2013 NFL Prop Bets

Kansas City Chiefs to make the playoffs +250

I didn’t really see any value with over 7.5 (-175) on the Chiefs, but I thought it was a little strange their odds to make the playoffs were this high. The odds makers seen fairly certain they’ll win 7 and probably 8 games, but the AFC sucks. 9 wins can get you into the playoffs. The Chiefs have legitimate talent around the quarterback and the Alex Smith/Andy Reid combination should stabilize their Head Coaching situation, their quarterback situation, and their league worst turnover margin. Add in a last place schedule in arguably the easiest division in football in by far the easier of the two conferences and I think this is a playoff team. One team goes from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs every year.

12/30/13: The Chiefs rode one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and a turnover margin that not only stabilized, but went all the way up to +18, one of the best in the NFL. They won 11 games and got the AFC’s 5th seed.

Minnesota Vikings under 7 wins -125

One team also does the opposite and I think the Vikings are the team to do it this year. They weren’t actually far from being one of the 3 worst teams in the NFC last year according to DVOA. DVOA had them as the 9th best team in the NFC, making the playoffs because of a 5-1 record in close games, and there wasn’t much distance between them and the 14th ranked team in the NFC. Give them a tougher schedule, an even more improved conference, more injuries (2nd fewest in the league last year), and a more human season from Adrian Peterson and I think they’re below than 5 wins threshold. This bet gives me 2 games of buffer.

12/30/13: The Vikings did go from in the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer. Adrian Peterson had a very good year, but he didn’t come close to setting any records and the rotating carousel of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman at quarterback couldn’t find stability. Their aging defense saw more injuries and was one of the worst in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers to win NFC South +350, to make playoffs +220, and over 7.5 wins -140

There’s also a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye every year. I think that’s the Panthers, who finished last year 6-3 with wins over Washington, Atlanta, and in New Orleans. Their defense surrendered just 21.2 points per game in the final 12 games of last season, after they moved Luke Kuechly to middle linebacker, despite playing 8 top-16 scoring offenses in that stretch. Now they add Star Lotulelei, Kawaan Short, and return Jon Beason. Offensively, they scored 26.0 points per game in the final 8 games of the season as Cam Newton shook off his early season sophomore slump. That’s no fluke as they scored 25.4 points per game in 2011. Going into his 3rd year in the league, I expect the best season of his career from Newton. They could possibly have a top-10 offense and defense.

12/30/13: Had this one perfectly, as the Panthers went 12-4, won the NFC South, and got the 2nd seed in the NFC, as I projected them to before the season. After Cam Newton started 2-12 in his career in games decided by a touchdown or less, he went 5-2 in such games this year. In the beginning of his career, he “didn’t know how to win.” Now he “wills his team to victory.” It’s an insufferable narrative 180. Defensively, Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy were among the best in the NFL at their positions, Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short had strong rookie years, and Thomas Davis’ return (not Jon Beason’s) helped their linebacking corps tremendously. Their makeshift secondary also held up very well, thanks to the performances of Melvin White, Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Mike Mitchell, and Quintin Mikell, on one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens to make playoffs +130, over 8.5 wins -125

Their demise has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, they didn’t look good week 1, but I don’t think there were many teams that could beat Peyton Manning when he was playing like that. It’s important not to over-react, which naturally everyone is doing with the 3 day layover. For that reason, I wish I made these bets after week 1, but I still like both of these bets.

12/30/13: Came close on the 8.5 win one, but lost both of these. The defense actually ended up being much better than I thought, shaking off that 49 point performance week 1 (not the first time Manning would torch a defense), but the offense was close to the worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco’s regressed big time statistically, but it wasn’t all his fault. Torrey Smith was their only receiver to provide Flacco with a consistent target, Ray Rice struggled mightily through a hip injury, and the offensive line fell apart as Michael Oher flopped in his contract year, Kelechi Osemele got hurt, and first time starter Gino Gradkowski was horrible.

Atlanta Falcons to miss playoffs +160

A lot of good teams for not a lot of playoff spots in the NFC. One team always goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs and the Falcons are by far the most likely to do so this season. 10 wins might not be enough for a playoff spot in the NFC. The average 13 win team wins 9.5 games the following season and, in 2012, the Falcons benefitted from a 7-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, an unsustainably high fumble recovery rate and turnover margin, and a schedule that featured just 2 eventual playoff teams. They also return just 2 starters in their original spot on an offensive line whose biggest strength is continuity and they lost their top pass rusher John Abraham.

12/30/13: They did this and then some, finishing 4-12. Two things that had been historically friendly to the Falcons in the Mike Smith era, close games and turnovers, did not go in their favor this season and they also had a ton of injuries, particularly on an aging defense that saw veterans Asante Samuel and Osi Umenyiora both get benched by the end of the season.

New England Patriots over 11 wins +130

The AFC East should give them 5 wins at the very least. They’d only need to go 6-4 in their only 10 games to at least push this bet and I think they have a much better chance at 12 wins than 10. A lot has been made about what they’ve lost in the receiving corps, but before 2007, they had 5 different leading receivers in 7 years and only Moss, who came over from a 4th round pick, ever did anything before or after leaving New England. Aaron Hernandez is also gone, but Brady somehow played better without him last season, which just solidifies my point that receivers don’t really matter to him. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league and they’ll still be able to run the ball. Defensively, their young squad played well to end last season and may have finally matured.

12/30/13: This wasn’t as automatic as I thought, but the Patriots pulled out their 8th 12 win season in the past 13 seasons, a remarkable feat. They had a lot of luck in close games, but lucky is not a good way to describe the 2013 Patriots given how many injuries they suffered.

Oakland Raiders under 5 wins -165

I hate taking publicly bet sides and paying huge juice, but the Raiders are terrible. They’re going to have a hard time winning the 4 games they won last year, let alone winning the 6 that would lose this bet for me. They have 50+ million in dead money on their cap and of their top-10 cap numbers, 6 are dead money guys, 1 is a kicker, and one is a backup quarterback. They lost arguably their top best defensive players in Philip Wheeler and Desmond Bryant, as well as starting defensive back Michael Huff, and leading receiver Brandon Myers, while top offensive player, left tackle Jared Veldheer, is expected to miss 10-12 games with a torn triceps.

12/30/13: This was another one I had to sweat out as the scrappy Raiders started 4-5, but they eventually fell back down to earth and lost their final 7 games.

Indianapolis Colts under 8.5 wins -110

They won just 2 came by more than double digits last season and beat just 3 teams that finished with 8 or more wins. If they want to come close to 11 wins again, they’ll have to play much, much better than they did last season. A few solid off-season additions and a 2nd year Andrew Luck could do that, but this number is high enough that I’m comfortable making this play.

12/30/13: This is the other one I missed on. There were times that the Colts looked like their 2012 selves, barely beating Oakland, Houston (once), Tennessee (twice), losing to Miami and St. Louis, getting blown out by Cincinnati and Arizona, but they also beat Denver, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Seattle, blew out Jacksonville (twice), and Houston (once). They were probably the most unpredictable team in the NFL this season and they probably, overall, weren’t as good as their 11-5 record as they were helped out by a good record in close games again, but they were noticeably better than 2012 and could be very dangerous in the post-season if they get hot. Overall, I’m fine with going 8-3 on these 11 prop bets, especially since a lot of them had strong juices.

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2013 NFL Awards

MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)

Rodgers was my highest ranked quarterback in my top-200 and in my fantasy projections and the top quarterback usually wins this award as long as his team makes the playoffs. In his last 45 games, including the playoffs, Rodgers has thrown for 114 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, and 12738 yards. Over 16 games, that’s 41 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 4529 yards. He’s also rushed for 1395 yards and 18 touchdowns in 5 years. There’s some concern with his offensive line, but he was sacked 51 times last season and still produced.

Defensive Player of the Year: DE JJ Watt (Houston)

I hate picking someone to win the Defensive Player of the Year to back-to-back years since the only one who has ever done it is Lawrence Taylor, and that was in a strike shortened season. However, Watt is coming off arguably the greatest season by a defensive lineman in NFL history, given how many sacks he had from his position, the number of swats he had, and how well he played the run to boot, and he’s only 24 years old. He could be 80% of what he was last year and win the award 9 times out of 10. His strongest competition, Von Miller, has been knocked for with a 6 game suspension. Geno Atkins could give him a run if he repeats what he did last season, but I don’t think it’s any more likely that Atkins repeats what he did last year than Watt doing so. Luke Kuechly could have the numbers for this award so he’s a darkhorse.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Eddie Lacy (Green Bay)

I don’t believe in any of the rookie quarterbacks. Rookie wide receivers never do anything. Tight ends and offensive linemen never win this award. That leaves running back and Lacy is in the best opportunity to produce of any of the rookie running backs. He’s the only one who is a clear lead back and he’ll have plenty of running room and scoring opportunities on Green Bay’s offense.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: DT Star Lotulelei (Carolina)

This is shaping up to be a weak class for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Linebackers win this more often than not, but the only linebacker drafted in the first round who will be a week 1 starter is Alec Ogletree, who I have consideration to. Of the top-12 picks, only 5 were defensive players. 3 are raw defensive ends, while 2 are cornerbacks, who usually take a year to adjust to the NFL. Lotulelei was 14th, taken one spot behind Sheldon Richardson, but I think Lotulelei will be the better pro. He’ll be a key cog on an upstart Carolina front 7. His strong pre-season only supports my case.

Coach of the Year: HC Andy Reid (Kansas City)

He might not deserve it, but if the Chiefs make the kind of turnaround I’m expecting from them, Reid will probably win this award. He and Alex Smith aren’t great, but they’re light years better than the Romeo Crennel/Brady Quinn combination the Chiefs had last season.

Comeback Player of the Year: CB Darrelle Revis (Tampa Bay)

I gave consideration to Lardarius Webb, another shutdown cornerback coming off a torn ACL, and he certainly had a great performance week 1 against the Broncos, but when Revis is healthy, he’s the better cornerback.

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2013 NFL Playoff Predictions

Remember, as always, if I didn’t pick your team to make the playoffs, it’s because I am biased and/or have a personal vendetta against them. Or just click the link for an explanation.

AFC East

New England 12-4

Miami 8-8

Buffalo 6-10

NY Jets 4-12

AFC North

Baltimore 11-5

Pittsburgh 10-6

Cincinnati 9-7

Cleveland 5-11

AFC South

Houston 10-6

Indianapolis 6-10

Tennessee 5-11

Jacksonville 1-15

AFC West

Denver 11-5

Kansas City 10-6

San Diego 5-11

Oakland 1-15

NFC East

Dallas 11-5

NY Giants 9-7

Washington 8-8

Philadelphia 7-9

NFC North

Green Bay 12-4

Detroit 10-6

Chicago 9-7

Minnesota 5-11

NFC South

Carolina 12-4

New Orleans 10-6

Atlanta 8-8

Tampa Bay 6-10

NFC West

San Francisco 12-4

Seattle 11-5

St. Louis 6-10

Arizona 6-10

AFC Wild Card

#6 Kansas City at #3 Baltimore 13-23

Kansas City makes it into the playoffs with a good running game, good defense, decent quarterback, easy schedule model. Those teams never do much upon arrival. Like they couldn’t 3 years ago, I don’t expect the Chiefs to beat the Ravens, especially since they have to go to Baltimore this time.

#5 Pittsburgh at #4 Houston 20-23

Pittsburgh might be the better team, but they haven’t been a good road team over the past few years.

NFC Wild Card

#6 New Orleans at #3 San Francisco 24-31

Just like two years ago, the 49ers take down the Saints (who have never won a road playoff game in their history). The difference is no one is surprised this time around.

#5 Seattle at #4 Dallas 16-19

Seattle trailed 14-0 in Washington last season before Robert Griffin got hurt. Unless Romo gets hurt, Dallas could finish the job here. Seattle just isn’t the same team away from home.

AFC Divisional

#4 Houston at #1 New England 23-38

Different year, same result as the Patriots win a home game over an inferior opponent.

#3 Baltimore at #2 Denver 31-34

Different year, different result. I could see the Ravens winning this one again, but I’m giving the Ravens the week 1 victory. I’ll give this one to Denver.

NFC Divisional

#4 Dallas at #1 Green Bay 17-34

I don’t think anyone is going to disagree with a Green Bay win here.

#3 San Francisco at #2 Carolina 27-17

If Carolina is as good as I think they’ll be, this is going to be an interesting game, but I’ll take the experienced team.

AFC Championship

#2 Denver at #1 New England 27-31

Brady has a very strong record against Manning in his career and this game is at home for the Patriots.

NFC Championship

#3 San Francisco at #1 Green Bay 20-27

This kind of reminds me of Baltimore/New England last season. I expect Green Bay to get revenge week 1 against the 49ers for a game they have spent all off-season stewing on and then I expect the same result in the Conference Championship. It’s been over 40 years since a Super Bowl runner up has won the Super Bowl the following year and almost 20 years since one has even been back to the Super Bowl. At some point, like the Patriots before them, they’re going to get tired.

Super Bowl

#1 New England vs. #1 Green Bay 27-34

The NFC is the vastly superior conference. They went 37-26 against the AFC last year and, though the AFC won the one that counted (the Super Bowl), that’s still just one game. The Patriots could do the same thing here as the Ravens, but I’m taking the NFC representative and giving Rodgers and company their 2nd ring in 4 seasons.

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Green Bay Packers 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

In 2011, the Packers had one of the best seasons in NFL history. They scored the 2nd most points in a season in NFL history and went 15-1, just the 6th team to win 15 or more regular season games since the NFL moved to a 16 game schedule in 1978. However, it was highly unlikely they’d do it again. It’s very tough to maintain that level of greatness with anything in football. For example, the previous 5 teams to win 15 or more games won an average of 11.2 the following season. Not bad at all, but only the 1986 Bears were even close to what they were the previous season (14-2, giving them the most wins by a team in a 2 year stretch).

The Packers also had a ridiculous turnover margin, going +24 in turnovers. That type of thing is really unsustainable. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Sure enough, the Packers regressed both in turnover margin and win total in 2012, winning 11 games and posting a +7 turnover margin. However, now going into 2013, there’s reason to believe they can improve on last year’s record (aside from the obvious they should have won in Seattle week 2 reason). The first is actually turnovers. The Packers should be better in that aspect next season as they produced that +7 turnover margin despite recovering just 42.5% of fumbles that hit the ground during their games. They were +10 in interceptions, but -3 in fumbles. They could be at +10 or better in turnovers in 2013.

The reason they’re somewhat of an exception to the turnover rule is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the lowest interception rate in NFL history among quarterbacks who have thrown as many pass attempts as he has, throwing one on 1.7% of his attempts (if you exclude his first year a starter it’s even better at 1.3%). That’s not a fluke and obviously having a quarterback like that under center is going to allow you to consistently win the turnover battle. Don’t expect them to be at +24 again. That just isn’t a reasonable expectation. However, they do have 2nd the best turnover margin in the NFL over the past 6 seasons (+12.7), behind only New England (15.5). No other team is better than +6.5 (Atlanta).

The 2nd reason why they should be even better in 2013 is that they should have fewer injuries. I know it sounds ridiculous saying that with Bryan Bulaga out for the season (more on him in the offensive line section), but they were dead last in adjusted games lost last season, losing the equivalent of close to 4 key players for the close season more than the average team. Bulaga’s injury hurts and they might not be even a league average team in injuries next season, but they won’t be as awful. This still looks like one of the best teams in the NFL.

Quarterback

In his last 45 games, including playoffs, Aaron Rodgers has completed 1026 of 1510 (67.9%) for 12738 yards (8.4 YPA), 122 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 901 yards and 8 touchdowns on 175 carries in those games. He’s gone 35-10 in those 45 games, winning an MVP and a Super Bowl in the process. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL and will continue to keep this team in Super Bowl contention.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the Packers fell from the 2nd best scoring offense in NFL history in 2011 to the 5th best scoring offense in the NFL in 2012 (scoring 7.9 fewer points per game in the process) was that Rodgers took 51 sacks (most in the NFL), taking a sack on 8.0% of his drop backs, as opposed to 2011, when he took 36 sacks, taking a sack on 6.2% of his drop backs. However, the Packers’ offensive line didn’t really play that much worse in 2012 than it did in 2011.

In 2011, Rodgers was pressured on 27.4% of his drop backs and, in 2012, he was pressured on 29.9% of his drop backs. However, Rodgers took a sack on just 22.6% of those pressured drop backs in 2011, but was 4th worst in the NFL taking a sack on 26.2% of pressured drop backs in 2012. Rodgers has never been great at feeling the pressure and avoiding sacks, especially in comparison to guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady. It’s his weakness as a quarterback, but if he can bounce back in that aspect in 2013, he’ll take fewer sacks. He was as much to blame in 2012 as his offensive line, maybe even more so.

In 2012, the Packers ranked 13th in pass block efficiency and actually graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked pass blocking offensive line. This was largely the same as it was in 2011, when they graded out 8th on ProFootballFocus and ranked 10th in pass block efficiency. Their weakness has always been run blocking, as they graded out 20th in that aspect in 2011 and 29th in 2012. Unfortunately, this year’s offensive line probably won’t be much better than it has been in the past few years.

The big loss was Bryan Bulaga, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. It’s not a huge loss, as Bulaga missed 8 games with injury last season anyway and he actually graded out below average, but it’s still a big loss because of what he could have been in 2013. Bulaga was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, so there was a good chance for a bounce back year had he stayed healthy. The Packers were also moving him to the left side to have their best tackle protecting Rodgers’ blindside. That would have allowed Marshall Newhouse to move to right tackle. Newhouse was horrific in his first season as a starter in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked tackle, and, while he was better in his 2nd season as a starter in 2012, he still graded out below average and belonged on the right side.

With Bulaga out, it’s unclear if that’s still the plan. The Packers are giving David Bakhtiari the first crack at the blindside job, with Newhouse at right tackle, but it’s unclear if that will remain the case week 1. Bakhtiari is a mere 4th round rookie. Don Barclay could also be in the mix for a starting job, but he struggled mightily in 4 starts at right tackle in Bulaga’s absence down the stretch in 2012, as a rookie undrafted free agent. Derek Sherrod could also be in the mix. The 2011 1st round pick has been limited to 115 snaps in 2 seasons because of a broken leg suffered in December of 2011. He still hasn’t healed completely, so it’s uncertain if he’ll ever be the same again. He’s yet to be cleared for practice, but the Packers are holding out hope that he can give them a contribution this season at some point at a position of need.

Things are better on the inside of the offensive line. Evan Dietrich-Smith takes over at center for Jeff Saturday, who was a shadow of his former self last season and has since retired. Dietrich-Smith graded out above average in 6 starts on the interior of the offensive line last season, including 2 in place of a benched Saturday at center (the other 4 were at left guard). We’ll see if he can keep that kind of play up for an entire season.

At guard, TJ Lang graded out below average overall last season, but only because he struggled mightily in 4 starts at right tackle, where he was so bad they had to move him back to guard. He graded out above average as a guard, however, as he did in 2011, his first season as a starter, when he actually graded out a ProFootballFocus’ 21st ranked guard. Expected to stay full-time at guard in 2013, he should once again be a solid starter.

Opposite him, Josh Sitton is one of the best guards in the NFL. Since taking over as a starter in 2009, Sitton has graded out as a top-8 guard on ProFootballFocus in all 4 seasons, the only guard who has shown that kind of consistency. The one concern at guard is that the Packers flipped their guards this off-season, moving Lang from left to right guard and Sitton from right to left. On paper, this move makes sense because Sitton is the superior pass protector and they need his help on the more important left side, but there’s a chance they may not be able to adjust their technique. It’s a risk considering they’re established guards. Still, guard is the strength of an otherwise iffy offensive line, though they should allow fewer sacks if Rodgers can do a better job of avoiding them.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The other weakness on the Packers’ offense in 2012 was their lack of a running game. Part of this was their inability to run block, but they really lacked talent at the position. The Packers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, 22nd in the NFL, and even that number doesn’t tell the whole story as that counts Rodgers’ 54 scrambles for 259 yards (4.8 yards per carry). 3 different backs, Alex Green, Cedric Benson, and James Starks had 70 or more carries and none of the 3 averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry. DuJuan Harris was a bit of a revelation for them as the starter down the stretch, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, but that was on just 34 carries and, in 2 starts in the post-season, he rushed for just 100 yards on 28 carries, just 3.6 yards per carry.

In order to fix the problem, the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the 2nd round and Johnathan Franklin in the 4th round. Franklin has struggled in Training Camp and has not proven to be the capable passing down complement for Lacy they were expecting, falling back into the pack of Alex Green, DuJuan Harris, and James Starks (who won’t all make the final roster). Lacy, however, has impressed and seems to have a firm grip on the lead back job. He’s arguably the most talented runner they’ve had since Ryan Grant and could be even better than him long term. It’s tough to count on rookies, but there will be plenty of running room with defenses forced to respect the deep ball. They should be a better running team in 2013 than they were in 2012.

Grade: C+

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Packers lost Greg Jennings this off-season, but in the past 2 seasons, he’s missed 11 games with injury and was limited to 103 catches for 1315 yards and 13 touchdowns total. The Packers were counting on a bounce back season from Jordy Nelson to make up for it. Jordy Nelson caught 68 passes for 1263 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 and was off to an equally good season in 2012. Nelson caught 40 passes for 532 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in the first 7 games of last season. That’s 91 catches for 1216 yards and 11 touchdowns over 16 games.

However, a hamstring problem cost him 4 games and limited him in others. There was definitely bounce back potential, but he recently needed knee surgery and, however minor it was, it’s never what you want to hear. His status for week 1 is now up in the air. I still expect a bounce back year somewhat, but it hurts his stock. Fortunately, the Packers have other good receivers.

Randall Cobb and James Jones play in 3-wide receiver sets with Nelson. Cobb was the better of the two. Not only did he produce more, catching 80 passes for 954 yards, as opposed to 64 catches for 784 for Jones, he also did it on fewer snaps. Cobb, working as the #3 wide receiver and slot specialist, played just 422 pass snaps, as opposed to 610 for Jones. As a result, Cobb was 11th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers averaging 2.26 yards per route run, while Jones was actually 66th out of 81 eligible, averaging just 1.29 yards per route run.

Jones was better in QB rating when thrown to, but only because he caught a ridiculous 14 touchdowns on his 64 catches, a rate that is impossible for anyone to sustain.  Cobb was still no slouch in this aspect, ranking 11th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to, catching those 80 passes on 102 targets (78.4%) with 8 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. Jones “only” caught 64 of 93 targets (68.8%) but ranked 6th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to on the strength of 14 touchdowns to 2 interceptions.

Cobb also graded out 11th among wide receivers on ProFootballFocus. He should see a bigger role this season, in his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for receivers, and he has a very good chance to go over 1000 yards receiving. He also contributes a little bit as a runner, rushing for 132 yards on 10 touches. The 2011 2nd round pick might be a healthier Percy Harvin. His one flaw at this point in his career is drops, as he dropped 11 passes last season, which was half of the incompletions Rodgers threw to him. He could emerge as an elite wide receiver if he cuts down on the drops and becomes more consistent on the outside.

Jones, meanwhile, is pretty much an average starting wide receiver that Rodgers makes look better. The one issue the Packers have at wide receiver is depth. Jarrett Boykin, a 2012 undrafted free agent who caught 5 passes for 27 yards on 96 snaps (55 pass snaps) as a rookie, is the #4 receiver. That’s an issue considering how much the Packers love using 3-wide receiver sets and considering Nelson’s injury status.

The other weapon Rodgers has to work with is Jermichael Finley. The athletic tight end closed last season very well, catching 26 catches for 279 yards in the final 5 games of the season, but we’ve seen in the past he’s capable of being dominant for a short stretch of time. What we haven’t seen is him maintain that level of play over a full season, as his 2011 season, in which he caught 55 passes for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns, remains his best season in 5 years in the league. I don’t expect anything different from him as a pass catcher in 2013 and he’s a poor run blocker.

Like wide receiver, the issue at tight end is depth. Tom Crabtree left as a free agent and it’ll either be Andrew Quarless or DJ Williams as the #2 tight end. Quarless graded out alright on 593 snaps in 2010-2011, his first 2 years in the league after being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, but he missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Williams, meanwhile, was a 2011 5th round pick and has graded out alright on just 348 career snaps.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Packers spent their 1st round pick on Datone Jones and they’ll be counting on him to add some much needed pass rush from their 3-man defensive line, as the Packers ranked 28th in pass rush grade on ProFootballFocus last season. Jones is part of why they should be better rushing the passer in 2013. The rookie will start opposite BJ Raji. Raji struggled mightily in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ dead last ranked defensive tackle. However, they started playing him more at 5-techique defensive end in base packages in 2012 (while keeping him as a defensive tackle in sub packages) and overall cut the big man’s snaps, down from 885 to 658.

It seemed to do the trick. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012, grading out above average both rushing the passer and stopping the run. He didn’t have a sack, but he had 1 hit and 22 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps, a solid 6.3% rate. He’s now graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons as a starter. He should continue to be an above average starter in 2013, but he’ll remain on a snap count.

Mike Daniels, Mike Neal, and CJ Wilson are the reserves at 5-technique. Neal graded out above average on 266 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher, while Wilson graded out above average on 280 snaps, excelling as a run stopper. Daniels didn’t really excel as anything on 231 snaps, grading out slightly below average overall, but the 2012 4th round pick seems to have leaped Neal on the depth chart. He’ll be a situational pass rusher, while Neal is on the roster bubble. Jerel Worthy was a starter at 5-technique last season as a 2nd round rookie, but he struggled mightily, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst 3-4 defensive end. He also tore his ACL in January and might not play at all this season. If he does, it’ll be as a situational player.

At nose tackle, Ryan Pickett will start. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but, as a nose tackle, that’s not his job description. He graded out above average overall and excelled as a run stuffer. He’ll come off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back and, because of how often the Packers use sub packages, he might not be a true starter this season. Overall, it’s an improved defensive line.

Grade: B

Linebackers

One of the other reasons why the Packers should be a better pass rush team in 2013 is that they should have better health at the rush linebacker position. As I mentioned, the Packers were killed by injuries in 2012 and rush linebacker might have been hit the worst of any position. Everyone knows about Clay Matthews. He missed 4 games with injury last season, but still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He excelled as a pass rusher, with 14 sacks, 11 hits, and 24 hurries on 382 pass rush snaps, a 12.8% pass rush rate, but he also played the run well. He’s been a top-6 rush linebacker on ProFootballFocus in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2009. Having him around for a full season will help their pass rush.

The same can be about Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick. He went down with a season ending wrist injury week 6, after just 211 snaps, but he graded out above average on those snaps. He could be a solid starter in his 2nd year in the league. Either way, he’ll undoubtedly be better than Erik Walden, who played in his absence last season. He’s graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked rush linebacker in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s the reason they drafted Perry.

He’s gone so Packer fans don’t have to worry about him seeing the field anymore, even if someone were to get hurt. It’s the definition of addition by subtraction. Depth is still a concern as Nate Palmer is a 6th round rookie and Andy Mulumba is an undrafted rookie. Dezman Moses is the only veteran and he struggled mightily as an undrafted rookie last year. Still, it’s a better situation than last year.

The Packers also had injuries at middle linebacker, losing Desmond Bishop for the season at middle linebacker after the season started. However, Brad Jones played so well in his absence (after original replacement DJ Smith also went down for the season) that Bishop was cut this off-season. In just 10 starts, Jones finished the season as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker. He could be even better in his first full season as a starter in 2013. He’ll start next to AJ Hawk, a mediocre linebacker who seems to have 9 lives with the Packers, taking another pay cut to remain with the team this off-season. He comes off the field in dime packages for a 6th defensive back, which the Packers used more than any other team in the NFL last season (33% of snaps).

Grade: B+

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Secondary

The Packers frequently play 5 and 6 defensive backs at once for two reasons. One, they frequently play with a lead, putting the opponent in pass mode. Two, they have a bunch of talented defensive backs. Their cornerback trio of Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward is among the best in the NFL. Tramon Williams started all 16 games at cornerback last season, but he was the worst of the trio last season, grading out just about average. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2009 and 8th ranked in 2010, but he hasn’t been the same since suffering nerve damage in his shoulder early in the 2011 season. He says his shoulder is finally healed, but he’s been sidelined with a knee injury all pre-season and he shouldn’t feel secure as a starter.

Sam Shields was the other starter last year, but, like so many players on the Packers last season, he missed significant time with injury, missing 6 games. He played really well when we he was on the field last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked cornerback, 8th in coverage grade, despite missing 6 games. He allowed just 21 catches on 44 attempts for 355 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 5 penalties. It was his first season as a starter, in his 3rd year in the league, but he played alright overall as a reserve in 2010 and 2011 so he should remain an above average starter should he keep his starting job in 2013. Having him healthy for all or most of the season will be a big boost for this secondary.

Casey Hayward is the 3rd cornerback. As a 2nd round rookie in 2012, he was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck and overall graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked cornerback (2nd in coverage grade)

Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.

As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.

It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and was my choice for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He looks like a budding star. He’ll play the slot regardless of whether or not he wins a starting job outside, but I don’t see how you can keep him out of the starting lineup, even though Shields and Williams are both fine players.

At safety, Morgan Burnett remains. He’s graded out above average in 2 years as a starter and the 2010 3rd round pick was rewarded with a deserving 4 year, 24.75 million dollar extension this off-season, going into his contract year. Opposite him, Charles Woodson is gone, but he missed 9 games last year anyway. He’ll probably be replaced by MD Jennings, who graded out about average as a starter in Woodson’s absence last season, but he could be pushed by Jerron McMillian.

McMillian also graded out about average last season, doing so on 609 snaps, as a depth defensive back. He’ll be the dime back if he doesn’t beat Jennings out for the starting job. It’s a deep, versatile, and talented defensive backfield. They were 8th in the NFL, allowing 6.7 YPA last season and they should be even better this season if the front 7 gets more pass rush, which it should.

Grade: A

Head Coach

He’s not mentioned with the game’s elite coaches, but he should be. Mike McCarthy has a 74-38 career record and a Super Bowl ring and has been the architect and what’s become the league’s premier passing offense, serving as their play caller, in addition to Head Coach. McCarthy is one of the best offensive minds in the game.

Grade: A-

Overall

The Packers remain one of the best teams in the NFL and should be one of the favorites for the Lombardi once again. They play in arguably the toughest division in football and Detroit and Chicago are both capable of beating them (though probably not in Green Bay), but they should sweep the season series against Minnesota. They could go 5-1 in the division, 4-2 at worst.

Outside of the division, they host Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh. They could easily win all 5 of those games. Cleveland and Philadelphia aren’t very good. Atlanta and Pittsburgh aren’t very good on the road and they should be heavily favored against the Redskins as well. I’ll give them 5-0 in those games and 4-2 in the division to even it out. On the road, they go to San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York (Giants), and Dallas. That’s a rough stretch, but none of those games are unwinnable. I have them finishing with 12 wins, which is the most I have anyone finishing with. Along with New England and San Francisco, they’re one of the best teams in the NFL.

Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC North

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Chicago Bears 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Bears had the best point differential of any team that missed the playoffs last season, outscoring opponents by 98 points. Only 5 teams had better point differentials than that and that list does not include division winner Green Bay. They scored 23.4 points per game (16th) and allowed 17.3 points per game (3rd), good for a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.8 wins that ranked 6th in the NFL. Ordinarily, that’s a good sign for a team’s future prospects, but there are reasons to believe the Bears won’t match those figures again in 2013.

For one, they scored an absurd 70 points off of returns, as opposed to 21 points allowed off of returns. If that zeroes out, that only would cut their differential in half and I have reason to believe that it will even out. The Bears returned an absurd 10 of 44 takeaways for touchdowns last season, a ridiculous 22.7% clip. Ordinarily, teams who force that many takeaways can be expected to return 3 for a touchdown, as whether or not you score a touchdown off a takeaway depends much more on where the takeaway occurs than skill.

On top of that, they may force fewer takeaways than the 44 they forced last season. Those 44 takeaways were the 3rd highest by a team since 2002 and about 12 more than the 32.2 takeaways per season they averaged from 2007-2011. You have to go back to their NFC Championship season in 2006 to find a Bears team that forced more than 35 takeaways. Sure, they did something like last season before, during 2006, as they forced 43 takeaways, but they proved to be incapable of repeating the feat for another 6 seasons. I don’t think the Bears suddenly became a better team at taking away the ball last season, but that their takeaway total from 2012, like 2006 proved to be, was a fluke.

Part of the flukiness comes from the fact that the Bears are unlikely to recover 58.18% of fumbles that hit the ground again in 2012. Part of the flukiness comes from the sheer randomness of turnovers. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were by far the biggest contributors in this aspect last season, combining for 22 interceptions and forced fumbles between them, but the in the previous two seasons combined, they had interceptions and forced fumbles between them.

Charles Tillman did most of his damage with forced fumbles, forcing an absurd 10, but, while Peanut Tillman is better at forcing the ball out of receivers’ hands for a fumble than maybe any cornerback in the NFL, he managed just 7 forced fumbles in the prior 2 seasons. Tim Jennings, meanwhile, did most of his damage with interceptions, leading the NFL with 9, but he had combined for 7 interceptions in the first 6 seasons of his career. I don’t think he suddenly got better at interceptions. In 2011, he was a very solid cornerback, but not one who picked off a lot of passes. He should revert to that type of player again in 2013.

They’re highly unlikely to match the +20 turnover margin they produced last season (24 turnovers, 44 takeaways). That type of thing is really inconsistent anyway. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

They won’t be a bad team in terms of takeaways in 2013 because they have a plenty talented defense, but I think you can safely estimate 10 fewer takeaways for this defense. On top of that, with the defense scoring fewer points, the offense will be on the field more often and will probably commit more than 24 turnovers. They should still be a good team in turnover margin, but they could easily be around +5 (33 takeaways, 28 turnovers), which would make a huge difference for this team. After all, they were actually outgained on the season last year (and only outgained opponents 5.0 yards per play to 4.9 on a per play basis).

It might be unfair to completely zero out their points off returns margin. They do have one of the best return men in NFL history in Devin Hester, who managed to somehow not get in on the return parade last season. On top of that, I would be pretty surprised if their turnover margin were negative this season. However, you can safely say that this team is going to have to rely more on their offense scoring more points than their defense allows in order to win games this season.

That could be a bit of a problem. Their offense scored just 19.1 points per game last season if you take out the points scored by the defense on returns. That number doesn’t tell the whole story because the offense saw fewer drives to no fault of their own as a result of the defense taking it to the house 10 times, but even on a per drive basis, they ranked 22nd in the NFL scoring 1.62 points per drive.

They rightfully made offense a big priority this off-season and did a great job helping Jay Cutler. Only one offensive lineman returns in his original spot as the Bears signed Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson in free agency and drafted Kyle Long in the first round. They also added Martellus Bennett to give Cutler someone to throw to besides Brandon Marshall. Bennett, along with potential breakout candidate Alshon Jeffery, give him a much better receiving corps than he’s used to.

The Bears also fired defensive minded Head Coach Lovie Smith, who, thanks largely to his tendency to hire ineffective offensive coordinators (Mike Martz, Mike Tice), never got this offense off the ground. He’s been replaced with Marc Trestman, who comes from an offensive background. Trestman hasn’t been in the NFL since 2004, but he has worked with a long list of NFL quarterbacks throughout his career, both as an offensive assistant and on his own time as a QB guru, and he spent the last 5 years orchestrating arguably the best offense in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

He brings with him a futuristic offensive philosophy and plans on adding more hurry up and read option (Jay Cutler’s mobility gets overlooked) to the Bears’ offense. It’s unclear if this move will pan out and it could completely backfire, but they certainly went in the right direction with their Head Coaching hire. If nothing else, the Bears’ offensive game plan figures to be significantly less vanilla that it has been in recent years. That, along with the personnel improvements they have made offensively, should lead to them scoring more points per drive this season.

However, the defense should go the opposite direction in terms of points per drive. They won’t be bad, after all they were 1st in the NFL, allowing just 1.31 points per drive last season, but the loss of defensive minded Lovie Smith as Head Coach and Rod Marinelli as Defensive Coordinator could hurt this defense. New Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker will keep largely the same scheme in place, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the track record of Smith and Marinelli when it comes to defense.

On top of that, the Bears had the 3rd best injury luck in the NFL last season, essentially losing the equivalent of 2 important players for the entire season fewer than the average NFL team. That’s unlikely to continue in 2013. That could hurt their offense as well, but their defense had the best injury luck as their top-13 defenders (base 11 + nickel cornerback + top reserve defensive lineman) missed a combined 12 games last season. That will be very hard for the defense to repeat, especially since they’re an aging defense with 3 key players over 30, all of whom played all 16 games last season.

Players who play all 16 games repeat the feat only about half the time the following season, mostly due to pure randomness. They’ve already lost nickel cornerback Kelvin Hayden for the season, after he missed just 2 games last season. Add in the fact that they should end at least 10 fewer drives with turnovers and this is a defense that should allow noticeably more points per drive next season, probably enough to cancel out the offense’s gains in that area.

They were 10th in the NFL in points per drive differential last season and they should be right around there again this year. That could put them in the playoffs, but remember how loaded the NFC is. Even last year, they were just 6th in the conference in points per drive differential and the conference, if anything, is better this season. There might just not be a spot for them in the post-season, so, as the Bears are sadly used to, they could be on the outside looking in again this post-season, despite what should be a solid regular season.

Quarterback

In 3 years with the Broncos, Jay Cutler completed 62.5% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, 54 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 87.1. However, going to the Bears stunted his statistical growth, as he’s completed 59.6% of his passes for an average of 7.1 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 63 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 81.8. However, I don’t think he’s become a worse quarterback. In fact, he might have become a better quarterback as he’s matured. We just haven’t noticed because of his lack of supporting cast.

He should be noticeably better statistically this season. The Bears should also throw more frequently this season because they’ll have more drives (with the defense scoring on their own less often) and with Marc Trestman coming in as Head Coach. There’s some fantasy potential here for guys who are into that type of thing and I think Cutler is an underrated quarterback overall. He’ll have an occasional stinker, but you can win with him. He also has underrated athleticism, rushing for 1116 yards and 6 touchdowns on 262 carries in 93 games thus far in his career. He also ran a 4.77 40 at The Combine, which isn’t bad. Trestman could utilize that athleticism more than any Head Coach ever has.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Bears only have one offensive lineman starting in the same spot as he did last season. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a good thing, but the Bears’ offensive line has been horrible for years, most recently grading out 19th in run blocking on ProFootballFocus and 28th in pass blocking in 2012, while ranking 27th in pass block efficiency. The Bears had 9 offensive linemen play at least 150 snaps last season and they all graded out below average. The only starter in his original spot is center Roberto Garza and he might be the worst one of the bunch. He graded out 2nd worst among eligible centers in 2011 and 28th out of 37 eligible in 2012. He’s also going into his age 34 season.

Jermon Bushrod was their big money acquisition, getting 5 years, 36 million to serve as their new left tackle. He was someone I felt would get overpaid and sure enough he did. Bushrod may be a two-time Pro-Bowler, but that’s more to the credit of Drew Brees’ quick release and pocket presence and the how overall uneducated the Pro-Bowl voting public is. Bushrod may have two Pro-Bowl appearances, but has never been close to being voted an All-Pro by the writers, who tend to be much more tuned in to the game than common fans. That shows they don’t value him much.

The Saints also didn’t value him much as they were content to let him leave. Drew Brees has one of the quickest releases in the NFL and some of the best pocket presence. The Saints don’t value the left tackle position as much for that reason and I think that’s smart of them. Bushrod has made 68 starts over the last 4 seasons, including the post-season, and has allowed just 20 sacks, including 11 in his last 3 seasons, but he’s also allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. He’s really a middling talent that Drew Brees made look better than he is. He might not even be that big of an upgrade over what J’Marcus Webb was last season, as he graded out 36th at his position on ProFootballFocus, while Webb graded out 51st.

Webb is a frequent media whipping boy and he was awful in his first 2 seasons, grading out 2nd worst among offensive tackles in 2010 and 65th out of 76 eligible in 2011. However, he graded out just below average last season and really settled down after the infamous week 2 game against the Packers, in which he allowed 2 sacks and Jay Cutler shoved him on the sidelines. He allowed just 5 sacks the rest of the way.

He’ll move to right tackle this season, which theoretically should be a good fit for him. That is the one benefit of the Bushrod signing. However much they overpaid him, he does allow Webb to move to an easier spot at right tackle, where they previously had a huge hole. However, I say it will theoretically fit him because he doesn’t seem to be having a very good camp. Perhaps he’s uncomfortable with the position (he did play primarily on the right side in 2010, his worst year as a pro) and can’t adjust his technique. Perhaps he’s regressing after a half decent season.

Whatever the case, he’s actually been benched for 5th round rookie Jordan Mills and it could be permanent. I don’t have to tell you that starting a 5th round rookie at right tackle could be a liability. He could be equally as horrific as the Gabe Carimi/Jonathan Scott combination that started there last season (both ranked in the bottom-20 among tackles despite splitting starts and their composite grade would have been 6th worst at the position). Bushrod would still be an upgrade at left tackle in that scenario, but not by much and his presence at left tackle would not give two positional upgrades as they would have liked.

Matt Slauson is the new starter at left guard and he should be a nice cheap addition for them. He’s graded out slightly above average in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter for the Jets. Kyle Long will start at right guard. He was the 20th overall pick in the draft. Ordinarily, it’s hard to rely on rookies, especially raw rookies like Long, but interior linemen tend to have a shorter adjustment period than other positions and reports on Long from Training Camp have been great. It might take him a little while, but he should be a solid starter as a rookie. The offensive line still isn’t great (let’s call it 3 average starters, LT, LG, RG, and 2 below average, C, RT), but it’s definitely upgraded and they should have more stability. Barring injuries, right tackle is the only spot where they could have to bench a player mid-season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Bears brought in Brandon Marshall last off-season, but after last season it was clear they needed to add someone else after him. After Marshall, who caught 118 passes for 1508 yards and 11 touchdowns on 181 attempts, no one else had more than 44 catches (Matt Forte), 375 yards (Earl Bennett), 3 touchdowns (Alshon Jeffery), or 59 targets (Forte). Marshall was targeted on an absurd 181 on 462 aimed passes, 39.2%. That makes your passing game so predictable and one dimensional and is a big part of reason why 7 of the team’s 16 interceptions came on throws to Marshall. This year, there’s more talent around Marshall, which could hurt his production (though not too much as the Bears will pass more and he’ll see fewer triple teams), but it’ll definitely help their offense as a whole.

Opposite Marshall, Alshon Jeffery isn’t an addition, but the 2012 2nd round pick should have a better season in his 2nd year in the league. As a rookie, he didn’t do much, catching just 24 passes for 367 yards and 3 touchdowns, but rookie receivers don’t usually do much. He also missed 6 games with injury and played a total of 445 snaps. Reports have been very positive going into his 2nd season in the league and he could, at least, be an average starter opposite Marshall and get open with Marshall drawing the coverage his way. Earl Bennett remains the slot receiver and he’s a pretty decent one, when he’s on the field. He’s missed 17 games with injury in his 5-year career and is already dealing with a concussion.

The addition in the receiving corps is Martellus Bennett, the tight end. Anyone would have been an upgrade over Kellen Davis, who was one of the worst tight ends I’ve ever seen last season. A decent blocker, Davis was horrific as a pass catcher, grading out dead last at his position in that aspect. He caught just 19 of his 44 targets for 229 yards and a touchdown, thanks to 8 drops, the worst drop rate in the NFL. He also had just 0.63 yards per route run, by far the worst among eligible tight ends. The next worst was 0.86. In spite of this, he ranked 6th among tight ends in snaps played out of necessity.

Bennett probably won’t just be any upgrade though as he could be a very good all-around tight end for them. Bennett was a 2nd round pick in 2008 by the Cowboys, but he was stuck as a pure blocker behind Jason Witten in 4 years in Dallas. However, he excelled as a blocker, grading out top-5 in run blocking grade among tight ends from 2009-2011 and then, in his first year as a starter with the Giants in 2012, he caught 55 passes for 626 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s not a great pass catcher, but he’s one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL, grading out 5th overall among tight ends on ProFootballFocus last season. He’ll be a tremendous upgrade over Davis. Blocking specialist Steve Maneri is the #2 tight end. Bennett and Jeffery will provide capable secondary targets behind Marshall and really help Cutler as a result.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Matt Forte is the one thing that’s the same around Cutler and that’s a good thing as he’s been Cutler’s best complementary offensive weapon since he got to Chicago. Forte has missed just 7 games in 5 seasons (though they’ve all been in the last 2 seasons) and totaled 1529 touches (1262 carries, 267 receptions) in 75 games, 20.4 per game. He’s averaged 4.2 yards per carry and, with more complementary offensive talent around him, he could see that number increase this season. As long as he doesn’t get hurt (always the caveat for running backs) or prematurely age going into his age 28 season, he should have another solid season.

Michael Bush, meanwhile, remains the backup. He’s a more experienced backup than most, with 746 career carries, along with 100 career carries, largely from backing up tissue paper running back Darren McFadden in Oakland. He’s averaged 4.1 yards per carry in his career and, as far as backups go, he’s pretty solid. He’ll once again be a pure backup, but he’s good insurance and spells Forte more than most (114 carries to Forte’s 248).

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Bears have 3 key defensive players over 30. Julius Peppers is one of them. He showed some signs of age last season, grading out “just” 18th at his position on ProFootballFocus after ranking in the top-9 in every season from 2008-2011. He still graded out well above average, excelling as a pass rusher with 13 sacks, 7 hits, and 37 hurries on 507 pass rush snaps, an 11.2% rate. Going into his age 33 season, his best days may be behind him, but he should remain an above average starter.

Opposite him, the Bears lost starter Israel Idonije, one of three starters they lost this off-season. Idonije may be the toughest to replace. Idonije remained unsigned late into the off-season because of his age (he’s going into his age 33 season), but he’s a very underrated player who provided them with great play at two spots on the defensive line, lining up at defensive end in base packages and rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages. He also moved to defensive tackle for a few games late in the season. His composite grade would have been 8th among 4-3 defensive ends and 6th among defensive tackles.

Corey Wootton takes over essentially the same role and the 6-6 270 pound 2010 4th round pick seems like a natural fit. He played alright in limited action last season, grading out about average on 582 snaps in his first real action. He won’t be the player Idonije was, but he could be alright in a larger role. Shea McClellin will see a larger role as well. The 2012 1st round pick played just 368 snaps as a rookie, grading out slightly below average, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll come in on passing downs in sub packages and allow the Bears to put 3 defensive ends on the field at once.

Along with those 3 defensive ends on sub packages, the Bears also have a very talented interior pass rusher in Henry Melton, an every down defensive tackle who excels in rushing the passer. They rightfully franchised tagged him this off-season because they couldn’t afford to let him get away. After a breakout season in his 3rd year in the league in 2011, in which he graded out 16th among defensive tackles, he was even better in 2012, grading out 7th. He was actually slightly below average against the run, but made up for it with 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 24 hurries on 402 pass rush snaps, a 9.2% pass rush rate that’s incredibly impressive for an interior defensive lineman. He also committed just 1 penalty.

In base packages, Melton plays inside next to Stephen Paea, a 2011 2nd round pick who graded out about average in his first year as a starter in 2012. Nate Collins is the top reserve. The 2010 undrafted free agent excelled on 247 snaps last season and could be in for a bigger role. He’s not a proven commodity by any stretch of the imagination, but he could provide very solid depth.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Bears also lost two starters at linebacker. Brian Urlacher is the bigger name, but losing him might actually be a good thing for this defense going forward. He was horrible last season, grading out 44th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. He covered well, as he usually does, but showed a serious inability to get off blocks in the running game and was noticeably less physical than his younger days. He managed just 34 tackles of substance (within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) all season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst middle linebacker against the run. The Bears made him a take it or leave it offer of 2 million dollars over one seasons and he opted to test the open market.

As it turns out, that 2 million might have been a generous offer by the Bears, more of a token of gratitude for everything he once was for the franchise than anything, as Urlacher was greeted by an incredibly cold market. Rather than competing for a job playing for the veteran’s minimum in any uniform other than a Bears uniform, Urlacher opted to retire, rather than playing out his age 35 season. Father time remains undefeated and now Urlacher will sit and wait for the Hall of Fame to call (it will).

The Bears replaced Urlacher with veteran DJ Williams. Williams is a versatile linebacker capable of playing inside and outside, but he struggled mightily the last time he was a starter, grading out 33rd among 45 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011. He was relegated to a reserve role last season, playing just 131 snaps (he also missed several games with suspension) and, going into his age 31 season, his days as a capable starter are probably over. The Bears have to be hoping that 2nd round rookie Jon Bostic can beat him out at some point because he has by far the most upside of the two. Williams is dealing with an injury in Training Camp, so this could be that opportunity, but, while he’s a perfect fit for the defensive scheme, it’s hard to trust rookies as starters.

Nick Roach is the other starting linebacker they lost this off-season. He was decent for them as a two-down outside linebacker, coming off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, in 2 seasons as a starter. He also stepped into the middle for a few games when Urlacher was hurt last season and played every down. He’s been replaced with James Anderson, who was a cap casualty of the Panthers’ this off-season.

Anderson got a 5 year, 22 million dollar contract from the Panthers after a breakout season 2010, in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked outside linebacker, playing every down, but the one year wonder never lived up to that season. He graded out below average in both 2011 and 2012 and was relegated to a part-time role last season. He still struggled with the easier role, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th worst rated 4-3 outside linebacker. Now he’s going into his age 30 season and, while there’s some bounce back potential and while he won’t serve a particularly important role as a part-time run stuffing linebacker, it’s very tough to get excited about him as a starter.

Perhaps 4th round rookie Khaseem Greene could push him at some point, but it’s uncertain if he’d be an upgrade. Besides, they seem more intent on making Greene the heir apparent to Lance Briggs on the weak side, rather than making him the starter on the strong side. He’ll work as Briggs’ direct backup this season and probably won’t see very many snaps. He could be a solid starter in the future though because he was a steal in the 4th round and a great fit for their scheme to boot.

Briggs, meanwhile, is going into his age 33 season, the 2nd of 3 over 30 starters on defense for the Bears. With the exception of a down 2009 season, he’s graded out as a top-10 4-3 outside linebacker on ProFootballFocus dating back to 2008, topping out at #2 in 2008. He ranked 3rd last season, but he might not be able to maintain quite that level of play as he ages. He could remain an elite player, but it’s uncertain at this point. There’s a reason they brought Greene in. Briggs is owed a non-guaranteed 5.25 million in a contract year in 2014.

Grade: B-

Cornerback

Charles Tillman is the other over 30 defensive player, as he heads into his age 32 season. He won’t force 10 fumbles again, but he should once again have a strong season, though his age is a small concern. He was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback in 2012 and 7th ranked cornerback in 2011. He’ll continue covering well regardless of his forced fumbles total.

Tim Jennings makes this one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL, maybe after Seattle. Jennings probably won’t even have half of the 9 interceptions he had last season, because that was so uncharacteristic for him, but he doesn’t need to pick off a bunch of passes to be a good coverage cornerback. In 2011, he was ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked cornerback despite picking off just 2 passes, because he allowed just 63 catches on 110 attempts for 700 yards, with deflecting 5 passes and committing just 4 penalties. On top of that, no one played more coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown than him.

In 2012, even with the 9 interceptions, he didn’t grade out that much better overall, ranking 9th, as what you do on 9 snaps should not tell the story of your season. He allowed 55 catches on 104 attempts for 678 yards and 5 touchdowns, while deflecting 11 passes and committing just 3 penalties. He should be a very strong cover cornerback again this season, regardless of how many passes he picks off. He is going into his age 30 season, but it’s not time to worry about age yet with him.

As I mentioned, the Bears have lost slot cornerback Kelvin Hayden for the season due to injury. Isaiah Frey is the leading in house candidate to take over. The 2012 6th round pick didn’t play as a snap as a rookie. He’ll compete with mediocre veteran Zackary Bowman for the role, but it looks like he’s going to win the job. Either way, they’ll miss Hayden, a solid slot man.

At safety, Major Wright was off to a great start last season. He was my mid-season pick to represent the NFC in the Pro-Bowl from the strong safety position. He struggled in the 2nd half in the season, but, overall, he still graded out 23rd at his position and he could be even better in his 4th year in the league, which also happens to be his contract year. He’ll need to improve his consistency and his tackling, but he has a chance to grade out as one of the better safeties in the league.

He’ll start next to Chris Conte once again. Conte is a 2011 3rd round pick who graded out just below average in his first year as a starter in 2012. He could be pushed by 2012 3rd round pick Brandon Hardin, but he did miss his whole record season with an injury so he could be behind the 8-ball. It’s a very strong safety overall though, led by one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Head Coach

The Bears took a big risk firing Lovie Smith. He had been their Head Coach for 9 seasons and had an 81-63 record, leading the team to the Super Bowl in 2006. Their offensive production was unsatisfactory and they had missed the playoffs in 5 of their last 6 seasons, but he always did a great job with the defense and they hadn’t lost double digit games since his first season in 2004. He was also only the 4th Head Coach to win 10+ games and then get fired since 1990.

The Bears also took a big risk hiring Marc Trestman, who comes from an unorthodox background. He hasn’t been in the NFL since 2004, but he has worked with a long list of NFL quarterbacks throughout his career, both as an offensive assistant and on his own time as a QB guru, and he spent the last 5 years orchestrating arguably the best offense in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. He brings with him a futuristic offensive philosophy and plans on adding more hurry up and read option to the Bears’ offense. It’s unclear if this move will pan out and it could completely backfire. We’ll see how it works out. As always, it’s very tough to grade 1st year Head Coaches.

Grade: C+

Introduction

The Bears have actually improved their talent level this off-season, particularly in the offensive side of the ball, and they were the best team in the NFL not to make the playoffs last season, any way you look at it (wins, point differential, Pythagorean Expectation). However, they won’t have as much help from returns and turnovers as they did last season and the NFC remains a loaded conference. I won’t be surprised at all if they found their way into the post-season, but I have them on the outside looking in.

In the division, I still don’t think they’re as good as Green Bay, but they’re better than Minnesota and equal to Detroit, so I have them at 3-3 in the division. Outside the division, they host Cincinnati, New Orleans, the NY Giants, Baltimore, and Dallas. They should be competitive in all 5 of those games and win at least 3. On the road outside the division, they go to Pittsburgh, Washington, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Pittsburgh is going to be a tough place to win, as Washington will be, but they can win in the other 3 places and I think they’re as likely to pull the upside in either Pittsburgh or Washington as they are to get upset in any of the other 3 locations. I give them 3 wins in that bunch and 9 wins overall.

Projection: 9-7 3rd in NFC North

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Detroit Lions 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The 2012 Detroit Lions have one of the weirdest statistical profiles I’ve ever seen. They gained 6540 yards (3rd in the NFL) and allowed 5458 yards (13th in the NFL), a +1082 differential, 2nd in the NFL behind only Denver, but they won just 4 games. And it wasn’t that they were just gaining all these yards against prevent defenses in garbage time. Only 4 of their losses came by more than a touchdown and only 2 came by more than ten points. They were competitive in almost every game.

Their poor record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-8) should even out this season as that type of thing usually does, but that alone doesn’t explain why they had such a poor record despite outgaining their opponents by so much. It’s very important to figure out why to see if the Lions can bounce back like teams normally do after a big regression in win total (the Lions won 6 games fewer last season than the season before and usually that type of thing is followed up by a win improvement of an average of 3 wins) or possibly even get all the way back to where they were in 2011 (10 wins) or maybe even beyond, to the big time breakout season that at one point looked inevitable for this once promising young team.

As I mentioned, their poor record in close games does not tell the whole story. Sure, their -65 points differential isn’t usually what you see from a 4 win team and they definitely failed to meet their Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, but even a 6 or 7 win team outgaining opponents by over 1000 yards on the season would be really strange. They ranked 17th in the NFL in points per game (23.3) and 27th in the NFL in points per game allowed (27.3), despite ranking 3rd and 13th in yards and yards allowed. That’s weird.

Well, it wasn’t penalties or poor play in the red zone. The Lions committed 10 penalties more than their opponents on the season, which isn’t what you want, but it’s hardly the reason for the discrepancy. Meanwhile, they actually played better red zone offense (converting 60.0% of red zone attempts for a touchdown) than their opponents (who converted 51.28% of their red zone attempts for a touchdown). They weren’t outplayed in the kicking game, as they nailed 32 of 36 field goals, as opposed to31 of 41 for their opponents.

However, special teams were a big part of the issue. Their opponents punted an average of 5 yards per punt net more than they did and they also allowed 4 special teams touchdowns, while not returning a single one of their own. They were also outgained by 3.3 yards per kickoff return and 1.3 yards per punt return. In terms of special teams DVOA, they were 30th in the NFL last season. However, this is something that tends to be very inconsistent on a year to year basis as special teams personnel tends to be very inconsistent on a year to year basis.

They’ve already switched out the punter and both returners, as 5th round rookie Sam Martin should help turn around a league worst punting game, while talented returner Michael Spurlock replaces Stefen Logan as both kick and punt returner. The rest of their special teams personnel should look largely different as well. I’m not worried about their special teams being as bad as they were last season.

Along with the 4 special teams touchdowns they allowed, they allowed 6 return touchdowns off of interceptions or fumbles. That means, of the 437 points they allowed last season, 70 weren’t even allowed by the defense. Take those 70 points out of the mix and they would have allowed 22.9 points per game last season 19th in the NFL, which is a lot closer to where their yardage defense ranked (13th) than 27th was. Will they cut down on this in 2013? Well, improved special teams play will help and I think they’re unlikely to allow 6 return touchdowns on 33 turnovers again, a ridiculous 18.2% rate. Ordinarily, teams who turn the ball over 33 times allow an average of 2 return touchdowns off of them over the course of the season.

Of course, the Lions could also turn the ball over fewer times, which is something else I think will happen in 2013. The Lions were killed on turnovers in 2012, a big part of the reason why they were winning the yardage battle but not the game. They had 33 turnovers and 17 takeaways, a poor -16 margin. Bad fumble luck had a lot to do with that, as they recovered just 32.56% of fumbles that hit the ground during their games, 2nd worst in the NFL, which led to a -10 fumble margin, a big part of their -16 turnover margin. This type of thing is largely random, however. There is not really such thing as being “good” at recovering fumbles once they hit the ground. For example, there have been 6 teams who have recovered 35% or fewer of their fumbles since 2003. The following season, they recovered on average 53.7% of their fumbles.

Turnover margins are very consistent in general as well. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

The Lions should have a much improved fumble margin in 2013, but their interception margin should be improved as well according to the aforementioned trends. Matt Stafford probably won’t throw interceptions less frequently. His 2.3% interception rate from 2012 was right around where it was in his first full season as a starter in 2011, when he threw an interception on 2.4% of his throws. However, they could easily intercept more than the 11 passes they intercepted in 2012. I expect that turnover margin to be much closer to +0 in 2013 and that’s going improve their team’s performance noticeably.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect the Lions to not allow any return touchdowns this season and it would also be unrealistic to expect all of those interception returns to turn automatically into punts. It’s definitely possible to allow points off of turnovers without giving up the return. The Lions ran 10.1 plays per game more than their opponents in 2012 and controlled the ball for 52.31% of the game, 6th most in the NFL. Their defense often not getting a chance to even take the field has a lot to do with that and conversely that has a lot to do with why the Lions outgained their opponents by so much.

However, they still outgained opponents on a per play basis (5.6 to 5.5) and they do a good job of maintaining drives with 382 first downs to 76 punts, a 5.0 first down to punt ratio, among the best in the NFL, so they should continue controlling the ball for the larger part of the game and running more plays than their opponents. On top of that, they should be expected to score some points of their own off of returns, something they didn’t do at all in 2012. They were -65 in points differential and -70 in points off return differential. That means their defense actually allowed fewer points per game than their offense allowed. If they can just manage to do that again,. they should be at least a .500 team, but they could be even better.

This team has plenty of talent and should see better injury luck after ranking 24th in the NFL in adjusted games lost last season. The NFC is a very, very tough conference and they play in arguably the toughest division in football so making the playoffs won’t be easy, but they should largely resemble the team they were in 2011. In terms of DVOA, which is more consistent on a year to year basis than win total, the Lions ranked 16th in 2012 (14th in non-special teams DVOA) and 11th in 2011 (8th in non-special teams DVOA). The Lions should be right around that caliber of a team again in 2013 and compete for a playoff spot.

Quarterback

One of the other weird statistical things about the Lions in 2012 was that Matt Stafford set an NFL record with 727 passing attempts, but managed just 20 touchdowns. Well, somehow a running game that ran just 391 times on the season managed to steal 17 touchdowns away from Stafford, while backup Shaun Hill stole another 2 on 13 attempts. The Lions should remain very pass heavy this year so Stafford should throw a higher percentage of the team’s touchdowns.

There should also be more touchdowns to go around on an offense that figures to turn the ball over fewer times. He probably won’t throw the ball 727 times again, for the same reason why the Lions probably won’t run 72.5 plays per game again, but he could throw 30-35 touchdowns, average around the 6.9 yards per attempt he’s averaged for his career on about 650-660 throws, and keep his interception rate right around the 2.3%-2.4% it’s been at in both of his full seasons as a starter, which puts him around 16 interceptions. He’s one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL and the offense should once again function as such in 2013.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Another one of the other weird statistical things about the Lions in 2012 was Calvin Johnson setting the single season receiving record (surpassing Jerry Rice in week 16 no less), but scoring just 5 times. That total should increase for some of the same reasons that Stafford’s should. He probably won’t have a record setting season again, but he’s by far the best receiver on a team that passes a ridiculous amount, has a good young quarterback, and doesn’t have a lot of other passing options. He’s consistently able to beat double and triple teams and the 96 catches for 1681 yards he had in 2011 now seem like a statistical floor for him. He should have around 1700 receiving yards again and almost definitely break double digit touchdowns again.

As I mentioned, the Lions don’t have a ton of receivers after Megatron, but Stafford should have more to work with than the end of last season, when he was limited to the likes of Kris Durham, Brian Robiskie, and Will Heller after Johnson. Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, and Brandon Pettigrew all return from various injuries, while running back Reggie Bush, coming over from Miami, gives Stafford a deadly weapon out of the backfield.

Broyles will probably start opposite Johnson. Broyles was an incredibly productive collegiate receiver at the University of Oklahoma, catching 349 passes for 4586 yards and 45 touchdowns, but a torn ACL suffered late in his final collegiate season, along with a lack of elite size or speed, dropped him to the Lions in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft. However, he plays better than his measurables on tape and is a remarkably hard worker and quick healer.

He made his debut week 3 last season and eventually became a starter down the stretch, catching 22 passes for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns on 30 targets on 190 routes run, before tearing the other ACL. Once again, Broyles did a fantastic job recovering from that injury and has been practicing in Training Camp and is on pace to play week 1. Obviously, he’s an injury risk and he might not be 100%, but there’s some intriguing breakout potential for him as a secondary receiver opposite Johnson.

Broyles will move to the slot, his natural position, on passing downs, with Nate Burleson coming in during 3-wide receiver sets. Burleson is also coming off a season ending injury, a broken leg. He’s a marginal receiver coming off of a serious injury and going into his age 32 season so he’s not great, even as far as #3 receivers go, but he’ll be better than what the Lions were trotting out down the stretch last season.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, returns from an ankle injury that limited him to 31 snaps in the final 4 games of the season. He struggled mightily last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked pass catching tight end last season, catching 59 passes for 567 yards and 3 touchdowns on 95 targets, with 9 drops. He averaged just 1.18 yards per route run on 479 routes run, 28th out of 37 eligible tight ends. The 2009 1st round pick is a good run blocker, but has largely been a disappointment since the Lions drafted him.

He’s had better years and it’s possible the ankle injury he played through most of the season was part of why he struggled so much, but he’s never been much better, so I don’t see a big improvement. Tony Scheffler is the #2 tight end and a pass catching move tight end who often likes up on the slot, but he wasn’t great last season either. Still, while their receiving corps isn’t great, it should be better than it was last season.

As I mentioned, Reggie Bush’s presence is also a big part of that. Bush is a perfect fit for their offense because of his pass catching abilities. The Lions plan to utilize him the way the Saints utilized him, when he averaged 4.9 catches per game. That’s 78 catches over a 16 game season. That sounds like a lot, but he’s capable of doing so in this offense. The Lions have said they want to get him 80 catches. The inferior Joique Bell caught 52 passes in a part time role last season and Jahvid Best averaged 62 catches per 16 games during his short time as the Lions’ pass catching back before he got hurt. The only thing stopping Bush from getting 80 catches could be injuries. He missed 20 games in 5 seasons with the Saints and, though he only missed 1 in 2 years with the Dolphins, he’s now going into his age 28 season and his 8th year in the league. Still, he’ll be an asset.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Bush will probably also be their leading rusher, but he won’t get a ton of carries. For one, the Lions don’t run the ball very often. Two, Bush has never had more than 262 touches in a season and the Lions probably don’t want to go over that. They’ll prefer him to see his touches in the air (maybe 170 carries, 75 catches). Three, they do have two other backs capable of carrying the football. Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure will see carries behind him.

Leshoure was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but has largely been a disappointment to this point in his career. He might not even win the #2 running back battle this year, as Bell averaged 5.0 yards per carry to Leshoure’s 3.7 last season. Leshoure is also not near the pass catcher that Bell is and if Bush were to get hurt, Bell would probably take over his role. Leshoure will see some carries as an inside runner, but Bell will probably be 2nd among Detroit running backs in touches.

If Bush is Darren Sproles/Bell is Pierre Thomas, who has averaged 152 touches in the last 2 seasons. Bell showed well in his first season seeing real action in 2012, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked running back, with no back grading out higher than him and playing fewer snaps. He was 2nd only to Ray Rice in pass catching grade, but also graded out above average as a runner, averaging 3.0 yards per carry after contact and breaking 11 tackles on 82 carries.

Grade: B

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Offensive Line

While Stafford should have an improved receiving corps and likely running game supporting him, that should be cancelled out by the losses the Lions suffered on the offensive line. They’ve been an excellent offensive line in pass protection in the last 2 seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked pass blocking offensive line in each season, while ranking 4th in pass block efficiency in 2011 and 6th in 2012. They haven’t been very good in run blocking, but given the way the Lions operate offensively, pass protection is much more important and the Lions have recently done a great job on holding up in pass protection time and time again.

This off-season, they lost 3 starters on the offensive line and it’s really a downgrade. Left tackle Jeff Backus retired. He would have been in his age 36 season this year, but he still was a decent starter on the blindside, even in his later years. He struggled mightily run blocking last year, which brought his overall grade down below average, but he was great in pass protection, which, again, is what really matters for this team.

He’ll be replaced by 2012 1st round pick Riley Reiff, who was drafted for this purpose. Reiff graded out above average on 336 snaps as a rookie, but did so largely as a 6th offensive lineman on the right side of the formation. In 2 games at left tackle in place of an injured Backus, he struggled, which is a concern. He fell in the draft to the Lions at #23 because of his short arms and a number of teams felt his future position would be at right tackle or guard. The Lions will try him at left tackle to start and we’ll see if he holds up.

Gosder Cherilus is gone at right tackle. He was massively overpaid on a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal from the Colts, even before you consider his injury problems, but the Lions will definitely miss what he became in his contract year last season. He graded 8th among offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, 2nd among right tackles and excelled in pass protection, grading out 5th in pass protection and 1st among right tackles. They made the right move not paying for a one year wonder, but they will miss him.

Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard will compete for the right tackle job. Fox was a 4th round pick in 2010 and is very often injured. He hasn’t played a snap since 2010, when he played all 26 of his career snaps in a meaningless week 17 game against the Vikings, in which he struggled. Hilliard, meanwhile, has been a career backup since the Lions took him in the 6th round in 2007. He didn’t play a snap in 2012 and struggled mightily on 154 snaps in 2011. He’s more experienced than Fox, but might not be better. He’s currently the 2nd string right tackle.

At right guard, Stephen Peterman is gone. The aging veteran was a decent run blocker, but by far their worst pass protector and overall graded out below average last season. The Lions have a three way battle for the starting job going on between Dylan Gandy, Larry Warford, and Jake Scott. Gandy is a career backup going into his age 31 season, who is somehow leading the battle right now. Warford is a 3rd round rookie. Scott, meanwhile, is going into his age 32 season and struggled in limited action on an incredibly thin Eagles offensive line last season, only getting the call off the streets mid-season when so many injuries struck. Warford has the most upside of the bunch, but you can’t count on any of these guys as even average starters.

Dominic Raiola remains at center, where he’s been a fixture since the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He graded out above average last season, ranking as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked center and excelling in pass protection, but he’s going into his age 35 season and was forced to restructure his deal down to the veteran’s minimum this off-season so he could be on his last legs. Plus, last season was the first year he graded out above average since 2009. There’s a strong possibility he struggles this season. He could be pushed by natural center Gandy if Gandy doesn’t win the right guard job.

The only reliable offensive lineman who returns for the Lions is left guard Rob Sims, who happens to be one of the best in the NFL at his position. He’s graded out above average in all 4 seasons as a starter, starting with the Seahawks in 2009. He’s been a top-12 guard in each of the last 2 seasons and had his best year in 2009, when he graded out 9th at his position. Otherwise, it’s a pretty weak and thin offensive line.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Lions also had losses on the defensive line, losing their starting defensive ends and top reserve, but they could actually be a better defensive line this season. Cliff Avril was a perennially horrendous run stopper, grading out 11th worst, 12th worst, and 3rd worst among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively and he also saw his pass rush grade fall from well above average to above average to just average last season. As a result, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end overall last season. His 10 sacks look great, but he managed just 5 hits and 19 hurries.

Kyle Vanden Bosch definitely figures to be addition by subtraction. There’s a reason he remains a free agent going into his age 35 season. He graded out 3rd worst and dead last at his position on ProFootballFocus in 2011 and 2012 respectively, grading out dead last by a fairly wide margin last season. He was done. Lawrence Jackson was their top reserve, but he too graded out below average last year, doing so on 401 snaps.

The defensive end group they’ve been replaced is an upgrade. Ziggy Ansah was the 5th pick of the draft. He’s incredibly raw, but should have some impact as a rookie. Jason Jones and Israel Idonije were cheap free agent signings. It’s unclear how they plan to use both tweeners. Jones has been great as a situational interior pass rusher in his career, but struggled whenever he’s been forced into an outside role. In 2011, as a defensive end, he graded out 6th worst at his position, 2nd worst in pass rush grade, but in 2010, as a defensive tackle, he graded out 6th best overall and 2nd best in pass rush grade. He was also well above average on 332 snaps inside with the Seahawks last year.

Idonije has had success in both positions, so they should use him as a starting defensive end and use Jones as a reserve defensive tackle. Last year, he split time at defensive end and defensive tackle, but his composite grade would have been 8th among 4-3 defensive ends and 6th among defensive tackles. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season, which is why he remained unsigned until late June. Willie Young, a decent, but inconsistent reserve defensive end, would then be the #3 defensive end. They also have 4th round rookie Devin Taylor at the mix at defensive end.

Lining up Jones at defensive end would be a mistake, but they might make that mistake. CJ Mosley was signed to presumably be the #3 defensive tackle, after signing him to a 2 year, 2.75 million dollar deal this off-season. He excelled as a run stuffer in Jacksonville, grading out 14th in that aspect last season, so he’ll be an asset, but it’s unclear where they’re putting Jones, so I fear it’ll be defensive end. Either way, the Lions should have an improved defensive end group this season, but if they were to utilize their personnel properly and give Idonije the first crack outside, it would be a big plus.

On top of an improved defensive end group, the Lions should get even better play from their defensive tackles. I’ve already mentioned Mosley’s addition, but they also have arguably (actually not really arguably, it’s not close) the best starting defensive tackle duo in the NFL. Everyone knows about Ndamukong Suh. He was the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he was a deadly pass rusher in his first two years in the league, grading out 12th and 8th in that aspect in 2010 and 2011 respectively. However, 2012 was his best year in the league as he finally became a well-rounded player, grading out 4th overall at his position. He should continue being one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.

However, Nick Fairley, drafted in the first round a year later, 13th overall, is the one that should really get Lions fan excited. As a rookie, Fairley had some injuries and off the field troubles that limited him to just 274 snaps in a backup role, but when he did play, he impressed, grading out above average both against the run and as a pass rusher on ProFootballFocus. In 2012, he once again entered the season as a backup behind veteran Corey Williams, but he wouldn’t stay one for long as he made 7 starts on the season.

Despite still limited playing time, Fairley had 5 sacks, 8 hits, and 21 hurries on 302 pass rush snaps, an 11.3% pass rush rate that’s absurd for a defensive tackle. He also stopped the run very well as well, allowing him to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th rated defensive tackle despite playing just 511 total snaps. That 5th place finish put him just one spot behind Suh and if Fairley hadn’t missed the final 3 games of the season with injury, he looked poised to surpass Suh as Detroit’s highest rated defensive lineman. The only area he needs to clean up is his position leading 11 penalties, something that should improve with age. Fairley just turned 25 in January.

Before getting hurt, Fairley was on an absolute tear, making 5 starts in a row and recording 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 15 hurries, while holding up against the run. In 7 total starts, he had 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries, a glimpse of what he can do in 2013 if he starts all of most or the team’s 16 games. He’s heading into his 3rd season in the season as an undisputed starter and it would not surprise me at all if Fairley’s 2013 season is better than Suh’s. Either way, the Lions have the league’s best 4-3 defensive tackle duo with the combination of Suh and Fairley, their 2010 and 2011 1st round picks. The sky is the limit for this duo. There is plenty of talent on this defensive line. Hopefully they utilize it correctly, but either way, there’s a lot of talent.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Lions also lost at starter at linebacker, as Justin Durant signed with the Cowboys. Durant was just a two-down run stuffer that would come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so it ordinarily would not be a big loss, but Durant was great in that role. He’s not much in coverage, but in the last three years, he’s graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 1st (2010), 7th (2011), and 8th (2012) ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Mediocre veteran career backup Ashlee Palmer will be taking over, with 2012 5th and 7th round picks Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis possibly pushing him.

Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both return as every down linebackers, but both graded out below average last season. Tulloch has a good chance to bounce back. He had graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons as a starter before last season and he’s only going into his age 28 season so it’s not like he’s washed up or anything. He played last season through knee tendinitis that limited his range so that’s probably the reason for the fluky poor year.

Levy, however, has graded out below average in all 4 seasons as a starter since the Lions took him in the 3rd round in 2009. Last year, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th worst rated 4-3 outside linebacker and he should remain one of the worst starting outside linebackers in the NFL. He was a free agent this off-season and the Lions really should have used that opportunity to upgrade that spot. Instead, they gave him a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar contract, rather than locking up Durant. He’s alright in coverage, but has a lot of trouble getting off blocks in the run game.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

The Lions made upgrading their secondary a big focus of their off-season and for good reason. They had a whopping 11 defensive backs plays at least 150 snaps last season, but only 3 graded out above average. They drafted cornerback Darius Slay in the 2nd round, signed veteran Ronald Bartell, and gave a big contract to safety Glover Quin to try to fix matters. We’ll see how much that helps.

Chris Houston is the bright spot in the secondary. Once a frequent burn victim in the early part of his career in Atlanta and somewhat with the Lions, Houston has turned in back-to-back above average seasons essentially operating as Detroit’s #1 cornerback over the last 2 seasons. He was ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked cornerback last season overall in 2012, allowing 53 catches on 94 attempts for 629 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 4 penalties. He should once again be an above average starter.

The Lions have a bunch of options for their #2 cornerback. Ronald Bartell is working with the 1st team right now, but 2nd round rookie Darius Slay could eventually be the starter. He’s behind the 8-ball as a rookie dealing with injuries though. 2012 5th and 6th round picks Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green are also in the mix. Bill Bentley could also be an option, but the 2012 3rd round pick seems to have settled in as a slot specialist.

If Bartell is forced to start, it could be trouble. He was once a solid cornerback with the Rams, but age and injury seem to have caught up with him. Going into his age 31 season, Bartell has played in just 8 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons and he hasn’t played well. The Raiders cut him late last season, before the Lions snatched him up. It would be for the best if someone could beat him out.

Slay has the ability to, but he’s hurt and it’s tough to rely on rookies anyway. Jonte Green graded out about average in limited action as a rookie, so he could be an option. Greenwood is more of a long shot, as he missed his entire rookie season with an injury. Bentley, meanwhile, struggled as a rookie, grading out well below average on just 177 snaps. If he had been eligible for ProFootballFocus’ rankings, he would have been 99th out of 113 eligible, despite such a limited snap count. No cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out worse, as he allowed 17 catches on 20 attempts for 165 yards and committing 5 penalties. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league on the slot, but nothing is certain. Cornerback still remains a question after Houston.

Glover Quin presence does solidify one spot at safety, however. That was the bigger need spot as the Lions tried 6 different players there last season.         Quin is only around an average starter and was overpaid on a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal, but they desperately needed someone like him. Louis Delmas was re-signed to possibly solidify the other safety spot, but he’s never been able to do that because of injuries. He’s missed 13 games in the last 2 seasons combined and, once a promising safety, he has graded out below average even when in the lineup as his chronic knee problems seem to have sapped his abilities.

The Lions gave him a 2 year, 7.715 million dollar contract this off-season, but he’s unlikely to play in the pre-season and he’s missed a lot of practice. It’s unlikely he’ll play even close to all 16 games and he might not be what he once was even when he’s on the field. Don Carey and Amari Spievey, veterans with a history of struggling when counted on to start, are their top insurance options. For what it’s worth, both actually played alright in limited action last season, but Spievey was ProFootballFocus’ 75th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011, the last time he was a starter. Meanwhile, Carey ranked dead last in 2010, the last time he was a starter. It’s an improved group that should have more stability, but there are still plenty of problems.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Only 9 Head Coaches have been with their current team longer than Jim Schwartz. All 9 have multiple division titles. 6 have Super Bowl rings. 7 made the playoffs last season. Schwartz and Rex Ryan are the only two holdovers from the 2009 Head Coaching class and both are on the hot seat and could lose their jobs with another poor season, even if only because of the lack of patience front offices have demonstrated with Head Coaches in today’s NFL. Schwartz took a lot of the blame for last season’s poor on the field record and for the embarrassing number of arrests the team accumulated off the field. Unlike Ryan, I like Schwartz chances of turning the team around and keeping his job. Remember, prior to last year, he improved this team’s win total in each of his first 3 seasons with the team. Of course, he was starting at 0, but still.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Lions won’t rank 3rd in points scored and 13th in points allowed next season like they did with yards in 2012, but only because that was largely the result of the ridiculous amount of return touchdowns they allowed last season, which allowed the Lions to run significantly more plays than their opponents. They’ll be much better than the 17th in points scored and 27th in points allowed they were at in 2012 for a number of reasons and they should also have a better record in games decided by a touchdown or less. They should have a top-10 scoring offense and the defense will be good enough for their offense to win some games. They might not make the playoffs, but only because the NFC is loaded. They’ll win noticeably more games.

I don’t think they’re as good as the Packers, but they’re better than the Vikings and on the same level as the Bears, so I think 3-3 in the division is reasonable. Outside of the division, they host Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, and the Giants. It’s a tough slate, but I don’t think any of those teams are definitely better than them. They should beat Tampa Bay and at worst split the other 4, but I could see them going 4-1 in those games. They also go to Arizona, Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Arizona, Cleveland, and Philadelphia are pretty easy games so they should go 3-2 in this bunch. They’re as likely to lose one of those 3 as they are to pull an upset in the other 2. 9 or 10 wins is definitely possible. They were closer to winning that many last year than their record would have suggested, as their 2012 season consisted of numerous fluky things causing them to lose close games.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in NFC North

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Minnesota Vikings 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Vikings won 10 games and made the playoffs last season, after winning just 3 the year prior. However, teams that have big win improvements like that tend to regress the following season, roughly about half of the win improvement. If the Vikings were to do that, that would put them at 6 or 7 wins and there’s reason to believe the Vikings will do something like that. There are three things about Minnesota’s 2012 season that are unsustainable.

The first is that they excelled in close games, winning 5 out of 6 games decided by a touchdown or fewer. As a result, they won 10 games despite a point differential of +31 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.8 wins. Record in games decided by a touchdown or less tends to be very inconsistent and almost always evens out in the long run. For instance, they were 2-9 in such games in 2011.

There’s no reason to believe they’ll be that bad again in 2013, but at the same time there’s no reason to believe they’ll be as good as they were in 2012 again either. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 14th in the NFL last season and most importantly for their chances of making the post-season again in 2013, they ranked 9th in the loaded NFC in DVOA. I think that’s a more accurate assessment of their 2012 season: that they were the 9th best team in the NFC, but snuck into the 6th seed because of some “clutch” close wins.

I have reason to believe they won’t even be the 9th best team in the NFC this season. Keep in mind, the teams ranked 15th-17th in DVOA were also NFC teams, as were the teams ranked 19th-20th. The difference between being the 9th and the 14th best team (Tampa Bay) in the NFC last year was not very significant and if a few more things don’t go quite the Vikings’ way, they could be one of the worst teams in the NFC. One thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again is injuries. Last year, they were 2nd in the NFL in adjusted games lost, essentially losing the equivalent of over 2 important players for the entire season fewer than the average NFL team. That tends to be unsustainable so the Vikings should suffer more bad luck in terms of injury in 2013.

The other thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again this season is the MVP, Adrian Peterson. Peterson played at a non-human level in 2012, coming up 9 yards short of the single season rushing record and becoming the 2nd running back since 1982 to average 6.0 yards per carry or more and carry the ball 300 or more times. It was arguably one of the best single seasons a running back has ever had. It’s a season that no running back will probably match for a long time and unfortunately for Vikings fans, that probably includes Peterson.

No running back in NFL history has ever rushed for 2000 yards twice in a career. No running back has even rushed for 1900 yards twice in a career. Among the top-16 in single season rushing yard totals there are 15 unique names. Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and OJ Simpson have both rushed for 1800 yards more than once in their career, but only Dickerson did it in back-to-back seasons and he was 23-24 in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. Peterson is going to try to do it when he’s 27-28.

Furthermore, of the 28 other players to ever rush for 1700+ yards in a season, only 3 exceeded their rushing total the following season. In fact, the average 1700+ yard rusher rushed for 615 fewer yards the following season. Sure, some of them got seriously hurt, but it’s not like it would be impossible for Peterson to get hurt and even when you take out the 4 players who didn’t make it to 200 carries the following season, they still averaged 474 yards fewer the following season. On top of that, those players also averaged 7/10ths of a yard fewer per carry, going from 5.1 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry. Finally, only 5 players in NFL history have had 3500 rushing yards in a 2-year stretch and only 2 have had 3600.

Now, Peterson is definitely not going to have a bad year. In fact, he’s still my pick to lead the NFL in rushing, but you can lead the NFL in rushing with 1600 yards. I think there’s a decent chance that Peterson gets to 1662 rushing yards, which would give him the 2nd most rushing yards all-time in a two year span, but either way there’s a very good chance Peterson is rushing for at least 400 yards fewer this season. Plus, remember, in Peterson’s 6 year NFL career, he’s rushed for fewer than 1400 yards 4 times. Last season was the best of his career, but he didn’t suddenly become a significantly better player.

Quarterback

Now, what would a slightly more human performance from Peterson mean for this offense? Well, how Christian Ponder plays will have a lot to do with it. Ponder largely was a game manager for the Vikings last season, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, hitching his wagon to Peterson and having him drag him into the post-season.

How improbable was it that the Vikings made the playoffs despite this kind of quarterback play? Well, since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.1 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 1/10 of the yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. That’s why Peterson got my support for MVP, even though it’s near impossible for a running back to truly be the most valuable player in today’s NFL. Peterson was last year.

However, without Peterson rushing for an absurd amount of yardage this season, the Vikings could be in a lot of trouble if Ponder doesn’t improve statistically. Remember, how close the Vikings were to being the 14th best team in the NFC last year? A few more injuries and a more human season from Adrian Peterson and the Vikings are right there and probably around that aforementioned 5 win mark if Ponder doesn’t improve significantly.

Ponder could be a better quarterback going into his 3rd season in the NFL, but he was a very NFL ready quarterback coming out of Florida State. He was never a quarterback who had a lot of issues with the non-physical parts of the game (touch, accuracy, decision making, reading defenses), but he’s physically limited and that’s not something that really improves as your career goes along.

Ponder showed this lack of arm strength, completing just 31 of 96 (32.3%) last season on throws outside the hash marks 10+ yards downfield or over the middle of the field 20+ yards downfield. He did most of his work on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and on over the middle throws 10-19 yards downfield, which require less arm strength than throws outside the hash marks. On top of that, only 44.2% of his yardage came on yards in the air, worst in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. The rest came after the catch, largely from Percy Harvin. He was also ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback in passing grade after ranking 6th worst as a rookie.

He’s averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt throughout his career and considering how much he struggled last season without Percy Harvin, he could be even less than that this season. Harvin went down for the year midway through the 9th game of the season and Ponder averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt in games 9-16 last season.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Of course, it’s not like the Vikings didn’t replace Harvin and I think they actually made the right move trading him away. Rather than giving him a massive extension when he’s never proven he can stay healthy, the Vikings used the money they otherwise would have spent on him to sign Greg Jennings and pay rookie Cordarelle Patterson, who they drafted in the 1st round, which was what the Vikings got from the Seahawks for Harvin (it wasn’t the exact pick, but for the purposes of evaluating the move, it was close enough). Now they have Jennings and Patterson, rather than Harvin, who is once again hurt, now with the Seahawks.

However, Jennings and Patterson still do not make this a very good receiving corps and the two combined of them won’t give them what Harvin gave Ponder in the 1st half of last season. Ponder still doesn’t have much to work with in terms of weapons, which is why I don’t expect much improvement from him this season and possibly an even worse season. Jennings once averaged 75 catches for 1223 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns per season from 2008-2010, while not missing game due to injury, but in the past 2 seasons, he’s missed 11 games with injury and was limited to 103 catches for 1315 yards and 13 touchdowns total.

Now he goes from the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers combination he spent his entire career with in Green Bay to one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in Christian Ponder. He’s going into his age 30 season and has had a lot of trouble staying healthy lately. Receivers switching teams mid-season usually disappoint. And he’s also spent a lot of time this off-season talking about Rodgers and the Packers like a scorned ex-girlfriend, to the point where Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier had to tell him to stop. I don’t know if that’s a bad sign, but it’s not a good sign. He’s unlikely to be the #1 receiver that Ponder needs even when he’s in the lineup.

Patterson, meanwhile, is incredibly raw. Most 1st round rookie receivers are. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. However, Patterson is even rawer, playing just one season of real college football. He’s currently trying to beat out marginal veteran Jerome Simpson for the starting job and he’s unlikely to make any real impact as a rookie. Simpson, meanwhile, has averaged a mediocre 1.27 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons as a starter with Minnesota and Cincinnati, while struggling with drops, off the field issues, and injuries.

Jarius Wright will remain as the slot receiver either way. He definitely flashed in the 2nd half of last season after Harvin went down as the 4th round rookie caught 22 passes for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 133 routes run in 7 games after Harvin’s injury. He could continue to be an asset in 3-wide receiver sets.

Kyle Rudolph remains at tight end. A solid blocker, Rudolph also caught 53 passes for 493 yards and 9 touchdowns last season in his 2nd year in the league. He’s a solid goal line threat, but probably needs a new quarterback before he can reach his statistical potential, as the 2011 2nd round pick goes into his 3rd year in the league. John Carlson, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, serving as a move tight end. He was signed to an absurd 5 year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season despite missing the entire previous season with injury and totaling just 137 catches in 3 seasons before that and he predictably flopped, catching just 8 passes last season. He probably won’t offer much more this season. Overall, it’s still a very weak group at wide receiver and that’s going to continue to make it hard for Ponder to move the ball through the air. They could be right around that aforementioned 6 yards per attempt mark this season.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

I’ve already gone into detail about Peterson. He’s the best running back in the NFL and a future Hall of Famer, but history suggests he won’t even come close to rushing for 2000 yards again. He’ll probably rush for 1500-1600 yards again, for the 3rd time in his career, and average about 5 yards per carry on 300 attempts, but he won’t be what he was last year simply because few rarely are. Peterson’s one weakness is that he’s only caught 177 passes in 6 seasons so he doesn’t help Ponder out much in the air. Toby Gerhart will remain as the pure backup. He’s rushed for 1022 yards and 3 touchdowns on 240 carries in 3 seasons in the NFL, but unless Peterson gets hurt he’s unlikely to see much more than the 50 carries he saw last season.

Grade: A

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Offensive Line

Peterson does get a lot of help from his blocking, as the Vikings ranked 3rd in the NFL on ProFootballFocus in run blocking grade last season. Not only does he have two great run blocking fullbacks in Jerome Felton and Rhett Ellison (Ellison is more of an h-back, but still), who graded out 4th and 2nd respectively on ProFootballFocus among fullbacks in terms of blocking last year, but he also has a great offensive line, with strong starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle. They also hold up in pass protection, grading out 16th on ProFootballFocus in that aspect last season and ranking 7th in pass block efficiency.

Left tackle Matt Kalil played well from day 1 on the blindside as the 4th overall pick in last year’s draft, grading out 22nd among tackles on ProFootballFocus. He was tied with Loadholt was 22nd, as they had the exact same grade. Kalil and Loadholt are different types of players. Kalil graded out 12th in pass protection and only committed 6 penalties, but graded out below average as a run blocker, while Loadholt was 4th in run blocking, but not as good in pass protection and committed 11 penalties. Kalil could be even better in his 2nd year in the league, while Loadholt should remain an above average starter, as he’s been in every season so far in his career since being taken in the 2nd round in 2009, with the exception of 2010. He rightfully got a 4-year, 25 million dollar contract this off-season.

Sullivan, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ 1st ranked center last season, excelling as a run blocker. That was no fluke as he was 3rd the year before. He should continue playing at a very high level in 2013 and he might be the best center in the NFL. The talented trio of Kalil, Loadholt, and Sullivan also didn’t miss a single snap last season.

The Vikings do have weaknesses at both guard spots, however. Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco ranked 61st and 73rd respectively among 81 eligible guards last season. They don’t have much to push them either. Jeff Baca and Travis Bond are 6th and 7th round pick rookies only, while Seth Olsen was awful last year in Indianapolis. He would have graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th worst ranked guard last season if he had been eligible, but he wasn’t because he played just 289 snaps. Only Eben Britton played fewer snaps and graded out worse. Overall though, it’s a very solid offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Vikings used a 1st round pick on defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, but he’s going to serve primarily as Kevin Williams’ direct backup. He was primarily drafted to be Williams’ heir apparent and spell the veteran more often as Williams goes into his age 33 contract year and he won’t have a significant impact as a rookie. Instead, a veteran, Fred Evans, could be the one who has a breakout year on the defensive line for the Vikings, at least in his specific role.

In his age 30 season, Evans, a career backup, will battle with Letroy Guion for the base defensive tackle job , serving as a two-down run stuffer in base packages. According to Head Coach Leslie Frazier, he’ll be given every chance to win that job. If Evans shows himself in camp to be the player he was last year, he should win that job. Evans finished the regular season as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle and no one played as few snaps as him, 342, and had a higher grade. That doesn’t even take into account his best performance of the season, in the Vikings’ playoff game against the Packers, when he had 5 tackles for offensive failure (within 4 yards of the original LOS on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down). Post-season included, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated defensive tackle.

His biggest strength was playing the run, which will be important as he attempts to win that right defensive tackle job. Only 2 players had a higher rating against the run on ProFootballFocus than him, with post-season included, as he had 20 tackles for offensive failure on the season, also known as a stop. With 17 of these coming on 166 running plays, he had a run stop percentage of 10.2%, good for 5th in the NFL among eligible defensive tackles. He wasn’t too shabby as a pass rusher as well, as he graded out just about average with 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 4 hurries on 188 pass rush snaps.

Guion, meanwhile, had just 18 stops all season, despite playing 539 snaps. With 14 of these coming on 235 run snaps, his run stop percentage was just 6.0%, closer to the bottom of the league, 53th out of 85 eligible. He graded out dead last among 85 eligible defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus in the regular season, 76th out of 79 eligible with post-season included. His biggest weakness was the run, which is not a good thing when you’re trying to win a starting nose tackle job against someone who was one of the best in the league in that regard last season. I expect Evans to win this starting job and have a great year as a starter in the base packages. Guion, meanwhile, is not a lock for a roster spot, owed a non-guaranteed 2.45 million.

Kevin Williams has been a top-9 defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 5 seasons, the only defensive tackle in the NFL to maintain kind of consistent success, but he could drop out this season. He’s going into his age 33 season and, with Floyd coming in, Frazier says the plan is to limit Williams’ snaps to 30-40 per game, rather than the 52.2 per game he averaged last season. He could still be effective in a more limited role, but he’s unlikely to be the big time difference maker he normally is. He’s unlikely to be back in 2014. We’ll see if Floyd can flash in a limited role this season and make up for Williams’ slack, but it’s tough to count on a rookie to perform like that.

The Vikings have a trio of talented defensive ends in Jared Allen, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen and frequently play them at the same time on passing downs, along with the under tackle (this year either Williams or Floyd). It’s a big part of the reason why they had 44 sacks last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked team rushing the passer. Allen is the biggest name, but he also had the worst grade of the bunch last season. He rushed the passer well, grading out 11th at his position in that aspect and producing 11 sacks, 17 hits, and 47 hurries on 678 pass rush snaps, an 11.1% pass rush rate, but he also committed 9 penalties and struggled against the run. He’s had better years, grading out 5th in 2011, 7th in 2009, and 8th in 2008, but going into his age 31 season, his best days could be behind him. He’ll still be at least an above average starter either way and could be even more.

Robison had the best grade of the bunch, grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus, excelling as a pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and 40 hurries on 551 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% pass rush rate and, unlike Allen, he played the run well  and committed just 4 penalties. He’s graded out above average in both seasons as a starter. Griffin, meanwhile, is the 3rd end and frequently would line up as a defensive tackle on passing downs. He was overall just an average player, rushing the passer and stopping the run alright, but committed 8 penalties. He had 8 sacks, 12 hits, and 23 hurries on 423 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% pass rush rate. This trio should continue rushing the passer well this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The front four is very solid, but the back 7 has plenty of questions. Chad Greenway is the mainstay at linebacker, playing every down outside, but once an above average starter, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Erin Henderson moves to the inside and will be an every down linebacker this season, but it’s a poor positional fit for him. He was great as a two-down run stuffing outside linebacker and could easily continue stopping the run well at inside linebacker, but he’s very poor in coverage, coming off the field regularly throughout his career for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Last season, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage. He shouldn’t be an every down player. They tried this experiment briefly last year before giving up.

Desmond Bishop takes over Henderson’s old two down role outside. Bishop was an above average every down starting middle linebacker with the Packers in both 2010 and 2011, topping out at 5th overall in 2010, but he missed all of last season with a torn hamstring. He’s only going into his age 29 season, but it’s concerning that the Packers cut him, that he had to take a minimum deal on the open market, and that the Vikings are moving him to the outside and making him a part-time player, even with coverage liability Henderson in the middle. Perhaps his injury is having noticeable lingering effects.

It would definitely be in the Vikings’ best interest if he could prove himself capable of the every down middle linebacker job and move Henderson back to where he’s best, but it remains to be seen if he can do so. Leslie Frazier has already said he’s not a lock for a roster spot. Marvin Mitchell would play outside in that scenario. He’s a career backup, but he’s been working as the 1st team outside linebacker as Bishop works himself back in Training Camp.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

One other reason the Vikings will be worse this season is the loss of cornerback Antoine Winfield. Winfield graded out #1 among cornerback on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 2 seasons he was healthy, 2010 and 2012. Of course, he’s missed 17 games in the last 4 seasons, and he was going into his age 37 season, and much of that was run grade, but they’ll still miss what he provided for them last season. He was 19th at his position in coverage grade, playing inside in sub packages and outside in base packages, allowing 60 catches on 90 attempts for 575 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties and, of course, his work in the run game is unparalleled.

Without him, the Vikings will go forward with the trio of Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes, and Josh Robinson at cornerback. Cook is a decent player when in the lineup, but has somehow played in just 22 of 48 possible games in his first 3 years in the league since the Vikings took him in the 2nd round in 2010. Perhaps he can put it all together and stay healthy in his contract year this year, but it’s doubtful. AJ Jefferson is insurance and while he’s more reliable than most #4 cornerbacks, he’s graded out slightly below average in the last 2 seasons as a starter, after barely playing as an undrafted rookie in 2010.

Xavier Rhodes will start opposite Cook, but it’s very tough to count on rookie defensive backs, even if he was a 1st rounder. Josh Robinson, meanwhile, will take over Winfield’s old slot spot and will be a significant downgrade to say the least. As a 3rd round rookie last year, he graded out 108th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus, allowing 53 catches on 73 attempts for 489 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting just 1 pass and committing 3 penalties. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he’ll be playing in an unfamiliar spot on the slot. He played just 8 snaps there as a rookie.

Harrison Smith is the bright spot in this secondary. He was ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked safety last year as a 1st round rookie and while he struggled against the run, he was 6th at his position in coverage. He could be even better in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll once again start next to Jamarca Sanford. Sanford actually graded out above average last season, but he was awful in his first year as a starter in 2011, grading out dead last at his position. We’ll see which player shows up in 2013. Their other option at the position is Mistral Raymond, who was horrible in limited action last season, grading out 83rd out of 88 eligible safeties despite playing just 389 snaps.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Leslie Frazier got his option for 2014 picked up this off-season after a 16-22 start to his Vikings career, highlighted by last year’s playoff appearance. A larger extension could be in the works, but if the Vikings struggle this season those plans may be put on hold. Either way, I would be very surprised if he weren’t the Head Coach of the Vikings in 2014, as fickle as front offices can be with Head Coaches nowadays. Last year’s surprise season buys him a good amount of job security.

Grade: B

Introduction

The Vikings should have a more even record in close games and lose more players to injury in 2013 than they did in 2012. That will go a long way towards this team regressing in terms of win total, as will the loss of Winfield, but a more human season by Adrian Peterson could be the killer as the Vikings figure to struggle mightily to move the ball through the air once again. The NFC is a loaded conference this year and someone has to lose all those games. I think there’s a good chance it’s the Vikings.

They play a brutal schedule in arguably the toughest division in football and games against the NFC East and AFC North won’t be picnics either. They weren’t far off from being the 14th best team in the NFC last year, in least in terms of DVOA (which is significantly more consistent on a year to year basis than win total). Every year, one team goes from the playoffs to 5 or fewer wins. I think the Vikings are by far the most likely to do so this season.

I think they’re the worst team in their division and they’ll struggle to win more than 2 wins and 1 win is also a strong possibility. They also host Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Washington, and Philadelphia. Cleveland and Philadelphia will be easier games and Pittsburgh isn’t a good road team, so I’ll give them 2 wins in this 5 and 2 wins in the division. However, their road schedule takes them to the Giants, Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. They’ll be lucky to win more than one of those games. With only 2 truly easy games on the schedule, they could easily be this year’s surprise team, but in the wrong direction.

Projection: 5-11 4th in NFC North

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