Miami Dolphins 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Aside from the Baltimore Ravens, no team had a bigger offensive improvement from 2013 to 2014 in terms of rate of moving the chains than the Miami Dolphins, who went from 26th in rate of moving the chains in 2014 to 8th last season. As a result, they went from 24th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 to 10th last year, 2nd best among non-playoff teams. They certainly played well enough to qualify for the playoffs, which should give their fans hope until 2015. The biggest reason for this improvement and for this hope is quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the 2012 8th overall pick, who is coming off a strong season in his 3rd year in the league in 2014.

Tannehill has gotten better statistically in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8 last season. He finished 2014 having completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.  On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.

However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPC). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.

Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat than anything, as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate.

Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.

He hasn’t really had much help on offense, but the 2012 8th overall pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 63 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 760 yards and another 4 touchdowns on 145 carries (5.24 YPC). The Dolphins gave him a 4-year, 74 million dollar extension this off-season and I think he was well worth it. Right now, there are 19 quarterbacks in the NFL, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 13+ million dollars. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other player makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season, so the deal makes sense.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Dolphins had a great running game last season, ranking 2nd in YPC with 4.69 YPC. That was another why reason why they were so improved over 2013 offensively, as they averaged just 4.13 YPC in 2013, 17th in the NFL. Tannehill’s emergence was a big part of why the running game improved, but the running game helped Tannehill out a lot too, making life easier for him. The Dolphins probably want to become more of a run centric offense, because of how effective it was last season and because of how infrequently they did it last season, but it’s unclear if they have the volume in their backfield to do so. They didn’t think they did last year and their only off-season addition was 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi.

Lamar Miller was a great runner last season, grading out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure running grade and averaging 5.09 YPC on 216 carries, 2nd in the NFL among eligible running backs. However, there’s a reason why he only had 216 carries in 16 games, just 13.5 per game. The first is that he’s useless in passing situations, grading out below average in that aspect in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, including 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in pass catching grade in 2014.

The second is that the Dolphins feel he tires out too much as the game goes on, something that is supported by the 3.81 yards per carry that he’s averaged in his career on carry 15+ of the game, something he’s only done in 11 of 45 career games. No one else could do anything at running back behind Miller either last season, so you had a starting running back with below average endurance and no depth, the reason why they ran so infrequently. Tannehill finished 2nd on the team with 311 yards on 56 carries. Meanwhile, Daniel Thomas finished with 3.82 YPC on 44 carries and Knowshon Moreno finished with 4.77 YPC on 31 carries.

Both are gone and 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi will be the backup running back. Don’t let the fact that he went in the 5th round fool you; Ajayi was seen as a 2nd or even a 1st round pick pre-draft, before teams found out about his bad knee. If he can stay healthy, which he apparently is now, he could develop into a really good #2 back and passing down back (72 catches in his final 2 seasons at Boise State). Ajayi will be a great complement for Miller, but the Dolphins should still give Miller a chance to be a 20 carry per game type back, something he’s done just once in a game in his career. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and has an impressive career 4.64 YPC average on 444 carries, so he deserves a shot to be a feature back, especially on a team without another proven running back. If he can, it’ll really help this offense and and help Miller financially, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. Even if he can’t, it’ll still allow Ajayi to ease into the NFL before getting more carries by mid-season. It’s a solid and promising backfield.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

While their running game was strong last season, the Dolphins were weak both in the receiving corps and especially on the offensive line, as I also mentioned earlier. They ranked 31st among teams in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 27th among teams in run blocking grade, making their strong quarterback and running back productive even more impressive. The Dolphins were weak upfront in 2013 as well, grading out 15th among teams in pass blocking grade and 30th among teams in run blocking grade. In order to fix this, the Dolphins made significant changes upfront last off-season, leading to an all new starting 5 in 2014, with 4 new starters and no one playing at the same spot as they played in 2013. That complete overhaul obviously didn’t work.

That being said, they could be noticeably improved upfront this season, for a few reasons. For one, Branden Albert, the only offensive lineman to play more than 20 snaps for the Dolphins last season and grade out above average, will be back from a torn ACL that cut his season short during the Dolphins’ 9th game of the season in 2014. He’ll be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, so his status for week 1 is not in doubt, but what is in doubt is whether or not he can return to form, going into his age 31 season, following a serious injury like that.

When on the field, Albert is a solid offensive tackle, grading out above average in each of his last 5 seasons, including 18th among offensive tackles in 2011, 24th in 2012, 28th in 2013, and 8th in 2014. He was on his way to easily the best season of his career last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle through week 9, and still finished the season with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out better at the position. However, he’s getting up there in age and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons combined.

Given that they gave him a 5-year, 47 million dollar deal last off-season to help turn this offensive line around, the Dolphins are obviously hoping he can continue playing well for a few more seasons, but it’s unclear if he can do that. What is clear is that, barring another major injury, the Dolphins should have better left tackle play overall this season thanks to the fact that Albert should play more games. Right tackle Ja’Waun James was horrendous on the blindside last season in Albert’s absence, while right tackle replacement Dallas Thomas was even worse on that side.

Speaking of James, he should have a better season in 2015 than 2014, the 2nd reason why this offensive line should be better this season. He won’t just be better because he’ll be able to stay at right tackle this season, but also because he’s not a rookie anymore. The 2014 1st round pick was clearly overwhelmed as a 22-year-old rookie last season, grading out 80th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. It’s unclear whether or not he can ever develop into a solid starter, but he has upside and he can’t be worse in 2015.

The third reason the Dolphins defense should be better this season is that Mike Pouncey will be moving back to his natural position of center, after struggling mightily in 12 games at right guard last season, following an early season hip injury. He graded out 69th among 78 eligible guards last season, but the 2011 15th overall pick made 46 starts at center from 2011-2013 and graded out 22nd, 12th, and 14th in those 3 seasons respectively. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey is a major bounce back candidate back at his normal position. The Dolphins clearly agree, giving him a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the contract year of his rookie deal. At the very least, he should be a drastic upgrade over Samson Satele, who was signed off the streets in August and inexplicably remained the starter at center even once Pouncey returned from injury. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 41 eligible.

While the Dolphins’ should be better at left tackle because of Albert’s return, at right tackle because of Ja’Wuan James’ development, and at center because Pouncey is moving back there, the Dolphins still have a major issue at guard. As much as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will help this defense (more on that later), the Dolphins might have been better off bringing back defensive tackle Jared Odrick (who got 5 years and 42.5 million from Jacksonville) and using the remainder of the money on guard Mike Iupati, who signed for 40 million over 5 years in Arizona, rather than giving Suh 114 million over 6 years.

Mike Pouncey (792 snaps), Daryn Colledge (763 snaps), Shelley Smith (367 snaps), and Dallas Thomas (362 snaps) led the Dolphins in snaps played at guard last season and graded out 69th, 74th, 54th, and 58th respectively among 78 eligible guards. Colledge and Smith are gone, while Pouncey moved back inside to center, leaving Dallas Thomas to compete with 2014 3rd round pick Billy Turner, who played just 17 snaps as a rookie, 4th round rookie Jamil Douglas, and veteran free agent addition Jeff Linkenbach. Two of those four will be the starters at guard week 1 and none of them provide much hope.

Turner might be their best guard, even though he’s inexperienced, because he’s not a proven failure and he’s young, going into his age 24 season and his 2nd season in the league. However, it is concerning that he couldn’t get playing time as a rookie on this horrible offensive line and he was only a 3rd round pick so there’s certainly no guarantee he ever emerges as a starter. He should be given a shot though. Jamil Douglas is also young, but he was just a 4th round pick this past May and isn’t ready for serious action. If he starts, it’ll be out of complete desperation at guard.

Thomas is also young, but has had a miserable career since going in the 3rd round in 2013. After playing just 2 snaps as a rookie, Thomas played 695 in 2014, 362 at guard and 333 at tackle, struggling mightily at both spots. In addition to grading out 58th among 78 eligible guards on 362 snaps, he graded out 75th among 84 eligible tackles on 333 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse among tackles. He’ll likely be given another shot at guard in 2015, but only by default. His best case scenario long-term seems to be as a versatile reserve/6th offensive lineman, but he’ll likely be counted on to start in 2015.

Linkenbach is the veteran option, but he might be even worse than Thomas. Jeff Linkenbach has graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since going undrafted in 2010. He’s made 36 starts in 5 seasons in the league and struggled mightily in his only season as a full-time starter, grading out 70th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2011. He’s versatile, but, like Thomas, he’s a 6th offensive lineman at best and a pretty poor one at that. The offensive line should be better this season, but remain a problem.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

The Dolphins receiving corps wasn’t as bad last season as their offensive line, but they put a lot of energy into remaking it this off-season and have made it better as a result. The Dolphins got rid of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson this off-season and they played 842, 836, and 516 snaps respectively in 2014, but all three of them graded out below average last season and they saved a combined 17.97 million in cash by letting them go, which they re-allocated well. Hartline and Gibson were the worst of the trio, grading out 103rd and 100th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers in 2014. Wallace was better, but certainly not good enough to justify a 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015, so the Dolphins traded him with a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a 5th round pick.

The Dolphins did a good job replacing that trio and will also have Jarvis Landry, a 2014 2nd round pick and easily their best receiver as a rookie last season, playing a larger role, after playing 702 snaps last season. He graded out 16th among wide receivers as a rookie, even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. 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. Landry wasn’t even drafted until the 2nd round and he caught 84 passes on 105 targets (80.0%) for 755 yards and 5 touchdowns on 434 routes run, an average of 1.74 yards per route run. He could top 1000 yards on 550 or so routes run this season and could definitely lead this team in receiving yardage.

They also traded for Kenny Stills, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers last season, a steal at the price of a 3rd round pick, especially since he’s only going into his age 23 season and signed very cheaply for the next 2 seasons. He caught 63 passes on 80 targets (78.8%) for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns on 458 routes run, an average of 2.03 yards per route run, in 2014 with the Saints. He doesn’t have Drew Brees anymore, but should continue putting up strong numbers this season. He’ll be option 1b to Landry’s 1a, or vice versa.

Greg Jennings was signed to a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal by the Dolphins this off-season and is expected to be the 3rd receiver. He spent the last 2 seasons with the Vikings, who signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, expecting to get the guy who had 3 seasons of 1000 yards or more in Green Bay. However, Jennings wasn’t able to come close to those numbers without Aaron Rodgers, averaging 64 catches for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2 seasons in Minnesota, prior to being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 9 million dollar salary this off-season. He’s now going into his age 32 season and hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2010, but he wasn’t horrible in 2013 and 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. He’ll be a solid 3rd receiver.

The Dolphins also used a 1st round pick (14th overall) on Devante Parker, but, without a pressing need in the top-3 at wide receiver, he’s expected to start the season as the 4th receiver, especially after missing most of the off-season with a foot injury. He’s just too behind the 8-ball, after missing all of that practice. He’ll probably steal snaps from Jennings down the stretch, but won’t have a big rookie impact. As I mentioned earlier, rookie receivers, even talented ones, tend to struggle. He should still be a big contributor in 2016 and beyond though. The one concern is that his foot problems date back to his collegiate days at the University of Louisville, so they’re definitely something for the Dolphins to be concerned about. That’s part of why they should ease him into action.

The Dolphins also lost Charles Clay this off-season and he was pretty solid, grading out 14th among tight ends in 2014 and signing a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal with the Bills this off-season. However, Jordan Cameron, who the Dolphins signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season, is no slouch. He’s a downgrade from Clay though. Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, after playing just 398 snaps and catching 26 passes in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012. The 2011 4th round pick didn’t match that production in 2014 though, as he missed 6 games with concussions and caught just 24 passes for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron is a one year wonder with a concerning concussion history and no full 16 game seasons played, but upside.

Even his 2013 season wasn’t as good as his numbers looked as he was fortunate enough to be on one of the pass heaviest teams in the NFL. His 1.47 yards per route run was just 19th among eligible tight ends. Sure poor quarterback play hurt him, but I’d argue that the amount the Browns passed that season helped him more than his quarterback play hurt. After all, the Browns finished 11th in the NFL in total passing yards that season. He’s also graded out below average as a run blocker in each of the last 3 seasons, including 60th out of 67 eligible in that facet in 2014. He’ll be a move tight end who, if healthy, should have an impact in the passing game. Blocking tight end Dion Sims will remain the #2 tight end, after the 2013 4th round pick graded out below average on 280 snaps as a rookie and then 522 snaps in 2014. It’s a remade and stronger receiving corps overall.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh this off-season and he’ll really upgrade this defense, after they ranked 19th in opponents’ rate of moving the chains last season and 14th in 2013. They could approach the top-10 this season. Suh is a fantastic football player, one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and arguably one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. He’s been a top-4 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, joining only Gerald McCoy as the only two players who can say that.

That being said, he was definitely overpaid on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, with 60 million guaranteed. That is too much for any non-quarterback, except for maybe JJ Watt, but he’s on his own level. Even Watt got “only” 100 million over 6 years. The Dolphins, with pressing needs at guard and cornerback, would probably have been better off re-signing Jared Odrick, who signed for 42.5 million over 5 years in Jacksonville, and adding help at both guard and cornerback. However, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins will be better off with him on board and that he’ll be an upgrade on Odrick, who graded out 19th among defensive tackles last season.

Suh isn’t their only dominant defensive lineman as Cameron Wake is one of the best edge rushers in the game. He graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2009, 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010, 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, 1st among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 1st among 4-3 defensive ends. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season. However, I’d call him the best defensive end in the game if not for his age and he’s yet to show any sort of signs of decline so I think we can count on another dominant year from him. Him and Suh on the same defensive line is going to be a nightmare for opponents’ offenses.

The Dolphins have a good supporting cast around Suh and Wake too. Olivier Vernon will be an every down defensive end opposite Wake once again, after grading out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends last season. The 2012 3rd round pick is still a one-year wonder, after grading out below average in 2012 and 2013, including 39th among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on 929 snaps in 2013. However, only going into his age 25 season, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he continued strong play. Derrick Shelby, meanwhile, remains the 3rd defensive end, a role the 2012 undrafted free agent has played in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s graded out slightly below average in 2013 and 2014 on 446 and 420 snaps respectively, but he’s a decent 3rd defensive end and only plays as a reserve role behind Wake and Vernon.

At defensive tackle, Earl Mitchell should remain the other starter, going into the 2nd year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Dolphins signed him to last off-season. He’s a marginal starting caliber player who graded out right about average on 543 snaps last season. He had never graded out above average prior to last season, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, but he spent 2011-2013 out of position as the starting nose tackle in Houston 3-4. The 6-2 296 pounder is a much better fit in Miami’s 4-3 and could be solid again in 2015.

He’ll rotate heavily with CJ Mosley, who was signed from Detroit as a free agent and who will replace Randy Starks, who graded out slightly below average on 544 snaps last season. CJ Mosley has been the 3rd defensive tackle for the Lions over the past 2 seasons, but he’s made 9 starts, played 836 snaps, and graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He’s one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the game. The only issue is he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should remain a solid rotational player. Also in the mix is 2nd round rookie Jordan Phillips. It’s one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Dolphins, in an attempt to overhaul their linebacking corps, signed Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to a 5-year, 34.75 million dollar deal and a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal respectively two off-seasons ago, but that quickly backfired. Ellerbe was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, while Wheeler graded out dead last among 4-3 outside linebackers. Ellerbe missed almost all of 2014 with injury and it was a blessing in disguise.

With Ellerbe out and Wheeler moving to the two-down outside linebacker role, Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi had solid seasons in every down roles. Jenkins graded out above average in a breakout year, after grading out below average on 127 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’s pretty unproven, but can continue being solid in his age 23 season in 2015. Misi, meanwhile, once again had another solid season. The perennially underrated linebacker graded out 12th among middle linebackers. A 2010 2nd round pick, Misi has done that in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. They should remain a solid duo in 2015.

With Ellerbe and Wheeler gone this off-season, it’ll be the youngster Chris McCain and veteran free agent acquisition Spencer Paysinger competing for the less important two-down outside linebacker. Wheeler played decently there last season, grading out slightly above average, so they do have semi-decent sized shoes to fill. McCain is seen as the favorite right now and I think he’d be a downgrade. The 6-5 250 pounder 2014 undrafted free agent played 46 nondescript snaps at defensive end last season and now moves to outside linebacker. I don’t expect much out of him, but Paysinger isn’t very good either. He did grade out slightly above average on 707 snaps in 2013, but has never played more than 137 snaps in another season in the league, since going undrafted in 2011, and graded out below average on 81 snaps last season. I’d probably go with Paysinger, but the organization seems to like McCain. It’s a weakness regardless, but an overall solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

In addition to guard, cornerback and safety are weak spots for the Dolphins that they really didn’t address this off-season. Cortland Finnegan and Jimmy Wilson played 712 and 458 snaps for them last season, 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks, and graded out 74th and 94th respectively among 108 eligible at their position. They’re both gone, but the Dolphins didn’t do anything to replace them with upgrades. Instead, they’re going to be relying on the quartet of Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Walt Aikens, and Brice McCain to fill those two spots.

The Dolphins are probably hoping that Taylor can nail down the other starting cornerback job. The 2013 2nd round pick has played just 344 snaps in 2 seasons in the league though, and has graded out below average in both seasons, so it’s unclear if he can take that next step in his 3rd year in the league. Davis also comes from that draft class (3rd round) and also has barely played, playing a combined 200 snaps in 2013 and 2014 and grading out below average in both seasons. Aikens, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in last year’s draft and played 64 nondescript snaps as a rookie.

McCain is the veteran option, one who the Dolphins are probably hoping will only have to be depth. Brice McCain was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback in 2011 and looked like a potential future star, but that’s the only season of his 6 year career in which he’s graded out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 and dead last ranked in 2013. He played 615 snaps for the Steelers in 2014 out of necessity, despite not playing a snap in weeks 1-3, but he wasn’t that good. Cornerback depth is a problem.

The good news is that Brent Grimes remains as the #1 cornerback. What’s concerning is he’s coming off of a down year, grading out below average for the first time since 2009, in the first year of a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. He graded out 9th among cornerbacks in 2010, 3rd in 2011, and 2nd in 2013, prior to re-signing last off-season. He missed 15 games with a torn Achilles in 2012, but has played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons and injuries weren’t the cause his relative struggles last season. The issue was likely age, something that’ll likely continue being an issue, as he goes into his age 32 season in 2015. There’s definitely bounce back potential here, but his age is becoming a concern.

At safety, Louis Delmas is not as bad as guys like Taylor, Davis, and McCain at cornerback, but he is someone I thought the Dolphins would find an upgrade on this off-season, with Delmas going into free agency. That was because he was coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in week 14 of 2014 and has a history of knee problems. The Dolphins, rather than upgrading him, brought him back on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal and he will remain the every down starter.

Delmas looked like a promising young safety in 2009 and 2010, starting 30 games in his first 2 years in the league after the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2009, grading out above average in both seasons. However, knee problems limited him to 19 games in 2011 and 2012 combined and he graded out below average in both of those seasons. He seemed to turn his career around in Miami, making 29 straight starts and playing decently as a starting safety, but then came the ACL tear. He’s expected back for week 1, but he’ll be just 9 months removed from the injury, a concern for a guy with as much of an injury history as him, so he might not be good, especially early in the season.

Reshad Jones is locked in as the other starting safety, after grading out 3rd among safeties last season. He also graded out 3rd among safeties in 2012, but it’s hard to consider him one of the top safeties in the NFL because of his inconsistency. In 2013, between those two dominant seasons, he graded out 66th among 86 eligible safeties and he has graded out above average in just 3 of 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, including just 2 of 4 seasons as a starter. He overall averages out to a significantly above average starter and is the Dolphins’ best defensive back, but it’s hard to know what you’re getting from him. It’s a below average secondary overall and one that probably should have been given more attention this off-season, but it’s supported by a great front 7 on what should be a solid and improved defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins were arguably the best non-playoff team last season, finishing 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, and they should be even better this season. They do have some weaknesses, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary, but they might be one of the top-5 teams in the league talent wise. I think they certainly have a good chance to make it into the playoffs this year and I think are the best positioned of any 2014 non-playoff team to make a real leap. Almost every season there’s a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye and, especially with Tom Brady suspended for the first 4 games of the season, the Dolphins have a shot to win the AFC East and do just that this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Dolphins after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final note (9/9/15): Even with Tom Brady’s suspension getting thrown out, I still like this team to win the AFC East, though it certainly won’t be easy. I think they’re a little bit better than New England on paper.

Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC East

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers finished last season 2-14, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the worst record in the NFL, and got the #1 pick in the draft. They might not have been definitely the worst team in the NFL, but they were pretty close, finishing 30th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains and a defense that ranked 29th in rate of moving the chains allowed. As you can probably imagine, poor quarterback play was a huge part of the problem.

Josh McCown made 11 starts last season and was awful, grading out 34th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He completed 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Mike Glennon was a little better, but only by default and he didn’t see much action because head coach Lovie Smith preferred to stubbornly stick with the veteran unless there was an injury to McCown or his play was so horrible that he needed to be benched. Glennon completed 57.6% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 6 games, 5 starts and 1 in relief of an injured McCown.

McCown is gone now, being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.25 million dollar salary for his age 36 season in 2015. Glennon will remain a pure backup because, like many teams do when they have the 1st overall pick (13 of the last 18 instances), the Buccaneers selected a quarterback, taking Jameis Winston out of Florida State. Glennon has shown some upside in limited action in his career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013, but taking a quarterback like Winston when they had a rare opportunity to do so was a no brainer.

It’s unclear how good Winston can be as a rookie, but he should represent an immediate upgrade, even though he’ll only be in his age 21 season. He could struggle as a rookie, as, over the past 10 years, quarterbacks drafted in the top-5 have completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 140 interceptions, finding life in the NFL much harder than they expected it to be. Buccaneers fans will have to be patient. Those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a death sentence, as that group includes the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Matt Stafford, but it’s definitely a reality. Developing a young quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint. Winston should help them win a few additional games this season though. It’ll be up to the rest of the team to also be improved if the Buccaneers are going to make any real noise this season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers

Winston walks into a pretty good situation as far as #1 picks go. Most #1 pick quarterbacks walk into horrible situations and that’s true for Winston in a lot of areas, but he has a great wide receiver duo to work with. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of 4 wide receiver duos last season to each have a 1000+ yard season (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb). While those other 3 duos all had good quarterback play (Matt Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers), Evans and Jackson had abysmal quarterback play. Both players could be even more productive this season with a competent quarterback under center.

Evans was the better of the two last season and figures to see the bigger uptick in production in 2015. It wasn’t just that Evans had more yards than Jackson last season (1051 to 1002), he also graded out 13th among wide receivers and caught 58.6% of his targets, while Jackson graded out 32nd and caught 50.7% of his targets. Evans is also younger and has much more upside, going into his 2nd year in the league, only his age 22 season. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had a dominant rookie year and rookie wide receivers aren’t really supposed to do that, even the really good ones. 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. Evans has as much upside as any receiver not named Odell Beckham going into the future.

Jackson, meanwhile, is on the way down, going into his age 32 season, and will be more of a complementary receiver opposite Evans this season. That doesn’t mean he can’t have 1000 yards again with a better quarterback under center and a receiving corps that still lacks a proven good 3rd option, but I don’t see him finishing 9th among wide receivers in targets again like he did last season (138 targets) and he won’t have 1300-1400+ receiving yards, which Evans definitely could. The days of Jackson grading out 6th among wide receivers, like he did in 2012, are gone, but he’s graded out at least above average in all 8 seasons on Pro Football Focus’ history and he could do that again in 2015.

As I mentioned, the issue with this receiving corps is they didn’t have a good tertiary receiving option behind Evans and Jackson. Evans and Jackson are a great duo, but the Buccaneers would probably prefer to not have to target them on 47.8% of pass attempts (254 out of 531) like they did last season. The player most likely to step up this season, if anyone does, is 2nd year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who graded out below average on 464 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015.

Seferian-Jenkins, at the very least, should see a significant increase in playing time this season, making him an every down starting tight end and pushing Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker into complementary roles at most. Myers and Stocker played 475 and 331 snaps respectively last season, but really struggled, especially Myers, who graded out 53rd among 67 eligible tight ends in 2014. Neither of those two has a good history, as Myers hasn’t graded out above average since he did so on just 84 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2009, while Stocker has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2011.

The one intriguing addition this off-season was Tim Wright. It was technically a re-addition because Wright was traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with a 4th round pick, to the New England Patriots for guard Logan Mankins before the start of last season. When the Patriots released him this off-season, the Buccaneers snatched him off of waivers and reunited with him. Wright was decent in his one season in New England, grading out right around average on 357 snaps, so it’s unclear why the Patriots let him go, but the Buccaneers will take him back.

The 6-4 220 pound 2013 undrafted free agent has carved out a nice role for himself in the NFL as a hybrid player. He can play both as the 3rd wide receiver and the 2nd tight end for the Buccaneers, depending on the situation, and should see similar to the 626 snaps he saw in 2013 in his rookie year with Tampa Bay. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns, but understandably struggled as a blocker. He could have a decent impact in the passing game this season. His biggest competition for snaps as the 3rd receiver will be Louis Murphy, the incumbent, who graded out 102nd among 110 eligible wide receivers on 472 snaps last season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 6 seasons of his career and shouldn’t be seeing significant snaps. The Buccaneers have a strong wide receiver duo, but their lack of a tertiary option and lack of depth hurts this offense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Since 2005, 19 of 25 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round have used their next pick on an offensive player, which I don’t think is a coincidence. If you make a huge investment in a young quarterback, you tend to plan the rest of your draft around helping him feel as comfortable as possible as a rookie. The Buccaneers were no exception, taking Donovan Smith with their 2nd round pick. He’ll start at left tackle as a rookie. Smith will obviously be hard to trust, but he should be an upgrade over Anthony Collins, who graded out 63rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and got himself released this off-season, as a result.

DeMar Dotson remains at right tackle, where he’s been quietly one of the better right tackles in the game over the past few seasons. A 2009 undrafted free agent who didn’t become a starter full-time until 2012, Dotson has graded out 40th, 14th, and 28th among offensive tackles over the past 3 seasons respectively, making all 48 starts over that time period. Dotson has spent much of the off-season trying to get a lucrative contract extension from the team ahead of his age 30 contract year in 2015. Owed just 1.75 million this season, Dotson is vastly underpaid, in addition to being underrated and, even going into his 30s, deserves a pay raise and some long-term security.

Dotson may or may not get that extension, but either way, he should be an above average right tackle for the Buccaneers again this season. There was talk earlier this off-season about him moving to left tackle to replace Collins, but, when the Buccaneers drafted Smith, they announced Smith would be the starting left tackle, while Dotson would be moving back to right tackle. Ordinarily, you want your best offensive tackle on the blindside, but Dotson has barely played left tackle in his career (4 career games) and you risk wasting a solid right tackle if he moves to the blindside and struggles, so I don’t mind the move to let Smith play left tackle. It’s certainly the safer choice.

Smith won’t be the only rookie they start upfront on an offensive line that was clearly seen as a problem by the Buccaneers this off-season, after a 2014 season where they ranked dead last among teams on Pro Football Focus in pass blocking grade (though 8th in run blocking grade). Ali Marpet, another 2nd round pick, after the Buccaneers traded up from the top of the 3rd round to grab him, is expected to start at right guard. Like Smith, Marpet could struggle as a rookie, especially since he comes from Division III Hobart College, but, like Smith should be over Collins, Marpet should be an upgrade over incumbent Patrick Omameh. He graded out 55th among 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season. Like Collins, he was a big part of their poor pass protection last season.

A pair of solid veterans round out their offensive line, with left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith locked in as starters again, after they made 31 of 32 starts last season. Logan Mankins came over from the Patriots right before the season started, in the aforementioned trade that sent Tim Wright (along with a 4th round pick that turned out to be defensive end Trey Flowers) to New England. Mankins was largely a salary dump by the Patriots and he is overpaid at a scheduled 7 million dollar salary, but he played well last season and the Buccaneers are hurting more for talent than cap space.  He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard last season, grading out above average again, something he’s done in all 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s definitely on the decline, as he goes into his age 33 season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue being a solid starter this season, coming off yet another strong season.

Smith, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s only been a starter for the past 2 seasons, as the 2009 undrafted free agent didn’t become a starter until his 5th season in the NFL. He played well in 2013 with the Packers, grading out 7th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, which got him a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers last off-season. Smith wasn’t nearly as good in his first season in Tampa Bay, grading out right around average (19th among 41 eligible centers), but he was decent and should be a decent starter again in 2015. He’s being paid appropriately.

The Buccaneers struggled on the offensive line last season, but they should be a lot better this season Collins and Omameh won’t be starting any more, and, even though they’ll be replaced with rookies, they should be better at left tackle and right guard respectively, as a result. Right tackle, center, and left guard were not problems last season and will not become problems this season. Along with the rookies coming in and replacing Collins and Omameh, they should also have better depth this season, a huge problem last season. Omameh isn’t great as a starter, but he’ll be better depth than the likes of Oniel Cousins and Garrett Gilkey were last season. Cousins was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 343 snaps in place of an injured Collins, with no one grading out worse on fewer snaps at the position, while Gilkey was horrible at both guard and center last season on just 214 snaps. They’re still not a great offensive line, lacking top level talents and relying heavily on rookies, but they’ll be better.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Buccaneers also struggled on the ground last season, ranking 24th in the NFL, averaging 3.90 yards per carry. The offensive line wasn’t bad in run blocking, as I mentioned, so the blame does fall on the backs themselves. They didn’t add to the position this off-season and are left without a clear lead back, with 3, if not 4 guys who could see a decent amount of action. Doug Martin (134 carries, 13 catches), Bobby Rainey (94 carries, 33 catches), and Charles Sims (66 carries, 19 catches) all saw decent action last season. They all could see decent action again, as could Mike James, who only saw 20 touches last season, but played well in limited action in 2013.

Martin figures to get the first short at the lead back job, the 4th straight season he’d be the week 1 starter, since being drafted 31st overall by the Buccaneers in 2012. He burst onto the scene as a rookie, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 attempts (4.58 YPC), adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back. However, his star has faded significantly over the past 2 seasons.

The running back equivalent of Robert Griffin III, Martin missed 15 games with various injuries over the past 2 seasons and also really struggled while on the field, combining for 950 yards and 3 touchdowns on 261 attempts (3.64 YPC) over those 2 seasons, less combined than he had as a rookie. He also graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible running backs in 2013 and 45th out of 57 eligible in 2014. He’ll face a ton of heat for his starting job from Charles Sims, who was drafted in the 3rd round in 2014, but struggled on 237 snaps (2.80 YPC) as a rookie, after missing 8 games with an ankle injury. They’ll be hoping that, now healthy, he can be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.

That leaves Rainey and James fighting for the #3 job, though either could see a decent amount of action. Rainey is a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 972 yards and 6 touchdowns and 244 attempts, an average of 3.98 YPC, in his career, all while struggling mightily in pass protection. He was decent last season, rushing for 406 yards and 1 touchdown on 94 attempts, an average of 4.32 yards per carry, while adding 33 catches for 315 yards and another touchdown through the air, but graded out well below average overall because of awful pass protection. James, meanwhile, flashed as a 6th round rookie in 2013, rushing for 295 yards on 60 carries (4.92 yards per carry), but then rushed for just 37 yards on 19 carries this season (1.95 yards per carry) in 2014. Going into his 3rd season in the league, he’s an inexperienced former 6th round pick who is averaging 4.20 yards per carry on 79 career carries. They don’t figure to be strong on the ground at all this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers had some good players on their defense last season, but didn’t play well as a unit because they had so many holes and no depth in too many spots. They attempted to patch up holes this off-season. Michael Johnson (648 snaps), William Gholston (587 snaps), and Jacquies Smith (470 snaps) led the team in snaps at defensive end, grading out 53rd, 37th, and 38th respectively among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. They didn’t do a ton to fix the position, cutting Michael Johnson and bringing in George Johnson on a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal through a trade from Detroit for a 5th round pick.

Johnson (George) is the definition of a one-year wonder. A 2010 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Johnson played a combined 155 snaps in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, spending time on both the Buccaneers’ and the Vikings’ rosters, not recording a single sack, and not playing a single snap in 2013. Detroit signed him as a camp body last off-season and he ended up not just making the final roster, but recording the first 7 sacks of his career. The Buccaneers are banking that Johnson (who was signed off their practice squad by the Vikings in 2012) is more of a late bloomer than a one-year wonder.

However, it’s obviously a risky deal as Johnson is already going into his age 28 season and, even in the best season of his career last year, Johnson still only graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, obviously playing well as a pass rusher in a situational role, but struggling against the run. The transition to being an every down player could be tough for him even if he doesn’t regress. All that being said, he should be an upgrade over what Michael Johnson was in 2014.

Gholston and Smith remain and will play the same roles this season, meaning this is still a position of weakness. Gholston is the favorite to start again. The 2013 4th round pick has graded out below average on 320 and 587 snaps respectively in 2013 and 2014 to start his career. Smith, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on the first 470 snaps of his career in 2014. Weirdly enough, the Buccaneers didn’t use a single draft pick on the position, aside from the one they traded to Detroit for George Johnson, even though it’s such a weak position.

Things are better at defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive players in the game. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy has graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and has beaten early career injuries problems to grade out 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. After missing 13 games with injury in 2010-2011 combined, he’s missed just 3 over the past 3 seasons. The Buccaneers locked McCoy up on a 7-year, 95.2 million dollar extension this off-season, which looked like a bargain when Miami paid 114 million over 6 years for a comparable player in Ndamukong Suh. The only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-2 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons, McCoy very much makes the defensive line respectable by himself.

Akeem Spence was the big problem at defensive tackle last season, grading out 79th among 81 eligible defensive tackles on 502 snaps, after grading out 67th among 69 eligible on 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He won’t have a very big role at all this season, barring an injury to McCoy or free agent acquisition Henry Melton. Melton has had issues with injuries in the past, but was very much worth the 1-year prove it deal he was given this off-season, worth 3.75 million.

Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, both seasons with the Bears, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. Because he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, declining his 3-year, 24 million dollar option this off-season.

Melton did play well when on the field in 2014 though, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. He’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season when on the field, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury. Being reunited with Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith, a strong defensive mind who was Melton’s head coach in Chicago for his best years, certainly doesn’t hurt him. He was a great free agent addition and will be a serious upgrade over Spence.

Clinton McDonald, the starter next to McCoy last season, will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season and rotate with Melton. He’s very qualified for the role. A late bloomer, McDonald, a 2009 7th round pick, didn’t grade out above average once in his first 4 seasons in the league, up through 2012, on a combined 794 snaps. However, he had a breakout 2013 season in Seattle, grading out 27th among defensive tackles, earning him a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers. McDonald proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder in 2014, grading out 31st among defensive tackles, above average for the 2nd straight season. He should continue being a solid value for them this season, as the 3rd defensive tackle. The additions of George Johnson and Henry Melton might not seem huge, but they’re both significant upgrades over the players they’re replacing and them give them two much needed supporting players on the defensive line around McCoy.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers also had a huge problem last season at middle linebacker, as Mason Foster and injury replacement Dane Fletcher were horrible. Like defensive tackle and defensive end, they have upgraded the position this off-season, signing Bruce Carter to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. Even though he was overpaid, Carter should still help this defense this season. The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts that season, 2012.

Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and now he’s a borderline starting linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons and an ACL tear from late in his collegiate days. Carter did play well at middle linebacker in 2012, which is the intriguing thing about this addition, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s never played inside in a 4-3.

Lavonte David remains as the three-down 4-3 outside linebacker, a role which he plays arguably better than anyone in the NFL. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, has played 46 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, grading out 6th, 2nd, and 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Only going into his age 25 season in 2015, David is just entering the prime of his career. Going into his contract year, the Buccaneers are hoping to get him signed to an extension before the start of the season and will also be hoping that Carter can at least somewhat resemble the capable every down partner that David needs in the linebacking corps.

Danny Lansanah remains as the other starting outside linebacker, dominating in the two-down role last season, grading out 16th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 569 snaps, including 18th in pure run grade. That being said, he’s a career journeyman who is going into his age 30 season and whose history makes him hard to trust. Lansaneh, a 2008 undrafted free agent, had played just 4 career defensive snaps prior to last season, spending most of 2008-2013 either in the UFL or as an NFL special teamer. There’s talk that the Buccaneers could have him play middle linebacker every down if Carter proves incapable and needs to be moved to a two-down run stopping role outside, but it’s very unclear if he can handle that, as promising as he looked last season. It’s a solid linebacking corps that becomes more than that if Carter can live up to his contract.

Grade: B

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Alterraun Verner is another talented player who was stuck on a terrible defense with a horrible supporting cast in 2014, one that is expected to be a lot better this season. Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best.

Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.

Johnathan Banks and Leonard Johnson struggled on 937 and 401 snaps respectively as the 2nd and 3rd cornerback respectively though. They graded out 93rd and 88th respectively, among 108 eligible cornerbacks. The Buccaneers are hoping that they’ll have better play at those two points and there are a couple reasons why they could. The first is that the Buccaneers brought in Sterling Moore on a 1-year, 1.525 million dollar deal, which could prove to be a complete steal, after Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback last season.

Moore is a one-year wonder who played just a combined 683 snaps from 2011-2013, after going undrafted in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and could continue being a solid contributor in 2015 and beyond. He’ll be at least the 3rd cornerback, as he specializes on the slot, but could win the other starting cornerback job opposite Verner. The Buccaneers would probably prefer that he be able to stay on the slot and that someone else steps up as the starter, because Moore is inexperienced outside, but he is an option.

Mike Jenkins was a cheap free agent acquisition last off-season, signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. Jenkins played 32 snaps week 1, but went down with a torn pectoral and missed the rest of the season. The Buccaneers brought him back on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll have a chance for playing time in this thin secondary. Even before the injury, Jenkins was a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the previous 4 seasons from 2010-2013. The 2008 1st round pick had a Pro-Bowl year in 2009, grading out 13th at his position, but it’s been all downhill from there. He’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s graded below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Banks or Johnson, but he wouldn’t really be a downgrade either. In his last healthy season, Jenkins graded out 72nd among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 931 snaps, which is better than anything Banks or Johnson did last season.

My guess is that Banks remains the starter opposite Verner with Moore on the slot. Banks is a naturally talented 2013 2nd round pick, but has graded out well below average in his first 2 seasons in the league, including 100th among 110 eligible as a rookie. He still has upside, going into his 3rd year in the league, but he’s probably on his last chance as a starter and the Buccaneers could have a quick hook with him. Johnson, meanwhile, could start the season as far down the depth chart as 5th because, unlike Banks, he doesn’t have much upside. Since going undrafted in 2012, Johnson has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks should be improved by the addition of Moore, but it’s still a weak group overall after Verner.

At safety, Dashon Goldson was the big problem, grading out 86th among 87 eligible safeties. He was traded to Washington this off-season, in exchange for a swap of 6th and 7th round picks in 2016. The Buccaneers will still have to pay him the 4 million they owed him guaranteed, but they saved 4 million by letting him go and somehow got something in return. Like with so many other Buccaneer starters last season, it’ll be addition by subtraction. However, the Buccaneers do still have a completely unsolved safety situation this off-season, with Major Wright (520 snaps) and Bradley McDougald (455 snaps) returning and Chris Conte and DJ Swearinger coming in as free agents.

McDougald, I would guess, has the best claim to a starting job, considering he was the only Buccaneer safety to play more than 100 snaps and grade out above average last season. McDougald is an inexperienced 2013 undrafted free agent, but one who flashed on the first 455 snaps of his career last season, grading out above average, 32nd among eligible safeties. He’s obviously hard to trust, but he deserves a chance to be a full-time starter. The Buccaneers reportedly agree.

Major Wright played 520 snaps at safety for them last season and played pretty well, but will have to hold off free agent acquisition Chris Conte for the job. Both Wright and Conte played for Head Coach Lovie Smith in Chicago. Wright didn’t play terribly last season, but he still graded out below average, marking the 4th time in 5 seasons he had done so. Wright graded out 23rd as recently as 2012, but dead last as recently as 2013. He’s a one-year wonder who has had an overall poor career.

That being said, Conte probably isn’t much better, if he is at all. Conte was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and he made 52 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, but he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2013, when he graded out 82nd out of 86 eligible safeties in the same awful secondary with Major Wright. Lovie Smith wasn’t coaching that defense so maybe he can get the most out of one of them, but I don’t expect either to ever have too firm of a hold on a starting job this season.

DJ Swearinger is in the mix and could push for snaps later this season. The 2013 2nd round pick is only going into his age 24 season, but was cut by the Texans despite two very affordable years left on his rookie contract this off-season for disciplinary reasons. The Buccaneers inherit those two years on his contract, by virtue of the waiver claim they put in for him, but he’s no guarantee to play well, after grading out 71st among 86 eligible safeties in 2013 and 78th among 87 eligible in 2014. He’ll need to improve both his game and his coachability to make it into the starting lineup in 2015. Outside of Alterraun Verner, it’s still a weak secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers have some talented players, including the likes of Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Alterraun Verner, but went 2-14 because of so many horrible players playing significant roles. That includes guys like Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Patrick Omameh, Akeem Spence, Michael Johnson, Mason Foster, Dashon Goldson, and Leonard Johnson, none of whom figure to play a significant role, if any, this season. The Buccaneers didn’t add a ton of talent this off-season, but upgraded a bunch of spots simply with addition by subtraction.

The biggest real addition is probably Jameis Winston, who will instantly upgrade the quarterback position. He might not play great as a rookie, but he gives them a ton of long-term hope and should be one of the reasons why they win more games this season. The Buccaneers over/under right now is 5.5 wins. Teams that have an over/under of 6 or fewer usually go over more often than not. This year, Tampa Bay is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tampa Bay has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tennessee, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Buccaneers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): With the Saints and Panthers both having rough Augusts, the Buccaneers had an opportunity to overtake them going into the season. Unfortunately, they had a rough August as well. Right tackle DeMar Dotson will miss at least a month with injury on an already weak offensive line. Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston struggled in the pre-season, as did free agent acquisition Bruce Carter, who has already been benched.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC South

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Atlanta Falcons 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.

Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.

The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20th and 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest problem on offense over the past 2 seasons for the Falcons has been the offensive line, as they ranked 30th in team pass blocking grade in 2013 and then 15th in 2014, along with 23rd in team run blocking grade in 2013 and 28th in 2014. The Falcons tried to fix the problem last off-season with a couple of additions. The biggest one was left tackle Jake Matthews, the 6th overall pick in the draft. However, he was a massive disappointment as a rookie, grading out dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles. On top of that, he went down week 17 with a Lisfranc injury, which caused him to miss some valuable practice this off-season. He’s back and healthy now and he still has upside, going into his age 23 season with a lot of natural talent, but his career has started off about as bad as it possibly could have.

One addition that did work out was the free agent acquisition of right guard Jon Asamoah on a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, coming over from Kansas City. He started 15 games and graded out 24th among guards, the 5th straight season he’s graded out above average to start his career. The 2010 3rd round pick has started 56 games in 5 seasons in the league and his best season came in 2012, when he graded out 10th among guards. Only going into his age 27 season, he should continue above average play this season.

Justin Blalock, the other starting guard, also graded out above average, 26th at his position. However, he was released this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.35 million dollar salary that he was owed in his age 32 season in 2015. He eventually retired, after 8 years in the NFL, all in Atlanta. The Falcons brought in Chris Chester on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal to replace him this off-season. Chester is going to be a better fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, but he’s not as good of a player.

Chester has experience in zone blocking schemes, as he played in Washington from 2011-2013 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. Chester made 48 starts in those 3 seasons and, though he only graded out above average once in three seasons, he graded out 15th in 2012. Even last year, in Jay Gruden’s new power blocking scheme, Chester graded out above average. The issue is that he’s going into his age 32 season, which is part of why the Redskins cut him, saving 4 million on the cap and in cash in the process. However, he’s still a stopgap starting caliber player.

Another reason why the Falcons offensive line was slightly better in 2014 than 2013, other than the addition of Asamoah, was the emergence of right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder never played more than 15 snaps in a game until week 8 of last season, but was able to take advantage of injuries and struggles at offensive tackle from guys like Sam Baker, Gabe Carimi, and Lamar Holmes. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle on 655 snaps. He’s only a one-year wonder as the 2013 undrafted free agent struggled on 315 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily be a solid starter over the whole season in 2015.

The Falcons also had serious problems at center last season as reserve James Stone took over for an injured Joe Hawley after week 4, grading out 34th among 41 eligible centers on 681 snaps. Hawley isn’t a great player, but he should be an upgrade on Stone as he returns from injury. The Falcons kept him at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary, coming off of a torn ACL, for lack of a better option. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL, averaged 344 snaps per season, and started a total of 23 games, 9 at right guard and 14 at center. He’s a mediocre interior linemen, especially coming off of a serious injury, but, like I said, he should be an upgrade over Stone by default. Hawley was part of an offense that had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. As a result of likely fewer injuries, among other things, the Falcons should have a better offensive line this season, though they still have some issues.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite a strong passing game that took a lot of pressure off the running game (632 pass attempts to 372 carries), the Falcons finished just 21st in yards per carry last season at 4.02. Part of the problem was the offensive line, but the running back talent itself wasn’t very good either. The Falcons have changed things up as a result. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who lead the team with 429 and 360 snaps played at running back respectively last season, are not back, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and 3.74 yards per carry respectively.

Devonta Freeman, who graded out below average as a runner on 65 carries last season as a 4th round rookie, is expected to get a much bigger role. He’s a good pass catcher who graded out above average in that aspect and above average overall on 237 snaps as a result, catching 30 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, but he’ll need to improve on his 3.82 YPC average in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’ll be paired with Tevin Coleman, who went in the 3rd round in this past draft. They’re a pair of very unproven running backs so the Falcons don’t figure to run the ball well again this season either, even if the offensive line will be better.

Coleman was brought in this off-season because they only had one other running back on the roster, besides Freeman, who had at least 1 career carry, journeyman backup Antone Smith. With Coleman being a rookie, that will remain the case, but Smith should still be a clear 3rd running back. Smith flashed last season, rushing for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries (6.26 YPC), while adding 13 catches for 222 yards and another 3 scores, and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus on 96 snaps. However, the 2009 undrafted free agent has just 44 touches and 148 snaps played in 6 seasons in the league, is going into his age 30 season, and is undersized at just 5-9 190. He’s not a real threat for a significant role, even in an inexperienced backfield.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Easily the most helpful offensive player for Matt Ryan over the past few seasons has been wide receiver Julio Jones, who is arguably their best player. Jones only played in 5 games with injury in 2013, but caught 41 of 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL. Through the first 5 weeks of the season, before going down with a season ending foot injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver.

Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014, grading out 6th among wide receivers and catching 104 passes on 156 attempts (66.7%) for 1593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 585 routes run, an average of 2.72 yards per route run, 5th in the NFL. Jones enters the contract year of his rookie deal, his age 26 season, with 278 catches for 4330 yards and 26 touchdowns in 49 career games, coming off of 3 straight strong seasons (15th among wide receivers in 2012 as well). The only issue with him is injuries, as he’s missed 15 games with injury in 4 seasons and has issues with his foot dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama. He should eventually get a long-term deal similar to the 5-year, 70 million dollar deals that Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got this off-season, most likely from Atlanta. If they can’t agree to a long-term deal with him this off-season, ahead of his contract year, he’ll almost definitely be franchise tagged next off-season.

The rest of the receiving corps is a mess though. Roddy White, at one point, had 6 straight seasons of 1000+ receiving yards, 2007-2012, but he’s been really inefficient over the past 2 seasons. His total numbers haven’t been bad, as he’s caught 143 passes for 1632 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined, but it’s been on 1117 routes run, an average of 1.46 yards per route run, mediocre for a #2 receiver in a good passing offense. He’s also graded out 97th among 111 eligible wide receivers (2013) and 107th among 110 eligible wide receivers (2014). Things won’t get better, as he heads into his age 34 season in 2015.

White has had a great career since going in the 1st round in 2005 and is currently 38th all-time in receiving yards with 10,357, but 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. White is a noticeably declining player who is at the tail end of his career. Owed a non-guaranteed 4.25 million in his age 35 season in 2016, White is likely in his final season with the Falcons.

The problem is the Falcons don’t have another option behind White. Leonard Hankerson, signing as a free agent on 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Washington, is currently expected to be the #3 receiver. He’s impressed the coaching staff and played with new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from 2011-2013 with the Redskins, but he hasn’t played since week 11 of the 2013 season thanks to a nasty knee injury, which included a torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from the injury week 1 and, as I mentioned, the off-season reports have been good, but we’ll see what happens in game action. Hankerson is coming off a brutal injury, has missed 33 games with injury in 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, and has never graded out much above average. Even only going into his age 26 season, I don’t see a ton of upside with him.

Hankerson would replace Harry Douglas as the #3 receiver, after he was cut this off-season, going into his age 30 season, coming off a bad year, and owed a non-guaranteed 3.5 million dollar salary. He will have to hold off Devin Hester, who was the 4th receiver last year, but played a decent amount of snaps, at 396. However, Hester has never graded out above average as a receiver is his career and that won’t change as he heads into his age 32 season. They’d be better off going with the youngster because he’s at has some upside and it sounds like that’s what they’re going to do. 4th round rookie Justin Hardy could also be in the mix, but he was more drafted for 2016 and beyond. I expect him to be the 5th receiver as a rookie.

One thing I expect the Falcons to do is run fewer 3-wide receiver sets and run more 2-tight end sets this season. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a big fan of 2-tight end sets and tight ends in general and the Falcons barely ran them at all last season. #2 tight end Bear Pascoe played just 148 snaps last season, which is how #4 wide receiver Devin Hester was able to play 396, almost three times more. Even #5 receiver Eric Weems had more snaps (202) than Pascoe. They didn’t add a lot of talent at the position this off-season, but they at least added experience and gave themselves more depth and talent than they had last season.

Jacob Tamme is expected to be the starter this season, after signing a 2-year, 3.2 million dollar contract this off-season. He’s not great, but he’ll be better than Levine Toilolo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible last season. Tamme has graded out above average 4 times in 7 seasons, including last season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has never been a consistent starter in his career, averaging 308 snaps per season and only making 23 starts in 7 seasons in the league. The 6-4 232 is a decent pass catcher, but not a capable #1 tight end.

Tony Moeaki also enters the fold as a free agent. Moeaki has missed 44 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league, including all of 2011 and 2013. He graded out 5th among tight ends in 2010 and 43rd in 2012, but didn’t appear to be the same player, as a result of all of the injuries, grading out below average on 196 snaps in 6 games. Toilolo will now be the 3rd tight end, which is the good news, but the bad news is neither of the two tight ends they brought in this off-season are that great and one of them will probably get hurt, forcing Toilolo back into meaningful action. They should be better equipped to deal with weak wide receiver depth this season than last season, but still not that well equipped.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The defense is the side of the ball that has the most room for improvement this season, after ranking 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 and 31st last season. In order to improve the unit, they fired head coach Mike Smith, who comes from a defensive background, and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who has been the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks over the past 2 seasons. They made the Super Bowl in both of those seasons. Of course, the Seahawks had a solid defense before he became defensive coordinator, but he took them to a next level in place of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was hired by the Jaguars as head coach.

He’ll be implementing a Seattle style 4-3 defense, much like Bradley also runs in Jacksonville. Tyson Jackson will play the Red Bryant spot as a big base run stopping 4-3 defensive end. He fits the bill at 6-4 296 and is a much better run stopper than pass rusher. The 2009 3rd overall pick was signed to a 5-year, 25 million dollar contract last off-season, after grading out 14th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, including 8th against the run. However, that contract was a mistake as Jackson graded out below average last season and remains a one-year wonder. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and, aside from 2013, has generally been a bust in his career. He can be a solid two-down 4-3 defensive end, but that’s not that hard to find. He might not return at a 4.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2016.

The Falcons biggest need going into the draft was to find someone to play the other defensive end spot, like Cliff Avril does in Seattle and Chris Clemons does in Jacksonville. They found exactly that guy with the 6th overall pick, taking Vic Beasley out of Clemson. Beasley is undersized at 6-3 246, but these types of defenses have usually had undersized defensive ends on one side. Beasley won’t play the run well, but he’s a very explosive pass rusher. He probably won’t come close to his potential until his 2nd or 3rd season in the league, but he should provide a much needed edge rusher to a team that’s really needed one over the past two seasons, since losing John Abraham.

Brooks Reed will be the other edge rusher in sub packages, when Jackson comes off the field. He’ll play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. That’s not his strength. Reed will boost the Falcons’ run defense, but he’s not the edge rusher they’re paying him like, at him 22.5 million over 5 years with 9 million guaranteed. Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, making 54 starts in the process. The only exception was 2013, when he graded out 41st out of 42 eligible players. However, Reed has graded out negatively as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons, doing his best work against the run and, to a lesser extent, in coverage.

The Falcons also have Adrian Clayborn as pass rush depth. Clayborn was a first round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011 and he had a decent rookie year, struggling mightily against the run, but getting good pass rush and overall grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. The story of his career from there was injuries though, as he’s played just 20 games over the past 3 seasons. He missed all but 3 games in 2012 with a torn ACL, struggled mightily in his first year back in 2013, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, and, just when there was optimism for his future again in 2014, he tore his biceps and missed all but 1 game. There’s still upside here and he’s a decent flier, but he’s nothing more than a depth player.

Kroy Biermann is another player in the mix and he actually led the Falcons’ defensive line with 867 snaps last season, but struggled and was part of the reason why they had a poor pass rush. Biermann, a 2008 5th round pick, started his career well, grading out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2009 and their 19th ranked in 2010. However, he graded out 57th out of 67 eligible in 2011, below average again in 2012, was limited to 2 games by a torn Achilles in 2013, and then graded out below average again in 2014. Now Biermann heads into his age 30 season. He’s still capable of a significant role, but he’s an unspectacular player and fits much better as a 3rd or 4th defensive end.

At defensive tackle, Ra’shede Hageman and Paul Soliai should be the starters, but neither one of them will play a lot of snaps. Hageman is inexperienced, grading out below average on 227 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season, while Soliai is just a two down player. Soliai has graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 4th round in 2007, including 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s averaged just 531 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and won’t be getting any better going into his age 32 season in 2015. Like Jackson, he was a mistake on a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season. He will somewhere play around the 519 snaps he played last season, but Hageman won’t play near the 708 snaps that Jonathan Babineaux played as the starter last season.

Babineaux played pretty well last season, grading out above average, something he’s done in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. However, going into his age 34 season, the Falcons are slowly phasing him out of the defense. He’ll play much fewer snaps this season, rotating heavily with Hageman. A much better pass rusher than run stopper, Babineaux should play primarily in sub packages this season. Grady Jarrett, a 5th round rookie, should also be in the mix for the snaps. Even though he was drafted so late, he could still be a good contributor as a rookie because he was an absolute steal in the 5th round. Like Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels before him, he was under-drafted based on his height and has a good chance to prove a lot of people wrong like they did. It’s still a below average defensive line, but they’re getting better, especially if some rookies can step up.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

I already mentioned Brooks Reed will be the third outside linebacker, playing primarily in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu will probably lead the position in snaps played. They’re a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents who have played a significant amount of action over the first two seasons of their careers. Worrilow has really struggled in two seasons in the league, grading out 45th among 55 middle linebackers in 2013 and 59th among 60 middle linebackers in 2014. The league let him go undrafted just two years ago and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s a starter long-term.

Bartu has been a little better, but he’s still graded out below average in both seasons, including 33rd out of 40th eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on 496 snaps last season. He played the run well as a rookie, grading out 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013, but was so bad in coverage that he still graded out below average overall. He’s a solid two-down run stopper at best. He shouldn’t be an every down player. He could be pushed for snaps by Justin Durant, but Durant is a similar player. He was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007 and has quietly had a very solid career, grading out above average in 7 of the 8 seasons he’s been in the NFL. However, he’s averaged just 585 snaps per season, often playing as purely a two-down run stopper, a role he excels in. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s played just a combined 538 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off a torn biceps injury. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was the best part of the Falcons’ horrible defense and should remain that this season, even if they get a little bit better in the front 7. Veterans Robert McClain and Josh Wilson are gone, but they struggled last season on 642 and 458 snaps respectively in 2014 anyway. Now they’re very young in their top-3 at cornerback. Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick, is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant has graded out 7th and 6th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2014 respectively to start his career and should continue being dominant, going into his age 24 season in 2015. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the whole league.

Robert Alford, a 2nd round pick in 2013 in the same draft as Trufant, will be the other starter. He hasn’t been nearly as good in two seasons in the league, grading out 87th among 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013 on 585 snaps and 81st among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014 on 630 snaps. He might not be ready to be a starter, if he ever will be. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Jalen Collins in this past draft and, while he’ll start the season as the 3rd cornerback, he could move into the starting lineup if Alford continues to struggle. He’s no guarantee to be an upgrade though.

Dwight Lowery was their best safety last season, making 16 starts and grading out 43rd among eligible safeties last season (above average), but he’s gone as a free agent to Indianapolis this off-season. That might not matter because William Moore will be returning from injury, after being limited to 327 snaps in 7 games last season. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and missed 33 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better or more durable going into his age 30 season. However, he does have some bounce back potential, after grading out 11th among safeties in 2011 and 15th among safeties in 2012. He’s unlikely to be a serious downgrade on Lowery, but he won’t be as good.

Kemal Ishmael, who stepped into serious action last season because of Moore’s injuries, will remain the starter in 2015, this time opposite William Moore. Ishmael graded out below average last season, but he wasn’t awful. The 2013 7th round pick played just 3 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t seem to have too bright of a future, but he’s not a horrible starter. It’s not a great secondary, but it’s easily their best defensive unit. Trufant is one of the few bright spots on a team that’s become quickly devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s crazy how quickly this team has fallen to the bottom of the NFL, but, if you look at their roster, they once again appear to have one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Outside of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Desmond Trufant, they really don’t have much other than problems throughout this roster. Having the quarterback position stabilized is very valuable and Ryan will help them win some games that they otherwise shouldn’t have, but I see this team once again in the cellar of the NFL, after winning a combined 10 games over the past 2 seasons. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Falcons after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Falcons are the only team in the NFC South that didn’t have a rough August and they actually got better by adding Andy Levitre at left guard in a trade with the Titans. Levitre struggled last year, but was one of the better guards in the league before that and is a good fit for the Falcons’ zone blocking scheme. However, this is still one of the least talented teams in the NFL. Their quarterback play and their weak schedule will win them some games, but I still have them in last.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC South

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Carolina Panthers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers were one of the best teams in the whole NFL in 2013, winning 12 games and the NFC South and finishing the season 4th in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dominant on both sides of the ball, ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains and 5th in rate of moving the chains allowed. In 2014, the Panthers repeated as NFC South champions, the first time there had been a repeat winner in division history. However, they weren’t nearly as good as they finished at 7-8-1, one of just two teams to ever make the playoffs with a losing record. They were a little bit better than their record in rate of moving the chains, ranking 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, but they still weren’t great. They finished 12th in rate of moving the chains and 18th in rate of moving the chains allowed, both steep drop offs from 2013.

The reason for that is the Panthers lost a lot in free agency last off-season. Cam Newton had the worst quarterback rating of his career at 82.1, completing 58.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. However, a lot of that was the fault of his weak receiving corps and offensive line. Newton still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it 4 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average to start his career. He graded out 14th in 2011, 11th in 2012, and 15th in 2013.

Even though he was only average as a passer, he remained arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns on 103 attempts. In his career, he’s rushed for 2571 yards and 33 touchdowns on 467 attempts in just 4 seasons. On top of that, he’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 54 interceptions, despite generally having weak supporting casts. This off-season he signed a 5-year, 103.8 million dollar extension that locks him in as their franchise quarterback into the future.

Newton’s only issue last season was injuries, but he didn’t let it affect his play much. He only missed 2 games with injury (one of which was actually the result of a car accident), but he dealt with back, ankle, rib, and foot problems throughout the season. However, those were the first 2 games he’s missed with injury in his career. He takes a lot of hits from pass rushers as a result of a weak offensive line, but he generally is able to tough it out through them thanks to his 6-5 244 frame, much like Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, so I wouldn’t call him injury prone at all.

Newton was especially good in his final 4 games after the Panthers’ week 12 bye, as he was able to rest his whole body. He completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.39 yards per attempt, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over that tiny period, while rushing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 attempts. He continued with that in the playoffs, completing 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 72 yards on 18 attempts. If the Panthers are able to protect Newton better and his supporting cast is able to be more helpful in 2015, the Panthers should be a much improved offense. Newton is one of their few offensive building blocks.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Of course, it wasn’t just Newton getting healthier that led to the Panthers’ improved offense after the bye. The Panthers moved the chains at a 77.38% rate in their final 5 games, allowing them to steal the division. That includes a game that Newton missed with injury, as backup Derek Anderson led them to move the chains at a 76.32% rate week 15, albiet against the hapless Buccaneers. One of the big improvements after the bye was a season ending injury to Nate Chandler, who graded out 68th among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 11 games at right tackle. He was put on IR during the bye.

It was addition by subtraction and allowed undrafted rookie Mike Remmers to step into the starting lineup. He impressed, grading out above average on 367 snaps in 5 starts. He enters the season as the favorite at right tackle, but he’s hard to trust. No one drafted him last off-season, which is still relevant because he’s still inexperienced. He also struggled mightily in the playoffs. He’s still far from being an established starter, but the Panthers don’t have another option and he has at least some upside.

The biggest issue on the offensive line last season was left tackle, as Byron Bell graded out 83rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts. The Panthers didn’t really do much to fix that position this off-season, replacing one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons with another one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons, Michael Oher. Oher was cut by the Titans this off-season 1 year into a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal, despite the fact that they paid him 9 million guaranteed for one season. The Panthers inexplicably signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season, didn’t add any competition for him at left tackle through the tackle, and have spent the off-season talking him up. He didn’t deserve anything more than the veteran’s minimum this off-season.

The big contract the Titans gave Oher last off-season seemed doomed from the start. He was coming off of an awful season to end a generally disappointing 5-year tenure in Baltimore, after going in the first round in 2009. In 2013, his final year in Baltimore, he was Pro Football Focus 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. In 2014, his first year in Tennessee, Oher predictably struggled once again, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible in 11 games, before going down for the season with an injury. He hasn’t graded out above average since his rookie year in 2009.

Between his struggles and Remmers’ inexperience, the Panthers don’t have a strong group of tackles. The Panthers used a 4th round pick on offensive tackle Daryl Williams, but he doesn’t figure to be much of a help as a rookie. Poor tackle play was a big reason why the Panthers’ offensive line was so bad last season, as they ranked 30th on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade and 22nd in run blocking grade. They really missed Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, key players upfront on the 2013 team who retired last off-season. That’s a big part of why Newton sustained so many injuries. A poor offensive line is definitely not part of the recipe for keeping your highly paid franchise quarterback on the field for 16 games, even as big as Newton is.

Things are better on the interior. Amini Silatolu, a 2012 2nd round pick, played just 1 game after week 6 last season thanks to injury and, like Chandler, he was drastically outplayed by a rookie and seems to have lost his starting job permanently. Andrew Norwell, like Mike Remmers, was an undrafted rookie, but he graded out 15th among guards on 696 snaps in 10 starts so he’s a little bit more experienced than Norwell. Silatolu remains in the mix for the starting job, but is seen as a large underdog. After struggling as a starter as a rookie, Silatolu has been limited to 10 games in the past 2 seasons combined thanks to injury. Norwell is not a proven starter yet, but he’s the better option.

Another rookie played well at right guard too, this time one that was actually drafted. Trai Turner, a 3rd rounder out of LSU, graded out 23rd among guards despite playing just 673 snaps (9 starts in 13 games). He was significantly better than his eventual backup Fernando Velasco, who graded out below average on 407 snaps, so having Turner healthy and starting for the whole season should be a boost, but he’s also unproven. A lot is dependent on unproven young players (who generally weren’t drafted high) upfront for Carolina, which is concerning, but the Panthers played their best offensive football last season down the stretch, thanks largely to these rookies.

Ryan Kalil is the only proven veteran upfront for the Panthers, as the center is going into his 9th year in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in the 2007 NFL Draft. He’s made 100 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons (with the exception being an injury shortened 2012 season), including 11th last season. Still only going into his age 30 season, he’s one of the better centers in the NFL and definitely the Panthers’ best offensive lineman. It should be an improved offensive line this season, but that wouldn’t be saying much and they’re still very dependent on unproven young players.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cam Newton and the offensive line weren’t the only ones that played better after the bye last season for the Panthers. Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 486 yards and a touchdown on 91 attempts in those 5 games (5.34 yards per carry). He was helped by Newton’s strong play and the offensive line’s strong play, but I think he was the single biggest reason why, after the bye, the 2014 Panthers resembled the 2013 Panthers in terms of their ability to move the chains consistently. The difference is Stewart was finally healthy, after missing 3 games with injury and being limited to 84 carries in 8 games before the bye because of injury.

Injuries have been a huge problem with him over the past 3 seasons. Not only did he miss those 3 games, but he also missed 17 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 respectively, making it 20 missed games in 3 seasons. He’s also never had more than 221 carries in a season. He’s a great running back when on the field though, with a 4.63 YPC average and 30 career rushing touchdowns on 1041 attempts, grading out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He’s also only going into his age 28 season and coming off of a season where he averaged 4.62 yards per carry and graded out 7th at his position on Pro Football Focus. If he can stay healthy, he could have a strong year and go over 1000+ yards for only the 2nd time in his career, but that’s a big if.

The Panthers better hope he can stay healthy because their depth is suspect, after the release of DeAngelo Williams (1167 carries over the past 7 seasons) this off-season. Williams averaged just 3.53 yards per carry last season, so he won’t really be missed, but they don’t have a good alternative #2 back. 5th round rookie Cameron Artis-Payne could easily win the #2 job. His only veteran competition is Jordan Todman, who has rushed for just 450 yards and 3 touchdowns on 111 attempts (4.05 YPC) in 4 years in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2011. It’s not a good backup running back situation, especially for a team who is going to be counting on an injury prone back to have 250+ carries, which would be a career high.

Mike Tolbert is an experienced back who is decently well paid, set to make 2.45 million in the final year of a 4-year, 10 million dollar deal. The 5-9 243 pound fullback type only averages 3.81 yards per carry in his career and averaged just 2.11 yards per carry last season. Once a solid fullback (2nd in 2012 and 3rd in 2013), Tolbert was all the way down at 22nd out of 23 eligible fullbacks last season and looks like a declining player going into his age 30 season. He’s not a real candidate for serious carries. Cam Newton has a very good chance to finish in the top-2 among Panthers in rushing yards for the 4th straight season in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

In addition to the offensive line, another place the Panthers had serious losses last season was in the receiving corps. Both starting receivers from 2013, Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, left last off-season. Neither one of them was great in 2013, but both had better seasons elsewhere in 2014 and the Panthers didn’t do a great job of replacing them, leading to a poor receiving corps. A combination of a receiving corps that couldn’t consistently get open and an offensive line that couldn’t consistently protect long enough made life very tough Cam Newton in 2014.

It might sound weird to stay that Newton had a weak receiving corps because the Panthers were one of five teams with two 1000+ yard receivers (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans, Randall Cobb/Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders). However, that was largely because they didn’t have any receiving options after wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. Those two received 49.25% of the Panthers targets, the highest percentage by any two teammates.

Benjamin had a big statistical year as a rookie, as the 6-5 240 pound first round pick caught 73 passes for 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns. 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. However, Benjamin didn’t actually play that well. That might sound weird, but any time you finish 20th among wide receivers in receiving yards and 5th among wide receivers in targets, you weren’t very efficient. He graded out 85th among 110 eligible wide receivers as a result. The good news is that Benjamin still has a bright future, only going into his age 24 season, and could definitely be improved in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, it’s tough for even the most talented of rookie receivers to transition to the NFL.

Benjamin was definitely the best of the Panthers’ wide receivers last season though, hence why he got so many targets. The Panthers’ next three wide receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Corey Brown) combined for just 4 more targets than Benjamin last season. Benjamin deserves credit for dealing with weekly double teams as a rookie. The Panthers added Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of the draft and he’s expected to start opposite Benjamin, moving the veteran Cotchery into more of a reserve role. He should have a lot of the same issues adjusting to the NFL quickly as Benjamin did and, talent wise, the 6-4 232 pound collegiate wide receiver/tight end is, at best, a poor man’s Benjamin, so he should have serious efficiency problems. Rated as a major reach by College Football Focus, Funchess is unlikely to be an asset as a rookie and maybe not ever.

Cotchery, meanwhile, will compete with Corey Brown for the #3 receiver job this off-season. Cotchery is the veteran of the bunch, while Brown is yet another undrafted free agent from the 2014 class, but the youngster would seem to have the advantage. He flashed last season, grading out slightly above average on 314 snaps as a rookie, catching 21 passes for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns and adding 8 carries for 93 yards on the year, taking over the #3 receiver job following the release of veteran Jason Avant.

The 5-11 180 pounder has obvious physical limitations and there’s a reason why no one drafted him, but he’s a nice niche player as a slot receiver/gadget player out of the backfield. Cotchery, meanwhile, was overstretched as a starting receiver last year, playing 803 snaps and grading out below average. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 5 seasons (averaging 545 snaps per season over that time period) and now heads into his age 33 season. He’s a depth receiver at best at this stage of his career.

The Panthers don’t just have depth problems at wide receiver; they do at tight end as well. The Panthers also really missed blocking tight end Ben Hartsock last season, after he retired as well (like Gross and Wharton). Ed Dickson was the #2 tight end in 2014 and really sucked. That’s no surprise, considering he has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL (4 with the Ravens and the last one with the Panthers), since the Ravens drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been especially bad in each of the past 2 seasons, grading out 63rd out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 60th out of 67 eligible last season. Why the Panthers re-signed him to a 3-year, 6.8 million dollar deal this off-season to play the same role again is beyond me.

Greg Olsen is the saving grace of this receiving corps and their best offensive weapon. Like Benjamin, he had a 1000+ yard season, but, unlike Benjamin, he didn’t need a ton of targets to do it. He finished 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards, only behind Rob Gronkowski, and 3rd in targets. A strong blocker and all-around tight end as well, Olsen was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end last season. This is nothing too new for him (although that was a career best), as he’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including above average as a pass catcher in all 8 seasons.

He’s not flashy, but he’s productive (3 straight seasons of 800+ receiving yards), he doesn’t have a weakness, and he’s a huge part of Carolina’s offense. He also hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2007. He’s going into his age 30 season, but, coming off the best season of his career, he’s showing no signs of declining any time soon. The Panthers clearly trust him long-term, giving him a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of a contract year where he was set to make just 5.5 million. He’s scheduled to make 28 million dollars total over the next 4 seasons. Other than him, the Panthers’ receivers are not a strong group at all though, which makes him all the more important.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Not unlike the offense, the defense also declined significantly from 2013 to 2014, and for the same reason, as the Panthers suffered a bunch of losses on defense. The losses were most numerous in the secondary and I’ll get to those, but the biggest loss was the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy was one of the best defensive players in the game in 2012 and 2013, leading to the Panthers giving him an 11.3 million dollar franchise tag to keep him away from free agency last off-season. However, Hardy ended up playing just 1 game, missing the final 15 with a team issued suspension, facing public pressure to keep Hardy off-the-field while he was being tried for domestic abuse. Hardy was not brought back this off-season, even though a jury threw out a judge’s conviction on a technicality.

In his absence, they didn’t fare well at his old defensive end spot, as Wes Horton, Mario Addison, and Kony Ealy graded out 49th, 39th, and 56th respectively out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Ealy was the worst of the bunch, despite playing just 368 snaps. No 4-3 defensive end played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. However, he’s the favorite for the starting job in 2015, thanks to his status as a 2014 2nd round pick. He still has upside, but his career is off to a bad start.

Charles Johnson is locked into the other starting spot once again. The 2007 3rd round pick has made 81 starts in 109 games in 8 years in the league and has graded out above average in the last 7, including 11th last season. He was re-signed to a monster 6-year, 76 million dollar deal 4 off-seasons ago and, while he hasn’t lived up to his outstanding 2011 season, when he graded out #3 among 4-3 defensive ends, he’s still been a huge asset for them. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect that to continue, but he’ll need to be a little bit more than just an asset to justify a 11 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, his age 30 season. This could be his 9th and final season in Carolina.

Wes Horton and Mario Addison return and will compete for the #3 defensive end job, which will rotate heavily with Kony. Horton, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out well below average on 174 snaps in 2013 and 475 snaps in 2014. He’s a long shot for the #3 job. The real battle will be between Addison and Frank Alexander, who is back on good terms with the team after missing 14 games with suspension last season, as a result of multiple failed drug tests.

Addison, a 2011 undrafted free agent, graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, but wasn’t very good in 2014 and has averaged just 240 snaps per season in his 4-year career. Alexander, meanwhile, played just 24 snaps last season, as a result of the aforementioned suspensions, and graded out below average both as a 4th round rookie in 2012 on 568 snaps and again 2013 on 239 snaps. Outside of Johnson, defensive end is a weak position for the Panthers.

Things are much better at defensive though, where Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will both start for the 3rd straight season, after the Panthers drafted them in the 1st and 2nd rounds respectively in the 2013 NFL Draft. Lotulelei has graded out 17th and 24th among defensive tackles in the last 2 seasons respectively, while Short has graded out 13th and 9th among defensive tackles over those 2 seasons. Short is the better of the two and one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, but Lotulelei is solid as well. They are a real strength on this team and they should continue to play well, as both are only going into their age 26 seasons.

Dwan Edwards remains as a veteran backup and will once again be the 3rd defensive tackle.  Edwards has graded out below average in each of the last 5 seasons, averaging 595 snaps per season over that time period. In 2014, he graded out 63rd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles on 591 snaps. Going into his age 34 season, things aren’t going to get better. The Panthers overpaid him on a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. The depth isn’t ideal, but it’s a strong defensive line thanks to the presence of Short, Lotulelei, and Johnson.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers shockingly drafted linebacker Shaq Thompson 25th overall. He wasn’t on a lot of people’s first round radar and he was rated as one of the worst picks of the first round by College Football Focus, who didn’t feel he was anything special as a prospect. The fact that it was seen as a surprise wasn’t just because it was such a reach, but because Thompson’s best attribute is his coverage ability at 6-0 228 an the Panthers already have two outstanding coverage linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. They don’t need a 3rd linebacker in sub packages.

Thompson is a raw athlete who can play both linebacker and safety and who also dabbled at running back in college, but he can’t play safety in sub packages. He could play there in base packages, but hasn’t seen much, if any action there this off-season, which suggests he’ll spend his rookie year as the 3rd linebacker, playing just in base packages as a run stopping specialist. Considering stopping the run is the undersized linebacker’s weakness, that’s not a good fit for his skill set and he might not even grade out above average in limited action like AJ Klein did in that role last season.

Klein, as the 3rd linebacker, played just 289 snaps last season because they frequently went to 3-cornerback sets last season, not trusting their secondary to be able to cover with 4 and trusting their linebackers to stop the run with 2. Thompson should play more than that this season, but I don’t see him playing much more than 500 snaps as a rookie. He just doesn’t fill a pressing need and simply adds to a strength. Long-term, his best case scenario is a poor man’s version of Thomas Davis, another undersized outside linebacker at 6-1 231, but in the short-term, I don’t see him being an asset.

Fortunately for the Panthers, Kuechly and Davis are so good. Kuechly, the 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has graded out 7th, 8th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and is among the best in the game at his position. Only going into his age 24 season, Kuechly might just be entering his prime. He’s owed just 13.2 million over the next 2 seasons, but the Panthers have plenty of incentive to get a long-term extension done with him over the next calendar year ahead of a 2016 contract year, so that deal could happen at some point soon. He’s expected to be the highest paid middle linebacker in NFL history.

Davis is older, already going into his age 32 season, but he’s been almost as good over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 5th in 2014. Davis has somewhat miraculously played in 46 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons combined, after being limited to 9 games total from 2009-2011 by 3 separate ACL tears. Davis has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, especially dominating over the past 2. You do worry about him going into his age 32 season with that kind of injury history, but he’s shown no signs of decline yet. The Kuechly/Davis duo is the best part of the Panthers and one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the part of the defense that had the most numerous losses from 2013 to 2014 was the secondary. The Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs, a combined 3200 snaps walking out the door with Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Quentin Mikell, and Michael Mitchell. Munnerleyn and Florence were Pro Football Focus’ 10th and 19th ranked cornerbacks in 2013, while Mikell and Mitchell were Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 33rd ranked safeties. All 4 of those players were signed for close to the veteran’s minimum in 2013 though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding cheap values. They attempted to do the same again last off-season, but that proved to be easier said than done. Their secondary was definitely worse in 2014 than 2013 and their whole defense was worse, in part, because of that.

They should have more continuity this season, as they only lost cornerback Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud this off-season. They both sucked last season anyway, grading out 97th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks and 74th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively on Pro Football Focus. In addition to the improved continuity, the Panthers should be better in the secondary this season because those two are gone, addition by subtraction. There’s a reason why both players remain unsigned as of this writing, as free agents.

Bene Benwikere was probably the Panthers’ best defensive back last season, a pleasant surprise on 459 snaps as a 5th round rookie. After grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked cornerback last season, despite the limited playing time, he is expected to get a chance as an every down starting cornerback in 2015. Like guys like Remmers and Norwell on offense, the fact that he fell to the 5th round of the draft isn’t irrelevant for him yet, because he’s so inexperienced, but he has solid upside and could be a solid starter in 2015.

Josh Norman will probably be the other starter, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback on 647 snaps last season. However, the 2012 5th round pick enters his contract year as a one-year wonder, after grading out 96th among 113 eligible cornerbacks on 788 snaps as a rookie and grading out below average on 103 snaps in an injury shortened 2013 season. He could be a solid starter again in 2015, but he’s really hard to trust because of his history.

Charles Tillman and Melvin White will compete for the #3 job this off-season, moving Benwikere to the slot in sub packages. Tillman was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback as recently as 2012, but was limited to 10 games in 2013 and 2014 respectively by two separate triceps tears. Heading into his age 34 season, Tillman’s best days are definitely behind him and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, before the Panthers gave him a chance on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. They were likely the only team to offer him more than the minimum. Even if he’s healthy, he could lose out to Melvin White for the #3 job. White is a 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 697 snaps in 2013 and 522 snaps in 2014. Last season he was especially bad, grading out 94th among 108 eligible cornerbacks.

Meanwhile at safety, Tre Boston, another rookie who graded in limited action last season, will be taking over for DeCoud. He flashed on 369 snaps, grading out above average and 21st among safeties, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. The 2014 4th round pick is in the same boat as Benwikere. He’s flashed in limited action, but it’s hard to trust him in a starting role because of his inexperience and his draft status. However, like Benwikere should be an upgrade over Cason, I do expect Boston to be an upgrade over DeCoud.

Roman Harper is locked into the other starting job again. While the concern with Boston is that he’s too young and inexperienced, the concern with Harper is that he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out slightly below average last season, that might not be the case in 2015, especially since Harper really struggled in the seasons prior to arriving in Carolina. He graded out below average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 86th among 88 eligible in 2012, which led to a significantly reduced role in 2013 (374 snaps) prior to his release from New Orleans. He’s really hard to trust. It’s once again a patchwork secondary, but they’ve done a solid job patching it together and they’re not quite going to be terrible as a unit.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers had arguably the strongest rookie class in the NFL last season. It’s not even just 1st round pick Kelvin Benjamin, and 2nd round pick Kony Ealy actually really struggled as a rookie. However, 5 players drafted in the 3rd round or later (or not drafted at all) figure to start for them this season and all 5 graded out above average last season, 3rd round guard Trai Turner, 4th round safety Tre Boston, 5th round cornerback Bene Benwikere, undrafted guard Andrew Norwell, and undrafted offensive tackle Mike Remmers.

That makes them a young team, relying on a lot of unproven players who weren’t regarded highly coming out of college, but those 5 will just need to complement their better players as, by my count, they have at least 7 of the top-200 players in the NFL, quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive tackle Kawaan Short, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. They should be better in 2015 than they were in 2014, especially given the way they closed out last season once all of their young talent started clicking.

That being said, they still have major holes at certain spots and I really don’t like what they did this off-season. They overpaid for washed up veterans like Michael Oher, Dwan Edwards, Ed Dickson, and Charles Tillman, all of whom weren’t worth more than minimum deals. I think they also reached majorly with their first 2 draft picks, Shaq Thompson and Devin Funchess, and they only had 5 draft picks overall. That being said, GM Dave Gettleman did a great job of finding values in the draft and in free agency in his first 2 seasons on the job, taking over a team that was in a lot of trouble cap-wise after the end of the Marty Hurney era. Perhaps he’ll surprise again. If he does, the Panthers should win the NFC South for the 3rd straight year, but I have them right on the borderline with the Saints. The Saints have the better quarterback, but the Panthers have the better team, so it’s tough. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Panthers after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Saints had a bunch of losses defensively over the past month, but the Panthers are in a position to take advantage. Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year and rookie Devin Funchess unsurprisingly still couldn’t nail down a starting job, meaning he, Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Ted Ginn will all action at wide receiver. Greg Olsen is Cam Newton’s only reliable pass catcher. On top of that, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will miss time with a foot problem.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in NFC South

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New Orleans Saints 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Many see Drew Brees as a declining quarterback, following a 2014 season in which the Saints, with high expectations coming into the season, finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. However, that’s putting too much value in team wins as an individual quarterback statistic. It’s still a team game and the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.68% rate. The Saints were also better their record, finishing 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, as their offense finished 2nd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains (only behind Green Bay), moving them at a 79.14% rate. The Saints were just kept down by the usual fluky things that common fans put too much stock into that tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year or week-to-week basis, turnover margin (-13), return touchdown margin (-4), fumble recovery rate (37.84%), and record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-5).

In reality, Brees was the Saints’ best player last season and the biggest reason they had any sort of success, leading a dominant offense. Brees completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only behind MVP Aaron Rodgers. That’s very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from Brees and doesn’t suggest any sort of decline has happened yet. He’s graded out 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 2nd respectively from 2007-2014 in the 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history and has completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 290 touchdowns, and 130 interceptions over that time period.

He’s the only quarterback in the NFL to grade out in the top-4 in each of the last 6 seasons and the top-7 in each of the last 8 seasons. There’s an argument to be made that he’s still the 2nd best quarterback in the NFL. All this isn’t to say that there isn’t some concern Brees that will decline in the future, as he enters his age 36 season, but the common narrative that this decline has already started isn’t based in any sort of fact and we’ve seen plenty of top level quarterbacks still have success into their mid-30s in recent years (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.). I’m still very high on Brees. Garrett Grayson, drafted in the 3rd round in this past draft, was drafted much more to be a backup than a long-term successor and certainly isn’t someone who is close to putting any sort of pressure on Brees in 2015. Brees hasn’t missed a game with injury since 2004, so Grayson probably won’t see any sort of real action this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brees may see a decrease in production this season, but the reason won’t necessarily be age. The Saints went all in on last season, a plan that backfired big time for a variety of reasons, and ended up in salary cap hell this off-season, which forced them to completely reinvent their roster. They’re likely going to be better in some ways this season, but there’s no denying that their roster is worse overall, so they’re not a lock to make it back into the playoffs this season, even though they play in a terrible division and were a lot better than their record last season.

The Saints got rid of two of Brees’ favorite targets this off-season, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and didn’t replace either of them, which will undoubtedly hurt his ability to consistently string together long drives like he did last season. They also figure to pass the ball a lot less often this season, as a result of those moves, after averaging 661 pass attempts per season over the past 5 seasons, most in the NFL during that time period. That will require them to be better defensively and running the ball, but I think they should be.

Brees’ favorite receiver this season could be Brandin Cooks, their 2014 1st round pick. Cooks kind of got lost in last year’s outstanding rookie receiver class because he wasn’t as good as guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin and because he missed the final 6 games of the season with a broken wrist, but he was playing pretty well before going down. He finished the season with 53 catches on 65 attempts (81.5%) for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns on 353 routes run, an average of 1.56 yards per route run, while grading out only slightly below average.

Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to produce big numbers, even first round picks. 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. By those standards, Cooks had a pretty productive 10 games in his rookie season, especially since he was a young rookie who didn’t turn 21 until last September. Now healthy, Cooks has no one preventing him from being an every down starting receiver and figures to benefit greatly from the 201 vacated targets left behind by Graham and Stills, and, of course, he figures to benefit greatly from having Brees under center. Even if the Saints are more in the 550-600 range in pass attempts this season, Cooks could still push for 90-100 catches. He’ll be a better receiver in fantasy football (currently going in the 4th round on average) than in real life probably, but he could be good in real life too.

A lot of people expected Marques Colston to be cut this off-season, ahead of a scheduled non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary, but instead it was Stills and Graham going and Colston staying, after he agreed to a restructured contract. He’ll make just 3.8 million this season and another 3.2 million in 2016, if he’s still on the roster then. This season, he’ll start opposite Cooks, though largely for lack of a better option. Colston has been with the Saints since 2006 and has been such a big part of their offensive success over the years, but he’s aging (going into his age 32 season) and coming off arguably the worst season of his career.

He caught 59 passes for 902 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, the first season of his career in which he played more than 11 games and caught fewer than 60 passes and the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games and had fewer than 1000 yards. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season, grading out below average for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, as Brees made him look a lot better than he was. He’s not completely over the hill yet and there’s definitely some bounce back potential with him, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2013, but I don’t have high expectations for him and his best days are definitely behind him.

As I mentioned, the Saints don’t really have another starting option other than Colston. Their depth behind Cooks and Colston is really suspect. Nick Toon, Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones, Brandon Coleman will all compete for the 3rd receiver job, pushing either Colston or Cooks to the slot in 3-wide sets, where both have experience. Toon is a 2012 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie season with injury and then graded out below average on 205 snaps in 2013 and 241 snaps in 2014. Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman are 2014 undrafted free agents who have never played a snap in their career.

Josh Morgan is the only experienced veteran of the bunch, going into his age 30 season and his 8th year in the league, since getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008. The career journeyman is already on his 4th team and has only graded out above average once in his career. Last season, he graded out 84th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 436 snaps with the Bears, including 106th in pure pass catching grade, and he won’t get better as he goes into his 30s. The Saints would be better off going with a younger option who is less of a proven failure and who still has some upside. The Saints options for their 3rd receiver are really poor. The move to send Kenny Stills, Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver in 2014, to the Dolphins for a 3rd round pick (which they used on cornerback PJ Williams) and mediocre linebacker Dannell Ellerbe didn’t make any sense, especially since Stills was only going into his age 23 season and was signed very inexpensively for 2 more years on his rookie contract.

The Graham trade made a lot more sense. As good as Graham was last season (Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked tight end), the Saints gained valuable long-term financial flexibility by swapping the remainder of his contract (27 million over 3 years)to Seattle for the remainder of center Max Unger’s contract (9 million over 2 years). Unger isn’t as good as Graham, but he’s a very solid player in his own right and a much better value. On top of that, the Saints got Seattle’s first round pick (which eventually became linebacker Stephone Anthony) in exchange for their 4th round pick, which is obviously good.

That’s not to say that the Saints won’t really miss Graham and they didn’t really do anything to replace him this off-season. The Saints are expected to give both Ben Watson and Josh Hill significant action at tight end this season and also have an outstanding contract offer to former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, who has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 61st out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 64th out of 64 eligible in 2013. He’s still available late into July because of his recent struggles and because he had off-season back surgery. He’d be a very underwhelming addition, even for a tight end needy team.

Watson is the veteran of the Watson/Hill duo. The 2004 1st round pick has had a solid and underrated 11-year career, first with the Patriots, then the Browns, and now the Saints. Both a solid blocker and pass catcher, Watson has graded out above average 6 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, but graded out 48th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and is now going into his age 35 season. Despite that, Watson is expected to play more than the 578 snaps he played last season, something he simply might not be able to handle at his advanced age anymore.

On the flip side, Hill is very unproven, going undrafted in 2013 and grading out slightly below average on 179 and 293 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. For what it’s worth, the Saints really seem to like him, but it’s going to take a lot more than being liked by the organization for him to even come close to replacing Graham’s production. If given enough playing time, he could put up decent numbers simply because of who’s throwing the ball to him, but he’s unlikely to do much to help Brees, much like this receiving corps in generally. The Saints did absolutely nothing to replace Stills and Graham this off-season and have one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL as a result.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Max Unger is a great player in his own right. He’ll be a huge upgrade at center for a team that wants to run the ball more often this season. Jonathan Goodwin was their starting center last season, but he graded out 27th out of 41 eligible and was not brought back as a free agent ahead of his age 37 season. He hasn’t officially retired, but that will probably be what he ends up doing, as he’s drawn no free agent interest at his advanced age.

Unger, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season, despite playing just 385 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. He missed 10 games with injury last season and the Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup, moving the chains at a 6.38% better rate in games he started. That can’t all be credited to him and that’s over just one season’s sample size, but it’s worth noting because Unger was fantastic on the field last season.

Injuries have been an issue for him in the past as he’s missed 29 games in 6 seasons in the league with injury. Inconsistency is also a problem as, while he was dominant on the field last season and while he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 too, those are the only two seasons he’s been in the top-10 among centers on Pro Football Focus. Still, he’s graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL and getting him at 9 million over 2 years is a better value than Graham at 27 million over 3, which is very important for the Saints. Add in the swap of picks and I think the Saints made a smart move.

Tim Lelito was going to be their starting center in place of Goodwin before they acquired Unger, after making 2 starts in place of an injured Goodwin last season. Now he slides over to left guard, where he’ll replace Ben Grubbs. Grubbs was a top-16 guard on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but graded out slightly below average last season and was sent to Kansas City for a 5th round pick, ahead of his age 31 season, a move that saved the Saints 6.6 million in cash, 3.6 million of which came off of their cap immediately. Lelito is a downgrade though, as the 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 162 and 294 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively, struggling at both guard and center. He showed some improvement from 2013 to 2014, but that could have just been because he was playing center instead of guard. I don’t have a lot of faith in him as the starting left guard and he should be a sharp downgrade from Grubbs.

The Saints did use one of their 1st round picks on an offensive lineman, taking Andrus Peat out of Stanford with the 13th overall pick. Either he or right tackle Zach Strief could play left guard this season, but the Saints haven’t really given either of them much if any action at guard this off-season. They seem to prefer starting Lelito at left guard and letting Peat and the veteran compete at right tackle. Strief is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but, if it’s a fair battle, he should be able to keep job over the rookie pretty easily.

A late bloomer who didn’t become a full-time starter since 2011, Strief, a 2006 7th round pick, has made 54 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, excluding an injury plagued 2012 season. He hasn’t just graded out above average; he’s excelled, grading out 12th among offensive tackles in 2011, 9th in 2013, and 17th last season. His age is starting to become a concern, but he’s much more the solution than the problem upfront for the Saints and one of the best right tackles in the game.

I’d keep Strief at right tackle, move the rookie inside to left guard to start his career, and move Lelito to the bench. Even moving Strief inside and starting Peat at right tackle would make more sense than starting Lelito, even though Strief doesn’t have any experience inside and even though he’s been great outside. The Saints have shown no indication that they’re planning on doing that, but there’s still time for them to change their mind. Whatever they do, Strief needs to start because he’s been one of the best right tackles in the game over the past couple of years.

However, they should also avoid letting the 13th overall pick ride the pine as a rookie because he’s good enough to help somewhere immediately and can’t start at his collegiate position of left tackle. That’s because the Saints have Terron Armstead there and the 2013 3rd round pick had a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, finishing 27th among offensive tackles, after playing 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has the looks of a long-term starter and still has upside going forward, going into his age 24 season in 2015.

Rounding out the offensive line, Jahri Evans will once again start at right guard. Like ex-linemate Ben Grubbs, Jahri Evans has had a strong career, but was coming off of a down year, getting up there in age, and finding it hard to justify his big non-guaranteed salary for 2015 to the cap strapped Saints. From 2007-2013, he graded out in the top-30 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009. However, Evans slipped all the way to 46th out of 78 eligible in 2014 and is now going into his age 32 season.

Unlike Grubbs, the Saints kept him. He won’t make the 7.5 million he was originally scheduled to make, but he gets 9.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal, which gives him long-term security and essentially secures him 12 million over the 2 seasons. It’s a risky move and the Saints will definitely be hoping he can bounce back at least somewhat. His best days are behind him, but he could be a solid starter this season on a line that’s strong other than left guard Tim Lelito, who will hopefully be benched before the season starts.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

For a team with a lot of cap problems and a lack of long-term financial flexibility, the Saints weirdly spent a lot of money on running backs this off-season, signing CJ Spiller to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal away from the Bills and re-signing Mark Ingram, also for 16 million over 4 years. Neither one of those deals were bad values, but I didn’t think the Saints needed both of them. I think the Ingram deal is the worse of the two.

Ingram rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns on 226 carries (4.27 YPC) in 2014, but he’s a one year wonder who rushed for 1462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries (4.11 YPC) in his first 3 seasons combined, after the Saints drafted him in the 1st round in 2011. On top of that, his injury history is concern, with 14 games missed in 4 seasons, and he doesn’t contribute as a pass catcher, as he’s caught just 53 passes in 4 seasons. He’s a naturally talented running back who could continue being a solid early down back, but that’s not hard to find in today’s NFL.

The Saints could have replaced him cheaply internally with Khiry Robinson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has flashed in 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 586 yards and 4 touchdowns on 130 carries, an average of 4.51 yards per carry. He graded out slightly below average on 76 snaps as a rookie, but then above average on 158 snaps in 2014. He’s unproven, doesn’t add anything as a pass catcher (8 career catches for 63 yards), and I don’t think he’s as talented as Ingram, but, at the very least, he’s a poor man’s version of Ingram at a much cheaper price. He would been a good fit as a complementary #2 back to Spiller, but now he’s a clear 3rd running back instead and will have to wait for an injury for playing time. I think it’s a waste of his talent on a cap strapped team.

Unlike Ingram, the Saints didn’t have anyone like the speedy Spiller on their roster and I think he’s a good fit for their offense. Spiller, a 2010 1st round pick, had a fantastic 2012 campaign, rushing for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns on 207 carries (6.01 YPC), adding 43 catches for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back. He looked poised for a breakout year in 2013 as a 300+ touch back, but he struggled with injuries over the last 2 seasons (missing 8 games combined and being limited in several others) and he was never a great fit for Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s offense.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s rushed for 1233 yards and 2 touchdowns on 280 carries (4.40 YPC), with 52 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown, combined numbers that many people thought he’d be able to surpass in 2013 alone. He’s never surpassed 207 carries in a season, has annual issues in pass protection (grading out below average in 4 of 5 seasons), and is coming off the worst season of his career, 300 yards on 78 carries (3.85 YPC) in 9 games.

He’s a nice buy low candidate though, as he has a 4.97 YPC average and shows clear first round talent at times. He’s also a good pass catcher out of the backfield, grading out above average 4 times in 5 seasons in that aspect, and, if healthy, has the potential to put up at least Darren Sproles type receiving numbers (an average of 63 catches per season from 2011-2013) on a team that had a league leading 133 targets to running backs last season and now is very short on talented pass catchers for Brees. He’ll complement Ingram well, with Ingram specializing in power running between the tackles, but he would have complemented Robinson well too and Robinson would have come a lot cheaper. It’s a talented stable of backs, but one that could have done without giving Ingram 4 million annually.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints had a horrible defense last season, ranking 32nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, after ranking 10th the year before, during a 12-4 season. What happened? Well the player whose play declined the most was Cameron Jordan, who was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan using far more 4-3 fronts than 3-4 fronts in base packages in 2014 in his hybrid defense, Jordan played 4-3 defensive end in base packages and 4-3 defensive tackle in sub packages and graded out below average.

Jordan, a 2011 1st round pick, also graded out below average in 2011 and 2012 when he played that role. I don’t think you can blame the scheme changes entirely though as Jordan was still rushing the passer from the interior in both schemes. I think he’s just an inconsistent player and one that the Saints probably overpaid on a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension this off-season. He has bounce back potential in 2015, only going into his age 26 season, but he’s definitely hard to rely on.

One player who didn’t really mind the scheme change was Junior Galette, the other starting defensive end. Galette was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, showing himself to be easily the Saints’ best defensive player. The undersized 6-2 258 pounder graded out below average as a run stopper, but excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 2nd at his position in that aspect. The 2010 undrafted free agent graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league on just 25 and 372 snaps respectively, but has put that far behind him over the past 3 seasons, grading out 16th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 on 301 snaps as a reserve, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position that season, and then dominating as a starter in each of the past 2 seasons.

The problem with Galette is twofold. The first problem is he suffered a partially torn pectoral earlier this off-season. He won’t need surgery though and is expected to be healthy by the start of the season. The bigger problem is the off-the-field stuff. Galette was accused of domestic violence at the start of the off-season and, while the charges were dropped, video surfaced later this off-season of someone who is allegedly him publicly striking a woman in a brawl at a beach back in 2013. The Saints are reportedly interested in cutting him, but that’s simply not feasible. Not only is he too talented to just outright release, doing so would cost the Saints 12 million on the 2015 cap (which they don’t have) because of the way his contract is structured.

Galette signed a 4-year, 41.5 million dollar extension last year and has yet to play a snap on that extension. Cutting him would essentially mean they are giving him 16 million dollars for free (a 3.5 million dollar signing bonus paid last off-season and a 12.5 million dollar roster bonus paid earlier this off-season) and they’d have no chance of getting any of that back without a legal conviction. Galette will remain a Saint in 2015, though he could be facing suspension from the league if they feel there’s enough evidence that a suspension is warranted, though nothing is reportedly imminent from the league. At this point, the Saints need to just hope that Galette can continue dominant play on-the-field and avoid any further trouble off-the-field. The likelihood of the former is strong. The likelihood of the latter is unclear.

The Saints edge rusher depth behind Galette is suspect as well, as 2nd round rookie Hau‘oli Kikaha and Anthony Spencer (in either order) are their next best edge rushers. When Jordan moves inside in sub packages, one of those two players figures to play as the other edge rusher. My guess is the veteran Spencer wins that battle in Training Camp and the rookie is eased into the league as a rotational player. Of course, Spencer has missed 20 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons combined with injury so Kikaha could end up seeing significant action for that reason.

If healthy, Spencer could be a solid player. Spencer, at one point, was given the franchise tag in back to back seasons and was one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game. From 2007-2012, Anthony Spencer, a first round pick in 2007, was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and maxing out at #1 overall in 2012. After playing so well on the franchise tag the first time in 2012, he was tagged again in 2013, but it didn’t go so well the 2nd time around, as he played just 1 game the season thanks to a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery.

Spencer was back for 13 games in 2014, but he played just 384 snaps, though he did grade out slightly above average. Going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible he’ll never be the same player again, but he’s be another year removed from the injury and could be decent in a situational role. He has experience in both a 3-4 (from 2007-2012 with the Cowboys) and a 4-3 (from 2013-2014 with the Cowboys and in his collegiate days at Purdue) and he’s familiar with Rob Ryan from Ryan’s days as the Dallas defensive coordinator from 2011-2012. He had the best year of his career in 2012 under Ryan.

Akiem Hicks led Saint defensive tackles in snaps played last season (with 734 snaps) and should do so again in 2015, after grading out above average, among 29th defensive tackles, as an every down player in 2014. The 2012 3rd round pick graded out above average on 383 snaps at 4-3 defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012 and then above average again on 653 snaps at 3-4 defensive end in 2013 too, so he’s not a one-year wonder either. He’s not a spectacular player, but he’s an above average starter who is only going into his age 26 season. He’ll be a free agent next off-season and should get a fair amount of money from someone, though likely not New Orleans with the cap situation they’re in. Even assuming a 150 million dollar cap for 2016, the Saints are already 7 million dollars over the 2016 cap.

It’s unclear who will start next to Akiem Hicks in base packages. John Jenkins is an option and certainly fits the mold of a two-down run stopper at 6-3 359, but the 2013 3rd round pick has graded out below average on 436 and 398 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Brodrick Bunkley returns, after agreeing to slash his salary from 4.5 million to 1.65 million this off-season, but he’s not very good either. There’s a reason why he had to take a pay cut.

Bunkley has been a free agent bust since signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in 2011, including 1st against the run. Bunkley hasn’t been horrible when on the field in New Orleans, but he’s struggled to find a role in either the Saints’ 3-4 or the Saints’ 4-3 since arriving in town and he’s played just 899 snaps in 3 seasons as a result. He’s also graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons (each of the last 2 seasons) and missed 10 games over that time period. Even when he had his strong 2011 season, he only played 485 snaps and, even at his best, he’s a two-down player because of his inability to get to the quarterback. That’s all the Saints will need him to be this season, but his best days are far behind him, as he goes into his age 32 season.

Kevin Williams will also be in the mix for snaps after being signed to 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but his best years are also far behind him, far, far behind him. He graded out above average in 7 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, including in the top-9 from 2007-2012 and 27th in 2013, but graded out below average for the first time in his career last season on 445 snaps with the Seahawks and now heads into his age 35 season as a rotational player at best. The other defensive tackle spot is a weakness, but with every down players like Jordan, Galette, and Hicks, it’s really not a bad defensive line. The defensive line wasn’t the problem last season and things will be much better if Jordan bounces back. They’re depth is also much better as their worst defensive linemen last season were Brandon Deaderick and Kasim Edebali, who struggled mightily on 306 and 181 snaps respectively in 2014. They’ve been upgraded.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps was a big part of the problem last season. Curtis Lofton was the worst offender as he made 16 starts at middle linebacker, but graded out 57th among 60 eligible middle linebackers, leading to his release the off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 8.25 million dollar salary for 2015. Ramon Huber was also really bad as the reserve outside linebacker graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 449 snaps. The Saints added talent this off-season and have a deeper linebacking corps as a result.

Stephone Anthony, the 31st overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft (the Jimmy Graham trade pick), will start immediately at middle linebacker, in place of Lofton, and should be an every down player from the word go. Dannell Ellerbe came over in the trade from Miami for Stills and will play the two-down outside linebacker role in base packages, though he could be a liability more than anything. Ellerbe signed a 5-year, 34.25 million dollar deal with the Dolphins two off-seasons ago and proceeded to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013. He moved to outside linebacker for 2014, but ended up missing all but 18 snaps with a hip injury, which probably actually helped the Dolphins.

That deal didn’t make any sense for the start.  Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent, maxed out at 456 snaps in a season from 2009-2011, but he had a solid 2012 season, grading out 14th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 667 regular season snaps and then followed that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. That’s what got him paid, but he was a one year wonder that wasn’t worth his contract even at his best. He’s only graded out above average once in 6 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 30 season and coming off of a serious injury.

Ellerbe will only make 4.8 million this season, rather than his originally scheduled 8.45 million dollar salary, but he’s still overpaid. He’d probably be best as a reserve linebacker with Parys Haralson remaining as the two-down outside linebacker. Haralson struggled mightily on passing downs last season, but graded out 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run and graded out above average overall as a result. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s graded out above average overall and against the run in each of the last 3 seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’d be a better two-down starter than Ellerbe, but Ellerbe’s salary makes it highly unlikely that he’ll just be a backup.

Outside linebacker David Hawthorne is another player who took a pay cut to stay on the roster, agreeing to a 1.25 million dollar pay cut from 4.5 million to 3.25 million. Like the other players that had to take a pay cut to stay on the roster, there’s a reason he had to do so, as, like many other recent free agent signings by the Saints, he didn’t pan out for the Saints. The Saints gave him a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal 3 off-seasons ago, after he graded out above average in 2009, 2010, and 2011 with Seattle (including 11th among middle linebackers in 2009 and 2nd among outside linebackers in 2010), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, leading to the pay cut.

Hawthorne wasn’t the biggest problem in the linebacking corps last season, but he graded out 28th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebacker and he’s unlikely to be any better going into his age 30 season this season. The Saints’ linebacking corps is better and deeper than it was last season and guys like Curtis Lofton and Ramon Hurber who were such a big part of the problem last season aren’t going to be playing serious roles again this season, but it’s still not a strong group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The secondary was also a big part of the problem last season, thanks, in large part, to serious down seasons from Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Vaccaro, a 2013 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked safety, but struggled mightily in his 2nd season in the league, grading out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. That greatly dampens future expectations for him, but he’s still young (only going into his age 24 season) and is definitely a bounce back candidate.

Keenan Lewis is also a bounce back candidate, after grading out 98th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but he never played more than 393 snaps in any of those seasons and then broke out as a starter in 2012 and 2013, grading out 38th and 27th among cornerbacks in those 2 seasons respectively. Still only going into his age 29 season, I think it’s much more likely that he’ll be better in 2015 than worse.

In addition to likely bounce back years from Lewis and Vaccaro (at least somewhat), the Saints’ secondary should be better because Jairus Byrd will return after being limited to 272 snaps in 4 games by a torn meniscus last season. Even when healthy, he struggled last season thanks to a lingering back problem, following off-season back surgery. Prior to last season, he was arguably the best safety in the NFL, which is why the Saints signed him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal last off-season.

The 2009 2nd round pick graded out above average in each of his first 5 seasons in the league up until free agency last off-season, grading out 41st, 22nd, 3rd, 2nd, and 8th in 2009-2013 respectively. No other safety graded out in the top-8 in all three seasons from 2011-2013. Injuries are beginning to become a concern, going into his age 29 season, as he missed 5 games with a foot problem in 2013 before last year’s back problems and knee problems, but, assuming he’s healthy, his re-addition should be a big boost to this team.

Rafael Bush, who was decent in Byrd’s absence last season on 479 snaps before suffering a season ending injury of his own week 11, will go back to being the 3rd safety this season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a reserve in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 520 snaps, and could find his way back into the starting lineup if Vaccaro continues to struggle or Byrd gets hurt again. They’d prefer him as a 3rd safety though.

The Saints do still have a serious weakness at cornerback behind Lewis. Corey White, who graded out 106th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as the #2 starter last season, is gone, but free agent acquisition Brandon Browner isn’t very good either. Browner graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after starting his career in the CFL, but I think his best days are behind him, going into his age 31 season. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in spite of him last season as he graded out below average, 79th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks.

That’s largely thanks to the 15 penalties he committed in 9 games, 19 penalties in 12 games if you include the playoffs, after he missed the start of the season with a suspension leftover from the 2013 season, when he didn’t play past week 10. The only thing Browner seems to like more than getting in trouble with the league for performance enhancing drugs is getting in trouble with the refs for various holding and pass interference calls that extend opponent’s drives. His penalty problem isn’t a new thing either as he’s committed 48 penalties in 50 career games, including playoffs, a problem that won’t get better as he goes into his 30s, in a league that is getting increasingly tough on coverage penalties. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season.

Not only is Corey White, who was terrible last season, gone, but Patrick Robinson, who was their best cornerback last season, is also gone, after actually grading out slightly above average in 2014. It’s unclear who is going to replace him as the 3rd cornerback. 3rd round rookie PJ Williams is in the mix, as is 2014 2nd round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who played just 8 snaps as a rookie. Delvin Breaux is another inexperienced player, who has spent the last 3 seasons in the Arena League and Canada. He was a premium signing out of the CFL this off-season, getting a 150K guarantee, but he’ll be hard to trust as the 3rd cornerback, as is also the case with Williams and Jean-Baptiste. Breaux has never played a snap in the NFL.

The only veteran in the mix is Kyle Wilson. Wilson was a bust as a 2010 1st round pick. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 4 seasons and made just 27 starts in 5 years with the Jets, including just 1 over the last 2 seasons combined as he could barely get on the field, despite massive issues at the cornerback position for the Jets. 2012 was his only season as a starter, as he played 966 snaps and made 15 starts, and he graded out just 72nd out of 115 eligible that season. He’s not very good. It’s still a weak secondary, but, like the linebacking corps, they should be better this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I said earlier, the Saints were good enough to make the playoffs last season, but won’t necessarily make them this season, as their roster doesn’t seem to be as good. Their defense should be better thanks to additions in free agency and the draft, key players returning from injury, and bounce back years likely from other key players. They should be somewhere between the 10th best defense they were in 2013 and the worst defense they were in 2014, but they still could be closer to 2014. On offense, they have an aging quarterback with a worse supporting cast. If they make the playoffs next season, it’ll be because of their terrible division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Saints after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): So much for being better defensively. Junior Galette ended up getting cut and Anthony Spencer, who they were counting on to replace him, is out for the season with an injury. On top of that, Keenan Lewis and Jairus Byrd, who they were counting on to bounce back in the secondary, will miss games to start the season with injury. Fortunately, they still play in an awful division and I think they’ll win it, but they aren’t going to consistently play like the team they could have been last season.

Prediction: 9-7 1st in NFC South

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Jaguars made a franchise defining mistake. In a draft that saw JJ Watt, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Randall Cobb, DeMarco Murray, Justin Houston, Richard Sherman, Jason Kelce, Chris Harris, among countless other talented players go outside of the top-10, the Jaguars traded their 1st and 2nd round pick to the Redskins (which became Kerrigan and Jarvis Jenkins) to move up to take quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick. Gabbert lasted 3 seasons in Jacksonville, winning just 5 of 27 starts, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, before getting shipped to the 49ers for a 6th round pick last off-season. Considering what they gave up for him and who else was in that draft class, Gabbert has to go down as one of the biggest draft busts of the 21st century.

The Jaguars started over at the quarterback position in the 2014 NFL Draft, taking Blake Bortles 3rd overall, but, after one year in the league, it looks like the Jaguars might have drafted Blaine Gabbert all over again. Bortles was a disaster as a rookie, completing 58.9% of his passes for an average of 6.12 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The one positive is he rushed for 419 yards on 56 carries. The Jaguars went just 3-11 in the 14 games he played and the Jaguars moved the chains at a mere 65.84% rate in those 14 games, as opposed to 64.55% on the season, 31st in the NFL.

Bortles’ poor rookie season isn’t necessarily a death sentence for his career, as there are plenty of players at all positions who have found adjusting to the NFL tough, before figuring it out. Bortles admitted after the season that he was out of shape as a rookie and suffered from dead arm as a result. He’s reportedly worked on his conditioning a lot this off-season, dropping from 250 to 238, which is around his combine weight (232). The Jaguars essentially admitted before the season started that they felt Bortles needed a redshirt rookie year, before he was forced into action by Chad Henne’s completely ineffective play in the first 2 and a half games of the season.

Bortles has worked with QB guru Tom House this off-season and the Jaguars upgraded the offensive coordinator position this off-season, firing the ineffective Jedd Fisch, now the University of Michigan’s quarterbacks coach, and replacing him with Greg Olsen, who has more of a track record of success. Bortles is only going into his age 23 season, but until I see it from him on the field, I’m going to be very skeptical of his long-term potential. If Bortles continues to struggle, this offense doesn’t have much of a chance of being effective.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

Of course, Bortles didn’t have a lot of help on offense. A lot of people point to the league leading 54 sacks Bortles took (in just 13 ½ games) as an excuse for his poor rookie year. That has some truth behind that, but a lot of those sacks were Bortles’ fault. The Jaguars finished 17th in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, not good, but certainly not horrible. Bortles was pressured on just 34.0% of dropbacks, 21st among 39 eligible quarterbacks. However, he also took a sack on 28.9% of pressured dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. He also completed just 36.4% of passes while pressured, also worst among eligible quarterbacks. His pocket presence was an issue coming out of the University of Central Florida and something that needs to drastically improve in his 2nd year in the league if he’s going to put up even decent numbers in 2015.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Jaguars didn’t need to find upgrades upfront this off-season and they found a couple, devoting part of their large amount of cap space to the offensive line. The Jaguars took an interesting approach in free agency for the most part. They knew they’d have to overpay people to join their terrible team, but a lot of the players they decided to overpay were players who have been in the league a while, who had flashed in limited action, but never got a chance to be a starters. The Jaguars think they’re finding diamonds in the rough, but the league generally is smart enough to not let guys slip through the cracks that many times.

On the offensive line, that “diamond in the rough” is Jermey Parnell, who they signed to a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal. That’s way too much money to commit to a player like Parnell who has made 7 starts in 6 years in the league since going undrafted in 2009. Five of those starts came in 2014 and he was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked offensive tackle despite playing just 388 snaps last year, with no one grading out better than him on fewer snaps. However, prior to 2014, Pernell had only played 294 snaps in his career combined and had never graded out above average. He should be an upgrade over the trio of Austin Pasztor, Sam Young, and Cameron Bradfield, who all struggled mightily at right tackle last season, but it’s really hard to trust him, given that he’s a one-year wonder in terms of even flashing and given that he’s going into his first season as a starter in his age 29 season.

The Jaguars’ other free agent acquisition on the offensive line came a lot cheaper, as they signed Stefen Wisniewski to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. He’ll start at center this season. Stefen Wisniewski, a 2011 2nd round pick, has made 61 starts over the past 4 years for the Raiders. After struggling out of position at guard as a rookie, Wisniewski graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th, 11th, and 22nd ranked center in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, which means that he’s been an average starter. Only going into his age 26 season, the only reason Wisniewski was still available after the draft and available for so cheap was because he had off-season shoulder surgery. Expected to be healthy for Training Camp, 6 months after surgery, he should continue being an average starter and at a cheap price. He’s an upgrade over Luke Bowanko, who graded out 29th among 41 eligible centers last season.

The Jaguars gave a big contract to a free agent offensive lineman last off-season as well, signing Zane Beadles to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal, away from the Broncos. Beadles made all 16 starts in his first season in Jacksonville and graded out slightly above average. That was only the 2nd time in his 5 year career (77 starts) that he graded out above average and, overall, I think he’s overpaid. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly strapped for cash and he’s more the solution than the problem in Jacksonville, so I think any recent talk of the Jaguars cutting or trading him to start 3rd round rookie AJ Cann is unwarranted.

Cann was originally drafted to start at center, but when the Jaguars were able to bring in Wisniewski, he got sent to the bench. The versatile interior lineman will probably have to wait until 2016 at the earliest to get a chance to start, barring injuries. Cann can’t start at right guard because 2014 3rd round pick Brandon Linder proved to be a steal during a very strong rookie season, grading out 10th among guards. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s one of the few young building blocks the Jaguars have on either side of the ball.

Rounding out of the offensive line is another recent draft pick, 2013 2nd overall pick Luke Joeckel. Joeckel has largely been a bust thus far in his career. After grading out well below average on 277 snaps in an injury shortened rookie season in 2013, Joeckel made all 16 starts on the blindside in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 67th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. He’ll start on the blindside again this season and, while it’s probably too early to write him off as a bust, he’s definitely entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and, right now, break seems more likely. With the Jaguars upgrading the center and right tackle spots this off-season and adding a versatile reserve in Cann this off-season, the left tackle spot is now the biggest weakness on an offensive line that’s a lot better than a lot of people think. Bortles could easily make them look a lot worse than they are again this season though.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cann wasn’t the only high pick the Jaguars used on offense, as they used a 2nd round pick on running back TJ Yeldon. The Jaguars gave Toby Gerhart a 3-year 10.5 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Minnesota, hoping that the 2010 2nd round pick could emerge as a starter, out of Adrian Peterson’s shadow. Instead, he flopped, rushing for 326 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries (3.23 YPC). Part of that had to do with the offensive line’s ineffectiveness (24th in team run blocking grade), as well a variety of nagging injuries that he dealt with, but he was surpassed on the depth chart by the smaller Denard Robinson by mid-season and Robinson drastically outperformed him.

Robinson flashed in his first season of significant action, making 9 starts and rushing for 582 yards and 4 touchdowns on 135 carries (4.31 YPC), adding 23 catches for 124 yards through the air. However, he’s still unproven, with just 155 career carries, and the collegiate quarterback is undersized at 6-0 197 and doesn’t appear to be built to handle a starting running back’s workload in the NFL. He also proved to be pretty useless as both a receiver and a blocker on passing downs. There’s a reason he fell to the 5th round in 2013 and he didn’t do anything to quell durability concerns by ending the season on injured reserve with a significant foot injury. The 6-1 226 pound Yeldon will take over lead back duties from Robinson, leaving Robinson to be a change of pace back. The Jaguars have talked up Yeldon’s upside and see him as a feature back long-term, but they’ll probably ease him in as a rookie, which means Robinson will still get at least 5-7 touches per game.

Gerhart was kept at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary for 2015, but if the Jaguars were even remotely strapped for cap space, they would have let him go easily. Instead, he remains as a clear 3rd running back and occasional fullback at 6-0 231. Gerhart’s career numbers don’t look bad, as he’s rushed for 1631 yards and 7 touchdowns on 377 attempts, an average of 4.33 yards per carry, but that’s largely because he mostly was running in obvious passing situations in Minnesota as a 3rd down back and because he was running behind a strong offensive line. Going into his age 28 season with a career high of 109 carries in a season (2011), Gerhart simply isn’t cut out to be a lead back. The backfield is improved simply because he won’t have a significant role.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Jaguars were not good in the receiving corps either last season. Not only did no one catch more than 53 passes (Cecil Shorts, who is gone), total more than 677 yards (Allen Hurns), or total more than 6 touchdowns (Hurns again), but they didn’t have a single wide receiver or tight end play a snap and grade out above average. In fact, just two players on the Jaguars whole offense played more than 250 snaps and graded out above average, their two guards Zane Beadles and Brandon Linder.

The biggest thing they did to fix this was to sign Julius Thomas away from Denver on a 5-year, 46 million dollar contract. Unlike a lot of the free agents that they gave a lot of money to this off-season, Julius Thomas at least has some starting experience, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t overpaid. Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, has never graded out higher than 13th among tight ends, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning.

Thomas won’t be nearly as productive or efficient with Blake Bortles as he was with Peyton Manning, but he could easily still lead this team in catches, receptions, and touchdowns, even if only by default. He’s definitely better than any tight end they had last season and should be their best offensive weapon in 2015 in his first season in Jacksonville. Clay Harbor and Marcedes Lewis led the team in snaps played among tight ends last season with 489 snaps and 443 snaps respectively, grading out 39th and 48th among 67 eligible tight ends respectively.

Lewis returns this season as the #2 tight end behind Thomas, after agreeing to slash his salary from 6.8 million to 2.65 million. Lewis, a 2006 1st round pick, has been one of the most underrated and underappreciated players of the last decade or so. Lewis hasn’t put up big numbers in the passing game, catching 315 passes for 3789 yards and 27 touchdowns in 128 career games, maxing out with a 58/700/10 line in 2010. However, that’s largely because he’s been stuck with terrible quarterbacks and has been asked to stay in to pass protect more than any tight end in the league over that time period, something he excels at. He doesn’t excel as a pass catcher, but he’s been decent and he’s been a dominant blocker both in the run game and the pass game.

However, he’s now coming off of the worst season of his career, grading out below average for the first time since 2008 and missing 8 games with injury. He’s missed a combined 13 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player on the field. He’s going into his age 31 season so his best days (like in 2012 when he graded out 5th among tight ends, or in 2011 when he graded out 10th among tight ends) are behind him, but if he can stay healthy, he could be a solid #2 tight end and inline blocking complement for Thomas, who is much more of a pass catching tight end who can be moved around the formation and even split out wide.

Along with the addition of Julius Thomas through free agency, the Jaguars are hoping that a trio of 2nd year wide receivers can take a leap forward in 2015. Aside from Cecil Shorts, who signed in Houston this off-season, the Jaguars’ top wide receivers last season were all rookies. Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee were a pair of 2nd round rookies who played 524 and 501 snaps respectively in 2014, while undrafted rookie Allen Hurns actually led Jaguar wide receivers in snaps played with 805 last season. The Jaguars tried to find a veteran wide receiver this off-season to add to the mix, falling short on Randall Cobb before he opted to stay in Green Bay, and poking around cheaper veteran Greg Jennings before he ultimately signed in Miami. The Jaguars didn’t end up adding a veteran receiver, opting instead to just use a 5th round pick on Rashad Greene so Hurns, Robinson, and Lee (in some order), will be their top-3 wide receivers this season.

Robinson is the one that the organization seems the most excited about. My guess is he leads all Jaguar wide receivers in snaps played, catches, and yards in 2015. He graded out the best of the trio as a rookie, only grading out slightly below average, catching 48 passes on 76 targets (63.2%) for 548 yards and 2 touchdowns on 334 routes run, an average of 1.64 yards per route run. The only problem is he missed 6 games with injury, but he’s now healthy and only going into his age 22 season in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 and could be solid for them as their #1 wide receiver.

Lee and Hurns will compete for the #2 and #3 receiver roles, with Greene working as the 4th receiver at best as a rookie. Lee caught 37 passes on 61 attempts (60.7%) for 422 yards and 1 touchdown on 330 routes run, an average of 1.28 yards per route run, in 13 games. Hurns, meanwhile, caught 51 passes on 91 attempts (56.0%) for 677 yards and 6 touchdowns on 515 routes run, an average of 1.31 yards per route run, in 16 games. Lee has the greater upside because he was drafted in the 2nd round, while Hurns didn’t get drafted at all. He also played a little bit better last season, grading out 94th among 110 eligible wide receivers, as opposed to 104th for Hurns. Neither one of them projects to be very good in 2015, but Lee should be the other starter, even though Hurns played more snaps last season.

The complete wild card in the receiving corps is Justin Blackmon, who remains suspended indefinitely. It’s easy to forget that he is even on the roster as he hasn’t been on the field since week 8 of 2013. Blackmon has missed 28 games combined over the past 2 seasons with drug abuse related suspensions. The 5th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Blackmon had a solid rookie season, catching 64 passes for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns and then excelled in 4 games as a sophomore in 2013 before getting suspended. His 2.58 yards per route run was 4th best in the NFL among eligible receivers in 2013 as he caught 29 passes for 415 yards and 1 touchdown on 161 routes run in those 4 games. However, the Jaguars are operating as if he won’t be able to play in 2015. He’s rumored to have failed another drug test. He’d upgrade the receiving corps if available, but, until that happens, it’s still a below average group.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Jaguars’ biggest need going into the draft was at defensive end, as the Jaguars needed an upgrade on Chris Clemons, who was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 59 eligible last season and who is going into his age 34 season this season. His struggles last season were a big part of the reason why the Jaguars ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. The Jaguars filled that need with the 3rd overall pick, drafting Dante Fowler out of Florida, but then disaster struck, as Fowler tore his ACL in one of his first NFL practices and will miss the entirety of the 2015 season.

That leaves Clemons to start once again, instead of likely being cut to save 4.5 million, all of which would have come off the cap immediately. Chris Clemons had a strong stretch in Seattle from 2010-2012, grading out as a top-12 4-3 defensive end in all 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus, excelling at getting to the quarterback. However, he tore his ACL in the post-season in 2012 and hasn’t been the same since. He was Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible in 2013 and he was even worse in 2014. Things won’t be better as he enters his age 34 season.

Free agent acquisition Jared Odrick will be the other starter, after being signed from Miami on a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but, unlike several of their other free agent acquisitions, he is proven as a starter, grading out 16th and 19th among defensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. In Jacksonville, he’ll replace Red Bryant at defensive end in base packages. Bryant, a 6-5 328 pound run stopping specialist, graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends against the run last season, but 57th out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends as a pass rusher, leading to his release ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.25 million dollar salary this off-season.

Odrick is a much more complete player and will play inside in sub packages at his natural position of defensive tackle, so he’ll play more in the Michael Bennett role than the Red Bryant role if we’re comparing this defensive front to the defensive front in Seattle, where Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley used to be the defensive coordinator. My one concern is Odrick struggled mightily early in his career as both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive end, including 59th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. It’s possible those days are past him, but I like him more as a pure interior player.

Sticking with the Seattle parallel, free agent acquisition Dan Skuta will play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in at least some sub packages. Skuta was one of the free agents that Jacksonville signed that barely has any starting experience and the 5-year, 20.5 million dollar deal the Jaguars gave him came as a shock to pretty much everyone. I like Skuta as a player. The amount of different positions Skuta has played in the NFL is incredible. He’s played 4-3 defensive end, fullback, 4-3 outside linebacker, 4-3 middle linebacker, 3-4 outside linebacker, and 3-4 middle linebacker, while excelling on special teams. However, I never expected he’d get this kind of deal.

Skuta has graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including 2 straight and a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on just 304 snaps in San Francisco, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. However, he’s never played more than 398 snaps in a season (setting that career high in 2014) and he’s already going into his age 29 season. He’s a projection to an every-down role. He’s not that young. And the list of guys who break out as starters for the first time in their 7th season in the league isn’t very long. As I said, the league is generally smart enough for guys not to fall through the cracks that many times. It’s a deal that has a lot of possible downside and very little possible upside, as I don’t really see him exceeding his salary.

Along with Odrick, Ryan Davis figures to see a bunch of snaps inside in sub packages. The 2012 undrafted free agent had a shocking breakout year last year, excelling as a tweener defensive end/defensive tackle at 6-2 261. He should see more than the 310 snaps he had last season because he’s arguably one of their best defensive players. He can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, but he did his best work at defensive tackle last season, grading out 11th among defensive tackles on just 212 snaps last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He’ll be most valuable to the Jaguars as an interior pass rusher in sub packages this season, but isn’t bad against the run either and will also likely see some snaps outside at defensive end with Fowler hurt. The only concerns with him are that he’s unproven as a 500+ snap player and that he’s a one-year wonder, only playing 126 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined to start his career.

Sen’Derrick Marks led Jaguar defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 739, but figures to play significantly fewer this season. That’s not just because of the addition of Odrick or Davis’ emergence, but also because Marks tore his ACL week 16 of last season and will be in a race to play week 1. Even if he does and plays all 16 games this season, he could easily not be as good as he was last season, when he graded out 16th among defensive tackles. That’s not just because of the torn ACL, but last season was also the first time in his 6 year career that he graded out above average. His history prior to 2014 is not great, including a 2010 season when he graded out 64th out of 76 eligible, a 2011 season when he graded out 78th out of 88 eligible, and a 2012 season when he graded out 75th out of 85 eligible.

Roy Miller and Ziggy Hood return to play situational roles against the run once again, after playing 492 and 422 snaps respectively in 2014. Neither one is very good and neither one has ever graded out above average in their career, dating back to when both came into the league in 2009, in the 3rd and 1st round respectively. Neither was awful last season, but both have been much worse in the past. Miller graded out 64th among 69 eligible defensive tackles in 2013 and 82nd out of 88 eligible in 2011, while Hood graded out 43rd among 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 33rd among 34 eligible in 2012. Still, it’s a solid defensive line and probably the best unit on this team.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I already mentioned Skuta will be playing outside linebacker in base packages, replacing Geno Hayes, who actually graded out 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 587 snaps last season as a run stopping specialist. Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny will be the every down linebackers, outside and inside respectively. Smith was a steal as a 5th round pick in 2014, making 10 starts in 16 games, playing 723 snaps and grading out slightly above average as a rookie, despite the lack of size (6-3 218) that dropped him in the draft in the first place. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he could still be a long-term starter.

Posluszny, meanwhile, signed a 6-year, 45 million dollar deal five off-seasons ago and he had a good start to his tenure in Jacksonvillle, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, including 7th in 2011. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons. Now he’s going into his age 31 season and he missed 9 games with a torn pectoral last season, so his best years are behind him. Originally owed a non-guaranteed 7.5 million dollars this season, Posluszny restructured his deal this off-season and will now make just 5.5 million this season, followed by 4.5 million in 2016 and 5 million in 2017, if he’s still on the roster. He should be an upgrade over JT Thomas, who was Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible last season, but that’s not saying much and he’s at the point in his career where the most valuable thing he offers to a team is leadership. It’s an overall below average linebacking corps, outside of maybe Skuta, who is only a part-time linebacker.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Along with Parnell and Skuta, the Jaguars also gave a 4-year, 24.5 million dollar deal Davon House, who has been in the league for 4 years and has maxed out at 472 snaps. That deal is the best of the trio I think. Not only is House younger (only going into his age 26 season), but he’s only been on one team in his career, so it’s not like he’s bounced around the league unable to find starting work like the other 2 players. House, a 2011 4th round pick, just happens to have gotten stuck on a Green Bay team with solid cornerback depth to start his career. House has always graded out around average in his career and could definitely break out as a solid starter in Jacksonville in 2015 and beyond. It was an overpay, but it wasn’t egregious.

House will essentially replace Alan Ball, a starting cornerback who played 508 snaps in 7 games last season before going down for the season with an injury. He signed in Chicago this off-season. Dwayne Gratz (871 snaps) and Demetrius McCray (834 snaps) remain and will compete for the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs. Aaron Colvin will be in the mix for snaps as well. The 2014 4th round pick played just 281 snaps as a rookie, but that was because he didn’t play until week 12, while he was recovering from a torn ACL that dropped him in the draft in the first place. Colvin was seen as a 2nd round or even a 1st round pick before suffering the injury pre-draft and he showed that talent as a rookie, grading out slightly above average. Now healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Colvin broke out as a solid contributor in 2015, but he’s still unproven.

The Jaguars would definitely like Colvin to grab a role and play well because both Gratz and McCray struggled last season, especially Gratz, who graded out 83rd among 108 eligible cornerbacks, including 100th in pure coverage grade. Gratz, a 2013 3rd round pick, played better as a rookie, grading out above average on 494 snaps as a rookie, but McCray didn’t. The 2013 7th round pick graded out below average on 93 snaps as a rookie. Neither one figures to be very good this season, so the Jaguars will be relying on breakout years from House and Colvin, both of whom are still unproven.

At safety, 2013 2nd round pick John Cyprien is locked in as a starter for the 3rd straight season, after making 30 of 32 possible starts in his first 2 years in the league. After struggling mightily as a rookie, grading out 84th out of 86 eligible safeties, Cyprien was significantly better in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, but still graded out below average. Only going into his age 25 season, he still has upside, but my guess is he’s an average starter at best in 2015.

At the other safety spot, the Jaguars brought in veteran Sergio Brown and 4th round rookie James Sample to compete for the starting job, after Josh Evans graded out 84th among 87 eligible safeties as in 2014. Brown seems to have won that competition by default, as Sample broke his arm in early June. Sample is expected back for week 1, but he’ll simply have missed too much valuable off-season practice as a rookie to unseat the veteran. Brown was likely the favorite even prior to the injury.

Brown was an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2010 and flashed on 94 snaps as a rookie with the Patriots. As a result, he was given a starting job in 2011, but quickly lost it for poor performance and went on to play just 61 snaps over the next 2 seasons, both with Indianapolis. However, Brown got another chance at a starting job in 2014 and made the most of it, making 8 starts and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety. He could be a solid starter again in 2015, but Jaguars fans need to remember his history prior to 2014 isn’t great. It’s a mediocre secondary that will be banking on a career journeyman continuing strong play and a pair of unproven youngsters breaking out.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Jaguars were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing 29th in rate of moving the chains differential at -8.37%, thanks to a mediocre defense and a horrible offense. They were a long ways away from the 28th place team, the Jets, who finished at -4.43%. They were squarely in a bottom tier with Oakland, Tennessee, and Tampa Bay. Tennessee and Tampa Bay both added significant quarterback upgrades this off-season, among other upgrades, and, while Jacksonville spent a lot of money this off-season, they overpaid a lot of guys and still don’t have a lot of talent. They’re arguably the least talented team in the NFL when you look at everyone’s roster and should be one of the worst teams in the NFL again with Oakland. They’ll need significantly improved play from 2nd year quarterback Blake Bortles and breakout years from several other unproven players to even be respectable this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Jaguars after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: 3-13 4th in AFC South

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Houston Texans 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans were an average team in 2014, rebounding from a 2013 season that saw them go 2-14, largely because of a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -20 turnover margin, a -6 return touchdown margin, and a 44.44% rate of recovering fumbles. Those types of things tend to be very inconsistent from year to year and the Texans flipped those in 2014, going 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, having a +12 turnover margin, having a +3 return touchdown margin, and recovering 55.81% of fumbles. As a result, they went 9-7, one game out of the post-season, and finished 19th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.66%.

Their average performance in 2014 was the result of an above average defense that ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains allowed at 70.62% and a below average offense that ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains at 69.96%. The Texans played 4 different quarterbacks in 2014. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first 9 games of the season before getting benched for backup Ryan Mallett, who started the next 2 games, but then went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Fitzpatrick started the 3 games after that, but went down for the season early in that 3rd start with a broken leg, forcing 4th round rookie Tom Savage into action. By the end of the game, Savage had sustained a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 2 games of the season. That forced them to sign ex-Texan quarterback Case Keenum off of St. Louis’ practice squad to start the final 2 weeks of the season.

Fitzpatrick was easily the best of the bunch, even though he was the only one of the four to actually ever get benched. In games started and finished by Fitzpatrick, the Texans moved the chains at a 71.90% rate, as opposed to 66.06% in their other 5 games. If he had started all 16 games, there’s a good chance this team would have made the playoffs. In arguably the best season of his career, Fitzpatrick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, showing himself to be a great fit for first year head coach Bill O’Brien’s system. The rest of the team combined to complete 56.6% of their passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and all 3 other quarterbacks graded out below average. Fitzpatrick’s initial benching for the unproven Mallett in the middle of a playoff race was inexplicable and his season ending injury ultimately sealed their fate.

Continuing to show their best quarterback no respect, the Texans flipped Fitzpatrick to the Jets for a 7th round pick this off-season, even though he was only owed a very reasonable 3.25 million dollar salary in 2015. The Texans re-signed Ryan Mallett to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season and brought in Brian Hoyer from Cleveland on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal, both of whom are worse than Fitzpatrick. He may be a career journeyman, but he’s had the best two seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. He graded out below average in every season from 2008-2012, with Buffalo and Cincinnati, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, for the first two times he’s done that in his career. He may not be nearly as good in 2015 as he was in 2014 because he’s now going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg, but he was definitely worth bringing back. The Texans downgraded the quarterback position this off-season, which is never a good idea.

Hoyer and Mallett will compete for the starting job, with Tom Savage, who struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie, completing 10 of 19 for 127 yards and an interception, as the 3rd quarterback, assuming they decide to keep three. Hoyer is the most experienced of the two and the highest paid of the two, so he figures to be the week 1 starter, a hypothesis Texan beat writers have backed up. Hoyer had his moments in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2014, but ultimately proved to not be anything more than a solid backup caliber quarterback. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The former undrafted free agent’s career numbers aren’t much different, as he’s completed 56.5% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions on 630 career attempts.

Mallett is less experienced, but I’d start him just because he’s younger (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 30 for Hoyer) and not as much of a proven failure as Hoyer. Mallett had 4 career pass attempts in 3 seasons as a 2011 3rd round pick before coming to Houston and lasted just 2 games in 2014 before going down for the season with a torn pectoral. He actually played one of his starts with that torn pectoral and, as you can imagine, it was a trainwreck, as he completed 21 of 45 for 189 yards and an interception. He was better in his other start, completing 20 of 30 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, but he’s still completely unproven. Both figure to see starts this season and the quarterback position figures to be a position of major weakness as a result.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

If Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in the 11 games he started and finished, why didn’t the Texans have anything more than an average offense in those 11 games? Well, weirdly enough, the Texans actually didn’t run the ball that well last season. Arian Foster ran the ball well, rushing for 1246 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries, an average of 4.79 yards per carry. However, because he missed 3 games with injury and because the Texans ran the ball with such regularity due to lack of trust in the passing game, backup Alfred Blue got 169 carries and turned them into just 528 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 3.12 yards per carry. As a result, the Texans ranked 23rd in the NFL, rushing for 3.92 yards per carry. Despite that, the Texans ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL (26 more than 2nd place Seattle), which hurt their offense.

Because they’re probably going to have worse quarterback play this season, they’ll have to be run heavy again, so they’ll have to hope that Arian Foster can stay healthy and handle 300-350 carries. Blue proved himself to be completely incompetent as a backup handling any sort of workload last season, grading out 43rd among 57 eligible running backs last season, despite seeing just 341 snaps. I don’t expect much better from him this season, considering he fell all the way to the 6th round in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Texans didn’t do much to upgrade the backup running back position this off-season. The Texans should want him more in the 70-80 carry range. His only real competition for the backup job is Chris Polk, who was signed by the Texans after the Eagles let him go this off-season. The 2012 undrafted free agent has rushed for 270 yards and 7 touchdowns on 57 carries in his career. He might be better, but he’s, at the very least, unproven.

Keeping Foster healthy is going to be easier said than done, especially if he’s seeing 20 carries and 23 touches per game again, which is what he saw last season. The 2009 undrafted free agent has had an impressive career, rushing for 6309 yards and 53 touchdowns on 1391 carries (4.54 YPC), while adding another 2041 yards and 12 touchdowns on 227 catches through the air, but he’s only twice played more than 13 games and he’s missed 11 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. He’s consistently good, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons (including 12th in 2014), but he’s going into his age 29 season so he could decline a little bit this season in terms of effectiveness and he’s not going to become less injury prone as he becomes older. The Texans are going to have to rely on their running game to move the chains this season, but I don’t think they’re strong or deep enough at the running back position to effectively execute that kind of offense with regularity.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even though the Texans did have to cycle through 4 different quarterbacks because of injury and even though Foster missed time as well, the Texans actually had just the 6th fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season. Part of that is because Fitzpatrick and Foster combined to actually only miss 7 games, but part of that is because they didn’t really have very many injuries anywhere else on the field on offense. On the offensive line, their 5 starters missed a combined 1 game (Brandon Brooks week 6) out of 80 possible. They probably won’t have as good of injury luck upfront this season.

The Texans return 4 of 5 starters and have a replacement who was drafted with this situation in mind waiting in the wings. Chris Myers, who was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season, was released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary, ahead of his age 34 season. He’ll be missed, but the Texans do have a solid replacement plan. To replace him, the Texans will be moving left guard Ben Jones inside to center and starting 2014 2nd round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. Su’a-Filo struggled mightily on 130 snaps as a rookie, but he still could be a long-term starter. He’s just unproven.

Jones, meanwhile, was probably their worst starter last season, though he wasn’t bad at all, grading out only slightly below average. The Texans ranked 6th in team run blocking grade and 11th in team pass blocking grade upfront last season, something they’ll have trouble repeating in 2015 thanks to the loss of Myers and the fact that they’ll probably have more injuries upfront. Jones hasn’t played center in the NFL, but he did in college and the 2012 4th round pick is experienced, making 27 starts in 3 seasons in the league and grading out only slightly below average in all 3 seasons. Like Su’a-Filo, he projects as a decent starter in 2015.

Another way the Texans’ offensive line could be worse this season, in addition to the loss of Chris Myers and more injuries, is right tackle Derek Newton could regress, after being re-signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Newton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle, grading out below average in pass protection, but excelling in the run game, grading out 4th in that aspect in 2015. The issue, in addition to his struggles in pass protection, is the 2011 7th round pick is a one-year wonder. Newton has started 46 games over the past 3 seasons, but he was horrible in both 2012 and 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 72nd out of 76 eligible in 2013. He’s very hard to trust and that was a very risky deal.

The two other spots on the offensive line, left tackle and right guard, are very strong though, barring serious injury. Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.

At left tackle, Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. It’s still a strong offensive line, but one that lost a solid starter from last season, but one should have more injuries this season, and one whose right tackle could easily regress in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Whoever starts under center for the Texans will have a very talented wideout to throw to, 2013 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.

Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.

Hopkins’ emergence is a big part of the reason why the Texans felt comfortable letting Andre Johnson go, after 12 years with the team, since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2003. Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career in terms of yards per game since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. His overall numbers weren’t bad, but if you rank 27th among wide receivers in yards and 6th in targets, it’s a problem. Cutting him not only saved them 8.5 million, but it also freed up more targets for a budding young receiver. It’s tough, but Johnson is on the way down and Hopkins is on the way up, and that’s the way the NFL goes.

To replace Johnson, the Texans signed Cecil Shorts from Jacksonville. Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.

However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others, and he’s only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 98th out of 110 eligible wide receiver. He’s a marginal starting wide receiver at best, but he’s a decent value on a 2-year, 6 million deal. As weird as this sounds, from a financial standpoint, Shorts might be better for the Texans than Johnson would have been in 2015.

The Texans also have better depth at wide receiver than they did last season, as their 3rd receiver last year was Damaris Johnson, who graded out 107th out of 110 eligible wide receivers on 586 snaps. Nate Washington, signed to a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Tennessee, will probably be their 3rd receiver this year. Nate Washington has been around for a while, playing in every game in each of the last 9 seasons, catching 411 passes for an average of 6296 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Steelers and Titans. He’s never been great, with only one season of 1000+ yards, but he’s always been decent and dependable.

However, now he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of an underwhelming season in which he caught 40 passes for 647 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade. He’s not very good at this stage of his career, but he should be better than Johnson was last season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick on Jaelen Strong, further adding to their wide receiver depth. The team likes him, but he’ll probably be the 4th receiver at best as a rookie and push for more playing time in 2016 and beyond.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Garrett Graham, a 2010 4th round pick, was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out above average in the first 3 seasons of his career. He graded out 57th out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 55th out of 67 eligible in 2014. A poor blocker at 6-3 243, Graham has never had more than 49 catches in a season and has just 96 catches in his career. He’s a solid #2 tight end, but he’s not a starting caliber player.

The Texans drafted CJ Fiedorowicz in the 3rd round in the 2014 draft to potentially be a starter long-term, but he was awful as a rookie, grading out 63rd among 67 eligible tight ends on 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but I wouldn’t bet on him ever becoming a starting caliber player. Most 3rd round picks don’t. There’s a reason they fall to the 3rd round. Ryan Griffin is also in the mix for snaps, after grading out below average on 339 snaps last season. The 2013 6th round pick also graded out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t appear to be a starting caliber player long-term.

The Texans best tight end is arguably defensive end JJ Watt, who flashed on 9 snaps last season, catching 3 passes for 4 yards and 2 touchdowns. At one point a collegiate tight end, Watt could probably be a starting tight end in the NFL, but he’s far more valuable on defense and the Texans would risk tiring him out by having him play a significant amount of snaps at tight end. He might be able to handle it, but it’s not worth the risk, considering how good he is on defense. He’ll remain a gadget, goal line tight end, if anything. The Texans will struggle to find a consistent target after DeAndre Hopkins and struggle to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Speaking of JJ Watt, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season for the 2nd time in 3 years and probably should have won it in all 3 seasons. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at the most recent. The only season in his career when he didn’t grade out #1 at his position was his rookie year in 2011, when the 11th overall pick “only” graded out 5th among 3-4 defensive ends. Last season was arguably the best season of Watt’s career and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston did have more sacks than Watt last season, 23 as compared to 21, but Watt plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position. Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position from which to get to the quarterback. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston.

Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season. He’ll never be as valuable as a top quarterback and he probably won’t even make the playoffs again until his team figures out the quarterback situation, but he’s definitely the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s easily the biggest reason why the Texans ranked 10th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains last season, as the Texans didn’t have a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at their position. Extended for 100 million over 6 years last off-season, Watt is locked up through his age 32 season in 2021 and at a very reasonable price, considering Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh got 101 and 114 million respectively over 6 years.

Watt should actually have some help on the defensive line this season, as the Texans signed Vince Wilfork to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal. Cut by the Patriots to save 8.5 million, Wilfork isn’t the player he once was, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a torn Achilles in 2013, and he’ll only play a two-down base package role as a nose tackle this season, but he should still be useful to the Texans. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Ryan Pickett and Jerrell Powe, who played 290 and 277 snaps respectively at nose tackle last season. Both were disastrous, especially Powe, as no one played fewer snaps than Powe at the defensive tackle position and graded out worse.

Wilfork, meanwhile, has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. One of the seasons he didn’t was his injury shortened 2013 season and he bounced back in his first season back in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 6th against the run, which is his specialty. He’ll move back to his natural position of nose tackle in Houston in 2015, where his run stopping abilities can be best utilized (though he can still play 3-4 defensive end in a pinch), and he should have at least one more season of above average run play left in the tank. He was a risky signing because of his age, but he should work out.

Jared Crick will be the other starting defensive end, opposite Watt and next to Wilfork. The 2012 4th round pick has never graded out above average in his career, grading out below average on 220 and 277 snaps in 2012 and 2013 respectively as a reserve and then last season on 726 snaps as a starter. However, he was only slightly below average last season, so he’s not a horrible starter. The bigger problem is the Texans’ lack of depth behind him. Watt never needs to come off the field, so that’s not a concern, but Tim Jamison was their top reserve last season and he graded out 44th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 420 snaps. He’s gone now, but Jeoffrey Pagan, a 2014 6th round pick who struggled mightily on 191 snaps as a rookie, is their top reserve now, which isn’t a better situation. Still, it’s a strong defensive line, almost entirely because of Watt.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Texans didn’t have a lot of injuries on offense, they did have more than an average amount of adjusted games lost on defense (20th fewest). That alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a better defense this season, but they do have pair of talented linebackers who had serious injury problems last season that the Texans are hoping can bounce back. The first is middle linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing, a 2009 1st round pick, has had some fantastic seasons in his career, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2011. He graded out above average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career from 2009-2013, but he missed 20 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, suffering a torn ACL and a broken leg, and it appears those injuries have taken a serious toll on him.

Even though he played in 14 games in 2014, he was nowhere near his old self, grading out below average for the first time in his career, 38th among 60 eligible middle linebackers. Cushing dealt with ankle, wrist, and knee problems for most of the season and had surgery on all 3 of those body parts this off-season. The reviews of him this off-season have been good, so there’s some hope for a bounce back year, only going into his age 28 season in 2015, but it’s very hard to trust him to stay 100%. His last healthy season was way back in 2011. At the very least, I think the Cushing of 2009 and 2011 is gone.

The Texans added Benadrick McKinney in the 2nd round of the draft to start next to Cushing, so if Cushing gets hurt again, Mike Mohamed, who graded out above average on 524 snaps last season, would replace him. Mohamed is a 2011 6th round pick who had played 13 career defensive snaps prior to last season, so he’s hard to trust, but he’s more than adequate as a 3rd middle linebacker. The addition of McKinney makes them much deeper at the position and much better equipped to handle another Cushing injury.

The other linebacker with a serious injury concern is Jadeveon Clowney, the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Texans improved by 7 games in the win total last season in spite of him, not as a result of him, as he had about as of a disappointing rookie year as he could have had. Not only did he grade out below average, but he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee problems and had to have off-season microfracture surgery, which puts him in a race to play week 1. Even if he does play all or most of this season, microfracture surgery is a very tough surgery to recover from and he probably won’t come close to fulfilling his huge upside until 2016 at the earliest. It’ll be hard for the Texans to count on either Cushing or Clowney being significantly more valuable than they were last season or either one of them contributing to any sort of defensive improvement.

Unlike middle linebacker, the Texans don’t have good depth at outside linebacker behind Clowney. Brooks Reed, who graded out above average on 799 snaps last season, signed in Atlanta this off-season, leaving John Simon as the 3rd outside linebacker. Simon, a 2013 4th round pick, flashed on 239 snaps last season, after playing just 3 as a rookie, but is a long way away from convincing me that he can be a competent every down outside linebacker if the Texans need him to be. They’ll have to hope that Clowney can stay healthy, allowing Simon to work as a rotational player behind Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

Mercilus is locked in as an every down player at the other outside linebacker spot in Houston’s 3-4, after getting a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension this off-season. That deal was a classic case of a team overpaying for a marginal talent. Mercilus has largely been disappointing since the Texans drafted him 26th overall in 2012. Mercilus has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, including 28th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 42nd out of 42 eligible in 2013. He’s coming off of the best season of his career in 2014, but he still only graded out 35th out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling as a pass rusher. It’s a very underwhelming linebacking corps overall behind a strong defensive line.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have been a solid duo of starting cornerbacks for the Texans since they brought Joseph in as a free agent four off-seasons ago, but there was at least some potential that one or both of them would not be back in 2015. Jackson was a free agent, as his 5-year rookie deal had expired. The 2010 1st round pick has had an up and down career, grading out 11th among cornerbacks in 2014 and 12th among cornerbacks in 2012, but below average in the other 3 seasons. There are two ways to look at this. One is to see him as an inconsistent player. The other is to see him as someone who got off to a slow start in his career, but has generally been good since then.

Joseph, meanwhile, could have been cut this off-season, ahead of an age 31 contract year, in which he was owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million dollars. The Texans signed Johnathan Joseph to a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal four off-seasons ago and it’s largely been a good deal for them as Joseph has missed just 4 games in 4 seasons and graded out above average in all 4 years. Joseph’s best season came in the first season of his deal in 2011, when he graded out 11th at his position, but he’s played at only about a level lower in the other 3 seasons, grading out 44th, 25th, and 23rd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.

The Texans ended up keeping both of them, cutting salary at other spots, namely center (Chris Myers) and wide receiver (Andre Johnson). Joseph will return after signing an extension this off-season. He won’t make 8.5 million this season, but the Texans gave him 11.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 22 million dollar deal, which gives him some long-term security, in exchange for giving the Texans some additional financial flexibility. Even though he’s on the wrong side of 30, he should grade out above average for the 8th straight season. Meanwhile, Jackson was re-signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal which is risky, but pretty appropriate. Both should be above average starters again this season.

Despite that, the Texans used their 1st round pick (16th overall) on Kevin Johnson out of Wake Forest. Johnson doesn’t fill an immediate pressing need, but he should be an upgrade on AJ Bouye, who graded out 71st among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 644 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, and he should be a long-term replacement for Joseph, whenever the Texans decide to part ways with him. Johnson could take a little bit to get used to the NFL, but it’s a talented trio of cornerbacks.

While things are largely the same at cornerback this season, the Texans underwent a complete overhaul at safety this off-season. Kendrick Lewis (1097 snaps), DJ Swearinger (1037 snaps), and Danieal Manning (591 snaps) were their top-3 safeties last season in terms of snaps played and all 3 are gone. Lewis signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Manning retired ahead of his age 33 season. Both of those two players graded out above average last season and will be missed. Swearinger, however, graded out 78th among 87 eligible safeties last season and got cut with two very affordable years left on his rookie deal because of disciplinary problems, eventually latching on in Tampa Bay. Swearinger played around the line of scrimmage in place of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages last season, with Manning coming in for him in the secondary, but, with the addition of McKinney through the draft, the Texans no longer needed him to do that.

Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore were brought in as free agents this off-season on a 1-year, 825K dollar deal and a 3-year, 12 million dollar respectively and both will play every down as traditional safeties. They’re going to be a solid duo. Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps, as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season. As a result, he was forced to settle for a near minimum deal this off-season and he should be a strong value for the Texans.

Moore should also be a strong value. Given that it was a weak safety market, especially after Devin McCourty re-signed with the Patriots, I thought Rahim Moore had a good chance to be overpaid. There was an argument to be made that he was the best safety that hit the open market this off-season. Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2012 in his 2nd year in the league (only his age 22 season) and it looked like the 2012 2nd round pick had a very bright future. Moore hasn’t quite lived up to the upside he showed in 2012 over the past 2 seasons, and his career was briefly stalled by a frightening, rare leg injury that could have cost him his leg or his life. However, he’s still graded out around average in each of the last 2 seasons on Pro Football Focus and made all 16 starts in his return from injury this season. Besides, he’s only going into his age 25 season so his best football could definitely still be ahead of him. He and Brown are a solid duo in a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans were an average team that won 9 games last season. I have a hard time seeing them being better than that this season, considering they got rid of their best quarterback and considering that there isn’t really anywhere else on the field where they figure to be significantly better this season. With the Titans actually adding a legitimate franchise quarterback (or at least a potential legitimate franchise quarterback) and some nice parts on defense, the Texans could actually be leapfrogged in the division by the Titans. At the very least, they’re closer to the Titans and maybe even the hapless Jaguars than they are to catching the Colts. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Texans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC South

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