Green Bay Packers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: D

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD

Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+


Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Grade: A

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Prediction: TBD

Houston Texans 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Prediction: TBD

Las Vegas Raiders 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Prediction: TBD

Buffalo Bills 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B 

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD

Seattle Seahawks 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks started the 2020 season 6-1 and, even though they won four of those games by one score, including a pair that came down to 4th down stops, and even though they ranked just 12th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.37%, there was reason to be optimistic that the Seahawks could keep winning. Their offense led the league in first down rate over expected at +3.52%, with the team primarily being held back by a defense that ranked 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.15%. Normally teams with a profile like this are good bets going forward because offensive performance is much more consistent week-to-week than defensive performance, meaning it was much more likely their defense would improve going forward than it was that their offense would drop off.

Their defense did improve going forward, in fact significantly so, to the point where they finished 11th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.19%, despite their horrendous start. Better health was a big part of the reason for their improvement, particularly the re-addition of top safety Jamal Adams and top cornerback Shaq Griffin, but the Seahawks also added veteran edge defender Carlos Dunlap in a key trade deadline deal with the Bengals. 

However, the Seahawks’ offense did not hold up their end of the bargain, falling to 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.46%, leading to the team finishing 9th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.65%, which is good, but not the high ceiling the Seahawks would have had if their offense had continued playing at a high level. The Seahawks finished at 12-4, but relied on a 8-3 record in one score games to get there and were one and done in the post-season, losing at home to the Rams in the first round.

It was an all too familiar finish for the Seahawks, who have made the post-season in eight of Russell Wilson’s nine seasons with the team, but who haven’t played in an NFC Championship since their back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013-2014. The key difference was Russell Wilson was on a cheap rookie deal back then, allowing the Seahawks to spend significant money on his supporting cast on both sides of the ball, while Wilson is now highly paid, first signing a 4-year, 87.6 million dollar extension and then adding a 4-year, 140 million dollar deal onto that which now takes him through the 2023 season.

If anything, Wilson has gotten better since his Super Bowl appearances, transitioning from more of a game manager to a legitimate franchise quarterback, but his increasing salary has made it very tough for the Seahawks to add enough talent around him to get back to the Super Bowl. Since the start of the salary cap 27 years ago, only 7 teams have won the Super Bowl with their quarterback taking up 10% or more of the cap and all 7 of those quarterbacks are Hall of Famers. By comparison, more than half (14 of 27) have taken up less than 7% of the cap while a third (9 or 27) have taken up less than 5% of the cap, including Wilson when he won. Now Wilson’s cap hit takes up 17.5% of this year’s cap, which would dwarf the current record of 13.1% (Steve Young) if Wilson somehow managed to win it all again in 2021. 

Wilson and the Seahawks winning it all seems unlikely given the rest of this roster, which isn’t drastically improved from a year ago and overall doesn’t seem to give Wilson as much help as he needs to take this team all the way again. The one hope the Seahawks might have is for Wilson to play as well as he did to start last season, when he looked like the MVP of the league and led an offense that was arguably the best in the league. Over his first 7 games, Wilson completed 71.5% of his passes for an average of 8.40 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, as compared to 66.6% of his passes for an average of 6.82 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his final 9 games, coinciding with this offense’s second half decline.

Wilson is likely to be better this season than he was in the second half of last season, but it would be a big surprise to see him keep up his first half pace from last season for a full year. We’ve seen a lot of Russell Wilson as an NFL quarterback (144 starts) and, while he is one of the better quarterbacks in the league, we haven’t seen him consistently play at an MVP level for a long enough stretch to seriously contend for the award. That’s unlikely to change for him, now in his age 33 season.

In total, Wilson has completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 267 touchdowns, and 81 interceptions in his career, while adding 5.61 YPC and 21 touchdowns on 803 carries. On PFF, he’s finished in the top-15 in all 9 seasons in the league, in the top-10 in 7 seasons, and in the top-7 in 6 seasons, including a career best 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and a 6th ranked finish in 2020. Quarterbacks have shown the ability to play at a high level into their mid 30s without decline and, while Wilson is a little more reliant on athleticism than most quarterbacks, which is usually the first thing to go, he’s definitely a good enough passer to make up for becoming a little less effective with his legs if his mobility does start to decline.

Wilson has also been highly durable, never missing a start in his career, playing through serious injuries on multiple occasions. Because of that, his backup quarterback is never really been needed and the Seahawks haven’t invested in that position as a result, but needless to say the Seahawks would be in big trouble if they lost Wilson for an extended period of time, as they would have to turn to Geno Smith and his 72.9 career QB rating in 31 starts in 8 seasons in the league. As long as that doesn’t happen, Wilson should remain one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but probably not good enough for the Seahawks to be a high level team, which could be a big problem for a team that plays in the toughest division in football. 

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The best thing Russell Wilson has going for him is probably the presence of his top-2 receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, who were one of two wide receiver duos to both surpass 1000 yards receiving in 2020. Part of that is because they got to play with a quarterback like Wilson and, without other consistent options in the passing game, Metcalf and Lockett received a massive target share, combining to be targeted on a whopping 46.8% of the Seahawks pass attempts. However, Metcalf and Lockett both played well in their own right, finishing 18th and 32nd respectively among wide receivers on PFF.

For Lockett, it was his 2nd straight 1000 yard season and he came close to making it three in a row with a highly efficient 57/965/10 slash line on 70 targets in 2018. Overall, he’s averaged 80/1025/9 over the past three seasons, while playing all 48 games and finishing 23rd, 21st, and 32nd among wide receivers on PFF. Still in his age 29 season, he should remain a similar player, but he doesn’t nearly have the upside of DK Metcalf, who seemed to clearly take the #1 receiver role away from Lockett last season. A 2nd round pick in 2019, Metcalf flashed with a 58/900/7 slash line and 1.69 yards per route run as rookie, but he took that to another level in year two, finishing with a 83/1303/10 slash line and 2.06 yards per route run, while Lockett saw his yards per route run average drop to 1.68, his lowest since 2017, with Metcalf becoming more of a focus in this passing offense. 

Lockett remains a high level #2 wide receiver, but he’s not the #1 option anymore and if the Seahawks are able to find more consistency in other parts of this receiving corps, those targets would likely come from Lockett before they came from Metcalf, who has the upside to be one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come. Development isn’t always linear and Metcalf is no guarantee to be better or even as good in 2021 as he was in 2020, but he’s already proven himself to be one of the better wide receivers in the league and he doesn’t even turn 24 until later this season.

The biggest move the Seahawks made trying to find a consistent third option in this passing game was signing ex-Rams tight end Gerald Everett to a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal in free agency. A 2nd round pick by the Rams in 2017, Everett only started 11 of his 61 games in four seasons with the Rams, who also preferred to start the more well-rounded Tyler Higbee. Everett has never shown much as a blocker, but he’s been a better pass catcher than most #2 tight ends, averaging 1.42 yards per route run, and deserved a shot like he’s getting in Seattle to prove himself as a starter. I wouldn’t expect a big breakout year from him, but he could have a solid receiving total if he gets enough opportunity.

The Seahawks gave three tight ends, Greg Olsen (429 snaps), Jacob Hollister (374 snaps), and Will Dissly (557 snaps) all about equal passing game opportunity last season, but only Dissly remains. He will likely slot in as the #2 tight end behind Everett and could still see somewhat significant action, especially as a blocker, which is where he has an edge on Everett. As a receiver, Dissly flashed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league, as the 2018 4th round pick averaged 2.43 yards per route run, but that came across just 10 games total in two seasons, due to back-to-back devastating season ending leg injuries. 

Dissly returned in 2020 and actually played all 16 games, but he didn’t seem to be as explosive as previously and he did not translate the promise from a limited role into a larger role, averaging just 1.15 yards per route run on the season. He’s a still solid blocker and he could be better as a receiver in 2021, now another year removed from those injuries, but he should remain the #2 tight end at best regardless and he could just as easily suffer another injury and not make it through a full season. His primary competition for the #2 job will be Colby Parkinson, a 2020 4th round pick who played sparingly as a rookie (51 snaps), but who the Seahawks still have hopes for in year two and beyond.

The Seahawks also used a 2nd round pick on Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge to replace middling veteran David Moore as the #3 receiver. Moore played just 482 snaps, had just a 35/417/6 slash line, and averaged just 1.38 yards per route run, while earning a middling grade from PFF, so he won’t be hard to replace, but Eskridge is still a rookie who could have some growing pains in year one. The flip side of that, however, is that Eskridge possesses an upside that Moore never had and could easily prove to be an upgrade, not just in the long-term, but in year one as well. 


Eskridge’s primary competition for playing time will likely be 2020 6th round pick Freddie Swain, who played 351 snaps as the 4th receiver as a rookie last season, but struggled mightily and isn’t a guarantee to be any better going forward. Lockett and Metcalf still lead this receiving corps, but their depth looks like it should be better than a year ago with the addition of Everett in free agency and Eskridge in the draft. If they can find a consistent #3 option, this could be one of the top receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

When DK Metcalf was added two off-seasons ago, it began a shift for the Seahawks, from just 427 pass attempts in 2018 (32nd in the NFL) to 517 pass attempts in 2019 (23rd in the NFL) and 563 pass attempts last season (17th in the NFL). For all the #LetRussCook talk in recent years, when you add the 158 carries that Wilson has had over the past two seasons and the 96 sacks he has taken, Wilson’s usage rate is up there with other high level quarterbacks and this team is not nearly as dependent on their running backs as they used to be prior to Metcalf’s arrival. 

That being said, the Seahawks do still have a solid stable of running backs, led by lead back Chris Carson, who was somewhat surprisingly retained on a 2-year, 10.425 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Carson seemed like he might be greeted by a relatively strong free agent market and the Seahawks didn’t seem to have the financial flexibility to commit big money to a running back when they had intriguing replacement options behind him, but Carson’s market didn’t develop as expected and he returned to the team he has led in rushing in each of the past three seasons.

Carson was only a 7th round pick of the Seahawks in 2017, primarily due to his injury history and limited playing time in college, and in year one injuries remained a concern, limiting him to 49 carries. However, he flashed potential with a 4.24 YPC average and 61.5% of his yardage coming after contact, leading to him taking over as the starter in 2018 and keeping the role ever since. In total, he’s rushed for 4.57 YPC on 715 carries with 21 rushing touchdowns and a whopping 73.9% of his yardage coming after contact. He hasn’t shown much as a receiver (1.07 yards per route run in his career), but he’s still finished 6th, 9th, and 17th respectively among running backs on PFF in the past three seasons respectively. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect a significant drop off in 2021.

Injuries have remained a concern for him as he’s never played all 16 games in a season, but he still managed 278 carries and 315 touches in 15 games in 2019, so he’s proven he can handle a heavy workload. He saw just 141 carries and 178 touches in 12 games in 2020, but the Seahawks parted ways with veteran backup Carlos Hyde (97 touches in 2020) this off-season, rather than letting Carson walk, and all of the Seahawks other backup options are inexperienced, so Carson should get an uptick in touches per game. 

The leading candidate to be the #2 running back is Rashaad Penny. Penny was actually a first round pick, 27th overall, in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he spent his first two seasons playing sparingly behind Carson, managing 150 carries in 24 games, before tearing his ACL late in the 2019 season. That injury extended into 2020 as well, as he saw just 11 carries in 3 games, and the Seahawks unsurprisingly declined his 5th year option for 2022, making 2021 his contract year. However, if he’s healthy, he has a clear path to seeing at least some action as the backup to Carson, who has his own injury history, which could lead to Penny seeing some starts. Penny was a reach who was never good enough to be a first round pick, but his 5.11 YPC average on 161 carries is pretty impressive and he could still have untapped upside.

Other reserve options include 2020 4th round pick Deejay Dallas, 2019 6th round pick Travis Homer, and 2016 5th round pick Alex Collins, who is in his second stint with the team. Dallas and Homer both have some upside, but haven’t shown much on 43 carries and 34 carries respectively. Collins, meanwhile, is by far the most proven of the bunch and actually rushed for 973 yards and 6 touchdowns on 212 carries (4.59 YPC) as the Ravens’ lead back in 2017, but he’s combined for just 3.76 YPC on 163 carries in his other four seasons in the league and has seen just 18 carries over the past two seasons combined. He may have some bounce back potential, but he could just as easily not make this final roster. Led by Chris Carson, this is a solid stable of backs overall with some intriguing backup options, but their lack of experience beyond Carson is a bit of a concern.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest issue on this offense in recent years has been their offensive line, but they actually got off to a good start last season, in part why this offense played so well at the beginning of the year, before finishing as a middling unit at best. The problem was they were never healthy, with their expected starting five offensive linemen not playing together once after week 4. Their most notable injuries were right tackle Brandon Shell and Mike Iupati, who earned above average grades from PFF, but missed 5 games and 6 games respectively and saw their backups play at a significantly worse level. Center Ethan Pocic also missed a couple games.

Iupati opted to retire this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 34 season, an understandable decision given how banged up he’s been in recent years, but Shell returns as the starting right tackle, veteran Gabe Jackson was added this off-season to replace Iupati, and the rest of this offensive line remains from a year ago, so, at least on paper, they have the ability to be a solid unit if they can stay relatively healthy.

Left tackle Duane Brown was one of two Seahawks offensive line to make all 16 starts last season and he played at a high level, finishing as PFF’s 6th ranked offensive tackle, but there is some concern over whether or not he can do that again. Brown has been a consistently above average offensive tackle across an impressive 13-year career in the NFL, including seven finishes in the top-10 among offensive tackles on PFF, but his finish last season was still the 2nd best of his career and, now going into his age 36 season, it would be a surprise to see him repeat that performance. 

Brown obviously hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet, but at his age, there is a strong possibility of that happening this season and the possibility that he drops off significantly exists as well. He also isn’t guaranteed to play all 16 games again as, even though he’s been relatively durable in his career, he’s missed at least some time in 6 of 13 seasons, including 4 of the past 6. Given how well he played last season, if he shows his age or misses significant time, that will have a noticeably negative effect on the rest of this offensive line and the offense as a whole.

Damien Lewis also made all 16 starts last season and figures to play next to Brown at left guard in 2021. Lewis mostly played right guard as a 3rd round rookie in 2020, with the exception of a brief stint at center in place of the injured Ethan Pocic, but right guard is Gabe Jackson’s natural position, while Lewis has the versatility to move to left guard. In addition to his versatility, Lewis didn’t play like a rookie in 2020, especially not one who fell to the 3rd round, finishing the season as PFF’s 16th ranked guard. He’s not guaranteed to be as good again in 2021, but he also could keep getting better and seems likely to develop into a consistently above average starter long-term. 

Ethan Pocic is the shakiest of the Seahawks starters, as the 14 starts he made last season were actually a career high and his 24th ranked finish among centers, while mediocre, was actually the best finish of his career, as the 2017 2nd round pick had earned only well below average season long grades from PFF in his first three seasons in the league, across 16 combined starts. He’s a former high pick who is only going into his age 26 season and the Seahawks believe in him enough to bring him back as a free agent on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal, but he could easily be a below average starter.

Brandon Shell and Gabe Jackson also come into the season with some concerns. Shell finished 36th among offensive tackles on PFF in 11 starts last season, but he had previously never earned more than a middling grade for a season from PFF in 51 starts in 5 seasons with the Jets to begin his career, after being selected in the 5th round in 2016, and he’s also never made all 16 starts in a season, so it might be wishful thinking to expect him to play the whole season. 

Jackson, meanwhile, was almost released by the Raiders this off-season ahead of a 9.6 non-guaranteed million dollar salary, but the Seahawks offered the Raiders a late round pick when they found out he was available and restructured his deal to a 3-year, 22.575 million dollar deal. Jackson’s original contract was 55 million over 5 seasons, which the 2014 3rd round pick signed after his 3rd season in the league, when he was coming off of finishes of 11th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 27th among guards on PFF in 2016, but he never quite lived up to that contract.

He finished 14th among guards in 2018, but has otherwise been just a slightly above average starter since signing that deal, signing a 43rd ranked finish in 2020. Injuries have been a concern for him in recent years, missing 9 games in 4 seasons and being limited in others and, now going into his age 30 season, his best days are almost definitely behind him, but if he can stay reasonably healthy, he should be able to be at least a capable starter for the Seahawks with the upside for more, so he wasn’t a bad addition.

If injuries strike, the Seahawks’ depth options are limited. Jordan Simmons led all Seahawks reserves with 593 snaps played last season, making 6 starts at guard, but he finished 75th out of 86 eligible on PFF and the 2017 undrafted free agent also struggled in his only other career action in 195 snaps in 2019. He might have the best chance of any of their reserves to find himself in the starting lineup because, if Ethan Pocic struggles at center, they could shift Damien Lewis back there and plug Simmons into the starting lineup at guard.

Other reserve options include swing tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who has mostly struggled in 29 starts in 6 seasons in the league, 2019 4th round pick Phil Haynes, who has seen just one offensive snap in two seasons in the league, 2018 5th round pick JaMarco Jones, who has struggled across 509 career snaps, and 6th round rookie Stone Forsythe, who is unlikely to make a positive impact if forced into action in year one. The potential is there for this to be a solid offensive line for the first time in a while, but the downside is there as well with several inconsistent starters, a dominant left tackle who might find it tough to be quite as dominant now in his age 36 season, and shaky reserve options.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Along with better health as the season went on, one big reason for the Seahawks’ offensive turnaround in the second half of the season was their trade for Carlos Dunlap of the Bengals. A 2nd round pick by the Bengals in 2010, Dunlap was one of the Bengals’ best players of the past decade. From 2010-2019, Dunlap finished 35th or better among edge defenders on PFF in all 10 seasons, including three finishes in the top-5 and a 4th ranked finish in 2019. Also a strong run stuffer, Dunlap combined to total 81.5 sacks, 149 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 148 games over that stretch.

The 2020 season was Dunlap’s age 31 season, so some drop off was to be expected, but when Dunlap struggled early in the season, he was benched by the Bengals, playing just 12 snaps in week 7 against the Browns, and as a result the long-time Bengal demanded a trade, which led to him going to Seattle mid-season in what amounted to a salary dump. However, Dunlap proved to have something left in the tank in the second half of the season, earning an above average grade overall from PFF and totaling 5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 8 games. 

Dunlap still didn’t have as good of a season as he was used to in his time in Cincinnati and now he’s another year older in his age 32 season, but the Seahawks opted to bring him back this off-season on a 2-year, 13.6 million dollar deal and he figures to continue factoring into the Seahawks’ edge defender rotation. One reason for that is simply that the Seahawks don’t have many other good options at the position. They are, however, reasonably deep and are hoping to find productive rotation players through competition. 

Benson Mayowa led this group with 571 snaps played last season, despite only playing 13 games, but the Seahawks would probably like to avoid him seeing such a big role again in 2021. Mayowa managed just 6 sacks, 6 hits, and a 9.0% pressure rate and his snap count was actually a career high for his 8 years in the league. His career pressure rate of 8.9% isn’t any better, he’s mostly earned middling grades from PFF as a rotational player, and now he heads into his age 30 season. He would also definitely be a below average option if relied on for a significant role again.

The Seahawks also have hybrid interior/edge players in Rasheem Green (365 snaps) and LJ Collier (559 snaps), who will continue seeing some action on the edge, particularly on early downs. Collier was a first round pick by the Seahawks in 2019, but he struggled mightily through 152 rookie year snaps in an injury plagued first season in the league and in 2020, even though he was healthy and played all 16 games, he still struggled, finishing 86th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. In total, he’s managed just a 5.3% pressure rate in his short career, which would be underwhelming even if he played all of his snaps on the interior. He still has some upside, but he was considered a reach when the Seahawks selected him and he hasn’t done anything to prove the Seahawks right yet.

Green was also a high pick, selected in the 3rd round in 2018, but he also hasn’t shown much, earning below average grades from PFF in each of his three seasons in the league, while averaging 370 snaps per game and managing just a 7.2% pressure rate. He’s still very young, only going into his age 24 season, so it’s possible he could be better going forward, but thus far he’s yet to show any signs of being a solid starter or even rotation player.

Alton Robinson, a 2020 5th round pick, also saw 336 snaps as an edge defender last year, but, while he held his own, it came in very limited action and he wasn’t a high draft pick, so he has an uphill battle to become a consistent rotational player long-term. Robinson wasn’t even the first edge defender the Seahawks took in 2020, taking Darrell Taylor in the 2nd round, and, while he didn’t play a snap as a rookie due to injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him earn a significant role if he’s healthy in 2021. He has the most upside of the Seahawks’ young edge defenders, although that says more about the rest of the bunch than it does about him because he’s yet to even make his NFL debut.

The Seahawks also added veterans Aldon Smith and Kerry Hyder in free agency and both figure to see significant action if they can. The reason I say if they can is because Aldon Smith is yet again in off-the-field trouble. Smith was originally selected 7th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft and burst onto the scene early in his career, totaling 47.5 sacks, 46 hits, and a 14.6% pressure rate in 59 games in his first 5 seasons in the league, but then off-the-field issues led to him being out of the league completely from 2016-2019, before he resurfaced with the Cowboys in 2020.

Smith didn’t quite show his old form in 2020, but he did have an impressive season, staying out of trouble, playing 809 snaps in 16 games, earning an above average grade from PFF, and doing his best work as a pass rusher with 5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate. He signed with the Seahawks this off-season, but another off-the-field incident surfaced shortly after and now has his long-term future in limbo. It’s possible we could see him suit up for the Seahawks in 2021, but it’s also possible that comes only after a long suspension. 

Hyder doesn’t have the same upside as Smith, but he’s a reliable option. He missed most of 2017 and 2018 with injury (153 snaps total), but in his last three healthy seasons, he’s earned average or better grades from PFF, he’s averaged 608 snaps per season, and he’s been at his best rushing the passer, with 17.5 sacks, 23 hits, and a 11.6% pressure rate, while playing all 16 games in each of his three healthy seasons. His age is a minor concern in his age 30 season and he is unlikely to be any better than he’s been, but he could remain a solid starting option. He’ll rotate heavily with several other options and this is an underwhelming edge defender group overall, but they could mostly decent play if they manage their rotation correctly and get improved play from some young players.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

With a couple Seahawks edge defenders lining up on the interior frequently in sub packages, the Seahawks don’t have as much need for traditional interior defenders, only giving significant action to three players in 2020, Jarran Reed, Poona Ford, and Bryan Mone. Reed was traded to the Chiefs this off-season in what amounted to a salary dump and, while he was a middling player last season, he leaves behind a lot of snaps (847) to replace. The Seahawks have a few candidates to replace him, including returning opt-out Al Woods, free agent acquisition Robert Nkemdiche, and third year holdover Bryan Mone, who could earn a significant uptick in playing time with a strong off-season. The Seahawks could also play their edge defenders on the interior more often. 

Woods has been in the league since 2010 and has generally been a solid run stuffer in his career, but he’s another year older after the opt out, npw going into his age 34 season, he’s never surpassed 564 snaps played in a season, and he really leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, with a career 3.9% pressure rate. Mone, on the other hand, has only played 317 snaps since going undrafted in 2019 and he’s struggled across that playing time, but he’s likely to see a larger role in year three by default, even if he’s likely to struggle if counted on for extended action.

Nkemdiche, meanwhile, is only worth mentioning because he’s a former first round pick (29th overall by the Cardinals in 2016) who is still relatively young, going into his age 27 season, but he’s been a massive bust and was out of the league entirely in 2020. Even before sitting out 2020, Nkemdiche had shown very little through 4 seasons in the league, playing 776 snaps total with the Cardinals and Dolphins and earning below average grades from PFF in all four seasons. There’s a chance he could make this roster and make an impact, but it seems more likely that he doesn’t make the team at all, which could possibly end his chances in the NFL.

Poona Ford is still locked into one starting role and, with Reed gone, it’s possible he sees an increase in snaps as well, although the 670 snaps he played last season were already a significant amount. It was also a career high for the 2018 undrafted free agent, but he wasn’t phased by the heavy workload, as he finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked interior defender on the season. That didn’t come out of nowhere either, as Ford was PFF’s 29th ranked interior defender across 231 rookie year snaps in 2018 and their 8th ranked interior defender across 506 snaps in 2019. 

The 5-11 310 pounder only looks like a big run stuffer, which is where he excels, but he’s not a bad pass rusher either, with a career 5.5% pressure rate, including 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a 6.7% pressure rate in 2020, justifying his every down role. Only in his age 26 season, he should remain at least an above average starter, even if he doesn’t quite match last season’s performance, and it’s possible he could be even better going forward if he continues to develop his pass rush game, which took a big leap in 2020. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, locking him up seems like a priority for a Seattle team that otherwise lacks high level players on the defensive line and will be relying primarily on heavy rotations to try to get decent play upfront.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The last remaining member of the dominant Seahawks defense that led this team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances early in Russell Wilson’s career is linebacker Bobby Wagner and, even now going into his age 31 season, he’s arguably their best defensive player. That’s in part due to all the talent that has been lost around him over the past few years, but Wagner is also still playing at a high level, finishing the 2020 season as PFF’s 3rd ranked off ball linebacker, while playing all but 11 snaps for the Seahawks. 

A 2nd round pick in 2012, Wagner has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 9 seasons in his career, including seven finishes in the top-12 and five finishes in the top-4. He’s also been very durable, missing just 9 games total, while playing an average of 63.1 snaps per game. Even if he starts to decline in 2021, he should remain an above average starter, although any sort of significant drop off from him would be a huge blow to this defense.

Bobby Wagner’s long-time running mate at linebacker, KJ Wright, was not retained this off-season and, while he remains a free agent, it seems unlikely that the Seahawks will bring him back for his age 32 season, especially since they drafted his replacement a year ago in the first round, taking Jordyn Brooks 27th overall. Wright still played at a pretty high level in 2020 though, despite his age, as he finished 8th among off ball linebackers on PFF, while Brooks struggled across 367 rookie year snaps. Given that, it’ll be tough for Brooks not to be a downgrade, even if he takes a big step forward in his second season in the league. 

The Seahawks will also have to replace Brooks as the third linebacker and their only choices are a pair of 2019 draft picks who have hardly played in two seasons in the league, 3rd round pick Cody Barton (266 snaps) and 5th round pick Ben Burr-Kirven (15 snaps). This group has some young players with potential, but they’ll be relying on Bobby Wagner to once again play at a high level and they’ll likely miss veteran KJ Wright, even if his age made him unlikely to repeat last season’s performance even if retained. 

Grade: B

Secondary

The Seahawks’ secondary getting healthy was a big part of why this defense was better down the stretch, but unfortunately they won’t have the same unit as a year ago after some off-season losses. One was Quinton Dunbar and, while he came to Seattle with expectations last off-season, he struggled across 397 snaps in an injury plagued season, so he won’t be missed much. However, the Seahawks also lost cornerback Shaq Griffin, who earned an above average grade from PFF in 12 starts and had been the Seahawks’ #1 cornerback in recent years, before leaving for a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season.

The Seahawks added ex-49er Ahkello Witherspoon in free agency and also used a 4th round pick on Tre Brown, but the latter is unlikely to make much of an impact in year one, while the former is an underwhelming starting option, as he was very inconsistent throughout his 4 seasons with the 49ers, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2017. Witherspoon showed flashes of brilliance, but also struggled mightily for stretches and missed 17 games in 4 seasons. He has good size at 6-2 195 and the Seahawks tend to get the most out of taller cornerbacks, but it’s not like he was poorly coached with the 49ers, who run a similar coverage scheme to the Seahawks. Witherspoon may still have some untapped potential, only in his age 26 season, but he could also remain frustratingly inconsistent. 

Witherspoon will likely start, but the Seahawks could have a pretty open competition for roles at cornerback. With Griffin missing some time and Dunbar missing even more, DJ Reed (560 snaps), Tre Flowers (578 snaps), and Ugo Amadi (552 snaps) all saw somewhat significant action, with varying levels of success, and all are back to compete for roles. Flowers was the worst of the bunch, finishing 93rd out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. He is also the most experienced, but his struggles weren’t surprising as the 2018 5th round pick has earned below average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league (37 starts in 42 games), so his experience doesn’t work in his favor. The Seahawks still love his size at 6-3 203, but he isn’t guaranteed to continue seeing a significant role.

DJ Reed was the best of the bunch last season and the 2018 5th round pick has generally made a positive impact when relied on for significant playing time in his career, but those opportunities have been limited, as he’s made just 10 career starts and has averaged just 348 snaps per season. He’s a projection to a larger role, but there is some upside there. Amadi, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick by the Seahawks in 2019 and, after hardly playing as a rookie (76 snaps), he held his own in a larger role in his second season in the league. He’s also pretty unproven and could struggle in a full-time role, but he definitely has upside and he’s not a bad option to have even if he doesn’t take a step forward in year three.

The Seahawks also took a flyer on veteran Pierre Desir, although it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t even make the final roster. Continuing this organization’s love of bigger cornerbacks, Desir is 6-1 198, but that might be the primary reason the Seahawks are giving him a chance, as he hasn’t earned it with his play in the past two seasons, finishing below average on PFF in both seasons, including a 116th ranked finish out of 136 eligible cornerbacks across 519 snaps in 2020, a season in which he was cut down the stretch by the winless Jets. Desir was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback across 903 snaps with the Colts in 2018, but never lived up to that and otherwise was never more than a middling cornerback who never topped 683 snaps in another season. Going into his age 31 season, he could be completely at the end of his line.

The Seahawks have good depth at safety with Marquise Blair returning from injury, so they could use three safeties together somewhat regularly in sub packages to mask their lack of proven depth at cornerback. Both Blair and starting safety Quandre Diggs have experience as slot cornerbacks, although the Seahawks seem to prefer Blair there more than Diggs, whose slot experience is primarily from earlier in his career with the Lions. Blair was a 2nd round pick of the Seahawks in 2019 and showed a lot of potential across 230 rookie year snaps, only to see his second season ended by injury after just 63 snaps in two games. The upside is still there for him to develop into at least a solid sub package option for the Seahawks, though the injury and his overall lack of experience hurt his projection.

Diggs, meanwhile, is plenty experienced and should remain a starting safety. A 6th round pick in 2015, Diggs was a solid slot cornerback earlier in his career, but he’s been better at safety, where he has been an every down player, averaging 62.6 snaps per game in 42 games (all starts) over the past three seasons. Diggs was more of a middling starter in 2020, but he finished 35th among safeties on PFF in 2018 and 18th among safeties on PFF in 2019 and could easily bounce back in 2021, still only in his age 28 season. 

Along with Diggs likely being a little better in 2021, the Seahawks will especially be hoping from a bounce back year from fellow starting safety Jamal Adams, which is more important for a variety of reasons. For one, the Seahawks simply have a lot invested in Adams, who they traded a pair of first round picks to acquire a year ago from the Jets and, now in the final year of his rookie deal, a lucrative extension is almost definitely looming on the horizon. 

On top of that, Adams is one of the top safeties in the league at his best, which is why the Seahawks gave up as much as they did for him in the first place, and he’s still only in his age 26 season. Selected 6th overall by the Jets in 2017, Adams was an above average starter from the word go and took a big leap from year one to years two and three, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked safety in 2018 and their 4th ranked safety in 2019. However, after being traded, he fell all the way to 47th among safeties in his first season in Seattle, while missing four games with injury. 

Adams’ 9.5 sacks jump off the stat sheet and that’s not a fluke, as he has a 24.9% pressure rate for his career as a blitzer, but he only rushed the passer on 19.0% of his pass snaps and was a liability in coverage, while not being particularly good against the run either, so his effectiveness as a blitzer wasn’t enough for Adams to be worth the investment in year one and the Seahawks didn’t acquire him to only be effective when taken out of coverage to blitz. Adams was never really healthy all season and has a very good chance to bounce back in his second season in Seattle if he can be healthier, but his long-term projection is shakier than it was a year ago. They’ll need him to play at a high level to compensate for an otherwise underwhelming secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

It was a tale of two seasons for the Seahawks in 2020, as they started out with strong offense and mediocre defense, only to see their offense drop off significantly in the second half and their defense to start playing at a high level. Their offense dealt with some injuries down the stretch, while their defense was missing key players earlier in the season, but overall their first and second half splits seem like the result of random variance more than anything and, even if injuries were the driving factor, they can’t necessarily depend on better health in 2021, as they ranked a middling 20th in adjusted games lost and injuries are part of the game.

Overall, the Seahawks finished last season 9th in first down rate differential at +1.65%, which is about right for how they played across the season as a whole. They managed to go 12-4, but needed to win 8 of their 11 one score games to do so and just based on that being unlikely to repeat, they could see their win total drop by a couple, with a roster that overall seems about as talented as their squad a year ago, without major changes being made overall.

The Seahawks are one of the better teams in the league, but they’re not one of the top few teams in the league and, in a division where all four teams look like strong playoff contenders, the Seahawks could have a tough battle to even make the post-season. Ultimately, they seem more likely to get in than be left out, but their schedule doesn’t have many breaks. I will have a final prediction for the Seahawks at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Indianapolis Colts 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The quarterback position was not one the Colts had to worry about for a long-time. They got the #1 pick in 1998, the year can’t miss quarterback prospect Peyton Manning entered the draft, and Manning didn’t miss, playing 14 seasons of a Hall of Fame career with the team, before injuring his neck, missing all of 2012, and being released the following off-season. Manning’s release was in part due to the Colts falling to 2-14 in his absence and yet again landing the #1 overall pick in a draft with a can’t miss quarterback prospect, Andrew Luck, who many believed was the best prospect since Manning.

Luck took over the following season and seemed like he could follow in Manning’s footsteps, leading the Colts in the post-season in each of his first three seasons, including an AFC Championship appearance during the 2014 season. However, then the injuries started, first costing Luck a total of 9 games in 2015, another game in 2016, and then ending his 2017 season before it started. Luck returned for a full season in 2018 to lead the Colts to another post-season appearance, but an off-season injury after the season caused Luck to hang them up early rather than continue trying to fight through pain, ending his career before his 30th birthday.

Luck’s surprise retirement came close to the start of the season too, so the Colts didn’t have time to find a proper replacement, instead turning again to backup Jacoby Brissett, who was underwhelming in Luck’s absence in 2017. Brissett was again underwhelming, leading to the Colts trying to find a proper replacement for Luck last off-season. The best they could do was sign Philip Rivers, a likely future Hall of Famer in his own right, but one at the end of his career in his 17th season in the NFL. 

Rivers took the Colts back to the post-season, but the Colts were one and done and Rivers decided to make his 17th season his last, hanging them up this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 40 season in 2021. After years of stability at the quarterback position, the Colts were yet again in need of a quarterback this off-season and with Brissett signing with the Dolphins, that quarterback would be the Colts’ 4th different starting quarterback in the past four seasons, 5th in five seasons if you include Scott Tolzien, who actually started week 1 of the season Luck missed in 2017. 

Rather than adding another short-term solution like they did with Rivers, the Colts decided to focus on finding stability at the position this off-season, trading for Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles, whose contract guarantees him 47.4 million over the next two seasons. Sending back a third round pick and a second round pick that can become a first round pick in that trade, the Eagles are all in on Wentz and will be locked into him for the next couple seasons, for better or worse.

That’s a big risk considering how badly Wentz played last season, when he completed 57.4% of his passes for an average of 6.00 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, ranking 34th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF and getting benched down the stretch for rookie Jalen Hurts, leading to Wentz’s trade from Philadelphia this off-season. However, Wentz is reuniting with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who coached Wentz to a 2017 season in which he ranked 6th among quarterbacks on PFF and completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.49 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in just his second season in the league, before tearing his ACL in the middle of an MVP caliber season and watching Reich leave the following off-season to take the head coaching job in Indianapolis. 

Reich’s presence alone doesn’t guarantee Wentz’s success, but how Wentz played in the interim between his 2017 MVP candidacy and his 2020 bottoming out suggests that his 2020 was more of an outlier than his 2017, as Wentz completed 66.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2018-2019 combined, while finishing 14th among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons. 

Both seasons also ended with injury, but some of that has been more bad luck than anything. Wentz is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and, prior to a year ago, he was seen as a perfectly fine starting quarterback, even if his chances of reaching his 2017 heights seemed slim, so I like his chances of bouncing back in 2021 and the reunion with Reich only helps his chances. 

Wentz also is very unlikely to have receivers drop a league high 10.7% of his passes like they did a year ago with the Eagles and he’s unlikely to be pressured on at the 8th highest rate in the league at 38.3%, which both largely contributed to his poor statistical production. Wentz has a good chance to be a noticeable upgrade in 2021 over Philip Rivers, who ranked a middling 18th among quarterbacks on PFF in his one season with the Colts in 2020.

That is needed for the Colts, whose 11-5 record last season was largely the result of an easy schedule, which included seven games against the Jaguars, Texans, Jets, Bengals, and Lions, who all won five games or fewer. In first down rate, the Colts ranked 8th on offense and 11th defense and 9th overall with a +2.02% first down rate differential, but when schedule adjustments are applied, the Colts fell to 19th on offense, 13th on defense, and 13th overall at +0.20%. 

This season, the Colts still face a relatively easy schedule within the division, but the Jaguars are better than a year ago and, outside of the division, the Colts are trading the AFC North, NFC North, the Jets, and the Raiders for the NFC West, the AFC East, the Ravens, the Buccaneers, and the Raiders (again). If the Colts want to win 11 games and make it back to the post-season, they’ll need to be better than they were a year ago and Carson Wentz returning to form will almost definitely need to be part of the reason why they are better for that to happen.

With all they have invested in him, it’s unlikely the Colts would want to bench Wentz at any point, but if he does suffer another injury, the Colts are pretty thin behind Wentz with Brissett gone, leaving 2020 4th round pick Jacob Eason (0 rookie year passes) and 6th round rookie Sam Ehlinger as the candidates to be Wentz’s backup. Eason can probably lock down the job with a strong training camp, but if he struggles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Colts add a veteran to give them a little bit of a higher ceiling if Wentz misses time.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Philip Rivers was not the Colts’ only significant retirement this off-season, as long-time left tackle Anthony Castonzo decided to hang them up this off-season rather than return to the Colts for his 11th season. The 22nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Colts, Castonzo stepped into the starting lineup right away as a rookie and was an above average starter from the beginning, starting a streak of 10 straight seasons (144 starts) with an above average grade from PFF that took him through the end of his career, when he finished 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2020. 

Castonzo was only going into his age 33 season and likely could have continued playing at an above average level in 2021 had he returned, so he is a significant loss, especially since the Colts offensive line has been the strength of this team for the past three seasons, while keeping the same starting five together across that stretch, an unusual occurrence in the NFL. With Castonzo gone, that continuity is gone as well, which could hurt this offensive line even if Castonzo’s replacement is able to play comparably well.

Castonzo’s replacement playing comparably well is a possibility as the Colts went out and got another proven veteran left tackle Eric Fisher as a replacement, but Fisher comes with a lot of risk as well. Fisher also is a former 1st round pick, actually being selected #1 overall by the Chiefs in 2013, and he has been an above average starter for a while as well, earning above average grades from PFF in seven straight seasons, dating back to his second season in the league in 2014 (100 starts total over that stretch), including a 18th ranked season in 2020. 

However, Fisher suffered a torn achilles in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship victory back in January and, now going into his age 30 season, the Chiefs let him go to save 12 million, which they needed to retool their offensive line. The Colts signed him to a 1-year, 8.38 million dollar deal, but he might not be ready for the start of the season and, even if he is, there is no guarantee he’ll be as good as he’s been, given his injury and his age. Even if he does bounce back, he doesn’t have a ton of upside on a deal worth 8.38 million and even if he proves to be a good value, the Colts will only have to pay him more to keep him long-term next off-season.

The Colts didn’t use a draft pick on a left tackle of the future, a bit surprising given that Fisher isn’t a long-term option, which leaves veteran free agent addition Sam Tevi as the swing tackle and likely replacement for Fisher if he misses any time. Tevi has plenty of experience, making 43 starts over the past three seasons, but it hasn’t been good experience, as the 2017 6th round pick has earned below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a 82nd ranked finish out of 89 eligible offensive tackles in 2020. He would almost definitely continue struggling if forced into action. His primary competition for the swing tackle role is probably fellow free agent addition Julie’n Davenport, who made 23 starts between 2018-2019 with the Texans and Dolphins, but struggled mightily and was limited to 53 snaps in 2020.

The rest of this line is still the same from the past few years. Braden Smith will remain at right tackle and play opposite Fisher, or whoever starts in Fisher’s absence. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Smith has been an above average starter in all three seasons in the league, finishing 29th, 9th, and 17th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past three seasons respectively, while making 43 of a possible 48 starts. Still only going into his age 25 season, Smith could even keep getting better and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain one of the best right tackles in the league.

Left guard Quenton Nelson was also added in that 2018 NFL Draft and, though he was selected 6th overall, he’s exceeded his draft slot by just as much as Smith has exceeded his draft slot as a second rounder, as Nelson has developed into one of the top offensive linemen in the entire NFL. He’s finished 5th, 2nd, and 4th among guards on PFF in his first three seasons in the league respectively while making all 48 starts and, still only heading into his age 25 season, he’s just getting started. He should remain one of the top guards in the league for many years, barring unexpected injuries, and is arguably the surest bet in the entire NFL to be an All-Pro in 2021, up there with Aaron Donald. 

Mark Glowinski will continue starting opposite Nelson at right guard. He was the last of the Colts’ returning starters to enter this lineup, moving into a starting role in week 6 of 2018 and making 41 of 43 possible starts in just about two and a half seasons since then. Glowinski was mediocre in his first stint as a starter in 2016 and, prior to entering the Colts’ lineup in 2018, Glowinski had played just 199 snaps the previous season, but he finished his first season ranked 7th among guards and, while he hasn’t quite been as good since, he’s shown himself to not be a complete one-year wonder, earning average or better grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 as well, including a 26th ranked finish in 2020. Going into his age 29 season, he should remain a solid starter.

Center Ryan Kelly rounds out this group. A first round pick in 2016, Kelly has earned an average or better grade from PFF in four of five seasons in the league, with the exception being an injury plagued 2017 season, and he’s finished in the top-14 among centers on PFF in three straight seasons since that injury plagued season. Also in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue playing at around the same level in 2021. 

The Colts have avoided significant injuries on this offensive line over the past few seasons, but that’s not a guarantee that they will continue having good injury luck, and their depth is pretty suspect, as a result of years of not needing to develop backups. I already got into their underwhelming options for the swing tackle role, but on the interior their top options are 2020 5th round pick Danny Pinter, who played 103 mediocre snaps as a rookie, mediocre veteran journeyman Chris Reed (23 starts in 5 seasons in the league), and fellow mediocre veteran journeyman Joey Hunt (11 starts in 5 seasons in the league). All would be underwhelming options, but the Colts do still have arguably the top starting offensive line in the league, especially if Eric Fisher can be back sooner rather than later.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Colts also had one of the league’s leading rushers last season, with 2020 2nd round pick Jonathan Taylor rushing for 1,169 yards on 232 carries (5.04 YPC) as a rookie, the third most rushing yards in the league. Taylor also rushed for 11 touchdowns and added 36/299/1 in the air on just 39 targets, averaging 7.67 yards per target and 1.47 yards per route run. His overall play led to him ranking 6th among running backs on PFF, even though he was only a rookie.

However, his rushing yardage is misleading when you take into account the schedule. Taylor rushed for 5.46 YPC in games against defenses that ranked 22nd or worse in first down rate allowed, as opposed to just 4.18 YPC in other games. Performing significantly better against bad defenses isn’t unusual, but the Colts’ easy schedule last year allowed Taylor to see a disproportionate amount of those carries against easy defenses, with a whopping 67.2% of his carries coming in those games against bottom third of the league defenses. Facing a tougher slate of schedules in 2021, Taylor is very unlikely to maintain that same rate, even if he takes a step forward in terms of his actual level of play in his second season in the league.

Taylor will remain the clear lead back though and could still have an impressive rushing total due to having a high volume of carries in this offense, supported by strong blocking upfront. The Colts also have pretty decent depth behind Taylor, especially after keeping Marlon Mack as a free agent this off-season. Mack was the Colts’ starting running back from 2018-2019, averaging 4.52 YPC and rushing for 17 touchdowns on 442 carries in 26 games, but he tore his achilles in week one of last season and, after Taylor broke out in his absence, it seemed highly unlikely Mack would be brought back as a free agent this off-season. However, Mack was met with a very cold market, in large part due to his injury, and opted to return to the Colts on a cheap one-year deal and try free agency again in a year.

Jonathan Taylor can’t be happy about the move from a workload perspective, as Mack presents a much more serious challenger for carries than anyone healthy on this roster last season, but it was a great move on the Colts’ part, given Mack’s track record and the susceptibility of the running back position to injury. Mack is mostly useless on passing downs (0.85 yards per route run in his career), but can still be an effective early down back if healthy. He might not see more than a few carries per game at the start of the season, but if Taylor isn’t living up to last year’s heights and Mack shows himself healthy in practice, I could see that increasing as the season goes on and if Taylor were to suffer an injury, Mack would likely be the clear lead back rather than rotating with multiple other backs. 

Other running backs who saw carries for the Colts last season were Nyheim Hines (89 carries) and Jordan Wilkins (84 carries), who strangely took a somewhat significant amount of carries from Taylor, despite averaging 4.27 YPC and 3.67 YPC respectively. Hines hasn’t been much of a runner in three seasons in the league since the Colts selected him in the 4th round in 2018, but he’s averaged a solid 1.47 yards per route run as the Colts’ primary passing down back. 

That career average includes a very impressive 1.83 yards per route run average in 2020 that not only ranked 5th among running backs, but also earned Hines the highest grade among running backs as a receiver from PFF. His 63 catches actually led this team last season, with him taking them for 482 yards and 4 touchdowns, and he should remain a big part of this passing offense, even if Taylor takes over more passing down work in year two. I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s carry total though.

Jordan Wilkins is also very unlikely to match last year’s carry total and could find himself off of this roster if he can’t continue to carve out a role on special teams. Wilkins is a little bit better of a runner than Hines, averaging 4.88 YPC in three seasons in the league since being selected by the Colts in the 5th round in 2018, but that’s across just 195 carries total in three seasons and he isn’t nearly as useful as a receiver (0.92 yards per route run for his career).

With Taylor locked in as the lead back, Mack to be the primary backup on early downs, and Hines to see action as a passing down specialist, there isn’t room for Wilkins on this roster aside from special teams and he would be highly unlikely to see significant carries even if he did make the final roster, barring a rash of injuries. Jonathan Taylor isn’t as good as he looked against weak defenses last season, but this is a deep backfield with Mack returning from injury.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The weakness on this Colts’ offense last year was the receiving corps, which underwhelmed despite the Colts’ easy schedule. Long-time #1 option TY Hilton led this team in receiving yards again, his 7th time doing so in 9 seasons with the team, but this wasn’t a typical TY Hilton season. After averaging 56.1 snaps per game over the previous six seasons, Hilton saw that drop to 45.9 in 2020. Hilton also averaged just 47.8 snaps per game in 10 games in 2019 and, going into his age 32 season now, it’s clear that nagging injuries and age are leading to a decline for Hilton and the Colts are responding by managing his playing time more. 

Hilton’s 1.76 yards per route run average in 2020 still led all Colts wide receivers, but, like his 1.82 yards per route run average in 2019, it’s well behind his career average of 2.04. When you include that he’s doing this over more limited playing time than he’s used to, you get a slash line of 56/762/5 which, while it was the best on this roster last season, it was hardly the TY Hilton of old, who topped 1000 yards in 5 of 6 seasons from 2013-2018.

Hilton’s decline is unlikely to stop at this point and it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Colts let him go and try to find an upgrade this off-season, with Hilton set to hit free agency, especially since they were one of the few teams in the league with some cap space to work with this off-season, but instead they opted to bring Hilton back on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal. It’s a significant amount of money on a one-year deal in an off-season where younger receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller both got similar deals and it could prove to be a mistake if Hilton continues to decline, but the Colts clearly like the familiarity of Hilton and are betting that he won’t decline further.

With Hilton being brought back and no significant upgrades being made to this group this off-season, the Colts are betting on getting more out of the rest of this bunch, a mostly young and inexperienced bunch. One player they are almost definitely going to get more out of is 2019 2nd round pick Parris Campbell, who saw his 2020 season end after 63 snaps in 2 games due to injury. This comes after his rookie season lasted just 196 snaps in 7 games due to other injuries. 

Campbell has plenty of upside still, only going into his age 24 season, and could breakout as a starter if he’s healthy, but that’s a big if and even if healthy, he’s not a guarantee to breakout, as his career 1.25 yards per route run average in limited action is pretty underwhelming. It’s a very small sample size and he could be better going forward, but it’s just a reminder that, for as much potential as he has, Campbell is highly unproven at the NFL level. 

Michael Pittman is also a recent 2nd round pick, selected 34th overall by the Colts in 2020. With Campbell hurt and Hilton having his snaps limited, Pittman saw a lot of rookie year action, but was pretty underwhelming, earning a slightly below average grade from PFF and averaging just 1.37 yards per route run. He obviously has the potential to be a lot better in year two, but that is not a guarantee and if he continues playing like he did a year ago, he’s a pretty underwhelming starting option.

Zach Pascal actually led this group in snaps played (833) and routes run (470), playing more than nominal #1 receiver TY Hilton, but he was underwhelming as well, with just a 1.34 yards per route run average. Despite going undrafted in 2017, Pascal has seen some significant playing time over the past three seasons, but his career 1.30 yards per route run average is even worse than last season’s average and, for all his playing time, he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a middling starter at best nor is he likely to have any remaining untapped potential. He’ll likely continue seeing a significant role, even if Campbell and Pittman give the Colts more in 2021, but I wouldn’t expect him to be an every down player.

Things are also pretty similar at the tight end position as they were last season. The Colts gave three tight ends all somewhat significant playing time last season, with Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton, and Jack Doyle all running between 190 and 226 routes on the season, with varying degrees of success. Mo Alie-Cox was by far the best of the bunch, despite the least playing time, averaging 2.07 yards per route run, en route to a 31/394/2 slash line, while Burton and Doyle finished with averages of 1.11 yards per route run and 1.14 yards per route run respectively. Burton is no longer with the team, but Alie-Cox and Doyle both remain in a position group that also added 4th round rookie Kylen Granson, who could see action as the 3rd tight end as a rookie. 

With Burton gone and being replaced by a rookie, Alie-Cox and Doyle are likely to see more action, which is likely to benefit Alie-Cox more. Not only did Alie-Cox have by far the more impressive yards per route run average last season, but that was nothing new for a player who has averaged 1.88 yards per route run in four seasons since the Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent and converted college basketball prior following the 2017 NFL Draft. Alie-Cox is still very inexperienced and isn’t a guarantee to translate that average to a larger role, but he was PFF’s 7th ranked tight end overall last season in his limited action and could easily have a bit of a breakout year in a larger role in 2021.

Doyle, meanwhile, has a career average of 1.34 yards per route run that is decent for a tight end and he has always earned middling or better grades from PFF throughout the past seven seasons, dating back to his second season in the league in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is coming off of a down year, so he seems to be on the decline. The Colts would probably benefit by giving Alie-Cox more playing time at Doyle’s expense, but my guess is they plan on using both about equally. There are some promising young players with upside in this receiving corps, but their top receiver is on the decline and one of their top tight ends seems to be as well, so, without any real additions being made to this group this off-season, I would expect this to be a below average unit again in 2021, which could be especially exposed by a much tougher schedule of opposing defenses.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Despite having some needs on offense, the Colts used their first two draft picks both on edge defenders, taking Michigan’s Kwity Paye 21st overall and Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo 54th overall. Paye and Odeyingbo are expected to be replacements of veteran free agent departures Justin Houston (608 snaps) and Denico Autry (631 snaps) respectively, who both had solid seasons in 2020. Both have the upside to be significant upgrades long-term, but there is no guarantee that either one isn’t a downgrade as a rookie, especially Odeyinbgo, who tore his achilles in the pre-draft process back in January and is expected to miss the first month or two or the season at least.

The Colts also have other recent high picks in the mix, 2018 2nd round picks Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay and 2019 2nd round pick Ben Banogu, who could all also give the Colts more in 2021 than they did in 2020. Overall, their edge defenders can be split into two types, pure edge defenders and hybrid players who play inside frequently in sub packages. Their two rookies are examples of each type, as the 6-2 261 pound Paye will be replacing Justin Houston, a pure edge defender, while the bigger 6-6 285 pound Dayo Odeyingbo will be replacing Denico Autry, a hybrid player who played inside frequently in sub packages.

Tyquan Lewis is a hybrid player and, with Autry gone and Odeyingbo likely to miss time early in the season, he’s likely to get a big increase in snaps, especially early in the season, after totaling just 415 last season, despite playing in all 16 games. That was actually a career high for him though, as he averaged just 281 snaps per season in his first two seasons in the league. Lewis was a high pick, but his play has been underwhelming thus far in his career and, even though he’s getting a chance at more playing time, he hasn’t exactly earned it with his play thus far in his career and could easily struggle in a larger role. At the same time, he’s still only in his age 26 season and could take a step forward in his 4th season in the league, but his potential is largely theoretical at this point.

Turay and Banogu, meanwhile, are pure edge defenders, as is fellow holdover Al-Quadin Muhammad, a 2017 6th round pick who has carved out a role over the past three seasons, averaging 492 snaps per season. Muhammad has been a solid run defender, but hasn’t gotten much pass rush at all with 5 total sacks, 13 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate. Turay and Banogu only played 95 snaps and 100 snaps respectively last season due to injury and will almost definitely see significantly more snaps in 2021, along with Paye who will also see significant snaps, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Muhammad see his snaps dry up due to his inability to establish himself as a pass rushing threat.

Banogu didn’t play much as a rookie either, despite being highly drafted and playing all 16 games, playing just 272 snaps across those games, so he really hasn’t shown much in his career thus far, especially since he’s struggled mightily in the limited action he’s seen thus far. He could be better in 2021, but that could be largely by default and he could still struggle. Turay, meanwhile, has played just 176 snaps total over the past two seasons due to injury, after showing promise across 383 snaps as a rookie. Like Banogu, he has upside, but has yet to show much yet and he reportedly is not yet fully past his devastating ankle injury from a couple years ago. There is plenty of potential at the edge defender position for the Colts, but with such a young group and several players with concerning injury situations, there is plenty of downside here as well.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

With the Colts frequently using one or two edge defenders on the interior in sub packages, they don’t need as much depth at the interior defender position, where they only used a trio of players for significant snaps last season, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, and Taylor Stallworth. Stallworth struggled mightily and hasn’t shown much in his career since going undrafted in 2018, but the Colts added Antwaun Woods in free agency and he should play over Stallworth, who was only their third interior defender anyway. 

Undrafted in 2016, Woods has played 451 snaps per season over the past three seasons and has been solid as an early down run stuffer, but he’s not a pass rush option, with a well below average 3.3% career pressure rate. He won’t see much action unless injuries strike though and is likely to be almost exclusively an early down option, given how often the Colts line up a hybrid edge defender on the interior in sub packages, so his lack of pass rush ability isn’t a huge deal.

Buckner and Stewart remain locked in as the starters, with Buckner being one of the top players in the league at his position. The 7th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Buckner was an above average starter from the word go and finished 33rd, 21st, 24th, and 14th respectively among interior defenders on PFF across the first four seasons of his career in San Francisco. However, with the 49ers needing to commit money elsewhere, they opted to trade him to the Colts for a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

It was a risky move as not only did the Colts give up their first round pick, but they also gave Buckner a 4-year, 84 million dollar extension that makes him the second highest paid interior defender in the league, only behind Aaron Donald. However, at least in year one, the move panned out as Buckner was even better than he was in any season in San Francisco, finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked interior defender. Buckner played the run well, but especially dominated as a pass rusher, with 9.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate from the interior. 

As impressive as those numbers are, they aren’t that out of line with his career numbers, as he’s totaled 38 sacks, 69 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate in 78 career games. He’s also been incredibly durable, missing just two games in five seasons, despite playing significantly more snaps per game than an average interior defender, playing about 55.1 snaps per game throughout his career. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Buckner has a decent chance to continue playing at a high enough level to justify what the Colts invested in him, even if he might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2020. 

Stewart, meanwhile, is mostly a base package player at 6-4 333, but he’s shown more pass rush over the past two seasons, with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 6.2% pressure rate, after showing almost no pass rush ability in the first two seasons of his career. The 2017 4th round pick has always been a capable run stuffer, but the addition of at least some pass rush ability to his game has turned him from a situational player (275 snaps per game in his first two seasons) to a starter who has seen snap counts of 627 and 581 respectively over the past two seasons. He should remain a solid starting option in 2021, even if he lacks a high upside. DeForest Buckner elevates this group and this defensive line as a whole, but the Colts will also be counting on young edge defenders taking a step forward to give them the depth they need on the edge to mask their lack of depth on the interior.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with DeForest Buckner, off ball linebacker Darius Leonard is one of the top players on this defense and when either one was missing last season, the Colts’ defense was noticeably worse. Leonard only missed two games last season and has missed just six games in three seasons since the Colts selected him in the 2nd round in 2018, but he also hasn’t played all 16 games in a season yet and has played so well when on the field that he can’t be replaced when he isn’t. 

Leonard burst onto the scene and won Defensive Rookie of the Year in his first season, while finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF and following that up with 7th and 10th ranked finishes in 2019 and 2020 respectively. He’s also a true every down player, averaging 62.1 snaps per game in his career. He figures to break the bank for the Colts on his next contract and, with him heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, that is likely why the Colts weren’t as aggressive as they could have been in free agency this off-season.

Part of the reason why the Colts miss Leonard so much when he is out is simply that the rest of this linebacking corps isn’t good, so when you take an All-Pro caliber player out of the mix, it’s really noticeable. The Colts didn’t address this position this off-season, so they will instead be counting on young holdovers taking a step forward. They actually let starter Anthony Walker (697 snaps) leave in free agency this off-season, although he’s unlikely to be missed, after finishing 74th ranked out of 99 eligible linebackers on PFF in 2020.

Bobby Okereke, a 3rd round pick in 2019, will likely step in as the #2 linebacker with Walker gone. He played 685 snaps last season, so it won’t be a big jump in playing time for him unless Leonard misses more time with injury, but Okereke also struggled, finishing 72nd out of 99 eligible linebackers. He showed more promise across 472 snaps as a rookie in 2019 and was a relatively high draft pick, but he isn’t a guarantee to ever develop into a capable every down player.

The third linebacker spot is even more questionable, as the rest of their linebackers are very inexperienced and were not high draft picks. Matthew Adams was a 7th round pick in 2018, but he struggled in 320 snaps in his first two seasons in the league and then didn’t play a defensive snap all last season. Zaire Franklin was also a 7th round pick in 2018 and he’s played even less on defense than Adams, totaling 264 snaps in his career, including just 86 in 2020. Jordan Glasgow is a 2020 6th round pick who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. And EJ Speed is a 2019 5th round pick who has seen just 35 career snaps on defense. This is a very thin group behind Darius Leonard, who will have to elevate this group by himself yet again.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The strongest position group on this defense is probably their secondary which, rather than relying on one high level player to elevate them, returns most of an above average and reasonably deep group from a year ago. Kenny Moore has been one of the Colts’ top defensive players for years, excelling on the slot, but also holding up as an outside cornerback, despite his 5-9 190 frame. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Moore didn’t play much as a rookie, but he’s finished above average on PFF in all 3 seasons since, finishing 35th, 18th, and 15th respectively, while playing 42 of a possible 48 games and averaging 59.4 snaps per game. 

When not in the slot in sub packages, Moore will start in base packages opposite Xavier Rhodes, a pure outside cornerback who proved to be a steal on a cheap one-year deal in his first season with the Colts in 2020. A first round pick of the Vikings in 2013, Rhodes showed himself to be a consistent starter early in his career, earning average or better grades from PFF in each of his first five seasons in the league, maxing out at 21st in 2016 and 37th in 2017, but he fell off significantly in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 107th out of 131 eligible cornerbacks and 126th out of 135 eligible respectively, leading to him being released by the Vikings and getting greeted by a cold market last off-season, now on the wrong side of 30 as well.

However, Rhodes not only turned back the clock in Indianapolis in 2020, but arguably had the best season of his career, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF while making all 16 starts. In a normal off-season, Rhodes could have cashed in with a bigger contract elsewhere, but he was greeted by another cold market due to the reduced cap and wound up staying put in Indianapolis on a 1-year, 4.77 million dollar deal, after which he’ll try free agency again in a more normal off-season. 

Rhodes seems to fit well in the Colts’ scheme, so it’ll probably prove to be wise in the long-term for him to stay put rather than trying to get more money elsewhere, but he’s going into his age 31 season with a history of inconsistency, so I would bet against him repeating arguably the best year of his career and it’s possible he drops off significantly, which would hurt this defense significantly, as they are counting on him to be at least a solid starter again.

Moore and Rhodes are locked in as starters, but the #3 cornerback role is very much up for grabs, with Rock Ya-Sin (550 snaps) and TJ Carrie (396 snaps) both seeing action last season and both returning this season. Ya-Sin was a 2nd round pick in 2019 and should have a higher upside than the veteran Carrie, but, after holding up across 853 snaps as a rookie, Ya-Sin surprisingly struggled in 2020, finishing 111th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks, while Carrie actually earned an above average grade, albeit in a limited role. Carrie has mostly been a capable #2/#3 cornerback throughout his career, but he’s going into his age 31 season and could easily be on the decline this season, so the Colts are probably hoping Ya-Sin can bounce back and take this job, pushing Carrie into a reserve role.

At safety, the Colts did not retain Tavon Wilson and Malik Hooker, but the former only played 219 snaps as a reserve, while the latter was limited to 70 snaps in an injury plagued season. 2020 3rd round pick Julian Blackmon and 2019 4th round pick Khari Willis spent most of last season as the starters and are likely to remain in that role in 2021. Blackmon was underwhelming last season, finishing 61st out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF, but he could be better in his second season. Willis, meanwhile, has been an above average starter on PFF across 23 starts in 28 games in 2 seasons in the league, including a 17th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2020. He’s the better of the two players, but both have a chance to be solid starters.

Reserve options include Sean Davis, who struggled as a starter earlier in his career with the Steelers and played just 113 snaps over the past two seasons as a reserve, and 2019 5th round pick Marvell Tell, who flashed some potential as a rookie across 254 snaps as both a safety and a slot cornerback, before opting out of the 2020 season. He could continue faring well in a situational sub package role and his versatility is an asset for this defense. This isn’t a great secondary, but they have a good chance to be an above average unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts bring back a very similar team to last season, with a few key differences. They are swapping out Philip Rivers for Carson Wentz under center, which gives them a higher upside, but also a higher downside at the position. They parted ways with useful veterans Justin Houston and Denico Autry in free agency and will replace them with young players from the past few drafts. They also lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement and replaced him with Eric Fisher, who could be an adequate replacement, if healthy, which is far from a guarantee. 

Given all of this, they shouldn’t be much worse than a year ago and they have the upside to even be better, particularly if Carson Wentz can bounce back in a big way now that he is reunited with Frank Reich, but they’re also starting from a lower base point than most realize, as they faced a very easy schedule last season and were a much more middling team than their 11-5 record suggests, finishing 13th in first down rate differential at +0.20%. 

The Colts could play better than a year ago and still not get as many wins, so they’ll probably have a tough time getting a wild card again if they need to, but they also play in the weakest division in the conference in the AFC South, so they have a decent chance to make it back to the post-season as division winners, after losing the division on a tiebreaker to the also overrated Titans a year ago. I will have a final prediction for the Colts at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Jacksonville Jaguars 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Jaguars made it all the way to the AFC Championship and came within a 4th quarter collapse of making the franchise’s first Super Bowl. That team finished the season 2nd in first down rate differential at +4.45%, led by a league best defense and supported by an offense that ranked 14th. However, that success was very short-lived. Their defense suffered the fate of many top defenses that have been unable to keep all of their talented players together long-term, while the decent offensive performance they managed in 2017 proved to largely be the result of an easy schedule.

For a variety of reasons, the Jaguars collapsed much quicker than they needed to. One of those reasons was simply that after things started to get bad, the Jaguars basically pulled the plug on the whole thing and embraced a rebuild. It could easily prove to be the right move in the long-term, but in the short-term, it led to the Jaguars entering the 2020 season with one of the worst teams in the league on paper. Just three seasons after their impressive 2017 campaign, the Jaguars no longer had 20 of the 26 players who played at least 400 snaps on either side of the ball in 2017 and, in their place, was a roster of largely unproven young players that had the 2nd lowest average annual salary in the league. 

Sometimes bad teams on paper exceed expectations and it seemed like the Jaguars could be heading in that direction after week one of last season when they beat a Colts team that was expected to make the post-season and ultimately ended up doing so, but that game proved to be a complete fluke, as the Jaguars lost their next 15 games by an average of 12.9 points per game, giving them the league’s worst record at 1-15 and the worst schedule adjusted first down rate differential in the league at -5.85%. 

However, the Jaguars picked a good season to be bad, as the resulting #1 overall pick they received could be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, one of the surest #1 overall picks in NFL history, a likely long-time NFL starter who has the potential to be among the best quarterbacks in the league. No prospect is ever a sure thing, but Lawrence has a great chance to finally lock down the Jaguars quarterback position for years to come. The Jaguars are also hoping to lock down the head coaching position for years to come as well, hiring ex-college coach and NCAA National Champion Urban Meyer.

There are certainly questions about Meyer’s fit as an NFL head coach and Meyer’s track record would seem to suggest that him sticking around for the long-term is probably wishful thinking, but Meyer came into a good situation. Not only do the Jaguars have Lawrence, but their lack of spending on their roster last season led to the Jaguars having the most cap space in the league this off-season. Teams don’t always spend cap space in the best ways, but having a significant amount of money to play with in free agency is a good way to build a team up quickly and in fact is how the 2017 Jaguars team was largely built, with free agent signings like AJ Bouye and Calais Campbell standing out.

The Jaguars have also accumulated draft capital in recent years, in part due to their own struggles and in part to trading veteran players for draft picks, and they have some promising young players as a result, with nine draft picks over the past three drafts falling in the top-45, including four in 2021. Again, teams don’t always use draft capital in the best ways, but accumulating a significant amount of young, cheap talent at once is also a good way to build a team up quickly. That’s especially true if you can get a cheap young franchise quarterback like Trevor Lawrence could easily be, as that allows the Jaguars to continue being aggressive adding veterans in free agency to supplement their cheaper young players. 

Since the salary cap era began, just 7 of 27 Super Bowl champions have had quarterbacks take up more than 10% of their cap space, with more than half of Super Bowls being won by quarterbacks who took up less than 7% of cap space. The 7 exceptions were all Hall of Famers, so history shows that you either need a reasonably priced quarterback or a very high level quarterback to win the big game. If Lawrence is as advertised, he could potentially be both and, even if he is merely a solid starter, the Jaguars have four cracks at a Super Bowl with him on a cost controlled rookie deal.

The Jaguars were somewhat aggressive adding free agents with their cap space this off-season and now have the 20th highest average annual salary in the league, a metric that correlates heavily with winning, but they also still have the flexibility to add a lot more in the future, with among the most projected cap space in the league over the next two off-seasons as well. The Jaguars could easily prove to be at least a year away still in 2021, but things are looking up for this team, in large part due to their exciting new quarterback.

The Jaguars still have 2019 6th round pick Gardner Minshew, who is essentially their incumbent quarterback and hasn’t looked horrible across 20 career starts, with his 7-13 record actually being pretty decent all things considered. Overall, he’s finished 21st and 27th among quarterbacks on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, hardly the worst in the league. There was speculation that the Jaguars would try to move Minshew this off-season to a team that viewed him as a low cost starting option, but he remains on the roster and, while he could still be moved later if a team loses their quarterback to injury and wants Minshew as a replacement, the Jaguars didn’t add a better backup this off-season, so this should still Minshew’s job for the time being.

The Jaguars did sign ex-49ers backup quarterback CJ Beathard, but his career 81.1 QB rating leaves something to be desired and he’s gone just 2-10 in his career with more talent around him with the 49ers than Minshew has had with the Jaguars. The Jaguars also have 2020 6th round pick Jake Luton in the mix, but he struggled mightily in limited action last season and the regime that drafted him is gone and now replaced by one that has drafted another quarterback and added a veteran in free agency, so he has a really uphill battle to even make this final roster as a 3rd quarterback. 

One of Minshew or Beathard is likely to be the backup, with Minshew seemingly the favorite unless he gets traded before the season begins. Beathard could be kept regardless though, as the 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season guaranteed him 2.5 million. Regardless of who the backup is, the Jaguars aren’t even pretending they’re going to make Lawrence compete for the starting role, so they would only see action in case of an injury. Lawrence could easily have growing pains as a rookie, but he should easily be an upgrade for this team at the game’s most important position and he is probably the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

One of the Jaguars’ big additions this off-season was to add ex-Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones on a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal to give Trevor Lawrence a proven target to throw to. Jones has been a reliably consistent wide receiver over the past eight seasons, dating back to his second season in the league. He’s only once topped 1000 yards as mostly a secondary receiving option, but he’s averaged a 64/923/8 slash line per 16 games across a total of 101 games, with a 1.63 yards per route run average as well and above average grades from PFF in every season. Jones is going into his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of decline and even if his decline begins this year, I would still expect him to remain a solid starting option.

The Jaguars lost Chris Conley and Keelan Cole this off-season and they gave this team decent production (40/471/2 and 55/642/5 respectively), but they should more than make up for that with the addition of Jones, along with second year wide receivers Laviska Shenault (2nd round) and Collin Johnson (5th round) seeing more playing time after averaging 1.55 yards per route run and 1.60 yards per route run respectively as rookies. Shenault has the greater potential for a second year breakout, but Johnson flashed more upside than you’d expect out of a fifth rounder in his rookie season. 

The Jaguars also still have DJ Chark, who was their nominal #1 receiver last season, leading the team in receiving with a 53/706/5 slash line and in targets with 93. I say nominal because, while Chark played like a #1 receiver in 2019, posting a 73/1008/8 slash line with a team leading 1.69 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked wide receiver, that was not the case in 2020, when his yardage dropped significantly and his per route run average dropped to 1.48. 

That wasn’t just because of bad quarterback play either, as Johnson, Shenault, and Conley all had higher averages and Chark fell all the way to 58th among wide receivers on PFF as well. Chark is still young in his age 25 season and is a former 2nd round pick (2018), so he has bounce back potential and could post career best numbers with the best quarterback he’s ever had, but his 1.49 yards per route run average for his career is in line with what he did last season and it’s not a guarantee he improves drastically.

While Jones was a nice addition at wide receiver, it’s surprising the Jaguars didn’t make a significant addition at tight end, where they had just 69 receptions last season, 36 of which went out the door with veteran free agent Tyler Eifert this off-season. James O’Shaughnessy had 28 of those catches and remains on the team as the de facto starter, but he’s been a blocking specialist for most of his career and a mediocre one at that. Now in his 7th season in the league with just a 1.04 yards per route run average, it’s very unlikely he suddenly becomes a receiving threat.

The Jaguars off-season additions at tight end include blocking specialist Chris Manhertz, who is a solid blocker, but has averaged just 0.51 yards per route run in his career, 5th round rookie Luke Farrell, who could factor into the mix as a receiver by default, and the wild card of the group, former first round pick Tim Tebow. Tebow was famously drafted as a quarterback, 25th overall by Denver in 2010, and went on an improbable run as the Broncos starting quarterback in 2011 that culminated with a post-season victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to fall back to earth in a big way the following week against the New England Patriots.

Despite being 9-7 as a starter with the Broncos, Tebow’s issues as a passer showed and his 4.9 average margin of victory contrasted badly with his 20.6 average margin of defeat, leading the Broncos to search for a more consistent option, finding an obvious one in Peyton Manning, leading to Tebow being traded from Denver. Tebow first went to the Jets where he only ever backed up Mark Sanchez and he ended up never making another start again, despite stints with several different teams who gave him a chance.

Tebow’s athleticism made him a threat on the ground which allowed him to have the success that he did have, but his lack of accuracy as a passer doomed his career as an NFL quarterback. His combination of size and speed always made him an intriguing option as a tight end, but Tebow refused a position switch and opted to play minor league baseball for several seasons, before finally deciding to give playing tight end a shot in Jacksonville this off-season, with his former college head coach Urban Meyer.

The problem is not only has Tebow never played tight end before, but he’s going into his age 34 season and it’s hard to say if he’ll have the same athleticism as before, even though he’s remained a professional athlete. Reports suggest Urban Meyer is serious about Tebow making this roster and, even if he plays more of a Taysom Hill wildcat/hybrid role, he could still have value for this offense as a short yardage option. Anything more than a dozen catches from him would be a surprise though, as I don’t expect him to play significant snaps as a pure tight end. The tight end position figures to be even less of a focus on the passing game this season compared to last, but the Jaguars do cover for that somewhat with a solid group for wide receivers.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Jaguars also used a first round pick on another Clemson offensive player, taking Trevor Lawrence’s college backfield partner Travis Etienne. It was a surprising pick, as investing a first round pick in a running back is rarely worth it and the Jaguars didn’t seem to have a big need at the position, with incumbent starter James Robinson averaging 4.46 YPC with 7 touchdowns on 240 carries last season as a mere undrafted rookie and veteran backup Carlos Hyde being added behind him in free agency. Hyde has never been a receiving back (0.61 yards per route run, 5.67 yards per target) and, while James Robinson had a decent 49/334/3 slash line last season, it came on an average of 1.20 yards per route run and 5.73 yards per target, so there was a need for a receiving back, which Etienne will provide, but they played a steep price for him.

Because of that steep price, Etienne also figures to get a lot of carries as well, at the expense of James Robinson. Robinson was not a guarantee to repeat last season’s performance and it’s not unnoteworthy that the entire league, including the Jaguars, didn’t think he was worth drafting just a year ago, but the Jaguars didn’t really need to find an early down upgrade on him. It’s unclear how the Jaguars will split up the carries, but Etienne and Robinson should form a solid tandem, with Robinson serving as a more powerful between the tackles runner and Etienne being a speed and space back.

Carlos Hyde seems to be buried on the depth chart behind Etienne and Robinson now, but he could still get a few carries per game. Hyde is now in his age 31 season and his 4.10 YPC for his career is underwhelming, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him step in and be a serviceable #2 running back if either of their top-2 backs got injured. Overall, this is a solid backfield, albeit one where the Jaguars somewhat unnecessarily used a high draft pick this off-season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Jaguars also used a second round pick on another offensive player, taking Stanford’s Walker Little 45th overall. Little probably won’t play much as a rookie barring injuries ahead of him, with the Jaguars having a pair of other recent first round picks in Cam Robinson (2017) and Jawaan Taylor (2019) locked in as the starting tackles, after making all 16 starts in 2020. Robinson was franchise tagged as a free agent this off-season though and Little’s selection seems to suggest he’s not getting a long-term deal.

Even Robinson being franchise tagged was a bit of a surprise, as he’s never played at a level to justify the 13.754 million guarantee he is set to take home in 2021. Robinson has been a starter on the left side since day one, but finished 79th out of 90 eligible offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie in 2017 and 75th out of 86 eligible in 2019, with a lost year due to a 2018 torn ACL sandwiched in between those two disappointing seasons. Robinson had the best year of his career in 2020, but still only earned a middling grade from PFF. 

Capable left tackles don’t grow on trees and Robinson at least was that last season, but the Jaguars franchise tagged him like they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find a cheaper replacement or upgrade. With Little being added to the mix, Robinson’s days seem numbered, barring a breakout 2021 campaign. Still only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible that could happen and that 2021 will be his best season yet, but he could just as easily regress to his pre-2020 form when he was a consistently below average starter.

Jawaan Taylor didn’t play all that well either last season, actually finishing 79th out of 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. He showed himself to be a more capable starter as a rookie and already has 32 starts under his belt, while not even turning 25 until later this year, so he has the upside to be better going forward, but him breaking out as an above average starter is definitely far from a guarantee. This is an unspectacular young duo, barring one of them breaking out, but the Jaguars at least can expect there to not be much dropoff if one misses games this time around, with Walker Little now the swing tackle.

While both of the Jaguars’ starting tackles avoided injuries in 2020, they were not so lucky at other positions on the line, most notably center, where Brandon Linder was limited to 530 snaps in 9 games. Not only that, but Linder is probably their best offensive lineman when healthy, ranking 3rd among centers on PFF last season, his 5th straight finish in the top-7 among centers, since switching to the position in 2016. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Linder also was PFF’s 12th ranked guard as a rookie, so he’s been a consistently high level player throughout his career. 

The one concern is injuries, as Linder missed most of 2015 with injury and also was limited to 9 games in 2018, before last year’s injury plagued year. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, Linder has bounce back potential if he can stay on the field, but that’s not a guarantee. The Jaguars brought back reserve Tyler Shatley as a free agent and he was solid in Linder’s absence last season, but the 7-year veteran has been middling at best in 25 career starts and now is in his age 30 season, so he would obviously be a downgrade if he had to see significant action again in 2021.

At guard, Andrew Norwell and AJ Cann seem locked in on the left side and the right side respectively, giving the Jaguars the same starting five upfront as they had last season. Both played well in 2020 too, finishing 23rd and 19th among guards on PFF in 13 starts and 15 starts respectively. For Norwell, this is nothing new, as the 2014 former undrafted free agent has finished in the top-23 among guards on PFF in all seven seasons in the league (94 starts), with his best seasons coming in 8th ranked finishes in 2015 and 2017. His age is a slight concern, going into his age 30 season, but he doesn’t have much of an injury history and could easily continue being an above average starter for another couple seasons.

Cann, meanwhile, played a little out of the ordinary last season. Cann also finished 32nd among guards on PFF in 2016 and has made 90 starts in 6 seasons in the league since being selected by the Jaguars in the 3rd round in 2015, but he’s largely been a middling starter and, now going into his age 30 season as well, I wouldn’t expect him to repeat the best season of his career again in 2021. He should remain a capable starter at least, but he’ll probably take a little bit of a step back. Only 2020 4th round pick Ben Bartch (219 mediocre rookie year snaps) is on the depth chart behind Norwell and Cann, so both are locked into starting roles. This group looks very similar to a year ago, but they weren’t a bad group, they should be healthier on the interior this season, and, if their tackles aren’t as healthy as they were last season, now they have better insurance.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Jaguars didn’t make any big additions at the edge defender position, but that was to be expected, as they have a pair of recent first round picks at the position who they are expecting more out of in 2021. They also added 4th round pick Jordan Smith to the mix and he could compete for a role in year one. They also added Jihad Ward, a rotational player who has played 315 snaps per season in five seasons in the league, while earning largely mediocre grades. If he makes the final roster, he could earn a role as well.

However, the big reason for optimism is the presence of the two recent first round picks. Josh Allen was selected 7th overall by the Jaguars in 2019 and has played pretty well in two seasons in the league, earning slightly above average grades from PFF in both seasons and totaling 13 sacks, 23 hits, and a 11.2% pressure rate, but he missed 8 games with injury last season and has the potential to be a lot better than he’s been. If he can stay healthy in 2021, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him take a big step forward in his third season in the league.

K’Lavon Chaisson, on the other hand, started his career off with a dud, being selected 20th overall by the Jaguars, but finishing his rookie season 118th out of 124 eligible edge defenders across 569 snaps. Chaisson was seen as a potential liability against the run as a prospect, but he was horrendous in that aspect of the game and didn’t rush the passer nearly well enough to make up for it, finishing with 1 sack, 8 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate. He was very much part of the problem for this Jaguars defense last season, especially after Josh Allen got hurt, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be a lot better in his second season in the league. Even if he doesn’t suddenly become an above average starter, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than he was last season and, at least as a pass rusher, he does have a very high upside.

With Allen missing time and Chaisson struggling, the Jaguars were led in snaps played on the edge by Dawuane Smoot (665 snaps) and Adam Gotsis (579 snaps). Smoot led the team with 5.5 sacks, but that isn’t an impressive total and the Jaguars had just 18 sacks as a team, second fewest in the NFL. Smoot also had just a 7.9% pressure rate on the season and earned a below average grade from PFF overall across 665 snaps. Smoot was retained on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season and was originally selected by the Jaguars in the 3rd round in 2017, but he wasn’t much better across 82 snaps total in his first three seasons in the league and is unlikely to take a big leap forward in 2021.

Gotsis, meanwhile, got even less pass rush than Smoot, with 0 sacks, 3 hits, and a 4.1% pressure rate, but the converted defensive tackle played primarily in base packages. He wasn’t as good against the run as his 6-4 287 frame would suggest though and his lack of pass rush was a major concern. Both Smoot and Gotsis should play fewer snaps on the edge this season, especially Gotsis, who should see more action on the interior with the Jaguars transitioning to a 3-4 base defense. Gotsis has been a middling player at best across an average of 428 snaps per game in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to play a big role or make a big positive impact regardless of where he lines up though. This group should be better by default in 2021 and they have the upside to be significantly better if their recent first round picks take big steps forward.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Jaguars spent more resources on the interior this off-season, which makes sense because, unlike the edge, where they have two promising young players, the Jaguars had a big need on the interior, especially moving to a 3-4 base defense in which they’ll be using three interior defenders at once in base packages. Their two big moves were to trade for Malcom Brown from the Saints, taking on Brown’s contract, which was restructured to 11 million over 2 seasons, for a late round pick in what amounted to a salary dump, and to sign ex-Bear Roy Robertson-Harris to a 3-year, 23.4 million dollar deal. The Jaguars also used a 4th round pick on USC’s Jay Tufele, although he might not factor into the mix much in his first year.

Robertson-Harris should be the best pass rusher of this group, adding a much needed element to this defense. Robertson-Harris might have been a little bit of an overpay given the market this off-season, as he’s averaged just 339 snaps per season over the past four seasons, while never topping 544 snaps in a season. Those 544 snaps came in 2019 and he was on pace for a similar total in 2020, with 245 snaps in 8 games before getting hurt, so he’s been a heavy rotational player for each of the past two seasons and his limited snap counts have primarily been due to him being a mediocre run stuffer, while the Bears have had other options. As a pass rusher though, he’s seen regular action and, while he’s only totaled 7.5 sacks, he’s added 25 hits, and a 8.9% pressure rate in 52 games over the past four seasons combined. He should be a similar player in his new home in Jacksonville.

Malcom Brown, meanwhile, will be the nose tackle and primarily focus on stuffing the run on early downs. A first round pick by the Patriots in 2015, Brown never lived up to expectations, in large part due to his underwhelming pass rush ability, as he has a career 5.8% pressure rate and, in large part due to that, has never played more than 595 snaps in a season in his career, as primarily a base package player. 

However, he has been an effective run stuffer, so he should fit the role the Jaguars need from him well. Brown has earned an above average grade from PFF for his run defense in five of six seasons in the league, maxing out at 12th among interior defenders in run defense on PFF in both 2016 and 2017 and also finishing 16th in 2020, while playing 345 total snaps in 13 games with the Saints. Still young in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, which will make him a useful player.

Along with Brown and Robertson-Harris, the Jaguars will also be hoping to get more out of young holdovers. One of those key holdovers is 2018 1st round pick Taven Bryan. Bryan showed potential in his first two seasons in the league, but that came in snap counts of just 301 and 481 respectively, on a much better Jaguars defensive line. In 2020, the Jaguars leaned on Bryan for more and he didn’t respond well, finishing 87th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. Bryan’s snap count of 511 wasn’t much higher than when he was a reserve, but he saw 387 of those snaps in the first 9 games of the season, before being benched for ineffectiveness down the stretch. 

Bryan is still only going into his age 25 season and should still have upside as a former first round pick who showed promise earlier in his career, so there is a good chance he’ll be better in 2021 than 2020, especially if he plays a more limited rotational role, but it’s far from a guarantee that he ever lives up to his draft status or his early career promise. The Jaguars also used a 3rd round pick on a defensive tackle in 2020, taking Davon Hamilton, but he proceeded to struggle across 408 rookie year snaps. The potential is obviously there for him to be better in his second season in the league, but he would have to take a big step forward to become a solid starter. 

The Jaguars also have Doug Costin, who, despite going undrafted in 2020, played better across 456 rookie year snaps than his higher drafted teammates in Bryan and Hamilton and by season’s end was playing more than both Bryan and Hamilton.  Costin didn’t show much pass rush last year, but he played the run well and earned a slightly above average overall grade from PFF for his efforts. However, he’s still pretty unproven and it can’t yet be ignored that the whole league let him go undrafted a year ago. He could be a useful rotational player for this team, but I wouldn’t expect more from him. This is a deeper group than a year ago, but they still lack a high end talent, relying more on a rotation of 4-5 players to get to likely middling play.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Jaguars didn’t make any big additions at linebacker, but they already have a pair of highly paid players every down options in Myles Jack (4-year, 57 million dollar contract) and Joe Schobert (5-year, 53.75 million dollar contract). It’s questionable whether either one is worth that though. Jack has earned an above average grade from PFF in four of five seasons in the league since being selected by the Jaguars in the 2nd round in 2016, including a 15th ranked finish in 2020, but he’s never finished higher than he did in 2020 in his career, while his down season came in 2019, when he finished just 89th out of 100 eligible linebackers. He’s a solid every down player at his best, but I’m not sure if that’s worth his contract and he comes with some downside as well.

Schobert, meanwhile, signed with the Jaguars as a free agent last off-season, after being selected in the 4th round in 2016 by the Browns and spending his first four seasons in Cleveland. He became an every down starter in his second season with the Browns, ranking 30th among off ball linebackers on PFF that season and then improving to 10th the following season in 2018, before seeing that fall to 57th among 100 eligible in his contract year in 2019. The Jaguars took a chance that his contract year struggles were a fluke, but he continued to underwhelm in 2020, finishing 53rd among 99 eligible off ball linebackers. Schobert is still young in his age 28 season and has bounce back potential, but he might not be better than a middling player in 2021 even if he bounces back.

Jack and Schobert are locked into every down roles, but if injuries strike, replacement options are underwhelming. Those options include 2018 7th round pick Leon Jacobs, who flashed potential across snap counts of 146 and 325 respectively in 2018 and 2019, but then saw just 33 snaps in last season, 2020 4th round pick Shaq Quarterman, who didn’t play a snap on defense as a rookie, 2019 3rd round pick Quincy Williams, who struggled mightily across 494 rookie year snaps and then saw just 89 snaps last season, 2019 7th round pick Dakota Allen, who struggled mightily in the first 103 snaps of his season last season, and veteran Damien Wilson who might be their best option by default. 

Wilson has struggled over the past two seasons across snap counts of 709 and 531 respectively though and he wasn’t much better earlier in his career as a reserve, so he would be an underwhelming option as well. Jack and Schobert aren’t a great starting duo, even if they are being paid like one, but the Jaguars need them to remain healthy because their lack of depth would almost definitely be exposed if one of them were to get injured.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The secondary is the group that the Jaguars invested the most in this off-season and, at the cornerback position, that goes back to last off-season as well, when they used the 9th overall pick on CJ Henderson, who became a week one starter. Henderson’s rookie year got off to a good start, but he struggled as the season went on and ultimately ended up with a below average grade from PFF, before going down for the season with injury after just 474 snaps in 8 games. Henderson still has a huge upside though and could easily take a step forward in year two if he’s healthy.

This off-season, the Jaguars also added veteran Shaq Griffin in free agency on a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal to start opposite Henderson and they also used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Tyson Campbell, who could easily earn a role in three cornerback sets as a rookie. Henderson has good upside and Campbell does as well for that matter, but Griffin should be the Jaguars top cornerback. A 3rd round pick of the Seahawks in 2017, Griffin has made 53 starts in 57 games in four seasons in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in three of four seasons, including a career best 11th ranked finish in 2019. He’s not quite an elite cornerback, but he’s at least an above average starter and, only in his age 26 season, it’s possible he still has untapped upside.

Tre Herndon led this group with 1,017 snaps played last season, but he struggled mightily and doesn’t figure to factor into the mix much this season. The more intriguing holdover is Sidney Jones, who flashed potential across 303 snaps, but missed much of the season with injury, playing just 9 games total. Injuries have been a big problem for Jones dating back to a torn achilles suffered during the pre-draft process that dropped a likely top-15 pick down to the 43rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, selected by the Eagles. 

Jones returned to play a little at the end of his rookie year, but that started a 3-year stretch where injury and inconsistency plagued him, as he played just 643 snaps in 22 of a possible 48 games, leading to the Eagles releasing him before the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. The Jaguars took a flyer on him and were rewarded with solid play while he was on the field, but once again injuries limited his availability. 

Jones showed the Jaguars enough for them to bring him back this off-season and, still only going into his age 25 season, he has the upside to continue playing at an above average level if he can stay healthy, but he’s been very tough to rely on thus far in his career. He also has an uphill battle for a role in a much more talented cornerback group. With Henderson and Griffin likely locked in as starter, that leaves Jones to compete with rookie Tyson Campbell for the #3 cornerback job. 

Counting to add to their secondary, the Jaguars also signed a safety and drafted a safety this off-season, just like they did at the cornerback position. The free agent acquisition was ex-Charger Rayshawn Jenkins, who comes over on a 4-year, 35 million dollar deal and third round rookie Andre Cisco. Jenkins’ salary should lock him into an every down starting role, but the Jaguars also bring back Jarrod Wilson (765 snaps) and Andrew Wingard (461 snaps) who weren’t bad in their playing time last season, so this is a decently deep position, meaning Cisco is unlikely to see a big role as a rookie.

Like most of the Jaguars’ free agent signings this off-season, Jenkins is not a high level player, but he should be a solid starter for them, as he was the past two seasons with the Chargers. Selected in the 4th round in 2017, Jenkins hardly played in his first two seasons, limited to 175 defensive snaps total, but he flashed potential and, since then, he’s made 31 of 32 starts over the past two seasons, while earning a slightly above average grade from PFF in both seasons. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, that should continue with his new team.

Wilson and Wingard, meanwhile, are likely to compete for the other starting job, with Wilson likely the favorite. Undrafted in 2016, Wilson also played sparingly early in his career, playing 305 snaps total in his first three seasons in the league, but he also flashed potential and then translated that into being a capable starter over the past two seasons, making 28 of 32 starts total. Wingard, on the other hand, has played just 646 snaps in two seasons since going undrafted in 2019 and, while he’s shown potential, he hasn’t proven much yet. This secondary lacks high end talent, but they’re solid overall and have decent depth.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Jaguars only won a single game a year ago, but teams are almost never that bad two seasons in a row and the Jaguars had a lot of the signs of a team that could be significantly improved at the end of the off-season. They had one of the most valuable #1 overall picks of all time, along with another three picks in the top-45, after selecting five times in the top-45 in the previous two drafts, and they also had the most cap space in the league in an off-season when most teams couldn’t afford to spend big in free agency due to a reduced salary cap. 

However, I don’t think they improved as much as they could have. They sat on a lot of that cap space, which will benefit them when they roll it forward to future years, but it doesn’t help them this season. The select free agents they did bring in were more in the solid to good range, rather than high level impact players. They used one of their other high draft picks on a running back, which is normally ill-advised even if you do have a big need at the position, which the Jaguars did not, and then they used another one of those picks on an offensive tackle, who could start in 2022 and beyond, but is unlikely to make an impact in year one. 

The Jaguars may be viewing this as a 2-3 year rebuild, which could prove to be smart, even if many of their signings this off-season could have been seen as overpays, but either way I don’t think this team is going to be overly competitive this season. They’ll win more games, but they still seem to be in the bottom third of the league on paper. I will have a final prediction for the Jaguars at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

San Francisco 49ers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, the 49ers were one of the best teams in the league, going 13-3 in the regular season, making the Super Bowl, and coming within a few minutes of holding on for the win over the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s tough to be that good in the NFL in back-to-back years and, as a result, most teams that win 13 games and lose in the Super Bowl regress the following season. The 49ers didn’t have the obvious risk factors for a big regression though. 

They didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They weren’t overly reliant on winning close games (5-3 in one score games). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury. They also avoided major personnel losses last off-season, with the 4th most snaps returned in the league and all of the key members of their coaching staff returning. In terms of first down rate differential, which is one of the most predictive stats year-to-year, the 49ers finished the 2019 season ranked 4th at +3.66%. However, the 49ers still fell off significantly, finishing just 6-10, in dead last in the NFC West.

What happened? Well, even though the 49ers were not unsustainably good in any of the aforementioned metrics in 2019, that didn’t mean they couldn’t be unsustainably bad in all of them in 2020, even if something like that would have been unlikely. That is, unfortunately, exactly what happened though. They didn’t have a terrible record in close games, going 3-5 in one score games, but their -14 point differential suggests they should have won a game or two more. 

A bigger issue was their turnover margin, which ranked 2nd worst in the league at -11. Beyond that, they had a -4 return touchdown margin which cost them at least a couple games (Washington and Philadelphia) by itself, as well a loss to Dallas in which they were -4 in turnovers and -24 in points off turnovers. Turnover margin is one of the least predictive stats on a year-to-year basis, so I’m not concerned their turnover issues will carry into 2021. 

The 49ers won the first down rate battle by a wide margin in all three of those games and could have easily finished 9-7 had just a few things gone differently and that’s in just those three games. On the season, the 49ers actually ranked 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.32%, not even that far behind where they were when they won 13 games in 2020. It’s not hard to see how the 49ers could have won 10-11 games last season with an even turnover margin.

That’s despite arguably the 49ers’ biggest issue last season, which was injuries. I mentioned earlier that the 49ers had among the most adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2019, but that was nothing compared to 2020, when they not only led the league in adjusted games lost to injury, but had the second most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the past two decades. It was arguably even worse than that suggests, as those injuries seemed to disproportionately affect their most important players.

That includes quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered an ankle injury early in the season, didn’t play as well upon his return, and then re-aggravated the injury and was shut down for the season. Through his first two games before the injury, Garoppolo completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions, but he saw that drop to 67.0% completion, 7.76 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions after the injury. Even worse, backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens and CJ Beathard combined to complete 64.4% of their passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Acquiring Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 2nd round pick midway through the 2017 season was a pivotal moment in the 49ers’ rebuild and he set expectations high from the start, going 5-0 to close out the 2017 season, with a team that previously was just 1-10. That earned him a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension that solidified him as the 49ers’ franchise quarterback, but his 2018 season was also an injury plagued one, as he tore his ACL in week 3 and missed the rest of the season, leading to the 49ers finishing among the worst teams in the league that season.

Garoppolo did play all 16 games in the 49ers’ 13-3 season in 2019, completing 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked quarterback, but that is not only the lone season of his career in which he made all 16 starts, but those 16 starts also are half of his career total, as he’s somehow still only made 32 career starts, between backing up Tom Brady early in his career and frequently getting injured in his tenure with the 49ers. Garoppolo also missed time with injury when he had the opportunity to start in 2016 in place of a suspended Tom Brady and hurt his shoulder six quarters in, further adding to his reputation as an injury prone player.

One benefit of the 49ers’ losing season last year was they got the 12 overall pick out of it, but that wasn’t enough for the 49ers, who made a radical move up the draft board with the Miami Dolphins to #3 overall to select a franchise quarterback of the future. The move didn’t come cheap, as they had to part with their first round picks in both 2022 and 2023, as well as a third rounder in 2022, to move up from #12 to #3. 

It might seem like a bit of a head scratching move from the 49ers and it’s definitely a risk, but the 49ers clearly believe that they’ve seen the best that Garoppolo has to offer and that his injury history is a real concern. With Garoppolo’s 25.5 million dollar salaries for 2021 and 2022 both being unguaranteed, the 49ers could move on from him whenever they like, while whichever quarterback they selected at 3 would be on a cheap rookie deal, allowing them to spend more on the rest of this roster. That quarterback ultimately ended up being North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, an inexperienced quarterback with a massive upside.

Giving up a total of three first round picks is a steep price to pay for Lance, but winning a Super Bowl with a highly paid quarterback who is not elite is nearly an impossible task and, in fact, no team has won the Super Bowl since the start of the salary cap era with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of their cap unless that quarterback was a future Hall of Famer. The 49ers nearly pulled it off in 2019, but clearly they didn’t love their chances of doing that again with Garoppolo and think that they would be better off with a cheaper young quarterback with more money invested on the rest of this roster, especially as talented players at other positions start needing to be extended on deals that are a significant pay increase.

Of course, Garoppolo still remains on this roster, but that is something that can change at any point up until final cuts without the 49ers having to pay him a dime in 2021. There has been a lot of speculation about Garoppolo’s future. Many expected the 49ers would move Garoppolo right after moving up for a quarterback, which came a couple months before the draft, as the 49ers need to recoup some draft capital and were unlikely to leave the quarterback they paid such a steep price to draft on the bench, while Garoppolo’s salary was obviously significantly more than a typical backup.

However, the 49ers came out shortly after moving up for a quarterback and said they were not moving Garoppolo and that they were planning to do what the Chiefs did with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes, sitting the rookie for a year behind Garoppolo. That metaphor was never perfect though, as the Chiefs gave up significantly less to draft Mahomes and were paying significantly less to Alex Smith than the 49ers are for Garoppolo, and, as draft day came closer, the 49ers stance seemed to shift from not moving Garoppolo to being willing to move him for the right deal. However, that deal never came and Garoppolo is still in town.

Not moving him when they had the chance to potentially get something substantial for him could prove to be a mistake. At this point in the off-season, with most teams reasonably satisfied with their quarterback situation, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious suitor for Garoppolo, let alone one that would be willing to pay him his scheduled salary and give up a draft pick. That could change if someone gets hurt before the start of the season, but if that doesn’t happen, the 49ers may wind up either having to release Garoppolo for nothing or having to keep him at his expensive salary.

Despite the 49ers mentioning the Smith/Mahomes situation in regards to their own quarterback situation, I still expect that they’re hoping that Lance can win the week 1 starting job, which would not only be a good sign for their young quarterback’s development, but would also save them significant cap space that they can roll forward if they let Garoppolo go and replace him with a cheaper veteran backup, which they can still find in free agency. 

Lance also gives them the higher upside at quarterback as well, though obviously he comes with a big downside as well. Ultimately, whether the 49ers’ decision to acquire Lance will come down to whether or not he develops and there is certainly a lot of risk here, but it’s understandable why they did what they did, given that the alternative is continually paying a middling injury prone quarterback at a high level. Regardless of which quarterback starts this season, the 49ers figure to win a lot more games than last season, but whether or not they can take the next step depends on how quickly Lance develops.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Even with Garoppolo missing significant time and backup quarterbacks playing the majority of the season, the 49ers’ biggest offensive injury was still arguably tight end George Kittle, who is one of the top offensive players in the league at his best. A 5th round pick in 2016, Kittle burst onto the scene with a dominant 2018 season, putting up a 88/1377/5 slash line despite mostly playing with backup quarterbacks, dominating as a run blocker, and finishing as PFF’s #1 ranked tight end overall. 

Kittle hasn’t matched those numbers since, but it’s not because he dropped off. In 2019, he saw his targets and routes drop on a more run heavy team and also missed a pair of games with injury, but his 85/1053/5 slash line was still very impressive considering everything and his yards per route run average increased from the previous season’s already impressive total. After leading all tight ends with 2.82 yards per route run in 2018, in 2019 Kittle led all pass catchers (including wide receivers) with 3.12 yards per route run, en route to a second straight season as PFF’s #1 overall ranked tight end. 

Kittle once again led all tight ends with 2.84 yards per route run in 2020, 2nd among all pass catchers only behind Davante Adams, once again showing he is capable of producing at a high level, regardless of who is under center. Unfortunately, his overall numbers (48/634/2) were severely limited by the fact that he was held to 443 snaps played in 8 games. Still, he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked tight end and, when on the field, proved himself to still be the same dominant player he has been for several years now. 

Kittle has somewhat of a concerning injury history and has only played all 16 games once in four seasons in the league, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, so there is no reason not to expect him to be one of the offensive players in the league once again in 2021 and, as long as he can stay reasonably healthy, he could easily have the most impressive season by any tight end in the league. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce gets more attention than him because of his receiving totals, but Kelce plays on a much pass heavier offense with arguably the best quarterback in the league, averages fewer yards on a per route basis, and is not nearly as good as Kittle as a blocker. 

Kittle wasn’t the 49ers only key injury in the receiving corps either, as Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk were expected to be their top two wide receivers, but they were limited to just 305 snaps in 7 games and 728 snaps in 12 games respectively by injury. Both players are still young with a lot of upside though and still have bright futures ahead of them. Samuel was the 49ers’ 36th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, selected at the top of the second round, while Aiyuk was selected in the first round, 25th overall, in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Samuel took some time to get into the starting lineup as a rookie, but he finished with a 57/802/3 slash line and a 2.04 yards per route run average (15th among wide receivers), which seemed to predict more from him in year two, but Samuel’s second season in the league hardly got off the ground. He still showed an impressive 2.26 yards per route run average though (10th among wide receivers), suggesting that he still has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 wide receiver if he can stay healthy and in the starting lineup all season.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, still led this team with a 60/748/5 slash line, despite the missed time, as he averaged 1.73 yards per route run, and finished the season as PFF’s 23rd ranked wide receiver. Development of talented young players is not always linear and, even if Aiyuk develops into one of the better wide receivers in the league over the next few seasons, that isn’t a guarantee that he takes a big step forward in year two, but even if he doesn’t, he’s shown enough promise already in limited action that the 49ers should benefit just by hopefully having him around for most of the season.

With Aiyuk and Samuel both missing time last season, 3rd receiver Kendrick Bourne saw more playing time and finished with a career best 49/667/2 slash line (1.49 yards per route run), but he signed with the Patriots this off-season, leaving the #3 receiver job up for grabs. Top reserve holdover Richie James, a 7th round pick in 2018, is in the mix and saw more significant playing time for the first time in his career last year, due injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s earned just middling grades overall from PFF and his 1.53 yards per route run average isn’t overly impressive either. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the #3 receiver job and, with three other very talented pass catchers on this offense, James won’t be counted on for much, barring another improbable rash of injuries.

The 49ers also signed veteran Mohamed Sanu, who will likely be James’ primary competition for the role. At his best, Sanu was a solid #2/#3 receiver with the Falcons, averaging a slash line of 68/757/4 per 16 games in 53 games in Atlanta from 2016-2019, but he got hurt shortly after being traded mid-season in 2019 to the Patriots and has caught just 31 passes in 16 games since, while bouncing from the Patriots to the Lions to the 49ers late last season, with whom he played just 40 snaps in 3 games. 

Now going into his age 32 season, Sanu’s best days are definitely behind him, but he could have enough left in the tank to be a decent depth option for the 49ers if he’s past his injuries, although he might have just as good of a chance of not making the team and being completely finished. One wild card option for the 49ers at wide receiver could be Jalen Hurd, who the 49ers clearly had expectations for when they selected him in the 3rd round in 2019, but they have yet to see him play a regular season snap due to multiple injuries. He could still have upside, but it’s hard to know what to expect, if anything, from him in 2021.

Depth is a bit of a concern at tight end as well. Last year, they were actually decently equipped to handle Kittle’s absence, as they had veteran tight end Jordan Reed, who turned the clock back a little bit and averaged a 1.31 yards per route run average in limited action, but Reed retired this off-season, leaving the 49ers with some underwhelming options. Ross Dwelley actually led this position group with 502 snaps played last season, with Kittle missing time and Reed only being a passing down option, and Dwelley played 360 snaps in 2019 as well, but the 2018 undrafted free agent is primarily a blocking specialist, has averaged just 1.03 yards per route run as a receiver, and isn’t all that good of a run blocker either.

Charlie Woerner, a 6th round pick in 2020, is also an option, as they could be expecting him to take a step forward in year two, after 119 mediocre rookie year snaps. Their best option as a pure blocker would be free agent addition MyCole Pruitt, who has been a consistently above average run blocker over the past few seasons, but he’s not much of a receiver, with 32 catches in 62 career games. Needless to say, the 49ers will need Kittle to stay healthy this year, even more so than last year when Reed was a decent insurance policy. Depth is a concern across this receiving corps, but their top-3 options have a huge upside together, assuming they can stay healthier than last season, when they combined to miss 21 games, which they almost definitely will. That will be a huge boost to this team.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The 49ers’ running backs had injury issues last season as well. Expected lead back Raheem Mostert was limited to just eight games (104 carries) and, with him missing significant time, Jeff Wilson led the team in carries with 126 carries, but even he missed four games with injury. Ironically, Jerick McKinnon was their only running back to play all 16 games, after he missed all of 2018 and 2019 with injury, but the passing down specialist was not an effective runner, averaging 3.94 yards per carry, and his passing down work (1.19 yards per route run and 5.50 yards per target) left something to be desired as well.

Mostert and Wilson, meanwhile, averaged 5.01 YPC and 4.76 YPC respectively, so if the 49ers can have both of them healthy for most of this season, that should be a boost to this running game. Unfortunately, that already seems unlikely with Wilson, who suffered an off-season injury that could cost him the first month or two of the season. Wilson is probably the less important of these two backs though as, even though he was impressive last season, he otherwise has just 93 carries for 3.99 YPC in three seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2018.

Mostert is also a former undrafted free agent and took a few years to get established as a runner, spending his first four seasons in the league from 2015-2018 as primarily a special teamer who had totaled just 41 carries. However, Mostert was given a chance during the 49ers’ run in 2019 and made the most of it. Including the post-season, Mostert averaged 5.83 YPC on 190 carries and rushed for 13 touchdowns. Even though he missed time with injury, Mostert’s impressive average in 2020 showed that his 2019 season wasn’t a complete fluke so, while he doesn’t have the biggest track record, he should remain an effective lead back in 2021 and hopefully one who can stay healthier.

The 49ers also upgraded the rest of this backfield this off-season, letting go of McKinnon and fellow veteran Tevin Coleman, who was the most injured of this group with just 28 carries in 8 games, and replacing them with free agent Wayne Gallman and third round rookie Trey Sermon, who could both prove to be upgrades. Sermon projects as a potential future starter, while Gallman played better than his numbers suggest from his first 4 seasons with the Giants, who selected him in the 4th round in 2017. 

Gallman has averaged just 4.28 YPC on 338 carries in his career, but he played on consistently below average offenses and he picked up 68.9% of his yardage after contact, with only 19.0% coming on carries longer than 15 yards, meaning his average isn’t inflated by a couple long runs. He’s only topped the 100 carry mark twice in his career, but one of those instances was last season, when he averaged 4.64 YPC with 78.2% coming after contact and a 54% carry success rate that ranked 14th in the NFL. He also finished with PFF’s 26th highest rushing grade for a running back. He definitely could hold the rookie Sermon off for the #2 running back job behind Mostert, but Sermon has high upside as well.

The 49ers don’t throw all that often to their running backs, with 137 targets going their way in 2020 and just 103 targets in 2019, when the 49ers were more run heavy because of their strong defense and when passing down back Jerick McKinnon was hurt. Now without McKinnon and with a healthier defense, that number should go down closer to the 2019 mark and there will be even fewer targets up for grabs for running back than that suggests, as fullback Kyle Juszczyk has averaged 34 targets per season in his four seasons with the 49ers and has been probably their most effective receiver out of the backfield, with 1.53 yards per route run and 7.94 yards per target.

Of their running backs, Raheem Mostert (1.26 yards per route run in his career) seems to be the best passing down option, as Jeff Wilson (1.06 yards per route run), and Wayne Gallman (1.01 yards per route run) have not impressed in passing situations in their careers, while the rookie Trey Sermon could still be raw in the passing game in year one. Overall, passing the ball to their running backs is not going to be a part of this offense, as they should be able to effectively run the ball and move the ball in the air to their downfield receivers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As injury plagued as they were last season, the 49ers didn’t have an outbreak of injuries in every unit last season. Their offensive line fortunately mostly avoided significant injuries and was the single biggest reason for this team still finishing 14th in first down rate over expected at +0.58%, despite all of the injuries at other positions. Expected starting center Weston Richburg did miss the entire season with injury, but he was probably their worst starter anyway and their other four projected starters all made at least 14 starts, with three of them making 16 starts. 

Richburg retired this off-season, so the 49ers won’t get the benefit of getting him back, but the 49ers did add veteran starter Alex Mack in free agency, who they are expecting can be an upgrade at their only position of weakness upfront last season. Mack is going into his age 36 season, so his age is obviously a concern, but he was one of the best centers in the league in his prime, starting his career with eleven straight seasons in the top-15 among centers on PFF, including a 2nd ranked finish as recently as 2017 and a 4th ranked finish as recently as 2018. 

Mack has clearly started to decline, but he still finished last season as PFF’s 18th ranked center, after finishing 8th the year before, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Mack hold it together as a capable starter for another year or two. The rest of this offensive line returns around Mack, so they should once again have an above average unit upfront. If Mack struggles, the 49ers’ likely plan will be to shift right guard Daniel Brunskill inside to center, where he made his final eight starts of last season, and then plugging 2nd round rookie Aaron Banks in at Brunskills’ old spot at right guard. 

A 2017 undrafted free agent, Brunskill didn’t play an offensive snap in his first two seasons in the league, but he flashed on 474 snaps in 2019, before earning a middling grade as a season-long starter in 2020. He might never be better than a middling starter, but he does have impressive versatility, making 1 start at left tackle, 4 starts at right tackle, 10 starts at right guard, and 8 starts at center in his brief career.

Aside from Richburg missing the whole season, only left tackle Trent Williams missed any time last season and one of his two missed games was due to the COVID protocols. Williams actually sat out all of the 2019 season in a dispute with his old team in Washington over their mishandling of a medical situation, before Washington ultimately granted his wish for a trade and sent him to the 49ers for a 3rd and 5th round pick last off-season. Williams was one of the better left tackles in the league prior to sitting out the 2019 season, as the 2010 4th overall pick went on to make 119 starts in 9 seasons in Washington, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles in each of his final 9 seasons in Washington, including four seasons in the top-7 and two #1 overall finishes.

Despite that, acquiring Williams was not a slum dunk move. Not only had he sat out the whole previous season, but the 2020 season was his age 32 season, he had just one-year, 12.5 million left on his contract, and the 49ers had to give up a couple picks to acquire him. However, it worked out as not only did Williams turn back the clock and have one of the best seasons of his career, finishing 1st among offensive tackles on PFF, but the 49ers were able to keep him this off-season, albeit on a 6-year, 138.06 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid offensive tackle in the league and that guarantees him 41.5 million over the first two years. 

It’s a risky contract because Williams isn’t getting any younger, now in his age 33 season, but he really hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet and when he starts to decline, it’ll be from a high basepoint, so he could remain an above average starter for at least another couple seasons. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2021 as his dominant 2020 season, but he should still be a major asset for this offensive line and this offense in general.

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey remains locked in at right tackle opposite Williams. The 9th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, many expected he would move over to left tackle long-term, but the Williams acquisition and extension ensures he’ll remain on the right side, where he has generally performed at a high level. McGlinchey had a down second season in the league in 2019, in part because of injuries that cost him 4 games and limited him in others, but he still earned a slightly above average grade from PFF that season, which is sandwiched in between a 23rd ranked finish as a rookie in 2018 and a 20th ranked finish in 2020, in seasons where McGlinchey made all 16 starts. Still very much in his prime in his age 27 season, he should remain an above average right tackle for years to come.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson rounds out this offensive line and is also a former first round pick in his own right, but that selection was made by the Lions, 28th overall in 2015, while the 49ers only paid a fifth round pick to acquire him after two inconsistent seasons in Detroit. The Lions proved to have moved on from him too quickly, as Tomlinson has made 63 of 64 starts for the 49ers in four seasons since they acquired him, earning an above average grade in all 4 seasons, including a 29th ranked finish on PFF in 2019 and an 8th ranked finish in 2020. Tomlinson is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, so I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as 2020, but he should also remain an above average starter in 2021.

The 49ers should have at least three starters who are above average, possibly well above average, in Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, and Mike McGlinchey, and they should have an above average offensive line overall, but needless to say if injuries strike this group more than last season, that would be a concern. Fortunately their depth situation isn’t bad, especially on the interior. Aside from second round rookie Aaron Banks, they have a pair of experienced, if underwhelming journeymen in Tom Compton (37 career starts) and Senio Kelemete (42 career starts). 

However, the swing tackle role is more questionable, with expected swing tackle Justin Skule tearing his ACL earlier this off-season. Without him, the swing tackle role looks likely to be left up to 2020 5th round pick Colton McKivitz (0 rookie year snaps), 5th round rookie Jaylon Moore, or veteran Shon Coleman, who saw significant action earlier in his career, but struggled and hasn’t played a snap since 2017. It’s possible they could move Banks outside if an injury happened to a starter there and Compton and Kelemete have a little bit of experience at tackle as well. Overall, this is an above average group, but they have a couple questionable spots and their depth could be a concern if the starters don’t all stay mostly healthy again next season.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

On defense, the 49ers’ biggest injury absence last season was edge defender Nick Bosa, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, after being selected 2nd overall by the 49ers, ranking 11th among edge defenders on PFF and totaling 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate, only to see his second season end with a torn ACL suffered early in week 2, after just 68 snaps played. Bosa should be able to make a full recovery and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was as a rookie, he should still be a big re-addition for this team. He also has the upside to be even better than his rookie season if he’s fully past his injury. He could easily add a Comeback Player of the Year award to his trophy case and he has the long-term potential to someday add a Defensive Player of the Year.

Bosa’s return overshadows the return of Dee Ford from injury, but Ford has the potential to make a huge impact as an edge rusher if he’s fully past his injuries and able to perform at the level he played at previously. In his career, Ford has 37 sacks, 45 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate in 79 games in 7 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2018, when he had 13 sacks, 19 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate, while finishing the season as PFF’s 10th ranked edge defender.

That enticed the 49ers to not only trade for him after he had been franchise tagged by the Chiefs the following off-season, giving up a 2nd round pick, but also to extend him on a deal worth 85.5 million over 5 years. However, that deal hasn’t gone according to plan. He had an impressive 14.4% pressure rate in his first season with the 49ers and was very effective when on the field for a dominant defense, but he was limited to just 226 snaps and then in 2020 he saw his season end after 46 snaps in just one game played. 

The 49ers could have opted to move on from Ford this off-season, ahead of what would have been a non-guaranteed 16 million dollar salary, but instead they renegotiated a heavily reduced contract with him and will be paying him just 7 million this season instead. That could prove to be a steal if he’s at his best and, the 49ers have a deep enough rotation on the edge that Ford won’t have to play much on early downs, where he can struggle, and instead can just focus on getting after the passer in obvious passing situations, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and the 30 games he’s missed over the past four seasons are obviously concerning. 

The 49ers also have Arik Armstead, who has played a big role on this defensive line in each of the past two seasons, averaging 763 snaps per season, while playing all 16 games in both seasons, primarily playing on the edge. That’s surprising for a number of reasons. For one, Armstead is 6-7 292 and was drafted primarily to play on the interior as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense, which is where he saw a lot of early career action, after being selected by the 49ers in the first round in 2015. On top of that, Armstead had significant injury issues early in his career, missing 18 games over his first 3 seasons combined, and looked like something of a bust up until a couple of seasons ago. 

Armstead always flashed potential early in his career and showed signs of being the player the 49ers were expecting when they selected him with a high draft pick, as he had a 12.7% pressure rate over those first 3 injury plagued seasons and then in his 4th season he played all 16 games and had his best season to that point in his career, only managing 3 sacks, but adding 9 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate while playing strong run defense and finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked edge defender overall. 

However, even that didn’t seem to predict how well Armstead would play in 2019, when he had 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, dominated against the run, and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked edge defender. He fell off a little bit in 2020, but still finished 18th among edge defenders on PFF, making it three straight above average seasons for him, while not missing a single game over that stretch. He should play at a similar level in 2021, still in his prime in his age 28 season. With Ford and Bosa both back and healthy, it’s possible Armstead sees more action on the interior than he’s seen over the past couple seasons, but he’s a force on this defensive line regardless of where he plays.

Aside from Arik Armstead, Kerry Hyder played the most among 49ers edge defenders in 2020, playing 722 snaps and faring pretty well across those snaps, but he’s no longer with the team. The 49ers also no longer have Dion Jordan (375 snaps), who they signed as a mid-season reinforcement, and, on top of that, rotational player Jordan Willis (183 snaps), who was also a mid-season reinforcement, is suspended for the first six games of the season and probably won’t see a significant role at any point in 2021.

The 49ers do have depth options though, signing Arden Key and Samson Ebukam, who have some experience as rotational players. Key was a 3rd round pick in 2018, but he’s disappointed with a 8.6% pressure rate in his career and was cut by the Raiders before the end of his rookie deal. The Raiders might have given up on him a little early though, as he’s just now going into his age 25 season and has at least some experience under his belt, averaging 419 snaps per season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was better with his second team.

Ebukam, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same ceiling, but also has a higher floor. He’s largely been a middling player since being selected by the Rams in the 4th round in 2017, but he’s played in all 64 games in 4 seasons in the league, averaging 30.8 snaps per game and totaling 14 sacks, 14 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate. Neither Ebukam nor Key will see more than a rotational role unless significant injuries strike again, but they do provide solid depth at a position group that has a massive upside if everyone stays healthy. As good as they were in 2019, Bosa was just a rookie and Ford wasn’t healthy most of the season. It’s conceivable they could be even better than that dominant group if things go right in 2021.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player missing from the 49ers’ dominant defensive line is DeForest Buckner, who ranked 14th among interior defenders in 2019, but the 49ers used the draft pick they acquired in exchange for him on a replacement in Javon Kinlaw and avoided having to pay Buckner the 4-year, 84 million dollar extension the Colts gave him, allowing the 49ers to keep Arik Armstead on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. Kinlaw was not a good replacement for Buckner in year one, finishing just 100th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 547 snaps, but he has the upside to be a lot better in year two. 

The 49ers also added to their interior this off-season with a couple of great, cheap signings in Maurice Hurst and Zach Kerr. Hurst was a 5th round pick by the Raiders in 2018 and showed a lot of promise across his first two seasons in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in both seasons, averaging 497 snaps per season, and especially impressing as a pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate. That seemed like it could precede a third year breakout year, but instead Hurst was limited to 277 snaps in 11 games, primarily due to injuries.

Hurst still played well in his limited action though, finishing a career best 21st among interior defenders on PFF, and, only going into his age 26 season this season, he seemed like he could still have that breakout year in 2021 if he stayed healthy. Instead, the Raiders cut him to save a little bit of cap space this off-season. Hurst leaves something to be desired against the run, but it was a surprising move that seemed to make little sense. The 49ers could easily be a big beneficiary of that, as Hurst could now have his breakout year in San Francisco. Even if he doesn’t, he should still play well as a heavy rotational player, as he’s been whenever he’s been healthy in his career.

Kerr, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same track record as Hurst and is not as young, now heading into his age 31 season, but he excelled as a rotational player with the Panthers last season, finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked interior defender across 390 snaps. The big 6-2 335 pounder is unsurprisingly a good run stuffer, but he also showed some pass rush ability last season with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a 8.5% pressure rate. 

Kerr has never surpassed 394 snaps in a season in seven seasons in the league and his career 6.6% pressure rate is not as impressive as last year’s pass rush production, but he’s been a consistently solid run stuffer and, if he can add a little pass rush as well, that is just a bonus. I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as arguably the best season of his career last season, but unless he drops off significantly, he should still be an above average rotation player.

DJ Jones (420 snaps), Chris Givens (387 snaps), and Kentavius Street (380 snaps) all saw significant action last season and are still with the team, but they will see smaller roles with Hurst and Kerr being added this off-season. A 6th round pick in 2017, Jones struggled early in his career, but he’s developed into a capable rotational player over the past two seasons, earning middling grades over a combined 724 snaps over the past two seasons. He is the most likely of the trio to continue having a role. 

Givens and Street are a 2019 undrafted free agent respectively and a 2018 4th round pick and both struggled in the first significant action of their career last season, finishing 84th and 138th respectively out of 139 eligible interior defenders. It’s possible they still have some upside, but the 49ers won’t need to rely on them for a role. This group should be much improved this season, with the additions of Kerr and Hurst and Kinlaw going into his second season in the league. This isn’t as talented of a group as their edge defenders, but this is an above average group overall. 

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The 49ers linebackers were relatively healthy last season. Kwon Alexander suffered an ankle injury early in the year, but he was traded to the Saints upon his return in what amounted to a salary dump, so he won’t factor into the mix this season. The 49ers also lost Dre Greenlaw for 3 games, but he was a middling linebacker, so that wasn’t a huge loss. Most importantly, stud every down linebacker Fred Warner didn’t miss a game, in a dominant 2020 season that saw him finish as PFF’s #1 ranked off ball linebacker. In a season where this defense was otherwise ravaged by injury, Warner had a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season to elevate a group that still finished 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.65%.

Warner is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s been an every down player since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2018 and he earned above average grades from PFF in his first two seasons in the league as well, including a 28th ranked finish among off ball linebackers in 2019. That’s a far cry from his dominant 2020 season, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and, given that he has somewhat of a track record prior to last season, there is plenty of evidence that he can remain a top off ball linebacker in 2021 and beyond. 

Warner might not be quite as good as he was in 2020 and there is always a possibility he isn’t able to play in all 16 games this time around, despite having yet to miss a game in his career, but he should remain a huge asset for this defense and it shouldn’t be a surprise if he contends for the Defensive Player of the Year award again. The 49ers would be wise to lock him up long-term now, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, rather than waiting another year when the cap will be significantly higher and Warner’s value is likely to be higher as well.

Dre Greenlaw remains as the 49ers’ second off ball linebacker, after finishing 38th among off ball linebackers across 700 snaps in 13 games in that role last season. Greenlaw also finished 39th among off ball linebackers across 725 snaps in 2019, despite being a mere 5th round rookie. Greenlaw’s draft status makes me wonder if he has any more upside than what he’s shown thus far, but he should remain at least a solid starting linebacker and he has the versatility to play every down.

The 49ers play a 4-3 defense and will play three off ball linebackers together in base packages, so, even though they don’t play many base packages, they will still need to find a third linebacker. Azeez Al-Shaair played 305 snaps as primarily an injury replacement last season and held his own, but the 2019 undrafted free agent also struggled mightily across 174 rookie year snaps, so he’s hard to depend on. 

The 49ers added competition for him this off-season by signing ex-Eagle Nathan Gerry. He has experience as an every down player and, while he hasn’t played all that well in extended action, he could be a better fit for a smaller role, which is all the 49ers will need from him barring an injury to one of their starters. Fred Warner elevates this group by himself, but Greenlaw isn’t a bad starter either and the 49ers have some decent depth options.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The 49ers’ secondary was yet another injury ravaged group last season. Going into the season, Richard Sherman, Akhello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, and Emmnauel Moseley were the 49ers’ top-4 cornerbacks. They played 5 games, 9 games, 8 games, and 12 games respectively. Sherman was the biggest loss, as he was a huge part of the 49ers’ defensive success in 2019, when he was PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback. The 49ers had a bunch of free agent cornerbacks this off-season, but managed to bring back everyone except Sherman and Witherspoon, the former of whom is still available as a free agent and could still re-sign with the team before training camp, for what would be his age 33 season.

Ironically, the 49ers healthiest cornerback last season was free agent addition Jason Verrett, who was an under the radar signing, as a result of having missed 73 games in 7 seasons in the league, including a 4-year stretch from 2016-2019 where he played just 6 games total. However, Verrett stayed mostly healthy in 2020, playing 803 snaps in 13 games, earning PFF’s 9th highest grade for a cornerback, and providing needed stability at an otherwise injury plagued position.

Verrett’s performance didn’t come out of nowhere, as the 2014 1st round pick finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie (albeit in 223 snaps in yet another injury plagued season) and then finished 2nd across 720 snaps in 2015, in the only somewhat full season of his career prior to last season, which at the time made him seem like one of the most promising young players in the league. However, Verrett isn’t a young promising player any more after all that missed time, now heading into his age 30 season, and his history of injuries can’t be ignored. He should remain an asset for this team if he can stay healthy, but I wouldn’t bet on him having the impact he had last season.

With Moseley and Williams being brought back this off-season, I would expect them to play in three cornerback sets with Verrett. Moseley could be an every down player opposite Verrett, but he could struggle in that role. An undrafted free agent in 2018, Mosley showed some potential across 577 snaps in 2019 in his first career action, but struggled across 499 snaps last season, perhaps due to nagging injuries. He could bounce back, but he’s a former undrafted free agent who has been pretty inconsistent in his career, so it’s far from a guarantee that he ever develops into a consistent starter. 

With only third round rookie Ambry Thomas as a legitimate alternative behind him on the depth chart, the 49ers will be counting on Moseley to not be a position of weakness on this defense. The 49ers also have veteran Dontae Johnson, who saw action earlier in his career with the 49ers, but struggled and has played just 314 snaps in three seasons since, joining the 49ers for a second stint in the process. He might not even make this final roster and, even if he does, I wouldn’t expect him to see a significant role. Now in his age 30 season, he would be very unlikely to play well in extended action.

K’Waun Williams, meanwhile, is by far their best slot cornerback, so he should be locked into that role, even if he isn’t a legitimate option to play on the outside. Williams missed significant time last season with injury, which has been a recurring theme for him, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed 35 games over 7 seasons in the league combined. When healthy, he’s one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league though, earning an above average grade from PFF in every season in which he’s seen action, maxing out at 4th among cornerbacks across 350 snaps in 2014 and ranking 10th across 734 snaps as recently as 2019. He could easily bounce back to that level in 2021 if he’s healthy, although his injury history is a concern, as is his age, going into his age 30 season.

Continuing the theme of injuries, safety Jaquiski Tartt was limited to 374 snaps in 7 games last season. That’s nothing new for a player who has missed 30 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never played all 16 games in a season. Tartt plays well when healthy though, as the 2015 2nd round pick got past some early career struggles and has ranked an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons, maxing out at 16th among safeties in 2017, albeit across 595 snaps in yet another injury plagued season back. He’s almost a sure bet to miss at least some time, but the 49ers should have him for more than they had him last season and he should remain a solid starter when on the field.

Fellow starting safety Jimmie Ward also missed some time, but he still played 851 snaps in 14 games. Injuries have been a recurring theme for him in his career as well, to the point where last season was actually the most snaps he’s ever played in a season. He did play in all 16 games in 2015, but he played just 732 snaps and overall he has missed 34 games in 7 seasons since the 49ers selected him in the 1st round in 2014. 

Most of his missed time was earlier in his career though, as he also had 806 snaps in 13 games last season, which was previously his career high in snaps. Ward was also highly inconsistent earlier in his career, but has finished 7th and 16th among safeties on PFF in the past two seasons respectively, the two best finishes of his career. Going into his age 30 season, with a significant injury history, there is downside here, but Ward could continue playing at a high level for another season.

With the starters missing time last season, Marcell Harris (348 snaps) and Tavarius Moore (541 snaps) saw significant action as reserves, but most struggled. A 6th round and 3rd round pick in 2018 respectively, they both still theoretically have some upside, but the 49ers upgraded their depth this off-season with veteran Tavon Wilson, who will probably play over either of the young players. Wilson is going into his age 31 season and played just 219 snaps last season as a reserve with the Colts, but he has made 45 starts in 9 seasons in the league (125 games) since being selected in the 2nd round in 2012 and has always earned average or better grades from PFF when he’s played. 

Wilson is very much in the reserve stage of his career, but that’s all the 49ers will need him for and, if he has to make a few starts, he should be able to hold his own. This is a pretty talented secondary, but they could have a weakness at the #2 cornerback spot if Moseley doesn’t bounce back and they have several over 30 starters who are injury prone. They could add Richard Sherman back to this group, which would give them a boost, but he obviously would also fit the description of injury prone and over 30.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The 49ers are the probably surest bet in the NFL to have a significantly higher win total in 2021 as compared to 2020. All of the talent they are returning from injury is obvious, but this team was a lot better than their record last season, as they ranked 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.66% and could have easily won 9-10 games if not for an unsustainably poor turnover margin and terrible return touchdown luck. Add in the fact that this was legitimately one of the best teams in the league two years ago and you have a team that looks like it should be one of the best in the league once again. Even in the loaded NFC West, the 49ers should be divisional favorites and they may be the best team in the NFC outside of the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That being said, this team is a little different than it was a couple years ago, most notably at the quarterback position. New franchise quarterback of the future Trey Lance gives the 49ers a higher ceiling than Jimmy Garopppolo ever did and could easily be the piece to get them over the hump after coming so close in 2019, but he also gives them a lower floor and, even if they were to stick with Jimmy Garoppolo for another year, it’s far from a guarantee that he can stay healthy for the whole season like he did in 2019. Their quarterback situation will obviously be one to monitor in training camp and the pre-season. I will have a final prediction for the 49ers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Arizona Cardinals 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

With the #1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cardinals had a big decision to make. They had just traded up for a quarterback in the first round the previous year, selecting Josh Rosen 10th overall, but he struggled mightily in a rookie year that saw the Cardinals finish dead last in first down rate and finish with the worst record in the league at 3-13, leading to that #1 pick. Top picks are usually used on a quarterback, but teams selecting quarterbacks in the first round in back-to-back years is very rare, with the previous instance coming from the 1982 and 1983 Colts, who lost their 1982 first round pick Art Schlichter to a gambling suspension. 

Beyond that, there wasn’t a clear top quarterback in the 2019 NFL draft, which was mostly noted for top defensive talents like Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams, so those two were seen as the early favorites to the Cardinals with the top pick, barring a trade. However, throughout the pre-draft process, buzz grew that new Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, hired to replace Steve Wilks after a terrible single season on the job, was infatuated with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, an undersized quarterback (5-10 207) who many thought was going to play professional baseball, after being selected in the top-10 by and signing with the Oakland A’s the previous year, but who was also reconsidering that decision after a Heisman winning season.

Murray ultimately decided to focus on football, paying back his 5 million dollar signing bonus to the A’s, perhaps in part because of the growing buzz around him possibly going #1 to Kingsbury’s Cardinals. That buzz turned into something of a known fact by draft day, when the Cardinals did ultimately select Murray, sending Josh Rosen to the Miami Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick in the process. It was an unorthodox move, in part because of Murray being an unorthodox prospect, but it has paid off for this team. 

Rosen proved to be a complete bust with the Dolphins and has bounced around three different teams since being traded from Arizona, never earning a starting opportunity with any of them. Murray, meanwhile, has proven to be not only the best quarterback from an overall underwhelming quarterback class that included Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, and Drew Lock, but he’s also proven himself to be one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the league. 

The Cardinals didn’t win many games in Murray’s first year, going 5-10-1, but a defense that ranked 31st in first down rate allowed was mostly to blame, as Murray quickly turned around an offense that was the worst in the league the year prior, finishing 17th in first down rate, despite an underwhelming supporting cast around the quarterback. Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.87 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 5.85 YPC and 4 touchdowns on 93 carries.

Things got even better in 2020. Murray’s supporting cast on offense was improved, as was Murray himself, completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 7.12 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 6.16 YPC and 11 touchdowns on 133 carries and finishing as PFF’s 12th ranked quarterback on the season. As a result, the Cardinals shot up to 5th in first down rate over expected at +2.14%. However, they still fell short of the post-season at 8-8.

That was a big step forward from the season before, but it was disappointing, given how well the Cardinals offense played, as a 18th ranked defense in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.75% held them back, as did a tough divisional schedule, and a 4-8 record in games decided by 11 points or less, including a week 17 loss to the Rams that eliminated them from post-season contention in which Kyler Murray got hurt early in the game and could not return. As disappointing as not making the post-season was, however, they have a lot of good things to take away from last season.

Their 12th ranked finish in first down rate differential at +1.39% already suggests they were better than their record last season, but there are reasons to believe the Cardinals can be better than that in 2021. The obvious is that Kyler Murray could take another step forward in year three, but there is also a good chance they’ll be improved on defense. Not only are they more talented on that side of the ball this season, which I’ll get into later, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent year-to-year than offensive performance, which is much more easily influenced by the presence of one player, the quarterback, which tends to be pretty steady year-to-year. 

Only in his age 24 season, the Cardinals very much seem to have that quarterback and if they’ve added enough talent to the rest of this roster, they could take a big step forward in 2021. They also upgraded their backup quarterback spot a little bit this off-season, adding Colt McCoy in free agency, giving them an experienced (30 starts in 11 seasons in the league), if unspectacular (78.1 career QB rating) backup who struggled in limited action last season and now is going into his age 35 season, but who ultimately should be an upgrade over CFLer Chris Streveler, who looked lost in relief of an injured Murray in their critical week 17 loss to the Rams. The Cardinals are obviously hoping McCoy never needs to see the field, but they’re probably better for having him on the roster.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The biggest reason for the Cardinals’ offensive supporting cast being improved from Kyler Murray’s rookie year in 2019 to last season was the addition of #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in an absolute fleecing of a trade with the Houston Texans. Not only was it strange that the Texans, who were otherwise going all-in by trading away premium draft picks to improve the roster, would want to trade away a 28-year-old player who was owed just 39.9 million over the next three seasons and who had averaged a slash line of 99/1328/9 per 16 games and 2.17 yards per route run over the previous six seasons, despite very inconsistent quarterback play, cementing himself as one of the top wide receivers in the league, but the Texans almost definitely could have gotten more draft compensation from another team had Hopkins seen shopped around properly.

The Buffalo Bills traded away a first round pick (#22) around the same time for Stefon Diggs, who was generally seen as a slightly lesser player than Hopkins, and it’s hard to see the Texans not being offered a first round pick for Hopkins had the league known he was available. The only reason it seems that the Cardinals were able to not only acquire him at all, but for the price of just the 40th pick in the 2nd round, was that the Texans, for some reason, highly desired overpaid Cardinals starting running back David Johnson, who had a strong season a few years back, but had dropped off significantly since and was likely viewed as a negative asset around the league because of the guaranteed money on his contract. 

If Hopkins had been valued at let’s say the same 22nd overall pick that the Vikings got for Diggs, the trade of Hopkins for Johnson and the 40th pick only makes sense if Johnson is valued at about the 62nd overall pick, an absurd valuation for a player whose team was likely hoping to just dump him on someone for nothing. The Texans made a variety of head scratching moves under Bill O’Brien, who was ultimately fired just 4 games into the 2020 season, but the Hopkins trade stands out as their most head scratching and the Cardinals benefited greatly.

In Hopkins first season in Arizona, it was more of the same, as he finished with a 115/1407/6 slash line in 16 games, averaged 2.25 yards per route run (11th in the NFL), and was PFF’s 7th ranked wide receiver, his 5th season in the top-7 in the past six seasons. The Cardinals had to add another 54.5 million over 2 years to his contract to keep him happy long-term, something the Texans apparently had balked at, but all in all, the Cardinals are paying him just 84.4 million over 5 seasons, an average of 16.88 million per year that ranks 11th in the NFL in average annual salary by a wide receiver. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, with no major injury history (2 games missed in 7 career seasons), there is no reason to expect anything different this season from Hopkins, who should continue being well worth Arizona’s investment.

Hopkins’ addition was something of a changing of the guard for the Cardinals, whose top receiver for years had been Larry Fitzgerald, dating back to his selection 3rd overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. Fitzgerald had been obviously slowing down in the years before Hopkins’ arrival, but he still led the team with a 75/804/4 slash line in Murray’s first season in 2019 and his last 1000 yard season was as recently as 2017, which just shows you how good he was for so long, becoming just the 8th player ever to top 1000 yards receiving in their 14th season in the league or later. In total, Fitzgerald topped 1000 yards in nine seasons and was a top-16 ranked wide receiver on PFF in ten seasons, in a career that will almost definitely land him in the Hall of Fame.

Fitzgerald seemed to be legitimately at the end of his line in 2020 though, finishing with a 54/409/1 slash line, despite significant opportunity, averaging just 5.68 yards per target and 0.92 yards per route run on an otherwise effective offense. In all, Fitzgerald was PFF’s 100th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible, a reminder that even elite skill position players can only fight off time for so long. Fitzgerald is not technically retired, but the Cardinals seem to have moved on and it seems unlikely he’ll sign elsewhere.

Fitzgerald was directly replaced in free agency by another fading former Pro Bowl wide receiver AJ Green. Green isn’t as old as Fitzgerald, heading into his age 33 season, and would have been an exciting addition as recently as 2018, when he had a 46/694/6 slash line in just 9 games, but Green’s injury problems continued into 2019, when he missed the entire season, and then, upon his return in 2020, Green was a shell of his old self, finishing with a 47/523/2 slash line, averaging 1.02 yards per route run and 5.03 yards per target, and earning just a middling grade from PFF, after 7 straight seasons in the top-14 among wide receivers on PFF prior to his lost 2019 season. 

It’s possible Green’s struggles last season had more to do with him being unmotivated, playing on the franchise tag for a Bengals team that was in a rebuilding process he didn’t want to be a part of, but it also seems like his injuries have gotten the best of him, understandable from a player who missed 29 games in a 4-year span from 2016-2019. The 1-year, 6 million dollar deal the Cardinals gave Green this off-season may seem low risk, but 6 million is a lot on a one-year deal this off-season, given the shrunken cap, and Green could block more promising players from getting playing time, while the upside on the deal is limited by the fact that he would likely command more money in free agency next off-season on the off chance that he does bounce back.

Green played all 16 games last season and could bounce back a little bit, a year removed from the injuries, in a better situation, but wide receivers tend to lose it for good regardless of injuries around Green’s age anyway, as 1000 yard seasons drop off about 75% from age 29 to age 33. The Cardinals drafted Purdue’s Rondale Moore in the second round as a long-term successor for Green, who could be one and done in Arizona, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Moore even push Green for playing time by season’s end.

The Cardinals also used a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver in 2018, taking Christian Kirk, who many saw as the long-term successor for Fitzgerald before the Hopkins deal. Kirk hasn’t been bad in his three seasons in the league, but he hasn’t nearly been what Fitzgerald was or what Hopkins is, averaging just a 53/640/4 slash line per season on 1.41 yards per route run and earning middling grades from PFF overall, while missing 9 games in 3 seasons due to injury. Perhaps most concerning is that his best year is still his rookie year when he earned his highest grade from PFF and averaged a career best 1.72 yards per route run. 

Still only going into his age 25 season, I wouldn’t rule out him breaking out in his 4th year in the league in 2021, also the final year of his rookie deal, but it doesn’t seem terribly likely. With Hopkins already making significant money opposite him, the Rondale Moore selection could also be a sign that the Cardinals don’t intend to keep Kirk long-term, unless he takes a team friendly deal. In the meantime, he’s likely to be a solid, but unspectacular #2/#3 wide receiver in this offense in 2021. The Cardinals like to spread out the defense with three and four wide receivers, so likely all of the Cardinals top four wide receivers will see at least somewhat significant action, including the rookie Moore.

With the Cardinals frequently using three and four wide receivers at a time, the tight end position is understandably not a big part of this offense, with just 48 completions going to tight ends last season, a number that is almost definitely going to drop in 2021, as Dan Arnold, who had 31 of those catches and led the position with 469 snaps played, is no longer with the team and was not replaced. Instead, the Cardinals will likely give more playing time to blocking specialists Maxx Williams (325 snaps) and Darrell Daniels (366 snaps), who have averaged just 1.08 yards per route run and 0.59 yards per route run in their careers respectively. 

Daniels isn’t even much of a blocker either, though Williams is actually one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, ranking 14th among tight ends in run blocking grade last season and earning an above average grade as a run blocker in all six seasons in the league, maxing out as PFF’s highest rated run blocking tight end in 2019. The presence of DeAndre Hopkins elevates this whole receiving corps, but the swap out of Larry Fitzgerald for AJ Green might not be the upgrade they’re expecting in a group that still has questions beyond Hopkins.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Cardinals’ offensive upgrades this off-season were primarily concentrated on their offensive line. They got solid play overall from their offensive line last off-season and had three of five starters earn above average grades from PFF, but right guard and center were positions of weakness, with right guard JR Sweezy finishing 73rd among 86 eligible guards on PFF and center Mason Cole finishing 32nd among 38 eligible centers. The Cardinals responded by finding upgrades at both spots and, with their other three starters remaining, this should be an improved unit in 2021. Their biggest addition was center Rodney Hudson, who the Cardinals acquired in a trade centered around this year’s 3rd round pick. 

Hudson was weirdly almost released by the Raiders, ahead of the remaining non-guaranteed money left on his contract, but upon realizing there was a trade market for the veteran center, they opted to take that route instead and got somewhat of a premium draft pick for him. It might seem like a lot to give up for a well paid center who is heading into his age 32 season and whose former team thought about releasing for nothing, but Hudson was one of the better centers in the league in his prime, finishing in the top-6 among centers on PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2016-2018 and earning an above average grade from PFF in every season of his career in which he’s been a starter, and he hasn’t dropped off much, finishing 11th among centers on PFF in 2019 and 8th in 2020.

It’s possible Hudson’s drop off could come this season and could come suddenly, but centers tend to age a little better than other positions, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. At the very least, he should be an obvious upgrade on Mason Cole, but he has the upside to be one of the better centers in the league if he can continue evading father time, which would be a big boost for this offense. The Cardinals also agreed to a new 3-year, 30 million dollar deal with Hudson this off-season, lowering his cap hit in the short-term and likely ensuring he will be with the Cardinals beyond 2021.

New right guard Brian Winters isn’t as impressive, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Sweezy and he’s generally been a capable starter in his career, in 88 starts in 8 seasons in the league. Winters is going into his age 30 season and is coming off of the lowest rated season of his career, finishing 69th among 86 eligible guards across 618 snaps in 2020, so he could be on the decline, but at the very least, I wouldn’t expect him to be a downgrade from Sweezy and he wasn’t expensive, signing for 1.21 million over just 1 year. Even in the worst season of his career last year, WInters still had a better year than Sweezy.

Of their three remaining starters, right tackle Kelvin Beachum is probably the shakiest, not just ranking the lowest of the three at their position on PFF, but also going into his age 32 season. Beachum never lived up to his early career heights, finishing 10th among offensive tackles in 2014 with the Steelers, but tearing his ACL the following season and never finishing higher than 37th at his position again. He’s always been at least an average starter though, across 115 starts in 9 seasons in the league. He might drop off somewhat in 2021, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain a solid starter.

One concerning theme on this offensive line is most of their starters are getting to the age where they may start to decline and the same is true of left guard Justin Pugh, who ranked an above average 38th among guards on PFF in 15 starts last season, but now heads into his age 31 season. Pugh also has a concerning injury history, missing 27 games in the past 7 seasons, while playing all 16 games just once over that stretch. Earlier in his career, Pugh was one of the best guards in the league, finishing 12th and 15th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 2016, but he missed 17 of 32 games from 2017-2018 and was never the same, with his best season since those dominant early career seasons being his 21st ranked finish in 2019. He could decline further in 2021 or get hurt again, but he could also remain a solid starter.

The youngest member of this group is left tackle DJ Humphries, who is also the best of the bunch, coming off of a dominant 2020 season in which he ranked 5th among offensive tackles on PFF. Humphries was a first round pick in 2016 and is still in his prime in his age 28 season, but he’s also a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level. Humphries showed promise early in his career, but was limited to 25 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league by injury and then in 2019, when he finally stayed healthy and made all 16 starts, he ranked just 49th among offensive tackles on PFF. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner as a player and it’s good that he hasn’t missed a game due to injury in two seasons, but I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as he was last season, even if he still is one of the better left tackles in the league.

The Cardinals have their starting five locked in, but depth is somewhat of a concern. Justin Murray is a versatile reserve who can play both inside and outside and he played 602 snaps last season, but he struggled and has never been better than middling in his career, in 19 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Josh Jones was selected by the Cardinals in the 3rd round in 2020, but struggled across just 54 rookie year snaps and is no guarantee to be better in 2021. 

Lamont Gaillard, a 2019 6th round pick, remains the backup center, but he struggled across the first 217 snaps of his career last season. The Cardinals also have guard Max Garcia, who was a solid starter earlier in his career with the Broncos, but has since settled in as a reserve, playing 309 snaps over the past 3 seasons combined. They’re not bad depth options, but the Cardinals will definitely have to hope their aging and somewhat injury prone starting five offensive linemen hold up. If they do, this should be an above average group, but that’s not a guarantee.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Cardinals lost lead back Kenyan Drake this off-season, watching him sign a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal with the Raiders. Drake was acquired midway through 2019 in a trade with the Dolphins and showed a lot of promise in his first half season with the team, rushing for 5.23 YPC and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries in 8 games, leading to the Cardinals keeping him on the transition tag and paying him 8.482 million for the 2021 season, but he did not live up expectations, averaging just 3.99 YPC with 10 touchdowns on 239 carries, so the Cardinals didn’t pay to keep him this off-season.

Drake will be replaced by free agent addition James Conner, but Conner might not see as many carries as Drake received last season, as the Cardinals seem to want to get #2 running back Chase Edmonds more involved. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds has shown promise in his career, averaging 4.42 YPC on 217 carries in 3 seasons in the league. The 97 carries he had last season were a career high, but I would expect him to exceed that in 2021 and he could be something of a 1b to Conner’s 1a. 

Edmonds also figures to remain the Cardinals’ primary passing down back, a role in which he saw significant usage last season, with a 53/402/4 slash line on 67 targets, a 1.32 route run average, and PFF’s 9th best receiving grade by a running back. Conner, meanwhile, will mostly be an early down between the tackles and short yardage runner, which was mostly the role he played in his first 4 seasons in the league, all with the Steelers, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2017. 

In total, Conner has rushed for 4.33 YPC and 22 touchdowns on 532 carries, while averaging 1.17 yards per route run and earning slightly above average grade from PFF overall. He’s shown more promise than his overall numbers, but durability has been a concern, as he’s never topped 215 carries or 14 games in a season, missing 14 of 64 career games and being limited in countless others, which have hurt his efficiency. He has the upside to be better than his career numbers if he can stay healthy for a full season, but at this point, he probably just is who he is. Still, he was a smart, cheap (1-year, 1.75 million) addition who will pair well with Chase Edmonds and make a solid tandem.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, I would expect the Cardinals to be better on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. Not only is defensive play much less consistent than offensive play year-to-year, but the Cardinals also should be more talented on this side of the ball. The biggest reason for that is the off-season addition of JJ Watt, a future Hall of Famer who parted ways with the rebuilding Houston Texans this off-season after a dominant 10-year stretch with the team. 

Watt had some injury plagued seasons, but ultimately played in all 16 games seven times, including six seasons of more than 900 snaps played, and his production overall was off the charts, as he totaled 101 sacks, 204 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 128 games, while dominating against the run, and winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most all-time. He also finished in the top-2 at his position on PFF in 5 seasons and, while his age is becoming a concern in his age 32 season and his 5 sacks last season was the lowest of his career in a full season, he was still PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender in 2018, 5th in 2019 before getting hurt, and 7th in 2020, when his underwhelming sack total was largely the result of being the most double teamed player in the league on a terrible Houston defense.

Probably the best part of the Cardinals acquiring Watt is he came without draft compensation, as Watt asked out of the rebuilding Texans ahead of the final year of his contract and, rather than trying to find a taker for his 17.5 million dollar salary, they cut him outright. The Cardinals got a slight discount on an annual basis with a 2-year, 28 million dollar deal, but they also guaranteed most of his 2022 salary, suggesting they may have wanted to acquire Watt enough that they would have surrendered at least some draft compensation in a trade for him, but instead he arrives as a true free agent.

Earlier in Watt’s career, he played almost exclusively on the interior, but he was athletic enough that the Texans turned the 6-5 288 pounder into an edge defender later in his career, with the shift starting in his 4th season in the league in 2014. The Cardinals need the most help on the interior though, as they didn’t have a single interior defender earn an above average grade from PFF last season, and Watt could really benefit from a move back to his natural position. 

It sounds weird to say that JJ Watt has been playing out of position for years because he’s been able to dominate regardless of where he plays, but he’s performed better in his limited action on the interior in recent years and, as he ages and starts to lose a step, he will likely find it easier to disrupt offensive lines from the interior going forward. There is always the possibility that Watt drops off completely at his age or suffers another injury, but the most likely outcome of his season is that he is one of the top interior defenders in the league, for a Cardinals team that might have had the worst interior defender group in the league last season.

Watt was their only real addition to this group this off-season though, so the Cardinals will be counting on holdovers taking a step forward around Watt. The player the Cardinals are probably most expecting to be better this season compared to last season is interior defender Jordan Phillips, who was signed on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season and proceeded to play just 266 snaps in 9 games and finish as PFF’s 99th ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible. Phillips’ contract guaranteed 4.5 million of his salary for 2021, but the Cardinals could have still saved 5.5 million by moving on from him this off-season, so they seem to have some hope he can bounce back.

That being said, Phillips’ contract was an overpay to begin with and, even if he bounces back, it won’t be to the player the Cardinals were expecting when they acquired him. Phillips had 9.5 sacks with the Bills in 2019, but that was largely the result of being in the right place at the right time on a dominant defense, as he earned just a middling grade from PFF and managed just a 7.7% pressure rate. Even that season stands out as an outlier in his career though, as he’s received below average grades from PFF in his other six seasons in the league, in which he has totaled just 7.5 sacks in 69 games with just a 6.8% pressure rate, while consistently struggling against the run. He’ll most likely continue to be below average in 2021. The Cardinals probably should have just admitted their mistake, cut their losses, and spent the money on a replacement and upgrade.

The Cardinals also have some young players they are hoping can take a step forward. Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence were both 4th round selections in 2020 and, though they both struggled in 284 snaps and 166 snaps respectively as rookies, they could still have the upside to get better going forward. Zach Allen, a 3rd round choice in 2019, is another option. He’s primarily played on the edge in his career, but the 6-4 280 pounder has also seen some action on the interior and could see more action there this season, as it seems to be a thinner spot for this defense. Allen has also been mediocre in his 649 career snaps, primarily playing as an edge defender, so he could benefit from seeing more action inside, although that isn’t a guarantee. The JJ Watt addition elevates this group in a big way, but they will need other players to step up as well.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Cardinals lost their sacks leader from a year ago, Haason Reddick (12.5 sacks), in free agency this off-season, but they’ll get their 2019 sacks leader, Chandler Jones (19 sacks, 2nd in the NFL), back from an injury that limited him to just 286 snaps in 5 games in 2020, which could easily prove to be an upgrade. Reddick added 8 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate to his sack total last season, but he’s a one-year wonder, while Jones had been one of the more productive pass rushers in the league for years prior to last year’s injury plagued campaign. From 2013-2019, Jones totaled 90 sacks, 71 hits, and an 11.1% pressure rate, while coming off the field as infrequently as any edge defender in the league (62.7 snaps per game) and missing just 7 games total due to injury. 

Jones isn’t the best run stuffer, but he earned an above average overall grade from PFF in all seven of those seasons, including four seasons in the top-23 among edge defenders, three seasons in the top-17, and a 15th ranked finish in his most recent healthy season in 2019. Jones is now going into his age 31 season and seemed to be slowing a little bit before last year’s injury, but that was such a small sample size and, even if he is on the decline after last year’s lost year, he should still remain an above average starter and one of the better edge rushers in the league. It also seems unlikely he’ll suffer another injury, given his history of durability.

Other than Reddick, the Cardinals are bringing back all their notable edge defenders from a year ago. Devon Kennard (362 snaps) and Markus Golden (416 snaps) are likely to both see rotational roles, regardless of which one is the nominal starter opposite Jones. Both players would have seen higher snap counts last season had they not been limited to 13 games and 9 games respectively, but Kennard missed three games with injury, while Golden was only acquired mid-season from the Giants after Jones’ injury.

For Golden, this is his second stint with the Cardinals, who originally selected him in the 2nd round in 2015. For the first two years of his career, Golden looked like he would form a dangerous edge defender duo with Chandler Jones for years to come, totaling 16.5 sacks, 23 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate, while finishing 29th and 36th among edge defenders on PFF. However, Golden suffered a torn ACL after 231 snaps in 4 games in his third season in 2017, struggled mightily across just 393 snaps in 11 games upon his return in 2018, and was allowed to walk as a free agent the following off-season, when he signed with the Giants. 

Golden has bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons though, totaling 13 sacks, 35 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate, prompting the Cardinals to reacquire him from the rebuilding Giants, who were likely to lose him for nothing at the end of the season and who were strangely barely playing him (175 snaps in 7 games), despite a strong season from him the year prior. With the Cardinals, he continued his 2019 form and the Cardinals were also able to retain Golden on a very team friendly 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. Even though he’s going into his age 30 season and has always left something to be desired against the run, he should remain a valuable edge rusher for this team in 2021.

With Golden being more of a sub package player, Kennard’s role is likely to be as an early down player, which is where he fits best anyway. His 9.7% career pressure rate is underwhelming for an edge defender, while his run defense has drawn above average grades from PFF in six straight seasons. He may also decline a little bit in 2021, also in his age 30 season, but he should remain a capable early down player for this defense, focused on stopping the run.

The Cardinals also have Zach Allen, who I mentioned in the interior defender section, as an option on the edge, although his play at that position has left something to be desired and may suggest he would be best on the interior long-term. Dennis Gardeck could also be in the mix, coming off of a truly strange 2020 season. A 2018 undrafted free agent who had played just 3 snaps on defense prior to last season, Gardeck was only on the roster for special teams purposes, but ended up finishing second on the team with seven sacks last season. That alone isn’t that strange, but he did that despite hardly seeing any playing time, playing just 89 snaps total on defense. 

Most of those snaps (79) were pass rush snaps, but when you add in the 3 hits and 8 hurries he had, he was still around the quarterback on 22.8% of his pass rush snaps. Despite that, Gardeck never saw any significant playing time until week 15 when he played 25 snaps and promptly was placed on injured reserve the following week with an injury he picked up in that game. Gardeck is undersized for an edge defender at 6-0 232 and would be highly unlikely to be as efficient as he was last season in a larger role and the Cardinals seem to prefer having him focus on special teams, but he’s worth mentioning as he could factor into the mix at this position. With Chandler Jones returning from injury as essentially a replacement for the departed Haason Reddick, this should once again be an above average group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Cardinals used their first round pick on the defensive side of the ball, adding Tulsa’s Zaven Collins with the 16th overall pick. Collins’ combination of size (6-4 259) and athleticism had many seeing him as an edge defender at the next level, but the Cardinals will keep him as primarily an off ball linebacker, which was his primary position in college. He’s actually the second straight first round pick the Cardinals have used on a player who will primarily play as an off ball linebacker, after taking Isaiah Simmons 8th overall in 2019.

Simmons is also a player who came into the league with some question about where he would play, as the 6-3 237 pounder also saw action off the edge, on the slot, and at safety in college and has the athleticism to play those positions on passing downs in the NFL, despite his size. Early on, Simmons wasn’t playing much of anywhere, even though the Cardinals invested a premium pick in him, playing just 57 snaps in the first 5 games of the season and struggling in the limited action he played, but he wound up playing 376 snaps on the season and finished as PFF’s 38th ranked off ball linebacker, while earning PFF’s 27th highest off ball linebacker grade from week 6 on, including their 7th highest grade in coverage.

Simmons was never an every down player and played almost exclusively in passing situations, with just 29.8% of his passes coming on run plays, but he showed his unique talents by lining up on the edge on 20.5% of his pass plays, as an off ball linebacker on 51.9%, and on the slot on 27.7%. He also pressured the quarterback at a 19.0% rate, while allowing just 1.16 yards per route run, including just 0.94 yards per route run on the slot. 

The Cardinals obviously drafted him to be an every down player and with their top linebacker from a year ago De’Vondre Campbell (880 snaps) no longer with the team, Simmons should see a much bigger snap count in year two. His upside is very high and the way he ended last season was very much promising, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue having issues on running plays and even if he someday develops into one of the better linebackers in the league, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have a big leap in year two.

Two off-seasons ago, the Cardinals added former Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal in free agency. Hicks had some injury issues in his first four seasons in the league with the Eagles, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2015, missing 43 of 64 possible games in those four seasons, but he played at a high level when on the field, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers in 2015, 3rd in 2016, and 13th in 2018, and looked like a potential steal for the Cardinals in free agency.

Instead, Hicks dropped off significantly, finishing 50th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019 and 70th out of 99 eligible in 2020. Hicks has actually stayed healthy, playing and starting all 32 games over those two seasons, but it’s possible his early career injuries sapped his abilities. With the Cardinals adding off ball linebackers in the first round in back-to-back years, Hicks no longer has a starting role for this defense, and, having already taken a pay cut down to 3 million to stay on the roster this season, Hicks now reportedly wants to be traded to a team where he can start, a request the Cardinals seem to be willing to accommodate and one they’ll likely be able to fulfill, as Hicks is would still be an upgrade for several teams as a starting off ball linebacker and is not highly paid.

If Hicks happens to remain on this roster in 2021, he’ll only be a depth player, but with Simmons and Collins both having the ability to play in other spots, he could still have a situational role in this linebacking corps. Now going into his age 29 season, going on three seasons removed from his last impressive season, Hicks seems unlikely to bounce back to his old form, but even at his worst, he’s still above average depth. If he’s moved, career special teams Tanner Vallejo and Ezekiel Turner would be their top reserves, in which case depth would be a concern. Either way, with back-to-back first round picks in this group, the upside is obviously there for a big season from the starters.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Cardinals’ secondary largely was neglected this off-season, relative to other positions of need they addressed. They added some cornerbacks, but they needed to replace a significant amount of snaps lost from Patrick Peterson (1,096 snaps) and Dre Kirkpatrick (750 snaps) and the cornerbacks they added are an unspectacular bunch. Fortunately, neither Peterson nor Kirkpatrick will be missed much, particularly Kirkpatrick, who was a massive liability last season, ranking 113rd out of 128 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. 

Peterson, on the the hand, had been one of the better cornerbacks in the league throughout his 10 years with the Cardinals, after being selected 5th overall in 2011, but had earned back-to-back middling grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 and, now heading into his age 31 season, the Cardinals were probably smart to let him walk on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that he signed with the Vikings this off-season. Instead, the Cardinals signed Malcolm Butler to a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, not only saving some money, but potentially finding an upgrade on what Peterson has been over the past couple seasons.

Butler is also in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t quite shown the decline that Peterson has. The Titans released him this off-season ahead of the final 24.55 million non-guaranteed over two seasons left on the 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal that the Titans gave him to come over from the Patriots after the 2017 season, but that was a move driven by the Titans’ cap issues rather than Butler struggling, as his 2020 campaign was probably the best of his three in Tennessee. 

In his first season, he was just middling across 836 snaps and was benched down the stretch, before an injury plagued 2019 campaign in which he played just 579 middling snaps, but in 2020, he made all 16 starts and was PFF’s 24th ranked cornerback, his best finish of his three seasons in Tennessee. Butler also finished 25th and 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2015 and 2016 respectively in his prime with the Patriots and, while his best days are very likely behind him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain an above average starter, or at least a capable one, which is all Peterson was last season.

Butler will start opposite Byron Murphy, the 33rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who has been a starter for this team since week one of his rookie year. Murphy struggled as a rookie though, finishing 122nd among 129 cornerbacks on PFF and, while he was more middling in 2020, that’s not a guarantee that he will continue improving going forward. He has the upside to breakout as an above average starter, but it’s far from a guarantee that he will do so in 2021.

Aside from Butler, none of the other Cardinals free agent additions at cornerback are guaranteed a role, so the third cornerback job is up for grabs. Darqueze Dennard was an under the radar signing, but he’s an experienced slot cornerback, averaging 627 snaps per season over the past four seasons and he’s earned average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons. Even now in his age 30 season, he could remain a capable slot cornerback if he wins the job.

The Cardinals drafted a pair of cornerbacks, but they were 4th rounder Marco Wilson and 6th round Tay Gowan, who are unlikely to factor into the mix much in year one, so Dennard’s primary competition for the #3 cornerback job is fellow veteran Robert Alford. Alford was signed by the Cardinals to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, but he proceeded to miss each of the past two seasons with two different season ending injuries and was forced to take a pay cut down to the league minimum this off-season.

The Cardinals couldn’t have foreseen that Alford would miss two full seasons, but that was an ill-advised contract from the start. In what is still his most recent action, Alford finished 112nd among 131 eligible cornerbacks with the Falcons in 2018 and, with Alford over 30, it was an easy decision for the Falcons to release him after that season, ahead of the final 17 million non-guaranteed on his contract over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

However, despite Alford’s age and recent struggles, the Cardinals felt it was appropriate to essentially guarantee Alford almost the same amount that the Falcons made the easy decision not to pay him, guaranteeing him 15 million over 2019 and 2020. Even if he hadn’t gotten hurt, most of that would have probably been money down the drain anyway. Now on a minimum deal, Alford’s salary isn’t a problem, but, now in his age 33 season, he’s very unlikely to make a positive impact, two seasons removed from his last playing time and three seasons removed from his last above average season from PFF in 2017.

The best member of this secondary is safety Budda Baker, who finished last season as PFF’s 10th ranked safety. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Baker also finished 39th at his position as a rookie and 33rd in 2019 and, still only going into his age 25 season, he could keep getting better going forward. He’s been better against the run than in coverage, finishing in the top-17 among safeties against the run on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-7, but his coverage ability also has improved in every season in the league, leading to above average coverage grades in back-to-back seasons. At the very least, he should remain the player he’s been, but he has the upside for more.

Baker locks down one safety spot, but the other safety spot is up for grabs, as it was for most of last season, with Chris Banjo (436 snaps), Deionte Thompson (332 snaps), and Jalen Thompson (232 snaps) all seeing action. All three players remain and will compete for the starting role. Jalen Thompson was the best of the bunch last season and, though that came in very limited action, he also held his own across 607 snaps (9 starts in 12 games) as an undrafted rookie in 2019. 

Thompson’s limited action last season was also mostly the result of injury and he likely would have gotten an extended chance to start and play every down had he not gotten hurt. He’s a projection to a season long starting role and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if the former undrafted free agent didn’t develop into a capable full-time starter, as most undrafted free agents don’t, but he’s probably the favorite for the starting role this season if he’s past last year’s injuries.

Chris Banjo wasn’t bad either last season, but the 9-year veteran is a career special teamer, never surpassing 193 defensive snaps in a season prior to last season. Now going into his age 31 season, it would be a surprise to see him suddenly become a defensive starter. Deionte Thompson probably is more likely than Banjo to challenge for the starting role, but the 2019 5th round pick has been mediocre across 584 snaps in his career and he would need to take a big step forward to hold up as a starter.

The Cardinals did make one addition in free agency this off-season, signing veteran Shawn Williams, who had previously spent the first eight years of his career with the Bengals. Williams used to be a solid starter, but he finished 88th among 99 safeties on PFF in 2019 and subsequently lost his starting job for 2020, playing just 87 snaps total. Now going into his age 30 season, he would likely struggle again in a starting role, but he could be in the mix to start at a very unsettled position. This isn’t a bad secondary overall, but there are weak spots.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cardinals should once again have one of the top offenses in the league, led by budding young quarterback Kyler Murray and an improved offensive line. If their offense continues playing at a high level, they should win more games in 2021 even without defensive improvement, as both their schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+1.39%) and their point differential (+43) suggest they should have won another game or two, but their defense should also be improved as well, due in large part to the addition of JJ Watt.

Teams with talented quarterbacks on rookie deals are always a candidate to go on a long run as they have the ability to spend significantly more around the quarterback than teams with highly paid veterans, which is why 20 of 27 Super Bowl winner since the start of the salary cap have had their quarterback accounting for less than 10% of their cap and more than half (14 of 27) have had their quarterback account for less than 7%.

The Cardinals, who have been aggressive in adding talent around Murray over the past couple off-seasons, definitely fit the mold. They haven’t always spent their money in the best ways, but this is still a legitimately talented roster with a quarterback who has the upside to be one of the best in the league this season. They rank 7th in average annual salary, which correlates heavily with winning, and that is despite having a quarterback making significantly less than market value.

One thing that hurts them is they are in the toughest division in the NFL in the NFC West, where all four teams are legitimate playoff contenders (and more), but the Cardinals have as much upside as any team in that division and, whether they get into the post-season as a wild card or a division winner, they could go on a run that sees them win a couple playoff games and contender for a Super Bowl. They might be a year away, but their upside is up there with some of the best. I will have a final prediction for the Cardinals at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD