Miami Dolphins 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins have gone 23-25 over the past 3 seasons, but they’ve needed a 20-6 record in one score games just to get to that record. Remarkably, the Dolphins have just 3 wins by more than 8 points over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 19 losses, and their point differential over that time period is -243, only ahead of the 49ers, Raiders, and Browns. Last season, the Dolphins finished 7-9 and were in the playoff race until late in the season, but they finished 30th in the NFL in both first down rate differential (-6.41%) and point differential (-114).

Typically, a team’s record in close games is highly inconsistent on a year-to-year, as it tends to be more luck than skill, but, to the extent it is a skill, that skill probably went out the door when the Dolphins fired head coach Adam Gase, who had been their coach for all 3 of those aforementioned seasons. The Dolphins hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores to replace Gase as head coach and are going into a full rebuild, similar to what the Browns and Jets have done in recent years.

For years, the Dolphins have been a mediocre veteran team that was consistently up against the salary cap. This off-season, the Dolphins got rid of several expensive veterans and have the lowest active cap spending in the league. They also have the most dead money on their cap of any team in the league, but the Dolphins are clearly building for 2020 and beyond. They won’t actively try to lose games in 2019, but this is more than a one-year rebuild and their roster for 2019 looks like arguably the weakest in the NFL.

One expensive veteran the Dolphins got rid of this off-season was quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill had been with the Dolphins since they drafted him 8th overall in 2012 and he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons with the team, but he was an underwhelming starter at his best and saw his stock fall even further after a 2017 season that was wiped out by a torn ACL and a 2018 season in which he struggled mightily, finishing dead last out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Owed 18.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2019, the Dolphins could have cut Tannehill for nothing, but opted to negotiate a deal with him and the Tennessee Titans. Tannehill took a reduced salary to 7 million, with the Dolphins paying 5 million of it at signing, and the Titans sent the Dolphins a 2019 7th round pick and a 2020 4th round pick for Tannehill and a 2019 6th round pick. Essentially it’s a clever way for the Dolphins to buy a 2020 mid round pick, but it’s unclear if that’s worth 5 million and moving down a round in 2019. Either way, Tannehill is now a Titan and the Dolphins entered the off-season without a quarterback.

The Dolphins signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal in free agency and then, rather than using a high draft pick on a quarterback in a weak quarterback class, the Dolphins traded a late 2nd round pick (after trading down from their original 2nd round pick and receiving a 2020 2nd round pick in the process) to the Arizona Cardinals for Josh Rosen, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 38th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF and posting a 66.7 QB rating, and he fell out of favor in Arizona when they got the opportunity to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall, but he comes with plenty of upside and the Dolphins are getting a bargain with him.

Not only do they get him about 50 picks later than where he went last year, but the Cardinals paid him a 10.88 million dollar signing bonus last year, so the Dolphins owe Rosen just 6.24 million total over the next 3 seasons. Even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter, the Dolphins are still getting a cheap backup and they’re only giving up a pick in the late second round, where it’s usually very tough to find starting caliber quarterbacks anyway. Rosen was thrown into a very difficult situation as a rookie, with a weak roster around him that only got worse as injuries piled up, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback who went on to have a good career after struggling as a rookie (Peyton Manning and Jared Goff come to mind).

Rosen and Fitzpatrick will compete for the starting job. Rosen is considered the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzpatrick ended up winning it outright in a competition. Rosen is still unproven as a starter and Fitzpatrick is coming off of arguably the best season of his career. Making 7 starts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fitzpatrick completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 9.62 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked quarterback. Part of that is because he had a strong offensive supporting cast and he’s always had issues with turnovers, but he can also make plays downfield.

Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term solution at age 35 and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repeat his career best 2018 season in 2019, so the Dolphins will probably want to see what Rosen has at some point, similar to how the Buccaneers went back to Jameis Winston last season, but Rosen might not be out there week 1 if the coaching staff feels Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance to win. Regardless of who ends up starting, the Dolphins could end up taking a quarterback with a high pick in a better quarterback draft in 2020, as the Dolphins have arguably the worst roster in the NFL and will likely be picking high even if they get competent quarterback play.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Dolphins get rid of some expensive players this off-season, they also didn’t re-sign their most important free agent, right tackle Ja’wuan James, who signed a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos. That’s a little rich for James, but losing him without really replacing him or adding a comparable player at another position on the offensive line makes an already poor offensive line even worse. James was Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked offensive tackle in 2018, while his replacement Jordan Mills finished 74th out of 85 qualifying. Mills is inexpensive (2-year, 3.8 million) and experienced (82 starts in 6 seasons in the league), but he’s never played that well. The Dolphins didn’t take an offensive tackle in the draft until they took Isaiah Prince in the 6th round, so Mills is likely locked into a starting job.

James was just one of two offensive linemen to earn above average grades from PFF in 2018, with the other being left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who finished 34th among offensive tackles in 15 starts. The 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Tunsil hasn’t quite been as good as expected, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (44 starts) and he still has obvious upside, going into his age 25 season. The Dolphins need him to take a big step forward with the rest of the line in bad shape.

The biggest addition the Dolphins made on the offensive line this off-season was Michael Deiter, who has a good chance to start at one of the guard spots as a 3rd round rookie. Normally you don’t want to rely on 3rd round rookies, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be a better than Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis, who finished 88th and 59th out of 88 qualifying guards at left and right guard respectively in 2018.

Larsen is no longer with the team, but Jesse Davis is still on the team and will compete to keep his starting role, despite his poor play in 26 starts over the past 2 seasons. Along with Deiter, the only other real option on the roster is free agent addition Chris Reed, who made just 8 underwhelming starts in 4 seasons in Jacksonville since going undrafted in 2015. The Dolphins are in the unenviable position of having to pick two starters between him, Davis, and Deiter, so if Reed wanted a chance to play he picked the right place to sign.

Daniel Kilgore could have been at option at guard, but with center Travis Swanson retiring due to injury, Kilgore is likely locked in as the starter at center. Swanson didn’t play that well in 2018, but Kilgore hasn’t been any better in his career, and he’s now going into his age 32 season and coming off of a triceps injury that ended his 2018 season after 4 games. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will be under heavy pressure. If that quarterback ends up being Josh Rosen, it could easily be a repeat of what happened last season in Arizona.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The Dolphins’ offensive line problems will also affect their running game. They rushed for 4.68 yards per carry in 2018 (9th in the NFL) in spite of offensive line problems, as their two top backs Frank Gore and Kenyon Drake both ran well. Gore averaged 4.63 yards per carry on 156 carries and ranked 15th in elusive rating with 3.29 yards per carry after contact and 23 broken tackles, while Drake averaged 4.46 yards per carry on 120 carries and ranked 22nd in elusive rating with 2.68 yards per carry after contact and 28 broken tackles.

Gore is no longer with the team, but Drake remains and could see a much larger role. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Drake has shown a lot of promise in his career, averaging 4.75 yards per carry on 286 carries. In addition to ranking 22nd in elusive rating last season, Drake also ranked 3rd in elusive rating in 2017 with 4.29 yards per carry after contact and 29 broken tackles on 133 carries. He is also a useful player in the passing game, with 85 catches for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns in the past 2 seasons, despite being a part-time player. He’s never carried a huge load, even dating back to his college days, but it looks like he’ll get a chance this season, with the Dolphins only using a 7th round pick on a running back.

Drake’s biggest competition for touches is 2018 4th round pick Kalen Ballage. Ballage averaged an impressive 5.31 yards per carry on 36 carries last season, but 75 of those yards came on one carry and he’s very unproven. He’ll likely have a role, but it probably won’t be as big as Gore’s last season. Drake could be a 250+ touch back with Ballage working as a backup rather than being in a true timeshare. Assuming Drake can handle the bigger workload, he should still be able to break some big runs without great blocking. I also expect him to be used heavily in the passing game so they can get the ball in his hands in space as much as possible. He’s a potential breakout player.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers

One player the Dolphins did surprisingly bring back this off-season was wide receiver Devante Parker. A first round pick in 2015, Parker fell out of favor with the previous coaching staff, catching just 2 passes on 38 snaps in the first 7 games of the 2018 season before being forced into action due to injuries and making 22 catches for 269 yards and 1 touchdown in the final 9 games of the season. Parker must have shown enough for the new coaching staff to give him a chance, as they re-signed him to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal, rather than releasing him outright ahead of a 9.387 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

It was a surprising move, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The 5 million dollars he’s guaranteed in the first year is a steep drop from his previously scheduled salary and the Dolphins also get an option to keep him for 2020 for another 5 million if he shows progress. Even if he only matches his career high 56/744/4 slash line from 2016, he’ll be worth that salary. He’s missed time with injury in all 4 seasons in the league and he’s been called out by coaches for his work ethic, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and the Dolphins are evaluating players for the future more than anything in 2019. Perhaps a fresh start with a new coaching staff will do him a lot of good.

Even if Parker doesn’t break out, this wide receiver group isn’t a weakness. They didn’t have a pass catcher with more than 600 receiving yards last season, but that was in part due to bad quarterback play and in part due to the fact that the Dolphins spread the ball around and didn’t throw to one target more than 79 times. Their team leader in targets, Danny Amendola, who also led the team in receiving yards with a 59/575/1 slash line, is no longer with the team, but the Dolphins still have Kenny Stills to start outside opposite Parker and they have both Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant coming back from injuries that limited them to 7 games and 10 games respectively in 2018.

Stills was second on the team in receiving last year with a 37/553/6 slash line on just 64 targets. He’s averaged a 45/709/5 slash line in 6 seasons in the league and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, so he could easily be more productive in a bigger role in 2019. He’s a great deep threat, with an average reception depth of 12.2 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but he’s limited after the catch, with just 16 career broken tackles and 3.7 yards per catch after catch.

Albert Wilson is a natural fit on the slot, provided he’s healthy after suffering a significant hip injury in 2018. Wilson was having an impressive year before going down, catching 26 of 35 targets for 391 yards and 4 touchdowns in 7 games, despite being a part-time player. His 3.03 yards per route run average actually led all qualifying receivers. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Wilson didn’t show much in his first 3 seasons in the league, but had a solid 2017 season in Kansas City, posting a 42/554/3 slash line, which led to the Dolphins giving him a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season.

Wilson is very much the opposite of Kenny Stills, with an average reception depth of 5.1 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but 42 career broken tackles (including 24 on 68 catches in the past 2 seasons) and 7.8 yards per catch after catch. The 5-9 186 pounder has never played well outside, so he won’t be an every down player, and this passing game will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect a big statistical year from him even if healthy, but he’s a solid player.

Jakeem Grant will be the 4th receiver when everyone is healthy, but he’ll have a role in this offense. Last season he played 282 snaps in 10 games before a foot injury and could see a similar role in 2019. He played primarily outside in 2018, lining up there on 222 of 282 snaps, but could see more action on the slot with Danny Amendola gone and he might be a better fit there. The 5-7 169 speedster is similar to Wilson, averaging 8.6 yards per catch after the catch and breaking 9 tackles on 34 catches in his career. He’s still unproven, but flashed a lot of potential last season and should have a career best year if he can stay healthy. When everyone is healthy, this is a solid quartet of wide receivers.

They are not nearly as talented at tight end. Michael Gesicki led Dolphin tight ends in receiving yards with 202, which was 7th on the team in 2018. A 2018 2nd round pick, Gesicki could be a lot better in 2019, but if he’s not the Dolphins don’t have a receiving threat at tight end. Veteran Nick O’Leary and 2018 4th round pick Durham Smythe played 373 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, but they blocked on 267 snaps and 134 snaps respectively and had just 14 catches combined.

The Dolphins signed Dwayne Allen from New England this off-season, but he’s primarily a blocker as well. The 7-year veteran has had some decent receiving years in the past, putting up a 45/521/3 slash line in 2012 and a 35/406/6 slash line in 2016, but he caught just 13 passes in 2 seasons with the Patriots and ran routes on just 279 of 839 snaps over those 2 seasons. The Dolphins may use him a little bit more in the passing game, but he was primarily signed for his above average run blocking ability. His contract (6.5 million over 2 years) suggests he’s the favorite to be their primary blocking tight end over O’Leary and Smythe.

The Dolphins will probably use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets regularly to compensate for their lack of pass catchers at tight end. There is a lot of upside in this young receiving corps, with Devante Parker, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, and Michael Gesicki all potentially exceeding expectations, but this passing game as a whole will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect big numbers from anyone, especially with so many different options.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Another reason why the Dolphins are likely to frequently use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets is because they figure to be trailing often, forcing them to pass more than they’d like, in large part due to serious issues on defense. Their weakest position group is defensive end. The Dolphins saved 18.8 million in cash and cap space by moving on from Robert Quinn and Andre Branch and then opted not to re-sign Cameron Wake, who signed a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal in Tennessee. Branch struggled last season and was not nearly worth his salary, but Wake and Quinn will be big losses, after finishing 10th and 22nd respectively on Pro Football Focus in pass rush grade in 2018, and the Dolphins didn’t do much to replace any of the edge defenders they lost.

Instead, they’ll be counting on third year defensive end Charles Harris to take a big step forward. Harris was the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he’s only played 843 snaps in 27 games in 2 seasons in the league, making just 3 starts. He’s been a better pass rusher than his 3 sacks suggest, as he’s added 12 hits and 39 hurries on 486 pass rush snaps, a solid 11.1% pressure rate, and he could have a decent sack total in 2019 in a larger role, but he’s still a very unproven player and he is a liability against the run at 6-3 250. Only in his age 25 season, he has upside, but he’s not someone you want to be your best defensive end.

The only other edge defender who played a snap for the Dolphins last season that is still with the team is Jonathan Woodward, a 2016 7th round pick who was underwhelming in the first 128 snaps of his career in 2018. He could easily be a starter in 2019, given their lack of depth. The Dolphins didn’t add a single defensive end through the draft and their only veteran additions were Nate Orchard and Tank Carradine, who played 36 snaps and 24 snaps respectively in 2018.

Orchard was a 2nd round pick by the Browns in 2015 and had a couple decent seasons, earning average grades from PFF in 2015 and 2017 on 475 snaps and 431 snaps respectively, but he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 9 hits, and 20 hurries on 442 career pass rush snaps (7.7%). Carradine was also a former 2nd round pick, being drafted by the 49ers in 2013, but he’s never played more than 229 snaps in a season, in part due to injury. He’s been more effective rushing the passer on a per snap basis than Orchard, but he’s also going into his age 30 season. Both players could see significant roles in a very thin position group.

Grade: D

Interior Defenders

The Dolphins are deeper on the interior of their defensive line. They return starters Davon Godchaux and Akeem Spence and although the latter struggled last season, they used the 13th overall pick on Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to replace him in the starting lineup. Wilkins could have been a top-10 pick and will almost definitely be an upgrade as a rookie. He’ll start inside next to Godchaux.

Godchaux struggled on 500 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but took a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league, making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. He didn’t get much pass rush, with 1 sack, 3 hit, and 13 hurries on 354 pass rush snaps (4.8% pressure rate), but he finished as PFF’s 17th ranked defensive tackle against the run and should at least have a base package role again in 2019. He might never develop as a pass rusher, but he’s still a valuable player.

Akeem Spence will likely still have a big role as the 3rd defensive tackle. He’s never been more than a replacement level player as a starter, but he’s experienced (53 starts in 88 career games) and isn’t a bad fit as a 3rd defensive tackle. The Dolphins also get Vincent Taylor back from injury, after a foot injury cost him the final 8 games of the 2018 season. In part due to that injury, he’s only played 389 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2017, but he’s shown a lot of promise in limited action and should get a bigger role in 2019 if he’s healthy. Unless they get a big rookie year from Christian Wilkins, they don’t have any game changing players at defensive tackle, but they have solid depth.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Dolphins return all 3 starters at linebacker, Kiko Alonso and Jerome Baker on the outside and Raekwon McMillan at middle linebacker. McMillan started the year as an every down player, but struggled mightily in coverage and began coming off the field in obvious passing situations down the stretch, with Alonso and Baker staying in as the two nickel linebackers. McMillan finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but finished the season with 36 catches and 6 touchdowns allowed on 41 targets.

A 2nd round pick in 2017, last season was essentially McMillan’s rookie year because he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Another year removed from the injury, McMillan could take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only in his age 23 season, but he’ll have to compete with Jerome Baker for an every down role. Baker was significantly better in coverage and had a promising season overall in 2018, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 678 snaps, despite only being a 3rd round rookie. Like McMillan, he could take another step forward in 2018.

Alonso led this unit with 1004 snaps played in 15 games last season, but he was also the worst of the bunch, finishing as PFF’s 82nd ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifiers, especially struggling in coverage. Way back in 2013, Alonso was a promising young linebacker, but he’s had a couple significant knee injuries since then and hasn’t been the same player in recent years. His rookie season was the last time he earned an above average grade from PFF. The Dolphins opted to keep Alonso at a non-guaranteed 6.51 million salary rather than make him part of their veteran purge, so the new coaching staff clearly thinks they can get the most out of him. Now in his age 29 season, that’s unlikely, but he should continue playing a significant role in this linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Dolphins also return all of their starters in the secondary. In fact, every defensive back who played a snap for the Dolphins last season is still on the roster. That’s not necessarily a good thing though, on a defense that finished 29th in first down rate allowed and 30th in yards per attempt allowed. They are better at safety than cornerback, as both starting safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus in 2018. They also used the 11th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Minkah Fitzpatrick, who they want to eventually play safety.

There were rumors the Dolphins could opt to trade Reshad Jones to free up a spot for Fitzpatrick immediately, but those never came to fruition, possibly because no team was willing to trade for his 13.115 million dollar salary, which is mostly guaranteed. His 11.585 million dollar salary for 2020 is not guaranteed, so this could end up being Jones’ final season in Miami. He’s been a good safety for years, with his best seasons coming in 2012 (3rd among safeties on PFF), 2014 (10th), and 2015 (7th), but he’s now going into his age 31 season and isn’t a great fit on a team that is just starting a 2-3+ year rebuild. He could continue being an above average starter in 2019, but his best days are likely behind him.

If the Dolphins want to start Fitzpatrick at safety long-term, they could move on from TJ McDonald next off-season instead of Jones, but McDonald is younger, in his age 28 season in 2019, and cheaper, signed for just 12.65 million in 2020 and 2021 combined. He’s never played as well as Jones did in his prime, but he’s been a capable starter for years and has 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013. He should continue his solid play in 2019.

With Jones and McDonald locked in as starting safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick will continue to play cornerback. He’s better on the slot than he is outside, but he played 281 snaps outside last season, for lack of a better option, and will likely continue serving in that role again as the #2 cornerback, playing outside in base packages with only 2 cornerbacks on the field and inside on the slot in sub packages with 3+ cornerbacks on the field. Fitzpatrick struggled last season, earning a below average coverage grade from PFF, and will likely benefit significantly from his eventual move to safety, but he will continue playing out of position in 2019.

His main competition for the #2 cornerback job is Bobby McCain, last year’s #3 cornerback, and free agent acquisition Eric Rowe. Like Fitzpatrick, McCain is better on the slot than outside and struggled in 2018 while playing out of position (421 outside cornerback snaps as opposed to 283 on the slot). He was one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, but he needs to be used properly to get the most out of him. Rowe, meanwhile, is a pure outside cornerback and follows head coach Brian Flores to Miami from New England, so he’ll be in the mix for a role. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Rowe showed himself to be a capable outside cornerback at times in New England, but injuries limited him to just 21 games combined over the past 3 seasons. He comes with upside, but isn’t much more than a flyer. On a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal with just 500K guaranteed, he was worth a shot.

The only cornerback locked into his role is Xavien Howard, who remains as the #1 cornerback. Howard missed the final 4 games of the 2018 season with a knee injury and also missed 9 games with a knee injury as a rookie in 2016, but the Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal with a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that guarantees him 39.31 million in the first 3 years and makes him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. It’s a steep increase from his previously scheduled 1.286 million dollar salary for 2019.

Howard still tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2018 with 7, despite missing 4 games, but he wasn’t quite as good as his interception totals suggested, as he gives up too many big plays in coverage. He definitely played at a high level though, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback. He only had an average grade in 2017, but he improved significantly down the stretch during that season, which clearly carried over to 2018. Still only in his age 26 season, Howard could keep getting better. His contract is a little bit of an overpay, but the Dolphins had to keep him and as more top cornerbacks sign extensions his extension won’t look as expensive by comparison. Two or three years into this deal and he might not even be a top-5 cornerback in terms of average annual salary. He’s Miami’s best defensive player and elevates a secondary that, by default, is the Dolphins’ best defensive group.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins are not intentionally trying to lose games in 2019, but they are clearly building for the future. They have the most dead cap space in the league and the lowest active spending and it shows on this roster, which is arguably the worst in the NFL. The Dolphins will very likely be in position to select a quarterback high in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Prediction: 2-14, 4th in AFC East

Team Score: 69.13 (32nd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 67.43

Defensive Score: 70.83

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Buffalo Bills 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills made the post-season at 9-7 in 2017, but they were not nearly as good as their record. They had a -57 point differential, despite having a +9 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Bills had a league leading +14 turnover margin through the first 7 games of 2017 and were 5-2 with a +38 point differential as a result, but they were -5 in their final 9 games and went 4-5 with a -95 point differential in those games as a result. All in all, the Bills finished the 2017 season 31st in first down rate differential at -5.73%.

In an effort to improve an offense that ranked 29th in first down rate, the Bills traded Tyrod Taylor, their unspectacular and well-paid starting quarterback, to the Browns for a 3rd round pick and then traded up a couple times in the first round to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, a much higher upside quarterback than Taylor. Allen struggled mightily in his first 6 games, completing 54.0% of his passes for an average of 5.99 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and rushing for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns on 35 carries. Then Allen got hurt and missed 4 games, which made things even worse. Through 9 games, the Bills had a pathetic 25.85% first down rate, dead last in the NFL.

Things started to turn around from there, starting with a week 10 start by Matt Barkley, who was the Bills 4th starting quarterback of the season at that point. Despite being signed off the street two weeks prior, Barkley completed 15 of 25 for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 41-10 victory over the Jets. Then Josh Allen returned in their following game and was much better in his final 6 games of the season, completing 51.9% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and rushing for 476 yards and 5 touchdowns on 54 carries. As a result of that and Barkley’s one game performance, the Bills had a 37.14% first down rate over their final 7 games of the season That rate is most similar over a full season to the Chicago Bears, who finished last season 14th in first down rate. That’s a huge improvement over their first 9 games of the season.

Allen never became an accurate quarterback, but he became more effective throwing downfield as the season went on and he also showed himself to be a major weapon on the ground down the stretch as well. The Bills got solid play from their defense in 2018, finishing 7th in first down rate allowed, so if their offense can take a step forward in 2019, this could be a playoff contender. The Bills are hoping for a significant improvement from year 1 to year 2 from Allen and he obviously has a ton of upside. They also re-signed Matt Barkley to be the backup and he would start if Allen got hurt, although his one start last season is not indicative of how he’s played in his career (68.3 QB rating in 7 career starts)

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Bills also made adding talent around Josh Allen a big priority of their off-season, as his struggles last season were not entirely his fault. The Bills entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the league and were very active adding players, especially on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. The Bills signed guard/center Spencer Long (3 years, 12.6 million), center Mitch Morse (4 years, 44.5 million), guard Quinton Spain (1 years, 2.05 million) and tackle Ty Nsekhe (2 years, 10 million) and then they used a 2nd round pick (38th overall) on Oklahoma Cody Ford, who can play both tackle and guard.

Morse is the only one locked into a role, starting at center. Morse started all 49 games he played in 4 seasons in Kansas City, after being selected in the 2nd round in 2015, but his durability has become a concern, missing 14 games in the past 2 seasons combined. Morse also never finished higher than 14th among centers on Pro Football Focus, so he’s a bit of an overpay as the highest paid center in the NFL in average annual salary. He’ll be an obvious upgrade though for a team that cycled through a pair of mediocre starting centers, Ryan Groy and Russell Bodine, in 2018.

Spencer Long can also play center and it looked like he’d be their starting center when the Bills signed him in February (he was released by the Jets so he didn’t have to wait until free agency to sign), but that changed when they later added Mitch Morse. Now Long will compete with Quinton Spain and Cody Ford for the two starting guard jobs. Long has been a solid starter at both guard and center in recent years, but struggled down the stretch in 2018 due to a hand injury, leading to the Jets releasing him just 1 year and 7 million into his 4-year, 27.4 million dollar deal. If he’s healthy, he could easily bounce back in 2019, though he has missed 16 games with injury over the past 4 seasons combined.

Quinton Spain has also been a solid starter in recent years, making 48 starts in 4 seasons with the Titans, since signing there as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Both he and Long could be capable starters, but Cody Ford is also competing for a role and the Bills traded up to get him early in the 2nd round, suggesting they had a first round grade on him. Either way, the Bills should have better guard play in 2019 than 2018. Right guard John Miller wasn’t bad, but Vladimir Ducasse and Wyatt Teller both struggled at left guard.

Ford is also an option at right tackle, where he’d compete with free agent addition Ty Nsekhe. Nsekhe got a higher average annual average than Spain or Long though, suggesting he has a better chance to start. Going into his age 34 season, Nsekhe has just 16 career starts, but he is a late bloomer and has impressed as an injury fill in with the Redskins over the past 4 seasons. He at least deserves a chance to start and his salary suggests that’s how they view him. Last year’s right tackle Jordan Mills finished 74th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. It wouldn’t be hard for either Nsekhe or Ford to be an upgrade. These positional battles will figure themselves out in training camp and the pre-season and the ultimate result should be better play than 2018.

The only 2018 starter who remains is left tackle Dion Dawkins, who wasn’t great in 2018, but he wasn’t bad enough to need to be replaced. He also played much better as a rookie in 2017, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on PFF, and has obvious bounce back potential in his 3rd season in the league. The former 2nd round pick still looks like a long-term starting left tackle, but it’s possible the Bills could move Ford to left tackle at some point if Dawkins were to struggle for an extended period of time. No one stands out on this offensive line, but this should be a solid group.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Bills were also active in adding to their receiving corps. They signed two tight ends, Tyler Kroft for 18.75 million over 3 years and Lee Smith for 9 million over 3 years, drafted a third, taking Mississippi’s Dawson Knox in the 3rd round, and added a pair of wide receivers as well, signing Cole Beasley 29 million over 4 years and John Brown for 27 million over 3 years. Zay Jones and Robert Foster, a pair of young wide receivers who are their only returning pass catchers to top 260 yards receiving in 2018, will also be in the mix for roles. Much like on the offensive line, there isn’t a standout player here, but there’s enough depth and competition that this could end up being a solid group. Most roles will be determined in the pre-season and training camp.

Some roles are likely already decided, like Cole Beasley being their primary slot receiver. The 5-8 180 pounder has run 88.5% of his routes from the slot in his career. Beasley has never put up huge numbers, but he’s caught 176 passes for 1819 yards and 12 touchdowns in the past 3 seasons, an average slash line of 59/606/4 per game and he’s been especially dependable on 3rd and 4th down, with a whopping 39.2% of his catches coming on 3rd or 4th down. Even going into his age 30 season, Beasley should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at least, as his game isn’t overly dependant on athleticism. He gives this offense something they didn’t have last season.

That leaves John Brown to compete with Zay Jones and Robert Foster for the two outside receiver jobs. Brown had a 65/1003/7 slash line in 2015 and was on pace for a 60/1048/7 slash line through 9 games last season, before the Ravens turned to an ultra run heavy offense with Lamar Jackson under center. Brown missed 7 games and was limited in others with injuries in 2016 and 2017, but he seems to be over those issues now. He’s a deep threat for a quarterback with a big arm.

Brown’s salary suggests he’ll start at one of the outside receiver spots, but Zay Jones was a 2nd round pick in 2017 and showed some promise with a 56/652/7 slash line in his 2nd season in the league, while Robert Foster came on down the stretch last season with 25 catches for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season. Foster’s skill set is redundant to John Brown’s, so Foster could be the 4th receiver with Zay Jones as the other outside receiver opposite Brown, but it’s possible all 4 receivers play enough and see enough targets that none of them posts a big receiving total, especially with a quarterback under center who loves to take off and run.

Lee Smith is another player locked into a role, as the 6-6 268 pounder is a dominant run blocker, but has just 56 catches in 107 career games. Even in his age 32 season, Smith should still be able to move guys around in the running game and should see about 300-400 snaps in a specialist role. That leaves Tyler Kroft and Dawson Knox to compete for the primary pass catching role. Kroft’s salary suggests he’ll have a passing game role, but he never topped 42 catches in a season in 4 seasons in Cincinnati and broke his foot during the off-season, which could allow Dawson Knox to impress in practice in his absence. It’s unlikely one tight end puts up big receiving numbers. This could be a solid group overall though.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bills also added at running back this off-season, signing veterans Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon to deals worth 2 million over 1 year and 3.2 million over 2 years respectively and then using a 3rd round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary, who could be a long-term lead back. All these moves would suggest the Bills are moving on from LeSean McCoy, who averaged 3.19 yards per carry on 161 carries as the lead back in 2018 and is owed 6.175 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2019, but McCoy is still on the roster, perhaps in an effort to convince a team to trade for him. That may be unlikely, given his salary and his age. Even if they don’t trade him, I give him a 50/50 chance to be on the roster week 1.

Even if McCoy stays in Buffalo, he’s unlikely to have the 195 touches he had in 2018. His 3.19 YPC average was not all his fault, given the lack of talent around him, and he should be better this season with a better supporting cast, but he’s clearly not the back he was in his prime. Even if Devin Singletary is more of a back of a future rather than an immediate factor, the Bills have a pair of proven veterans in Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon that are capable of handling roles and limiting McCoy’s playing time.

Gore is actually older than McCoy, going into his age 36 season, but he’s still running well, averaging 4.63 yards per carry on 156 carries with the Dolphins last season, despite horrible offensive line play. He ranked 15th in the NFL in elusive rating with 23 broken tackles and 3.29 yards per carry after carry. He’s at the point in his career where his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but he’ll likely have a role regardless of whether or not McCoy stays. Yeldon, meanwhile, is not much of a runner, averaging just 4.03 yards per carry on 465 carries in 4 seasons in Jacksonville, but he’s caught 135 passes in the past 3 seasons and should have a role on passing downs, regardless of whether or not McCoy stays. This is a deep group, but like the rest of this offense it lacks a standout player.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Bills have a talented defense, but one weakness they had coming into the off-season was defensive tackle, with Kyle Williams retiring after 13 seasons in Buffalo. The Bills addressed that need with the 9th overall pick, taking Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who easily could have been a top-5 pick. Williams still played well in 2018, but Oliver could be a capable replacement right away and he has the upside to be one of the better interior defenders in the league long-term. Williams’ specialty was rushing the passer, with 5 sacks, 10 hits, and 19 hurries on 413 pass rush snaps in 2018, but Oliver is an NFL ready pass rusher who could match those numbers immediately. He’s a little undersized against the run at 6-2 287, but could get stronger in the NFL.

Oliver will start next to Star Lotulelei, who the Bills added on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal last off-season. Lotulelei is a good run defender, but doesn’t get to the quarterback at all. In 6 seasons in the league, he has just 11.5 sacks, 15 hits, and 77 hurries on 2,052 pass rush snaps (5.0% pressure rate). Last year he was even more ineffective rushing the passer, not recording a single sack or hit and hurrying the quarterback on just 8 of 247 pass rush snaps, leading to him earning a below average overall grade from Pro Football Focus in his first season in Buffalo. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him. He should remain a solid run stuffer, but he’s not nearly worth what the Bills are paying him.

Reserves Harrison Phillips and Jordan Phillips also remain in the mix for snaps. Harrison Phillips flashed a lot of potential against the run as a 3rd round rookie, but didn’t generate any pass rush either, with no sacks, 2 hits, and 6 hurries on 176 pass rush snaps. He could play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league after being limited to 389 snaps as a rookie, but he may never develop into a capable pass rusher because of his limited athleticism.

Jordan Phillips, meanwhile, has earned a below average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Phillips has upside, but he’s running out of time to make good on it, going into his age 27 season. He was kicked off the team in Miami due to issues with his coaches last season after 3+ seasons with the team and spent the final 12 games of the season in Buffalo, playing an average of 22.4 snaps per game. The Bills brought him back on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal, suggesting he’s locked into a role. He should play 20-30 snaps per game for lack of a better option. The Bills need a big rookie year from Ed Oliver, as he’s probably their best overall interior defender, even before ever taking an NFL snap.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Ed Oliver is the only newcomer on this whole defensive line, with the Bills bringing back all of their key edge defenders, led by Jerry Hughes, who just signed a 2-year, 23 million dollar extension to keep him in Buffalo through 2021. Hughes’ age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he’s also coming off of arguably the best season of his career. He had just 7 sacks, but he added 13 hits and 54 hurries on 397 pass rush snaps (18.6% pressure rate) and he played the run well. Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked edge defender last season. He’s had some good years in the past, but that’s the highest he’s ever finished for a single season. In 6 seasons in Buffalo, he has 42 sacks and a 13.0% pressure rate in 80 games. It may be tough for him to match his career best year in his age 31 season, but he should have at least a couple more good seasons left in the tank.

In base packages, Shaq Lawson will start at the other defensive end position. The 19th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Lawson has been a disappointment thus far, missing 13 games with injury and totaling just 10 sacks. The Bills declined his 5th year option for 2020, even though it was guaranteed for injury only. That could prove to be a mistake. Not only does Lawson excel against the run, ranking 32nd among edge defenders on PFF in run defense grade in 2017 and 11th in 2018, but Lawson also showed some life as a pass rusher last season, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and 11 hurries on 220 pass rush snaps (10.5% pressure rate). That’s a significant improvement from the 8.0% pressure rate he had in his first 2 seasons in the league.

Only going into his age 25 season, the odds that Lawson has a breakout year are higher than the odds he suffers a serious injury that forces the Bills to pay him in 2020, so they should have picked up his option. The Bills could end up regretting that move. Now in his contract year, Lawson will continue being a base package end and should play at least the 440 snaps he played in 2018. If he continues improving as a pass rusher, he may earn more playing time and stay on the field in more sub packages.

Trent Murphy is more of a sub package defensive end, but he struggled against the run and as a pass rusher in 2018. He had just 4 sacks, 5 hits, and 12 hurries on 252 pass rush snaps (8.3% pressure rate). Murphy was a better player in 2015 and 2016, totalling a combined 12.5 sacks, 23 hits, and 49 hurries on 694 pass rush snaps (12.2% pressure rate) and earning above average overall grades from PFF in both seasons, before a torn ACL cost him all of 2017. He also missed 3 games with a knee injury in 2018 and was likely wasn’t 100% for most of last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, Murphy has bounce back potential, now another year removed from the ACL tear.

Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander also sees frequent snaps as an edge defender in obvious passing situations. He was their 2nd best edge rusher last season behind Hughes, with 6.5 sacks, 4 hits, and 27 hurries on 238 pass rush snaps (15.8% pressure rate). Alexander’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 36 season, but he’s been a late bloomer, playing the best football of his career in the past 3 seasons, after primarily being a special teamer for the first 11 seasons of his career. His abilities could fall off at any point though, given his age. Even if they do, this group might be deep enough to compensate.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Bills bring everyone back in their linebacking corps. In addition to Lorenzo Alexander, who remains as the 3rd linebacker, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, who stay on the field in nickel packages, remain as well. Milano is coming off of broken leg, but he was emerging as one of the better young linebackers in the league prior to the injury. A 2017 5th round pick, Milano was underwhelming in 450 snaps as a rookie, but took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, playing 741 snaps in 13 games and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked off ball linebacker. Healthy again and still only in his age 24 season, Milano could pick up right where he left off.

Tremaine Edmunds is also a promising young linebacker, taken 16th overall in 2018 after the Bills moved up for him. He was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie though, earning below average grades from PFF for his pass coverage and run defense. His 18 missed tackles were 5th most among off ball linebackers and his 612 receiving yards allowed were 6th most. He was impressive as a blitzer, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and 6 hurries on just 50 blitzes, but he needs to be more than a good blitzer to be worth his draft slot. Fortunately, he’s still only going into his age 21 season and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Especially when you include Alexander, who can play the run as well as rush the passer, this is a good linebacker group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bills had a weak spot at cornerback for the first half of last season, with both Phillip Gaines and Ryan Lewis underwhelming as the #2 cornerback, but that changed when undrafted rookie Levi Wallace moved into the starting lineup and started the final 7 games of the season. Wallace allowed just 10 catches for 94 yards on 19 targets and 218 coverage snaps in those 7 games and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback, despite being undrafted and not playing a single snap prior to those 7 games. It’s a small sample size and it could prove to be a fluke, but Wallace has certainly earned the right to compete for the starting job in 2019.

The Bills brought in some competition through free agency, signing EJ Gaines from the Browns and Kevin Johnson from the Texans to one-year deals. Gaines and Johnson both have upside, but they have the same problem, that they can’t stay healthy. Gaines was PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback in 2017 with the Bills and earned an above average grade from PFF in 2014 as well, but 3 of his 5 seasons in the league have been injury plagued and he’s played in a total of just 43 of 80 possible games.

Johnson, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2015 and showed a lot of potential early in his career, but has been limited to 19 games in the past 3 seasons, leading to the Texans releasing him ahead of his 5th year option this off-season. Both Johnson and Gaines are worthwhile flyers and it’s possible one can stay healthy and have a strong season as the starter, but it’s also possible that Levi Wallace is able to keep the job in training camp. The Bills have plenty of options.

Tre’Davious White remains as the #1 cornerback. He was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback as a rookie in 2017, but fell to middle of the pack in his 2nd season in the league in 2018. After allowing 50.0% completion, committing 3 penalties, and deflecting 12 passes as a rookie, he allowed 57.7% completion, committed 10 penalties, and deflected 5 passes last season. A return to form would obviously be a big boost for this secondary.

The Bills also have slot cornerback Taron Johnson returning. A 4th round pick in 2018, Johnson showed a lot of potential in 11 games as a rookie, allowing 0.78 yards per route run on the slot, 5th in the NFL, before going down for the year with a shoulder injury. Now healthy, he should be able to keep his job as the slot specialist, even with Gaines and Johnson coming in this off-season. This is a very deep position group.

The Bills are also deep at safety. They have a good starting duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and they also have Rafael Bush, a versatile veteran who can provide depth at safety and slot cornerback. In 2017, Hyde and Power were arguably the top safety duo in the NFL, ranking 7th and 9th respectively among safeties on PFF. Hyde was able to repeat that performance in 2018, finishing 9th, though Poyer fell to 49th. Neither Hyde nor Poyer were full-time starters before arriving in Buffalo, but the Bills appear to have found two late bloomers. Still in their age 29 and age 28 seasons respectively, I expect them to continue being an impressive safety duo, with Hyde likely being the better of the two again. The Bills should get strong play from their secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Both Josh Allen and the rest of the Bills offense should be better in 2019. If their defense can continue playing at a high level, this could easily be a playoff contender. One thing to note is that their defense had the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018 and might not be as lucky in 2019, which could be noticeable on the field. I think the Bills are better than the Jets, who are also a sleeper team in their division, but ultimately I see the Bills as more of a .500 team than a playoff qualifier. 

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC East

Team Score: 73.22 (23rd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.11

Defensive Score: 75.32

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New York Jets 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Two off-seasons ago, the Jets started a full rebuild. They got rid of most of their expensive veterans, in an attempt to give young players playing time, obtain a high draft pick in a strong quarterback draft class, and clear out cap space to be aggressive in free agency to build around their cheap young quarterback. Last off-season, the Jets got their quarterback, sending a pair of 2018 2nd round picks (one acquired from trading expensive veteran Sheldon Richardson) and a 2019 2nd round pick to the Colts to move up from 6 to select Sam Darnold 3rd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

This off-season, they were aggressive in building around him, with among the most cap space in the league entering the off-season. Four of their five highest paid players in terms of average annual value were added to the roster this off-season (middle linebacker CJ Mosley, running back Le’Veon Bell, left guard Kelechi Osemele, and wide receiver Jamison Crowder) and all 7 of their highest paid players signed their deals in the past two off-seasons, including last year’s free agent prize cornerback Trumaine Johnson and a pair of promising young players, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and defensive end Henry Anderson, that the Jets signed to extensions.

Whether or not this rebuild is successful will be heavily dependent on the development of Sam Darnold. If he can break out as a franchise quarterback at some point during his the final 3 years of his inexpensive rookie deal, the Jets will likely become Super Bowl contenders at some point during those 3 years, unless they really screw up the rest of their cap (always a possibility). With 16 quarterbacks currently making at least 20 million annually, a number that will undoubtedly rise in the next few seasons, having Darnold signed to 4-year, 30.247 million dollar deal will be incredibly valuable to the Jets if he pans out.

Darnold’s rookie year got off to a very rough start, as he completed just 55.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his first 9 starts, before suffering a foot injury and missing 3 games. Those 3 games on the bench seemed to do him a lot of good though, as he was a completely different quarterback in his final 4 games after his return. In those 4 games, he completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception. The Jets also picked up first downs at a 34.18% rate in those 4 games, as opposed to 28.80% in Darnold’s first 9 starts.That’s still not a great rate or anything, as it would have been closest to the 24th ranked Titans over the course of a full season, but it’s solid, considering the lack of talent the Jets had around Darnold.

Four games is a very limited sample size, but it’s a good sign for Darnold going into his 2nd year in the league. Darnold was the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history last season and still doesn’t even turn 22 until June, so some early growing pains are hardly a surprise from him, especially with an underwhelming supporting cast. He obviously still has a huge upside and could easily take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Whether or not that happens will likely determine whether or not this is a playoff contender, after winning just 4 games a season ago.

Darnold loses veteran mentor Josh McCown, previously the backup quarterback, with the Jets signing ex-Broncos starter Trevor Siemian to replace him this off-season. Siemian made 24 starts in 2016 and 2017 with the Broncos, but was underwhelming, completing 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.81 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. The former 7th round pick is not a bad backup though. The Jets are obviously hoping they don’t need him, but he could probably handle things for a month or so if needed.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Jets put a big emphasis on adding talent on offense around Darnold this off-season, with 3 of their 4 biggest additions coming on the offensive side of the ball. That makes a lot of sense, as the Jets were competent defensively last season, finishing 15th in first down rate allowed at 36.57%, but finished just 31st in first down rate at 29.56%, even with Darnold’s impressive late season stretch. The biggest offensive move they made was adding running back Le’Veon Bell on a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary.

It’s a lot of money for a running back, but it’s actually less than he turned down from the Steelers last off-season. The Steelers offered him a 5-year, 70 million extension last off-season after franchise tagging him. Not only did he turn that deal down, but he set out the entire 2018 season rather than playing on a 1-year, 14.5 million dollar franchise tender, in hopes of staying healthy and getting a better deal the following off-season. Bell’s deal with the Jets nominally has more guaranteed money because the first 2 years are guaranteed, while the Steelers’ offered just guaranteed the first year, but it was highly unlikely the Steelers were going to cut Bell after just one season no matter what and Bell’s deal with the Jets pays him over 5 million less in the first 2 years of the deal. Add in the 14.5 million he lost by sitting out the season and it’s hard to argue his decision made financial sense.

Bell is hoping that sitting out last season, rather than having another 350-400 touch season, will keep him in top form longer, but he’s essentially trading a season in the middle of his money making prime for the chance at his extra season in his 30s, when teams are incredibly hesitant to pay running backs. The Jets are obviously hoping sitting out last season will allow him to be fresh rather than rusty in his age 27 season in 2019, as they need him to jumpstart a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season in yards per carry with 3.96. Bell averaged 4.54 yards per carry on 20.1 carries per game from 2014-2017.

Bell isn’t just a weapon on the ground either, also totaling 267 catches for 2261 yards and 7 touchdowns through the air in 49 games over that 4-year stretch. He played on a more talented offense in Pittsburgh than he will with the Jets, one that barely missed a beat without him last season, but he’s a true three down back who rarely came off the field in Pittsburgh. Assuming he plays close to as well as he played with the Steelers, he’ll be a huge upgrade for this team and he’ll give them a legitimate weapon that defenses have to scheme against on every play.

Unless Bell gets hurt, the backup running back position won’t matter much, but it’ll likely be a battle of holdovers Elijah McGuire and Trenton Cannon for the #2 job. McGuire was 2nd on the team in carries last season with 92 in just 8 games, but he averaged just 3.00 yards per carry and he averaged just 3.58 yards per carry on 88 carries as a 6th round rookie in 2017. Cannon was a 6th round pick in 2018 and he didn’t show much as a rookie, averaging 2.97 yards per carry on 38 carries, but the 5-11 185 speedster could be useful in a change of pace role. Both backs would likely see action if Bell was to get hurt and they would obviously be a significant downgrade. If the Jets are going to contend for a playoff spot, they’ll need Bell on the field.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Another move the Jets made in an effort to improve on the ground was their trade for left guard Kelechi Osemele, who comes over from Oakland in a swap of 5th and 6th round picks. Osemele struggled through injury in 2018, missing 5 games and being limited in others, and he comes with a 10.2 million dollar salary, but he was one of the better guards in the league from 2014-2017, excelling as a run blocker. He finished in the top-12 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, before falling to 64th out of 88 qualifying in 2018. Going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him, but he comes with obvious bounce back potential and was worth the risk. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on mediocre starter James Carpenter, who he replaces.

They’ll need Osemele to play at a high level because the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year’s mediocre group. Center Jonotthan Harrison could technically be considered a new starter, taking over the job full-time from free agent departure Spencer Long, but Harrison made 8 of the final 9 starts of the 2018 season at center, with Long missing time with injury and eventually moving to left guard. Harrison is experienced, with 32 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s never played that well and finished last season 31st out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF. He’s a nice reserve interior offensive lineman, but will likely be overstretched starting all 16 games for the first time in his career. He’s locked in as a starter for lack of a better option.

The Jets may have a different starting right tackle week 1, if incumbent Brandon Shell is unable to make it back from a December torn ACL by then. A 5th round pick in 2016, Shell has been a capable starter in 26 starts over the past 2 seasons, so he’ll be missed if he misses time. He might not be 100% right away either, even if he does play week 1. In his absence, the Jets would likely start either swing tackle Brent Qvale, who has been mediocre in 14 starts in the past 4 seasons, or 3rd round rookie Chuma Edoga, who is very raw. Edoga could be the long-term starter at right tackle, with Shell going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Edoga could also be a long-term option at left tackle, where Kelvin Beachum is also going into the final year of his deal. Beachum was one of the better offensive tackles in the league in 2014, finishing 10th among offensive tackles on PFF, but he hasn’t been the same since a 2015 ACL tear, earning middling grades in 3 seasons since. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s likely on the downswing of his career, but could remain a capable starter in 2019.

Brian Winters rounds out this offensive line at right guard. He’s experienced, with 70 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’s never been more than a middling starter. The Jets need Brandon Shell to get healthy and Kelechi Osemele to have a bounce back year if they are going to have better than serviceable offensive line play, but there is potential here.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Jets also got Sam Darnold a new pass catcher, signing ex-Redskin Jamison Crowder to a 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal in free agency to replacement slot receiver Jermaine Kearse, who managed just a 37/371/1 slash line on 76 targets last season. That’s a lot of money for a slot receiver, especially since it effectively guarantees him 18 million in the first 2 years, but teams are using three wide receiver sets more and more and that contract suggests the Jets plan on using a lot of 3+ receiver sets in 2019. At 5-9 177, Crowder is limited to the slot and he’s coming off of an injury plagued season in which he had a 29/388/2 slash line in 9 games, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and the Jets seem to believe he can improve upon the 64/747/4 average slash line he had from 2015-2017. If he doesn’t, he probably isn’t worth his salary.

The Jets also gave Quincy Enunwa a 4-year, 36 million dollar contract, keeping the 2014 6th round pick off of the open market. Enunwa is worth that salary when healthy, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. After a 58/857/4 slash line in 2016, Enunwa missed all of 2017 with injury and then was limited to a 38/449/1 slash line in 11 games in an injury plagued 2018 season. Enunwa had 21 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown in the first 4 games of the season and was Sam Darnold’s favorite target, which shows the upside he has when he’s healthy. If he can stay healthy, he could pick up right where he left off as Darnold’s favorite target and he would definitely benefit from Darnold taking a step forward, but he’s an injury risk and this is a more crowded receiving corps now.

In Enunwa’s absence, Robby Anderson led this team with a 50/752/6 slash line in 14 games. Anderson is scheduled to be a free agent in 2020, so he’s also a candidate for a multi-year contract. He has made 24 starts over the past 2 seasons and also had a 63/941/7 slash line in 2017, although he too could see his target share drop in a more crowded receiving corps. He’s a solid starting outside receiver, but might not post big numbers even if Sam Darnold takes a step forward.

The additions of Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder are part of why this receiving corps is more crowded than it was a year ago, but the Jets also have emerging young tight end Chris Herndon. A 4th round rookie, Herndon was second on the team with a 39/502/4 slash line in 2018 on just 56 targets and averaged 1.66 yards per route run, 11th in the NFL among qualifying tight ends. He also got better as the season went on, with 34 catches for 455 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 11 games, a 49/661/6 slash line extrapolated over a 16 game season. Even in a crowded receiving corps, he could match that slash line in 2018. Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end overall on 625 snaps as a rookie, Herndon has serious breakout potential in his 2nd season in the league.

The Jets took a tight end in the 4th round this year too, though a completely different kind of tight end, 6-3 267 Trevon Wesco out of West Virginia. Wesco is purely a blocking tight end, but could immediately provide value on run downs and has the versatility to line up as a fullback as well. He’ll compete with Eric Tomlinson for snaps behind Herndon at tight end, though Tomlinson struggled mightily in 2018 and shouldn’t be hard to beat out. Wesco will also likely see about 100 snaps as a fullback, without a true fullback on the roster.

The Jets completely lack proven depth at wide receiver behind the trio of Anderson, Enunwa, and Crowder, but Le’Veon Bell and Chris Herndon both being legitimate receiving threats compensates for that, as the Jets are unlikely to run a lot of 4 and 5 wide receiver sets with those two around. If everyone stays healthy, Anderson, Enunwa, Crowder, Bell, and Herndon should play most passing downs, with Wesco seeing playing time in running situations. They could be tough to defend if Darnold takes a step forward.

Update: Chris Herndon has been suspended for the first 4 games of the season. He has the potential to breakout as one of the better tight ends in the league in 2019, so that’s a fairly significant loss for the first month of the season, especially without a good receiving option behind him on the depth chart.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Jets got decent play from their defense in 2018, finishing 15th in first down rate allowed, but they still entered the off-season with several defensive needs, including edge defender, which has been a problem for years. They haven’t had an edge defender with more than 7 sacks since 2013. That could remain the case in 2019, as they didn’t do much to address the position. They were unable to sign an edge defender in free agency, after Anthony Barr changed his mind and decided to return to Minnesota, and they didn’t draft one until they took Jachai Polite in the 3rd round. Polite showed first round ability at the University of Florida in 2018 and at one point was expected to go in the first round, but he was only a one-year producer in college and he tested and interviewed poorly before the draft, leading him to slide into the 3rd round. He’s a boom or bust prospect that could exceed his draft slot, but I wouldn’t expect a huge impact from him in year 1.

Polite should still compete for a rookie year role, as the underwhelming trio of Jordan Jenkins (660 snaps), Brandon Copeland (611 snaps), and Frankie Luvu (443 snaps) led the way for the Jets on the edge in 2018. All three players earned below average pass rush grades from Pro Football Focus. Jenkins has the most upside of the group, going in the 3rd round in 2016, but he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a serviceable starter thus far in 3 seasons in the league. A breakout is possible, now in his 4th season in the league, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Copeland and Luvu, meanwhile, are former undrafted free agents, 2013 and 2018 respectively. Copeland is a solid run stuffer on early downs and should continue having a role, while Luvu is most likely to see his snaps drop with the addition of Polite. The good news is the Jets are sticking with a 3-4 base defense that fits their personnel better than a 4-3 would have. Most expected new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would transition them to the 4-3 scheme he’s run in recent years, but credit Williams for being willing to adjust his scheme to fit his personnel. Despite that, unless either Polite or Jenkins have a surprise breakout year, this is likely to remain an underwhelming position group.

Grade: C-

Interior Defenders

Many expected the Jets to take an edge defender with their 3rd overall pick (or to trade down and select one later) and they could have taken Kentucky edge defender Josh Allen, who would have been a perfect fit for their 3-4 defense, but they decided to take Alabama interior defender Quinnen Williams instead. Williams is probably the better prospect and some felt he was the top overall prospect in the draft, but he doesn’t fill nearly as big of a need, as the Jets already have an impressive duo of interior defenders in Henry Anderson and Leonard Williams. The Jets will be able to use all three at the same time in base packages, but that would require playing someone (likely Quinnen Williams) out of position at nose tackle and in sub packages one of them will have to come off the field.

A year ago, Henry Anderson would have been the obvious candidate to come off the field in sub packages, as he’s a great run stuffer, but didn’t break out as a pass rusher until last season, when he had 7 sacks, 10 hits, and 31 hurries on 459 pass rush snaps, an impressive 10.5% pressure rate. He had just 3 sacks in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season, but that was in large part due to the fact that he missed 19 games with injury and his peripheral pass rush stats were better than his sack totals, as he added 12 hits and 40 hurries on 683 pass rush snaps (8.1% pressure rate). When the Jets re-signed him to a 3-year, 25.2 million dollar deal this off-season, it looked likely he’d have a similar role to the 668 snaps he played as an every down player in 2018, but the addition of Quinnen Williams complicates things.

It would be tough for the Jets to take Leonard Williams off the field, as he’s averaged 864 snaps per season in 4 years in the league and has excelled. He has just 17 sacks, but his peripheral pass rush stats are much better, as he’s added 67 hits and 122 hurries on 2,065 pass rush snaps (10.0% pressure rate), while playing at a high level against the run as well. Leonard Williams is in the final year of his rookie deal and perhaps Quinnen Williams’ selection is a sign they don’t intend to pay Leonard Williams the top of the market deal he’s likely asking for. It wouldn’t make sense for the Jets to just let a player like Leonard Williams walk and hope to collect a mid round compensatory pick though. He could keep getting better, still only in his age 25 season.

The Jets also have veteran run stuffer Steve McLendon and 2018 3rd round pick Nathan Shepherd in the mix on an incredibly deep defensive line. McLendon was their primary nose tackle in 2018. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked interior defender against the run on 471 snaps and has been a dominant run stuffer for years, but he’s going into his age 33 season and lacks an obvious role on this defense with Quinnen Williams coming in. Shepherd, meanwhile, only played 343 snaps as a rookie and, even though he played well, it’s hard to see him having a bigger role in 2019 unless multiple players get injured. This is a very deep group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Jets’ big free agent addition on defense was ex-Ravens middle linebacker CJ Mosley, who signed a shocking 5-year, 85 million dollar deal. That’s the kind of money typically reserved for defensive linemen who get to the quarterback regularly. Mosley is not only the highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL by a significant margin (2nd highest average annual value is 13.5 million), but he’s also the highest paid back 7 player (2nd highest average annual value is 15.05 million).

In today’s NFL, having good coverage linebackers is more important than ever, but Mosley is much more of an old school thumper than a standout coverage linebacker. His limitations in coverage are part of why he’s never finished higher than 17th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in a season, despite having the 5th most tackles in the NFL over the past 5 seasons. This deal feels like a team overpaying for a player because they have money to spend.

Mosley replaces Darron Lee, who was PFF’s 22nd ranked off ball linebacker last season, before getting suspended for performance enhancing drugs and eventually getting traded to the Chiefs for a 2020 6th round pick. Given that Lee played pretty well when on the field last season, it’s unclear how much of an upgrade Mosley will even be. Lee could have given them solid play at a much cheaper price and is arguably a better player in coverage, finishing 3rd among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on PFF in 2018, but the Jets decided to splurge on Mosley instead.

Mosley will start inside next to Avery Williamson, who the Jets brought in from Tennessee on a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Mosley and Williamson not a great fit together because both players are much better moving forward than moving backwards. Williamson has finished in the top-10 among off ball linebackers against the run on PFF in 3 straight seasons, but is a mediocre coverage linebacker. The Jets could be very tough to run on this season, especially given their defensive line, but they will likely also have a lot of trouble covering tight ends and running backs on underneath routes.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson was the Jets’ free agent prize last off-season, signing a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal, but he too was an overpay. Johnson and all of the Jets’ free agent additions this off-season were signed by Mike Maccagnan when he was GM. The Jets originally kept Maccagnan at the start of the off-season, despite making a change at head coach, and the Jets let Maccagnan tie up their cap long-term with big contracts and make all their draft picks this off-season, but then they decided to let Maccagnan go after the draft, reportedly due to a rift between him and Adam Gase about some of Maccagnan’s signings.

Trumaine Johnson is not a bad cornerback, but he’s the 3rd highest paid cornerback in the NFL and has only once finished in the top-20 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Last season, he finished 24th at his position, but he also missed 6 games with injury. Having him healthy for a full season should be a boost to this secondary, but Johnson is not the cornerback the Jets are paying him to be.

Along with edge defender, cornerback was a big position of need going into this off-season, with #2 cornerback Morris Claiborne and #3 cornerback Buster Skrine both going into free agency. Like edge defender, they didn’t really do much to address the position this off-season. They signed ex-Falcon Brian Poole to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency to replace Skrine on the slot and will be moving Darryl Roberts, who they re-signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal this off-season, from safety to cornerback to start opposite Johnson.

Roberts also has experience at cornerback and has played pretty well at both cornerback and safety over the past 2 seasons, but he only has 16 career starts in 4 seasons in the league and a projection to a larger role as a season long starter. The 2015 7th round pick is already in his age 29 season and may prove to be overmatched as an every down outside cornerback. Poole, meanwhile, was a decent slot cornerback over the past 3 seasons in Atlanta, but they still decided to go in a different direction this off-season and declined to give him a 2.025 million dollar tender as a restricted free agent. Both Roberts and Poole could hold up alright, but that’s far from certain and they have little depth behind them in case one struggles.

Their top reserve cornerbacks are likely Derrick Jones and Parry Nickerson, 6th round picks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Jones has played just 1 game in his career, 38 snaps against the Patriots in week 17 last season, while Nickerson struggled mightily on 213 snaps as a rookie in 2018. Neither is a lock for a final roster and both would likely struggle if they had to see extended action. It’s a surprise the Jets didn’t add a cornerback through the draft at all this year.

The Jets lack proven edge rushers, don’t have a good coverage linebacker, and have questions at cornerback, but safety is a position of strength, which will mask their issues against the pass somewhat. Third year safety Jamal Adams is arguably their best defensive player. A true do everything safety, Adams can cover deep zones, he can cover tight ends, he can play the run and stack the box, and he’s an excellent blitzer, with 3.5 sacks, 5 hits, and 13 hurries on just 82 pass rush attempts last season. All in all, he was PFF’s 4th ranked safety in 2018. Adams didn’t play as well as a rookie in 2017, but he was the 6th overall pick and came into the league with a sky high upside, so he could easily continue being one of the top safeties in the league for years to come.

Fellow starting safety Marcus Maye is also going into his 3rd season in the league, taken 39th overall in 2017. Maye struggled as a rookie, finishing 79th out of 94 qualifying safeties on PFF, but he was much better in 2018, finishing 12th among safeties on PFF, though injuries limited him to 6 games. That’s a small sample size, but it’s very possible Maye could continue playing at a high level in 2019. If both Adams and Maye stay healthy all season, they could be one of the better safety duos in the league. They’re pretty thin behind them though, as they are at cornerback. They could move Roberts back to safety if there’s an injury to either Maye or Adams, but that would leave them with a hole at cornerback. This could be a solid group if everyone stays healthy, but their lack of depth is concerning.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jets’ roster is better this season, but they need Sam Darnold to take a big step forward if they are going to make the playoffs. They still have issues on the offensive line and, while their defense should play the run well, it looks likely to struggle against the pass. They’re a sleeper team, but ultimately I think Darnold is a year or two away and that there are more talented teams contending for wild card spots in the AFC. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC East

Team Score: 72.96 (24th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.68

Defensive Score: 74.24

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New England Patriots 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Back in 2013, a 36-year-old Tom Brady had a down year by his standards, completing 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. The Patriots still made the AFC Championship, but Brady’s QB rating was his lowest since 2003. The following off-season, the Patriots used a 2nd round pick on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and it looked like there would be a changing of the guard at quarterback sometime in the near future, with Brady seemingly on the decline in his late 30s.

Except that’s not what happened at all. Instead, Brady led the Patriots to his 4th Super Bowl victory the very next season and went on to have arguably the best 5-year stretch of his career, making 4 of 5 Super Bowls, winning 3 of them to give him a record 6 Super Bowl victories. Over those 5 seasons, he completed 65.5% of his passes for an average of 7.66 YPA, 158 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions, finishing in the top-2 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons and winning his 3rd MVP in 2017. Now going into his age 42 season, Brady looks like he will be the Patriots’ quarterback for the foreseeable future, while Garoppolo was sent to the 49ers for a 2nd round pick before his 4-year rookie contract expired.

Brady is also entering uncharted territory, as the list of quarterbacks who have had success in their age 42 season is basically non-existent. Warren Moon holds the record for passing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback 42 or older, throwing 11 in 1998, and no one else has ever thrown more than 5. This isn’t to say that Brady is about to drop off a cliff, after he completed 65.8% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback in 2018, as he keeps himself in incredible shape, but it’s not a guarantee that he continues playing at a high level at this point.

Looking towards the future, the Patriots used a 4th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Stidham was seen as a potential first round pick going into the 2018 season, but a down year with a poor supporting cast sunk his draft stock and allowed the Patriots to take him at 133 overall. There’s certainly no guarantee Stidham ever develops into Brady’s successor, but he was worth a shot in the middle rounds. With experienced veteran Brian Hoyer (83.2 QB rating in 37 career starts) likely locked in as the #2 quarterback, Stidham is unlikely to see the field as a rookie. The Patriots are obviously hoping they don’t have to give either of their backup quarterbacks significant action and that Brady will continue beating Father Time in his 20th season in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

With Brady getting up there in age, the Patriots have shifted their offensive strategy to become more run heavy. Tom Brady’s 614 combined drop backs and carries in 2018 were his fewest in a full season since 2010 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that number drop again in 2019. This shift began when the Patriots used the 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in Georgia running back Sony Michel. That was a surprising move, as running back was not an obvious need and it was just the 3rd time in 19 drafts under Bill Belichick that the Patriots used a pick in the first or second round on a running back, but Michel proved to be by far their best runner as a rookie and scored the only touchdown in the Super Bowl. He averaged 4.45 yards per carry on 209 carries, scored 6 times, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked running back.

Injuries are a concern for Michel, as he missed 3 games with knee injury as a rookie, was limited in others, and has knee injuries dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s not much of a pass catcher (7 catches as a rookie), but he has the potential to be one of the best runners in the NFL. If he can stay healthy, he could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league and continue developing into the kind of weapon they can build their offense around. If he can’t stay healthy, the Patriots used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Alabama running back Damien Harris as insurance. He’ll likely be a pure backup as long as Michel stays on the field, but he gives them needed depth.

Harris’ addition could be bad news for Rex Burkhead’s roster chances. After playing sparingly on offense in the first 4 years of his career in Cincinnati, Burkhead showed promise in his first season in New England in 2017, averaging 4.13 yards per carry on 64 carries, adding 30 catches for 254 yards, and scoring 8 total touchdowns, but in 2018 he averaged just 3.26 yards per carry on 57 carries, added just 14 catches for 131 yards, and scored just once. Burkhead has also had a lot of trouble staying healthy, playing just 18 of 32 games in two seasons in New England. The Patriots like his versatility and ability to play special teams, but they brought back pure special teamer Brandon Bolden this off-season and could opt to keep him over Burkhead, whose 2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary could be cost prohibitive for a player who isn’t expected to have much of a role on offense.

James White remains as the passing down back. White doesn’t carry the ball much, with a 4.14 career YPC average on 207 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s totaled 60, 56, and 87 catches in the past 3 seasons respectively. At one point in 2018, he actually led the entire AFC in catches, despite being a running back. The Patriots are hoping for more out of their receiving corps in 2019, so they won’t have to rely on checking down to White as often, but he’s still a very valuable weapon for this offense. He’s finished in the top-13 in receiving grade on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 7th place finish in 2018.

The Patriots also use a fullback almost as much as anyone in the league, with James Develin finishing 2nd in snaps played among fullbacks last season with 265. Along with San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, Develin was just one of two fullbacks in the league who played more than 150 snaps last season. Fullbacks may be a dying breed in the NFL, but Develin is still a part of this offense. Not only is he a solid lead blocker, but he also had 8 yards and 4 touchdowns on 6 carries as a goal line back and he caught 12 passes for 61 yards as well. He’ll have a similar role in 2019. This is a very deep backfield.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Note: This was written before the announcement of Ben Watson’s 4-game suspension. I have included an update in the conclusion.

The Patriots are hoping for more out of their receiving corps, but they have a lot of uncertainty in this unit. The only real certainty is Julian Edelman, who will continue being their primary slot receiver and Brady’s most trusted target. Edelman missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and missed the first 4 games of 2018 with a suspension, but he picked up right where he left off when he returned, putting up a 74/850/6 slash line to lead the team in receiving in just 12 games and ultimately winning Super Bowl MVP in a game in which he caught 10 passes for 141 yards.

Since becoming Brady’s top target in 2013, Edelman has averaged 103 catches for 1117 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns per 16 games. He’s also involved on end arounds, rushing for 107 yards on 9 carries in 2018, and the former collegiate quarterback also occasionally throws a pass on trick plays (2 of 2 for 43 yards in 2018). His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he showed no signs of slowing down last season and his game isn’t overly dependant on athleticism, so he could easily have a couple more seasons left in the tank. The Patriots kept him long-term with a 2-year, 18 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his contract in 2019.

Aside from Edelman, everything else in uncertain in this receiving corps. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski to an early retirement this off-season and, while he wasn’t the dominant player he was in his prime in 2018, he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end, putting up a 47/682/3 slash line in 13 games and excelling as a blocker, particularly in the post-season. Gronkowski would only be in his age 30 season in 2019, retiring primarily because of all the injuries he’s sustained in his career, so there are a lot of rumors he could opt to unretire in the middle of the season and rejoin the Patriots for another playoff run.

That’s hardly a guarantee though, so the Patriots will have to proceed with the tight ends they have on their roster. Also releasing blocking tight end Dwayne Allen this off-season, the Patriots are starting fresh at the tight end position, not bringing back a single tight end who played a snap for them in 2018. They didn’t take a tight end in the draft like most expected them to, but they brought in a trio of veterans in free agency to compete for roles, signing ex-Saint Ben Watson, ex-Jaguar Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and ex-Bronco Matt LaCosse. Watson got the biggest contract, set to make 3 million in 2019 with 600K guaranteed, suggesting they view him as the favorite to start, but this will be an open competition.

For Watson, this is a return to New England, where he spent the first 6 years of his career from 2004-2009, before spending 9 seasons with the Browns, Ravens, and Saints. Watson briefly retired this off-season, but was clearly willing to reconsider when the Patriots called. His age is a huge concern, going into his age 39 season, and he wasn’t overly productive last season with the Saints, catching 35 passes for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he’s a solid blocker, a great locker room guy, and won’t be counted on as an every snap player. He played 506 snaps last season and could see an even smaller role in 2019, depending on performance.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins brings more upside, but he’s running out of time to capitalize on it, now going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick by the Buccaneers in 2014, Seferian-Jenkins has always had talent, but he struggled with alcohol abuse early in his career, part of why he caught just 55 passes in his first 3 seasons in the league, before getting his act together and posting a 50/357/3 slash line in 2017 as the starting tight end on a very underwhelming Jets offense.

That looked like something he’d be able to improve on when he signed with the Jaguars last off-season, but they ended up having major issues on offense as well and injuries limited him to just 11 catches in 5 games, before going on injured reserve due to season ending hernia surgery. He’ll compete for a role in New England and was well worth the risk on a near minimum deal that guaranteed him just 25K at signing. Like Watson, he’s a capable blocker who fits the run heavier offense the Patriots want to run.

Matt LaCosse is also in the mix for a role, although he’s more of a longshot than Watson or Seferian-Jenkins. An undrafted free agent in 2015, LaCosse barely played in his first 3 seasons in the league and entered the 2018 season buried on the depth chart in Denver, but injuries forced him into the starting lineup down the stretch. He started the last 6 games of the season, but was underwhelming, totaling 14 catches for 122 yards and 1 touchdown and finishing the season with a 24/250/1 slash line on 204 routes run. He’s not a lock for the final roster, but could end up playing a role in a thin tight end group.

The Patriots were never going to replace Rob Gronkowski one-to-one, but they can adjust their offense to be less tight end centric and focus more on running the ball on early downs and then spreading the defense with wide receivers. The Patriots are certainly deep at running back and they’re better than they’ve been in recent years at wide receiver, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty at the wide receiver position.

The Patriots used their first round pick (32nd overall) on Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the earliest they’ve ever drafted a wide receiver. Harry doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because he can make contested catches and break tackles in the open field. He’s a very physical receiver who doesn’t need to get a lot of separation to make plays. There may be some growing pains in his first season in New England and their poor track record of integrating young receivers into this offense can’t be ignored, so he might not have a huge rookie year impact, but he looks like a strong pick for the long-term at the very least. He’ll compete for one of the two outside receiver jobs.

The Patriots are hoping they’ll have Josh Gordon to play one of the outside receiver roles, but his status remains uncertain after yet another indefinite drug suspension. Gordon’s talent is undeniable, as evidenced by the 87/1646/9 slash line he had in 14 games in 2013 to lead the league in receiving in his age 22 season, but he caught just 42 passes in 10 games in the following 4 seasons combined due to multiple suspensions.

Traded from Cleveland to New England early last season, Gordon had a 41/737/4 slash line in 11 games and finished as PFF’s 36th ranked wide receiver, before ultimately getting suspended again and missing the Patriots’ post-season run. Still theoretically in the prime of his career in age 28 season, if Gordon is available this season, he should make a big impact on this team, but his status is impossible to know at this point. It’s very possible the Patriots get Gordon back from suspension and Rob Gronkowski back from retirement mid-season, which would obviously change this offense significantly.

Demaryius Thomas is also an option outside, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty as well, going into his age 32 season and coming off of a torn achilles that he suffered back in December. Thomas had 5 straight 1000+ yard seasons from 2012-2016 and prior to his achilles tear he hadn’t missed a game since 2011, but he was declining even before the injury, posting a 59/677/5 slash line in 15 games last season. He still finished above average on PFF in 2018, suggesting he has something left in the tank if he can get healthy and stay healthy, but achilles tears sometimes take close to a year to return from, so he’s not a guarantee to be ready for the start of the season. His contract is heavily incentivized and he’s guaranteed just 150K at signing, so the Patriots aren’t taking much of a risk by bringing him in.

If neither Thomas nor Gordon are available for the start of the season, the Patriots would turn to either Phillip Dorsett and/or Dontrelle Inman for heavy snaps, along with Harry and Edelman. A first round pick by the Colts in 2015, the Patriots traded promising young backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to acquire Dorsett before the start of the 2017 season, even though he had shown little in 2 years in the league, and he failed to make an impact in his first season in New England, finishing with just 12 catches. In 2018, he got a bigger opportunity with Edelman out for the first 4 weeks of the season, but managed just 16 catches for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns in those 4 games and didn’t play much the rest of the way, finishing with a 32/290/3 slash line on 399 snaps. Now in his 5th season in the league, Dorsett looks unlikely to ever deliver on his first round upside and is best as a reserve depth receiver.

Inman also comes from Indianapolis, catching 28 catches for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns in 9 games last season. He did have a 58/810/4 slash line in 2016 with the Chargers, but he’s never topped 500 yards in any of his other 6 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a versatile player who can play both outside and inside, so he’s a valuable reserve, but he’d be an underwhelming starting option at best. When everyone is available, Dorsett and Inman are their 5th and 6th receivers on the depth chart, which shows the depth and upside the Patriots have at wide receiver, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty here, with a rookie and two players who are no guarantee to be on the active roster week 1. This is a group that could get a lot better as the season goes on, especially if Rob Gronkowski unretires mid-season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Given Brady’s age, pass protection is incredibly important for this team, as they can’t allow Brady to take too many hits. Brady’s quick release makes it easy on his offensive line, but his offensive line also played at a high level in 2018, leading to Brady taking just 21 sacks (3rd fewest among quarterbacks with at least 500 drop backs), 37 additional hits (just two while throwing), and being pressured on just 25.8% of dropbacks (3rd fewest among qualified quarterbacks). In the post-season, they were even better, allowing Brady to be sacked just once in just 3 games.

Offensive line play was actually a big concern for them going into the season, as incumbent left tackle Nate Solder signed a then record deal with the Giants for 62 million over 4 years and his replacement, 2018 1st round pick Isaiah Wynn, tore his achilles in the pre-season and went on injured reserve. Fortunately, unheralded veteran Trent Brown was able to step in, make all 19 starts (including post-season), and stabilize the all important left tackle position. Brown got so much attention for his play that he also got a record contract in free agency this off-season, signing a 4-year, 66 million dollar deal with the Raiders.

Wynn is expected to return healthy for 2019 and he’ll be over a year removed from the injury by week 1, so they have an obvious replacement for Brown. Wynn was a dominant pass protector on the blindside against tough competition in the SEC at the University of Georgia, but concerns about his arm length and athleticism had some teams looking at him as a guard or right tackle during the draft process. The Patriots clearly believe he can stay at left tackle in the NFL and they don’t really have another place for him to play on this line, but he may ultimately end up changing positions in the future.

The Patriots added insurance for Wynn this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste. He also provides insurance on the right side, where Marcus Cannon is still playing well, but Cannon also missed 17 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. Cannon has still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 26th among offensive tackles, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, but he may be starting to break down. He’ll still almost definitely be the week 1 starter though.

The Patriots have solid talent at tackle, but the strength of this offensive line is the interior, which is arguably the best interior line in the league. Making their interior even more impressive is the fact that Patriots were able to build that interior very quickly, without using any premium draft picks. Left guard Joe Thuney was a 3rd round pick in 2016, center David Andrews was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and right guard Shaq Mason was a 4th round pick in 2015. All three players have started each of the past 3 Super Bowls.

Mason is probably the best of the bunch. Mason entered the league incredibly raw in pass protection, coming from an offense at Georgia Tech that was incredibly run heavy, but he also entered the league as an NFL ready run blocker and has improved his overall game in every season in the league, especially his pass protection. In 2018, he allowed just 1 sack and 6 quarterback hits all season and was PFF’s #1 guard overall, after finishing 7th at his position in 2016 and 4th at his position in 2017.

Very much in the prime of his career, going into his age 26 season, Mason is one of the best interior linemen in the entire NFL. Signed to a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension last off-season, Mason now looks underpaid, as he’s only the 11st highest paid guard in the NFL. With that extension not even started yet, Mason’s deal will only look better as time goes on and more guys sign extensions, provided Mason doesn’t have an unexpected drop off in play.

David Andrews is on an even team friendlier team, extended for just 9 million over 3 years two off-seasons ago. The reason they were able to re-sign the former undrafted free agent so inexpensively is because, even though he exceeded his lack of draft slot to make 27 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, he was only about a league average starter. In the past 2 seasons, he’s taken a big step forward, finishing 4th among centers on PFF in 2017 and 9th in 2018. He’ll be due a big pay increase when his current contract expires after 2020, but until then he’s arguably the best veteran contract value in the NFL.

Joe Thuney is the only one whose status is uncertain beyond this season. Thuney has made all 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league, struggling as a rookie, before making a leap forward from year 1 to year 2 and finishing 14th among guards in both 2017 and 2018, but he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal without an extension and he might be able to get more money on the open market than the Patriots are willing to give him.

The Patriots used a 4th round pick this off-season on Arkansas guard Hjalte Froholdt as a potential future replacement and, given their track record of developing mid-round offensive linemen, they might prefer to take their chances with him in 2020 and beyond, rather than giving another guard top level money. Isaiah Wynn could also be a long-term option at left guard if it doesn’t work out for him at left tackle. For now, this is a dominant interior on an offensive line that should be able to weather the loss of left tackle Trent Brown.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

Trent Brown was not the Patriots’ only major free agent loss this off-season. As is the case with many Super Bowl winners, there simply isn’t enough cap space to keep all their talent together long-term. They should be able to weather the loss of Brown, but a bigger loss is the loss of defensive end Trey Flowers, who signed with the Lions this off-season for 90 million over 5 years. Flowers has never had a double digit sack season, but he’s still been a dominant defensive lineman. Though he had just 7.5 sacks in 2018, he added 13 hits and 43 hurries on 462 pass rush snaps (13.9% pressure rate), while playing at a high level against the run and lining up both inside and outside in pass rush situations. He finished 2018 as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge defender on 732 snaps, so he won’t be easy to replace.

Flowers’ snaps will likely be filled by several players, but the closest one-to-one replacement they have is Michael Bennett, who they acquired from the Eagles for a swap of late round picks and who they gave a new 2-year, 16.5 million dollar contract this off-season. Bennett is a similar player to Flowers. He plays the run well, lines up in different spots on the defensive line, and has been better than his sack total suggests. His 61 sacks over the past 8 seasons are 17th most in the NFL over that time period, but he’s added 118 hits and 511 hurries on 3,849 pass rush snaps in those 8 seasons, giving him a very impressive 17.9% pressure rate.

The only concern with Bennett is his age, going into his age 34 season, but he still played at a high level in 2018, totaling 9 sacks, 22 hits, and 37 hurries on 532 pass rush snaps (12.8%) and finished as PFF’s 28th ranked edge defender. His best days are probably behind him, but unless his play falls off a cliff, he should prove to be a steal for a team that badly needed pass rush help and he’s a great fit for this scheme because of his ability to get to the quarterback from any spot on the line.

The Patriots also have some young defensive ends that can step up. They used a 3rd round pick on Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich, who was a highly productive edge rusher in college and has a good chance to outperform where he was drafted. They used a 3rd round pick a couple years ago on Derek Rivers and, while injuries cost him his whole rookie year and limited him to 78 snaps in 6 games in 2018, he’s still only going into his age 24 season and could show some of that untapped potential. They also used a 4th round pick in that 2017 draft on defensive end Deatrich Wise. He’s been underwhelming on 544 snaps and 431 snaps respectively over the past 2 seasons, but could be better in his 3rd season in the league. Like Bennett, he’s a versatile player who can line up both inside and outside on this defensive line.

In addition, the Patriots have good depth at linebacker and like to rush their linebackers off the edge frequently. Dont’a Hightower (206 pass rush snaps compared to 281 coverage snaps), Kyle Van Noy (290 pass rush snaps compared to 349 coverage snaps), and John Simon (123 pass rush snaps compared to 12 coverage snaps) all played hybrid linebacker/edge rusher roles in 2018. They weren’t all that productive, with Hightower totaling 1 sack, 5 hits, and 24 hurries, Van Noy totaling 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 25 hurries, and Simon totaling 2 sacks, 1 hit, and 9 hurries, but they allow this defense to be versatile depending on the situation. The Patriots also brought back Jamie Collins this off-season and he can play in that hybrid role as well. Even without Trey Flowers, the Patriots should get solid play from their edge defenders in 2019.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Patriots also lost a starting interior defender this off-season, with Malcom Brown signing with the Saints on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, but he’s not nearly as big of a loss as Flowers, as he’s purely a base package run stuffer who played just 456 snaps in 2018. The Patriots primarily rely on their interior defenders to stuff the run, frequently moving their edge defenders inside in obvious passing situations. Lawrence Guy (519 snaps) and Danny Shelton (322 snaps) remain from last season’s team and will continue playing similar roles.

Neither Guy nor Shelton gets to the quarterback, but both were excellent run stuffers, with Lawrence Guy finishing 7th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run stopping grade. Both players have proven their run stopping ability over several seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both in 2018, though Guy’s age is a minor concern in his age 30 season. The Patriots also have Mike Pennel, who was signed in free agency to replace Brown and he could easily end up being an upgrade over Brown. Pennel only played 358 snaps last season, which were the most he’s ever played in a season in his 5-year career, but he also excelled against the run, finishing 14th on PFF in run stuffing grade among interior defenders. Like Guy and Shelton, Pennel is not going to get to the quarterback frequently.

Adam Butler is their primary interior pass rush specialist and will likely have a significant role again. He played 381 snaps in 2018, rushing the passer on 301 of those snaps, but he only managed 3 sacks, 2 hits, and 13 hurries, an underwhelming 6.0% pressure rate. A 2017 undrafted free agent, Butler has earned below average grades from PFF in both seasons in the league, but remains in his role for lack of a better option. He is the one weak spot on this defensive line. He’ll probably frequently rush from the interior alongside a defensive end who moves inside in passing situations.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As mentioned, the Patriots have a lot of depth at linebacker and have a number of players who can also rush the passer off the edge in obvious passing situations. Kyle Van Noy led Patriot linebackers with 946 snaps played in 2018. He was about a league average starter in the regular season, before playing at a high level in the post-season, but he’s gotten better in each of his five seasons in the league and the Patriots definitely value his versatility. I would expect more of the same from him in 2019.

Dont’a Hightower used to be the leader of this linebacking corps, but injuries have slowed him in recent years. A top-18 off ball linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2014-2016, the Patriots re-signed him to a 4-year, 35.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, but injuries have started to catch up with him. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2013, missing 23 games in 5 seasons over that stretch. The 15 games he played last season were his most over that stretch, but he was only about a league average starter. He played 774 snaps, 2nd on the team among linebackers, but could see that number drop in a deeper linebacking corps in 2019. He has bounce back potential, only in his age 29 season, but he seems to be breaking down and his best days could easily be behind him.

Hightower and Jamie Collins used to be one of the better linebacker duos in the NFL, but Collins hasn’t been the same player in recent years either. Collins was PFF’s 6th ranked off ball linebacker in both 2014 and 2015, but the Patriots traded him to Cleveland during the 2016 season, the final year of his rookie deal, and he never lived up to the 4-year, 50 million dollar extension the Browns gave him. He missed 9 games with injury in 2017 and was about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2018, leading to the Browns releasing him this off-season ahead of a 10.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Now going into his age 30 season, Collins probably won’t ever play as well as he did in his first stint in New England and he definitely won’t be an every snap player this time around, but he’s a worthwhile flyer on an incentivized deal with just 250K guaranteed.

John Simon will probably have the smallest role of the Patriots’ hybrid linebackers, if he even makes the final roster, which he might not given how much depth the Patriots have in the front 7. A final cut by the Colts last off-season, Simon played sparingly in his first season in New England in 2018 (185 snaps), but was a solid rotational player on an average of 542 snaps per season in the 3 seasons prior with the Colts and Texans. Even when the Colts released him last off-season, it was more about him not being a good fit for their scheme change than his lack of ability. He’ll provide great depth if he makes the final roster.

The Patriots also have a couple traditional linebackers who don’t rush the passer. Elandon Roberts played 429 snaps as a situational run stuffer in 2018, but the 2016 6th round pick is very limited in coverage and will likely lose snaps to second year linebacker Ja’whaun Bentley, who is returning from a season ending bicep injury. Despite being a mere 5th round rookie, Bentley won a starting job in the pre-season and showed a lot of promise on 138 snaps in 3 games before the injury. He’s still very inexperienced, but he could easily end up being the Patriots’ next late round steal. He’ll likely play close to every down at middle linebacker with Van Noy, Hightower, Collins, and perhaps Simon rotating on the outside. This is a deep linebacking corps with upside, but it lacks a surefire difference maker.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Patriots also frequently use 6 defensive backs in obvious passing situations, dropping safety Patrick Chung closer to the line of scrimmage to essentially function as a linebacker. Chung played 888 snaps in 15 games last season, while fellow starting safety Devin McCourty played all 16 games and all but 39 snaps, but 3rd safety Duron Harmon still played 635 snaps. Harmon has played a similar role for the past 4 seasons, playing all 64 games and averaging 612 snaps per season. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons and, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, he should have a similar season in 2019.

McCourty and Chung are both locked in as the starters, but both are getting up there in age, going into their age 32 seasons. Both are coming off of solid seasons, finishing 19th and 48th respectively among safeties on PFF, and both have been reliable contributors for years, but both are probably on the downswing of their careers. McCourty is also going into the final year of his contract, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was his final season in New England.

Devin’s twin brother Jason is also on the team, starting 12 of 16 games at cornerback last season, and he’s obviously also going into his age 32 season. Re-signed for 10 million over 2 years this off-season, McCourty was PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback in 2018 and their 33rd ranked cornerback in 2017 and is probably the favorite to keep his #2 cornerback job, but his age is a concern and he has plenty of competition for the job.

Jonathan Jones started last season as the 3rd cornerback, but lost his job to rookie undrafted free agent JC Jackson midway through the season and played just 220 snaps in their final 10 games. Jones wasn’t bad and has been a capable player on 1020 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, but Jackson was a clear upgrade and a big part of why their defense got better down the stretch, finishing as PFF’s 28th ranked cornerback on 395 regular season snaps and continuing his strong play into the post-season. He’s still relatively unproven and the fact that the whole league let him go undrafted a year ago can’t be ignored, but he could easily end up as the Patriots’ next Malcolm Butler. He’ll be very much in the mix for a role in 2019.

The Patriots also have last year’s 2nd round pick Duke Dawson and this year’s 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams in the mix. Dawson missed his entire rookie season with injury, but he’s expected to be healthy in 2019 and could have a role. Williams, meanwhile, comes into the league pretty raw and is probably more of a long-term successor at either cornerback or safety than an immediate option, but his size (6-4 211) and versatility could allow him to have a role against certain opponents. Jones could also still stick on the roster, even as the 6th cornerback, because he’s a strong special teamer as well, but barring a rash of injuries he’s unlikely to have much of a defensive role in a deep cornerback group.

Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the only one locked into a role. It was a surprise when the Patriots signed him to a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, for a couple reasons. Not only was he the first major outside free agent signing for the Patriots in several years, but he was signed at a time when Malcolm Butler was the #1 cornerback and was going into the final year of his rookie deal looking for a similar contract.

Gilmore struggled in his first few games in New England, struggling to adjust to the system, but he figured it out and has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since then, finishing as PFF’s 25th ranked cornerback in 2017 and their 1st ranked cornerback in a dominant 2018 season. He ranked 2nd in the NFL in completion percentage allowed at 46.7% and led the NFL with 18 pass breakups, 5 more than any other defensive back. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and clearly comfortable in this scheme, Gilmore could easily have another dominant season. He’s arguably the top cornerback in the NFL. He leads a deep secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots had some key losses this off-season, losing tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive end Trey Flowers, and left tackle Trent Brown, but they still have one of the best rosters in the NFL and should compete for a Super Bowl again as long as Tom Brady continues playing at a high level. They may start slow like they have in recent years, especially with the uncertainty in their receiving corps, but they should be in the mix for a first round bye in the AFC once again. 

Update: Ben Watson is reportedly being suspended for the first 4 games of the season for a banned substance he took when he believed he was retiring. The Patriots were aware of the situation when they signed him. It’s not a huge loss for the Patriots, but it’s another reason why their receiving corps could start slow.

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in AFC East

Team Score: 77.90 (2nd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 80.44

Defensive Score: 75.35

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Arizona Cardinals 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Cardinals were essentially forced into hitting the reset button, following a 8-8 season in 2017. Head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer both announced their retirement, leaving them without a head coach and without a single quarterback under contract at the start of the off-season. The Cardinals hired ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and added a pair of starting quarterback options, signing veteran Sam Bradford to a 2-year, 40 million dollar deal with a 15 million guaranteed and trading up to draft UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick. However, the results were far from what they expected. Bradford struggled mightily before being benched 3 games in the season and Rosen wasn’t much better, as the Cardinals plummeted to league worst 3-13.

That’s not quite as big of a drop off as records suggest, as the Cardinals had a -66 point differential in 2017 (24th in the NFL) and needed to go 6-2 in one score games just to get to 8-8, but by most measures the Cardinals were the worst team in the league in 2018. In addition to their record, they also ranked dead last in point differential at -200 and in first down rate differential at -8.68%. Quarterback play and coaching were not the whole problem, but the Cardinals decided to hit the reset button again this off-season.

Wilks was let go after one year and replaced with former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, which was an unorthodox hire to say the least. Not only does Kingsbury not have any NFL coaching experience whatsoever, but he also went just 35-40 as a college head coach and was fired by Texas Tech this past fall. Kingsbury spent 3 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, so he does have some familiarity with the league, he’s young (40 in August), and he’s regarded as an excellent quarterback whisperer, working with both Pat Mahomes and Baker Mayfield in college, but the move to hire Kingsbury seems like taking copycatting too far.

The trend right now in the NFL is to hire young offensive minds, ever since the Rams turned their franchise around seemingly overnight by hiring Sean McVay to develop struggling young quarterback Jared Goff, but the Cardinals might have been better off zigging when everyone else zags. By far the most qualified candidate available this off-season was Vic Fangio, who has a whopping 19 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator, continually getting passed over for head coach jobs because of his defensive background, despite consistently getting good results out of his units. He eventually was hired by the Denver Broncos, one of two (out of eight) head coaching hires this off-season to come from a defensive background.

Quarterback is obviously the most important position on the field, so it’s understandable what the Cardinals are trying to do, but Kingsbury’s track record from college suggests his ability to coach a full roster is underwhelming. The Cardinals did wisely pair Kingsbury with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who is not only a talented defensive play caller, but he also just spent two years as the head coach of the Broncos, so he’ll provide some needed experience in the coaching room.

The one big difference between the Rams hiring McVay and the Cardinals hiring Kingsbury is that, while McVay came in and turned around Jared Goff’s career, Kingsbury pushed hard for the Cardinals to draft Heisman winner Kyler Murray #1 overall and trade Josh Rosen, which they ultimately ended up doing. The Cardinals were likely expecting Kingsbury to try to get the most out of Rosen when they hired him, but that was back when most expected Murray to stick with baseball. When Murray committed to football, Kingsbury decided he had to have the prospect that he had been recruiting since he was a sophomore in high school 7 years ago and the Cardinals let their new coach have his man, becoming just the 2nd team in the last 50 seasons to take a quarterback in the first round in back-to-back years.

Rosen was sent to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and a 2020 5th round pick, a decent return for a player everyone knew was available, but obviously much less than they paid to acquire him (15th, 79th, and 152nd overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft). The Cardinals also ended up paying most of his rookie contract because of the way these contracts are structured. In total, Rosen’s rookie year was a 4-year, 17.6 million dollar deal with a 5th year option, but 11.36 million of that was paid in the first year.

Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, completing 55.2% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and finishing 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but his supporting cast gave him no help and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback to struggle mightily as a rookie and go on to have strong careers (Jared Goff and Peyton Manning come to mind).

It’s obviously a risky decision and one that will undoubtedly tie the two quarterbacks together in debate for the foreseeable future. If Murray pans out in Arizona, it’s unlikely fans will be too upset, but if Rosen has an equally good career, the Cardinals’ decision is going to look a bit foolish. If they had kept Rosen, they could have used the #1 overall selection on a defensive stud like Quinnen Williams or Nick Bosa or they could have traded down and gotten a king’s ransom from another team that wanted Murray. Instead, all they got back was a late second round pick for Rosen.

Murray himself comes with a lot of risk. A lot has been made about his height (5-10) and, while I don’t think that’s the kiss of death for a quarterback, it’s not irrelevant either. There’s a reason there haven’t been more successful quarterbacks under 6 feet tall. It can be overcome, especially by a quarterback as athletic as Murray (Russell Wilson is the obvious best case scenario), but it’s an obvious weakness for him.

Perhaps more concerning is his lack of experience, making just 17 collegiate starts. He played at a high level in those 17 starts, especially in his 14 starts in 2018, earning top marks for his passing and rushing from PFF, prompting them to call him the best dual threat quarterback prospect they’ve ever scouted, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback to succeed in the NFL despite limited college experience (Cam Newton and his 14 collegiate starts come to mind), but we have a pretty limited sample size with Murray and most quarterbacks who go in the top-10 have put at least 25 collegiate starts on tape. In my opinion, that’s more of a concern than his height.

Without a clear other option on the roster, Murray will undoubtedly be the week 1 starter, barring something incredibly unexpected. The Cardinals have comically talked up Brett Hundley as a potential week 1 starter, but it’s hard to believe that’s anything more than coachspeak. Signed as a free agent this off-season for just 1.875 million over 1 year, Hundley has completed just 59.5% of his passes for an average of 5.68 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 4 seasons between the Packers and Seahawks. Murray will be starting week 1. How well he can perform right away remains to be seen.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The bigger problem for this team is their supporting cast around Murray. Rosen was put in a very difficult situation as a rookie quarterback who had no help around him and Murray could easily struggle in a similar situation this season. The Cardinals’ offensive line was probably their weakest unit last season. They allowed 52 sacks on the season, 5th most in the NFL, and Rosen was pressured on 40.4% of his dropbacks, also 5th most in the NFL. On those pressured dropbacks, Rosen threw 6 interceptions to 1 touchdown and had a league worst 38.1 QB rating (just behind fellow 2018 first round pick Sam Darnold, who was at 39.7). Murray’s mobility should help him avoid sacks and pressure, but the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line this off-season, so he could easily be under fire frequently.

Injuries were part of the problem last season, as they led the league in adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. Center Mason Cole made all 16 starts, but the Cardinals used 12 different starters at guard and tackle and even Cole was supposed to be a backup originally, until AQ Shipley went down for the season with a torn ACL before the season even started. By the end of the season the Cardinals had placed all 5 of their original starting offensive linemen on injured reserve. They should be healthier this season, but only one of the 13 players that made a start on the offensive line last season earned an above average grade from PFF, so better health might not make a huge difference.

That one player with an above average grade was left tackle DJ Humphries, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked offensive tackle in 9 starts, before knee injuries ended his season. A first round pick in 2015, Humphries has always had plenty of talent, but he hasn’t been able to put it together consistently and injuries have been a big part of that, with knee injuries ending his last two seasons. Between injuries and the fact that he spent his whole rookie year as a healthy scratch, Humphries has made just 27 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Still only 25, Humphries still has upside if he can make it through a full season, so the Cardinals opted to bring him back at a 9.625 million dollar salary on his 5th year option, but he could easily miss time again.

The one key addition the Cardinals did make upfront this off-season is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was acquired from the Steelers. He’s an experienced veteran and should be locked in as the starter opposite Humphries, but he’s been increasingly injury prone as well and, going into his age 31 season, he could be breaking down. He’s earned average or better grades from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league and was acquired for only a 6th round pick and has just a 4.915 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so he could prove to be a smart addition, but he’s played just 12 games in the past 2 seasons, so he’s no guarantee to make an impact. If either Humphries or Gilbert gets hurt, either Korey Cunningham or Will Holden, who both struggled last season, would be forced back into action.

On the interior of the offensive line, right guard Justin Pugh, center AQ Shipley, and left guard Mike Iupati all ended up on injured reserve last season. Pugh is the only one locked into a starting job, with Iupati signing in Seattle this off-season and Shipley possibly returning as a backup behind Mason Cole. Pugh has bounce back potential and was once one of the better guards in the league, finishing 17th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 15th in 2016, but injuries have started to pile up for him.

He hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2013 and he’s missed 26 games total in the 5 seasons since with a various of injuries, including back, hand, and knee injuries just in the past two seasons. He’s missed a total of 17 games with those ailments and they have coincided with two years of subpar play, including a 2018 season in which he finished 69th out of 86 qualifying guards on PFF. Still only going into his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him stay healthy and bounce back, but he’s best days might be behind him. After giving a 10 million dollar signing bonus as a free agent last off-season, the Cardinals are obviously hoping he bounces back, but they can move on from his 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020 next off-season if he doesn’t.

Shipley is a much lower upside player, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s experienced (54 career starts) and has been a solid player in the past, so he could push Mason Cole for the starting job. The Cardinals drafted Cole in the 3rd round in 2018 to be the long-term successor to Shipley, but he was underwhelming when forced into action as a rookie, finishing 35th among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but it’s nice for the Cardinals to have Shipley as insurance.

With Iupati leaving as a free agent, the Cardinals signed veteran JR Sweezy to replace him. Sweezy is experienced (78 career starts), but has always struggled in pass protection and hasn’t been as good of a run blocker over the past 2 seasons either, finishing last season as PFF’s 82nd ranked guard overall out of 88 qualifying. I thought the Cardinals would add competition for him through the draft, but they strangely didn’t use a draft pick on an offensive lineman until the 6th round, so Sweezy is probably locked into a starting job. Their only other options are Jeremy Vujnovich and Colby Gossett, both of whom struggled mightily last season. This offensive line should be better by default this season, but this is still an underwhelming unit and they have several injury prone players whose absence would make this offensive line resemble last season’s very quickly.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

While the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line in the draft, they clearly made upgrading their receiving corps a priority, adding a wideout in the 2nd round (Andy Isabella), 4th round (Hakeem Butler), and 6th round (KeeSean Johnson). Going into the draft, the Cardinals really lacked depth behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, their only two wide receivers to top 210 yards in 2018, and Kliff Kingsbury wants to spread the field with 3-5 receivers frequently.

Fitzgerald is also getting up there in age, going into his age 36 season, although the future Hall-of-Famer was still their leading receiver in 2018 with a 69/734/6 slash line. A 15-year NFL veteran (all in Arizona), Fitzgerald ranks 3rd all-time in catches (1,303), 2nd all-time in receiving yards (16,279), and 6th all-time in receiving touchdowns (116), despite spending most of his career with poor quarterback play. He earned an above average grade from PFF for the 13th straight season in 2018, but at this point in his career he’s year-to-year. He could easily see his abilities drop off significantly in 2019, which could end up being his final season in the league either way. With a deeper receiving corps, he likely won’t have as big of a role as the 112 targets (24th in the NFL) that he had in 2018.

While Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career, Christian Kirk is just getting started on what looks like a promising career. The 2018 2nd round pick had a 43/590/3 slash line on just 68 targets as a rookie, despite missing 4 games with a broken foot and dealing with poor quarterback play. His 1.72 yards per route run ranked 41st in the NFL and led the team (Fitzgerald ranked 63rd with 1.38). His deep threat ability makes him a better fit with Murray than underneath route runner Larry Fitzgerald and we could see a passing of the torch of sorts in the Cardinals’ receiving corps this season. Kirk could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league.

With last year’s 3rd and 4th receivers Chad Williams and Trent Sherfield struggling, 2nd round rookie Andy Isabella (selected 62nd overall with the pick from the Rosen trade) is likely the favorite for the #3 receiver job, which could be close to an every down role in this offense. Isabella didn’t consistently face tough competition at the University of Massachusetts, but he led the Division 1 with 1,698 receiving yards (more than 200 more than anyone else) and had 219 yards against Georgia, so he can clearly get it done against top level competition. He earned a borderline first round grade from Pro Football Focus and could prove to be a steal at the end of the 2nd round. He’s undersized at 5-9 188, but he’s every bit as fast as his 4.31 40 time and is a great fit for this offense.

Other than Isabella, they don’t really have another good option for the 3rd receiver job, so they’ll need him to make a rookie year impact. Both Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson were ranked higher on PFF’s draft board (42nd and 173th respectively) than where they were drafted, but both enter the league pretty raw. Meanwhile, neither Chad Williams nor Trent Sherfield have ever shown much and neither are locks for the final roster.

The Cardinals signed Kevin White from the Bears in free agency, but he’s nothing more than a flyer. The 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, White played just 5 games in his first 3 seasons in the league due to injury and then, even though he was healthy, he managed just 4 catches in 2018 and played just 66 snaps in the final 9 weeks of the season. Only going into his age 27 season, White theoretically still has upside, but is not a lock to even make the final roster.

The Cardinals don’t nearly have as much talent at tight end as they have at wide receiver, but Kingsbury has never used tight ends much in the passing game, opting instead to spread the defense with wide receivers. Ricky Seals-Jones, a converted college receiver, was the primary pass catching tight end last season, but he had just a 34/343/1 slash line on 366 routes run, an average of 0.94 yards per route run, 35th out of 40 qualifying tight ends. It may help him in this offense that he used to play wide receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a big role. Even if their quarterback play is better, he probably won’t produce much more than last season.

Blocking tight end Jermaine Gresham (9 catches) was let go this off-season and replaced with veteran Charles Clay. Clay was once a solid starter, but he’s had chronic knee problems for years and they finally seem to be catching up with him, now going into his age 33 season. He is coming off of career worst a 21/184/0 slash line and isn’t a particularly good blocker either. He might not have much of a role as the #2 tight end and could be pushed for snaps by fellow free agent signing Maxx Williams. Williams also has serious knee issues, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has more upside than Clay. He showed that upside with 32 catches as a rookie, but injuries have limited him to 31 catches in the three seasons since. The Cardinals will need some young wide receivers to step up to compensate for not having a receiving threat at tight end.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Running back David Johnson is also expected to be a big part of the passing game, as he’s one of the better pass catching running backs in the league. Johnson “only” had a 50/446/3 slash line as a receiver in 2018, but that still was good for 3rd on the team and he had a 80/879/4 slash line on a better offense in 2016. On top of that, he had a 36/457/4 slash line as a rookie in 2015, despite only being a part-time player (2017 was a lost season due to injury). With a more creative offensive staff and no other truly dynamic weapons on this offense, expect Johnson to get the ball in his hands in space out of the backfield more this season.

Johnson isn’t quite as dynamic as a runner and in fact only averaged 3.64 yards per carry on 258 carries last season, but that was largely the result of the lack of offensive talent around him. In 2015-2016, he averaged 4.35 yards per carry and scored 24 times on 418 carries. His supporting cast isn’t much better this season, particularly on the offensive line, but he should have a higher YPC average, even if only by default, and the Cardinals should run more plays than the 902 they ran in 2018 (2nd fewest in the NFL), which will lead to more carries as well (355 carries in 2018, 28th in the NFL).

Johnson is still the clear feature back, with backup Chase Edmonds carrying the ball just 60 times to Johnson’s 258 last season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds didn’t show much as a rookie, rushing for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 carries (3.47 YPC) and adding 103 yards on 20 catches through the air, but the Cardinals did not add any competition for him, so he should remain in his same role. Johnson has played all 16 games in every season except for his lost 2017 season and the Cardinals will obviously hope that continues as Edmonds would likely be a big drop off, especially in the passing game.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Cardinals’ offense was the bigger issue (ranking dead last in first down rate at 29.16%), their defense wasn’t much better, ranking 23th in first down rate allowed at 37.84%. That was a big drop off from 2017, when they finished 6th in that metric. The Cardinals’ defensive personnel didn’t change that much from 2017 to 2018, but several players did not play as well last season as they did the year before.

The most prominent player to regress was edge defender Chandler Jones, who was an All-Pro in 2017. Jones still had 13 sacks in 2018, but his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good, as he managed just 4 quarterback hits and 25 quarterback hurries on 526 pass rush snaps, a pressure rate of 8.0%. That’s not horrible, but when you compare it to 2017, when he had 17 sacks, 18 hits, and 41 hurries on 610 pass rush snaps (12.5%), it was a big step backward.

Jones is no one-year wonder, totaling 77 sacks, 73 hits, and 237 hurries on 3,649 career pass rush snaps (10.6% pressure rate), and even at his worst he’s still an above average player, but the Cardinals will obviously be hoping he bounces back to his All-Pro form. Not over the hill yet, going into his age 29 season, it’s possible a change in defensive coordinator from first time play caller Al Holcomb to the more experienced Vance Joseph will be a big help for him. The Cardinals will also be transitioning back to a 3-4 base defense, which they ran in 2016 and 2017.

Jones was still the only Cardinal that consistently got to the quarterback in 2018, with no one else on the team topping 4.5 sacks. The Cardinals hope to change that with the addition of veteran Terrell Suggs. After spending the first 16 years of his career in Baltimore, the future Hall-of-Fame edge defender and Arizona State product decided to return home for his age 37 season this off-season, signing a one-year deal worth a guaranteed 7 million.

Suggs’ age is a concern, but he’s been one of the best edge rushers of his generation (his 132.5 career sacks are most by an active player) and he still played at a high level in 2018, finishing 40th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and totaling 7 sacks, 8 hits, and 39 hurries on 443 pass rush snaps (12.2%). Sometimes players his age lose it quickly, so he’s not a sure thing, but he should have a significant role opposite Jones and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade.

Given Suggs’ age, I expected them to add a young edge defender through the draft, but they didn’t, leaving veteran free agent signee Brooks Reed as their primary reserve. Reed is capable early down run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush anymore and is now going into his age 32 season. In his last 4 seasons in Atlanta, he averaged 411 snaps per season and the Cardinals shouldn’t want him playing much more than that.

They may have to though, as they lack another capable reserve. Cameron Malveaux is currently penciled into the #4 edge defender job and the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 281 snaps in 2 seasons in the league with the Dolphins and Falcons. He may not even make the final roster. The Cardinals’ depth at the edge defender position is an issue, but Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs could be a strong starting pair if the latter can continue fighting off Father Time.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

With the Cardinals moving back to a base 3-4 defense, Corey Peters will be moving back to nose tackle. The 6-3 335 pounder isn’t much of a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks in 113 career games, but he’s a strong run stuffer who has earned an above average run stuffing grade from Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, so he’s a much better fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3. He played a career high 735 snaps last season, but the Cardinals probably won’t him to play more of a part-time role this season, in his age 31 season. He pressured the quarterback on just 4.0% of his pass rush snaps last season and should be limited to a base package role.

To take some of the pressure off of Peters, the Cardinals brought in Darius Philon through free agency and Zach Allen through the draft (65th overall) to compete for roles on the interior. Philon is likely penciled in to a starting role, as he’s developed into a starting caliber player in the past couple years. A 6th round pick in 2015, Philon struggled in limited action in the first two seasons of his career, but took a step forward from year 2 to year 3 and last season earned an average grade from PFF on 607 snaps. This is his first time in a base 3-4 defense, but he should see a similar role in his first season in Arizona. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he continues improving, so he was a smart signing on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Allen’s role is a little bit more up in the air, but even though he fell to the 3rd round he could easily have a rookie year impact. PFF ranked him as their 40th ranked draft prospect and he’s a prototypical 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 281. His strength throughout his collegiate career was his run stopping ability, but he took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his final season and has the upside to become an every down player in the NFL.

Holdovers Rodney Gunter and Robert Nkemdiche are also in the mix for roles. Gunter is likely the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line in base packages with Peters and Philon. He might not play quite as many snaps on a deeper defensive line as he did in 2018, when he played 641, but the 2015 4th round pick has developed into a capable starter. The Cardinals brought him back on a bargain one-year deal this off-season, worth just 1.75 million, and he should exceed that value.

Nkemdiche, on the other hand, was a first round pick in 2015, but he hasn’t developed into much of anything. Injuries have been part of the problem, as he’s missed 21 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t shown much even when healthy. He played just 425 snaps last season and could easily have an even smaller role on a deeper line in 2019, which could also be his final year with the team, after they unsurprisingly turned down his 5th year option this off-season. This is a decent defensive interior overall, but it lacks a clear difference maker that defenses have to gameplan for.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Despite having a good amount of cap space, the Cardinals struggled to sign marquee free agents this off-season, as players aren’t too keen on going to last place teams. The one big free agent they added was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who comes over from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal to be an every down player in the middle of this defense. Hicks comes with some injury risk, missing 21 of 64 career games, but he’s finished in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and his presence is noticeably missed when he’s not on the field. Considering he signed with one of the worst teams in the league on a deal that only makes him the 12th highest paid middle linebacker in the league, it’s unclear why the Eagles didn’t try harder to bring him back, but their loss is the Cardinals’ gain. He’ll be a difference maker for this team when on the field.

Third year linebacker Haason Reddick is expected to be the other starter at middle linebacker. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick is an interesting player. A college defensive end, Reddick lacks ideal size at 6-1 235, but was still tried as an edge defender in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense as a rookie. He struggled on 444 snaps, especially as a pass rusher (2.5 sacks, 5 hits and 9 hurries on 218 pass rush snaps) and was converted to an off ball outside linebacker when the Cardinals transitioned to a 4-3 last off-season.

He barely played the first four weeks of the season before playing close to every down as a starter for the final twelve weeks. Reddick wasn’t bad overall, but his best grade from PFF was actually his pass rush grade, as he had 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on 111 pass rush snaps (64 out of 111 snaps as a blitzer). He’s still a work in progress both against the run and in coverage, earning below average grades from PFF in those aspects. This year he will be a middle linebacker in the Cardinals 3-4 and they will obviously be hoping he takes a step forward and shows himself to be something more than an above average blitzer.

He may also see some work as a 3-4 outside linebacker, given their lack of depth at the position, but he’s proven to be too small to hold up outside every down and the Cardinals’ depth at middle linebacker isn’t good either. Career backup Joe Walker, who has played 98 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, would likely be the next man up. They’ll need Hicks to stay healthy and Reddick to take a step forward.

Grade: B

Secondary

Note: This was written before the announcement of Patrick Peterson’s 6-game suspension. I have included an update in the conclusion.

The Cardinals might not be much of a threat in 2019, but this team interestingly does have a few future Hall of Famers on it. I’ve already mentioned Terrell Suggs and Larry Fitzgerald, who are both in the twilight of their careers, but they also have cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is still in his prime. Normally it’s premature to call someone a future Hall of Famer before their 30th birthday, but Peterson has made the Pro Bowl in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league and just 5 of the 42 players with 8 Pro Bowls and Hall of Fame eligibility have not been inducted. Even if Peterson never makes another Pro-Bowl, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Peterson hasn’t always played at a Pro-Bowl level, but he’s been a top-19 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 8 seasons and finished 10th at the position in 2018. Perhaps most impressively, he’s made 128 all starts in 8 seasons in the league, playing through several ailments that have coincided with down years, including undiagnosed diabetes in 2014. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason to believe he will have any sort of drop off this season.

The only real concern with Peterson is his dissatisfaction with his contract. The Cardinals wisely locked up Peterson on an extension as early as they could, giving him a 5-year, 70.05 million dollar extension after 3 years in the league that was essentially a 7-year, 83.2 million dollar total contract when you include the final two years of his rookie deal. That contract has allowed the Cardinals to keep Peterson at a below market value for his prime, but now with 2 years and 23.8 million left on his contract, Peterson feels underpaid and wants another top of the market extension before it’s too late (his current contract has him hitting free agency at 31, which isn’t ideal).

This situation hasn’t become a big problem yet and it’s possible the Cardinals acquise his demands, but he’s so far skipped voluntary workouts and could skip mandatory minicamp to make a statement. His name has also been involved in trade rumors, though it’s likely he would have been moved before the draft if that was what the Cardinals wanted to do. For now, assume Peterson will remain in his usually spot as this team’s top cornerback, but this is a situation to monitor.

The other outside cornerback spot opposite Peterson has been a weak point for years, however, and last year was no different, with both Bene Benwikere and Jamar Taylor struggling in that role. Neither player is still with the team and the Cardinals added help at cornerback this off-season, signing veteran Robert Alford to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal and using the 33rd overall pick on Byron Murphy. Despite Alford’s contract, Murphy could be the better player, even as a rookie. Murphy was PFF’s top ranked cornerback prospect and 7th overall prospect, after holding opponents to a 47.7% completion percentage in 2018.

Alford, meanwhile, used to be a solid starter, but he was PFF’s 114th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying in 2018 and is now going into his age 31 season. He earned an above average grade from PFF as recently as 2017, so the Cardinals are banking on his 2018 being a fluke, but it seems like his best days are behind him. The Falcons released him rather than paying him a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s shocking the Cardinals were willing to guarantee him 9 million in the first year of his contract. He and Murphy will compete for the #2 cornerback job, but Alford’s salary suggests they view him as the starter. The Cardinals also added veteran Tramaine Brock in free agency, but he’s a declining veteran going into his age 31 season. He has starting experience (45 career starts), but hasn’t played well in the past 2 seasons and would be best as the 4th cornerback.

Budda Baker was their slot cornerback in 2018, but with more depth at cornerback, he’s expected to move back to safety this season. The 2017 2nd round pick was primarily a safety as a rookie, but he has the versatility to line up in multiple different spots, including slot cornerback and linebacker. He’s also earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons and could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only his age 23 season. He’s a young building block for this defense regardless of where he lines up, but given their lack of depth at safety, that’s likely where he’ll play the most.

Last year’s starting safeties Tre Boston and Antoine Bethea are no longer with the team, but the Cardinals did add DJ Swearinger and he will start at the other safety spot. Swearinger was actually acquired at the end of last season, after being kicked off the team in Washington for criticizing the coaching staff. Swearinger has had issues with coaches in the past, but he’s also a very talented player, making 43 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons and finishing in the top-32 among safeties in all 3 seasons, including a 14th ranked finish in 2018. It’s telling that Swearinger was claimed on waivers by the first team that could have claimed him, despite a 4.5 million dollar salary for 2019. Swearinger should continue his strong play, now in his 2nd stint in Arizona (2015-2016).

Rudy Ford is the top reserve and could see some action in 3 safety sets, given Baker’s versatility to play other positions, but the 2017 6th round pick has played just 65 snaps in his career and is a projection to a larger role. Even with the Cardinals losing both starting safeties this off-season, the Cardinals could easily have a better secondary with the additions of Byron Murphy and DJ Swearinger. They’ve done a nice job patching holes around Patrick Peterson and the promising Budda Baker.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cardinals should take a step forward in 2019, but that could be largely by default, as this team still has a long way to go to reach the post-season. They had trouble adding impact players in free agency and lack difference makers, especially on offense. Of course, the most important thing for this franchise is that Kyler Murray goes on and becomes a better quarterback than Josh Rosen, who the Cardinals traded for much less than gave up to acquire him just last off-season, in order to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall.

Rosen adds to a trend for recent Arizona first round picks, as just two of the Cardinals’ 7 first round picks from 2012-2018 are projected starters and neither player (DJ Humphries and Haason Reddick) has developed into the player they were expected to be when drafted. That’s a big part of why this team was where they were last season and it’s going to take more than one off-season to fix it. Even if Kyler Murray has a Rookie of the Year type season, this team probably won’t win many games. 

Update: Patrick Peterson has been suspended six games for performance enhancing drugs. While that probably won’t affect whether or not he ultimately makes the Hall of Fame (when’s the last time you heard someone argue that Antonio Gates shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame because he tested positive for a banned substance), it will hurt the Cardinals for the first 6 weeks of the season, as Tramaine Brock is the next man up to replace Peterson.

Prediction: 3-13, 4th in NFC West

Team Score: 72.19 (28th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 70.29

Defensive Score: 74.08

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

San Francisco 49ers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After going 7-25 in a two-year stretch from 2015-2016, the 49ers hit the reset button during the 2017 off-season, bringing in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to be their head coach and GM respectively. Shanahan was arguably the hottest coaching candidate of his class, as the son of former Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan was fresh off coordinating a Falcons offense that came painfully close to winning the Super Bowl. Shanahan’s expertise working with quarterbacks was likely one of the reasons the 49ers were interested in him and, taking over a roster without an obvious quarterback of the future (2016 starting quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert weren’t under contract for 2017), Shanahan had the opportunity to pick his own long-term guy under center.

Shanahan evidently did not find a quarterback to his liking in the 2017 off-season, using a 3rd round pick on unheralded Iowa quarterback CJ Beathard and signing journeyman Brian Hoyer, rather than making a splash move for a quarterback. With Hoyer and Beathard both struggling, the start of Shanahan/Lynch era in San Francisco looked similar to the previous two seasons, with the 49ers losing each of their first 9 games of the season.

That changed when the 49ers got a call from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at the trade deadline. With Tom Brady still playing at a high level and Jimmy Garoppolo set to hit unrestricted free agency in the 2018 off-season, suddenly the quarterback the 49ers were told was not available the previous off-season became very available. The 49ers were able to poach Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 2nd round pick and Shanahan got the quarterback he had his eye on since he was the Browns’ offensive coordinator during the 2014 NFL Draft (they went with Johnny Manziel instead because the owner demanded it).

The 49ers gave Garoppolo about a month to learn the playbook before putting him into action, but once on the field Garoppolo wasted no time in making this look like a completely different football team, as the 49ers won all 5 of Garoppolo’s starts, after winning just 1 of their first 11 games. After picking up first downs at a 30.75% rate in the first 11 games of the season, the 49ers picked up first downs 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 was still unproven, with only 7 career starts and 272 career pass attempts under his belt heading into free agency last off-season, but he won all 7 of those games and had a 99.7 QB rating on those 272 attempts. Especially after they had just surrendered a 2nd round pick to acquire him, the 49ers had no choice but to pay up to keep Garoppolo (137.5 million over 5 years), but the 49ers seemed more than happy to do it. They had found their quarterback of the future and a team that had been sitting in the basement of the NFC West for about two and a half years suddenly had a lot of hope for the future.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, that hope was quickly put on hold when the 2018 season started. Not only did the 49ers lose 2 of their first 3 games, but they also lost Garoppolo to a torn ACL late in their week 3 loss in Kansas City. Despite the team’s underwhelming record, Garoppolo was still playing well before going down, averaging 8.07 yards per attempt and leading an offense that picked up first downs at a 41.30% rate.

With Garoppolo out, the 49ers were forced to turn back to CJ Beathard and subsequently lost each of their next 5 games. Not only did their first down rate drop to 35.17% in those 5 games, but Beathard turned the ball over 10 times by himself. A hand injury forced Beathard out of their week 9 Thursday night game against the Raiders, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as former 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens led the 49ers to victory against the Raiders and kept the starting job the rest of the way.

In Mullens’ 8 starts, the 49ers picked up first downs at a 37.80% rate and Mullens turned the ball over 10 times, the same amount of turnovers as Beathard had in almost half the amount of starts. That first down rate would have been most equivalent to the Seahawks, who finished 12th in first down rate. The 49ers still went just 3-5 in those 8 games, but that wasn’t really Mullens’ fault. Aside from those 10 turnovers, Mullens had 13 touchdowns and averaged 8.31 yards per attempt on 274 attempts.

The problem was the defense, which not only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.60% rate in those 8 games, but also collected just 2 takeaways (and a record low 7 takeaways on the season). The 49ers made significant moves this off-season to improve their defense (more on those later), but even if they hadn’t the 49ers would likely have more takeaways this season, just because of the randomness of takeaways. The 49ers didn’t have a particularly good defense in 2017 either, but still managed almost three times as many takeaways (20). That’s not that many takeaways (would have ranked 16th in the NFL in 2018) and if the 49ers can get that to that number in 2019 that alone should translate to a couple more wins for a team that lost 6 games by 8 points or fewer in 2018.

Add in the fact that Garoppolo should be ready for training camp and it’s not hard to see how the 49ers could make a big leap in wins in 2019, after going 4-12 in 2018. Not only did Mullens prove himself to be a capable long-term backup behind Garoppolo, but their offensive performance in his starts suggests that there’s a good deal of talent around the quarterback as well. Garoppolo is still pretty unproven, with just 10 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, and might not be 100% immediately in his return from injury, but there’s plenty of potential for this offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The most talented player the 49ers have around Garoppolo is tight end George Kittle, who not only led the team in receiving yards with 1,377, but finished 8th in the league overall and set the record for most receiving yards ever in a season by a tight end, despite inconsistent quarterback play. Quarterbacks had a 101.3 QB rating on 136 targets thrown to Kittle, as opposed to 83.2 to other targets. An adequate blocker as well, Kittle finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked tight end overall and is very much in the debate for top tight end in the league.

The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level producer in the receiving game, but he showed a nice rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, finishing his rookie year with 15 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in his final 5 games, which extrapolates to a 48/717/3 slash line over 16 games. With Garoppolo returning from injury, Kittle seems likely to produce at a high level again in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Garrett Celek, who caught just 5 passes on 277 snaps in 2018. Barring an injury to Kittle, Celek should serve in a similar role in 2019.

The 49ers will need more out of their wide receivers in 2019, after none of them topped 487 yards receiving last season. Kendrick Bourne led the way, but largely by default, as the 2017 undrafted free agent was their only wide receiver to play all 16 games and to run more than 300 routes. His 1.23 yards per route run average was underwhelming and he’s received borderline grades from PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league. He could continue playing a role in an unsettled receiving corps, but the 49ers used 2nd and 3rd round picks on wide receivers in the draft, taking South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd, so Bourne also isn’t a lock for the final roster.

Second year receiver Dante Pettis has the best chance to lead this wide receiver group. He struggled with injuries early in his rookie year, but finished strong with 20 catches for 355 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 5 games, 64/1136/13 extrapolated over 16 games. The 44th overall pick in 2018, Pettis has obvious upside and could easily make a second year leap. He’s the closest thing the 49ers have to a #1 wide receiver right now.

The 49ers are also hoping for a healthier season from veteran Marquise Goodwin, who led them in receiving with a 56/962/2 slash line in 2017, but was limited to 23/395/4 in 11 games in 2018. Goodwin showed great chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, catching 29 passes for 384 yards and a touchdown in 5 games, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of producing at the level he did in 2017 (his 2nd highest receiving total in 6 years in the league is 431) and he’s been plagued by injuries for much of his career. He has some bounce back potential, but also could get lost in a more crowded receiving corps.

Goodwin will compete for playing time with Bourne and the two rookies, who both are pretty raw entering the league. Also in the mix is slot specialist Trent Taylor, who had a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but struggled to earn playing time in 2018 and finished at 26/215/1, and veteran journeyman Jordan Matthews, who averaged 891 yards per season from 2014-2016, but has caught just 45 passes in 2 seasons since due to injury. Like Bourne, Taylor and Matthews are not locks for the final roster. It’s a much deeper receiving corps, but they lack a clear #1 wideout and will continue relying heavily on tight end George Kittle.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another skill position player who made a big impact on offense for the 49ers last season is running back Matt Breida. Breida was expected to be the 49ers’ 3rd running back at best last season, but lead back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL on the last play of training camp and Breida earned the lead back job by significantly outperforming veteran backup running back Alfred Morris, who averaged just 3.86 yards per carry on the season in 111 carries and had just 34 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. For comparison, Breida averaged a whopping 5.32 yards per carry on his 153 carries, 2nd in the NFL among running backs with at least 150 carries. That’s despite the fact he spent most of the year dealing with leg injuries, which limited him to 14 games and prevented the coaching staff from giving him more than 17 carries in a game.

Even if Breida is healthier in 2019, he’s unlikely to average the same average per carry. Not only is it very tough to average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons (63 of the last 69 running backs to top 5 yards per carry on 150+ carries did not repeat the feat the following season), but a lot of Breida’s yardage came on long runs. He had 42.5% of his rushing yards on 14 carries of 15 yards or more and averaged just 3.32 yards per carry on his other 141 carries. In terms of carry success rate, he ranked just 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs. Something similar to the 4.43 YPC average he had in 2017, when he didn’t have a single of his 105 carries go for more than 33 yards, is more likely.

Fortunately, the 49ers shouldn’t have to rely on Breida as the lead back in 2019. Not only do they get Jerick McKinnon back, but the 49ers also signed veteran running back Tevin Coleman away from Kyle Shanahan’s former team the Atlanta Falcons this season. Coleman also had an impressive YPC average last season, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on 167 carries, but, like Breida, much of his yardage came on a few carries. He had 48.5% of his yards on his 15 longest carries and averaged just 2.71 yards per carry on his other carries, while ranking 37th out of 47 qualifying in carry success rate. Coleman has averaged 4.43 yards per carry on 132 carries per season in 4 years in the league, primarily as a backup to Devonta Freeman, but it’s concerning he wasn’t able to run away with the lead back job in Atlanta last season, despite an injury to Freeman that left the Falcons without another capable runner.

McKinnon, meanwhile, has averaged just 4.05 yards per carry in his career and is coming off of a major injury, but he ran behind a poor offensive line in Minnesota before coming to San Francisco and the 49ers clearly valued him highly last off-season, signing him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that guaranteed him 12.5 million in the first year. His biggest value to the 49ers will be on passing downs. McKinnon had 51 catches as a part-time player in his last healthy season in Minnesota and the 49ers probably had visions of increasing that number in 2018 had he stayed healthy.

Matt Breida caught 27 passes last season and Tevin Coleman had a 31/421/3 receiving slash line in 2016 with Shanahan in Atlanta, but McKinnon is a different caliber player in the passing game. He should play the majority of passing snaps, with the running snaps likely being split between McKinnon, Breida, and Coleman based on performance. Unproven backs Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert, who flashed with 66 carries for 266 yards and 34 carries for 261 yards respectively in limited action in 2018, will also compete for a roster spot and 3rd round wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who is a former running back, could also see some carries in a Cordarrelle Patterson role. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk should also be good for at least 30 catches out of the backfield, a number he’s topped in 4 straight seasons, and his 285 snaps played led all fullbacks in the NFL in 2018. The 49ers have plenty of options, but lack a clear lead back. If Brieda and Coleman don’t have as many big carries as they had last season, the 49ers may struggle to average the 4.40 yards per carry (12th in the NFL) that they averaged last season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the 49ers had success on the ground last season was their strong run blocking. They were not as good in pass protection, allowing 48 sacks (9th in the NFL), though that was partially the result of quarterbacks holding the ball too long. The 49ers return all 5 starters on the offensive line, so they could easily have similar play in 2019, but their depth might be tested a little bit more, after their starting 5 upfront missed a combined 1 game in last season.

One player who could take a leap forward in 2019 is right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The 9th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers traded Trent Brown for almost nothing to clear room for McGlinchey, which could have easily backfired, but McGlinchey played well enough as a rookie to make people forget about Brown. He was only adequate in pass protection, but was a strong run blocker and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle in 2018. McGlinchey has Pro-Bowl upside and could easily take another step forward in 2019, though that’s obviously not a guarantee.

McGlinchey could end up at left tackle eventually, but for now veteran Joe Staley remains locked in on the blindside. Though he’s going into his age 35 season, Staley is still playing at a high level, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, his 7th straight season in the top-17 among offensive tackles on PFF (including 5 seasons in the top-6). His age is obviously becoming a concern and sometimes players lose it quickly, but he could easily have another strong season.

The 49ers are not quite as strong at guard as they are at tackle, but they have a pair of solid starters there as well. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was a bust as a first round pick of the Lions in 2015, struggling in 24 starts in 2 seasons in Detroit before the 28th overall pick was sent to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick during the 2017 off-season, but he has proven to be a late bloomer in San Francisco, making 31 of 32 starts and earning average grades from PFF in both seasons. The 49ers locked him up on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract last off-season and he should continue providing solid play at left guard.

At right guard, the 49ers were hoping Josh Garnett would prove to be a similar late bloomer, but the 2016 28th overall pick failed to lock down the starting job in training camp and ended up playing just 59 snaps on the season, while journeyman Mike Person made all 16 starts. Person was not bad, earning an average grade from PFF, but he’s started just 34 games in 8 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 31 season, so it’s possible 2018 will end up being the best season of his career. Still, he should be considered the heavy favorite to start over Garnett, who has not made a start since struggling through 11 starts as a rookie in 2016, when he finished 70th among 85 qualifying guards on PFF. Garnett missed all of 2017 with a knee injury and also dealt with foot injuries that caused him to be inactive for several games in 2018. With his 1.7 million dollar salary non-guaranteed, he’s not a lock for the final roster.

The weak point upfront for the 49ers last season was center, where Weston Richburg was a major disappointment. Signed to a 5-year, 47.5 million contract with 16.5 million guaranteed in the first year last off-season to solidify the center position, Richburg had the worst season of his 5-year career, finishing 33rd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. Injuries were likely the culprit, as he had surgery on his knee and thigh this off-season. Richburg ranked 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, only in his age 28 season, but the injuries are starting to pile up for him. In addition to the knee injury that limited him in 2018, he was limited to 4 games by a concussion in 2017 and dealt with a hand injury for much of the 2016 season. It’s possible his best days are behind him, but he should be better in 2019 in 2018. This should remain a solid offensive line with all 5 starters returning. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning under center, this could easily be a top-10 offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the bigger problem for the 49ers for most of last season was their defense. Not only did they finish 21st in first down rate allowed, they somehow managed just 7 takeaways all season, fewest ever in a full length NFL season. That combined with CJ Beathard’s propensity to turn the ball over in his limited action led to the 49ers finished dead last in turnover margin at -25. The good news for them is turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis. In fact, the past 10 teams with a turnover margin of -20 or worse, on average, had a turnover margin of +5 the following season.

The 49ers would likely force more takeaways in 2019 even without a boost of talent on defense (in 2017, they ranked 26th in first down rate allowed, but still managed a league average 20 takeaways), but the 49ers also spent significant resources on upgrading their defensive talent this off-season, armed with among the most cap space in the league and the #2 overall pick in the draft. They used that #2 overall pick on Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who could have a big immediate impact on this pass rush, but he wasn’t even the biggest addition they made at the defensive end position this off-season.

The 49ers also sent a 2020 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for franchise tagged defensive end Dee Ford, who they then locked up on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar extension. The Chiefs did not think Ford was a great fit for their new defensive scheme and did not want to give him a long-term extension, but he’s a worthwhile addition for a 49ers team that still has the 3rd most cap space in the league (about 35 million) as of this writing. His contract is also relatively low risk, with only 19.5 million total guaranteed in the first year, so the 49ers could move on him from next off-season if he regresses significantly.

Ford was one of the most productive edge rushers in the league last season, with 13 sacks, 19 hits, and 46 hurries on 563 pass rush snaps (13.9% pressure rate). He’s not nearly as good of a player against the run and has a concerning injury history, missing most of the 2017 season with a back injury, but the 49ers could play him off the ball as an outside linebacker in obvious running situations and he’s not a one-year wonder, totaling 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries in 2016 as well.

Ford and Bosa are obvious upgrades on the edge for a team that had just 17 sacks off the edge in 2019. Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair led the way with 5.5 sacks each off the edge, but the former left as a free agent this off-season, while the latter profiles best as a rotational end. The 49ers used first round picks on defensive ends in 2015 and 2017, taking Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas respectively, but they combined for just 4 sacks in 2018 and have 9 sacks and 4 sacks respectively in their careers.

Armstead is a strong run stuffer at 6-7 292 and should continue seeing a significant role in base packages, but Thomas is reportedly on the trade block after the addition of Ford and Bosa. Thomas is still only going into his age 24 season and still has obvious upside, going 3rd overall just two years ago, but he doesn’t have a clear role on this defense right now. Like Armstead, Thomas is a bigger end at 6-3 280, so the 49ers could try him more frequently as an interior rusher to see if that jumpstarts his career. They are much deeper at defensive end this season than last season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is another former first round pick on this defensive line, going 7th overall in 2016, but unlike Armstead and Thomas, he has panned out. He had 12 of the team’s 37 sacks (22nd in the NFL) by himself last season and also added 10 hits and 31 hurries on 544 pass rush snaps, an 9.7% pressure rate, impressive for a player who lined up on the interior for almost all of his pass rush snaps. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked qualifying interior defensive lineman overall and is no one-year wonder either, finishing 20th at his position in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 as well. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best days could easily still be ahead of him.

The other defensive tackle position next to Buckner is still unsettled. Earl Mitchell was nominally the starter last season, but he played just 363 mediocre snaps in 13 games and is no longer on the team. DJ Jones and Sheldon Day remain on the team, but they were equally mediocre snaps on 239 snaps and 275 snaps respectively and both have never played more than a rotational role in their career.

Veteran Cedric Thornton unretired this off-season and could play a role as well. He was once a strong run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in his final 2 seasons in the league before retiring last off-season. Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can still contribute. The other defensive tackle spot next to Buckner figures to be handled by committee once again (with Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead likely seeing snaps inside as well) and should remain a position of weakness.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers also made a big addition at linebacker this off-season, signing ex-Buccaneer linebacker Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal that was the highest ever for an off ball linebacker until it was surpassed by CJ Mosley’s deal a few days later. Unlike the additions of Ford and Bosa, this signing is a bit head scratching. Not only was Alexander coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s never performed at the level the 49ers are paying him at, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked off ball linebacker in 2016. He’s a great athlete and holds up well in coverage, but he misses far too many tackles, missing 70 in 3 seasons before last year’s lost year due to injury.

Alexander is still young, only going into his age 25 season, and obviously the 49ers believe his best days are ahead of him, but it’s unclear who the 49ers were bidding against that also would have paid Alexander over 13.5 million annually. The one good thing about his contract is that only 14.5 million is guaranteed in the first year, so if he struggles off of injury the 49ers can let him go next off-season and cut their losses.

That being said, Alexander should by default be an upgrade over the different players they tried at the middle linebacker position last season. Outside linebacker Fred Warner was their only every down linebacker last season and he should continue playing the vast majority of the snaps, staying on the field with Alexander in nickel packages. Warner was more of a snap eater than an impact player, playing 1060 of the 49ers’ 1073 defensive players snaps, but only earning an average grade from PFF overall. Warner was only a 3rd round rookie though and could easily get better going forward. He might not play quite as many snaps this season, with Alexander likely to stay on the field over him in dime packages, but he could easily play at a higher level.

Malcolm Smith is currently penciled in as the 3rd linebacker. Smith has been a disappointment since signing a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar contract with the 49ers two off-seasons ago though and is not a lock for the role, after being forced to take a pay cut down to 1.2 million to keep his roster spot. Smith showed promise in limited action earlier in his career in Seattle, even becoming the most unlikely of Super Bowl MVPs in a game in which he didn’t even play half the snaps, but he has always struggled in a larger role and that’s unlikely to change, now going into his age 30 season. 3rd linebackers come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages and rarely play more than half the snaps anymore, so that could work to his benefit, but I would be surprised if he made much of an impact this season.

Other options that the 49ers have for the 3rd linebacker role including using Dee Ford as an off ball linebacker in base packages or starting 2017 7th round pick Elijah Lee, who was underwhelming on 476 snaps last season. With Alexander coming in as an every down linebacker, this linebacking corps is upgrade by default, but they will lack an impact player unless Alexander becomes the player they expect or Warner takes a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary is the one area the 49ers did not address this off-season. They were widely expected to sign a starting safety in a deep safety class in free agency, but they didn’t end up signing anyone and did not address the secondary in the draft until the 6th round. Jaquiski Tartt is locked into one safety spot and he’s developed into an above average starter, after the 2015 2nd round pick struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league, but his durability is a concern, as he’s missed 15 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons with injury.

Without a starter being added in free agency, the starting job at the other safety spot is totally up for grabs. Marcell Harris, DJ Reed, Adrian Colbert, Tyvis Powell, Antone Exum, and Jimmie Ward all made starts last season and all except Powell are still on the roster, but none of them played particularly well, hence why they cycled through so many players. Ward has the most experience of the group, with 31 career starts, but he’s also injury prone (missing 29 of 80 games in his career) and the 49ers value his versatility more than his talent. In 5 seasons in the league, he’s received below average grades from PFF in 3 seasons, including 2017 and 2018. He may play some safety, but he can also play both outside cornerback and slot cornerback as well.

Adrian Colbert is probably the favorite for the other starting safety job, if only because he started the first 6 games of the season last year before missing the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Colbert struggled mightily in those 6 games, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety, but he showed more promise as a rookie, when the 2017 7th round pick earned an above average grade on 320 snaps. Assuming he’s healthy, he has bounce back potential, but he’s no lock to keep his job if his struggles continue in training camp.

There have been rumors that the 49ers are going to move aging cornerback Richard Sherman to safety at some point in the future, rumors that Sherman basically confirmed himself, but at least for this season he seems likely to remain at cornerback, in his age 31 season. Sherman isn’t the player he was in his prime anymore, when he was arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, but he was still easily the 49ers’ top cornerback in 2018 and earned an above average grade from PFF for the 8th straight season. That’s despite the fact that he was coming off of a torn achilles and was never 100% all season, dealing with lingering leg issues. His durability is a serious question at this point, but if he’s healthier in 2019 that should be noticeable on the field.

At the other outside cornerback spot, starter Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily last season, finishing 128th among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The 2017 3rd round pick was better as a rookie, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on 660 snaps, and has bounce back potential, but he’s not a lock to keep his starting job. Even with the 49ers not adding a top tier cornerback prospect in the draft, Witherspoon should still face competition from free agent acquisition Jason Verrett and 2018 3rd round pick Tarvarius Moore.

Verrett was only signed to a one-year deal that guaranteed him just 1 million (max value of 3.6 million), but he comes with a lot of upside. A first round pick in 2014, Verrett looked like one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the league at one point, finishing the 2015 season as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback, but injuries have limited him to just 5 games in the 3 seasons since. Durability has always been a significant concern for him (even in 2015 he played just 14 games), as he’s played just 25 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league, thanks to multiple shoulder surgeries, multiple knee surgeries, and a torn achilles that cost him all of 2018.

Verrett is a worthwhile flyer, but he could easily just get hurt again and it’s unclear if he’ll ever regain his old form, now going on 28 years old and 4 years removed from that strong 2015 season. Moore also has upside, but managed to get on the field for just 232 snaps as a rookie. Perhaps he’ll make a leap from year 1 to year 2, but that’s hardly a given. Jimmie Ward is also probably in the mix for the other outside cornerback job, but he doesn’t have the same upside as Moore, Verrett, or Witherspoon.

Ward could be in the mix at slot cornerback as well, but K’Waun Williams is a solid slot specialist, earning above average grades from PFF in all 4 healthy seasons he’s been in the league (he missed 2016 after ankle surgery). The 49ers didn’t do much to address the secondary this off-season, but they have some bounce back candidates and they have players with upside.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The 49ers should be significantly better on both sides of the ball this year, with Jimmy Garoppolo coming back from injury and talent being added on defense. The 49ers should also have a significantly better turnover margin, which is very significant for a team that actually finished last season 19th in first down rate differential, despite everything that went wrong (4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league). Whether it’ll be enough to take the 49ers from 4 wins to the post-season is still a question, but they should be very much in the mix for a playoff spot.

It helps them that they are in a relatively weak division. The Seahawks continue to shed talent, while the Cardinals would likely need an All-Pro effort from rookie quarterback Kyler Murray to mask their other issues enough to make the post-season. Even the two time reigning NFC West champion Rams look vulnerable compared to a year ago, with Todd Gurley’s knee concerns and several off-season losses on both sides of the ball (including 2 starters on the offensive line).

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in NFC West

Team Score: 74.54 (18th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 76.03

Defensive Score: 73.04

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Los Angeles Rams 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In two years since hiring Sean McVay as head coach, the Rams have gone from perennial cellar dwellers to NFC Champions. In McVay’s first ypear, he took this offense from the worst in the league (dead last in first down rate in both 2015 and 2016) to one of the best (9th in first down rate in 2017) and in the process helped turn Jared Goff from a shell-shocked rookie with a 63.6 QB rating to Pro Bowler who looks deserving of having been the #1 overall pick in 2016.

In 2018, Goff made the Pro Bowl again and the Rams were able to make a deeper playoff run after being eliminated in the first round in 2017, going all the way to the Super Bowl before falling short. In total, Goff has completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 31 starts over the past two seasons, while finishing 15th and 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be backed up by free agent signing Blake Bortles, who was a bust as the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, completing just 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 103 touchdowns, and 75 interceptions in 73 starts (24-49), but still has the upside to be a capable backup, especially in McVay’s quarterback friendly system.

The one problem with Goff is his contract status. Now going into the 4th year of his rookie deal, this is the last year the Rams will have Goff at a significantly below market value price. His 5th year option for 2020 is worth 22.783 million and the Rams undoubtedly would have to pay even more than that annually to keep him long-term on an extension. The Rams have been aggressive adding talent in the short window they have Goff under contract inexpensively, even trading away premium draft picks in a few cases.

Last off-season, they sent a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters and a 1st round pick to the Patriots for wide receiver Brandin Cooks to replace free agent departure Sammy Watkins, who they gave up a 2nd round pick for the previous off-season. Peters hasn’t even been extended long-term yet and the Rams still already have 6 players under contract making 11 million or more annually.

It’s a smart strategy if pays off with a Super Bowl in the short window they can keep all this talent together, but in the long-term after Goff gets paid it causes a couple problems. Not only will they need to let some players go, the Rams also don’t have premium draft picks on cost controlled rookie deals coming in behind them. Between their trades for veterans and the aggressive move they had to make to get Goff #1 overall in the first place, the Rams have made just one other pick in the top-60 in their past 4 drafts. Trades down have allowed them to pick 33 times total in those drafts, but 24 of those picks have come in the 4th round or later, so they’re really banking on their scouting department’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and their coaching staff’s ability to coach them up. It might be a worthwhile strategy, but 2019 could be their last great shot at a Super Bowl for a few years.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Rams have already had to let some players leave for financial reasons, as they return just three of five starters on the offensive line. Center John Sullivan was released ahead of a 5.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and left guard Rodger Saffold signed a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal with the Titans that the Rams simply did not have the financial flexibility to match. Sullivan is still available as a free agent, but his age is a major concern and he struggled more than he’s used to in 2018, so the Rams seem ready to turn the position over to 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen, who played just 37 snaps as a rookie. Allen could have growing pains in his first season as the starter, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to have a comparable season to Sullivan, who finished 34th among 39 qualifying centers in 2018.

Saffold is going to be the bigger loss, as he’s been a top-8 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons, excelling in pass protection, where he’s allowed just 4 sacks and 9 hits total in 31 starts. Like Sullivan, he’s expected to be replaced by a 2nd year player, 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom (79 snaps as a rookie), but unlike Sullivan it’s hard to imagine Noteboom effectively replacing Saffold in his first season as a starter.

This is especially a concern because Jared Goff has seen his effectiveness drop significantly when pressured in his career. His completion percentage with a clean pocket ranked 9th in 2017 and 13th in 2018, but he fell to 35th out of 42 qualifying and 33rd out of 39 qualifying respectively when pressured. Goff has enjoyed good pass protection in each of the past two years, but he will probably be under fire more in 2019 and that could easily be noticeable in his completion percentage.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth returns, but this could be his final season with the Rams and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he saw his play drop off. Signed to a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, Whitworth has been a big part of the reason for the Rams’ offensive turnaround, finishing as PFF’s 7th and 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s going into an age 38 contract year. Given that he was considering retirement this off-season, this is very possibly his last season in the NFL. The Rams planned for the future this off-season by drafting tackles in the 3rd round (Oklahoma’s Bobby Evans) and 5th round (Wisconsin’s David Edwards), but Whitworth will still be missed when he’s gone and if his play drops off this season it would have a noticeable effect on this offense.

The right side of the offensive line should be more stable, with both right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Havenstein returning after making all 16 starts in 2018. Blythe originally got an opportunity because Jamon Brown, their regular starter, was suspended for the first two games of the season, but Blythe played so well that he kept the job permanently, while Brown was eventually waived and ended up with the Giants. Blythe finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked guard, so he was quietly one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The 2016 7th round pick is a one-year wonder, making just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he could easily have another strong season in 2019. If that’s the case, he may be too expensive for the Rams to keep next off-season as an unrestricted free agent.

Havenstein is already locked up long-term, as the Rams gave him a very fair 4-year, 32.5 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, and unlike Blythe he’s proven himself more than once. He’s made 59 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has earned an above average grade on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a career best #3 finish in 2018. Only going into his age 27 season. He’s the most dependable offensive lineman on a line that lost a pair of starters, has a one-year wonder at right guard, and a left tackle in his late 30s. This offensive line is also unlikely to not lose a single start due to injury, something they benefited from in 2019. If this offense isn’t quite as effective in 2019, it will likely be because their offensive line play declined.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another concern on this offense is the long-term durability of running back Todd Gurley’s knees. Gurley has been arguably the best all-purpose running back in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, totaling 2,556 rushing yards on 535 carries (4.78 yards per carry), 1,368 receiving yards on 123 catches (11.12 yards per catch), and 40 total touchdowns in 29 games. However, he has a history of knee issues dating back to college and had his usage cut drastically in the post-season, after missing a couple games with knee problems late in the season.

The Rams publicly don’t express concern about the long-term condition of Gurley’s knee, which is reportedly arthritic, but their off-season moves suggest they at least want good insurance in case he goes down again. They matched restricted free agent Malcolm Brown’s 2-year, 3.3 million dollar offer sheet from the Detroit Lions and then used a 3rd round pick on Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. Those two players could lessen Gurley’s workload, in an effort to keep him healthy later in the season.

An undrafted free agent in 2015, Brown has seen limited action in his career, averaging 4.02 yards per carry on just 128 carries in 4 seasons in the league and missing a golden opportunity to establish himself in Gurley’s absence last season because he was dealing with an injury of his own, but the Rams like him enough to keep him at an above minimum salary. He may ultimately end up being their 3rd running back this season, as Darrell Henderson is a great fit for this offense and can immediately serve in a change of pace role. The 5-8 208 pounder is faster even than his 4.49 40 time and was a dominant runner on outside zone runs (10.73 YPC the past 2 seasons), which the Rams run more than anyone. He and Brown would likely split carries if Gurley went down, but I expect Henderson to open the season the primary backup. This is a deep backfield, but Gurley’s injury concerns can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The unit with the least concern on this offense is this receiving corps, which could actually be better this season, with Cooper Kupp returning from a torn ACL. After a promising rookie year in which the 2017 3rd round pick put up a 62/869/5 slash line, Kupp looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season in the league with 30 catches for 438 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games (96/1402/16 over 16 games), before suffering his first knee injury against the Broncos. He returned a few weeks later, but was not the same and ultimately ended up suffering a season ender in week 10.

His absence was felt, as the Rams had a 48.58% first down rate in those first 5 games, as opposed to 39.07% the rest of the way. That’s still a good number, but they went from being most equivalent to the #1 ranked Kansas City Chiefs with him healthy to being most equivalent to the #9 ranked Atlanta Falcons when he got hurt. Kupp has also been Jared Goff’s most dependable target over the past 2 seasons, as he’s completed 68.0% of his 150 targets to Kupp for 1,435 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a 117.5 QB rating (98.0 QB rating to other targets).

Kupp is technically the Rams’ #3 receiver, but when he’s healthy the Rams use 3 receivers on almost every play, which is clearly their most effective package. The Rams’ receiving corps could be even better in 2019 if all three of their receivers are healthy, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Injuries are part of the game and the Rams did not have an extraordinary amount of injuries last season by any measure, finishing with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury overall.

Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are nominally their #1 and #2 receivers and both topped 1000 yards in 2018, putting up slash lines of 80/1204/5 and 86/1219/6 respectively. They were also both involved on end arounds, totaling 68 yards on 10 carries and 157 yards on 19 carries respectively. Cooks has now put up 1000+ receiving yards in each of the past 4 seasons and, while 2018 was Woods’ first 1000+ yard year, he’s shown signs of being this kind of player in the past, as he was on a 1000+ yard pace in 2017 before missing the final 4 games with injury and he had a 51/613/1 slash line in 13 games in 2016 on a very run heavy Bills offense.

With Cooks and Woods going into their age 26 and age 27 seasons respectively, both should continue playing at a high level. They might see their receiving stats dip a little bit, with Kupp coming back into the mix and shakier play on the offensive line forcing more incompletions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three of the Rams’ wide receivers top 1000 yards if they can stay healthy enough. When everyone is healthy, the Rams like to run 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on basically every snap, rather than changing things up by scenario, so all three receivers are every down players.

When one of their receivers is hurt, like Kupp was last year, they run more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). The Rams’ #4 receiver Josh Reynolds was not an every down player as Kupp’s replacement, while #2 tight end Gerald Everett saw his snap count increase from 15.9 per game to 31.6 per game in the 8 games Kupp missed completely. That makes sense, as the 6-3 240 pound Everett is their primary pass catching tight end (262 routes run on 380 snaps), while the 6-6 255 Tyler Higbee is primarily a blocker (544 blocking snaps on 789 snaps) whose role didn’t change much with Kupp out.

Everett didn’t do much with the extra playing time though, managing just 20 catches for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in those 8 games, as opposed to 13 catches for 144 yards and 1 touchdown in their other 8 games. On the season, he barely outproduced Higbee, who had a 24/292/2 slash line. Everett was the 44th overall pick in 2017, their only other top-60 pick besides Goff from their past 4 drafts, so the Rams are obviously hoping for a 3rd year leap from him. Even if he does make a leap, he’s still unlikely to be that productive because of his role.

With Kupp returning from injury, Everett will go back to a smaller role, as the lone tight end in obvious passing situations, while Higbee will be the lone tight end the rest of the time. Higbee is relatively young too, going in the 4th round in 2016, but he doesn’t have the same receiving upside as Everett because of his limited athleticism and will probably max out as a strong blocker, which is all the Rams really need him to be. Reynolds, meanwhile, is nothing more than a reserve when all three receivers are healthy, which is for the best as he’s an obvious drop off from their other three receivers. This is arguably the most talented receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

In addition to the Rams’ losses on defense, they also lost a couple key players on defense, including defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. Suh isn’t the player he was in his prime, but he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked interior defender and played 887 snaps, so he won’t be easy to replace. Suh is still available as of this writing, but the Rams have just about 6 million left in cap space and Suh is holding out for good money, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to work out something to bring him back.

Assuming Suh does not return, the Rams will likely be replacing him with several players, as they didn’t add a replacement this off-season and don’t have an obvious one-to-one replacement on the roster. In base packages, he will likely be replaced by one of Tanzel Smart, Sebastian Joseph-Day, or Greg Gaines, who will compete for the nose tackle job in the Rams’ 3-4 defense. All three players have good size (6-1 300, 6-4 310, and 6-1 312 respectively), but they barely have any experience. Smart, a 6th round pick in 2017, is the only one with NFL experience and he’s played just 312 mediocre snaps. Joseph-Day was also a 6th round pick, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2018. Gaines, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie. All three are complete projections to a larger role.

In sub packages, the Rams could give more playing time to Ethan Westbrooks (180 snaps in 2018) and could also use edge rusher John Franklin-Myers as an interior rusher more frequently. Westbrooks has been a rotational lineman for the Rams for 5 years, averaging 287 snaps per season, while John Franklin-Myers is a 2018 4th round pick who played 301 snaps as a rookie, primarily as an edge rusher, but has the size (6-4 288) to move inside. Neither player is particularly good, but Franklin-Myers at least has some upside.

Michael Brockers could also have a bigger role, but he already played 679 snaps last season and isn’t much of a pass rusher, so that’s not a great option. Brockers is a strong run stuffer, dominant at times, but he has a career 5.2% pressure rate in 7 seasons in the league and had just 1 sack, 2 hits, and 16 hurries on 370 pass rush snaps in 2018 (5.1%). For lack of a better option, the Rams will have to continue giving him significant pass rush snaps in 2019.

Fortunately, the Rams also have a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year on the interior of their defensive front, which obviously elevates this whole group significantly. Aaron Donald has had some dominant years in the past, but he took that to a new level in 2018, totaling 20.5 sacks, 20 hits, and 65 hurries on 584 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 18.2% pressure rate that not only led all interior defenders, but led all defenders across the board. He’s been PFF’s top ranked interior defender in each of the past 4 seasons, putting up a 16.3% pressure rate across those 4 seasons and also playing the run well. He took the title of the league’s best defensive player from JJ Watt a few years back and, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, having never missed a game with injury, he could keep that title for another couple seasons at least. He’ll make everyone around him better by commanding frequent double teams, but this defensive line will still feel the absence of Ndamukong Suh.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

One free agent the Rams did bring back this off-season was Dante Fowler. With the Rams desperate for edge rush help, they sent a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Jaguars to acquire Fowler, a former high draft pick who had gotten buried on the depth chart in Jacksonville. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015, Fowler missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL and made just one start in two and a half seasons before the Jaguars sent him to the Rams. He also served a one-game suspension at the start of the 2018 season for an off-the-field incident.

He showed enough as a pass rusher in limited action in Jacksonville (14 sacks, 11 hits, and 67 hurries on 868 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pressure rate) that the Rams decided to take a chance on him, but he didn’t make much of an impact once he arrived, with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 363 pass rush snaps (8.2% pressure rate), including playoffs. One of those hits was a key play in the NFC Championship, but for evaluative purposes one snap doesn’t trump all other snaps. Despite his overall underwhelming play, the Rams decided to keep him this off-season, but they overpaid on a one-year deal, giving him 12 million.

Even if we assume Fowler, who is only going into his age 25 season, still has a lot of untapped potential, there isn’t much upside to this deal, as it’s only a one-year deal and, if he breaks out, they’d undoubtedly need to give him a higher average annual value on his next contract if they are going to keep him beyond 2019. There’s also plenty of downside with this deal, as Fowler is not worth a 12 million dollar salary if he continues playing like he’s played thus far in his career. It would be one thing if they gave him a 3-year deal that guaranteed him 12 million in the first year and gave the Rams a couple team options for 2020 and 2021 at a similar salary if he breaks out, but this is a bit of a head scratching deal.

Samson Ebukam remains as the other starter opposite Dante Fowler. A 4th round pick in 2017, Ebukam played 351 nondescript snaps as a rookie, before moving into a starting role in 2018 and playing 692 snaps. He wasn’t much better than his rookie year though, with just 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 26 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps. The Rams are hoping he can keep developing, but he doesn’t have a huge upside and will likely max out as a solid starter at best.

The Rams also added veteran Clay Matthews to the mix in free agency, signing the ex-Packer to a 2-year deal worth up to 9.25 million. Matthews was once one of the better edge defenders in the league, but his age (33 in May) and a variety of injuries have sapped his abilities. He played all 16 games in 2018, but was more or less a replacement level player and had just 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 376 pass rush snaps (8.0% pressure rate)

It’s not a surprise that the Packers, his team for 10 seasons, weren’t that interested in bringing him back this off-season, opting instead to get younger at the position. He’ll play a rotational role with the Rams and is unlikely to match the 756 snaps he played last season. His addition pushes John Franklin-Myers to the 4th edge defender spot and could free him up to play more snaps inside as an interior rusher in sub packages. The Rams have a decent trio of edge defenders, but lack an obvious difference maker.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Rams also lost starting middle linebacker Mark Barron this off-season, but he was only worth a fraction of his 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and struggled mightily last season, finishing 85th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The Rams don’t have an obvious replacement for him though. 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser is penciled in as the starter, but he played just one defensive snap as a rookie, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Their only other real option is Bryce Hager, but the 2015 7th round pick has primarily been a special teams player to this point in his career, starting just 1 of 64 games on defense in 4 seasons in the league. This is an obvious position of weakness. Fortunately, the Rams like to use 3 safeties in sub packages, playing one closer to the line of scrimmage essentially as a linebacker. That’s something they could do even more of in 2019 with Barron gone.

Cory Littleton remains as an every down player at the other middle linebacker spot, following a mini-breakout year in 2018. Originally undrafted in 2016, Littleton made all 16 starts in 2018 after playing sparingly in his first 2 seasons in the league and earned an above average grade from PFF. He’s better in coverage than against the run, which he still has issues with, but, unless he proves to be a one-year wonder, he should be a useful part of this defense. He’s another player that the Rams will have to give a pay raise to keep beyond 2019, as he’s scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. For now, he’s the best player in a thin linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

Even though the Rams went 13-3 last season, their defense struggled for most of the regular season and actually finished the regular season 26th in first down rate allowed. They were better when they had starting cornerback Aqib Talib healthy though, including in the post-season. In the 8 games he missed with an ankle injury, the Rams allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 43.29% rate, most equivalent to the worst ranked Kansas City Chiefs, as opposed to 33.18% in his 11 healthy games, most equivalent to the 5th ranked Jacksonville Jaguars, a really significant swing. Talib earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus for the 5th straight season, finishing 21st overall at his position, but his age is getting to be a concern, going into his age 33 season. Lacking a better option, the Rams will have to hope his abilities don’t have a sudden drop off, which is a possibility at his age.

Talib’s injury also coincided with an injury to fellow starting cornerback Marcus Peters, which is part of why they struggled so much in the games Talib didn’t play. Peters didn’t miss a game with injury, but played through a leg injury that was supposed to cost him 4-6 weeks and struggled mightily for about two months after sustaining the injury. Peters claims the injury is not to blame for his struggles, but it’s hard to believe that’s actually the case.

Peters was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in 2016 and their 14th ranked cornerback in 2017, but fell all the way to 100th out of 131 qualifying in 2018. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate and has all the motivation in the world to have a strong season, going into the final year of his rookie deal. If he can prove 2018 was a fluke, Peters will likely get paid among the top cornerbacks in the league by someone next off-season. The Rams are reportedly interested in locking him up long-term, but may need him to take a little bit of discount to keep him long-term, given their other financial commitments. Even after a down year, he may not give them a discount.

Nickell Robey-Coleman remains as the slot cornerback. The diminutive 5-8 180 pounder has struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play outside, but he’s one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the NFL, earning above average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he was PFF’s 9th ranked cornerback on 556 snaps. He also had the 3rd fewest yards per coverage snap allowed on the slot among qualifying cornerbacks in 2018, allowing 0.71 yards per route run on 358 slot coverage snaps. He should continue excelling on the slot in 2019.

Reserve cornerbacks Sam Shields and Troy Hill both struggled mightily in Talib’s absence in 2018, but, while Hill is still on the roster, the Rams did use a 3rd round pick on Michigan cornerback David Long and he could easily be the 4th cornerback if he has a strong post-season. Considered a borderline first round pick by PFF, Long was a dominant cover cornerback in college and could prove to be a steal. With both Talib and Peters hitting free agency next off-season, he could easily become a starter in 2020 and, in the short-term, he gives them better insurance in case Talib or Peters miss time again.

At safety, the Rams lost LaMarcus Joyner, PFF’s 27th ranked safety in 2018, when he signed a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders, but the Rams did a good job of replacing him with Eric Weddle on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. Not only is that a much less expensive deal, but it doesn’t mess up the Rams’ compensatory pick formula because Weddle was released by his previous team. Weddle’s age is a concern (he turned 34 in January) and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, but he actually played slightly better than Joyner last season, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked safety with the Ravens.

Weddle’s best days are behind him and he could continue declining in 2019, but in his prime he was one of the best safeties in the NFL. A 12-year veteran, Weddle has earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season he’s been in the league, including 7 seasons in the top-5 at his position. He’s not the biggest name, but purely from a performance standpoint he deserves Hall of Fame consideration when all is said and done. The Rams are hoping he can continue to beat Father Time for another season.

Third year safety John Johnson remains the starter at the other safety spot and he looks like a budding star. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Johnson didn’t play much for the first few weeks of his career, but he’s made 27 straight starts and has finished 11th and 8th among safeties in the past 2 seasons respectively. Not even 24 until December, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him and he could take another leap forward in 2019.

The Rams liked running three safety looks in obvious passing situations last season, to cover up for their lack of depth at linebacker, and that should remain the case again in 2019. Marqui Christian was their 3rd safety last year, but the Rams used a 2nd round pick on Washington safety Taylor Rapp and he figures to serve in that role this season. Rapp was a borderline first round talent, but concerns about his hip injury dropped him to the Rams at 61.

Assuming he’s healthy, he’ll fit perfectly as a 3rd safety behind Johnson and Weddle immediately and he’s likely viewed as Weddle’s eventual successor in the starting lineup. All three of the Rams’ safeties are versatile and can play in different spots (slot cornerback, linebacker), so we could see this trio on the field frequently in 2019. This secondary has the potential to be strong if their cornerbacks stay healthy, aging veterans like Aqib Talib and Eric Weddle continue playing well, and rookie Taylor Rapp’s hip injury turns out to be a non-issue. There’s some downside here, but this could be a much improved unit.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Rams should be Super Bowl contenders once again, but they are starting to leak talent, as they couldn’t afford to keep some key performers this off-season. They’ll have some big decisions to make next off-season, but for now they have enough talent to compete, even if they aren’t quite as good as 2018 on paper. They have a great coaching staff led by Sean McVay and legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and if they continue to draft and develop like they have in recent years and some unproven players surprise, they could be better than they look on paper.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in NFC West

Team Score: 76.33 (9th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 78.12

Defensive Score: 74.53

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)