of his career, catching 82 passes on 119 attempts (68.9%) for 1332 receiving yards on 544 routes run (2.45 yards per route run), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver. However, he was still cut. There were rumors that he was cut because of potential gang ties he might have, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, it’s more likely that he was cut because he was owed 10.7 million by the Eagles and Chip Kelly felt he could replace Jackson’s production with a number of different players and some schematic changes.

One player who got paid by the Eagles this off-season was Riley Cooper, though he got paid a lot less than DeSean Jackson, re-signing for 22.5 million over 5 years with 10 million guaranteed. Cooper, a 2010 5th round pick, had a breakout year last year, catching 47 passes on 81 attempts (58.0%) for 835 yards on 526 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. However, he only graded out about average on Pro Football Focus and he’s the definition of a one year wonder.

A year ago, Cooper was the Eagles 4th receiver and had 46 catches for 679 catches and 5 touchdowns in the first 3 years of his career. He struggled to start the 2013 season as well, catching 8 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in his first 5 games in a starting role, before breaking out down the stretch. He had only played 1054 snaps before last season and graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. He’s a great fit for the Eagles’ offense and Chip Kelly could easily continue to get the most out of him, but he’s a one-year wonder and he could struggle without Jackson opposite him. He’s certainly not the coverage changing receiver that Jackson was.

The more promising wide receiver is Jeremy Maclin. Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Maclin is actually a more versatile player as compared to Riley Cooper and even DeSean Jackson and I think he can be a strong fit in Chip Kelly’s offense, though he’s yet to play for Kelly in a regular season game. Injuries have been the problem for Maclin throughout his career as the 2009 1st round pick has missed 21 games in 5 years in his career, including all of last season and has only once played all 16 games. He’s averaged 1.57 yards per route run throughout his career. The 2009 1st round pick could have the best season of his career in 2014 if he can stay healthy.

The Eagles also spent a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver to help make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson, drafting Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle in their first year in the league, but he should still be an upgrade on the slot over incumbent Jason Avant, who is in Carolina now. Avant was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. The Eagles also used a 3rd round pick on Josh Huff, but he won’t have much of a role as a rookie. Matthews will because the Eagles frequently go 3-wide, as Avant played 807 snaps last season.

The Eagles will probably play fewer 3-wide sets this season though because one of the other things they’re going to do to make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson is use more two-tight end sets, which is a good idea because they have a pair of talented tight ends. Brent Celek was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season, largely because he was their 2nd ranked run blocking tight end, but he still graded out about average as a pass catcher, catching 32 passes on 47 attempts (68.1%) for 502 yards and 6 touchdowns on 319 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. Celek has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, including last year’s #2 finish, a #13 finish in 2011, and a #13 finish in 2009.

Zach Ertz, meanwhile, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end last season as a 2nd round rookie, despite playing just 459 snaps. He too was a solid blocker, but he graded out above average as both a pass catcher in addition to as a run blocker. He caught 36 passes on 55 attempts (65.5%) for 469 yards and 4 touchdowns on 243 routes run, an impressive 1.93 yards per route run. Going into his 2nd year in the league, the 6-5 250 pound Stanford product will have a bigger role and be used all over the formation.

The Eagles also added “running back” Darren Sproles, who will help in the passing game. I put running back in quotations because he’s had 291 catches to 238 carries over the past 4 seasons combined and he wasn’t brought to Philadelphia to help in the running game. He’ll backup feature back LeSean McCoy, but McCoy played 890 snaps last season and his backup played 199 snaps, including 75 carries. Sproles will help out as a versatile weapon in the passing game and often play at the same time as McCoy, lining up in the other side of the backfield and in the slot primarily.

Sproles was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked pass catching running back in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, 7th ranked in 2011, 5th ranked in 2012, and 1st ranked in 2013. He’s going into his age 31 season, which is a minor concern, but he should still be an asset for them on about 6-8 touches per game. McCoy will also help out in the passing game. He caught 52 passes for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked pass catching running back. The loss of Jackson will hurt, though the Eagles’ system, the return of Jeremy Maclin, the addition of Jordan Matthews, and the greater emphasize on Zach Ertz will help combat that.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Speaking of LeSean McCoy, he was another huge part of this strong offense last season and, unlike Jackson, he’s still around, fortunately. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back last season, grading out by far #1 in run grade and #7 as a pass catcher, only struggling in pass protection. He rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 attempts, an average of 5.12 yards per attempt, and caught 52 passes on 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He broke 75 tackles on 366 touches and averaged 2.38 yards per carry after contact, giving him the 9th best elusive rating in the NFL.

There’s obviously no guarantee he continues that kind of success. It’s hard to repeat that at any position, especially at running back, especially when you’re a 5-10 198 pounder who had 366 touches (391 including post-season). This was the first time in his career he had graded out above 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus (55th in 2009, 12th in 2010, 19th in 2011, 10th in 2012), so he’s a one year wonder in terms of this kind of dominance. Still, he’s arguably the best running back in the NFL (Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles give him competition) and he’s a great fit for Chip Kelly’s offense so he could have another dominant season.

As I mentioned, Sproles will be his backup. Sproles is going to be much more valuable as a pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 5.08 yards per carry in his career (2221 yards and 11 touchdowns on 437 attempts). He’s not a good runner inside the tackles and he’s certainly not a guy capable of carrying the load if McCoy goes down with an injury, but he’ll be valuable on 6-8 touches per game. The guy who will be the lead back if McCoy gets hurt is Chris Polk, who will otherwise have a situational short yardage role. The 2012 undrafted free agent is 5-10 222 and has played 47 career snaps, rushing for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 attempts.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One of the other reasons why the Eagles had such a good offense last season was their drastically improved offensive line. They weren’t great in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive line in that aspect, but they were easily #1 in run blocking, part of why LeSean McCoy was able to have such a good season. Both were better than 2012, when they were 27th in pass protection and 6th in run blocking.

The biggest difference was the return of Jason Peters from injury. Peters missed all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle by far in 2011. Upon his return in 2013, he barely seemed slowed at all, grading out 4th at his position. He’s graded out above average in every healthy season since 2007, grading out 14th in 2007, 19th in 2009, and 13th in 2010. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should still be able to have another strong season on the blindside for the Eagles.

Left guard Evan Mathis remained the best guard in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard for the 3rd straight year. No one at any other position has graded out #1 in each of the last 3 seasons. The Eagles wisely snatched him up from the Bengals before the 2011 season, after he excelled as a reserve in 2010 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard in 2009 on 648 snaps in 7 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher that season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s great in both aspects. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he should have another dominant season this year, provided he doesn’t hold out (he’s reportedly considering it because he’s unhappy with his deal). There might not be a more dominant player at any position in the NFL.

The Eagles also got a breakout year from 3rd year center Jason Kelce, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked center last season. He’s still a one year wonder though, which is especially concerning considering he was just a 6th round pick in 2011. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 33rd out of 35 eligible among centers. In 2012, he flashed on 139 snaps in 2 games before going down for the season with torn ACL and MCL. This is obviously nitpicking and he’s a very good player obviously, but expecting him to be as dominant as he was last year is a little short-sighted. The Eagles signed him to a 6-year, 37.5 million dollar extension this off-season, one that could turn into a steal if Kelce keeps this up, when you consider that fellow centers Alex Mack and Maurkice Pouncey got 42 million and 44 million respectively over 5 seasons this off-season.

Things aren’t as good on the right side. Right guard Todd Herremans’ return from injury in 2013 definitely helped this offensive line, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard. However, he struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 3rd worst at his position in that aspect. He was dominant as a run blocker, grading out 2nd only to teammate Evan Mathis in that aspect, but his issues in pass protection are concerning, considering that’s the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job and considering he’s going into his age 32 season.

At right tackle, Lane Johnson was an upgrade for them as a rookie, but the 4th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft graded out below average. He was great as a run blocker, grading out 9th in that aspect, but he was 67th out of 76 eligible in pass protection, which, again, is a the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job. He really seemed to be getting it down the stretch last year as the incredibly athletic, but raw Oklahoma product graded out well above average in 5 of his final 8 games and well below average in none. This was after graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 5. He also had a strong playoff game. He looked on his way to a breakout 2nd year in the league.

The issue is that Johnson got suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which will not only cause him to miss 4 games, but could also put him behind in the 8-ball and postpone his breakout year. He could still have a breakout year, but he could just as easily, if not more easily, not. In his absence, Allen Barbre will be the starter. He’s played a combined 94 snaps over the past 4 seasons, struggled the last time he saw significant action, grading out 64th out of 77 eligible on 544 snaps in 2009, and is going into his age 30 season. The Eagles clearly like him, giving him a 3-year extension this off-season worth 4.5 million dollars, but I don’t get it. He’ll be their utility reserve 6th offensive lineman when everyone upfront is in the starting lineup.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Eagles had a great offense last season, they had a poor defense, ranking 22nd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. If the Eagles continue to move the chains at a 78.69% rate, as they did last season in games that Nick Foles started and finished, that won’t be a big issue, but if their offense struggles to maintain that type of success over 16 games, with a year of tape on their offense for opponents to watch and no DeSean Jackson, they’re going to be in some trouble. And even if their offense remains prolific, their defense could still hold them back from the next level.

They have talent on the defensive line though. Fletcher Cox was their 1st round pick in 2012 and he has a lot of talent. He graded out above average on 525 snaps as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 908 snaps, in the defensive tackle’s first experience in a 3-4. He’s a significantly better pass rusher than he is a run stopper, but he graded out positive in both aspects this season. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could continue improving this year and emerge as one of the better players in the league at his position.

Cedric Thornton graded out higher than Cox, grading out 10th at his position, but Cox is the better football player. Thornton is just a one year wonder. He was undrafted and didn’t play a snap as a rookie and then struggled on 406 snaps in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible, before last season’s big year. He’s also a terrible pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked in that aspect, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run stopper at his position. The more important aspect of a defensive lineman’s job is to get after the quarterback, so that’s concerning. He’d be better off playing a two-down base package role.

If Thornton moves to a two down role or at least is on the field for fewer than the 436 pass rush snaps he was on the field for last season, it’ll be a gain in snaps for Vinny Curry. That’s a good thing, another reason why Thornton should be moved to a pure base package role. Curry was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but only played 89 snaps as a rookie. The 6-3 266 pounder turned out to be a better fit as a situational interior pass rusher in a 3-4 than he was as a defensive end in a 4-3. Curry was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, despite just playing 322 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher. He had 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 22 hurries on just 228 pass rush snaps (a rate of 14.0%). He could be even more valuable in a 500 or so snap role with 300-350 pass rush snaps.

The nose tackle will be Bennie Logan, who will play a two-down base package role this season. Logan took over from Isaac Sopoaga mid-season last year, after Sopoaga got traded to the Patriots. Logan struggled on 488 snaps and 8 starts last season, grading out below average. The 2013 3rd round pick could be better in his second year in the league, but he’s not an ideal fit for the nose tackle position at 6-2 309 so he could easily struggle again. Unfortunately, the Eagles don’t have much competition for him. The only true nose tackle on their roster is 7th round rookie Beau Allen, a 6-2 333 pounder out of Wisconsin. There are issues on this defensive line, but it’s probably their best defensive unit.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Things aren’t great in the linebacking corps either, but they do have some talent. I’ll start with the good. Trent Cole had a revival year last year in his first year in a 3-4, as the 6-2 260 pounder graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. I call it a revival year because he struggled by his standards in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his worst season since 2007 as he had graded out in the top-6 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from 2008-2011, including #1 in both 2010 and 2011. That was a concern because Trent Cole is an aging player, which remains a concern even after his strong 2013 season. He’s going into his age 32 season. The Eagles drafted Marcus Smith in the 1st round in this past draft with the idea of him being Cole’s long-term replacement, as Cole will be owed 10 million going into his age 33 season in 2015.

Connor Barwin was the opposite starter and will continue to be the opposite starter this season. He played 1158 snaps last season, 120 snaps more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker, including 297 snaps in coverage. That allowed Trent Cole to only have to drop on 124 snaps last season, which was good because the first time linebacker struggled in coverage last season. The issue is that Barwin didn’t really play that well, grading out below average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011 (after struggling on a combined 377 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2009), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last two seasons, including 30th out of 35 eligible in 2012. He could be better in a smaller role next season.

Another reason why Barwin playing a smaller role next season would be a good thing is because it would be more playing time for Brandon Graham. The 2010 1st round pick was drafted as a defensive end and was impressive as a rookie on 482 snaps, but he suffered a broken leg down the stretch and played just 56 snaps in 2011. He had a fantastic 2012 season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end on just 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher at his position, showing that 1st round talent.

However, the Eagles moved to a 3-4 last off-season and Graham was moved to outside linebacker. The coaching staff didn’t feel the 6-1 274 pounder was a good fit for the position, signing Connor Barwin to start over him, limiting Graham to 331 snaps. Still, Graham impressed in that limited playing time, grading out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher at the position. The Eagles obviously also have Marcus Smith, an aforementioned 2014 1st round pick. They’d be in better shape if they let Barwin be a two-down player and give more pass rush snaps to Graham and Smith. Graham is probably above the rookie on the depth chart, with Smith being brought in primarily for 2015, when Cole could be a cap casualty and Brandon Graham could leave as a free agent.

The Eagles have bigger problems at middle linebacker, where they have an aging veteran and an inexperienced youngster. That aging veteran is DeMeco Ryans, who graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and who is going into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2012, but that was in a 4-3 and now the Eagles are in a 3-4, a system that the 6-1 229 pounder has never been comfortable in. Ryans has graded out above average in every season in his career in which he’s played in a 4-3, but he was limited to part-time work as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 in 2011 and got himself traded to Philadelphia and then struggled last season back in a 3-4.

The youngster is Mychal Kendricks, who NBC’s Cris Collinsworth is obsessed with for some reason. He graded out below average last season. He missed a position leading 21 tackles and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He was better than when he was a 2nd round rookie in 2012 and graded out 2nd worst among 4-3 outside linebackers and he could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he might also just not be that great of a player.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The worst part of the Eagles’ defense is the secondary. It hurts that easily their best coverage player (and only defensive back to grade out above average in coverage) is Brandon Boykin, a 5-9 182 pounder who can only play the slot. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked cornerback last season on 635 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He was even better in pure coverage grade, grading out 2nd in that aspect. He also graded out above average on 526 snaps as a rookie. He’s played a combined 107 snaps not on the slot over the past 2 seasons combined and he’ll have to remain purely a slot cornerback this season.

A trio of cornerbacks will compete for the 2 starting jobs, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and Nolan Carroll. Williams and Fletcher were the starters last season. Fletcher graded out above average last season, after being limited to 677 snaps over the previous 2 seasons thanks to injury. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and he’s a solid starter when healthy, so he should stick around as a starter.

The same is not necessarily true of Cary Williams, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. The ex-Raven graded out slightly below average in 2012 and slightly above average in 2011, after the 2009 7th round pick played a combined 59 snaps over the first 3 seasons of his career. He averages out as a slightly below average starter. His 4.25 million dollar salary is already guaranteed for 2014, but that doesn’t mean he can’t lose his starting job.

Nolan Carroll signed a 2-year 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests the Eagles see him as a legitimate competitor for a starting job. He has the talent to beat out Williams too.  Carroll has seen his snap count increase in each of the past 3 seasons, going from 330, to 653, to 809 snaps from 2011-2013. He’s been roughly an average player on Pro Football Focus the whole time and is now an average starter. Last season he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked cornerback, right in the middle of the pack, allowing 47.8% completion, which was actually the 4th lowest in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks.

The Eagles made another free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Malcolm Jenkins to a 3-year deal worth 15.5 million. Jenkins will be an upgrade over Patrick Chung, who graded out 68th out of 86 eligible safeties last season. However, he won’t be a huge upgrade and he was overpaid. He’s failed to live up to his billing as the 15th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He struggled mightily as a slot cornerback as a rookie before being moved to safety, where he was an average starter according to Pro Football Focus in both 2010 and 2011. However, in 2012, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety and in 2013 he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked safety out of 86 eligible, just slightly above Chung.

At the other safety spot, the Eagles brought back Nate Allen on a one-year deal worth 2 million dollars and he’ll be given the first chance to remain the starter. Allen was awful in 2012, grading out 84th out of 88 eligible safeties, but he was better in 2013, grading just below average. It’s obviously still very tough to count on him as a starter, which is why he was forced to settle for a one-year prove it deal. Earl Wolff is the backup and the 2013 5th round pick could make his way into the starting lineup at some point. He struggled on 538 snaps as a rookie and, given where he was drafted, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. It’s a weak secondary on an overall weak defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Eagles had a poor defense last year, ranking 22nd in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. They’re unlikely to be better on that side of the ball. Fortunately, they should be better on offense with a full season of Nick Foles under center, after ranking 7th, moving the chains at a 74.91% rate. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were in 2013 in games Foles started and ended though, when they moved the chains at a 78.69% rate. It’s hard to project that to a 16 game season, especially with a still inexperienced Foles under center, a whole season of tape for their opponents to study, and the loss of DeSean Jackson. They should still move the chains around a 75-76% rate and they are definitely the best team in the weak NFC East, but they have issues keeping them from the top of the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC East

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