Minnesota Vikings 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings went 10-6 in 2012 and made a surprise run to the playoffs, after going 3-13 the year before. A team going from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs isn’t as uncommon as it sounds, as at least one team does so almost every season, but the same is true of the opposite and the Vikings seemed like the most likely team to do so going into 2013. They weren’t the only ones who did so (Houston, Atlanta, and Washington joined them in a bizarre season), but the Vikings did end up going 5-10-1.

There are a number of reasons why that regression should have been predictable. Teams that make big leaps in win totals tend to decline by an average of half the amount the following season. The Vikings also barely had any injuries in 2012 (2nd in adjusted games lost) and they went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They also had significant personnel losses like Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield last off-season. The biggest reason they declined last season though is because Adrian Peterson was, predictably, unable to repeat one of the greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history.

He dragged them into the playoffs in 2012, rushing for 2097 yards and 12 touchdowns on 348 carries (6.03 YPC). That allowed them to make the playoffs even though quarterback Christian Ponder completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of just 6.08 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.08 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 8/100 of a yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. It was Peterson.

In 2013, Peterson was “just” very good, missing 2 games with injury and rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. Christian Ponder raised his YPA to 6.90 YPA, and completed 63.6% of his passes, but threw 9 interceptions to 7 touchdowns and got benched on several occasions, with Matt Cassel finishing the season as the starter. Ponder is now the 3rd string quarterback in Minnesota behind the veteran Cassel and promising 1st round rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Either Cassel or Bridgewater will be the starting quarterback this season (they could both see starts) and it’s unlikely that Ponder sees much meaningful action this year.

Fortunately, the Vikings offense wasn’t bad under Matt Cassel last season, as they moved the chains at a 70.97% rate, in the 7 games in which Cassel played the majority of the snaps, as opposed to 70.25% in their other 9 games. It’s not a huge difference, but it is a difference and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Peterson was either out or limited in each of the Vikings’ final 4 games (all of which Cassel started), combining to rush for 58 yards on 18 carries in those 4 games. Cassel, on the season, completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.11 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback last season out of 42 eligible, while Ponder was 35th.

Cassel is obviously not a long-term solution, going into his age 32 season, but he’s a decent placeholder for promising rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who could easily end up just winning the starting job in training camp. Bridgewater fell to 32 because of concerns about his size and arm strength, but he was a dominant collegiate player in the intermediate part of the field and he’s NFL ready after running a fairly complex offense at the University of Louisville. Cassel’s numbers last season were better than his career averages, which is concerning (59.0%, 6.66 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions), but part of that is also just that the Vikings have a surprisingly strong offensive supporting cast around the quarterback. Bridgewater, if he’s ready to start, will enjoy the benefits of that strong supporting cast as well.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The obvious part of this strong supporting cast is the running back Adrian Peterson, but I’m going to start with something less obvious, which is that the Vikings have a strong offensive line. The best player on the offensive line is center John Sullivan, who might be the best center in the NFL. He had a rough start to his career as a starter, after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008, but he’s been a top-3 center on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only center in the game who can say so. He’s developed into a fantastic interior offensive lineman and should continue to play very well this season.

Phil Loadholt is also a dominant offensive lineman. The 6-8 343 pounder is solely a right tackle, but he’s still a huge asset for them, dominating in run blocking and holding up well in pass protection. He’s been a 5-year starter for them since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, making 78 of 80 starts, and he’s graded out above average in 4 out of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s gotten better in each of the last 3 seasons, going from Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, to 21st in 2012, to 11th last season, the best season of his career. He should have another strong season in 2014.

Right guard Brandon Fusco also had a great season last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard. He doesn’t have a history of doing that kind of thing though, as the 2011 6th round pick played 26 snaps as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Fusco could easily have another strong season in his 4th year in the league in 2014, also his contract year, but he remains a one year wonder.

While Fusco broke out last year, left tackle Matt Kalil regressed, after the 2013 4th overall pick had a strong rookie season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but he was their 51st ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013. He dealt with a knee injury throughout the season, which he blames for his struggles. He had off-season surgery on his right knee and is expected to be healthier for this season. A return to form for the talented young blindside protector would be a big boost to this already strong offensive line and would counteract any regression that Fusco might show.

The only issue the Vikings had on the offensive line last season was left guard, where Charlie Johnson was the starter. Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible, below average. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out below average in each of the last 7 seasons, struggling at both left tackle and left guard. Now going into his age 30 season, things are unlikely to get any better. He’ll be pushed for his starting guard by Jeff Baca, a 2013 6th round pick who played 4 snaps as a rookie. Baca might not be an upgrade though. It’s a position of weakness on any otherwise very strong offensive line. They were Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive line in terms of run blocking in 2013 and their 7th ranked offensive line in terms of pass blocking.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson is obviously a big part of their strong offensive supporting cast. He didn’t repeat the 2000 rushing yard season he had in 2012, but he still impressed, rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 10,115 yards (already 27th all-time) and 86 touchdowns on 2033 carries, an average of 4.98 YPC. He wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, like he was in 2012, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect. In the past 4 seasons, he’s ranked 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 4th respectively in that aspect.

However, his weakness is that he struggles both as a receiver and a pass protector, grading out below average in the first aspect in 6 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league and in the second aspect in 5 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league. He’s caught 206 passes for 1697 yards and 5 touchdowns in 103 career games. The Vikings lost backup Toby Gerhart this off-season to free agency so they used a 3rd round pick on Jerick McKinnon, who will play a significant passing down role as a rookie. McKinnon has reportedly been very impressive in off-season practices, even being called their best rookie by Adrian Peterson himself.

McKinnon will also help take some of the load off of Peterson over the next few seasons as he ages. Peterson is going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. He’s one of the all-time greats and will be enshrined in Canton someday, but the average top-20 all-time rusher (in terms of yards) has their last 1000 yard season at 30-31 on average, plays another 2 seasons after that on average, and averages 567 yards and 4 touchdowns on 151 carries (3.75 YPC). Peterson should have another couple of seasons as a dominant back left in him, but it’s something to begin taking notice of.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Vikings had a thin receiving corps in 2012 and then they lost Percy Harvin, which made things even thinner, so they brought in veteran Greg Jennings through free agency and Cordarrelle Patterson as a 2013 1st round pick last off-season. Jennings was dominant in Green Bay from 2007-2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st, 24th, 17th, 16th, and 16th ranked wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in those 5 years respectively, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run over that stretch (5532 yards on 2604 routes).

However, he missed 3 games with injury in 2011 and then another 8 in 2012 and that seemed to sap his abilities. He averaged just 1.28 yards per route run in 2012 and, though he was healthier last year, he averaged just 1.62 yards per route run and was Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked wide receiver. He caught 68 passes on 101 targets (67.3%) for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The drop off in quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder/Cassel obviously had a lot to do with this, but he’s not the same player as he used to be. Now he’s going into his age 31 season so, while he could easily have a solid year again, he’s not the #1 receiver they expected him to be when they signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal with 17.8 million guaranteed after the 2012 season.

Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, ended up grading out higher than Jennings, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked wide receiver. However, much of that was because of what he did as a runner and he actually graded out below average in pass grade. The 29th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Patterson flashed his incredible athleticism, rushing for 158 yards and 3 touchdowns on 12 carries and returning 43 kickoffs for 1393 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in terms of run grade and their #1 ranked kick returner.

He also averaged 6.4 yards per catch after the catch and broke 10 tackles on 45 catches, but he showed serious issues with route running, catching just 10 passes farther than 10 yards downfield and just 3 passes farther than 20 yards downfield. He was limited primarily to short routes and screens and also dropped 5 passes. He caught 45 passes on 72 targets (62.5%) for 469 yards on 292 routes run (1.61 yards per route run). He’s expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and he has the natural ability to have a breakout year, but he’s only going into his age 23 season so there should be no surprises if he continues to be raw.

Jarius Wright, a 2012 4th round pick, could also have a bigger role this season. He’s played 636 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, including 443 routes run, and has averaged 1.68 yards per route run, catching 48 passes for 744 yards and 5 touchdowns. He could be the 3rd receiver this year. Gains in playing time by youngsters Patterson and Wright would come at the loss of veteran Jerome Simpson, who the Vikings brought back on a deal close to the veteran’s minimum this off-season. He’s had a variety of off-the-field issues and could be facing a suspension of up to 4 games to start the 2014 season after a recent DUI arrest.

He’s also a one dimensional deep threat who doesn’t catch a high percentage of his targets. Since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Simpson has caught just 54.1% of his targets for an average of 1.52 yards per route run and only graded out positive once in terms of pass catching grade. His worst season was in 2011, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 110th ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible, catching 52.1% of his targets for an average of 1.28 yards per route run in Cincinnati with Andy Dalton. The 6-2 190 pounder is a good blocker and can reel in some deep passes, but that’s about it and he can’t stay out of trouble off-the-field either.

Kyle Rudolph is the tight end and someone who could have a big breakout year. The 2011 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked tight end in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012, but that was largely because of his blocking abilities, both as a run blocker and a pass protector. He averaged just 1.11 yards per route run and ran just 30.1% of his routes from off the line. In 2013, he looked on his way to a much better receiving year, as he averaged 1.34 yards per route run, running about 40.3% of his routes from off the line. Unfortunately, he went down for the season with a foot injury after 8 games.

However, now he returns for his contract year and tight end guru Norv Turner is coming in. Rudolph has slimmed down to 6-6 260 from 275 and will be used more as a pass catcher and line up all over the formation in passing situations, much like Turner did with Antonio Gates in San Diego and Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to expect him to average 1.50 yards per route run (especially with better quarterback play) and for him to be 2nd on the team in receiving, while providing strong blocking on running plays as well.

Rhett Ellison, meanwhile, will be the #2 blocking tight end. He’s lined up all over the formation over his first 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s continued to be the strong point of attack blocker he was in college at USC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked fullback in 2012 and 8th ranked in 2013. He’ll be more of a traditional tight end this season, as he was in college, and come in for two-tight end sets and help them in the running game. He’ll likely continue to not provide much in the passing game though, but that’s not his job. The rest of the receiving corps is sneaky solid. If the Vikings can get good quarterback play, they could be a strong offense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ offense was actually pretty decent last season, especially with Cassel on the field, but their defense was horrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.91% rate, 30th in the NFL. The Vikings fired head coach Leslie Frazier, who has a background in defense, and replaced him with Mike Zimmer, one of the best defensive coordinators of the decade and a guy whose shot at a head coaching job was long overdue. There are plenty of great coordinators who don’t do well as head coach, but, at the very least, Zimmer should help this defense improve in his first season with the team.

The Vikings clearly wanted to add to their defensive line this off-season and get younger and more talented. Over 30 veterans like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are gone and the Vikings added 4 players who could see snaps on the defensive line this season. Their biggest free agent acquisition, in terms of money, was defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who they gave a 5-year 31.5 million dollar deal to come over from the Giants. Linval Joseph, a 2010 2nd round pick, was a 3-year starter with the Giants from 2011-2013.

He didn’t have a great 3 years in New York and he was probably overpaid, but he got better every season, grading out 60th in 2011, 36th in 2012, and 24th in 2013. He’s still only going into his age 26 season so he could be even better this season. He could be an upgrade over Kevin Williams, who was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked defensive tackle last season. Joseph will start inside next to Sharrif Floyd. Floyd, the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, struggled as a rookie on 472 snaps, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

The biggest contract the Vikings gave out this off-season was to Everson Griffen, who they re-signed to a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Griffen has potential and could blossom in a bigger role this season with the declining Jared Allen (who graded out below average last season) gone, but this was a very speculative deal because he’s still a projection to that role. I also don’t know who else would have paid him that kind of money.

Everson Griffen has one career start. It’s not quite as bad as that sounds because he’s been a talented reserve and he has upside. However, the Vikings really seem to be overestimating his upside. Sure, he has 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons despite being a reserve, but he’s actually played as much as some starters in terms of pass rush snaps with 423 pass rush snaps played in 2012 and 449 pass rush snaps played in 2013. When you consider that, he doesn’t seem as efficient as he once did.

He only ranked 29th out of 62 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and only ranked 21st out of 52 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 20th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. He’ll have a much bigger role this season (probably 700-800 snaps) and the 6-3 273 pounder will play outside in base packages and move inside in sub packages.

Anthony Barr, meanwhile, will be the defensive end in sub packages when Griffen goes inside. Barr was the 9th pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and will play a significant role even as a rookie. The Vikings want him to play in the Von Miller role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and moving down to defensive end and rushing the passer from the edge in sub packages. The 6-5 255 pounder is incredibly athletic, but he was playing running back as recently as 2011 so he’s still really raw on defense. He compares to Aaron Maybin and Jerry Hughes and, while Hughes eventually put it together, neither of them did much as a rookie so Barr might not have much of an impact, despite his high draft status. The Vikings obviously really like him though, which is worth mentioning.

Along with Barr and Joseph, the Vikings also brought in Corey Wootton and Scott Crichton this off-season to play rotational roles on the defensive line. Wootton can play both inside and outside, much like Griffen, at 6-6 270. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league though. Meanwhile, Crichton is a 3rd round rookie and might not be able to have much of an impact in his first season in the league.

Brian Robison remains as the other starter. A late bloomer, the 2007 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the past 3 seasons as a starter, grading out 26th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 18th in 2013. He’s also averaged 936 snaps a season over the past 3 seasons, not missing a single game, but he’ll probably have his snap count down to the 700-800 range this season because of the added depth the Vikings have on the defensive line. That could be good for him as he goes into his age 31 season in 2014. The Vikings overpaid Joseph and Griffen and Anthony Barr is still really raw, but this is a younger, deeper defensive line than last season. There’s talent here for the talented Mike Zimmer to play with and coach up.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Things aren’t as good in the linebacking corps. I mentioned Anthony Barr and how he’ll play a base package outside linebacker role. Chad Greenway will be the every down outside linebacker opposite him. The issue is that Greenway is going into his age 31 season and really struggles in coverage. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and the worst at his position in coverage, allowing 829 receiving yards, easily the most at his position. He also missed a league leading 21 tackles. He used to be solid, but those days are behind him and probably not coming back as he goes into his 30s. The last season in which he graded out above average was 2010.

At middle linebacker, it’ll be a position battle between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole for the starting job to replace Erin Henderson, who was let go for off-the-field reasons. Henderson graded out above average last season, though he did struggle in coverage once again. Cole might be the favorite right now. The 2012 7th round pick has only played 333 career snaps, but he played 332 of them last season and he was pretty decent, grading out right about average. Obviously he’s a projection to an every down middle linebacker role, but he has potential.

Brinkley, meanwhile, was actually their starting middle linebacker in 2012, but that didn’t go well as he graded out 50th out of 53 eligible middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus, particularly struggling in coverage. He then went to Arizona and now is back in Minnesota. He was a 5th round pick in 2009 and has played just a combined 443 snaps in the other 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 210 last season. He’s never really shown himself to be a starting caliber player, now going into his age 29 season, so they might as well try Audie Cole. Unless Cole has a breakout year, they’ll have serious issues at linebacker.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Vikings also made a big free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Captain Munnerlyn to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal at cornerback, coming over from Carolina. The undersized Captain Munnerlyn (5-8 186) has been a late bloomer in his career, after struggling mightily early in his career after getting drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2009, when he graded out 99th out of 107 eligible cornerbacks.

Very similar to the way the similarly sized Tim Jennings developed, Munnerlyn has emerged as an above average cornerback in the NFL. He had a solid 2012 year, grading out just about average, and the Panthers wisely brought him back on a cheap one year deal for 2013 after the market devalued him. Munnerlyn ended up being a big part of the reason why the Panthers had such a strong defense, doing his best Antoine Winfield impression (showing in coverage on the slot and the outside, as a run stopper, and as a blitzer) grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, though “only” their 22nd ranked cornerback in terms of pure coverage grade.

Munnerlyn is now with the Vikings, Antoine Winfield’s old team, a team that missed Winfield significantly last season. Munnerlyn does his best coverage work on the slot, but he can also play outside and he’s above average as a run stopper and blitzer for a cornerback. He’ll presumably start outside and move inside to the slot in sub packages in the role in which Adam Jones thrived under Zimmer in Cincinnati. He’ll be an asset for them as an addition to this once miserable secondary.

Xavier Rhodes will be the opposite starter. He was the 25th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and flashed as a rookie on 686 snaps, grading out slightly above average. Cornerbacks tend to take a year or two to get adjusted to the NFL so his rookie year was pretty impressive. He allowed 56.6% completion on the season and was especially good in his final 4 games before missing 3 games with injury, allowing 16 of 32 (50.0%) for 202 yards (6.31 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions. He could have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the NFL, especially with Mike Zimmer coming to town, but there are obviously no guarantees.

The issue is the 3rd cornerback. Josh Robinson is expected to serve in that role, playing outside in sub packages when Munnerlyn plays on the slot. He was Pro Football Focus’ 109th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible as a 3rd round rookie in 2012, grading out 2nd worst among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He wasn’t much better in 2013, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible. In 2 seasons in the league, he’s allowed 77.9% completion for an average of 8.61 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. I don’t expect much more from him in his 3rd season in the league.

The Vikings should also be getting a boost from the return of Harrison Smith at safety 8 games with a turf toe injury last season. He struggled last season, only playing 5 games before the injury, not enough to establish himself and then being limited upon his return, grading out below average on 537 snaps. He could easily have a bounce back year this year if healthy, after playing well as a 1st round rookie in 2012. The 29th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety that season. He should be an upgrade over Andrew Sendejo, who graded out slightly below average as an injury replacement this season.

Sendejo will compete with Jamarca Sanford for the other starting safety job. Sanford was alright last season, grading out 35th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, slightly above average (Sendejo was 45th). Sanford was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety in 2012, though he graded out as the worst safety in the league in 2011, in his first year as a starter. Sendejo, meanwhile, played a combined 3 snaps from 2010-2012, after going undrafted in 2010. Sanford should win that starting job, while Sendejo settles in as a solid 3rd safety and depth player. The defense, overall, should be improved under Mike Zimmer, but they still have a lot of issues and places where they lack talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the opening, teams that have big win increases (like the Vikings did from 3 to 10 in 2012) tend to regress by about half the amount of wins they improved the previous season. The Vikings went from 10-6 to 5-10-1. However, the opposite is also true and the Vikings could easily be an improved team this season. Christian Ponder is no longer their starting quarterback and either Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater should be an upgrade. They have a strong supporting cast on offense to help them out, which is good because one is a veteran stopgap and one is an inexperienced rookie.

Defensively, they probably won’t be very good, but they should be improved over last season. They’ve added some talent. They’re getting players back from injury. They have young players that could be improved this season. And, most importantly, they added defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer as their head coach. They still have a lot of issues on that side of the ball, because they have positions where they really lack talent and they don’t have any standout defensive stars, but they’ll be improved defensively and as a team as a whole. I think, at the very least, they’ll be a slightly improved team over last season and they have the potential to be a lot better if Teddy Bridgewater can have a strong rookie year. I’ll be conservative with their projection right now. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC North

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Chicago Bears 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears fired Lovie Smith after the 2012 season after years of disappointing offensive performances, replacing him with Marc Trestman, a well-regarded offensive mind, who had previously been a quarterback guru, a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator, and a successful Head Coach in Canada. It clearly made a significant impact on their offense as they moved the chains at a 75.68% rate, 4th best in the NFL. However, their once dominant defense struggled, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.92% rate, 2nd worst in the NFL. As a result, they missed the playoffs once again and die-hard fans probably didn’t even recognize the team.

Lovie Smith was a fantastic defensive mind whose biggest issue was that he kept putting incompetent people in charge of his offense. I worry that, as good as Marc Trestman is at coaching offense, he might just be the reserve, a fantastic offensive mind who sticks with incompetent defensive coordinator. Mel Tucker is in way over his head coordinating this defense (his track record is poor prior to Chicago as well), but Marc Trestman brought him back on board. Mel Tucker is a significant downgrade from Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.

Let’s discuss the good Trestman did first, which is on the offensive side of the ball. Jay Cutler set a career high in QB rating, completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, a QB rating of 89.2, significantly better than his career average of 84.6. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked quarterback. He was even better before suffering an ankle injury week 7, completing 65.9% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.

Even when Cutler missed time with injury, missing 5 full games and parts of 2 others, the Bears still moved the ball with ease. The Bears moved the chains at a 73.91% rate in the first 6 games of the season with a healthy Cutler. They actually moved the chains at a higher rate in the 6 games that Cutler that either missed all or most of. With Josh McCown at quarterback, they moved the chains 78.57% rate. In their other 4 games, in which Cutler was limited, they moved the chains at a 73.33%.

Josh McCown actually outplayed Cutler, though on fewer snaps (643 snaps for Cutler to 427 for McCown). He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback, ahead of Cutler, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher at his position. He completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception last season. He’s gone now though so either Jimmy Clausen, Jordan Palmer, or David Fales will be the backup if Cutler goes down again.

Clausen was out of the league last season and hasn’t attempted a pass since he was a 2nd round rookie in 2010, when he completed 52.5% of his passes for an average of 5.21 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, a pathetic 58.4 rating. Jordan Palmer has 15 career attempts since being drafted in the 6th round in 2007. David Fales is a 6th round rookie. Trestman is a great quarterbacks coach and he worked his magic with McCown last year, but most likely, the Bears will be in trouble if Cutler has to miss any time.

That’s a concern because Cutler has missed a combined 13 games in the last 4 season and hasn’t played a full 16 game season since 2009. Even if Cutler plays all 16 games, the Bears could be in trouble if they “only” move the chains at the 74% or so rate that they moved them in the 6 games Cutler was fully healthy last season. That’s still really good, but they’ll need the defense to improve significantly to compensate if that happens if they have any hope of making the playoffs.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the reason why Jay Cutler was able to have a career year last year (and why McCown flashed in limited action) was the tutelage of Marc Trestman, but also the Bears have significantly improved their offensive supporting cast over the past 2 off-seasons. They brought in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery before the 2012 season, trading for the former and drafting the latter in the 2nd round. Now they’re arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

Brandon Marshall made an immediate impact in 2012, as he has everywhere he’s played. Marshall has had some issues with teammates and off-the-field, but on-the-field, he’s been as steady as they come, with 7 straight 1000 yard seasons in which he’s missed a combined 4 games. As a result, he’s already 55th all-time in receiving yards with 9050. Among active receivers 30 or younger, only Calvin Johnson has more and, if Marshall keeps this up, he has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame.

He hasn’t always been dominant, grading outside of the top-10 on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 7 seasons as a starter, and he’s had issues with drops, dropping 91 passes in 7 seasons. However, he’s been dominant since coming to Chicago (grading out in the top-8 in both seasons); He’s averaged 2.32 yards per route run over the past 7 seasons and he’s caught enough passes to make up for the drops. Last season, he was actually Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver by a large margin.

That was mostly because of his absurd run blocking grade and that’s obviously not his primary job, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked pass catching receiver and the fact that he can dominate on the outside on running downs is a nice added bonus. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in run blocking grade 3 times in 7 seasons. The 6-4 222 physical specimen has no issue pushing around smaller defensive backs. He was Pro Football Focus’ #8 ranked wide receiver in 2012 (9th in pass catching grade, 7th in run blocking grade) and he should have another dominant season going into his age 30 season in 2014.

While Marshall had an immediate impact, Alshon Jeffery didn’t have an impact until his 2nd season in Chicago. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out below average on 445 snaps as a rookie, but was dominant on 973 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver. He caught 89 passes for 140 targets (63.6%) for 1421 yards on 601 routes run, an average of 2.36 yards per route run. He isn’t as proven as Marshall and he didn’t draw as much coverage as Marshall did last season, but he was more productive than him in the passing game last season. Like Marshall, he’s a big bodied receiver at 6-3 216 and can push smaller defensive backs around, grading out above average in the run blocking game. Going into his 3rd year in the league, Jeffery could easily be just as, if not more productive next season. Having Jeffery and Marshall to throw to makes life easier for the Bears’ quarterbacks.

The Bears also have Martellus Bennett in the mix, signed to a 4-year, 20.4 million after the 2012 season. Bennett proved to be worth it in his first season with the team in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked tight end and providing another big receiving target at 6-6 265. The 2008 2nd round pick spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Dallas as a backup and blocking specialist behind Jason Witten. He was dominant in that role, grading out above average as a run blocker in all 4 seasons, including grading 11th, 5th, and 4th as a run blocker in 2009, 2010, 2011 respectively. He only caught 85 passes for 846 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 seasons, but he only ran 678 routes (1.25 yards per route run) behind Bennett and on only 144 of those routes did he line up off the line.

He was signed by the Giants before the 2012 season to be a starter. He continued to be a good blocker, but he also impressed as a pass catcher in a full-time role (945 snaps), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked tight end, grading out above average as a pass catcher, a pass blocker, and a run blocker. He wasn’t quite as good last season, grading out 19th, but he still graded out above average as a pass catcher and run blocker. He’s averaged 1.47 yards per route run on 943 routes run over the past 2 seasons, though he’s played 552 of them off the line, 58.5%. He’s an above average, well rounded tight end who has played at least 900+ snaps in back-to-back seasons and I expect more of the same from him in 2014.

The Bears really don’t have much depth in the receiving corps at either wide receiver or tight end, so it’ll be hard for them to find a competent 11th offensive player to be on the field with Cutler, Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett, Forte, and the offensive line. Things would be especially bad if they had players miss time with injury. The Bears will probably use 3-wide receiver sets a lot this season, more often they use two-tight end sets or two-back sets. Earl Bennett, their 3rd receiver last year, played 545 snaps, while their #2 tight end played 186 snaps and the fullback played 239 snaps.

Bennett is gone and the Bears will be replacing him with Marquess Wilson, who the organization is reportedly very high on. The Bears won’t miss Bennett, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pure pass catching grade. Wilson might not be much of an upgrade though because he’s a 2013 7th round pick who struggled on 76 snaps last season as a rookie. The Bears like that he fits with their tall pass catcher theme at 6-4 184, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than just tall. Dante Rosario returns as the #2 tight end. He struggled as a pass catcher, but did well as a run blocker last season in a small role. He should do the same this season. Meanwhile, Tony Fiammetta returns as the starting fullback, after grading out below average last season.

Offensive Line

The Bears have also significantly improved the offensive line recently, adding 4 new starters last off-season. Kyle Long and Jordan Mills were added to the right side through the draft, while Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson were added to the left side in free agency. Their starting 5 offensive linemen missed a combined 48 snaps last season, fewest in the NFL by an offensive line. That continuity was very important, though it’s unlikely to happen again this season as injuries will strike.

Matt Slauson was easily their best addition to the offensive line last off-season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. That was the first year he had done anything like that, but he also graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons as a starter in the league from 2010-2012 with the Jets. The Bears got a steal signing him on a one-year deal prior to last season and they’re getting a steal again bringing him back on a 4-year, 12.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He hasn’t missed a start in the last 4 seasons and he should have another strong season in 2014.

Their other veteran addition, Jermon Bushrod, didn’t work out as well. He was overpaid on a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, after Drew Brees made him look better than he was protecting his blindside in New Orleans from 2009-2012. Bushrod made 68 starts over those 4 seasons, including the post-season, and allowed just 20 sacks, including 11 in his final 3 seasons, but he also allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. Drew Brees has such a quick release, which is why the sack total was so low. Including last season, Bushrod has graded out below average in 4 of his 5 seasons as a starter. That above average season was a 2011 season in which he graded out 14th at his position, but he was also as bad as 69th out of 78 eligible in 2010. Last season, he was 55th out of 76 eligible and, going into his age 30 season, I don’t expect much different from the middling talent this season.

On the right side, Kyle Long played every snap at right guard as a first round rookie. He graded out slightly below average, but he could easily be better, possibly a lot better, in his 2nd year in the league. Jordan Mills, meanwhile, you can’t say the same about. He was awful as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked offensive tackle, including worst ranked in pass protection. He allowed a combined 75 hits and hurries last season, easily the most in the NFL at any position. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but, at the same time, he was just a 5th round pick so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he never develops into even a decent starter. It’s possible the only reason they kept him as a starter was for continuity reasons.

The only holdover from the 2012 offensive line for Chicago was center Roberto Garza, who also played every snap last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. There’s no guarantee he’ll be nearly that good again in 2014, especially as he heads into his age 35 season, especially when you consider his history.  Formerly a solid guard in his prime, Garza struggled at center in 2010-2012, especially struggling in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center. It’s an improved offensive line over the Lovie Smith era, but there are still issues.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Another part of their strong offense last season was running back Matt Forte, a mainstay on this offense since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2008. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and last season he was the definition of a three-down back, leading the position in snaps played with 940, 50 snaps more than any other running back in the NFL. It’s rare to find a running back who is well-rounded enough to stay on the field for every passing down and, as I mentioned earlier, he was a big part of their passing game last season.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, rushing for 1339 yards and 9 touchdowns, 4.63 YPC. However, he was even better as a pass catcher, grading out 6th at his position in that aspect. He caught 74 passes on 86 targets (86.0%) for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns on 433 routes run (1.37 yards per route run). If he doesn’t get injured or decline, he should have another strong season, but there’s a good chance he does get injured or decline. He’s going into his age 29 season with 1892 career touches in 6 seasons so it’s starting to become a concern.

Especially concerning is that the Bears have no real depth behind him. They have a less than stellar trio competing for the backup job. Ka’Deem Carey, a 4th round rookie, is probably the most promising of the bunch, but he’s still a rookie. Michael Ford was a 2013 undrafted rookie that didn’t play a snap offensively last season, focusing on special teams. Shaun Draughn is the only one with any offensive experience in the NFL, but he’s rushed for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns on 63 carries (3.73 YPC) since going undrafted in 2011.

The Bears don’t really have much depth at all on offense, especially after losing Josh McCown. They’re depth at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and the offensive line is all really thin. This wasn’t a concern last season as they barely had any injuries on offense. The only player to miss significant time was Jay Cutler and they were actually better without him in the lineup. They had the fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season, something they probably won’t have the fortune of having again this season.

The Bears’ offense was slightly worse than Cutler was in the lineup last year anyway, but if they have members of their supporting cast miss time as well, they’re going to be a noticeably inferior offense to last season. And if Cutler misses time, they’re in serious trouble. They should still be an above average offense, but they’ll need the defense to be a lot better if they’re going to compete for a playoff spot in the loaded NFC and the tough NFC North.

Grade: B+

Defensive End

The defense could be better, as they overhauled the defensive end position. Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, and Shea McClellin led the position in snaps played. Peppers and Wootton are gone, while McClellin has been converted to linebacker. The Bears freed up a lot of cap space by cutting Julius Peppers this off-season and they used a significant portion of that cap space to sign free agent LaMarr Houston to a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal.

The aging Peppers (going into his age 34 season) graded out below average last season, while Houston is still in the prime of his career (going into his age 27 season) and coming off of a season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That’s nothing new for him as the 2010 2nd round pick was 11th at his position in 2012 and 20th at his position in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over Peppers for both the short-term and the long-term.

On the other side, the Bears will start another free agent acquisition, Jared Allen. Allen, like Peppers, is an aging pass rusher, going into his age 32 season. He’s also declining. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season (35th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends), after grading out positive in every season from 2007-2012 (ranking in the top-10 4 times and maxing out at 4th in 2007), and he’s probably not getting any better any time soon.

Sure, he had 13 sacks last season, but you can’t rely on pure on sack numbers. He had 18 quarterback hits and 34 quarterback hurries, but he did that on 677 pass rush snaps. His pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps played) was 36th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. As he ages, he won’t be able to play nearly every snap as he usually does and his sack numbers will go down significantly. He’ll also probably become less efficient.

LaMarr Houston will move inside on passing downs next season, like he did in Oakland, and like Corey Wootton did for the Bears last season. Willie Young, another free agent acquisition, will be the nickel rusher opposite Allen. Willie Young, a 2010 7th round pick, was a valuable reserve from 2010-2012, playing 618 snaps total. His best season as a reserve was 2011. He only played 259 snaps, but if he were eligible for Pro Football Focus’ rankings, he would have ranked 13th among 4-3 defensive ends despite his very limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out as highly as he did.

He wasn’t nearly as good in 2012, as he actually graded out below average, but he got a chance to start in 2013 and made the most of it, playing 801 snaps and grading out as Pro Football Focus 15th ranked 4-3 defensive ends. He’s still somewhat of a one year wonder, given that he was only a one-year starter, but he showed enough as a reserve that I’m fairly confident he can continue being a solid contributor in a significant role. The trio of Young, Allen, and Houston should be much better than the trio of Peppers, Wootton, and McClellin, who graded out 40th, 45th, and 50th respectively out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, a huge part of the reason why the Bears’ defense was so bad last season.

The Bears still have issues at defensive tackle. While the Bears had little to no injuries on offense last season, they still ranked middle of the pack in terms of adjusted games lost at 14th, which means they did have some significant injuries on defense. Arguably the biggest injury was to Henry Melton, who was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012. He went down with a torn ACL week 3 after 125 snaps and the Bears’ defensive tackle play in his absence was horrible. Seven players played at least 10 snaps at the position and none graded out above average (even Melton struggled to start the season before he got hurt). Some of the worst offenders were Landon Cohen (348 snaps), 63rd out of 69 eligible (no one played fewer snaps and graded out worse), and Stephen Paea (480 snaps), 52nd out of 69 eligible.

Unfortunately for the Bears, Melton signed with the Cowboys this off-season and they didn’t add anyone proven at the position, so their defensive tackle play should still be very poor. LaMarr Houston will move inside in sub packages and rush the passer and he’ll help their edge run defense on base downs, but the Bears should still be very easy to run down the middle on. Stephen Paea led the position in snaps played last season with 480 and returns as the starter, as the 2011 2nd round pick goes into his 4th year in the league and his contract year. As I mentioned earlier, he really struggled last season and he doesn’t really have an impressive history. Last year was the worst year of his career, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league.

Jay Ratliff will be the other starter. Ratliff was on the streets mid-season in 2013, after the Cowboys let the injury riddled defensive tackle go, and landed with the Bears towards the tail end of the season, playing 210 snaps in 5 games and struggling. Ratliff was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle as recently as 2011, but he has played a combined 11 games over the past 2 seasons, struggling when on the field, and now he’s going into his age 33 season. He’s a very poor starter. The Bears will have 2nd and 3rd round rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton rotate in heavily. It’s still a position of major weakness unless a rookie steps up big time.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Another player the Bears had suffer a significant injury last season was Lance Briggs, who missed 7 games and played just 565 snaps last season. That was a huge loss because Briggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012. He’s also graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including last season. However, it’s fair to wonder if Briggs will ever be the same going into his age 34 season in 2014, coming off of a significant injury. He showed signs of decline in the 7 games before the injury and overall graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. Losing Lovie Smith probably also hurt him.

The Bears will need him to have a good year, because the rest of their linebacking corps is a mess. Jon Bostic and DJ Williams will compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Bostic is the favorite after the 2013 2nd round pick took over the starting job from struggling veteran Williams during week 7 of last season, but Bostic was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible on 614 snaps. No one at his position played fewer snaps and graded out worse. Bostic showed a disturbing lack of physicality against the run.

Williams is not necessarily any better though. The veteran struggled on 217 snaps last season as essentially a pure base package player, losing his starting job after 6 starts (Bostic then took over and became an every down player when Briggs went down with injury). He’s played a combined 348 snaps over the past 2 seasons and the last time he was a starter was in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible. Now going into his age 32 season, he’s unlikely to get any better and he should be pretty close to the end of the line. He’s certainly not capable of being the every down middle linebacker the Bears need inside.

The wild card in the linebacking corps is Shea McClellin, a 2012 1st round pick. McClellin has been awful in his first two years in the league at defensive end, grading out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie, and then grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible last season as a starter. The 6-3 260 pounder has shown a serious inability to get off of blocks in the running game, grading out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked run stopping 4-3 defensive end last season, in addition to an inability to get to the quarterback from the trenches. McClellin played some linebacker in college and, after proving to be too unphysical to handle defensive end, the Bears are moving him to outside linebacker in a pure base package role in an attempt to salvage the career of a player who looks like a bust. He’ll see rare, if any, snaps on the defensive line, even in sub packages.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another player who missed significant time with injury on defense was Charles Tillman, who played 438 snaps in 8 games before going down for the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback in 2012, so that really hurt them. Tillman could be healthier this season, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and struggled mightily last season before going down with injuries, so, like Lance Briggs, there’s a very good chance he doesn’t return to form. Losing Lovie Smith seemed to especially hurt Tillman, but age was also obviously a factor.

Tillman and Briggs are two of the four age 30+ starters the Bears have on defense. Jared Allen is the third and the Bears’ other starting cornerback, Tim Jennings, is the 4th. Jennings was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 15th ranked cornerback in both 2011 and 2010, so he had a down year last season, grading out just about average. Compared to the rest of this defense, he wasn’t bad. In fact, you could argue he was their best defensive player last season, as he and Briggs were the only two players to play more than 10 snaps on defense and grade out above average. Jennings could bounce back this year, but he’s going into his age 31 season and probably also misses Lovie Smith, so there are no guarantees.

With two aging starting cornerbacks, the Bears drafted Kyle Fuller 14th overall in this past May’s draft. Fuller will work as the nickel cornerback as a rookie and could provide a boost to this secondary, even though cornerbacks tend to take a year or so to adjust to the NFL. Fuller could also play some safety this season, as the 6-0 190 pounder is physical. The reason they need him to play some safety is because what they have at the safety position right now is horrible. The Bears got rid of Major Wright, addition by subtraction as he was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety last season, but the cast of characters they have competing for the two starting safety jobs going into 2014 still isn’t very good.

Chris Conte is an incumbent, starting next to Wright last season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season so his starting job isn’t safe, even if the competition isn’t great. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. Ryan Mundy is another option, who the Bears signed from the Giants this off-season. He graded out about average on 667 snaps last season, but the 2008 6th round pick played a combined 787 snaps from 2009-2012 and graded out above average just once in those 4 seasons. He might be their best safety, but that’s not saying much.

MD Jennings was signed from the Packers this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season, though the 2011 undrafted free agent was better on 593 snaps in 2012. The Bears also signed Adrian Wilson from the Patriots, but he’s going into his age 35 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety in 2011, but he struggled as a starter in 2012, and missed all of last season with injury in New England. Most likely, he’s done. The Bears also have 4th round rookie Brock Vereen, but if the Bears are turning to a mid-round rookie at safety (which they easily could at some point this season), they’re in trouble. There are still a lot of issues on this once great defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Bears went 8-8 last season, but they were worse than their record. They had a -33 point differential, which suggested they should have won about 7.3 games. They were 18th in rate of moving the chains differential at -1.24%. They had some injuries last season, but the majority of them were to guys who are aging and might not bounce back (Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs), to guys who are gone (Henry Melton), or to guys who the team played better without last season (Jay Cutler).

Josh McCown, who played very well in relief of Cutler last season, is gone, leaving them with minimal depth at quarterback behind a consistently injury prone Jay Cutler. They also have minimal depth all over the offense so if they have more offensive injuries than they did last season (when no starter other than Cutler missed a game), it’s going to be a problem. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were last season offensively, when they moved the chains at a 75.68% rate, 4th in the NFL. They were in the high 73% range last season with a healthy Cutler and they could easily be down into the 72% range this season if they have more injuries. They’ll be an above average offense, but they’re way closer to the 8-12 range than the top-5.

Meanwhile, defensively, it’s unclear if they’ll be much better. The guys who are returning from injuries are 2 of 4 declining age 30+ starters. They did overhaul the defensive end position this off-season, but they have major issues at defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety still. They’ll need significant contributions from their rookie class if they’re going to significantly improve a defense that ranked 31st, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.92% rate.

I actually have this as one of the least talented teams in the NFL. In a tough division with Detroit and Green Bay both looking poised to be improved this season in terms of win total, the Bears are going to have a hard time being an average team and even getting to .500. This lack of talent stems from their issues drafting in the tail end of the Jerry Angelo era (2001-2012). No first round pick from before 2013 figures to make much of a positive impact this season.

They didn’t have first round picks in 2009 and 2010 and drafted busts in 2008, 2011, and 2012, taking Chris Williams, Gabe Carimi, and Shea McClellin respectively. They didn’t draft well enough after the first round to make up for it. Outside of Alshon Jeffery in the 2nd round in 2012 and Matt Forte in the 2nd round in 2008, their picks outside of the first round from 2008-2012 included the likes of Brandon Hardin (3rd round in 2012), Stephen Paea (2nd round in 2011), Chris Conte (3rd round in 2011), Major Wright (3rd round in 2010), Corey Wootton (4th round in 2010), Jarron Gilbert (3rd round in 2009), Juaquin Iglesias (3rd round in 2009), Earl Bennett (3rd round in 2008), and Marcus Harrison (3rd round in 2008). Henry Melton (4th round in 2009) was a strong pick, but he’s gone. This team has a lot of problems. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC North

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Green Bay Packers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers have been killed by injuries over the past few seasons. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost in 2013, the most adjusted games lost in 2012, and the most adjusted games lost in 2010. They’ve still had success in spite of that, going 11-5 in 2012, going 10-6 and winning the Super Bowl in 2010. In 2011, when they had an average amount of injuries (16th), they went 15-1, though they were unfortunately knocked out in their first playoff game.

However, last season, they were unable to be successful in spite of all the injuries they suffered, going 8-7-1, making it to the post-season, but doing so with the worst record among playoff teams. That’s because their stabilizer, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, missed essentially 8 games (he had 2 attempts in their week 9 game against the Bears before breaking his collarbone). The Packers went 6-2 in the 8 regular season games that Rodgers played and then they lost by a mere field goal in their playoff game against the 49ers with Rodgers. That’s opposed to 2-5-1 in the 8 games that Rodgers missed.

In the 8 games that Rodgers played, the Packers moved the chains at a 77.78% rate, which would have been 3rd best in the NFL. In their other 8 games, they moved the chains at a 72.33% rate, which would have been 13th best in the NFL. They needed that explosive offense because their defense allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.60% rate, 25th in the NFL. If they have an average amount of injuries and keep Rodgers on the field all season, they should be a much improved team on both sides of the ball and once again be one of the best teams in the NFL. They have the talent. I’m confident that they should have fewer injuries this season as injuries tend to even out in the long run.

Obviously Aaron Rodgers is the important one to keep healthy. Even if they have an absurd amount of injuries again, the Packers should be an improved team as long as Rodgers stays healthy all year, though they’ll need the rest of the team to stay healthy around Rodgers as well if they are going to make another Super Bowl run. Over the past 5 seasons, Rodgers has played 71 games (only missing 2 games combined from 2009-2012) and completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.40 YPA, 159 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions, a QB rating of 108.2. He’s also rushed for 1308 yards and 14 touchdowns on 266 carries, an average of 4.92 YPC.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback last season despite missing half the season, with no one grading out higher at the position and playing fewer snaps. From 2009-2012, he was a top-5 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Only Drew Brees also did that. As long as he’s on the field (and his injury history is pretty limited), Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, if not the best. If the Packers can stay healthy around him, they have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. Their Super Bowl odds of 14-1 might be worth a play.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers’ offense was significantly worse without Aaron Rodgers on the field, moving the chains at a 72.33% rate, close to 6% lower than their rate with Rodgers in the lineup. However, that rate still would have been 13th best in the NFL over the course of a full season. They were still able to move the chains decently well even with the likes of Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace, and Matt Flynn, below average backup caliber quarterbacks, on the field. Part of that is their offensive coaching staff, led by head coach Mike McCarthy, but it also has to do with how good their offensive supporting cast is.

A big part of that supporting cast was running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy rushed for 1178 yards and 11 touchdowns on 284 attempts, an average of 4.15 YPC. He also added 35 catches for 257 yards, en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. That YPC doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but he consistently carried the load, got positive yardage, and moved the chains. He had 73 first downs on 319 targets, including 61 first downs on 284 carries. He was 5th among running backs in rushing first downs.

He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back, grading out above average as both a runner and a pass catcher. On top of that, he played his best football when Aaron Rodgers was out of the lineup, helping to carry this team. He rushed for 666 yards and 7 touchdowns on 151 carries, an average of 4.41 YPC, and added 21 catches for 164 yards in the 8 games Rodgers missed. In their other 8 games, he rushed for 512 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, and added 14 catches for 103 yards. Going into his 2nd year in the league, Lacy could be even better, after playing most of his rookie year through an ankle injury. A full season of Aaron Rodgers will give him more running room and touchdown opportunities and if he runs like he did when Rodgers was out last year, he’ll give the Packers an incredibly potent balanced offense.

The Packers also got great play from backup running back James Starks last season, as he rushed for 493 yards and 3 touchdowns on 89 carries, an average of 5.54 YPC. The Packers brought him back as a free agent in the same role. He’s dealt with injuries dating back to his collegiate career at the University of Buffalo, which is why the talented runner fell to the 6th round in 2010. He’s averaged 4.43 YPC for his career, but he’s also never played more than 13 games in a season. As long as he’s healthy, he should provide them a solid backup running back, but he’s frequently hurt.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the Packers’ strong offensive supporting cast was their strong receiving corps. Jordy Nelson was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked wide receiver last season. Nelson caught 85 passes on 120 targets (70.8%) for 1314 yards and 8 touchdowns on 645 routes run, an average of 2.04 yards per route run. He was outstanding in the 8 games that Rodgers played last season, catching 49 passes on 67 targets (73.1%) for 810 yards and 8 touchdowns on 327 routes run, an average of 2.48 yards per route run. However, he was still alright when Rodgers was out of the lineup, catching 36 passes on 53 targets (67.9%) for 504 yards and a touchdown on 318 routes run, an average of 1.54 yards per route run. Last year was a career high for him in catches and yards and he should have another strong year this year.

Nelson may see fewer targets this season because Randall Cobb is coming back from injury. The dynamic slot man was limited to 340 snaps last season because of a broken leg. A 2011 2nd round pick, Cobb caught 25 passes on 31 targets (80.6%) for 375 yards and a touchdown on 174 routes run, an average of 2.16 yards per route run. He then had a breakout year in 2012, catching 80 passes on 102 targets (78.4%) for 954 yards and 8 touchdowns on 422 routes run, an average of 2.26 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ #11 ranked wide receiver that season. He looked on his way to a similar season in 2013, but injuries derailed that, limiting him to 6 games. He caught 31 passes on 40 targets (77.5%) for 433 yards and 4 touchdowns on 209 routes run, an average of 2.07 yards per route run. Going into his contract year this year, without much of an injury history, he should have another year similar to 2012.

Jarrett Boykin stepped up in Cobb’s absence, catching 49 passes on 75 targets (65.3%) for 681 yards on 410 routes run, an average of 1.66 yards per route run. Boykin was a 2012 7th round pick and only played 96 snaps as a rookie. James Jones is gone so Boykin will probably replace him and his production. He had 59 catches on 88 targets (67.0%) for 817 yards on 527 routes run (1.55 yards per route run) and 3 touchdowns last season. Boykin is expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Nelson and Cobb. He’ll get some competition from 2nd round rookie Davante Adams, but most likely Adams won’t see a big role until 2015. Both Cobb and Nelson are free agents this off-season and the Packers seem unlikely to re-sign both, so that’s why they brought in Adams.

Jermichael Finley is another guy who got knocked out with a serious injury, going down with a neck injury after 259 snaps. That injury was career threatening and he’s still available as a free agent because of concern about his spinal fusion surgery. Andrew Quarless led Packer tight ends in snaps played last season with 703. The Packers re-signed Quarless to compete for the starting job. Quarless has graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons he’s played since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. He’s also missed 21 games in 4 seasons. He’ll compete with 3rd round rookie Richard Rodgers, who is reportedly impressing in off-season practice. Most likely, Quarless, the superior blocker, will work as an inline blocking tight end, while Rodgers functions as a pass catching tight end. It’s a strong receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The issue offensively for the Packers is their offensive line, which is clearly their weakest unit. Things could be worse this season as they lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith to free agency this off-season. Evan Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. Either JC Tretter, a collegiate offensive tackle and a 2013 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injury, or 5th round rookie Corey Lindley will be the starter this season. It’s a position of weakness.

It’s not all losses for the Packers upfront though, as they get Bryan Bulaga back from an injury that cost him the entire season. He’s missed 23 games in the past 2 seasons combined and 27 games over the past 3 seasons combined so he’s still an injury concern. He’ll slot back in at right tackle, where he graded out below average on 587 snaps in 2012. He could continue to struggle as he returns from injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 78 eligible as a rookie in 2010, but he was 7th in 2011, so it’s tough to know what to expect from him, if he can even stay healthy. He should be an upgrade over Don Barclay, who started at right tackle and graded out 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles last season.

The Packers got poor play from both tackle spots last season, but unfortunately they were unable to upgrade the blindside this off-season. 2013 4th round pick David Bakhtiari struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 62nd out of 76 eligible rookies, even worse than Barclay. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are also reasons why he fell to the mid rounds so there’s obviously no guarantee. He’s one of the worst blindside protectors in the league.

Fortunately, things are much better at guard, where left guard Josh Sitton and right guard TJ Lang graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd and 15th ranked guard respectively in 2014. Sitton has done this kind of thing before and he’s one of the best guards in the NFL. He’s been a top-8 guard in each of the past 5 seasons, something no other guard has done. Lang has been more inconsistent. A 3-year starter with the versatility to play any position other than center if needed (but he’s best at guard), Lang graded out below average in 2012, but ranked 22nd in 2011. Last season was his first full year at right guard and that might just be the best spot for him, so he could easily have another strong year, but his history of inconsistency is worth mentioning. There’s definitely some talent here, but it’s their weakest offensive unit.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers had a lot of issues defensively last year, but a big part of that was that they had key players miss significant time with injury. They should be better this year. The biggest bright spot on their weak defense last season was the emergence of 2nd year player Mike Daniels at 5-technique. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 517 snaps. The 6-0 294 pounder was primarily an interior pass rusher in sub packages and he should primarily be that again, though he will probably see more snaps. He played 275 snaps in the Packers’ final 8 games. He’s still a one year wonder, grading out below average on 231 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year.

Datone Jones was the Packers’ 2013 first round pick. He struggled on 263 snaps as a rookie. If he had been eligible, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 defensive end, despite his limited playing time. No one graded out lower and played fewer snaps at his position. He’ll have a bigger role in 2014 and the Packers are expecting him to be a lot better in the 2nd year in the league, which he very well could be. He’s very unproven though.

BJ Raji will start at nose tackle. Raji reportedly turned down a 5-year, 40 million dollar extension from the Packers before last season. If that’s true, he has to be kicking himself hard, as he ended up re-signing for 4 million over 1 year. The Packers originally offered Raji that 1-year, 4 million dollar deal before the start of the off-season, but he turned it down in favor of hitting the open market. Clearly, the open market did not prove to be as lucrative as he expected as he was forced to settle for that one-year deal. It was a rough off-season for him.

However, that’s what happens when you have as bad of a season as Raji had last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. This type of thing is nothing new for him. Sure, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012 (with 3 games at nose tackle in which he was about average), but he has a history of inconsistency. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle in 2011, but in 2010, he was their 35th ranked defensive tackle before a dominant post-season on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him. The 6-1 337 pounder will probably only be a base package player this year. He can rush the passer from time to time, but the Packers have other guys capable of doing so better. The Packers also drafted Khryi Thornton in the 3rd round and the 6-3 304 pounder could contribute in base packages.

One of those better pass rushers is Mike Neal, a 6-3 294 pounder. The Packers will be moving him back to his old role as a situational interior pass rusher after a failed experiment playing him at outside linebacker, which seemed doomed from the start. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. However, he graded out above average as a defensive linemen in 2 out of 3 seasons from 2010-2012, doing so on 266 snaps in 2012 and he should have a situational interior pass rush role this season. The Packers also have Jerel Worthy, a 2012 2nd round pick. Worthy struggled as a rookie, grading out 30th out of 34 eligible on 467 snaps played, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out lower. He then tore his ACL late in the season and was limited to 12 snaps in 2013 by a combination of his ACL and his previous struggles. He could have a role this season, but he might just be a bust.

The Packers big off-season signing was Julius Peppers, who they gave a 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon the potential future Hall-of-Famer’s release from Chicago. He’s had a great career, but his best days are behind him, so this was an overpay, even if only 8.5 million over 1 season is guaranteed. A once dominant edge rusher, who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2008-2012 and in the top-10 among 4-3 defensive end in every season from 2008-2011, Peppers has graded out 17th and 40th among 4-3 defensive ends over the last 2 seasons respectively. Last season, he actually graded out below average and that 40th place finish came out of just 52 eligible at the position. Peppers will play a versatile role as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 3-4 defensive end, an a sub package edge rusher and interior rusher, at 6-5 283. He’s also never played in a 3-4, which is another minor concern.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Part of the reason why the Packers brought in Peppers was to provide depth at the edge rusher position. Clay Matthews has missed 9 games over the past 2 seasons, while Nick Perry has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. Last year, they missed a combined 10 games, part of the Packers’ consistent, season long injury problems, and Mike Neal led the position in snaps played with 746 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker.

At the same time, rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer had to play 304 snaps and 200 snaps respectively. Both struggled mightily, as is to be expected since they were an undrafted rookie and a 6th round rookie respectively. Mulumba was Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, despite his limited snap count, while Palmer was Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker regardless of snap count. Assuming Matthews and Perry can stay healthier this season, and Julius Peppers doesn’t see his abilities completely fall off the cliff, the Packers should get better play from the edge rusher spots.

When Matthews is healthy, he’s one of the better edge rushers in the NFL. The 2009 1st round pick graded out as a top-6 3-4 outside linebacker in every season from 2009-2012, including #1 in 2012. No other 3-4 outside linebacker did the same thing. He struggled last season by his standards, even when on the field, on 571 snaps, playing through injury and grading out just about average. However, if he’s healthy, he could easily have another dominant year this year, only going into his age 28 season. That would be a big boost to this defense.

Nick Perry, meanwhile, is supposedly very talented, going in the first round in 2012, but he hasn’t been able to be healthy enough to show it yet. He’s played a combined 585 snaps in 17 games in 2 seasons in the league and generally graded out about average. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s a big if. His injury history is a big part of the reason why they brought in Peppers. As I mentioned, they should get better play from the edge rusher spots this season.

AJ Hawk and Brad Jones remain as starters at middle linebacker. Jones had issues with injuries last season as well, missing 4 games and playing a total of 594 snaps. Jones struggled, grading out below average when he played. He was much better in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker, making 10 starts and playing 687 snaps, but he’s still a one year wonder. The 2009 7th round pick played a combined 763 snaps from 2009-2011 and wasn’t particularly impressive, grading out below average in all 3 seasons. In the only good season he’s had in the league, he still only made 10 starts. He could have a bounce back year in a healthier season, but there are no guarantees.

AJ Hawk, meanwhile, is a mainstay, missing a combined 2 games in 8 seasons since being drafted 5th overall in 2006. Hawk has been a bust in that he’s never lived up to where he was drafted, but he keeps staying around. I don’t know he keeps staying around though, as he’s graded out below average in every season but 1 since 2007, including 47th out of 55 eligible last season. He’s always been better in coverage than against the run and he struggled mightily against the run last season, grading out 4th worst at his position in pure run grade. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s not getting any better any time soon. There’s a chance that Jamari Lattimore could push him for snaps at some point this season. Lattimore is inexperienced (310 career snaps) and went undrafted in 2011, but he flashed on 272 snaps last season, grading out slightly above average.

Grade: B-

Secondary

One of the biggest re-additions from injury for the Packers going into 2014 (along with Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, and Randall Cobb) is cornerback Casey Hayward, a 2012 2nd round pick who I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. He was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck.

Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.

As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.

It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback. Hayward played 88 snaps last season thanks to hamstring problems and their secondary suffered as a result. He’ll return to the slot this season and could turn into a starter if needed.

He could be needed to become a starter, especially if he continues to play well. The Packers re-signed Sam Shields to a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal this off-season, but that was a massive overpay. He was Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked cornerback this past season (though he was 35th in pure coverage grade). Shields has definitely flashed in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback in 2012 and dominating down the stretch as an undrafted rookie in 2010 on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. However, he also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 92nd ranked cornerback in 2011 and then there was last year. He’s also never played a full 16 game season, missing 11 games in 4 seasons, including 6 games missed in his dominant 2012 season. That’s a very inconsistent history.

Tramon Williams had a better season last season than Shields, grading out as Pro Football Focus 39th ranked cornerback, above average, but he’s going into his age 31 season. He’s shown decline over the past few seasons, since grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2009, 8th ranked cornerback in 2010 and 8th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2011 (25th overall). He was Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked cornerback in 2012 (though he was 29th in coverage grade) and then 39th last season. He might have another season as an above average starter in him, but it’s possible that Hayward is just their best cornerback.

The Packers used their first round pick in this past draft on HaHa Clinton-Dix and he should give them an upgrade at one safety spot over the combination of Jerron McMillian and MD Jennings that manned that position last season. The former was their week 1 starter, but was so bad that he ended up getting benched and then cut, despite a very minimal salary. He played 196 snaps, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst safety last season despite his very limited playing time, if he was eligible. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. The latter, Jennings, took over as the starter from there on out, playing 809 snaps, but he wasn’t much better, grading out 70th at his position out of 86 eligible. Clinton-Dix should be at least a decent starter as a rookie.

Morgan Burnett returns as the other starting safety and he too struggled last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked safety out of 86 eligible. He could bounce back though, based on his history as a starter. The 2010 3rd round pick graded out above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2011 and 2012, ranking 15th in 2012 and 31st in 2011. His potential bounce back season is another reason why the Packers should be an improved defensive team this year.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Simply having Aaron Rodgers healthy this season should make the Packers one of the better teams in the NFL again this season. Rodgers went 46-16 as a starter from 2009-2012, missing a combined 2 games (one was because the Packers had already clinched the #1 seed in the NFC) and then he was 6-2 last season in games in which he started and finished. He’s so talented and has such a strong offensive supporting cast that the Packers can push to be the best offensive team in the league if Rodgers is healthy all year, which he should be.

However, if they can have at least average health around Rodgers, that could take them to the next level. Losing guys like Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Casey Hayward to significant injuries last season around Rodgers also really hurt them. On paper, this is one of the more talented teams in the NFL, provided they can stay healthy. The Broncos showed last season that even an average defense, when paired with a dominant offense, can make for a dominant football team. I’ll have an official prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 2nd in NFC North

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Detroit Lions 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions went 4-12 in 2012, but they were much better than their record suggested. They went 3-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2012 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, coming from their -65 point differential. That point differential would have been much better if they hadn’t allowed 10 return touchdowns, while scoring none for themselves. If that was zeroed out, they would have had a +5 point differential and essentially been an 8-8 team.

Going off of that, they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin of -13, largely because of an unsustainably poor fumble recovery rate of 32.56%. Turnover margins (and along with that return touchdown margins) are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins.

Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. The Lions ranked 16th in DVOA in 2012 despite their record and they were supposed to be a significantly improved team last season.

They were an improved team, going 7-9, but they still missed out on the playoffs and they still were better than their record. They still had a -12 turnover margin, driven by a 42.55% fumble recovery rate. They still went 3-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.5 wins. The things that are supposed to even out in the long run (record in close games, fumble recovery, turnover margin) have not been evening out for this team over the past 2 seasons. The Lions fired head coach Jim Schwartz in an effort to fix this.

They replaced him with Jim Caldwell, which was kind of a weird move. The Lions will be hoping that they’re getting the coach who went 24-8 in his first 2 years with the Colts, the coach who was recommended by Peyton Manning, and the offensive coordinator who turned the Ravens’ offense around mid-season in 2012 en route to a Super Bowl victory, rather than the coach who went 2-14 in his only season with the Colts without Peyton Manning, getting fired, and the offensive coordinator who led one of the worst offenses in the league last season in Baltimore.

Either way, the Lions could easily see their poor record in close games and their poor turnover margin even out in their first year under Caldwell. They were 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013, with a differential of 5.42%. They moved the chains at a 73.92% rate, 10th in the NFL, and they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.50% rate, 9th in the NFL. They have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFL, which this preview will demonstrate. Almost every season, one team goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I think the Lions have a good chance to be that team, if anyone does. I feel the same way about the Lions as I did about the Panthers before last season, when I predicted them to go 12-4, win the NFC South, and get the #2 seed in the NFC.

Quarterback Matt Stafford is a big part of that talent. His numbers last season weren’t great, as he completed 58.5% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, a QB rating of 84.2 that ranked 19th in the NFL last season. However, Stafford also had a league high 58 passes dropped for a combined 513 yards in the air. When you look at his adjusted QB rating, which takes into account dropped passes, throw aways, spikes, and yards in the air, he was 15th in the NFL.

Meanwhile, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback last season and graded out 4th in terms of pure passing grade. He did struggle as a runner, grading out below average in that aspect and rushing for 69 yards on 37 carries, an average of 1.86 YPC. Still, he’s better than his numbers suggest, leading an offense that ranked highly in rate of moving the chains despite consistent dropped passes by his receiving corps.

Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, struggled in his first 2 years in the NFL, missing 19 games and completing 54.5% of his passes for an average of 5.92 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. However, he’s played all 48 games over the past 3 seasons, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions. He’s also been better than his numbers, as he had 46 passes dropped in 2011 (most in the NFL), 49 passes dropped in 2012 (2nd most in the NFL), and then, of course, he had the most passes dropped in the NFL last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback in 2011 and 13th ranked quarterback in 2012.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Lions obviously still have Calvin Johnson, who is one of, if not the best wide receiver in the game. He had a “down year” in 2013 with 84 catches for 1492 yards and 12 touchdowns, his lowest catch and yardage totals since 2010. That was really only because he missed 2 games with injury (after playing all 16 games in the previous 2 seasons). His absence was definitely missed as Matt Stafford completed 47 of 73 for 479 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in the two games Johnson didn’t play as the Lions scored 22 points and lost both games.

Last season was actually the best season of Johnson’s career in terms of yards per route run, as he averaged 2.72 yards per route run. He’s averaged 2.55 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons since Stafford broke out as a starter. Even in 2011, when the Lions had poor quarterback play, he averaged 1.87 yards per route run and graded out 3rd at his position. He’s been a top-5 wide receiver in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, the only receiver in the league to do so.

The Lions clearly needed to upgrade the receiving corps around Johnson this off-season. They really needed a #2 wide receiver opposite Johnson and they definitely needed someone who could step up as a #1 receiver if Johnson does miss some games. To fix this issue, they signed Golden Tate to a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal with 13.25 million guaranteed. Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been stuck on a run heavy team in Seattle, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. He caught 45 passes on 65 attempts (69.2%) for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns on 378 routes run (1.80 yards per route run) in 2012. In 2013, he caught 64 passes on 93 attempts (68.8%) for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns on 447 routes run (2.01 yards per route run).

He’s also dropped just 5 passes to 109 catches, which has to be music to Matt Stafford’s ears. Tate will see plenty of single coverage opposite Calvin Johnson and could run 500-600 routes in a pass heavier offense. He won’t see any downgrade in terms of his quarterback’s passing ability going from Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford and he could easily have 1000 receiving yards. He and Calvin Johnson instantly give the Lions one of the best wide receiving duos in the NFL.

That’s a big difference compared to last season when Kris Durham led Lion pass catchers in routes run with 586. Durham was Pro Football Focus 2nd worst ranked wide receiver last season, catching 38 passes on 82 targets (46.3%) for 490 yards on 568 routes run (0.86 yards per route run). He also dropped 10 passes. Durham will be no higher than the 4th wide receiver this season. He’ll have a minimal role, if he has any at all, and he’s on the roster bubble. Aside from Calvin Johnson, of the 7 wide receivers who played a snap for the Lions last season, 6 of them graded out below average.

In addition to Golden Tate coming in, Ryan Broyles is coming back from injury. Broyles is tough and a fast healer, but it’s easy to be skeptical about his recovery. Broyles is a talented player who was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and he could have gone in the first round if he didn’t tear his ACL in his senior season at Oklahoma. However, he’s missed 16 games over the past 2 seasons combined, tearing his other ACL in 2012 and then his Achilles in 2013. That’s an intense injury history. He’s expected to be ready for the start of next season, but he’s an unproven, playing 476 snaps over the past 2 seasons respectively and he’s already admitted he’s not as explosive as he once was, which is definitely understandable. He’s also a serious re-injury risk.

Running back Reggie Bush will also be a big part of their passing game and line up in the slot from time to time. He caught 54 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns last season on 303 routes last season, an average of 1.67 yards per route run. He’s not a fantastic pass catcher (grading out right about average as a running back in pass catching grade), but he could see more pass catching production this season with Joe Lombardi coming in as offensive coordinator from New Orleans, where he was the quarterbacks coach from 2009-2013. He’s expected to utilize Bush the same way that the Saints utilized Darren Sproles, who caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons.

Eric Ebron, the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, will also line up in the slot from time to time. He’ll play a bunch of different roles as a move tight end and the #2 tight end as a rookie. Brandon Pettigrew was brought back as the starting tight end on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal. He’ll be primarily a blocking tight end. I think that deal was a mistake, not just because it means that Eric Ebron won’t have a bigger role, but also because Pettigrew was one of the inefficiencies in this offense last season. He’s not worth that kind of money and the cap strapped Lions could have easily used that money elsewhere. The Lions also have 2nd year tight end Joseph Fauria, who graded out above average as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 312 snaps, as an undrafted rookie last year. He’ll have a much smaller role this season, even though he’s probably better than Pettigrew.

Pettigrew has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in every season he’s been in the league, since being drafted in the first round in 2009. He was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible in 2012, including 61st as a pass catcher as he averaged 1.18 yards per route run and dropped 9 passes. In 5 years in the league, he’s averaged 1.28 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end in pass catching grade last season and averaged 0.98 yards per route run. The Lions should phase him out of the offense over the next 2 seasons in favor of the incredibly athletic, but still raw Ebron. With the additions of Tate and Ebron, it’s a much improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Lions use Reggie Bush in the passing game a lot. Bush has gotten over his early career injury problems, playing 45 out of 48 games in the past 2 seasons as a starter in Miami and Detroit. However, he still hasn’t been the type of running back he was supposed to be when the Saints took him 2nd overall in 2006. He’s averaged 4.62 YPC over the past 3 seasons as a starter, doing so on 666 carries, but he hasn’t been as good as that suggests.

He graded out below average in run grade in 2011 and 2012 and about average in 2013 and he’s fumbled 13 times over the past 3 seasons. He’s going into his age 29 season so he’s not getting any better. The Lions are planning on scaling back Bush’s role as a runner, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes over from the Sean Payton coaching tree in New Orleans and plans to use Bush as they did with Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Sproles caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons. Reggie Bush has caught an average of 44 over the past 3 seasons and could catch 60 passes this season. At the same time, he could see his carries drop down from 223 to the 140-160 range.

Any loss in carries by Bush will be the benefit of Joique Bell, which Bush has said publicly he is fine with. The Lions have been a pass happy, 3-wide receiver team over the past 3 seasons, averaging 680 pass attempts over the past 3 seasons. Now they will be more of a traditional offense. They used their first round pick on Eric Ebron, which means they’ll use more two-tight end sets (though they obviously still have the ability to throw out of two-tight end sets). They signed a traditional fullback in Jed Collins, who comes with Lombardi over New Orleans, where he’s graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons as a starter, including a 2011 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback.

They also gave a 3-year, 9.3 million dollar extension to restricted free agent Joique Bell, who figures to lead the team in carries in their new more traditional offense. The 5-11 220 pounder is their best traditional runner. He doesn’t have as many breakaway runs as Bush, but he had 65 first downs on 219 touches last season, while Bush had 68 first downs on 277 touches. The Lions could easily be getting a steal with that 3-year deal.

Over the past 2 seasons, Bell has been one of the more important backup running backs in the NFL. Last season, he played 562 snaps, 23rd most in the NFL among running backs. A former undrafted free agent, Bell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in 2013 and 12th ranked in 2012. In the past 2 seasons, he’s averaged 4.29 yards per carry, while serving as a valuable goal line back (11 touchdowns) and receiver out of the backfield (105 catches).

Bell’s pass catching ability might actually be better than Bush’s (though the Lions don’t split him into the slot nearly as often) and his pass catching ability allows the Lions to pass out of traditional running formations, as does Ebron. Bell was actually 2nd on the team in receiving yards, catching 53 catches for 547 yards last season. Bush is owed 3.25 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2015 so Bush could be gone next off-season and Bell could be a three-down feature back that season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As good as Calvin Johnson is, the best unit on the Lions’ offense is their offensive line. The Lions allowed 23 sacks last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL, which is even more impressive when you consider that they passed 634 times, 5th most in the NFL. Part of that is how quickly Matt Stafford gets rid of the ball and how strong his pocket presence is. Stafford averaged 2.41 seconds from snap to throw last season, 8th fastest among eligible quarterbacks, and he was sacked on 11.9% of pressured snaps, 3rd most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks. This isn’t a new trend. In 2012, he was sacked on 13.3% of pressured snaps, 4th most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks, even though he got rid of the ball in 2.56 seconds from snap to throw on average.

However, much of that low sack number had to do with how well the Lions’ offensive line played. The biggest addition to the unit was rookie right guard Larry Warford, a 2013 3rd round pick, who I argued should have been Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Warford played every snap one of Detroit’s 1158 offensive snaps as a rookie. Warford didn’t allow a single sack from the right guard spot and only allowed 5 quarterback hits and 10 hurries, while committing just 4 penalties this season. That’s insane, regardless of how quickly his quarterback gets rid of the ball and how good his quarterback’s pocket presence is.

Warford played every snap over a 16 game season and only allowed his man to even get close to the quarterback 15 times. In fact, he only allowed more than 2 quarterback pressures in a game once and that was against Cincinnati, when he was frequently matched up with all-everything defensive tackle Geno Atkins, before Atkins’ injury. On top of that, the right guard gap produced 4.77 yards per carry for the Lions, a team that averaged just 4.04 yards per carry overall. As a result, Warford was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard and was an obvious Pro-Bowl snub. He’s obviously still a one year wonder, as he was a rookie last year, but I’m confident he can have another dominant year.

Warford wasn’t the Lions’ only talented rookie last season, as undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle played very well as a rookie, taking over as the starter at right tackle in week 8 and playing 553 snaps on the season. He played much better than veteran Corey Hilliard, who graded below average to start the season on 459 snaps. Waddle graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked offensive tackle, despite the limited playing time. He’s expected to enter the season as the starter again. He could easily have another strong season, possibly even stronger now that he’ll be the starter for the full season, though the fact that he was only an undrafted free agent in 2013 is still a concern. About 14 months ago, no name in the NFL believed he was worth being drafted.

On the flip side, the Lions have an aging player at center in Dominic Raiola. He’s going into his age 36 season, and he looked done as recently as 2010-2011, when he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, including 5th worst among centers in 2010. However, he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons over the past two seasons, grading out 13th and 2nd among centers in 2012 and 2013 respectively. At his age, he doesn’t have much time left, but he could easily have another strong season left in the tank, so credit the Lions for keeping him at a very reasonable rate (1.5 million over 1 season) this off-season.

Warford didn’t miss a snap all last season. Raiola missed 2 snaps all last season. On top of that, left guard Rob Sims didn’t miss a snap all last season either. Sims did have a down season, grading out only about average. However, he was awesome from 2009-2012. He graded out well above average in each of those 4 seasons, grading out 10th in 2009, 33rd in 2010, 13th in 2011, and 11th in 2012. He’s going into his age 31 season so the fact that he had a down season last year is a concern, but he could bounce back.

Riley Reiff at left tackle, meanwhile, only missed 31 snaps all of last season, though he did struggle last season, grading out below average. The 2012 1st round pick was in his first year as a starter, though he impressed on 336 snaps as a rookie. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the talented offensive lineman could be better and show some of the talent that flashed in his rookie season. It’s a very strong offensive line overall either way.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Lions have a pretty weak secondary, but so did the Panthers going into last season. The Lions also had a weak secondary last season and their defense actually still played pretty well, ranking 9th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed. That’s because their defensive line played so well, getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked team in terms of pass rush grade last season.

Much of that was powered by a fantastic year by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked defensive tackle last season. He’s had a strong career since being drafted 2nd overall in 2010, but last season was arguably the best season of his career. He’s never matched the 10 sacks he had as a rookie, but he’s become a much better run stopper and gotten much more consistent pass rush since then.

He actually graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2010 and 2011 because of his poor run play. In fact, last season was the first time in his career that he had graded out above average as a run stopper. However, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 4th and 2nd ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He and Gerald McCoy are the only two defensive tackles to grade out in the top-3 in each of the last 2 seasons. Aside from McCoy and maybe the versatile Kyle Williams (who can play 3-4 defensive end, 4-3 defensive tackle, and 3-4 nose tackle), Suh is probably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

Next to Suh, the Lions have another defensive tackle who has the potential to be one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL like Suh, but he’s yet to show the consistency necessary for him to be one. Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick in 2011, flashed as a rookie on 236 snaps, grading out above average, and then was dominant in 2012 on 511 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle, one slot below Suh. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher.

He looked poised for a breakout year in a bigger role in his 3rd year in the league in 2013, but he graded out just about average on 693 snaps. The Lions have had issues with his discipline and his weight and he’s also committed 22 penalties over the past 2 seasons. The Lions are putting the pressure on him going into his contract year. They didn’t pick up his 5th year option on his rookie deal so he’s going into his contract year. He’s reportedly responded by slimming down to 295 pounds from 322 and he could have a big year with financial motivation on the line. However, he’s had motivational issues dating back to his collegiate days at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and then at Auburn University, so there are no guarantees.

The Lions also have talented reserve CJ Mosley in the mix at defensive tackle. Mosley was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked defensive tackle on just 333 snaps last season, excelling against the run. This is nothing new as Mosley has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, doing so as a reserve in 2011 and 2013 and as a starter in Jacksonville in 2012. The Lions also have Jason Jones coming back from injury. He’ll play defensive end in base packages and move inside on passing downs and rush the passer occasionally.

Jones is coming back from a torn patellar tendon he suffered week 3 of last season, which cut his season to 87 snaps. He’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, but that’s a tough injury to come back from. The 6-5 274 pounder has played both defensive end and defensive tackle in his career. He’s played well inside, grading out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and grading out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a starter in 2010. However, he’s struggled whenever he’s played defensive end, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends as a starter in 2011 and then struggled before going down last season. Now coming off of a serious injury, I expect him to continue struggling as a base defensive end.

Devin Taylor could also get snaps at defensive end, as the Lions attempt to replace Willie Young, who played 801 snaps and graded out above average last season, but who is now in Chicago. Taylor graded out about average on 308 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season and could see a bigger role this season. The Lions also drafted Kyle Van Noy in the 2nd round and they are expected to use him in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role, playing him in a base role at outside linebacker and a sub package role at defensive end, essentially the Von Miller role. He should lead the left end spot in pass rush snaps played.

At the right end spot, Ezekiel Ansah is expected to be an every down defensive end in his 2nd year in the league. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah graded out slightly below average on 581 snaps as a rookie. He’ll have a bigger role and he could easily play better. The 6-5 271 pounder was regarded as extremely raw coming out of BYU, as he only started playing football in 2010, and he played his best football of the season down the stretch last season. The Lions’ defensive line still has the ability to be one of the better pass rush teams in the league, which will help their defense play well in spite of their secondary.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Lions also have a strong linebacking corps, which helps their defense play well in spite of their secondary. I already mentioned Kyle Van Noy will be play outside in a base package role. He’ll replace Ashlee Palmer, who graded out below average on 367 snaps last season, playing primarily as a run stopper. Van Noy should be an upgrade in that regard in addition to providing pass rush in sub packages from the defensive line.

Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy return in every down roles, roles they excelled in last season. Tulloch graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, while Levy graded out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. Tulloch has done this kind of thing before, as he graded out above average as a starter in every season from 2008-2011, maxing out at 6th overall in 2011. He struggled in 2012, grading out below average, but only because he was playing through a serious knee injury. He bounced back in a huge way in 2013 and should continue to play really well in 2014.

Levy, however, has never really done this kind of thing before as the 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his last 4 seasons as a starter from 2009-2012, playing both middle linebacker and outside linebacker. He had a strong season last year, particularly in coverage, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage (Tulloch was dominant in coverage too, which helped their secondary). However, he’s still a one year wonder and I’m skeptical he can do this again based on his history, but he can definitely prove me wrong.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned the issues the Lions have in the secondary multiple times, but it’s not all bad. Glover Quin was one of the best safeties in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons, playing cornerback in 2010 and then safety in 2011-2013. Last year was a career year for him so he might not repeat that kind of season, but he could easily have another above average season for a secondary that needs it.

The Lions lost Louis Delmas this off-season, cutting him rather than paying him 6 million. The formerly injury plagued safety played all 16 games last season and graded out above average, but the Lions didn’t feel he was worth his salary and let him go. They brought in veteran journeyman James Ihedibgo to be his replacement, paying him 3.15 million on a 2 year deal, which is obviously cheaper than Delmas. Ihedibgo graded out higher than Delmas did last season, grading out 15th among safeties, while Delmas graded out 25th.

However, much of that was because Ihedigbo was dominant against the run, grading out 2nd at his position against the run. He really struggled in coverage, grading out 15th worst at his position in that aspect. He’s also going into his age 31 season and joining the 4th team of his career. He had a strong season last year, but that’s not the type of player he’s been in the past. Prior to last season, he had only once played more than 294 snaps in a season, doing so as a starter with the Patriots in 2011, when he graded out below average. He could easily regress this season, especially at his age, and he’s a downgrade compared to Delmas.

Things are worse at cornerback, where the Lions will be counting on an aging veteran to keep it together and two youngsters to step up. That aging veteran is Rashean Mathis, who is going into his age 34 season. Mathis looked done going into last season, as an aging cornerback who had graded out below average in 2 of the previous 3 seasons and missed 11 games in the previous 2 seasons. As a result, he was still available into mid-August, when he was snatched up by the Lions, and only played a combined 161 snaps in the Lions’ first 4 games.

However, he ended up making 13 starts, playing in 15 games, and playing 799 snaps. He was a big time contributor, allowing opponents to complete 48.9% of their passes against him and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback. It was a vintage year for the veteran. The Lions brought him back on another one-year deal, but considering his recent history and his age, as he’s now going into his age 34 season, it’s fair to be skeptical that he can be as good as he was last season.

With the injury plagued Chris Houston getting cut this off-season (he graded out well below average last season), Mathis is locked into a top-3 cornerback role on this team, along with Bill Bentley and Darius Slay, both of whom graded out well below average last season. Slay was a 2013 2nd round pick and the natural talented 6-0 192 pounder could have a better year in his 2nd year in the league. It’s tough for rookie cornerbacks to adjust to the NFL and Slay showed that, grading out 92nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on just 353 snaps.

Bentley, meanwhile, was a 2012 3rd round pick. He’s graded out well below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, doing so on 177 snaps as a rookie and 498 snaps last season. The Lions also used a 4th round pick on Nevin Lawson and he could push for a significant role at cornerback down the stretch if things are bad. The secondary is easily the Lions’ weakest unit on the team, but they have an explosive offense and we’ve seen teams play well defensively even with a weak secondary if they have strong front 7 play. We saw the Panthers do it last year. We’ve seen the 49ers do it recently. We even saw the Lions do it last year, as they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Lions are one of the top-10 talented teams in the NFL and the numbers agree with me, as they were 6th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential. They’ve had serious issues with turnovers and losses in close games over the past 2 seasons, which has stopped them from reaching the win totals they are capable of reaching. Both of those things usually even out in the long run. It might not seem like they will for the Lions because they’ve had so many issues in those aspect over the past 2 seasons, but that’s just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Replacing Jim Schwartz with Jim Caldwell could easily help even those things out, which would help the Lions become one of the better teams in the NFL. With essentially the same core, the Lions went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a +11 turnover margin in 2011, en route to a 10-6 season. I think they’re now more talented than they were then, but they’ve gone 6-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has a -25 turnover margin over the past 2 seasons. I think this team has the best chance to be this year’s team who goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jaguars have the smallest win total over/under in the NFL at 4.5, which suggests that the odds makers think they are the worst team in the NFL. Bet now on the greatest NFL lines here. However, teams with win totals of 6 or lower go over the total about 2/3rds of the time in that situation, as it’s very hard to be really bad for a long time. The Jaguars are a popular “sleeper” team and are popularly seen as one of the most improved teams in the NFL this off-season. I don’t understand that at all.

They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines respectively. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They have young players that could be improved this season, but I really don’t get why people see them as so improved. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They had the 3rd overall pick in the draft, but they spent it on Blake Bortles, who won’t help them much this season. Bortles could end up being a great quarterback long-term, but the Jaguars are vowing that they’re going to go slow with him and ideally they wouldn’t play him as a rookie. He’ll only end up playing as a rookie if the starter struggles. That’ll probably happen, but either way, Bortles won’t be on the field until it’s too late for him to solve anything, even if he plays great. Obviously, there’s no guarantee he can do that, especially as a rookie.

That starter is Chad Henne, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback last season, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The 2008 2nd pick has completed 59.5% for an average of 6.00 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 62 interceptions in his career. He’s attempted 1876 passes in 6 seasons in the league. He’s 18-32 in his career and needs everything around him to be right for him to make the playoffs.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Everything definitely isn’t right around Henne. The Jaguars signed former Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal worth 4.5 million guaranteed. He’ll be the starter and the Jaguars are talking him up as a 300+ carry three-down back. The 2010 2nd round pick clearly has some talent, averaging 4.73 YPC on 276 carries (1305 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns) in 4 years in the league.

However, he has limited action, with an average of 69 carries per season and just 1125 snaps played in his career (an average of 281 snaps played per season). He’s graded out above average in 2 seasons and below average in 2 seasons and has played the majority of his snaps in passing situations, meaning, when he does carry the ball, he’s doing it against a defensive front that’s not expecting the run. The 6-0 231 pounder has caught 77 passes in his career, which is solid, but unspectacular, which is the same way he is as a pass protector. He has some three down potential, but he’s a serious projection to that role. The Jaguars are expected to pound the rock with Gerhart to take the pressure off of their passing game, though that plan is best executed when leading, which the Jaguars probably won’t be doing a lot of this season.

The Jaguars really don’t have another option to run the ball after Gerhart, which is probably why they’re talking him up as a feature back. Jordan Todman will probably be the primary backup. The 2011 6th round pick has 79 career carries, 76 of which were last season. He averaged 3.37 YPC last season, rushing for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries. In his career, he averages 3.34 YPC, rushing for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns on 79 carries. Last season, in the only season in his career in which he saw significant action, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked running back out of 55 eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He’s not a very good backup. 7th round rookie Storm Johnson could also see action this season. That’s how bad things are.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Gerhart generally ran behind a good offensive line in Minnesota, but that won’t be the case in Jacksonville. They graded out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked run blocking team last season, a big part of the reason why they averaged 3.33 YPC last season. They were better in pass protection, but still not great, grading out 19th among teams in that aspect. Things don’t figure to be much better this season. The Jaguars signed Zane Beadles this off-season, but they overpaid the ex-Bronco on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 13 million guaranteed.

The 6 million dollars in annual value on that deal is the 10th highest in the NFL among guards. He’s not a top-10 guard. Beadles has been a starter since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010, but he’s been massively inconsistent. As a rookie in 2010, he was very solid as a guard, grading out 22nd among guards on 523 snaps played, but struggled mightily as a tackle. In 2012, he had his best season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. However, in 2011 he was 73rd out of 78 eligible and in 2013 he was 49th out of 81 eligible. All in all, he’s about an average starting guard.

He’ll be an upgrade over Will Rackley, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard in 2011 and 3rd worst ranked guard in 2013 (with a season he missed with injury in between). However, he was still overpaid. Meanwhile, they downgraded the right guard position, cutting decent starting veteran Uche Nwaneri and replacing him with 3rd round rookie Brandon Linder. Linder will be forced into the starting lineup as a rookie, which just shows you how little talent they have, and he should struggle.

The Jaguars also have a downgrade at the center position, with long-time center Brad Meester retiring. Meester struggled in his final year in the league, grading out 29th out of 35 eligible centers, but replacement Mike Brewster could still easily be worse. Brewster was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and has struggled mightily in 2 years in the league, primarily at left guard. Brewster was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked guard in 2012, despite only playing 556 snaps. He then struggled this season on 230 snaps, again primarily playing left guard, but also playing some right guard. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league back at his collegiate position of center, but he’s also a former undrafted free agent who has yet to show that he should have been drafted, so it’s definitely not an ideal situation.

The most promising player on the offensive line for the Jaguars is left tackle Luke Joeckel, who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Joeckel struggled mightily as a rookie on 280 snaps at right tackle before going down with a season ending leg injury. He could easily be better in his 2nd year, at his natural position on the blindside, but the blindside is harder than right tackle, where he struggled, he’s coming off of a serious injury, and, while he went 2nd overall, he did so in arguably the weakest draft class of the past 15 or so years. We’ll see how he does in his 2nd year in the league.

At right tackle, it’ll either be Austin Pasztor or Cameron Bradfield, who manned the tackle positions for the Jaguars most of last season with Joeckel out. Both of them struggled. Pasztor is probably the better of the two, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s better when you consider that Bradfield graded out 73rd. Pasztor, a 2012 undrafted free agent, is unproven, but he’s also not quite the proven failure that Bradfield is. He was alright on 219 snaps at right guard as a rookie. Bradfield, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2011 and has struggled mightily in both seasons he’s been a starter in the NFL. I already mentioned how bad he was last season and he graded out 62nd out of 80 eligible as a starter in 2012. Any way you look at it, it’s an awful offensive line.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

By default, things are probably best in the receiving corps. The Jaguars drafted Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and both should have significant roles as rookies, which is a concern considering that rookie wide receivers tend to struggle. The reason they were drafted is because the Jaguars are not expecting suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon to play at all this season. Blackmon barely played last season, playing 253 snaps, but the Jaguars will still miss getting anything from him.

Blackmon was pretty impressive when he was on the field last season, catching 29 of 46 targets (63.0%) for 415 yards and a touchdown on 161 routes run, an average of 2.58 yards per route run that was 4th in the NFL. He did all of that despite horrible quarterback play. Lee and Robinson should be upgrades over Ace Sanders and Mike Brown, who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season, grading out 88th and 104th respectively out of 111 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, both will probably struggle as rookies and they’ll miss Blackmon.

With Blackmon likely out for the season, Cecil Shorts will remain as the #1 receiver. Shorts showed potential in 2012, when he caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns on 423 routes run, an impressive average of 2.31 yards per route run, especially when you consider the Jaguars’ quarterback play. The 2011 4th round pick seemed poised for a breakout year in 2013, in his 3rd year in the league, in a bigger role. However, Shorts didn’t live up to expectations and showed himself to pretty much just be a complementary receiver who needs someone opposite him to take the pressure off of him. He clearly doesn’t have that right now.

Shorts caught 66 passes on 117 targets (56.4%) for 777 yards and 3 touchdowns on 472 routes run in 2013, an average of 1.65 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. He’s not bad receiver and he’s honestly probably their best offensive player, but that’s not saying much. He’s not the #1 coverage changing wide receiver they need. He’s also never played more than 14 games in a season in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, showing a tendency to get injured.

The only player who gives Shorts competition for the top offensive player on the Jaguars (assuming Joeckel doesn’t have a massive breakout season) is tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis isn’t a fantastic pass catcher, but he’s averaged 1.58 yards per route run since 2009, including 1.37 yards per route run last season. That’s pretty impressive considering what he’s had to deal with at quarterback. His raw pass catching totals don’t seem that good (206 catches for 2577 yards and 20 touchdowns since 2009 in 73 games), but that’s because the way the Jaguars utilize his skill set limits his pass catching production (in addition to poor quarterback play).

The 6-6 261 pounder is a very good run and pass blocker. As a result, he’s very often asked to stay in and pass block, which limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, he has 1 pass block snap for every 3.53 routes he runs, which means he pass blocks more often than almost any tight end. The Jaguars also very rarely line him up off the line, because he’s so good as a blocker. That also limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, only 31.7% of his routes run have come on the slot, which means he lines up off line as infrequently as almost any tight end in the game.

He’s graded out above average every season since 2009 and he was a top-10 tight end in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 overall in 2010. Much of that is run blocking grade, which isn’t the most valuable part of a tight end’s job, but he graded out above average as a pass catcher in 3 of those 4 seasons. He didn’t do so last season and he only graded out slightly above average overall and also missed 5 games with injury. That’s a concern as he heads into his age 30 season. However, he should remain an asset for them as long as he stays on the field and the 2006 1st round pick only missed a combined 3 games from 2006-2012. Clay Harbor, meanwhile, remains as the #2 tight end. He struggled as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 363 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. Overall, it’s a pretty talentless offense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Things aren’t much better on defense, though this is probably their better unit. They don’t have a ton of talent, but head coach Gus Bradley is a smart defensive mind, coming over from the Seahawks, where he was defensive coordinator. Bradley coached up several players last season. Going into his 2nd year as a head coach, Bradley is reunited with Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, two defensive ends who he had when he had a lot of success in Seattle. The issue is that both are aging right now and both are not the players they once were. Both were cut by the Seahawks for cap purposes this off-season.

Clemons was a top-12 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2012 with the Seahawks. He graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons, but he excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 4th, 6th, and 4th in pure pass rush grade in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively. However, Clemons tore his ACL in the 2012 post-season and was a shell of his former self in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible on 585 snaps. He still struggled as a run stopper and he wasn’t nearly as good rushing the passer, though he did great out slightly above average in that aspect. He’ll be about 20 months removed from that torn ACL for week 1 so he could be better, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so there’s a very good chance that he’ll never close to being the same player he once was.

Red Bryant, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s actually coming off of a solid season in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, grading out above average as a run stopper and below average as a pass rusher. The 6-5 321 pounder is a pure base defensive end, playing 488 snaps last season. At his best, he’s a strong run stuffer and a poor pass rusher, which is what he was last season. He was a similar player in 2010, before missing half the year with injury, and then he struggled mightily in both 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 56th out of 67 eligible in 2011. Bryant isn’t as old as Clemons, but he’s aging and he never was as good or as big of a part of Gus Bradley’s success in Seattle as Clemons was.

With Bryant and Clemons aging and both essentially being situational players anyway (Bryant as a base defensive end, Clemons as a sub package edge rusher), the Jaguars are going to need a 3rd defensive end to play a significant role. They may also need a 4th to play a significant role. That 3rd defensive end will be Andre Branch, who played 604 snaps in this role last season. He graded out below average, ranking 32nd among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. That’s not great, but it’s better than what he did as a rookie, when he ranked 50th out of 62 eligible on 421 snaps. The 6-4 259 pounder is better against the run than as a pass rusher, but he’s not great in either aspect. We’ll see what he does in his 3rd year in the league.

That 4th defensive end will probably be Tyson Alualu and he probably won’t have a big role. Alualu had a big role last season, playing 754 snaps, but he was awful, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, struggling as both a run stopper and especially as a pass rusher. Red Bryant is essentially his direct replacement and he’ll almost definitely be an upgrade. Alualu started his career at 4-3 defensive tackle, getting drafted 10th overall in 2010, but he’s been a massive bust and the 6-2 294 pounder was moved to defensive end last season. He played 3-4 defensive end in college.

He’s graded out significantly below average in every year he’s been in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, their worst defensive tackle in 2011, and their 2nd worst defensive tackle in 2012. The position change didn’t help him and it’s good news for the Jaguars that he won’t play much this season. Owed a 2.37 million dollar salary in his contract year, Alualu is also squarely on the roster bubble.

Things aren’t much better at defensive tackle. Sen’Derrick Marks got a big contract this off-season, re-signing with the Jaguars for 22 million over 4 seasons with 8 million guaranteed. That deal doesn’t make a lot of sense. Marks is coming off of the best season of his career, particularly as a pass rusher as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle in terms of pass rush grade. However, he still graded out below average because he was horrific against the run, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked defensive tackle against the run.

He definitely was better last season than he normally is, largely thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley, but he’s still not a great player. He was horrible before last season. The 2009 2nd round pick struggled mightily as a rookie on 200 snaps. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, 78th ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 75th out of 85 eligible in 2012. There’s a reason all he could get was a one year deal worth 1.5 million last off-season. He could easily regress a little bit this season and he wasn’t that great last year anyway.

Sadly, Marks is their best defensive tackle. Roy Miller is going to be the other starter for a 2nd straight season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible in 2013. The 2009 3rd round pick has graded out significantly below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He was Pro Football Focus 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 87 eligible in 2009, their 3rd worst defensive tackle in 2010, and their 82nd ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011. His best season in the league was 2012, when he graded out 64th out of 85 eligible. That’s sad.

What’s even sadder is that he isn’t even the Jaguars’ worst defensive tackle. In the weirdest move of the off-season, the Jaguars gave Ziggy Hood, a 2009 1st round pick mega-bust former of the Steelers, a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal with 5.5 million guaranteed. He spent 5 seasons in Pittsburgh as a 3-4 defensive end and graded out as a bottom-4 player at his position in each of the last 4 seasons. The only reason he was even remotely good was his rookie year, when he only played 225 snaps and graded out about average. A switch back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive tackle could help him, but I expect him to still struggle mightily in a rotational role. This might be the worst defensive line in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Paul Posluszny had 162 total tackles last season, which was 2nd in the NFL, but that’s misleading. Think about it. Someone had to stop plays for the Jaguars last season. They were bad, but they weren’t letting the other team score on every single play, so someone had to get a bunch of tackles. That doesn’t necessarily mean that player was great. Posluszny wasn’t bad, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season. The Jaguars are keeping him at a 6.45 million dollar salary for 2014 because they have a ton of cap space and need his veteran leadership.

He’s been better in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 and their 9th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his last 4 seasons and each of his last 2 seasons. In 2012, he was even worse, grading out 47th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. Now going into his age 30 season, Posluszny will be an average starter at best this season, even if he does, once again, get a bunch of tackles.

Geno Hayes will probably be the other every down linebacker, a role he served in last season, grading out 28th out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was once an above average starting outside linebacker in Tampa Bay, grading out well above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2009 and 2010, but he graded out 40th out of 45 eligible at his position in 2011 and then only played 141 snaps in 2012 with the Bears. Those days could easily be behind him now and he should have another season of being a below average starter on the outside.

The other outside linebacker role will probably be just a two-down role and there’s a three way competition for the job right now. Chris Smith and Telvin Smith are a pair of 5th round rookies, while Dekoda Watson is a relative veteran who appears to be the favorite right now. Watson, a 2010 7th round pick, has flashed in his career, grading out above average in 3 out of 4 seasons in the league, though he’s done it as a reserve on only a combined 742 snaps. He should be qualified for two-down work, provided he wins the starting job. It would be his first season as a starter in his career.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary was the Jaguars’ best defensive unit last season (and maybe their best unit on either side of the ball). That could continue to be the case, but they do have some guys coming off of career years that could regress. However, they could continue to play well thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley and they have a pair of 2nd year safeties who could be better this season. Those two safeties are Jonathan Cyprien and Josh Evans, who went in the 2nd round and 6th round respectively in 2013.

They graded out 84th and 76th out of 86 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus last season. Evans was the better player last season, but Cyprien definitely has more long-term upside, which is why he went in the 2nd round. Evans, meanwhile, was benched for Winston Guy down the stretch and will need to compete to win his starting job back. A foot injury has him behind the 8-ball at the moment. He fell to the 6th round so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. Winston Guy, a 2012 6th round pick, played 8 snaps as a rookie with the Seahawks and then reunited with Gus Bradley in Jacksonville last season. He struggled on 363 snaps, grading out 73rd out of 86 eligible safeties despite the limited action. He won’t be much better than Evans so it’s really a toss-up who wins this job.

Cyprien, meanwhile, played pretty well in the 2nd half of last season. In the Jaguars’ first 9 games of the season, he graded out significantly below average in 8 of them and below average in all 9. In their final 7 games, he graded out above average in 4 games and significantly above average in 3 games. He missed 1 game with injury and graded out below average in 2 games and significantly below average in 1. The 33rd pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Cyprien could carry over that strong finish into his 2nd year in the league this year.

Things were much better at cornerback, though they might not be as good this season as two players had easily the best years of their career last season and could regress. Alan Ball led Jaguar cornerbacks with 1020 snaps played and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback. However, the hybrid cornerback/safety had graded out below average in 5 of the 6 previous years he had been in the league prior to last year, since being drafted in the 7th round in 2007.

The only season he had graded out above average prior to last year was 2009, when he played just 303 snaps and he played a combined 598 snaps in 2011-2012. The only other season he was ever a starter was 2010, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked safety out of 85 eligible. He could have another strong year this year and Gus Bradley seems to have gotten the most out of the long, lanky 6-1 168 pounder (which is Bradley’s type of cornerback), but he could just as easily regress.

Will Blackmon will continue to start at cornerback opposite Ball. He also had the best year of his career last season, grading out 22nd on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks, tied with teammate Alan Ball. However, much of that was run grade as he graded out slightly below average in coverage, but ranked 2nd against the run. Run play is important for a cornerback, but it’s not nearly as important as coverage so he wasn’t quite as good as his rank suggested. On top of that, he’s the definition of a one year wonder. He played a combined 31 snaps from 2009-2012. Like Ball, he could have another solid year under Gus Bradley’s tutelage and he has the length that Bradley works well with at cornerback (6-0 199), but he could just as easily regress this season.

2013 3rd round pick Dwayne Gratz will start the season as the 3rd cornerback again, but he could easily have a bigger role than the 494 snaps he played last season if either Ball or Blackmon struggles. He graded out above average last season. He graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he played the run well and he still showed a lot of potential. He has some breakout potential going into his 2nd year in the league. Their secondary is more talented than the rest of their defense, but there are still issues here.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jaguars may have won 4 games last season, but they were even worse than their 4-12 record would have suggested and they were the worst team in the NFL. They finished dead last in DVOA and point differential, with 10 of their 12 losses coming by double digits. Their 4-12 record was buoyed by a 4-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Those 4 wins came against teams that finished a combined 15-49. They also ranked easily dead last in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dead last in rate of moving the chains, moving them at a 64.19% rate. Meanwhile, their defense was 29th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.85% rate. That’s a differential of -11.66%. No one else was worse than -7.45%.

When you look at this roster, it’s easy to see why they struggled. They were grossly mismanaged in the Gene Smith era and they’re only going into the 2nd year of their new front office and it’s going to take time to rebuild. I don’t really see how they are going to be significantly better this season. They didn’t have an unsustainably poor turnover margin or fumble recovery rate last season. They didn’t have an enormous amount of injuries last season. They didn’t have a hard schedule last season. They didn’t have bad luck and lose a lot of close games.

They didn’t add a lot of talent this off-season. They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Blake Bortles. He may be their long-term savior, but the Jaguars are wisely going to let him develop on the bench as a rookie so he won’t contribute much, leaving Chad Henne to quarterback an awful supporting cast. This has all the makings of another horrible season this year, possibly even worse than last season in terms of win total. I think this is easily the least talented team in the NFL. I’ll have an official win total after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: 2-14 4th in AFC South

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Tennessee Titans 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were the definition of nondescript last season in every facet of the game. They moved the chains at a 71.66% rate, 17th in the NFL, while their opponents moved the chains at a 71.71% rate, 19th in the NFL. Their -0.05% rate of moving the chains differential was not only the closest rate to zero in the NFL, it also ranked 16th in the NFL, right in the middle of the league. They went 7-9, but probably deserved to go 8-8, though that obviously wouldn’t have made a difference in their efforts to make the playoffs.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had to start 9 games and play in 11 in the absence of injured quarterback Jake Locker. Fitzpatrick arguably had the best season of his career last year. He had graded out below average on Pro Football Focus every season since 2008 prior to last year (he didn’t play in 2007), including 34th out of 37 eligible in 2008 and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012. However, he graded out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus last season (21st out of 42 eligible). He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA (both career highs), 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and also rushed for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 carries (5.23 YPA).

Fitzpatrick is now gone, with the Titans putting all their stock in Jake Locker staying healthy this season. Locker has had serious issues staying healthy in his career so the Titans could easily regret letting Fitzpatrick go if either Charlie Whitehurst (64.6 QB rating on 155 career attempts since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2006) or Zach Mettenberger (6th round rookie) has to make starts in Locker’s absence. At the same time, if Locker stays healthy, he should be an upgrade at quarterback for the Titans.

Injuries have sidetracked the former 8th overall pick’s career and now he heads into the contract year of his rookie deal without an extension or any expectation of getting one until he proves himself. He’s played in just 23 games in 3 seasons, working as a backup to veteran Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie and then missing a combined 14 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of injuries. When on the field, he’s definitely flashed, completing 57.2% of his passes for 7.06 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions on 563 career attempts, essentially a season’s worth. He’s also rushed for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns on 73 attempts (6.88 YPC).

He was on his way to the best season of his career last year, as he completed 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while rushing for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24 carries (6.46 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. The Titans went 4-2 in games he played more than 50% of snaps in and they probably would have had a better record on the season if he had stayed healthy.

He suffered a hip injury after 4 starts, wasn’t the same upon his return, and then suffered a season ending foot injury 3 starts after his return from the first injury. In 2012, it was his shoulder. He seems really brittle. It’s obviously a make or break year for him as he goes into his contract year, with a new regime than the one who drafted him now in power. It helps that his new head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, has a strong history with quarterbacks, though he’s always struggled to develop young quarterbacks.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Titans probably would have had a better record last season if Locker had stayed healthy. The framework was in place for the team to be an above average team, even if only a slightly above average team, with slightly improved quarterback play. The issue is the Titans had one of the most head-scratching off-seasons of any team in the league and are a noticeably worse team now around the quarterback than they were last season. These head scratching decisions were most noticeable on the offensive line.

The Titans cut long-time starting right tackle David Stewart, which wasn’t a bad idea, even though he can probably still play (he’s still available on the open market right now, but plenty of veterans available late into the off-season made impacts last season). He was still a decent starter last season, grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but he’s going into his age 33 season, coming off of a couple of injury plagued seasons, and the Titans saved about 6 million on the cap by cutting him.

The biggest issue is that instead of using the freed up cap space to re-sign talented cornerback Alterraun Verner (who signed with Tampa Bay on a very reasonable 4-year, 26.5 million dollar deal), they used it to sign Michael Oher from Baltimore to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal with 9.35 million guaranteed. Oher will be a significant downgrade over Stewart. That was a ridiculous deal. I thought Oher would have to settle for a one-year prove it deal on the open market.

That’s because Oher had the worst year of his 5-year career last year, as the 2009 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible on the right side in Baltimore. Oher has actually regressed in almost every season as a pro. He had a strong rookie year, grading out 15th at his position, but then went 40th, 38th, 57th, and then, of course, 68th last season. He could be a little better than he was last season, but there are no guarantees and he could still struggle either way.

After that, the Titans, for some reason, used the 11th pick in the draft on another offensive tackle instead of adding a replacement for Verner at cornerback, like Kyle Fuller (who went 3 picks later to Chicago). That offensive tackle was Taylor Lewan. That pick makes some sense in that Michael Roos at left tackle is going into an age 32 contract year and it’s possible that Lewan was just far and away the best prospect on their board available at that point, but it still doesn’t change the fact that they used the 11th overall pick on someone who probably won’t play as a rookie and that they decided to sign Oher instead of re-signing Verner. Lewan won’t help them this season.

Theoretically, Lewan can push Oher for the starting job this season. He’s a better football player after all, even as a rookie. That would be the right move if we assume that insane Oher deal is a sunk cost at this point, but they’re likely going to be way too proud to admit their mistake on that one this soon, after guaranteeing him 9.35 million. The worst part of that deal is that the guaranteed money includes almost all of his 2015 salary as well so he’s probably locked in as a starter for at least two years.

That means that Lewan will probably get his chance to start next season at left tackle, which means that this is probably Michael Roos’ last year in Tennessee. That’s a shame, even if he is going into his age 32 season, and it makes their offensive moves at offensive tackle even more confusing. Roos has been a quietly dominant left tackle and a huge asset for the Titans since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2005.

He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2007, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2012 (he was also 4th in 2008). He graded out 16th last season and has been a top-16 offensive tackle in each of the last 3 seasons, something only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Eugene Monroe can also say. He’s also missed just 1 start since 2007. It’s a shame that he’ll probably be gone next season, but it a good thing that the Titans didn’t cut him going into this season to put Lewan at left tackle and save 6.625 million in cash and cap space. This was actually reportedly discussed as an idea by a Titans team that seems to have serious issues with personnel decisions.

Things are much more stable at guard, where Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre will return at right and left guard respectively, after both joined the team last off-season. The Titans used big resources on both, drafting Warmack with the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and giving Andy Levitre a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal. Only one of those investments worked out in their first year with the team as Chance Warmack struggled as a rookie, grading out below average and ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 46th guard out of 81 eligible. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league though and he was seen as a one in a decade type guard prospect by many coming out.

Levitre, meanwhile, had a “down” year in his first year with the team, but he was still a huge asset, grading out 13th at his position. The only reason last year was a “down” year for him is because he graded out 6th at his position in 2011 and 9th at his position in 2012. Even still, only Evan Mathis and Josh Sitton also have graded out in the top-13 in each of the last 3 seasons among guards. The 2009 2nd round pick has made all 80 starts in 5 years in the league and graded out above average in all 5 seasons. He should have another strong year this year.

The center position is an issue for the Titans. They, for some reason, cut Fernando Velasco in final cuts last year even though he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center in 2012. Velasco turned out to not be as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, playing as an injury replacement in Pittsburgh, but he was still better than what the Titans had at center last year. Veteran Robert Turner started the first 6 games of the season before being benched for poor performance. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center despite only playing 401 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower.

4th round rookie Brian Schwenke then took over as the starter from there on out and wasn’t much better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked center on 573 snaps. Turner is gone and remains an unsigned free agent right now so the starting job is all Schwenke’s. They don’t have another player on the roster who has ever played a snap at center. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league and his first full season as a starter, but there are no guarantees with a former mid-round pick like him. Center is an obvious position of weakness. The Titans have made their offensive line worse over the past calendar year, but there’s still talent here, particularly at left tackle and left guard.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Titans also attempted to revamp the running back position this off-season, though they did a better job with that than they did on the offensive line. Chris Johnson was cut, which needed to be done because he was a declining player and clearly not worth his salary. He’s good for a few highlight reel plays, but he won’t he missed much. He averaged just 3.86 yards per carry last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked running back out of 55 eligible.

The Titans will replace him with Bishop Sankey, who was drafted in the 2nd round out of Washington. Sankey doesn’t have ideal size at 5-9 209, but he ran a 4.49 40 and he runs harder than his size. He showed the ability to carry the load at Washington, with 677 touches over his final 2 seasons combined, but he doesn’t even turn 22 until September so his legs should be pretty fresh. He has three down ability and some considered him the top running back in the draft class. The Titans obviously did, making him the first running back off the board, 53rd overall, the latest the first running back has ever come off the board (breaking the record set in 2013).

Sankey should get the opportunity to be the feature back immediately in Tennessee because they don’t have much else at the running back position. Shonn Greene, who played 154 snaps and had 77 carries last season, remains in that backup role. It was a weird move when the Titans gave him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season because he’s only a backup caliber running back. He’s averaged just 4.14 YPC on 899 career carries and offers nothing on passing downs, with just 71 catches in 72 career games. He’s not going to get any better going into his age 29 season.

Greene’s roster spot shouldn’t be safe at a non-guaranteed 2.3 million dollar salary. He might be kept only because their other big back option is Jackie Battle, who is going into his age 31 season with 321 career carries and a career 3.64 YPC. The Titans will have to be awfully reliant on a rookie at running back this year, though it’s not worse than last season, when they were way too reliant on a clearly declining Chris Johnson.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the reason why Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to have the best statistical year of his career last year and why Locker was able to have success as well was solid play in their receiving corps (in addition to their offensive line). The biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 in the receiving corps was a breakout season from 2012 1st round pick Kendall Wright in his 2nd year in the league. Wright only averaged 11.5 yards per reception and only scored twice and in his career he only averages 10.8 yards per reception and only has 6 touchdowns, but he gobbles up underneath targets and dominates that part of the field.

Wright caught 94 passes on 134 targets (70.1%) and totaled 1079 yards on 539 routes run, an average of 2.00 yards per route run, 21st among eligible wide receivers. He also had more than half of his yardage after the catch, as he totaled 583 yards after the catch and averaged 6.2 yards per catch after the catch. That was 10th at his position among eligible wide receivers. He did drop 8 passes, but that’s a relatively low drop rate when you consider how many passes he caught and he also broke 19 tackles, which was 2nd most at his position. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver and he could easily be better in his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for wide receivers. He can become a more complete receiver by catching more passes downfield.

On top of that, Nate Washington continued his solid play, catching 58 passes for 919 yards and 3 touchdowns on 558 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Over the past 3 seasons, Washington has caught 178 passes for 2688 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaged 1.62 yards per route run. Last season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked wide receiver and he’s graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He’s more of a deep threat than Wright, averaging 15.2 yards per catch in his career and 15.8 yards per catch last season, but there’s some concern as he goes into his age 31 season. Both Wright and Washington are strong run blockers, which boosted their ranks on Pro Football Focus, but they still graded out 22nd and 23rd respectively in pass catching grade.

Wright spent 68.5% of his snaps on the slot last season, part of the reason why he rarely scored and averaged so few yards per catch. He could see slightly fewer snaps there this season though as slot specialist Dexter McCluster comes over from Kansas City. McCluster will not be the true slot receiver he was in Kansas City, but he’ll play there some, in addition to lining up as a passing down running back, and also possibly returning kickoffs and punts. He’ll play the Danny Woodhead role in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense, with Bishop Sankey playing the Ryan Mathews role.

McCluster caught 53 passes for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and more than half of his yards per reception (5.1 per catch) came after the catch. He did that on 429 routes run (1.19 yards per route run), graded out below average, and ran 79.5% of his routes from the slot. McCluster, a 2010 2nd round pick, has 172 career catches for 1500 yards and 5 touchdowns. He has 152 carries for 662 yards (4.36 YPC) and a touchdown.

He’s also returned 79 punts for 959 yards and 3 touchdowns and 52 kickoffs for 1087 yards. He’s not as good as Woodhead, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, but he graded out above average in the one season he spent primarily as a passing down back and he’ll provide versatility on offense. He’s probably not worth the 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal they gave him though, as his biggest impact will probably be on special teams.

One player the Titans are hoping can step up this season is Justin Hunter. If Hunter, a 2013 2nd round pick, were to lock down one of the top-3 wide receiver jobs, they could run with Washington and Hunter outside in 3-wide sets and line Wright up on the slot, with McCluster fitting in as an obvious passing situation back and 4th wide receiver. Hunter played 340 snaps as a rookie and was pretty ordinary. He caught 18 passes for 354 yards and 4 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 1.67 yards per route run. That’s a solid average, though he only caught 18 of 41 targets (43.9%) and had 5 drops. Rookie receivers don’t usually do much anyway though and Hunter was regarded as really raw coming out of the University of Tennessee. Going only into his age 23 season, the height, weight, speed freak (6-4, 196, 4.44 40) could become a contributor in 3-wide receiver sets.

The Titans’ receiving corps as a whole should become more efficient with Kenny Britt gone. Britt still has potential and could show that potential this season in St. Louis, but he was awful in Tennessee last season and his “loss” will be addition by subtraction. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was awful.

The Titans don’t get much pass catching production from their tight ends, which is why Wright was so important last season catching underneath targets. The Titans signed Delanie Walker from the 49ers on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping that Walker, whose had never caught 30 passes in a season before last year, would become a better receiver with more playing time in Tennessee as the starting tight end. He was a backup to Vernon Davis in San Francisco.

Walker was more productive, catching 60 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he wasn’t that efficient, averaging just 1.19 yards per route run and grading out below average as a pass catcher. He wasn’t as bad as he was in 2012, when he dropped 9 passes, as opposed to 21 catches, but he’s never been a good pass catcher. Fortunately, he’s a strong run blocker, which makes up for it. He’s graded out above average as a run blocker in each of his last 7 seasons in the league and below average as a pass catcher in 6 of the last 7 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, that’s unlikely to change.

Neither Craig Stevens nor Taylor Thompson is much of a pass catcher either as both graded out above average as a run blocker and below average as a pass blocker last season. This also isn’t anything new for either of them. Stevens has graded out below average as a pass catcher and above average as a run blocker in 5 of the 6 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Meanwhile, Thompson has graded out below average as a pass catcher and above average as a run blocker in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2012. It’s still an above average pass catching group, but the tight end position isn’t great in that aspect.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I already mentioned some of the ways the Titans have a weaker supporting cast than last season. They replaced David Stewart with Michael Oher, lost Alterraun Verner, and then used the 11th overall pick on a backup for Oher. The other thing they did to weaken themselves is they switched defensive schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Ray Horton comes over as the new defensive coordinator. He has a strong history so this isn’t a knock on him, but they’re converting to a system that their two best front 7 players don’t really fit.

Casey was probably their best defensive player last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. He was 8th in 2012 and 16th as a 3rd round rookie in 2011. Going into his 4th season in the league, only his age 25 season, Casey is a supremely talented young defensively lineman, but he’s a questionable fit for a 3-4 at 6-1 290. He’ll play 3-4 defensive end, where he’s not as natural or experienced as he is at defensive tackle and he could struggle by his standards as a result. Casey also lost 15 pounds, going from 305 to 290, for this new role, which could be risky.

The Titans had a lot of depth on the defensive line in terms of big players last season, with guys like Ropati Pitotua, Sammie Lee Hill, Karl Klug, and Mike Martin all playing rotational roles. Those 4 are all still with the team and will continue in rotational roles on the Titans’ new 3-man defensive line. The 6-4 329 pound Hill is most likely to be their nose tackle this season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons, though he’s maxed out at 437 snaps. His best season was 2010, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked defensive tackle on just 367 snaps. He’s never played in a 3-4 as a professional, but he should be fine in the middle.

Pitotua, meanwhile, will start as the other 3-4 defensive end. The 6-8 290 pounder played 585 snaps as a base 4-3 defensive end last season in kind of a Red Bryant role. He played the run well, but he struggled mightily as a pass rusher and graded out slightly below average overall. He has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in Kansas City prior to last season. However, he was awful in Kansas City grading out below average every season he was there. The season he had the biggest role was in 2012, when he played 505 snaps, and, not coincidentally, that was the season he struggled the most, grading out 29th out of 34 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. He’s never graded out above average and should struggle again this season as a starter.

Fortunately, the Titans do have players to rotate with him, as I mentioned above. Both Karl Klug and Mike Martin have shown well as reserves throughout their careers.  Klug has graded out above average in 3 seasons in the league at defensive tackle on a combined 1103 snaps, with his best season coming in 2013, when he graded out 14th among defensive tackles despite playing just 330 snaps. He especially excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 10th in that aspect.

Martin, meanwhile, has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. He only played 237 snaps this past season, but played 435 snaps as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps. Neither has much 3-4 experience and neither is an ideal fit for the system, with Martin coming in at 6-1 306 and Klug coming in at 6-3 275, but both should still be solid contributors in rotational roles. There’s a lot of talent on the defensive line, but the scheme change might be trying to fit round pegs into square holes.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another player the scheme change could easily adversely affect is Derrick Morgan, who has been their best edge rusher over the past 2 seasons. Morgan took until his 3rd year in the league to make an impact because the 2010 1st round pick got hurt as a rookie and then struggled upon his return in his 2nd year in the league, but he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 5th and 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 2013 respectively, showing those first round abilities. He’s especially excelled as a pass rusher, while struggling against the run.

Morgan played at around 6-3 275 last season and has slimmed down to 6-3 260 to play 3-4 outside linebacker this season, a position he has very little, if any experience with. Dropping into coverage and rushing from a two-point stance are both very new for him. Between the position change and the weight loss needed for the position change, the Titans are taking a major chance tinkering with a proven player with Morgan, as they are also doing with Casey.

The scheme change won’t be bad for everyone though. Akeem Ayers has played a kind of tweener outside linebacker/defensive end position over the past 3 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 and now will get to line up at a more natural position as a rush linebacker. He’s graded out above average as a 4-3 outside linebacker in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league. Last year was his best season as he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker.

He’s been a strong pass rusher over the past two seasons, with a combined 8 sacks, 14 hits, and 34 hurries on a combined 339 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate of 16.5%. Now he’ll get to rush the passer more often, which is obviously good for him, and drop into coverage less. He’s graded out below average in coverage in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, on a combined 875 coverage snaps. He could have a breakout year this season, perfect timing as he heads into his contract year.

The Titans added Shaun Phillips as a free agent to the 3-4 outside linebacker mix this off-season. He’ll provide depth behind Morgan and Ayers and experience as someone who has spent almost his entire career in a 3-4. The issue is he’s going into his age 33 season, which is why he was available for 4.8 million over 2 seasons this off-season. Shaun Phillips looked done after the 2013 season, going into his age 32 season after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013. He had to settle for a one year deal close to the veteran’s minimum with the Broncos, but he was able to rehab his value, grading out above average as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. That being said, he’s still no guarantee to continue being a positive contributor this year given his age.

The Titans will start Zach Brown and Wesley Woodyard inside at middle linebacker in their 3-4. Brown will convert from being a 4-3 outside linebacker. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out slightly above average on 756 snaps as a rookie and then slightly below average on 771 snaps last season. He should continue being an average starter inside in his 3rd year in the league. Woodyard, meanwhile, is a free agent acquisition coming over from Denver. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Moise Fukou, who was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked middle linebacker last season.

Woodyard isn’t great though, even though he got a 4-year, 16 million dollar from the Titans this off-season. He’s coming off of a year in which he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus and got benched for the archaic Paris Lenon. He has experience at both 4-3 outside and 4-3 inside linebacker, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s been a starter for the past 3 seasons and the only season he graded out above average was perhaps not coincidentally the only season he started at outside linebacker. The 6-0 227 pounder just might not be a natural middle linebacker and he could be an even worse fit in a 3-4. The Titans don’t have a lot of muscle inside at linebacker as Zach Brown is only 6-1 242.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, Alterraun Verner is gone, signing with the Buccaneers. 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.

The Titans have a few opinions in replacing him. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 2013 3rd round pick who played 93 snaps as a rookie, could slot into the starting job. Coty Sensabaugh, who was the slot cornerback last season, could play outside in base packages and move inside in sub packages with Wreh-Wilson coming in, though he could be overmatched on the outside. Sensabaugh struggled on 319 snaps as a rookie in 2012, but graded out slightly above average on 509 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Tommie Campbell is a height/weight/speed guy (6-3 203 4.32 40) who is often anointed an off-season star. He could get a bigger role this season, after only playing 91 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined. He was a 2011 7th round pick.

Luckily, the Titans still have Jason McCourty. As I mentioned, McCourty has also graded out in the top-25 in each of the past 4 seasons on Pro Football Focus. In fact, McCourty has graded out in the top-11 in each of the last 3 seasons, the only cornerback in the NFL who can say that, and the 2009 6th round pick has graded out in the top-20 in each of the past 4 seasons, joining Joe Haden has the only other cornerback who has done that.

Part of that is that he’s been so good against the run and run stopping ability is easily a cornerback’s least important trait. He was Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked cornerback in 2011 and 2nd ranked cornerback in 2012 in terms of run grade. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2013 and 16th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2010. He’s graded out above average in coverage in every season in the league. He’s a well-rounded cornerback and their best defensive back, though he isn’t as good as his overall grades would suggest he is.

Things are more stable at safety where Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin return as starters. Both graded out above average last season, with the former grading out 21st at his position and the latter grading out 14th. Griffin is one of the most inconsistent players in the league and has graded out all over the map. The 2007 1st round pick has had slightly above average years in 2007, 2010, well above average years in 2008 (9th), 2011 (10th), and 2013 (14th), and below average years in 2009 (87th out of 88) and 2012 (87th out of 88). He could have anything from a fantastic season to a horrific season this year, though he probably averages out as an above average safety.

Pollard probably averages out as an above average safety as well, even though he’s been with 4 teams and been cut 3 times in his career. He’s graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety. He’s a solid box safety who is better against the run than in coverage. Overall, the secondary is weakened significantly by the loss of Verner, but there is some talent left.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Titans are weakened on the offensive line and in the secondary as compared to last season and they are trying to fit their two best front 7 players into new roles, which could backfire. They also should suffer more injuries than last season, even if Jake Locker stays healthy, after they had the 6th fewest adjusted games lost last season. And if Locker doesn’t stay healthy, the downgrade from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Charlie Whitehurst/Zach Mettenberger at backup quarterback is significant.

They were an average team last season that was slightly better than their record. However, I don’t see them improving significantly this off-season, if they improve at all. They play in a weak division and should once again have an easy schedule this season (after they ranked 22nd in strength of schedule in terms of DVOA last season). However, I don’t think even that legitimately puts them in the playoff race. I think they’re the 3rd most talented team in the division. I’ll have an official win total when all the team previews are done.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC South

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