Los Angeles Chargers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

Grade: C-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Conclusion

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

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC West

Team Score: 76.55 (6th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 77.51

Defensive Score: 75.58

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

Green Bay Packers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Running Backs

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Linebackers

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in NFC North

Team Score: 77.40 (4th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 79.24

Defensive Score: 75.56

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

Detroit Lions 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

Grade: B

Linebackers

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

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

Grade: C

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Conclusion

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

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in NFC North

Team Score: 74.62 (17th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 74.67

Defensive Score: 74.56

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

Minnesota Vikings 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship with backup quarterback Case Keenum, who took over as the starter week 2 after Sam Bradford got hurt. Keenum had a career QB rating of 77.8 in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he finished the 2017 season with a 98.3 QB rating and was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback. Going into the 2018 off-season, Keenum was set to become a free agent, as were Bradford and fellow injured quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, giving the Vikings a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position, but also a lot of flexibility. Bradford and Bridgewater seemed unlikely to return either way, but the Vikings could have opted to hold on to Keenum, in hopes that he was a late bloomer who could repeat his career best season.

Instead, the Vikings shot higher at the position, giving a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar contract to ex-Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Unlike Keenum, Cousins had a consistent track record, recording a 97.5 QB rating over a 3-year stretch as a starter from 2015-2017, while making all 48 starts, and seemed to be the safer option, even if he was more expensive. However, the Vikings ended up missing the playoffs at 8-7-1 in their first season with Cousins under center, leading some to question that deal. 

Cousins is probably a little overpaid as the 6th highest paid quarterback in the NFL in average annual salary, but if the alternative was re-signing Keenum, it’s hard to see how the Vikings made the wrong choice. Keenum pocketed 22 million from the Broncos for one mediocre season as their starter, proving to be a one-year wonder, and only returned the Broncos a swap of late round picks via trade with the Redskins this off-season. Bradford, meanwhile, got 15.938 million from the Cardinals and wound up making just 3 starts, while Bridgewater took a backup job with the Saints. The Vikings could have opted to take a quarterback like Lamar Jackson in the first round of last year’s draft, but that scenario comes with it’s own risk. Given their options last off-season, signing Cousins was still probably their best choice.

Cousins was not the problem last season anyway, as he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked quarterback and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. His 99.7 QB rating was right about the average of his 3 seasons in Washington, so he hardly disappointed. Cousins’ contract gives him plenty of job security and, with only former Rams 3rd round pick Sean Mannion (53 career pass attempts) behind him on the depth chart, he’s in no danger of losing his job. It’s unlikely any of the Vikings’ three 2017 quarterbacks are starters anywhere this season and it’s unclear where the Vikings could have found a better available quarterback than Cousins last off-season. 

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even with Cousins having a solid season, the Vikings finished just 23th in first down rate, leading to them missing the playoffs, in spite of a defense that ranked 6th in first down rate allowed. There were two main problems with this offense last season and the offensive line was definitely number one. They finished 29th worst in the NFL in pass block efficiency, leading to Cousins being pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks, 7th most among qualifying quarterbacks. Given that, it’s pretty impressive that he was even able to put up the numbers he did and he ranked 2nd in the NFL with a 64.0% completion percentage under pressure. 

The Vikings seemed to make upgrading their offensive line a priority this off-season, particularly the interior of their offensive line. They used their first round pick on NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, who was probably the most complete interior offensive line prospect in the draft. He has experience at both guard and center, but will play exclusively center in Minnesota, kicking incumbent Pat Elflein to left guard. 

The Vikings are hoping that adding Bradbury upgrades two positions at once. Elflein was a 3rd round pick in 2017, but has struggled in 2 seasons at center, finishing 24th out of 39 qualifiers as a rookie and dead last out of 39 qualifiers last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league at a new position, but that’s far from a guarantee. His only competition is 2017 5th round pick Danny Isadora, who hasn’t shown much in 3 career starts, so Elflein should remain a starter.

The Vikings also signed guard Josh Kline to a 3-year, 15.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at right guard. Kline struggled in 16 starts with the Titans last season, leading to him being released just 1 year and 7.25 million into a 4-year, 26 million dollar contract, but he earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in 3 seasons prior to last season (43 starts). Going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he’s not a bad addition for a team that had a significant weakness at the guard position in 2018. If he continues to struggle in 2019, it’s possible they turn to 4th round rookie Dru Samia down the stretch, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. 

The Vikings were better at the tackle positions last season than they were on the interior. Rashod Hill made 8 starts and finished 70th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles, but left tackle Riley Reiff finished 23rd in 13 starts and 2018 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill overtook Hill at right tackle by season’s end and was an upgrade. Reiff has made 89 starts in the past 6 seasons and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, though his age is a concern going into his age 31 season. O’Neill, meanwhile, could stay a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, his first as a full-time starter. There are still some concerns on this offensive line, but it should be better than last year’s group.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The other issue with this offense last season was their lack of running game. Not only did they finish 25th in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.18, but they also had one of the bigger pass/run splits in the league, with 646 pass plays and 357 run plays, despite having a strong defense that can allow them to play conservatively. Starter Dalvin Cook missed 5 games with injury and backup running back Latavius Murray only averaged 4.13 yards per carry, but they really should have run a more balanced offense, especially when Cook was healthy, as he averaged 4.62 yards per carry on 133 carries. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after week 14 last season, mostly for not calling enough run plays, and new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.

Stefanski was kept this off-season, so expect them to continue running a more balanced attack. That will be a lot easier if Dalvin Cook can stay healthy and have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Cook has a career 4.68 YPC in 2 seasons since the Vikings took him in the 2nd round in 2017, but has been limited to 209 carries in 15 games by various injuries, including a torn ACL suffered as a rookie. Still only going into his age 24 season, the upside is obvious with him, especially since he added 40 catches in 11 games last season, but it’s not a guarantee he can make it through a full season.

As insurance, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Boise State’s Alexander Mattison, who will replace free agent departure Latavius Murray as the #2 back. Mattison should also see a significant role even if Cook is healthy, if they want to spell Cook frequently to keep him fresh. Mattison is not a guarantee to be an upgrade on Murray and a big part of why they struggled on the ground last season was their offensive line play, which could continue to be a problem, but Mattison definitely comes with some upside. I’d expect him to average about 6-8 carries per game while Cook is healthy. He’s solid insurance.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one thing Cousins did have going for him last season was his top two receivers Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs, who were one of three wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards, with slash lines of 113/1373/9 and 102/1021/9 respectively, joining Brandin Cooks/Robert Woods and Antonio Brown/JuJu Smith-Schuster. They could see their numbers drop a little bit in 2019 on a more balanced offense, but they’re still one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Neither is a one-year wonder either, as Theilen had a 69/967/5 slash line in 2016 and a 91/1276/4 slash line in 2017 as well, while Diggs averaged a 80/989/6 slash line per 16 games in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Still in their age 29 and age 26 seasons respectively, there’s no reason to expect a dropoff from either player. 

The Vikings do have a serious depth problems behind Theilen and Diggs though and would be in a lot of trouble if one of them ever missed significant time with injury. Laquon Treadwell has been their 3rd receiver the past 2 seasons, but he’s put up slash lines of just 20/200/0 and 35/302/1 respectively and has averaged just 0.75 yards per route run. Treadwell is a former first round pick and keeps getting chances, but he hasn’t shown anything in three seasons in the league and the Vikings seem to be growing tired of him. He’s not considered a roster lock and the Vikings could definitely turn to second year player Chad Beebe, who played just 46 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2019, as their 3rd receiver. Beebe might not be an upgrade, but the coaching staff reportedly likes him a lot and he may be the favorite for the 3rd receiver job.

With the Vikings thin at wide receiver, they could use more two tight end sets to compensate. Starting tight end Kyle Rudolph remains and they also added Alabama’s Irv Smith in the 2nd round of the draft. Going into a contract year, Rudolph was surprisingly given a 4-year, 36 million dollar extension even after the selection of Smith, but his contract is structured in a way where he still has little long-term security with the team, as he’s still not guaranteed any money beyond 2019. Originally owed 7.625 million in 2019, Rudolph will now make 9.35 million, in exchange for essentially giving the Vikings option years at a similar price for 2020-2023. 

Rudolph has averaged a 63/625/6 slash line in the past 4 seasons as a starter and is also a solid run blocker, but Smith has the potential to develop into a similar player at a cheaper cost. The Vikings have a lot of other big contracts on their books, so Rudolph could easily become superfluous at some point. For now, he and Smith will be a solid duo, but they may not be together than long. Even without a proven 3rd receiver, this is still an impressive group, especially when you include what Dalvin Cook can do as a receiver out of the backfield. 

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Vikings were a strong defensive team last season, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, after finishing 2nd in that metric in 2017. They were especially good down the stretch, allowing a first down rate of 31.50% in the final 9 games of the season (2nd in the NFL during that stretch), coinciding with the return of defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen’s replacement Stephen Weatherly wasn’t bad in his absence, but Griffen’s return allowed Weatherly to move back into a reserve role, giving the Vikings a talented trio of edge defenders, with Griffen, Weatherly, and fellow starter Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings considering moving on from Griffen and his 11.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season and moving forward with Weatherly as the starter long-term, but they opted to bring him back at a renegotiated rate of 7.5 million. Griffen is going into his age 32 season and was not as good last season as he previously had been, so he appears to be on the decline. In his first 4 seasons as a starter from 2014-2017, he had 43.5 sacks, 51 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate, but that fell to 5.5 sacks, 7 hits, and an 8.4% pressure rate in 2018. He still played the run well though and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked edge defender as recently as 2017, so he could easily continue being a useful player for another couple seasons, likely in a reduced role. 

Weatherly would be the beneficiary of a reduced role for Griffen. He finished last season with 524 snaps played, with 264 of those snaps coming in the 5-game stretch that Griffen missed. Like Griffen, he was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, with just 3 sacks, 6 hits, and an 8.8% pressure rate on the season. The 2016 7th round pick is complete one-year wonder, playing 94 snaps total in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, so he’s pretty unproven, but he could also continue developing into a solid starter, still only in his age 25 season.

Hunter will likely lead this group in snaps again, as he did last season with 879 snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hunter has quickly developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league, with 40 sacks, 21 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his career, with 34 of those sacks and 17 of those hits coming in the past 3 seasons. Also a solid run stuffer, Hunter finished last season as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender and, still only going into his age 25 season, could easily keep getting better. WIth Griffen back, this is an impressive trio.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Vikings kept Everson Griffen this off-season, but with so many other big salaries on their books, they were unable to keep defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed in Cleveland for 37 million over 3 years, after playing last season in Minnesota on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal. Richardson was an above average starting defensive tackle last season, playing 719 snaps in 16 starts, and was their best interior pass rusher, with 4.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.8% pressure rate.

Richardson will likely be replaced on early downs by free agent acquisition Shamar Stephen, who returns to Minnesota where he spent the first 4 seasons of his career, before spending 2018 with the Seahawks. He comes back on a 3-year, 12.45 million dollar deal and should start in base packages. He’s not bad against the run, but is not a replacement for Richardson as a pass rusher, with a career 3.4% pressure rate. The Vikings will also likely give third year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson more playing time in 2019. The former 4th round pick has some upside, but hasn’t shown much on 322 career snaps.

Their other starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph is still in town and should continue to start, but his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s coming off of a disappointing season as a pass rusher. He still had a strong season against the run, but had just a 5.0% pressure rate, a big drop from the 8.0% pressure rate he had in 8 seasons in the league prior to last season. He still played 671 snaps and could still a similar snap count in 2019, but he could also be taken off the field in more sub packages. He had an 8.2% pressure rate as recently as 2017, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall, so he has some bounce back potential, but his best days could easily be behind him at this point.

Everson Griffen used to line up as an interior rusher in sub packages earlier in his career, so maybe the Vikings will put all three of their defensive ends on the field at once in obvious passing situations, to mask their lack of interior pass rush depth. Hybrid defensive end Jalyn Holmes could also carve out a role as a situational pass rusher on the interior. The 2018 4th round pick played just 58 snaps as a rookie, but could see a bigger role in his second season in the league. This group should stop the run pretty well, but interior pass rush is a significant concern with Richardson gone. 

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Vikings were unable to re-sign Sheldon Richardson this off-season, but they did bring back linebacker Anthony Barr, in a surprising move. Barr had seemingly agreed to terms with the Jets on a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar deal, but changed his mind right at the end of the legal tampering period and wound up re-signing with the Vikings on that same deal. It’s not just a surprising deal because it looked like he was gone, but also because the Jets were looking at him as an edge defender at that salary. For an off ball linebacker, which Barr has been throughout his career in Minnesota, that contract value is 2nd highest at the position on an annual basis. 

It’s possible the Vikings could play him more at edge defender in sub packages, if Griffen lines up inside more often, but there’s no indication that they want to play him at defensive end full-time. He has an impressive 18.2% pressure rate for his career and last season had 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 22.3% pressure rate, but he only rushed the passer 103 times (46 as an edge defender, 57 as a blitzer) and has never rushed the passer more than 112 times in a season. Even at his new salary, I wouldn’t expect that to change.

Given that, it’s pretty surprising that Barr was brought back over Richardson. Barr is a good blitzer and run stuffer, but the 6-5 255 pounder is built like a defensive end and struggles mightily in coverage, earning below coverage average grades from Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons. Barr is a great athlete, but now in his age 27 season it seems unlikely he’ll ever develop into a consistent player in coverage. If the Vikings continue to use him the way they’ve used him in recent years, he was a big overpay for a team with limited financial flexibility. 

Barr will continue to start outside next to Eric Kendricks, who is an every down player in the middle. Kendricks is an unspectacular player who has never finished higher than 32nd among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but the 2015 2nd round pick has started 55 of a possible 64 games and has earned an average or better grade both against the run and in coverage from PFF in 3 straight seasons. He should continue giving them solid every down play in the middle.

Third year linebacker Ben Gedeon is likely to continue starting as the third linebacker, playing outside in base packages. He played just 311 snaps last season, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but he hasn’t been bad in coverage in limited action in his career. The 2017 4th round pick could see a bigger role this season if Barr does end up playing more defensive end. He’s very unproven overall with just 556 career snaps, but he definitely has some upside. They would have been better off moving on from Barr, re-signing Richardson, and giving Gedeon a shot as an every down outside linebacker. It’s harder to find good interior pass rushers than it is to find good run stopping linebackers. This isn’t a bad group, but they overpaid to keep it together.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was probably their best unit in 2018, with safety being their biggest position of strength. Veteran safeties George Iloka and Andrew Sendejo left this off-season, which depletes their depth, but they bring back their top-2 safeties from last season, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Smith is a proven player and his 15th ranked finish among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season was actually a down year for him, as he had finished in the top-5 among safeties in 3 of the previous 4 seasons prior to last season. Smith is going into his age 30 season and it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he also has some bounce back potential and, either way, he should remain an above average starter at the very least.

Harris, meanwhile, had a breakout year out of nowhere in 2018, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 9 starts, despite only playing 580 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and going undrafted back in 2015. Already in his age 28 season, it’s possible Harris proves to be a one-year wonder, but he could also prove to be a late bloomer. At the very least, he deserves a chance to be a 16-game starter, which is what he’s getting with Iloka and Sendejo gone and little depth behind him.

The Vikings have a lot more depth at cornerback than safety. They’re getting 2018 first round pick Mike Hughes back from a torn ACL that ended what looked like a promising rookie season after just 244 snaps in 6 games. He likely won’t be any higher than third on the depth chart though, with starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes both returning as well. In fact, Hughes may have to compete with his injury replacement Mackenzie Alexander for the 3rd cornerback job, as Alexander finished as PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback on 564 snaps last season. He’s a one-year wonder and only played 391 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he was a 2nd round pick back in 2016 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the 3rd cornerback job. Even 5th cornerback Holton Hill showed promise on 378 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season. This is a very deep group.

Not only are the Vikings getting Hughes back from injury, they’re also getting a healthier Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes played 771 snaps in 14 games last season, but was not himself for most of the season because of injuries to his hamstring, knee, and ankle. After finishing 21st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and 38th in 2017, he fell to 109th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks in 2018. Only in his age 29 season, he should bounce back if healthy, which would be a boost for this defense.

Trae Waynes will continue to start opposite Rhodes. He was limited to 693 snaps in 14 games by injury last season, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 2 seasons as a starter (30 starts). Waynes was the 11th overall pick in 2015 and has developed into a solid starter. He’s one of several high draft picks in this secondary, with Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith also being first round selections as well. The Vikings have invested significant draft resources in their secondary and it’s paid off in a strong group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are reasons to be optimistic for the Vikings’ offense, with a new balanced offensive system, a healthy Dalvin Cook, and an improved offensive line, but their defense could take a little bit of a step back without Sheldon Richardson. It wouldn’t surprise me if this team ended up making the playoffs and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot until the end, but the NFC might be too loaded for them to sneak into the post-season, especially in a very tough division. Both the Lions and Packers look likely to be better in 2019, while the Bears return most of their team that went 12-4 last season. 

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC North

Team Score: 74.29 (19th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.51

Defensive Score: 75.06

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

Chicago Bears 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears were the most improved team in the league last season, going from 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018. There were a lot of reasons for their improvement, but a big one was the improvement of their passing game. Rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky started 12 starts in 2017, but completed just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In 2018, he started 14 games and completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.43 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, their offense went from 25th in first down rate in 2017 to 14th in 2018.

It’s unclear how much of Trubisky’s statistical improvement is because of his own improvement though and how much is a result of the added help he had around him. Trubisky spent his rookie year with nothing to work with in the receiving corps and played in an uninventive offense, but he got an entirely new top-3 receivers and starting tight end in 2018 and got to work with new head coach Matt Nagy, who was able to get the ball out of Trubisky’s hands faster with more predetermined throws. Trubisky himself actually fell from 28th out of 42 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus as a rookie to 33rd out of 39 qualifying in 2018. 

Going into his 3rd season in the league, Trubisky has yet to show himself as being worth the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, especially ahead of quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. He obviously still has upside though, still only going into his age 25 season, and he has a strong roster around him. If he does take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, this could be a very dangerous team. 

Chicago’s record last season is even more impressive when you consider that backup Chase Daniel had to make a pair of starts while Trubisky rested a shoulder injury. The Bears had just a 35.07% first down rate in Daniel’s 2 starts, as opposed to 37.32% in Trubisky’s 14 starts, but the Bears could do worse than Daniel as a backup quarterback. He’s only thrown 154 career passes in 10 seasons in the league, but has a solid 85.5 QB rating and is well regarded around the league. As good as the rest of this team is, Daniel could probably hold down the fort for a little while if Trubisky was to suffer an injury.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Trubisky basically got an entirely new receiving corps from 2017 to 2018, which was a big help. His 2017 receiving corps had its projected top-3 receivers go down with injury and combine for 5 catches and no pass catcher on the team topped 614 receiving yards. His 2018 receiving corps added wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton in free agency, as well as wide receiver Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the draft. All four players finished in the top-5 on the team in receiving, joined by passing down back Tarik Cohen, who had a breakout season with a 71/725/5 slash line. 

Allen Robinson was the big off-season prize, coming in on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. Robinson’s 55/754/4 slash line is underwhelming for a highly paid player, but that’s largely the result of the Bears spreading the ball around in the passing game, with Robinson’s 94 targets (42nd in the NFL) leading the team. Robinson still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus, the 3rd straight healthy season in which he’s done that (a torn ACL limited him to 3 snaps in 2017), and finished as PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver overall. He also missed another 3 games with injury, which deflated his stats a little bit, but he could easily see an uptick in 2019 if he can play more games, especially if Trubisky takes a step forward as a passer.

The rest of this group returns as well. Anthony Miller is the potential breakout player of the group. He had just a 33/423/7 slash line as a rookie, but played just 576 snaps as the 3rd receiver and received just 54 targets. He also played most of the year through a serious shoulder injury. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. Taylor Gabriel led this wide receiver group with 830 snaps played in 2018, with Robinson missing time with injury, but Miller could easily overtake him for the starting job, putting Gabriel into the 3rd receiver role. Miller can play outside in two-wide receiver sets and move inside to the slot in 3+ wide receiver sets, with Gabriel playing outside opposite Robinson. 

Gabriel is probably best as a 3rd receiver. He didn’t have a bad 2018 season with a 67/688/2 slash line, but he had never exceeded 617 snaps in a season prior to last season and the 5-8 165 pounder is probably overstretched as an every down player. He was only signed to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in free agency, so his salary isn’t cost prohibitive for a 3rd wide receiver. He averaged a 33/455/2 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season and could be closer to those numbers than his 2018 numbers this season. 

Tight end Trey Burton had a decent 54/569/6 slash line, but the Bears were probably expecting more when they signed him to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season that makes him the 8th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. It was a risky move because Burton had only played 696 snaps in 4 seasons in the league as the Eagles’ 3rd tight end, but he showed promise with a career 1.50 yards per route run and the Bears were desperate for playmakers. In his first season in a large role, he managed just 1.16 yards per route run and only earned about an average grade from PFF. I wouldn’t expect much more from him in 2019.

Third year tight end Adam Shaheen will be the #2 tight end. The 2017 2nd round pick flashed on 239 rookie year snaps, but was limited to 160 nondescript snaps in 6 games by a foot injury last season. He’s very unproven, but still has plenty of upside and, with veteran blocking tight end Dion Sims gone, he’s locked into the #2 tight end role. He might not be that productive in a crowded receiving corps, but could still see a somewhat significant role, especially as a run blocker. This is a solid group overall. 

Grade: B

Running Backs

As mentioned, running back Tarik Cohen also had a big impact in the passing game. A 4th round pick in 2017, Cohen had a 53/353/1 slash line as a rookie, but then took that to the next level in 2018 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back in pass catching grade. Matt Nagy comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, so it’s no surprise that he’d use a running back heavily in the passing game. Jordan Howard was their clear lead running back last season with 250 carries, but he managed just 20 catches and was sent to the Eagles for a conditional 2020 late round pick this off-season. His 3.74 YPC average last season was unimpressive, but he did a good job keeping this offense on schedule, ranking 17th among running backs with a 50% carry success rate.

He’ll be replaced by a pair of running backs who fit Matt Nagy’s offense better. Veteran Mike Davis was signed in free agency to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, while Iowa State’s David Montgomery was added via the third round of the draft. Davis averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 112 carries with the Seahawks last season and added 34 catches, but he had just a 2.85 YPC average on 122 career carries in 3 seasons prior to last season and also had just 25 catches total in those 3 seasons. 

It looked like Davis was in line for a big role when Howard was traded, but the addition of Montgomery in the draft definitely hurts his chances. Montgomery has earned positive reviews this off-season, both as a runner and a receiver, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t play ahead of Davis, even as early as week 1. Montgomery underwhelmed at the combine (4.62 40 time), which is he why he fell in the draft, but he’s a violent runner on tape and led college football in broken tackles last season. 

The addition of Montgomery and Davis could cut into Tarik Cohen’s passing game production a little bit, but the Bears had 101 catches by a running back last season even with Howard as the lead back and could easily surpass 110+ catches by running backs in 2019, so there will be plenty of balls to go around. Montgomery and Davis could also cut into Cohen’s role as a runner (186 carries in 2 seasons in the league), but the 5-6 181 pounder is probably best as a sparingly used change of pace back on the ground anyway. This is a solid group, even without Howard.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky was also helped by a strong offensive line, which finished 2nd in pass block efficiency and allowed Trubisky to be sacked just 24 times in 14 starts. The Bears return all 5 starters in 2019, though it looks like they will be flipping the positions of incumbent left guard James Daniels and incumbent center Cody Whitehair. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Daniels entered the starting lineup at left guard week 8 in his rookie year and wasn’t bad in 10 starts, but his natural position is center and it looks like he’ll get a shot there in his second season in the league in 2019. Whitehair, meanwhile, made 4 starts at guard in 2017, but has primarily been a center in 3 seasons in the league and he’s been a good one, finishing in the top-12 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, so changing his position is kind of risky. If it doesn’t work out, the Bears could flip their positions back pretty easily, so it’s not a huge risk.

At tackle, Charles Leno and Bobby Massie both made all 16 starts on the left and right side respectively and finished 18th and 34th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF. Both are proven starters, making 61 starts in 4 seasons as a starter and 76 starts in 5 seasons as a starter respectively, and both have earned average or better grades from PFF in all of those seasons, maxing out at 12th and 33rd respectively. Massie is getting up there in age a little bit in his age 30 season, but Leno is still only in his age 28 season and they should remain a solid starting tackle duo for at least another season.

Right guard Kyle Long is their only starting offensive lineman who missed time with injury last season, finishing the season with just 511 snaps played in 8 starts. Unfortunately, injuries are becoming expected from him. After missing just 1 game with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2013-2015, Long has played in just 25 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons. Now going into his age 31 season, injuries seem to be catching up with him, as he earned a middling grade from PFF in 2018, after being one of the better guards in the league earlier in his career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was in the lineup for more games in 2019 and he seems to be having a healthy off-season, but his best days are likely behind him and if he misses time with injury again the Bears don’t have a good replacement. In fact, depth is an issue all across this offensive line, though the starting 5 is an impressive group. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The improvement of the Bears’ offense was a big part of why they improved significantly as a team from 2017 to 2018, but the Bears’ defense led the way for this team, finishing with the lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 30.38%, over 2% better than any other defense in the league (Baltimore was second). The Bears were a solid 9th in that metric in 2017, but their defense took it to the next level in 2018. There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest was the addition of edge defender Khalil Mack, who was acquired the week before the season started. 

The Bears paid a steep price for him, surrendering a pair of first round picks to the Raiders and giving Mack a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension that makes him the highest paid defensive player in the entire league, but he is one of the top defensive players in the NFL and is an annual candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (which he won in 2016). The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has started 77 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-6 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including first place finishes in 2015 and 2016. He dominates against the run and has totalled 49 sacks, 41 hits, and a 15.3% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons. In his first season in Chicago, he had 12.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate in 14 games and finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, there’s no reason to expect any sort of dropoff from Mack in 2019. 

Former first round pick Leonard Floyd remains as the starter on the other side. Floyd hasn’t quite become the player the Bears expected when they drafted him 9th overall in 2016. He’s developed into a strong run stuffer and coverage linebacker, but hasn’t been a great pass rusher, with just 15.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate in 38 career games. Floyd was an older rookie and is already going into his age 27 season, so he might be maxed out as a player. He’s not a bad starter, but he is a bit of a disappointment. 

Aaron Lynch also remains as the 3rd edge defender, playing 353 snaps in a reserve role last season. That’s not a big role, but it was the most he had played since 2015 and he was a pretty effective player. Lynch looked like a promising young edge defender early in his career, playing 1,310 snaps in his first 2 seasons with the 49ers from 2014-2015 and earning an average or better grade from PFF in both seasons, but injuries and off the field issues limited him to 379 snaps in 14 games in 2016-2017. 

Lynch seems to have gotten back on track, but it’s a concern for him that he’s losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was also his defensive coordinator in San Francisco and now is the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio’s absence could be felt across this entire defense, as he’s been one of the best defensive coordinators in the league over the past decade. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano isn’t a bad replacement, but it’s tough to replace arguably the best. They still have plenty of talent though, including at edge defender, though obviously they’d be in trouble if Mack were to ever miss extended time with injury.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bears also have continuity on the interior of their 3-4 defense, returning their top-5 interior defenders in terms of the amount of snaps they played last season. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman lead the way and they were among the best interior defenders in the entire league last season, finishing 4th and 15th respectively among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. It was a career best year for both players. 

Hicks has been in the league for 7 seasons and had some solid seasons in the past, but never anything like last season, as he previously maxed out as PFF’s 21st ranked interior defender in 2016. In addition to dominating against the run, Hicks also had 7.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate last season and played 74.1% of the Bears’ defensive snaps. Going into his age 30 season, it may be tough for him to match his career best year, but he could easily have another strong season.

Goldman, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and is still only in his age 25 season. The 6-4 320 pounder lines up at nose tackle in base packages, but is not just a base package player, playing 552 total snaps last season and adding 3 sacks and an 8.0% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Goldman showed a lot of promise in his first 3 seasons in the league, but could never stay healthy. In 2018, he played all 16 games for the first time and had a breakout season. His durability long-term could still be a concern, but at his age he could easily continue developing into one of the best nose tackles in the league. 

The trio of Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, and Jonathan Bullard will compete to be the 3rd starter on this defensive line in base packages. They played 354 snaps, 329 snaps, and 298 snaps respectively last season and will all likely continue playing a rotational role, regardless of who is the nominal starter. Nichols had the best year of the bunch last season, playing well against the run and flashing as a pass rusher as well, with 3 sacks, 5 hits, and an 8.5% pressure rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2018 5th round pick take a step forward in his second season in the league, after a promising rookie year.

Robertson-Harris also had a solid year in limited action. He barely played against the run, but had 3 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher. The 2016 undrafted free agent is very unproven and could regress a little bit in 2019, but the Bears don’t need him for a large role. Bullard, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2016. He’s developed into a decent run stuffer, but doesn’t get any pass rush with a career 5.0% pressure rate. He won’t be needed much either on a very deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Bears also return both starting middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. Trevathan was the better of the two last season, finishing 23rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd season in the top-23 in the past 4 seasons. Injuries have been a concern for him in the past though, as he’s missed 25 of 80 games in the past 5 seasons. He played all 16 seasons in 2018, but he’s far from a guarantee to do that again in 2019. Smith, meanwhile, was a middling starter last season in 14 starts, but the 2018 8th overall pick still has a huge upside and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league in 2019.

Reserve linebacker Nick Kwiatoski isn’t a bad fallback option if either Trevathan or Smith get hurt. The 2016 4th round pick only played 112 snaps last season, but he’s held down the fort in 14 career starts, especially playing well against the run. He’ll likely be limited to special teams unless injury strikes, but he’s good depth to have. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, Kwiatoski could easily end up getting starter’s money on the open market next off-season, so the Bears essentially have three starting caliber middle linebackers on the roster.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bears were able to bring back their entire front 7 more or less this off-season, but, like all teams built around defense, it’s tough for them to keep all their talent together under the cap long-term. The Bears were unable to re-sign safety Adrian Amos and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan this off-season and had to settle for cheaper replacements in HaHa Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine. Even still, the Bears are already 26 million over the cap for 2020. The Bears spent aggressively last off-season to try to maximize their chances of winning while Trubisky is on a cheap rookie deal, but at some point it becomes tough for teams to keep all of their talent together.

Amos was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety last season, while Callahan finished 11th among cornerbacks, so both will be missed. Amos will probably be missed the least, as the Bears did a good job finding a cheap replacement for him, signing HaHa Clinton-Dix to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. He’s not as good as Amos, but he’s made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a career best 17th ranked season among safeties in 2018. It’s surprising he wasn’t able to get a bigger long-term deal on the open market, but perhaps he’ll find one he likes better next off-season. 

Callahan, on the other hand, is being replaced by one of the worst slot cornerbacks in the league in Buster Skrine. He’s made 79 starts over the past 6 seasons and has averaged 59.7 snaps per game in 91 games, but he’s earned a below average coverage grade from PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a steep downgrade from Callahan. The 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal with 8.5 million guaranteed that the Bears gave Skrine this off-season looks like wasted money for a team that needs to make savvy financial moves. They would have been better off with a draft pick or veteran Sherrick McManis, who was solid down the stretch last season when Callahan missed time with injury. 

The rest of this secondary returns, which is a good thing since they had arguably the best secondary in the league last season. Safety Eddie Jackson led the way. Despite only being a 4th round pick in 2017, Jackson was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his second season in the league in 2018, leading the league with 8 interceptions (on just 44 targets) and finishing as PFF’s 1st ranked safety. Jackson is a one-year wonder in terms of being an elite player, but he was solid in 16 rookie year starts as well and, still only in his age 25 season, could easily be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come. 

At cornerback, the Bears had arguably the best starting cornerback duo in the NFL last season in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who finished 8th and 13th among cornerbacks on PFF. That was a career best season for both players though, so one or both might not be quite as good in 2019. Amukamara had never finished higher than 34th in 7 seasons in the league prior to last season and age and injury are becoming a problem for him. He’s going into his age 30 season and has missed 30 games with injury in his career, while making it through all 16 games just once in 8 seasons. It could be tough for him to match his career best season in 2019 and he’ll likely miss time again. 

Fuller is younger, still only in his age 27 season, which gives him a better shot at playing at the level he played at in 2018. A first round pick in 2014, Fuller was PFF’s 35th ranked cornerback in 16 starts in 2015, but then missed all of 2016 with injury, leading to the Bears surprisingly declining his option for 2018. That proved to be a mistake, as Fuller returned in 2017 to finish 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 16 starts and the Bears had to give him a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal to keep him in free agency, rather than paying him 8.526 million on his 5th year option. Fuller proved to be well worth that contract in the first year of the deal though and he could easily continue doing so. Even with some key off-season losses, this is still a strong group. 

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bears finished last season first in the NFL with a +6.64% first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time qualifying for the post-season in 2019, for a few reasons. For one, they’re going to face a much harder schedule, after finishing with the 2nd easiest schedule in the last league last in terms of opponents’ DVOA. They go from a first place schedule to a last place schedule and their division is one of the toughest in the NFL, with Green Bay and Detroit looking likely to improve and all four teams potentially looking like playoff contenders. 

The Bears also could have more injuries, after having the 3rd fewest in the league last season, and lost a couple key members of their secondary this off-season, as well as their talented defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up making it back to the playoffs, but it could be a tough road. A step forward in play from third year quarterback Mitch Trubisky would obviously go a long way towards making that happen. 

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC North

Team Score: 75.46 (13th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.75

Defensive Score: 79.17

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

Houston Texans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014 to 2016, the Texans went 27-21, but were carried by their defense and started 8 different underwhelming quarterbacks over those three seasons: Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Hoping to find their missing piece, the Texans were aggressive trading up from 25 to 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Deshaun Watson, giving up a future first round pick in the process.

Watson appeared to be that missing piece as a rookie, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, but then he tore his ACL in practice week 9 and missed the rest of the season. Dealing with an injury situation from hell, the Texans were also without their top defensive player JJ Watt for most of the season, as well as several other key starters, leading to the Texans finishing just 4-12.

In 2018, they were healthy and went on to win 11 games, but still seemed short of being a true contender, finishing 8th in first down rate differential at +2.99% and losing at home in their first playoff game against the Colts. Their defense was back to being dominant with Watt healthy, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense was a middle of the pack unit, finishing just 17th in first down rate, even with Deshaun Watson making all 16 starts.

Watson was not the problem though and in some ways he played better in 2018, even though he was coming off of a serious injury. He completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while adding 551 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground, and finished 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. His best improvement came in his accuracy and his completion percentage jumped 6.5% as a result. 

Durability is always going to be a concern for Watson because of his playing style and even last season he played through a serious chest injury for much of the season, but as long as he can stay on the field, he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best all around quarterbacks in the league, still only going into his age 24 season. The Texans did improve their backup quarterback situation this off-season by signing AJ McCarron, who has a career 91.4 QB rating on 136 attempts in 13 games (3 starts), but they’d obviously still be in a lot of trouble if Watson was to get injured again.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

This biggest thing that held this offense back in 2018 was their offensive line, which has been a problem for years. Watson led the league with 62 sacks taken and was pressured on a league most 44.7% of his dropbacks last season, making his high completion percentage all the more impressive (he finished 5th in the NFL with a 57.9% completion percentage under pressure). The Texans started 8 different offensive linemen, but only one earned an average or better grade from PFF, guard Greg Mancz, who started just 4 games.

The Texans did make upgrading the offensive line a priority this off-season, signing Matt Kalil to a 1-year, 7.5 million dollar deal in free agency and using first and second round picks on offensive linemen, taking Alabama State’s Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping. All three players will compete for roles, but it’s unclear if any of them are going to move the needle upfront. Scharping was a solid value in the 2nd round, but Howard was a reach in the first round, after the Eagles moved up one spot ahead of them to select original target Andre Dillard, and Kalil missed all of 2018 with a knee injury and was a head scratching signing at that salary. Those three will be among 10 players potentially competing for jobs upfront this off-season. 

Kalil’s salary suggests he’ll start, probably at left tackle. He was a solid left tackle early in his career, making 64 of 64 starts for the Vikings from 2012-2015, but he’s had two of his last three seasons wiped out by injury and finished just 56th out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his one recent healthy season in 2017. With Kalil now going into his age 30 season, it’s unclear who the Texans were competing with to sign him for 7.5 million dollars, especially since his deal doesn’t give the Texans any long-term option beyond 2019 on the off chance he does bounce back. He’ll likely be an upgrade over Julie’n Davenport, who finished 77th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles in 16 starts last season, but that could largely be by default and he could easily miss time with injury again. 

Right guard Zach Fulton’s salary also suggests he’ll start. He finished 65th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts, but the Texans signed him to a 4-year, 28 million dollar contract last off-season and his 7 million dollar salary for 2019 is fully guaranteed, so they don’t have much of a choice but to give him another shot. He was a better player in the first 4 years (46 starts) of his career in Kansas City before signing that contract, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been better than a middling starter.

Draft picks Tytus Howard and Max Scharping both played tackle in college, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latter moved inside in the NFL because of his arm length. Howard will likely be in the mix to start at right tackle week 1, where he would replace free agent departure Kendall Lamm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Howard struggle as a rookie though and most expected him to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. Davenport could also compete at right tackle, but the 2017 4th round pick has shown very little in two seasons in the league and likely isn’t a roster lock. 

Also in the mix at right tackle is Seantrel Henderson, who was re-signed to a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He started at right tackle week 1 last season, but missed all but 11 snaps with a broken ankle and has played just 89 snaps in the past 3 seasons. The 2014 7th round pick made 26 starts at right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career and is still in his age 27 season, but he also earned below average grades in both of those seasons and could easily struggle again if he manages to win the job.

If Scharping moves inside to guard, he could compete with incumbent left guard Senio Kelemete, who finished 59th out of 88 qualifying guards in a career high 14 starts last season. He earned average grades from PFF as a spot starter with the Saints from 2015-2017 (22 starts), but he may be overstretched as a full-time starter. Kelemete could also be pushed for his job by 2018 3rd round pick Martinas Rankin, who struggled mightily at tackle as a rookie and is now moving inside to guard, and veteran Greg Mancz, who wasn’t bad in 4 spot starts last season. Mancz was also a solid starter at center in 2016, making 16 starts as an injury replacement, though his experience at guard is more limited (11 career starts).

Mancz could also be an option at center, but it’s likely the Texans will continue starting Nick Martin. Martin was underwhelming last season, finishing 22nd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but he played every snap and the 2016 2nd round pick has made 30 starts at center over the past 2 seasons. He was underwhelming in 2017 as well, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a bit of a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, now in his contract year. The Texans added talent to this unit this off-season and it would be hard for them to be worse than last season, but there’s a lot of uncertainty upfront and this looks likely to be weakness again.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Texans also didn’t get much from their running backs in 2018. They ranked a decent 19th in YPC as a team with 4.28, but that was buoyed by a 5.57 YPC average on 99 carries by Deshaun Watson. Lead back Lamar Miller averaged 4.63 YPC on 210 carries, but did a poor job of consistently keeping this offense on schedule, finishing 35th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 44% carry success rate. He had about 10% of his season rushing total on one carry, so that distorts his average a little bit. Meanwhile, #2 back Alfred Blue averaged just 3.33 yards per carry on 150 carries with a 41% carry success rate, 39th among qualifying running backs.

The Texans didn’t do anything to address the running back position this off-season, only using a 7th round draft pick on fullback Cullen Gillespia, so they’ll once again be relying on Lamar Miller as their lead back. Miller is unspectacular, but he’s about as reliable as they come, topping 150 carries in 6 straight seasons (one of 3 running backs to do so over that stretch), averaging 4.31 YPC, totalling 203 catches in 92 games, and missing just 4 games due to injury. He’s also somehow only still in his age 28 season, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, and much of his struggles consistently keeping this offense on schedule last season were due to the offensive line’s inconsistent run blocking. He’s a good bet for another 200 or so carries in 2019, but could be inefficient on a per carry basis again if the offensive line continues to struggle. 

The Texans will also be hoping to get more from third year running back D’onta Foreman, whose 2018 season was ruined by injury. It would be hard for the Texans to get less from him in 2019, as he actually lost rushing yardage on the season with -1 yard on 7 carries, but the 2017 3rd round pick showed promise as a rookie before tearing his Achilles late in the season, averaging 4.19 yards per carry on 78 carries and he could easily bounce back in 2019 if he’s healthy, which he never was last season. He could see a significant role as a rotational running back, though he doesn’t do much in the passing game (13 catches in 27 career games in college and just 6 catches as a rookie in 2017). With little depth behind Foreman, they need him to bounce back.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The most valuable player the Texans have on offense around Deshaun Watson is #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished last season with a 115/1572/11 slash line, finishing in the top-5 in the NFL in all 3 categories. A first round selection in 2013, Hopkins has averaged a 95/1327/9 slash line in the past 5 seasons, despite having underwhelming quarterback play for much of that, and he has 153 catches for 2123 yards and 17 touchdowns in 22 career games with Deshaun Watson (111/1544/12 slash line over 16 games). Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in the entire NFL. 

The rest of this receiving corps was a weakness last season though. Will Fuller had a 32/503/4 slash line in 7 games, but then he tore his ACL and in his absence no one else topped 305 yards receiving on the season. The Texans didn’t make any big additions this off-season and will instead be counting on better health from Fuller and 3rd receiver Keke Coutee, who had a 28/287/1 slash line in just 6 games last season. 

Both players have upside, especially Fuller, who has 45 catches for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games with Deshaun Watson (65/1137/16 slash line over 16 games), but both have significant injury histories as well, with Fuller missing 17 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and Coutee having chronic hamstring problems dating back to his collegiate days, part of why he fell to the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s concerning that the Texans didn’t do anything to improve their depth behind Fuller and Coutee this off-season. 

The one addition they did make to their receiving corps this off-season was 3rd round tight end Kahale Warring. His addition coincided with the release of veteran Ryan Griffin, who was 3rd on the team in receiving last season with a 24/305/0 slash line, but he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and was not much of a blocker either. With Griffin gone, the Texans are going with a youth movement at the position, with 2018 3rd round pick Jordan Akins and 2018 6th round pick Jordan Thomas also in the mix for snaps, after playing 388 snaps and 470 snaps respectively as rookies last season. 

Neither Akins nor Thomas showed much though, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and 1.38 yards per route run respectively and underwhelming as blockers. Warring enters the league pretty raw, with just 51 catches in his collegiate career, so it’s possible the Texans don’t get much more out of any of their tight ends again in 2019. This receiving corps could easily be better in 2019 than 2018 with better health and some young talent, but this group remains a concern.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Texans were led by one of the best defenses in the league last season. A huge part of their defensive success is the edge defender trio of JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans have to get creative to get three all on the field at the same time, frequently playing JJ Watt as a defensive end in 3-4 base packages, with Clowney and Mercilus as 3-4 outside linebackers, and also using both Clowney and Mercilus as off ball linebackers occasionally in obvious passing situations, with Clowney seeing snaps as a blitzer from the middle linebacker spot and Mercilus leading all edge defenders with 168 coverage snaps in 2018. 

Watt used to be primarily an interior defender earlier in his career, but he’s played more and more on the edge in passing situations in recent years, as the Texans feel it’s a better use of his pass rush ability. It hasn’t really matter where he’s played, as he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, including #1 ranked seasons in 2013 and 2014. In total, he has 92 sacks, 176 hits, and a 13.4% pressure rate in 104 career games. He’s going into his age 30 season and missed close to two entire seasons with injury (he played just 8 games in 2016 and 2017 combined), but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was one of the best defensive players in the league again in 2019. 

Like Watt, Mercilus missed most of 2017 with injury, going down with a torn pectoral in the same game Watt broke his leg, and he was a welcome re-addition last season as well. He had just 4 sacks, but added 11 hits and an 11.4% pressure rate. A first round pick in 2012, Mercilus was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons dating back to 2015 and he has 24.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 52 games over that stretch. 

Mercilus has also been relatively durable aside from the 2017 pectoral tear, missing just 2 games in his other 6 seasons. Still only in his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2019. He did struggle mightily in coverage last season, allowing 23 completions on 25 targets with no pass breakups, and the 258 pounder is not a natural coverage athlete, so it’s possible they scale back his coverage role this season, but the Texans like lining him up in different spots and using him in different ways.

The Texans also like lining Jadeveon Clowney in different spots, though he also saw 29 coverage snaps in 2018. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney had durability problems early in his career, but he’s missed just 3 games with injury over the past 3 seasons and has played close to every snap in those games, averaging 56.3 snaps per game. He doesn’t have the big sack totals, with a career high of 9.5 sacks in a season and just 24.5 sacks in the past 3 seasons, but he’s added 35 hits and a 10.9% pressure rate in those 3 seasons and is a great player against the run as well. 

Clowney finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender, a career best, and could still keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season. The Texans made the obvious decision to franchise tag Clowney this off-season, keeping him off the market with a 15.967 million dollar salary for 2019, but they are reportedly not close on a long-term extension. Assuming he doesn’t hold out, he should continue being a part of a dominant edge defender trio.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

With JJ Watt playing primarily on the edge in 2018, DJ Reader, Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington led the team in snaps by an interior defender, with 639, 429, 347, and 257 respectively. Covington is no longer with the team, but he had the smallest role of the four and the Texans have an obvious replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Carlos Watkins. Watkins has played just 371 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but has shown some potential and should have a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league.

DJ Reader will likely continue to lead the way. He plays on the nose in the Texans’ base 3-4 defense, but the 347 pounder isn’t just a base package run stuffer, with a 7.8% career pressure rate and an average of 583 snaps played per season over the last 2 seasons. The 2016 5th round pick has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season 41st among interior defenders on PFF. Still only in his age 25 season, Reader could keep getting better in 2019 and beyond. He’ll be owed a steep pay increase on his next contract, owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019.

Brandon Dunn will likely continue starting at defensive end opposite JJ Watt in base packages (10 starts in 14 games in 2018). The 2014 undrafted free agent has developed into a solid run stuffer, which is what he’s primarily relied on for, but he gets no pass rush, with just 4 pressures on 171 pass rush snaps last season. Angelo Blackson isn’t much better as a pass rusher, with a 4.4% pressure rate in 2018, but he’s relied on as an interior pass rusher out of necessity. The 429 snaps he played last season were a career high and the 2015 4th round pick will play a similar role in 2019, after being re-signed on a 3-year, 12 million dollar contract this off-season. This is a strong group in base packages, especially when JJ Watt plays defensive end, but they lack interior pass rush, with nose tackle DJ Reader arguably being their best interior pass rusher. 

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Starting middle linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham return, after playing 919 snaps in 16 games and 753 snaps in 14 games respectively last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has made 27 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has been solid in both seasons. He’s better as a run stuffer than in coverage, but he holds his own in coverage as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019.

McKinney also is better against the run than he is in coverage, but he earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus for both last season and finished a career best 8th among off ball linebackers on the season. Also a former 2nd round pick, McKinney has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons. He might not quite match his career best season in 2019, but he should be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league again. 

Depth is a problem for the Texans at this position though, with only former undrafted free agents Dylan Cole and Brennan Scarlett behind McKinney and Cunningham on the depth chart. Cole is a 2017 undrafted free agent with 326 career snaps, while Scarlett went undrafted in 2016 and has played just 523 career snaps. Mercilus and Clowney do play some inside linebacker in certain situations, but they couldn’t play the position every down, so the Texans would be in trouble if McKinney or Cunningham suffered a serious injury.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While not much is changing for the Texans in the front seven, they had some big losses in the secondary. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson were their top-2 defensive backs in terms of snaps played last season with 1,045 and 985 respectively and both signed elsewhere this off-season. Safety Andre Hal and cornerback Kevin Johnson only played 237 snaps and 65 snaps respectively last season, but they both have prior starting experience and are also no longer with the team. 

Not only did Mathieu and Jackson play significant snaps last season, but they also played at a high level, finishing 20th among safeties and 4th among cornerbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus last season, so they won’t be easy to replace. Mathieu was replaced by ex-Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson, who signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Gipson was released by the Jaguars ahead of an 8.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s a surprise he was able to get a deal that basically guarantees him 15.5 million over the next 2 seasons. 

Gipson has started 87 games in the past 6 seasons, including all 48 in the past 3 seasons, but he’s been an inconsistent player. He finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked qualifying safety, but he’s finished as high as 15th among safeties in 2014 and as low as 94th among 101 qualifying safeties in 2016. He’s not a bad starting option and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s not reliable and he’s an obvious downgrade from Mathieu. He’ll start next to second year safety Justin Reid, who finished as PFF’s 28th ranked safety on 906 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. He should have another solid season in 2019. 

Jackson, meanwhile, is being replaced by ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who signed a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick in 2014, Bradley Roby earned average or better grades from PFF in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, playing about two thirds of the snaps as the 3rd cornerback behind the talented duo of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. With Talib traded to the Rams last off-season, Roby became an every down cornerback and matched up with opponents’ top outside receivers more often than not, but he got exposed in that role, allowing a 117.3 QB rating into his coverage and finishing 102nd among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Giving him 10 million dollars on a deal that doesn’t even give the Texans an option to keep him beyond 2019 if he bounces back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and he could easily struggle again. 

Roby will start outside opposite Johnathan Joseph. Joseph is coming off of an impressive season, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF, but the 13-year veteran is going into his age 35 season and could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next season or two. Joseph has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 10 straight seasons, but last season was his highest ranked season since 2015. I don’t expect him to be as good again in 2019 and there’s a chance he declines significantly.

At slot cornerback, the Texans are counting on a bounce back year from Aaron Colvin. Colvin was signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar contract in free agency last off-season, becoming one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league, but ended up playing just 317 snaps in 8 games and finishing as PFF’s 120th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifiers. His 7.75 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed, so the Texans don’t have any choice but to give him another shot, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy. The 2014 4th round pick earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he’s had injury problems dating back to college, including a torn ACL that caused him to fall in the draft and an ankle injury that ended his 2016 season. 

With Joseph getting up there in age, the Texans used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson as a long-term replacement. Johnson is a workout wonder, but wasn’t a standout player in college and may need a couple years to develop. He’s unlikely to start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart, but could be forced into action if Colvin gets hurt again or Joseph declines significantly. With Mathieu and Jackson gone and Joseph likely to regress, this could be a very average secondary in 2019.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Texans were a good, not great team last year, with 11 of 16 games decided by a touchdown or less (6-5 record). They should be similar this season. On defense, their secondary likely won’t be as good in 2019 as it was last season, while their offense has more talent around the quarterback, but still some significant questions, especially on the offensive line. They’ll be in contention for a playoff spot, even with a tough schedule in a suddenly tough AFC South, but I think they are behind at least the Colts in the division. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South

Team Score: 74.71 (16th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.63

Defensive Score: 75.78

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

Indianapolis Colts 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year ago, the Colts looked to be in one of the worst situations in the league. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck’s long-term future was uncertain because of a lingering shoulder issue that kept him out for all of 2017. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t play badly, but Luck’s absence exposed a supporting cast that was one of the worst in the league because of years of mismanagement and Brissett was only able to lead them to a 4-12 record in 2018 as a result. The Colts thought they were going to poach Josh McDaniels away from New England to replace Chuck Pagano as head coach, but he changed his mind at the last second and returning to New England, forcing the Colts to settle for Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

That looks to have been a blessing in disguise as now just a year later the Colts are in a great situation, coming off an improbable run to the post-season. The Colts started last season 1-5, but injuries were a big part of that and once they got healthy they went on to win 9 of their last 10 regular season games and a post-season game in Houston, before ultimately losing in Kansas City in the 2nd round. Even with the slow start included, the Colts finished the season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56%.

Second year general manager Chris Ballard did a great job of rebuilding this roster in the fly with inexpensive additions last off-season (more on those later), but the biggest reason for their turnaround was Andrew Luck’s return to form in head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system. Luck understandably started slow after a year off, completing 64.6% of his passes for an average of 6.22 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in their first 6 games, but he completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in the final 10 games of the season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback overall, his 2nd time finishing in the top-3 in his career. 

Most importantly, Luck played all 16 games, leaving backup Jacoby Brissett to only attempt 4 passes all season. Nonetheless, Brissett is still valuable insurance to have. The 2016 3rd round pick started 15 games in 2017 and had a 81.7 QB rating, despite little help around him. Brissett reportedly could have gotten the Colts a 2nd round pick via trade, but the Colts value him too much to let him go at that price, especially with Luck’s injury history. He’s arguably the best backup quarterback in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’ll likely end up getting a long-term starting job somewhere in the future. The Colts have a very enviable quarterback situation. 

Grade: A

Offensive Line

With Luck coming off of a serious injury, pass protection was paramount for the Colts in 2018. That also happens to be where the Colts made their biggest improvement from 2017 to 2018. Luck consistently played behind poor pass protection before the 2017 season, taking 156 sacks in 70 games, but last season he took just 18 sacks. Part of that was the offensive scheme getting the ball out of his hands quicker on average, but the offensive line deserves a lot of credit as well. 

Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castanzo were their only two returning starters from 2017 to 2018 and Kelly barely played in 2017, limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. Injuries have been a problem for Kelly the past two seasons and he missed another 4 games last season, but he took a big step forward in the field in 2018, finishing 11th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Durability remains a question, but he could remain a solid starting center for years to come, still only in his age 26 season.

Castonzo, meanwhile, has been starting since back when he was the only above average starter on this line. A first round pick in 2011, he’s made 116 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-8. He actually missed 5 games with injury early last season, part of why they got off to such a slow start, but he ended up finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle. He’s getting up there in age in his age 31 season, but could easily remain a reliable starting left tackle for at least another couple seasons. 

The rest of this starting offensive line consisted of a pair of draft picks, 6th overall pick left guard Quenton Nelson, PFF’s 6th ranked guard as a rookie, and 37th overall pick right tackle Braden Smith, PFF’s 27th ranked offensive tackle as a rookie, as well as free agent addition Mark Glowinski, who struggled mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career with Seattle and didn’t even make it into the starting lineup last season until week 7, but ended up finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked guard on the season. Glowinski is a complete one-year wonder, but the Colts brought him back on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal this off-season, ensuring complete continuity on this offensive line that played so well down the stretch last season. It’s possible we see some regression from an offensive line that had 4 out of 5 starters have career years in 2018, but this offensive line has a very bright future.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Colts were also much improved on the ground last season, after finishing below 4 yards per carry in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of that was the improved offensive line play, but they also had improved running back play as well, with lead back Marlon Mack leading the way. Mack missed 4 of the first 5 games with injury, but was a big part of their turnaround down the stretch, rushing for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns on 195 carries (4.66 YPC) and finishing 8th in carry success rate at 54%. A 4th round pick in 2017, Mack is a one-year wonder who averaged just 3.85 yards per carry on 93 rookie year carries, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily be one of the better runners in the league for years to come if he can stay healthy.

Mack doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 17 of 26 targets for an average of 3.96 yards per target and 3 drops last season, but they have Nyheim Hines to play in obvious passing situations. A 4th round rookie last season, Hines caught 63 passes for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked running back in pass catching grade. He also received 85 carries, but just 4.7 per game in the 12 games Mack played and was not terribly effective, averaging 3.69 yards per carry. He’ll likely still see a change of pace role to in addition to his passing game role, but he’s much more valuable as a receiver than as a runner.

Jordan Wilkins also saw his playing time drop dramatically with Mack in the lineup last season. He had 60 carries on the season and averaged an impressive 5.60 yards per carry, but he saw just 2.2 carries per game with Mack active and will likely see a similar role in 2019 as long as Mack is healthy. Unlike Hines, he doesn’t do much in the passing game (16 catches for 85 yards last season), but he’s good insurance to have in case Mack gets hurt again. He’s also very young, going in the 5th round in 2018. The Colts have done a great job of turning around the running back position in the past couple off-seasons with just a few mid round picks. 

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

It’s impressive that the Colts were able to have such a strong offensive performance last year (8th in first down rate) without a consistent #2 receiver. Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, and Dontrelle Inman all saw starts, but none of them topped 485 yards. The Colts made addressing this position a priority this off-season, using the 59th overall pick on Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell and signing ex-Panther Devin Funchess to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency.

Campbell was a good value at that spot and will likely open the season as the 3rd receiver, but Funchess’ contract is kind of head scratching. Funchess definitely has upside, as the 2015 2nd round pick is still only in his age 25 season and had a 63/840/8 slash line in 2017, but that fell to 44/549/4 in 2018 and he played just 94 snaps in his final 4 games last season, effectively being benched. He could prove to be worth his salary, but that’s far from a guarantee and even if he does he’ll likely cost even more to keep long-term beyond 2019. It would have made more sense if the Colts could have gotten him on a 3-year deal with minimal guaranteed money beyond the first year, giving them option years if Funchess pans out, but this contract doesn’t have much long-term upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed his career highs with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball though. His salary likely locks him in to the #2 receiver role.

Funchess figures to see plenty of single coverage opposite TY Hilton, who was by far their leading receiver among wideouts in 2018, with a 76/1270/6 slash line. Hilton underwhelmed with a 57/966/4 slash line without Luck in 2017, but he’s averaged a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games in his past 51 games with Luck under center. Hilton is going into his age 30 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and has only missed 4 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league. He dealt with a serious ankle injury down the stretch last season, but he showed incredible toughness, not just playing through it, but arguably having his best stretch of the season after getting hurt. As long as Luck is healthy, Hilton should remain among the most productive pass catchers in the league in 2019.

With depth problems at wide receiver, tight end Eric Ebron finished 2nd on the team with a 66/750/13 slash line on 110 targets, posting new career highs across the board. Ebron is unlikely to see quite as many targets this year though, after finishing 4th in the NFL among tight ends in targets last season. Not only did the Colts add talent at wide receiver this off-season, but they should also get more from #2 tight end Jack Doyle, who played just 331 snaps in 6 games last season. Doyle had slash lines of 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively as the starter and was on a 69/653/5 pace in 6 games last season, even with Ebron added to the mix last off-season. Doyle is also the better blocker of the two and should have a big role.

Ebron averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league with Detroit and will likely be closer to that than his 2018 numbers. He’ll still be involved as a red zone threat because this is an explosive offense and because Luck likes targeting tight ends near the goal line, but he’s unlikely to approach 13 scores again, after just 11 in his first 4 seasons in the league combined, in a much deeper receiving corps. This will likely be a very tough offense to stop next season, if they can stay healthier, after losing the 7th most games to injury on offense in the league last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Colts also had a lot of injury problems on defense last season, also finishing with the 4th most games lost to injury on defense. Despite that, they finished 11th in first down rate allowed. After years of relying on Andrew Luck to carry them, the Colts finally were a balanced team in 2018. The front office deserves a lot of credit for assembling the unit, but a lot of the credit should go to the coaching staff, led by first year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who successfully transitioned this defense from a bigger 3-4 to a 4-3 defense with more athleticism on the field. Eberflus was originally Josh McDaniels’ choice to be defensive coordinator and the Colts honored his contract even after McDaniels reneged, which proved to be a wise decision. He’s one of the best up and coming defensive coaches in the league and already received a couple head coaching interviews this off-season, after just one year as an NFL coordinator. 

In 2017, when the Colts ran a 3-4, their top two interior defenders in terms of snaps played were Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods, who tip the scales at about 325 and 330 pounds respectively. In transitioning to a 4-3, Hankins was cut ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, while Woods saw his role scaled back significantly, playing just 375 snaps as a situational run stuffer last season. Instead, it was converted defensive end Margus Hunt and hybrid defensive lineman Denico Autry, signed to a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal last off-season, leading the way on the interior, at just 295 and 275 pounds respectively. 

Both players had breakout years in a scheme that fits their skill sets perfectly. Hunt was a late bloomer, making 15 starts in 2018 after starting just 5 games in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to last season and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked interior defender on a career high 724 snaps. Hunt didn’t get much pass rush, with 5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.1% pressure rate, but he excelled against the run, even though he isn’t a traditional 320-330 pound run stuffer. The only concern with Hunt is that he’s already going into his age 32 season. The Colts didn’t seem too concerned when they re-signed Hunt for 9 million over 2 years this off-season, but he’s always been a better run stuffer than pass rusher and it’s very possible they scale his pass rush snaps back a little bit this season so he can focus on stuffing the run. 

Autry was their best interior pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 3 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate on the season, and he wasn’t bad against the run either, despite his lack of size. Autry is also a bit of a late bloomer, earning a career best PFF grade in his 5th season in the league in 2018, after earning middling grades at best in his first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland. Autry is going into his age 29 season, but he should continue giving them solid play from the interior, now in a defense that seems to fit his skillset better. 

Tyquan Lewis played primarily defensive end last season, but he’s expected to see more snaps on the interior this season and could be their primary interior pass rusher inside with Autry. A 2nd round pick out of Ohio State in 2018, Lewis was limited to an underwhelming 337 snaps in 8 games by injury last season, but still has a good upside. Weighing in at 269 pounds at the combine, Lewis will likely have to put on about 10 pounds this off-season to move inside, even in this undersized scheme, but that’s definitely doable and he could prove to be a better fit at his new position.

Al Woods is no longer with the team, leaving 6-4 333 pound Grover Stewart as the only situational run stuffer on their bench. The 2017 4th round pick struggled on a career high 292 snaps last season, but could see more playing time this season with Woods gone. He’s unlikely to ever develop into an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be improved in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. He and Hunt could be their primary early down players with Lewis and Autry as their primary sub package interior rushers. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The reason the Colts are moving Lewis inside is because they are deeper at defensive end than defensive tackle. In addition to drafting Lewis in the 2nd round last year, they also took Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round last year and then they used a 2nd round pick on TCU’s Ben Banogu in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. They also made a big free agent signing this off-season, signing ex-Chief Justin Houston to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal. He’ll start opposite incumbent starter Jabaal Sheard.

Houston used to be one of the best defenders in the entire league, finishing in the top-4 on Pro Football Focus among edge defenders in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, while totalling 40.5 sacks, 21 hits, and an 18.3% pressure rate in 38 games. However, injuries seem to have caught up with him. He’s missed 26 games over the past 6 seasons with a variety of injuries, only once playing all 16 games, and, in 3 seasons since that dominant 2013-2015 stretch, he’s seen his pass rush numbers drop to 22.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 32 games. 

That’s still impressive though and he still has a very impressive 14.8% pressure rate for his career, with 78.5 sacks and 51 hits in 102 career games. Even last season, he still finished 12th among edge defenders on PFF last season, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 12 games. Going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why the Chiefs parted ways with him rather than pay him a 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he could easily have at least a couple seasons of strong play left in the tank if he can stay on the field. He was a worthwhile signing by the Colts at a cheaper rate than what the Chiefs would have had to pay him to keep him. 

Sheard should also give them strong play on the other side. He’s never put up a big sack total, not surpassing 8 sacks in a season in 8 years in the league, but he’s been a top-31 edge defender on PFF for 4 straight seasons. He just has 24 sacks over that time period, but has added 27 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level. Like Houston, Sheard is going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and could easily have another couple seasons of above average play left in the tank. He and Houston make an impressive starting duo unless one expectedly sees their play fall off a cliff this season. 

With Houston and Sheard locked into starting roles, Kemeko Turay and Ben Banogu will be reserves, but both could see still see significant snaps in a rotational role. Turay was decent on 383 rookie year snaps and, like his draft classmate Tyquan Lewis, he could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Banogu, meanwhile, is a tremendous athlete, but still pretty raw as a prospect. 2017 6th round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad could also be in the mix, after flashing as a run stuffer on 415 total snaps in the first significant action of his career last season. With the addition of Houston, this is a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The biggest reason for the Colts defensive improvement last season was the addition of linebacker Darius Leonard in the 2nd round of the draft. Leonard flew a little under the radar in the draft because he went to South Carolina State, but passing on him proved to be a mistake for the rest of the league, as Leonard finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked off ball linebacker and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not only does Leonard excel in coverage and against the run, but he also pressured the quarterback 10 times on just 44 blitzes, including a ridiculous 7 sacks. He might not do that every season, but he should continue developing into one of the top linebackers in the NFL. 

The Colts lacked another good linebacker next to him last season though. Anthony Walker started 14 games last season and was a decent run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in coverage. The 2017 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but this could be his ceiling as a player. A pair of 2018 7th round picks, Matthew Adams and Zaire Alexander, struggled on 215 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, and also aren’t guaranteed to get any better. 

The Colts had the cap space to sign an upgrade in free agency this off-season, but opted to only use a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s Bobby Okereke. He could push Walker for his starting job, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. This is a very young group overall, so they have some upside, but for now Darius Leonard looks like their only reliable linebacker. Fortunately, he’s one of the best in the game, which elevates this entire group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback was probably the Colts’ most improved position group on defense from 2017 to 2018. That’s despite the fact that the Colts didn’t make any major additions between the two seasons. Their top-4 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played last season were all on the roster in 2017, though their top-3 did all see more playing time in 2018 than 2017, including a pair of starters in Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore who both had breakout seasons. 

Both breakout seasons were pretty improbable, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Desir had played just 907 defensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league with 4 teams, since being drafted by the Browns in the 4th round in 2014, and had never shown much in limited action, before finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 28 season last season. Moore, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2017 and was decent, but underwhelming on 384 rookie year snaps, before finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on PFF as a 15-game starter in 2018. Desir and Moore are both one-year wonders and could regress in 2019, but the Colts don’t seem to see that happening, re-signing both on long-term deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 30 million over 4 years respectively.

Quincy Wilson was the 3rd cornerback last season. The 2017 2nd round pick played just 435 snaps, but that was a slight bump from his rookie season, when he played 402. He wasn’t bad in either season, but could be pushed for the #3 cornerback job by 34th overall pick Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin easily could have gone in the first round and profiles as an above average starter long-term. Even if he spends his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Nate Hairston, a 2017 5th round pick who has struggled on 950 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. Hairston is not a roster lock with Ya-Sin coming in. Whoever wins the 3rd cornerback job will play outside opposite Desir in three cornerback sets, with Moore on the slot where he’s at his best. 

At safety, the Colts return starters Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers. It looked likely that the Colts would move on from Geathers as a free agent this off-season, but they were outbid for Landon Collins by the Redskins and decided to bring Geathers back on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. Hooker and Geathers both missed time with injury, playing 14 games and 12 games respectively. That’s been a theme for both of them in their careers unfortunately, but both are above average starters when healthy.

Hooker has the higher upside of the two, as he was the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished as PFF’s 15th ranked safety in 2018, despite coming off of a torn ACL that ended his 2017 season, and he is still only in his age 23 season, but Geathers is a solid starter as well. He’s been limited to 41 games in 4 seasons in the league, but in the two seasons he’s played at least 500 snaps, he’s finished 38th among safeties on PFF (2016) and 39th (2018). Still in the prime of his career, he was worth bringing back on a reasonable contract and the Colts have good insurance behind because Matthias Farley was a capable starter in 15 starts as an injury replacement in 2017. Even if there is some regression from the starting cornerbacks, this is still a deep and talented group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs against a tough Kansas City team on the road in one of the worst games the Colts played all season, but before being eliminated they were very much in Super Bowl contention, given how well they played once some players got healthy. This season, they go into the year without any major weaknesses on their roster and should be able to pick back up right where they left off contending for the Super Bowl. Their schedule will be tougher this season (they had the easiest schedule in the league last season in terms of opponents’ DVOA) and their division has suddenly become one of the tougher divisions in football, but they have the talent to win their division if they can stay healthier than last season, when they had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury. 

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC South

Team Score: 77.40 (3rd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 79.58

Defensive Score: 75.21

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