Green Bay Packers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

This is the last team preview I have to do and I saved the Packers for last for good reason, as they have the biggest unresolved quarterback situation in the league. The story is well known by now, but Rodgers overshadowed the NFL draft itself when reports leaked earlier on draft day that Rodgers was demanding a trade from the Packers. Rodgers didn’t intend the timing to coincide with the draft and reportedly asked out of Green Bay earlier this off-season, after also reportedly telling many of his teammates during last season that he thought 2020 would be his last season in Green Bay.

The situation is complex and there are undoubtedly things we don’t know, but Rodgers does have legitimate reason to be upset, despite back-to-back NFC Championship appearances with new head coach Matt LaFleur, undoubtedly an upgrade over Mike McCarthy, who Rodgers was stuck with for most of his Packers career. In 2019, the Packers got by mostly on winning close games, going 8-1 in one score games en route to a 13-3 record, and then got blown out in the NFC Championship game by a clearly better 49ers team, who also blew them out in the regular season. In 2020, the Packers were a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but that had more to do with Aaron Rodgers turning back the clock and winning an MVP, rather than improvement by his supporting cast. 

With Rodgers now heading into his age 38 season and at the point in his career where any season could be his last, Rodgers just isn’t confident he can win a Super Bowl with this group. In many ways, it parallels another aging Hall of Fame quarterback’s situation from not that long ago and there is a very good chance that Rodgers seeing Tom Brady leave New England, join a team a quarterback away from a Super Bowl, and win another ring, at Rodgers’ absence no less, is a big driving factor in why Rodgers wants out of Green Bay. 

Rodgers’ list of reported trade destinations includes the Broncos, Saints, 49ers, and Raiders and, while the Raiders stand out as a strange choice given the issues on their roster, the other three teams all could be legitimately considered a quarterback away. The 49ers found their quarterback in the draft, taking Trey Lance, and the Saints don’t seem to have the financial flexibility to add Rodgers’ salary, but the Broncos would seem to be an excellent fit for Rodgers as they most similarly parallel the Buccaneers team that Brady joined.

One key difference between the Brady situation is that Brady never demanded a trade from New England, but it’s possible something like that could have happened in 2019 if the situation wasn’t dealt with quietly behind the scenes, with the result being a renegotiated deal that allowed Brady to become a free agent at the end of the season. Rodgers’ situation was not dealt with quietly, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar resolution. 

Rodgers has no real trade leverage, aside from threatening to sit out one of his last prime seasons with a roster he took within a play or two of the Super Bowl a year ago, but a renegotiated deal would make sense as a compromise. The Packers would retain Rodgers for another year and would not need to find an NFL ready starting quarterback to replace him on short notice, while Rodgers would get the opportunity to pick his next team next off-season, when the Broncos will still remain as a highly attractive destination and the Saints could be in better financial shape.

The other key difference between this situation and Brady is that the Packers used a first round pick on a quarterback just a year ago, so Rodgers is even more justified asking out of Green Bay than Brady was to want out of New England. In fact, it’s very likely the Packers’ original plan was to trade Rodgers this off-season. Not only did they use the 26th overall pick on quarterback Jordan Love, at the expense of adding a complementary piece for Rodgers that could have pushed this team over the top, but they traded up to get him, meaning they viewed him very highly.

It’s possible they were planning on sitting him for two years and trading Rodgers next off-season, but with the rookie contract structure, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense, as it would give the Packers just one season to evaluate Love before having to make a decision on his expensive, fully guaranteed 5th year option. Most likely the plan was to move Rodgers this off-season, until Rodgers threw a wrench in that plan by winning an MVP, while Love failed to develop behind the scenes, which completely turned the tables to the point where the Packers no longer want to trade Rodgers, but Rodgers doesn’t want to be with the team that was originally planning to replace him. 

Given all that, it’s pretty justifiable that Rodgers wants out, though I do ultimately expect him to suit up for the Packers this season, even if it’s with an understanding that he will be elsewhere one way or another in 2022, at which point Jordan Love could be more ready to start. I’m going to write this preview under the assumption that Rodgers will be a Packer, but if he is not, I still see a veteran option as significantly more likely than Love, whether it’s by getting someone like Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr back in a Rodgers trade, or making a move for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo if he fails to win the starting job in San Francisco. 

Love was a risky pick from the start, aside from the fact that Green Bay already had Rodgers, and the boom or bust pick sounds like he’s been much closer to bust than boom thus far behind the scenes, meaning he would be very likely to struggle if forced into starting action in 2021. It’s not a good sign that the team that believed in him most last year during the draft seems to be much more skeptical after having him around for a year.

Rodgers, on the other hand, disproved a lot of doubters last season, including his own team, completing 70.7% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, ranking #1 among quarterbacks on PFF, and deservedly winning the MVP award, even in a season with a lot of great quarterback play. However, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned, due to the combination of his age and his relatively diminishing play in recent years. 

In 2018 and 2019, Rodgers completed only 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions combined. Rodgers isn’t necessarily going to regress back to that level in 2021, but I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s performance either, even before you get into the fact that even if he does play for the Packers this season, it’ll likely come after skipping some of training camp, which could wind up hurting him on the field in 2021, even if only a little bit. 

However, he’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the league any way you look at it and it would be an enormous blow to this team if he was replaced with a mid level passer like Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo. With Rodgers, this supporting cast is good enough for the Packers to contend for a Super Bowl, but they probably wouldn’t be a playoff team without him, especially if they end up having to go to raw backup Jordan Love. With Rodgers still on the roster as of this writing though, it’s hard to give them anything other than an A grade for the position.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Even if the Packers bring back Aaron Rodgers, they won’t have quite the same supporting cast around him and it actually could have been worse if Aaron Rodgers had been believed by teammates who he told he would be leaving after the 2020 season. I’ll get into the players they lost this off-season later, but one key player they kept was running back Aaron Jones, who returned on a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal, actually taking less money to stay in Green Bay with Rodgers, even though Rodgers reportedly had told him and other pending Packers free agents that he was not going to be returning himself.

Jones returning to Green Bay is surprising for a number of reasons. Even with him taking a discount, he’s still highly paid, with the 6th highest average annual salary among running backs, for a team that has a lot of other big contracts and that had cheaper in-house alternatives. Jamaal Williams saw a significant role as the #2 running back over the past two seasons and fared well, averaging 4.27 YPC on 226 carries, despite just 7 carries longer than 15 yards, while ranking 7th and 6th respectively with carry success rates of 53% and 57% respectively. 

Williams was a free agent as well this off-season, but could have been retained for much cheaper, as he ended up signing with the Lions for just 6 million over 2 years. The Packers also have last year’s 2nd round pick AJ Dillon, who could have slid in as the #2 back to pair with Williams, which seemed like the long-term plan when the Packers used a premium pick on Dillon last year rather than addressing a bigger need at wide receiver or linebacker.

Instead, Jones returns, Williams leaves, and Dillon will see a smaller role than he likely would have had the opposite happened, making Dillon look like an unnecessary pick. Dillon will still see more action than his rookie year though, at least by default, as he saw just 46 carries as a rookie. He flashed with a 5.26 YPC on those carries and the big bruising 6-0 245 pounder could be effective in a situational early down role, but he probably won’t see much more than a half dozen carries per game and he’s unlikely to be much of a factor in the passing game, after two rookie year catches and 23 catches total in his collegiate career at Boston College.

Jones at least does have a very high upside in this offense, assuming Rodgers returns. In total Jones has rushed for 5.17 YPC and 37 touchdowns on 651 carries in four seasons in the league, including 5.01 YPC and 25 touchdowns on 437 carries over the past two seasons, while finishing 5th among running backs on PFF in 2019 and 15th in 2020. Jones has never been a true feature back, maxing out with 285 touches in 16 games in 2019, but, even though the Packers are paying him like a feature back, they won’t need him to be with Dillon behind him. 

Jones also has shown a lot of promise in the passing game with slash lines of 49/474/3 and 47/355/2 respectively over the past two seasons and a 1.49 yards per route run average. With Williams (31/236/1 in 2020) gone and Dillon not being much of a receiver, Jones could see a career high in targets in 2021. His projection would take a big hit if this offense no longer had Aaron Rodgers on it, as he would find a lot less room to run without the threat of Rodgers going deep, but he could easily be highly productive again if his quarterback returns. The Packers have invested a lot in this position with backup AJ Dillon being a recent 2nd round pick and Jones being on a big contract, a bit of an odd move for a team whose offensive strength is their passing attack, but the results should at least be good, as long as they don’t see their quarterback situation downgraded.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One area the Packers could have invested in rather than the running back position is their offensive line, which has been one of the better ones in the league for years, but is starting to show cracks. The big loss was center Corey Linsley, who was PFF’s #1 ranked center in 2020 and ended up signing with the Chargers this off-season on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal that is similar in average annual salary to the contract the Packers kept Jones on. The Packers also did not bring back veteran Ricky Wagner, who only started 9 games at right tackle last season, but played well, finishing 25th among offensive tackles on PFF. Meanwhile, on the left side David Bakhtiari will be in a race against the clock to be ready for week 1 and might not be quite the same upon his return, after suffering a torn ACL late last season.

The Packers used a trio of draft picks on offensive lineman, taking Josh Myers in the 2nd round, Royce Newman in the 4th round, and Cole Van Lanen in the 6th round, but that mostly just replenishes depth, as Myers is the only one who is a real candidate to start in week one and, if either of the other two are forced into action when an injury hits, which is a strong possibility, they would likely struggle. Even Myers is not a lock to play well in his rookie year, but the Packers might not have a better alternative than to plug him in as their starting center in place of Linsley.

The other alternative would be to move left guard Elgton Jenkins inside to center and then to plug 2020 6th round pick Jon Runyan into the starting lineup at left guard, but there are problems with that plan. For one, while Jenkins is versatile, making five of his 30 careers starts at center and also seeing some reserve action at both left and right tackle, he’s seen most of his action at left guard and has played well enough there in two seasons since the Packers selected him in the 2nd round in 2019, ranking 25th and 20th respectively among guards on PFF, that it would be risky to have him make a permanent position change, as he might not be quite as good. 

Jenkins still has the upside to have his best year yet in year three, but I would like him better if he stayed at left guard. On top of that, while Runyan is probably the best of the Packers’ holdover reserves, he was underwhelming across 160 rookie year snaps and could easily struggle in a season long role, even if he takes a step forward in year two. The Packers will have players compete for roles, but starting Myers at center and keeping Jenkins at guard seems better than the alternative.

The rest of this line is locked in, with Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lucas Patrick returning at right guard after making 15 starts in 2020 (12 on the right side and 3 on the left), and utility offensive lineman Billy Turner (6 starts at right tackle, 4 at left tackle, and 4 at right guard last season) now locked in at right tackle, but Bakhtiari of course has the injury concern, while Patrick and Turner being locked in is more a sign of their lack of depth than anything positive, as both Patrick and Turner are middling starters at best. 

Patrick was PFF’s 38th ranked guard in 2020, but the 2016 undrafted free agent was a complete one-year wonder, playing just 634 mediocre snaps across his first four seasons combined prior to last season. He could remain a solid starter, but it’s much more likely that he declines than it is that he takes another step forward. Turner, meanwhile, is more experienced, having made 41 starts over the past three seasons, after struggling early in his career as a 2014 3rd round pick, but Turner has only been about a middling starter in those three seasons, he’s probably been at his best as a guard (27 of 41 starts), and he was significantly worse in 2020 than departed veteran tackle Ricky Wagner.

Now going into his age 30 season, Turner is unlikely to be better going forward. Turner and Patrick could continue holding up on the right side, but both are shaky starting options and they don’t have a good alternative aside from inexperienced young players. Left tackle David Bakhtiari should remain their best offensive lineman and help keep this offensive line as an above average unit overall, but that of course depends on him being healthy and not taking a significant step back, in his age 30 season, coming off of a significant injury.

At his best, Bakhtiari is arguably the best left tackle in the league, finishing in the top-11 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including three top-2 finishes, so even if he does decline, he should be one of the better left tackles in the league, but if he’s not quite as good as he’s been, it could hurt this offense noticeably and, if he misses any time, the Packers would be in big trouble, as they lack a proven swing tackle and would likely have to shift Turner to left tackle and plug in someone inexperienced at right tackle. This group has the upside to still be a strong offensive line, but that would require them staying healthy across the board, as their depth is very limited.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The weakest group on this Packers offense is this receiving corps, where they lack consistent targets behind Davante Adams and only added 3rd round pick Amari Rodgers to the mix this off-season. Rodgers could easily earn a significant rookie year role, with his top competition for playing time being Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, who functioned as the #2 and #3 wide receivers respectively in this offense last season.

Valdes-Scantling had an impressive 20.9 yards per catch average, but his 33/690/6 slash line really left something to be desired when you consider he played a significant role in an offense led by Aaron Rodgers and he averaged just 1.48 yards per route run on the season. He definitely caught some deep balls, but he also only caught 52.4% of his targets, with a 17.5% drop rate on catchable balls, and he ranked just 106th among 112 eligible wide receivers on PFF on the season. A 5th round pick in 2018, Valdes-Scantling has earned below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, while averaging just 1.48 yards per route run, and is unlikely to be much better in 2021.

Lazard, on the other hand, showed more upside, albeit in more limited action, playing just 470 snaps in 10 games due to injury. He averaged 1.74 yards per route run, leading to a 33/451/3 slash line, which is in line with how he played in 2019, when he played 479 snaps in 16 games and averaged 1.62 yards per route run, leading to a 35/477/3 slash line. Lazard went undrafted in 2018 and is a projection to a larger role, but he’s shown plenty of promise so far and could easily have his best year in 2021 if he can stay healthy and Aaron Rodgers sticks around. He should be considered the favorite for the #2 wide receiver job over Valdes-Scantling, who ideally would lose playing time to the rookie Amari Rodgers and become only a situational deep threat.

It’s an underwhelming group beyond Davante Adams, but it would be hard for them to be worse than 2020 and Adams elevates this group significantly by himself. Last season, he led all pass catchers with 2.96 yards per route run, leading to him posting a 115/1374/18 slash line in just 14 games, and he was also PFF’s #1 ranked wide receiver overall. It was the best year of his career, but he was PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver and averaged 2.33 yards per route run in 2019 and ranked 9th and averaged 2.12 yards per route run in 2018, so he’s hardly a one-year wonder. His production would take a hit without Rodgers obviously, but he’s one of the best wide receivers in his own right, and he would be a strong candidate to lead the league in receiving in 2021 if Rodgers returned.

Tight end Robert Tonyan had a solid 52/586/11 slash line this season, but benefited significantly from playing a significant role with Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback and his 1.58 yards per route run average ranked just 12th among tight ends, which is not all that impressive when you consider the he was playing with the best quarterback in the league last season. He’s also an underwhelming run blocker and a one-year wonder as a receiver, as the 2017 undrafted free agent had played just career 260 snaps prior to last season. Even if Rodgers returns and Tonyan repeats last season’s level of play, his touchdown rate is likely to regress and he could be the one who would be hurt the most by Rodgers’ departure. 

The Packers will need Tonyan to keep playing well because the rest of their receiving tight end options are inexperienced. They used 3rd round picks in 2019 and 2020 on Jace Sternberger and Josiah Deguara, but Sternberger has played just 301 mediocre snaps in two seasons in the league and is now suspended for the first two games of 2021, while Deguara played just 31 snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL, who obviously makes his long-term projection more questionable. 

The Packers do still have blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis and, even though he is in his age 37 season, he was smart to bring back as a #2 tight end. He’s not a receiving option at this stage of his career, averaging just 0.83 yards per route run in 2020, but he stayed in to block on 68.1% of his 422 snaps last season and was still one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. It’s possible he falls off in 2021, which would be a blow to this offense, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the big 6-4 268 pounder continue being an above average blocker. Davante Adams elevates this receiving corps by himself significantly, but this group still has the same problems as last year unless one of their young receivers takes a big step forward.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Two off-seasons ago, the Packers made some big moves to overhaul their defense and the results have been a mixed bag. The Packers finished the 2018 season 16th in first down rate allowed, which improved only slightly to 15th in 2019 and then actually fell to 18th in 2020, although they did rank 12th once schedule adjustments were taken into account. No position was overhauled more than the edge defender position, a position which also exemplifies the mixed bag nature of some of their moves that off-season.

Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary played almost all the edge defender snaps last season, with no other edge defender playing more than 85 snaps, and all three of those players were ended in big investment moves two off-seasons ago. The two Smiths signed deals worth 66 million over 4 years and 52 million over 4 years respectively and then the Packers used Gary with the 12th overall pick for good measure.

Preston Smith has been the biggest disappointment of the bunch, which is not a surprise because he was an overpay from the start, only managing a 9.7% pressure rate in four seasons with Washington before signing that big deal. Smith had 12 sacks in year one in Green Bay, but that was largely the product of being in the right place at the right time, as he ranked just 37th among edge defenders on PFF in pass rush grade. That was still a career best, but his 2020 campaign ended up being a career worst, as he managed just 4 sacks, 8 hits, and a 6.5% pressure rate, while ranking 108th among 124 edge defenders on PFF.

Smith was kept this off-season only after agreeing to a pay cut down to 8 million, so it’s very possible he’ll see a reduced role in 2021 in favor of Rashan Gary, who is now going into his third season in the league. Gary hasn’t been a bust thus far, but he also hasn’t shown much yet either, playing just mediocre 244 snaps as a rookie, buried on the depth chart and dealing with injuries, before taking a step forward and earning a middling grade from PFF across 456 snaps in 2020. He still has the upside to be an above average starter and, only in his age 24 season, could easily take a big step forward in year three. He and Preston Smith could form a productive rotation, but Smith has never been as good as the Packers originally paid him to be, while Gary’s upside is not a guarantee he’ll break out.

Fortunately, one of those edge defender moves really did pay off as, even though Za’Darius Smith is the 11th highest paid edge defender in the league, he’s been well worth it through two seasons in Green Bay. Smith wasn’t a big name at the time he signed with the Packers, but he flashed a lot of potential in his previous two seasons as a rotational player with the Ravens, totaling 12 sacks, 32 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 30 games despite being a part-time player.

He was still a projection to a larger role that the Packers took a chance on, but if anything he’s been more efficient in more extended playing time, totaling 26 sacks, 38 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate, while playing all 32 games. Defending the run has never been his strong suit, but even his run defense has improved in Green Bay and, overall he’s finished 2nd and 15th among edge defenders on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, including 6th and 7th respectively in pass rush grade. Still in his prime in his age 29 season and fully established as an elite edge rusher, I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021.

Both Smiths played all 16 games last year, while Gary missed just one game, allowing this trio to play almost every edge defender snap combined between the three of them, but they might not be as lucky in 2021, which would expose their lack of depth. Jonathan Garvin, a 2020 7th round pick, and Randy Ramsey, a 2019 undrafted free agent, played 85 snaps and 75 snaps respectively last season and both struggled in their first career action. Either one would be likely to struggle mightily if forced into extended action, but that is a possibility if an injury strikes out of their top-3. They particularly can’t afford to lose Za’Darius Smith, who elevates an otherwise underwhelming group by himself.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Packers didn’t make any major additions at the interior defender position two off-seasons ago when they overhauled their defense, but they did move on from long-time Packer Mike Daniels, a talented, but aging player, and then extended the younger Dean Lowry on a 3-year, 20.325 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, an extension that was followed up the next off-season by the Packers locking up Kenny Clark on a 4-year, 70 million dollar extension. 

Clark slipped a little bit to 30th among interior defenders on PFF in his first season after signing the extension in 2020, after ranking 10th in 2017, 9th in 2018, and 13th in 2019, but the 2016 1st round pick is still only in his age 26 season and already had a pretty impressive career, especially over the past four seasons, when he has totalled 18.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate across 57 games, while playing the run at a high level as well. He should remain an above average starter at least in 2021 and has the upside to bounce back and be better in 2021 than he was in 2020.

The Lowry deal, meanwhile, made some sense at the time it was made, as the 2016 4th round pick was coming off of a solid season, in which he played 698 snaps, ranked 28th among interior defenders on PFF against the run, and added 3 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. However, Lowry has dropped off significantly in each of the past two seasons, falling all the way to 91st out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 601 snaps in 2020, making his 2018 campaign look like an obvious outlier in his 5-year career. He could bounce back a little bit from arguably the worst year of his career in 2020, but I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a middling starter at best. Both he and this defense could benefit from Lowry having his role scaled back, but that would require another player stepping up.

The Packers didn’t address their interior defender group until the 5th round of the draft, when they selected Tedarrell Slaton, who is unlikely to make an impact in year one. Instead, their most promising young interior defender option is 2019 5th round pick Kingsley Keke, who was the Packers’ highest ranked interior defender aside from Clark last season. He still only earned a middling grade across 414 snaps, but that was mostly because of his struggles against the run, as he flashed as a pass rusher with a 8.6% pressure rate. He played just 94 snaps as a rookie and is very inexperienced overall, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain an effective situational pass rusher and he could take a step forward in year three as well.

Tyler Lancaster is the fourth Packers interior defender who returns after seeing somewhat significant action, in a position group that is largely unchanged from last season. Lancaster is only a situational run stuffer and has a very underwhelming 3.5% pressure rate in three seasons since the Packers signed him as an undrafted free agent, but he’s not a bad run defender. He played 352 snaps in 2020 and has averaged 335 snaps per season in his career. I would expect a similar total from him in 2021, due to his limitations as a pass rusher. This isn’t a bad group, but it’s the same group that had some issues last season, and, while it’s possible that a couple players are better than they were a year ago, they also could have more injury issues than they had a year ago.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The one group that has been completely neglected in the Packers’ defensive overhaul has been their linebacking corps, which has been a big part of the reason for the Packers’ defensive struggles over the past two seasons. As much criticism as the Packers have deservedly gotten for ignoring their receiving corps with early draft picks, they’ve ignored the linebacker position even more and it shows. Once again, they waited until the 6th round to select a linebacker, taking Isaiah McDuffie, who is unlikely to be a positive factor in year one.

McDuffie was their only major addition to a group that was arguably the worst in the league last season and, in fact, they lost their snap leader, Christian Kirksey (548 snaps), although he won’t really be missed, after finishing 85th among 99 eligible linebackers last season. More importantly though, they lost safety Raven Greene, which might seem like it’s unrelated, but he frequently played as a coverage linebacker in sub packages last season and without him, the Packers could need more snaps out of traditional linebacker, especially in coverage situations. Greene was a middling player, but by default he was probably their best linebacker last season, even if that wasn’t technically his position.

With Greene and Kirksey gone and only a late round rookie added, the Packers will be counting on more from young holdovers Krys Barnes (421 snaps), Kamal Martin (190 snaps) Oren Burks (96 snaps), Ty Summer (176 snaps) who all saw some action last season, even if it wasn’t much. Martin looks like the most promising of the bunch, as the 2020 5th round pick flashed across his admittedly limited playing time as a rookie, impressing both against the run and in coverage, but he’s still a projection to a larger role. I would consider him the favorite to earn something resembling an every down role and he could have a mini breakout year in that role, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Oren Burks was the highest pick of the bunch, but the 2018 3rd round pick has been a wasted draft selection thus far, as injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 279 snaps in three seasons in the league, during which he has been exposed both against the run and in coverage. Ty Summer was just a 7th round pick in 2019 and struggled mightily in his first career action in 2020, after not playing a defensive snap as a rookie. 

Kyrs Barnes saw the most action of the bunch last season, but the 2020 undrafted free agent did not fare well, finishing 86th among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. It’s possible even Isaiah McDuffie could see playing time in this group by season’s end, but that would likely say more about this group’s play than McDuffie’s development. Their youth gives them some upside, but this group also has a very low floor and could easily be the worst linebacking corps in the NFL this season.

Grade: D

Secondary

Safety is another position that got a big investment two off-seasons ago, with the Packers signing Adrian Amos from the division rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal and then trading up to use the 21st overall pick to select Darnell Savage to play alongside him. The pairing has worked out very well. Savage was only a middling starter as a rookie in 2019, but Amos ranked 17th and in 2020 they both took a step forward, with Savage ranking 10th and Amos ranking 2nd. Savage has the upside to be one of the best safeties in the league long-term and, while development is not always linear and he’s not a guarantee to be better or even to not decline in 2021, he should still remain at least an above average starter with the upside for more.

Amos, meanwhile, has proven himself over several seasons. He was just a 5th round pick in 2015, but he became a starter as a rookie and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (88 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-17 and two finishes in the top-3. Even if he isn’t quite as good in 2021 as 2020, he should still be one of the better safeties in the league, still in his prime in his age 28 season. He and Savage have the potential to be the best safety duo in the league and, even if they aren’t, they should be one of the better ones.

Their depth is a concern, however, with Raven Greene no longer around (324 snaps) and Will Redmond (340 snaps) being their only experienced reserve. A 3rd round choice of the 49ers in 2016, injuries cost Redmond all of 2016 and 2017 and he played just 5 snaps in 2018, before struggling in limited action over the past two seasons, finishing 83th out of 99 eligible safeties across 271 snaps in 2019 before finishing 70th out of 99 eligible, again in limited action in 2020. He’s likely to continue struggling in a reserve role in 2021 and would likely struggle even more if forced into an extended starting role.

The Packers also have a dominant #1 cornerback Jaire Alexander. A first round pick in 2018, Alexander was impressive in his first two seasons as well, finishing 32nd and 26th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he took his play to another level in 2020, finishing 1st among cornerbacks on PFF and allowing a 48.6% completion percentage and 4.68 yards per attempt, despite frequently matching up with #1 wide receivers. Alexander might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2020, especially since cornerback is probably the toughest position to play at a high level year after year, but he’s proven enough in his career that he should be considered one of the top cornerbacks in the league and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so his future is as bright as anyone’s. 

As good as Alexander was though, opposing passing attacks could just pick on the Packers’ other cornerbacks last season, as all of their other cornerbacks finished below average on PFF on the season. Kevin King was the worst of the bunch, missing 5 games with injury and finishing 85th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 664 snaps. A 2nd round pick in 2017, that has largely been the story of King’s career, as he has missed 25 of 64 possible games and has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. The Packers still brought him back this off-season on a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal, but they aren’t committed to him long-term and drafted his likely future replacement Eric Stokes with the 29th overall pick.

Stokes could also push #3 cornerback Chandon Sullivan for his job, although he wasn’t terrible last season, earning a middling grade across 729 snaps. The 2018 undrafted free agent is largely unproven, but he did flash on 350 snaps as a situational slot cornerback in 2019 as well, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being a capable slot cornerback. Stokes’ addition at least gives the Packers more upside and another starting option, even if he has growing pains in year one. 

The Packers also still have 2018 2nd round pick Josh Jackson, but he struggled across 721 rookie year snaps and has played just 433 snaps in two seasons since. With Stokes being added, Jackson is probably more likely to not make this final roster than to earn a significant role, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. This is mostly a top heavy secondary, but you can’t deny how good Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage are and first round pick Eric Stokes has the upside to be that caliber of a player long-term, even if he could struggle as a rookie.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

If the Packers bring back Aaron Rodgers, they should remain Super Bowl contenders, but there are reasons to expect this team not to be as good on either side of the ball in 2021. Their offense has lost some key players from a year ago, especially on the offensive line, and they might not quite get an MVP caliber year from Rodgers even if he does return. They still have some top level talent on that side of the ball, with Rodgers, left tackle David Bakhtiari, wide receiver Davante Adams, and running back Aaron Jones among the best in the league at their positions, but Bakhtiari is coming off of a serious injury, they lost stud center Corey Linsley, and their supporting cast isn’t significantly improved from a year ago, making this is a very top heavy offensive unit and one that would likely see a big hit if one of their stars went down for an extended period of time.

The Packers are also top heavy on defense, led by edge defender Za’Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander, safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and interior defender Kenny Clark, which is a concern for a group that had just the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2020 and were still just a middling group. The five aforementioned players combined to miss just 5 games in 2020 and their lack of defensive depth could easily be exposed in a significant way if one or several of those players miss extended time. This is still one of the better teams in the league, but it’s at least concerning that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t seem to think he can win it all with this team and, even if he does return, there would be several teams that have a better chance at winning the whole thing. I will have a final prediction for the Packers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I’ve held off on posting the Broncos’ preview because they are the favorite to land Aaron Rodgers via trade if Rodgers does in fact get moved, but it doesn’t seem like there is a real possibility of that right now. Rodgers’ only leverage is sitting out what could be one of his last prime seasons rather than returning to a team he’s brought to back-to-back NFC Championships, so the most likely scenario is Rodgers returning to Green Bay, perhaps on some sort of renegotiated deal that allows Rodgers to be a free agent next off-season if he chooses. 

If Rodgers does get moved, the Broncos would be an obvious destination for him though, as they could be legitimately considered a quarterback away from being top contenders, similar to the Buccaneers last off-season when they were able to recruit Tom Brady. The Broncos reportedly offered a significant draft pick haul to the Texans for Deshaun Watson before his allegations came out and it stands to reason to would be similarly aggressive trying to trade for Rodgers if he became available. 

The Broncos have the longest active streak of finishing in the top-10 in first down rate allowed on defense, seven consecutive seasons dating back to 2014, before their last Super Bowl appearance. However, arguably the worst quarterback play in the league in recent years has caused the Broncos to not make the post-season once since their Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2015 season, a streak of five straight missed postseasons, despite their defensive performance. Defensive play tends to be significantly more inconsistent year-to-year than defensive play, but the Broncos have done a good job of not only keeping their defensive talent together, but patching up needs in free agency as well. They’re also well coached under Vic Fangio and are set to get long-time defensive stalwart Von Miller back from an injury that cost him all of 2020.

In 2020, the Broncos ranked 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.15%, but ranked 31st in first down rate over expected at -4.01%, only ahead of the lowly Jets, leading to the Broncos going just 5-11 and ranking 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.86%. Drew Lock, their latest attempt at solving the quarterback position, has been largely disappointing since the Broncos selected him in the 2nd round in 2019, completing 59.1% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions across 18 starts, while finishing 35th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in the first extended action of his career in 2020. 

Lock was the single biggest reason for the Broncos’ struggles as he actually had decent talent around him on offense, a supporting cast that will be better in 2021 when #1 receiver Courtland Sutton returns from a season ending torn ACL suffered in week 1 of last season, to go with what looks like once again a strong defense. As bad as Lock was last season though, the Broncos’ offense was even worse when he was out of the lineup, with Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien were horrendous in his absence, not to mention converted wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who started when their whole quarterback room was out with COVID. 

The only upgrade the Broncos have added so far this off-season is veteran Teddy Bridgewater, acquired in a trade with the Panthers. Bridgewater is a low end starter, but he could represent a noticeable upgrade on Lock and should be considered the heavy favorite for the job unless Lock unexpectedly takes a big step forward in year two. Bridgewater could also serve as a cheap stopgap quarterback for the Packers in a trade with Aaron Rodgers if that move ends up going through. 

A first round pick in 2014 by the Vikings, Bridgewater’s career was derailed by an injury prior to the 2016 season that effectively cost him two full seasons and led to him not earning a starting job back until 2020, after spending two years as a backup with the Saints from 2018-2019. Bridgewater has mostly earned middling grades from PFF in 21 starts since returning from his injury, 15 with the Panthers last season and 6 in place of Drew Brees with the Saints, and he completed 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.36 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions over those starts. He’s had strong offensive supporting casts around him in both locations, but this isn’t a bad offensive supporting cast either, as I’ll get into later.

Bridgewater is also on a very team friendly deal, with the Broncos paying him just 4.415 million as part of a re-negotiated deal, after the Panthers paid him 24 million for just the 2020 season and then had to pay another 7 million to deal him away and get out of the rest of his guaranteed money this off-season. That contract is a big part of the reason why the Broncos were able to add talent in free agency this off-season, especially on defense, as they are able to spend more money on their supporting cast than most teams. This is unlikely to be a Super Bowl contender with Bridgewater, but even if they don’t trade for Rodgers, the Broncos could easily be a playoff contender in the AFC with Bridgewater likely to be a significant upgrade on Drew Lock, who will likely slot in as the backup in 2021.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, Courtland Sutton is expected to return from the torn ACL that cost him almost all of last season. Sutton was a 2nd round pick in 2018, posted a 72/1112/6 slash line (2.08 yards per route run) despite suspect quarterback play in 2019, and is still only in his age 26 season, so his return is obviously reason to be optimistic for this receiving corps, but it isn’t the only reason, as the Broncos have an overall young receiving corps that could take a big step forward around Sutton as well. The Broncos used their first round pick in 2019 on tight end Noah Fant and then followed that up by taking wide receivers in the first and second round in 2020, selecting Jerry Jeudy and then KJ Hamler, and all three players could take a step forward in 2021.

Jeudy led this group with a 52/856/3 slash line last season, but he was pretty inefficient, doing so on 113 targets, catching just 46.0% of the balls thrown his way. Quarterback play was part of the problem and Jeudy makes up for it somewhat with just 16.5 yards per catch average and his 14.6 average depth of target, but he was also responsible for 12 drops. If he can clean up his drops in his second season in the league, he could be a lot more efficient with a more accurate quarterback, although he probably won’t see the same target share with Sutton returning and could see his depth of target decrease with a quarterback who prefers short and intermediate routes.

Fant also had a solid season, with a 1.64 yards per route run average that ranked 8th among tight ends. He still isn’t much of a blocker, but ranked 15th overall among tight ends on PFF overall, despite his lack of blocking.  That was a significant step forward from his rookie year, when he looked very raw and ranked just 39th out of 44 eligible tight ends on PFF overall. He also has the upside to be even better in his third season in the league, especially if you factor in likely better quarterback play, in what will still only be his age 24 season. 

KJ Hamler, on the other hand, struggled mightily last season, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and posting a 30/381/3 slash line with 7 drops, giving him just as bad of a drop rate as his Jeudy. Overall, he was PFF’s 119th ranked wide receiver out of 122 eligible and he had a hard time earning regular playing time as well, playing just 521 snaps in 13 games. He also dealt with injuries, which could have been a big part of the problem and, even if they weren’t, he has the upside to be a lot better in year two.

With Hamler struggling, it was 2017 undrafted free agent Tim Patrick who was the #2 option in Sutton’s absence and, even though he was behind Jeudy with a 51/742/6 slash line, he averaged a higher yards per route run (1.71) and yards per target (9.39). Patrick is a one-year wonder though, only playing 681 in his career snaps prior to last season, and, even though he went undrafted just a few years ago in 2017, he’s already in his age 28 season, so even if he repeats last season’s performance, he has likely peaked. The good news, however, is that he won’t be needed nearly as much, with Sutton returning and their young pass catchers likely taking a step forward. 

Sutton is a one-year wonder in terms of the level of production he had in 2019 and he is coming off of a serious injury, but he’s still young and he’ll be a full year removed from the injury by the start of the regular season. He could have a career year if he’s healthy and playing at his potential, as he’ll have arguably the best quarterback of his career even if it’s just Teddy Bridgewater. His re-addition gives them a true #1 wide receiver and allows them to go four deep at the wide receiver position. They also added Seth Williams in the 6th round of the draft, but it’s hard to see how he factors into the mix in year one, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. 

The Broncos also have another promising young tight end behind Fant on the depth chart. Albert Okwuegbunam wasn’t as high of a draft pick as the other young receivers the Broncos have, but the 2020 4th round pick was selected relatively high and flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, averaging 2.28 yards per route run, albeit while playing just 86 snaps in 4 games due injuries, including a torn ACL that ended his season. 

Okwuegbunam is still very unproven and the injury doesn’t help matters, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him carve out a solid role as the #2 tight end behind Fant and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Nick Vannett, who was the #2 tight end in Okwuegbunam’s absence last season, finishing 57th out of 62 eligible tight ends across 361 snaps in 15 games. With better health and more experience, this young, talented receiving corps could take a big step forward in 2021 and should give Teddy Bridgewater or whoever starts at quarterback plenty of weapons to work with.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Broncos signed ex-Chargers running back Melvin Gordon in free agency last season, bringing him in on a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal that was surprising for a lot of reasons. For one, it didn’t seem like Gordon had a market at that level. He had an impressive 5.06 YPC average on 175 carries while adding a 58/476/4 slash line through the air in just 12 games in 2018, but aside from that finished below four yards per carry in his four other seasons out of five with the Chargers, who selected him in the first round in 2015. Gordon held out for a big contract after that 2018 campaign, but didn’t get it and, after struggling again in 2020, it seemed his chances of getting a big contract were slim, but the Broncos gave him a contract that makes him the 8th highest paid running back in the league and was functionally 100% guaranteed.

On top of that, the Broncos already had a runner in Phillip Lindsay who had rushed for over thousand yards in back-to-back seasons, since joining the Broncos as a gem of an undrafted free agent in 2018. In total, Lindsay rushed for a total of 2,048 yards and 16 touchdowns on 416 carries (4.92 YPC) over his first two seasons, while finishing above average with carry success rates of 49% and 50% respectively. Adding a more powerful complement for the 5-8 190 pound Lindsay made sense, but they didn’t seem to have the need to commit significant money to a free agent. 

At the very least, the Broncos did seem to have a solid running back duo going in 2021, even if Gordon was an unnecessary overpay, but they didn’t even get good results out of the two. Gordon averaged 4.59 YPC on 215 carries and Lindsay averaged 4.25 YPC on 118 carries, which isn’t terrible, but it was well below Lindsay’s average from the previous two seasons and both running backs did a horrible job of keeping this offense on schedule, with carry success rates of 44% and 40% respectively that ranked 4th worst and worst respectively among eligible running backs in 2020, which was as big of a part of this team’s offensive struggles as Drew Lock and the passing game.

The Broncos could have kept Lindsay on a second round tender for 3.384 million, in hopes of a bounce back, but instead they let him sign with Houston on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, leaving Gordon as the clear lead back. They signed ex-Viking Mike Boone, who has a career 5.34 YPC on 71 career carries in three seasons in the league that suggests he might have the upside to have a bigger role than he’s had in the past, but Boone might not get that chance in Denver, with the Broncos then using the a second round pick North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, investing more capital into the running back position to go with Gordon. 

Williams has the upside to be a three down back long-term and Gordon is in the last year of a contract he likely would have already been released from if not for guaranteed money, so it wasn’t a bad pick, but it just further calls into question why Gordon was signed in the first place. Williams has a good chance to beat Gordon out for the starting role and be the lead back in this offense, even if Gordon is unlikely to see his role disappear completely. Boone, meanwhile, will slot in as a likely infrequently used 3rd running back in a backfield that is decently talented and can’t do a worse job of keeping this offense on track than a year ago.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Broncos’ offensive line was a big part of the problem on the ground last season, as they ranked 28th on PFF in run blocking grade, but they were better in pass protection and were led by the biggest bright spot on this offense, left tackle Garett Bolles, who finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 15 games. For some this came as a massive surprise, as Bolles was best known for his penchant for committing penalties, a league leading 45 from 2017-2019.

However, the 2017 1st round pick always had a huge upside and, for all of his issues with penalties, he otherwise didn’t allow much pressure on the quarterback, allowing just 10 sacks and 16 hits over his first three seasons in the league combined and earning above average grades from PFF in every season, despite his penalties, including a 16th ranked finish in 2019. If he could ever get the penalties cleaned up, he had the upside to be one of the best left tackles in the league.

In 2020, the penalties came down to 7, but that wasn’t it as Bolles didn’t allow a sack all season, allowed just 6 hits on the quarterback, dominated in the run game, and was one of the best offensive linemen in the whole league. The addition of legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a big part of the reason for his sudden improvement and, while he might not be quite as good again in 2021, Munchak is still around and Bolles could easily remain one of the top offensive tackles in the league, even if he declines a little.

The Broncos’ biggest problem upfront last season was rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry, who looked more like a 7th round rookie than a 3rd round rookie, finishing as PFF’s worst ranked center out of 39 eligible. He could be better in 2021, but it could just be by default and the Broncos aren’t waiting around for him to develop, using another 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a center, taking Quinn Meinerz. 

I think Meinerz has a better chance of being a solid starter for this team long-term, not only because he doesn’t have a terrible rookie year under his belt, but because he is the kind of small school prospect who was hurt by the reduced draft process and could have gone in the first or second round in a normal year. The Broncos will have a full competition in training camp between the two, but Meinerz seems like the better option. By default, center should be a position where they are better in 2021 than 2020 and they could be a lot better if Meinerz is able to have a solid rookie season.

The Broncos were also hoping for better play at the right tackle position, where they got middling at best play from a trio of different starters in the absence of highly paid right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who opted out of the season. However, James tore his achilles earlier this off-season and, while there is a chance he could return late in the season, it won’t be in Denver, as the Broncos voided the remainder of James’ contract because of the injury, which happened while he was training away from the team, under the recommendation of the NFLPA, but against the advice of the NFL.

It’s an unfortunate blow for James, who was set to make 10 million guaranteed this season, in what would have technically been the second year of a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal, but that contract was an overpay from the start, as James was a solid at best starter in the first five seasons of his career with the Dolphins and missed 18 of 80 games with injury over those five seasons. James actually only played 63 snaps for the Broncos, as he missed most of 2019 as well, before opting out in 2020 and, even with the Broncos able to void the rest of his contract and not having to pay him during his opt-out, they still paid him more than 17.15 million in what was overall a disastrous free agent signing for the team.

The Broncos used some of the money they saved by moving on from him to sign veteran replacement Bobby Massie to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Massie is plenty experienced and has generally been an average or better starter across 110 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but he comes with his own injury concerns, missing 14 of 32 starts over the past two seasons and now heading into his age 32 season as well, so he seems like a strong candidate to decline. 

Massie could remain a solid starter, but he never ranked higher than 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF, so he’s not declining from that high of a ceiling. He could work as a stopgap, but there is downside here and their best alternative is swing tackle Cameron Fleming. Fleming has made 42 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is a solid reserve option, but he would likely struggle as a season long starter, as he did in 2020, when he ranked 76th out of 93 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts with the Giants.

At guard, starters Dalton Risner (left) and Graham Glasgow (right) both return. Risner was a 2nd round choice in 2019 and has impressively made all 32 possible starts at left guard in his career, but he hasn’t been more than an average starter yet. That could change in year three though and, even if he doesn’t, he’s still unlikely to be a weakness. Glasgow, meanwhile, was signed on a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal last off-season and, while his first year wasn’t bad, he only ranked 22nd among guards on PFF, so he didn’t quite live up to what he was paid. 

Glasgow ranked 10th among guards in 2019 though, so he could be better in 2021 than he was in 2020 and, even if he isn’t, he hasn’t finished worse than 22nd among guards in his last three seasons at guard in 2017, 2019, and 2020, with a solid season at center in 2018 in between, so he has a high floor. He’s unlikely to be moved back to center, not only because guard seems to be a better position for him, but also because they don’t have another starting caliber guard, with their top reserve being 2020 6th round pick Netane Muti, who struggled mightily in two rookie year starts. This isn’t a great offensive line overall, but it’s not a big weakness either, especially if they can get decent play at center and right tackle to complement what should be average or better play elsewhere.

Grade: B+


Edge Defenders

The Broncos had injury issues on offense last season, but were even more beat up on defense, which makes their strong performance on that side of the ball even more impressive. Not only did they lose a significant amount of games to injury, leading to the Broncos having the 7th most adjusted games lost to injury overall of any team in the league last season, but those injuries also disproportionately affected their most important players, most notably a season ending injury suffered before the season even began by arguably their best defensive player, long-time defensive star Von Miller.

Even though this defense played pretty well without him, it’s hard to overstate how important Miller has been to this defense over the past decade, since the Broncos selected him #2 overall in 2011. In 9 seasons prior to missing last year, he totaled 106 sacks, 122 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate in 135 career games, while playing at a high level against the run and finishing in the top-4 among edge defenders on PFF overall in each of his first 8 seasons in the league.

That being said, Miller’s best days are likely behind him. Not only is he coming off of a significant injury, but he was declining a little bit before the injury, only ranking 22nd among edge defenders on PFF in 2019, and now he heads into his age 32 season and could easily continue declining further. I wouldn’t expect him to fall off completely and, even not at his best, Miller should still be an above average option playing in an every down role, but he probably won’t have the All-Pro caliber year we are used to seeing him have. He’s still obviously a huge re-addition for this defense though.

The Broncos also used a high pick on an edge defender in 2018, taking Bradley Chubb with the 5th overall pick, passing on franchise quarterback Josh Allen in the process. Chubb was supposed to give them a dominant bookend opposite Von Miller, but, while he hasn’t been a bad pick, he’s actually gotten to see very little action at the same time as Miller over the past two seasons, between Miller’s 2020 injury and Chubb’s 2019 ACL tear that cost him all but 4 games. 

The only significant action they saw together was Chubb’s rookie year in 2018, when they both made all 16 starts and combined to total 26.5 sacks. Miller led the way with 14.5 sacks, to go with 11 hits and a 12.6% pressure rate and, while Chubb’s numbers weren’t much more, with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, Chubb benefited significantly from Miller drawing frequent double teams opposite him and in fact Chubb only finished 23rd among edge defenders in pass rush grade on PFF, while Miller ranked 3rd.

Chubb didn’t play well before the injury in 2019 and, coming off of a serious injury, without Von Miller opposite him drawing double teams, there was some concern about Chubb in 2020, but he responded well, totaling 7.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate, despite much more frequent double teams, while finishing 14th among edge defenders in pass rush grade. Chubb has left something to be desired against the run in his career, but he’s a better pass rusher now than he was as a rookie, despite his sack totals not telling that story, and he has the upside to be even better in 2021, which could help offset some of Von Miller’s decline. I wouldn’t expect Chubb and Miller to combine for quite as much pass rush productivity in 2021 as they did in 2018, but they should be a tough edge defender duo to stop.

With Chubb drawing more frequent double teams last season, it made life easier for Malik Reed, who started in Miller’s place and actually led the team with 8 sacks. His peripheral pass rush stats, 8 hits and a 8.4% pressure rate, leave something to be desired though and suggest that his sack total was mostly the result of being in the right place at the right time on a good defense with a disruptive player like Chubb opposite him. Reed still played the run well, as the 2019 undrafted free agent did as a rookie when he played a smaller role (468 snaps), but his career 8.4% pressure rate is very underwhelming and, with Chubb and Miller hopefully both healthy in 2021, there isn’t much need for Reed to see significant snaps. He’ll likely only be an early down rotational option, a role he could fare well in.

Miller, Chubb, and Reed are a strong top trio, but the Broncos do have depth problems beyond them at this position, with last year’s top reserves Jeremiah Attaochu (414 snaps) and Anthony Chickillo (164 snaps) no longer with the team and only 2020 7th round pick Derrek Tuszka (27 snaps) and 2021 7th round pick Jonathon Cooper as depth options in case injuries strike their top-3 again. It may be a top heavy group, but it’s a talented one, as Chubb and Miller can be the top edge defender duo in the league if both are healthy and play up to potential, even if Miller isn’t quite what he was in his prime.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Absences were also a significant problem on the interior for the Broncos’ defense, as they had a whopping 8 different interior defenders play 140 snaps or more and none of them played all 16 games. It was a masterful job of coaching by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio and his staff to get strong play overall out of a constantly rotating group of players. Jurrell Casey, a highly paid trade acquisition from last off-season, lasted just three games before suffering a season ending injury while Mike Purcell, a key run defender on the Broncos’ 2019 defense, lasted just 6 games. 

Shelby Harris was their best player at the position, ranking 8th among interior defenders on PFF, but he was limited to just 441 snaps in 11 games. Dre’mont Jones led the group with 560 snaps and also played at a high level, ranking 26th among interior defenders on PFF, but he also missed three games. Casey was released this off-season ahead of 11.9 million owed in non-guaranteed money and, even though he remains available as of this writing, he is not expected to return to Denver for what would be his age 32 season. However, Purcell, Harris, and Jones are all expected back healthy and are expected to be the Broncos’ three starters in their base 3-4 defense.

Harris is going into his age 30 season, but he could remain the best of the bunch. The 2014 7th round pick was a late bloomer, not seeing significant action until 2017 and, even since 2017 he’s averaged just 496 snaps per season, but part of that was the time he missed last season, the only five games missed of his previous 4 seasons, and Harris has played at a consistently high level whenever on the field, including a 636-snap season in 2019 when he finished 19th among interior defenders on PFF. 

Harris also finished 35th in 2017 and 10th in 2018, so his strong play isn’t a fluke. He’s a strong run defender, who also consistently gets to the quarterback, with a 8.3% pressure rate in his career and 15.5 sacks and 20 hits over the past four seasons combined. If he can play around the snap total he played in 2019, that will be a big boost for this defense, especially if he plays up to his potential as well. Even if he declines a little, now in his 30s, he should remain an above average every down option.

Dre’mont Jones also should be an above average every down option, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2019 who flashed on 283 rookie year snaps before taking a step forward in a bigger role in year two in 2020. After posting a 10.5% pressure rate, but struggling against the run as a rookie, Jones improved his run defense to about a league average level in year two and remained an effective pass rusher in a larger role, with 6.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate. Even if he just repeats what he did last season, he’ll be an asset for this defense, but he has the upside to be better in year three, only his age 24 season. He’s a very promising young interior defender.

Purcell is the most limited of the three, but the Broncos really only need the 6-3 328 pounder to be a base package run stuffer, primarily lining up on the nose. His pass rush is non-existent, with a career 3.2% pressure rate and the only season in which he exceed 289 snaps was 2019, when he still only played 416 snaps as primarily a base package run stuffer, but he was PFF’s #1 ranked interior defender on PFF in that season and, while he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, he remained a solid run stuffer before getting hurt in 2020 and could easily remain at least an effective base package option in 2021, assuming he doesn’t totally fall off in his age 30 season or get hurt again.

The Broncos also have intriguing depth options, including one diamond in the rough that they discovered throughout all their injuries upfront, DeShawn Williams, who played 436 snaps in 14 games and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender, while earning above average grades as a run defender and pass rusher (7.3% pressure rate). Williams is a complete one-year wonder, having only played 57 snaps in his career prior to last season, despite going undrafted all the way back in 2015, so there is no guarantee that he continues playing at the level he played at last season, but like with Purcell and, to some extent Harris, the Broncos and Vic Fangio seem to have a way of getting the best out of certain interior defenders, even if they are late bloomers with no real prior track record of success. Even if he doesn’t play as well as he did last year, he could be a valuable reserve and rotational option.

The Broncos other reserve options include McTelvin Agim, a 2020 3rd round pick, and low end veteran free agent addition Shamar Stephen. Agim has upside, but he only played 141 snaps as a rookie, despite all of the other injuries the Broncos’ had, and he struggled in that limited playing time. Stephen, meanwhile, is plenty experienced, averaging 32.1 snaps per game over 98 games in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s never been a good pass rusher, with a career 2.9% pressure rate and his run defense, which used to be above average, has fallen off in the past couple years and now he heads into his age 30 season. Agim and Stephen aren’t terrible reserve options, but they do come with obvious concerns. Still, this is a deep and talented position group overall. 

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One group that was healthy in 2020 for the Broncos were their starting off ball linebackers AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell, who not only made all 16 starts, but played almost literally every down, playing all but 25 snaps and 77 snaps respectively. Both also played well, finishing 17th and 26th among off ball linebackers on PFF. Johnson is another late bloomer on this defense, but took a different path to this team than the rest, as he was a highly touted draft prospect while in college, but was kicked off the team after being charged with rape and went undrafted and unsigned for three seasons until being acquitted in 2018. 

The Broncos gave him a chance and were rewarded, as he took over the starting job in week 5 of 2019 and ranked 3rd among off ball linebackers in a 12-game stretch in 2019. He didn’t play quite that well in 2020, but he had a strong enough season to prove that 2019 wasn’t a total fluke. Because he got off to a late start to his career, he is now in his age 30 season, but he isn’t necessarily about to start declining.

Jewell, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2018. While he flashed in 674 snaps in his first two seasons in the league combined, he’s a one-year wonder as an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue playing at an above average level in that role in 2021. The Broncos have minimal need for depth at the position, but they upgraded their depth as well, using a 3rd round pick on Ohio State’s Baron Browning, likely a sign that they don’t plan to re-sign both Johnson and Jewell next off-season, when both will be free agents. This is a solid position group overall and they’re reasonably well prepared for one of their starters potentially missing time, which could still happen, even though neither one did so in 2020.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Broncos’ one real weakness on this defense last season was their cornerbacks. Slot cornerback Bryce Callahan played at a very high level, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback, but he was limited to 10 games by injury. They traded for the highly paid AJ Bouye last off-season to be their top outside cornerback, but he struggled across 410 snaps in 7 games in an injury plagued season and the rest of the bunch wasn’t much better, as they had four cornerbacks all play more than 250 snaps and see significant action outside and all four finished below average on PFF.

However, the Broncos addressed the position in a big way this off-season. First they released AJ Bouye to free up 11.47 million and used that savings and the cap space they had from not committing significant money to the quarterback position to sign Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency to contracts worth 30 million over 3 years and 9.5 million over 1 year respectively, both of whom should be upgrades. 

Not finished adding at the position, the Broncos then used the 9th overall pick on Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, who could spend his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, but is likely to start long-term, with Fuller only on a one-year deal. With Callahan hopefully to be healthier this season, the many cornerbacks who struggled for the Broncos last season are going to have to fight to even make this roster as special teamers and reserve options.

Surtain will also provide injury insurance, which could be necessary because Ronald Darby, while he has shown a high upside when healthy, has also dealt with a lot of injuries throughout his 6-year career, missing 23 of 96 games and being limited in several others. It seemed like Darby’s injuries might have gotten the best of him when he finished just 129th among 135 eligible cornerbacks in PFF in 2019 across just 506 snaps, but he bounced back in a big way in 2020, finishing 14th among cornerbacks, his fifth above average season in six seasons in the league, with his previous best seasons coming in 13th (2015) and 17th (2017). Still in his prime in his age 27 season after all those injuries, he could continue being an above average cornerback if healthy, but he does come with some downside as well.

Fuller has been healthier, making all 64 starts over the past four seasons, but he’s been inconsistent, ranking 29th in 2017 and 8th in 2018, but earning only middling grades from PFF in two seasons since, leading to the Bears releasing him ahead of his 14 million owed in non-guaranteed money this off-season. He’s only in his age 29 season though, so he has the upside to bounce back, especially now that he is reunited with Vic Fangio, who was his defensive coordinator for his best years in Chicago and, even if he doesn’t bounce back, he should remain at least an average starter.

Bryce Callahan probably has the most upside of the bunch, but he comes with some downside as well, as injuries continually have gotten the best of him in his career, costing him 41 of 96 games in six seasons in the league, with at least three games missed in every season, and now he heads into his age 30 season. It’s a shame because he’s arguably been the best slot cornerback in the league over his last three healthy seasons, finishing 26th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, 11th in 2018, and 3rd last season, while allowing just 0.69 yards per route run total on the slot across the three seasons. 

Callahan might not repeat his career best year from 2020, now on the wrong side of 30 with a concerning injury history, but I wouldn’t expect him to fall off significantly. If he can be healthier, that will be a big benefit for this defense and, even if he does miss time again, the Broncos are better prepared this time around. Not only is Patrick Surtain likely to be their 4th cornerback, but they also have last year’s 3rd round pick Michael Ojemudia, who struggled mightily on 852 rookie year snaps, but has the upside to be better as a reserve in year two. This is a very deep group.

While cornerback was a weakness last season, safety was definitely a strength, with starters Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons making all 16 starts, playing all but 5 snaps, and finishing 6th and 9th respectively among safeties on PFF. Jackson is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, and could take a step back this season, but the long-time veteran, who was a solid if unspectacular starting cornerback in his prime, has found a second life as a safety in the past three seasons, finishing in the top-8 among safeties on PFF in all three seasons, so even if he does decline, he still has a good chance to be an above average every down option.


Simmons, meanwhile, is very much in the prime of his career, in his age 28 season. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Simmons flashed high levels of play for stretches early in his career, but was inconsistent, before putting it all together in a 1st ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019, before following that up with another strong season in 2020. Franchise tagged after his dominant 2019 campaign, the Broncos opted to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 61 million dollar extension this off-season, after seeing Simmons prove it again. 

Simmons is now the highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary, but he’ll be worth it unless he falls off unexpectedly. The Broncos also used a pair of fifth round picks on safeties Jamar Johnson and Caden Sterns, who will provide depth, although either one would likely be a significant drop off if they had to see action. This is a very talented secondary overall though, with the Broncos upgrading their cornerbacks to match their dominant safety duo.

Grade: A

Conclusion

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the Broncos in 2021, even if they aren’t able to acquire Aaron Rodgers. Teddy Bridgewater is a low end starting quarterback, but he should be an upgrade over Drew Lock. He also has a young receiving corps that gets their #1 receiver back from injury and should be better around him, and his offensive line and running game seem likely to be better as well. They still have an underwhelming offense, but they should be noticeably better than last year’s 31st ranked finish in first down rate over expected.

Their defense was already good last season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed over expected, but they are getting arguably their best player Von Miller back from injury and they significantly upgraded their only real weakness at cornerback. Defense is always tougher to predict than offense, but the Broncos have consistently been an above average group for years, Vic Fangio consistently gets the most out of his players and coaches his defenses to above average finishes, and, at least on paper, the Broncos have arguably the most talented defense in the league. If they can be close to that good on that side of the ball, that will take a lot of pressure off of their offense. 

In many ways, this team reminds me of the Buccaneers last off-season. I had them as the favorites to land Tom Brady if he left New England because of how good their supporting cast was and how they were a quarterback away from being true contenders. I didn’t expect Brady to actually leave New England, but I thought the Buccaneers could be a playoff team even with a lesser upgrade at the quarterback position, such as Philip Rivers or another quarterback who was a free agent at the time, Teddy Bridgewater, who is now in Denver with an almost equally good supporting cast. 

I don’t actually expect Rodgers to leave Green Bay, but the Broncos could be a playoff team with Bridgewater and they are almost definitely the favorite to land Rodgers if he does get traded, in which case the Broncos could easily win the whole thing. Their supporting cast is as good as any team in the league and they are legitimately a quarterback away from being a top contender. I will have a final prediction for the Broncos at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Houston Texans 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For many years, the Texans were led by a dominant defense. Normally dominant defenses are tough to maintain year-to-year because it tends to be very tough to keep together the amount of above average starters that you need to have dominant defensive play year in and year out, due to financial demands and injuries, but the Texans had six straight seasons in the top-9 in first down rate allowed from 2011-2016. For the first two of those seasons, the Texans had a complementary offense and as a result, they went a combined 22-10 and made the second round of the post-season both times. 

However, then the offense went through a four year stretch where it was arguably the worst in the league, wasting the final four of those dominant defensive years. Over those four seasons, they never finished better than 23rd in first down rate and they started nine different quarterbacks: Matt Schaub, Case Keenum, TJ Yates, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, and Brock Osweiler.

They hired offensive minded head coach Bill O’Brien after the first dismal offensive season, but his presence didn’t seem to make things any better over the subsequent three seasons. The Texans still managed a couple playoff appearances, both times by winning 9 games and the pitiful AFC South, but their only playoff win came against a 3rd string quarterback, while their two losses both came by multiple scores in uncompetitive games. 

Needing to solve the quarterback position for the long-term, the Texans were aggressive in the 2017 NFL Draft, moving up from the 25th pick to the 12th to select Deshaun Watson, giving the Browns a future first round pick in the process. Additionally, in a separate trade, they sent the Browns a future second round pick to unload the contract of Brock Osweiler, who they signed the previous off-season in an ill-fated attempt to solve the quarterback position through free agency.

It was a steep price to pay, but the Texans seemed to have finally found their guy, as Deshaun Watson came out of the gates as not only one of the top rookie quarterbacks in the league, but one of the top quarterbacks in the league as a whole. That only lasted seven games though, as Watson tore his ACL in practice, ending his season and, with their once vaunted defense suffering a rash of injuries, the Texans fell all the way to 4-12, especially problematic because they wouldn’t have their own first or second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. 

Those picks wound up being 4th overall and 35th overall and allowed the Browns to add cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb, who are now among the best young players in the league at their respective positions. However, even with that being the case, the Texans still seemed like they could potentially win those trades, if Watson was able to return from injury and continue giving them above average quarterback play. 

With their defense expected to be healthier in 2018 as well, the Texans seemed to be in decent long-term shape, despite the price they had to pay to resolve their quarterback situation, and, in fact, they went on to go 11-5 in 2018. Watson didn’t play quite as well as he did in his short stint as a rookie, but he remained an above average quarterback and their defense bounced back to a 3rd ranked finish in first down rate allowed. However, the Texans once again made little noise in the post-season, losing at home to division rival Indianapolis by multiple scores in the first round.

With Watson and the defense playing at a high level, the obvious weaknesses for the 2018 Texans were their offensive line and, largely as a result of their offensive line, their running game. The Texans clearly saw things the same way and were very aggressive in making a move for offensive line help. Having already used their 2019 1st round pick on an offensive tackle and their 2019 2nd round pick on a guard, the Texans then sent away their 2020 1st round pick, their 2021 1st round pick, and their 2nd round pick in a trade with the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

Tunsil was a talented young left tackle with the upside to be one of the best left tackles in the league, but he wasn’t someone who would seem to command that kind of price in a trade, especially with Tunsil getting to the end of his rookie deal and in need of a high price extension to be kept long-term. Making this move even sketchier, the Texans technically didn’t have a GM at the time, having let go of their GM in back-to-back off-seasons, effectively leaving full control over this roster to head coach Bill O’Brien, who had yet to prove himself as a coach at a level that would warrant that kind of control over the team.

Still, the Tunsil addition was obviously an upgrade in the short-term and the Texans offense jumped from 18th in first down rate the year before to 7th in 2019, easily the best offensive performance in recent memory for a team that had struggled on that side of the ball for so many years. However, suddenly the other side of the ball became a major problem, as they finally succumbed to the fate of all great defenses that can’t keep all their talent healthy and under contract long-term. 

In 2018, when the Texans had a dominant defensive season, their top-7 players, in some order, were JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardick McKinney, DJ Reader, and Johnathan Joseph. In 2019, Watt missed half of the season with injury and, though the Texans had gotten by without Watt in the past, they also had lost Clowney, Mathieu, and Jackson to free agency and trades the previous off-season. 

The result was a defense that fell all the way to 27th in first down rate allowed and, while the Texans still won 10 games, they required a significant amount of luck, winning 8 of 11 one score games, which would be unlikely to continue into 2020, and they once again made little noise in the post-season, going to overtime at home against an overmatched Bills team before getting blown out the following week in Kansas City.

Even at this point, things weren’t all that bad. For the same reasons it’s tough to be consistently good on defense, it’s also tough to be consistently bad on that side of the ball and the Texans still had their quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, which was the most important thing. They didn’t have their next two first round picks, but they played well enough in 2019 for that pick to land at 26th and if they continued playing well enough in 2020 that the picks they had to give up were later in the first and second round, that would take some of the sting away from losing those picks.

However, what’s happened over the past year or so for the Texans, who were already in a precarious position as a result of aggressive decision making, can’t be described as anything less than disastrous. For starters, the Texans’ defense continued to bleed talent, losing DJ Reader and Johnathan Joseph from their top-7 defenders in 2018, leaving just Watt and McKinney behind on a defense largely devoid of other talent, with so many resources spent trying to address other areas on the roster.

On top of that, Bill O’Brien, now formally the GM, made the inexplicable decision to get some of their draft capital back by sending away long-time #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was their only high level offensive player for several years during their offensive struggles and then became arguably the top wide receiver in the entire league with Watson throwing him the ball. The Texans didn’t even get much for Hopkins, as the package they received in return for him was centered on the 40th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, in the same off-season as the Vikings were able to get a first round pick from the Bills for a less proven wide receiver in Stefon Diggs. 

The reason the Texans took a lesser draft pick in exchange for Hopkins is because Bill O’Brien also saw the Hopkins trade as an opportunity to finally improve his running game. That was an understandable goal, but not one that should have been achieved by acquiring David Johnson, three seasons removed from his last above average season and signed for a guaranteed 11.2 million, in a trade in which Johnson was viewed as an asset rather than a liability. Even stranger, the Texans then turned around and traded their own second round pick to the Rams for Brandin Cooks, a much lesser talent, and gave a big contract to free agent wide receiver Randall Cobb, an even lesser talent.

Watson still played at a high level in 2020 even without Hopkins, but with the rest of the roster being what it was, there wasn’t much he could do to make this team consistently competitive. The Texans went just 4-12, including a 0-4 start that saw the architect of this disaster, Bill O’Brien, let go before he could watch everything play out. The Texans still ranked 17th in first down rate over expected and, while their defense ranked 31st in first down rate allowed over expected, they were still a little better than their record would suggest with a -2.80% schedule adjusted first down rate differential, 28th in the NFL.

They faced an above average schedule and had terrible luck in close games, going 2-8 in one score games, which, when coupled with the fact that their offense was significantly better than their defense, seemed to predict something of a turnaround in 2021. However, it was hard to find reasons to be optimistic, with the Texans not possessing either their first or second round pick to rebuild with and having little long-term financial flexibility to add significant upgrades in free agency, with a shrunken salary cap and Watson now on an expensive long-term extension rather than his cheap rookie deal, signing for 156 million over 4 years.

Things then went from bad to worse when Deshaun Watson decided he had enough of this nonsense and demanded a trade, a surprising decision to say the least, given that Watson was less than six months removed from signing his extension, which he signed after the Hopkins trade. Overall, Watson has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league since returning from his injury, ranking 12th, 9th, and 2nd respectively among quarterbacks on PFF over the past three seasons respectively, making 47 of 48 possible starts, and completing a combined 68.7% of his passes for an average of 8.32 YPA, 85 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions and adding 5.20 YPC and 15 touchdowns on 271 carries on the ground. Only going into his age 26 season, Watson is the kind of player you’d never want to trade.

With the Watson uncertainty adding to the list of significant concerns for this team, the Texans had a very hard time convincing a premium coaching candidate to take over this team and the instead opted to hire David Culley from the Ravens, a respectable long-time position coach, but a 65-year-old who had never been even an offensive coordinator in 27 seasons in the NFL and who was not on any other team’s head coaching radar. 

Around the same time, long-time Texans star JJ Watt demanded a trade, not wanting to spend his twilight years on a team with no direction and the Texans opted to just release him outright, even though the 2-year, 28 million dollar deal with 20 million guaranteed that the Cardinals signed Watt to suggests that there may have been at least some trade market for Watt at his original 17.5 million dollar salary. It might have just been a late round pick, but the Texans need all the draft picks they can get at this point. Watt’s departure guts this once dominant defense even further, after they were already one of the worst in the league a year ago, and the Texans don’t even get the benefit of a compensatory draft pick.

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, somehow it got worse from there. The Texans didn’t want to have to move Watson, but trading him would allow them to rebuild significant draft capital and the Texans reportedly had an offer of three first round picks for him at one point this off-season, which the Texans were prepared to accept, but not before waiting until closer to the draft to see if a better deal would materialize. That did not happen and in fact all deals for Watson disappeared once a significant amount of accusations of sexual harassment came out against Watson, leaving his NFL future in limbo as both the police and the NFL conduct their investigation, making him untradeable.

On top of all the other issues with this team, the Texans will have to prepare to not have Watson under center in 2021 and won’t even be able to get any compensation for him until the investigations wrap up and the punishment is handed out, at which point the three first round pick offer seems unlikely to return, barring the unlikely outcome of Watson being exonerated beyond a doubt. I held off doing this preview until close to the end because of the uncertainty at the quarterback position for the Texans, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Watson is highly unlikely to suit up for the Texans at all in 2021 and probably beyond, as the most likely outcome is Watson’s next start coming with a different team after a trade, whenever or wherever that may be.

At least in 2021, the Texans will be replacing Watson with a pair of quarterbacks, veteran Tyrod Taylor, who will likely serve as a bridge quarterback to 2021 3rd round pick Davis Mills, selected with the Texans’ only relatively high pick in this year’s draft, after having to send their first two picks to Miami to complete the Tunsil trade. With Taylor signed to a 1-year deal worth 5.5 million and Watson’s contract still on the books regardless of whether or not he plays, the Texans have a significant amount of their limited resources committed to the quarterback position and are still unlikely to get good play at the position. 

Mills has the long-term potential to be a starting quarterback in the NFL and perhaps an above average one at that, but he made just 11 collegiate starts due to injuries and the shortened 2020 season, so he’s hard to project to the next level. Mills could have been a first round pick in 2022 if he had returned to school and impressed, but he also faces steep odds to become a consistent starter as a third round pick, as quarterbacks who fall outside of the top-40 picks rarely develop long-term.

Mills will likely see starts so the Texans can at least get a look at him in what is otherwise likely to be a lost season, but Taylor is likely to at least be the starter at the beginning of the season. It’s familiar territory for Taylor, who began the 2018 season as the stopgap ahead Baker Mayfield and the 2020 season as the stopgap ahead of Justin Herbert. Neither of those starting stints lasted long, but neither time was Taylor’s fault, as he hurt his wrist in week 3 in 2018, was a late scratch in week 2 of 2020 due to a mishap with a pre-game injection that led to him being hospitalized, and, in his absence, watched both Mayfield and Herbert play too well to give back the job.

Taylor also spent the 2019 season backing up veteran Philip Rivers, so he hasn’t played much in recent years, attempting just 121 passes over the past three seasons combined, but, prior to that, Taylor wasn’t terrible in three seasons as the starter in Buffalo (43 starts), completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. The Bills were a very run heavy team at that time though, as Taylor averaged just 28.1 pass attempts per game, and, while Taylor was part of that running game as well, averaging 5.57 YPC on 283 combined carries over those three seasons, he still overall had a below average usage rate. 

He also led well below average offenses in two of three seasons and, though he lacked talent around him, he isn’t in much better shape with the supporting cast he has in Houston. He’s a careful quarterback who won’t turn the ball over much, but he’ll also likely struggle to lead consistent drives. He might be good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but even if he is, he is a low end option at best and he’ll likely cede the job to the rookie sooner rather than later in a season in which the Texans figure to lose a lot of games regardless of who is under center. Even a surprise return from Deshaun Watson likely wouldn’t be enough for this team to be consistently competitive and that seems highly unlikely at this point anyway.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

David Johnson still remains on this roster, agreeing to a pay cut down to 5 million to remain on the roster. That is still too much money for Johnson, but he actually wasn’t that bad in 2020. After averaging just 3.60 YPC on 363 carries from 2017-2019, while missing 18 of 48 games, Johnson actually averaged 4.70 YPC in 2020, but he was still limited to just 147 carries in 12 games, he struggled to consistently keep this offense on schedule, ranking 41st out of 47 eligible running backs in carry success rate, and he benefited a lot from having Deshaun Watson in the backfield with him, which he almost definitely won’t have in 2021.

Johnson’s claim to flame is his 2016 campaign, when he had a 80/879/4 slash line and rushed for 4.23 YPC and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries, but that even that season he ranked just 17th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade, with his production largely being the result of getting significant touches on one of the best offenses in the league. He could remain an effective early down back in 2021, but his career 4.12 YPC is very underwhelming, his 0.94 yards per route run average in 2020 was well below his career 1.51 average, and now he heads into his age 30 season. He’s unlikely to have a huge positive impact on this offense.

Johnson also isn’t guaranteed a role because the Texans added several running backs this off-season. With limited draft selections in recent years and underwhelming results from the selections they have made, the Texans took to free agency this off-season to fill out this roster, even with limited financial flexibility, rather than just embracing the rebuild, rolling forward cap space, evaluating young players, and putting themselves in great position for a top draft pick in 2022. The result was the Texans signing a comically high amount of veterans on low end contracts, which will be a theme throughout this preview.. At running back, those additions were Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead.

Formerly of the Broncos, Lindsay was actually one of their better signings and it’s surprising he was available in the first place, especially on only a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal. Lindsay went undrafted in 2018 and there have been a lot of questions about the diminutive 5-8 190 pounder from the start, but he seemed to answer those questions with back-to-back thousand year seasons in his first two seasons in the league, rushing for a total of 2,048 yards and 16 touchdowns on 416 carries (4.92 YPC), while finishing above average with carry success rates of 49% and 50% respectively.

However, that didn’t stop the Broncos from going out and signing veteran running back Melvin Gordon to a significant contract in free agency last off-season, limiting Lindsay to just 118 carries in 2020 and he didn’t fare as well when he was given opportunities. His 4.25 YPC was still decent, but he ranked dead last in the NFL in carry success rate at 40%, failing to keep the Broncos offense in schedule regularly. The Broncos could have kept him as a restricted free agent on a 2nd round tender for 3.384 million and ensured Lindsay would return in 2021, but instead they moved on him entirely, replacing him with a high draft pick, and allowing Lindsay to sign with the Texans.

Lindsay is not a threat in the passing game (0.94 yards per route run average for his career), but he could easily bounce back as a runner and be an asset on early downs for the Broncos. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him lead this team in rushing, although with multiple veteran options for the Texans to give carries to, even this team’s leading rusher might not finish with that high of an overall total. Still, Lindsay was a solid signing overall.

Ingram and Burkhead, meanwhile, come with less promise. Ingram is just a season removed from a thousand yard season in 2019, rushing for 5.04 YPC on 202 carries, and he has a 4.59 YPC average for his career, but he saw his YPC average fall to just 4.15 in 2020, despite playing on a good Ravens offense, and he managed just 72 carries on the season, frequently being a healthy scratch down the stretch. Ingram is going into his age 32 season now and once running backs start losing it, they tend to lose it quickly and never get it back, so while he could have a little something left in the tank as a rotational back, he could just as easily continue declining. He’s unlikely to be a factor on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal.

Burkhead can at least provide value on special teams, but he’s also unlikely to be a factor on offense, which has been the case for him throughout his career, with just 470 offensive touches in 82 games with a maximum of 94 touches in a season. Now going into his age 30 season and coming off of a torn ACL, he’s unlikely to be any more than he’s been in the past. This isn’t a bad backfield, with Johnson and Lindsay as the most likely lead backs, but it’s a weird mix of veterans on a team that won’t get a lot of benefit out of playing veterans in what is likely to be a lost season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Laremy Tunsil is the poster child for the Texans’ questionable moves in recent years and with the Texans’ 2021 1st round pick landing at 3rd overall and the Dolphins flipping that pick for a trio of first round picks, the Texans essentially gave up the equivalent of four first round picks and a second round pick to acquire Tunsil, who they also had to extend on a 3-year, 66 million dollar deal that makes him the third highest paid offensive lineman in the league. 

However, while he obviously hasn’t been worth that price tag, he is one of few the consistently above average left tackles in the league, finishing 22nd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019 and 30th in 2020, after finishing 24th in 2018 in his final season with the Dolphins, who selected him 13th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021 and for the next few years. Though not worth his absurd price tag, he has had a noticeable impact on this offense.

The rest of this offensive line is a middling group at best, however. Tytus Howard starts opposite Tunsil, selected 23rd overall in 2019 with a rare first round pick that the Texans have actually kept, but he’s been underwhelming thus far, earning middling grades from PFF in both seasons in the league, across 22 career starts. Only going into his age 25 season, he could have further untapped potential, but he was also considered a reach when the Texans selected him and he hasn’t done much to dispel that notion thus far. I would expect him to at least be a capable starter, with upside for more, though he’s far from a guarantee to make good on that upside.

The Texans also used a second round pick in 2019 an on offensive lineman, taking Max Scharping 55th overall, but he’s also been disappointing so far, finishing 61st among 89 eligible guards on PFF as a rookie across 938 snaps (14 starts) and 77th among 92 eligible guards on PFF in 2020 across 454 snaps (8 starts). He could be better in year three, but he would need to take a big step forward to be better than a middling starter and he’s not guaranteed to remain in the starting lineup either. 

The Texans didn’t bring back free agent right guard Zach Fulton, who was a solid starter across 16 starts, but they did bring in a pair of veterans in Marcus Cannon and Lane Taylor to compete for roles upfront. The Texans traded for Cannon despite a 7.15 million dollar salary, so he seems to be the favorite for one of the two jobs. He’s been a solid starter throughout his career, with 69 starts in 9 seasons prior to 2020, but he sat out all of 2020 after opting out and now is in his age 33 season, so it’s very questionable whether he can continue playing at the level he was playing at previously, when he was PFF’s 37th ranked offensive tackle in 2019. Moving to guard after mostly playing tackle thus far could extend his career, but he’s a shaky starting option.

Lane Taylor was also a solid starter in his prime (50 starts in 8 seasons), but he’s a shaky starting option as well, having missed all but 3 games over the past two seasons due to injuries and now going into his age 32 season. He finished 34th among guards in 14 starts in his last healthy season in 2018, but I would expect his best days to be behind him. Signed only on a 1-year, 1.2125 million dollar deal, it seems more likely he’ll slot in as veteran depth rather than as a starter. The Texans also have talented swing tackle Roderick Johnson, who has shown promise in 6 starts since being drafted in the 5th round in 2018, as a depth option.

Fellow veteran off-season addition Justin Britt is expected to start at center, after the Texans moved on from highly paid center Nick Martin this off-season. Martin was PFF’s 33rd ranked center out of 39 eligible in 2020, so it wouldn’t be hard for Britt to be an upgrade, but he’s an underwhelming starting option as well. He’s also been mostly a solid starter in 86 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but injuries have limited him to 8 games over the past two seasons.

Britt was a middling starter in 15 starts in his last healthy season in 2018, but now he’s in his age 30 season, so his best days could easily be behind him. Signed to a 1-year, 3.2 million dollar deal, Britt is yet another low end veteran addition by the Texans this off-season. This isn’t a bad offensive line, but it’s an underwhelming group outside of Tunsil and they are relying on several aging veterans with recent injury histories.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Texans lost DeAndre Hopkins last off-season and this off-season they again lost their #1 wide receiver, with Will Fuller signing with the Dolphins on a 1-year, 10.625 million dollar deal this off-season. Losing Fuller isn’t as big of a deal as Hopkins, but it’s not a small loss either as Fuller was PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver, averaged 2.28 yards per route run, and posted a 53/879/8 slash line in just 11 games, although he did miss the final five games of the season with a PED suspension, which probably had something to do with why Fuller wasn’t retained this off-season.

The Texans bring back veterans Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, who were added to stop the bleeding after losing Hopkins last off-season, but Fuller wasn’t really replaced. Keke Coutee was the #4 receiver last year and has averaged a somewhat promising 1.53 yards per route run in three seasons in the league since being drafted by the Texans in the 4th round in 2018, but he’s never played more than 338 snaps in a season due to injury and players ahead of him on the depth chart, so he’s pretty unproven and could easily get hurt again, having already missed 25 of a possible 48 games. 

The Texans could just bump Coutee up on the depth chart and play him as one of their top-3 wide receivers to replace Fuller. Other options include veteran off-season addition Chris Conley and 3rd round rookie Nico Collins. Collins obviously has the higher upside, but could be too raw to contribute as a rookie, while Conley is a middling option at best. He’s averaged 1.33 yards per route run and 1.54 yards per route run over the past two seasons respectively, but that’s pretty underwhelming and his career average is just 1.08 across six seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2015. Whoever wins the #3 receiver job, they will obviously be a big downgrade from what Fuller gave them in 3 wide receiver sets.

Brandin Cooks will likely be the nominal #1 wide receiver, a role he has some experience in. With Fuller missing a significant chunk of last season with suspension, Cooks actually led this team in receiving with a 81/1150/6 slash line, with 34/509/3 of that coming in the five games Fuller missed. That, of course, was with Deshaun Watson under center and, while it isn’t out of the ordinary for Cooks to surpass a thousand yards, as he’s done so in five of seven seasons in the league, he’s always benefitted from playing with a great quarterback or at least being on a great offense, spending his career with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and the Sean McVay/Jared Goff Rams before the Texans traded for him last off-season. 

Cooks has also never finished higher than 20th among wide receivers on PFF, so he’s not quite an elite receiver. All that being said, he’s still an above average receiver in his prime, still only in his age 28 season, having averaged a 1.83 yards per route run average and a 9.32 yards per target average that are both impressive regardless of who is throwing you the ball and he’s always played on offenses that spread the ball around, never surpassing 129 targets in a season. Cooks could easily surpass that in 2021 as he figures to get plenty of volume in this offense, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him surpass that thousand yard mark again, even if much of it is garbage time yardage when the game is out of reach. 

Randall Cobb has also surpassed 1000 yards before, but it happened only once all the way back in 2014 and he’s failed to reach that mark in his other nine seasons in the league. Cobb might still be getting by on his performance from earlier in his career, as he averaged 2.22 yards per route run in his first four seasons in the league from 2011-2014, but he obviously got a lot of benefit from playing with Aaron Rodgers, and even Rodgers or the other good quarterbacks Cobb has played with since (Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson) have been unable to save him from a middling 1.41 yards per route run average over the past six seasons. Injuries sapping his athleticism are likely in part the culprit and he’s missed a total of 30 games over 10 seasons in the league.

Cobb’s best recent season came in 2019 with the Cowboys, when he averaged a 1.77 yards per route run average and had a 55/828/3 slash line with Dak Prescott, which led to the Texans giving him a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season, but he predictably disappointed in year one of that contract. His 1.65 yards per route run average wasn’t horrible, but he managed just a 38/441/3 slash line in 10 games and that was with Watson. With a downgrade at quarterback and Cobb going into his age 31 season with a significant injury history, things are unlikely to be better for Cobb in 2021. He is nominally their #2 receiver, but I wouldn’t expect much production out of him, even if he stays healthy and takes some of Will Fuller’s targets.

The Texans didn’t target their tight ends in the passing game much last season, with just 18.7% of targets (102 targets) going to tight ends and I wouldn’t expect that to change much in 2021. Those targets were mostly split across three tight ends who all saw somewhat significant action, Darren Fells (538 snaps), Jordan Akins (405 snaps), and Pharaoh Brown (270 snaps). Brown led the bunch with 1.48 yards per route run, but he did that in limited action and the 2017 undrafted free agent had only played 212 snaps in his career prior to last season, so it would be unexpected for him to take a significant step forward in a bigger role in 2021.

Akins was a 3rd round pick by the Texans in 2018, but he’s been pretty underwhelming in his career with a 1.19 yards per route run average. His 2020 season was his best season as he averaged 1.36 yards per route run and also took a step forward as a blocker, leading to him finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked tight end. That was in relatively limited playing time though and he struggled in more extended action the year before, finishing 34th out of 44 eligible tight ends on PFF across 655 snaps. Darren Fells is no longer with the team, leaving Akins a clear path to a bigger role as the #1 tight end, but he’s far from a guarantee to continue playing as well as he did last season in that role. A fourth year breakout year is possible, but unlikely, especially since Akins was an old rookie and is already in his age 29 season.

The Texans also have 2019 3rd round pick Kahale Warring and 5th round rookie Brevin Jordan, who could take over some of Darren Fells’ playing time, but Jordan is a raw rookie, while Warring has shown very little thus far in his career, missing his entire rookie year with injury and playing just 52 snaps last season, while averaging just 0.76 yards per route run. He is probably closer to being left off this final roster than earning a role, but he could be kept around for his upside. This is a pretty underwhelming receiving corps behind Brandin Cooks.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

I mentioned earlier that the Texans let go of JJ Watt for nothing this off-season. Watt only had 5 sacks in 16 games last season for a terrible defense and was going into his age 32 season, so there is some sentiment that his loss might not be a big deal for this defense, but he still finished last season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender across 1,013 snaps, despite his underwhelming sack total, and his lack of production was as a result of lack of talent around him on defense, as Watt was double teamed more than any edge defender in the league. Without him, things are going to be that much tougher for a defense that already struggled mightily in 2020.

The Texans still have fellow long-time edge defender Whitney Mercilus, but, while Mercilus was one of the better edge defenders in the league in his prime, finishing 8th among edge defenders on PFF in 2015 and 15th in 2016, he is now very much on the decline, going into his age 31 season, and was a big part of the problem for this Texans defense in 2020. Mercilus hasn’t earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season since an injury cost him most of 2017, but things got significantly worse for him in 2020, as he finished as PFF’s worst ranked edge defender out of 124 eligible. 

Mercilus still did have 4 sacks, but benefitted from having Watt’s presence opposite him and had terrible peripheral pass rush stats, with 8 hits and a 6.0% pressure rate, while consistently getting run over in the running game. Mercilus isn’t totally over the hill yet and could potentially bounce back to being a middling rotation player, but that might be his best case scenario at this point and he could easily continue struggling, especially without Watt around. His 6.5 million dollar salary is guaranteed for 2021, but if it wasn’t, he likely would not have been brought back.

Benardrick McKinney is another long-time Texans defender, who I mentioned earlier was a big part of the Texans’ defensive success in 2018, but he declined significantly in 2019, missed most of 2020 with injury, and this off-season was sent to Miami in a swap of highly paid veterans that sends edge defender Shaq Lawson to Houston. The Texans have made some very questionable moves lately, but I actually like this one, as edge defenders are more valuable than off ball linebackers like McKinney and Lawson can be an above average member of a rotation to help the Texans replace Watt.

Lawson has never surpassed 571 snaps in a season, but the 2016 1st round pick has earned above average grades from PFF in four straight seasons across 483 snaps per season. He used to mostly just be a solid run stuffer, but he’s added pass rush ability over the past three seasons, totaling 14.5 sacks, 35 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate. He’s never finished better than 21st among edge defenders on PFF for a season and he might not quite have lived up to being a first round pick, but he gives the Texans a much needed edge defender who can both get to the quarterback and stop the run.

The Texans also brought in Jordan Jenkins in free agency, another one of their short-term veteran signings, but Jenkins is comparatively one of their more talented signings. Jenkins, who signed on a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, was never more than a solid rotational player with the Jets, but he was mostly consistent across five seasons with the team after being selected in the 3rd round in 2016, with 22.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate, while playing solid run defense, and seeing 41.5 snaps per game in 72 games. He doesn’t have a high upside, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and should continue being a solid rotational player.

Jenkins and Lawson could be the nominal starters and lead this edge defender group, hopefully shrinking Whitney Mercilus’ role in the process. The Texans also still have holdovers Jonathan Greenard (265 snaps) and Jacob Martin (375 snaps). Neither played well last season, but Greenard at least has the upside to be significantly better in his second year in the league, after being selected in the 3rd round in 2020. Martin, meanwhile, is a 2018 6th round pick who has struggled across 820 career snaps in three seasons in the league. This actually isn’t a terrible group, but they don’t have a high end player at the position without Watt and their depth is a bit suspect as well, especially if Mercilus can’t bounce back and Greenard doesn’t take a step forward.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

As if the DeAndre Hopkins trade wasn’t already bad enough, the player the Texans selected with the draft pick they received for Hopkins, interior defender Ross Blacklock, struggled mightily in year one, finishing dead last out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 254 snaps. That doesn’t mean he won’t still develop into a starter someday and he could be a lot better in year two, but he has a long way to go and could easily continue struggling this season. 

Blacklock was far from the only problem though, as the Texans played five interior defenders at least 250 snaps and they all finished well below average on PFF. Charles Omenihu (546 snaps) and Brandon Dunn (451 snaps) both remain on this roster from last year’s group and the Texans added a bunch of uninspiring veterans to compete for roles as well, including Maliek Collins, Jaleel Johnson, DeMarcus Walker, and Vincent Taylor.

Omenihu probably has the most upside of the bunch, as the 2019 5th round pick held up across 443 snaps as a rookie, before finishing 109th out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 546 snaps in 2020. Dunn, on the other hand, finished 134th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 451 snaps last season and has never earned more than a middling grade or played more than the 451 snaps he played last season in his seven seasons in the league. At best, he’s a solid rotational run stuffer, but his pass rush is non-existent with a 3.4% pressure rate for his career.

Maliek Collins was the most highly paid of the free agent interior defenders that the Texans signed, coming over on a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal. It’s a head scratching move though, especially in a deflated free agent market, as Collins was PFF’s 132nd ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible across 505 snaps last season. Collins has had some better seasons in the past, but he’s never been more than a solid starter and he’s finished well below average on PFF in three of five seasons in the league. 

Collins isn’t a bad pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate for his career, but he struggles mightily against the run. The 2016 3rd round pick is still only in his age 26 season, so it’s possible he has a little bit of untapped potential and even if he doesn’t, he is a decent bet to bounce back in 2021, but he could easily still remain a below average option as a heavy rotational player. He doesn’t upgrade this group in a significant way.

Fellow free agent addition Jaleel Johnson also has pretty significant experience, but like Collins he is coming off of a terrible season, finishing 135th out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 654 snaps in 2020. He’s also only signed to a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, so he won’t be guaranteed a role. Johnson was a 4th round pick in 2017, but he had never played more than 408 snaps in a season prior to last season and he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in all three seasons in his career in which he’s seen any sort of significant action.

Their other free agent additions, DeMarcus Walker and Vincent Taylor, on the other end, have very limited experience. Taylor was a 6th round pick in 2017 and has played just 644 snaps in his career, while never surpassing 207 snaps in a season. Walker was a 2nd round pick in 2017 by the Broncos, but due to a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and better players ahead of him on the depth chart, Walker has only played 725 snaps in 36 games in four seasons in the league, including a career high 384 snaps in 2020, when he finished 100th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. He’s shown some promise at least as a pass rusher, with a career 9.5% pressure rate, and he’s the closest thing the Texans have to a potential diamond in the rough, but that’s largely by default, in what looks like almost definitely the worst interior defender group in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Benardrick McKinney missed most of last season, so he won’t be missed that much, but his backup Tyrell Adams finished 87th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 812 snaps in his absence and, while Adams is gone, his possible replacements are an underwhelming bunch that includes veterans Kevin Pierre-Louis, Christian Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Joe Thomas. Pierre-Louis has shown promise in recent years, especially in coverage, but he’s seen snap totals of just 213 and 506 respectively, with the latter being his career high by a significant amount, and now he’s going into his age 30 season, so it would be a surprise if he was anything more than a solid situational linebacker at best.

Grugier-Hill and Joe Thomas are also career backups. Grugier-Hill has never topped 351 snaps in five seasons in the league and the 2016 6th round pick hasn’t shown much promise in his limited action. Thomas played 631 snaps in a season once, but that was back in 2016 and he finished 64th out of 97 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Aside from that season, the 409 snaps he played in 2020 are the most he’s had in a single season and he fared horribly, finishing 77th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers. Now in his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be significantly better in 2021, especially if forced into a larger role.

Christian Kirksey has the most starting action of the bunch, with 65 career starts, including all 32 starts from 2016-2017 when he was an every down player, but he never finished higher than 26th among off ball linebackers on PFF and his three seasons since 2017 have been plagued with injuries and poor play, with the latter likely being the result of the former. He’s played just 20 of 48 possible games and has earned well below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a 85th ranked finish out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 548 snaps in 2020. He’s not totally over the hill in his age 29 season, so he might have some bounce back potential if he can finally stay healthy, but it seems like injuries have significantly sapped his effectiveness.

Fortunately, the Texans do still have one solid linebacker in Zach Cunningham, who is one of the few remaining players from their dominant 2018 defense that is still playing about the same level. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has never been a dominant linebacker, maxing out as PFF’s 22nd ranked off ball linebacker, but he’s also earned middling or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league, while making 59 starts and playing 55.7 snaps per game in 62 games. 

In his prime in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021, so, even though he isn’t a dominant linebacker, he is by default the Texans best linebacker by far and one of their top defensive players overall. However, even Cunningham, one of their few homegrown talents, doesn’t make the previous Texans regimes look better, as he’s highly overpaid on his 4-year, 58 million dollar extension, which makes him the third highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL. He’s not an elite linebacker and doesn’t elevate this group enough for them to even be a middling group overall.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Texans’ secondary was also a weakness in 2020 and that could easily continue in 2021. One player who didn’t struggle was top cornerback Bradley Roby, who earned PFF’s 25th ranked grade among cornerbacks, but he was limited to just 10 games, primarily due to a PED suspension, which cost him the final five games of the season and will carry into week one of 2021. Roby has never been a top level cornerback, topping out at 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, and he’s only twice exceeded 684 snaps in a season, as he spent his first four seasons as primarily a reserve and has missed 13 games over the past three seasons since becoming a full-time starter, but he’s also earned an average or better grade from PFF in six of seven seasons in the league. 

Still in his prime in his age 29 season, he should remain a solid starter and one who will hopefully give them more than the 10 games he’s given them in each of the past two seasons, even if he’s already out for week one. The rest of this cornerback group was not as good, however, as Vernon Hargreaves and Eric Murray played 980 snaps and 941 snaps respectively and finished 128th and 97th respectively out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. 

Neither will be guaranteed a role in 2021 and Murray especially should find himself buried on the depth chart, with the Texans signing Desmond King in free agency to be an upgrade on the slot. A 5th round pick in 2017, King burst onto the scene as one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league, finishing 9th and 2nd among cornerbacks on PFF on 717 snaps and 801 snaps in his first two seasons in the league respectively. 

He hasn’t played well as the past two seasons, finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2019 on 584 snaps and 50th in 2020 on 709 snaps, so he hasn’t proven to be a consistently high level player, but he’s still an experienced slot cornerback who should be at least solid and has the upside to be even more. Signed on only a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal, King looks like a steal and was probably the Texans’ best addition this off-season. He should be an upgrade over Murray, who has mostly been a reserve in his career and has never earned more than a middling grade in five seasons in the league.

Hargreaves, on the other hand, has much less competition for his role and is much more likely to remain a starter. Hargreaves was actually a 1st round pick by the Buccaneers back in 2016 and he has a decent amount of experience, with 52 starts in 57 games, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all five seasons, including a 127th ranked finish out of 135 eligible in 2019 and 128th out of 136 eligible in 2020. He’s still in his age 26 season, so he may have some untapped upside, but at this point theoretical upside is the best thing he has going for him.

Hargreaves’ biggest competition for the role will likely be 2020 4th round pick John Reid, who underwhelmed in 145 rookie year snaps, and veteran free agent acquisition Terrance Mitchell, yet another low end veteran added by this team. Mitchell made all 16 starts for the Browns last season and was a middling starter, but he had made just 22 starts in five seasons prior to last season as primarily a reserve and he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. He could continue to be a solid starter, which would make him an upgrade over Hargreaves, but that’s not a guarantee and he’s not locked into a starting role.

At safety, the Texans bring back starters Justin Reid and Lonnie Johnson, who actually weren’t a bad duo, both earning about average grades on PFF. For Reid, it was actually a down year, as the 2018 3rd round pick finished 27th among safeties on PFF as a rookie and 14th in 2019 and he could easily bounce back and have a strong year again in his 4th season in the league in 2021. Reid is still very young, only going into his age 24 season and has already made 40 starts in 44 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s a rare talented young player on this roster.

Johnson, on the other hand, struggled mightily as a rookie in 2019, after being selected in the 2nd round, finishing dead last out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 531 snaps, but the 6-2 213 pounder fared better after being moved to safety full-time in 2020. He was still only a middling starter and, with limited experience at safety, he’s not a guarantee to repeat that season, but he also could keep getting better and develop into an above average starter, as the former high draft pick still has a huge upside. The Texans’ secondary is probably their best defensive unit by default, but that says more about the rest of this defense than it does about this secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Texans are really in a strange position. They have the most expensive roster in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, which typically correlates with winning, but it’s hard to imagine them winning a significant amount of games. Part of that is their highest paid player, Deshaun Watson at 39 million annually, is unlikely to suit up for them this season, but even if he did, the rest of this roster is not in good shape, despite the money committed to it. 

After Watson, their next highest paid players are Laremy Tunsil (22 million annually), Brandin Cooks (16.2 million annually), Zach Cunningham (14.5 million annually), and Whitney Mercilus (13.5 million annually), who are all unlikely to live up to their salary in 2021. Including Watson, those top six players make a combined 105.2 million annually, which jumps to 134.7 million annually when Bradley Roby, Shaq Lawson, and Randall Cobb are included. Beyond that, this team has a complete lack of cheap young talent filling out this roster, as a result of bad drafting and picks that were traded away. 

Rather than trying to find diamonds in the rough of the young players they do have, the Texans opted to supplement this roster with a bunch of low end veterans, with 41 players signed to one-year deals this off-season, including about 30 or so who seem likely to make this final roster, which just drives the price tag for this roster up further compared to filling out the roster with rookie contracts, costing them future cap space, and depriving them of the opportunity to evaluate young players who are under contract beyond this season.

The common narrative is that the Texans are the worst team in the league, which could be true, but if anything it’s worse than that, as they have just enough veteran talent that they could win enough games to put themselves out of position for a high draft pick and, with so many snaps going to veteran on one-year deals, this season is likely to accomplish very little in terms of clarifying the long-term direction of this roster. I will have a final prediction for the Texans at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Las Vegas Raiders 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Three off-seasons ago, the Raiders hired their former head coach Jon Gruden out of the broadcasting booth after a decade away from the game and gave him 10-year, 100 million dollar deal and final say on the 53-man roster. Gruden immediately got to work overhauling this roster, to the point where just the Raiders have just one significant contributor from each side of the ball remaining from the 2017 roster, quarterback Derek Carr and strangely enough linebacker Nicholas Morrow.

The decision to hire Gruden and give him all that money was questionable, but overhauling the roster wasn’t a bad idea. The Raiders were just a season removed from a 12-4 campaign in 2016, but they benefited significantly from a league leading +16 turnover margin and a 9-2 record in one score games (5-0 in games decided by 3 points or fewer), actually finishing with a negative first down rate differential at -0.33%, just 19th in the NFL. 

Predictably, the Raiders did not continue their strong turnover margin and dominant record in close games into 2017, finishing at -14 in turnover margin and 4-4 in one score games and, as a result, they fell all the way to 6-10, despite having a very similar first down rate differential at -0.67%. One strategy would have been to bring back the core of that 2016-2017 team, hoping they could be closer to 2016 than 2017 going forward, but a look behind the scenes at the numbers that led to their success in 2016 showed that to be unlikely. 

Instead, with complete control and job security, Gruden began a rebuild, with his most notable move being his decision to send dominant edge defender Khalil Mack, just a year removed from winning DPOY, to the Chicago Bears for a pair of first round picks, rather than locking Mack up on an expensive long-term deal. Moving a player of Mack’s caliber is not always a smart decision, but given how much the Raiders would have had to pay him to keep him and the return they got for him, it was an understandable move and in line with the Raiders’ plans to trade some short-term success for long-term gain. 

However, while those plans made sense at the start, that plan has gone awry due to consistently head scratching personnel decisions made by Gruden, which only got worse when long-time GM Reggie McKenzie went out the door, replaced by another broadcaster, NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, who, unlike Gruden, didn’t even have previous a track record of success in the NFL. The Raiders did a good job creating draft capital and financial flexibility on this roster early in their rebuild, but they have failed to take advantage of those assets.

The result has been three straight seasons without a winning record, four including their last season before Gruden, which is actually quite a bit considering the parity in the NFL. Going 4-12 in their first season with Gruden was to be expected, especially with Mack being traded on the eve of the season and the draft compensation they acquired for him not being able to be used until the following draft, but they’ve finished just 7-9 and 8-8 respectively over that past two years and it’s arguably been worse than that suggests.

In their 7-win season in 2019, all of their wins came by one score or fewer, as opposed to six losses by 18 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of -106 on the season (27th in the NFL) and a first down rate differential of -2.58% (also 27th in the NFL). In their 8-8 season in 2020, a similar thing happened as 7 of their 8 wins came by 10 points or fewer, while four of their eight losses came by 16 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of -44 (21st in the NFL) and a schedule adjusted first down rate differential of -1.28% (23rd in the NFL).

In total, the Raiders are 14-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer over the past two seasons, which would be unlikely to continue going forward for any team, but especially for a team like the Raiders who is otherwise just 1-10 in games decided by more than 10 points. Including their 4-win season in 2018, the Raiders are one of just four teams to finish 23rd or worse in first down rate differential in each of the past three seasons, joining the Bengals, Jets, and Jaguars. Simply put, the Raiders will likely need to be significantly better than they’ve been to have a shot at the post-season in 2021, as they are unlikely to continue winning close games at as high of a rate as they have in recent years.

If there was a reason for the Raiders to be optimistic after the past two seasons it was that their issues were largely concentrated on defense, which ranked 32nd and 28th in first down rate allowed, while their offense has been pretty solid, ranking 14th in first down rate allowed in both seasons. Offensive performance tends to be much more consistent on a year-to-year basis than defensive performance, so teams with a profile like the Raiders typically see their defenses improve the next season while their offense is likely to remain around the same level.

That might not happen for the Raiders this season though because the strength of this offense, their offensive line, was basically dismantled this off-season to free up cap space. With a much worse group upfront this season, life will be much tougher for both the Raiders passing game and their running game. I’ll get most into their offensive line later, but, while most quarterbacks get much worse under pressure, the difference has been drastic for the Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in his 7-year career, as he has a 136/34 TD/INT ratio with a clean pocket and just a 34/37 TD/INT ratio when pressured.

Carr has mostly been well protected in recent years and it has led to some solid play from him, as he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season except his rookie season, including four finishes in the top-12 and a 9th ranked finish in 2020, while completing 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.31 YPA, 149 touchdowns, and 59 interceptions over those six seasons. However, if he’s pressured more often this season, which seems likely, we could see him struggle a lot more than usual. 

The most likely path the Raiders have to success this season actually is probably one that involves Carr being on another team, as the Raiders, despite the holes on this roster, reportedly join the Saints, Broncos, and 49ers as teams on the wish list of Packers quarterback and reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers, who is unhappy with the Packers and seeking a trade. The other three teams on Rodgers’ wish list are all better teams than the Raiders, but the 49ers got their quarterback of the future in the draft and the Saints probably don’t have the financial flexibility to acquire Rodgers, which only leaves the Broncos and Raiders as possible options.

It’s still pretty unlikely that Rodgers is actually able to force a trade when his only leverage would be sitting out what could be one of his last prime seasons rather than returning to a team he’s brought to back-to-back NFC Championships and if Rodgers does get moved, the Broncos give Rodgers a much better chance to win, but there is at least a possibility that the Packers would prefer to send Rodgers to the Raiders, given that Carr would give the Packers a better stopgap quarterback via trade than Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater. 

It’s at least enough of a possibility that I held out on writing this preview until close to the end (the Broncos, Texans, and Packers are still left to do), but I would consider it a remote possibility at best at this point. Even acquiring Rodgers wouldn’t fix the significant problems on this roster and the upgrade from Carr to Rodgers alone would be unlikely to result in a deep playoff run, as the Raiders have a noticeably worse roster than the Packers. However, as it stands right now, they don’t seem to have much of a shot at all and acquiring Rodgers is the only possible move they could make to put themselves into any sort of real contention in 2021.

Regardless if they get Rodgers or not, Marcus Mariota figures to be the backup quarterback, taking a pay cut down to 3.5 million to stay on the roster this off-season. Mariota was the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and wasn’t that bad across 61 starts (29-32) with the Titans in the first five seasons of his career, completing 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 76 touchdowns, and 44 interceptions, with his best seasons coming in 2017 (14th on PFF) and 2018 (18th on PFF), but he’s drawn little interest as a starter over the past two off-seasons and instead gives the Raiders one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league. 

Carr has missed very little time with injury in his career, making all but two career starts, despite bogus rumors about teammates questioning his toughness, so it wouldn’t seem like the Raiders would need a high level backup quarterback, but all it takes is one fluke injury for the backup quarterback position to become the most important position on the roster and Mariota was also likely originally brought to town to potentially push Carr for the starting job. 

Mariota hasn’t done that, but he did play pretty well in relief of an injured Carr in one game last season and it’s possible the Raiders wouldn’t see much drop off at the quarterback position even if Carr missed time with injury, although it’s hard to see Mariota leading this roster to many wins. The quarterback position isn’t the problem with the Raiders, but they’re unlikely to get good enough play to compensate for the rest of this roster unless they can swing a deal for Aaron Rodgers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As mentioned in the opening, the Raiders’ revamped offensive line will be the group to watch this season, after moving on from a trio of highly paid 2020 week one starters. Right guard Gabe Jackson was traded to the Seahawks ahead of a 9.6 million dollar salary, after making all 16 starts and finishing slightly above average on PFF. Center Rodney Hudson was traded to the Cardinals ahead of a 10.85 million dollar salary and he was PFF’s 8th ranked center last season in 16 starts. Right tackle Trent Brown was traded to the Patriots ahead of a 14 million dollar salary and, while will be missed the least, that is only because injuries limited him to 5 games in 2020, as he was an above average starter when healthy and had obvious bounce back potential in 2021 if he could have stayed healthy. 

Even though the Raiders would have just released them if they couldn’t find trade partners, those trades still netted the Raiders draft picks in the 3rd and 5th round in 2021 and the 5th round in 2022, in exchange for 7th rounders in 2021 and 2022, and they freed up significant money as well, which could help in the long-term, but it’s hard on paper to see how they plan on effectively replacing them in the short-term. 

The money they freed up allowed them to make some additions to their defense this off-season, but they also had to use their first round pick on an offensive lineman just to stop the bleeding after losing three above average starters and, makes matters worse, they reached on one, in typical Raiders fashion, taking a player generally considered to be a late first round pick at best in Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood. That doesn’t mean he won’t become a starter long-term, but he could struggle to adjust to the NFL in year one.

The Raiders similarly reached on an offensive tackle in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Kolton Miller 15th overall and, while his career got off to a shaky start, he has developed into a solid starter, even if the Raiders still probably would have been better off taking one of the next five players off the board who have all since made a Pro Bowl. Miller’s rookie year was a disaster as he finished 81st out of 85 eligible offensive tackles, but he jumped up to 44th in 2019 and then 35th in 2020, while making 46 of a possible 48 starts in his career. Going into his age 26 season, he may still have further untapped potential and, even if he levels off, he should remain a solid starter for at least the next few seasons. The Raiders are betting on the former, paying him at the top of the left tackle market on a 3-year, 54 million dollar extension this off-season, adding on to the two years remaining on his rookie deal.

Along with Miller, the Raiders also brought back left guard Richie Incognito, who is more of a re-addition than a re-signing, as he missed all but 74 snaps due to injury last season. Incognito played at a high level in that limited action and has earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his past 11 seasons, including a 11th ranked finish among guards in 12 starts in 2019, but now he’s going into his age 38 season and coming off of a significant injury, so it’s hard to see him continue playing at the level he has played at throughout most of his career. He could have another strong season, but I think it’s more likely he falls off entirely. If he does, the Raiders are already pretty thin upfront, but they could turn to 2020 4th round pick John Simpson, even though he struggled mightily across 252 rookie year snaps last season.

Simpson could also push to start at right guard, where the Raiders otherwise seem likely to start Denzelle Good, who struggled in 14 starts in place of Incognito last season, finishing 64th out of 92 eligible guards on PFF. Good had only made 28 starts in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season as a career reserve and he was never more than a middling starter in spot start action, so he seems likely to struggle as a season long starter, if he does in fact win the job for the first time in his career at age 30. Fellow veteran Patrick Omameh also has some starting experience (58 starts in 7 seasons in the league), but he was an underwhelming starter even in his prime, he’s played just 226 snaps in the past two seasons, and he’s going into his age 32 season, so he would likely struggle as well if pressed into action. Whoever starts will almost definitely be a downgrade from Gabe Jackson.

The Raiders will likely be downgrading even more at center, even how well Hudson still played last season, despite getting up there in age. Veteran Nick Martin was signed in free agency and he has plenty of experience for his age, making 62 starts over the past 4 seasons and now heading into his age 28 season, but he’s never finished higher than 19th among centers on PFF and finished last season 33rd out of 39 eligible, leading to the Texans releasing him just 1 year and 17.5 million into a 3-year, 33 million dollar extension that he never deserved. Only signing with the Raiders on a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar contract suggests he is far from a lock to win the starting job, particularly with in house backup Andre James being kept on a more lucrative 2-year, 8.65 million dollar deal this off-season as a restricted free agent.

James has struggled mightily across just 117 snaps as Hudson’s backup since going undrafted in 2019, but the Raiders like him enough to pay him more than Martin, so he could easily find himself in the starting lineup. James would almost definitely struggle in a season long role though, unless he takes a huge step forward in his third season in the league. While Martin is likely their best option, he could be an underwhelming starter as well at what has become a position of weakness at center. Right guard should also be a position of weakness and the Raiders are relying on a rookie at right tackle and a 38-year-old at left guard. This is far from the consistently above average units the Raiders are used to having upfront in recent years.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Making the Raiders’ dismantling of their offensive line even weirder, they also used some of their new found financial flexibility to give a fully guaranteed 2-year, 11 million dollar deal to ex-Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake. Offensive line play is more important than running back play when it comes to running the football, so if the Raiders’ goal is to improve their running game, they are going about it wrong, but, beyond that, they already committed a first round pick to a running back two years ago, selecting Joshua Jacobs 24th overall.

It’s always questionable when a team commits a first round pick to a running back, especially one who didn’t figure to be a significant threat through the air, which he hasn’t been (1.07 yards per route run average for his career), but Jacobs has at least been a threat on the ground, so making another significant investment in a running back didn’t seem necessary. Jacobs did see his YPC average drop from 4.75 as a rookie to 3.90 last season, but a lack of long runs was the primary culprit, which is something that varies significantly year-to-year. 

As a rookie, Jacobs had 32.3% of his yardage on 16 carries of 15+ yards or more, but in 2020 he never surpassed 28 yards on a single carry and had just 17.6% of his yardage on 10 carries of 15+ yards or more. However, his above average 51% carry success rate stayed steady in both seasons, which is a metric that tends to be much more consistent year-to-year than long breakaway runs. PFF charted Jacobs as more explosive, breaking more tackles, and having more yards per carry as a rookie, but he still earned well above average grades as a runner in both seasons, finishing 2nd among running backs in rushing grade in 2019 and 14th in 2020. 

Had they brought back most of his offensive line and kept him as the primary back, Jacobs could have easily had a season resembling his rookie campaign in 2021, still only his age 23 season, but with a downgraded offensive line in front of him and a likely timeshare with Kenyan Drake, now Jacobs’ projection is a lot shakier. I would still expect him to lead this team in carries and he could be very effective in a more limited role, but he won’t reach the 18.4 carries per game he has averaged in his career and he’s unlikely to see much usage in the passing game either.

Drake comes in with a much less impressive track record than Jacobs, but he has had some success in his 5-year career, since being selected by the Dolphins in the 3rd round in 2016. Drake was a rotation back for the first three seasons of his career, only averaging 6.2 carries per game, but he did average an impressive 4.60 YPC, leading to the Cardinals acquiring him for a late round pick at the trade deadline in 2019, the final year of Drake’s rookie deal. With the Cardinals, Drake broke out as a feature back, seeing 123 carries over just 8 games and averaging 5.23 YPC with 8 touchdowns.

It was enough for the Cardinals to want to keep him as a free agent, but rather than committing significant money to him long-term, the Cardinals opted to give him the transition tag, keeping him for 8.483 million on a one-year deal. That proved to be the correct call as Drake couldn’t live up to his strong 8-game stretch over a full season, averaging just 4.00 YPC on 239 carries. He also continued to underwhelm in the passing game (1.05 yards per route run average for his career) with just a 25/137/0 slash line and overall finished a career worst 55th out of 63 eligible running backs on PFF. He could be more effective again in a limited role in 2021 and he and Jacobs should form a strong tandem, but they will be held back by their offensive line and the Raiders have a lot of resources committed to two backs who don’t contribute in a big way in the passing game.

The Raiders could continue giving passing game work to long-time passing down specialist Jalen Richard, who has an impressive 1.78 yards per route run average for his career, but he was being phased out of this offense even before Drake’s addition, as he averaged just 1.12 yards per route run and had just a 19/138/0 slash line in 2020. With just 255 carries in 77 career games, Richard is not going to make this roster for his running ability, so if he can’t earn a passing game role, he might not even make this final roster. This is a good backfield, albeit one that will likely be hampered by their blocking.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Raiders wide receivers were a weakness a year ago and this group isn’t significantly improved this year, so, along with their offensive line being a concern, the Raiders wide receivers remain a concern as well. In fact, the Raiders actually lost their top wide receiver from a year ago, Nelson Agholor, who had a 48/896/8 slash line, averaged 2.04 yards per route run, and then subsequently signed with the Patriots this off-season. They still have slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, they brought in a pair of veterans in John Brown and Willie Snead, and they are hoping for more out of second year receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, but this is an underwhelming group overall.

Ruggs should have the most upside of the bunch, as he was selected 12th overall in 2020, but his rookie year went pretty badly, as he averaged just 1.32 yards per route run and was PFF’s 110th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible, while playing just 581 snaps and totaling just a 26/452/2 slash line. He could be a lot better in year two, but, if he isn’t, he could struggle in what will likely be a larger role. Edwards, meanwhile, was the better of the two in year one, despite being just a third round pick, earning a middling grade and averaging 1.41 yards per route run. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being better than Ruggs in year two, but he doesn’t have the same upside that Ruggs has.

John Brown is the more promising of their two veteran off-season additions, given that he is just a season removed from a thousand yard season in 2019, when he finished with a 72/1060/6 slash line, averaging 1.97 yards per route run, and finishing 23rd among wide receivers on PFF. That was the second 1000 yard year of Brown’s 7-year career, but he’s been pretty inconsistent overall, not topping 715 yards in any of his other seasons and falling to 33/458/3 in nine games in an injury plagued 2020 season. 

Injuries have also been a problem for Brown throughout most of his career, part of why his production has been so inconsistent, as he’s only played all 16 games in a season twice. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he still averaged 1.60 yards per route run last season, albeit on a much better passing offense in Buffalo, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him bounce back somewhat and have a solid season in 2021.

Snead, meanwhile, is a middling slot option. He averaged 1.75 yards per route run early in his career in three seasons with Drew Brees and the Saints, but he struggled away from Brees, averaging just 1.37 yards per route run in three seasons with the Ravens. Working against his chances of earning playing time is Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders’ top returning wide receiver, who plays almost exclusively on the slot. The 5-10 185 pounder isn’t an option to play outside, but he’s averaged 1.90 yards per route run in two seasons in the league since being drafted by the Raiders in the 5th round in 2019, leading to slash lines of 49/605/4 and 56/656/2 respectively. He doesn’t have a huge upside, but I would expect more of the same from him in year three.

With their wide receivers remaining a question mark, the Raiders will continue focus on the tight end position in the passing game, particularly tight end Darren Waller, who operates as this team’s #1 receiver and finished with a 107/1196/9 slash line on 145 targets in 2020. That followed Waller having an improbable breakout season in 2019, finishing with a 90/1145/3 slash line, after playing sparingly in the first four seasons of his career from 2015-2018, totaling 335 snaps and 18 catches in 22 games and missing significant time while dealing with substance abuse issues. 

Now past his issues, Waller has broken out as one of the top tight ends in the league. He isn’t much of a run blocker, but the 6-6 255 converted wide receiver is a matchup nightmare in the passing game, averaging 2.35 yards per route run over the past two seasons, leading to him finishing 5th and 3rd among tight ends overall on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, despite his deficiencies as a run blocker. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, despite being a late bloomer, I wouldn’t expect any drop off from him in 2021. He’s one of the top few tight ends in the entire league.

The Raiders also gave 27 targets to backup tight ends last season and, even though veteran Jason Witten (404 snaps, 13 catches) retired, those targets should remain open and the Raiders are still likely to give #2 tight end Foster Moreau at least some role in the passing game. That’s especially true because Moreau, a 4th round pick in 2019, has shown some promise in two seasons in the league, averaging 1.41 yards per route run. He won’t see much action behind a dominant tight end like Waller though. Waller’s presence elevates this group as a whole by a significant amount, making up for some of their issues at wide receiver.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

With their offense likely to take a step back this season, from ranking 12th in first down rate over expected in 2020, the Raiders will need their defense to take a big step forward from ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected in 2020. The biggest effort they made towards that end this off-season was using a big chunk of the financial flexibility created from moving on from half of their offensive line to sign free agent edge defender Yannick Ngakoue to a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal in free agency.

Ngakoue has mostly struggled against the run and, as a result, he hasn’t finished higher than 33rd among edge defenders on PFF since 2017 when he finished 9th, now back four seasons ago in his second season in the league, but he’s been a very productive pass rusher over the past four seasons overall, totaling 37.5 sacks, 57 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate over 62 games. He’s also still relatively young, going into his age 26 season and, had this been a normal off-season without a reduced cap, Ngakoue could have broken the bank in free agency. He wouldn’t have necessarily been worth huge money because of his issues against the run, but he looks like a good value on his current contract just based purely off his pass rush ability alone. He should help this defense in a significant way.

Ngakoue will start opposite Maxx Crosby, who has totalled 17 sacks over the past two seasons for the Raiders since being selected in the 4th round in 2019, but, despite his sack total, he has been in many ways part of the problem for this defense over the past two seasons. His peripheral pass rush stats are significantly worse than his sack totals, as he’s added just 15 hits and a 9.1% pressure rate and he’s been a liability against the run as well. 

As a result, he’s earned underwhelming grades from PFF overall, including a 91st ranked finish out of 124 eligible edge defenders in 2020, when he had just a 9.0% pressure rate on the season. He’s seen very high snap totals (750 and 906) and could benefit from playing a smaller role in what the Raiders are hoping will be a significantly improved edge defender group, but he hasn’t been nearly as good on a per snap basis as his raw sack totals would suggest.

The Raiders also used a 3rd round pick on edge defender Malcolm Koonce, who could earn a significant role as a rookie. His addition doesn’t seem like good news for holdovers Clelin Ferrell (461 snaps) and Carl Nassib (463 snaps), but both could still see roles. Ferrell’s best path to playing time is probably playing on the interior more often, after already playing there on 36.1% of his pass rush snaps in 2020. Ferrell was widely panned when the Raiders selected him 4th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, but he’s not quite the bust you would think he was when you see his career sack total is just 6.5.

Ferrell struggled as a pass rusher as a rookie (7.4% pressure rate), but he’s consistently been a solid run stopper and his pass rush ability took a big step forward in year two, probably in part because of him playing on the interior more often. His sack total of 2 isn’t impressive, even compared to his rookie total of 4.5, but when you add the 8 hits and 10.9% pressure rate he had in just 11 games and take into account how often he was rushing the passer from the interior, he actually had a solid season as a pass rusher. Ferrell was never worth being the 4th overall pick, but if he had gone 20th, no one would consider him a bust yet, as he’s generally held up well across 42.7 snaps per game and he has the potential to have his best year yet in 2021, especially if he continues to benefit from lining up on the interior more often.

Nassib, meanwhile, is likely to be locked into a rotational role on the edge by virtue of the Raiders opting not to release him ahead of a 9.5 million dollar salary that has since fully guaranteed. Nassib was an overpay on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and didn’t seem to be worth the investment in year one with the Raiders, when he posted a middling grade across just 33.1 snaps per game across 14 games as a rotational player. 

Nassib has proven himself over larger snap counts of 643, 598, and 630 in 2017-2019 respectively, but he’s never been better than a middling player in his 5-year career and he has just a 8.9% pressure rate over the past four seasons, even discounting his rookie year when he struggled mightily. Nasib should continue giving them middling play as a rotational player in a group that is noticeably improved from a year ago, but still has noticeable concerns.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Clelin Ferrell will be needed more on the interior this season, as the Raiders did not bring back Maliek Collins (505 snaps) and Maurice Hurst (277 snaps), while fellow rotation player Kendall Vickers (315 snaps), struggled mightily in his limited action in 2020, finishing 119th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF in the 2018 undrafted free agent’s first career action. Collins struggled mightily as well last season, finishing 132nd among 139 eligible interior defenders, so he won’t be missed, but Hurst not returning is another strange move by the Raiders in recent years.

Hurst saw limited action in an injury plagued 2020 season, but he fared well when on the field, earning his 3rd straight above average grade from PFF in three seasons since being selected by the Raiders in the 5th round in 2018. Hurst saw more significant action in his first two seasons with 472 snaps in 2018 and 522 snaps in 2019 and, only going into his age 26 season, seemed more likely to have a fourth year breakout year than to get cut, but the Raiders released him to free up just 2.183 million. He’ll be most significantly missed as a pass rusher, as his 7.9% pressure rate from the interior is well above average.

The Raiders did make some other additions on the interior this off-season, signing veterans Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas in free agency. Along with Ferrell, holdover Johnathan Hankins, and possibly deep reserve Kendall Vickers, Jefferson and Thomas figure to see a role this season. Johnathan Hankins was the Raiders’ most consistent and dependable player at the position in 2020, but he only earned a middling grade over 665 snaps. 

The 6-3 325 pound Hankins has earned an above average grade from PFF as a run defender in all eight seasons in the league, but his 5.9% career pressure rate leaves something to be desired and he’s only earned middling grades from PFF in three seasons with the Raiders, a stretch in which his pressure rate has fallen to 4.6%. Hankins is still only going into his age 29 season and could remain a solid starter, but his best days are probably behind him at this point.

Jefferson was the better of their two free agent additions, coming over from the Bills on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, but he has some issues as well. The 6-4 291 pound converted defensive end is a solid pass rusher, with 9.5 sacks, 23 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past three seasons combined, but he’s left something to be desired as a run stuffer and has never topped 589 snaps in a season. He should be a useful player for the Raiders, but only in a situational role.

Thomas was a more questionable signing though, especially on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but that is his only real selling point at this point in his career, after struggling across four seasons with the 49ers, including a 2020 season cut short to 49 snaps by a torn ACL. Thomas has played both inside and outside, but has earned below average grades from PFF in three of four seasons in the league, showing little against the run and totaling just 6 sacks, 19 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. 

Thomas still has theoretical upside in his age 26 reason, but coming off of a major injury just dampens his outlook even more. I would be surprised to see him be significantly improved in 2021, even if he is moving to the interior full-time. This isn’t a bad interior defender group, but unless Ferrell moves inside full-time, their depth is suspect behind Hankins and Jefferson, who are an underwhelming starting duo in their own right. Why they kept Kendall Vickers, signed Solomon Thomas, and released Maurice Hurst I don’t understand, as Hurst could have been their best player in a now underwhelming position group overall in 2021

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Raiders’ big attempt at improving this defense last off-season was signing ex-Rams off ball linebacker Cory Littleton to a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal, but that went horribly in year one, as Littleton finished just 79th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Littleton took some time to develop in four seasons with the Rams, but after barely playing in his first two seasons in 2016 and 2017, totaling 400 snaps, Littleton was PFF’s 36th ranked off ball linebacker across 964 snaps in 2018 and their 6th ranked off ball linebacker in 2019 across 1,039 snaps, so Littleton’s terrible 2020 season kind of came out of nowhere. 

Littleton did benefit from the coaching of Wade Phillips with the Rams, while the Raiders had less than stellar defensive coaching last season, which they hope to have improved with the hire of new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is a big part of the Raiders’ plan to be significantly better on defense in 2021. It’s unclear how much of an impact, if any, Bradley will have, either on Littleton or the defense as a whole, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Littleton bounce back somewhat either way. It’s unlikely he’ll show his 2019 form again, but he could easily show his 2018 form and it’s not hard to see how Littleton could be significantly improved over 2020, even if he still isn’t worth his large salary.

Aside from Littleton, the rest of this linebacking corps was solid last season, with Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow playing 651 snaps and 723 snaps respectively and finishing 21st and 29th respectively among off ball linebackers. Kwiatkowski also was a free agent acquisition last off-season and he worked out a lot better, especially since his deal was significantly cheaper at 21 million over 3 seasons. A 4th round pick of the Bears in 2016, Kwiatkoski never got a chance to be a starter in Chicago, but he flashed as PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker across 382 snaps in 2017 and their 16th ranked off ball linebacker across 512 snaps in 2019 and he mostly carried that into a larger role in his first year as a season long starter in 2020. He should remain an above average starting option, even if he doesn’t quite play an every down role in this defense.

Morrow, meanwhile, is a home grown player and one of the Raiders longest tenured players, dating back to being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Morrow was re-signed on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, receiving below average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league across snap counts of 553, 416, and 723 respectively, including a 87th ranked finish out of 100 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019. It’s possible Morrow has permanently turned a corner and will remain a solid starter, but he could also easily regress to his pre-2020 form. Still, this should be a solid linebacking corps overall, especially if Littleton can bounce back in a big way.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Raiders secondary was probably their worst unit as a whole on defense last season. The Raiders gave 100 snaps or more to five cornerbacks and three safeties and only reserve safety Jeff Heath, who played 415 snaps, earned an average or better grade from PFF and he’s no longer with the team. The Raiders made a couple notable additions to this group this off-season, but overall will be counting on better play from holdovers and young players exceeding expectations.

The one exception to that is free agent cornerback Casey Hayward, who is going into his age 32 season, but he comes with his own question marks. Hayward was one of the best cornerbacks in the league in his prime, with five seasons in the top-8 among cornerbacks on PFF in nine seasons in the league, including a 5th ranked finish as recently as 2019. However, he fell all the way to 75th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, which is especially concerning when you take into account his age.

Hayward was a worthwhile flyer on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal, given how good he was in his prime and that he isn’t totally over the hill yet, but that doesn’t mean he’ll pan out, as he could easily continue struggling. My bet would be on him bouncing back at least a little bit and remaining a solid starter for another couple seasons or so, but Hayward comes with a high variance, same as the Raiders’ young cornerbacks.

Damon Arnette will probably start opposite Hayward, but that’s not a guarantee even though the Raiders invested the 19th overall pick in him in the 2020 NFL Draft. Arnette was considered a reach like most of the Raiders’ recent first round picks and he did not do anything to prove that assessment incorrect as a rookie, struggling through 343 snaps in an injury plagued season in which he was PFF’s 126th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible. It’s possible Arnette could find himself behind both Hayward and 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen, although Mullen hasn’t established himself yet either. Mullen held up across 675 snaps as a rookie, but fell to 89th out of 136 eligible across 933 snaps in year two in 2020. He still has upside, but like Arnette, he’s not a guarantee to make good on that upside.

The Raiders also bring back veteran Nevin Lawson, but he struggled as well across 737 snaps, finishing 87th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and he doesn’t have the upside to be significantly better in 2021, now in his age 30 season, having never been more than a middling starter in seven seasons in the league. He will likely compete for the #4 cornerback job and might not even make this final roster, with 2020 4th round pick Amik Robertson (35 career snaps), 2019 4th round pick Isaiah Johnson (195 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Nate Hobbs all possessing more upside as depth options, even if they are totally unproven.

At safety, the Raiders big addition was using their 2nd round pick on TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, who is likely to start as a rookie, even if he could struggle through growing pains in year one. That should tell you a lot about the rest of this group which consists of disappointing 2019 1st round pick Jonathan Abram, veteran journeyman Karl Joseph, and 4th round rookie Tyree Gillespie. Another first round reach, Abram missed all but 48 rookie year snaps and then struggled mightily across 856 snaps in year two, finishing dead last out of 99 eligible safeties. 

Abram has the athletic profile to potentially develop into a starting safety, but he isn’t good in coverage and tackles recklessly, leading not just to missed tackles, but to injuries that have caused him to miss 18 of 32 games and limited him in others. He’s probably still the favorite to start next to Moehrig, but only by default and he won’t be guaranteed anything. It’s possible he could be a lot better in year three and it would be hard for him to be worse, but he could also continue struggling mightily.

Joseph is probably the most serious challenger for the starting job that Abram will have to compete with and he is a former first round pick of the Raiders himself, selected in 2016 and then returning to the team this off-season, with a one year stint in Cleveland in 2020 in between. Joseph wasn’t bad in his four seasons with the Raiders, but he never finished better than 28th among safeties on PFF, he missed 15 of 64 games with injury, and the Raiders opted not to bring him back on his 5th year option, leading to his one year in Cleveland. 

Things got even worse for Joseph with the Browns, as he missed another 13 games and struggled when he was on the field, finishing 85th out of 99 eligible safeties across 660 snaps and losing playing time down the stretch. He might not be a bad starting option in 2021, but he probably won’t be a good one either and he’s almost a sure bet to miss at least some time with injury. It’s also possible his injuries have sapped his ability to the point where he will continue struggling going forward. The Raiders are better by default in the secondary and have the upside to be a solid unit if multiple young players exceed expectations, but there is also significant downside here as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Raiders are coming off of seasons of 7 wins and 8 wins respectively, but their reliance on winning close games suggests they’re more likely to be a team about to regress than a team about to take that next step. They have gone 14-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, while going 1-10 in games decided by more than 10 points and blowout wins tend to be much more predictive year-to-year than close wins. 

The Raiders defense should be better this season, but their offense will probably take a step back after getting rid of high priced, but mostly still effective offensive linemen. It’s possible their defense could be improved by a degree that is greater than their degree of decline on offense, but the Raiders finished last season 23rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.28%, so they are starting from a lower base point than their 8-8 record last season would suggest.

The Raiders best shot at being legitimate contenders in 2021 would be to try to trade Derek Carr and some draft picks for Aaron Rodgers, a potentially short-sighted move, but one that would obviously make them better in the short-term. There is no indication the Packers are planning on honoring Rodgers’ trade request though and even if they do, the Broncos still seem like the better fit, which would especially be a problem for the Raiders, who share a division with the Broncos. 

If Rodgers went to Denver, the Raiders would be an easy pick to come in last in a division with the Rodgers led Broncos, the back-to-back AFC Champion Chiefs, and the up and coming Chargers. Even with Rodgers, the Raiders would still have other significant issues and would not become instant contenders, as they don’t even have as good of a supporting cast as the Packers, making it strange that Rodgers would reportedly prefer to play with the Raiders. I will have a final prediction for the Raiders at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Buffalo Bills 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills won 10 games and made the post-season in 2019, but there was reason to be concerned. Their +0.93% first down rate differential (13th in the NFL) suggested they were a little lucky to win as many games as they did and that’s even before taking into account that they faced one of the easiest schedules in the league. Their 2020 schedule seemed significantly tougher, which was a bad sign for a team that had gone just 1-5 against winning teams the year before, including a post-season loss to the Texans, with their only win coming by 7 points over the Marcus Mariota led Titans, who missed four field goals in the game.

The Bills were also led by a defense that ranked 6th in first down rate allowed, while their offense ranked just 22nd in first down rate, which is normally a bad sign for a team going forward because defensive play tends to be far less consistent year-to-year than offensive play. In fact, the Bills’ defense did drop off significantly in 2020, falling all the way to 25th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.27%. Based on that alone, you might think the Bills fell off significantly as a team in 2020, but instead they finished with their best record in 30 seasons at 13-3 and made their first AFC Championship appearance in 28 seasons.

What happened? Well, the wild card for this team was always quarterback Josh Allen. Allen was selected 7th overall by the Bills in 2018 NFL Draft and was a controversial pick to say the least, as some saw a late blooming quarterback prospect who had the throwing ability and physical upside to be an elite NFL quarterback, while others saw a major project with inconsistent mechanics and accuracy and little history of collegiate success. For the first two seasons, the latter seemed like the more correct assessment.

In his rookie year, Allen was downright bad as a passer, completing just 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and finishing with the 2nd lowest completion percentage over expected (-7.7%), giving a lot of fuel to the critics who believed he lacked NFL accuracy. The Bills defense actually ranked 7th in first down rate allowed, but their offense ranked just 29th in first down rate, leading to the Bills winning just 6 games, despite the performance of their stop unit.

Year two was better, but largely by default. His -3.7% completion percentage over expected (5th worst in the NFL) still showed him to be inaccurate and he finished the season with just a 58.8% completion percentage, 6.70 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while ranking 28th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF. He did a good job of avoiding negative plays, especially compared to his rookie year, but he didn’t play consistently well enough for the Bills to even finish as an average offense and there was a stark drop off in his level of play against tougher opponents, which extended into the post-season.

I mentioned earlier that the 2019 Bills went just 1-5 against teams with a winning record, with the one win being a game in which they scored 14 points against a mediocre Titans defense, and one look at Allen’s production splits in those games shows why. Against winning teams, he completed just 51.7% of his passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, as opposed to 62.6% completion, 7.26 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions against .500 or worse teams. 

A stark dropoff against tougher competition isn’t all that unusual, but Allen wouldn’t always be able to only face winning teams in 6 of 17 games like he did in 2019. Allen showed a lot of promise on the ground in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 5.76 YPC on 198 carries, while rushing for 17 touchdowns, but his massive ceiling as a passer seemed to only be theoretical and a big leap from year two to year three didn’t seem like the most likely outcome.

However, Allen proved almost everyone wrong by not only making a big leap, but playing at an MVP caliber level, leading the league’s best offense in first down rate over expected at +4.00%, and carrying a team with a mediocre defense to one of the league’s best records, a 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.73%), and a spot in the NFL’s final four teams. Their 37.03% first down rate not only led the league, but is the third highest mark of the past two decades, only behind the 2018 Chiefs and the 2004 Colts, an impressive feat even if it’s easier to move the ball than ever before in today’s game.

Suddenly from one season to another, Allen seemed to transform from the mechanically raw quarterback that his critics thought wouldn’t be a consistent starter in the NFL to the elite dual threat quarterback that his biggest fans dreamed he could someday be. In total, Allen completed 69.2% of his passes (+4.6% over expected, 2nd in the NFL) for an average of 7.94 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, rushed for 4.13 YPC and 8 touchdowns on 102 carries, and ranked as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback overall. He was no game-manager either, dropping back to pass or taking off to run on 67.7% of the Bills plays, among the highest usage rates in the league.

The question now becomes, can he do it again consistently? Allen is obviously a one-year wonder in terms of playing the level he played at last season and, while it may seem like Allen has gone through his full development and is now going to be a consistently elite quarterback, development of even elite players is not always linear. We saw Josh Allen’s draft classmate Lamar Jackson win an MVP with a legendary season in 2020, only to fall back to earth with a good season, but not an elite season in 2021. 

Most quarterbacks who see the kind of year-to-year jump that Allen had last season, even young talented quarterbacks early in their career, tend to drop off noticeably the following season. However, Allen was so good last season that even if he does drop off noticeably in 2021, he’ll probably only be dropping off an elite quarterback to a very good or above average one. It would be a real surprise to see him regress back to his early career form and it’s possible he has even further untapped potential and could see even better days in his future, still only heading into his age 25 season. He seems like a good bet to win an MVP at some point in his career.

The Bills probably won’t be the #1 team in first down rate again in 2021 if Allen isn’t quite as good, but the flip side of that is their defense should benefit from the inconsistency of defensive play this time around, as they figure to be better than their 25th ranked finish in first down rate allowed over expected from 2020 and, at least on paper, they appear more talented than their rank last season suggested. Even if their offense slides a few spots, their defense could easily improve more than enough to make up for it. Barring a massive drop off from Allen, the Bills should be considered one of the top few Super Bowl contenders in the league and one of the league’s best teams overall. And if Allen doesn’t drop off, they might just be the favorites. 

The worst case scenario for Allen would be a significant injury and, even though Allen hasn’t missed any time with injury since his rookie year, his playing style and his propensity to run the ball necessarily leads to him taking more hits and being more at risk. That hardly guarantees an injury, but the Bills were wise to try to find a better option at the backup quarterback spot this off-season, after using journeyman Matt Barkley in that role over the past two seasons, signing ex-Bears starter and first round pick Mitch Trubisky.

Trubisky’s stint in Chicago was highly disappointing, but that was because he joined the team with massive expectations as the #2 overall pick. Trubisky never lived up to that potential, but he wasn’t a horrible starting quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions and game-managing a team with a strong defense to a record of 29-21. He also shares similar traits to Allen with his rushing ability, averaging 5.56 YPC with 8 touchdowns on 190 carries with the Bears, and a year ago it honestly would have been a debate between Trubisky and Allen who had the brighter long-term outlook. 

That doesn’t mean Trubisky is about to make the same leap Allen did, now in his 5th season in the league, but he’ll benefit from the same coaching, which he didn’t really have with the Bears, and he could be a reasonable replacement and keep this team afloat for a few games if he has to and we’ve seen quarterbacks like him be late bloomers before. Arriving in Buffalo with much lower expectations on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal, Trubisky has a good chance to be a surprise in a good way with his second team, still only in his age 27 season, possessing a legitimate first round upside despite being a reach with the 2nd overall pick. With Allen likely to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league again this season, with the upside for more, and a solid backup who also has upside, the Bills are in very good shape here.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Beyond Josh Allen being one of the top quarterbacks in the league, he is also still on a cost-controlled rookie deal, which has allowed the Bills to be aggressive adding to his supporting cast, a big part of the reason why the Bills are in the position they are in now. It’s not an insignificant difference, as Allen’s cap number is just 6.91 million this year, while a quarterback of his caliber would likely command around 40+ million annually on the open market. Since the start of the salary cap 27 years ago, only 7 teams have won the Super Bowl with their quarterback taking up 10% or more of the cap and all 7 of those quarterbacks are Hall of Famers. 

By comparison, more than half (14 of 27) have taken up less than 7% of the cap while a third (9 or 27) have taken up less than 5% of the cap, which is where Allen is now. Even if Allen is extended on a big contract before the end of his current deal, the two years remaining on his current deal will allow the Bills to spread the cap hit out over more seasons and his 2021 cap hit would be unlikely to jump significantly, which the Bills don’t even really have the cap space for anyway. Not just Allen’s level of play, but his contract is also a big part of the reason why the Bills are one of the top contenders in 2021.

The Bills have mostly opted for volume and depth over star power in building this roster around Allen, but the biggest addition they made was acquiring Stefon Diggs from the Vikings last season, as he was the single biggest external factor that led to Allen’s success in 2020. Diggs was a 5th round pick of the Vikings in 2015 and, despite his draft status, made an instant impact on the Vikings’ offense and quickly developed into one of the better wide receivers in the league. 

A 52/720/4 rookie year slash line led to a 3-year stretch from 2016-2018 where he averaged a 83/924/7 slash line and 1.83 yards per route run. That was followed by a 2019 season where his 63/1130/6 slash line didn’t look to be a huge improvement over the previous three seasons, but his efficiency numbers were among the best in the league, averaging 12.1 yards per target and 2.69 yards per route run, which ranked 2nd in the NFL and was a big jump from his already impressive average from the previous three seasons. The biggest thing that kept his production down in 2019 was that he didn’t have a high usage rate on a run heavy offense with other passing game options, which frustrated Diggs to the point where he demanded a trade, one that the Vikings granted when the Bills offered a first round pick for a player who the Vikings didn’t use like a #1 option anyway.

The Vikings used that selection on another wide receiver Jordan Jefferson, who was among the best wide receivers in the league as a rookie, at a much cheaper rate than Diggs, who had 55.5 million over 4 seasons left on his deal when the Bills acquired him, but there is no guarantee that the Bills would have taken Jefferson had they not traded for Diggs and the Bills won’t complain as Diggs continued his high efficiency production from 2019 into a much bigger role with one of the most effective and highest volume passing games. 

That led to Diggs ranking first in catches (127), receiving yards (1,535), targets (166), despite actually seeing his yards per route run average drop slightly from the year before to 2.51. He also added 8 touchdowns and finished the season as PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver. Overall, he has never finished lower than 30th in any of his six seasons in the league, he has arguably gotten better in every season, and he is still in his prime in his age 28 season. He’s established himself as one of the top wide receivers in the league and the Bills bought at a perfect time with the Vikings possibly not realizing quite how good Diggs was. Even if he isn’t quite as good as he was last season again in 2021, he should remain one of the top wide receivers in the league and has a decent chance to win the NFL’s receiving title for the second straight season.

This receiving corps wasn’t just Diggs either. Prior to adding Diggs, the Bills made a couple more minor moves to improve this receiving corps the previous off-season, adding Cole Beasley on a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal and John Brown on a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal, and both proved to be great pickups, leading this team with slash lines of 67/778/6 (1.64 yards per route run) and 72/1060/6 (1.97 yards per route run) respectively in 2019 and providing significant upgrades for Allen at the wide receiver position. 

With Diggs being added in 2020, they took on more of a complementary role and Brown also missed seven games with injury, but Brown still averaged 1.60 yards per route run when he did play, while Beasley excelled as the primary option after Diggs, posting a 82/967/4 slash line, averaging 2.10 yards per route run, and ranking as PFF’s 13th ranked wide receiver on the year. Has been pretty inconsistent throughout his 9-year career and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he also ranked 8th among wide receivers and had a 2.07 yards per route run average in 2016 and, overall, he’s averaged an above average 1.63 yards per route run over the past five seasons combined. Even if he isn’t quite as good in 2021, he should remain an asset barring a massive dropoff.

The Bills also had 4th round rookie Gabriel Davis, who was unspectacular, but overall held up pretty well over 799 rookie year snaps, serving as an every down player when Brown missed time. In a cost saving move, the Bills released the talented, but injury plagued John Brown ahead of a 8.15 million dollar salary for his age 31 season, which was understandable given that the Bills would still have a strong wide receiver trio even without Brown, but it was surprising to see the Bills go out and somewhat significant money on an even older replacement, signing 11-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders to a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal for his age 34 season in 2021.

Sanders had three straight 1000+ yard seasons in his prime from 2014-2016, but then he stopped playing with a prime Peyton Manning, tore his Achilles, and hasn’t topped 1000 yards in four seasons since. He’s still remained an above average receiving option, averaging a 1.80 yards per route run average over those four seasons, but his at his age, further injury or decline is a strong possibility and the Bills didn’t seem to need him with Gabriel Davis seemingly ready to become the #3 receiver in year two.

Sanders could still be an asset and is likely to play ahead of Davis, but he’s unlikely to see a big target share regardless and he got quite a bit of money on a one-year deal relative to the market this off-season. It’s not a bad deal because it keeps the Bills deep at an important position and they had the excess money with Josh Allen being very underpaid, but I wouldn’t expect much from him and they probably could have found another use for the money.

The one key thing this receiving corps still lacks is a tight end. They used a 3rd round pick on the position in 2019, selecting Dawson Knox, who was the nominal starter for the Bills last season, but he managed just a 24/288/3 slash line and, while part of that was him missing four games and only playing 40.6 snaps per game when on the field, he also averaged a mediocre 1.13 yards per route run average, actually down from his 1.16 yards per route run average in an underwhelming rookie year in 2019. The Bills have been tied to veteran tight end Zach Ertz, who the Eagles are looking to move and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them add him or another veteran to the mix. At the very least, the Bills need to find a replacement for departed veterans Tyler Kroft (298 snaps) and Lee Smith (172 snaps).

The only significant move they have made at the position thus far is signing veteran journeyman Jacob Hollister, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has seen some decent action over the past two seasons, but has managed just a 41/349/3 and 25/209/3 slash line respectively, while struggling as a blocker, and averaging 1.16 yards per route run in his career. Even with Knox yet to develop, Hollister is not necessarily an upgrade and he doesn’t have the same upside Knox. Barring a veteran addition, the Bills will just be hoping for more out of Knox, which could happen, but is far from a guarantee. Fortunately, the Bills have more than enough talent at wide receiver to balance out their lack of a reliable tight end and if they add an upgrade, it will only make this offense all that much better.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Along with a good tight end, one thing this Bills offense didn’t have in 2020 was a good pass catching running back, or an above average runner at the running back position either for that matter. The Bills were tied to Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who would have been a perfect fit in this offense, but he didn’t fall to them with the 30th overall pick and the Bills didn’t add a running back at all in the draft as a result, opting to try to get more out of a pair of recent drafts picks instead in 2019 3rd round pick Devin Singletary and 2020 3rd round pick Zack Moss. The Bills also signed veteran journeyman Matt Breida in free agency to give them another option, if an underwhelming one.

Singletary rushed for 5.13 YPC on 151 carries as a rookie, but saw that fall to 4.40 YPC on 156 carries in 2020, while Moss rushed for 4.29 YPC on 112 carries in his first season. Neither of those are bad averages, but there should be a lot of running room on this offense given how much respect defenses have to pay to the pass and the Bills ranked just 20th in the NFL as a team with 4.19 YPC. Moss and Singletary have also averaged just 0.55 yards per route run and 0.79 yards per route run in their careers thus far. Both backs could be better overall in 2021, but neither one is a guarantee.

Breida is also an option and he flashed with 4.99 YPC on 381 carries in his first 3 seasons in the league, after going undrafted in 2017, but he played on a 49ers offense that always gets the most out of running backs, he never surpassed 153 carries in a season, and the 49ers moved on from him ahead of his contract year last off-season in a trade for a late round pick, sending him to Miami. With the Dolphins, Breida showed very little with 4.31 YPC on 59 carries, sending him to a cold market in free agency, where he signed a cheap deal with the Bills. 

Breida is an alright receiver with a career 1.37 yards per route run average and could see somewhat significant action in passing situations, but it would probably take injuries ahead of him on the depth chart for him to see more than a few carries per game. The running back position is obviously the Bills’ weakness on defense, one they masked in 2020 with a heavy usage rate by Josh Allen, with just 290 carries going to running backs, which when paired with just 74 targets, is a very low usage rate for Bills running backs. I wouldn’t expect anything different in 2021. With three backs vying for roles, it’s very likely none of them produce a significant rushing total, possibly with Josh Allen leading the team in rushing.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Bills have also invested significantly on their offensive line and the result was a solid unit upfront in 2020, ranking 9th on PFF in pass blocking grade and 13th in run blocking grade. Of the six offensive linemen to see significant action upfront for the Bills, only three can be considered homegrown and only one was drafted prior to 2019, so this is a young that was overhauled in a hurry. That relatively long-tenured member of this offensive line is left tackle Dion Dawkins, a 2017 2nd round pick who is entering his 5th season with the Bills. 

Dawkins took some time to become a starter as a rookie, but he’s made 54 straight starts on the blindside since week 10 of his rookie year, not missing a single game and earning above average grades from PFF in all four seasons, ranking 5th, 36th, 22nd, and 23th respectively. The Bills wisely locked him up long-term on a 4-year, 58.3 million dollar extension and, only in his age 27 season, he should remain an above average starter with the upside for more, at least for the next few seasons, barring a fluke injury.

The Bills’ other three starters who are locked into starting roles, hybrid guard Jon Feliciano, center Mitch Morse, and right tackle Daryl Williams, are all recent free agent additions, while 2018 undrafted free agent Ike Boettger and 2019 2nd round pick Cody Ford are expected to compete for the other starting guard role. Feliciano, Morse, and Williams all played at a high level in 2020, but Morse was actually the only one of the bunch who came to the Bills on a top of the market deal, signing a 4-year, 44.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago after the 2015 2nd round pick spent the first four seasons of his career in Kansas City.

Morse’s contract makes him the 4th highest paid center in the league, so he arguably hasn’t lived up to what he’s being paid, but his 17th ranked finish among centers on PFF and his 20th ranked finish in 2020 are both solid performances and he’s definitely been an asset to this team, even if he’s not performing like the elite center he’s being paid like. In total, Morse has never finished worse than 21st among centers on PFF aside from an injury plagued 2017 season, so he has a relatively low floor, but he’s also topped out at only 14th, so his ceiling is limited as well. Barring another fluke injury, he should remain a solid starting option in 2021, still in his late prime in his age 29 season.

Feliciano and Williams, meanwhile, came here with much less fanfare, with Feliciano signing a 2-year, 7.25 million dollar contract as a free agent from the Raiders after playing sparingly in his first four seasons in the league with the team who selected him in the 5th round in 2018 and Williams signing a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal as a free agent from the Panthers, with whom he was one of the better right tackles in the league in 2017 (14th among offensive tackles on PFF), but otherwise had an underwhelming and injury plagued tenure over five seasons, after being selected in the 4th round in 2015. Williams especially struggled in his final season in Carolina in 2019, ranking 73rd among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF.

However, both proved to be great investments for the Bills, as Feliciano broke out as an above average starter in two seasons with the Bills, ranking 34th and 40th among guards on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively (25 starts across the two seasons), while Williams bounced back in a big way, making all 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 21st ranked offensive tackle in 2020 in his first season in Buffalo. Both were rewarded with new contracts this off-season, but Feliciano is still very reasonably paid on a 3-year, 14.4 million dollar deal, while Williams could live up to his 3-year, 24 million dollar deal even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season, which could easily be the case given his history. Both should remain at least solid starters.

That leaves the two youngsters competing at the other guard spot opposite Feliciano, Cody Ford and Ike Boettger, as the only true competition upfront. Ford would seem to have an edge based on his draft status as a 2nd round pick in 2019, but his career is off to a disappointing start, as he struggled across snap counts of 739 and 384 respectively in his first two seasons in the league and, when he got hurt in 2020, he was outplayed by Boettger, even though Boettger was a 2018 undrafted free agent who had played just 147 career snaps prior to entering the starting lineup in week 7. 

Overall, Boettger finished 35th among guards on PFF across 623 snaps in 2020, kept the job down the stretch, and made a good case to keep the job long-term, pushing Cody Ford into a versatile reserve role. Boettger is still an unproven former undrafted free agent and might not be quite as good in a season-long role, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ford have to make starts at some point, but it’s fairly likely they continue getting at least capable play at right guard from one of them, even possibly from Ford who still has untapped upside. The Bills also used 3rd and 5th round picks on Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle in this past draft, giving them even more young depth. This once again looks like an above average offensive line, even if a couple players might not be quite as good as a year ago.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Bills’ defense fell off significantly from 2019 to 2020. There are several reasons for that, but one of their issues was their pass rush. Their 38 sacks were middle of the pack as a team and 6 fewer than the previous season even though they faced 14 more dropbacks and played with significantly more leads. Beyond that, the Bills didn’t have a player surpass 5 sacks on the season and their top-3 edge defenders, Jerry Hughes (629 snaps), Mario Addison (606 snaps), and Trent Murphy (343 snaps), all were on the wrong side of 30. 

Without many pressing needs this off-season, the Bills made adding young pass rushers a priority of their draft, using not just their first round pick, but also their second round pick on young edge defenders, selecting University of Miami’s Gregory Rousseau 30th overall and then taking Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham 61st overall. Basham was seen by some as a potential first round pick and an option for the Bills in the first round, so Buffalo managing to get both Rousseau and Basham is a nice draft haul. 

Along with 2020 2nd round pick AJ Epenesa, who still has a significant upside despite a nondescript rookie year where he played just 291 snaps, the Bills now have a trio of promising young edge defenders. Trent Murphy is no longer with the team, but Addison and Hughes remain and will likely continue seeing significant snaps in rotation with the younger prospects, although it’s unlikely either sees their snap count from the year prior.

Hughes at least played at a pretty high level in 2020, despite his age and limited sack total. Behind his 4.5 sacks, he had a 14.6% pressure rate and, while he struggled against the run, he still finished 19th among edge defenders overall on PFF. That’s actually pretty much in line with how he’s played throughout his career. Defending the run has never been his strong suit, but he’s totaled 55.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 167 career games, has earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season except his rookie year in 2020, and has finished in the top-19 on two other seasons aside from last year. Now going into his age 33 season, it’s very possible he’ll start to decline, but unless he falls off completely, he should remain an asset and he could continue being an efficient pass rusher in a decreased role.

Addison, on the other hand, struggled last season and could find himself buried on the depth chart or out of the rotation entirely if he continues that in 2021, after finishing 2020 ranked 96th among 124 edge defenders on PFF. Prior to last season, Addison earned average or better games from PFF in each of his previous five seasons, while averaging 574 snaps per season and totaling 45 sacks, 29 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate in 75 games, but now going into his age 34 season, his chances of bouncing back don’t seem all that high and the Bills might be lucky to get replacement level play from him as part of a rotation. This is a deeper group than a year ago though and they have a trio of young players who all have the upside to make a significant impact.

Grade: B 

Interior Defenders

The Bills also struggled at the interior defender spot last year, perhaps even more so than they did on the edge. Ed Oliver (578 snaps), Quinton Jefferson (534 snaps), Vernon Butler (428 snaps), and Harrison Phillips (332 snaps) all saw significant action and none of them finished average or better on PFF. Their problems at the position in part can be traced back to veteran Star Lotulelei’s decision to opt out of the season, which didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, but his absence proved to be a devastating blow to the Bills run defense. 

Lotulelei’s return will be a welcome sight, not only because of how much the Bills struggled at the position last season without him, but because they lost Quinton Jefferson this off-season, who was arguably their best player at the position, although that wasn’t enough to save him from being released ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, which shows you how little this group impressed overall. Jefferson will more or less be replaced in the rotation by Lotulelei, with the rest of this rotation being the same as a year ago.

Lotulelei has never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 5.0% pressure rate that dropped to 3.7% in the two years prior to Lotulelei’s opt-out, but he’s consistently been a solid run stopper and has overall earned average or better grades from PFF in 5 of 7 seasons, despite his issues as a pass rusher. He only played 476 snaps for the Bills in 2018 and 482 snaps in 2019 and now he heads into his age 32 season having missed a whole year, so he could easily not be the same player and struggle, but his re-addition has the potential to benefit this run defense significantly.

This run defense would also benefit from a better year out of Ed Oliver, who wasn’t bad as a pass rusher last season, but struggled so much against the run that he finished 118th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF overall. Oliver was the 9th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and was better as a rookie, with decent if unspectacular play as a run stopper and a pass rusher, but in 2020, while the pass rush ability stayed, his run defense disappeared. 

Oliver came into the league with a massive upside and, not even 24 until December, he still has time to make good on it. Not only does he have a good chance to bounce back to at least his rookie year form, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his third season in the league was his best season to date. He figures to be the nominal starter next to Lotulelei, although the Bills rotate defensive linemen so often that the starter distinction doesn’t really matter.

Vernon Butler and Harrison Phillips figure to continue seeing significant snaps as the reserves. Butler was a first round pick in 2016 by the Panthers, but hasn’t panned out, only developing into a mediocre rotational option, averaging 343 snaps per season and earning below average grades from PFF in 3 of 5 seasons in the league. The 6-4 330 pounder seems like he would be a strong run stuffer, but even his run defense has been inconsistent in his career, while his career pressure rate is just 6.4%.

Phillips, meanwhile, was selected by the Bills in the 3rd round in 2018. He flashed potential across 332 rookie year snaps, particularly as a run stuffer, and then got off to a hot start in 2019, before his season was ended after just 77 snaps by an ACL tear. There was a chance he could carry that into 2020, but instead he was underwhelming in his third season in the league and missed another 4 games, while not seeing extension action even when healthy. 

Phillips still has some upside, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from the injury, but he might max out as a solid run stuffer who isn’t a real asset as a pass rusher (5.2% career pressure rate). This group should be better than a year ago with Phillips having the upside to be better, Ed Oliver especially having the upside to be better, and Star Lotulelei returning from an opt-out, but it’s still likely to be a below average group overall.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Bills linebackers were probably their most disappointing unit in 2020. Every down linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds entered the season as potentially one of the better linebacker duos in the league, but both had their seasons affected by injury. Edmunds only missed one game, but it came in week two and he didn’t seem to be the same the rest of the season, finishing as PFF’s 76th ranked off ball linebacker out of 99 eligible, after earning middling grades in his first two seasons in the league.

Edmunds continued playing well against the run, but he missed more tackles than usual and his coverage ability, which has never been a strength, became a huge liability, finishing with the 6th most receiving yards allowed by a linebacker (575) and the 5th worst QB rating allowed (129.9). The good news is not only should Edmunds be healthier this season, allowing him to bounce back, but he’s also a former first round pick who is only going into his age 23 season in his 4th season in the league, so he has the upside to have his best year yet in 2021 and could easily have a big breakout year if he can improve in coverage and become a more consistent tackler.

Milano, meanwhile, was limited to just 334 snaps on the season and didn’t play all that well when on the field, a big disappointment for a player who finished 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and 32nd in 2019, especially excelling in coverage, ranking 14th and 4th respectively in coverage grade. Still only in his age 26 season, the 2017 5th round pick has obvious bounce back potential and it’s clear the Bills still believe in his long-term potential, locking him up on a 4-year, 41.5 million dollar extension this off-season.

With Milano missing significant time last season, veteran linebacker AJ Klein played 652 snaps, but he predictably struggled, finishing 82nd out of 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. He’s now going into his age 30 season, but he’ll play sparingly in this defense unless Milano or Edmunds gets hurt and he’s been better in more limited roles in the past. With Milano and Edmunds both possessing significant bounce back potential and upside for even more, this linebacking corps should be much better in 2021 than 2020, which will go a long way towards this defense as a whole bouncing back.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Bills’ secondary was their best group going in 2020 and their only group that wasn’t really a disappointment. Top cornerback Tre’Davious White finished well above average on PFF again, finishing in the top-30 among cornerbacks for the third time in four seasons in the league and, even though he has yet to live up to his 10th ranked finish as a rookie in 2017, White has shown himself to be a consistently above average player at arguably the toughest position to play at a high level consistently and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, meaning he should remain in his prime for several more season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a dominant season or two in that stretch.

The rest of this secondary is even younger, after moving on from veteran Josh Norman (344 middling snaps in 2020) this off-season. Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson were the Bills’ top outside cornerback opposite White and their top slot cornerback respectively and they also earned middling grades on the season across 612 snaps and 825 snaps respectively. Wallace was PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback in 2018, despite being just an undrafted rookie, but he only made the final seven starts of the season and he hasn’t been able to carry that into a larger role, earning middling grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons across snap counts of 785 and 612 respectively. He still has upside and he’s established a solid floor, but he could remain just a replacement level starter again.

Johnson has had a similar path, though the 2018 4th round pick didn’t play quite as well in his limited rookie year action as Wallace did. Johnson also has more of an injury history, missing nine games across his first two seasons, although Wallace did miss four starts last season, while Johnson played a career high 825 snaps, after playing 405 snaps in year one and 495 snaps in year two. Both have the upside to be better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but neither one is a guarantee to be better than replacement level.

The Bills reserve cornerbacks are also young and inexperienced, but they have some promise as well and could step into role and potentially hold their own if needed. Siran Neal was selected in the 5th round in 2018 and, while he’s only played 306 career snaps, he’s overall earned above average grades from PFF. Dane Jackson, meanwhile, was just a 7th round pick in 2020, but he flashed potential on 193 rookie year snaps. Even with three cornerbacks ahead of them on the depth chart, both should make this final roster.

The Bills also continued to have one of the better safety duos in the league in 2020, with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde making 16 starts and 15 starts respectively, while finishing 12th and 28th respectively among safeties on PFF. Poyer and Hyde have started together since both were added on contracts worth 13 million over 4 years and 30.5 million over 5 years back four off-seasons ago now and, even though neither one was a consistent starter prior to arriving in Buffalo, in the four seasons since, both have finished above average on PFF in all four seasons while missing a combined three games between the two. Both have also since signed more lucrative extensions worth 19.5 million over 2 years and 19.25 million over 2 years respectively.

Hyde’s age is somewhat of a concern, going into his age 31 season, especially since he has declined in each of the past two seasons, from 8th among safeties on PFF in 2018 to 12th in 2019 and 28th in 2020. He could continue declining, but he could also remain an above average starter for another couple years and could even still have some bounce back potential and be better than he was a year ago. Poyer, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season, but his 2020 was his third finish in the top-22 in four seasons in Buffalo, so he has yet to show any signs of decline and even if he begins to decline in 2020, he’s starting from a pretty high base point.

Hyde and Poyer don’t have much injury history, but 2019 6th round pick Jaquan Johnson (102 career snaps) or 6th round rookie Damar Hamlin look likely to be their primary reserves, so they’ll need Poyer and Hyde to continue staying healthy. The Bills’ secondary is still the strength of their defense and, with the rest of this stop unit looking likely to be better than a year ago, they should be a strength of a noticeably better defense overall, which should make up for any potential regression from their offense.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Retaining most of arguably the best offense in the league from a year ago, the Bills figure to once again have one of the best offenses in the league, even if Josh Allen and a few other players who had career best years in 2020 take a little bit of a step back. Offensive play tends to be relatively consistent year-to-year anyway and the Bills lack of significant losses on that side of the ball this off-season only helps matters. On the flip side, the Bills had an underwhelming defense last season, but that side of the ball is much less consistent year-to-year than offense and, on paper, they have the talent to be noticeably better than a year ago. 

The Bills finished last season 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.73%, so, even if their defensive improvement is only enough to make up for some drop off on offense, this should still remain one of the better teams in the league, with the upside to be the best if Josh Allen can continue playing at an MVP level and once again lead arguably the league’s best offense. They’ll have a more serious challenge for the division from a reloaded New England team in 2021, but the Bills should remain one of the top teams in the AFC and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them ultimately represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction for the Bills at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD