New York Jets 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Ah, the Jets. The media’s punching bag. I’ll admit, they’re fun to make fun of, leading the NFL in butt fumbles and what not, but they’re not the worst team in the NFL, as they’re often made out to be. They have talent, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Darrelle Revis is gone, but he played all of 93 snaps with the team last season and they still played well defensively, so he was expendable going into his contract year. Credit the Jets for realizing they weren’t going to compete either way this year and getting something for him rather than watching him walk for nothing next March. Even without him, they ranked 9th in the NFL in defensive DVOA, thanks largely to the emergence of Antonio Cromartie as a Revis-lite #1 cornerback.

Of course, the Jets did rank 20th in the NFL surrendered 23.4 points per game, but that’s because their offense, which ranked 30th in offensive DVOA, couldn’t stay on the field. They’re closer to being the 9th place defense like DVOA suggests than the 20th. They were also 8th in yards allowed. Offensively, they scored just 17.6 points per game, 27th in the NFL and things don’t look like they’ll be any better this season.

They have some talent on the offensive line, but that’s largely wasted if you have a quarterback who can’t hit receivers even when protected. Their offensive line may help them get their running game back going this season if new starting running back Chris Ivory can be as good as he looked in flashes in New Orleans, but this is a passing league first and foremost and the Jets may have the worst quarterback situation in the NFL, after maybe Jacksonville.

Quarterbacks

Everyone knows about Mark Sanchez. Out of 32 qualified quarterbacks, he ranked 31st in QB rating last season, completing 54.3% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He was also ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback last season. This isn’t a new thing for him. His career high in QB rating is 78.2, from the 2011 season, and his career QB rating is 71.7. The Jets used to have a fantastic supporting cast which allowed them to mask Sanchez’s deficiencies, but he’s always had them. They’ve just been really obvious over the past 2 seasons. He was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback in both 2009 and 2011 as well and in his best season in 2010 he was still 28th out of 37 eligible. He has to go.

They drafted Geno Smith in the 2nd round this April for this reason, but he might not be much better, at least as a rookie. Quarterbacks that fall out of the first round usually have a very low success rate. Of the 29 teams who know who their week 1 starter at quarterback is going to be, 20 of them will be starting quarterbacks who were drafted in the 1st round. Of last season’s 12 playoff teams, 8 of them started quarterbacks who were drafted in the 1st round. And this isn’t some fluke. This is how it always is. Quarterbacks drafted in the 1st round don’t always pan out (see Sanchez, Mark), but guys that the NFL allows to fall out of the 1st round rarely make it as starters.

It makes sense. The NFL is a quarterback league and the quarterback position is so valuable that if you have the baseline skills to play quarterback, you’re going to go in the 1st round. Guys who fall out of the 1st round usually have something wrong with them. Sure, the process isn’t perfect and guys like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick can slip through the cracks, but when you draft a quarterback in the 2nd round, more often than not, you’re getting a career backup at best.

With Geno Smith, what’s wrong with him is that nothing stands out about him on tape. He doesn’t have a bad arm and he’s not inaccurate and he can run a little bit, but he doesn’t do anything that wows. It’s very concerning that the entire NFL let him fall out of the 1st round in a year when quarterback demand exceeded quarterback supply by more than any year in recent memory. Non-1st round pick quarterbacks especially struggle as rookies. Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson have been the exception over the last 2 seasons, but the previous 3 non-1st round pick quarterbacks to start week 1 were Chris Weinke, Quincy Carter, and Kyle Orton.

Chris Weinke, a 4th round pick, got the week 1 start for the Panthers in 2001 because he was 29. Still, he completed just 54.3% of his passes for an average of 5.4 YPA and 11 touchdowns to 19 interceptions that season. Quincy Carter, a 2nd round pick, got the week 1 start for the Cowboys that same season, completing just 51.1% of his passes for 6.1 YPA, and 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Meanwhile, Kyle Orton, a 4th round pick, got the start for the Bears in 2005, completing just 51.6% of his passes for an average of 5.1 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.

Of course, Smith might not even get a chance to start this season. Rex Ryan seems prepared to go down swinging with Mark Sanchez. They’ve even discussed using Geno Smith as an option specialist quarterback, which is one of the most asinine ideas I’ve heard in a while. They couldn’t get the option specialist idea going last year with Tim Tebow and trying with a quarterback who isn’t primarily a runner like Geno Smith isn’t going to make things better. Smith can run at times, but unlike Tebow, he’s most comfortable in the pocket. That just sounds like a recipe for disaster and it could hurt Smith’s development.

Then again, while Sanchez seems to have Rex Ryan’s full support, Ryan doesn’t seem to have anyone’s full support. The front office is all new this season, led by 1st time GM John Idzik, and Ryan is really the only holdover from last year’s debacle. It seems like he’s just around because the front office didn’t want to have to pay two coaches. The Idzik/Ryan combination was most recently in the news when Idzik suggested that Ryan didn’t have full control of who the starting quarterback would be.

Smith seems like Idzik’s guy. He drafted him. Sanchez wouldn’t even be on the roster if his salary wasn’t guaranteed. Ryan has stronger ties to Sanchez and no ties to the new front office. Ryan might not last the season and the team could easily quit on their lame duck Head Coach after a slow start, much like the Buccaneers did in 2011 and the Eagles did in 2012. That could lead to the Jets winning even fewer games than they otherwise would have. It’s a mess.

Ordinarily, the Jets’ poor turnover margin from 2012, -14, would be a sign of an impending turn around. 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.

However, that might not be the case with the Jets. They didn’t have bad luck recovering fumbles. In fact, they recovered 54.17% of fumbles that hit the ground. Mark Sanchez was simply a turnover machine, throwing 18 interceptions and fumbling 9 times. I don’t foresee that changing this season and it could be a similar situation with Geno Smith under center. They’ll probably have a turnover margin of -10 or worse again this season.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Their receiving corps won’t help whoever is under center. Santonio Holmes was signed to 5-year, 45.25 million dollar contract before the 2011 season to be their #1 wide receiver, but he’s been very disappointing. He’s had several confrontations with coaches and teammates and last season, when he hurt his foot against the 49ers, he just threw the ball up in the air in frustration, only to have it returned for a touchdown. It was almost like he knew he was done for the year and just didn’t care anymore.

Now, 11 months after the injury, he’s still not practicing and he could miss at least the first 6 games of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and he may end up going on injured reserve for the 2nd straight season. Reports say the Jets privately feel Holmes is milking his injury and taking his recovery easy because he really doesn’t care if he plays this season, set to make 7.5 million guaranteed regardless and almost definitely going to be cut after the season regardless. If true, he’s making a very dumb move and killing his market value for next off-season. He’ll rightfully be labeled as a teammate and someone who doesn’t love the game. Even when on the field, he’s unlikely to be an asset.

Without him, the Jets would go forward with the highly uninspiring trio of Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill, and Braylon Edwards at wide receiver. Kerley is the only one who is any good in that bunch. He led the team in receiving with 56 catches for 827 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and he did it on 88 targets so he wasn’t just a volume receiver. The 5-9 188 pounder is primarily a slot specialist.

Hill, meanwhile, was awful as a 2nd round rookie and looked every bit as raw as he was expected to be. He caught just 45.7% of his targets, 21 catches on 46 attempts, while dropping 6 passes and averaging less than a yard per route run on 262 routes run. He was ProFootballFocus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but it’s not promising. Edwards, meanwhile, has had some good seasons and is somehow only 30, but there’s a reason he was available so late into the off-season. He’s played just 541 snaps over the past 2 seasons and is barely worth a roster spot anymore. He could be their #1 receiver, matched up with Darrelle Revis, when they play the Buccaneers week 1.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Jets’ best chance to move the ball on offense is running the ball with new running back Chris Ivory. This was also something they couldn’t do last year as they averaged 3.8 yards per carry led by the uninspiring duo of Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell, 23rd in the NFL. Enter Chris Ivory. Ivory cost just a 4th round pick and a cheap 3 year, 6 million dollar deal, but he has the ability to be a real breakout star and give them a strong running game once more.

Ivory was a real find for the Saints as an undrafted free agent from Tiffin in 2009. He made the roster as a rookie and though he was never high on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles, when injuries struck, and they frequently did, he always made the most of his opportunity. In 3 seasons with the Saints, Ivory rushed for 1307 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 256 carries, an impressive 5.0 YPC.

Now going to the Jets, he’ll finally get a chance to be atop the depth chart. We’ve seen what Ivory has done in 250 carries in his career and it would be huge if he could do that again. He probably won’t do quite that as he’ll be running against stacked boxes much more often with Mark Sanchez/Geno Smith under center than he was with Drew Brees, but the Jets actually have a solid run blocking offensive line, so they’ll give him help. The other concern is if he can remain effective when getting 15-20 carries per game for an extended period of time, something he’s never done. He’s also had injury issues of his own and is currently battling hamstring problems in Training Camp.

If Ivory were to get hurt, their other options are not good. Bilal Powell has a 3.7 career YPC. Joe McKnight is not expected to stick on the roster and briefly was a cornerback last year. Mike Goodson actually got a more lucrative contract than Ivory’s extension, but he’s not an every down back and was arrested for DUI and gun charges this off-season. There will be plenty of opportunity for Ivory to be a 250+ carry back if he can stay healthy.

Grade: B

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Offensive Line

The Jets’ offensive line will help their running game, as they’ve graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked run blocking offensive line in each of the last 2 seasons and 4th in 2010. They’re also good in pass protection, grading out 1st, 13th, and 10th in pass blocking in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively. However, Mark Sanchez only completes 60.6% of his passes in his career even when not pressured so their pass blocking talent is wasted because of their quarterback play. Last season, Sanchez was pressured on just 29.2% of his drop backs, 11th fewest in the NFL. However, he only completed 58.4% of his passes when not pressured and threw 14 interceptions to 13 touchdowns. He also took a sack on 22.8% of pressured drop backs, 6th most in the NFL.

Center Nick Mangold is the rock of the offensive line. Mangold actually had one of the worst seasons in his career last year, grading out as “only” ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked center. Previous to last season, he graded out in the top-2 among centers in every season from 2008-2011. He remains one of the top centers in the NFL, excelling in run blocking, but also holding up well in pass protection. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is also one of the best players in the NFL at his respective position. With the exception of a down 2011 year, Ferguson has been a top-7 tackle every year since 2008. And in that down year, he still played very well, grading out 20th at his position.

Right tackle Austin Howard returns after playing pretty well in his first season as a starter in 2012. He graded out above average. He struggled in pass protection, allowing 10 sacks, but Mark Sanchez made him look worse than he was in pass protection and he also excelled as a run blocker. On top of that, he committed just 4 penalties and graded out above average overall. He should remain a solid starter, even if he is somewhat of a liability in pass protection.

The change on the offensive line comes at guard, where Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore are both gone as free agents (the latter has retired). Both players graded out above average last season (Moore was actually 4th at his position) so they’ll be tough to replace. Willie Colon will step in at left guard. He reinvented himself as a solid guard last year in his first season at the position. He was once an excellent right tackle, but he missed all but 1 game from 2010-2011 with injuries and they seem to have sapped his abilities.

He’s still a solid player when he’s in the lineup, but he also missed 5 games with injuries last season. He’s going into his age 30 season so he’s not getting any younger and he’ll probably miss at least a few games with injury this season. Vladimir Ducaase and Brian Winters are the top candidates to take over if he missed times with injury. Ducaase is a 2010 2nd round pick who has played sparingly as a backup in his career, while Winters is a 3rd round rookie.

Stepping in at right guard is Stephen Peterman. Once a solid starter, Peterman graded out slightly below average last year and, going into his age 31 season, his best days are probably behind him. He was a good run blocker, but struggled mightily in pass protection. He could be pushed by Winters for the starting job at some point this season, if not before week 1. There’s still some talent here at guard, but they’ve downgraded from last season. Overall, it’s still a very strong offensive line.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Jets have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve spent a first round pick on a defensive lineman in each of the last 3 drafts and each one will be featured prominently in their hybrid defensive scheme. Muhammad Wilkerson is the best of the bunch. The 2011 1st round pick had a big time breakout year in his 2nd season last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end behind only JJ Watt.

Wilkerson wasn’t the pass rusher Watt was, but he still did well in that aspect, with 5 sacks, 10 hits, and 22 hurries on 472 pass rush snaps, a 7.8% pass rush rate. He graded out 4th at his position in that aspect, but as a run stuffer he at least rivaled Watt. If not for Watt, he actually would have graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top ranked 3-4 defensive end in their 5 year history. He was ProFootballFocus’ 5th rated overall defensive player. He should continue being an elite player in his 3rd year in the league. He plays defensive tackle in 4-3 packages and defensive end in 3-4 packages.

1st round pick Sheldon Richardson will also play that role and see significant snaps as a rookie. We’ll see how the 13th overall pick holds up. Mike DeVito and Quinton Coples essentially split that role last season. DeVito, a very talented two-down run stuffer, is now in Kansas City, while Coples, a 2012 1st round pick, is moving to rush linebacker in 3-4 sets this year. He’ll continue rushing the passer as a 4-3 defensive end in 4-3 packages.

Coples seems like an odd fit as a rush linebacker at 6-6 284. Even though he’s working to lose weight, he’ll probably be playing in the 270s this season. While Mario Williams and Tamba Hali have had success at this position in that weight range, they’re the exception not the rule. As a rookie, he graded out about average on 516 snaps, struggling against the run, but excelling as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 9 hits, and 14 hurries on 312 pass rush snaps, a 9.3% pass rush rate. He could have a better year in a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league, but I don’t like the positional fit so that could hurt him. They probably would have been better off using the 13th pick on Jarvis Jones instead of Richardson and leaving Coples on the line.

The Jets are also really lacking for a good opposing edge rusher. Calvin Pace was a cap casualty this off-season, but was re-signed to a cheaper one year deal and looks like the favorite to once again line up as an every down edge rusher, playing rush linebacker in 3-4 sets and defensive end in 4-3 sets. Going into his age 33 season, he looks pretty done. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst ranked rush linebacker last season, especially struggling as a pass rusher.

Kenrick Ellis will take over as the nose tackle for the departed Sione Pouha, who was once a great run stopper, but struggled last year through a serious back injury. Ellis was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and has played 308 nondescript snaps in 2 years in the league. In base 3-4 packages, he’ll play on the line with Wilkerson and Richardson, with Pace and Coples as the rush linebackers. In base 4-3 packages, he’ll come off the field and the four aforementioned players will play on the line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

David Harris remains as an every down linebacker, but only because the Jets still owe him guaranteed money on what was a very short sighted, 4 year, 36 million dollar extension, with 29.5 of that guaranteed, signed before the 2011 season. Harris has never graded out significantly above average and last year was one of the worst linebackers in the NFL, grading out 48th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. He especially struggles against the run.

Next to him, 2012 3rd round pick Demario Davis will be moving into a larger role, after serving as a coverage complement to departed run stuffing middle linebacker Bart Scott. This year, he’ll take over as an every down linebacker. As a rookie, he graded out below average on 315 snaps. Garrett McIntyre will be the 3rd linebacker in base 4-3 sets, coming off the field in passing downs. He’ll be a run stopping specialist and he’s pretty mediocre. On top of that, with their poor cap situation, they’re really lacking for depth in the front 7.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

Part of the reason the Jets were comfortable letting Revis go was because of the emergence of Antonio Cromartie as a legitimate #1 shutdown cornerback. Matching up primarily against opponent’s #1 receivers, Cromartie graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked cornerback in coverage, allowing 40 catches on 87 attempts for 511 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 12 passes and committing 6 penalties. He was always a very good #2 cornerback with the Jets before last year, but last year was the best of his career, even better than his San Diego days, when he was also a #1 cornerback. If he can continue close to this level of play, it will allow the Jets to continue to play strong defense.

Opposite him, the Jets will start 1st round rookie Dee Milliner, who the Jets drafted to replenish cornerback depth. He’ll start over Kyle Wilson, who played pretty well when thrust into the starting lineup last season, allowing 46 catches on 84 attempts for 558 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 5 penalties. He graded out about average. A former 1st round pick in his own right (2010), Wilson will be moving to his natural spot on the slot this season. As a result, they’re even deeper at cornerback than they were last season. Ellis Lankster struggled mightily as the #3 cornerback last season. Now he probably won’t be much of a factor.

Safety is definitely a weakness though. The Jets lost both starters, Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry, this off-season and both played alright last season. Dawan Landry was signed to play in one spot, but the veteran safety is clearly on the decline, going into his age 31 season, grading out below average in each of the last two seasons. There’s a reason why he was cut by the Jaguars and forced to sign a cheap one year deal with the Jets. The 6-1 220 pounder especially struggles in coverage. Either Antonio Allen or Josh Bush will man the other safety spot. They were 7th and 6th round picks respectively in 2012 and played 0 and 17 snaps respectively as rookies.

Grade: B+

Head Coach

A quarter of NFL Head Coaches were fired last off-season so there are unlikely to be a lot of firings this season and this off-season. However, Rex Ryan almost definitely seems like one of them. It’s not necessarily that he’s a terrible coach, but that’s how the NFL works. Ryan is going into his 5th year with the Jets and only 9 Head Coaches have been with their current team longer and all 9 have multiple division titles (6 have rings and 7 coached playoff teams last season). Being a 5+ year tenured Head Coach is a serious honor in today’s NFL. Along with fellow 2009 hire Jim Schwartz of the Detroit Lions, Ryan is definitely on the hot set. It’s time to deliver or be let go for both and I like Schwartz’ chances of delivering a lot more. There’s a good chance Ryan is fired mid-season and/or his team quits on him.

Grade: C

Overall

The Jets might not be worse than they were last season, but I don’t expect them to be better either. The talent they have will once again be masked by arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL and they could quit on their Head Coach mid-season and, as a result, win even fewer games than they otherwise would. They should be among the worst teams in the NFL.

I think they’re the worst team in their division and even with 4 games against the less than stellar Dolphins and Bills, they’ll probably just win 1 divisional game. Outside of the division, they host Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Oakland, Cleveland. Oakland and Cleveland should be wins, but the rest will be tough. They could hang with Tampa Bay or perhaps win a trap game against New Orleans or Pittsburgh (two poor road teams), so I’ll give them an optimistic 3 wins in that bunch. However, they also go to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Carolina, and Tennessee. Only Tennessee is winnable and I’ll switch gears and be pessimistic here for fairness and give them no wins in that bunch, putting them at 4-12.

Projection: 4-12 4th in AFC East

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Buffalo Bills 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Bills had the worst fumble luck in the NFL last season, recovering just 30.6% of fumbles that hit the ground last season, which led to a -8 fumble margin and subsequently a -13 turnover margin. That should improve in 2013. A team’s ability to recover fumbles once they hit the ground is largely more dependent on luck and fumble type than actual ability and for this reason it averages out over time. 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. If the Bills are at 50%, it will definitely help stabilize the turnover margin.

Quarterback

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a large improvement in wins is in store for the Bills, largely because of their quarterback situation. In a historically bad quarterback class, the Bills were the only team who felt there was a quarterback worth taking in the first round, trading down with the Rams and taking EJ Manuel from Florida State 16th overall. They definitely didn’t hide their intention to add a young quarterback, talking at length about their desire to do so starting pretty much early last season, and when they cut big money failure Ryan Fitzpatrick this off-season, it left a huge hole at quarterback.

They did, however, surprise everyone with the quarterback they decided to take. Reports in the days before the draft had the Bills interested in everyone from Geno Smith to Ryan Nassib to Matt Barkley in the first round, but it proved to just be very good smokescreening by the Bills, who had their eyes on Manuel all along.

It’s definitely a risk. Manuel is rawer than even guys like Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, and Cam Newton who have been drafted in the first round of major projects in recent years. It’s very possible that the Bills were one of only a few teams who felt he was, or any quarterback for that matter, was worth a 1st round pick. Fortunately, all of his problems seem coachable and he has plenty of upside, but he’s unlikely to make a positive impact as a rookie.

Kevin Kolb is the veteran option and would be their best bet if their goal is to win as many games as possible this season, but the Bills seem ready to hand the job to Manuel and have him take his lumps, rather than desperately trying for their first 8-8+ season in 9 years. There is much debate about whether the trial by fire/learn by doing approach is better for a young quarterback than having him wait until he’s ready and not form bad habits, so we’ll see how this approach works. In my opinion, it depends on the quarterback.

Kolb, meanwhile, is on his 3rd stop in his NFL career in Buffalo, after he flamed out as a big money quarterback in Arizona. The 2007 2nd round pick has certainly flashed at times, impressing in limited action with Philadelphia as backup to Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb, to the extent where the Cardinals traded a starting cornerback and a 2nd round pick to Philadelphia for Kolb, who they gave a 63 million dollar contract over 6 years. He looked on his way to being the quarterback he was supposed to be in 2012, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in 6 starts, going 4-2, but injuries cut his season short once again.

That’s always been the issue for him. It’s why he lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Vick and it’s why the Cardinals cut him this off-season. Now he’s going into his age 29 season, with just 755 career pass attempts to his name in 34 games and a 28 to 25 touchdown to interception rate. He was rightfully forced to sign a cheaper, short term deal with the Bills and compete for the starting job and another injury put him behind EJ Manuel early, as he comically missed a week of practice after slipping on a wet bath mat. He’ll probably remain behind Manuel all season.

Grade: C

Running Back

Part of why the Bills were able to score even a respectable 21.5 points per game, 21st in the NFL, last season was because of their running game. Their running game should once again be a great aid to the passing game and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel this season, likely even more so this season as they plan to be very run heavy. New Head Coach Doug Marrone was one of the run heaviest coaches in College Football, running more than they passed in all 4 of his seasons as Syracuse’s Head Coach, and they want to make life as easy as possible for Manuel.

CJ Spiller will be the workhorse, playing every down including on the goal line, and the Buffalo website predicted he could see 30 touches per game. That would be an absurd 480 touches over the course of the season. That won’t happen, as is often the case with lofty touch expectations for backs because some games just force you to throw out your game plan and pass more than you’d like.

However, Marrone said he wants to feed Spiller the ball “until he throws up” and he runs a very up tempo fast paced offense so he’ll definitely get 30 touches in some games. 360 touches (300 carries and 60 catches) over the season wouldn’t be absurd, assuming, as always is the caveat with running backs, he stays healthy. The 5-11 200 pound Spiller has never handled that kind of work load at any level, but he’s never had a serious injury either, missing just 2 games in 3 seasons, and he’s still young (age 26 season) and has very little tread on his tires.

Spiller certainly has plenty of talent. He’s a terrific pass catcher, in addition to what he does as a runner, with 21.5% of his career touches coming on catches. He’s averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his career, including a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry last season. He was ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked running back both in run grade and overall grade behind Adrian Peterson last season and he also was their #3 back in pass catching grade. He averaged 3.6 yards after contact per carry, also 2nd behind Peterson, and broke 53 tackles on 207 carries, the highest rate in the NFL among players with as many carries as him. He was 6th in the NFL with 1703 yards from scrimmage despite just 250 touches. He probably won’t maintain his rates because that’s near impossible for anyone to maintain, especially getting as many touches as Spiller is expected to, but all signs are pointing to the 9th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft being one of the NFL leaders in all-purpose yardage and having a Pro-Bowl breakout year.

Fred Jackson is a talented back as well, but he’ll be a pure backup this season. That’s good for him as he heads into his age 32 season. He doesn’t have as much tread on his tires as most 32-year-old backs, not making his NFL debut until his age 26 season and touching the ball just 1141 times over the last 6 seasons, but he still seems to be breaking down. He’s missed 12 games in the last 2 seasons combined and managed just 3.8 yards per carry in 2012. He’ll see still some work as the #2 back in a run heavy offense, but he’s unlikely to post big numbers unless Spiller gets hurt. He did average 5.5 yards per carry in 2011 before getting hurt though and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry for his career, so he is talented.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

In addition to having a rookie quarterback, the Bills also have a very young receiving corps. 3 of their top 4 wide receivers were drafted in either 2012 or 2013. 2nd round rookie Robert Woods will compete with 2012 3rd round pick TJ Graham for the starting job and the trio will all see the field in 3-wide receiver sets. 3rd round rookie Marquise Goodwin will probably be the #4 receiver and see a very small role on offense as a rookie, though the blazing fast track star could be a weapon on special teams as a returner. There’s definitely some promise with this group, but it’s very, very tough to rely on young receivers.

Graham was awful as a rookie last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst rated wide receiver, by a fairly large margin. He caught just 31 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown on 58 attempts and 428 pass snaps. He ranked dead last in the NFL among eligible wide receivers who didn’t play for the Cardinals in QB rating when thrown to last season, as Bills quarterbacks had a 54.0 QB rating when throwing to him. He also dropped 7 passes to 31 catches, the 2nd worst rate in the NFL among eligible wide receivers and averaged just 0.77 yards per route run, worst in the NFL among eligible wide receivers who didn’t play for the Cardinals.

Steve Johnson is the veteran of the group. He broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2010, which is usually when receivers break out, and has posted 1000-yard seasons in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been very consistent with 82/1073/10, 76/1004/7, and 79/1046/6 seasons and hasn’t missed a game despite playing through various ailments, but he could see his numbers dip this season. He has a raw rookie quarterback and the Bills will run more. He’s largely a volume receiver, averaging 138 targets per season, but could see that drop down to 120 this season.

Tight end Scott Chandler is the other veteran. Chandler is a big 6-7 263 pounder who blocks well and is a threat around the goal line, with 12 of his 81 catches over the past 2 seasons going for a touchdown. He’s otherwise a marginal player who doesn’t get much separation downfield. He’s totaled 81 catches for 960 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over the last 2 seasons. He’s also coming off of a torn ACL suffered last December so he might not be 100%, especially early in the season.

Lee Smith is the #2 tight end. He didn’t play much last season because Chan Gailey didn’t like using 2-tight end sets, but he should see more action this season. He played 294 snaps as almost solely a blocker, running just 17 routes. That’s all the 6-6 269 pounder really is. Overall, the Bills’ receiving corps are underwhelming at best. Between that and a raw rookie quarterback, it’s going to be hard for them to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Bills once had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but it’s on the decline. In 2011, they graded out 1st on ProFootballFocus in pass protection and 15th in run blocking, but last year, they were 4th and 21st respectively and they could be even worse this season. A big part of the reason why is the loss of left guard Andy Levitre, who signed with the Titans this off-season on a deal worth 46.8 million over 6 years. That’s a lot of money for a guard and he’s worth what they paid him. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked guard in 2012 and 6th ranked in 2011.

David Snow will get the 1st crack at replacing him, but the 2012 undrafted free agent played just 139 snaps as a rookie, primarily at center, his natural position, and the Bills don’t seem too sure about him. Colin Brown and Doug Legursky are the other options. Brown has played just 155 snaps in his career, while Legursky has struggled mightily whenever he’s been counted on to start as a utility interior offensive lineman with the Steelers. Things are so desperate at the position that the Bills have experimented moving left tackle Cordy Glenn to left guard, but that wouldn’t make any sense because the 2012 2nd round pick played well at the more important left tackle position last season. This scenario would have Thomas Welch and his 93 career snaps protecting EJ Manuel’s blindside.

The other reason their offensive line has declined since 2011 is that center Eric Wood and right tackle Erik Pears have failed to live up to their 2011 levels of play. Wood was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked center in 2011, despite missing half the season with injury, but he’s graded out below average in each of his other seasons since being drafted in 2009. The former 1st round pick has plenty of talent, but has never been able to put it together and emerge as one of the top centers in the NFL. The Bills rightfully seem content to let him play out his contract year in 2013 before making a decision on him.

Pears, meanwhile, graded out above average in his first chance as a starter in 2011, but graded out below average in 2012 and also missed 9 games with injury. He’ll compete with Chris Hairston for the starting job. Hairston graded out below average on the left side making a few starts in 2011, but seemed more comfortable at right tackle in Pears’ absence last season. He probably deserves the job, as inconsistent as he’s been, but he’s still missing valuable practice time with lingering foot/ankle injuries from last season. Finishing off the offensive line is right guard Kraig Urbik, who has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter and he should remain an above average starter this year. It’s still a decent offensive line, but it’s not what it once was.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Bills had high hopes defensively last season, after signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to big contracts, and using the 10th overall pick on Stephon Gilmore. However, they allowed 27.2 points per game, 26th in the NFL and a massive disappointment. Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt rightfully took much of the blame and was let go this off-season, replaced with former Jets Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine, who will be implementing a new hybrid defensive scheme.

That’s reason for optimism, as is the way they finished last season defensively. After their week 8 bye, they allowed just 23.1 points per game, as opposed to 32.4 points per game before the bye. Even that 23.1 points per game figure is skewed by two very poor defensive performances against two of the better offenses in the NFL (New England and Seattle). Excluding those two games, they didn’t allow more than 24 points after the bye and they were generally a solid defense.

What was the difference? Well, Mario Williams played much more like himself after getting his wrist problem corrected during the bye and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore really improved as the season went on, stepping up as a #1 cornerback ahead of schedule. I’ll get to Gilmore later, but Williams had 8 sacks, 2 hits, and 25 hurries in the final 9 games of the season, after just 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 13 hurries in the first 7. He was also noticeably better against the run.

After an off-season to get healthy, Williams has a very good chance of once again being one of the top edge rushers in the NFL. He’s only going into his age 28 season and before missing most of the 2011 season with a torn pectoral, he graded out as a top-15 4-3 defensive end in each season from 2008-2010. He was on his way towards a similar season in 2011 before the injury and all in all finished 17th in 2012. There’s a reason the Bills gave him a 6 year, 96 million dollar contract and he still has a chance to make good on that.

Williams will play both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker in Pettine’s hybrid scheme and he has experience in both schemes. He could also see some action at 5-technique end in a 3-4 at times because of his size at 285 pounds. He’s plenty versatile and should have plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will both play every down on the defensive line, regardless of the scheme. Both are big 300+ pounders who move very well for their size.

Dareus was the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and has been ProFootballFocus’ #12 ranked defensive tackle in each of the last 2 seasons. The ridiculously athletic d-lineman is still only 24 this season and probably hasn’t played his best football. Williams, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in 2010 and #3 ranked defensive tackle in 2012, with an injury plagued season in the middle. That injury is far behind him and he should continue being one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL.

Along with Dareus and Williams, one of either Alex Carrington or Alan Branch will play on the line when the Bills go to 3-4 packages. Carrington was excellent as a situational interior pass rusher last season with 2 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries on 189 pass rush snaps last season, a 9.5% pass rush rate. He could also play some defensive end in 4-3 sets. He’d play one 5-technique spot with either Dareus or Williams manning the nose. Branch, meanwhile, will play the nose in some situations with Dareus and Williams outside. The 6-5 331 pound Branch is just a two-down run stuffer, but he can be a very good one, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #3 run stuffing defensive tackle in 2011.

As I mentioned, Mario Williams will also play some on the defensive line in 3-4 sets. In 4-3 sets, Kyle Williams and Dareus will play inside with Mario Williams outside and either Carrington or Jerry Hughes as the other defensive end depending on the situation. That’s the one hole in an otherwise promising Bills front line. They don’t have another edge rusher opposite Mario Williams.

This isn’t a new problem. Mark Anderson was awful in his first year of a 4-year, 20 million dollar contract last year. He played just 256 snaps before going down for the year with injury, so he wasn’t eligible, but if he had been eligible he would have graded out 5th worst among 4-3 defensive ends, despite his limited playing time. Kyle Moore took over for him, but he wasn’t much better, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 49th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible last season.

Moore is no longer with the team and Anderson was cut. The Bills traded for Jerry Hughes from the Colts to be a situational edge rusher, but the bust of a 2010 1st round pick has played just 873 snaps in 3 seasons and graded out below average in all 3 seasons. He did show some promise as a pass rusher last season, grading out above average with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 17 hurries on 246 pass rush snaps, a 11.0% pass rush rate, but he was awful in other aspects of the game and committed 7 penalties. He does have experience in both schemes though.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Nigel Bradham and Kiko Alonso are probably the Bills’ two every down linebackers, though Bryan Scott could continue serving a coverage specialist role. The converted safety is great in coverage, but struggles mightily against the run, as you’d expect from a 6-1 219 pounder. Bradham and Alonso will definitely start though. Alonso is a 2nd round rookie, while Bradham was a 4th round pick in 2012. He graded out about average on 402 snaps as a rookie. There’s promise here, but neither one is proven at all.

Manny Lawson comes over from Cincinnati and will be a two-down base package linebacker, playing outside both in 3-4 and 4-3 sets. He has experience in both schemes and though he’s not much of a pass rusher at all, as the 49ers learned early in his career, but he’s an alright run stuffer. In 3-4 sets, he’ll line up outside with Mario Williams or maybe Jerry Hughes, though Hughes will probably rotate with Lawson primarily.

Grade: C+

Secondary

I mentioned I’d get back to Stephon Gilmore. When Stephon Gilmore declared for the NFL draft as a junior out of South Carolina, he certainly had the profile of a top draft pick. After committing as a 4-star recruit and the #2 recruit from the state of South Carolina, Gilmore was a starter at the University of South Carolina from the word go as a true freshman and wound up starting all 39 possible games in 3 years in the always tough SEC. His efforts as a freshman earned him Freshman All-American honors. As a sophomore, he was named a 3rd team All-American. He had a down junior year by his standard, but at The Combine, Gilmore measured in at 6-0 3/8 with 31 inch arms and ran a 4.40 40, which sent his stock soaring once again.

The Bills obviously liked what they saw as they drafted him 10th overall in 2012 and made him a rookie starter. They had huge hopes for him, but he didn’t get off to the best start. In his first 5 NFL games, he allowed 19 completions on 31 attempts for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns. This was completely understandable as even for a talented prospect such as Gilmore, the transition to the NFL can be a tough one, especially for a cornerback and especially for a cornerback frequently asked to cover opponent’s #1 receivers from day one.

However, in week 6, Gilmore hit his stride and played very well from there on out. He allowed 30 completions on 56 attempts for 409 yards. He didn’t allow a touchdown the rest of the way and intercepted his only pass of the season week 13. His only issue was penalties, as he was penalized 11 times in his final 11 games, but as he matures, that issue should correct itself. Heading into his 2nd year in the league, Gilmore, who doesn’t turn 23 until September, looks poised for a big year. He’s one of the reasons to expect an improved Bills defense.

He’ll start opposite Leodis McKelvin, another former 1st round pick, from the 2008 class. McKelvin has largely been a bust, only once playing more than 514 snaps in a season and missing 16 games in the last 5 seasons, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons so he could be alright, as long as he can stay in the lineup. His biggest impact last season was on special teams, where he returned 23 punts for 431 yards and 2 touchdowns, en route to making the All-Pro team as a punt returner. However, with the 4 year contract worth 20 million dollars the Bills peculiarly gave him this off-season, the new coaching staff clearly sees him as a starter at cornerback.

Justin Rogers will continue manning the slot even though he was horrible in that role last season, his first season since serious action since being drafted in 7th round in 2011. Despite being just a part-time player, he was still ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, 110th in coverage grade. He allowed 41 catches on 62 attempts for 477 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting just 4 passes and committing 2 penalties. He could be pushed by 2012 4th round pick Ron Brooks.

Aaron Williams was one of the starters at cornerback last season, but the new regime likes him at safety more, with McKelvin at cornerback. McKelvin will probably be an upgrade, because Williams was horrible in his first 2 years in the league at cornerback. The stiff hipped tweener could be better at safety, where some teams liked him better coming out of Texas in 2011, before the Bills took him in the 2nd round and made him a cornerback. He’ll have to beat out Da’Norris Searcy, who has graded out above average on 511 snaps as a backup since the Bills took him the 4th round pick in 2011. Whoever wins that job will be replacing George Wilson, a veteran who surprisingly graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked safety last season. I don’t think either Williams or Searcy can be that good.

Jairus Byrd will be the other safety once again, at least he will once the Bills’ franchise player stops holding out. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 4 seasons as a starter and has been a top-3 safety in each of the last 2 seasons on ProFootballFocus, the only player in the NFL who can say so. Behind Eric Weddle, he’s probably the best safety in the NFL and I think he’s at least the best deep safety in the NFL. Hopefully for the Bills’ sake, he doesn’t hold out into the regular season or get out of shape from not practicing, especially with a new coaching staff coming in. The latter is more likely. The Bills really should have locked him up this off-season. He deserves the Dashon Goldson money he wants.

Grade: B

Head Coach

It’s very tough to grade first time Head Coaches, but Doug Marrone was certainly out of left field as far as Head Coach hires go. He was just 35-35 in 4 years as the Syracuse Head Coach, going 11-17 in the Big East, so he wasn’t a big time college Head Coach. He has an NFL background, serving as the Saints’ Offensive Coordinator under Sean Payton with Drew Brees from 2006-2008 and for what it’s worth Payton thinks very highly of him, but I’m skeptical at best about this hire.

Grade: C+

Overall

The Bills should have a more even turnover margin and play better defense in 2013 and of course they’ll be able to run the ball, but this is still a passing league and I’m very concerned about their ability to move the ball through the air. If I had to go either way, I’d say they’re more likely to go over 6 wins than under, but they should be right in that 5-7 win range once again. They’ll play spoiler from time to time, but the best they can hope for this season is that EJ Manuel shows promise for the future.

I think they’ll either win two or three divisional games. They’re better than the Jets, but not as good as New England or Miami, though they’re closer to Miami than the Jets. They also host Carolina, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Atlanta, which is a tough bunch, but they could win 2 of those games. They also go to Cleveland, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay, which is an easier group. There could be 2 wins in there as well. Overall, I have them at 6-10 again.

Projection: 6-10 3rd in AFC East

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Miami Dolphins 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Dolphins were hailed by the media as the winners of the off-season, after all of the millions they spent, but like previous “winners” of the off-season, they should disappoint. The Buccaneers were the “winner” of last off-season, after shelling out big money for Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, and Eric Wright, but managed just 7 wins. The “Dream Team” Eagles came before them and they won just 8 games. Dan Snyder and the free spending Redskins came many a time before them, but largely produced no results.

The well run teams who sustain consistent success, the Packers, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Ravens, Steelers, Falcons, Saints, etc. of the world, almost never make a big move on the first day of free agency. They instead focus on strong drafting, developing and re-signing their own guys, and letting the market come to them and filling holes with solid starters on cheaper deals on later days in free agency. They never make panic signings early in free agency.

You can say it’s because they are already good or because they don’t have a lot of cap space, but none of those teams was built through big free agency signings. No consistently good team ever was. The Ravens’ 2013 off-season is the perfect of example of this. They drafted well, adding starters in the first two rounds of the draft, and got solid starters on cheaper contracts in Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Michael Huff, and Daryl Smith after the dust cleared in free agency.

I don’t know how much better of a team the Dolphins are as a result of this off-season. Mike Wallace was the big signing, signing this off-season’s biggest contract, getting 60 million over 5 years from the Dolphins. He’ll undoubtedly be an upgrade on the outside opposite Brian Hartline, but he’s overrated and not worth what he was paid. In 2010 and 2011, Wallace was one of the best receivers in the league, catching a combined 132 passes for 2450 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, Wallace held out long into Training Camp last off-season, putting himself above the team and was not the same all season.

Wallace was ProFootballFocus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. He caught just 55.2% of the passes thrown his way and averaged just 13.1 yards per catch. Wallace has demonstrated for the past year or so that he’d rather get paid above anything, holding out at his team’s expense and then chasing the money and going to Miami so it was probably smart of the Steelers not to lock him up long term (not like they had the cap space, but still). He could easily coast now that he’s been paid. On top of that, the track record of receivers switching teams is dubious at best. Vincent Jackson last season was an exception, not the rule. I doubt he lasts 3 years of his contract with the team, before being cut or forced to restructure.

He wasn’t the only signing in the receiving corps, which was a big need of their off-season. I’ll give them credit for addressing their biggest need. They also signed Dustin Keller to a one-year prove it deal coming off a down season due to injury. That was one of their smart moves. He caught just 28 passes for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, but he missed 8 games and was limited in others with injury. The previous season, the former 1st round pick caught 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns despite being on the pitiful Jets’ passing offense.

Along with Keller and Wallace, the Dolphins also added Brandon Gibson, which was not such a smart move. Gibson isn’t a bad player, but he’s a marginal talent and not worth a 3 year, 10 million dollar deal and he’ll also be converting to the slot, which he hasn’t played a lot in his career. He’s played just 175 slot snaps in his career and he displaced Davone Bess, a cheaper and more proven slot receiver who caught 321 passes in that role over the past 5 seasons. He was sent to Cleveland for a late round pick. They essentially overpaid to downgrade the slot receiver position.

On the defensive side of the ball, the two big signings they made were linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Ellerbe displaced Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker, while Wheeler displaced Kevin Burnett on the outside. Ironically, Burnett graded out better at 4-3 outside linebacker than Wheeler did last season on ProFootballFocus, grading out 4th, while Wheeler ranked 6th. The same is true with Dansby and Ellerbe. Dansby ranked 13th, while Ellerbe ranked 14th.

On top of that, they are both much less proven and the Dolphins are essentially paying for one year wonders. Prior to last season, Ellerbe had played 917 career snaps in 3 seasons and graded out below average in all 3 seasons. Wheeler, meanwhile, had topped out at 537 snaps in a season in 3 years as a part-time base package linebacker in Indianapolis, prior to last year’s breakout year. Sure, both Wheeler and Ellerbe are younger than the guy they’re replacing, but they’re paying a ton of money for guys who are both best case scenario going to match their predecessor’s performance. They may prove to be long-term upgrades, but don’t expect better linebacker play from them this season. Considering they shelled out 26 million for Wheeler and 35 million for Ellerbe on 5 year deals, that’s not a good move.

On top of that, they had serious losses this off-season, losing running back Reggie Bush, cornerback Sean Smith, and most importantly left tackle Jake Long. They’ll attempt to replace Bush with 2012 4th round pick Lamar Miller and Bush may prove to be the easiest to replace. Miller did just have 51 carries as a rookie, but he certainly has the natural talent to best case scenario replace Bush’s abilities as a runner, but he’s unlikely to replace Bush in the passing game, where he caught 78 passes over the last 2 seasons. Shelling out big money for an aging, injury prone back like Bush wouldn’t have been a smart move, but they could still miss him.

Sean Smith, meanwhile, was their #1 cornerback last season, grading out slightly above average in coverage, allowing 62 catches on 113 attempts for 732 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 7 penalties. The Dolphins signed Brent Grimes to a one-year prove it deal this off-season to replace him and it wasn’t a bad move at all. Grimes was ProFootballFocus’ #3 ranked cornerback in 2011, which led to him being franchise tagged by the Falcons in the following off-season, so the upside is there. However, he’s now 30 years old and he has played just 13 games in the last 2 seasons combined thanks to injury, most notable a torn Achilles that cost him most of 2012. His best days may be behind him and the fact that the Falcons didn’t seem too interested in keeping him concerns me.

Jake Long, meanwhile, should be the toughest to replace. Long is a household name because he was the 1st overall pick of the Dolphins in 2008 and because he deservingly made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, after ranking 10th, 2nd, and 2nd on ProFootballFocus in 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively, injuries helped drop him to 21st in 2011 and all the way down to right around league average in 2012.

Still, even league average should be significantly better than what they get from new left tackle Jonathan Martin, a 2nd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Martin struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th worst ranked offensive tackle last season, despite getting to play 11 of his starts on the easier right side. In 5 starts at left tackle to end the season, he was miserable, allowing 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 17 hurries in just those 5 starts alone. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but his collegiate tape features plenty of him struggling to pass protect against speed rushers. Just pop in the 2011 USC/Stanford tape to watch Nick Perry turn him into a roller-skater for 4 straight quarters plus 3 overtimes. Reports out of Training Camp haven’t been good either.

The Dolphins also don’t seem too bullish on him as a blindside protector, trying before draft day to facilitate a trade for Branden Albert, so he could play left tackle and Martin could stay at right tackle. The Dolphins instead had to “settle” for Tyson Clabo, who was, to their credit, a smart, cheap one year signing. He’s been a top-20 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 5 seasons and even going into his age 32 season, he should still be a very strong right tackle for them. However, it leaves Martin on the more important blindside, especially bad since the Dolphins have a young quarterback under center to develop. That should counteract much of the boost Tannehill will get from an improved receiving corps.

Quarterback

And with that, we get to the most important player to the Dolphins’ playoff chances this season. Their defense was already 7th in the NFL, allowing 19.8 points per game last season, and they’re unlikely to be better. The unit that needs to improve is their offense, which averaged just 18.0 points per game last season, 27th in the NFL. They’ve improved their supporting cast, but they still have a lot of problems around the quarterback and Tannehill will need to significantly improve his level of play if this team is going to make good on their playoff expectations. As a rookie, he completed just 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.8 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.

He definitely flashed at times and ProFootballFocus thought he was much better than his raw numbers, as they ranked him 13th among quarterbacks throwing the ball on tape. He also ranked 16th in their adjusted QB rating, which takes into account drops, throw aways, hit as thrown, spikes, and yards in the air. There’s definitely upside here, but he was an incredibly raw quarterback coming out of Texas A&M and I don’t see him being significantly better this season, at least not enough to lead the team into the post-season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I’ve already mentioned the tackles Martin and Clabo. On the interior of the offensive line, things aren’t great either. They have a 4 way competition for the 2 guard spots. John Jerry and Richie Incognito are the incumbents, but neither fit the zone blocking scheme the Dolphins coaching staff is trying to transition them to. Jerry graded out below average last season, as he was throughout his earlier career as a reserve, while Incognito once again graded out above average.

They’ll face competition from 3rd round rookie Dallas Thomas and free agent acquisition Lance Louis, both of whom are better fits for a zone blocking scheme. However, it’s very tough to count on 3rd round rookies as starters and Louis has been a below average player throughout his career with the Bears and he’s also coming off of a torn ACL, suffered last November. Either one of them winning the starting job wouldn’t be a good thing, but that might be the case considering the schematic direction the Dolphins are attempting to go on the offensive line. Incognito could be a final cut, as the Dolphins could save 4.3 million against the cap and 4 million in pure cash by cutting him, as he goes into his age 30 season.

Along with Clabo, center Mike Pouncey is the saving grace of this offensive line. Best known as Maurkice’s twin brother, the 2011 1st round pick improved off of a nondescript rookie year by grading out better than Maurkice ever has in 2012, as he ranked 8th at his position in ProFootballFocus. Clearly a natural talent as he was the highest drafted interior offensive lineman in roughly 15 years when the Dolphins took him 15th overall, Pouncey could continue to improve in 2013 and emerge as one of the better centers in the NFL. Unfortunately, it’s overall a weak offensive line, especially at the all-important blindside position. They ranked 24th in pass blocking and 23rd in run blocking last season and could be even worse this season.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Lamar Miller will take over as the starting running back this season and I do think there’s some serious breakout potential here so the Dolphins could continue to have a solid running game. When the Miami Dolphins moved up to take Lamar Miller in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, many didn’t understand the move. The receiver needy Dolphins had yet to take a receiver and running back wasn’t an immediate need and didn’t seem worth moving up to fill. The Dolphins had Reggie Bush as the lead back and had just used a 2nd round pick the draft prior on Daniel Thomas, to add to their running back corps.

However, clearly the Dolphins saw the local kid Miller, out of the University of Miami, as too good to pass on, which makes sense. After all, he was widely projected as a 1st or 2nd round talent, who didn’t have a legitimate reason for falling, other than some maturity concerns and durability issues. The 5-11 212 pound back showed tremendous speed for his size, running a 4.40 40 at The Combine and had an excellent 2011 season, rushing for 1272 yards and 9 touchdowns on 227 carries as a mere redshirt sophomore.

Though he was only a one year starter, that’s seen as more of a positive than a negative for a running back because of how short their career spans are. A running back who can catch the attention of the scouts without accumulating a lot of tread on his tires in college tends to be a sought after commodity on draft day. Besides, Miller had just turned 21 and seemed to have a very bright future.

Reggie Bush was heading into the final year of his deal and Thomas struggled as a rookie and the new Dolphins coaching staff clearly didn’t see the plodding Thomas as a good fit for their offense. The smaller, quicker Miller was a much better fit and after not doing much as the 3rd string back as a rookie (250 yards and a touchdown on 51 carries), Miller now seems poised for a breakout year as Miami’s feature back in 2013, replacing the departed Reggie Bush.

Daniel Thomas has shown very little in his two years as a pro, rushing for 906 yards on 256 carries (just 3.5 YPC) and the coaching staff that drafted him is gone. Miller is the clear starter at this point in the off-season and that does not figure to change. Thomas’ best role moving forward would appear to be as a pure short yardage change of pace back and a goal line hammer. Miller could easily have a 1000+ yard plus breakout year for the Dolphins this season. Thomas, meanwhile, will compete with 5th round rookie Mike Gillislee for the backup job and he could easily lose that competition.

Grade: B

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I already mentioned why Wallace is overrated, but he’ll provide an upgrade on the outside opposite Brian Hartline in a receiving corps that saw just 3 receivers play more than 160 pass snaps last season (Hartline, Davone Bess, and tight end Anthony Fasano). He’ll also take some of the defense’s attention off of Hartline and allow Hartline to eat up underneath targets, which will be good for him, at least until defenses realize they no longer have to double team Wallace downfield (see DeSean Jackson circa 2011).

Hartline caught 74 passes for 1083 yards in the 2009 4th round pick’s breakout 4th season, but he did benefit from being targeted on 118 throws, 23.4% of the Dolphins’ pass attempts. He also scored just once, compared to 3 interceptions when thrown to, and averaged just 3.2 yards after catch per catch and graded out 26th on ProFootballFocus in pass catching grade among wide receivers. He also had close to a quarter of his production in one 253 yard game week 4 and caught 2 or fewer passes on 5 separate occasions. He’s a solid secondary receiver, but nothing more. He could still lead the team in receiving, with Wallace serving more as a downfield decoy. He does have greater familiarity with the quarterback and the playbook.

Also as I mentioned, the Dolphins paid 10 million over 3 years to downgrade the slot receiver position. Gibson will allow them to run more 3-wide receiver sets and they’ll probably pass more than the 504 times they did last season, but he won’t be a very efficient receiver and I don’t know if a more pass heavy offense is in their best interests. Gibson has graded out below average in 3 of his first 4 seasons in the league and, as I mentioned, is very inexperienced as a slot receiver.

Dustin Keller will probably be Tannehill’s primary over the middle target. He caught just 28 passes for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, but he missed 8 games and was limited in others with injury. In 2011, caught 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite having Mark Sanchez as his quarterback and the games he missed last season were the first of his career. There’s serious bounce back potential here and he was well worth the 4.25 million over 1 year they gave him, especially considering Anthony Fasano, the marginal tight end he replaces, got 16 million over 4 years from the Chiefs. He does struggle with blocking though, unlike Fasano. Dion Sims, a massive 6-5 262 pound 4th round rookie will be the blocking specialist.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Dolphins didn’t just make big splashes in free agency. They also made a big splash on draft day, packaging together their first and second round pick and sending them to Oakland to move up from 12 to 3 in the first round and select Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan. Jordan has a ton of upside, but is incredibly raw and probably would have gone in the teens most years. This draft class just had a serious lack of top level talent so taking a risk on a high upside kid like Jordan that early makes sense. However, he’s unlikely to have a serious impact this season. He won’t start and will be a passing down specialist as a rookie and he’s also an odd fit for a 4-3 because it doesn’t give him the opportunity to display his best skill, his sideline to sideline ability. He could have an impact, but not a huge one.

Olivier Vernon will get the start at defensive end instead of Jordan. He’ll play in Jared Odrick’s old spot. Odrick struggled mightily last season in his first season as a 4-3 defensive end. The 305 pounder set the edge well as a run stopper, but struggled mightily to get any sort of pass rush, with just 6 sacks, 10 hits, and 21 hurries on 566 pass rush snaps, a 6.5% pass rush rate. Overall, he had the 3rd worst pass rush grade and 4th worst overall grade among 4-3 defensive ends. Odrick was a 3-4 end in his first two years in the league and a defensive tackle in college and is clearly an unnatural fit at 4-3 end. He may be moving back inside this season, but one thing is clear: he will not continue starting outside. To this point in his career, Odrick looks like a bust as a 1st round pick in 2010. He missed most of his rookie year with an injury, before playing sparingly in 2011 and struggling in 2012.

Vernon, meanwhile, was a 2012 3rd round pick and saw a situational pass rush role as a rookie. He played 445 snaps, 102 on running plays and 343 on passing plays (he dropped into coverage on 54 of those snaps), but ironically graded out better as a run stopper. They’ll need him to continue doing that this season as a starter. He did struggle as a pass rusher, with just 3 sacks, 7 hits, and 11 hurries on 289 pass rush snaps, a 7.3% pass rush rate, but overall graded out about average. He has plenty of upside, but is really raw after declaring early in college and barely playing during his final season for a variety of reasons. The 6-2 261 pounder ran a 4.80 at the Combine and threw up 30 reps of 225.

Opposite him, Cameron Wake will start and he’s one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. He was ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end last season and prior to that he was the #1 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011 and the #3 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. In 2009, his first season over from Canada, he played just 167 snaps, but somehow would have graded out as the #3 3-4 defensive end at his position if he had been eligible. He had an absurd 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 134 pass rush snaps, a 24.6% pass rush rate.

Last season, he had 17 sacks, 23 hits, and 46 hurries on 558 pass rush snaps, a 15.4% pass rush rate. His 12.9 pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits +.75 hurries * 100 / snaps played) was second in the NFL and first among players who played as many snaps as he did. He also graded out well against the run, making him one of just 3 4-3 defensive ends to rank in the top-10 at their position both against the run and rushing the passer. Overall, he was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked defensive player at any position. The only issue is he’s going into his age 31 season, but he certainly has shown no signs of slowing down and being anything less than one of the best. With him, Vernon, and Jordan, the Dolphins have a solid trio of defensive ends.

The Dolphins have solid defensive tackles as well. Randy Starks was franchised this off-season, which makes sense as you want to be wary of giving players long-term deals heading into their age 30 season, but they couldn’t afford to lose him. He’s graded out well above average in each of the last 5 seasons and last year was actually his worst of the bunch, though he wasn’t bad at all. Playing 4-3 defensive tackle for the first time in a while, Starks struggled a little bit against the run, but continued to produce as a pass rusher with 4 sacks, 11 hits, and 21 hurries on 488 pass rush snaps, a 7.4% pass rush rate. He graded out 16th at his position rushing the passer, but a poor run grade hurt his overall grade. Prior to last season, he had been a top-9 3-4 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, topping out at #2 in 2009. Only Justin Smith also maintained that kind of consistent success over that time period.

Starks will once again start opposite Paul Soliai. Soliai was once franchised and then subsequently given a fairly lucrative two-year deal (which he’s in the 2nd season of now), but he’s struggled to live up to his 2010 season, when he graded out 12th at his position. He’s been just about average in each of the last 2 seasons and is merely a two-down base package run stuffer. He’s graded out below average rushing the passer in both seasons and played more run snaps than pass snaps in both seasons.

Odrick should continue playing inside on passing downs regardless of whether or not he remains a defensive end. He’s alright in that capacity as his 6.5% pass rush rate isn’t horrible for a defensive tackle, but he tends to get washed against the run while playing inside. He’s only a situational inside player, which is not what they were hoping from him when they drafted him. Overall though, it’s a deep and talented defensive line and the strength of what was a very solid defense last year.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I already went into detail about the Dolphins’ two new every down linebackers, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Both remain one year wonders who, best case scenario, will adequately replace the level of play of their predecessors. They’re unlikely to upgrade this defense. Koa Misi is the 3rd linebacker, playing solely as two-down run stuffing in base packages and coming off the field for a 5th defensive back on passing downs. He’s a solid run stopper and plays that role well. He also sees a little bit of time on the defensive line as a pass rush specialist, but struggled in that role last season, grading out below average. He’ll probably do less of that this season with Jordan in the mix.

Grade: B+

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Secondary

The Dolphins also locked up one of their own for big money this off-season, re-signing safety Reshad Jones to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal recently, before he could hit his contract year this season. Reshad Jones might not be that well known to the common fan, but the 3rd year safety broke out in relative obscurity last season in Miami, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked safety. He was solid against the run, but was most valuable in coverage, where he allowed just 19 catches on 39 attempts for 247 receiving yards, 1 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 4 passes and committing just 1 penalty. His 38.0 QB rating allowed was best at his position among full-time safeties.

If he continues to play this well, he’s well worth the 30 million over 4 years this contract gives him, with north of 15 million guaranteed. It makes him the 5th highest paid safety in the NFL, behind Troy Polamalu, Eric Berry, Dashon Goldson, and Eric Weddle. However, it is a risk giving him this kind of money after just one season, especially after he graded out below average in his first season as a starter in 2011, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2010.

That being said, this deal could be well worth it. If he has another season like 2012 again in 2013, he’d position himself going into free agency next off-season to get a contract similar to the one Eric Weddle (5 years, 40 million with 19 million guaranteed) or Dashon Goldson (5 years, 41.25 million with 22 million guaranteed) got. This could prove to be a bargain compared to those deals. It also prevented him from being unhappy, after the Dolphins spent tons of money on outside players before taking care of their own this off-season. He only reported to OTAs last month because the Dolphins promised him contract negotiations.

Jones will continue to start next to Chris Clemons at safety, after he was brought back on a 1-year deal. Clemons graded out above average last season, playing well against the run and in coverage, but prior to last season, he played just 22 snaps as a reserve in 2011 and struggled as a starter in 2010. We’ll have to see if the 2009 5th round pick can keep it up. He could regress, but he could also improve and I think overall he should continue to be an asset for the Dolphins in the secondary. He’s an average starter, even conservatively speaking.

At cornerback, the Dolphins brought in Brent Grimes to replace Sean Smith, as I mentioned. Grimes was a top-10 cornerback on ProFootballFocus in both 2010 and 2011, including a #3 rank in 2011, but he missed most of last season with a torn Achilles and has played in just 13 games over the past 2 seasons. His former team, the Falcons, didn’t seem too interested in keeping him around this off-season and going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him. It was worth the risk though for a cornerback needy Dolphins team.

After him, the cornerback position remains a weakness on this defense. 2nd round pick Jamar Taylor was penciled in as a rookie starter, but hernia surgery caused him to miss a lot of practice and left him behind the 8-ball. Veterans Dimitri Patterson and Richard Marshall are ahead of him for now. Marshall was once a decent starter, before signing with the Dolphins last off-season. In 2012, he was limited to 241 snaps because of serious back problems, which he says are behind him now.

Patterson, meanwhile, was claimed off waivers from Cleveland late in the season. Patterson has always been a decent slot cornerback, but struggled mightily when forced to play outside. The fact that the defensive back needy Browns waived him is telling. Both are owed fairly substantial salaries as both are scheduled to make 5.3 million this season. That’s a lot of money to pay for 2 average at best players, so it would be in the Dolphins’ best financial interest if Taylor could lock up either the #2 or #3 cornerback job and at least play outside in sub packages with either Marshall or Patterson on the slot. It’s tough to count on rookies though, especially defensive backs, and especially non-1st rounders.

Grade: B

Head Coach

The jury is still out in Joe Philbin, who is going into his 2nd year with the team. It’s tough to grade Head Coaches either way based off of one season, but the Dolphins do seem to have more hope now than when he took over, which has to count for something. I’d also say he exceeded expectations in his first season with the team, winning 7 games with a team that was supposed to be one of the NFL’s bottom feeders. We’ll see what year 2 has in store.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Dolphins’ defense was 7th in the NFL, allowing 19.8 points per game last season. I don’t think they’ll be improved and they could be a little worse. Wheeler and Ellerbe are relatively unproven and replace equally talented and more proven players. Jordan gets added to the mix, but he won’t see a huge role as a rookie and the secondary still has issues. They should continue allowing around 20 points per game.

Offensively, they scored just 18.0 points per game last season. They should be improved, but the Mike Wallace addition is not as big as it seems and they still have a huge hole at left tackle. A Ryan Tannehill breakout out would obviously get this team into the playoffs, but I think it’s more likely that they score right around 20 points per game, roughly as many as they allow and even out as an average team.

One thing that could help is they should recover more fumbles, as they recovered just 37.5% of fumbles that hit the ground last season, leading to a -7 fumble margin, which lead to a -10 turnover margin. However, I think it’s unlikely to have a huge effect. At the same time, they could suffer more injuries than the 7th adjusted games lost they had last season. They also have a tougher schedule, trading out the NFC West (good) and the AFC South (bad) for the AFC North (good) and the NFC South (good). They’ll be somewhere in the 7-9 wins range on the outside of the post-season.

I think they’re the 2nd best team in their division and they should win at least 3 division games because they get 4 games against the Jets and Bills, but the Patriots are still way ahead of them. 3-3 in the division is reasonable and an improvement over last year’s 2-4 record. Outside of the division, they host Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Diego, and Carolina. San Diego should be a very winnable game, but the other 4 will be tough. 2 or 3 wins in those 5 seems reasonable. They also go to Cleveland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh. New Orleans will be a very tough place to win, as is Pittsburgh, but they could win 2 of the other 3. I have them at 8-8, very much average.

Projection: 8-8 2nd in AFC East

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New England Patriots 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Patriots have thrown up a bunch of points over the past few seasons, scoring 33.1 points per game dating back to the 2010 season, by far most in the NFL. Green Bay has scored the 2nd most at 28.7 points per game. Last season, they had their highest points total over that 3 year stretch, averaging 34.8 points per game, the 3rd highest average since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule, behind the 2007 Patriots and the 2011 Packers.

They’ve also had the NFL’s top offensive DVOA in 2 of the last 3 seasons and in terms of all-time offensive DVOA, dating back to 1991, they’ve ranked in the top-10 in each of the last 3 seasons, ranking #1 all-time in 2010, #6 all-time in 2011, and tied for #10 all-time in 2012 (they also ranked #2 in 2007). They’ve been easily the top offensive team in the NFL over the past 3 seasons. Their defense hasn’t always been great, but their offense has propelled them to top-12 all-time finishes in DVOA in both 2010 (#3) and 2012 (#11), along with their #2 all-time finish in 2007. Last year, they had a 3-year high in defensive DVOA, ranking 15th, and they also ranked 9th in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 20.7 points per game.

However, this off-season their offense took a major hit. Of their top-5 receivers from last year, 4 are no longer with the team and the other, Rob Gronkowski, has had 5 surgeries in the last calendar year, leaving his status for the start of the season very much in doubt. Wes Welker signed with the Broncos and Danny Woodhead with the Chargers. Brandon Lloyd has been released. And Aaron Hernandez, well, he could be going away for a long-time. He was released by the team in late June on the day that he was arrested for what eventually was revealed to be murder, not just obstruction of justice, in the Odin Lloyd case.

I don’t foresee Tom Brady having a major decline (even at age 36) so whether or not they can continue to produce the kind of points they’ve been producing over the past few seasons is going to be largely dependent on their new receiving corps. It’s hard to imagine them being a bad offensive team or even an average offensive team, but they could be a noticeably worse offensive team (even 4-6 points per game fewer would have a noticeable effect on this team and their ability to win games). I’ll get to the receiving corps and whether or not I think they’ll continue to be a top level offensive team in the receiving corps section.

Defensively, they should be largely the same. It’s an improved unit over what it’s been in recent years, but it’s not a top level unit by any stretch of the imagination. One thing that ordinarily would be a sign of an impending decline in win total is the Patriots’ absurd turnover margin from 2012. They had a turnover margin of +25, 41 takeaways and 16 giveaways, by far the best in the NFL.

That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. 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.

However, the Patriots could be an exception for a number of reasons. For one, they didn’t recover an absurd amount of fumbles last season. In fact, they recovered less than 50% of fumbles that hit the ground, recovering 46.7%, and they still were +14 in fumbles. They were just very good at holding onto the football and knocking the football out, which is more sustainable than being good at recovering the ball once it hits the ground.

The 2nd reason is that they have an elite quarterback. Tom Brady isn’t going to suddenly start throwing a bunch of interceptions. Brady’s 2012 interception rate of 1.3% was only slightly below his 6-year interception rate (dating back to 2007), which is 1.6%. His career interception rate is slightly higher at 2.1%, but even if he had thrown an interception on 2.1% of his attempts last year, it would have only been 5 more interceptions. A slight decline in ability given his age and the decline of his supporting cast could lead to a few more interceptions, but this is a guy who has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season and a guy who has one of the best career interception rates of all time (2nd lowest all-time among eligible quarterbacks behind Aaron Rodgers). He’s not going to start tossing a bunch of picks.

The third reason is that the Patriots always seem to be able to have impressive turnover margins and defy the aforementioned trend. Tom Brady’s ability to avoid interceptions is part of it, but it’s more than that. They frequently rank among the best in the NFL in takeaways and fumbles. They’ve been +16 or better in turnovers in 4 of the last 6 seasons, averaging +15.5 over that stretch and +23.3 over the past 3 years. After New England and Green Bay (+12.7), no other team is better than +6.5 (Atlanta) over that 6 year stretch. I think we’re at the point where we can consider them an outlier. They may decline a bit in this aspect this season, but they can be expected to once again pick off a lot of passes, force a lot of fumbles, fumble infrequently, and of course rarely throw an interception as long as Tom Brady is under center.

Quarterback

Brady himself probably won’t significantly decline this season. He’s going into his age 36 season, but has shown no significant signs of decline. Last season was the worst of his past 3 seasons as he “only” completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, but those were still all at or above his career averages. He could, however, see a statistical and production drop-off if his supporting cast doesn’t live up to what it’s been recently.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As I mentioned, whether or not the receiving corps can live up to what it’s been recently is going to be the single most important factor in whether or not the Patriots can continue to throw up massive amounts of points and win a lot of games. It’s the only significant difference on offense from last year to this year and it’s such an important discussion for that reason.

Wes Welker is gone, after signing a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Broncos. The Patriots only offered him 10 million over 2 years, but were willing to pony up 28.5 million over 5 years with 10 million guaranteed for replacement Danny Amendola, which suggests that they feel that Amendola can not only replace Welker, but give them a younger upgrade.

Amendola and Welker have similar backgrounds as former undrafted smallish slot receivers who went to Texas Tech and came to New England from “lesser” franchises. Amendola, coming over from St. Louis, is two years older than Welker was coming over from Miami, but he also has 100 more receptions in just 10 more games. He’s certainly more proven than Welker upon arrival, which is why he commanded a larger salary. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be better.

Welker’s biggest advantage over Amendola is his sturdiness. Welker missed just 3 games in 6 seasons with the Patriots, while Amendola has played in just 42 of 64 possible games to this point in his career. Sure, Welker benefitted from tearing his ACL at the end of a season rather than in the beginning, but that was just a fluke injury and one he returned from incredibly fast. Amendola, meanwhile, has been on the injury report a ton over his career, especially the last two seasons, with various ailments. Playing the slot and going over the middle can definitely lead to injuries, especially when you’re catching 100+ passes per season in there. Welker is built like a truck and built to handle all of those hits. Amendola just might not be.

On top of that, Welker’s greatest talent was his chemistry with Tom Brady and that’s something Amendola might not necessarily have. Amendola is a more talented player and a more versatile player who the Patriots will use outside on occasion because of his better height and speed, which they almost never did with Welker, but it might not translate to better production. Welker averaged 112 catches per year over the past 6 years, making him responsible for roughly 30% of the Patriots completions over that time period.

All that being said, Amendola will still be productive and if he plays all 16 games he should catch 100+ passes. Assuming he doesn’t get hurt, he’s not a serious downgrade and it’s very possible that if the Patriots had kept Welker, who is going into his age 32 season this year, they might have seen him decline noticeably. Amendola could very well be an upgrade in that sense and he’s 4 years younger and still in the prime of his career, so he’ll give them more years.

The Patriots really seemed to prefer signing Amendola over Welker, low-balling Welker, while giving Amendola a more lucrative deal and targeting him early in free agency, reaching an agreement with him before Welker had even signed with the Broncos. They’re usually right about this type of thing. I think they made the right move for the future and I don’t expect them to noticeably miss Welker’s presence this season, assuming Amendola doesn’t get seriously injured.

Brandon Lloyd was their 2nd leading receiver last year, but he should be the easiest to replace. Lloyd did catch 74 passes for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, but he’s still available as a free agent for a number of different reasons and the Patriots appear to have made the right move cutting him and going with a youth movement on the outside.

Lloyd had those 74 catches for 911 yards on 129 targets, a 57.4% completion and just 7.1 yards per attempt, both significantly lower than Brady’s numbers throwing anywhere else. He also dropped 7 passes and averaged just 2.4 yards after catch per catch, 6th worst in the NFL and worst among anyone who caught as many passes as he did. He also averaged just 1.53 yards per route run, 49th in the NFL out of 82 eligible, despite having a great quarterback throwing him the ball. Brady made him look a lot better than he is.

On top of that, he’s going into his age 32 season and has been known to be a bad teammate. The fact that his biggest believer Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t put up a fight for him to be kept around on what was not even that big of a salary is very concerning. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing and he may remain unsigned going into the season.

In his place, the Patriots have 3 young receivers, 2nd round rookie Aaron Dobson, 4th round rookie Josh Boyce, and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. It’s very tough to rely on a rookie receiver, let alone three of them, but reports out of Patriots Training Camp have been very positive on this trio and their chemistry with Tom Brady. Brady should be able to make them look better than they are, like he did with Lloyd. The biggest concern here is mental lapses with players in the first year of their career and their first year in a complex playbook.

Aaron Hernandez would seem to be a big loss at the tight end position, but Brady was without Hernandez for much of last season and it didn’t seem to affect him negatively. In fact, he actually produced better WITHOUT Hernandez last year. He completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 1 interception in 7 games without him last year, leading the offense to 38.9 points per game and a 5-2 record. With him, he completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.3 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, leading the offense to 30.8 points per game and an 8-3 record.

Now, I’m not arguing that Brady is better off without Hernandez. That’s not a big enough sample size to support what would be a pretty absurd statement. However, Brady adapts to changing receiving corps better than maybe any quarterback in the NFL. Losing Hernandez won’t hurt him nearly as much as it would hurt another quarterback. Remember, from 2001-2007 Brady had 5 different leading receivers in 7 years and only Randy Moss, who the Patriots got for a mere 4th round pick, ever did anything of note before or after joining forces with Tom Brady. Aside from Moss, those receivers were Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, David Givens, and Deion Branch. Ben Watson was his tight end. This year, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfield is expected to be the move tight end in Hernandez’s absence this season, though he won’t see nearly as many snaps as Hernandez would have. He’s looked good in Training Camp, however.

Rob Gronkowski, however, is a different monster. Brady completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while leading the offense to 35.8 points per game and a 7-3 record in the 10 games where Gronk played and wasn’t limited. In his other 8 games, he completed just 58.7% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while leading the offense to 31.6 points per game and a 6-2 record.

Those numbers aren’t bad and they further prove that Brady can produce and put up points no matter who is running routes for him, but they’re noticeably worse. Unlike Hernandez, Gronkowski is not just a big wide receiver. He catches the ball as an inline tight end better than anyone in recent memory and his impact as a run blocker and as a goal line target are much harder to replace. Despite his limited playing time, he was still ProFootballFocus’ #1 tight end last season, a spot he held by a large margin in 2011. Also despite his limited playing time, Gronk was 7th among tight ends in receiving yards last season and still led the position in touchdowns. He was 4th at his position in run blocking grade, which he was #1 in the prior season. He also has an absurd 36 touchdowns in his last 35 games, dating back to the midpoint of his rookie season. He’s by far the most irreplaceable of their receivers from last year’s receiving corps.

Fortunately for Brady, Gronkowski is still on the roster. That much is certain, but that’s about where the certainty ends. Gronk has had 5 surgeries in the last calendar year, 4 on a broken arm that wouldn’t heal and a 5th on his back, which is the one that has his status for the start of the season in doubt. He had the surgery in June and was given roughly a 3 month recovery period. He also had back surgery in college, which is why he fell to the 2nd round of the draft.

Of course, because these are the Patriots, we’re not going to be able to find out anything about his status until right up to the start of the season. Reports this week have ranged from “he’ll be ready for week 1” to “he’ll start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and miss at least the first 6 games.” However, even conservative estimations should have him back by the middle of the season, giving him plenty of time to get re-acclimated for the stretch run and the post-season.

The Patriots are still by far the best team in their division and once again have a very easy regular season schedule, especially to start the season (only 2 of their first 8 games are against teams that finished .500 or better last season) so getting him 100% by the post-season is going to be the biggest thing. Even conservative estimations suggest they should be able to do that, assuming the increasingly brittle Gronk doesn’t reinjure himself. I actually think there’s a solid chance Gronk played more snaps (743) and has more production (55/790/11) than he did last year and that would be a very good thing for this offense. Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard, two blocking type tight ends, would play in Gronk’s absence for any games he misses.

The X-factor in the receiving game is running back Shane Vereen. Vereen will likely be taking over Danny Woodhead’s old pass catching back role and Woodhead was 5th on the team with 40 catches for 446 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, before leaving for San Diego this off-season. Vereen, however, has the ability to be even more than that. The 2011 2nd round pick is a more talented and explosive back and, including the playoffs, he had 15 catches for 254 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns on just 117 pass snaps last season. He’s been lining up all over the formation this off-season and he could be the Patriots’ version of Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush.

The Patriots’ receiving corps might not be as good as it’s been recently, but they have some talented players for Brady to throw to. They’ll have to reinvent their offense again, using fewer two-tight end sets, but they have more depth outside at wide receiver and they also have Vereen. Brady should once again make the best of it and lead this offense to a bunch of points. It’s still better than what he had pre-2007. Scoring 30 points per game and leading the NFL in points again isn’t improbable.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

One thing the Patriots could do to reinvent their offense this season is running more. They certainly have the running back talent to do so. 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 attempts last season. The Patriots’ strong passing game and offensive line undoubtedly helped, but he still had 2.5 yards per carry after contact, broke 29 tackles, and was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked running back in rushing grade. The Patriots hadn’t had anything like him at the running back position since Corey Dillon was in his prime. Before him, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a plodder and nothing else. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hadn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness.

They have plenty of depth at the position as well. Shane Vereen will serve as a solid change of pace back, in addition to lining up all over the formation as a receiver. Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, meanwhile, will compete to spell Ridley on running downs. Bolden flashed as an undrafted rookie last year, rushing for 274 yards on 2 touchdowns on 56 carries, but injuries limited him, as they did throughout his collegiate career, which is why he went undrafted. Blount, meanwhile, had a great rookie year in 2010 in Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent, rushing for 1007 yards and 6 touchdowns on 201 carries, but his work ethic led to struggles in 2011 and then to him losing his starting job in 2012. He was traded to New England this off-season and they will try him as a reclamation project.

The Patriots ran plenty last season, ranking 2nd in rushing attempts behind Seattle with 523. However, they could run even more this season as they didn’t actually run on that high a percentage of their plays last season. They also ranked 4th in the NFL with 641 passing attempts. They just ran a ton of plays because of their super hurry up offense. No team ran more than the 74.3 plays per game they ran last season because no team ran plays faster than they did last season, running one roughly every 25 seconds.

That type of offense can put a lot of pressure on your defense if you’re not moving the ball consistently, but the Patriots had a ridiculous 7.4 first downs for every punt last season. For comparison, Denver was 2nd with 5.7 first downs per punt. As long as they’re continuing to move the ball well this season, I don’t see why they wouldn’t continue to run this type of offense. They’re spending much of Training Camp practicing with Chip Kelly and the high octane Eagles this off-season so I don’t see that changing any time soon. There will be plenty of rushing attempts either way, but they could actually lead the league in rushing attempts this season if they decide to run more often. 550 rush attempts is not unrealistic so Ridley should get plenty of carries. Vereen and Bolden/Blount will also see carries.

Grade: B+

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Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Patriots excelled in run blocking last season, ranking 2nd to the 49ers on ProFootballFocus. However, it’s much more important that they excel in pass protection, which they also did last season. The Patriots ranked 9th in the NFL on ProFootballFocus in pass blocking and 14th in pass block efficiency. As a result, Brady was pressured on just 25.0% of his drop backs, 3rd among eligible quarterbacks.

This is incredibly important because Brady’s one weakness is that he does not throw well at when his timing is disrupted. Let me say it this way: Tom Brady is a bad quarterback when his timing is disrupted, more so than any other franchise quarterback in the NFL. No quarterback sees his completion percentage drop under pressure like Brady.

Last season, he completed just 40.4% of his pressured throws, 33rd out of 38 eligible, roughly a 23% drop from his regular completion percentage. Playoffs included, he completed 38.0% of his passes under pressure and 68.8% of his passes when not under pressure. This is nothing new. Over the past 4 seasons, he only has completed 280 of 592 passes (47.3%) and thrown 27 touchdowns to 16 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 1389 for 1999 (69.5%) with 128 touchdowns to 31 interceptions while not under pressure.

Of course, good luck pressuring him. Not only does he have a great offensive line in front of him, but he also helps them out and makes them look even better than they are because he has one of the quickest releases in the NFL. His 2.42 seconds to throw ranked 5th in the NFL last season and in 2011 he ranked 6th taking 2.47 seconds to throw. You also can’t just blitz him because he’s one of the best quarterbacks against the blitz in the NFL, completing 471 for 740 (63.6%) for 6235 yards (8.4 YPA) and 55 touchdowns to 8 interceptions when blitzed over the last 4 seasons. However, if you can beat the Patriots’ offensive line quickly with only 4 guys, Brady is very, very unbeatable. This isn’t new knowledge though. I guarantee every team around the league knows this, but it’s much, much easier said than done.

The Patriots return all 5 starters from last year’s offensive line and, with the exception of right guard Dan Connolly, all of them should start in the same spot again. Connolly was the weak point of their line last season, grading out only average. Going into his age 31 season, he’ll have to hold off Marcus Cannon, who has graded out significantly above average in 338 snaps in his career, for the starting job. Cannon was seen as a 2nd round prospect by some teams prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, but he fell to the 5th round because he was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly before the draft. Now almost 2 years in remission, Cannon looks like a steal for the Patriots and someone who could have a great year if he wins the starting job.

The rest of the offensive line is the same. 2011 1st round pick Nate Solder broke out on the blindside in his 2nd season in the league, after playing well as a swing tackle, primarily on the right side, as a rookie. In 2012, he was ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle and he could be even better in his 3rd year in the league in 2013.

Opposite him, Sebastian Vollmer was retained as a free agent. He was ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle last season, 4th among right tackles. A 2009 2nd round pick, Vollmer has been great since day 1, grading out 10th in 2009, 18th in 2010, and 23rd in 2011, despite only playing 6 games with injury in 2011. He’s a minor injury risk and he has some knee and back problems that limited his market in free agency, forcing him to settle for a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal with the Patriots, but he’s only missed 5 games in the other 3 seasons combined and he’s practicing fine in Training Camp.

On the inside of the offensive line, Logan Mankins will continue to play left guard. He’s going into his age 31 season and has been limited by various injuries over the past two years, but he’s still graded out well above average in both seasons. He was a top-6 guard on ProFootballFocus from 2008-2010 before injuries, despite playing just 9 games in 2010 due to a holdout. He remains one of the better guards in the NFL, but he’s on the decline.

Rounding out the line, the Patriots have Ryan Wendell at center. Wendell played incredibly well in his first season as a starter in 2012, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked center. He was #1 among centers in run blocking, though he did grade out below average in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, but it’s worth noting he graded out above average on 566 snaps as a reserve in 2010 and 2011, so there’s a good chance he can keep this up.

At the very least, 4 of the Patriots’ 5 starting offensive linemen are above average players and that’s at the very least. It’s one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. If it were Brady’s offensive line that were in shambles and not his receiving corps, there’d be reason for concern, but I do believe the Patriots will be able to continue putting up lots of points. There’s still a lot of talent around Brady, especially at running back and on the offensive line. It’s still more talent than he had pre-2006.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

On the defensive line, the Patriots have a potential breakout star in defensive end Chandler Jones, the 21st pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Jones didn’t have a lot of production at Syracuse due to injuries, but his off the charts athleticism sent his stock soaring in the months before draft day. Jones measured in at 6-5 266 with 35 ½ inch arms at The Combine, drawing comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul. While he didn’t match JPP’s 40 time with a nondescript 4.87, he showed his athleticism with a 35 inch vertical and a 10 foot broad jump. Experts agreed he had the frame to get up to 280-285 comfortably and that while he might not do a whole lot as a rookie, he had a bright future.

Those who considered him a project had to be shocked by how well he came out of the gate in 2012. Through 8 games, heading into the Patriots’ bye, Jones had 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 20 hurries and won Defensive Rookie of the Month in September. He was on pace for 12 sacks, 16 hits, and 40 hurries, which would have put him among the best pass rushers in the league as a mere rookie. He did all this while grading out above average against the run as well. However, injuries again found him. He only missed 2 games the rest of the way, but injuries sapped his explosiveness and he managed just 1 hit and 8 hurries (with no sacks) the rest of the way.

However, with a full year under his belt, Jones still has plenty of potential going into his 2nd year in the league and beyond. He turned just 23 in February and, even after injuries sapped his production, his rookie year still exceeded expectations of those who thought he was a project. He finished the year as ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end. If he can stay healthy in his 2nd year in the league, the sky is the limit for him and he could easily have a double digit sack year.

Opposite him, the Patriots have another above average starting defensive end, the underrated Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich moved to the defensive line full time last season, starting 14 games at defensive end and 2 as a tweener linebacker who moves to the line on passing downs, which was his original role in 2011. He could play some linebacker again this season if injuries strike, but the Patriots prefer him on the line.

He graded out above average at both positions, played the run well, and had 9 sacks, 8 hits, and 25 hurries on 505 pass rush snaps, a modest, but not terrible 8.3% pass rush rate. He graded out slightly below average against the run. The Patriots added another tweener linebacker to the mix in 2nd round rookie Jamie Collins, who will provide depth at both positions and possibly see some pass rush snaps in sub packages. Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham, both of whom graded out well below average last season, remain the top defensive end reserves.

At defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork is the big name. Wilfork has graded out significantly above average in each of the last 5 seasons, including two top-10 seasons and last year had his best year in 3 years, grading out 11th at his position. The big 6-1 325 pounder took a little bit to get adjusted to playing 4-3 defensive tackle rather than 3-4 nose, but he’s always had tremendous movement ability for his size and last season graded out above average both as a run stopper and a pass rusher, though he was better against the run. The only concern is he’s going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

The Patriots did lose Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love this off-season, releasing both of them. They were just run stopping rotational players, but they didn’t really replace them. Tommy Kelly will start next to Wilfork, but he was one of the worst defensive tackles in the league last year in Oakland, grading out 74th out of 85 eligible. Going into his age 33 season, he’s unlikely to get better and he also reportedly has had some really attitude and work ethic issues. Perhaps the Patriot Way can get the most of him, but I think it’s much more likely he remains one of the worst starting defensive tackles in the NFL.

With two aging starters, the Patriots could really use their young reserves stepping up. Armond Armstead was signed this off-season, coming over from the CFL. Armstead was at one time a highly rated prospect at USC, but a heart attack caused him to go undrafted and forced him to go to Canada to prove himself. He did just that, making the All-Star team as a rookie with 6 sacks and now comes back to America hoping to follow in the footsteps of Cameron Wake and Brandon Browner as CFL success stories. The Patriots signing him was described by some people are getting a free 3rd round pick as he likely would have gone in that range if eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft. Marcus Forston is the other young reserve. The 2012 undrafted free agent played just 8 snaps as a rookie and despite positive reports about him, he remains much less likely than Armstead to have a positive impact, especially this season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Patriots may have the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL and it makes sense considering how much they’ve focused on the position early in the draft of late. I already mentioned Collins, a 2nd round rookie who will see a minimal role this season, but Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo are both former 1st round picks, while Brandon Spikes was a 2nd round rookie. All 3 have panned out.

Mayo is the best of the bunch and one of the best non-rush linebackers in the NFL, really coming into his own since the Patriots moved to a 4-3 defense, which allowed him to play 4-3 outside linebacker and really use his sideline to sideline ability. He’s graded out 7th and 2nd respectively in 2011 and 2012 among 4-3 outside linebackers and can be considered one of the best in the NFL at the position.

Hightower is the other every down linebacker. He’ll play outside in base packages, but move to middle linebacker in place of Spikes in sub packages. Despite being limited to 579 snaps as a rookie with injury and playing one game at middle linebacker, he was still ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Going into his 2nd year in the league, he could be even better and really emerge as an above average starter.

Spikes in the middle is a pure two-down linebacker who comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, but he’s great at what he does, which is stopping the run. No middle linebacker had a higher run stopping grade than he did last season and overall he graded out 9th at his position. He also was above average against the run in 2011, though not the top middle linebacker in the league. He should remain a talented run stuffer.

Grade: A

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Secondary

New England’s defense got better as the season went on. Before week 11, the Patriots allowed 22.4 points per game and 8.0 yards per pass attempt in 9 games. In their final 7 games, they allowed just 18.4 points per game and allowed just 7.2 yards per attempt. What was the difference? Well, the addition of Aqib Talib at cornerback and the development of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard into a starter allowed week 1 starters Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington to move to safety and slot cornerback respectively.

Talib allowed 22 catches on 33 attempts for 304 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 3 penalties with the Patriots. Those raw numbers don’t look great, but he usually lined up on opponent’s #1 receivers and his presence made the rest of the secondary better. They really missed him in their playoff loss to the Ravens. He’s also been better in the past, grading out noticeably above average in each of his first 4 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008.

Dennard was the better of the two starting cornerbacks, grading out above average on 601 snaps, allowing 31 catches on 61 attempts for 436 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 5 penalties. He was especially good down the stretch, allowing 15 catches on 30 attempts for 234 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 1 penalty from week 11 on through the end of the regular season. He was very impressive for a rookie and he could be even better in his 2nd season in 2013, his first full season in the league as a starter. He was seen as a 2nd round prospect before getting arrested for assaulting a police officer a week before the draft and he’s a perfect fit for the Patriots’ coverage scheme.

They may have found a steal with him. The one issue is that he was arrested again this off-season for DUI, which may have been in violation of his probation and lead to a suspension or in season jail time (he’s currently scheduled to serve his 30 day sentence for assaulting a police officer next off-season). If he were to miss time, 3rd round rookie Logan Ryan would probably see action, which would be an obvious downgrade. However, Dennard didn’t actually fail a breathalyzer test. The officer just said he didn’t blow hard enough. That could make the charges much tougher to have stick.

With Talib and Dennard outside, it allows Kyle Arrington to focus on the slot. On the outside last season, Arrington allowed 20 catches on 28 attempts, but he only allowed 26 catches on 42 attempts on the slot. He’s not a great player in either place, but the 5-10 196 pounder is clearly a more natural fit on the slot. He graded out just about average overall last season.

With Talib, Dennard, and Arrington at cornerback, it allows Devin McCourty to play safety, where he is awesome. This isn’t to say he was bad at cornerback, but McCourty allowed just 5 completions in 8 games at safety. He was great in both spots and his composite grade would have made him the #4 ranked safety and the #5 ranked cornerback, but I think safety is a better fit for his skill set. In his first full season at the position, he could really emerge as one of the top safeties in the NFL.

The one hole in the secondary is the other safety spot. Adrian Wilson was signed to start in that spot, but he graded out below average last season and started coming off the field in obvious passing situations down the stretch. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 62.3% of his snaps last season, 5th most among safeties, and is a pure box safety. He was better in 2011, actually grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked safety, so he could bounce back, but he’s also going into his age 34 season so his best days are probably behind him.

He may just be a pure box safety and come off the field in base packages for a coverage specialist safety. Tavon Wilson, a tweener defensive back who went in the 2nd round in 2012, could be that safety. He graded out significantly above average on 476 snaps as a rookie. Overall though, the secondary is trending upwards, as is the defense as a whole. They could continue to rank in the top-10 in scoring defense, like they did in 2012, even if they don’t force quite as many turnovers.

Grade: B

Head Coach

Do I really need to say anything about Bill Belichick? He’s the best in the game. No active Head Coach has won more regular season games, won more post-season games, made more Super Bowls, won more Super Bowls, and kept his current job longer. He’ll remain the Patriots’ Head Coach as long as he wants and when he retires he’ll join the 22 Head Coaches currently in the Hall of Fame. He already has more wins than every Hall of Fame Head Coach, with the exception of 5. No Head Coach in NFL history has coached as few seasons as Belichick and won as many games. He also has a chance to be 3rd or 4th all-time in wins when all is said and done. Tom Landry (29 years) is 3rd with 250 wins and Curly Lambeau (33 years) is 4th with 226 wins.

Grade: A

Introduction

The demise of the Patriots is much exaggerated. They still have the Brady/Belichick combination and they still have plenty of supporting talent. This has been the best team in the NFL over the past decade, averaging 12.2 wins per game over the past 11 seasons and, in a parity filled league, they’ve never won fewer than 9 games in a season. They’ll continue to win a bunch of games this season, compete for a 1st round bye in the weaker AFC, and go into the playoffs as one of the favorites for the Lombardi. Once they get there, it will be all about executing, which is something they haven’t done as they were expected to over the past few seasons, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do so this year.

In the regular season, they should win at least 5 games in their weak division again. They’re 16-2 in the division over the past 3 seasons and the division hasn’t gotten noticeably better. Outside of the division, they host Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Cleveland. Tampa Bay and Cleveland should be easy wins, while New Orleans isn’t a good road team. They’ve lost just 3 home games over the past 3 seasons and they probably won’t lose more than 1 of those games. Worst case scenario, they’re 9-2 through the 11 games I’ve mentioned. They’re road schedule is tougher as they go to Atlanta, Carolina, Houston, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, but I’d be surprised if they lost more than 3 of those games. I think 11-5 is a conservative estimation for them and I have them at 12-4, essentially their average season over the past 11 seasons.

Projection: 12-4 1st in AFC East

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Oakland Raiders 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Last off-season, I had the Raiders as one of the worst teams in the NFL going into 2012, as so many years of poor roster management by Al Davis and the previous regime left new GM Reggie McKenzie pretty powerless in his first off-season with the team, in terms of cap flexibility and draft picks. Hue Jackson’s trade for Carson Palmer left them without a 1st round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Al Davis traded away their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks in other trades, leaving the new regime with very scarce resources to add talent through the draft. They also didn’t have a 1st round pick in 2011, thanks to a not quite as bad, but still shortsighted trade for Richard Seymour.

Al Davis’ various moves also left them in a very bad cap situation. This left the Raiders unable to sign any significant free agents or re-sign any of their own like Michael Bush. This also forced them to have to cut some players just to get under the cap including Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt, and Kamerion Wimbley. The latter was their best defensive player in 2011 and they actually paid him 6.5 million dollars to play for the Titans last season, rather than having to pay him 13 million to stay.

Well, this off-season they didn’t have much more flexibility. They had their draft picks this time around, for the most part. However, they also have roughly 50 million in dead money on their books, largely from previous regime moves, which essentially left the Raiders able to operate with 40-50 million dollars less than the average NFL team could. They lost several key contributors this off-season because of their cap situation.

Desmond Bryant was arguably their best defensive player. Philip Wheeler had a great season as a 3-down linebacker. Rolando McClain and Richard Seymour, for different reasons, were unable to play full seasons on the defensive side of the ball last season, but both played well when on the field. They’re gone. Starting defensive back Michael Huff is gone. On the offensive side of the ball, they lost their leading receiver Brandon Myers, as well as starting receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. With very little financial flexibility, they couldn’t sign big free agents to replace these guys.

On the defensive side of the ball alone, the Raiders have 9 new starters from last season, the vast majority of whom were signed to cheap, short term deals this off-season. They made some nice, cheap signings, but it’s really hard to bring in talent working with that kind of budget.  On top of that, they have just 3 of their former 1st round picks on their roster, cornerback DJ Hayden, drafted this past April, running back Darren McFadden, an injury prone back on a short leash in his contract year, and kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who is, well, a kicker. This is as close to a replacement level roster as you can get.

They actually exceeded my expectations last season by winning 4 games, but they could be even worse this season. This is arguably the least talented roster in the NFL and it’s perfectly understandable why. Fortunately, they will have a lot more financial freedom next off-season so the new regime (assuming Al Davis’ son hasn’t fired them by then) will finally be able to work in a set of circumstances where it’s fair to evaluate them. On top of that, they could have another very high draft pick next season. Jadeveon Clowney, one of the top defensive prospects in the last 20 years, could be part of the light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise, which is an NFL worst 49-111 since 2003, the year after their improbable Super Bowl appearance.

Quarterback

In addition to all of the roster turnover on defense for the Raiders this off-season, they also have a new starting quarterback. After sending overpaid, declining veteran Carson Palmer to the Cardinals for a late round pick (enduring a cap hit in the process), the Raiders sent a late round pick to the Seahawks for Matt Flynn. Flynn will face a little bit of competition in Training Camp, but I would be shocked if he didn’t at least start the season at quarterback and probably make most of the starts.

Fourth round rookie Tyler Wilson has not gotten off to a good start in Training Camp, while the new regime doesn’t think very highly of Terrelle Pryor, keeping him behind Matt Leinart on the depth chart for most of last season. He didn’t impress in his one start week 17 and Al Davis drafted him 3 rounds before anyone else would have, taking him in the 3rd round of the 2011 supplemental draft because of his height/weight/speed. The quintessential Davis pick was the late owner’s final.

Flynn probably won’t impress as a starter, however. He has just 141 career attempts in 5 seasons, though his numbers look good, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Green Bay’s supporting cast undoubtedly helped him put up those numbers and it’s too small of a sample size to say that the league was really wrong letting him fall to the 7th round of the 2008 NFL Draft. On tape, he does a few nice things, but is physically limited in terms of arm strength and profiles largely the same he did coming out of LSU, as a career backup, though perhaps an above average one. Going into his age 28 season, he is what he is at this point in his career.

Flynn had a shot to start last season in Seattle, after signing a 3-year, 19 million dollar contract with 10 million guaranteed thanks to his flashes with the Packers. However, he couldn’t hold off a 3rd round rookie for the starting job, despite his large salary, because of a poor Training Camp and pre-season. Of course we know now that 3rd round rookie is Russell Wilson, but hindsight is 20-20 and while the Seahawks clearly saw something in him more than the other teams in the NFL, I don’t think they knew he’d be this good this fast.

The point remains, Flynn lost his job to a 3rd round rookie based purely off said rookie’s strong Training Camp and pre-season. On top of that, he was passed on in free agency by former Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin and the Miami Dolphins, who reportedly didn’t see him as a franchise quarterback. If anything, Flynn is a decent stopgap at quarterback for the Raiders and nothing else.

Grade: C

Running Backs

At running back, Darren McFadden returns, at least for now. His supporters are always making excuses for him. Last year it was that he didn’t fit the blocking scheme (does that explain why he averaged just 1.9 yards per carry after contact, 3rd worst in the NFL, and broke just 16 tackles on 216 carries?) However, the fact remains that we’re entering year 6 of Darren McFadden in NFL and he’s never had more than 223 carries in a season, he averages just 4.3 yards per carry for his career, he’s coming off of a season in which he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, and he’s played just 57 of 80 possible games, maxing out with 13 games played in a season.

He obviously had plenty of natural talent coming out of Arkansas in 2008, when he was the consensus #1 back on the board and drafted 4th overall. However, it’s very possible that all of his injuries have taken a toll on him and sapped his explosiveness. It certainly looked that way last season when, in addition to averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, he graded out as by far ProFootballFocus’ worst rated running back, both overall and in terms of pure run grade, on tape. He also hurt his team as a receiver, managing a mere 6.1 yards per catch and dropping 8 passes, 2nd worst at his position. He also had the 6th worst blocking grade at his position, allowing 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 3 hurries by himself, on just 84 pass block snaps. He might never be the same player again, even when he’s on the field.

He’s going into his contract year and the regime that drafted him is gone. I find it very unlikely he’ll get a 2nd contract from the Raiders and might not get much on a 2nd contract anywhere. Good running backs have enough trouble getting 2nd contracts in today’s NFL. McFadden will be going into his age 27 season next off-season. No one is going to pay a lot of money for an aging running back who was already unreliable when he was younger.

The Raiders brought in Rashad Jennings from Jacksonville to be McFadden’s primary backup, a role that perennially sees a lot of action. However, Jennings averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 101 carries last year, in place of an injured Maurice Jones-Drew, before going down with an injury of his own, landing on injured reserve with shoulder and concussion problems.

He did average 5.4 yards per carry in his first 2 years in the league in 2009 and 2010, after going in the 7th round in 2008, but a serious knee injury that cost him all of 2011 really seems to have put a damper on his career. He’s an injury prone player going into his age 28 season with marginal, at best, talent. The Jaguars thought so little of him that they put him on injured reserve in 2011, even though he could have played by week 5. The Raiders could easily regret not bulking up this position more.

Other options include Jeremy Stewart and Marcel Reece, who saw action in McFadden’s absence last season. Stewart, an undrafted rookie, didn’t really impress, rushing for just 101 yards on 25 carries. Reece was better as the do everything fullback showed he could move to running back in a pinch, rushing for 271 yards on 59 carries, but 6-1 255 pounder showed himself to be largely a plodder, as you could expect, maxing out with a 17 yard carry. As a fullback, he’s a great blocker and a talented receiver with 104 catches over the last 3 seasons, including 52 last season. That’s his best role. Latavius Murray, a 6th round rookie, could also see action at running back.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The excuse of the Raiders’ blocking does have some merit for McFadden. He probably would not have produced much either way, but they did do a terrible job of run blocking, grading out 3rd worst in that aspect on ProFootballFocus. They switched to a zone blocking scheme last season and it was very poorly executed by offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. That has been thrown in the garbage this season, in favor of a more traditional blocking scheme, and Knapp has been rightfully fired. It should help things somewhat on the offensive line, but it won’t fix the problem.

Mike Brisiel was brought over from Houston on 5-year, 20 million dollar deal to help with their transition to the zone blocking scheme. After all, he did grade out as an above average starter in that scheme with the Texans. However, he struggled mightily in Oakland’s poorly executed version, grading out 74th out of 81 eligible at his position. Now the zone blocking scheme is gone entirely and Brisiel is stuck in a power blocking scheme that he doesn’t fit at all. The Raiders restructured his contract to give them cap relief and keep him with the team, but he could face competition from 2012 undrafted free agent Lucas Nix. Opposite him, the Raiders will start Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie.

Things aren’t much better at right tackle. Starter Khalif Barnes missed 7 games with injury last season and in his absence Willie Smith was horrific, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst ranked offensive tackle despite such limited action. Barnes himself wasn’t much better, grading out 64th at the position in his limited action. The lead-footed 6-6 315 pounder was an awful fit for the blocking scheme, but even in a power blocking scheme he graded out well below average in 2011 with the Raiders, after coming over from Jacksonville, where he was not a starter. He’ll be pushed by 2nd round rookie Menelik Watson, an athletic, but very raw offensive tackle who I think will go the way of Bruce Campbell. He’s also yet to practice in Training Camp for a mysterious reason.

The bright spots on the offensive line are left tackle Jared Veldheer and center Stefen Wisniewski. Veldheer improved on a strong 2011 in which he ranked 17th at his position by grading out 12th at his position in 2012. The 2010 3rd round pick is going into a contract year this season and could be even better. He’s by far the Raiders’ best player and one of the last things Al Davis got right. Wisniewski, meanwhile, struggled as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, playing through injury and playing out of position, but he was much better in 2012, healthy and playing in his natural spot at center, where he graded out above average and ranked 17th at his position this past season. He too could be even better this season.

Grade: C+

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As I mentioned, the Raiders lost leading receiver Brandon Myers, a tight end, and starting wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey this off-season, without really replacing either. With them gone, it’ll be up to 3rd year receiver Denarius Moore, who was 2nd on the team with 51 catches for 741 yards and 7 touchdowns. Moore had a very promising rookie year, catching 33 passes for 618 yards and 5 touchdowns on just 357 pass snaps.

However, he struggled to live up to expectations in 2012, recording just 714 yards on 520 pass snaps, catching just 46.4% of his targets, and dropping 9 passes, giving him one of the worst drop rates at his position. He could breakout in his 3rd year in the league, when so many receivers break out, but his inconsistency dates back to his days at Tennessee, part of why he went in the 5th round, and his deep threat ability doesn’t make him that compatible with weaker armed Matt Flynn at quarterback.

Rod Streater, more of a possession receiver, figures to be the more compatible with Flynn among their starting receivers. The undrafted rookie showed what he could do down the stretch, catching 18 passes for 351 receiving yards and 1 touchdown in his final 5 games, after struggling to live up to the expectations of his strong pre-season early in the year. He might be their leading receiver this year.

After him on the depth chart, the Raiders have Jacoby Ford, a once promising receiver, who has managed to play in just 8 games of the last 2 seasons thanks to injury. He’s already hurt again in Training Camp. If/when he misses regular season snaps, #4 receiver Juron Criner would take his spot. The 2012 5th round pick played 169 snaps as a rookie.

Things are even worse at tight end. After Brandon Myers, no one played more than 99 snaps at tight end last season and Myers is gone. David Ausberry, a 2011 7th round pick who has played 142 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, catching 9 passes, will compete with fellow “veteran” Richard Gordon, a 6th round pick from that same draft who played 138 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, catching 3 passes. Rookies Mychal Rivera and Nick Kasa will also be in the mix, though they were just 6th round picks. It shows how desperate things are at the position. Overall, they lack talent throughout their offense and this is the stronger side of the ball.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Raiders return just 2 starters from their 2012 defense. One of those players is defensive end LaMarr Houston. Like Jared Veldheer on the offensive side of the ball, Houston is a diamond in the rough on this team and probably their 2nd best player after Veldheer. The 2010 2nd round pick improved upon a 2011 season in which he ranked 19th at his position by ranking 9th at his position in 2012.

The 290 pounder is obviously better against the run than as a pass rusher, but he did grade above average as a pass rusher in 2012 with 5 sacks, 14 hits, and 35 hurries on 473 pass rush snaps, a 11.4% pass rush rate, along with grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run. He’s also got the ability to move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs, something he could do more of this season considering their lack of depth at the position (more on that in a minute).

Both Houston and Veldheer are set to hit free agency next off-season and the Raiders should use some of their little remaining cap space to sign one to an extension. They’ll have to backload it, which they’ll be able to do because of all of their impending cap space, but they can’t allow either to leave with how little talent they have on their roster. They can franchise tag the other one.

The rest of the defensive line leaves something to be desired though, and that’s putting it lightly. Andre Carter and Jason Hunter will rotate with Houston at defensive end. Carter was great in 2011 with New England, grading out 11th at his position, but injuries led to him not being picked up until mid-season in 2012, when the Raiders snatched him up. He graded out just about average on 323 snaps as a part time player from week 6 on. Going into his age 34 season, his best days are behind him.

Jason Hunter, meanwhile, is a mediocre career backup coming off of a season in which he didn’t play a snap thanks to a torn triceps. He signed a 1 year deal for essentially the veteran’s minimum coming over from Denver. When last we saw him in 2011, he graded out below average on 371 snaps with the Broncos. He’s going into his age 30 season as well. 2012 5th round pick Jack Crawford could also see snaps after playing just 50 snaps as a rookie last season.

As I mentioned, they’re also thin at defensive tackle. The Raiders brought in another two players on one year deals at defensive tackle this off-season, Vance Walker and Pat Sims. Walker has the most upside of the two and could have a breakout year in what should be his biggest role yet. Walker was a 7th round pick out of Georgia Tech by the Atlanta Falcons in 2009 and he was immediately part of Atlanta’s defensive tackle rotation.

Walker continued to see his role expand on a yearly basis, increasing his snap total every year, leading up to a 2012 season in which he played in 539 regular season snaps and then another 59 in 2 games in the post-season. He started almost every game and while he wasn’t a full-time player, splitting snaps with Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, he was 2nd on the team in snaps played by defensive tackles behind Jonathan Babineaux.

In his expanded role, Walker had the best season of his career in 2012, ranking 17th among defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus. While his strength was playing the run, he did have 3 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries on 326 pass rush snaps, a 6.7% pass rush rate. In Oakland, he’ll be surrounded by much less supporting talent, but he’ll also get his first chance to be a full-time player and he could really break out as one of the better defensive tackles in the league. He was well worth the risk on a 1 year, 2 million dollar contract.

Sims, meanwhile, is someone you know what you’re getting from. He’s a mediocre career backup and situational run stuffer who has played just 481 snaps in the last 2 seasons combined. There’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1 year, 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Christo Bilukidi will also be in the mix. He graded out below average on 249 snaps as a 6th round rookie last season. 6th round rookie Stacy McGee could also be in the mix. The Raiders will really miss Desmond Bryant, who graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle last season, before signing a 5 year, 34 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Raiders will start an entirely new trio at linebacker this season. Miles Burris, ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 4-3 outside linebacker last season as a 4th round rookie, will be a reserve. The talented Rolando McClain was cut for character problems both off the field and on the practice field. Philip Wheeler, meanwhile, signed a 5-year 26 million dollar contract with the Dolphins this season, after grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season. He’ll be missed.

To replace Wheeler, the Raiders signed Kevin Burnett to a 1 year, 3 million dollar deal. Burnett was ironically cut by the Dolphins when they signed Wheeler this off-season. Even though he was replaced by him in Miami, Burnett actually graded out better than Wheeler did last season, ranking 4th at his position among 4-3 outside linebackers. However, the reason the Dolphins replaced him with Wheeler was that he is heading into his age 31 season this year and could be on the decline.

At middle linebacker, the Raiders brought in Kaluka Maiava from Cleveland. Maiava actually graded out 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers last season, despite playing just 498 snaps, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and he’s never been a full time starter. They’re taking a risk with him, especially trying to convert him to middle linebacker, but it could pay off. On a 3-year, 6 million dollar deal, it might be worth the risk.

Finally, at the 3rd linebacker spot, veteran Nick Roach comes over from Chicago. He’ll probably play a two-down base package role, like he did in Chicago, and come off the field on obvious passing downs for a 5th defensive back. He’s been largely an average player in that role for 2 seasons in Chicago. 3rd round rookie Sio Moore, meanwhile, could see a situational role and may also play some defensive end. The 6-1 245 pounder is a promising hybrid player for the future, but it’s unclear how much of a positive impact he can have as a rookie.

Grade: B-

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Safety

The other returning starter on defense, to go with defensive lineman LaMarr Houston, is safety Tyvon Branch. Branch has never been a great player, but he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter and he was signed to a 4-year, 26.6 million dollar deal last off-season after being franchised (it was restructured to a 6-year deal for cap purposes this off-season), so he’s an asset.

Branch will play opposite free agent acquisition Charles Woodson, who returns to Oakland from Green Bay. Woodson is a Raider legend (and a Packer legend) and a future Hall of Famer, but father time is undefeated. He turns 37 this season and already showed signs of decline last season in Green Bay, grading out roughly average in the regular season in 7 games (missing 9 with injury), before returning for the post-season and struggling mightily in two games. His days of being even an average starter are likely gone.

At cornerback, the Raiders have a trio of off-season acquisitions competing for two starting spots. DJ Hayden was their 1st round pick, 12th overall. He’s a talented cornerback, but a near deadly heart injury suffered late last season put his career in jeopardy. He’s been cleared medically to continue playing and doesn’t seem to be at risk of re-injury and the Raiders obviously think the world of him. If they had been unable to trade down from #3 overall, they would have just taken him there. He was the #3 player on their board after the top two tackles Joeckel and Fisher and filled a bigger need.

That isn’t a sentiment that the rest of the league shared though (why they were able to get him at #12) and some teams had him off the board entirely for medical reasons. He already underwent surgery for scar tissue this off-season and has yet to be cleared for contact. During OTAs earlier this off-season, he reportedly couldn’t stop vomiting. Time will tell if their bold evaluation of him was correct, but there’s no denying it was a very, very risky pick, probably the riskiest of the entire 1st round. It’s tough to count on rookies anyway.

He’ll compete with Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter for a starting job and missing practice time isn’t helping matters. Fortunately for him (not the Raiders), those two veterans don’t represent much competition. Porter has been better in the past, but the 2009 season in which he graded out positively and scored the clinching touchdown of the Super Bowl on a pick-six seem long gone now.

He’s graded out below average in the last 3 seasons, having his worst year in 2011, when he graded out 91st out of 109 eligible cornerbacks. He’s also missed 31 of 80 games in his career and never played more than 14 (2011), including 10 games missed last year with seizures, rapid heartbeat, light headedness, and a concussion. The cause of his mysterious health problems has not been found. It’s obviously a risk. The 2008 2nd round pick may never be the same player again. There’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar contract from the Raiders this off-season.

Jenkins was also drafted in 2008, going in the first round, and he also had a strong 2009 season, when he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback and made the Pro-Bowl. However, he also hasn’t been anywhere near as good since. He was ProFootballFocus’ 91st ranked cornerback out of 100 eligible in 2010 and though he graded out just about average in 2011, he still lost his starting job going into 2012.

In 2012, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 94th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, despite playing just 374 snaps. Only 4 players played fewer snaps and graded out worse than he did. He’s also had work ethic issues in the past and issues with coaches. Like Porter, there’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1-year deal this off-season. He’ll make just 1.5 million. Jenkins and Porter are the type of players you get when you have to hit the bargain bin for starters, as are several others on this defense like Pat Sims and Jason Hunter.

The bright spot at cornerback for the Raiders is Joselio Hanson. He graded out above average as a slot specialist for the Raiders last season and will continue to serve in that role this year, though he’s probably not capable of playing outside at 5-9 170. He was also good on the slot in Philadelphia prior to signing with the Raiders last off-season. Overall though, this is one of the worst defenses in the league. They were 29th in the NFL allowing 27.7 points per game last season and they were on their way to being one of the worst scoring defenses in all time before they ran into the equally horrible Chiefs’ offense week 16 and shut them out. They could be the worst scoring defense in the NFL this season.

Grade: C

Head Coach

Dennis Allen came into this job last off-season incredibly inexperienced as far as Head Coaches go. He was Denver’s defensive coordinator for just 1 year (when they ranked just 24th defensively I might add) and before that he had just 3 years of experience as a head position coach, coaching the Saints’ secondary from 2008-2010. Before that, he was an assistant defensive line coach with the Saints for 2 years. In his first year on the job, he went 4-12. It was a tough situation to win many games in, but he didn’t do much to prove himself.

Grade: C

Overall

Along with Jacksonville, the Raiders have the least amount of talent in the NFL thanks to years of poor management. With roughly 50 million in dead money and only one first round pick from 2001-2012 still on their roster, it makes plenty of sense why they have such little talent. The Raiders did a solid job adding cheap talent on short term deals this off-season, but it won’t be enough. They’ll be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Only home games against San Diego, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia appear winnable. I have them at 1-15 with the Jaguars as the worst team in the NFL.

Projection: 1-15 4th in AFC West

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San Diego Chargers 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

After averaging 11.2 wins per season from 2004-2009, the Chargers have averaged just 8 wins per season over the past 3 seasons. Norv Turner, Head Coach since 2007, gets a lot of the blame and was rightfully fired, but recently fired GM AJ Smith deserves more of the blame for their recent decline. The Chargers have done a terrible job of drafting and bringing in new talent over the past few years.

Eric Weddle in the 2nd round in 2007 is the last Pro-Bowler they’ve drafted and, aside from him, the only players who remain on their roster from the 2005-2009 draft classes are 1st round bust Larry English, a reserve linebacker, and mediocre starting guard Jeromey Clary. The results from their 2010-2012 drafts don’t seem much more promising. Sure the coaching staff deserves some of the blame for terrible player developmental, but the problem with this team stems back to their front office.

Both Turner and Smith are gone, but this isn’t going to be a one year fix. Gone are Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, Shawne Merriman, Antonio Cromartie, among others, and only a declining Antonio Gates and quarterback Philip Rivers remain from their mid-to-late 2000s glory days. They didn’t replace any of those guys. Attempts to build their roster through free agency only produced free agency busts Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. Looking at their roster, only Weddle would rank among the top-10 at his respective position in the NFL.

Quarterback

Philip Rivers has seen his production drop off severely over the past 3 seasons. In 2010, he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.7 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, a QB rating of 101.8, on a team that ranked 2nd in the NFL, scoring 27.6 points per game. In 2011, he completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, an 88.7 QB rating, on a team that ranked 5th in the NFL scoring 25.4 points per game. In 2012, he completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.8 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions on a team that ranked 20th in the NFL, scoring 21.9 points per game. He also fumbled 13 times.

However, it’s really tough to tell how much of that can be attributed to his own decline as he ages (he’s going into his age 32 season) and how much can be attributed to the lack of talent around him. They ranked 31st in the NFL on the ground, rushing for 3.6 yards per carry last season, 31st in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency, and had 8 different players play at least 100 snaps at wide receiver or tight end. It’s not a situation conducive to a quarterback’s success and it also makes it very tough for the Chargers to evaluate Rivers and his future with the organization. He’s owed 13.8 million in 2014 and 15.75 million in 2015, neither of which is guaranteed, before hitting free agency in 2016. The Chargers have a big decision to make on his future in the next 2-3 seasons and it won’t be an easy one to make.

ProFootballFocus thinks he’s seriously declined, grading him out as the league’s #25 ranked throwing quarterback on tape in 2012, down from 6th in 2011 and 1st in 2010. They also note he led the position with 11 penalties last season. He also struggled under pressure, taking a sack on 21.4% of pressured drop backs, 11th worst in the NFL out of 38 eligible quarterbacks. He also completed just 43.2% of his passes while under pressure last season, 24th out of 38 eligible, while throwing 8 interceptions to 4 touchdowns. In terms of under pressure efficiency (completions + drops + 1/2*scrambles – sacks – 3*interceptions/pressured drop backs – throw aways), he was 31st out of 38 eligible. It’s an issue considering his offensive line won’t be much better this season.

In my opinion, he’s an average quarterback in a loaded quarterback league who is on the decline and definitely needs help, help he doesn’t have. Aside from the Jaguars, Raiders, and maybe the Jets, no team in the NFL has a worse supporting cast. The Chargers have a better quarterback than those 3 teams so they’ll win more games than those 3, but they’re highly unlikely to make the playoffs, even in the weak AFC.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

In order to help build the supporting cast around Rivers, the Chargers used the 11th overall pick on DJ Fluker. However, I don’t know if that will work out. The book on Fluker is that he’s a great mauler as a run blocker, but struggles in pass protection and will only be a right tackle. If this were 5-10 years ago, a run blocker like Fluker could have gone 11th overall and hidden on the right side in pass protection, but teams can attack the quarterback from both sides of the formation like never before so I don’t see how a below average pass protector could go 11th overall like that.

The Chargers could be even worse on the offensive line this season because they lost talented right guard Louis Vasquez in free agency to the division rival Broncos. Vasquez was a diamond in the rough on San Diego’s otherwise horrible offensive line, grading out well above average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 and he was a starter from the word go. He had his best season last year, when he graded out 13th at his position and he’s clearly an above average guard. He’ll definitely be missed.

In order to fill that hole at right guard, the Chargers will be moving Jeromey Clary from right tackle to right guard. He was abysmal in 2011, grading out 4th worst among eligible offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus and he was below average in 2010 before that, but he did submit an above average season last year. He could be better at an easier position at right guard, but he’s also never played there in his career and it’s tough to count on him. At 6-6, he might have trouble getting leverage on the interior of the offensive line.

Opposite him, at left guard, the Chargers brought in Chad Rinehart from Buffalo. Rinehart is only a one year starter and he was limited by injuries last season, going on IR mid-season with an ankle injury, but he was excellent as a starter in 2011 with the Bills, grading out 9th at his position. If he can stay healthy, he could be an above average starter for the Chargers and he was well worth a cheap 1-year deal for an offensive line needy team.

The Chargers will also have a new starter at left tackle, a welcome sight considering incumbent Michael Harris was the absolute worst tackle in the league last year on ProFootballFocus, as you could expect from an undrafted free agent rookie. Max Starks and King Dunlap will compete for that spot this season. Starks was ProFootballFocus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season and is going into his age 31 season. He also has a history of weight and injury problems to caused him to play just 19 of 32 regular season games from 2010-2011. Dunlap, meanwhile, was a decent swing tackle in Philadelphia, but it’s unclear if he can be a consistent starter on the blindside. For what it’s worth, he graded out above average in 12 starts last season. He’s probably their best option, but Starks looks like the early favorite.

The only player who remains in his original spot from last season is center Nick Hardwick, who has manned that spot since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2004. However, he appears to be on the decline, going into his age 32 season. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked center out of 36 eligible last season. He was 14th in 2011, so he could bounce back, but his best days may be behind him. Overall, it’s an offensive line with a little talent, but a lot of uncertainty and it’s a unit very much in the flux. They should be among the worst offensive lines in the NFL again in 2013.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

As they did last season when they ranked 28th in run blocking on ProFootballFocus, the Chargers’ offensive line should also once again struggle to open up holes on the ground. That’s not good news for a running back stable that already has issues to begin with. Ryan Mathews was the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but is starting to look like another Smith/Turner era bust. He looked on his way to a big time breakout year in 2012, with backup Mike Tolbert no longer stealing carries from him and coming off a season 2011 season in which he averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 222 carries, with 50 catches for 455 yards, and 6 total touchdowns.

However, injuries reared their head, as they always have for him, limiting him to just 184 carries, 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown and 2 broken clavicles. He’s missed 10 games in his first 3 years in the league, never playing more than 14 games, and his injury problems date back to his collegiate days. The new regime does not seem nearly as bullish on his upside as the old one and he figures to work in a running back committee with Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead. He may be better, more efficient, and less likely to get hurt being used in this fashion, but it’s starting to look like he’ll never be the lead back and LaDainian Tomlinson replacement they were expecting. Besides, both Brown and Woodhead have their own issues.

Brown is going into his age 32 season and has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 288 carries over the past 3 seasons. He contributed big time last season as a pass catcher, with 49 catches for 371 yards last season for the Chargers, but he’s not the early down power back complement they need to keep Mathews fresh or a legitimate candidate to give them some carries if Mathews were to get hurt again. Woodhead, meanwhile, is the closest thing they’ve had to Darren Sproles since he left, but he’s had just 250 carries in the last 3 seasons and, at 5-8 190, isn’t capable of carrying much of a load. Like Brown, his biggest impact will come in the passing game.

Grade: B-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Rivers could once again be reliant on check downs to the backs this season because things are questionable in the receiving corps. Danario Alexander has plenty of upside as the #1 receiver, but his history of injury problems is well noted. He had a very productive career at the University of Missouri, especially in his senior year, when he caught 113 passes for 1781 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, in spite of that, Alexander went undrafted in 2010 due to serious concerns about his left knee, which had been operated on 4 times. Alexander spent 2 years in St. Louis after making the practice squad as an undrafted free agent and he had some big games, including 5 games of 72 yards or more.

However, he struggled with injuries to his knee and hamstring and played just 18 games in those 2 seasons, catching a total of 46 passes for 737 yards and 3 touchdowns. After he had a 5th knee surgery before the 2012 season, Alexander was waived/injured by the Rams and became a free agent. Despite his natural ability at 6-5 217, his collegiate production, and the fact that he flashed on several occasions in St. Louis, he lasted as a free agent until October 18th, when he was signed by the receiver desperate Chargers.

With the Chargers, he began playing serious snaps by week 9 and became a starter by week 10. In 9 games with the team, he caught 37 passes for 658 yards and 7 touchdowns, which extrapolates to 66 catches for 1170 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those 658 yards on 314 routes run equaled 2.10 yards per route run, 17th in the NFL among receivers who played as many snaps he did. He caught those 37 passes for 658 yards and 7 touchdowns on 54 targets and only 2 passes intended for him were intercepted, good for a QB rating when thrown to of 134.1, best in the NFL among receivers who played as many snaps as he did. For comparison, Philip Rivers’ overall QB rating was 88.6.

This off-season, he was slapped with an original round tender, which means anyone could have signed him to an offer sheet and not had to surrender draft pick compensation (the Chargers had right of to match any deal, however). Though several teams reportedly considered doing so, none did, likely scared off by his history of knee injuries and the commitment that comes with a multi-year deal. That’s also probably why San Diego didn’t slap a higher tender on him. His history of knee injuries still is the huge elephant in the room with him. They could creep up at any time.

Things do not get any clearer after that. Malcom Floyd should remain the other starter opposite Alexander, but he’s a marginal receiver who has never caught more than 56 passes in a season and who is heading into his age 32 season. He could be pushed by Vincent Brown or Keenan Allen for the starting job. Brown looked like a big-time sleeper going into the 2012 season, but the 2011 3rd round pick didn’t play a snap after breaking his ankle. He’s caught just 19 passes for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns in his career so while there’s upside here, it’s hard to get too excited. Allen, meanwhile, is a mere 3rd round rookie who probably won’t have much of an impact until 2014 and beyond. It’s just too hard to count on much from rookie receivers, especially those not drafted in the 1st round.

Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem were the big-time free agent signings from the 2012 off-season, getting a 3 year, 13.5 million dollar contract and a 4 year, 25.9 million dollar contract respectively. However, they combined for just 37 catches last season. Royal could see snaps on the slot this season, but he also could be cut to save 1.5 million in cap space and 3 million in cash. Meachem, meanwhile, is currently listed as the team’s #6 receiver and played just 50 snaps from week 10 on last season. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because his 5 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed, but he’s highly unlikely to have any role this season. He couldn’t produce in New Orleans with Drew Brees, maxing out at 45 catches, and was a very ill-advised signing in the first place.

At tight end, Antonio Gates looks like he’s in the beginning of the end of his career. Despite plenty of opportunity, Gates managed just 49 catches for 538 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, despite actually playing in 15 games for the first time since 2009. He has a history of injury problems, missing 10 games in the last 3 seasons and being limited in countless others and, going into his age 33 season, it looks like it’s all caught up with him. He’s unlikely to improve much upon those numbers. His biggest impact will be around the goal line, as he’s still managed 24 touchdowns over 38 games over the last 3 seasons. He hasn’t had fewer than 7 touchdowns since his rookie year in 2003.

The Chargers used a 4th round pick on Ladarius Green in 2012 to possibly be Gates’ eventual successor. The 6-6 240 pounder can’t block at all, but often looked like a big wide receiver on tape at the collegiate level with Louisiana-Lafayette, who he led in receiving in his final season with the team. He could see a bigger role than the 59 snaps he played as a rookie, but he may have to wait until Gates to be gone for a bigger role because of his inability to block. With Gates owed 5 million in an age 34 season in 2014, he might not have to wait much longer. Meanwhile, John Phillips was brought over from Dallas to handle more of the blocking duties. He was okay on 342 snaps in 2012 in the first real action of his career. Like the rest of the offense, the receiving corps overall lack talent.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On defense, things are better than they are on offense. After all, their best player Eric Weddle is a defensive player. Plus, from 2010-2012, they used 8 of their 10 picks in the first 3 rounds on defensive players. Things are promising on their 3 man defensive line where they have a trio of young players in Corey Liuget, Kendall Reyes, and Cam Thomas. Liuget, a 2011 1st round pick, is the best of the bunch. After a disappointing rookie season, Liuget was 8th at his position on ProFootballFocus in 2012. He could be even better in 2013 and, if he plays his cards right, he could end the season as one of the top-10 interior defensive linemen in the NFL. The Chargers desperately need to develop more of those high level type players.

Opposite him, Kendall Reyes graded out above average on 547 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last year and is headed for a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He too could emerge as young above average starter. Between them, Cam Thomas will man the nose. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, doing so on a career high 404 snaps in 2012. He’s not a great run stuffer, but he moves well enough and rushes the passer well enough to stay on the field in sub packages.

The only issue on the defensive line is a lack of depth. Vaughn Martin, Aubrayo Franklin, and Antonio Garay were nothing special, but with them all gone, their depth is very questionable. Damik Scafe has played just 14 snaps in his career. Kwame Geathers is an undrafted free agent rookie. Jarius Wynn is a veteran, but he’s been very mediocre through his career as primarily a backup. He’ll probably rotate with Liuget and Reyes.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another one of those recent high picks on the defensive side of the ball is Melvin Ingram, a 2012 1st round pick that they were counting on to have a bigger impact in 2013. However, he tore his ACL in the off-season and is expected to miss the entire season. The Chargers signed Dwight Freeney to replace him, but he’s a shell of what he used to be. Freeney graded out just about average last season, struggling against the run and grading out above average as a pass rusher. 3 things likely contributed to that: his unfamiliarity with the Colts’ 3-4 defense, his age, and injuries. However, San Diego also runs a 3-4 and he’s not getting any younger going into his age 33 season and, at his age, injuries remain a constant possibility. There’s a reason he was still available into June.

Opposite him, things are even worse. The Chargers didn’t just lose Ingram; they also lost opposite starter Shaun Phillips. He wasn’t very good last season, but they don’t really have a replacement. Jarret Johnson is a decent run stuffer, but he’s on the decline going into his age 32 season and he’s never generated any pass rush. He shouldn’t stay on the field in sub packages.

That probably means that Larry English will see a larger role this season, but the Smith/Turner era bust has never done anything of note. Since grading out as the absolute worst rush linebacker in the league as a rookie, he’s played just 408 snaps in the last 3 seasons combined, grading out below average each time. He should remain a very poor player in a bigger role this season. And after Freeney, Johnson, and English, they have very little depth. Thomas Keiser is a former undrafted free agent who has played 311 snaps in 2 seasons and Tourek Williams is a 6th round rookie. They’ll struggle for pass rush, even with a solid defensive line.

Things are better inside at middle linebacker, but not great. Donald Butler is a 2010 3rd round pick who has graded out above average in 2 seasons as a starter. He’ll play next to Manti Te’o, a 2nd round rookie. Te’o was at one point seen by the media as a potential top-5 pick, but a poor showing in the National Championship game and the Catfish incident sent his stock falling in the media.

In actuality, he was probably seen as a late 1st rounder/early 2nd rounder all along by the NFL. I don’t think the Catfish incident hurt his stock too much, nor would a poor showing in one game, but at the same time, I don’t think a linebacker without elite sideline to sideline ability or pass rush ability would have ever been seen as a top-5 or even top-10 pick. He’ll probably play an every down role as a rookie, as the Chargers don’t really have another option. He should play well against the run, but I have concerns about his ability to cover. The early 2nd round was the right range for him.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

I’ve mentioned Eric Weddle several times before. He really is a diamond in the rough on this team. He gets overlooked because of where he plays his football, but with Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu aging, he’s one of the top safeties in the NFL along with Jairus Byrd. He has been a top-8 safety on ProFootballFocus since 2009, top-3 since 2010, and graded out #1 in 2012. No one else even comes close to having that kind of recent track record.

The rest of the secondary is a mess though. Marcus Gilchrist and Brandon Taylor will compete for the other safety job. Gilchrist is a 2011 2nd round pick who struggled mightily as a part time player at cornerback in his first two years in the league. He’s being moved to safety, but, at 5-10 193, he’s very small for the position so I doubt he’d be much better there. Taylor, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and probably is the best man for the job, but he played just 40 snaps as a rookie and is coming off a torn ACL suffered in December. He’s practicing, but that injury will really hurt his chances of winning the job. He’d be a real question mark even if he did.

At cornerback, the Chargers essentially lost their top-3 guys from last season, with Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason leaving as free agents and Gilchrist kicking from the slot to safety. They brought in Derek Cox from Jacksonville, but he’s a very injury prone player who has missed 17 games in the last 3 seasons. He’s also only graded out above average once in 4 seasons and that was during a 2011 season in which he played just 6 games. In 2009 and 2010, he was 3rd worst at his position both times, and last season, he was only slightly below average, grading out 71st out of 113 eligible. As the de factor #1 cornerback in San Diego, he should be overmatched, at least when he’s on the field. He’s unlikely to ever live up to his 4 year, 20 million dollar contract.

Opposite him, the Chargers will promote 2011 3rd round pick Shareece Wright from the #4 cornerback to the #2 cornerback. He impressed on 120 snaps last season, but he’s played just 124 snaps in his 2 year career thus far, so he can’t really be counted on. Johnny Patrick who was torched last season in New Orleans, will line up as the #3 cornerback on the slot. If he had been eligible, he would have been ProFootballFocus’ 11th worst rated cornerback, despite only playing 218 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him last season and graded out worse. There’s a reason why he barely got playing time on a New Orleans defense that allowed the most yardage in NFL history. He allowed 24 catches on 35 attempts for 339 yards and 5 touchdowns in his limited action. After him, they have a 5th round rookie on the depth chart. It’s a serious problem.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

It’s hard to grade 1st year Head Coaches and important to temper expectations, but I definitely understand why McCoy was hired. He had success in Denver running three completely different types of offenses in his 4 years as offensive coordinator from 2009-2012. He worked with Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Peyton Manning and played to all 3 of their respective strengths. However, plenty of good offensive coordinators have washed out as Head Coaches.

Grade: B-

Overall

I just don’t see the talent here. It’s going to take a long time to clean up AJ Smith’s mess. As I said, aside from the Jaguars, Raiders, and maybe the Jets, no team in the NFL has a worse supporting cast. The Chargers have a better quarterback than those 3 teams so they’ll win more games than those 3, but they’re highly unlikely to make the playoffs, even in the weak AFC. I think they’re the 3rd best team in the AFC West and will probably only win 2 divisional games, either sweeping Oakland and getting swept by Kansas City or splitting with both.

Outside of the division, they host Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and the Giants, a very tough batch of teams. They’ll be lucky to win 2 of those games. They also go to Philadelphia, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington, and Miami. They probably won’t win in Washington and they’d be lucky to win 2 of those other 4. I have them at 5-11. There’s some upside if Rivers can turn it around, but I think he’s more on the decline than anything else and his supporting cast won’t help at all.

Projection: 5-11 3rd in AFC West

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Kansas City Chiefs 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Chiefs were no ordinary 2-14 team. They had 5 Pro-Bowlers last year. That might sound baffling, but it’s not. Only Eric Berry and maybe Tamba Hali (who had a down year) didn’t deserve it, but they could have easily been replaced by Brandon Flowers and Justin Houston. Unfortunately for them, football is a team game, not a contest of who has the highest amount of good players. This team was the perfect example of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. If you’re as poorly coached and poorly quarterbacked as the Chiefs and lose the turnover battle at a near record rate, you’re not going to win a lot of games. I don’t care how many talented players you have.

Because they were no ordinary 2-14 team, the Chiefs took a different approach to the off-season than most teams coming off of seasons with similar records do. Instead of rebuilding, the Chiefs acted as contenders, bringing back their top two free agents Dwayne Bowe and Branden Albert on a lucrative multi-year deal and the franchise tag respectively.

They also signed four players to multi-year deals, adding Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith to shore up holes in the secondary, Mike DeVito to shore up a hole on the defensive line, and Anthony Fasano to likely be their starting tight end. They brought in a veteran Head Coach in Andy Reid and, rather than using an early draft pick on a quarterback for the future, they sent a 2nd round pick to San Francisco for veteran Alex Smith and used the #1 overall pick on a more NFL ready player in Eric Fisher, who will plug in at right tackle immediately.

I think, overall, their moves made a lot of sense this off-season. They might have overpaid a few players, but I like the strategy and I think they’ll be a much improved team this season. Not only are they more talented, but the additions of Alex Smith and Andy Reid will fix the three things that were holding them back last season, quarterback play, turnovers, and coaching and let the rest of their talent shine.

Reid wore out his welcome in Philadelphia, but he also managed to keep his job there for 14 seasons, which is saying something. Over his time there, he made basically every quarterback he had look better than they were, allowing the Eagles to ship off Kevin Kolb, AJ Feeley, and, eventually, a washed up Donovan McNabb for 2nd round picks, even though none of the three ever did anything of note for their new team. He also revitalized the careers of Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick, who both came to Philadelphia as backups on cheap one year deals.

Reid should continue his fine work with new quarterback Alex Smith, a great fit for Reid’s West Coast offense. Smith was not as good as he looked in San Francisco with Jim Harbaugh. Their supporting cast made life very easy for him, especially their defense, as Smith had an excellent win-loss record despite only leading a talented offensive bunch to 23 points per game in 1 ½ years under Harbaugh.

However, I don’t think you can say he’ll immediately regress to the borderline starter he was before Harbaugh. I believe he’s legitimately an improved quarterback over the one he was 2 seasons ago. Plus, with Reid and Kansas City’s supporting cast, he’s not going into such a bad situation in Kansas City. He’ll also see a much easier schedule than he did in San Francisco. He’s physically limited and can only lead teams deep into the playoffs in absolutely perfect situations, but at the very least he’ll stabilize the turnover margin.

Speaking of that turnover margin, it was a league worst -24 last season, which was actually one of the worst in NFL history (-30 by the 1965 Steelers is the worst in NFL history). It made it very tough for them to win games and affected both sides of the ball, especially defensively, where they were not nearly as bad as the 26.6 points per game they allowed would have suggested.

Turnover margin tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. 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.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). Alex Smith should cut down on their interceptions. They should recover more than the 33.3% of fumbles that hit the ground that they did last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. And their talented defense should get their hands on a few more interceptions as well. With almost the same defensive unit in 2011, they had 19 interceptions. Last year, they had 7. That’s how inconsistent this stuff can be.

That will go a long ways towards letting their talent show through and improving their record. Every year, one team goes from 5 wins or fewer to into the playoffs and I think the Chiefs have the best shot of any of last year’s 7 such teams to do so (Kansas City, Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Arizona). Detroit might be more talented, but they have a much tougher conference to deal with.

Quarterback

I already went into Alex Smith in the intro. He’s not in the top half of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s miles ahead of anything the Chiefs had at quarterback last season and might be their best quarterback since Trent Green was healthy in 2005. He’ll stabilize the turnover problem and at the very least be a 2-year stopgap. I don’t see why he couldn’t do his best Matt Cassel 2010 impression and take this team to the post-season against a very weak schedule. They have the supporting cast.

Grade: B-

Running Back

Jamaal Charles is a big part of that supporting cast. If it weren’t for Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson (and the fact that the Chiefs were abysmal), more people would have paid attention to Charles’ amazing return from an ACL tear. Charles rushed for 1509 yards and 5 touchdowns on 285 carries and was a deserving one of Kansas City’s 5 Pro-Bowlers. In terms of pure talent, I think Jamaal Charles is one of the top running backs in the NFL and that we haven’t seen his best season yet.

Yes, he’s had injury issues and has never been trusted by a Head Coach to carry the load, but remember who he’s had as Head Coaches: Herm Edwards, Todd Haley, and Romeo Crennel. Haley gave him fewer carries in 2010 than Thomas Jones even though Charles almost set the single season record for yards per carry. He was averaging a good 2.7 yards per carry more than Jones. Last year, Charles got 5 carries in a loss to the Raiders and when asked why after the game, Romeo Crennel’s answer was “I don’t know.”

Sure, he’s had just 784 carries in 5 seasons, but his career 5.8 YPC is MOST ALL-TIME of backs with more than 500 career carries. After him, it’s Marion Motley, a fullback, linebacker, and kick returner who I think wore a leather helmet (1946-1955), Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen, and some dude named Spec Sanders who also served as his team’s punter (1946-1950). Why do his coaches never give him the ball?!

You might not think things will get better with Andy Reid coming in, but while Andy Reid hates to run the football, when he does, he’s faithful to one back and his playbook has enough passes to backs that Charles should be able to surpass his career high of 320 touches in a season. He’ll catch plenty of Alex Smith check downs and is a solid bet to catch 55-60 passes, which would surpass his career high of 45.

He’ll also see more goal line touches, more consistent work, and more room to run on a team that can actually move the football through the air this season. He’s another year removed from that ACL tear and he’s the clear lead back with 3rd round rookie Knile Davis and backup caliber talent Shaun Draughn battling for carries behind him. He was 5th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage last season and he’s my pick to lead the NFL in that category this season, as Brian Westbrook did under Reid in 2007.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Charles will be helped by a great offensive line, as will Alex Smith. Branden Albert was franchised this off-season and while he wasn’t re-signed to a multi-year contract because of concerns about the long-term health of his back, the Chiefs felt confident enough in his back to give him 9.5 million guaranteed for this season and refused to trade him for anything less than a 2nd round pick (talks with Miami eventually broke down over Miami’s unwillingness to give Albert the long-term deal he wanted).

Despite missing 4 games and being limited in others with those back problems, Albert was ProFootballFocus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle last season. The 2008 1st round pick was better in 2011, when he ranked 18th at his position. He may not be around with the Chiefs in 2014 and beyond, as he’ll turn 30 during the 2014 season, but he should be able to once again serve as an above average blindside protector this season.

One of the other reasons why Albert could be gone in 2014 is that the Chiefs used the #1 overall pick on Eric Fisher, an offensive tackle from Central Michigan. Fisher will play right tackle this season, but if they don’t feel confident giving a long-term deal to a going-on-30 left tackle with a history of back problems next off-season, he also gives them an insurance option on the blindside. Ordinarily, it’s hard to trust a rookie, especially one coming from a small school background like Fisher, but he was the #1 overall pick and he should find life easier on the right side than the left side, so I don’t have any issue projecting him as an above average starter this season.

Things are strong on the inside of the line as well. 2010 3rd round pick Jon Asamoah improved on a strong 2011 with an even stronger 2012, grading out 10th at his position, after grading out 18th in 2011. He could be even better this season and he’s one of the best guards in the NFL. He’ll play next to Rodney Hudson, a 2011 2nd round pick. Hudson was as accomplished as a collegiate offensive lineman could be, starting all 4 years, making the All-ACC team in his final 3 years, and the All-American team in his final 2 years, doing so unanimously in his senior year.

However, the NFL doesn’t have a lot of sub-300 pound offensive lineman and Hudson weighed in at 299 at The Combine, while not posting a particularly fast 40 time at 5.31. In spite of 27 reps of 225, there were still major questions about his ability to anchor. Hudson barely played as a rookie, serving as a reserve guard. However, with long-time NFL veteran Casey Wiegmann retiring, a hole opened up at center for the Chiefs and Hudson was moved there for the 2012 season. The move made sense. Hudson’s lack of strength and athleticism wouldn’t be as big of an issue at center and his intelligence and technique would be big time assets.

Hudson started out very well in his first season at center, only allowing 1 pressure in his first 2 and ½ games, but he went down with a broken leg during the middle of that 3rd game, costing him his season. In spite of the limited playing time, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked center (he wasn’t eligible, but I included ineligible players), grading out above average as a run and pass blocker. Only Dallas’ Phil Costa played fewer snaps than him and graded out better than him. Provided he can stay healthy (injuries have never been an issue for him before last year), Hudson could certainly pick up where he left off and emerge as an above average center.

Left guard is the weak point of the line. There is currently a three-way battle for that job between Donald Stephenson, Jeff Allen, and Geoff Schwartz. Stephenson and Allen are both 2nd year players, going in the 3rd and 2nd round respectively in 2012, but both struggled mightily as rookies. Allen started 13 games at left guard last season, but graded out 79th out of 81 eligible guards. Stephenson, meanwhile, started 7 games as the swing tackle, but was not impressive at all, grading out 58th out of 80 eligible despite the limited playing time. He’ll probably serve in the swing tackle role again if he can’t win the left guard job. Both players could be better in their 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees.

Both 2nd year players are dealing with injuries in Training Camp, which puts them at a disadvantage in the battle for the starting job. However, that might work out for the best for the Chiefs because Schwartz is probably the best man for the job. Schwartz was excellent in his only year as a starter in 2010, starting 5 games at right tackle and 11 games at right guard. If you take his composite grade (at guard and tackle), he would have been ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked guard and 13th ranked tackle. He missed the entirety of the 2011 season with a hip injury, but he was very good as a reserve with the Vikings last season on 160 snaps. It’s possible the 2008 7th round pick is just a one year wonder, but he was more than worth it for the Chiefs on a cheap one year deal and he deserves to be the starting left guard.

If Schwartz is the weak point on your offensive line, you’re in good shape. They don’t have any elite players on the line, but it’s still a well above average unit. They should be improved over a 2012 offensive line that ranked 21st in pass block efficiency and 7th in run block grade, with Fisher coming in, Hudson coming back, Asamoah further maturing, and Allen and Stephenson likely moving to reserve roles.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Along with Branden Albert returning at left tackle, the Chiefs also brought back Dwayne Bowe this off-season. A season after being franchise tagged, the Chiefs gave Bowe a 5-year, 56 million dollar contract. Bowe has caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, which compares favorably to Vincent Jackson, who got 5 years, 55.5 million last off-season, despite just 272 catches for 4754 yards and 37 touchdowns in 92 games at a similar age. Bowe has produced those improved numbers without the luxury of strong quarterback play, which Jackson had in San Diego with Philip Rivers.

Bowe caught just 59 passes for 801 yards and 3 touchdowns in 13 games in 2012, the 2nd worst season of his career, but that’s actually pretty impressive considering his quarterback play. Now he gets to play in a pass heavy offense under Andy Reid with arguably the best quarterback he’s ever played with (compared to Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn) and he’s a great fit for a West Coast offense. He’s quietly one of the better receivers in the NFL in Kansas City and the arrow is definitely pointing up for him. He could surpass his career highs of 86 catches (2008) and 1162 yards (2010), though the 15 touchdowns he caught in 2010 remain largely a fluke.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Chiefs’ receiving corps is not nearly as impressive. They’ll probably give Jonathan Baldwin another shot to win the starting job opposite Bowe and the 2011 1st round pick is still a talented receiver going in his 3rd year, frequently a breakout year for receivers. However, he’s shown absolutely nothing in 2 years in the league to show he’s anything other than a big stiff at 6-4 225 who can’t grasp the mental part of the game, catching just 41 passes for 579 yards and 2 touchdowns on 587 pass snaps in his first 2 years of the league. You never want to write a receiver with Baldwin’s natural ability off, but I don’t expect big things from him.

Baldwin might not even make it to week 1 as the starter if he can’t beat out veteran Donnie Avery in the pre-season, a real possibility. Avery wouldn’t be much of an upgrade though. The once snake-bitten receiver appeared to have revitalized his career last season in Indianapolis, where he caught a career high 60 passes for a career high 781 yards to go with 3 touchdowns, but he was actually one of the most inefficient receivers in the NFL.

He graded 100th out of 105 eligible at his position on ProFootballFocus, had his position’s 3rd highest drop rate among eligible receivers (12 drops to 60 catches) and ranked 70th out of 82 eligible in QB rating when thrown to, catching those 60 passes on 112 targets with 3 interceptions to those 3 touchdowns. He was a fine young receiver in his first 2 years in the league in 2008-2009 before injuries, but it appears those days are gone, after an injury plagued 2010-2011 stretch that saw him play just 8 games and catch just 3 passes. He’s best suited to being a depth receiver and remains an obvious injury risk.

Whoever wins the 2nd outside job opposite Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster will remain as the slot specialist. He’s alright in that role, catching 52 passes for 452 yards and a touchdown on 70 targets and 389 pass snaps, despite awful quarterback play, last season, his first in the role full time after being experimented as a running back. The slot receiver has a pretty big role in Andy Reid’s offense as Reid likes to pass a lot and use a lot of 3-wide receiver sets.

Reid’s Eagles used the 3-wide formation on 49% of their snaps last season and slot specialist Jason Avant an average of 52 passes in that role over the last 3 seasons. The diminutive 5-8 170 pound McCluster is a noticeably different type of slot receiver from Avant, but he could see similar production. He won’t be a huge factor in the off-season or anything though and he’s unlikely to be fantasy relevant, for those of you who are interested in that type of thing.

With weakness at receiver after Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs will need to get some production from the tight end position. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better there. Anthony Fasano comes over from Miami. He’s a good all-around tight end and inline blocker, who contributes a little bit in the passing game, but he wasn’t worth the 16 million they paid him over 4 years. They shouldn’t expect much more than any of his career highs, 41 catches (2012), 528 yards (2010), and 7 touchdowns (2008). He’ll likely start.

Meanwhile, 3rd round rookie Travis Kelce and veteran incumbent Tony Moeaki will compete for the move tight end role. Moeaki is a marginal tight end, who has caught 80 passes for 1009 yards and 4 touchdowns over 2010 and 2012 (with a torn ACL in 2011 in between) since being drafted in the  3rd round in 2010. Kelce has more upside, but he’s just a 3rd round rookie, so it’s tough to count on him much. Moeaki’s 1.323 million dollar base salary is about 3 times more than Kelce’s so that could work against him, especially if the Chiefs could find a trade partner for him before the season starts. He’s already been rumored as an option for the Patriots to replace Aaron Hernandez, with former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll serving as the receivers coach there.

Whoever wins the job, they’ll unlikely to give Alex Smith the consistent #2 receiver after Dwayne Bowe he would like. Jamaal Charles could be 2nd on the team in receptions. It’s the weakness of the Chiefs’ offense, but they should be alright. They won’t turn the ball over as much. Jamaal Charles will be a yards from scrimmage monster. They have a strong offensive line. Andy Reid is an underappreciated offensive mind. And they should approach the 23 points per game Smith led the 49ers to over the past 2 seasons.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Chiefs largely did a good job of filling their holes this off-season, but one thing they did not obtain was someone to pressure the quarterback from the defensive line and a tertiary pass rush option after Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Hali and Houston, their starting rush linebackers in their 3-4 defense and primary edge rushers, did a great job last season, combining for 20 sacks, but they can’t do it alone, as the Chiefs had just 27 sacks on the season and were ProFootballFocus’ 28th ranked pass rush team.

Their 3-man defensive line got absolutely no pass rush last season.  Chief defensive linemen combined for 5 sacks, 7 hits, and 18 hurries on 1225 combined pass rush snaps last year, a pathetic 2.7% rate. For comparison, JJ Watt had 21 sacks, 24 hits, and 31 hurries by himself. I know rushing the quarterback isn’t their primary job, but that’s pathetic. They have to get some sort of pass rush, especially in sub packages on obvious passing downs. Hali and Houston can’t do it by themselves. No two pass rushers can.

Tyson Jackson returns on the defensive line after restructuring his massive salary and will once again start in one spot. The surprise 3rd overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft has largely been a bust. He’s a better run stopper than pass rusher, but last season he didn’t even grade out above average as a run stopper and he managed just 3 sacks, 1 hits, and 3 hurries on 285 pass rush snaps, a 2.5% pass rush rate. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th worst ranked 3-4 defensive end overall and 2nd worst ranked pass rushing 3-4 defensive end. He’s been a better run stopper in the past and graded out above average in 2011, but at best he could be described as a solid base 3-4 end and nothing else.

Free agent acquisition Mike DeVito is pretty much a rich man’s Tyson Jackson. Few players are better pure base 3-4 ends, as he graded out 9th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, but he didn’t get any pass rush with 1 sack and 10 hurries on 248 pass rush snaps, a 4.4% pass rush rate. He was only a part-time player for that reason and should be used in that role this season with the Chiefs. He was essentially the same player in 2011, when he graded out 9th overall at his position and 5th as a run stopper at his position.

The player who has the best chance to give them any sort of pass rush from the defensive line is Dontari Poe. He’s a massive 346 pound nose tackle, but the Chiefs didn’t draft him 11th overall just for him to be a true two-down run stuffing nose tackle and he has rare movement ability for someone of his size. He has the upside to be a good every down player and get this team some much needed pass rush from the interior. However, I didn’t like the pick when they made it and he certainly didn’t do much to change my mind as a rookie, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible and producing 3 hits and 9 hurries on 403 pass rush snaps, a 3.0% pass rush rate. He could be better in his 2nd season, but I think he’s too much of a straight athlete with subpar lateral ability to reach his upside.

Marcus Dixon, Anthony Toribio, and Allen Bailey are their reserve defensive linemen, but none of them appear to have the ability to give them the interior pass rusher they need. Bailey will probably play in sub packages and obvious passing downs with Poe and he has the most pass rush upside of the bunch, being drafted in the 3rd round in 2011 after running a 4.77 40 at 6-3 285 at The Combine. However, he’s played just 461 snaps in his first two seasons in the league and managed just 2 total hurries on 105 pass rush snaps last season. It figures to once again be a defensive line that stops the run well, but doesn’t generate any pass rush.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are an excellent pass rush tandem, possibly one of the best in the NFL. Houston, a talented player who only fell to the 3rd round in 2011 because of a failed drug test at The Combine, carried over strong play from the final 6 games of the 2011 season into 2012, as he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked rush linebacker.

Houston and Hali had very similar raw pass rush numbers (10 sacks, 7 hits, and 27 hurries for Houston, 10, 8, and 28 for Hali), but Houston graded significantly out better in coverage and against the run. Houston dropped into coverage 173 times this year to Hali’s 81 and did a very good job of it and, as a result, he saw fewer pass rush snaps and still produced similar raw numbers. While Houston had a 12.5% pass rush rate on 352 pass rush snaps, Hali had an 11.4% pass rush rate on 405 pass rush snaps.

Though Hali graded out middle of the pack, 18th out of 34 eligible, at his position, he’s been much better in the past, grading out 4th in 2011 and 1st in 2010. Only going into his age 30 season, he’s a strong candidate for a bounce back year, while Houston could continue improving, which would give them an even stronger rush linebacker duo, but again, they can’t do it alone. They also lack serious depth at the position. Andy Studebaker played 59 snaps and represented the top reserve at the position last season, with 26 of those coming in a week 1 start in place of a suspended Hali. Things figure to be very much the same this season with career backup Frank Zombo as the top reserve.

Derrick Johnson is the 3rd strong member of their linebacking corps. He’s been a top-5 middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons since he regained his starting job after being benched in 2009 by Todd Haley. Only Patrick Willis can say the same thing and while no middle linebacker is on Willis’ level, Johnson is the only other player who even comes close. He’s incredibly durable as well and rarely misses a snap.

The weakness in the linebacking corps is the other middle linebacker spot, which, along with the need for a pass rushing defensive lineman, is the biggest hole they left unaddressed this off-season. They did use a 4th round pick on Nico Johnson, but if he has to start as a rookie, it’ll be a problem. He could very well have to because the only other option is Akeem Jordan, who will compete with Johnson in Training Camp and the pre-season. Jordan follows Reid from Philadelphia, where the 2007 undrafted free agent was a solid career backup. Otherwise, it’s a loaded linebacking corps with 3 Pro-Bowl caliber players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary is where the Chiefs spent the most of their off-season efforts, adding Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith on multi-year deals. Both of those players will complement #1 cornerback Brandon Flowers, who remains one of the best in the NFL. He’s the only player who has graded out among the top-7 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 4 seasons and it isn’t even really close, though if it weren’t for Revis’ torn ACL, he’d probably have joined him. He topped out at #2 overall in 2010 and last season was 7th. He allowed 40 catches on 80 attempts for 479 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties.

Sean Smith will start opposite him. The 6-3 215 pound corner has plenty of talent, but is really inconsistent. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2010, but ranked 5th worst in 2011, before a slightly below average season in 2012, though he graded out slightly above average in coverage, allowing 62 catches on 113 attempts for 732 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 7 penalties. He’s inconsistent and has a history of being out of shape, but the 2009 2nd round pick probably averages out as an average starter.

Dunta Robinson, meanwhile, will play the slot, after being cut by the Falcons midway into an undeserved massive contract. He once again struggled in coverage last season, allowing 64 catches on 97 attempts for 834 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 3 penalties. However, a strong run grade actually lifted his overall grade above average, as he ranked 4th at his position in that aspect. He’ll be a better fit on the slot in Kansas City, going into his age 31 season, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him.

Still, Smith and Robinson will be better as the #2 and #3 cornerback than what they got last season. Javier Arenas was decent, but Stanford Routt, signed as a cheaper alternative to departed free agent Brandon Carr (before Carr even signed), didn’t even make it through his first season with a team, getting cut mid-season. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible on just 409 snaps. Jalil Brown, his replacement, was even worse, grading out 103rd on 371 snaps.

The Chiefs should also get better play from Eric Berry. To this point in his career, Berry is overrated. The 5th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Berry made the Pro-Bowl on name value as rookie, but, while he wasn’t bad, grading out 17th at his position, he didn’t deserve that honor yet. His development was stunted by a torn ACL in 2011 and even though he made the Pro-Bowl again upon his return in 2012, he didn’t look quite himself, grading out as just an average starter. I have big hopes for him going into his 4th year another year removed from that injury, but he’s not that player yet.

Opposite him, Kendrick Lewis is coming off a down year, being limited to 565 snaps by injury and grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 81st ranked safety out of 88 eligible, but he was an average starter in both 2010 and 2011 so he could bounce back. If he doesn’t, the Chiefs have Husian Abdullah behind him. He was an above average starter in 2010 (18th at his position) and on his way to a similar season in 2011 before concussion problems ended his 2011 season in the middle. He took 2012 off to recover and pursue religious obligations, taking a pilgrimage to Mecca, but now he’s back and healthy and could be an underrated pickup for the Chiefs. It’s a solid and improved secondary for the Chiefs, part of an overall solid defensive unit.

Grade: B+

Head Coach

Andy Reid gets a bad rep because he’s fat and sometimes misuses his timeouts and lost the locker room last season in Philadelphia, but for all of his weaknesses, his ability to get the most out of quarterbacks is so valuable and makes him a good Head Coach. He made Donovan McNabb, AJ Feeley, Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, and Jeff Garcia all look better than they were and he should do the same with Alex Smith this season. There’s a reason he was the Head Coach in Philadelphia for 14 years and why he got snatched up so quickly once let go. He and the Eagles needed to part ways for both of their sakes and he should benefit from a fresh start and a fresh team in Kansas City.

Grade: B+

Overall

Every year, at least one team makes the playoffs on the good defense, strong running game, decent quarterback, easy schedule model and I think the Chiefs will do so this year, much like they did in 2010. This was not your typical 2-14 team last year and they made the necessary adjustments this off-season to allow their talent to shine. I think they’ll be the NFL’s most improved team in terms of win total and be this year’s team to go from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs.

They probably won’t beat Denver, but they’ll a better team than both San Diego and Oakland so 4 divisional wins is not out of the question. Outside of the division, they host the Giants, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. They should beat Cleveland and at least split the other 4 games, which puts them at 7-4 in the aforementioned 11 games. They also go to Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Buffalo, and Washington, which outside of Washington is not a tough schedule. They could win 3 of those games. I have them at 10-6.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in AFC West

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