Houston Texans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014 to 2016, the Texans went 27-21, but were carried by their defense and started 8 different underwhelming quarterbacks over those three seasons: Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Hoping to find their missing piece, the Texans were aggressive trading up from 25 to 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Deshaun Watson, giving up a future first round pick in the process.

Watson appeared to be that missing piece as a rookie, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, but then he tore his ACL in practice week 9 and missed the rest of the season. Dealing with an injury situation from hell, the Texans were also without their top defensive player JJ Watt for most of the season, as well as several other key starters, leading to the Texans finishing just 4-12.

In 2018, they were healthy and went on to win 11 games, but still seemed short of being a true contender, finishing 8th in first down rate differential at +2.99% and losing at home in their first playoff game against the Colts. Their defense was back to being dominant with Watt healthy, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense was a middle of the pack unit, finishing just 17th in first down rate, even with Deshaun Watson making all 16 starts.

Watson was not the problem though and in some ways he played better in 2018, even though he was coming off of a serious injury. He completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while adding 551 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground, and finished 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. His best improvement came in his accuracy and his completion percentage jumped 6.5% as a result. 

Durability is always going to be a concern for Watson because of his playing style and even last season he played through a serious chest injury for much of the season, but as long as he can stay on the field, he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best all around quarterbacks in the league, still only going into his age 24 season. The Texans did improve their backup quarterback situation this off-season by signing AJ McCarron, who has a career 91.4 QB rating on 136 attempts in 13 games (3 starts), but they’d obviously still be in a lot of trouble if Watson was to get injured again.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

This biggest thing that held this offense back in 2018 was their offensive line, which has been a problem for years. Watson led the league with 62 sacks taken and was pressured on a league most 44.7% of his dropbacks last season, making his high completion percentage all the more impressive (he finished 5th in the NFL with a 57.9% completion percentage under pressure). The Texans started 8 different offensive linemen, but only one earned an average or better grade from PFF, guard Greg Mancz, who started just 4 games.

The Texans did make upgrading the offensive line a priority this off-season, signing Matt Kalil to a 1-year, 7.5 million dollar deal in free agency and using first and second round picks on offensive linemen, taking Alabama State’s Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping. All three players will compete for roles, but it’s unclear if any of them are going to move the needle upfront. Scharping was a solid value in the 2nd round, but Howard was a reach in the first round, after the Eagles moved up one spot ahead of them to select original target Andre Dillard, and Kalil missed all of 2018 with a knee injury and was a head scratching signing at that salary. Those three will be among 10 players potentially competing for jobs upfront this off-season. 

Kalil’s salary suggests he’ll start, probably at left tackle. He was a solid left tackle early in his career, making 64 of 64 starts for the Vikings from 2012-2015, but he’s had two of his last three seasons wiped out by injury and finished just 56th out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his one recent healthy season in 2017. With Kalil now going into his age 30 season, it’s unclear who the Texans were competing with to sign him for 7.5 million dollars, especially since his deal doesn’t give the Texans any long-term option beyond 2019 on the off chance he does bounce back. He’ll likely be an upgrade over Julie’n Davenport, who finished 77th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles in 16 starts last season, but that could largely be by default and he could easily miss time with injury again. 

Right guard Zach Fulton’s salary also suggests he’ll start. He finished 65th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts, but the Texans signed him to a 4-year, 28 million dollar contract last off-season and his 7 million dollar salary for 2019 is fully guaranteed, so they don’t have much of a choice but to give him another shot. He was a better player in the first 4 years (46 starts) of his career in Kansas City before signing that contract, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been better than a middling starter.

Draft picks Tytus Howard and Max Scharping both played tackle in college, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latter moved inside in the NFL because of his arm length. Howard will likely be in the mix to start at right tackle week 1, where he would replace free agent departure Kendall Lamm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Howard struggle as a rookie though and most expected him to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. Davenport could also compete at right tackle, but the 2017 4th round pick has shown very little in two seasons in the league and likely isn’t a roster lock. 

Also in the mix at right tackle is Seantrel Henderson, who was re-signed to a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He started at right tackle week 1 last season, but missed all but 11 snaps with a broken ankle and has played just 89 snaps in the past 3 seasons. The 2014 7th round pick made 26 starts at right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career and is still in his age 27 season, but he also earned below average grades in both of those seasons and could easily struggle again if he manages to win the job.

If Scharping moves inside to guard, he could compete with incumbent left guard Senio Kelemete, who finished 59th out of 88 qualifying guards in a career high 14 starts last season. He earned average grades from PFF as a spot starter with the Saints from 2015-2017 (22 starts), but he may be overstretched as a full-time starter. Kelemete could also be pushed for his job by 2018 3rd round pick Martinas Rankin, who struggled mightily at tackle as a rookie and is now moving inside to guard, and veteran Greg Mancz, who wasn’t bad in 4 spot starts last season. Mancz was also a solid starter at center in 2016, making 16 starts as an injury replacement, though his experience at guard is more limited (11 career starts).

Mancz could also be an option at center, but it’s likely the Texans will continue starting Nick Martin. Martin was underwhelming last season, finishing 22nd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but he played every snap and the 2016 2nd round pick has made 30 starts at center over the past 2 seasons. He was underwhelming in 2017 as well, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a bit of a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, now in his contract year. The Texans added talent to this unit this off-season and it would be hard for them to be worse than last season, but there’s a lot of uncertainty upfront and this looks likely to be weakness again.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Texans also didn’t get much from their running backs in 2018. They ranked a decent 19th in YPC as a team with 4.28, but that was buoyed by a 5.57 YPC average on 99 carries by Deshaun Watson. Lead back Lamar Miller averaged 4.63 YPC on 210 carries, but did a poor job of consistently keeping this offense on schedule, finishing 35th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 44% carry success rate. He had about 10% of his season rushing total on one carry, so that distorts his average a little bit. Meanwhile, #2 back Alfred Blue averaged just 3.33 yards per carry on 150 carries with a 41% carry success rate, 39th among qualifying running backs.

The Texans didn’t do anything to address the running back position this off-season, only using a 7th round draft pick on fullback Cullen Gillespia, so they’ll once again be relying on Lamar Miller as their lead back. Miller is unspectacular, but he’s about as reliable as they come, topping 150 carries in 6 straight seasons (one of 3 running backs to do so over that stretch), averaging 4.31 YPC, totalling 203 catches in 92 games, and missing just 4 games due to injury. He’s also somehow only still in his age 28 season, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, and much of his struggles consistently keeping this offense on schedule last season were due to the offensive line’s inconsistent run blocking. He’s a good bet for another 200 or so carries in 2019, but could be inefficient on a per carry basis again if the offensive line continues to struggle. 

The Texans will also be hoping to get more from third year running back D’onta Foreman, whose 2018 season was ruined by injury. It would be hard for the Texans to get less from him in 2019, as he actually lost rushing yardage on the season with -1 yard on 7 carries, but the 2017 3rd round pick showed promise as a rookie before tearing his Achilles late in the season, averaging 4.19 yards per carry on 78 carries and he could easily bounce back in 2019 if he’s healthy, which he never was last season. He could see a significant role as a rotational running back, though he doesn’t do much in the passing game (13 catches in 27 career games in college and just 6 catches as a rookie in 2017). With little depth behind Foreman, they need him to bounce back.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The most valuable player the Texans have on offense around Deshaun Watson is #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished last season with a 115/1572/11 slash line, finishing in the top-5 in the NFL in all 3 categories. A first round selection in 2013, Hopkins has averaged a 95/1327/9 slash line in the past 5 seasons, despite having underwhelming quarterback play for much of that, and he has 153 catches for 2123 yards and 17 touchdowns in 22 career games with Deshaun Watson (111/1544/12 slash line over 16 games). Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in the entire NFL. 

The rest of this receiving corps was a weakness last season though. Will Fuller had a 32/503/4 slash line in 7 games, but then he tore his ACL and in his absence no one else topped 305 yards receiving on the season. The Texans didn’t make any big additions this off-season and will instead be counting on better health from Fuller and 3rd receiver Keke Coutee, who had a 28/287/1 slash line in just 6 games last season. 

Both players have upside, especially Fuller, who has 45 catches for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games with Deshaun Watson (65/1137/16 slash line over 16 games), but both have significant injury histories as well, with Fuller missing 17 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and Coutee having chronic hamstring problems dating back to his collegiate days, part of why he fell to the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s concerning that the Texans didn’t do anything to improve their depth behind Fuller and Coutee this off-season. 

The one addition they did make to their receiving corps this off-season was 3rd round tight end Kahale Warring. His addition coincided with the release of veteran Ryan Griffin, who was 3rd on the team in receiving last season with a 24/305/0 slash line, but he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and was not much of a blocker either. With Griffin gone, the Texans are going with a youth movement at the position, with 2018 3rd round pick Jordan Akins and 2018 6th round pick Jordan Thomas also in the mix for snaps, after playing 388 snaps and 470 snaps respectively as rookies last season. 

Neither Akins nor Thomas showed much though, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and 1.38 yards per route run respectively and underwhelming as blockers. Warring enters the league pretty raw, with just 51 catches in his collegiate career, so it’s possible the Texans don’t get much more out of any of their tight ends again in 2019. This receiving corps could easily be better in 2019 than 2018 with better health and some young talent, but this group remains a concern.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Texans were led by one of the best defenses in the league last season. A huge part of their defensive success is the edge defender trio of JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans have to get creative to get three all on the field at the same time, frequently playing JJ Watt as a defensive end in 3-4 base packages, with Clowney and Mercilus as 3-4 outside linebackers, and also using both Clowney and Mercilus as off ball linebackers occasionally in obvious passing situations, with Clowney seeing snaps as a blitzer from the middle linebacker spot and Mercilus leading all edge defenders with 168 coverage snaps in 2018. 

Watt used to be primarily an interior defender earlier in his career, but he’s played more and more on the edge in passing situations in recent years, as the Texans feel it’s a better use of his pass rush ability. It hasn’t really matter where he’s played, as he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, including #1 ranked seasons in 2013 and 2014. In total, he has 92 sacks, 176 hits, and a 13.4% pressure rate in 104 career games. He’s going into his age 30 season and missed close to two entire seasons with injury (he played just 8 games in 2016 and 2017 combined), but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was one of the best defensive players in the league again in 2019. 

Like Watt, Mercilus missed most of 2017 with injury, going down with a torn pectoral in the same game Watt broke his leg, and he was a welcome re-addition last season as well. He had just 4 sacks, but added 11 hits and an 11.4% pressure rate. A first round pick in 2012, Mercilus was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons dating back to 2015 and he has 24.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 52 games over that stretch. 

Mercilus has also been relatively durable aside from the 2017 pectoral tear, missing just 2 games in his other 6 seasons. Still only in his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2019. He did struggle mightily in coverage last season, allowing 23 completions on 25 targets with no pass breakups, and the 258 pounder is not a natural coverage athlete, so it’s possible they scale back his coverage role this season, but the Texans like lining him up in different spots and using him in different ways.

The Texans also like lining Jadeveon Clowney in different spots, though he also saw 29 coverage snaps in 2018. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney had durability problems early in his career, but he’s missed just 3 games with injury over the past 3 seasons and has played close to every snap in those games, averaging 56.3 snaps per game. He doesn’t have the big sack totals, with a career high of 9.5 sacks in a season and just 24.5 sacks in the past 3 seasons, but he’s added 35 hits and a 10.9% pressure rate in those 3 seasons and is a great player against the run as well. 

Clowney finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender, a career best, and could still keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season. The Texans made the obvious decision to franchise tag Clowney this off-season, keeping him off the market with a 15.967 million dollar salary for 2019, but they are reportedly not close on a long-term extension. Assuming he doesn’t hold out, he should continue being a part of a dominant edge defender trio.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

With JJ Watt playing primarily on the edge in 2018, DJ Reader, Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington led the team in snaps by an interior defender, with 639, 429, 347, and 257 respectively. Covington is no longer with the team, but he had the smallest role of the four and the Texans have an obvious replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Carlos Watkins. Watkins has played just 371 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but has shown some potential and should have a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league.

DJ Reader will likely continue to lead the way. He plays on the nose in the Texans’ base 3-4 defense, but the 347 pounder isn’t just a base package run stuffer, with a 7.8% career pressure rate and an average of 583 snaps played per season over the last 2 seasons. The 2016 5th round pick has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season 41st among interior defenders on PFF. Still only in his age 25 season, Reader could keep getting better in 2019 and beyond. He’ll be owed a steep pay increase on his next contract, owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019.

Brandon Dunn will likely continue starting at defensive end opposite JJ Watt in base packages (10 starts in 14 games in 2018). The 2014 undrafted free agent has developed into a solid run stuffer, which is what he’s primarily relied on for, but he gets no pass rush, with just 4 pressures on 171 pass rush snaps last season. Angelo Blackson isn’t much better as a pass rusher, with a 4.4% pressure rate in 2018, but he’s relied on as an interior pass rusher out of necessity. The 429 snaps he played last season were a career high and the 2015 4th round pick will play a similar role in 2019, after being re-signed on a 3-year, 12 million dollar contract this off-season. This is a strong group in base packages, especially when JJ Watt plays defensive end, but they lack interior pass rush, with nose tackle DJ Reader arguably being their best interior pass rusher. 

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Starting middle linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham return, after playing 919 snaps in 16 games and 753 snaps in 14 games respectively last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has made 27 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has been solid in both seasons. He’s better as a run stuffer than in coverage, but he holds his own in coverage as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019.

McKinney also is better against the run than he is in coverage, but he earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus for both last season and finished a career best 8th among off ball linebackers on the season. Also a former 2nd round pick, McKinney has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons. He might not quite match his career best season in 2019, but he should be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league again. 

Depth is a problem for the Texans at this position though, with only former undrafted free agents Dylan Cole and Brennan Scarlett behind McKinney and Cunningham on the depth chart. Cole is a 2017 undrafted free agent with 326 career snaps, while Scarlett went undrafted in 2016 and has played just 523 career snaps. Mercilus and Clowney do play some inside linebacker in certain situations, but they couldn’t play the position every down, so the Texans would be in trouble if McKinney or Cunningham suffered a serious injury.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While not much is changing for the Texans in the front seven, they had some big losses in the secondary. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson were their top-2 defensive backs in terms of snaps played last season with 1,045 and 985 respectively and both signed elsewhere this off-season. Safety Andre Hal and cornerback Kevin Johnson only played 237 snaps and 65 snaps respectively last season, but they both have prior starting experience and are also no longer with the team. 

Not only did Mathieu and Jackson play significant snaps last season, but they also played at a high level, finishing 20th among safeties and 4th among cornerbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus last season, so they won’t be easy to replace. Mathieu was replaced by ex-Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson, who signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Gipson was released by the Jaguars ahead of an 8.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s a surprise he was able to get a deal that basically guarantees him 15.5 million over the next 2 seasons. 

Gipson has started 87 games in the past 6 seasons, including all 48 in the past 3 seasons, but he’s been an inconsistent player. He finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked qualifying safety, but he’s finished as high as 15th among safeties in 2014 and as low as 94th among 101 qualifying safeties in 2016. He’s not a bad starting option and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s not reliable and he’s an obvious downgrade from Mathieu. He’ll start next to second year safety Justin Reid, who finished as PFF’s 28th ranked safety on 906 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. He should have another solid season in 2019. 

Jackson, meanwhile, is being replaced by ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who signed a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick in 2014, Bradley Roby earned average or better grades from PFF in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, playing about two thirds of the snaps as the 3rd cornerback behind the talented duo of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. With Talib traded to the Rams last off-season, Roby became an every down cornerback and matched up with opponents’ top outside receivers more often than not, but he got exposed in that role, allowing a 117.3 QB rating into his coverage and finishing 102nd among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Giving him 10 million dollars on a deal that doesn’t even give the Texans an option to keep him beyond 2019 if he bounces back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and he could easily struggle again. 

Roby will start outside opposite Johnathan Joseph. Joseph is coming off of an impressive season, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF, but the 13-year veteran is going into his age 35 season and could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next season or two. Joseph has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 10 straight seasons, but last season was his highest ranked season since 2015. I don’t expect him to be as good again in 2019 and there’s a chance he declines significantly.

At slot cornerback, the Texans are counting on a bounce back year from Aaron Colvin. Colvin was signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar contract in free agency last off-season, becoming one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league, but ended up playing just 317 snaps in 8 games and finishing as PFF’s 120th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifiers. His 7.75 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed, so the Texans don’t have any choice but to give him another shot, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy. The 2014 4th round pick earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he’s had injury problems dating back to college, including a torn ACL that caused him to fall in the draft and an ankle injury that ended his 2016 season. 

With Joseph getting up there in age, the Texans used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson as a long-term replacement. Johnson is a workout wonder, but wasn’t a standout player in college and may need a couple years to develop. He’s unlikely to start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart, but could be forced into action if Colvin gets hurt again or Joseph declines significantly. With Mathieu and Jackson gone and Joseph likely to regress, this could be a very average secondary in 2019.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Texans were a good, not great team last year, with 11 of 16 games decided by a touchdown or less (6-5 record). They should be similar this season. On defense, their secondary likely won’t be as good in 2019 as it was last season, while their offense has more talent around the quarterback, but still some significant questions, especially on the offensive line. They’ll be in contention for a playoff spot, even with a tough schedule in a suddenly tough AFC South, but I think they are behind at least the Colts in the division. 

Final Update: The Texans had a prime opportunity to takeover the division with Andrew Luck surprisingly retiring, but they couldn’t come to terms with the franchise tagged Jadeveon Clowney and sent him to Seattle for pennies on the dollar. The addition of Laremy Tunsil helps their offensive line, even if they did overpay, but they’re still not a lock to win the division, with the Colts still possessing a strong supporting cast around Luck and the Titans and Jaguars also in the mix.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year ago, the Colts looked to be in one of the worst situations in the league. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck’s long-term future was uncertain because of a lingering shoulder issue that kept him out for all of 2017. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t play badly, but Luck’s absence exposed a supporting cast that was one of the worst in the league because of years of mismanagement and Brissett was only able to lead them to a 4-12 record in 2018 as a result. The Colts thought they were going to poach Josh McDaniels away from New England to replace Chuck Pagano as head coach, but he changed his mind at the last second and returning to New England, forcing the Colts to settle for Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

That looks to have been a blessing in disguise as now just a year later the Colts are in a great situation, coming off an improbable run to the post-season. The Colts started last season 1-5, but injuries were a big part of that and once they got healthy they went on to win 9 of their last 10 regular season games and a post-season game in Houston, before ultimately losing in Kansas City in the 2nd round. Even with the slow start included, the Colts finished the season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56%.

Second year general manager Chris Ballard did a great job of rebuilding this roster in the fly with inexpensive additions last off-season (more on those later), but the biggest reason for their turnaround was Andrew Luck’s return to form in head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system. Luck understandably started slow after a year off, completing 64.6% of his passes for an average of 6.22 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in their first 6 games, but he completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in the final 10 games of the season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback overall, his 2nd time finishing in the top-3 in his career. 

Most importantly, Luck played all 16 games, leaving backup Jacoby Brissett to only attempt 4 passes all season. Nonetheless, Brissett is still valuable insurance to have. The 2016 3rd round pick started 15 games in 2017 and had a 81.7 QB rating, despite little help around him. Brissett reportedly could have gotten the Colts a 2nd round pick via trade, but the Colts value him too much to let him go at that price, especially with Luck’s injury history. He’s arguably the best backup quarterback in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’ll likely end up getting a long-term starting job somewhere in the future. The Colts have a very enviable quarterback situation. 

Grade: A

Offensive Line

With Luck coming off of a serious injury, pass protection was paramount for the Colts in 2018. That also happens to be where the Colts made their biggest improvement from 2017 to 2018. Luck consistently played behind poor pass protection before the 2017 season, taking 156 sacks in 70 games, but last season he took just 18 sacks. Part of that was the offensive scheme getting the ball out of his hands quicker on average, but the offensive line deserves a lot of credit as well. 

Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castanzo were their only two returning starters from 2017 to 2018 and Kelly barely played in 2017, limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. Injuries have been a problem for Kelly the past two seasons and he missed another 4 games last season, but he took a big step forward in the field in 2018, finishing 11th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Durability remains a question, but he could remain a solid starting center for years to come, still only in his age 26 season.

Castonzo, meanwhile, has been starting since back when he was the only above average starter on this line. A first round pick in 2011, he’s made 116 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-8. He actually missed 5 games with injury early last season, part of why they got off to such a slow start, but he ended up finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle. He’s getting up there in age in his age 31 season, but could easily remain a reliable starting left tackle for at least another couple seasons. 

The rest of this starting offensive line consisted of a pair of draft picks, 6th overall pick left guard Quenton Nelson, PFF’s 6th ranked guard as a rookie, and 37th overall pick right tackle Braden Smith, PFF’s 27th ranked offensive tackle as a rookie, as well as free agent addition Mark Glowinski, who struggled mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career with Seattle and didn’t even make it into the starting lineup last season until week 7, but ended up finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked guard on the season. Glowinski is a complete one-year wonder, but the Colts brought him back on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal this off-season, ensuring complete continuity on this offensive line that played so well down the stretch last season. It’s possible we see some regression from an offensive line that had 4 out of 5 starters have career years in 2018, but this offensive line has a very bright future.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Colts were also much improved on the ground last season, after finishing below 4 yards per carry in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of that was the improved offensive line play, but they also had improved running back play as well, with lead back Marlon Mack leading the way. Mack missed 4 of the first 5 games with injury, but was a big part of their turnaround down the stretch, rushing for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns on 195 carries (4.66 YPC) and finishing 8th in carry success rate at 54%. A 4th round pick in 2017, Mack is a one-year wonder who averaged just 3.85 yards per carry on 93 rookie year carries, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily be one of the better runners in the league for years to come if he can stay healthy.

Mack doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 17 of 26 targets for an average of 3.96 yards per target and 3 drops last season, but they have Nyheim Hines to play in obvious passing situations. A 4th round rookie last season, Hines caught 63 passes for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked running back in pass catching grade. He also received 85 carries, but just 4.7 per game in the 12 games Mack played and was not terribly effective, averaging 3.69 yards per carry. He’ll likely still see a change of pace role to in addition to his passing game role, but he’s much more valuable as a receiver than as a runner.

Jordan Wilkins also saw his playing time drop dramatically with Mack in the lineup last season. He had 60 carries on the season and averaged an impressive 5.60 yards per carry, but he saw just 2.2 carries per game with Mack active and will likely see a similar role in 2019 as long as Mack is healthy. Unlike Hines, he doesn’t do much in the passing game (16 catches for 85 yards last season), but he’s good insurance to have in case Mack gets hurt again. He’s also very young, going in the 5th round in 2018. The Colts have done a great job of turning around the running back position in the past couple off-seasons with just a few mid round picks. 

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

It’s impressive that the Colts were able to have such a strong offensive performance last year (8th in first down rate) without a consistent #2 receiver. Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, and Dontrelle Inman all saw starts, but none of them topped 485 yards. The Colts made addressing this position a priority this off-season, using the 59th overall pick on Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell and signing ex-Panther Devin Funchess to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency.

Campbell was a good value at that spot and will likely open the season as the 3rd receiver, but Funchess’ contract is kind of head scratching. Funchess definitely has upside, as the 2015 2nd round pick is still only in his age 25 season and had a 63/840/8 slash line in 2017, but that fell to 44/549/4 in 2018 and he played just 94 snaps in his final 4 games last season, effectively being benched. He could prove to be worth his salary, but that’s far from a guarantee and even if he does he’ll likely cost even more to keep long-term beyond 2019. It would have made more sense if the Colts could have gotten him on a 3-year deal with minimal guaranteed money beyond the first year, giving them option years if Funchess pans out, but this contract doesn’t have much long-term upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed his career highs with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball though. His salary likely locks him in to the #2 receiver role.

Funchess figures to see plenty of single coverage opposite TY Hilton, who was by far their leading receiver among wideouts in 2018, with a 76/1270/6 slash line. Hilton underwhelmed with a 57/966/4 slash line without Luck in 2017, but he’s averaged a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games in his past 51 games with Luck under center. Hilton is going into his age 30 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and has only missed 4 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league. He dealt with a serious ankle injury down the stretch last season, but he showed incredible toughness, not just playing through it, but arguably having his best stretch of the season after getting hurt. As long as Luck is healthy, Hilton should remain among the most productive pass catchers in the league in 2019.

With depth problems at wide receiver, tight end Eric Ebron finished 2nd on the team with a 66/750/13 slash line on 110 targets, posting new career highs across the board. Ebron is unlikely to see quite as many targets this year though, after finishing 4th in the NFL among tight ends in targets last season. Not only did the Colts add talent at wide receiver this off-season, but they should also get more from #2 tight end Jack Doyle, who played just 331 snaps in 6 games last season. Doyle had slash lines of 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively as the starter and was on a 69/653/5 pace in 6 games last season, even with Ebron added to the mix last off-season. Doyle is also the better blocker of the two and should have a big role.

Ebron averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league with Detroit and will likely be closer to that than his 2018 numbers. He’ll still be involved as a red zone threat because this is an explosive offense and because Luck likes targeting tight ends near the goal line, but he’s unlikely to approach 13 scores again, after just 11 in his first 4 seasons in the league combined, in a much deeper receiving corps. This will likely be a very tough offense to stop next season, if they can stay healthier, after losing the 7th most games to injury on offense in the league last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Colts also had a lot of injury problems on defense last season, also finishing with the 4th most games lost to injury on defense. Despite that, they finished 11th in first down rate allowed. After years of relying on Andrew Luck to carry them, the Colts finally were a balanced team in 2018. The front office deserves a lot of credit for assembling the unit, but a lot of the credit should go to the coaching staff, led by first year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who successfully transitioned this defense from a bigger 3-4 to a 4-3 defense with more athleticism on the field. Eberflus was originally Josh McDaniels’ choice to be defensive coordinator and the Colts honored his contract even after McDaniels reneged, which proved to be a wise decision. He’s one of the best up and coming defensive coaches in the league and already received a couple head coaching interviews this off-season, after just one year as an NFL coordinator. 

In 2017, when the Colts ran a 3-4, their top two interior defenders in terms of snaps played were Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods, who tip the scales at about 325 and 330 pounds respectively. In transitioning to a 4-3, Hankins was cut ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, while Woods saw his role scaled back significantly, playing just 375 snaps as a situational run stuffer last season. Instead, it was converted defensive end Margus Hunt and hybrid defensive lineman Denico Autry, signed to a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal last off-season, leading the way on the interior, at just 295 and 275 pounds respectively. 

Both players had breakout years in a scheme that fits their skill sets perfectly. Hunt was a late bloomer, making 15 starts in 2018 after starting just 5 games in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to last season and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked interior defender on a career high 724 snaps. Hunt didn’t get much pass rush, with 5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.1% pressure rate, but he excelled against the run, even though he isn’t a traditional 320-330 pound run stuffer. The only concern with Hunt is that he’s already going into his age 32 season. The Colts didn’t seem too concerned when they re-signed Hunt for 9 million over 2 years this off-season, but he’s always been a better run stuffer than pass rusher and it’s very possible they scale his pass rush snaps back a little bit this season so he can focus on stuffing the run. 

Autry was their best interior pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 3 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate on the season, and he wasn’t bad against the run either, despite his lack of size. Autry is also a bit of a late bloomer, earning a career best PFF grade in his 5th season in the league in 2018, after earning middling grades at best in his first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland. Autry is going into his age 29 season, but he should continue giving them solid play from the interior, now in a defense that seems to fit his skillset better. 

Tyquan Lewis played primarily defensive end last season, but he’s expected to see more snaps on the interior this season and could be their primary interior pass rusher inside with Autry. A 2nd round pick out of Ohio State in 2018, Lewis was limited to an underwhelming 337 snaps in 8 games by injury last season, but still has a good upside. Weighing in at 269 pounds at the combine, Lewis will likely have to put on about 10 pounds this off-season to move inside, even in this undersized scheme, but that’s definitely doable and he could prove to be a better fit at his new position.

Al Woods is no longer with the team, leaving 6-4 333 pound Grover Stewart as the only situational run stuffer on their bench. The 2017 4th round pick struggled on a career high 292 snaps last season, but could see more playing time this season with Woods gone. He’s unlikely to ever develop into an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be improved in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. He and Hunt could be their primary early down players with Lewis and Autry as their primary sub package interior rushers. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The reason the Colts are moving Lewis inside is because they are deeper at defensive end than defensive tackle. In addition to drafting Lewis in the 2nd round last year, they also took Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round last year and then they used a 2nd round pick on TCU’s Ben Banogu in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. They also made a big free agent signing this off-season, signing ex-Chief Justin Houston to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal. He’ll start opposite incumbent starter Jabaal Sheard.

Houston used to be one of the best defenders in the entire league, finishing in the top-4 on Pro Football Focus among edge defenders in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, while totalling 40.5 sacks, 21 hits, and an 18.3% pressure rate in 38 games. However, injuries seem to have caught up with him. He’s missed 26 games over the past 6 seasons with a variety of injuries, only once playing all 16 games, and, in 3 seasons since that dominant 2013-2015 stretch, he’s seen his pass rush numbers drop to 22.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 32 games. 

That’s still impressive though and he still has a very impressive 14.8% pressure rate for his career, with 78.5 sacks and 51 hits in 102 career games. Even last season, he still finished 12th among edge defenders on PFF last season, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 12 games. Going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why the Chiefs parted ways with him rather than pay him a 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he could easily have at least a couple seasons of strong play left in the tank if he can stay on the field. He was a worthwhile signing by the Colts at a cheaper rate than what the Chiefs would have had to pay him to keep him. 

Sheard should also give them strong play on the other side. He’s never put up a big sack total, not surpassing 8 sacks in a season in 8 years in the league, but he’s been a top-31 edge defender on PFF for 4 straight seasons. He just has 24 sacks over that time period, but has added 27 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level. Like Houston, Sheard is going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and could easily have another couple seasons of above average play left in the tank. He and Houston make an impressive starting duo unless one expectedly sees their play fall off a cliff this season. 

With Houston and Sheard locked into starting roles, Kemeko Turay and Ben Banogu will be reserves, but both could see still see significant snaps in a rotational role. Turay was decent on 383 rookie year snaps and, like his draft classmate Tyquan Lewis, he could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Banogu, meanwhile, is a tremendous athlete, but still pretty raw as a prospect. 2017 6th round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad could also be in the mix, after flashing as a run stuffer on 415 total snaps in the first significant action of his career last season. With the addition of Houston, this is a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The biggest reason for the Colts defensive improvement last season was the addition of linebacker Darius Leonard in the 2nd round of the draft. Leonard flew a little under the radar in the draft because he went to South Carolina State, but passing on him proved to be a mistake for the rest of the league, as Leonard finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked off ball linebacker and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not only does Leonard excel in coverage and against the run, but he also pressured the quarterback 10 times on just 44 blitzes, including a ridiculous 7 sacks. He might not do that every season, but he should continue developing into one of the top linebackers in the NFL. 

The Colts lacked another good linebacker next to him last season though. Anthony Walker started 14 games last season and was a decent run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in coverage. The 2017 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but this could be his ceiling as a player. A pair of 2018 7th round picks, Matthew Adams and Zaire Alexander, struggled on 215 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, and also aren’t guaranteed to get any better. 

The Colts had the cap space to sign an upgrade in free agency this off-season, but opted to only use a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s Bobby Okereke. He could push Walker for his starting job, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. This is a very young group overall, so they have some upside, but for now Darius Leonard looks like their only reliable linebacker. Fortunately, he’s one of the best in the game, which elevates this entire group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback was probably the Colts’ most improved position group on defense from 2017 to 2018. That’s despite the fact that the Colts didn’t make any major additions between the two seasons. Their top-4 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played last season were all on the roster in 2017, though their top-3 did all see more playing time in 2018 than 2017, including a pair of starters in Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore who both had breakout seasons. 

Both breakout seasons were pretty improbable, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Desir had played just 907 defensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league with 4 teams, since being drafted by the Browns in the 4th round in 2014, and had never shown much in limited action, before finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 28 season last season. Moore, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2017 and was decent, but underwhelming on 384 rookie year snaps, before finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on PFF as a 15-game starter in 2018. Desir and Moore are both one-year wonders and could regress in 2019, but the Colts don’t seem to see that happening, re-signing both on long-term deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 30 million over 4 years respectively.

Quincy Wilson was the 3rd cornerback last season. The 2017 2nd round pick played just 435 snaps, but that was a slight bump from his rookie season, when he played 402. He wasn’t bad in either season, but could be pushed for the #3 cornerback job by 34th overall pick Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin easily could have gone in the first round and profiles as an above average starter long-term. Even if he spends his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Nate Hairston, a 2017 5th round pick who has struggled on 950 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. Hairston is not a roster lock with Ya-Sin coming in. Whoever wins the 3rd cornerback job will play outside opposite Desir in three cornerback sets, with Moore on the slot where he’s at his best. 

At safety, the Colts return starters Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers. It looked likely that the Colts would move on from Geathers as a free agent this off-season, but they were outbid for Landon Collins by the Redskins and decided to bring Geathers back on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. Hooker and Geathers both missed time with injury, playing 14 games and 12 games respectively. That’s been a theme for both of them in their careers unfortunately, but both are above average starters when healthy.

Hooker has the higher upside of the two, as he was the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished as PFF’s 15th ranked safety in 2018, despite coming off of a torn ACL that ended his 2017 season, and he is still only in his age 23 season, but Geathers is a solid starter as well. He’s been limited to 41 games in 4 seasons in the league, but in the two seasons he’s played at least 500 snaps, he’s finished 38th among safeties on PFF (2016) and 39th (2018). Still in the prime of his career, he was worth bringing back on a reasonable contract and the Colts have good insurance behind because Matthias Farley was a capable starter in 15 starts as an injury replacement in 2017. Even if there is some regression from the starting cornerbacks, this is still a deep and talented group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs against a tough Kansas City team on the road in one of the worst games the Colts played all season, but before being eliminated they were very much in Super Bowl contention, given how well they played once some players got healthy. This season, they go into the year without any major weaknesses on their roster and should be able to pick back up right where they left off contending for the Super Bowl. Their schedule will be tougher this season (they had the easiest schedule in the league last season in terms of opponents’ DVOA) and their division has suddenly become one of the tougher divisions in football, but they have the talent to win their division if they can stay healthier than last season, when they had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury. 

Final Update: The Colts’ Super Bowl chances were dealt a crippling blow when Andrew Luck suddenly decided to retire before the start of the season, but they could still contend for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC. Jacoby Brissett is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league and should fare much better in his 2nd stint as the starter, with a stronger supporting cast around him. He should also benefit from Frank Reich’s quarterback friendly offense, an offense he’s spent two years in, unlike his first stint as a starter when he was acquired right before the season.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Jaguars looked like a young team on the rise, winning the AFC South and coming within minutes of beating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl. That seemed to continue into 2018, when they started 3-1, including a rematch victory over New England week 2, but everything went downhill quickly from there and they ended the season at 5-11. Suddenly, a seemingly up and coming team regressed back to the team that finished 3-13 in 2016. Much like their 2016 team, the 2018 Jaguars had a strong defense (6th in first down rate allowed in 2016 and 5th in 2018) that was held back by an ineffective, turnover prone offense and a poor record in close games (2-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2016, 2-6 in 2018). 

A team’s record in close games tends to even out over the long run, but the Jaguars finished just 30th in first down rate in 2018, so changes needed to be made on offense. Highly paid quarterback Blake Bortles was benched mid-season for backup Cody Kessler and releasing him to save 11.5 million for 2019 was the obvious decision this off-season. Bortles showed flashes of being the player the Jaguars envisioned when drafting him 3rd overall in 2014, over players like Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham, but he was widely inconsistent and turnover prone.

After moving on from Bortles, the Jaguars had to decide between signing a veteran in free agency or using their 7th overall pick on a quarterback like Dwayne Haskins. They chose the former, which is understandable for a team that felt that were a quarterback away from being right back in Super Bowl contention, but it cost them, as they had to give ex-Eagles quarterback Nick Foles a 4-year, 88 million dollar contract in free agency. Signing Foles allowed them to save the 7th overall pick to use on the best available player, who ended up being defensive end Josh Allen, but the Jaguars could have signed 2-3 starters at other positions in free agency with the money they ended up committing to Foles.

Ultimately, whether or not this decision pays off depends on what version of Nick Foles the Jaguars get. Moving on from a quarterback who was widely inconsistent, the Jaguars signed a quarterback who has also been widely inconsistent. Foles definitely has a better top level than Bortles, but his career has had plenty of ups and downs. Foles had the 3rd highest single season QB rating of all time in 2013 and led the Eagles on back-to-back playoff runs as the backup quarterback without Carson Wentz the past 2 seasons, including a Super Bowl victory in 2017. 

However, he’s also been below an 82 QB rating in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including the 2017 regular season, which was a microcosm of his career, as he struggled in the regular season before going on one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs of all-time. Plenty of quarterbacks could be made to look bad by Jeff Fisher’s offense, which Foles played in during the 2015 season, but he also had a 79.1 QB rating in 2012 with Andy Reid as his head coach and a 81.4 QB rating in 2014 in the same Chip Kelly scheme that he had a 119.2 QB rating in the previous season. Foles is already going into his age 30 season, but it’s tough to know what kind of quarterback he is and he doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback week-to-week.

It’s also concerning that Foles has never made it through an entire 16 game season in his career. Part of that is because he’s been a backup in recent years, but he’s dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career and could easily miss a couple starts in 2019. If that happens, the Jaguars lack another good option, with only 2018 6th round pick Tanner Lee and 6th round rookie Gardner Minshew behind him on the depth chart. It might be the worst backup quarterback situation in the league, so the Jaguars will need Foles to start all 16 games if they are going to get back on top in a now much tougher AFC South. Even if they do get 16 starts from him, how he performs in those starts is tough to project.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

One key to helping Foles succeed in Jacksonville is putting infrastructure around him, both in terms of players and coaching. That was something he severely lacked with the Rams the first time he left Philadelphia and his second stint outside of Philadelphia might not go much better if the Jaguars can’t put the right pieces around him. Fortunately, they were able to bring back in his old quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to coordinate the offense. DeFilippo’s first attempt at coordinating an offense last season with the Vikings didn’t go well, leading to him getting fired midway through the season, but he’s still regarded as an up and coming offensive mind and the familiarity with Foles should work to his benefit.

The Jaguars also figure to try to be a run heavy team to take the pressure off of Foles. They’ll likely open up the passing game more with Foles under center than they did with Bortles, but the Jaguars still have a strong defense and can afford to be conservative on offense. This team was built in large part by former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who is about as old school as they come, and he has built this team in that image, now in an executive role. That’s probably a big part of why the Jaguars pursued Foles this off-season rather than starting a rookie, even if doing so would have allowed them to add talent at other positions. Coughlin wants an experienced signal caller under center.

Coughlin isn’t coaching anymore obviously, but head coach Doug Marrone is entering his 3rd season with the team, working under Coughlin, and is obviously on the same page with Coughlin in terms of the kind of offense they are going to run. In 2017, the Jaguars ran just 551 pass plays to 527 run plays and, while they might not have quite that even of a split in 2019, it’s clear the blueprint they want to follow to win games. 

The problem with that is they have a lot of uncertainty at running back. The Jaguars used the 4th overall pick in the 2017 draft on running back Leonard Fournette, but his career has been a mixed bag so far. He’s been relied on as a feature back whenever active, averaging 20.6 carries and 16.7 carries per game in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s been limited to 21 games in 2 seasons in the league and has just a career 3.69 YPC average. 

Lack of offensive talent around him has been a big part of his struggles and he’s actually done a decent job keeping this offense on schedule all things considered, ranking 25th out of 46 qualifying running backs in carry success rate in 2017 (44%) and 26th out of 47 qualifying in 2018 (47%), but he hasn’t been the back the Jaguars expected when they drafted him 4th overall. There were rumors this off-season that the Jaguars were actually looking to move on from Fournette this off-season, after a one-game personal foul suspension last season that voided the remainder of his guaranteed money. 

That didn’t end up happening and recent reports have been positive about Fournette’s standing with the team long-term. Still only in his age 24 season, Fournette still has a huge upside and could easily have a breakout 3rd season in the league, supported by better quarterback play. That’s far from a guarantee though and he’ll need to stay healthy, something he has had a lot of trouble doing thus far in his career. Few running backs have his combination of power and explosiveness, but he hasn’t shown it consistently thus far in his career.

The Jaguars especially need Fournette to stay healthy and be more productive because they don’t have much depth behind him anymore. TJ Yeldon has been their passing down back and backup running back the past two seasons (85 catches, 155 carries), but he’s no longer with the team and the Jaguars don’t have a clear replacement. Free agent addition Alfred Blue has 673 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but just a 3.58 YPC average and he isn’t a passing game threat, with 69 catches in 73 career games. 

Fellow free agent Thomas Rawls exploded on to the scene by averaging 5.65 YPC on 147 rookie year carries with the Seahawks in 2015, but injuries have limited him to 3.03 YPC on 167 carries in 3 seasons since and he’s also not a pass catcher, with 31 career catches in 34 career games. 5th round rookie Ryquell Armstead is also a redundant talent, a downhill runner who doesn’t contribute in the passing game. None are guaranteed to make the final roster.

Benny Cunningham, another free agent addition, also isn’t a lock for the roster, but he at least has some experience as a passing back down, catching 71 balls in 2 seasons from 2014-2015. However, he has just 78 total touches in 3 seasons since and has never topped 66 carries in 6 seasons in the league. He’s also already going into his age 29 season. He might have the clearest path to a role because his skillset isn’t redundant, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him.

Even if Cunningham can earn a situational pass catching role, I would still expect Leonard Fournette to be more involved in the passing game in his 3rd season in the league than he’s been thus far in his career. He has just 58 catches in 21 career games and wasn’t a great pass catcher in college either, but, even if he isn’t the most refined passing down back, it still makes sense for the Jaguars to try to get the ball in his hands in the open field in multiple ways, given his talent level. If Fournette plays well, it wouldn’t make much sense to regularly take him off the field for a bottom of the roster talent like Cunningham. This group has a high ceiling if Fournette can stay healthy and have a breakout year, but they also have a very low floor if Fournette struggles or gets hurt, because they lack depth.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Fournette was not the only player the Jaguars were missing on offense last season. In fact, they finished with the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in the league, only behind the Redskins. Poor quarterback play is the biggest reason why they struggled on offense last season, but their banged up supporting cast definitely made things even worse. No unit was more banged up than their offensive line, which had seven players spend time on injured reserve last season, including four of five week 1 starters.

Five of those seven players were their top-5 offensive tackles. Starting left tackle Cam Robinson tore his ACL week 2 and missed the rest of the season. He was replaced by Josh Wells and then Josh Walker, who both followed him to injured reserve. At right tackle, starter Jermey Pernell made it 13 games without getting hurt, but a knee injury ultimately landed him on injured reserve and his backup, 4th round rookie Will Richardson, went on injured reserve back in week 7 with a knee injury, before ever playing an offensive snap. 

Needless to say, the Jaguars should have better health at this position in 2019. Robinson is expected to return as the starter at left tackle and, while Jermey Pernell was let go this off-season ahead of a 6 million dollar salary, the Jaguars can replace him with either Will Richardson or 2nd round rookie Jawaan Taylor. Even though Richardson didn’t play a snap as a rookie, he’s still well regarded by the coaching staff and will at least have a shot at the job. Taylor is likely the favorite though, as he was considered a likely first round pick and the Jaguars moved up to get him 35th overall after he surprisingly slipped into day 2. Both players are obviously unproven, but they come with upside.

Left tackle Cam Robinson also comes with some uncertainty, not just coming off of the injury, but also because the 2017 34th overall pick didn’t play all that well as a rookie, finishing 62nd out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Robinson has plenty of upside and he was off to a better start in 2018 before the injury, but that was just 71 snaps. He could continue to struggle in 2019, especially early in the season, coming off of a serious injury.

Left guard Andrew Norwell and center Brandon Linder are also coming off of significant injuries, Norwell going down week 12 with an ankle injury and Linder going down week 10 with a knee injury. Both are set to return in 2019 though and they’re much better players than anyone who is returning at tackle. Norwell was a big free agent addition last off-season, signing on a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal, after finishing in the top-21 among guards on PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, maxing out at 8th in 2017. Prior to going down last season, he ranked 21st at his position, so he was obviously a big loss.

Linder, meanwhile, was PFF’s 5th ranked center when he went down, his 3rd straight season in the top-7 among centers, dating back to when he changed positions from right guard to center in 2016. Linder can play guard if needed and played pretty well there earlier in his career, but he seems to be a better fit at center. Like Norwell, he’ll be a big re-addition. Both Norwell and Linder are also still in the prime of their careers, only in their age 28 and age 27 seasons respectively. 

Right guard AJ Cann only missed 1 game with injury last season, but he didn’t play all that well. He’s started 59 games in 4 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but he’s never been better than an average starter. The Jaguars had an opportunity to try to find an upgrade this off-season with Cann set to hit free agency, but they opted to bring him back on a 3-year, 15.055 million dollar deal. He’s an underwhelming option, but he’s not overpaid and might be the best the Jaguars could do after giving Nick Foles a big contract. This offensive line still has problems, but the re-additions of Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder will be a big boost and they could easily get better play at the tackle positions as well.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Jaguars also lost starting wide receiver Marqise Lee with a knee injury before the season even started. He finished 2nd on the team in receiving with a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017. Even without him, it still looked like the Jaguars would have a deep receiving corps, with Donte Moncrief coming in as a free agent, DJ Chark coming in via the second round of the draft, and a pair of 2nd year receivers in Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole looking likely to take the next step. However, Chark did next to nothing as a rookie (14 total catches), Cole regressed, Moncrief was average at best, leaving Westbrook, who led the team across the board with a 66/717/5 slash line, as the only receiver to meet expectations. 

Westbrook looks like the favorite to lead them in receiving again in 2019 and he could easily surpass last year’s totals if he’s able to develop good chemistry with his new quarterback, but he’ll have plenty of competition. Not only is Marqise Lee returning from injury, but they added Chris Conley in free agency to replace Moncrief and both Cole and Chark will likely also be in the mix for a role. A 4th round pick in 2017, Westbrook also flashed as a rookie with a 27/339/1 slash line in just 7 games and he has shown the ability to play both outside like he did as a rookie and on the slot like he did last season, which allows him to play in all packages. He’s the most obvious slot option on the team, so he should at least have a role on the slot in 3-wide receiver sets.

Lee could return to a starting outside role and has averaged a 60/777/3 slash line in his last 2 healthy seasons in 2016-2017, but he’s not expected to be ready for the start of training camp and could easily be less than 100% to start the season. He also has a concerning injury history, being limited to just 52 catches in 23 games in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014-2015 by various injuries. He could easily end up being a significant part of this passing game by season’s end, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with him. 

Keelan Cole actually led the Jaguars in receiving in 2017, even with Lee healthy, posting a 42/748/3 slash line. Making that even more impressive is the fact that the 2017 undrafted free agent barely played the first 6 weeks of the season, before catching 36 passes for 701 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 10 games of the season (58/1122/5 slash line extrapolated over 16 games). Cole looked likely to take the next step as a full season starter in 2018, but finished with just a 38/491/1 slash line and progressively saw less and less playing time as the season went on. 

Before DJ Chark went down with an injury week 11, Chark was seeing more and more playing time at Cole’s expense and, even after Chark went down, depth receiver Rashad Greene saw some playing time as the 3rd receiver at Cole’s expense. Cole has some bounce back potential in 2019, but it’s important to remember the entire league let him go undrafted, so it’s possible his rookie year proves to be an aberration. He could easily end up behind Chark on the depth chart going in 2019, as Chark has the much higher ceiling and could make a leap from year 1 to year 2. 

Free agent acquisition Chris Conley could also end up higher than Cole on the depth chart, as he’s reportedly had a very strong off-season, but it’s important to remember that Conley has always been a workout freak whose athleticism hasn’t translated to meaningful games. In 4 seasons in the league, the 2015 3rd round pick has averaged just 0.87 yards per route run with a career high of 530 yards in a season, despite playing with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes under center in Kansas City. Now in his age 27 season, it would be a surprise to see him suddenly break out, but he could still carve out a rotational role as an outside receiver in an unsettled receiver group. 

The Jaguars also had serious injury problems at tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins was signed to a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at tight end, but he managed just a 11/90/1 slash line in 5 games before going down for the season. His replacements Niles Paul and David Grinnage soon followed him to injured reserve, leaving veteran journeyman James O’Shaughnessy to start the final 8 games of the season. O’Shaughnessy was actually impressive as a run blocker, but struggled mightily as a receiver, averaging 0.78 yards per route run on 276 routes on the season. 

Seferian-Jenkins was let go this off-season (as were Paul and Grinnage), making tight end a pressing need for them going into the off-season, but they didn’t do a ton to address the position, using a 3rd round pick on San Jose State tight end Josh Oliver and signing ex-Cowboy Geoff Swaim in free agency. Oliver is a promising receiving prospect and could lead the position group in receiving by default as a rookie, while Swaim will compete with O’Shaughnessy for the blocking tight end job. 

Swaim’s contract (2 years 6 million) suggests he’s the favorite for the job. He had just 9 catches in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2015-2017, but didn’t embarrass himself as a receiver in 9 games as the Cowboys’ lead tight end last season, averaging just 9.3 yards per catch pn 26 catches, but catching 81.3% of his targets. He likely won’t be a big factor in the passing game in Jacksonville, but he gives them a little bit better of receiver than O’Shaughnessy without sacrificing blocking ability and he should have a significant role, with rookie Josh Oliver very raw as a blocker. This is an underwhelming receiving corps overall, even if they stay healthier than last season.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

The Jaguars have been one of the best defensive teams in the league in each of the past 3 seasons, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed in 2016, 1st in 2017, and 5th last season. They were held back significantly by their offense in two of those three seasons, but they should be better on that side of the ball this season, so if their defense continues to play at a high level, they should be right back into playoff contention. Changes have taken place on this defense in the past two off-seasons though, as they have lost 7 of their top-13 in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2017 defense. 

Two of those seven players were defensive linemen, as they traded Dante Fowler (464 snaps in 2017) to the Rams at the trade deadline last year for draft picks and then cut Malik Jackson (756 snaps in 2017) for salary purposes this off-season, but the Jaguars have also used their past two first round picks on defensive linemen, so they still have a very deep unit upfront. This year, they had arguably the best defensive player in the entire draft fall to them at 7th overall in Kentucky’s Josh Allen. He’ll instantly have a significant role on this defense, especially as an edge rusher in sub packages. 

He’ll primarily line up opposite Yannick Ngakoue in sub packages. The Jaguars have to deal with the issue of Ngakoue’s contract long-term, as he’s currently holding out ahead of a 2.025 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, but if they can lock him up long-term and Allen can become the player he’s expected to be, they could be one of the best edge rush duos in the league for years to come, with Ngakoue still only going into his age 24 season. The 2016 3rd round pick has 29.5 sacks, 45 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league, though the undersized 6-2 248 has struggled against the run. Given his age, his best days could still be ahead of him. 

Calais Campbell is also a dangerous pass rusher, but he’ll likely see more action on the interior in sub packages, with Allen coming in and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who still played 628 snaps last season, no longer on the team. Campbell’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he’s had an impressive career, finishing in the top-10 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 11 seasons in the league and excelling as both an edge defender and interior defender. 

Since signing with the Jaguars before the 2017 season, Campbell has been primarily an edge defender and has totalled 25 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate and he also has a 9.7% pressure rate for his career, despite being primarily an interior defender for most of his career. Even if he takes a step back in 2019, he should still be a versatile pass rushing force on this defensive line. The Jaguars also have 2017 3rd round pick Dewuane Smoot in the mix for a situational role at defensive end. Despite being a relatively high pick, Smoot has played just 424 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he played 21.4 snaps per game last season after Fowler got traded and flashed with a 10.4% pressure rate. Still only in his age 24 season, he could easily take a step forward in 2019. This is a very deep group. 

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Along with Calais Campbell, hybrid defensive lineman Taven Bryan is also likely to become primarily an interior defender this season with Malik Jackson gone. A first round rookie last year, Bryan was seeing more playing time at Jackson’s expense down the stretch last season, averaging 28.2 snaps per game in the final 6 games of the season, after just 13.2 during the first 10 games. He only played 301 snaps overall, but he showed a lot of promise and made it a relatively easy decision to move on from a declining Malik Jackson and his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019. He should have a bigger role in 2019 and could easily have a breakout season.

In base packages, Marcell Dareus and Abry Jones will start at defensive tackle. A 8-year veteran, Dareus has always been a strong run stuffer and finished 22nd among interior defenders in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018, but he hasn’t been as good as a pass rusher in recent years, with 8.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons, as opposed to 28.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 5.4% pressure rate in the first 4 seasons of his career. 

Now in his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly find his old pass rush form, but he should remain a strong run stuffer. The Jaguars made him take a paycut down to 10.585 million from 8.085 million to keep his roster spot for 2019. He’ll play around the 563 snaps he played in 2018. Abry Jones, meanwhile, played 498 snaps last season and is a good early down run stuffer. He’s earned an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons on an average of 483 snaps per season, but he also has just a 5.2% pressure rate for his career. He’ll also likely play a similar role in 2019 on a still very deep defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One loss the Jaguars did not plan for was linebacker Telvin Smith, who unexpectedly walked away from the team this off-season. Smith fell to 43rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, after finishing in the top-25 in both 2016 and 2017, so it’s possible whatever caused him to walk away was an issue for him last season as well. He’s still a big loss though. The Jaguars seemed to have some idea they might be without Smith on draft day, taking Alabama linebacker Quincy Williams in the 3rd round. Now he’ll have to play a significant rookie year role.

Williams will likely primarily play in passing situations as a rookie. Not only is the undersized 5-11 225 pounder a converted safety, but the Jaguars have 2018 7th round pick Leon Jacobs, who flashed as a run stuffer in very limited action as a rookie (146 snaps), and Jake Ryan, who earned an average or better run stopping grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 on an average of 422 snaps, before missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL. Ryan and Jacobs will likely start alongside Myles Jack in base packages, with Williams coming in along with a 5th defensive back in sub packages.

Jack remains as an every down player and is clearly their best linebacker now without Telvin Smith. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jack has started all 32 games the past 2 seasons. He hasn’t been a dominant player, but there isn’t an obvious weakness in his game, as he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping, pass coverage, and blitzing (4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 17.4% pressure rate on 132 blitzes) in each of the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Jack’s best days could still be ahead of him, but this isn’t nearly as good of a linebacking corps as 2017, with Paul Posluszny (PFF’s 6th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving last off-season and Telvin Smith (14th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving this off-season.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Jaguars also lost both of their starting safeties this off-season, cutting Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church ahead of non-guaranteed salaries of 8.25 million and 6.25 million respectively, in order to free up money to sign Nick Foles. They also didn’t do anything to replace either of them this off-season and will be replacing them internally with a couple of young players. Barry Church won’t really be missed because he struggled last season and 2018 3rd round pick Ronnie Harrison, who was seeing snaps at Church’s absence down the stretch last season, could easily be an upgrade.

Gipson will be tougher to replace though, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked safety in 2018 and is being replaced with inexperienced 2016 undrafted free agent Jarrod Wilson. Wilson flashed in 3 games as the starter down the stretch last season, but he’s played just 305 snaps in his career total. The Jaguars seem sold on him though, giving him a 3-year extension worth 7.25 million dollars this off-season. If Wilson breaks out as a starter, that will look like a steal, but that’s far from a guarantee considering he went undrafted and is very unproven. 

Last off-season, the Jaguars lost slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, who was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, and replaced him with veteran journeyman DJ Hayden. Hayden missed 6 games with injury, but was a pleasant surprise when on the field, finishing 25th among cornerbacks on PFF on 456 snaps. Injuries have always been a problem for him, as he’s missed 25 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league, and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, but the former first round pick could prove to be a bit of a late bloomer. 

Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye remain from their 2017 team as the starting outside cornerbacks. They were better in 2017 though, finishing 2nd and 7th among cornerbacks respectively on PFF, which fell to 31st and 22nd respectively in 2018, still impressive, but not what they were the year before. Both have bounce back potential though. Last season was Ramsey’s lowest ranked season in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted 5th overall in 2016, and he still has as much upside as any cornerback in the league, still only in his age 25 season. Bouye, meanwhile, is very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and last season was also his worst season in 3 seasons. This secondary definitely has some questions, including a lack of depth if injuries strike, but they still have one of the best cornerback duos in the league.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jaguars will likely have better quarterback play, a more even turnover margin, and a better record in close games this season than last season, but their defense has lost some luster the past couple off-seasons, as it’s been impossible to keep all of this talent together, especially now with Foles taking up a big part of their salary cap for the next few years. They’re also in a much tougher division now than they were in 2017, when Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all missed significant time with injury. They could be in the mix for a playoff spot, but I think it’s more likely they end up on the outside looking in. They do have a high upside if both Nick Foles and Leonard Fournette can play up to their potential on offense, but that’s a big if. 

Prediction: 6-10, 4th in AFC South

Tennessee Titans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s not often a team goes into an off-season with backup quarterback near the top of their needs list, but that was the case for the Titans this off-season. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota has never made it through a 16 game season in 4 seasons in the league and the Titans have never had a competent backup behind him, turning to the likes of Zach Mettenberger, Matt Cassel, and Blaine Gabbert when Mariota has missed time in his career. 

That need was filled this off-season when the Titans made a deal with the Dolphins for their former starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, sending a 2020 4th round pick to Miami, who will pay 5 million of the 7 million dollar reduced salary that Tannehill agreed to as part of the deal (none of his 18.75 million dollar salary was guaranteed for 2019). Tannehill was a failed starter in Miami, but he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has a career 87.0 QB rating, so he’s as good as backup quarterbacks come. 

Some have suggested that Tannehill might be a legitimate contender for the starting job, but there are no real indications the Titans plan on benching Mariota, at least not for week 1. Mariota hasn’t played badly when on the field, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions in 55 career starts, while adding 1270 yards and 11 touchdowns on 218 carries (5.83 YPC), numbers that would have been better if Mariota hadn’t played so many games at less than 100%.

Last season, Mariota got off to a horrible start after suffering a week 1 injury to his throwing arm and the Titans were just 3-4 heading into their bye, but he completed 71.3% of his passes for an average of 8.28 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his final 8 starts (6-2), before being knocked out for a week 17 game that the Titans ended up losing, eliminating them from post-season contention. Mariota actually was knocked out of 3 separate games with his neck/arm injury last season and missed week 2 and part of week 3, as well as week 17. In 2017, he missed 1 game and was limited in others with a hamstring injury. In 2016, he broke his leg week 16, ending the Titans’ playoff chances that season as well. And as a rookie, he missed four games and was limited in others with knee injuries.

Going into his 5th season in the league, the Titans are coming to a crossroads with Mariota, who was originally the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Mariota gets a big pay raise to 20.922 million this season on his 5th year option and could cost a similar amount annually on a long-term extension, going into the final year of his rookie deal. Some players are more injury prone than others and Mariota just might be one of those players, especially since he’s a quarterback who likes to take off and run, which leads to him taking extra hits. The Titans will have to decide how that factors into his value long-term, especially since he’s been a middling starter even when healthy. He can earn a lot of money with a strong 2019 season and, even if he gets hurt again, the Titans at least have a better backup option this time around.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Marcus Mariota’s improved play is a big part of the reason why the Titans were able to go on that 6-2 run last season, but they also were a better running team in the second half of the season as well, especially after deciding to give more work to Derrick Henry in the final 6 weeks of the season. Henry and Dion Lewis split carries pretty evenly for the first 10 weeks of the season, 110 and 122 respectively, but Henry had 105 carries to 33 for Lewis in the final 6 weeks of the season.

It’s hard to believe it took the Titans that long to make that decision. By season’s end, Derrick Henry had 1,059 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.93 YPC) and had a 51% carry success rate, while Lewis had 517 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 155 carries (3.34 YPC) and had a 34% carry success rate. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Henry had always had a lot of talent as a runner and seemed to break out down the stretch last season, rushing for 655 yards and 8 touchdowns on 105 carries (6.24 YPC) in those final 6 games of the season. Even if he regresses a little in 2019, he still has a career 4.58 YPC average on 501 carries, with 3.52 yards per carry after contact and 93 career broken tackles. He should be the clear lead back in 2019.

Dion Lewis will still be involved though, especially in the passing game. Lewis had a 59/400/1 slash line as a receiver last season and has caught 144 passes in his last 46 games, while Henry has just 39 catches for his career and is unlikely to suddenly become a big threat in the passing game. Lewis will still have a role on the ground too, even as he clear #2 back, as this will likely remain a run heavy team, in part to try to hide Marcus Mariota. Lewis struggled mightily on the ground last season, but averaged 4.82 yards per carry on 293 carries in 3 seasons in New England prior to joining the Titans on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal last off-season and has some bounce back potential. This is a solid running back tandem, especially if Henry continues to get the majority of the carries.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even though this will likely remain a run heavy team, the Titans did make some moves this of-season to try to open up their passing game, adding ex-Buccaneers slot receiver Adam Humphries on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal and using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi wide receiver AJ Brown. They were needed additions for a wide receiver group that only had one player top 500 yards receiving last season. 

Corey Davis led the way last season with a 65/891/4 slash line, but he’ll likely see fewer targets this season, after receiving the ball on 26.4% of pass attempts last season. His 112 targets were 24th in the NFL, even though the Titans had the 2nd fewest pass attempts of any team last season. If Davis wants to improve on last season’s numbers, he’ll need to take a step forward as a player and do it on fewer targets. The 5th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Davis certainly has the talent to do so. 

Humphries could push Davis for the team lead in receiving yards. He’s had slash lines of 55/622/2, 61/631/1, and 76/816/5 in the past 3 seasons respectively and is still only going into his age 26 season. He’s purely a slot receiver though and might not see much action in two wide receiver sets. AJ Brown could be the nominal #2 receiver, playing outside opposite Davis in two-wide receiver sets, but he could be pushed for snaps by holdovers Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe.

Taylor is the better of the two and the 2017 3rd round pick flashed last season on 446 snaps, averaging 1.87 yards per route run and finishing 2nd on the team in receiving yards with a 37/466/1 slash line. Sharpe, meanwhile, has averaged just 1.03 yards per route run in his career and probably isn’t a lock for this final roster. At the very least, Taylor will provide solid depth for a wide receiver group that got a lot deeper during the off-season.

The Titans also get tight end Delanie Walker back from a broken ankle that cost him all but one game last season. Walker is going into his age 35 season and coming off of a significant injury, but he averaged a 74/896/5 slash line from 2014-2017. He likely won’t come close to those numbers on a run heavy team with other passing game targets, but he’s always been a solid run blocker and could still be a significant part of this offense even without putting up huge passing game numbers. Even at less than his best, he’ll be a welcome re-addition for a team that didn’t have much at tight end in his absence.

In Walker’s absence last season, second year tight end Jonnu Smith led the team with 611 snaps played in 13 games before suffering his own injury. He was an obvious downgrade, averaging just 1.04 yards per route run with a 20/258/3 slash line and struggling as a blocker as well. The 2017 3rd round pick likely still has the inside track on the #2 tight end job behind Walker, but he hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league. As long as Walker is healthy, Smith will primarily be a blocking specialist on a team that should have more passing game options in 2019.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Offensive line play was also a problem last season, as Marcus Mariota took 42 sacks, 8th most in the NFL, which isn’t ideal for a quarterback as injury prone as Mariota. Part of that is Mariota’s fault, as he led the league by taking a sack on 29.8% of his pressured dropbacks, but offensive line play deserves some of the blame as well. On top of that, the Titans lost their starting guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline this off-season, Spain signing with the Bills as a free agent and Kline being released ahead of a 6.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing with the Vikings. 

The Titans did add Rodger Saffold in free agency and he’ll likely be better than both Spain or Kline. Saffold had injury problems early in his career, but he’s made 46 of 48 possible starts at left guard in the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-8 among guards on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and the Titans are paying a lot for his services, making him the 6th highest paid guard in the league in average annual value with a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal, but he should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, even if he does start to decline.

Right guard is still a question mark though. The Titans used a 3rd round pick on UNC Charlotte’s Nate Davis, but it’s unclear if he’ll be able to start as a rookie. Their only other experienced option is veteran journeyman Kevin Pamphile, who has 35 career starts, including 29 from 2016-2017, but he finished 78th out of 85 qualifying guards and 49th out of 92 qualifying guards on PFF in those two seasons respectively and would be a very underwhelming starting option in 2019.

Former first round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin remain the starters at left and right tackle respectively. They used to be one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL and Lewan is still one of the best left tackles in the league, finishing in the top-22 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons (62 starts), but Conklin’s career has kind of been derailed by injury. The 8th overall pick in 2016, Conklin finished 31st and 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively, but he tore his ACL in their playoff loss in New England in January 2018. 

Conklin didn’t make his 2018 season debut until week 4 and was limited to 498 underwhelming snaps in 9 games by subsequent knee injuries. He’s still not healthy this off-season, and had his 5th year option for 2020 declined, even though it’s guaranteed for injury only, which is not a good sign. There’s no indication his status for week 1 is in doubt and he could still get a significant contract next off-season if he can stay healthy in 2019, but the Titans didn’t want to take the risk with an option worth 12.866 million, which would have put him among the 3 highest paid right tackles in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but might not be the same player he was in 2016-2017. If he misses time with injury again, the Titans would likely turn to Dennis Kelly, a career journeyman with 27 career starts.

Center Ben Jones also remains as the starter. He’s started all 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 12th among centers. Jones is going into his age 30 season, but centers can have long careers and I see no reason to expect him to suddenly fall off in 2019. He should have another solid season on an offensive line that looks strong except for right guard. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Unlike the Titans’ offense, which struggled, ranking 24th in first down rate at 34.12%, the Titans’ defense played well, allowing the 4th lowest first down rate in the league at 32.77%. Their one weakness was their edge rush, as they didn’t have a single edge defender with more than 4.5 sacks. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan were the nominal starters, starting 13 games and 12 games respectively, but they had just 1.5 sacks and 0.5 sacks respectively. Orakpo and Morgan were both free agents this off-season, giving the Titans an opportunity to upgrade.

In free agency, the Titans signed long-time Dolphin Cameron Wake to a 3-year, 23 million dollar contract. A 10-year veteran (all with Miami), Wake has had 98 sacks, 151 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate in his career. Now going into his age 37 season, his age is a significant concern, but he was still an effective rusher as a part-time player last season, with 6 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 17.3% pressure rate. He’s unlikely to significantly top the 517 snaps he played in 2018 and, at his age. his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but he could continue being effective in a situational role. 

With Morgan and Orakpo both missing time with injury last season, rookie Harold Landry actually led Titan edge defenders with 592 snaps played last season. He didn’t show much, with 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate on the season, but he’ll still likely play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league in 2019 and the 2nd round pick has the talent to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. 

With Landry and Wake working as the primary edge rushers, reserves Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch will be situational run stoppers. Correa has never topped 323 snaps in a season and has just a career 6.7% pressure rate, but the 2016 2nd round pick has developed into a solid run stopper and could set a new career high in snaps in 2019, still only in his age 25 season. Finch, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed on 206 rookie year snaps. He looks deserving of a larger role. The addition of Cameron Wake will probably give the Titans more edge rush than last season, but that’s not a guarantee at his age, and the Titans lack a standout edge defender.

Grade: B- 

Interior Defenders

Arguably the Titans’ best defensive player is interior defender Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense. Just a 4th round pick 2011, Casey has started 123 of 128 starts since entering the league and has finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, including 2 seasons in the top-10 and a 17th ranked season in 2018. Casey is going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and would still be one of the better interior defenders in the league even if he started to decline a little.

Casey will be an every down player and will start alongside nose tackle Austin Johnson and fellow starting defensive end Daquan Jones in base packages. The 6-4 314 pound Johnson is a pure nose tackle and played just 399 snaps total in 2018, actually a career high. He was a 2nd round pick in 2016 and is a solid run stuffer, but has just a 2.7% pressure rate in his career and is only a situational player. He seems unlikely to develop into much more.

Daquan Jones is also a much better run stuffer than pass rusher, earning an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, but managing just a 5.7% pressure rate for his career. He plays more than Johnson, averaging 592 snaps per game during those 4 seasons, but he’ll likely come off the field frequently in passing situations for free agent addition Brent Urban, who was a situational pass rusher with the Ravens last season.

Urban has just a career 6.7% pressure rate though and has missed 39 of a possible 80 games, since going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft. He’s an underwhelming signing for a team that doesn’t have another interior pass rusher. The Titans could also get first round pick Jeffrey Simmons back late in the season, but he’s considered highly questionable to play at all as a rookie because of a torn ACL suffered in the pre-draft process in February and wouldn’t be back until December at the earliest. This group will be stout against the run again, but Jurrell Casey can expect to see frequent double teams in pass rush situations. 

Grade: B+

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Titans had a trio of players rotate snaps last season. Jayon Brown (852 snaps) and Wesley Woodyard (714 snaps) were their primary coverage linebackers, with Rashaan Evans (494 snaps) rotating as a situational run stuffer. All three players return and should see similar roles in 2019. Evans was a first round pick in 2018 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but he didn’t show much in coverage and will likely have to wait until Woodyard becomes a free agent next off-season to have a shot at a bigger role, unless injuries strike. 

Woodyard is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s still a solid player, finishing 21st among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018. He’s never been a standout player and has never earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, but he’s started 108 of the 165 games he’s played in 11 seasons in the league, including 92 starts in the past 7 seasons, and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He may decline in 2019, but could remain a capable starter. 

Jayon Brown is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 9th among off ball linebackers on PFF. The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder though, finishing 77th among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on 487 rookie year snaps. Brown could continue playing at a high level, now in his 3rd season in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed a little bit from last season. Even still, this is an impressive trio of linebackers. Even if one of the starters were to get hurt, Rashaan Evans should be capable of moving to an every down role if needed.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Titans got solid play from their front seven last season, but the strength of this defense was the secondary and they bring back their top-5 defensive backs in terms of snaps played. Safety Kevin Byard is the best of the bunch and arguably their best defensive player overall. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Byard broke out in 2017, finishing 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and leading the league with 8 interceptions. 

In 2018, that interception total got cut in half, but that was mostly because defenses stopped testing him, throwing into his coverage about half as frequently as 2017. He still finished as PFF’s 6th ranked safety and, only going into his age 26 season, looks likely to be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could push to be the league’s highest paid safety (upwards of 14 million annually) on his next contract.

Kenny Vaccaro remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick by the Saints in 2013, Vaccaro had an up and down 5 seasons in New Orleans and had to settle for signing a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal with the Titans late in the off-season last year, but he was a solid starter in 13 games in 2018 and the Titans wanted to keep him as the starter long-term, re-signing him for 24 million over 4 years this off-season. His history of inconsistency is a concern and he was PFF’s 92nd ranked safety out of 95 qualifiers as recently as 2017, but there are worse starting safeties and he’s plenty experienced (80 career starts).

At cornerback, the Titans’ trio of Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler finished 30th, 35th, and 55th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018, on 959 snaps, 855 snaps, and 836 snaps respectively. The Titans have made big investments in all three players in the past couple off-seasons and have overhauled their secondary in a hurry. Jackson was a first round pick in 2017 and has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons in the league (29 starts). Still only going into his age 25 season, Jackson has the talent to develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and could keep getting better.

Ryan and Butler, meanwhile, both come from the Patriots, Ryan on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and Butler on a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Ryan is an unspectacular player, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons and he has the versatility to play both outside and on the slot. Butler was a disappointment in his first season in Tennessee and he was underwhelming in his final season in New England as well (47th among cornerbacks on PFF), but he does have some bounce back potential, finishing 25th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 6th in 2016. LeShaun Sims, a 2016 5th round pick who has played 879 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league, while likely remain as the 4th cornerback. He likely won’t be needed much behind a talented cornerback trio.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are some reasons to be optimistic about the Titans’ chances of making it back to the post-season. Their offense played better down the stretch last season with Derrick Henry as the lead back and Marcus Mariota healthy and their defense remains one of the better defenses in the league. They also addressed their biggest weaknesses, edge defender and wide receiver, this off-season. Mariota could easily get hurt again at some point this season, but backup Ryan Tannehill won’t be a huge downgrade if he has to start. That being said, this division is much tougher than when they made the post-season two years ago, with Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all back healthy, so a return to the post-season is far from a given.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Update: The Titans will be without left tackle Taylor Lewan for the first 4 games of the season due to suspension, but the Colts have lost Andrew Luck to retirement and the Texans’ roster construction becomes more inexplicable by the day. Marcus Mariota hasn’t looked promising this pre-season, but if he gets hurt or benched, Ryan Tannehill won’t be much of a dropoff and could even end up being an upgrade. This team is built around their defense and running game, so they won’t need great quarterback play to be competitive.

Prediction: 8-8, 1st in AFC South

New Orleans Saints 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Saints last two seasons have ended in heartbreaking fashion, with their 2017 season ending on a Hail Mary against Minnesota in the NFC Divisional Round and their 2018 season ending in overtime against the Rams in the NFC Conference Championship in a game in which the Saints could have run out the clock if not for a blatantly missed pass interference penalty. Not much changes for the Saints in 2019, but you have to think they feel their championship window closing, with Drew Brees going into his age 40 season, which makes how their last two seasons have ended all the more heartbreaking.

If Brees plays like he has throughout his career, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl, but that’s becoming less and less of a certainty every season. Brees’ numbers from 2018 look great as always, as he completed 74.4% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, but upon closer inspection he slowed down significantly down the stretch, completing 69.2% of his passes for an average of just 6.67 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions in his final 4 regular season starts and two playoff starts. Through 11 games, the Saints had a 45.96% first down rate, but that fell to 35.90% during the stretch where Brees struggled. The Saints still could have made the Super Bowl even without Brees at his best if the refs hadn’t missed a call, but it was also a Drew Brees interception in overtime that cost the Saints a chance to win the game in spite of the call.

That stretch could prove to be an aberration, but quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have lost it quickly at similar ages and the track record of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their 40s is very limited. Tom Brady won an MVP at 40 and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Brees does the same in 2019, but it also shouldn’t surprise anyone if he continues playing like he did down the stretch last season. At the very least, it’s a concern that Brees seemed to wear out at the end of the season. Even he if gets off to a strong start in 2019, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him slow down again come December and January.

In order to keep Brees fresh, the Saints have run the ball more in recent years, as Brees’ pass attempts have dropped from 40.5 per game from 2007-2016 to 33.1 per game in the past 2 seasons. Last year, part of that was swapping Brees out for wildcat quarterback Taysom Hill a few times per game. The Saints also have both quarterbacks on the field at the same time on occasion and Hill played 184 total offensive snaps on the season. He threw 7 passes, but primarily played in running situations, averaging 5.30 yards per carry across 37 carries on 136 total run play snaps.

Hill isn’t much of a threat as a passer, so veteran backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was re-signed this off-season, even though Bridgewater had an opportunity to start in Miami. Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 and showed a lot of promise in his first 2 seasons in the league, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, with another 401 yards and 4 scores on the ground, but a brutal knee injury during the 2016 off-season cost him close to 2 years and he’s thrown just 25 passes since, 23 of which came in a meaningless week 17 loss last season. It’s possible, but not likely that Bridgewater could see starts if Brees declined quickly like Favre and Manning did, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. The Saints are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen, as they attempt to contend for another Super Bowl.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Even if Brees isn’t as good in 2019, the Saints could still be a tough offense to stop. As I mentioned, the Saints have put more of an emphasis on the run game in the past couple years to take the pressure off of Brees. Part of why they’ve been able to do that is improved play on defense that has allowed them to play with a lead more often, but they’ve also been one of the most effective teams on the ground, averaging 4.48 yards per game over the past 2 seasons, 7th best in the NFL over that stretch. Wildcat quarterback Tayson Hill is part of it, but the biggest factor was the arrival of running back Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Kamara only had 120 carries as a rookie, but he led the league with 6.06 yards per carry (4th most in a season in the Super Bowl era by a running back with 100+ carries) and was a perfect complement to lead back Mark Ingram, who averaged 4.89 yards per carry on 230 carries. In 2018, Ingram missed 4 games with injury and Kamara took on more of the load overall even when Ingram returned. His 4.55 YPC average was a significant dropoff from his rookie year, but still one of the better averages in the league and he scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 194 carries. He also improved his carry success rate from 53% as a rookie (6th in the league) to 58% (2nd in the league) in 2018.

In addition to being an effective runner, Kamara is also a weapon out of the backfield, with slash lines of 81/826/5 and 81/709/4 in 2 seasons in the league and a 79.0% career target catch rate with just 8 drops. He can also play on the slot, running 135 routes from the slot over the past 2 seasons, 2nd most in the NFL by a running back. He averaged 2.71 yards per route run on those 135 routes. Overall, he’s finished 1st and 7th respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he should be one of the best running backs in the league for years to come if he can continue avoiding injury.

Mark Ingram is no longer with the team, so Kamara could have a bigger role this season, but he’s not suddenly about to become a 350-400 touch back. The Saints like to use two backs in tandem to keep Kamara fresher and signed veteran running back Latavius Murray to a 4-year, 14.4 million deal in free agency. Murray isn’t as good as Ingram, but he has a similar skill set and is an experienced between the tackles runner, averaging 4.01 yards per carry on 817 carries over the past 4 seasons. He also has 32 rushing touchdowns in 62 games over those 4 seasons and should get plenty of opportunities near the goal line with the Saints. He’s never done much in the receiving game, with 128 catches for 883 yards and no scores in 77 career games, but the Saints’ offense has a way of getting receiving production out of running backs that ordinarily aren’t great receivers. Murray is a decent replacement for Ingram and the Saints should remain an effective rushing team in 2019.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with Alvin Kamara, #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas was a frequent target in 2018, with 147 targets, 11th most in the NFL. Thomas and Kamara combined for 252 targets, which represents 48.6% of the team’s pass attempts, as they lacked as third receiving option (no other pass catchers with more than 427 yards). Like Kamara, Thomas made the most of his targets, with a 125/1402/9 slash line. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas has been one of the best receivers in the league since day 1, finishing 8th, 3rd, and 2nd among wide receivers in the past 3 seasons respectively on Pro Football Focus and totalling 321 catches (most in the NFL) for 3787 yards and 9 touchdowns over those 3 seasons, with a remarkable 76.8% target catch rate. Still only in his age 26 season, Thomas should remain one of the top receivers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Thomas is due a steep pay increase.

Thomas and Kamara could see fewer targets this season because of the addition of free agent tight end Jared Cook, who gives them the legitimate 3rd receiving option that they didn’t have last season. Cook has always been a solid receiving tight end and averaged a 46/590/3 slash line from 2011-2017, but he exploded for 68/896/6 in 2018, setting career highs across the board. Ordinarily I wouldn’t predict a player in his age 32 season and his 10th season in the league to match or surpass his career highs, but Cook is joining a very tight end friendly offense in New Orleans and is the closest thing Drew Brees has had to Jimmy Graham in recent years.

Cook wasn’t cheap on a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal, but the Saints are aggressive in trying to win while Brees is still playing and he fills a huge need for a team that had just 63 total catches by tight ends in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Josh Hill, who is an adequate run blocker, but little else. He’s never surpassed 16 catches in a season in 6 seasons in the league and has 83 catches in 87 career games. He will once again not be much of a factor in the passing game.

At wide receiver, the depth chart is pretty unsettled behind Thomas. Ted Ginn was the week 1 starter opposite Thomas last season, but was limited to 196 snaps in 5 games by a knee injury. He was on a 54/669/6 pace in 5 games and averaged a 50/759/6 slash line from 2015-2017, but he’s going into his age 34 season and could easily see his role scaled back in 2019. Ginn is primarily a deep threat and might not age well, especially if he continues suffering leg injuries.

In Ginn’s absence, youngsters Tre’Quan Lewis, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr all struggled, averaging 1.34 yards per route run, 1.60 yards per route run, and 0.63 yards per route run respectively. Lewis has the most upside of the bunch, as he was a 3rd round rookie last season, while Kirkwood and Carr went undrafted. Lewis showed that upside with a 10/157/1 slash line week 12 against the Eagles, but he was incredibly inconsistent throughout the season. Perhaps he’ll become more consistent in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. He should earn a top-3 wide receiver job.

The Saints also added veteran Rishard Matthews in free agency and he’s an intriguing signing. Matthews quit the team in Tennessee last season over playing time and the team’s handling of his injury, but he averaged a 54/801/6 slash line in 3 seasons prior, despite playing on a run heavy offense. Only in his age 30 season, Matthews has bounce back potential if he’s recommitted to football. He definitely could earn a role in training camp in an unsettled receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Saints had strong play on the offensive line in 2018 too and they return 4 of 5 starters, only losing center Max Unger to retirement. Unger was an experienced veteran, but finished just 19th out of 39 qualifying centers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, so he isn’t that big of a loss. Ex-Viking Nick Easton was signed in free agency to a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, which suggests they view him as a starter, but they also made a big investment in the offensive line during the draft as well, giving up a 2020 2nd rounder to move up from 62 to 48 to select Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy. The hefty price the Saints were willing to pay suggests they had a first round grade on McCoy. Easton was signed at a time when the Saints, without a first round pick, didn’t think that McCoy would be available to them, but now with McCoy in the mix, Easton could easily end up as a reserve.

Even as a rookie, McCoy could be a better option. Not only he is a borderline first round talent, but Easton has struggled in 17 career starts and missed all of last season with a neck injury. Both have the versatility to play guard as well and whoever doesn’t win the position battle will serve as interior depth. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them start at left guard at some point this season, as left guard Andrus Peat is coming off of a down year, finishing 87th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF.

Peat has been better in the past though, finishing 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2017 and the first round pick can also outside to left tackle in a pinch, which is useful. The Saints clearly believe he can bounce back, keeping him on the roster at a non-guaranteed 9.625 million dollar salary for 2019. He dealt with numerous injuries last season, which could be why he struggled so much. Only in his age 26 season, Peat has obvious bounce back potential, but this could be his final season in New Orleans either way, in the final year of his rookie deal.

The strength of this offensive line is the tackle position, with left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk finishing 2nd and 6th respectively among tackles on PFF in 2018. Durability is a serious concern for Armstead though, as he’s played just 54 of a possible 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has never made it through all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. When on the field, Armstead is still one of the best offensive tackles in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in all 5 seasons as a starter, including a pair of seasons finishing in the top-3 at his position, and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He should continue playing at a high level again in 2019, but will likely miss time with injury again. Veteran backup Jermon Bushrod started in his absence last season, but he’s no longer on the roster, so they could move Peat to left tackle and start either Easton or McCoy at left guard if Armstead gets hurt again.

Ramczyk, meanwhile, has made 31 of 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted 32nd overall in 2018. One of the best right tackles in the league from his first career start, Ramczyk has finished 9th and 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively and could easily remain one of the top players at his position for years to come. He could potentially play left tackle if Armstead gets hurt again, but the Saints understandably seem hesitant to move from him a spot where he’s been so good in his career.

At right guard, Larry Warford remains locked in as the starter for the 3rd straight season. Signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, Warford has been worth it so far, finishing 24th among guards on PFF in 2017 and 32nd in 2018. He hasn’t matched any of his best seasons from his 4 years in Detroit yet, where he finished 6th at his position in 2013 and 13th at his position in 2016, but he’s settled in as an above average starter on a strong overall offensive line.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints didn’t have that many injuries overall last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, but were dealt a big loss when Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles in their post-season victory over the Eagles. Injuries are unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, so the Saints are unlikely to have to have as good of injury luck as they had last season and Rankins could easily miss the start of the season because he suffered the injury in mid-January. He’s unlikely to do anything this off-season and is very much a candidate to start the year on the physically unable to perform list, costing him at least the first 6 games.

Prior to the injury, Rankins was on his way to becoming one of the better interior defenders in the league. A first round pick in 2016, Rankins was limited to 335 rookie year snaps by a broken leg and did not play well when on the field, but he earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 810 snaps in 2017 and took his game to the next level in 2018, finishing 24th among interior defenders on PFF. Also a strong run stuffer, Rankins had 8 sacks, 6 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate on the season. It’s concerning that he’s suffered two major injuries in just 3 seasons in the league, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and still has a bright future. Even though it guarantees him 7.69 million for injury, picking up Rankins’ fifth year option for 2020 was an easy decision for the Saints this off-season

Tyeler Davison, a situational run stuffer who played 422 snaps and started next to Rankins in base packages last season, is no longer with the team, but the Saints did add depth at the position this off-season, signing veterans Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards, and Sylvester Williams. Brown was the most expensive signing, coming over from New England on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. The 2015 first round pick never developed as a pass rusher, with 8.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate for his career, but he’s an above average run stuffer who will fit in Davison’s old role nicely and he might still have some upside, still only in his age 25 season.

If Rankins misses time, situational pass rusher David Onyemata will be their top interior pass rusher. He already played heavily in sub packages last season, totalling 618 snaps on the season, and he was pretty effective, with 4.5 sacks, 1 hit, and an 8.1% pressure rate. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has gotten better in every season in the league and is set up for a big pay increase on his next contract, going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Sylvester Williams’ contract barely has any guaranteed money on it, so he’s not guaranteed a final roster spot, but if Rankins misses time early in the season he could make this team as a situational reserve. He could compete with 2018 undrafted free agent Taylor Stallworth, who flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but managed just a 1.6% pressure rate and played just 318 snaps, for a base package role in Rankins’ absence. Williams is experienced, with 63 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been better than an average starter and is now going into his age 31 season and coming off of a 2018 season in which he played just 376 mediocre snaps with the Lions and Dolphins. He’s not someone who moves the needle as a free agent addition.

Mario Edwards’ contract (4.7 million over 2 years) suggests he has more of a guaranteed role and the converted defensive end could play significant snaps early in the season as an interior pass rusher if Rankins is sidelined. A 2nd round pick in 2015 by the Raiders, Edwards flashed on 599 snaps as a rookie, but injuries have limited him in recent years and seem to have sapped his abilities, as he’s played just 743 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons since, even getting cut by the Raiders before final cuts last off-season and spending 2018 with the Giants, where he played just 232 snaps in a rotational role. He’s just a flyer for the Saints, but, only in his age 25 season, he’s worth a shot. Maybe he’ll see more snaps this season at defensive end, which he hasn’t played regularly since his rookie season in 2015. The Saints have solid depth at defensive tackle, but this is a much stronger unit with Rankins on the field and close to 100%, which is not a guarantee.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Saints lost starting defensive end Alex Okafor to the Chiefs in free agency this off-season and he finished 37th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 658 snaps in 2018, but they have some young players ready to step up in his absence. Marcus Davenport, who the Saints gave up the 27th overall pick in 2018 and the 30th overall pick in 2019 to move up and select 14th overall in 2018, is expected to be the new starter, after flashing on 416 snaps as a rookie.

The Saints also have 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson, who has played just 417 career snaps, but has shown himself to be deserving of a larger role. He has just 2 sacks in 2 seasons in the league, but has added 6 hits and has a 10.3% pressure rate. He could have a mini breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in a larger role. Davenport obviously has plenty of breakout potential as well, after managing 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate as a part-time player as a rookie.

In addition to adding hybrid defensive lineman Mario Edwards, who could see snaps at defensive end, the Saints also signed ex-Panther Wes Horton, although his contract barely has any guaranteed money and he has not played at a high level in 6 seasons in the league. Strictly a situational pass rusher, Horton has just 15.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate in 77 career games and finished last season as PFF’s 112nd edge defender out of 113 qualifying. He doesn’t add much to this group and shouldn’t be considered a lock for the final roster.

Cameron Jordan remains locked in as their top edge defender and gets a nice 3-year, 52.5 million dollar extension this off-season, despite having 2 years and 19 million left on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal he signed in 2015. He’s well worth the big money, finishing in the top-6 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons. He’s totalled 62.5 sacks, 70 hits, and an 11.7% pressure rate in the past 6 seasons and has gotten better as a run stuffer as the years have gone on. Even in his age 30 season, he should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. He’s probably the Saints’ best defensive player overall and he leads a still talented group even after the departure of Alex Okafor.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Saints bring back all three starting linebackers, middle linebacker Demario Davis and outside linebackers AJ Klein and Alex Anzalone. Davis led the way with 877 snaps last season. A 7-year veteran, Davis was just an average starter in his first 5 seasons in the league (66 starts), but he has proven to be a little bit of a late bloomer, finishing 22nd and 4th among off ball linebackers in run defense grade on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018 respectively. He’s still not great in coverage and is much better moving forward than moving backwards, but he has also been a consistently good blitzer through his career, totalling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate on 775 career blitzes. Going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly improve in coverage, but he should remain a useful player for at least another couple seasons.

At outside linebacker, Klein outsnapped Anzalone 670 to 487 last season, but they were working in close to an even split down the stretch (234 snaps for Klein in the final 6 games of the season, as opposed to 239 for Anzalone). Anzalone is the better player, especially in coverage, and could easily outsnapp Klein in 2019, in his third NFL season. Anzalone went in the 3rd round in 2017 and flashed on 158 rookie year snaps as well, before going down with a season ending shoulder injury.

Shoulder problems have plagued him since college and could become an issue again in the future, but he had the talent to be a first round pick if not for medical concerns and he played all 16 games in 2018. He has breakout potential this season if he can continue staying healthy. Klein, meanwhile, is best as a situational run stuffer. Veteran Craig Robertson, who has been adequate in 64 career starts, is also in the mix, but he played a career low 90 snaps in 2018 will likely remain in a pure depth role behind a solid group of starters.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Saints also frequently line up in nickel packages, which limits snaps for their linebackers. Not only do they frequently use 3 cornerbacks, but they also use 3 safeties more than most, with 3rd safety Kurt Coleman playing 359 snaps last season. Coleman struggled, finishing 85th out of 101 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, and is no longer with the team. He could be replaced with 4th round rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a versatile 5-11 210 pound defensive back who surprisingly fell in the draft. He can play deep safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker and could easily have a situational role as a rookie.

The 5-11 210 pound Vonn Bell can also play some linebacker. The 2016 2nd round pick has improved in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 26th ranked safety, excelling against the run. He’ll continue to start next to Marcus Williams, who plays as the deep safety. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams had a great rookie year, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but fell to 32nd at his position in his 2nd season in the league. He has obvious bounce back potential though and his best days could easily still be ahead of him, going into just his age 23 season. He could easily be one of the best safeties in the league over the next few seasons.

Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Saints for much of last season, until they acquired Eli Apple from the Giants for a 2019 4th round pick and 2020 7th round pick. Apple started all 10 games and played 609 snaps total after being acquired. He wasn’t great, but he was an upgrade over Ken Crawley and PJ Williams, who finished 124th and 115th respectively out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 409 snaps and 693 snaps respectively. Crawley was better in 2017, finishing among 28th cornerbacks in 13 starts, but he’s a former undrafted free agent and one-year wonder, while Apple is a former 10th overall pick who still has a big upside, only going into his age 24 season. He’ll likely remain the starter and could take a step forward. He had issues with his coaching staff in New York, but he could prove to be a steal for the Saints.

The Saints also get slot cornerback Patrick Robinson back from injury. They signed him to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping he’d put this defense over the top, but he was limited to just 110 snaps in 3 games by a season ending ankle injury. In addition to the injury concern, Robinson is also heading into his age 32 season and has been wildly inconsistent in 9 years in the league, including 5 seasons with the Saints from 2010-2014 after they drafted him in the first round.

Robinson finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, which is why the Saints signed him to a significant contract, but his 2nd highest ranked season in his career was his 2011 season, in which he finished 26th at his position. During his dominant 2017 season, Robinson was playing on a veteran’s minimum contract with no guaranteed money after an awful 2016 season in which he finished 110th out of 132 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. An aging career journeyman who is capable of high and low levels of play, it’s unclear what the Saints are going to get from Robinson in 2019, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over PJ Williams, who was their primary slot cornerback in 2019.

Marshon Lattimore remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. Selected 11th overall in 2017, Lattimore won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished 8th at his position on PFF, but he wasn’t quite as good in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 26th at his position. Lattimore is still only in his age 23 season and obviously has a massive ceiling, so he could easily bounce back this season and could be one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. If the Saints get a full season from Eli Apple and Patrick Robinson and bounce back years from Lattimore and Marcus Williams, this would be a much improved unit.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Unless Drew Brees’ play falls off a cliff, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl in 2019. Some regression from Brees wouldn’t be a surprise, but this team is talented enough to get by with less than Brees’ best and they don’t have an obvious weak spot on paper. It’s very possible the Saints will end up as my pick to win it all this season and they should at least repeat as NFC South Champions, even with every other team in the division looking likely to be better this season than last. 

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons made it all the way to the Super Bowl during the 2016 season, coming about as close to winning a Super Bowl as you can without actually winning it, lead by a dynamic offense that not only ranked #1 in the NFL in first down rate, but did so by a wide margin (3.20%). That allowed the Falcons to finish 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77%, despite finishing 27th in first down rate allowed. In 2017, their offense was merely good instead of the dominant unit they were in 2016, finishing 5th in first down rate differential, and their defense did not improve significantly (25th in first down rate allowed), so they finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%. They qualified for the post-season again, but couldn’t go on a long run like they did the previous year.

In 2018, the Falcons’ offense once again played well, finishing 9th in first down rate, but their injury plagued defense finished among the worst in the league, allowing the 2nd highest first down rate in the league. As a result, the Falcons finished 21st in first down rate differential at -1.62% and missed the post-season entirely, finishing with a 7-9 record overall. The Falcons could easily have better health on defense this season, but that alone won’t make them a strong unit, so the Falcons’ offense will have to lead the way again.

Fortunately for the Falcons, their offense hasn’t made major changes in recent years, with 7 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in their Super Bowl appearance still in the starting lineup. Three of the four who are not (slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, right tackle Ryan Schreader, and right guard Chris Chester) have been replaced with recent first round draft picks. The Falcons used their first round pick in 2018 on wide receiver Calvin Ridley to replace Gabriel and then in 2019 they used their first round pick on right guard Chris Lindstrom and then traded up into the end of the first round to select right tackle Kaleb McGary.

Most importantly, Matt Ryan is still the quarterback of this team. Drafted 3rd overall in 2008, Ryan has been a starter since week 1 of his rookie year and has made 174 of a possible 176 starts in 11 seasons in the league. For his career, he’s completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 295 touchdowns, and 133 interceptions, while finishing in the top-7 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 of 11 seasons in the league. His last 3 seasons have arguably been his best 3-year stretch, as he’s completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. Ryan is going into his age 34 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and could easily continue playing at a high level into his late 30s like other quarterbacks have.

Ryan hasn’t missed a game since 2009 and his consecutive starts streak of 147 is the 2nd longest active streak by a quarterback, but on the off chance they need him, their backup quarterback is long-time veteran Matt Schaub. Schaub has 92 career starts and was a solid starter in his prime, but he hasn’t started since 2015 and his last successful stretch as a starter came in 2012. He’s also going into his age 38 season and might not have anything left in the tank. Without another option on the roster, Schaub would start if Ryan went down, which would obviously be a huge blow to this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Falcons used a pair of first round picks on offensive linemen this year, taking guard Chris Lindstrom 14th overall and tackle Kaleb McGary 31st overall. Considering they had to give up their 2nd and 3rd round picks to move up to 31 and didn’t pick again until the 4th round, the Falcons committed a huge chunk of their draft capital to the offensive line. Right tackle Ryan Schreader was merely average in 2018 and none of the five players who started at guard (Zane Beadles, Andy Levitre, Brandon Fusco, Wes Schweitzer, and Ben Garland) stood out, but the offensive line didn’t seem like a big need going into the draft, especially after the Falcons signed veterans James Carpenter (4 years, 21 million) and Jamon Brown (3 years, 18.75 million) and re-signed reserve Ty Sambrailo (3 years, 14.25 million) this off-season. All three players are paid like starters.

Instead, the Falcons will likely start rookies at right guard and right tackle, leaving left guard as the only open job. Carpenter and Brown will compete for that role in training camp. Sambrailo can also play some guard as well, in addition to right tackle, but he’ll likely serve as versatile depth. Carpenter has the most experience of the bunch, starting 97 games in 8 seasons in the league, but his play has fallen off in recent years, earning below average grades from Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, and he’s now going into his age 30 season.

Brown is still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, but the 2015 3rd round pick hasn’t put it together consistently yet. After flashing in limited action early in his career, Brown earned an average grade from PFF in 16 starts in 2017, but he was suspended for the first 2 games of the season in 2018 and ended up losing his job and eventually his roster spot. He resurfaced with the Giants later in the season, but struggled in 8 starts in New York. Sambrailo, meanwhile, was a bust as a 2015 2nd round pick in Denver, where he struggled on just 450 snaps in 2 seasons, but he’s been better as a spot starter with the Falcons over the past 2 seasons. He’ll likely remain in that role in 2019.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack remain locked into starting roles. Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has made 79 of 80 starts at left tackle since entering the league. After struggling as a rookie, Matthews has earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-13 at his position and a 2018 season in which he finished a career best 9th. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing at a high level in 2019.

Mack has also played at a high level for several years, earning an above average grade from PFF in 10 seasons in the league (149 starts), including 8 seasons in the top-10 among centers. Mack still finished 3rd at his position in 2018, but his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 34 season. He could continue being an above average starter for another couple seasons, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see his play fall off in 2019. Even a slight decline from Mack could hurt this offensive line, given how well he’s played in recent years. Despite all of their off-season additions, the Falcons’ offensive line might not be much better in 2019 unless one or both of their rookies have a major immediate impact and it could be worse if Mack doesn’t play like he usually does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One aspect of Atlanta’s offense that should be better in 2019 is their running game. They averaged a 4.48 yards per carry average in 2018, 13th in the NFL, but that’s skewed by a few long runs. Top back Tevin Coleman ranked just 37th in the NFL in carry success rate among 47 qualifying running backs, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on the season, but accumulating 48.5% of his rushing yardage on his 15 longest carries. Backup running back Ito Smith, meanwhile, averaged just 3.50 yards per carry on 90 carries. Neither running back consistently kept the offense on schedule, which is a disappointment on an offense with so much talent around the running back position. The Falcons also had one of the biggest pass/run splits in the league last season, with 659 pass plays and 351 run plays.

Fortunately, the Falcons get Devonta Freeman back healthy, after he was limited to just 14 carries in 2 games by injuries last season. Freeman finished the 2017 season 9th in carry success rate, while averaging 4.41 yards per carry and scoring 7 times on 196 carries. In 3 seasons as a starter prior to last season’s injury plagued season, he averaged 4.37 yards per carry with 29 touchdowns on 687 carries, while adding another 1,357 yards and 6 scores through the air on 163 catches. He missed just 3 games in his first 4 seasons in the league before 2018, so he doesn’t have a huge injury history, and in his age 27 season he’s not totally over the hill for a running back. Freeman has obvious bounce back potential in 2019.

The Falcons usually like to use two backs in tandem, giving backup Tevin Coleman an average of 9.03 carries per game from 2015-2017, despite Freeman running well ahead of him. Coleman signed with the 49ers this off-season, so Freeman may have to carry a little bit more of the load, but I would see expect whoever wins the #2 back job to have a role. Ito Smith is probably the favorite for the job, despite his miserable 2018 season, because he was a 4th round pick in 2018 and has the upside to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. His biggest competition will be 5th round rookie Qadree Ollison and 2017 5th round pick Brian Hill, who has just 34 touches in two seasons in the league. Depth is a concern here, so the Falcons really need Freeman to stay healthy this year.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even with Freeman returning, this will still be a pass heavy team. Not only do they have a great quarterback, but they legitimately go three deep at wide receiver with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley, and starting tight end Austin Hooper is a solid receiver as well. All four of those players topped 650 yards receiving in 2018 and all four return in 2019. Ridley is the newest addition of the group, added with the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie, putting up a 64/821/10 slash line, despite being the third receiver. His 1.77 yards per route run average was 37th among qualifying wide receivers and his 124.4 QB rating when targeted was 8th. He’s earned a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league and has obvious breakout potential if he becomes an every down player. He should open the season as the #2 opposite Julio Jones.

Julio Jones will continue being Ryan’s most frequent target. He’s been one of the most targeted receivers in the league over the past 3 seasons, with 447 total targets, 4th in the NFL. He also ranks 6th in catches (284) and 1st in yardage (4,530) over that time period and has averaged a league leading 3.03 yards per route run. A top-5 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons and arguably the top receiver in the entire league, Jones is going into his age 30 season and could begin to decline in the next couple years, but he should still be among the league’s leaders in receiving yardage in 2019. He’s owed just 21.026 million over the final 2 seasons of his contract, but he’s fully expected to get a long-term extension this off-season that pays him among the highest paid wide receivers in the league.

Mohamed Sanu started all 16 games opposite Jones last season, but could be more of a slot specialist in 2019 if Ridley plays a bigger role. Sanu has averaged a 64/731/4 slash line in 3 seasons in Atlanta and he’s been even better than that suggests, catching 70.8% of his targets with just 8 drops total, earning him an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. Already a better real life player than fantasy player, Sanu’s numbers could take a bit of a hit this season if he plays a smaller role, but he’s still a great 3rd receiver to have. He’s going into his age 30 season, which is a bit of a concern, but assuming he continues to give them solid play, this is one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL. They’ll play the vast majority of the wide receiver snaps, with Justin Hardy (76 career catches in 4 seasons in the league) likely coming in during 4-wide receiver sets.

Tight end Austin Hooper will be a significant part of this passing game again. He’s not a great receiver, but finished 7th among tight ends in receiving yards and 4th in catches last season with a 71/660/4 slash line and he is an adequate blocker as well. His well-roundness allows him to be an every down player and his 809 snaps played in 2018 ranked 9th among tight ends. The 2016 3rd round pick has improved in every season in the league and could easily take another step forward, still not even turning 25 until October. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate for a big pay increase on a long-term extension.

Logan Paulsen played 362 snaps as the #2 tight end and blocking specialist in 2018, but the Falcons signed Luke Stocker in free agency and his contract (5.5 million over 2 years), suggests he’ll have a role over Paulsen. Both are very similar players, blocking tight ends who don’t contribute much in the passing game. Paulsen has 91 career catches in 120 career games, while Stocker has 68 career catches in 99 career games. Stocker flashed as a receiver down the stretch last season, forced into action for a banged up Tennessee team and averaging 1.50 yards per route run on 110 routes, probably part of why the Falcons felt he would be an upgrade on Paulsen, but Stocker is going into his age 31 season and his 9th season in the league, so I don’t expect him to suddenly break out as a receiving threat. Whoever wins the #2 tight end job will have a minimal role in this passing game, especially with so many other reliable targets on the team.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the Falcons’ defense dealt with a lot of injury absences last season. In terms of adjusted games lost, they “only” had the 8th most, but most of the absent players were among their best defensive players, including linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, who all spent time on injured reserve. Those injuries couldn’t be overcome, as they finished the season 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.13%.

The Falcons should be better defensively in 2019, with better health, but there are still a lot of concerns on this defense, which hasn’t played well in recent years, even when healthy. In 2017, they had the 8th fewest points allowed, but that was primarily because they faced the fewest drives in the league, ranking 18th in points per drive allowed. They were strong in the red zone, allowing the 2nd lowest red zone touchdown percentage in the league, but struggled between the 20s, finishing 25th in first down rate allowed. Even in their Super Bowl year, they ranked just 27th in first down rate allowed and points per game allowed.

Their biggest problem is their defensive line. The Falcons had the 2nd worst pressure rate in the league last season, despite their defensive line staying relatively healthy. Despite that, the Falcons didn’t do much to improve this unit during the off-season, with limited cap space to work with in free agency and most of their draft capital going to the offensive line. The Falcons were targeting Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins at 14, but he went one spot earlier to the Dolphins, forcing the Falcons to settle for Chris Lindstrom instead.

Wilkins would have made a nice duo inside with Grady Jarrett, who is easily their best defensive lineman. Just a 5th round pick back in 2015, Jarrett has improved in every season in the league and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked interior defender in 2018. He finished 16th in 2017, but only had 4 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate. In 2018, he took his game to the next level as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 11 hits, and an 11.4% pressure rate. Even though he rushes from the interior, he still might be this team’s most effective pass rusher and he’s a dominant run stuffer as well. The Falcons couldn’t afford to lose him as a free agent this off-season, so they kept him on a 15.209 million dollar franchise tag and are working on a long-term deal. Expect him to end up among the highest paid interior defenders in the league (15-18 million annually).

In base packages, the Falcons will start either second year player Deadrin Senat or free agent acquisition Tyler Davison next to Jarrett. Davison was a 5th round pick by the Saints in 2015 and has developed into a solid run stuffer in the past two seasons, but he doesn’t generate any pass rush, with 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 3.9% pressure rate in his career. Senat is a similar player, but the 2018 3rd round pick has more upside. He didn’t have a sack as a rookie and managed just a 5.0% pressure rate, but he flashed as a run stuffer and has the higher ceiling overall. Both players will likely see snaps, but I would expect Senat to end up as the nominal starter.

Converted defensive end Jack Crawford is also in the mix as a sub package interior rusher. Crawford was an underwhelming player in his first 6 seasons in the league, but the 6-5 288 pounder seemed a lot more comfortable inside with the Falcons last season, generating 6 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder going into his age 31 season, but he could prove to be a late bloomer, now at a position where he seems to fit better. The Falcons don’t have bad depth after Jarrett, but Jarrett is their only defensive tackle who can play every down.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The one addition the Falcons did make on the defensive line through the draft was 4th round pick John Cominsky. He comes from Division II Charleston College, but could still have a role as a rookie. He’s raw as a pass rusher, but has the size at 6-5 287 to have a base package role. That’s needed because the Falcons’ top two edge defenders Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are undersized at 6-3 246 and 6-2 255 respectively and do not hold up well against the run.

McKinley is at least a solid pass rusher, leading the team with 7 sacks in 2018, while adding 9 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. The 2017 1st round pick also flashed on 401 rookie year snaps and could take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Vic Beasley is also a former first round pick, going 8th overall in 2015, but he hasn’t played like one recently. He led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016, but even that season he wasn’t that great, adding just 4 hits and with an 11.2% pressure rate, while struggling mightily against the run. He finished 22nd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus that season, solid, but not what his sack total would suggest.

In the two seasons since, he has just 10 total sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate, while continuing to struggle against the run. His 23 missed tackles over the past 2 seasons lead his position and he finished dead last among edge defenders overall on PFF in 2018. The Falcons still believe in him, keeping him on his 5th year option at a 12.81 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, and he’s still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, but he’s far from a guarantee to bounce back as a pass rusher.

The Falcons also added Adrian Clayborn to the mix in free agency, welcoming back a player who played for the Falcons from 2015 to 2017, before spending 2018 in New England. Clayborn has good size at 6-3 280, but is just a situational pass rusher and has never played the run well. He had a strong year rushing the passer in 2017, with 9.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate, but that’s an outlier when you look at his career. In 8 seasons in the league, he’s totalled 32.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate. Last season in New England, he could barely get on the field, playing just 318 snaps total, after averaging 554 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta. He could play a larger role in 2019 now back with the Falcons, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is unlikely to come close to the kind of pass rush production he had in 2017. Only signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract, he doesn’t fix the Falcons’ defensive line problems.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Probably the Falcons’ biggest injury loss last season was middle linebacker Deion Jones, who missed 10 games with a foot injury and was replaced by 6th round rookie Foyesade Oluokun, an obvious downgrade. In the 10 games Jones missed, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 44.23% rate, as opposed to 36.36% in the 6 games Jones played. That’s still middle of the pack and, as mentioned earlier, the Falcons have struggled defensively in recent years even with Jones healthy, but there’s no denying that Jones’ return will be big for this defense.

In Jones’ last healthy season in 2017, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked off ball linebacker, in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and, still only in his age 25 season, he has the upside to be one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s another player the Falcons need to figure out how to keep long-term.

In Jones’ absence, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell had to take on more responsibilities on defense and he struggled, finishing 68th out of 96 qualifying linebackers on PFF, especially struggling in coverage. A reliable tackler and run stuffer, the 2016 4th round pick has been better in the past and could bounce back with Jones now healthy again, but he’s a middling starter at best. He’ll continue to play close to an every down role, for lack of a better option.

Duke Riley opened last season as the 3rd linebacker, playing only in base packages, and he briefly took on a larger role after Jones went down, but he struggled mightily, which is when the Falcons turned to Foyesade Oluokun and moved Riley back into the 3rd linebacker role. Despite being a 3rd round pick in 2017, Riley has shown very little in 2 seasons in the league, struggling as a rookie, getting benched, and playing 224 snaps total, and then finishing 90th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on 408 snaps last season. He could easily lose his base package job to Oluokun, who was close to an every down linebacker for a stretch last season and held up better than most 6th round rookies would have. This is a much better group with Jones healthy, but there are still some concerns.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons also get week 1 starting safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal back from injury, after going down with a torn ACL during week 1 and a torn Achilles during week 3 respectively. Damontee Kazee played well in their absence, finishing 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but at the other safety spot both Jordan Richards and Sharrod Nesman, a pair of career special teamers, were both underwhelming.

Neal was the bigger absence, as the 2016 1st round pick finished 21st and 17th among safeties in his first 2 seasons in the league and likely would have had a similar season in 2018 if not for the injury, but Allen is a big re-addition as well, as he made 45 starts from 2015-2017 and earned average or better grades from PFF in all 3 seasons. It’s possible they aren’t 100% in their first games back, but they should still be a good safety duo.

With Allen and Neal back, Damontee Kazee is expected to move to slot cornerback, where he’ll replace Brian Poole, who wasn’t bad on an average of 766 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta, but was still non-tendered by the Falcons this off-season as a restricted free agent. Kazee is a one-year wonder, playing just 165 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, and could prove to be better at safety than cornerback, but cornerback is actually his natural position, so he’s an obvious fit on the slot now that the Falcons’ starting safeties are back healthy.

The Falcons are also replacing outside cornerback Robert Alford, who finished 114th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season, making him an easy release at an 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Second year cornerback Isaiah Oliver will take over his starting spot, after flashing on 240 snaps as a rookie, and he has the upside to be a big upgrade on Alford. He’s unproven, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Alford was last season. The Falcons also added cornerbacks in the 4th and 5th rounds of the 2019 draft, taking Ohio State’s Kendall Sheffield and Washington’s Jordan Miller, but neither one is expected to have much of a rookie year role.

Desmond Trufant remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. He’s coming off of a bit of a down year, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (88 starts), with his best seasons coming in 2013 (11th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2014 (11th), and 2016 (20th), and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He could easily bounce back in 2019. With Trufant likely being better in 2019, Isaiah Oliver likely upgrading on Robert Alford, and both of their starting safeties running from injury, this should be a much improved group in 2019.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons’ passing game was one of the best in the league in 2018, but an inconsistent running game and a terrible defense kept them out of the playoffs. With starting running back Devonta Freeman and a trio of key defenders in Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal all set to return, the Falcons could easily be a playoff team again in 2019. Injuries are almost certain to happen and the Falcons didn’t have a ton of injuries overall in 2018, with the 16th most adjusted games lost to injury, but if injuries strike less critical players in 2019 that should show up in the standings. I wish they would have focused more on this defensive line rather than their offensive line in the draft and the 12.81 million they are giving to Vic Beasley could probably have been spent in better ways, but this is still a pretty talented roster overall. 

Prediction: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Buccaneers used the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Jameis Winston, they were expecting him to develop into a franchise quarterback that could get them back to the post-season. Winston has had stretches of that level of play, but he’s also missed time with injury and suspension and has been very inconsistent, even getting benched for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick on a couple occasions last season. Overall, Winston has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 88 touchdowns, and 58 interceptions in 54 career starts, while fumbling 15 times, most in the NFL by a quarterback over the past 4 seasons combined.

Winston played well in his second stint as the starter last season, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 7 games, but he entered this off-season with a lot of uncertainty. Not only was Winston owed a non-guaranteed 20.922 million in 2019, a steep increase from the first 4 seasons of his career, but the Buccaneers also fired head coach Dirk Koetter at the end of the season, creating additional uncertainty.

The Buccaneers’ head coach hire ended up being about the best that Winston could have hoped for though, with the Buccaneers hiring ex-Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. Not only is Arians a proven NFL head coach, but he’s a big fan of Winston’s talent and runs an offense that can take advantage of his deep passing ability. The Buccaneers let Ryan Fitzpatrick go this off-season and didn’t make a significant addition at quarterback, only signing Blaine Gabbert, who was a backup quarterback with Bruce Arians the Cardinals in 2017. Winston’s contract status is still uncertain in 2020 and beyond, but for 2019 this is his starting job completely.

Still only going into his age 25 season, Winston breakout potential is obvious, but it’s far from certain and, unlike last season, they don’t have a good alternative if Winston struggles, like they did last season with Ryan Fitzpatrick. In fact, the Buccaneers’ offense moved more effectively last season with Fitzpatrick as the starter than with Winston, with a 43.61% first down rate in the 5 games Fitzpatrick started and finished and a 40.15% first down rate in the 8 games Winston started and finished (in the other 3 games one was benched for the other).

Fitzpatrick had a higher interception rate at 4.8% compared to 3.7%, but Winston has been one of the most interception prone quarterbacks in the league over his 4-year career, as his 3.0% interception rate is 2nd worst in the NFL over that stretch. If Winston doesn’t improve on that this season, the Cardinals will only have Blaine Gabbert (71.7 QB rating in 48 career starts) to turn to. This is as close to a boom or bust situation as any team has at quarterback.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The biggest reason why the Buccaneers’ offense was effective last season (41.23% first down rate on the season, 4th in the NFL) was the play of the receiving corps more than the play of the quarterbacks. The Buccaneers legitimately went 4 deep at wide receiver and 2 deep at tight end and had 5 pass catchers top 550 receiving yards. They couldn’t keep everyone together this off-season though, trading wide receiver DeSean Jackson (41/774/4 in 12 games) to the Eagles in what amounted to a salary dump and losing slot receiver Adam Humphries (76/816/5 in 16 games) to the Tennessee Titans on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal.

With Jackson and Humphries gone, it’s a prime opportunity for Chris Godwin to breakout in his 3rd season in the league. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin has 93 catches for 1367 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league, despite not being an every snap player. He’s averaged 1.93 yards per route run and in his 7 career starts he has a total of 23 catches for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns (53/990/7 extrapolated over 16 games). A freak athlete with a massive upside, Godwin is still only going into his age 23 season and could easily have a breakout 2019 season as an every down player. He’s expected to move to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, playing the Larry Fitzgerald/Hines Ward role in Arians’ offense.

Mike Evans will likely still remain the team’s leading receiver, after leading the way with a 86/1524/8 slash line in 2018. That’s a new career high in yardage for Evans, but he’s far from a one-year wonder, averaging a 79/1221/8 slash line in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted 7th overall in 2014. Still only in his age 26 season, Evans should continue producing at a high level in 2019. His 17.7 yards per catch average last season was the highest in the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches, which makes him a great fit for Arians’ downfield offense.

The Buccaneers don’t have much receiver depth behind Evans and Godwin though and lack a clear third receiver. Breshad Perriman is their only veteran option and the most likely candidate to play in 3 wide sets. A former first round pick bust with the Ravens, averaging just 5.70 yards per target with 9 drops on 101 targets in 2 seasons in Baltimore, Perriman flashed down the stretch last season with the Browns, catching 15 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. The Buccaneers took a flier on him this off-season in hopes he can continue that. His blazing speed makes him an intriguing fit in this offense and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he might not be anything more than a situational deep threat. He’ll face competition from 2018 5th round pick Justin Watson, who played just 73 snaps as a rookie, and 6th round rookie Scott Miller, who has earned positive reviews this off-season.

The Buccaneers could run more two tight end sets to mask their lack of depth at wide receiver. Leading the way at the position is OJ Howard, someone Jameis Winston didn’t have the benefit of having down the stretch last season, as Howard missed the final 6 games with injury. He was one of the better receiving tight ends in the league before getting hurt, with a 34/565/5 slash line in 10 games, which extrapolates to 54/904/8 over a full 16 game season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end overall and finished 3rd among tight ends with 2.26 yards per route run. The 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard also flashed as a receiver as a rookie in limited action, finishing 6th among tight ends with 1.85 yards per route run. As long as he stays healthy, Howard could also have a breakout third season in the league in 2019.

Cameron Brate is the #2 tight end and he was surprisingly kept this off-season, despite a 7 million dollar salary that didn’t guarantee until the middle of march, which suggests they have a role for him. Brate is coming off of a down year, with a 30/289/6 slash line and just 13 catches for 130 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without OJ Howard, but he had slash lines of 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 in 2016 and 2017 respectively and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He likely won’t match those numbers behind OJ Howard, but he’s a good #2 tight end to have, especially near the end zone (20 touchdowns in 3 seasons). Even without DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, the Buccaneers still have a talented receiving corps.

Grade: A

Running Backs

It’s impressive that the Buccaneers’ offense was able to be as productive as it was in 2018 without much of a running game. While their passing game ranked 2nd in the NFL with 8.20 yards per pass play, their running game ranked 2nd worst in the NFL with 3.92 yards per run play. The Buccaneers didn’t add more talent at the position this off-season, but lack of talent wasn’t their problem last season. Lead back Peyton Barber averaged just 3.72 yards per carry, but that was primarily the fault of his blocking, as he broke 43 tackles and averaged 2.68 yards per carry after contact on 234 carries, giving him the 25th best elusive rating in the NFL. For his career, he has 62 broken tackles and averages 2.62 yards per carry after contact on 397 carries in 3 seasons in the league, despite an underwhelming 3.82 YPC average overall.

The Buccaneers also have 2018 38th overall pick Ronald Jones, who is plenty talented, but had a terrible rookie year. Originally seen as a potential rookie year starter, Jones didn’t impress during the off-season and ended up rushing for just 44 yards on 23 carries, but he still doesn’t even turn 22 until this August and he has the talent to make a 2nd year leap in a bigger role. At the very least, he’ll be more involved as a receiver, with passing down back Jacquizz Rodgers no longer with the team and Peyton Barber not doing much in passing situations (20 catches for 92 yards in 2018). The Buccaneers could add a veteran to the mix (retaining Rodgers is one option) if Jones continues struggling this off-season, but for now Jones has every opportunity to earn a role, with no other proven backs on the roster.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Despite the Buccaneers’ issues in run blocking in 2018, they didn’t do anything to improve their offensive line. They weren’t a bad group in pass protection and they return all 5 of their week 1 starters from 2018, but there are still some positions of concern upfront. The biggest one is right guard, where Caleb Benonoch made all 16 starts, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked guard out of 88 qualifying. A 5th round pick in 2016, Benonoch struggled in 6 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league as well and is probably best off as a reserve going forward.

Benonoch will face competition from 2018 3rd round pick Alex Cappa, who struggled in 106 rookie year snaps, and Evan Smith, who was a solid starter in his prime, but has made just 13 starts in the past 4 seasons combined and is now in his age 33 season. Cappa has the most upside of the group and is likely the favorite for the job, after the Division 2 product essentially spent his rookie season as a redshirt. Barring a breakout season from Cappa, this will likely remain a position of weakness in 2019.

Center was also a position of weakness for the Buccaneers last off-season. The Buccaneers thought they’d get a high level of play at the position after signing ex-Ravens center Ryan Jensen to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency, but he ended up finishing 30th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in his first season in Tampa Bay. Jensen finished 11th among centers in 2018, but he’s a complete one-year wonder, making just 9 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to 2017, after going in the 6th round in 2013. He has some bounce back potential, but he was a massive overpay on a deal that makes him the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary.

Left guard Ali Marpet is the Buccaneers’ best offensive lineman. He has played center in the past, but the Buccaneers seem to prefer him at guard long-term. He’s finished in the top-9 among guards on PFF in his last 2 seasons at guard, with a season in which he finished 5th among centers sandwiched in between. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Marpet is still only in his age 26 season and could easily continue being one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The Buccaneers wisely locked him up long-term during the middle of his contract year in 2018, re-signing him for 54.125 million over 5 years.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was also set to hit free agency this off-season, but the Buccaneers locked him up long-term too, re-signing him to a 3-year, 41.25 million dollar deal ahead before the start of the new league year. Smith was also a 2nd round pick in that same 2015 draft, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as his classmate, earning middling grades from PFF in 64 career starts. He’s a solid pass protector, but isn’t much of a run blocker and his 40 penalties in the past 4 seasons are tied for the 2nd most by an offensive lineman over that time period. Left tackles don’t grow on trees and Smith could keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season, but, unless he takes a big step forward, this will likely end up being an overpay.

Right tackle DeMar Dotson bookends this offensive line opposite Smith. He had a solid season in 2018 and has earned average or better grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons (89 starts), maxing out at 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2013, but he’s going into his age 34 season, which is a major concern. He only finished 47th at his position in 2018 and could easily keep declining. It’s possible the Buccaneers view Alex Cappa, a collegiate tackle currently playing guard, as his long-term replacement at right tackle. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay. For now, they need him to continue holding up, as this underwhelming offensive line would be in trouble if he started struggling.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Buccaneers got good play from their offense in 2018, but struggled mightily on defense, which was the biggest reason why they had trouble winning games, ranking 30th in first down rate allowed at 40.98%. They were marginally better after canning defensive coordinator Mike Smith and making linebackers coach Mark Duffner their play caller, but they still finished with a 38.59% first down rate allowed in their final 11 games of the season after making the coordinator change.

Up against the cap, there wasn’t much the Buccaneers could do to significantly improve their stop unit this off-season, so they are banking that new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can get the most out of this unit. Bowles coordinated impressive units as Arians’ defensive coordinator from 2013-2014 with the Cardinals and was most recently head coach of the Jets for the past 4 seasons. He’ll transition this team to a base 3-4 defense.

In part because he wasn’t deemed a good scheme fit and in part because his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019 was a lot for a team with little cap flexibility, the Buccaneers released their longest tenured defensive player, 2010 3rd overall pick Gerald McCoy. McCoy was expensive and seemed to be on the decline ahead of his age 31 season, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked interior defender in 2018, earning an above average grade overall, making him one of the few bright spots on this defense.

The Buccaneers did a good job of replacing him though, immediately signing free agent Ndamukong Suh, who is cheaper (9.25 million on a one-year deal) and possibly a better scheme fit, after playing in a similar scheme with the Rams in 2018. Suh was actually the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he had a slightly better season than McCoy in 2018, finishing 28th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, and could easily do so again in 2019. Swapping the two could easily prove to be a smart move.

The player who benefits the most from the scheme change could be Vita Vea, a massive 6-4 347 pounder who will play on the nose in base packages. Vea isn’t just a pure nose tackle either, with 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 10.2% pressure rate on 255 pass rush snaps in 2018. He’ll likely stay on the field for most sub packages as well. The 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Vea has a ton of potential and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, after a solid debut season.

Veteran holdovers Beau Allen and William Gholston will compete for the 3rd base package job. Both are very underwhelming options. Gholston has been a hybrid defensive lineman on Tampa Bay’s 4-3 defense line since being drafted in the 4th round in 2013, but has managed just 11 sacks, 23 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 6 seasons in the league and hasn’t been much better against the run. He played 402 snaps last season and finished as PFF’s lowest ranked interior defender. The 6-6 281 pounder might be a better fit in a 3-4, but could easily have another poor season.

Beau Allen, meanwhile, is a career rotational player with 16 starts in 5 seasons in the league and a career high of 423 snaps in a season. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush either, with 2 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.4% pressure rate for his career. The big 6-3 327 pounder is probably a better fit for a base package role than Gholston. Whoever does not win the starting job will still be involved in a rotational role. The Buccaneers don’t have much depth behind Suh and Vea, especially lacking interior pass rushers.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

In addition to losing Gerald McCoy this off-season, the Buccaneers could also be without edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul for the entire season, after he suffered a neck injury in an off-season car accident. Unlike McCoy, they did not replace Pierre-Paul, as his injury did not occur until after free agency and the draft. He was given a 5-6 month timeframe, which could have him back by mid-season, but it’s not certain he’ll be able to play at all this season or if he would be 100% upon his return. His 12.5 sacks led the team in 2018 and, even though he’s going into his age 30 season and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good (8 hits and an 8.6% pressure rate), he’s still obviously a big loss, especially without another good pass rusher on this roster. In 9 seasons in the league, JPP has 71 sacks, 69 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate.

The Buccaneers did make some additions at this position this off-season even before Pierre-Paul got hurt, signing ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett in free agency and using a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Anthony Nelson. They’ll compete for roles with Carl Nassib, their top returning pass rusher, and Noah Spence, a 2016 2nd round pick who could be a better fit in the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme. Nassib isn’t great, but the former 2016 3rd round pick took a step forward in 2018, with 6.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate on 346 pass rush snaps, after struggling in his first 2 seasons in the league with the Browns, totaling 5.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.6% pressure rate. With Pierre-Paul hurt, Nassib is likely locked into a starting role. They’ll need him to continue developing and not regress to his pre-2018 form.

Shaq Barrett is probably the favorite to start opposite him. Barrett’s sack numbers (14 in 61 career games) don’t jump off the page, but he hasn’t even played half of the snaps in his career, stuck in a deep edge rotation in Denver. Also a strong run defender, Barrett has added 23 quarterback hits and 64 quarterback hurries on 833 career pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.1% pressure rate for his career. Only in his age 27 season, Barrett has breakout potential on a defense where he has a chance to be an every down player and he could prove to be a steal on a one-year, 4 million dollar contract.

Barrett and Nassib starting leaves Spence and Nelson in reserve roles. Spence came into the league with a lot of upside as the 39th overall pick in 2016 and flashed on 569 snaps as a rookie, but he’s played just 291 snaps in 2 seasons since, missing 10 games with injury in 2017 and being buried on the depth chart in 2018. Spence gained significant weight last off-season to hold up better against the run as a 4-3 defensive end, but the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme prioritizes athleticism for edge defenders over size, so he can go back down to a more natural weight this season. Spence is probably more comfortable playing in the 240-250 pound range than 260+ and he has the opportunity to earn a significant role in a thin position group. Nelson also brings some upside, but both he and Spence come with considerable downside as well. Depending on Pierre-Paul’s recovery, the Buccaneers could have a lot of trouble getting to the quarterback this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

With McCoy gone, linebacker Lavonte David becomes their longest tenured defensive player, joining the team as a 2nd round pick back in 2012. He’s made 105 starts in 7 seasons with the team and though he’s been up and down a little bit, he’s still finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 7 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th among off ball linebackers. The long-time outside linebacker will move to inside linebacker in the Buccaneers’ new 3-4 defense, but it should make much of a difference and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He’ll start inside next to 5th overall pick Devin White, who has a massive upside and the ability to be an every down player even as a rookie. He compares favorably to 2018 8th overall pick Roquan Smith.

The Buccaneers also added some veteran linebackers this off-season, taking flyers on a pair of former starters for Bruce Arians in Arizona, Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter. Bucannon was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2014 and finished 25th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, but injuries limited him to 38 games in the next 3 seasons combined and seemed to sap his abilities significantly. He fell all the way to 93rd among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in 2016 and finished 88th out of 96 qualifying on just 389 snaps in 2018, getting benched on one of the worst defenses in the league. Only in his age 27 season, he’s a worthwhile flyer, but he’s no guarantee to bounce back.

Minter, meanwhile, made all 32 starts for the Cardinals from 2015-2016 and played every down, but was underwhelming and has played just 218 snaps in 2 seasons since. He’s also a former high draft pick, going 45th overall in 2013, and he’s still relatively young in his age 29 season, but he’s never played well in coverage and shouldn’t be anything more than a situational run stuffer. With Devin White coming in, Bucannon and Minter will purely be reserves. This is a more talented and deeper linebacking corps than last season.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As bad as this defense was overall in 2018, the secondary was by far the Buccaneers’ worst defense unit in 2018. A lack of pass rush didn’t help, but the Buccaneers allowed quarterbacks to have a 110.9 QB rating against them last season. For comparison’s sake, that would have ranked 3rd in the NFL by a quarterback and is most similar to Russell Wilson’s QB rating. Essentially, the Buccaneers made the average quarterback they faced look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Injuries were part of the problem, but none of the players who got hurt were high level players and better health alone won’t improve this group significantly.

This is a young group though, so the Buccaneers are hoping multiple players can take steps forward in 2019. They also added cornerbacks in the 2nd round (Sean Bunting) and 3rd round (Jamel Dean) and a safety in the 3rd round (Mike Edwards). Adding more young players to an already young group might not be all that effective, but the Buccaneers didn’t have the financial flexibility to add veteran defensive backs in free agency and clearly wanted to add more talent to the group. The Buccaneers also didn’t retain veteran cornerback Brent Grimes. He led this secondary with 791 snaps played in 13 starts last season, but he is now going into his age 36 season and the Buccaneers seem to be fully embracing the youth movement in the secondary.

Rookie cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean will compete for roles with 2016 4th round pick Ryan Smith, 2016 1st round pick Vernon Hargreaves, and 2018 2nd round picks Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart. These positional battles will play out during training camp and the pre-season. Because they are recent high picks, Bunting, Dean, Davis and Stewart are all likely roster locks, meaning Smith and Hargreaves are likely competing for one cornerback spot, unless they plan on carrying 6 cornerbacks, which would be unusual.

Hargreaves missed almost all of 2018 with injury, playing just 53 snaps in 1 game, but his return isn’t exactly a boost for this secondary. Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he was underwhelming in his first 2 seasons in the league (23 starts) before last year’s injury plagued season. Only going into his age 24 season, Hargreaves still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league. The Buccaneers exercised his 5th year option for 2020, showing they haven’t given up on him yet, but that 9.954 million is only guaranteed for injury, so this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay if he doesn’t show signs of being a long-term starter. Hargreaves should be considered the favorite for a roster spot ahead of Smith, who has been underwhelming in 16 starts over the past 2 seasons, and Hargreaves could easily earn a starting role in an unsettled position group.

Davis and Stewart seem likely to earn roles as well. Stewart played just 301 snaps as a rookie, but that’s because he was limited to 8 games by injury, while Davis started 12 of the 13 games he played as a rookie. Both earned below average coverage grades from Pro Football Focus, but they have the talent to take a step forward in their 2nd season in the league. The two rookie cornerbacks could push them for their jobs, but both rookies are raw, so Davis and Stewart should at least play in 3 cornerback sets. Stewart is at his best on the slot, while Davis is a pure outside cornerback.

The Buccaneers are young at safety as well, where 2017 2nd round pick Justin Evans and 2018 4th round pick Jordan Whitehead led the way in terms of snaps and starts last season. Evans played well enough to keep his job and has the ability to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy (8 games missed in 2 seasons in the league), while Whitehead will likely face competition from rookie Mike Edwards and the lone veteran of the group, free agent acquisition Kentrell Brice.

Brice made 10 starts last season for the Packers, but he has just 14 career starts and has struggled in all 3 seasons in which he’s played, including a 2018 season in which he finished 95th out of 101 qualifying safeties on a career high 648 snaps, leading to him being non-tendered by the Packers this off-season. With Brice being an underwhelming option and Edwards likely too raw to make a huge impact as a rookie, Whitehead could easily remain the starter and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. The Buccaneers are banking on multiple breakout years from young defensive backs in 2019. If they don’t get that, they could have major issues against the pass again, especially with their top edge rusher out for the first half of the season at the least.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers were better than their record suggested in 2018 in terms of first down rate differential at +0.25% (16th in the NFL), going 5-11 primarily because of a -18 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, but the Buccaneers lost the more effective of the two quarterbacks who started last season and are still starting one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston, so they’ll likely have a negative turnover margin again and I don’t expect them to quite as effective at picking up first downs. They also don’t have quite the same receiving corps as last season and could struggle to run the ball again. If Jameis Winston can have the best season of his career in his 5th season in the league, this offense has plenty of upside, but the defense figures to struggle unless multiple young players break out.

They should have better health in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost in 2018, but they only have a few key players returning from serious injury and are already without top edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul possibly for the season due to a neck injury, which might be a more consequential absence than any they had last season. I like their head coach and defensive coordinator hire and it’s possible they play better than they look on paper with a strong coaching staff, but on paper this definitely looks like the worst team in the NFC South. 

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in NFC South