Miami Dolphins 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this time last year, many were expecting the Dolphins to be one of the worst teams of all time and possibly not win a single game. After years of overspending in free agency to achieve mediocre results (from 2008-2018 the Dolphins won between 6 and 10 games every season and never won a playoff game), the Dolphins took a totally new approach last off-season, completely dismantling their roster to build up cap space and draft picks for 2020 and 2021 to go in all for 2022 and beyond. 

In the meantime, the result was a team with the youngest average age in the league and a payroll 9 million dollars less than any team in the league. At least on paper, they looked like one of the worst rosters in recent memory. Despite this being a better plan than their prior strategy, all the Dolphins fans had to look forward to in the short-term was the opportunity to “Tank for Tua,” who was seen as the consensus top quarterback prospect in the draft going into the 2019 season.

The season started as bad as expected, if not worse. The Dolphins lost the first down rate battle by 20% or more in each of their first 3 games of the season. For comparison, there were only 11 other instances of a team having a -20% or worse differential in a game all regular season. Including another double digit first down rate loss week 4, the Dolphins went into their week 5 bye with an unfathomably bad -23.11% first down rate differential on the season, totaling 53 first downs and 2 offensive touchdowns while allowing their opponents to pick up 110 first downs and score 19 offensive touchdowns.

When they came back from their bye, it started out as more of the same, as they were down 17-3 at home in the 4th quarter to the also winless Washington Redskins, but they swapped quarterback Josh Rosen for Ryan Fitzpatrick and nearly came back in the game, failing when they went for two at the end of the 4th quarter rather than going to overtime. Even though the Dolphins didn’t win that game or either of their next two, they ultimately ended up winning 5 games on the season and got much better quarterback play from Fitzpatrick going forward, as he finished the season with a 62.0% completion percentage, 7.03 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. For comparison, Rosen finished the season with a 53.2% completion percentage, 5.20 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only reason for the Dolphins’ improvement, as first year head coach Brian Flores and his coaching staff did a great job of getting the most out of this roster down the stretch, and Fitzpatrick had his struggles as well, especially early in the season when he saw limited time in the Dolphins’ September blowout losses, but he was the single biggest reason why this team exceeded expectations and was able to win even as many games as they did. They still finished the season 30th in the NFL with a -5.49% first down rate differential, but were actually about even after their bye, with a 36.50% first down rate and a 36.53% first down rate allowed.

That being said, Fitzpatrick is going into his age 38 contract year in 2020 and has a history of inconsistency, so he was not the long-term option this team needed to find at quarterback as part of their rebuild. He did play well enough to knock the Dolphins out of contention for the first pick, but ultimately they were still able to get Tua Tagovailoa regardless, albeit after he slipped a few picks following some injuries. The Dolphins’ 5 wins cost them a chance at eventual #1 pick Joe Burrow, a cleaner prospect coming off of one of the best seasons in college football history, but Tagovailoa has the upside to be the top quarterback out of this draft class if he can develop and stay on the field. If he does pan out, he’ll give the Dolphins the most valuable asset in football to build around, a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie contract.

In the short-term, Tagovailoa is almost definitely going to start his career on the bench. Between his recovery from injury, a limited off-season, and Fitzpatrick coming off of a solid season, there is no reason to rush him out on the field. However, the 5th overall pick’s draft status likely ensures he’ll see some action year 1, especially for a team that is still probably a year away from legitimately contending for a playoff spot. He should at least make a few starts down the stretch so he has some experience under his belt for his 2nd off-season.

As talented as Tagovailoa is and as good as he can become, it would be hard for him to match Fitzpatrick’s 2019 level of play, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked quarterback overall. For that matter, it’s going to be difficult for a 38-year-old Fitzpatrick to match one of the best seasons of his career. Given that, the Dolphins could easily have worse quarterback play in 2020 than they did down the stretch in 2019, so they will need more from the rest of this roster if they’re going to keep being a competitive team. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Fortunately, the Dolphins came into the off-season with plenty of resources to build the rest of this team. Besides using the 5th overall pick on Tagovailoa, the Dolphins also had another 5 picks in the first 70 selections, including a pair of other first rounders, and they had among the most cap space in the NFL entering free agency. The area that needed the most improvement was their offensive line, which finished as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass blocking and worst ranked run blocking line in the NFL last season, making Fitzpatrick’s solid production even more impressive. The Dolphins couldn’t continue to be that bad upfront and expect to have consistent offensive success, regardless of who was under center. The Dolphins seemed to recognize that and were very aggressive about adding several new players to compete for roles upfront.

The Dolphins didn’t make any splash additions, but the player with the biggest upside of the group is first round pick Austin Jackson, who is expected to start at left tackle immediately as a rookie. He’ll likely have some growing pains as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what the Dolphins had at the position last season and he has the upside to be a Pro-Bowl caliber player long-term. The Dolphins also used a 2nd round pick on Robert Hunt, a collegiate tackle who could move inside, and a 4th round pick Solomon Kindley, who will likely spend his rookie year as depth at guard.

Ereck Flowers was their top offensive line signing in free agency, coming over from the Redskins on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Flowers is probably most famous for being a bust as the 9th overall pick by the Giants in 2015, but after struggling at tackle with the Giants and Jaguars to begin his career, Flowers turned himself into a pretty solid starting left guard for the Redskins in 2019, finishing 31st among guards on PFF and making all 16 starts. 

His contract is a little rich for someone with one-year of experience at his new position, as he’ll be the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, but he’s still pretty young, going into his age 26 season and has plenty of physical upside to keep getting better. His salary is more in line with a tackle than a guard, but between the selection of Jackson and Flowers’ past struggles at the position, it seems unlikely that they’d back move him back to tackle unless they really needed to. 

The Dolphins also signed Ted Karras from the Patriots on a one-year deal. A 6th round pick in 2016, Karras was only a depth player in the first 3 seasons of his career, making 5 starts total, but was forced into the starting lineup in 2019 by the absence of center David Andrews and finished as PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38th qualifiers, holding his own overall. He has the versatility to play guard as well, but his easiest path to playing time is center. His 3 million dollar salary doesn’t lock him into a starting role, but without a better option on the roster, it’s hard to see him not being the heavy favorite for the job. He’s a low upside option with only one year of starting experience, but he’s a solid value signing and can be a serviceable starter.

Right tackle Jesse Davis and right guard Michael Deiter are the only players with a chance to start in the same spot as they started last season and both will face competition, after ranking 69th out of 88 qualifying tackles and 83rd out of 87 qualifying guards on PFF last season. Davis was the better player by default, but has earned a negative grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, while Deiter was a 3rd round pick last season and has more upside going forward.

Second round rookie Robert Hunt could be an option at either spot, while incumbent left tackle Julie’n Davenport will likely be in the mix for the right tackle job, despite finishing 73rd out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles last season on the left side. He could either replace Davis in the starting lineup or kick Davis inside to right guard, where he has some experience. Fourth round rookie Solomon Kindley could also be a long shot option, especially later in the season. The Dolphins are still a work in progress upfront and lack any offensive linemen who have consistently proven themselves as starters, but they have much more talent and many more options than a season before and should be at least somewhat capable upfront, with upside to be more than that if their young guys progress.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Running back is another position where the Dolphins desperately needed to upgrade this off-season. Not only did they finish 31st in the NFL with 3.31 yards per carry, but they were ridiculously led in rushing by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (243 yards), as they cycled through 5 different running backs who all received 36-74 carries and saw little success. Their only running back with any real talent was Kenyan Drake, who had just 174 yards on 47 carries (3.70 YPC) in 6 games with the Dolphins before being traded to the Cardinals at the deadline for a late round pick and promptly broke out as a feature back in Arizona. Offensive line problems were a big part of the reason for their struggles on the ground, but the Dolphins desperately needed to add multiple new options at the position this off-season.

Most expected them to use a high draft pick on a back, but instead they brought in a pair of veterans in Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, though they did use a 5th round draft pick to acquire Breida from the 49ers on draft day. Howard, meanwhile, came over from the Eagles on a 2-year, 9.75 million dollar contract. A 5th round pick in 2016, Howard burst on to the scene by rushing for 1313 yards and 6 touchdowns on 252 carries (5.21 YPC) as a rookie, but he’s been limited to 4.00 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 645 carries in 3 seasons since and is a very limited player in the passing game, maxing out with 29 catches in a season and averaging a pathetic 5.18 yards per target for his career. Given the veteran backs still available in free agency, it’s unclear why the Dolphins felt the need to rush out and sign Howard to a significant contract early in free agency.

Breida’s addition makes a little bit more sense, but I still don’t like the idea of using a draft pick to add a player who is in the final year of his rookie deal when you’ve already added Howard, as opposed to drafting a running back for the long-term. Breida also comes with significant risk. He has an impressive 4.99 YPC average in 3 seasons in the league, including 5.32 YPC in 2018 and 5.07 YPC in 2019, but he hasn’t consistently kept the offense on schedule, ranking 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 46% carry success rate in 2018 and 31st out of 45 qualifying with a a 46% carry success rate in 2019. 

Breida has 23 carries of 15 or more yards the past two seasons, but has averaged just 3.27 yards per carry on his other 253 carries. He’s also spent his whole career in a very running back friendly system in San Francisco that fits his skill set perfectly and gives him big holes to run through to get big gains, he’s undersized at 5-11 195 and has already had multiple injury problems over the past two seasons despite topping out at 153 carries in a season, and he’s limited in the passing game with a career high of 27 catches in a season. He might not be a bad change of pace back even outside of the 49ers’ system, but considering how relatively easy it is to find running backs in the mid-rounds that can make an impact immediately, I would have preferred the Dolphins draft a back instead. As of right now, none of their running backs are locked into a roster spot beyond 2020.

With Howard and Brieda both being limited in the passing game, Patrick Laird seems likely to see a significant role as the passing down back. Undrafted in 2019, Laird showed nothing as a runner with a 2.71 YPC average on 62 carries, but caught a pass on 14.6% of the 158 routes he ran and earned significant playing time down the stretch. He could continue being significantly involved in the passing game, but he figures to be more of a snap eater than an impact player and the Dolphins lack a capable pass catching back behind him if he gets hurt. This is a better group than last year’s by default, but it’s still an underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The one offensive group the Dolphins didn’t upgrade this off-season was their receiving corps. It was their strongest group around the quarterback on offense in 2019, but it’s still surprising they didn’t add at least some competition. They have solid depth at wide receiver, but expected #2 wide receiver Preston Williams comes with a lot of risk. Preston Williams had a solid 32/428/3 slash line while playing 79.7% of the snaps in 8 games, but he’s coming off of a November ACL tear and is still a relatively unproven second year undrafted free agent, so he’s a bit of a question mark.

Top wide receiver Devante Parker also comes with a lot of risk. A first round pick in 2015, Parker had his long awaited breakout year in 2019, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver and ranking 5th in the NFL in receiving yards on a 72/1202/9 slash line. It was a bit of a quiet breakout year, in part because he played on a bad team, in part because he had 248 receiving yards combined in weeks 16 and 17 to shoot himself up the yardage ranks at the last second, but he finally consistently showed the #1 receiver ability he was drafted for.

Consistency is the key, as he’s shown flashes at times before last season, but had struggled to put it together consistently, in part because of work ethic issues that lead to him being called out publicly by coaches. Still only going into his age 27 season, Parker theoretically has a few years left in his prime, but he could easily regress in 2020, having never topped more than 744 receiving yards in any of his other four seasons in the league. 

The Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up on a 3-year, 30.5 million dollar extension this off-season and not bringing in any competition, but he could easily go back to his old ways now that he has guaranteed money in the bank. The Dolphins can theoretically move on after 1-year and 14.6 million, but given that they could have had him at a 5 million dollar salary for his contract year in 2020 and made him prove it again, that extension could easily look like a mistake quickly. Realistically, he’s locked in for 2 years and 22.95 million.

The Dolphins do have solid depth behind Williams, with veterans Allen Hurns, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant all in the mix for roles, but none of them have much upside and, aside from Hurns, who was extended on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal during the season, the Dolphins could have moved on and found upgrades this off-season. Grant’s 3.78 million dollar salary didn’t guarantee until the middle of March, while Wilson was kept after taking a pay cut from 9.5 million down to 3 million.

Hurns is the most proven of the bunch as, seemingly in another life, he had a 1000+ yard receiving year in his 2nd season in the league with the Jaguars in 2015, after which he signed a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension that would kick in after the final two years of his rookie deal. However, he never made it to the extension portion of his new deal, getting cut two years and 16 million in guaranteed new money later, and has since bounced from Jacksonville to Dallas to Miami on low-to-mid range contracts, never topping 484 yards in a season since 2015. Hurns is still only going into his age 29 season, but he’s been pretty banged up and it seems likely that the former undrafted free agent just had a fluke year in 2015, especially since he had a large percentage of his yards come in garbage time on a bad Jaguars team that year.

Wilson and Grant, meanwhile, have never topped 554 yards receiving in a season, with Grant never going over 268 yards. Grant is dynamic in the return game, but the 4-year, 19.7 million dollar extension the Dolphins gave him in last August suggested they believed he’d developed into a contributor in the passing game as well, but that has yet to happen, in part due to injuries that have limited him to 10 games apiece in the past two seasons. He hasn’t been effective when healthy either, as his route tree has been mostly limited to short screens. He has 18.4% of his career receiving yards on 2 catches and outside of those has averaged just 10.2 yards per reception in his career. Now going into the 5th year of his career, I don’t expect much more from the 2016 6th rounder, but he could have a new career high in catches just by staying healthy. He’ll have opportunities to play.

Wilson is a little bit more proven than Grant, but the 3-year, 24 million dollar deal he signed with the team two off-seasons ago was not in line with his level of production in Kansas City and was one of many questionable signings the Dolphins have made over the years. It’s not surprising the Dolphins forced him to take a pay cut to stay on the roster after injuries have limited him to 69 catches in 20 games over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 28 season, he has some upside if he can stay healthy and his yards per route run since joining the Dolphins is respectable at 1.69, but I wouldn’t expect a big receiving total from him even in the best case scenario.

The Dolphins also stood pat at the tight end position this off-season, despite getting just 66 catches from tight ends in 2019, just 17.8% of their overall total. The Dolphins are clearly banking on improvement from third year tight ends Mike Gesicki and Dalton Smythe, who went in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively in 2018. Gesicki is more productive in the passing game, jumping from a 22/202/0 slash line as a rookie to a 51/570/5 slash line last year, but that’s an underwhelming total considering he ran 521 routes on the season (32nd among 44 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run at 1.09) and he’s been one of the worst blocking tight ends in the league thus far in his career. 

Smythe, meanwhile, has just 13 career catches, but has at least been a capable blocker in two tight end sets. The Dolphins have little depth at the position behind them, so they’re stuck with these two as their top tight ends and, as underwhelming as they are, they would be in big trouble at the position if one were to miss time with injury. It’s not a horrible receiving corps overall, but it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add any help at all this off-season, as they are led by a one-year wonder #1 receiver and a second year undrafted free agent who is coming off of a major knee injury.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Like the Dolphins’ offense, the Dolphins’ defense struggled mightily at the beginning of the year, allowing a 47.78% first down rate before their week 5 bye, but after the bye that fell to 36.53%, which would have been 21st in the NFL over the full season. They didn’t have any stand out players on defense, but they went through a ridiculous volume of contributors, with just two players playing more than 750 snaps, but 17 players playing more than 300 and 27 players playing more than 100, and by mid-to-late season they had identified some diamonds in the rough after cycling through so many players, which elevated their overall level of play.

They still finished 31st in the NFL on the season with a 39.41% first down rate allowed, but there are reasons to believe they’ll be better this season. Like on offense, their young guys are more experienced and they’ve added a significant amount of players through free agency and the draft. On top of that, they should be healthier this season, after having the second most games lost to injury on defense in the league last season, including 11 games missed by one of their few high level players, cornerback Xavien Howard. 

The area the Dolphins upgraded the most this off-season was the edge, which was much needed, as the Dolphins had 8 different players play at least 100 snaps off the edge last year, including linebackers Jerome Baker and Sam Eguavoen, but none of them topped 5 sacks and the team finished dead last with 23 sacks on the season. In order to fix that, the Dolphins signed defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, as well as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has experience as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker with the Patriots, where he previously played for Brian Flores in a similar defensive scheme. 

Van Noy was the big addition, coming over from New England on a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal. Van Noy was a second round pick by the Lions in 2014, but was just sitting on Detroit’s bench having played 406 snaps in two and a half seasons in the league when the Patriots acquired him at the 2016 trade deadline for a late round pick. He immediately saw more playing time with the Patriots, whose scheme he fit much better, and, while he was mostly a snap eater for his first 2 years in New England, he developed into a much better player in his final 2 seasons in New England, finishing 41st among off ball linebackers in 2018 on Pro Football Focus and 19th among edge defenders in 2019.

Van Noy is a rare player who can play the run, rush the passer, and drop back to coverage effectively, but his value is primarily as a pass rusher. He’s rushed the passer on 62.9% of his pass snaps over the past 2 seasons, managing 10 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate. In Miami, he’ll directly replace Sam Eguavoen in the lineup, which will be a big boost, given that Eguavoen ranked 78th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF last season. 

Eguavoen rushed the passer on 59.5% of his snaps as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and I would expect a similar percentage from Van Noy, although he’s obviously an upgrade and should play closer to every down than the 621 snaps Eguavoen played last season. Van Noy’s age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season and the Dolphins are paying him a premium for him because he played his best year in a contract year, but he was definitely a worthwhile addition and wasn’t overpaid by much.

With Van Noy playing a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role, Ogbah and Lawson are likely to be their starting defensive ends, though they’ll face competition from top holdover Vince Biegel, who was one of the diamonds in the rough the Dolphins discovered down the stretch last season. Biegel was a 4th round pick by the Packers in 2017, but saw just 124 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, bouncing from Green Bay to New Orleans before ending up in Miami in 2019. 

With the Dolphins, he barely played to start the season, but averaged 52.5 snaps per game in his final 11 games of the season and finished with 627 snaps on the season, leading all Miami edge defenders. He had just 2.5 sacks, but added 12 hits and had a 10.7% pressure rate, while holding up against the run and showing the versatility to play some linebacker and drop in to coverage. He’s still unproven with one year of production, so he could regress, but, on the other hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to improve in his 4th year in the league.

Ogbah and Lawson, meanwhile, come over from the Chiefs and Bills respectively on contracts worth 15 million over 2 years and 30 million over 3 years respectively. Unlike Biegel and Van Noy, they are traditional defensive ends who won’t play much if any linebacker. Ogbah was a second round pick in 2016 and got plenty of playing time early in his career in Cleveland, playing 52.9 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Browns, but he didn’t do much with the opportunity, posting 12.5 sacks in 40 games, pressuring the quarterback at a 7.8% rate, and earning mediocre grades from PFF in all 3 seasons.

The Browns then traded him to Kansas City and he promptly looked much better in a smaller role, playing 40.9 snaps per game in 10 games, posting 5.5 sacks and a 10.8% pressure rate, holding up against the run, and finishing as PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender overall through week 10, before suffering a season ending chest injury. Ogbah’s salary in Miami is more in line with his role in Cleveland, so he could prove to be an overpay if he can’t translate his solid play in 2019 to a larger role, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who doesn’t tun 27 until later this year, so he comes with plenty of upside.

Lawson was also a late bloomer, going in the first round in 2016, but showing very little in his first 2 seasons in the league, while limited to 21 of 32 games with injury. In two seasons since, he’s played 29 of 32 games and has shown impressive ability as an all-around defensive end, albeit in a limited role, maxing out at 520 snaps played. Over the past 2 seasons as a part-time player, Lawson has managed 10.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate, while holding up against the run. Like Ogbah, he’s unproven in a bigger role, but he still has upside only going into his age 26 season. At the very least, Ogbah and Lawson should be able to hold up against the run, but they have upside as pass rushers as well.

Along with Biegel, the only remaining holdovers from last year’s edge defender group are Trent Harris, a 2018 undrafted free agent who played the first 253 snaps of his career as primarily a situational run stuffer in 2019, and 2019 5th round pick Andrew Van Ginkel, who underwhelmed on 197 snaps last season, but still has some upside in this defense as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. They also used a 5th round pick this year on Boise State’s Curtis Weaver, who also fits the mold of a hybrid edge player. He could also be in the mix for a reserve role along with Van Ginkel and Harris. This is a much deeper and more talented group than last year, but they’re banking on a couple of Ogbah, Lawson, and Biegel continuing to develop and taking another step forward as edge rushers opposite Van Noy.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Things were much more stable inside at defensive tackle last year, where Davon Godchaux and Christian Wilkins made all 16 starts and were among the leaders on the defense with 718 snaps and 730 snaps respectively. Neither player was spectacular, earning middling grades from Pro Football Focus, but they were still two of the Dolphins’ better defensive players last season and both should remain locked into starting jobs in 2020.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Godchaux has played consistently well against the run since entering the league, maxing out with a 18th ranked finish on PFF in run grade among interior defenders in 2018, but he hasn’t gotten to the quarterback much, with just 3 career sacks and a 4.8% pressure rate. He’s only going into his age 26 season, but he was not highly drafted because of his lack of pass rush ability and it’s fair to wonder if he’s ever going to develop into a consistent quarterback disruptor. He may max out as a run stuffing defensive tackle, but a good one at that. Wilkins, meanwhile, is more well-rounded (8.5% pressure rate last season) and has much more upside after going 13th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He could easily take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020. 

John Jenkins also played all 16 games last season, playing 480 snaps as the primary reserve, and he actually played the best of the Dolphins top trio on a per snap basis, finishing as PFF’s 41st ranked interior defender. He signed with the Bears this off-season, which is a bigger loss than most would think, but the Dolphins did replenish depth through the draft, taking Alabama’s Raekwon Davis in the 2nd round and North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge in the 5th. Davis is much more likely to fill Jenkins’ old role given where he was drafted, leaving Strowbridge to compete for a deep reserve role in his first year in the league. Losing Jenkins will hurt a little, but this is still a solid group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

In addition to signing Kyle Van Noy from the Patriots, the Dolphins also brought another one of Brian Flores’ former linebackers from New England over in a more under the radar move, signing Elandon Roberts to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract. In addition to playing special teams and dabbling as a fullback, Roberts has averaged 365 snaps per season as a linebacker since the Patriots took him in the 6th round in 2016. Roberts has struggled when counted on for a larger role, but has been more comfortable in a situational run stuffing role over the past two seasons, though he did play just 202 snaps last season. His contract isn’t much, but he should at least compete for a base package role alongside Van Noy and Raekwon McMillan. 

McMillan excelled against the run last season in a part-time role, playing 516 snaps overall and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but he was very much the opposite in coverage, ranking 87th out of 100 qualifiers on PFF in that aspect. The same was true in 2018, when he finished 8th against the run, but finished 88th out of 95 qualifiers in coverage. McMillan was a 2nd round choice in 2017, but the big 6-2 248 pounder wasn’t known for his athleticism coming out of college and a torn ACL that cost him his whole rookie season doesn’t seem to have helped matters. He should excel in a base package role again, but would likely be overstretched in a larger role, though he may still have untapped potential, not even turning 24 until later this season. If he does break out and as every down caliber linebacker, this would be a great time for it, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season.

Jerome Baker actually led this linebacking corps with 1,080 snaps played last season, but he was mostly a liability, ranking 86th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on the season. He wasn’t bad in coverage, but finished 96th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in run grade. The 2018 3rd round pick was better in a smaller role (678 snaps) as a rookie, so he has some bounce back potential, but with Van Noy, Roberts, and McMillan all better against the run, Baker may be limited to situational work as a coverage linebacker. The Dolphins also figure to use 6 defensive backs somewhat frequently in obvious passing situations to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers, though that would leave them very susceptible if opponents decide to run instead. The concerns about coverage ability are legitimate, but they should be a tough linebacking corps to run on.

Grade: B-

Secondary

If there is one strength on this team, it’s the cornerback position, as, much like his former mentor Bill Belichick, Brian Flores wants to build his defense around the secondary. The Dolphins spent significant resources this off-season making the cornerback position a strength, signing ex-Cowboy Byron Jones to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid cornerback in the league in average annual salary and then using their third first round pick (30th overall) on Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. Add in holdover Xavien Howard, who is healthy now after missing 11 games with a knee injury in 2019, and the Dolphins have a very intriguing top trio of cornerbacks.

Jones and Howard are two of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league, with Howard ranking 3rd in among cornerbacks on a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season, so obviously they will start in base packages, but Igbinoghene has a clear path to the 3rd cornerback job, with only 2019 undrafted free agent Nik Needham potentially pushing him for the role. Needham flashed as a rookie and was one of the diamonds in the rough  that the Dolphins uncovered, but he overall earned a middling grade from PFF on 743 snaps and is probably best as a depth cornerback long-term. Assuming Igbinoghene beats him out for the job, there should be plenty of playing time for him as the 3rd cornerback, given how much teams use three cornerbacks at the same time, even with Jones and Howard unlikely to come off the field much if at all.

Jones and Howard are paid similarly, but Jones is the better player. Cornerback is a position that is very difficult to be consistently good at in the NFL and Jones joins now division rival Stephon Gilmore as one of two cornerbacks to finish in the top-15 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His best year came in 2018, when he finished 7th, but his 2019 wasn’t too shabby either. The 2015 first round pick wasn’t quite as good earlier in his career, but that’s because he bounced around from slot cornerback to both safety spots before settling in as an outside cornerback. Still only going into his age 28 season, he should have at least a couple more seasons left as a top level cornerback and his versatility to play other spots in a pinch if needed just add to his value.

Howard has played as well as Jones at his best, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistently good as his interception numbers (12 in 40 career games) would suggest, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback in 2018. In addition, he’s had durability issues throughout his career, missing 24 of 64 games and only playing in 16 games once, while his new running mate Byron Jones has missed just 1 game in 5 years in the league. Howard is still only going into his age 27 season and has the potential to keep getting better and put together some more strong seasons if he can stay healthy, but he comes with a lot of risk and isn’t quite worth his salary. He could also be facing a short suspension to start the season, after an off-the-field incident.

While things are pretty clear at cornerback, playing time at safety is much more up for grabs, with converted cornerbacks Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe competing for playing time with 3rd round rookie Brandon Jones and holdovers Steven Parker and Adrian Colbert. Parker and Colbert weren’t terrible last season and were part of the reason why this defense wasn’t bad down the stretch, but they played just 339 snaps and 361 snaps respectively, so they’ll likely settle in to reserve roles if they make the roster, while Jones is likely a year away from contributing significantly, leaving veterans McCain and Rowe as the favorites to start.

Rowe is another former Patriot on this defense, spending 3 years there from 2016-2018, after spending just a year with the Eagles who took him in the 2nd round in 2015. Rowe was never able to stay healthy consistently while in New England, missing 27 of 48 games, and he didn’t play well even when on the field, but he started all 16 games with the Dolphins in 2019 and wasn’t bad, earning himself a 3-year, 16.15 million dollar extension that he signed in December. 

Rowe’s 16 starts last season were split 12 and 4 between safety and cornerback, but with the Dolphins’ moves at cornerbacks this off-season, he looks locked in as a pure safety for the first time in his career, having spent most of his 5-year career as an oversized cornerback at 6-1 205. He’s not a lock for a starting job, but his salary suggests he’ll get significant playing time and safety is the only position where he can do that on this roster. Still only going into his age 28 season, he comes with some upside at his new position, but his injury history remains a concern.

McCain is also a converted cornerback, making the conversion last off-season, after previously playing primarily as a slot cornerback. McCain lacks Rowe’s size at 5-11 192, but wasn’t bad last season in 9 starts before getting hurt, playing primarily as a deep safety. Expect him to continue playing there with the bigger Rowe working as a box safety and occasional linebacker. McCain has been an unspectacular player wherever he’s played throughout his 5-year career, but you could do a lot worse at the position. Jones, Parker, and Colbert, meanwhile, figure to compete for reserve snaps on a defense that will likely try to mask their lack of coverage linebackers with frequent dime packages. Their safeties are unspectacular overall, but cornerback is the strongest position on the roster.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Dolphins exceeded expectations and won a few games in 2019 and added a lot of new players this off-season through the draft and free agency, but they look at least another year away from contending for a playoff spot, even in the weaker AFC. Given how well Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up playing last season, the biggest reason why they won any games, there’s good reason to expect that the Dolphins won’t get as good of quarterback play this season, either from a rookie coming off of a serious injury and a shortened off-season or from a 38-year-old journeyman who will likely struggle to repeat one of the better years of his career. The Dolphins upgraded the rest of their roster, but this is still not a playoff caliber supporting cast. This team will be more competitive this season overall, but could ultimately still end up in last place in their division. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 69.58

Defensive Score: 73.20

Total Score: 71.39

New York Jets 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets had a clear plan when they began rebuilding during the 2017 off-season: clear cap space in the short-term, acquire a high pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to get a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, and use that freed up cap space to be aggressive in building around that quarterback in free agency while the quarterback is still cost controlled. They’ve more or less stuck with the plan, but it has yet to yield results, in part because neither the quarterback they drafted nor the veterans they’ve added around him have been as good as expected yet.

I’ll get to the disappointing veteran signings later, but the quarterback, former 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, still has plenty of time to change things, as he’s still only turning 23 this summer. Darnold was considered raw coming out of USC and was the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history when he won the job in training camp as a rookie, so it’s not a surprise he’s had growing pains. He still has a high ceiling.

Darnold especially struggled to begin his career, completing 55.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his first 9 career starts before getting injured and missing 3 games. When he returned, he appeared to be a different quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception in the final 4 games of the season, which gave the Jets a lot of hope for his second year.

Instead, Darnold ended up getting sick early in the year, costing him 3 games, and when he returned he didn’t seem to be 100% and couldn’t regain his late rookie season form, finishing with 61.9% completion, 6.86 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions to give him a QB rating that was less than 7 points higher than his rookie year rating and that ranked just 26th in the NFL out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus’ graded him similarly to his statistical production, giving him the 31st highest grade out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks.

Even as underwhelming as Darnold was, the Jets still had a winning record when he was in the lineup at 7-6 and they finished the season on a bit of a roll, winning 6 of their last 8, but they benefited one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. None of their 7 wins came against a team that finished with a winning record until they beat the Bills’ backups in a meaningless week 17 game. Aside from the Bills, the combined record of the teams they defeated was 35-61 and just two of those wins came by more than a touchdown. Even during their 6-2 stretch, they lost by multiple scores to a Bengals team that won 2 games all season and against the one better than average team they faced they were blown out in Baltimore. Despite one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, the Jets finished 26th in first down rate differential at -3.61%.

Part of that is simply how bad the Jets were without Darnold, as they managed a pathetic 18.01% first down rate in the 3 games Darnold missed, but the 31.28% first down rate they had in Darnold’s 13 starts would have ranked just 30th in the NFL over the full season and they had a negative first down rate differential in those starts (-1.42%), despite a winning record. The Jets’ schedule goes from one of the easiest in the NFL last year to one of the hardest this year, so Darnold is going to have to take a big step forward in his third year for the Jets to keep winning games.

If Darnold misses time again, as he has in both seasons he’s been in the league, the Jets are hoping they have a better backup situation after both Trevor Siemian and especially Luke Falk were awful in Darnold’s absence last season. With both Siemian and Falk not under contract for 2020, the Jets looked elsewhere for a backup this off-season, bringing in former Ravens and Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco. 

Flacco is going into his age 35 season and, if his play over the past few seasons is any indication, he’s done as a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL, but he has plenty of experience (171 career starts) and you could do a lot worse than Flacco if you need to go to a backup. The issue is Flacco is still recovering from a neck injury that ended his 2019 season prematurely, so he might not be ready to be the backup at the start of the year, potentially leaving only raw 4th round rookie David Morgan behind Darnold on the depth chart for the start of the season, meaning they’d be in trouble if Darnold missed time early in the season again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Jets weren’t able to be as aggressive in free agency this off-season as they were in 2018 and 2019, when they guaranteed 102.8 million (2nd in the NFL) and 124.5 million (1st) respectively to outside free agents, but they still ranked 9th in the NFL with 51 million in guarantees to outside free agents this off-season. The offensive line was their focus and rightfully so, as they were Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked run blocking offensive line and 5th worst pass protecting offensive line last season, which is a bigger reason why they struggled than anything wrong with Darnold’s game. We saw it last year when Darnold was out; this offense didn’t have a chance with him, partially because of who was backing him up, but in large part because of the supporting cast and offensive line.

Seemingly inspired by the Bills’ moves on the offensive line last off-season, the Jets went for quantity over quality this off-season. With several pending free agents on last year’s troubled line, the Jets were able to completely retool their offensive line by signing 3 free agents, using a pair of draft picks, and re-signing incumbent left guard Alex Lewis. Those players will compete with holdover right guard Brian Winters and holdover right tackle Chuma Edoga for starting jobs on this new look line.

Whether these additions will be worth the investment the Jets made is questionable, particularly top free agent signing George Fant, who comes over from the Seahawks on a 3-year, 27.3 million dollar deal that was one of the more head-scratching contracts of the off-season. Undrafted in 2016, Fant struggled mightily as a rookie in what to date is still the only extended starting experience of his career, making 10 starts at left tackle and finishing as PFF’s 83rd ranked offensive tackle out of 86 qualifiers. He then missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, and, while he’s been better in 2 seasons since, he’s been limited to 843 snaps and has primarily played as a blocking tight end/6th offensive linemen on obvious run plays in the Seahawks’ run heavy offense. Of the 843 snaps he’s played over the past 2 seasons, 438 of them have come at tight end, as opposed to 263 at left tackle and 142 at right tackle.

It’s one thing to have success as a 6th offensive lineman who plays almost exclusively on run plays, but as a starter he’ll need to hold up in pass protection as well, something he struggled with in his first stint as a starter. It’s also worth noting that despite having poor right tackle play throughout Fant’s tenure as the 6th offensive lineman, the Seahawks never gave him a chance to be a regular starter, which is saying something coming from the team that had him for 4 years.

Even though he’s a projection to a starting role, the Jets are paying him close to top-5 right tackle money on an annual basis and they already had an intriguing right tackle on the roster in Chuma Edoga, a 2019 3rd round pick who struggled in 8 rookie year starts, but who still had long-term upside. For a while, it looked like both Fant and Edoga would start, but the selection of Louisville’s Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick likely means that Fant will start on the right side, with Edoga as the swing tackle and Becton on the blindside. Fant was an overpay any way you look at it.

The Jets also signed ex-Bronco Connor McGovern and ex-Panther Greg Van Roten this off-season, bringing them in on deals worth 27 million and 10.5 million respectively over 3 years. McGovern’s salary locks him in as the starting center, where he made all 16 starts for the Broncos last season. Originally a 5th round pick in 2016, McGovern began his career at right guard, where he made 5 starts in 2017 and 15 starts in 2018, but he struggled, including a 56th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF in 2018, before moving to center in 2019. McGovern seemed much more comfortable with his new position, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked center on the season. His contract only makes him the 11th highest paid center in the league and is less than Fant’s, so it’s a much better value, even if he is only a one-year wonder.

Van Roten, meanwhile, will compete with incumbent guards Alex Lewis and Brian Winters. Van Roten has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons, but he has earned middling grades and those are the only starts of his 8-year career, so he’s probably best as a reserve. His contract is more in line with being a backup though, which is what he’ll most likely be, so he was a solid signing. Lewis’ 3-year, 18.6 million dollar contract likely locks him back in at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season. Lewis earned middling grades as well, as he did in 18 starts in 3 seasons with the Ravens, but the Jets apparently liked what they saw, paying him 6 million for 2020.

Winters’ 7.3 million dollar salary seems to suggest he’ll keep his starting job, but none of that is guaranteed, so the Jets could still move on without penalty if Van Roten beats him out in camp. Winters has been a capable starter over the past few seasons, making 79 starts in 7 seasons in the league, all with the Jets, but his salary is a little oversized and he’s been pretty injury prone as well, only once making all 16 starts and being limited to 7 games last season. Fourth round rookie Cameron Clark could also be in the mix for playing time at some point, but almost definitely not until later in the season. This is a retooled offensive line and should be improved over last year’s group, but that could be largely by default, as they lack a standout offensive lineman and heavily overpaid for their biggest offensive line signing George Fant.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Jets also made a significant external signing at wide receiver, bringing in Breshad Perriman from the Buccaneers to replace free agent departure Robby Anderson as their top outside receiver. Perriman’s 1-year, 6.5 million dollar contract is less money than Anderson’s 2-year, 20 million dollar deal with the Panthers, but Perriman has the upside to be better than Anderson who, in four years with the team, topped out with a 63/941/7 slash line and a 42nd ranked finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2017.

A first round pick in 2015 by the Ravens, Perriman’s career got off to about as bad of a start as possible. He missed his entire rookie year with injury and was limited to 43 catches for 576 yards and 3 touchdowns over the next two seasons, while averaging 1.06 yards per route run. As a result, he was let go by the Ravens and forced to take a minimum deal with the Browns for the 2018 season. He barely played early on, but caught 16 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns on 2.54 yards per route run over the final 8 games of the season, which earned him a bigger one year deal with the Buccaneers for 2019. 

In Tampa Bay, he again didn’t make much of an impact early in the season, but mostly because he had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin playing above him, dominating targets. Both Evans and Godwin suffered injuries late in the season and Perriman responded to the additional playing time by topping 100 yards receiving in each of the final 3 games of the season. He finished with a career best 36/645/6 slash line and a 41st ranked finish on PFF. Still only going into his age 27 season, Perriman could easily have his best statistical year yet in 2020. He doesn’t quite fit the system as well as he did in Tampa Bay with Jameis Winston and Bruce Arians’ aggressive downfield attack, but he’ll get a much bigger share of the targets and Darnold has plenty of arm to hit him deep, as he did with Anderson (15.0 yards per catch over the past 2 seasons).

Anderson wasn’t the only wide receiver the Jets needed to replace this off-season, as fellow starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas also had his contract expire, but he’s not tough to replace, as he had just a 36/433/1 slash line in 11 games. The Jets opted to replace him in the draft, dipping into a deep wide receiver class and getting a great value with Baylor’s Denzel Mims at 59 overall. Mims should see playing time immediately as a starter in three wide receiver sets, with no real competition for playing time. He’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie, but brings an explosive element that the veteran Thomas didn’t have anymore.

Jamison Crowder remains locked in as the primary slot receiver and could easily end up leading this team in receiving for the second straight year, after doing so with a 78/833/6 slash line in 2019. The 5-9 177 pounder is only a slot receiver, running 75.8% of his routes from the slot in his career, and he’s likely maxed out in terms of his abilities, but he’s averaged a 66/769/4 slash line per 16 games for his career and, still only going into his age 27 season, could easily continue being a solid slot receiver for several more years. Depth is a problem behind the Jets top-3 receivers though, as Vyncint Smith has been underwhelming on 496 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while free agent acquisition Josh Doctson is a journeyman who has never topped 532 yards receiving in a season despite ample opportunity. 

The Jets didn’t make an addition at tight end this off-season, but they do get Chris Herndon back from injury, which could be a big boost. As a fourth round rookie in 2018, Herndon showed a lot of potential, totaling a 39/502/4 slash line and averaging 1.66 yards per route run (11th among qualifying tight ends), while finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end overall on 625 snaps, but injuries and suspension limited him to 18 snaps and one catch in his second season in the league. The Jets remain high on his upside, so he could easily have his expected 2019 breakout year a year late in 2020, still only in his age 24 season.

In Herndon’s absence, Ryan Griffin led all tight ends with 662 snaps played and posted a 34/320/5 slash line in just 13 games. He’s best as a #2 tight end, as he’s never topped 442 receiving yards or earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 7 years in the league and that’s what he’ll be when Herndon is healthy. Griffin’s usage in the passing game as a limited talent just shows the potential that a talent like Herndon can have in this offense when he’s healthy. This receiving corps lacks a true #1 receiver, but it’s not a bad group when everyone is healthy.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a true #1 wide receiver, the Jets could really use a bounce back year from feature back Le’Veon Bell. Signed to a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar contract, Bell was the prize of the Jets’ off-season last year and was expected to take this offense to another level, but instead he led the way for a team that had a league worst 3.28 yards per carry on the season. Bell carried the ball 145 times, but didn’t produce one carry of more than 20 yards and averaged just 3.22 YPC, worst in the NFL among backs with at least 160 carries.

It wasn’t just that he wasn’t busting the big carries either, as he ranked 40th out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 42% carry success rate, struggling to keep this offense on track. Blocking was a big issue and Bell’s peripheral numbers suggest he wasn’t the main problem, as he averaged 2.67 YPC after contact and broke 41 tackles on the season, but he ranked just 21st among running backs on Pro Football Focus overall, a far cry from his top form and the back that the Jets thought they were getting when they signed him to a massive contract.

At his best, Bell was one of the top dual threat running backs in the league, averaging a 322/1462/9 slash line on the ground and a 87/738/2 slash line through the air per 16 games in his final 4 seasons in Pittsburgh. However, his average dropped to 4.02 yards per carry in his final season with the Steelers and he didn’t do himself any favors by taking the 2018 season off because he was unhappy with being franchise tagged by the Steelers. It was expected his numbers would take a hit with a worse supporting cast in New York, but few expected him to be arguably the least efficient running back in the NFL. Bell has bounce back potential with a better supporting cast in 2020, but he’s going into his age 28 season with 1,852 career touches, even though he took a whole season off and has only once played all 16 games due to a combination of injury and suspension, so it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

Bell has also had issues with head coach Adam Gase, who in a bizarre organizational move was given total control of the roster in his first year with the team, after the Jets let former GM Mike Maccagan spend significant money in free agency. Gase reportedly didn’t agree with the decision to bring Bell in and, after an underwhelming first season in New York, that doesn’t seem to have changed. With a guaranteed 13.5 million dollar salary for 2020, the Jets were unable to trade him this off-season, but they did bring in something they didn’t have last season, which is another back that Gase can give some of the work, as veteran Frank Gore was signed to a 1-year deal.

Gore is remarkably entering his 15th year in the NFL at the running back position, but seemed to be running out of gas last season, averaging 3.61 yards per carry and ranking 36th out of 45 qualifying with a 45% carry success rate. Gore ranks 3rd all-time in rushing yards with 15,347 and has somehow topped 100 carries in every season of his career, but the history of running backs who have been productive at age 37 or later is basically non-existent. If he carries the ball more than 13 times he’d join Marcus Allen and John Henry Johnson (1966) as the only backs to do that at 37 or older and he has a decent shot at breaking Allen’s record for 124 carries in a season after age 37. 

Gore has the trust of Adam Gase, who worked with him in Miami in 2018, so he should steal at least some of Bell’s work, even if he isn’t all that effective. The Jets also used a 4th round pick on Lamical Perine, but he’s not likely to get much of a chance if any until 2021, when Gore could be retired and when Bell will likely be let go ahead of a 11.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It’s not a bad backfield, but the Le’Veon Bell of his prime Pittsburgh days could be gone forever and Gore could be totally over the hill.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Despite the Jets having an underwhelming season overall, they actually finished 4th in first down rate allowed, although that’s a little misleading. Not only did they face one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they also were closer to the 17th ranked Cowboys than the 1st ranked Patriots with a 32.66% first down rate allowed. The biggest reason why they had success defensively last season was the 3-man defensive line on the interior of this 3-4 defense, which was a big part of the reason why the Jets ranked 2nd with 3.34 yards per carry allowed. They traded pending free agent Leonard Williams at the trade deadline, but they’re so deep on the line that it didn’t really matter and, aside from Williams, the Jets return their top-5 in snaps played on this defensive line for 2020, so expect more of the same from this group.

Quinnen Williams has the most upside of the group, as he was the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and is still only going into his age 23 season. His rookie year wasn’t as good as it could have been, as he missed 3 games with injury and was limited in others, but he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 512 snaps. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, he’s an obvious candidate for a breakout year and a bigger snap share. He has the ability to play anywhere on the interior of this defensive line in any situation. He was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher last season (5.4% pressure rate), but he has the upside to be a high level player in both aspects.

Williams still led the position in snaps despite the injuries and missed time, as the Jets like to rotate the rest of these linemen. Steve McLendon had the 2nd most snaps with 465 and was arguably the best of the bunch. Not only did he excel in a primarily base package role, earning PFF’s 10th highest run stopping grade among interior defenders, he also showed some pass rush in the limited opportunities he got to rush the quarterback, with 2.5 sacks and a 7.6% pressure rate. That’s higher than his career 5.4% rate, but he’s consistently been a solid base package run stuffer and has finished in the top-26 at his position in run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons. He’s never played more than 488 snaps in a season though, so his upside is capped, and he’s going into his age 34 season, so he comes with significant potential downside if his abilities fall off.

Henry Anderson figures to remain the other starter in base packages, as he started all 13 games he played last season and had the 3rd most snaps on this 3-man defensive line with 446. Unlike McLendon, who is a pure base package player, Anderson has the versatility to play in all situations and stay on the field for obvious passing downs. A third round pick in 2015, Anderson has a career 8.4% pressure rate, while being an above average interior run stuffer. 

Anderson is coming off the lowest PFF grade of his career though and, while that was likely due to playing through some injuries, he’s had injury problems throughout his career, missing 22 of 80 possible games and only once playing a full 16 game set. He’s only in his age 29 season, so he should have at least another couple seasons left as a solid starter, but he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Even if he does, he could exceed last year’s snaps total, but given how much the Jets like to rotate defensive linemen and how much depth they have at the position, there’s a cap to how much he’ll play on a per game basis.

Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd remain as the top reserves. A sixth round pick in 2018, Fatukasi had a mini breakout year last year as a run stuffer, after playing just 3 snaps as a rookie. He only played 390 snaps last season, but he finished as PFF’s 5th ranked run stopper. He barely breathed on the quarterback with just a 3.3% pressure rate, but he played 52.6% of his snaps on run plays, as primarily a base package player, so he isn’t needed much as a pass rusher. He might not be quite as good as a run stuffer in 2020, but he should at least have another solid season in a situational role.

Shepherd, on the other hand, is more of a pass rusher, with a 8.5% pressure rate in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been limited to 575 snaps total, in part because he missed 7 last season, but the 2018 3rd round pick could easily set a new career high in snaps this season and take another step forward in his third season in the league. This remains a deep defensive line and one that should continue playing well, especially against the run.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Jets are strong on the interior, the same is not true on the edge, so it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add an edge defender as part of their off-season shopping spree, for the 3rd off-season in a row, opting instead to only use a 3rd round pick on Jabari Zuinga to try to improve the position. Zuinga enters the league very raw, but still should compete for a significant role as a rookie, given the Jets’ issues at the position.

The Jets did hand out one new contract at the position, bringing back Jordan Jenkins on a 1-year, 3.75 million dollar deal. Jenkins isn’t a high level player, but he’s been a capable starter in 4 years with the Jets since being added in the third round in 2016, so it’s a bit surprising he didn’t have more of a market, especially since he’s still only going into his age 26 season. The Jets have to be happy to have him back at that price, as he’s been their best edge defender by default over the past 2 seasons and should continue doing so in 2020. He should also be considered the favorite to lead this team in sacks for the third straight season, after doing so with 7 sacks in 2018 and 8 sacks in 2019.

Holdovers Tarell Basham and Kyle Phillips will also be in the mix for snaps, after playing 590 and 549 respectively last season, but neither look likely to emerge as the edge defender they need opposite Jenkins. Basham has the most upside of the two and is coming off a better season as well. Originally a third round pick in 2017 by the Colts, Basham played just 231 snaps in 16 games in a year and a half with the Colts before being let go and ending up with the Jets. In his full first season in New York in 2019, he finally started to show why he had been drafted relatively high. 

Basham only managed 2 sacks last season, but had a solid 11.9% pressure rate overall, suggesting he should have had a few more sacks. He’s a one-year wonder as even a solid rotational player, but he has the upside to keep getting better, only in his age 26 season. Phillips, meanwhile, is a second year undrafted free agent who was solid against the run, but didn’t get any pressure on the quarterback, with a 5.8% pressure rate. After struggling in a larger role, he should be limited to situational work going forward, even in a thin position group.

One option for the Jets on the edge would be to go after free agent Jadeveon Clowney, who remains unsigned despite his high level talent because of a questionable injury situation and a significant salary demand. Clowney is reportedly willing to come down on his ask a little bit and the Jets should be interested if Clowney is willing to play for the Jets, as he’s the kind of player who can elevate this whole defense when healthy and he’d fill a tremendous need. The Jets don’t have a ton of cap space left with about 14 million, but they could release expendable veterans like guard Brian Winters if they needed to free up space for Clowney, who would provide significantly more value. For now, this is a very underwhelming edge group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Jets had a ton of injury problems last season, actually leading the league in adjusted games lost to injury. Most of the players who missed time with injury are either insignificant, no longer with the team, or still injured, so the Jets aren’t going to be getting nearly as much help from players returning from injury as you’d think, but one position where they should be significantly better in 2020 due to better health is linebacker. Not only did expected starter Avery Williamson tear his ACL before the season started, costing him his whole season, but his expected running mate CJ Mosley was limited to 114 snaps in two games by a groin injury. In their absence, Neville Hewitt, James Burgess, and Blake Cashman played 762, 662, and 424 snaps respectively and all three struggled mightily, finishing 95th, 70th, and 83rd respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF.

Mosley was the bigger loss, as, along with Le’Veon Bell, he was the prize of last off-season’s free agent spending spree, coming over from the Ravens on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid off ball linebacker in the league. It was an overpay, but there’s no denying he’ll make them a better defense if he can stay on the field. A first round pick in 2014, Mosley has been an above average starter basically since the word go, starting every game he’s played in his career and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in every season in the league. His salary is an overpay because he’s never finished higher than 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he’s miles better than what the Jets had at the position last season. He’s also still young, only going into his age 28 season, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t have a significant injury history, missing just 3 games in 5 seasons prior to last year.

Williamson, meanwhile, had only missed 1 game in 5 seasons in the league prior to last year, so he doesn’t have any significant injury history either and he’ll be a full year removed from the injury by the start of the season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he returned to form, only in his age 28 season. He’s not as good of a player as Mosley, but he’s started 75 of 79 career games, averaging 55.9 snaps per game, and he excels as a run stuffer, finishing 4th, 2nd, and 9th among off ball linebackers against the run in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. He’s not as good in coverage, but Mosley will be the primary coverage linebacker. There’s been talk that the Jets might move on from Williamson and his 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but considering how bad the Jets’ linebackers were in his absence last year, they would be better off moving on from someone else like Brian Winters if they need to free up cap space. Assuming they’re together and healthy, Mosley and Williamson should be a strong duo in the middle of this defense.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Cornerback is another position that the Jets didn’t really address significantly this off-season. They made the obvious choice to move on from free agent bust Trumaine Johnson and the rest of his 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal, immediately saving 11 million in cash for 2020 in the process, and they moved on from the also disappointing Darryl Roberts and his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary as well, but they didn’t do much to replace them, only signing veteran free agent Pierre Desir to a one-year deal and using a 5th round pick on Virginia’s Bryce Hall.

Desir is only set to make 3.75 million this season, but he looks likely to be a starter outside by default. Desir signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Colts just last off-season, after a career best year in 2018 when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but he fell to 91st out of 135 qualifying in 2019 and was cut ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season. It’s possible Desir could find his 2018 form again, but he’s never come close to being that good in any of his other 5 seasons in the league and he’s already going into his age 30 season, so he’s an underwhelming starting option.

Young cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Blessuan Austin will compete to start at the other outside spot, with Austin likely having the edge. Despite only being a sixth round pick, Austin flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked cornerback on 388 snaps. He didn’t play a single snap until week 10, but was a starter down the stretch and has earned a chance at being the starter long-term. Maulet also saw starts down the stretch last season, but was not as effective and he has played just 442 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league since going undrafted. He’s best as a depth cornerback.

The Jets did re-sign slot cornerback Brian Poole to a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, which could prove to be one of the best value signings of the off-season, as Poole was easily the Jets’ best cornerback last season and was arguably one of the slot cornerback in the NFL, allowing just 0.57 yards per route run on 417 slot coverage snaps, tied for lowest among qualifying cornerbacks. Also a capable run stopper and blitzer, Poole finished last season as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level player, but he was a capable slot cornerback in 3 seasons with the Falcons prior to joining the Jets and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so it’s surprising the Jets were able to keep him so inexpensively. He should remain their top cornerback in 2020, even if he isn’t quite as good as last year’s career best year.

Safety is a much stronger position than cornerback for the Jets, with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye being one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Adams gets all the attention and rightfully so, as the 2017 6th overall pick has finished 3rd and 4th among safeties on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively and doesn’t even turn 25 until later this season, but Maye was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and finished 21st among safeties this past season. He wasn’t as good as a rookie, but neither was Adams and Maye showed signs of his eventual 2019 breakout season during an injury plagued 2018 season, when he was PFF’s 11th ranked safety on 393 snaps in 6 games. 

Assuming both stay healthy, they should remain a high level safety duo and one or both could easily take another step forward. The Jets used a 3rd round pick on Ashtyn Davis to give them strong depth at the position as well, but unfortunately his addition could be a sign that the Jets aren’t planning on re-signing both Adams and Maye when their rookie contracts expire. Adams’ name has already been thrown around in trade talks with two years left on his deal and, while his price tag is expected to be high (a first round pick and more) it wouldn’t be a surprise if a team decided that was worth it and made a move. For a team that has largely unsuccessfully spent their money on outside free agents over the past few off-seasons, it would be a huge mistake to let any of the few talented homegrown players on this roster leave. For now, the Jets have a great safety trio that boosts this whole secondary, but that might not be the case for long.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jets finished last season on a nice run, but their schedule gets significantly tougher this year, so they’ll have to improve if they want to continue being competitive. They have the potential to do that, but much of that relies on quarterback Sam Darnold taking a step forward, as this is still an underwhelming roster around the quarterback position. They Jets spent a lot of money in free agency and should have better injury health this year than last year, but they didn’t sign any high level players and, outside of CJ Mosley, Chris Herndon, and Avery Williamson, they aren’t getting much in terms of injury reinforcements, as many of the players who missed time last season are irrelevant, gone, or still injured. Barring a big breakout year from Sam Darnold, this team looks unlikely to take the next step and become a playoff contender. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 70.90

Defensive Score: 74.05

Total Score: 72.48

New England Patriots 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In easily the biggest move of the off-season, Tom Brady in his first ever free agency after 20 years in New England decided to head south and join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady and head coach Bill Belichick had been the most stable and successful head coach and quarterback duo in NFL history over the past two decades, winning a record 6 Super Bowls and 36 more regular season games than any other team in the league over the past 19 seasons. Somehow, their second decade together was more dominant than the first, with a ridiculous 78.1% regular season winning percentage, an average of 2.3 wins per season more than the next best team. In fact, the second best team the Green Bay Packers were closer to being sub-.500 than to surpassing the Patriots’ win total.

Despite all their success together, it isn’t all that surprising that the two parted ways this off-season. The Patriots won 12 games in 2019, but ran out of steam after a 8-0 start and got eliminated in the wild card round for the first time since the 2009 season. Because they’ve been aggressive in restructuring contracts to create short-term cap space over the past 5 seasons, the Patriots lacked the financial flexibility to give Brady the contract he was looking for this off-season and even if they kicked the can forward another year on their cap problems, they wouldn’t have been able to afford the upgraded weapons Brady was seeking in the passing game. 

The Buccaneers had the cap space to add the recently unretired Rob Gronkowski to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL to begin with, they have a seemingly up and coming young defense, and they have a well respected coach in Bruce Arians who has a proven track record with veteran quarterbacks. The Patriots, meanwhile, couldn’t afford to bring back key linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins on defense even without re-signing Brady or signing a veteran replacement and did little to upgrade their roster in general in free agency. 

Despite that, they still have among the least cap space in the league going into the 2020 season. That doesn’t mean they are spending a lot of money on players, however, as they have the 7th lowest payroll in the NFL in terms of actual cash spend. Not only do they have the 4th most cap space committed to players not on the team of any team in the NFL, they have several other players deep into their contracts that have significant dead money making up their cap hit after years of restructuring contracts to fit consistent Super Bowl quality rosters under the cap for the past 4-5 seasons. The credit card is coming due for the Patriots.

The good news is that they’re paying it off in one season, with a projected 92 million in cap space for 2021 as of right now, 4th most in the NFL. The Patriots may not have Tom Brady anymore, but for the first time in his tenure as Patriots coach/GM, Belichick will have close to unlimited resources to build this team the way he wants to build it through free agency next off-season. Belichick has rarely had the financial flexibility to make big external signings, but if the addition of Stephon Gilmore a few off-seasons ago was any indication, Belichick can find value at the top of the market just like he can in the lower tiers of free agency.

It’s not all bad news for the Patriots in the short-term either. Even with one of the lightest payrolls in the NFL, this isn’t a bad roster overall and Bill Belichick has proven time and time again that he can get the most out of his players. That probably doesn’t mean contending for a Super Bowl with this roster, but there are reasons to think this can still be a competitive team. How competitive will come down to what the Patriots have in their unknown under center, second year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who looks poised to get the first crack at replacing Brady after the Patriots didn’t add any meaningful competition for him this off-season aside from bringing back long time backup Brian Hoyer. There is talk the Patriots could give Cam Newton a look when they are able to work him out and test his surgically repaired foot and shoulder, but the Patriots’ financial situation makes that unlikely unless Newton is willing to take a significant pay cut. 

Despite having arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, the Patriots actually invested pretty heavily in the quarterback position through the draft throughout Brady’s tenure in New England. Including Stidham, a fourth round pick in 2019, the Patriots have used five picks in the 4th round or higher on a quarterback since 2008, only trailing the Jets and Browns (6) over that stretch. Ryan Mallett and Kevin O’Connell washed out of the league, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett were outlasted by Brady and were starting quarterbacks elsewhere in 2019, leaving Stidham to be the one to finally get a chance long-term in New England.

Stidham (133th) wasn’t as highly drafted as Garoppolo (62) or Brissett (91) and the track record of quarterbacks taken outside of the top-3 rounds over the past couple decades is very unimpressive, but Belichick has proven to be noticeably better than average at identifying quarterback talent late in the draft. Since 2000, just 12 quarterbacks who have fallen out of the first 3 rounds of the draft have thrown more than 1400 pass attempts in their career. Belichick has identified three of them, taking Tom Brady in the 6th round in 2000 and adding Matt Cassel in the 7th in 2005 and Brian Hoyer as an undrafted free agent in 2009. 

Brissett and Garrappolo were higher picks, but it’s still unusual for 2nd and 3rd round quarterbacks to be consistent starters in the NFL. Along with Brady, Brissett and Garrappolo were 3 of just 11 quarterbacks who were not originally first round picks that attempted more than 400 passes last season. Mallett and O’Connell are examples that show Belichick isn’t perfect, but it’s clear he’s better than your average NFL decision maker at identifying quarterback talent after the first round. 

Also in the case of Mallett and O’Connell, Belichick seemed to recognize his mistake pretty quickly with both quarterbacks. O’Connell lasted just one season with the team and only threw 6 passes despite Brady missing that season with a torn ACL. Mallett lasted three seasons, but didn’t become the backup until year 2 and threw just 4 total passes before being traded for a 6th round pick. Stidham, on the other hand, was the backup as a rookie and would not have gotten to this point in the off-season as the de facto starting quarterback unless he’s impressed Belichick behind the scenes, so he’s likely more similar to Brissett or Garoppolo as a prospect than he is to Mallett or O’Connell.

Coming out of Auburn University, Stidham was seen as a bit of a boom or bust prospect. He was highly recruited out of high school and flashed early in his career with Baylor, before transferring in the aftermath of the Baylor athletics scandal. In his first year at Auburn, Stidham was highly productive leading one of the better teams in the country and looked like a potential future first round pick, before falling off statistically with a worse supporting cast in his second season in 2018 and falling in the draft as a result. 

Still, Stidham has an NFL arm and is experienced against the toughest defensive competition in college football in the SEC and, even in his down year, he rarely made significant mistakes. He never threw more than 6 interceptions in a season and had a career 1.53% interception rate, despite frequently throwing downfield and averaging 8.51 yards per attempt. He was a work in progress coming into the league, but all indications are that his progress has been significant behind the scenes.

Stidham might not be the next Tom Brady, but he doesn’t have to be the greatest quarterback of all-time to compete for Super Bowls. For the first 3 Super Bowl victories of his career, Brady wasn’t quite the quarterback he’d turn into later, leading teams built around defense. Brady arguably got better every season of his career before peaking around 40 but, as impressive as Brady has been in fighting off regression for most of his career, he started to show signs of falling off last season, so Stidham’s isn’t exactly replacing a prime quarterback.

Brady finished the 2019 season with his lowest QB rating in 13 seasons and his lowest YPA in 17 seasons and he was even worse later in the season, completing 56.6% of his passes for an average of 5.91 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions from week 9 on. The Patriots won 12 games, but their defense, which had the best first down rate allowed in the NFL by a wide margin at 29.64%, covered for an offense that ranked 21st at 34.70%, including 23rd at 33.73% from week 6 on.

Issues with his offensive supporting cast were part of the reason for his lack of production, but it wasn’t just statistically that Brady dropped off, as the “eyeball” test showed some regression as well. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season. 

For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age. Brady has defied the odds before, but going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory, with no quarterback ever throwing more than 10 passes in his age 43 season. 

Even with a lack of financial flexibility, the Patriots could have still made Brady a similar offer to the one the Buccaneers gave him if they felt he would continue playing at a high level, but it would have almost certainly have meant parting ways with franchise tagged offensive lineman Joe Thuney, and Belichick thought purely from a football perspective, guaranteeing top quarterback money for a quarterback in his age 43 and age 44 seasons wasn’t in his best interest, which may prove to be the case if Brady continues declining like he did down the stretch last season. Stidham is close to a complete wild card and obviously comes with a bigger downside, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he wasn’t much of a dropoff from what Brady was last season.

As I mentioned, the Patriots did very little to improve their offensive supporting cast in free agency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Stidham will have as bad of an offensive supporting cast as Brady did last season, as they should be significantly healthier after losing the 3rd most games to injury on offense of any team in the league last season, which doesn’t even take into account that top-2 wide receivers Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu played most of the second half of the season and their playoff loss through seriously limiting injuries. 

Their defense suffered some major losses and should have more injuries after losing the fewest games to injury of any defense in the league in 2019, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots finished better than the 21st they finished in first down rate in 2019 on offense, if Stidham can show some promise in his first year and his supporting cast can stay relatively healthy. All this being said, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a lot more uncertainty at the game’s most important position for the Patriots than they’ve had in decades.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Probably the biggest loss of the season for the Patriots’ offense in 2019 was center David Andrews, who was ruled out for the entire season with blood clots last off-season. He’s expected to make a full recovery, which is great news for him personally, but also great news for the Patriots’ offense in 2020. Andrews was one of the better centers in the league before going down and he was badly missed by a team that fell from 4.26 in yards per rushing attempt in 2018 to 3.81 in 2019. 

An undrafted free agent in 2015 and a bit of a late bloomer, Andrews finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2017 and their 11th ranked center in 2018, holding his own in pass protection and excelling as a run blocker. In his absence, backup Ted Karras was PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38 qualifiers. Only going into his age 28 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Andrews return to form if his medical issues are behind him, which would be a big boost for this offense. With Karras gone and no clear backup on the depth chart, they can’t afford to lose him again. 

Left tackle Isaiah Wynn also missed significant time with injury, and was limited to just 7 starts in the regular season. While Andrews’ absence hurt their run game significantly, Wynn’s absence hurt their pass game significantly, as Wynn is an above average pass protector and was replaced by veteran journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who finished 58th out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF and allowed a team 6 sacks despite making just 9 starts. A first round pick in 2018, injuries have been the story of Wynn’s career thus far, as he missed his entire rookie year with an achilles tear as well.

Even when on the field he has left something to be desired in the run game, but he’s shown a lot of promise in pass protection and, still only in his age 24 season, could easily take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league if he can finally stay on the field. If not, they’d likely turn to Yodny Cajuste, a 2019 3rd round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injuries of his own. Cajuste has upside as well, as he could have gone much higher in the draft if not for injury concerns. He’s a complete unknown at this point, but he has more upside than most backup left tackles and only has to beat out bottom of the roster talent Korey Cunningham for the swing tackle role with Newhouse gone.

The rest of this offensive line stayed relatively healthy, with right tackle Marcus Cannon and right guard Shaq Mason missing a game a piece and left guard Joe Thuney making all 16 starts for the fourth straight season since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016. Now at the end of his cheap rookie deal, Thuney seemed likely to depart in free agency, but the Patriots somewhat surprisingly kept him off the open market with the franchise tag, even though doing so meant they wouldn’t be able to make Tom Brady a competitive offer. 

The Patriots have used the franchise tag several times in the Belichick era, but there are only four other instances of Belichick using it on a non-special teamer he intended to keep (Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones were tagged and traded), so Thuney getting tagged is somewhat of a rarity. Belichick clearly values his reliability and the continuity of keeping this offensive line together and, with 3 straight seasons in the top-14 among guards on PFF, including a career best 5th in 2019, it’s hard to argue Thuney doesn’t deserve a top of market deal, still in his prime in his age 28 season.

Shaq Mason was given close to a top of the market extension two off-seasons ago, re-signing for 45 million over 5 years, but that looks like a bargain now. Now only the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, Mason has finished in the top-12 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at #1 in 2018, and is still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. Mason still has 4 years left under team control and doesn’t project to have a cap number higher than 5% of the cap in any of those seasons, so he has one of the better veteran contracts in the league. His average salary rank will continue to fall as he gets further into his contract and other guards sign for more money.

Assuming Wynn and Andrews are healthy, the biggest question mark on this offensive line is right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is going into his age 32 season and coming off of his lowest rated season on PFF since before he became a full-time starter back in 2015. He still finished around middle of the pack at his position, but appears to be on the decline, with his PFF grade falling in each of the past 3 seasons. He could have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter, but it’s possible the Patriots view Cajuste as the future on the right side if he’s over his injury. Overall, this has the potential to be one of the better offensive lines in the league if healthy, but their depth is suspect if injuries strike again, especially on the interior. Using what little cap space they have left on some reliable veteran depth would be a good idea.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Patriots also dealt with a lot of injuries in the receiving corps last season as well, most prominently Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, who were supposed to be their two leading receivers. Edelman didn’t miss a game and Sanu only missed one, but both were playing very banged up down the stretch. Sanu, a mid-season acquisition from the Falcons, caught 10 passes in his 2nd game with the team week 9, but suffered an ankle injury and didn’t surpass 35 receiving yards in a game the rest of the way, averaging just 0.66 yards per route run over that stretch. 

Edelman, meanwhile, was dealing with shoulder, knee, and rib injuries by season’s end and, though he still finished with a 100/1117/6 slash line and was one of 5 receivers to have 100+ receptions, he averaged just 34.3 receiving yards per game in the final 3 games of the season and the Patriots playoff loss to the Titans, a game in which he significantly cost the Patriots with key drops. It’s not a coincidence that Sanu and Edelman’s drop offs due to injuries coincided with this team’s drop off down the stretch last season. Having both healthier this season should be a boost to this team.

That’s not to say they are surefire locks to bounce back though, given that both are on the wrong side of 30, with Edelman entering his age 34 season and Sanu going into his age 31 season. Edelman has averaged a 102/1117/6 slash line per 16 games since 2013, but much of his value has come from his familiarity with Tom Brady and, with the combination of Brady leaving and Edelman getting up there in age, there is significant potential for statistical drop off for Edelman in 2020. That’s not to say he can’t remain a reliable possession receiver for Stidham for another couple seasons and he hasn’t shown much sign of drop off when healthy, but it’s likely his days of topping 1000 yards in a season, something he’s done three times in his career, are over.

Sanu is a few years younger than Edelman, but isn’t as proven, maxing out with a 66/838/4 slash line in 2018. That being said, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better this year than last year, given how ineffective he was after his ankle injury. Sanu is an unspectacular player, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and was on pace for a 75/715/2 slash line with the Falcons last season before the Patriots acquired him for a 2nd round pick to replace Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, who fell out of favor with the team. 

Part of the reason they parted with a premium pick to acquire Sanu is that he is owed just 6.5 million for the 2020 season, which allows the Patriots to get a capable receiver on a below market value rate in a year when they don’t have much financial flexibility. The Patriots could have acquired Emmanuel Sanders instead and, while that may have made sense in hindsight, Sanders commanded a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season, almost double what Sanu makes annually. Sanu doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worth more than his salary and he should give Stidham a reliable receiver, assuming he can stay healthy.

N’Keal Harry also dealt with injuries last season and, as a result, the first round rookie could never get into the flow of the offense and managed just a 12/105/2 slash line on 221 snaps in 7 games, while making several mistakes and generally struggling on the field. Harry still has a lot of upside though and could easily progress significantly in his 2nd year in the league and if he can stay healthy and get the necessary practice reps. He’s tentatively expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Sanu and Edelman, but he has the upside to finish higher than that on the team in receiving yards.

With Harry missing time and Sanu spending the first half of the season in Atlanta, Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Myers finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver. Both players were pretty mediocre. Dorsett is no longer with the team and likely won’t be missed, as he provided a deep threat (10.9 air yards per catch), but caught just 53.7% of his targets and averaged just 2.8 yards per catch after the catch. 

The Patriots essentially replaced him by taking a flier on free agent Marqise Lee, who had a 63/851/3 slash line in 2016 and a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017, but has missed 35 games in his other 4 seasons in the league and has caught just 3 passes the past 2 seasons due his inability to stay on the field. He and Jakobi Myers, a 2019 undrafted free agent with some upside, will be Harry’s biggest competition for the 3rd receiver job. Lee has some upside as well, still in his age 29 season, but durability is a major question mark. He also lacks Phillip Dorsett’s speed, leaving this receiving corps without a true speedster. Still, they should get more from their wide receivers this year simply because they are healthy and Dorsett won’t be missed significantly.

The Patriots should also get more out of their tight ends this year, though that’s not saying much, as they completed just 28 passes to tight ends in 2019. That’s a big difference for a team that was once famous for their two-tight end sets and that once employed arguably the greatest tight end of all-time in Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots didn’t make any big investments at the tight end position this off-season, but seem to be trying to go back to their two-tight end roots, taking a pair of tight ends in the 3rd round in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, similar to how Gronkowski and his less beloved former running mate were taken in the 2nd and 4th in 2010. It’s unlikely either tight end will put up big numbers as a rookie, but they will get plenty of opportunity to play and are both capable blockers, which is at least better than what they had last year. This receiving corps lacks a clear top option, but has some interesting depth and overall should be healthier and deeper than last year.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With Brady gone, the Patriots will almost definitely be putting more of an emphasis on the running game this season. They were unsuccessful on the ground last season, ranking 25th in the NFL with 3.81 yards per carry, but the Patriots should be healthier on the offensive line and added a pair of solid blocking tight ends through the draft. The Patriots could also get a healthier year from Sony Michel, who fell to 3.69 YPC on 247 carries after a 4.45 YPC average on 209 carries as a rookie in 2018, along with 336 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on 71 carries (4.73 YPC) during the Patriots’ 3-game Super Bowl run. Michel didn’t miss a game in 2019, but consistently played through injuries, which, combined with the Patriots’ inability to block, significantly hurt his effectiveness. The former first round pick still has a lot of upside going into his third season in the league.

Michel has durability issues dating back to college, however, so there’s no guarantee he can ever stay healthy for a full season. Perhaps the Patriots will get more from 2nd year running back Damien Harris, who was barely active as a 3rd round rookie last season. It’s tough to project a major role for a player who has barely played, but the Patriots invested a somewhat premium pick in him and could easily still be high on his upside now that he’s had a year in the system. Carries are there for the taking on a run heavier offense if he develops. He’ll compete with jack of all traits Rex Burkhead to be 2nd in line for carries. Burkhead’s versatility is nice and he likely has the inside track on a roster spot because of his special teams and pass catching ability, but his 4.13 career YPC is pretty underwhelming, so Harris is the higher upside option.

James White will also be sprinkled in as a runner, though he’ll primarily contribute as the passing down back. White has averaged just 60.8 carries per season over the past 4 seasons, but he’s averaged 68.8 catches per season over that stretch and has been a key part of the passing game. Brady was notorious for targeting backs in the passing game, so how many balls White catches without Brady is a question mark, but he should be secure in his passing down role with Michel and maybe Harris working as the early down backs and Burkhead playing a utility role. It’s a solid group, though one with a low floor if Harris doesn’t develop and Michel can’t stay healthy.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the Patriots had the best defense in the league last season and it wasn’t really close, which made up for their lack of offense for most of the season. Despite finishing just 21st in first down rate, the Patriots finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential thanks to a defense that not only ranked 1st in first down rate, but by a wide margin. The Patriots finished at 29.64%, while the 2nd ranked Steelers finished at 32.43%, which was actually closer to the 16th ranked Saints than to the Patriots. The Patriots didn’t have the toughest schedule, but even when adjusted for schedule, they were still by far the best defense statistically in the league last season.

Obviously the players deserve a lot of credit, but defense is also where Bill Belichick does his best coaching and he and this defensive staff, which stayed intact this off-season, did an incredible job of getting the most out of their players last season. Even with key losses of Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy and the players who will inevitably get injured after the Patriots’ defense had the best injury luck in the league last season, there is still a lot of reason to expect this to be a strong unit. They still have a lot of talent and added some interesting players to replace departures.

Aside from the losses of Van Noy and Collins, the Patriots also had a few other minor losses, including interior defender Danny Shelton. Shelton was New England’s highest ranked interior defender on PFF last season, but was primarily a big run stuffer and the Patriots found a decent replacement in 6-3 327 pound Beau Allen, who came over from Tampa Bay this off-season. Allen has only been a rotational player in his career, maxing out at 423 snaps in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so he might not take over Shelton’s full role (492 snaps), but he has a similar set skill and can be a decent situational player against the run. Byron Cowart, a 2019 5th round pick, could also have a bigger role with Shelton gone, after playing just 43 snaps as a rookie.

Veteran Lawrence Guy remains as the other starting interior defender in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. A journeyman rotational player before arriving in New England, Guy has developed into a strong run-stuffer with the Patriots, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons with the team. He wasn’t quite as good last season as he was in 2018 when he finished 7th among interior defensive linemen in run stopping grade, but he had a strong year nonetheless. He doesn’t see many passing downs, but he isn’t lost when he rushes the passer, with 5 sacks and a respectable 7.7% pressure rate over the past three seasons. Age is a bit of a factor going into his age 31 season, but he could easily have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a high level role player.

While Guy and Allen are expected to start in base packages, Adam Butler will again be their primary interior pass rush specialist, after seeing 374 of his 474 snaps in 2019 come on pass plays. Butler’s 6 sacks jump off the page for a part-time player, but his peripheral pass rush stats are not as impressive (3 hits, 7.1% pressure rate) and he’s a liability against the run on the few run snaps he does play. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2017, Butler has gotten marginally better in every year in the league and is clearly valued by the Patriots, who kept him on a 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent this off-season, but his 2019 pressure rate was barely above his career average of 6.7%. Barring a big step forward, I would expect more of the same from Butler in 2020.

Deatrich Wise is also in the mix as a situational pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2017, Wise was underwhelming in the first two seasons of his career on the edge, but flashed as a situational interior pass rusher last season, with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a hyper-efficient 21.5% pressure rate while playing about 22.7% of the snaps. At 6-5 275, Wise isn’t a prototypical interior defender, but he has the size to hold up inside and his quickness makes him a mismatch on the interior in obvious passing situations. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a larger role in 2020. The Patriots lack a dominant interior player, but this was not the strength of this defense last season and they have some interesting parts that fit together well.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The area of this defense most affected by off-season losses is the edge, as both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were hybrid linebacker/defensive ends that saw significant snaps as a pass rusher off the edge. Van Noy saw 86 coverage snaps to 449 pass rush snaps and managed 6.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate, while earning positive grades as a run stuffer and in coverage from Pro Football Focus and finishing as their 20th ranked edge defender. Collins, meanwhile, saw 343 coverage snaps to 189 pass rush snaps and had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and a 16.9% pressure rate. He struggled a bit against the run, but excelled in coverage and finished as PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker overall. Needless to say, it won’t be easy to replace either player.

Most directly, they will be replaced by 2nd round rookie Josh Uche and 3rd round rookie Anfernee Jennings. Both players fit the mold of the player they’re replacing, but it’s unrealistic to expect either to be as good from day one. I would expect them to be more role players than the 813 snaps and 814 snaps that Collins and Van Noy played respectively. The Patriots also took a flyer on ex-Jet Brandon Copeland in free agency and he comes with more upside than you’d expect, as he flashed on 611 snaps in 2018 before falling out of favor with a new coaching staff in 2019. He hasn’t done much else in other 6 seasons in the league, but he had 5 sacks and a 10.6% pressure rate in 2018 while earning positive grades from PFF against the run and in coverage, so he fits what the Patriots look for at the position and has some bounce back potential in a friendlier system, still only in his age 29 season.

Dont’a Hightower, John Simon, and Chase Winovich are holdovers that will also be in the mix for snaps on the edge. The latter is a 2019 3rd round pick who flashed on 291 snaps as a rookie and will almost definitely be getting a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He has some breakout potential. Simon is a 7-year veteran going into his age 30 season. He’s never topped 631 snaps in a season, but he has a proven track record as a versatile role player, contributing in coverage and against the run and pressuring the quarterback at a 10.6% rate for his career. His age is a minor concern, but he should remain effective on a similar amount of snaps as last season (481 snaps).

Hightower is a hybrid linebacker who also sees significant snaps as a middle linebacker in base packages, in addition to rushing the passer on 59.3% of his pass snaps in 2019. A first round pick in 2012, Hightower is now one of the longest tenured players on the team. Injuries have sapped his abilities in recent years after he was one of the best linebackers in the league in his prime and now he’s going into his age 30 season, but he still earned average or better grades for his coverage, run stopping, and pass rush ability last season and he’s still a very valuable versatile weapon for this defense. It’s also worth noting he’s only missed a couple games with injury the past two seasons, though he hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2013, so he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Losing Van Noy and Collins hurts this unit, but the Patriots still have an intriguing group of edge players.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Dont’a Hightower will also see snaps as a traditional middle linebacker in this defense, although third year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is their best pure middle linebacker. He only played 275 snaps as season, despite playing all 16 games, but he has the opportunity to pick up vacated snaps left behind by situational run stuffer Elandon Roberts (202 snaps) and also Jamie Collins, who occasionally played some traditional linebacker in this defense as well. 

Bentley has thus far only played 413 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2018, but he’s played well in limited opportunities, earning positive grades from Pro Football Focus in both seasons in the league. His lack of playing time hasn’t really been his fault either, as he was limited to 3 games by injury as a rookie after earning a starting role in the pre-season and then was simply buried on the depth chart on a deep defense last season and couldn’t get more than a rotational role. With an opportunity for a larger role in 2020, he has breakout potential in his 3rd season in the league.

The Patriots also like to drop a 3rd safety down and play him as a linebacker in a lot of situations, which makes up for their lack of depth at the linebacker spot. Patrick Chung played 83.2% of his coverage snaps in the box last season and the Patriots signed ex-Charger safety Adrian Phillips, who has played 76.6% of his coverage snaps in the box over the past 2 seasons. The Patriots are very deep at the safety position, so expect Chung and Phillips to play significant snaps as linebackers.

Chung has been in New England for 10 of his 11 NFL seasons, but finished below average on PFF for just the 3rd time in those 10 seasons last season, seemingly due to nagging injuries that he played through after a good start to the season. Now going into his age 33 season, his age is becoming a concern, which is likely part of why the Patriots brought in Phillips. Phillips is a prototypical Belichick defensive back because of his versatility, not just to play linebacker, but cornerback and special teams as well. 

Phillips came as a bit of a bargain as a free agent this off-season because injuries limited him to 7 games last season, but he earned positive grades in 2017 and 2018 on 521 snaps and 685 snaps respectively and he played well while on the field last season as well. Still only in his age 28 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Phillips play his best football in a scheme that fits his abilities very well. He could easily take playing time away from Chung and be close to a full-time player even without a set position. The Patriots lack traditional linebacker depth, but have enough versatile players at other positions to cover and have a pair of players in Bentley and Phillips who have a lot of potential in this scheme. 

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Patriots are very deep at the safety position and that is true of their secondary in general. The Patriots traded away Duron Harmon, who played pretty well on 657 snaps last season, but not only did they add Phillips this off-season, they also used a 2nd round pick on Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger. Dugger might not play a ton of snaps as a rookie, but he should have a role. Dugger could also be Devin McCourty’s long-term replacement, as McCourty is now going into his age 33 season. A versatile player who played 53% of his snaps in the box last season, McCourty is also a ball hawk who finished last season 4th in the league with 5 interceptions and has 26 since entering the league as a first round pick in 2010, 7th most in the NFL over that stretch. 

Age will catch up to McCourty eventually and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off a little bit in 2020, but he still finished 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season, his 7th season in the top-19 among safeties in the past 8 seasons. Even with as much depth as the Patriots have at this position, don’t expect him to come off the field much. 2019 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams could also be in the mix for snaps at safety, although that’s mostly because the big 6-4 208 pound cornerback doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time at his natural position, which is also a deep position for the Patriots. Williams played just 80 snaps last season and, despite being a high draft pick, isn’t a roster lock in a deep secondary, especially after an off-season drug arrest.

The Patriots go four deep at cornerback as well, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Cornerback is arguably the toughest position in the NFL to be consistently dominant at and outside of Gilmore no other cornerback finished in the top-14 at the position on PFF in both 2018 and 2019, but Gilmore finished in the top-5 in both seasons and has allowed less than 50% completion in both seasons with a league leading 40 combined pass deflections over that stretch (no one else has more than 33). Gilmore also finished 24th among cornerbacks in his first season in New England in 2017 and 23rd in 2014, as he was a solid cornerback with the Bills before turning into the top cornerback in the league in New England. His age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued to dominate.

Behind Gilmore on the depth chart, roles are up for grabs, with Jonathan Jones, JC Jackson, and Devin’s twin brother Jason McCourty all competing for playing time. The Patriots use four cornerbacks at the same time somewhat regularly, so all four saw playing time last season, with McCourty having the fewest snaps at 474 only because he was limited to 12 games by injury. Expect them to all have roles again in 2020.

Jones is likely locked into the primary slot role, where he played 68.5% of his 619 snaps last season. Jones went undrafted in 2016, but saw 438 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and has seen his snap total in each of the two seasons since. Last season was also his best season, as he finished as Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked cornerback overall. He excels as a run stopper off the edge, but he also ranked in the top half among cornerbacks in yards per route run allowed on the slot and ranked 13th with 303 slot coverage snaps.

Jackson is also a former undrafted free agent, being signed by New England in 2018. He’s been a quick riser though, playing 395 snaps as a rookie and 682 snaps last season, while earning positive grades from PFF in both seasons. Jackson was PFF’s 47th ranked cornerback last season and could easily set a career high in starts in 2020 after starting 5 as a rookie in 6 last season. He has some breakout potential even if he’s not an every snap player in every matchup.

McCourty is the veteran of the bunch, obviously going into his age 33 season like his brother. A versatile chess piece who can play inside, outside, and some safety, McCourty should find somewhere to play in this secondary. An underrated player throughout his career, McCourty has finished in the top-22 among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 of the past 10 seasons, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Being an excellent run stuffer has a lot to do with it, but he’s also earned positive coverage grades from PFF in all 7 of those seasons as well. Age is a concern though, especially since he’s had some injuries in recent years, but he won’t need to play every down. This is probably the deepest and most talented secondary in the league.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The big story around the Patriots is Tom Brady’s departure, but replacement Jarrett Stidham might not a big downgrade considering the way Brady played down the stretch last season and the Patriots should be healthier on offense around the quarterback this season, most notably on an offensive line that is one of the league’s best when their starting five are in the lineup. The bigger concern is their defense, which lost two of their best players in free agency in Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins as well as a few lesser players, and that is unlikely to have as few injuries in 2020 as in 2019, when they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Last season a dominant defense carried a mediocre offense to 12 wins, a division title, and a 3rd place finish in first down rate differential.

How close they come to that in 2020 will primarily be dependent on how much Belichick can coach up a less talented group. I like some of the replacements they added this off-season, but they had very little financial flexibility to add significant replacements and the rookies might not be able to contribute right away. The Patriots are severely handicapped by their financial situation right now and figure to be worse than they’ve been in a couple decades and not just because of the loss of Brady. Fortunately, it should only be temporary, given how much money the Patriots will have available next off-season, and even with a small payroll, this could still be a competitive football team in a weak division in 2020, especially if Stidham can be a capable starting quarterback. 

The Patriots look poised to get more with less once again, even if that more is not as many wins as they’re used to. They have one of the toughest schedules in football, but primarily because of their first place schedule and their non-divisional schedule. They play in one of the easier divisions in the league, which increases their chances of claiming a playoff spot for the 12th straight season, as does the addition of a 3rd wild card spot. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.04

Defensive Score: 75.36

Total Score: 73.70

2020 NFL Mock Draft (Day 2 Re-Mock)

  1. Cincinnati Bengals – OT Ezra Cleveland (Boise State)

Teams typically pick another offensive player after drafting a quarterback in the first round. The Bengals are pretty set with skill position players, but they could definitely use help on the offensive line. Ezra Cleveland could have easily gone in the first round and could be an instant upgrade at the right tackle position.

  1. Indianapolis Colts – WR Denzel Mims (Baylor)

The Colts apparently had their eyes on Brandon Aiyuk, but the 49ers took him in the first round. Maybe they’ll target another wide receiver at 34, given how deep this wide receiver class is. They need another receiver for the long-term to go with TY Hilton and last year’s 2nd round pick Parris Campbell.

  1. Detroit Lions – DE Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State)

The Lions surprisingly didn’t move down from the 3rd pick, even though they likely still could have gotten Jeff Okudah a few picks later and even though they have needs all across the roster. They should just take the best available player left on the board at 35 and Yetur Gross-Matos, an expected first round pick, would make a lot of sense for them, given their need for another defensive end opposite Trey Flowers.

  1. New York Giants – S Grant Delpit (LSU)

Surprisingly no safeties went in the first round. It’s not a great safety class, but one or both of Grant Delpit and Xavier McKinney were expected to go in the first. Perhaps the Giants will be the first team to take a safety this year and select one of those two to start opposite Jabrill Peppers. This could be either Delpit or McKinney, but Delpit seems to be higher rated overall.

  1. New England Patriots – OLB Zach Baun (Wisconsin)

The Patriots traded down from 23, which made sense because they wouldn’t have picked again until 87 had they selected there. They may still be able to get whoever they were targeting at 23 at 37. Baun would have made some sense for them in the first round and is a much better value at this point in the draft. He’s a hybrid defensive end/linebacker and will fit in perfectly in New England in the old Kyle Van Noy role.

  1. Carolina Panthers – CB Jaylon Johnson (Utah)

Top cornerback James Bradberry was a big loss in free agency and the Panthers didn’t do anything to replace him. They’re very thin at cornerback, so a rookie could play a big role. This could easily be a position they target at the top of the second round.

  1. Miami Dolphins – RB D’Andre Swift (Georgia)

Some thought the Dolphins were going to take a running back at 30 after moving down with the Packers, but they went cornerback instead. Maybe they are targeting a running back with this pick. They have probably the thinnest running back depth chart in the league, so they have to address the position at some point.

  1. Houston Texans – DT Ross Blacklock (TCU)

The Texans are pretty thin on the defensive line after losing DJ Reader to the Bengals in free agency. They don’t have many picks to work with because of their asinine trade spree over the past year with Bill O’Brien in charge of everything, but they need to address the defensive line at some point. Blacklock would be a good value if he fell to 40.

  1. Cleveland Browns – DE AJ Epenesa (Iowa)

The Browns could use a long-term bookend for Myles Garrett. Olivier Vernon is highly paid (15.5 million in 2020) and in the final year of his contract, so he might not be around much longer and they don’t have great depth at the position either.

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars – RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin)

The Jaguars are reportedly trying to trade Leonard Fournette. Even if they end up keeping him for 2020, he’s going into the final year of his contract, so I don’t expect him to be around beyond this season. The Jaguars lack another good option behind him on the depth chart though, so they’ll have to address this position in the draft.

  1. Chicago Bears – CB Kristian Fulton (LSU)

The Bears had to move on from starting cornerback Prince Amukamara this off-season for cap purposes and didn’t have the financial flexibility to find a real replacement. If the season was to start today, they’d likely be starting former Steelers first round pick Artie Burns. The Bears didn’t have their first rounder because of the Khalil Mack trade, but they have two picks in the 2nd round and should look to add a cornerback who could play immediately if needed.

  1. Indianapolis Colts – S Xavier McKinney (Alabama)

The Colts could use a better starting safety option opposite Malik Hooker. Xavier McKinney was considered a potential first round pick and top safety off the board, so he’d be a great value at this point.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – RB JK Dobbins (Ohio State)

The Buccaneers continue adding help for Tom Brady, after drafting offensive tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round. Running back is a big need as well, with the Buccaneers needing a more reliable complement to Ronald Jones. Look for them to take one of the day 2 running backs.

  1. Denver Broncos – OT Josh Jones (Houston)

The Broncos got young Drew Lock some receiving help in the first round with Jerry Jeudy. Now they get him some help upfront. Left tackle Garret Bolles has been a disappointment since going in the first round in 2017 because of his extreme tendency to commit penalties and could be on his last chance in 2020. Jones gives them insurance at left tackle and should have the versatility to kick inside to guard if needed.

  1. Atlanta Falcons – DE Julian Okwara (Notre Dame)

The Falcons passed on K’Lavon Chaisson in the first round and filled a bigger need at cornerback, but they could still use edge rush help. Look for them to target this position on day 2 as they continue to try to build their defense.

  1. New York Jets – WR Tee Higgins (Clemson)

Most expected the Jets to go wide receiver in the first round, but they took an offensive lineman instead. Perhaps they love the depth of this wide receiver class and think they can get a great value on day 2. Tee Higgins in the middle of the 2nd round would qualify as a great value and would be a big addition for a Jets team that lacks a long-term #1 receiver and needs an immediate option to play in 3-wide receiver sets with Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers – QB Jacob Eason (Washington)

If there’s one thing the Steelers learned in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence last season, it’s that neither Mason Rudolph nor Devlin Hodges are their quarterback of the future. With Roethlisberger going into his age 38 season and coming off of a serious injury, the Steelers need a good backup plan and a long-term option at the position.

  1. Chicago Bears – WR KJ Hamler (Penn State)

The Bears need to find a wide receiver to play in three wide receiver sets with Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. Hamler may remind Matt Nagy of Tyreek Hill, or at least of Taylor Gabriel.

  1. Dallas Cowboys – S Antoine Winfield (Minnesota)

The Cowboys had CeeDee Lamb fall into their lap in the first round, but had that not happened many were expecting them to take a defensive back. Winfield could either provide depth at cornerback or play safety long-term, with HaHa Clinton-Dix only on a one-year deal.

  1. Los Angeles Rams – OLB Josh Uche (Michigan)

The Rams lost both Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews this off-season. They signed Leonard Floyd, but he’s not much of a pass rusher and he’s only on a one-year deal. Samson Ebukam, the other projected starter, is also set to hit free agency next off-season. They desperately need a talented young edge rusher.

  1. Philadelphia Eagles – S Kyle Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne)

The Eagles lost Malcolm Jenkins this off-season and didn’t bring in an obvious replacement. After addressing their glaring need at wide receiver in the first round, I expect the Eagles to turn their attention to defensive needs like safety on day 2.

  1. Buffalo Bills – DE Jabari Zuinga (Florida)

The Bills lost Shaq Lawson and Lorenzo Alexander this off-season, so they need to replenish depth at the edge defender spot. They signed Mario Addison in free agency, but need one more player in the mix. A young player makes sense, with Addison going into his age 33 season and fellow starter Jerry Hughes going into his age 32 season.

  1. Baltimore Ravens – WR Michael Pittman (USC)

The Ravens aren’t a passing team and when they do pass they mostly feature tight ends, but the Ravens still need to get Lamar Jackson a reliable wide receiver option opposite Marquise Brown. Their lack of talent at wide receiver was evident in their playoff loss to the Titans. Pittman is a bigger player who would complement the speedier Brown well.

  1. Miami Dolphins – DT Marlon Davidson (Auburn)

The Dolphins pick for the 5th time already, but still have plenty of needs they can fill. Davidson is a great value at this point and would provide much needed depth behind Christian Wilkins and Davon Godcheaux at defensive tackle.

  1. Los Angeles Rams – MLB Logan Wilson (Wyoming)

Dante Fowler isn’t the only linebacker the Rams lost to a big contract elsewhere this off-season, with middle linebacker Cory Littleton signing with the Raiders. They badly need help at the middle linebacker spot in his absence, so this should be a priority position for them to address on day 2.

  1. Minnesota Vikings – DE Curtis Weaver (Boise State)

The Vikings replaced Stefon Diggs and Xavier Rhodes in the first round, but still have other key departures to replace, including defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen could still return, but he’s going into his age 33 season, so the Vikings need to think about the future at defensive end either way.

  1. Seattle Seahawks – DT Jordan Elliott (Missouri)

The Seahawks re-signed Jarran Reed, but they lost Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods, leaving them thin at the defensive tackle position. Unless the Seahawks bizarrely take another linebacker, defensive tackle will likely be a position they focus on during the draft’s 2nd day.

  1. Baltimore Ravens – G Matt Hennessy (Temple)

Losing right guard Marshal Yanda to retirement is a huge blow because he was still playing at a high level in 2019. Look for the Ravens to replace him early in the draft. 

  1. Tennessee Titans – CB Trevon Diggs (Alabama)

The Titans haven’t totally closed the door on re-signing Logan Ryan, but he wants a significant contract and the Titans already have significant money committed to Malcolm Butler and will soon need to lock-up fellow starting cornerback Adoree Jackson long-term on a big contract. The Titans could take a cornerback on day 2 to give them a cheaper option and close the door on bringing back Ryan.

  1. Green Bay Packers – TE Cole Kmet (Notre Dame)

The Packers almost have to get Aaron Rodgers some help on day 2 right? It’s hard to imagine Rodgers is taking the news well that his long-term replacement has been drafted, but maybe the Packers can smooth things over by getting him some much needed pass catchers. Even if that’s not how they’re thinking about it, the Packers have pressing needs at wide receiver and tight end, so it would make sense either way.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs – G John Simpson (Clemson)

The Chiefs need cornerback help, but if there isn’t a cornerback who fits the range, the Chiefs won’t force it in the 2nd round. Instead, they could address a need like the offensive line, where they have an open spot at left guard. Simpson could compete immediately with Andrew Wylie for the starting job.

  1. Seattle Seahawks – OT Matt Peart (Connecticut)

The Seahawks added Brandon Shell in free agency, but he’s a borderline starting option and could be pushed by a rookie. They also need a long-term option at left tackle, where Duane Brown is going into his age 35 season.

  1. Cincinnati Bengals – MLB Malik Harrison (Ohio State)
  2. Washington Redskins – TE Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri)
  3. Detroit Lions – DT Justin Madubuike (Texas A&M)
  4. New York Jets – OLB Bradlee Anae (Utah)
  5. Carolina Panthers – OLB Akeem Davis-Gaither (Appalachian State)
  6. Miami Dolphins – OT Lucas Niang (TCU)
  7. New England Patriots – TE Adam Trautman (Dayton)
  8. Arizona Cardinals – OT Prince Tega Wanogho (Auburn)
  9. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Raekwon Davis (Alabama)
  10. Cleveland Browns – WR Gabe Davis (Central Florida)
  11. Indianapolis Colts – OLB Willie Gay (Mississippi State)
  12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OLB Terrell Lewis (Alabama)
  13. Denver Broncos – DE Neville Gallimore (Oklahoma)
  14. Atlanta Falcons – RB Cam Akers (Florida State)
  15. New York Jets – CB Darnay Holmes (UCLA)
  16. Las Vegas Raiders – G Robert Hunt (Louisiana)
  17. Las Vegas Raiders – QB Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma)
  18. Dallas Cowboys – DE Jonathan Greenard (Florida)
  19. Denver Broncos – WR Laviska Shenault (Colorado)
  20. Los Angeles Rams – WR Lynn Bowden (Kentucky)
  21. Detroit Lions – OT Ben Bartch (St. John’s MN)
  22. Buffalo Bills – RB AJ Dillon (Boston College)
  23. New England Patriots – S Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois)
  24. New Orleans Saints – WR Bryan Edwards (South Carolina)
  25. Minnesota Vikings – DT James Lynch (Baylor)
  26. Houston Texans – OLB Darrell Taylor (Tennessee)
  27. Las Vegas Raiders – OLB Jacob Phillips (LSU)
  28. Baltimore Ravens – OLB Alton Robinson (Syracuse)
  29. Tennessee Titans – OLB Khalid Kareem (Notre Dame)
  30. Green Bay Packers – WR Devin Duvernay (Texas)
  31. Denver Broncos – G Tyler Biadasz (Wisconsin)
  32. Kansas City Chiefs – CB Cameron Dantzler (Mississippi State)
  33. Cleveland Browns – DT Jason Strowbridge (North Carolina)
  34. New England Patriots – MLB Joe Bachie (Michigan State)
  35. New York Giants – OLB Alex Highsmith (Charlotte)
  36. New England Patriots – QB Jake Fromm (Georgia)
  37. Seattle Seahawks – TE Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic)
  38. Pittsburgh Steelers – RB Eno Benjamin (Arizona State)
  39. Philadelphia Eagles – OLB Davion Taylor (Colorado)
  40. Los Angeles Rams – RB Darrynton Evans (Appalachian State)
  41. Minnesota Vikings – G Jonah Jackson (Ohio State)
  42. Baltimore Ravens – RB Joshua Kelly (UCLA)

2020 NFL Mock Draft

1. Cincinnati Bengals – QB Joe Burrow (LSU)

The Dolphins are reportedly making a “godfather” option to the Bengals to move up to #1. They have the draft capital over the next two years to make a very appealing offer (although they wouldn’t have had to do this if they had benched Ryan Fitzpatrick for the final two games of the season), but the Bengals seem pretty set on Burrow, who they have been talking to weekly over video for the past month. Either way Burrow would be the pick here, most likely to Cincinnati, but you never know.

2. Washington Redskins – DE Chase Young (Ohio State)

There may be some trade chatter here too, but ultimately the Redskins are expected to stay put and take Chase Young, the draft’s consensus top defensive player. It would likely take a similar “godfather” offer from a team for the Redskins to be willing to move down and give up the opportunity to draft Young.

3. Miami Dolphins (TRADE) – QB Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)

I’ve had the Lions trading down from this spot since my initial mock draft and it seems likely to happen. Teams will want to move up to this spot to secure their favorite of the remaining quarterbacks and the Lions will want to move down because they have a bunch of needs and can still get one of their target defensive players a few spots later. The Dolphins have always been the favorite to move up here, assuming they want to, over teams like the Chargers, Jaguars, and Raiders. 

Not only do they have the fewest spots to move up, but they also have more draft capital than any team in the league. They have a whopping 5 first round picks in the next two drafts and, with four second round picks as well, they might not have to give up a single one of those first rounders to get this deal done. Draft day reports suggest a trade is close for the Dolphins to move up to this spot, either with an ultimate goal of moving up all the way to 1 or to secure their 2nd ranked quarterback on their board at 3. There has been a lot of smoke tying the Dolphins to both Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa, but I’m sticking with my original pick of Tua here.

4. Los Angeles Chargers (TRADE) – QB Justin Herbert (Oregon)

With Tua off the board, that could prompt one of the other teams looking at a quarterback to also move up in order to secure their quarterback. Like the Dolphins are favored to move up to 3, the Chargers should be favored to move up to 4. The Chargers don’t have as much draft capital as the Dolphins do, but with only two spots to move up, they should have enough to get this deal done. The Giants wouldn’t need a king’s ransom just to move down a couple spots and select a player they likely would have taken at 4. The Chargers like Tyrod Taylor as a short-term solution, but he’s going to be a free agent next off-season and a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract is the most valuable asset in football, so they won’t hesitate to move up to secure Herbert if they like him enough.

5. Detroit Lions (TRADE) – DT Derrick Brown (Auburn)

The Lions’ trade down works to perfection as they still have the same choices on defense as they would have had if they had stayed put at 3. I’ve gone back and forth between defensive tackle Derrick Brown and cornerback Jeff Okudah, who would both fill massive needs, with linebacker Isaiah Simmons also a possibility, but I’ve heard more tying Brown to the Lions in recent days than Okudah and this is a deeper cornerback class than defensive tackle class in the second round. With Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Mike Daniels all gone from last year’s team, the Lions badly need someone like Brown to go with free agent acquisition Danny Shelton and holdover Da’Shawn Hand.

6. New York Giants (TRADE) – OT Andrew Thomas (Georgia)

I’ve had the Giants taking a defensive player in the past, but there has been more buzz about an offensive tackle here lately. They need immediate help at right tackle and long-term help at left tackle, where Nate Solder is expensively paid and going into his age 32 season. They’ll likely have their pick of any of the top offensive tackles in this class and could start what some are predicting is going to be a run on tackles in the top-10. With the Chargers and Dolphins both taking quarterbacks, that run becomes less likely, but Thomas is still expected to hear his name called very early and he’d make sense at this spot for the Giants.

7. Carolina Panthers – OLB Isaiah Simmons (Clemson)

With Luke Kuechly’s sudden retirement, the Panthers have a big hole to fill at linebacker. Simmons is a similar player to Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, their other every down linebacker with Kuechly last year, which could make Simmons an odd fit on the Panthers, but I think the pairing could work. The Panthers would have as much speed and coverage ability at linebacker as any team in the league and could use one or the other as a safety or slot cornerback depending on the situation. Cornerback Jeff Okudah is also an option here, as the Panthers are in a good spot to sit back and pick between the defensive players who fall to them after the quarterbacks go high.

8. Atlanta Falcons (TRADE) – CB Jeff Okudah (Ohio State)

The Cardinals are also in a good spot to sit back and wait for a defensive player to fall to them, although not necessarily to take themselves. There is a lot of talk about the Falcons wanting to move up into the top-10 for a defensive player and the Cardinals, who lack a second round pick after trading it for DeAndre Hopkins, seem like an obvious trade partner. On the trade value chart, the Falcons giving up 16 and 47 to the Cardinals for 8 is about an even trade, so they won’t have to get terribly creative with this deal either. In the past I’ve had the Falcons moving up for Isaiah Simmons, but cornerback Jeff Okudah seems to be the target now if he slips out of the top-6.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars – CB CJ Henderson (Florida)

The Jaguars got leaped by the Falcons for this draft’s top cornerback Jeff Okudah, but Henderson is getting his own top-10 buzz of late, so they might be happy with either cornerback. With Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye both being traded, the Jaguars desperately need to reload at the cornerback position. Henderson could be their top cornerback even as a rookie. The Jaguars have another pick at 20, which they got for Ramsey, but they can’t afford to wait on a cornerback.

10. Cleveland Browns – OT Tristan Wirfs (Iowa)

I’ve had this as a trade spot in past mocks, with teams looking to leap the Jets for a wide receiver and the Browns potentially feeling they can still get a good tackle later in the first. That could still happen, but it would require a team being so in love with one particular wide receiver that they can’t sit back and wait for a deep wide receiver class to come to them, which may not happen. If the Browns stay put, they’ll have their choice of the remaining tackle prospects, with Wirfs possibly moving into the #2 spot after a dominant combine. Wherever the Browns pick, I’d be shocked if they took anything other than a left tackle, with a glaring hole in their starting lineup at that position and up to 6-7 offensive tackles projected to go off the board in round 1. 

11. New York Jets – WR CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma)

The Jets signed Breshad Perriman to replace Robby Anderson in free agency, but the Jets also need to replace free agent Demaryius Thomas in three wide receiver sets. Perriman is also only signed to a one-year deal and isn’t the long-term #1 option the Jets need to give Sam Darnols. If no one moves up into the top-10 for a wide receiver, the Jets could easily be the first team to dip into the wide receiver pool and take one at 11 overall. It’s between CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy to be the top wide receiver off the board, but recent buzz has had Lamb higher.

12. Las Vegas Raiders – WR Jerry Jeudy (Alabama)

The Jets take a wide receiver one pick earlier and now the Raiders follow suit by taking Jerry Jeudy. The Raiders added Antonio Brown for a reason last off-season and, while that didn’t work out, they definitely could have used his help opposite Tyrell Williams and still have a big need at that position after only taking a flier on Nelson Agholor in free agency this off-season. The Raiders found a steal with slot receiver Hunter Renfrow in the 5th round of the draft last year. Now they find an outside receiver.

13. Miami Dolphins (TRADE) – OT Jedrick Wills (Alabama)

The 49ers have a pair of first rounders after acquiring this pick from the Colts for DeForest Buckner, but they somehow don’t pick again until the 5th round, so they’ll almost definitely be looking to move down from one of their two first rounders in order to accumulate more picks. The Dolphins have already moved up to secure their quarterback, but they have so much draft capital that they can afford to move up again. They desperately need a left tackle to protect whoever their quarterback ends up being and it’s unlikely that one of the top-4 guys will still be there at 18. To make this move up, the Dolphins send the 49ers their 3rd and 4th round picks and the 49ers send back one of their three 5th rounders to the Dolphins.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OT Mekhi Becton (Louisville)

The Buccaneers landed Tom Brady and now will have to make sure they protect the soon-to-be 43-year-old. Right tackle is still a glaring hole with long-term veteran starter Demar Dotson still unsigned ahead of his age 35 season, so the Buccaneers may be planning on filling this hole early in the draft with one of the top tackle prospects.

15. Denver Broncos – WR Henry Ruggs (Alabama)

This draft class lacks a clear elite wide receiver prospect as it’s unlikely any wide receivers go before the 10th pick, but there could be as many as 7 wide receivers that go in the first round in total. The Broncos could easily be one of the teams that takes a wide receiver, as they don’t have much at the wide receiver position behind Courtland Sutton after trading away Emmanuel Sanders mid-season and not addressing this position in free agency.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars (TRADE) – DE K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU)

The Cardinals got this pick in their trade down with the Falcons, but they’re not done making moves. They have a young franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal and, as we’ve seen teams in that situation do in the past, they could be very aggressive about maximizing their chances of winning while their quarterback is still cheap. They’ve already added DeAndre Hopkins via trade, but they still have a projected 80 million in cap space for 2021, and could add another veteran like disgruntled Jaguars franchise player Yannick Ngakoue.

The Jaguars are currently looking for a first round pick and more for Ngakoue, but no one has offered them even a first round pick, so they may have to get creative with trade proposals for a player who clearly wants out. In this scenario, Jacksonville wouldn’t get the 16th pick straight up from the Cardinals, but they’d get the second rounder that the Cardinals got from the Falcons (47th) and a swap of the 20th pick and the 16th pick. 

In this trade, Ngakoue would be valued as equivalent to the 33rd overall pick on the trade value chart, which might be the most the Jaguars could hope for, and the Jaguars would have the ability to move up and grab a replacement for Ngakoue in K’Lavon Chaisson, who likely wouldn’t have been available at 20 (the Cowboys at 17 are known to like him). The Jaguars have now added a top cornerback prospect, a top edge rusher prospect, and still have another 2 picks in the top-50, their own second rounder and the Falcons’ second rounder.

17. Dallas Cowboys – WR Justin Jefferson (LSU)

The Cowboys get jumped for the defensive end they likely would have taken, so they address another need. The Cowboys had one of the most explosive passing games in the league last season, but without Randall Cobb, who signed with the Texans in free agency, they lack a good 3rd receiving option. The Cowboys should look to add a 3rd receiver or a pass catching tight end early in the draft to fill that need and with the wide receiver class being deeper than the tight end class I suspect they’d go that route early. Taking Jefferson here also has the added benefit of keeping him away from the division rival Eagles, who are known to be high on him.

18. San Francisco 49ers (TRADE) – DT Javon Kinlaw (Mississippi)

The 49ers trade down with the Dolphins and are still able to address their biggest need with a player who would have been in consideration at 13, so their trade worked out well. With DeForest Bucker being sent to the Colts in order to get that 13th pick in the first place, the 49ers are very thin at defensive tackle, so they will be happy if they can get a blue chip defensive tackle prospect from that pick and replenish later picks at the same time.

19. Las Vegas Raiders – CB AJ Terrell (Clemson)

The Raiders have added some nice young pieces on defense in the past couple drafts, but need to keep building their defense, especially the back seven. The Raiders are very thin at cornerback, so a highly drafted rookie can start for them from week 1. Their first pick at 12 is probably too high for a cornerback unless Okudah or Henderson fall, but cornerback is a strong possibility at 19.

20. Arizona Cardinals (TRADE) – OT Josh Jones (Houston)

The Cardinals trade down twice and, through a couple trades, essentially get the franchise tagged Yannick Ngakoue for doing so. Ngakoue won’t be cheap to keep long-term, but the Cardinals have an inexpensive franchise quarterback and the financial flexibility long-term to make an aggressive move like that to try to make a big leap as a team in Kyler Murray’s second season in the league. In addition to the cost of Ngakoue’s contract, the Cardinals miss out on one of the top-4 tackle prospects in this draft, but there’s enough depth at the position for the Cardinals to still find a needed upgrade at right tackle later in the first round.

21. Philadelphia Eagles – WR Denzel Mims (Baylor)

Wide receiver was a major problem for the Eagles in 2019. They should get more from 2019 2nd round pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson should hopefully be healthier next season, but they still need to address this position through the draft. Jeffery and Jackson are both injury prone and will be in their 30s next year with big salaries, so their days with the team may be numbered and they need insurance for them in the short-term.

22. Minnesota Vikings – DE Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State)

The Vikings got this pick from the Bills for Stefon Diggs. It’s a trade that makes sense for both sides. The Bills are in win now mode and need a legitimate #1 receiver like Diggs, while the Vikings are tight on cap space and are a run heavy team that doesn’t need to commit significant money to their quarterback and top-2 wide receivers. The move leaves the Vikings thin at wide receiver, but this is a deep wide receiver class and the Vikings have three picks in the first 2 rounds, so they don’t need to find a replacement for Diggs right away. Instead, they use this pick to replace Everson Griffen and fill a big need at defensive end.

23. New England Patriots – MLB Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma)

This could be a spot for a quarterback, but the Patriots seem to at least somewhat like Jarrett Stidham as a developmental prospect, so it makes more sense that the Patriots would add a veteran stopgap in free agency rather than using a high draft pick on a quarterback. Lost in the story of Brady’s departure from New England is the story of all of the Patriots losses at linebacker, with Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts signing elsewhere this off-season. The linebacker position should be a priority on draft day.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Jordan Love (Utah State)

The Saints clearly value Taysom Hill, giving him a first round tender this off-season, but even the first round tender is only worth 4.641 million, so that’s not necessarily a sign that they view him as a quarterback of the future. His salary is more than justifiable by his role as a “gadget” player and special teamer and it’s telling that when Drew Brees was hurt last year the Saints turned to a traditional quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and actually scaled Hill’s usage down significantly. If they don’t view Hill, who is already going into his age 30 season, as a long-term quarterback option, they may add one through the draft this year. We know the Saints were interested in taking Patrick Mahomes a few years ago before the Chiefs moved up ahead of them and took him. Jordan Love has drawn some comparisons to Mahomes as a prospect. He enters the league very raw, but would benefit from sitting a year or two on the bench behind Brees.

25. Minnesota Vikings – CB Jeff Gladney (TCU)

The Vikings have had a history of taking defensive backs early, even when they don’t need to, taking Xavier Rhodes in the first round in 2013, Trae Waynes in the first round in 2015, Mackenzie Alexander in the second round in 2016, and Mike Hughes in the first round in 2018. This off-season, they need to, so it would make sense that the Vikings would take another cornerback early. Waynes and Alexander both left as free agents this off-season, while Rhodes was a cap casualty after two down seasons. Hughes is still on his rookie deal, but has had an injury plagued two years in the league thus far. Even if he pans out, they still need a long-term starter opposite him.

26. Miami Dolphins – S Xavier McKinney (Alabama)

The Dolphins got this pick from the Texans for Laremy Tunsil, but one of their extra first round picks comes from their trade of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers, a trade the Dolphins never really wanted to have to make, and a trade the Dolphins seemed to regret after Fitzpatrick broke out with the Steelers. Without Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins lack an impact making safety, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they used one of their later two first round picks on the position.

27. Green Bay Packers (TRADE) – MLB Patrick Queen (LSU)

It wouldn’t be a trades mock draft if I didn’t include the Seahawks moving down. Somehow, the Seahawks have not drafted at their original pick in the first round since 2012 and over that stretch have selected just three times total in the first round, with one of those first rounders coming from the Chiefs in the Frank Clark trade. Expect them to trade down and accumulate more picks, possibly trading down more than once as they’ve done several times in recent years. The Packers moving up here to leap the Ravens for Patrick Queen makes sense. Both the Packers and Ravens desperately need middle linebacker help and the middle linebacker class drops off significantly after Murray and Queen.

28. Baltimore Ravens – G Cesar Ruiz (Michigan)

The Ravens miss out on the middle linebacker they likely would have been targeting here, so they address another need instead. Losing right guard Marshal Yanda to retirement is a huge blow because he was still playing at a high level in 2019. Look for them to replace him early in the draft. Ruiz is the consensus top interior offensive lineman in this draft and is on the 1st/2nd round border, possibly being pushed up into the first out of positional need in a thin guard class.

29. Tennessee Titans – OLB Zack Baun (Wisconsin)

The Titans need to improve their pass rush, with only one player on the roster having more than 5 sacks last season. Harold Landry, their 2018 2nd round pick, led the way with 9, but they need a long-term option opposite him. They signed Vic Beasley in free agency, but only on a one-year deal and he’s been highly inconsistent in the past. Even if he has a strong season in 2020, the Titans will likely still need a long-term option because Beasley could price himself out of the Titans’ range with a bounce back 2020 campaign.

30. Seattle Seahawks (TRADE) – DT Ross Blacklock (TCU)

The Seahawks re-signed Jarran Reed, but they lost Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods, leaving them thin at the defensive tackle position. The Seahawks could target that position after trading down. Blacklock would also make sense as their pick at 27 if they have to stay put.

31. San Francisco 49ers – OT Austin Jackson (USC)

The 49ers need a long-term replacement for Joe Staley, who is going into his age 36 season. Jackson can start his career at right guard, where he could be an immediate starter, and would be a long-term bookend for Mike McGlinchey whenever Staley is no longer around.

32. Kansas City Chiefs – RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin)

Damien Williams scores a lot of touchdowns in the playoffs, but he mostly just picks up what’s blocked on probably the easiest offense in the league to run on, given how much defenses have to respect the pass. The Chiefs have lacked an explosive back since getting rid of Kareem Hunt and could target one of the top backs in this draft class at the end of the first round. Jonathan Taylor could add another dimension to an already deadly offense.

Thoughts on Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After quarterbacking the most dominant two decade stretch by any team in NFL history, Tom Brady will wear a uniform other than a Patriots uniform for the first time ever this season, with Brady choosing to sign with the Buccaneers as a free agent. In the NFL, it’s rare for a superstar player to finish his career with the same team he started with. After seeing Brett Favre in a Jets and Vikings uniform, Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform, Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform, Jerry Rice in a Raiders and Seahawks uniform, Ed Reed in a Texans and Jets uniform and so on, you’d think seeing Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform wouldn’t be so surprising, but this one feels a little weirder. In two decades in New England, Brady won 6 Super Bowls, 9 AFC Championships, 3 regular season MVPs, 4 Super Bowl MVPs, and a ridiculous 76.9% of his games, while posting a winning record in every season he was the starter, so his departure is obviously a significant event for the league.

In some ways though, this shouldn’t be that surprising, beyond all the rumors throughout the year that Brady was considering other options. As impressive as Brady’s time in New England was, it was never going to end well. The idea that he was going to win the Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset was never realistic. This is the guy who famously said (now almost 6 years ago) that he wouldn’t retire until he sucked. If he had won the Super Bowl this year, he would have wanted another one. He was always going to keep playing until he wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, his head coach Bill Belichick is famous for moving on a year early rather than a year late. This was never going to end well. 

In some ways, this is about as well as it could have ended, with both sides parting ways amicably. We might not know the full story here for a while (or ever), but it doesn’t seem like there was a massive breakdown in Brady and Belichick’s personal relationship. Both sides, apparently mutually, agreed to move on for football reasons. The fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar deal the Buccaneers gave Brady is the kind of offer the Patriots would have matched if Belichick was confident Brady would remain a top flight quarterback for another two seasons and Brady’s decision to announce that he was leaving New England before announcing where he was going suggests that the Patriots’ offer never even made the final cut. 

The Patriots offer might not have been significantly less annually in terms of money, but this was never fully about money (Brady hardly needs it) and it’s unlikely the Patriots’ offer included the guarantees and benefits of Tampa Bay’s, which fully guarantees his salary for 2021, gives him a full no trade clause, and allows him to become a free agent again in 2022, without the Buccaneers being able to franchise tag him. In other words, this contract gives Brady total security for two seasons while giving him complete control of his football future, something the Patriots likely didn’t offer him for his age 43 and 44 seasons. If there’s any solace in this for Patriots’ fans, it’s that the decision to part ways was in part Bill Belichick’s decision. He would have taken Brady back under the right conditions, but was never going to get into a bidding war if another team gave him a more favorable long-term situation.

Another thing for Patriots fans to take solace is in the fact that the version of Tom Brady they had for two decades was likely never coming back either way. Brady was still one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season, even if issues around him on the Patriots offense caused him to have an underwhelming statistical year, but he did show signs of slowing down, especially late in the season. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season. 

For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age and, going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory. Brady has certainly defied the odds before and a twilight years Tom Brady is still the best option the Buccaneers could have hoped for this off-season, but it’s understandable why Bill Belichick and the Patriots wouldn’t want to commit to him at the same level that the Buccaneers did. Belichick, never one to get sentimental, felt his team was better off going in another direction.

Belichick has made similar decisions countless times before and has mostly been proven right. As impressive as Brady’s tenure in New England was, much of it was enabled by Bill Belichick building and coaching up the rest of the roster, in spite of salary cap restraints. Brady didn’t have a great supporting cast on offense last year, but that was mostly due to injury, while their defense was one of the best in the league. Now comes the greatest challenge of Bill Belichick’s career, needing a quarterback for the first time in two decades. Assuming the Patriots’ offer to Brady was largely uncompetitive, Belichick likely has known for at least a few weeks that there was a good chance he’d be needing an alternative, so I would expect that he’s prepared for this.

When I wrote about this a month ago, I listed Teddy Bridgewater and Philip Rivers as the top options to replace him, but they’ve both gone elsewhere. Former Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston is another name thrown around, but his turnover habits won’t mix well with Belichick, so I can’t imagine him taking a flyer on Winston. Andy Dalton was third on my list and could possibly be an option if the Bengals eventually end up releasing him, but another option has emerged with the Panthers signing Teddy Bridgewater and announcing Cam Newton is available in trade.

Newton was linked to the Bears before they ended up trading for Nick Foles, but with the Bears out of the running, it’s unclear which team would be willing to trade a draft pick for a quarterback coming off of a significant injury who is owed 19.1 million dollars this year, meaning it’s likely that Newton will eventually get released. If he does, you’d have to guess the Patriots would be the favorites to sign him. Other teams like the Jaguars and Chargers may be interested if he were to be available as a free agent, but the Patriots would obviously give Newton the best chance to win and to rehab his value long-term. 

Newton would obviously be a very different kind of quarterback than the one Belichick has won with for the past two decades, but he’s never been locked in to one type of player at any position and taking a flyer on a 31-year-old former MVP that no one really seems to want after two injury plagued years would be a very Belichick move. Belichick has also expressed his admiration for Newton’s game on several occasions in the past and is 0-2 in his two matchups against Newton’s Panthers.

The Patriots also have 2019 4th round pick Jarrett Stidham and, while he may not be ready to start right away, the fact that the Patriots haven’t run out and added a quarterback already suggests that Belichick is at least somewhat confident going to Stidham if needed. Signing a higher risk, higher upside option like Newton with Stidham available in case of injuries or struggles would make more sense than a low upside option like Andy Dalton, even if Dalton’s abilities are more Brady-like than Newton’s. 

Even without a quarterback firmly in place, the odds makers still seem confident in Belichick’s ability to put together a contender. The Patriots’ over/under for wins is 9.5, which is certainly less than the 11-14 wins they were routinely at with Brady, but only the Chiefs, Ravens, Saints, and 49ers have over/unders of 10 or more right now and the Patriots are still ahead of both the Buccaneers and division rival Bills, who are both at 8.5. With the Bills acquiring Stefon Diggs right around the same time as Brady left the Patriots, many expected the Bills would finally overtake the Patriots in the division, but the Patriots are still favored with even odds over the Bills (+140) in the division. In terms of winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots fall behind the Buccaneers, who are at 15 to 1, but they still have the 9th best odds at 22 to 1.

Unless Brady completely falls off a cliff, his addition should make the Buccaneers better, given who he is replacing. I would have said the same thing had the Buccaneers ended up with Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, or even Cam Newton instead this off-season. The Buccaneers finished last season 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22%, but went just 7-9 because of a -13 turnover margin. Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback to throw 30 interceptions in a season since 1988, was the obvious culprit. Going from him to Tom Brady, who has just 29 interceptions in the past 4 seasons combined, will obviously go a long way towards solving their turnover problems, even if Brady’s best years are behind him.

It’s also not hard to see how this offense will finish better than the 13th they finished in first down rate in 2019 (36.92%), given that Brady will be throwing to weapons like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at wide receiver and OJ Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end, though their running game and offensive line play are question marks. On defense, they also ranked 13th last season, with a 34.70% first down rate allowed, a huge step up from the 30th ranked defense they had in 2018. Their defense was especially good down the stretch last season, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed from week 10 on, and are possibly an up and coming young group. With head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers are well coached on both sides of the ball. There’s a reason I thought the Buccaneers made the most sense of any non-Patriots option earlier this off-season. I just didn’t expect Brady to actually leave.

Tampa Bay is a legitimate contender if Brady can be even a top-12 quarterback this season, but they’re still behind the Saints in the division and may have a tougher time making the playoffs than the Patriots, even with as much uncertainty as the Patriots have right now, including a few key defensive departures. I’ll have a lot more on this in both team’s season previews later this off-season, as the rest of free agency and the draft shake out, but needless to say these are two of the more interesting teams to watch going into 2020.

2020 Franchise and Transition Tag Candidates

The franchise/transition tag period for the 2020 off-season starts this Thursday February 27th and goes through March 12th. After the 12th, all non-tagged players with expiring contracts will hit the open market. Those dates were both moved forward by two days with the NFL and NFLPA still trying to negotiate a new CBA ahead of the new league year. Those negotiations complicate this situation in a couple ways. On one hand, if a new CBA is agreed to, the franchise tag and transition tag values could be drastically changed from their current projections. On the other hand, without a new deal, teams will have access to both the franchise tag and the transition tag this off-season, making life much easier for teams with multiple top free agents. There’s a much larger pool than usual of top free agents who could be tagged this off-season, even with top free agents Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Jadeveon Clowney all ineligible for the tag for different reasons. Below is a list in order of descending likelihood of candidates to be tagged without a long-term deal. 

QB Dak Prescott (Dallas)

This seems like the most no brainer franchise tag candidate, assuming a long-term deal isn’t worked out beforehand. The Cowboys might not be quite willing to meet Prescott’s 40 million dollar annual salary ask, but they’re unlikely to let him hit the open market without any compensation and the projected 26.895 million dollar franchise tag is a much easier number for the Cowboys to keep him at. Prescott is also unlikely to sign the tag right away, meaning the Cowboys could still pursue other quarterback options like Tom Brady this off-season and eventually trade Prescott at some point. 

DE Yannick Ngakoue (Jacksonville)

Not much remains of the dominant defense the Jaguars had in 2017 that carried them to the AFC Championship game, but Ngakoue was still a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Jaguars in 2019. He had 8 sacks and another 10 hits on the quarterback, giving him 37.5 sacks and 55 hits in 63 games for his career, along with a 12.0% pressure rate. His play against the run leaves something to be desired, but guys who can get to the quarterback as consistently as he does are guys you can build your defense around and those guys get paid on the open market. 

The Jaguars’ cap is clogged with big contracts, but they can move on from underperforming veterans to clear space for Ngakoue, who was severely underpaid in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, making 2.025 million. The 2016 3rd round pick is only going into his age 25 season and is someone the Jaguars should want around for a long time. If he does end up leaving the Jaguars, I imagine it would only be in a tag and trade situation, as the Jaguars are unlikely to let him walk for nothing.

The only complication here is that while the defensive end franchise tag is worth 19.316 million, Ngakoue would likely get upwards of 20+ million annually with 50+ million guaranteed on the open market and may not be happy about being tagged. The Jaguars could have to agree to a long-term deal with him or work out a trade quickly to prevent it from becoming a problem, but that certainly beats the alternative of losing him outright.

DE Shaq Barrett (Tampa Bay)

Shaq Barrett is a player who the franchise tag seems tailor made for. After just 14 sacks in 4 seasons with the Broncos, Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season after signing a one-year deal with the Buccaneers last off-season. Barrett played better than his sack total suggested in Denver, as he was a strong run defender who always flashed in limited pass rush opportunities behind the likes of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Bradley Chubb, with a 12.1% pressure rate in the first 4 seasons of his career, but the Buccaneers only signed him for 4 million last off-season and might not want to commit to him on a big money deal long-term just yet. Likewise, Barrett might not mind the one-year, 16.266 million dollar payday with an opportunity to break the bank next off-season with another strong season in Todd Bowles’ system. For that reason, the franchise tag makes a lot more sense than the transition tag for both sides.

DT Chris Jones (Kansas City)

Pat Mahomes was obviously going to win Super Bowl MVP for his efforts in leading the team back, but he was also pretty underwhelming for the first three quarters of the game and threw a pair of interceptions, so some felt that Chris Jones should be MVP instead for his 4th quarter disruptions of Jimmy Garoppolo. Jones didn’t just have a strong Super Bowl either, as the 2016 2nd round pick has finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, while totalling 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that time. His play against the run leaves something to be desired, but as a pass rusher he’s been more productive than any interior player other than Aaron Donald and more productive than most edge players for that matter. Those guys usually get paid and the Chiefs are unlikely to let him hit the open market.

Whether or not Jones ultimately gets paid by the Chiefs is the question though. The Chiefs already have 12 million or more annually committed to 5 players on their roster and 8 million or more annually committed to 9 players on their roster. Those 9 players currently occupy about 61% of their cap space and that’s before the inevitable Pat Mahomes megadeal. The Chiefs might not be able to afford the 9 figure deal Jones would likely command on the open market. They could franchise tag him and bring him back on a one-year deal, but this could also be a tag and trade situation like the Chiefs did with Dee Ford last off-season. The tag and trade scenario would not work as well with the transition tag, so I wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to go with the cheaper option.

S Justin Simmons (Denver)

Simmons seems like a likely franchise tag candidate. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Simmons was a solid starter prior to 2019 (32 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league), but broke out in a big way in the final year of his rookie deal last season, finishing 1st among safeties on PFF. The Broncos might not want to commit to a top of market deal based off of one dominant season, but he’s more than earned the 12.735 million dollar franchise tag and is not someone the Broncos would want to lose. The transition tag, which could force the Broncos to make a long-term commitment this off-season, probably isn’t an option.

QB Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee)

At first glance, Tannehill might seem like an obvious franchise tag candidate. He took over a 2-4 team last season and led them to 7 wins in their final 10 games to qualify for the post-season, where they won a pair of games on the road in big upsets and advanced to the AFC Championship game. In the process, he led the NFL with a 117.5 QB rating. He had a good situation around him with a strong running game and offensive line and a capable receiving corps, but he’s still not the kind of player the Titans would want to lose. However, his performance in 88 starts with the Dolphins in his first 7 seasons of his career (87.0 QB rating) suggest he’s unlikely to have suddenly become an elite quarterback, so committing to him on a big money, long-term deal is risky. 

The 26.895 million dollar franchise tag seems like a great middle ground option, but there are some complicating factors. For one, the Titans are rumored to be interested in trying to sign Tom Brady this off-season, but won’t be able to talk to him until they’ve made a decision on tagging Tannehill or not. The Titans could tag him and try to negotiate with Brady anyway, but Tannehill could end up opting to sign the tender to keep his job on a contending team. The 26.895 million dollar franchise tag is a steep increase for a quarterback who took home just 10.425 million last season. 

On top of that, the Titans also want to keep running back Derrick Henry off the open market and if a new CBA is ratified soon, the Titans wouldn’t have the option of both the franchise tag and the transition tag and would have to make a decision between Tannehill and Henry. I’d still expect Tannehill to be tagged as, even though this could be a big off-season for quarterback movement, the Titans still don’t want to be left without a chair at the end of it, but it’s not a given, especially if a new CBA is agreed to and/or the Titans get a sense they might get Brady.

OLB Matthew Judon (Baltimore)

Judon has never had a double digit sack season in his career, but he was still a dominant pass rusher in 2019, with 9.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate. He has his struggles against the run and his 38th ranked finish overall among edge defenders on PFF in 2019 was his career best, so he’s not an elite overall player, but he’s also not the kind of player the Ravens want to lose because of his pass rush productivity (12.2% pressure rate in his career). Working in the Ravens’ favor is the fact that Judon would be tagged as a linebacker (16.266 million) rather than a defensive end (19.316 million) because the Ravens run a 3-4 and the NFL uses archaic position titles for the franchise tag. 

WR AJ Green (Cincinnati)

It’s clear that AJ Green would prefer not to be franchise tagged, but he wouldn’t have much of a say in the matter. His only option would be to hold out the season and try to force a trade by doing so, but I don’t think Green would risk missing the season now at age 32 after missing all of last season with injury. The Bengals have never committed to top market long-term deals with players at any position and Green, despite being arguably their best player in the past decade, is unlikely to be an exception given his age and injury history. 

The Bengals likely view Tyler Boyd, who they extended on a 4-year, 43 million dollar deal, as their long-term #1, but Green can still be a difference maker when he’s on the field, and the Bengals may want to bring him back to help with likely #1 pick Joe Burrow’s development. They may view the franchise tag as a bridge to a short-term team friendly deal as the best way to proceed with Green this off-season even if that doesn’t seem to be what Green himself wants, as he’d like to try to sign a guaranteed long-term deal with a legitimate contender this off-season. The transition tag, which would force the Bengals to match a long-term deal or lose Green for no compensation, is unlikely to be an option.

OT Anthony Castonzo (Indianapolis)

There are rumors Castonzo is considering retiring ahead of what would be his age 32 season, so this is obviously assuming he wants to continue playing. If he does, the Colts will likely want to retain a left tackle who has been rock solid for them since being drafted in the first round in 2011 and still played at a high level in 2019, even being on the older side. He’s started 132 games in 9 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-23 among offensive tackles in all but his rookie season, including 3 seasons in the top-8 and a 7th ranked finish in 2019. Castonzo likely wouldn’t command a 4+ year deal in free agency, so the Colts could use either tag on him and work on a short-term extension that pays him near the top of the left tackle market for another couple seasons. They have plenty of cap space and wouldn’t want to break up a strong offensive line.

DE Arik Armstead (San Francisco)

Armstead is a good fit for the franchise tag. A first round pick in 2015, Armstead was a good run stopping defensive end with solid peripheral pass rush stats through his first 4 seasons in the league (12.3% pressure rate), but missed 18 games with injury, averaged just 406 snaps per season, and totalled a combined 9 sacks. That all changed in the final year of his rookie deal, when he broke out with 10 sacks, while adding 9 hits, and a pressure rate of 12.5%, while continuing to play the run well and playing 776 snaps overall. Overall, he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender on the season. 

The 49ers don’t want to lose someone like that with their Super Bowl window still wide open, but it would be risky to give him a big long-term deal with a lot of guaranteed money because he’s only put it all together once. Armstead also hasn’t objected to questions about the franchise tag, likely understanding that the 19.316 million it would pay him next season is still a significant sum for one year for a player who had 9 career sacks a season ago and understanding that if he has another strong year he’d likely break the bank in free agency next off-season. The transition tag is less likely because he’d probably get an offer, forcing the 49ers to decide whether or not to commit to a long-term deal with him.

DE Leonard Williams (NY Giants)

Williams was the 6th overall pick by the Jets in 2015 and overall lived up to expectations. He never posted huge sack numbers, but he was consistently a strong run stuffer and had good peripheral pass rush stats as well, adding 70 hits and a 9.7% pressure rate to his 17 sacks in 71 games with the Jets. He maxed out as PFF’s 10th ranked interior defender in 2016 and has finished in the top-28 three times. Williams made it no secret about the kind of long-term deal he’s looking for this off-season though and, as a result, the Jets traded Williams in the middle of what was an overall down year for him to the Giants for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick to recoup something for a player they weren’t expecting to bring back. 

Even after he finished last season 42nd among interior defenders on PFF, the Giants still seem to value him highly and likely didn’t trade significant draft picks for him to see him walk in free agency. Still only going into his age 26 season, Williams has obvious bounce back potential for 2020 and beyond and is likely to be tagged by the Giants with the idea of working out a long-term agreement with him. They view him as a long-term building block. 

WR Amari Cooper (Dallas)

Cooper’s situation is complicated by Dak Prescott also being a pending free agent, but the Cowboys are unlikely to let Cooper walk for nothing, after using a first round pick to acquire him just a season and a half ago. Assuming the Cowboys get use of both tags, Cooper would be an obvious candidate for the transition tag, as the Cowboys would likely match any deal he’d get on the open market. He’s averaged a 84/1225/9 slash line per 16 games in 25 games with the team and could be looking at 18-20 million annually on a long-term deal, still only going into his age 26 season.

RB Derrick Henry (Tennessee)

Henry would be a no-brainer franchise tag candidate if Tannehill wasn’t also a pending free agency. Instead, the Titans will have to hope there isn’t a new CBA and that they’ll have use of both their franchise tag and transition tag. With Tannehill likely to be franchised, Henry would be an obvious candidate for the transition tag. The 10.189 million dollar transition tag is still a steep sum for a running back, but Henry is incredibly important to the Titans’ offense and it’s likely they value him higher than any other team would and, as a result, would match any long-term deal he gets on the open market. Even after his rushing title and dominant post-season performance last season, Henry still might not reach the Todd Gurley/Ezekiel Elliott tier of running back contracts because of his limitations on passing downs. 

G Brandon Scherff (Washington)

Not much has gone right for the Redskins over the past few seasons, but the selection of Brandon Scherff 5th overall in 2015 has been one of the bright spots and, as such, the Redskins are unlikely to let one of their few true building blocks leave this off-season. Injuries are a minor concern as he’s missed 15 games in the past 3 seasons, but he’s also finished in the top-27 among guards on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including top-7 finishes in 2017 and 2019. Expect the Redskins to give him one of the two tags with the idea of buying them more time to sign him to a long-term deal. 

CB James Bradberry (Carolina)

The Panthers’ top cornerback, Bradberry is rumored to be looking for offers of about 14-15 million annually in free agency this off-season. The Panthers have plenty of cap space and could keep him with the 16.471 million dollar franchise tag or the 14.57 million dollar transition tag. Bradberry regularly matches up with top wide receivers, but he has had trouble holding his own, finishing in the top-15 among cornerbacks in yards allowed in each of the past 3 seasons, including 2 seasons in the top-7. Still, he’s only going into his age 26 season and the Panthers may project him as a better player going forward than he’s been in the past.

S Anthony Harris (Minnesota)

Harris wasn’t even drafted back in 2015, but the former special teamer has been a revelation as a starter for the Vikings at safety over the past season and a half. After playing 621 career defensive snaps through week 7 of his 4th season in the league in 2018, Harris took over as the starter in week 8 and has been one of the best safeties in the league since, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 9 starts in 2018 and then 2nd as a 15-game starter in 2019. 

Harris has been a late bloomer, but he’s only going into his age 29 season and should command a top of the market deal in free agency. The Vikings don’t want to lose him, but will need to let other players go and get creative with the cap to tag him. With so much long-term money tied up in other places and another top level safety on the team in Harrison Smith, this could ultimately be a tag and trade scenario.

TE Hunter Henry (LA Chargers)

Henry has missed 23 games in 4 seasons in the league since the Chargers took him in the 2nd round in 2016, but he’s averaged a 53/667/7 slash line per 16 games, despite spending his first two seasons as a part-time player behind Antonio Gates on the depth chart. Last season was his first full season as a starter and, though he missed 4 games with injury, he ranked 9th in the NFL in receiving yards by a tight end and was on a 869-yard pace per 16 games. Throughout his career, he’s averaged an impressive 8.85 yards per target in his career and he is also an above average blocker to boot. 

Signing Henry to a big long-term deal may be a risk, but he doesn’t turn 26 until December and there is plenty of evidence that Henry could have a monster season if he can ever put it all together for a 16-game stretch and that’s probably not the kind of player the Chargers want to lose, especially with franchise star Philip Rivers likely on his way out this off-season. I’d say there’s a better chance than not that the Chargers tag him, with the franchise tag making more sense than the transition tag because the Chargers wouldn’t have to worry about making a decision on whether or not to match.

OLB Dante Fowler (LA Rams)

Fowler has had an interesting career. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015 by the Jaguars, Fowler tore his ACL at his first practice as a professional, missed his whole rookie season, and had lost his starting job by his return, playing just 30.7 snaps per game in 39 games for the Jaguars before they traded him to the Rams for a 3rd and 5th round pick in the middle of the 2018 season. Fowler had shown promise as a pass rusher in limited action with the Jaguars, with a 10.6% pressure rate, but was underwhelming in his half season with the Rams, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and 16 hurries on 256 pass rush snaps. Fowler hit free agency last off-season because the Jaguars had declined his 5th year option, but the Rams were willing to bring him back on a one-year, 12 million dollar deal and were rewarded with Fowler breaking out with a 11.5-sack season. 

With Fowler still only going into his age 26 season, he figures to secure a big deal in free agency this off-season. Fowler’s peripheral pass rush stats, 6 hits and a 13.2% pressure rate, weren’t as good as his sack total and he finished just 35th overall among edge defenders on PFF, so the cap strapped Rams might not see bringing him back as a necessity, but they could still tag him to keep him off the open market because the 16.266 million dollar franchise tag and the 14.08 million dollar transition tag are likely both less than he’d get annually in free agency.

DT DJ Reader (Houston)

The 6-3 346 pound Reader isn’t just a big run stuffer, although he is one of the better run stuffing base package nose tackles in the league. What could make him worth the 12.321 million dollar transition tag or even the 15.5 million dollar franchise tag is his ability to stay on the field for all 3 downs, playing 60.6% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons. He had just 2.5 sacks last season, but added 11 hits and a 9.9% pressure rate and he has a 8.4% pressure rate for his career. The 2016 5th round pick has gotten better every season in the league and finished last year as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender overall. Big run stuffers like him that also contribute on passing downs are rare.

OLB Bud Dupree (Pittsburgh)

Dupree’s 11.5 sacks in 2019 suggest he’s someone the Steelers wouldn’t want to lose, but they are tight on cap space and Dupree has some obvious downsides. The former first round pick never topped 6 sacks in a season before his contract year in 2019 and even in 2019 he had just a 9.5% pressure rate and several of his sacks were the result of playing on an overall strong defense with a dominant edge rusher in TJ Watt on the opposite side. He was just PFF’s 25th ranked edge defender, still a career best, and has just a 9.3% pressure rate for his career, so he could be an overpay on a big long-term deal.

Tagging Dupree and making him repeat his big sack total to get a long-term deal would make a lot more sense than committing to him long-term this off-season, but the 16.266 million dollar linebacker tag could be too big of a cap hold for a #2 edge defender for a Steelers team that is short on cap space already and needs to figure out a long-term deal for TJ Watt sometime soon. The most likely scenario in which he returns to the Steelers in 2020 may be one where he returns on a team friendly deal long-term deal after not finding the market he expects in free agency. On a long-term deal, the Steelers could lower his cap hit for 2020 and keep kicking the can on their cap problems. For that reason, the transition tag might make the most sense of all. 

OT Jack Conklin (Tennessee)

Conklin’s situation is complicated by the Titans also having Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, as well as to a lesser extent cornerback Logan Ryan, set to hit the open market without a tag. The Titans can use both tags if a new CBA isn’t agreed to before free agency, but the Titans wouldn’t be able to keep all of their top free agents off the open market without signing some long-term deals. Unless Tannehill or Henry sign a long-term deal before free agency, they’re likely to take precedence over Conklin for the tags.

That being said, if either of those two players does re-sign long-term before free agency and the Titans have the transition tag available, Conklin would become an obvious choice, even above the 29-year old Ryan. The 26-year old Conklin is very much in the prime of his career and is only hitting free agency because the Titans Jon Robinson led front office made a rare mistake last off-season in declining Conklin’s 5th year option over concerns about the health of his knee. 

That 5th year option would have had Conklin under contract for 12.86 million in 2020. The transition tag instead would cost the Titans 14.666 million. After Conklin finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle, the long-term deal the Titans are likely to have to match will probably exceed both of those totals annually with significant upfront guarantees. Injury concerns appear to be a non-factor with Conklin having never missed a game aside from the 7 he missed in 2018 while recovering from his January 2018 torn ACL. 

CB Byron Jones (Dallas)

Jones is a distant 3rd on the Cowboys’ free agent priority list behind Prescott and Cooper, but if one of those two gets signed long-term and both the franchise tag and transition tag are available to the Cowboys this off-season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jones get the transition tag. Even then, the Cowboys might not match a long-term deal he gets elsewhere as he’s likely to get paid at the top of the cornerback market and the Cowboys have other financial obligations and promising young cornerbacks behind Jones on the depth chart, but the Cowboys will likely at least try to keep a cornerback who has finished 7th and 15th among cornerbacks on PFF in the past 2 seasons respectively.

S Devin McCourty (New England)

I don’t know if McCourty would get the 12.735 million dollar franchise tag for his age 33 season in 2020, but the 10.801 million dollar transition tag could be an option. McCourty was still PFF’s 11th ranked safety last season for one of the best defenses in the league, so that wouldn’t be an unreasonable amount for him to get on a one-year deal and it would give the Patriots the right to match if McCourty were to try to sign elsewhere. McCourty probably would prefer to stay in New England, so he may give the Patriots the right to match regardless, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Patriots keep such an important player off the open market entirely.

CB Chris Harris (Denver)

Harris is a veteran who is likely to want to test the open market over being tagged, given that he’s running out of chances to sign big money deals with legitimate contenders, now going into his age 31 off-season. Harris definitely took a step back last season, finishing 35th among cornerbacks on PFF, after finishing in the top-18 in 8 straight seasons prior to last season, but there’s still an argument to be made for bringing Harris back on the 14.57 million dollar transition tag and seeing what his market is. Harris is still the Broncos’ best cornerback and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce back in 2020. A long-term deal with significant guarantees might not be the best idea, but he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in the tank. As of right now, it looks like the Broncos are willing to let Harris test the market without a tag, but that could change.

TE Austin Hooper (Atlanta)

Hooper is much less likely to be tagged than fellow top free agent tight end Hunter Henry, but that’s primarily because the Falcons don’t have much cap flexibility and already have made significant investments on offense. Still, Hooper is the safer choice between the two tight ends, as his receiving totals in the past 2 seasons have both topped Henry’s career best mark and he’s also only missed 5 games in 4 seasons in the league, while Henry has missed 23, though Henry is the better blocker and more efficient pass catcher on a per target basis. Hooper is still a solid blocker though, making him one of the few tight ends in the league who can be mismatches in the passing game and hold their own in the run game. He’ll get paid by someone this off-season and the Falcons attempting a tag and trade wouldn’t be a shock.

S Jimmie Ward (San Francisco)

Much like fellow former 49ers first round pick Arik Armstead, Ward has had injury issues throughout much of his career and finally put it all together in 2019. A first round pick in 2014, Ward missed 29 games in the first 5 seasons of his career and had to settle for a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal to return to the 49ers last off-season. That contract started out with more of the same, with Ward missing the first 3 games of the season, but he returned to play the rest of the way and finished 8th among safeties on PFF. His previous best finish was 28th, so he’s the definition of a one-year wonder and his injury history is obviously concerning, but I would expect the 49ers to at least consider tagging him, even though it’s likely unrealistic given their cap situation to keep both Armstead and Ward on big contracts long-term.

MLB Cory Littleton (LA Rams)

Originally undrafted in 2016, Littleton has worked his way up from a special teamer in his first two seasons to a starter in 2018 and, after a solid first season as a starter, Littleton took his game to another level in 2019, finishing 6th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He has a few things working against his chances of getting tagged though. For one, the Rams are tight on cap space. Two, the linebacker tag value is inflated because of 3-4 edge rushing linebackers, so Littleton would cost 16.266 million on the franchise tag and 14.08 million on the transition tag, which would rank 3rd and 5th annually among non-rush linebackers. Three, the Rams also have rush linebacker Dante Fowler set to hit free agency and may prefer to tag him instead, if they end up keeping either one.

RB Kenyan Drake (Arizona)

The idea of Drake being tagged would have seemed ridiculous a few months ago when the Cardinals acquired him from the Dolphins at the trade deadline for just a 6th round pick, but Drake turned what was supposed to be a temporary stint as the starter with David Johnson and Chase Edmonds hurt into a full-time gig, rushing for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries (5.23 YPC) in 8 games, while adding 28 catches for 171 yards through the air. 

Johnson still has 5.1 million guaranteed on his contract for 2020 and the Cardinals would lose cap space if they cut him, but they could trade him, though they’d likely have to get creative with the deal structure and eat salary in that scenario. Reportedly, they’d be doing that with the idea of tagging Drake and keeping him long-term. It might not be likely, but Drake is a perfect fit for the Cardinals’ wide open offense with his ability to make plays in space and run over defenses that are lined up to defend the pass. 

Drake never posted big numbers in Miami, but he averaged 4.60 yards per carry on 333 carries running behind an awful offensive line, while breaking 67 tackles and averaging 3.29 yards per carry after contact. The one downside is he’s never had more than 170 carries in a season even dating back to high school, so he hasn’t proven he can hold up as a feature back for a full season yet, but he also has fresh legs going into his age 26 season with 456 career carries. Drake could be a candidate for the transition tag as well as the Cardinals likely value him more than any other team would and would match any long-term deal he signs. Johnson’s presence on a big salary obviously complicates things though.