2012 NFL Prop Bets

Chicago over 9.5 -115 2 units

The Bears were 11-5 and made it to the NFC Championship game in 2010 and last year they were 7-3 before Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down. Brandon Marshall comes in to bolster their receiving corps and Mike Martz leaves as offensive coordinator, which is addition by subtraction because they never fit his scheme. The defense will be solid as always, even with their linebackers aging, with strong defensive line and secondary play. They’re one of the best teams in the league and should go over here.

Cincinnati under 8 -140 4 units

The Bengals made a 5 game improvement last season to go from 4 wins to 9 wins. If history holds, they’ll regress this year as teams that make that kind of improvement regress an average of 2.4 wins per season since the beginning of the 16 game NFL season. They only need to regress 1 game to push here and 2 games to make me money. Andy Dalton had a rough preseason and really struggled in games against playoff teams last season, during which he went 0-8. The Bengals were also hit hard by injuries this preseason as offensive lineman Kyle Cook and Travelle Wharton are both expected to miss the season, with Wharton already on IR.

Detroit under 9 -140 2 units

In order to win 10 or more games, the Lions would have to improve their win total for the 4th straight season. In the up and down NFL, that rarely happens. Their running back depth chart is basically the same as their injured list. They finished last season 5-7, including playoffs. They had a distraction filled offseason and they needed an NFL record 4 comebacks of 13 points or more to even win 10 games last year, because of how bad their passing defense is. It’s not any better this season and if the offense doesn’t bail them out at a record rate again, they could regress.

Indianapolis over 5.5 -115 3 units

Historically, when an over/under win total is 6 or lower, the over hits about 2 of 3 three times. I wish I liked more of the lower over/under totals this year, but I do like the Colts. Andrew Luck doesn’t have much of a supporting cast, but he should prove to be a franchise quarterback from the word go and with an easy schedule, they should be able to at least match the 6 wins the Panthers got last year. Besides, sticking with the bounce back principle, since the start of a 16 game season, teams that regress 8 wins win on average 5.0 more the following season. Obviously losing Peyton Manning hurts, but I like their chances to cover the over here.

New Orleans over 10 +140 2 units

Call me crazy, but if anyone can handle the offseason the Saints just had, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints. The offense will still be great with Drew Brees as essentially an assistant coach and the schemes not changing up much, while they should be improved defensively with the additions of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne at linebacker and Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. Spags is known for getting the most out of defensive linemen and pass rushers and that was the Saints’ weakness last season. Under normal circumstances, they’d be my Super Bowl pick. Under these circumstances, I’ll just take them to win double digit games with positive juice.

Oakland under 7 -110 3 units

The Raiders’ Pythagorean Expectation last year suggested they should have won 6 games, not 8, as they went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, the most wins of that kind of any team last season. Even if they regress to that 6 win total, I win this bet, but the Raiders also lost their top cornerback Stanford Routt and their top pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley in free agency. If that’s not enough, starting linebacker Aaron Curry could be out for the year and will be replaced in the starting lineup by a 4th round rookie and defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour are both going into their age 33 seasons, with the latter already dealing with a bad knee.

Philadelphia over 10 +110 1 unit

I have the Eagles making a big improvement this season. The problem is so does everyone else so this line is already 2 games better than their win total last year. However, I love the way they finished once the pressure was off and once defensive coordinator Juan Castillo made the necessary schematic changes and moved Nnamdi Asomugha back to where he was comfortable. They also fell short their Pythagorean Expectation by close to 2 wins last year, as it suggested they were about a 10 win team. They did this despite having more than 35 turnovers. That number should decrease this year. Teams that have that many turnovers average about 28.3 turnovers on average the next season, while teams that have 20 or fewer turnovers average 26.3 turnovers on average the next season. Less turnovers will mean more wins and those types of teams average 1.61 more wins the next season.

San Francisco under 10 -145 2 units

Consider the 49ers the anti-Eagles, at least with turnovers. They had 10 turnovers last year, an NFL record. Teams that have fewer than 20 turnovers win, on average, 2.69 fewer games the next season. The same is true for takeaways. Teams with 35 or more have had 10.58 fewer turnovers and 2 fewer wins in their next season. The 49ers forced 38, for a turnover differential of +28, best in the league over the past decade. Teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season .Meanwhile, the 49ers also improved 7 games last year and teams that do that win, on average, 4.5 fewer games the next season. Along the same lines, since 2003, of the 16 teams who have gone from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye (like the 49ers did last year), 7 did the opposite thing the following season, and those teams won an average of 3.2 fewer games the following season.

St. Louis over 6 -125 3 units

With the 49ers going down in the NFC West, it opens a door for another team. The Rams have as good a chance as any other team and I get to pick the over on a line of 6 or fewer, which I love doing. The Rams improved 6 games in 2010, but, as could have been predictable, regressed 5 games last year. They should bounce back this year. Teams that regress 5 games win an average of 1.6 more the following season. The Rams were destroyed by injuries last year and should have better healthy in the secondary and on the offensive line, where they also added key free agents. A healthier offensive line should lead to a healthier and better Sam Bradford under center, while, on the defensive side of the ball, they have one of the league’s best defensive lines and should be able to win some games with strong defense, running the football, and decent quarterback play.

St. Louis to win NFC West +900 1 unit

Read the last two entries. Their odds to win this division are much better than 9 to 1.

Packers to win Super Bowl (+600) 1 unit

Yeah, it’s boring and it’s “chalk,” but they’re that good. I love the 6 to 1 odds.

Cleveland +1000 to make playoffs .5 unit

Indianapolis +750 to make playoffs .5 unit

Jacksonville +1000 to make playoffs .5 unit

Minnesota +700 to make playoffs.5 unit

St. Louis +600 to make playoffs.5 unit

Tampa Bay +500 to make playoffs .5 unit

Washington +450 to make playoffs .5 unit

I love this one. If history holds, one of these teams will make the playoffs. These are the 7 teams that finished 5-11 or worse last season and a team like that has gone on to make the playoffs in each of the last 10 years. If it’s St. Louis, Tampa Bay, or Washington, I’m out a little bit of money. If it’s any of the other 4 (more than 50%), either break even or win money and if two of them make it, I’m well on the positive side no matter what.

Luke Kuechly +450 to win defensive rookie of the year 1 unit

Unless there is a stud pass rusher, the top linebacker normally wins this because of all the tackles they rack up. Luke Kuechly is one of the top true linebacker prospects in years (Von Miller does not count) and no pass rusher went in the top-15.

Matt Ryan +100 to go over 4200 yards 3 units

Matt Ryan had 4177 last season and now he has Julio Jones poised for a monster year and a new offensive coordinator who wants to open things up more. At the very least, he’ll exceed his yardage total on pure volume after passing just 566 times last season.

Joe Flacco -130 to go over 3500 yards 2 units

Flacco hasn’t gone under 3500 yards since his rookie year in 2008 and now the Ravens are opening up the offense and will be passing more and, also like Matt Ryan, he has a budding 2nd year receiver, Torrey Smith. Unless he gets hurt, this is a pretty safe bet.

Cam Newton -130 to go under 9 rushing touchdowns 3 units

Newton’s 14 rushing touchdowns last year was one of the biggest flukes I’ve ever seen. Steve Young is the leader in career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and he had 43 and never topped out at more than 7. Newton will run less this year to preserve his body and while he could see a big chunk of their goal line carries again, there might not be as many as there were last year. The Panthers could also opt to have one of three talented backs, Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart punch it in again. I don’t see Newton going into double digits for the 2nd straight year, which, unsurprisingly, has never even been close to being done.

Andrew Luck +250 to break single season rookie passing yards record (4051) .5 units

Not a big bet, but the combination of a terrible defense and running game forcing Luck to throw early and often and Luck’s talent as arguably the best quarterback prospect of the decade make this is interesting bet. For the record, Newton ranked just 10th in passing yards last year when he set the record. Luck can do that. The odds are definitely much better than 5:2.

Justin Blackmon -115 to go under 850.5 receiving yards 2 units

Discounting Julio Jones and AJ Green (outliers), since the 2005 NFL Draft, 22 receivers have gone in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. In their rookie years, they have averaged 37 catches for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns. And this is not a group of busts. This group includes, among others, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Roddy White. The leader in rookie production among those 22, strangely Dwayne Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2007. That just proves how special Julio Jones’ and AJ Green’s rookie years were, but I don’t see that happening for Blackmon. It’s too improbable, especially with Blaine Gabbert throwing him the football. Both Larry Fitzgerald (780 and Calvin Johnson (756) went under that number as rookies.

Percy Harvin -115 to go over 900.5 receiving yards 3 units

Harvin had 967 yards last year with inconsistencies at quarterback. A 2nd year Christian Ponder should be a little bit better and healthier and have more time to throw under an improved offensive line. Harvin is their only true receiving threat and caught 56 passes for 665 yards and 5 touchdowns in his team’s final 8 games last year, as things at quarterback started to get better. On top of that, he had a mini “holdout,” and rightfully so, because of his playing time, after ranking 2nd on the team in wide receiver snaps played last year, behind Devin Aromashodu.

Mark Sanchez -115 to go under 3200 passing yards 1 unit

Taking a shot that he gets benched at some point this season, in which case the under will win easily here. Even if he starts all 16 games, he’s no sure thing to throw for more than this many yards with his miserable receiving corps on what figures to be a very run heavy offense.

Jake Locker -130 to go over 3300 passing yards 1 unit

Unless he gets benched, he exceed this total. For more on why, click here.

Jake Locker -115 to go over 17.5 passing touchdowns.

I’m all in on the Jake Locker train this season. Actually, I’m all in on the Titans.

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2012 NFL Playoff Predictions

AFC Wild Card

#6 Buffalo Bills (10-6) at #3 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Bills got to the playoffs following the decent quarterback, strong running game, good defense, easy schedule model. Those teams almost never make it out of the first round.

Steelers 20 Bills 10

#5 Tennessee Titans (11-5) at #4 San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Hey, San Diego, welcome back to the playoffs. Too bad you always choke there. Different year, same story with this bunch. I really like Tennessee this year and I think they’ll get better as the season goes on.

Titans 31 Chargers 27

NFC Wild Card

#6 Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at #3 New Orleans Saints (11-5)

Interesting, the Falcons, known as a poor road team, seem to have had the most success in New Orleans out of anyone over the last few years. However, I’m not picking against the Saints at home in the playoffs. Any chemistry and morale issues lingering from BountyGate will be a non-factor by this point in the year for the Saints.

Saints 34 Falcons 27

#5 Chicago Bears (12-4) at #4 St. Louis Rams (9-7)

In 2010, a team with 3 more wins played a “crappy” team from the west in the west team’s home stadium and lost (Saints/Seahawks). In 2011, the same thing happened (Broncos/Steelers). Can the Rams make it 3 in a row? They can. They’re an underrated team and great at home and will have the “nobody believes in us” edge, but the Bears might be the 2nd best team in the whole NFC.

Bears 23 Rams 20

AFC Divisional

#3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at #2 Houston Texans (12-4)

The Steelers could be banged up, as usual, by this point in the season and the Texans are too complete for them to overcome, especially in Houston.

Texans 20 Steelers 16

#5 Tennessee Titans at #1 New England Patriots (13-3)

The journey ends in New England for the young Titans. Maybe in 2013 they’ll have a better shot at winning the Super Bowl. They’re young and built the right way though. 7 of the 11 starters on their talented defense have been drafted since 2009, as have Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Jake Locker, and Kendall Wright, while Chris Johnson was a 2008 draft pick.

Patriots 34 Titans 24

NFC Divisional

#5 Chicago Bears (13-4) at #1 Green Bay Packers (13-3)

This is frustrating. I think there are the two best teams in the NFC and either would beat New Orleans or Philadelphia on a neutral surface, but, while they may have a chance, I don’t see the Bears pulling off the upset against Green Bay, who has been the best team in the league over the last 3 seasons.

Packers 24 Bears 20

#3 New Orleans Saints (12-5) at #2 Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)

Either of these teams would lose to the Bears, for what it’s worth. As much as I don’t trust Michael Vick in the playoffs, I don’t trust the Saints on the road in the playoffs even more (Drew Brees has never won a road playoff game). The Eagles win a close one in the cold in Philadelphia.

Eagles 31 Saints 27

AFC Championship

#2 Houston Texans (13-4) at #1 New England Patriots (14-3)

I want to put the Patriots through to the Super Bowl, but I don’t want to go completely chalk here and a Super Bowl runner up hasn’t won the Super Bowl since Super Bowl XII or even made the Super Bowl since XXVIII and the Texans definitely have the talent to pull off the upset here in New England. Cue the Tom Brady is overrated debates, which, for the record, are ridiculous. You know you live in a “what have you done for me lately” world when a quarterback who started his career by winning 3 Super Bowls in 4 seasons and winning 10 straight playoff games could ever be considered a “choker.”

Texans 27 Patriots 24

NFC Championship

#2 Philadelphia Eagles (13-4) at #1 Green Bay Packers (14-3)

I don’t trust Michael Vick to lead an otherwise incredibly talented Eagles squad into Lambeau and beat Aaron Rodgers and company. Just like last year, it’s going to take a special set of circumstances for the Packers to lose.

Packers 31 Eagles 20

Super Bowl XLII

#2 Houston Texans (14-4) vs. #1 Green Bay Packers (15-3)

The Texans will definitely have a shot and deserve to be here, but the NFC is the much superior conference and the Packers are the best team in the NFL and have been over the last 3 seasons. Aaron Rodgers joins Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger with a pair of rings.

Packers 27 Texans 20

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Miami Dolphins 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Dolphins are frequently considered one of the worst teams in the league, but they had a solid season last year. They finished 6-10, which isn’t great, but they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.5 wins, which ranked 14th in the NFL and a DVOA that ranked 18th. They went 6-6 once they switched quarterbacks to Matt Moore, outscoring opponents 260 to 209, which translates to 347 points for and 279 points against for 16 games, which translates to a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.0 wins. They also finished 6-3 in their last 9 games.

Of course, they did this with an easy schedule that had them play a playoff team just 4 times, all of which they lost (though two were before Matt Moore), but this year’s schedule has them play just 6 teams I think will make the playoffs as their non-divisional games are against the AFC South and NFC West, two of the league’s easier divisions, as well as Cincinnati and Oakland.

They had the league’s 20th ranked scoring offense last year, scoring 20.6 points per game, and the league’s 6th ranked scoring defense, allowing 19.6 points per game. Couldn’t they follow the decent quarterback/strong running game/strong defense/easy schedule model and make the playoffs in 2012? Sure, they could.

But several things can get in their way. For one, they have a completely new coaching staff and will be making fundamental changes on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they’ll be switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which might work out, but it might also be a case of fixing what’s not broken. Offensively, they’ll be going from a power blocking, run heavier offense to a zone blocking, pass heavier offense. Their offensive line won’t fit that scheme as well and passing more than they run does not take advantage of their offenses strengths and personnel.

Last season, they ran and passed exactly 469 times each, ranking 6th in the league in rushing attempts and tied for 28th in the league in passing attempts. That worked in junction with a strong defense to mask their quarterback’s deficiencies last year. League wide, teams passed on 55.5% of their plays last season (excluding sacks and penalties). If the Dolphins do even that this season, it could make their offense less efficient and their new game plan might have them to that. Even if it doesn’t, if the defense regresses, they’ll be forced to pass more, regardless of what their playbook says.

You also have to factor in that the Dolphins traded away their only good receiver and the only thing they did to replace him was bring in a washed up 34-year-old receiver with a certain recently re-changed name who caught just 14 passes last season and that their strong running game was as a result of 5.0 YPC and 216 carries from a back who has a career 4.3 YPC and who, before last year, had managed just 212 carries in the last 3 seasons.

Quarterback

The one other thing that could hold them back is their quarterback situation. The Dolphins currently have 3 quarterbacks competing for the starting job, Matt Moore, the incumbent, David Garrard, a veteran free agent signing who missed all of last season with back problems, and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Tannehill, an incredibly raw rookie who went 8th overall in April’s 2012 NFL Draft and who started just 19 games in college. Tannehill doesn’t have much of a chance at the week 1 job, but we could see him this season.

Let’s start with Matt Moore. This team was 6-6 once he took over last season, as he completed 210 of 347 (60.5%) for 2497 yards (7.2 YPA), 16 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He led the team to 21.7 points per game in his 12 starts, which would have ranked 18th in the league and a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.0 wins, which would have ranked 8th in the league. The Dolphins’ weighted DVOA, which weights later games more, ranked 14th in the league, a sign of Moore’s solid play.

Advanced statistics like him too. His adjusted QB rating (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, batted passes, or yards after catch) was 91.75, over 4 points higher than his normal QB rating. That number ranked him 8th in the NFL, whereas his traditional QB rating of 87.1 ranked just 12th. His accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) of 72.0% was a middle of the pack 17th, out of 36 quarterbacks, and ranks one spot better than his traditional completion percentage of 60.5%.

His accuracy on balls that traveled 20+ yards through the air was a surprising 9th at 47.5% and he went deep at a rate of 17.0%, 4th best in the NFL. His under pressure accuracy was 66.2%, which was 3rd in the league behind only Eli Manning and Drew Brees, though he did take too many sacks. He took a sack on 27.3% of pressured snaps, which was worst in the NFL and made his offensive line look worse than it was. However, all in all, he played above average last season.

There are issues, however. The first is whether or not he can do it in a more pass heavy offense, with a likely regression from Reggie Bush, a possible regression from the defense, and the absence of Brandon Marshall, by far his most targeted receiver. Marshall was targeted 138 times on a team that passed just 469 times, meaning he was targeted on 29.4% of his team’s throws. When you take out 30 throw away and other non-targets, Dolphins quarterbacks “aimed” 439 passes last season, meaning Marshall was targeted on 31.4% of his team’s “aimed” targets.

The second issue is how pedestrian Moore was in his career prior to last season. Moore was an undrafted free agent in 2007 and last offseason was an afterthought when the Dolphins signed him and for good reason. He had completed just 227 of 392 (57.9%) for 2640 yards (6.7 YPA), 16 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Not only could his defense and offensive supporting cast regress. Moore himself could regress.

The other veteran quarterback competing for the job is David Garrard. Garrard is reportedly outplaying Moore in camp and is currently the favorite for the job, with some like SI’s Peter King even saying that Garrard in Miami’s Training Camp looks more impressive than Peyton Manning in Denver’s Training Camp.

Garrard was one of the league’s most underrated starting quarterbacks during essentially 5 years as a starter in Jacksonville. Despite having a poor supporting cast, Garrard completed 1240 of 1981 (62.6%) for 14195 yards (7.2 YPA), 81 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions, while going 36-32 in 68 starts. You saw how Jacksonville’s offense collapsed last season without him.

However, he’s heading into his age 34 season and coming off season ending back surgery which caused him to miss the entirety of the 2011 season after being cut for salary cap purposes in the preseason last year. Despite the glowing reports from Peter King and others, he probably isn’t much different from Moore at this stage in his career. With the right supporting cast, he can get you to the playoffs.

Matt Moore seems perfectly capable of game managing a team to victory when he doesn’t have to do too much. David Garrard, if he wins the quarterback competition, seems to be able to do the same thing. However, if the defense regresses and the offensive supporting cast regresses or the new scheme hurts either quarterback or if Moore himself regresses back to pre-2011 form, the coaching staff could throw Ryan Tannehill and his 19 collegiate starts into the fire before he’s ready. Garrard and Moore, for financial reasons, probably won’t both make the final roster. The Dolphins could trade or cut one of them, making Tannehill the primary backup.

If that happens, we could see a repeat of the Blaine Gabbert situation in Jacksonville from last season. At the same time, either of their veteran starters could channel 2011 Matt Hasselbeck, game manage their offense, supported by a strong defense, and compete for a playoff spot. Hasselbeck came into a similar situation last year, with his the Titans having a strong defense and having used the 8th overall pick on a raw quarterback, and he led the Titans to 9-7 and the brink of the playoffs, keeping Locker on the bench all season. That could happen in Miami this year, but they could also suck like Jacksonville did.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I’ve already mentioned what a big part of their offense that Brandon Marshall was, essentially getting 1 out of every 3 of their “aimed” targets. The Dolphins really didn’t do much to replace him, signing a 34-year-old Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson, a mediocre Legedu Naanee, and using 6th round pick on BJ Cunningham and a 7th round pick on Rishard Matthews, both of whom might be ticketed for the practice squad as a rookie.

Johnson believes that he can have a bounce back year in Miami because he fits in with the locker room chemistry better. He was never a good fit in New England, both chemistry wise and with their complicated timing based offensive scheme, which he could never figure out. Miami’s scheme is easier and their locker room chemistry is different, but receivers rarely stay elite much longer than 33 or 34.

If you look at the receivers who have played in the last 10 years and who rank top-20 all-time in receiving yards, you’ll see that even the average top 20 receiver has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Ochocinco is 35 in January and currently “only” ranks 26th in receiving yards all time, 845 back of the top-20.

Ochocinco has really never been the same since 2007. In 2008, he struggled mightily with injuries, catching just 53 passes for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns. In 2009, he bounced back, catching 72 passes for 1047 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he did that on 124 targets and managed just 3.3 YAC per catch. In 2010, he really struggled, catching just 67 passes on 118 targets (56.8%) for 831 yards (7.0 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and managing just 2.9 YAC per catch, a sign that his explosiveness was almost completely gone. That was 2 years ago. Last year, for the record, his YAC per catch was 3.1 in very limited action (15 catches on 31 targets, including playoffs).

Johnson (I know, I’ve called him Ochocinco, Johnson, and Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson in this section, but if he can’t decide what he wants his name to be, I don’t have to decide what I’m calling him) will compete for a starting job with Brian Hartline and Legedu Naanee. Hartline is their leading returning receiver, which isn’t saying much.

He only had 35 catches on 66 targets for 549 yards and a touchdown. The 2009 4th round pick averaged just 2.9 YAC, which shows his lack of explosiveness, as does the fact that he didn’t break a single tackle all year. Of the team’s 13 interceptions last season, 6 went on passes to him and he also dropped 7 passes. Dolphin quarterbacks had a QB rating of 48.1 when throwing to him, 90th out of 92 eligible receivers.

Naanee, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated wide receiver, in part large because of quarterback’s 59.9 QB rating when throwing to him, 81st in the league. This isn’t terrible until you consider that he had Cam Newton throwing him the football and the guys below him on the list played for Oakland, Indianapolis, Washington, Denver, Arizona, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, Kansas City and Minnesota.

Naanee caught 44 passes on 74 targets (59.5%) for 467 yards (6.3 YPA), 1 touchdown, while allowing 4 interceptions. He only broke 1 tackle all year as well and committed 7 penalties, very high for a wide receiver. It’s no surprise that the Dolphins brought in Braylon Edwards for a workout last week. They may say they’re satisfied with their receivers, but they really aren’t and they shouldn’t be.

The one receiver the Dolphins can count on is Davone Bess. Bess is their 2nd leading returning receiver, catching 51 passes for 537 yards and 3 touchdowns, doing so on just 79 targets (64.6%), while breaking 7 tackles and managing 4.4 YAC per catch. Last year was actually a down year for him as he had lines of 76/758/2 and 79/820/5 in the previous 2 seasons despite inconsistent quarterback play.

He’s an above average slot receiver, but he can also really play the slot so he won’t help them outside, which is the most important wide receiver position. The Dolphins really have nothing there unless Marlon Moore or Roberto Wallace can have major breakout years. The Dolphins are high on both of them, but probably only by default and partially out of delusion. Both are undrafted free agents from 2010 who have caught 6 career passes each, both doing so entirely in 2010. They played a combined 2 snaps in 2011, both by Moore, and didn’t record a target. Neither is even guaranteed a roster spot.

The Dolphins did add one other piece to their receiving corps this offseason, using a 3rd round pick on a tight end, Michael Egnew. Egnew is a better fit for their new offensive scheme than incumbent Anthony Fasano, but he was widely considered a reach around the league because he doesn’t block well and he had a low career YAC at Missouri. He’ll see time at tight end, as will Fasano, a good blocker and red zone threat who caught 32 passes for 451 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. He’s mostly an afterthought in the passing game though, managing just 54 targets last season. His blocking and all-around game got him ranked 8th on ProFootballFocus among tight ends last season, but he’ll have a smaller role this season.

Grade: D

Running Backs

While their receiving corps will almost definitely be worse this season than last season, their running game might not necessarily regress. Yes, it’s unreasonable to expect Reggie Bush to have 1086 yards and 6 touchdowns on 216 carries again. He’s only averaged over 4.2 YPC one other time in his 6 year career and combined for 212 carries in his previous 3 years before last year. In fact, before last year, his career stats in 5 seasons were 524 carries, 2090 yards (4.0 YPC), and 17 touchdowns. He will contribute in the passing game when healthy, as he has 337 career catches, including 43 last season, and he’s actually a better fit for this blocking scheme and offensive system than the old one, but he’s unlikely to stay healthy for the entire year.

However, the Dolphins have two young backs behind him on the depth chart who could pick up the slack. Daniel Thomas was a 2nd round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He had a disappointing rookie season, managing just 581 yards on 165 carries (3.5 YPC), catching 12 passes and 72 yards and only scoring once (through the air). However, he was just a rookie, so you can’t hold that against him too much. There’s no reason why he can’t become a solid compliment to Reggie Bush this season, when Bush is healthy.

And when Bush isn’t healthy, Thomas can be a solid compliment to Lamar Miller, a 4th round rookie. Miller was frequently mocked in the 1st or 2nd round of mock drafts, but fell to the 4th round, where the Dolphins decided he was too good to pass on and traded up for him, even though they didn’t really need another back. He’s having a strong offseason and he’s a perfect fit for this offense with his speed and pass catching abilities. He’ll be a perfect complement to Thomas and replacement for Bush when/if Bush gets hurt. They should be able to run the ball pretty well this season.

Grade: B+

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Offensive Line

One of the reasons the Dolphins should run the ball pretty well this season is a solid run blocking offensive line. They were the league’s 13th best run blocking offensive line last season, according to ProFootballFocus, and, while they allowed 52 sacks, 3rd most in the NFL, some of that can be blamed on quarterbacks with a tendency to take unnecessary sacks. They ranked 27th in pass blocking efficiency, which is a more accurate measure. It’s still not good, but it’s not completely the offensive line’s fault.

The worst offender on the offensive line was right tackle Marc Colombo. Colombo was completely washed up in Dallas in 2010, but the Dolphins obviously wanted to see for themselves sp they signed him to be their starting right tackle. And it turns out, he was completely washed up. He was ProFootballFocus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 73, allowing 9 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures, while committing 3 penalties and struggling mightily as a run blocker. He retired this offseason. The Dolphins used a 2nd round pick on Jonathan Martin and he should be an immediate upgrade, even as a rookie. He’s a good fit for their scheme.

Opposite him, Jake Long is not quite as good a fit for their scheme. He’s played his entire career in former Head Coach Tony Sparano’s power blocking scheme and might not have the foot speed to be as dominant in a zone blocking scheme. A top-9 tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including 2nd place finishes in 2009 and 2010, the 1st overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft struggled by his standards last season. He still played above average, though, ranking 19th, allowing 5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 15 quarterback pressures, while committing 5 penalties and being an average run blocker. Unless he really struggles with the new scheme, he should be able to have a bounce back year.

On the inside, right guard is still an unsettled position after the retirement of incumbent starter Vernon Carey (the Dolphins had two starters on their offensive line last year who retired this offseason, that’s pretty bad). 2010 3rd round pick John Jerry was drafted to be a starter by now, but he’s struggled whenever he’s been counted on to start thus far in his career. He struggled this offseason as well, after being the early starter, losing his starter job to Artis Hicks, a backup in Cleveland last year, who struggled and is heading into his age 34 season. The Dolphins also signed Eric Steinbach, who was cut by the Browns after missing all of last season with back surgery. He’s heading into his age 32 season. Whoever starts there, it’ll be a position of weakness.

However, that’s really their only true weak link, unless Martin struggles mightily as a rookie. Center Mike Pouncey had a solid, but unspectacular rookie season last year, after being the highest interior lineman drafted since Chris Naeole went 10th overall in 1997. Still, he could definitely have a breakout year in 2012. Meanwhile, left guard Richie Incognito is also a solid starter, who pass protected better than he run blocked last season. Unless they have major problems transitioning to a new scheme, this should be a solid offensive line. Their biggest concerns offensively should be their wide receivers, regression from the quarterback position, and their quarterbacks having to do too much thanks to a new scheme and possibly an inferior defense.

Grade: B

Defense

Speaking of that defense, they ranked 6th last year, allowing 19.6 points per game, and 11th in defensive DVOA. In their final 12 games, they allowed just 17.4 points per game. Those were the 12 starts Matt Moore made. This is significant because the previous quarterback, Chad Henne, was prone to interceptions and stalled offensive drives, which is why the team ranked 14th in scoring defense in 2010, despite having the 5th fewest yards per play allowed and ranking 10th in defensive DVOA. In 2010, their offensive interception rate sunk from 3.8% to 2.8% (2.6% by Moore).

Under normal conditions, they could easily do even better than that this season with a full season of either Moore or Garrard and because of how few takeaways they had last season. They had just 19 turnovers, mostly because they recovered just 3 fumbles, worst in the league and a very fluky figure. The 38 teams who have managed 20 or fewer takeaways since 2002 have had 7.53 more takeaways and won 1.41 more games in the following season. However, as I established in the offensive write up, there’s no guarantee their quarterback play won’t regress in 2012. On top of that, the Dolphins are switching defensive schemes, so this might be a case of fixing what’s not broken.

Defensive Line

One thing that could hurt the Dolphins is that they don’t have a 2nd pass rusher. They had 41 sacks last season, but 7 of those were by Jason Taylor, a situational rusher who has since retired. Only one other player, Cameron Wake, had more than 5 sacks. Wake had yet another fantastic season in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ best overall rush linebacker and 2nd best rush linebacker as a pass rusher.

He may have managed “only” 9 sacks, but he also had 20 quarterback hits and 52 quarterback pressures on 519 pass rush snaps, an incredible 15.6% pass rush rate. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s had 32 sacks, 47 quarterback hits, and 101 quarterback pressures on 1093 pass rushes, an incredible 16.5% rate, the best rate in the NFL over that time period.

Assuming he has better luck and some of those hits and pressures turn into sacks, he could easily rank among the league leaders in sacks next season, even though he doesn’t have anyone opposite him to draw the pressure off of him. The only issue with him is that he could struggle, by his standards, in a 4-3 rather than the 3-4 he has spent his whole NFL career in, but I don’t see that as being a huge possibility. He played very well against the run as a 3-4 rush linebacker last year (2nd) so he should be able to hold up against the run now as a down lineman.

In base packages, Jared Odrick will start opposite him. Odrick, a collegiate defensive tackle, spent last year as a situational pass rushing 3-4 defensive end, after the 2010 1st round pick missed his entire rookie season with injury. He’s a better pass rusher than a run stuffer as a defensive tackle, but as a defensive end, he’s not going to get much pass rush. Last season, he had 5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures on 393 pass rush snaps, a 6.1% rate, good for a 3-4 end, not so good for a 4-3 end. At 6-5 304, he’ll obviously be good against the run as a defensive end, but they could struggle to get pass rush in base package, even with Cameron Wake.

Odrick will move inside on passing downs and play defensive tackle, where he’ll be an above average pass rusher and 3rd round rookie, Olivier Vernon, will come in and play defensive end. Vernon is incredibly athletic, but also incredibly raw and they don’t have a lot of depth behind him, which is a problem. At defensive tackle, Odrick will play next to Randy Starks. Starks led their 3 man line in snaps played last season and ranked 6th among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus. He’s played in a 4-3 before, so he shouldn’t have much problem this season. He played equally well as a run stuffer and pass rusher and had 5 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback hits on 376 pass rush snaps, a 7.5% rate.

In base packages, Starks will play next to Paul Solial, who probably won’t fit a 4-3 as well as he fit a 3-4 because of his size at 6-4 344. I’m surprised they resigned him, rather than resigning Kendall Langford, a much better fit in a 4-3. He was a solid nose tackle in 3-4, but in a 4-3, he’s a solid run stuffer at best. He managed just 3 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 188 pass rush snaps, 4.3%. The Dolphins really only have two players can get to the quarterback in base packages (Starks and Wake). Solial also didn’t play nearly as well last season as he did in 2010, after which they franchise tagged him. He’s still really only a one year wonder.

Tony McDaniel, a mediocre player, will provide depth at defensive tackle. Depth is actually an issue all across the defensive line. Cameron Wake should have another amazing season and Randy Starks will play well again, but they could struggle to get to the quarterback in base packages some, and their depth is suspect. They might not achieve the 41 sacks last had last season, even if Wake has the type of 12-16 sack season he’s capable of. They will miss players like Jason Taylor and Kendall Langford. They will, however, continue to be strong against the run, after ranking 3rd in that aspect last season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, the Dolphins’ linebacking corps will actually took pretty similar. Karlos Dansby, the league’s 13th ranked middle linebacker last season on ProFootballFocus, will move outside and play one of the two outside linebacker spots. This is a new position for him as, even when he played in Arizona’s old 4-3, he played inside, but he should be fine. He’s above average both in coverage and against the run.

Kevin Barnett will remain in the middle. He too is an above average player against the run, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst player in coverage. Backup Gary Guyton may come in for him on passing downs, but he’s not much of an upgrade. Next to him, Koa Misi will change positions from 3-4 rush linebacker to 4-3 outside linebacker. This will probably be a good move for him, especially as he’ll be just a pure two-down run stuffing outside linebacker.

Misi, a collegiate defensive end and linebacker who went in the 2nd round in 2010, has never been that great at getting to the quarterback, managing just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 4 quarterback pressures on 113 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 5.3% rate. He’s not good in coverage either so he’s pretty useless on passing downs, but he should be a solid two-down run stuffer and come out in sub packages when the Dolphins go to two-linebacker sets. Even with the scheme switch, the Dolphins linebackers be part of what should be one of the best run stopping teams in the league again, but they will probably struggle in coverage.

Grade: B

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Secondary

One player who does not struggle in coverage is #1 cornerback Vontae Davis. The 2009 1st round pick finally came into his own last season, allowing just 36 completions on 66 attempts (54.5%) for 496 yards (7.5 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 4 penalties. Opposite him, Sean Smith, a 2009 2nd round pick, will compete for the starting job with Richard Marshall, a free agent acquisition.

Smith has not played as well as Davis in his career and last year he was tied for the 4th worst rated cornerback on ProFootballFocus. He allowed 61 completions on 104 attempts (58.7%) for 793 yards (7.6 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties. He was much better in 2011, when he ranked as ProFootballFocus 9th ranked cornerback, allowing 24 completions on 45 attempts for 325 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 1 penalty in 11 starts at cornerback (he started 4 games at safety and wasn’t as good). He’s shed 24 pounds this offseason and now is 6-3 190, an in effort to turn his career around heading into a make or break contract year. He’s a bounce back candidate.

If he can’t keep his starting job, he’ll be replaced by Richard Marshall, who played well both inside on the slot and outside for the Cardinals last year. If Smith remains the starter, Marshall will play on the slot and either way he’ll upgrade their secondary. Marshall allowed 28 completions on 54 attempts (51.9%) for 394 yards (7.3 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties last season. He ranked 3rd in the league in receptions per coverage snap, 7th in yards per coverage snap, and 2nd in targets per coverage snap. With his addition and a potential bounce back year from Sean Smith, the Dolphins could have three legitimate starting cornerbacks.

At safety, things aren’t as good. Yeremiah Bell was awful last season and he’s gone. However, in his place, the Dolphins will start Chris Clemons, who really struggled in 2010, before being benched in 2011. Reshad Jones, who struggled in 2011, will start opposite Clemons. He’s the guy they originally benched Clemons for. Meanwhile, depth safeties Tyrone Culver and Tyrell Johnson both struggled in that role last season, Culver in Miami and Johnson in Minnesota. However, safety isn’t that important of a position and it doesn’t really seem like very many teams have good safeties this season.

The Dolphins have plenty of talent defensively. Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby, Randy Starks, and Vontae Davis are all among the best in the league at their position, while Richard Marshall is underrated coming off a strong season, Sean Smith could have a bounce back year, and Jared Odrick has break out potential as an inside/outside player on the defensive line. They’ll be better against the run than against the pass again, but they should be strong overall, unless the scheme change messes everything up.

Grade: B

Head Coach

Joe Philbin was a hot Head Coaching candidate this offseason because he was the Packers’ offensive coordinator, but he didn’t even call plays in Green Bay. In fact, he’s never been a play caller anywhere in the NFL. He has Mike Sherman to do that here in Miami so he might not even do that next season. He’s also made some questionable major scheme changes that don’t fit the personnel well. If everything works out in his first year with the Dolphins (which it could), he’ll look like a genius, but if not, this could end up being a short stay that lasts just 2-3 years. There’s a lot of unknowns with him.

Grade: C

Overall

The Dolphins are one of three teams I’m completely torn on and all have unsolved quarterback situations. The Dolphins could be the 2011 Titans or they could be the 2011 Jaguars. The 2010 Titans were a team with a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.5 wins and in the offseason, they added a veteran quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) and a raw rookie quarterback (Jake Locker).

Hasselbeck game managed the offense and a strong defense (8th with 19.8 points per game allowed) led them to 9 wins and the brink of a playoff spot. The Dolphins have the veteran quarterback, the raw rookie, the strong defense, and the Pythagorean Expectation from 2011. They could ride the decent quarterback, strong defense, easy schedule model to the playoffs in the inferior AFC.

The 2010 Jaguars, meanwhile, had a two veteran quarterbacks (Luke McCown and David Garrard) and a raw rookie (Blaine Gabbert), cut Garrard in the preseason for salary reasons, started McCown, only to watch him struggle mightily and get benched for Blaine Gabbert, the 10th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, who was not ready and had a poor offensive supporting cast so he struggled so mightily that their solid defense didn’t even matter.

Either Garrard (age) or Moore (unproven) could struggle like McCown did early and the Dolphins probably won’t keep both, so Tannehill will have to take over before he’s ready and with a poor offensive supporting cast and struggle so mightily that their solid defense won’t even matter. The Dolphins’ 2011 Pythagorean Expectation is closer to the 2010 Titans’ than the 2010’ Jaguars, but their offensive supporting cast is closer to the 2011 Jaguars’ after the Brandon Marshall trade. As I did in the other 2 cases, I’m basically going to split the difference with this team and rather than the 5 wins the Jaguars had in 2011 or the 9 wins the Titans had in 2011, I’m going to give them 7 wins.

In the division, I think the Patriots and Bills are both better than them and the Jets may or be not be, so they should go 2-4 or so in the division. Outside the division, they host Oakland, St. Louis, Seattle, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. Oakland and Jacksonville will be easy games and St. Louis and Seattle are bad road teams, while Tennessee is an unknown this season because we don’t know who their quarterback will be or how he’ll play. They could go 4-1 in those 5 games. In their other 5, they go to Houston, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and San Francisco. Houston will be pretty unwinnable and San Francisco will be tough too and the other 3 are winnable, but not easy. 7 wins is a strong possibility, as is anything from 4 to 10 wins really, but I’m going with 7.

Update: Ryan Tannehill won the starting quarterback job because Moore struggled in the preseason and Garrard got hurt. I’m going with a prediction much closer to by worst scenario for them. Besides, Vontae Davis, who I highlighted as a big time player for them on defense showed up out of shape and got traded to Indianapolis. They could be one of the worst teams in the league.

Projection: 5-11 4th in AFC East

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New York Jets 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Jets have been in the news so much lately that you’d think they were 3-time defending Super Bowl Champions. Instead, all they did was trade for Tim Tebow a few months ago. The reason they did that was because Mark Sanchez regressed in his 3rd season in the league last year after back-to-back. Actually, he didn’t really regress. The Jets just didn’t have the same supporting cast they had in 2009 and 2010.

Sanchez statistically played about as well as he did in 2009 and 2010. In 2009 and 2010 combined, he completed 474 of 871 (54.4%) for 5735 yards (6.6 YPA), 29 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. Last season, he completed 308 of 543 (56.7%) for 3474 yards (6.4 YPA), 26 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. In fact, you could argue that Sanchez actually played better last season than in his first two seasons. He’s always been mediocre. We’ve just never noticed because the Jets have done a great job at masking him and making his job easier.

So what happened last year? Well after ranking 1st in the league in rushing yards in 2009 and 4th in 2010, the Jets ranked just 22nd last season. They didn’t just get a less talented on the ground in 2011, averaging 3.8 YPC, as opposed to 4.4 YPC in 2010 and 4.5 YPC in 2009. They also didn’t run the ball as much. In 2009, they led the league with 607 carries and in 2010 they had 534, 2nd in the league. Last year, they had just 443 carries, 16th in the league.

This was because of a much leakier than normal defense. In 2009, they ranked 1st in the league, allowing 14.8 points per game and in 2010, they ranked 6th, allowing 19.0 points per game. However, in 2011, they ranked 20th, allowing 22.7 points per game. This forced Sanchez to throw a career high 543 times, after throwing a combined 871 times in 2009 and 2010. This made their turnover total rise from 51 combined in 2009 and 2010 to 34 last season alone.

The offense has never been what’s made this team go. In 2009, they ranked 17th in the league with 21.8 points per game and in 2010, they ranked 13th with 22.9 points per game. In 2011, they didn’t really change much, as they ranked 13th with 23.6 points per game. Sanchez has less receiving talent, offensive line talent, and running back talent around him as opposed to 2009 and 2010, but if the defense can bounce back, they should be able to have a bounce back year and compete for a playoff spot, in theory.

The reason I say in theory is because everything I’m hearing about their locker room chemistry, morale, and intangibles is descriptive of a team profoundly screwed up behind the scenes. #1 receiver Santonio Holmes is a major malcontent, while cornerback Antonio Cromartie thinks so little of the receiving corps that he says he could be the team’s #2 receiver, after which #2 Chaz Schilens said he felt “slighted.”

Holmes has already publicly stated that he doesn’t think a two-quarterback system can work, which is essentially him saying that he doesn’t agree with the coaching staff’s game plan. Former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson also thinks that Santonio Holmes will check out mentally in a run heavy offense. Last year, he caused major locker room problems with his comments about his quarterback and his offensive line. He was almost cut this offseason after a disappointing statistical year last year, when he caught just 51 passes for 645 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the locker room could be split between Tebow and Sanchez. Sanchez is the starting quarterback, but Tebow might be the locker room favorite, which could cause all sorts of problems, as could their two-quarterback system, especially for someone who is not that respected to begin with like Sanchez. This team doesn’t have a central quarterback leader, which could be dangerous.

Teams that switch quarterbacks midseason, which the Jets could easily do, rarely make the playoffs. The Broncos last year were an obvious exception, but they had a very fluky year for a number of reasons, including making the playoffs with a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.8 wins. Even if they don’t switch quarterbacks, the two-quarterback system could lead to the same problems. It’s why no one has two-quarterback systems. It’s bad for team morale and chemistry. Yes, I’m agreeing with Santonio Holmes, who I called a malcontent. He’s right, but to say it isn’t good for the team. I also agree with Antonio Cromartie, but same thing there and the fact that he could be their #2 receiver is indicative of other problems.

Quarterback

I’ve already detailed Mark Sanchez and why I don’t think he’s a franchise quarterback. With the right mix of players around him, he can lead a successful team, but, when he has an average supporting cast, he gets really exposed and will struggle. His stats have been pretty bad in all 3 seasons and now, heading into his 4th year in the league, I don’t think the 5th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft will ever get much better.

Advanced statistics don’t like him either. Last season, his adjusted QB rating (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, batted passes, or yards after catch) of 76.18 ranked 30th in the league out of 35 eligible quarterbacks. That’s actually worse than Tim Tebow, who ranked 25th. His accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) of 35.1% on balls that go longer than 20+ yards in the air ranked 26th out of 30 and his under pressure accuracy percentage of 49.0% was 34th out of 35 quarterbacks. He also showed poor pocket presence, taking a sack on 23.8% of his pressured snaps, 8th worst in the NFL.

The Jets might as well try Tebow as the starting quarterback. He beat Sanchez head-to-head last season despite having a worse supporting cast. His game is perfect for the Jets because he’ll open things up on the ground and make this a great running team, in addition to a strong defensive team (assuming a bounce back year defensively). He’s not much of a passer obviously, but the Jets are not built to be a passing team. He would also solve the two-quarterback problem. If Tebow is the starting quarterback and Sanchez is the backup, I think it would cause less of a locker room split than what has taken place in just the last few months with Sanchez as the starter and Tebow as the backup.

Tebow’s passing stats last season weren’t great, as he completed just 46.5% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. However, those stats are a little skewed because he had a really poor supporting cast, especially on the offensive line and in the receiving corps, and because his coaching staff only really let him throw in obvious passing situations, which made it easier for the opponent to defend. 80 of his 271 passing attempts came on 3rd or 4th down, 29.5%, one of the highest rates in the league.

He also elevated his game in the clutch, completing 67 of 124 (54.0%) for 999 yards (8.1 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in the 4th quarter and overtime. After passing attempt 20 of a given game, he completed 35 of 60 (58.3%) for 397 yards (6.5 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Not coincidentally, those were the situations when his coaching staff would take the chains off him and let him play his game.

He also was instrumental in the Broncos leading the league in rushing with 2632 yards, on a 4.8 YPC average. Not only he did rush for 660 yards and 6 touchdowns on his own on 122 carries (5.4 YPC), he opened things up on the ground for Willis McGahee, once a washed up back. At age 30, McGahee had one of his best seasons, rushing for 1199 yards and 4 touchdowns on 249 carries (4.8 YPC), his best season since 2007. Opposing front 7s almost always had to use a spy when playing the Broncos last year, for fear of Tebow taking off, which weakens and distracts their overall run defense as they try to stop running backs.

He was for McGahee what Michael Vick was for LeSean McCoy and what Vince Young was for Chris Johnson In the last 2 seasons, McCoy has carried the ball 375 times for 1954 yards (5.2 YPC) and 21 touchdowns in 24 games with Michael Vick and 105 times for 435 yards (4.1) and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without him. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2009, when Vince Young was his primary quarterback. In 2010, he rushed for 4.8 YPC with Young and 3.8 YPC without him. Last year, without him at all, he averaged just 4.0 YPC. For a Jets team that is best when they run first, he makes the most sense at quarterback.

Unfortunately, Sanchez is currently the starting quarterback and the Jets don’t have their until bye week 9 so they might not make the switch until it’s too late. The Jets have a tough early schedule (vs. Buffalo, @ Pittsburgh, @ Miami, vs. San Francisco, vs. Houston, vs. Indianapolis, @ New England). If the Jets come out of that 2-5, they might make the switch then, but it’ll probably be too late.

They’ll have to go at least 7-2 to make the playoffs after that kind of start and Tebow can’t be counted on to do that barring another freak stretch like he had last season. Teams that switch quarterbacks midseason rarely make the playoffs for a reason and I’m not expecting another Tebow miracle. Maybe in 2013 and beyond Tebow can make them a competitive team in the AFC if the team plays their cards right, but I don’t really like their chances that much in 2012.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

When the Jets were at their best, they did it by running more than they passed and they did that by having 2 backs. Now they only really have one, Shonn Greene. Greene is a pretty mediocre runner, who averages 4.3 YPC in his career and has only caught 46 passes in 3 seasons. Last season, Greene had to carry the ball a career high 253 times because he didn’t have Thomas Jones splitting carries with him like he did in 2009 and because LaDainian Tomlinson, who split carries with him in 2010, got old in a hurry and only had 75 carries.

Greene was pretty mediocre, rushing for just 1054 yards and 6 touchdowns (4.1 YPC), a big part of the reason why they managed just 3.8 YPC on the ground, 30th in the league. That, along with a weakened defense, led to the Jets ranking just 22nd in rushing yards last year, which, of course, put too much pressure on Mark Sanchez, which sky rocketed their turnover total.

This year, he is expected to get even more of a work load, with LaDainian Tomlinson gone and the team planning to run more overall, which is not a good thing.  Having Tebow at quarterback, functioning essentially as a 2nd running back, would help take some of the load off of him and also open things up on the ground for him the way Tebow did for Willis McGahee last season.

The Jets’ other running back options are Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight. Powell was a 2011 4th round pick who rushed for just 21 yards on 13 carries as a rookie last year. McKnight, meanwhile, went in the 4th round in 2010. He’s averaged just 3.9 YPC in his career on 82 carries, including 134 yards on 43 carries last year (3.1 YPC). He reported to offseason practices 15 pounds overweight after “bulking up,” which he admits was aided by a McDonalds heavy offseason diet. They’ll compete for a 3rd down role, but neither is capable of being the true compliment to Shonn Greene they need.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The lack of a secondary back wasn’t the only reason why the Jets struggled on the ground in 2011. Their offensive line play didn’t help. They were alright in pass protection, ranking 12th in pass blocking efficiency, but they ranked 13th as run blockers on ProFootballFocus, after ranking 7th and 6th in 2009 and 2010 respectively. That hurt them. The biggest loss was right tackle Damien Woody, who was replaced by the incompetent Wayne Hunter. However, left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, left guard Matt Slauson, and right guard Brandon Moore all had down seasons as run blockers as compared to 2010.

Ferguson had a down year in general, not just as a run blocker. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th rated left tackle, allowing just 2 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures, while committing 5 penalties and run blocking well. In 2011, he allowed 8 sacks, 7 quarterback pressures, and 22 quarterback hits, while committing 3 penalties and ranked 62nd out of 73 players as a run blocker at his position. His down year not only contributed to a down year for the Jets’ line as run blockers, but in pass protection, as the Jets went from 1st in pass blocking efficiency in 2010 to 12th in 2011.

Opposite him, Wayne Hunter also contributed to their inferior offensive line play in both aspects. Hunter was awful, ranking 67th at his position overall, allowing 11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing 11 penalties and struggling as a run blocker. He was awful in 2010 as well, making 7 starts in place of an injured Damien Woody, allowing 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures, while struggling as a run blocker and committing 8 penalties. Ferguson could easily bounce back, but he probably won’t. He’ll be the weak link on this offensive line this season.

Both of their guards struggled as run blockers in 2011 as well. Right guard Brandon Moore was strong in pass protection once again, allowing 0 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback pressures, but struggled as a run blocker. Left guard Matt Slauson, was mediocre as a pass protector again, allowing 4 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures, but also struggled as a run blocker in 2011. Both were better as run blockers in 2010 and could have bounce back years as well.

The only position that wasn’t inferior from 2010 to 2011 was center. Nick Mangold once again had an amazing season. ProFootballFocus’ top rated center in 2008, 2009, and 2010, Mangold ranked 2nd in 2011. His strength is run blocking, but he can pass protect well, as well, allowing just 3 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 4 quarterback pressures.

One issue for the Jets on the offensive line is depth as 4 of 5 starters didn’t miss any time with injury last season. The Jets haven’t had a lot of injuries up front in any of the last 3 seasons, as no starters missed time in 2008 or 2009 and only one, Woody, missed time in 2010. That leads to inexperienced backups who would be very unprepared if anything happens to the starters in 2012. The only starter who missed time last was Nick Mangold and, in his absence, Colin Baxter was absolutely awful. Despite only making 3 starts, Baxter finished the season ranked 56th out of 65 centers who played a snap in 2011, in large part because of his atrocious run blocking.

If injuries strike this season, which they really haven’t in 4 seasons, Baxter and Vladimir Ducasse will be their top reserves. Ducasse, a 2010 2nd round pick, has been awful in his career when asked to play, which hasn’t been that often, as he’s played just 167 snaps in his career. Once considered Woody’s successor, Ducaase could be cut after the season if he doesn’t improve. However, barring major injuries, this should be an improved offensive line this season from last season. Wayne Hunter is their only true weak link. They might not be the elite line they were in 2009 and 2010, but they’ll be better.

Grade: B+

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Santonio Holmes is the Jets’ #1 receiver, but he was almost cut this offseason after a down year statistically in 2011 and after causing major locker room problems. On 98 targets, he caught just 51 passes (52.0%) for 645 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, the worst season of his career. This offseason, he’s up to his old tricks, having meltdowns in practice, missing a lot of time with various injuries, and undermining the coaching staff’s offensive game plan publicly, just a few days after ex-teammate LaDainian Tomlinson said that Holmes would mentally check out in a run heavy offense.

Opposite him, Chaz Schilens and Stephen Hill will compete for the starting job. Schilens has talent, but he’s also very injury prone. In 4 seasons, the 2008 7th round pick has caught 72 passes for 902 yards and 7 touchdowns. Hill, meanwhile, is a mere 2nd round rookie. Rookie receivers tend to struggle and Hill could especially, coming out of a triple option offense at Georgia Tech.

However, at 6-5, Hill should at least be able to replace Plaxico Burress around the goal line. Burress only caught 50.0% of his targets last year, so Hill can’t be much worse. He also has upside if Tebow becomes the starting quarterback, because Tebow had great chemistry with a similar player, Demaryius Thomas, in Denver. Like Thomas, Hill is not a good route runner, but he’s got immense athleticism.

These receivers are a far cry from Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery in 2010. Edwards and Holmes were both at their best then. Now Edwards and Cotchery are gone, Holmes is not at his best, and they really only have one proven starting wide receiver. With a weakened receiving corps in 2011, tight end Dustin Keller took over more of the offensive responsibility, leading the team with 65 catches on 109 targets and for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns. He could have another strong year, even if only out of necessity. Behind him on the depth chart, Matt Mulligan is a strong run blocking tight end.

The Jets offense will be at their best if they can be run heavy and do it effectively. A better defense will allow them to be run heavy, but they’re thin at running back so I don’t think they’ll be able to do it that effectively, even with an improved offensive line. Because of this, they’ll be their best offensively when Tebow is the starting quarterback because he will open things up for the backs and serve as a 2nd back himself. He also has a better chance of establishing a strong locker room presence, which this team desperately needs. Unfortunately, he is currently a backup and the 2nd quarterback in a two-quarterback system that is bound to fail. The Jets probably won’t make the switch until it’s too late.

Grade: C+

Defense

As I’ve mentioned, the Jets will obviously be a better team if they play better defensively. In 2009, they ranked 1st in the league, allowing 14.8 points per game and in 2010, they ranked 6th allowing 19.0 points per game. However, in 2011, they ranked 20th, allowing 22.7 points per game. There is reason to believe that last year’s performance is a fluke.

For one, the Jets ranked 5th in yards allowed last season (4993), 6th in passing yards per attempt (6.7 YPA), 7th against the run (3.9 YPC),and 4th in yards per play (5.0). Their defensive DVOA was 2nd in the league, leading to an overall DVOA that ranked 9th. Those numbers look eerily similar to their 2009 and 2010 numbers. In 2009, they ranked 1st in yards allowed (4037), 1st in YPA (5.4), 4th in YPC (3.8), 1st in yards per play (4.5), and 1st in defensive DVOA. In 2010, they ranked 3rd in yards allowed (4664), 6th in YPA (6.5), 3rd in YPC (3.6), 3rd in yards per play (4.8), and 6th in defensive DVOA. I’ve assembled all of this into a chart that can be seen below.

Year Points per game rank Yards allowed rank YPA allowed rank YPC allowed rank Yards per play rank Defensive DVOA rank
2009 1st 1st 1st 4th 1st 1st
2010 6th 3rd 6th 3rd 3rd 5th
2011 20th 5th 6th 7th 4th 2nd

A simple game of “find the outlier” shows that their 2011 points per game rank was a major outlier. They had a similar group of players as compared to 2010 and 2009 and still do. They had similar ranks in every statistic except points per game allowed as compared to 2010 and 2009. So why would they allow so many more points per game last season as compared to 2010 and 2009? Let’s do a little investigating.

Since DVOA became a stat following the 1992 season, teams who have a defensive DVOA that ranks at least 15 points higher than their rank in points per game allowed see an average of a 9 spot increase in their points per game allowed rank. If the average holds, the Jets would rank 11th in the league in scoring defense this year.

That’s obviously not certain, but the Jets do appear likely to bounce back defensively for other reasons. Their offense allowed 49 points last season, which gets added into points per game allowed just as points allowed by the offense does, as opposing defenses scored 7 times against the Jets last season, or once every 4.9 turnovers. There’s no real skill involved with stopping opposing defenses from scoring once they have the ball. It’s mostly luck. The average team surrenders a defensive touchdown once every 13.6 turnovers.

If the Jets turn the ball over 34 times next season, they can be expected to allow 2.5 defensive touchdowns, which would save them 32 points, or 2 points per game. The Jets allowed 22.7 points per game last season. 20.7 points per game would have ranked…12th, which coincidentally is an 8 spot improvement, only 1 less than the average improvement for teams that allow a lot of points despite high DVOAs.

The other issue is the shear amount that the Jets’ defense was on the field. Stats that are on a per play basis like DVOA, YPC, YPA, yards per play, and points per drive (6th with 1.55), love the Jets, but they faced 201 drives last season, 18 higher than the league average. The main reason for that was an offense that went 3 and out on 30.3% of their drives, 4th worst in the league. Tebow’s Broncos were actually worse than that last season so that probably won’t change much this season no matter who the quarterback is, unless Tebow starts a good amount of games and proves that he was being hurt by a system in Denver that really only let him throw in obvious passing situations (a possibility).

Still, for a defense that ranked in the top-10 in every statistic except points allowed and for a defense that ranked in the top-10 in points allowed in 2009 and 2010, with a similar group of players, they should bounce back and have a top-10 defense again this season. Even just their turnover to defensive touchdown rate regressing towards the mean would put them close to the top-10. They certainly have the talent.

Defensive Line

The Jets like to use a mix of 3-4, 4-3, and 46 fronts and will continue to do so this season. No matter the scheme, Sione Pouha and Muhammad Wilkerson, once again, will play the most snaps as they fit whatever scheme they run. In a 3-4, their base package, Pouha will play nose tackle and Wilkerson will play defensive end, while in a 4-3, Pouha and Wilkerson will both play defensive tackle, though Pouha could come out in obvious passing situations.

Pouha is not much of a pass rusher, which is why he comes out in obvious passing situations, but as far as two-down run stuffers go, very few are better than him. He ranked 2nd on ProFootballFocus among defensive tackles both overall and against the run and also chipped in 1 sack, 0 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures on 240 pass rush snaps, a decent 5.0% rate. The only issue with him is he’s heading into his age 33 season.

Wilkerson, however, is more of a complete defensive lineman. The 2011 1st round pick has prototypical size at 6-4 315 to play 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle. He stopped the run well as a rookie and also had 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on 300 pass rush snaps, also a 5.0% rate, but he did it on more snaps and had more sacks. Heading into his 2nd season in the league, he could have a breakout year and play even more snaps than the 608 he played last season.

Rounding out their 3 man defensive line in a 3-4 is Mike Devito, the opposite defensive end. He too doesn’t generate any pass rush, with 1 sack, 1 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on just 183 pass rush snaps, 5.5%, pretty bad for a situational player. However, he ranked 5th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run and 10th overall so he’s a valuable member of their 3-4 base package.

In all sub packages, DeVito will come out. In a 3-4 sub package, he’ll be replaced by Quinton Coples, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but teams don’t run many 3-4 sub packages. In 4-3 sub packages, however, which they figure to run a lot of, Coples will play both inside and outside on the defensive line, something he did in college at North Carolina in a 4-3. As a defensive end, he’s a mismatch against the run and inside he’s a mismatch as a pass rusher.

Rounding out their 4-3 defensive line will be Calvin Pace. Pace is heading into his age 32 season and was average as a pass rusher last season, managing 5 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 381 pass rush snaps, an average 9.4% rate. He’s most useful as a run stopper in the base package as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Aaron Maybin, meanwhile, will rotate here as a situational player, either coming in for Calvin Pace at times or coming in for Coples when he moves to defensive tackle. Maybin, the 11th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, was a complete bust in Buffalo and was cut after 2 years and no sacks, but he reinvented himself as a situational pass rusher last season with a team leading 6 sacks, to go with 2 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures on 197 pass rush snaps, a very good 12.2% pass rush rate as a situational player. The Jets have gotten him to bulk up after playing last season in the 220s and 230s, in order to be able to play more snaps and get better against the run. However, he struggled in the 240s in Buffalo so the added weight could hurt him.

Bryan Thomas, heading into his age 33 season and coming off a major injury, will also provide depth as a defensive end in a 4-3. Marcus Dixon, who struggled as a situational pass rusher last year, will do the same at defensive tackle. He had 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 270 pass rush snaps, a 4.1% rate. Quinton Coples’ presence will lead to him playing much less, which is a good thing. Kenrick Ellis, a 2011 3rd round pick who barely played as a rookie, could also see some situational snaps inside in their 3-4 and 4-3. Things are going to be pretty much the same up front when they go to a 46 front, which only the Jets use extensively, only one defensive end will be offset more, essentially like a hybrid defensive end/rush linebacker. That will be either Pace or Maybin, most likely.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In a 3-4, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are expected to be the starters on the outside, but Aaron Maybin will see his share of snaps there as well and Quinton Coples, who is incredibly versatile, might see some snaps there as well. Rex Ryan asked Coples to do some linebacker drills at his Pro Day before the draft, my first indication that he could be their pick, so maybe he’ll be used there this season in some packages.

Inside in a 3-4, David Harris, an above average starter, will start next to Bart Scott. Scott is heading into his age 32 season and might have been cut this offseason had it not been for the fact that his salary was fully guaranteed for this season. He probably won’t be around in 2013, but for now, he’s a solid 2-down run stuffer. He ranked 11th among middle linebackers overall and 6th among middle linebackers against the run on ProFootballFocus last season. 3rd round rookie Demario Davis will see some action as a situational player, primarily focusing on coverage.

In a 4-3, Harris will remain an every down linebacker, while Scott will play with Harris Bryan Thomas in any of their 4-3 base packages. In 4-3 sub packages, which figure to be more frequent, Davis will play next to Harris in two-linebacker sets, while Scott will come off the field and Thomas will provide depth at defensive end as a situational pass rusher. In a 46, the 4-3 sub package trio, Harris, Scott, Thomas, will be the 3 linebackers and a safety, likely LaRon Landry, will come down into the box and essentially be a 4th linebacker.

The Jets will show opposing offenses a lot of different fronts and they should get good play from them once again, as has been the case for the last 3 years. They’ve ranked 4th, 3rd, and 7th against the run over the past 3 seasons and a strong front 7 has been a big part of that. They don’t get a ton of pressure, with 32 sacks in 2009, 40 in 2010, and 35 in 2011, and they should remain only an average pass rushing team again this season, but the strength of their defense is a strong run stuffing front 7 and strong secondary play. Even with an average pass rush, they should have a strong ranking against the pass, as they have in the last 3 seasons. In 2009, they ranked 1st and in 2010 and 2011, they ranked 6th.

Grade: B+

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Secondary

Speaking of that strong secondary, the Jets have two very talented cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Revis was ProFootballFocus’ top rated cornerback last season, a title he’s held in 2 of the last 3 years. He’s been a top-3 cornerback on ProFootballFocus in 3 of the last 4 seasons and the only year he wasn’t was in 2010, when he ranked 8th. His “down year” that year was due to an extended holdout and lingering injuries.

Last season, he allowed 35 completions on 85 attempts (41.2%) for 508 yards (6.0 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 16 passes and only committing 3 penalties. The 45.6 QB rating he surrendered was 2nd among eligible cornerbacks (cornerbacks who played more than 50% of their team’s snaps), behind Ladarius Webb. His completion percentage allowed was best, a title he’s held for 3 straight seasons. In the last 4 seasons, he’s allowed 150 completions on 363 attempts (41.3%) for 1931 yards (5.3 YPA), 8 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, while deflecting 61 passes, and committing 13 penalties. That’s a QB rating allowed of 46.5, which is ridiculous. He’s easily the best cornerback in the NFL.

Cromartie, meanwhile, allowed 39 completions on 84 attempts (46.4%) for 566 yards (6.7 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 7 penalties. Not a lot of teams can say their starting cornerbacks both allowed fewer than 50% completion last season, but the Jets can actually say their starting cornerbacks have done that in each of the last two seasons. This is clearly one of the top cornerback duos in the league.

The Jets do need their 3rd cornerback, Kyle Wilson, to step up. Wilson, a 2010 1st round pick, has not progressed well so far in his career. As purely a slot cornerback in 2011, he allowed 40 completions on 60 attempts (66.7%) for 499 yards (8.3 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 2 penalties. Cornerbacks can take a couple years to get adjusted to the NFL and a breakout year from him would obviously be huge, but there’s no guarantee that one’s coming.

Strong cornerbacks really mask their awful safeties, but they do have some awful safeties. Their oft injured starters from 2011, Brodney Pool and Jim Leonhard, are both gone and starting in their place will be long time backup Eric Smith, who has struggled mightily in his career when asked to start, and LaRon Landry, who was let go by the Redskins this offseason when he refused to get surgery on his injured Achilles. He’s doubtful to make it through a 16 game season.

Because of that, the Jets signed Yeremiah Bell. Bell and Smith are probably going to start the most games of this trio, but they ranked 73rd and 77th respectively on ProFootballFocus last season. Heading into his age 34 season, Bell won’t get any better. Landry, meanwhile, is no guarantee to play when even when healthy. He missed a good portion of the offseason program and, though he was a solid starter last year in Washington, he’s not likely to be 100%. I don’t know why he didn’t just get surgery. He’ll end up needing to get it at some point and he’ll probably miss most of this season.

The Jets also have two late round picks, 6th round pick Josh Bush and 7th round pick Antonio Allen, on the roster and they sadly could see action this year.  Unless they have breakout rookie years, the Jets’ safety play could be among the worst in the league. That being said, they have enough talent elsewhere to have a bounce back year after a fluky 20th ranked scoring defense in 2011. They should be a top-10 scoring defense once again in 2012, which will help them be more run heavy on offense.

Grade: A-

Head Coach

Rex Ryan gets a lot of flak for making bold predictions that he has yet to be able to make good on, but all he’s trying to do is set high expectations for his team. Other teams also do the same thing privately in the locker room, but Ryan is a very extroverted guy who likes to make those predictions public. I don’t have a problem with his talking.

Besides, he’s produced results so far, making 2 NFC Championship games in 3 seasons and going 28-20 in the regular season and 4-2 in the playoffs. He’s also done a very good job with this defense, especially, which is his area of expertise. They were an 18th ranked scoring defense in 2008, before he took over and implemented his more complex defensive scheme, which also worked very well in Baltimore when he was the defensive coordinator. However, if the Jets underachieve for the 2nd straight year for chemistry issues, Ryan deserves to get the blame for that and calls for his job will be merited.

Grade: B+

Overall

I’m really torn on the Jets. On one hand, the defense almost definitely will bounce back, which will allow the offense to run more and Mark Sanchez to have to do less. That was their model in 2009 and 2010, when they made the playoffs, and in the inferior AFC, against an easy schedule, they could make the playoffs again following that same model, especially if Tim Tebow, the perfect quarterback for that model, takes over the job early. Tebow went 8-5 in 15 starts last season, including playoffs, despite having a worse defense supporting him and an equally bad supporting cast. Meanwhile, the Jets’ DVOA ranked 9th, which suggests that their 8-8 record was not totally indicative of their play last season.

On the other hand, their offensive supporting cast is not the same as it was in 2009 and 2010. Mark Sanchez has an inferior offensive line in both aspects, one of the thinnest receiving corps in the league, and a running game that averaged 3.8 YPC last year. Meanwhile, the chemistry, morale, and intangibles surrounding this team are a mess and teams that switch quarterbacks midseason rarely make the playoffs. Sanchez could easily not improve and Tebow might prove that last season was a fluke, which, on pure statistics, it looks like it was as the Broncos made the playoffs with just a Pythagorean Expectation of just 5.8 wins(though you can’t always go purely on statistics).

They could bounce back and make the playoffs and they could completely bottom out and get Rex Ryan fired. They’re one of three teams I’m completely torn on (all have unsolved quarterback situations, not coincidentally) and, like in the other 2 cases, I’m going to split the difference and put them at about 7 or 8 wins, out of the playoffs, but not completely bottomed out.

I think they’re the 3rd best team in the division, with Buffalo looking poised to contend for a playoff spot, so they should go 2-4 or 3-3 in their division. Meanwhile, outside of the division, they host San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis, Arizona, and San Diego. Houston will be tough and San Diego is a late season game and they’re always tough then. They could go 3-2 or 2-3 in those 5 games. In the 11 games listed so far, 5-6 makes sense. In their other 5 games, they go to Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. Seattle and St. Louis are good home teams and Pittsburgh is a very tough team. Tennessee won’t go down easy and Jacksonville is the only easy road game. They could easily go 7-9.

Projection: 7-9 3rd in AFC East

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Buffalo Bills 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

It was really a tale of two seasons for the Bills last year. In their first 7 games, they went 5-2, with a win over New England. Their only two losses came by a field goal against eventual playoff teams Cincinnati and the New York Giants (on the road), and their other 4 wins were at Kansas City, vs. Oakland, vs. Philadelphia, and vs. Washington.

They outscored their opponents 211 to 147, which extrapolates to 482 points for and 336 points against for a 16 game season, totals that would have ranked 4th and 12th respectively if sustained over the whole season. Those numbers also translate to a Pythagorean Expectation of about 11.2 wins. However, the Bills won just 1 of their final 9 games, finishing 6-10 with 372 points for (14th) and 434 points against (30th) and a Pythagorean Expectation of just 6.6 wins.

Quarterback

So what happened? Did the Bills prove their first 7 games were a fluke? Maybe, but injuries also had a lot to do with it. Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose breakout performance in the team’s first 7 games earned him a shiny new contract extension, suffered a rib injury week 8 against the Redskins, cracking 4 ribs and injuring his sternum, and was not the same afterwards.

In his first 7 games, Fitzpatrick completed 155 of 229 (67.7%) for 1739 yards (7.6 YPA), 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In his final 9, he completed 198 of 340 (58.2%) for 2093 yards (6.2 YPA), 10 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. That’s a big part of the reason why their offense went from 30.1 points per game in their first 7 to 18.1 points per game in their final 9.

Of course, Fitzpatrick was not helped by injuries to members of his supporting cast. Fred Jackson, an early MVP candidate, went down for the season week 11, after rushing for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns on 170 carries (5.5 YPC), while adding another 442 yards on 39 catches in the air. Meanwhile, key offensive linemen Eric Wood and Demetress (then Demetrius) Bell also suffered injuries with Wood going down for the year week 10 and Bell missing 9 games from week 4 to week 14.

After surrendering just 8 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures in their first 9 games, they surrendered 11 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback pressures in their final 7 games. This is significant because Ryan Fitzpatrick’s under pressure accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) was just 53.3% last season, 29th out of 35 eligible quarterbacks. In 2010, his first season as a full-time starter, he ranked 33rd out of 34 players under pressure, by being accurate of 50.0% of his under pressure snaps. He also threw 8 picks to 2 touchdowns under pressure.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Fitzpatrick’s performance in their first 7 weeks wasn’t somewhat fluky. After all, Fitzpatrick’s career before those 7 games was not exactly dominant, completing 679 of 1175 (57.8%) for 7104 yards (6.0 YPA), 44 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions in his career prior to last season, numbers that look eerily similar to how he played in his final 9 games last season. There’s also no guarantee he won’t get hurt again.

Still, it’s no coincidence that Fitzpatrick’s play, and the play of the team, got much worse when he got hurt and had to start playing injured and when several other key offensive players got hurt. They won’t score the 30.1 points per game they scored in their first 7 games, but they should be improved over the 23.2 points per game they finished with. He’s got a limited arm, completing just 17 of 58 passes deeper than 20+ yards in the air and going deep on just 10.2% of his attempts, but in Chan Gailey’s system, he’s capable of game managing a team to victory so long as he’s protected well.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons to believe in Fitzpatrick this year is how good his offensive line is. Fitzpatrick has proven that he can lead an effective offense if given time in the pocket and the Bills have one of the best offensive lines in the league at doing that. Even with two major injuries, the Bills ranked first in pass blocking efficiency and allowed Fitzpatrick to be pressured on just 21.8% of his drop backs, 2nd best in the NFL.

Fitzpatrick also helps himself out with a quick release, taking a sack on just 15.6% of his pressured snaps, 8th best in the league, but his completion percentage plummets when pressured and he can get very erratic with the football (8 interceptions to 2 touchdowns). And they were even better before injuries struck, allowing just 8 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures in their first 9 games. Over 16 games, that’s an incredible 14 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 49 quarterback quarterbacks if they could keep that up. They also ranked a decent 15th as run blockers on ProFootballFocus.

Eric Wood is back. Despite only playing in 9 games last season, he finished the year as ProFootballFocus’ 7th best center, run blocking well, allowing just 1 quarterback hit and 2 quarterback pressures, not allowing a sack and committing only 2 penalties. The presence of the 2009 1st round pick in the lineup undoubtedly helps and,if he can play all 16 games this season, it would be a huge boost.

Demetrius Bell is not back, but he never could stay healthy anyway. To replace him, the Bills used a 2nd round pick on Cordy Glenn. Glenn was not seen by many as someone who could stay at left tackle at the next level, which is why he fell to the 2nd round, but the Bills think he can and he’ll start there week 1. He’ll be an upgrade over Chris Hairston, who allowed 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures, while run blocking poorly and committing 4 penalties in essentially 7 starts. The Bills also tried Andy Levitre at left tackle. He played better than Hairston, but he’s much better as a left guard.

Making 12 starts at left guard (3 at left tackle, 1 at center), Levitre was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated guard, allowing 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 7 quarterback pressures, while committing 4 penalties and run blocking well. He was only average at left tackle, where he allowed 1 sack and 4 quarterback pressures in 3 starters and he also made a start at center, showing off his versatility, though he was his worst at center. He’s never missed a start in 3 seasons after going in the 2nd round in 2009 and having him for 16 games at left guard will definitely be a boost.

At right guard, Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart will compete for the starting job. Urbik was the week 1 starter last year, but also played some left guard and center when needed and missed two games himself, which allowed Rinehart to get a good amount of playing time. In fact, Rinehart played more snaps than Urbik did and outplayed him according to ProFootballFocus.

Both are excellent pass protectors, as Rinehart allowed 0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures and Urbik allowed 0 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 3 quarterback pressures, but Rinehart was the better run blocker and overall player. Urbik was better at guard than at center, but Rinehart should win this job. It’ll be close in Training Camp though and whoever wins should be an above average starter and whoever loses will provide solid depth as both players are good enough to start.

Right tackle Erik Pears is another solid player, especially in pass protection, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties, though he struggled as a run blocker. The Bills don’t have the biggest names up front, but they play very well as a unit, especially in pass protection, which is more important, especially with Fitzpatrick under center. The one question mark is Cordy Glenn at left tackle, but they should rank among the top-5 pass blocking lines in the league at least, after being the #1 rated pass blocking line in the league last year, in spite of injuries.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

While they don’t run block that well, they run incredibly well, averaging 4.9 YPC last season, 5th in the league. They missed Fred Jackson when he went down, obviously, because he was an MVP candidate prior to his injury, but not too much because CJ Spiller, the 9th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, played almost as well in his absence. Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 107 carries last season, giving him 561 yards and 2 touchdowns, while catching 39 passes for another 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Bills have two legitimate #1 backs right now and will use both of them.

Fred Jackson rushed for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns on 170 carries (5.5 YPC) in 10 games, while adding another 442 yards on 39 catches in the air. He’s heading into his age 31 season, but he does only have 817 career carries after spending so many years working his way up as an undrafted free agent out of Division-III Coe. He certainly didn’t look like an older back last season and Spiller has proven himself worthy of a larger workload, which will help keep Jackson, who doesn’t have much of a prior injury history, healthy. They’ll be one of the best running teams in the league and that, along with their offensive line, will really help Fitzpatrick.

Grade: A-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Ryan Fitzpatrick is also helped out by #1 receiver Steve Johnson. Johnson broke out in 2010, once Fitzpatrick became the starting quarterback, catching 71 passes for 930 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games with Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. Over 16 games, that’s 87 catches for 1145 yards and 12 touchdowns.

In 2011, he caught 76 passes for 1004 yards and 7 touchdowns, despite playing through a groin injury for most of the season. In his first 7 games last year, when Fitzpatrick was healthy, he caught 39 passes for 439 yards and 4 touchdowns, good for 89 catches for 1003 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games. Now fully healthy, with Fitzpatrick fully healthy, he could have a career best season in 2012 and catch upwards of 85 balls for 1100 yards and possibly double digit touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the rest of his receiving corps is not quite figured out yet. The Bills essentially have 4 guys competing for the #2 receiver spot. David Nelson was their 2nd leading receiver last year, playing both on the slot and outside and catching 61 passes for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns. Even if he doesn’t win a starting job, he’ll probably be the slot guy. Donald Jones, a 2010 undrafted free agent, might be the favorite to start opposite Johnson this season, but he’s caught just 41 passes for 444 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 seasons.

Derek Hagan is another option. He spent part of last year in Oakland as well, where he was a preseason standout and caught 5 passes for 61 yards in a loss to the Bills. When the Raiders let him go, the Bills, undoubtedly remembering his performance against them, decided to give him a shot. He caught 7 passes for 89 yards in the season finale, but did little else all season, catching just 24 passes for 252 yards and a score. He’s a career journeyman who hasn’t had much success anywhere.

The 4th candidate is 3rd round rookie TJ Graham, who has an outside shot right now at both a starting job and a slot job, but he’ll probably end up working his way up the depth chart as the season goes along. He should start the year as the 5th receiver. He’s incredibly athletic, but incredibly raw with only one year of starting experience at wide receiver at the collegiate level. He’s also a deadly return man, but the Bills don’t seem to want to use him there, even as a rookie. CJ Spiller could also see some action at wide receiver, as they try to figure out creative ways to use their backup running back.

The Bills don’t use tight ends very often, but when they did last year, it was primarily Scott Chandler, who played just 533 snaps, primarily as a blocker. He’s a good run blocker and a solid receiver, who caught 38 passes for 389 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. He’s especially useful around the goal line at 6-7 263. The rest of their tight ends totaled just 256 snaps played.

The tight end position isn’t a position that Chan Gailey’s offense uses much as they prefer to spread it out and use multiple wide receivers. They also pass to the backs frequently, as Spiller and Jackson combined for 78 catches last year. The Bills do have multiple receivers, but only one who is above average, Steve Johnson. They do run the ball well and have a strong offensive line though and they should be a solid offensive squad, provided Fitzpatrick doesn’t get hurt or prove that his strong start to last year was a complete fluke. As long as they can protect him well, which they should be able to, he should be able to game manage this offense well.

Grade: B-

Defense

Even if the Bills aren’t improved offensively (which I think they will be), they’ll definitely be improved defensively. The Bills ranked 30th in the league last year, allowing 27.1 points per game. The biggest problem was that they couldn’t get to the quarterback at all, managing just 29 sacks. Only 2 teams had fewer and 9 of those 29 sacks came in one game against Washington’s terrible offensive line. No one had more than 6 sacks and only 3 players had more than 3 sacks. After the addition of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, that won’t be a problem in 2012.

The Bills also get back Kyle Williams from injury, one of the league’s best defensive linemen when healthy, and they might actually get something from Shawne Merriman, who missed most of last season with an Achilles injury after teasing Bills fans with a strong Preseason. On top of this, they have several young players who could make a major impact. This could actually be a pretty strong group this season.

Defensive Line

The Bills are moving to a full time 4-3 scheme this year. They get Kyle Williams back at defensive tackle and add Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at defensive end. Williams was ProFootballFocus’ #1 rated defensive tackle in 2010, over 16 points ahead of any other defensive tackle. In fact, only 4 defensive players finished the season with a higher rating than Williams did and they were all edge rushers. However, his 2011 season consisted of only 225 snaps before going down for the season with a broken foot week 5.

He’ll play inside at defensive tackle with Marcell Dareus and, barring a struggle adjusting to a pure 4-3 scheme from a hybrid, he should be one of the better defensive tackles in the league this season. Dareus could also be one of the best defensive tackles in the league this year. As a rookie, the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was ProFootballFocus’ 12th rated defensive tackle (he also played some 3-4 defensive end).

He played the run well and rusher the passer well and had 6 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 24 quarterback pressures on 407 pass rushes, good for an impressive 9.1% rate. He could be even better in his 2nd season in the league and the sky is the limit for this #3 overall pick. Spencer Johnson, who started in Williams’ absence last year and played pretty poorly, will provide depth, but won’t be needed much, barring injuries, which is a good thing.

Outside, the two big additions are Mario Williams and Anderson. Williams missed 11 games with injury last season, but the 2006 1st overall pick had missed a combined 3 games in 4 seasons before last year, so he should be pretty reliable. In 82 career games, he has 53 sacks and plays the run incredibly well, as you would expect out of a 6-6 292 pound defensive end.

Last year, he had 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 17 quarterback pressures on just 126 pass rush snaps, an incredible 19.0% rate. That’s obviously not sustainable over a whole season, but from 2008-2010 he had 33 sacks, 43 quarterback hits, and 102 quarterback pressures on 1537 pass rush snaps, good for a 11.6% rate that ranks among the league’s best over that time period. He was a top-15 defensive end on ProFootballFocus in each of those 3 seasons.

Opposite him, Mark Anderson is not quite as proven. He had 15 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 420 pass rush snaps last season, an incredible 13.6% rate, but in 5 years prior he managed just 25 sacks and only surpassed 5 sacks once, when he recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006. He also wasn’t an every down end in New England last year and could get tired out and become less efficient in a larger role in Buffalo this year.

Still, after the season he just had, he was definitely worth the risk on a deal with only one year’s salary guaranteed (8 million). He’ll see plenty of single blocking with defenses forced to focus on Mario Williams, wherever he’s lined up (Williams could play defensive tackle on passing downs), and he could definitely have another 10+ sack season. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Bills had two pass rushers in double digits this year.

Another player who could be a significant addition to their pass rush is Shawne Merriman, who is competing for the nickel rusher job. Merriman has just 5 sacks in the last 4 seasons, but he had 40 sacks in 3 years from 2005-2007 in San Diego. He can’t seem to stay healthy, playing in just 23 games over the last 4 years, but he’s healthy now and reportedly putting on quite the show in practice. That was also the case last offseason, before he ended up getting hurt again, but he might be able to give them something as a situational player this year, though he definitely will never be his old self again.

If not, Chris Kelsay will probably be the nickel rusher. He was sadly one of their best pass rushers last season, but only by default as he had just 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures on 277 pass rush snaps, an 8.3% rate. He’s heading into his age 33 season so he’s not getting any better. It would obviously be better if Merriman could give them something this year, but Kelsay is adequate depth if needed.

With the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the return of Kyle Williams from injury, Marcell Dareus heading into his 3rd season, and Shawne Merriman possibly coming back, this defensive line could go from one of the worst in the league in 2011 to one of the best in 2012. They ranked 27th in the league allowing 4.8 YPC and only 2 teams had fewer sacks than their 29. They could have one of the highest sack totals in the league this season and they could be one of the best run defense teams as well.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Bills are switching from a hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme to a pure 4-3 scheme so their linebacking corps will look a little different. Nick Barnett will remain an every down linebacker, only he’ll play 4-3 outside linebacker rather than 3-4 middle linebacker. He’s an above average starter, but he’s heading into his age 31 season and he’s spent the last few seasons in a 3-4 in Green Bay and Buffalo. Still, he should be a solid player in coverage and against the run once again.

Kelvin Sheppard will remain in the middle and play an every down role this season, unlike last season. The 2011 3rd round pick has slimmed down about 10-15 pounds in order to drop into coverage better, something he struggled with last season. He admits he was out of shape last season, but still played very well, especially as a run stuffer.  He managed 70 tackles (46 solo, 24 assisted) last season and ranked 21st among all middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus against the run, despite only playing 442 snaps.

Sheppard was even better in his final 9 games, where he had 59 of his 70 tackles, despite still only playing in 369 of his team’s 592 snaps over that period. Perhaps most impressive, Sheppard only missed 1 tackle, fewest among eligible middle linebackers. He could have a breakout season in 2012 as an every down linebacker now that he’s back in shape.

Kirk Morrison will be the 3rd linebacker and only play two-downs and come out in two-linebacker sets. He barely played at all last year, playing just 60 snaps. He wasn’t hurt or anything, but the Bills’ coaching staff just really didn’t like the way he fit in their 3-4 defense. Back in a 4-3, which he played in for the rest of his career before last season, he should become a decent starter once again. He’ll only really need to stop the run, something he used to be one of the best in the league at doing. He ranked 24th in 2010, 4th in 2009, and 5th in 2008 against the run on ProFootballFocus among middle linebackers. That shouldn’t change now that he’s playing outside. This is a solid group of linebackers.

Grade: B

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Secondary

One of the biggest reasons that the Bills couldn’t stop anyone was because they allowed 7.7 YPA, 25th in the league. A much improved pass rush will really help, but they did need to upgrade their talent in the secondary as well. With that in mind, the Bills used the 10th overall pick on a cornerback, Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has immediately been inserted into the starting lineup and many people have raved about his performance in the offseason, but defensive backs normally take a year or two to adjust to the NFL. Even Patrick Peterson struggled mightily in coverage as a mere rookie last season. He will be helped by their strong pass rush.

Starting opposite him will be Aaron Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick. Williams struggled in coverage in a limited role last season, allowing 22 completions on 39 attempts (59.5%) for 356 yards (9.1 YPA), 5 touchdowns and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 4 penalties. His QB rating allowed was 4th worst in the NFL (120.0). However, he was just a rookie so you can’t really hold that against him. He finished the season in the starting lineup in place of an injured Leodis McKelvin and will start this season there.

With two young and highly drafted cornerbacks, the future looks bright at cornerback and, while they’re young, they should be an upgrade over Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin, the starters last season. McKelvin allowed 27 completions on 45 attempts (60.0%) for 455 yards (10.1 YPA), 3 touchdowns and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 1 penalty. Florence meanwhile, ranked 89th out of 98 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus, allowing 44 completions on 73 attempts (60.3%) for 714 yards (9.8 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 9 penalties. With a better pass rush, they should be an average team against the pass this season.

Florence is gone, while McKelvin will compete with 3 other guys for the nickel cornerback job. McKelvin, a bust as the 11th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, will compete with Terence McGee, who is heading into his age 32 season and coming off an injury plagued season in which he barely played, Justin Rogers, a 2011 7th round pick who is impressing this offseason, and Ron Brooks, a 4th round rookie. Rogers is considered the favorite right now, while either of the two veterans, McKelvin and McGee, could be cut if that happens because they make the most money. Brooks’ roster spot is obviously safe as a 4th round rookie. Rogers may be impressing this offseason, but he’s still inexperienced, playing just 216 snaps as a rookie last year.

At safety, things are better looking, thanks to Jairus Byrd, one of the league’s best safeties and most underrated players. Byrd, a 2009 2nd round pick, was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked safety last season, playing the run well and covering well. He’s improved in every season of his career according to his ProFootballFocus rating and now is a complete safety, rather than just a pure ball hawk which he was in 2009, when he had 9 interceptions. Opposite him is George Wilson, a solid starter who is better against the run than in coverage and who is heading into his age 31 season. There’s a lot of talent on this defense, a lot more than last season and this should be a much improved unit from last season to this season for many reasons.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Chan Gailey hasn’t had a lot of success with the Bills, going 10-22 in the last 2 seasons, but then again, no one has had success with the Bills recently as they haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the longest streak in the NFL. He does look poised to take them to the playoffs sometime soon, possibly even this season, and he went 18-14 in 2 seasons with the Cowboys in the late 90s. He also has a 68-41 record at the collegiate level as a Head Coach.

Grade: B-

Overall

Every year there’s one team who makes it to the playoffs on the strength of a strong running game and defense, a game managing quarterback, and a weak schedule. Last year it was the 49ers and the Bengals. In 2010, it was the Chiefs and to some extent the Jets. In 2009, it was the Jets again, etc. The Bills have the look of that type of team this season.

They have a much improved defense with one of the league’s best defensive lines, two legitimate starting running backs, and a very strong offensive line that will give Ryan Fitzpatrick the time he needs to game manage this offense to success. Barring any major injuries or complete regression by Fitzpatrick, they will be in the playoff race and I have them making it, sneaking in from the inferior AFC, and snapping a 12 season non-playoff streak.

The schedule is a big part of it too. They rank tied for 3rd in terms of easiest schedule in 2012, based on opponent’s 2011 records. They play just 4 games against teams I have making the playoffs as they face the NFC West and AFC South, in addition to their own pretty easy division. Outside of those 3 divisions, they also face Kansas City and Cleveland.

Aside from New England, their divisional schedule is not hard. They could go 4-2 or 3-3 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Kansas City, Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Seattle. The best two teams in that bunch might be St. Louis and Seattle, who struggle on the road. Tennessee is a big unknown this season because we don’t know who their quarterback will be and how he’ll play. They could take 4 of those games. Their other 5 games send them to Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona, Houston, and Indianapolis. I have 3 of those teams winning 6 or fewer games so even though they’re road games, they could take 2 or 3 of them. I have the Bills at 10-6.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in AFC East

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New England Patriots 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

I’ve talked a lot about parity in my previews before. One team that hasn’t been subject to the ups and down of the NFL over the last decade is the New England Patriots. Since 2001, the Patriots have 9+ games every season, won double digit games in 10 of 11 seasons, made the playoffs 9 times, won 12+ 6 times and 13+ 5 times. They’ve made it to the playoffs 9 times, the AFC Championship game 6 times, and the Super Bowl 5 times, winning 3. Tom Brady has a career regular season record of 123-35 and a postseason record of 16-6. Nobody has done it better than Brady and Belichick over the last 11 seasons.

I’ve talked a lot about the parity in turnovers from season to season before as well.  Since 2002, there have been 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season.

However, teams with elite quarterbacks seem to be pretty immune to this. The Indianapolis Colts had 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times in the last decade and actually won an average of 0.4 more wins the following season. The Patriots, meanwhile, appear on that list twice. One year was their 16 win season in 2007, after which they won just 11 games, but that was with Tom Brady missing most of the season. The other year was 2010 and last year they did it again and won just 1 less game. They also had differentials of +15 or more in those two seasons, as well as in 2003, when they won 14 games. They followed that season up with a 14 win season.

Discounting 2008 when Brady was hurt, the Patriots have ranked in the top-6 in scoring offense in each of the last 4 seasons. Discounting 2008 and 2009, when Brady was still getting his legs back under him, the Patriots have had a top-3 scoring offense in each of the last 3 seasons, including two 1st place finishes. Last year, when they averaged 32.1 points per game, was actually their worst total and they’ve averaged 33.8 points per game in the 2007, 2010, and 2011 seasons.

Tom Brady gets a new weapon to play with this season, Brandon Lloyd, who is the best deep threat they’ve had since Randy Moss. Meanwhile, 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley looks like he could be their best running back since Corey Dillon. He also reunites with Josh McDaniels, who was his offensive coordinator in their record breaking 2007 season, when they averaged a record setting 36.8 points per game and finished the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Life is good in New England. Barring major injuries, the Patriots remain the favorite in a weak AFC with an easy schedule.

Quarterback

Excluding 2008, when he barely played, and 2009, when he was still getting healthy, Tom Brady has completed 1123 passes for 1681 yards (66.8%) for 13941 yards (8.3 YPA), 125 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. He’s won 43 of 48 regular season games and made two Super Bowls. He didn’t win the big one, but he pretty much has done everything short of that and the only reason to think he can’t win it this year is the fact that no Super Bowl loser has won the Super Bowl since the Dolphins won Super Bowl XII in 1973. Still, if anyone can snap a close to 40 year streak of disappointment from Super Bowl runner ups, it Tom Brady. It’s scary to think that you can make legitimate arguments that one or both of two other quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) are actually better than Brady right now.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Despite his great success in 2007, 2010, and 2011, Tom Brady has really only had a true deep threat receiver in one of those 3 seasons. I doubt count Moss half assing 5 games in the start of the 2010 season. If anything, he hurt Brady in those 5 games because he still looked like Moss, but he wasn’t the same and caused Brady to mistrust him and that led to unnecessary and risky deep throws.

The Patriots added one this offseason as they went out and got Brandon Lloyd. Well, maybe that statement is not exactly correct. Lloyd essentially went out and got the Patriots. Lloyd took a major pay cut to sign with the Patriots, signing for just 12 million over 3 years. When you consider that Vincent Jackson got 5 years, 55.5 million and Robert Meachem got 4 years, 26.9 million, and Laurent Robinson got 5 years 32.5 million, Lloyd was the biggest steal of the offseason. How could the Patriots not sign him when he was that desperate to play for them?

Lloyd had good reason to be that desperate to play for them. Not only do the Patriots have a great quarterback to get him the ball and represent a good chance to win a Super Bowl, but they also allow him to reunite with Josh McDaniels, under whom Lloyd has become a breakout star in the last 2 seasons.

McDaniels and Lloyd are awesome together. Before McDaniels was fired as Head Coach in Denver in 2010, Lloyd caught 60 passes for 1153 yards and 9 touchdowns in 12 games with Kyle Orton as his quarterback. In 2011, he was traded to St. Louis, where McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. He caught 51 passes for 683 yards and 5 touchdowns in 11 games with an injured Sam Bradford, AJ Feeley, and Kellen Clemens at quarterback.

In the last 2 years, he has 111 catches for 1836 yards and 14 touchdowns in 23 games with McDaniels. Over 16 games, that’s 77 catches for 1277 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Kyle Orton, AJ Feeley, Kellen Clemens, and an injured Sam Bradford throwing him the football. Now he has Tom Brady throwing him the football. Credit him for making a decision for football reasons and not financial ones.

He’s reportedly putting on quite a show in Training Camp. Receivers don’t have a good track record when switching teams, but Lloyd looks poised to be an exception because he’s not learning a new system. He probably won’t quite have those aforementioned extrapolated numbers, but only because the Patriots have so many other great receivers to throw the ball to.

Speaking of those other great receivers, they figure to take a bit of a statistical hit this season because Lloyd will eat away some of their targets. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still fantastic players. The player who could have the biggest statistical hit is Wes Welker. Welker had 122 catches for 1569 yards and 9 touchdowns last year and the latter two of those stats were career highs. However, he was 2nd in the league in targets, which probably won’t happen again this season.

He also wasn’t quite as good down the stretch as he was early in the season. After catching 45 passes for 740 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games, he caught “just” 106 passes for 997 yards and 5 touchdowns in his last 14 games, including the playoffs. Having Lloyd opposite him could make him more efficient though because defenses will have to respect the deep ball once again, something they didn’t used to have to do. That will open things up underneath for Welker.

Tom Brady was only 23 of 73 on balls that went 20+ yards in the air last season. Some of that is slightly diminished arm strength as he ages (35 this offseason), but a big part of it was just not having anyone to catch those passes. Only 4 quarterbacks attempted fewer deep throws than Brady did, as he went deep on just 10.1% of his attempts last season. Lloyd will make everyone better in the receiving corps, even if their statistics don’t show it, because teams will have to respect the deep ball once again in 2012.

Rob Gronkowski essentially was their deep threat last season, but he’s just a tight end. He’s no ordinary tight end, however. Including playoffs, he caught 107 passes for 1585 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was also an above average run blocker and his 15 broken tackles were 2nd in the league to teammate Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez had an amazing 28 broken tackles, which not only led tight ends, but wide receivers too. Calvin Johnson was 2nd with 19. In fact, only Brandon Marshall has at least 21 broken tackles among all tight ends and wide receivers in the last 4 seasons.

Hernandez caught 98 passes for 1098 yards and 9 touchdowns, including playoffs last year. Tom Brady was 346 for 470 (73.6%) for 4420 yards (9.4 YPA), 39 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions when throwing to Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Throwing to everyone else, he was 131 of 216 (60.6%), 1719 yards (8.0 YPA), 7 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions (the rest were throw aways and other non-targets). Brandon Lloyd will undoubtedly help.

Lloyd wasn’t the only offseason addition in the receiving corps, just the most important. The Patriots also signed a familiar face, Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney was with the Patriots from 2006 to 2008 and should be able to have an impact this season because he’s also familiar with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was his offensive coordinator for all of his 3 seasons in New England and his Head Coach for 2 years in Denver from 2009 to 2010.

Opposite Lloyd in Denver in 2010, Gaffney caught 65 passes for 875 yards and 2 touchdowns and last year he caught 68 passes for 947 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career highs, in Washington, despite Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing him the ball. He’ll be a good 3rd receiver and allow the Patriots more offensive flexibility as they weren’t really able to use many 3-wide receiver sets last year and when they did, they were that successful out of them. Aside from their two starting receivers, wide receivers played a total of just 696 snaps for the Patriots last year in 19 games and #3 wide receiver Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson caught just 16 passes for 297 yards and a score on 32 targets.

Deion Branch, meanwhile, will move from the starting lineup to the #4 receiver role, where he’s definitely an above average player. He’s aging, heading into his age 33 season and struggled down the stretch last season, but he’s always had strong chemistry with Tom Brady and is still a good route runner. The Patriots have plenty of receiving depth.

They also signed 3 more tight ends this offseason, signing Jake Ballard, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Daniel Fells. Ballard will likely spend the entire season on IR and was mostly claimed on waivers for 2013 and beyond, but Shiancoe and Fells will compete for the #3 tight end job. They didn’t have a 3rd tight end last year, but in 2010, Alge Crumpler had an impact in that role, playing 604 snaps. Like Crumpler, Shiancoe and Fells are veterans who are great run blockers.

The Patriots have so much offensive flexibility this season, more than last season, and with Josh McDaniels back, they once again have a brilliant offensive mind coordinating it all. The only issue is age, as Welker is heading into his age 31 season, Lloyd is heading into his age 31 season, and Gaffney is heading into his age 32 season. Still, that probably won’t be a huge problem just yet in 2012, so Tom Brady has to be thrilled with his offensive weapons. Unless Brady’s abilities decline noticeably in his age 35 season (also not likely an issue just yet), he could once again have one of the best seasons of his career and the Patriots should once again score a ton of points.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One other reason that Tom Brady has to be thrilled is the potential breakout of running back Stevan Ridley, a 3rd round pick in 2011. Ridley has the potential to be the Patriots’ best running back since Corey Dillon. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the perfect running back for the Patriots because he never fumbled and could run through holes. With how good the passing game and offensive line are, all the Patriots needed him to do was not fumble (0 fumbles in 557 career carries) and run through holes opened up by the offensive line against spread out fronts who are fearing the pass.

However, he was not explosive at all and didn’t do anything after contact. In his career, including playoffs, BJGE had 1305 yards after contact on 557 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry after contact. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hasn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots have had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.

Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry including playoffs last season, with 3.1 yards after contact, rushing for 462 yards on 91 carries total. He was good enough in limited action for the Patriots to let BJGE go and make him the lead back and he’s been impressing in Training Camp. He did fumble last season, something BJGE has never done, fumbling twice and lost one, but he only fumbled 3 times in college so he’s pretty sure handed when it comes to protecting the football.

One thing Ridley doesn’t do is pass catch as he had just 17 catches in his collegiate career and 5 last year. However, BJGE didn’t either and that didn’t matter much. Ridley will come out of the game on passing downs and the Patriots have plenty of other options in the receiving game, as I’ve detailed. The Patriots also have another back capable of pass catching, 2011 2nd round pick Shane Vereen.

Vereen managed just 57 yards on 15 carries (3.8 YPC) last season in 5 games thanks to injury and for now has been surpassed by Ridley, a later draft pick in the same draft. However, he’ll have an impact too as a change of pace back and he caught 74 passes in college. The Patriots also have Danny Woodhead, who has settled into Kevin Faulk’s old role nicely. He’s caught 52 passes in the last 2 seasons as a situational player. They lack a proven back, but they have backs with upside and with how good their passing game and offensive line is, they don’t need much from the backs.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Speaking of that offensive line, they ranked 11th in pass blocking efficiency last season. Brady was pressured on just 26.6% of his drop backs last season, 7th best in the NFL out of eligible quarterbacks. This is nothing new as he’s been pressured on 536 of his 1975 drop backs in the last 3 seasons, just 27.1%. This is good because Brady doesn’t quite have elite pocket presence like some other elite quarterbacks. He’s taken a sack on 15.7% of those pressured drop backs, which is good, but not great.

He also only has completed 220 of 441 passes (49.9%) and thrown 23 touchdowns to 13 interceptions under pressure over the last 3 season, as opposed to 994 for 1425 (69.8%) with 94 touchdowns to 24 interceptions while not under pressure. If you want to nitpick his game, this is the area to do it. If you can beat his offensive line with 4 guys (like the Giants), Brady is stoppable.

It’s also worth noting that as long as his offensive line can beat the opponent’s defensive line, he can tear any secondary apart. You can’t just blitz him because he’s 345 for 546 (63.2%) for 4609 yards (8.4 YPA) and 34 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 3 seasons. And his offensive line frequently wins the battle because Belichick and company also know that Brady is beatable when pressured without blitzing, so they’ve made sure to build a great offensive line in front of him. They also ranked 3rd as run blockers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Long time left tackle Matt Light is gone, but the Patriots made sure they were prepared for this day by using the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Nate Solder, who will be the left tackle this year. Solder played mostly right tackle as a rookie, in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer. He played alright, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing just 5 penalties and run blocking well, while playing essentially 16 full games, including playoffs.

Vollmer missed most of last season with injury, but he was very good in 2010 at right tackle, allowing just 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, committing 5 penalties and run blocking well. He was even better in 2009 as a 2nd round pick rookie, allowing just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 11 quarterback pressures in 10 starts, while run blocking incredibly well and committing just 4 penalties. The Patriots could have Vollmer and Solder switch sides if needed as Vollmer does have some experience on the left side, but, for now, Solder will be the left tackle and Vollmer will be the right tackle.

The Patriots also have a pair of great guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Mankins had a bit of a down year last year, allowing 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures, while committing 8 penalties, but he was still an above average run blocker and a solid starter overall. He’s been much better in the past.

Waters, meanwhile, has been one of the league’s best guards for years and that was no different at the age of 34 last year, despite signing with the Patriots right before the start of the season. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked guard, allowing 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties. He’s much better as a pass protector than a run blocker.

There are issues with both of them. Waters has yet to report to Training Camp as of this writing with an “excused absence” and a vague “issue,” leading to some speculation that he could retire before his age 35 season. Mankins, meanwhile, is not practicing after having surgery on his knee after the Super Bowl and his status for week 1 is reportedly in doubt. Unfortunately, these are the Patriots so they’re not really giving the media news on either of them so their status remains in limbo right now. Mankins will be back eventually and should be ready by week 1, but Waters is someone to worry about for Patriots fans.

If Waters retires, Dan Connolly, a mediocre starter, will move from center back to guard, giving Dan Koppen back his old job at center. Those two are currently competing for the center job. That’s a big drop off. If Waters retires and Mankins misses any time, the Patriots are out of luck as they’d have to rely on either the inexperienced Marcus Cannon, currently listed at right tackle, the inexperienced Ryan Wendell, who did play well in limited action last season, or the veteran Robert Gallery, who struggled mightily as a starter in Seattle last season. Mankins probably won’t miss much, if any time, however.

As I mentioned, Connolly and Koppen are competing for the center job. Connolly started every game except week 1 there last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd rated center out of 34. Koppen, meanwhile, was once a solid starter, but he missed all of last season with a broken leg and is now heading into his age 33 season. I think he deserves the job more. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 11th rated center.

Still, the Patriots have a strong offensive line which will be good pass protecting and run blocking once again this season. As long as Brady is protected and doesn’t have an unexpected drop off his abilities at age 35, he should continue to tear up opposing secondaries. He has an even more talented and more versatile receiving corps this season and a potential breakout year from Stevan Ridley would also really help as it would make their offense more two-dimensional. They’ve also rehired Josh McDaniels, which should have a positive effect on their offense. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, they have ranked in the top-3 in scoring and averaged over 32 points per game in each season and 33.8 points per game overall. I think they can do that a 4th time this season.

Grade: B+

Defense

While the offense is great, the defense could use some work. They ranked 15th in the league in points per game allowed last season, allowing 21.4 points per game, but they allowed the 2nd most yards in the league and ranked 30th in defensive DVOA (though 3rd offensively and 4th overall). They get better the closer you get to the goal line, somehow, which is a good thing, but it can lead to poor offensive field position, as it did in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Still, there is reason to believe they’ll be better on this side of the ball this season. They used their first 6 draft picks on defense, including 4 in the first 3 rounds, and they should have fewer injuries defensively than the large amount suffered last season.

Defensive Line

One area of the Patriots’ defense that wasn’t a big problem was their front 7. They ranked 24th against the run, allowing 4.6 YPC, which isn’t good, but including playoffs, they did have 57 sacks, including playoffs, and ranked a solid 14th in the regular season with 40. The Patriots are losing two key pass rushers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who combined for 26 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 60 quarterback pressures on 866 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.5%. Carter was also very good against the run, ranking 4th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run, and 11th overall.

In order to try to replace them, the Patriots used the 21st overall pick on defensive end Chandler Jones, who figures to be a week 1 starter. Jones is incredibly raw as a pass rusher, but he can play the run right now and he has crazy upside. He’ll be part of a defensive end rotation and may come out on passing downs as a rookie.

The Patriots also signed Trevor Scott, who didn’t have a good year in Oakland last year, but he was a solid situational pass rusher in 2010 with 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures on 233 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 9.9%. He’s an ideal fit for their scheme and the Patriots may be able to get the most out of him.

Also in the rotation is 3rd round rookie Jake Bequette and Rob Ninkovich, a converted linebacker. Ninkovich has plenty of experience rushing the passer and playing defensive end as he’d move down to the line on passing downs, but now it looks like he’ll be there full time. He had 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures on 439 pass rush snaps last season, an 11.8% rate.

He was also very good against the run, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers in that aspect on ProFootballFocus and 10th overall. That might not be the case now that he’s a full time defensive end because he’s undersized at 252 pounds. Defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene can also play some defensive end, as could linebacker Dont’a Hightower, in a similar role to Ninkovich’s from last season. They also haven’t ruled out re-signed Andre Carter, who is still unsigned coming off a leg injury at age 33.

At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love will be the starters again. Wilfork, who also played some defensive end in the playoffs, is great against the run, but struggles as a pass rusher with just 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 714 pass rush snaps, good for a below average 4.7% rate. Kyle Love, meanwhile, was a decent starter last season who only had to start because Albert Haynesworth disappointed.  He stopped the run well, but didn’t get much pass rush with just 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback pressures, a 4.9% rate.

Converted ends Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene will provide depth at defensive tackle and play roles as situational pass rushers, as will Gerard Warren, who played surprisingly well last year, in limited action. He’s heading into his age 34 season, though. Deaderick, meanwhile, struggled last year at 4-3 defensive end, especially as a pass rusher, but he was playing out of position.

Fanene, meanwhile, played out of position at defensive end in Cincinnati last year, playing the run well, but struggling as a pass rusher. They should be better as situational rushers at defensive tackle. The Patriots have a lot of players who could have impacts and will, as always, use lots of different fronts and get the most out of their player’s different abilities. I don’t really worry about their defensive line play or pass rush.

Grade: B

Linebackers

One of the players who suffered an injury last season, as I mentioned, was linebacker Jerod Mayo. He missed 2 ½ games with injury, which isn’t much, but it’s worth noting. When healthy, he’s a very good linebacker who can play every down. He can play every linebacker position and ranked 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower, the 25th overall pick, are both great run stuffers, but struggle in coverage. Spikes played well when healthy last year, but he missed all of 8 games with injury and large parts of 2 other games. He was missed as he ranked 17th among middle linebackers against the run and 18th overall. It’s no coincidence their run defense was much better in the playoffs once he was back and healthy.

Gary Guyton rotated in for him in obvious passing situations, though he struggled in that role last season. He’s been replaced by Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter is a former bust of a 1st round pick who has played sparingly over the past few seasons with multiple different teams, but the Patriots like him so maybe he’ll be an upgrade as a passing down specialist linebacker.

Hightower, meanwhile, will also only be a 2-down run stuffer as a rookie, coming out when the Patriots go to the sub package and their 2-linebacker sets. He could, however, as I mentioned, play defensive end on passing downs, as he did at the University of Alabama. He should be able to replace Rob Ninkovich, who is now a full time defensive end, and with better health, this group should play very well in 2012.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was the biggest problem defensively for the Patriots, who ranked 29th in the league, allowing 8.0 YPA despite the great pass rush. Devin McCourty struggled after a strong rookie year, leaving Kyle Arrington to be the #1 cornerback, which he actually did a good job of after struggling in 2010.

McCourty and Arrington have each had strong years in the past 2 years, though unfortunately not concurrently. In 2010, McCourty allowed 58 completions on 104 attempts (55.8%) for 614 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 12 deflections, and 5 penalties, making the Pro Bowl in the process, while Arrington allowed 48 completions on 74 attempts (64.9%) for 726 yards (9.5 YPA), 4 touchdowns, 1 interceptions, 5 deflections, and 3 penalties

Last season, the two basically flipped. Arrington was the league’s leader in interceptions and allowed 69 completions on 119 attempts (58.0%) for 1032 yards (8.7 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 7 deflections, and 3 penalties, while McCourty allowed 69 completions on 111 attempts (62.2%) for 1074 yards (9.7 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 8 deflections, and 5 penalties.

McCourty has played slightly better over the past 2 years combined and has more upside for the future as a 2010 1st round pick. Meanwhile, Arrington’s strong season in 2011 was mostly tied to his 7 interceptions and that type of thing can differ greatly from year to year. Both allowed high YPAs, which is a big part of the reason why they ranked so high in YPA allowed as a team. I expect Arrington to regress, McCourty to bounce back, and the Patriots’ pass defense to overall improve as they’ll only have one cornerback with an incredibly high YPA. They’ll be closer to the 21st ranked pass defense (7.1 YPA) that they had in 2010, not great, but improved.

Arrington could even be pushed for a starting job by Ras-I Dowling, a 2011 2nd round pick who missed most of his rookie year with injuries, another player who was a loss because of injuries. Dowling played just 93 snaps and he was supposed to be the nickel cornerback. Instead, guys like Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, Nathan Jones, Leigh Bodden, and even offensive players like Julian Edelman had to play cornerback, which they did for the most part unsuccessfully. If healthy, Dowling should be an upgrade even if he doesn’t win the starting job, but it’s worth noting that his injury problems go back to his days as a collegiate player at Virginia. Currently, however, he’s healthy and participating in all offseason activities including Training Camp, a very good thing.

Another major injury that the Patriots had in their secondary was to safety Patrick Chung. He missed 9 games with injury last season and was not right when healthy, as the 2009 2nd round pick had the worst season of his career. When healthy, he’s a solid starter, but he does have an injury history beyond last season. He’s really their only good safety so they need him to be healthy. In his absence, guys like Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and even offensive player Matt Slater had to play safety next to James Ihedigbo, who was horrible as well.

Ihedigo was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety in coverage out of 84 and he ranked 57th overall. The Patriots signed Steve Gregory in the offseason, but he was even worse, ranking 75th in coverage and 72nd overall. They also used a 2nd round pick on Tavon Wilson, but I think he was a reach. The Patriots grabbed him after frantically trying to trade down, unsuccessfully. It was a bad safety class, so they really didn’t have much choice, needing a safety. He probably won’t play much as a rookie though, unless Chung gets hurt again, a possibility.

The Patriots don’t have the most defensive talent, but they should be able to get the most out of it. They’ll have a solid pass rush even with the loss of Mark Anderson and their secondary should be better with a potential bounce back year from Devin McCourty and the return of Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling from injury. They also suffered injuries at linebacker to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo last season, which hurt.

With better health, they should resemble their 2010 defense (19th in DVOA) rather than their 2011 defense (30th in DVOA), but that might not translate to an improved scoring defense after exceeding their DVOA by 15 spots and ranking 15th with 21.4 points per game. They also exceeded their DVOA in 2010 by allowing just 19.6 points per game, 8th in the league, so there may be a trend here. My prediction, however, is a middle of the pack scoring defense.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No Head Coach has more duties and he executes them all well. He coaches well, he schemes well, he drafts well, he makes smart player acquisitions. He drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round and then when Brady went down, he still coached the team to 11-5 with a 7th round pick Matt Cassel. You don’t win 10+ games in 10 of 11 seasons with as many responsibilities as he has without being incredibly talented.

Grade: A

Overall

The Patriots have been a model of consistent excellence in the NFL over the past 11 seasons. No team has won more regular season games, playoff games, or Super Bowls in that stretch. As long as Brady is healthy and Belichick is coaching, they’ll be competitive. In a weak AFC against a weak schedule, they have to be considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the AFC and get the #1 seed for the 3rd straight season. Their offense will be one of the best in the league again, maybe even better than last season, and their defense won’t be too bad.

Speaking of that easy schedule, they should be able to go at least 4-2 in the division with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They went 5-1 in the division last year and will probably do that again. Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Houston, and San Francisco. That’s not the easiest slate, but they almost never lose at home, going 40-8 at home, including playoffs since 2007, as opposed to 28-12 on the road.

Their other 5 games send them to Tennessee, Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, and Jacksonville. Their opponents have the worst combined 2011 winning percentage of any team’s opponents (.453). They play just 5 games against teams I have making the playoffs and no teams I have winning more than 10 games. They should be able to cruise to anywhere from 12-14 wins once again, barring injuries.

Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC East

Offense

I’ve talked a lot about parity in my previews before. One team that hasn’t been subject to the ups and down of the NFL over the last decade is the New England Patriots. Since 2001, the Patriots have 9+ games every season, won double digit games in 10 of 11 seasons, made the playoffs 9 times, won 12+ 6 times and 13+ 5 times. They’ve made it to the playoffs 9 times, the AFC Championship game 6 times, and the Super Bowl 5 times, winning 3. Tom Brady has a career regular season record of 123-35 and a postseason record of 16-6. Nobody has done it better than Brady and Belichick over the last 11 seasons.

I’ve talked a lot about the parity in turnovers from season to season before as well.  Since 2002, there have been 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season.

However, teams with elite quarterbacks seem to be pretty immune to this. The Indianapolis Colts had 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times in the last decade and actually won an average of 0.4 more wins the following season. The Patriots, meanwhile, appear on that list twice. One year was their 16 win season in 2007, after which they won just 11 games, but that was with Tom Brady missing most of the season. The other year was 2010 and last year they did it again and won just 1 less game. They also had differentials of +15 or more in those two seasons, as well as in 2003, when they won 14 games. They followed that season up with a 14 win season.

Discounting 2008 when Brady was hurt, the Patriots have ranked in the top-6 in scoring offense in each of the last 4 seasons. Discounting 2008 and 2009, when Brady was still getting his legs back under him, the Patriots have had a top-3 scoring offense in each of the last 3 seasons, including two 1st place finishes. Last year, when they averaged 32.1 points per game, was actually their worst total and they’ve averaged 33.8 points per game in the 2007, 2010, and 2011 seasons.

Tom Brady gets a new weapon to play with this season, Brandon Lloyd, who is the best deep threat they’ve had since Randy Moss. Meanwhile, 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley looks like he could be their best running back since Corey Dillon. He also reunites with Josh McDaniels, who was his offensive coordinator in their record breaking 2007 season, when they averaged a record setting 36.8 points per game and finished the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Life is good in New England. Barring major injuries, the Patriots remain the favorite in a weak AFC with an easy schedule.

Quarterback

Excluding 2008, when he barely played, and 2009, when he was still getting healthy, Tom Brady has completed 1123 passes for 1681 yards (66.8%) for 13941 yards (8.3 YPA), 125 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. He’s won 43 of 48 regular season games and made two Super Bowls. He didn’t win the big one, but he pretty much has done everything short of that and the only reason to think he can’t win it this year is the fact that no Super Bowl loser has won the Super Bowl since the Dolphins won Super Bowl XII in 1973. Still, if anyone can snap a close to 40 year streak of disappointment from Super Bowl runner ups, it Tom Brady. It’s scary to think that you can make legitimate arguments that one or both of two other quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) are actually better than Brady right now.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Despite his great success in 2007, 2010, and 2011, Tom Brady has really only had a true deep threat receiver in one of those 3 seasons. I doubt count Moss half assing 5 games in the start of the 2010 season. If anything, he hurt Brady in those 5 games because he still looked like Moss, but he wasn’t the same and caused Brady to mistrust him and that led to unnecessary and risky deep throws.

The Patriots added one this offseason as they went out and got Brandon Lloyd. Well, maybe that statement is not exactly correct. Lloyd essentially went out and got the Patriots. Lloyd took a major pay cut to sign with the Patriots, signing for just 12 million over 3 years. When you consider that Vincent Jackson got 5 years, 55.5 million and Robert Meachem got 4 years, 26.9 million, and Laurent Robinson got 5 years 32.5 million, Lloyd was the biggest steal of the offseason. How could the Patriots not sign him when he was that desperate to play for them?

Lloyd had good reason to be that desperate to play for them. Not only do the Patriots have a great quarterback to get him the ball and represent a good chance to win a Super Bowl, but they also allow him to reunite with Josh McDaniels, under whom Lloyd has become a breakout star in the last 2 seasons.

McDaniels and Lloyd are awesome together. Before McDaniels was fired as Head Coach in Denver in 2010, Lloyd caught 60 passes for 1153 yards and 9 touchdowns in 12 games with Kyle Orton as his quarterback. In 2011, he was traded to St. Louis, where McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. He caught 51 passes for 683 yards and 5 touchdowns in 11 games with an injured Sam Bradford, AJ Feeley, and Kellen Clemens at quarterback.

In the last 2 years, he has 111 catches for 1836 yards and 14 touchdowns in 23 games with McDaniels. Over 16 games, that’s 77 catches for 1277 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Kyle Orton, AJ Feeley, Kellen Clemens, and an injured Sam Bradford throwing him the football. Now he has Tom Brady throwing him the football. Credit him for making a decision for football reasons and not financial ones.

He’s reportedly putting on quite a show in Training Camp. Receivers don’t have a good track record when switching teams, but Lloyd looks poised to be an exception because he’s not learning a new system. He probably won’t quite have those aforementioned extrapolated numbers, but only because the Patriots have so many other great receivers to throw the ball to.

Speaking of those other great receivers, they figure to take a bit of a statistical hit this season because Lloyd will eat away some of their targets. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still fantastic players. The player who could have the biggest statistical hit is Wes Welker. Welker had 122 catches for 1569 yards and 9 touchdowns last year and the latter two of those stats were career highs. However, he was 2nd in the league in targets, which probably won’t happen again this season.

He also wasn’t quite as good down the stretch as he was early in the season. After catching 45 passes for 740 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games, he caught “just” 106 passes for 997 yards and 5 touchdowns in his last 14 games, including the playoffs. Having Lloyd opposite him could make him more efficient though because defenses will have to respect the deep ball once again, something they didn’t used to have to do. That will open things up underneath for Welker.

Tom Brady was only 23 of 73 on balls that went 20+ yards in the air last season. Some of that is slightly diminished arm strength as he ages (35 this offseason), but a big part of it was just not having anyone to catch those passes. Only 4 quarterbacks attempted fewer deep throws than Brady did, as he went deep on just 10.1% of his attempts last season. Lloyd will make everyone better in the receiving corps, even if their statistics don’t show it, because teams will have to respect the deep ball once again in 2012.

Rob Gronkowski essentially was their deep threat last season, but he’s just a tight end. He’s no ordinary tight end, however. Including playoffs, he caught 107 passes for 1585 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was also an above average run blocker and his 15 broken tackles were 2nd in the league to teammate Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez had an amazing 28 broken tackles, which not only led tight ends, but wide receivers too. Calvin Johnson was 2nd with 19. In fact, only Brandon Marshall has at least 21 broken tackles among all tight ends and wide receivers in the last 4 seasons.

Hernandez caught 98 passes for 1098 yards and 9 touchdowns, including playoffs last year. Tom Brady was 346 for 470 (73.6%) for 4420 yards (9.4 YPA), 39 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions when throwing to Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Throwing to everyone else, he was 131 of 216 (60.6%), 1719 yards (8.0 YPA), 7 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions (the rest were throw aways and other non-targets). Brandon Lloyd will undoubtedly help.

Lloyd wasn’t the only offseason addition in the receiving corps, just the most important. The Patriots also signed a familiar face, Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney was with the Patriots from 2006 to 2008 and should be able to have an impact this season because he’s also familiar with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was his offensive coordinator for all of his 3 seasons in New England and his Head Coach for 2 years in Denver from 2009 to 2010.

Opposite Lloyd in Denver in 2010, Gaffney caught 65 passes for 875 yards and 2 touchdowns and last year he caught 68 passes for 947 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career highs, in Washington, despite Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing him the ball. He’ll be a good 3rd receiver and allow the Patriots more offensive flexibility as they weren’t really able to use many 3-wide receiver sets last year and when they did, they were that successful out of them. Aside from their two starting receivers, wide receivers played a total of just 696 snaps for the Patriots last year in 19 games and #3 wide receiver Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson caught just 16 passes for 297 yards and a score on 32 targets.

Deion Branch, meanwhile, will move from the starting lineup to the #4 receiver role, where he’s definitely an above average player. He’s aging, heading into his age 33 season and struggled down the stretch last season, but he’s always had strong chemistry with Tom Brady and is still a good route runner. The Patriots have plenty of receiving depth.

They also signed 3 more tight ends this offseason, signing Jake Ballard, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Daniel Fells. Ballard will likely spend the entire season on IR and was mostly claimed on waivers for 2013 and beyond, but Shiancoe and Fells will compete for the #3 tight end job. They didn’t have a 3rd tight end last year, but in 2010, Alge Crumpler had an impact in that role, playing 604 snaps. Like Crumpler, Shiancoe and Fells are veterans who are great run blockers.

The Patriots have so much offensive flexibility this season, more than last season, and with Josh McDaniels back, they once again have a brilliant offensive mind coordinating it all. The only issue is age, as Welker is heading into his age 31 season, Lloyd is heading into his age 31 season, and Gaffney is heading into his age 32 season. Still, that probably won’t be a huge problem just yet in 2012, so Tom Brady has to be thrilled with his offensive weapons. Unless Brady’s abilities decline noticeably in his age 35 season (also not likely an issue just yet), he could once again have one of the best seasons of his career and the Patriots should once again score a ton of points.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One other reason that Tom Brady has to be thrilled is the potential breakout of running back Stevan Ridley, a 3rd round pick in 2011. Ridley has the potential to be the Patriots’ best running back since Corey Dillon. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the perfect running back for the Patriots because he never fumbled and could run through holes. With how good the passing game and offensive line are, all the Patriots needed him to do was not fumble (0 fumbles in 557 career carries) and run through holes opened up by the offensive line against spread out fronts who are fearing the pass.

However, he was not explosive at all and didn’t do anything after contact. In his career, including playoffs, BJGE had 1305 yards after contact on 557 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry after contact. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hasn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots have had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.

Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry including playoffs last season, with 3.1 yards after contact, rushing for 462 yards on 91 carries total. He was good enough in limited action for the Patriots to let BJGE go and make him the lead back and he’s been impressing in Training Camp. He did fumble last season, something BJGE has never done, fumbling twice and lost one, but he only fumbled 3 times in college so he’s pretty sure handed when it comes to protecting the football.

One thing Ridley doesn’t do is pass catch as he had just 17 catches in his collegiate career and 5 last year. However, BJGE didn’t either and that didn’t matter much. Ridley will come out of the game on passing downs and the Patriots have plenty of other options in the receiving game, as I’ve detailed. The Patriots also have another back capable of pass catching, 2011 2nd round pick Shane Vereen.

Vereen managed just 57 yards on 15 carries (3.8 YPC) last season in 5 games thanks to injury and for now has been surpassed by Ridley, a later draft pick in the same draft. However, he’ll have an impact too as a change of pace back and he caught 74 passes in college. The Patriots also have Danny Woodhead, who has settled into Kevin Faulk’s old role nicely. He’s caught 52 passes in the last 2 seasons as a situational player. They lack a proven back, but they have backs with upside and with how good their passing game and offensive line is, they don’t need much from the backs.

Grade: B-

[yard_barker]

Offensive Line

Speaking of that offensive line, they ranked 11th in pass blocking efficiency last season. Brady was pressured on just 26.6% of his drop backs last season, 7th best in the NFL out of eligible quarterbacks. This is nothing new as he’s been pressured on 536 of his 1975 drop backs in the last 3 seasons, just 27.1%. This is good because Brady doesn’t quite have elite pocket presence like some other elite quarterbacks. He’s taken a sack on 15.7% of those pressured drop backs, which is good, but not great.

He also only has completed 220 of 441 passes (49.9%) and thrown 23 touchdowns to 13 interceptions under pressure over the last 3 season, as opposed to 994 for 1425 (69.8%) with 94 touchdowns to 24 interceptions while not under pressure. If you want to nitpick his game, this is the area to do it. If you can beat his offensive line with 4 guys (like the Giants), Brady is stoppable.

It’s also worth noting that as long as his offensive line can beat the opponent’s defensive line, he can tear any secondary apart. You can’t just blitz him because he’s 345 for 546 (63.2%) for 4609 yards (8.4 YPA) and 34 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 3 seasons. And his offensive line frequently wins the battle because Belichick and company also know that Brady is beatable when pressured without blitzing, so they’ve made sure to build a great offensive line in front of him. They also ranked 3rd as run blockers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Long time left tackle Matt Light is gone, but the Patriots made sure they were prepared for this day by using the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Nate Solder, who will be the left tackle this year. Solder played mostly right tackle as a rookie, in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer. He played alright, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures, while committing just 5 penalties and run blocking well, while playing essentially 16 full games, including playoffs.

Vollmer missed most of last season with injury, but he was very good in 2010 at right tackle, allowing just 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, committing 5 penalties and run blocking well. He was even better in 2009 as a 2nd round pick rookie, allowing just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 11 quarterback pressures in 10 starts, while run blocking incredibly well and committing just 4 penalties. The Patriots could have Vollmer and Solder switch sides if needed as Vollmer does have some experience on the left side, but, for now, Solder will be the left tackle and Vollmer will be the right tackle.

The Patriots also have a pair of great guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Mankins had a bit of a down year last year, allowing 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures, while committing 8 penalties, but he was still an above average run blocker and a solid starter overall. He’s been much better in the past.

Waters, meanwhile, has been one of the league’s best guards for years and that was no different at the age of 34 last year, despite signing with the Patriots right before the start of the season. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked guard, allowing 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties. He’s much better as a pass protector than a run blocker.

There are issues with both of them. Waters has yet to report to Training Camp as of this writing with an “excused absence” and a vague “issue,” leading to some speculation that he could retire before his age 35 season. Mankins, meanwhile, is not practicing after having surgery on his knee after the Super Bowl and his status for week 1 is reportedly in doubt. Unfortunately, these are the Patriots so they’re not really giving the media news on either of them so their status remains in limbo right now. Mankins will be back eventually and should be ready by week 1, but Waters is someone to worry about for Patriots fans.

If Waters retires, Dan Connolly, a mediocre starter, will move from center back to guard, giving Dan Koppen back his old job at center. Those two are currently competing for the center job. That’s a big drop off. If Waters retires and Mankins misses any time, the Patriots are out of luck as they’d have to rely on either the inexperienced Marcus Cannon, currently listed at right tackle, the inexperienced Ryan Wendell, who did play well in limited action last season, or the veteran Robert Gallery, who struggled mightily as a starter in Seattle last season. Mankins probably won’t miss much, if any time, however.

As I mentioned, Connolly and Koppen are competing for the center job. Connolly started every game except week 1 there last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd rated center out of 34. Koppen, meanwhile, was once a solid starter, but he missed all of last season with a broken leg and is now heading into his age 33 season. I think he deserves the job more. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 11th rated center.

Still, the Patriots have a strong offensive line which will be good pass protecting and run blocking once again this season. As long as Brady is protected and doesn’t have an unexpected drop off his abilities at age 35, he should continue to tear up opposing secondaries. He has an even more talented and more versatile receiving corps this season and a potential breakout year from Stevan Ridley would also really help as it would make their offense more two-dimensional. They’ve also rehired Josh McDaniels, which should have a positive effect on their offense. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, they have ranked in the top-3 in scoring and averaged over 32 points per game in each season and 33.8 points per game overall. I think they can do that a 4th time this season.

Grade: B+

Defense

While the offense is great, the defense could use some work. They ranked 15th in the league in points per game allowed last season, allowing 21.4 points per game, but they allowed the 2nd most yards in the league and ranked 30th in defensive DVOA (though 3rd offensively and 4th overall). They get better the closer you get to the goal line, somehow, which is a good thing, but it can lead to poor offensive field position, as it did in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Still, there is reason to believe they’ll be better on this side of the ball this season. They used their first 6 draft picks on defense, including 4 in the first 3 rounds, and they should have fewer injuries defensively than the large amount suffered last season.

Defensive Line

One area of the Patriots’ defense that wasn’t a big problem was their front 7. They ranked 24th against the run, allowing 4.6 YPC, which isn’t good, but including playoffs, they did have 57 sacks, including playoffs, and ranked a solid 14th in the regular season with 40. The Patriots are losing two key pass rushers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who combined for 26 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 60 quarterback pressures on 866 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.5%. Carter was also very good against the run, ranking 4th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run, and 11th overall.

In order to try to replace them, the Patriots used the 21st overall pick on defensive end Chandler Jones, who figures to be a week 1 starter. Jones is incredibly raw as a pass rusher, but he can play the run right now and he has crazy upside. He’ll be part of a defensive end rotation and may come out on passing downs as a rookie.

The Patriots also signed Trevor Scott, who didn’t have a good year in Oakland last year, but he was a solid situational pass rusher in 2010 with 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures on 233 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 9.9%. He’s an ideal fit for their scheme and the Patriots may be able to get the most out of him.

Also in the rotation is 3rd round rookie Jake Bequette and Rob Ninkovich, a converted linebacker. Ninkovich has plenty of experience rushing the passer and playing defensive end as he’d move down to the line on passing downs, but now it looks like he’ll be there full time. He had 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures on 439 pass rush snaps last season, an 11.8% rate.

He was also very good against the run, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers in that aspect on ProFootballFocus and 10th overall. That might not be the case now that he’s a full time defensive end because he’s undersized at 252 pounds. Defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene can also play some defensive end, as could linebacker Dont’a Hightower, in a similar role to Ninkovich’s from last season. They also haven’t ruled out re-signed Andre Carter, who is still unsigned coming off a leg injury at age 33.

At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love will be the starters again. Wilfork, who also played some defensive end in the playoffs, is great against the run, but struggles as a pass rusher with just 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 714 pass rush snaps, good for a below average 4.7% rate. Kyle Love, meanwhile, was a decent starter last season who only had to start because Albert Haynesworth disappointed.  He stopped the run well, but didn’t get much pass rush with just 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback pressures, a 4.9% rate.

Converted ends Brandon Deaderick and Jonathan Fanene will provide depth at defensive tackle and play roles as situational pass rushers, as will Gerard Warren, who played surprisingly well last year, in limited action. He’s heading into his age 34 season, though. Deaderick, meanwhile, struggled last year at 4-3 defensive end, especially as a pass rusher, but he was playing out of position.

Fanene, meanwhile, played out of position at defensive end in Cincinnati last year, playing the run well, but struggling as a pass rusher. They should be better as situational rushers at defensive tackle. The Patriots have a lot of players who could have impacts and will, as always, use lots of different fronts and get the most out of their player’s different abilities. I don’t really worry about their defensive line play or pass rush.

Grade: B

Linebackers

One of the players who suffered an injury last season, as I mentioned, was linebacker Jerod Mayo. He missed 2 ½ games with injury, which isn’t much, but it’s worth noting. When healthy, he’s a very good linebacker who can play every down. He can play every linebacker position and ranked 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower, the 25th overall pick, are both great run stuffers, but struggle in coverage. Spikes played well when healthy last year, but he missed all of 8 games with injury and large parts of 2 other games. He was missed as he ranked 17th among middle linebackers against the run and 18th overall. It’s no coincidence their run defense was much better in the playoffs once he was back and healthy.

Gary Guyton rotated in for him in obvious passing situations, though he struggled in that role last season. He’s been replaced by Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter is a former bust of a 1st round pick who has played sparingly over the past few seasons with multiple different teams, but the Patriots like him so maybe he’ll be an upgrade as a passing down specialist linebacker.

Hightower, meanwhile, will also only be a 2-down run stuffer as a rookie, coming out when the Patriots go to the sub package and their 2-linebacker sets. He could, however, as I mentioned, play defensive end on passing downs, as he did at the University of Alabama. He should be able to replace Rob Ninkovich, who is now a full time defensive end, and with better health, this group should play very well in 2012.

Grade: B+

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Secondary

The secondary was the biggest problem defensively for the Patriots, who ranked 29th in the league, allowing 8.0 YPA despite the great pass rush. Devin McCourty struggled after a strong rookie year, leaving Kyle Arrington to be the #1 cornerback, which he actually did a good job of after struggling in 2010.

McCourty and Arrington have each had strong years in the past 2 years, though unfortunately not concurrently. In 2010, McCourty allowed 58 completions on 104 attempts (55.8%) for 614 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 12 deflections, and 5 penalties, making the Pro Bowl in the process, while Arrington allowed 48 completions on 74 attempts (64.9%) for 726 yards (9.5 YPA), 4 touchdowns, 1 interceptions, 5 deflections, and 3 penalties

Last season, the two basically flipped. Arrington was the league’s leader in interceptions and allowed 69 completions on 119 attempts (58.0%) for 1032 yards (8.7 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 7 deflections, and 3 penalties, while McCourty allowed 69 completions on 111 attempts (62.2%) for 1074 yards (9.7 YPA), 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 8 deflections, and 5 penalties.

McCourty has played slightly better over the past 2 years combined and has more upside for the future as a 2010 1st round pick. Meanwhile, Arrington’s strong season in 2011 was mostly tied to his 7 interceptions and that type of thing can differ greatly from year to year. Both allowed high YPAs, which is a big part of the reason why they ranked so high in YPA allowed as a team. I expect Arrington to regress, McCourty to bounce back, and the Patriots’ pass defense to overall improve as they’ll only have one cornerback with an incredibly high YPA. They’ll be closer to the 21st ranked pass defense (7.1 YPA) that they had in 2010, not great, but improved.

Arrington could even be pushed for a starting job by Ras-I Dowling, a 2011 2nd round pick who missed most of his rookie year with injuries, another player who was a loss because of injuries. Dowling played just 93 snaps and he was supposed to be the nickel cornerback. Instead, guys like Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, Nathan Jones, Leigh Bodden, and even offensive players like Julian Edelman had to play cornerback, which they did for the most part unsuccessfully. If healthy, Dowling should be an upgrade even if he doesn’t win the starting job, but it’s worth noting that his injury problems go back to his days as a collegiate player at Virginia. Currently, however, he’s healthy and participating in all offseason activities including Training Camp, a very good thing.

Another major injury that the Patriots had in their secondary was to safety Patrick Chung. He missed 9 games with injury last season and was not right when healthy, as the 2009 2nd round pick had the worst season of his career. When healthy, he’s a solid starter, but he does have an injury history beyond last season. He’s really their only good safety so they need him to be healthy. In his absence, guys like Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and even offensive player Matt Slater had to play safety next to James Ihedigbo, who was horrible as well.

Ihedigo was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety in coverage out of 84 and he ranked 57th overall. The Patriots signed Steve Gregory in the offseason, but he was even worse, ranking 75th in coverage and 72nd overall. They also used a 2nd round pick on Tavon Wilson, but I think he was a reach. The Patriots grabbed him after frantically trying to trade down, unsuccessfully. It was a bad safety class, so they really didn’t have much choice, needing a safety. He probably won’t play much as a rookie though, unless Chung gets hurt again, a possibility.

The Patriots don’t have the most defensive talent, but they should be able to get the most out of it. They’ll have a solid pass rush even with the loss of Mark Anderson and their secondary should be better with a potential bounce back year from Devin McCourty and the return of Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling from injury. They also suffered injuries at linebacker to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo last season, which hurt.

With better health, they should resemble their 2010 defense (19th in DVOA) rather than their 2011 defense (30th in DVOA), but that might not translate to an improved scoring defense after exceeding their DVOA by 15 spots and ranking 15th with 21.4 points per game. They also exceeded their DVOA in 2010 by allowing just 19.6 points per game, 8th in the league, so there may be a trend here. My prediction, however, is a middle of the pack scoring defense.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No Head Coach has more duties and he executes them all well. He coaches well, he schemes well, he drafts well, he makes smart player acquisitions. He drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round and then when Brady went down, he still coached the team to 11-5 with a 7th round pick Matt Cassel. You don’t win 10+ games in 10 of 11 seasons with as many responsibilities as he has without being incredibly talented.

Grade: A

Overall

The Patriots have been a model of consistent excellence in the NFL over the past 11 seasons. No team has won more regular season games, playoff games, or Super Bowls in that stretch. As long as Brady is healthy and Belichick is coaching, they’ll be competitive. In a weak AFC against a weak schedule, they have to be considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the AFC and get the #1 seed for the 3rd straight season. Their offense will be one of the best in the league again, maybe even better than last season, and their defense won’t be too bad.

Speaking of that easy schedule, they should be able to go at least 4-2 in the division with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They went 5-1 in the division last year and will probably do that again. Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Houston, and San Francisco. That’s not the easiest slate, but they almost never lose at home, going 40-8 at home, including playoffs since 2007, as opposed to 28-12 on the road.

Their other 5 games send them to Tennessee, Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, and Jacksonville. Their opponents have the worst combined 2011 winning percentage of any team’s opponents (.453). They play just 5 games against teams I have making the playoffs and no teams I have winning more than 10 games. They should be able to cruise to anywhere from 12-14 wins once again, barring injuries.

Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC East

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Oakland Raiders 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

Al Davis is gone and a completely new regime is in charge. New GM Reggie McKenzie was hired this offseason and fired Hue Jackson, their previous Head Coach, replacing him with new Head Coach Dennis Allen. Unfortunately, this new regime has been completely screwed over by the old regime. Hue Jackson’s trade for Carson Palmer left them without a 1st round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Al Davis traded away their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks in other trades, leaving the new regime with very scarce resources to add talent through the draft. They also didn’t have a 1st round pick in 2011, thanks to a not quite as bad, but still shortsighted trade for Richard Seymour.

Al Davis’ various moves also left them in a very bad cap situation. This left the Raiders unable to sign any significant free agents or resign any of their own like Michael Bush. This also forced them to have to cut some players just to get under the cap including Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt, and Kamerion Wimbley. The latter was their best defensive player last year and they will actually be paying him 6.5 million dollars this season to play for another team. Otherwise, they would have had to pay him 13 million this season, just one year after signing him to a massive, shortsighted, and cap unfriendly long term deal.

The loss of Wimbley represents the 2nd straight offseason they’ve lost their top defensive player, after losing Nnamdi Asomugha last offseason. The loss of Stanford Routt represents the 2nd straight offseason they’ve lost their top cornerback. These two losses, along with a few minor ones, leave them incredibly thin defensively, especially in the secondary. They already ranked 29th in scoring defense last year, allowing 27.1 points per game, last season.

Offensively, they’ll be better, but not good enough to cancel out an awful defense. They weren’t even good enough to cancel out their awful defense last year, though they managed to win 8 games. They ranked 16th in the league in scoring offense, scoring 22.4 points per game. The Raiders were pretty lucky to win 8 games last year, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.3 wins, 23rd in the league, and ranked 22nd in DVOA. Last year, they played like a 6 win team or so and that was before all of their losses.

Quarterback

What ironic about the Carson Palmer trade is that, while they gave up a 1st round pick in 2012 and a 2nd round pick in 2013 for him, he wasn’t even much, if any, of an upgrade over Jason Campbell. Campbell made 6 starts last season before going down with an injury. In those 6 games, the Raiders went 4-2, averaged 26.7 points per game, and played 3 of 6 games against playoff teams. He completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.1 YPA and 6 touchdowns to 4 interceptions.

Meanwhile, Palmer went 4-6 in 10 starts, during which the Raiders averaged 19.9 points per game, and played just 3 of 10 games against playoff teams. He completed 60.7% of his passes for an average of 8.4 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Palmer was obviously an upgrade over Kyle Boller, who would have started with Campbell hurt, but it’s pretty bad that the Raiders gave up a 1st and 2nd round pick for a guy who didn’t outplay Jason Campbell, who is currently a backup in Chicago.

Palmer is owed 12.5 million this season, even more reason their trade for him was ridiculous. Not only did it cost them two high picks, but it clogged their cap. And all this for a guy who had skipped the first half of the season and whose team wasn’t even using him. Owed 28 million over the next 2 seasons in 2013 and 2014, Palmer could be cut after the season if his performance doesn’t improve.

Palmer could be better this season in his 2nd year in Oakland, especially now that he won’t be starting his season midseason like he did last year. However, he’s going to be learning yet another new offense and he’s heading into his age 33 season. He hasn’t aged well at all and he hasn’t been the same since getting hurt in 2008.

He had 4000 yard seasons in 2006 and 2007, but in 46 games since, he’s completed 918 passes on 1509 attempts (60.8%) for 10548 yards (7.0 YPA), 63 touchdowns, and 53 interceptions. Over a 16 game season, that’s 319 completions on 525 attempts for 3669 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 18 touchdowns. In 2009, he led the 22nd ranked scoring offense to 19.1 points per game. Then, he led the 22nd ranked scoring offense in 2010 to 20.1 points per game, both when he was in Cincinnati. The Raiders’ offense should be around there in 2012, possibly even worse as Palmer ages.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

A healthy Jason Campbell wasn’t the only reason why the Raiders averaged about 7 points per game in their first 6 games. Darren McFadden also went down around the same time, missing the final 9 games and only carrying the ball twice in their week 7 game. He had 113 carries for 614 yards and 4 touchdowns when he was healthy, but he never has been able to stay healthy. He’s never played more than 13 games in a season and only once surpassed 113 carries in a season. When healthy, though, he averages 4.8 YPC for his career and in 2010, his best season, he caught 47 passes.

If/when he gets hurt, the Raiders won’t have Michael Bush to turn to because he signed in Chicago. Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones will be his backups and split carries when he’s hurt. Jones was a 4th round pick in 2011, who rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries last year and caught 2 passes. Goodson, meanwhile, has just 125 carries for 501 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 seasons, with 43 catches. They aren’t nearly as talented or proven as Bush and none of them are the power back that Bush was, to compliment McFadden. Because of this, they have been linked to veteran backs such as Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant, though they have yet to sign either.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Luckily, Carson Palmer does have good receivers. Darrius Heyward-Bey was the 7th overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft and a major surprise pick. His doubters had a lot of ammunition after he caught 35 passes for 490 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first 2 seasons combined. However, he had a breakout 3rd year last year, leading the team in receiving by catching 64 passes for 975 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s better than any season that Michael Crabtree has ever had. Crabtree was the guy the Raiders passed on for DHB (cut to 49ers’ fans grimacing).

DHB might not be the Raiders’ #1 receiver in 2012, but it won’t be his fault. Denarius Moore looks like a breakout star waiting to happen. As a mere 5th round rookie, Moore caught 33 passes for 613 yards and 5 touchdowns in just 13 games. In 6 games with Carson Palmer, Moore caught 19 passes for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for 51 catches for 1083 yards and 8 touchdowns over 16 games. Palmer has been raving about him this offseason and he could definitely be even better in his 2nd year because receivers normally take a year or two to adjust to the NFL. He could surpass 1000 yards this season, leaving DHB as a solid 2nd option for Palmer.

The Raiders have adequate depth as well. Once upon a time, Jacoby Ford was a popular fantasy sleeper who many envisioned could become a Denarius Moore type player before Moore did it. Ford missed 8 games with injury last season, but caught 19 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown last year after catching 25 passes for 470 yards and 2 scores as a rookie. He’s a decent depth receiver and slot guy. Meanwhile, 5th round rookie Juron Criner was an absolute steal. He’s already gotten Louis Murphy traded and should be the #4 receiver at worst this year. He’s the possession receiver that none of their other receivers are so he could have an immediate impact, especially around the end zone.

However, while they have good wide receiver talent, the tight end position is a different story. Kevin Boss failed miserably in his first year in Oakland and was promptly cut this offseason. Lacking the cap space or draft picks to bring in a replacement, the Raiders will be starting blocking tight end Brandon Myers with 2011 7th round pick David Ausberry as the “move” tight end. Myers is a solid blocker, but he only has 32 catches in 3 NFL seasons. Ausberry, meanwhile, is undersized at 6-4 245 and a former wide receiver. The Raiders like his ability as a pass catcher, but he’s not much of a blocker at all. He only has 2 career catches so he’s definitely no sure thing, but there is a little upside with someone that athletic.

Grade: B+

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Offensive Line

The Raiders also have a lot of young players on the offensive line, but they’re not quite as talented. Last season, they ranked 17th in pass blocking efficiency and 16th as run blockers on ProFootballFocus. The Raiders’ quarterbacks did them a favor and only took 25 sacks on 145 pressured drop backs, good for a sack rate of 17.2%. Carson Palmer was even better, taking a sack on just 16.2% of his pressured snaps, which ranked 25th highest in the league out of 36 eligible quarterbacks

Left tackle Jared Veldheer is a very good young player and solidifies the most important position on the line for them. The 2010 3rd round pick had a breakout year in 2011, allowing just 4 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures, while run blocking well. The one weakness in his game was 11 penalties, something that was a major problem for the Raiders last season. The Raiders committed 163 penalties for 1358 yards in 2011, both NFL records. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem as they led the league with 148 penalties for 1276 yards in 2010 as well and they were 2nd with 117 penalties in 2009.

Another offensive lineman with 11 penalties last season was right tackle Khalif Barnes, who was below average in all facets of the game and especially awful as a run blocker. He ranked 54th out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus last year overall and 66th as a run blocker. He also allowed just 2 sacks, but also 9 quarterback hits and 24 quarterback pressures. He’ll compete with Joseph Barksdale, an inexperienced 2011 3rd round pick who played just 156 snaps last season, for the right tackle job. Neither is a good fit for their new zone blocking offensive scheme under new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

One player who will benefit for the switch is 2011 2nd round pick Stefen Wisniewski. Wisniewski will also benefit from moving from guard to his natural position of center, where he’ll replace Samson Satele, a solid starter who wouldn’t have fit the new scheme. Wisniewski struggled as a rookie, particularly as a run blocker, but he played all year through injuries and the scheme and position switch could propel him to a breakout year now that he’s fully healthy and no longer a mere rookie. He played his best football in 2 starts at center last year.

Taking Wisniewski’s old spot is free agent acquisition Mike Brisiel. Brisiel was the only significant free agent they could afford, but at least they used their cap space wisely, bringing in someone at a position of need who has experience in the new zone blocking scheme. Brisiel was a solid starter in a zone blocking scheme for the past few years in Houston, where Knapp came from.

Rounding out the offensive line is Cooper Carlisle, who was resigned for the veteran’s minimum this offseason heading into his age 35 season. He should be glad his team didn’t have any premium picks or cap space as he could have been replaced. He struggled as both a run and pass blocker last season, ranking 57th out of 76 guards on ProFootballFocus. He’ll be pushed for his job by Tony Bergstrom, a rookie who the Raiders acquired with their highest draft pick, a late 3rd round compensatory pick for the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha in the prior offseason. Even if he can make his way into the starting lineup as a rookie, there’s no guarantee he’ll be an upgrade.

The Raiders do have some talent offensively and a full season from Darren McFadden will help, but I don’t think they’ll get it and I think they’re being held down by Carson Palmer. Palmer has led offenses to 19.7 points per game over his last 42 starts, including just 19.9 points per game in 10 starts last year. That would have ranked 24th in the league last year and he’s only getting older. They should rank somewhere in the early 20s in terms of offensive scoring rank with about 19-21 points per game.

Grade: B

Defense

Defense is where the Raiders were hurt the most this offseason by their lack of picks and cap space. Not only were they unable to upgrade the league’s 29th ranked scoring defense, 26.9 points per game, they also lost two more starters in Stanford Routt and Kamerion Wimbley, with the latter being their best defensive player. This comes one offseason after losing their former best defensive player, Nnamdi Asomugha.

Meanwhile, middle linebacker Rolando McClain is facing jail time and Richard Seymour, who might now be their best defensive player, is heading into his age 33 season, as Tommy Kelly heads into his age 32 season. They figure to be one of the worst defensive teams in the league again this year and they have a good chance to be even worse than they were last season.

Defensive Line

Though his base position was linebacker, where Kamerion Wimbley’s biggest absence will be felt is on the defensive line. Wimbley would come down and play defensive end on passing downs and had 6 sacks, 16 quarterback pressures, and 40 quarterback hits on 478 pass rush snaps last year, a rate of 13.0%. They don’t have anyone else like that and could struggle to get to the quarterback in 2012.

To make up for his loss, the Raiders signed Dave Tollefson and will get Matt Shaughnessy back after he missed all of last season except 3 games with injury. That’s not going to work out well. Tollefson was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated defensive end last season, mostly because he couldn’t get to the quarterback to save his life. Playing on a Giants defensive line loaded with guys to take attention off him, he managed just 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 355 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic rate of 5.6%. He didn’t play the run well either.

Meanwhile, Matt Shaughnessy is coming off a major injury and has a history of injury problems. His specialty is playing the run, but he can get some pass rush as he had 8 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures on 290 pass rush snaps, a 10.0% rate, in 2010, his last full season. Those two will rotate with LaMarr Houston, who can also play some defensive tackle. A big defensive end at 6-3 305, Houston’s specialty is obviously stopping the run, but he can get some pass rush, with 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures on 384 pass rushes in 2011, a 8.9% rate.

Their best pass rushers are probably defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. Seymour, ProFootballFocus’ 11th rated defensive tackle, had 6 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 25 quarterback pressures on 550 pass rush snaps last season, good for an 7.3% rate, impressive for a defensive tackle. He ranked 3rd among defensive tackles as a pass rusher on ProFootballFocus and also played the run well.

Kelly, meanwhile, had 8 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures on 518 pass rushes, for a 6.6% rate. He ranked 8th as a pass rusher at his position. The problems with Kelly and Seymour are that they are entering their age 32 and 33 seasons respectively and they both are often penalized. I mentioned this was a huge problem for the whole team. Seymour was penalized 11 times and Kelly 10, which ranked 1 and 2 among defensive tackles. No one else had more than 8.

The Raiders will also miss John Henderson, an incredible situational run stuffer, who ranked 5th on ProFootballFocus at his position against the run. The top reserve will be Desmond Bryant, a solid run stopper, and LaMarr Houston could see some action there at his natural position now that they have some more defensive end depth. The Raiders also used a 6th round pick on Christo Bilukidi to add some youth at defensive tackle, but he won’t have much of an impact this season. The same goes for 5th round pick Jack Crawford, a defensive end, and Miles Burris, a 4th round pick hybrid linebacker/defensive end.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Raiders likely drafted Burris, that hybrid linebacker/defensive end, with Kamerion Wimbley in mind, but for 2012, they’ll definitely miss Wimbley. Not only was he a great pass rusher, but he was a key part of their run defense as a linebacker. He ranked 3rd at his position overall on ProFootballFocus. He’ll be replaced by Philip Wheeler, who was a solid two down run stuffer in Indianapolis last year, but guys like that are a dime a dozen.

Another linebacker the Raiders could miss in 2012 is Rolando McClain. McClain is facing a 180 day jail sentence for firing a gun shot near a man’s head. He’s currently appealing so it’s unknown when his sentence will start and how long it will actually be, but between that and a possible suspension from the NFL, he should miss at least part of this season.

He’s a solid player whose strengths are run stuffing and blitzing, though he struggles his coverage. He was ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked coverage linebacker out of 53, but 18th as a run stuffer and he had 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 10 quarterback pressures on 103 blitzes, good for a rate of 19.4%. Whenever he misses time, he’ll be replaced by 2010 5th round pick Travis Goethel, who has played just 90 snaps in 2 seasons. He’ll obviously be missed.

The other outside linebacker is Aaron Curry. Curry was a major bust as the 4th overall pick of the Seahawks’ in 2009, but a fresh start in Oakland led to him being a decent starter. He’s not a great player, but he can cover and stop the run solidly. He’ll be an every down linebacker next season, as will whoever starts at middle linebacker, freeing up Wheeler to focus on what he does best, stuffing the run as a two down run stuffer. However, they do look really thin at the position, especially with McClain likely to miss time. That would leave Curry as their best linebacker, which is not a position you want to be in.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

The Raiders didn’t do too badly in coverage last year, allowing 7.1 YPA, 15th in the NFL, in their first season without Nnamdi Asomugha. That number is a little misleading though because they committed a lot of penalties, which don’t count towards the number, but hurt nonetheless. The reason they weren’t awful in coverage was because Stanford Routt had his best season and because of their strong pass rush, led by Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley and Routt are gone now, however.

With no early picks and no cap space, the Raiders had to hit the bargain bin for starters at cornerback, signing Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell. Spencer was once a starter in San Francisco, but didn’t play that well in that role. He opened last season as a nickel in San Francisco, but missed a lot of time with injuries and when he came back, he barely played. He played just 87 snaps last season.

Bartell, meanwhile, missed every game but 1 with a neck injury in St. Louis last year. He used to be a decent starter, so there’s some bounce back potential, but it’s never a good thing to have to sort through the bargain bin for cornerbacks in a pass heavy league. Competing with those two veterans for starting jobs will be 2011 3rd and 4th round picks DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, who played 329 and 122 snaps respectively as rookies in 2011, and not well I might add.

Their secondary is saved by a talented duo of safeties. Both Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch are above average starters who have been given long term deals in the last two offseasons respectively. Huff and Branch will be relied on more than ever before in 2012 given their troubles at cornerback. They also liked to use 3-safety sets pretty often in sub packages last year, to combat their lack of cornerback depth. They may continue that this year, but it’s worth noting that their 3rd safety, Matt Giordano, didn’t play well.

As you can see, the Raiders have been gutted of talent defensively in the last 2 offseasons, losing Kamerion Wimbley, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Stanford Routt. Meanwhile, Rolando McClain is facing a length jail sentence and/or suspension and their top defensive linemen, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, are over the hill. On top of all that, they haven’t had a 1st round pick in the last 2 years and didn’t have a non-compensatory pick before the 5th round this year. They also didn’t have a lot of cap room to work with. They ranked 29th in the league defensively last year, allowing 26.9 points per game. They could be even worse this season.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Dennis Allen is incredibly inexperienced as far as Head Coaches go. He was Denver’s defensive coordinator for just 1 year (when they ranked just 24th defensively I might add) and before that he had just 3 years experience as a head position coach, coaching the Saints’ secondary from 2008-2010. Before that, he was an assistant defensive line coach with the Saints for 2 years. He’s also a symbol of turmoil in the Raiders organization. The team has finally gotten to .500, going 8-8 in each of the last 2 seasons, but they’ve also fired their Head Coach after each season. That’s not good for team morale and continuity.

Grade: C

Overall

Simply put, this was a team that did not deserve to go 8-8 last year and now they’ve been gutted this offseason and couldn’t do much about it. They played like a 5 or 6 win team last year, but got lucky, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They also only played 6 playoff teams, going 2-4 in those 6 games and both wins were with Jason Campbell as quarterback.

Under Carson Palmer, the Raiders were actually pretty significantly worse offensively than under Jason Campbell. Some of that was Darren McFadden, some of that wasn’t, but he’s no sure thing to stay healthy either. Palmer is heading into his age 33 season and has been leading offenses to about 19 points per game over the last 3 seasons. Also heading into his age 33 season is Richard Seymour, while Tommy Kelly will turn 32. On a gutted defense, those are the leaders.

They’ll be mediocre offensively, awful defensively, and they have had a lot of roster and coaching staff turnover in the last 2 seasons, which will hurt their morale and continuity. They’ll be one of the worst teams in the NFL. They’re one of about 5 or 6 teams that could end up losing 13 or 14 games this season, but I have them doing so because of their tough schedule and because of the NFL’s parity. Every season since the NFL went to the new playoff format in 2002, there have been on average 4.4 teams with 6 points of parity per season (6 more wins or 6 more losses). I have San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington and I need a 4th team.

Meanwhile, their schedule will be really tough. I doubt they’ll play just 6 playoff teams again. Their division isn’t great, but I think all 3 teams are better than them and, outside the division, they play the NFC South and AFC North, two tough divisions. I think they could go 1-5 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Cleveland. 3 of those games seem pretty easy, but the Raiders are also going to be a pretty easy opponent.

Their non-divisional road games are at Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Carolina. It’ll take some bad luck for them to go 2-14, but there’s not much difference between a 2 win and a 5 win team in the NFL. They played like a 5 or 6 win team last year and are much worse this season. They have an awful defense and will struggle to score points and keep up in shout outs, which will lead an aging and erratic Palmer to turn the ball over a lot. Anything from 2-6 wins would not shock me, but I have to put them at the lower end for a variety of reasons. That’s just how it works out.

Projection: 2-14 4th in AFC West

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Kansas City Chiefs 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

In 2010, the Chiefs made the playoffs, winning the AFC West with 10 victories. In 2011, they won just 7 games, but suffered major injuries to Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, and Matt Cassel. Charles went down for the season week 2. Moeaki missed the entire year, as did Berry, with the exception of 5 snaps in the opener before tearing his ACL. Cassel, meanwhile, missed 7 games, forcing the completely incompetent Tyler Palko to start 4 games, before the mediocre Kyle Orton took over for the last 3.

Because of this, many are picking the Chiefs to be a bounce back candidate and potential “sleeper.” Doing so based only off the information stated in the first paragraph is flawed, for several reasons. One, while the Chiefs made the playoffs with 10 wins in 2010, they were not a deserving playoff team. They went just 2-5 against teams that were .500 or better, including playoffs, and 8-2 against teams that were sub .500.

One of their two wins came against the early season Chargers week 1, in a game where Matt Cassel threw for 68 yards and their 3 scores came on a long touchdown run, a pick six, and a punt return touchdown. The Chargers avenged that defeat with a 31-0 victory later in the season. The other came against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were starting 3rd string quarterback Todd Bauman. Their 5 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 88 points. They also ranked just 17th in the NFL in DVOA.

The second reason why the information in the first paragraph is not complete is that, while the Chiefs won 7 games last year, they did not play like a 7 win team. They had a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.0 wins, 29th in the NFL, and ranked 26th in DVOA. Since the NFL has gone to a 16 game schedule, teams who exceed their Pythagorean Expectation by 2 wins or more averaged 2.5 wins fewer the next season and teams who exceed it by 3 wins or more averaged 2.7 wins fewer the next season.

The guys they’ll be getting back from injury will help, but to say that they’re a 7 win team getting back 4 key contributors is not a complete statement. It’s also not a complete statement to say that they’re a team two seasons removed from winning a division title getting back 4 key contributors. Their win total has not been an accurate measure of their performance over the last 2 seasons.

Running Backs

Offensively, the Chiefs were 31st in the league with 13.3 points per game last year. In order to turn things around, the Chiefs will be going back to a much more run heavy offense. They tried to do that in 2011, ranking 5th in the league in rushing attempts, but they ranked just 15th in rushing yards as they averaged just 3.9 YPC. That figure ranked 28th in the NFL. With Jamaal Charles out, the trio of Thomas Jones, Jackie Battle, and Dexter McCluster just did not get it done.

In addition to getting Jamaal Charles back from injury, the Chiefs also signed Peyton Hillis to compliment him and Eric Winston to run block (more on their offensive line later). They have stated that their goal is to get their two backs 500 touches this season, which falls just shy of the 539 touches that Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles had in 2010, but would still rank among the league leaders.

It’s possible that the Chiefs will be even more efficient on the ground this year than in 2012 because Hillis, even if he doesn’t bounce back off a disappointing season in 2011, is an obvious upgrade over an aged Thomas Jones, who averaged just 3.7 YPC and caught just 14 passes in 2010. Meanwhile, former Head Coach Todd Haley is gone, which means the obviously more talented of the two backs, Charles, will lead the team in carries and get significantly more touches (could be something like a 300-200 split). In 2010, Charles averaged 6.4 YPC, almost an NFL record, but managed just 230 carries to Jones’ 245, even though Jones was averaging 3.7 YPC. Charles barely had more overall touches, leading Jones in that category 275 to 259. That was inexcusable. The Chiefs have also upgraded the offensive line.

However, the one thing holding back the Chiefs’ running game from being more efficient than the 4.7 YPC it averaged in 2010 is actually Charles himself. Charles almost set an NFL record, averaging 6.4 YPC in 2010. That’s a very unrepeatable figure, especially for someone coming off a torn ACL. The Chiefs also won’t have the fortunate of playing 12 of their games against teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league against the run, like they did in 2010. They’ll still be a good running team, but predicting the running game to carry the team to the playoffs like they did in 2010 is a flawed prediction.

Grade: A-

Quarterback

A strong running game really made life easier for Matt Cassel in 2010, which is why they were able to win 10 games (that and a weak schedule). In addition to a tougher schedule, I also don’t expect Cassel to be as good this season as he was in 2010, even with an improved running game. One statistic jumps out for me about Cassel’s 2010 season and that’s his 27-7 TD-INT ratio.

When looking at his career, that’s an obvious outlier. In the rest of his career, his TD-INT ratio is 49-38. It’s definitely possible that outlier was caused by the easy schedule, in addition to just fluke luck. Including playoffs, his TD-INT ratio was just 5-6 against teams that finished .500 or better. On top of that, turnovers are very tough to predict on a yearly basis.

The 2010 Chiefs had 14 turnovers. There have been 36 teams since 2002 with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Backing up that number, the Chiefs turned the ball over 28 times in 2011. That’s not the fluke. The 14 turnovers is. A full season of Cassel will help a little bit, but not much.

Other than the TD-INT ratio, the rest of Cassel’s stats were pretty in line with his career averages in 2010. He completed just 58.2% of his passes, actually slightly less than his career average of 59.0%, and he averaged just 6.9 YPA, slightly up from his career average of 6.6 YPA. Those figures will probably be close to repeated for Cassel in 2012, but his TD-INT ratio will be more in line with that 49-38 figure rather than the 27-7 figure, even with a better running game and especially with a tougher schedule.

The Chiefs will struggle to move the ball through the air and, no matter how good their running game is, they’ll still be a subpar offensive team because of it. They averaged just 15.7 points per game in the 9 games that Cassel started last year so their horrible 13.3 points per game figure was not solely the fault of Palko and Orton. With an improved running game, they’ll be better than 15.7 points per game, but not a whole lot.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Onto the offensive line now, which I’ve mentioned before. As I’ve alluded to, the Chiefs’ offensive line will be an improved group in 2012 over 2010 and over 2011. In 2010, they were ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked run blocking offensive line and ranked 24th in pass blocking efficiency. In 2011, they ranked 5th in pass blocking efficiency, but 27th as run blockers. In 2012, I expect them to run block and pass block well.

One of the reasons for this is the addition of Eric Winston at right tackle. Incumbent right tackle Barry Richardson ranked 72nd out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, allowing 8 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures, while committing 9 penalties and ranking dead last at his position as a run blocker. Running off the right tackle, the Chiefs averaged just 2.6 YPC last season, which is pathetic even on a team that averaged just 3.9 YPC total.

He’s gone and will be replaced by Eric Winston, who ranked 14th among offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, pass blocking and run blocking well, allowing 7 sacks, but just 2 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures, while committing 9 penalties, the only weakness in his game. He’s no one hit wonder either, ranking in the top-14 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s consistent and he’ll be an obvious upgrade.

One of the reasons that the Chiefs got so much better at pass blocking in 2011 from 2010 was the emergence of left tackle Branden Albert as a legitimate blindside protector. Once the 15th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Albert was looking like a bust who would be best served at right tackle or guard before last year, when he allowed just 5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures. 10 penalties are an issue, but he ranked 8th at his position as a pass blocker and was a decent run blocker.

This was obviously an upgrade over his first 3 seasons, when he combined to allow 23 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, and 69 quarterback pressures, while committing 23 penalties in 45 starts. He ranked 33rd at his position in 2008, 64th in 2009, and 35th in 2010. I think he can continue his strong play into the future and Eric Winston replacing Barry Richardson at right tackle only helps matters on the offensive line as they attempt to pass protect for Matt Cassel.

Right guard Jon Asamoah is also a great pass protector, ranking 5th at his position in that aspect, allowing just 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures. He was a terrible run blocker though, ranking 69th out of 76 players at his position in that area of his game. Still, he’s a solid starter who graded out above average overall. Long time center Casey Wiegmann is gone, but he’ll be replaced by 2011 2nd round pick Rodney Hudson, who was decent in limited action as a rookie.

Meanwhile, left guard Ryan Lilja is the weak link of the offensive line, but I don’t know if you can even call him that as the soon to be 31 year old is still a solid player. He’ll be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Jeff Allen, but it’s more likely that Allen begins his career as a 6th offensive lineman, while Lilja starts. I thought Allen was a reach in the 2nd round, but his versatility can’t be questioned as he played every position except center at Illinois.

Grade: A-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

On paper, the Chiefs have a strong receiving corps and could possibly have the best receiving corps they’ve had in the last 3 years. From 2010 to 2011, they added Jonathan Baldwin in the 1st round of the draft and Steve Breaston in free agency, though they lost tight end Tony Moeaki for the season in the preseason. From 2011 to 2012, they’ll get Moeaki back and Baldwin has been having a great offseason as he heads into his 2nd season in the league.

The issue is that Dwayne Bowe, their unquestioned best receiver, has yet to sign his franchise tender. It’s unclear what he hopes to gain by skipping camp, as he can be fined and can’t be signed long term anymore. He’s also missing out on valuable practice time with a new coaching staff coming in and guys are impressing in his absence. He’s had a great 5 years since being a 1st round pick in 2007, catching 356 passes for 4927 yards and 36 touchdowns in 75 games, despite inconsistent quarterback play. He’s also played in all 16 games in 4 of 5 seasons. However, he’s hurting himself by missing Training Camp with a new coaching staff coming in, so he could have a down year, especially if he continues to miss more time. There’s currently no timetable for his return.

One of the guys impressing in his absence is Jonathan Baldwin, a 2011 1st round pick. Baldwin didn’t do much as a rookie, catching just 21 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown, but rookie receivers tend to struggle. Discounting Julio Jones and AJ Green, since the 2005 NFL Draft, 22 receivers have gone in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. In their rookie years, they have averaged 37 catches for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns.

And this is not a group of busts. This group includes, among others, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Roddy White. The leader in rookie production among those 22, ironically Dwayne Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2007.

Baldwin could definitely have a much better year in 2012, though it’ll be tough for him to have a statistical breakout year with other guys around him to compete for targets with and on not a very good passing offense. He could compete with Breaston for a starting job and, at the very least, he’ll play outside opposite Bowe in 3-wide receiver sets, where Breaston moves to the slot. Breaston caught 61 passes for 785 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, but his knees always remain an issue. He’s been tough though, only missing 4 games in the last 3 seasons and playing in all 16 last year.

Another player with injury issues is Tony Moeaki. Moeaki tore his ACL last offseason and missed the entire season, leaving bums like Leonard Pope, Anthony Becht, and Jake O’Connell to split time at tight end in his absence. He caught 47 passes for 556 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2010, as a mere 3rd round pick rookie, so he’ll definitely be a welcome return to their receiving corps. The one issue with him is that his injury problems date back to his days at Iowa, so it’s very possible he could sustain some sort of injury again this season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed Kevin Boss, a decent pass catcher and solid blocker, as insurance. Boss will also come in on two-tight end sets if Moeaki can stay healthy.

The Chiefs definitely do have talent offensively, but they’re limited by the play of Matt Cassel, a mediocre quarterback at best. Cassel played well in 2010, which led to this team winning the division and making the playoffs, but that was largely the result of an easy schedule and a fluky TD-INT ratio. He won’t play that well in 2012, even though he’ll have a strong running game and supporting cast backing him once again, and that will limit the Chiefs’ potential both offensively and as a team.

Grade: B+

Defense

The Chiefs have a solid group defensively, which has ranked 11th (20.4 points per game) and 12th (21.1 points per game) in the last two seasons respectively. They’ll have a strong bunch again in 2012, but, while they have added players offensively this offseason like Hillis and Winston, the Chiefs suffered a major loss defensively, losing Brandon Carr and replacing him with the significantly inferior Stanford Routt.

They do get Eric Berry back from injury and he could have a very good season in his 3rd year in the league, while 2nd year linebacker Justin Houston has the look of a budding star. They’ll be a good defense, but not the top-10 defense that will be required for a team that figures to score under 20 per game to be competitive in 2012.

Defensive Line

The Chiefs have a trio of highly drafted players on their 3 man defensive line. Their defensive ends are Tyson Jackson, 3rd overall in 2009, and Glenn Dorsey, 5th overall in 2008, while nose tackle Dontari Poe was the 11th overall pick back in April’s 2012 NFL Draft. However, despite their high draft slots, Jackson and Dorsey have disappointed to this point in their career. You can’t really categorize them as busts, because they’re above average starters, but you’re not looking for just above average starters in the top 5.

Both are great against the run, with Dorsey ranking 1st and Jackson ranking 6th on ProFootballFocus among 3-4 defensive ends as run stuffers. However, neither offers anything as pass rushers, ranking 29th and 26th respectively in that regard among 32 players at their position. Dorsey and Jackson combined for 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 6 quarterback pressures on a combined 469 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 2.1% pass rush rate. This is a big part of the reason why the Chiefs managed a mere 29 sacks last year. They’re still above average starters, but it’s worth noting that they’re one dimensional.

2011 3rd round pick Allen Bailey will rotate with them and have a bigger role this season as a situational pass rusher. However, he can only sub in for one of them at a time on passing downs, unlike last year when they had Wallace Gilberry. With Gilberry gone, 4th on the depth chart at 3-4 defensive end is Brandon Bair, a 2011 undrafted free agent who has never played a snap in the NFL.

Bailey is also still a projection as he’s so inexperienced. He played well in limited action last year, playing 294 snaps, 225 of which were pass rush snaps, and recording 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 quarterback pressures, good for a solid 4.9% pass rush rate, which is certainly better than Dorsey and Jackson. He also played the run well, but he’s still no sure thing transitioning to a bigger role and he’s definitely still unproven.

Poe, meanwhile, was immediately made the starting nose tackle after the Chiefs took him 11th overall in April. Incumbent Kelly Gregg played well, but he’s still unsigned and will probably retire. Poe is incredibly athletic with 4.9 speed at 6-4 340 with the ability to put up 44 reps of 225 on the bench. He also didn’t produce in college despite playing for Memphis in the weak C-USA. Some of that was the scheme, some of that was him. He’s faster than quick, a straight line athlete, and he doesn’t always play up to his size. I think he’ll bust and, at the very least, he’ll struggle as a rookie since he’s so raw and because he’s never faced anything like NFL competition. If he ever plays well, it’ll almost definitely be in 2013 and beyond.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Chiefs may have had a mere 29 sacks last season, but you can’t blame Tamba Hali for that. Hali turned in another strong season, ranking 4th on ProFootballFocus among rush linebackers and producing 12 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 41 quarterback pressures on 459 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 13.7%. He’s been good for years, but he’s never really had much help.

In 2010, he had 19 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 68 quarterback pressures on 583 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 15.9%. The Chiefs did manage 46 sacks, including playoffs, but nickel rusher Wallace Gilberry with 7 was the only other player on the team with more than 3. In 2009, he had 9 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 449 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.9%, but only Gilberry with 6 had more than 2 and the Chiefs managed 26 as a team. They haven’t had another good pass rusher in years in the starting lineup.

That could change this year. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Justin Houston in the 2011 NFL Draft and he could prove to be a steal. Houston has 1st round talent and was frequently projected there before news of his failed Combine drug test surfaced. Houston appears to have put that behind him. He worked his way into the starting lineup last season and had 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 207 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 10.6%.

He played every snap except one from week 11 on and had most of his production in those 7 games, with 6 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures. It’s no coincidence that the Chiefs had 20 of their 29 sacks in those 7 games. As a full time starter in 2012, he could approach double digit sacks and his presence in the lineup as a 2nd pass rush threat will make this a much better pass rush. They won’t be elite or anything because they can’t get much pass rush from the defensive line and they don’t have a 3rd pass rusher, but they should be improved.

The one issue with Houston is that the Chiefs love dropping the opposite rush linebacker into coverage. When Mike Vrabel was the starter, that made sense because he could cover as well as he could pass rush, but Justin Houston is terrible in coverage and a great pass rusher. They have to find some way that he doesn’t have to drop into coverage as much as he did last year, when he dropped on 163 snaps, as opposed to 207 pass rushes. Hali doesn’t cover well either.

Inside, the Chiefs have another stud, middle linebacker Derrick Johnson. Johnson is one of the best in the league at his position, ranking 4th on ProFootballFocus. He doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ray Lewis and Brian Cushing, but he ranked right behind the top 3 and ahead of Cushing. He’s ranked in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons, something only Patrick Willis can also say and in 2009 he was 13th despite for some reason only playing 344 snaps in 15 games (one of Todd Haley’s dumbest decisions ever and that’s saying something). Before that, he was an outside linebacker in a 4-3.

Next to him, the Chiefs have Jovan Belcher. Apparently no one knows who he is because middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was often mocked to the Chiefs at 11th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s actually a solid starter. He struggles in coverage, but as a two down run stuffing linebacker, he gets the job done and well. He ranked 19th at his position against the run.

Grade: A-

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Secondary

The Chiefs used to have two stud cornerbacks. That’s no longer the case. Brandon Flowers is still in town, but Brandon Carr is gone. Flowers is the better of the two cornerbacks, but that doesn’t really make Carr’s loss any easier. Last season, Carr allowed 39 completions on 79 attempts (49.4%) for 511 yards (6.5 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 5 penalties.

Flowers is more valuable because he covers #1 receivers and because he’s more consistent. He’s been a top-8 cornerback on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, something only Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis can also say. Last year was his worst year as he ranked 8th and though he did play really well, he also surrendered some big plays. He allowed 46 completions on 86 attempts (53.5%) for 667 yards (7.8 YPA), 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 5 penalties. He needs to eliminate some of the bigger plays in 2012, but I think he should have another fantastic season.

Opposite him, the Chiefs have signed Stanford Routt. Routt bounced back off a year in which he ranked 88th out of 100 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus in 2010 by allowing just 51.1% completion in 2011 as the #1 cornerback in Oakland (48 completions on 94 attempts). He also allowed just 532 yards (5.7 YPA), deflected 10 passes, and picked off 4. However, he surrendered a league leading 9 touchdowns and committed a league leading 17 penalties. He ranked 78th out of 98 cornerbacks and is a clear downgrade from Carr.

One thing that will definitely help mask the absence of Carr is the return of Eric Berry. Berry, the 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, had a strong rookie year. He didn’t deserve to go to the Pro Bowl, but he did play well, especially for a rookie. However, he was never allowed to have the breakout year many felt was coming in 2011 because he tore his ACL 5 snaps into the season. In 2012, he’s fully recovered and could have the type of year many envisioned last season. He could finish the season among the league’s best safeties and make the Pro Bowl, deservingly this time. He’ll certainly be better than guys like Jon McCraw, Donald Washington, Travis Daniels, and Sabby Piscitelli, all of whom attempted to replace him last year. They all failed miserably.

The other safety is Kendrick Lewis, who proved to be a decent starter in Berry’s absence. Javier Arenas will be the nickel cornerback and he does a solid job. In dime sets, rather than using 4 cornerbacks and 2 safeties, the Chiefs enjoy using a 3rd safety. They signed the veteran Abram Elam for that purpose, as well as to provide insurance for Berry. He’s a mediocre starter, but you do a lot worse for a depth safety.

The loss of Brandon Carr will hurt, but the return of Berry and an improved pass rush will help. The Chiefs definitely still have talent defensively and should rank close to where they have in the last 2 seasons, when they’ve ranked 11th and 12th in points per game allowed and allowed in the 20-21 points per game range. However, in order to be a competitive playoff team, they’ll have to score in that range as well and I don’t think they can do that. Last year, they scored just 13.3 points per game and while upgrades in the offensive line and running game, as well as guys returning from injury, will help, they are still limited by their quarterback.

Grade: B+

Head Coach

The Chiefs finished last season 2-1 after firing Todd Haley, beating previously undefeated Green Bay and Denver, who would go on to defeat the Steelers in the playoffs the following week. Interim Head Coach Romeo Crennel has gotten the interim label taken off and will be the full time Head Coach. However, I don’t think he can continue that success.

For one, that’s a small sample size. Two, I don’t think their inspired play late last season was as much a response to Crennel becoming Head Coach as it was to Todd Haley, who the players did not like, being fired. Crennel was 24-40 in 4 seasons in Cleveland. He’s not a very good Head Coach and, while he’s excellent as a defensive coordinator (which he’ll continue to do this season), I don’t think he’ll be a positive to this team as their Head Coach. On top of that, splitting duties between coordinating the defense and being a Head Coach, especially in your first full year as Head Coach, can hurt your performance in both areas.

Grade: C+

Overall

The Chiefs’ win total has not been an accurate measure of their talent over the last 2 seasons. That could continue to be the case this season, but it’s unlikely and I won’t predict it. It’s sad that Matt Cassel is holding up the team because they have a solid defense, a good offensive line and receiving corps, and they can run the ball really well. However, if you don’t have a quarterback in this league, you won’t get far.

Aside from his fluke TD-INT ratio in 2010, Cassel has been a career 59.0% pass completer who averages just 6.6 YPA and 49 touchdowns to 38 interceptions. Excluding the fluky 2010 figure, his 16 game averages over the last 4 seasons are 297 completions on 503 attempts (59.0%) for 3330 yards (6.6 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and that’s factoring in a year in New England, where everything was easy for him. This team averaged 15.7 points per game last year with Cassel completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA and 10 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. That’s what we can expect from Cassel this year.

They are fortunate to have an easy division, but I think they’ll go 2-4 in the division as Denver and San Diego are both clearly better than them. Oakland has the better quarterback too, but their supporting cast is a mess. Outside the division, they host Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Carolina, and Indianapolis. Having to face the NFC South and AFC North is no picnic.

They should go around 2-3 or 3-2 in those games at home as Atlanta is a bad road team and the final 3 teams are not that hard. Meanwhile, they go to Buffalo, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. New Orleans and Pittsburgh seem unwinnable on the road, while Buffalo will be better than people think, as will Tampa Bay. Cleveland is the only really easy road game they have. With that schedule, 5 or 6 wins is realistic.

Projection: 6-10 3rd in AFC West

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Denver Broncos 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Broncos won 8 games with Tebow last year and he can’t throw. Now that they have Peyton Manning, they’ll definitely win 12 or more games. That seems to be the common opinion out there, but it’s flawed. Yes, they did win 8 games last year, but they did it on the strength of a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 7-4 in those games. Whether you want to call it luck or some sort of divine Tebow magic, that can’t be expected to continue this year.

Their -81 points differential was by far worst among playoff teams last year and one of the worst points differentials of a playoff team ever in the NFL. Their Pythagorean Expectation said they should have won 5.8 games, the 25th highest expectation in the NFL. Meanwhile, they ranked 24th in the league in DVOA. The year before, in 2010, this team won just 4 games, had a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, and ranked 26th in DVOA. Even though they improved 4 games from 2010 to 2011, this team didn’t really play that much better last season than they did in 2010. Teams that exceed their Pythagorean Expectation by between 2 and 2.5 games, on average, win 2.4 fewer games the following season.

They still have weaknesses on the offensive line, at running back, in the receiving corps, and in both the run and pass defense. I’ll get into all of those areas in more detail later, but the point is that their supporting cast is really not that much better than it was in 2010. It just seems like it, unless you want to argue that somehow Tim Tebow is significantly inferior to Kyle Orton (which even the biggest Tebow haters might not do).

Peyton Manning represents a fairly significant upgrade at quarterback over Tim Tebow. Even the biggest Tebow lover would have to admit that. But it needs to be understood that whatever addition Manning represents in terms of wins to this team should be added to a win total of 5 or 6 wins, rather than 8, unless they can somehow have the same kind of play in close games that they had last season. Logic, and Peyton Manning’s 51-37 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, both work against you if you decide to argue that.

The Colts exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation every year from 2002-2010, but only by an average of 1.4 wins per season. The Colts were a very good team in that stretch, winning 10+ games every season and 12+ in 7 of 9 seasons. However, good teams almost always exceed their Pythagorean Expectation. That 1.4 wins per season mark is pretty average for teams who average 12 wins per season.

This team doesn’t have the supporting cast that Manning had in Indianapolis and Manning might not be the same either. I don’t think they’ll win 12+ games so I don’t think we can predict them to exceed their Pythagorean Expectation this year any more than any other team. If the Broncos score 81 more points (their points differential last year) this season (5.0 more points per game) than they did last season, they can be expected to win 8 games. And that’s a completely reasonable estimation, albeit on the low end.

For the record, my opinion on Tebow is this. He’s not the 2nd coming of Christ. He’s not the worst quarterback in the NFL. He’s a quarterback incomparable to any quarterback in the league. He’s a good runner, a subpar, but improving passer, an exceptional leader, a clutch player, a genuinely good person, and most importantly, an incredibly fun and interesting story.

Instead of arguing about Tebow, we should just accept him for what he is and enjoy watching him play. His 6 game winning streak last season was one of the most fun, interesting, and unbelievable stretches of football I’ve ever watched, a guy who had won on every level and went in the 1st round, yet who had so many doubters for legitimate reasons, somehow pulling 6 straight wins out of his ass.

That win over the Bears was one of the most entertaining, unbelievable, memorable games I’ve ever watched and his win over the Steelers comes in at a close 2nd. I’ll remember the 2011 NFL season for 3 things. Tom Brady losing to Eli Manning in the Super Bowl again (damnit). Absolutely no one playing any defense whatsoever. And Tim Tebow.

And I feel we wasted that amazing stretch of entertainment by arguing, trying to put him and his unique abilities into a box, and listening to anything Skip Bayless had to say. I am as neutral on Tebow as you can be, agreeing and disagreeing with his greatest fans and his biggest detractors equally, and yet I’m verging onto paragraph 5 about Tebow and he’s not even on the team anymore.

He deserves to be starting somewhere in the NFL, but the Broncos absolutely made the right move signing Manning and trading Tebow. If a Peyton Manning becomes available on the open market and you don’t have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback, you go after him and the Broncos did not have a legitimate top-12 franchise quarterback. Not even the biggest Tebow fan could argue that.

I don’t care if he’s 36 and coming off 4 neck surgeries, you still go after him, though you try as hard as you can to keep it a secret (Denver somehow did that for a few days). And if you get him, you trade away the incumbent starter because he still has value and because all he does is serve as an unnecessarily expensive backup and a distraction. There is not a single thing about the Tebow/Manning situation that I would have handled differently than Denver did. If there were a grade better than an A+, I’d give them it. At the same time, I think the Jets got a steal by getting Tebow for just a 4th rounder.

Quarterback

But enough about Tebow and onto the guy who is actually the Broncos’ quarterback: Peyton Manning. We know, barring another neck injury, that Peyton Manning represents some sort of upgrade over Tim Tebow as a quarterback. The question is, how much, and what version of Peyton Manning they’ll be getting. I believe they’ll be getting an inferior version of Peyton Manning than his prime and I have several reasons for that, some obvious, some not.

I’ll start with some of the more obvious and work my way down to the less obvious. He’s 36 years old. His neck has been operated on 4 times in the last 2 years. He hasn’t played organized NFL football in almost 2 years. He is going to be forced to adjust to a new city, a new team, new teammates, and a completely new playbook for the first time in his career.

He no longer will be able to play half of his games in a dome, but rather he’ll have to play half of his games at high elevations. In 2008, when he missed Training Camp and the Preseason, he completed just 62.2% of his passes, averaged 6.8 YPA, and threw 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his first 8 games, as his team went 4-4.

He was also beginning to noticeably decline in 2010, with his lowest QB rating since 2002 (91.9), his lowest completion percentage since 2007 (66.3%), for his YPA since his rookie year in 1998 (6.9), his worst TD:INT ratio since 2002 (33:17), and his worst win-loss record since 2001 (10-6). He displayed weaker arm strength, both noticeably, and as evidenced by his 6.9 YPA and his 36.8% accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) on balls that go 20+ yards through the air, 26th out of 37 eligible quarterbacks. For reference, that statistic stood at 42.4% in 2009 and 43.6% in 2010. And that was 4 neck surgeries and 2 years ago with a much more familiar supporting cast.

Not only did he have a much more familiar supporting cast back then. He’ll also, as I’ve mentioned, have to work with one of the worst supporting casts of his career in 2012. It’s not like he’s throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, with Edgerrin James in his prime the backfield. He’s throwing to Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and his running back, Willis McGahee, is almost as old as Edgerrin James was when he retired after the 2009 season.

Offensive Line

Another weakness for the Broncos is their offensive line. They rated as the worst run blocking offensive line on ProFootballFocus last year and ranked 2nd to last in pass blocking efficiency. No quarterback was pressured more often than Tim Tebow, who was pressured on 43.4% of his drop backs. Some of that can be blamed on Tebow’s tendency to hold the ball for a long time, but, in 2010, they ranked 17th in pass blocking efficiency so they do have some problems of their own. They do return the same starting 5 as they had in 2011, but, for them, that’s probably more of a bad thing that a good thing.

In a way this is a big deal and in a way this isn’t. It’s a big deal because, if you have a quarterback with a 4 times operated on neck, you probably want to protect him well, which the Broncos’ offensive line isn’t talented enough to do. However, Peyton Manning has such good pocket presence and feel for the pass rush and makes decisions and gets rid of the ball so quickly that he essentially protects himself. He always makes the offensive line look much better than they are.

From 2008-2010, including the postseason, he took 46 sacks on 533 pressured drop backs, good for a ridiculously low rate of 8.6%, easily the best in the NFL over that time period. It’s not like he really had that great of an offensive line in Indianapolis either. They ranked just 18th in pass blocking efficiency in 2011, 15th in 2010, 11th in 2009, and 24th in 2008. Like he did in Indianapolis, he should be able to protect himself again in Denver and he probably won’t take too many more than 20 sacks, and possibly much less. However, the bad news is that any one of those sacks could potentially reinjure his neck and that might force him to retire.

Protecting his blindside is left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the most overrated players in the league. In 4 years in his career, the 2008 12th overall pick has allowed a combined 20 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 120 quarterback pressures. Last year was his worst year, as he rated 61st out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, allowing 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 34 quarterback pressures, while allowing 12 penalties and playing terribly as a run blocker, ranking 72nd on ProFootballFocus in that regard, 2nd to last.

The fact that he was not only was offered a 5 year, 50 million dollar extension this offseason, but also rejected said offer is ridiculous. He wants a deal similar to Joe Thomas’ 7 year, 84 million dollar extension, with 44 million guaranteed and he’s just not worth anywhere near that. I wouldn’t even guarantee him half of that. Fortunately for him, he gets to protect Peyton Manning’s blindside this season, which will make him look better, so the overrated 2 time Pro-Bowler (2009, 2011) will continue to be overrated and might even get his desired deal. At the very least, he’ll be franchised as teams don’t often let their left tackles hit the open market. That’s almost as rare as a team letting their quarterback hit the open market.

Opposite Clady, at right tackle, the Broncos have Orlando Franklin. Franklin, a mere 2nd round rookie last season, actually played the best of any of the Broncos’ starting 5 offensive linemen last season, according to ProFootballFocus. However, that’s not saying much and his -9.7 rating is hardly ideal. He allowed 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties and, though he was his team’s best run blocking starting offensive line, he was still slightly below average in that respect.

On the interior, things are even worse. Chris Kuper was the best of the bunch last season with an only slightly pathetic -11.5 rating. He was an above average pass protector, allowing just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 15 quarterback pressures, but he was awful as a run blocker, ranking 73rd at his position out of 76 as a run blocker. He’s also coming off a broken leg and dislocated ankle sustained late last season, which required 2 surgeries. He’s been cleared for camp, but that was no major injury. In his absence, Russ Hochstein played poorly as well. He’s really their only experienced depth, sadly.

The other two interior offensive linemen were the worst of the bunch. I don’t know why they didn’t do more to upgrade them. They used a 4th round pick on Philip Blake, who can play both guard and center, but that’s it. He’ll probably end up a starter somewhere before the end of the season, most likely at center, a spot which the Broncos tried to upgrade this offseason by unsuccessfully trying to bring in Manning’s old center, Jeff Saturday, from Indianapolis.

Instead, they’re stuck with JD Walton, who was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated center by over 13 points with a -32.9 rating and their worst rated run blocker at any position. As I mentioned, he could be replaced by Blake before the season is over, but he’s just a mere 4th round rookie so he’d probably only be an upgrade by default.

Meanwhile, left guard Zane Beadles ranked 73rd among 76 guards on ProFootballFocus, playing equally poor as a run blocker and pass protector. He allowed 7 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties. What the Broncos should do next offseason is add another offensive tackle, possibly move Ryan Clady to the right side, move Franklin inside, get a new center (unless Blake works out), and bench both Beadles and Walton.

The Broncos allowed 42 sacks last season, 9th most in the NFL. Going from Tim Tebow, who holds the ball a very long time, to Peyton Manning, who is legendarily good at avoiding sacks, should cut that number in half, but it won’t make them a good pass blocking offensive line. Also, there’s obviously an injury risk with Manning and they don’t have a proven backup on the roster.

On top of all this, there isn’t much Manning is going to do to make this a better run blocking team. Sure, he’ll open things up for the running game because they have to fear his ability to throw, but that won’t actually make them a better run blocking team. It’s weird to say that this was the league’s worst run blocking unit last year because they led the league in rushing, but it was.

Running Backs

One of the reasons why they led the league in rushing was because they led the league in rushing attempts. Still, their 4.8 YPC was very impressive. Tim Tebow’s absence will hurt that. Not only did Tebow rush for 660 yards on 124 carries (5.4 YPC), he also opened things up for their other back, Willis McGahee.

Mobile quarterbacks have a way of opening things up for running backs better than even the best passing quarterbacks can. Opposing front 7s almost always had to use a spy when playing the Broncos last year, for fear of Tebow taking off, which weakens and distracts their overall run defense as they try to stop running backs.

Just look at LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson. In the last 2 seasons, McCoy has carried the ball 375 times for 1954 yards (5.2 YPC) and 21 touchdowns in 24 games with Michael Vick and 105 times for 435 yards (4.1) and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without him. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2009, when Vince Young was his primary quarterback. In 2010, he rushed for 4.8 YPC with Young and 3.8 YPC without him. Last year, without him at all, he averaged just 4.0 YPC.

Tim Tebow was that for Willis McGahee last season. There’s a reason he rushed for 1199 yards and 4 touchdowns on 249 carries (4.8 YPC) last year, after rushing for just 380 yards and 5 touchdowns on 100 carries (3.8 YPC) the year before. Without Tebow, he could easily regress and heading into his age 31 season, his abilities could drop off a cliff at any time. On top of that, he will be running behind a poor offensive line.

With that in mind, the Broncos used a 3rd round pick on Ronnie Hillman, to compliment him and help him stay fresh. Both backs will get carries this season and Hillman, a much superior pass catcher, could easily get more playing time as the season goes on at Manning’s urging. However, he’s still just a rookie and he doesn’t have the prototypical size to carry a load if McGahee gets hurt, definitely a possibility. If that happens, either the mediocre Lance Ball, the always injured Knowshon Moreno, or the inexperienced Mario Fannin will get some playing time. Head Coach John Fox is a fan of two-back sets anyway.

They could go from one of the league’s best rushing teams to one of the league’s worst, especially since they won’t run nearly as much as they did last year now that they have Manning. Indianapolis ranked 29th, 32nd, 31st in rushing yards in 2010, 2009, 2008 with Manning. It’s not that important, but it’s worth noting that they won’t be very good on the ground this year.

Grade: B-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Peyton Manning might not be throwing to Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark in their primes, but the Broncos do have a few intriguing young receivers and Manning should be able to make do with them. Demaryius Thomas is a very popular breakout candidate, to the point where he’s become a 4th round pick on average in fantasy drafts, despite the fact that he hasn’t accomplished much yet.

However, I like Decker at his current ADP in the 6th round much more. I think he’ll be their leading receiver. While Thomas had 25 catches for 448 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last 5 games last year, Eric Decker had 20 catches for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 4 games last year and that was with Brandon Lloyd opposite him stealing targets.

Just because Thomas had great chemistry with Tim Tebow doesn’t mean he will have great chemistry with Peyton Manning. Thomas is still a very unproven player and Decker has shown better chemistry with more traditional pocket passers. Decker is reportedly impressing in Training Camp, with some like SI’s Peter King saying he could be among the league leaders in catches this season. Meanwhile, Thomas is struggling to learn the full route tree, something Manning requires of his receivers that Tebow didn’t.

Manning has always been more comfortable with sure handed possession receivers who run routes well over pure athletes like Thomas and that will only become more the case as he’s now older with somewhat diminished arm strength and in a place where he’s not familiar with most of the receivers. It’s also worth noting that Peyton Manning specifically requested the Colts draft Eric Decker in the 3rd round in 2010, but the Broncos got him first. We know he thinks highly of him.

Manning has made lemonade out of apples before with his receivers. If Austin Collie can catch 58 passes for 649 yards and 8 touchdowns in 9 games on a more crowded receiving corps in 2010 with Manning, Decker can have a 1000 yard season. He’ll be especially valuable in PPR leagues. Thomas, meanwhile, has never had any success in the NFL without Tim Tebow. He also has very little proven success in general with just 54 catches for 834 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2 seasons. Thomas will produce as well, but he’ll be a disappointment based off of what people are projecting for him. He’ll be 2nd among wide receivers on this team.

He might even be behind tight end Jacob Tamme statistically. Tamme might not be a great athlete, but, like Decker, he has sure hands and runs routes well. He’s also familiar with Manning, catching 67 passes for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns in 10 games in place of an injured Clark in 2010. With less wide receiver talent around him than in Indianapolis, and no other receivers (other than the mediocre Brandon Stokley) that Manning has any familiarity with, he could be an even more frequent target for Manning this year. A tight end is frequently going to be the first option on this offense this year.

The Broncos also did well to bring in Joel Dreessen from Houston. Dreessen is one of the league’s most underrated players and best #2 tight ends. ProFootballFocus rated him as the 6th best tight end in the league last year as the #2 tight end in Houston. The Texans run more two-tight end sets than anyone in the league and Dreessen is an adequate pass catcher and a phenomenal blocker. In the last 3 years, he’s caught 90 passes for 1191 yards and 11 touchdowns. He won’t put up huge numbers, but, like he did in Houston, he’ll be an important part of an offense that uses a lot of two-tight end sets. The Colts also have Andre Caldwell, a decent slot receiver, as their #3 receiver.

However, like everywhere else on offense, the Broncos don’t have a lot of proven talent in their receiving corps. Decker and Thomas are still young and Tamme has never produced without Manning. Meanwhile, they have one of the worst offensive lines in the league and their only proven good offensive player is running back Willis McGahee, who is on his last legs. Meanwhile, none of the backs behind him on the depth chart are proven. Manning will make do just fine, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty talentless group, which scored just 19.3 points per game last season, worst of any playoff team by a full point per game. Manning, meanwhile, probably won’t be his old self for a variety of reasons.

Grade: B-

Defense

While the Broncos ranked 25th in points per game offensively, worst among playoff teams, they also ranked 24th in points per game allowed defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, 2nd worst among playoff teams behind only the Giants (25.0 points per game). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This team isn’t really that much better than they were in 2010 (aside from Manning of course). They just got incredibly lucky last year (or Tebow is magic, whatever you want to believe). Either way, that shouldn’t happen again this year. Manning will obviously upgrade the offense, but they’ll once again have a subpar defense and that will prevent this team from being the elite team many think they’ll be.

Defensive Line

The one good thing the Broncos have going for them is their pass rush. Including playoffs, they had 49 sacks last year, and, in their regular season, they ranked tied for 10th in the league with 41. Of those 49 sacks, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller each had 13, combining for 26 of their 49 sacks. They need someone to step up as a 3rd pass rusher this year, particularly on the interior of their defensive line, where starters Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley combined for just 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on a combined 493 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 2.2% rate.

3rd on the team in sacks last season was Robert Ayers, who had 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 389 pass rush snaps, good for a decent 8.0% pass rush rate. He also played well against the run, finally having a good season after looking like a bust in his first two years in the league after going 18th overall in 2010. Turns out all he needed was to play in a 4-3 defense, though there’s no way Josh McDaniels could have known that. It’s not like every scouting report in the world said that Ayers was a 4-3 only player (I miss bashing Josh McDaniels).

Ayers played left end in the base package and then Von Miller came down from linebacker and played defensive end on passing downs. Miller had an amazing rookie season. He ranked 2nd among all defensive players on ProFootballFocus with a 53.4 rating as a mere rookie, rushing the passer well, stopping the run well, and doing well in coverage. He had 13 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 468 pass rush snaps, good for an incredible rate of 15.0%. He should be one of the league’s premier defensive players for years and years to come.

Elvis Dumervil will once again almost always play at the opposite defensive end spot, only being taken out of the game for rest. He too had a fantastic season, with 13 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 33 quarterback pressures on 562 pass rush snaps, good for an above average 9.4% pass rush rate. He’s led the league in sacks before and should be considered one of the best pass rushers in the league, as should Miller.

While Ayers played defensive end opposite Dumervil last year, and played pretty well, the Broncos will be using 2nd round rookie Derek Wolfe at defensive end opposite Dumervil this year, even though he’s a natural defensive tackle and would fill a bigger need there. It’s unclear what Ayers’ role will be this season, so this is a pretty head scratching move. He’ll probably play the old role of Jason Hunter, an awful defensive end who had just 1 sack, no quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 202 pass rush snaps as a situational player, good for a pathetic 5.0% rate. He played the run well though.

Like Ayers would last year, Wolfe will be a base defensive end, but he’ll also move inside and play defensive tackle on passing downs, which will help their interior pass rush, which was non-existent last year. However, he’d be better served as a full time member of the defensive tackle rotation and a starter there.

At defensive tackle, the Broncos have lost starters Bunkley and Thomas. Neither could do anything as pass rushers, but both will still be missed as they were among the best run stuffing defensive tackles in the league, with Bunkley ranking 1st and Thomas ranking 14th in that aspect on ProFootballFocus last year.

Also gone is Ryan McBean, who led the position in snaps played. He won’t be missed at all though, as he was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated defensive tackle. He didn’t play the run well and struggled as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures on 414 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 3.1% rate. Between Bunkley, Thomas, and McBean, the Broncos’ top 3 defensive tackles got a sack/pressure/hit on 2.6% of their pass rush snaps.

In 2012, they should be better than that, but maybe not by much and only by default. Penciled in as starters right now are Kevin Vickerson, a career journeyman who played just 206 snaps last year as the #4 defensive tackle (and did not play well), and Ty Warren, who hasn’t played in a game since 2009 thanks to various injuries. That tells you all you need to know about their weakness at defensive tackle. Why the hell isn’t Wolfe starting there?!

Wolfe will provide depth as a situational pass rusher and be part of the rotation. Also in the rotation is Justin Bannan, a veteran who could push for a starting job out of sheer need. Bannan played pretty well in a situational role in St. Louis last year, but he was cut by them this offseason and he is heading into his age 33 season. The Broncos should be a good pass rushing team again in 2012, but they could really struggle against the run and if anything happens to one of their top 2 pass rushers, they’d be left awfully thin.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

In base packages, the Broncos will start DJ Williams, Joe Mays, and Von Miller at linebacker. I already talked about how awesome Von Miller is under the defensive line section, he leaves the linebacking unit in two-linebacker sets in nickel packages and goes to the defensive line. Joe Mays leaves the linebacking unit as well in that situation, as he’s just a two down run stuffer. He’s awful in coverage, but stuffs the run pretty well.

Wesley Woodyard comes in during sub packages as a pure coverage linebacker, but he struggled in that role last year, ranking 45th among 53 middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus, despite his situational role. He also played outside linebacker last year when injuries hit Miller and Williams, but he wasn’t much better there.

DJ Williams was once one of their best defensive players, but he was pretty bad last season, ranking 35th out of 42 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, struggling in coverage and against the run. Heading into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to ever bounce back. He’ll also miss the first 6 games of the season after failing 2 drug tests and attempting to use a non-human specimen on the 3rd one. There was talk of the Broncos outright cutting him this offseason to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 11 million over the next 2 seasons, but nothing appears imminent. He still may be asked to restructure.

In Williams’ absence, Woodyard and Mays will have to play every down roles, unless 2011 3rd round pick Nate Irving can establish some sort of role for himself. He only played 7 snaps as a rookie though and the organization hasn’t seemed too impressed with him yet, so that’s unlikely. Woodyard and Mays will probably have to be the every down linebackers, which has proved to be a problem for them in the past.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

Things aren’t that great in the secondary either. There’s a reason why the Broncos allowed 7.4 YPA, 20th in the league, despite a strong pass rush. Champ Bailey was good as always, allowing 36 completions on 72 attempts (50.0%) for 552 yards (7.6 YPA), 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing just 2 penalties. He was ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated cornerback, marking the 4th straight year he ranked in the top-8 at his position. Only Darrelle Revis can say the same. However, he’s heading into his age 34 season so he could start to decline.

The problem last year was that Bailey’s talents were minimized by the fact that opposing quarterbacks could just pick on the opposite cornerbacks. Andre Goodman was terrible and was cut this offseason, heading into his age 34 season. He remains unsigned on the open market as of this writing, which tells you all you need to know. No cornerback surrendered more touchdowns in coverage than the 9 Goodman surrendered. The Broncos have signed Tracy Porter to replace him, in hopes that he can bounce back. Once a solid starting cornerback, Porter allowed 71.3% completion as the 3rd cornerback in New Orleans last season.

In the slot, free agent acquisition Drayton Florence will compete with incumbent Chris Harris. Harris was thrust into the nickel back role as a mere undrafted rookie last year and, while he impressed at times, he also often played like an undrafted rookie, allowing 51 completions on 70 attempts (72.9%) for 539 yards (7.7 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties.

Florence, however, looks pretty washed up. Heading into his age 32 season, Florence was ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 98 as a starter in Buffalo last year, allowing 44 completions on 73 attempts (60.3%) for 714 yards (9.8 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 9 penalties. His best days are behind him and, while he could play better now that he’s just on the slot, the Broncos would be smart to let Harris play there and hope that he makes improvements in his 2nd year in the league. Unfortunately, Florence looks like the favorite as of this writing.

At safety, the Broncos will miss Brian Dawkins, who has retired. He didn’t play all that well last season, which makes sense because he was 38, but he played solidly and provided great veteran leadership. Unwilling to give the job to 2011 4th round pick Quinton Carter full time, the Broncos signed Mike Adams, a solid and underrated safety, from the Browns. He should have another solid year this year. Opposite him, the Broncos will be hoping that 2011 2nd round pick Rahim Moore can bounce back in his 2nd season in the league, after ranking 67th at his position out of 84 last season. If he doesn’t, Carter could potentially push for his job, but he played every worse last year, ranking 74th at the position.

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. They were a little better last year, ranking 24th and allowing 24.4 points per game. However, the improvement was not as big as some seem to think as their defense is still subpar. They have major questions on all 3 levels of the defense and, while Peyton Manning will help things offensively, their defense will hold them back.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

John Fox has been in the NFL a long time, coaching 10 seasons, including 9 with the Panthers and last year with the Broncos. He has a career 81-79 regular season record and 6-4 postseason record, including a trip to the Super Bowl. He’s not one of the best coaches in the NFL and he’s had some awful years (2-14 with the Panthers in 2010), but he’s had some good ones too (11+ wins in 2003, 2005, and 2008) and he’s managed to stay around a long time.

Grade: B

Overall

In 2010, the Broncos ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed, allowing 29.4 points per game, and 19th in the league, scoring 21.5 points per game. They had a points differential of -117 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.2 wins, while ranking 26th in the league in DVOA.  Last year, they ranked 24th defensively, allowing 24.4 points per game, and 25th offensively, scoring 19.3 points per game. They had a points differential of -81 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.8 wins, while ranking 24th in the league in DVOA. Though they improved 4 games, they didn’t really play much better last season than in 2010 and they still have a very weak supporting cast with questions everywhere.

Peyton Manning undoubtedly helps, but to say that this is a playoff team adding a franchise quarterback would be inaccurate because they didn’t play like a playoff team last year. Manning also figures to not quite be his normal self and he’s one bad hit away from being done for good and they don’t have a veteran backup on the roster. Should he stay healthy, the offense will play well, but they defense won’t.

In comparing the team to the Chargers, who I think are their primary competition for the division, at this stage in his career, Manning is comparable to Philip Rivers and I think Rivers has the better supporting cast, in addition to being more durable. Rivers did throw 20 touchdowns last year, but Eli Manning threw 25 the year before. Both were outliers and Rivers should bounce back like Eli did (well maybe not quite like Eli did). The Chargers had a points differential 110 points better last year, yet did not win the division on a tiebreaker. I don’t think Manning, at this stage in his career, is good enough, on his own, to make up those 110 points (6.9 points per game) and on top of that, I think the Chargers will be improved.

They do have a pretty easy division and should be able to go 3-3 or 4-2 in the division. However, outside of the division, they host Pittsburgh week 1, when Manning still figures to be getting his timing back). You know they’ll be out for blood after the playoff defeat last season. Their other 4 games at home aren’t much easier, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland. The latter two should be very winnable, but I think they’ll only win one of the first 3, especially since two are in the first 3 weeks. Meanwhile, they go to Atlanta and New England early, then Cincinnati, Carolina, and Baltimore. Three of those teams are very tough at home (going a combined 22-2 in 2011) so they should go 2-3 in those 5 games.

Manning should take at least 4-6 weeks to get right. They host Pittsburgh, go to Atlanta (always tough at home), and then host Houston and Oakland, before going to New England and San Diego. They could easily start 2-4. Then they host New Orleans after the bye (not easy), before going on the road for two more (Carolina, and Cincinnati), and then they host the Chargers. Could they start 4-6? Yes, yes they can. Their last 6 games will be easier (@ Kansas City, vs. Tampa Bay, @ Oakland, @ Baltimore, vs. Cleveland, vs. Kansas City), but it’s almost cruel that the scheduler gave them most of their tough games earlier in the season as Manning tries to get his timing back. I don’t see them winning the division. 8 or 9 wins seems more likely.

Projection: 9-7 2nd in AFC West

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San Diego Chargers 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

There was a time when the Chargers would make the playoffs every year and then disappoint once they got there. From 2004-2009, the Chargers won the division and made the playoffs 5 times in 6 seasons, going 67-29 over that stretch, but they went just 3-5 in the playoffs and never advanced past the AFC Championship.

Now they can’t even make the playoffs. In the last two seasons, they have gone a combined 17-15 and missed out on the playoffs both times. In 2010, they played really well, leading the league in yards and allowing the fewest yards at the same time, but finished 9-7. They finished with the NFL’s 5th best points differential with a +119 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.9 wins. They also had the NFL’s 7th best DVOA and were one of 4 teams to finish in the top-10 in DVOA both offensively and defensively (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, NY Giants). Every advanced statistic in the book said that would likely bounce back in 2011.

Well, they didn’t. Advanced statistics can tell you what’s likely. Sometimes things that are likely don’t happen. Philip Rivers randomly had a career high in interceptions (20) and his lowest completion percentage (62.9%) and YPA since 2007 (8.0 YPA), while the defense got old in a hurry and missed defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who took the Head Coaching job in Carolina. After ranking 1st in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed in 2010, they ranked 16th and 22nd respectively in those two categories in 2011. Advanced statistics confirm their defensive decline as they went from 7th in defensive DVOA in 2010 to 29th last year.

One other thing the Chargers used to be known for was starting out slow. Prior to last year, the Chargers were 14-12 from weeks 1-6 under Philip Rivers and 41-11 (41-11!!!) from weeks 6-17, before going 3-4 in the postseason. However, last year, it was the complete opposite. The Chargers actually started 4-1 before going on a 6 game losing streak, before finishing 4-1 and finally looking like their typical late season selves.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve conquered their early season demons. While they did start 4-1, their 4 wins were against teams that started a combined 4-16 in their first 5 games (Minnesota, Denver, Kansas City, Miami). They only won one of those games by more than a touchdown and didn’t win one by more than 10 points. Their loss, meanwhile, was by 14 to the Patriots.

They weren’t necessarily a good early season team. They just had an easy schedule and then when a 6 game stretch of teams that finished a combined 54-42 hit, they lost every single game, before finally finding their stride and winning 4 of their last 5, though the only playoff team they beat in that span was a Baltimore team that also lost to Seattle and Jacksonville on the road. The only team playoff teams they beat last year were Denver BT (Before Tebow) and the aforementioned Baltimore team. They went 2-4 against playoff teams and 3-7 against teams that finished .500 or better.

Quarterback

So why, in spite of all this, do I like the Chargers to bounce back? Well for one, Philip Rivers should bounce back (I’ll get into the 2nd and 3rd reasons later). Rivers had his 2nd lowest QB rating last year of any of his 6 seasons as a starter. He also threw a career high 20 interceptions. His 1st/2nd half splits show a drastically different Rivers in his final 8 games from his first 8, at least in terms of turnovers. In the 1st half of the season, he threw 14 interceptions as opposed to 6 in his final 8 games.

Rivers is still only heading into his age 31 season so he’s certainly not done. Last season should be dismissed as an outlier, especially since most of his poor play happened in the first 8 games when he may or may not have been hurt. In the last 8 seasons, the Chargers have missed the playoffs just 3 times. Discounting the bizarre 2010 season, those two seasons featured subpar quarterback play. Last year, Rivers struggled and in 2005, Drew Brees, then the Chargers’ quarterback, had one of the worst seasons of his career. If the Chargers are better quarterbacked in 2012, they should make the playoffs, especially in the weaker AFC.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

If anything prevents Rivers from bouncing back, it might be his receiving corps. Vincent Jackson is gone, leaving the offense without a true #1 receiver. However, Rivers played fine without Jackson in 2010, when he missed most of the season with a holdout and injuries, playing just 5 games and catching just 14 passes for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns. That year, Rivers completed 66.0% of his passes for 8.7 YPA and 30 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

In Jackson’s absence, Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem will start. Robert Meachem is a talented former 1st round pick who the Chargers gave a giant contract to this offseason (4 years, 25.9 million). They clearly think his best football is ahead of him and that he was underutilized and misused in New Orleans. The problem with that logic that the Chargers have been wrong about a lot of things personnel wise in recent years, while the Saints are one of the least likely teams in the NFL to underutilize and misuse an offensive player. Meachem never surpassed 45 catches in a season in New Orleans. He’ll have a greater opportunity in San Diego, but I don’t think he’ll be able to be a true #1 receiver.

Floyd, meanwhile, has definitely flashed talent in his career, but he’s also missed 9 games combined in the last 2 seasons and when he plays, he’s caught 3 or fewer passes in 14 of 23 games. He’s heading into his age 31 season and if he hasn’t been a #1 receiver yet, he probably won’t be able to be one into the future. He had his chance in 2010 with Jackson holding out and getting hurt and managed just 37 catches for 717 yards and 6 touchdowns. That was in only 11 games, which makes it more impressive, but he’s an injury prone player and that’s not going to get better now that he’s 31.

In Jackson’s absence in 2010, it was Antonio Gates, not Malcom Floyd, who was Rivers’ #1 receiver. He did only play in 10 games with injury, but he caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns in those ten games. In fact, in the last 2 years, he’s caught 114 passes for 1560 yards and 17 touchdowns in 23 games, insane numbers for a tight end. The problem is that he too is injury prone, missing 9 games himself in the last 2 years. The Chargers have an intriguing 4th round pick, Lardarius Green, waiting in the wings if/when Gates misses some time. He’s not much of a blocker at all, but he can contribute in the passing game. Randy McMichael still handles blocking duties.

Likewise, if/when Floyd misses time with injury, the Chargers have Vincent Brown to insert into the starting lineup. Brown was a 2011 3rd round pick who flashed some talent as a rookie, including a two game stretch where he started and caught 9 passes for 176 yards and a score. I actually like him the most of the Chargers’ wide receivers. If a Floyd injury doesn’t thrust him into the starting lineup, Meachem’s disappointing play could, though it’s unlikely the Chargers give up on a 25.9 million dollar investment this quickly. Either way, once Brown gets into the starting lineup, he has the talent to stay and I think he could have a breakout season.

The Chargers also have Eddie Royal, who will operate solely out of the slot. Royal caught 91 passes as a rookie in Denver in 2008, but he’s a very scheme specific player and never fit in Josh McDaniels’ or John Fox’s offensive system, catching just 105 passes combined in the last 3 seasons. He probably should have signed in Washington this offseason and reunited with Mike Shanahan or in Chicago and reunited with Jay Cutler, but the Chargers are reportedly very high on him. I still think he’ll be their #4 receiver and have a limited role out of the slot.

Rivers also loves throwing to his backs as Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert caught a combined 104 passes on a combined 138 targets last year. No quarterback threw to a back more than Rivers last season. Tolbert is gone, but Mathews is still here and ready to be an every down back. He could catch upwards of 60+ passes from Rivers, but it’s unclear which other back, if any, will take over Tolbert’s role as a receiver. Maybe that’s where slot receiver Eddie Royal will make his mark, catching a significant percentage of Rivers’ underneath throws.

Either way, I think Rivers can make do with what’s not a very good receiving corps. He’s done it before, most notably in 2010. In the 2nd half of the season in 2010, Rivers had a depleted receiving corps with Jackson, Floyd, and Gates all missing significant portions of that period of time. He was stuck throwing to bums like Legedu Naanee, Randy McMichael, and Seyi Ajirotutu instead. Rivers’ 2nd half stats in 2010: 67.7% completion, 8.8 YPA, and 15 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. I think he’ll be fine in 2012.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

A strong running game would also help Philip Rivers. Whether or not he has a strong running game supporting him this year is based almost entirely on Ryan Mathews’ ability to stay healthy and handle the load. Mathews is an incredibly talented back when healthy, averaging 4.7 YPC in his so far brief 2 year career, including 4.9 YPC last year. He’s also become a talented pass catcher who caught 50 passes this year. As I said in the receivers section, he could catch upwards of 60 passes this year given how much Rivers likes throwing to his backs. He’s a very talented player and there’s a reason he went 12th overall in 2010.

However, he’s dealt with injuries both in college and in the NFL and his senior year at Fresno State is the only season he’s ever not shared a load with another back. That year, he carried the ball 276 times. In 2007 at Fresno State, he carried the ball just 145 times and in 2008, he carried the ball 113 times. In 2010, with the Chargers, as a rookie, he carried the ball just 158 times and last year he carried it 222 times, splitting a workload with the now departed Mike Tolbert.

Mathews and Tolbert combined for 447 touches, 2469 yards from scrimmage, and 16 touchdowns last year. If Mathews stays healthy, he could approach 400 touches, exceed 2000 yards from scrimmage and score over 12 touchdowns. He’s more talented than Tolbert was and he’s got zero competition for carries. Ronnie Brown, who is completely washed up, and Jackie Battle, an aging career backup who was signed primarily for his abilities as a tackler on special teams, will compete to be the #2 back and spell him 3-5 times per game.

Norv Turner has always preferred single feature backs over running back committees, and if Mathews stays healthy, he could easily finish the season as the #1 fantasy football back, get some MVP votes, become known as one of the best running backs in the league, give Rivers an explosive compliment that he hasn’t had since LaDainian Tomlinson was in his prime, and end up on the cover of Madden ’14 (shortly after which he’ll tear his ACL, but whatever). He’s a budding superstar.

However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers are stuck with Ronnie Brown (31 years old in December, 3.2 YPC last year) and Jackie Battle (29 in October, 190 career carries, 3.8 career YPC) at running back and that’s fun for no one (especially not Rivers). I’m leaning towards the former, but it’s definitely worth noting that he’s no proven, sure thing and the Chargers didn’t really do a good job of giving themselves an insurance option.

Grade: A-

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Offensive Line

Unfortunately for Rivers, he is playing behind a very thin offensive line. Left guard Kris Dielman retired this offseason after suffering a seizure after a game last season. It was obviously the right move for him because long term health should always come before football. However, he was a very talented offensive lineman who will be missed. In his absence last year, Tyronne Green was awful, rating 61st out of 76 guards on ProFootballFocus despite only really playing half the season. He’ll compete with career journeyman Rex Hadnot for the starting job. Hadnot was a mediocre starter for the Cardinals last season.

Another offensive line mainstay is gone for the Chargers as they cut left tackle Marcus McNeill. McNeill was once one of the better left tackles in the league, but he won’t be missed as much. Injuries derailed his career and he played pretty poorly last season. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing. In his absence, Jared Gaither played incredibly well, making 5 starts and only surrendering 3 quarterback pressures, no sacks and no hits. He also committed 3 penalties.

Gaither has had an interesting career to say the least. A 5th round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft, Gaither developed into one of the better left tackles in the league in Baltimore, before injuries struck. Baltimore eventually cut him and he spent the beginning part of last season in Kansas City before being waived. He then signed in San Diego, who was so impressed by his 5 starts that they gave him a 4 year, 24.6 million dollar deal. That might seem like a lot to give someone after 5 games, but he’s still only 26 years old and if he can stay healthy, that deal will be a steal.

However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers don’t really have another option. Backup left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was absolutely awful last year, making 4 starts. He allowed 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 17 quarterback pressures, including 4 sacks, a hit, and 9 quarterback pressures in one game against Oakland. Somewhere, Kamerion Wimbley is still blowing past him and driving Philip Rivers into the dirt.

I don’t even know why this guy is still on the roster after that embarrassment, let alone the 2nd string left tackle. He should have been cut outright after that game. Rivers probably has nightmares about Gaither getting hurt and Dombrowski having to protect his blindside. Rookie undrafted free agent Mike Harris could challenge him for the backup job, but he’s only better by default.

Right tackle Jeromey Clary is not much better either. He’s been awful for years, but he’s Norv Turner’s boy toy, so he’ll continue to start. He was horrific last season, allowing 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 42 quarterback pressures, and committing 11 penalties, while struggling as a run blocker. He was ProFootballFocus’ 71st rated offensive tackle out of 73. Philip Rivers probably has sweet dreams about him getting hurt and someone else, anyone else having to play right tackle (except, you know, Brandyn Dombrowski).

Just like the Chargers didn’t find a suitable replacement for Dielman or find more reliable insurance for Gaither this offseason, the Chargers failed to upgrade Clary this offseason. AJ Smith has only used one pick higher than the 3rd round on the offensive line in his tenure in San Diego (since 2004) and that was a 2nd rounder on Marcus McNeill. It really shows.

The rest of the offensive line is pretty good, though. Louis Vazquez is one of the few times AJ Smith’s mid to late round offensive linemen panned out. The 2009 3rd round pick has become a solid starter at right guard for the Chargers. He pass protects well, but is a below average run blocker, part of the reason why the Chargers were ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked run blocking offensive line. Finishing out the offensive line is long time center Nick Hardwick, another player who is a good pass protector and a poor run blocker. Like Green, he was a mid round pick by Smith (2004 3rd round pick) who panned out.

Aside from Green and Hardwick, however, Smith’s strategy of ignoring the offensive line has not panned out. They have major weaknesses at left guard and right tackle and will have a huge weakness at the most important position, left tackle, if the injury prone Jared Gaither misses any time. If he doesn’t, however, his presence should lead to this being a better offensive line than it was last year, even with the loss of Dielman. Between Dombrowski and McNeill, the Chargers had terrible play from the left tackle position for the first 11 games of the season. It’s not a coincidence that this team played their best football when Gaither was the left tackle.

Last season, the Chargers’ offensive line ranked 19th in pass blocking efficiency, but a healthy Gaither really helps things there. Rivers also makes the offensive line look better than it is, taking a sack on just 16.0% of his pressured snaps last season, the 10th best rate among 35 eligible quarterbacks last season. That number is pretty consistent throughout his career (2008: 16.0%, 2009: 17.0%, 2010: 18.4%). There’s a reason he took just 30 sacks last season. In fact, that’s actually the 2nd most he’s ever taken in a season, behind the 38 he took in 2010. In 6 years as a starter, he’s taken a combined 167 sacks, impressive considering how much this team passes.

The biggest issue on the offensive line is how poorly they run block, but Ryan Mathews didn’t seem to mind last season when he rushed for 4.9 YPC. 3.2 YPC after contact (highest in the league last year of anyone with 200 carries or more) definitely helps. If Mathews stays healthy, he looks poised to have an amazing season. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers looks poised to bounce back and prove last year was just a fluke, despite a poor receiving corps and offensive line. If he does that, the Chargers should get back into the playoffs in the weaker AFC.

The Chargers averaged 25.4 points per game last season, their lowest total in the Philip Rivers era and only the 2nd time they averaged less than 27 points per game. In fact, from 2006-2010, the Chargers averaged 28.0 points per game. From 2006-2010, they ranked in the top-5 in points per game every single season. No other team can say that. In fact, only Indianapolis and Green Bay can say they did that 3 times over that stretch. Last year, they ranked tied for 5th, but only with 25.4 points per game, which would have ranked 6th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 9th in 2008, 8th in 2009, and 7th in 2010. This year, they should be back in that 27-28 point per game range and be a top-5 offense once again.

Grade: C+

Defense

The defense, however, could be a problem. Since 2006, the Chargers have ranked 7th, 5th, 15th, 11th, 10th, and 22nd in points per game allowed. A quick game of “find the outlier” lets us know that the Chargers, defensively, were not nearly as good last year as they had been in years past. From 2006-2010, they averaged 19.7 points per game allowed, while last year they averaged 23.6 points per game allowed, almost as many as they scored.

Their defense got old fast and they really missed Ron Rivera, their ex-defensive coordinator (2008-2010) who was hired as the Panthers Head Coach last offseason. Greg Manusky didn’t do a very good job in his first season on the job and was promptly fired this offseason and replaced with John Pagano, their long time linebackers coach and a former Rivera assistant.

With the exception of the bizarre 2010 season, every year the Chargers have ranked in the top-11 in scoring defense in the Philip Rivers era, they’ve made the playoffs, won the division, and won 11+ games. This makes sense considering how consistently good the offense has been. However, in the other two seasons, they have gone 8-8 both times and only made the playoffs in 2008 because the AFC West sucks. The offense should be improved, but the defense will need to get better too if they are going to go back to being an elite regular season team.

The Chargers clearly had improving their defense in mind when they drafted back in April as they used their first 3 picks on defensive players (Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor), even though it meant ignoring offensive needs such as offensive line, wide receiver, or running back. Given that Philip Rivers has been able to make do with thin supporting casts in the past, they were probably smart to focus on their 22nd ranked defense over their tied for 5th ranked offense in the draft. All three of those players, Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor, could have an impact immediately.

Defensive Line

Ingram, Reyes, and Taylor all fill needs at different levels of the defense. Ingram is a rush linebacker, while Taylor is a safety. On the defensive line, the new comer is Kendall Reyes. Reyes, a 2nd round pick, will play 3-4 defensive end for this team and represents the 2nd high pick the franchise has used on rebuilding the defensive line in as many drafts. In 2011, they used their first round selection on Corey Liuget, another defensive end.

Liuget didn’t play that well as a rotational player as a rookie. He was a decent pass rusher, with 1 sack, 1 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 208 pass rush snaps, good for a decent rate of 5.3%. However, he was used in more run stuffing snaps than pass rush snaps and really struggled in that aspect, ranking 29th out of 32 players at his position against the run. Still, a subpar rookie year hardly makes him a bust so he could easily have a breakout year this year. That would be a very welcome sight for the Chargers as they plan to give him a bigger role.

Reyes could start opposite Liuget if he beats out incumbent Vaughn Martin, who was thrust into the starting lineup in place of an injured Luis Castillo last year, despite being just a 5th round pick in 2009. He really played like it, struggling against the run and really struggling as a pass rusher, managing 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 319 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 2.5% rate. He ranked 31st at his position overall out of 32 players. Side note: one of my favorite quotes from the “can’t say anything mean” Jon Gruden during the 2011 season was when he said of Martin, something along the lines of “once he learns how to play, he’s going to be a great player.” Translation: you suck.

Martin will play more of a situational role this season, rather than leading the defensive line in snaps, with the addition of Reyes and with Liuget getting more playing time. The Chargers will also be having Antonio Garay play more defensive end. Garay was solely a nose tackle last year, but the Chargers would like him to move around the defensive line more this season.

Garay turned in another strong season in 2011, playing the 2nd most snaps of any player on their rotation heavily defensive line, and stopping the run and rushing the passer well. He was especially good as a pass rusher, especially for a nose tackle, with 3 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 263 pass rush snaps, good for a very impressive 11.0% rate.

He ranked 12th among defensive tackles as a pass rusher and could have ranked higher if he had played more snaps and maintained the same rate. His pass rush rate was 2nd at his position among players who played 25% or more of their team’s snaps and the only other true nose tackle in the top-10 was teammate Cam Thomas (10th).

He is, however, heading into his age 33 season, so that’s something to be aware of. Him playing more defensive end has allowed the Chargers to get rid of veterans Tommie Harris and Luis Castillo and possibly even veteran Jacques Cesaire. Harris played all right in limited action last year, but Castillo missed the entire year with injury and Cesaire has been mediocre for years.

The reason Garay is able to play more defensive end this year is twofold. For one, the Chargers signed Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin is two seasons removed from being the 49ers’ franchise player in 2010. In 2009, he was ProFootballFocus’ 15th rated defensive tackle and in 2010, he was their 13th rated defensive tackle, but he struggled as a situational player in New Orleans last year. He’s never been much of a pass rusher at all, but he can still stop the run pretty well.

He won’t really need to rush the passer much because of Garay and because of the 2nd reason why Garay can play defensive end more, Cam Thomas. Thomas, as I mentioned earlier, was the only other nose tackle in the top-10 in pass rush rate among defensive tackles. Thomas had 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 228 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 7.9%. He also stops the run well. He was a steal in the 5th round in 2010 by the Chargers and heading into his 3rd year in the league, he figures to have his biggest workload yet and could emerge as a breakout player.

The Chargers have done a pretty good job getting youth on what was once one of the better defensive lines in the league before age hit. Gone are Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo, and Igor Olshansky, but the next generation definitely looks promising. Cam Thomas is a budding star and Reyes and Liuget, while neither has played well in the NFL yet, were both high picks. With veterans like Garay and Franklin sprinkled in and Martin no longer having to lead the line in snaps played, this should be a decent group with upside in 2012.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chargers were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the league last year, managing just 32 sacks, tied for 23rd in the league. I already detailed their defensive line and that was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only problem. In fact, the only player who managed more than 4 sacks last season was Antwan Barnes, a situational pass rusher, who had 11. Like the defensive line, however, the Chargers’ linebackers should be better in 2012 than in 2011.

One major addition was Melvin Ingram, the 18th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He should be able to contribute right away as a situational pass rusher. Another “addition” is Shaun Phillips. Phillips has been one of the Chargers’ best pass rushers for years, but missed 4 games with injury last year. He played pretty well overall, ranking 9th at his position and stopping the run, rushing the passer, and even dropping into coverage well. On 271 pass rush snaps, he had 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures, for a rate of 10.7%.

He was on his way to an even better season before he got hurt. Through 6 games, he had 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits and 12 quarterback pressures, good for 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures in 16 games. His rating on ProFootballFocus through 6 games was 17.0. However, he then missed 4 games with a foot injury and wasn’t the same when he returned, finishing with just a 12.0 rating. In 2010, he had a solid 7.0 rating with 11 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures on 418 pass rush snaps, 9.6%. The only issue is that he’s heading into his age 31 season, but if he can stay healthy this year, he should once again be an above average pass rusher and all around linebacker.

The 3rd addition for the Chargers at linebacker was actually an addition, as they signed Jarret Johnson from Baltimore. Johnson played well in Baltimore’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense last year, as he has for years, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, including 2nd as a run stuffer. He also drops into coverage well. The issue for him is that he’s heading into his age 31 season and he doesn’t pass rush well.

He had just 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 222 pass rush snaps, good for a very mediocre 6.8% rate. In 9 seasons, he’s never had more than 6 sacks in a season and has 20 career sacks. He fit perfectly in Baltimore, but it’s unclear what his role will be in San Diego. Maybe he’ll play some middle linebacker, where he won’t be needed much as a pass rusher and can focus on just stuffing the run and dropping into coverage on occasion.

The 4th rush linebacker is Antwan Barnes, who, as I mentioned, let the team in sacks last year, with 11. He was the only member of the team with more than 4 sacks. Barnes was ProFootballFocus’ 8th rated 3-4 outside linebacker as a mere nickel rusher. He had 11 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures, good for an incredible 16.4% rate on 274 pass rush snaps. Among 3-4 outside linebackers who played more than 25% of their team’s snaps, Barnes ranked only behind Aldon Smith in that regard.

Barnes’ incredible season last year was completely unpredictable. A 2007 4th round pick, Barnes bounced around from Baltimore to Philadelphia to San Diego and had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons before last season, when he, of course, had 11. He’s only a situational player anyway and a one trick pony, but it’s definitely possible he regresses this season and proves to be a bit of a one year wonder. For that reason, it’s good that the Chargers brought in some reinforcements in Ingram and Johnson and that they’ll be getting Phillips back from injury.

It’s not entirely clear how the 4 will rotate, but the most logical way would be to have Johnson play on running downs, Ingram and Barnes split the passing downs snaps behind him and Ingram to occasionally spell Phillips, who still has the talent to be an every down linebacker, provided he stays healthy. Either way, they’ll get better production and pass rush from this position this year over last year when their top three guys were Phillips, who missed time with injury and was not the same when he returned, Barnes, and the mediocre Travis LaBoy, who remains unsigned as of this writing, heading into his age 31 season.

In the middle of their linebacking corps, the Chargers will start Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler once again. Spikes was a solid starter for them last year and an every down player, 2nd on the defense in snaps played. However, heading into his age 36 season, his play could drop off at any time. Butler, meanwhile, played incredibly well as a two down run stuffer last year. The 2010 3rd round pick ranked 16th both overall and against the run among middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.

He was spelled on passing downs by Na’il Diggs, who was terrible in coverage. He’s gone now and 2011 2nd round pick Jonas Mouton, who missed all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury, will take over Diggs’ role as the #3 middle linebacker. He should come in on passing downs like Diggs did and should be better than Diggs was.

It’s also possible that with Spikes aging and Butler heading into his 3rd season, that the two swap role and Butler plays every down, while Spikes leaves on passing downs, especially since pass coverage is not exactly a strength of his. As I mentioned, it would make sense if Jarret Johnson played some middle linebacker too, but I haven’t actually heard of any plans for them to do that.

Grade: B

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Secondary

The Chargers’ secondary might have been their worst group in 2011, allowing 7.9 YPA, which ranked 28th in the league. Of course, their poor pass rush didn’t help matters, and with presumably a better pass rush in 2012, they should be a little better. However, of their 4 starters in the secondary, 3 of them were pretty bad and the depth was not much better. They used a 3rd round pick on Brandon Taylor, but he was only a 3rd round pick and he’s only a rookie so I don’t know how much that helps.

Starting at cornerback, the Chargers will once again have Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Jammer was once a talented starting cornerback, but he’s heading into his age 33 season and he’s already started to show his age. Last season, he allowed 43 completions on 66 attempts (65.2%) for 684 yards (10.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. He ranked 92nd among 98 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus and allowed the worst QB rating (129.9) of any cornerback in the league who played more than 25% of his team’s snaps. He won’t be much better this year, if any better, because of his age.

The other starting cornerback, Antoine Cason, was better, if only by default. Cason allowed 45 completions on 85 attempts (52.9%) for 535 yards (6.3 YPA), which is good, but he also allowed 7 interceptions to 2 interceptions, while committing 7 penalties. The 27th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Cason did have 13 deflections and he was better in 2010, allowing 52 completions on 100 attempts (52.0%) for 687 yards (6.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing 7 penalties. If he can avoid allowing so many big plays in 2012, should be able to bounce back and be their #1 cornerback. However, even if that happens, his value would be minimized because opposing quarterbacks could just pick on a washed up Jammer opposite him.

The primary nickel cornerback last year was Dante Hughes. He allowed 31 completions on 46 attempts (67.4%) for 421 yards (9.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 3 penalties and committing 1 penalty. He’s gone and will be replaced by 2011 2nd round pick Marcus Gilchrist. Gilchrist did struggle in limited action last year, allowing 26 completions on 34 attempts (76.5%) for 401 yards (11.8 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting a pass and committing 3 penalties.

However, he was just a rookie and could bounce back in his 2nd season. Gilchrist could also push Jammer for the starting job, but he’s no sure thing either. The Chargers also have Shareece Wright, a 2011 3rd round pick, in the mix, but he played just 4 snaps as a rookie and is currently 4th on the depth chart so predicting any sort of positive impact from him this year is a major projection. He is worth mentioning, however.

At safety, 3rd round rookie Brandon Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby by the strong safety job. Bigby was once a solid starter in Green Bay, but his career was derailed by injuries. He spent the last 2 seasons as a backup in Seattle. He probably won’t play very well if he’s forced to start, so the Chargers are probably hoping that Taylor can overtake him in camp, but he’s just a 3rd round rookie, so it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of big positive impact from him.

The opposite safety, free safety Eric Weddle, is the one redeeming part of this secondary. Weddle is one of the best safeties in the league. He’s been a top-7 safety on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player who can say that. Last season, he ranked 4th, playing well both in coverage and against the run.

He allowed just 11 completions on 27 attempts (40.7%) for 110 yards (4.1 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 7 interceptions, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 1 penalty. The 25.8 QB rating he allowed was the best of any defensive back, not just last season, but in any of the last 4 seasons. The 7 interceptions might have been an outlier as the 2007 2nd round pick had just 6 interceptions in the previous 4 seasons combined, but he still makes a strong case for being the top safety in the NFL.

The Chargers had the 22nd ranked scoring defense last year. They should be better this year. Shaun Phillips, one of the better pass rushers in the league, should be healthy this year. Meanwhile, the Chargers have used all 7 of their 8 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 2 seasons and 8 of their 10 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 3 seasons on defensive players.

In 2010, they took Donald Butler in the 3rd. In 2011, they took Corey Liuget in the 1st, Jonas Mouton in the 2nd, Marcus Gilchrist in the 2nd, and Shareece Wright in the 3rd round. Last year, they took Melvin Ingram in the 1st, Kendall Reyes in the 2nd, and Brandon Taylor in the 3rd round. That will start to be noticeable this year.

The removal of Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator should also help, especially since they replaced him with a former Rivera assistant and a long tenured and well respected member of the defensive coaching staff, John Pagano. They might not be the top-11 defense they once were, but they’ll be improved. Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. I’ll get to the 3rd one in a little bit.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

When the Chargers sat at 4-7 last year, I wrote something along the lines of “the good news for the Chargers is that they have finally been able to bottom out, which means that Norv Turner can finally be fired, much like the Cowboys bottomed out in 2010, fired Wade Phillips, and instantly improved.” Yeah, so much for that. The Chargers won 4 of their last 5 games, which wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, but it apparently was enough to save Norv Turner’s job.

Turner doesn’t have a bad regular season record at all with the Chargers, going 49-31, but his teams always seem to underachieve in general and lose to lower seeds in the playoffs. He also has a career record of just 107-113, including his time in Washington and Oakland, and just 4 career playoff wins, but he has a much more talented bunch in San Diego with Philip Rivers.

Grade: C

Overall

Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. The 3rd reason is that the Chargers didn’t exceed their Pythagorean Expectation last year. Behind the Eagles, no non-playoff team had a better Pythagorean Expectation than the Chargers’ 8.7 win expectation. That was 12th in the league and 5th in the AFC. They played like a playoff team last year. They just didn’t make the playoffs.

Now, I said the same thing about the Chargers last season and I ended up being wrong by predicting them in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean the logic was wrong. Nothing is a perfect 100% predictor, so I’m sticking with it this year. It’s possible that some Norv Turner idiocy was behind the team failing to meet their Pythagorean Expectation twice in a row. However, Norv Turner does have a good regular season record with the Chargers so that’s not going to scare me off of putting them in the playoffs (once they get there, well, that’s a different story).

I think the Broncos are overrated right now, which I’ll get into in their preview coming up next, so I have the Chargers taking the AFC West. The Chargers have one of the easiest divisional schedules and should be able to go 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Atlanta, Tennessee, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Carolina. The latter 3 of those games are after week 12 and this team is unbeatable at home after week 12. Philip Rivers is a whopping 13-2 at home during weeks 12-17. Meanwhile, of their other two home games, one is against Atlanta, not a very good road team. They should go 4-1 in those games.

They also go to New Orleans, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and New York to play the Jets. New Orleans early in the season looks pretty unwinnable, but the rest are after their week 7 bye and, other than Pittsburgh, none are that tough. 2-3 at least is possible there. I have them at 10 or 11 wins or so and I’m giving them the division. They could start the season 2-4 or 3-3 (@ Oakland, vs. Tennessee, vs. Atlanta, @ Kansas City, @ New Orleans, vs. Denver) before their week 7 bye, but after that, they’ll get their act together.

Projection: 10-6 1st in AFC West

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