New England Patriots 2015 NFL Season Preview


I saved the Patriots for last intentionally and it’s not because I was trying to save the best for last with the defending Super Bowl champion. I did that because I wanted to maximize the odds that I’d be writing this preview at a point when Tom Brady’s status for the first 4 games wouldn’t be up in the air. That proved to be impossible. Brady was suspended for 4 games in early May after a supposedly independent report from Ted Wells suggested it was more likely than not that Patriot employees intentionally altered the air pressure of the AFC Championship balls to a non-legal level and that Tom Brady more likely than not knew about this. The team also lost their 1st and 4th round picks in 2016 and was fined a million dollars.

The Patriots chose not to appeal the team punishment, but Brady appealed this suspension in June. That didn’t go well because Commissioner Roger Goodell served as the arbitrator. Goodell announced in July that he was upholding the suspension, causing Tom Brady’s legal team to sue in federal court. Legal proceedings have been swift and it sounds like the case will be resolved before the start of the season, with both sides due in court multiple times before then. However, as of this writing, there is some percentage chance between 0% and 100% that Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season with suspension and we don’t know what that percentage is, making it very tough to do a season preview for them.

Before I get into what a possible Brady suspension would mean for this team, I want to take a look at Brady’s case. Brady’s side is likely to argue a number of things. First, they are going to argue that the Ted Wells report is not as independent as it claims to be, because of Ted Wells’ personal relationship with league executives, and they will try to back up this claim with evidence of missed steps in the investigative process by Wells. They will also argue that Goodell didn’t have the ability under the CBA to delegate the handing down of the suspension to league executive Troy Vincent, which then allowed Goodell to be a “neutral” arbitrator on this case.

Brady’s best argument is that there is nothing in the rules, nor any precedent, that allows for a player to be suspended for an equipment violation like this, as the rules only mention a fine as a punishment. In the past with similar equipment violations, the punishment has only been a fine. The NFL will argue that a suspension was still warranted because of the Patriots’ history of skirting the rules and because Brady seemingly didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation because he didn’t turn his phone over. However, Brady was never implicated at all in Spygate, never receiving as much as a fine or even a warning from the NFL. As for Brady’s refusal to turn over his cell phone, the NFL doesn’t have subpoena powers and cannot force a player to turn over their cell phone. Under the advice of his lawyers not to set a bad precedent, Brady refused to turn over his physical phone.

There’s undoubtedly more to both sides of the story than we know, but it seems like the NFL once again mishandled player discipline. The NFL has had little luck with their suspensions standing when ruled on by an independent 3rd party over the past, especially in federal court. The NFL lost their case against Jonathan Vilma and the rest of the BountyGate players, their case against Ray Rice, their case against Greg Hardy, and their case against with Adrian Peterson, with all four suspensions getting nullified immediately.

Antonio Cromartie, of the rival New York Jets, made the point well publicly this week that he’s on Tom Brady’s side because he doesn’t feel like the Commissioner being allowed to make up his own rules on discipline is a precedent that any player should want to see happen and, as much as Brady being suspended 4 games would help the Jets’ playoff chances, fairness is more important. This opinion seems to be shared by the rest of the league because, while 72% of NFL players believe Brady and the Patriots to be guilty, only 16% are upset by it, 68% say that they think other teams do the same thing, and 58% do not consider the Patriots cheaters. On top of that, 78% of players consider Brady’s punishment too harsh and a whopping 88% of players do not think that Roger Goodell should be handling player discipline. While the circumstantial evidence does suggest that Brady at least knew about this and didn’t put a stop to it, I think it’s hard to argue that, in fairness under league rules, he deserves to miss a quarter of the regular season.

It remains to be seen how many games Tom Brady will be allowed to play this season, but, in the long-term, the debate over DeflateGate will be a legacy one, about whether or not this and Spygate lessen Brady’s legacy. I don’t believe it does. Taking some air out of the ball and being able to watch recorded public practices certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s ability to perform, but he’s hardly the only player to bend the rules, as evidenced by those polls and as several others have admitted this off-season, including Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and if you think those are the reasons why Brady has been successful in his career, you don’t understand the game.

If Brady struggles by his standards on the field this season, it won’t be because the ball now has the minimum amount of air in it, instead of slightly less than the minimum amount. It’ll be because he’s going into his age 38 season and, depending on the result of his lawsuit, because he missed 4 games to start the season and it threw off his rhythm. In 7 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) since Pro Football Focus’ start in 2007, Brady has graded out 2nd (2007), 11th (2009), 8th (2010), 3rd (2011), 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), and 4th (2014). Brady looked to be on the slight decline in 2013 and to start 2014, but turned it around in a big way mid-season last season, en route to his 4th Super Bowl.

He’ll be missed for sure if the suspension is upheld. Jimmy Garappolo excites a lot of people long-term, but, as of right now, he’s an inexperienced 2nd year quarterback who went in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and whose limited NFL success has mostly come on the practice field and during the pre-season. Garappolo has completed 19 of 27 career regular season attempts for 182 yards, a touchdown, and no picks, flashing, but doing so in very, very limited, mostly meaningless action. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Tom Brady.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Regardless of who is under center, tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be a monster offensive weapon for them. It’s possible that, with Brady aging, Gronkowski has become their most important offensive player. He’ll obviously need to stay healthy though as, at this point last year, he was coming back from a torn ACL and was a serious injury concern. When he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back.

When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his collegiate days at the University of Arizona, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin in 2014, winning Comeback Player of the Year in the process. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns from the tight end spot. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3), propelling them to finish 6th in the league on the season in rate of moving the chains.

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been when on the field, possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker. He’s easily the top tight end in the league.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. Gronkowski has made Brady look better than he is over the past few years and he can do the same for Garappolo, to some extent. He’s 100% injury wise right now, but, if he were to get hurt again, it would be devastating for this offense.

Top wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are not nearly as good and could see a serious statistical dropoff in the first 4 games of the season if Brady doesn’t play, something that could continue if Brady isn’t quite his old self upon return. Edelman has put up solid numbers over the past 2 seasons, putting up a 105/1056/6 slash line in 2013 and a 92/972/4 slash line last season and even graded out 34th among eligible wide receivers in 2013. However, he graded out below average in 2014 and prior to 2014 he was a 2009 7th round pick who had played 930 career snaps and missed 16 games with injury. I’m not trying to diminish his development, but he’s a marginal starting wide receiver whose recent production is largely the result of Tom Brady. He’s younger than Wes Welker and better than he would have been, but he’s a poor man’s version of Welker in his prime at best.

LaFell put up decent numbers in 2014 as well, putting up a 74/953/7 slash line and grading out 33rd among eligible wide receivers. However, he too benefitted from playing with Brady. Prior to last season, he never really played that well, as the 2010 3rd round pick caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2010-2013, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013 and below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s a marginal starting receiver as result and one who will have trouble repeating the best season of his career in 2015. LaFell and Edelman are decent and complement each other well, but they’re an underwhelming pair of starting wide receivers.

Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola will compete for the #3 receiver job. After the Patriots lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez two off-seasons ago, they brought in Amendola and Dobson to replenish their receiving corps and essentially act as Edelman and LaFell did last season. Amendola got a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar contract, while Aaron Dobson was a 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Neither of them lived up to expectations, allowing an opening for Edelman to breakout as a starting caliber player and causing the Patriots to sign LaFell to play opposite him.

Amendola was forced to take a pay cut down to 2.25 million for the 2015 season and, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in 2016, is likely in his final season in New England. Amendola graded out above average in 2013, but played just 581 snaps in 12 games thanks to injuries. He was healthy for all 16 games in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 93rd among 110 eligible wide receivers on just 466 snaps. He did play decent down the stretch though, catching 27 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season, including the playoffs.

That gave the Patriots hope that Amendola could bounce back in 2015 and become the player who averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2012 with the Rams, which is why the Patriots brought him back. However, he’s an injury prone player (24 games missed in the last 4 seasons), who is going into his age 30 season, who has never played more than 679 snaps in a season (dating back to going undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft), and who hasn’t had a good season since 2012. He could win the #3 receiver job, but I don’t see him having a fantastic year or anything. Dobson, meanwhile, graded out 98th among 111 eligible wide receivers on 557 snaps as a rookie and then was limited to 57 nondescript snaps in 2014 by injuries. He’s recovered from those injuries and has drawn positive reviews in practice, but he’s on his last chance and seems like a long-shot for the #3 job, as of this writing.

The winner of that job will see the field about half the time, playing in 3-wide receiver sets. The Patriots have a decent fullback in James Develin that they’ll use on occasion, while free agent acquisition Scott Chandler is the #2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and will see a decent amount of action. Chandler replaces Tim Wright, who graded out above average on 357 snaps in one season in New England, coming over in the Logan Mankins trade. He was surprisingly waived this off-season, despite two more very affordable years left on his rookie contract.

The 6-7 265 Chandler is a very different player than the 6-4 220 Wright and is more of a replacement for Michael Hoomanawanui than anything. Chandler should be an upgrade over Hoomanawanui, who graded out 58th among 67 eligible tight ends last season, but only by default. Chandler graded out above average in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013 as a starting tight end, on an average of 769 snaps played per season, but graded out below average last season on 744 snaps, 47th among 67 eligible tight ends. Things won’t get better for him, as he heads into his age 30 season. He’d be a significant downgrade from Gronkowski if Gronk were to get hurt. Rob Gronkowski elevates this receiving corps to a new level on his own, but, outside of him, they lack weapons in the receiving corps, making them very vulnerable to another possible Gronkowski injury and making life hard for Jimmy Garrapolo (or whoever starts the season at quarterback) than you’d expect.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Patriots had a lot of trouble on the offensive line last season, especially in pass protection (29th in team pass blocking grade). They particularly struggled at left guard. Dan Connolly saw the most action there last season, making 10 starts, but graded out 72nd among 78 eligible guards. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey also made starts there, but both struggled, especially the latter, who graded out 70th among 78 eligible guards on just 306 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Cannon wasn’t quite that bad at any one position, but saw action at many different offensive line positions and struggled everywhere about as much as Devey did at guard.

This season, with Connolly retiring ahead of his age 33 season, the Patriots are expected to start 4th round rookie Tre Jackson, which is unlikely to be a serious upgrade. The Patriots like Jackson, but are largely starting him out of a lack of other options. His competition includes fellow 4th round rookie Shaquille Mason, a guard out of Georgia Tech that is currently penciled in as the backup center, and veterans Devey and Cannon. Cannon is the better of the two because he did grade out above average on 160 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2011 and 178 snaps in 2012, but he’s struggled mightily over the past 2 seasons and certainly isn’t a legitimate starting option. Devey, meanwhile, had never even played a snap as a 2013 undrafted free agent prior to last season’s struggles and is no lock to even make the roster. Jackson’s only real competition is Josh Kline, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has been respectable in 412 career snaps, but he’s certainly not a dependable starter either.

Connolly actually began last season at center, but 4th round rookie Bryan Stork took over as the starter week 4 and made 11 starts the rest of the way, holding his own, grading out 23rd among 41 eligible centers. He’s not a great starter, but he could be solid again in his 2nd year in the league. Stork stepping up as a respectable pivot mid-season really helped the Patriots’ offense and made sure they wouldn’t have to start both Connolly and Devey.

Right guard Ryan Wendell also saw some time at center last season before Stork locked down the job, but primarily just played guard. Wendell spent 2012 and 2013 as the Patriots’ center and had drastically different performances in those two seasons. Wendell burst onto the scene in 2012, grading out 2nd among centers, but finished 31st among 35 eligible in 2013. He appeared to be a one-year wonder, given that the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 566 career snaps prior to his one good year as a starter in 2012, but he played pretty well at right guard this season, grading out slightly above average. Overall, he averages out as a solid starter, like he was last season, but he’s very inconsistent. He’s also a much better run blocker than pass protector. He hasn’t graded out above average as a pass protector in any of his 3 seasons as a starter, not even in 2012, but he graded out 1st among in run blocking in 2012 and 10th last season (58th out of 78 eligible in pass protection).

The Patriots’ struggle for consistency wasn’t just on the interior of their offensive line last season. Nate Solder had a down year, grading out below average for the first time in his career, but he has a good chance to bounce back. The 2011 1st round pick graded out 34th in as a rookie, 17th in 2012, 9th in 2013, and only struggled last season because, as was revealed after the season ended, Solder had been treated for testicular cancer the previous off-season. He played better down the stretch, grading out above average in his final 13 games, and I expect that to continue into 2015. Now fully healthy and going into the final season of his contract, Solder should get a solid sized payday within the next calendar year.

On the other side, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy. With a full season of Stork at center and Solder back to 100%, the Patriots’ offensive line should be better this season, but they still have problems.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In 2011, the Patriots used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the running back position, taking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley respectively, with the idea of having Vereen, a smaller, quicker back with good passing down skills, working in tandem with Ridley, a talented between the tackles runner with no passing down skills. Both had up and down careers in New England, but both also had stretches of strong play. Stevan Ridley graded out 8th and 13th in pure run grade among running backs in 2012 and 2013 respectively, rushing for a combined 2036 yards and 19 touchdowns on 468 carries over those 2 seasons (4.35 YPC), while Vereen caught 99 passes in 2013 and 2014 combined and graded out 12th and 10th respectively among running backs in pure pass catching grade in those two seasons respectively. Both left as free agents this off-season though.

Ridley won’t be hard to replace, as the Patriots actually ran better after Ridley tore his ACL week 6 last season. He was replaced at first by Jonas Gray, who rushed for 412 yards and 5 touchdowns on 89 carries (4.63 YPC) on the season, and then by LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.69 YPC), after coming over mid-season from Pittsburgh. Blount also totaled 189 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 47 carries in 3 playoff games as the lead back. Ridley, meanwhile, was at 3.62 YPC before going down with injury. Blount returns as the favorite to lead this team in carries, but head coach Bill Belichick is known for having no loyalty to running backs so Jonas Gray is right in the mix for carries on a team that didn’t have a single running back hit 100 carries last season (Vereen had 96 carries and averaged 4.07 yards per carry).

Blount is the more proven of the two backs, as Gray is a 2012 undrafted free agent who never had a carry prior to last season. Blount is also a former undrafted free agent, falling out of the draft in 2010 for behavioral reasons, but has rushed for 3258 yards and 25 touchdowns on 704 carries in 5 seasons in the league, an average of 4.63 YPC. He’s bounced from Tampa Bay to New England to Pittsburgh back to New England because of those same behavioral issues, but Bill Belichick has always kept him in line and I expect that to continue. Both Gray and Blount graded out significantly above average as runners on Pro Football Focus last season, so the Patriots are going to be fine in that aspect, but they also have just a combined 34 career catches in a combined 80 career games, so they’re both useless in the passing game.

Vereen will be much tougher to replace for that reason. It’s currently a three-way battle between Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, and James White for the job and at least one, if not two of those players won’t even make the final roster. White’s roster spot seems to be the most in danger, as the 2014 4th round pick has struggled this off-season. He caught 39 passes in his senior year at Wisconsin, but played just 31 snaps as a rookie and hasn’t done much on the practice field to win over the coaching staff.

Cadet is probably the favorite. He has a mere 3.36 career YPC on 11 carries, but caught 38 passes with the Saints last season and graded out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career. Brandon Bolden is an internal option. He’s a much better runner, with a career 4.56 YPC, but he has just 25 career catches, has never graded out above average as a pass catcher, has only once graded out above average overall, and has missed 10 games with injury in 3 years in the league, since going undrafted because of injury concerns in 2012.

Bolden probably has the safest hold on a roster spot because he plays special teams well, but he’s no lock to exceed the mere 30 offensive touches he had last season. My guess is Cadet wins the passing down job, Blount and Gray make the team as the 1st and 2nd running backs, and Bolden makes the roster as a special teamer and insurance. The Patriots figure to still pass to running backs a decent amount in 2014, but I don’t see anyone catching the 52 balls that Vereen caught last season and they will miss him. The Patriots don’t have any great running backs, but they have a bunch of running backs who can play roles and Bill Belichick figures to use his running back stable to its fullest once again. It’ll be maddening from a fantasy football standpoint, but it should get decent results on the field.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Patriots’ lost 3 of their top-4 cornerbacks, in terms of snaps played last season, this off-season, including Darrelle Revis, arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and the biggest reason why the Patriots were able to finish 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season, after years of bad defense. Because of that, they had to either reload at the cornerback position or reinvent themselves defensively this off-season. They didn’t do the former at all, but they did the latter to some extent, by adding edge player Jabaal Sheard, formerly of the Cleveland Browns.

Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. The Patriots already had two solid edge players in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich prior to bringing in Sheard, but Sheard was such a bargain (11 million over 2 years) and Jones and Ninkovich averaged 66.1 and 67.3 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, the two highest per game snap averages among players at their position. As part of their reinvention on defense, they will rotate 4-3 defensive ends far more often and also regularly play all three on the field at the same time in sub packages. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England.

Jones is the biggest of the trio at 6-5 265, so he’d be tasked with rushing the passer from the interior sub packages, which he has some experience with. Jones is also probably the best of the trio. The 2012 1st round pick has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the NFL, including 11th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, despite missing 6 games with a hip injury. He does have some injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s healthy now and could have the best season of his career in his age 25 season in 2015, now playing a much more manageable amount of snaps. He has experience in a 4-3, as well as a 3-4, playing in a 4-3 in his first 2 seasons in New England in 2012 and 2013 and playing in one in college at Syracuse.

While Jones is on the way up, Ninkovich seems to be on the way down, going into his age 31 season. He graded out below average last season, snapping a 5-year streak of grading out above average. He definitely has bounce back potential, after grading out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011 and 6th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s not completely over the hill yet and he too should benefit from a smaller snap count, but he’s getting to the point where he can’t be trusted as more than a solid starter. Still, it’s a solid trio. Sheard definitely won’t make up for all of the Patriots’ losses in the secondary by himself, but the Patriots should get good pass rush this season, which would help their secondary at least a little.

The Patriots also made a big addition at defensive tackle this off-season, drafting Malcom Brown in the 1st round, though he was largely a replacement for Vince Wilfork, who was cut ahead of his age 34 season, after grading out 13th among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Still, the Brown pick makes it two straight years where they’ve drafted a defensive tackle in the first round, as they drafted Dominique Easley in the first round in 2014, so there’s definitely potential at the position. Easley is more of a pass rusher, while Brown is more of a run stuffer, and the Patriots are hoping they can blossom into a fearsome duo inside in the future.

Easley’s rookie year didn’t really suggest that he can live up to those expectations though. It’s certainly not too late for him to turn it around, but Easley tore both his ACLs in college at Florida, was limited to 270 nondescript snaps by knee problems as a rookie, and is still not at 100%. It seems unlikely that Easley will again ever be the top-5 talent that he would have been before the injuries. The Patriots should just hope that he can stay healthy this season and play solid in an expanded role.

Easley will probably see the majority of his snaps in sub packages as an interior pass rusher, along with Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard. Sealver Siliga looks like the favorite to start in base packages alongside Brown, but, like Brown, he’s going to be largely a two-down player this season. Siliga is a great fit for that role though, as the 6-2 307 pounder has graded out above average both overall and as a run stopper in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. The 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 467 total career snaps, maxing out at 242 in 2014, but he’s definitely deserving of more playing time, which he should get this season.

Christopher Jones finished 2nd among Patriot interior defensive linemen in 2014, grading out 42nd among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 511 snaps, after grading out dead last among 69 eligible defensive tackles on 792 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, largely playing out of desperation. He won’t have to play much this season, which is good. It’s a solid defensive line, but an unspectacular one that won’t make up for their losses in the secondary.

Grade: B


Another player who will give the Patriots pass rush productivity, as he did last season, is linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins only blitzed 85 times last season, but managed to record 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries, an outstandingly good performance in that aspect for the collegiate defensive end. Collins isn’t just a good blitzer though, as he’s developed into one of the best overall linebackers in the game, easily making the position switch from college to the pros. He graded out 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. With the Patriots moving to a 4-3, Collins will move back outside, where he flashed on 302 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2013. He’s technically just a one-year wonder because he’s only been a starter in the league for one year, but, going into his age 26 season, Collins seems like a budding superstar linebacker.

Dont’a Hightower will remain in the middle in the Patriots’ new 4-3, after grading out 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, one spot ahead of Collins and only behind Luke Kuechly. Like Collins, he seems like a budding superstar. Also like Collins, Hightower helped with pass rush, adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 hurries on just 156 blitzes. The 2012 1st round pick graded out 8th and 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013 respectively and then dominated upon moving back to his natural, collegiate position of middle linebacker in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Hightower should continue this play into 2015 and beyond and is one of the best middle linebackers in the game.

The Patriots’ third linebacker, Jerod Mayo, used to be one of the best linebackers in the game, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012. However, he’s been limited to 12 games over the past 2 seasons by a torn pectoral and a torn patellar tendon and now has been relegated to two-down work, stopping the run in base packages. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because he had guaranteed money owed to him either way. The Patriots still made him take a pay cut down to 4.5 million from 9.1 million.

He played pretty well against the run in 2014 before going down, but a torn patellar tendon is incredibly tough to come back from. That injury is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent. He’ll likely never be as good as he used to be, but he could still be a solid two-down player in arguably the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. Because of how Hightower and Collins have stepped up over the past two seasons, Mayo is no longer needed like he once was.

Grade: A


I mentioned earlier how much the Patriots lost at cornerback this off-season. Before I get into detail about that, I want to start with the good, which is the safety position, specifically Devin McCourty, who was brought back on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season. That is the 2nd highest average annual salary in the league for a safety, but he was well worth it. McCourty started his career as a cornerback, grading above average in his first 3 years in the league at that position, including 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2010 and 8th in 2012 on just 534 snaps.

McCourty played such few snaps at cornerback in 2012 because he moved to safety mid-season, finishing the season 14th among safeties on 564 snaps. His composite grade across both positions would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. He then followed that up by grading out 1st among safeties in 2013 and 8th in 2014. There’s been some talk that McCourty could be moving back to cornerback this season, with so many losses at the position. That hasn’t been substantiated by anything yet, but it is the Patriots so you never know. I don’t expect him to move back full-time to cornerback, but it would make sense for the Patriots to have him play on the slot in sub packages.

That’s because the Patriots’ safety depth is so much better than their cornerback depth, meaning they are much better equipped to play with 3 safeties on the field in sub packages than the traditional 3 cornerbacks. Patrick Chung returns as a starter opposite McCourty, after getting a 3-year, 8.2 million dollar extension during last season. Chung was a huge surprise for the Patriots in 2014, playing all 16 games and grading out 12th among safeties.

How well he played wasn’t really a surprise, as the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, though he’s never been as good as he was last season. What’s most surprising is the fact that he stayed healthy, after missing 18 games from 2010-2013. It’ll be tough to count on him to stay healthy and repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, especially since the Patriots’ lack of talent at cornerback means Chung won’t be able to play within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 67.7% of snaps again, 5th among eligible safeties. That could lead to him getting exposed in coverage more than he was last season.

The Patriots also have a pair of good backups, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. Harmon was a 2013 3rd round pick and has graded out above average on 431 and 283 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Richards, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in this past draft, but he wasn’t seen as a highly rated prospect and figures to be the Patriots’ 4th safety at best. Still, given that the 5-11 212 pound Chung doesn’t play nearly as well in reverse as he does moving forward, both Richards and Harmon could carve out sub packages roles, especially if McCourty starts playing on the slot.

Of course, as good as the Patriots’ safeties are, they can’t completely mask their losses at cornerback. Darrelle Revis (1032 snaps), Brandon Browner (591 snaps), and Kyle Arrington (451 snaps) were 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively in snaps played among cornerbacks in 2014 for the Patriots and they all left this off-season. Browner won’t really be missed, after grading out 79th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014, and Arrington was only alright, but Revis will be impossible to replace, given that he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback.

Logan Ryan was 3rd on the team among cornerbacks in snaps played last season and looks like he’ll slide into a starting job by default. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out above average on 608 snaps as a rookie and, even though he graded out below average on 519 snaps, he wasn’t horrible in 2014. He’s a steep downgrade from Revis and he only has 13 career starts, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season and could be a decent young starter for them. He’s pretty much the only cornerback on the team who is locked into some sort of secure role.

2nd year player Malcolm Butler is penciled in as the other starter, while veteran journeyman Robert McClain is penciled in on the slot. Butler well known for his Super Bowl clinching interception, but, while that was a great play, it’s also important to remember that he went undrafted in 2014 and graded out below average on 187 regular season snaps. Even though he graded out above average on 33 post-season snaps, he’s still incredibly unproven. McClain, meanwhile, had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but he proved to be a one year wonder (the 2010 7th round pick played a combined 134 snaps in 2010-2011). He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 90th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Neither inspires much hope in me.

Both players will have to hold off Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown, also journeyman veterans added as free agents this off-season. And, of course, it’s possible the Patriots rarely use 3 cornerbacks, favoring 3 safeties instead. As I mentioned, that’s probably a good idea because neither Fletcher nor Brown seems fit for a serious role, just like Butler and McClain don’t. Fletcher started all 16 games at cornerback last season for the Eagles, but he was horrible, grading out 92nd out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Fletcher was a 3rd round pick of the Rams’ in 2009, but last season was the first season in his career that he made all 16 starts and, though he’s had decent success as a reserve in his career, he’s not a starting caliber cornerback. He’s a depth cornerback at best and not a very reliable one, as he’s missed 25 games in 6 seasons in the NFL.

Brown, meanwhile, is probably a little better than Fletcher, but didn’t sign with the Patriots until late July. He was a 3-year starter in San Francisco, grading out 32nd, 13th, and 31st in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Brown turned down a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal from the 49ers last off-season, instead choosing to bet on himself and rehab his value after missing 3 games and being limited in others by rib problems in 2013, but that seems to have been a mistake. Brown made 3.5 million over 1 season in Oakland, missed another 2 games with injury, and graded out below average, leading to a minimum deal in New England. There’s even talk that 7th round rookie Darryl Roberts, seen as a steal by College Football Focus, could see playing time at some point. The Patriots like him and with good reason, but I don’t think he’ll be ready for action as a rookie. It’s a far cry from last year’s secondary and that will really hurt a defense that finished 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014.

Grade: B-


The Patriots were Super Bowl champions last year and were a much better team down the stretch en route to winning the Super Bowl, particularly on offense, as Rob Gronkowski got back to 100% and the offensive line turned things around. However, the Patriots might not be able to carry their strong offensive play from early October through the Super Bowl into 2015 because Tom Brady could be suspended for the first 4 games of the season, which would really throw their offense’s rhythm off. Even if Brady does play all 16 games, he’s going into his age 38 season and can’t keep playing like this forever.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ defense is without a doubt worse, thanks to the loss of Darrelle Revis, among others. They still have some strong parts, including Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Devin McCourty, the latter of whom the Patriots did manage to keep as a free agent this off-season, and they have a solid defensive line. However, this defense is not going to be the same in 2015 as it was in 2014 and I think the same can be said of the rest of the team. It’s tough to make a prediction with Brady hanging in limbo, but I don’t think they’ll be as good and they might cede the division to Miami. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Patriots after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Patriots got Tom Brady back for the first 4 games, but they still have other problems. Their cornerbacks are a mess, Brady is 38, Brandon LaFell and Bryan Stork are already out for at least the first month of the season, thinning their offensive line and receiving corps, and they share a division with a much improved Miami team. I have them in 2nd in a virtual tie record wise with the Dolphins and they certainly could win the division again, but I’m taking Miami. Both teams will be tough in the playoffs.

Prediction: 11-5 2nd in AFC East




New York Jets 2015 NFL Season Preview


The Jets were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing just 28th in rate of moving the chains differential. Like most awful teams, the Jets had a terrible quarterback situation. Geno Smith played in 14 games (13 starts), while Michael Vick played in 10 games (3 starts) and they graded out 5th worst and 4th worst among quarterbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus. As a result, they finished 26th in rate of moving the chains. Unfortunately, they won just too many games to be able to select a top quarterback in the draft, going 4-12, as a result of a solid defense that ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Because neither Winston nor Mariota fell to the Jets’ pick at 6, the Jets had to settle for trading a 7th round pick to Houston for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and using a 4th round pick on Bryce Perry, who will only play as a rookie if disaster strikes. Fitzpatrick has actually played pretty well over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average for the first two times in his career, including arguably the best season of his career in 2014. He graded out 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions last season. Now in New York, Fitzpatrick is reunited with Chan Gailey, formerly his Head Coach in Buffalo and now the Jets’ offensive coordinator.

Usually I like when players reunite with former coaches because of the familiarity aspect, but Fitzpatrick never did very well under Gailey’s tutelage, as evidenced by the fact that some of his poor seasons earlier in his career were with Gailey. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked quarterback out of 37 eligible in 2010, 26th out of 38 eligible in 2011, and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012, the three seasons he played under Gailey. On top of that, he’s going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg. There’s reason why the Texans felt comfortable trading him for a mere 7th round pick, despite the fact that he is only owed 3.25 million this season. I’d still start him over Smith, but it sounds like the Jets are going to be sticking with the incumbent for at least a few weeks.

Smith has been terrible in 2 years in the league. He’s completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions, while grading out 40th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in 2013 and 36th among 39 eligible quarterbacks in 2014. He was better than Michael Vick last season though, as Vick completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 4.99 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. In the 5 games where Vick played more than 50% of the snaps, the Jets moved the chains at a 64.44% rate, as opposed to 69.18% in their other games. Neither of those rates is good, but the Jets’ quarterback situation figures to be better this season than last season simply because of the swap of Vick for Fitzpatrick. Their passing offense still won’t be a very effective way to move the chains though, unless Fitzpatrick is somehow able to win the job and repeat the best season of his career again at age 33, coming off of a broken leg.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do anything real at the quarterback position this off-season, the Jets spent a lot of money to upgrade their team around the quarterback spot this off-season, going into the off-season with close to the most cap space in the league. Their biggest move on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t a free agent acquisition. It was the trade of a 5th round pick to the Chicago Bears for Brandon Marshall, who will make 9 million dollars this season, after the Jets gave him a restructured 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon his arrival.

The Bears were willing to part with him because he’s coming off of a down year, catching just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, and grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. However, while he’s going into his age 31 season, he does have bounce back potential. He’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 8th in 2012, and 1st in 2013. He might be aging and a little overpaid, but he represents a significant upgrade for the Jets at wide receiver.

After #1 receiver Eric Decker, the Jets next 3 wide receivers in terms of snaps played in 2014 were Jeremy Kerley (752 snaps), Percy Harvin (373 snaps), and David Nelson (305 snaps). Harvin was decent in limited action, but Kerley and Nelson struggled mightily, grading out 76th and 109th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers. Nelson was especially bad, with no receivers grading out worse on fewer snaps. Harvin is gone, but Nelson is as well, and, with Marshall coming in, they have finally locked in a #2 receiver, moving Kerley to the 3rd receiver job, where he’s a much better fit.

Decker was their big off-season acquisition last off-season, coming over as a free agent from Denver and adding much needed life to a receiving corps that was led in snaps played by Stephen Hill in 2013. Decker didn’t continue his big numbers from 2012 and 2013, when he put up slash lines of 85/1064/13 and 87/1288/11 respectively, but that was to be expected, given the switch of Peyton Manning to Geno Smith at quarterback. Decker’s 74/962/5 slash line in 2014 was still very respectable given the circumstances he dealt with, frequent double teams and a hot mess at quarterback. He graded out 24th among wide receivers, which lines up with how he played in 2012 (42th) or 2013 (12th), and overall I’d say he lived up to his 5-year, 36.25 million dollar deal on a team that desperately needed a guy like him. He’s not a true #1 receiver, but he has Marshall to take some of the focus off of him this season, which should help him and this whole offense.

Kerley, meanwhile, will be a slot specialist between them in obvious passing situations. He’s a solid slot receiver. He’s graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft, catching 166 passes for 2073 yards and 7 touchdowns on 259 targets (64.1%) and 1408 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). He’s also plenty experienced, having played 2331 snaps in 4 seasons in the league and having started 23 of 58 career games. The trio of Decker, Marshall, and Kerley is solid and much better than what Jets fans are used to. Devin Smith, meanwhile, is the 4th receiver. The 2nd round rookie was seen as an option to beat out Kerley for the #3 job, but broke his ribs in training camp, essentially ending the battle. Smith is still expected to play week 1, but I don’t see him pushing for any real playing time until later in the season. He’s just missed too much valuable practice time.

Despite that, Kerley might not even finish 3rd on the team in yardage, because the Jets are expecting a breakout year from 2nd year tight end Jace Amaro. That might be wishful thinking, after the 2014 2nd rounder graded out below average on 385 snaps as a rookie, but he did show some upside and could easily be a solid starter in his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he’ll be a significant upgrade on Jeff Cumberland, who graded out dead last among 67 eligible tight ends last season. Cumberland, a 2010 undrafted free agent, has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, is coming off the worst season of his career, and has been overstretched as a starter over the past 2 seasons. He’s a low-end #2 tight end. He’s the only real weak spot in a solid receiving corps though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One area the Jets needed to improve this off-season on offense that they didn’t really was the running back position. They didn’t necessarily need to add a great runner, because lead back Chris Ivory is solid at running the football. Ivory has averaged 4.66 yards per carry on 636 carries in his career (2961 yards) and added another 17 touchdowns. The 2010 undrafted free agent has also graded out above average in pure running grade in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, including 10th among eligible running backs in pure running grade in 2014. The issue with Ivory is he’s useless in passing situations, with just 23 career catches in 55 career games. He’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and last season was so inept in both pass protection and pass catching on a career high 454 snaps that he graded out 39th among 57 eligible running backs, despite running the ball so well.

He’s a good runner, but he’s simply not a feature back. The Jets needed to add a complement for him this off-season, a smaller, speedier back that can complement the 6-0 222 pound Ivory as a runner and also handle all obvious passing situations. Chris Johnson played that role last season, but struggled mightily, grading out 46th among 57 eligible running backs. There’s a reason he remains unsigned as of this writing. Instead, the only running backs the Jets brought in this off-season were Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy, essentially lesser versions of Ivory. Now they just have three one-dimensional backs instead of one.

Both are solid runners between the tackles, but don’t represent any sort of change of pace from Ivory and they’ve caught a combined 67 career passes in a combined 79 career games. On top of that, neither one has ever graded out above average as a pass catcher in 6 combined seasons in the league. Both have had one season as a lead back, but both have also done little much else in their careers. Ridley (5-11 225) is probably the better of the two, grading out above average as a runner in 2 of 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, including 8th among running backs in pure run grade in 2012 and 13th in 2013. In his one year as a lead back (2012), he rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) and has rushed for 2817 yards and 22 touchdowns on 649 career carries (4.34 YPC) in his career.

Stacy (5-8 216), meanwhile, has rushed for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 326 carries (3.88 YPC) in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been better than those numbers have suggested, as he’s been stifled by consistently poor offensive line play, and he graded out 31st among running backs in running grade in 2013, but they’re still vastly inferior numbers to Ridley. Most of that production came as a starter as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and it was a quick fall for him, as the Rams (his old team) drafted Tre Mason in the 3rd round last year, Todd Gurley in the 1st round this year, and sent Stacy to the Jets for a 7th round pick during this year’s draft.

Ridley should be the favorite to be Ivory’s backup on pure talent, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered last October. He might not be ready for the start of the season and, even if he is, it’s unclear what kind of shape he’s going to be in. For that reason, Stacy could win the backup job. It’s also likely that whoever loses the battle for the backup job will be outright cut because the Jets don’t want to have three of the same backs. It would be weird to see the Jets outright cut Ridley, but they guaranteed him just 80K because of the knee so it’s certainly a possibility if he can’t get healthy.

Bilal Powell, meanwhile, will slide into Johnson’s old role and could lead this backfield in snaps played, as he did in this role in 2013 (633 snaps). Powell is a decent pass catcher and pass protector and caught 36 passes in 2013, but he has a career 3.90 YPC average and struggled mightily overall in 2013, grading out 50th among 55 eligible running backs. Powell is no guarantee to even be an upgrade on the departed Chris Johnson. It’s not a backfield without some talent, but it’s a very one-dimensional one.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The Jets also needed to upgrade the offensive line this off-season, particularly at guard. They spent money trying to do that, giving James Carpenter a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar deal to be their starting left guard, but they definitely overpaid and I’m not sure so he represents much of an upgrade. Carpenter, a 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, started just 39 games in 4 seasons (31 at left guard, 8 at right tackle) in the league. That’s a result of several injuries and overall poor play, as he’s graded out well below average in all 4 of those seasons.

Of course, the Jets had horrible guard play last season so Carpenter could still be an upgrade. Right guard Willie Colon struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible, and is now going into his age 32 season. Meanwhile at left guard, Brian Winters has been a disaster since they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible as a rookie and last year he was 66th out of 78 eligible, despite playing just 381 snaps. Oday Aboushi, a 2013 5th round pick, took over the starting job from him week 7 and was better, but only by default. None of those three players are capable starters.

Willie Colon remains the favorite to keep his starting job at right guard opposite Colon, despite the poor 2014 season. I don’t expect 2015 to be much better for him. After missing 36 out of a possible 48 games from 2010-2012 with injuries, Colon has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and actually graded out slightly above average in 2013. However, going into his age 32 season, with a very serious injury history, it’s definitely plausible that he could be done, at least as a starter. He’s certainly no lock to make all 16 starts this season and the sooner he’s benched the better.

Of course, the Jets’ other options aren’t very good. Obay Aboushi, as I mentioned, struggled last season, in the first 734 snaps of his career, after not playing a snap as a 5th round rookie in 2013. He wasn’t horrible (43rd among 78 eligible) and he’d be better than Colon, but he’s a below average starter. Dakota Dozier is the longshot option, after not playing a snap as a 4th round rookie in 2014. He’d probably need both Colon and Aboushi to struggle or get hurt to see the field. Guard figures to be a problem area for the Jets once again in 2015.

The rest of the offensive line isn’t terrible, with a trio of experienced veterans locked into their current spots, D’Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle, Nick Mangold at center, and Breno Giacomini at right tackle. Ferguson and Mangold have been staples on the Jets’ offensive line for years. Ferguson has made 144 starts in 9 seasons in the league (never missing a game) and has graded out above average in 5 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, while Mangold has made 141 starts in 9 seasons in the league (only 3 games missed) and has graded out above average in all 8 years in Pro Football Focus’ history.

However, they are going into their age 32 and 31 seasons respectively, which is a concern. Mangold hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, grading out 1st among centers last season, making it 8 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average. He’s been in the top-2 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and in the top-6 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and could easily do so again this season. However, Ferguson has been on the decline over the past 2 seasons, not grading out above average in either of them, after grading out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2008-2012. He could still be a decent starter this year, but he’s not the same player he used to be and he’s unlikely to be back in 2016, owed a non-guaranteed 10.375 million. Meanwhile, even though he’s played so well, Mangold’s age is a concern and he might not be quite as dominant in 2015, though he should still play very well.

Giacomini is also a veteran, but he hasn’t been around nearly as long as Ferguson and Mangold, who were both drafted by the Jets in the 1st round in 2006. He’s only been in New York for 1 year, signing with them as a free agent last off-season. Like Carpenter this off-season, Giacomini is a marginal player at best who was overpaid like a solid starter. Giacomini, who also came over from Seattle, signed a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season and proceeded to grade out 51st among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 2014, which is below average.

That is no surprise because Giacomini hasn’t once graded out above average in his career, since going in the 5th round in 2008. He’s experienced, with 49 starts in his career, but he’s not a good player and he won’t be better in his age 30 season in 2015. He wasn’t terrible last season, but he’s a marginal starter at best. It’s a weak offensive line overall on a weak offense overall. They’re more talented than they were last season thanks to some offensive additions, but not too much better and they should also have significantly more offensive injuries, after having the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. They’ll still struggle to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Jets also barely had any injuries on defense last season, with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on that side of the ball. Overall, they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, only behind the Denver Broncos. That’s not good news, considering how bad the Jets were last season. They’re more talented this season on both sides of the ball, but, if they could only win 4 games last season despite barely having any injuries, it’s clear that they weren’t that talented at all to begin with. This year, they should have more games lost on both sides of the ball, which will hurt their chances of being significantly improved.

Before even training camp started, the Jets were dealt a huge blow to their defense and it didn’t even involve an injury, as stud defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended for 4 games in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Making matters even worse, Richardson was arrested on a variety of counts after that, including reckless driving and drug possession, and now he’s expected to get an even longer suspension. Richardson, a 2013 1st round pick, has graded out 5th and 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014 respectively, emerging as one of the best defensive players in the whole league, only going into his age 25 season. He’ll definitely be missed, especially if he misses 6-8 games, which sounds likely.

The Jets were luckily prepared for this, at least as prepared for this as they could have been, using the 6th overall pick on Leonard Williams. That selection was seen as a weird one at the time, as the Jets already had a great pair of defensive ends in Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, but Williams was seen as a top-3 pick and fell out of circumstance, so the Jets decided they couldn’t pass on him. I didn’t like the move because it didn’t fill an immediate need and essentially signaled that they were giving up on re-signing Wilkerson (a 2016 free agent), but it ended up being the good move in hindsight because of the suspension. Now Williams goes from being a pure backup in 2015 and maybe starting in 2016 and beyond if Wilkerson leaves as a free agent next off-season to having a significant rookie year role. He should be more than capable of handling it. He obviously won’t be as good as Richardson would have been, but he should be a solid starter.

As I mentioned, Wilkerson remains on the other side and he should have yet another strong season. The 2011 1st round pick struggled as a rookie, but has graded out 2nd, 15th, and 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He heads into the contract year of his rookie deal in 2015 and is set to make a boatload from someone in the next calendar year and, with the selection of Williams, it doesn’t seem like that someone will be the Jets. The Jets would have been better off giving him a large extension this off-season and using the 6th overall pick to grab help somewhere else on the field, like taking edge rusher Vic Beasley, who went 8th to Atlanta. I think that plan would have worked better in the short-term and the long-term. The Williams selection only worked out in the short-term because Richardson did a bunch of stupid things.

The Jets are also strong at nose tackle, in between Williams/Richardson and Wilkerson, as Damon Harrison has shaken off early career weight problems to grade out 4th and 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2014 respectively, including 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in pure run grade. He’s just a pure two-down base player, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better pure two-down base player in the league. Weight concerns will always exist for the 6-4 350 pound 2012 undrafted free agent, but, as long as he’s in shape, he’s borderline impossible to move off the nose. It’s still a strong defensive line, despite the loss of Richardson for an extended period of time with a suspension, but the Richardson loss is obviously huge and the Williams selection took away much needed resources from other parts of the field.

Grade: A


One of those parts of the field that needed it, as I mentioned, was the outside linebacker/edge rusher spot, where Vic Beasley would have fit like a glove. Instead, the Jets are left with a pair of veterans who are both going into their age 35 season in Calvin Pace and Jason Babin, a borderline 2012 1st round pick bust in Quentin Coples, and 3rd round rookie Lorenzo Mauldin. Pace and Coples were the starters last season, but Babin actually played the best, grading out 9th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, on just 470 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He definitely can’t be counted on to repeat that in 2015 though, given his age and that he actually graded out below average in 2013. Last year’s success was likely a fluky thing for him. Recent reports have him not even making the 53-man roster, in favor of 2014 6th round pick IK Enemkpali, who flashed on 40 snaps as a rookie, a move that would save the Jets 1.5 million in cash and cap space.

Coples and Pace, meanwhile, struggled as starters, grading out 40th and 39th respectively among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers last season. Coples is only going into his age 25 season so he could be better this season, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being selected 16th overall in 2012 and appears on his way to becoming a bust. He does have more hope that Pace though, as Pace is going into his age 35 season and hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. Both he and Babin will be free agents after the season and this could easily not just be their final seasons with the Jets, but in the league. Mauldin was drafted more for 2016 as a long-term replacement opposite Coples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw a decent amount of action as a rookie down the stretch, given how unsettled things are ahead of him on the depth chart.

Things are better and much more settled inside at middle linebacker, where Demario Davis and David Harris remain the starters. Davis had a bit of a breakout year last season, grading out 15th among middle linebackers, the first time in the 2012 3rd round pick’s career that he had graded out above average. He’s obviously a one-year wonder and struggled mightily in his first year as a starter in 2013, grading out 49th among 55 eligible middle linebackers, so he might not continue this solid play, but, if he does, it could set him up for a decent sized payday as a free agent next off-season.

Harris, meanwhile, isn’t as good, but weirdly got a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Harris is, by all reports, a nice guy, a likeable teammate, and easy to coach. He’s been a defensive captain and signal caller for the Jets defensively for years and he’s been a leader on and off the field. I feel like that gets him overpaid. Four off-seasons ago, Harris signed a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Jets, even though he graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league and then just 21st and 25th respectively in 2009 and 2010.

The Jets kept him through the duration of that deal even though he graded out below average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 48th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and maxed out at 18th. He was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked middle linebacker in 2014. He didn’t get quite as much money the 2nd time around, but he’s also going into his age 31 season. He was still overpaid by a significant amount. He’s part of a weak and aging linebacking corps.

Grade: C


The place where the Jets added the most this off-season was definitely the secondary. They added an all new top-3 cornerbacks through free agency, all on major multi-year deals, after they didn’t have a single cornerback that played more than 50 snaps grade out above average last season. The Jets reunite Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who played together from 2010-2012 and both started all 16 games for the Jets in 2011. Both are over 30 now, so they won’t be quite the same, but Revis is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Revis finished 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2008, 2nd in 2009, 18th in 2010, 1st in 2011, 1st in 2013, and 4th in 2014, with a torn ACL in 2012 that didn’t slow his career down in between. He’s bounced around from the Jets to the Buccaneers to the Patriots back to the Jets over the past few seasons for a few reasons. He tore his ACL in 2012 and then was traded to the Buccaneers for a 1stround pick ahead of his contract year. Tampa Bay then let him go rather than paying him $16 million in 2014 and the Patriots did the same this off-season, rather than paying him $20 million in 2015. However, he’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, one of the best players in the entire NFL, and absolutely deserves long-term security, even going into his age 30 season, which he got on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal. He’s yet to show a single sign of slowing down thus far.

Cromartie, however, has shown signs of slowing down and was overpaid on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. Cromartie was cut by the Jets’ old John Idzik/Rex Ryan regime last off-season after a nagging hip injury caused him to grade out 102nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013. Given that he was owed 9.5 million dollars non-guaranteed, it was absolutely the right move. The common narrative is that Cromartie, who graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, bounced back in 2014 in his one season in Arizona under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is the Jets’ new Head Coach.

That’s only half true though as, while Cromartie was dominant to start the season, he was horrible in the 2nd half of the season thanks to a nagging ankle injury and ended up grading out slightly below average overall. Cromartie graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, prior to the last 2 seasons, so there definitely has been a decline in his play and, even though he’s missed just 1 game with injury in 9 seasons in the league, the fact that injuries have been a big part of it makes it even worse. Going into his age 31 season, he could still be a decent starter, but he’s certainly not the player he was in 2011 and 2012 and he was definitely overpaid. The only good news is he can doesn’t have any guaranteed money beyond this season and can be cut after the season after only being paid 7 million over 1 year. Revis is still as good as he ever was, but the same cannot be said of his former and current co-starter.

The three major deals the Jets gave to cornerbacks this off-season were essentially the good, the bad, and the ugly. Revis was the good. Cromartie was the bad, because he was overpaid. Meanwhile, Buster Skrine is the ugly, signing a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal. Not only is 6.25 million annually way too much for a 3rd cornerback who is only going to play 50%-60% of the snaps, Skrine has struggled mightily thus far in his career, since going in the 5th round in the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s a below average 3rd cornerback, but he’s getting paid like the best 3rd cornerback in the league.

Skrine made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns, after they drafted him in the 5th round in 2011, and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. He was never good though, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. The Browns used a 1st round pick on Justin Gilbert to replace him last off-seasoj, but Gilbert struggled so Skrine kept his starting job. His 2014 campaign was better, but only by default, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible, thanks largely to the whopping 17 penalties he committed. There’s no way he deserves to be making this kind of money. He was one of the off-season’s worst overpays.

The Jets also gave a big contract to Marcus Gilchrist, who will start at safety for the Jets, after signing a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. If Gilchrist plays like he did in 2013, when he made all 16 starts and graded out 20th among safeties, he’s worth it, but the 2011 2nd round pick is a one-year wonder, grading out below average in 2011 and 2012 on 279 and 640 snaps respectively to start his career at cornerback (the reason why he converted to safety) and grading out 72nd out of 87 eligible safeties last season in another 16-start season at his new position. He’s unlikely to be as good as Dawan Landry was last season. Landry graded out 9th among eligible safeties before leaving as a free agent. They should have locked up Wilkerson long-term instead of giving Skrine and Gilchrist those kinds of deals and then used the 6th overall pick on an edge rusher or a cornerback.

The only significant member of this secondary who wasn’t brought in as a free agent this off-season is Calvin Pryor, their 2014 1st round pick. Pryor played well as a rookie, grading out above average, 29th among safeties. He only played 699 snaps because he was benched mid-season for being late to meetings, but his play was solid and, if he can avoid dumb rookie mistakes off-the-field in his 2nd year in the league, he could take the next step as a player. He’s a naturally talented player who is only going into his age 23 season. Gilchrist replacing the bigger Landry does allow Pryor to play in a more natural spot for him, closer to the line of scrimmage, which should help him.

Grade: B


Like on offense, the Jets have more talent on defense this season, but, like on offense, they’ll also have more injuries. They’re already missing Sheldon Richardson for a big chunk of the season due to suspension. Also, a lot of their big off-season additions were overpays and, as a result, the Jets have just 1.8 million in cap space for 2016 right now, without locking up Muhammad Wilkerson, Demario Davis, or Damon Harrison, all of whom will be big free agents this off-season. They’ll win more games than the 4 they won last season, but not enough to justify this spending spree and not enough for them to be a respectable team. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Jets after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): Geno Smith is out for an extended period of time after a teammate punched him and broke his jaw, but that might actually help this team because Ryan Fitzpatrick is the better of the two quarterbacks. Still, this is one of the worst teams in the league.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in AFC East




Buffalo Bills 2015 NFL Season Preview


The Bills finished above average for the first time since 2004 last season, going 9-7. However, immediately after the best season in recent franchise history, their starting quarterback retired and their head coach quit. That was not good news for a team that was already working without a 1st round pick, after trading it in a deal to get Sammy Watkins during last year’s draft. The Bills solved the head coach problem by landing Rex Ryan, a solid head coach who was let go by the Jets after 6 seasons because they felt they needed to go in another direction.

However, the quarterback situation remains a nightmare. The retired Kyle Orton wasn’t fantastic by any means in 12 starts last season, as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while grading out 37th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and leading an offense that finished the season 29th in rate of moving the chains. However, he was still better than EJ Manuel, who graded out 41st among 42 eligible quarterbacks as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback through 4 weeks in 2014, prior to being benched for Orton. In the 4 games he started, the Bills moved the chains at a mere 63.30% rate, as opposed to a slightly better 66.67% rate in the 12 games started by Orton. The 2013 1st round pick has completed just 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.43 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in his career.

The Bills brought in Matt Cassel via trade with Minnesota this off-season, sending a 5th round pick and a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a quarterback in Cassel who will make just 4.75 million this season and who they were hoping could be their new Kyle Orton, a veteran stopgap game manager (the Bills also added a 6th round pick in the trade). Cassel was decent in 2013, grading out 28th among 42 eligible quarterbacks, and has decent career numbers, completing 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 96 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions. However, he struggled mightily on 146 snaps in 2014, before missing the final 13 games of the season with a foot injury, and is now going into his age 33 season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2010.

He had the potential to be what the Bills were looking for at quarterback, but he’s reportedly really struggled on the practice field in his return from injury this off-season, not exactly a surprise. Owed a decent amount of money next season, there’s talk that the Bills could let him go completely, if he can’t lock down the starting job, to get out of the non-guaranteed money they would owe him this season. This team needs as much long-term financial flexibility as they can get and they can transfer the cap space they save by letting him go to next off-season, when the likes of Cordy Glenn, Marcell Dareus, and Nigel Bradham become free agents.

With Cassel struggling, Manuel seems to be the favorite for the starting job. With the regime that drafted him now gone and nothing but poor tape to show for his first 2 years in the league, Manuel is on a very short leash and is only the de facto #1 quarterback out of sheer desperation. Tyrod Taylor, a free agent acquisition, has a very real chance to make starts for this team this season. The 2011 6th round pick never made a start in 4 seasons in Baltimore and has completed just 54.3% of his passes on 35 attempts for an average of 5.69 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his career. Except maybe Cleveland, no one has as bad of a quarterback situation as the Bills do, which severely hurts their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.

Grade: F

Running Backs

Without a first round pick, it was simply impossible for the Bills to find a solution at quarterback this off-season. Understanding that, the Bills made a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for star running back LeSean McCoy, in hopes that they could build a run based approach that would allow them to move the chains with some regularity, even without a strong passing game. Rex Ryan has long been a proponent of the running game, as his Jets teams averaged 501 carries per season in his 6 seasons there, trying to hide a weak passing game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman comes from the same school of thought, averaging 491 carries per season in 4 seasons as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco.

A lot of people loved the trade for Buffalo, remembering McCoy’s fantastic 2013 season, in which he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC), while adding 52 catches for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and grading out #1 overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that McCoy averaged just 4.23 YPC in 2014, rushing for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries, while adding 28 catches for 155 yards and no touchdowns. While he was #1 in 2013, McCoy ranked 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in 2014.

McCoy has bounce back potential for sure going into 2015 and will probably be closer to 2014 than 2013. However, 2013 is still the only season in his career in which he graded out higher than 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, in 6 years in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s not an elite running back; he’s a good running back who had one elite season. He’ll still help this running game, after they averaged 3.69 yards per carry on the ground last season (26th in the NFL) and lost CJ Spiller as a free agent this off-season, but the Bills reworked his contract after the trade and will owe him 40 million over the next 5 seasons with 26.5 million of that fully guaranteed. If he continues to decline, at a position with a short shelf life and with 1761 career touches going into his age 27 season, the Bills will really regret that contract.

Even if he puts up two more solid years, the Bills will probably really regret that contract. If McCoy was a free agent this off-season, he probably would not have even gotten that kind of deal, but the Bills gave him that deal and traded away a cheap young linebacker for the right to give him that deal. Alonso did miss all of last season with a torn ACL, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers as a rookie, is only going into his age 25 season, and, most importantly, is only owed about 1.8 million over the next 2 seasons combined on his rookie deal.

The Bills currently have just 2.8 million in cap space for 2016, even at an estimated cap of 150 million, 10 million more than 2014. That’s before re-signing Cordy Glenn, Nigel Bradham, and Marcell Dareus, who all become unrestricted free agents next off-season. This was not a financially smart move for the Bills to make. They’re going all in on a season when a deep playoff run will be impossible because of the quarterback situation and essentially mortgaging their future for, at most, a 1st round playoff exit. It’s a move they’ll end up regretting.

Spiller may be gone, but Fred Jackson, who led the team with 141 carries last season, returns. He’ll backup McCoy and have a significantly reduced role this season, in a true backup role behind a likely 300+ carry feature back in McCoy. That’s for the best because Jackson, who has averaged 573 snaps played per season over the past 5 seasons, appears to be on his last legs, going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t been the same since a 2011 broken leg, averaging 4.01 yards per carry in 2012-2014 combined on 462 combined carries, and has missed 14 games over the past 4 seasons combined.

The only value Jackson still provides is as a passing down back, as he’s caught 113 passes in the last 2 seasons combined. The Bills used a 5th round pick on Karlos Williams, so this is likely Jackson’s final season in Buffalo, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. With a strong defense (more on that later) supporting them, the Bills figure to run about 500 times this season with McCoy, Jackson, and the quarterback Manuel (or Taylor, who is also a mobile quarterback) in an effort to hide a horrible passing game. It’ll be their best method of moving the ball this season and they’ll be improved over last season on the ground, but this offense is still going to have a lot of problems.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

McCoy wasn’t the only major financial commitment that the Bills made this off-season, as they also signed tight end Charles Clay to a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal and Percy Harvin to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal. As I said, the Bills are weirdly going all in on this season. In addition to the overall weirdness of the strategy, they overpaid both Clay and Harvin, like they did McCoy. Clay was probably the bigger of the two overpays. Slapped with the transition tag by the Dolphins this off-season, Miami had the right of first refusal on any deal Clay signed, so the Bills essentially had to overpay Clay and structure the deal in a way that it is very hard on the cap in the first 2 seasons, to prevent the Dolphins from being able to match. Clay will be guaranteed 24.5 million over the first 2 years of the deal.

He’s a solid player, but he’s not worth ruining your immediate financial flexibility for. In his 2 years as a starter in the NFL, he graded out 34th among tight ends in 2013 and 14th in 2014, but he’s being paid like a top tight end, as only Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, and Rob Gronkowski have higher average annual salaries. He’ll be an upgrade over 2014 starting tight end Scott Chandler, who graded out 47th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and who was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, but he was an overpay. Also gone as a free agent this off-season is Lee Smith, a solid blocker who graded out above average as the #2 tight end last season. 2013 7th round pick Chris Gragg, who flashed on 215 snaps last season, after struggling on 52 snaps as a rookie, will step into the #2 role behind Clay.

Harvin is more of a reclamation project. He definitely has bounce back potential and he isn’t guaranteed anything beyond 6 million in the first season of his deal, but the Bills are paying him like something more than what he is by giving him that kind of money. He was good in 2012 and prior, but has had a rough past 2 seasons and has seen his star fade significantly since the Seahawks sent a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick to the Vikings for him and gave him a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, following 4 straight seasons in the top-13 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus to start his career, after going in the 1st round in 2009. The good news for Harvin is he got a ring out of the deal (along with a bunch of money), but that’s where the good news ends.

He missed all but 1 regular season game with injury in Seattle in 2013, reportedly caused locker room problems that got him kicked out of Seattle (to the Jets for a 6th round pick), and combined for 51 catches for 483 yards and a touchdown in 2014 between the Seahawks and the Jets. The Jets, unable to work out a restructured contract with him, cut him this off-season, rather than paying him a non-guaranteed 10.5 million dollar salary for 2015. His new 6 million dollar salary is obviously less than that, but it’s still too much for him.

Even in brighter times in Minnesota, he never went over 1000 yards in a season, missed 10 games in 4 seasons with injury, and had issues at times with his coaching staff. Usually a gadget player/slot receiver/return man type, Harvin will be counted on for an every down role in Buffalo, something he never did even in Minnesota (his career high is 650 snaps). He’ll be the starter opposite Sammy Watkins, moving Robert Woods to the 3rd receiver spot. He could be solid at it and it’s important to remember how good he used to be and that he’s only going into his age 27 season, but his recent history hasn’t been good.

Watkins, meanwhile, is coming off of a great rookie year, after the Bills traded their first rounder in 2014 and in 2015 to move up to grab him 4th overall. They definitely could have used that pick this year, but they have to be thrilled with having Watkins. He caught 65 passes for 982 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, as this team’s only real offensive weapon, numbers rookie receivers really put up. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns in their first season in the league.  He wasn’t quite as good as his receiving yards would suggest, as he caught just 52.4% of his targets, but poor quarterback play can be blamed for that to an extent. Even with a possibly even worse quarterback situation again this season, Watkins is still a candidate to go over 1000 yards.

Woods is another young player, but not nearly as good. The 2013 2nd round pick has caught 105 passes on 179 targets (58.7%) for 1286 yards and 8 touchdowns on 1061 routes run, an average of 1.21 yards per route run, in 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average on 924 snaps as a rookie and 921 snaps in 2014. He’s not a terrible player, but he’ll be a better fit as the 3rd receiver, where he’s an upgrade on Chris Hogan, who graded out 72nd among 110 eligible wide receivers in his first significant action of his career in 2014 (188 snaps played in the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013) and now will be a 4th or 5th receiver. Woods, meanwhile, will play outside, moving Harvin to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, and will be decent depth in the likely case Harvin gets hurt again. It’s an upgraded and solid receiving corps, but still one that’s less than stellar and one will have to deal with terrible quarterback play.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the Bills spent a lot of money on offensive playmakers this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Harvin, and Clay coming in, they didn’t do much to fix a horrible offensive line that ranked 21st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 31st in team run blocking grade last season. They figure to struggle in both of those aspects again as a result. LeSean McCoy is used to awesome run blocking playing all those years in Philadelphia and goes from Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked run blocking offensive line last year to likely one of the worst in the league this year. Coming off of a down year, McCoy could really struggle to move this offense forward this season for that reason. It’s hard to have an effective run heavy offense without good run blocking and poor pass protection will only make the passing game worse.

The Bills only real addition on the offensive line this off-season was Richie Incognito, who takes over at right guard, where Erik Pears graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. Incognito should be an upgrade, but he’s not the type of player to turn this offensive line around by himself. He was out of the league entirely last year and hasn’t played since week 9 of the 2013 season, following the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.

Incognito reportedly got help during his time away from the game and is ready to return. He was solid the last time he was on the field, grading out above average for 6 straight seasons from 2008 to 2013, including 23rd in 2012 and 9th through week 8 in 2013. However, it’s hard to trust someone who is going into their age 32 season off of an entire season off. I don’t think there will be problems with him and his teammates, as guys have been accepted back into locker rooms that have done a lot worse than what Incognito did, but he’s not a huge addition or anything.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn was the only Bills offensive lineman to play more than 40 snaps last season and grade out above average. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 of those seasons, 33rd in 2012, 13th in 2013, and 26th in 2014. He’s arguably their best offensive player and I think he was last season, but he heads into the contract year of his rookie deal with no extension in sight because of the Bills’ horrible cap situation.

The rest of the offensive line is a complete mess. Eric Wood remains at center, after grading out 25th among 41 eligible centers in 2014. The 2009 1st round pick has made 79 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but has graded out above average in just 2 of those seasons. He’s a marginal starter at best and will remain that, as he goes into his age 29 season in 2015. The rest of the offensive line is just going to be youngsters as 2014 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, 2014 7th round pick Seantrel Henderson, and 2015 3rd round pick John Miller will compete for the starting jobs at left guard and right tackle.

Henderson is the incumbent right tackle, surprisingly playing all 1086 snaps there last season as a 7th round rookie, starting over 2nd round rookie Kouandjio, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Henderson was horrific, as you might expect, so Kouandjio could definitely take the job away from him. Kouandjio is obviously inexperienced, but Henderson graded out 82nd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and it’s hard to be worse than that. It’s unclear right now which of the two will be starting, but it does figure to remain a position of weakness.

At left guard, Miller seems like the heavy favorite, even as a 3rd round rookie. With veterans Kraig Urbik and Chris Williams (who sucked in 2014) gone, the Bills don’t have much of another option. They could move the loser of the right tackle battle inside to left guard, but it’s unclear if either of them would play well there and the Bills have shown no real signs of wanting to do that. Cyril Richardson, a 2014 5th round pick who played 321 snaps last season, is still here, but he was awful last season, grading out 60th among 78 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. He’s reportedly not seen as a starting option. I expect the Bills’ offensive line to be Glenn, Miller, Wood, Incognito, and Henderson/Kouandjio, once again a weak unit that won’t help what is once again overall a weak offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As bad as the Bills’ offense was last season, they still won 9 games, as a result of an awesome defense. They finished #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014, but only finished the season 20th in rate of moving the chains differential because of their 29th ranked offense. The Bills lost talented defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz this off-season, but add Rex Ryan as head coach, so that’ll make up for that. He’ll be moving them back to the 3-4 type defense they ran in 2013, under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who used to be on Ryan’s staff in New York. The Bills also return 9 of 11 starters last year’s defense and the losses were two of the more insignificant starters, Brandon Spikes and Da’Norris Searcy. They combined to play just 1185 snaps last season, despite technically being starters.

Mario Williams played the “elephant” role in 2013 in the 3-4, playing both 3-4 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker and rushing the passer both from the inside and the outside in sub packages. The 6-7 291 pounder is a good fit for the role and graded out 17th among 3-4 outside linebackers that season. The #1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams has graded out above average in each of the 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 9th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, playing well both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Even going into his age 30 season, he should continue this strong play in 2015.

Williams will probably play more 3-4 defensive end than he did last time the Bills played in a 3-4, because nose tackle Alan Branch, who played well on 610 snaps in 2013 as largely two-down player, is gone, leaving the Bills without an obvious 3rd starting defensive lineman alongside Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, so Mario Williams will play there with some regularity. The Bills lack of defensive tackle depth without Branch in 2014 was obvious, as Corbin Bryant (361 snaps) and Stefan Charles (345 snaps) were the top reserves and graded out 71st and 64th respectively among 81 eligible defensive tackles in 2014, despite the limited playing time.

Aside from Williams, Bryant is their best option to be the 3rd starter in base packages, but he really sucks. The 2011 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in 4 seasons in the league and has been especially bad over the past 2 seasons. I talked about how bad he was last season, but he was equally bad in 2013, grading out 42nd among 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on just 338 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. Depth on the defensive line remains a serious problem for the Bills.

The good news is Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are both fantastic every down interior defensive linemen who rarely have to come off the bench. Dareus has lived up to expectations since going 3rd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, grading out above average in all 4 seasons, 15th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 14th in 2012, 6th in 2013, and a career best 4th in 2014. Only going into his age 26 season in 2015, Dareus should once again have a very dominant season. The 6-3 319 pounder is a rare type of defensive linemen who can play nose tackle in a 3-4 in base packages, but also can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages in any scheme. The only concern with him is that he’s had some off-the-field issues and he’ll miss week 1 of the season with a suspension, which will really hurt them in that game.

However, it doesn’t seem like that has affected the team’s opinion of him, as they are trying to get an extension done with him before his contract year in 2015. Even with the Bills lacking long-term financial flexibility, Dareus is expected to get a deal comparable to Gerald McCoy (7 years, 98 million), JJ Watt (6 years, 100 million), and Ndamukong Suh (6 years, 114 million). He’s their #1 priority long-term right now, even if it means they lose guys like Nigel Bradham and Cordy Glenn next off-season and have a hard time adding depth.

Kyle Williams, meanwhile, is older, going into his age 32 season, but he’s equally good and has shown no signs of declining. He has graded out above average in every season starting in 2008. His best season came in 2010, when he graded out 1st among defensive tackles and he’s bounced back well from a serious 2011 injury, grading out 3rd among defensive tackles in 2012, 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and 7th among defensive tackles last season. I expect basically the same thing from the scheme versatile veteran this season, back in a 3-4. Even with their depth problems, it’s still a great defensive line thanks to Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and occasionally Mario Williams.

Grade: A


In addition to having depth problems inside at defensive tackle last season, they had a depth problem outside at defensive end as well. #3 defensive end Manny Lawson graded out 48th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, despite playing just 349 snaps. Lawson was alright on 722 snaps in 2013 as a 3-4 outside linebacker, with Jerry Hughes playing just 621 snaps in more of a situational role. He’ll have to play that role again in 2014, even with Hughes now playing every down, because Williams will be playing more 3-4 defensive end. It’ll pretty much only be in base packages because the quartet of Williams, Hughes, Williams, and Dareus is too good upfront in sub packages, but Lawson will play 500-600 snaps in a situational role, run stuffing this season. He could be decent again and has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of an awful 2014. He is a weakness in an overall strong front 7.

As I mentioned, Hughes is now an every down player and should play similar to the 807 snaps he played in 2014, after getting a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal to return to Buffalo this off-season. The 2010 1st round pick was written off as a bust by the Colts two off-seasons ago, as he got sent to Buffalo for reserve linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, after playing just 240 snaps in 2010 and 2011 combined and grading out 25th among 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012 on 610 snaps. Hughes turned out just to be a late bloomer, grading out 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and then showed scheme versatility and proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder last season, by grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. An integral part of this dominant front 7, Hughes very much deserved his new deal.

As good as Kiko Alonso was in 2013, the reason they felt comfortable moving him for McCoy this off-season is because Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown broke out as solid every down linebackers in Alonso’s absence last season. I didn’t have a problem with them moving Alonso, but I don’t feel like the Bills got appropriate value in return for a talented, cheap, young linebacker. Bradham and Brown will play as every down middle linebackers this season, after grading out 13th and 15th respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

They were both first time starters last season. Brown was a 3rd round rookie, but Bradham has some history so I’m pretty confident that he can continue solid player in his contract year in 2015. The 2012 4th round pick flashed on 402 snaps in 2012 and 288 snaps in 2013, prior to breaking out as a starter last season. I don’t mean to say that Brown will struggle, but it’s worth mentioning that he’s not nearly as proven as Bradham and will be harder to count on for that reason. They should remain a solid duo inside this season.

The Bills lost Brandon Spikes as a free agent this off-season. He was only a two-down player at middle linebacker last season, playing 519 snaps, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers in pure run stopping grade. The Bills have a strong front 7 overall, but a serious depth problem behind the likes of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Preston Brown, and Nigel Bradham. The Bills had a decent amount of injuries defensively last season, ranking 11th (fewest) in adjusted games lost. However, much of that was Alonso who is gone. The aforementioned 6 players played a combined 92 of 96 possible games last season, which is unlikely to happen again this season, especially with Dareus already suspended for the first game of the season. Any injuries to those guys would hurt their front 7 mightily, because of their lack of depth. It’s a solid linebacking corps, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-


The Bills also lost Da’Norris Searcy this off-season, as he signed a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal with the Titans this season, following a 2014 season where he graded out 18th among safeties on 666 snaps. Duke Williams was originally slated to be his replacement, after flashing on 551 snaps last season, in the first significant action of his career, following a 36-snap 2013 season, as a 4th round rookie. However, he struggled this off-season, so the Bills seem to have moved away from that plan. The used their first draft pick on cornerback Ronald Darby, taking him in the 2nd round, and will be moving cornerback Corey Graham to safety to take Searcy’s spot.

Graham was the steal of the off-season for the Bills in 2014, grading out 8th among cornerbacks, after signing 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over from Baltimore. That’s the best season of his career and he might not be able to repeat it, moving to safety for his age 30 season, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, playing both outside cornerback and slot cornerback. I expect the 5-11 195 pounder to be a solid safety in his first year at the new position.

Darby will work as the 3rd cornerback behind starters Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Gilmore is clearly the better of the two. The 2012 1st round pick (10th overall) has made 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league and, though he just graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, he’s always been pretty solid. Rex Ryan has been talking him up as his new Darrelle Revis this off-season. He’s definitely not that good, but should have a solid season as the #1 cornerback in his age 25 season.

McKelvin has a much shakier hold on the starting job, after playing 511 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2014 and dealing with a serious ankle problem this off-season. He could be pushed for the starting job by Darby at some point this season and the Bills could always move Graham back to cornerback and put Duke Williams in the starting lineup. Injuries have always been the problem for the 2008 1st round pick McKelvin, as he’s missed 23 games in 7 seasons in the league, including 6 games last season. Largely as a result of those injuries, he’s graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including last season.

He’s tentatively expected to play week 1, but the Bills did admit that he had a setback in his recovery from his ankle problem and that he’ll be missing a significant portion of training camp, at the very least. Things aren’t going to get better for him, especially injury wise, as he goes into his age 30 season in 2015. Nickell Roby is their 4th cornerback and would see significant action if McKelvin were to get hurt again. The 2013 undrafted free agent surprised as a rookie, grading out 27th among cornerbacks on 629 snaps, but fell back to earth in 2014, grading out 89th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 665 snaps.

Back at safety, Aaron Williams will start opposite Graham. Like Graham, Williams is a converted cornerback, after the 6-0 204 pound 2011 2nd rounder struggled mightily at cornerback to start his career, grading out 88th among 109 eligible cornerbacks on 444 snaps in 2011 and 95th among 113 eligible on 563 snaps in 2012. He’s been better since moving to safety two off-seasons ago, actually grading out 29th among safeties in 2013, landing him a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season. He wasn’t as good in the first season after signing that deal, grading out 70th among 87 eligible safeties, and has only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s a decent starter. It’s not a great secondary or anything, but it’s solid and supported by a strong front 7.

Grade: B-


The Bills appear to have gone all on this season, signing Charles Clay, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy to significant multi-year contracts this off-season, moves that have left them with about 2.8 million in 2016 cap space, before re-signing Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Nigel Bradham. It’s a bad move because the Bills are so limited at the quarterback position to make any sort of run. Their defense was the best in the league last season and still have a lot of good players, but they lost some key players who weren’t replaced, have no depth in the front 7, will probably have more injuries to major players, especially in the front 7, and their secondary is only okay, so it’s hard to predict them to be #1 once again. In some order, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams, Preston Brown, Nigel Bradham, and Corey Graham are their 7 best defensive players. They missed a combined 4 games last season, great luck that is unlikely to repeat itself.

Meanwhile, offensively, they have arguably the worst quarterback situation in the game, only maybe behind Cleveland. They added talent around the quarterback spot this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Clay, and Harvin, but they overpaid them and probably won’t get as much help out of them as they were expecting when they signed them. They also still have major problems on the offensive line, particularly in run blocking, which is going to severely inhibit their plan to run the ball a lot and rely on a strong defense. I think they’re worse than the Browns, who have an equally bad quarterback situation, but a stronger supporting cast, as a result of an outstanding offensive line. The Bills went all in this off-season expecting to make the playoffs, but they’re probably going to be much closer to the 6-8 win range and they’ll be feeling the financial hangover of this spending spree next off-season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bills after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update: Tyrod Taylor won the Bills’ quarterback competition, not like it really matters. Ultimately, they’re going to once again be a poor offense and, while their defense is good, they lack depth and they’re not good enough for this to be more than a mediocre team. A 9-win team that wasn’t quite as good as their record last season, I see them with 6 wins against a tougher schedule in 2015.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC East