Tennessee Titans 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2-14 and 31st in rate of moving the chains differential. The problem wasn’t just on one side of the ball, as they ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains and 28th in rate of moving the chains allowed. The Titans made a fair amount of moves all over the field to try to fix that, but easily the most franchise defining one was the selection of quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, turning down multiple trade offers to select the ex-Oregon quarterback and 2014 Heisman award winner.

Most teams that are picking as high as the Titans did in this past draft are doing so largely as a result of poor quarterback play and the Titans are no exception. Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and Zach Mettenberger all saw significant playing time under center for the Titans last season, as the Titans tried to find some sort of answer and they all struggled. Combined, they completed 58.3% of their passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, a huge part of the reason why the Titans moved the chains at a mere 65.44% rate. The Titans were fortunate enough to be picking high in a year where a legitimate franchise quarterback option was available to them and smart enough to pull the trigger.

It’s unclear how good Mariota can be as a rookie, but he’ll probably be an upgrade over the trio that played last season. That being said, he is pretty raw, only turning 22 this season, coming over from what was very much a college style offense at the University of Oregon and now having to adapt to a Ken Whisenhunt offense that has historically not been very friendly to young quarterbacks. For what it’s worth, Whisenhunt has said he will tailor his offense to fit Mariota’s skill set and incorporate some of what Mariota did well in college.

I think, long-term, Mariota will be better than Jameis Winston, who went #1 overall to Tampa Bay, because of his superior accuracy and athleticism, but he could struggle as a rookie. 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. With a weak supporting cast around him, the Titans fans shouldn’t expect too much more than that from their rookie signal caller. 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.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Titans’ weak offensive supporting cast around Mariota isn’t for lack of trying, as they spent both a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the offense. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how often teams that select a quarterback in the first round use their subsequent pick on an offensive player to help that quarterback. 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.

For the Titans, that next pick was 40th overall in the 2nd round (after a trade down) and they used it on former Missouri and Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB has great talent, great upside, and off-the-charts athleticism (4.49 40 at 6-5 237), but was kicked off the Missouri football team for a variety of off-the-field issues and didn’t play at all last season, only practicing with the Oklahoma football team. If not for the off-the-field stuff, he would have been an easy top-10 pick, but between his unreliable character and the fact that he hasn’t played in a real game since 2013, he’s one of the riskiest picks in the draft. He’s the definition of a boom or bust draft pick. As a rookie, he’ll battle for playing time in an overall very unresolved receiving corps.

Nate Washington led the way with 782 snaps last season, grading out 80th among 110 eligible wide receivers, including 96th in pure pass catching grade. He signed as a free agent in Houston this off-season and, though he had some good years in Tennessee, he won’t really be missed, going into his age 32 season. Kendall Wright (678 snaps) and Justin Hunter (605 snaps) remain, but they also graded out below average. Wright wasn’t terrible, but Hunter graded out 89th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. In addition to adding Green-Beckham, the Titans also signed veteran Harry Douglas, who was cut by the Atlanta Falcons.

Wright is the only one locked into a role and should lead Titan wide receivers in catches for the 4th straight year. The 2012 1st round pick graded out below average as a rookie, but seemed to have a breakout year in 2013. He caught 94 of 134 passes (70.1%) for 1079 yards and 2 touchdowns on 539 routes run, an average of 2.00 yards per route run, and graded out 18th among wide receivers that season. However, he saw his slash line fall to 57/715/6 in 2014 and, while he wasn’t horrible, he still graded out below average.

In 3 seasons in the league, he’s caught 215 of 315 passes (68.3%) for 2420 yards and 12 touchdowns on 1407 routes run, an average of 1.72 yards per route run. Part of his inability to put up #1 receiver numbers has to do with poor quarterback play and he hasn’t been a bust or anything, but he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a complementary receiver and the Titans are asking him to be a coverage changing #1 guy. The Titans picked up his 7.32 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so the fact that they did that doesn’t tell us a ton. They’ll be hoping he can have a bounce back year and provide a consistent target for their rookie quarterback.

The other three (Green-Beckham, Hunter, and Harry Douglas) will compete for the other starting job and playing time in 3-wide receiver sets. Hunter was predicted by many to have a breakout year last season and he certainly has the athleticism, as the 2013 2nd round pick ran a 4.44 40 at 6-4 196, but instead he fell flat on his face. He also graded out below average on 340 snaps as a rookie and has overall been a disappointment thus far. The Titans are probably holding out hope that he can have a breakout year this year, but the selection of Green-Beckham suggests they’re not too confident. Hunter could wind up as far down the depth chart as 4th.

Douglas, meanwhile, has never graded out above average in his career, since the Falcons took him in the 3rd round in 2008, largely playing as a slot specialist. Even in 2013, when he caught 85 passes for 1068 yards and 2 touchdowns in place of an injured Julio Jones, he wasn’t very efficient, as he was targeted 126 times. Things won’t get better as he heads into his age 30 season in 2015. He was cut by the Falcons this off-season to save 3.5 million and the Titans signed him as veteran insurance, bringing him in on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal that actually pays him more than 3.5 million annually. If he has to play a significant role this season, the Titans are in trouble in the receiving corps, but that could very well happen.

Tight end Delanie Walker actually led the Titans in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 63 passes on 100 attempts (63.0%) for 890 yards and 4 touchdowns on 503 routes run, an average of 1.77 yards per route run. Primarily a blocker throughout his career, since going in the 6th round in 2006, the Titans signed him to a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago with the intention of turning him into an every down tight end who could contribute in the passing game. It was a weird move and it looked like it wouldn’t work out as Walker put up just a 60/571/6 slash line in his first season in Tennessee, grading out below average in pass catching grade once again.

However, Walker inexplicably broke out as a pass catcher in 2014, grading out above average in pass catching grade for the first time since 2008 (when he played just 143 snaps). Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked tight end. Now going into his age 31 season, I’m skeptical that he can replicate that strong season as a receiver, but he should once again be a strong blocker at the very least. He’s graded out above average as a run blocker in all 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s not a bad player, but when he’s your best offensive playmaker, you’re in trouble.

Anthony Fasano, who the Titans signed to a 2-year, 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, will probably be the #2 tight end, focusing primarily on blocking in two-tight end sets. Anthony Fasano played 678 snaps in 2014 for the Chiefs at tight end, but he struggled mightily, grading out 61st out of 67 eligible, and now he’s going into his age 31 season. The Chiefs cut him to save 3.1 million. Fasano graded out above average in every season from 2007-2012, including 6th in 2011 and 18th in 2012, but those days are likely long gone. He’s a decent #2 tight end at best. It’s not a good receiving corps that Mariota has to work with.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Titans use a 2nd round pick on Dorial Green-Beckham after taking Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, they also used their 3rd round pick on an offensive player, taking offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi. He could start at right tackle as a rookie, following the release of Michael Oher, who graded out 75th among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season in 11 starts, before going down for the season with injury. That would definitely be a problem, especially since many draft experts thought he’d need to move to guard in the NFL because of his lack of athleticism, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Poutasi will compete with veterans Byron Bell and Byron Stingily. Bell is experienced, with 56 starts in 4 seasons since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he’s not very good at all. He was horrible to start his career at right tackle, grading out 69th out of 76 eligible in 2011, 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012, and 53rd out of 76 eligible in 2013. Predictably, he wasn’t better in 2014 when forced to play the blindside, grading out 83rd out of 84 eligible. Stingily, meanwhile, was a 2011 6th round pick. He’s graded out above average just once in 4 seasons in the NFL (2012) and has never played more than the 248 snaps he played last season. He played horribly in limited action last season. Even with Oher gone, right tackle remains a massive problem, to the point where the Titans’ best option might be to start a 3rd round rookie.

Taylor Lewan will start on the other side. The 2014 1st round pick was stuck behind veterans Michael Oher and Michael Roos when he was drafted, but made his first start week 6, after Roos went down for the season with injury. Lewan graded out above average on 359 snaps before going down for the season week 12 with an injury of his own. With Roos retiring ahead of his age 33 season this off-season, Lewan will go into his 2nd season as the undisputed starter and, now healthy, he has the talent to have a breakout year on the blindside. That’s not necessarily going to happen and he’s still unproven, but he is one of the few bright spots on this offensive line and having him healthy and starting for a whole season will be a boost to this team.

With so many injuries and inconsistencies upfront, the Titans had 12 different offensive linemen play a snap last season. Only 3 of them graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, the retired Roos, Lewan, and right guard Chance Warmack. Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, but he’s made 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and played decently, grading out slightly below average as a rookie and slightly above average last season. That, by default, makes him one of the best players on the Titans’ offensive line, and, only going into his age 24 season, he still has a good chance to continue improving. During the final 7 weeks of last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, a small sample size, but a very good sign for 2015 and beyond.

At the other guard spot, Andy Levitre will start once again. The 2009 2nd round pick has made all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but graded out below average for the first time since his rookie year in 2014. The Titans, who signed him to a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, kept him at a scheduled non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary for 2015 because they have a bunch of cap space, no better alternative, and they believe he can bounce back. Levitre graded out 36th, 5th, 8th, and 13th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively and he is only going into his age 29 season, so there definitely is bounce back potential.

Outside of Lewan and Warmack and maybe Levitre, the rest of the offensive line is in trouble. I already mentioned their problems at right tackle; things at center aren’t any better. Brian Schwenke was the starter there last season, grading out 32nd among 41 eligible centers before going down for the season week 12. He wasn’t any better as a 4th round rookie in 2013, grading out 30th among 35 eligible centers on 573 snaps, no surprise given where he was drafted. He doesn’t project as a starting caliber player long-term, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Chris Spencer took over for him after he went down for the season, but he was even worse and now is a free agent expected to retire ahead of his age 33 season, leaving the Titans with only 6th round rookie Andy Gallik behind Schwenke. Gallik probably won’t be an upgrade, but he could see action as a rookie because it’s such a problem position. It’s not a good offensive line, but if Lewan can stay healthy, Levitre can bounce back, and Warmack can continue developing, they should be improved this season and help this offense move the chains more effectively.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another thing the Titans can do move the chains better in 2015 is to run the ball better, after they rushed for 4.06 yards per carry last season, 18th in the NFL. Even worse, they picked up just 75 first downs on the ground, 25th in the NFL, 19 of which came from quarterbacks and wide receivers. You can’t really blame the offensive line for that as, while they ranked 28th in team pass blocking grade last season, they were middle of the pack (14th) in run blocking. Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene led the team in carries with 152 and 94 carries respectively and combined for just 44 rushing first downs on 246 carries. Sankey rushed for 569 yards and 2 touchdowns on 152 carries, an average of 3.74 YPC, while Greene rushed for 392 yards and 2 touchdowns on 94 carries, an average of 4.17 YPC.

Greene was let go this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 3.35 million ahead of his age 30 season, but Sankey remains. The 2014 2nd round pick was a bust as a rookie, not just struggling on the ground, but also struggling as a receiver, adding just 18 catches for 133 yards. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. More of a finesse runner at 5-10 209, Sankey could end up splitting carries in 2015 with 5th round rookie David Cobb, who is more of a powerful runner at 5-11 229, but fell in the draft because of a severe lack of speed and agility. It’s an underwhelming young duo of running backs.

Dexter McCluster remains as gadget player and an obvious passing situation running back behind both of them. The running back/wide receiver hybrid rushed for just 131 yards on 40 carries last season and has a career average of just 4.13 yards per carry on 192 carries, but he did add 26 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown last season and graded out above average on 238 snaps as a result. He definitely wasn’t worth the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Titans gave him last off-season, as they really like overpaying for marginal offensive talent (Shonn Greene, Anthony Fasano, Harry Douglas, etc.), but he does a serve. With Leon Washington (22 catches for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns last season) gone and the coaching staff, for whatever reason, talking about getting McCluster more involved, he could have 30-40 catches this season. He won’t help the Titans on the ground though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Titans didn’t take any meaningful steps to improve their offense in the short-term (aside from maybe the selection of Mariota), they did take steps on defense, adding cornerback Perrish Cox, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, and safety Da’Norris Searcy, all of whom are above average starters, in order to fix what was one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season. They didn’t really do anything on the defensive line, but that might not be the end of the world, as their defensive line wasn’t a huge problem last season.

Jurrell Casey led the way with 931 snaps played, epitomizing an every down player. The 2011 3rd round pick has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and got a well-deserved 4-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season. Casey spent the first 3 years of his career in a 4-3, grading out 16th, 8th, and 5th among defensive tackles, and then showed his scheme versatility when the Titans switched to a 3-4 last off-season. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014, as one of the Titans’ lone bright spots. Only going into his age 26 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, only with a better supporting cast.

The rest of the Titans’ 3-man defensive line is largely up for grabs, but there are some talented players in the mix. Sammie Lee Hill (597 snaps), Ropati Pitoitua (394 snaps), Mike Martin (357 snaps), Karl Klug (338 snaps), Al Woods (297 snaps), and DaQuan Jones (143 snaps) all played a decent amount last season and all 6 will return and play a decent amount of snaps again. Sammie Lee Hill was their starting nose tackle last season. The 2009 4th round pick graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, but never played more than 437 snaps in any of those seasons and graded out below average last season on a career high 597 snaps. He probably won’t play as many snaps again this season and he should be in the 300-500 snap range again. He’s a solid rotational player who has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. The 6-4 329 pounder can play both nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 defense.

Ropati Pitoitua played 12 games last season, starting 11 of them, and primarily playing in base packages. He graded out 9th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stopping grade, but didn’t do much as a pass rusher. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out above average as a run stopper in each of the last 2 seasons, but hasn’t graded out above average as a pass rusher since 2009, when he played just 48 snaps. The 2008 undrafted free agent is already going into his age 30 season and is only a base package player. Like Hill, Pitoitua will probably play fewer snaps per game this season because the Titans have mentioned they see 2014 4th round pick DaQuan Jones as a starter this season and he should have a regular role, at least in base packages, after he played just 143 below average snaps as a rookie. The 6-4 323 pounder could see action at both nose tackle and defensive end. I don’t have a ton of faith in him, but he could surprise.

Mike Martin and Karl Klug fit in as sub package rushers. Both graded out above average as pass rushers last season. Martin, a 2012 3rd round pick, has never played more than 435 snaps in a season and has only once graded out above average against the run, but he’s graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th among defensive tackles in 2013. He should have a similar season again this year on 300-400 or so snaps. Klug, meanwhile, is a similar, but probably slightly better player. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th in 2013, but has never graded out above average as a pass rusher or played more than 520 snaps in a season.

Woods rounds out the group and is probably the worst of the bunch, grading out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2010, never playing more than 297 snaps in a season. The 6-4 314 pounder was a backup nose tackle last season. He won’t have a very big role at all this season and will almost definitely play the fewest snaps of the bunch. Things won’t be too much different on the defensive line this season, but that’s not going to be a big issue because the defensive line wasn’t the problem last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The problem last season was the linebackers and the secondary and the Titans did a good job of adding talent there in free agency. Brian Orakpo comes over as a free agent from Washington on a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal, upgrading a position where Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, and Quentin Groves were awful last season on 549, 362, and 249 snaps respectively. Wimbley and Phillips graded out 44th and 43rd respectively out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, while Groves would have graded out 4th worst at the position if he had been eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position than Groves.

Orakpo should be a substantial upgrade. Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral. Now he hits free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals. He’s very talented when he’s on the field though. In addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. He’s an obvious injury risk, but he has a huge upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

He’ll play opposite Derrick Morgan, who was re-signed to a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal this off-season. A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability are very valuable and the Titans did well to lock up a talented young player. The only issue at outside linebacker is depth as 6th round rookie Deiontrez Mount could be their 3rd outside linebacker, which would become an issue if Orakpo were to get hurt again. However, Orakpo and Morgan are one of the best edge rusher duos in the NFL, as long as both are healthy.

Inside at middle linebacker, Avery Williamson was a steal as a 5th round rookie last season, playing 834 snaps, making 12 starts, and grading out above average, 17th among middle linebackers. 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 definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term starter. He should remain a starter in 2015.

Zach Brown, who missed all but 4 snaps last season with a torn pectoral, opening the door for Williamson, will compete with fellow veteran Wesley Woodyard for the other starting middle linebacker job and appears to be the favorite right now. The 2012 2nd round pick Brown graded out slightly above average as a rookie and slightly below average in 2013, making a combined 27 starts in those 2 seasons at outside linebacker in the Titans’ old 4-3 defense. Prior to last season, he had never missed a game with injury in his NFL career so I wouldn’t classify him as injury prone and he should be able to have a solid bounce back year.

Woodyard, meanwhile, signed a 4-year, 15.75 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Denver, but struggled in his first season in Tennessee, grading out 42nd among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The 2008 undrafted free agent is experienced, with 48 starts over the past 4 seasons, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons. With Brown and Williamson being better starting options, Woodyard could be just an expensive backup this season, making 2.75 million. He fits the Titans’ recent theme of overpaying for marginal veterans. With Brown healthy and Orakpo coming in, it’s a much improved linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a problem last season as well for the Titans and one they tried to fix this off-season with the additions of cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da’Norris Searcy on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal respectively. Cox will start at cornerback, where Blidi Wreh-Wilson started last season and graded out 106th among 110 eligible cornerbacks. Cox should be a significant upgrade, coming over from San Francisco. He was Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked cornerback last season in a breakout year.

Cox’s career has had an interesting trajectory. He was a 5th round pick by the Broncos in 2010 and graded out above average on 787 snaps as a rookie, but was let go after one year after being arrested on multiple sexual assault charges. Cox was out of the league entirely in 2011 because of those charges, coupled with a history of off-the-field issues from his collegiate days at Oklahoma State, which dropped him in the draft in the first place. However, early in 2012, he was found not guilty and the 49ers gave him another chance. He didn’t play much in either 2012 or 2013, playing 168 snaps in 2012 and 81 snaps in 2013 (11 of which were actually with the Seahawks). However, injuries opened up a starting role for him back with the 49ers in 2014 and he didn’t look back, playing 965 snaps, making 14 starts, and grading above average. He’s obviously a risky signing given his history, but he clearly has talent, showing it in both of his stints as a starter.

Cox will push Blidi Wreh-Wilson to 3rd on the depth cornerback at best. The 2013 3rd round pick flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie in 2013, but proved incompetent in his first season as a starter in 2014, leading to the addition of Cox. There’s still time for him to turn it around and I like him better as a 3rd cornerback, but I don’t have a ton of hope for his future. He’ll have to hold off Coty Sensabaugh for the #3 job. Sensabaugh, a 2012 4th round pick, has been the #3 cornerback for the past 2 seasons, after struggling on 319 snaps as a rookie. He graded out above average on 509 snaps in 2013, but graded out 96th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 737 snaps in 2014. Whoever wins this battle, I expect them to struggle.

Searcy, meanwhile, will take over a starting spot at safety where the Titans had struggles last season. Bernard Pollard played decently through 5 games and 351 snaps there last season for the Titans, but then went down for the season, leaving George Wilson to start and he graded out 82nd among 87 eligible safeties. Going into his age 34 season, Wilson remains unsigned as of this writing and will likely have to retire. Searcy, a 2011 4th round pick, should be an upgrade.

Searcy played just 511 snaps in his first 2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, but he made 20 starts over the past 2 seasons as a hybrid safety/linebacker at 5-11 223. He’s never played more than 753 snaps in a season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 (on 666 snaps) and only slightly below average in 2013, so I expected someone would give him starter’s money to be a traditional, every down starting safety for them. It’s a risky move for the Titans, but, like the Cox deal, I think it’s a solid value and, like the Cox deal, I think it will really help this secondary.

At the other two starting spots in the secondary, the Titans will be counting on bounce back years from cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin. McCourty graded out below average last season for the first time since he was a 6th round rookie in 2009. He’s made 63 of 64 starts since 2011 and graded out 20th, 8th, 6th, and 11th respectively from 2010-2013. A lot of that has to do with his strong play against the run, but he still graded out 15th, 32nd, 23rd, and 17th respectively in those 4 seasons in coverage grade (all above average) and the fact that he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL against the run in those 4 seasons is just a cherry on top. Only going into his age 28 season, I like his bounce back potential, which would really help this secondary.

Griffin’s bounce back potential is a little bit more questionable. The 2007 1st round pick has had some great seasons, but he’s also been incredibly inconsistent throughout his career. Griffin has graded out 37th, 9th, 41st, 10th, and 14th among safeties in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively, but also 87th out of 88 eligible in 2009, 87th out of 88 eligible in 2012, and 83rd out of 87 eligible in 2014. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him next season, especially as he goes into his age 30 season. The Titans kept him on board at a 6.3 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in hopes that he’d bounce back, but that was mostly because they had so much cap space that they could afford to. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more likely that he’s better this season than worse. He still might not be good, but he’s part of a secondary that should be much improved from last season on a defense that should be much improved from last season.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

I think the Titans had a pretty good off-season. They added a quarterback who I think will be the best quarterback in this draft class and a franchise quarterback long-term. He might not be great right away in the short-term, but he should be an upgrade over what they had last season and the Titans added talent to their defense to help in the short-term. I don’t see this team sneaking into the playoffs or anything, unless Mariota goes crazy as a rookie and elevates a poor offensive supporting cast that is only relying on bounce back years to improve, but they have a pretty easy schedule and should win a decent amount of games. They should also be healthier after having the 11th most injuries in the NFL last season, in terms of adjusted games lost, including some to some of their better players (Zach Brown and Taylor Lewan come to mind).

The Titans 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, Tennessee is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tennessee has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tampa Bay, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. At the very least, the Titans won’t be the pushover they were last season when they lost 10 games by more than a touchdown and will be much tougher for teams to beat. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Titans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 2nd in AFC South

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Indianapolis Colts 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It might not show it in the win/loss column, as the Colts have gone 11-5 in each of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL, but the Colts have gotten significantly better in each of Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL. In Luck’s rookie year, they went 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and, while they’ve done well in close games in every season, they’ve gotten progressively less reliant on eeking out close victories in each season, going 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2013 and 4-2 in 2014. This has been noticeable in the playoffs, as the Colts have gone from losing in the wild card round, to losing in the divisional round, to losing in the AFC Championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl, over the course of those 3 seasons, though there are other ways to tell that they’re improving as a team.

In 2014, much more so than the other two seasons, the Colts were an 11-5 team that deserved to be an 11-5 team. Far fewer of their victories were close games that could have gone either way. They finished the 2014 season 5th in rate of moving the chains differential, as the offense ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains, and their defense actually ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed. It’s important to remember that the Colts play in a terrible division that has allowed them to go 12-0 in divisional games (as opposed to 10-10 in non-divisional games) over the past 2 seasons. The division should be better this season, but not to the point where the Colts will be an underdog in any divisional game, either home or away, this season. The Colts should also be better too, after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. Even though they’ve been somewhat propped up by a bad division, this still looks like one of the most talented teams in the AFC.

So how have the Colts improved over the years? Well, they’ve spent a lot of money in free agency in recent off-seasons, with this off-season being no exception. They haven’t always spent that money wisely, but sometimes they have and they’ve had a lot of money to play with because many of their good players are under rookie contracts. That’s going to change rapidly over the next two off-seasons and it’s going to be impossible to keep everyone, so the Colts are largely in win now mode this season, but they have at least a decent chance to do exactly that.

And, of course, the biggest reason the Colts have improved is Andrew Luck. He might not be as “magical” in close games as he was when he was a rookie, but it’s much more important to be good in the NFL and Luck certainly has gotten better every season, grading out 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 9th in 2014, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season. He set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns with those numbers.

He’s not quite a top level elite quarterback, but he’s very close and, only going into his age 26 season, he could certainly keep getting better. He’s signed for about 19.5 million total over the next 2 seasons, but he’s expected to get a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months or so, ahead of his 2016 contract year, and will probably set an NFL record for average salary. Right now, Aaron Rodgers’ 22 million dollar annual salary is the record and Luck reportedly could get 25 million. That’s going to make it hard for the Colts to keep talent around Luck, even with a rapidly increasing salary cap, but they won’t have much of a choice but to keep a guy who could be the best quarterback in the NFL in 2 or 3 years.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One of the players the Colts brought in through free agency this off-season is former 49er running back Frank Gore, who was signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was brought in to fix a running game that averaged just 3.88 yards per carry last season, 25th in the NFL. Their top-3 running backs last season in terms of carries were mega-bust Trent Richardson, veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his leg week 11 and missed the rest of the season, and the unproven Boom Herron. That being said, the Colts will probably live to regret giving Frank Gore a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal and guaranteeing him 6.5 million of the 7.5 million he’s scheduled to make over the next 2 seasons.

Gore’s rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. However, he’s also going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. He might not have looked it last year, when he rushed for 1106 yards and 4 touchdowns on 255 attempts (4.34 YPC), caught 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, and graded only slightly below average, but he’s close to the end. This deal reminds me of when the Falcons signed an aging Steven Jackson two off-seasons ago, expecting him to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl team.

If Gore has a rapid decline or suffers an injury and another running back needs to step into a bigger role, the Colts don’t really have a good option. Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t re-signed this off-season, going into his age 29 season, following an off-season marijuana arrest that got him suspended for the first week of the 2015 season, and the Colts next 4 running backs on the depth chart behind Gore right now are Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, and Josh Robinson.

Herron is almost definitely the favorite for the #2 job right now. Even though he was a 2012 6th round pick with 9 career carries going into last season, Herron ended up being the lead back for the Colts down the stretch and into the playoffs. He wasn’t terrible, but he graded out below average in the regular season and was horrible in the post-season. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he rushed for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 123 carries (4.24 YPC) and showed himself to be pretty good as a receiver, catching 41 passes for 301 yards. Those numbers aren’t bad, but they weren’t great either and he also fumbled 4 times, a really high rate for the number of carries he had and a serious problem. He’s a decent backup, but little else.

The rest of the bunch is even more uninspiring. Vick Ballard hasn’t played since week 1 of the 2013 season, thanks to a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season and a torn Achilles that ended his 2014 season before it even started. He’s reportedly a candidate to start this season on the physically unable to perform list and miss at least the first 6 games, if he can even make the roster. He hasn’t proven himself to be a very good runner even when healthy, rushing for 877 yards and 2 touchdowns on 224 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC, in his career, while adding just 18 catches for 147 yards and another touchdown through the air. The 2012 5th round pick’s career is still very much in jeopardy, almost a whole year after the Achilles tear.

Tipton, meanwhile, was a 2014 undrafted free agent who rushed for 86 yards and 1 touchdown on 28 carries, an average of 3.07 yards per carry, with 9 catches for 90 yards and another touchdown through the air, between the regular season and post-season as a rookie. Josh Robinson, a 6th round rookie, rounds out an uninspiring group of backup running backs behind a starting running back who is at the end of his line. The Colts could be better on the ground than they were last season, but they might not be and I don’t expect them to get their money’s worth out of free agent acquisition Frank Gore.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Sticking with the theme of overpaying over 30 veterans, the Colts signed Andre Johnson to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, after the Texans released him to save 8.5 million dollars. He’ll probably help the Colts more than Gore, but I thought he’d get something closer to what Anquan Boldin got from the 49ers last off-season, a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with 6 million guaranteed.

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. That’s not bad, but it’s worse than what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s currently #12 on the NFL’s all-time receiving yardage list and likely Hall-of-Fame bound someday, 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. Johnson is a declining player who could soon become a rapidly declining player.

He could still be an asset to this team though, simply by being an upgrade over Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks, who played 881 and 602 snaps respectively last season and graded out 106th and 105th respectively out of 110 eligible wide receivers. Neither was brought back as a free agent and the former remains unsigned and will likely retire at some point, ahead of his age 37 season. The Colts have already ruled out bringing him back. His last 1000 yard season was in 2012 in his age 34 season, just another reminder of how quickly a wide receiver can lose it.

The Colts also have a pair of young wide receivers, 2014 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief and rookie 1st rounder Phillip Dorsett. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie, stealing snaps from Wayne and Nicks down the stretch. He was seen as a breakout candidate prior to the addition of Johnson in free agency and Dorsett through the draft, but now will only play a situational role this season at most, at least to start the season. Dorsett will also only play a situational role at most and was likely drafted with the future in mind. Dorsett is 5-10 185, ran a 4.33 at the combine, and has a skill set similar to TY Hilton did when the Colts drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Hilton is going into his contract year and is reportedly far apart with the Colts on a long-term deal. With a lot of talent and expensive players to keep under the cap long-term, the Colts likely see Hilton as expendable and Dorsett as his long-term replacement.

As for 2015, Hilton is locked in as the #1 receiver. Like his fellow draft classmate Andrew Luck, Hilton has improved in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, leading to a 2014 season in which he caught 82 passes on 123 attempts (66.7%) for 1346 yards and 7 touchdowns on 572 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He’s graded out 86th, 34th, and 10th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and should have another strong season this year, only his age 26 season. It’s definitely helped him to have played with Andrew Luck, but he’s a great receiver in his own right and someone who will make a lot of money on his next deal. That deal just might not come from the Colts.

With so much wide receiver depth, the Colts will probably use a bunch of 3-wide receiver sets this season, at the expense of two-tight end sets, which they ran a lot of last season, with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Allen’s the better of the two and has the better all-around game, which should earn him more playing time than Fleener. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, including 2nd among tight ends as a rookie, thanks to great all-around play. Allen missed all but 1 game and 30 snaps with injury in 2013 and wasn’t as good in 2014 as he was as a rookie, but he still graded out 9th among tight ends on 633 snaps in 13 games. He’s never had more than 45 catches in a season, but he’s still a solid tight end with decent hands and great blocking abilities at 6-3 255.

Fleener, meanwhile, has 103 catches over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average as a pass catcher in both seasons, but grading out below average as a run blocker in both seasons at 6-6 247. He’ll still have a role this season, but he won’t play the 812 snaps he did last season most likely, barring another injury to Allen. He’ll primarily play as a #2 tight end, coming in for the #3 receiver in two-tight end sets, helping the Colts effectively pass out of two-tight end sets. With their wide receivers going 4 deep, their tight ends going 2 deep, Andrew Luck under center, and limited talent at running back, expect the Colts to pass a ton this season, even when they have a lead, and probably even more than last season, when they had 661 pass attempts (1st in the NFL) to 415 rushes (17th in the NFL). Their passing game is simply, by far, their most effective way of moving the football.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Colts had a lot of injuries last season, 3rd most in the NFL in terms of adjusted games lost. That was the case in 2013 as well and arguably their most injury prone player (other than Vick Ballard) over that time period has been Donald Thomas. The Colts signed Thomas to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, which looked like a good idea at the time as Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked guard in 2012 in 7 starts with the Patriots and looked like a budding starter.

However, Thomas has played just 72 snaps in 2 seasons with the Colts, missing 30 games with injury, including all of last season. He’s already going into his age 30 season and who knows what kind of playing shape he will be in after two separate thigh tears, but he’s graded out above average in every season he’s played a snap since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He’s only made 21 starts in his career though and he’s not expected to be back until training camp at the earliest and, if he can’t nail down a starting job, the Colts could cut him to save 3.5 million in cash, 3.25 million of which will come off their cap immediately.

Thomas will be competing with Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz for the starting job. The former is a 2014 2nd round pick who graded out slightly above average as a rookie, making 13 starts at left guard and 2 starts at right tackle, where he spent the majority of his time in college at Ohio State. Reitz, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman who went undrafted in 2008 and who is going into his age 30 season. He didn’t play an offensive snap until the 2011 season and he graded out below average in both 2011 and 2012 on 544 and 479 snaps, but he graded out above average in both 2013 and 2014 on 149 and 277 snaps respectively. The Colts gave him a 3-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season so they clearly value him and his ability to play both guard and tackle.

One of Mewhort or Reitz could start the season at right tackle in 2015 if oft injured right tackle Gosder Cherilus can’t get healthy in time for the start of the season, after off-season knee surgery. Cherilus has had some good seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008 by the Lions, grading out above average in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, including 12th in 2012 and 26th in 2013. There’s a reason the Colts gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

However, he’s had major issues with his knees throughout his career, including microfracture surgery, and his recovery from this latest knee problem is taking a while. He’s also going into his age 31 season and coming off of a season in which he graded out 70th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Colts couldn’t cut him this off-season as it would have cost them 1.8 million on the cap, but he’ll need a very good season to justify a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, 4.1 million of which the Colts would save on the cap immediately.

At center, mediocre linemen Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Holmes will battle it out for the starting job. AQ Shipley actually started last season at center for the Colts, making the first 4 starts of the season and grading out 3rd among centers over that time period before being inexplicably benched for the rookie undrafted free agent Harrison, who made 10 starts and graded out 35th among 41 eligible centers. Holmes finished out the season there, making the final 2 starts, and is reportedly seen as the favorite to start there this season. However, the 2013 4th round pick has played just 193 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and likely wouldn’t be an upgrade. He struggled in those 2 starts last season. Shipley, their only competent center last year, was let go and could start in Arizona this season.

The other two spots, right guard and left tackle, seem pretty settled. At right guard, Todd Herremans should start, after signing a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Philadelphia. Herremans is an accomplished veteran who has made 124 starts for the Eagles over the past 10 years since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2005, but he missed 8 games with injury in 2014 (making it 16 games missed over the last 3 seasons) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked guard out of 78 eligible.

Herremans was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2013, so he could bounce back in 2015, but he’s also going into his age 33 season. Also, the only reason Herremans graded out so high overall in 2013 was because he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in run blocking. He struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 79th out of 81 eligible in that aspect. In fact, Herremans hasn’t graded out above average in pass protection since 2009. He’s still a capable run blocker, but pass protection is more important in today’s NFL and it’s an area that Herremans has major issues in, especially at this stage of his career. The Colts are hoping he can at least be an upgrade over Hugh Thornton and Lance Louis, who played 584 and 543 snaps respectively and graded out 48th and 62nd among 78 eligible guards respectively.

Meanwhile at left tackle, Anthony Costanzo is locked into the spot where he’s been since the Colts drafted him in the 1st round in 2011, making 60 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12th among offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Assuming Cherilus misses some time with injury, I expect their offensive line to be (from left to right) Castonzo, Mewhort/Reitz, Holmes/Harrison, Herremans, and Reitz/Mewhort to start the season, with Reitz moving into a super-sub 6th offensive lineman role when Cherilus returns. Reitz could still see significant action at either right tackle or right guard if Herremans or Cherilus get hurt again or struggle more. It’s a below average offensive line overall I think.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On the defensive line in the Colts 3-4 defense, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois led the way in snaps played with 757 and 647 respectively last season. Both graded out above average, even if only slightly, but both are gone, the former signing in Arizona as a free agent and the latter getting cut ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing in Washington. The Colts brought Kendall Langford in as a free agent on a 4-year, 17.2 million dollar deal, coming over from St. Louis, to replace Redding.

Langford was cut by the Rams this off-season, but it wasn’t because he played badly last season. They cut him because his 6 million dollar salary was too much to pay for a 3rd defensive tackle. Langford graded out about average last season, but only saw 494 snaps as he was stuck behind recent 1st round picks Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. The Colts get him at less than 6 million annually and he’s still a starting caliber player, only going into his age 29 season. I like Langford in a 3-4 more than a 4-3 anyway. He had some success in St. Louis’ 4-3, but graded out below average twice in three seasons. In a 3-4 to start his career in Miami, he graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 7th at his position in 2009 and then 7th again in 2010. He might not be an upgrade over what Redding was last season, but he’s a lot younger than Redding so he’s better long-term.

Opposite Langford, the Colts are hoping to get more out of Arthur Jones, who they signed to a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal last off-season. Jones was limited to 371 snaps in 9 games by an ankle injury last season and really struggled when on the field, grading out 40th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends, despite the limited playing time. Now healthy, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also a one-year wonder. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in his career, the contract year of his rookie deal in 2013, which is why the Colts gave him such a large contract. He graded out 12th among 3-4 defensive ends that season, but it’s very possible the Colts made a big financial mistake giving that much money to a one-year wonder. We’ll see if he can come close to replicating that season in 2015. He’ll start opposite Langford, with 3rd round rookie Henry Anderson seeing a decent amount of action as a reserve.

Starting between them at nose tackle will be the 6-1 316 pound Josh Chapman, purely a two-down player. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but played 243 in 2013 and 385 in 2014. He graded out above average against the run in each of those 2 seasons, but below average overall because of his complete incompetence as a pass rusher. He’s good in his current role, but is a limited player. The Colts also have a pair of big defensive linemen, Montori Hughes and Zach Kerr, who will see limited action across the defensive line in base packages. Hughes, 6-4 335, has seen 272 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2013, while Kerr, 6-2 335, graded out below average on 289 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Like on offense, they’re mediocre in the trenches defensively.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Sticking with their theme of adding 30+ veterans, the Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. However, unlike Johnson and Gore, Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.

Bjoern Werner (762 snaps) and Erik Walden (669 snaps) led the team in snaps at the 3-4 outside linebacker position last season and both struggled. Werner was a 1st round pick by the Colts in 2013, but has largely been a bust thus far, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, culminating in him being a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship game last season. There’s still time for him to turn it around and he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Cole, but he’s unclear if he can do that. A better run stopper than pass rusher, he’s someone who could benefit from seeing only base package snaps, something the Colts have the outside linebacker depth to do.

Walden, meanwhile, is a 2008 6th round pick who hasn’t graded out above average once in 7 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been as bad in Indianapolis as he was in his final 2 seasons in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons, but he hasn’t been worth the undeserved 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Colts gave him two off-seasons ago. Going into his age 30 season, he’s not going to get better going forward.

Like Werner, Walden also probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season as he did last season and could be purely a rotational reserve. There are three reasons for that and the first and most obvious one is the arrival of Cole. The second reason is that Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 397 snaps as a rookie and deserves a bigger role, especially on passing downs. He should siphon off a fair amount of pass rush snaps that previously went to Walden and Werner.

The third reason is that the Colts expect to get more out of Robert Mathis this season than they did last season. Of course, that’s not going to be hard, considering Mathis missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. What’s still unclear is how much they’re going to get out of him and how good he’s going to be. Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker the last time he played in 2013 and he graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, but he’s now going into his age 34 season, coming off of a serious injury and, as good as he was in 2013, he did grade out below average in 2012, so he had shown some signs of aging even prior to the injury.

His recovery from the injury reportedly hasn’t been going great, not a surprise considering his age, and he’s unlikely to be ready for training camp, which would put him in a race to play week 1 and make him a candidate to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and miss the first 6 games of the season. The addition of Cole suggests that they aren’t too confident in him. Even before the injury, he was never a very good player against the run, grading out below average against the run in 4 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, so, when he returns, he should be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages. If the Colts can get 10 games of above average pass rush from him in a situational role, they should consider that a win.

The Colts struggled at middle linebacker last season, as Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson graded out 39th and 46th respectively among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The Colts signed Nate Irving to a 3-year, 7.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he should play at least a situational role at middle linebacker this season. A 2011 3rd round pick of the Broncos, Irving never played more than 353 snaps in a season in Denver, but graded out above average overall in each of the last 2 seasons and above average against the run in each of the last 3 seasons.

In 2014, he graded out 22nd among middle linebackers, including 12th against the run, on 353 snaps, before going down for the season with a torn ACL after week 9. Through 9 weeks, he ranked 4th against the run. His recovery is going well and he should be ready for week 1, 10 months removed from the injury. He should play at least a situational base package role against the run and, unless he struggles in his first year back from the torn ACL, he should be an asset for them in that role.

Irving’s snaps in base packages should come at the expense of Freeman, an undersized middle linebacker at 6-0 220 who graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in coverage last season, but 59th out of 60 eligible against the run. This isn’t anything new. In 3 seasons in the league since coming over from the CFL, he’s graded out above average in coverage twice, but he’s never graded out above average against the run. Going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, though in a role that better suits his skill set.

Jackson will remain an every down player, which could definitely be a problem again. Jackson was a solid player when he was younger, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in his final season in Cleveland in 2013 and then 46th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in his first season in Indianapolis in 2014. Things probably won’t get better as he enters his age 32 season in 2015 and he’ll need a strong season to justify a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. There’s depth in this linebacking corps and guys who can play roles, but they’re only an average linebacking unit at best.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the front 7 struggled last season, the Colts still performed well overall defensively because of great play from their secondary (poor competition also helped). Cornerback Vontae Davis was their 2nd most important player last season, behind Andrew Luck and ahead of TY Hilton. Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2009, but, when Joe Philbin’s coaching staff came in before the 2012 season, they felt he was out of shape, benched him, and put him on the trade block. Even though Davis had graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league (29th, 13th, and 39th) and even though he was still very young (only going into his age 24 season in 2012), they shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd and a 6th round pick before the 2012 season.

It looked like the Dolphins had won the trade at first, as Davis graded out below average in his first season in Indianapolis and missed 6 games with injury, which seemed to give some truth to the accusations that he was out of shape. However, Davis has developed into one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2nd among cornerbacks in 2014. He joins Darrelle Revis as one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-4 in each of those 2 seasons.

The Colts signed him to a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, risky considering his history of injuries (10 games missed from 2011-2012) and inconsistency, but now that deal looks like a steal after he backed up an incredible 2013 season by doing it again in 2014. He heads into his age 27 season having graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and as one of the best defensive players in the game, living up to his first round talent and then some. Still in the prime of his career, I expect nothing less than another dominant season from him again in 2015.

Mike Adams also had a dominant season in for the Colts in the secondary last season, but his was much more surprising. Adams graded out 7th among safeties in 2014 and made his first Pro Bowl, even though it looked like his career was over until the Colts signed him in June of last year. He wasn’t left unsigned because he played badly prior to last season, as he was a solid starter in 2011, 2012, and 2013, grading out above average in 2011 and 2012 and only slightly below average in 2013. He was left unsigned because of age, as he was going into his age 33 season. He was able to dominate in spite of that last season, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to repeat the best season of his career in his age 34 season in 2015. Still, there’s a good chance that he is an above average starter again and once again proves to be a good value. The Colts re-signed him to a very reasonable 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal this off-season.

The Colts have another good value at the other safety spot, as they signed Dwight Lowery to a veteran’s minimum contract this off-season. Lowery has always been a solid starting safety when healthy. The Falcons signed Lowery cheap last off-season, but there was a reason he was available so cheap, even though he graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 18th among safeties in 2012. Lowery missed 20 games in 2012-2013 combined and he hadn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008.

Lowery proved to be a smart signing by the Falcons, as he graded out above average again and, more importantly, made all 16 starts. His health is still a concern long-term, but, if healthy, he should once again prove to be a smart signing, this time by the Colts. I expected him to draw more interest in the open market after he managed to stay healthy last season, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Colts will be the beneficiary of that. The Colts also used a 4th round pick on Clayton Geathers, who would see action at safety if Lowery gets hurt or Adams seriously declines. He’s also seen action in sub packages at middle linebacker this off-season and could see some action there this season in place of D’Qwell Jackson, who didn’t play well in coverage last season. The 6-2 218 pound Geathers has the size to play around the line of scrimmage in the right situation and could see a decent amount of action as a rookie (300-500 snaps) if everything goes right for him.

The rest of the secondary is a little bit more suspect as the Colts don’t have great cornerback depth behind Davis. Greg Toler figures to be their other starting cornerback again this season, but he graded out 99th among 108 eligible cornerbacks last season. The 2009 4th round pick has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 34 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league, and has graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, with his worst season coming last season. I don’t think he’ll get better, going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Darius Butler, meanwhile, will be the 3rd cornerback again. Butler was a 2nd round bust of the Patriots in 2009 and bounced around from the Patriots to the Panthers to the Colts by 2012. Butler graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but had the best season of his career in 2012 with the Colts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked cornerback on 380 snaps, earning a 2-year deal worth 4 million that off-season. Butler remained inconsistent though, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Butler has never played more than 704 snaps in a season, has averaged 501 snaps a season, and has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL. The Colts re-signed him to a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s little more than a depth cornerback.

They also brought in D’Joun Smith in the 3rd round of the draft. He could push either Toler or Butler for playing time, but probably won’t see a significant role until 2016. As a rookie, I expect him to be the 4th cornerback. The Colts’ secondary is definitely the best part of this defense once again. It’s hard to figure out how the Colts’ defense had a strong performance overall last season from looking at the talent, except for they played such a bad schedule, and their defense doesn’t seem to be too much more talented this season. Their competition should be somewhat stronger this season, which will hurt them, and their defense should be closer to the middle of the pack this season.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It might not seem like it, but the Colts are in win now mode. With Luck’s impending record extension, impending free agency for guys like TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Anthony Castonzo, among others, 32 million in cap space for 2016 currently (at a projected cap of 150 million), and 10 key players going into their age 30+ season (Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Todd Herremans, Gosder Cherilus, Joe Reitz, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, Mike Adams, Greg Toler), this season is probably going to be the best chance the Colts have at a Super Bowl victory for a few seasons.

They’re going to be very good in certain areas. They have a great quarterback and a talented receiving corps and secondary. Trent Cole is better than any pass rusher they had last season and they should have better health than they had last season. As a result, they should be good at moving the chains through the air and stopping the pass. However, they still will have major issues running the ball, blocking on the offensive line, and stopping the run.

They made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but that was because they lucked out and caught the Broncos at the right time, before getting crushed in the AFC Championship 45-7 in New England. New England, Baltimore, and Denver were all better than they were last season in terms of rate of moving the chains differential and I think that should continue this season, especially with the Colts’ division gaining on them at least somewhat. They’re on my Super Bowl short list, but I think they ultimately come up short. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Colts after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): I have the Colts getting the AFC’s #1 seed, but I actually think they’re like the 4th or 5th best team in the AFC (behind the likes of Baltimore, Miami, Denver, and maybe New England). They just have such an easy schedule. They could definitely be exposed in the playoffs again though, especially with Arthur Jones out for the season. They were counting on him to shore up this front 7 and this run defense.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC South

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Detroit Lions 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions underachieved in terms of wins and losses in both 2012 and 2013, going 11-21. However, that was largely as a result of a 6-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -25 turnover margin, and a -10 return touchdown margin. Those things tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and, in 2014, everything swung the other way with the Lions. They went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had a +7 turnover margin, and had a +1 return touchdown margin. As a result, they went 11-5, but ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, after going 7-9 and ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013. As weird as this sounds, the Lions were worse in 2014 than 2013, despite their record. There’s a reason why their over/under win total is only 8.5 at sports betting site sportsbook.ag. Many think they’re due for a regression.

One of the big reasons why they weren’t as good in 2014 as they were in 2013 was quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford, who graded out 7th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 7th in 2013, graded out below average in 2014, coming in 22nd out of 39 eligible, all rankings from Pro Football Focus. The 1st overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has shaken off early career injury issues and made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has generally played pretty well, so there’s bounce back potential here. That would go a long way in fixing an offense that was way more the problem than the solution in 2015, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. In 2013, they were 10th, which I think is a reasonable goal for this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

An offensive line that struggled in 2014, after playing great in 2013, was also part of the problem. In 2013, they ranked 6th in team pass blocking grade and 16th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. In 2014, those rankings fell to 16th and 18th respectively. The Lions underwent some changes upfront on the offensive line this off-season, letting left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola go, going into their age 32 and age 37 seasons respectively. Both graded out below average last season, Sims grading out slightly below average and Raiola grading out 37th among 41 eligible centers.

Sims will be replaced by first round rookie Laken Tomlinson, who could be a steal of the first round, after dominating at Duke with, largely with a combination of intelligence and technique. Meanwhile, Travis Swanson will take over for Raiola. He struggled at guard as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 on 277 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, but he could be better back at his natural position of center. He played decently there in a week 17 start, in place of a suspended Raiola, but he’s obviously hard to trust.

The Lions did not let right tackle LaAdrian Waddle go this off-season or anything, but his status is still in doubt for the start of the season, as he recovers from a week 15 ACL tear. Waddle played well as an undrafted rookie in 2013, making 8 starts down the stretch and grading out 30th among offensive tackles on 553 snaps, but had a little bit of a sophomore slump. Waddle went into the season as the starter this time, but missed 6 games with injuries, including, eventually, that torn ACL. He still graded out above average on 561 snaps, but wasn’t as good as he was in 2013. The Lions are hoping he can be back for week 1, just 9 months after the injury, and that he can play all 16 games and play well, but that might not happen. Cornelius Lucas would be his replacement if needed, but he struggled on 455 snaps in Waddle’s absence last season as an undrafted rookie.

Another player who had a relative sophomore slump was 2013 3rd round pick Larry Warford. Warford had a fantastic rookie year in 2013, grading out 4th among guards and not missing a single snap. However, in 2014, Warford missed 3 games with injury and “only” graded out 16th among guards. That certainly wasn’t bad, but the Lions will be hoping for a bounce back year from a player who is a young building block. He’s much more likely to bounce back than Waddle, simply because he’s not recovering from a torn ACL.

On this young offensive line, Riley Reiff is actually the most experienced one and he’s only going into his 4th season in the league. The 2012 1st round pick flashed on 336 snaps as a backup during his rookie season, but has made 31 out 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out slightly below average in 2013, but ranked 23rd among offensive tackles in 2014. He’s an ascending player on a young offensive line that has a lot of upside, but that probably won’t reach it for at least a year or two. They’ll probably be better upfront than they were last season though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Lions also struggled to run the ball in 2014, averaging 3.59 yards per carry as a team, 29th in the NFL. They weren’t a great running team in 2013, when they averaged 4.03 yards per carry, but they were noticeably worse in 2014. You can’t really blame the offensive line here, as they weren’t horrible at run blocking last season, nor were they great at run blocking in 2013. In 2013, Reggie Bush was the lead back, rushing for 1006 yards and 4 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 4.51 YPC, while backup Joique Bell rushed for 650 yards and 8 touchdowns on 166 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC.

With Bush aging, the Lions made Bell the starter in 2014. His YPC didn’t look good in 2013, but he graded out 10th among running backs because of his passing down abilities and he also picked up 43 first downs on those 166 carries, a good ratio. 2014 was a different story for him. He rushed for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, similar to 2013, but he only picked up 43 first downs on 223 carries. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, but ended up grading out below average overall because he didn’t run well. Though he only missed 1 game with injury, a variety of nagging injuries were blamed as the culprit. Bush, meanwhile, was limited to 11 games by injury and rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries, an average of 3.91 YPC, though he did add 40 catches, 3rd on the team.

Bush signed in San Francisco this off-season, while Bell heads into his age 29 season with a career 4.08 YPC average. He’s been a better runner than that suggests for the most part and he does add value on passing downs, but he’ll have to compete with 2nd round rookie Ameer Abdullah to keep his job. Abdullah has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush for his speed and pass catching abilities. He should start the season as a complement to Bell, working in rotation, and, like in 2013 when Bush and Bell caught a combined 107 passes, there should be plenty of opportunity for both to get involved in the passing game. Abdullah will eventually overtake Bell as the starter though. It’s just a question of if he’ll do that before this season starts, during the season, or in 2016 and beyond. They’re hoping that the combination of Bell and Abdullah will get them out of the cellar in YPC, where they were last season.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Lions didn’t have a significant amount of injuries on either side of the ball last season, finishing in the middle of the pack in adjusted games lost, both offensively and defensively. However, they did have some significant injuries to very important players and that definitely had a noticeable effect on this team. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed 3 games and was a decoy in another 2 (catching just 3 passes for 19 yards) because of a severely sprained ankle. In the 11 games he played healthy, the Lions moved the chains at a 72.59% rate, as opposed to 68.92% in the other 5 games.

I think we can attribute most of that to Megatron. When healthy, he still put up great numbers, catching 68 passes for 1056 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games, which extrapolates to 99 catches for 1536 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those are absurd numbers, but Johnson averaged 95 catches for 1564 yards and 11 touchdowns per season from 2010-2013, so those numbers are just another day at the office for him. He “only” averaged 2.29 yards per route run in 2014, but, if you take out the 2 weeks he played hurt, that average becomes 2.46. From 2010-2013, he averaged 2.37 yards per route run, best in the NFL over that time period.

Despite playing two games at significantly less than 100% last season, Johnson still finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver on 705 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. If you throw out the weeks he was hurt, he graded out 3rd among wide receivers. Johnson graded out in the top-5 among wide receivers in every season from 2010-2013, something no one else can say, and now he’s graded out in the top-7 in each of the last 5 seasons, again something no one else can say. There are some people who think that, with Johnson going into his age 30 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, that we’re starting to see the beginning of a decline with him. That may be true and guys like Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and even Dez Bryant may be better than him, but he’s still one of the best players in the NFL and having him healthy all season will be a big boost to this team.

The one thing that was better for the Lions offensively in 2014 was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.

That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

The problem is the Lions really didn’t have a good 3rd option in the passing game last season, leaving them really top heavy and very vulnerable if an injury like Johnson’s hit. There’s a reason Bush was 3rd on the team with 40 catches, despite only playing 11 games and despite being a backup running back. Jeremy Ross was their #3 wide receiver last season and actually played the 2nd most snaps among Lion wide receivers last season, because of Johnson’s injury.

Ross graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 723 snaps, 107th in pure pass catching grade. The 2011 undrafted free agent played just 190 snaps in his career prior to last season and has never graded out above average. He probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season, as long as Tate and Johnson stay healthy, but he’s a bad insurance option. He’ll have to hold off Corey Fuller, a 2013 6th round pick who graded out below average on 405 snaps last season in his first career action, and TJ Jones, a 2014 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, for the job. The 3rd receiver spot remains a serious weakness for the Lions.

By far the Lions’ best option to step up and be a reliable 3rd option in the passing game for them (aside from running backs Bell and Abdullah) is tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but struggled mightily as a rookie, catching just 25 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown and grading out 45th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 452 snaps. However, the Lions knew he’d be raw when they drafted him and he still has great upside. A young rookie, Ebron is only going into his age 22 season and ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine. He should take over the starting tight end job from incumbent veteran Brandon Pettigrew and play at least 600-700 snaps this season. The Lions will be happy with 50 catches from him in 2015.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, was horrible last season, in the first year of an ill-advised 4-year, 16 million dollar contract that the Lions re-signed him to last off-season. He graded out 57th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 598 snaps last season and caught just 10 passes for 70 yards, giving him a position worst 0.34 yards per route run. He’s a solid blocker at 6-5 263, but didn’t even play that well in that aspect last season. The 2009 1st round pick has been a bust through 6 seasons, grading out below average as a pass catcher in all 6 seasons and grading out below average overall in each of the last 4 seasons. Already going into his age 30 season, Pettigrew will play a complementary, situational role this season. The only reason he’s on the roster still is because his 2.8 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed. It’s a talented receiving corps, but still not a very deep one.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Lions’ offense should be better this season, their defense could be a lot worse, after finishing 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season. That’s because they had a ton of losses on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley were their top-3 defensive tackles last season and all 3 of them left as a free agent. Also gone is defensive end George Johnson, who played 502 snaps in a situational role last season. They were unable to really do much to replace them.

Suh will be the biggest loss as he was Pro Football Focus 3rd ranked defensive tackle last season and one of two defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy) to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the last 3 seasons. He signed a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. The losses of Fairley, Mosley, and Johnson will hurt though too. Fairley and Mosley graded out 18th and 26th respectively among defensive tackles on 297 and 503 snaps respectively, while George Johnson graded 24th among 4-3 defensive ends (including 15th in pure pass rush grade) on 502 snaps.

The Lions brought in Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker at defensive tackle. They’re not bad players, but they’re a clear downgrade. Ngata comes over in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.

Walker isn’t nearly as established as Ngata, getting non-tendered by the Saints this off-season as a restricted free agent, rather than being paid 1.54 million, but he’s flashed in limited action thus far in his career and could be a steal for the Lions on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. The 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 119 snaps in 2013 and then 308 snaps last year, grading out 21st among defensive tackles last season, despite the limited action.

The 6-3 294 pounder played both defensive end and defensive tackle in New Orleans and will be a pure 3-technique defensive tackle in Detroit. It’s unfair to assume that he’ll definitely have a breakout season in his first season as a starter, because he’s so unproven, but he has potential and he could be a big time steal. The Saints could be kicking themselves for letting him go. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive tackle are 4th round rookie Gabe Wright, 2014 5th round pick Caraun Reid, who struggled on 112 snaps as a rookie last season, and starting defensive end Jason Jones, who has the size to play inside on passing downs.

Jones and fellow starting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah remain. Ansah was the 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but broke out in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. The Lions are obviously hoping that he can, not only continue that strong play, but become even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015. With so many losses along the defensive line, he becomes even more important to this team.

Jones, however, is not nearly as good. He was signed to a 3-year, 9.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago by the Lions, but he was limited to 87 snaps in 2013 by a torn patellar tendon and then graded out 47th out of 59 eligible this season as a starter. He played the run pretty well, but didn’t offer anything as a pass rusher. The Lions could have cut him to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space this off-season, but opted to bring him back, largely because they couldn’t afford to lose more experience on the defensive line. He’s had more career success at defensive tackle than defensive end so the Lions could use him more inside more on passing downs this season, with an opportunity open. In his career as a defensive tackle, the 6-3 274 pounder has graded out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and also graded out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his only season as a starter at defensive tackle in 2010.

As a defensive end, he hasn’t been nearly as good, including 2011 season in which he graded out 62nd among 67 eligible and last year’s poor play. Regardless of whether or not he moves inside in sub packages, he won’t be seeing many sub packages, if any, at defensive end, so the Lions will need someone to step up into George Johnson’s old spot. The candidates aren’t great. They include Devin Taylor, a 2013 4th round pick who has struggled on 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and Larry Webster, a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a single snap as a rookie.

Kyle Van Noy, a 2014 2nd round pick, is also in the mix. The 6-3 252 pounder was supposed to be a starting outside linebacker/defensive end last season, playing the Von Miller role, outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. However, he was limited to 51 snaps in 8 games by injuries. Even when he was healthy, he didn’t play much because he hadn’t gotten the system down (thanks to a lot of missed practice time with injury) and there were other guys ahead of him for snaps that were playing well. This season, with guys gone, he could see snaps on passing downs at defensive end. It’s certainly not the same defensive line as it’s been in recent years, but there is still talent here, though the depth is weak.

Grade: B

Linebackers

On offense, the major injury was to Calvin Johnson. On defense, it was to talented middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who looked on his way to another strong season before tearing his ACL week 3, which ended his season after 130 snaps. Tulloch graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in 2013, 6th among middle linebackers in 2011, and has graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He could bounce back, but he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of a serious injury, and he’s had problems with his knee before (in 2012, the only season he graded out below average, it was because he played through a serious knee problem). Given that, him bouncing back is not such a sure thing, but it will be good to have him back.

Tahir Whitehead played middle linebacker in his absence and played pretty well, struggling in coverage, but doing a good enough job against the run to grade out above average overall. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker against the run. With Tulloch gone, Whitehead will move to his natural position of outside linebacker and compete for the pure base package outside linebacker role with Van Noy, which better fits his skill set, as it’ll allow him to focus on the run and not have to drop in coverage as often. Even though he’s unproven, going undrafted in 2012 and never playing a single defensive snap before last season, he should be considered the heavy favorite for that role.

At the other outside linebacker spot, the every down spot, DeAndre Levy remains and might be the Lions’ best defensive player now, with Suh gone and Tulloch coming off of an injury. Levy has been a starter since the Lions drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009, making 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons. The Lions re-signed him two off-seasons ago anyway, bringing him back on a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar deal, and that’s been an absolute steal as Levy has broken to be a late bloomer.

He’s graded out 9th and 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively and is one of the best in the game at his position. I don’t expect anything else from him in 2015, still only his age 28 season. Levy is going into his contract year and the Lions would obviously like to lock him up ahead of that. Whether he gets paid now or next off-season on the open market, you can bet someone will pay a lot more money for his services than the Lions did two off-seasons ago. He and Tulloch make a great pair of every down linebackers, while Whitehead fits well in the two down role, meaning this is one of the most complete set of 4-3 linebackers in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

While all of the Lions’ losses on the defensive line will hurt them, the defensive line wasn’t the only area where the Lions had success defensively last season, as evidenced by their strong linebacking corps. They also had a strong secondary last season, as both starters at both cornerback and safety graded out above average. We’ll see if they can do that again this season as they have a pair of aging veterans in the secondary. Safety James Ihedigbo heads into his age 32 season, while cornerback Rashean Mathis heads into his age 35 season.

Mathis is in the more precarious position age wise. Rashean Mathis looked done 2 years ago, after the 2012 season, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he’s turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 12th in 2014. We’ll see how long that lasts, but he’s a nice stopgap starter and is once again a bargain on a 2-year, 3.5 million dollar deal the Lions gave him this off-season.

The problem is the Lions don’t really have any good depth behind him. It’s unclear who the 3rd cornerback will be, as youngsters Nevin Lawson and Alex Carter, along with journeymen veterans Josh Wilson and Chris Owens will compete for that job. Lawson is a 2014 4th round pick who struggled on 63 snaps as a rookie, before dislocating his ankle, while Carter is a 3rd round rookie. Owens was Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible last season in Kansas City on 500 snaps, though he has been better in the past, grading out above average in both 2012 and 2013. He’s graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 (2010 was the other season), though he’s maxed out at 545 snaps. He’s a decent depth cornerback at best.

Wilson, meanwhile, comes over from Atlanta. It’s hard to believe that Josh Wilson was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2010. Wilson has never done anything like that other than that season, but he did grade out above average in each of the first 6 seasons of his career, from 2007-2012. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and is arguably coming off of the worst season of his career in 2014, grading out 75th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 458 snaps. That’s not a good trend, as he goes into his age 30 season. Like Owens, he’s a decent depth cornerback at best. It’s not a horrible quartet of cornerbacks, but there isn’t a clear good choice for the 3rd cornerback job (Nevin Lawson is reportedly the favorite) and some of these guys won’t even make the roster.

While Mathis is heading nearing the end of his career, fellow starting cornerback Darius Slay is just going into his prime and coming off of a strong season. The 2013 2nd round pick really struggled on 353 snaps as a rookie, but had a breakout year in 2014, making all 16 starts and grading out 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 24 season, the Lions are hoping that Slay can continue his development, become a true #1 cornerback, and one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He certainly has the potential and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he’s still the Lions’ best cornerback and a real asset to this team.

Ihedigbo is also locked into a starting job, despite his age. A late bloomer, Ihedigbo only graded out above average once from 2007-2012, after going undrafted in 2007, and never made more than 12 starts in a season during that time period. However, he’s made 29 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 15th among safeties in 2013 in Baltimore and 14th among safeties in 2014 in Detroit, who signed him to a 2-year, 3.15 million dollar deal last off-season. Unhappy with his contract (owed just 1.6 million in 2015), Ihedigbo skipped some voluntary workouts this off-season, sensing that, given his age, this was the best chance he was going to get to cash in. He came gave up on that pretty quickly though and will be on the field this season. If he can continue his strong play, he could get a decent amount of money on a short-term deal next off-season, but that’s not necessarily going to happen, given his history and his age.

At the other safety spot is Glover Quin, who is probably their best defensive back. Quin, a 2009 4th round pick, has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, 1 at cornerback (2010), and the last 4 at safety. He’s been especially good since signing a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar deal with the Lions two off-seasons ago, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among safeties in those 2 seasons and making all 32 starts. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He’s a one year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant safety he was last season, but he’s still one of the best players on a defense that won’t be as good as it was last season thanks to off-season losses, but that will still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

In 2012 and 2013, the Lions were significantly better than their record. In 2014, they were significantly worse than their record and worse than they were in 2013, when they won 4 fewer games. This season could be a case of the team playing better, but winning fewer games. The offense definitely has bounce back potential (thanks to Matt Stafford’s bounce back potential and a presumably healthy Calvin Johnson) and could be closer to the top-10 offense they were in 2013.

However, the defense sustained a lot of losses on the defensive line and probably won’t be as good as they were in 2014, when they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They’ll probably be better than 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, where they were last season, but that might not translate to another playoff appearance. They’re one of the teams that will be in the mix for a wild card spot, but they’re squarely behind Green Bay in the division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Lions after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC North

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Minnesota Vikings 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings seem to have struck gold with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. After using the 9th overall pick on Anthony Barr (also a good pickup), the Vikings looked like they would head into day 2 with only Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Instead, they moved up from the 2nd round to grab quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sliding down the board, but likely wouldn’t have been available at the Vikings’ original 2nd round pick. Bridgewater had a fantastic college career and a lot of great tape, but concerns about his size, deep accuracy, and his poor Pro Day knocked him down boards.

The Vikings’ gain is the rest of the league’s loss. The Jaguars picked Blake Bortles 3rd overall over Bridgewater and the Browns picked Johnny Manziel 22nd over Bridgewater, despite spending 100K on a study that told them that Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the draft class (because Browns). Both of those quarterbacks struggled mightily as rookies and the latter’s career could be over before it starts if he doesn’t get his act together on and off the field. On top of that, there are several other teams that had a chance to draft Bridgewater in the first round (or trade back up into the first round) that probably would prefer Bridgewater to their current quarterback, including the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, the Jets, Houston, Oakland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia etc.

As a rookie, Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, rushed for 209 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries (4.45 YPC), graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, and ranked 15th among eligible quarterbacks. It’s important not to get too ahead of ourselves with Bridgewater, as he has a long way to go to become a proven franchise quarterback, but the future looks bright for the quarterback who is only going into his age 23 season. He certainly seems to have the brightest future of any quarterback in last year’s draft class and he definitely was the best of any rookie quarterback in the NFL last season.

The Vikings only ranked 24th in rate of moving the chains last season, but they were significantly better in the 12 games that Bridgewater started, moving the chains at a 70.52% rate, as opposed to 66.36% in their other 4 games. They were also significantly better in their final 6 games of the season, moving the chains at a 72.29% rate. Over those 6 games, Bridgewater completed 68.9% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while grading out 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus over that time period. It really seemed like something clicked for the rookie. You can’t necessarily extrapolate those 6 games to a whole career or even to the 2015 season, but I think there’s a very good chance that Bridgewater is better in his 2nd year in the league than he was in his first.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The one thing that Teddy Bridgewater will have this season that he didn’t last season is future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, who missed 15 games last season with team suspension, after getting arrested for child abuse after week 1. In his absence, Matt Asiata led the team in carries with 164, but only turned them into 570 yards (though 9 touchdowns), an average of 3.48 yards per carry. He graded out 56th among 57 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus as a result.

Jerick McKinnon, a 3rd round rookie, was better, rushing for 538 yards on 113 carries, an average of 4.76 yards per carry. He graded out above average as a runner, but below average overall because of his struggles on passing downs. His struggles on passing downs caused him to drop to the 3rd round in the first place, but he’s a good runner. His strong YPC average last season was part of the reason that the Vikings averaged 4.36 yards per carry on the season overall (11th in the NFL), despite Asiata’s struggles. On top of that, they had some fluky long runs, as the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Andrew Sendejo, and Jerome Felton all had 20+ yard runs. That’s two wide receivers, a fullback, and a safety.

Peterson will be a big boost to this offense, but you shouldn’t expect him to be the same back who rushed for 2000+ yards in 2012. As good as he’s been throughout his 8-year career, he’s only rushed for 1400+ yards twice and never in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, following that 2000+ yard year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 yards per carry, good, but not incredible. He barely played last season, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, and now he’s going into his age 30 season with 2054 career carries. He ranks 28th all-time in rushing yards with 10,190, but, of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He could be fresh off of a season off, but he could just as easily be rusty.

He should still be a big asset for them, as he ranked in the top-11 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, the only running back in the NFL who can say that. The Vikings will probably still give him 300+ carries as long as he stays on the field, because Norv Turner has always preferred feature backs who frequently carry the ball 20 times per game, but there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will average more yards per carry than they did last season, when they averaged 4.36 yards per carry. They will probably be more consistent on the ground though and pick up more than 90 rushing first downs on the season. McKinnon will work as a strict backup and probably only on running downs because he doesn’t possess any passing down abilities, though Peterson isn’t that good on passing downs either (neither is Asiata for that matter).

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t nearly as good in 2014 as it was in 2013, even though they returned the same starting 5. They weren’t bad as run blockers, grading out 10th in team run blocking grade, but they ranked 25th in team pass blocking grade, after grading out 7th in that aspect in 2013. The biggest culprit was injuries. After their starting 5 missed a combined 3 games with injury in 2013, they missed 20 games with injury upfront in 2014.

The biggest loss in terms of sheer games was right guard Brandon Fusco, who was limited to 176 snaps in 3 games by a torn pectoral. Fusco graded out 8th among guards in 2013 when healthy, earning him a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s still a one year wonder, who graded out 73rd among 81 eligible guards in 2012 in his first season as a starter, but having him back and healthy will be good for this team. Joe Berger was decent on 626 snaps last season, but Vladimir Ducasse struggled mightily on 417 snaps, grading out 61st among 78 eligible guards.

Left guard Charlie Johnson also missed 2 games with injury so Joe Berger also played a little bit there last season. Johnson is gone, after grading out 56th among 78 eligible guards last season, so Berger could start there this season. Berger has actually never graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, as a super-utility man, playing left guard, right guard, and center, but he’s also only made 38 starts over that time period. He’s also going into his age 33 season, though he could still be decent this season. Long-term, he’ll face competition from 2015 4th round pick TJ Clemmings, who was seen as a 2nd round pick before a pre-draft foot injury. Berger is the favorite in my mind, with 2014 5th round pick David Yankey, who didn’t play a snap a rookie, also in the mix.

Right tackle Phil Loadholt missed 5 games with injury last season, which was a big loss, as backup Michael Harris struggled on 376 snaps in his absence. Loadholt graded out only slightly above average last season in 11 games, though he’s been better in the past. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL, including the last 4. In 2012 and 2013 respectively, he finished 21st and 11th among offensive tackles, proving himself as one of the best right tackles in the game. Only going into his age 29 season, he should bounce back to at least have a solid year in 2015.

On the other side of the offensive tackle, Matt Kalil made all 16 starts, but he was horrific. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft had a great rookie year, grading out 21st at his position. He slipped to 51st in 2013, but a knee injury was blamed as the culprit. I don’t know what happened in 2014 though, as he graded out 81st out of 84 eligible, allowing 12 sacks and committing 12 penalties. He had more knee problems (though he’s never missed a game with injury), but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever bounce back. The Vikings picked up his 11.09 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s only guaranteed for injury, so his future with the Vikings is definitely not secure. They really need him to play well, but he’s highly unlikely to live up to such a large scheduled salary.

The only Viking offensive lineman who started all 16 games and played well was center John Sullivan, who graded out 12th among centers in 2014. He’s been better in the past though and, only going into his age 30 season, I think he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. The 2008 6th round pick was a late bloomer, not really coming around until his 4th season in the league in 2011, but he graded out 3rd that year, 1st in 2012, and 3rd in 2013, meaning last season was actually a down season for him. He’s made 63 out of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and should remain a valuable asset in the middle of their offensive line. They can’t count on being as healthy on the offensive line as they were in 2013, but they should be healthier than they were in 2014 and I think Joe Berger (assuming he wins the job) is probably an upgrade on Charlie Johnson, so things are looking up on the offensive line.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The offensive line wasn’t the only place the Vikings had significant injuries on offense last season as they had the 10th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph missed 7 games with sports hernia surgery, in the first year of a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar extension that the Vikings have him last off-season ahead of his contract year. They gave him that extension even though he missed 8 games with injury in 2013, because he was very solid in his first two years in the league in 2011 and 2012, grading out 12th among tight ends in both seasons. That was largely because of his blocking abilities at 6-6 259, but he still showed decent pass catching ability with upside and the Vikings clearly wanted him to be a part of their future.

Now his future looks a little bleaker. Rudolph only missed 1 game with injury in the first 2 seasons of his career, after an injury riddled tenure at Notre Dame that caused him to fall out of the first round, but he’s missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player even when on the field. He’s going into his age 26 season so a bounce back year that gets his career back on track is still a possibility, but he’s hard to trust.

In his absence, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford played 564 and 345 snaps respectively. Ellison is a fullback by trade (and a very good one) but moved to tight end out of desperation. He wasn’t bad, but he did struggle and ultimately proved he’s more valuable at fullback, where he graded out 4th as a 4th round rookie in 2012 and 8th in 2013. With another talented fullback Jerome Felton gone, Ellison should move back to his old spot, where he could see a fair amount of action, even as a situational player. Ford, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 151 snaps in 2013 and then on 345 in 2014. He’ll compete with 5th round rookie MyCole Pruitt for the #2 job and he should be the heavy favorite.

Greg Jennings has been the Vikings’ leading receiver in each of the past two seasons. However, he’s never put up very big numbers 68/804/4 in 2013 and 59/742/6 in 2014, which is disappointing, considering the Vikings brought him in to be a difference maker in the receiving corps, when they gave him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago. Part of that was quarterback play and he didn’t grade out below average in either season, but the Vikings made the right move releasing him this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season in 2015. That move saved the Vikings 9 million in cash, 5 million of which immediately comes off their cap. The Vikings ended up paying him 18 million over 2 years.

The problem is the Vikings didn’t spend that 9 million in freed up money well, as they traded a late round pick to the Dolphins for Mike Wallace and his 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015. The Dolphins probably would have outright released him if the Vikings hadn’t traded for him, even though he still had 3 million in guaranteed money left on his deal that they would have had to pay either way. There’s a reason why the Dolphins were trying to get rid of Wallace so badly. Wallace is a solid receiver, but his last 1000+ yard year was in 2011, also the last season he graded out above average.

In his final year in Pittsburgh in 2012, he held out long into the off-season, which caused him to have a horrible season. His 64/836/8 slash line wasn’t terrible, but he caught just 55.2% of his targets and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. That didn’t stop the Dolphins from giving Wallace a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal two off-season ago and he predictably didn’t live up to it, grading out below average in both seasons, putting up slash lines of 73/930/5 and 67/862/10, and reportedly quitting on his team on multiple occasions. He’s younger than Jennings and fits well into offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, but I don’t think he’s necessarily an upgrade. He’s an average starting wide receiver and someone who should not be your #1 receiver, which he’ll be in Minnesota.

Opposite him, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson will compete for the starting job. Patterson was brought in during the same off-season as Jennings and the Vikings expected them to turn around their receiving corps and play together long-term. That really didn’t work out, as Patterson looks like a bust through 2 years in the league and Jennings is gone. Patterson has provided some value, but not doing things that wide receivers are supposed to do. He’s averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return on 77 kickoff returns, with 1 touchdown. He’s rushed for 275 yards and 4 touchdowns on 22 carries. However, he hasn’t graded out above average as a receiver in either season and has only caught 78 passes on 130 targets (60.0%) for 853 yards and 5 touchdowns on 656 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run.

Patterson spent most of his rookie year behind journeyman Jerome Simpson, won the starting job late in the season, started 2014 as the starter, but struggled and lost his starting job to the unproven Charles Johnson. Now and he Johnson will compete for the starting job opposite Wallace and it’s very possible that Johnson, who is well liked by the coaching staff, wins that job. That would push Patterson into possibly the #4 wide receiver job, working in on offense as primarily a gadget player and specializing in returning kickoffs.

Johnson didn’t play a snap as a 7th round rookie in Cleveland in 2013, but ended up starting the final 6 games of the 2014 season for the Vikings and playing 451 snaps. His numbers in those final 6 games are solid, as he caught 19 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns, but that was largely to do with Teddy Bridgewater’s play over those 6 games, as Johnson still graded out below average on the season. Even over those final 6 games, Johnson only caught 19 of 36 passes (52.8%). As I mentioned, the coaching staff likes him and his size (6-2 215), but he’s not guaranteed to ever develop into a solid starter or anything beyond a situational deep threat.

Jairus Wright is probably locked into the slot job regardless. The 5-10 180 pounder couldn’t make a living outside, but does a decent job on the slot and should remain there. He’s not a spectacular player, only grading out above average once in 3 years in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, but he’s caught 90 passes on 137 targets (65.7%) for 1332 yards and 7 touchdowns on 805 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Expect more of the same from him this season. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of unresolved issues, holding back an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ defense wasn’t great in 2014, as they finished 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed, but they were noticeably better than 2015, when they finished 30th in that aspect. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Mike Zimmer’s history and background. Zimmer spent a whopping 14 years at the defensive coordinator level and did a great job across 3 stops, Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. When the Vikings hired him as their head coach last off-season, it was long overdue and the results were immediately noticeable, even if it didn’t get the team into the playoffs right away. The Vikings were helped by having the 3rd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season, something they won’t be able to count on again, but they have a good enough mix of talent and coaching where they can overcome that. With Zimmer and Bridgewater in the fold, the Vikings seem to finally have quarterback/head coach stability that they can build around.

Like on offense, the Vikings benefitted significantly from a first round rookie on defense, as 9th overall pick Anthony Barr contributed in a big way as a rookie, great to see from a guy regarded as really raw coming out of UCLA. He’s only going into his age 23 season and only his 4th season on offense after spending the first 2 seasons of his collegiate career as a fullback. He wowed at the Combine running a 4.66 40 at 6-5 255, looking like a running back in a pass rusher’s body, and he has a great future after such a strong rookie year. He ranked 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie, largely playing as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, dropping into coverage on 340 of 455 pass play snaps. With minimal depth on the defensive line, Barr could play more of a hybrid role this season, rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages, while staying at 4-3 outside linebacker in sub packages. He was much more effective as a pass rusher than he was in coverage as a rookie, and predictably so.

The Vikings were also helped by a breakout year from 4-3 defensive end Everson Griffen. The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons.

One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one. Griffen has experience playing defensive tackle in sub packages and he has the size to do it effectively at 6-3 273 so he could do that more this season, with Barr rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages.

One of the weaknesses of the Vikings’ defense last season was the other starting defensive end, Brian Robison. Kept long-term instead of Jared Allen, the Vikings gave Robison a 4-year, 22.4 million dollar extension during the 2013 season, but he bombed in 2014, grading out 52nd among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Going into his age 32 season, it’s very possible that his best days are behind him. He graded out above average in every season from 2008-2013, both as a starter and a backup, so there’s definitely bounce back potential here, but he can’t be allowed to play 932 snaps (5th at the position) again in 2015.

The Vikings should give Barr more pass rush snaps and should use 2014 3rd round pick Scott Crichton in a larger capacity, after he played just 16 nondescript snaps as a rookie. They also added Danielle Hunter in the 3rd round of the draft this year. Robison will need a good year to stay on the roster at his scheduled 4.05 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. At the very least, the Vikings will have better depth at defensive end than last season, when Corey Wootton was their 3rd defensive end. He played just 275 snaps, but still was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite the limited playing time. No one graded out worse at the position on fewer snaps.

Along with Everson Griffen and the rookie Barr, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd also had a breakout year in 2014, in his first year in Mike Zimmer’s system. The 2013 1st round pick graded out below average on 472 snaps as a rookie, but he lived up to his billing and then some in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. The 6-3 305 pounder seems to be Mike Zimmer’s new Geno Atkins. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has a ton of talent and is in a great system for his abilities. Only going into his age 24 season, he could even be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be more in the 700-800 snap range as an every down player.

Linval Joseph is the other starter. He signed a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal last off-season and played solid in his first season in Minnesota, grading out above average on 743 snaps. The 2010 2nd round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, maxing out at 24th among defensive tackles (2013), after grading out below average in each of the first 3 years in his career. He’s a solid, but unspectacular starter. The 6-4 328 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but he’s not useless on passing downs either. If Griffen plays inside on passing downs more this season, it would probably be at the expense of Joseph.

Tom Johnson was re-signed this off-season to a 3-year, 7 million dollar deal and will return as a talented reserve. Johnson graded out 23rd among defensive tackles on just 444 snaps as a reserve in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and has never graded out above average in his career prior to last season, dating back to when he went undrafted in 2006, so he’s unlikely to be as good again. Shamar Stephen, meanwhile, was the 4th defensive tackle last season as a 7th round rookie and he played like a 7th round rookie, grading out 67th among 81 defensive tackles on just 414 snaps played. With Griffen expected to line up inside more often this season and Floyd expected to play more snaps, Stephen should rightfully have his role reduced this season. It’s a strong defensive line, with the exception of the declining Robison. It’ll help to not have guys like Shamar and Wootton playing significant roles.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One of the reasons the Vikings figure to be deeper on the defensive line this season, a big problem for them last season, is because Barr is expected to play more at defensive end. That’s only possible because they probably will have a middle linebacker capable of playing every down this season, freeing up Barr to play defensive end in sub packages. That middle linebacker is Eric Kendricks, a 2nd round rookie. He might not be great as a rookie, but he’s not as limited of a player as Jasper Brinkley, their starting middle linebacker last season. Brinkley graded out above average among middle linebackers, including 8th against the run, but really struggled in coverage and played just 471 snaps as a result. He’ll be missed against the run, but Kendricks is a much more versatile player with greater upside.

Chad Greenway has been an every down starting outside linebacker since the Vikings drafted him in the 1st round in 2007, making 124 of 128 starts in 8 seasons in the league, missing the first 4 games of his career only last season. However, he could lose his starting job to youngster Gerald Hodges. Greenway almost got cut this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 7.1 million in his contract year in 2015, and only was brought back when he agreed to a 3.1 million dollar pay cut. Greenway signed a 5-year, 40.6 million dollar deal after the 2010 season, but he hasn’t graded out above average since then. He’s been especially bad over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013 and their 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014.

Going into his age 32 season, it sounds like the Vikings are finally going to stop giving him too much credit for past performance and his starting job could be in jeopardy as a result. If it’s a fair competition battle, Hodges should be the starter, but that might not be the case. Hodges is unproven, but the 2013 4th round pick played 495 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. Most of those snaps came when Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway were hurt last season and played great, grading out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. He’s better than Greenway, but the Vikings may continue giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt, to their own peril. With a rookie inside, Anthony Barr will be the only saving grace of this linebacking corps if Hodges doesn’t start and he’s only going to play there in base packages, with Kendricks, Greenway/Hodges playing every down.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was strong last season. Their top-5 defensive backs (3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties) all graded out above average and they missed a combined 1 game, as part of a defense that had great luck with injuries in 2014. Despite that, the Vikings still felt like they needed to upgrade the secondary, adding veteran Terence Newman and rookie first round pick Trae Waynes to the mix. The former is going into his age 37 season and coming off of a down season in which he graded out below average.

However, he’s been with Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati and has always played better with Zimmer around. Newman had his career revived once before by Zimmer, grading out above average as recently as 2012 and 2013, despite ranking 96th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks in 2011 in his final season in Dallas. It’s also possible that he’s just done as a quality player in the league at his age. He’s reportedly the favorite for the starting job right now over the rookie and he’ll make a decent amount of money this season (2.5 million), but Waynes should overtake him in the starting lineup sooner or later.

With Newman or Waynes occupying one starting spot, Captain Munnerlyn, who started all 16 games last season, will be pushed to the 3rd cornerback job and will be purely a slot specialist in sub packages. The 2008 7th round pick has played well in recent years, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, and 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at 10th among cornerbacks in 2013. He’s also made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. However, the 5-8 186 pounder does have some issues with bigger wide receivers outside and does his best work on the slot as a result. Over the past 3 years, he’s allowed 1.39 yards per coverage snap outside and 1.08 yards per coverage snap on the slot. He should be a good slot cornerback, with the loser of the Newman/Waynes battle falling to 4th on the depth chart.

Josh Robinson was the 3rd cornerback last season, but, with Newman and Waynes coming in, he seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff and will serve as nothing more than strong, experienced depth as the 5th cornerback. Robinson played alright last season, grading out above average in his 3rd year in the league, after going in the 3rd round in 2012. However, maybe the Vikings are right for still not trusting him, after he graded out 109th among 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012 and 99th among 110 eligible in 2013. On top of that, he tore his pectoral earlier this month and could miss a significant portion of the season as a result, but that won’t really matter because of all the talent the Vikings have in front of him on the depth chart.

The one thing that remains the same at cornerback is that Xavier Rhodes will once again be their #1 cornerback. A first round pick in 2013, Rhodes impressed on 686 snaps as a rookie and then was even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. He struggled against the run and committed 12 penalties, but ranked 14th among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade, allowing 53.0% completion, 6.34 YPA, and deflecting 15 passes (2nd at the position). Rhodes could be even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015, only his age 25 season.

He’s one of 8 first round picks the Vikings have made over the past 4 seasons, thanks to a series of trades back up into the end of the first round, and the 1st rounder they got from Seattle for Percy Harvin, which was a steal by the Vikings. Constantly trading back up into the first round was a risky strategy that could have really backfired if they missed on a bunch of those picks, but they have generally done well with these 8 first rounders (Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Cordarelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Trae Waynes) and that’s a huge part of the reason why the team is on the up.

Harrison Smith might be the best of the bunch, which is saying something. The talented safety shook off a sophomore season in 2013 in which he graded out below average and missed 8 games with injury, by playing all 16 games and grading out 2nd among safeties in 2014. He played at an All-Pro level and he’s not a one-year wonder either. His 2013 wasn’t great, but he played all 16 games and ranked 19th at his position in 2012. The Vikings made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year rookie option this off-season (another benefit of moving up into the first round to grab him) and hope that he continues this kind of top level play into his age 26 season in 2015 and beyond. They’ll try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year and it could rival or even surpass deals given to Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 48.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million). He’s one of the best safeties in the NFL.

At the other safety spot is another safety from the 2012 draft class, but a much more unheralded one. Robert Blanton was a 5th round pick in 2012 and was actually a teammate of Smith’s at Notre Dame, where Blanton played cornerback. Blanton flashed on 59 snaps as a rookie and then 405 snaps in 2013 (grading out above average both times) before winning the starting safety job in 2014, making 15 starts and grading out 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a one-year wonder, but I see no reason he couldn’t continue being at least a solid starter, considering he’s always played well when given a chance. Another strong season would set him up for a significant payday in free agency next off-season, assuming the Vikings are unable to lock him up beforehand.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Vikings were fairly mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, en route to a 7-9 finish and a 27th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential. However, they should be better on both sides of the ball this season. They’ll have Teddy Bridgewater under center for the full season this year and he could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league. On top of that, Adrian Peterson will be back and they should have fewer injuries on the offensive line.

On defense, they won’t be able to count on fewer injuries and will probably have more, but they have a lot of young talent and they should work in more fitting roles this season. Their defense was largely brought down by players like Brian Robison, Shamar Stephens, Corey Wootton, and Chad Greenway. The first 3 should definitely play smaller roles this season and Greenway could as well. This team still has weaknesses in the receiving corps and the linebacking corps, but they have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC. Whether or not they make the playoffs and how far they go once they get there is largely going to be on Teddy Bridgewater, but things are looking up and the future looks bright. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Vikings after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 3rd in NFC North

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Green Bay Packers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In case there was any doubt, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, something he proved last season. With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees aging and Andrew Luck not quite there yet, Rodgers could keep that title for a couple years, at least. In 2014, Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, quarterbacked a team that moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL, graded out #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, won the NFL’s MVP, and came close to knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship game and going to the Super Bowl.

It was about as good of a return from injury as the Packers could have expected from Rodgers after he missed 7 games and most of an 8th game with a broken collarbone in 2013. The Packers went 2-6 without Rodgers in 2013 and they are 18-6 with him over the past 2 seasons combined. Even in 2013, when injuries limited him to 592 snaps, he still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Since 2009, Rodgers has graded out 4th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, and 1st respectively among quarterbacks, with his only season out of the top-5 coming in an injury shortened season.

Over that time period, Rodgers has only missed 9 games with injury, so he’s usually durable. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes, for an average of 8.41 YPA, 197 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions since 2009, winning 64 of 86 games (74.4%). He’s also added 1577 yards and 16 touchdowns on 309 carries on the ground (5.10 YPC), as he simply doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2015, but that’s nothing for a top level quarterback. Plenty have had great success at that age and beyond. He could easily be the best quarterback in the NFL again, led the NFL’s top offense again, and pick up his 3rd MVP. He’s one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As well as Rodgers played last season, he only wasn’t the only reason for the Packers’ offensive success. The Packers have done a great job of surrounding Rodgers with good offensive talent. An offense that used to be so reliant on their quarterback and receivers has gotten significantly “tougher,” to use a cliché, over the past few seasons, meaning that now they have a strong running game and offensive line. The Packers return 11 of 11 starters from 2014 and look poised for strong offensive play once again. Their only real obstacle to being the #1 offense again is injuries, as the Packers really had none offensively last season, having the 3rd fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury. Of course, top offenses like Dallas (4th), Denver (5th), and Pittsburgh (3rd) also had no offensive injuries last season, so the Packers aren’t alone. Ironically, only the Saints (2nd) had a strong offensive performance despite some offensive injuries.

Eddie Lacy has proven to be a great complement for Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. In 2 years in the NFL since the Packers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013, Lacy has missed just 1 game with injury and rushed for 2317 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC), while adding 77 catches for 684 yards and another 4 scores through the air. Certainly, Rodgers’ presence helps Lacy, but Lacy also helps Rodgers and is a fantastic running back in his own right. He graded out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2013, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then finished 3rd in 2014. He joins Marshawn Lynch as the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season at a position where youth is such an asset, Lacy is one of the best running backs in the game.

James Starks will be his primary backup. A 2010 6th round pick, Starks flashed some starting running back potential early in his career, but injuries eventually did him in, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 3 years in the NFL from 2010-2012, which led to the Packers’ selection of Eddie Lacy in the 2013 NFL Draft. Starks has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, which is why he fell to the 6th round, but he’s played in 29 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons as Lacy’s backup, including all 16 for the first time in his career last season. His career numbers aren’t bad, as he’s rushed for 1760 yards and 7 touchdowns on 407 carries (4.32 YPC), while adding 63 catches for 491 yards and another score through the air. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL and is a solid backup. Obviously, any injury to Lacy would be a huge loss for this team, but Starks isn’t a bad 2nd option.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Packers have a strong offensive line too. They ranked 1st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 17th in team run blocking grade. Their only real weakness is left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since the Packers took him in the 4th round in 2013, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, grading out 62nd among 76 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie and then 53rd out of 84 eligible last season. He’ll start again in 2015, largely out of necessity, but the Packers are good enough across the rest of the line to make up for it.

They might have the best guard combination in the NFL in Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Sitton is the better of the two and arguably one of the best guards in the NFL. The 2008 4th round pick has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and graded out 8th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 4th respectively in the 6 seasons since then. No other guard has graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 6 seasons, or even come close to that. He’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league and, only going into his age 29 with minimal injury history, he’s still in the prime of his career. He should be dominant again in 2015.

Lang isn’t quite as proven, but he’s had a very impressive career as well, and the 2009 4th round pick is only going into his age 28 season, so he too is still in the prime of his career. He’s made 63 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 6 at right tackle. He’s struggled at right tackle, but he’s graded out above average at guard in all 4 seasons that he’s been the primary starter from 2011-2014, including 22nd in 2011, 15th in 2013, and 3rd last season. He and Sitton are a great combination, and one that is incredibly durable.

The Packers got a great center to go in between Lang and Sitton last off-season, drafting Corey Linsley in the 2014 draft. You wouldn’t expect a 5th rounder like Linsley to have the kind of rookie year that he did last year, but he exceeded all expectations, making 16 starts, grading out 5th among centers, and having one of the year’s best rookie seasons by an offensive player, regardless of position. 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 definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term, above average starter.

Rounding out at the offensive line at right tackle is Bryan Bulaga, who the Packers re-signed to a 5-year, 33.75 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Bulaga has been a starter for the Packers since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010, making his debut as a starter in week 5 of 2010. However, despite that, he’s only made 48 starts in 5 seasons, as he’s missed 30 games with injuries over that time period, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. When on the field, he’s been up and down. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 71st out of 78 eligible in 2010, but he ranked 7th among offensive tackles on 12 starts in 2011. In 2012, he graded out below average in 9 starts before missing all of 2013, but he returned in 2014 to make 15 starts and grade out 16th among offensive tackles. He’s a risky player and the deal they gave him to stay was a risky deal as a result, but it’s good that the Packers kept him for continuity reasons, even if it’s very tough to count on him being as healthy or as good as he was last season. It’s an overall strong offensive line again though.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with Bryan Bulaga, the Packers also re-signed Randall Cobb ahead of free agency this off-season, settling on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the wide receiver, after a long negotiation period that seemed like it would end with Cobb taking more money elsewhere. The Packers upped their offer from 9 million annually to 10 million annually at the last second and Cobb took less money to stay in Green Bay, passing on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Oakland Raiders. It’s the kind of compromise where both sides win.

In Oakland, Cobb would have likely struggled to put up numbers on a losing team and could have easily been cut midway through his contract for not putting up numbers comparable to his large salary. In Green Bay, he’s much more likely to be kept for the duration of the contract and he’ll hit free agency again in 4 years going into his age 29 season with a chance at another big payday. Even though he took less money to return to Green Bay, this deal likely maximizes his career earnings potential. Because of that and the obvious increased chance of getting a ring in Green Bay, Cobb was the real winner, but the Packers have to be pretty happy with the deal too.

The Packers didn’t get Cobb quite as cheaply as they would have liked, but they still got a discount over what he would have gotten on the open market and a solid value. While it’s not hard to get good production out of receivers when you have Aaron Rodgers under center, Cobb is still a very valuable part of this offense. Cobb didn’t see a ton of playing time as a 2nd round rookie in 2011 and he missed 10 games with a broken leg in 2013. However, in his other two seasons, he put up 80/954/8 (in 2012) and then 91/1287/12 (in 2014). Cobb was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2012 and then 9th in 2014. Other than the leg injury, he doesn’t have much of an injury history and he’s only going into his age 25 season so he could keep getting better.

Cobb will once again be a starter at wide receiver opposite Jordy Nelson. Much like Sitton and Lang at guard, Nelson and Cobb are among the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Obviously, having Rodgers under center is great for both of them, but in their own right they’re both great wide receivers and both a big part of the reason why this offense works so well. Nelson, a 2008 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 2nd in 2013 and then 2nd again in 2014, and is only going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Davante Adams worked as the 3rd receiver in 2014 as a 2nd round rookie. He was drafted with Cobb’s impending free agency in mind, but now gets stuck behind Cobb and Nelson indefinitely with Cobb returning long-term. It’s a tough situation for Adams, but it’s for the best for the Packers. Adams struggled as a rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. It’s not uncommon for a rookie wideout to struggle and that rough rookie year doesn’t doom his career, but he’s far from someone you can trust with a significant role. Bringing Cobb back was well worth it.

Adams will work solely in sub packages outside, moving Cobb to the slot in 3-wide sets. While he’ll be blocked for serious playing time barring injury, he still gets to catch passes for Aaron Rodgers with great help around him, so if he ever figures his game out, he can put up pretty decent numbers, like guys like James Jones did before him. This offense is a well-oiled machine in all facets and you can put up decent numbers even if you’re just along for the ride.

I mentioned earlier that 11 of 11 starters return for the Packers from their #1 offense in 2014. That might not end up being completely the case if they decide to cut tight end Andrew Quarless (11 starts in 2014), after he was arrested in an incident where he allegedly fired a firearm in public while involved in a fight. That happened just a few days ago so it’s unclear what the Packers response will be, but it could be to cut him, and, even if they don’t cut him, he could be suspended.

It wouldn’t be a huge loss. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out just once in 5 seasons in the NFL and he only played 60.2% of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. The 323 receiving yards he had last season were a career high. It’s possible the Packers were planning on moving him into more of a situational role this year anyway, in favor of having 2014 3rd round pick Richard Rodgers becoming the new starting tight end. He struggled mightily on 491 snaps as a rookie, but it could be worth seeing what he has, especially if Quarless’ off-the-field situation looks bad. Rodgers could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he has a long way to go if he’s going to turn the tight end position into a strength. 6th round pick Kennard Backman could be the #2 tight end if Quarless gets cut. The Packers’ lack of a good tertiary receiving option/tight end is the only weakness on an offense that could once again be the best in the NFL, barring major injuries.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

While things were great on offense for the Packers last season, that was not the case at all on defense, where they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.75% rate, 27th in the NFL. That’s why they “only” finished in 6th in rate of moving the chains differential despite an outstanding offense. Returning essentially the same offense for this season, the Packers could be the Super Bowl Champion in 2015 if their defense is better. That is going to be easier said than done though.

One of the things the Packers are banking on improving their defense is the return of BJ Raji from injury, after he missed all of last season with a torn biceps. However, Raji is overrated and not the nearly consistently dominant player people think he is. At best, he’s inconsistent. At worst, he’s a liability. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2012, but graded out dead last at his position in 2013 and then missed all of last season. The 2009 1st round pick has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL and his stock isn’t looking up, going into his age 29 season already and coming off of a significant injury. Besides, it’s not like the Packers had a ridiculous amount of defensive injuries last season or anything. They had more on defense than they had on offense, but they still had the 11th fewest adjusted games lost on defense so they won’t be able to count on better health to make them a better defense.

Letroy Guion started in Raji’s absence last season and he was arguably better. That doesn’t mean he was good, but he was still probably better than Raji would have. Guion has graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2008, including 4 straight seasons, a 2012 season in which he ranked 85th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles and a 2013 season in which he ranked 60th out of 69 eligible. He wasn’t good last season and he could be even worse this season. With Raji likely taking back the nose tackle job from the undersized 6-4 303 Guion, I expect him to see the majority of his playing time as a rotational player at 3-4 defensive end. I don’t expect him to be an asset.

The Packers are hoping that 2013 1st round pick Datone Jones can nail down one of the starting jobs at defensive end. His career hasn’t been off to a good start. Despite plenty of opportunity, he’s played just 586 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined. He graded out below average in 2013 as a rookie, struggling mightily in limited action, and, while he graded out above average in 2014, he still struggled against the run. The 6-4 285 pounder is a solid situational pass rusher, but he might just not have the size to hold up every down on the defensive line in a 3-4. He’s also suspended for the first game of the season because of marijuana. Josh Boyd is also in the mix for rotational snaps on the defensive line. The 2013 5th round pick has played just 495 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined and hasn’t shown much potential, grading out below average in both seasons. The 6-3 310 pounder was used primarily in base packages against the run last season, but he isn’t very good against the run, or as a pass rusher for that matter.

The only redeeming part of this defensive line is Mike Daniels. Daniels was drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and, after 231 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, Daniels has blossomed into a strong interior defensive lineman, with upside only going into his age 26 season. Daniels graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and followed that up by grading out 8th at the positon in 2014. The 6-0 294 pounder is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but is far from a liability in either area. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, Daniels would stand to make a lot of money next off-season if he can continue his strong play. He’s the only bright spot on a weak defensive line and one of the few bright spots on this weak defense.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

One of the other ways the Packers expect to be better this season is with better play at middle linebacker, a position that was a huge weakness for them last season. AJ Hawk, Sam Barrington, Jamari Lattimore, and Brad Jones all graded out below average last year and Hawk and Jones both graded out among the 10 worst middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That, combined with their horrible defensive line, was the source of their issues against the run and a big part of the reason why this defense was so bad last season.

Things got so bad last season that they had to move Clay Matthews inside to middle linebacker in base packages and it seems like they’re planning on doing that even more this season, in an effort to turn around their defense. Hawk, Jones, and Lattimore are gone, but Sam Barrington remains and the likes of Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan don’t exactly seem like starting caliber going into 2015. The former is a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, while the latter was drafted in the 4th round in this past draft. Barrington, meanwhile, has played 367 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since the Packers took him in the 7th round in 2013. At least one of that trio, if not two, will have a significant role at middle linebacker for the Packers this season. That’s a problem.

Despite the Packers’ lack of talent at middle linebacker, I still don’t think moving Matthews inside to play regular snaps is the right move. Even though it’s only in base packages, it still reduces his chances at rushing the passer, which is really where he’s best. He’s solid in coverage, but he’s better moving forward than backward. He also struggled against the run last season, largely due to the significant amount of time he spent out of position. On top of that, Matthews himself reportedly doesn’t like playing middle linebacker because he has such great pass rush ability and sacks get contracts. This move doesn’t make sense all around.

Matthews graded out 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers overall last season, doing his best work as a pass rusher, ranking 16th at the position in that aspect. That’s pretty good, but he’s been much better in the past when he’s played a more traditional role. Prior to an injury plagued 2013 season, Matthews graded 6th, 6th, 5th, and 1st respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012 and was one of the best defensive players in the game, primarily rushing the passer off the edge. The Packers shouldn’t mess with that.

One of the probable reasons why the Packers seem to want to experiment with Matthews inside is because they think their depth at outside linebacker is better than their depth at inside linebacker. That’s true, but it’s largely by default. Mike Neal was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, seeing a lot of playing time with Matthews sometimes playing inside in base packages and Julius Peppers sometimes playing defensive tackle in sub packages. He was horrible though, grading out dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, after grading out 40th out of 42 eligible in 2013.

The 2010 2nd round pick was better earlier in his career at 3-4 defensive end, but the Packers moved him to 3-4 outside linebacker two off-seasons ago and insist on keeping him there despite his struggles. The 6-3 294 pounder is not a natural fit for the position at all. He’s expectedly decent against the run, but doesn’t generate any pass rush. Maybe Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick, can beat him out for the #3 job, but that would require him to stay healthy, as he’s missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league. Even when on the field, he hasn’t been good. He has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxed out at 376 snaps in 2013, and averaged just 24.5 snaps played per game (32.9% of snaps) in 2014 as the clear 4th outside linebacker. The Packers have essentially admitted he’s a bust by declining his 5th year option for 2016, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed for injury only. Neither he nor Neal is good to have playing a regular role off the edge.

Julius Peppers is the other primary outside linebacker besides Matthews. Other than Matthews and Daniels, he’s one of just a few redeeming parts of this weak front 7. He primarily plays 3-4 outside linebacker and rushes the passer off the edge, but has the size at 6-5 283 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, which he did occasionally in 2014. Peppers’ career looked like it was coming to a close at this time last year, after he got cut by the Bears following a 2013 season in which he graded out 40th out of 52 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends.

While Green Bay picked him up and gave him a good amount of money, his future still looked bleak going into his age 34 season. Peppers proved a lot of people wrong by grading out 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first year at the position in 2014, after spending the rest of his career at 4-3 defensive end. However, he’s unlikely to repeat that in his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff. Even though he’s only graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and even though he’s likely Hall of Fame bound with 125.5 career sacks (16th most all-time), he’s hard to trust this season. Peppers and Matthews make a good 3-4 outside linebacker duo, but the former is getting pretty old and the latter is having his position fiddled with. They certainly aren’t enough alone to boost this mediocre linebacking corps or this mediocre front 7.

Grade: C

Secondary

Given how bad the Packers’ middle linebackers were last season, I actually had them taking middle linebackers with their first 2 picks in the draft in my final mock draft. Taking two guys at the same position with your first two picks in a draft is rare, but the Packers had a serious need there, few pressing needs elsewhere, and the value made sense both times. The Packers didn’t draft a middle linebacker with either of those two picks, but they did double up on a position, taking a pair of cornerbacks in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. As a result, they didn’t address the middle linebacker position until the 4th round, as they added a return man/depth receiver in Ty Montgomery in the 3rd round.

The secondary wasn’t nearly as big of a need as middle linebacker, but the two picks do make sense, after the Packers lost Tramon Williams (1032 snaps) and Davon House (411 snaps) to free agency. Williams was good, but aging, going into his age 32 season and House was unproven. However, those two losses did leave them thin at the position. Prior to the draft, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde were their top-3 cornerbacks, which is fine, but not ideal and they had no proven depth whatsoever.

Even with the 2 rookies coming in, Sam Shields remains locked into one starting cornerback spot, overpaid on a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal the Packers gave him last off-season. He graded out below average in the first season of that deal and missed 2 games with injury. That shouldn’t be surprising though, as the 2010 undrafted free agent has never played a full 16 game season and has only once graded out higher than 30th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his career. He’s certainly not a bad player and he’s a deserving starter, but he does get paid like something more than that.

Casey Hayward should be the starter opposite him. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.

Micah Hyde could be the 3rd cornerback, but he’ll have to hold off the rookie Randall. Randall, their first round pick, played both slot cornerback and safety in college at the University of Arizona, but it looks like he will focus on the slot cornerback job in the NFL. The Packers also reportedly think he has outside cornerback abilities, at least long-term, but he’d probably need Heyward to leave as a free agent to free up that kind of role.

Hyde, meanwhile, did play 720 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, but he graded out below average. He flashed on 428 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, but couldn’t translate that to more playing time. They didn’t need to upgrade him with Randall, but they probably did and Randall could take Hyde’s job away as soon as week 1. Rollins, on the other hand, will need to wait until someone like Heyward leaves as a free agent to get a significant role and won’t do much outside provide great depth as the 5th cornerback as a rookie.

Randall is a collegiate safety and Rollins is a physical cornerback, one who plays bigger than his 5-11 195 frame, but neither of them will be able to find a path to regular playing time at the safety position anytime soon, as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett seem pretty entrenched there, entering their 2nd season together. Clinton-Dix did grade out below average as a 1st round rookie in 2014, but not by much and could easily be noticeably better in his 2nd year in the league. He has good upside and doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere soon.

Burnett, meanwhile, is not the best safety in the league by any stretch of the any imagination, but he’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, including 16th in 2014. Also important is the fact that Burnett is only going into his age 26 season and signed fairly cheaply long-term, owed just 13.25 million dollars over the next 3 seasons combined. He also isn’t going anywhere anytime quickly. They’re not the best safety duo in the league, but they’re a solid group that could be playing together for a while, at least in football years. It’s a solid and deep secondary, but not one that will be able to mask the flaws of the front 7 completely.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers had the best offense in the NFL last season and return all 11 starters on a unit that doesn’t have a single player over 30 besides the quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who will be 32 later this year). They’ll probably have more injuries on offense this season, but, barring anything catastrophic, they have so much talent that they could still overcome a normal amount of injuries and be the best offensive team in the NFL again in 2015. If they can even be average defensively, this is probably the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

However, things are not nearly as good on defense as they are on offense. They had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season and didn’t do much to fix it this off-season, aside from adding 2 cornerbacks in the first 2 rounds of the draft, neither of whom fill a big need and the latter of whom probably won’t see much, if any, defensive action as a rookie. They still have major needs on the defensive line and at middle linebacker and figure to struggle mightily against the run again this season, allowing opponents to mount long scoring drives once again.

They could even be worse this season with Tramon Williams gone, Julius Peppers going into his age 35 season, and Clay Matthews getting unnecessarily moved all around the formation. This is still the favorite in the NFC North and on a short list of Super Bowl contenders, but they do have a major weakness, one that will likely do them in sooner or later. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Packers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North

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Chicago Bears 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears gave Jay Cutler a 7-year, 126.7 million dollar deal last off-season with 54 million guaranteed in the first 3 years. It’s a lot of money, but it’s the market rate for a franchise quarterback. The Bears assumed Cutler was a franchise quarterback based on his previous play last off-season, but now, one year later, that deal looks like a huge mistake. Cutler is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, as he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 6.80 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He was also benched before week 16 for Jimmy Clausen as the organization wanted to get a better look at the quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass since 2010, when he bombed as a 2nd round rookie in Carolina. Clausen also would have gotten the week 17 start too if he hadn’t suffered a concussion.

Cutler’s numbers from last season look decent, but much of his strong production came in garbage time. He completed 68.2% of his passes for an average of 8.27 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions when the Bears were down by 17 or more points last season. On top of that, he graded out 32nd among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That’s a big part of the reason why the Bears moved the chains at “only” a 73.17% rate, 15th in the NFL, after ranking 4th in that aspect in 2013.

The Bears tried pretty hard to move Cutler and get out of his contract this off-season, but they couldn’t find a taker. One deal would have sent Cutler home to Tennessee along with the 7th overall pick and probably something else for the Titans’ 2nd overall selection, which the Bears would have used on Marcus Mariota, but Tennessee predictably had no interest. The Bears’ inability to move Cutler could be somewhat of a blessing in disguise as you never want to have to sell low on a quarterback. Cutler will probably remain overpaid, but I think there’s decent bounce back potential with him.

Prior to last season, Cutler had graded out above average in 4 straight seasons from 2010-2013, including 10th among quarterbacks in 2013 and 15th in 2011. In his career, he’s completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 183 touchdowns, 130 interceptions, despite the fact that he routinely had much weaker supporting casts than the one he had last year for most of his career. He’s going into his age 32 season which hurts, but we’ve certainly seen quarterbacks play well into their mid-30s before, including guys who bounced back from uncharacteristically bad seasons (Philip Rivers and Eli Manning come to mind).

It’s possible that Cutler doesn’t bounce back, but there’s definitely solid potential a solid year from him in 2015. Cutler loses former Head Coach Marc Trestman, a strong offensive mind, but Cutler didn’t play well in his final season under Trestman so maybe that’s a good thing. On top of that, new offensive coordinator Adam Gase is a rising offensive mind who was tied to head coaching jobs this off-season and will likely get one within the next 2-3 years. Cutler’s upside isn’t huge, but I could definitely see him being at least an average starting quarterback this season, which is hard to come by. That would really help turn this offense around.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

If Cutler is going to bounce back in 2015, he’s going to have to do it without the player to whom Cutler has thrown the most career passes, Brandon Marshall. Marshall caught 279 passes for 3524 yards and 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons of his career in Chicago and also played with Cutler for 4 years when they were in Denver, from 2006-2009. However, Marshall caught just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. Going into his age 31 season off of a down year, the Bears shipped him off to the Jets for a 5th round pick, a move that saved the Bears 7.7 million in cash. He had some bounce back potential, but he’s hardly the indispensable player he once was.

Alshon Jeffery remains as now the undisputed #1 receiver and he’s a lot more indispensable. He graded out 28th among wide receivers last year, including 22nd in pure pass catching grade. On top of that, he graded out 9th among wide receivers in 2013 and is only going into his age 25 season, so he still has upside, as he enters his prime. Since struggling in limited action as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, Jeffery has caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined. The Bears want to lock him up long-term ahead of his contract year in 2015 and any extension he’s given will be paid for with the money they saved by moving on from Marshall.

Who starts opposite Jeffery in place of Marshall is unclear right now. The Bears used the 7th overall pick on Kevin White, a receiver from West Virginia, to be the long-term answer, but he’s currently listed as the 4th receiver on the depth chart. That might just be deference to the veterans and something White can easily overcome, but new Head Coach John Fox is known for being very tough on rookies, so it could be something that continues into the season. Besides, rookie wide receivers, even first round picks, tend to not be very good right away. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Expecting White to produce like Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham did last year during their incredible rookie years just isn’t realistic.

The Bears signed Eddie Royal in free agency for 15 million over 3 years and he’ll be, at the very least, the 3rd receiver and a big part of this offense as a slot specialist. Eddie Royal caught 91 passes for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but combined for just 138 catches for 1361 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009-2012 combined. Royal bounced back over the past 2 seasons in San Diego though, catching 47 passes for 631 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 and 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. Now he reunites with Jay Cutler, with whom he put up those big rookie numbers. That alone doesn’t ensure he’ll put up those numbers again, but it definitely helps his chance of continuing his strong play from San Diego (and, for what it’s worth, he and Cutler are reportedly great friends).

Marquess Wilson is also in the mix and he’ll compete with White for snaps outside, at least early in the season. The Bears have always thought highly of the 2013 7th round pick because of his size at 6-4 194. He would have been a much higher pick if he hadn’t been kicked off the football team at Washington State for disciplinary reasons. However, he’s really struggled in 2 years in the league. He graded out below average on 76 snaps as a rookie and then 97th out of 110 eligible receivers in 2014 on just 386 snaps. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015, only his age 23 season, but the Bears are probably better off with him as the 4th receiver, White seeing most of the snaps opposite Jeffery, and Royal playing on the slot.

Tight end Martellus Bennett actually led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with catches last season with 90 and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards behind Jeffery, taking those 90 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Jason Witten for 4 years in Dallas to start his career, Bennett has broken out as a talented starting tight end over the past 3 years out of Witten’s shadow. He’s caught 210 passes for 2301 yards and 16 touchdowns combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out 6th, 19th, and 6th respectively among tight ends and playing in 48 out of 48 possible games.

Even when he was playing a more limited role as the #2 tight end in Dallas, he graded out above average every season, meaning the 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career. A well rounded tight end who can catch passes and block at 6-6 259, Bennett has graded out above average as a run blocker in all 7 seasons of his career and above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. He was understandably upset about his contract this off-season, owed just 10.185 million combined over the final 2 seasons of his contract in 2015 and 2016, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get his wish this off-season and it doesn’t look like that will lead to any sort of holdout. He attended mandatory minicamp and is expected to show up for the start of training camp later this month.

The Bears rarely use two-tight end sets, but Dante Rosario is expected to be the 2nd tight end again, after serving in that role and playing 323 snaps last season. Those 323 snaps were the most he played in a season in 5 years and he’s graded out below average 4 times in those 5 seasons, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s a low end #2 tight end at best. Fortunately, he won’t play a big role, especially with the Bears likely going to even more 3-wide receiver sets this season. It’s a talented and deep receiving corps, even without Marshall. The additions of White and Royal make up for the loss of the fading wide receiver.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

I mentioned earlier that Martellus Bennett led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with 90 catches last season. I made sure to specify wide receivers and tight ends because running back Matt Forte actually led the team with 102 catches, turning them into 808 yards (3rd on the team behind Jeffery and Bennett) and 4 touchdowns. Forte caught 176 passes over the past 2 seasons combined as Marc Trestman loved to feature him as a receiver out of the backfield. He won’t catch as many passes with Trestman gone, but he’s still averaged 63 catches per season over his 7 year career and he’s a great receiver, grading out above average as a receiver on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He could catch another 60 balls this season.

Forte isn’t just a good receiver out of the backfield. He’s a good all-around running back, also grading out above average as a runner on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’s been a feature back since the Bears drafted him in the 2nd round in 2008, missing just 5 games with injury in 7 seasons and rushing for 7704 yards, 51st all-time, and 41 touchdowns on 1807 carries, a solid average of 4.24 YPC that gets even better when you take out his first 2 seasons in the NFL (4.45 YPC). His 11,431 all-time yards from scrimmage are 65th all-time regardless of position.

There is one problem. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. Forte is only at 1807 carries, but he’s going into his age 30 season, with a bunch of extra touches from catches, and he’s also not as good as the top-25 all-time leading rushers. He could have another one or two strong seasons left in the tank, but he’s at the point where Bears fans should start to be a little concerned.

Also concerning is the Bears’ lack of depth. Jacquizz Rodgers was signed as a veteran backup from Atlanta this off-season, but nothing about his career 3.66 YPC average on 305 career carries suggests he could handle the load if Forte went down with an injury or push Forte for carries if his effectiveness starts to decline. Ka’Deem Carey was a 4th round pick in 2014, but he struggled on 100 snaps as a rookie. The Bears used another 4th round pick on a running back, Jeremy Langford, in this past draft, but there’s no guarantee he’s any better than Carey or Rodgers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to a likely bounce back year from Jay Cutler, another reason I expect the Bears to be an improved offensive team this season is that they should have fewer injuries, after having the 6th most offensive games lost to injury last year. The vast majority of those injuries came on the offensive line. After the line of Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, and Jordan Mills made a combined 80 of 80 starts in 2013, they all returned for 2014, but made a combined 59 out of 80 starts. None of the five played all 16 games.

Left guard Matt Slauson missed the most time as he missed 11 games with a torn pectoral. Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 2013 was limited to 272 lackluster snaps in 2014 as a result. However, considering he’s only going into his age 29 season, and that he graded out average in every season from being drafted in the 6th round in 2009 to 2013, and that he made all 64 starts from 2010-2013 without missing a game, I like his bounce back potential. That will be very good for the line. 2013 was uncharacteristic for him, but he’s a solid player at worst when healthy and he’s usually durable.

Center Roberto Garza missed the 2nd most time, missing 4 games. He’s gone completely now, after the Bears cut him this off-season, saving 1.1 million on the cap in the process. They cut him to replace him with Will Montgomery, who is younger, better, and cheaper. Montgomery is no spring chicken, going into his age 32 season, part of why he was available for just 900K, but he’s still younger than Garza, who is going into his age 36 season. He’s also better, grading out 15th among centers last year, while Garza graded out 21st.

Montgomery reunites with both John Fox and Adam Gase in Chicago. Montgomery was drafted by John Fox’s Panthers in the 7th round in 2006, played one season there, and then played another season for Fox in Denver last season, where Gase was also the offensive coordinator. The former late round pick has carved out a solid career for himself. After starting his career at guard and struggling, Montgomery has graded out above average as a center in each of the last 4 seasons, maxing out at 5th in 2012. As I mentioned, age is a concern, but the Bears should still be able to expect solid play from him at center in 2015.

Jermon Bushrod rounds out the left side of the offensive line and he missed 2 games with injury last season. The Bears gave him a 5-year, 35.965 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but they were tricked. Bushrod made 68 starts for the Saints from 2009-2012, including the post-season, and allowed just 20 sacks. However, that was largely because of Drew Brees’ quick release. Bushrod actually graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. Now in 2 seasons in Chicago, he’s graded out below average both times.

He was brought in and paid to be a positive difference maker upfront, but instead he’s been a weak spot on an otherwise pretty solid offensive line. He’s entering a make or break age 31 season in 2015, as another bad season should get him cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary due in 2016. That simply won’t be justifiable given his age and ability. Considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has graded out above average just one in 8 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2007, I think break is much more likely than make.

With Slauson, Garza, and Bushrod missing significant time with injury, Michael Ola and Brian De La Puente saw significant action in relief, playing 844 and 501 snaps respectively. Ola made 3 starts at left tackle, 6 starts at left guard, 1 start at right guard, and 2 starts at right tackle, but struggled mightily at all 4 spots. He may seem versatile, but I think versatility requires a certain level of competence to be legitimate. De La Puente was better, making 4 starts at center and 2 starts at left guard, grading out above average overall and ranking 7th among centers on just 320 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at the position and graded out better. De La Puente is gone as a free agent, but Ola remains, which isn’t a good combination of news.

The reason the Bears’ offensive line wasn’t worse in 2014 despite significant more injuries is the development of the right side of the offensive line. Kyle Long and Jordan Mills at right guard and right tackle respectively were rookies in 2013 and both played better in their 2nd year in the league in 2014. Long missed a game with injury last year, something he didn’t do as a rookie, but it’s just one game. Long went from 43rd among guards in 2013 to 12th in 2014. He was an older rookie and will be in his age 27 season in 2015, but expectations should still be fairly high for him.

Mills, meanwhile, missed 3 games with injury, something he also didn’t do at all as a rookie. He did improve, but anything would have been an improvement over how he played as a rookie, grading out 74th among 76 eligible offensive tackles. He still struggled in 2014, grading out 66th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The 2013 5th round pick doesn’t seem like a long-term starter. The Bears could move Long from right guard to right tackle, bench Mills, and start someone new at right guard who could be an upgrade. Better health, a still matured Kyle Long, and no Jordan Mills should make this a better offensive line in 2015, but the latter of those three things is not as promising as the former two.

That’s because the Bears don’t have any good options at right guard. Michael Ola would be a contender for the right guard job if Long moved outside, but I already mentioned how he struggled in 2014. The 2013 undrafted free agent is a long-term utility backup at best. The Bears drafted center Hronniss Grasu in the 3rd round this year and he could be an option at right guard, but relying on a 3rd round rookie converted center at right guard isn’t ideal. Vlad Ducasse is also in the mix, but the ex-Jet graded out 55th out of 81 guards on 331 snaps in 2013 and 61st out of 78 eligible on 417 snaps in 2014. As much as Mills sucks, I don’t think it’s worth moving a talented guard like Long to a place like right tackle where he’s never played in the NFL just to swap out Mills for someone like Ducasse, Ola, or Grasu on the offensive line. It’s overall a decent line though. I expect them to perform better than last season on an offense that will probably perform better than last season in general.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The offense wasn’t that bad last season. Their defense was a much bigger part of why they finished 5-11 and 24th in rate of moving the chains differential, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 75.71% rate, 30th in the NFL. They weren’t good in 2013 either, finishing 31st in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, but their offense was good enough to make up for it that year. This year, their defense should be actually improved. While the offense should be improved by better health and a bounce back year from Jay Cutler, the defense should also have better health (ranking 26th in defensive adjusted games lost in 2014), but they also added a fair amount of talent this off-season.

One of those talents added was actually not a player at all. It was Vic Fangio, ex-49ers defensive coordinator, who will serve in that same position in Chicago. One of the best defensive coordinators in the league under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Fangio asked to be named Head Coach upon Harbaugh’s departure this off-season and walked away when he didn’t get his request. He was a hot name on the open market and the Bears got a good one. He’ll be a big upgrade on Mel Tucker, defensive coordinator for the past 2 seasons, who proved to be in over his head, coaching two separate terrible units. He’s now the secondary coach at the University of Alabama.

Fangio will transition this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, like he ran in San Francisco, and the Bears have done a good job this off-season getting personnel to fit the new scheme. Eddie Goldman was added through the draft and will likely slot in as the starting nose tackle. He was only a 2nd round pick so he could be unreliable as a rookie, but the 6-4 336 pounder filled a big need as no other Bears defensive lineman is bigger than 315 pounds. He might just be a two-down run stuffer, but that’s all they need him to be.

Stephen Paea signed a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season with the Redskins, following a breakout 2014 season where he graded out 11th among defensive tackles. He’ll be missed and he wasn’t really replaced, but the Bears added more than enough talent in other area defensively to make up for it. The Bears added Ray McDonald as a free agent this off-season, in an attempt to replace Paea. They were hoping to get a steal with someone who was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season with Fangio’s 49ers and only got cut because of off-the-field issues.

However, McDonald got arrested again after signing with the Bears and was immediately cut. It’s no harm, no foul on the part of the Bears because he never played a snap or made a dime. Some will all the Bears enablers, but that assumes that McDonald wasn’t going to get arrested anyway. If anything, the Bears gave him a reason to stay clean, but he just couldn’t do it and they let him go. The Bears really could have used him though. That being said, Ego Ferguson, their 2nd round pick in 2014, was drafted with Paea leaving as a free agent in mind. After playing 318 non-descript snaps as a rookie, Ferguson will be a starter in 2015 at 3-4 defensive end in 2015. He’ll be tough to rely on, but there’s upside with him, particularly as a run stopper.

Jay Ratliff will be the other starter. The veteran looked like he was done at this time last off-season, missing 21 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, getting cut mid-season by the Cowboys, struggling in 5 games down the stretch with the Bears, and going into his age 33 season. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle last season on 474 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps at the position and grading out better. He still missed 5 games with injury last season and, with his injury history and his age, as he goes into his age 34 season, he’s very unlikely to play as well as he did last season. However, he could still be a capable starter at worst.

Will Sutton and Jarvis Jenkins will be reserves on the defensive line. The former has the size to play nose tackle if needed at 6-0 315, but the 2014 3rd round pick graded out 70 out of 81st eligible defensive tackles on 465 snaps as a rookie. Jarvis Jenkins, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent from Washington where he was a starter last year, but he came very inexpensively (1 year, 745K) because he struggled mightily in the first 4 years of his career in Washington. The 2011 2nd round pick graded out 45th out of 47 eligible last season and has never graded out above average. The Bears will hope that neither has to play very much this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I don’t expect either of them will. In fact, most of the Bears’ 3-4 defensive linemen will be primarily base package players who will see very few snaps in sub packages as interior pass rushers. Ratliff is their only decent or better interior pass rusher on the defensive line and both of the Bears’ starting base 3-4 outside linebackers are very comfortable rushing for the interior in sub packages. LaMarr Houston has been a 4-3 defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid throughout his career, while Pernell McPhee saw significant playing time outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle in Baltimore, where he spent the first 4 years of his career from 2011-2014.

McPhee was signed as a free agent this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. The 6-3 278 pounder is supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle. He’s never played more than 540 snaps in a season, so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter, and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. However, he’s also only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the better front 7 players in the game if he’s given a bigger role. He was a great add on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal.

Houston, meanwhile, was signed as a free agent last off-season (5 years, 35 million), after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. He was decent on 405 snaps last season, but missed 8 games with a torn ACL. He is only going into his age 28 season, will be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, and never missed a game with injury in the NFL prior to last season, so I like his bounce back potential. The 6-3 305 pounder graded out 20th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively before signing with the Bears. Getting him back from injury is like adding another free agent, along with McPhee. They’re both very big outside linebackers at 278 and 305 pounds, but they’ll only play there in base packages and see the majority of their snaps inside in sub packages. They should both be able to make significant positive impacts at both spots.

The Bears have a ton of depth at outside linebacker too with guys like Jared Allen, Willie Young, Sam Acho. They’ll see significant roles, primarily as edge rushers in sub packages. The former two were the Bears’ leaders in snaps played at defensive end last season with Houston hurt. Allen has had a fantastic career. He has 134 sacks in 11 seasons in the NFL, most among active players and 9th most all-time, setting him up with a really good Hall-of-Fame case. However, he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out above average last season, he only ranked 19th among 4-3 defensive ends, which is a significant fall from his prime, and he also graded out below average in 2013. He also hasn’t graded out above average against the run since 2011, so he’s best off as a mere situational pass rusher at this stage of his career. He’s never played in a 3-4 in his career, but he’ll rarely have to drop in coverage in his expected role, so that doesn’t really matter.

Acho was a free agent acquisition this off-season, signing for 745K on a one-year deal. He was a 4th round pick by the Cardinals in 2011. He made 26 starts in his first 2 seasons combined, but it was clear he was forced into starting action too quickly, as he graded out 25th out of 28 eligible in 2011 and 31st out of 34 eligible in 2012. In 2013, he played just 104 snaps in 3 games (2 starts) before going down for the season with a broken leg, but he bounced back to grade out above average in 2014 for the first time in his career, doing so on 483 snaps.

Willie Young, meanwhile, graded out below average last season, though he did grade out 15th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 with the Lions in his first career season as a starter and he has graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league since the Lions took him in the 7th round in 2010. The 6-4 254 pounder is a good fit as a situational pass rusher. With so much depth at outside linebacker and no real dominant interior pass rushers, it makes sense for the Bears to regularly use Pernell McPhee, LaMarr Houston, and two of Jared Allen, Willie Young, and Sam Acho as their primary pass rushers in sub packages.

Middle linebacker, however, is serious a problem for the Bears. Jon Bostic, Lance Briggs, Christian Jones, and DJ Williams were their top-4 non-rush linebackers in terms of snaps played last season. They didn’t play well as a group, as Briggs was the only one to grade out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, but missed 8 games with injury and was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. Briggs played 12 seasons in Chicago and made 7 Pro Bowls, but his career might be over. He’s a borderline Hall-of-Fame candidate.

Williams is also gone as a free agent, while Christian Jones will compete for a starting job with free agent acquisition Mason Foster. Jones struggled on 443 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014 and doesn’t project as anything more than a reserve long-term. Unfortunately, Foster isn’t much of a better option. He was a starter from the word go in Tampa Bay, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2011. In 4 years with the team, Foster played 57 of 64 games, starting all but 3 of them. However, he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, including 43rd out of 60 eligible in 2014. There’s a reason he was available for 825K on a one-year deal as a free agent. He’ll probably be a starter by default again.

Bostic, meanwhile, will be the other starter, also largely by default, even though he’s never played more than 614 snaps in a season or graded out above average in his career. He’s still young, going into his 3rd year in the league and an age 24 season in 2015, so there’s still upside for the 2014 2nd round pick. He also made a big leap from his rookie year to his 2nd year, grading out 51st among 55 eligible middle linebackers as a rookie, but moving up to 25th in 2014. Still, it’s tough to count on him as an above average starter.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Bears drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round (14th overall) in 2014, in an effort to turn around their horrible defense from 2013. However, like 2nd round pick Ego Ferguson and 3rd round pick Will Sutton, who were drafted for the same reason, Fuller failed to make a positive impact as a rookie. Fuller flashed to start the season, but ended up struggling mightily overall, thanks in large part to a variety of injuries he dealt with. Fuller didn’t miss a game, but hip, knee, and hand injuries undoubtedly had something to do with his poor season, as he graded out 107th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie. The Bears are really hoping that he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, with those injuries behind him and a full year of experience under his belt. There’s obviously no guarantee though.

More likely, Tim Jennings will remain the Bears’ top cornerback. Jennings is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he’s graded out above average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. The days of him grading out 15th among cornerbacks like he did in 2010 and 2011, or 7th like he did in 2012 are probably behind him, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and could have another strong season as the Bears’ de facto #1 cornerback.

The Bears have a trio of safeties that will all compete for playing time, Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen, and Antrel Rolle. The former two led the position in snaps played last season, while Rolle comes over from the Giants on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal. Mundy is a late bloomer who never played more than 292 snaps in a season in the first 5 years of his career from 2008-2012 and who only graded out above average once in that time frame. However, he’s graded out slightly above average in each of the last 2 seasons on 667 snaps in 2013 and 966 snaps in 2014. Going into his age 30 season, it’s hard to depend on the journeyman, but he’s their best safety and should be a starter once again.

Vereen, meanwhile, played 512 nondescript snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2014 and could lose his starting job to Rolle, who was clearly signed to play a significant role, as evidenced by his contract. The problem is Rolle isn’t very good and he’s also old, so he’s certainly not getting any better any time soon. He’s graded out below average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 33 season and coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 87 eligible. The Bears would be better off leaving Vereen as the starter just to see what the youngster has. Rolle seems like he’s done and just no one told the Bears.

One option for the Bears could be to play 3 safeties in sub packages, bring in Vereen, and move Rolle to slot cornerback, where he has experience from earlier in his career. He won’t be better at slot cornerback and would also struggle there, but if they insist on playing him as an every down player, this would allow them to get Vereen some action and take care of a slot cornerback position where there isn’t a clearly good option.

Those options include Alan Ball, Tracy Porter, and Demontre Hurst. The former two were cheaply signed free agents (1 year, 3 million, and 1 year, 870K million respectively), while the latter is a 2013 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on 373 snaps in 2014 in his first career action. Ball would seem to be the favorite of the bunch because he’s the highest paid. Ball, a 2007 7th round pick, graded out below average 5 of the first 6 seasons in his career, but has played decently over the past 2 seasons in Jacksonville. He graded out 22nd among cornerbacks on 1020 snaps in 2013 and then graded out above average again in 2014 in 7 games before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. He’s a decent player, but also a journeyman with no upside going into his age 30 season.

Porter, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick of the Saints in 2008 and played well in 2008 and 2009, including a pick six in Super Bowl XLIV, but he hasn’t graded out above average since 2009. He graded out 103rd among 110 eligible cornerbacks in Oakland in 2013 and still managed to get a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal from the Redskins last off-season. He predictably flopped in Washington, grading out below average on 89 snaps and getting cut this off-season. He’s a depth cornerback at best. The Bears’ front 7 should be better than it was last year and, as a result, the defense should be better overall, but the secondary is still a real problem.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I’ve outlined, the Bears should be better in 2015 on both sides of the ball, after a 5-11 season in 2014. Jay Cutler should bounce back from the worst season of his career, the additions of Kevin White and Eddie Royal should make up for the loss of Brandon Marshall, while the addition of Pernell McPhee more than makes up for the loss of Stephen Paea. They also should have significantly fewer injuries than they did in 2014, when they were one of the most injury prone teams in the NFL. Importantly, guys like Matt Slauson and LaMarr Houston will be back, after missing large chunks of last season. Neither one has a history of injuries so both should bounce back to their original form, which is consistently above average. I don’t know if this gets them into the playoffs or anything, but the arrow is pointing up. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bears after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 4th in NFC North

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Washington Redskins 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2012, the rookie year of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson, it was a legitimate debate which of the three was the best and a debate that Griffin often won. He won with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award voters, who gave him that award in 2012 ahead of Luck and Wilson. It all seemed well deserved, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback that year, and he seemed to have an incredible future ahead of him. Instead, while Luck and Wilson saw their careers progress, Griffin’s potential came to a screeching halt, as he’s had a pretty bad past two seasons.

It all started with an ACL tear suffered in a playoff loss to the Seahawks to end the 2012 season. Griffin made it back for week 1 in 2013, but he wasn’t the same, completing 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. His rushing totals fell from 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries in 2012 (6.79 YPC) to 489 yards and 0 touchdowns on 86 carries in 2013 (5.69 YPC). He missed the final 3 games of the season, in part to rest his knee with the season essentially over, in part because the organization wanted to get a better look at backup Kirk Cousins.

Griffin’s 2014 should have been better, but he didn’t bounce back. Excuses can be made. He suffered another injury, dislocating his ankle in week 2. He was never a good fit for new head coach Jay Gruden’s offense and Gruden never gave him a fair chance and refused to tweak his offense for him. It was evident all season long that Gruden never really thought much of the quarterback he inherited, even leaving him on the bench when healthy upon return from injury for a little bit to test out other quarterbacks.

Griffin enters 2015 as the starter, if only for lack of a better option, as only Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy return as alternatives again. However, Griffin is still an injury prone quarterback who hasn’t produced good tape since 2012 (the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus) and who isn’t a great system fit for his head coach’s quick drop back, quick throw offense. If he plays like he did last season, when he graded out 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks, the Redskins could pull the plug on him for good. They picked up his 5th year option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so if he can’t prove he’s worth that 16.2 million, the Redskins won’t give it to him. Griffin is likely playing for his next contract this season, but it’s unlikely that contract comes from Washington.

As I mentioned, the other Redskin quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, are not better alternatives. Cousins is a 2012 4th round pick who has played horribly over the past 2 seasons since flashing in limited action as a rookie. He’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in his career. McCoy, meanwhile, is a 2010 3rd round pick and is on his 3rd NFL team already, bouncing from Cleveland to San Francisco to Washington. He drew a few starts last season, but once again showed what’s been clear for his whole career, that he isn’t anything more than an NFL backup. He’s completed 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in the NFL. The Redskins better hope Griffin can flash his rookie year form, otherwise they’ll be in trouble this season. Gruden would be wise to study Griffin’s 2012 tape to figure out how he can tweak his offense to best fit his skill set.

Grade: C

Running Backs

One of the side effects of Robert Griffin’s diminished performance over the past two years has been the decreased productivity of the running game as a result. And I’m not just referring to Griffin’s own decreased rushing productivity. When Griffin was at his best in 2012, he was a dual threat that forced opponents’ defenses to stay honest with both his arm and his ability to take off and run. That made life easier for starting running back Alfred Morris. Over the past two years, however, Morris has seen his YPC drop from 4.81 in 2012 to 4.62 in 2013 to 4.05 last season. Morris’ YPC particularly dropped from 2013 to 2014 for two reasons. One was that his run blocking was much worse than it was in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. The second was that Morris really missed the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme that always gets the most out of running backs and offensive linemen. The latter is likely related to the former as well.

There are a lot of good things about Morris. His career YPC of 4.52 is solid and he’s graded out above average in pure running grade in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, with the exception of last season, when he only graded out slightly below average in that aspect. He also hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons in the league and his 876 carries over the past 3 seasons is 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind only Marshawn Lynch. He’s been an absolute steal since the Redskins drafted him in the 6th round in 2012. However, he’s not a great fit for Jay Gruden’s system and he’s a poor pass catcher, grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and totaling just 37 catches in 48 games over that time period.

The Redskins drafted Matt Jones in the 3rd round of the draft and have been heaping praise on him this off-season, some of which I’m sure is deserved. Jones is unlikely to cut much into Morris’ workload as a runner this season, but he’ll play a significant role on passing downs like Roy Helu did last season. Helu had 42 catches and 40 carries in 2014 and Jones could easily surpass both of those and push Morris below his career low of 265 carries. Jones is also likely seen as the feature back of the future, which means that, like fellow Shanahan draft pick Robert Griffin, Morris is auditioning for a new contract that will likely come from another team in the final year of his rookie deal this year.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Redskins’ offensive line struggled in their first season with Jay Gruden as the head coach and the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme gone. They went from grading out 4th in team pass protection grade and 9th in team run blocking grade in 2013 to 10th and 24th in 2014. The biggest issue was at right tackle, where Tyler Polumbus went from Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2013 in 16 starts to 62nd out of 84 eligible in 7 starts in 2014. Tom Compton also saw significant playing time at right tackle and graded out 68th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. Seeing the position as a big need, the Redskins drafted Brandon Scherff with the 5th overall pick in the draft. He’ll be an immediate upgrade, but the Redskins definitely reached for him that early. He did not grade out like a top-5 pick on College Football Focus and was seen as one of the biggest reaches in the draft by them.

The other big difference from the 2013 offensive line to the 2014 offensive line, aside from the significant decline in performance at right tackle, was the addition of Shawn Lauvao in free agency. Handpicked by Jay Gruden as a strong fit for his blocking scheme, Lauvao was given a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. He made 15 starts at left guard, but graded out below average overall, no surprise considering he’s never graded out above average in his career, dating back to his rookie year in 2010. The former 3rd round pick has 59 career starts, but has never been much better than a borderline starter.

Lauvao’s arrival pushed Kory Lichtensteiger from left guard in 2013 to center in 2014. Litchtensteiger played well at center, grading out 9th among centers last season, but Will Montgomery, their 2013 center, already was a solid starter, grading out 15th among centers in 2013 and then continuing to play well in his next stop in Denver in 2014. He just wasn’t a good fit for Gruden’s new offensive system so he was released. Lichtensteiger should continue to play well in 2015, having graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, both at center and guard, but there’s no denying that the Montgomery for Lauvao swap upfront hurt this offensive line.

Speaking of guys who were released for not being a good fit for the offense, Chris Chester was let go this off-season, despite grading out above average last season. He was going into his age 32 season and was owed 4 million non-guaranteed, but it’s rare that teams just cut functioning starters unless they’re really overpaid. Spencer Long, more in the mold of what Gruden looks for in an offensive lineman, will take over, despite playing just 18 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s completely unproven and 3rd round picks more often than not never develop into solid starters, so I don’t have a lot of hope for him.

The only constant on the offensive line from 2013 to 2014 was that Trent Williams remained by far their best offensive lineman, regardless of scheme. He didn’t grade out #1 among offensive tackles again in 2014 like he did in 2013, but very few players are able to repeat that kind of season. Williams still graded out 18th at his position, despite dealing with some nagging injuries in the 2nd half of the season, making it 3 straight years that he’s graded out top-18 at his position. Only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Joe Staley can also say that. Only going into his age 27 season, Williams should be dominant once again in 2015. The Redskins hope to lock him up long-term ahead next off-season, when he’ll hit free agency. He makes the offensive line a look a lot better, but they still have a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

One player who saw a big decrease in production from 2013 to 2014 was Pierre Garcon, who had a 113/1346/5 slash line in 2013 and only a 68/752/3 slash line in 2014. Garcon averaged 2.38 yards per route run in his first 2 seasons in Washington in 2012 and 2013 combined, including a 2012 season where he missed 6 games with injury and was limited in several others. That number fell to 1.37 in 2014. However, that wasn’t totally his fault as the addition of DeSean Jackson opposite him took away lot of his targets, as he went from 174 in 2013 (2nd among wide receivers) to 99 in 2014 (38th among wide receivers). He was targeted on 28.6% of routes run in 2012-2013, but that fell to 18.1% in 2014 upon Jackson’s arrival.

The Redskins have spoken on several occasions about how they need to get Garcon the ball more in 2015, but the 2008 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in his career outside of 2012 and 2013 and maxed out at 25th among wide receivers in his best NFL season (2013), so maybe that’s not the best idea. He’s purely a volume receiver and not one who can take the top off of the defense or gain a lot of yards after the catch. Jackson, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers in pass catching grade last season, is the better receiver.

Jackson put up good numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns, though he could see fewer targets in 2014 if the Redskins are serious about featuring Garcon more. That being said, Jackson only saw 87 targets in 2014 as strict deep threat so it wasn’t like the Redskins were forcing the ball to him on every play like they did with Garcon in 2013. He’s never been consistently as good as he was in 2013 with the Eagles, when he graded out 8th among wide receivers and caught 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and has surpassed 1000+ yards 4 times in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Eagles in 2008. His skill set and Garcon’s skill set complement each other well.

The problem is the Redskins’ receiving depth after Jackson and Garcon. Andre Roberts flopped in the first year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal last season, grading out 86th among 110 eligible (including 108th in pure pass catching grade) as the Redskins’ 3rd receiver. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as he’s never graded out above average once in his 5-year NFL career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010 by the Cardinals. That includes a 2011 season in which he graded out 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and a 2012 season in which he graded out 102nd out of 105 eligible wide receivers. The contract that the Redskins gave him was a big mistake. They’ll hope that either Ryan Grant or Jamison Crowder can push him for snaps this season. The former is a 2014 5th round pick who struggled on 187 snaps as a rookie last year, while the latter is a 4th round rookie. Neither projects as much of an upgrade.

Niles Paul led all Redskin tight ends in snaps played last season with 585. One of Mike Shanahan’s pet projects was converting the big bodied collegiate receiver into a professional tight end, after the Redskins drafted Paul in the 5th round in 2011. Ironically, he didn’t post good receiving numbers until Shanahan left, as Paul had 14 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown in the first 3 seasons of his career combined, but had 39 catches for 507 yards and a touchdown last season. He graded out about average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus, but, as you’d expect from a 6-1 224 pound former wide receiver, Paul struggled mightily as a run blocker, grading out 62nd in that aspect among tight ends out of 67 eligible. That led to him grading out 59th out of 67 eligible overall. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Redskins re-signed him to a 3-year, 6 million dollar deal this off-season, but they’d probably still prefer him to be a complementary piece more than a starting tight end.

In order for that to happen, Jordan Reed will have to stay healthy, something the 2013 3rd rounder has yet to do in his career, missing 12 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He was dominant in limited action as a rookie, both as a pass catcher and a run blocker, grading out 7th among tight ends on 384 snaps, but took a step back in his 2nd year in the league, grading out slightly below average on 377 snaps. Only going into his age 25 season, there’s definitely upside here, but he remains tough to rely on.

Logan Paulsen is also in the mix at tight end, but he’s purely a blocker with 79 catches in 75 career games. Paulsen hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher since his rookie year in 2010 when he barely played, but the 6-5 264 pounder former undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a run blocker twice in the last 3 seasons. The Redskins really have to hope Reed can stay healthy to give them a 3rd option in the passing game.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Redskins didn’t just have problems on offense last season, moving the chains at a 70.34% rate, 21st in the NFL. Their defense wasn’t good either, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 73.24% rate, 24th in the NFL, leading to a -2.90% differential that ranked 25th in the NFL. Unlike the offense, where they didn’t really do much this off-season, they made some significant additions to their defense in free agency. On the defensive line, those significant additions were Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, who got a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal and a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal respectively from the Redskins this off-season. Both were solid deals.

Paea comes over from Chicago, where he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s a one-year wonder because he graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after the Bears took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he was a very solid value as a free agent and he has a good chance to have another strong year in 2015. He’ll move to defensive end in Washington’s 3-4. He wouldn’t seem to be a great scheme fit at 6-1 303, but he should be an immediate and noticeable upgrade over Jarvis Jenkins, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible last year. He’s gone as a free agent.

Knighton, meanwhile, will line up at nose tackle next to Paea. Knighton was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 12th ranked in 2014. I expected him to get a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million over 5 years, but he didn’t come close to that because of concerns about his weight. The big defensive tackle known as Pot Roast reportedly played around 330 last season, which seems to be a comfortable playing weight for him, given how well he played last season, but when a player is that big, there’s always a chance his weight gets out of control and it’s very possible that he’s gotten out of shape since the season ended.

That’s a very real concern, but this deal is still an absolute steal. Not only is it significantly less money annually that what I was expecting him to get, but there’s no risk beyond this season if he does show up to Training Camp overweight. On top of that, the fact that he could only get this type of deal could serve as a wakeup call for him and I like that he’s betting on himself with this type of deal. He’ll have every reason to remain motivated this season and that should translate to continued strong play. Even though he’s 330 pounds, he’s a decent pass rusher and has a good chance to stay on the field in some sub packages, meaning he won’t just be a pure base package, two-down run stopper.

At the other defensive end spot opposite Paea, Jason Hatcher, a free agent acquisition last off-season, will once again be the starter. Like Paea and Knighton, Hatcher was a great value on a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season. The 2006 3rd round pick has been a late bloomer, but has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, including the last 4 as a starter. Over those past 4 seasons, he’s graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends (2011), 4th among 3-4 defensive ends (2012), 8th among defensive tackles (2013), and then 10th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, in his first year in Washington. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but he could still have a strong season in 2015. He’s yet to really show any decline. He was the only Redskins’ defensive lineman to grade out above average last season, but he’ll have a lot more help this season.

Also coming in as a free agent is Ricky Jean-Francois, who the Redskins signed to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll provide valuable depth. In Ricky Jean-Francois’ first trip to the open market in two off-seasons ago, he was given a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal by the Colts, a very weird move considering RJF had played just 715 snaps in 4 season with the 49ers from 2009-2012, after they drafted him in the 7th round. He did flash, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, but he didn’t deserve that kind of deal then and it predictably didn’t end well. The Colts cut him this off-season after two seasons. He made 23 starts in 26 games with the Colts and graded out about average in both seasons, but the Colts didn’t see him as worth his salary for 2015. He’s a decent player though and one who is in a much more appropriate role at a much more appropriate salary now. The Redskins have turned this defensive line around in a hurry over the past 2 off-seasons.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Redskins did lose Brian Orakpo to free agency this off-season, as he signed with the Titans, but he missed 9 games with injury last season and graded out only 22nd among 3-4 outside linebackers as a result, so he won’t be missed too much. Trent Murphy, who played 595 snaps and made 8 starts in Orakpo’s absence as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, is a capable starter with upside. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. The Redskins also drafted Preston Smith in the 2nd round this year and the rookie will see some action as a rotational reserve in 2015. Murphy is a better run stopper than pass rusher so, if Smith develops well as a rookie, he could steal sub package snaps from Murphy down the stretch.

Along with Murphy’s promising rookie year and Orakpo’s history of injuries, one of the major reasons why the Redskins were comfortable letting Orakpo go is Ryan Kerrigan, who has emerged as a strong edge rusher and 3-4 outside linebacker on the other side. Kerrigan will once again play every down in 2015 after playing 1000 snaps in 2014 (5th most at his position) and he is expected to be signed to a long-term extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, with money that the Redskins saved by letting Orakpo go. Younger than Orakpo (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 29 for Orakpo) with no games missed in 4 years in the NFL, Kerrigan, a 2011 1st round pick, has graded out 19th, 7th, 26th, and 5th among 3-4 outside linebackers from 2011-2014 and deserves to be well paid going forward.

Things aren’t as good at middle linebacker. Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley were Pro Football Focus’ 44th and 48th ranked middle linebackers out of 60 eligible in 2014. Robinson is a 2012 4th round pick who had played 69 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined before struggling as a starter last season, so he doesn’t profile as a long-term starter. Riley, a 2010 4th round pick, played well to start his career from 2010-2012, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including as a 16-game starter in 2012, but he’s graded out well below average in each of the last 2 seasons so his stock is sinking. He’ll need to improve in 2015 if the Redskins are going to keep him at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary for 2016, his age 30 season. Without much of an internal alternative for either Robinson or Perry, they’re stuck with both again this season. Middle linebacker is a weakness in an otherwise quietly strong front 7.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While things in the front 7 are solid, the Redskins’ secondary is still a mess. Things were so bad at cornerback last season that they desperately missed DeAngelo Hall, who missed 13 games with a torn Achilles. Hall isn’t great, but those 3 games he played were the only 3 games the Redskins had anyone resembling an NFL starting cornerback out there. David Amerson, Bashaud Breeland, and EJ Biggers were the Redskins top-3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps played and they finished 108th, 99th, and 102nd respectively out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, meaning the Redskins regularly played 3 of the worst 10 cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

The Redskins did make a good move to fill a major need at the position by signing Chris Culliver, previously of the 49ers, to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. He was just a 3rd round pick of the 49ers in 2011, but he’s quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He had a significant role from the word go in 2011, playing 425 snaps and then 691 in 2012, grading out above average in both seasons, including 29th at his position in 2012. He missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, but he bounced back in a big way from that torn ACL in 2014 in his first full season as a starter, making 14 starts and grading out 14th at his position. On top of that, that 2013 ACL tear is really the only issue he’s had with injuries, missing a combined 2 games in his other 3 seasons as a pro. He’s easily the Redskins’ best defensive back.

That’s where the good news ends in the secondary for the Redskins. DeAngelo Hall will be the other starter likely. While he was their best cornerback last season, that was only by default as he still graded out below average. On top of that, he’s going into his age 32 season, coming off of a significant injury, and hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. The only reason he’s still on the roster at his non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is out of desperation. He’s a weak starter.

With EJ Biggers gone, Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson will compete for the #3 job. The organization seems to have soured on Amerson, a 2013 2nd round pick, and rightfully so, as he’s graded out 84th out of 110 eligible and 108th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks in the first 2 seasons of his career respectively. He’s unlikely to beat out Breeland and win this job. Breeland struggled as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 108 eligible, but the Redskins seem to think he can turn it around going forward. They don’t have much of a choice. They’re also probably hoping that Breeland can lock down a starting job, which would allow Hall to focus on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but I think it’s more likely that Breeland starts the season as the 3rd cornerback, playing outside in sub packages only and moving Hall inside in sub packages.

As bad as things were at cornerback, things at safety might have equally bad. Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark were the starters last season and they graded out 60th and 87th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively. Neither one returns to the Redskins in 2015, with the former still available as a free agent going into his age 32 season and the latter retiring ahead of his age 36 season. However, that doesn’t mean that their safety play will be much better this season.

Dashon Goldson was acquired to be one starter, coming over in a trade from Tampa Bay for a future late round pick. I’m shocked that the Buccaneers got anything for him, as he was heading into a year where he was owed 8 million, including 4 million guaranteed. The Buccaneers signed Goldson to a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar contract 2 off-seasons ago and he proceeded to be one of the worst safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. Goldson was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 and their 87th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014. He was better before signing that deal, back when he was in San Francisco, grading out 20th in 2012, but that’s still one of only two seasons in his career that he’s graded out above average. Going into his age 31 season, I don’t think he’ll be very good this season. Even though the Buccaneers are paying the 4 million dollar guaranteed part of his salary, the Redskins still owe him 4 million this season if he’s on the roster and I don’t see him being worth that.

Jeron Johnson is expected to be the other starting safety, after the Redskins signed him to a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. Johnson spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Seattle, stuck behind Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. He never played more than 130 snaps in a season as a result and only made 1 start, but he graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons. The 2011 undrafted free agent is still incredibly unproven and hard to trust, but new Redskins GM Scot McCloughan was in Seattle’s front office from 2011-2013 so maybe he knows something we don’t. More likely, Johnson is just the best of a bad group of options.

The Redskins also get Duke Ihenacho back from injury after he missed all but 5 snaps last season with a foot injury. He really struggled in his last significant action before the injury, grading out 72nd out of 86 eligible safeties in 2013 with the Broncos. He’s never graded out above average in his career since he went undrafted in 2012 and he’s not a legitimate starting option, even in this weak secondary. He’ll backup both Johnson and Goldson. Outside of Culliver, it’s a really thin secondary.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Redskins struggled on both sides of the ball last season. I don’t see their offense being much better unless Robert Griffin can flash his 2012 form, unlikely considering his injury history and the fact that he’s not a good fit for the system. However, they did add some serious talent defensively this off-season, with guys like Stephen Paea, Terrance Knighton, and Chris Culliver coming in. Brian Orakpo was their only significant loss in free agency and he missed most of last season with injury anyway, so that loss should be able to be nullified by youngsters Trent Murphy and Preston Smith. The Redskins are unlikely to make the playoffs or climb out of the cellar of a strong NFC East, but they should win a few more games this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Redskins after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC East

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