Perfect 53 Man Roster 2019

Last year, I made my own version of Bill Barnwell’s “Perfect Roster.” The idea is, following certain criteria, to build the best team you can fit under the NFL’s 188.2 million dollar cap. This year, I’m bringing it back. This is my version of the team. Below are the criteria in Barnwell’s own words (last year’s version, so all years get moved forward, and the salary cap has increased).

Quarterbacks

Patrick Mahomes KC QB 2017 1st $4,479,776
Dak Prescott DAL QB 2016 4th $2,120,849
Taysom Hill NO QB 2017 UND $735,000

Last year, there was more debate about the quarterbacks, with Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, and Dak Prescott all on rookie contracts. This year, it would be hard to take anyone but Pat Mahomes. Not only is Mahomes the reigning league MVP, but with a cap hit under 4.5 million for 2019, he’s also easily the league’s best value. Dak Prescott remains on the team as a backup because he gives them a franchise caliber quarterback that can step in if needed at a very reasonable price. Taysom Hill is listed as a quarterback, but he’s mostly on the team for special teams purposes. Hill could see a few snaps as a gadget player, but I wouldn’t want to take Mahomes or any of my other offensive starters off the field regularly for a gadget player, so Hill won’t have much of an offensive role in any capacity.

Running Backs

Alvin Kamara NO RB 2017 3rd $1,050,693
Chris Carson SEA RB 2017 7th $661,282
Phillip Lindsay DEN RB 2018 UND $575,000
James Develin NE FB Veteran $1,600,000

Alvin Kamara is one of the top running backs in the league and a clear choice out of the 2017 3rd round picks. Phillip Lindsay is a bit of a redundant talent, but he’s the obvious choice out of 2018 undrafted free agents, after becoming the first offensive undrafted free agent in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He provides strong insurance for Kamara. Chris Carson is a power back who can compliment Lindsay and Kamara and is an easy choice among 2017 7th round picks. James Develin is a do everything veteran fullback who comes at a very reasonable price. 

Wide Receivers

Adam Thielen MIN WR Veteran $8,105,000
Michael Thomas NO WR 2016 2nd $1,628,763
JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT WR 2017 2nd $1,144,302
Jakeem Grant MIA WR 2016 6th $755,096
Hakeem Butler ARZ WR 2019 4th $696,126
Kelvin Harmon WAS WR 2019 6th $526,960

Michael Thomas and JuJu Smith-Schuster are arguably the two best rookie contract wide receivers in the league and, while Adam Thielen is on a 4-year, 64.2 million dollar veteran extension, because of how the deal is structured, his cap number is just 8.105 million for 2019, which makes him a bargain. Thielen, Thomas, and Smith-Schuster make a dominant top trio, so depth isn’t a huge concern, but Jakeem Grant gives me a situational deep threat who can also contribute as a return man (and fills the need for a 2016 6th round pick) and Hakeem Butler and Kelvin Harmon are developmental prospects who I thought were the best players selected in their respective rounds in this past draft. 

Tight Ends

Travis Kelce KC TE Veteran $10,718,400
Nick Boyle BAL TE Veteran $3,333,333
Tyler Eifert CIN TE Veteran $3,025,000
Jordan Thomas HOU TE 2018 6th $599,602

Travis Kelce is arguably the top overall tight end in the league, so he was worth splurging for at a 10.718 million dollar cap hit. He’s one of just 5 players on this roster with an 8 figure cap hit. Nick Boyle won’t win any foot races, but he’s arguably the best run blocking tight end in the league and he also provides a reliable set of hands as an underneath receiver at a very reasonable cap number. Tyler Eifert is another inexpensive veteran. He’s an injury risk, but has the talent to be one of the top tight ends in the league when healthy, so he’s worth a shot. Jordan Thomas is a developmental prospect who fills the requirement for a 2018 6th round pick. 

Offensive Line

David Bakhtiari GB OL Veteran $14,200,000
Zack Martin DAL OL Veteran $14,000,000
Rob Havenstein LAR OL Veteran $8,300,000
Joel Bitonio CLE OL Veteran $7,000,000
Mitchell Schwartz KC OL Veteran $6,430,000
Jason Kelce PHI OL Veteran $2,444,000
Austin Blythe LAR OL 2016 7th $2,025,000
Chase Rouiller WAS OL 2017 6th $681,792

Like last year, the offensive line is where I spent the bulk of my cap space on veteran players. David Bakhtiari and Zack Martin are arguably the best offensive tackle and guard respectively in the league and are worth their large cap hits. Joel Bitonio and Jason Kelce are also among the best in the league at their position and have below market cap hits. Same with Mitchell Schwartz and Rob Havenstein at right tackle, though those two will have to compete with each other for the starting job. Autsin Blythe has developed into an above average starting right guard for the Rams, after being a mere 7th round pick in 2016. He provides versatile depth and a spot starter in case injuries strike on the interior and he fills a draft requirement. Chase Rouiller fills my requirement for a 2017 6th round pick and also provides versatile depth, though the Redskins’ starting center is only about an average starter. 

Interior Defenders

Aaron Donald LAR ID Veteran $17,108,000
Kenny Clark GB ID 2016 1st $2,978,707
DJ Reader HOU ID 2016 5th $2,078,845
Da’Shawn Hand DET ID 2018 4th $740,491
Terry Beckner TB ID 2019 7th $523,079

Even at a cap hit of over 17 million, I had to have Aaron Donald, the most dominant player in the NFL, on this team. He’ll start next to Kenny Clark, who has quietly developed into one of the best interior defenders in the league and has just a 2.979 million dollar cap hit, despite going in the first round in 2016. DJ Reader is a situational run stuffer from the 2016 5th round, Da’Shawn Hand is a situational pass rusher from the 2018 4th round, while Terry Beckner is a developmental prospect who was the first pick in the 7th round in 2019 and fills my requirement for a Buccaneer. 

Edge Defenders

Khalil Mack CHI ED Veteran $11,900,000
Josh Allen JAX ED 2019 1st $4,135,025
Lorenzo Alexander BUF ED Veteran $3,750,000
Brandon Graham PHI ED Veteran $3,500,000
Chase Winovich NE ED 2019 3rd $744,328

Khalil Mack has signed a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension, but his cap number is just 11.9 million, so I can sneak him on to my team. Good luck trying to block him and Donald at the same time. Brandon Graham also got a big long-term deal, re-signing for 40 million over 3 years this off-season, but the cap strapped Eagles structured his deal in a way that keeps his cap hit at 3.5 million for 2019. He’s going into his 30s, but is still one of the better pass rushers in the league on a per snap basis. Lorenzo Alexander gives me a versatile player who can rush the passer, play standup linebacker, and play special teams at a very reasonable price. Josh Allen could end up being the top player from the 2019 NFL Draft and he comes at the price of the 7th overall pick (cap hit 2.2 million dollars less than the 1st overall pick). Allen woukd have a situational role as a pass rusher as a rookie, even on a loaded team. Chase Winovich is another developmental prospect and was a strong value pick in the 3rd round. 

Linebackers

Luke Kuechly CAR LB Veteran $9,962,573
Zach Brown PHI LB Veteran $2,500,000
Darius Leonard IND LB 2018 2nd $1,647,228
Leon Jacobs JAX LB 2018 7th $592,670
Blake Cashman NYJ LB 2019 5th $570,773
Te’Von Coney OAK LB 2019 UND $498,000

Luke Kuechly is arguably the top linebacker in the league and he comes at a significant discount compared to his top competition for that role, Bobby Wagner, who has a 14.0375 million dollar cap hit. Darius Leonard is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and was obviously a smart choice in the second round in 2018, while Zach Brown is a veteran run stuffer who comes at a reasonable price and can play as a 3rd linebacker in base packages. Leon Jacobs, Blake Cashman, and Te’Von Coney fill draft and team requirements and can play special teams. 

Cornerbacks

Stephon Gilmore NE CB Veteran $9,170,833
Byron Jones DAL CB 2015 1st $6,266,000
Jason Verrett SF CB Veteran $1,500,000
Byron Murphy ARZ CB 2019 2nd $1,452,636
Desmond King LAC CB 2017 5th $714,998

Stephon Gilmore is arguably the top cornerback in the league and his cap hit is reasonable, despite a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Byron Jones is also one of the top cornerbacks in the league and he fills my requirement for a 2015 1st round pick on a 5th year option without breaking the bank (like top-10 picks Leonard Williams, Brandon Scherff, and Amari Cooper would have at cap hits of over 12.5 million). Desmond King went in the same round as George Kittle, so he wasn’t a no brainer addition to this team, but he’s already arguably the top slot cornerback in the league and adds value as a return man as well, which gives him the edge over Kittle. Jason Verrett is an inexpensive injury flyer who has the talent to contribute if healthy and he fills the requirement for a 49er. Byron Murphy probably wouldn’t play much, but he was a strong pick in this year’s second round and has a lot of long-term potential. 

Safeties

Derwin James LAC S 2018 1st $2,815,671
Kevin Byard TEN S 2016 3rd $2,249,265
Justin Reid HOU S 2018 3rd $924,893
Eddie Jackson CHI S 2017 4th $811,449

Derwin James, Kevin Byard, and Eddie Jackson are all among the top safeties in the league and all are on rookie deals. More and more teams and using 3 safeties at the same time with regularity, so I think we’d figure out how to use Byard, James, and Jackson at the same time. Justin Reid wouldn’t play much on defense behind those three, but he was a solid starter as a rookie for the Texans and is one of the most impressive players from the 2018 3rd round. What gives him the edge is his ability to play special teams in addition to defense.

Special Teams

Michael Dickson SEA P 2018 5th $642,537
Aldrick Rosas NYG K 2016 UND $645,000
Josh Harris ATL LS Veteran $930,000

Michael Dickson and Aldrick Rosas are among the best in the league at their position and are inexpensive in terms of draft compensation and salary. I don’t know much about Josh Harris, but I needed a long snapper and someone from the Falcons and he fits perfectly into the remaining cap space I have. He’s been long snapping for the Falcons since 2012, so he has to be doing something right.

Oakland Raiders 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe the Raiders won 12 games in 2016. They were never as good as their record suggested that season, finishing 19th in first down rate differential and winning 12 games largely because of an unsustainably high turnover margin (+16) and a 8-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, but they fell from grace very quickly. In 2017, they went 6-10 with largely the same roster, going just 4-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and finishing the season with a -14 turnover margin. 

That led to them firing head coach Jack Del Rio and replacing him with former head coach and long-time ESPN commentator Jon Gruden. In order to get Gruden, the Raiders had to commit to a ten year deal that basically gives him total control over the roster. With total control and complete job security, Gruden decided to take apart the team and rebuild it with his own guys, particularly on defense. 

Of their top-11 in terms of snaps played on defense in 2017, only 4 returned for 2018, with only two (Reggie Nelson and Bruce Irvin) starting week 1. Irvin was then later released mid-season in order to free up playing time for younger guys, while Nelson got benched quickly and finished the season with just 370 snaps played. Their biggest move on defense was sending away contract year edge defender Khalil Mack to the Bears for a pair of first round picks, rather than giving him the big money deal he wanted (Chicago re-signed him for 141 million over 6 years). 

On offense, they didn’t make quite as many changes, with 8 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in 2017 returning as starters for week 1 of 2018, but they made a big splash move at last year’s trade deadline to send #1 receiver Amari Cooper, who was going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, to the Cowboys for another first round pick. The result of their teardown was a treasure chest of draft picks, including a trio of 2019 first round picks, and among the most cap space in the NFL this off-season, but it also led to an ugly product on the field in Gruden’s first year as head coach. They Raiders went just 4-12 and finished 28th in the NFL in first down rate differential. 

There was a lot of speculation that Gruden would move on from highly paid quarterback Derek Carr as well, but it doesn’t look like that was ever a serious consideration. Carr wasn’t bad last season all things considered, completing 68.9% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while finishing 21st among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, and his 20 million dollar salary isn’t cost prohibitive for a team with plenty of financial flexibility. He has a poor supporting cast around him on both sides of the ball, as they finished 24th in first down rate allowed on defense and just 26th in first down rate on offense, despite Carr’s decent season. Carr is not the problem with this team. 

In 5 seasons in the league, Carr has started 78 of 80 games for the Raiders and he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a career best 5th ranked finish in 2016. It’s possible Gruden could change quarterbacks at some point in the future if one that really catches his eye is available, but for now Carr’s job looks very safe. The Raiders only ended up signing veteran backup Mike Glennon (84.0 QB rating in 22 career starts) this off-season, so Carr doesn’t have a legitimate challenger for his job and should start all 16 games if he stays healthy. Whether or not he leads this team back into post-season contention depends on how improved his supporting cast is from 2018 to 2019.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

One of Carr’s big problems was his receiving corps. Amari Cooper only had a 22/280/1 slash line in 6 games and he was inconsistent throughout his tenure in Oakland, but without him and with veterans Martavis Bryant and Brandon LaFell going down for the season, Carr was left with veteran Jordy Nelson, slot receiver Seth Roberts, and 7th round rookie Marcell Ateman as his top-3 receivers down the stretch. As a result, Carr went from a 72.3% completion percentage, 7.79 YPA, and 10 touchdowns in his first 8 games to a 65.3% completion percentage, 6.83 YPA, and 9 touchdowns in his final 8 games, though his interceptions did drop from 8 to 2 as he grew more comfortable in Gruden’s system.

Tight end Jared Cook led the team with a 68/896/6 slash line and was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end overall, while Jordy Nelson was their leading wide receiver with a 63/739/3 slash line, but had just 1.41 yards per route run. Both Cook and Nelson are no longer with the team, Cook signing with the Saints as a free agent and Nelson retiring ahead of what would have been his age 34 season, but the Raiders are still expecting to have a better receiving corps, after making some splash moves this off-season.

Their biggest move was trading a 3rd and 5th round pick to the Steelers for disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown, who they then gave a new 3-year, 50.125 million dollar deal to make him the second highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary. Brown caused distractions in the locker room in Pittsburgh, but has been one of the best wide receivers in the league for years, as he’s topped a 100/1250/8 slash line in 6 straight seasons, with an average slash line of 114/1524/11 over those 6 seasons and a 104/1297/15 slash line in 2018. He’ll likely see his numbers go down in a worse offense in Oakland and his age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season, but he undoubtedly makes this offense better. Whether or not he becomes a problem in the locker room if the Raiders struggle remains to be seen. 

The Raiders also signed ex-Charger Tyrell Williams to a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar deal in free agency to start opposite Brown. Williams was the Chargers’ #1 receiver in 2016 with Keenan Allen injured and put up a 69/1059/7 slash line, but he’s seen that dip to 43/728/4 and 41/653/5 in the past 2 seasons as the #2 receiver with Allen back healthy. With Antonio Brown hogging targets opposite him on a worse offense in Oakland, it’s hard to see him putting up much better numbers than that, but he should get plenty of one-on-ones with Brown being the focus of opposing defenses and he has the speed and size to make some big plays down the field. His 16.3 yards per catch average over the past 4 seasons is 4th in the NFL among players with at least 150 catches. 

Depth is still a problem behind Brown and Williams though. The Raiders only used a 5th round pick on the position in the draft, but 5th round rookie Hunter Renfrow is a natural slot receiver and could push to start as a rookie at a thin position. Last year’s 7th round pick Marcell Ateman could be in the mix, but he showed very little as a rookie, averaging just 0.69 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 8th worst ranked wide receiver. The Raiders also have veterans Ryan Grant and JJ Nelson in the mix, but they’ve never topped 573 yards in a season in a combined 9 seasons in the league and neither is a lock for the final roster.

Tight end is also a problem. Not only did they lose Jared Cook, who had 68 of their 91 catches by a tight end last season, but they also lost blocking specialist Lee Smith, who excelled as a blocker on 284 snaps last season. With no real starting options added this off-season, this is a wide open position group. Derek Carrier is a blocking specialist who has never topped 404 snaps in a season and has just 43 career catches in 7 seasons in the league. Foster Moreau is a fourth round rookie who could play a significant role in year one for lack of a better option. 

Darren Waller has earned a lot of praise this off-season, but that could just be off-season hype for a player with 18 career catches in 22 games in 4 seasons in the league. The 2015 6th round pick has never played more than 237 snaps in a season, including just 42 snaps last season, and he missed all of 2017 with suspension. The Raiders also added veteran Luke Willson, but he’s never topped 22 catches in 6 seasons in the league and isn’t a great run blocker either. Erik Swoope has shown a lot of promise as a receiver in his career in very limited action, averaging 2.63 yards per route run, but he missed all of 2017 with injury and played just 78 snaps last season. It’s unclear if any of these players can emerge as starting caliber. Outside receivers Brown and Williams figure to get the lion’s share of the targets in a thin receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Carr also didn’t get much help on the ground last season, as the Raiders finished 23rd in the NFL with 4.21 YPC. Week 1 starter Marshawn Lynch lasted 6 games (90 carries) before going down for the season with injury. In his absence, ex-Buccaneer Doug Martin wasn’t bad, averaging 4.20 YPC on 172 carries, but he’s going into his age 30 season, doesn’t do much in the passing game (99 catches in the past 6 seasons), and has a history of inconsistency on the ground (below 4 YPC in 4 of 7 seasons in the league), so the Raiders shot higher at the position this off-season, taking Alabama’s Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick. Jacobs was the first running back off the board. 

Jacobs has feature back potential long-term, but might not have a huge workload immediately as a rookie. Doug Martin is still on the team and, while it’s unlikely he has the 172 carries he had in 2018, he’ll likely still be involved in a rotational role as an early down runner unless Jacobs starts to completely outperform him. The Raiders also still have passing down back Jalen Richard, who had a 68/607/0 slash line last season and could be similarly productive in 2019 in an offense that really lacks a 3rd option in the receiving corps. Richard also provides a change of pace on the ground and has averaged 5.28 YPC on 194 carries in 3 seasons in the league. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Raiders also had serious problems on the offensive line last season, leading to Derek Carr taking 51 sacks, 3rd most in the NFL. Part of that was Carr holding the ball a little too long and he ranked 4th in the NFL by taking a sack on 27.3% of his pressured drop backs, but the offensive line had a lot of problems as well and ranked 26th in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency. The biggest problem was the offensive tackle position, where veteran Donald Penn was limited to 188 snaps in 4 games by injury, leaving rookie first and third round picks Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker to start on the left and right side respectively for most of the season. A big part of Gruden’s first draft class in Oakland, Miller and Parker struggled mightily, finishing 81st and 83rd respectively out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and allowing 26 sacks combined. 

Penn is no longer with the team, but the Raiders made a big financial investment at the offensive tackle position this off-season, signing Trent Brown to a 4-year, 66 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. He’s been a solid starter over the past 3 seasons (42 starts), but has never finished higher than 27th among offensive tackles on PFF. On top of that, he’s expected to play right tackle, which is generally the lesser valued offensive tackle position. Only 5 other right tackles make at least 8 million annually. Brown makes more than double that annually on his new deal (16.5 million). He played the left side in New England last season, but the Raiders seem to want to keep Kolton Miller there, despite his disastrous rookie season. He still has upside and could easily be better in his second season in the league, but he was a questionable pick at the time (especially over Derwin James and Leighton Vander Esch) and his career has gotten off to a rough start.

In part to free up money to sign Brown, the Raiders sent incumbent left guard Kelechi Osemele to the Jets in what amounted to a salary dump, getting out of the final 2 years and 22.9 million of his contract. Osemele struggled in an injury plagued 2018 season, finishing 64th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF on 735 snaps, but he’s been a much better player in the past and the Raiders don’t have an obvious replacement for him. They could move Brandon Parker inside with Brown taking his spot at right tackle, but he was horrendous as a rookie and wouldn’t necessarily be better at a new position.

Veteran Richie Incognito is penciled in as the starter at left guard, but he comes with plenty of uncertainty. Incognito has earned an above average grade from PFF in his past 9 seasons, maxing out at 6th among guards in 2015 and finishing 18th at his position as recently as 2017, but he has a history of discipline issues, he spent 2018 out of the league, and is now going into his age 36 season. He could give them solid play, especially as a run blocker, but that’s far from a guarantee. Along with Parker, Incognito also could face competition from Denzelle Good, who started the final 3 games of the season at right guard last season and has 23 career starts in 4 seasons in the league. He’s always been an underwhelming player though and it’s very possible left guard remains a position of weakness in 2019.

At center and right guard, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson remain as starters. Hudson is their best offensive lineman, even with the addition of Brown in free agency. He was PFF’s 4th ranked center in 2018, his 5th straight season in the top-9 at his position (75 starts). Going into his age 30 season, his age is becoming a concern, but interior offensive linemen can often play well into their 30s, so he isn’t necessarily about to start declining. Even if he does a little bit, he should still remain one of the top centers in the league.

Gabe Jackson isn’t the same caliber player, but he’s a solid starter at the very least, making 72 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014 and finishing in the top-32 among guards on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 17th ranked season in 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Jackson should continue giving them solid play. The left side of this offensive line is a big question mark, but Trent Brown upgrades the right tackle spot significantly and Hudson and Jackson are also strong starters at center and right guard respectively.

Update: Richie Incognito will be suspended for the first 2 games of the season, but that won’t have a significant effect on this line.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

By far the Raiders’ biggest weakness on defense last season was their pass rush. In a season in which no other team finished with fewer than 30 sacks, the Raiders had a league low 13. For comparison Khalil Mack had 12.5 by himself in 14 games with the Bears. In Mack’s absence, the Raiders’ pass rush production from their edge defenders was pathetic as they managed just 4 sacks on the season, with 3 of them coming from Bruce Irvin, who was cut mid-season. Third round rookie Arden Key was the only edge defender with a sack still on the roster by season’s end and he had just 1 sack and a 9.1% pressure rate, while leading the team with 644 snaps played at the position. 35-year old Frostee Rucker finished second at the position with 549 snaps played, but didn’t have a single sack and had just a 6.1% pressure rate.

Despite having cap space, the Raiders didn’t do much to address the edge defender spot in free agency, but they did in the draft, using their 4th overall pick on Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and then adding Eastern Michigan’s Maxx Crosby in the 4th round as well. Ferrell was a surprise pick at #4, over players like linebacker Devin White, interior defender Ed Oliver and fellow edge defender Josh Allen, but he’s a great fit for the Raiders’ 4-3 defense.

Even if Ferrell isn’t as good of a pass rusher as Allen, he still has great upside as a pass rusher and can play the run in the NFL from day 1. He was a reach, but should have come off the board from like 8-12, so it’s not like he was huge reach and he could easily still develop into a great player. Crosby, meanwhile, was a good value in the 4th round and should be able to contribute as a rotational player as a rookie. He’ll rotate with Ferrell and Arden Key, who the Raiders are hoping can be better in his 2nd season in the league, after a disappointing rookie season. 

The Raiders’ one free agent edge defender addition was veteran Benson Mayowa, who was signed to just a one-year, 1.7 million dollar deal. Mayowa has the potential to exceed his contract value though, especially at an unsettled position group. He played a career high 550 snaps last season with the Cardinals and has a career best year as well, playing the run well and finishing with 4 sacks, 7 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a starting caliber player, but he wasn’t bad as a rotational player from 2014-2017, averaging 375 snaps per season, and, in his age 28 season, could easily continue being an effective rotational player. He’s the veteran of a very young group and definitely has opportunity for playing time.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

The Raiders didn’t make a big addition at on the interior of their defensive line in free agency either, nor did they address the position through the draft. They didn’t necessarily need to make a big splash addition at the position though. They return their top-3 defensive tackles from last season in terms of snaps played and, as much as this defense struggled, they weren’t a bad group. Two of those three defensive tackles are going into just their second year in the league as well, so they have the potential to be better in 2019. 

PJ Hall was the higher pick, going in the 2nd round, but 5th round pick Maurice Hurst was the better of the two players. Hall was a solid run stuffer, but didn’t have a sack and managed just a 5.0% pressure rate. Hurst, meanwhile, played well in both aspects and led the team with 4 sacks on just 472 snaps. He only fell in the draft because of concerns about his heart, but as long as he stays on the field the Raiders appear to have gotten a steal. Both he and Hall could take another step forward in their second season in the league in 2019.

Veteran Johnathan Hankins led this position group with 573 snaps played last season and returns on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. He struggled mightily as a pass rusher, with just a 2.9% pressure rate, but he’s a strong run stuffer and has been a slightly better pass rusher in the past, with 12 sacks, 22 hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate in 82 career games. Still only in his age 27 season, he should have another solid season in 2019 and could easily bounce back as a pass rusher. 

Fourth defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (419 snaps) is no longer with the team, but he won’t really be missed and the Raiders should get a healthier year from Justin Ellis. A foot injury limited Ellis to poor play over 133 snaps in 6 games last season, but he’s been better in the past. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with a 3.9% career pressure rate, but the 6-2 330 pounder is a strong run stuffer when he’s right and he’s still only going into his age 29 season. If healthy, he should be valuable in a situational role as a base package run stuffer. This is a decent group, but they lack a standout player.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Raiders also didn’t make a big addition at linebacker in free agency either, opting inside to take flyers on a pair of veterans in Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall on one-year deals worth just 2 million and 1.2 million respectively. Both players have seen better days and the Raiders are hoping one or both of them can bounce back. Marshall was a top-14 off ball linebacker on Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016, but he’s missed 12 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and has only been a middling starter in the past 2 seasons when on the field. Going into his age 30 season, with the injury history that he has, it’s likely his best days are behind him.

Burfict has had injury issues as well. He was a Pro Bowler in 2013, but has missed 37 of 80 games in 5 seasons since and, while he’s played well for stretches since when on the field, including a 21st ranked finish among off ball linebackers on 589 snaps on PFF as recently as 2017, the injuries seemed to catch up to him in 2018, as he finished 83rd among 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on 298 snaps. Only going into his age 29 season, Burfict could bounce back at least to his 2017 form, but that’s far from a guarantee and he’s likely to miss at least some time with injury. He’s the victim of his own violent playing style and adds yet another mercurial personality to this locker room with Richie Incognito and Antonio Brown. 

Tahir Whitehead led this linebacking corps with 1,025 snaps played last season, playing all but 3 snaps, but he struggled and is likely to take on a much smaller role with Marshall and Burfict coming in. He’s a solid run stuffer, but has a lot of trouble in coverage and would ideally be a 3rd linebacker in base packages and come off the field in obvious passing situations for a 5th defensive back. In order for that to happen, Marshall and Burfict will both need to stay healthy.

Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow played 448 snaps and 416 snaps respectively last season, but both struggled. Added in 2017 as a 5th round pick and an undrafted free agent respectively, neither has shown much in 2 seasons in the league and would be best as reserves. They could be pressed back into action though if Marshall and/or Burfict get hurt or struggle. This group has upside, but they didn’t add a true difference maker this off-season.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The one big free agent addition the Raiders did make on defense this off-season was safety LaMarcus Joyner, who comes over from the Rams on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal. Joyner was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety in 2017, but is largely a one-year wonder, never finishing higher than 27th at his position in his other 3 seasons. He should have a solid season at the very least though and he’s especially valuable because he can play both free safety and slot cornerback. The Raiders also used their final first round pick, 27th overall, on safety Johnathan Abram, who is expected to be the strong safety. He could easily be an every down player as a rookie.

Fourth year safety Karl Joseph could also have a role as the third safety, when Joyner moves to the slot. A first round pick in 2016, Joseph was a solid starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts), but Gruden benched him and he played just 55 snaps in the first 8 games of the 2018 season, before moving into the starting lineup and playing 454 snaps in the final 8 games. He actually had the best stretch of his career during those 8 games, but the Raiders still declined his 5th year option for 2020 this off-season and added a pair of safeties to start over him. 

Joseph could still see a significant role though, since Joyner could be on the slot a fair amount in sub packages. Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Raiders in 2018, when they started 6 different players, and only 3 of those players remain. In addition to drafting a safety in the first round, they also used a second round pick on Clemson cornerback Travyon Mullen. He’ll compete for the outside cornerback spots with holdovers Gareon Conley, Daryl Worley, and Nick Nelson. 

Conley seems to have the best shot to lock down a starting job. Injuries have limited him to just in 14 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but he was a first round pick in 2017 and has played pretty well when on the field. He played a career 679 snaps last season and, only in his age 24 season, could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019 if he can stay healthy. That’s far from a guarantee though.

Daryl Worley and the rookie Trayvon Mullen have the best shot to win the other starting job. Worley has made 34 starts in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016 and is still only in his age 24 season, but has been an underwhelming player and finished last season as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying on 505 snaps. He could easily lose a training camp competition to Mullen, though Mullen wouldn’t necessarily be a huge upgrade.

2018 4th round pick Nick Nelson could also be in the mix for a role outside, but mostly likely he’ll try to carve out a role on the slot, where he played 230 of 311 snaps as a rookie. Nelson struggled mightily as a rookie and doesn’t have the size or speed to play outside, so he may be best as a dime cornerback. The Raiders have some promising young defensive backs and the addition of LaMarcus Joyner in free agency should help, but this isn’t a great group either. By default, it’s their best defensive unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Raiders are rebuilding from the ground up around Derek Carr. Their offense should be better with the additions of Trent Brown, Antonio Brown, and Tyrell Williams, but most of their defensive additions were either rookies and washed up veteran flyers, with defensive back LaMarcus Joyner being the one exception. They have some upside on defense and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be better than they were last season defensively, but this still looks like one of the least talented teams in the league on paper.

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the 2017 off-season, the Chiefs had veteran Alex Smith as starting quarterback, going into his 5th season in that role. He hadn’t played badly, but the Chiefs still had higher ambitions at the position and opted to trade a pair of first round picks to the Bills (27th in 2017 and what became 22nd in 2018) to move up to select Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes to be their quarterback of the future. Quarterback didn’t seem like an obvious need and the Chiefs paid a steep price to select him, but the hope was that Mahomes would give them a younger, cheaper starting option long-term.

Smith had arguably the best season of his career in 2017, but the Chiefs lost early in the post-season again and continued forward with their plan to start Mahomes long-term, sending Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and starting cornerback Kendall Fuller last off-season. Mahomes became the starter and played at a level that no one expected in 2018, completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while adding 270 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.53 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who threw almost 100 fewer passes, and he ultimately ended up winning the NFL’s MVP award over Brees at the end of the season. 

Mahomes obviously deserves most of the credit, but he’s been fortunate to work with head coach Andy Reid, who has always gotten the most out of his quarterbacks, including Alex Smith. Reid had never gotten the opportunity to work with a talent like Mahomes before and now it’s clear that the two have the ability to produce tremendous results together on offense. The Chiefs led the league last season with a 45.18% first down rate, 2% more than any other team in the league last season and the best by any team in recent memory. 

Mahomes probably isn’t going to do what he did last season every single season, but given that he won the MVP in his age 23 season in his first season as a starter, the sky’s the limit for his potential. Barring a catastrophic injury, Mahomes should remain one of the top few quarterbacks in the league again in 2019. If he were to get hurt, the Chiefs would have to turn to failed Dolphins and Jaguars starter Chad Henne, who has a 75.5 QB rating in 53 career starts. Needless to say, he’d be a massive downgrade.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One thing that could slow down Mahomes is personnel losses around him. During their week 12 bye week last season, Mahomes lost feature back Kareem Hunt, who was kicked off the team for domestic violence. Their offense was still strong in the final 5 games of the season, with a 42.77% first down rate, but that’s down from 46.31% through 11 games. Replacement starter Damien Williams averaged 5.12 yards per carry on 50 carries, but he was still a downgrade, for a couple reasons. For one, he’s not nearly the same threat in the receiving game, averaging just 7.0 yards per catch, compared to 14.5 for Hunt. He’s also not the kind of player who defenses have to commit a lot of attention to, which makes life harder for Mahomes. 

Williams is very inexperienced, with a 4.01 YPC average on 183 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but the Chiefs didn’t add much at the running back position this off-season, so he looks likely to be the lead back. They added veteran Carlos Hyde in free agency, but only on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal. He also had just a 3.32 YPC average on 172 carries last season with the Browns and Jaguars and his career 3.99 yards per target average makes him a poor fit for an Andy Reid offense that likes to throw the ball to the backs. 

Hyde has been a better runner in the past than he was last season, so he could contribute in a situational role as a pure early down back, but he’s unlikely to have a big role. The Chiefs also added Darwin Thompson in the 6th round of the draft. Thompson is undersized at 5-8 200, but he has intriguing upside in this offense. He gives them a change of pace to the bigger Hyde (6-0 229) and Williams (5-11 224) and he can contribute as a receiver as well. He might not have much of a role to start the season, but could emerge as a factor down the stretch. In close to two seasons in Kansas City, Kareem Hunt averaged 4.75 yards per carry across 453 carries, 10.5 yards per catch across 79 catches, and scored 25 times in 27 games with the Chiefs. It’s unlikely any of these backs emerge as the threat he was. 

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Mahomes might also be losing Tyreek Hill because of off-the-field issues, which would be an even bigger loss, as Hill was Mahomes’ top target in 2018, posting an 87/1479/12 slash line. Hill has averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league and his deep speed makes him a great fit with Mahomes and his cannon arm. Mahomes and Hill connected 20 times last season on passes that went more than 20 yards downfield for 754 yards. No other receiver had more than 15 catches or 543 yards on balls that far downfield.

Hill was only a 5th round pick by the Chiefs in 2016, but the primary reason he was available then was a conviction for domestic violence while in college. Now a few years later, Hill was investigated this off-season for potential child abuse. The investigation turned up no charges and recent reports suggest the NFL believes Hill’s side of the story, but this whole situation is a PR nightmare for the NFL, so Hill could still be looking at a minimum 4 game suspension, especially given his history.

Still, from a football perspective, that’s about as good as the Chiefs could have hoped for when this story initially broke. Around draft day, it looked like Hill’s long-term future could be in doubt after the release of an audio recording that seemed to implicate Hill, so the Chiefs used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, who is a similarly fast player. Instead of replacing Hill, it’s looking more and more likely that he’ll be playing alongside Hill long-term. Hardman is very raw though and, as a rookie, almost definitely would not be able to replace Hill effectively if he was to get suspended.

If Hill is unable to play, Sammy Watkins would become the #1 receiver. Watkins was the #2 receiver last year, but was limited to a 40/519/3 slash line in 10 games due to injury, Injuries have unfortunately become expected from him, as he hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2014 and has missed 18 of 64 games in 4 seasons since. He averages a 60/922/7 slash line per 16 games in his career, despite playing many games at less than 100%, and the former 4th overall pick is still only in his age 26 season. He doesn’t have Hill’s speed, but he definitely has deep ball ability with a career 15.4 yards per catch average. As long as he’s healthy, he should be an effective top target in Hill’s absence.

Hill’s absence would have a ripple effect farther down the depth chart though. Fourth receiver DeMarcus Robinson played 419 snaps last season, 252 of them in the 6 games Watkins missed, and the 2016 4th round round pick would ideally compete for the #3 receiver job with Hardman. If Hill is out, both Hardman and Robinson will likely have to play significant snaps. Both Hardman and Robinson have upside, but Hardman never topped 35 catches in a season in college and figures to have a lot of growing pains as a rookie, while Robinson has averaged just 0.81 yards per route run on 615 routes in 3 seasons in the league.

Especially without Hill, Mahomes figures to rely heavily on tight end Travis Kelce, who is one of the best in the league at his position. He was just about as productive as Hill last season, with a 103/1336/10 slash line, and averaged a 77/975/6 slash line 4 seasons in the league even before being paired up with Mahomes. Also a solid blocker, Kelce has finished in the top-3 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’ll turn 30 later this year, which is a concern, but he hasn’t missed a game with injury in 5 seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down. 

If anything was to happen to Kelce, the Chiefs would be in a lot of trouble because they really lack depth at tight end. Demetrius Harris played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season, but he’s no longer with the team and the only replacements they added were Blake Bell and Neal Sterling, a pair of bottom of the roster types. Both drafted in 2015, Bell has played 825 snaps since being drafted in the 4th round, while Sterling has played 402 snaps since being drafted in the 7th round. Combined, they have just 54 career catches. Neither is a lock for the final roster, but one will have to see a role because all of the Chiefs’ other tight ends are former undrafted free agents with no experience. The Chiefs have a talented top-3 in Hill, Kelce, and Watkins, but Hill is facing a possibly long suspension and they have very uncertain depth behind those three. I will revise this grade based on the length of Hill’s suspension, but for now I’m assuming 6-8 games.

Update: Tyreek Hill will not be suspended for any games. I have adjusted this team’s projection accordingly.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As good as the Chiefs’ offense was last season, their offensive line was a bit of a problem. Mahomes was only sacked 26 times because he’s so hard to take down, but he took another 45 hits, including a league leading 16 hits while throwing. Mahomes takes off and runs a few times per game, so he’s already taking more hits than your average quarterback. They need to limit the amount of times he’s getting hit in the pocket if they want him to continue avoiding injury. 

Despite that, the Chiefs didn’t really do much to address the offensive line this off-season. They do get right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif back from a broken leg that ended his 2018 season after just 5 games. Duvarney-Tardif was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked guard in 2017 and he’s still only in his age 28 season, so he has bounce back potential, but he’s also largely a one-year wonder, earning an average grade from PFF in his other 3 seasons as a starter. He should still be a welcome re-addition if healthy, but he’s had durability issues, also missing 7 games between 2016-2017.

The Chiefs lost center Mitch Morse in free agency though, which kind of cancels out the re-addition of Duvarney-Tardif, and the Chiefs had the 9th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, so it’s not like they can necessarily count on better health in 2019. Morse actually missed 5 games with an injury of his own last season, but he still finished 15th among centers on PFF. Injury replacement Austin Reiter wasn’t bad in his absence last season, but the 2015 7th round pick is very inexperienced, with 5 career starts. He’ll likely remain the starter in 2019, for lack of a better option, and could easily struggle as a 16-game starter.

At left guard, incumbent Cam Erving will compete with Andrew Wylie, who made 10 starts at right guard last season in Duvarney-Tardif’s absence. Erving was a first round pick in 2015 and has made 34 career starts at 4 different positions (13 at center, 1 at left tackle, 15 at left guard, and 5 at right guard), but he’s struggled mightily regardless of where he’s played, most recently finishing 83rd out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts. 

Wylie wasn’t great at right guard last season, but he wasn’t bad either and even though that was the first starting experience of the 2017 undrafted free agent’s career, he could still be an upgrade at left guard over Erving. Erving, meanwhile, could potentially kick inside to center, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. Regardless of how it works out, left guard and center figure to be positions of weakness.

This offensive line is much better outside, as left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are one of the top tackle duos in the league. Drafted first overall in 2013, Fisher was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at 24th in 2016 and finishing 28th in 2018. Still in his age 28 season, he should remain an above average left tackle. 

Schwartz, meanwhile, has been one of the best right tackles in the league since his rookie year in 2012, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league, including 2 seasons in the top-14 and a career best 5th place finish in 2018. Going into his age 30 season, he could start to decline soon and it may be tough for him to repeat his career best year, but he should remain one of the top right tackles in the league in 2019. Left tackle, right tackle, and right guard are positions of strength, but left guard and center are positions of weakness and they have questionable depth if injuries strike.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

It’s a good thing the Chiefs were so dominant on offense last season, because their defense was horrendous. They finished dead last in first down rate allowed, with their 419 first downs allowed leading the league by a wide margin and only Oakland and Tampa Bay topping the 49 touchdowns they allowed. They had one of the better pass rushes in the league last season, ranking tied for first in the NFL with 52 sacks, but they allowed the 2nd most pass completions (406), the 6th most rushing yards (2,114), and the 2nd most rushing yards per carry (4.97). As good as their offense was, their defensive struggles limited them to only finishing 9th in first down rate differential at 2.98%.

Mahomes doesn’t have quite the same supporting cast around him in 2019 as he had in 2018 and is unlikely to have a record setting year every year, so the Chiefs need their defense to turn things around. The Chiefs also struggled on defense in 2017, finishing 31st in first down rate allowed, so they understandably felt the need to shake things up on defense this off-season. They fired basically their entire defensive staff, including defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who had been in that role since Andy Reid first took the job with the Chiefs in 2013. Sutton was replaced by former Saints and Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is an experienced coordinator and also was once the head coach of the Rams, but he has had mixed results throughout his career. 

The changes didn’t stop with the coaching staff. Spagnuolo will transition this defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and the Chiefs made several significant moves this off-season to try to fit their personnel to their new scheme better. The biggest moves involved getting rid of edge defenders Dee Ford and Justin Houston, who combined for 22 sacks last season, but were seen as a poor fit for the new 4-3 defense. Ironically, both Ford and Houston ended up on teams that primarily run a base 4-3 defense, in San Francisco and Indianapolis respectively. Ford brought back a 2020 second round pick via trade and the Chiefs avoiding having to give him the 5-year, 85.5 million dollar deal the 49ers gave him to stay long-term, while Houston’s release saved the Chiefs 17 million, but Ford and Houston ranked 11th and 12th respectively among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus last season and will be tough to replace.

The Chiefs used the money they freed up by moving on from Ford and Houston to trade for and extend ex-Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and to sign ex-Saints defensive end Alex Okafor. Clark and Okafor figure to be their starting defensive ends in 2019. Clark has been a strong starter for 3 seasons and is only in his age 26 season. He’s totalled 32 sacks, 29 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate over those 3 seasons and was PFF’s 21st ranked edge defender in 2018. 

He was very expensive to bring in though, especially compared to what Dee Ford cost the 49ers. Clark was given a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension that makes him the 4th highest paid defensive player in the NFL in terms of average annual salary and the Chiefs also surrendered a 2019 first round pick and a 2020 second round pick via trade to the Seahawks. He should remain a strong starter for years to come, but the Chiefs probably overpaid. I think Dee Ford being a poor scheme fit was overblown, so they would have been better off extending instead.

Okafor was much less expensive than Clark, coming over from the Saints on a 3-year, 17.9 million dollar deal, but he doesn’t nearly have Clark’s upside. A 4th round pick in 2013, Okafor didn’t show much on his rookie contract, but has proven to be a late bloomer, breaking out as solid starter in the past 2 seasons in New Orleans. He started all 26 games he played, playing an average of 46.8 snaps per game, and totalled 8.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate, while finishing 28th and 37th among edge defenders on PFF. That’s despite the fact that he tore his Achilles late in the 2017 season. Still only in his age 28 season, Okafor should remain a solid starter in Kansas City on a similar snap count.

The Chiefs also added former Browns starting defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah via trade and they are hoping to get more from 2018 2nd round pick Breeland Speaks, who struggled on 475 rookie year snaps (1.5 sacks and an 8.7% pressure rate in 16 games). Ogbah was a second round pick by the Browns in 2016 and he started all 40 games he played in 3 seasons in Cleveland, but he was a pretty mediocre starter and totalled just 12.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate. It’s possible he takes a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, but that’s far from a guarantee. 

Other potential depth options include 2017 2nd round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has played just 273 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and veteran free agent acquisition Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 6 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in 2015 with the Chargers, but has played just 408 snaps in 3 seasons since, in part due to injury. Only in his age 26 season, Attaochu still theoretically has bounce back potential, while Kpassagnon still has great physical tools and could take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league. Neither are locks for the final roster, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either one carve out a situational role. This is a pretty deep group, but they’re unlikely to be as good as they were last season, when Ford and Houston were arguably the best edge defender duo in the NFL.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Chiefs’ defense struggled last season even with Ford and Houston playing at a high level, so Kansas City needs the rest of this defense to step up, now with Ford and Houston gone. One thing the Chiefs did this off-season to try to improve the rest of their defense was letting Allen Bailey, who led Chief interior defenders with 848 snaps last season, leave as a free agent and replacing him with 3rd round rookie Khalen Saunders. Saunders might not make a big impact as a rookie, but Bailey didn’t play well last season, managing 6 sacks, but just 4 hits and a 5.9% pressure rate and he struggled against the run as well, so getting rid of him could be addition by subtraction. 

Saunders will compete for a starting defensive tackle job with Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnadi, who played 424 snaps and 448 snaps respectively last season. Both are solid players against the run, but they managed a combined 2.5 sacks, 1 hit, and 5.6% pressure rate last season. Williams was an undrafted free agent in 2015 and last season was his career high in snaps, so he’s probably maxed out as a player, but Nnadi was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. The 6-1 317 pounder likely doesn’t have the athleticism to ever develop into a pass rushing threat, but he could develop into a strong run stuffer. The 6-2 309 pound Williams and 6-0 324 Saunders are both bigger defensive tackles as well and is unlikely any of them get much pass rush in 2019. 

Fortunately, Houston and Ford were part of a trio of dominant pass rushers in 2018 and the third member of that trio, defensive tackle Chris Jones, is still on the team. In fact, Jones actually led this team with 15.5 sacks, and he added 14 hits a 14.3% pressure rate as well, despite rushing the passer from the interior. He’s not great against the run, but still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked interior defender overall in 2018. The 2016 2nd round pick is no one-year wonder either, finishing 8th among interior defenders on PFF in 2017 as well, and pressuring the quarterback at an 11.7% rate in 3 seasons in the league. 

Only going into his age 25 season, Jones could keep getting better and will likely become one of the highest paid defensive players in the league (upwards of 20 million dollars) on his next contract. Moving on from Ford and Houston was partially about freeing up money long-term to extend Jones, which will likely happen before the start of the season, with Jones going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. Arguably the second best interior pass rusher in the league behind Aaron Donald, Jones elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group, even if he isn’t great against the run.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ defensive front was pretty good last season, led by the trio of Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones, but the back seven had serious problems. If this defense is going to take a step forward in 2019, they’ll need to be better in the back seven, especially their off ball linebackers, which were arguably the worst in the league last season. They didn’t make a major addition, but they signed ex-Cowboy Damien Wilson to a 2-year, 5.75 million dollar deal and sent a 6th round pick to the Jets for middle linebacker Darron Lee, who lost his job when the Jets signed CJ Mosley this off-season.

Wilson has never topped 321 defensive snaps in a season, but he’s a capable run stuffer and plays special teams as well. Lee, meanwhile, could prove to be a steal, as he was a first round pick in 2016, has started 36 games in 3 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 25 season. He’s had disciplinary problems and he struggles against the run, but he’s developed into a strong coverage linebacker, finishing 3rd among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on Pro Football Focus last season. Even if he only plays a sub package role, he’ll be a welcome addition for a team with a big need at linebacker. 

Wilson and Lee will compete for playing time with Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, and Dorian O’Daniel, who finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the team in snaps among linebackers with 944, 583, and 303 respectively last season. O’Daniel wasn’t bad, but the 3rd round rookie didn’t really play that much as purely a situational coverage linebacker, while Hitchens and Ragland finished 95th and 72nd respectively among 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. 

Hitchens has been inconsistent in his career, but he’s been better in the past, even finishing 20th among off ball linebackers on PFF as recently as 2017. Only going into his age 27 season, he has bounce back potential and could benefit from a switch to a 4-3 defense, which he played in with the Cowboys in his first 4 seasons in the league. Owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million in 2020, in the third year of a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal, Hitchens needs to bounce back in a big way or this could easily be his final season in Kansas City.

Ragland, meanwhile, was a second round pick by Buffalo in 2016, but hasn’t had a great career, missing his rookie year with a torn ACL, getting traded to the Chiefs from the Bills before ever playing a snap for the team, flashing against the run on 321 snaps in 2017, but then struggling in a larger role in 2018. Already in his age 26 season, he still has some upside, but it’s likely he maxes out as a solid run stuffer, if that. 

I’d expect Hitchens to play every down with Ragland and Lee splitting snaps in the middle based on situation and Wilson playing as a third linebacker in base packages, but these roles will be sorted out in training camp. Dorian O’Daniel could also continue seeing a role as a situational coverage linebacker, which would likely come at the absence of Hitchens’ sub package snaps. This isn’t a strong group, but it would be hard for their linebackers to be worse than last season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The secondary was also a problem last season and, unlike in their linebacking corps, the Chiefs made significant changes in the secondary this off-season. Their biggest addition was signing safety Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency. Mathieu effectively replaces long-time Chief Eric Berry, who was released ahead of a 12.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, but Berry has barely played in the past two seasons, limited to 169 snaps total due to injury. In Berry’s absence, the Chiefs started four other safeties, Daniel Sorensen (3 starts), Ron Parker (14 starts), Eric Murray (9 starts), and Jordan Lucas (4 starts), but all of them finished below average on Pro Football Focus. 

Mathieu is an obvious upgrade over all four players, but it’s fair to wonder if they overpaid him, making him the highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu was PFF’s 6th ranked safety as a rookie, but tore his ACL at the end of the season and was limited to 428 underwhelming snaps in 2014. He bounced back to finish 1st among safeties in 2015, but tore his ACL again at the end of that season. The Cardinals still gave him a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension the following off-season, but he wasn’t the same in 26 starts from 2016 and 2017 and was cut just 2 years and 21.67 million dollars into that extension. 

Mathieu was then forced to settle for a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal from the Texans last off-season, but, after a 2018 season in which he finished 20th among safeties on PFF, the Chiefs are now valuing him among the top safeties in the league. He hasn’t missed a game in two seasons in the league and he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season, but he hasn’t shown his top form since before his second ACL tear in 2015 and the Chiefs are paying him like he’s one of the top few in the league at his position. He helps this secondary, but at a steep price.

The Chiefs also added Juan Thornhill in the second round of the draft. Two safeties who started last season, Daniel Sorensen and Jordan Lucas, both remain on the roster, but they’re both backup caliber players, so Thornhill is likely to start week 1. Thornhill might not have a great rookie year, but he profiles as a long-term starter and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the safeties the Chiefs had to start last season. 

The Chiefs also made significant changes at cornerback this off-season, though not necessarily for the better. Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick, who weren’t bad on 1,164 snaps and 788 snaps respectively last season, are no longer with the team and the only addition the Chiefs made was signing veteran Bashuad Breeland to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal (incentives up to 5 million). Breeland will start opposite incumbent 15-game starter Kendall Fuller, but the Chiefs will also be counting on 2018 undrafted rookie Charvarius Ward and 2018 6th round pick Tremon Smith to play a bigger role in their second season in the league. They struggled on just 140 snaps and 74 snaps respectively last season and are no guarantee to be any better in 2019.

Fuller is still probably their best cornerback, although he was a lot better in 2017 with the Redskins than he was in 2018 after he was traded to the Chiefs, falling from 2nd among cornerbacks on PFF to 34th. He played a larger role in 2018, playing 1,078 snaps after playing just 720 snaps as primarily a slot specialist in 2017, but he even had issues on the slot last season, going from 0.74 in yards per slot coverage snap in 2017 (3rd in the NFL) to 1.26 in 2018 (32nd). Still only going into his age 24 season, the 2016 3rd round pick still has a bright future and could easily have somewhat of a bounce back year in 2019. He’ll play outside in two-cornerback formations and move to the slot in sub packages. 

Bashaud Breeland will play outside opposite Fuller in two-cornerback formations and opposite either Charvarius Ward or Tremon Smith in sub packages, with Fuller on the slot. Breeland had an up and down tenure in 4 seasons with the Redskins (58 starts), finishing above average on PFF in 2015 and 2017 and below average in 2014 and 2016, but he still was set to sign a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Panthers last off-season as a free agent, before an off-season injury voided the deal. Breeland eventually ended up taking an incentivized minimum deal from the Packers and struggled on 330 snaps in an injury plagued season. The 2014 4th round pick is still only in his age 27 season and has some bounce back potential, but he’s far from a sure thing and the Chiefs don’t have another good option. They’re better at safety this season, but cornerback figures to be a position of weakness unless one of the young players steps up. 

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Chiefs were able to mask their significant problems on defense last season with an offense that was one of the best in recent memory, but they probably won’t be quite as good this season. Kareem Hunt is gone, Tyreek Hill is facing suspension, and, as good as Mahomes is, he might not be quite as good as he was last season every year. The Chiefs tried to fix their defense, but they still have a lot of problems on that side of the ball, problems which will become much more noticable if their offense can’t be historically good again. The Chiefs should be able to qualify for the post-season in the AFC, but they’re a little overrated right now. 

Update: The Chiefs will have Tyreek Hill for the full season, but still may find it tough to match last season’s offensive performance and their defense remains a significant concern.

Final Update: Things continue to go the Chiefs’ way, with the Chargers losing Russell Okung, Melvin Gordon, and Derwin James indefinitely. The Chiefs should be considered clear favorites in the AFC West.

Prediction 11-5, 1st in AFC West

Denver Broncos 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 at the end of the 2015 season, in Peyton Manning’s final season with the team, but Manning really struggled that season, as did backup Brock Osweiler, who made 7 starts while Manning was out with a foot injury. Manning and Osweiler finished the regular season with a combined 76.3 QB rating and Manning wasn’t much better in the post-season after he returned from injury, but their defense was so dominant that it was able to carry the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory. 

In 3 seasons since, the Broncos have started four different quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, and Case Keenum, none of whom have had much success. Their defense has remained strong, finishing in the top-10 in first down rate allowed in all 3 seasons since their Super Bowl appearance, but it hasn’t been as good as it was in 2015 and, as a result, the Broncos have missed the post-season in all 3 seasons. That might not seem like that long, but 24 of 32 NFL teams have made the post-season in the past 3 years, with the Broncos joining the Bengals, Buccaneers, Browns, Jets, Redskins, Cardinals, and 49ers as the only teams that have not made the post-season in the past 3 seasons. 

The Broncos’ quarterback problems have not been for lack of trying. When Manning retired after the Super Bowl, the Broncos traded up in the first round to select Paxton Lynch 26th overall to be his long-term replacement. Due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness, Lynch made just 4 underwhelming starts in 2 seasons in Denver and was sent packing last off-season when he continued not to make any progress. The Broncos then turned to the free agent market, signing veteran journeyman Case Keenum to a 2-year, 36 million dollar deal, following a career best year in which he had a 98.3 QB rating and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship as a backup quarterback.

Keenum started all 16 games in 2018, but he much more closely resembled the quarterback he was prior to his surprise 2017 season, when he had a 77.8 QB rating in the first 5 seasons of his career (24 starts). Keenum completed just 62.3% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, while finishing 26th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That lead the Broncos to give up on him after 1 year and 22 million, sending him to the Redskins for a swap of late round picks.

Now the Broncos are moving forward with off-season acquisition Joe Flacco as the starter. The Broncos only had to give up a 4th round pick to acquire Flacco, but he has a salary of 18.5 million in 2019 and would be owed 20.25 million in 2020 and 24.25 million in 2021 if the Broncos keep him on the roster, so they’re paying a significant price to bring in the ex-Raven. Flacco might have been worth that salary in his prime, but he’s been a pretty underwhelming starter in the past 4 seasons, completing just 63.9% of his passes for an average of 6.32 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 46 interceptions. 

Part of his statistical struggles can be blamed on his lack of offensive supporting cast in Baltimore, but Flacco has also finished below average among quarterbacks on PFF in all 4 seasons, with his last above average season coming in 2014, when he finished 10th among quarterbacks. His decline led to the Ravens using a first round pick on Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft, who took over as the starter midway through last season, after Flacco completed 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.50 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 9 starts. Now going into his age 34 season, it’s unlikely Flacco suddenly finds his old form with the Broncos. 

The Broncos also used a second round pick on Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. Lock was seen by some as a potential first round pick and has the upside to develop into a long-term starter. He’s unlikely to see much action as a rookie, but his contract (about 6.8 million over 4 years) is much more cap friendly than Flacco and if he shows well behind the scenes it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos move on from Flacco next off-season, in favor of starting the cheaper Lock. Lock also could be a solid backup option in case Flacco gets hurt this season. Neither he nor Flacco are unlikely to be an average or better starting quarterback in 2019 though, so this figures to be a position of weakness again.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Even with mediocre quarterback play, the Broncos were better than their 6-10 record suggested last season. They had one of the toughest schedules in the league to start the season (7 of their first 10 games were against eventual playoff teams) and, when their schedule got easier down the stretch, they lost a bunch of players for the season due to injury and were not nearly the same team they were at the beginning of the season. They lost right guard Ronald Leary in week 6, center Matt Paradis in week 9, and both cornerback Chris Harris and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in week 13. Those four were among their best players and were seriously missed. Earlier in the year they beat the Chargers and Seahawks and came within a touchdown against the Chiefs (twice), Rams, and Texans, but down the stretch they lost games to the Raiders and 49ers. 

All things considered, the Broncos didn’t have that bad of a season in 2018 and they finished better than their record would suggest in first down differential at +0.47%, 15th in the NFL. Their defense, which ranked 9th in first down rate allowed, was their best unit, but their offense wasn’t that bad, finishing 19th in first down rate. The biggest reason for that was probably the play of lead running back Philip Lindsay, who averaged 5.40 yards per carry on 192 carries, the 3rd highest YPC average of any running back in the league (minimum 100 carries). Lindsay also ended up suffering a serious injury, but because it happened during week 16 he only ended up missing one game. He’s missed a lot of this off-season as his wrist healed, but is fully expected to be ready for training camp and shouldn’t have any long-term complications.

Lindsay’s strong season really came out of nowhere. He was not one of the 20 running backs drafted in 2018 and his size at 5-8 190 does not suggest he’s lead back material, but he had a strong off-season, won a rotational role at the running back position to start the season, and ran so well that they had to keep giving him more and more action. He topped 15 carries just 3 times on the season and at his size he could probably never be a true feature back, but he’s one of the fastest running backs in the NFL and he’s not a bad receiver either, adding a 35/241/1 slash line through the air. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back and was the first undrafted offensive player ever to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

It’s unlikely Lindsay will be quite as effective as a runner in 2019 though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s very tough to average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons. 63 of the last 69 running backs to top 5 yards per carry on 150+ carries did not repeat the feat the following season, including much more proven runners than Lindsay. Two, his average was kind of distorted by a few long runs. He finished just 22nd in running back carry success rate at 49%, which isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as his average would suggest. The final reason is simply that he was passed on by the entire league a year ago (including the Broncos) and, while the NFL certainly isn’t 100% with these things, I’ve seen plenty of former late round picks and undrafted free agents have strong seasons early in their career and eventually regress. Lindsay should still have a strong year, but I wouldn’t expect him to have the same average per carry as he did last season.

Number two running back Royce Freeman was also a rookie last season. Drafted in the 3rd round, Freeman was expected to have a bigger rookie year role, but it was hard for the Broncos to take Lindsay off the field and Freeman ended up finishing with just 130 carries in 14 games. He only averaged 4.01 yards per carry, but he didn’t finish much behind Lindsay in carry success rate, ranking 29th at 46%, and he has the size at 6-0 228 to be an effective complement for the smaller, speedier Lindsay. 

These two backs should continue working in tandem in 2019 and could see a more even carry split if Lindsay’s average regresses and Freeman takes a step forward. The Broncos also had a pretty uneven pass/run split last season (622 pass plays to 393 run plays) and will probably run the ball more with a new coaching staff coming in, led by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio. Lindsay and Freeman could both have productive seasons on the ground.

Freeman doesn’t do much in the passing game (14 catches for 72 yards), but the Broncos still have passing down specialist Devontae Booker, who lead this team with 38 catches by a running back last season. A 4th round pick by the Broncos in 2016, Booker hasn’t been that effective as a runner in his career, averaging 3.81 yards per carry on 87 career carries, but he’s topped 30 catches in all 3 seasons in the league and should continue having a role as a passing down specialist. As long as Freeman and Lindsay are healthy, he won’t be needed much as a runner (34 carries in 2018). 

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Not only did the Broncos lose Emmanuel Sanders to injury down the stretch, but they also had already traded away veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at that point, leaving them with a really thin receiving corps. Down the stretch, the Broncos’ top-3 receivers were second round rookie Courtland Sutton, fourth round rookie DaeSean Hamtilon, and 2017 undrafted free agent Tim Patrick, who might as well have been a rookie, since he didn’t play a single snap in 2017.

Sanders’ injury was an Achilles tear and he suffered it in December, making him very questionable for the start of the season (roughly 9 months from the injury). The Broncos had the opportunity to move on from him this off-season, rather than pay him 10.25 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his contract, but without him they wouldn’t have another veteran wide receiver. He was on pace for a 95/1157/5 slash line when he got hurt last season, which would have been his fourth 1000+ yard season in the past 5 seasons, but, not only is he coming off of a serious injury, he’s also going into his age 32 season, making his 2019 projection murky even if he can return for week 1. 

Even with Sanders still on the team, the Broncos will still need their young receivers to play a big role in 2019. Courtland Sutton was their top target down the stretch last season and is likely to be a starter regardless of whether or not Sanders is healthy. He only caught 50% of the passes thrown to him as a rookie, but he showed his deep ball ability with 16.8 yards per catch, 7th most in the NFL (minimum 30 catches). He finished with a 42/704/4 slash line and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Depending on Sanders’ health, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Sutton lead this team in receiving.

DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick are likely to compete for reserve roles and would likely need Sanders to miss time to lock down a significant role. Neither showed much last season, averaging 0.88 and 1.29 yards per route run respectively and managing just 30/243/2 and 23/315/1 slash lines respectively, but Hamilton has the higher upside and is the more natural fit on the slot, so he should be considered the favorite for the third receiver job. Patrick could still see a rotational role, but his playing time is probably going to be dependant on Sanders’ availability.

In order to mask their issues at wide receiver, the Broncos will probably try to emphasize the tight end in the passing game more this season, after completing just 68 passes to tight ends in 2018. 31 of those 68 completions were to Jeff Heuerman, who lead Bronco tight ends with a 31/281/2 slash line, despite being limited to 11 games by injury. Heuerman returns this season and the Broncos also used the 20th overall pick on Iowa tight end Noah Fant (after trading down from 10). Fant isn’t much of a blocker, but he is incredibly athletic and should play ahead of Heuerman as a pass catcher. Heuerman will still be their primary run blocker and could see some balls in two-tight end sets, though pass catching is not as strength for him, as he has just 49 catches in 37 career games, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2015. 

The Broncos also have Jake Butt in the mix as the third tight end. Butt was seen as a likely second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft before tearing his ACL in a bowl game and falling to the Broncos in the 5th round. He didn’t play as a rookie because of the injury and right as he seemed to be rounding into form in 2018 he tore his ACL again, his 3rd ACL tear dating back to college. He’s caught just 8 passes on 97 snaps in 3 career games, but still potentially has upside and, even with a pair of tight ends currently ahead of him on the depth chart, he could carve out a role in an unsettled receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Broncos’ offensive line was probably their most injury plagued unit. Not only did they lose guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis for the final 10 games and 7 games of the season respectively, but right tackle Jared Veldheer also missed 4 games during the season. Veldheer isn’t as valuable as Leary or Paradis, but he was still a capable starter. Leary returns for 2019, but Paradis and Veldheer are both no longer with the team, so the Broncos are reworking their offensive line.

The Broncos made a pair of big additions this off-season, signing ex-Dolphins right tackle Ja’Wuan James to a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal and using a second round pick on Kansas State’s Dalton Risner. James will replace Veldheer at right tackle. He’s overpaid as the second highest paid right tackle in the league, as he’s never finished higher than 27th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he’s younger and better than Veldheer. The former first round pick is only going into his age 27 season and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league (62 starts). He should remain a solid starter in 2019, but the Broncos could have gotten a comparable player at a cheaper price.

Risner, meanwhile, played both right tackle and center in college, but is expected to play right guard for the Broncos. Connor McGovern started last season at right guard, but moved to center down the stretch with Paradis out and that appears to be where the Broncos want to leave him. McGovern was a 5th round pick in 2016 and he made all 16 starts last season, but he wasn’t particularly good at either position and he was even worse in the first 5 starts of his career in 2017, when he finished the season as the starter at right guard. McGovern will likely struggle as a 16-game starter at center, but, aside from flipping Risner and McGovern, the Broncos don’t have another good option at center and McGovern wouldn’t necessarily be better at guard. Both players would be clear downgrades from Paradis, who was PFF’s 2nd ranked center last season before getting hurt. 

Ron Leary is expected to return from injury week 1, but, like Emmanuel Sanders, he’s coming off of a torn Achilles. That’s not as serious of an injury for an offensive lineman and his injury came two months earlier, but Leary is also getting up there in age, going into his age 30 season, and he didn’t play all that well before getting hurt last season. He was PFF’s 16th ranked guard in 2016 and their 15th ranked guard in 2017, so he has some bounce back potential, but his best days could be behind him. Even still, he should be a solid starter and an upgrade on his injury replacement Elijah Wilkinson, a 2017 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming in his first 7 career starts last season. 

Left tackle Garett Bolles finishes off this offensive line. The 20th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Bolles has made all 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and there’s been a lot to like, as he’s allowed just 10 sacks and 16 hits total and is a solid run blocker as well, but he’s also committed a position leading 28 penalties. Bolles was an older rookie and is already going into his age 27 season, so it’s unclear if he’ll ever be able to get his penalty problem under control, but even with 13 penalties he was PFF’s 33rd ranked offensive tackle last season and he still has a high ceiling if he can learn to play more under control and still be effective. Even with a few off-season additions, this is an underwhelming group upfront.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Broncos had a strong defense once again in 2018, finishing 9th in first down rate allowed at 34.70%. The strength of their defense was the edge defender position. Not only were starting edge defenders Von Miller and Bradley Chubb the only edge defender duo in the NFL to both have double digit sacks, but the Broncos also had good depth at the position, as Shaq Barrett has the talent to start for a lot of teams and Shane Ray is a former first round pick. Those two were limited to just 276 snaps and 253 snaps respectively last season because of how good the duo of Miller and Chubb were. Barrett and Ray are no longer with the team, making depth a problem, but Miller and Chubb remain as the starters, which is obviously more important.

Miller is the better and more proven of the two and is one of the top defensive players in the entire NFL. Since being drafted 2nd overall in 2011, Miller has made 120 starts in 8 seasons in the league, totalling 98 sacks, 111 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate, and he has finished in the top-4 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons. His 98 sacks over the past 8 seasons lead the league over that time period. He’s now going into his age 30 season and could start to decline over the next few seasons, but he showed no signs of decline in 2018, finishing 4th among edge defenders on PFF and totalling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate. Even if he’s not quite at his best in 2019, he should still be one of the top edge defenders in the league.

Chubb also had a strong pass rushing season last year with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, but he only finished slightly above average on PFF, as much of his pass rush production came as a result of having Miller opposite him taking on double teams and forcing the quarterback off of his spot frequently. Chubb was the 5th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft though, so he still has a sky high upside and he showed a lot of promise as a rookie. He could easily take a step forward in 2019, even if that doesn’t necessarily lead to more pass rush production. He also needs to improve his tackling, as his 11 missed tackles were 4th most at his position last season.

Depth is now a serious concern with Barrett and Ray gone and no obvious replacements added. Jeff Holland, who played 43 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season, is the only other returning edge defender who played a snap last season. He’ll likely have a bigger role in his second season in the league, whether he’s ready for a bigger role or not. Fifth round rookie Justin Hollins could also be in the mix. Miller and Chubb won’t come off the field often (13th and 14th respectively in snaps played among edge defenders last season), but when they do their absence will be missed and they’ll be in big trouble if either one suffered a significant injury.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Even with Miller and Chubb combining for 26.5 sacks, the Broncos still ranked just 8th in the NFL with 44 sacks last season, as a result of their inability to get pass rush from the interior. No interior defender topped 3 sacks on the season and their peripheral pass rush stats are not much better. While Miller and Chubb both topped 50 pressures on the season, no other Bronco had more than 27 and those were from Derek Wolfe, who only reached that total because he was an every down player who played 710 snaps on the season. He had an underwhelming pressure rate at 6.1% and only added 1.5 sacks and 5 hits in 16 games. 

A 7-year veteran, Wolfe had a solid pass rushing stretch from 2015-2016, with 11 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate, but his pressure rate in his other 5 seasons is a combined 6.4% and he’s finished below average as a pass rusher on Pro Football Focus in all 5 of those other seasons. He’s always been a strong player against the run, but he can’t be depended on for consistent pass rush. He’d be best as a pure base package player, but he’ll likely continue playing an every down role, for lack of a better option. He’s owed 9 million non-guaranteed in 2019 and the Broncos likely would have let him go if they weren’t planning on continuing to use him in a similar role. 

In order to boost their interior pass rush, the Broncos used their 3rd round pick on Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones. Jones was part of a deep defensive line class and easily could have gone in the top-50 picks, so he was a great value in the third round. The 6-3 281 pounder lacks ideal size against the run, but he was one of the most productive interior pass rushers in college football last season and could contribute immediately as a situational interior rusher. 

Adam Gotsis will likely remain the starter opposite Wolfe in base packages. He played 513 snaps last season and 555 snaps in 2017, but ideally he’d be a pure base package player this season. A 2016 2nd round pick, Gotsis has developed into a solid run stuffer and he did lead the interior with 3 sacks last season, but he also had just a 5.7% pressure rate and he has a 4.5% pressure rate for his career. Already going into his age 27 season, it’s unlikely he suddenly develops into a strong pass rusher, but he’s a solid base package starter.

The one loss on this defensive line is nose tackle Domata Peko, who gave them strong play against the run on 523 snaps as the starter last season. With Peko gone, Shelby Harris and Zach Kerr will compete for the nose tackle job. Harris doesn’t have traditional nose tackle size at 6-3 300, but he has experience at the position and is the better player, both as a run stuffer and also as a pass rusher. He was just a 7th round pick in 2014, but he’s shown a lot of promise over the past 2 seasons on a combined 907 snaps and could easily prove to be a late bloomer. He’s totalled 7 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate, while earning an above average grade from PFF as a run stopper in both seasons, including an 18th ranked finish in 2018. He’s deserving of a bigger role and could stay on the field even in sub packages.

Kerr, meanwhile, has traditional nose tackle size at 6-2 334, but is not as good against the run and only has a 5.6% career pressure rate. He’s also never topped 394 snaps in a season in 5 seasons in the league. He has a shot to win the starting nose tackle job, but Harris seems like the better option. The loser of that position battle will remain as a rotational reserve. This is a solid group of interior defenders, but they lack a standout player and could struggle to get consistent pass rush again.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Broncos didn’t have as many injuries on defense as they had on offense last season, but they were without middle linebacker Brandon Marshall for 5 games. Marshall made 63 starts for the Broncos over the past 5 seasons and was an above average starter in his prime, but he was only an adequate starter even when on the field last season and the Broncos opted not to bring him back for his age 30 season in 2019 at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Even though Marshall wasn’t great last season, he’ll still be missed, as the Broncos did nothing to replace him. 

Todd Davis was the other starting linebacker opposite Marshall in the middle of the Broncos’ 3-4 defense last season. He was arguably their best linebacker and will remain in the same role. Davis has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons, but had struggled in coverage until last season. Always a solid run stuffer, Davis seemed to put it all together in 2018, finishing 24th on Pro Football Focus among off ball linebackers on a career high 842 snaps. A 2014 undrafted free agent, it’s possible Davis regresses a little bit this season, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and should remain an adequate starter at the very least for the next few seasons. 

The other middle linebacker spot is the bigger question mark. The Broncos will probably start 2018 4th round pick Josey Jewell in base packages. He played 460 rookie year snaps and was a solid player against the run, but struggled in coverage and was limited mostly to base packages even when Marshall got hurt. In the 5 games Marshall missed last season, the Broncos used safety Su’a Cravens as a coverage linebacker. A 2nd round pick by the Redskins back in 2016, Cravens hasn’t shown much in 3 seasons in the league, limited to 411 snaps total, in part due to injury, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and has the potential to develop into a good coverage linebacker. 

Cravens played 23.4 snaps per game when Marshall was out last season and will likely see a similar role in 2019. Jewell, meanwhile, played 25.3 snaps per game with Marshall in the lineup and 36.4 snaps per game with Marshall out of the lineup last season and should be much closer to the latter number now in his second season in the league. This group should be solid against the run, but covering tight ends and running backs over the middle may be a problem unless Cravens has a breakout year. 

Grade: C+

Secondary

The other big injury the Broncos had on defense was losing Chris Harris to a broken leg week 13. Behind Von Miller, he’s probably their best defensive player, so he was a huge loss and his absence was a big part of the reason why they ended the season on a 4 game losing streak. As consistent year in and year out as any cornerback in the league, Harris has finished in the top-18 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league, including 5 seasons in the top-5 (5th in 2018), and he plays equally well on the slot and outside. 

Despite that, Harris could be entering the end of his time in Denver. Harris is going into the final year of his contract in his age 30 season and the Broncos did not give him the long-term extension he was looking for this off-season. They did give him a well deserved raise for 2019 from 8.76 million to 12.05 million, in order to avoid a holdout, but the Broncos also made a couple of other big long-term investments at the cornerback position this off-season, rather than extending Harris, so it looks likely he’ll be playing elsewhere in 2020 and he could be moved at the trade deadline if the Broncos get off to a slow start.

Not only did the Broncos make a pair of big additions at cornerback this off-season, but both cornerbacks they added can also play the slot, which has traditionally been where Harris plays in 3+ cornerback sets. Harris was 4th among cornerbacks last season, only allowing 0.75 yards allowed per slot coverage snap, but the Broncos still added ex-Bear Bryce Callahan on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal. Callahan ranked 2nd last season among cornerbacks with 0.69 yards allowed per slot coverage snap. Kareem Jackson, meanwhile, wasn’t far behind them at 1.14 and signed a 3-year, 33 million dollar deal. 

Callahan is the best of three on the slot and doesn’t have the size to play outside at 5-9 185, so he’ll likely be their primary slot cornerback. Undrafted in 2015, Callahan has gotten better in every season in the league and finished 2018 as PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback on 676 snaps. In addition to his coverage ability, he also is a good blitzer off the edge, with 4 sacks and 4 hits on just 56 career blitzes. He’s arguably the best pure slot cornerback in the entire NFL and is paid like it. 

Jackson has experience at outside cornerback and safety as well as on the slot. He’ll likely start outside opposite Harris, but the Broncos have already discussed moving him to safety long-term and, going into his age 31 season, he could see some action at safety in obvious passing situations this season. Jackson has been a solid starter for years (124 starts in 9 seasons in the league) and finished last season 14th in coverage grade on PFF, but he could begin to decline over the next couple seasons. On the occasions Jackson plays safety, they’ll likely play Isaac Yiadom outside. Yiadom struggled mightily on 264 snaps as a rookie last season, but the Broncos are still high on the 2018 3rd round pick’s upside.

Part of the reason why Jackson could see some action at safety in 2019 is that they got rid of Darian Stewart, a 14-game starter in 2018, rather than paying him 5 million non-guaranteed for his age 31 season. Stewart struggled, but the Broncos didn’t do much to replace him and instead will turn to 2016 6th round pick Will Parks. Parks has shown potential in 3 seasons in the league, but has never been an every down safety, seeing action at both slot cornerback and linebacker throughout his career. He should be close to an every down player in 2019, but if he struggles Jackson could see more action at safety. 

Justin Simmons, a 16-game starter at safety in 2018, returns and will continue to start. A 3rd round pick by the Broncos in 2016, Simmons is a strong run stuffer, but has some struggles in coverage, especially last season, which led to him finishing 77th out of 101 qualifying safeties on PFF. He ranked 30th overall among safeties as a 13-game starter in 2017 and, still only in his age 26 season, Simmons obviously has bounce back potential. With some needed additions made at cornerback in Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, the Broncos should have an improved secondary in 2019.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Broncos are banking on Joe Flacco being a significant upgrade on Case Keenum and leading this team back to the post-season. Based in his play over the past few seasons, that seems unlikely. This team was better than their 6-10 record in 2018, but if they’re going to get back into the post-season it’s going to be because of the players at other positions besides quarterback. Their defense should be strong again, but they have issues in the receiving corps and on the offensive line and might not be quite as effective on the ground. They won’t be a bad team, but there are other more talented teams in the AFC with a better shot of securing a wild card spot. 

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chargers went just 18-30 from 2015-2017, but a lot of that was bad luck, as they had a 7-20 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. In 2018, their luck swung the other way and they went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, leading to a 12-4 finish. After a first round playoff victory in Baltimore, the Chargers ran into the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, who ended their season in Foxboro in the AFC divisional round. The Chargers return 10 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played on offense last season and 9 of their top-11 on defense, so they seem likely to be in contention once again.

The Chargers might not have been quite as good as their record last season, but they were still one of the best teams in the league, finishing 2nd in the NFL with a +5.68 first down rate differential. That’s almost exactly the same differential that had in 2018 (+5.67%), when they finished 4th, but missed the playoffs at 9-7 because they blew some very winnable games late. The offense especially has been one of the best in the league over the past two seasons, finishing 5th in first down rate in 2018 and 6th in 2017. Including 2016, when they finished 9th, the Chargers have now finished in the top-10 in first down rate in 3 straight seasons. 

The constant on this offense has been quarterback Philip Rivers, who remarkably has started 208 consecutive games for the Chargers at quarterback, the longest active starting streak in the NFL, dating back to week 1 of 2006, his first year as the starter. Rivers hasn’t just been dependable; he’s also been one of the best in the league over that stretch. In 15 seasons of what looks likely to be a Hall of Fame career, he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.81 YPA, 374 touchdowns, and 178 interceptions and he’s finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 10 of 13 seasons as a starter.

Rivers’ age is becoming a concern, going into his age 38 season, but he has kept himself in great shape and has shown no signs of slowing down. Last season, he completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.48 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and was PFF’s 4th ranked quarterback. Rivers could start to decline in 2018, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady have shown in recent years that quarterbacks can play at a high level into their late 30s if they stay in good shape and no one should be surprised if Rivers remains as good as he’s ever been in 2019.

With Rivers never missing a start, the Chargers have never invested much in the backup quarterback position, but they did splurge this off-season, signing former Bills and Browns starter Tyrod Taylor to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal to back up Rivers. It’s a great value for a quarterback who has made 40 million over the past 3 seasons and had an opportunity to start in Miami that he turned down. Taylor has only been a low end starter in 46 career starts, but he doesn’t turn the ball over much and you can definitely do a lot worse as a backup quarterback. The Chargers also used a 5th round pick on North Dakota State’s Easton Stick, as a long-term developmental quarterback. Unless someone gets hurt, Stick will be a game day inactive as a rookie and may top out as a backup long-term. Considering Rivers’ history, it’s very likely neither quarterback sees any real action. 

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The one key player the Chargers lost on offense is Tyrell Williams, who played 761 snaps and had a 41/653/5 slash line as the #2 receiver last year and then signed with the Raiders on a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Williams is a solid player, but the Chargers are pretty well prepared to deal with his absence. Mike Williams, the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, played 622 snaps as the 3rd receiver last season, posted a 43/664/10 slash line, and out-performed Tyrell Williams on a per route run basis. Mike Williams is expected to take over as the every down #2 receiver opposite Keenan Allen and has obvious breakout potential in his 3rd season in the league. 

The Chargers also have tight end Hunter Henry returning from a torn ACL that cost him basically his entire 2018 season. The injury was suffered in one of the Chargers’ first off-season practices last May and he was able to return to play 14 snaps in the playoff loss to New England, so he should be 100% for the 2019 season, or at least close to it. Henry looked on his way to becoming one of the top tight ends in the league before getting hurt and, still not even 25 until December, he could easily pick up right where he left off. 

A second round pick in 2016, Henry split playing time with veteran Antonio Gates in his first two seasons in the league and only played 61.4% of the snaps in 29 games, but he still totaled 81 catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaged 2.02 yards per route run, and Rivers had a ridiculous 131.6 QB rating when targeting him. Also a strong run blocker, Henry was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked tight end as a rookie in 2016 and then their 2nd ranked tight end in 2017. With Rob Gronkowski retiring and Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle all being underwhelming run blockers, Henry has the potential to become the most complete tight end in the league if he can stay healthy and continue developing. 

Keenan Allen also remains as the #1 receiver and he’s one of the best wide receivers in the league. Injuries were a serious problem for him earlier in his career, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 4 seasons in the league, including a torn ACL that essentially cost him his entire 2016 season. Since that injury, however, Allen has played all 32 games in 2 seasons in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’s still very much in the prime of his career. Including his injury plagued seasons, Allen has averaged a 96/1190/6 slash line per 16 games in 6 seasons in the league and he ranks 9th in the NFL (minimum 45 games) over that stretch with 74.4 receiving yards per game. Barring another injury, Allen should remain one of the top receivers in the league again in 2019. 

Depth was a problem for the Chargers in the receiving corps last season, so running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler finished 4th and 5th on the team respectively with slash lines of 50/490/4 and 39/404/3. That will likely remain the case in 2019. Antonio Gates, who started at tight end in Henry’s absence last season, was 6th on the team with a 28/333/2 slash line and he’s no longer on the team anymore. Gates would be going into his age 39 season if the Chargers brought him back for 2019 and they only brought him back last season after Henry got hurt, so they look likely to move on from him unless another injury strikes. Fellow tight end Virgil Green was 7th on the team with a 19/210/1 slash line, but he’s primarily a blocking tight end who has just 90 catches in 116 career games and is now going into his age 31 season. He could have a significant role as a blocker in two-tight end sets, but is unlikely to catch many balls. 

Behind Allen and Williams at wide receiver, the Chargers’ only experienced wide receiver is Travis Benjamin, who was 8th on the team with just a 12/186/1 slash line on 278 snaps last season as the 4th wide receiver. Benjamin had a 68/966/5 slash line in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, which led to the Chargers giving him a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency, but Benjamin caught just 54.8% of his targets in 2015 and never was able to come close to that level of production in a smaller role with the Chargers. 

Benjamin had slash lines of 47/677/4 and 34/567/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, while playing about half of the snaps, which isn’t bad, but now he’s going into his age 30 season. He has a career 15.4 yards per catch average and could be useful as a situational deep threat, but he’s an underwhelming option as the 3rd receiver. The Chargers’ other wide receiver options are all inexperienced former undrafted free agents or late round picks, so it’s tough to project any of them to a larger role. They have an impressive top trio of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry, but they’d be in trouble if one of them were to miss significant time with injury.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

In addition to being weapons in the passing game, running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are also weapons on the ground, leading the Chargers to a 7th place finish in yards per carry last season with 4.69. Gordon has been their lead back since the Chargers took him 15th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, rushing for 3,628 yards and 28 touchdowns on 897 carries (4.04 YPC), adding 182 catches for 1,577 yards and another 10 touchdowns through the air, and finishing 23rd, 19th, and 3rd respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons. 

Gordon is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but it doesn’t sound like much progress has been made on a long-term extension. Gordon is likely angling to be one of the highest paid running backs in the league, but some teams don’t want to give significant contracts to running backs because of long-term durability issues and Gordon has already had issues staying on the field thus far in his career, missing games in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, including 4 games last season. Still only in his age 26 season, Gordon should have another strong season as long as he stays on the field, but it could be his last season with the team. The franchise tag could also be an option if the Chargers don’t want to lose him for nothing, but don’t want to commit to him long-term.

With Gordon missing 4 games last season, Ekeler wasn’t far behind Gordon in carries last season (106 vs. 175), but 40 of those carries came in 3 games that Ekeler played without Gordon and he only had double digit carries in one other game on the season (a game against the Bills that was over early). Ekeler missed two games with injury of his own, including one game that Gordon also missed, leading to the Chargers turning to 7th round rookie Justin Jackson. 

Jackson didn’t see a snap until week 6, but he finished the season with 50 carries and, even though he only had a 4.12 yards per carry average, he ran better than that suggests, breaking 10 tackles and averaging 2.76 yards per carry after contact. Ekeler has averaged 5.32 yards per carry and 2.20 yards per route run in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s undersized at 5-10 200 and would likely split carries with Jackson if Gordon was to get hurt. Both Ekeler and Jackson will likely see a few carries per game as a change of pace back, to spell Gordon and keep him fresh. This is a deep backfield.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Chargers’ offensive line remained a weakness in 2018, as it has been for several seasons. Rivers only took 32 sacks, but that was primarily because of his quick release and pocket presence, as the Chargers’ had the 3rd worst pass blocking efficiency in the NFL. The Chargers have tried to find upgrades on the offensive line, using a 2nd and 3rd round pick in 2017 on guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney and signing left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey to deals worth 53 million over 4 years and 15 million over 2 years respectively, but Okung is really the only addition who has panned out. This off-season, the only addition the Chargers made was using a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Trey Pipkins, so they’re bringing back essentially the same group in 2019. 

Pipkins could develop into a starter long-term, but he has a big learning curve coming from the University of Sioux Falls and is currently still behind incumbent swing tackle Trent Scott on the depth chart, so Pipkins is unlikely to start week 1 and might not see any real action as a rookie. Scott was undrafted last year and was underwhelming on 125 snaps as a rookie, so he’s not really a starting option either, leaving incumbent Sam Tevi as the likely starter, even though the 2017 6th round pick struggled mightily in the first extended action of his career last season, finishing 79th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. Right tackle looks very likely to remain a position of weakness in 2019.

The Chargers didn’t make any additions at guard, so they’ll be hoping their young guards can take a step forward. 2017 third round pick Dan Feeney has made 25 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but has struggled, especially last season, when he finished 84th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF. Lamp, meanwhile, missed his entire rookie season with injury and spent all of 2018 as a backup, playing just 17 snaps. Both players still have upside, but it’s far from a guarantee that either ever develops into a consistent starter.

The Chargers’ best guard is probably veteran Michael Schofield, who has made 50 starts over the past 4 seasons, 18 at right tackle and 32 at right guard. He’s struggled at right tackle, but hasn’t been bad at right guard, where he started all 16 games last season. Unless both Lamp and Feeney take a big step forward, Schofield should be locked into a starting job in 2019, even though he is an underwhelming option. Lamp and Feeney, meanwhile, will compete for the left guard job. 

The Chargers didn’t make an addition at center either, so Mike Pouncey remains locked in as the starter. He used to be one of the best centers in the league, but injuries have really taken their toll on him. He’s missed 17 games in the past five seasons and has only earned an above average grade from PFF in one of those five seasons. Last season, he made all 16 starts, but finished just 25th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF. Going into his age 30 season, Pouncey could remain a capable starter for at least a couple more seasons, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and he could decline quickly due to his injury history. 2018 5th round pick Scott Quessenberry only played 41 snaps as a rookie, but he could be a long-term replacement for Pouncey, who is going into the final year of his contract. 

Left tackle Russell Okung will likely remain their best offensive lineman, though his age is a concern as well, in his age 32 season. Okung has made 118 starts in 9 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-35 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including 13th in 2018, but he could easily start to decline over the next few seasons. Durability is also a question mark for him, as he’s played all 16 games just once in 9 seasons. This is a very questionable offensive line across the board.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

While the Chargers’ offense remained strong in 2018, their defense slipped a little bit, falling from 4th in 2017 to 12th in 2018. The biggest reason for that was the absence of edge defender Joey Bosa for the first 9 games of the season with a foot injury. In 9 games without Bosa, the Chargers had a 35.84% first down rate allowed, but in their 7 games with him that fell to 34.23%, which would have been 7th in the NFL if they had done it over the full season. 

When healthy, Bosa is probably the Chargers’ best defensive player and he didn’t seem 100% last season even when on the field. He still had 5.5 sacks, 3 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate in 7 games, but he fell from 7th and 8th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and 2017 respectively to 22nd in 2018. He also saw his snap count fall from 50.5 per game in his first 2 seasons in the league to 44.9 per game last season as he worked back from injury.

Injuries are becoming a concern for Bosa, who also missed 4 games as a rookie, but even with last year’s “down” year included, he still has 28.5 sacks, 26 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate in 35 career games, while playing at a high level against the run as well. Still only going into his age 24 season, the 2016 3rd overall pick might just be scratching the surface on how good he can be. He has the potential to be an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he can stay healthy.

When both are healthy, the Chargers have arguably the best edge defender duo in the NFL with Bosa and fellow starter Melvin Ingram. Ingram had durability concerns earlier in his career, but he’s played all 64 games over the past 4 seasons and almost never comes off the field, averaging 58.3 snaps per game. In his career, he has 42 sacks, 54 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate in 93 games and he’s finished in the top-38 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, maxing out at 10th in 2016. Ingram is in his age 30 season and could start to slow down over the next couple seasons, but he’s shown no signs of that yet. He should remain an effective edge defender opposite Bosa. 

With Bosa missing significant time, 2017 7th round pick Isaac Rochell finished 2nd among Charger edge defenders with 536 snaps played last season, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career. He had 5 sacks, but added just 2 hits, and a 7.0% pressure rate and struggled against the run as well. Overall, he finished 99th among 113 qualifying edge defenders on PFF. He’ll play a much smaller role with Bosa back healthy and could easily be overtaken for the #3 defensive end job by 2018 2nd round pick Uchenna Nwosu. The 6-2 250 pounder is undersized and struggled against the run as a rookie, but he had 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 16.7% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher as well and he has the upside to continue getting better. He’ll provide strong depth behind a dominant starting duo.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Even when Bosa was on the field last season, this defense had a couple obvious weaknesses. One was the defensive tackle position, which got thinner this off-season when the Chargers lost top defensive tackle Darius Philon (607 snaps) to the Cardinals and didn’t replace him. Fortunately, this was a strong draft for defensive tackles and the Chargers got a good one at #28 overall, taking Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, an athletic freak who played better than his collegiate stats showed. He can have an immediate impact as a rookie, especially as an interior pass rusher. 

Tillery will compete for playing time with veterans Damion Square and Brandon Mebane, who were their 2nd and 3rd defensive tackles last season with 530 snaps and 405 snaps respectively, as well as 2018 3rd round pick Justin Jones, who struggled mightily on 300 rookie year snaps, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. This group is unsettled because both Mebane and Square are underwhelming players. 

Mebane was a solid player in his prime, but now going into his age 34 season, he is just a middling run stuffer and little else, with just a 2.9% pressure rate in the past 2 seasons. Square, meanwhile, finished last season 125th out of 129 qualifying interior defenders on Pro Football Focus on a career high 530 snaps and is now going into his age 30 season. Unless Tillery has a huge rookie year, this looks like a very underwhelming group. 

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Linebacker was also a position of weakness last season. Injuries were the primary problem as, by the time they made the playoffs, they were without all three week 1 starting linebackers Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White, and Jatavis Brown with injury. To compensate, they started using 3 and 4 safeties on the field at the same time, which was very effective in stopping Baltimore’s read option offense in the first round of the post-season, but then they got run over by a much more physical New England team the following week.

Perryman, White, and Brown all return in 2019, with Perryman coming back on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal after briefly testing free agency. The Chargers also added veteran outside linebacker Thomas Davis in free agency on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal and they have converted safety Adrian Phillips as a coverage linebacker in obvious passing situations. This looks like a much deeper group in 2019, as long as everyone stays healthy.

Davis is going into his age 36 season, but he was still an every down player in 12 games with the Panthers last season (54.1 snaps per game) and will likely remain one with the Chargers. Davis’ abilities could fall off a cliff soon, so signing him comes with a lot of risk, but he’ll be well worth his salary if he continues to play like he has for the past decade or so. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons, dating back to 2012, and even finished last season 19th among off ball linebackers.

Perryman, meanwhile, is a better run stuffer than he is in coverage and he’s never played more than 481 snaps in a season. Part of that is injury, as he’s missed 22 of 64 games since being drafted by the Chargers in the 2nd round in 2015, but his limitations in coverage have also kept him off the field in obvious passing situations. He’ll likely come off the field for Phillips in sub packages. Undrafted in 2014, Phillips worked his way from special teams player to hybrid safety/linebacker and seems to have found his niche as a coverage linebacker. He’s a not great player, but he’s valuable to a team that lacks players who can cover tight ends and running backs and he’s still only in his age 27 season.

That leaves White and Brown to compete for the third linebacker job, which will come off the field in passing situations for a 5th defensive back. Brown has started 22 of 43 games in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 5th round by the Chargers in 2016, and he hasn’t been bad, but White showed a lot of promise in 3 games as a 4th round rookie last season before getting hurt and remains a favorite of the coaching staff. Whoever loses this position battle will provide depth, which is needed with Davis’ age and Perryman’s injury history. This is a much deeper group than last season.

Grade: B

Secondary

Along with Adrian Phillips, the other three safeties the Chargers used together regularly in the post-season were Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, and Rayshawn Jenkins. Addae struggled last season, finishing 78th out of 101 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, and was let go this off-season ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup either by second round rookie Nasir Adderley or by Rayshawn Jenkins. Adderley profiles as a starter long-term, but he could be a little raw as a rookie. Jenkins, meanwhile, played 141 snaps in 2 playoff games last season and wasn’t bad, but he had only played 175 snaps in 2 regular seasons prior to that. The 2017 4th round pick still has upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the role, at least to start the season, but he’s very unproven as well. 

Derwin James remains as the other safety, which is good, because he was one of the best in the league last season (7th among safeties on PFF), despite only being a rookie. Drafted 17th overall, James has the upside to be among the best safeties in the league for years to come. In addition to playing well in coverage and against the run, he also showed himself to be a tremendous blitzer, with 3.5 sacks and 2 hits on just 68 blitzes. He seemingly has no weaknesses in his game and he has the versatility to line up where you want to line him up. He’s one of the NFL’s most promising young players.

Along with Joey Bosa’s absence, another reason why the Chargers weren’t quite as good on defense in 2018 as they were in 2017 was the regression of starting cornerback Trevor Williams. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Williams surprisingly broke out in the first significant action of his career in 2017, finishing as PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback in 15 starts, but he was not nearly as good in 2018 and then injuries ended his season after 410 snaps in 8 games. Williams was replaced by 2017 undrafted free agent Michael Davis, who wasn’t bad in 627 snaps in the first significant action of his career, but it’s unclear if he can be a consistent 16-game starter long-term. Davis and Williams will compete for the starting job. The best case scenario is Williams finding his 2017 form, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Fortunately, the Chargers have one of the best outside cornerbacks in the league on the other side in Casey Hayward and they have one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league on the inside in Desmond King. A 7-year veteran, Hayward only started 9 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, but flashed a lot of potential and became a full-starter in 2015. He’s made 57 starts in 4 seasons since and his 17th ranked season in 2018 was actually a bit of a down year by his standards, as he finished 1st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017 and 8th in 2016. Throughout his career, Heyward has allowed just a 68.1 QB rating, with 12 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and just 12 penalties to 57 pass breakups. Now in his age 30 season, it’s possible last year was the beginning of his decline, but even if he’s not at his best, he’s still one of the better cornerbacks in the league and that will probably remain the case for another couple seasons.

King, meanwhile, was just a 5th round pick in 2017, falling largely because of his lack of size (5-10 201), but he’s quickly developed into arguably the top slot cornerback in the league, playing 717 snaps in 2017, 801 snaps in 2018, and finishing 9th and 2nd respectively among cornerbacks on PFF in those 2 seasons. Still only in his age 25 season, King should remain one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league for years to come. With Hayward outside, King on the slot, and Derwin James at safety, the Chargers have a dominant trio of defensive backs and, with Trevor Williams returning from injury and Nasir Adderley replacing Jahleel Addae, this looks like one of the top secondaries in the league.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Chargers were one of the best teams in the league in 2018 and have a similar roster in 2019. They did lose a couple key players in free agency in Tyrell Williams and Darius Philon, but they have an improved linebacking corps and they should get healthy seasons from both Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry. They have some obvious weaknesses on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, but they also have a lot of top end talent and should continue being one of the top teams in the NFL, as long as Philip Rivers doesn’t have an unexpected dropoff.

Final Update: The Chargers have suffered major losses since the last update, with Melvin Gordon, Derwin James, and Russell Okung all out indefinitely. I have them at just 8 wins, but fortunately that could still get them a playoff spot in the weak AFC. If they do end up qualifying for the post-season, they could still be a threat in the AFC if they’re close at full strength.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC West

Green Bay Packers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers have had some disappointing seasons in the 8 seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance, but none more disappointing than 2018. The Packers have had seasons where underwhelming defenses and running games have caused them to lose earlier than expected in the post-season. They’ve had seasons where they’ve struggled because Aaron Rodgers has missed time with injury. But until last season, they had never had a season where Aaron Rodgers played all 16 games, the defense and running game weren’t bad, and they still didn’t make a playoff run. 

In fact, they didn’t even make it to the post-season at all, finishing 6-9-1. Their defense ranked 16th in first down rate allowed, their running game ranked 2nd in the NFL in YPC (5.01), but they still finished just 20th in first down rate differential because an underperforming passing game held back their offense, which ranked just 16th in first down rate. Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for the past decade, but he finished just 26th in the NFL in completion percentage (62.3%), 17th in yards per attempt (7.44), and 13th in passing touchdowns (25) last season. The fact that he threw only 2 interceptions is impressive, but he had another 6 interceptions dropped and even with only 2 interceptions he still finished just 13th in QB rating (97.6). 

Rodgers wasn’t fully healthy, even though he started all 16 games, as he played the whole season through a knee injury he suffered week 1. That likely wasn’t the only reason for his decline though, especially since he was still able to be as effective on the ground as he usually is, averaging 6.26 YPC on 43 carries with 2 touchdowns. This passing game looked very disjointed all season long and no stat shows that better than Rodgers’ 51 thrown away passes, 21 more than any quarterback in the league (his 2 interceptions are less impressive when you realize that he threw 8.5% of his passes out of play). Rodgers threw the ball away on 22.7% of his pressured dropbacks and had the 2nd worst completion percentage in the league under pressure as a result. That had a significant effect on his passing production. 

Head coach Mike McCarthy took the blame for the Packers’ offensive failure last season, getting fired in the middle of his 13th season with the team after an embarrassing home week 13 loss to the league worst Cardinals. McCarthy deserves a lot of the blame, as he ran bland schemes that did not best suit Aaron Rodgers’ skillset, an issue that caused conflict between the two. Rodgers probably deserves some of the blame as well, but the fact remains that McCarthy was the Packers’ coach for 13 seasons and had either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers for all 13 seasons and made just one Super Bowl. His time was going to come at some point and after that embarrassing loss to Arizona seemed like as good of a time as any to pull the plug.

The Packers replaced McCarthy this off-season with up and coming offensive mind Matt LaFleur. LaFleur only was a play caller for one season, last season with the Titans, and failed to get a productive season out of Marcus Mariota, but he worked under Mike Shanahan with the Falcons and Sean McVay with the Rams and is highly regarded throughout the league. How he and Rodgers will coexist remains to be seen, however, and the Packers might have been better off hiring a veteran defensive minded head coach like Vic Fangio and letting Rodgers have more control over the offense.

Rodgers should be healthier in 2019, but he is getting up there in age, going into his age 36 season, and he’s taken more of a beating than most quarterbacks who play well into their late 30s. It’s possible last season was the start of a decline for him, something the Packers are not prepared for, with only failed Browns starter Deshone Kizer behind Rodgers on the depth chart. It’s also just as possible that Rodgers stays healthy in 2019 and bounces back in a new offensive scheme. If that happens, and the Packers continue to have a solid running game and defense, they could easily be right back in Super Bowl contention. 

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Along with the Packers’ uncreative offensive scheme and Aaron Rodgers’ injury, an inexperienced receiving corps was a big part of why this passing game underperformed in 2019. With his former #1 receiver Jordy Nelson let go last off-season and his former #2 receiver Randall Cobb limited to 466 snaps by injury, Rodgers locked on to new #1 receiver Davante Adams, targeting him 169 times (26.4% of the Packers’ pass attempts), 2nd most in the NFL. When his first option couldn’t get open and the pass protection broke down, Rodgers frequently threw the ball away rather than trying to force it to one of the young receivers, which is why he had so many throwaways. No other wide receiver even had half as many targets as Adams. 

Randall Cobb was not re-signed this off-season and the Packers did not bring in a replacement, so they’ll be counting on their young receivers to take a step forward. 2018 5th round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling seems to have the best shot to do so. He was their de facto #2 receiver in 2018, finishing 2nd among Packer wide receivers with a 38/581/2 slash line and 691 snaps played. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a bit of a 2nd year leap as he gains more experience with Rodgers. 

The Packers also have Geronimo Allison coming back, after being limited to a 20/303/2 slash line in 5 games by injury in 2018. The 2016 undrafted free agent is still unproven and his 302 receiving yards last season were a career high, but he was also on a 76/1156/8 pace through 4 games before getting hurt last season and his familiarity with Rodgers, now going into his 4th season with the team, works in his benefit. He could be Randall Cobb’s replacement on the slot and has plenty of opportunity to be productive in this offense.

In addition to taking Valdez-Scantling in the 5th round, the Packers also used 4th and 6th round picks in 2018 on wide receivers, taking J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown respectively. Moore didn’t show much as a rookie, with just 2 catches, but St. Brown had a 21/328/0 slash line while playing 358 snaps and looks likely to open the 2019 season as the 4th receiver. If other receivers struggle, he could earn a bigger role in a still unsettled group behind Davante Adams.

Adams figures to continue to see the lion’s share of the targets once and will likely be among the league leaders in targets again. Despite facing plenty of double teams, Adams produced in a big way last season, with a 111/1386/13 slash line, setting new career highs across the board. Adams is a one-year wonder in terms of being as productive as he was last season, but he also had a 75/997/12 slash line in 2016, despite being the #2 receiver behind Jordy Nelson, and he had a 74/885/10 slash line in 2017, despite playing most of the year with a backup quarterback. Still only in his age 27 season, Adams figures to continue being one of the most productive receivers in the league again in 2019.

The Packers are also counting on getting more out of tight end Jimmy Graham, who they made the highest paid tight end in the league with a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s going into his age 33 season and seems to be on the decline. Graham averaged a 90/1116/12 slash line per 16 games in his final 4 seasons in New Orleans and even averaged a 67/905/5 slash line per 16 games in his first 2 seasons in Seattle, but that average has dropped to 56/578/6 over the past 2 seasons and he’s not an effective run blocker either. I don’t expect him to be that much more productive in 2019 than 2018 and he could keep declining. 

With Graham owed a non-guaranteed 8 million in 2020, this could easily be his final season in Green Bay, so they used a 3rd round pick on Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger. He’s unlikely to have a significant rookie year role though, especially since he’s very raw as a blocker. He’ll likely be the third tight end behind Graham and veteran blocking specialist Marcedes Lewis. This is still an unsettled receiving corps, but there’s some upside. 

Grade: B-

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Packers were one of the better running teams in the league last season. Part of that was Aaron Rodgers averaging 6.26 yards per carry on 43 carries, but lead back Aaron Jones also averaged 5.47 yards per carry on 133 carries. Despite that, Jones still barely got more carries than Jamaal Williams, who averaged just 3.83 yards per carry on 121 carries. Jones also finished 6th in the NFL with a 55% carry success rate, while Williams was 32nd out of 47 qualifiers at 45%. Jones saw more playing time as the season went on, but never went over 17 carries in a game. 

In an effort to handle a bigger load, Aaron Jones has gotten into better shape this off-season. That could also help him avoid injuries, as he’s been limited to just 24 games in 2 seasons in the league. The 2017 5th round pick has a 5.50 YPC average on 214 career carries and has legitimate breakout potential now in his 3rd season in the league if his new found stamina is for real. Williams, a 4th round pick in 2017, will likely remain involved as a change of pace back, despite just a 3.72 YPC average on 274 career carries. 

Williams is also a little bit better of a pass catcher with 52 career catches to 35 for Jones, and could be their primary passing down back. Neither back will be a big part of the passing game, however. Despite that, if Jones breaks out a dominant an early down runner, not having a good passing down back isn’t that big of a deal. If Jones does break out, the Packers would be wise to lean more on the running game after a very uneven 693/333 pass to run split in 2019. 

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Offensive line play was also part of the problem last season. In addition to Rodgers’ 51 throwaways under pressure, he also took 49 sacks. That’s not entirely the offensive line’s fault, but that’s 15.5% of Rodgers’ 646 dropbacks that ended in a throwaway or sack, which is not the recipe for an effective offense. If their receiving corps takes a step forward and the offensive scheme is better, that will help, but they need their offensive line to take a step forward as well.

The problem was primarily their guard play. Left guard Lane Taylor made 14 starts and Byron Bell (9 starts), Justin McCray (5 starts), and Lucas Patrick (2 starts) all saw action at right guard, but they were all underwhelming at best. The Packers addressed the right guard position in free agency, giving Billy Turner a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal, but Taylor returns and looks likely to start, despite allowing a team high 8 sacks last season. 

Taylor has been better in the past, but has primarily been a reserve in his career, with 47 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and now he’s going into his age 30 season. He’ll likely continue being an underwhelming starter, with his biggest competition being second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. In addition, free agent acquisition Billy Turner isn’t a lock to be any better at right guard, despite his salary. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Turner never developed into a starter on his rookie deal, struggling in 14 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league, but he ended up starting for the Broncos last season when injuries struck and wasn’t bad. He made 7 starts at left guard and 4 starts at right tackle and his versatility is an asset, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being even an average starter and is already in his age 28 season. He was an overpay in free agency.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari was not the problem last season and, in fact, is one of the best left tackles in the entire NFL. A 4th round pick in 2013, he’s started 90 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has been especially good in the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-7 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including a first place finish in 2018. Still only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect a dropoff from him.

This line will be bookended on the other side by right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who is going into his 10th season with the team. Bulaga was PFF’s 20th ranked offensive tackle in 2018 and has been an above average starter for years, but injuries and age are becoming a concern. He’s missed 45 games over the past 8 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. He could start to decline in 2019 and could easily get injured again, in which case he’d likely be replaced by swing tackle Jason Spriggs again. 

Center Corey Linsley also remains as a starter. Despite only being a 5th round pick, Linsley has been a starter since his rookie season in 2014 (70 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league) and has finished in the top-15 among centers on PFF in 4 of 5 seasons, including a career best 6th in 2018. Still only going into his age 28, he should continue playing at a high level in 2019. Guard is still a position of weakness, but this is not a bad offensive line. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Firing Mike McCarthy last season was not the only major personnel change the Packers have made in the past couple years. They also relieved GM Ted Thompson of his duties after 13 years on the job and moved forward with new GM Brian Gutekunst last off-season. Thompson was notorious for sitting out free agency, in order to save his cap space to re-sign homegrown talent and to collect compensation picks. That strategy worked well when the Packers were consistently hitting on draft picks, but their drafts weren’t as good towards the end of Thompson’s tenure.

With Gutekunst in charge now, the Packers have been much more aggressive in free agency. They added Jimmy Graham on offense last off-season and then they added Billy Turner this off-season, but their biggest investments this off-season came on defense, where they added a trio of starters in Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and safety Adrian Amos on big contracts. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are edge defenders and fill a big need for the Packers who had just one edge defender with more than 3.5 sacks last season. They let long-time Packer Clay Matthews leave as a free agent and then released fellow veteran Nick Perry ahead of a 10.737 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in order to replace them with Za’Darius and Preston, who will form a 3-man rotation with Kyler Fackrell, their leading sack man last season with 10.5 sacks.

Both the Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith signings look like overpays though, at 52 million over 4 years and 66 million over 4 years respectively, as neither has ever had a double digit sack season. Za’Darius came close last season with 8.5 sacks and he added 18 hits and a 13.1% pressure rate, but he struggled against the run and is a one-year wonder, with 10 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate in the first 3 seasons of his career. The 2015 4th round pick is still only going into his age 27 season and could keep playing well, but the Packers are taking a big risk paying him like an elite pass rusher. 

Preston Smith, meanwhile, is also coming off a career best year, even if it doesn’t show in his sack total (4 sacks, after 20.5 in his first 3 seasons in the league). He added 11 hits and an 11.3% pressure rate, played the run well, and finished 20th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. He’s a more complete player than Za’Darius and is more proven, but only had a 9.7% pressure rate in the first 3 seasons of his career, so he’s kind of a one-year wonder as well. Like with Za’Darius, Preston is in his age 27 season and the Packers are hoping he keeps getting better. The Smiths should be a solid starting duo for a team that had a weak spot on the edge last season, but it’s unlikely they’ll be the players the Packers are paying them to be.

On top of that, Kyler Fackrell wasn’t as good as his sack total last season suggested, adding just 2 hits and a 9.4% pressure rate, while struggling against the run. The 2016 3rd round pick has always struggled against the run, but he has a solid 10.4% pressure rate for his career and could be a solid situational pass rusher. He’s unlikely to come close to matching the 11 sacks he had last season though. 

Reggie Gilbert, a 2016 undrafted free agent, who played nondescript 487 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, could also see snaps as the 4th edge defender, but the Packers are probably hoping he doesn’t have as big of a role as last season, after making a pair of big off-season additions at the position. They might have not have a standout edge defender, but this is a solid group.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Packers’ solid defensive performance last season was made more impressive by the amount of injuries they endured, finishing with the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league. Injuries affected all levels of their defense. On the defensive line, interior defenders Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels are two of their best defensive players and they were limited to 10 games and 13 games respectively. 

Clark was dominant when on the field before his season ending elbow injury, finishing in the top-9 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus for the 2nd straight season. He plays nose tackle in base packages and is a dominant run stuffer, but he’s also much more than that, with 10.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate in the past 2 seasons. A first round pick in 2016, Clark also flashed as a rookie and, still only going into his age 24 season, has a massive ceiling. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he kept getting better and at the very least he should remain one of the top interior defenders in the league for years to come if he stays healthy. 

Daniels, on the other hand, could be on the decline, going into his age 30 season, after an injury plagued 2018 season. Not only did Daniels missed 6 games with injury, but he wasn’t as good as he normally is either, earning middling grades from PFF, after 3 straight seasons in the top-30 among interior defenders from 2015-2017. It’s entirely possible he bounces back in 2019, still not totally over the hill, and that his down 2018 season was purely the result of numerous injuries, but the Packers reportedly plan to scale his snaps back this season (43.1 snaps per game over the past 5 seasons) and this could easily be his final season in a Green Bay uniform, hitting free agency next off-season. After making several big free agent signings this off-season, the Packers don’t have much long-term financial flexibility. 

Likely with the Mike Daniels situation in mind, the Packers used the 12th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Michigan’s Rashan Gary, who could be Daniels’ long-term replacement. Gary is a freak athlete with a massive upside, but underwhelming college production and a questionable shoulder injury dropped Gary out of the top-10. He could prove to be a steal for the Packers, but he’s the definition of a boom or bust prospect. He’ll likely be a rotational player as a rookie. 

With Daniels missing time last season, Dean Lowry was 2nd on the team in defensive line snaps played with 698. He’ll likely have a smaller role in 2019 and isn’t a great pass rusher (8.7% career pressure rate), but the 2016 4th round pick has developed into a strong run stuffer and should continue having a role as a base package defensive end. 2017 3rd round pick Montravious Adams could also be in the mix, but he’s played just 278 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league and probably isn’t a lock for the final roster. With Clark and Daniels healthy and Gary coming in, this is a very strong group.

Grade: A

Linebackers

At middle linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense, the Packers have one of two starting spots locked down, with Blake Martinez coming off of a season in which he made all 16 starts and finished 17th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It was a career best year for him, but the 2016 4th round pick has gotten better in every season in the league and is still only going into his age 25 season. He could easily continue playing at a high level in 2019, which also happens to be the final year of his rookie deal. Assuming he has another strong year, someone will pay him as one of the top linebackers in the league next off-season. 

The other middle linebacker spot is a big question mark though. Antonio Morrison and Oren Burks were 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps by a middle linebacker last season and both struggled on just 302 snaps and 126 snaps respectively. The Packers frequently used 3 safeties at once in obvious passing situations, dropping one of the safeties down closer to the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, most commonly Josh Jones. With the Packers adding a pair of safeties this off-season, Jones is expected to move full-time to linebacker and the 6-2 220 pounder should remain a coverage specialist. The 2017 2nd round pick hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, but his ability to play in the box and cover backs and tight ends is valuable for a team that is so thin at linebacker.

With Jones working as a coverage specialist and Antonio Morrison no longer with the team, that makes Oren Burks the favorite to be the base package starter opposite Martinez. He was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and has upside, but his rookie season was horrible, as he was one of PFF’s lowest rated off ball linebackers, despite seeing very limited action. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2019, but he could still be a below average starter even if he does take a step forward. It’s a surprise the Packers did not address this position until the 7th round in the draft (TCU’s Ty Summers), especially with Martinez going into the final year of his rookie deal. 

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Packers’ most injury plagued position group last season was probably their secondary. As a result, they started 5 different players at cornerback, 6 different players at safety, while Tramon Williams, their only 16 game starter, made starts at both positions (9 at cornerback, 7 at safety). Williams wasn’t bad last season, but he’s going into his age 36 season and the Packers are hoping he’ll be a reserve in what could be a much improved group. 

At safety, the Packers added first round pick Darnell Savage (21st overall) and Adrian Amos, their third big off-season signing, who comes over from rival Chicago on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. Amos flew under the radar in a strong safety class in free agency, but he’s been one of the best safeties in the league over the past couple seasons. Only a 5th round pick in 2015, Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago, earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including top-11 finishes in each of the past 2 seasons. In addition to filling a big need for them, Amos’ addition also weakens a division rival, so this was probably their best off-season move. He’ll start alongside Darnell Savage, a versatile safety who figures to be a week 1 starter as a rookie. 

At cornerback, the Packers didn’t make any big additions, but they’re hoping for better health, after starters Kevin King and Jaire Alexander were limited to 6 games and 13 games respectively last season. King dealt with injury problems as a rookie as well and the 2017 2nd round pick has missed more games (17) than he’s played (15) in his career. He also hasn’t played very well when on the field either, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has potential if he can ever make it through a full season healthy. If not, they’d likely turn back to Tramon Williams.

Jaire Alexander and 3rd cornerback Josh Jackson are both young as well, going in the 1st and 2nd rounds respectively in 2018. Alexander went 18th overall and finished as PFF’s 32nd ranked cornerback in 11 rookie year starts, while Jackson was serviceable on playing 721 snaps in 16 games (10 starts). Both could easily take a step forward in their 2nd year in the league in 2019. This young cornerback group has a lot of potential if they can stay healthy and this secondary looks much improved overall.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

This team has a lot of potential if the passing game bounces back in a new offensive system, with young receivers going into their second year in the league. They should be able to run the ball and their defense was solid last season and could be even better this season, due to better health and several free agent additions. A bounce back from their passing game is not a guarantee though, due to Rodgers’ age, the inexperience of their receiving corps, and a potential clash looming between Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur over play calling. On paper, this is one of the most talented teams in the league and this is one of the most complete teams Rodgers has ever had around him, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they disappointed. 

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC North

Detroit Lions 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Lions have had a solid offense held back by a struggling defense. In 2016, they finished 12th in first down rate and 29th in first down rate allowed and they followed that up by finishing 15th in first down rate and dead last in first down rate allowed in 2017. In 2018, it looked like the Lions were off to a similar start, ranking 15th in the NFL in first down rate through week 10 at 37.15% and 27th in first down rate allowed at 40.69%. However, from there things kind of switched. The Lions’ offense had just a 32.51% first down rate in their final 7 games of the season, while their defense only allowed a 33.97% first down rate.

I’ll go into detail about this defense later, but on offense the problem was significant personnel losses. The Lions traded Golden Tate, Matt Stafford’s long-time favorite target, at the trade deadline, while fellow starting wide receiver Marvin Jones went down for the season with a knee injury week 10. Lead back Kerryon Johnson also went down for the season with injury, suffering a knee injury week 11, as did talented right guard TJ Lang, who missed the final 8 games of the season with a neck injury. 

Stafford himself suffered an injury down the stretch, playing most of the second half of the season through a significant back injury, which likely limited his effectiveness. After completing 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season, he closed the season with a 64.3% completion percentage, 6.26 YPA, and 7 touchdowns to 5 interceptions in the final 8 games of the season. Personnel losses around him obviously played a part in that, but Stafford didn’t look right either. 

Assuming he’s healthy, Stafford should bounce back, still only in his age 31 season. In the past 8 seasons, he’s completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 218 touchdowns, and 108 interceptions, while finishing in the top-13 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 5 of those 8 seasons. Perhaps most importantly, he hasn’t missed a start during that stretch, giving him the 3rd longest active quarterback starts streak behind Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan. If Stafford ever were to get hurt, the Lions would be in trouble, as they’d be forced to start failed Texans starter Tom Savage (72.5 career QB rating in 9 career starts). If Stafford can avoid injury, he should have a solid season again.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Whether or not the right parts are around Matt Staford is a question. Golden Tate was his favorite receiver for years, averaging a 94/1068/5 slash line per 16 games during the 4+ seasons they were together. The Lions are getting outside receiver Marvin Jones back from injury, but they’re replacing Tate on slot with free agent addition Danny Amendola, which is an obvious downgrade. Amendola had some signature playoff moments with Tom Brady and the Patriots, but is more name than game at this point, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a 59/575/1 season in Miami. Even though he spent 5 seasons in New England, Amendola has never topped 689 receiving yards in a season and he’s had trouble staying healthy as well, playing all 16 games just twice in ten seasons in the league. His 5.5 million dollar salary locks him into the slot receiver role, but I wouldn’t expect much from him.

With Tate gone, Stafford will likely focus more on the downfield passing game to outside receivers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Jones had a 35/508/5 slash line in 9 games last season, which is a 62/903/9 slash line extrapolated over 16 games. He’s only once topped 1000 yards in 7 seasons in the league though, and Kenny Golladay, who led this team with a 70/1063/5 slash line last season, will likely remain their top receiving option. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Golladay took a big step forward from year 1 to year 2 and could easily continue getting better. 

The Lions also figure to use the tight end in the passing game more in 2019, after their tight ends had just 43 catches combined last season. They signed ex-Steeler Jesse James to a 4-year, 22.6 million dollar contract in free agency and then used the 8th overall pick on Iowa tight end TJ Hockenson. Hockenson has a big long-term upside, but could be kind of raw as a rookie and may split snaps with James. The Lions also figure to run a lot of two tight end sets to compensate for their lack of wide receiver depth. 

James spent last season splitting snaps with Vance McDonald in Pittsburgh, but still managed a career high 423 receiving yards and had an above average 1.52 yards per route run. Ironically, James played a much bigger role in 2016 and 2017, playing 856 snaps and 906 snaps respectively, but only managed slash lines of 39/338/3 and 43/372/3 and averaged a combined 0.85 yards per route run, one of the worst in the league over that stretch. James is a solid run blocker, but it’s fair to wonder how much of his passing game production last season in Pittsburgh was because of the offense he played on and the talent around him. He’ll likely be overtaken by Hockenson by season’s end, if not sooner. This receiving corps isn’t as good as it has been, but it’s better than it was down the stretch last season.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Lions’ diminished receiving corps might not be as much of an issue if the Lions become a better running team, after finishing last season 28th in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.11. Second year head coach Matt Patricia wants to run a run heavy offense, something they didn’t really do last season under since fired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (615 pass plays to 404 run plays). With new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell coming in and the defense improving down the stretch last season, it seems likely the Lions will become more run oriented on offense in 2019.

They have the running back talent to do so effectively. Second year running back Kerryon Johnson returns from injury, after missing the final 6 games of last season, and he averaged 5.43 yards per carry on 118 carries before going down. He might not maintain that average, but he also ranked 12th in carry success rate at 53%, and the 2018 2nd round pick has the talent to develop into a feature back if he can stay healthy over a full season. On a run heavier team, he should exceed the 11.8 carries per game he had last season, possibly by a significant amount.

The Lions are likely to still be a two back team, but they’re replacing LeGarrette Blount, who ran like he was stuck in the mud with a 2.71 YPC average on 154 carries last season, with free agency addition CJ Anderson. Anderson was out of the league for part of last season, but he averaged 4.40 YPC on 693 carries in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season and proved himself again with the Rams down the stretch last season, averaging 5.48 YPC on 89 carries in 5 games, between the regular season and post-season. He doesn’t do much in the passing game, but he’ll likely get about 7-10 carries per game and provides good insurance in case Johnson gets hurt again.

Pass catching back Theo Riddick is also still on the team, although reportedly that might not be the case for much longer. Riddick has averaged 61.8 catches per season over the past 4 seasons and it would make sense that he’d continue having a role as an underneath pass catcher with Golden Tate gone, but he averaged just 6.3 yards per catch last season, has just a 3.55 YPC average on 288 carries in his career, and the Lions might not view him as worth it at a 3.45 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Kerryon Johnson had 32 catches in 10 games last season and will likely play a bigger passing down role in his 2nd season in the league. Already on pace for 51 catches last season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Johnson exceed 60 catches in 2019, especially if Riddick is let go. Even with Anderson spelling him, Johnson has breakout potential if he can stay healthy.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Lions didn’t address the offensive line this off-season, even though right guard TJ Lang opted to retire due to a neck injury. Lang was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard before getting hurt last season, so he’ll be a big loss. Injury replacement Kenny Wiggins will likely remain the starter, due to a lack of a better option. He has 35 starts over the past 4 seasons, but the 2011 undrafted free agent has been middling at best and finished 61st out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF in 2018. He’s also in his age 31 season, so he’s unlikely to improve going forward. He could face competition from 2018 5th round pick Tyrell Crosby, who played 130 snaps at tackle as a rookie, but Wiggins will likely be the week 1 starter. 

One change the Lions seem to be making upfront is flipping incumbent center Graham Glasgow and incumbent left guard Frank Ragnow. Glasgow has played both positions in his 3-year career (18 starts at left guard, 25 starts at center), while Ragnow was viewed as primarily a center coming out of the University of Arkansas. The Lions’ 20th overall pick, Ragnow was passable as a rookie and could be better in his 2nd season in the league at a new position. Glasgow has also been a passable starter in his career, since the Lions took him in the 3rd round in 2016. He’s already in his age 27 season and could be maxed out as a player, but he should remain a capable starter for years to come and his versatility is a plus.

At tackle, Taylor Decker and Ricky Wagner remain the starters on the left and right side respectively. Decker made all 16 starts in 2018, after an injury plagued 2017 season in which he played just 471 snaps. Seemingly healthy all year, Decker also played at a higher level in 2018 than 2017, finishing 34th among offensive tackles on PFF, after falling to 45th in 2017. The 2016 first round pick still hasn’t matched his rookie season, when he was PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and has plenty of upside going forward.

Wagner, meanwhile, is getting older, going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing in the top-33 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons. He’s made 73 starts in the past 5 seasons and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons. He may begin to decline in the next couple years, but he should remain an above average starting right tackle in 2019. This is a solid starting offensive line, except for right guard.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As mentioned, the Lions got significantly better on defense down the stretch last season. The biggest reasons for that are twofold. For one, they added defensive tackle Damon Harrison at the trade deadline and he’s arguably the best run stuffer in the league. They also got significantly better play down the stretch from young defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand. Those three should remain their top interior defenders in 2019 and they have the potential to be a very impressive trio. 

Harrison is going into his age 31 season and could start to decline, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down thus far, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked interior defender against the run in 4 straight seasons. The massive 6-3 353 pounder isn’t just a space eater, as he leads all defensive linemen in tackles (315) by a significant margin over those past 4 seasons (Khalil Mack is second with 275). He’s also the only defensive lineman in the past 5 seasons to top 80 tackles in a season and he’s done it twice (2016 and 2018).

He’s not much of a pass rusher, but gets enough pass rush to stay on the field in some sub packages. He has a career 5.0% pressure rate and has averaged 623 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons. Even if he’s getting up there in age, he was still a steal for the price of a 5th round pick in a trade with the Giants that amounted to a salary dump. The 16.25 million dollars he’s owed over the next two seasons is entirely reasonable and not guaranteed for injury, so it’s tough to figure out why the Giants would let him go. The one concern with Harrison is that he held out of mandatory minicamp in search of a long-term deal with more guaranteed money, something the Lions seem unwilling to give him at his age.

While Harrison is getting up there in age, Robinson and Hand are ascending young players. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Robinson is primarily a run stuffer, but finished last season as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender against the run and wasn’t a bad pass rusher in limited pass rush situations either, with a 9.3% pressure rate (though just 1 sack and 3 hits). Robinson is a one-year wonder, as he was underwhelming in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and could continue developing into one of the best run stuffers in the league. Hand, meanwhile, was primarily used as a sub package interior rusher as a rookie and he fared well, with 3 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate, but he also showed well against the run. He could easily exceed the 455 snaps he played last season.

Harrison and Robinson figure to start in base packages, with Hand playing primarily in sub packages. Free agent acquisition Trey Flowers could also see action as a sub package interior rusher. He’s nominally a defensive end, but he’s played 50.1% of his pass rush snaps from the interior over the past three seasons and figures to see a similar role in 2019, now rejoining former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in Detroit. His sack numbers over the past 3 seasons are underwhelming (21 sacks), but he’s added 41 hits and a 12.2% pressure rate, despite playing half of his pass rush snaps on the interior. The Lions have dominant interior defenders for all situations. 

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

It also helped this defense that edge defender Ezekiel Ansah was able to play down the stretch, after suffering an injured shoulder week 1, although he did eventually get hurt again week 14 and miss the rest of the season. Ansah only played 7 games on the season, but he had 4 sacks, 3 hits, and an 18.2% pressure rate, so even having him back for a stretch was helpful. Ansah wasn’t re-signed this off-season though, due to long-term durability concerns, with the Lions opting to bring in Trey Flowers instead. Flowers will primarily play defensive end in base packages and he plays the run as well as he rushes the passer. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge defender overall and has earned an above average grade as both a run stuffer and pass rusher in each of his 3 seasons as a starter. 

In Ansah’s absence last season, Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard were their primary edge defenders and played 716 snaps and 864 snaps respectively. They’ll continue playing significant roles on the edge, especially when Flowers lines up in the interior. Both are pretty underwhelming players though. They led the team with 7.5 sacks and 7 sacks respectively last season, but that was mostly because of the volume of snaps they played and they had just a 9.3% pressure rate and a 8.5% pressure rate respectively. 

Kennard is at least a solid run stuffer and he has the versatility to play both linebacker and defensive end, though his career 9.5% pressure rate is underwhelming. Okwara, on the other hand, is a complete one-year wonder, even as underwhelming as he was last season. The 2016 undrafted free agent played just 452 snaps in 2 seasons in the league with the Giants and was released by them at final cuts last off-season, before joining the Lions. He has just a 7.8% pressure rate for his career. He could continue giving them decent play, but he could also regress. The Lions’ depth at edge defender is concerning too, though they did use a 4th round pick on Clemson’s Austin Bryant.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Devon Kennard will also see action at outside linebacker in base packages, where he’s at his best as a situational run stuffer. The rest of this linebacking corps struggled last season though. Second year player Jarrad Davis broke out as an impressive blitzer, with 6 sacks and a 23.7% pressure rate on 127 blitzes, but the 2017 21st overall pick struggled in coverage and against the run for the 2nd straight season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying. He’ll likely remain in an every down role for lack of a better option and could be better, still only in his age 25 season, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Christian Jones was the other starting linebacker last season, but he isn’t more than a run stuffer, so the Lions had to compensate by frequently using 3 safeties in passing situations, with one around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker. Now in his 6th season in the league, Jones is unlikely to get any better and could lose his starting job to second round rookie Jahlani Tavai, though he was a bit of a reach at 43rd overall and wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. Unless he or Jarrad Davis have a breakout year, this looks like an underwhelming group again. 

Grade: C

Secondary

The Lions will likely continue using 3 safety looks frequently in sub packages, to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Long-time starter Glover Quin was let go this off-season, even though was a capable player last season in 16 starts, but the Lions added Boston College’s Will Harris in the 3rd round of the draft and have last year’s 3rd round pick Tracy Walker in line for a larger role in his 2nd season in the league, after flashing on 268 rookie year snaps. Tavon Wilson is also in the mix for snaps, but he played just 304 snaps last season and may play primarily as a coverage linebacker in 2019.

The Lions also still have Quandre Diggs, who started 16 games opposite Glover Quin last season. He will remain in that role in 2019. A converted slot cornerback, Diggs is undersized for a safety at 5-9 200, but he was solid in his first full season at safety, primarily playing as a deep cover safety. The 2015 6th round pick is still only going into his age 26 season, so it’s conceivable he could continue getting better at his new position. His versatility to play the slot, in addition to covering deep, is valuable.

Diggs likely won’t see much action on the slot though, with the Lions splurging for ex-Seahawks slot cornerback Justin Coleman on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal in free agency. Coleman is now one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the league, but could easily be worth it, especially for a team that really lacked cornerback depth in 2018. Coleman didn’t do much in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he finished 30th among cornerbacks in coverage grade in 2017 and then 19th last season, while finishing 9th in the NFL in yards per slot coverage snap with just 0.94 on 384 slot coverage snaps (6th most in the NFL).

Top outside cornerback Darius Slay is also one of the better cornerbacks in the league, though like Damon Harrison he sat out mandatory minicamp in search of a long-term deal. Owed 23.5 million over the next 2 seasons already, in the final two years of a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal, Slay is unlikely to be extended, as he’s likely asking to be paid among the top few cornerbacks in the league and he’s not quite on that level. Slay was PFF’s 23rd ranked cornerback last season, actually his lowest rank in 4 seasons (60 starts), though he’s never finished higher than 10th. Assuming he shows up for training camp, Slay should have another solid season and, still only going into his age 28 season in 2019, he would have a much stronger case for an extension in a year. 

The biggest weakness in this secondary is the other outside cornerback spot. Tevin Lawson, who struggled in 14 starts last season, is no longer with the team, but they might not necessarily get better play at that spot this season. They signed veteran free agent Rashaan Melvin, who struggled last season on 604 snaps with the Raiders. He was better in 2017, but he’s largely a one-year wonder and has just 28 career starts, despite already going into his age 30 season. 

Melvin’s biggest competition will be 2017 2nd round pick Teez Tabor, who theoretically has upside, but has been horrible on 466 career snaps, and 2018 undrafted free agent Mike Ford, who played ahead of Tabor down the stretch last season, but struggled mightily, finishing 125th among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 316 snaps. Fifth round rookie Amani Oruwariye has a good chance to exceed his draft slot, so he could end up in the starting lineup by season’s end. Cornerback depth could be a problem and they have some unproven players at safety, but this is a better group than last season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Matt Stafford’s play dropped off significantly down the stretch last season without his favorite receiver Golden Tate, but he still has a solid receiving corps, with Marvin Jones returning from injury and a pair of capable receiving tight ends added this off-season, and this is arguably as balanced of a team as he’s ever had around him. They should be able to run the ball effectively with CJ Anderson coming in as a free agent and Kerryon Johnson returning from injury and their once troubled defense now has a stout defensive line that should be able to mask some of their flaws in the back seven. The NFC might be too loaded for them to sneak into the post-season, especially with three other tough teams in their division, but the Lions won’t be an easy opponent. 

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in NFC North