Buffalo Bills 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills were a very improbable playoff team last season, for several reasons. They had the longest playoff drought in the NFL, with their most recent playoff appearance before last season coming almost two decades ago in 1999. Before the season, the Bills appeared to be building for the future, trading away their top receiver Sammy Watkins and their top cornerback Ronald Darby in August in trades that got them an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. On top of that, the way they actually qualified for the post-season was also improbable. Despite finishing 9-7, the Bills needed a Baltimore loss at home to the Bengals to qualify for the post-season, which came when the Bengals scored a stunning last second game winning 49-yard touchdown on 4th and 12.

Making their trip to the post-season even more improbable, the Bills really didn’t play all that well last season, despite winning 9 games. They were by far the worst team to qualify for the playoffs, finishing with a -57 point differential that was not only the worst among playoff teams, but also worse than 9 other non-playoff teams. Five of their 7 losses came by more than 10 points, as opposed to just 1 win by more than 10 points.

That’s despite the fact that they finished with a solid +9 turnover margin, 7th best in the league. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, so they won’t be able to rely on that in 2018. Case in point, the Bills had a league leading +14 turnover margin through the first 7 games of 2017 and were 5-2 with a +38 point differential as a result, but they were -5 in their final 9 games and went 4-5 with a -95 point differential in those games.

The Bills joined the Indianapolis Colts (+5) as the only teams in the league with a positive turnover margin and a negative point differential. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bills finished 31st in the league at -5.73%, easily the worst among playoff teams and only ahead of the aforementioned Colts. The Bills managed just 278 first downs on the season, as opposed to 348 for their opponents, a -70 differential that was the worst in the NFL last season. If you played the 2017 season 1000 times, I have a hard time believing the Bills would have made the playoffs even a quarter of the time.

Despite making the post-season, the Bills continued with their rebuild this off-season, trading starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for the 65th pick in the draft. Taylor was a solid starter in 3 seasons in Buffalo (43 starts), finishing 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively. Considering he came to Buffalo as a former 6th round pick who threw 35 passes in 4 seasons in Baltimore as Joe Flacco’s backup, Taylor was more than a pleasant surprise as the starter in Buffalo, but the Bills were never sold on him as their long-term starter.

Part of that was likely because he never fit the prototype for a franchise quarterback. In 3 seasons, his pass attempt totals were 380, 436, and 420, giving him an average of just 28.2 pass attempt per start, but he offset that by rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC), the second most rushing yards by a quarterback over that time period, only behind Cam Newton. He also put up decent passing numbers on those limited attempts, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.

Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the lack of talented weapons that Taylor had around him during his tenure in Buffalo. The lack of weapons around him also made his rushing abilities that much more valuable, as he could take off and run when receivers couldn’t get open downfield. The Bills got a decent return for him in a trade and save money by not having to pay his 16 million dollar salary for 2018, but he was an underappreciated starter and will likely be missed more than the Bills are anticipating.

Between their trades of Watkins, Darby, and Taylor, as well as their trade down with the Chiefs from 10 to 27 in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bills entered the 2018 NFL draft with an extra pick in the first round, an extra pick in the second round, and two extra picks in the third round (though they traded away with own 3rd rounder in another trade). They also traded away left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati this off-season in a deal that allowed them to swap the 21st pick for the 12th pick. The Bills then packaged the 12th pick, along with their two second round picks, in a deal to move up with the Buccaneers to draft Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen with the 7th overall pick.

Allen is a bit of a strange fit for the Bills, as he is a project who likely won’t be ready to start as a rookie and the Bills lack an experienced veteran quarterback to serve as the stopgap. Allen probably has the most upside of any quarterback in the draft, but is a major work in progress and put up disastrous numbers against ranked opponents in college. A quarterback like Josh Rosen, who is much more polished and NFL ready, seemed like a better fit for them given their situation, but they’re swinging for the fences with a quarterback that has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre, leaving Rosen to fall to the Cardinals at 10.

Allen will compete with AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, two quarterbacks with a combined 6 career starts, for the quarterback job. Peterman was a 5th round pick by the Bills in last year’s draft and still remains in high standing with the organization as a developmental prospect, despite struggling mightily in two rookie season starts, completing 49.0% for an average of 5.14 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. He likely won’t develop into anything more than a solid backup.

McCarron is the favorite to start week 1, after spending the past 4 seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. McCarron flashed in 4 spot starts when Dalton was hurt in 2015, completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 7.18 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and was widely regarded as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Even still, this is arguably the worst quarterback situation in the league unless Allen can exceed expectations and have success as a rookie. The Bills will likely start multiple quarterbacks in 2018 and may even start all three over the course of the season. Tyrod Taylor wasn’t the best quarterback in the world but, the Bills will likely miss him in 2018.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

While most of the Bills’ trades in the past year have been geared towards building for the future, they did acquire wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers for a 3rd round pick at the deadline last year to bolster their receiving corps. The move was a big surprise because Benjamin was Carolina’s #1 receiver and the Panthers were 5-3 and contenders in the NFC at the time. However, Benjamin never really meshed in Buffalo and dealt with lingering injuries, totaling just 16 catches for 217 yards and 1 touchdown in 6 games, so the Panthers look like the early winners of that trade.

That could obviously change if Benjamin has a big year in 2018 in his first full season in Buffalo, but that’s far from a guarantee. Benjamin had a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017 before getting traded, but that’s largely because of how many targets he was receiving. He’s caught just 53.8% of his targets in his career and has earned middling grades from Pro Football Focus as a result.

Part of that is because his quarterback in Carolina was Cam Newton, who has never completed a high percentage of his passes, but Benjamin was never as good as his numbers suggested in Carolina. He did show impressive ability on deep balls and has a career 14.4 yards per catch average, but, given all of the targets he received in Carolina, he should have done more with them. There’s a reason the Panthers were comfortable parting ways with him. He still has a lot of talent and upside, but, already going into his 5th season in the league, the Bills can’t expect him to be much better than what he’s been thus far in his career.

Benjamin could still have a big statistical year even if he doesn’t play all that well though, as he’ll likely remain a target monster on a team with a thin receiving corps. That could make him very expensive to keep as a free agent next off-season. Second year receiver Zay Jones is expected to be the other starter, but he was horrible as a rookie, catching just 27 of 74 targets for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns after going 37th overall. He averaged just 0.69 yards per route run on 461 routes, 2nd worst in the NFL, and finished 106th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF.

Jones dealt with shoulder and knee injuries during his rookie year, which could explain some of his struggles, but, after having off-season surgery to repair both injuries, he’s out indefinitely. It doesn’t sound like he’s in any danger of missing the start of the season, but it will cost him valuable off-season reps. If he’s healthy, he could be better in 2018, but that could be largely by default, given how overmatched he looked as a rookie. He’s no guarantee to ever develop into a competent starter, but the Bills need him to be that now, with no depth behind him and Benjamin on the roster.

With Jones struggling as a rookie and Benjamin not fitting in well as a mid-season addition, the Bills’ leaders in receiving yards in 2017 were tight end Charles Clay (558), running back LeSean McCoy (448), journeyman wide receiver Deonte Thompson (430), and backup tight end Nick O’Leary (322). Thompson is no longer with the team, signing with the Cowboys this off-season, so Jones is actually their leading returning wide receiver in terms of receiving yards.

Given that, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Bills didn’t add a wide receiver until the 6th round when they took Ray-Ray McCloud. They also took Austin Proehl in the 7th round, but neither are likely to make a rookie year impact, so it’ll be veterans Andre Holmes and Jeremy Kerley competing for the #3 receiver job. Both are journeymen and underwhelming options. Holmes had a decent 47/693/4 slash line in 2014, but hasn’t topped 354 snaps or 201 yards since then and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a bottom of the roster talent. Kerley is a more natural fit on the slot and is probably the favorite for the job, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and has been up and down in recent years, catching 16 passes in 2015, 64 passes in 2016, and 22 passes last season. Both will likely be involved in the offense, which is a testament to their lack of depth at wide receiver.

Given that, the Bills will have to rely heavily on their tight ends in the passing game again. Unfortunately, both Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary are underwhelming talents. Clay is a capable all-around tight end who has averaged 52 catches for 546 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he has degenerative knee problems and isn’t getting any younger, going into his age 29 season. He’s only missed 7 games in the past 3 seasons, but he’s only played all 16 games once in 7 seasons in the league. He may be their #2 option in the passing game, though largely by default.

O’Leary, on the other hand, is primarily a run blocker and even struggled in that aspect in 2017, which led to him finishing as PFF’s 62nd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible. He took on a larger role in the passing game out of necessity last season, but only finished with 22 catches for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 2015 6th round pick is now going into the final year of his rookie deal and looks unlikely to ever breakout as a real weapon in the passing game. The Bills once again lack weapons and depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: D

Running Backs

With a thin receiving corps, the Bills will once again rely heavily on feature back LeSean McCoy, both as a runner and a receiver. McCoy has topped 50 catches in each of the past 2 seasons and will likely do so again in 2018, barring injury. The Bills will likely become more of a pass heavy team with a more traditional quarterback under center, after finishing in the bottom-2 in pass attempts in all 3 seasons with Taylor at the helm. That shouldn’t affect McCoy’s carries though, as the reduction in rush attempts will come primarily from quarterbacks not taking off as often as Taylor did. McCoy has topped 200 carries in 8 straight seasons, the longest streak in the NFL, and should at least come close to the 287 carries he had in 2017, 2nd most in the league.

The concern with McCoy is twofold. For one, he likely won’t have a lot of room to run, given the lack of talent around him on offense. He’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he was helped by defenses having to worry about Taylor taking off and running and this is arguably the weakest supporting cast he’s had in 4 seasons with the Bills. The second issue is his age, as he’s going into his age 30 season.

McCoy is coming off of another strong season (despite an underwhelming 3.96 yards per carry average), finishing 8th overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but running backs break down quick after 30, especially ones like McCoy who have had a lot of touches in their career (2626 career touches). McCoy has never suffered a major injury, playing in at least 12 games in all 9 seasons in the league, but he’s dealt with a lot of nagging injuries and will likely break down and decline in the next 2-3 seasons. McCoy is probably the Bills’ most important offensive player, so if his abilities start to decline this season, it would be a big problem for this offense.

Ivory was signed to a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but won’t be anything other than a backup. Ivory has an impressive 4.36 career YPC on 1112 carries in 8 seasons in the league, but he is going into his age 30 season, has averaged just 3.59 yards per carry in the past 2 seasons, and is useless on passing downs, with just 94 catches in 95 career games. He shouldn’t see any more than 5-7 touches per game as long as McCoy is healthy.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Bills had issues on the offensive line last season and they could be even worse this season, after losing 3 starters this off-season, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, and Eric Wood. Glenn is the best player of the trio, but he missed 11 games with injury last season and the Bills also have an obvious internal replacement in Dion Dawkins, a 2017 2nd round pick who earned a positive grade in those 11 starts in Glenn’s absence last season.

Glenn was traded along with the 21st pick for the 12th pick, so the Bills got the equivalent of about a late second round pick for him. That’s not a bad return for a player who has missed 16 games with foot and ankle injuries in the past 2 seasons and who is owed 11.25 million in 2018 (6th most of any left tackle in the league), but Glenn was once one of the better left tackles in the league and is still only going into his age 29 season, so he had bounce back potential.

If they had kept Glenn, Dawkins could have played the right side. Instead, Jordan Mills remains locked in at right tackle. Mills has made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s been one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league over that time period. He was adequate in pass protection in 16 starts last season, but struggled mightily as a run blocker and finished 56th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’ll likely remain a liability in 2018.

Incognito and Wood will be tougher to replace than Glenn, as they don’t have obvious replacements for them. Both were capable starters in 2017 and Incognito was actually one of the better guards in the league, finishing 12th at his position on PFF, but both retired this off-season. The Bills signed Russell Bodine from the Bengals to replace Wood at center. He has plenty of experience, making all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons after going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s been one of the worst starting centers in the league over that time period. Last season, he was PFF’s 32nd ranked center out of 38 eligible. He’s not a lock for the starting job.

Ryan Groy is their other option at center. Groy doesn’t have Bodine’s experience, with only 11 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s flashed in limited action when counted on as a fill-in, both at center and guard. Groy’s versatility should also make him a candidate for either of the starting guard jobs. His primary competition for the guard jobs will be John Miller and Vlad Ducasse. Miller was the week 1 starter at right guard last season, but struggled so much in the first 4 weeks of the season that he was benched for Ducasse, a veteran journeyman.

Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has 32 career starts, but he’s struggled throughout his career. Ducasse performed admirably in 12 starts last season, but he is going into his age 31 season and earned negative grades from PFF in his previous 4 seasons prior to 2017. Fifth round rookie Wyatt Teller could also earn some playing time down the stretch, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Outside of new left tackle Dion Dawkins, this offensive line has major problems.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

With a lack of talent on offense, the Bills will need a strong performance from their defense if they’re going to have any shot of making it back to the post-season. They have more talent on defense than they do on offense, but they still finished just 27th in first down rate allowed last season. That was in large part due to their terrible run defense. They finished the season dead last in both rushing first downs allowed (121) and rushing touchdowns allowed (22) and got worse as the season went on, after trading overpaid defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars in a mid-season salary dump.

Given that, defensive tackle was a huge need for the Bills this off-season. They addressed it by signing ex-Panther Star Lotulelei in free agency, but they majorly overpaid him, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal that pays him 26 million over the first 2 years of the deal. Lotulelei is a competent run stuffer at 6-2 315, but doesn’t offer much on passing downs, with 11.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2013. He’s also coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, finishing last season 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’d be best as a two-down player, but his salary suggests they’ll be counting on him for an every down role.

Kyle Williams remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a one-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Just a 5th round pick back in 2006, Williams is by far the longest tenured Bill. He’s a 5-time Pro Bowler and was PFF’s 13th ranked interior defensive lineman as recently as 2016, but he’s going into his age 35 season and likely doesn’t have much left in the tank. He still earned a positive grade from PFF last season, while leading the Bills defensive line in snaps with 756, but didn’t play as well as the Bills were used to him playing and appears to be on the decline. After contemplating retirement this off-season, it’s very possible 2018 is his final season in the league.

Adolphus Washington finished with the second most snaps of any Buffalo defensive tackle last season with 509, but he struggled mightily, finishing 74th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled on 330 snaps as a rookie too and has been a major disappointment thus far in his career. He was a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run last season. He’ll have to compete to be the top reserve defensive tackle behind Williams and Lotulelei. The Bills also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a defensive tackle, taking Stanford’s Harrison Phillips with the 96th overall pick. He should also be in the mix for snaps and has the upside to develop into a long-term replacement for Kyle Williams.

The Bills are better at defensive end, led by top pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Hughes only managed 4 sacks, but that still led the team, as they had 27 sacks total. He also had 9 quarterback hits and 32 quarterback hurries on 454 total pass rush snaps, impressive considering he did not have a consistent pass rush presence opposite him, and he played well against the run. Hughes isn’t known for his run defense at 6-2 254, but he’s earned a positive pass rush grade in 6 straight seasons from PFF. He finished the 2017 season as PFF’s #10 ranked 4-3 defensive end and, despite going into his age 30 season, he should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank.

Shaq Lawson was the starter opposite Hughes last season. A first round pick in 2016, Lawson developed into a competent run stuffer in 2017 after a tough rookie year, but continued to struggle as a pass rusher. In 2 seasons in the league, Lawson has just 6 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback hurries on 374 pass rush snaps. He’s also missed 11 games with shoulder, knee, and ankle injuries. Growing impatient with Lawson’s development, the Bills signed ex-Redskin Trent Murphy to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season to give them a consistent pass rush presence opposite Hughes.

Murphy missed all of last season with a torn ACL, so it’s a bit of a surprise that he was able to get a good multi-year offer, but Murphy was an above average starter prior to the injury, so this signing definitely comes with a lot more upside than the Lotulelei signing. He was PFF’s 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both 2015 and 2016. He comes with risk, not just because of the injury, but also because he has a PED suspension on his resume and because he’s never played in a 4-3 front like the one the Bills run, but he should give their pass rush a boost. If Lawson can show a little bit more pass rush ability in 2018, the Bills would have a talented trio of edge rushers. This defensive line has still issues on the interior, but this isn’t a bad unit.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Along with defensive tackle, linebacker was also a huge position of need for the Bills this off-season. They got poor play from their linebacking corps, a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run, and they lost their top linebacker and leading tackler Preston Brown to the Bengals in free agency. In order to improve at the position, the Bills packaged their other first round pick (#22) with one of their extra third round picks (#65) to move up to 16th overall with the Ravens to draft Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.

Edmunds was a top-10 talent who slid because of an early run on quarterbacks and the Bills were wise to jump up and stop his slide. Not even 20 years old on draft day, Edmunds is a freak athlete with 4.54 speed at 6-5 253 and has the versatility to rush the passer, drop in coverage, and stuff the run. He’ll likely play close to every down as the Bills’ middle linebacker as a rookie, but could also see some snaps as a edge rusher because of his pass rush abilities. He may also be used as a blitzer more often than an average middle linebacker. Regardless of how they use him, he’ll have a big rookie year role for a linebacking corps that needs it. He’ll likely be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Second year linebacker Matt Milano is expected to be the other every down linebacker. Milano was just a 5th round pick and didn’t play a snap until week 4, but he flashed in limited action and was close to an every down player by the end of the season, playing in 68% of the team’s defensive snaps in the final 4 weeks of the season. Milano is a still projection to a larger role, but could easily develop into a capable starter.

His only real competition for snaps is Ramon Humber, a journeyman who is going into his age 31 season and who finished 33rd out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 570 snaps last season. He’s been in the league 10 years, but has primarily been a special teams player. He has just 28 career starts with 9 of them coming last season. He’d be a very underwhelming starting option. Milano at least gives them upside.

Veteran Lorenzo Alexander will likely remain the 3rd linebacker, though his age is a concern, going into his age 35 season. Largely a career special teamer, Alexander has taken on a larger defensive role over the past 2 seasons since arriving in Buffalo. He’s played 786 snaps and 672 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively, the two highest defensive snap totals of his 13-year career. Alexander shockingly put up 12.5 sacks in 2016, more than half of his career total (24.5), but did not play nearly as well in 2017, managing just 3 sacks and finishing with a below average grade on PFF.

He’s largely a one-year wonder, so I wouldn’t expect big things from him in 2018, especially at his age. He’ll be the 3rd linebacker in base packages and will also see some snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, though I would expect he’d be no higher than their 4th sub package edge rusher on the depth chart, behind Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, and Shaq Lawson. The addition of Tremaine Edmunds should upgrade this linebacking corps, as could Milano if he breaks out in an every down role, but both are young and unproven, so that’s far from a guarantee.

Grade: C+

Secondary

While the Bills had major problems against the run last season, their pass defense was solid, thanks primarily to their secondary. That came as a bit of a surprise, considering the Bills lost their top-2 cornerbacks from the previous season, losing Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency and then trading Ronald Darby to the Eagles. In fact, the Bills basically completely redid their secondary from 2016 to 2017 and they did it without adding any big name players.

Easily the most impactful addition they made to their secondary last off-season was first round pick Tre’Davious White, who excelled as the Bills’ de facto #1 cornerback as a rookie. Fellow first round cornerback Marshon Lattimore got more attention and certainly was deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award he won, but you could argue that White had just as good of a season. He allowed just 50.6% completion and 3 touchdowns on 77 targets, while picking off 4 passes and deflecting another 11. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback, 7 spots ahead of Lattimore. A sophomore slump is always a possibility, but he’s a first round talent with a bright future and could easily have another dominant season in 2018.

EJ Gaines had a solid season as the #2 cornerback opposite White, even though he was just a throw-in in the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams for a 2nd round pick. He finished the season as PFF’s 28th ranked cornerback, allowing just 5.12 yards per attempt and deflecting 6 passes on 60 targets. Despite that, the Bills opted to sign Vontae Davis, a cap casualty released by the Indianapolis Colts, early in February before free agency even started, rather than attempting to re-sign Gaines in free agency.

Gaines did have injury issues in 2017, missing 5 games with knee, shoulder, and hamstring injuries, but Davis also has an extensive injury history. Davis only missed 2 games in 2016, but dealt with ankle and groin injuries and finished the season as PFF’s 113th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible, after finishing 2nd at his position in 2014 and 24th in 2015. In 2017, his groin issues flared up again and he only played 5 underwhelming games before having season ending surgery.

Despite that, the Bills gave him a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. Davis has some bounce back potential, but he’ll need to stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. After seeing Gaines have to settle for just 4 million on a one-year deal from the Browns, the Bills might be kicking themselves a little bit for signing Davis instead. He’s unlikely to be better than Gaines was last season.

The Bills also got good play at the safety position in 2017 as well, with veterans Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer both having the best seasons of their career in their first season in Buffalo, finishing 16th and 18th respectively among safeties on PFF. Both are one-year wonders though, especially Poyer, a 7th round pick by the Browns in 2013 who made just 10 starts in 4 seasons before signing with the Bills. Hyde has more experience, making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers, who took him in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s never had a season like 2017 before. Both could continue their strong play into 2018, but there’s a good chance at least one of them regresses.

The only weakness the Bills had in the secondary last season was the slot, as top slot cornerback Leonard Johnson led the NFL with 603 slot yards allowed, including a whopping 355 yards after the catch (also most in the NFL). Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to be better on the slot this season, given their lack of depth at cornerback. Free agent addition Phillip Gaines is likely the favorite for the slot job, but he’s been one of the worst cornerbacks in the league over the past couple years, both outside and on the slot.

He finished the 2016 season as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible on 448 snaps and then finished the 2017 season 117th out of 120 eligible on 419 snaps. His primary competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Taron Johnson, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade immediately. The Bills should still get good secondary play in 2018, but they lost starter EJ Gaines and may not get the same performance from Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who are both coming off of career years.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bills surprisingly made the post-season last year, but they were arguably one of the worst teams in the league. Most of their wins were close, while most of their losses were not. And that was despite the fact that they had a capable quarterback under center and finished with a +9 turnover margin. This season, they have an unsettled situation at quarterback with a career backup competing with a raw rookie for the starting job and they’re unlikely to have the same success turnover margin wise, as that tends to be inconsistent week-to-week and year-to-year. As the Bills proved last year, you don’t have to be that good to sneak into the post-season in a 16 game season, but they’re unlikely to be able to repeat that and may end the season as one of the worst teams in the league. On paper, this team has a lot of problems.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Carolina Panthers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while adding 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground on 132 carries. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked quarterback and led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. However, Newton had never had a season nearly that good in the past and has struggled to live up to that season in the two seasons since. Newton has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF in another season and has arguably played some of the worst football of his career over the past 2 seasons.

In 2016, he finished 25th out of 36 eligible quarterbacks and completed just 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After posting a career best 99.4 quarterback rating in 2015 (10 points higher than any other season), Newton had a career worst 75.8 quarterback rating in 2016. He also posted some career worsts on the ground, averaging just 3.99 yards per carry on 90 carries and totaling 359 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career worsts.

Going into 2017, it was expected that diminished rushing production from him would be the new norm. Newton had never missed time with a significant injury, but he was coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and the Panthers wanted him to take fewer hits in order to preserve him long-term. Through the first 5 weeks of last season, he continued to post disappointing rushing numbers, as he had just 90 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 carries (3.10 YPC), but once he felt confident in his surgically repaired shoulder, he started taking off frequently again and actually ended the season with a career high in yards (754) and carries (139). The Panthers may have called fewer designed runs for him, but that did not stop him from taking off when he felt there was room to run.

While Newton’s rushing stats improved from 2016 to 2017, his passing stats really didn’t. His QB rating was higher than 2016, but not by much, as his 80.7 QB rating was the 2nd worst of his career. His completion percentage improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but he still only completed 59.1% of his passes and his completion percentage only went up because he was attempting more shorter, high percentage passes. His YPA average was the worst of his career at 6.71 and his touchdown to interception ratio of 22 to 16 was not impressive either. He once again earned a negative overall grade from PFF.

Going into his age 29 season, Newton is still young, but it’s becoming clear that his 2015 performance will look like the outlier when his career is all said and done. On top of that, Newton may not age as well as other quarterbacks because of the amount of hits he takes and because of how reliant he is on his athleticism. In 2018, he should still have the type of season we’re used to from him, but he’ll need better play around him if this team is going to have a shot at making another deep post-season run in the loaded NFC.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Despite a standard at best season from Cam Newton, the Panthers still had a big leap in wins from 2016 to 2017, going 11-5 after a 6-10 season. They improved noticeably in first down rate differential, going from -1.72% to +1.85%, though that’s not as drastic of a leap as their record suggested. The big difference is they improved dramatically in close games. After going 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less in 2016, they finished 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2017, a big part of the reason why they had such an improved record.

The Panthers made the post-season at 11-5, but were one of the worst qualifying playoff teams. Their 11 wins came by a combined 98 points, while their 5 losses came by 62 points, giving them a point differential of +36 that ranked just 12th in the NFL, behind non-playoff teams like the Ravens and Chargers. Once in the post-season, they lost in their first game in New Orleans. They were definitely not a bad team in 2017, but they were not as good as their record suggested. They could easily have a couple fewer wins in 2018 without playing any worse.

On top of that, they had arguably the biggest free agent loss of any team this off-season, with left guard Andrew Norwell signing with the Jaguars for 66.5 million over 5 years. That contract makes Norwell the highest paid guard in the NFL, but it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. A hidden gem of a 2014 undrafted free agent, Norwell became a starter midway through his rookie season and never looked back, making 54 starts in 4 seasons with the Panthers and finishing in the top-12 among guards each of the past 3 seasons, including a career best #5 rank in 2017.

The Panthers effectively made the decision to let Norwell go last off-season, when they gave big contracts to free agent acquisition left tackle Matt Kalil and right guard Trai Turner, who was also heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 along with Norwell. With center Ryan Kalil also on a contract that pays him well (7.125 million owed in 2018), it was hard to justify another large contract on the offensive line, especially with right tackle Daryl Williams going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Norwell was talented enough to at least get the franchise tag from the Panthers, but the Panthers just didn’t want to commit any more money to the offensive line, so they just let him walk.

The Panthers seem to have made a mistake giving Turner and Kalil big contracts instead of Norwell. Turner is a talented guard as well, but he hasn’t been as good as Norwell. Turner went in the 3rd round in 2014 and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, with his best coming in 2015 (4th), but he ranked just 24th in 2017 and 34th in 2016, so he’s not quite the consistent elite player that Norwell was. The Panthers re-signed him to a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. It’s not a bad contract, but the Panthers would have been better off keeping Norwell over him.

Kalil, on the other hand, looks like a complete waste of money just one year after being signed to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal that pays him 25.6 million in the first two years of the deal. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kalil looked like a future franchise left tackle when he finished 28th among offensive tackles in 16 starts at left tackle for the Vikings in 2012, but he’s finished below average on PFF in every season since his rookie year and 2017 was arguably his worst season, as he finished 74th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles, after missing all but two games in 2016 with injury. Why the Panthers decided to pay him like a franchise left tackle is beyond me. It’s possible he’ll be cut next off-season if he does not bounce back in 2018.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is probably their best offensive lineman, which is a big difference from this point last year, when Williams was just a 2016 4th round pick with 12 underwhelming career starts. In fact, the Panthers used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft as competition for him, taking Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton, but Williams won the job and ran with it, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. Williams is obviously a one-year wonder, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. He’ll probably be expensive to keep long-term, but, after losing Norwell this off-season, they can’t afford to lose Williams too.

With Williams locked in at right tackle, Moton will compete to replace Norwell at left guard. Moton profiled as a future starter coming out of college and, though guard is a new position for him, he could easily develop into a capable starter, after playing just 63 nondescript snaps as a rookie. His main competition will be Jeremiah Sirles, a veteran journeyman who has 15 career starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers and Vikings. Sirles has never received a positive grade from PFF since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and would be best as a reserve. He’ll likely only start if Moton struggles with the position switch this off-season.

Ryan Kalil, older brother of Matt Kalil, rounds out the offensive line at center. Ryan has had a much better career than Matt, making 5 Pro Bowls and 2 All-Pro teams in 11 seasons in the league. He also finished in the top-9 among centers on PFF in 6 seasons, with his most recent season in the top-9 coming in 2015, when he finished 3rd among centers. However, he’s been limited to just 14 underwhelming starts in the past two seasons and is unlikely to have a bounce back year in 2018 in his age 33 season. With only one more year left on his contract, Kalil has already announced he will be retiring after the season. He could have one more solid season left in him, but that’s far from a guarantee given his age and recent injury history. Backup Tyler Larsen was not bad in his absence last season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll even be an upgrade over him. His return won’t be enough to offset the loss of Norwell.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In addition to losing Andrew Norwell, the Panthers also lost wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, though that was a voluntary “loss,” as they sent him to the Bills at the trade deadline during the 2017 season for a 3rd round pick. At the time, it was a huge surprise. The Panthers were 5-3 at the time and very much in the playoff mix. Benjamin was their #1 receiver who totaled a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017.

Even if the Panthers were not planning on extending Benjamin beyond the final year of his contract in 2018, giving him up for a mere 3rd round pick with a year and a half left on his deal and with the team in playoff contention did not make a ton of sense. The Panthers claimed the move was made because they wanted to open up opportunities for other receivers, but Benjamin’s deep threat ability helped pull coverage away from other receivers, so that explanation never made any sense. There were likely issues going on behind the scenes that the general public was not aware of.

The Panthers do look like the early winners of the deal, but that’s primarily because Benjamin struggled with the Bills after joining mid-season, managing just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in 6 games. He dealt with nagging injury problems and never got on the same page with new quarterback Tyrod Taylor. In Benjamin’s absence, 3rd year player Devin Funchess did breakout a little bit to help compensate. He actually received fewer targets (53) in 8 games without Benjamin than he did in 8 games opposite him (58) and he caught fewer balls as a result (30 vs. 33), but his yards per reception average jumped from 10.8 to 16.1 and his yardage and touchdowns jumped from 357 yards and 3 touchdowns to 483 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Funchess enters the 2018 season as the #1 option. He could easily continue his strong play from the second half of last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s basically a one-year wonder and struggled earlier in his career. In 2016, he managed just a 23/371/4 slash line on 59 targets and finished 106th out of 119 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a talented former 2nd round pick and only going into his age 24 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career and it’s premature to consider him a true #1 receiver.

The Panthers also used a first round pick on a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Maryland’s DJ Moore with the 24th overall pick. Moore was the first wide receiver off the board in a weak wide receiver class, but he wasn’t a bad value at 24. Rookie receivers often take a year or two to develop, but Moore has the opportunity to start immediately with a good off-season. His main competition for playing time are 2017 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel and veteran journeyman Torrey Smith.

Samuel was a high pick, but is more of a hybrid running back/receiver than a true wideout. He played just 225 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, catching 15 passes for 115 yards and rushing for 64 yards on 4 carries. His best game came week 10 when he caught 5 passes for 45 yards on 40 snaps against the Dolphins, but he also broke his ankle in that game, which ended his season. Complications from that injury threaten to keep him out at least until training camp, which does not help his chances of earning a big role in 2018. With uncertain health and a non-traditional skill set, it’s unclear what his role will be this season.

Torrey Smith is the veteran of the bunch, although he hasn’t been good in years. Smith topped 750 yards in all 4 seasons with the Ravens, after they took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he hasn’t been nearly as good since leaving, averaging a 30/453/3 slash line over the past 3 seasons, first with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016 and then with the Eagles last season. He’s been especially bad over the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom-5 of wide receivers on PFF in both seasons.

The Panthers strangely decided to trade for him and his 5 million dollar salary, even surrendering a promising young defensive back (Daryl Worley) in the deal. They’re thin enough at wide receiver that he’s very much in the mix for a role and he’s still only going into his age 29 season, so there’s some theoretical bounce back potential here, but he hasn’t shown it in years. His skill set reminds of Ted Ginn, who has had success with Cam Newton in the past, so he’s a good fit, but the Panthers could have probably signed him for half of what he’s making if they had just waited for the Eagles to release him.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Panthers will need a bounce back year from tight end Greg Olsen, who had just 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in 2017 after three straight 1000+ yard seasons. Olsen broke his foot week 2 and was never the same. He was limited to 358 underwhelming snaps in 7 games. Going into his age 33 season in 2018, there’s some concern if he’ll ever return to his old form, but, even if he’s not quite his old form, he’s still a useful weapon. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but he finished in the top-2 in pass catching grade among tight ends in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

While Olsen was hurt last season, he briefly did some broadcasting work, hinting at a post-NFL career, and then he auditioned for Monday Night Football this off-season, though that might have mostly been a negotiating ploy, as he was trying to get an extension from the Panthers. He eventually did get that extension, worth 17.1 million over 2 years, which keeps him in Carolina through 2020, and now he says he’s committed to playing.

Even so, the Panthers needed to address the tight end position in the draft and did so by taking Ian Thomas with the 101th overall pick (4th round). Not only did they need a long-term successor for Olsen, but they needed someone to be their #2 tight end immediately. Ed Dickson led the team in tight end snaps last season with 870 in Olsen’s absence, but he’s no longer with the team. He finished last season 51st out of 72 eligible tight ends, so it’s not a huge loss, but Thomas is very raw, especially as a blocker, so he might not be an upgrade as a rookie. Blocking specialist Chris Manhertz will likely also be in the mix too, though he’s a pure blocker who blocked on 238 of 288 snaps last season and has just 3 catches in 3 seasons in the league. It’s an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Given how thin they are in the receiving corps, running back Christian McCaffrey will once again have to play a big role in the passing game. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey led the Panthers with 80 catches last season and finished second on the team with 651 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdown. McCaffrey is more of a hybrid than a traditional running back, playing 139 snaps on the slot and 59 snaps out wide and only carrying the ball 117 times.

McCaffrey actually only averaged 3.72 yards per carry on those 117 carries, though he got much better as his rookie year went on, averaging 4.68 yards per carry on 68 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. Even though he was a high pick, McCaffrey is unlikely to ever be a 300+ carry back, as the Panthers want to get him the ball 60-80 times in the passing game and he’s not built for 350 touches per year at 5-10 205. He’s an explosive playmaker who can line up all over the field, but the Panthers don’t want to wear him out.

It looked like McCaffrey would be in for a significantly larger role as a ball carrier when the Panthers let veteran running back Jonathan Stewart go and did not add a replacement for his 198 carries early in free agency or in the draft, but they signed ex-Bronco CJ Anderson a couple weeks after the draft. Anderson will likely take over most of Stewart’s vacated carries and he should be an upgrade.

Stewart was a plodding veteran that averaged just 3.43 yards per carry and finished 53rd among 60 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Anderson, on the other hand, is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 9th among running backs on PFF and totaling 1007 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 241 carries (4.18 YPC), despite playing on one of the worst offenses in the league in Denver. Anderson was only let go by the Broncos for salary reasons and is a great value on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Carolina.

Anderson doesn’t do much on passing downs, but neither did Stewart. He’s an excellent complement for McCaffrey. McCaffrey and Anderson are both talented runners, but they cap each other’s rushing production as long as both are healthy, as does the presence of Cam Newton, who is a sure bet to take off and run with the ball at least 100-120 times himself. The Panthers figure to once again be a run heavy team (490 carries to 501 pass attempts last season) and should get better production out of their backs with Anderson replacing Stewart and McCaffrey continuing to develop.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The reason the Panthers are able to be a run heavy team is because they have an above average defense that allows them run a more conservative offense. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly gets most of the attention, but defensive tackle Kawann Short is arguably just as important to this defense. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Short has finished well above average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, with his best play coming in the past 3 seasons. He’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in all 3 seasons, while totaling 24.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits and playing excellent run defense at 6-3 315. Outside of Aaron Donald, he’s arguably the best interior defensive lineman in football. Carolina wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar extension last off-season after franchise tagging him.

The Panthers also added defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the 2013 draft, taking him 14th overall in the first round, though he never came close to developing into the player Short did. Lotulelei signed with the Bills this off-season, but he won’t be missed, considering he finished 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF last season and considering the Panthers signed upgrade Dontari Poe to replace him. Poe comes in on a 3-year, 28 million dollar deal, which is actually less annually and in total money than Lotulelei got from the Bills (50 million over 5 years).

A 2012 first round pick, back problems forced Poe to settle for a one-year deal worth 8 million from the Falcons last off-season, as he couldn’t find the money on a long-term deal that he wanted. Poe finished as PFF’s 26th ranked defensive tackle on 784 snaps last season and didn’t miss a game with injury, so free agency went better for him the 2nd time around. Poe has been up and down in 6 seasons in the league and he’s dealt with several injuries, but he’s also only missed 2 games in his career, while averaging 850 snaps per season. At 6-3 346, Poe is built like a pure 3-4 nose tackle, but he has the versatility and the athleticism to play in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He’s a good fit in Carolina next to Short and should be an upgrade on Lotulelei.

The Panthers also have 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler in the mix at defensive tackle. Butler was a strange selection, given that the Panthers already had Short and Lotulelei ahead of him on the depth chart, and the decision doesn’t look any better now, with Poe coming in on a long-term deal and Short locked up on a long-term deal. Butler has played just 520 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have an easy path to playing time in 2018. The Panthers’ decision to sign Poe suggests that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with Butler as a starter yet, which is a bad sign for his development as he heads into his 3rd season in the league. He has some potential, but won’t play a huge role as a reserve. Veteran journeyman Kyle Love (377 snaps in 2017) is also in the mix and may even continue playing ahead of Butler, even though Love is an underwhelming talent.

The Panthers are not quite as well off at defensive end as they are at defensive tackle, but they did have a pair of double digit sack guys in 2017, with Mario Addison and Julius Peppers both tallying 11 sacks. Addison was the better of the two overall, as he also had 3 hits and 43 hurries and finished 24th among 4-3 defensive ends last season in overall grade on PFF. Addison was underwhelming earlier in his career, but he proved to be a late bloomer. In addition to his strong 2017, he also finished 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s not good against the run at 6-3 255, but he should have another solid season rushing the passer.

Peppers, on the other hand, is far from a guarantee. His sack total was impressive last season, especially since he only played 499 snaps, but he was not as good as his sack total suggested, as he had just 5 additional quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries. He finished with an average grade from PFF. Even more of a concern is the fact that he’s going into his age 38 season. Peppers is a future Hall of Famer and still showed himself to have something left in the tank last season, but he’s hard to trust given his age. He’s one of the oldest defensive players in the league.

Charles Johnson was their top reserve last season, but he struggled mightily on 389 snaps and was released this off-season. Wes Horton (359 snaps in 2017) is still in the mix, but he’s never been anything more than a rotational player and has never earned a positive season grade from PFF in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2013. Instead, second year defensive end Daeshon Hall may be their top reserve. Hall was selected 77th overall by the Panthers in 2017 and has the tools to develop into a starter, though he’s kind of an unknown commodity after missing all but 9 snaps with injury as a rookie.

The Panthers also added another defensive end in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes in the 4th round. With Julius Peppers possibly entering his final season and Mario Addison also on the wrong side of 30, the Panthers are stocking up on developmental defensive ends. Unlike Hall, Haynes is undersized at 6-3 235 and will likely never be an every down defensive end, but he could develop into a useful situational pass rusher. The Panthers may also give him a look at linebacker because of his athleticism. It’s unclear what his rookie year role will be, but he has upside as a Bruce Irvin type hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He adds depth to a talented defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly is an All-Pro caliber talent in this front seven. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been one of the best linebackers in the league basically from week 1 of his rookie year. He’s finished in the top-8 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including 4 straight seasons in the top-2, and he has both a Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Injuries have been a bit of an issue for him in recent years, as he’s missed 10 games in the past 3 seasons and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014, but, when healthy, he’s one of the most impactful defensive players in the league. He’s a true three down linebacker with no weaknesses in his game.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis used to be a similar caliber linebacker and, at one point, he and Kuechly were arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL, but Davis is now going into his age 35 season and on the decline. Davis was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as recently as 2014 and finished 8th at his position in 2015, but he’s been about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2017. He’s already announced he plans to retire after the season.

The Panthers used the 25th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft with this scenario in mind, taking Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington. Thompson has shown that first round talent, earning well above average grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but his 640 snaps in 2017 were a career high. He’s been mostly limited to a base package linebacker role behind Kuechly and Davis, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Panthers frequently kept him on the field against 3-wide sets as a slot cornerback in 2017, as he was simply too talented to take off the field. Davis has said he expects to play fewer snaps in his final season, suggesting Thompson may be close to an every down player at linebacker in 2018. More playing time at his natural position should be a good thing for him, as the 6-0 230 pounder struggled on the slot.

Thompson will be an every down player for the first 4 weeks of the season at least, as Thomas Davis will miss time with suspension after failing a drug test. When Davis returns, it will likely be to a reduced role, though he could easily still prove to be a useful player. David Mayo is expected to be the 3rd linebacker behind Kuechly and Thompson in Davis’ absence. A 5th round pick in 2015, Mayo saw 133 snaps last season when Kuechly was hurt and wasn’t bad. He may face competition from Marquis Haynes if they decide they want to try him as a linebacker, but Mayo should be able to hold down the fort in a base package role for the first month of the season. Even with Davis’ suspension, the Panthers have a strong linebacking corps, led by All-Pro Luke Kuechly and breakout candidate Shaq Thompson.

Grade: A

Secondary

While the Panthers still have a strong front 7, they’ve struggled in the secondary since losing cornerback Josh Norman after their Super Bowl season in 2015. To try to replace Norman, the Panthers used a pair of draft picks on cornerbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking James Bradberry in the 2nd round and Daryl Worley in the 3rd round. The results have been underwhelming. Both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus as rookies in 2016, in 13 and 11 starts respectively, but then both took a step both in their second season in the league in 2017. Worley was then shipped to the Eagles this off-season in the Panthers’ bizarre trade for Torrey Smith.

Bradberry remains and enters his third season in the league as the Panthers’ de facto #1 cornerback. He has the tools to develop into a top level cornerback, but has yet to show it consistently. The Panthers will be hoping he takes a leap forward in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee. Between Bradberry’s inconsistent play, Worley’s departure, and veteran slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s struggles in 2017, cornerback was an obvious position of need for the Panthers this off-season and they address it by adding another two cornerbacks in the draft and by signing veteran Ross Cockrell in free agency.

Bradberry is likely locked into a starting role outside, but the other starting outside spot and the top slot cornerback spot are up for grabs. Cockrell was a smart signing on a 2-year, 6.6 million dollar deal and is likely the favorite for the other starting job. He’s made 32 starts in the past 3 seasons, including all 16 with the Steelers in 2016, and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should be an upgrade on Worley if he wins the starting job.

Captain Munnerlyn was their primary slot cornerback last season, but he struggled, finishing 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and was limited to just 388 snaps on the season, with linebacker Shaq Thompson eating into his playing time on the slot as the season went on. Munnerlyn has been better in the past, earning a positive grade in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016, but he’s undersized at 5-9 195 and might not age well, going into his age 30 season. He’ll face plenty of competition for his natural slot role and doesn’t have the size to play outside consistently.

Second round rookie Donte Jackson will likely be Munnerlyn’s toughest competition, though last year’s 5th round pick Corn Elder could also be in the mix, as he’s a natural slot cornerback. Elder also missed all of last season with injury, so he’s not a lock for the final roster. The Panthers also used a 3rd round pick in this past draft on Rashaan Gaulden, but his lack of speed (4.63 40) may make him a better fit as a safety long-term, which is also a position of need for the Panthers.

Veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams were the starters in 2017, making 12 starts and 16 starts respectively, but Coleman finished 82nd out of 89 eligible safeties and was subsequently let go this off-season, while Adams is going into his age 37 season and won’t be able to keep doing this for much longer. Adams is likely locked into one of the starting roles and played pretty well last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is really up there in age, so he could easily struggle in 2018.

Veteran free agent acquisition Da’Norris Searcy is likely the favorite for the other starting spot, with Gaulden and possibly career special teamer Colin Jones providing competition. Searcy had 56 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but played just 365 underwhelming snaps for the Titans last season and is going into his age 30 season. He’s a solid box safety, but little else, so he’s not really an upgrade on Coleman. If he starts, it’s because the Panthers lack a better option. This secondary still has problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers went 11-5 in 2017, but needed to win a lot of close games to get there and they may not have the same success in close games in 2018. On top of that, they lost top offensive lineman Andrew Norwell in free agency. They upgraded running back and defensive tackle this off-season and could have a better linebacking corps with Shaq Thompson taking on an every down role, but they still have major issues in the receiving corps and in the secondary.

They do get tight end Greg Olsen back from injury, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the same upon his return given his age and the Panthers will also likely have to deal with other injuries, just because of the nature of the game. They had an average amount of adjusted games lost last season, so they can’t expect significantly better health in 2018. Olsen is also not their only starter who is well over 30 either, as they have 5 projected starters who are going into their age 33 season or older (Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Mike Adams). 

The Panthers will still be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they also play in the much tougher NFC and in arguably the toughest division in football, so it’s going to be tough for them to make it back. If they lose a lot of close games against a tough schedule, they could easily fall back under .500. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons only declined by 1 win from 2016 to 2017, but they were not nearly as good last season as they were the season before. In 2016, the Falcons were an elite 11-5 team that finished 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77% and then came up just short in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. In 2017, the Falcons were a slightly above average 10-6 team that finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28% and lost in the second round to the Eagles.

The big difference was on offense. In 2016, the Falcons were one of the best offenses in recent memory, picking up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate. For comparison, the Saints ranked 2nd in that metric that season at 40.72%. There was a bigger difference between the #1 and #2 ranked offense than there was between the #2 and #9 ranked offense. In 2017, they were still good, finishing 5th in first down rate, but “only” picked up first downs at a 36.89% rate. A year after totaling 379 first downs and 58 offensive touchdowns, the Falcons managed 330 first downs and just 33 offensive touchdowns.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had the biggest drop off. In 2016, he completed 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, putting up the 5th best single-season quarterback rating in NFL history and winning MVP. In 2017, he completed just 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. It’s a huge difference, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ryan’s 2016 QB rating was 18 points higher than any other season in his career and will likely look like the outlier in Ryan’s career when all is said and done.

That’s not to say Ryan isn’t a good quarterback, as he’s a top-10 player at his position and has been a consistent starter for a while. The 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Ryan has completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 260 touchdowns, and 126 interceptions in his career. He’s finished in the top-11 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made all 128 starts over that time period.

He’s going into his age 33 season, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and should be able to play at a high level into his mid 30s and possibly later. With one year left on his contract, the Falcons made the only choice they really could make and signed him to an extension that made him the highest paid quarterback in NFL history. The extension has a total value of 150 million over 5 years with 94.5 million paid out in the first 3 years and 100 million total guaranteed. It all but ensures Ryan will be the Falcons quarterback through the next 5 seasons.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Matt Ryan and the rest of this offense also had to deal with a change in coordinator as well, as talented offensive mind Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers following the Super Bowl loss and was replaced by long-time college coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian got a lot of blame for an offensive decline that likely would have happened even without him, but his playcalling was unoriginal and he struggled to get the most out of a talented offense, especially around the goal line. As talented as this offense is, they didn’t even score a touchdown on 50% of red zone visits (49.18%, 23rd in the NFL).

No stat exemplifies their red zone issues more Julio Jones’ 5 receptions on 19 red zone targets. Jones is physically dominant at 6-3 223 and is one of the best wide receivers in the league, catching 88 passes for 1444 yards and finishing #1 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but the Falcons simply could not get the ball into his hands in the red zone. As a result, he managed just 3 touchdowns all season and just 1 of them came from within the red zone. The Falcons surprisingly decided to keep Sarkisian this off-season, so they’ll obviously be hoping that another year in the system will help work out some of the kinks and get more out of their offensive talent.

Jones is their biggest offensive talent around Matt Ryan. He’s topped 1400 receiving yards in each of the last 4 seasons and has finished in the top-7 on PFF at his position in all 4 of those seasons, including 3 straight finishes in the top-2. Over that 4-year stretch, he’s totaled 411 catches for 6,317 yards, both 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind Antonio Brown, but he also only has 23 touchdowns, so even before last season he’s never been a huge threat near the goal line. Shockingly he has just 43 career receiving touchdowns in 97 games. There may not be a better receiver outside of the 20 though and it’s hard to imagine him not scoring more than 3 touchdowns in 2018.

In addition to his red zone issues, the other concern with Jones is his durability. He’s only missed 3 games in the past 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in 2017, but he’s been limited by several nagging injuries and rotated in and out of the lineup far more frequently than other top receivers last season, playing just 74.7% of the snaps in the regular season. His 765 regular season snaps ranked just 34th among wide receivers. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and he was still one of the most productive receivers in the league last season thanks to a league leading 3.08 yards per route run, but it’s a bit concerning that he seems to basically be on a snap count.

Jones’ durability issues are likely part of the reason why the Falcons drafted Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick. The Falcons got good play from their depth receivers in 2016, with Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson, and Justin Hardy all making positive contributions, but that didn’t happen in 2017, as Jones and fellow starter Mohamed Sanu were the only Atlanta receivers to earn a positive grade from PFF. Ridley was expected to go higher in the draft early in the off-season, but he had an underwhelming combine and fell to the Falcons at 26, even in a weak wide receiver class. He’s NFL ready and should rotate with Jones and Sanu in two-wide receiver sets immediately. The Falcons also figure to run a lot of three-wide sets to get all three of them on the field at the same time.

Sanu is a capable #2 receiver, but should still be pushed for playing time by Ridley. The Falcons signed Sanu to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons, a surprise considering he struggled when counted upon for a larger role with the Bengals, but Sanu proved to be better with his 2nd team, earning above average marks in both seasons from PFF. He has posted 59/653/4 and 67/703/5 slash lines in those two seasons, while also providing value as a blocker in the run game. He may see his production drop a little bit with Ridley in the mix, but he should still play a valuable role for this offense.

The Falcons will also be hoping for more out of 3rd year tight end Austin Hooper, a 2016 3rd rounder. Hooper was actually on the field more than both Jones and Sanu last season, playing 788 snaps, but had an underwhelming 49/526/3 slash line on 391 routes run (1.31 yards per route run) and dropped 6 passes. He was a solid blocker, but finished 60th out of 71 eligible tight ends in pass catching grade on PFF. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Falcons released #2 tight end Levine Toilolo (421 snaps) this off-season and did not do anything to replace him other than sign veteran blocking specialist Logan Paulsen, who didn’t catch a pass on 144 snaps for the 49ers last season. Toilolo wasn’t a good player and won’t be hard to replace, but the fact that they did not add a true replacement seems like a sign of confidence in 2017 5th round pick Eric Saubert, who played just 30 snaps as a rookie. Saubert is a height/weight/speed athlete that dominated the FCS level at Drake University, but was considered very raw coming out. If he has developed, he could turn out to be a nice pass catching complement to Hooper. Even with an underwhelming tight end situation, this is still a solid receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also involved in the passing game, though both saw their receiving production drop off from 2016 to 2017. Freeman and Coleman put up slash lines of 54/462/2 and 31/421/3 respectively in 2016, but only managed 36/317/1 and 27/299/3 respectively in 2017. Freeman also saw his rushing production drop as well, as he had just 895 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, both his fewest since he was a 4th round rookie in 2014. Freeman has seen his carries drop from 264 in 2015 to 227 in 2016 to 196 last season, while Coleman has seen his carries increase from 87 to 118 to 156 over that same time period.

Despite that, I still like Freeman a lot more than Coleman in 2018. For one, Freeman is still the better runner. He has averaged 4.40 yards per carry over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 4.27 for Coleman, and had a carry success rate of 51% last season (9th in the NFL), as opposed to 40% for Coleman (39th in the NFL). On Pro Football Focus, Freeman finished 18th, 15th, and 10th in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively, while Coleman has earned middling grades in all 3 seasons of his career. Freeman also should be healthier this season, as he essentially missed 3 games with injury last season. He averaged 17.7 touches per game in 13 healthy games, actually higher than 2017, when he averaged 17.5 touches per game.

The Falcons also more or less already picked Freeman over Coleman when they gave him a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season that included a 15 million dollar signing bonus. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Coleman is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but an extension seems unlikely with Freeman already locked up on such a big contract. Coleman is unlikely to get the kind of money he could get on the open market from the Falcons, so this will likely be his final season in Atlanta. The Falcons prepared for his departure by using a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Southern Mississippi’s Ito Smith. Smith is unlikely to have much of a role in 2018, but he gives them good insurance behind a talented duo.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Despite the big drop off in performance, the Falcons offense was almost exactly the same personnel wise from 2016 to 2017, as they brought back 10 of 11 starters and all key reserves. The drop off was not as a result of personnel losses. They just fell victim to regression to the mean after their quarterback had a career best season in 2016. The only starter they lost was retired right guard Chris Chester. Chester made 16 starts in 2016, but struggled mightily, so he wasn’t exactly a huge loss.

His replacement wasn’t any better though, as first year starter Wes Schweitzer finished as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked guard out of 80 eligible, while making all 16 starts. Only a 6th round pick in 2016, Schweitzer is best as a reserve, so the Falcons signed veteran Brandon Fusco to replace him as the starting right guard. Fusco has made 80 starts in the past 6 seasons, with his best season coming with the Vikings in 2013, when he was PFF’s 9th ranked guard.

Fusco missed most of 2014 with injury and struggled in both 2015 and 2016, leading to his release from the Vikings, but he had a bit of a bounce back year in 16 starts with the 49ers in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 29 season and, at the very least, gives them an experienced starter who should be an upgrade over Schweitzer. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be an obvious upgrade.

The Falcons could also get better play at the left guard position this season, as Andy Levitre is returning from injury. He was having a solid season, earning a positive grade from PFF for the 8th straight season, but injuries limited him to 15 snaps after week 12. Backup Ben Garland struggled in his absence, allowing 8 hits on Matt Ryan, 2nd most on the team, despite only playing 341 snaps. Levitre is going into his age 32 season, but is still a solid football player. He finished last season as PFF’s 17th ranked guard and was 13th in 2016 when he was healthy for the full season.

Right tackle Ryan Schraeder also missed time with injury, missing 2 games early in the season with a concussion. In his absence, backup Ty Sambrailo struggled mightily. When Schraeder returned, he struggled a little bit more than he’s used to, though he still finished 18th among offensive tackles on PFF. That’s a slight drop off when 2015 and 2016, when he finished 5th and 6th respectively. A 2013 undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State, Schraeder was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has developed into one of the best right tackles in the league. Since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he should remain a solid starter for at least a couple more seasons.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were the only two Falcon offensive lineman who lived up to their 2016 season, as both remained among the best players in the league at their position. Mack is the more dominant of the two, ranking 3rd on PFF among centers in 2017 and 1st in 2016. A first round pick by the Browns in 2009, Mack has been one of the best centers in the league over the past decade. He’s finished in the top-9 among centers in 7 of 9 seasons, making 133 starts over that time period. Going into his age 33 season, Mack may begin to decline soon, but he could easily still have another strong season at center. They have 2017 4th round pick Sean Harlow waiting in the wings behind him, but he’ll remain a reserve barring injury.

Matthews, on the other hand, is only going into his age 26 season, though the Falcons do need to re-sign him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. The 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has improved in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle. Matthews’ cap hit for 2018 is currently 12.496 million on his 5th year option, so the Falcons may try to extend him before the season starts to lower his cap number. Now that Matt Ryan has gotten his extension, Matthews is expected to be the next priority. He may become the highest paid offensive lineman in the league (upwards of 15.5 million annually). This is a strong and experienced offensive line that could easily be one of the best in the NFL in 2018.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Falcons’ offense was significantly worse in 2017 than it was in 2016, the Falcons were actually slightly improved on the defensive side of the ball, though largely by default, as the Falcons struggled mightily on defense in 2016. They allowed opponents to move the chains at a 38.15% rate, 27th in the NFL. They were able to get away with it because of how efficient their offense was, but, in 2017, their offense was not as efficient and their slightly improved defense was not enough. They finished 25th with a 35.61% first down rate allowed.

The Falcons did finish with the 8th fewest points allowed last season, but that was largely because of their #2 ranked red zone defense. If that regresses to the mean in 2018 (or worse, if they finish 32nd in red zone defense like in 2016), the Falcons are going to allow a lot more points. Much like the Falcons should be more efficient on offense in the red zone this season, the Falcons are unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone on defense this season.

On top of that, the Falcons are missing two of their best defensive linemen from last season, with Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signing with the Panthers and Patriots respectively, and they’re unlikely to have as few injuries on defense as they did in 2017, when they only had about 5 adjusted games lost to injury. Fortunately for the Falcons, their top defensive lineman Grady Jarrett remains with the team, though they will need to give the 2015 5th round pick an extension at some point, as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal.

Jarrett may be looking to get paid among the highest paid defensive tackles in the game ($15 – $17 million annually) and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. After flashing in limited action as a rookie in 2015, Jarrett developed into an above average starter in 2016 and then had his best year yet in 2017, finishing 9th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Built like a thicker Aaron Donald at 6-0 305, Jarrett fell in the draft because he was undersized, but he gets great leverage against the run and is sneaky quick as a pass rusher. Only going into his age 25 season, he could easily continue to get better.

Poe had a strong season in 2017 too though and he’s no longer with the team, after finishing 21st among defensive tackles on PFF. The Falcons didn’t really do much to replace him, signing veteran journeyman Terrell McClain and using a 3rd round draft pick on South Florida’s Deadrin Senat. McClain was PFF’s worst ranked 3-4 defensive end on 328 snaps with the Redskins last season and has been an underwhelming player in 7 seasons in the league. Senat has some upside and is built like Jarrett at 6-0 314, but he’s not nearly as athletic or refined as a pass rusher.

Both Senat and McClain are only base package options, so interior pass rushers Jack Crawford and Derrick Shelby will be counted on for pass rush snaps in sub packages. Crawford, a 6-5 288 pound converted defensive end, played about 30 snaps per game in that role in the first 3 weeks of the season last year before going down for the year with a torn biceps in week 4. He rushed the passer on 72.3% of his snaps. He hasn’t gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF since 2012 though and, in his last healthy season in 2016, he finished 49th among 53 eligible 4-3 defensive ends with the Cowboys. Now going into his age 30 season coming off of a major injury, he’s unlikely to be much better.

Shelby played all 16 games last season, but was limited to 397 snaps in primarily a base package defensive end role in his first season back from a torn achilles that ended his 2016 prematurely. He played well in that role though and he has some pass rush ability as well, with his best season coming in 2015 with the Dolphins when he finished as PFF’s 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He played 862 snaps that season, earning positive grades against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 31 hurries.

Going into his age 29 season, Shelby has some bounce back potential and could fill a much needed role for this team as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. He has good size at 6-2 280 and lined up on the interior on 105 of his 183 pass rush snaps in 2017. He had just 1 sack on the season, but he did hurry the quarterback 15 times and he could easily be better another year removed from that injury. With Poe out of the picture, the Falcons are going to need him to be.

Shelby could also see some snaps at his natural defensive end position. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Brooks Reed are locked in as the top-3 defensive ends, but depth is needed. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley led the league with 16 sacks in 2016, which led to him being prematurely anointed as a top level defensive player. The sack number was impressive, but he struggled mightily against the run and had just 4 hits, 36 hurries, and 1 batted pass, so he wasn’t actually as efficient of a pass rusher as his sack total suggested. He finished just above average overall on PFF.

In 2017, his sack total dropped all the way to 6 and his peripheral stats were not any better, as he had just 22 hurries and 2 batted passes, while not getting a single additional quarterback hit all season. As a result, he earned a below average grade from PFF for the season. He won’t play linebacker anymore in 2018, but considering 67.1% of his snaps over the past 2 seasons have come off the edge as a pass rusher, him playing some linebacker in base packages wasn’t really the problem last season. He only dropped into coverage 32 times last season.

Beasley also lacks the size to hold up against the run as a defensive end at 6-3 246 and may just be a sub package edge rusher. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have a strong season in that role. Beasley went 8th overall for a reason and has obvious pass rush upside, still only going into his age 26 season. An early season hamstring injury may have limited him throughout 2017. He only missed 2 games, but was not the same player upon his return and only played 482 snaps on the season, part of the reason why his pass rush stats dropped.

Now healthy, Beasley could easily have a bounce back year getting after the quarterback, even if he’s never been as good as the 16 sacks he had in 2016 would suggest. With Adrian Clayborn (10 sacks, 8 hits, 37 hurries, 9th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF) no longer on the team, they’ll need him to do that. The Falcons clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which will be worth an estimated 12.81 million.

Takkarist McKinley is also a first round pick defensive end, going 26th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. McKinley is very much a Vic Beasley type player at 6-2 250 and played just 112 run snaps out of 401 total snaps as a rookie. He impressed as a pass rusher and will have a bigger pass rush role in his 2nd season in the league with Clayborn gone and he also held up against the run pretty well, so he may play more of an every down role. A breakout year for him would be a big boost for this defensive line, but that’s far from a guarantee.

One of Beasley or McKinley will have to play more base package snaps because Brooks Reed is their only true base defensive end, aside from Derrick Shelby. Reed isn’t big at 6-3 254, but has a good motor and a knack for setting the edge. Of his 413 snaps last season, 212 of them came on run snaps, but he also impressed with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 15 hurries on 198 pass rush snaps. On the season, he actually finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. The 7-year veteran has never been that good before and is going into his age 30 season, but he’s a useful role player who should have another solid season. Even so, this is not the same defensive line as it was last season, as they lost a pair of key contributors and did not really replace them.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

With Vic Beasley moving to defensive end full-time, 2nd year linebacker Duke Riley is locked in as the 3rd linebacker with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Riley only played 224 snaps as a rookie, but wasn’t bad in the limited role and the 3rd round pick has good upside. The 3rd linebacker role is only a base package role anyway, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so Riley should be able to do a good job in it. Riley is undersized at 6-1 218, but has good sideline to sideline speed.

That’s true of all three of the Falcons’ starting linebackers, as Jones and Campbell are 6-1 222 and 6-4 232 respectively. Both are also young, going into only their 3rd year in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was a capable starter from the word go (29 starts in 2 seasons) and had a breakout 2017, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, including 2nd in coverage grade. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones has a sky high upside.

Campbell also was a starter as a rookie and has 26 starts in 2 seasons, but the 4th round pick took his rookie year lumps, finishing 28th among 31st eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was better in 2017, grading about league average. He’s not as naturally talented as Jones is, but he’s a capable all-around linebacker that could easily have another solid season in 2018. This is a solid young linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons return all of their key players in the secondary as well, led by #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant was injured during the Falcons’ playoff run in 2016, tearing his pectoral muscle 9 games into the season and getting placed on injured reserve, but rebounded to finish as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback in 2017. A first round pick in 2013, Trufant has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-20 at his position in all 5 seasons. The Falcons locked him up long-term last off-season with a 5-year, 68.75 million dollar extension.

Safety Keanu Neal is another former first round pick that has developed into a great starter in the secondary. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Neal flashed in 14 starts as a rookie and then broke out as PFF’s 5th ranked safety in 16 starts in 2017. Like so many of the Falcons’ defensive starters, Neal is still very young and has a high upside. He could continue to improve in 2018 and beyond.

Fellow starting safety Ricardo Allen is a relative veteran, as he was drafted in the 5th round back in 2014. Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie and remains under contract inexpensively with the Falcons for one more year as a restricted free agent, but he’s earned a bigger contract, making 45 starts in the past 3 seasons and earning a positive grade from PFF in both 2016 and 2017. With the Falcons now committed to Matt Ryan at 30 million annually for the foreseeable future and other young players’ contracts coming up soon, Allen may not get the money he wants in Atlanta and could depart as a free agent next off-season. 2017 5th round pick Damontae Kazee waits in the wings and flashed on 164 snaps as a rookie.

Robert Alford is locked in as the #2 cornerback opposite Trufant. A 2nd round pick in the same draft as Trufant (2013), Alford has not had the same career Trufant has, but he’s developed into a starting caliber player. He’s made 61 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 47 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s earned positive grades from PFF twice. An older rookie, Alford is already going into his age 30 season and also has a pretty expensive contract, as he’s owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in both 2019 and 2020. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver in this past draft, so maybe they will cut ties with Alford for cap reasons in next off-season or two.

In the meantime, Oliver will compete with slot cornerback Brian Poole for the only unsettled role in the secondary. Poole went undrafted in 2016 and was mediocre on 630 snaps last season, but he’s a more natural fit on the slot than Oliver at 5-10 211 and he was better as a rookie in 2016, earning a positive grade from PFF on 833 snaps. He’s likely the favorite for the slot job, leaving Oliver as valuable depth. It’s an above average secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons will likely never be as good offensively as they were in 2016 again, but they still have one of the most talented offenses in the league and they should be more efficient in the red zone. Defensively, they’re unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone and they lost a pair of key defensive linemen without really replacing them, but their young defense could easily continue developing and end the season as a serviceable unit.

On paper this is one of the more talented teams in the league and they should compete for the NFC South title. Unfortunately, they play in the loaded NFC in arguably the toughest division in football, so they’re far from a guarantee to win the NFC South or even grab one of the two wild card spots, as talented as they are. The key for them will be remaining healthy, as they’ve had among the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the past 2 seasons. They may not be as fortunate in 2018. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, many expected the Buccaneers would have a breakout season and make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2007. The Buccaneers went 9-7 the year prior and added much needed weapons for young quarterback Jameis Winston, who was a popular breakout candidate going into his 3rd year in the league. Instead, the Buccaneers finished 5-11 and in dead last in the NFC South.

A lot of factors went into their disappointing record, but a big reason is simply that Jameis Winston was not healthy for a big chunk of the season. Winston got off to a strong start, completing 61.0% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the first 4 games of the season. After 4 games, the Buccaneers sat at 2-2 and could have easily been 3-1 if they didn’t miss 3 field goals in their week 4 loss to the Patriots.

Winston then went down with a shoulder injury in their week 5 loss in Arizona and, though he returned the following week in Buffalo, he did not look like the same quarterback. Winston played through the injury for 3 starts, all losses, and completed 63.2% of his passes for just 6.96 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, before being shut down and missing the next 3 games.

After nearly a month off, Winston seemed back to his early season form in the final 5 games of the season, completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. The Buccaneers went just 1-4 in those 5 games, but four of those games, including their win, came against teams that finished .500 or better and their 4 losses came by a combined 12 points. In Winston’s 9 healthy starts, the Buccaneers picked up first downs at a 39.73% rate, which would have been the second best rate in the league over the course of the season, only behind New England. Given how he played at the beginning and the end of last season, Winston could have easily had a breakout year in 2017 had he stayed healthy.

Going into 2018, Winston is still only going into his age 24 season and the former #1 overall pick still has a huge upside. In addition to staying healthy, he’ll also need to a better job of taking care of the ball and avoiding penalties. His 8 pre-snap penalties were 2nd most in the league in 2017 and his 59 turnovers are the most in the league since he entered in 2015. Fumbles in particular have been a concern, as he has 15 lost fumbles in his career, including 13 over the past 2 seasons.  If he can stay healthy and clean up his game a little bit, Winston could have a Pro-Bowl caliber season this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

How Winston played down the stretch last season after returning from injury is even more impressive when you consider that his return coincided with the Buccaneers losing their top-two offensive linemen for the season. Center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson were both placed on injured reserve the same week Winston returned. They finished the season ranked 6th among centers and 8th among offensive tackles respectively on Pro Football Focus, so both were big losses, especially since they were the Buccaneers’ only offensive linemen to earn positive grades from PFF.

In an effort to improve their blocking upfront, the Buccaneers signed center Ryan Jensen from the Ravens in free agency and also drafted Humboldt State offensive tackle Alex Cappa with the 94th pick in the draft (3rd round). Jensen’s 4-year, 42 million dollar deal makes him the highest paid center in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, so he’s obviously locked in as the starter at center, which will move Marpet back to guard, where the 2015 2nd round pick made 29 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Marpet was PFF’s 10th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2016, so it shouldn’t be a hard switch for him. With Marpet going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Buccaneers will probably look to extend him before the start of the season.

The problem is Marpet will likely look to top Jensen’s deal and could have his eyes on being the highest paid guard in the NFL, after Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Norwell have cashed-in in the past two off-seasons with deals worth 60 million and 66.5 million respectively over 5 years. Jensen was solid in 2017, finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked center, but it was a shock that he got as big of a deal as he did, given that the converted guard only had 9 career starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season. He’ll likely struggle to live up to his salary, but should still be a nice addition to this line.

With Marpet moving back to guard, veterans JR Sweezy and Evan Smith will compete for the other starting guard spot. Sweezy is probably the favorite, but he struggled in 2017, finishing 64th out of 80 eligible guards on PFF. He hasn’t been much better in the past either, earning negative guards in all 5 seasons he’s played in his career and missing all of 2016 with a back injury. The 4-year, 21.75 million dollar deal he signed two off-seasons ago looked like a mistake when it was agreed to and hasn’t looked better with time. Sweezy has 60 starts in his past 4 healthy seasons, but should not be considered a lock to start in 2018. If he’s unable to lock down a starting job, he’ll likely be cut before the season starts, as his non-guaranteed 4.5 million dollar salary is hard to justify for a backup.

Smith is their other option and he’s probably the better choice. He has just 13 starts in the past 3 seasons, but he was a full-time starting center in both 2013 and 2014 and has the versatility to play all 3 interior offensive line spots. He’s going into his age 33 season, so his best years are probably behind him, but he was about average on 678 snaps last season, spending time both at center after Marpet got hurt and also at left guard, where struggling Kevin Pamphile finished last season 67th out of 80 eligible guards on 740 snaps. Even if Smith he doesn’t win the starting job outright, he’ll probably at least make a few spot starts somewhere in 2018.

Alex Cappa could also be an option at the other guard spot, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t make an impact until 2019, coming over from Division-II Humboldt State. It’s unclear where he ends up long-term, but he has the size to stay outside at tackle and the Buccaneers could have a big need at the position soon. Left tackle Donovan Smith has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons, since going in the 2nd round in 2015, but he’s struggled in all 3 seasons and finished last season 73rd out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on PFF, so the Buccaneers might be hesitant to bring him back long-term as a free agent next off-season. He’s allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive tackle in the league in the past 3 seasons (34) and ranks 2nd in penalties (34).

On the other side, right tackle Demar Dotson was still playing at a high level before getting injured last season and has earned positive marks from PFF in 6 straight seasons (74 starts), but he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2014 and is going into his age 33 season. With Dotson having just two years left on his deal, the Buccaneers may see Cappa as the right tackle of the future. With Jensen coming in and Dotson and Marpet likely returning healthy, this looks like an improved offensive line, but they still have obvious weaknesses.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

In addition to their struggles upfront, the Buccaneers also had issues on the ground, averaging just 3.73 yards per carry, 27th in the NFL. Part of that was because of their offensive line, but their backs also deserve a lot of the blame. Jacquizz Rodgers started early on in the season, but finished with just 244 yards on 64 carries (3.82 YPC). Doug Martin then took over as the starter after missing the first 3 games of the season with suspension, but was even worse, managing just 406 yards on 138 carries (2.94 YPC).

Down the stretch, 2016 undrafted free agent Peyton Barber was their lead back and he was definitely their best back. He rushed for 423 yards on 108 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC. That’s not that impressive, but, considering the state of the Buccaneers’ offensive line down the stretch, it’s pretty solid. He was Tampa Bay’s only running back that finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, though he did struggle mightily in pass protection, allowing 2 sacks and 2 hurries on just 32 pass block snaps.

Barber should have a role into 2018, but the Buccaneers used a 2nd round pick on a running back, taking USC’s Ronald Jones with the 38th pick. With Barber as his only real competition, Jones should have a big role as a rookie and he has the passing down skills to complement Barber well. We’ve seen rookie running backs have a big immediate impact in recent years and Jones has the talent to continue in those footsteps. The Buccaneers also brought back Charles Sims as a passing down option, but he’s an underwhelming option who only received the ball on 56 of his team leading 380 running back snaps. The Buccaneers should be better at running back this season, but things are definitely still unsettled at the position.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

While Winston didn’t get much help from his offensive line or the running game, he did have a deep and talented receiving corps to throw to. Mike Evans remained his #1 option, putting up his 4th straight 1000+ yard season to start his career, though he did have the least productive season of his career, with “only” a 71/1001/5 slash line. Part of that was because of other options around him taking targets, part of that was because of his inconsistent quarterback play, but Evans himself also did take a step back performance wise, after finishing the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He still finished 14th at his position though, his 3rd season in the top-14 at his position in 4 years in the league, so he’s still an elite receiver.

Only going into his age 25 season, Evans’ best play might still be ahead of him. The Buccaneers gave him a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar extension this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Antonio Brown. It’s a lot of money, but if Evans continues to develop and contracts continue to get bigger year-by-year, this contract will look like a solid value in 2-3 years time.

The Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to a 3-year, 33.5 million dollar deal last off-season as a complement to Evans, but he had a disappointing first season with the Buccaneers, posting a 50/668/3 slash line on 610 snaps in 14 games. Jackson still earned positive grades from PFF, the 6th season in a row that he’s done so, and he could have a better year in 2018, with better health, more consistent quarterback play, and another year in the system, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and is very reliant on speed, so his best days could easily be behind him.

Even with Jackson not living up to expectations, the Buccaneers were still good in the receiving corps because of their depth. In fact, when Jackson was dealing with injuries late in the season, 3rd round rookie Chris Godwin arguably played better than Jackson had all season, totalling 16 catches for 295 yards and a touchdown in the Buccaneers’ final 4 games. On the year, Godwin had a 34/525/1 slash line on just 56 targets (9.38 yards per target) and 258 routes run (2.03 yards per route run, 13th in the NFL) and finished as PFF’s 16th ranked wide receiver on just 446 snaps.

Godwin was considered to be a good value in the 3rd round and proved it as a rookie. He’s a great athlete for his size at 6-1 209 and does a good job making contested catches and breaking tackles in the open field (8 broken tackles on 34 catches). He enters the season as the favorite to be the #3 receiver and could have a big breakout year if either Evans or Jackson suffers a major injury.

Godwin’s competition for the #3 receiver job is veteran slot specialist Adam Humphries. Humphries played 681 snaps last season and had a decent 61/631/1 slash line, but earned negative grades from PFF, his 3rd straight season with negative grades to start his career. The 2015 undrafted free agent is a capable slot option, which should earn him some playing time, but Godwin figures to see more snaps in the slot this season too, in addition to rotating with Jackson and Evans outside.

The Buccaneers are deep at tight end too. OJ Howard was the 19th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and made 14 starts as a rookie, but “backup” tight end Cameron Brate was just given a 6-year, 41 million dollar contract this off-season as a restricted free agent. Brate played nearly as many snaps as Howard did (608 vs. 582) and outproduced him, catching 48 passes for 591 yards and 6 touchdowns. Brate was originally undrafted out of Harvard back in 2014, but he put up a 57/660/8 slash line in a mini-breakout year in 2016 and then proved himself again in 2017, even with the Bucs adding Howard in the first round.

Howard had a solid receiving year too. His slash line of 26/432/6 looks underwhelming, but he also saw significantly fewer targets than Brate (77 vs. 39) and was significantly more efficient on a per target basis. Howard was primarily used as a blocker (243 routes run and 365 blocking snaps), while Brate was used close to exclusively as a receiver (421 routes run and 161 blocking snaps). Brate actually held up alright in limited action as a blocker, while Howard was the one who had major struggles, finishing 68th out of 72 eligible tight ends in run block grade. Howard has the frame to be a good blocker at 6-6 250 and could easily get better as he goes into his 2nd year in the league. It’s hardly rare to see a tight end get significantly better as a run blocker once he has a year or two under his belt.

Conventional wisdom suggested the Buccaneers were going to let Brate walk as a free agent next off-season or even trade him as a restricted free agent this off-season, rather than re-signing him long-term, but instead they gave him a market value contract and now have both Brate and Howard under team control long-term. They both likely cap each other’s upside in terms of passing production, especially Howard, who is not the primary pass catching tight end, but they are both useful weapons to have around. This is one of the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

Even with Jameis Winston hurt for half of the season, the Buccaneers still finished 2nd in first downs with 352 and 3rd in first down rate at 37.33%. Why then did they go 5-11? Well they lost at least one easily winnable game because of their kicking game. In all, they lost just 4 games by more than a touchdown last season, with just 1 of those games (week 3 in Minnesota) coming when Winston was healthy.

They also struggled to make big plays on offense, with just 6 plays of 40+ yards all season. Fortunately, both record in close games and big plays tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and it’s not hard to see how the Buccaneers could get more big plays in 2018, given all of the weapons they have on offense. A few more big plays could turn some of those close losses into wins.

Better play from this defense would also turn some of those close losses into wins and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be improved on that side of the ball. They finished last season 28th in first down rate allowed at 36.20% and their defensive struggles were by far the biggest thing keeping this team from winning games. With few offensive needs and a lot of cap space to work with, the Buccaneers made improving their defense a priority this off-season.

The biggest contract they added this off-season wasn’t added through free agency, but rather trade, as the Buccaneers sent a 3rd round pick to the Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants re-signed Pierre-Paul to a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal last off-season that made him the 10th highest paid defensive lineman in the league, but the Giants already paid him 22.5 million in the first year, so it’s a bit strange that they’d be willing to part with him for a mere 3rd round pick.

Clearly they didn’t think he’d be a good fit for their new 3-4 defense, after he spent his first 8 seasons in a 4-3, but they made that assessment without ever seeing him play in the new system. With the Giants eschewing a quarterback of the future atop the draft and instead taking Saquon Barkley to compete right away, giving up on JPP so quickly could prove to be a big mistake.

The Bucs now have JPP under contract for 39.5 million over the next 3 seasons, a very reasonable rate for his skill set, and have the ability to cut him at any point if he declines. He also gets to stay in his natural 4-3 scheme with the Buccaneers. The 15th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, JPP has made two Pro-Bowls and has 58 career sacks, while holding up well against the run.

He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s had some injury problems, but he’s also played in all 16 games in 5 of 8 seasons, including last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, JPP should play at a high level for another couple seasons at least and was a big addition for a team with a league low 22 sacks in 2017.

The Buccaneers also added defensive end Vinny Curry this off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal after the Eagles cut him for salary cap purposes. Curry played well for the Eagles, but they had to cut someone to get under the cap and Curry’s 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary became excessive after the Eagles acquired Michael Bennett from the Seahawks.

Curry only managed 22 sacks in the last 5 seasons with the Eagles, but that was largely because he was buried on the depth chart for much of his tenure. The 575 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high and prior to last season he had never played more than 436 snaps in a season. He only had 3 sacks last season, but his 17 quarterback hits were 2nd most at his position and he was PFF’s 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. He earned positive grades in 4 of his last 5 seasons with the Eagles and, still only going into his age 30 season, he should give the Buccaneers another much needed pass rusher.

Curry and JPP are also bigger defensive ends at 6-3 279 and 6-5 275 respectively and have the size to line up as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. Robert Ayers and Ryan Russell, their top-2 defensive ends in terms of snaps played last season, are no longer with the team, but they still have William Gholston and Noah Spence in the mix. Gholston is a pure base package run stuffer at 6-6 281 that has never graded out above average as a pass rusher in 5 seasons in the league.

Gholston has just 10 sacks in those 5 seasons, so it’s a bit strange that the Buccaneers re-signed him to a 5-year, 27.5 million deal last off-season, but at least they did not guarantee any money beyond the first year. With Curry and JPP coming in, Gholston will likely have an even smaller role than last season when he played just 447 snaps in 14 games. It’s possible they are unable to justify keeping him on the roster with a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and cut ties with him before the season starts.

Spence, on the other hand, should have a role, especially as a sub package edge rusher. A 2016 2nd round pick, Spence was considered arguably the best pass rusher in his class, but fell to the 2nd round because of concerns about his size (6-2 251) and off-the-field issues. He was solid as a pass rusher on 569 snaps as a rookie, totalling 6 sacks and 6 quarterback hits, and was seen as a popular breakout candidate going into the season, but managed just 1 sack on 246 snaps in 6 games before going down for the season with injury. Spence is expected to be healthy for his 3rd season in the league in 2018 and could have an impact in sub packages, though he’s squarely behind both JPP and Curry for snaps and should remain a liability on run snaps. If Spence proves himself early on, the Buccaneers may try to get all three defensive ends on the field often in pass rush situations.

The Buccaneers really only have one good interior pass rushing defensive tackle, Pro-Bowl caliber Gerald McCoy, so their depth at defensive end helps. The Buccaneers did add Vita Vea in the first round of the draft and veteran Beau Allen in free agency, but neither of those two are much of a pass rusher. Allen played a rotational role in Philadelphia, maxing out at 422 snaps in 2017, and will likely remain in that role with the Buccaneers, given his limited skill set. Vea has much more upside as a pass rusher, but was drafted primarily for his run stuffing ability at 6-4 344.

Vea is athletic enough to develop as a pass rusher, but he’s unrefined at this stage of his career. He had some success rushing the passer in college, but most of that success came from his bull rush. He’ll find it harder to win on pure strength as a pass rusher in the NFL and will have to develop some finesse moves to stay on the field for all 3 downs. The Buccaneers clearly believe he can develop into that every down player, otherwise they would not have used the 12th overall pick on him, especially with top safety prospect Derwin James still on the board.

Gerald McCoy is also a former first round pick, going 3rd overall in 2010, and he’s more than lived up to it. He’s been a top-7 defensive tackle in 5 of the past 6 seasons, with his only down season coming when he played through injury in 2015. Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he’s only twice played all 16 games, but, when healthy, he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He’s going into his age 30 season, so he may start declining soon, but, with more talent around him on this defensive line, he could still have a big statistical season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Buccaneers spent major resources revamping their defensive line and secondary this off-season, they didn’t need to do anything significant at linebacker. Injuries limited every down linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander to 13 and 12 games respectively last season, but, when they are healthy, those two are more than capable in every down roles and neither has a significant injury history.

David is the better of the two, finishing last season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, though his performance in both 2015 and 2016 left something to be desired. Still, he’s only going into his age 28 season and should have another strong season in 2018. The Buccaneers are a different defense when he’s out there, so simply having him healthy for 16 games could give easily this defense a boost.

Alexander, on the other hand, has never played as well as David has, but he’s still earned a positive grade for his coverage ability in each of the past 2 seasons. Undersized at 6-1 227, Alexander has some issues against the run, but he fits what the modern NFL is looking for out of a linebacker because of his ability to cover one-on-one and play all 3 downs. A 2015 4th round pick, Alexander took his rookie lumps in 12 starts in 2015, but has been better over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, it’s possible his best play is still ahead of him. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate to get an extension before the start of the season.

Kendell Beckwith is the Buccaneers’ 3rd linebacker, but he actually played more snaps than both David and Alexander in 2017, totalling 846 in 16 games. When both David and Alexander are healthy, he’s only a base package run stuffer who comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, but with David and Alexander both missing starts, Beckwith had to play some every down linebacker early in the season and they also lined him up as an edge rusher in sub packages down the stretch when they were dealing with injuries at defensive end.

A 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Beckwith seemed overwhelmed with his rookie year role, finishing dead last out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF, but that was primarily because of his awful pass rush grade, as he managed just 1 sack and 7 hurries on 177 pass rush snaps. He was decent as a run stuffer and could easily be better in his 2nd season in the league, especially if he’s allowed to just focus on that role. Barring injuries, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Much like on the defensive line, the Buccaneers had major issues in the secondary last year. Given that, it’s not a surprise that the Buccaneers used a pair of 2nd round picks on the position, after picking up an extra pair of 2nd rounders in their trade down with the Bills from 7 to 12. North Carolina’s MJ Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis were drafted 53rd and 63th overall respectively and will compete for rookie year roles.

The Buccaneers also re-signed top cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year, 7 million dollar deal. Grimes is going into his age 35 season in 2018, but still played pretty well last season, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. Grimes has been a productive starter for a long-time, with his best seasons coming in 2010 (10th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2011 (3rd), 2013 (4th), and 2016 (1st), but he’s year-to-year at this point in his career. He could easily have a major drop-off in his play in 2018 and, even if he doesn’t, he could easily retire next off-season.

Given Grimes’ age, the Buccaneers also obviously hoping that fellow starter Vernon Hargreaves can develop into the #1 cornerback they expected he’d become when they drafted him 11th overall in 2016. So far, he’s been a major disappointment. As a rookie, he was thrown on more than any cornerback in the league (113 times) and allowed 70% completion and a league high 80 completions. He finished the season 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade.

His 2nd year in the league was not better, as he struggled in 7 starts to begin the season and then got demoted to the 3rd cornerback role, before missing the final 7 games of the season with a hamstring injury. With two rookies coming in and replacement starter Ryan Smith still in the mix, Hargreaves will likely have to compete to earn his starting job back this off-season. The Buccaneers have openly discussed playing him on the slot more this season, in hopes of finding a more natural home for him at the NFL level.

Smith wasn’t great in Hargreaves absence either, as the 2016 4th round pick finished 108th out of 121 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade. Because of that, either Davis or Stewart could have an immediate role. Davis is a natural outside cornerback who could play opposite Grimes in 3 cornerback sets with Hargreaves lined up on the slot. Stewart, on the other hand, is a better fit on the slot.

Stewart could also see time at safety, which was another problem position for the Buccaneers last season. Veteran Chris Conte and 2nd round rookie Justin Evans led the position in snaps played with 773 and 715 respectively and both were underwhelming at best. Conte has made 90 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but has never gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF. Evans, on the other hand, has some upside and could still develop into a capable starter. The Buccaneers also had run stuffer TJ Ward in the mix as a rotational safety last season, but he’s no longer with the team. It’s an improved secondary, but one that still has major problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers went 5-11 last season, but were a lot better than their record suggested and could have a big leap in win total this season. They should have better luck in close games, more explosive plays on offense, an improved defense, and hopefully a healthy Jameis Winston for the full season. Considering they finished last season 12th in first down rate differential despite Winston being banged up for half of the season, they could easily be a top-10 team in 2018 and, on paper at least, they have the talent to back that up. The biggest barrier to them making the playoffs might be simply that the NFC is too good and not every deserving team is going to make the playoffs. Last year, the Buccaneers had one of the toughest schedules in the league and, in the loaded NFC South, they will likely have one of the toughest schedules in the league again this season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

New Orleans Saints 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A big reason why the NFL can be so tough to predict year-to-year is that some teams get huge contributions from their rookie classes and it’s not always easy to predict which teams those are going to be. Not only is the draft largely a crapshoot that even the best front offices have never consistently mastered, but even draft classes that turn out to be strong down the line don’t always make major impacts in year one.

Going into last season, the Saints were coming off three straight 7-9 finishes, despite quarterback Drew Brees exceeding 4800 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns in each of those 3 seasons. Brees was 38 years old and his supporting cast didn’t seem to improve drastically last off-season, so the Saints were understandably a longshot in the NFC.

However, thanks in large part to their rookie class, the Saints ended the season with a 11-5 record and won the NFC South. Few experts considered the Saints to be draft day winners in 2017, even though they had 6 picks in the first 3 rounds (the extra picks were acquired in trades that sent away Brandin Cooks and a 2018 2nd round pick), but their rookie class was easily the most impactful in the league last season.

All 6 of their picks in the first 3 rounds made positive rookie year impacts, most notably cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara, who were Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore was one of four defensive players the Saints took in the first 3 rounds, which helped shore up a defense that was annually the worst in the league prior to 2017, while Kamara and first round offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk helped improve the running game and offensive line around Brees.

Brees still looked good, finishing 4th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus (his 12th straight season in the top-7) and completing an NFL record 72.0% of his passes, but he was not nearly as involved in the offense as he was prior to 2017, as his 536 pass attempts were his fewest in a season since 2009 and his 23 passing touchdowns were his fewest since 2003. With Brees in his late 30s, the Saints want to be more of a run heavy team and their 2017 draft class helped them to do that last season by improving their running game and defense.

The big question at quarterback for the Saints is who comes after Drew Brees. The Saints have drafted just one quarterback higher than the 7th round in the Drew Brees era and that was 2015 3rd round pick Garrett Grayson, who never threw a pass in a regular season game and is no longer with the team. Head Coach Sean Payton has talked up 2017 undrafted free agent Taysom Hill as a quarterback of the future option, but he hasn’t thrown a regular season pass either.

When the Saints traded away their 2019 1st round pick to move up from 27 to 14 with the Packers, most assumed it was to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the Saints shocked everyone by selecting defensive end Marcus Davenport instead. Without a pick in the 2nd round from their trade for the Alvin Kamara selection in 2017, the Saints didn’t draft a quarterback in any round and now go into the 2018 season with a major long-term question mark at quarterback and no 2019 first round pick to use to address it.

If Davenport has the kind of impact that their first round picks did last year, the lack of a 2019 first round pick might not be a huge deal for a team that is in win now mode, but, if Brees declines and the Saints disappoint, they may regret trading away that first rounder. We’ve seen quarterbacks play well into their late 30s and early 40s in recent years, but we’ve also seen quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino lose it in a hurry. Without a better option (Taysom Hill is competing with failed Texans starter Tom Savage for the backup job), a significant drop off in play by Brees would likely sink this team’s playoff chances in a tough NFC.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While Lattimore and Kamara were the Saints’ two best rookies, 32nd overall selection Ryan Ramczyk had a huge impact as well. Many saw him as a bit of a panic selection for a team that was planning on taking linebacker Reuben Foster, only to see the 49ers trade up and take him one spot ahead of them. Ramczyk didn’t fill an obvious need for a team that used a first round pick on an offensive lineman in 2015 and had capable veteran starters at the other 4 spots, but offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief missed a combined 20 games with injury last season, so Ramczyk ended up making all 16 starts as rookie (2 at left tackle and 14 at right tackle).

Ramczyk didn’t just make all 16 starts, but also played at a high level, finished 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, excelling in the run game and allowing just 3 sacks and 5 hits on Brees. Strief retired ahead of his age 35 season this off-season, so Ramczyk is locked in at right tackle and will also provide insurance at left tackle in case Terron Armstead continues to struggle with injuries. Armstead has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons, but has played well when healthy and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Armstead’s last healthy season was 2015, when he finished 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF, after which the Saints locked him up on a 5-year, 65 million dollar extension. That extension hasn’t paid off yet, but, if both Armstead and Ramczyk stay healthy, the Saints should have one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league. If either suffers an injury, the Saints will probably shift left guard Andrus Peat outside, as they did last year for 4 starts at left tackle.

The 13th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Peat was drafted to play tackle and has made starts at 3 different spots on the line (15 at left tackle, 20 at left guard, 2 at right tackle), but, with Armstead and Ramczyk locked in at tackle, Peat is locked in at left guard barring an injury. He hasn’t been any better than a marginal starter in 3 years in the league, but perhaps he’ll take a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2018. The Saints still have high hopes for him, picking up his 5th year option worth 9.63 million for 2019, though that is only guaranteed for injury, so he might not see that money if he struggles this season.

One reason they may not want to give him that money is that, in addition to Terron Armstead’s big contract, they also have big long-term contracts with center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford, though none of those three deals have any guaranteed money beyond 2018 either. Unger received a 3-year, 22.22 million dollar extension from the Saints before the 2016 season and is scheduled to make 6.25 million and 6.95 million respectively in 2018 and 2019, while Warford signed a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal as a free agent coming over from the Lions last off-season and still has 23.9 million remaining over 3 seasons.

If Warford continues to play like he did last season, the Saints should have no problem paying him, as he finished 30th among guards on PFF. A 2013 3rd round pick of the Lions, Warford has been a top-20 ranked guard in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming as a rookie in 2013, when he ranked 5th at his position. His rookie year was also the last time he played all 16 games, as he’s dealt with numerous injuries over the past 4 seasons. He’s only missed 9 games, but he’s been limited with abdominal, ankle, knee, and hip injuries in recent years and has also suffered multiple concussions. Only going into his age 27 season, he should have another solid season if he can stay healthy, but his health is always a question mark.

Max Unger, on the other hand, has only missed 1 game over the past 3 seasons, but he seemed limited early on last season after having off-season foot surgery. He improved down the stretch, but he finished 29th out of 38 eligible centers on the season because of a terrible start. Going into his age 32 season, Unger may need a bounce back season to justify his non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he definitely could have that bounce back season. Prior to last season, he finished 10th and 9th respectively at his position in 2015 and 2016 and he has made 114 starts in 9 seasons in the league. The Saints lost key reserve Senio Kelemete this off-season and he was capable in 8 spot starts in 2017, but, as long as they stay healthy, they should have one of the better offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Despite Drew Brees having his lowest passing touchdown total in a decade and a half, the Saints still finished last season with 46 offensive touchdowns, 3rd most in the NFL behind the Patriots and Eagles. That’s because the Saints led the league in rushing touchdowns with 23, with no other team rushing for more than 18 touchdowns. Alvin Kamara was Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he was more of a hybrid running back/wide receiver, so it was Mark Ingram instead who lead this team with 230 carries, almost double Kamara’s 120. Twelve of those 23 rushing touchdowns were his, tying him with LeSean McCoy for most in the league.

Ingram didn’t quite have Alvin Kamara’s league leading 6.07 yards per carry, but that’s because few ever reach that number. Kamara is one of just 15 running backs all-time to average more than 6 yards per carry on 100+ carries and just one of 5 running backs to do it in the last 30 years. Ingram’s 4.89 yards per carry average on almost double the carries was really impressive too, as that figure ranked 3rd in the NFL among running backs, only behind Kamara and Dion Lewis.

Ingram and Kamara combined for 16 carries of 20 yards or more, most of any duo in the NFL, and also did a good job keeping the offense on schedule, ranking 6th and 12th respectively in carry success rate. The offensive line was a big part of their success, but Kamara and Ingram were a huge part of what made this offense work last season. Ingram also caught 58 passes for 416 yards, but that was dwarfed by what Alvin Kamara did in the passing game. While all of Ingram’s catches came as a running back out of the backfield, Kamara routinely lined up in the slot (79 snaps) and out wide (66 snaps) and totaled 81 yards and 826 touchdowns on 5 catches on the season.

It wasn’t just the big plays with Alvin Kamara either, as he totaled 78 first downs on just 201 touches. Mark Ingram, as well as he played, had just 69 on 288 touches, while rushing yards leader Kareem Hunt, who finished 2nd to Kamara in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, had the same amount of first downs as Kamara (78) on 325 touches. Kamara finished the season tied with Todd Gurley as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back.

The problem for the Saints going into 2018 is that Mark Ingram was suspended for the first 4 games of the season after testing positive for a performance enhancer. In his absence, Kamara will be the feature back, while end of the roster types like Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, and 6th round rookie Boston Scott will compete for backup duties. Those players are obvious drop offs from Ingram talentwise, but it’s only for 4 games and the Saints were reportedly planning on featuring Kamara more in the running game anyway.

Kamara will have an opportunity to lock down the lead back job in Ingram’s absence, but Ingram should still have a role upon his return regardless. The Saints have always used multiple backs, and, because of how much work he gets in the passing game, Kamara may never be a 300+ carry back. Kamara could easily clear 300 touches this season though, if he proves he can handle the larger workload. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be as efficient of a runner on a per carry basis as was last season, especially with a much larger role, but he definitely has the talent to be one of the best few all-around running backs in the league for the foreseeable future if he can avoid injury.

Ingram, on the other hand, may be limited to a 10-12 touch role upon his return, a big drop off from the 18 touches per game he averaged last season. He’s still a talented all-around back, who has worked hard to become an improved pass catcher in recent years, and he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career, but he’s going into his age 29 contract season and might not be brought back as a free agent next off-season if Kamara proves he can handle the larger role. It’s also fair to wonder how much of his career best season last year was as a result of whatever he tested positive for. All things considered though, the Saints still have an enviable running back situation.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Part of the reason why the Saints had so many completions to running backs last season (league leading 143) is because they lacked for options at wide receiver and tight end. Brandon Coleman ranked 3rd among Saints wide receivers/tight ends with just 23 catches. That’s a drastic shift from 2016, when the Saints had 3 wide receivers and a tight end with more than 600 yards and 2 wide receivers with more than 1000 yards. Mark Ingram’s 46 catches in 2016 were just 5th on the team. In fact, the Saints were so deep in the receiving corps after 2016 that they were comfortable trading away top receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for a 1st and 3rd round pick.

Cooks departure was a big part of the reason why the Saints were not nearly as good in the receiving corps in 2017 as they were in 2016, but they also got disappointing seasons from both Willie Snead and tight end Coby Fleener, who totaled 895 and 631 receiving yards respectively in 2016. In 2017, Snead was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for DUI and was buried on the depth chart upon his return, with injuries and ineffectiveness limiting him to just 8 catches in 11 games. Fleener, on the other hand, had 5 catches in the opener against Minnesota, but just 17 catches the rest of the way. He also missed 5 games with injury and finished the season on injured reserve with concussion problems. Both Snead and Fleener are no longer with the team.

With Snead and Fleener struggling, veteran free agent acquisition Ted Ginn stepped up as the #2 receiver, putting up a 53/787/4 slash line. Known mostly for his return abilities early in his career, Ted Ginn has developed into a useful deep threat in recent years, topping 700 yards in 3 straight seasons with the Panthers and Saints and averaging 15.1 yards per reception over that time period. However, he’s going into his age 33 season, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep this up, especially given how reliant he is on the top level athleticism he may quickly lose in the next couple years.

The Saints made finding better depth behind him a priority this season, so it’s very possible Ginn sees a significant drop off in production this season. The Saints signed restricted free agent Cameron Meredith from the Bears on a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal and also used a 3rd round pick on Central Florida’s Tre’Quan Smith. Meredith is a 2015 undrafted free agent who had a mini-breakout season in 2016 with a 66/888/4 slash line, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL, while Smith is a bigger bodied deep threat at 6-2 203, but needs to become a more natural catcher of the football. Smith may take a year to develop, but Meredith should be able to push Ginn for playing time in 2018, provided he’s healthy after missing last season.

The Saints also made adding talent at tight end a priority this off-season, bringing back a familiar face to replace Coby Fleener as the pass catching tight end, signing Ben Watson from the Ravens. Watson spent 2013-2015 with the Saints and proved to have good chemistry with Drew Brees, posting an improbable 74/825/6 slash line in his age 35 season in 2015, all of which were career highs. Watson is now going into his age 38 season and has a torn achilles that cost him his entire 2016 season on his resume, but he proved to have something left in the tank in 2017, leading the Ravens with 61 catches. He showed a complete lack of explosiveness, averaging just 8.6 yards per catch, but he could still be a reliable underneath target for Drew Brees in 2018.

Coby Fleener only leaves behind 269 snaps, as he fell down the depth chart as the season went out and then had his season cut short by injury, but Watson should have the opportunity to get more playing time than that, after signing a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal. He’ll be pushed for playing time by Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui, who played 588 and 419 snaps respectively last season. Neither is much of a pass catcher, totaling 16 catches and 6 catches respectively last season. Hill is a backup caliber tight end who doesn’t stand out as a receiver or a blocker, while Hoomanawanui has never topped 13 catches in 8 seasons in the league, but is still around because of his above average blocking at 6-4 265. Watson is their only receiving threat at tight end.

With an uncertain group at wide receiver and tight end, the Saints will likely rely heavily on #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas, a 2016 2nd round pick who has emerged as a legitimate All-Pro caliber player in just 2 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Thomas has put up 92/1137/9 and 104/1245/5 slash lines on 122 and 149 targets respectively in those 2 seasons and, only going into his age 25 season, may not have reached his peak yet. His emergence was the #1 reason why the Saints felt comfortable moving on from Cooks, but the Saints do need players at step up behind him on the depth chart at wide receiver and they need someone to step up as a pass catching tight end.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the Saints’ offense was in 2017, they would not have made the playoffs if they didn’t improve significantly on defense. After finishing dead last in first down rate allowed in both 2015 and 2016, the Saints were middle of the pack in 2017, finishing 17th. Combined with an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate, the Saints finished last season with the 7th best first down rate differential in the league.

Defensive lineman Cameron Jordan was on those last place defenses and played well, but he had arguably the best season of his career in 2017 and that was a big part of why the Saints improved defensively. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end, totaling 14 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 47 quarterback hurries, and 10 batted passes, all among the most in the league, while also playing well against the run. Though last season was arguably the best of his career, Jordan is no stranger to dominant seasons, finishing 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in both 2015 and 2016 as well. Going into his age 29 season, Jordan is one of the best defensive players in the league and should continue playing at a high level in 2018.

The Saints didn’t have another pass rusher with more than 5 sacks in 2017 though, so, in that sense, it’s not a huge surprise that the Saints moved up in the first round to draft defensive end Marcus Davenport. However, it is a big surprise that the Saints gave away a future first round pick to move from 27 to 14 to get a player that many expected would fall into the late teens. They became the first team in the modern draft era to trade two first round picks to move up and get a pick outside of the top-12.

I understand the Saints wanting to be aggressive with Drew Brees in the twilight of his career, but, unless Davenport becomes an All-Pro caliber player, they may regret moving up for him. Davenport has the tools to become a really good player down the line, but he’s considered a work in progress and more of an athlete than a pass rusher coming out of FBS UT San Antonio. He could struggle to have an immediate impact like last year’s rookies did.

Davenport also joins a pretty crowded position group, with 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson deserving of a larger role after flashing on 281 snaps as a rookie and veteran Alex Okafor re-signing on a 2-year, 6.7875 million dollar deal this off-season. Even though the Saints didn’t have another big sack total other than Jordan’s, Okafor still had a pretty solid season last year before tearing his achilles, totaling 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 21 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps in 10 games. Obviously the injury complicates his 2018 outlook and last season was the first season in his career in which he earned positive grades from PFF, but Okafor could be a useful part of this rotation in 2018.

With the Saints going four deep at defensive end, they may frequently use three defensive ends in passing situations, lining up either Cameron Jordan or Trey Hendrickson inside in sub packages. Jordan didn’t line up inside that often last season, but has the size to do so at 6-4 287 and has some experience as an interior pass rusher from earlier in his career. Hendrickson also has good size at 6-4 270 and saw about half of his pass rush snaps from the interior last season, totaling 135 edge rush snaps and 100 interior rush snaps.

Both Tyler Davison and David Onyemata are involved heavily in the rotation at defensive tackle in base packages (588 snaps and 598 snaps respectively last season), but neither is much of an interior pass rusher, totalling just 3 sacks and 5 hits between them. Davison and Onyemata are both one-year wonders too, as neither had shown much on the field prior to last season. Davison was a 5th round pick back in 2015, while Onyemata was a 4th rounder back in 2016, so it’s possible both players continue playing well against the run, but that’s not a given.

Sheldon Rankins is the Saints’ only true every down defensive tackle. A 2016 1st round pick, Rankins was limited to 9 games as a rookie after breaking his leg during the pre-season and struggled mightily when he did return to the field, but he was much improved in 2017 when he was healthy. Rankins struggled a bit against the run, but impressed as a pass rusher and earned a positive overall grade from PFF. He managed just 2 sacks, but also had 7 hits and 35 hurries. Only going into his 3rd season in the league, he could easily continue improving in 2018 and beyond. This is a pretty deep defensive line going into the season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Trey Hendrickson was one third round rookie that made a small impact on this defense as a rookie. Former Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone is the other one. Anzalone started the first 4 games of the season and held his own on 77% of the snaps during the first 3 weeks of the season, but then went down for the season with a shoulder injury 4 snaps into week 4. That’s especially concerning because his shoulder issues date back to his collegiate days and are a big part of why he fell to the 3rd round. In fact, many were surprised that he went as early as he did given his durability issues. If he can come back healthy and stay healthy, he has the talent to be an every down linebacker in the NFL, but that’s far from a guaranteed.

If Anzalone is able to return in 2018, he’ll return to a linebacking corps where the playing time is very much up for grabs, with only free agent acquisition Demario Davis locked into a role. Davis, formerly of the Jets, signed a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Saints this off-season. That’s a big increase from 2017, when he made just 1 million in base salary and 1.225 million in incentives. Davis was originally scheduled to make 3.7 million for the Browns in 2017, but the Browns were going to cut him at that rate, so instead they traded him to the Jets for Calvin Pryor, who the Browns eventually cut anyway.

Once with the Jets, Davis re-negotiated an incentivized contract to stay on the roster and ended up playing every defensive snap for them. Not only that, but he also played at a high level, totaling 135 tackles (6th most in the league), including 14 for a loss and 5 sacks. He also led all middle linebackers in run stops with 65. Perhaps most importantly, he held up in coverage, which had always been a big issue for him. As a result, he finished 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus.

Davis was a relatively high pick, going in the 3rd round in 2012, and he’s experienced, with 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including 79 out of 80 in the past 5 seasons. However, he’s never come close to matching the level he played at in 2017. He’s always been a capable run stuffer, but he earned a negative overall grade from PFF in each of his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season because of struggles in coverage. It’s fair to question if he can do it again and the Saints are paying a lot of money to find out, as he’s guaranteed 16.4 million over the first 2 years of the deal. He’s also spent his entire 6-year career in a 3-4 defense and isn’t a great fit as a 4-3 middle linebacker because of his lack of sideline to sideline speed.

In Anzalone’s absence, Craig Robertson (790 snaps), AJ Klein (664 snaps), and Manti Te’o (500 snaps) led New Orleans linebackers in snaps last season. All three veterans are still on the roster and will compete for roles in this crowded linebacking corps. Te’o played middle linebacker last season, the position Davis figures to take over, so his role seems to be the most in doubt. Te’o was a 2nd round pick by the Chargers in 2013, but never lived up to it. He graded as one of the worst linebackers in the league in 2015 and then tore his achilles 3 games into 2016. The Saints got him cheap on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal last off-season and he wasn’t horrible in a two-down role in 2017, but it’s hard to see where he fits in with Davis in town.

Klein was the worst of the trio in 2017, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. Prior to last season, Klein never played more than 350 snaps in a season, so it’s unclear why the Saints committed 10 million guaranteed to him in the first 2 seasons of a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season. Klein came over from Carolina, where he was a 5th round pick back in 2013. He’ll compete with Anzalone and Robertson for playing time at outside linebacker.

Robertson was probably their best linebacker last season, though that isn’t saying much. He’s experienced, with 64 starts in 89 career games in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s always struggled in coverage, so he might be best in a two-down base package role at this stage of his career, going into his age 30 season. He’s part of a linebacking corps that is crowded, but lacks major difference makers. The Saints will obviously be hoping that Demario Davis can continue playing like he did last season in an every down role and that Alex Anzalone can stay healthy and play like he did last season before getting hurt, but those things happening are far from guaranteed.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The biggest reason why the Saints improved so much defensively last season was the addition of rookie Marshon Lattimore, the 11th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore allowed just 52.9% completion as a rookie and had 5 interceptions and 10 pass deflections, while not allowing a single touchdown. Finishing 9th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league from the word go as a rookie. Only Jacksonville’s AJ Bouye played more coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown in 2017.

Lattimore obviously has a massive upside and could easily be one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the next 5 years, but injuries are the one concern with him. Hamstring problems limited him at Ohio State and possibly caused him to fall out of the top-10. While he did not have hamstring problems as a rookie, he did miss 3 games with concussion and ankle problems. Barring injuries slowing him down, he has a very bright future.

As big as the addition of Lattimore was to this defense, the Saints also benefited from a breakout year from #2 cornerback Ken Crawley. Crawley, a 2016 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie (502 snaps), but earned a starting role for the Saints in the pre-season and ended up holding up well opposite Lattimore. Crawley did commit 10 penalties and only had 1 interception, but he deflected 13 passes and allowed just 50% completion on his targets. He finished the season as PFF’s 30th ranked cornerback, though he did also miss 3 games with injury. Given that he’s a one-year wonder and a former undrafted free agent, it’s fair to wonder if he can do it again, but he should have a big role in the Saints’ secondary regardless.

The one area the Saints really struggled last season was covering slot receivers. Converted safety Kenny Vaccaro was their primary slot coverage back last season, but he finished 103th out of 121 in coverage grade among cornerbacks last season. PJ Williams also saw some time on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but he’s a more natural fit outside, where he did an adequate job in 6 spot starts when Lattimore and Crawley were hurt. In an effort to improve their slot coverage, the Saints signed ex-Eagle cornerback Patrick Robinson to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal.

It’s a homecoming for Robinson, who was originally drafted by the Saints with the 32nd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Robinson got off to a solid start in New Orleans, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011 and becoming a starter in 2012, making all 16 starts. However, he struggled mightily in 2012 and then missed all but two games in 2013 with injury. In 2014, he was solid in a part-time role, but was not brought back as a free agent and then spent a year in San Diego, Indianapolis, and then Philadelphia last season.

He was only able to sign a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal with the Eagles, but had easily the best season of his career, excelling on the slot and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback. The Saints are hoping that his performance last season was not a fluke, but, given that he’s already going into his age 31 season, it’s unlikely that he matches last year’s strong performance. He won’t need to match last season to be an upgrade for the Saints on the slot though. He also has experience outside and could push Crawley for his job if Crawley has an underwhelming off-season.

Lattimore was not the only rookie to have a big impact in the Saints’ secondary in 2017, as 2nd round pick Marcus Williams started 15 games and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked safety on the season. He might be most famous for his missed tackle on Minnesota’s game winning touchdown in the playoffs, but the terrible defensive play call was more to blame for the result of that play and Williams did a stellar job as a deep safety prior to that. That completion was just the 6th completion he allowed all year and he also picked off 5 passes, including one in that playoff loss. He should be able to bounce back from that and have a strong season.

Opposite him, the starting job is up for grabs, though free agent acquisition Kurt Coleman signed a 3-year, 16.35 million dollar deal that would suggest he’s the favorite for the starting job. It was a bit of a surprise that Coleman received that big of a contract, given that the Panthers cut him rather than paying him 4.1 million non-guaranteed in 2018. It’s rare that a player gets cut and ends up getting a raise, but that’s exactly what happened in Coleman’s case. Coleman was PFF’s 82nd ranked safety out of 89 eligible in 2017, but was a capable starter in both 2015 and 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him, but he still could be a capable starter for another couple seasons.

The other candidate for the other starting job is Vonn Bell, a 2016 2nd round pick who has made 24 starts in 2 seasons in the league. Bell has struggled in both seasons, especially in 2017, when he finished 84th out of 89 eligible safeties, which is probably why they brought in Coleman. That being said, Bell could still play a valuable role as a 3rd safety because of his versatility. While he struggles with deep coverage, he has the ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker in sub packages. With an uncertain group at linebacker and two safeties probably ahead of him on the depth chart, Bell may see significant action as a sub package linebacker. The Saints have a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Overall

The Saints didn’t change too much this off-season, after a strong strong that ended in a stunning late second defeat in the divisional round in Minnesota. They could easily be as good as they were last year and contend for the Super Bowl again, but there’s also downside with this team. Drew Brees is getting up there in age, their running back duo might not be as good as it was last season, and their young defense may struggle to match last season’s surprising season. They still have the talent to be a playoff team, but may find making the postseason tough in the loaded NFC if they aren’t quite as good as they were last season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South