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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