Minnesota Vikings 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the 2015 season, things looked bright for the Vikings. Even though they lost their home playoff game to the Seahawks on a missed field goal, it was still an impressive season for the Vikings who went 11-5 in just the second season of new head coach Mike Zimmer and first round pick quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. After a 5-10-1 season in 2013, they rebuilt talent all over their roster faster than most expected and appeared to be a Super Bowl contender in 2016. Unfortunately, that’s when the season from hell struck for the Vikings, as they finished with the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league.

The most gruesome of the injuries was the injury suffered by Bridgewater, who tore just about everything in his knee in practice with just about three weeks left before the start of the season. It appeared to be a devastating loss for the Vikings, who were hoping that Bridgewater could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league and take this team to the next level. Not only would Bridgewater immediately be ruled out for the entire 2016 season, but questions about his availability long-term in 2017 and beyond were raised too. A bright young career appeared to be in jeopardy.

As unfortunate as the injury was, football moves on and the Vikings needed to make a move, so they shocked everyone by sending their 2017 first round pick to the Eagles for veteran Sam Bradford, who was about to be unseated by #2 overall pick Carson Wentz for the starting job. The move reeked of desperation, but it was certainly understandable. With a talented roster around the quarterback position, the Vikings didn’t feel they needed their first rounder in 2017 and Bradford gave them at least a chance to win in 2016, while veteran journeyman backup Shaun Hill did not. Still, with Bradford having just 8 days to get ready for the season with new teammates and a new playbook, many were understandably skeptical the move would work.

Instead, Bradford exceeded just about everyone’s expectations, finishing 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus for the second straight season. The Vikings finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs, but it’s tough to blame Bradford, given all the injuries they had around him. Not only did Bradford play well, but he also avoided injury, which was always the knock on him. Bradford sat out the first week of the season while he was still learning the playbook, but he made all 15 starts afterwards. Since being limited to 7 games in 2012 and 2013 combined by two ACL tears, Bradford has missed just 2 games with injury over the past 2 seasons.

Bridgewater, meanwhile, is expected to not be ready for the start of the season. The Vikings can keep him on injured reserve and toll the final year of his rookie deal to 2018. Bradford is going into the final year of his contract, so the Vikings will have a decision to make next off-season, but, for now, Bradford remains the Vikings’ starter. Going into his 2nd year in Minnesota, Bradford should be better prepared for this season and could play even better as a result. If the Vikings can be better around him this season, they have a good chance to get back into the post-season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Bradford actually broke the single season record for completion percentage in 2016 by completing 71.6% of his passes. Despite that, the Vikings ranked just 24th in first down rate. How did that happen? Well, the Vikings averaged a league worst 3.17 yards per carry on the ground, not only the worst YPC average in the league last season, but the worst YPC average in the league by any team since 2013. On top of that, Bradford was under pressure all year and frequently had to check down. He took 37 sacks in 15 games, despite one of the quickest releases in the league, and averaged a league worst 9.82 yards per completion, so, while he was completing passes at an incredible rate, most of them weren’t going for that much yardage. His 7.02 YPA average was just 19th in the NFL.

The Vikings’ issues on the ground and protecting the quarterback last season were largely as a result of the offensive line, so they rightfully made the offensive line a priority this off-season. With expected starting offensive tackles Matt Kalil (left) and Andre Smith (right) limited to 121 snaps and 182 snaps respectively, the Vikings had to play the likes of TJ Clemmings (882 snaps), Jeremiah Sirles (772 snaps), and Jake Long (210 snaps). All three struggled, particularly Clemmings, who finished 76th out of 78 eligible on Pro Football Focus.

Kalil and Smith are no longer on the roster, so the Vikings signed Riley Reiff (5 years, 58.75 million) and Mike Remmers (5 years, 30 million) to play left tackle and right tackle respectively this season. Clemmings, meanwhile, will be no better than the swing tackle this season. Reiff was overpaid because he’s never been a top level player, but he should be a huge upgrade over what they had last season. A 2012 1st round pick, Reiff has never been a top-30 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus, but he has never had a bad season either and has made 69 career starts in 77 games in 5 seasons in the league, both at left tackle and right tackle. Last season, he finished 48th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts on the right side. He’ll move back to the left side with the Vikings.

Remmers is also a big upgrade over what they had last season. The 2012 undrafted free agent was a bit of a late bloomer, not taking over as a starter until week 12 of the 2014 season with the Panthers, but he has made 37 straight regular season starts since then, both at right tackle and left tackle. Remmers is better on the right side, finishing above average in both 2014 and 2015, but he wasn’t terrible on the left side last year either, finishing 51st among 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Back at his natural position on the right side, he should be better than that this season.

Along with left and right tackle, right guard was also a problem position for the Vikings in 2016, as Brandon Fusco finished just 63rd out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He was let go this off-season, but the Vikings didn’t really do much to replace him, only drafting Pat Elflein in the 3rd round of the draft. Elflein’s best pro position is probably center, but he has the versatility to play guard and the Vikings only other option is 2016 4th round pick Willie Beavers, a converted collegiate tackle who played just 11 snaps last season.

Elflein was probably drafted to be the starting center long-term, but, for now, veteran center Joe Berger is still playing well. He was arguably their best offensive lineman last season. That’s not saying a ton, but he finished 8th among centers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 2nd among centers in 2015. Berger was largely a career backup prior to 2015, but he always played well when counted on and has graded out above average in all 10 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history. The biggest concern with him is his age, as he’s going into his age 35 season. It’s unclear how long he can continue playing at this level and how long he’ll continue playing at all. Berger can play guard too, so it’s possible they put Elflein at center and move Berger to right guard.

Along with Berger, left guard Alex Boone was the only other offensive lineman who played well for the Vikings in 2016, finishing 37th among guards on Pro Football Focus. That’s pretty par for the course for him. He’s made 73 starts in the past 5 seasons and finished 3rd, 39th, 18th, 38th, and 37th respectively in those 5 seasons. He’s going into his age 30 season so he’s getting older, but he should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Vikings signed him to a 4-year, 26.8 million dollar deal last off-season and he provided much needed stability upfront. The Vikings should be better upfront this season, after signing Reiff and Remmers this off-season.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

While the offensive line was a big part of the reason why the Vikings couldn’t get anything going on the ground, the running backs were a problem as well. With Adrian Peterson limited to 37 carries in 3 games, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata split the load, with 159 and 121 carries respectively. They averaged 3.39 and 3.32 YPC respectively and ranked 46th and 36th respectively among 62 eligible running backs. Like Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, Adrian Peterson is no longer with the team coming off injury, but the Vikings made sure to address the position this off-season, signing ex-Raider Latavius Murray in free agency and drafting Florida State’s Dalvin Cook in the 2nd round of the draft.

Murray is experienced, with 461 carries over the past 2 seasons, but was largely an unspectacular runner, rushing for 1854 yards and 18 touchdowns, a 4.02 YPC average, despite running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. While Minnesota’s offensive line is improved, it’s a clear downgrade from what he was running behind in Oakland, so he could struggle. Cook is a much more dynamic runner, even though he fell to the 2nd round of the draft. He fell because of an unimpressive combine and some off-the-field concerns, but he has great vision and his college tape was an impressive as any running back in this draft class.

Murray got 15 million on a 3 year deal in free agency this off-season, but Cook could be their lead back by the end of the season. McKinnon, meanwhile, will be no better than the 3rd back, while Asiata is no longer with the team. Regardless of whether or not Murray or Cook is the lead back, they should be better on the ground this season. Not only are Murray and Cook significant upgrades on McKinnon and Asiata, but they should also be significantly improved in run blocking upfront.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

While the Vikings had poor play at running back and on the offensive line in 2016, their receiving corps helped Sam Bradford out a good amount, though the constant pressure on Bradford made it tough to set up plays downfield. Adam Thielen was technically their deep threat last year, as he was the only receiver who caught more than 1 pass and averaged more than 11.6 yards per catch, but his 14.0 yards per catch average was still only tied for 25th best in the league among wide receiver. That said, he still had an impressive season all things considered, leading the team with 967 yards on 69 catches and catching 5 touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver.

Even more impressive is the fact that Theilen did that despite being nothing more than an afterthought at this time last season. A 2013 undrafted free agent, Theilen had just 20 career catches in 3 seasons in the league prior to 2017. He came out of nowhere to win a starting job and never looked back. A restricted free agent this off-season, the Vikings signed him to a 4 year, 19.246 million dollar extension this off-season. It’s a risky move because he’s still a one-year wonder, but, if he has another season like he did in 2016, he could prove to be a steal. He’s just the 37th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary.

While Thielen was more of a deep threat, fellow starting wide receiver Stefon Diggs was an underneath threat, catching 84 passes for 903 yards and 3 touchdowns in 13 games. Thielen is a solid player, but Diggs is their #1 when healthy. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Diggs has proven to be an absolute steal in 2 years in the league, finishing 25th among wide receivers in 2015 and 16th among wide receivers last season. He hasn’t gone over a thousand yards yet, but he was close last year in 13 games, so, if he can stay healthy, he should surpass that mark in his 3rd year in the league in 2017.

Along with Diggs and Thielen, tight end Kyle Rudolph was also a threat in the passing game for Bradford, catching 83 passes for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns and finishing 13th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Rudolph has had some solid years in the past, finishing 13th among tight ends in both 2011 and 2012 and 23rd in 2015, but he’s never posted the kind of receiving numbers that he did last season. He also had some injury issues in 2013 and 2014, missing 15 total games between the two seasons, but he’s been otherwise healthy.

His 132 targets last season was easily a career high (93 was his previous career high) and also led the team, so he seems to have good chemistry with Sam Bradford. He might see fewer balls this season if the Vikings don’t have to throw underneath as often, but he should remain a factor in the passing game and he’s overall an above average tight end. The Vikings don’t use two tight ends very often, as Rhett Ellison, the second tight end last year, played just 258 snaps. Ellison with the Giants now, so 2nd year tight end David Morgan, a 6th rounder in 2016, is expected to take over the #2 job. He probably won’t see many more snaps than Ellison did. Rudolph, on the other hand, played 970 snaps last season, 5th most in the league among tight ends.

While the #2 tight end job is not that important in this offense, the #3 and #4 wide receiver job are. Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson played 531 and 405 snaps respectively last season as the primary reserve receivers. Both of them are no longer with the team, so Laquon Treadwell and free agent acquisition Michael Floyd will pick up the slack. Treadwell was a first round pick by the Vikings in 2016 and was expected to have an immediate impact as a rookie. Instead, he not only lost his starting job to Thielen, but he also spent the whole season as the 5th receiver, catching 1 pass for 15 yards on 80 snaps, thanks to a combination of injury and inefficiency. He will need to prove himself in his 2nd year in the league in 2017.

Floyd, meanwhile, will need to re-prove himself, after a horrendous 2016 season. A 2012 first round pick who graded out above average in each of the previous 3 seasons (2013-2015), Floyd plummeted to 88th out of 115 eligible wide receivers in 2016 on 745 snaps. Floyd’s effort was questioned by the Cardinals’ coaching staff and the last straw came when he was arrested for DUI the night after the Cardinals’ week 14 loss to the Miami Dolphins, falling asleep at a stoplight with a BAC of .217.

The Cardinals released him immediately afterwards and he was picked up by the New England Patriots, with whom he was only a depth receiver. He did not play in the AFC Championship game or the Super Bowl and caught just 5 passes between the regular season and post-season. He then served a 120-day jail sentence this off-season (24 days in county jail, 96 days of house arrest). Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver in 2013 and their 24th ranked wide receiver in 2015, Floyd has bounce back potential if he can get it together, still only going into his age 28 season, though he could miss time to start the season if he gets suspended by the league. The Vikings signed him to a very low risk deal with a base salary of just 1.5 million, but he can make up to 6 million in incentives. He adds to a pretty deep receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Vikings also dealt with some significant injuries on defense in 2016, including a knee injury to defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd that ended his season after 25 week 1 snaps. Floyd didn’t get put on injured reserve until mid-December, so it was definitely a strange situation. Floyd was given a 5-6 week timetable after having surgery in September and the Vikings held out hope for a 2016 return for a long time, but his recovery apparently did not go as planned. Making matters even worse, the Vikings are unclear whether or not Floyd will be able to play in 2017, as he is still dealing with nerve problems in that knee.

There is also talk this injury could be career threatening like Bridgewater’s, which would be very disappointing because, like Bridgewater, Floyd is a talented former first round pick. He’s still very young too, going into just his age 25 season in 2017. After struggling as a rookie in 2013, Floyd finished above average in both 2014 and 2015 on Pro Football Focus, with his best season coming in 2014, when he finished 5th among defensive tackles. His 6.757 million dollar salary for 2017 is guaranteed for injury, so the Vikings will have to pay it regardless of whether or not he plays, but, if he doesn’t play, this will likely be his final season in Minnesota, as he is in the final year of his rookie deal. If he does play this season, there’s no guarantee he’ll be 100%.

With Floyd’s short-term and long-term status uncertain, the Vikings used a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson and, depending on Floyd’s health, Johnson could have a significant role as a rookie. In Floyd’s absence last season, reserves Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen took on bigger roles, playing 476 snaps and 551 snaps respectively. Johnson played primarily in sub packages, where he is at his best, and played pretty well, grading out just above average on Pro Football Focus. Johnson has graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons in a rotational role, but the concern is he’s going into his age 33 season.

Stephen, meanwhile, is younger, but he’s struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play throughout his 3-year career. He has been among the lowest ranked defensive tackles in all 3 seasons and finished 7th worst at his position in 2015. There’s a reason he fell to the 7th round of the draft in 2014. Johnson could push him for a base package role early, with Johnson coming in as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. With Shamar Stephen, Tom Johnson, and Sharrif Floyd all set to hit free agency next off-season, the Vikings might view Jaleel Johnson as a feature starter long-term.

Linval Joseph is locked in as the other starting defensive tackle and led all Viking defensive tackles with 718 snaps played last season. Joseph has always been a solid player, only grading out below average in 1 season in his career, his rookie year back in 2010, but he’s taken his play to another level in the past 2 seasons. The former second round pick has finished 3rd and 9th respectively among defensive tackles in the last 2 seasons respectively. The big 6-4 329 pounder is primarily a run stuffer, but moves well for his size and can also get after the quarterback. Going into his age 29 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and should have another strong season. He was a steal on a 5-year, 31.25 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago.

Joseph does often come off the field in obvious passing situations though because the Vikings like to use three defensive ends in sub packages and rush Everson Griffen from the interior. This year, they could actually use four defensive ends in sub packages on occasion, with free agent acquisition Datone Jones capable of moving inside in sub packages as well. Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter are the other two defensive ends. Griffen is the best of the bunch, finishing last season 15th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s been a top-15 player at his position in each of the past 3 seasons since becoming a starter and flashed as a rotational player during the first 4 seasons of his career as well. The 2010 4th round pick was a bit of a late bloomer, but still is only entering his age 30 season, so he should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank.

Hunter, meanwhile, could give him a run for his money as the best defensive end on the team, given how much promise the 2015 3rd round pick has shown in 2 seasons in the league. Hunter has only made 1 start in 2 seasons in the league, but, like Griffen did early in his career, he still makes an impact as a rotational player, finishing 23rd among 4-3 defensive ends on 426 snaps as a rookie and 16th on 603 snaps last season. He could push for a starting role this season and will make an impact as a situational edge rusher even if he doesn’t technically become the starter.

Robison made all 16 starts opposite Griffen last season, his 5th season of 16 starts in the last 6 seasons. Incredibly durable, Robison has missed just 2 games in 10 seasons in the league, but is going into his age 34 season and coming off a down year, in which he finished 89th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. Robison was solid in 2015, but struggled mightily in 2014 as well, so he appears to be running out of gas as he heads into his mid-30s. Robison has already mentioned that he’s planning on retiring after the final season of his contract in 2018, but there’s no guarantee the Vikings bring him back for 2018 at all, given that he’ll be owed 3.5 million non-guaranteed. WIth Hunter emerging and Datone Jones coming in as a free agent, Robison is unlikely to match the 838 snaps he played last season and that should be a good thing for this defense.

Jones is the other member of this defensive end rotation. He ended up playing a career high 548 snaps with the Packers last season because they had a lot of injuries upfront, but, prior to last season, he had never played more than 364 snaps in a season. Now in Minnesota, I wouldn’t expect him to be much higher than the 400-500 snap range, barring injury. Jones was actually a first round pick by the Packers in 2013, but never showed anything resembling first round talent in 4 years with the Packers, despite the Packers trying him at a number of different positions.

He wasn’t terrible last season, but he did grade out slightly below average in his first season as an edge player. His best play has come as a sub package rusher, as he graded out above average in both 2014 and 2015, but that was in very limited action. He’ll probably be primarily a sub package interior rusher in Minnesota, but can also play defensive end in base packages in a pinch. He’s part of a deep defensive line, but, if they are without Sharrif Floyd again this season, that would be a big blow to the middle of their defense.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Despite Floyd’s absence, the Vikings still finished 9th in first down rate allowed last season, thanks to strong play all around the defense. One player who surprisingly struggled though is outside linebacker Anthony Barr, who very uncharacteristically finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. This came after he finished 8th at the position as a rookie in 2014 and 1st at the position in 2015. His coach Mike Zimmer somewhat publicly called him out for his play last season and, still only going into his age 25 season, he has a good chance to bounce back in 2017.

If he doesn’t, the Vikings could easily let go him next off-season, rather than pay him the 12.306 million he’d be owed in 2018. If he bounces back though, the Vikings could reward him with an extension that would make him one of the highest paid linebackers in the league. It’s a big year for him financially and the Vikings are obviously hoping that extra motivation can get him back to the player he was in 2015. At his best, he’s a rare Jamie Collins type player, capable of stopping the run, dropping in coverage, and rushing the passer from multiple spots. He has rare size and athleticism.

Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks will be the other every down linebacker again. The 2015 2nd round pick took a step forward in his second year in the league, finishing 21st among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after grading out slightly below average as a rookie. A starter basically from day 1 (25 starts in 2 seasons in the league), Kendricks seems to have a bright future. His improved play helped mask Barr’s struggles a little bit. The Vikings are obviously hoping that both can have good seasons in 2017.

Chad Greenway was the 3rd linebacker last season, but he retired after 10 seasons in the league (all with Minnesota) this off-season. Greenway’s only real value in his later years was his leadership though, as his play had really fallen off a cliff in recent years. His play on the field shouldn’t be that hard to replace, as he finished 68th out of 87 eligible linebackers on 399 snaps last season. Veteran Emmanuel Lamur is the most likely option to replace him, but he isn’t a good option either, so he could be pushed for his job by some younger players.

One of those young players is Ben Gedeon, a 4th round rookie out of Michigan. Gedeon played middle linebacker in college, but could move outside in the NFL and has the skill set to develop into a capable base package linebacker. Kentrell Brothers, a 2016 5th round pick who played just 1 snap on defense as a rookie, is also in the mix. Lamur, meanwhile, was limited to 38 snaps last season and finished in the bottom 10 among 4-3 outside linebackers in both 2014 and 2015 with the Bengals. The 3rd linebacker spot remains a weakness, but fortunately it’s only a base package role. Kendricks and Barr are much more important players and both have good upside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the Vikings have some good players in the front 7, their secondary was the strength of the team in 2016. The Vikings used a first round pick in 2013 on Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes and a first round pick in 2015 on Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, but their best cornerback last season was actually 14-year veteran Terence Newman, a first round pick by the Cowboys way back in 2003. Going into his age 39 season, Newman is the 2nd oldest defensive player in the league behind Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, but is still coming off of a season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, the 4th time in 5 seasons he’s graded out above average.

At his age, his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but the Vikings brought him back on 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal and probably intend for him to be the starter for one more season. Newman has spent most of his career in Mike Zimmer’s defense, first with the Cowboys, then the Bengals, and now with the Vikings, so he can probably do the mental part of the game in his sleep at this point, but playing cornerback in the NFL is physically tough in your mid-30s, much less in your late-30s like Newman.

He’ll face competition from Trae Waynes, who has been limited to 10 starts in 2 seasons in the league because of strong play ahead of him on the depth chart. Waynes was drafted to be the long-term successor for Newman, but Newman is still going, so he hasn’t been anything more than valuable depth thus far in his career. Waynes played just 215 snaps as a rookie, but injuries forced him to a larger role in 2016, when he finished 72nd among 111 eligible cornerbacks on 587 snaps. If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll probably have to wait until his 4th year in the league in 2018 to become an every down starter in this defense, but he could take over for Newman this year if Newman struggles.

Waynes probably isn’t a candidate for the slot cornerback job either because his skill set is that of an outside cornerback. Both Newman and fellow starting cornerback Xavier Rhodes are primarily outside cornerbacks as well, leaving 2016 3rd round pick Mackenzie Alexander as the likely replacement for free agent departure Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league, so replacing him won’t be an easy task. He was Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked cornerback in 2016 in a slightly down season for him. Alexander is very inexperienced, playing just 67 snaps as a rookie, but he was one of the best pure slot cornerback prospects in the 2016 draft, so he was a steal in the 3rd round. He could have a solid season.

As I mentioned, Xavier Rhodes is locked in as the other starting cornerback. He’s the de facto #1 cornerback, even though Newman outplayed him last season. Rhodes flashes brilliance and has finished above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but has never finished higher than 21st at his position and commits far too many penalties, with 30 in the last 3 seasons combined. He’s still only going into his age 27 season though and he’s coming off of a season in which he finished 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, so you could do a lot worse than him. He’s a valuable member of this defense who has made 46 starts in the past 3 seasons. The Vikings will try to lock him up on an extension this off-season, ahead of the final season of his rookie deal in 2017.

Minnesota’s best defensive back is another first round pick, Harrison Smith, the 31st pick in the 2012 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. He has proven to be a steal, as he has developed into one of the best all-around safeties in the entire NFL. He was Pro Football Focus #2 ranked safety in 2014 and their #1 ranked safety in 2015, so his 10th best place in 2016 was actually a down year by him. He still played very well, despite missing 3 games with an ankle sprain that limited him upon his return. He doesn’t get the attention of guys like Eric Berry or Earl Thomas, but he’s just as valuable to this defense. The only issue with him is that he is a little bit injury prone, missing 13 games in 5 seasons and being limited in others. Having him at 100% would be huge for this defense.

Andrew Sendejo remains as the starter at the other safety spot. He’s experienced, with 40 starts in the last 4 seasons, including 27 in 2015 and 2016 combined, but he’s not a very good player. His worst season came in 2015, when he finished 85th out of 89 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus, and, while he was better in 2016, he was really only better by default, finishing 54th out of 90 eligible safeties. At his best, he’s a capable starter, but the Vikings don’t have a better option so Sendejo’s job should be pretty secure. He’s the weakest point in a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Vikings were on an upwards trajectory and looked like a future Super Bowl contender at this time last year, but then they had the season from hell in 2016 with all their injuries. Several of the players who were injured last season are no longer with the team (Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Adrian Peterson) while others are still injured and might not play this season (Teddy Bridgewater, Sharrif Floyd), but the Vikings did a good job this off-season filling needs and adding talent around new Sam Bradford, who should be better in his 2nd season with the team as Bridgewater’s replacement. That could easily get them back into the post-season in 2017. 

Final update: The Vikings let guard Alex Boone go for financial reasons, but should still have an upgraded offensive line and running game. That should put this team in contention for a playoff spot.

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC North

Detroit Lions 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions made the playoffs last season, but they were arguably the worst team to make the playoffs. Their 9-7 record was tied for the worst among playoff teams (with Houston) and they were the only team to make the playoffs that didn’t defeat another playoff team, going 0-5 against playoff opponents in the regular season. Despite all 9 of their wins coming against teams that didn’t make the playoffs, only one of them came by more than a touchdown. They made the playoffs, but they did so unimpressively, by squeaking out close victories against unimpressive opponents.

In terms of first down rate differential, they had the worst of any playoff team at -1.90%, which was actually the 5th lowest of any team in the league last season. That’s a bit misleading, as the difference between the 28th and 29th best team in that metric was larger than the difference between the 28th and 14th best team in that metric; last season the NFL had a bunch of mediocre teams, but only a few truly bad ones (Jets, 49ers, Browns, Rams). Still, the Lions were a very underwhelming playoff qualifier and this showed in the first round, when they got bounced by the Seahawks 26-6 in a game where the Seahawks won the first down battle 24-13.

Even though the Lions managed just 182 yards passing in that game, it’s hard to put the blame for the Lions’ mediocrity last season on the passing game, considering it was really the only part of this team that played at an above average level. Quarterback Matt Stafford once again played all 16 games, for the 6th straight season, as he’s turned into a bit of an Ironman despite being plagued by shoulder injuries in the first 2 seasons of his career, and he played at a high level once again. He completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.29 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and finished 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

This is pretty much par for the course for Stafford, who has completed 62.3% of his passes for an average of 7.21 yards per attempt, 168 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions in his 6 full seasons as the Lions’ starting quarterback. He was a top-13 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 4 of those 6 seasons and has never ranked lower than 21st in any of those 6 seasons. With Stafford going into the final year of a 3-year, 53 million dollar extension, the Lions are working to get him signed long-term on another extension before the season starts.

The Lions will likely have to pay upwards of 20 million annually, making him one of the highest paid players in the league, but the Lions don’t really have a choice because quarterbacks like Stafford don’t grow on trees. He’s not spectacular, but he’s an above average starter. Unfortunately, he’s not the type of player who can lead a team to a Super Bowl by himself though, so the Lions will need better play around him this season if they are going to have any chance of making a deep run into the playoffs. If they continue to play like they did last season, there’s a good chance they don’t even make the post-season, given how they snuck into the post-season with close wins over mediocre teams in 2016.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Stafford isn’t going it completely alone, as he did get solid play from his receiving corps last season, even with Calvin Johnson surprisingly deciding to retire last off-season. Johnson’s replacement Marvin Jones and holdover Golden Tate both topped 900 yards in 2016 and both graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Neither player was spectacular, as Marvin Jones was the highest rated of the two at #45, but they both were reliable targets for Stafford and, based on their age and history, it would not be surprising at all if they continued that into 2017.

Tate came over to the Lions from the Seahawks three off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal. Tate’s numbers improved significantly from Seattle to Detroit, but that was largely as a result of the fact that he went from one of the run heaviest teams in the league to one of the more pass heavy teams. Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers in Seattle, he still played well. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 6 seasons, making 81 starts over that time period. In fact, his #57 finish in 2016 was his lowest since his rookie year in 2010. From 2013-2015, he was a top-23 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus, so, in that sense, he actually has some bounce back potential in 2017, still just his age 29 season.

Jones was a little bit more expensive to sign, coming over on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Bengals last off-season. He’s also a couple years younger, going into his age 27 season, and less experienced, with 3 years of starting experience. Still, he’s a very solid receiver who has ranked 14th, 38th, and 45th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2015, and 2016 respectively, with a 2014 season lost to injury in between. Aside from 2014, he’s only missed 1 game in 3 seasons as a starter, so injuries have not been a consistent issue for him.

Tate and Jones are both above average receivers who are younger than 30 and they should remain options 1a and 1b in this passing offense. Tate is an underneath option who caught 91 of 135 targets (67.4%), but only averaged 11.84 yards per catch. Jones, meanwhile, is a deep threat who caught just 55 of 103 targets (53.4%), but averaged 16.91 yards per catch. They go to Tate more often because of the type of routes he runs, but Jones is a the big threat and was actually more efficient on a per target basis last season. They complement each other well.

Tight end Eric Ebron also remains as the 3rd option in the passing game. The 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Ebron came into the league with a ton of potential, but has been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career. Ebron had easily his best receiving year in his 3rd year in the league in 2016, catching 61 passes for 711 yards (8th in the NFL among tight ends) and 1 touchdown, but graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the third straight year because of his complete inability as a run blocker.

There are reasons to be optimistic with him. Ebron was regarded as raw coming out of North Carolina. He is still only going into his age 24 season and has improved as a receiver in every season in the league. He has the frame to become a better blocker at 6-4 253 and he has outstanding athleticism for his size, as he showed when he ran a 4.60 at the combine, an incredible time for a tight end of his size. However, so far in his career he’s been an injury prone, one-dimensional player, never playing more than 14 games in a season and being limited by injuries in countless others, so the Lions’ patience might be wearing thin with him.

The Lions were linked to tight ends in both free agency and the draft this off-season and reportedly made an offer to free agent tight end Jared Cook this off-season, but ultimately ended up with just 4th round pick Michael Roberts, who is more of a blocking complement than a replacement for Ebron. He could play right away in 2-tight end sets because he’s an NFL ready blocker, but he isn’t a threat to Ebron on passing downs. Roberts’ primary competition for the #2 tight end job is veteran Darren Fells, a 4th year player who is also primarily a blocker.

The Lions picked up Ebron’s 5th year option for 2018, which would pay him around 8.25 million, the average of the top-10 tight end salaries in the league, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so the Lions could cut him next off-season if they feel he’s not worth that salary. Because of his youth and upside, he still has the potential for a breakout season in his 4th year in the league in 2017 if he can stay healthy, but if he doesn’t have that breakout year, this could be his final season in Detroit.

Slot receiver Anquan Boldin and running back Theo Riddick were the Lions’ 4th and 5th best receivers in 2016, putting up 67/584/8 and 53/371/5 slash lines respectively. Boldin remains unsigned as a free agent ahead of his age 37 season, but the Lions haven’t ruled out bringing him back in the same role because he was decent last season. For the time being, it’s unclear who their 3rd receiver is. Keshawn Martin is the only other wide receiver on the roster with more than 15 career catches and he was basically out of the league completely last year, playing just 1 game for the 49ers and not catching a single pass. The Lions did use a 3rd round pick on Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for a big role as a rookie.

Riddick, meanwhile, remains as the passing down back and he’s one of the better pass catching running backs in the league. Even though he “only” had 53 catches last season, he did it in 10 games, missing 6 with injury. The year before he caught 80 passes for 697 yards and 3 touchdowns in 16 games, meaning he’s averaging about 5.12 catches per game over the past 2 seasons. He’s finished as the #1 and #3 ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the last 2 seasons respectively. If he can stay healthy, another 70-80 catches seems likely for him. Aside from the uncertainly at the slot receiver position, this is a solid receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to having a solid receiving corps last season, Matt Stafford also had a solid offensive line. Even though they lost two starters in free agency, they have a chance to be even better upfront this season. Things looked bleak when right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Riley Reiff signed with the Saints and Vikings respectively on big contracts (4 years 34 million and 5 years 58.75 million respectively), but the Lions signed ex-Packer TJ Lang and ex-Raven Ricky Wagner to big contracts to replace him.

Not only did they save a little bit of money overall, signing Lang for 28.5 million over 3 years and Wagner for 47.5 million over 5 years, they actually upgraded both spots as well. Lang has made 91 starts over the past 6 seasons, finishing in the top-15 among guards on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons. For comparison, Warford finished last season 20th among guards. Lang is a little bit older, going into his age 30 season, but interior offensive linemen tend to age pretty well so he should remain an effective player throughout his 3-year deal. Signing him away from division rival Green Bay, where he was dominant for years, is a huge signing for the Lions.

Wagner, meanwhile, has had his ups and downs in 3 years as the starting right tackle in Baltimore (45 starts), but is coming off of a season in which he finished 18th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Wagner also ranked 16th among offensive tackles in 2014, with an underwhelming 2015 season in which he was hampered by a foot injury in between. As long as he’s healthy, he should have another strong year in 2017. Reiff got more money because he has experience on the left side, while Wagner is a pure right tackle, but he’s one of the best pure right tackles in the game, while Reiff finished 48th among 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season on the right side.

The Lions will only need Wagner to be a pure right tackle because they appear to have found a gem in the first round of last year’s draft in Taylor Decker. The 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Decker won Reiff’s left tackle job, moving him to the right side, and made all 16 starts on Stafford’s blindside last season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle. He’s still pretty unproven, but he looks to have a bright future ahead of him. He could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2017.

At left guard and center, the Lions have three players who will compete for two spots. Laken Tomlinson was their first round pick in 2015, but he’s struggled in 24 starts in 2 seasons in the league, grading out 53rd out of 81 eligible guards as a rookie and 64th out of 72 eligible guards last season. He was benched in week 7 of last season for rookie Graham Glasgow, but ended up getting his job back later in the season when Glasgow moved to center in place of the injured Travis Swanson. Glasgow didn’t really play much better than Tomlinson and Tomlinson’s draft slot should help him win this job, but he’s running out of chances to prove himself.

Glasgow is also an option to start at center because he was a little bit better at center than he was at guard last season, which makes sense, considering center was his best collegiate position. Swanson is probably the favorite for the job though, as he was pretty solid last season before getting hurt, finishing 17th among 37 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. His history isn’t good, as the 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily in the first two seasons of his career, including a 2015 season in which he finished 33rd out of 39 eligible centers, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner. Going into his 4th season in the league, his job is probably the more secure of the three. Even with uncertainty at left guard and center, this line is improved over last season’s solid line.

Grade: B+

Running Back

Despite good production in the passing game, the Lions’ offense ranked just 12th in first down rate last season because of their inability to run the ball, as they averaged 3.74 yards per carry, 27th in the NFL. Their improved offensive line should help matters a little bit, but the offensive line wasn’t the problem last season. The problem was the guys running the football. The Lions had high hopes for second year running back Ameer Abdullah, but his season was ended after 2 games and 18 carries by injury.

In his absence, passing down back Theo Riddick actually led the team in carries with 92, even though he’s a 5-9 201 converted college wide receiver who entered the season with a career 2.90 YPC average. Riddick predictably struggled as a runner, rushing for 357 yards and 1 touchdown on those 92 carries, an average of 3.88 YPC. Dwayne Washington (90 carries) and Zach Zenner (88 carries) also struggled, averaging 2.94 yards per carry and 3.80 yards per carry respectively.

Getting Abdullah back from injury should help, though it’s still unclear what the Lions have in him. He was a relatively high pick for a running back, going in the 2nd round in 2015, and has a solid 4.34 YPC average on 161 carries, but he’s coming off of a major injury and has looked lost on passing downs, struggling mightily as a blocker and averaging just 5.45 yards per target on 44 career targets. By default though, he should be an upgrade over what they had last season in his absence and there’s definitely upside here with him still only entering his age 24 season.

Riddick will continue to work as the passing down back and I mentioned his success in that aspect of his game over the past 2 seasons. He probably won’t be any higher than 3rd in line for carries though and could go back to around his 2015 level of carries (43). Zach Zenner is currently penciled Abdullah’s primary backup on early downs and their short yardage back, though the 2015 undrafted free agent is an underwhelming option and has averaged just 3.75 yards per carry on 105 career carries. The Lions didn’t draft a running back at any point, so they seem relatively confident in Zenner behind Abdullah.

Zenner’s only real competition right now is 2016 7th round pick Dwayne Washington, but he averaged just 2.94 yards per carry as a rookie and isn’t even a lock for the final roster., Zenner should be considered the favorite for the complementary back role. Given his size advantage over Abdullah (5-11 221 vs. 5-9 203), he could be their goal line back and vulture a few touchdowns. Getting Abdullah back helps this running back group, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty at the position.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Despite a weak running game, the Lions’ offense was still pretty good last season thanks to their passing game. However, as I mentioned earlier, their passing game was their only real strength in 2016. The running game was a problem, but the bigger problem was on defense, both stopping the run and the pass. While their offense ranked 12th in first down rate, their defense ranked 29th in first down rate allowed, which is why the Lions were the lowest ranked team playoff team in first down rate differential last season. If they aren’t noticeably improved defensively this season, it’s going to be tough for them to make the playoffs again.

Fortunately, there are some reasons to be optimistic. The biggest one is defensive end Ezekiel Ansah’s bounce back potential. In 2014 and 2015, Ansah combined for 22 sacks and finished in the top-15 among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. In 2016, he plummeted to 26th and got to the quarterback just twice. The obvious culprit is the fact that he played most of the season with a bad ankle, so, assuming he’s healthy in 2017, there’s no reason why he couldn’t bounce back. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah is going into his age 28 season, so he’s still in the prime of his career. With Ansah going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Lions might try to lock him up long-term this off-season. That would be a little bit risky coming off the down year, but it could be worth it if they can get him relatively cheap.

If Ansah can bounce back to pre-2016 form, that will be a big boost for this defense. On the other side of the defense line, Devin Taylor, who made 16 starts in 2016, is no longer with the team, but that’s probably going to prove to be addition by subtraction, as Taylor was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd lowest ranked 4-3 defensive end in the league last season. There’s a reason he remains unsigned as of this writing, despite his starting experience and his relative youth (he will turn 28 this season).

In Taylor’s absence, second year player Kerry Hyder will probably have a bigger role at defensive end. Hyder actually had a pretty big role last season too, even though he only made 2 starts, playing 709 snaps. The 2016 undrafted free agent both played inside and outside, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus and leading the team with 8 sacks. This season, the 6-2 270 pounder will probably be more of a pure defensive end out of necessity. It’s hard to trust a still unproven player that no one wanted to draft a year ago, especially since he had just 3 sacks in the final 12 weeks of the season, but he’s certainly been a pleasant surprise for the Lions and could continue to play well for this team.

The Lions will need both Hyder and Ansah to play at a high level this season because their depth at the defensive end position is very suspect. It’s very surprising that they did not address the position in the draft until the 7th round, when they took Patrick O’Connor, who likely won’t be able to contribute as a rookie and is far from a lock to even make the final roster. The Lions’ other depth options at the position include Anthony Zettel, Armonty Bryant, and Brandon Copeland. Copeland is a 2013 undrafted free agent who didn’t make his NFL debut until 2015 and has spent the last 2 seasons as a reserve linebacker, playing just 140 snaps in 2016. The 6-3 260 pounder is a tweener linebacker/defensive end. Zettel is a 2016 6th round pick who played just 224 snaps as a rookie. Bryant might be their best option because he’s flashed pass rush ability in the past, but he has just 4 career starts since being drafted in the 7th round in 2013 by the Browns and was limited to 5 games with the Lions last season by multiple suspensions and an injury.

At defensive tackle, the Lions have a pair of solid run stuffers in A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata, but lack a good interior pass rusher and also have depth issues. Robinson is only going into his 2nd season in the league, so the 2016 2nd round pick could take a leap forward in 2017, but the 6-4 320 pounder has always been more of a base package run stuffer than a sub package interior rusher. He played respectably on 446 snaps as a rookie and should push for 500-600 snaps in 2017 if he can stay healthy.

Ngata, meanwhile, is in the opposite part of his career, going into his 12th season in the league and his age 33 season. He’s clearly on the decline, grading out below average last season for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ history, after finishing in the top-18 at his position in every season from 2007-2014. The 6-4 335 pounder isn’t anything more than an adequate run stuffer at this point in his career and could see fewer than the 577 snaps he saw last season. Going into the final year of his contract, Ngata has hinted that this will be his final season in the NFL. He also reportedly strongly considered retirement this off-season.

Given that, it’s surprising that the Lions didn’t add a defensive tackle in the draft until 6th round pick Jeremiah Ledbetter, as they lack depth and a long-term starter inside next to Robinson. Free agent acquisition Cornelius Washington will probably be their primary reserve and play a significant role in sub packages. The 6-4 295 pound converted defensive end has some pass rush ability, but the 364 snaps he played last season were a career high, so it’s unclear how he’ll transition to a bigger role. A 2013 6th round pick, Washington played in just 16 games combined (0 starts) in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season.

Washington will be one of the Lions’ two primary interior pass rushers in sub packages, but it’s unclear who will be the second one. A’Shawn Robinson may have to play more sub package snaps out of necessity, even though he’s completely unproven as a pass rusher. The Lions would probably like to line Hyder up inside in passing situations with regularity, but their lack of depth at defensive end will likely prevent that. Their other reserve defensive tackles who could earn a significant role are Khyri Thornton, Jordan Hill, and Akeem Spence.

Hill is the most proven of the three, but he played just 42 snaps with the Jaguars last season, after the Seahawks made him a final cut with an injury designation. Injuries have always been the issue for him, as he played just 27 games in his first 3 seasons with the Seahawks, who drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013. He’s flashed when healthy though, grading out above average in both 2013 and 2015. If he’s healthy, he could carve out a role as an interior pass rusher, but that’s a big if.

While Hill is at least somewhat proven, both Thornton and Spence have both struggled throughout their careers and would be underwhelming options. Spence has made 30 starts in 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013 by the Buccaneers, but he has been among the worst defensive tackles in the league in all 4 seasons. In 2016, he was especially bad, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd lowest ranked eligible defensive tackle on 362 snaps. Thornton, meanwhile, was their 5th lowest ranked eligible defensive tackle on 328 snaps in 2016. Thornton was originally a 3rd round pick by the Packers in 2014, but he never played a snap for them because of injury and has struggled in 2 seasons with the Lions. On top of that, he’s going into his age 28 season, so it’s not like he’s some bright young prospect anymore. The Lions have some good players on the defensive line and should be better than they were last season upfront, but their lack of depth is a major problem.

Grade: C

Linebackers

While the Lions largely ignored the defensive line in the draft, they did use their first round pick to fill a big need at linebacker, selecting Florida’s Jarrad Davis 21st overall. The Lions cut ties this off-season with former All-Pro linebacker DeAndre Levy, who had played just 5 games (248 snaps) the past 2 seasons thanks to injury. After he finished 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, the Lions re-signed him to a 4-year, 33.75 million dollar deal and paid him 18.25 million dollars over the past 2 seasons for basically nothing. His absence really hurt this linebacking corps.

Davis will play middle linebacker rather than outside linebacker, but he’ll move Tahir Whitehead from middle linebacker to outside linebacker, where he is a more natural fit anyway. Ideally, the Lions would have another good three down linebacker to go with Davis because Whitehead is best off as a pure base package player, but the Lions had a lot of holes to fill this season and it would have been tough to fill them all. A collegiate defensive end who played primarily special teams in his first 2 seasons in the league, Whitehead has been forced into 39 starts over the past 3 seasons because of injury, but has generally played well against the run. He’s been lost in coverage though and is coming off of easily his worst season, finishing dead last among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Perhaps a move back outside will help him, but he’s a liability in coverage regardless of where he lines up.

Free agent acquisition Paul Worrilow is also a liability in coverage, but he’ll play primarily a base package role as the other outside linebacker in Detroit’s 4-3 defense. Worrilow wasn’t bad as a reserve linebacker for the Falcons last season, but he only played 167 snaps and he struggled mightily as a starter in 42 starts from 2013-2015. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Worrilow was wildly under-qualified for a starting job and it showed on the field, as he finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. He might be alright in a situational role, but he’s an underwhelming player. Adding a talented rookie linebacker in Jarrad Davis will help, but if a rookie is your best linebacker, it’s probably not a good group.

Grade: C-

Secondary

While the Lions’ front 7 play was pretty terrible in 2016, they actually got some solid play in the secondary. With Ezekiel Ansah having a down year, #1 cornerback Darius Slay was easily the Lions’ best defensive player. A 2013 2nd round pick, Slay has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons and finished in the top-19 among cornerbacks in all 3 seasons. Only going into his age 26 season, his strong play should continue in 2017. He was a smart re-signing on a 4-year, 48.15 million dollar extension last off-season. He’s just the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL.

Opposite him, Nevin Lawson had a mini-breakout season in his first full season as a starter in 2017, finishing 37th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and making all 16 starts. He’s still a one-year wonder who finished 101st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in his first season of significant action in 2015, so it’s tough to trust him, but he could have another solid season opposite Slay. Working against him is his size at 5-9 195, which is why he fell to the 4th round in 2014. The Lions used a 2nd round pick on Florida cornerback Teez Tabor, but he’s more of a candidate for the #3 job than a threat to Lawson’s starting job. However, with Lawson going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could be his final season in Detroit.

The #3 cornerback job was the only real weakness in the secondary for the Lions last season, as Quandre Diggs finished 95th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 423 snaps. Diggs flashed as a rookie in 2015, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on 484 snaps, but was only a 6th round pick and will be pushed for the #3 job by both Tabor and free agent acquisition DJ Hayden. Hayden isn’t much of an upgrade on Diggs, so Tabor could see time down the stretch, but Hayden is probably the week 1 favorite. A massive bust as the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Hayden has missed 19 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league and has ranked 87th and 96th among cornerbacks in the last 2 seasons respectively.

At safety, Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson both played well last season, finishing 23rd and 21st respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Quin has been one of the more dependable defensive backs in the league over the past 7 seasons, making 112 starts in 112 games, first at cornerback in 2009 and then at safety for the past 6 seasons. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons. Going into his age 31 season, his days of finishing in the top-10 of safeties like he did at his peak in 2013 and 2014 are probably behind him, but he’s still an above average starter.

Tavon Wilson, on the other hand, is far less proven as 14 of his 18 career starts came last season. A 2012 2nd round pick, Wilson was primarily a backup in New England for the first 4 seasons of his career, but he always played well in limited action. Even though he’s a one-year starter, because of how he played as a reserve in New England and because he was a 2nd round pick, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had another strong season as a starter in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 27 season, so he should be in the prime of his career. The secondary is the strongest part of this defense.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Lions made the playoffs last season with 9 wins over non-playoff teams, with 8 of them being decided by a touchdown or less. If they are going to make the playoffs again this year, they are likely going to have to play significantly better, particularly defensively and in the running game. If they can be healthier, that should be a boost, but it’s not like they had an inordinate amount of injuries last season. Injuries are just part of the game and will likely remain an issue for them this season. There’s talent on this roster, but they have big question marks at running back, left guard, slot receiver, slot cornerback, linebacker, and on the defensive line. On paper, this roster looks average at best. 

Final update: The Lions will be without left tackle Taylor Decker for the first half of the season at least, after he suffered an off-season shoulder injury. That hurts their projection significantly. In addition, defensive end Kerry Hyder is out for the season and fellow defensive end Ezekiel Ansah could miss the start of the season. The Lions will have a tough time making the playoffs again this season.

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in NFC North

Chicago Bears 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At the end of last season, the Chicago Bears were on my list of teams that I expected to be significantly improved in 2017 in terms of wins. The Bears won just 3 games in 2016, but finished the season with 2 more first downs than their opponents and ranked 13th in first down rate differential. They went 3-13 because of a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and a -20 turnover margin, but both those are both metrics that tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis.

Outside of 20 snaps, this was a competitive football team last season and if they can play more turnover neutral football and execute a little better in close games, that alone will give them a few more wins. On top of that, the Bears were set to get a ton of reinforcements back from injury in 2017, after leading the league in adjusted games lost to injury in 2016, and they had the 3rd pick in the draft and among the most cap space in the league. They checked all the boxes of a team poised for a big jump in win total.

All that being said, I wasn’t impressed with a lot of the moves the Bears made this off-season, so I’m less confident in a big win improvement than I was a few months ago. The most questionable moves they made were at the quarterback position where they used a big chunk of their cap space to sign Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon to a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal and then used their first round pick to select Mitchell Trubisky. Not only did they spend pick #3 on Trubisky, but the Bears also sent another 3 picks to the 49ers (including #67) to move up from 3 to 2 to secure Trubisky, even though, as it was reported later, the 49ers didn’t have another offer on the table for the #2 pick and the Bears could have just drafted him at 3.

On the surface, the moves make a little bit of sense. Mike Glennon’s deal contains just 18.5 million in guaranteed money, so the Bears could conceivably move on from him after this season and get out of the remaining 26.5 million owed to him. Trubisky can spend a year learning behind Glennon and then take over as the starter in 2018. Quarterback is the most important position in the game, so it makes sense to spend a lot of resources to upgrade the position. However, I’m just not sold on either of the two quarterbacks they brought in and it’s very likely they overpaid for both.

Glennon may prove to be a low-end starting quarterback and an adequate stopgap, but he has thrown just 11 passes in the last 2 seasons as the backup to former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston, who replaced Glennon as the starter following the 2014 season. Glennon, a 3rd round pick in 2013, made 18 starts in 2013 and 2014 combined, completing 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.50 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, and showed some potential, but never finished outside of the bottom 3rd of quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Glennon is not an upgrade over Brian Hoyer, who the Bears had last season. Hoyer would have been a cheaper stopgap option, getting just 9 million guaranteed on a 2-year deal worth a maximum of 18 million from the 49ers this off-season, and he completed 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. There was no need to give Glennon that kind of money, especially since no other teams were offering more than 10 million annually to him.

As for Trubisky, he has more upside than Glennon, but is not NFL ready and is a boom or bust prospect. He has a good arm and impressive accuracy, but he played in a simplistic spread offense in college and made just 13 starts, all of which came last season. At this time last year, he was behind quarterbacks no one has ever heard of on North Carolina’s depth chart, before winning the starting job. He was Pro Football Focus #1 ranked quarterback prospect in a weak quarterback class, but he’s unlikely to have a year 1 impact and the Bears were the only team willing to take him as high as they took him, much like how they were the only team to offer Glennon what they offered him. Quarterback figures to be a position of weakness again in 2017.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

In addition to the mistakes the Bears made at the quarterback position this off-season, they also spent their cap space poorly and failed to noticeably upgrade their roster, despite entering the off-season with among the most cap space in the league. In fact, the Bears’ roster after free agency was arguably worse than it was before free agency because they lost top free agent Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles and he’s a more valuable player than anyone they signed at any position this off-season. Jeffery was one of the best wide receivers in the league over the past 4 seasons. His #33 finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2016 was his worst in 4 seasons and he maxed out at 3rd among wide receivers in 2015. Jeffery dealt with durability issues and was suspended for 4 games in 2016, but he will definitely be missed.

To replace Jeffery, the Bears took flyers on Markus Wheaton, Rueben Randle, and Kendall Wright, three receivers who have had success in the league in the past, but who came cheap this off-season for a variety of reasons. The trio has some potential, but, even though all 3 players came relatively cheap, they will make combined this season more than Alshon Jeffery, who signed a 1-year, 8.5 million dollar deal (plus incentives). That’s assuming Randle even makes the roster. None of them will be able to replace Jeffery.

Randle is the worst of the three and is far from a lock to even make the roster. Randle was out of the league entirely in 2016 and has bad knees, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2014 and is only going into his age 26 season so he was worth the minimum deal the Bears signed him to. Wright has had the most success of the three, as the 2012 1st round pick had 1000 yards in his 2nd season in the league in 2013 and finished 18th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he has averaged just 513 yards per season in the 3 seasons since, partially thanks to injuries that limited him to just 35 of a possible 48 games over that time period. He actually graded out above average for just the second time in his career last season, but was buried on the depth chart and played just 308 snaps in 11 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, a fresh start and could do him well and he’s definitely worth the 1-year, 2 million dollar deal he received in free agency, but he doesn’t have that high of an upside.

Markus Wheaton was the most expensive of the three, getting 6 million guaranteed on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal and probably has the inside track for the #3 receiver and primary slot receiver role. Wheaton is also young, going into his age 26 season, and coming off of injury, catching just 4 passes in 3 games last season due to an injured shoulder. Prior to his injury, the 2013 3rd round pick was a capable complementary receiver for the Steelers, but never topped 749 yards (2015) or 45th on Pro Football Focus. If he can stay healthy, he’s a capable 3rd receiver, but probably little else.

With that trio of free agent acquisitions being underwhelming, holdovers Kevin White and Cameron Meredith figure to play the majority of the snaps in 2-wide receiver sets. White is someone they could really use a breakout year from, as they try to replace Jeffery. The 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, White has barely been able to get onto the field because of injury thus far in his career. After missing his entire rookie season with a broken leg, White was limited to 4 underwhelming games (19/187/0) thanks to more leg injuries in 2016. If he can stay healthy, he has the potential for a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s a huge question mark.

Fortunately, the Bears have an undrafted free agent from 2015 who has picked up White’s slack, as Cameron Meredith, formerly of Illinois State, actually led them in receiving in 2016 with Jeffery missing 4 games with suspension, catching 66 passes for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns and finishing 53rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Meredith is a one-year wonder and probably isn’t anything more than a solid #2 receiver long-term, but he’s easily the Bears’ most reliable pass catcher with Jeffery gone. The Bears desperately need someone else other than him to step up in the passing game, but there’s a good chance he finishes the season as the Bears’ leading receiver for the 2nd straight year.

In addition to the three wide receivers they signed, the Bears also signed a tight end in free agency, giving Dion Sims a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Much like most of the Bears’ signings this off-season, it was an overpay. The 6-4 271 pound ex-Dolphin is an adequate blocker, but isn’t a threat in the passing game. Sims caught just 26 passes last season, despite being the Dolphins’ primary pass catching tight end for most of the season after Jordan Cameron went down for the season with a concussion, and he’s averaged just 9.45 yards per catch on 74 career catches since entering the league as a 4th round pick in 2013. He’s never once graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in those 4 seasons and ranked 38th among tight ends in 2016. He wasn’t worth half of what the Bears paid him.

He’ll compete for playing time with veteran holdover Zach Miller and 2nd round rookie Adam Shaheen. Shaheen is an incredible athlete at 6-6 278 and has great upside, but would ideally spend his whole rookie season as the 3rd tight end as he transitions from Division II Ashland. Whether or not the Bears have the luxury to be patient with Shaheen depends on how Sims performs and whether or not Miller can stay healthy, which he unfortunately has never been able to.

A 2009 6th round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miller never had more than 21 catches in a season in 3 seasons with the Jaguars and then missed 3 whole seasons from 2012-2014 with injury, but has shockingly played well in each of the past 2 seasons for the Bears, finishing 8th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He’s never played more than 579 snaps in a season and there are plenty of reasons to questions his ability to perform in 2017, given that he’s going into his age 33 season and coming off yet another foot injury, but he does have some upside. Expect him to be the “move” tight end, with Sims playing the inline role. Miller might be their 2nd most reliable pass catcher behind Cameron Meredith, which is reason for concern with Mike Glennon’s receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The one strength of the Bears’ offense last season was the running game, led by 5th round rookie running back Jordan Howard, who burst onto the scene with 1313 yards and 6 touchdowns on 252 carries last season, finishing 7th on Pro Football Focus among running backs. He was overshadowed by fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, but finished 2nd in rushing yards and 3rd in first downs behind him on a worse offense, despite 70 fewer carries and despite not taking over as the starter until week 4. His 5.21 YPC average was a tenth of a point higher than Elliott’s and second highest in the league. If not for Elliott and teammate Dak Prescott having outstanding rookie years, Howard would have been the easy Offensive Rookie of the Year choice.

Howard was the biggest reason why the Bears finished 13th in first down rate last season, despite issues at the quarterback position and in the receiving corps. Considering they have issues at quarterback and in the receiving corps once again, the Bears will need him to repeat his 2016 season if they’re going to have any chance at being respectable offensively this season. Howard is a good player, but that’s easier said than done. Not only is he a still unproven former 5th round pick, but repeating what he did last season is hard for any running back.

In fact, the only players in NFL history to have 250+ carries and average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons are Tiki Barber (2005-2006), Marshall Faulk (1999-2001), Clinton Portis (2002-2003), Barry Sanders (1989-1990, 1996-1997), and OJ Simpson (1973-1974). Howard could definitely have another strong season and average 4.5-4.7 yards per carry on 250-300 carries, but he’s unlikely to be as efficient as he was in 2016 and there’s definitely major downside here because the running back position tends to be inconsistent and injury prone.

The Bears’ depth behind Howard is pretty poor too, as the Bears averaged just 3.40 yards per carry on carries by running backs other than Howard last season, 1.81 yards per carry less than Howard. His primary backups are Jeremy Langford, owner of a career 3.51 YPC average on 210 carries, and Ka’Deem Carey, owner of a career 3.99 YPC average on 111 carries. The Bears also used a 4th round pick on Tarik Cohen out of North Carolina A&T, but he’s very undersized at 5-7 179 and isn’t anything more than a gadget player. Howard seems to have a very bright future, but he can’t be the Bears’ only playmaker.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Howard isn’t the only reason why the Bears had success on the ground last season though, as they got pretty solid play from the interior of their offensive line, especially in run blocking. They were unable to block for big gains for any of the Bears’ backup running backs, but that was more the fault of the backs. When healthy, the Bears’ interior offensive line of Josh Sitton (left guard), Cody Whitehead (center), and Kyle Long (right guard) is one of the best in the NFL. Unfortunately, both Sitton and Long did deal with injury problems last season, as did many members of this Bears’ team.

Long’s injuries were worse, as he was limited by a shoulder injury early in the year and then went down for the season with an ankle injury after just 8 games. Long’s recovery has had some complications this off-season, but he is still expected to be ready for training camp, which would be a big boost to this offensive line. Despite the shoulder injury, Long was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked guard when he was on the field and he was their 12th ranked guard in 2014 as well, with an underwhelming stint at right tackle in 2015 between. Barring further injury, he should play at a high level again in his age 29 season in 2017.

Sitton’s injury was less serious, but he did miss 4 games with an ankle injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard when on the field. That’s impressive, but what’s even more impressive is that’s his lowest rank since 2008, as he finished in the top-8 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons prior to last season. Going into his age 31 season, his best days might be behind him, but he’s still a very valuable interior offensive lineman. He’s also been an ironman over the years, missing just 2 games from 2009-2015 before the 4 games he missed last season, so he should be more available this season than he was last season. The Packers likely regret cutting him to save 6.85 million last off-season, now that he’s continuing to play at a high level with a division rival.

Whitehair, fortunately, did not miss a game last season and he was arguably the best of the three, finishing 6th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2016, as a mere 2nd round rookie. A collegiate left tackle at Kansas State, Whitehair seamlessly transitioned from left guard to left guard and then to center when Josh Sitton was signed. Like fellow rookie Jordan Howard, Whitehair far outplayed his draft slot as a rookie and, though he’s unproven, he has a very bright future. If he, Long, and Sitton all stay healthy this season, this is a very strong interior offensive line.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said about the tackle position for the Bears, where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie are underwhelming starters. Both are experienced (30 career starts for Leno, 61 for Massie), but their experience hasn’t been very good, as neither has ever graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in a single season. It’s a bit surprising that the Bears didn’t add a single offensive tackle in the draft, especially with Leno going into the final year of his rookie deal, but when you trade 4 picks to get Mitchell Trubisky, it’s tough to address all your needs. It’s a solid offensive line, but one that’s going to be susceptible to pressure off the edge.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

In addition to the injuries they had an offense last season, the Bears also had several key players injured on defense, including nose tackle Eddie Goldman. A second round pick in 2015, Goldman looked on his way to a promising breakout second season before injuries limited him to 197 snaps in 6 games. When on the field, he was a top-26 interior defensive lineman, after finishing 36th at that position as a rookie. If he can stay healthy in his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have the breakout year that injuries robbed him of in 2016. A 6-4 320 pounder, Goldman is primarily a run stuffer, but moves well for his size and can play a little bit in sub packages as an interior pass rusher. His ceiling is probably around 650-700 snaps, but he can still be a difference maker for them inside if healthy.

In Goldman’s absence, free agent acquisition Akiem Hicks was the Bears’ best defensive linemen in his first season with the Bears. The former Saint and Patriot, Hicks had the best season of his career in his 5th season in the league in 2016, playing 931 snaps and finishing 6th among 3-4 defensive ends. A true every down player, Hicks moves well for his size at 6-5 336 and plays well both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher. Hicks was the Bears’ defensive MVP on a unit that actually ranked a respectable 17th in first down rate allowed, despite a poor secondary. Hicks is not a one-year wonder either, as he’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2012. He figures to have another strong season in 2017, just his age 28 season.

Free agent acquisition Jaye Howard will likely be the 3rd defensive lineman. Re-signed to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal last off-season by the Chiefs, Howard is an above average player when healthy, but was limited to 8 games by injury last season and was subsequently cut by the Chiefs this off-season, who would have owed him 6 million. He’ll make less than half of that with the Bears this season and he’s a bounce back candidate, considering he’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and made 24 starts in 32 games for the Chiefs in 2014 and 2015. Howard will be backed up by 2016 3rd round pick Jonathan Bullard. Ballard struggled on 296 snaps as a rookie, but figures to have a bigger role in his second season in the league. Ballard was widely regarded as a steal in the third round and many expected him to go in the top-50 picks.

The Bears also like to line up outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and LaMarr Houston inside on passing downs, since both are bigger linebackers at 270+ and both have experience rushing from the inside. Both had injury plagued seasons last year though, particularly Houston, who was limited to 2 games by his second torn ACL in 3 seasons. Prior to the injuries, Houston was a solid player for the Raiders, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons since the first ACL tear. Now going into his age 30 season and coming off a second ACL tear, his best days are likely behind him. He’ll play a rotational role at most, assuming he stays healthy and even makes the final roster.

McPhee, on the other hand, has much more upside and having him back healthy could be very valuable for this defense, after he was limited to 9 injury plagued games in 2016 by knee problems. McPhee has never posted great sack numbers, but plays the run well and is one of the most efficient pressurers of the quarterback on a per snap basis over his career. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out above average in all 6 seasons in the league and has been a top-3 player at his position three times (2014 and 2015 at outside linebacker, 2011 at defensive tackle). He’s never played more than 594 snaps in a season, as he was a rotational player in Baltimore for the first 4 years of his career and has had knee issues in his 2 seasons in Chicago. If he can stay healthy, he’s a versatile piece for this defense that can play outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle and rush the passer both from the inside and the outside. The Bears have an underrated defensive front with McPhee and Goldman back healthy.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

In base packages, McPhee and Houston will primarily play outside linebacker, with Willie Young and Leonard Floyd, their best edge rushers, playing in sub packages. The veteran Young led all Chicago outside linebackers in snaps last season with 715. Proven in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense, Young has graded out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2010, maxing out at 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2015. The one concern with him is he’s already heading into his age 32 season, so he could be on the decline.

With Young aging, the Bears need last year’s first round pick Leonard Floyd, 9th overall out of Georgia, to step up in his 2nd year in the league, after grading out slightly below average on 537 snaps as a rookie. Floyd has potential long-term, but is still raw and remains undersized at 6-6 244. The Bears also have Sam Acho as a deep reserve, but they’ll want to avoid having to give him 500 snaps like they did last season, when he struggled mightily. He’s graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the league.

At inside linebacker, the Bears have another player coming off of injury, but one that might not be ready to go for the start of the season, as talented linebacker Danny Trevathan tore his patellar tendon in week 12 last season. The list of players that returned to form after a patellar tendon tear is pretty short and Trevathan will be just 9 months removed from the injury by week 1. If he contributes at all in 2017, I don’t expect him at full strength, a shame because he’s finished in the top-32 of linebackers on Pro Football Focus in his last 3 healthy seasons. The good news is he has youth on his side, only going into his age 27 season.

Fortunately, the Bears have a capable replacement on the roster in Christian Jones, who has 20 career starts. Thirteen of those starts came in 2015, when he actually graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, 38th among linebackers. He’s good insurance for Trevathan inside next to Jerrell Freeman, another talented veteran linebacker. Freeman has broken out in the past 2 seasons, finishing 4th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 1st in 2016. That came after he finished just 39th among 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2014. He’s no spring chicken, going into his age 31 season, and he missed 4 games at the end of last season after failing a performance enhancing drug test, which makes his sudden leap in play over the past 2 seasons suspicious. I’m skeptical he can continue to play at as high of a level in 2017, but he should still be an asset for this team, especially with Trevathan injured. Freeman is the best linebacker in a solid group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Not all of the Bears’ off-season signings were overpays that likely won’t help this team, as the Bears did add a couple nice pieces to their secondary, a big need this off-season. The Bears’ front 7 was solid last season even with injuries, but both cornerback and safety were big problem positions for them last season. Prince Amukamara, signed from Jacksonville this off-season, will slot in immediately as the Bears’ #1 cornerback, while Quintin Demps, signed from Houston this off-season, will fill a big hole at safety next to Adrian Amos.

Amukamara is a talented cornerback, but the Bears only signed him to a one-year deal, so he’s not exactly the franchise building block the Bears needed to find in free agency this off-season. The reason he was limited to a one-year deal for the second straight off-season is his durability, as he has missed 27 games in 7 seasons in the league and has only once played more than 14 games. He was paid pretty well on a one-year deal, as he’ll make 7 million this season. While durability is certainly a concern, he doesn’t lack talent, as the former first round pick has graded out above average in all 6 seasons he’s been in the league, including 32nd in 2015 and 41st in 2016. He’s easily the Bears’ best cornerback.

Quintin Demps, meanwhile, was signed to a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. He’s not exactly the franchise building block they needed either, as he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should be a big help. Despite his age, he’s actually coming off arguably the best season of his career, finishing 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. It’ll be tough for him to repeat the best season of his career again in 2017 given his age and he’s graded out above average in just one other season in his 9-year career (2015). Still, he’s an experienced starter (41 career starts, including 26 in the last 2 seasons) and a needed addition to this secondary at a reasonable price.

Not all of the Bears’ free agent additions to the secondary were smart moves though, as they also signed Marcus Cooper to a 3-year, 16 million dollar deal. A 2013 7th round pick, Cooper struggled mightily in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2016, finishing 100th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 15 games (13 starts) with the Cardinals. There’s a reason the Chiefs traded him to the Cardinals for a conditional 2018 7th round pick prior to final cuts last season. If they had been unable to trade him, they probably would have released him outright. I don’t know what he’s done in the year since to make him worth 16 million dollars on a 3-year deal. He’ll replace free agent departure Tracy Porter as a starting cornerback and figures to struggle again like he did in 2016.

Prior to last season, 2014 1st round pick Kyle Fuller was the Bears’ best cornerback. He seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, after finishing 37th among eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his second year in the league in 2015, but he has had a rough year since. Not only did he miss all of 2016 with a knee injury, but he appears to no longer be on good terms with the organization, who reportedly were unhappy with how slow his injury recovery was taking and questioned his work ethic.

Despite his talent and the fact that they used a first round pick on him just 3 years ago, the Bears declined his 5th year option for 2018 and are reportedly looking to trade him this off-season. If they are unable to move him, they might cut him, despite a very reasonable 1.6 million dollar salary. His 2015 season shows his upside when he’s healthy and he’s only going into his age 25 season, but that season was sandwiched in between a rookie season where he was hobbled by an ankle injury and last year’s lost season, so there’s definitely reason for concern with him even before you get into his work ethic.

With Amukamara and Cooper coming in, Fuller will be no better than 3rd on the depth chart, if he even makes the Bears’ final roster. He’ll compete with youngsters Cre’von LeBlanc (2nd year) and Bryce Callahan (3rd year), as well as journeyman free agent acquisition BW Webb. With Fuller injured, LeBlanc and Callahan actually finished 2nd and 3rd respectively on the Bears in cornerback snaps played last season, with 696 and 489 respectively, and both held up surprisingly well considering they’re recent undrafted free agents; both finished just below average among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Callahan also held up surprisingly well on 329 snaps as a rookie in 2015 too. Both are probably better off as #4 cornerbacks, but it’s very possible one of them is their 3rd cornerback this year ahead of Fuller. Webb is just on the roster for depth purposes and should not play anywhere near the 588 snaps he played with the Saints last season again. Webb is on his 5th team in as many seasons in the league since the Cowboys drafted him in the 4th round in 2013. He’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons he’s played and he’s far from a lock to even make the Bears’ roster, even as thin as they are at cornerback. It’s strange that the Bears didn’t add a cornerback in the draft, though they did have other needs and only 5 picks after their trades.

As I mentioned earlier, Adrian Amos remains as the other starting safety next to Demps. Amos isn’t a big name, but he was Chicago’s best defensive back in 2017, finishing 26th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Amos has far exceeded the expectations of his draft slot, making 30 starts in 2 seasons in the league and finishing in the top-29 safeties on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He should have another similar season in 2017. Amukamara and Demps make this a better secondary, but they definitely still have issues on the backend of their defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Like I said in early part of this preview, I was expecting a big jump in wins from the Bears from 2016 to 2017 until their off-season. They should have a better turnover margin, a better record in close games, and fewer injuries in 2017, but I just can’t get past the fact that they had one of the top picks in the draft and among the most cap space in the league and all they really have to show for it in terms of players who will make an impact in 2017 is Prince Amukamara, Quintin Demps, and maybe Jaye Howard.

Massive overpays of players like Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims, and Marcus Cooper were not wise uses of cap space. Add in the departure of Alshon Jeffery in free agency and the souring of the relationship between Kyle Fuller and the organization, following his absence due to injury for the entire 2016 season, and it’s tough to see this team being a real playoff contender. They should still have a decent sized jump in wins though, just because they weren’t nearly as bad as their record suggested in 2016, despite all their injuries, so taking the over on their odds maker projected win total of 5.5 makes a lot of sense. 

Final update: The Bears have already lost wide receiver Cameron Meredith, outside linebacker LaMarr Houston, and defensive end Jaye Howard for the season with injury, but the Bears will be getting middle linebacker Danny Trevathan back for the start of the season, which definitely helps. I wish the Bears did a better job this off-season, but it shouldn’t be hard for them to win a few more games than last season.

Prediction: 6-10, 4th in NFC North