Baltimore Ravens 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2012 and the Ravens have been paying for it ever since. Flacco had arguably the best 4-game stretch of his career during that playoff run, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions, which led to the Ravens re-signing him to a 6-year, 120.6 million dollar deal as a free agent after the season, but he was never nearly that good before and he hasn’t come close to being that good again since.

In the 5 seasons prior to the Super Bowl, he completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In the 5 seasons since, he’s arguably been worse, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 98 touchdowns, and 73 interceptions. For salary cap purposes, he’s restructured his contract several times, including a 3-year extension he signed in 2016, but he’s made a total of 112 million since the Super Bowl and is owed another 75 million over the next 4 seasons.

At the same time, he’s coming off of arguably the worst statistical season of his career, completing 64.1% of his passes for a career low 5.72 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. A lot of that is because of issues in the receiving corps and he was also playing through a back injury for most of the season, but he’s earned negative grades on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and is now going into his age 33 season.

He could be better in 2018, with a revamped receiving corps and hopefully better health, but the Ravens traded up into the end of the first round to draft Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall, so the writing is on the wall either way. Even if Flacco has a bounce back season in 2018, they’ll likely move on from him next off-season and build their team around the much less expensive Jackson (9.47 million over 4 years). None of Flacco’s remaining salary is guaranteed, so they can cut him at any time, although they’ll probably be able to get something for him in a trade next off-season.

Jackson is a tough quarterback to project to the next level and needs at least a year on the bench improving his technique and accuracy, but he has rare athleticism for a quarterback and made some big throws in colleges. Unless Flacco really struggles, I wouldn’t expect to see much of him as a rookie aside from some gadget plays, but it’s clear he’s the future in Baltimore. The Ravens would not have moved up into the first round to get him if they did not see him as their future signal caller.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the receiving corps was a big part of the reason why Flacco’s numbers were down last season. Just 146 of their 363 completions went to wide receivers in 2017 (40.2%), with the rest going to tight ends and running backs who all averaged less than 10 yards per catch. They also did not have a single wide receiver or tight end earn a positive pass catching grade from Pro Football Focus. As a result, the Ravens completely revamped their receiving corps this off-season.

Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, and Jeremy Maclin led this team in receiving with slash lines of 52/748/4, 61/522/4, and 40/440/3 respectively, but all three are no longer with the team. The Ravens replaced them by adding wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead in free agency and drafting tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the 1st and 3rd round respectively and wide receivers Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley in the 4th and 5th round respectively. It’s still far from the best receiving corps and it may take them a little while to gel, but it would be hard for this receiving corps to be worse than it was last season.

Crabtree should have the biggest immediate impact of any of their additions. Crabtree is coming off of a down season with the Raiders, playing just 599 snaps in 14 games and posting a 58/618/8 slash line. Now going into his age 30 season, the Raiders cut Crabtree rather than pay him 7.5 million non-guaranteed, but the Ravens clearly think he can bounce back, giving him a 3-year deal worth 21 million that guarantees him 8 million in 2018.

Crabtree seems to be slowing down, but could still prove to be a smart signing for a team desperate for wide receivers. Aside from injury plagued seasons in 2013 and 2014, Crabtree finished with a positive grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season (topping 850 yards in all 4 seasons) and should still have a couple seasons left in the tank. The Ravens also don’t risk losing compensation picks in 2019 by signing him, because he was released by his previous team.

Brown and Snead are also coming off of down years, but are not as proven as Crabtree. Brown seemingly had a breakout 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with a 65/1003/7 slash line, but injuries limited him to 1,085 snaps in 25 games in the 2 seasons since and he has a combined 60/816/5 slash line in those 2 seasons, including just 21 catches in 10 games last season. The Ravens are taking a flyer on him with a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal, but he has a sickle cell trait that could make him an injury risk for the rest of his career and he was an older rookie, so he’s already going into his age 29 season. I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his 2015 production.

Snead has a better chance of bouncing back. Originally undrafted in 2014, Snead had solid seasons in 2015 and 2016 with the Saints, posting slash lines of 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 respectively and earning positive grades in both seasons. In 2017, he was supposed to be a bigger part of the offense with Brandin Cooks out, but he was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for an off-season DUI and was limited to just 325 snaps in 11 games upon his return, partially for disciplinary reasons, partially because he was never healthy. When on the field, he earned a negative grade from PFF and only managed 8 catches. Still only in his age 26 season, Snead gets a fresh start with the Ravens, who signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent that the Saints did not match. He could easily return to form. He’ll compete with Brown for playing time in 2-wide receiver sets.

The rookies, Scott and Lasley, will likely begin the year in depth roles. Their main competition will be holdovers Chris Moore and Breshad Perriman, but the Ravens clearly don’t think much of either, given that they added 5 wide receivers between free agency and the draft this off-season. Perriman was a first round selection in 2015, but he’s been about as big of a bust as you can be. After missing his entire rookie year with injury, Perriman has caught just 43.0% of his targets for an average of 5.76 yards per attempt in his career and was a healthy scratch down the stretch in 2017, despite little talent ahead of him on the depth chart. Owed a 650K roster bonus on the 3rd day of training camp, he could be cut loose fairly soon. Moore, meanwhile, is a 2016 4th round pick who has underwhelming on 537 career snaps. 

At tight end, Hurst and Andrews will compete for roles with incumbents Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams. Hurst should be the primary pass catcher. He showed great pass catching ability and athleticism in 2 years as the starter at South Carolina, although he’s a risky first round pick because he’s already going into his age 25 season and he’s very raw as a run blocker. At 6-5 250, he has the size to be a better blocker, but he could take a couple years to develop. As a receiver, he’ll likely have a big role immediately. Andrews is also a better receiver than blocker and should see an immediate role in the passing game.

Boyle is their best blocking tight end, but the 6-4 270 pounder moves like an offensive lineman and has a 7.69 yards per catch average on 52 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He played close to every down snaps last season (695, 20th in the NFL by a tight end), but he should be more of a blocking specialist in 2018. Williams, meanwhile, is a former 2nd round pick, but he’s on the roster bubble, with Boyle, Hurst, and Andrews all likely locked into spots. Injuries have limited him to 47 catches in just 25 games in 3 seasons in the league and he’s not as good of a blocker as Boyle. If he stays healthy all off-season, he might have some trade value, but I would not expect him to be a big part of the Ravens’ season, even in an unsettled receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Ravens also had issues on the offensive line in 2017. Injuries were a big part of it, as left guard Alex Lewis missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, while right guard Marshal Yanda missed the final 14 games of the season with a broken ankle. Replacements James Hurst and Matt Skura finished 66th and 73rd respectively out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, so they had arguably the worst starting guards in the league last season.

Yanda will be the biggest re-addition, as he finished in the top-8 among guards in 6 straight seasons from 2011 to 2016, including 5 seasons in the top-2, but he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s very possible his best years are behind him. He should still be a good starter for another couple seasons and he missed just 5 games in 8 seasons prior to last season, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was before the injury.

Lewis is younger, as the 2016 4th round pick is only going into his age 26 season, but he’s not nearly as good as Yanda and he has more of an injury history, as he also missed 8 games with injury as a rookie. Lewis started the other 8 games, 3 at left tackle, 5 at left guard, but he struggled at both spots. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a capable starter. There has been talk that he’ll move to right tackle to replace Austin Howard, a league average starter who signed with the Colts as a free agent this off-season.

If Lewis stays at left guard, it’ll be James Hurst moving to right tackle. Despite the 2014 undrafted free agent struggling mightily in 31 career starts, the Ravens kept him on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal this off-season, suggesting he’ll start somewhere. His versatility is his biggest asset, as he’s made 14 starts at left tackle, 2 starts at right tackle, and 15 starts at left guard, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, with 3 seasons in the bottom-15 at his position. Third round rookie Orlando Brown could also be in the mix at right tackle.  

In addition to losing Howard this off-season, the Buccaneers also lost center Ryan Jensen, who finished 13th at his position in 2017. They did very little to replace him, only adding Bradley Bozeman in the 6th round of the draft, so they basically have an open competition at the position. Matt Skura could shift inside to center, but he struggled mightily in his first career action last season, so he’s not a promising option. Last year’s 4th and 5th round picks Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor could also kick inside to guard, but Siragusa missed his entire rookie year with injury, while Eluemunor struggled mightily in 198 rookie year starts at right guard. If Orlando Brown can lock down the right tackle job, the Ravens could shift either Lewis or Hurst inside to center as well, but neither player has experience at the position.  

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is their only offensive lineman who was healthy last season and is still on the team. He could arguably be their best offensive lineman in 2018. The 6th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Stanley has made 27 starts on the blindside in 2 seasons in the league and has earned positive grades from PFF in both seasons. He was their 32nd ranked offensive tackle last season. Only in his age 24 season, Stanley has a huge upside and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league. This offensive line should be better if they can stay healthier, but, outside of Stanley and Yanda, this is a very unsettled line.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite offensive line issues and a passing game that couldn’t take the top off the defense, the Ravens weren’t a bad running team. They ranked just 19th in YPC at 4.03, but they were a lot better down the stretch, after turning to Alex Collins as the lead back. On the season, Collins averaged 4.59 YPC on 212 carries, ranked 8th in carry success rate, 10th in elusive rating, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he began the season on the practice squad and did not play more than 30% of the snaps in a game until week 8.

From week 8 on, he was their featured runner, with 150 carries in 9 games, and their offense was a lot better down the stretch as a result. Through 7 games, they moved the chains at a mere 29.40% rate, dead last in the NFL at that time, but they moved the chains at a 35.21% rate in their remaining 9 games, which would have been 12th best in the NFL over the course of the season. After starting 3-4, they finished 6-3 in those 9 games. Collins is still unproven, as he was a 2016 5th round pick who had just 31 carries as a rookie in Seattle and then didn’t make their final roster in 2017, but he should be their featured runner in 2018 and could easily continue running well.

Collins’ one weakness is in the passing game, as he managed just 23 catches for 187 yards on 36 targets last season, so Buck Allen figures to handle most of the passing down snaps. Allen actually led the team in running back snaps last season with 464. He split carries with Collins early in the season, totaling 153 carries on the year (though just 54 in the final 8 games), and also saw passing down work with Danny Woodhead injured. He didn’t play as much down the stretch with Collins running well and Woodhead back in the lineup, but Woodhead is no longer with the team, so Allen has little competition for passing down work. He caught 45 passes as a rookie in 2015 and 46 last season, but he averaged just 5.43 yards per catch last season. An unexplosive athlete, he also has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry in his career.

The Ravens get Kenneth Dixon back from injury, though it’s unclear what his role will be. The 2016 4th round pick averaged 4.34 yards per carry on 88 carries as a rookie, but he’s not going to take many carries away from Collins unless Collins struggles and he’s not good enough on in the passing game to have a big passing down role. It’s also unclear if he can stay on the field. He’s already missed time with two separate knee injuries thus far, including a torn meniscus that cost him his entire 2017 season, and he’s also been suspended twice, once for performance enhancing drugs, once for substance abuse. If Collins continues running well, this is a strong backfield, but that’s far from a guarantee and backups Allen and Dixon are both question marks.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Despite their offensive struggles, the Ravens still won 9 games in 2017 and had the best point differential of any team that missed the post-season at +92. Their defense led the way, finishing 5th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 31.20%. They were not as good as that suggests though, as they faced arguably the easiest schedule in the league, including 6 backup quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, Matt Moore, Tom Savage, EJ Manuel, Case Keenum). They also faced the Bengals and Browns twice and the Bears. They played just 4 games against above average offenses: Pittsburgh twice, Minnesota, and Detroit.

All in all, the Ravens faced the easiest schedule in the NFL last season in terms of opponents’ winning percentage. They also benefited from a league leading +17 turnover margin, which is tough to sustain on a year-to-year basis. Teams that finish with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of +4.3 and win an average of 2.6 fewer games. It’s not hard to see how they could have a worse turnover margin in 2018. Not only do they face a significantly tougher schedule, but they’re also unlikely to do as well recovering fumbles as they did last season, when they led the league with a 65.85% fumble recovery rate.

That being said, this is still a solid defense. In base packages, they are anchored by defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who ranked 10th and 15th respectively among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in 2017. Williams is a 2013 3rd round pick who has finished in the top-19 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons as a starter, while Pierce is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has finished in the top-16 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in each of his first 2 seasons in the league.

Neither is much of a pass rusher though, and, at 330+ pounds each, they don’t play every down. Pierce played just 54.3% of the snaps last season, while Williams played just 53.9% of the snaps in 12 games (4 missed with injury). Pierce has just 3 sacks and 6 hits in 2 seasons in the league, while Williams has totaled just 4.5 sacks and 8 hits in 4 seasons as a starter. Williams has earned negative grades for his pass rush ability in all 5 seasons in the league, while Pierce has been about league average in limited pass rush opportunities in 2 seasons in the league. Despite that, both players are very valuable to this team because of what they do on early downs, with Williams even getting a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar extension as a free agent last off-season, the kind of big contract usually reserved for interior pass rushers.

Fortunately, this team has plenty of depth on the defensive line, so Pierce and Williams can focus on their roles. Willie Henry actually led this defensive line in snaps with 594 and was their primary interior pass rusher, playing 387 pass snaps. Despite not playing a single snap as a rookie, the 2016 4th round pick was not bad last season, holding up against the run and generating pass rush. He totaled 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 10 hurries on 384 pass rush snaps. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, he could continue improving, though it’s worth mentioning he’s still pretty unproven, especially against tougher competition.

Brent Urban also had a big role on this defense, playing 78.8% of the snaps in the first 2 weeks of the year, but he broke his foot week 3 and missed the rest of the season. A 4th round selection in 2014, Urban has flashed in limited action in his career, but has never been able to stay on the field. He’s played just 25 of a possible 64 career games and has already had an ACL tear, a biceps tear, and a broken foot. A better run stuffer than pass rusher, he’ll likely be the 3rd starter in base packages with Williams and Pierce, for as long as he stays healthy. His primary competition for that base package role is Carl Davis, a 2015 3rd round pick that has played just 539 career snaps, but flashed as a run stuffer on 300 snaps in Urban’s absence last season.

The Ravens also have a pair of recent 3rd round picks, but they may be competing for just one roster spot on this deep defensive line. Last year’s 3rd rounder Chris Wormley struggled on 120 snaps as a rookie, while 2016 3rd round pick Bronson Kaufusi played just 32 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, after missing his entire rookie season with a broken ankle. Wormley is the most likely of the two to make the final roster, but it could be tough for him to earn a bigger role on an already deep defensive line that gets Brent Urban back from injury.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens also have a deep group of edge rushers, which is good because, as talented as their defensive line is, they are not great at getting to the quarterback. The Ravens had 3 base outside linebackers total at least 500 snaps last season, Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, and Za’Darius Smith, the latter of whom lined up on the interior on 131 of 349 pass rush snaps. That doesn’t even include their 2nd and 3rd round picks in 2017, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, who spent their rookie seasons buried on the depth chart, playing 161 and 125 snaps respectively.

Terrell Suggs led all Baltimore outside linebackers with 845 snaps (77.3%) and was also their best player at the position, finishing 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and totaling 11 sacks, 8 hits, and 57 hurries on 525 pass rush snaps. Suggs is going into his age 36 season though, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Ravens reduced his snaps in 2018 with young depth behind him on the depth chart. He has 125.5 career sacks (17th all-time), 7 Pro-Bowl appearances, and a Defensive Player of the Year award (2011) and could easily end up in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done, but he’s at the stage of his career where it’s unclear if he can continue playing at such a high level.

Matt Judon also played a big role opposite Suggs, playing 787 snaps. He had 8 sacks, but he was not as good of a pass rusher as that suggests. He benefited from having Suggs opposite him and only added 8 hits and 18 hurries on 333 pass rush snaps. He also struggled against the run and finished as PFF’s 42nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible overall. The 2016 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s not a lock to remain the starter in 2018 in a deep edge rusher group.

Za’Darius Smith only had 3.5 sacks last season, but he has a better chance of earning a major role in 2018. Not only does the 6-4 275 pounder have the size to line up both inside and outside on the defensive line in passing situations, but he was also better than his sack total suggested, as he added 12 hits and 23 hurries on 349 pass rush snaps. He’s not much of a run stuffer, despite his size, but he should still have a big sub package role in 2018. Bowser and Williams could also earn roles. Bowser was the higher pick and should have the brighter future, but Williams could have gone in the first round if not for off-the-field concerns and he’s the better natural pass rusher of the two.

The Ravens are not as deep at inside linebacker though. CJ Mosley is a capable every down player, but their other starter, Patrick Onwuasor, is only a two-down run stuffer. The 2016 undrafted free agent earned a positive run stopping grade in the first significant action of his career last season (646 snaps), but struggled mightily in coverage. Reserve safety Anthony Levine played 141 of his 201 coverage snaps as a linebacker and held his own, but the 5-11 209 pounder is very undersized against the run. The Ravens added Kenny Young in the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft and he has the athletic tools to develop into a good coverage linebacker, but he enters the league very raw. The Ravens will likely have a rotation at the other middle linebacker spot next to Mosley.

Given that, the Ravens will need a strong year out of Mosley. The 17th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mosley has made 62 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has been an every down player from the first week of his rookie season, but he’s coming off of a down year, finishing below average on PFF for the first time in his career. Prior to last season, he finished 11th, 15th, and 11th respectively in his first 3 seasons in the league. Still only in his age 26 season, there’s no reason why he can’t bounce back.

The Ravens are fully expected to re-sign him to an extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll likely get upwards of 11+ million on his next deal and could push Luke Kuechly (12.35 million annually) as the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. Led by Mosley and Suggs, this is a solid linebacking corps with a lot of depth, but they need young players to step up, especially with Suggs getting up there in age.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Ravens got good play from their front 7 last season, but their secondary was arguably their best unit. They were led by #1 cornerback Jimmy Smith for the first 12 games of the season until he tore his achilles week 13 and missed the rest of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback when he went down and allowed 57.5% completion, 7.30 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 3 interceptions, but he wasn’t really missed because his replacement, Marlon Humphrey, played almost as well. A rookie first round pick who played just 264 snaps in the first 11 games of the season as the 4th cornerback, Humphrey was an every down player after Smith went down. On the season, he finished 37th among cornerbacks on 596 snaps, allowing 46.4% completion, 5.96 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 2 interceptions.

Smith is expected to be ready for week 1, but that’s not a guarantee and he could easily be less than 100%. He also has a pretty extensive injury history and is going into his age 30 season. He’s missed 26 games in 7 seasons in the league, only topping 12 games in 2 of 7 seasons, and struggled mightily in his last season returning from a lower leg injury, finishing 89th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 after missing 8 games in 2014 with a broken foot. He’s finished above average on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and was on his way to arguably his best season before getting hurt, but there’s no guarantee he returns to form in 2018.

Even with Smith returning, Humphrey is too talented to return to a reserve role and should be the other starter in his 2nd season in the league. Only turning 22 this summer, Humphrey has a sky high ceiling and could breakout in his first full season as a starter. The Ravens also get Tavon Young back from injury, after he missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Despite being a mere 4th round rookie, Young flashed on 833 snaps in 2016, leading the team in cornerback snaps and finishing 24th among cornerbacks on PFF. Because he suffered this injury last June, he’ll be 15 months removed from it by week 1, which helps his chances of being 100% in 2018.

Young is still unproven and coming off of a major injury, but, if he can return to form, he could easily win the #3 cornerback job. That would leave veteran Brandon Carr without a clear role. Carr has incredibly made 160 of 160 starts in 10 seasons in the league and has been about a league average starter in the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t earned a positive grade from PFF in a full season since 2011 and now is going into his age 32 season.

Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Ravens might not be able to justify keeping him on the roster if he can’t lock down a role in 3-cornerback sets, but they already paid him a 1.5 million dollar roster bonus earlier this off-season, so they might value his experience highly with both Smith and Young coming off injuries. The Ravens also have Maurice Canady, a 2016 6th round pick who wasn’t bad on 320 snaps (217 of which came in coverage on the slot) last season in the first significant action of his career, and Anthony Averett, a 4th round rookie, in the mix for cornerback snaps in sub packages.

At safety, the Ravens return Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, who both made all 16 starts last season and finished 26th and 29th respectively among safeties on PFF. After signing a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Ravens as a free agent last off-season, Jefferson struggled early in the season, but was much better down the stretch. He’s earned positive grades in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 7th among safeties. Still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, Jefferson could easily be better in 2018.

Weddle has also had better seasons in the past, but his age is a concern, in his age 33 season. He’s finished in the top-7 among safeties on PFF in 7 of the past 9 seasons and finished #1 as recently as 2016, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him. Even still, he should be at least a solid starter again in 2018. The Ravens got a bargain, signing him for just 26 million over 4 years two off-seasons ago. This is a very talented secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Ravens had the best point differential of any team to miss the post-season in 2017, but that was in large part due to their turnover margin. They still ranked 10th in first down rate differential at 1.54%, but that was against the easiest schedule in the league. They might actually be more talented overall in 2018 than 2017, but I don’t see that showing up in the standings. They won’t face 6 backup quarterbacks like they did last season and both the Browns and Bengals are better in the division. They could still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC, but they also could easily finish last in an improved division. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Ravens playoff chances took another hit when Jimmy Smith was suspended for the first 4 games of the season. With a tougher schedule and an improved division, the Ravens are likely to win fewer games than 2017.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers finished last season 13-3, tied for the best record in the NFL, but they lost at home in the divisional round to the Jacksonville Jaguars, after their first round bye. They had a strong season, but they were not as good as their record suggested, as they went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished the season 6th in first round rate differential at 4.67% and 7th in point differential at +98, good, but not as good as their record would suggest.

The offense had another strong year, finishing 4th in first down rate at 37.01%, and on paper they look like a strong offense again, returning almost everyone from last season. Much of that depends on Ben Roethlisberger continuing to play at a high level in his age 36 season. Roethlisberger completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2017 and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback.

Now going into his 15th season in the league, Roethlisberger has finished in the top-9 among quarterbacks on PFF in 8 of the past 9 seasons and he has finished in the top-3 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. In the past 10 seasons, he ranks 7th in passing touchdowns, 6th in passing yards, 5th in YPA (minimum 2000 attempts), 9th in completion percentage, and 9th in interception rate. He’s made 198 regular season starts in his career, though he’s only played in all 16 games three times in his career. He’s never suffered a major injury, but he usually misses a game or two with some sort of injury.

Given his injury history and his age, the Steelers have been proactive adding talent behind him on the depth chart, taking quarterbacks in the mid rounds in each of the last 2 drafts. They took Josh Dobbs in the 4th round in 2017 and then drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round in this past draft. Roethlisberger reportedly was not happy when the Steelers took Rudolph, but the addition of Rudolph says more about what they think about Dobbs long-term more than Roethlisberger. Rudolph was also reportedly very high on their board, so they probably would have selected him regardless of anything to do with Roethlisberger or Dobbs. Rudolph was expected to go in the top-50 picks and, when he fell in middle of the 3rd round, the Steelers moved up to 76 to stop his slide.

Landry Jones has been their backup for the past 3 seasons, making 5 starts, but he’s been pretty underwhelming. He’s completed 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, but he has 7 interceptions to 8 touchdowns and much of his production comes from playing with such a strong supporting cast. The 2013 4th round pick has never finished with a positive grade on PFF in 5 seasons in the league. Rudolph could easily beat him out for the backup job and, given Roethlisberger’s history, that means he could easily make a couple starts in 2018. If he plays well in a couple spot starts and helps this team keep their playoff seed, Roethlisberger may like the pick more. Rudolph is not close to being an immediate threat to Roethlisberger’s job, but could ultimately end up being his successor. For now, Roethlisberger remains a franchise quarterback.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Roethlisberger is far from the only reason why this offense is so consistently good, as he’s had a great supporting cast for years, led by running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Le’Veon Bell’s long-term future with the team is up in the air though, as he goes into his 2nd straight season on the franchise tag without a long-term deal. Between the two franchise tags, Bell will make 26.664 million combined in 2017 and 2018, but he wants a long-term deal worth 15+ million annually.

Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy are the two highest paid running backs in terms of average annual salary at 8.25 million and 8 million respectively, so what Bell is asking for is a steep price for a running back. Bell’s argument is that, not only is he the top running back in the league, but because he gets so much usage in the passing game, he should be paid like a top running back and a #2 wide receiver combined.

It’s not a bad argument. Bell gets a ton of use and should be compensated well beyond the top running back in the league. In his career, he’s averaged 398 touches per 16 games (317 carries and 81 catches) and last season he had 406 touches in 15 games (321 carries and 85 catches). He’s played 84.3% of the snaps in games he’s played in his career, including 90%+ in the past 2 seasons, and frequently stays on the field as a receiver in obvious pass situations (67 slot snaps, 48 at wide receiver in 2017). He’s finished in the top-3 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and has averaged 4.34 yards per carry in his career. He’s also still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season.

My concern with giving Bell such a big contract is whether or not he can stay on the field. Between suspension and injury, Bell has missed 18 games in 5 seasons in the league. He’s potentially one drug suspension away from a yearlong minimum suspension and running backs who consistently get 400+ carries per season don’t usually hold up well long-term. The Steelers may not want to pay him what he wants with that kind of risk involved. He’ll be owed the quarterback franchise tag value in 2019 if he’s franchise tagged a third time (upwards of the 23.189 million it was in 2018), so, if the Steelers can’t reach a long-term agreement with him this off-season, this could easily be his final season in Pittsburgh.

He’s also unlikely to report until week 1 if he isn’t extended. Because players are not technically on the roster until they sign the franchise tag, the Steelers can’t fine him for missing the off-season, so he can holdout until the start of the season without any financial penalty. It’s the same path he followed last off-season, but it might not have done him any favors, as he averaged 4.02 yards per carry and finished 11th at his position, both his worst marks since his rookie season in 2013. He could continue struggling by his standards in 2018 if he misses the off-season again.

James Conner was drafted in the 3rd round in 2017 to potentially be a long-term replacement, but he saw very little action as a rookie with Bell playing so many snaps. He ran pretty well, averaging 4.50 yards per carry on 32 carries, but didn’t catch a pass and is still very unproven. If Bell gets hurt, Conner will likely form a committee with 5th round rookie Jaylen Samuels, a hybrid running back/fullback/tight end that can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Steelers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Antonio Brown, fortunately, is locked up long-term, as the Steelers gave him a 4-year extension last off-season ahead of the final year of a bargain 5-year, 42 million dollar extension that Brown signed after just 2 seasons in the league back in 2012. He’s now signed through 2021. His new contract is a steep raise, as he’s now the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 4-year, 68 million dollar deal that pays him 44.2 million through the end of 2019, including a 19 million dollar signing bonus.

It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it, though his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 30 season. Over the past 5 seasons, Brown leads the NFL with 582 catches for 7,848 yards and 52 touchdowns and has finished in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-2. He’s very durable, missing just 3 games in the past 5 seasons, and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons.

The Steelers also have good talent behind Brown on the depth chart, after using a second round pick on a wide receiver in back-to-back drafts. JuJu Smith-Schuster put up a 58/917/7 slash line as a rookie, despite only playing about half the snaps in the first half of the season and missing two games down the stretch. On the season, he averaged 2.16 yards per route run (9th in the NFL) on 424 routes and led the NFL with a 134.0 QB rating when targeted. He also got better as the season went on, as he caught 41 passes for 686 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games of the season.

He needs to get more disciplined, as he had 7 penalties (second most among wide receivers) and was suspended for a game for a personal foul penalty, but he finished 14th among wide receivers on PFF in pass catching grade and has a sky high upside, only turning 22 in November. He’ll be an every down receiver in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and could easily top 1000 yards.

Martavis Bryant actually finished 2nd on this team among wide receivers with 703 snaps, but he averaged just 1.35 yards per route run and totaled just 603 yards. He was traded to the Raiders for a 3rd round pick during the draft, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. The Steelers then used their 2nd round pick (60th overall) to draft his replacement, Oklahoma State’s James Washington. Washington didn’t have the best combine, with a 4.54 40 at 5-11 213, but he plays bigger and faster and compares to Smith-Schuster on tape. He’s a great fit in Pittsburgh and could have an immediate impact as the 3rd receiver. Between these 3 receivers and Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has plenty of good options in the passing game.

They are hoping for more out of the tight end spot though, after Jesse James, Vance McDonald, and Xavier Grimble combined for 62 catches for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns on 96 targets last season. The Steelers did not add a tight end this off-season, but they are hoping to get more out of McDonald, who played just 271 snaps in 10 games in his first season in Pittsburgh in 2017. McDonald dealt with injuries and did not pick up the playbook quickly after arriving via trade from San Francisco just before the start of the season, but he was easily their most explosive receiving option with 13.4 yards per catch on 14 catches, as opposed to 8.7 yards per catch on 43 catches for Jesse James.

McDonald is a freak athlete, but has never lived up to his potential as a receiver, maxing out at 30 catches in a season in 5 years in the league. This is probably the best offense he’s played on and he could put up solid numbers if given the opportunity, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF for his pass catching ability in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. He’s a strong blocker though, so he should play a much bigger role in his 2nd season regardless.

Jesse James has started 29 games over the past 2 seasons and has played 80.4% of the snaps, but he’s combined for a 82/710/6 slash line across two seasons and has only been average as a run blocker. He was PFF’s 58th tight end out of 72 eligible on 906 snaps (4th most among tight ends) in 2017. He and McDonald should see a more even split in 2018. Xavier Grimble also remains and he’s a capable blocker, but he’s played just 366 snaps over the past 2 seasons. The wide receivers will remain the focus of this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Steelers have also had a strong offensive line for years as well, although last season was arguably their worst performance upfront in a few seasons. The biggest reason for that was veteran Ramon Foster, who struggled at left guard. Foster earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons from 2011-2016 (89 starts) and ranked 6th as recently as 2016, but he fell to 53rd out of 80 eligible in 2017 (14 starts). He could bounce back in 2018, but he’s also in his age 32 season, so his best days are probably behind him. Without a better option on the roster, the Steelers will be hoping he can be a capable starter for at least one more season. He’s in the final year of his contract and the Steelers will likely try to find an upgrade next off-season.

The Steelers are also hoping for a bounce back year from center Maurkice Pouncey, who finished 26th among 38 eligible centers in 2017. Pouncey earned a positive grade in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to 2017 and finished 11th at his position in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, though it’s worth noting he has a history of injury. He missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL and then missed 2015 with a broken leg. He may be starting to break down physically, though I would expect somewhat of a bounce back year from him.

The Steelers should also get more out of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was limited to 7 starts by a hamstring injury and a 4-game performance enhancing drugs suspension. Backup Chris Hubbard was about league average in his absence, so Gilbert wasn’t missed that much, but he’ll still be a welcome return to the lineup. Gilbert was PFF’s 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2016 and has earned positive grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons.

The concern is he’s going into his age 30 season and has played in all 16 games just twice in 7 seasons in the league (82 starts). Hubbard is no longer around, signing as a starter with the Browns this off-season, so the Steelers could be in trouble if Gilbert doesn’t make it through the season. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Western Michigan’s Chukwuma Okorafor, but he’s a developmental prospect that could struggle if he has to play as a rookie.

With Pouncey and Foster having down years and Gilbert missing more than half of the season, the Steelers were fortunate to get a career year out of right guard David DeCastro, who finished 2nd among guards on PFF and could have finished 1st if he didn’t sit out week 17 with the Steelers’ playoff seeding locked in. DeCastro has been a strong starter for 5 seasons (78 starts), earning positive grades in all 5 seasons, and finished 8th in 2016 as well, so he’s not exactly a one-year wonder. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, DeCastro should be one of the best guards in the league again in 2018.

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva rounds out this offensive line. A former US Army Ranger and converted defensive lineman who gained close to 100 pounds to play the offensive line, Villanueva has developed into a capable starter on the blindside for the Steelers, one of the more improbable stories in the NFL. He’s made 42 starts over the past 3 seasons and has been about a league average starter at arguably the most challenging spot on the line. Last season, he was PFF’s 36th ranked offensive tackle. Because he was a late bloomer, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he could easily continue being a capable starter for another couple seasons. The Steelers return all 5 starters on the offensive line and could be better than they were last season with Gilbert returning and a couple players potentially having bounce back seasons. This is a strong line.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Steelers also had a strong defense in 2017, finishing 8th in first down rate allowed at 32.34%, though they were not nearly as good down the stretch without every down linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury in the first half of their week 13 game against the Bengals. Going into that game, the Steelers ranked 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.98%, but they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.54% rate over the final 5 games of the season, which would have been the worst rate in the league over a full season. In their playoff loss to the Jaguars, they could not stop anything. Shazier’s future is in doubt and he’s at the very least expected to miss all of 2018, so the Steelers might have some defensive issues this season.

Fortunately, they still have a strong defensive line. Starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were arguably the best 3-4 end duo in the NFL, finishing 2nd and 7th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Both are proven players, though last season was the first time they had strong years at the same time. Heyward missed 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2016 and Tuitt was not the same player he is now back in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015. A second round pick back in 2014, Tuitt is coming off of back-to-back finishes in the top-9 at his position and could continue getting better, still only going into his age 25 season. The Steelers wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 60 million dollar extension early in his contract year last September.

Heyward is also locked up on a big contract long-term, re-signing for 6 years, 59.2 million back in 2015. He’s been well worth it. The 2011 first round pick has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of his last 3 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game in his career aside from the pectoral tear. Heyward returned from that injury with his best season ever, especially dominating at a pass rusher. He had a career sack 12 sacks and also added 9 hits and 40 hurries on 467 pass rush snaps, despite rushing from the interior on 88.2% of them. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, he’s one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league.

The Steelers also have a talented nose tackle in between Heyward and Tuitt. Despite being a mere 3rd round pick in 2016, Javon Hargrave has made 25 starts in 31 games in which he’s played. He’s only played 50.2% of the snaps and is primarily a run stuffer, but also added 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 15 hurries on 231 pass rush snaps in 2017. About an average starter as a rookie, Hargrave took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 27th among defensive tackles on PFF, and could continue improving in his 3rd season in the league. He’ll start at nose tackle in base packages and play rotational snaps in sub packages behind Heyward and Tuitt.

With the starting trio they have, there isn’t much need for depth, as just two other defensive lineman played more than 14 snaps last season, Tyson Alualu (434 snaps) and Leterrius Walton (144 snaps). Alualu is an 8-year veteran who is a decent run stuffer, but provides no pass rush and is going into his age 31 season. Walton, meanwhile, is a 2015 6th round pick who has played sparingly in 3 seasons in the league and has not performed well. Even with questionable depth, this is still one of the best 3-man defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

When Shazier went down, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker and played in 90.5% of his team’s snaps, so he obviously was not going to be easy to replace. Sean Spence, TJ Fort, and Tyler Matakevich saw action in his absence and all 3 were very underwhelming. Fort and Matakevich remain on the roster, but it will likely be free agent acquisition Jon Bostic starting in Shazier’s absence, after signing a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season.

A 2nd round selection by the Bears in 2013, Bostic earned negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and missed all of 2016, but he had a mini breakout year in 2017 in 14 starts. He still struggled in coverage, but finished 12th at his position in run stop grade and earned the first positive grade of his career overall. He’ll likely never be good on all downs, but is still only in his age 27 season and could easily continue being a force against the run.

Vince Williams remains as the other starter. Like Bostic, he’s a run stuffer that struggles in coverage. The 5-year veteran was an every down linebacker for the first time in his career last season. Williams is a plus blitzer, with 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 8 hurries on 78 pass rush snaps last season, but coverage ability is more important for an inside linebacker and he struggled on 304 coverage snaps. The Steelers used their first round selection on hybrid safety/linebacker Terrell Edmunds. I would expect the 6-1 217 pounder to play the majority of passing downs around the line of scrimmage in place of one of their two middle linebackers.

At outside linebacker, the Steelers start a pair of recent first rounders, Bud Dupree (22nd pick in 2015) and TJ Watt (30th pick in 2017). Dupree has not panned out yet, earning negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2017 season in which he finished 44th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Despite playing roughly 70% of the snaps in 38 career games, Dupree has just 14.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in his career and he’s not a good player against the run either. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2019, so they are not ready to give up on him, but that 9.232 million dollar option is only guaranteed for injury, so he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league.

Watt, on the other hand, has a much brighter future, after a promising rookie season. Not only did he impress rushing the passer, with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 26 hurries on 296 pass rush snaps, but he also played the run well and held up in coverage on 176 coverage snaps. He was PFF’s 18th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and earned positive grades across the board in all 3 defensive aspects. His ability to drop into coverage allows the Steelers to get more creative with their blitzing and should help compensate for their middle linebackers’ inability to cover. He could be even better in his 2nd season in the league.

The Steelers’ outside linebacker depth is very suspect though. Anthony Chickillo was their top reserve last season with 269 snaps, but he struggled, finishing 41st out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers. The 2015 6th round pick has played sparingly thus far in his career and has struggled whenever he’s been on the field. Arthur Moats also saw some snaps as a reserve last season, but he’s no longer with the team and the Steelers did not add any depth this off-season. Without Shazier, this is a very suspect linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to adding Terrell Edmunds through the draft, the Steelers also added safety Morgan Burnett in free agency. Like Edmunds, Burnett is versatile and can play multiple different spots. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 83.1% of snaps last season with the Packers (6th in the NFL among safeties) and played 316 of his 386 coverage snaps as either a linebacker or a slot cornerback. The Steelers figure to use the 6-1 209 pounder in a similar fashion as Green Bay did.

Burnett was a great signing on a 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s made 98 starts in the past 7 seasons and has finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 of those seasons. His injury history was probably part of why he was so inexpensive, as he hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012 and has missed 14 games in the past 5 seasons combined, but, even still, he was a good signing for a team with a need at safety.

Sean Davis was their leading safety in terms of snaps played last season with 949, but the 2016 2nd round pick struggled mightily. He’s made 25 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but finished 73rd among 90 eligible safeties as a rookie and then finished dead last among 89 eligible safeties last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it would be hard to be worse. Like Burnett and Edmunds, he can line up in various different spots. He played 74.1% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and lined up on the slot or as a linebacker on 221 of 557 coverage snaps. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

Michael Mitchell, their other starter last season, is no longer with the team, getting cut following a mediocre 2017 season, while backup Robert Golden, who was solid on 206 snaps last season, is also no longer with the team, but the Steelers did also add a safety in the 5th round, taking Penn State’s Marcus Allen. The Steelers figure to frequently use 3 or even 4 safeties in sub packages to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers. They are deeper and more talented at safety than linebacker, but largely by default, as they lack proven players beyond Burnett.

Fortunately, they are more talented at cornerback, where they return their top-3 from last season. Artie Burns and Joe Haden will remain the starters, while Mike Hilton will continue to man the slot in sub packages. A first round selection by the Steelers in 2016 (25th overall), Burns took over as the starter 7 games into his rookie year and has not disappointed. He’s made all 25 starts since and has earned positive coverage grades in both seasons. Still only in his age 23 season, Burns has a sky high upside and could easily have the best year of his career in 2018.

Haden, meanwhile, came over to the Steelers last off-season after being released by the Browns. Back-to-back down seasons by Haden in 2015 and 2016 led to the Browns deciding not to keep him on the roster for 2017 at a non-guaranteed 11.25 million dollar salary, but he bounced back in his first season in Pittsburgh after they signed him to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal, earning a positive coverage grade. He’s unlikely to ever again become the player he was in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2010-2013 (4 straight seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks on PFF), as injuries have sapped his abilities, and he hasn’t played in all 16 games since his rookie year (5 games missed with a broken leg in 2017), but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, despite this being his 9th season in the league, so he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2018.

With Burns and Haden locked in outside, Hilton can focus on being a pure slot cornerback, as he was last season, when he played 292 of 352 coverage snaps on the slot. Despite being an undrafted rookie, Hilton was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. He was targeted on 38 of his 292 slot snaps, but only allowed 198 yards, an average of 0.68 yards per coverage snap and 5.21 yards per attempt. He also was an above average run stuffer and blitzer (4 sacks, 4 hits, and 8 hurries on 79 blitzes) and finished as PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback overall. It’s unclear if he can have that kind of a season again, as he’s a one-year wonder that the entire league did not deem worthy of a draft pick just a year ago, but he should be an above average slot cornerback either way.

When Haden missed time last year, it was Coty Sensabaugh and Cameron Sutton who took over his snaps, as the 5-9 183 pound Hilton lacks the size to hold up outside. Sensabaugh and Sutton will compete for the #4 cornerback job this off-season, though Sutton was a 3rd round pick in 2017 and is likely the heavy favorite. He only played 113 snaps as a rookie, but he didn’t play badly and he has the tools to be a starter long-term. Sensabaugh is a veteran journeyman who is not a lock to make the final roster with a 1.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. This is a solid secondary overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Steelers should still have one of the better offenses in the league as long as Ben Roethlisberger does not decline and the key players stay healthy, but their defense should take a step back without Ryan Shazier. They’re also unlikely to do as well in close games and their division has improved, so they’re likely to regress by a few wins in 2018. They’re still the favorites in the AFC North, but they’re highly unlikely to go 6-0 in the division again.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Not only will the Steelers’ defense take a step back in 2018, but their offense could take a step back if Le’Veon Bell continues holding out into the season. The Steelers are still my AFC North winner, but their division has improved and if they don’t get Bell back quickly they could be very vulnerable.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2017 Bengals got off to about as bad of an offensive start to the season as you can have, not scoring a single offensive touchdown in their first 2 games of the season. They faced a pair of tough defenses, Baltimore and Houston, but that was obviously not the way they wanted to start the season and, as a result, they fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor.

The Bengals were better offensively under Lazor, who previously was the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins from 2014-2016, but they were only better by default. The Bengals finished 22nd in first down rate at 32.15%, which isn’t terrible, but they also had tied for the fewest first downs (267) and they had the fewest plays run (927), so they weren’t exactly stringing together a lot of long drives. As a result, their defense had to play the most snaps in the league at 1,091 and was on the field for a league leading 32:51 per game.

Quarterback Andy Dalton’s numbers were not good either, as he had the lowest completion percentage (59.9%) and YPA (6.69) since his rookie season in 2011. He did throw for 25 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but the Bengals only had 6 rushing touchdowns, so his touchdown total was more the result of the Bengals being pass heavy in the red zone, rather than Dalton actually regularly leading this offense on scoring drives.

Dalton didn’t actually play all that badly though, as he finished 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, tied for the 2nd highest rank of his career (he finished 8th in 2015). Largely a league average starting quarterback throughout his career, Dalton’s numbers have fluctuated from year-to-year, but that’s primarily because of how the talent around him on offense has changed. Last year was arguably the worst supporting cast he’s ever had around him. If his supporting cast is better in 2018, that will show on his stat sheet.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The most important improvements the Bengals had to make on offense this off-season were on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league last season. The 40 sacks they allowed isn’t terrible (13th most in the NFL), but that was largely because of Dalton’s quick release, as he got the ball out in 2.38 seconds on average, 3rd fastest in the NFL. They ranked 22nd in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 26th in term run blocking grade.

Dalton has been a significantly worse quarterback when pressured in his career, perhaps more so than any quarterback in the league, completing just 43.6% of his passes for an average of 6.49 YPA when pressured and 67.4% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA with a clean pocket. In 2015, when this Bengals’ offense was at its peak, they had one of the best offensive lines in the league, but just one starter remains from that 2015 line and their replacements did not fare well in 2017.

Fortunately, the Bengals understood how important improving their offensive line was this off-season and did a solid job upgrading it. Their biggest weakness was left tackle, where Cedric Ogbuehi finished 75th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles in 13 starts last season on the always important blindside last season. This was not a good off-season to need a left tackle, as both the draft and free agency lacked capable left tackle options, but the Bengals got creative and traded for Cordy Glenn from the Bills.

Glenn was limited to 16 games between 2016 and 2017 due to foot and ankle injuries and he was not cheap, as he has a 11.25 million dollar salary for 2018 and the Bengals swapped the 12th pick for the 21st pick to acquire him (the equivalent of giving up a late 2nd round pick), but he’ll be worth it if he can return to form. Glenn was a top-25 offensive tackle in 4 straight seasons from 2013 to 2016 and finished 8th at his position in his last full season in 2015. Only in his age 29 season, he should theoretically be in the prime of his career and he was probably the best left tackle option the Bengals could acquire this off-season.

With Glenn coming in, Ogbuehi is moving to right tackle, where he’ll compete for the starting job with fellow 4th year lineman Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi and Fisher went in the 1st and 2nd round respectively in 2015, so both still have upside, but their careers have not gotten off to great starts. Ogbuehi played just 68 snaps as a rookie, before struggling mightily at right tackle in 2016 (64th out of 76 eligible) and then at left tackle last season. Fisher, meanwhile, has made just 11 starts in 3 seasons in the league (including 7 at right tackle last season), but he has struggled mightily when on the field. The Bengals are holding out hope that one of these players can develop into a capable starter, but this could easily remain a position of weakness in 2018.

The Bengals also used their 21st overall pick an offensive lineman, taking Ohio State center Billy Price. Between Price and Glenn, the Bengals were able to get two starting offensive linemen out of their first round pick. Price could have been a top-15 pick, but tore his pectoral at the combine, which may have knocked him down a few spots on teams’ boards. He’s expected to be healthy for training camp though and projects as a week 1 starter with the upside to be one of the better starting centers in the league in a few years. He also played guard in college, but it appears the Bengals prefer him at center, where he played as a senior. He’ll be an upgrade on last year’s starter Russell Bodine (now with the Bills), who finished 32nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF.

Left guard Clint Boling was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 and he’s also the only starter left over from their dominant 2015 offensive line. Boling finished as PFF’s 13th ranked guard, a career best, although he did struggle mightily in 2 starts down the stretch at left tackle. A 4th round pick in 2011, Boling has made 90 of 96 starts in 6 seasons since becoming the starter in 2012 and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of 6 seasons. As long as he stays at left guard all season, Boling should be an above average starter again.

Trey Hopkins will likely remain the starter at right guard, though he’s not nearly as good of a player as Boling. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Hopkins had just 10 career offensive snaps prior to last season, but he made 12 starts, only missing the other 4 due to injury. He was not bad in pass protection, but finished 66th out of 80 eligible guards in the run game and got a negative grade overall. His main competition this off-season will come from 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman, but he struggled at left guard in the first 2 starts of his career last year. Right guard should remain a position of weakness either way. The Bengals are much improved on this offensive line, but still have some holes and could be in big trouble if Cordy Glenn doesn’t stay healthy and return to form.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Bengals offensive line issues were foreseeable, after the Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency and didn’t replace either. What was not foreseeable were the issues the Bengals had at the skill position spots, including in the receiving corps. The Bengals used their first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on wide receiver John Ross (9th overall) and running back Joe Mixon and they had running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert coming back from injury and a returning receiving corps that included Pro-Bowler AJ Green, experienced veteran Brandon LaFell, and 2016 2nd round pick Tyler Boyd.

Despite that, the Bengals had just one pass catcher earn an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. AJ Green was more or less his usual self, though his numbers were not quite what you’d expect him him. Over his career, he’s averaged a slash line of 87/1288/9 per 16 games, so his 75/1082/8 slash line in 16 games in 2017 was a noticeable dip. That can mostly be attributed to the lack of talent around him. Not only did the offense struggle to stay on the field, but the lack of other receiving threats around him meant Green saw constant double teams. He was targeted on 28.4% of the Bengals’ pass attempts last season, but caught just 51.7% of them and was the target on 7 of Dalton’s 12 interceptions.

He still finished as PFF’s 17th ranked wide receiver, his 6th straight season in the top-21 at his position. His best seasons have come in 2012 (9th) and 2015 (6th). His age is becoming a slight concern in his age 30 season, but he’s missed just 10 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and should continue being a #1 caliber receiver for another couple years at the very least. They just need players to step up around him. He was their only receiver to top 548 receiving yards in 2017.

Brandon LaFell actually led this receiving corps with 860 snaps. He’s been a capable starter in the past and has 85 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s coming off of a terrible season, finishing 113th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF, and may be at the end of his line, going into his age 32 season. He posted a mediocre 52/548/3 slash line on 88 targets and averaged just 1.04 yards per route run on 528 routes. He’s unlikely to get much better at this stage of his career. The Bengals are hoping one of their young receivers can step up and take a big chunk of LaFell’s playing time. The only reason he’s still on the roster at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is because of the uncertainty behind him on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if other guys impress this off-season.

John Ross has the upside to be an above average starter long-term, but he didn’t catch a pass as a rookie and fumbled on the only touch he received all season (a 12 yard carry). Injuries and underwhelming practices limited him to just 17 offensive snaps in 3 games. It’s about as bad as a rookie year can go, especially since he came into the league with durability concerns. He has blazing speed (combine record 4.22 40) and a high upside as a deep threat, but is undersized at 5-11 188 and is a complete unknown going into his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he should give them more than he gave them as a rookie, but they need him to be a starter by the end of the season.

Tyler Boyd also dealt with a injury in 2017, missing time with a knee injury, but he was also a healthy scratch on occasion and had disciplinary problems with the coaching staff. He played in just 10 games total. Boyd doesn’t have the upside than Ross does, but he hasn’t looked bad when on the field and has played in 60.2% of the snaps in 26 career games. Only in his age 24 season, Boyd could develop into a capable receiver in 2018 if he stays healthy and out of trouble.

The Bengals also have two other young receivers who saw playing time last season, 2017 4th round pick Josh Malone (247 snaps) and 2016 undrafted free agent Alex Erickson (185 snaps), but both were pretty underwhelming. This receiving corps is so wide open that they could earn roles with strong off-seasons if other guys disappoint, but I wouldn’t expect much from either. Malone has the higher upside of the two, hence why he went in the 4th round, while Erickson is best as a return man. 7th round rookie Auden Tate has also drawn rave reviews in practice this off-season, but we’ve yet to see him do it in pads. The Bengals should get more out of their young wide receivers in 2018, but they need a consistent second option to step up opposite AJ Green.

The Bengals should also get more out of their tight ends, though that mostly depends on the health of Tyler Eifert. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has played in just 24 in the past 4 seasons since his rookie year, due to a variety of injuries (elbow, neck, ankle, knee, back). He’s scored 18 times in those 24 games and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end in his one healthy season in 2015, when he caught 52 passes for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 13 games, but he’s played just 10 games total in 2 seasons since. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, but he’s rehabbing from his second back surgery and is not considered a lock for training camp. He should give them more than last season when he played just 2 games, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever be healthy enough to live up to his potential.

In Eifert’s absence, Tyler Kroft led Cincinnati tight ends with 825 snaps, 9th most at his position. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Kroft was a capable backup tight end on about a third of the snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was overstretched in a larger role, finishing 64th among 72 eligible tight ends. He had a 42/404/7 slash line on 381 routes run, an average of just 1.06 yards per route. He’d be best as a #2 tight end, but that can only really happen if Eifert is healthy. Outside of Eifert and Kroft, the Bengals’ tight ends had just 12 catches in 2017. CJ Uzomah, a 5th round pick in 2015, is a capable blocker, but that’s about it. Despite that, they didn’t add any help at the position this off-season. They should get more out of Eifert, but how much more is a big question. There’s upside in this receiving corps, but questions all around.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bengals also struggled to run the ball in 2017, though that was mostly the fault of the offensive line, which should be better this season. Joe Mixon was the lead back and averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 178 carries, but 2.34 yards per carry came after contact, as he showed an impressive ability to fight for extra yards. He earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, despite the underwhelming statistical performance. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Mixon had the talent to go in the top-10 if not for off-the-field concerns and still has a huge upside, only turning 22 this summer. If the offensive line is better, he could have a breakout statistical year.

Mixon is not their only capable running back, as Giovani Bernard is also a former 2nd round pick (2013) and has earned positive grades in all 5 seasons in the league. Bernard actually averaged a significantly higher YPC than Mixon, averaging 4.36 yards per carry on 105 carries, but that was largely because he was mostly running in obvious passing situations when the defense was in sub packages. He also had a lower carry success rate than Mixon (41% vs. 40%). He should continue taking some playing time away from Mixon, but, if Mixon gets going, the Bengals will likely ready the hot hand.

Bernard actually played more snaps than Mixon last season because he got the majority of the passing down work. He finished 3rd on the team with 43 catches and has averaged 46 catches per season in his career. Mixon was not bad as a receiver either, catching 30 passes for 287 yards, and could easily see more passing game work in his 2nd season in the league, but Bernard will likely remain their preferred passing down back. The Bengals also used a 4th round pick on the University of Miami’s Mark Walton, but he doesn’t fill an obvious need and likely won’t play a big role as a rookie. He’s a versatile back though and can push either Mixon or Bernard for playing time if they struggle. This is a deep running back group.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Despite constantly being on the field as a result of an ineffective offense, the Bengals’ defense was actually pretty solid last season, finishing 10th in first down rate allowed at 32.81%, despite playing a league leading 1,091 snaps. As a result, the Bengals actually finished middle of the pack in first down rate differential, finishing 17th at -0.67%. Their 7-9 record in 2017 was not bad all things considered and, if they improve on offense and continue playing well on defense, they should definitely compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC.

Their defensive line was a big part of their success defensively last season. Every down linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap lead the way upfront once again, as they have for years. A defensive tackle and defensive end selected in the 4th and 2nd round respectively in 2010, Atkins and Dunlap combined for 16.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits in 2017 and have a total of 125.5 sacks and 196 hits in 8 seasons with the Bengals. They also are both above average run stuffers. They’re an inside/outside terror on the defensive line.

Atkins tore his ACL in 2013 and was quite not the same player when he returned in 2014, but, outside of those 2 seasons, he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 5 straight seasons. Even including those two seasons and his rookie year, he’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league. He’s also never missed a game with injury aside from the ACL tear. Dunlap, meanwhile, has also been incredibly durable and consistent, playing in all 80 games in the last 5 seasons and finishing in the top-19 among 4-3 defensive ends in all 5 seasons, including 17th in 2017. His top level isn’t as good as Atkins, but he’s still a talented edge player nonetheless.

Age is becoming a bit of a concern, as Atkins is in his age 30 season and Dunlap is in his age 29 season, and they’re also both going into the final year of their contracts and are due significant raises (they’re owed 9.55 million and 7.3 million respectively in 2018), but they should continue playing at a high level in 2018 and the Bengals are reportedly hoping to have both extended long-term before the start of the season. Both could push for 14-15+ million annually.

Even with two defensive linemen playing every down, the Bengals still like to rotate defensive linemen. Michael Johnson finished 3rd on this defensive line in snaps with 685, playing 425 outside and 260 inside (including 182 of 364 pass rush snaps). The veteran defensive end was coming off of 3 straight poor seasons, but moving him around the line seemed to help him, as he finished as about an average starter. He was dominant in a contract year in 2012 and then on the franchise tag in 2013, finishing 13th and 3rd respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as that since and is now going into his age 31 season. He may continue being a capable rotational defensive lineman, but he’ll almost definitely have a smaller role in 2018 and is not considered a roster lock at a non-guaranteed 5 million dollar salary.

The reason for that is because the Bengals have a trio of young defensive ends behind him on the depth chart that will push Johnson for snaps. Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson were added in the 3rd and 4th round respectively in 2017 and then they used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard. Both Willis and Lawson proved to be steals, as both flashed a lot of upside in limited action as a rookie.

Willis primarily played on run plays as a rookie (212 of 360 snaps), but he played the run well and also added a sack and 10 hurries on 143 pass rush snaps. He’s expected to play more of an every down role in his 2nd season in the league, though he’s still a projection to a larger role. Lawson, on the other hand, is a pure pass rush specialist, playing just 72 run snaps and rushing the passer 389 times, 3rd most on the team. He totaled 8.5 sacks, 11 hits, and 38 hurries, though he did struggle mightily against the run. He’ll likely remain a pass rush specialist and could easily have another strong season in that role. Hubbard, meanwhile, can line up inside and outside and could be a replacement for free agent departure Chris Smith (223 snaps inside, 178 snaps outside last season). Smith finished 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Hubbard to be an upgrade. Johnson will need a good off-season to stay on the roster, given all of the competition he faces for playing time.

At defensive tackle, Geno Atkins was the only every down player the Bengals had last season, but they added veteran Chris Baker this off-season to give them another potential every down option. The 6-2 320 pounder looks like a pure run stuffer, but gets more pass rush than you’d think. A late bloomer, Baker broke out as an every down player with the Redskins in 2015 and 2016, after the 2009 undrafted free agent played sparingly to begin his career. He finished 11th and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in those 2 seasons respectively, totaling 10.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits between the two seasons.

That earned him a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers, but he had work ethic issues in Tampa Bay and was limited to 455 underwhelming snaps in one season before being let go this off-season, owed 4.875 million non-guaranteed. The Bengals are getting him on a one-year deal worth 3 million with just 300K guaranteed and it’s a worthwhile flyer if he’s motivated. His age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily be an upgrade at the other defensive tackle spot. He’s reportedly in much better shape.

Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings were 2nd and 3rd on the Bengals among defensive tackles in snaps played with 412 and 334 respectively last season, but both were underwhelming and were purely base package players. Glasgow was a decent run stuffer, but was useless as a pass rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback on 176 pass rush snaps. Billings, meanwhile, was not good in either aspect, finishing 75th among 79 eligible defensive tackles. They were recent 4th round picks (Glasgow in 2017, Billings in 2016) playing the first action of their career, so they could get better going forward, but Baker is an obvious upgrade on both if he plays up to his potential. They also used a 5th round pick on defensive tackle Andrew Brown, but it’s unclear if he’s going to have a role as a rookie on an overall deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The one big concern on this defense is every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict being suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs. When on the field, Burfict is a true game changing linebacker. That was evident last season, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.99% rate in the 10 games Burfict played last season (which would have been 8th in the NFL), as opposed to 34.26% in the 6 games he missed (which would have been 19th in the NFL). He’s been a top-6 4-3 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons, but, between multiple suspensions and injury, he’s been limited to just 36 games in the past 4 seasons and he’ll play a maximum of 12 games in 2018. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Burfict needs to stay out of trouble going forward.

With Burfict limited to 10 games last season, Nick Vigil and Vincent Rey led this linebacking corps in snaps with 759 and 607 respectively, but both struggled, finishing 86th and 66th out of 90 eligible linebackers. With Burfict’s pending suspension, the Bengals actively sought linebacker help this off-season, signing ex-Bill Preston Brown to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal and using their 3rd round pick on Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. It’ll be an open competition for snaps, especially with Burfict out.

Brown’s salary suggests he’ll be a starter. The 2014 3rd round pick started 62 of 64 games in 4 seasons with the Bills, but he was overall a below average starter. He was an average starter as a rookie, but struggled in the next 3 seasons, with his worst play coming in 2015, when he finished dead last out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. Last season, he finished 41st out of 52 eligible. He was understandably greeted by a cold free agency market.

Vincent Rey started at middle linebacker last season and the veteran could end up back there if Brown continues to struggle, but Rey struggled last season there and is more of a starting candidate at the other outside linebacker spot. The 8-year veteran has been a useful depth linebacker because of his versatility, but he’s only earned positive grades from PFF in 2 of the past 6 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s best as a two-down run stuffer at this stage of his career. At the very least, he should see playing time early in the season with Burfict out.

Rey’s biggest competition for the other outside linebacker job is Nick Vigil. Vigil played 94.6% of the snaps in 11 games last season, but figures to have a smaller role in a deeper linebacking corps once Burfict returns. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled mightily last season, but could be better in a smaller role in his 3rd season in the league. If not, Rey provides them good insurance. Malik Jefferson could also earn a role down the stretch in an unsettled linebacking corps. He’s a freak athlete, but he’s a boom or bust prospect that needs to get more physical. Burfict is their only true every down linebacker and he’s out for the first 4 games of the season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Bengals also have a strong secondary, lead by a trio of recent first round picks. The Bengals used the 17th pick in 2012 on Dre Kirkpatrick, the 24th pick in 2014 on Darqueze Dennard, and the 24th pick in 2016 on William Jackson. Jackson looks like he’s going to end up being the best of the three, as he finished 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his first full season of action last season, after missing his entire rookie year with torn pectoral.

He allowed just 15 completions and no touchdowns on 43 targets (34.9%) and 0.38 yards per route run on 396 routes (best in the NFL), with an interception and 10 pass deflections. He’s inexperienced, as even last season he still only played 65.6% of the snaps and made 5 starts in 15 games, but he has the look of a future #1 cornerback and should be able to earn a starting role in 2018. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were the starters in 2017 (868 snaps and 899 snaps respectively), but Jackson outplayed both.

Dennard was their best slot cornerback in 2017, playing 357 of 566 coverage snaps there, allowing just 0.88 yards per snap, and finishing with a positive grade overall on PFF, but Jackson could cut into his outside snaps and make him more of a slot specialist in 2018, which is also the final year of his rookie deal. He made just 4 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, buried on the depth chart in a more veteran secondary, but he flashed in limited action in those seasons and fared well in his first season of significant action in 2017.

Kirkpatrick also did not see significant playing time until his 4th season in the league, as he made just 5 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014. Unlike Dennard, he struggled in limited action early in his career and was even worse in his first season as a starter in 2015, finishing 116th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks and committing 14 penalties. He’s finished closer to the middle of the pack in the last two seasons, but has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 6 seasons in the league and has 31 penalties in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals bizarrely re-signed him to a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He should remain a starter, but he’s the 3rd best cornerback on the team and he’s unlikely to be better in his 7th season in the league.

Starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams return at safety. Iloka has been a little better than an average starter in 5 seasons (76 starts), with his best season coming in 2014 when he finished as PFF’s 11th ranked safety. The 2012 5th round pick is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and should continue playing well. He’s also been very durable, missing just 4 games in the past 5 seasons. Williams, meanwhile, is coming off of a season in which he was limited to 579 snaps in 11 games by an elbow injury. In his absence, converted cornerback Josh Shaw played 449 snaps and finished 87th out of 89 eligible safeties.

A 2013 3rd round pick, Williams has made 30 starts in the past 3 seasons and has been about an average starter, so having him healthy for a full season should be a little bit of a boost for this secondary. They also added Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates in the 2nd round of the draft. He gives them needed insurance at the position, but was a bit of a surprising selection with both Iloka and Williams signed through 2020 on team friendly deals. This is a deep and talented secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals should be improved both on the offensive line and at the skill positions in 2018, while their defense still has a strong defensive line and secondary. Their defense may struggle to begin the season without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but they have top-10 talent on paper. If the offense can even be average, this team should be able to compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Bengals will be improved and compete for a playoff spot, but I have them just on the outside.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in AFC North

Cleveland Browns 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year after narrowly winning a week 16 game over the Chargers to finish 1-15, the Browns finished the 2nd 0-16 regular season in NFL history in 2017. Despite that, they actually finished 27th in first down rate differential at -3.45%. That’s obviously not good, but that’s not as bad as their record would suggest. The one area they really struggled was turnover margin, as they finished dead last with a -28 turnover margin. Not only was that the worst in the NFL last season, but it’s also the worst in the NFL since the Chargers posted the same mark in a 1-15 season in 2000. On average, the Browns lost the turnover margin by close to -2 per game. Teams that lose the turnover margin by 2 only win the game about 18.1% of the time, so the Browns’ turnover margin effectively made it impossible for this team to consistently win games.

The good news is that turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Since 2007, 17 teams have finished with turnover margins of -15 or worse. The following year, they, on average, have a turnover margin of +4.8 and win an average of 3.5 more games. Likewise, teams that finish with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of +4.3 and win an average of 2.6 fewer games. That holds up week-to-week as well. Teams that have a turnover margin of +3 in a game, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, while teams that have a turnover margin of -3, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week.

It’s not hard to see how the Browns could be significantly better turnover wise in 2018. 28 of their 41 giveaways last season were quarterback Deshone Kizer’s and he’s no longer with the team. In fact, quarterbacks Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler combined for 34 giveaways last season and all 3 of them are no longer with the team. New starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor has just 20 giveaways total over the past 3 seasons as the starter in Buffalo (43 starts). His interception rate is just 1.29% in those 3 seasons, only behind Tom Brady over that time period.

Part of that is as a result of playing on a run heavy team. He did average the fewest attempts per game of any starter in the league over the past 3 seasons, with just 28.2 (451 attempts over a 16 game season), but he also provides value on the ground as a runner, rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC) in those 3 seasons combined. He’s finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons respectively. As long as the Browns don’t try to run a traditional pass heavy offense, Taylor should be a huge upgrade for a team that had easily the worst quarterback play in the NFL last season and that has started 28 different quarterbacks since returning in 1999 (none of whom won a playoff game). Acquiring him for the 65th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was a smart move by the Browns.

The Browns also used the 1st overall pick on a quarterback, taking Baker Mayfield over early favorite Sam Darnold and running back Saquon Barkley. Taylor only has 1 year left on his contract at a 16 million dollar salary and will likely be one and done as the Browns’ starter. Mayfield gives them a potential franchise quarterback of the future at a cost controlled salary. His rookie deal is projected to be worth just 32.5 million over 4 years, an absolute bargain, given that 20 quarterbacks in NFL make more than 18 million annually. That will allow the Browns to spend more to build around the quarterback than most teams in the league. Mayfield was easily the most accurate passer in the draft, but drew mixed reviews because of his lack of height and off-the-field issues. He should be their starter in 2019 and possibly long beyond if he proves to be the Browns’ long awaited franchise quarterback. For now, Taylor is the starter unless he uncharacteristically struggles.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Taylor was not the Browns’ only big off-season addition. At the start of the off-season, the Browns had the most cap space in the NFL, as a result of deliberate attempts in recent years to cut salary, roll cap space forward, and accumulate multiple high draft picks, while letting young players play. The Browns still have 70.9 million in cap space as of this writing and 36.1 million in 2019, but they were aggressive in their attempts to improve this roster this off-season. Aside from Taylor, their biggest move was the addition of Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins. Landry was franchise tagged and the cap strapped Dolphins could not afford him, so they traded him to the Browns for a 4th and a 7th round pick and the Browns made him the 5th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal.

A 2nd round pick in 2014, Landry has 400 catches in 4 seasons in the league, only behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones over that time period. He’s averaged just 10.0 yards per catch over that time period though, with more than half of that yardage coming after the catch (5.34 yards per catch after the catch). His average depth of target in 4 seasons in the league is just 4.79 yards from scrimmage. The 5-11 202 pounder ran a 4.77 40 at the combine, which is why he slipped in the draft, but he has reliable hands (just 21 career drops) and is tough to bring down in the open field (76 broken tackles, 2nd among wide receivers in the past 4 seasons). He’s quicker than fast and he’s built more like a running back than a receiver.

His reputation is as a slot receiver and he’s run 70.76% of his career routes from the slot, but he’s also averaged 1.88 yards per route run on the outside (as opposed to 1.94 on the slot), so he’s versatile enough to line up anywhere and play every down. He’s played 82.1% of snaps in 4 seasons in the league. He might not post as big of numbers with the Browns as he did with the Dolphins because they figure to be more run heavy with Taylor under center, but he should still have a solid statistical season. Like Taylor, he has to be used properly, but he’s a big addition to an offense that was devoid of playmakers in 2018.

Wide receiver was a major position of weakness last season. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis led Browns wide receivers with 663 and 573 snaps respectively and they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 106th and 114th ranked wide receivers respectively out of 118 eligible. The only Cleveland wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 was Josh Gordon, who returned from suspension with 5 games left in the season and showed pretty well on 257 snaps. He caught just 41.9% of his passes, but averaged 18.6 yards per catch and 2.01 yards per route run, despite terrible quarterback play. He was clearly their most talented receiver and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver, despite playing less than a third of the season.

Gordon is hardly the most reliable player, getting suspended several times and missing all of 2015 and 2016 with suspension, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and still has obvious talent. A 2nd round pick by the Browns in the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in which he’s actually played and finished 15th among wide receivers in overall grade in his last full season in 2013, when he posted a 87/1646/9 slash line and led the NFL in receiving in 14 games. Between disciplinary problems in college and in the NFL, Gordon has only played in 62 total games since 2010 and he is far from a guarantee to ever return to his 2013 form, but he should give the Browns more in 2018 than he did 2017, at the very least, which will be a boost to this offense.

The Browns also should get more out of Corey Coleman, who missed 7 games with a broken hand last season. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Coleman also missed 6 games with a broken hand as a rookie and has been a bust on the field as well. He’s caught just 43.1% of the targets thrown to him and has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run on 653 routes. Quarterback play is part of the problem, but he’s also earned poor grades from PFF in both seasons. Only going into his age 24 season, Coleman still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

With Landry and Gordon ahead of him on the depth chart, Coleman will have to earn a role in 3-wide receiver sets, with his primary competition being 4th round rookie Antonio Callaway. Despite not being a high pick, Callaway has first round talent and only fell because of off-the-field issues. If he can stay out of trouble, he has a chance to be an immediate contributor. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis, who led the Browns in wide receiver snaps in 2017, are now competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster in a completely revamped wide receiver group that should be much improved.

Tight end has a chance to be better as well, although that’s mostly reliant on the development of 2017 1st round pick David Njoku. Njoku has a high ceiling, but did not even turn 21 until 2 months after the draft and was widely considered a major project. Despite a lack of playmakers on this offense, Njoku played just 500 snaps as a rookie and was pretty underwhelming both as a receiver and a blocker. He split time with 2016 4th round pick Seth DeValve, a converted wide receiver who predictably struggled as a blocker and didn’t fare all that well as a pass catcher either.

Njoku and DeValve actually finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving yards in 2017, but that says more bad about the rest of the Browns’ receivers than anything good about Njoku and DeValve, as they had slash lines of just 32/386/4 and 33/395/1 respectively. Despite both Njoku and DeValve being plus athletes, the Browns regularly lined them up as inline tight ends. The average tight end lined up on the slot on 38.3% of his routes in 2018, but DeValve played on the slot on just 33.0% of his routes and Njoku did so on just 22.5% of routes. Perhaps they’ll be more inventive with them in 2018, though I would expect Njoku play more snaps at DeValve’s expense regardless. Njoku could still be pretty raw, but he could also be significantly improved in his 2nd season in the league.

The Browns also brought in Darren Fells as a free agent from the Lions. He’s primarily a blocking tight end, but signed a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal, which suggests he’ll have a significant role. Randall Telfer was their blocking specialist last season and led the Browns’ tight ends with 161 run blocking snaps, but he only played 300 total snaps on the season and caught just 3 passes. Fells has never topped 21 catches in a season, but is a little bit more of a pass catcher than Telfer was. He should take over as the #2 tight end, leaving DeValve as a situational player in a much deeper receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Running back Duke Johnson actually led this team in receiving in 2017 and by a considerable amount. His 71 catches were more than double anyone else on the team (2nd most was 33) and his 693 yards were almost 300 more than the next closest Cleveland receiver (395). That’s even more impressive when you consider he played just 53.0% of the team’s snaps. He averaged 2.08 yards per route run on 333 routes, 7th among running backs.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson has 188 catches in 3 seasons in the league and has also averaged 4.19 yards per carry on 259 carries. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, with his highest graded season coming in 2017, when he finished 5th among running backs in overall grade and 3rd in pass catching grade. He finished the season 8th among running backs in elusive rating, averaging 2.62 yards per carry after contact and breaking 39 tackles on 156 touches.

The Browns wisely re-signed Johnson to a 3-year, 15.6 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, but he’ll likely have a smaller role this season. With a better receiving corps, the Browns won’t have to rely on dump offs to the running back as often and I would expect their pass attempt total to drop as well (574 last season), as they have a quarterback who likes to take off and run and likely they won’t be in catch up mode as often as they were last season.

Johnson also figures to have a smaller role in the run game in 2018. The Browns lost lead back Isaiah Crowell (206 carries last season) to the Jets in free agency, but they signed Carlos Hyde from the 49ers to a 3-year, 15.25 million dollar deal and used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Nick Chubb. Much like his predecessor Crowell, Hyde is an early down power back who is basically useless on passing downs. He’s averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons in the league on some mediocre offenses in San Francisco and has earned positive run grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, but he’s also earned negative pass catching and pass protecting grades in all 4 seasons.

Hyde’s worst season on pass downs came last season, when the 49ers attempted to turn him into an every down back. He played a career high 388 pass snaps, but averaged just 4.02 yards per attempt on 87 targets, dropped 9 passes, and allowed 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 7 hurries on 111 pass block snaps. In Cleveland, he figures to be purely an early down back. Overall, he’s a slight downgrade from Crowell and he’s more injury prone, missing 14 games in 4 seasons in the league.

He is owed just 5.5 million in the first year of his deal and doesn’t have any guaranteed money left after this year, so it’s possible he could spend just one season in Cleveland. The Browns used the 35th pick on Nick Chubb, so they clearly envision a big long-term role for him. He’ll push Hyde for playing time immediately, though he’s a raw passing down player, so Johnson will play the vast majority of pass snaps. Johnson likely won’t get the ball as much in 2018 though, on an offense with much more skill position talent than 2017.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As bad as the Browns have been in the last decade, the one thing they could always count on was Joe Thomas’ strong play at left tackle. The 3rd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas played 11,058 straight snaps (167 starts) to start his career before tearing his triceps last season and he finished in the top-9 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 11 seasons in the league. The best pass protector of his generation spent his entire career on a team without much worth protecting, which is why it’s a shame that he decided to retire this off-season, right when it finally looked like the Browns were building something. He’ll almost definitely be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 5 years.

Thomas was going into his age 34 season, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury (he was ranked #1 at his position on PFF at the time) and he’ll obviously be missed. That’s especially true because this was a bad off-season to need a left tackle, as both free agency and the draft had few options. It will likely be one of two players replacing him, either last year’s starting right tackle Shon Coleman or rookie Austin Corbett, who the Browns selected with the first pick of the second round (#33).

Coleman was a 3rd round selection in 2016, but has struggled thus far in his career. After playing just 62 snaps as a rookie, Coleman made all 16 starts at right tackle in 2017 and finished 68th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles. He’s only in his 3rd season in the league, but he was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, and he’s unlikely to get significantly better on the more difficult blindside in 2018. He would be best as a swing tackle.

Corbett is probably the better left tackle option. He was a great collegiate left tackle but his lack of size (6-4 306) and arm length (33 ⅛”) had many expecting he’d move to guard or even center at the next level. The Browns don’t have a need on the interior of their offensive line and they probably wouldn’t use such a high pick on a backup, so they clearly are going to give him a shot to be the left tackle. I would expect him to be the week 1 starter, but there’s uncertainty at one of the most important positions in the game for the first time in a while in Cleveland.

Whoever wins the left tackle job, free agent acquisition Chris Hubbard is locked in at right tackle, after signing a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal in free agency. Hubbard was one of the headliners of a weak offensive tackle class in free agency, but he was never even a true starter with his previous team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Hubbard did make 14 starts (13 at right tackle, 1 at left tackle) with the Steelers over the past 2 seasons and was about a league average starter in those starts, but he’s a projection to a larger role. Largely a desperation signing for a team that badly needed offensive tackle help, Hubbard is the 4th highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary. He’s an overpay at that price, but he could be a solid starter for them at right tackle.

The Browns also gave out big contracts to their starting interior offensive linemen last off-season. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was their big free agent acquisition, as the ex-Bengal signed a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal that made him the highest paid guard in the league at the time. A first round pick in 2012, Zeitler has made 87 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 16 in his first season in Cleveland in 2017. He’s been an above average starter throughout his career and has finished in the top-10 among guards in 4 straight seasons. It didn’t show up in the win/loss column, but his addition made this offensive line significantly better. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Zeitler should continue playing at a high level for at least a few more seasons.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is also one of the highest paid guards in the league, as the Browns gave him a 5-year, 51 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. Bitonio was coming off of two injury plagued seasons, playing just 15 games in 2015 and 2016 combined, so his deal was much riskier than Zeitler’s, but he played in all 16 games in 2017 for the first time since his rookie season in 2014 and he showed his rookie year form, finishing 5th among guards on PFF, after finishing 4th as a rookie.

As long as he can stay healthy, he should continue playing well for at least a few more seasons as well, as he too is in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. He and Zeitler are arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. Bitonio played left tackle in college, so it’s possible the Browns flip him to left tackle at some point if Corbett struggles, but, like Corbett, he doesn’t have great size (6-4 302) or arm length (33 ⅞”) and the Browns probably don’t want to move him from a spot where he’s played so well to a spot where he hasn’t played since college.

Center JC Tretter rounds out this offensive line. He wasn’t as expensive as the Browns’ guards, but still got a solid contract last off-season, worth 16.75 million over 3 seasons. Like Chris Hubbard, Tretter was never really a starter on his previous team (Green Bay), but the 2013 4th round pick made 10 starts at center as an injury fill-in during his final 2 seasons in Green Bay and earned positive grades from PFF for both seasons. In 2017, he made all 16 starts for the Browns and finished as PFF’s 14th ranked center. He should continue being a solid starter in 2018. If Corbett doesn’t work out at left tackle, it’s possible they move him to center at some point in the future to compete with Tretter, but this is Tretter’s job for the foreseeable future. Even with unproven players at tackle, this is still a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Browns actually had a decent defense in 2017, finishing 21st in first down rate allowed at 34.80%. They allowed 42 touchdowns, 3rd most in the league, but that was largely because their offense so often stuck them with terrible field position. They allowed 315 first downs, just 15th most in the NFL. They struggled in pass coverage, allowing 7.39 YPA, 26th in the NFL, but they had the 2nd best run defense in the league, allowing 3.35 yards per carry. Given all of their cap space and their high draft picks, the Browns had an opportunity to get better on defense this off-season. They made a lot of moves, but it’s unclear if they actually got any better.

One of their weirder moves was sending defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the Patriots for a swap of a 2018 5th round pick for a 2019 3rd round pick. The 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Shelton only had 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits in 3 seasons with the Browns and was only a two-down player in the Browns new 4-3 defense in 2017 (469 snaps), but he was a dominant run stuffer and a huge part of the reason why the Browns were so good against the run last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked run stopping defensive tackle in 2016 and their 13th ranked run stopping defensive tackle last season. In his career, the Browns allowed just 3.9 yards per carry with him on the field, as opposed to 4.6 YPC without.

Fortunately, the Browns do have an obvious internal replacement for him, as 2017 3rd round pick Larry Ogunjobi flashed serious potential on 300 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he was PFF’s 18th ranked defensive tackle against the run and he also flashed more pass rush ability than Shelton. The 6-2 305 pounder is not quite the run stuffer Shelton is and he’s not nearly as proven, but he has much more upside as an every down player. He should see a significant role in his 2nd season in the league and could lead the Browns’ defensive tackles in snaps.

Ogunjobi is not their only 2nd year defensive tackle who could see a bigger role, as 2017 6th round pick Caleb Brantley also figures to play more in 2018. He wasn’t a high pick, but he fell mostly because of an uncertain legal situation around the time of the draft and was originally projected to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. He only played 217 snaps as a rookie, but fared well enough that he’s deserving of a larger role. The 6-2 307 pounder is a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but has the upside to be an every down player.

His primary competition figures to be Trevon Coley, who actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 656. The 2016 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie and bounced between the Ravens, Redskins, and Browns, but the Browns strangely gave him a large role in his second season in the league. Coley was a decent run stopper at 6-1 310, but led this defensive line in pass play snaps as well and managed just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 hurries on 360 pass rush snaps. He should still play a big role in 2018, but may be more of a two-down player. The Browns also have Jamie Meder returning from a season ending ankle injury, but he only played 178 snaps in 10 games last season. He’s been a capable depth player for the Browns over the past 3 seasons, but is not a lock to make the final roster.

The Browns also like lining up their defensive ends up inside in passing situations, which makes sense, because their defensive ends are bigger than average and their defensive tackles are not great pass rushers. Carl Nassib (6-5 275), Myles Garrett (6-4 272), and Emmanuel Ogbah (6-4 275) were their top-3 defensive ends in 2017 with 643, 518, and 462 snaps respectively and they also added Chris Smith (6-1 266) and Chad Thomas (6-5 281) this off-season.

The Browns struggled to get consistent pass rush in 2017, hence why they added Smith and Thomas. They had just 34 sacks as a team (21st in the NFL) and only one edge rusher finished with a positive pass rush grade on PFF. They should be better in 2018 though. Myles Garrett was easily their best pass rusher, but an ankle injury and a concussion limited him to 518 snaps in 11 games. Even on just 300 pass rush snaps, Garrett had 7 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries. He also played well against the run and finished 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF overall. The 1st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett has a sky high ceiling and is an obvious breakout candidate if he can stay healthy for a full season. He’ll likely lead this defensive line in snaps in 2018 and should push for double digit sacks and quarterback hits.

Emmanuel Ogbah should also be healthier, after missing 6 games with a broken foot last season. The 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ogbah has been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career. Despite playing 73.8% of the snaps in 26 career games, Ogbah has just 9.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. He’s developed into a capable run stuffer, but he’s earned a negative pass rush grade from PFF in both seasons in the league. He could be better this season, going into his 3rd year in the league, and he’ll likely be healthier as well. Of his 268 pass rush snaps in 2017, 120 of them came from the interior, so he has the versatility to play close to every down, even on a relatively deep defensive line.

Chris Smith is also versatile, playing 99 pass rush snaps outside and 176 pass rush snaps inside last season with the Bengals. Unfortunately, he isn’t that good. The 2014 5th round pick played just 312 total snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and was underwhelming in his first significant action in 2017, finishing 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. The Browns signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal with 4.5 million guaranteed as a free agent this off-season, so he’s locked into a roster spot, but he might not have much more than a rotational role.

Chad Thomas is also a roster lock, given that the Browns just used a 3rd round pick on him. He’s very raw though, so he might not play a huge role as a rookie, although he also has the versatility to line up in multiple spots. That leaves Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard competing for spots at the bottom of the roster. Nassib led all Cleveland defensive ends in snaps with 643 in 2017, but, with Garrett and Ogbah healthy and Smith and Thomas coming in, he falls down the depth chart.

Nassib is a decent run stopper, but he’s managed just 5.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits in 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, despite playing 30 of 32 games and 57.7% of the snaps. Orchard is also a former high pick that hasn’t panned out, going in the 2nd round in 2015. He’s been underwhelming on 998 career snaps in 34 games. Nassib’s versatility (239 pass rush snaps on the edge and 110 on the interior in 2017) likely gives him a better chance at a job, as the 6-4 255 pound Orchard is only an edge player. Even without Danny Shelton, this is still a deep defensive line. They should get more pass rush this season, though their run defense might not be quite as good.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Browns also like to rush their linebackers off the edge in sub packages. Jamie Collins is the best suited for that role, but he missed 10 games between a concussion and a knee injury. A do everything linebacker, Collins earned positive grades for his pass rush, pass coverage, and run stopping ability in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to his injury plagued 2017 season, with his best seasons coming in 2014 and 2015, when he finished 5th and 7th respectively among linebackers. On 427 career pass rush snaps, he has 13.5 sacks, 17 hits, and 41 hurries.

Given how good he’s been at his best, it was a surprise that the Browns were able to acquire Collins from New England for a mere 3rd round pick during the 2016 season. With Collins set to hit free agency, they re-signed him to a 4-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season, but his first season in Cleveland was a major disappointment. Not only did he miss the time with injury, but he was underwhelming even when on the field. He managed just 1 sack, 1 hit, and 1 hurry on 78 pass rush snaps and was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible. Collins is still probably in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Collins was technically their 3rd linebacker in 2017, as fellow linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey both played every single defensive snap last season. Unlike most 3rd linebackers, Collins played 92.0% of the snaps in the games he was healthy, as the Browns frequently kept all 3 on the field in passing situations, with one of them serving as an edge rusher or even a slot cornerback (Kirksey was 2nd on the team with 135 snaps on the slot, allowing 24 completions on 28 attempts). Even when Collins was out, backup James Burgess played 91.2% of the snaps in 9 starts, even though the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first significant action of his career, finishing 28th among 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers.

The Browns added veteran linebacker Mychal Kendricks in free agency this off-season to improve their depth. Kendricks has been inconsistent in his 6-year career, but he’s made 74 starts and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. The Eagles cut him this off-season, but that’s because his salary (6 million non-guaranteed) was excessive for a team with cap problems and an already strong linebacking corps. He doesn’t fill a huge need for the Browns, but he came inexpensive on a one-year deal (3.5 million) and should be a part of a rotation at linebacker. He fits in well in Cleveland because he’s a plus pass rusher for a linebacker, with 14 sacks, 25 hits, and 48 hurries on 436 pass rush snaps in his career.

As I mentioned, Schobert and Kirksey played every snap on defense last season, even staying on the field for dime packages. They were two of just three defensive players in the league to play every snap. With Kendricks coming in and and Collins coming back healthy, I would expect them to get more breathers in 2018. Schobert and Kirksey are both solid run stuffers, but they’re also underwhelming in pass coverage. This is an improved linebacking corps, but they still don’t have a great coverage linebacker.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Most of the moves the Browns made on defense this off-season were in the secondary. They added 3 cornerbacks through free agency, a new starting safety through a trade, and drafted a cornerback with the 4th overall pick. Then they traded last year’s starting cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor for last round picks, even though both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017 and had reasonable salaries (3 million and 4.25 million respectively).

Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward and free agent signing TJ Carrie (31 million over 4 years) were their biggest investments this off-season, so they figure to start. Ward was a surprise pick with the 4th overall pick, as most expected them to take defensive end Bradley Chubb, but the Browns felt they had a bigger need at cornerback for some reason and drafted a player most felt would go somewhere from picks 8-12. He has a bright future, but he’s no guarantee to be an upgrade over last year’s starters as a rookie.

Carrie also has a high upside, but he’s been inconsistent in his career. A 7th round pick in 2014 by the Raiders, Carrie made 14 starts in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but struggled mightily, finishing 108th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. As a result, he was limited to just 325 snaps in 16 games in 2016, but injuries forced him back into the starting lineup in 2017 and he finished 33rd at his position in 15 starts. It’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being an above average cornerback, but he’s a one-year wonder at that level. The Browns are set to pay him 16 million over the first two years of the deal, so it’s a risky signing, but it could pay off. He has the versatility to play both outside and slot cornerback, giving the Browns flexibility. He played 394 snaps on the slot last season, 4th most in the NFL.

Fellow free agent additions EJ Gaines and Terrance Mitchell will also compete for roles, as will incumbent slot cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Gaines is a talented cornerback when healthy and finished last season as PFF’s 23rd ranked cornerback, but concerns about his durability limited him to a 1-year prove it deal worth just 4 million this off-season. He was PFF’s 29th ranked cornerback in 15 starts with the Rams as a 6th round rookie in 2014 but then he missed all of the 2015 season with a foot injury and was not the same player in 2016, finishing 111st among 120 eligible at his position, which led to him being a throw-in to the Bills in the Sammy Watkins trade last off-season. Even last year, when he had a solid season, he missed 5 games with injury. He can earn a role as an outside cornerback with a strong off-season, but he might not make it through the season.

Mitchell was also a starter in 2017, playing 705 snaps with the Chiefs, but he’s not as good of a player as Gaines is when Gaines is healthy. Mitchell flashed in limited action early in his career, but the 2014 7th round pick only played 373 snaps in 3 seasons prior to struggling in the first significant action of his career in 2017. He’d be best as a depth cornerback, but his contract (10 million over 3 years with 4 million in the first year) suggests he’ll at least get a shot at a big role.

All of these off-season additions might leave Boddy-Calhoun as the odd man out, even though he was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He played 216 of his 346 cover snaps on the slot and allowed just 11 of 22 for 84 yards and a touchdown on those snaps. He allowed just 0.42 yards per coverage snap on the slot, which was the best in the NFL. The 2016 undrafted free agent was not as good outside as a rookie though and he faces an uphill battle against Carrie for snaps on the slot. It’s possible the Browns could trade him before the start of the season if they get a good offer.

The Browns also added Damarious Randall in a trade from Green Bay this off-season, giving up DeShone Kizer and a swap of mid round draft picks. Randall played cornerback with the Packers, but will move back to his collegiate position of safety in Cleveland. Randall struggled in 3 seasons with the Packers, earning negative coverage grades in all 3 seasons, which is why the Packers decided to move on from him, but moving back to his college position could help. He was a 1st round pick (30th overall) back in 2015 and is still only going into his age 26 season. If he continues to struggle, his 9.069 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed for injury only, so he could easily be one and done in Cleveland.

Randall will take the place of Derrick Kindred in the starting lineup. Kindred, a 4th round pick in 2016, was not bad in 2017 (10 starts), but Randall is a better fit next to 2017 1st round pick Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is best as a box safety, but Kindred is as well, so they lined Kindred up in the box (within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage) on 72.1% of snaps (12th most in the NFL) and lined Peppers up in the box on just 20.7% of snaps (6th fewest in the NFL).

Predictably, Peppers struggled, finishing 85th out of 89 eligible safeties on PFF. In his 2nd year in the league, he should have a much better year in a better spot. If he doesn’t, the Browns still have Kindred as insurance and could possibly bench Peppers down the stretch. This is a much deeper secondary than last year, but it’s unclear how much better they actually are. At the very least, they’re better prepared to deal with injuries and are more versatile to deal with a variety of different matchups.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Simply switching from the turnover prone DeShone Kizer to the much more careful Tyrod Taylor should have a big impact on this offense, but the Browns also have a much improved receiving corps and a solid running game and offensive line. They could easily be a capable offense. Defensively, they should be better at rushing the passer and they are deeper and more versatile in the secondary, though their run defense might not be quite as good. The AFC is definitely the weaker of the two conferences, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team compete for a playoff spot. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Browns might not make the playoffs, but they should be competitive for the first time in a while thanks to improved quarterback play and better offensive weapons.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC North

Los Angeles Rams 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2016, the Rams had the fewest points in the league with 224. In 2017, they scored 478 points, most in the league, the first time in NFL history a team had gone from worst to first in points. You can’t give the offense all of the credit, as they had 5 defensive return touchdowns, got another one from their special teams, and had fantastic special teams all season (2nd in special teams DVOA), but their offense was statistically one of the best in the league. They finished 9th in first down rate at 35.60% (after finishing dead last in 2016 at 27.92% and in 2015 at 29.13%) and had the 4th most offensive touchdowns in the league with 45 (only behind the Patriots, Eagles, and Saints), even though most of their starters took week 17 off.

The obvious difference from 2016 to 2017 was the coaching staff. In 2016, they were coached by old school, defensive minded Jeff Fisher who consistently employed uninventive offensive coaches. Fisher was fired with 3 games left in the 2016 season and the Rams replaced him in the off-season with bright young offensive mind Sean McVay, who was the youngest coach in modern NFL history when he was hired (30 years old) and went on to win Coach of the Year in his first season with the Rams.

Perhaps the most important impact McVay had on this team was on young quarterback Jared Goff. The 1st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, who the Rams traded a pair of first rounders (#15 in 2016 and #5 in 2017), a pair of second rounders, and a pair of third rounders to move up acquire, Goff had a miserable rookie year. He spent the first 9 games of the season on the bench behind veteran Case Keenum, who was not exactly setting the world on fire with his play, and it became apparent why he wasn’t playing once he finally got on the field. Goff started the final 7 games of the season and looked totally unprepared for the NFL. He completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and the Rams moved the chains at a pathetic 24.62% rate in those 7 games.

In 2017, like the rest of this offense, Goff’s play was night and day. He completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. He wasn’t quite as good as his numbers suggested, as a lot of his production came from throwing to open receivers, but he still finished a solid 15th on Pro Football Focus, up from 30th as a rookie. He also didn’t call any of the audibles at the line of scrimmage, as McVay handled all of that to make Goff’s life easier, but it clearly worked for this offense. Goff is still only going into his age 24 season, so he could easily continue getting better under McVay’s tutelage.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Not only is Goff a capable starter with upside, but he also comes at a very reasonable price, as he’s in just the 3rd year of a 4-year rookie deal worth a total of 28 million. In a league where 20 quarterbacks make more than 18 million annually, Goff is an absolute bargain. That allows the Rams to spend comparatively more on the rest of their roster than the majority of the league, which is a huge benefit. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Super Bowl with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles making a combined 12.2 million annually on their current contracts.

That window closes fast though. Goff’s 5th year option for 2020 will cost the Rams upwards of 20 million and his long-term extension could be worth upwards of 30 million annually in 2021 and beyond if he continues to develop. Even with a growing cap, that’s a big number and will limit their options for filling out the rest of the roster. As a result, the Rams are aggressively going all in on these next couple seasons.

This strategy was never clearer than when the Rams sent the 23th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft along with a 6th round pick to the Patriots this off-season for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. Cooks was sent to the Patriots from the Saints last off-season with a 4th round pick in exchange for picks 32 and 96, so the Rams are only paying about a 6th round pick less than the Patriots did for Cooks per the draft trade value chart, even though Cooks made just 1.563 million in 2017 and is set to make 8.459 million in the final year of his rookie contract in 2018. After that, the Rams will have to make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league (upwards of 15 million annually) in order to keep him long-term.

Cooks put up over 1000 yards last season in New England (65/1082/7), his 3rd straight 1000+ yard season, but he finished middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus. He’s been very productive in his career, but he’s played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tom Brady and has never finished higher than 30th at his position on PFF. He’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so he could easily continue getting better, but, between the first round pick they gave up for him and the long-term extension they’ll have to give him to keep him, the Rams overpaid.

Cooks replaces Sammy Watkins, who signed with the Chiefs this off-season. Watkins had a disappointing 39/593/8 slash line in 15 games for the Rams last season, after being acquired for a 2018 2nd round pick a month before the season started. Between that trade, the trade for Cooks, and trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the Rams were without their own 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th round pick in this year’s draft and will be without their 2nd round pick in next year’s draft. Through other trades, they ended up with 11 picks this year, but only one (#89) came in the top-100. On top of that, the Rams were without a 1st and 3rd round pick in 2017 due to the Jared Goff trade and Goff was their only pick in the top-100 in 2016. That could leave the Rams without much needed cheap young talent in a few years.

Making matters worse, the talent the Rams already have on this team is going to get very expensive to keep in the few off-seasons. Between Cooks, Peters, running back Todd Gurley, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams have four players who went in the first round in either 2014 or 2015 who will need to be paid near the top of their position to be kept long-term and that’s even before getting to Goff’s extension. The Rams have another 5 starters (Ndamukong Suh, LaMarcus Joyner, Jamon Brown, Rodger Saffold, and Rob Havenstein) set to hit free agency in 2019, so they’ll have some tough choices to make in the next year. Teams built around 5 or 6 highly paid players rarely make deep playoff runs, especially if they don’t have a lot of young talent on cheap rookie deals, so the Rams’ Super Bowl window could be pretty narrow.

Outside of Goff, the Rams have gotten very little out of their 2016 draft class, but, fortunately, they managed to have a strong draft in 2017, despite sending picks #5 and #100 (compensation pick for losing Janoris Jenkins) to the Titans in the Goff trade. The Rams still had their own third rounder and a third rounder they received for trading down with the Bills, the former of which they used on wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp played a big role as a rookie, catching 62 passes for a team leading 869 yards and 5 touchdowns. He primarily played on the slot (249 of 424 pass routes), but averaged 2.06 yards per route run as an outside receiver and 2.04 yards per route run as a slot receiver, showing impressive versatility. He was an old rookie and is already going into his age 25 season (he’s older than Cooks, who was drafted 3 years earlier), so he may have a low ceiling, but he should continue being a dependable receiver.

The Rams also have Robert Woods at wideout, in the 2nd year of a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal they signed him to as a free agent last off-season. Despite being limited to 12 games, the ex-Bill caught 56 passes for a career high 781 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 2.17 yards per route run on 360 routes. Even though he never put up big numbers in Buffalo, it’s not a huge surprise he broke out last season with the Rams. He was a former 2nd round pick who averaged 1.73 yards per route run on 355 routes in 13 games on a run heavy offense in Buffalo and he was only in his age 25 season in 2017.

Woods has had lingering injury issues and has only played in all 16 games once in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should continue being a dependable weapon for this passing game. With Woods and Kupp already on the roster, the trade for Cooks did not seem necessary. 2017 4th round pick Josh Reynolds also looked ready to take on a bigger role in his second season in the league, after flashing on 280 snaps as a rookie, but he’ll remain the 4th receiver at best in 2018.

The Rams also used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on a tight end, taking Gerald Everett 44th overall after trading down with the Bills. Everett did not nearly have as good of a rookie year as Kupp, but the South Alabama product was considered a project when he was drafted. He’s a freak athlete and showed big play ability as a rookie with catches of 39, 44, and 69, but he only had 13 catches for 92 yards combined the rest of the season and needs to get stronger as a blocker. He’s a candidate for a 2nd year leap, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With Everett still developing, he played just 296 snaps as a rookie, while second year tight end Tyler Higbee played 731 snaps as the starter. He was pretty ineffective though. The 2016 4th round pick has developed into a capable blocker, but he caught just 25 of 45 targets for 295 yards and 1 touchdown on 253 routes run (1.17 yards per route run). Higbee is only going into his 3rd year in the league, but projects a capable #2 tight end at best long-term. He and Everett could see closer to equal snaps in 2018. The wide receivers should remain the focal point of this offense regardless.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running back Todd Gurley actually finished 2nd on this team in receiving last year, turning 64 catches into 788 yards and 6 touchdowns. With Cooks coming in, Kupp and Everett going into their 2nd season, and Robert Woods likely playing more games, Gurley will probably see fewer than the 87 targets he saw last season, but he’ll remain a huge part of the offense regardless. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley has played 44 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and has averaged 17.9 carries per game in those 3 seasons (286 carries over a 16 game season).

Gurley’s YPC average has fluctuated from 4.83 in 2015 to 3.18 in 2016 to 4.68 in 2017, but he’s run well in all 3 seasons. From 2015 to 2016, the difference in his average was just a few carries. In 2015, he broke 11 runs of 20+ yards for 428 yards total (38.7% of his season total) and in 2016 he broke just 2 runs of 20+ yards of 46 yards total (just 5.2% of his season total). His carry success rate was 43% in 2015 and 41% in 2016, so, outside of a small percentage of his carries, he was more or less the same back. In 2017, with a better offense around him and a better coaching staff, Gurley saw that carry success rate jump up to 53% (5th in the NFL) and he finished the season as statistically the top running back in the NFL. He led the NFL with 19 touchdowns and 2,093 yards from scrimmage, in just 15 games.

His biggest season-to-season change has been his development in the passing game, as he’s gone from 21 to 43 to 64 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He averaged a ridiculous 12.31 yards per catch in 2017 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back on the season in overall grade. As long as he stays healthy, Gurley should push for 350+ touches again in 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 24 season, Gurley should continue to do big things in this offense, though it’s fair to wonder how much the Rams are going to be willing to pay him long-term, given all of the other players they need to pay and the devaluation of the running back position in general. For now, he’s a Pro-Bowl talent signed for 11.95 million over the next 2 seasons.

The Rams would be in trouble if he were to get hurt because they lack depth behind him. Malcolm Brown has been their #2 back over the past 2 seasons, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has averaged just 3.55 YPC on 85 career carries. He’ll be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie John Kelly. Gurley played 788 snaps last season, 2nd at his position, and I would expect that to continue to be the case in 2018.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

There are many reasons why this offense was so much better in 2017, the coaching change, the remade receiving corps, a drastically improved Jared Goff, and an All-Pro Todd Gurley, but it’s possible the biggest reason was the Rams’ improved offensive line. Unlike with their receiving corps, the Rams did not have to completely overhaul their offensive line in order for it to improve, as they only had two new starters, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan. Guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown had career years, while right tackle Rob Havenstein continued to play well. After years of having one of the worst offensive lines in the league, the Rams had one of the best in 2017.

They might not be as good in 2018 though, even though they return all 5 starters, for a few reasons. The first reason is simply that none of their starters missed a game with injury in 2017, which is incredibly rare. That’s unlikely to happen again in 2018 and their depth is very untested. They used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Joseph Noteboom and a 4th round pick on Michigan State center Brian Allen, but it’s unlikely either will be ready to start as rookies.

The reason the Rams drafted Noteboom and Allen is also another reason why the Rams might not be as good upfront in 2018; Whitworth and Sullivan are both getting up there in age. Whitworth is the bigger concern, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2017, a huge part of the reason why this offense was so good, but he’s also going into his age 37 season and it’s unclear if he can perform at that high of a level again in 2018. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down so far, finishing in the top-5 among offensive tackles in 4 straight seasons, but players can lose it quickly at his age.

Sullivan is not as old, going into his age 33 season, but he’s also not nearly as good of a player. In his prime, he was one of the best centers in the league, finishing as a top-9 center on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2011-2014 with the Vikings, with 3 seasons in the top-3. He missed all of 2015 with a back injury and played just 98 snaps as a reserve with the Redskins in 2016, but the Rams gave him another shot to be a starter in 2017 and it paid off, as he finished 12th at his position. He’s not the player he once was, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank.

Another reason why the Rams have might not have as good of play on the offensive line is that both guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown are coming off of career years and are unlikely to both be as good in 2018. Saffold finished a career high 7th among guards on PFF in his 8th season in the league last season. He’s earned positive grades in 5 of 8 seasons, but he’s never been as good as he was last season. He’s also had injury problems throughout his career, missing 29 games in his first 7 seasons in the league, before staying healthy throughout 2017, just his 3rd time doing so in 8 seasons. Now going into his age 30 season, Saffold might not be as good or as durable.

Jamon Brown is younger, going into his 4th season in the league, but the former 3rd round pick was horrendous in his first 2 seasons in the league. He struggled mightily in 9 starts as a rookie before breaking his leg and then was benched after 5 starts in 2016, before playing about league average in 2017. He could continue developing into a capable starter, but he could also revert back to his old ways. He’s been a terrible pass protector throughout his career and allowed a team high 7 hits on Goff last season.

Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the only starter who is unlikely to decline in 2018. The 2015 2nd round pick has been a consistently solid starting right tackle throughout his career, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons (43 starts). He’s a mauler in the run game at 6-8 330 and isn’t bad in pass protection either. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, only his age 26 season, Havenstein could have his eyes set on being one of the highest paid right tackles in the league and could leave as a free agent next off-season. For now, this remains a solid offensive line, with all 5 starters returning, but they’re unlikely to be as good or as healthy as they were in 2017.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams’ defense was also improved from 2016 to 2017, as they went from 16th in first down rate allowed to 12th. Like on offense, coaching was a big factor, as Sean McVay brought legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the Rams with him. Phillips converted this defense to his traditional 3-4, even though some players did not fit the scheme well, and was able to get a good performance out of them. This off-season, the Rams made significant changes on defense in order to get players who fit Phillips’ scheme better.

One big change was the addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who the Rams signed to a 1-year, 14 million dollar deal. Suh has been a top-7 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus for 6 straight seasons and signed a then record 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Miami Dolphins 3 off-seasons ago, but he’s going into his age 31 season, so the cap strapped Dolphins decided to cut him rather than pay him the 17 million non-guaranteed he was owed in 2018. His age is a slight concern, but he should still have a strong season.

Defensive line was not a weakness for the Rams in 2017, led by Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, but they did have some depth problems, so the addition of Suh will definitely help. Suh has never played in a 3-4 and is expected to play nose tackle in base packages, but the Rams will be in sub packages more than half of the time, so he should still get opportunities to rush the passer in passing situations. He might not post quite the numbers we’ve seen from him in the past (51.5 sacks and 86 quarterback hits in 8 seasons in the league), but Wade Phillips has gotten good play out of undersized nose tackles like Suh (6-4 305) in the past.

Donald and Brockers will continue lining up at defensive end in base packages. Donald is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, so Brockers will almost definitely see the bigger snap hit with Suh coming in. Brockers played 727 snaps last season and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on PFF, but he was an underwhelming pass rusher, so Suh should get pass rush opportunities inside next to Donald over him. The 6-5 305 pound Brockers has gotten a positive run stopping grade in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and finished last season 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade in arguably the best season of his career, but he’s also had just 19 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in 6 seasons in the league.

Donald should still play around the 788 snaps he played last season, likely more if he exceeds the 14 games he played last season, as he’s too good to take off the field except for breathers. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has been arguably the best defensive lineman in the league since being drafted and has proven it both in a 3-4 and a 4-3 base defense. He’s totaled 39 sacks and 67 quarterback hits in 62 games as an interior pass rusher and has also played well against the run. He’s never missed a game in his career with injury and is in the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season.

Donald did miss two games last year, week 17 for rest and week 1 while he was holding out for a new contract. Donald still has yet to receive that new contract, but the Rams are fully expected to extend him before the start of the season. Owed just 6.892 million in the final year of his rookie deal, Donald is owed a big raise and might not report to the team until he gets it. The Rams have other players to re-sign, but it would be a surprise if they give him the extension he wants. Worst case scenario, the Rams have the franchise tag available to use on him next off-season, but they probably want to extend him before the season to keep him happy and avoid the risk of another holdout into the season. When he gets paid, he’s expected to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, surpassing the 6-year, 114.1 million dollar deal that Von Miller received two off-seasons ago.

Donald, Suh, and Brockers will play the majority of the snaps on this defensive line, but the Rams also get Dominique Easley back from a torn ACL. Easley also had two ACL tears in college and missed 10 games with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2014-2016, but he’s also a former first round pick who earned positive grades in both 2015 and 2016. There’s no guarantee he’s going to be the same player or stay healthy, but he should have a rotational role in 2018. The Rams also have Ethan Westbrooks, their top reserve in 2017, returning. He was about league average on 333 snaps last season and is a capable rotational player. This is a loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The same is not true of the Rams’ linebackers though. Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin, and Robert Quinn were three of the Rams’ top-4 linebackers in terms of snaps in 2017 with 921, 657, and 629 respectively and all 3 are no longer with the team. Ogletree was sent to the Giants with a 2019 7th round pick for a 4th and 6th round pick in 2018. Quinn was sent to the Dolphins for a 4th round pick and a swap of 6th round picks. Barwin remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 32 season. All 3 players struggled and weren’t great fits in Phillips’ scheme, earning negative grades from PFF, but the Rams didn’t do anything to replace them and will instead rely on coaching up unproven players. If anyone can coach this unit up, it’s Wade Phillips, but linebackers are their clear achilles heel.

Middle linebacker Mark Barron is the only starting linebacker they kept, but they easily could have let him go, as he too struggled in his first season in Phillips’ system. The 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Barron was a bust as a safety in Tampa Bay, but the Rams traded for him and converted him into a linebacker, where he became a capable starter outside in a 4-3 in 2015 and 2016, before struggling inside in a 3-4 in 2017. The fact that they haven’t gotten rid of him yet shows they have hope he can bounce back with another year in the system, but, if he doesn’t, I would not expect him to be on the roster with a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2019, given all of the Rams’ other upcoming financial obligations.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it is a wide open competition to replace Ogletree. Cory Littleton was their top reserve middle linebacker in 2017 (277 snaps) and is considered the favorite, but he’s a 2016 undrafted free agent who has been unimpressive on 399 snaps thus far in his career. Bryce Hager was also a reserve with the Rams last season, but the 2015 7th round pick has also been unimpressive on 164 career snaps. The Rams also added ex-Chief reserve Ramik Wilson. He has the most experience of any of the candidates, making 17 starts in 3 seasons with the Chiefs after going in the 4th round in 2015, but he played just 125 snaps in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Chiefs as a restricted free agent this off-season. The Rams also added Virginia’s Micah Kizer in the 6th round of the draft and Indiana’s Tegray Scales as a priority free agent. The Rams have options, but this should be a position of weakness in 2018.

Outside linebacker should also be a position of weakness, as the Rams have wide open competitions for both starting roles. Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam were their top reserves last season with 377 snaps and 351 snaps respectively and are currently penciled into the starting jobs. A 2015 undrafted free agent, Longacre has been a capable reserve in 3 seasons in the league and totaled 5.5 sacks and 7 quarterback hits in 2017, but the 377 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Ebukam was a 4th rounder in 2017 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but showed little as a pass rusher with 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 138 pass rush snaps. Also in the mix are Ejuan Price, a 2017 7th round pick who played just 21 snaps as a rookie, and rookies Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young, who went in the 5th and 6th round respectively. Okoronkwo will be out until training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of earning a big role. The Rams will likely use 4 or 5 different outside linebackers in 2018 in an effort to find some edge rush. This is a highly unproven linebacking corps that Wade Phillips hopes to coach up.

Grade: D

Secondary

The Rams also revamped their cornerbacks this off-season. They let top cornerback Trumaine Johnson sign a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal with the Jets. They released Kayvon Webster, who finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 550, rather than pay him 3.5 million. To replace them, the Rams acquired Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib from the Chiefs and Broncos respectively. They will be their starting cornerbacks in 2018.

Peters getting traded was a surprise, especially since the Rams did not have to surrender a 1st round pick to acquire him. The Rams received him and a 6th round pick for a 4th round pick and a 2nd rounder next year. Peters was the 18th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has two cost controlled years left on his contract, is going into his age 25 season, and leads the NFL in interceptions since he entered the league with 19 in 3 seasons, so the upside is obvious, but he does come with some downside. His aggressive playing style leads to interceptions, but it also leads to him getting beat deep and getting penalized too often. He’s finished 17th and 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the last 2 seasons respectively, which is good, but not quite as good as his interception total suggests.

He also seems to have worn out his welcome in Kansas City, where he clashed with the coaching staff, which is why they were willing to move on from him for a relatively small return. Peters has had issues with coaches dating back to his college days, when he was kicked off the team at the University of Washington. The talent is obvious and he could easily continue getting better, but he’ll have to stay out of trouble over the next couple years if he wants a big long-term extension. He’s an obvious upgrade on Trumaine Johnson, who was underwhelming in his first season in Phillips’ system.

Aqib Talib is also an obvious upgrade as the #2 cornerback, as the Rams had a revolving door at that position in 2017. Unlike Peters, Talib is on the downside of his career, going into his age 32 season, but he was still PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback in 2017 and he reunites with his former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who coached him in Denver in 2015 and 2016. Talib played some of the best football of his career under Phillips, with his best season coming when he finished 3rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016.

His age is becoming a concern, but he’s been a very consistent player in his career, earning a positive grade from PFF in all 10 seasons he’s been in the league, and he should at least have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Broncos traded him because they didn’t think he was worth his 11 million dollar salary, but Wade Phillips and the Rams disagreed, as they surrendered a 5th rounder for him. His 8 million dollar salary for 2018 is non-guaranteed, so he’ll have to continue playing well to stay on the roster, especially given the other financial commitments they have to attend to.

Slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman might have actually been their best cornerback in 2017, with Johnson underwhelming as the top outside cornerback. Robey-Coleman allowed just 5.77 yards per attempt on the slot and was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in coverage grade overall on 654 snaps. The 5-8 180 pounder has always struggled when he’s had to play outside, but he played just 101 coverage snaps on the outside last season and that was largely for lack of a better option. He doesn’t play the run well either, but he’s earned a positive grade overall in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and when he’s struggled it’s largely been because of misuse. He’ll stay on the slot all season in 2018, with depth cornerback Troy Hill filling in if either Peters or Talib miss time.

At safety, things remain the same for the Rams in 2018, which is a good thing, because the Rams had one of the best safety duos in football down the stretch. LaMarcus Joyner returned from injury week 7 and 3rd round rookie John Johnson took over as the other starter week 5 and they finished the season as PFF’s 5th and 10th ranked safeties respectively. Along with Cooper Kupp, Johnson was a great pick in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. They’ll need to continue doing that as this team becomes more expensive.

The Rams kept LaMarcus Joyner by franchise tagging him this off-season. He’ll make 11.287 million in 2018, but there haven’t been any rumors of negotiations between him and the Rams and it’s possible the Rams don’t plan to keep him long-term, given all of the other players they have to keep. Making him prove it on the franchise tag isn’t a bad idea either way, as he’s a one-year wonder. He’s a former 2nd round pick who was a capable starter on 19 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, but last season was the first season he even resembled a Pro Bowl caliber safety and he didn’t even play a full season (12 games). Johnson (11 starts) is unproven as well, so it’s very possible this safety duo won’t be quite as good in 2018 as they were down the stretch last season, but their cornerbacks are much improved and this is overall one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Rams were arguably the most improved team in the league from 2016 to 2017, going from 4-12 to 11-5. Usually when teams make a big jump in wins like that, they regress by about half the amount of wins the following season. The Rams had great injury luck in 2017, with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury, and some of the players who had career years in 2017 will likely not do so again in 2018. However, with all of the reinforcements the Rams added this off-season, the Rams should be able to remain one of the top teams in the NFL, even if some players get hurt or regress. The Rams will have a challenge keeping this team together long-term, but they’re clearly all in on 2018 and will compete for a Super Bowl.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Rams are a little overrated right now, as casual fans look at the talent they added this off-season, but not the players they lost and the fact that they are unlikely to be as healthy and get as many career years from players as they did in 2017. They will still contend to make the Super Bowl, but it’s a little early to call them Super Bowl favorites.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012, most did not think much of it. However, Wilson won the week 1 starting job as a rookie and has made every start since, leading the Seahawks to a 65-30-1 regular season record (2nd best in the NFL since 2012, only behind the Patriots), 5 playoff appearances, 2 Super Bowl appearances, and a victory in Super Bowl 48. Wilson does not deserve all the credit, as he was drafted by a talented team with a dominant young defense that was a quarterback away from contention, but he’s also been a big part of their success. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 161 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions, while adding 3,275 yards and 16 touchdowns on 578 carries (5.67 YPC). He’s finished in the top-8 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons and has earned a positive grade in every season in his career.

Unfortunately, Russell Wilson’s supporting cast seems to be crumbling around him. Their defense finished last season a very middling 14th in first down rate allowed at 33.43% and they had arguably the worst offensive supporting cast in the league around Wilson. Despite that, this team was in playoff contention all year, finishing one game out at 9-7, and Wilson’s play was the biggest single reason why they were even competitive last season. Despite little talent around Wilson, this team still ranked 18th in the NFL in first down rate at 33.47%.

Wilson completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, despite being pressured on a league leading 41.4% of his throws. Wilson also added 586 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground on 95 carries (6.17 YPC). The rest of this team managed just 1,043 yards and 1 touchdown on 314 carries (3.32 YPC). Wilson had some capable options to throw to, but he had no offensive line or running game. He accounted for 4,569 of his teams 5,608 yards from scrimmage, a whopping 81.5%, easily the most in the NFL.

Grade: A

Running Backs

In an attempt to improve their supporting cast around Wilson, the Seahawks used the 27th overall pick in the first round on San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, after trading down twice. Penny was a surprise first round pick and was the second running back off the board in a strong running back class. Given the Seahawks’ other needs and how easy it is to find good running backs outside of the first round, the Seahawks obviously think Penny has the ability to be a special running back, but that’s far from a guarantee. Penny averaged 7.23 yards per carry on 473 carries in his collegiate career and topped 2000 yards rushing in 2017 in his only season as a starter, but he’s very raw as a passing down back and did not face the toughest competition in the Mountain West Conference.

Despite the Seahawks’ inability to run the football last season, Penny does have some competition for playing time. Chris Carson and CJ Prosise return from injury, while Mike Davis and JD McKissic showed some promise down the stretch last season. Carson is probably his biggest competition, as the 2017 7th round pick was off to a great start to his career last season before breaking his leg and missing the final 12 games of the season. Despite offensive line issues, he rushed for 208 yards on 49 carries (4.24 YPC) and was Seattle’s only running back who earned a positive running grade from Pro Football Focus. He’s still unproven and has had injury issues dating back to college, hence why he fell in the draft, but he still has some upside.

Mike Davis started the final 6 games of last season, despite spending the first 10 weeks of the season on the practice squad, after the Seahawks cycled through Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy as starters. Davis was not bad all things considered, rushing for 240 yards on 68 carries (3.53 YPC), while adding 15 catches for 131 yards. Despite that, he was non-tendered as a restricted free agent and only re-signed on a cheaper salary, 1.35 million. Davis is a former 4th round pick, but he averaged just 2.00 YPC on 54 carries in his first 2 seasons in the league with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016. Only guaranteed 350K, he’s not a lock for the final roster.

Prosise and McKissic, meanwhile, will compete for passing down snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Prosise has more upside and could also see action as a speedy change of pace back, but he’s played in just 11 games in 2 seasons in the league. When healthy, he’s been explosive, averaging 4.76 yards per carry on 41 carries and 12.8 yards per catch on 23 catches, but he hasn’t seen that much action. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

McKissic, meanwhile, is a 3rd year undrafted free agent who led all Seahawk running backs with 34 catches and 235 routes run in Prosise’s absence last season. A converted collegiate receiver at Arkansas State, McKissic also averaged 4.07 yards per carry on 46 carries and ironically scored the Seahawks’ only rushing touchdown by a running back, though he was understandably raw in pass protection. Penny should see the lion’s share of the carries based on where he was drafted, but the Seahawks have some interesting backup options and have always stressed competition at all positions. At the very least, Penny should cede the majority of the passing down snaps to either McKissic or Prosise.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Seahawks’ running backs were only part of the reason why they couldn’t run the ball last season. The offensive line failed to consistently open up on the ground, finishing 25th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, and they were even worse than that in pass protection, finishing 30th. Wilson was the most pressured quarterback in the NFL and the Seahawks allowed the 10th most sacks in the NFL (43), despite Wilson’s mobility. Wilson completed just 47.4% of his passes while under pressure and had just 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions (as opposed to 26 touchdowns to 5 interceptions with a clean pocket), so his terrible pass protection had a noticeable effect on his statistical production.

Despite that, the Seahawks didn’t do anything substantial to improve this offensive line this off-season and will instead hope that some incumbent starters improve. The player with the most room for improvement is right tackle Germain Ifedi, a 2016 1st round pick who has been a massive bust through 2 seasons. He was PFF’s lowest ranked guard as a rookie in 13 starts at right guard and then finished 79th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts at right tackle last season. He only allowed 4 sacks and 3 hits, but also allowed 45 hurries, struggled as a run blocker, and committed a ridiculous 19 penalties, most in the NFL at any position. It might be too early to write him off as a total bust, but he’s unlikely to turn into a capable starter in his 3rd season in the league. If he’s better in 2018, it could be because it was hard to get worse.

It’s a similar situation at left guard with Ethan Pocic. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Pocic made 5 starts at left guard and 6 starts at right guard as a rookie, but finished as PFF’s 76th ranked guard out of 80 eligible. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but his career is off to a terrible start. The Seahawks seem to have settled in on him playing left guard (he played both guards spots and center in college) and are hoping that keeping him in one spot helps him develop.

Center Justin Britt was also a high pick, going in the 2nd round in 2014. Britt struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, first at right tackle and then at left guard, but he’s settled in as a capable starter at center over the past 2 seasons. He’s been about a league average starter, but the Seahawks clearly value him, giving him a 3-year, 27 million dollar extension before the start of last season that makes him the 6th highest center in average annual contract value. He’s unlikely to live up to that contract, but he’s a proven starter on an offensive line that lacks them.

While the Seahawks did not make any major additions to their offensive line this off-season, they did make one at the trade deadline last year, sending a 2018 3rd round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick to the Texans for Duane Brown and a 2018 5th round pick. It’s a big price to pay for a player who is in an age 33 contract season in 2018, but the Seahawks were desperate for a left tackle. Despite his age, Brown is still an above average left tackle. He was Seattle’s only offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2017, his 8th straight season with a positive grade. His best seasons came in 2011 (7th among offensive tackles), 2012 (2nd), 2014 (12nd), and 2016 (19th). Though his best days may be behind him, he should still have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Seahawks reportedly plan to extend him before the season starts.

Brown replaced Rees Odhiambo at left tackle and he was a massive upgrade, as Odhiambo was PFF’s 3rd worst ranked offensive tackle, despite just 7 starts. Odhiambo was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so the Seahawks are not giving up on him and have instead moved him to guard, where he’s expected to compete to be the starting right guard. His primary competition will be free agent acquisition DJ Fluker. The 11th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Fluker has 65 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades in 4 of 5 seasons, including the last 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 51st out of 80 eligible guards in 7 starts before going down for the season with a toe injury. Signed for only 1.5 million this season, Fluker is a desperation option on an offensive line that could be pretty terrible again.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

The one thing Russell Wilson did have going for him in 2017 was a decent receiving corps. However, he lost his #2 and #3 targets from last season in Jimmy Graham (98 targets) and Paul Richardson (80 targets) and the Seahawks didn’t do much to replace them. Instead, last year’s #4 target Tyler Lockett figures to take on a much bigger role. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Lockett has flashed talent in 3 seasons in the league, but has never had more than 69 targets in a season. With Richardson and Graham gone, he could see close to 100 targets. Still only going into his age 26 season, Lockett could have a breakout statistical year.

Top receiver Doug Baldwin also figures to have a big statistical year. He’s averaged 82 catches for 1,063 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over the past 3 seasons and could exceed his career high of 126 targets in 2018. He might not be quite as efficient when given more targets, but he could easily top those averages in 2018. He’s also been a top-7 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and has earned positive grades in all 6 seasons in the league. His age is only a small concern, as he goes into his age 30 season.

Snaps are up for grabs behind Lockett and Baldwin on the depth chart, as free agent acquisitions Jaron Brown and Brandon Marshall will compete with 2nd year receiver Amara Darboh for the #3 receiver job. Brown played sparingly in his first 4 seasons with the Cardinals before being forced into a larger role in 2017. Brown struggled mightily though, catching just 31 of his 69 targets (44.9%) and averaging just 0.90 yards per route run on 529 routes (4th worst among wide receivers). Part of that was his poor quarterback play, but he also graded out 96th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. He’s unlikely to turn into a capable weapon in his 6th season in the league in 2018.

Marshall is by far the most proven, as his career numbers are Hall-of-Fame worthy (top-25 all-time in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns). The question is whether or not he has anything left in the tank, going into his age 34 season. Marshall was PFF’s 18th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2015, but has gotten negative grades from them in the past 2 seasons and missed but all 5 games with an ankle injury last season with the Giants, who let him go this off-season rather than pay him 5.5 million non-guaranteed. His one-year deal with the Seahawks has a base salary of 1.105 million, guarantees him just 90K, and has a maximum value of 2.155 million with incentives. He’s a worthwhile flyer, but might not be able to be much of a contributor. Darboh has the most upside, but played just 191 underwhelming snaps as a rookie and is completely unproven.

At tight end, the Seahawks are not just replacing Jimmy Graham, but also #2 tight end Luke Willson, who played 377 snaps last season. They will attempt to do that with free agent acquisition Ed Dickson and 4th round rookie Will Dissly. Third year player Nick Vannett should also play a bigger role after playing just 364 snaps as the 3rd tight end in his first 2 seasons in the league. He was originally a 3rd round pick, so he has upside in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s completely unproven.

Dickson is plenty experienced, with 85 starts in 124 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’d be a weak starting option. He’s never earned a positive grade for a season in his career, struggling as both a pass catcher and a run blocker. After spending the previous 3 seasons as Greg Olsen’s backup with the Panthers, Dickson became the top tight end in 2017 when Olsen was hurt and still only managed a 30/437/1 slash line. The catch and yardage total were the 2nd highest of his career. Going into his age 31 season in 2018, he’s unlikely to improve. Dissly, meanwhile, is primarily a blocker who won’t see a big role in the passing game. This is a much thinner receiving corps than last season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As important as it was for the Seahawks to retool on offense this off-season, they had even more needs on defense. The Seahawks had the fewest points allowed in the NFL for 4 straight seasons from 2012-2015, but they were a middling unit in 2017 and now are basically unrecognizable. Up to 6 week 1 defensive starters from 2017, including all 3 members of the former Legion of Boom, might not start for the Seahawks week 1 in 2018.

On the defensive line, the Seahawks lost three starters this off-season, defensive end Cliff Avril, who retired due to a neck injury, hybrid defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who was traded to the Eagles after a disappointing season, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent. Avril will probably be the least missed, as he played just 151 underwhelming snaps last season before getting hurt, but Bennett and Richardson finished 1st and 3rd on this defensive line in snaps with 931 and 654 and both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus. Those are big shoes to fill.

The Seahawks used a 3rd round pick on a potential Michael Bennett replacement, taking USC’s Rasheem Green. Green has a high upside for a 3rd round pick and has his great athleticism at 6-4 275, but he just turned 21 and is considered very raw. He has the size to line up inside in passing situations like Bennett did frequently (217 of 578 pass rush snaps in 2017), but he’ll likely be a significant downgrade from Bennett as a rookie.

Marcus Smith and Dion Jordan also figure to play bigger roles, after playing 252 snaps and 132 snaps respectively in 2017. Both are former first round pick busts (2014 and 2013 respectively) whose careers the Seahawks are trying to revive. Formerly of the Eagles, Smith was underwhelming last season and has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 4 seasons in the league (just 676 snaps), but Jordan flashed down the stretch and the coaching staff is excited about his upside.

In 5 games, he had 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 5 hurries on 60 pass rush snaps and also played well against the run. He finally looked like the player the Dolphins envisioned he’d be when they drafted him 3rd overall five years ago. It was in very little action though, so he’s still far from a reliable starter. Jordan played just 562 snaps in his first 2 seasons with the Dolphins, earning negative grades in both seasons, and then missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injury and suspension before resurfacing with the Seahawks in 2017.

Fourth year defensive end Frank Clark could also see an increase in snaps with Bennett gone, even though he already played 740 snaps last season, 2nd on this defensive line. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Clark has developed into an above average starter. He flashed in limited action as a rookie and has 19.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits in 2 seasons as the starter, while also playing solid run defense. Still only going into his age 25 season, Clark could continue to get better. The Seahawks would be wise to lock him up long-term this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive end are hybrid linebacker/defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who will play the old Bruce Irvin role and see edge rusher snaps in sub packages, and 2016 undrafted free agent Branden Jackson, who played 263 underwhelming snaps in the first significant of his career in 2018.

To replace Richardson at defensive tackle, the Seahawks signed Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson from the Vikings and could give more playing time to Jarran Reed and Nazair Jones, a pair of recent high picks. Reed played 616 snaps last season, 4th on this defensive line, but he was primarily a base package player. He has just 3 sacks in 2 seasons in the league (1.5 in each season), but he had 6 quarterback hits and 16 quarterback hurries last season and earned a positive grade overall. He’s also a capable run defender. Now in his 3rd year in the league, the Seahawks may use the 2016 2nd rounder in more of an every down role and give him more pass rushing opportunities.

Jones, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2017. He only played 284 snaps as a rookie, but earned a positive grade and should see more playing time in his 2nd season in the league. His primary competition for the base package starting job next to Reed is Shamar Stephen, who signed a 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal with 1 million guaranteed this off-season as a free agent coming over from Minnesota. A 7th round pick in 2014, Stephen struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league and has never earned a positive grade from PFF for a season, but he wasn’t bad on 384 snaps last season. Jones has a lot more upside and should be the favorite to start.

Tom Johnson also comes over from Minnesota on 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal, suggesting he’s a roster lock (900K guaranteed) and should have a significant role. He’ll primarily be a sub package interior pass rusher. 470 of his 673 snaps came on passing plays in 2017 and, while he might not have quite as big of a role in Seattle, he should see a similar split of passing downs to run downs. He totaled 2 sacks, 9 hits, and 20 hurries on 468 pass rush snaps last season and has earned a positive pass rushing grade from PFF in his last 4 seasons, but he’s also going into his age 34 season and has had issues against the run. Rasheem Green could also see snaps on the interior in passing situations. The Seahawks are trying to patchwork together what used to be a dominant defensive line.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The one area on this defense that remains mostly unchanged is the linebacking corps, which is good because Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL. Their value was perhaps never more noticeable than 2017’s week 16 game against the Rams. Wright missed the game with injury, his first missed game in 4 seasons, while Wagner was playing at clearly less than 100%. As a result, the Seahawks were gashed on the ground for 244 yards in a 42-7 loss that basically ended this season.

Wagner is the better of the two and is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL. Despite being hobbled by injury down the stretch last season, he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker for the 2nd year in a row, both times finishing one spot ahead of Luke Kuechly. The 2012 2nd round pick has earned positive grades in all 6 seasons in the league and also finished in the top-5 among middle linebackers in 2012 and 2014. He’s equally good against the pass and the run and, going into his age 28 season, he shouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Wright is also in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season. A 4th round pick in 2011, Wright has made 103 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has earned a positive grade from PFF in every season. His best seasons came in 2014, 2015, and 2016 when he finished 4th, 2nd, and 3rd respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers, but he also finished 8th in 2017. He and Wagner should have another strong season as every down linebackers.

Barkevious Mingo, meanwhile, will play the 3rd linebacker role, though he might not come off the field in passing situations like 3rd linebackers traditionally do. Instead, he could see significant snaps on the defensive line as an edge rusher in passing situations. The 6th overall pick by the Browns in the 2013 NFL Draft, Mingo hasn’t lived up to his potential, but his versatility has allowed him to carve out a decent career. He had 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 16 hurries on 143 pass rush snaps last season and was decent in coverage and as a run stuffer as well. He’s a good fit in the role the Seahawks have him in. This should be a dominant linebacking corps again in 2018.

Grade: A

Secondary

When Seattle’s defense was at its peak, it was led by the Legion of Boom, cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. However, Sherman was let go this off-season following an achilles tear, owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018, while Thomas is going into the final year of his contract and is currently holding out for an extension, and Chancellor is out indefinitely and possibly permanently with a neck injury.

When Sherman was out last season, Byron Maxwell and Shaq Griffin were their top-2 cornerbacks, with Justin Coleman on the slot. That’s most likely going to be how their cornerbacks line up week 1 this season. Griffin has the most upside of the group. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Griffin made 11 starts as a rookie and earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. He’s still relatively unproven, but could easily develop into an above average starting cornerback. Part of the reason why they were so confident moving on from Sherman is because they believe in Griffin as a long-term #1 cornerback.

Byron Maxwell also has potential, but he comes with a lot of risk. Maxwell was originally a 6th round pick by the Seahawks in 2011 and he emerged as an above average starter opposite Sherman midway through his 3rd season. After his rookie deal, he took a whopping 6-year, 63 million dollar deal from the Eagles, despite having just 17 career starts under his belt. He lasted just one terrible season in Philadelphia before being traded to the Dolphins the following off-season.

In 2016 with the Dolphins, Maxwell returned to form, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he lasted just 2 starts with the Dolphins in 2017 before being benched and eventually cut. The Seahawks signed him after he got cut and he took over as the starter down the stretch when Sherman was out. The Seahawks brought him back on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal this off-season. Going into his age 30 season, Maxwell has a very inconsistent history, but he has the ability to be a solid starter and is a great fit in Seattle’s scheme.

Coleman, meanwhile, is a pure slot cornerback, with 410 of his 444 coverage snaps coming on the slot in 2017. Acquired from the Patriots before the start of the season for a mere 7th round pick, Coleman proved to be a steal, earning the first positive grade of his career. He’s a one-year wonder, as the 2015 undrafted free agent was underwhelming on 530 total snaps in first 2 seasons in the league, but he seems to also be a good fit for this scheme, so he could easily continue providing good slot coverage in 2018. The Seahawks also have 5th round rookie Tre Flowers and 2017 6th round pick Mike Tyson (0 snaps on defense as a rookie) in the mix for playing time, but they figure to begin the year as reserves. Even without Sherman, this is still a solid cornerback group.

At safety, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor both still remain on the roster, which is more than you can say about other former stars on this defense, but neither is a lock to start week 1. Thomas has the best chance to start week 1 as he’s actually healthy, but he’s owed just 8.5 million in the final year of his contract and wants an extension that pays him among the highest paid safeties in the NFL (around 12-13 million annually). Thomas was the subject of trade rumors during the draft and now is holding out, skipping mandatory minicamp. If Thomas won’t report without a new deal and the Seahawks are not willing to pay him what he wants, they may revisit trading him later this off-season.

He has to play just 6 games for his contract to toll, so he can miss the first 10 games of the season and still hit free agency next off-season. He’d lose out on gamechecks, but that may be the preferable option for him if he doesn’t want to risk injury for a team that won’t commit to him long-term. When on the field, he’ll be an obvious asset, after finishing in the top-10 among safeties in 4 of the last 5 seasons, though extended holdouts have slowed players in the past.

Chancellor chances of playing week 1 are much slimmer. In fact, head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this off-season that Chancellor would have a hard time ever playing again. Unlike Cliff Avril, who suffered a similar injury, Chancellor did not retire this off-season and still wants to keep playing. He’ll have his neck re-scanned in July, but his chances of being able to go week 1 are not good. He’s been a top-21 safety in 6 of the past 7 seasons and has made 93 starts over that time period. The Seahawks gave him a 3-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season that included a 10 million dollar signing bonus, so they’re obviously hoping he can recover and return to form, but that might never happen.

Fortunately, the Seahawks do have solid depth at safety. Veteran Bradley McDougald made 9 starts last season and earned a positive grade from PFF from the 3rd time in 4 seasons. The 2013 undrafted free agent is a capable starter with 45 career starts and the ability to play either Thomas’ spot or Chancellor’s spot. He’s obviously a downgrade, but he’s good insurance to have. The Seahawks also have 2017 3rd and 4th round picks Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson in the mix, though they played just 32 snaps and 8 snaps respectively on defense as rookies. The Seahawks also signed veteran Mo Alexander. Alexander made 14 starts for the Rams in 2016 and the first 4 starts of 2017, but he was underwhelming and was eventually released by the Rams after 4 games last season. The Seahawks still have good options in the secondary, but this is not the Legion of Boom anymore.

Grade: B

Conclusion

For years, the Seahawks have been one of the most talented teams in the league and a perennial Super Bowl contender. That is not the case anymore. Many of their former stars are no longer with the team and they surprisingly have done a mediocre job of drafting in recent years, so they don’t have a lot of good young players in the pipeline. The Seahawks brought in a bunch of options at different positions and are hoping that having pure competition will get the most out of their players and compensate for their relative lack of talent. In the tough NFC though, it’ll be a challenge for them to just make the post-season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Seahawks don’t have the big names on defense anymore, but they still have a solid defensive unit, especially with Earl Thomas ending his holdout. Offensively, they should be better on the offensive line and in the running game, even if only by default, while Russell Wilson should remain an MVP candidate. After narrowly missing the post-season for the first time in years in 2017, the Seahawks could easily sneak into the post-season in 2018.

Prediction: 10-6 2nd in NFC West

San Francisco 49ers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When John Lynch took over as GM of the San Francisco 49ers, his first order of business was to poach offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from the Atlanta Falcons to be his head coach. Shanahan had just coordinated the league’s #1 offense and had 9 years of offensive coordinator experience with 4 different teams (Texans, Redskins, Browns, and Falcons), despite only being 37 years old at the time he was hired. It’s impossible to predict for sure whether or not a good coordinator will turn into a good head coach, but Shanahan had made offenses better everywhere he went and had been around coaching basically his whole life, as he’s the son of 2-time Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan.

The next order of business was finding Shanahan a quarterback. With Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert set to hit free agency, Shanahan basically inherited an empty quarterback room. That can be a blessing for a new head coach as it allows him to pick his own guys, but it can also be a curse if there are simply not good quarterbacks available, which was the case for Shanahan last off-season. The 49ers signed veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer in free agency and opted to pass on selecting quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick, trading down one spot with the Bears, who selected Trubisky, and then using a 3rd round pick on Iowa’s CJ Beathard.

Hoyer had experience in Shanahan’s system, having arguably the best season of his career on Shanahan’s Browns in 2014, while Beathard was hand selected by Shanahan and was the only quarterback in the entire draft class that Shanahan wanted. Despite that, neither had success in 2017. Combined, they completed 56.4% of their passes for an average of 6.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in 11 starts. The 49ers had a 1-10 record and ranked 26th in the NFL in first down rate at 30.75% in those 11 starts.

Fortunately, John Lynch got a call from the New England Patriots at the trade deadline last year. The quarterback they tried to acquire the previous off-season, only to be told he was not available, was now available. With Jimmy Garoppolo in the final year of his rookie deal and Tom Brady showing no signs of slowing down, the Patriots sent Garoppolo to the 49ers for a 2nd round pick. The Patriots reportedly had a better offer from the Cleveland Browns, who were willing to give up the first round pick they acquired from Houston in a trade down in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Belichick preferred to send Garoppolo out of the conference to the 49ers, which should tell you how highly the legendary coach thought of Garoppolo’s potential.

At the time, it looked like the 49ers’ pick would be a high 2nd rounder, given their record, while the Houston pick looked like it would be in the 20s, as the Texans, led by upstart quarterback Deshaun Watson, looked likely to make the post-season. At the time, it might not have looked to Belichick that the picks would be more than 10 or so spots apart in the draft, but the Texans lost Watson for the season with a torn ACL the following week and that pick became the 4th pick in the draft, while the 49ers went on a winning streak with Garoppolo and that 2nd round pick became 42nd overall.

Given how Garoppolo ended the season, that trade looks like a steal in hindsight. Garoppolo took a few weeks to learn the system, but made the final 5 starts of the season and won all 5 of them with a team that previously had one of the worst offenses in the league and had a 1-10 record. After moving the chains at a 30.75% rate in the 11 games started by Hoyer and Beathard, the 49ers moved the chains at a 38.39% rate in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.76 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback during the final 5 weeks of the season.

Garoppolo is still relatively unproven, with 272 career pass attempts, but he has a 99.7 career QB rating and has won all 7 of his career starts, including 2 with the Patriots in place of a suspended Tom Brady in 2016. His history with Kyle Shanahan goes back beyond last season, as, not only did the 49ers attempt to acquire him last off-season, but Shanahan tried to get the Browns to draft him instead of Johnny Manziel when he was in Cleveland. Both Belichick and Shanahan saw it early and now Garoppolo seems to be blossoming into a franchise quarterback. The 49ers gave him a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension that makes him the 3rd highest paid quarterback in the NFL, so they clearly have no concerns about his long-term potential.

All that being said, Garoppolo might be a little overhyped going into the 2018 season. With a full off-season to study his tape, the rest of the NFL will be more prepared for him in 2018 and he may have some growing pains. On top of that, his supporting cast still leaves a lot to be desired. While the 49ers went undefeated in Garoppolo’s starts, they did not play a tough schedule. They played playoff teams in 3 of 5 games, but their week 17 game against the Rams came against their backups, as they were resting starters for the post-season, while their win over the Titans came by just 2 points at home, despite the Titans being a very underwhelming playoff team. Their only impressive win came at home against the Jaguars. They also beat the Bears and Texans, who were far from playoff teams. Many have high expectations for the 49ers in 2018, but they may struggle to even qualify for the post-season in a loaded NFC.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even after locking up Garoppolo long-term on a massive extension, the 49ers still had among the most cap space in the NFL this off-season and had plenty of opportunity to improve Garoppolo’s supporting cast. One of the big contracts they handed out in free agency went to center Weston Richburg, who is now the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary after being lured away from the Giants on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal. Richburg should be an upgrade on last year’s center Daniel Kilgore, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked center out of 38 eligible and was subsequently traded to the Dolphins this off-season when Richburg was signed.

That being said, you can definitely argue the 49ers overpaid Richburg. After struggling at guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, Richburg was an above average center in both 2015 and 2016, but is not one of the top centers in the league. On top of that, he played just 241 snaps in 4 games last season because of a bad concussion, which make this contract even riskier. If he suffers another concussion, he could miss a significant amount of time and may reconsider his playing future. For now he’s healthy, but that’s not a long-term guarantee.

Mike McGlinchey is the other new starter they added on the offensive line this off-season, though the 9th overall pick is not necessarily going to be an upgrade at right tackle over Trent Brown. McGlinchey was a bit of a strange selection, as the 49ers had good tackle play in 2017 with Brown and left tackle Joe Staley, but it made some sense because Staley is getting up there in age and Brown was going into the final year of his contract. McGlinchey was easily the top offensive tackle in a weak offensive tackle class and had the ability to kick inside to guard for a year or two if needed.

Despite that, the 49ers traded Trent Brown on day 2 of the draft, only moving up from 143 to 95 with the Patriots in return. Brown was going into the final year of his rookie deal, was coming off of major shoulder surgery, and has had an inconsistent career with a history of weight and conditioning problems, but it was still a surprise that the 49ers gave him up so inexpensively. Brown was an above average starter in 2017, dominating in pass protection on the right side, allowing just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 9 hurries in 10 starts. Injuries caused him to miss 6 games, including the final 4 of the season, which makes Garoppolo’s play at the end of the season even more impressive, but McGlinchey is not guaranteed to be an upgrade.

McGlinchey will likely end up at left tackle long-term, but Joe Staley had yet another strong season there in 2017 and remains locked in as the starter, going into his age 34 season. He looked to be declining a little in 2016, when he finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF, but he finished #1 at his position in 2017 and has finished in the top-11 at his position in 5 of the last 6 seasons, with 2016 being the lone exception. In his career, he’s made 158 starts in 11 seasons in the league and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all but one season. His age is becoming a concern, but he could easily have a couple strong seasons left in the tank. He has 2 years left on his current contract and has not publicly discussed retirement.

The 49ers will also have a new starter at right guard with Josh Garnett returning from a season lost to injury to replace the departed Brandon Fusco, who made all 16 starts in 2017. Garnett was a first round pick (28th overall) in 2016, but he could easily be a downgrade from Fusco, who was about a league average starter in 2017. Garnett struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 73rd out of 77 eligible guards, before missing all of last season with injury. A projected 2nd/3rd round pick going into the draft, the 49ers surprisingly traded up for him and he hasn’t panned out. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and is no lock to remain the starter for the whole season.

The 49ers also have a pair of former first round picks competing at left guard with Jonathan Cooper and Laken Tomlinson. Cooper’s salary (4.95 million on a one-year deal) suggests he’s the favorite for the job, but Tomlinson is the incumbent and made 15 starts last season. Despite both being former first round picks, neither is a guarantee to be any good. Tomlinson has 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in 2 seasons with the Lions, finishing 62nd out of 82 eligible guards in 2015 and 62nd out of 77 eligible guards in 2016, leading to him getting benched and eventually traded to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick last August. With the 49ers, he had the best year of his career, but still earned a negative grade from PFF.

Cooper is also coming off of the best year of his career, which is why he got a decent chunk of change as a free agent, despite being a massive bust as the 7th overall pick in 2013. Injuries limited him to just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and he struggled in his first extended action in 2015. As a result, the Cardinals traded him as a throw-in with a 2nd round pick to the New England Patriots for Chandler Jones. The Patriots tried to coach him up, but he never played a snap for them, before being cut mid-season. He spent the rest of the 2016 season with the Browns, making 3 starts, and then signed with the Cowboys on a minimum contract the following off-season.

With the Cowboys last season, he started a career high 13 games and was not bad, suggesting he may become a late bloomer. He has experience at both left and right guard, so it’s possible both he and Tomlinson start together at some point this season, if Garnett continues to struggle at right guard. Tomlinson, Garnett, and Cooper are going into their age 26, age 24, and age 28 season respectively, so it’s not inconceivable that one could have a breakout year, but none are sure things at guard in 2018. Fortunately, the 49ers should get good play at both tackle spots and center.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The 49ers also spent big money on a running back, signing ex-Viking Jerick McKinnon to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that makes him the 5th highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary. McKinnon replaces free agent departure Carlos Hyde, who signed a smaller deal, 15.25 million over 3 years, with the Cleveland Browns. A 2nd round pick by the 49ers in 2014, Hyde averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons with the 49ers, but his ineffectiveness in the passing game made him a poor fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which likes to feature running backs in the passing game. Hyde averaged just 4.22 yards per target on 83 targets last season, while dropping 9 passes. He also allowed 3 sacks and 3 quarterback hits on 110 pass block snaps.

Jerick McKinnon is a much better fit for this scheme, so much so that Kyle Shanahan compared him to Devonta Freeman, who made the Pro Bowl in each of Shanahan’s 2 seasons with the Falcons. That would explain why they were willing to pay so much for him. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be worth what the 49ers are paying him. Despite playing just 527 snaps, McKinnon finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back last season. He caught 51 passes as a part-time player and ranked 16th in the NFL in elusive rating, with 2.63 yards per carry after contact and 39 broken tackles on 201 touches. He only averaged 3.80 yards per carry, but that was in large part due to issues on Minnesota’s offensive line. More than two-thirds of just rushing yardage came after contact.

However, if he plays like he did in 2016, when he finished with a negative grade on PFF on 512 snaps, signing him will prove to be a mistake. He averaged just 3.39 yards per carry on 159 carries and just 5.93 yards per catch on 43 catches. It’s also unclear how well he’ll translate to a larger role, as he’s never topped 527 snaps or 202 touches in a season. McKinnon’s salary suggests they see him as at least a 250+ touch back. Freeman averaged 309 (245 carries, 64 catches) in 2 seasons with Shanahan.

Matt Breida and Joe Williams will compete for touches behind McKinnon on the depth chart. Breida is the incumbent backup and averaged an impressive 4.43 YPC on 105 carries as an undrafted rookie last season, but Williams was a 4th round pick before missing his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, so he could push Breida for the backup job this off-season. Unfortunately, neither player is reliable on passing downs. Breida struggled as a receiver and a pass protector last season, while Williams caught just 20 passes in his collegiate career and is likely still very raw as a passing down back after missing all of last season. McKinnon will play the vast majority of passing down snaps, with Breida and Williams mixing in on early downs. Unfortunately, McKinnon has not always been the most consistent back.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The 49ers did not add a big free agent at wide receiver, though they were reportedly interested in adding Allen Robinson before he signed with the Bears. They do get Pierre Garcon back, however, after he missed the final 8 games of last season with a neck injury. Garcon was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver in 2016 with the Redskins and was ranked 9th last season when he went down. He was on pace for 80 catches for 1000 yards, despite terrible quarterback play, which would have been the third 1000+ yard season of his career. The fact that Jimmy Garoppolo was able to do what he did last season even without Garcon makes it that much more impressive.

Garcon was signed last off-season from the Redskins to be a #1 receiver, coming over on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal, so having him back for Garoppolo to throw to is a big deal. He’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons. If he returns to form and stays healthy, he should be able to top 1000 yards with Garoppolo under center, but that’s not a guarantee, given that he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of a major neck injury.

In Garcon’s absence, Marquise Goodwin stepped up as the #1 receiver. He put up a 36/613/2 slash line in 8 games without Garcon, including a 29/384/1 slash line in the 5 games Garoppolo started, and finished with a 56/962/2 slash line on the season. He was rewarded with a 3-year, 19.25 million dollar extension this off-season, after getting just a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. It’s a substantial pay increase and may prove to be a mistake, as Goodwin is a complete one-year wonder.

Prior to last season, Goodwin had 49 catches in 4 seasons with the Bills, with 29 of them coming in 2016, when he made 9 starts, but caught just 46.0% of his targets and finished 103rd among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF. Goodwin is a blazing deep threat with a 16.6 career yards per catch average, but he’s undersized at 5-9 179. He fits Shanahan’s scheme well as a deep threat, but Garoppolo doesn’t like to throw the deep ball that often (Goodwin averaged just 13.2 yards per catch in Garoppolo’s 5 starts) and Goodwin will likely take a backseat targets wise to the returning Pierre Garcon. I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s numbers.

The 49ers also used a 2nd round pick on Washington wide receiver Dante Pettis, moving up from 59 to 44 to grab him. He may be a starter long-term, but for now he’ll compete with 2nd year player Trent Taylor for the #3 receiver job. Taylor is a slot specialist at 5-8 180 who lined up outside on just 85 of 382 pass routes last season as a 5th round rookie. He wasn’t bad, putting up a 43/430/2 slash line, including 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. He finished about average on PFF. He’ll likely stay as the slot receiver, while Pettis is learning all of the receiver spots and will likely spend his rookie year as a backup across the board. He’s also expected to return kicks.

At tight end, George Kittle and Garrett Celek return after leading the team in tight end snaps with 591 and 560 respectively in 2017. Celek is just a blocking tight end who hasn’t topped 29 catches in any of his 6 seasons in the league. He’s not a bad pass catcher and had 8 catches for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns in Garoppolo’s 5 starts, but he ran a route on just 220 of 560 snaps last season and is unlikely to improve as a pass catcher in his age 30 season.

George Kittle will be the primary pass catching tight end. A 5th round rookie, Kittle struggled early in the season, but got better as the year went on. He caught 15 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts and finished the year with a decent 43/515/2 slash line. He ran a route on 377 of his 591 snaps and is not much of a run blocker. Now in his 2nd season in the league, with a full season of Garoppolo, Kittle has some breakout potential as a pass catcher. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk also caught 33 passes on 151 routes run last season and has 111 catches over the past 3 seasons. Garoppolo has some good options to throw to.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The 49ers should have a pretty good offense in 2018, but they’ll need their young defense to take a step forward in their 2nd year under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (previously the Jaguars linebackers coach). They finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at 35.96%. Even during their 5-game winning streak, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 34.87% rate, despite facing a relatively weak slate of offenses. If they are going to continue their winning ways in 2018 against a tougher schedule, they’re going to have to improve defensively.

DeForest Buckner is one of the players who was not part of the problem, as he was quietly one of the better defensive tackles in the league. He only had 3 sacks, but added a whopping 19 quarterback hits and defended the run well. The 7th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Buckner showed promise as a rookie (6 sacks, 14 quarterback hits) at 3-4 defensive end before breaking out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. He’s also played a ridiculous 1,873 snaps over the past 2 seasons, most by any defensive lineman in the league. The definition of an every down player, Buckner is still only going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be yet to come. He could post a big sack total this season if the 49ers play with more leads and some of those quarterback hits turn into sacks. The 6-7 300 pounder drew comparisons to Calais Campbell during the pre-draft process and seems to be developing into that kind of impact defensive lineman.

Buckner is not the only recent high pick on this defensive line, as they used the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, after passing on Mitch Trubisky and trading down one spot with the Bears. Thomas finished 2nd on this defensive line with 696 snaps, but he struggled and was part of the problem for this defense last season. He only managed 3 sacks and added just 9 hits and 18 hurries on 401 pass rush snaps. He did a solid job against the run, but still finished as PFF’s 59th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible. He could easily be much improved in his 2nd season in the league though. A bigger defensive end at 6-3 273, Thomas plays defensive end in base packages, but lined up inside on 162 of 401 pass rush snaps. He should continue in that role in 2018.

Arik Armstead is also a bigger defensive end at 6-7 292. He’s also a former first round pick, going 17th overall. The 49ers essentially used their top pick in 3 straight drafts on players who play similar positions. Armstead flashed on 385 snaps in 16 games as a rookie in 2015, but he’s been limited to 14 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons and has not developed into the player it looked like he would as a rookie. He’s also not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense, after spending the first 2 seasons of his career in a 3-4.

Armstead was primarily a base package defensive end when on the field last season, but did rush the passer on 158 of 304 snaps. Of those 158 snaps, he lined up on the edge 120 times, as the 49ers tried to turned him into an edge rusher, but he managed just 1.5 sacks and 1 quarterback hit in 6 games before going down for the year with a broken hand. This season, he’s expected to line up on the interior in passing situations more.

With Buckner being an every down player inside and Thomas lining up inside frequently, there may not be a lot of sub packages snaps left over for Armstead. The majority of his snaps will probably still come as base package defensive end. He’s a solid run stuffer and still has upside, going into his age 25 season, if he can stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee. The 49ers did issue a vote of confidence in his long-term health by picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which would be worth around 9.046 million and is guaranteed for injury.

It’s understandable why the 49ers would not want to give up on Armstead’s upside, as they have very little depth on this defense line. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell will be the 4th starter in base packages inside next to Buckner, with Armstead and Thomas outside. Mitchell played 622 snaps last season, 344 of which came on run plays. Mitchell was terrible though, finishing 70th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF. An 8-year veteran, Mitchell has earned negative grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons and 6 of 8 seasons overall and is unlikely to improve in his age 31 season in 2018. He used to be an adequate run stuffer, but he’s not even that anymore and he has just 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in his career. He only remains a starter for lack of a better option.

The 49ers lack edge rusher options as well. Thomas will see a lot of snaps as an edge rusher, but he’ll also line up inside frequently and they lack options behind him on the depth chart. Elvis Dumervil led the team in edge rusher snaps last season with 287 and also led the team with 6.5 sacks. In addition, he added 9 hits and 34 hurries. Despite that, the 49ers declined his 2.75 million dollar option for 2018 and he remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 34 season. The 49ers only had 30 sacks (26th in the NFL) last season so they could miss Dumervil, who had 6.5 of those by himself as a part-time player.

Cassius Marsh figures to get the first shot at the other edge rusher job. Signed off waivers after being let go by the New England Patriots, Marsh flashed in 6 games with the 49ers last season. He had 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 11 hurries on 147 pass rush snaps and held up against the run, despite a slender 6-4 245 frame. Marsh has never earned a positive grade for a full season in 4 years in the league, but he was originally a 4th round pick and is only going into his age 26 season, so it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being a capable edge rusher. The 49ers clearly have faith in him, giving him a 2-year, 7.7 million dollar extension this off-season, keeping him off the open market with his rookie deal set to expire. That could prove to be a mistake if he regresses.

Eli Harold might be his primary competition. Harold is a linebacker in base packages, but the 6-3 257 pounder was a collegiate defensive end and is capable of rushing the passer off the edge. He rushed the passer on 106 of 215 pass plays last season, with 99 of those snaps coming as an edge rusher. He isn’t much of a pass rusher though, earning negative grades as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons since going in the 3rd round in 2015. He has just 5 sacks and 9 hits in his career in 48 games.

The 49ers also took a flyer on former Chargers second round pick Jerry Attaochu. Attaochu looked like a long-term starter in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with 6 sacks, 9 hits, and 32 hurries while playing 69.9% of the snaps in 15 games, but he’s played just 237 snaps in 12 games in 2 seasons since due to injury and ineffectiveness. He has just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 8 hurries in those 2 seasons.

Despite that, he still has upside, going into his age 25 season, and his 3 million dollar salary (2.5 million guaranteed) suggests the 49ers have a role planned for him, provided he’s healthy. Even though they’ve used 3 straight first round picks on the defensive line, the 49ers are not deep upfront and need a reliable pass rusher to step up alongside DeForest Buckner. They have some young players with upside, most notably Solomon Thomas, but this defensive line has a low floor and may struggle to get to the quarterback.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The 49ers also have a recent first round pick at linebacker, as they moved up to draft Reuben Foster 31st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. The 49ers were reportedly considering him with the 3rd overall pick if Solomon Thomas was not available and they were ecstatic to get him late in the first. His play as a rookie showed why the 49ers were so high on him, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker, earning positive grades for his run stopping ability and his coverage ability as a three down player. Unfortunately, he was limited to 553 snaps in 10 games by ankle and rib injuries.

The 49ers were hoping to get a boost from a full season of Foster in 2018, but he’s reportedly facing a multiple game suspension. Charges were dropped in his domestic violence case, but a lack of charges hasn’t stopped the NFL from giving big suspensions in the past and Foster was also arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama earlier this off-season. Foster also remains an injury risk. Injuries were part of the reason why he fell on draft day and they could continue to be an issue for him in the future. Between that and off-the-field issues, Foster comes with some risk and he’s unlikely to play all 16 games in 2018, but he’s a talented player who could still develop into one of the best linebackers in the league.

The 49ers also get Malcolm Smith back from an injury plagued season, after he missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral that he suffered in training camp. Smith was signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal last off-season, which guaranteed him 12.1 million in the first 2 years of the deal, but he struggled mightily in 2015 and 2016 with the Raiders, finishing 40th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2015 and 49th out of 59 eligible in 2016. Smith flashed in limited action earlier in his career, but never developed into a capable every down player. His return might not be a boost for this linebacking corps and he may not return to an every down role. In base packages, he’ll play outside linebacker with Reuben Foster lined up inside. He also has experience at middle linebacker, so he may play there if Foster misses time with suspension or injury.

The other base linebacker job is up for grabs. Eli Harold played that role last season, but he’ll face competition from 3rd round rookie Fred Warner and veteran holdover Brock Coyle, who filled in for Smith when he was injured last season. Coyle led this linebacking corps in snaps with 646, but he was PFF’s 30th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible in the first significant action of his career, after going undrafted in 2014. The 49ers valued him enough to bring him back on a 3-year, 8.4 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s not a lock for a starting job.

Warner has the highest upside of any of the candidates, but may spend his rookie year as a reserve. That being said, if Foster gets suspended for any period of time, that could push Warner into the lineup. The 49ers also added veteran Korey Toomer as insurance in case of a Foster injury. An 5th round pick in 2012, Toomer played just 1 snap in his first 4 seasons in the league, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Cowboys to the Rams to the Raiders, before settling into a part-time role with the Chargers over the past 2 seasons.

Toomer played 479 snaps in 2016 and 265 snaps in 2017, serving first as a coverage specialist in 2016 and then as a base package run stuffer in 2017, showing his versatility. He also earned a positive grade for both his coverage ability and his run stopping ability in both seasons, so he’ll be a valuable reserve for them, especially with Foster’s status uncertain. The 49ers definitely have depth at the linebacker position, but Foster is their only impact linebacker and he’s highly unlikely to play every game in 2018.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Safety Eric Reid also played significant snaps around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, lining up there on 416 of 736 snaps. The 6-1 213 pounder fit well as a hybrid player and proved to be a good coverage linebacker, but he was not retained this off-season. Despite that, the 49ers are still deep at safety. They get both Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward back from injury and have 2nd year safety Adrian Colbert also in the mix for snaps.

Tartt, a 2nd round pick in 2015, was on his way to a breakout year before breaking his arm midway through the 9th game of the season and going down for the year. Through the first 8 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. He could pick up right where he left off before the injury, but he also earned negative grades from PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league (14 starts), so he’s still unproven. The 49ers clearly still believe in him, giving him a 2-year extension worth 13 million this off-season.

Ward, on the other hand, is not a lock to get his job back. Colbert played 530 snaps in the final 9 games of last season and, despite being a mere 7th round rookie, he more than held his own and finished with a positive grade on PFF. He’s still unproven and was not highly thought of coming out of the University of Miami, but he could develop into a long-term starter for them. Ward, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his rookie deal.

A 1st round pick in 2014, Ward has flashed his talent from time to time, but he’s also missed 24 games in 4 seasons, including 9 games last season. His best attribute is his versatility, as he’s played outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and safety in his career. Because of his versatility, he could still see a lot of action this season even if he can’t lock down a starting job. Shanahan has said Ward could be the top backup at every spot in the secondary this season.

Outside of safety, Ward’s best shot at playing time will come on the slot, though he’ll have to compete with K’Waun Williams, who is coming off of a solid season. A capable slot cornerback with the Browns in 2014 and 2015, Williams missed all of 2016 with an ankle injury and was let go over a dispute on how to treat the injury. When healthy, he signed with the 49ers on a one-year deal as a free agent last off-season. He looked rusty to start the season, but played well down the stretch and ended the season with his 3rd positive season grade from PFF in 3 healthy seasons. He’s likely to remain on the slot. The 49ers locked him up long-term with a 3-year, 8.85 million dollar extension in September.

Outside cornerback was the 49ers’ big problem spot in 2017. Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson were the starters to begin the season, but Johnson finished as PFF’s 119th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible in 16 starts last season, while Robinson struggled through 7 starts before getting benched and eventually traded to the Jets for a 5th round pick. Third round rookie Ahkello Witherspoon took over for Robinson and played pretty well down the stretch, making 9 starts and earning a positive grade from PFF on 660 snaps. Now going into his 2nd season in the league, Witherspoon has the look of a long-term starter and should be locked into one of the starting jobs.

To address the other starting spot, the 49ers made a splash signing, signing Richard Sherman just days after he was released by the rival Seahawks, with whom he made 4 Pro Bowls in 7 seasons. Sherman was let go because he’s coming off of a torn achilles and was set to make 11 million in the final year of his contract, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury. He was a top-10 cornerback on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016 and ranked 14th at his position through 10 weeks before going down last season.

Despite that, given his injury and his age (going into his age 30 season), it’s fair to wonder if his best years are behind him. His 3-year deal with the 49ers could be worth up to 39.15 million, but the 49ers protected themselves against Sherman declining. Sherman will make just 7 million annually in all 3 years of the deal and can earn another 2 million annually in per game roster bonuses and up to 4 million annually in incentives (1 million for 90% playing time, another million for making the Pro-Bowl, another 2 million for making an All-Pro team).

He also has annual workout bonuses of 50K that bring the maximum contract value to 39.15 million dollars, but, if he struggles in 2018, the 49ers can get out of this deal having paid just 7-9 million dollars (depending on roster bonuses). Sherman is currently questionable for the start of training camp and is fully expected to be ready week 1. He’ll be a boost for a secondary that needed it, but he may not be the same player he was in Seattle.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The 49ers have high expectations after the way this team finished last season with Jimmy Garoppolo, but they may be a bit of a disappointment against a tough schedule with the rest of the league having an off-season to study Garoppolo’s tape. Garoppolo should still have a good season, but he’s not going to be able to carry this team by himself, so their supporting cast will need to be better. With Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, and Richard Sherman added this off-season and Pierre Garcon returning from injury, they should have a better supporting cast in 2018, but it could be tough for them to sneak into the post-season in the loaded NFC.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The 49ers are another team that is a little overrated. The way they closed last season is less impressive when you consider their schedule and they still have some significant weaknesses in their supporting cast.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC West