Dallas Cowboys 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cowboys shocked a lot of people by going 12-4 last season and they were easily my biggest whiff last off-season, as I had them 4-12 in my season preview last year. I expected them to have historically bad defense and for the offense to not be able to compensate. Instead, both units vastly exceeded my expectations, the offense doing so by being one of the best in the NFL, finishing 4th in rate of moving the chains. Things were perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, with only one player playing more than 200 snaps and grading out below average, starting wide receiver Terrance Williams. Things were actually too perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, as they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury offensively last season. That’s unlikely to continue.

Speaking of being too perfect, Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, which won’t be as good again this season because of likely increased injuries and the loss of DeMarco Murray (more on that later). Part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the big off-season loss by the Cowboys offensively was DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) in 2014, before signing a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles as a free agent this off-season. While much of that was an offensive line that ranked 2nd in run block grade on Pro Football Focus’ last season and while he probably wouldn’t have been able to replicate that kind of season again in 2015 and while they made the right move not overpaying him, he will be missed. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back last season, a big part of their offensive success, and someone who took the pressure off of Romo in a big way. Romo’s 435 pass attempts were just 23rd among quarterbacks (though he did miss 1 game with injury).

The Cowboys surprisingly didn’t add a running back through the draft, so they’ll be relying on an underwhelming group of veterans this season and hoping that the offensive line will make them look good. I believe in their offensive line, but there’s only so good these running backs can be made to look and there’s no question in my mind that they won’t run the ball as well as they did last season. 2013 5th round pick Joseph Randle, a backup for the past 2 years, seems like the heavy favorite to be the lead back. Randle struggled mightily as a rookie, rushing for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on 54 carries (3.04 YPC), but flashed in limited action in 2014, rushing for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns on 51 carries (6.73 YPC). His career 4.83 YPC looks good, but he’s very unproven and wasn’t highly drafted so it’s hard to get too excited about him as the starter.

Free agent acquisition Darren McFadden projects as the primary backup. McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.19 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 4 seasons since, he’s played a total of 45 games out of 64 and he’s rushed for just 2234 yards and 13 touchdowns on 601 carries (3.72 yards per carry). On top of that, he has been under 3.4 yards per carry in each of the last 3 seasons. A change of scenery and better blocking could help him, but he’s not a good runner.

Lance Dunbar should have a decent sized role on passing downs. The 2012 undrafted free agent played a career high 140 snaps last season and was fantastic as a pass catcher, catching 18 passes for 217 yards on 82 routes run, a strong 2.65 average per route run. In his career, he’s rushed for 324 yards on 80 carries (4.05 YPC) and added 31 catches for 309 yards through the air. He’s graded out above average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but, with 284 career snaps, he’s incredibly unproven. Also in the mix is Ryan Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick who has played just 5 career games thanks to injuries, hasn’t played a snap since 2012, and has rushed for just 164 yards on 58 career carries, a weak 2.83 YPC average. He’s no lock to make the roster, let alone make a positive impact. It’s a weak bunch of running backs.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The Cowboys ranked 3rd in team pass protection grade and 2nd in team run blocking grade last season, with everyone who played more than 75 snaps on the offensive line grading out above average on the season. They return all 5 starters from last season so they definitely have the potential to be the best offensive line in football again, but they’ll need to avoid the type of major injuries upfront that they didn’t have last season. Left guard Ronald Leary missed one game with injury, while Doug Free missed 5 games, but that was it.

Free was re-signed by the Cowboys for 15 million over 3 years this off-season, a very solid deal for the Cowboys. He’s going into his age 31 season and he struggled mightily in 2011 and 2012, to the point where he was briefly benched down the stretch in 2012. He graded out 51st out of 76 eligible in 2011 and 68th out of 80 eligible in 2012. However, those two seasons were sandwiched in between 4 seasons in which he graded out above average, including 20th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. The 8-year veteran has made 83 starts for the Cowboys over the past 6 seasons and has generally played well.

In Free’s absence last season, Jermey Parnell made 5 starts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle on 388 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Pernell is gone, parlaying that strong stretch into a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars this off-season, but the Cowboys did add someone on the offensive line that helps make up for that.

The Cowboys signed La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent this off-season, essentially the same as getting a free 1st round pick, as Collins was a projected 1st rounder before his name was tied to the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Collins was the victim of poor timing as the story broke right before the draft and he wasn’t able to speak to police to clear his name until after the draft. Once he did and it was clear that Collins had nothing to do with it, he became an incredibly hot commodity as a free agent and he was a big pickup by the Cowboys.

A collegiate offensive tackle, Collins will probably move to guard with the Cowboys, a position many thought pre-draft would be his best pro position. He’ll compete at left guard with incumbent Ronald Leary. Leary, a 2012 undrafted free agent, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out below average both as a run blocker and a pass protector in 2013, but improved mightily as a run blocker in 2014, grading out 5th at his position in that aspect and above average overall. He’s never been a very good pass protector, which is why he could still lose out to the rookie, but, either way you look at it, the Cowboys have 6 legitimate starting offensive linemen once again, so they can probably manage one significant injury, like they did last year when Free went down.

Of course, if one of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, or Travis Frederick gets hurt, it will be very noticeable, as the talented trio all made 16 starts last season. Those are their 3 best offensive linemen. All three are recent first round picks and all three have panned out, which is how this offensive line has become so good, so quickly. Martin is the most recent first rounder, as he went 16th overall in 2014 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 16 starts at right guard as a rookie. The center Frederick was a first rounder the year before, grading out 8th among centers as a rookie in 2013 and then 2nd last season, while making all 32 starts.

Smith is the veteran of the bunch, going 9th overall in 2011. The USC product has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 25 season. He’s graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively. One of the best offensive tackles in football, the Cowboys locked Smith up on a 8 year, 97.6 million dollar extension, with 22.118 million guaranteed, last off-season. Barring major injuries, the Cowboys’ offensive line should be arguably the best in football again this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The receiving corps is another area where the Cowboys should expect to have more games lost to injury, as their top-5 wide receivers and their top-3 tight ends all played all 16 games last season. There’s already a chance that the Cowboys could lose a game from their most important receiver, Dez Bryant, without any injury, as he’s reportedly threatening to sit out the first game of the season in protest of his lack of a new contract, after being franchise tagged this off-season. It’s unclear how real of a threat that is and Bryant has shown up at the Cowboys’ facility a few times this off-season in a show of good faith, but it’s clear he’s serious about getting a long-term deal done that would pay him as the top wide receiver in the NFL and doesn’t want to play out 2015 on his 12.82 million dollar franchise tender with no long-term security.

Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player, but, in the unlikely case that he holds out into the season, he’d definitely be missed. The other concern the Cowboys have to worry about is that Bryant holds out deep into training camp and that hurts him during the season, as has been the case with players before.

If Bryant misses time, Terrance Williams would be the #1 guy, which is a problem because, while he’s a serviceable starter, he’s an unspectacular player. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out below average on 700 snaps as a rookie and then on 830 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley remains locked in as the #3 receiver and a pure slot specialist pretty much no matter what. He’s an ascending slot receiver who has seen his snaps go up in every season since he went undrafted in 2012, playing 128 snaps in 2012, 247 snaps in 2013, and 443 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. Devin Street is the #4 receiver and would see significant playing time if anyone missed time, a problem because the 2014 5th round pick played poorly on 150 snaps as a rookie.

At tight end, Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.

James Hanna was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 335 snaps, after the 2012 7th round pick graded out below average on 109 snaps as a rookie in 2012 and then on 315 snaps in 2013. He’s a serviceable #2 tight end in a smaller role, but the Cowboys would probably like 2013 2nd round pick Gavin Escobar to surpass him at some point. Escobar has been decent on 207 and 263 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively thus far in his career and could be deserving of a bigger role in 2015, as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and only his age 24 season. It’s still a strong offense, but the loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, they’ll have more injuries, and Tony Romo is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in his age 35 season.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

If the Cowboys are going to go to the playoffs again, they’ll probably need their defense to be better. Like their offense, their defense exceeded expectations last season, but, unlike their offense, they only did so by managing to not be one of the worst defenses in league history, as it looked like they could be on paper before the season. They still finished just 26th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, leading to an 8th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential.

How did the Cowboys exceed expectations in 2015? Well it was a combination of great coaching by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (underratedly one of the best in the business) and guys having breakout years. The latter was largely a product of the former. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end.

The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.

The problem at defensive tackle is everyone except Crawford. Henry Melton, Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season, is gone as a free agent. Nick Hayden remains, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s completely overmatched as a starter, grading out worst among defensive tackles in 2014 and 2nd worst in 2013. This should be no surprise, considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012, played just 33 snaps in 2011, and graded out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles in 2010. I have no idea what the Cowboys see in him, but he seems to be locked into a starting role for the 3rd straight season.

With Melton gone, either Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop will be the 3rd defensive tackle. The latter is a 2014 7th round pick who played 66 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average. The former is a 2011 3rd round pick who played so badly as a rookie (83rd out of 88 eligible in 2011) that he saw just 203 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined, grading out below average both times. The Cowboys actually got decent play out of him on 329 snaps last season, but he’s really hard to trust in a larger role. Also, neither he nor Bishop nor anyone else on the roster who could win the #3 job is anywhere near the pass rusher Melton was.

The Cowboys will probably use defensive end Jeremy Mincey inside in sub packages in obvious passing situations next to Crawford. He doesn’t have much experience inside and he’ll be undersized at 6-3 263, even in sub packages and even in a Rod Marinelli scheme that highlights the strengths of smaller defensive linemen, but he could get solid pass rush inside in certain situations next to Crawford. Mincey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in a bounce back season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and has a history of inconsistency.

From 2007-2009, Mincey played just 166 snaps, but he became a starter in 2010 and 2011, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2011. He turned that into a 4-year, 27.2 million dollar deal, but fell flat on his face in the first year of the deal in 2012, grading out 47th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Mincey continued not to live up to expectations in 2013 and also had injury problems and got himself cut mid-season, finishing out the year in Denver, before signing in Dallas as a free agent last off-season. He can be a solid player, but he’s tough to rely on and he’s aging. He’ll start outside in base packages this season, moving inside in sub packages.

In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent. If all things are right, he’ll start opposite Mincey, but the Cowboys signed Hardy knowing about his history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. The Cowboys were expecting 4-6 games, but the league instead handed down 10, which Hardy is appealing. There’s talk it could be shortened to 4-6 upon appeal.

Not to defend someone who did what he did, but I think 10 games is excessive given that he already missed 15 games last season. I realize that was team imposed and that he still got paid, but something like an additional 4 game league suspension and a 10 game league fine would be more appropriate, giving him some sort of credit for time already missed. A total 25 game suspension would be unprecedented for this kind of thing, especially a first offense.

The Cowboys would obviously be much happier with 4-6 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field. Whether he misses 4-6 games or 10 is going to matter a lot to this defense.

In his absence, the Cowboys will be counting on a pair of recent 2nd round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The former was a 2014 2nd round pick and was limited to 223 snaps as a rookie, in part because of injuries, while the latter is a 2nd round rookie. Lawrence did flash as a rookie though and Gregory was seen as a top-10 pick before he failed a combine drug test, weighed in under 240, and before concerns about his personal life and his mental health came up. Despite being seen as the best natural pass rusher in the draft class by many in the league before the draft, Gregory fell to the 60th pick, which makes him the definition of a boom or bust pick. With Hardy suspended and Mincey expected to play inside in sub packages, both youngsters should see significant action in 2015, particularly in pass rush situations. It’s tough to grade this unit without clarity on Hardy’s situation, but it’s a unit that has some talent, but a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The other breakout star the Cowboys had last season was Rolando McClain. Like Crawford, he’s part of the reason why this defense was at least passable at times. Out of the league entirely in 2013 because of off-the-field problems, McClain graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked middle linebacker last season. That’s no fluke, as the 2010 8th overall pick has been impressive whenever he’s been on the field in his career, grading out above average in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012.

The fact that he’s been arrested 3 times is concerning, as is the fact that he got kicked off the Raiders in the middle of a productive season in 2012. He suffered multiple concussions down the stretch in 2014 and was given a 4 game fine for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He received a very cold free agent market this off-season, settling for 3 million over 1 year with the Cowboys, but he’s so good whenever he’s on the field that he should be a bargain for the Cowboys, provided he can stay on the field.

Speaking of staying on the field, Sean Lee will return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2014 and caused the Cowboys to bring in McClain out of retirement in the first place. With McClain locked in at middle linebacker, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there. He should be an upgrade over Bruce Carter, who graded out 35th among 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

The Cowboys better hope he can stay healthy because, with Carter and Justin Durant gone as free agents, that would leave Anthony Hitchens, expected to only see two-down work opposite Lee, to play an every down role outside in Lee’s absence. Hitchens is a much better fit in a two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. The 2014 4th round pick graded out 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last year, but also graded out above average as a run stopper. Kyle Wilbur will back up all 3 spots and see action if anyone can’t stay on the field, but the 2012 4th round pick and one-time defensive end has never graded out above average in his career. It’s a strong group if everyone can stay on the field, but also an unreliable group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a serious problem going into the draft so they drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the first round. Jones won’t fix all their issues overnight though, as rookies, even talented ones, can be very tough to rely on. Sterling Moore (Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2014) is gone, but Brandon Carr remains, which is a problem. The Cowboys signed him to a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after he had graded out above average in 3 straight seasons from 2009-2011. However, he’s never graded out better than 52nd among cornerbacks in 3 seasons in Dallas and finished last season 90th out of 108 eligible. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s some bounce back potential here, but I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the team at his currently scheduled non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary, especially after the addition of Jones.

Orlando Scandrick will work as the other starter opposite Carr, with Jones playing the #3 cornerback role. Scandrick has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and 10th overall among cornerbacks in 2015. Scandrick turned that strong 2014 season into a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar extension this off-season, but is still signed for just 20 million over the next 5 seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, but he’s only going into his age 28 season and should once again be an asset for the Cowboys in the secondary and their top defensive back.

Things were not good at safety last year. There’s some talk that Jones could start his career at safety, but that would require a healthy Morris Claiborne at cornerback. The Cowboys are hoping that Claiborne, who missed 12 games with a torn patellar tendon last season, can contribute this season, but the Cowboys are used to being disappointed by Claiborne. After the Cowboys traded a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, he’s played in just 29 games in 3 seasons, missing 19 games with injury.

Claiborne has also never graded out above average in his career. His future certainly didn’t get brighter when he tore his patellar tendon, arguably the most significant lower body injury a player can suffer. The list of guys who have returned to form after such an injury is basically non-existent and Claiborne’s recovery reportedly isn’t going well, as he’s lost 15-20 pounds and is now down to 172 pounds. The Cowboys declined his 5th year option for 2016 this off-season, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and Claiborne will now head into his contract year with major questions around his future

That means Jones will likely stick at cornerback as a rookie, leaving JJ Wilcox and Barry Church to once again start at safety. Church wasn’t bad last season, but Wilcox graded out 76th out of 87 eligible safeties last season in the first extended starting experience of his career (he made 5 starts during a 2013 season in which he played 530 snaps). The 2012 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career and doesn’t profile as a starter long-term.

Church was better than Wilcox last year, but still graded out below average, something the 2010 undrafted free agent has done in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. However, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and has never really been that bad, grading out only slightly below average both times. He’s not a great player or anything, but he’s a serviceable starter and, unlike Wilcox, doesn’t need to be upgraded. It’s a weak secondary outside of Scandrick and possibly the rookie Jones though.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

This is still a talented team, but I have a hard time seeing them winning 12 games again this season. For one, winning 12+ games in 2 straight seasons is very tough to do and rarely happens. Two, the Cowboys were slightly worse than their record suggested last season, finishing just 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. Three, their offense probably won’t be quite as good as it was last season due to the loss of DeMarco Murray, likely regression in Tony Romo’s play, and likely more injuries. The defense gets Sean Lee back, but who knows for how long and the Cowboys didn’t have enough injuries defensively last season where they can point to that as a reason why they’ll be better this season.

Greg Hardy’s addition is important, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually get to play this season, while the losses of guys like Henry Melton and Sterling Moore will hurt more than people realize. Outside of Crawford, Scandrick, McClain and maybe Lee, Hardy, and Mincey, it’s a pretty thin defense. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they certainly won’t be guaranteed one. Obviously, much depends on Hardy’s availability. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC East

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Philadelphia Eagles 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2013, Nick Foles seemed to set the world on fire, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, after the 2012 3rd round pick took over for an injured Michael Vick early in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia. He had a QB rating of 119.2, actually the 3rd best QB rating all-time. However, that was largely the result of the system and the surrounding offensive talent, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback.

Chip Kelly always seemed to understand that and didn’t overvalue Foles. Because of that and the fact that Foles, who was drafted by Kelly’s predecessor Andy Reid, never was an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly wants from a quarterback in terms of having strong mobility and pocket presence, Foles was heavily shopped this off-season, after a down 2014 season. Last season, he completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, missed 8 games with a broken collarbone, and graded out 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks. It was very similar to his rookie year, when he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and graded out 31st among 38 eligible, so his above average 2013 season looks like a fluke now.

I have no problem with Kelly trusting his system and not seeing Foles as a long-term solution, especially with Foles going into the contract year of his rookie deal, with average or better quarterbacks getting boatloads over the past few years. However, I don’t think they got a fair return in the trade that sent Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Not only did the two teams swap quarterbacks, but the Eagles sent a 4th rounder and a 2016 2nd rounder to St. Louis for a 5th rounder, which suggests they see Bradford as an upgrade on Foles.

As lukewarm as I am on Foles, I disagree with the Eagles’ assessment. In 5 seasons in the NFL, Bradford missed 31 games (including 25 straight over the past 2 seasons with a twice town ACL), completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. He’s been better than his stats have suggested, as he always had horrible supporting casts in St. Louis, and he actually graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013 before his extended absence, but he’s still very tough to trust, especially coming off the injury. Early reports of him at practice haven’t been great.

The Eagles are also in the same situation contract wise with Bradford as they were with Foles as both are in the final year of their rookie deals, but the difference is Bradford’s rookie deal was the #1 overall’s under the old CBA, while Foles is a former 3rd round pick whose deal was signed after the new CBA passed. That means that Bradford is owed just under 13 million this season, while Foles is under a million.

For that reason, many thought the Rams would outright cut him this off-season. Certainly I don’t think anyone would have thought they could have gotten a 2nd round pick and a cheap functional quarterback for him. Many also thought the Eagles just acquired Bradford to flip to the Browns for a first rounder to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who Kelly coached in college, but Bradford wasn’t even in their final offer for Mariota, so it’s clear they legitimately like Bradford. Bradford is a decent fit for Kelly’s offense and Kelly should be able to get the most out of him, but it’s unclear how much that actually is.

With Bradford’s health looming large, his backup is relevant. That backup is still Mark Sanchez, who backed up Foles last season and made 8 starts in his absence. Everyone was quick to say that Mark Sanchez had turned it around in Philadelphia last year working with Chip Kelly instead of Rex Ryan, but Sanchez was still a backup caliber quarterback. Overall though, he really didn’t turn it around. He completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Out of the league in 2013 because of injury, Sanchez has ranked 27th (2014), 37th (2012), 36th (2011), 27th (2010), and 39th (2009) on Pro Football Focus since being drafted in the first round by the Jets in 2009. He’s somehow made 76 starts over that period of time. If he has to make starts, the Eagles will be in trouble, as his previous employers have been when he’s had to start.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, part of Foles’ success in Philadelphia was his supporting cast. The Eagles don’t have quite the same supporting cast as they used to though, which hurts Bradford’s chances. It’s still better than what he was used to in St. Louis, but that’s not saying much. Last off-season, it was DeSean Jackson getting cut after a career best 82/1332/9 year in 2013 because the Eagles thought he was overpaid. That wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been because the Eagles had Jeremy Maclin coming back from injury and he had a career best 85/1318/10 year in 2014, grading out 14th among eligible receivers, but now he’s gone too. I don’t blame them for not matching Kansas City’s 5-year, 55 million dollar deal as that’s a lot for a guy with one career 1000+ year, but there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.

In order to replace him, the Eagles drafted Nelson Agholor in the first round and are expected to give a bigger role to 2014 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews. As a rookie, Matthews caught 67 passes on 98 targets (68.4%) for 876 yards and 8 touchdowns on 484 routes run, an average of 1.81 yards per route run, grading out above average as a pass catcher on 779 total snaps as the #3 receiver, primarily focused on the slot. He’ll see more action this season and could be their leading receiver. Rookie wide receivers usually don’t produce like he did as a rookie, as even first round pick wideouts have averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns as rookies since 2005, even when you include last year’s insane wide receiver class, which is not the norm. That’s good news for Matthews, who could push for 1000+ yards, but also a reminder that Agholor could take a year or two to be what they think he’ll be.

Riley Cooper and Josh Huff will compete for the #3 job, largely playing outside with Agholor and Matthews both seeing significant snaps in the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Huff, a dynamic kick returner, graded out below average on 210 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year, but has a good chance to win the #3 job because of how horrible Riley Cooper was last season. The veteran caught 55 passes on 91 targets (60.4%) for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns on 561 routes run, an average of 1.02 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver as a result.

The big 6-3 222 pounder showed an incredible inability to get separation or gain yards after the catch and was infrequently targeted as a result, only redeeming himself slightly as a run blocker on the outside. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because the Eagles foolishly signed him to a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season and his 4 million dollar salary for 2015 is guaranteed whether he’s on the roster or not. It doesn’t guarantee him a role though, as the Eagles will roll with the youngster if they feel they have to. The Eagles are hoping that Cooper flashes the form that got him that deal, when he graded out slightly above average in 2013, but that’s unlikely. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league, that 2013 season, and is the definition of a one-year wonder.

With Maclin leaving, the Eagles are likely to use more two-tight end sets at the expense of three-wide receiver sets. That looked like the case to many people last season as well, with DeSean Jackson leaving, and it never really panned out, but that was because of Jeremy Maclin’s return from injury. They don’t have anyone like that walking through those doors this year with Agholor likely at least a year or two away, so a greater focus on tight ends makes a lot of sense, especially since Bradford has always liked to focus on the short to intermediate parts of the field, thanks to limited deep ball arm strength.

Brent Celek has been the Eagles’ starting tight end for many years, but the added focus on tight ends should benefit “#2” tight end Zach Ertz more than anyone. Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.

Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Maclin gone and Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. If the Eagles want to get their best players on the field regardless of position in the receiving corps, frequently going two-tight ends with Agholor, Matthews, Ertz, and Celek makes a lot of sense.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Eagles also suffered a major loss on the offensive line as they released Evan Mathis, who graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury last season. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded his contract be dealt with, rightfully so, as Mathis was owed just 5.5 million in the final year of his contract. He wanted either long-term security or a short-term pay raise and the Eagles were unwilling to give him either. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s still unsigned as of this writing, but he’s expected to get both more money annually and more years on the open market. He’s going to be missed in Philadelphia.

Allen Barbre is expected to start in his absence. He graded out above average last season, but went down for the season with a season ending ankle injury week 1, starting at right tackle in place of the suspended Lane Johnson. Prior to last season, the 2007 4th round pick had never graded out above average, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get from Mathis. He was originally supposed to be the starter at right guard, where Todd Herremans was also let go this off-season. Herremans struggled mightily last season (57th out of 78 eligible) and missed 8 games with injury so he won’t be missed immediately, but he played well as recently as 2013 so the Eagles have gone from really strong to really weak at the guard position really quickly.

With Barbre switching sides, it’s unclear who will start at right guard. Matt Tobin is reportedly the favorite, but he’ll face competition from Andrew Gardner and maybe even Dennis Kelly. None of them are good options. Tobin made 7 starts last season when Mathis was hurt and finished 52nd out of 78 eligible guards, after not playing an offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Gardner also graded out below average last season on 683 snaps, struggling mightily in 2 starts at offensive tackle early in the season, but playing decently in 6 starts at guard down the stretch.

The big 6-7 304 pound converted tackle is probably a better option than Tobin, but the 2009 7th round pick has never graded out above average in a season in his career and he had never played more than 35 snaps in a season prior to 2014, so he’s a very uninspiring option in his age 29 season. The longshot Kelly has also never graded out above average in his career, since the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round in 2012. He struggled on 202 snaps last season, didn’t play a snap in 2013, and was horrible in 2012, grading out 70th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.

On the other side, the Eagles have a much younger player, as right tackle Lane Johnson will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.

The Eagles also have another young stud at center. Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s still talent upfront on this line, but they aren’t what they used to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Trading Foles for Bradford, releasing Mathis and Herremans, letting Maclin sign with the Chiefs, and drafting Nelson Agholor in the first round were not the only things the Eagles did to shake up their offense this off-season. They also made another trade earlier in the off-season, sending LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. The Eagles were seen as the clear losers of that trade, but I think that’s because people either didn’t take McCoy’s contract into account or overestimated how good McCoy was (or underestimated how good Alonso is, but that’s a point for another time).

It’s hard to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2013 production, when he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC) and added 52 catches for 539 yards and another two touchdowns through the air. It’s not that tough to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2014 production, when he rushed for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries (4.23 YPC) and added just 28 catches for 155 yards through the air. McCoy fell from being Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2013 to their 3rd worst in 2014.

Because of the 7.8 million in difference between McCoy’s and Alonso’s salary, the Eagles were able to sign DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back. The Eagles didn’t downgrade the running back position this off-season and basically got a free above average middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t overpay Murray, but the McCoy trade allowed their overpay of Murray to not be so bad. I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons.

For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.

Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. The Eagles had a strong run blocking offensive line last season, but the loss of Mathis deals a big blow to that.

The Eagles strangely also signed Ryan Mathews this off-season. What reportedly happened is they had a handshake deal with Matthews before they ended up signing Murray and didn’t want to go back on their promise so they kept Matthews as a backup. Going into last season, I thought of Matthews and Murray very similarly. Obviously, they both had very different 2014s, as Matthews missed 10 games with injury, but I think he’s still a good value on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal as a bounce back candidate.

Mathews obviously has an injury history, playing all 16 games just once in 5 seasons, missing 20 games combined, including 10 last season. However, when he’s healthy, he has feature back potential. In 2011, he rushed for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 attempts (4.91 YPC), with 50 catches for 455 yards. In 2013, he rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 attempts (4.40 YPC), with 26 catches for 189 yards and another touchdown. He’s a strong replacement if Murray gets hurt and will provide valuable, frequent breathers for Murray. The Eagles clearly plan to run the ball a lot in 2015 and I could see them getting like a 70/30 split with Murray seeing around 280-300 carries and Matthews seeing around 120-130.

Darren Sproles remains and, even with Murray and Matthews both in the fold, his role is so unique that it’ll likely remain unchanged. The only potential issue with Sproles is he’s going into his age 32 season, an advanced age for running backs usually, especially ones so reliant on speed. However, Sproles doesn’t see a ton of action, so he’s avoided a lot of hits in his career, and he’s also coming off of a fantastic season. Last season, he rushed for 329 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (5.77 YPC) and added another 40 catches for 387 yards through the air, grading out above average overall. Over the past 5 seasons, Sproles has graded out above average all 5 times and has been between 50 and 87 carries and 40 and 86 catches in all 5 seasons, while missing just 5 games with injury. I expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a bunch of personnel changes on defense this off-season, though everything on the defensive line remains the same. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan will continue to be the starters in base packages on Philadelphia’s 3-man defensive line. All 3 graded out significantly above average against the run, but only Fletcher Cox also graded out above average as a pass rusher. Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better.

Thornton is the other starter and, while he’s graded out 3rd and 8th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run in 2 years as a starter, he’s also graded out below average as a pass rusher both seasons. The 6-3 309 pounder is a great two-down base player, but that’s it. Nose tackle Bennie Logan is in a similar boat, though that’s naturally supposed to be a two-down position. After grading out below average in both aspects as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Logan improved his run play in 2014, but struggled so much as a pass rusher that he still graded out below average overall.

In sub packages, Logan comes off the field, as does Thornton, and pass rush specialist Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are the primary interior pass rushers. The 6-3 266 pound Curry is basically the polar opposite of the bigger Thornton. He struggles against the run, but is a very tough interior pass rusher. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in his current role for 2 seasons and has graded out 8th and 9th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade in 2013 and 2014 respectively, doing so on 322 snaps in 2013 and 397 snaps in 2014. He should play a similar role in 2015. The pieces on this defensive line fit together really well. The only difference between 2014 and 2015 could be that the Eagles had very few injuries on defense in general, 2nd in defensive adjusted games lost. They’re unlikely to have such good luck again in 2015.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will be the primary 3-4 outside linebackers and will also rush the passer off the edge in sub packages with Cox and Curry inside. The Eagles released Trent Cole this off-season, after 10 productive seasons with the team. The moved saved the Eagles 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million in cap space and Cole was going into his age 33 season, but Cole did still play well last season, grading out 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on the season. The Eagles are hoping that they can make up for that loss by giving Brandon Graham an every down role for the first time in his career. They opted to keep the younger Graham on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season, rather than retaining Cole.

That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.

Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.

Connor Barwin remains the every down player on the other side. He had 16 sacks last season, which is impressive, but when you take into account that he only added 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries on 349 pass rush snaps, he only ranked 6th at his position among eligible players in pass rush productivity, not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest. He also graded out below average both against the run and in coverage, leading to him grade out only 24th at his position, despite the big sack numbers.

That’s also not the norm for him as the 2009 2nd round pick has only graded out above average in one other season in his career, not including a 2010 season where he missed 15 games with injury. He’s never graded out better than 16th at his position. Going into his age 29 season, Barwin is still an asset and a solid starter, but he’s not as good as you’d think just from looking at pure sack numbers. The Eagles also have Marcus Smith in the mix. A surprise first round pick in 2014, Smith struggled in practice as a rookie and only made it onto the field for 74 underwhelming snaps. He should have a slightly bigger role in 2015, but he remains a clear backup.

Inside at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso is the big addition. Not only did the McCoy trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.

The McCoy trade looked like it would free up more than just McCoy’s salary, as Alonso’s arrival seemed like the end for DeMeco Ryans with the Eagles. Cutting him would have saved the Eagles 6.9 million in cash and cap space and seemed like a no brainer with Alonso and Mychal Kendricks seemingly locked in as the starters. However, the Eagles made the peculiar move to keep Ryans on a restructured 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal, with 4 million guaranteed in the first year.

They should have just outright cut him instead. Even forgetting the fact that Ryans isn’t necessary anymore with the Kiko Alonso trade, Ryans just isn’t that good. He’s coming off a torn Achilles that limited him to 8 games last season and he’s going into his age 31 season. He wasn’t horrible in those 8 games in 2014, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, his last healthy season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. The Eagles keeping him, but not Mathis baffles me.

Kendricks should be the other starter next to Alonso, though the Eagles did shop him this off-season, ahead of his contract year. His name was featured in some prominent trade rumors for Marcus Mariota and they also reportedly independent shopped him, but couldn’t find anyone willing to give up a 2nd round pick for a guy in a contract year. He could still get moved, but I think it’s likely he stays in Philadelphia for at least one more year.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. He and Alonso should form a strong middle linebacker duo as long as both are healthy, but it’s unclear what Ryans role will be behind them. At the very least, he should provide better depth than the likes of Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, who struggled in Ryan’s absence last year, but the Eagles need to avoid giving Ryans too much playing time at the absence of Alonso or Kendricks, who are clearly superior players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary is the unit where the Eagles arguably underwent the biggest changes this off-season, as they return just 1 of 4 starting defensive backs from last season. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are both gone, the former as a cap casualty and the latter as a free agent. They won’t really be missed as both graded out below average last season and finished 49th and 92nd respectively among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

To replace Williams, the Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from Seattle. Maxwell was at the top of my list of guys I expected to get overpaid this off-season and sure enough he was overpaid, as his deal is worth 63 million over 6 seasons, with 25 million over the first 2 years guaranteed. Maxwell was a 6th round pick in 2011, played 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined, and then broke into the starting lineup in 2013. He flashed top cornerback ability in limited action in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 494 snaps with 5 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better among cornerbacks in 2013.

However, Maxwell has never shown that kind of ability over a full season, grading out about average overall in 2014 as a 13-game starter (he missed 3 games with injury) opposite Richard Sherman. He was Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014 and allowed 63.4% completion. Things aren’t going to get easier for him now that he’s away from Seattle’s scheme, coaching, and supporting cast. He should be better than Williams was, but, considering Kareem Jackson got 8.5 million annually and Brandon Flowers got 9 million annually this off-season, it’s absurd that Maxwell got 10.5 million annually.

To replace Fletcher, the Eagles drafted Eric Rowe in the 2nd round and he’ll compete with veteran Nolan Carroll. The veteran would seem to have the upper hand right now. As the #4 cornerback last year, Carroll graded out above average on 388 snaps, including a week 17 start, and he also has prior starting experience back in his days in Miami. Carroll, a 2010 5th round pick, made 26 starts from 2011-2013, including 23 in 2011 and 2012 and 13 in 2013. He graded out slightly below average in both 2011 and 2012, but graded out slightly above average in 2013. He’s only a marginal starting caliber player, but he’ll function as a stopgap as Rowe develops. Rowe should slot in as the #4 cornerback as a rookie.

Brandon Boykin remains as the slot #3 cornerback. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years since the Eagles grabbed him as a steal in the 4th round in 2012 that he now wants to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles reportedly aren’t budging on that because they don’t think the 5-9 182 pounder has the size to regularly play outside and Boykin reportedly isn’t happy about this. Going into a contract year, this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia. In 3 years in the league, Boykin has graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He should have another strong season on 500-600 snaps as a slot specialist 3rd cornerback.

Safety Nate Allen also left as a free agent. He had an up and down tenure in 5 years in Philadelphia, but he graded out 28th among safeties last season and signed a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal in Oakland this off-season, so he will be missed. Replacing him will either be Earl Wolff or free agent acquisition Walter Thurmond. Wolff graded out below average on 538 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and then graded out below average on 79 snaps last season. Thurmond is reportedly seen as the favorite, but talent has never been the problem for the converted cornerback.

In 5 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 by the Seahawks, Thurmond has missed 44 games with injury and played in just 36 thanks to injury issues that date back to his collegiate days. Last year, in his only season with the Giants, he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral. If he can stay healthy, he could be solid at his new position. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback. Of course, he’s never played more than 480 snaps in a season and he might be undersized at safety at 5-11 183 and he’ll probably just get hurt again, but the upside is certainly there. Wolff would see starts if Thurmond got hurt and Eric Rowe could even see some time at safety as a rookie, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job at cornerback. The 6-1 205 pounder is a big corner and could fit in at safety in the short-term.

The only remaining starter from last season in Philadelphia’s secondary is Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins had a great first season in Philadelphia, after the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety, but it’s important to remember his inconsistent history. In 5 years in New Orleans, he only twice graded out above average and never finished higher than 33rd among safeties. He graded out 103rd among 107 eligible cornerbacks in 2009, 88th among 88 eligible safeties in 2012, and 65th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, given his history. This secondary is the weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles were the only 10 win team to miss the playoffs last season and they finished 16th in rate of moving the chains, 12th in opponent rate of moving the chains, and 12th in differential, which suggests they were a borderline playoff team. The Eagles made a ton of moves this off-season designed to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. I don’t expect their passing game to be better, losing Jeremy Maclin and going from Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez to a hobbled Sam Bradford and likely Mark Sanchez again at some point. The running game could be better because DeMarco Murray is coming in as a replacement for LeSean McCoy and McCoy really didn’t play well last year, but losing Evan Mathis, their top run blocker, really hurts.

Defensively, they should be solid again. They have same defensive line again and, while they lost Trent Cole, they add Kiko Alonso inside and Brandon Graham could have a breakout year in the biggest role of his career. The secondary still has problems, but, once again, the front 7 should prop up a mediocre back 4. Whether or not they break into the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on Sam Bradford’s health and his effectiveness. Injuries will likely strike more than they did last year, but their supporting cast on both sides of the ball is one of the best in the NFL overall. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC East

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New York Giants 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this time last year, there was a good deal of concern about Eli Manning. He was coming off of a season in which he had a 69.4 QB rating, worst since his rookie, as he completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the first time since their origin in 2007, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks. Seemingly making matters even worse, Manning had a new offensive coordinator coming in for the first time since 2007 and he was reportedly having a lot of issues with Ben McAdoo’s new system during the off-season.

Instead, the results were strong. Manning finished the season completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.34 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and finished 15th in QB rating among eligible quarterbacks. Going into his age 34 season, the days of him grading out 8th among quarterbacks in he did in 2012 or 6th like he did in 2011 are probably done, but he could easily still be in the top half of starting quarterbacks this season and grade out above average once again. In his career, he’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 259 touchdowns and 185 interceptions, while making a league best 167 consecutive regular season starts, 178 if you include the playoffs.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Manning was able to have his bounce back year despite having a bunch of injuries around him on offense. Injuries weren’t exclusive to the offense last season, as they finished with the most adjusted games lost in the NFL, a good sign that the Giants should be better this season, after finishing 18th in rate of moving the chains differential last season (17th on offense, 21st on defense) and finishing with a 6-10 record. A big part of Manning’s success last season was rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, despite the fact that he missed 4 games to start the season and most of the off-season with hamstring problems.

Beckham finished the season with 91 catches for 1302 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing valuable off-season time and doing so in just 12 games. That’s incredible and virtually unheard of for a rookie. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Only 11 rookie wideouts have had a 1000+ yard season in the last 20 years. 1302 yards in 12 games is absurd.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. If you take out the first 4 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver both overall and in pass catching grade.

Beckham was even better down the stretch as he started to get a feel for the offense. Beckham had 85 catches for 1233 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season and 60 catches for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. The latter translates to 160 catches for 2245 yards and 24 touchdowns over a 16 game season, which would break all sorts of records. Even Beckham isn’t good enough to put up those kinds of numbers, but it’s just another reminder that Beckham could easily be more productive in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. It’s usually hyperbolic to say that someone with 12 career games played is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position, but, in this case, it’s true.

Beckham’s breakout year was especially valuable for the Giants because Victor Cruz missed the final 10 games of the season with injury. Remember how good Beckham’s numbers were in the final 10 games. Cruz had just 23 catches for 337 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, grading out below average on 382 snaps before going down, but he was also the Giants’ leading receiver in every season from 2011-2013 and a team leader in the locker room, so his injury really did hurt them. He totaled 241 catches for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2011-2013 and graded out 26th, 42nd, and 40th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus during that stretch, all above average.

Cruz is somewhat miraculously expected to be ready for the start of training camp, after tearing his patellar tendon last October, which would be a 9 month recovery.  A torn patellar tendon is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent.

I believe the optimistic reports, but the Giants should consider 12 games as the #3 receiver on the slot for Cruz in 2015 a win and hope for 2016 and beyond. Still, he should be more productive for the Giants than he was last season and he should be better than Preston Parker, a journeyman who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 605 snaps last season. We never truly got to see Beckham and Cruz on the same field last season as Beckham was still working his way back in the 2 games he played with Cruz last season. We might not truly see that this season either, but the possibility certainly exists.

Rueben Randle should be the #2 receiver opposite Beckham again this season. Randle quietly had a mini-breakout year last year in his 3rd season in the league, after the Giants drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He caught a career high 71 passes for a career high 938 yards and 3 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver on 987 snaps, most by a Giants wideout. His career progression has been promising, as he flashed on 250 snaps as a rookie, graded out slightly below average in 2013, but played 589 snaps, and then had the best season of his career in 2014. Only going into his age 24 season, Randle should once again have a solid season in 2015 and could push for the first 1000+ yard season of his career.

Tight end Larry Donnell also had a decent season as a receiver, catching 63 passes for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns, grading out only slightly below average as a pass catcher, a pleasant surprise from a 2012 undrafted free agent who had played 109 nondescript snaps in his career prior to 2014. Donnell probably won’t be as productive of a pass catcher this season, especially if Cruz returns and allows the Giants to regularly use 3-wide sets.

His numbers took the biggest hit from Beckham’s return to the lineup as he had 25 catches for 236 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season and then just 38 catches for 387 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 12 games. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in blocking grade last season, causing him to grade out 54th out of 67 eligible overall. The 6-6 269 pounder has the frame to be a good blocker, but hasn’t shown it yet. He’s a marginal tight end, but you can do a lot worse as a 4th receiving option.

Daniel Fells was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 434 snaps, primarily due to his blocking abilities. He’ll have to hold off Adrien Robinson, a 2012 4th round pick who has just 80 career snaps in 3 seasons, but flashed as a blocker on 77 snaps last season. With Fells going into his age 32 season, Robinson could easily beat him out. Whoever wins the job probably won’t see a lot of action though, as the Giants figure to use more 3-wide sets at the expense of 2-tight end sets. It’s a healthier and subsequently improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Giants also had a significant injury on the offensive line as right guard Geoff Schwartz was limited to 93 snaps in 2 games by injuries, in the first year of a 4-year, 16.8 million dollar contract. Schwartz played exclusively at right tackle last season because Justin Pugh was hurt during those 2 games. He has the versatility to play right tackle, having played there earlier in his career, and he played well in limited action there last season, but the Giants ultimately see him at right guard. Even after last year’s lost season, he still has the potential to be a steal on that 4-year deal.

Schwartz has always been good when on the field, grading out above average in every season of his career in which he’s played a snap, dating back to his rookie year in 2008. In 2013, he graded out 9th among guards and, in 2010, he graded out 18th among guards. The problem with him has always been injuries. He’s played all 16 games just once in his career and, between last season and 2011 (when he missed the whole season with a hip problem), he’s essentially had two lost seasons because of injuries. If he can stay on the field, Schwartz’s return should be a big boost to this offensive line.

As I mentioned earlier, the Giants had the most games lost due to injury last season. That type of thing does tend to even out in the long run, but it’s hard to explain that to Giants fans as they have somehow managed to have the most games lost to injuries in the NFL in 2 straight seasons. If the Giants can be healthier this season, they could be a lot better, but the odds of that don’t look good right now as Will Beatty tore his pectoral this off-season and is expected to miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants will have a lot of other injuries again this season, but Beatty will be missed. He’s made 57 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 47 starts over the past 3 seasons, and he’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. While he struggled in 2013, grading out 64th among 76 eligible, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then ranked 14th last season.

In his absence, rookie Ereck Flowers, the 9th overall pick in the draft, will start at left tackle. He could do alright there, but he’ll still be a downgrade from Beatty. Besides, he was drafted to be the starting right tackle, at least immediately, moving Justin Pugh inside. Now with Beatty hurt, it’s unclear if he’ll still be moving inside. Pugh hasn’t been bad at right tackle in 2 seasons since the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2013, grading out slightly above average as a rookie and then slightly below average last season, but the Giants like him better inside. If he’s staying outside, that makes left guard a big problem.

John Jerry started 16 games at right guard last season and would be the likely starting option at left guard if Pugh moves back outside, but he was terrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The 2010 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career. 2014 2nd round pick Weston Richburg was the starting left guard last season, but he’s not a real candidate to play there this season as he’s permanently moved back to his natural position of center. The Giants don’t have another starting option at center and Richburg struggled out of position last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The Giants are hoping he can bounce back from that in his 2nd year in the league back at his natural position. The Giants’ offensive line will get a boost with Schwartz returning and rookie Ereck Flowers coming in, but the Beatty injury really hurts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to serious injuries suffered by Geoff Schwartz, Odell Beckham, and Victor Cruz last season, the Giants were also without lead back Rashad Jennings for 5 games, in the first season of a 4 year, 10 million dollar deal he signed last off-season. In his absence, 4th round rookie Andre Williams really struggled, rushing for 721 yards and 7 touchdowns on 217 carries on the season, a 3.32 YPC, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked running back out of 57 eligible. Jennings wasn’t exactly better though, also grading out below average and rushing for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns on 167 carries, an average of 3.83 YPC. As a result, the Giants finished 30th in team YPC, averaging 3.57 yards per carry on the season. Part of the problem was an offensive line that ranked 26th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, an area they should be better this season, but there’s no denying that Giant running backs did not play well.

Jennings is unlikely to bounce back this season. The 167 carries he had last season still were a career high, as the 2009 7th round pick has just 554 carries, largely working as a backup at best for most of his career. He’s averaged an underwhelming 4.18 YPC for his career on those 554 carries. On top of that, he’s going into his age 30 season and has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL. His only redeeming quality is that he’s caught 66 passes in 26 games over the past 2 seasons, showing good hands for a 6-1 231 pounder.

The Giants added Shane Vereen as a free agent this off-season, signing him to a 3 year, 12.35 million dollar deal. The 2011 2nd round pick was primarily a passing down back in New England for the first 4 years of his career, but the Giants apparently see him as much more than that. With serious issues at the position, it’s worth giving him a shot. The speedy 5-10 203 pounder has graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and he had 99 catches in 24 games over the past 2 seasons in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role in New England. His career 4.18 YPC average on 217 carries is underwhelming, but, like I said, it’s worth a shot to give him more carries.

At the very least, Vereen gives them a strong passing down back and an open field weapon out of the backfield, unlike anything they had last season. Williams, meanwhile, will be a pure backup to both Jennings and Vereen on early downs and should have a drastically reduced role this season after leading the team in carries and snaps played at the running back position last season. That’s for the best, as, in addition to struggling as a runner, he’s completely useless as a pass catcher with 18 catches as a rookie (on 28 targets) and 10 catches in his entire career at Boston College. Their running game should once again struggle to be an adequate complement to a strong passing game.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As you can imagine, the Giants’ injuries were not limited to the offense last season. On the defensive line, their biggest one was Robert Ayers, who went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Ayers only missed 4 games, but he was great when on the field and the Giants were finally just getting around to giving him the playing time he deserved when he went down, as his final game of the season was also his first start of the season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 386 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. 2014 was definitely the best season of the 2009 1st round pick’s career, but him having success is definitely not unprecedented. Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in his career, including 3 straight and a 2013 season in which he finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. With Mathias Kiwanuka (57th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season on 558 snaps) gone, Ayers should be the starter and could have a very strong season on 600-700 snaps.

Jason Pierre-Paul will be the other starter. JPP was able to bounce back from a down 2013 season in which he dealt with serious back problems all season, grading out 7th among eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and, with the exception of that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s been very dominant recently, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and then last year’s #7 finish. Only going into his age 26 season with his back problems behind him, JPP should have another strong season in 2015, playing on the 14.813 million dollar franchise tag, setting him up for a huge payday in free agency next off-season.

The Giants’ top two reserves at the position are George Selvie and Damontre Moore. Selvie was signed to a cheap 1 year, 1.4 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, coming over from Dallas. The 2010 6th round pick played just 424 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career, but flashed on 238 snaps in 2012 and then saw his snap count rise to 762 in 2013 and 515 in 2014, grading out only slightly below average in both seasons, playing well against the run, but struggling to get consistent pass rush.

Moore, meanwhile, has graded out slightly below average in each of his first two seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013, doing so on 136 snaps as a rookie and then 326 in 2014, though he did grade out above average as a pass rusher last season. The Giants’ signing of Selvie suggests they don’t see him as ready for a bigger role, outside of being a situational passer. The 6-5 250 pounder might just not be big enough to ever be anything more. His skill set does complement Selvie’s well though, as they compete for snaps behind JPP and Ayers.

Inside at defensive tackle, the Giants have another very talented defensive lineman, Johnathan Hankins. After flashing on 195 snaps in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie, Hankins got a chance to be the starter in 2014 and dominated, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle on 700 snaps. Though he’s 6-2 320, Hankins isn’t just a big run stuffer as he graded out well above average as both a run stopper and a pass rusher last season. Hankins should remain an every down player.

Cullen Jenkins was the other starter last season. He graded out above average, as he has 7 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, but he was limited to 366 snaps in 12 games. A significantly better pass rusher than run stopper, Jenkins should be limited to situational work as he goes into his age 34 season. The problem last season was their depth at defensive tackle was abysmal. Mike Patterson, who made starts last season when Jenkins was hurt, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible on 429 snaps, while Markus Kuhn finished 78th out of 81st eligible despite playing just 254 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position.

Patterson is gone and remains unsigned as a free agent going into his age 32 season, while Kuhn is not expected to have a big role this season. The Giants signed Kenrick Ellis as a free agent this off-season for depth purposes. A 2011 3rd round pick, Ellis was buried on the depth chart with the Jets for the first 4 years of his career, never playing more than 239 snaps in a season, but he definitely flashed, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, excelling as a run stopper. At 6-5 330, he’s purely a base package player, but he should have a career high in snaps this season and his skill set complements Cullen Jenkins’ well. The Giants are also hoping that 2014 3rd round pick Jay Bromley, who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie, is ready for a bigger role this season. This defensive line should be better this season simply because Ayers is healthy and Kiwanuka, Patterson, and Kuhn won’t play big roles. Led by Ayers, JPP, and Hankins, this is quietly one of the best defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The big injury at linebacker last season was to Jon Beason, their starting middle linebacker who was limited to 162 snaps in 4 games by recurring toe problems, in the first season of a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar deal that the Giants re-signed him to last off-season.  This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Beason missed 28 games with injury from 2011-2013. His healthiest season, by far, came in 2013, when he played 15 games, which is why the Giants re-signed him long-term. However, even that season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Beason used to be a good player, but injuries have sapped his abilities and he hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. Even if he can stay on the field this season, his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be an asset, particularly not in coverage. The Giants brought him back this off-season only because he agreed to a pay cut and because they didn’t have a better option.

Jameel McClain was Beason’s replacement inside last season, but he struggled mightily, grading out 51st out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. He’s expected to move to outside linebacker and compete with incumbent Devon Kennard for the two-down outside linebacker role. Kennard is a limited coverage athlete at 6-3 251, but he graded out above average on 338 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season in that two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. He should be the heavy favorite to keep that job, moving McClain into a reserve role. McClain hasn’t graded out above average since 2011 and is unlikely to get any better in his age 30 season in 2015.

At the other outside linebacker spot, JT Thomas is seen as the favorite after signing a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Jacksonville. Thomas, a 2011 5th round pick, played 202 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before playing 729 snaps last season. Thomas struggled mightily in 434 snaps at middle linebacker, grading out 55th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, so, while he actually graded out above average on 295 snaps as an outside linebacker last season, his history doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence that he’ll be a good 3-down outside linebacker. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Giants simply don’t have another choice, especially after overpaying him in free agency, because both Kennard and reserve Mark Herzlich are not good in coverage and McClain is best suited for a reserve role. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall.

Grade: C-

Secondary

If you’re sensing a theme here, yes there was a significant injury in the secondary as well, as cornerback Prince Amukamara went down with a torn biceps mid-season and missed the final 8 games of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback when he went down last season and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback on 464 snaps. The 2011 1st round pick has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons since his rookie season.

He’ll play his age 26 season in 2015 on a 6.898 million dollar salary after the Giants picked up his 5th year option last off-season. If he can stay healthy, he should be in line for a fairly sizable contract next off-season, though it’s worth noting that he’s played 8 or fewer games in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, thanks to last year’s injury and a serious foot injury he suffered as a rookie that limited him to 7 games that season. He’s missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the league, so there’s reason to at least be somewhat concerned about his long-term durability.

When he’s on the field, Prince Amukamara will serve as the 1A cornerback to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s 1B, or vice versa depending on how you want to look at it. They’re comparably good corners. DRC was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback last season, in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s not as good as he was in 2013 with Denver, when he graded out 6th, but the Giants will definitely take that from him every year. He could be better this season in his age 29 season because he dealt with a variety of nagging injuries all last season. He didn’t miss any games, but, often playing on a snap count, he was limited to 767 snaps on the season and even came off the bench once.

The Giants also have to be pretty happy that DRC seems to have put his early career inconsistencies behind him. From his rookie year in 2008, when he was a 1st round pick by the Cardinals, through 2012, he graded out 63rd, 4th, 100th, 84th, and 91st respectively, before playing very well over the past 2 seasons. The 6-2 193 pounder has always had talent, but there have been some questions about his effort in terms of staying in shape, playing physical, and providing run support, all of which he’s been better about recently. Those were the reasons he had to “settle” for a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last off-season while cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, and Aqib Talib all received more lucrative contracts. The Giants took a risk signing him, but they have to be happy about how this deal has played out so far, considering he’s the 19th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average salary.

The slot cornerback job is completely up for grabs though. Walter Thurmond started the season there last year, but ended up playing just 2 games before going down with injury and then signed in Philadelphia as a free agent this off-season. The Giants had a bunch of different cornerbacks see significant snaps at the position because of injuries, including Zackary Bowman (458), Chykie Brown (375), Mike Harris (224), and Trumaine McBride (215).

McBride was the #3 cornerback last season after Thurmond went down, though he too suffered a season ending injury, going down week 6. He was also the #3 cornerback in 2013, playing 621 snaps, and is reportedly seen as the favorite for the #3 job this season. The 2007 7th round pick is a late bloomer, as he’d never graded out above average in his career until 2013 and he was out of the league entirely in 2009, 2011, and 2012. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, including 24th in 2013, though he’s going into his age 30 season. The other three cornerbacks are still in the mix for the job, but they’ll likely end up providing depth, if they even make the roster. Mike Harris was the only one of the other 3 to grade out above average last season.

The Giants are hoping that solid cornerback talent can mask a huge problem at safety. Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps, Stevie Brown were their top 3 safeties last season and they all left as free agents this off-season. The Giants used a 2nd round pick on Landon Collins to fill one of the starting spots, though he could struggle as a rookie. Meanwhile, the other spot is a major hole, where 2013 5th round pick Cooper Taylor (5 career snaps), Nat Berhe (32 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Mykele Thompson will compete for the starting job. They’re all highly unlikely to turn into a solid starter. It’s a weak position in a back 7 that is weak outside of the cornerback position. The Giants will have to hope their strong front 4 can prop the up the back 7.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

As I’ve strongly hinted at, the Giants’ success is going to be highly dependent on whether or not they can stay healthy, something they haven’t come close to doing in recent seasons, finishing worst in adjusted games lost in each of the last 2 seasons. This type of thing tends to even out in the long run, but the Giants do have more than their fair sure of injury prone players. They should be at least somewhat healthier this season and if they can have average to above average health, they have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl winning season in 2011. The NFC East is wide open with the Eagles completely retooling this off-season, the Cowboys vulnerable, and the Redskins a ways away. The Giants definitely have major weaknesses, but they also have significant strengths at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and on the defensive line. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Giants after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC East

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Seattle Seahawks 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks have quickly ascended to the top of the NFL. They didn’t win the ultimate prize last season, but they literally came within inches of winning the Super Bowl, before a goal line interception cemented a 28-24 Super Bowl loss. It’s unfair to suggest that they should have won that game because it was a fluky interception, because it took a fluky, crazy catch to even get them down to the goal line and because the Patriots did slightly outplay them statistically, but, looking at the whole body of work, it’s hard to say that the Seahawks weren’t one of the best teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. When you add in their Super Bowl victory in 2013, the Seahawks look like the most accomplished team in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, winning the NFC’s #1 seed and the NFC Championship game in both years.

The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Going into his contract year, Wilson wants to be paid like a top-5 quarterback. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks don’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

While Wilson doesn’t get much help from his receivers or his offensive line, he does get a lot of help from feature back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is well known for his hilarious interview answers, but he’s also a hell of a football player as well. As a result of Lynch’s dominance, Wilson has only had to throw 1252 passes in 3 seasons in the league, an average of 417.3 per season, which has made life easier for him. Part of that is because Wilson himself is a gifted runner in the open field and someone who has averaged 102.7 carries per year in his career, but Lynch is the main reason for the Seahawks’ run first offense. He’s averaged 298.7 carries per season over the past 3 years and hasn’t missed a single game with injury.

Over the past 3 seasons, Lynch has rushed for 4153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 carries, an average of 4.64 YPC and he’s been even better than his numbers suggest as, like Wilson, he has to deal with a poor offensive line and a receiving corps that rarely draws double teams. The fact that the Seahawks finished 9th in rate of moving the chains last season on offense despite just 4 players who played more than 300 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus (Lynch, Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Max Unger) is a testament to how good both Wilson and Lynch are.

Lynch has graded out 5th, 4th, and 2nd on Pro Football Focus in those last 3 seasons respectively and his 221 broken tackles on carries lead the NFL over that time period. He’s also the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. There’s a case to be made that he’s been the best running back in football over the past 3 seasons, despite what guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and LeVeon Bell have done over single seasons over the past 3 years.

One issue is that he’s going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. That suggests that Lynch has about 2, maybe 3 good years left in the tank and that possibly his best days are behind him. The only other issue is that Lynch isn’t a great pass catcher, as he has just 96 catches over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus since his rookie year in 2007. That’s nitpicking though and he should still have a strong year in 2015.

The Seahawks also have good depth behind him with backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Turbin, a 2012 4th round pick, has rushed for 928 yards and 0 touchdowns on 231 attempts in 3 years in the league, an average of 4.02 YPC. He’s also added 43 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michael, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2013. He has the bigger upside and has been more productive than Turbin in limited action, rushing for 254 yards and 0 touchdowns on 52 attempts (4.88 YPC), while adding 1 catch for 12 yards. With Turbin missing time this off-season with a hip problem, Michael could end up as Lynch’s primary backup. Ultimately it won’t matter much though because Lynch is a workhorse who rarely cedes carries. If Lynch were to get hurt, it would likely be a committee replacing him, with Michael as the primary runner and Turbin as a passing down back. They’re good depth behind a great starter.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Seahawks had problems in the receiving corps last season. In order to remedy that, they made a shocking trade with the cap strapped Saints for Jimmy Graham, who the Saints brought back on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. There’s no doubt that Graham will instantly be their best receiver and, owed just 27 million over the next 3 years, the Seahawks are getting a good value. However, the price was steep as the Seahawks swapped their first round pick to the Saints for a fourth rounder and also had to give up center Max Unger, who was their best offensive lineman last season and very reasonable paid, making just 9 million combined over the next 2 seasons. On top of that, while Graham’s contract is a good value, it’s another big contract for a team that has a lot of highly paid talent and soon-to-be highly paid talented to figure out how to keep under the cap long-term.

In the short term, there’s no doubt Graham makes them a better team though. Graham has caught 386 passes for 4752 yards and 51 touchdowns on 576 targets (67.0%) and 2281 routes run (2.08 yards per route run) in his career, the 2nd most yards per route run by a tight end only behind Rob Gronkowski over the past 5 years. He’s also graded out 7th, 15th, 4th, and 11th among tight ends in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He might not post the same composite numbers this year that he’s had over the past 4 years in New Orleans, when he’s averaged 89 catches for 1099 yards and 12 touchdowns, because the Seahawks are not nearly as pass heavy as the Saints and have a slightly worse passing quarterback, but he could still be Seattle’s first 900+ yard receiver since TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2009 and he’ll definitely make this offense better. Graham isn’t seen as an ideal fit in Seattle because he’s not seen as a great run blocker, but the big 6-6 259 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, so I’m not worried about that.

Graham is certainly an upgrade on the likes of Luke Willson, Tony Moeaki, Cooper Helfet, and Zach Miller, all of whom saw snaps for the Seahawks at tight end last season. Willson led the way with 579 snaps played and should be the #2 tight end this season behind Graham. A slightly better run blocker than pass catcher with 42 catches for 634 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league since the Seahawks drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Willson has graded out about average in both seasons he’s been in the league, on 415 snaps as a rookie and then 579 last season. He’ll fit in well as the 2nd tight end.

Doug Baldwin remains as the #1 wide receiver. Like Golden Tate before him, he doesn’t get a ton of respect because he plays in a run heavy offense and doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’s graded out 17th, 27th, 20th, and 20th respectively in 4 seasons in the league since the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. In his career, he’s caught 196 passes for 2761 yards and 15 touchdowns on 294 attempts (66.7%) and 1502 routes run, a strong average of 1.84 yards per route run. Unlike Tate, the Seahawks wisely locked Baldwin up long-term last season on a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal that looks like a steal.

The problem is the Seahawks don’t have many options after Graham and Baldwin. Jermaine Kearse was the other starter last year and will probably be the other starter again this year, a problem because he isn’t very good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He’s been better in the past, grading above average on 486 snaps in 2013, after struggling on 78 snaps as a rookie, but the former undrafted free agent is probably better off as a #3 receiver.

The Seahawks drafted Paul Richardson in the 2nd round in 2014 with this situation in mind and he was decent on 516 snaps as the #3 receiver as a rookie, but he tore his ACL during the playoffs in January and his 2015 season very much is in doubt. Even when he’s on the field, he’ll be the #3 wide receiver at best, assuming he holds off the likes of Ricardo Lockette and Tyler Lockett for the job. The former is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 284 nondescript snaps in 4 seasons in the league, while the latter is a 3rd round rookie drafted primarily for his special teams ability. It’s an improved receiving corps thanks to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin is very underrated, but there are still a lot of problems here.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the receiving corps should be better this season thanks to Jimmy Graham’s arrival, their offensive line should be worse now without Max Unger. Unger was the 4th ranked center on Pro Football Focus and the only Seahawk offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average. Even more impressive, he ranked 4th despite only playing 385 snaps and missing 10 games with injury. No center played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position last season. The Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup. In games he started in the regular season, the Seahawks moved the chains at a 78.89% rate, as opposed to 72.51% in games he missed. You can’t necessarily attribute all of that to Unger, but it’s worth noting. Unger’s replacement, Lemuel Jeanpierre, was horrible in 4 starts down the stretch last season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and is a steep downgrade.

The Seahawks also won’t be able to hide him because the rest of the offensive line sucks too. Also leaving this off-season was James Carpenter, who signed a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar with the Jets, after starting 13 starts at left guard for the Seahawks in 2014. He wasn’t nearly as big of a loss as Unger, primarily because Carpenter struggled last season. He’s someone who was overpaid by the Jets and someone who can be upgraded. It’s just unclear if the Seahawks have anyone who can be an upgrade.

Alvin Bailey is penciled in as the starter at left guard right now. He flashed on 84 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made his first career starts in 2014, but struggled in the first significant action of his career, making 2 starts at left tackle and 3 starts at left guard, grading out below average at both positions. Bailey probably isn’t a downgrade from Carpenter, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade either. He could be pushed for snaps by 4th round rookie Terry Poole later in the season.

At the right guard spot, the Seahawks have JR Sweezy, a 2012 7th round pick defensive tackle turned offensive lineman. The good news is he’s started 34 games in 3 seasons in the league and is coming off the best season of his career, but, even in the best season of his career, he was a mediocre starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2014. He’s never graded out above average in his career and is unlikely to become an average starter this season.

The only recent big investment the Seahawks put into their offensive line was when they used a 2nd round pick in 2014 on Justin Britt. He made all 16 starts at right tackle last season, but graded out 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Seahawks are hoping he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. The only potential saving grace on this offensive line is left tackle Russell Okung and I should emphasize potential.

Russell Okung was the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but that type of dominance has been rare from him and he generally hasn’t lived up to his billing. He’s graded out below average in his other 4 seasons in the NFL, never played all 16 games in a season, and missed 21 games in 5 seasons with injury. It’s strange to think that the Seahawks’ offensive line could be one of the league’s worst, but they were one of the worst last season without Unger and that really hurt their ability to move the chains. Now, Unger is gone permanently. The Jimmy Graham trade doesn’t just make them definitely better.

Grade: D

Defensive Line

While the Seahawks’ offense was good last season, their defense was still better, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. Guys in the secondary like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor get a lot of the credit in Seattle, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett is arguably as valuable as or more valuable than any of those three. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career best #2 last season, dominating as both a run stopper and a pass rusher at 6-3 274.

Bennett has been in the news this off-season because he’s not happy with his current contract and at times there have been rumors he wants to be traded. While I expect Bennett to be in Seattle this season, Bennett does seem serious about his demands. It’s a weird situation. Bennett gave the Seahawks a big hometown discount last off-season, signing a 4-year, 28.5 million dollar deal to remain in Seattle. However, after making 10 million in the first year of the contract (thanks to a big signing bonus), owed just 18.5 million remaining over 3 years, Bennett seems to have changed his mind. It’s not that Bennett wasn’t worth 10 million last season or that he doesn’t deserve a raise, but the Seahawks, given all of their expensive players, can’t really afford to be giving raises to guys who have 3 years left on their deal. Either way, Bennett should be on the field and dominating for the Seahawks this season.

Cliff Avril will start opposite Bennett once again. After seeing just 574 snaps in a largely situational role in the first year of a 2-year, 13 million dollar contract in 2013, Avril saw 736 snaps in 2014. Avril has graded out 12th and 13th  in 2013 and 2014 respectively since arriving in Seattle, but he is still probably better off in a situational pass rush role playing 500-600 snaps instead of 700-800. A 2008 3rd round pick, Avril has graded out above average as a pass rusher in 6 of 7 seasons in his career, but has also never graded out above average against the run. The 6-3 252 pounder is very much a finesse player. The Seahawks drafted defensive end Frank Clark out of Michigan in the 2nd round and he’s expected to eat into his snaps as a rookie. The 6-1 270 pounder should be a better run defender.

Bennett sees a lot of snaps inside in sub packages and, when he moves inside, much more often than not, the Seahawks drop down outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to be the other edge rusher, playing in that Von Miller/Khalil Mack-esque hybrid role. Irvin actually graded out below average as a pass rusher, but graded out 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers thanks to his run abilities and coverage abilities. Irvin, who graded out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 as well, graded out above average as a pass rusher in both 2012 and 2013, after the Seahawks made him a surprise 1st round pick in 2012. There was controversy after the Seahawks decided not to pick up his 5th year option and Irvin was talking about being traded to his hometown Atlanta Falcons. It seems weird that the Seahawks would decline the option when it’s only guaranteed for injury, but the Seahawks might just know they can’t give him a big salary because of their long-term cap issues and see him as expendable. He’s likely to be in Seattle next season though.

At defensive tackle, the Seahawks had 4 different players see significant snaps. The player that saw the fewest of the quartet was Brandon Mebane, who played just 289 snaps thanks to a hamstring injury that cost him the final 7 games of the season. He was much better in 2013 on the Super Bowl team, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle, but that’s not the norm for him, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Going into an age 30 season, Mebane is primarily just a base package run stopper at this point in his career. He’ll be good to have back though.

Tony McDaniel should be the other base down player inside. He really struggled last season, grading out 72nd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles. He was much better in 2013, grading out as 15th among defensive tackles, including 4th in pure run grade. However, like with Mebane, that’s not the norm for him. Like Mebane, 2013 is the only season he’s graded out above average in the last 4 seasons and he’s graded out above average just twice in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history. Going into his age 30 season, already his 10th season in the NFL, he’s a weak spot upfront.

In sub packages, McDaniel will cede snaps to Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 366 snaps last season, but excelled as a pass rusher. The Seahawks lost their 4th defensive tackle Kevin Williams in free agency this off-season, but they did add Ahtyba Rubin from the Browns. Rubin was one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. He’s not generally this bad, but the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus was 2009, so he’s not great either. He’s mere insurance and depth as the 4th defensive tackle right now. It’s once again a strong front, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned that Bruce Irvin plays linebacker in base packages, lining up outside as the 3rd outside linebacker in a primarily run stopping role, which, as I mentioned, he does quite well. In sub packages, it’s just Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, who are one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Wright, a 2011 4th round pick, has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively.

Wagner, meanwhile, is a 2012 2nd round pick who has graded out 2nd, 12th, and 5th in 3 seasons in the NFL. Especially impressive about his 2014 season was that he did that despite missing 5 games with injury. If you take out the 5 week stretch where he didn’t play, he ranks 2nd at his position.  In the 5 games he missed, the Seahawks allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.38% rate, as opposed to 66.45% in the 11 games he played in the regular season. His presence was so noticeable that Tony Dungy actually cast his MVP vote for him because, as he explained, it’s most “valuable.” That’s absurd. Yes, the Seahawks did really miss him when he was hurt, but basic interference suggests that the Packers would have missed Aaron Rodgers far more if he were hurt or the Texans with JJ Watt.

However, Wagner did have a fantastic season. Going into his age 25 contract year, the Seahawks are trying to lock him up now so they’ll have the franchise tag free next off-season for Russell Wilson. Wagner is rumored to be in line to be the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. His only real issue is he’s missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He, Wright, and Irvin make a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

Everyone knows about the Seahawks’ secondary, the legion of boom. There’s debate about who is the best member of it. Earl Thomas is a great coverage safety, but he missed too many tackles for me to consider him the best of this bunch. Instead, I think that title should go to Richard Sherman, who has made 48 of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and 58 in 4 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks grabbed him as a steal in the 5th round in 2011. In 4 seasons in the league, he’s graded out 16th, 2nd, 5th, and 3rd from 2011-2014 respectively. He’s the only cornerback in the league to grade out in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons and is firmly in that top tier of cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris.

At safety, the Seahawks have Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who are among the best safeties in the league and complement each other very well. Both were drafted in 2010, but they’ve both taken different paths to the starting lineup. A first round pick, Thomas was a starter from the word go and has made 80 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Thomas has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, grading out 30th, 8th, 36th, 10th, and 5th in 2010-2014 respectively.

Chancellor, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2010 and took a year to break into the starting lineup, flashing on 138 snaps as a rookie and then making 61 of 64 in the 4 seasons since. He’s graded out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th respectively from 2011-2014. Because the Seahawks have so much talent in the secondary, particularly Thomas and Sherman, Chancellor often plays near the line of scrimmage, playing 81.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2014, 2nd most often in the NFL among eligible safeties, a great role for the 6-3 232 pounder. Meanwhile, the 5-10 208 pound Thomas played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 8.1% of snaps, 3rd least often in the NFL among eligible safeties. Thomas has missed 66 tackles in 5 seasons in the league, but, other than that, he’s great and he’s coming off the best season of his career in 2014.

The Seahawks lost Byron Maxwell at the other cornerback spot to a monster 6-year, 63 million dollar deal that he signed with the Eagles. However, Maxwell was massively overpaid as he was just Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014. The Seahawks replaced him with Cary Williams, who he ironically replaced in Philadelphia, on a much more reasonable 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Williams might not have Maxwell’s upside and he is going into his age 31 season, but he graded out 49th among cornerbacks last season, very similar to Maxwell. Williams has made 64 starts in the last 4 seasons, grading out 57th, 69th, 80th, and 49th respectively, slightly below average overall. He’s not very good, but he should be able to hold his own opposite Richard Sherman this year.

The slot cornerback spot should remain the only weak part in this secondary and there are 4 players who could conceivably play there. Jeremy Lane is the least likely to win the battle, even though the 2012 6th round has flashed on 524 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. That’s because he tore his ACL and broke his arm on the same play in the Super Bowl. He won’t be ready for the start of the season and he could easily miss the entire year. Tharold Simon is an option, after the 2013 5th round pick graded out slightly below average in the first experience of his career last season, playing 305 snaps, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs.

Realistically, the battle is between Marcus Burley and Will Blackmon. Burley began the season in the #3 role last season and ended up grading out above average on 328 snaps, after not playing a snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Blackmon, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent Jacksonville, where he played under former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is the Head Coach in Jacksonville. Blackmon had the best year of his career in 2013 in Jacksonville in Bradley’s system, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback on 682 snaps and he has the requisite size to play cornerback for Pete Carroll at 6-0 198, but 2013 is the outlier in his career. He’s graded out above average just 2 times in 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history and has only played 66 games in 9 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2006. With Blackmon going into his age 31 season, the Seahawks would be better off with the youngster Burley. Despite uncertainty on the slot, it’s still arguably the best secondary in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Seahawks should once again be one of the best teams in the league this season. The NFC West is getting worse with Arizona unlikely to have as good of luck with turnovers and close games this season, the Rams still a little bit away, and San Francisco self-destructing, so Seattle has a fairly easy journey to the top of the NFC West for the 3rd straight year. Their offensive line is a big problem, but they’re strong pretty much everywhere else, particularly on defense. The only concern is that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl last year and it’s been 40 years since a Super Bowl loser won the following year and 20 years since a Super Bowl loser even went back to the Super Bowl. That’s more than a fluke I think because teams that go that far and lose can be dejected and tired the following season. That’s certainly a possibility for a Seahawks team that has played 38 games in the last 2 seasons and 56 games in the last 3 seasons, but they should be one of the best teams in the NFL again. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Seahawks after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 13-3 1st in NFC West

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Arizona Cardinals 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals made the playoffs last season at 11-5, but they finished the season 17th in rate of moving the chains differential, behind non-playoff teams like Kansas City, New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, and Philadelphia and worst among playoff teams. Arizona’s 11-5 record was buoyed by a 4-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and their +11 point differential was 2nd worst among qualifying playoff teams. The Cardinals also benefitted from tough to sustain things like a 62.07% rate of recovering fumbles (best in the NFL), a +8 turnover margin, and a +4 return touchdown margin. They were especially bad down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 7 games, including a loss in Carolina in the playoffs to a 7-8-1 Panthers team (who still finished the season ahead of them in rate of moving the chains differential). Even though the scoreboard only read 27-16 in their playoff loss, they had just 8 first downs to Carolina’s 25.

However, there is some hope that the Cardinals might not regress in the win column. Part of the reason the Cardinals struggled last season, particularly down the stretch, was that they were essentially down to their 4th string quarterback by the end of last season. 1st and 2nd string quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both missed significant time with injury, while 3rd string quarterback Logan Thomas struggled mightily in limited action as a 4th round rookie and did not impress in practice either. That forced the Cardinals to bring in Ryan Lindley over from San Diego’s practice squad to start down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Lindley completed just 48.4% of his passes for an average of 6.04 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and then completed 16 of 28 for 82 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in the playoff loss. Arguably the worst quarterback in NFL history to ever start a playoff game, Lindley has completed 50.8% of his passes for an average of 4.98 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his career and might never throw another NFL pass. Not only are the Cardinals highly unlikely to have to resort to signing someone from another team’s practice squad in November to make starts this season, if they do have to do that, chances are that quarterback will be better than Lindley. Even for a 4th string quarterback, he’s horrible. His 50.3 career QB rating is the worst in the NFL over the past 10 years among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 200 passes.

The Cardinals moved the chains at a 73.58% rate in games started by Carson Palmer (6 games) last season and a 67.03% rate in games started by other quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is expected to be back for week 1, after a torn ACL ended a 2014 season in which he completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He might not be quite that good again this season. For one thing, ACL tears can be tough to bounce back from, especially when it’s a knee you’ve injured before (he tore that same ACL in 2005). On top of that, he’s going into his age 36 season. That won’t make his recovery easier and he probably would have declined this season anyway. Being in your age 36 season is tough and coming off of a twice torn ACL is tough, but doing them together could be especially tough.

It doesn’t help that Palmer’s ACL tear was in November, relatively late in the season, which gives him less recovery time. Early reports out of camp are good, but you can’t always trust those. Also, Palmer is unlikely to throw an interception on just 1.3% of his passes again next season, as his career average is 3.2%. He could struggle this season by his standards, after grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2014.

If he gets hurt again, next in line is Drew Stanton, who made 8 starts last season, before going down for the season with an injured knee. Even if Palmer isn’t himself anymore, Stanton would still be a noticeable downgrade from Palmer, like he was last season. Last season, he completed 55.0% of his passes for an average of 7.13 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Head Coach Bruce Arians is a great offensive mind and has incredibly won 2 of the last 3 Coach of the Year Awards, but there’s only so much you can do if the talent’s not there.

A 2007 2nd round pick, Stanton has completed 55.3% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, never grading out above average in Pro Football Focus’ history and not throwing a pass from 2011-2013. He’s a low-end backup quarterback at best and he won’t get any better in his age 31 season. They might not have great quarterback play this season, but they should exceed last year’s production, when they completed 56.3% of their passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Only their 2.1% QB rating seems hard to repeat, as they threw a fluky low amount of interceptions last season. Turnovers are already kind of fluky because they only happen on such a low percentage of snaps, but it’s especially fluky that the Cardinals had such few interceptions last season when their quarterback play was as bad as it was and when they threw down field as much as they did last season. They won’t necessarily dominate the turnover/return touchdown battle again this season, but improved quarterback play should offset that, at least somewhat.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Outside of the quarterback position, the Cardinals didn’t really have many games lost on offense, as they finished 8th in offensive adjusted games lost, so they can’t exactly count on reinforcements returning from injury outside of the quarterback spot. The only other big injury they had on offense was Andre Ellington. Ellington only missed 4 games with injury, but was limited by injuries all season, most notably a toe injury he suffered in the pre-season. As a result, he rushed for 660 yards and 3 touchdowns on 201 carries, an average of 3.28 YPC. Ellington’s ineffectiveness on such a large volume, as well as the Cardinals’ lack of running back talent behind him on the depth chart, led to the Cardinals averaging a league worst 3.30 yards per carry. Ellington’s injuries aren’t really reflected in their low amount of offensive adjusted games lost because there was usually little doubt he’d play, but the Cardinals’ inability to run the ball last season contributed to their offense being stagnant.

Ellington was much better as a 6th round rookie in 2013, underutilized on 118 carries, rushing for 652 yards and 3 touchdowns, an average of 5.52 YPC. However, that’s no guarantee that he won’t continue to struggle in 2015. Ellington might just not be cut out to be a lead back and handle that type of workload, at 5-9 199, with a history of injury problems that date back to his collegiate days at Clemson. He should be more effective this season and he’s got strong pass catching abilities with 85 catches in 27 career games, but it’s highly possible he never becomes an above average starting running back.

The Cardinals used a 3rd round pick on David Johnson in this past draft, but despite his 6-1 224 frame, he might not be the power complement to Andre Ellington that they need. He plays faster and smaller than his listed size and is a solid receiver out of the backfield. In fact, Bruce Arians has compared Johnson to Ellington, suggesting that they see him as a clear backup and someone who can play a similar style if Ellington gets hurt. That’s something they didn’t have last season and Ellington should be more productive, but this isn’t exactly a perfect tandem.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The one area the Cardinals had no injuries was the offensive line, a big part of the reason why they had such few adjusted games lost. The Cardinals had 5 guys make 78 out of 80 starts and 3 of those guys played every snap. Only right guard Paul Fanaika missed time with injury, missing weeks 14 and 15 and being replaced by Jonathan Cooper. However, just because the Cardinals were healthy on the offensive line, doesn’t mean they played well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked run blocking offensive line and 23rd ranked pass blocking offensive line. Only one player played a snap upfront for the Cardinals and graded out above average. That didn’t help them move the chains.

That above average player was left tackle Jared Veldheer, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. Veldheer was one of several recent big investments by the Cardinals since new GM Steve Keim came in 3 off-seasons ago, in order to turn around a perennially poor offensive front and he looks like a steal thus far. He should be able to repeat that season in 2015, only going into his age 28 season. A 2010 3rd round pick, Veldheer graded out 16th, 15th, and 9th among offensive tackles in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with a 2013 season mostly lost to injury in between. Basically, whenever he’s been healthy, he’s been good and, aside from 2013, he’s never missed a game.

Another recent investment by the Cardinals upfront is Mike Iupati, who was signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal by the Cardinals this off-season. He’ll be a clear upgrade at left guard over Ted Larsen, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. The 17th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Iupati has graded out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. Despite that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons, all coming in 2013. One concern is that, while he’s annually one of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he has graded out below average as a pass protector in 3 of 5 seasons so, as talented as he is, he’s not that well-rounded and he does have a glaring weakness. He’ll be a big asset though.

In addition to bringing in Iupati, the Cardinals also used their first round pick on DJ Humphries, an offensive tackle out of Florida. Bruce Arians is talking up incumbent Bobby Massie and saying that Humphries won’t have anything handed to him and referring to Massie as a starter, but it’s early and he’s likely just giving Massie his due respect as a veteran and challenging the newcomer. Even though Humphries is raw, only going into his age 22 season as a rookie, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals used a 1st round pick on him just to have him ride the pine. Massie graded out below average last season, something he’s done in all 3 seasons in the league in 32 starts, since the Cardinals drafted him in the 4th round in 2012.

If the Cardinals want to get their best 5 offensive linemen out there regardless of position, they might have either Humphries or Massie start at right guard this season, before Massie hits free agency next off-season. Massie was a below average starter at right tackle, but could be a better fit inside or Humphries could find life easier for him inside early in his career. Currently penciled in as the starting right guard is Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall pick in 2013 and someone who has been a massive bust thus far. Injuries and ineffective play in practice have limited him to 189 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and he hasn’t shown much more on the field, despite being called the best interior line prospect in a decade when he came out. He’s entering a make or break year could easily end up not starting if the Cardinals decide to move Massie or Humphries inside. 2013 4th round pick Earl Watford is reportedly also in the mix to start, but he has played 9 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and isn’t a likely starting option, especially if Massie or Humphries moves inside.

Cooper could see time at center if he’s unable to nail down the right guard spot. Currently competing for the starting center job is Ted Larsen and AQ Shipley. Larsen, as I mentioned earlier, struggled mightily at left guard last season. He’s also graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, splitting time between center and guard. Shipley, meanwhile, struggled mightily at guard in 2013, grading out 66th out of 81 eligible, but has graded out above average as a center in both 2012 and 2014. He was weirdly benched after 4 weeks in Indianapolis last year, despite being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center at the time. The Cardinals seem to actually believe in him and he’s likely the favorite over Ted Larsen. He’s definitely flashed. Either one of them should be an improvement over Lyle Sendlein, who was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center last season. He was cut by the Cardinals and remains unsigned as a free agent this off-season. It’s definitely an improved offensive line, but also one that still has holes.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The big decision the Cardinals had to make heading into this off-season involved Larry Fitzgerald, the face of the franchise and a player who has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2004. Fitzgerald signed a 7-year, 113 million dollar extension 4 off-seasons ago, but hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2011, the first year after the extension. There was no way he’d be back next in 2015 at his 16 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was only a question of whether or not they’d bring him back at a cheaper rate or outright cut him.

The Cardinals opted to do the former and I think it was a huge mistake. Yes, it lessens Fitzgerald’s cap hit for 2015, which was scheduled to be 23.6 million, but if that was the most of a pay cut that Fitzgerald was willing to take, they should have just outright cut them, a move that would have saved them about 9 million on the cap immediately and gotten him off their cap completely for 2016. This deal pays Fitzgerald 22 million dollars over the next 2 seasons, all of which will show up on their cap at some point because it’s all fully guaranteed.

That 11 million dollar annual average is 5th highest in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, and Vincent Jackson. Fitzgerald is not the 5th best wide receiver in the NFL at all, not any more. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games, even though he never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years. He was fantastic then. That’s why he got that deal in the first place.

However, 2011 was his last 1000+ yard season. His 71/798/4 line in 2012 was understandable because he had supremely terrible quarterback play, but even with better quarterback play in 2013 and 2014, he only averaged 73 catches for 839 yards and 6 touchdowns in 15 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked wide receiver in passing grade in 2013 and their 28th ranked in that category in 2014. He’s still a solid receiver, but he’s not the same player he was when he was in his prime. It’s promising that he had 32 catches for 483 yards and 2 touchdowns in Palmer’s 6 starts last season, 85 catches for 1288 yards and 5 touchdowns over 16 games, but he’s still unlikely to have another 1000+ yard season again ever.

Part of the reason why is because the Cardinals like to spread it around to three different wide receivers, Fitzgerald, 2012 1st round pick Michael Floyd, and 2014 3rd round pick John Brown. Fitzgerald had 100 targets on 506 routes run, Floyd 93 targets on 585 routes run, and Brown 94 targets on 459 routes run last season. Floyd caught just 47 of those targets, but he did turn them into 841 yards and 6 touchdowns. Still, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in his 2nd season in the league in 2013, when he graded out 22nd among wide receivers and caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s hoping to have a bounce back year in his 4th year in the league in 2015, as he angles for a long-term deal, and improved quarterback play should help.

Brown, meanwhile, caught 48 of those passes for 696 yards and 5 touchdowns. The 3rd rounder was a one-dimensional deep threat as a rookie and the only one of the trio to grade out below average last season. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 and Bruce Arians has had success with similar receivers like TY Hilton and Mike Wallace in previous stops, but he was only a 3rd round pick so, while Hilton and Wallace were only 3rd rounders as well, there isn’t any guarantee he ever becomes a complete receiver. He’ll technically be the #3 receiver behind #2 Floyd and #1 Fitzgerald, but they’ll spread the ball around and use a bunch of 3-wide sets once again this season. All three of them should be more productive simply because the quarterback play should be better and they are a trio of solid targets.

As Bruce Arians’ offense loves throwing downfield to 3 different wide receivers, the tight end position is not as important as it is in other offenses. Starter John Carlson was horrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. He fortunately retired this off-season, while Rob Housler, who graded out below average last season as well, signed with Cleveland as a free agent. 2014 2nd round pick Troy Niklas was drafted to be a big part of their offense and will get a chance this season, as he’s penciled into the starting role right now, but he’ll have to stay healthy.

That’s not something he was able to do as a rookie, when he struggled mightily on 90 snaps. This off-season, he’s still having ankle problems. The Cardinals didn’t draft a tight end until the 7th round so Darren Fells, who flashed last season on 229 snaps, the first snaps of his career, will be their only insurance. That leaves them dangerously thin at the position, which knocks this receiving corps down a little bit. They should be better offensively this season thanks to better health at quarterback and running back and increased talent on the offensive line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals were poor offensively last season, they were strong defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at the 3rd lowest rate in the NFL. They might not be as good this season, as a result of offensive losses. Dan Williams signed with the Raiders on a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, while Tommy Kelly remains unsigned going into his age 35 season and is likely considering retirement. Those were two of their 3 starters on their 3-man defensive line last season. Williams graded out 14th among defensive tackles, while Kelly ranked 17th among 3-4 defensive ends. They’ll be tough to replace.

In order to try to replace them, the Cardinals signed Corey Peters and Cory Redding. Cory Redding was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and their 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. The problem is he’s going into his age 35 season, so it’s hard to trust him going forward. He ranked 27th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and could regress to that level in 2015 given his age. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and the Cardinals risked very little with a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, but he can’t necessarily be counted on to be an asset.

Peters, meanwhile, will be a two-down player inside nose tackle, a position he’s never played and somewhere where he might be undersized at 6-3 305. Peters tore his Achilles in 2013 at the worst possible time, in a meaningless week 16 game, just before he was set to hit free agency. Peters was forced to settle for a cheap one year deal back in Atlanta in an attempt to rehab his value and he did a decent job. He played 15 games (except week 1 when he was kept out for precautionary reasons) and graded out about average on 535 snaps.

Other than that Achilles tear, he doesn’t have a significant injury history, as he’s missed just 9 games in 5 seasons combined since the Falcons drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010. Peters struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, grading out below average in all 3 seasons, including a 2010 season in which he graded out 62nd out of 76 eligible and a 2012 season in which he graded out 83rd out of 85 eligible, but he’s graded out right about average in each of the last 2 seasons and he’s going into his age 27 season. We’ll see how he does at a new position.

Frostee Rucker remains and will once again play in a rotational reserve position at 3-4 defensive end, as he did last season, when he played 487 snaps. He should be in the 400-500 range once again this season. He graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, but the 9-year veteran is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in an age 32 season in 2015. He’ll rotate snaps with Redding and is best in a reserve role.

Also still around is Calais Campbell, which is obviously good because he’s their most indispensable player on either side of the field (only behind maybe the quarterback Carson Palmer). He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season and has graded out in the top-4 in each of the last 4 seasons at the position, something no one else can say. Only going into his age 29 season with just 7 games missed in 7 seasons in his career, I see no reason that can’t continue next season. Aside from JJ Watt, he’s arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the game.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

John Abraham led the 2013 Cardinals with 12 sacks, but was limited to 37 snaps by the Cardinals in 2014 thanks to concussion problems and he’s expected to retire this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. In his absence, Alex Okafor led the way with 8 sacks, but he didn’t play that well overall, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling against the run. Last season was the first significant action of his career, after playing just 5 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’ll be back as a starter in 2015 and could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Cardinals better hope he improves because they don’t really have another option.

On the other side, Sam Acho was 2nd among Cardinal outside linebackers in snaps played last season, grading out above average on 483 snaps, but he’s now in Chicago, leaving as a free agent. The Cardinals used a 2nd round pick on Markus Golden as a replacement and, while he definitely fills a need and could be a solid player for them long-term, but he’s very raw and not someone the Cardinals are going to be able to depend on as a rookie, even in obvious passing situations.

Acho split time with Matt Shaughnessy last season and Golden will do that this season as well, working as a situational pass rusher with Shaughnessy playing early downs as primarily a run stopper. That’s a good role for him as, while he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher in 4 straight seasons, the big 6-5 270 pounder has also graded out above average as a run stopper in 5 straight seasons, playing both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker since the Raiders drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009. He only played 341 snaps last season because he missed 8 games with injuries, but he should have a much bigger role in 2015.

Inside, Paris Lenon was one of the worst middle linebackers in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible. He made the smart decision to retire ahead of his age 35 season this off-season and is now a member of the Cardinals’ coaching staff. The Cardinals are hoping Daryl Washington can replace him, but he has yet to be reinstated. He was suspended all of last season because of substance abuse and domestic violence and his status for 2015 is very much up in the air. Most expect him to be reinstated and then serve an additional 4-6 game suspension, but that’s unknown at this time. Washington, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, including 11th among middle linebackers in 2010, 9th in 2011, and 3rd in 2012. It’s tough to know what to expect from him after missing an entire season, but he should be an asset for them when on the field.

The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon as a free agent as insurance, but the problem is they don’t have an insurance policy for him and, if his history is any indication, they might need one. It’s been a steep drop off for Weatherspoon since he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in his 2nd year in the league in 2011 after being drafted in the 1st round in 2010. He’s played in just 20 of 48 games combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and 2013 and missing all of 2014 with a torn Achilles. 2011 remains the only season in his career that he’s played all 16 games and the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average, as he missed 5 games as a rookie and graded out below average when on the field. He’s missed 33 games in 5 seasons.

If and when Washington is on the field this season, Weatherspoon will compete for snaps at the other middle linebacker spot with the incumbent Kevin Minter. I’m not so sure that Weatherspoon wins that battle. Minter, 2013 2nd round pick, is a limited player, particularly in coverage, but he’s a good run stopper and graded out above average overall last season. That middle linebacker job was just a two-down role last season because the Cardinals would drop a safety down to the box in sub packages, rather than using a 2nd linebacker. They love doing that type of thing and they have the safety depth to continue doing so, which means that the other middle linebacker position could easily remain a two-down role, which is perfect for Minter. Another option the Cardinals have is to line Daryl Washington up on the edge in some obvious passing downs, as he’s been a strong pass rusher thus far in his career, primarily as a blitzer. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall, but one that is better because of Lenon’s retirement.

Grade: C

Secondary

I mentioned how deep the Cardinals’ are at the safety position. Last season, they had 4 different safeties play at least 438 snaps and 3 different safeties play at least 697 snaps. Ironically, the safety who played the fewest might be the best, as Tyrann Mathieu was limited last season by injuries, including recovery from a late 2013 ACL tear. He graded out above average last season in limited action and, only going into his age 23 season, close to 2 years removed from the injury, Mathieu has a very good chance to bounce back to what he was as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, when he was an every down player and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback, splitting snaps between safety in base packages and cornerback in sub package. With Antonio Cromartie leaving as a free agent unreplaced at cornerback (more on that later), Mathieu should continue in that hybrid role in 2015.

At the other safety spot in base packages, Rashad Johnson was the starter last season and played every snap of the season except 8 as a traditional safety. The problem is Johnson was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. He’s been better in the past, but he’s always been a part-time player, maxing out at 643 snaps played in 2013, before last year’s career high. He should move into a situational role again this season, with 2014 1st round pick Deone Bucannon moving into the every down starting role.

Bucannon struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. However, that’s because he wasn’t really used properly, seeing 98.2% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, easily most among eligible safeties, effectively spending the vast maority of his time as a linebacker. As a result, he struggled mightily against the run and as a pass rusher, as he weirdly had 109 pass rush snaps and predictably had trouble getting into the backfield. In coverage, he was just about average. In his 2nd year, in the league in a role that’s still hybrid, but that plays the 6-1 208 pounder as a traditional safety more often, Bucannon should have a better season.

In this scenario with Bucannon starting next to Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson would come in during sub packages when Bucannon and Mathieu move to linebacker and cornerback respectively. Jefferson was an undrafted free agent in 2013, but has been a pleasant surprise through two seasons in the league. After flashing on 202 snaps as a rookie, he graded out just slightly below average in a bigger role on 697 snaps in 2014. He should continue being a solid-part time player.

As I mentioned, the Cardinals lost Antonio Cromartie as a free agent this off-season and didn’t really replace him, suggesting they want Mathieu to play more cornerback this season. That pushes Jerraud Powers back into a starting role. That’s not a problem. For one thing, while Cromartie started last season well, he struggled down the stretch with an ankle problem and ended up grading out slightly below average on the season. On top of that, Powers is plenty experienced and a solid player. The 2009 3rd round pick made 58 starts from 2009-2013 and graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons. Even last season, as the “#3” cornerback, he played 761 snaps and graded out about average. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s a solid starter.

Patrick Peterson will be the other starter and he’s made 64 of 64 starts since the Cardinals drafted him 5th overall in 2011. Peterson is believed by many to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, up there with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, but he certainly didn’t play that well last season, grading out below average and finishing 3rd in touchdowns allowed (8) and 4th in penalties committed (13) among cornerbacks. Peterson says last year’s struggles were the result of undiagnosed diabetes, which makes a lot of sense. He says he has it under control right now, something he’ll have to prove on the field. Only going into his age 25 season, having graded out 16th and 14th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Peterson’s bounce back chances are good. He headlines a secondary that is still strong and deep despite the loss of Cromartie.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

As I mentioned, the Cardinals should have a better offense this season, thanks to a healthier Carson Palmer, a healthier Andre Ellington, and an improved offensive line. Defensively, they lost Antonio Cromartie, Sam Acho, Tommy Kelly, and Dan Williams, as well as their incredible defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but they get Tyrann Mathieu back healthy for a whole season, hopefully will get something from Daryl Washington, should get a bounce back year from Patrick Peterson and add guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, and Cory Redding.

They won’t be as good defensively this season, but they could be a more talented overall team than last season, especially down the stretch when they had so many injuries. The problem is they won’t be as lucky as they were last season in other aspects, including turnovers, return touchdowns, close games, and converting on big chunk plays. They’ll probably be better than the 17th they finished in rate of moving the chains last season, but I don’t see it translating to more wins on the field, or even another playoff spot. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cardinals after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 2nd in NFC West

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St. Louis Rams 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Rams have been a mediocre team over the past decade or so, not winning more than 8 games in 11 straight seasons, but winning between 6 and 8 games in 7 of those 11 seasons. They’ve never been very good, but they haven’t been bad either, seemingly always a piece away. After a 2-14 2009 season, the Rams used the 1st overall pick in 2010 on Sam Bradford, but the results have of the Sam Bradford era never really showed up in the win column, as the Rams won 6 or 7 games in 4 of 5 seasons, but never any more than that.

The Rams, at least in my opinion, have their most hope in years going into this season though. The Rams were mediocre in 2014 again, going 6-10 and finishing 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential. However, their problems were primarily on the offensive side of the ball, where they ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains. Their defense, on the other hand, ranked 5th in opponent rate of moving the chains differential. The defense should continue to be good in 2015 and the offense has a real chance to take a leap forward this season.

The biggest reason for that is they should have noticeably better quarterback play this season. The Rams’ 2014 season took a big hit before it even started as Sam Bradford tore his ACL, leaving the veteran Shaun Hill (who hadn’t played regularly since 2010) and Austin Davis, n 2012 undrafted free agent, to split starts for the Rams last season. They combined to complete 63.5% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and graded out 26th and 29th respectively among 39 eligible quarterbacks.

Sam Bradford won’t be back in St. Louis this season, as the Rams traded him to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles, improving their draft position in the process, moving up from the 5th round to the 4th round in 2015 and adding a 2nd round pick in 2016. It was a smart move by the Rams as they not only improved their draft position, but also upgraded the quarterback position, sending off a quarterback who has missed 31 games in 5 seasons, including the last 25 straight with a twice torn ACL, and who has only completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions in his career.

Foles will be the new quarterback and he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.56 YPA, 46 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions since the Eagles drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Foles is a one year wonder who had by far the best season of his career in 2013, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. As good as his numbers looked that season, he only ranked 17th among quarterbacks, suggesting much of his production was a result of the system and offensive supporting talent. In his other 2 seasons, he’s graded out below average, 31st out of 38 eligible in 2012 and 25th out of 39 eligible in 2014. In Philadelphia, he always had a strong supporting cast offensively and a good offensive system, especially over the past 2 seasons with Chip Kelly. Life won’t be as easy for him in St. Louis.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Rams used the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on some offensive supporting cast help for Foles, as many expected them to. However, it wasn’t the position many expected. Instead of using the pick on a wide receiver like Devante Parker or an offensive lineman like Andrus Peat, the Rams opted for running back Todd Gurley. It was a weird move because the offensive line and wide receiver positions were both big needs, while Tre Mason did a solid job at running back as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and seemed worthy as being the lead back in 2015. Gurley is also likely to miss the first month of the season after tearing his ACL last fall at the University of Georgia. The Rams are banking on Gurley, who some called the next Adrian Peterson, living up to his potential.

As a rookie, he’s unlikely to make much of an impact. Even once he’s able to return from his ACL tear, it would be unfair to expect him to be anything close to his potential, especially since he’ll be a rookie. He’s unlikely to have his breakout year until 2016 or beyond. Mason will be the lead back in Gurley’s absence and the primary backup upon his return. As a rookie, he rushed for 765 yards and 4 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.27 YPC) and added 16 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown. Benny Cunningham will be the #3 back, the #2 back in Gurley’s absence. He’s a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries, a solid 4.49 YPC. The Rams were pretty set at running back going into the draft so they have to hope that Gurley can become a transcendent player.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Rams have problems on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Those two units certainly are not what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. The Rams’ offensive line finished 27th in team pass blocking grade and 23rd in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. The Rams lost 4 players who combined for 52 starts on the offensive line in 2014 this off-season, Jake Long (7 starts), Scott Wells (16 starts), Davin Joseph (13 starts), and Joe Barksdale (16 starts). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Wells was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked center last season and Joseph finished 75th out of 78 eligible guards. However, Barksdale was decent last season, as was Long, before an ACL tear that put his career in jeopardy. Besides, the players the Rams brought in to replace those players aren’t necessarily upgrades.

Greg Robinson remains from last season and he’ll move over to Long’s old spot at left tackle, which was the ultimate plan when the Rams drafted him 2nd overall in 2014. Robinson had a brutal rookie year though, grading out below average in 3 early season starts at guard and then really struggling in the final 9 games of the season at left tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 559 snaps. From week 9 on at left tackle, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked offensive tackle. Only going into his age 23 season, the Rams are hoping that Robinson turns it around in a hurry on the blindside.

Rodger Saffold returns at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season (3 at right guard and 1 at left tackle). He graded out just below average on the first year of a 5-year, 31.347 million dollar deal. Saffold is versatile, making starts at left tackle (37 starts), right tackle (2 starts), left guard (12 starts), and right guard (9 starts) in 5 years in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. However, he’s graded out below average in 2 of 5 seasons and has missed 17 games in 5 seasons with injury. Saffold made all 16 starts in 2014 for the first time since his rookie year and, with the amount of money they gave committed to him long-term, the Rams are hoping that becomes a trend. Even if it does, he’s unlikely to quite live up to his contract.

Saffold is the only experienced projected starter on the St. Louis offensive line this season, other than maybe Robinson, depending on how you define experienced. At center, right guard, and right tackle, the Rams will have 3 new starters and none of their options are proven. 2nd round rookie Rob Havenstein is expected to start at right tackle. Another rookie could be starting at right guard, either 3rd round pick Jaron Brown or 4th round rookie Andrew Donnal.

Also in the mix at right guard are Brandon Washington, a 2012 6th round pick who has played 17 career snaps, and Barrett Jones, a 2013 4th round pick who has played 23 career snaps. Jones will also compete at center with Tim Barnes, a 2011 undrafted free agent with 282 career snaps. The most likely lineup will have Jones at center, Brown at right guard, and Havenstein at right tackle, but whatever the lineup is, it won’t be what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. It also won’t help their running game much in Gurley’s rookie year. It’s one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Things are better in the receiving corps, but there are still problems. Kenny Britt led the team with 748 receiving yards, which sadly were the most by a Rams receiver since 2008. Kenny Britt has definitely had an interesting career trajectory, for better or worse. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run. However, a good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including a torn ACL that derailed his career big in a big way.

Upon his return from that torn ACL in 2012, he averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees. In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. 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 the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches.

That’s why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency last season, rejoining ex-head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, where he was able to bounce back. He caught 48 of 81 targets (59.3%) for 748 yards and 3 touchdowns on 468 routes run, an average of 1.60 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked wide receiver, above average. It’s hard to trust Britt, but he should be able to remain a solid receiver this season. He’ll never be the receiver he looked on to his way becoming early in his career, but, as long as he stays out of trouble, he should be an asset in a weak receiving corps. The Rams re-signed him to a 2-year, 9.15 million dollar deal worth up to 14 million in incentives this off-season.

Brian Quick was on his way to a solid season as well, catching 24 passes for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns during the first 6 games of the season, before going down for the year week 8, needing shoulder surgery. The 2012 2nd round pick should be a starter again in 2015 in a make or break 4th year in the league and also a contract year. With Foles coming in, Quick could put up solid numbers if he stays healthy, as could Kenny Britt, but, like Britt, he’s not a #1 caliber receiver, something they could have found at #10 overall.

The Rams drafted Tavon Austin 8th overall in 2013 to be the #1 receiver, but he’s really disappointed thus far in 2 years in the league. As a rookie in 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade on 434 snaps and then 100th out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade on 552 snaps in 2014. He’s caught just 71 passes for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns in 28 career games. He does add value on the ground, grading out above average in that aspect in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 career attempts. He also adds value on special teams. But he hasn’t nearly been worth the 8th overall pick and, while it’s too early to declare him a bust, his career seems to be heads in that direction unless he can establish himself as a receiver. His best shot of doing that would be on the slot.

Even on the slot, I’m not so sure that Austin can hold off Stedman Bailey for the #3 job this off-season. Bailey, a 2013 3rd round pick, has graded out above average in each of the two seasons he’s been in the league, including on 420 snaps last season. He caught 30 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in 14 games, the majority of which came after Quick got hurt. Austin’s teammate at West Virginia, Bailey doesn’t have Austin’s blazing speed and he’s not big either at 5-10 193, but he’s at least shown the requisite strength to play on offense in the NFL, something that’s eluded the 5-8 174 pound Austin thus far in his career. Realistically, I think they give Austin one more shot and Bailey starts the season backing up all 3 receiver spots.

The Rams will also use a fair amount of two-tight end sets again this season, after Jared Cook played 706 and Lance Kendricks played 613 last season. Kendricks is the #2 tight end, but he got paid pretty well this off-season, re-signing on a 4-year, 18.5 million dollar deal. Considering he played 588 snaps in 2013 (33rd among tight ends) and 613 snaps in 2014 (27th among tight ends) as the “#2” tight end, the money makes some sense, but the problem is he’s a marginal talent, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2011.

Jared Cook will return as the starting tight end, going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal. Cook was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked tight end last season, a career best, but he’s never been bad either, always grading out above average, average, or slightly below average throughout his 6-year NFL career. After posting 51/657/5 and 52/634/3 slash lines throughout his first 2 seasons in St. Louis, despite shoddy quarterback play, Cook stands to see a boost in production with Foles coming in, which should be the case throughout the offense. The problem is the offensive supporting cast is still really lacking around Foles. While Cook is a solid player, if he’s arguably your best offensive player, it’s not a good offense. If the Rams are going to make the playoffs this season, their defense is going to have to come up big once again.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Rams went from 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 5th in 2014, a big part of the reason why there’s a ton of hope for them in 2015. It’s not fair to suggest any one player or change was responsible for the Rams’ improved defense, but one player who had a huge impact was rookie Aaron Donald, the 14th overall pick and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. I thought Khalil Mack should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I love Mack and Donald is only slightly behind him in my book. Like Mack, he ranked #1 at his position on Pro Football Focus, doing so at defensive tackle. Reminiscent of a pre-injury Geno Atkins, Donald dropped to the 14th overall pick only because of his height at 6-1 288. That hasn’t been an issue. He’s got a great future.

The Rams were without highly paid defensive end Chris Long for much of last season as he missed 10 games with injury. Long not only missed significant time with injury, but he wasn’t himself even when on the field for most of the season, as the injury happened 31 snaps into Long’s season. In the final 5 games of the season, after Long’s return, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end from week 13 through week 17. Only going into his age 30 season, Long should bounce back to form, especially since he had never missed a game with injury in 6 seasons prior to last season.

However, it’s important to note that the form he should bounce back to is not quite the form that the 43 sacks he had from 2010-2013 would suggest. While Long is a feared pass rusher, grading out 7th, 4th, 7th, and 7th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010-2013 respectively, he’s never graded out above average against the run, including a 3-year stretch from 2010-2012 where he was in the bottom-3 among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in every season. Long actually graded out below average in his last healthy season in 2013. He should be a situational player at this point in his career and could easily be going into his final season in St. Louis, owed an 11.75 million non-guaranteed in 2016.

In his absence, William Hayes was actually an upgrade because he’s more of a complete player, grading out above average as a pass rusher and a run stopper and finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Hayes isn’t a one year wonder either, grading out above average in 5 of 7 pro seasons, including three straight. Prior to last season, Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive and 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 378 and 354 snaps respectively and in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He should continue to see more snaps in 2015, especially in obvious running situations and base packages, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run last season.

Robert Quinn will be the other starter on the outside of the Rams’ 4-man defensive line. Quinn, a 2011 1st round pick, lived up to his massive potential in 2013. After grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, the 2011 14th overall pick had the best defensive season in the NFL in 2013, aside from maybe JJ Watt. Quinn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end by a wide margin, thanks in large part to his 19 sacks and 21 hits.

He couldn’t repeat it in 2014, but few can and, after grading out 10th at his position last season, it’s now clear that Quinn is not a one-year wonder. Only going into his age 25 season, Quinn is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and him alongside Aaron Donald is even deadlier. The other good news about Long returning is that Eugene Sims won’t play a prominent role again this season, after grading well out below average in each of his first 5 seasons in the NFL, since the Rams took him in the 6th round in 2010. He’ll be the 4th defensive end at best this season. The Rams go legitimately 3-deep at defensive end, more so than any other team in the league.

The same can basically be said about the Rams’ defensive tackles. I already mentioned Donald’s dominant rookie year. He’ll play alongside a duo of Michael Brockers and free agent signing Nick Fairley. Brockers was a 1st round pick in 2012 and made 16 starts for the Rams last season. He hasn’t developed as a pass rusher the way the Rams would have liked, but the 6-5 322 pounder has graded out above average against the run in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league. That includes a 2014 season where he graded out above average for the first time in his career.

Brockers will continue to start for the Rams in base packages this season, but will cede more snaps to backup Nick Fairley than he did to ex-backup Kendall Langford, who played 494 snaps last season, before signing in Indianapolis this off-season. Fairley will technically replace Langford, but he also represents a large upgrade and someone capable of playing a much bigger role, especially on passing downs.

Fairley has been a frustrating player during his 4 year career. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season.

That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle through 7 weeks before the injury. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. However, the one-year prove it deal (worth 5 million) the Rams signed him to this off-season has the best chance to get his elite upside out of him because it’ll keep him motivated. He’ll work in rotation with Brockers and can be a dominant player on 500-600 snaps this season. It’s an absolutely loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Rams also have an outside linebacker who can rush the passer off the edge if needed. It probably won’t be needed behind Quinn, Long, and Hayes, but it’s nice to have Akeem Ayers’ versatility. Besides, Ayers, who signed for just 6 million over 2 years this off-season, is a fantastic run stopper in base packages. He’s graded out above average as a run stopper in all 4 seasons of his career, at both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, including 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013. In addition to being able to rush the passer decently in sub packages, he can also cover decently in sub packages, but Ayers probably won’t be doing much of that this season either.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree will be the two every down linebackers, with Ayers playing situationally, serving as a significant upgrade on JoLonn Dunbar, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible last season on just 432 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Unfortunately, Laurinaitis and Ogletree weren’t much better as they also graded out below average last season. This is nothing new for them as Ogletree has graded out below average in each of his 2 seasons in the league, since the Rams drafted him in the 1st round in 2013. Laurinaitis, meanwhile, has graded out below average in 3 straight seasons since signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension. The Rams’ linebackers are not nearly as good as their defensive linemen.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another big reason why the Rams had an improved defense last season is because they had an improved secondary, thanks to some breakout years from young players. That includes both of their safeties, TJ McDonald and Rodney McLeod, who both graded out above average last season and started all 16 games each. McDonald and McLeod also complement each other well. The 6-2 219 pound McDonald graded out above against the run, but below average in coverage and played with 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 65.8% of snaps, 7th most in the NFL among safeties. Meanwhile, the 5-11 183 McLeod graded out above average in coverage, but below average against the run, and played just 6.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, the lowest percentage in the NFL among safeties.

It’s important to remember that both are still one year wonders. McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 as a 3rd round rookie, while missing 6 games with injury. McLeod also struggled in 2013, making all 16 starts, but grading out 75th out of 86 eligible safeties in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (he played 3 snaps as a rookie). Both players seem to have bright futures, but this is important to remember.

At cornerback, the breakout star was 6th round rookie EJ Gaines, who, despite his draft status, was able to take advantage of some injuries and lead Ram cornerbacks with 964 snaps played, making all 15 starts before missing week 17 with injury. The rookie was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback and showed the ability to play both outside and inside on the slot. Like McDonald and McLeod, he’s a one-year wonder. That trio might not all match their 2014 season in 2015, but they’re all young so it’s possible one of them is even better next season.

The Rams’ other two cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, are also young, as both come from the 2012 class (2nd and 3rd round respectively), which means both are heading into their contract years right now. Jenkins has made 43 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in all 3 seasons. However, he’s been better since a rough rookie year and has only graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons. Johnson, meanwhile, flashed as a rookie, grading out above average on 366 snaps, but has also graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons as he’s started taking on a bigger role. He also missed 7 games with injury to start last season, which is how Gaines was able to get his chance. Both are decent young cornerbacks, but not much else. It’s a solid, but unspectacular secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams have been frustrating close to breaking through over the past few years. This could be their breakout year, but it also could be another disappointing year. Nick Foles represents an upgrade on Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, but he doesn’t really have much of any offensive supporting cast. They should be better this season offensively and their defense has a good chance to be strong again, but them being a top-5 unit again largely relies on a bunch of young, unproven players to match or improve upon career best year’s, including Aaron Donald, who played otherworldly last season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Rams after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

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San Francisco 49ers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in 2012. A 2011 2nd round pick, Kaepernick played well enough in a spot start in relief of an injured Alex Smith that he got Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage at that point, benched and proceeded to start the rest of the season, easily head coach Jim Harbaugh’s most controversial decision in San Francisco, but also his most signature decision. Kaepernick started the final 7 games of the regular season plus three playoff games en route to a Super Bowl loss in which they were a few yards away from winning. Kaepernick finished the 2012 season with a combined 62.1% completion, 8.77 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions between the playoffs and regular season, while rushing for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns on 88 carries (7.72 YPC). Smith was traded to Kansas City for a pair of 2nd rounders and Kaepernick was the undisputed starter going into 2013.

The 2013 season was more of the same. The 49ers didn’t return to the Super Bowl, but made the NFC Championship for the 3rd year in a row, losing a close one in Seattle. Kaepernick completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 carries (5.70 YPC). Of course, all good things must come to an end and the hype train about Colin Kaepernick being the next big thing came to a crashing halt over the past year or so.

Kaepernick became much more expensive, signing a 6-year, 126 million dollar extension ahead of a 2014 contract year, which inevitably came with more responsibility and greater expectations. The 49ers would not be able to keep all of their talent under the cap long-term with Kaepernick’s contract eating up so much of the cap and, after 3 straight fantastic seasons that failed to yield a Super Bowl ring, the 49ers’ championship window seemed to be getting tighter in a hurry.

A year later, that window seems to be shut. The 49ers went 8-8 in Kaepernick’s first season on the extension. Kaepernick gets a lot of the blame, rightfully so coming off of down season performance wise, but the reality is that Kaepernick was just what he always was, an average to above average quarterback that can win the Super Bowl, but needs help, the kind of guy you have to pay top quarterback money to keep, even though he’s not necessarily a top quarterback. Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 639 yards and 1 touchdown on 104 carries (6.14 YPC). Those were similar to his career numbers, as he’s completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while rushing for 1576 yards and 10 touchdowns on 261 carries (6.04 YPC) in his career. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th, 18th, and 28th ranked quarterback in 3 seasons as a starter.

The fact that he hasn’t really progressed as a pocket passer, particularly in terms of his accuracy, is concerning and the flaws that dropped him to the 2nd round are still present and probably permanent at this point, as he heads into his 5th year in the league, his age 28 season. But the biggest issue with San Francisco isn’t Kaepernick; it’s that they don’t have the dominant supporting cast around him anymore. And how that supporting cast deteriorated so fast is the particularly fascinating part of this team.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Last season, the problem for the 49ers was injuries as they finished with the 5th most adjusted games lost in the NFL. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story as that doesn’t take into account that Aldon Smith missed 9 games with suspension and that the players they lost to injuries weren’t all just average starters. Smith is their best pass rusher and Patrick Willis (10 games missed) and NaVorro Bowman (16 games missed) were among the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

The 49ers should have fewer injuries this year, but, that being said, that won’t necessarily translate into the win column. The 49ers finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential, even worse than their 8-8 record would have suggested, and it’s hard to argue that the 2015 49ers, when healthy, are more talented than the 2014 49ers were last year, even with all the injuries. The 49ers had an off-season full of losses on both sides of the field and at head coach, as Jim Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan, leaving first time head coach (minus one interim start in 2010) Jim Tomsula in charge.

Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh’s big personality clashing with management and sometimes players, but there’s no denying he’s an amazing offensive mind who injected life into this franchise and that he’ll be sorely missed, especially on the offensive end. Jim Tomsula, while well liked, is strictly a defensive minded coach and the top offensive mind on the staff is Geep Chryst, who has very limited experience as a playcaller. It won’t help Kaepernick’s development that he’ll be learning a new offense for the first time in his career, coming off of the worst season of his career.

Meanwhile, some of those players who suffered injuries last season will not return this year because they’ve retired. Right tackle Anthony Davis is one of them. One of four 49er starters from 2014 to retire this off-season, Davis’ retirement might be the most interesting of them. Davis was limited to 7 games by injury in 2014 and graded out below average, but he graded out 9th in 2012 and 29th in 2013, so he was still a player that could have helped them this season. Even more interesting is Davis, a former 1st round pick, was only going into his age 26 season and was scheduled to make 3.65 million.

Davis says he’s just giving himself a year for his mind and body to recover and he did suffer a serious concussion in 2014. That suggests he could be back in 2016 ready to pick up where he left off under the same contract. I’m inclined to believe that story, but that doesn’t help them in 2015. Davis was smart waiting until after the draft to announce this so the 49ers couldn’t draft his replacement and his job would still be there in 2016, but that really leaves the 49ers in a pickle. That’s what makes Davis’ retirement so interesting.

Jonathan Martin started at right tackle in Davis’ absence last season, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible, which got him waived this off-season, so he isn’t even there anymore. In his absence, it’ll likely be veteran Erik Pears, with 7th round rookie Trent Brown as the backup. That’s not good news because Pears is not a starting caliber player in the NFL anymore. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season and is going into his age 33 season. Borderline unworthy of a 53-man roster, Pears represents a steep downgrade on Davis. He’s one of the worst starters in the NFL.

The 49ers could and should look for alternatives on the open market, as the rookie probably isn’t ready, but Davis coincidentally also waited until after Joseph Barksdale left the open market, leaving the right tackle market very thin. The 49ers could also move either right guard Alex Boone to right tackle or left guard Brandon Thomas to right tackle. However, Boone is a solid right guard so they might not want to mess with something that works, while Thomas has still never played a snap in the NFL. Besides, either of those two moving outside would force either Joe Looney or Marcus Martin to start at guard and both of those two players were horrible last season.

The most likely scenario is that Pears or a free agent starts at right tackle, with Thomas and Boone starting at left guard and right guard respectively. Thomas hasn’t played an NFL snap, going in the 3rd round in 2014 and missing his whole rookie year with a torn ACL, but, if not for the ACL tear, he would have likely been a first round pick. He’ll replace Mike Iupati, who was Pro Football Focus’14th ranked guard in 2014 and who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Cardinals this off-season. Thomas is unproven, but there is upside here with a first round talent. A collegiate offensive tackle, he’s a better fit inside at guard in the NFL.

Boone, meanwhile, is much more experienced. He hasn’t been as good as he was in his first year as a starter, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2012, but he’s been solid, grading out 39th in 2013 and 18th in 2014. On top of that, he’s made 46 out of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons combined (one of which was at left tackle), after the 2009 undrafted free agent was able to get over early career alcohol problems that dated back to his time at Ohio State. Another collegiate offensive tackle who is a better fit at guard in the NFL, Boone is the 49ers 2nd best offensive lineman.

At center, it’ll be a battle between Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin. Kilgore should win the job, but Martin, a 2014 3rd round pick, was drafted to be the starter at this point. Kilgore won the starting job over Martin when he was a rookie last year, but he proved to be better than just a stopgap, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked center, despite being limited to 463 snaps in 7 games by injuries. Through week 7, prior to his injury, Kilgore was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. Martin took over and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked center out of 41 eligible. From week 8 on, he ranked 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, a steep drop-off from Kilgore. Kilgore, assuming he’s healthy, should be the week 1 starter again. Inexperienced with 7 career starts since going into the 5th round in 2011, Kilgore has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL. His return will help this line.

The only offensive lineman who is locked into a position right now is left tackle Joe Staley, who fortunately remains as one of the best offensive linemen in football. A remainder of their previously dominant seasons, Staley is just one of 4 players on either side of the ball that are starters now that were also starters in 2011 (Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman are the other 3). A 2007 1st round pick, Staley has started 114 games over the past 8 seasons, grading out above average in every season except 2010. Since 2012, Staley has graded out 1st, 5th, and 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game. He’s the saving grace of a crumbling offensive line.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Not only do the 2015 49ers have just 4 starters in common with the 2011 team, but they actually have 2 starters at wide receiver in common with the 2012 Ravens team that beat them in the Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. I guess if you can’t beat them, sign them. Smith was their big free agent acquisition this off-season and he’ll actually be an upgrade over the departed Michael Crabtree (who graded out 95th out of 110 eligible wide receivers last off-season), but the 49ers did overpay him on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. The 49ers would have been better off keeping Crabtree on a cheap 1-year deal (he signed with the Raiders for 3 million) and using that money to re-sign Mike Iupati or add at another position.

Torrey Smith has played all 64 games since he’s been in the NFL, starting the last 62 of them, and he’s been decently productive with 213 catches for 3591 yards and 30 touchdowns. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is a fantastic deep threat, but he’s not particularly good at anything else. He’s still an inconsistent route runner and has caught just 117 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in 4 seasons. He’s also never graded out higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in any of his 4 seasons in the league. The 49ers are playing too much money for someone of Smith’s skill set as he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 guy.

He’ll be the #1A receiver to Anquan Boldin’s #1B (or vice versa), much like was the case in Baltimore. The problem is that Boldin is now several years older than he was when he played in Baltimore, going into his age 35 season. The 49ers are putting a lot of faith in an aging receiver. He’s been very productive in two seasons in San Francisco, topping 1000+ yards in both seasons and totaling a combined 168 catches for 2241 yards and 12 touchdowns, all at the price of a 6th round pick and 12 million dollars over 2 years (he’ll take home another 6 million this season, in the final year of his current contract). Boldin has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 12,406 receiving yards currently, 19th all-time.

However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin may have had his last 1000+ yard season ever in 2014 and could easily see his abilities fall off a cliff in his contract year in 2015. That’s not good news, especially with how thin the 49ers are at wide receiver, after losing #3 receiver Steve Johnson this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps last season, averaging 2.14 yards per route run, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the wide receiver position.

With Johnson and fellow veteran Brandon Lloyd gone, it’ll be a 3-way battle for the #3 job between Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and DeAndre Smelter. Patton is a 2013 4th round pick who has played 151 underwhelming career snaps, while Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick, grading out slightly above average on 96 snaps as a rookie. Smelter, a 4th round rookie, is a long-shot at this point. Whoever wins that battle, it’ll be tough to count on them to be as productive as Johnson was last season. Also, if Boldin’s abilities fall off a cliff or either Boldin or Smith suffer an injury, whoever wins that battle will be tough to trust in a larger role.

Without much depth at wide receiver, the 49ers could opt to use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season. However, despite the fact that they’ve put a lot of resources into the tight end position, the 49ers aren’t very good there. The 49ers kept Vernon Davis this off-season, even though he was scheduled to make a non-guaranteed 4.9 million and even though he was coming off of a career worst season, out of desperation at the position.

Not only was Davis’ 2014 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. The 49ers are banking on a bounce back year (he graded out above average in every season from 2010-2014), but, in his age 31 season, Davis might not be able to deliver.

Vance McDonald, a 2013 2nd round pick, is going to be the #2 tight end again. McDonald hasn’t shown anything as a pass catcher in two years in the league, catching 10 passes in 23 games and grading out below average in both seasons as a pass catcher, but the 6-4 267 pounder is a phenomenal run blocker, grading out above average in that aspect in both seasons in the NFL. He only played 218 snaps in 2014, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking tight end if he were eligible. He should have a bigger role in 2015 in a make or break 3rd season for the youngster. The 49ers would obviously really like him to come around as a pass catcher, but there are no guarantees he ever develops into anything more than a 6th offensive lineman.

The 49ers also use a fullback a fair amount as fullback Bruce Miller played 473 snaps last season, most in the NFL by a fullback. He graded out 3rd at his position, adding 18 catches for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, and has graded out 10th, 7th, 5th, and 3rd in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The problem is he could be facing a suspension after domestic violence, though his spousal abuse charges did get dropped to misdemeanor vandalism. The 49ers also used a 4th round pick on Blake Bell, a collegiate quarterback turned tight end, but he probably won’t have a big role until 2016 at the earliest. It’s a weak and thin receiving corps beyond Smith and Boldin.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another starter the 49ers lost this off-season was Frank Gore, who signed with the Colts on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Frank Gore had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor.

However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. The 49ers were wise to move into the future at the position, rather than signing him to a multi-year deal with 7.5 million guaranteed like the Colts.

In his absence, the 49ers will use a committee at running back, with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the clear lead back. Hyde rushed for 333 yards and a touchdown on 83 carries (4.01 YPC) as a rookie as Gore’s primary backup, grading out above average as a runner, but below average in the passing game, an issue he’s had dating back to his collegiate days at Ohio State (34 career catches in 3 seasons). He’s definitely unproven as an NFL player, but he was drafted with this situation in mind.

To help mask Hyde’s deficiencies as a pass down player, the 49ers signed the veteran Reggie Bush to be the primary passing down back. Bush came cheaper than Gore, 2.5 million over 1 year, but he’s not nearly as good. Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) in 11 games and caught 40 passes for 253 yards.

Aging and injury prone throughout his career, Bush could be pushed for his role by 4th round rookie Mike Davis or Kendall Hunter, who will also compete to be Hyde’s primary backup. Hunter, a 2011 4th round pick, has rushed for 1202 yards and 7 touchdowns on 262 career carries (4.59 YPC), adding 27 catches for 268 yards. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL though and isn’t built to be a feature back at 5-7 199. Davis is obviously less proven, but built better at 5-9 217 and caught 66 passes in his final 2 seasons at South Carolina combined.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the 49ers had 4 players retire this off-season, 3 of whom were defensive starters last season. On the defensive line, the 49ers lost Justin Smith to retirement, though that should not have been seen as a surprise as he was going into his age 36 season. Still, it’s a big loss because Smith proved last season that he could still play, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 16 starts. Also gone is Ray McDonald, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 14 starts last season, before being released late in the season, following rape allegations.

In their absence, the trio of Tank Carradine, Arik Armstead, and Darnell Dockett will rotate at the position. Carradine and Armstead are both very athletic and have huge upsides, but neither one of them is proven. Carradine was a 2013 2nd round pick and would have been a lock 1st rounder if he hadn’t torn his ACL late in his final collegiate season. Carradine sat out his whole rookie season with that ACL tear and then played just 146 snaps as a deep reserve last season. He’s completely unproven and entering a make or break 3rd season in the league. Armstead, meanwhile, was their first round pick in this past draft and the rookie is incredibly raw. He has athleticism and upside, but his production and tape at the University of Oregon do not suggest someone that should have been a 1st round pick.

Armstead might spend his rookie year behind the veteran Dockett, especially since Armstead is missing valuable off-season practice because of a late graduation. That isn’t good news because Dockett was massively overpaid on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Anything more than a minimum deal with incentives for Dockett would have been too much. Dockett is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL, but that’s not the only problem. He wasn’t that good before the injury either as he was perennially one of the NFL’s most overrated players, particularly struggling mightily against the run. From 2007-2013, he graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last among eligible in 2012.

Glenn Dorsey returns from injury, after missing all of 2014 with a torn biceps. Where he plays remains a mystery. Dorsey played at nose tackle in 2013 with the 49ers, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, including 9th against the run. However, in his absence last season, Ian Williams played very well. He only played 219 snaps in 9 games before going down for the season with an injury, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle last season if he had been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. It’s a concern that Williams has been limited to 11 games over the last 2 seasons with ankle problems but, Quinton Dial, who was the nose tackle down the stretch in Williams’ absence, also graded out above average last season.

With the 49ers seemingly set at nose tackle without Dorsey and issues at 3-4 defensive end, Dorsey could see the majority of his on the outside, after spending the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 defensive end in Kansas City. However, Dorsey graded out below average as a 3-4 defensive end in every season in Kansas City, except 2012, when he played just 4 games. He’s also missed 28 games with major injuries over the past 3 seasons combined. Without McDonald and Smith, this defensive line doesn’t look nearly as good.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The 49ers also had retirements in their linebacking corps as two players retired at middle linebacker and both of them were surprises. Patrick Willis was the first one to retire, cutting his Hall-of-Fame career short ahead of his age 30 season, after recurring foot problems caused him to miss 10 games the previous season. Willis was a top-3 player on Pro Football Focus in every season from his rookie season in 2007 to 2013 before the injury plagued 2014 season. Even during that injury plagued final season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker through 5 weeks.

That being said, the 49ers were shockingly fine without Willis last season thanks to the emergence of 3rd round rookie Chris Borland. Borland started for Willis down the stretch and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker on just 487 snaps, with no one playing more snaps and grading out higher at the position. From week 6 on, Borland was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, only behind New England’s Jamie Collins. However, Borland shocked the football world by announcing his retirement this off-season as well, after just one season in the league, citing long-term health concerns.

As shocking as guys like Jake Locker, Patrick Willis, and even Anthony Davis retiring early was, all of those guys had noticeable injury woes and Davis even said he’d be back when he was healthy. Borland didn’t seem to, which would make him comparable to only Jason Worilds, another player who shockingly retired this off-season. The difference is Worilds has already made a lot of money. Borland comparatively didn’t make much and much of what he did make was his rookie signing bonus, a large portion of which he had to pay back when he retired. Borland just wanted to do something else.

As strange as this might sound, the 49ers are still in solid position at linebacker without Willis and Borland, as nice as it would have been to have both of them. NaVorro Bowman returns at middle linebacker, after missing all of last season with multiple ligament tears in his knee. There’s concern about whether or not he’ll return to form, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he’ll be about 19 months removed from the devastating injury by week 1. Even if he’s less than 100% in his first year back, he’ll still be a huge asset to them. A 2010 3rd round pick, Bowman ranked 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games in Bowman’s absence last season, returns as the starter next to him. He graded out below average, ranking 37th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, but you could do a lot worse than him and he has the ability to play every down.

At outside linebacker, Aldon Smith has stayed out of trouble and seems poised to play his first 16 game season since 2012, which will also be a big boost to this San Francisco defense. Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while attending rehab and then missed 9 games in 2014 with suspension, but the 49ers have stood by him and believed in him, largely because of his immense talent. Now it looks like they’re going to be rewarded. Smith ranked 2nd and 3rd in 2011 and 2012 respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers, after going 7th overall in 2011. In 2013, he ranked 5th despite missing 5 games and #1 during the time he actually played. In 2014, he ranked 11th from week 11 on, after his return, and 20th overall on the season, despite missing 9 games with suspension. Smith has the potential for a huge 2015 season and he has every incentive to make good on that potential, going into a contract year with a potential 10+ million dollar annual salary on the line. The 49ers used a 3rd round pick on Eli Harold in case anything goes wrong with Smith.

Opposite Smith, it’ll be a battle between Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. Lynch seems like the heavy favorite in that battle and many expected he’d be an every down player this season, with Dan Skuta leaving as a free agent and Brooks likely getting cut. Skuta is gone, but Brooks still remains, despite a non-guaranteed 7.3 million dollar salary and a declining game. Still, I expect Lynch to once again outplay Brooks and get him cut going into 2016. Lynch, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 521 snaps last season in the absence of Aldon Smith, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time. Meanwhile, Brooks was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker as recently as 2012, but he graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014. Now he’s going into his age 31 season. Simply put, Brooks is a descending player, while Lynch is an ascending player on the outside. Lynch’s potential, along with the full-time returns of both Smith and Bowman keep this a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Secondary

At cornerback, the 49ers lost both starters this off-season, as Chris Culliver (14 starts) signed with the Redskins and Perrish Cox (15 starts) signed with the Titans. They both graded out above average and ranked 15th and 35th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, so it’s hardly a small loss. The good news is that Tramaine Brock, a starter in 2013, returns after missing 13 games with various injuries last season. Brock was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback on 678 snaps in 16 games (7 starts) in 2013, causing the 49ers to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, which had the potential to be a long-term steal if Brock could stay healthy. Now he returns and, while he’s still a one year wonder, as the 2010 undrafted free agent had played 145 career snaps from 2010-2012 prior to his 2013 breakout year, his return should still help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver.

He’s really the only one who will help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver. Shareece Wright, who they signed from San Diego to be the other starter, has been atrocious as a starter over the past 2 seasons. Wright was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and barely played in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, playing a combined 124 snaps in 2011-2012, but he’s been a starter over the last 2 seasons. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. Going into 2014, the Chargers brought in Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency to send Wright to a #3 cornerback role, but an injury to Verrett forced Wright to play 853 snaps and make 14 starts. He once again struggled, grading out 105th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. I’m shocked he’s getting a 3rd chance to be a starter.

Jimmie Ward will once again play in as the 3rd cornerback, primarily on the slot. He started there week 1 last year, but the 2014 1st round pick had a rough rookie year overall, being limited to 270 snaps in 8 games by injuries, going down for the season week 10, and struggling mightily on the occasions where he did play. His foot problems are reportedly lingering into the off-season. The 49ers don’t seem worried about him missing any time to start the season, but he’s missing valuable practice time. If Ward or Brock misses any time again or Wright needs to be benched, Dontae Johnson is the 4th cornerback and the backup at all 3 spots. He was forced into action as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out only slightly below average on 512 snaps. He could be an upgrade over Wright, but Wright’s 3 million dollar salary suggests the 49ers want him to be the guy.

Things are fortunately better at safety. Eric Reid, their 2013 1st round pick, will start at one spot. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety in 2013 as a rookie and, though he took a step back as a sophomore, grading out slightly below average, he’s still a solid starter with upside going into his 3rd year in the league. He’ll once again play opposite Antoine Bethea, who was a bright spot for the 49ers in 2014.

The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007. The 49ers weirdly used a 2nd round pick on Jaquiski Tartt to be Bethea’s long-term successor when they had other pressing needs. Dumb moves like that are part of the reason why this team has quickly gone from one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The 49ers’ season in 2014 was ruined by injuries, as they had the 5th most injuries in the league, including 22 games lost by the best inside linebacker duo in the country, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, not including 9 games lost to suspension by one of the best edge rushers in the game, Aldon Smith. They should have better health in 2014, but they won’t be a better team. Bowman is back, but Willis retired, along with Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland, who was in line to be Willis’ long-term replacement.

On top of that, the 49ers lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Ray McDonald, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver this off-season. Their efforts to replace all of their lost players in free agency did not go well as the 49ers were only able to overpay Shareece Wright, Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush, and Darnell Dockett. Their draft didn’t go much better as the 49ers used their 1st round pick on a player who isn’t ready and their 2nd round pick on a clear backup that won’t be able to get onto the field as a rookie. The 49ers are unlikely to get much impact out of their rookie class as a result.

One of their biggest losses was head coach Jim Harbaugh, who dragged this team out of irrelevance over his first 3 seasons with the team from 2011-2013 before injuries hit in 2014 and who only was allowed to leave to go to the University of Michigan because he was clashing with management. Also gone are talented coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, leaving ex-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as the head man. Tomsula is reportedly loved by his players, but his head coaching experience consists of one interim start in 2010 and his top offensive mind is Geep Chryst, who hasn’t called plays since 2000. That won’t help Colin Kaepernick, who is coming off of a down year and doesn’t have anywhere near the supporting cast he once had. This team was even worse than their 8-8 record last season and should be even worse this year. In a tough NFC West, the 49ers could easily come in last. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the 49ers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC West

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