Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After a 7-2-1 start, the Steelers lost 4 of their final 6 games of the season in 2018, to miss the playoffs with a record of 9-6-1. Between 2017 and the first 10 games of the season in 2018, the Steelers went 12-3 in games decided by a touchdown, which is not sustainable long-term. Sure enough, all 4 of their losses to drop them out of the post-season came by a touchdown or less. The losses didn’t stop there, as #1 receiver Antonio Brown was suspended for the final week of the season for a violation of team rules and then eventually was sent to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick when it became clear their relationship with their star player could not be salvaged.

Brown is the second Steelers offensive star to essentially force himself out of Pittsburgh in the past year, with running back Le’Veon Bell refusing to play at a 14.5 million dollar salary on a second franchise tag in 2018 and ultimately taking less money than the 5-year, 70 million dollar deal the Steelers offered him last off-season to sign with the Jets on a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar deal this off-season. The Steelers had a good internal replacement for Bell in James Conner and didn’t miss much of a beat without Bell, falling from 4th in first down rate in 2017 to 6th in 2018, but now the Steelers have to replace Brown as well.

One way Bell’s absence did affect this team is they became much pass heavier, with 689 pass attempts (most in the NFL) to just 345 carries (2nd fewest in the NFL). Ben Roethlisberger ended up leading the NFL in passing yards with 5,129, completing 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA and 34 touchdowns, but he also threw a league leading 16 interceptions. Going into his age 37 season, Roethlisberger is still producing like a top level quarterback and could follow in the footsteps of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees that have played at a high level in their late 30s, but his age is definitely becoming a concern and his production will likely take a hit without the player who has been his favorite target for 8 seasons.

With Roethlisberger getting up in age, the Steelers used a 4th round pick in 2017 on Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs and a 3rd round pick in 2018 on Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph. Dobbs was the backup in 2018, attempting the first 12 passes of his career, but Rudolph has the higher upside and could easily beat him out for the job in 2019. Rudolph has a better chance of being the Steelers’ quarterback of the future, although the Steelers are obviously hoping that day doesn’t come for at least a few years. Barring a big drop off in play, Roethlisberger is one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As much as a headache as Antonio Brown was to deal with, the Steelers will obviously miss him on the field, as he’s topped a 100/1250/8 slash line in 6 straight seasons, with an average slash line of 114/1524/11 over those 6 seasons and a 104/1297/15 slash line in 2018. New #1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is a budding star who would be the top receiver on most teams and could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but only having to stop one star wide receiver makes life a lot easier for the defense. Not even 23 until November, Smith-Schuster has slash lines of 58/917/7 and 111/1426/7 in two seasons in the league, but he’ll see a lot more double teams that Brown used to take away from him. He’ll still be very productive as Roethlisberger’s clear #1 target, but the absence of Brown will still have a negative effect on this passing game as a whole.

The Steelers didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 253 yards receiver last year, so they added veteran Donte Moncrief in free agency and University of Toledo’s Diontae Johnson in the 3rd round of the draft with the pick they acquired from Oakland for Brown. Moncrief, Johnson, and 2018 2nd round pick James Washington, who is expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, will compete to fill Brown’s targets. All three have upside.

Washington was horrendous as a rookie, catching just 42.1% of his targets, averaging just 0.57 yards per route run (worst among qualifying wide receivers), and grading as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver overall, but he got in much better shape this off-season and the Steelers still are high on his upside. Johnson, meanwhile, is an explosive playmaker that runs a lot of the same routes well that Brown dominated on and seems like a natural fit in this offense.

Moncrief is more experienced, already in his 6th season in the league, but he’s still only in his age 26 season and still has some post-hype breakout potential. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Moncrief had a 64/733/6 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but couldn’t match those totals combined in 2016-2017 due to injury and, healthy again in 2018, he was limited to 48/668/3 on a bad Jacksonville offense. Now on a better offense, Moncrief has the physical tools to be a lot more productive if he can stay healthy. The Steelers bought low with him this off-season, signing him to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal after he made 9.6 million in Jacksonville last season, which could prove to be a steal. He’s likely the favorite for the #2 receiver job.

The Steelers got 87 catches from tight ends in 2018 and could lean more on tight ends with Brown gone, but that’s complicated by the fact that #2 tight end Jesse James (30/423/2 slash line in 2018) signed a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal with the Lions this off-season. Top tight end Vance McDonald returns, but he’s been primarily a blocking tight end in his career, as his 50/610/4 slash line in 2018 constituted career highs across the board for the 6-year veteran. He could see a slight uptick in targets, but he’s not a big receiving threat.

With James gone, Xavier Grimble, previously their 3rd tight end, and 5th round rookie Zach Gentry will compete for the #2 tight end job. Grimble is a 2014 undrafted free agent with 22 career catches and 540 career snaps played, but he’s still likely the favorite for the job. Gentry has good size at 6-8 265, but lacks athleticism and isn’t as good of a blocker as his frame would suggest. He comes with some upside because of his size, but he’s unlikely to make a significant positive impact as a rookie.

Losing Jesse James isn’t nearly as big of a loss as Antonio Brown obviously, but the Steelers don’t have a good replacement, so James’ absence will hurt this receiving corps as well. This group does have a lot of upside though, with Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson coming in and James Washington hopefully taking a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. They could exceed expectations, although those players all come with considerable downside as well.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

With a weaker receiving corps, the Steelers will likely lean more on the running game. They had the most lopsided pass/run split (713/345) in the NFL last season and likely would have been more balanced in 2019 even if everything stayed the same in the receiving corps, but, with Brown gone, they could be a lot closer to their 614/437 pass/run split from 2017. James Conner was effective as Le’Veon Bell’s replacement last season, averaging 4.53 yards per carry on 215 carries, but the Steelers frequently abandoned the run when trailing, with a ridiculous 321/73 run/pass split when behind on the scoreboard.

Even on a very pass heavy offense, Conner still averaged 16.5 carries per game in 13 games, which represents 87% of the Steelers’ run attempts by a running back in those games. The Steelers typically like relying on one every down back and Conner showed ability on passing downs as well, with 55 catches for 497 yards and a score, but 2018 5th round pick Jaylen Samuels flashed down the stretch last season when Conner missed some time with injury, so if the Steelers are more run heavy in 2019, Conner will likely work more in tandem with Samuels. Samuels averaged 4.57 yards per carry on 56 carries as a rookie and the big 6-0 225 pounder is a converted college tight end who also caught 26 of 29 targets for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. Conner and Samuels are a promising duo going into 2019.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The good news for the Steelers is they kept pretty much everyone on the offensive line this off-season. They traded right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Cardinals for a draft pick, but he’s played just 12 games over the past 2 seasons and backup Matt Feiler impressed in 10 starts in his absence in 2018, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked offensive tackle. Now Feiler is officially the starter with Gilbert gone. Feiler is a total one-year wonder, going undrafted in 2014 and making just 1 start prior to last season, but the Steelers saw enough from him in limited action last season to feel comfortable making forward with him as the starter.

Feiler will see all familiar faces next to him upfront this season, with Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro (from left to right) all returning as starters. Foster was the only one who was possibly going to leave, but he ended up re-signed on a 2-year, 8.25 million dollar deal in free agency. Foster has been a solid starter for years, with 119 starts in the past 8 seasons (all in Pittsburgh), but he hasn’t been quite the same player in recent years.

Going into his age 33 season, his best days look behind him, but he could remain a capable starter for another couple seasons and his salary suggests the Steelers still view him as a starter. BJ Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent who has flashed in limited action in his career (9 starts), was seen as a potential replacement for Foster, but he will have to keep waiting for a starting job to open up. Finney will remain as a valuable reserve and has the ability to play all 3 interior offensive line positions.

The rest of this offensive line has also been starting in their current spot for years and, unlike Foster, they are all relatively young. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is the oldest of the rest of the bunch, going into his age 31 season, but he’s finished in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF for 3 straight seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down, finishing last season a career best 12th at his position. A converted defensive lineman and late bloomer, Villanueva didn’t make a start until midway through the 2015 season, but he’s made 58 consecutive starts ever since. Even if he starts to decline in 2019, he should continue being a solid starter.

Center Maurkice Pouncey is also going into his 30s, with 2019 being his age 30 season. He’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in his last 5 healthy seasons (although he basically missed all of 2013 and 2015 with injury), but fell to 16th at his position in 2018, his lowest rank since 2011. Pouncey could easily continue being a solid starter for a few more seasons, but last season might have been the beginning of his decline. His injury history doesn’t help matters either.

Right guard David DeCastro rounds out this offensive line and he’s arguably the best of the bunch. A first round pick in 2012, DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with injury, but he’s missed just 3 games in 6 seasons since and has finished in the top-15 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons, maxing out at #1 in 2017. Still only in his age 29 season, I see no reason to expect any sort of drop off from him in 2019. He’s one of the best guards in the NFL and this remains one of the better offensive lines in the league overall.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Steelers had a solid defense in 2018, ranking 14th in first down rate allowed, but they struggled to get takeaways, with just 15 (3rd worst in the NFL) on the season. The Steelers had 26 giveaways, so they finished 5th worst in the NFL with a -11 turnover margin, which was the primary reason they missed the playoffs, despite finishing 6th in first down rate differential at +4.38% (best among non-playoff teams). The good news is turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year or even week-to-week basis, so the Steelers could easily force more takeaways and have a much stronger turnover margin in 2019. That would go a long way towards getting the Steelers back in the post-season, even with the absence of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers will remain in their classic 3-4 alignment, at least in base packages, and return most of their starters and key contributors from 2018. On this 3-man defensive line, everyone who played at least 100 snaps in 2018 returns for 2019. The starters, defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward and nose tackle Javon Hargrave, play the vast majority of base package snaps, and Tuitt and Heyward stay on the field as interior rushers in sub packages as well.

Tuitt and Heyward ranked 24th and 7th among interior defenders with 694 snaps played and 842 snaps played respectively last season, despite Tuitt missing a pair of games with injury. They’re also arguably the top interior defender duo in the NFL. Heyward is the better of the two, finishing in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in his last 3 healthy seasons (2016 was a lost year due to injury), but Tuitt has played at a high level the past couple seasons as well, finishing 18th and 24th respectively among interior defenders, particularly excelling against the run.

Heyward is the better pass rusher of the two, with 37.5 sacks, 41 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate in the past 5 seasons, including 20 sacks, 23 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate in the past two seasons. Homegrown talents, Heyward and Tuitt are entering their 9th and 6th seasons with the Steelers respectively. Heyward is going into his age 30 season, but they should remain a dominant duo even if Heyward starts to decline a little bit.

Javon Hargrave will play between them in base packages, but he’s not a typical nose tackle, as he can also get to the quarterback, with 6.5 sacks, 1 hit, and a 8.6% pressure rate in 2018. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Hargrave has 10.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate for his career and has improved as a pass rusher in every season in the league. Also a strong run stuffer, Hargrave was PFF’s 23rd ranked interior defender on 455 snaps in 2018 and could take another step forward in his age 26 contract year in 2019.

Not much depth is needed on this defensive line, but Tyson Alualu was their top reserve in 2018 (311 snaps), while the massive 6-7 352 Daniel McCullers is a situational run stuffer who played just 111 snaps last season. Alualu was a bust as the 10th overall pick by the Jaguars in 2010, earning below average grades from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons. He started 88 games anyway, many of which came on some really bad teams, but in Pittsburgh he’s played just 762 snaps in 2 seasons and has carved out a role as a rotational run stuffer. He’s going into his age 32 season, but as long as he doesn’t have to play too much he should continue providing useful play against the run. The Steelers also used a 6th round pick on development defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, but they have probably the best 3-man defensive line in the NFL, so depth isn’t all that important.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Steelers also bring back their top-3 edge defenders. Starters TJ Watt and Bud Dupree play close to every snap, while Anthony Chickillo is a rotational reserve who played just 295 snaps in 2018, despite playing all 16 games. Watt and Dupree also played all 16 games and their snap counts of 903 and 868 respectively ranked 7th and 11th among edge defenders. Watt was the better of the two, ranking 27th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2017, Watt wasn’t bad as a rookie, but he took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league and could easily do the same in his 3rd in 2019. In 2 seasons in the league, he has 20 sacks, 18 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate.

Dupree is also a former first round pick, but he has been a bit of a disappointment. He’s started 39 of 54 games in 4 seasons in the league, but has just 20 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate and has been underwhelming against the run as well. Anthony Chickillo is a capable run stuffer, but he doesn’t get any pass rush (6.5% career pressure rate) and has never played more than 318 snaps in a season, so he’s not really a candidate for a bigger role, even with Dupree being an underwhelming starter. It’s surprising the Steelers didn’t add talent at this position in the draft, especially with Dupree going into the final year of his rookie contract. Dupree still has theoretical upside in his age 26 season, but unless he breaks out this looks like just an average group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Steelers’ defense was solid in 2018, even if they struggled to force turnovers. They were better in 2017 though, dropping from 8th in first down rate allowed to 14th in 2018. The biggest reason for that was the loss of middle linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spine injury. The Steelers allowed an average of 17.6 points per game in 11 games with Shazier in 2017 and have seen that skyrocket to 23.6 points per game in 22 games since (including playoffs). In an effort to fix this, the Steelers were aggressive on draft day, giving up a 2nd round pick and a 2020 3rd round pick to move up from 20 to 10 to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush.

It’s a move that makes a ton of sense. The Steelers have a solid overall roster and didn’t have that many glaring needs on draft day, with middle linebacker being by far their most pressing. This was also a thin middle linebacker class, with a steep drop off after the top-two, Devin White and Devin Bush. Neither would have been available to the Steelers at 20, so they jumped up ahead of the Bengals at 11, who were known to be very interested in Bush. Bush is also a great fit for this system because the Steelers love blitzing their middle linebackers and Bush has the skill set to thrive as a blitzer. He’ll also instantly be their best coverage linebacker, which was something the Steelers sorely lacked in 2018. Even as a rookie, he’s an immediate upgrade on the duo of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett, which he effectively replaces.

Vince Williams was their other starting middle linebacker last season, but he’ll face competition for his job from free agent acquisition Mark Barron, who was signed to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal. His salary suggests he’ll start, but he was signed before the Steelers were able to move up and get Bush and Vince Williams has started all 30 games he’s played in the past 2 seasons, so he won’t be easy to beat out. Barron was also Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying in 2018, though he’s been better in the past, particularly in coverage.

Williams is much better moving forward as a run stuffer or blitzer (12.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 20.8% pressure rate on 197 blitzes the past two seasons) than he is in coverage, earning below average grades for his coverage ability from PFF in both seasons as a starter, so maybe Barron and Williams will form a platoon, with the former safety Barron working as a situational coverage linebacker. Both linebackers are going into their age 30 season and neither has ever been spectacular, but they could be a decent platoon inside. Devin Bush’s addition is the one that will move the needle in this linebacking corps. He might not be Ryan Shazier right away, but he gives them something they needed badly in 2018.

Grade: B

Secondary

Along with middle linebacker, cornerback was also a need for the Steelers on defense this off-season. Joe Haden had another solid season in 2018 and is locked in as one starting outside cornerback, but the Steelers didn’t have an obvious starter at the other cornerback spot going into the off-season. Artie Burns, a first round pick in 2016, seemingly had a breakout year in 2017, making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus, but he struggled in the first 6 games of 2018, got benched, and played just 15 snaps the rest of the way. Coty Sensabaugh, a veteran journeyman, and Cameron Sutton, a 2017 3rd round pick, were both underwhelming as replacements.

Even with Hicks’ first round pedigree and the promise he showed in his 2017 season, the Steelers don’t seem willing to give him his job back, signing ex-Chief Steven Nelson to a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar deal to be a starter. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Nelson is an unspectacular cornerback, but he’s made 38 starts in 40 games the past 3 seasons and has improved in every season in the league, topping out as PFF’s 27th ranked cornerback in 2018. Still only in his age 26 season, he could continue improving and should be a solid starter. With the Steelers also using a 3rd round pick on Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne, Artie Burns is not a lock for the final roster. He and Cameron Sutton may be competing for one roster spot.

As mentioned, Joe Haden remains locked in as a starting outside cornerback. Signed to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago after being released by the rebuilding Browns, Haden has earned an above average grade from PFF in both seasons in Pittsburgh, though he is going into the final year of that deal, which may be why the Steelers took Justin Layne in the 3rd round. Haden is also injury prone and going into his age 30 season. He hasn’t played in all 16 games since his rookie year in 2010 and he’s missed 28 games with injury in 8 seasons since, including 20 games in the past 4 seasons. His best days are likely behind him and he could miss a few more games with injury, but he should remain a solid starter when on the field in 2019.

Mike Hilton is also locked in to his role on the slot, where he’s played 88.3% of his coverage snaps the past two seasons, though the 2016 undrafted free agent is reportedly unhappy with his contract situation. Because he wasn’t on an active roster as a rookie in 2016, Hilton is set to make just 645K in 2019 on an exclusive rights tender, but he has played well enough the past two seasons to deserve much more than that.

After bouncing around a few practice squads as a rookie, Hilton has found a home on the slot in Pittsburgh, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons. In addition to being a capable slot coverage cornerback, the 5-9 184 pounder is also a feisty run defender and is an excellent blitzer off the edge (5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate on 139 blitzes in the past 2 seasons). Unless he makes good on his threat to sit out the season without another deal, Hilton should continue his solid play in 2019. A long-term deal being worked out before the start of the season wouldn’t be a surprise either.

At safety, starters Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis both return after solid 2018 seasons. Edmunds was the Steelers’ first round pick in 2018 and earned an average grade from PFF in 16 games as a rookie (15 starts). He’s primarily a box safety, but can also cover deep as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, only in his age 22 season. Davis, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2016 and looked like a bust through his first 2 seasons in the league, starting 25 of 32 games, but finishing 92nd out of 103 qualifying safeties and dead last out of 94 qualifying safeties on PFF in those two seasons respectively. He took a big step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2018 though, making 15 starts and finishing 44th at his position. He could continue improving, but he’s also a one-year wonder who could regress in 2019. This secondary lacks top level players, but is a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Steelers surprisingly missed the post-season in 2018, but in 2019 they could be a surprising playoff qualifier. Many have written them off since losing Antonio Brown, but this is still a talented roster overall. Their defense should generate more takeaways and they should have better luck in the kicking game, where they ranked 31st in field goal percentage and 30th in extra point percentage. Those were the two biggest reasons why they missed the post-season last year despite finishing 6th in first down rate differential, but those are also the kind of things that tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Assuming Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have a swift decline in his age 37 season, the Steelers should compete with the Browns for the AFC North title.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Team Score: 75.74

Offensive Score: 77.63

Defensive Score: 73.85

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Cleveland Browns 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Browns didn’t win a single game in 2017 and won just 1 game in 2016 and 2017 combined, but they currently have the 3rd best odds to win the AFC at 7 to 1, a pretty sudden turnaround. The Browns went just 7-8-1 last season, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they’ll be better than that in 2019. They went 5-3 after firing head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, thanks in large part to the emergence of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens’ offense. They also added several key players this off-season.

Kitchens was promoted to head coach this off-season, which is a risky move considering he had never been anything higher than a position coach prior to last October, but Baker Mayfield is very comfortable in his system, which was clearly something they valued highly when making their coaching selection. In 8 games with Kitchens calling plays, Mayfield completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 8.57 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, as opposed to 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions with Jackson and Haley. Through 8 games with Jackson and Haley, the Browns ranked 28th in the NFL in first down rate at 30.25%. The rest of the way they had a 40.78% first down rate, which would have been 6th in the NFL over the full season, a very drastic improvement with both the team and the quarterback.

All in all, Mayfield finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback in 13 starts. Now going into his age 24 season, the 2018 #1 overall pick has a massive upside and could easily continue developing into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves with a quarterback with 13 career starts and a strong 8-game stretch, but Mayfield looked like the real deal coming out of the University of Oklahoma and he’s impressed in the short time he’s been in the league. With Tyrod Taylor signing with the Chargers this off-season, the Browns only have mediocre veteran Drew Stanton (66.3 career QB rating in 17 starts) behind Mayfield, so this is fully Mayfield’s team.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Mayfield was not the only rookie that broke out without Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, as 2nd round rookie running back Nick Chubb had a strong finish to the season. Chubb averaged 10.8 yards per carry in his first 6 games, but only got 16 carries, despite starter Carlos Hyde averaging just 3.35 yards per carry. A couple weeks before Jackson was let go, the Browns front office literally had to trade Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a late round pick to force Jackson to use Chubb, who was clearly the better back.

Chubb went on to average 4.68 yards per carry on 176 carries in 10 games the rest of the way and was a big part of why this offense was significantly better down the stretch. On the season, he averaged 5.19 yards per carry, with 4.47 yards per carry after contact, and 44 broken tackles on 192 carries. He finished 2nd among qualifying running backs in elusive rating and was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back overall. Still not even 24 until December, Chubb has a very bright future.

The Browns also added running back Kareem Hunt in free agency, one of several key additions. Hunt is suspended for the first 8 games of the season for domestic violence and the Browns are taking a big PR hit by signing him, but there’s no denying his talent, as he’s averaged 4.75 yards per carry on 453 carries since going in the 3rd round in 2017. He and Chubb could have close to an even timeshare in the second half of the season after Hunt’s return and they’d obviously be among the best, if not the best running back duo in the NFL.

Where Hunt will really help this team is in the passing game, as he’s had 79 catches in 27 career games, while Chubb managed just 20 catches in his rookie season and was not a pass catcher in college either. While Hunt is suspended, the passing down role will likely be filled by Duke Johnson, although he has requested a trade, as he knows he’ll have next to no role when Hunt returns. Johnson is owed 2.3 million in 2019, but the Browns are not interested in moving him, as he’ll be needed for the first 8 games of the season and provides valuable depth in case of an injury.

Johnson caught 47 passes in 2018, but he only had 40 carries. That was down from 156 touches (82 catches and 74 passes) in 2017 and Johnson clearly believes he’s deserving of a bigger role. It’s a situation to monitor as the Browns would be forced to turn to 2018 undrafted free agent Dontrell Hilliard (9 career touches) as Chubb’s backup and their primary passing down back for the first 8 games of the season if Johnson is not on the team this season. That’s not something the Browns want to do. It’s one of the problems that comes with having a lot of talent at a position.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Hunt is not the only addition the Browns made to this offense. Their biggest move was sending their first and third round picks along with young starting safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for wide receiver Odell Beckham, who instantly becomes the Browns’ #1 receiver. The Browns paid a steep price to get him, but they’ve drafted 25 times in the first 3 rounds in the past 5 drafts, so they didn’t need more premium draft prospects. Beckham is the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL on a 5-year, 90 million dollar extension, but the Giants already paid 13 million of that in a signing bonus and Baker Mayfield makes 8.15 million annually on his rookie deal at a time when 16 quarterbacks make at least 20 million annually, so the Browns can afford to be more aggressive than other teams to maximize their chances of winning during Mayfield’s rookie contract. Even given the price, adding Beckham is an obvious win for the Browns.

Beckham got a reputation for being a diva with the Giants, but his teammates never had any problems with him. The bigger concern is that he’s missed 21 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league and has only once played all 16 games, but he’s been one of the best wide receivers in the league when healthy, averaging a 106/1485/12 slash line per 16 games. Now he gets an upgrade at quarterback in Baker Mayfield. With Beckham still in the prime of his career for a few more seasons, only going into his age 27 season in 2019, Beckham and Mayfield should put up big numbers for years to come if both can stay healthy.

Jarvis Landry led this team with a 81/976/4 slash line last season, in his first year in Cleveland after coming over from Miami on a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar contract. Landry will take on more of a complimentary role with Beckham coming in, but Landry and Beckham are old friends who won’t have any issue splitting targets with the other and Beckham’s arrival could easily help Landry. Landry was pretty productive last season, but he was utilized much more on deeper routes than he was in his first 4 seasons in Miami, with his average reception depth shooting up from 4.8 yards from scrimmage to 9.5 yards from scrimmage. That’s not where he’s best and he only caught 54.5% of targets thrown his way, significantly down from 70.2% in Miami. With Beckham threatening the defense deep, Landry will be free to dominant in the underneath part of the field. It’ll be very tough for defenses to stop both of them.

The Browns also have emerging young tight end David Njoku as the 3rd option in the passing game. A first round pick in 2017, Njoku flashed in limited action as a rookie, averaging 1.36 yards per route run on 284 routes despite terrible quarterback play. With better quarterback play and a bigger role, he took a step forward in 2018, with a 56/639/4 slash line. Njoku has never been much of a blocker, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily take another step forward as a receiver. He played 79.8% of the Browns’ offensive snaps in 2018 and should see a similar amount with only mediocre veteran blocking tight end Demetrius Harris (57 catches in 71 career games) behind him on the depth chart.

The Browns have better depth at wide receiver, where Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins will compete to be the third receiver behind Beckham and Landry. Higgins was the more effective of the two on a per route run basis in 2018, averaging 1.80 yards per route run, as opposed to 1.20 for Callaway, but Callaway got more playing time (765 snaps vs. 483 snaps) and has a higher upside. Despite falling to the 4th round, Callaway had first round talent and only fell because of off-the-field issues. Higgins, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2016 and hasn’t shown all that much in 3 years in the league. Higgins is good depth to have, but the Browns are likely to give Callaway another shot to play ahead of Higgins again. He’d play outside opposite Beckham in 3 wide receiver sets, with Landry as the slot receiver. If Callaway and Njoku break out, this receiving corps could be unstoppable.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If this offense doesn’t quite perform up to expectations in 2019, the offensive line will likely be the reason why. Left tackle remains a question mark position and the Browns traded their best offensive lineman, right guard Kevin Zeitler, who Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard in 2018. The Browns acquired talented edge defender Olivier Vernon in that trade and the Browns did it knowing they had 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett waiting in the wings, but it’s a big loss for this offensive line.

Corbett was originally drafted to play left tackle, which was his collegiate position, but he lost the starting job before the season started to undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison and played just 14 snaps as a rookie. Now with Zeitler gone, Corbett is moving to guard, which many felt would be his best pro position, but he hasn’t locked down the starting job yet, competing with 2017 undrafted free agent Kyle Kalis, who has played just 150 snaps in his career. Corbett should still ultimately end up starting, but the fact that he hasn’t won the job yet is concerning, considering the Browns got rid of a dominant right guard with the idea of Corbett replacing him and considering he failed to lock down the left tackle job against underwhelming competition last pre-season.

Desmond Harrison started the first 8 games of the season at left tackle, but was very underwhelming and eventually got benched for Greg Robinson, a former #2 overall pick bust that the Browns decided to start instead of Corbett. Robinson wasn’t horrible in 8 starts, but he committed 10 penalties and has 55 penalties in 56 career starts. Still only in his age 27 season with tremendous physical tools, Robinson has theoretical upside, but the Browns brought him back on a one-year deal that pays him 7 million in 2019, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s not worth that if he plays like he has so far in his career and even if he does exceed expectations the Browns will have to pay him even more as a free agent next off-season. It would be one thing if the Browns were able to lock Robinson in for 3 years with 2020 and 2021 essentially being option years, but this one-year deal doesn’t have a whole lot of upside.

Left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, and right tackle Chris Hubbard remain as starters in the other three spots on this offensive line and all three played every single snap in 2019. Bitonio is the best of the bunch, finishing 4th among guards on PFF, his 4th season in the top-19 at his position in 5 seasons in the league. With Zeitler gone, he’s now the Browns best offensive lineman and should have another strong season in his age 28 season in 2019.

Tretter and Hubbard also earned average or better grades from PFF. Tretter was signed to a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago, while Hubbard was signed to a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Neither was more than a spot starter before the Browns signed them, but they showed potential in limited action and have translated to larger roles in Cleveland. Tretter has been PFF’s 15th and 7th ranked center the past two seasons respectively and, while Hubbard hasn’t been quite as good, he still earned an average grade from PFF in 2018. This offensive line isn’t bad, but they have some question marks up front and they will miss former right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Browns also added some key pieces on defense this off-season, to shore up a unit that finished 18th in first down rate allowed. One of those key additions is defensive end Olivier Vernon, who comes over from New York in the Kevin Zeitler trade. Vernon gives them a big upgrade over Emmanuel Ogbah, who started at defensive end last season and finished 90th out of 113 qualifying edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. Vernon has finished in the top-32 among edge defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons, with 36 sacks, 79 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate across those 5 seasons. Vernon finished last season 14th at his position and had 7 sacks, 14 hits, and 25 hurries on 414 pass rush snaps (11.1%). Still only in his age 29 season, Vernon should have a comparable year again in 2019.

Myles Garrett remains as the opposite starter. The first overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett flashed a ton of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 25th ranked edge defender and totaling 7 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 300 pass rush snaps (12.3% pressure rate) in just 11 games, missing 5 with injury. In 2018, he played all 16 games and took his game to the next level, finishing as PFF”s 13th ranked edge defender and totaling 13.5 sacks, 17 hits, and 36 hurries on 599 pass rush snaps (11.1% pressure rate), despite rarely coming off the field (85.9% of defensive snaps). Not even 24 until December, Garrett could still just be scratching the surface on his upside. He could easily be one of the top defensive players in the league for years to come.

Emmanuel Ogbah was traded this off-season to the Chiefs for reserve safety and special teamer Eric Murray, so Genard Avery will remain in the #3 edge defender role. Avery is undersized at 6-0 248, but he plays outside linebacker in base packages and showed a lot of promise as a pass rusher as a rookie, totalling 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and 29 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps (11.3% pressure rate), despite being just a 5th round rookie. He struggles mightily in coverage and doesn’t hold up well in the run game, but he still has value as a situational edge rusher. He could easily have a similar performance in 2019.

Chris Smith could also be in the mix at defensive end, but he played 52.1% of his snaps on the interior last season. The 6-1 270 hybrid defensive lineman didn’t play much in either spot, totalling 336 snaps on the season. Smith has been in the league for 5 years, but hasn’t topped 401 snaps or earned an above average grade from PFF in a season and I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2019. He’s not a lock for the final roster at a 3.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. He’s buried on the depth chart behind a talented trio of edge defenders.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

The Browns also made a key addition at defensive tackle this off-season, signing Sheldon Richardson to a 3-year, 37 million dollar deal in free agency. He is a much needed upgrade over Trevon Coley, who has finished 105th out of 133 qualifying interior defenders and 126th out of 129 qualifying interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in the past 2 seasons respectively on an average of 635 snaps per season. Richardson has bounced around the league a little bit, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and he’s an above average starter who can play every down. He’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-24 at his position. He should continue his above average play in 2019.

Richardson will start next to Larry Ogunjobi, who played 78.9% of the snaps in 2018. He wasn’t bad, but he’d likely benefit from more breathers to keep him fresh. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Ogunjobi has proven himself to be a strong run stuffer, doesn’t consistently get to the quarterback, with 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 29 hurries on 703 pass rush snaps in his career (6.8% pressure rate). Giving him some snaps off in sub packages would benefit him and this team, but there’s also a chance he takes a step forward in his 3rd season in the league.

Unfortunately, the Browns still don’t have much depth at the defensive tackle position. Chris Smith will play inside on some passing downs, but Coley is still their primary reserve. He could be better in a smaller role than he was as a starter, but the 2016 undrafted free agent has struggled throughout his career and is a bottom of the roster talent. The Browns were in the hunt for veteran cap casualty Gerald McCoy, but he ended up signing Carolina. He would have done a lot to help at a position where the Browns lack depth and an impact interior rusher.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As mentioned, Genard Avery also plays some linebacker for the Browns. He’ll face competition for his base package outside linebacker role. The Browns signed ex-Buccaneer Adarius Taylor in free agency. The career special teamer struggled mightily when forced into the first significant action of his career on defense in 2018, finishing as Pro Football Focus 94th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying on 634 snaps, but his salary (2 years, 5 million) suggests he’ll play a role on defense. Already going into his age 29 season, he’s unlikely to noticeably improve. Third round rookie Sione Takitaki and fifth round rookie Mack Wilson could also be in the mix for the 3rd linebacker job.

Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are the nickel linebackers, staying on the field even when the 3rd linebacker comes off the field for a 5th defensive back. Schobert has some issues against the run, especially when it comes to missing tackles, but he’s one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. He was PFF’s 2nd ranked off ball linebacker in coverage grade in 2018, behind only Bobby Wagner, and allowed just 0.42 yards per coverage snap, best among qualifying off ball linebackers. Despite missing 24 tackles, most among off ball linebackers, he was still PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker overall because of his dominance in coverage.

Schobert’s absence was definitely noticed when he missed three and a half games with injury last year, as the Browns had a 34.24% first down rate allowed in his 12 healthy games and a 46.69% first down rate allowed in their other 4 games. The 2016 4th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he did last season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued playing well. Having him for all 16 games would be a boost for this defense, as he’s by far their best coverage linebacker.

The Browns are also hoping for better health from outside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was limited to 474 snaps in 7 games in an injury plagued 2018. Kirksey isn’t the coverage athlete that Schobert is, but he’s a solid starter who earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, while playing all 64 games (43 starts), prior to last year’s injury plagued year. Cap casualty Jamie Collins, a useful player who wasn’t worth his 10.5 million dollar salary, isn’t around as insurance anymore, so the Browns will need better health out of their linebackers in 2019.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Browns didn’t have a first round pick because of the Odell Beckham trade, but they still might have added a first round talent through the draft, as expected first round pick Greedy Williams fell to pick 46 in the 2nd round, where the Browns traded up to select him. In terms of coverage ability, Williams is a top-5 talent, but teams were concerned about his toughness, tackling ability, and coachability. He has the physical tools to prove to be a steal, but is a bit of a boom or bust prospect. The Browns got a great outcome when they surprisingly used the 4th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Denzel Ward, who was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback as a rookie. They are hoping Williams can be a long-term complement and be part of one of the better cornerback duos in the league for years to come.

For now, Williams will compete with veterans TJ Carrie and Terrance Mitchell for roles behind Ward. Carrie was signed to a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, while starting 44 of 76 games. He’s at his best on the slot, so he should at least be their primary slot cornerback. Mitchell is experienced as well, starting 16 games in the past 2 seasons, but he’s only been a middling corner. The Browns are probably hoping Mitchell winds up as the 4th cornerback and that Williams can at least lock down a job in 3-cornerback sets.

At safety, the Browns lost Jabrill Peppers, PFF’s 23rd ranked safety in 2018, in the Odell Beckham trade and replaced him with veteran free agent Morgan Burnett. Burnett is a hybrid safety/linebacker that will play as a box safety in Cleveland. He was underutilized in Pittsburgh last season (390 snaps), which led to his release just one year and 5.25 million into a 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal, but he made 98 starts in 7 seasons in Green Bay from 2011 to 2017 and earned above average grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2014-2017. His age is a concern, going into his age 30 season, and he has durability issues, missing 19 games in the past 6 seasons and not playing all 16 games since 2012, but he could prove to be a value on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal.

With Burnett playing as a box safety, Damarious Randall will remain as the deep safety. A 2015 first round pick, Randall was underwhelming in 3 seasons in Green Bay, but the Browns traded for him last off-season and converted him into a safety, which led to him having a mini breakout season, finishing 34th among safeties on PFF. He’s a one-year wonder, but could easily prove to be a late bloomer now that he’s at a position where he is a better fit. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he is a candidate for a long-term extension before the season starts. Randall is worth a significant amount of money, but wouldn’t break the bank and any long-term extension he signs would likely lower his 9.069 million dollar cap hit for 2019.

The Browns also have Eric Murray, acquired from the Chiefs from Emmanuel Ogbah, as a 3rd safety. The 2016 4th round pick has made 11 starts the past two seasons, but hasn’t performed well and was benched down the stretch last season in Kansas City. He’ll primarily play a special teams role, but the Browns could also use some 3 safety looks with Burnett playing as a linebacker or Randall playing as a cornerback, depending on the matchup. Fourth round rookie Sheldrick Redwine could also play himself into a situational role down the stretch. This is a solid secondary with decent depth.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Browns have done a great job turning over their roster since their 2017 season and have a good mix of cheap young talent and talented veterans on big contracts. In particular, the additions of wide receiver Odell Beckham and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this off-season are both significant upgrades at their respective positions. Much of how far this team goes is dependant on Baker Mayfield. If he continues to play like he did down the stretch last season, this team is a legitimate contender. If he has some growing pains in his 2nd season in the league, this is still a team that will contend for the division title, but they might be a year early as a true Super Bowl contender. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Team Score: 75.84

Offensive Score: 76.89

Defensive Score: 74.78

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Philadelphia Eagles 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2017 Eagles won the Super Bowl, despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz for the season with a torn ACL, along with other key players like linebacker Jordan Hicks and offensive tackle Jason Peters. The 2018 Eagles dealt with a different level of injuries though and barely made the playoffs at 9-7 as a result. While the Eagles lost several notable players for the season in 2017, they still ranked just 13th in the league with 53.5 adjusted games lost to injury. In 2018, they had the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury, more than doubling their 2017 total with 118.5 adjusted games lost to injury. They fell from 8th in first down rate, 3rd in first down rate allowed, and 5th in first down rate differential in 2017 to 13th, 8th, and 8th respectively in 2018.

Wentz dealt with injuries again, missing the first two games of the season rehabbing from the torn ACL and then missing the final 3 games of the season and playoffs with a back injury, but the Eagles weren’t really much worse with backup Nick Foles in the lineup. In Wentz’s 11 starts, the Eagles had a first down rate of 37.95%, as opposed to 36.04% in 7 starts with Foles under center. Wentz did not look healthy all season, dealing with knee and back issues, while Foles once again proved himself as the most valuable backup quarterback in the league.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, Foles was able to cash in on his value as an unrestricted free agent this off-season, signing a 4-year, 88 million dollar deal to be the starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wentz will need to stay healthy in 2019, as they almost definitely will be much worse with Wentz out of the lineup this time around. The Eagles have 2016 undrafted free agent Nate Sudfeld (25 career pass attempts), ex-Browns and Jaguars starter Cody Kessler (6.35 yards per attempt in 12 career starts), and 5th round rookie Clayton Thorson competing for the backup job. Sudfeld is a favorite of the coaching staff and is experienced in the system, while Kessler has starting experience, so they’re probably the two favorites for the job, with Thorson being more of a developmental prospect.

Whoever wins the backup job, Wentz needs to be in top form in 2019 for the Eagles to get back into Super Bowl contention. Wentz was an MVP candidate in 2017 before the injury and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, but he fell to 14th in 2018 in a season in which he never looked quite right. He’s developing a concerning injury history, especially with how physically he plays the game, but the 2016 2nd overall pick still has the upside to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he should have a strong 4th season in the league in 2019.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another key injury for the Eagles was the torn ACL that ended running back Jay Ajayi’s season after 4 games. In his absence, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement all had underwhelming and short lived runs as the lead back and the Eagles finished just 30th in the NFL in yards with carry with 3.94. Ajayi is still unsigned as a free agent as he rehabs from his injury, but the Eagles seem to have moved on, trading for ex-Bears starter Jordan Howard and using a 2nd round pick on Penn State’s Miles Sanders.

As the veteran, Howard will likely get the first crack at the lead back job. Howard had an impressive rookie year in 2016, averaging 5.21 yards per carry on 252 carries, but he dropped to 4.07 yards per carry in 2017 and 3.75 yards per carry in 2018. He’s proven he can carry a load, with 200+ carries in 3 straight seasons, and he’s worth a shot at the price of a 2020 6th round pick and a 2.025 million dollar salary. Perhaps he can find his early career form again in 2019.

Miles Sanders was added through the draft as insurance. Sanders was only a one year starter at Penn State, barely playing behind Saquon Barkley early in his career, but he averaged 5.79 yards per carry and scored 9 times on 220 carries in that one season and the fact that he comes into the NFL without a lot of tread on his tires might be a good thing. With Howard heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Sanders looks likely to be the feature starter and he figures to at least have a passing down role as a rookie. Howard has averaged just 24 catches per season in 3 seasons in the league, while Sanders showed promise as a passing down back on tape at Penn State. With a pair of new additions at running back, the Eagles should run the ball better in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Eagles also made additions to their receiving corps this off-season. With only two wide receivers topping 300 yards receiving 2018, the Eagles traded for veteran DeSean Jackson from Tampa Bay and used a 2nd round pick on Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Whiteside figures to be the 4th receiver and was drafted more as a long-term replacement for contract year wide receiver Nelson Agholor than as an immediate contributor, but DeSean Jackson looks likely to start with Agholor and Alshon Jeffery in 3 wide receiver sets.

Alshon Jeffery is likely to remain the #1 wide receiver, after posting a 65/843/6 slash line in 13 games in 2018. He’s averaged a 67/969/6 slash line over the past 6 seasons and, though he hasn’t topped 1000 yards since 2014, he’s still in his age 29 season and should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. Jeffery has been Carson Wentz’s favorite wide receiver target when both have been on the field together, but DeSean Jackson could challenge him for that in 2019.

Jackson is going into his age 33 season and has had injury problems, missing 14 games in the past 5 seasons, but he’s topped 1000 yards in his last 2 seasons with at least 15 games (2014 and 2016) and he was on a 1000+ yard pace last season through 12 games (41/774/4 slash line) before getting injured. He’ll probably miss a couple games again in 2019, but as long as his abilities don’t fall off a cliff he should be a valuable deep threat for this offense. His 17.7 yard per catch average is highest over the past 10 seasons among all pass catchers with at least 100 receptions over that time period.

Nelson Agholor will also have a role as the #3 wide receiver, lining up primarily on the slot. The 2015 1st round pick has shed the bust label, after his career started with just 59 catches in 2 seasons in the league, but his 62/768/8 and 64/736/4 slash lines from the past two seasons are underwhelming for a former first round pick. He’ll struggled to post big numbers in a crowded receiving corps in 2019 and he could be traded if they get a good offer or if Arcega-Whiteside has a strong off-season. His salary (9.387 million) is cost prohibitive for a 3rd receiver and he’s in the final year of his contract.

The Eagles’ tight ends will also be heavily involved in this passing game. Zach Ertz is coming off of a career best 116/1163/8 slash line and though he’s unlikely to match those totals in a more crowded receiving corps, he’s topped at least 700 yards receiving in 5 straight seasons and has been a top-8 overall tight end on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons in the league. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Ertz could easily be the Eagles’ top target again in 2018, but the 156 targets (6th in the NFL) he had in 2018 seems unlikely.

#2 tight end Dallas Goedert will also have a role. He showed a lot of promise as a 2nd round rookie in 2018, posting a 33/334/4 slash line on 44 targets, blocking well, and overall finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end on 523 snaps. It’s hard to see how his role could grow much in 2019 without an injury to Ertz, but he’s arguably the best #2 tight end in the league. This is a very deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Not much has changed for the Eagles on the offensive line, as they bring back everyone who made a start for them on the offensive line in 2018. Guard is the only position of uncertainty. At left guard, Stefen Wisniewski (7 starts in 2018) and Isaac Seumalo (9 starts in 2018) will compete for the starting job, while right guard Brandon Brooks is questionable for the start of the season after tearing his achilles in January during the playoffs.

Wisniewski is by far the more experienced of the two competing at left guard, with 101 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he struggled last season and is now going into his age 30 season. The Eagles released him this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary and brought him back for 1.5 million, suggesting they don’t view him as a starter. Seumalo, meanwhile, has just 15 career starts since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, but he outperformed Wisniewski in 2018, earning an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 548 snaps.

If Brooks isn’t ready for the start of the season, it’s very possible Wisniewski and Seumalo could both start week 1, as the Eagles lack a proven backup right guard. Brooks had made 90 starts in the past 6 seasons and has finished in the top-11 among guards on PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons, so the Eagles are obviously hoping he can make it back to full strength by week 1, but that could be tough less than 8 months removed from an injury that can sometimes take a year to recover from fully. He’s also in his age 30 season now, so his best days might be behind him.

The Eagles did draft an offensive lineman in the first round, trading up to take Washington State’s Andre Dillard 22nd overall, but he’s expected to be the swing tackle as a rookie. With left tackle Jason Peters going into an age 37 contract year and dealing with several nagging injuries last season, Dillard’s time will come sooner or later, but the Eagles are hoping that Peters can hold down the fort on the blindside again in 2019. He’s made 182 starts in 15 seasons in the league and was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle as recently in 2016, but he was noticeably worse in 2018, after missing most of 2017 with a torn ACL.

Lane Johnson remains as the starter on the other side at right tackle. He’s made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and should continue playing at a high level in his age 29 season in 2019. He’s finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th. He was originally drafted 4th overall in 2013 to eventually take over for Peters on the left side, but Peters has played longer than expected and the addition of Dillard in the first round suggests they plan on keeping Johnson at right tackle where he’s most comfortable long-term. That’s probably a smart move as moving him to left tackle when Peters is gone is a move that risks downgrading both left and right tackle.

Center Jason Kelce rounds out this line. He’s also coming off of a strong year, finishing #1 among centers on PFF and making all 16 starts. That’s pretty impressive, considering he was dealing with knee, elbow, and foot injuries for most of the second half of the season. Kelce hasn’t missed a game since 2014 and has finished in the top-5 of centers on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, but he’s going into his age 32 season, so he may start to decline and suffer more injuries going forward. Even if that happens, he’ll still be one of the better centers in the league. This should remain one of the top offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Eagles also have one of the top defensive lines in the league. Veteran defensive ends Michael Bennett (716 snaps) and Chris Long (612 snaps) are no longer with the team, with the former getting sent to New England in a salary dump and the latter opting to retire at age 34, but this is still a deep defensive line. They get defensive end Derek Barnett and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan back from injury and they added defensive end Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Malik Jackson in free agency.

One player many thought the Eagles would lose this off-season was Brandon Graham, but the Eagles got creative, letting other players go and structuring Graham’s 3-year, 40 million dollar deal as a 5-year deal with automatically voiding years to limit his cap hit to 3.5 million in 2019. That cap hit jumps to 13.375 million in 2020 and 16.375 million in 2021 and he’ll have cap hits of 3.375 million in 2022 and 2023 even if he isn’t on the roster anymore, a risky deal for a player going into his age 31 season, but Graham is still playing at a high level and would have been a big loss on this defensive line.

Graham has never had a double digit sack season and has just 39.5 sacks in 7 seasons since 2012, but he gets to the quarterback more than his sack totals suggest, adding 61 hits and 393 hurries on 2,552 pass rush snaps (15.4% pressure rate) over those 7 seasons, and he plays at a high level against the run. Even getting up there in age, Graham was still Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked edge defender in 2018 and even if he starts to decline he should still play at a high level again in 2019.

Coming off of a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the final 10 games and playoffs in 2018, Derek Barnett is expected to be the other starting defensive end opposite Graham. After playing just 33.7 snaps per game as a rookie, the 2017 1st round pick started all 6 games he played in 2018 and averaged 39.0 snaps per game, which is 624 snaps over a 16 game season. If he stays healthy in 2019, he could easily see a snap total similar to or higher than that. Still only in his age 23 season, Barnett has shown a lot of promise thus far in 2 seasons in the league and could easily have a breakout 3rd season.

Free agent addition Vinny Curry will probably be the top reserve and have a significant rotational role. It’s a homecoming for Curry, who spent the first 7 seasons of his career in Philadelphia, before going to Tampa Bay on a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal last off-season. Curry struggled in Tampa Bay, leading to him getting released after just 1 year and 6.5 million, but he could prove to be a steal for the Eagles on a 1-year deal worth just 2.25 million. Curry’s age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he has a career 12.2% pressure rate and even in his 3-sack 2017 season he added 17 hits and 27 hurries on 367 pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.8% pressure rate. He was PFF’s 91st ranked edge defender out of 113 qualifying in 2018, but could easily bounce back in a rotational role in 2019.

The Eagles also have high upside reserves in Josh Sweat and Shareef Miller, who were 4th round picks in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Sweat played just 68 snaps as a rookie, so neither has much experience, but there’s opportunity for at least one of them to play a significant role, given how much the Eagles like rotating defensive linemen. This looks like a very deep group, even with Michael Bennett and Chris Long both gone.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Eagles were not nearly as deep at defensive tackle as they were at defensive end last season, with Haloti Ngata, Treyvon Hester, and Destiny Vaeao all forced into playing more than the Eagles would have liked because expected starter Timmy Jernigan missed all but 45 snaps with a back injury. Jernigan’s injury problems led to the Eagles releasing Jernigan just 1 year and 13 million into a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension, but the Eagles eventually brought him back on a one-year deal at a much cheaper salary (11 million vs. 2 million) and if he’s healthy he should compete for a starting role. Prior to his injury plagued 2018 season, Jernigan earned average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons in the league on an average of 491 snaps per season. Only in his age 27 season, Jernigan has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Jernigan will compete for snaps with free agent acquisition Malik Jackson, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Jackson was once one of the better interior defensive linemen in the league, finishing in the top-32 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons through 2017 and earning a 6-year, 85.5 million dollar deal from the Jaguars three off-seasons ago, but he had just an average season in 2018 and was released by the cap strapped Jaguars ahead of a 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

Jackson is only going into his age 29 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back in 2019 and could be a good value for the Eagles at a cheaper rate. Even in his down 2018 season, he was still an effective pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 38 hurries on 413 pass rush snaps (12.2% pressure rate). Rushing the passer will likely be his primary role with the Eagles, as Jernigan is a better run stuffer than pass rusher. Both players are capable of playing every down though and regardless of who ends up starting both should see a significant role.

As much as the Eagles like rotating their defensive linemen, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is a true every down player because he’s just too good to take off the field. He played 79.8% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in 2018 (51.9 snaps per game). With more talent at the position, the Eagles may scale his snaps back closer to the 46.0 snaps per game he averaged from 2016-2017, but he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the entire league and he’s shown he can hold up on a huge snap count, so he won’t be getting too many breathers.

Cox has finished in the top-7 among interior defenders on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons and is coming off of a dominant 2018 season in which he was arguably the best defensive lineman in the league other than Aaron Donald. He had 10.5 sacks, 24 hits, and 60 hurries on 598 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 15.8% pressure rate that only trailed Aaron Donald (18.2%) among interior defenders. Still only in his age 29 season with just 3 games missed to injury in his 8-year career, I see no reason to expect a drop off from him in 2019. He’ll have a lot more help inside this year too.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Eagles’ biggest off-season loss was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked off ball linebacker in 2018. Hicks was one of many Eagles to miss time with injury last season, missing 4 games with a calf injury, and he’s missed a total of 21 games in 4 seasons in the league, so the cap strapped Eagles let him sign with the Cardinals on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. His likely replacement will be ex-Redskin Zach Brown, who comes over on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal.

At that price, Brown could prove to be a steal, given his run stopping ability (6th among off ball linebackers on PFF in run stopping grade in 2018 and 13th in 2017), but he’s not nearly the same player Hicks is in coverage and would be best as a pure base package player, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. His main competition will be fellow free agent signing LJ Fort, who comes from Pittsburgh on a 3-year, 5.5 million dollar deal. Fort was primarily a special teams player before 2018, when he was forced into action on defense and flashed on a career high 305 snaps. Fort is already in his age 29 season, but could prove to be a late bloomer. He could also struggle in a larger role and the 2012 undrafted free agent is highly unproven, but his contract suggests he’ll compete for a role on defense.

Fort could also see action at one of the outside linebacker spots in base packages. Kamu Grugier-Hill played that base package linebacker role last season (330 snaps) and the 2016 6th round pick played well enough in the first significant action of his career in 2018 that he could easily keep that job in 2019. Nathan Gerry, a 2017 5th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s played just 157 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster.

Nigel Bradham remains as an every down player, after playing 920 snaps in 15 games last season. Bradham has earned average or better grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons (46 starts) and is equally good against the run as he is in coverage. Even going into his age 30 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being a useful every down outside linebacker for at least another couple seasons. He’s now their top linebacker without Jordan Hicks, whose absence will be felt.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The group on this team that was hit hardest by injury in 2018 was the secondary, especially at cornerback. The Eagles had 6 players that played more than 321 snaps at cornerback, but none of them played more than 543 snaps and only Rasul Douglas, who began the season 5th on the depth chart, played more than 10 games. Ronald Darby was their top cornerback, but he tore his ACL and missed the final 7 games of the regular season and the post-season. The one good thing about that for the Eagles is that Darby’s injury limited his market in free agency, which allowed them to keep him on a relatively inexpensive one-year, 6.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season.

Darby should be back for week 1 and could cash in on a multi-year deal as a free agent next off-season if he continues playing like he has when healthy. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best seasons coming in 2015 (13th among cornerbacks on PFF) and 2017 (17th), but he’s also missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. He’ll probably give them more in 2019 than he did 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Despite starting the season 5th on the depth chart, Rasul Douglas finished with the 2nd highest PFF grade by an Eagles cornerback in 2018. Douglas has played just 967 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s played pretty well and the 2017 3rd round pick has plenty of upside. He’ll compete for a role outside and could have a breakout 3rd season in the league if he can lock down a starting role. Douglas will have plenty of competition for a starting role though, with his biggest competition being Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox.

Mills made 24 straight starts outside before missing the final 8 games of last season with a foot injury and was a capable starter in 2017, but he struggled in 2018 before going down and also had a terrible rookie season in 2016. This defense was better down the stretch with Douglas starting over Mills, so the Eagles might opt to keep Douglas as a starter ahead of Mills. Maddox also played pretty well down the stretch at cornerback, after the 2018 4th round pick struggled out of position at safety earlier in the season. Maddox has the versatility to play the slot as well, so he’ll probably have a role on this defense even if he doesn’t win the starting outside cornerback job.

Sidney Jones is also in the mix to be the slot cornerback. Jones likely would have been a top-15 pick in 2017 if he didn’t tear his achilles in the pre-draft process and the Eagles took him 43rd overall hoping to get a steal if he could get healthy and stay healthy. That hasn’t been the case thus far. He was limited to just 43 snaps as a rookie, which was predictable given the achilles tear, but the Eagles had high expectations for him in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and he disappointed.

Jones dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season, playing 321 snaps in 9 games and finishing as PFF’s 127th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones still has upside if he can stay healthy and he can play outside in addition to the slot, but, given the Eagles’ depth at the cornerback position, he’ll likely need a strong off-season to get back into the good graces of the coaching staff. Cre’Von LeBlanc is also in the mix for the slot job after he flashed on 352 snaps in that role down the stretch last season, but the 2016 undrafted free agent and career journeyman isn’t a lock for the final roster in a deep group.

Safety is a deep group too. The Eagles had depth problems at safety in 2018 when Rodney McLeod and replacement Corey Graham missed 13 games and 3 games to injury respectively, but McLeod is expected to return healthy for 2019 and will return to his starting role opposite Malcolm Jenkins and the Eagles added veteran Andrew Sendejo in free agency to be an upgrade over Graham as the 3rd safety. Sendejo has been a capable starter in recent years, making 58 starts in the past 6 seasons, so he’s good insurance to have. The Eagles could also use 3 safeties frequently in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Both Sendejo and Malcolm Jenkins have experience lining up in the linebacker spot in obvious passing situations.

The only concern with Sendejo is his age (going into his age 32 season) and his injury history (19 games missed in the past 4 seasons). Otherwise, he should be an excellent addition as the 3rd safety on 1-year, 1.3 million dollar deal. Jenkins is also getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season as well, but he’s been very durable in recent years, not missing a game in 5 seasons. He’s also finished in the top-28 among safeties on PFF in all 5 of those seasons, so even if he starts to decline in 2019 he should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the very least.

With Jenkins and Sendejo working closer to the line of scrimmage, McLeod will reprise his role as the deep safety, after a knee injury cost him the final 13 games of the 2018 season. McLeod earned above average grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last year’s injury and he’s still only in his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if healthy. As long as this secondary stays healthier than they did in 2018, which they should be able to do by default, this is a deep group with a lot of upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles’ chances to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2018 were derailed by injury, but this is still one of the strongest rosters in the NFL and has a lot of the same starters and key contributors as their Super Bowl team in 2017. If we assume an average amount of injuries for them in 2019, they should be right back in contention, although that obviously assumes those injuries don’t knock out key players like quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles have gone on playoff runs without Wentz in the past two seasons, but backup quarterback Nick Foles is now in Jacksonville and any of his potential replacements would be a steep downgrade from Wentz if forced into action. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Team Score: 77.15*

Offensive Score: 78.37

Defensive Score: 75.92

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Dallas Cowboys 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Dak Prescott’s 2018 season got off to an underwhelming start, as he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his first 7 games, but that changed quickly when the Cowboys acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Raiders for a 1st round pick during their week 8 bye. Prescott finished the regular season by completing 71.3% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his final 9 games. Cooper’s impact on the offense as a whole wasn’t as significant, as they improved from a 33.81% first down rate (25th in the NFL over the full season) to a 35.73% first down rate (17th), but there’s no denying he made an impact on this offense, giving Dak Prescott a much needed #1 receiver.

The Cowboys also had a much better record with Cooper, going 7-2 after a 3-4 start to make a surprise trip to the playoffs, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested. They won just one game by more than a touchdown all year (9-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less) and had just a -2 point differential in the 9 games that Cooper played (+17 in their other 7 games). That’s largely because the defense did not play as well down the stretch (more on that later), which cancelled out the added boost the offense got from Amari Cooper.

Cooper is going into the final year of his rookie deal (more on that later as well), but so is Dak Prescott and his extension seems to be a priority at the moment. They are fully expected to come to terms with him on a deal that pays him among the top quarterbacks in the league (27 million to 35 million annually range), a steep pay increase for a former 4th round pick who has made 2.748 million in 3 seasons in the league and who is owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. Prescott hasn’t always played like a top level quarterback, but the Cowboys don’t have much of a choice but to pay him near the top of the market to keep him. He would get top quarterback money on the open market and it would be very tough to replace him, with only inexperienced former undrafted free agent Cooper Rush (3 career attempts) behind him on the depth chart.

Prescott’s best season is still his rookie season, when he had a 104.9 QB rating, rushed for 282 yards and 6 touchdowns, and finished 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That’s also the season in which he had the lowest usage rate of his career (541 combined attempts, sacks, and carries, 53.6%) and the most talent around him. In 2 seasons since, with a 61.0% usage rate and less talent around him, he’s had a 91.9 QB rating and has finished 18th and 19th among quarterbacks on PFF. That’s not bad and the addition of Amari Cooper helps, but he’s not necessarily someone who makes the players around him look better than they are. Still, as young (age 26 in 2019), experienced (48 of 48 career starts), and productive (96.0 career QB rating) as he is, the Cowboys will undoubtedly lock him up on a huge long-term contract.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Amari Cooper’s contract situation is a little bit more complicated. Because the Cowboys traded a first round pick for him last year, Cooper can demand a huge extension from the Cowboys, who he knows values him very highly. Cooper has been inconsistent in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s already set to make 13.924 million on his 5th year option this off-season and could push to be the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL (18 million annually) on a long-term extension. The Cowboys don’t seem ready to pay him that kind of money just yet and reports suggest they aren’t close, but ultimately it would be surprising to see the Cowboys let Cooper walk. Even with some other big contracts on the books, the Cowboys have the cap space to keep both Prescott and Cooper. At the very least, if the Cowboys lock up Prescott long-term, they can franchise tag Cooper next off-season.

Cooper had a 53/725/6 slash line in 9 games in Dallas last season and the 2015 4th overall pick started his career with back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons, but he dropped to 48/680/7 in 2017 and had just a 22/280/1 slash line through 6 games in 2018 before his trade to Dallas. He has also been highly inconsistent, with 10 games over 100 yards in the past 3 seasons, but also 21 games under 40 yards. Cooper is only going into his age 25 season and has a ton of talent, but he doesn’t always play up to his abilities and can be a lackadaisical route runner. He does seem to have great chemistry with Prescott though and could easily top 1000 yards as the clear #1 option in 2019.

Another reason why the Cowboys are unlikely to let Cooper leave is because they lack a clear #2 target behind him. Even in just 9 games, Cooper led this team in receiving with 725 yards, followed by free agent departure Cole Beasley (672 yards), and running back Ezekiel Elliott (567 yards). Michael Gallup was 4th on the team with 507 yards and he’ll compete with veteran Allen Hurns and free agent acquisition Randall Cobb for roles behind Cooper. Gallup was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and the Cowboys will likely give him a chance to take a step forward as the starting outside receiver opposite Cooper, but he’ll have to earn his job in training camp, with Hurns being his primary competition for snaps outside.

Randall Cobb is likely a replacement for Cole Beasley on the slot and should play a similar role (44.5 snaps per game in 2017, 89.3% of which came on the slot). Cobb was at one point arguably the best slot receiver in the league, putting up a 91/1287/12 slash line in 2014, but injuries seem to have sapped his abilities. He’s missed 11 games in the past 4 seasons, has been limited in countless others, and has averaged just 46.7 yards per game over those 4 seasons, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers under center. Last season was his worst season, as he managed just a 38/383/2 slash line in 9 games.

Cobb is actually a year younger than Beasley, in his age 29 season, but he’s not nearly as durable and will likely struggle to match Beasley’s 65/672/3 slash line from 2018. Beasley’s most valuable skill was his chemistry with Prescott and his ability to get open on 3rd and 4th downs, which is when he made 39.2% of his catches over the past 3 seasons. It’s unclear if Cobb will have that same chemistry with Prescott in key spots.

Allen Hurns will likely enter the season as the 4th receiver, but his versatility as an outside receiver and a slot receiver should allow him to have a decent role as a rotational player in an unsettled receiving corps. The Cowboys could have declined his 5 million dollar option for 2019, but they didn’t, suggesting they expect him to play at least somewhat. He’s coming off a brutal leg injury suffered in the post-season and a 2018 season in which he had just a 20/295/2 slash line on 451 snaps in 16 games and he hasn’t topped 500 yards since randomly topping 1000 yards in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but he’s a decent rotational player with the upside to be more, still in his age 28 season. He’s unlikely to be the true #2 receiver they need opposite Cooper though, so the Cowboys could really use a breakout year from Gallup.

The Cowboys don’t have a obvious 2nd pass catching option at tight end either. In fact, the Cowboys were so thin at tight end that Jason Witten, who is going into his age 37 season and spent last season in the Monday Night Football booth, instantly became their top tight end when he unretired this off-season. The Cowboys had just 68 catches total from tight ends in 2018 and 26 of those catches went out the door when Geoff Swaim, who started all 9 games he played in 2018, signed with the Jaguars in free agency. With the Cowboys not making another addition at the position, Witten is the clear #1 tight end.

In Witten’s last action in 2017, he was a useful blocker who added 63 catches, but he looked like he was running in slow motion, only averaging 8.9 yards per catch and 1.5 yards per catch after catch (worst among qualifying tight ends). Two years later, after a year out of the game, Witten is unlikely to be any faster, so he’ll remain a catch and fall down guy in the receiving game at the most. He’s also highly unlikely to average the 65.5 snaps per game he played in 2017, most in the NFL among tight ends. Witten brings veteran leadership and a reliable set of hands, but his re-addition doesn’t really move the needle at the tight end position.

Blake Jarwin led the team with 27 catches by a tight end and will likely continue seeing passing down snaps in a rotational role. The 2017 undrafted free agent didn’t catch a pass as a rookie and only had 4 catches through the first 9 games of last season, but he took on a bigger role with Geoff Swaim injured and finished the season with 23 catches for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games. 2018 4th round pick Dalton Schultz will also continue having a role as a blocking tight end in on run plays. He had just 12 catches as a rookie and is unlikely to ever develop into an above average receiver, but the he is fundamentally sound as a blocker and could continue improving in that aspect in 2019. Outside of Amari Cooper, the rest of this receiving corps is a question mark.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With only one legitimate receiving threat, the Cowboys figure to continue running the offense heavily through feature back Ezekiel Elliott, who is a threat both on the ground and through the air. Elliott had just 58 catches in his first 2 seasons in the league, but added a new element to his game in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, leading the team with 77 catches. Combined with his league leading 304 carries, Elliott is as active as any running back in the league. He has averaged 25.1 touches per game in his 3 year career.

Despite that, he has never missed a game due to injury and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per catch. He can break big plays, but also consistently keeps this offense on schedule, topping 50% carry success rate in all 3 seasons in the league and finishing 2nd in that metric in both 2016 and 2017. Still only going into his age 24 season, Elliott has the potential to be one of the top few running backs in the league for a long time.

Like Prescott and Cooper, Elliott is eligible for an extension with a big pay raise. Elliott has two years left on his rookie year, so his contract situation isn’t as pressing, but he’ll get a big raise in 2020 either way, set to make 9.099 million in his 5th year rookie option, which would give him the 4th highest running back cap hit for the 2020 season. The Cowboys are reportedly working on an extension that would make him the highest paid running back in the league (upwards of 14.5 million annually).

One thing that could complicate all this that Elliott could potentially be suspended for pushing a security guard in Las Vegas earlier this off-season. The incident was minor and Elliott was not charged, but Elliott was suspended for 6 games in 2017 for domestic violence accusations, a controversial decision that was appealed to federal court before it was ultimately served. Elliott reportedly may have violated the terms of that suspension and could be re-suspended.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t suspended because the incident was so minor, but, given the NFL’s history of dealing with situations like this, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Elliott ended up getting suspended for even longer than last time, if this technically constitutes a violation of previous suspension terms. This is a situation to monitor, especially since the Cowboys would almost definitely pursue legal action against the league if Elliott were to get suspended for a significant period of time again.

Needless to say, Elliott’s absence would be a huge loss for this team. Given that Elliott rarely comes off the field, the Cowboys haven’t invested at the backup running back position. Last year’s top backup Rod Smith played just 6.9 snaps per game in that role and is no longer with the team. He’ll likely be replaced by 4th round rookie Tony Pollard. 7th round rookie Mike Weber and 2016 6th round pick Darius Jackson (6 career carries) would likely also be in the mix if Elliott were to miss time. For now, I am grading this as if Elliott is not being suspended, but that’s subject to change.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If Elliott is able to play, he should benefit from improved offensive line play, with former All-Pro center Travis Frederick expected to return after missing all of last season. Frederick was arguably the best center in the league prior to last season, finishing in the top-6 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, but a rare autoimmune disorder wiped out his entire 2018 season. Frederick has returned to off-season workouts in full and his issues seem to be behind him, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He might not be quite 100%, but even Frederick at less than his best is still one of the best centers in the league. His replacement Joe Looney made all 16 starts, but finished 32nd out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF and is best as a reserve.

The Cowboys could also get better play at left guard, where both Connor Williams and Xavier Su’a-Filo struggled in 2018. Su’a-Filo is a reserve caliber player, but Williams was a 2nd round selection in 2018 and still has obvious upside, only in his age 22 season, especially after adding a much needed 15 pounds in the off-season. The Cowboys also added Penn State’s Connor McGovern in the 3rd round this year as insurance. He’s a versatile player who could also provide depth at center.

The rest of this offensive line will look the same in 2019, which is a good thing because their other 3 starters all earned above average grades from PFF in 2018. Zack Martin was the best of the bunch, finishing 2nd among guards on PFF, his 5th straight season in the top-5. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with just 2 games missed to injury in 5 seasons in the league, Martin should continue dominating in 2019. He actually played through a knee injury for most of 2018, making his performance even more impressive.

The Cowboys could also get a healthier season from left tackle Tyron Smith, who missed 3 games with injury and was limited in several others, but still finished 10th among offensive tackles on PFF. It’s unlikely the Cowboys are completely healthy across the line for all 16 games though and Smith’s injury history is becoming concerning. He’s missed 3 games in each of the past 3 seasons with a variety of issues. A top-15 offensive tackle on PFF in 6 straight seasons and still relatively young in his age 29 season, Smith can be a top level left tackle when he’s at 100%, but that’s becoming less common. The Cowboys are fortunate to have swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who has filled in nicely throughout his career, first in New England and now in Dallas (23 starts in 5 seasons in the league).

Fleming is also the backup at right tackle, where La’El Collins is coming off of a solid season as a 16-game starter. Collins was a first round talent coming out of LSU in 2015, but went undrafted because he was called in to be questioned about a murder the week of the draft and didn’t have time clear his name before draft day. Collins eventually did and signed with the Cowboys, who seemed to be getting a steal, but Collins was inconsistent for the first 3 seasons of his career before a mini-breakout season in 2018. Still only in his age 26 season with obvious talent, this could easily be a sign of things to come. At full strength, this is a very impressive offensive line.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Cowboys’ defense got off to a great start in 2018, but they tailed off towards the end, coinciding with their offense improving with the addition of Amari Cooper. Going into their week 8 bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but in their final 9 games they allowed a 37.44% first down rate, which would have ranked 19th in the NFL over the full season. Their points per game allowed also shot up from 17.6 points per game before the bye to 22.3 points per game after. Everyone remembers their dominant nationally televised defensive performance against the Saints on Thursday Night Football, which came late in the season in week 13, but that was kind of a fluky performance on a short week and they allowed 23.9 points per game in their other 8 games after the bye.

There’s no one reason in particular for this drop off, but this was a young group that largely overachieved early in the season before falling back to earth down the stretch. That’s not to say they are a bad defense, as they have a solid unit overall, but this group is probably overrated due to last year’s strong start and that nationally televised game against the Saints. That being said, they do have a few high level defenders in their lineup.

Arguably their best defensive player is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who was kept on a 5-year, 105 million dollar deal this off-season, making him the 3rd highest paid defender in the league on an annual basis, behind Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald. The Cowboys could have probably had him cheaper last off-season, but the Cowboys decision to make him play the 2018 season on the franchise tag made sense. Lawrence had a breakout 2017 season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked edge defender and totaling 14.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 52 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps (17.4% pressure rate), but he had an inconsistent and injury plagued first 3 seasons in the league. In those 3 seasons, he had just 9 sacks in 32 games (out of 48 possible) and a pressure rate of 9.6%. It’s understandable the Cowboys wanted to see him prove it again.

Lawrence did prove it again in 2018. He wasn’t quite as good as 2017, but he still finished as PFF’s #7 ranked edge defender and totaled 10.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 39 hurries on 484 pass rush snaps (13.0% pressure rate), leaving the Cowboys no choice but to franchise tag him again and eventually give him a top level deal. Considering he’s been one of the best pass rushers in the league over the past 2 seasons, I don’t think the Cowboys are too upset that they’re paying a few million more annually than they probably could have if they re-signed him after just one dominant year. He’s rehabbing from off-season shoulder surgery, but hasn’t missed a game since his injury plagued 2016 season and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. Assuming he doesn’t miss any regular season time after having the surgery, Lawrence should remain one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the league in 2019.

A combination of Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory started at the other defensive end spot, Crawford in base packages and Gregory in sub packages, but Gregory is suspended for the season after failing another drug test and Crawford could be facing a suspension as well, after being involved in a physical confrontation with police. Gregory, who had a 11.5% pressure rate on 321 pass rush snaps in 2018, will be replaced by Robert Quinn, acquired from Miami this off-season. Originally owed 11.8 million non-guaranteed, Quinn agreed to a 1-year, 9.1 million dollar deal to facilitate his trade to Dallas, with the Dolphins paying 1.1 million of that salary as a signing bonus and acquiring a 2020 6th round pick from the Cowboys as compensation.

Quinn was let go by the Dolphins because his salary didn’t fit on a team that was rebuilding, but he’s still a solid starter. His days of being a double digit sack player like he was from 2012-2014 are probably done, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and he’s been healthier in recent years, missing just 1 game in the past 2 seasons, after missing 15 from 2015-2016. He had 6.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 23 hurries on 367 pass rush snaps in 2018 (10.6%) and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked edge defender in pass rush grade.

Crawford should still be available for at least most of the season, so he’ll continue having a role as a hybrid defensive lineman. He lined up primarily on the interior in pass rush situations in 2018 (259 of 472 pass rush snaps) and at 6-4 290 he certainly has the size to play inside, but he’s played more at defensive end in his career and could see more edge rush snaps in 2019. The 7-year veteran has always gotten to the quarterback regardless of where he’s lined up, with 22 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate since 2014, but he has had issues against the run and is getting up there in age, going into his age 30 season.

Taco Charlton will also be in the mix for a role, though the 2017 1st round pick hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league and is pretty far down on the depth chart. Charlton has played just 801 snaps in 2 seasons in the league. That’s in part due to him missing 5 games with injury last season, but he hasn’t been all that effective either, with just 4 sacks, 8 hits, and 26 hurries on 457 pass rush snaps (8.3% pressure rate). He may have to compete for a roster spot with 5th round rookie Joe Jackson and 2018 4th round pick Dorance Armstrong, who struggled on 273 rookie year snaps. Even with Gregory suspended and Crawford possibly facing suspension, this is a talented group, led by one of the top edge defenders in the league.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Along with Tyrone Crawford, 4th year defensive tackle Maliek Collins also figures to have a significant role inside in sub packages. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled in his first two seasons in the league, managing just a 6.6% pressure rate and struggling mightily against the run, but in 2018 he took a big step forward, totalling 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 21 hurries on 340 pass rush snaps (8.5% pressure rate) and earning an average overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 24 season, Collins could continue improving in 2019, though he is just a one-year wonder at this point.

In base packages, Antwaun Woods remains as a starter. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Woods played just 17 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but broke out as a run stuffer in 2018, playing 585 snaps overall and earning an above average run stopping grade from PFF. He’s not a pass rusher, with just 1.5 sacks and a 4.7% pressure rate in 2018, but he could continue his solid play against the run in 2019.

The other starting role in base packages is up for grabs. 2017 undrafted free agent Daniel Ross showed promise in the first real action of his career in 2018 (250 snaps), but the Cowboys also added Trysten Hill in the 2nd round of the draft and signed ex-Texan rotational lineman Christian Covington on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Both players could be capable run stuffers as well. This isn’t as strong of a group as outside, but they have some promising young players.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Cowboys’ linebackers are their strongest group on defense. Sean Lee used to be the leader of this linebacking corps and was once one of the best off ball linebackers in the league, but he’s missed 51 games in 9 seasons in the league and has taken on a smaller role as he goes into his age 33 season. He played just 222 snaps in 7 games last season, including just 84 snaps in 4 games after week 3. His best days are definitely behind him, but he’s a valuable veteran leader and could hang around for a few more seasons as a useful player in a part-time role. He took a pay cut from 7 million down to 3.5 million this off-season, which is an appropriate salary. As the 3rd linebacker in this linebacking corps, he’ll come off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, so he figures to play less than half the snaps.

The reason why they’ve been able to move Lee into a smaller role is that they have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who finished 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018. Vander Esch was the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in a strong defensive class with Darius Leonard, Derwin James, Bradley Chubb, and Denzel Ward.

Smith, meanwhile, likely would have been a top-15 pick, possibly top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft if not for a brutal knee he suffered a few months before the draft that dropped him to the Cowboys in the 2nd round at #34 overall. Smith missed his entire rookie year in 2016 and was a middling player on 575 snaps in his debut season in 2017, before breaking out in an every down role in 2018. Now over 3 years removed from the injury, Smith is still only going into his age 25 season and appears to be on track to have the kind of career many felt he would before getting hurt. He and Vander Esch are both technically one-year wonders, but they also look like they’re going to be the one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL for years to come.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Cowboys also had a standout performer in the secondary in 2018, with cornerback Byron Jones finishing 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2015, Jones played all over the secondary in his first 3 years in the league, seeing action as an outside cornerback, slot cornerback, deep safety, and box safety. He was pretty solid overall, but had his worst graded season in 2018 when he was primarily a box safety, which is not a good use of his abilities.

Fortunately for Jones, former Legion of Boom secondary coach Kris Richard joined the Cowboys’ coaching staff last off-season and he was able to get the most of him as an every down outside cornerback, where he played 88.5% of his snaps in 2018. At 6-1 205, Jones has the size and length that Richard likes in a cornerback and is clearly comfortable in this coverage scheme as the Cowboys’ Richard Sherman equivalent. He’s another player going into the final year of his rookie deal and while he deserves an extension, the Cowboys might not have enough financial flexibility long-term to keep all of their young talent.

For now, Jones will remain as the #1 cornerback, with a few other young cornerbacks competing for roles behind him. 2017 2nd round pick Chidobe Awuzie and 2016 6th round pick Anthony Brown were the #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season and both earned average grades from PFF on 886 and 690 snaps respectively, but #4 cornerback Jourdan Lewis has also shown himself to be a solid coverage cornerback when counted on and he’ll likely compete for a role as well, despite playing just 187 snaps in 2018.

A 3rd round pick in 2017, Lewis played a much bigger role as a rookie, earning an above average grade from PFF on 746 snaps. Brown has been a capable starting caliber player for 3 seasons (30 starts in 3 seasons) and Awuzie is coming off of a decent season and has a lot of upside, but Lewis’ 2017 season was better than any season either Awuzie or Brown have ever had and he didn’t show any drop off in a limited role in 2018.

Safety Xavier Woods is another talented young defensive back the Cowboys have. Woods flashed on 547 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017 and then continued playing well as a 14-game starter in 2018, after missing the first 2 games of the season with injury. Still only going into his age 24 season, Woods could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. At the very least, he should be an above average safety once again this season.

The other safety spot was the one weakness in this secondary in 2018, as Jeff Heath made 16 starts and finished 86th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Primarily a special teamer in his first 4 seasons in the league, Heath has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons, but the results have been underwhelming. The Cowboys were expected to sign a top flight safety in free agency like Dallas native Earl Thomas, but they ended up settling for George Iloka on a 1-year, 1.02 million dollar deal.

Iloka could prove to be a real bargain though. A solid starter in Cincinnati from 2013-2017 (76 starts), Iloka was released late last off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.5 million dollar salary and only played 117 snaps in Minnesota, where he signed on a minimum deal as a backup behind a pair of proven starters. Iloka didn’t have much of a market this off-season, but he’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and could easily find his old form in 2019 in a starting role. He and Heath will compete for the job. It’s the one questionable spot in an overall talented young secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys are a team led by their stars. They have 10 of the top-200 or so players in the NFL in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, and cornerback Byron Jones. If those players can all stay on the field and perform at a high level, this team should be a Super Bowl contender. If they don’t, their depth will be tested, and it may be tough for them to qualify for the post-season, especially sharing a division with an Eagles team that also has a dominant roster.

With Travis Frederick returning from injury and Amari Cooper heading into his first full season in Dallas, the Cowboys’ offense should be significantly improved in 2019 and their defense, while inconsistent in 2018, still finished 10th in first down rate allowed on the season and has a lot of young talent. They weren’t as good as their 10-6 record suggested in 2018, but they could easily win another 10+ games with a more talented team in 2019 if all their key players can stay on the field. The Ezekiel Elliott discipline situation is obviously one to monitor, as losing him for an extended period of time would be a huge blow to this team’s chances. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Team Score: 76.45*

Offensive Score: 76.93

Defensive Score: 75.97

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New York Giants 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe the Giants made the post-season in 2016. They were led by a defense that ranked first in the NFL in first down rate allowed, thanks to dominant seasons from interior defender Damon Harrison, edge rushers Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul, cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, and safety Landon Collins. That group fell apart quickly, as new GM Dave Gettleman, hired in 2018, has sought to remake this roster.

Harrison was sent to the Lions for a 5th round pick at the 2018 trade deadline, in what amounted to a salary dump. Vernon was traded to the Browns this off-season for guard Kevin Zeitler. Jason Pierre-Paul was traded to the Buccaneers last off-season for a 3rd round pick. Landon Collins was allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent this off-season. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was released last off-season after a down 2017. Janoris Jenkins is the only one still on the team, but that’s likely because he hasn’t been the same player since 2016 and no team is willing to trade for the 22.5 million over 2 years left on his contract.

The Giants have gone just 8-24 in the past 2 seasons and they could be even worse in 2019. Not only did they lose Landon Collins, probably their best remaining defensive player, for nothing, but they also traded probably their best offensive player, Odell Beckham, for a 1st round pick, a 3rd round pick, and a poor man’s Landon Collins in Jabrill Peppers. The extra draft picks allowed them to take Dexter Lawrence and Oshane Ximines, a pair of promising defensive linemen, but they also used their own first round pick, 6th overall, on a quarterback in Daniel Jones who likely won’t see action in 2019.

Despite all the changes the Giants have made in recent years and despite all of the Giants’ other moves signaling they want to go through a full rebuild, the Giants still have Eli Manning under center. He made 16 million last season and will make another 17 million this season. The Giants have also talked about extending Eli beyond the final year of his contract in 2019 and possibly not playing Daniel Jones for 3 years like the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers, which would be crazy considering Eli Manning hasn’t played at a high level since 2015 and is now going into his age 38 season. In the past 3 seasons, he’s completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 6.76 YPA, 66 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions while earning middling grades from Pro Football Focus. This should be his last season as the starter with the Giants turning to Daniel Jones in 2020.

Jones was also a questionable pick at #6 overall. The Giants are hoping that the reason he didn’t produce big numbers in college was his lack of supporting cast and their scouts clearly love the way the ball comes out of his hand, but he comes with a lot of risk that high in the draft. He also could have been available when the Giants picked at 17, or somewhere in the 10-14 range where the Giants could have traded up into, and he might not be as good of a prospect as Dwayne Haskins, who went 15th overall. On top of that, this was not as good of a quarterback class as 2018, when the Giants had the 2nd overall pick, and 2020 will likely also be a stronger quarterback class. With the Giants likely to get a high pick again in 2020, they might have been better off waiting until 2020, rather than using the 6th overall pick in 2019 on a developmental prospect like Daniel Jones. For better or for worse, he’s the future for the Giants under center, but that future probably won’t come in 2019.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Two areas in which the Giants are improved since Dave Gettleman took over are the offensive line and running game. Their offensive line is even more improved this off-season after the trade of Olivier Vernon to Cleveland for Kevin Zeitler. Losing Vernon will hurt their defense, but Zeitler was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard last season and will be a massive upgrade at right guard, which was a position of weakness for the Giants in 2018. Zeitler has been a top-15 guard on PFF in 5 straight seasons and is still only going into his age 29 season. He’s also been very durable, making 64 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons. He’s owed 32 million over the next 3 seasons, but for the Giants that’s better than paying Olivier Vernon 31 million over the next 2 seasons.

Zeitler is not the only high paid addition Gettleman has made on the offensive line, also signing left tackle Nate Solder to a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal last off-season. It was a bit of an overpay because Solder is the 3rd highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary, despite only finishing in the top-10 among offensive tackles on PFF once in 8 seasons in the league. The Giants were desperate for an upgrade at left tackle though and Solder was an obvious one, finishing 21st among offensive tackles on PFF. He’s going into his age 31 season, but should remain an above average starter for at least another couple years.

The Giants also added left guard Will Hernandez in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft and signed veteran Mike Remmers this off-season to start at right tackle. Hernandez had a very promising rookie year, finishing 22nd among guards on PFF, and could take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. Remmers, meanwhile, appears to be on the downswing, going into his age 30 season, coming off of a down year, but he still has some bounce back potential. He didn’t look comfortable playing out of position at right guard last season and could benefit from a move back to tackle, where he made 42 starts from 2015-2017 and earned above average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons.

The one question mark upfront is center. Jon Halapio made the first 2 starts of the season there last season, but then missed the rest of the season with a broken ankle. Halapio was not bad, but the 2014 6th round pick has just 6 other career starts (at right guard in 2017), so he’s a very unproven commodity. He’ll likely get the job by default because his biggest competition is Spencer Pulley, who finished 27th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in Halapio’s absence in 2018. Center is the one weakness on an offensive line that has been significantly improved over the past two off-seasons.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Gettleman also significantly upgraded the Giants’ running game by selecting Saquon Barkley 2nd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, passing on potential franchise quarterbacks like Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. The Giants had under 4 yards per carry for 5 straight seasons prior to 2017, but Barkley rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns on 261 carries (5.01 YPC) as a rookie and the Giants finished 10th in the NFL in yards per carry as a team with 4.66. More than half of Barkley’s yardage came on his 20 longest runs (706 of 1,307), meaning he averaged just 2.49 YPC on his other 241 carries, and he ranked just 40th out of 47 qualifying running backs in carry success rate, but he should become a better runner between the carries with better run blocking and he’s a threat to break a home run play at any time even without great blocking.

Barkley is also a weapon through the air, catching 91 passes for 721 yards and 4 touchdowns last season and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked overall running back. If the Giants are trailing often again in 2019, they won’t be able to establish their running game as much as they’d like, so Barkley should get a good amount of his yardage again through the air. He could push to be a 400+ touch back after handling 352 as a rookie. Backup Wayne Gallman (4.02 YPC on 162 career carries) won’t see much more than a few touches per game.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Barkley will also probably have to run against a lot of stacked boxes, as their offense lacks a receiver that commands a defense’s action downfield without Odell Beckham. In the 5 seasons Eli Manning played with Odell Beckham, he played much better with Beckham healthy than without, posting a 91.7 QB rating in 59 starts with Beckham and a 80.6 QB rating in 20 starts without Beckham. The Giants didn’t get terrible compensation for him, but they probably could have gotten the same compensation for him last off-season, rather than re-signing him to an extension that hasn’t even started yet and paying him 21.459 million, including a 13 million dollar signing bonus, for one season in 2018.

Trading a receiver like Odell Beckham makes some sense if you want to be a running team and don’t want to have too much money tied up into the wide receiver position, but the Giants also gave wide receiver Sterling Shepard a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal and then signed veteran Golden Tate to a 4-year, 37.5 million dollar deal in free agency. Together they make more than Beckham and neither presents the same matchup problems to the defense downfield.

Tate has been a reliably consistent receiver in recent years, averaging a 85/986/5 slash line for the past 6 seasons, but he’s an underneath receiver, who has an average reception depth of 5.3 yards from scrimmage for his career. He’s averaged 6.5 yards per catch after the carry and has broken 168 tackles over the past 8 seasons, but he doesn’t stretch the field and that’s unlikely to change, now in his age 31 season. He’ll be the Giants’ primary receiver on the slot, where he has run 76.2% of his routes over the past 2 seasons.

Sterling Shepard has primarily been a slot receiver (75.5% of his routes over the past 3 seasons), but he’s expected to move to the outside with Tate coming in. Tate will eat into his targets, but Shepard should get a bigger role with Beckham gone. Shepard has 58 catches for 746 yards and 2 touchdowns in 11 games with Beckham over the past 2 seasons, a 84/1085/3 slash line extrapolated over a 16 game season. In his 4th season in the league in 2019, he could surpass his current career high of 872 receiving yards in a season.

Tight end Evan Engram is also a big part of this passing game. A first round pick in 2017, Engram had 64/72/6 slash line as a rookie and then in 2018 he had a 45/577/3 slash line in 11 games, which extrapolates to 65/839/4 over a 16 game season. He could match or exceed those extrapolated totals in 2019 if he stays healthy. He’s not a run blocker at all at 6-3 240, but he’s a mismatch in the middle of the field in the passing game.

The quartet of Barkley, Tate, Shepard, and Engram should have the majority of the receiving yardage, as they don’t have a clear 5th option. #2 tight end Rhett Ellison is a strong blocking tight end, but he has 100 catches in 103 career games. The #3 receiver job will be an open competition between Corey Coleman, Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer, and Russell Shepard, none of whom have ever topped 33 catches in a season. Coleman was a first round pick by the Browns in 2016 and he has the most upside of the group, but he managed just 5 catches in 2018 and is not even a lock for the final roster. Their lack of depth hurts them, especially if injuries strike.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Giants might not be that bad on offense, but their defense has fallen a long way from what it was a couple seasons ago and could really struggle to stop teams. The Giants used their other first round pick, the one acquired in the Odell Beckham trade, on Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who they are hoping can be a younger, cheaper version of Damon Harrison, who they traded to the Lions at the trade deadline last year. Considering Harrison has been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked interior defender against the run for 3 straight seasons, it’s definitely premature to count on Lawrence being that good. The 6-4 342 pounder will play a big role on this defensive line, especially as a nose tackle in base packages.

Dalvin Tomlinson and BJ Hill, who played 628 snaps and 642 snaps respectively in 2018, will likely play similar snap totals in 2019. They will line up primarily as defensive ends in the Giants’ base 3-4 defense and also rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. Hill is the better pass rusher of the two, actually finishing 2nd on the team with 5.5 sacks last season, as a 3rd round rookie. His peripheral pass rush stats weren’t great, as he added just 1 other quarterback hit and 20 hurries on 356 pass rush snaps (7.4% pressure rate), but he also played the run well and overall earned an above average grade from PFF. He could be take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019.

Tomlinson, meanwhile, is a dominant run stuffer who doesn’t get much pass rush. He’s finished in the top-24 among interior defenders on PFF in run grade in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s also managed just 1 sack and 30 hurries on 585 pass rush snaps (5.3% pressure rate). A 2nd round pick in 2017, Tomlinson is still young and could keep getting better, but he may never develop into a pass rush threat. At the very least, he should continue playing the run well, so this starting trio should be tough to run on.

The Giants don’t have much depth on this 3-man defensive line though. They are probably going to give 2018 5th round pick RJ McIntosh a bigger role. The 6-4 283 pounder is undersized and played just 65 snaps as a rookie, but he could carve out a role as a pass rush specialist. The Giants also signed veteran Olsen Pierre from Arizona as depth. He’s played just 597 snaps over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been particularly good, but there’s an opportunity for him to have a slightly bigger role with the Giants. Their lack of depth could hurt them if injuries strike and they lack a 2nd interior pass rusher, but this defensive line will at least be tough to run on.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Since they aren’t expected to generate much pass rush from the interior, the Giants will need their edge defenders to step up. That’s unlikely though, as the Giants traded Olivier Vernon, Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked edge defender in 2018 and the Giants’ 2018 team leader in sacks with 7, and are replacing him with free agent signing Markus Golden and 3rd round rookie Oshane Ximines. Ximines is making a big jump from Old Dominion to the NFL, so he probably won’t contribute much as a rookie, though he could develop into a starter long-term.

Golden has a better shot to contribute in 2019, now another year removed from an October 2017 torn ACL. Golden was PFF’s 36th ranked edge defender in 2016 and had 12.5 sacks, 11 hits, and 29 hurries on 455 pass rush snaps (11.5% pressure rate), but injuries have limited him to 2.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 32 hurries on 351 pass rush snaps in 15 games in the past 2 seasons. He’s still only in his age 28 season, so he’s a worthwhile flyer on a 1-year, 3.75 million dollar deal. He could wind up leading this team in sacks by default.

Holdovers Lorenzo Carter and Kareem Martin will also be in the mix, after playing 442 snaps and 610 snaps respectively last season. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Carter’s 4 sacks lead all returning players, but his 10.1% pressure rate on 287 snaps is not overly impressive. The Giants are hoping he takes a step forward in 2019 and he at least has upside. Martin, meanwhile, has a career 7.5% pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league, including a 8.1% pressure rate in 2018. The 610 snaps he played last season were a career high and the Giants should avoid playing him that much in 2019 if they can help it. This isn’t a strong group, even if one of Markus Golden or Lorenzo Carter exceeds expectations.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Giants have an underwhelming group at linebacker as well. Alec Ogletree is a big name, but he’s missed 101 tackles in 80 games in 6 seasons in the league and is not worth his 10 million dollar salary. He has great physical tools, but has earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, including a 2018 season in which he finished 81st out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers. Expect more of the same from him in his age 28 season in 2019.

BJ Goodson will start next to Ogletree in base packages. He’s a good run stopper, but struggles mightily in coverage and has never played more than 513 snaps in a season in 3 seasons in the league. Part of that is injury, as he’s missed 11 of 48 games in his career, but he’s also only a part-time player even when healthy. Tae Davis remains as the coverage linebacker specialist, but he was PFF’s 93rd ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifiers on 344 snaps last season. The 2018 undrafted free agent is no guarantee to be any better in his 2nd season in the league. This is a position of weakness.

Grade: C

Secondary

Janoris Jenkins one of their few remaining starters from 2016, but he’s fallen to 61st and 53rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus over the past 2 seasons respectively, after ranking 9th in 2016. Now going into his age 31 season, Jenkins’ best days are likely behind him. The Giants essentially committed four of their eleven 2019 draft picks to cornerbacks, so this could be Jenkins’ final season in New York, owed 11.25 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his contract in 2020.

The Giants used a first round pick (after trading up from the early 2nd round) on Georgia’s DeAndre Baker, a 4th round pick on Notre Dame’s Julian Love, and a 6th round pick on Washburn’s Corey Ballentine and they used their 2019 3rd round pick to select Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal in the supplemental draft last fall. Beal missed all of 2018 with injury, so he’s essentially a rookie like the other three cornerbacks.

Baker is the most starter ready and ranked as PFF’s 16th best draft prospect, allowing just 10 first downs through the air in the SEC all season in 2018. He’ll likely be the week 1 starter, with Beal and Love competing for the slot cornerback job. Ballentine, meanwhile, is more of a long-term developmental prospect and is unlikely to have a big role in 2019. BW Webb and Grant Haley were underwhelming as the #2 and #3 cornerbacks in 2018, but it’s unclear if any of these young cornerbacks will be an improvement immediately.

The Giants also have new starters at safety, with veteran Antoine Bethea coming over on a 2-year, 6.5 million dollar deal to replace free agent departure Curtis Riley, while Jabrill Peppers comes over from Cleveland in the Odell Beckham trade to replace free agent departure Landon Collins. Bethea is going into his age 35 season and earned middling grades from PFF in 2018, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Riley, who finished last season 83rd out of 101 qualifying safeties on PFF.

Peppers, meanwhile, is someone they are hoping can be a cheaper version of Landon Collins. The Giants didn’t want to keep Collins even on a 11.15 million dollar franchise tag this off-season, letting him sign a 6-year, 84 million dollar deal with the Redskins. That deal suggests Collins could have had a significant trade market if the Giants franchise tagged him at 11.15 million and tried to trade him, but the Giants let him go in hopes of getting a 2020 3rd round compensatory pick.

Peppers was a first round pick in 2017 and has the physical tools to be a Landon Collins type player, but he hasn’t put it all together yet. He’s only played 70% of the snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but played much better in 2018 than 2017, finishing as PFF’s 23rd ranked safety on 766 snaps. That’s in large part to him being used properly as primarily a box safety, after playing mostly deep safety as a rookie. Replacing Collins, he’ll be a box safety in New York. Only in his age 24 season in 2019, the Giants are hoping he takes another step forward and breaks out as an every down player. He’ll be a downgrade from Collins, but it might not be by much, as he has plenty of breakout potential. He’s arguably the Giants’ best defensive back in a group that has a lot of question marks.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Giants’ recent moves have been headscratching. They get rid of top players like Damon Harrison, Odell Beckham, and Landon Collins to save money, but keep Eli Manning, Janoris Jenkins, and Alec Ogletree on the roster for 17 million, 11.25 million, and 10 million respectively and then sign Golden Tate for 37.5 million over 4 years. They used the first round pick they got from the Odell Beckham trade to select a player who they hope will become Damon Harrison and used their own first round pick to select a quarterback who will sit for at least a year behind the highly paid Eli Manning. They want to build around running the football and playing defense, but on paper they have one of the worst defenses in the league and they are paying significant money to two wide receivers. This is a team that should struggle again in 2019.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Team Score: 71.85*

Offensive Score: 73.39

Defensive Score: 70.31

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Washington Redskins 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Kirk Cousins made all 48 starts at quarterback for the Redskins from 2015-2017, but they didn’t want to get into a bidding war for his services or franchise tag him a 3rd time last off-season, so they preemptively sent a 3rd round pick and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller to the Chiefs for Alex Smith, who they signed to a 4-year, 94 million dollar extension. Smith is 4 years older than Cousins, but he gave them a similar player under center for 4.5 million less per year than Cousins got from the Vikings.

The plan was going fine until Alex Smith suffered a brutal broken leg injury week 11 against the Texans that has required multiple surgeries and left his career in jeopardy. The Redskins then turned to backup Colt McCoy, who suffered a leg injury of his own, forcing them to turn to street free agents Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson to close out the year. The Redskins’ 6-3 record at the time of Smith’s injury was misleading because they had just a +1 point differential, despite a +11 turnover margin, and ranked just 26th in first down rate differential, but their offense got so much worse when Smith went down that his injury effectively ended the Redskins’ playoff chances immediately. The Redskins ranked 23rd in first down rate at 33.86% at the time Smith went down and had a 28.97% first down rate in the final 7 games of the season.

Smith’s contract guarantees him 71 million over 3 years for injury, so if even Smith doesn’t ever play again the Redskins are going to be stuck playing him like a starting caliber quarterback for another two years. Perhaps knowing that’s more likely, the Redskins used their first round pick on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Because Haskins is on a cheap rookie deal, it kind of offsets having to pay starter’s money to a quarterback who can’t play.

Teams don’t use a first round pick on a quarterback unless they see him as a quarterback of the future, so if Smith ever can return it likely won’t be as the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins unless Haskins’ development goes south fast. As a rookie, Haskins will compete with McCoy and fellow off-season addition Case Keenum, who comes over from Denver via trade. McCoy is going into his 6th season in head coach Jay Gruden’s offense, but that’s about all he brings to the table, as he has a career QB rating of 78.9 in 27 starts in 9 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 33 season. He’s the least likely to win the week 1 starting job.

Keenum has made 57 career starts, including 30 in the past 2 seasons, but aside from a 2017 season in which he had a 98.3 QB rating and finished 7th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, he hasn’t been anything more than a borderline starter throughout his career. He completed 62.3% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions with the Broncos last season, while finishing 26th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF.

Now in his age 31 season, Keenum had take a pay cut down to 7.5 million to get traded and the Broncos are paying 4 million of that because they owed him guaranteed money, so the Redskins really aren’t financially invested in him. Dwayne Haskins was just a one year starter in college, so it could benefit him to sit on the bench and learn for a little bit, but he’ll almost definitely make rookie year starts at some point. Haskins was very impressive in his one season as a starter, but his inexperience makes him somewhat of a boom or bust prospect. The Redskins should definitely get better quarterback play than they did down the stretch last season, but this is far from an ideal situation.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Redskins didn’t just have injury problems at quarterback. In fact, they had the most offensive adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. Starting injury replacements at multiple spots across this offense by the end of the season, the street free agent quarterbacks the Redskins were forced into using didn’t stand a chance. At running back, the Redskins lost 2nd round rookie and expected starter Derrius Guice before the season even started to a torn ACL.

The Redskins signed veteran free agent Adrian Peterson to replace him and were fortunate that Peterson still had something left in the tank, rushing for 1,042 yards and 7 touchdowns on 251 carries (4.15 YPC) and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked running back in his age 33 season. Peterson looked done in 2017, when he averaged just 3.39 yards per carry on 156 carries between the Saints and Cardinals, which is why he was still available in August when Guice got hurt, but he proved to still have something left in the tank. Now going into his age 34 season with 3,097 career touches, Peterson’s durability and effectiveness are constant question, but the future Hall of Famer could defy the odds once again. He currently ranks 8th all-time in rushing yards.

Guice’s injury recovery was not as smooth as you’d like, as it required multiple clean up surgeries, but he’s still expected to be ready to go week 1, over 12 months removed from the injury. Assuming he’s healthy, Guice provides valuable insurance in case Peterson declines and will likely see a heavy rotational role even if Peterson continues performing well. Limiting Peterson’s carries could keep him fresh and effective and Guice showed a lot of potential last off-season before the injury.

Neither Peterson (20 catches in 2018) nor Guice (32 catches in 35 games at LSU) are much of a receiver, so the Redskins need Chris Thompson to stay healthy. The 5-8 195 pound speedster has missed 15 games with injury in the past 4 seasons and has been an injury risk dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s averaged 4.96 yards per carry on 213 carries as a change of pace back in his 6-year career and he has averaged 71.5 catches per 16 games over the past 4 seasons.

Thompson could push for 60+ catches if he can stay healthy in 2019, though he likely won’t have a huge role as a runner. The Redskins also used a 4th round pick on Stanford’s Bryce Love who is also coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He may effectively be a rookie redshirt and would be no higher than 4th on the depth chart even if healthy. This is a pretty deep group, but Guice, Love, and Thompson have injury concerns and Peterson is very much over the hill in running back years.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Redskins also had significant injury issues in the receiving corps, with supposed top receivers Paul Richardson and Jamison Crowder playing 7 games and 9 games respectively. Crowder is no longer with the team, but Richardson returns to a starting role, after his 2018 season was ended prematurely by a shoulder injury. Richardson was only on pace for a 46/599/5 slash line through 7 games when he went down though and was averaging 1.11 yards per route run (92nd out of 107 qualifying receivers). He’s also had injury problems throughout his career, missing 26 of 80 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league. His 44/703/6 slash line from 2017 shows his upside and as a deep threat he’s a better fit with Haskins or Keenum under center than Smith, who is a conservative decision maker and doesn’t like to throw deep.

The Redskins need Richardson to step up. They didn’t have a single pass catcher top 600 yards receiving in 2018 and all they did to replace Jamison Crowder was use a 3rd round pick on Terry McLaurin. McLaurin will compete for playing time with Josh Doctson, who led Redskin receivers with 846 snaps played in 2018, and Trey Quinn, who is expected to get the first shot at replacing Crowder on the slot.

Doctson has been very underwhelming in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the first round by the Redskins in 2016. Despite plenty of opportunity in a thin receiving corps, Doctson finished with a 44/532/2 slash line in 2018 and averaged just 1.04 yards per route run (96th out of 107 qualifying receivers). He theoretically still has untapped upside, but he hasn’t shown it yet and his 2018 receiving total was actually a career best. Quinn, meanwhile, is a 2018 7th round pick who played just 107 snaps as a rookie, so he’s incredibly unproven. There’s opportunity here for McLaurin to earn a role as a rookie, even though he was just a 3rd round pick. They lack a clear #1 target.

Tight end Jordan Reed also had injury problems last season, but he still led the team with a 54/558/2 slash line in 13 games. That was actually the 2nd most games Reed has played in a season in his 6 years in the league. He’s missed 31 of 96 games and has never played more than 14 games. Even when in the lineup in 2018, Reed didn’t look his old self, averaging just 42.9 yards per game. He’s averaged just 40.5 yards per game over the past 2 seasons, after averaging 63.0 yards per game in 2015 and 2016, as the injuries seem to have taken their toll. Only going into his age 29 season, Reed had a 66/686/6 slash line in 12 games as recently as 2016, but his best days look behind him at this point. He’ll likely miss time with injury again as well.

#2 tight end Vernon Davis will again be counted on for a significant role and as valuable insurance behind Reed. Davis is going into his age 35 season though. He still had a 25/367/2 slash line on 193 routes run in 2018 (1.90 yards per route run, 6th among qualifying tight ends), but he’s not the blocker he was once and could see his receiving abilities fall off at any point at his age. The Redskins need him to continue contributing and Reed to stay relatively healthy because #3 tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is a blocking tight end with 7 career catches in 2 seasons in the league. This is a very underwhelming pass catching group.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Redskins also had injury problems on the offensive line. Two of their five starters made all 16 starts, but the other 3 missed a combined 22 games. Not only did left tackle Trent Williams miss 3 games, but he was limited in several others with a knee injury that eventually needed surgery. A top-15 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons prior to last season, Williams finished “just” 21st in 2018 as a result of his injury. He has some bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2019, but he’s going into his age 31 season and has missed 9 games with injury over the past 2 seasons.

Right guard Brandon Scherff’s injury was also a significant one, as he was PFF’s 15th ranked guard before a torn pectoral ended his season after 8 games. The 2015 5th overall pick, Scherff also finished 6th among guards on PFF in 2017 and has earned an above average grade in all 4 seasons in the league. Despite his injury in 2018, the Redskins are still fully expected to give Scherff an extension before the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. Scherff is expected to be among the highest paid guards in the NFL (Zack Martin is the highest currently at 14 million annually), but he’s already set to make 12.525 million in 2019 and even a large extension could lower his cap hit, so there’s plenty of incentive for both sides to get a big deal done. Scherff missed just 2 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, so it’s a relatively safe move.

Center Chase Rouiller and right tackle Morgan Moses both made all 16 starts. Rouiller was solid in his first full season as a starter, after flashing in limited action as a 6th round rookie in 2017. Moses, meanwhile, had his 4th straight season with an above average grade from PFF. He’s made all 64 starts over those 4 seasons and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. Both should continue their solid play in 2019.

The one weak point upfront is left guard, where the Redskins are hoping former Giants bust Ereck Flowers can be a late bloomer at a new position. Flowers was the 9th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and made 46 starts at left tackle in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he was very underwhelming. The Giants moved him to right tackle last off-season and subsequently cut Flowers after 2 starts after he didn’t fare any better on the right side. As a free agent, Flowers got the call from a Jaguars team that was desperate for offensive line help and made another 7 starts at left tackle for them last season, but he wasn’t much better than he had been previously.

Now the Redskins are trying him as a left guard, taking a flyer on him for 3.25 million over 1 year. Only in his age 25 season, Flowers could be worth the risk. The Redskins’ other options at left guard are 2018 3rd round pick Geron Christian, who played just 43 snaps as a rookie despite plenty of opportunity to play, and 2019 4th round pick Wes Martin. Left guard is the one position of weakness on an overall solid offensive line.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Redskins had the most adjusted games lost to injury on offense, but remarkably they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Their defense was solid in 2018, finishing 17th in first down rate allowed, but they might not be as good in 2019 if they have a normal amount of injuries. The Redskins also lost some players this off-season, most notably edge defender Preston Smith. Smith had just 4 sacks in 2018, but he added 11 hits and 38 hurries on 468 pass rush snaps (11.3% pressure rate) and was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked edge defender on 834 snaps. The Redskins also lost reserve edge defender Pernell McPhee, who played 203 snaps in 2018.

The Redskins traded up from the 2nd round to take Mississippi edge defender Montez Sweat 26th overall at the end of the first round (giving up a 2020 2nd round pick in the process). Sweat could have been a top-10 pick if not for concerns about his heart condition and he could prove to be a steal if he stays healthy and develops. He’ll have an immediate role and the Redskins will also be giving more playing time to 2017 2nd round pick Ryan Anderson. He’s played just 358 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is a projection to a large role, but he has plenty of upside and flashed on 164 snaps in 2018.

Ryan Kerrigan remains as an every down player. Kerrigan has been an iron man since entering the league as the 16th overall pick in 2011, making 128 of 128 starts and averaging 57.5 snaps per game in 8 seasons in the league. He’s also played at a high level, with 84.5 sacks, a 13.1% pressure rate, and solid play against the run as well. He’s going into his age 31 season, but shows no signs of slowing down, finishing as PFF’s 25th ranked edge defender in 2018. The Redskins’ depth at edge defender is suspect (7th round rookie Jordan Brailford might be 4th in the rotation), but they have a solid top trio.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Redskins also lack depth at interior defender. Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Matt Ioannidis are a solid starting 3-man defensive line in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense, but they didn’t have a single reserve play more than 137 snaps in 2018. Tim Settle, a 2018 5th round pick who played 135 snaps as a rookie, is probably their top reserve in 2019 and he’s highly unproven. Da’Ron Payne plays nose tackle in this defense in base packages, but he’s not a pure nose tackle, actually leading this defensive line in snaps played with 797 in 2018. The 13th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Payne moves well for his size and added 5 sacks, 3 hits, and 19 hurries on 473 pass rush snaps (5.8% pressure rate). He earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in 2018 and could easily take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019.

The Redskins also used a first round pick on a defensive lineman in 2017, taking Jonathan Allen 17th overall. Allen flashed on 159 snaps in an injury plagued rookie season and then took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, playing 780 snaps and earning an above average grade from PFF. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Allen could easily continue improving. Like his former college teammate Da’Ron Payne, he has a huge upside.

Matt Ioannidis plays about half the snaps as the 3rd defensive end. He had 7.5 sacks last season, despite playing just 439 snaps. While his peripheral pass rush stats weren’t as good, 3 hits and 25 hurries on 275 pass rush snaps, he still earned an above average pass rush grade from PFF. A 5th round pick in 2016, Ioannidis has earned an above average overall grade from PFF in each of the past 2 seasons as a part-time player. The Redskins need him, Allen, and Payne to all stay healthy, hardly a given.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Redskins also lost middle linebacker Zach Brown this off-season. Brown played just 68.0% of the snaps in 2018 and struggled in coverage, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked off ball linebacker in run grade. He was released because he had a 7.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and because the Redskins had Reuben Foster to take over for him, but Foster tore his ACL and Brown signed with the Eagles. That left the Redskins having to sign veteran Jon Bostic, who is an obvious downgrade from both Brown and Foster. Injuries have already started on a defense that had almost done last season.

Bostic is experienced, with 46 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, and he’s a capable run stuffer, but he struggled in coverage. He’s similar to fellow starter Mason Foster, who has made 92 starts in 8 seasons in the league. The one difference is Foster is a little older, going into his age 30 season. Young linebackers Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaun Dion Hamilton may have to see roles. Harvey-Clemons is a 2017 7th round pick who has struggled in 289 career snaps, while Hamilton went in the 6th round in 2018 and struggled on 129 snaps as a rookie. This is a weak position group.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The Redskins also have two new starters at safety. DJ Swearinger and HaHa Clinton-Dix were an impressive starting duo after the Redskins acquired the latter from the Packers at the trade deadline to start the final 9 games of the season, but Swearinger was kicked off the team before week 17 last year, due to issues with the coaching staff, and Clinton-Dix signed with the Bears in free agency. The Redskins filled one of the starting jobs in a big way, signing Landon Collins, one of the best young safeties in the league in his age 25 season, to a 6-year, 84 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid safety in the NFL in average annual salary. The other starting job is an open competition though.

Montae Nicholson has made 13 starts over the past 2 seasons since going in the 4th round in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he struggled in 2018 before getting benched for Clinton-Dix. He was also arrested for assault late in the season, though the charges were eventually dropped. He’ll compete with Deshazor Everett, who has played just 802 defensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league and is a complete projection to a larger role, and 2018 4th round pick Tony Apke, who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. This figures to be a position of weakness in 2019, regardless of who starts.

The Redskins did not have many injuries on defense in 2018, but they did lose cornerback Quinton Dunbar for 9 games with a variety of injuries. Dunbar played pretty well when in the lineup and replacement Fabian Moreau, who ended up playing 840 snaps, was a downgrade. Dunbar has just 14 starts in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2015 though, so he’s relatively unproven, while Moreau is a 2017 3rd round pick with a high upside. They’ll compete for roles in 2019.

The Redskins also signed veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency and he’ll be in the mix for a role as well. Rodgers-Cromartie hasn’t nearly been the same player in recent years, now going into his age 33 season, and he retired in the middle of a 2018 season in which he barely played in Oakland (147 snaps in 6 games), but he could provide valuable veteran depth in Washington if his heart is back in it.

Josh Norman is the only cornerback locked into a role, as he remains as the #1 cornerback. He’s more name than game at this point though, falling from 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, to 26th, 49th, and 50th in 3 seasons in Washington. Now going into his age 32 season, Norman seems to be on the downswing. Owed a non-guaranteed 12.5 million in 2020, this could be Norman’s final season in Washington. He should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, but he’s not the shutdown cornerback he once was. This secondary is far from perfect, but there’s some things to like about it, including their cornerback depth and free agent acquisition Landon Collins.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

Even when the Redskins were 6-3 last season, they were not as good as their record and had serious issues on offense. Injuries were part of the problem last season, but their offensive issues aren’t all fixed from better health, especially with a rookie quarterback likely starting for most of the season. Not only is Dwayne Haskins less of a sure thing than Alex Smith, the first round pick they had to use on him could have gone to address other needs. They need help on both sides of the ball. They have some impressive players on defense, but they are unlikely to stay as healthy as they were last season and they lost some talent this off-season. This looks like a team that is going to struggle.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Team Score: 71.14*

Offensive Score: 70.68

Defensive Score: 71.60

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Miami Dolphins 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins have gone 23-25 over the past 3 seasons, but they’ve needed a 20-6 record in one score games just to get to that record. Remarkably, the Dolphins have just 3 wins by more than 8 points over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 19 losses, and their point differential over that time period is -243, only ahead of the 49ers, Raiders, and Browns. Last season, the Dolphins finished 7-9 and were in the playoff race until late in the season, but they finished 30th in the NFL in both first down rate differential (-6.41%) and point differential (-114).

Typically, a team’s record in close games is highly inconsistent on a year-to-year, as it tends to be more luck than skill, but, to the extent it is a skill, that skill probably went out the door when the Dolphins fired head coach Adam Gase, who had been their coach for all 3 of those aforementioned seasons. The Dolphins hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores to replace Gase as head coach and are going into a full rebuild, similar to what the Browns and Jets have done in recent years.

For years, the Dolphins have been a mediocre veteran team that was consistently up against the salary cap. This off-season, the Dolphins got rid of several expensive veterans and have the lowest active cap spending in the league. They also have the most dead money on their cap of any team in the league, but the Dolphins are clearly building for 2020 and beyond. They won’t actively try to lose games in 2019, but this is more than a one-year rebuild and their roster for 2019 looks like arguably the weakest in the NFL.

One expensive veteran the Dolphins got rid of this off-season was quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill had been with the Dolphins since they drafted him 8th overall in 2012 and he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons with the team, but he was an underwhelming starter at his best and saw his stock fall even further after a 2017 season that was wiped out by a torn ACL and a 2018 season in which he struggled mightily, finishing dead last out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Owed 18.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2019, the Dolphins could have cut Tannehill for nothing, but opted to negotiate a deal with him and the Tennessee Titans. Tannehill took a reduced salary to 7 million, with the Dolphins paying 5 million of it at signing, and the Titans sent the Dolphins a 2019 7th round pick and a 2020 4th round pick for Tannehill and a 2019 6th round pick. Essentially it’s a clever way for the Dolphins to buy a 2020 mid round pick, but it’s unclear if that’s worth 5 million and moving down a round in 2019. Either way, Tannehill is now a Titan and the Dolphins entered the off-season without a quarterback.

The Dolphins signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal in free agency and then, rather than using a high draft pick on a quarterback in a weak quarterback class, the Dolphins traded a late 2nd round pick (after trading down from their original 2nd round pick and receiving a 2020 2nd round pick in the process) to the Arizona Cardinals for Josh Rosen, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 38th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF and posting a 66.7 QB rating, and he fell out of favor in Arizona when they got the opportunity to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall, but he comes with plenty of upside and the Dolphins are getting a bargain with him.

Not only do they get him about 50 picks later than where he went last year, but the Cardinals paid him a 10.88 million dollar signing bonus last year, so the Dolphins owe Rosen just 6.24 million total over the next 3 seasons. Even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter, the Dolphins are still getting a cheap backup and they’re only giving up a pick in the late second round, where it’s usually very tough to find starting caliber quarterbacks anyway. Rosen was thrown into a very difficult situation as a rookie, with a weak roster around him that only got worse as injuries piled up, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback who went on to have a good career after struggling as a rookie (Peyton Manning and Jared Goff come to mind).

Rosen and Fitzpatrick will compete for the starting job. Rosen is considered the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzpatrick ended up winning it outright in a competition. Rosen is still unproven as a starter and Fitzpatrick is coming off of arguably the best season of his career. Making 7 starts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fitzpatrick completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 9.62 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked quarterback. Part of that is because he had a strong offensive supporting cast and he’s always had issues with turnovers, but he can also make plays downfield.

Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term solution at age 35 and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repeat his career best 2018 season in 2019, so the Dolphins will probably want to see what Rosen has at some point, similar to how the Buccaneers went back to Jameis Winston last season, but Rosen might not be out there week 1 if the coaching staff feels Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance to win. Regardless of who ends up starting, the Dolphins could end up taking a quarterback with a high pick in a better quarterback draft in 2020, as the Dolphins have arguably the worst roster in the NFL and will likely be picking high even if they get competent quarterback play.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Dolphins get rid of some expensive players this off-season, they also didn’t re-sign their most important free agent, right tackle Ja’wuan James, who signed a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos. That’s a little rich for James, but losing him without really replacing him or adding a comparable player at another position on the offensive line makes an already poor offensive line even worse. James was Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked offensive tackle in 2018, while his replacement Jordan Mills finished 74th out of 85 qualifying. Mills is inexpensive (2-year, 3.8 million) and experienced (82 starts in 6 seasons in the league), but he’s never played that well. The Dolphins didn’t take an offensive tackle in the draft until they took Isaiah Prince in the 6th round, so Mills is likely locked into a starting job.

James was just one of two offensive linemen to earn above average grades from PFF in 2018, with the other being left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who finished 34th among offensive tackles in 15 starts. The 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Tunsil hasn’t quite been as good as expected, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (44 starts) and he still has obvious upside, going into his age 25 season. The Dolphins need him to take a big step forward with the rest of the line in bad shape.

The biggest addition the Dolphins made on the offensive line this off-season was Michael Deiter, who has a good chance to start at one of the guard spots as a 3rd round rookie. Normally you don’t want to rely on 3rd round rookies, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be a better than Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis, who finished 88th and 59th out of 88 qualifying guards at left and right guard respectively in 2018.

Larsen is no longer with the team, but Jesse Davis is still on the team and will compete to keep his starting role, despite his poor play in 26 starts over the past 2 seasons. Along with Deiter, the only other real option on the roster is free agent addition Chris Reed, who made just 8 underwhelming starts in 4 seasons in Jacksonville since going undrafted in 2015. The Dolphins are in the unenviable position of having to pick two starters between him, Davis, and Deiter, so if Reed wanted a chance to play he picked the right place to sign.

Daniel Kilgore could have been at option at guard, but with center Travis Swanson retiring due to injury, Kilgore is likely locked in as the starter at center. Swanson didn’t play that well in 2018, but Kilgore hasn’t been any better in his career, and he’s now going into his age 32 season and coming off of a triceps injury that ended his 2018 season after 4 games. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will be under heavy pressure. If that quarterback ends up being Josh Rosen, it could easily be a repeat of what happened last season in Arizona.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The Dolphins’ offensive line problems will also affect their running game. They rushed for 4.68 yards per carry in 2018 (9th in the NFL) in spite of offensive line problems, as their two top backs Frank Gore and Kenyon Drake both ran well. Gore averaged 4.63 yards per carry on 156 carries and ranked 15th in elusive rating with 3.29 yards per carry after contact and 23 broken tackles, while Drake averaged 4.46 yards per carry on 120 carries and ranked 22nd in elusive rating with 2.68 yards per carry after contact and 28 broken tackles.

Gore is no longer with the team, but Drake remains and could see a much larger role. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Drake has shown a lot of promise in his career, averaging 4.75 yards per carry on 286 carries. In addition to ranking 22nd in elusive rating last season, Drake also ranked 3rd in elusive rating in 2017 with 4.29 yards per carry after contact and 29 broken tackles on 133 carries. He is also a useful player in the passing game, with 85 catches for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns in the past 2 seasons, despite being a part-time player. He’s never carried a huge load, even dating back to his college days, but it looks like he’ll get a chance this season, with the Dolphins only using a 7th round pick on a running back.

Drake’s biggest competition for touches is 2018 4th round pick Kalen Ballage. Ballage averaged an impressive 5.31 yards per carry on 36 carries last season, but 75 of those yards came on one carry and he’s very unproven. He’ll likely have a role, but it probably won’t be as big as Gore’s last season. Drake could be a 250+ touch back with Ballage working as a backup rather than being in a true timeshare. Assuming Drake can handle the bigger workload, he should still be able to break some big runs without great blocking. I also expect him to be used heavily in the passing game so they can get the ball in his hands in space as much as possible. He’s a potential breakout player.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers

One player the Dolphins did surprisingly bring back this off-season was wide receiver Devante Parker. A first round pick in 2015, Parker fell out of favor with the previous coaching staff, catching just 2 passes on 38 snaps in the first 7 games of the 2018 season before being forced into action due to injuries and making 22 catches for 269 yards and 1 touchdown in the final 9 games of the season. Parker must have shown enough for the new coaching staff to give him a chance, as they re-signed him to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal, rather than releasing him outright ahead of a 9.387 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

It was a surprising move, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The 5 million dollars he’s guaranteed in the first year is a steep drop from his previously scheduled salary and the Dolphins also get an option to keep him for 2020 for another 5 million if he shows progress. Even if he only matches his career high 56/744/4 slash line from 2016, he’ll be worth that salary. He’s missed time with injury in all 4 seasons in the league and he’s been called out by coaches for his work ethic, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and the Dolphins are evaluating players for the future more than anything in 2019. Perhaps a fresh start with a new coaching staff will do him a lot of good.

Even if Parker doesn’t break out, this wide receiver group isn’t a weakness. They didn’t have a pass catcher with more than 600 receiving yards last season, but that was in part due to bad quarterback play and in part due to the fact that the Dolphins spread the ball around and didn’t throw to one target more than 79 times. Their team leader in targets, Danny Amendola, who also led the team in receiving yards with a 59/575/1 slash line, is no longer with the team, but the Dolphins still have Kenny Stills to start outside opposite Parker and they have both Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant coming back from injuries that limited them to 7 games and 10 games respectively in 2018.

Stills was second on the team in receiving last year with a 37/553/6 slash line on just 64 targets. He’s averaged a 45/709/5 slash line in 6 seasons in the league and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, so he could easily be more productive in a bigger role in 2019. He’s a great deep threat, with an average reception depth of 12.2 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but he’s limited after the catch, with just 16 career broken tackles and 3.7 yards per catch after catch.

Albert Wilson is a natural fit on the slot, provided he’s healthy after suffering a significant hip injury in 2018. Wilson was having an impressive year before going down, catching 26 of 35 targets for 391 yards and 4 touchdowns in 7 games, despite being a part-time player. His 3.03 yards per route run average actually led all qualifying receivers. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Wilson didn’t show much in his first 3 seasons in the league, but had a solid 2017 season in Kansas City, posting a 42/554/3 slash line, which led to the Dolphins giving him a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season.

Wilson is very much the opposite of Kenny Stills, with an average reception depth of 5.1 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but 42 career broken tackles (including 24 on 68 catches in the past 2 seasons) and 7.8 yards per catch after catch. The 5-9 186 pounder has never played well outside, so he won’t be an every down player, and this passing game will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect a big statistical year from him even if healthy, but he’s a solid player.

Jakeem Grant will be the 4th receiver when everyone is healthy, but he’ll have a role in this offense. Last season he played 282 snaps in 10 games before a foot injury and could see a similar role in 2019. He played primarily outside in 2018, lining up there on 222 of 282 snaps, but could see more action on the slot with Danny Amendola gone and he might be a better fit there. The 5-7 169 speedster is similar to Wilson, averaging 8.6 yards per catch after the catch and breaking 9 tackles on 34 catches in his career. He’s still unproven, but flashed a lot of potential last season and should have a career best year if he can stay healthy. When everyone is healthy, this is a solid quartet of wide receivers.

They are not nearly as talented at tight end. Michael Gesicki led Dolphin tight ends in receiving yards with 202, which was 7th on the team in 2018. A 2018 2nd round pick, Gesicki could be a lot better in 2019, but if he’s not the Dolphins don’t have a receiving threat at tight end. Veteran Nick O’Leary and 2018 4th round pick Durham Smythe played 373 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, but they blocked on 267 snaps and 134 snaps respectively and had just 14 catches combined.

The Dolphins signed Dwayne Allen from New England this off-season, but he’s primarily a blocker as well. The 7-year veteran has had some decent receiving years in the past, putting up a 45/521/3 slash line in 2012 and a 35/406/6 slash line in 2016, but he caught just 13 passes in 2 seasons with the Patriots and ran routes on just 279 of 839 snaps over those 2 seasons. The Dolphins may use him a little bit more in the passing game, but he was primarily signed for his above average run blocking ability. His contract (6.5 million over 2 years) suggests he’s the favorite to be their primary blocking tight end over O’Leary and Smythe.

The Dolphins will probably use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets regularly to compensate for their lack of pass catchers at tight end. There is a lot of upside in this young receiving corps, with Devante Parker, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, and Michael Gesicki all potentially exceeding expectations, but this passing game as a whole will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect big numbers from anyone, especially with so many different options.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Another reason why the Dolphins are likely to frequently use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets is because they figure to be trailing often, forcing them to pass more than they’d like, in large part due to serious issues on defense. Their weakest position group is defensive end. The Dolphins saved 18.8 million in cash and cap space by moving on from Robert Quinn and Andre Branch and then opted not to re-sign Cameron Wake, who signed a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal in Tennessee. Branch struggled last season and was not nearly worth his salary, but Wake and Quinn will be big losses, after finishing 10th and 22nd respectively on Pro Football Focus in pass rush grade in 2018, and the Dolphins didn’t do much to replace any of the edge defenders they lost.

Instead, they’ll be counting on third year defensive end Charles Harris to take a big step forward. Harris was the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he’s only played 843 snaps in 27 games in 2 seasons in the league, making just 3 starts. He’s been a better pass rusher than his 3 sacks suggest, as he’s added 12 hits and 39 hurries on 486 pass rush snaps, a solid 11.1% pressure rate, and he could have a decent sack total in 2019 in a larger role, but he’s still a very unproven player and he is a liability against the run at 6-3 250. Only in his age 25 season, he has upside, but he’s not someone you want to be your best defensive end.

The only other edge defender who played a snap for the Dolphins last season that is still with the team is Jonathan Woodward, a 2016 7th round pick who was underwhelming in the first 128 snaps of his career in 2018. He could easily be a starter in 2019, given their lack of depth. The Dolphins didn’t add a single defensive end through the draft and their only veteran additions were Nate Orchard and Tank Carradine, who played 36 snaps and 24 snaps respectively in 2018.

Orchard was a 2nd round pick by the Browns in 2015 and had a couple decent seasons, earning average grades from PFF in 2015 and 2017 on 475 snaps and 431 snaps respectively, but he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 9 hits, and 20 hurries on 442 career pass rush snaps (7.7%). Carradine was also a former 2nd round pick, being drafted by the 49ers in 2013, but he’s never played more than 229 snaps in a season, in part due to injury. He’s been more effective rushing the passer on a per snap basis than Orchard, but he’s also going into his age 30 season. Both players could see significant roles in a very thin position group.

Grade: D

Interior Defenders

The Dolphins are deeper on the interior of their defensive line. They return starters Davon Godchaux and Akeem Spence and although the latter struggled last season, they used the 13th overall pick on Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to replace him in the starting lineup. Wilkins could have been a top-10 pick and will almost definitely be an upgrade as a rookie. He’ll start inside next to Godchaux.

Godchaux struggled on 500 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but took a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league, making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. He didn’t get much pass rush, with 1 sack, 3 hit, and 13 hurries on 354 pass rush snaps (4.8% pressure rate), but he finished as PFF’s 17th ranked defensive tackle against the run and should at least have a base package role again in 2019. He might never develop as a pass rusher, but he’s still a valuable player.

Akeem Spence will likely still have a big role as the 3rd defensive tackle. He’s never been more than a replacement level player as a starter, but he’s experienced (53 starts in 88 career games) and isn’t a bad fit as a 3rd defensive tackle. The Dolphins also get Vincent Taylor back from injury, after a foot injury cost him the final 8 games of the 2018 season. In part due to that injury, he’s only played 389 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2017, but he’s shown a lot of promise in limited action and should get a bigger role in 2019 if he’s healthy. Unless they get a big rookie year from Christian Wilkins, they don’t have any game changing players at defensive tackle, but they have solid depth.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Dolphins return all 3 starters at linebacker, Kiko Alonso and Jerome Baker on the outside and Raekwon McMillan at middle linebacker. McMillan started the year as an every down player, but struggled mightily in coverage and began coming off the field in obvious passing situations down the stretch, with Alonso and Baker staying in as the two nickel linebackers. McMillan finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but finished the season with 36 catches and 6 touchdowns allowed on 41 targets.

A 2nd round pick in 2017, last season was essentially McMillan’s rookie year because he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Another year removed from the injury, McMillan could take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only in his age 23 season, but he’ll have to compete with Jerome Baker for an every down role. Baker was significantly better in coverage and had a promising season overall in 2018, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 678 snaps, despite only being a 3rd round rookie. Like McMillan, he could take another step forward in 2018.

Alonso led this unit with 1004 snaps played in 15 games last season, but he was also the worst of the bunch, finishing as PFF’s 82nd ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifiers, especially struggling in coverage. Way back in 2013, Alonso was a promising young linebacker, but he’s had a couple significant knee injuries since then and hasn’t been the same player in recent years. His rookie season was the last time he earned an above average grade from PFF. The Dolphins opted to keep Alonso at a non-guaranteed 6.51 million salary rather than make him part of their veteran purge, so the new coaching staff clearly thinks they can get the most out of him. Now in his age 29 season, that’s unlikely, but he should continue playing a significant role in this linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Dolphins also return all of their starters in the secondary. In fact, every defensive back who played a snap for the Dolphins last season is still on the roster. That’s not necessarily a good thing though, on a defense that finished 29th in first down rate allowed and 30th in yards per attempt allowed. They are better at safety than cornerback, as both starting safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus in 2018. They also used the 11th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Minkah Fitzpatrick, who they want to eventually play safety.

There were rumors the Dolphins could opt to trade Reshad Jones to free up a spot for Fitzpatrick immediately, but those never came to fruition, possibly because no team was willing to trade for his 13.115 million dollar salary, which is mostly guaranteed. His 11.585 million dollar salary for 2020 is not guaranteed, so this could end up being Jones’ final season in Miami. He’s been a good safety for years, with his best seasons coming in 2012 (3rd among safeties on PFF), 2014 (10th), and 2015 (7th), but he’s now going into his age 31 season and isn’t a great fit on a team that is just starting a 2-3+ year rebuild. He could continue being an above average starter in 2019, but his best days are likely behind him.

If the Dolphins want to start Fitzpatrick at safety long-term, they could move on from TJ McDonald next off-season instead of Jones, but McDonald is younger, in his age 28 season in 2019, and cheaper, signed for just 12.65 million in 2020 and 2021 combined. He’s never played as well as Jones did in his prime, but he’s been a capable starter for years and has 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013. He should continue his solid play in 2019.

With Jones and McDonald locked in as starting safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick will continue to play cornerback. He’s better on the slot than he is outside, but he played 281 snaps outside last season, for lack of a better option, and will likely continue serving in that role again as the #2 cornerback, playing outside in base packages with only 2 cornerbacks on the field and inside on the slot in sub packages with 3+ cornerbacks on the field. Fitzpatrick struggled last season, earning a below average coverage grade from PFF, and will likely benefit significantly from his eventual move to safety, but he will continue playing out of position in 2019.

His main competition for the #2 cornerback job is Bobby McCain, last year’s #3 cornerback, and free agent acquisition Eric Rowe. Like Fitzpatrick, McCain is better on the slot than outside and struggled in 2018 while playing out of position (421 outside cornerback snaps as opposed to 283 on the slot). He was one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, but he needs to be used properly to get the most out of him. Rowe, meanwhile, is a pure outside cornerback and follows head coach Brian Flores to Miami from New England, so he’ll be in the mix for a role. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Rowe showed himself to be a capable outside cornerback at times in New England, but injuries limited him to just 21 games combined over the past 3 seasons. He comes with upside, but isn’t much more than a flyer. On a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal with just 500K guaranteed, he was worth a shot.

The only cornerback locked into his role is Xavien Howard, who remains as the #1 cornerback. Howard missed the final 4 games of the 2018 season with a knee injury and also missed 9 games with a knee injury as a rookie in 2016, but the Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal with a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that guarantees him 39.31 million in the first 3 years and makes him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. It’s a steep increase from his previously scheduled 1.286 million dollar salary for 2019.

Howard still tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2018 with 7, despite missing 4 games, but he wasn’t quite as good as his interception totals suggested, as he gives up too many big plays in coverage. He definitely played at a high level though, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback. He only had an average grade in 2017, but he improved significantly down the stretch during that season, which clearly carried over to 2018. Still only in his age 26 season, Howard could keep getting better. His contract is a little bit of an overpay, but the Dolphins had to keep him and as more top cornerbacks sign extensions his extension won’t look as expensive by comparison. Two or three years into this deal and he might not even be a top-5 cornerback in terms of average annual salary. He’s Miami’s best defensive player and elevates a secondary that, by default, is the Dolphins’ best defensive group.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins are not intentionally trying to lose games in 2019, but they are clearly building for the future. They have the most dead cap space in the league and the lowest active spending and it shows on this roster, which is arguably the worst in the NFL. The Dolphins will very likely be in position to select a quarterback high in the 2020 NFL Draft. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Team Score: 69.13*

Offensive Score: 67.43

Defensive Score: 70.83

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)