New England Patriots 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At the end of the 2013 season, it looked like the Tom Brady era in New England was going into its twilight years. The Patriots won 12 games and made the AFC Championship the season before, but 7 of those wins came by a touchdown or fewer and they were no match for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Brady also completed just 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, both of which were his lowest since 2003. With Brady going into his age 37 season and stuck on 3 Super Bowls, the Patriots prepared for the future by using their 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

When things went from bad to worse with the Patriots the following season, after a 41-14 week 4 loss in Kansas City, their biggest loss since the 2003 season, there were actually calls for the Patriots to bench Brady in favor of Garoppolo. Coach Bill Belichick scoffed at the notion and then a funny thing happened. The Patriots would lose just one meaningful game the rest of the way en route to their 4th Super Bowl championship. That Super Bowl victory would be dogged by allegations of playing with underinflated footballs and Brady would eventually miss the first 4 games of the 2016 season with suspension, but then he returned to lead the Patriots to their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 seasons.

Even though they didn’t win the Super Bowl in 2015, they did win 12 games and make the AFC Championship, despite the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. All in all, the Patriots have won 12+ games in 7 straight seasons, the longest streak in NFL history, and have made the AFC Championship in 6 straight seasons, also the longest streak in NFL history. Seemingly on the decline after the 2013 season, Brady has actually improved his YPA, completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, and QB rating in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season was arguably the best of his career, as he completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in 12 games, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season by a wide margin. At an age where most quarterbacks are done playing, Brady is seemingly getting better.

Garoppolo got a shot last season when Brady was suspended, although he only made it about 6 quarters before getting injured and getting replaced with 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Still, for the short time he was out there, he was very impressive, leading the Patriots to victory against the Cardinals in Arizona and then giving the Patriots a big lead at home against the Dolphins before getting hurt. He’s only thrown 94 career passes, but he’s completed 67.0% of them for an average of 7.34 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He’s also apparently impressed the Patriots in practice because they did not plug the trigger on any offer to trade him this off-season, despite being offered multiple high picks.

Garoppolo is going into the final year of his rookie deal and his age 26 season and the conventional wisdom seems to be that he wants to test the free agency market next off-season to become a highly paid starting quarterback somewhere. Brady, meanwhile, seems to show no signs of stopping and Garoppolo’s trade value is never going to be higher. Of course, the Patriots are not known for their conventional wisdom. They know things can change in an instant with a quarterback going into his age 40 season like Brady and they believe Garappolo can be a franchise quarterback someday.

There’s also talk that the Patriots could convince Garoppolo to re-sign next off-season and stay as Brady’s backup for another couple seasons before taking over as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. It would certainly be an unconventional move, but it’s possible Garoppolo would rather be the Patriots’ quarterback in 2020 than the Jets’ quarterback in 2018 and may be willing to return at the right price. The Patriots will also have the option to franchise tag him and trade him next off-season, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2009, though Garoppolo’s trade value in a year would likely be significantly less because whoever acquires him will have to give him a huge contract immediately.

Keeping Garoppolo keeps their options open and they clearly see that as more valuable than a couple high picks, even with the team in win now mode. Garoppolo could also prove to be handy if Brady gets hurt and misses some time mid-season. He’s never missed any time with injury outside of when he tore his ACL in 2008, but injuries are always a risk, especially for a player in his 40s. If Brady misses 4-6 games and Garoppolo wins them a game or two that Jacoby Brissett wouldn’t have, that’s more valuable than anyone they could have gotten in the first round of this year’s draft, especially for a team in win now mode. They don’t have other pressing needs, with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, and they possibly have two legitimate franchise quarterbacks on the roster, when many teams are struggling to find one,

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode was when they sent their 1st and 3rd round picks to the Saints for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. The Patriots have never traded away a first round pick to acquire a veteran player and they have also never used a first round pick on a wide receiver, but they seem to have made an exception to their rules for Cooks. With Brady getting up there in age, it makes sense why they’d make a move like this now and Cooks is no ordinary veteran player.

Even though the 2014 1st round pick has topped 1,100 yards in each of the past 2 seasons, he’s still only going into his age 24 season. The pick New England sent to New Orleans was #32. The next five wide receivers off the board after pick #32 were Zay Jones, Juju Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Taywan Taylor, and Ardarius Stewart. Cooks is 18 months older than Jones, 38 months older than Smith-Schuster, 3 months YOUNGER than Kupp, 20 months older than Taylor, and 3 months older than Stewart. The Patriots will have to give Cooks a lot of money at some point to stay, but he’s under contract for the next 2 seasons for a combined 10 million.

It’s not often that a player like Cooks gets moved in a trade, but the Saints have two other talented wide receivers in Michael Thomas and Willie Snead and had needs on other parts of the field. Cooks is a great fit in New England because he has experience playing on offenses with a lot of other options. Even though Cooks ranks 8th in the NFL over the past 2 seasons in receiving yards with 2,311, he ranks just 18th in targets with 246, a very impressive 9.39 yards per target.

Part of that is because he had Drew Brees throwing to him, but a lot of that was Cooks himself and now he goes from Brees to Brady at quarterback, which is arguably an upgrade. Brady is used to throwing to undersized, unathletic slot types like Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman, so getting someone like Cooks is a change of pace for him. He could be arguably the 3rd most talented offensive weapon Brady has ever played with behind Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski.

Speaking of Rob Gronkowski, he returns from the back injury that ended his 2016 season. Gronk also essentially missed 4 games with a hamstring injury to start the season, but produced at a ridiculous rate in the 5 games he was healthy, catching 24 passes for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Patriots moved the chains at a 43.35% rate in those 5 games, but that fell to 36.68% over the final 7 games of the regular season when he was hurt. His absence hurt this offense, though they were obviously able to win the Super Bowl even without him.

Gronkowski averaged 22.04 yards per catch, 14.70 yards per target (both best in the NFL among players with at least 20 catches), and his per game averages would have translated to a 77/1697/10 slash line over a full 16 game season. Those numbers are probably unrealistic for him, but he’s caught at least 70 passes for 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of his last 3 healthy seasons. Despite missing 24 games with injury over the past 6 seasons, he’s been a top-3 tight end on Pro Football Focus in all 6 of them, excelling as both a pass catcher and a run blocker.

Injuries have always been his achilles heel, as he’s had 3 back surgeries, 5 arm surgeries, and 1 knee surgery just since college, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and reportedly looks good this off-season. Along with Houston’s JJ Watt, Gronkowski is one of the early favorites for Comeback Player of the Year. If he’s healthy, it’ll be like Brady is adding two top weapons to his arsenal, which should be a scary thought to opposing defenses. If both are healthy, Cooks and Gronk could easily both top 1000 yards.

Julian Edelman topped 1000 yards last season, but will play more of a secondary role this season with Gronkowski returning and Cooks coming in, after a career high 158 targets last season (3rd in the NFL behind Odell Beckham and Mike Evans). Edelman has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 15th in 2015 and 21st in 2016, but is going into his age 31 season and could be best as a complementary player. Most teams would kill to have a 3rd option in the passing game like him though and that’s what he could be if Gronkowski is healthy. He’s going into the final year of a bargain 4-year, 17 million dollar deal, but reportedly is willing to take less money than he could get elsewhere to return to New England and continue winning with Tom Brady. Unlike his predecessor Wes Welker, Edelman seems to realize New England is the best place for him.

Chris Hogan was the #2 receiver last season and flashed as a deep threat, catching 38 passes for 680 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns on just 57 targets. However, he still graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd straight below average season. With Cooks coming in, he’ll be no better than the 3rd receiver and he’ll face competition from 2nd player Malcolm Mitchell for that role. A 2016 4th round pick, Mitchell played 538 snaps last season and showed some promise. Despite being a rookie, he caught 32 passes for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns and has more long-term upside than Hogan. Hogan might not be much more than a situational deep threat in 2017. The Patriots also have two accomplished veteran slot receivers in Danny Amendola and Andrew Hawkins, who are competing for the final roster spot at wide receiver, so they have plenty of depth even if injury strikes.

In addition, the Patriots acquired ex-Colt Dwayne Allen in a trade this off-season to replace free agent departure Martellus Bennett, so they have good depth at the tight end position too. Allen isn’t as good as Bennett, but, assuming Gronk is healthy, he’ll play a smaller role than Bennett, who played 868 snaps and had 73 targets (3rd on the team) in the regular season in 2016. Allen was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end on 905 snaps in 16 games as a rookie, but he has missed 23 games with injury in 4 seasons since.

He still graded out 9th in 2014, but injuries seem to have taken a toll on him, as he’s finished below average in each of the past 2 seasons, including 41st out of 63 eligible in 2016. He’s still only going into his age 27 season, so there’s some bounce back potential with him, but the Patriots aren’t counting on him to play a huge role in the passing game. The 6-3 265 pounder is a better run blocker than receiver and is also a threat around the goal line (19 touchdowns on 126 career catches). He’s part of a loaded receiving corps, one of the best Tom Brady has ever had.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Patriots also have a good group of running backs. They lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency and he had 299 carries last season, but they signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, two younger backs, to replace him and they also still have passing down backs James White and Dion Lewis. All 4 running backs will likely see action. Blount rushed for 18 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 3.88 yards per carry, so Gillislee and Burkhead could be an improvement for a team that finished just 25th in yards per carry last season with 3.89 yards per carry.

Gillislee is the favorite to lead the team in carries. He was given a 2-year, 6.4 million dollar deal by the Patriots as a restricted free agent this off-season and the Bills declined to match, taking New England’s 5th round pick as compensation instead. Buffalo’s loss could be New England’s gain as Gillislee was one of the best backup running backs in the league last season, playing behind LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. A 2013 5th round pick, Gillislee has just 154 career carries, but has averaged 5.62 yards per carry and is coming off of a season in which he rushed for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, a 5.71 YPC average. That was the highest YPC average in the league last season of any back with more than 100 carries and he finished 14th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on 285 snaps. At 5-11 219, Gillislee will also likely be the Patriots’ primary goal line back. It’s unclear how he’ll translate to a larger role, but 150+ carries and 8+ rushing touchdowns is a safe bet from him in 2017.  

Gillislee doesn’t do much on passing downs, but he won’t play much in passing situations. James White will and he has 113 catches in his last 26 games overall, including a whopping 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Falcons. The 2014 4th round pick isn’t a threat to run the ball and has averaged just 3.71 yards per carry on 70 career carries, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2015 and their 2nd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2016. The Patriots re-signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal this off-season and he’s a good bet for another 50-60 catches, even with all of the other options Brady has to throw to. White can catch passes both out of the backfield and lined up in the slot as a receiver.

Dion Lewis is also a good receiver out of the backfield and in the slot and can also provide a change of pace to Gillislee as a speed back at 5-8 190. A torn ACL has limited him to just 7 regular season games in each of the past 2 seasons, but he has 113 carries for 517 yards (4.58 YPC), 53 catches for 482 yards (9.09 yards per catch), and 4 total touchdowns over that time period. Injuries have always been the problem for the diminutive running back, as he’s played in just 38 of a possible 96 regular season games since entering the league as a 5th round pick in 2011. Even if healthy, he won’t see as many touches per game as he has over the past 2 seasons in a more crowded backfield, but he should still be in the mix for touches because of his versatility and his ability to make guys miss in the open field.

Rex Burkhead’s role is a little bit more uncertain, but they paid him 3.15 million on a one-year deal, so they clearly have a plan for him. He was signed before Gillislee and the addition of Gillislee makes it unlikely that Burkhead will have a huge role on early downs, but he’s a good pass protector and pass catcher and can line up at running back, receiver, and fullback, in addition to playing special teams. The 2013 6th round pick also has a career 4.31 yards per carry average on 87 career carries in 4 seasons in the league, with 74 of those carries coming last season, and can handle goalline work at 5-10 210. He could still have about 100 touches between catches and carries. The Patriots don’t have an elite back, but they have plenty of guys to mix and match. Expect Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to use them correctly. They could easily have a more productive running game in 2017, which makes this offense even more dangerous.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots dealt with way more than injuries in 2015 than 2016, even with Gronkowski dealing with injuries throughout last season. Their biggest absence in 2015 might have been left tackle Nate Solder, who missed 11 games with a torn biceps. Pass protection was a major problem for the Patriots’ offense down the stretch in 2015. In 2016, Solder stabilized the left tackle position in a big way, finishing 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and making all 16 starts.

Outside of 2015, Solder has only ever missed 1 game with injury and he has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2013, when he finished 9th among offensive tackles. The 2011 1st round pick has 81 career starts, but is still only going into his age 29 season, so he should continue playing well in 2017. He’s going into the final year of his contract and the Patriots may have drafted his long-term replacement in the 3rd round, when they took Troy’s Antonio Garcia, but Garcia is no threat to his job this season.

Not only did Solder’s return upgrade the left tackle position, but it also upgraded the right tackle position, as 2015 fill-in left tackle Marcus Cannon made 14 starts at right tackle in 2016 and finished 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, highest ranked among right tackles. That was a massive improvement over 2015, when he finished 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. Cannon is the definition of a one-year wonder though, as he graded out below average in 3 straight seasons prior to 2016 (18 combined starts).

The 2011 5th round pick is also already going into his age 29 season, so he’s already in the tail end of his prime. He could prove to be a bit of a fluke this season, but it’s clear he’s much more comfortable at right tackle and having legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia back after a 2-year retirement helped him immensely. The Patriots seem confident in him keeping this up, giving him a 5-year, 32.41 million dollar extension during the season. He’s the 6th highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary.

Right guard Shaq Mason also had the best season of his career in 2016, albeit in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2015 4th round pick out of Georgia Tech, Mason was a solid run blocker in 10 starts as a rookie, but struggled mightily in pass protection, no surprise, considering he rarely had to pass protect in Georgia Tech’s run heavy wishbone offense. In 2016, his pass protection was much better and he finished 15th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s still just a one-year wonder, but he’s also just going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be ahead of him. He’s very athletic for an offensive lineman.

The Patriots got subpar play at both left guard and center last season, from Joe Thuney and David Andrews respectively. Neither player was bad though, so both are probably locked into starting jobs again. Thuney made 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, but finished 46th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league though. Andrews, meanwhile, finished 22nd out of 38 eligible centers in 2016, after finishing 21st out of 39 eligible as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Andrews is an unspectacular starter, but has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons and does a decent job. The Patriots locked him up on a reasonable 3-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season. The Patriots return all 5 from a solid offensive line in 2016 and have better depth with Garcia being added in the draft, but it’s unclear if Cannon can have as good of a season on the right side as he did last season.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Patriots didn’t have many needs this off-season, but the defensive line was a bit of a concern because defensive tackle Alan Branch (625 snaps) and defensive ends Chris Long (677 snaps) and Jabaal Sheard (580 snaps) were set to hit free agency. The Patriots lost Long and Sheard to the Eagles and Colts respectively, but they kept Branch on a 2-year, 8.45 million dollar deal. They also signed ex-Raven Lawrence Guy to a 4-year, 13.4 million dollar deal. Guy, Branch, and Malcom Brown will rotate snaps at defensive tackle.

Branch led Patriot defensive tackles in snaps played last season and finished 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The mammoth 6-6 350 pounder is primarily a base package player who doesn’t get any pass rush, but he finished 6th at his position in pure run stopping grade last season. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and has finished in the top-7 at his position in pure run stuffing grade in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2016. He was a solid re-signing, even going into his age 33 season.

Guy is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-4 305 and played a career high 487 snaps last season in a purely base package role with the Ravens. He’s graded out well below average as a pass rusher in each of the last 2 seasons, but he’s also graded out well above average as a run stopper in both seasons, including 11th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stuffing grade in 2016. A 2011 7th round pick, Guy was a late bloomer and didn’t start seeing regular playing time until 2015, but is still only going into his age 27 season and could have a solid season for the Patriots in a situational role. He could play some defensive end in base packages, with Brown and Branch working as the primary base package defensive tackles.

Brown has the highest upside of the trio, as he was a first round pick in 2015 and is still just going into his age 23 season. He struggled on 555 snaps as a rookie, but was much improved in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, finishing 19th among defensive tackles on 596 snaps. Brown was better as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher in 2016, though he too is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-2 320. He finished last season 10th among defensive tackles in run stuffing grade, but finished below average as a pass rusher. He could be a better pass rusher in his 3rd season in the league in 2017 and could set a new career high in snaps, but both Branch and Guy are purely base package players.

That’s not a big deal because the Patriots often lined up defensive ends Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard inside in sub packages last season and they figure to do the same thing this season with Flowers and Kony Ealy, who replaces the departed Sheard. Flowers and Ealy are bigger ends at 6-2 265 and 6-4 275 respectively. This limits snaps for Branch, Guy, and Brown, but allows the Patriots to get their best four pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Veteran Rob Ninkovich and 3rd round rookie Derek Rivers will be their primary edge rushers in sub packages. Rivers is more or less a replacement for the departed Chris Long, though with the versatility to play some linebacker.

Long and Sheard might have played more snaps than Flowers did last season, but Flowers was the best of the three and saw the most playing time down the stretch. He finished the season 17th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus on 563 snaps. Flowers is a complete one-year wonder, after being limited to just 4 defensive snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015, but could easily develop into a future starter. He’ll likely have a bigger role this season with Long and Sheard gone and could lead this defensive line in snaps played.

Ealy, meanwhile, comes over in a trade from the Panthers, in which the Patriots moved down 8 spots from 64 to 72 in the draft. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Ealy has always had athletic talent, but he graded out below average in all 3 seasons with the Panthers and the Panthers gave up on him this off-season, with 3 well-paid, veteran defensive ends locked in ahead of him on the depth chart. Ealy played a career high 624 snaps last season, but finished 78th among 109 eligible edge defenders. The Panthers never really tried him inside in passing situations, but he has the size to do it and it could really help him, considering he managed just 14 sacks in 3 seasons with the Panthers. He could have a big role for the Patriots as a hybrid defensive lineman and could have his best season to date, even if that’s not saying much.

Ninkovich is the veteran of the defensive end group and is coming off of the worst season, finishing last season 86th among 109 eligible edge defenders. He also played just 461 snaps, down significantly from 891 in 2015. Ninkovich is going into his age 33 season and has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, so he shouldn’t play much larger of a role than he did last season. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be Ninkovich’s final season with New England and his final season in the league. In his prime, he graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013.

Because of Ninkovich’s age, rookie Derek Rivers will have to play a significant rookie year role in sub packages. Despite coming from Youngstown State, Rivers is an NFL ready edge rusher and also has experience playing linebacker. The 6-4 248 pounder may struggle against the run as a rookie, but the Patriots will work to his strengths and probably won’t play him on the defensive line on many run snaps. Ninkovich also has some experience as an outside linebacker, so it’s possible both him and Rivers see some action at the outside linebacker positions in base packages, as the Patriots like their front 7 players to be able to play multiple spots.

Likewise, outside linebackers Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy could also see some time as edge rushers in obvious passing situations. McClellin rushed on 30% of his 382 snaps last season, while Van Noy rushed on 16% of his 250 snaps (in 7 games after spending the first 7 games of the season with the Lions). McClellin and Van Noy were both high picks, going in the first round in 2012 and the second round in 2014 respectively, but neither has ever graded out above average in a season in their career. It’s hard to call either player anything other than a bust, but the Patriots like them in situational roles because of their versatility. The Patriots have a lot of versatile defensive linemen and should be able to mix and match their way to an effective defensive line. Flowers is probably their best defensive lineman, but I don’t see any defensive lineman playing more than 700 snaps this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Patriots made a shocking trade during their bye week last week, sending outside linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns for their 3rd round compensatory pick. Collins was going into the final year of his rookie deal and was expected to leave after the season anyway, but he was a top-3 player at his position on Pro Football Focus the previous 2 seasons and was on his way to another similar season. Besides, they would have gotten a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2018 if they had just let him walk for nothing at the end of the season, so they basically gave him up for nothing. On top of that, they were 7-1 and chasing a Super Bowl and it was hard to imagine the Patriots would be better defensively without Collins, who had been one of their best defensive players in recent years.

However, statistically, that is exactly what happened. After allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.54% rate in the first 8 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 29.54% rate in the final 8 games of the season. The numbers don’t give the full context, as 6 of their final 8 games were against offenses that finished 26th or worse in first down rate and the other two were against Miami, who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle, who won. However, they also only allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 32.96% rate in 3 post-season games, even though they faced a pair of tough offenses in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Even if they weren’t a better defense without Collins, they didn’t seem to miss him.

Collins was replaced with a combination of base package players like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts as well as safety Patrick Chung dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. As I already mentioned, McClellin and Van Noy are underwhelming players, while Roberts graded out below average on 270 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2016, but all three players are capable run stuffers and the Patriots don’t count on any of them for big roles. They didn’t add anything significant to their linebacking corps this season, so those 3 will compete for base package outside linebacker snaps with potentially Ninkovich and Rivers. In sub packages, the Patriots will continue using Chung as a linebacker and the recently re-signed Dont’a Hightower returns as their only true every down linebacker.

Also a pending free agent like Collins was, Hightower was allowed to hit the open market by the Patriots, but ended up returning on a 4-year, 35.5 million dollar deal, a whopping 14.5 million dollars less than Collins got on the same length deal from the Browns. Hightower isn’t as athletic as Collins, but he’s a great run stuffer and moves well for his size at 6-3 265. He’s capable of stopping the run, dropping into coverage, and blitzing. A 2012 1st round pick, Hightower has finished in the top-12 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 straight seasons in the top-8. Injuries are a bit of a concern for him, as he’s missed 11 games in the past 3 seasons combined, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so that should be money well-spent for a team that needed to keep at least one of their talented young linebackers.

Chung, meanwhile, has spent most of his 8-year career at safety, but had arguably the worst season of his career last season, 83rd out of 90 eligible safeties, and did a little bit better after they moved him to linebacker in sub packages and started using him as a hybrid player. Chung had graded out above average in 6 of the prior 7 seasons before last season, including 6th among safeties in 2015, but he’s going into his age 30 season and he’s always been better closer to the line of scrimmage at 5-11 215, so moving to linebacker in sub packages could be good for his career. Even though he’s coming off a down year, he could easily be a useful player for them for another couple seasons in his new role. Even without Collins, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another reason why continuing to drop Chung to linebacker in sub packages makes sense for the Patriots is they have good depth at safety. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, who comes in when Chung moves to linebacker in sub packages, are both significantly better deep cover guys than Chung. McCourty is actually one of the best safeties in the league and should continue to play at a high level in an every down role for them. An adequate cornerback early in his career, McCourty has spent the last 4 seasons at safety, where he has really excelled, finishing in the top-8 among safeties in all 4 seasons, including a #4 rank in 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons at least. He’s also only missed 5 games with injury in his career.

Harmon, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and was re-signed to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season. Harmon actually finished last season slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which finished 31st among safeties on a career high 603 snaps. He only has 12 career starts and isn’t anything more than a part-time player, but the Patriots don’t need him to be much more than that. He’s a nice piece in the secondary and the Patriots were smart to re-sign him on a reasonable deal.

Along with the trade for Cooks, the biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode this off-season was when they signed ex-Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Like using first round picks on receivers or trading high picks for veterans, spending big money on other teams’ free agents was just simply something the Patriots have never done, as they have always opted to build through the draft and used their money to re-sign their own players, if anything. Gilmore is by far the most expensive outside free agent signing they have made in the Belichick/Brady era.

Gilmore is actually coming off of a down year in which he was burned deep in coverage more than usual, finishing 60th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Patriots obviously don’t seem concerned though. The 2012 1st round pick finished above average in both 2014 and 2015, with his best career season coming in 2015, when he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback like that, but he’s at the very least a capable starter with upside for more. He’s made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 27 season, so he’s right in the prime of his career. He’ll replace free agent departure Logan Ryan, who finished last season 16th among cornerbacks and signed with the Titans on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season.

Gilmore’s addition all but guaranteed that fellow starting cornerback Malcolm Butler is going into his final year in New England, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season and the Patriots already gave the money he wanted to Gilmore instead. With the Patriots in win now mode for 2017, that’s not a huge deal and the Patriots will have one of the better cornerback duos in the league in the meantime. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Butler has gotten significantly better in all 3 seasons in the league, playing just 187 regular season snaps as a rookie, but making all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and finishing 24th and 7th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. He might be a better cornerback than Gilmore, but he could also prove to be largely a system cornerback and the Patriots seem to prefer the bigger Gilmore (6-1 195 vs 5-11 195) over him long-term.

Eric Rowe was their 3rd cornerback last season and he was solid on 452 snaps, but Gilmore replacing Ryan complicates matters for Rowe. Rowe’s best attribute is his size and ability to match up with bigger receivers at 6-1 205, but Gilmore is also perfectly capable of defending bigger receivers. Also, while Ryan played the slot in sub packages, Gilmore is not a good fit on the slot and neither is Rowe. If Rowe wins the #3 cornerback job, that would likely mean that Butler would be tasked with slot duties in sub packages and he has very little experience in the slot. A 2015 2nd round pick who showed promise in his first season in New England after being traded from the Eagles for a conditional 2018 mid-round round pick, Rowe will still see playing time in certain games against teams with bigger receivers because the Patriots like to be matchup specific with their cornerbacks, but might not be any higher than 4th on the depth chart officially.

That leaves 2nd year players Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones to compete for the slot cornerback job between Butler and Gilmore. At 5-10 200 and 5-10 190 respectively, both are more natural fits on the slot. Cyrus Jones was a 2nd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so he’s probably the favorite, but he only played 147 nondescript snaps as a rookie, so he’s still very unproven. Jonathan Jones, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2016 and only played 64 defensive snaps as a rookie, but the Patriots have been much more impressed with him on special teams than Cyrus Jones and he reportedly has a chance to beat out the higher drafted Jones for a job in at cornerback. If he does, it’ll probably say more about Cyrus’ lack of development than anything positive about Jonathan. If Gilmore can play at his highest level and Cyrus Jones shows more in his 2nd year in the league, this secondary could be improved even over last year’s strong group, but the pieces don’t fit together as well as they did last season with Ryan signing in Tennessee.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were the best team in the league last season and they got even better this off-season, particularly with Brandin Cooks coming over from New Orleans and Rob Gronkowski set to return from injury. They have no glaring holes on either side of the ball. The one concern with them is that Tom Brady is going into his age 40 season, but he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career and has arguably the best overall supporting cast of his career. If Brady plays like we’re used to, this team has a good chance to repeat as Super Bowl champs. 

Final update: The Patriots’ season has not gotten off to a great start, with wide receiver Julian Edelman, linebackers Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers, and slot cornerback Cyrus Jones all going down with season ending injuries. McClellin and Rivers are especially big losses because Rob Ninkovich retired and Kony Ealy underwhelmed in training camp and was cut. The Patriots are very thin at defensive end now and are without a valuable 3rd receiving option on offense. Despite that, they are still one of the most talented teams in the league and should be the favorite for the league’s best record in the weak AFC East.

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in AFC East

Indianapolis Colts 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Colts made the no brainer selection taking Andrew Luck #1 overall in 2012, but have otherwise done a very poor job of rebuilding their roster. Aside from Luck, the Colts have drafted just one other Pro-Bowler since 2012, wide receiver TY Hilton, and have pretty much struck out completely in free agency, despite handing out several significant contracts. Considering this was a 2-14 team when Luck came in, they haven’t done nearly enough to improve his supporting cast over the past 5 years.

The Colts are 49-31 over those 5 years, but that’s largely because of Luck, who has been a top-12 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons and finished last season a career high 4th at the position. The Colts have also had a weak division and have pulled out a lot of close wins. They are 23-7 in the division over the past 5 seasons, as opposed to 26-24 against non-divisional opponents, and are 30-12 overall in games decided by a touchdown or less. Over the past 2 seasons, the division has gotten better and the Colts have not been pulling out as many close victories (12-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past 2 seasons), so they have finished just 8-8.

As a result, the Colts fired GM Ryan Grigson, who was hired back in 2012 before Luck was drafted. In 2015, they could blame their disappointing season on Andrew Luck missing 9 games with injury, but last season Luck was healthy. Their supporting cast around him just took a huge step backwards, which makes sense, given that they were the oldest supporting cast in the league. The offense still performed at a high level, ranking 7th in first down rate, but their defense ranked 28th in first down rate allowed, no surprise, considering they had a whopping seven week 1 starters who were in their age 30 season or older. Grigson needed to be let go for his inability to bring in good young talent.

Now with new GM Chris Ballard in place, the Colts hope they can build the supporting cast Luck needs to take this team to the Super Bowl, but it’s going to take more than one off-season. Complicating matters even more is the fact that Andrew Luck is coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and might not be ready for the start of training camp. Luck is a big, tough quarterback at 6-4 240, but has taken way too many hits because of a bad offensive line and the injuries are starting to pile up for him as a result. He didn’t miss a single game in the first 3 seasons of his career, but missed 9 with a shoulder injury and a ruptured kidney in 2015, then missed another game with a concussion in 2016, and now needs surgery to repair that 2015 shoulder injury. The Colts don’t have a capable backup, so they are obviously hoping he can get healthy and play all 16 games again in 2017. His status for week 1 is probably not in doubt, but it’s a situation worth monitoring.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Grigson and the Colts tried to upgrade the Colts’ offensive line in the 2016 NFL Draft, after Luck’s injury plagued 2015 season, using 3 picks on offensive linemen and ignoring major holes on defense in the process. It was too little too late though and none of the offensive linemen showed much as rookies. Ryan Kelly was the best of the bunch, but the #18 overall pick finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, 21st out of 38 eligible centers. Kelly still has potential, but he needs to be more than just a solid center to validate his draft slot, considering he’s one of just eight pure centers drafted in the first round since 2000.

Fifth round pick Joe Haeg also saw significant action as a rookie, making 14 starts between left guard, right guard, and right tackle. His versatility is a plus, but he finished 52nd among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus and may be best long-term as a versatile reserve. He’ll compete for starting jobs at both right guard and right tackle out of desperation. Third round pick Le’Raven Clark will also be in the mix for snaps, but he struggled on just 201 snaps as a rookie. He’s more of a right tackle, but can also play right guard if needed.

Also in the mix for snaps are veteran free agent acquisition Brian Schwenke, 4th round rookie Zach Banner, and 2015 7th round pick Denzelle Good. Schwenke is one of their most experienced offensive lineman, making 28 starts with the Titans from 2013-2016, after they drafted him in the 4th round in 2013. Schwenke graded out below average in all 4 seasons though, his first 3 at center and then last season in 3 starts at left guard. He’s theoretically a candidate at right guard, but would be best as veteran depth if he even makes the roster.

Banner is also an unlikely option, though the massive 6-8 353 pounder could play both right tackle and right guard if they need him to. Good is a more likely option, considering he started 10 games last season. He didn’t play well either though, finishing 67th among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Like their other offensive linemen, he can play both right guard and right tackle, but they need two players to step up and stabilize those positions so they aren’t changing their offensive line every week in 2017 like they did in 2016. Haeg, Clark, and Good are the most likely options, but none of those three are any good.

Fortunately, things are a lot better on the left side of the offensive line, where left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Jack Mewhort remain as starters. Castonzo is a rare holdover from before Andrew Luck and has played well in 6 seasons in the league since the Colts drafted him #22 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Unspectacular, but consistent, Castonzo has made 89 of a possible 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including three straight top-20 finishes. Going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t continue to play well.

Mewhort, meanwhile, is a rare solid draft pick from the Grigson era, going in the 2nd round in 2014. Mewhort has made 40 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including 9th among guards in 2015 and 25th among guards in 2016. He can also play some right tackle, but has settled in at guard, where he has been best. He missed 6 games with injury last season, but should be healthy this season and could earn a big contract with another big season in the final year of his rookie deal. Considering how little success the Colts have had developing capable starters or signing other teams’ free agents, they would be wise not to let Mewhort go. He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet, but he’s a valuable part of an overall mediocre offensive line.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Wide receiver TY Hilton is the only other Grigson draftee besides Luck who did make a Pro-Bowl, making it in each of the past 3 seasons. Over the past 4 seasons, he has caught 324 passes for 5000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Demaryius Thomas have more receiving yards than him over that time period. A lot of that is Andrew Luck throwing him the football, but Hilton is a legitimate #1 receiver in his own right, finishing 34th, 10th, 17th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in the past 4 seasons respectively. Last season was his best season to date as he led the league with 1,448 receiving yards and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He was a steal in the 3rd round in 2012.

The Colts also drafted a wide receiver in the third round in 2014, though with different results. Donte Moncrief has all the physical tools to be a great wide receiver, but hasn’t put it together yet through 3 seasons in the league. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie and then was a league average wide receiver in 16 games (10 starts) in 2015, but was limited to 470 snaps in an injury plagued 2016. He still graded out above average for the third straight season though and is still only going into his age 24 season. He could have a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 if he can stay healthy.

The Colts also used a 1st round pick on a wide receiver in 2015, taking Miami’s Phillip Dorsett in what now looks like one of the worst decisions of the Grigson era. Not only did Dorsett not remotely fill a need at the time, but he also hasn’t shown anything positive on the field in 2 seasons in the league. He was limited to 215 snaps as a rookie and then made 7 starts last season when Moncrief was hurt and played terribly, finishing 105th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 796 snaps in 15 games. He caught just 33 of 60 targets for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has game-breaking speed, but he’s been a one-trick pony thus far in his career and the new regime has no loyalty to him, bringing in ex-Raven Kamar Aiken on a 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal to compete with him for the #3 job.

Unlike most of the free agent signings made by Ryan Grigson, Aiken has a good chance to pan out on a relatively inexpensive contract. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Aiken played just 295 offensive snaps in his first 4 seasons in the league, but had a breakout 2015 season when the Ravens had injuries in the receiving corps, catching 75 passes for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns on 937 offensive snaps and finishing 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He struggled on just 595 snaps in 2016, when the Ravens were healthier in the receiving corps, but he’s still just going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a capable 3rd receiver for them. He’s considered the favorite for the #3 job, but Dorsett will get a fair look.

The Colts also gave a decent sized contract to tight end Jack Doyle this off-season, bringing him back on a 3-year, 18.9 million dollar deal. A 2013 undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off the Titans’ practice squad during his rookie year, Doyle had just 7 starts in 3 seasons going into 2016, but had flashed in limited action and earned the #2 tight end job after Coby Fleener signed with the Saints last off-season. Doyle then broke out on 750 snaps in 2016, finishing 17th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus and finishing 2nd on the team with 59 catches and 584 receiving yards. He also added 5 touchdowns. The 6-6 267 pounder lacks explosiveness and only averages 8.44 yards per catch in his career, but has also caught 80.0% of his career targets and Andrew Luck is very comfortable with him as a safety net. He’s also a good run blocker. He’s still inexperienced and basically a one-year wonder, but bringing him back wasn’t a bad idea. They didn’t overpay for him.

In order to justify signing Jack Doyle, the Colts had to trade veteran tight end Dwayne Allen and his 5 million dollar salary to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks. Allen finished 41st out of 63 eligible tight ends last season though, so he won’t really be missed, and the Colts like 4th year tight end Erik Swoope. A collegiate basketball player at the University of Miami, Swoope barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league after going undrafted in 2014, but flashed on 246 snaps last season and caught 15 passes for 297 yards and 1 touchdown. Dwayne Allen played 611 snaps last season, so Swoope could have a significant role in 2017. We’ll see if he’s up to the task. He’s part of a deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As big of a mistake as using their first round pick in 2015 on Phillip Dorsett was, they made an even bigger mistake a year earlier, sending their 2014 1st round pick to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson. Richardson, the 3rd overall pick in 2012, averaged just 3.09 yards per carry on 316 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts and fell out of the league shortly afterwards. The Colts replaced him two off-seasons ago with veteran Frank Gore, who they signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal.

Gore is in the twilight of his career though and has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry on 523 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts. Part of that is the offensive line’s fault, but a lot of that is on Gore. Gore has been especially sluggish in the second half of the season, averaging just 3.41 yards per carry on 277 carries in games 9-16 in the past two seasons combined. Gore is still an effective player in pass situations, especially as a pass protector, but the Colts should cut his carries from 250 to around 150 to keep him fresher, as he goes into his age 34 season. Gore is the oldest active starting running back in the league and it shows. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in the league.

The Colts drafted Marlon Mack in the 4th round, likely in an effort to keep Gore fresher and to find a potential long-term replacement. Mack is explosive, but is probably best as a change of pace back early in his career. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t jump up to the top of this weak running back depth chart by the end of the season, but he’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd back behind veteran backup Robert Turbin. A 2012 4th round pick, Turbin has averaged just 3.94 yards per carry on 328 carries in 5 seasons in the league and 3.49 yards per carry on 47 carries last season. He’s a poor option for carries. The Colts finished 23rd in yards per carry last season with 3.99, despite Andrew Luck averaging 5.33 yards per carry on 64 carries. That could easily happen again this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

While the Colts had some offensive talent last season, they had next to nothing on the defensive side of the ball, which is why they finished 28th in first down rate allowed. The new regime rightfully saw defense as the side of the ball to focus on, making several signings in free agency and using their first 3 draft picks on defensive players. The Colts could have 6 new starters week 1 and are much younger than last season, when they had the oldest defense in the league.

Their biggest free agent signing was Johnathan Hankins, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal from the Giants. He fills a huge need for a defensive line that was led in snaps played last season by David Parry, who played 644 snaps and finished 110th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Hankins will take over for Parry at nose tackle and could lead them in snaps played this season. Parry, meanwhile, was arrested for DUI this off-season and is no lock to even make the Colts’ final roster, given how poorly he has played in the past 2 seasons.

The 6-2 320 pound Hankins is primarily a base package nose tackle, but can also play some in sub packages. Hankins has graded out above average against the run on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, though 2014 was the only season he graded out above average as a pass rusher. 2014 was easily the best season of his career, when he finished 7th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He finished in the top-20 at his position again in 2015, but he fell to the middle of the pack in his contract year last season. The Colts are giving him a lot of money, so they are betting the 2013 2nd round pick can bounce back and has a lot of good football still ahead of him. Given that he’s still only going into his age 25 season, it’s a bet that could pay off.

Defensive end Henry Anderson is also a candidate to lead this defensive line in snaps played. The 2015 3rd round pick has flashed in limited action in 2 seasons in the league, finishing 12th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 on 453 snaps in 9 games before tearing his ACL and then finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2016 on 308 snaps in 11 games upon his return last season. Now another year removed from the injury, Anderson could have the best season of his career in his 3rd year in the league and breakout as an every down defensive end in the Colts’ 3-4 defense.

Veteran Kendall Langford is penciled in as the 3rd starting defensive end, but he will be pushed for playing time by youngsters Hassan Ridgeway and TJ McGill, following a very disappointing 2016 season for Langford. After playing all 16 games in each of the first 8 seasons of his career, Langford was limited to 300 snaps in 7 games by injury last season and finished 125th out of 127 eligible interior defenders when on the field. Langford was largely a league average starter for the first 8 seasons of his career and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, which is why younger players will push him for playing time.

McGill flashed on 302 snaps last season, after playing 222 underwhelming snaps as a rookie in 2015. An undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off waivers from the Seahawks at final cuts during his rookie season, McGill could see a larger role in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. Ridgeway, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick by the Colts in 2016 and played 442 underwhelming snaps as a rookie. Both McGill and Ridgeway will play in rotational roles in 2017 even if Langford technically keeps the starting job. With Hankins coming in and Anderson healthy, this has the looks of a much improved defensive line, even if it’s largely by default.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Colts also have a completely new group of outside linebackers, with free agent acquisitions Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo replacing veterans Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden, a trio of 30+ year old players who are no longer with the team. Sheard, Simon, and Mingo will compete for snaps with veteran holdover Akeem Ayers and 3rd round rookie Tarell Basham. Sheard and Simon were signed to deals worth 25.5 million over 3 years and 13.5 million over 3 years respectively and are the favorites for the starting jobs.

Sheard is the biggest name was the most expensive to acquire, coming over from New England where he finished in the top-20 among 4-3 defensive ends in both seasons with the Patriots. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 5th at his position on Pro Football Focus on 558 snaps. That kind of looks like a fluke when you look at his whole career, but he’s still graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons and he has experience both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker.

In Indianapolis, he’ll be the latter and will probably see at least 600-700 snaps again, which is around what he’s used to. Still only going into his age 28 season, the 2011 2nd round pick is a solid addition for this defense, Simon is probably the better value though. The ex-Texan has graded out above average in each of the past 2 seasons and played 500+ snaps in both seasons. He could see an uptick in snaps with the Colts, after spending the last 2 seasons stuck behind Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney for snaps in Houston.

Barkevious Mingo is an upside signing, but he only played 48 snaps with the Patriots last season. Mingo was the 6th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Browns and showed his potential in 2014, finishing 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in the other 3 seasons and made just 6 starts combined in those 3 seasons. Still only going into his age 27 season, he was worth a flier on a low risk 1-year, 2 million dollar deal, but I wouldn’t expect much for him on defense.

Ayers played 360 snaps for the Colts last season and could see a similar role, after grading out slightly above average last season. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, but has never been much more than a rotational player. Rookie Tarell Basham will also be in the mix for snaps and could open the season as the top reserve with a strong off-season. Sheard and Simon will lead the way in snaps, but Mingo, Ayers, and Basham will also get shots behind them. They should get better outside linebacker play than last season.

Middle linebacker Sean Spence was also signed in free agency, coming over from the Titans on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Veteran D’Qwell Jackson, who led Colt middle linebackers in snaps played last season with 708, is gone, after struggling in his age 33 season in 2016, and Spence will compete for playing time with young linebackers Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson. A 2012 3rd round pick, Spence didn’t play at all in his first 2 seasons in the league because of a potentially career threatening knee injury. He returned to a reserve role in 2014 and has played 510 and 504 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively. Undersized at 5-11 231, Spence isn’t great against the run, but has developed into a decent coverage specialist, grading out above average in coverage in both seasons. With the Colts, he could be an every down player, which would be a first for him. He may be overmatched, but he was a decent value signing for a team that needed linebacker help.

Morrison and Jackson saw playing time down the stretch last season and will have the opportunity for more playing time in 2017, even though both were underwhelming. They finished 64th and 56th respectively among 87 eligible linebackers on 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively. For both players, it was their first career action. Morrison was a 4th round rookie, while Jackson went undrafted in 2015 and spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Neither is a good starting option. Morrison did a decent job against the run and Jackson was adequate in coverage, so it’s possible the Colts will use them in a platoon type situation, with Jackson coming in for Morrison in sub packages. Safety Clayton Geathers could also play some linebacker in sub packages at 6-2 220. Like on the defensive line, it’s an improved linebacker corps, but largely by default.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Geathers playing some linebacker makes sense on two fronts. Not only are the Colts thin at linebacker, they’re also pretty deep at safety. Despite losing veteran 15-game starter Mike Adams, safety was not seen as a pressing need for them going into the draft, with Geathers, a 2015 4th round pick, and TJ Green, a 2016 2nd round pick, penciled into the starting lineup. Geathers was Pro Football Focus 29th ranked safety last season when healthy, but missed 7 games with a number of injuries. Green started in his absence and, while he struggled mightily, he was still a high pick that was expected to get another shot in 2017.

However, no one expected Malik Hooker, the draft class’ top free safety, to fall into their laps at #15 overall. At one point, some expected Hooker to go off the board ahead of fellow safety Jamal Adams, who went 6th to the Jets, but Hooker needed off-season shoulder surgery, which probably dropped him on a few team’s boards. Still, most expected him to be a top-10 pick on draft day, but he fell into the Colts’ lap after an early unexpected run on offensive skill position players. Even though he didn’t fill a pressing need, he was too good to pass on.

When Hooker returns from his injury, he will likely start alongside Geathers, who is also nursing an injury, still coming back from the neck strain that ended his season in 2016. Hooker is expected to be back for training camp, but Geathers’ status is a little bit more uncertain, as neck injuries tend to be. He’s reportedly not a lock to return for week 1. Green will provide insurance at both spots and could come into the game in sub packages if Geathers moves to linebacker part-time. He was Pro Football Focus worst ranked safety last season on 478 snaps as a rookie, but is still only going into his age 22 season and has a high ceiling, so he could be better in 2017.

The Colts also used a 2nd round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Florida’s Quincy Wilson #46 overall. He could start as a rookie opposite #1 cornerback Vontae Davis. Prior to 2016, Davis was their best defensive player and ranked 4th, 4th, and 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. In 2016, however, he fell to a very uncharacteristic 98th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. A 1st round pick in 2009, Davis has graded out below average in just one other season in his career.

Injuries are almost definitely the culprit. Davis suffered an ankle injury before the season that he rushed back from and then later suffered a concussion and a hip injury. He only missed 2 games with injury, but he was pretty banged up all year. Still only going into his age 29 season, Davis has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. Wilson, meanwhile, will compete with Rashaan Melvin, Darryl Morris, and Darius Butler for playing time. Melvin and Morris are both 2013 undrafted free agents who graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season for the first time in their careers, doing so on 655 and 359 snaps respectively. They have just 11 and 3 career starts respectively and are both underwhelming starting options, so Wilson will probably end up as the starter sooner rather than later, even if someone like Melvin gets the first crack at the job.

Butler, meanwhile, is a pure slot cornerback. There was talk earlier this off-season that he could be moving to safety, but those plans seem to have changed with the Colts taking Hooker in the first round. Butler actually finished last season 33rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though he’s graded out below average in 6 of 9 seasons in the league and is going into his age 31 season. He’s penciled in as the slot cornerback, but could lose the job if he struggles this off-season. Along with Kendall Langford, Butler is one of just two remaining from those seven week 1 starters over 30 last season. The Colts have completely remade their defense and are much younger on that side of the ball than last season. Their secondary could be their best unit if everyone’s healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s going to take more than one off-season to rebuild this supporting cast, but the Colts’ new front office has done a good job of re-making this defense. They might not be a great unit, but they seem to be on the right track and are much younger. Offensively, they could still have issues on the offensive line and at running back, but, as long as Andrew Luck is healthy and throwing to a talented group of receivers, this passing game should be able to carry their offense once again. Luck’s health is not a guarantee though and safeties Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker are also working back from injuries. It’s concerning that they are already this banged up this early in the off-season, but they have a good chance to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and should compete for a playoff spot. 

Final update: The Colts are going to be without Andrew Luck for at least the first week of the season and will struggle mightily without him. Outside of Andrew Luck, they have one of the worst rosters in the league and they are also without cornerback Vontae Davis, safety Clayton Geathers, and center Ryan Kelly with injury. Even when Luck returns, this team is going to have a hard time making the playoffs, as they have issues at running back, on the offensive line, and on defense. They are likely to start three rookies on the defensive side of the ball: safety Malik Hooker (first round), cornerback Quincy Wilson (second round), and middle linebacker Anthony Walker (fifth round).

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC South

Houston Texans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans played 7 different quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015 combined, but won 9 games in both seasons thanks to a strong defense. They thought they found their solution at the quarterback position and their missing piece last off-season when they signed ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal, but he turned out to be as bad as any quarterback they played in 2014 or 2015. He completed just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 14 starts and was briefly benched for backup Tom Savage for weeks 15 and 16, before Savage suffered a concussion that ended his season. Osweiler finished the season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The Texans’ defense was excellent again in 2016, as they finished 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense finished 2nd worst in first down rate and they were lucky to win 9 games and make the playoffs again. They were arguably the worst team in the league to make the post-season, even though they did win a home playoff game against the Derek Carr-less Raiders. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points and they didn’t win a single regular season game by double digits. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL. They also finished 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and had a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division, a lot of close wins, and a strong defense.

The Texans turned to desperate measures this off-season to get out of the 16 million dollars in guaranteed money they owed Brock Osweiler this season, sending Osweiler, a 2nd round pick in 2018, and a 6th round pick in 2017 to the Browns for a 4th round pick in 2017, effectively buying some of the Browns’ cap space. When the move was made, many saw it as the Texans clearing cap space to try to sign Tony Romo once the Cowboys released him, but Romo ended up retiring and joining CBS, leaving the Texans with Tom Savage atop their depth chart going into the draft.

On draft day, after the Bears and Chiefs both traded up to grab quarterbacks in the top-10, the Texans moved up to 12 in another trade with the Browns to secure their quarterback, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, sending their 2018 1st round pick to the Browns to move up 13 spots. All in all, the Texans used their first round pick this year and their first and second round pick next year to go from Brock Osweiler to Deshaun Watson at quarterback in an effort to hopefully finally solidify the quarterback position. It’s a very risky set of moves.

Despite all they gave up to get him, Watson is far from a lock to be the week 1 starter and is expected to work behind the veteran Tom Savage for most of the off-season. Conventional wisdom suggests Watson will get a shot at some point this season, given how much the Texans gave up for him and given that Savage is probably the least qualified starting quarterback in the league, but head coach Bill O’Brien’s system is not easy to learn and Savage has an advantage having been in the system for 3 years already. The 2014 4th round pick has just 92 career pass attempts and has completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interceptions. He’s a backup caliber talent. Watson, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie given the complexity of the offense and his tendency to force throws and get intercepted. He has good upside long-term, but isn’t NFL ready.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons giving up those 3 valuable picks to change quarterbacks this off-season is so risky is because it hurts their ability to address other glaring needs, particularly on the offensive line. Quarterback play was a big part of the problem for the Texans last season, but so was offensive line play and they didn’t address the offensive line outside of using their 4th and 7th round picks an offensive linemen who are unlikely to be able to contribute as rookies. Without a pick in the first 2 rounds next year, the Texans could have issues upfront for a while.

Derek Newton was a capable starter at right tackle for them, but he tore both of his patellar tendons on the same play last season and missed the final 10 games of the season. About as bad of a knee injury as you can imagine, Newton is not expected to play at all in 2017 and his future is very much in doubt. Veteran journeyman Chris Clark took over the starting job after he got hurt and predictably struggled, finishing 73rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s best as a swing tackle, but the only competition the Texans have for him is 4th round rookie Julie’n Davenport, who is very raw out of Bucknell and wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie.

Making matters worse at the offensive tackle position, left tackle Duane Brown is going into his age 32 season. A top-24 offensive tackle in each of the past 7 seasons, Brown finished last season 14th among offensive tackles and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but could easily decline over the next couple seasons. On top of that, Brown is reportedly unhappy with his contract and wants to cash in one more time, despite being owed 19.4 million over the next 2 seasons. So far he’s only missed voluntary off-season activities, but it’s definitely a situation to monitor, given how important he is to this offense.

The Texans have issues at guard as well, where both left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and right guard Jeff Allen struggled last season, finishing 57th and 65th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That’s a disappointment because the Texans spent significant resources to bring both players in. Allen signed a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans last off-season, coming over from Kansas City. Allen was a second round pick by the Chiefs in 2012 and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, before missing most of 2014 with injury. However, upon return from that injury, he finished 16th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts in 2015, which was apparently enough for the Texans to give him a big contract. It’s not a surprise that he struggled in his first season in Houston given how unproven he is. He could easily continue struggling this season.

Su’a-Filo, meanwhile, was drafted by the Texans with the first pick in the second round in 2014. He was the player the Texans drafted instead of quarterback Derek Carr because they were worried about the optics of selecting David Carr’s brother, given that David was a bust as the #1 overall pick with the Texans in 2002. Passing on Derek proved to be as big of a mistake as selecting David, as Derek has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Oakland and Su’a-Filo has yet to develop into a starting caliber player on a team that has struggled for consistency at the quarterback position.

After barely playing as a rookie, Su’a-Filo has made 24 starts in the past 2 seasons, but has been a bottom-20 guard on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. The Texans don’t have another option so they are holding out hope that he can turn into a capable starter in the final year of his rookie deal, but that is far from a guarantee. The Texans do get center Nick Martin back, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, though backup Greg Mancz was serviceable in his absence last season. Martin has more upside though and should have no problem winning his job back. Whether or not he develops into a starting caliber player remains to be seen though. Outside of aging left tackle Duane Brown, the Texans have a lot of problems on the offensive line.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

As bad as the Texans’ passing game played in both 2014 and 2015, with 7 different quarterbacks playing, they were significantly worse statistically in 2016. Their team QB rating of 73.3 was 3rd worst in the NFL ahead of only the Jets and the Rams and was at least 12 points lower than their QB rating in each of the previous 2 seasons. In 2014 and 2015, they were at least able to get the ball to #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but who put up slash lines of 76/1210/6 and 111/1521/11 in those 2 seasons respectively.

In 2016, that fell to 78/954/4. Part of that was the fault of Hopkins, who fell to 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-12 in both 2014 and 2015, but the Texans need to do a better job of getting the ball to him. They completed just 52.0% of passes thrown to him last season and he’s too talented for that to happen. Even if Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson struggle in 2017, Hopkins is still a good bet to top last year’s numbers. Still only going into his age 25 season, the 2013 1st round pick is going into the final year of his rookie deal and figures to become one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league on his next contract. He’s too valuable to this offense to lose, so the Texans might not have any choice but to pay up.

Hopkins would benefit from another receiver stepping up to take some of the pressure off of him, something he hasn’t had since Andre Johnson played opposite him during his rookie year. The Texans drafted Will Fuller in the first round last year with that in mind, but he struggled as a rookie, catching just 47 passes on 92 targets (51.1%) for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished 93rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and Fuller still has the upside to become a dangerous deep threat long-term, but he also has small hands and doesn’t make contested catches, so it’s possible he never reaches his upside.

After Hopkins and Fuller, the Texans leaders in receiving yards last season were tight ends CJ Fiedorowicz (54/559/4) and Ryan Griffin (50/442/2) and running back Lamar Miller (31/188/1). Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong played 379 and 300 snaps respectively behind Hopkins and Fuller and managed slash lines of just 15/99/1 and 14/131/0 respectively. Part of that was a result of quarterback play, but both struggled mightily as well.  Strong was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so they have some upside, but it’s very possible neither ever develops into a useful pass catcher. They’ll compete with Keith Mumphrey, a 2015 5th round pick who has also struggled mightily in limited action in his career, for playing time behind Hopkins and Fuller.

To mask their lack of depth at wide receiver, the Texans will probably use two-tight end sets whenever possible. CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin played 678 and 507 snaps respectively last season. Griffin is a mediocre tight end at best, struggling throughout his career both as a run blocker and a pass catcher and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2013. Fiedorowicz, on the other hand, has developed into a solid all-around tight end.

After a miserable rookie season in which he finished 63rd out of 67 eligible tight ends, the 2014 3rd round pick jumped to 29th among tight ends in 2015, despite just 17 catches, because of strong run blocking ability. In 2016, he improved again, finishing 17th at the position and finishing 2nd on the team with 54 catches. At 6-5 265, Fiedorowicz is an unexplosive athlete, but has developed into a reliable underneath option and can win on the goal line. He’s not the difference making 2nd option this offense needs though, so this underwhelming receiving corps needs a breakout year from Fuller opposite Hopkins.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Texans’ passing game was so bad in 2016 that they struggled mightily to move the ball despite a decent running game complement. The Texans averaged just 4.08 YPC, 19th in the NFL, but that’s pretty impressive considering opposing defenses were stacking the box without fearing the passing game and considering they finished 6th in the league in carries with 456. It’s also a higher average than the Texans have had in any season since 2013. Playing strong defense and running the ball is their most obvious path to success, so the Texans are obviously hoping their running game can remain effective in 2017.

Lamar Miller remains as their lead back, after rushing for 1073 yards and 268 touchdowns on 5 carries (4.00 YPC) in the first year of a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in 2016. Miller was explosive in the first 4 seasons of his career in Miami, but never had more than 254 touches in a season. In Houston, he had 299 touches in just 14 games and seemed to wear down by the end of the season. He averaged just 3.72 yards per carry after week 7 and dealt with several nagging injuries. The Texans will probably limit his touches more in 2017 in an effort to keep him fresher. Still only going into his age 26 season, Miller should have another solid season as the lead back. He has a career 4.42 YPC average on 906 carries.

The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman in the 3rd round of the draft and he could be Miller’s primary backup this season. Foreman’s main competition for the job is Alfred Blue, who averaged 4.20 yards per carry on 100 carries last season. Blue is a mediocre runner though, averaging just 3.64 YPC on 452 career carries, since going in the 6th round in 2014. It’s possible all 3 backs see work, but Foreman is a much more talented runner than Blue and should overtake him on the depth chart before the end of the season. It’s not a bad stable of running backs.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Texans defense played at a high level again in 2016, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed and keeping this team competitive in games despite terrible play by the offense. What’s most impressive is their defense played at such a high level despite basically getting nothing from 3-time MVP JJ Watt. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 defensive end in every season from 2012-2015, Watt struggled on 157 snaps in 3 games last season upon return from off-season back surgery and then needed another surgery after week 3 that ended his season. Back surgery is nothing to take lightly, but off-season reports have been good and he should be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, even if other players are more likely to win Defensive Player of the Year. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt is still only going into his age 28 season, so he theoretically should still be in the prime of his career.

In Watt’s absence, fellow former first round pick Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout year and picked up a lot of the slack. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was limited to 17 games in his first 2 seasons in the league by injury, but played 14 games last season and finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Clowney has primarily been an outside linebacker in his career, but has the size at 6-5 270 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages and did so with regularity last season with Watt out. Even with Watt back, they still have a need for Clowney to play inside in sub packages, though the Texans are thinner at outside linebacker after losing key reserve John Simon. Wherever he lines up, Clowney’s best football could still be ahead of him, still only going into his age 24 season. He has a ton of natural talent and could be a perennial All-Pro if he can stay healthy.

With Clowney playing outside linebacker part-time, Vince Wilfork (507 snaps), Christian Covington (415 snaps), and DJ Reader (404 snaps) led the defensive line in snaps played last season. Wilfork remains unsigned, ahead of his age 36 season, and he struggled last season anyway, but both Covington and Reader played well in limited action, particularly against the run. Covington struggled on 167 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2015, but graded out above average last season. Reader, meanwhile, was just a 5th round rookie last season, but also graded out above average. In base packages, they will start with Watt on this 3-man defensive line. Fourth round rookie Carlos Watkins could also have a rotational role as a rookie. It’s a much improved defensive line with Watt back from injury and they have some nice situational pieces as well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Clowney, fellow former first round pick Whitney Mercilus had a big year in Watt’s absence last season, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Mercilus graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but has broken out over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-8 at his position in both seasons. Mercilus, Clowney, and Watt will wreak havoc in passing situations, but it’s unclear who the 4th player will be rushing the passer with them.

If Clowney rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages, Brennan Scarlett, their new top reserve outside linebacker with Simon gone, will have to rush off the edge opposite Mercilus in sub packages. That’s a very likely scenario though, considering the Texans don’t have another capable interior pass rusher. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Scarlett was underwhelming on just 113 snaps as a rookie, but the organization likes him and he has a shot to win a situational role. He should be a big downgrade from Simon, who was quietly a solid player for the Texans over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average and topping 500 snaps in both seasons. He signed with division rival Indianapolis on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season.

At middle linebacker, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney remains as starters, though Cushing could be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Zach Cunningham. McKinney was also a second round pick, getting drafted in 2015. He flashed on 411 snaps as a rookie and then finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season, while making all 16 starts. The big 6-4 246 pounder was surprisingly impressive in coverage last season. Going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him.

Cushing also had a solid season, finishing 23rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He did miss 3 games with injury, which have always been an issue for him. His worst stretch of injuries came in 2012-2013, when he played just 12 total games in 2 seasons combined. He played 30 games in 2014-2015, but didn’t look like his old self, grading out below average in both seasons. Last season’s solid play was a bit of a surprise, but it’s no guarantee to continue in 2017, given that he is going into his age 30 season and given his injury history.

Owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018 with Cunningham waiting in the wings, this is likely Cushing’s final season in Houston. Cunningham was a borderline first round talent who slipped to pick #57, so the Texans made the wise decision drafting him, even if he doesn’t fill an immediate need. Cushing will probably hold Cunningham off this season, but Cunningham should be a starter for them at some point. With Watt coming back from injury, this should be an improved front 7, but they still have depth issues in sub packages with John Simon signing with the Colts.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Simon wasn’t their only off-season loss on defense, as AJ Bouye and Quintin Demps signed with the Jaguars and Bears respectively. They finished last season 3rd among cornerbacks and 12th among safeties respectively, so they will be big losses for the Texans. While their front 7 should be better with Watt back, their secondary could easily be a lot worse. The Texans don’t have an obvious replacement for Demps at safety, but Corey Moore was their 3rd safety last season, so I would expect the 2015 undrafted free agent to get the first crack at the job.

Moore didn’t play well last season though, finishing 60th among 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps, in the first significant action of his career. He’s a weak starting option. He will face competition from KJ Dillon, a a 2016 5th round pick who played just 19 underwhelming snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL. Eddie Pleasant (1 start in 5 seasons in the league) and Robert Nelson (0 starts in 3 seasons in the league) are also options. Whoever starts figures to be a major downgrade from Demps.

Andre Hal is locked in as the other starting safety, but largely by default, as he finished 55th among 90 eligible safeties in 11 starts last season. The 2014 7th round pick has made 22 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has graded out below average in both seasons. He’s unlikely to be much better in 2017. He wouldn’t be starting for a lot of teams, but he’s the Texans’ best safety with Demps gone. Safety figures to be a real position of weakness in 2017 on a defense that will have to be good to make up for the lack of talent on offense.

Fortunately, they are deeper at cornerback, even without AJ Bouye. Bouye played so well last season that they’re obviously going to miss him, but he was actually just their 4th cornerback at this time last year and only saw starts because their top-3 cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson, all missed time with injury. Johnson’s injury was the most severe, as he played just 286 snaps in 6 games before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. He was probably the best of the trio too, grading out the highest among the three on Pro Football Focus in limited action. A 2015 1st round pick, Johnson graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but looked on his way to a breakout season in 2016 before the injury. He’ll probably open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has a ton of upside and could push both Jackson and Joseph for their starting jobs.

Jackson missed just 2 games with injury, but he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2012, always missing time with nagging injuries (13 games missed in 4 seasons). He finished 35th among cornerbacks last season, but has also graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, so he’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Now going into his age 29 season, he’s in the tail end of his prime and could begin to decline soon. He could also have another couple solid seasons as a starter left in him though.

Joseph has had the better overall career, grading out above average in 8 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and finished behind Jackson in 2016, ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback. He also missed 3 games with injury. That was a big dropoff from 2015, when he finished 9th in one of the best seasons of his career. Joseph is going into his 12th season in the league in 2017 and will be a free agent after the season, so he could easily decide to retire next off-season. He and Jackson could both have solid seasons again, but that’s far from a guarantee, so they will need Jackson to be healthy and continue developing. Their secondary could be a lot worse this season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans get JJ Watt back from injury and getting rid of Brock Osweiler was addition by subtraction, but their quarterback situation still isn’t good and they sold 3 key defensive players in John Simon, AJ Bouye, and Quintin Demps, none of whom were properly replaced. They also didn’t add much in the draft or free agency in terms of players who are actually going to help them this season. They have major issues in the receiving corps, on the offensive line, at quarterback, and in the secondary and lack sub package depth upfront after Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney. They still have a disruptive front 7 and should have a strong defense once again, but not strong enough to make up for their offensive issues. Their division should be tougher this season and they’re unlikely to be as good in close games as they were last season (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less). I think it’s unlikely this team makes it back to the post-season in 2017.

Final update: The Texans will open the season without left tackle Duane Brown, who is holding out. That’s the last thing this offense needs. The Texans should have a strong defense this season, but their issues in the secondary can’t be ignored and their offense figures to struggle barring a miracle rookie season by Deshaun Watson. He’ll make starts at some point because Tom Savage won’t win many games.

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC South

Tennessee Titans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were arguably the most improved team in the league last season, going 9-7 after winning a combined 5 games in the previous 2 seasons. Going into week 16, it looked like the Titans had a good chance to make the playoffs, but then they had a week from hell. Not only did they suffer their biggest loss of the season, losing 38-17 against a 2-12 Jacksonville team (previously their biggest loss this season was by 9), but they also saw starting quarterback Marcus Mariota break his leg. That loss coupled with Houston’s week 16 victory eliminated the Titans from the playoffs and made Tennessee’s week 17 matchup with the Texans meaningless.

It’s really a shame because a healthy Titans team could have been some noise in the post-season. They finished 6th in first down rate margin, second among non-playoff teams behind the Cardinals, and had 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, also the 6th best margin in the NFL. They were equally good on both sides of the ball, finishing 14th in first down rate and 12th in first down rate allowed, joining the Patriots, Cardinals, and Steelers as the only teams in the league with that kind of balance. They could have put up much more of a fight in New England than the Texans, who won the division on a tiebreaker despite finishing 26th in first down rate differential and then lost 34-16 in New England.

There are a number of reasons why the Titans have been able to turn things around so quickly, but the Titans started their rebuild by selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall in 2015. He has solidified the quarterback position and been a massive upgrade over the likes of Jake Locker and Zach Mettenberger, which has helped this team immensely. In 2 seasons in the league, Mariota has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, while adding 601 yards and 4 touchdowns on 94 carries (6.39 YPC) on the ground.

He hasn’t finished in the top-20 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus yet, but he is developing nicely and could break into the middle tier of quarterbacks in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. The one concern with him is injuries, especially given that he is a mobile quarterback who takes some hits in the open field. In addition to the broken leg he suffered at the end of last season, he also missed essentially 5 games with injury as a rookie. The good news is Mariota is ahead of schedule in his recovery and will participate in OTAs with his teammates. That improves his chances of a 2017 breakout year.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The five games Mariota missed with injury as a rookie might have actually been a blessing in disguise. The Titans lost all 5 of those games, which, combined with 4 close losses (within a touchdown) when Mariota was in the lineup, dropped them to 3-13, despite not being nearly as bad as they were the year before when they went 2-14. Unlike most 3-13 teams, the Titans didn’t have the need for a quarterback #1 overall, so they sent the pick to the Rams for a king’s ransom, getting #15, #43, #45, #76, and the Rams’ first and third rounders in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177.

The Titans then packaged #15 and #76 with a 2017 2nd round pick to move back up to #8 with the Browns to grab Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who plugged in immediately at right tackle. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got most of the attention of the offensive rookies, but Jack Conklin was just as impressive, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. As important as Mariota was to this team last season, he got a lot of help from a strong offensive line and running game and Conklin was a big part of both of those.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan was also a big part of both of those, finishing 7th among offensive tackles right behind Conklin. Lewan and Conklin are arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL and they are only going into their age 26 and 23 seasons respectively. Like Conklin, Lewan was a first round pick, going 11th overall in 2014. Lewan was eased in as a rookie, but flashed in 6 starts and then finished 11th among offensive tackles in 15 starts in a breakout 2015 season. He then continued that high level of play into 2016. The Titans made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year option for 2018 this off-season and will work to reach a long-term extension with him over the next calendar year. He deserves to be one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the league.

The Titans are also solid on the interior of the offensive line. Left guard Quinton Spain, center Ben Jones, and right guard Josh Kline were all basically new starters in 2016 (Spain started the final 6 games of 2015) and all 3 graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Jones is the most experienced on the bunch with 59 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, including all 48 over the past 3 seasons. A 2012 4th round pick, Jones started his career at guard, but graded out below average in all 3 seasons at that position. He converted to center before the 2015 season and it has been a great move for his career, as he’s finished 18th and 9th respectively among centers in the past 2 seasons, both above average. He should continue to give them solid play on the pivot. A former Houston Texan, Jones was a wise signing on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal last off-season.

Kline also has some experience, starting 32 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 27 over the past 2 seasons. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2013, Kline flashed as a reserve in the first 2 seasons of his career and then graded out above average in 13 starts in 2015. Kline was signed to a 2-year, 3.3 million dollar extension by the Patriots following that season, but he was inexplicably made a final cut by New England after losing his starting job to rookie Joe Thuney. The Titans claimed Kline off waivers and he improved on his 2015 season, finishing 26th among guards in 14 starts. New England’s loss has been the Titans’ gain. They could look to lock him up on another extension this off-season. He’s owed 1.575 million in the final year of that 2-year extension in 2017, with incentives worth up to 2.375 million based on playing time.

On the other side, Spain is one of two holdovers from Tennessee’s 2015 offensive line, along with Lewan. Spain started the final 6 games of the season at left guard after the Titans had tried a number of different options. Spain was unimpressive, but won the job again in training camp last off-season and then broke out with an 18th ranked season among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts in 2016. He’s still a one-year wonder, but the 2015 undrafted free agent looks like one of many smart additions the Titans have made in the past 3 off-seasons. The Titans quietly have one of the best offensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As mentioned, in addition to a strong offensive line, the Titans also have a strong running game. They finished last season 4th in carries (476), 3rd in rushing yards (2,187), and 4th in YPC (4.59). The offensive line was a big part of that, as was quarterback Marcus Mariota’s scrambling, but the Titans also have talented running backs. Their lead back was DeMarco Murray, who is another one of their recent smart additions. Murray led the league with 1,845 rushing yards on 393 carries (4.70 YPC) with the Cowboys in 2014 and finished 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but was a major disappointment in 2015 in the first year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles. A poor fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, Murray rushed for just 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 193 carries (3.64 YPC) and fell to 66th out of 67 eligible running backs.

The Titans took a shot on him, swapping 4th round picks with the Eagles and bringing in Murray on a renegotiated deal with less base salary, but more guaranteed money and incentives that would allow him to earn his base salary back. The move paid off in a big way as Murray showed his old form, rushing for 1287 yards and 9 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.39 YPC), adding 53 catches for 377 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, and finishing 9th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Murray had a reputation for being injury prone early in his career, but has played in all but 1 game in the past 3 seasons, despite totalling 1,032 touches over that time period. Even with his disappointing 2015 season thrown in, Murray still has an impressive 4.59 career average and 207 catches over the past 4 seasons. His age is starting to become an issue as he goes into his age 29 season, so the Titans will probably seek to lessen his workload to keep him fresh and on the field, but he has a good chance to still be a major asset for this offense. He’ll make 6.25 million in 2017 with another 700k available in incentives.

If the Titans need to give Murray more breathers in 2017, they’ll be in good hands with backup Derrick Henry, a 2016 2nd round pick who rushed for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns on 110 (4.45 YPC) carries behind Murray as a rookie. Henry doesn’t add much through the air and isn’t as good as Murray, finishing 32nd out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The Titans figure to run the ball a lot again in 2016, especially if they are playing with more leads, so Henry is a good bet for at least 150 carries behind Murray if he stays healthy. Murray and Henry could be a two-headed monster at running back.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

With so many good players signed to value deals or still on rookie deals, the Titans entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the league, despite coming off of a good season. They needed to save some of that cap space so they can re-sign young players long-term without making their cap distribution too top heavy, but it was a bit surprising that the Titans didn’t add a single wide receiver in free agency. Rishard Matthews is a solid starter, but 5th round rookie Tajae Sharpe predictably struggled as the other starting receiver last season, catching just 41 passes for 522 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 95th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Wide receiver was a huge need for them and it was a good free agent class for wide receivers with guys like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Terrelle Pryor all available at reasonable prices.

The Titans did address the position in the draft. Thanks to their trade with the Rams, the Titans had the 5th pick in the draft this year, in addition to their own 19th pick. They used that 5th pick to select a wide receiver, making a shocking pick by selecting Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. It was a weak wide receiver class to begin with overall and most didn’t expect a wide receiver to go in the top-5. Davis was expected by many to be the 3rd receiver off the board behind Clemson’s Mike Williams and Washington’s John Ross and possibly not a lock for the first round at all, considering he was coming from a small school and hadn’t been able to work out for teams because of an ankle injury.

Even though the pick was surprising, it was not a bad one, especially considering the Titans’ need at the position. Davis could struggle to transition to the NFL initially, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked draft prospect and has all the tools of a future #1 receiver. Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Sammy Watkins have had big rookie years in recent years, but first round receivers often struggle as rookies, as guys like Devante Parker, Phillip Dorsett, Nelson Agholor, Will Fuller, and Laquon Treadwell have in the past 2 seasons.

Davis could be a secondary target to the veteran Matthews as a rookie. Matthews led the team last season with 108 targets and could hit that number again in 2017 because he is so reliable. Matthews isn’t the biggest name, but the 2012 7th round pick has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Dolphins and Titans. In 2015 and 2016, he finished 35th and 24th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and his per game averages over 27 games translate to a 64/952/8 slash line over a 16-game season. Signed to just a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, Matthews was a great signing by the Titans last off-season.

Tight end Delanie Walker was second on the team with 102 targets last season and he too was a reliable target for Mariota, catching 65 passes for 800 yards and 7 touchdowns and finishing 9th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. A late bloomer, Walker has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons and graded out above average in all 3 seasons, including back-to-back top-9 finishes. His age is a concern, as he’s going into his age 33 season, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Titans drafted Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith in the 3rd round as insurance and a potential long-term replacement. Smith is raw though and may spend his rookie year as the 3rd tight end behind mediocre veteran journeyman Phillip Supernaw.

Tajae Sharpe will likely be the 3rd receiver, which is a better role for him after he looked overwhelmed as a starter in 2016. The 2016 5th round pick flashed in the pre-season and could still develop into a useful receiver down the line, but he has yet to show it in a regular season game. He’ll be pushed for playing time by 3rd round rookie Taywan Taylor. Matthews, Davis, and Walker figure to see the majority of the balls in 2017 and the Titans figure to run the ball frequently as well, as Sharpe likely won’t see the ball that often even if he does win the #3 receiver job. Matthews and Walker are reliable options, but if Corey Davis can provide them a legitimate deep threat as a rookie, that could take this offense to another level.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Titans also got solid play from their defense last season, especially in the front 7. Their best defensive player is Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense and then rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages. A starter since he was a 4th round rookie in 2011, Casey has made 92 starts in 94 of a possible 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 2nd at his position. Still only going into his age 28 season, Casey is in the prime of his career and should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

DaQuan Jones remains as the starter opposite him. After barely playing as a 4th round rookie in 2014, Jones has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in both seasons. At 6-4 322, Jones is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher and frequently comes off the field for interior pass rush specialist Karl Klug, who has graded out above average in a situational role in 5 straight seasons. Unfortunately, Klug tore his achilles late last season, which leaves his status for 2017 in doubt. Even if he returns early in the season, he could easily be less than 100%.

Free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-3 313 and will slot in at nose tackle in Tennessee’s 3-4, the same role he filled for the Broncos over the past three seasons. Even though he played on some great Denver defenses, Williams himself is far from a great player. He’s made 44 starts over the past 3 seasons, but has graded out below average in all 4 seasons of his career, including 98th out of 127 eligible interior defenders in 2016. Williams was a first round pick in 2013, but is already going into his age 29 season, so he’s unlikely to get much better. There’s a reason the Broncos declined his 5th year option. He figures to struggle in a situational role and will likely prove to be an overpay on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar contract.

With Klug’s status in doubt for the start of the season, the Titans’ depth is questionable. They used a 2nd round pick on Austin Johnson in 2016, but he struggled on 190 snaps as a rookie and is also a better run stuffer at 6-4 314. Angelo Blackson could also be in the mix for snaps, but the 2015 4th round pick has struggled in limited action thus far in his career and also isn’t much of a pass rusher at 6-4 318. The Titans have one of the best defensive linemen in football and some adequate run stuffers, but need Karl Klug to be healthy to fill a valuable situational role. If he is, this is one of the better 3-4 defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Veteran edge defenders Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are also big parts of this defense. They finished 19th and 16th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, which is pretty par for the course for both of them. Morgan had an injury plagued season in 2015, missing 6 games and finishing just above average, but he was a top-11 player at his position in the previous 3 seasons and played 15 games in a bounce back season last season. Despite going into his 8th season in the league, the 2009 1st round pick is still only going into his age 28 season and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. Outside of the 6 games he missed in 2015, he’s missed just 3 games since his rookie year.

Orakpo has a more extensive injury history, but he has played all 32 games in the past 2 seasons and has been worth every penny of the 4-year, 32 million dollar deal the Titans signed him to after the 2014 season. Orakpo was a high level player in Washington prior to signing with the Titans, but was available for relatively cheap because he had been limited to 24 games with injury in the previous 3 seasons combined. He’s been a top-16 player at his position in each of his past 4 healthy seasons (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016).

The one concern is he’s going into his age 31 season, so his best days might be behind him, but, if he can continue to stay healthy, he could easily still be a productive player over the final 2 seasons of his contract. The Titans drafted Kevin Dodd in the 2nd round last year for depth purposes, but he struggled on 179 snaps as a rookie. He will likely have a larger role as a reserve this season and could still be seen as a future starter by the organization because he was a high selection with high upside.

Avery Williamson remains as an every down middle linebacker, after making 43 starts in the first 3 seasons of his career. The 2014 5th round pick hasn’t matched his rookie season, when he finished 17th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has graded out about average in each of the past 2 seasons and has vastly exceeded his draft slot. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Williamson is going to get a significant contract from someone in the next year if he keeps it up.

Wesley Woodyard was the other base package middle linebacker last season and he actually graded out higher than Williamson among middle linebackers, but he only played 615 snaps in a rotational role, coming off the field for coverage linebacker Sean Spence in sub packages. Woodyard has excelled in that role in each of the past 2 seasons, but is going into his age 31 season and could struggle if forced into a larger role with Spence signing in Indianapolis this off-season.

Prior to the last 2 seasons, Woodyard played in more or less an every down role with the Broncos from 2011-2014, but graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and now is on the wrong side of 30. The Titans drafted Jayon Brown in the 5th round and he could play as a coverage specialist linebacker as a rookie, but the Titans also have good depth at safety and could drop either Da’Norris Searcy (5-11 2017) or John Cyprien (6-0 217) down to linebacker in sub packages. Despite questions at middle linebacker, this is still a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

With Searcy and Cyprien both being better fits as box safeties, 2nd year player Kevin Byard is expected to be the primary deep safety. The 2016 3rd round pick actually led all Titan safeties in snaps played last season with 657 and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He has the upside to develop into a solid every down safety long-term. Cyprien, meanwhile, is probably their best safety. He signed a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal with the Titans this off-season, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career with the Jaguars, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013.

If Cyprien plays like he did last season, when he finished 7th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, he will be worth every penny of that deal. However, the 2013 2nd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and was one of the worst safeties in the league in both 2013 and 2015, so he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. The big difference between 2015 and 2016 for him was that he lined up close to the line of scrimmage much more often in 2016 as a pure box safety. Cyprien is not good in deep coverage, but can fly around and make plays near the line of scrimmage, which is why trying him at linebacker is an option.

Searcy has experience as a linebacker from his days as a hybrid player with the Bills and could move back into a hybrid role behind Byard and Cyprien in 2017, after a disappointing 2016 season. Searcy was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 and their 12th ranked safety in 2015, but fell to 63rd out of 90 eligible last season and only played 552 snaps in 14 games in largely a rotational role. Still only going into his age 29 season, Searcy has bounce back potential and could be valuable for them in the right role. Signed to a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal by the Titans two off-seasons ago, he agreed to cut his base salary from 5.625 million to 3.4 million this off-season in order to ensure his roster spot. They should have better safety play this year than last year, when Daimion Stafford and Rashad Johnson struggled mightily in rotational roles.

The Titans should also be much improved at cornerback, which, along with wide receiver and safety, were their big weaknesses last season. While the Titans did not make a splash free agent signing at wide receiver, they did at cornerback, signing ex-Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Ryan has been the #2 guy opposite Malcolm Butler the last 2 seasons, but will be counted on as the #1 guy in Tennessee. Ryan has been solid throughout his career and finished 22nd and 16th among cornerbacks over the past 2 seasons. The 2013 3rd round pick has made 40 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has never missed a game with injury. It’s unclear if he can be the same player as the top cornerback and outside of New England’s system, but he was still one of the best available free agent cornerbacks and was signed to a reasonable deal. He’ll be a massive upgrade on Perrish Cox, who was Pro Football Focus’ second worst ranked cornerback last season.

The Titans also used their other first round pick on a cornerback, taking USC’s Adoree Jackson at 18. Jackson is an incredible athlete and a weapon with the ball in his hands who can also return kicks, punts, and play some wide receiver, but he’s unrefined as a cornerback and could struggle a little bit as a rookie. He’ll replace Jason McCourty, who was a league average cornerback in 14 starts last season, but ended up getting cut this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2017. McCourty has been their best cornerback for years, so I think he will be missed, but the Titans seem confident in both Jackson and slot cornerback Brice McCain.

McCain had a surprisingly solid season in 2016, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on 844 snaps. At 5-9 190, McCain is best as a pure slot cornerback. That’s all the Titans really need him to be, but he’s also only graded out above average twice in 8 seasons in the league. The 2009 6th round pick is going into his age 31 season too, so he’s even older than McCourty. He’s highly unlikely to match last season’s performance. Given that and how raw Jackson is as a prospect, the Titans should have kept McCourty around as insurance and they had the cap space to do it, but this should still be a much improved secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The AFC was lucky the Titans didn’t make the playoffs last season as they could have been a threat with a healthy Marcus Mariota. Their 9-7 record is not indicative of how good they were. They had a -7 margin in return touchdowns, but that’s more of a fluke than anything. They scored 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents and finished 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential. This off-season, they addressed their only few positions of need, wide receiver, cornerback, and safety, and come into the 2017 season without an obvious weakness on either side of the ball. If Marcus Mariota can take the next step as a quarterback in his 3rd season in the league, with an improved receiving corps, this team could be a Super Bowl contender. They have done an incredible job of rebuilding in a hurry over the past 3 off-seasons. GM Jon Robinson, who took over in January of 2016, deserves a lot of the credit. 

Final update: The Titans further improved their receiving corps by adding Eric Decker, after he was released by the Jets. He suddenly gives them a dangerous top-3 at wide receiver, with Taywan Taylor providing depth. The Titans enter the season healthy and with arguably the most complete roster in the league. They can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender if Marcus Mariota can take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league.

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jaguars went just 3-13 in 2016, but were a lot closer to being a respectable team than people realize. Eight of their 13 losses came by a touchdown or less and many of their games were decided by just a couple plays. Usually, one of those plays was a turnover, as they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but, fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. They finished last season 15th in first down rate differential, so, if they can play closer to turnover neutral football, that would likely lead to a big jump in win total, especially considering how many near victories they had last season.

You might think that the Jaguars playing turnover neutral football is an impossibility because of quarterback Blake Bortles, who has the second most interceptions in the league over the past 3 seasons, but he wasn’t the biggest problem for the Jaguars in terms of turnover margin last season. He threw 16 interceptions on 625 attempts last season, an interception rate of 2.55%, which was actually the lowest rate of his career and just 19th highest among 48 quarterbacks who threw more than 50 passes. He actually had a lower interception rate than Ben Roethlisberger (2.56%), Cam Newton (2.75%), and Eli Manning (2.68%). As a team, they ranked tied for 8th in interceptions with three other teams.

The bigger problems for the Jaguars were fumbles lost (13, tied for 4th), and takeaways (13, tied for 2nd fewest). Both of those should be better this season. The Jaguars ranked dead last in fumble recovery rate last season, recovering just 2 of 15 offensive fumbles, which is more bad luck than anything, and their defense is too talented to not generate more takeaways in 2017 (a lot more on that later). Bortles did lose 6 fumbles last season, tied for the league lead with Jameis Winston, but he only lost 6 fumbles combined in his first 2 seasons in the league, so this doesn’t seem to be a pattern with him.

None of this is to say that Blake Bortles is a good quarterback. In fact, he’s pretty bad one. But even if he ranks among the league leaders in interceptions again this season, the Jaguars could still have a reasonable turnover margin. Bortles’ biggest issue is his accuracy, as he has completed fewer than 60% of his passes in all 3 seasons in the league. He had better overall yardage and touchdown numbers in what looked like a breakout season in 2015, but his total career numbers are very underwhelming. In 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, he has completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions.

Even in his best season in 2015, he still finished 23rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. In 2014 and 2016 respectively, he finished dead last and 28th out of 34 eligible at the position. As a result of his incompetency, the Jaguars ranked just 23rd in first down rate last season, so their issues on offense definitely go beyond turnovers. The Jaguars used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Bortles and will give him another shot as the starter in 2017, still only his age 25 season, after not adding any meaningful competition for him this off-season, but this is a make or break year for him. The 2018 free agency class and draft class are both much more talented at the quarterback position than 2017’s and Bortles’ 19.053 million dollar salary for 2018 is guaranteed for injury only. This could easily be his final season in Jacksonville if he doesn’t get it together.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Jaguars’ offensive struggles last season weren’t all Bortles’ fault and the Jaguars needed to find upgrades at multiple spots on offense around him this off-season. Running back wasn’t seen as a glaring need as both TJ Yeldon and Chris Ivory are capable backs, but the Jaguars couldn’t resist LSU running back Leonard Fournette at #4 overall in the first round. Fournette isn’t quite as complete of a back as last year’s #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, but he runs with great power and can have an instant impact for this team on early downs. Even with Yeldon and Ivory on the roster, he’s clearly their best runner.

It will be interesting to see how they work in Ivory and Yeldon behind him. They averaged just 3.67 and 3.58 YPC respectively last season, but that wasn’t completely their fault because they didn’t have a lot of supporting talent around them. On top of that, Ivory rushed for 1000 yards in 2015 with the Jets and Yeldon is a 2015 2nd round pick. Yeldon has the most obvious path to a role because of what he can do on passing downs. Yeldon has a mediocre 3.86 career YPC on 1,205 carries and just 3 rushing touchdowns, but has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons because he has caught 86 passes in 2 seasons and because he’s a reliable pass blocker. Fournette isn’t a great passing down option, so Yeldon would complement him well.

Ivory’s path to playing time is much less clear, even though the Jaguars gave him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. Unlike Yeldon, Ivory is useless on passing downs with 73 career catches in 81 games and he is coming off of a way worse season, finishing 61st out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Ivory has had success in the past and much of his struggles last season were injury related, but injuries have always been an issue for him because of his violent running style. He’s missed 31 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has played through injuries in countless others.

Ivory has a career 4.47 YPC average on 1,000 carries, but, now going into his age 29 season, he might be running out of gas. There isn’t really anything that Ivory does well that Fournette doesn’t do much better, so it’s hard to see Ivory having a big role this season, especially with Yeldon also in the mix. They will probably try to trade Ivory, but he’s owed 5 million guaranteed this season, so that will be next to impossible. The Jaguars will have to just eat the money and release him next off-season. It’s a much upgraded backfield with Fournette entering the mix. They will try to run the ball heavily and win games with a conservative offense and a good defense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Jaguars also used their 2nd round pick on an offensive player, taking Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson at 34 overall. They also acquired veteran Branden Albert from Miami for a late round pick. Those two will probably make up a remade left side of the offensive line, although Albert has yet to report to the team since being traded. Albert has yet to miss anything mandatory, but his absence from the team is giving Robinson a leg up on the competition for the left tackle job. Albert is reportedly holding out for more money, a strange move considering the Dolphins likely would have just cut him if the Jaguars didn’t trade for him.

The Jaguars didn’t give much up for him and he’s already owed 9 million this season. Going into his age 33 season and coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 65th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, Albert wouldn’t be able to get half of that on the open market. Without any guaranteed money left on his contract, the Jaguars can just cut him if he doesn’t report for mandatory activities. Even if he does report, he could still end up having to move back to left guard, where he last played in college in 2007. He has made 118 starts at left tackle over the past 9 seasons and graded out above average in every season from 2010 to 2015, but he’s not the same player anymore and Robinson could impress.

Albert and Robinson do have a good chance to be an upgrade over what they had on the left side last season. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum struggled all season, while left guard Luke Joeckel struggled until tearing his ACL and going down for the season. His replacement Patrick Omameh was solid in 7 starts, but he’s struggled in the past and is best as a reserve, which is what he’ll be this season. He will backup whoever ends up with the left guard job and right guard AJ Cann, who made 29 starts in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but has underwhelmed. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s also only a former 3rd round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into an above average starter.

Center Brandon Linder was their best offensive lineman last season, finishing 5th among centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season at the position. Linder ranked 10th among guards as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 too, but missed most of 2015 with injury and was moved to center last off-season. Center seems to be his best pro position, but his versatility is very valuable, especially on an uncertain offensive line this one. The Jaguars would be wise to lock him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Jermey Parnell, who is also a capable starter. A 2009 undrafted free agent, Parnell was very much a late bloomer, making just 2 career starts in his first 5 seasons in the league. In his 6th year in the league in 2014, he flashed in 5 starts for the Cowboys, which landed him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jaguars. It was a risky deal to give to someone with 7 career starts, but it has paid off, as he has graded out above average in both seasons with the Jaguars, including a 31st place rank last season. He’s going into his age 31 season, but could still be a solid starter for another couple years. This offensive line has the potential to be better in 2017, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The receiving corps was the Jaguars’ best offensive unit last season, though largely by default. They weren’t bad, but they played significantly worse than they did in 2015, specifically wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who seemed to have breakout years in 2015. A year after both topped 1000 yards (one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so) neither had 1000 yards. Hurns was especially bad, dropping from a 64/1031/10 slash line to a 35/477/3 slash line. Hurns missed 5 games with injury, but did not look like his 2015 self even when on the field, catching just 46.1% of targets and finishing 106th among 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.

Hurns ranked 18th at his position in 2015, but was also a bottom-10 wide receiver as a rookie and went undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Jaguars locked him up on a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension last off-season after just 2 seasons in the league and that deal could end up as one the biggest mistakes in recent years if he doesn’t turn it around. The Jaguars have already paid him over 8 million in new money on that extension and it hasn’t even technically started yet. His 7 million dollar salary for 2017 is guaranteed. Fortunately, they can get out of the deal after this season without penalty, but they’ll have essentially paid him over 15 million dollars in new money for one year if they do that.

While Hurns was an undrafted free agent who may have had a fluke season in 2015, Allen Robinson has much more talent and much more bounce back potential for that reason. Even in his down season last year, he still caught 73 passes for 883 yards and 6 touchdowns and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He also caught fewer than 50% of his targets, but a lot of that had to do with quarterback play and how much bracket coverage he received. In 2015, Robinson caught 80 passes for 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns and finished 12th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and, still only going into his age 24 season, the 2014 2nd round pick still has a bright future. Even if Bortles continues to struggle this season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robinson topped 1000 yards again. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Jaguars would be wise to lock him up long-term while his value is at a low point.

Fortunately, Marqise Lee had a mini-breakout year to help offset some of the dip in production by Robinson and Hurns. A 2014 2nd round pick like Robinson, Lee couldn’t stay on the field in his first 2 seasons in the league and didn’t play very well when on the field, catching just 52 passes in 23 games. Finally healthy in 2016, Lee had a breakout year, catching 63 passes for 851 yards and 3 touchdowns and finishing ahead of Robinson on Pro Football Focus, 39th among wide receivers. If the Jaguars can ever get all 3 of Robinson, Hurns, and Lee playing well at the same time, this could be a dangerous group of wide receivers, but that’s a big if. Robinson is the only one who I have a high level of trust in for 2017.

This receiving corps is also hurt by their lack of a good receiving tight end. Julius Thomas led all tight ends in catches in 2016 with just 30 and now he’s not even with the team anymore, after the Jaguars sent him to the Dolphins for a late round pick. It was the right decision because Thomas was not worth his 7.1 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2017 and they likely would have just cut him if they couldn’t trade him, but it left them very thin at the tight end position. After the trade of Thomas, many thought the Jaguars would draft the draft’s best tight end OJ Howard at #4 overall, but they didn’t spend a single draft pick on the position.

All three of Marcedes Lewis, Mychal Rivera, and Ben Koyack could see action as the Jaguars try to patch things together with a tight end by committee type situation. Lewis has by far the most experience, with 141 starts in 154 games in 11 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 33 season, Lewis is not the same player he once was and has missed 19 games with injury over the past 4 seasons, so he may be breaking down. In his prime he was an underrated overall player who could run block, pass block, and catch passes, but isn’t much more than a solid blocker anymore, even when he is on the field. He has just 79 catches over the past 4 seasons. He could see a slight uptick in targets with Thomas gone but, he probably won’t catch more than 25-30 balls even if he can stay healthy this season.

Mychal Rivera also has some experience, playing 61 games in 4 seasons in the league, but only starting 15 of those games. Ten of those starts came in 2014, when he caught 58 passes, but averaged just 5.39 yards per target and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end on the season. He’s been alright as a #2 tight end, but the former 6th round pick has averaged just 353 yards per season in his career and doesn’t block well either. Koyack has the most upside of the bunch, but the 2015 6th round pick played just 363 snaps last season and spent his rookie season on the practice squad, so he’s very unproven. The Jaguars will probably use more 3-wide receiver sets to offset their lack of depth at tight end, but not having a good receiving tight end will hurt this offense.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars struggled to force takeaways last season, finishing tied for 2nd worst with 13 takeaways, but turnovers tend to be very inconsistent and they’re just too talented not to force more takeaways this season. They finished last season 6th in first down rate allowed and look like a top-5 defense on paper after adding more talent in free agency this off-season. Their biggest off-season acquisition was defensive end Calais Campbell, who comes to the Jaguars on a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal, after spending the first 9 seasons of his career with the Cardinals.

Campbell has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 6 seasons and ranked #1 at the position last season. Going into his age 31 season, Campbell’s age is a bit of a concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of aging yet. In Jacksonville’s 4-3 defense, the 6-8 286 pounder will play defensive end in base packages and move inside and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, like he’s used to. One of the best defensive linemen in the league, Campbell is a huge addition to an already talented defense.

Last off-season, they also made a huge addition to their defensive line in free agency, signing ex-Bronco Malik Jackson to a 6 year 85.5 million dollar deal. A 6-5 290 pounder, Jackson also came from a 3-4 defense and played in a hybrid role in his first season in Jacksonville like Campbell will, finishing 8th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-12 at his position in 4 straight seasons. With Campbell in town, Jackson will probably play more of a traditional defensive tackle role. Wherever they line up, they should be nightmares for opposing offenses.

The Jaguars are also hoping that 3rd year defensive end Dante Fowler can take a step forward and give them a third nightmare for opposing defenses. The 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Fowler missed his entire rookie season with injury and was underwhelming on 569 snaps last season, but still has huge upside and could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2017, still only his age 23 season. That would obviously be another big boost for this defense.

The Jaguars have four other young defensive lineman who will play rotational roles on this defense: Yannick Ngakoue, Dawuane Smoot, Abry Jones, and Sheldon Day. Ngakoue actually led all Jaguar defensive ends with 706 snaps played last season as a 3rd round rookie, but finished 103rd out of 109th eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and will probably have a smaller role this season with Campbell coming in and Fowler taking on a larger role. His primary role will be rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages opposite Fowler, which is good for him because he was horrible against the run as a rookie. This year’s 3rd round pick, Dawuane Smoot, could also have a role as a rookie.

Jones and Day, meanwhile, will have roles at defensive tackle in base packages. Jones was re-signed this off-season to a 4-year, 15.5 million dollar deal after a breakout 2016 season in which he finished 12th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. A tough run stuffer at 6-3 313, Jones will probably play around the 463 snaps he played last season. The 2013 undrafted free agent entered last season with just 2 career starts and graded out well below average in both 2014 and 2015, but he is still only going into his age 26 season and could continue to be a solid base package player for them. Sheldon Day also played pretty well in limited action last season, although he only played 203 snaps. The 2016 4th round pick could have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. This is one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Jaguars also got great play from their linebackers last season as Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith both played all 16 games and finished in the top-8 at their respective positions. For Smith, it was a breakout year, as he finished 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers after grading out about average in 23 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is one of the best young 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. The Jaguars are reportedly trying to work out a long-term extension with him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

For Posluszny, last year’s #4 finish among middle linebackers came out of nowhere, considering the veteran was on the wrong side of 30 and hadn’t graded out above average since 2011. Now going into his age 33 season, last year’s outstanding season could prove to be a fluke, but it’s possibly he has another couple seasons as a capable starter left in him. The Jaguars drafted Myles Jack in the 2nd round last year to be the long-term middle linebacker and future replacement for Posluszny, but he was limited to 239 snaps as a rookie and could have a hard time winning an every down job in his 2nd year in the league in 2017 with Posluszny coming off such a strong season.

Jack is talented enough for a big role though. He showed promise as a rookie and was seen as a potential top-5 pick in the draft before concerns about his knees dropped him to the 2nd round. The Jaguars have talked him up this off-season and it’s possible he could move inside and beat out Posluszny for an every down role, but he may have to spend another year as a part-time player. Assuming his knees hold up, he should be valuable to this team in whatever role he ends up in. It’s a good problem to have for arguably one of the strongest 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. They have three legitimate every down players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

In addition to Calais Campbell, the Jaguars also signed cornerback AJ Bouye and safety Barry Church to big contracts this off-season, giving them deals worth 67.5 million over 5 years and 26 million over 4 years respectively. Bouye replaces Prince Amukamara, who signed a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Bears this off-season. Amukamara had a good year last year, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but Bouye finished 3rd, which is significantly better than Amukamara has ever been.

Bouye’s issue is that he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. At this time last year, he was the Texans’ 4th cornerback. A 2013 undrafted free agent, Bouye had finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and had just 8 career starts coming into last season. Injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart allowed him to play 722 snaps (11 starts) in 2016 and he made the most of it and made himself a ton of money. He’s a major risk because of his inexperience and unproven track record, but he is only going into his age 26 season and comes with obvious upside.

Barry Church is also a one year wonder, although he comes with less risk because he was paid less. He finished last season 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, though he replaces John Cyprien, who finished 7th at the position and signed with Tennessee this off-season. Church is also older than Cyprien, going into his age 29 season, and never did anything like what he did in 2016 in any of his first 6 seasons in the league. The former undrafted free agent has 63 career starts, including 59 in the past 4 seasons, and has never been bad, but last season was just the second season he ever graded out above average and it could easily prove to be a fluke.

Last off-season, the Jaguars gave a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal to another one-year wonder, safety Tashaun Gipson, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Unlike Bouye and Church, Gipson’s one year was not his contract year. Gipson finished 10th among safeties in 2014, but graded out below average in his other 3 seasons, including 88th out of 89 eligible in his contract year in 2015. He also had missed 14 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league. The Jaguars took a chance on him, betting that he could stay healthy and bounce back. He played all 16 games, but graded out below average again and was not worth the money they gave him. Going into his age 27 season, he has some bounce back potential, but it’s possible 2014 was a complete fluke for the 2012 undrafted free agent. He is the one weak spot on this defense.

Opposite AJ Bouye, second year player Jalen Ramsey remains as the starting cornerback. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey made all 16 starts as a rookie and finished 21st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Ramsey has the upside to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league in a few seasons and could take another step forward in his second year in the league. One of the best defensive rookies in the league last season, the Jaguars appear to have made the right selection.

Aaron Colvin is expected to remain as the slot cornerback. Colvin fell to the 4th round in 2014 because of injury and was limited to 6 games as a rookie, but showed his talent in 2015 when he graded out above average in 16 games and made 15 starts. Last season, a combination of injury and suspension limited him to 292 snaps in 10 games, but he still played well when on the field. He won’t beat out either Bouye or Ramsey to win back his starting job, but, assuming he’s healthy, he should be one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and play more than half of the snaps. This is a talented secondary with good upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jaguars will be limited by their passing game, but could win games with their defense and running game. Given all the talent they added in the off-season and how many close losses they had last season, it won’t be hard for them to win a lot more games if they can force more takeaways and recover more of their fumbles. On paper, they have a top-5 defense that is strong on all 3 levels. They have a good mix of cheap young players and talented veterans signed to big contracts in free agency and could easily win 7 to 9 games and push for the AFC South title in an unsettled and underwhelming division. 

Final update: The Jaguars’ quarterback situation went from bad to worse in the pre-season and Blake Bortles was briefly benched for Chad Henne. If they had adequate quarterback play, this would be an obvious playoff team in the AFC, but their quarterback situation really limits them.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South

Washington Redskins 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2012, the Redskins mortgaged the future to move up 4 spots in the draft to select Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin, sending picks #6 and #39, along with future first rounders in 2013 and 2014, to the Rams for #2. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year that season and the trade looked like a huge success for a franchise in need of stability at the quarterback position, but he suffered a torn ACL in their playoff loss to the Seahawks that season and was never the same again.

Given all that they gave up to get him, that mistake had the potential to set their franchise back a few years, but the Redskins were saved from that by Kirk Cousins, a 4th round pick in that same 2012 draft and a head-scratching selection in a lot of people’s eyes at the time, given all they had already given up to get Griffin. Cousins struggled early in his career as a spot starter and those struggles continued into his full first season as a starter in 2015. In his first 17 career starts, Cousins completed just 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions.

Then the light seemed to click for him 8 games into 2015 and he has been on some kind of run since then, completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 8.48 YPA, 44 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 24 starts. His second half tear in 2015 got the Redskins into the playoffs and earned him the 15th place rank on Pro Football Focus among quarterbacks. In 2016, the Redskins just missed the playoffs at 8-7-1 and Cousins finished 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. With Griffin spending last season on a 1-15 Cleveland team, Cousins’ emergence has shown just how quickly things can change in the NFL and the value of selecting the best overall player in the draft regardless of need, especially in the middle rounds.

The Redskins have been rightfully a little skeptical of his sudden emergence, franchise tagging him in each of the last 2 off-seasons, but being very conservative in long-term extension talks. Cousins will make a combined 43.9 million on the two tags, but the Redskins have refused to go above 20 million dollars annually on a long-term deal. Cousins would be owed about 34.5 million on a third franchise tag next off-season, making that not a realistic option. Something will have to give at some point. Cousins is rumored to be interested in signing with ex-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who didn’t do much to address the quarterback position this off-season and who would welcome Cousins with open arms. Cousins could ultimately prove to be more of a system quarterback, but he’s a great fit in Jay Gruden’s system and should be able to continue his hot streak.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Cousins threw for 4,917 yards last season, 3rd best in the NFL, and averaged 8.11 yards per attempt, also 3rd best in the NFL. He deserves a lot of the credit, but he was definitely helped out by one of the league’s best receiving corps. Unfortunately, his top 2 wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, left in free agency this off-season. Both players topped 1000 receiving yards last season, one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree), and they combined for 2,046 receiving yards, 41.4% of the team’s total. They won’t be easy to replace.

The Redskins do have some obvious replacements though, including free agent acquisition Terrelle Pryor. A failure as a quarterback, Terrelle Pryor’s NFL career got a second life when he converted to wide receiver with the Browns 2 seasons ago. The position change ended up being one of the smartest things the Browns have ever done, as Pryor had a breakout season in 2016 in just his second season as a wide receiver, catching 77 passes for 1007 yards and 4 touchdowns and finishing 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.

He’s still a one-year wonder and teams are still skeptical about him as a legitimate top flight receiver, as evidenced by the fact that he had to settle for an incentivized 1-year, 6 million dollar deal in free agency. That being said, he’s incredibly gifted athletically with legitimate 4.3 speed at 6-4 223 and may just be scratching the surface on his potential as a wide receiver, still only going into his age 28 season. With a full season as a starter under his best, Pryor has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers on a much better passing offense than Cleveland’s. With Garcon and Jackson leaving behind 216 targets, Pryor could match the 140 targets he received with the Browns last season. He could prove to be a very wise signing on a relatively low risk deal and emerge as the clear #1 receiver in Washington.

Opposite him, last year’s first round pick Josh Doctson is penciled in as the other starter. The 21st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Doctson is a complete mystery as an NFL player still, after being limited to 31 nondescript snaps as a rookie by achilles problems. If he’s healthy, he could have a real impact, but he’s basically still a rookie given how little he’s actually played. The one obvious benefit with Doctson and Pryor instead of Jackson and Garcon is height, as Doctson and Pryor are 6-3 and 6-4 respectively, while Jackson and Garcon are 5-10 and 6-0 respectively. The Redskins ranked 30th in red zone touchdown percentage last season, ahead of only the Jets and Texans, so, even if they don’t have as many passing yards as they had last season with Jackson and Garcon, they could make up for it with greater efficiency near the goal line.

Jamison Crowder is the leading returning receiver and he too is undersized at 5-8 182. Just a 4th round pick in 2015, Crowder has surprisingly been a solid slot receiver in 2 seasons in the league, catching 126 passes for 1451 yards and 9 touchdowns in 32 games (15 starts) and grading out about average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Crowder’s best football could be yet to come. He’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd receiver again, but could push Doctson for playing time outside if Doctson underwhelms the coaching staff, though Crowder’s size is a real limitation outside. Even if he remains the slot receiver, he’s surpassed 700 snaps in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in that role, so he will remain a big part of the offense. With Jackson and Garcon gone, expect Crowder to top the 97 targets he had last season, regardless of where he officially lands on the depth chart.

Tight end Jordan Reed could also top his target total from a year ago (87), but only if he can manage to stay healthy, something he’s never been able to do. Reed has never suffered any serious injuries, but hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season in 4 seasons in the league and has missed a total of 18 games, including 4 last season. When on the field, he’s one of the best tight ends in the league, finishing in the top-7 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. At 6-2 246, Reed moves like a wide receiver and is an improving blocker. His career per game averages translate to a slash line of 86/905/7 over 16 games, so he could have a huge year if he can finally stay on the field. That would go a long way towards replacing Jackson and Garcon and improving their red zone offense.

Reed’s durability issues opened up playing time last season for #2 tight end Vernon Davis, who played 674 snaps. He fared pretty well as the #2 tight end, catching 44 of 59 passes for 583 yards and 2 touchdowns. Davis graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but looked like a shell of his former self in 2014 and 2015, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible in 2014 and then 51st out of 67 eligible in 2015. Davis showed he still had something left in the tank in 2016 though and finished 21st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 33 season, Davis’ best days are probably behind him, but he should still be a solid #2 tight end.

Even with Jackson and Garcon gone, this receiving corps is in good shape. They were one of the deepest receiving corps in the league prior to losing Jackson and Garcon and they may have gotten the steal of the off-season in Terrelle Pryor. Between that, a possible breakout year by Jamison Crowder, and the potential of Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson coming off of injury, this receiving corps has a very high upside. There is always risk involved when you have to change up the receivers as much as the Redskins did this off-season, but the Redskins could have a better passing offense even if they don’t pass for as many yards because they should be more efficient in the red zone.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Kirk Cousins was also helped by a strong offensive line and, unlike in the receiving corps, they return all 5 starters on the offensive line. The best of the bunch is left tackle Trent Williams, who finished 1st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Williams has made 73 of 80 starts over the past 5 seasons and finished in the top-18 in all 5 seasons, including a first place finish both last season and in 2013. The one downside with Williams is he’s a failed drug test away from a season long suspension, but, if he can avoid further trouble, he has a good chance to play more games this year than last year, when he missed 4 games with a suspension. If he does miss time, backup Ty Nsekhe would fill in and he played pretty well last season, so the Redskins are deep at the position too.

On the other side, right tackle Morgan Moses is also a strong starter. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Moses struggled in limited action as a rookie, but he has made all 32 starts in the past 2 seasons and finished 16th and 17th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract, the Redskins locked him up long-term with a 5-year, 38.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That makes him the 3rd highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. If he continues playing like he has in the past 2 seasons, he is well worth it.

With Moses locked up long-term, the Redskins may turn their attention to center Spencer Long, another 2014 3rd round pick who is going into the final year of his rookie deal. Long is not as good as Moses, but he has been a solid starter over the past 2 seasons, first at left guard in 2015 and then at center last season. He was a little bit better at left guard and may ultimately move back there, but he’s a capable center as well and worth locking up at the right price because of his versatility.

Current left guard Shawn Lauvao is also going into the final year of his deal, but re-signing him shouldn’t be a priority, especially with Long capable of playing left guard, as Lauvao is the weak link on this offensive line. Lauvao has plenty of experience, with 51 career starts, but has never once graded out above average and finished last season 60th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, Lauvao likely isn’t getting any better any time soon and will not be guaranteed a starting job for 2018. The Redskins used a 6th round pick on center Chase Rouiller and could start him at center and Long at left guard in 2018 if Rouiller develops as a rookie.

Rounding out the offensive line is another recent draft pick, Brandon Schreff, the 5th overall pick in 2015. The highest draft interior offensive lineman in 30 years, Schreff drew Zach Martin comparisons coming out of Iowa, but has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far in his career. He has finished 26th and 19th among guards in 2 seasons in the league, but has yet to show that he was worth drafting as high as the Redskins took him. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he shows it this year and he definitely still has a high ceiling. It’s a strong offensive line overall.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One area where the Redskins want to be better this season is on the ground. They averaged a reasonable 4.47 yards per carry average, but that was largely because of a strong offensive line. They also passed 607 times to 379 runs, so much of their production on the ground came as a result of the defense worrying about the pass. Matt Jones started the season as the lead back with 99 carries in the first 7 games of the season, but then lost a fumble, his 6th lost fumble on 243 career carries in 2 seasons in the league, and didn’t see any touches the rest of the season. The 2015 3rd round pick has talent, but has just averaged 3.91 yards per carry in his career and hasn’t been able to hold onto the football. He’s no lock for the final roster.

After Jones lost the job, the Redskins turned to Robert Kelley, an undrafted rookie. The big 6-0 228 pounder picked up what was blocked and rushed for 704 yards and 6 touchdowns on 168 carries (4.19 YPC), but was underwhelming overall and didn’t offer anything in the passing game (12 catches for 82 yards). He will be pushed for the starting job by 4th round rookie Samaje Perine. Perine has good upside, but is very unproven and will be tough to count on.  He’s similar to Kelley in that he has great size (5-10 235), but isn’t overly explosive and doesn’t offer much in the passing game.

Fortunately, the Redskins have Chris Thompson to serve as the passing down back, regardless of who carries the load on early downs. Thompson led the backfield with 489 snaps last season and could easily do so again in 2017. He had just 68 carries, which was actually a career high, but he chipped in 49 passes, after catching 35 a season ago. He’s not a great talent, but fills an important role for this offense because he is their only running back with good hands out of the backfield. Barring a breakout rookie year from Perine, the Redskins’ running backs should be underwhelming again in 2017.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As good as their offense was last season, 5th in first down rate, the Redskins still missed the playoffs because they had one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing the 3rd highest first down rate of any defense in the league. Making matters worse, the Redskins lost 3 of their top-4 defensive linemen in terms of snaps played this off-season, Chris Baker (783), Cullen Jenkins (308), and Ricky Jean-Francois (442). All 3 players played pretty well, grading out above average, especially Baker, who finished last season 9th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus.

They didn’t do much in free agency to address the defensive line, aside from overpaying Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain on a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal respectively. Both players are mediocre options. McClain made 15 starts last season, but didn’t start a game from 2012-2015 and finished last season 86th out of 127 eligible interior defensive lineman. Already going into his age 29 season, he probably won’t be any better going forward. McGee, meanwhile, played alright on 242 snaps last season in 9 games in an injury plagued season, but graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to that. Both figure to see significant playing time at the 3-4 defensive end position.

Given how weak they are they upfront, the Redskins were very fortunate that Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen fell into their lap at 17th overall. Considered by some a top-3 talent and widely considered a top-10 lock, concerns about his shoulders and an early run on offensive skill position players led to a draft day fall for Allen. Assuming their medical staff cleared him, the Redskins probably didn’t waste much time deciding whether or not to take him once he fell to 17. He adds talent at a position of major need and could end up being one of the steals of the draft if he can stay healthy. He could lead this defensive line in snaps played as a rookie. Allen, McGee, McClain, and second year player Matt Ioannidis, a 5th round pick who struggled on 103 snaps as a rookie, will rotate at the defensive end position this season.

Ziggy Hood is the one holdover from last season and he will remain the starting nose tackle. Unlike Baker, Jenkins, and Jean-Francois, who were all capable or better players last season, Hood struggled mightily, so his return doesn’t really help them. He played 661 snaps, second most on the team, but finished 120th among 127 eligible interior defensive linemen. Hood is plenty experienced, with 60 career starts in 114 games, but has graded out below average in all 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, Hood shouldn’t be given as many snaps as he was last season, even on an overall weak defensive line. He shouldn’t be anything more than a pure base package player who plays 400-500 snaps. The addition of Allen in the draft could help this unit immensely, but, outside of Allen, this might be the least talented defensive line in football.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

The Redskins are much deeper at the outside linebacker position though, where Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, and Trent Murphy rotated snaps last season, playing 788, 768, and 675 snaps respectively. They are even deeper at the position this season, with Junior Galette finally getting healthy after missing the last two seasons with two torn achilles tendons and Ryan Anderson coming in as a 2nd round pick. The Redskins don’t seem to have much room for Galette and Anderson to break into the rotation, so they may line up Smith and Murphy, who are bigger edge defenders at 6-5 265 and 6-5 268 respectively, inside on passing downs in certain situations. That would help mask their issues on the defensive line.

Things aren’t all good at outside linebacker, as Murphy will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test for performance enhancing drugs and Galette hasn’t played since 2014 and has off-the-field issues as well. Galette isn’t owed any guaranteed money this season, so, if he lacks explosiveness coming off of the injuries or his off-the-field issues become more of a problem, he could easily not make the final roster. Prior to the injuries, Galette finished 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, totalling 22 sacks, but that’s close to ancient history at this point. The Redskins are likely considering anything he gives them in 2017 a bonus, but he definitely has some upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

Murphy, meanwhile, will be counted on to contribute upon his return from suspension, though he might not see as many snaps per game as he did last season in a more crowded position group. A 2014 2nd round pick, Murphy has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in the league and is coming off of his best year to date, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s unclear how much of that is as a result of whatever substance he tested positive for, but he should be at least a solid rotational player for them in 2017 regardless.

Ryan Kerrigan is the best of the bunch, playing all 96 games in 6 seasons since going 16th overall in 2011 and finishing 19th, 7th, 26th, 5th, and 9th respectively. One of the most consistent players in the league, Kerrigan is still in his prime, going into his age 29 season, and should continue playing at a high level in 2017. Preston Smith, meanwhile, has been the worst of the bunch through 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons, but he’s hasn’t been terrible either and the 2015 second round pick could take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league. The rookie Ryan Anderson will also see some snaps, but they could be limited, considering all of the other edge defenders the Redskins have. He could be in line for a bigger role in 2018 with Murphy and Galette both set to hit free agency next off-season. It’s unclear why the Redskins have used 3 second round picks on the outside linebacker position in the last 4 drafts, but they do have a deep position group.

At middle linebacker, the Redskins have a pair of veteran middle linebackers coming off the best season of their career in Mason Foster and Zach Brown. Foster graded out below average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career, but came out of nowhere to finish 6th among middle linebackers in 2016. Re-signed to a 2-year, 2.5 million dollar deal last off-season, Foster proved to be a steal. Last season was likely a fluke, but he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2017.

Brown, meanwhile, was signed to just a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar deal by the Bills last off-season and responded by finishing 11th among middle linebackers. Brown wasn’t a bad player prior to last season, grading out around average in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2012-2015, but last season was the first season he played well both in coverage and against the run, after struggling to tackle early in his career. The Redskins signed him on an incentivized 1-year, 2.55 million dollar deal this off-season, as Brown was greeted by a skeptical market, and he could prove to be a steal again. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Will Compton, who made 15 starts and finished 74th among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s a solid linebacker group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Su’a Cravens played some linebacker last season as a rookie, but the 2016 2nd round pick is expected to move full time to safety this season, after flashing on 294 snaps in a hybrid role. The 6-1 222 pounder will be primarily a box safety. He will start next to free agent acquisition DJ Swearinger, who could prove to be a steal on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. Swearinger finished 9th among safeties last season with the Cardinals, but drew limited interest on the open market because he was a one-year wonder who was already on his 3rd team with the Cardinals.

A 2013 2nd round pick by the Texans, Swearinger made 22 starts in 2 seasons with the Texans, but didn’t play well and frustrated the coaching staff, which got him released prior to the 2015 season. He spent 2015 with the Buccaneers, where he didn’t play much, before breaking out in a contract year with the Cardinals last season. Still only going into his age 26 season, Swearinger has always had talent and may have turned a corner as a player, but he will need to prove it again considering his history. The Redskins didn’t pay much to get him, so he was a pretty low risk signing, and he has the upside to make a real difference in this secondary. After struggling for consistency at the position in 2016, the Redskins’ safeties figure to be better this season.

The Redskins had more consistency at cornerback last season, where Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland made 16 starts and 14 starts respectively. The Redskins signed Norman to a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal last off-season after he finished 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus with the Panthers in 2015. Norman wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2015, but still finished 22nd at the position. Norman has made 42 starts in 46 games over the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-27 among cornerbacks in all 3 seasons. He’s not quite the top flight cornerback the Redskins are paying him to be, but he’s definitely a valuable asset. The one concern is his age, as he’s already going into his age 30 season, despite this just being his 6th season in the league. The 2012 5th round pick was an old rookie, part of why he fell in the draft. He should still have another couple strong seasons left in the tank though.

Breeland, on the other hand, didn’t come close to matching his 2015 season. A 2014 4th round pick, Breeland seemingly had a breakout year in 2015, when he finished 21st among cornerbacks, but he fell to 82nd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Add in the fact the he finished 99th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie in 2014 and his 2015 season looks like a complete fluke. He’s still young though, only going into his age 25 season, so he still has some upside going forward. In the final year of his rookie deal, this is a very big year for him. If he shows his 2015 form, he could cash in somewhere. He’s started 42 games out of 45 played in 3 seasons in the league and will continue to start opposite Norman.

Kendall Fuller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is the favorite to be the nickel cornerback. He actually finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 478, even though he didn’t really see playing time until week 4. He didn’t play all that well, but he could be better in his second season in the league. He will have to hold off Quinton Dunbar and Dashaun Phillips, both recent undrafted free agents who struggled on 300 and 157 snaps respectively last season, as well as 3rd round rookie Fabian Moreau.

Moreau has serious talent and could have gone in the second round, but he tore his pectoral working out before the draft and might not be ready for the start of the season. Even if he is, he’ll be behind the eight ball after missing the off-season. He’s not a natural fit on the slot either, so he was probably drafted more to be a long-term replacement for Bashaud Breeland than anything. The Redskins are pretty tight on cap space, so, if Breeland plays well this season, he would probably be priced out of Washington’s budget. Fuller should open the season as the 3rd cornerback in an improved secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Redskins had a tough off-season ahead of them with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson set to leave to take more money elsewhere, but they did a good of job of adding talent on value contracts, bringing in Terrelle Pryor, DJ Swearinger, and Zach Brown. Their receiving corps will look a lot different this season, but they still have a lot of receiving talent and should be better near in the red zone because of their improved size. It’s hard to look past their defensive line and the additions of Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain to replace Chris Baker are unlikely to pan out, but they did get a gift when Jonathan Allen fell into their lap with the 17th overall pick. The Redskins should compete for a playoff spot once again. 

Final update: The Redskins could be a playoff team in the AFC, but will have a tough time making it in the loaded NFC, especially with outside linebacker Trent Murphy out for the season and safety Su’a Cravens out for an extended period of time.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in NFC East

Dallas Cowboys 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cowboys’ season looked over in the pre-season, when quarterback Tony Romo went down with a back injury. The Cowboys had gone just 1-11 without Romo the previous season, finishing 4-12 overall, and were counting on a healthy Romo to take them back to the post-season. It looked like the best case scenario for the Cowboys was that Romo could return around week 8 or 9, but, even in that scenario, the playoffs did not seem likely. Instead, backup quarterback Dak Prescott continued his strong pre-season and ended up making all 16 starts, winning Romo’s job from him outright, even though Romo was healthy enough to return later in the season.

The Cowboys won 12 games and a first round bye, before losing in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers. After going 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015, a jump in win total was expected, even without Romo healthy, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming. A mere 4th round rookie, Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and rushed for another 282 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (4.95 YPA).

Prescott wasn’t the only reason why the Cowboys were so much improved from 2015 to 2016 and the Cowboys’ running game and offensive line certainly made much life easier for him, but Prescott played well in his own right, finishing 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. It’s possible Prescott could have a sophomore slump and show more of the issues that dropped him in the draft, but he could easily have another strong season. With Tony Romo retiring this off-season, this is Dak Prescott’s job for the foreseeable future.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Prescott was not the Cowboys’ only impact rookie, as #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a running back, leading the league with 1631 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns on 322 carries, an average of 5.07 YPC. It was the 25th time in NFL history that a running back averaged at least 5 yards per carry on 300+ carries and the first time a rookie accomplished that feat. Elliott had a great mix of long runs and chain moving runs, leading the league with 14 carries of 20+ yards and 91 rushing first downs. He also chipped in with 32 catches for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns on 40 targets, which generated another 11 first downs.

He kept this offense on schedule, made life very easy for Prescott, and was a huge part of the reason why this offense ranked 3rd in first down rate, after finishing 18th in that metric in 2015. Prescott played well, but was helped immensely by the fact that he only had to throw the ball 459 times. Compare that with fellow rookie Carson Wentz, who threw 607 times, just the 2nd time in NFL history that a rookie quarterback threw that many passes. Elliott was helped by a strong offensive line, but deserves a ton of the credit as well, finishing 2nd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Expected to be a game changing running back from the word go, Elliott lived up to expectations and then some as a rookie. Barring injury, I see no reason why he won’t be among the league’s best running backs again this season.

If Elliott were to get injured, the Cowboys are more than prepared, as they have two backup running backs with starting experience in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. When Elliott was drafted, many considered him superfluous because of the running backs the Cowboys already had on the roster. Elliott proved he was the type of talent that would not be superfluous to any team, but the concern made sense, especially given the Cowboys’ pressing needs at other positions like defensive end and cornerback.

Morris and McFadden were limited to 69 and 24 carries last season, but between the two veterans they have 2,448 career carries and 5 seasons of 1000+ rushing yards. Both are getting up there in age, going into their age 29 and age 30 seasons respectively, but both are more than capable backups, especially behind a starter with no injury history and who rarely needs a breather. The Cowboys have arguably the best group of running backs in the NFL and figure to be one of the best rushing offenses in the league once again.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The additions of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott obviously made a huge impact for this offense, but their outstanding offensive line definitely made life much, much easier for both rookies. Unfortunately, the Cowboys did lose 2 starters upfront this off-season, with left guard Ronald Leary signing with the Broncos and right tackle Doug Free retiring after 10 seasons in the league. They were two of a number of starters who left the Cowboys this off-season. Fortunately, their big-3 upfront return, as left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick are all among the best players in the league at their respective positions, but Leary and Free played at a high level in 2016 and won’t be easy to replace, particularly Leary, who finished 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus.

The Cowboys had an obvious internal replacement for Leary in La’El Collins, who has made 14 starts over the past 2 seasons and opened last year as the starter before going down for the season with a toe injury. Free retiring threw a wrench into that plan though, as Collins is now expected to move to right tackle to replace Free, leaving a huge hole at left guard. Veterans Jonathan Cooper and Byron Bell will compete for the starting job this off-season, though the Cowboys could opt to keep Collins at left guard and start 3rd year offensive tackle Chaz Green at right tackle.

Whichever of those 3 ends up winning a starting job, they figure to struggle in 2017. Cooper was the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but has been a massive bust throughout his career. Injuries limited Cooper to 11 underwhelming starts in 3 seasons with the Cardinals and he was sent to the Patriots as a throw-in in the Chandler Jones trade. Cooper never played a snap for the Patriots and was cut mid-season. He then went to Cleveland, where he made 3 more underwhelming starts before eventually being cut. Then the Cowboys signed him, putting him on his 4th team in a calendar year. Going into his age 27 season, Cooper may have some untapped upside, but he’s a long shot to ever be a consistent starter in this league.

Bell, meanwhile, is experienced, with 72 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, but has never graded out above average and missed all of last season with injury. He has experience at both guard and tackle and could be an option at right tackle if they decide they want to keep Collins at left guard. Green would be their other option at right tackle. He was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but missed his entire rookie season with a back injury, struggled in 2 starts in 2016 in place of the injured Tyron Smith, and then needed an additional back procedure this off-season, which he is still working back from. The Cowboys figure to struggle in at least one spot on the offensive line this season.

They may struggle at two if La’El Collins doesn’t turn it around. Collins was a first round talent in 2015, but went undrafted because he was wanted for questioning in his ex-girlfriend’s murder case and didn’t have time to talk to the police and clear his name before the draft, making him untouchable on draft day. Once he was able to talk to the police and it became clear that he had nothing to do with it, he became a very hot commodity as an undrafted free agent and the Cowboys appeared to get a steal, but he was underwhelming in 11 starts as a rookie and then struggled in 3 starts in 2016 before going down for the season with injury. They will need him to take a big step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2017.

Even if they get poor play at both left guard and right tackle, this should still be one of the best offensive lines in the league because of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. First round picks in 2011, 2013, and 2014 respectively, all three are among the best offensive linemen in the league. Smith, the 9th overall pick in 2011, has graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, 6th, 2nd, and 16th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the 6 seasons he’s been in the league (92 starts). Frederick, the 31st overall pick in 2013, has graded out 8th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd respectively among centers in the 4 seasons he’s been in the league (64 starts). Martin, the 16th overall pick in 2014, has graded out 6th, 4th, and 3rd respectively among guards in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league (48 starts). The Cowboys might not be quite as good upfront as they were last season, but they still have a strong offensive line.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

In addition to the running game and offensive line helping Prescott out immensely, he also got good play from his receiving corps. The Cowboys were led in receiving yards by a surprising player, slot receiver Cole Beasley, who played the 3rd fewest passing snaps of any Dallas receiver. He turned a team high 98 targets into 75 catches for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Beasley doesn’t have great athleticism for his size at 5-8 180, but has a knack for getting open underneath, reliable hands, and the quickness to gain some yardage after the catch. The 2012 undrafted free agent has improved his receiving total in all 5 seasons in the league and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons, including last season, when he finished 13th among wide receivers. He may be just a slot receiver, but the Cowboys get him on the field for most passing plays and Prescott enjoys throwing to him underneath, especially when the running game is setting him up with 2nd and 4, 3rd and 1, etc.

Dez Bryant was expected to lead this team in receiving, but had yet another injury plagued season. It wasn’t as bad as 2015, when he broke his foot week 1, missed 7 games, and was never the same upon his return, limiting him to 31/401/3. However, Bryant missed 3 games with a knee injury that limited him for a bit upon his return and once again had a disappointing slash line of 50/796/8. After topping 1200 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2012-2014, Bryant has failed to top 800 yards in either of the past 2 seasons, since re-signing for 5 years, 70 million two off-seasons ago. Bryant’s conditioning has reportedly not been where the Cowboys would have liked it to be, which could be why he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in the past 2 seasons, after playing all 48 games from 2012-2014. Given how much money they gave him, that’s a significant concern.

The good news is Bryant flashed his old form down the stretch once he got over the knee injury, catching 43 passes for 646 yards and 8 touchdowns on 66 targets in the final 7 real regular season games and Dallas’ playoff loss to Green Bay. Overall on the season, he finished 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, actually the 3rd highest ranked season of his 7-year career (he finished 10th and 2nd respectively in 2013 and 2014). If he can stay in shape and stay healthy all season, he could easily have another big statistical year, even on a team that doesn’t pass all that often. That would probably mean fewer balls for Cole Beasley, but it would be a big boost for this passing game overall. Bryant staying healthy is far from a guaranteed, but, going into his age 29 season, he has definite bounce back potential.

With Beasley only playing the slot and Dez Bryant missing time with injury, Terrance Williams actually led the team in passing snaps played, though his 61 targets were significantly fewer than Beasley (98), Bryant (97), and the tight end Jason Witten (95). Williams wasn’t bad, turning those targets into 44 catches for 594 yards and 4 touchdowns and the Cowboys opted to bring him back this off-season on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. He will remain as the de facto #2 receiver and the primary outside option opposite Dez Bryant. The 2013 3rd round pick has improved on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, but still only finished 49th out of 115 eligible last season. He’s a marginal starting receiver and nothing more, but the Cowboys were able to keep him at a fair price.

Williams will continue to only have a small role in the passing game, with Bryant, Williams, and Witten ahead of him for targets on a run heavy offense. Witten is going into his age 35 season though, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep doing this. A top-9 tight end in every season from 2007-2014, Witten has slipped to 29th and 22nd respectively over the past 2 seasons, but that is still above average. He’s still a good run blocker and turned those 95 targets into 69 catches for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. He’s also as dependable as they come, missing just 1 game in 14 seasons in the league, way back in his rookie year in 2003. He’s the only player in the NFL to play every game in the last 13 seasons. He also finished 2nd among tight ends in snaps played last season with 1018, only behind Carolina’s Greg Olsen. His age is a concern, but he could have another solid season left in the tank.

Because Witten plays so much and because the Cowboys love to use 3-wide receiver sets, especially in passing situations, there wasn’t much available playing time for other tight ends last season, as backups Geoff Swaim and Gavin Escobar played 203 and 170 snaps respectively. With Witten aging, they may give him more breathers this season, freeing up more playing time for reserves. Escobar is no longer with the team, but Swaim will compete with James Hanna, a blocking tight end who missed all of last season with injury, and 2016 6th round pick Rico Gathers for the #2 tight end job behind Witten.

Hanna is probably the favorite for the job because of his experience, but Swaim and Gathers have more long-term upside. Gathers didn’t play a snap as a rookie though and Swaim has played just 227 offensive snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 7th round in 2015. For what it’s worth, Gathers has drawn strong reviews this off-season and the ex-basketball player is a great athlete for his size, but it’s unclear if he can translate that to an NFL field. As of right now, Witten’s long-term successor doesn’t appear to be on the roster. The Cowboys will need Witten to have at least one more good season for them, which is far from a guarantee at his age. It’s still a solid receiving corps though, especially if Bryant can continue his strong play from down the stretch last season.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense played at a high level last season, their defense did not and ultimately proved to be their downfall in their 34-31 playoff loss at home to the Packers. Their defensive line was a big part of the problem. Third round rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins led the line in snaps played last season with 656 and looked overwhelmed, finishing 123rd among 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. He could take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2017, but the Cowboys probably want to avoid giving him that many snaps again.

One obvious thing they could do is give Cedric Thornton more playing time, particularly in base packages where he is best. Signed to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, Thornton played just 278 snaps in his first season in Dallas. He wasn’t bad when he did play, grading out just below average on Pro Football Focus, so it’s unclear why he was in the doghouse all season. Prior to 2016, Thornton was a top-20 3-4 defensive end in 3 straight seasons with the Eagles, excelling against the run. Only going into his age 29 season, he could be better and play more in his second year with the Cowboys. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but, at his best, is a useful base package player.

In addition to Thornton, free agent acquisition Stephen Paea could also eat into Collins snaps. Paea was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014, but injuries have limited him to 534 snaps in 24 games over the 2 seasons since then. He has still graded out above average in both seasons, showing his abilities in limited action, and could be valuable for the Cowboys in a 400-500 snap role if he can stay healthy. Collins is a better pass rusher than run stopper, so Paea and Thornton could start for the Cowboys in base packages.

Along with Collins, defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and David Irving figure to play significant snaps on the interior in sub packages. Both are bigger ends at 6-4 295 and 6-7 285 respectively who have experience lining up inside in sub packages. Irving was their best defensive lineman last season, finishing 17th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, a surprise breakout year. A 2015 undrafted free agent who the Cowboys signed off of the Chiefs’ practice squad during his rookie year, Irving played 199 uninspiring snaps as a rookie before breaking out on 489 snaps last season. He is still a one-year wonder, so we will have to see if he can replicate that season. Complicating matters is the fact that he might be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, though he is appealing.

Crawford is also a one-year wonder, but his one year came back in 2014, when he finished 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average just once in his career and finished last season 60th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 627 snaps. Now dealing with off-season shoulder surgery, Crawford could continue to be a subpar player in 2017. The 5-year, 45 dollar extension they signed him to following his breakout 2014 season is looking like a big mistake. Given that they have already paid him 17.425 million guaranteed, his contract doesn’t have an easy out until after the 2018 season. The Cowboys need at least one of Crawford or Irving to have a big season rushing the passer from the interior.

Irving and Crawford may also both see time at defensive end, but Demarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton figure to see the majority of the time at the position, especially in passing situations. Charlton is the Cowboys’ first round pick, 28th overall, and has a chance to play significant snaps early in his career. He will be counted on for an even larger role if Lawrence is not healthy in 2017. Injuries have plagued Lawrence throughout his career. The 2014 2nd round pick played all 16 games in 2015 and finished 18th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, but was limited to 7 games in 2014 and 9 games last season and is now recovering from off-season back surgery. Still only going into his age 25 season, Lawrence could be a big boost to this team if healthy, but that’s a big if. Overall, it’s a deeper defensive line than last season, but they still have major question marks.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Cowboys’ best defensive player is probably outside linebacker Sean Lee, who is one of the best in the league at his position. Injuries limited him to 17 games total during a 3 year stretch from 2012-2014, but he has missed just 3 games over the past 2 seasons and does not appear to be limited by any lingering injuries, finishing 2nd and 1st among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Going into his age 31 season, it’s possible Lee shows some signs of age in 2017 and he’s still always an injury risk, having never played all 16 games in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s still one of the best linebackers in the league.

Anthony Hitchens started all 16 games at middle linebacker last season, but only played 581 snaps because safety Barry Church frequently played linebacker in sub packages last season. Lee, for comparison, played 977 snaps in 1 fewer game as an every down linebacker. Church signed with the Jaguars this off-season, but Hitchens might not need to become a true every down player in 2017 because the Cowboys have a pair of promising young linebackers who will compete for roles. That’s a good thing, because Hitchens has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2014, including 47th out of 87 eligible linebackers in 2016.

Damien Wilson, a 2015 4th round pick, is one of those promising young linebackers. Also a core special teamer, Wilson flashed on 284 snaps as the third linebacker in 2016 in the first significant action of his career. He could have a bigger role in 2017. The Cowboys also might have 2016 2nd round pick Jaylon Smith coming back from injury, after he missed his entire rookie year. Smith’s rehab has reportedly gone well, but he’s far from a sure thing, considering how brutal of a knee injury he sustained in Notre Dame’s bowl game back in January 2016. Smith will be 20 months removed from the injury by week 1 and could have been a top-10 pick before the injury, so there’s definitely upside here, but it’s possible he’ll never be the same player again. Ideally, he’d takeover every down at middle linebacker and Hitchens would compete with Wilson for the base package outside linebacker job, but most likely all 3 linebackers will see action. Lee elevates this whole group, but there are question marks around him.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Church wasn’t the only safety the Cowboys lost this off-season, as JJ Wilcox signed with the Buccaneers. Church and Wilcox played 675 and 557 snaps respectively last season and finished 11th and 27th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so they’re big losses. Not only will the Cowboys not be able to use 3-safety looks as often (with one safety in the box as a 2nd linebacker), but they were left with a big hole in the starting lineup at safety next to free safety Byron Jones. Fortunately, Jones is a talented player who finished 19th among safeties in 2016 and 23rd among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2015. The 27th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jones is only going into his age 25 season and has a very bright future.

Career special teamer Jeff Heath will be given the first crack at the other safety job. The 2013 undrafted free agent flashed on 243 snaps as a reserve last season, but graded out below average in the first 3 seasons of his career and only has 10 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Youngsters Kavon Frazier, a 2016 6th round pick who played just 37 snaps as a rookie, and Xavier Woods, a 5th round rookie, are also in the mix. Free agent Robert Blanton has the most experience of any candidate for the job, with 19 career starts. Thirteen of those starts came in 2014 when he finished 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in both seasons since. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 5th round pick has bounce back potential and is probably their best option, but only by default. It’s definitely a position of weakness for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys also lost a pair of cornerbacks in free agency too, with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne signing with the Ravens and Jets respectively. They played 1015 and 406 snaps respectively last season, so they leave behind big roles. They also played at a high level too, finishing 50th and 12th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though Claiborne was limited to 7 games by injury. Free agent acquisition Nolan Carroll will probably get the first crack at replacing Carr. Carroll has made 50 starts in the past 5 seasons and was a solid starter from 2013-2015, but fell to 91st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season and now is going into his age 30 season. He’s a low end starter at best.

Carroll will be pushed by second round rookie Chidobe Awuzie for a starting role. The Cowboys also used a 3rd round pick and a 6th round pick on cornerbacks, taking Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White. White is a long-term project, but Lewis is an NFL ready nickel cornerback and could be one of the steals of the draft, despite his underwhelming size at 5-10 188. Pro Football Focus ranked him as their 24th ranked draft prospect. Holdovers Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick will also be in the mix for roles.

Scandrick was probably their best cornerback last season, but the Cowboys are reportedly trying to trade him so they can keep all their rookie cornerbacks on the roster. Scandrick is owed just 3 million dollars this season and finished last season 27th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Scandrick missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL, but graded out above average in 4 of the previous 5 seasons before the injury, including a 10th place finish in 2014. He did miss another 4 games last season and he is going into his age 30 season, but he still seems worth keeping around at his salary.

Brown, meanwhile, was a surprise as a 6th round rookie in 2016, making 10 starts in 16 games in the absence of Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus on 717 snaps. He has a good chance to play a big role again this season, though I’m still skeptical that he can continue playing as well as he did last season. Given that and that they lost four key players in free agency, I expect the Cowboys’ secondary to take a step back this season, but they did bring in some replacements with potential and may be able to patchwork together a decent unit.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Cowboys lost starters on the offensive line and in the secondary, but did a good job of patchworking some holes this off-season with cheap signings and more good drafting. They should be better in the front 7 and they still have obvious talent on offense. There is some potential for sophomore slumps from Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott, especially if the offensive line doesn’t play as well, but they could also get a vintage year from Dez Bryant, giving this offense the downfield threat it didn’t have last season until the final few games. Their schedule will be tougher this season, but they should still compete for the NFC East title and a playoff spot. 

Final update: The Cowboys could be without Ezekiel Elliot for the first 6 games of the season, though it’s looking likely that he’ll see his suspension reduced or thrown out. It’s another reason why this team is unlikely to be quite as good as last year (as is a 4 game suspension by David Irving), but this should be a playoff team again in 2017, even in the tough NFC.

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC East