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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Denver Broncos 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Broncos were on an 11-game winning streak last season going into the playoffs, but saw it come to a screeching halt with a home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. What happened? You can blame Rahim Moore for one of the most boneheaded defensive plays of the season, but the Broncos also had two special teams touchdowns to help them. From a pure offense vs. defense standpoint, they were outplayed in that game, even if Moore had stayed in his position, and deserved to lose.

In hindsight, that loss should not have been so unpredictable. Teams on a 9+ game winning streak off a bye in the playoffs are just 4-5 since 1989 and not one of them has covered the spread. It clearly hurts a team to have to take a week off in the post-season in the middle of a long winning streak. On top of that, the Broncos’ winning streak was compiled against largely subpar teams, as they played just 2 teams that finished 8-8 or better over that winning streak. They might have just gotten complacent and it’s very possible they weren’t as good as their record would have suggested. Sure a 34-17 victory in Baltimore over those same Ravens in Baltimore 4 weeks prior suggested the Broncos were capable of beating playoff caliber teams and convincingly, but in hindsight, that loss isn’t that shocking.

This season, the Broncos add Wes Welker to the mix offensively and they are seen as the AFC favorite going into the season. That makes some sense. The reigning AFC #1 seed adds their biggest competition’s tough wide receiver. However, I don’t think that Peyton Manning will necessarily play better than he did last season. Manning completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions last season. In his career, he completes “just” 65.1% of his passes for 7.6 YPA, and roughly just over 2 touchdowns for every interception. His 2012 completion percentage was the 2nd best of his career, his 2012 YPA the 3rd best of his career, and his 2012 TD:INT ratio also the 3rd best of his career. His 105.8 QB rating was 10 points higher than his career QB rating and the 2nd highest of his career.

Sure, it’s possible that the addition of Welker can lead to be even further improved Manning, but I don’t find it that likely that Manning will surpass the arguably 2nd best season of his career in what is his age 37 season. It’s more likely that regression to the mean and normal diminishing physical skills for a 37-year-old who has recently had a serious injury lead to an inferior 2013 as compared to 2012 for Manning. Sure, Manning’s mean is still one of the best in the game, but I don’t buy that the Broncos will be an improved offensive team (30.1 points per game in 2012, 2nd in the NFL) just because of Wes Welker’s presence on the slot.

Defensively, the Broncos have lost starting defensive end Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens, a talented pass rusher opposite Von Miller. Miller himself has his status in doubt for the first 4 games of the season in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. They’re still not a great team up the middle with a hole at middle linebacker and some questions at safety and defensive tackle. Meanwhile, top cornerback Champ Bailey is another year older and fresh off being exposed in the playoff loss to Baltimore. They ranked 4th in the NFL allowing 18.1 points per game last season. That might not continue to be the case in 2013.

Like Manning, the team as a whole could see a little bit of regression to the mean. It’s a parity league, to the point where the average 13 win team wins, on average, 9.5 games the following season. The average team also sees their win total change by an average of 3 wins per season, in either direction. Going with that, teams that have a big win improvement, like the Broncos did in 2012 (going from 8 to 13) tend to regress about half of that the next season. I don’t think the Broncos are going to miss the playoffs or anything, but if I had to put money on them improving their win total/staying at 13 wins or going down to 12 wins or lower, I’d take the latter easily. I’m not convinced this is the team to beat in the AFC.

Quarterback

All that being said about Peyton Manning, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His career averages of 65.1% completion, 7.6 YPA, 2.09:1 TD:INT ratio, and a QB rating of 95.7 would make for a good season any year and I don’t see why he can’t be around those numbers in 2013. He’s got a good receiving corps and offensive line and the ability to make both look better than they are. The Broncos will once again be among the highest scoring teams in the NFL, largely because of him. I just don’t think he’ll improve upon 2012 this season.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The passing game is clearly going to work fine for the Broncos this season. The question is the running game. With Willis McGahee gone, the Broncos have 3 backs competing for playing time, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, and Ronnie Hillman. Ball was the 2nd round pick this year and is the most talented of the trio, but John Fox notoriously hates playing rookies, especially at the running back position. Peyton Manning also requires his backs to pass protect and he could very well have a say in who plays running back this season. Ball played his college ball at Wisconsin, which was not a pass heavy team, even when they had Russell Wilson in 2011, so he’s understandably raw in pass protection.

Ronnie Hillman isn’t a rookie anymore, but the 2012 3rd round pick still is a young back and at sub-200 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame to carry the load or to hold up in pass protection. He was down as low as 175 pounds as a rookie. He’s best suited as a change of pace back, though he was working as the starter in Training Camp because, again, John Fox hates rookies.

Knowshon Moreno is the 3rd back and the most veteran of the bunch. However, the Josh McDaniels era bust is just not very talented averaging 4.0 yards per carry for his carry, 3.8 yards per carry last season as the starter after McGahee went down. He’s also very injury prone. He could start the season as the primary inside runner, with Hillman as the change of pace back, but by October, expect Ball and Hillman to be splitting the carries. Moreno could be injured by then anyway. It’s a position with question marks.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

While their running backs will be helped by the defense focusing on Peyton Manning and the passing game, their offensive line isn’t going to help them out that much, as they ranked 22nd on ProFootballFocus among run blocking offensive lines last season. They did much better in pass protection, or at least they appeared to. They ranked 1st in the NFL in both pass block efficiency and pass block grade on ProFootballFocus, but the year before they were 23rd in pass block grade and 31st in pass block efficiency.

The switch from Tim Tebow, who holds the ball a very long time, to Peyton Manning, who has one of the quickest releases in the NFL, likely had something to do with that. In 2011, Tim Tebow led the NFL in seconds to throw at 3.65 seconds and it wasn’t even close. Michael Vick and Cam Newton were the only other two quarterbacks above 3 seconds and Vick, the 2nd slowest to throw, was at 3.17 seconds.

Contrast that with Manning, who threw the ball on average 2.46 seconds after receiving it. I know ProFootballFocus takes that kind of thing into account with their grade, but I find it hard to believe that the Broncos’ offensive line legitimately in a vacuum went from the 23rd best in 2011 to the 1st best in 2012 and that the quarterback switch didn’t have anything to do with it. The fact that they’re actually a below average offensive line on the ground is also evidence that they’re not as good as Manning makes them seem.

In reality, they’re probably in between, though they might be close to 1st than 23rd. It’s very likely that the Broncos’ offensive line played better in 2012, just not that significantly better. The first reason for that is a return to form for left tackle Ryan Clady. Clady improved drastically on ProFootballFocus from 2011 to 2012, ranking 63rd out of 76 eligible in 2011 before grading out 4th at his position in 2012. His pass protection did improve significantly, but so did his run blocking so I truly believe he did play significantly better last season than in 2011, even if Manning’s blindside is exponentially easier to protect than Tim Tebow’s. Besides, he’s done this in the past, ranking 16th in 2009 and 9th in 2010 with that down year in between. I believe he’s truly a top-10 offensive tackle in the NFL and one of the best blindside protectors in the game.

Also improving significantly in 2012 was right tackle Orlando Franklin, going from average in 2011 to 18th among tackles in 2012. Unlike Clady, his run blocking didn’t significantly improve and he actually committed 4 more penalties, so his improvement was pretty much entirely as a pass protector. The Tebow to Manning switch probably did have more to do with that than ProFootballFocus might have compensated for in their grading, but I do believe that the 2011 2nd round pick improved significantly in his 2nd year in the league and is actually an above average right tackle.

The player whose turnaround I most believe was quarterback related was the improvement of left guard Zane Beadles. Beadles was awful in 2011, grading out 6th worst at his position, but he graded out 16th at his position in 2012. The 2010 2nd round pick had never done anything like that in the past though and he was a reach in the 2nd round by the bizarre-drafting Josh McDaniels. I believe he’s maybe an average guard at best and someone that Manning makes look so much better than he actually is. He’s the weak point on their offensive line.

Their improvement at the center position from league worst JD Walton in 2011 is for real because they had a completely different player there, adding Dan Koppen before the season. Koppen played pretty well, despite his somewhat advanced age, but he tore his ACL in Training Camp in the past week and will miss the entirety of the 2013 season. JD Walton is out for at least the first 6-8 weeks of the season as well and, let’s face it, no one wants to see him try to start again, so the Broncos convinced Ryan Lilja to come out of retirement.

Lilja is a former teammate of Manning’s from Indianapolis, though he played guard there alongside Jeff Saturday. He’s been a guard for most of his career, playing very well there, but did surprisingly well at center last year for the Chiefs, grading out 14th among centers on ProFootballFocus. He had a few minor issues with snaps and some times where you could tell he was a natural guard, but he played well and he’s only going into his age 32 season.

He didn’t retire out of lack of interest for his services. It seems like he just didn’t want to play football anymore (playing for a 2-14 team can do that to you). As long as he stayed in close to top shape during his “retirement” this off-season and as long as he’s mentally in this season 100%, he should be a nice pickup for the Broncos. It helps to have Manning as your pitchman.

Lilja is one of two new starters for the Broncos upfront on the offensive line, as they made a great move stealing right guard Louis Vasquez from division rival San Diego. 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 was well worth the 23.5 million over 4 years they paid him this off-season and he’ll upgrade what otherwise would have been a very questionable right guard position. Aside from Beadles, it’s actually a very strong offensive line. They might not be the best in the NFL, but they’re at least a top-10 line and Manning makes them look even better with his quick release.

Grade: A-

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Wes Welker was obviously the big addition in Denver this off-season. Brady made Welker look much better than he actually was in New England, but it’s not like Peyton Manning can’t continue to do the same thing. Hell, Brandon Stokley caught 48 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns last season on just 63 targets and 405 pass snaps as the slot receiver last year and he was pretty much retired the year before. And at 12 million over 2 years, Welker is reasonably priced as well. He won’t see 100 catches again because the Broncos have plenty of receivers to spread the ball around to. In fact, even Welker himself admits that if he’s catching as many passes as he was in New England, it won’t be a good thing for the offense. He’s also going into his age 32 season. However, he’ll obviously be an asset for the Broncos.

Like Manning will make Welker look better than he is, he will continue to make Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker look better than they are. Both had great seasons last year in breakout 3rd seasons in the league, but if they had any other quarterback, they wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as good. They also dropped 23 passes between them. Decker was clearly the inferior of the two and he’ll see a decrease in production this season with Welker coming in to give them another possession receiver option.

After largely being a non-factor in his first 2 years in the league, the 2010 3rd round pick Decker caught 85 passes for 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns last season on 120 targets. Manning only had 3 interceptions when throwing to Decker last season, giving Manning a QB rating of 123.7 when throwing to Decker, 8th in the NFL among wide receivers. However, Decker still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 36th ranked wide receiver, thanks largely to his drops and his weak 3.4 yards after the catch per catch.

Thomas did much better after the catch, averaging 5.9 yards after catch per catch, and also showed great chemistry with Manning, catching 94 passes for 1430 yards and 10 touchdowns on 138 targets. Manning didn’t throw a single interception when targeting Thomas and as a result, Thomas ranked 5th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to. Unlike Decker, Welker won’t eat much into his production because they’re completely different types of receivers. He’ll remain their primary deep threat. He was 3rd in the NFL with 16 catches on passes that travelled 20+ yards or more in the air.

Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme remain their primary two tight ends, but they should both see less action in 2013 with Welker coming in and the team expected to see even more 3-wide receiver sets. Tamme will be especially hurt because he was the #2 tight end, serving as a move tight end, with Dreessen as an inline player. He’ll also cut directly into his targets because they operate in very similar areas. Tamme caught 52 passes for 555 yards and 2 touchdowns on 80 targets last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus 6th ranked pass catching tight end, though he can’t block at all.

Dreessen is the better all-around tight end, playing 877 snaps last season, 19th at his position. He run blocked well and he also contributed as a pass catcher, catching 41 passes for 356 yards and 5 touchdowns on 57 targets last season. It’s hard to see him doing much more than that this season. Overall, it’s a very talented receiving corps, but I don’t know if it can work at much of a higher efficiency than it was last season. Both Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme were very efficient as pass catchers in the slot last season, catching 69.9% of their targets, because of Manning. I don’t know how much better than that Welker can be. It’s part of the reason why I think it’s more likely Manning has a worse season in 2013 than in 2012.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil this off-season and could be without Von Miller for the first 4 games of the season with a suspension. For that reason, holdover Robert Ayers and free agent acquisition Shaun Phillips will see bigger roles. Ayers will start at defensive end in Dumervil’s old spot. He played well on 333 snaps last season, but he has struggled whenever he’s been counted to start in the past and the 2009 1st round pick looks like another Josh McDaniels era bust. He’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher and ideally he’d split snaps with pass rush specialist Shaun Phillips, but Phillips is probably going to play in Miller’s old role for the first 4 games of the season, playing linebacker on in base packages and moving to the defensive line on passing downs.

Phillips is pretty washed up though. He’s going into his age 32 season this season and was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd lowest ranked 3-4 rush linebacker last season, which is why he had to settle for a non-lucrative one year deal this off-season. He was awful against the run, ranked dead last at his position against the run and it wasn’t even really close. He did have 9 sacks, but only 6 hits and 23 hurries on 428 pass rush snaps, an 8.8% pass rush rate. He was 20th at his position out of 32 eligible in pass rush productivity and 28th out of 34 eligible in pass rush grade.

Miller was the only other player besides JJ Watt to get a defensive player of the year vote last season and he deserved it, as good as Watt was. He was by far ProFootballFocus’ 1st ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and he was their 3rd ranked overall defensive player behind JJ Watt and Geno Atkins. He was an incredibly productive pass rusher, with 19 sacks, 15 hits, and 52 hurries on 470 pass rush snaps, an absurd 18.3% pass rush rate. He also excelled against the run. He ranked 1st at his position in 2011 as well, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year, so last season wasn’t a fluke. He’s one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL and the Broncos’ 2nd most irreplaceable player.

Miller plays defensive end on passing downs when he’s in the lineup and will probably play opposite Shaun Phillips. However, while Miller is out, Phillips will be an every down player and play on the defensive line opposite Robert Ayers on passing downs. It’s a downgrade and it also hurts that Dumervil is gone. Regardless of Miller’s situation, Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers will be the base ends. I’ve already mentioned Ayers, Wolfe is going into his 2nd year after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Wolfe will continue to play an every down role as a defensive end in base packages as a defensive tackle in sub packages. He played the run well as a rookie, especially at defensive end, but he didn’t get any pass rush, with 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 12 hurries on 530 pass rush snaps, a 4.7% pass rush rate. He was ProFootballFocus’ 54th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible, ranking dead last as a pass rusher, but 9th as a run stuffer. He could be better in his 2nd year though.

As I mentioned, on passing downs, he plays at defensive tackle. Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan were good run stuffers who couldn’t get to the quarterback last season. Bannan is gone, but Vickerson returns as a starter, next to Terrance Knighton, who comes over from Jacksonville, reuniting with Jack Del Rio, the former Jacksonville Head Coach who is Denver’s defensive coordinator. Knighton is a similar player, a big run stuffer at 6-3 317 who doesn’t get to the quarterback. The Broncos will once again be counting on Derek Wolfe for interior pass rush, along with 1st round pick rookie Sylvester Williams, who will probably see only a situational role as a rookie.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with Von Miller playing in base packages at linebacker, the Broncos also have Wesley Woodyard and Nate Irving, who will probably both play every down. Woodyard definitely will, as he played that role last season. He struggled against the run at 6-0 227, but he was excellent in coverage and graded out above average overall. Last year was his first year as a starter and he struggled as a situational player in the past so I’ll have to see it from the 2008 undrafted free agent again.

Nate Irving, meanwhile, could only play two-down as a run stuffer, with either Danny Trevathan or Steven Johnson playing a situational coverage role. Whoever plays there, they probably won’t get good play from the middle linebacker spot. Irving, a 2011 3rd round pick as played just 42 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and Johnson and Trevathan are equally inexperienced. Johnson played 6 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season, while Trevathan struggled on 243 snaps as a 6th round rookie.

Grade: B

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Secondary

The Broncos’ secondary got lit up by the Ravens in the playoffs and Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore got most of the blame. However, both played well last season before that game and it’s important not to judge either too much on one game. Bailey graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked cornerback last season, allowing 40 catches on 74 attempts for 479 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 6 penalties. He’s been a top-10 cornerback in 4 of the last 5 seasons, with his worst season since 2008 coming in 2011, when he ranked 18th at his position. He allowed 5 catches for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns on 7 attempts in that playoff loss and he’s going into his age 37 season so maybe that was the beginning of the end. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he declined this season.

While fans know Bailey as a future Hall of Famer, most casual football fans know Rahim Moore for one thing, his role in the Mile High Miracle in Denver’s eventual playoff loss to the Ravens in last year’s AFC divisional round. For those of you who need a refresher, the heavily underdogged Ravens trailed by 7 with the ball on their own 30 with under 40 seconds left in the 4th quarter. The Broncos came out in prevent defense, as is always the case in that type of situation, and the #1 rule of the prevent defense is don’t let anything get completed behind you. Play deep and don’t jump any routes. If you only allow completions in front of you, eventually the clock will run out and you’ll win. It’s very fundamental football stuff and it’s especially imperative for a safety. They’re called safeties for a reason; they are the last line of the defense.

Rahim Moore, starting free safety for the Broncos, decided instead to try to be a hero and the rest was history. Moore jumped a route on a deep ball thrown from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones, going for the interception and the ultimate icer. Not only did he break one of the biggest rules of prevent defense, he missed by a good 5 yards and didn’t even come close to getting the interception, falling in his attempt to pick off the ball. This allowed Jones to get behind him easily and reel in what ended up being a 70 yard touchdown to send the game to overtime, where the Ravens eventually won, sending home the heavily favored #1 seed Broncos home early and spurring an eventual Super Bowl Championship for the Ravens.

That play was an absolute disaster for Moore and he’s undoubtedly spent the entire off-season trying to move past that. However, you cannot judge a player on one play. While that is the worst single snap I’ve seen a safety play in years, Moore played 1160 other snaps last season, including playoffs and was overall a very solid football player. He should be judged more on those instead and have his entire body of work taken into account. He finished the regular season as ProFootballFocus’ 10th rated safety, grading out above average in both run defense and pass defense and only committing 2 penalties. He allowed just 19 completions all regular season and even in that playoff game he was otherwise solid, not missing a tackle and allowing just one other completion for 5 yards.

Going into his 3rd year in the league, I expect the 2011 2nd round pick out of UCLA to put the Mile High Miracle behind him and have his best season as a pro yet. I expect another top-10 season on ProFootballFocus from him and he’ll have a shot at a Pro-Bowl if he picks off enough passes. Sadly that’s how all defensive backs are judged by the common football fan and Moore only has 2 in his 2 seasons in the league, but he picked off 10 as a sophomore at UCLA in 2009, so he has that kind of ability (which just shows why a player shouldn’t be judged by only his interception total, it’s so inconsistent on a year to year basis; it’s like judging a quarterback on how many completions of 40+ yards he has). For his sake, I hope that happens because it’s unfair for him to be judged by one play and one play only.

Even though the Broncos had a pretty good pass defense before the Baltimore game, they still felt upgrading their secondary was a big need this off-season. In order to fill this need, they signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He was the 16thoverall pick in 2008 and made the Pro-Bowl in 2009, a year in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4thrated cornerback. However, he doesn’t always play up to his talent and he has inconsistent effort.

He was a throw in to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade after graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst cornerback in 2010 and he wasn’t much better in 2 years in Philadelphia, grading out 98th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012. Perhaps only being able to get a one-year prove it deal on the open market will wake him up. It might also help him that he’ll be on a competitive team for the first time since 2009, when his Cardinals won the NFC West.

However, DRC will move into the starting lineup and push out Chris Harris and Tony Carter. Harris and Carter ranked 5th and 28th among eligible cornerbacks in 2012. Harris allowed 44 catches on 75 attempts for 450 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 1 penalty. He also was great against the run, grading out 2nd at his position in that aspect. Last year was no fluke because he was 22nd at his position as an undrafted rookie in 2011, despite being just a part-time player. Carter, meanwhile, allowed 32 catches on 65 attempts for 436 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties.

Harris will move to the slot with DRC coming in, which might actually be a better fit for his skill set, even if it’s only a part time role. He had the 6th best QB rating among cornerbacks on the slot last season. However, Carter will be the 4th cornerback though, so he won’t see a lot of action, unless there are injuries, despite how well he played last season. If I were a cornerback needy team, I’d give up a mid to late round pick for him easily. I don’t think the DRC addition is really much of an addition and it might even make their secondary worse, especially if he continues to struggle.

The other off-season addition was Quentin Jammer, who comes over from San Diego and will convert from cornerback to safety in the tail end of his career. However, he’s awful. He was ProFootballFocus’ 107th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible last season and now he’s heading into his age 34 season. He could be better at safety, but he might not even make the roster. He was brought in to compete with veteran journeyman Mike Adams. He played alright last season, grading out just above average, but he can’t be trusted heading into his age 32 season. Quinton Carter, an inexperienced 2011 4th round pick, is also in the mix, but he was awful in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 81st ranked safety out of 87 eligible, before playing just 15 snaps last season. It’s a position of weakness opposite Rahim Moore.

Grade: A-

Head Coach

John Fox has been in the NFL a long time, coaching 11 seasons, including 9 with the Panthers 2 with the Broncos. He has a career 94-82 regular season record and 6-5 postseason record, including a trip to the Super Bowl. He’s not one of the best coaches in the NFL and he’s had some awful years (2-14 with the Panthers in 2010), but he’s had some good ones too (11+ wins in 2003, 2005, and 2008, and 2012) and he’s managed to stay around a long time.

Grade: B

Overall

As I said earlier, I think the Broncos are a little overrated. I don’t think they’re clearly the best team in the AFC like the consensus seems to be. That being said, they should still win a bunch of games. They’re the best team in the division and they should be able to win at least 4 games, maybe 5. Kansas City will be better, but Oakland and San Diego are both very easy opponents so that should be 4 relatively easy wins.

Outside of the division, they host Baltimore, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Washington, and Tennessee. Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Tennessee should be easy wins and they should at least split the other team. I think they’ll beat Washington, but Baltimore is being a little overlooked and they could take that slight, as well as the slight of having to start their season on the road, into Denver and win where they won last season. Defending Super Bowl champs usually win week 1.

They also go to the Giants, Dallas, Indianapolis, New England, and Houston, all 5 of whom are quality teams. They should lose 2 or 3 of those games, which puts them at 11 or 12 wins, not an improvement over last season, but still a very strong season. They’ll probably win a 1st round bye in the AFC and head into the post-season as one of the leading contenders for the Super Bowl. I have them at 11-5.

Projection: 11-5 1st in AFC West

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Jaguars won just 2 games last season. Usually teams who are that bad bounce back at least somewhat the following season. It’s really hard to be that bad for that long. Going along with that, the Jaguars also have a pre-season over/win total of 5.5 wins and teams with an over/under win total of 6 or fewer usually see the over hit about 2/3rds of the time, largely due to the aforementioned reason.

However, it wouldn’t really surprise me to see the Jaguars once again be one of, if not the worst team in the NFL again. There is nothing to suggest they were much better than their record suggested last season. They had the 2nd worst Pythagorean Expectation in the NFL at 3.4 wins, thanks to a -189 point differential that was 2nd worst in the NFL. They faced a pretty easy schedule and ranked a close worst 2nd to Kansas City in DVOA.

They didn’t get destroyed in turnovers, losing the turnover battle by only 3 and actually had a 59.5% fumble recovery rate that is more luck than anything. They got outgained by 1300 yards, worst in the NFL. They did lose the 2nd most adjusted games to injuries out of all teams, but aside from Maurice Jones-Drew and solid safety Dwight Lowery, they weren’t really missing guys who would have made much of a difference had they been healthy.

Unlike teams who usually win so few games, they did nothing to address the quarterback position this off-season and while they had the 2nd pick in the draft, it was in an unusually weak draft in terms of top level talent. #2 overall pick Luke Joeckel will slot in at right tackle for them this season and I don’t know how much better that makes them. On top of that, they lost 3 starters in the secondary and will be filling them with rookies and journeyman. On paper, there might not be a less talented team in the NFL this season. The 5 wins they had 2 years ago in 2011 seems like a realistic ceiling right now.

Quarterback

As I mentioned, the Jaguars didn’t bring in a quarterback at all this off-season, opting to let Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert battle it out for another season. In the long run, that might not be such a bad move. It’s very possible that no quarterback in the 2013 draft turns out to be a functional long term starter and not drafting one allows them to go after a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater early in 2014, a much better quarterback class, if the opportunity presents itself. Plus, with Gabbert and Henne, it’s very, very possible that they’ll be picking early enough for the opportunity to present itself.

It’s unclear if this was new GM Dave Caldwell’s plan, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. According to reports, Caldwell plans to spend much of the year scouting top quarterback prospects, including Bridgewater and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. They were also reportedly thrilled that the Jets and Bills took quarterbacks early in 2013, because it eliminated two competitors for top quarterbacks in 2014. It’s also very possible that he wanted to see one more time what Blaine Gabbert has since he is just 2 years removed from being a 1st round pick, but he was a misguided 1st round pick in the first place. They never should have drafted him there. That was clear from the day they drafted him. He was a media hype kid and nothing else.

Gabbert might not even get another opportunity to see the field if the coaching staff and front office see everything in the pre-season and Training Camp that they need to see from him to know he’s not a viable solution. Chad Henne could very well win this starting job, which would be bad news for Jaguars fans. You know what you have in Chad Henne. He’s probably the better of the two, but only by enough to possibly help them win too many games to play themselves out of a top-5 pick and nothing more. They might as well sink or swim with Gabbert.

In two years in the league, Gabbert has completed just 53.8% of his passes for an average of 5.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Henne, meanwhile, has completed 59.1% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 42 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions in 5 seasons with the Dolphins and Jaguars since going in the 2nd round in 2008. The Jaguars moved the ball better when he was in the lineup last year, but he was also wildly inconsistent, as he always has been, and very turnover prone.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The Jaguars drafted Luke Joeckel with the 2nd overall pick, largely to give themselves the best situation in which to evaluate Gabbert. Joeckel was a collegiate left tackle, but he’ll make the transition to the right side this season and once he gets it down, he should find it an easier position to play because you’re generally not facing your opponent’s best pass rusher. It’s tough to project above average play from rookies, but the Jaguars should get that from Joeckel this season.

He’ll certainly be an upgrade over the Guy Whimper/Cameron Bradfield duo that has been playing there over the past 2 seasons. Whimper was ProFootballFocus’ 54th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2011 (allowing 14 sacks in the process) and then he ranked 74th out of 80 eligible in 2012, despite playing just 392 snaps. He’s now in Pittsburgh, thankfully for Jacksonville’s sake. Bradfield played most of last season at right tackle after impressing in very limited action in 2011, but the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 56th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible. He’ll serve more of a swing tackle role this season, which is much better suited to his skill set.

The reason the Jaguars will be playing Joeckel at right tackle is because they actually already have one of the better left tackles in the NFL in Eugene Monroe. Monroe is by far the Jaguars’ best player and he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle last season and 6th ranked in 2011. The 2009 1st round pick doesn’t get a lot of recognition because he plays in Jacksonville and poor quarterback play makes him look worse than he is. The 14 sacks he’s allowed in the last 2 seasons have more to do with quarterbacks holding the ball too long and displaying poor pocket presence than anything.

He’s going into a contract year this off-season and even after drafting Joeckel, the Jaguars should do everything possible to lock him up, even if they have to franchise tag him. It doesn’t make any sense to do Joeckel just to let Monroe go. That’s a completely horizontal move and, plus, NFL teams can come at the quarterback from both sides more than they ever have been able to before so having two good tackles is an asset.

Unfortunately, things aren’t as good on the interior of their offensive line. Right guard Uche Nwanari is consistently an average to above average and dependable guard, though overpaid on a weird 5 year, 24 million dollar extension signed before the 2010 season. The concern here is that he’s coming off two knee operations and had to have stem cell treatment on the knee this off-season. It seems fine now, but that’s never what you want to hear. Still, he’s by far their best interior offensive lineman.

At center, Brad Meester has been a solid and dependable center throughout his career, all with the Jaguars, but he’s heading into his age 36 season, which will be his 14th with the Jaguars. He looked pretty done last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked center and he considered retirement this off-season. He’s back for one more year, but it’ll probably be his last in the NFL and I don’t expect him to really play much better.

At left guard, things are even worse as the Jaguars used 3 players there last season, Mike Brewster, Eben Britton, and Austin Pasztor, two of whom (Brewster and Pasztor) were undrafted rookies. Brewster certainly played like one, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked guard despite playing just 556 snaps. Britton might have been even worse. Playing just 273 snaps, he wasn’t eligible for the rankings, but if he had been, he would have ranked 5th worst at the position, despite such limited playing time. Pasztor started the final 3 games of the season and played alright, but it’s tough to count on him going forward.

Will Rackley will return to at least get the first crack at what was once his starting job. However, the 2011 3rd round pick struggled mightily as a rookie in 2011, grading out as by far the worst player at his position. He could be better now that he’s not a rookie, but he’s also coming off an ankle injury that cost him the entirety of his 2012 season, so it’s very hard to count on anything other than poor play from him. He’ll face a little bit of competition from Pasztor and Brewster, but it looks like it’s definitely his job to lose. Brewster may slot in as the 2nd string center, moving back to his collegiate position. Things are a mess on the inside of the line, which will hold them down, as good as their tackles are.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Jaguars’ poor interior offensive line play will not help Maurice Jones-Drew out much. MJD returns from an injury plagued season in which he played just 6 games and saw just 86 carries before going down with a foot injury. It’s possible he could bounce back this season, but he is going into his age 28 season and after all the work he had from 2009-2011 (1084 touches), it’s possible he’ll never be the same back again. He’s still suffering through lingering effects of that injury.

It’s very important that MJD stay healthy because, once again, they don’t really have a backup plan. The Jaguars tried Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens, Jalen Parmele, Richard Murphy, and Keith Totson in MJD’s absence last year and none of them did well. A few of them even got hurt themselves. The Jaguars managed just 3.8 yards per carry last season, 24th in the NFL. If you take out MJD’s production, they averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. It was so bad that Jones-Drew actually still led the team in rushing in just 6 games on 86 carries.

None of those guys return, but neither Jordan Todman nor Justin Forsett seems well equipped to handle being the lead back if Jones-Drew goes down again. They also added Denard Robinson in the 5th round of the draft, but the former quarterback is much too small to carry the load at running back. At best, the player they’re describing as an “offensive weapon” will see a few touches per game as a running back/wide receiver hybrid and he probably won’t make much of an impact, regardless of MJD’s injury status. Back to Jones-Drew, he’s in a contract year and could be in his final season with the team. The Jaguars look smart for not giving him the money he asked for last off-season, heading into the tail end of his career.

Grade: B

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

At wide receiver, the Jaguars do have a possible budding star in Cecil Shorts. When your quarterbacks are Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert, it’s tough to put up big time numbers as a receiver, but 2nd year receiver Cecil Shorts did a good job of that in 2012 as the 2011 4th round pick caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns. He caught his 55 passes on 101 targets, which is a low catch rate of 54.5% and he did drop 9 passes, but he was a big time big play receiver, averaging 17.8 yards per attempt and quarterbacks threw 7 touchdowns to 4 interceptions when throwing to him.

That’s good for a 94.5 QB rating when thrown to, 15th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers, which is absurd considering his quarterbacks were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, who combined for a 74.7 QB rating on the season. How did he manage that? Well, he ranked 10th among eligible wide receivers averaging 6.7 yards after catch per catch. Only Percy Harvin caught more passes and averaged a higher yards after catch per catch than Shorts.

Even more impressive, he did this despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL behind Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson, and AJ Green. In his 9 starts, he caught 47 passes for 774 yards and 5 touchdowns, which extrapolates to 84 catches for 1386 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games.

On top of that, it didn’t seem to matter to him which crappy quarterback was throwing to him. In his 3 starts with Blaine Gabbert, he caught 12 passes for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns. With Chad Henne, he caught 35 passes for 532 yards and 3 touchdowns. That’s good news because the Jaguars could go with either Chad Henne or Blaine Gabbert this year and will probably have both start at least one game.

In 2013, Shorts will be in his 3rd year in the league, a frequent breakout year for receivers, and he’ll be the starter from week 1. Provided he stays healthy, he should make 16 starts. Justin Blackmon is suspended for the first 4 games of the season (more on that in a minute), so Shorts will see plenty of targets. He’ll also see more attention from defenses and he won’t seek up on anyone this time around, but he should be fine. He probably won’t reach those aforementioned extrapolated stats  because defenses will key in on him more this year, but he has a very good chance to be Jacksonville’s first 1000 yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He’ll probably need a real quarterback before he can reach his true statistical potential, however.

Shorts will play opposite Justin Blackmon, once Blackmon returns from his 4-game suspension of course. Blackmon had a good rookie year, with 64 catches for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns, as the 5th overall pick exceeded the average production for a 1st round rookie. However, he had over a quarter of his production in one game (a 7 catch, 231 yard performance against Houston) and he was, as you can imagine, very inconsistent. His 4 game suspension for substance abuse is a real concern, especially since he also has a DUI history and it will put a damper on his potential production this season. He could also find himself very much behind the 8-ball when he returns.

The Jaguars have very little depth after Shorts and Blackmon, a concern considering Blackmon will miss those 4 games. Depth receiver caliber talent Mohamed Massaquoi will probably start in Blackmon’s absence in those 4 games, though he’ll face competition from Mike Brown, an undersized 2012 undrafted free agent from Liberty who didn’t catch a pass as a rookie. He’s gotten praise from the coaching staff, but the fact that he’s involved in this battle shows just how little depth the Jaguars have.

Brown will also compete with Jordan Shipley from the slot role. Shipley showed well in that role down the stretch last season, catching 23 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, but prior to that, he had bounced around for almost 2 years because of injury problems. He has an extensive history of knee issues that date back to his collegiate days at Texas. He could be a decent slot receiver if he could stay healthy, but that’s not likely.

With Blackmon missing 4 games and their lack of depth at wide receiver, tight end Marcedes Lewis will be leaned on more in the passing game this season. Lewis was overpaid with a 5-year, 35 million dollar contract after an uncharacteristic 58/700/10 season in 2010, but he’s not a bad player. He’s a good blocker and his receiving numbers would be better if he had better quarterback play. Last season, he caught 52 passes for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns and graded out overall as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked tight end, largely due to the fact that he was 5th at his position in run blocking. He should see an increase in receiving production this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

New Head Coach Gus Bradley was formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle so he will be using the same concepts that the Seahawks use on the defensive line. Unfortunately, the talent is nowhere near as strong. Tyson Alualu will convert from defensive tackle to defensive end to play the Red Bryant role. The surprise 10th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Alualu has struggled mightily in 3 years at defensive tackle, grading out 60th out of 77 eligible defensive tackles in 2010, 85th out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 79th out of 85 eligible in 2012. The collegiate 5-technique defensive end has especially struggled against the run at 6-2 292, so a move to defensive end could help him, but it’s hard to get your hopes up. He’ll be primarily a run down, base package player.

Andre Branch will probably play the Bruce Irvin role and come in on passing downs. Branch was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but struggled mightily as a rookie, especially as a pass rusher. He had just 1 sack, 2 hits, and 11 hurries on 258 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 5.4% rate, and was the 11th worst player at his position in pass rush grade, despite limited playing time. He’s got athleticism at 6-6 259, but it doesn’t seem to be a role that will suit his skill set.

Jason Babin looks like the starter and possible every down end opposite Alualu, which would be the Chris Clemons role. Babin was ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2010 with the Titans and 9th ranked in 2011 with the Eagles, but last year he graded out just above average and was cut mid-season by the Eagles, before being claimed by the Jaguars. Going into his age 33 season, his best days are clearly behind him.

Jeremy Mincey led this defensive line in snaps played last season, but seems to be in positional limbo right now after being benched out of the 1st team. He’ll probably play a little bit on both sides of the line at end and also some defensive tackle as a pure pass rusher, in the Jason Jones role. He was given a big 4 year, 28 million dollar contract after a strong 2011 season, but he had never done anything like that before and proved to be the classic one year wonder in 2012, when he graded out below average, especially struggling as a pass rusher, but making up for it some as a run stopper.

At defensive tackle, the trio of CJ Mosley, Terrance Knighton, and Tyson Alualu is gone, with Mosley and Knighton elsewhere and Alualu at end. The Jaguars brought in 4 defensive tackles this off-season, but they’ll probably be disappointed in them, especially since Mosley and Knighton actually gave them good production last season as the starters.

Sen’Derrick Marks comes over from Tennessee and figures to get one starting spot. He’s awful, however. Last season was actually his best season in 3 years as a key contributor, ranking 73rd out of 85 eligible. He was a bottom-10 player in 2010 and 2011. Roy Miller will start in the other spot. He also had his best season last year, when he ranked 67th out of 85 eligible. He was 83rd out of 88 in 2011, 75th out of 77 in 2010, and 74th out of 87 in 2009. He’s a one dimensional run stuffer who doesn’t get any pass rush whatsoever. That’s a pretty poor starting defensive tackle pair.

They also signed Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick from New England. Both are one dimensional run stuffers, and while Love is the better player above the very mediocre Deaderick, he’s also been diagnosed with diabetes, a big part of the reason why he was cut. We’ll see how he handles that. Any way you look at it, there’s just not a lot of talent at defensive tackle and on the defensive line in general. They won’t get much pass rush or stop the run well.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Things aren’t much better as you go into the back 7. Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but largely did so cleaning up everyone else’s messes and had just 58 tackles for a stop (with 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down). He was 47th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus. He’s been better in the past though so he could bounce back.

Outside linebacker Russell Allen is in a similar situation. The every down linebacker had a bunch of tackles, but just 56 of them were for stops and he ranked 34th out of 43 eligible at his position. Unlike Posluszky, the 1st year starter has not been better in the past so I expect him to continue to struggle. Geno Hayes will be the 3rd linebacker and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s not much better, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 42nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible in 2011 and then playing just 141 snaps last season.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

The secondary might be the worst unit of them all. They lost 3 starters in Derek Cox, Aaron Ross, and Dawan Landry and while none of them were very good, their replacements don’t figure to be much better. At cornerback, unproven 3rd round rookie Dwayne Gratz will compete for playing time with Alan Ball and Marcus Trufant, with all 3 playing in sub packages. Ball has played just 508 snaps over the past 2 seasons after struggling mightily as a starting safety with the Cowboys in 2010, his only starting experience.

Trufant, meanwhile, played pretty well on the slot for the Seahawks last season, but did so on just 365 snaps and struggled mightily before moving to the slot, grading out below average in each season from 2009-2011 as an outside cornerback. Going into his age 33 season with a history of injury problems, it’s tough to count on him, though he does have familiarity in Gus Bradley’s scheme, following him over from Seattle. Mike Harris will be the 4th cornerback and could very well see action. He struggled as a 6th round rookie last year, grading out 88th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks and isn’t a good fit for the new coverage scheme, which is why he’s 4th on the depth chart behind that trio.

At safety, Jonathan Cyprien will start as a 2nd round rookie. I like him more than I like Gratz as a rookie starter so he could have a positive impact as a rookie, but, once again, it’s tough to count on a rookie. The bright spot in this secondary is safety Dwight Lowery. He’s a returning starter and played pretty well last season, grading out 16th among safeties last season despite missing 7 games with injury. The year before, he was an average starter in his first year as a starter. He’s the only member of this secondary you can even come close to calling an above average starter. They figure to struggle mightily on defense again, after allowing 27.8 points per game last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. The talent is just not there as it’s replacement level talent across the board essentially. I like Gus Bradley, but unless the rookies have big 1st years, I don’t know what he can do in his 1st year on the job.

Grade: C-

Head Coach

As I said, I like Gus Bradley. You can attribute a lot of Seattle’s recent defensive success to him, as the Seahawks have turned Chris Clemons, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Brandon Browner from largely unwanted commodities to big time impact players. I just don’t know what he’ll be able to do with this mess in his first year on the job and I like to temper expectations for first year coaches anyway. There have certainly been plenty of good coordinators who have flamed out as Head Coaches in the past.

Grade: B-

Overall

I’m going to be honest. I didn’t put as much work into this write up as I normally do. After a while, it just felt like you get the point. There isn’t a lot of talent here and they are unlikely to win many games. I could have just said they suck. I only see 4 games on their schedule where they really stand a chance (vs. Tennessee, vs. Buffalo, vs. San Diego, @ Oakland) and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they only won a game or two again. It’s going to be a long rebuild from all the damage that Gene Smith caused and they’re essentially working from scratch.

Projection: 1-15 4th in AFC South

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Tennessee Titans 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

I made some incorrect predictions last season, as anyone would, but the one I am most embarrassed about is that I thought the Titans would make the playoffs. I thought Jake Locker would continue to be the improvement over Matt Hasselbeck he was in limited action as a rookie, that Kenny Britt would be the player he looked on his way to becoming before his torn ACL to give them a very underrated and talented receiving corps, and that Chris Johnson would continue the strong 2nd half of his 2011 season into 2012. I thought Locker and Britt had some Matt Stafford/Calvin Johnson lite potential and that the Titans’ offense had the potential to be like the 2011 Lions’ lite. Defensively, I saw a unit that was 8th in the NFL, allowing 19.8 points per game the previous season despite being one of the youngest units in the NFL.

Instead, their defense allowed the most points in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. Their offense improved slightly, but not much, scoring just 20.6 points per game, nowhere near enough to keep up with all the points their defense was allowing. They won 6 games, but they weren’t even as good as that would suggest, as they ranked tied for 4th worst in the NFL with a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.8 wins, getting outscored by 141 points on the season. That was despite an easy schedule and they ranked 30th in DVOA. And it’s not even that they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin or bad luck recovering fumbles. They got outgained by close to 1000 yards on the season. They were one of the worst teams in the NFL anyway you look at it.

What happened? Well Jake Locker missed 5 games with injury and struggled when he was on the field, displaying accuracy issues that date back to his collegiate days, completing just 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.9 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Matt Hasselbeck played in relief of him, but very much looked his age, completing 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Kenny Britt struggled to bounce back from his torn ACL, missed 2 games with suspension and injury, and poor play by his quarterback didn’t help. Chris Johnson bounced back from his poor 2011 somewhat, upping his yards per carry from 4.0 to 4.5, but he wasn’t quite the player I was expecting him to be. His overall numbers were pretty impressive, but not quite as good as they were in the 2nd half of 2011, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and he was way too inconsistent. While he had 5 games of 120+ yards, he also had 5 games of fewer than 30 yards and overall spent too much time dancing.

Defensively, their struggles were more perplexing as they allowed close to 10 points more per game, despite only two players really playing significantly worse than I expected, middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and safety Michael Griffin. Derrick Morgan had a breakout year on the defensive line, opposite free agent Kamerion Wimbley and the team actually graded out just below average on ProFootballFocus, better than they had the previous season.

McCarthy issues were caused by an ankle injury and a concussion that limited him to 7 games and hampered him when he did play, while Griffin is a notoriously up year/down year type player that should be up this year if history holds. That doesn’t seem like it would be enough to reverse all of this defense’s problems though, and while they did allow fewer than 20 points per game in 2011, they ranked 18th in the NFL in yards allowed. In fact, they really only allowed about 300 more yards last season than the year before so it seems like I just overrated them to begin with. In actuality, they are probably somewhere in between the 19.8 points per game they allowed in 2011 and 29.4 points per game they allowed in 2012, but they could be closer to 2011 than 2012 if things go right.

Offensively, it’s very possible that Kenny Britt could have a much better season this year, in a contract year, coming another year removed from the torn ACL and any off the field incidents. Chris Johnson should be helped by an improved offensive line that adds Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard and turns what was once a position of serious weakness at guard into a position of serious strength. The biggest concern remains Jake Locker and whether or not he’ll ever be accurate enough to be a successful NFL quarterback.

Quarterback

Locker still has upside and he’s not proven either way with just 11 starts under his belt, but I didn’t think he’d become a franchise quarterback coming out of Washington and the Titans have not seemed confident in him this off-season, saying that a “major goal” is preventing Locker from “feeling overwhelmed.” The Titans have added Ryan Fitzpatrick, a proven backup caliber talent, behind him this off-season, to replace Hasselbeck and he could see multiple starts, especially if Locker gets hurt again. Their quarterback play could ultimately be what holds this team back, even if the rest of the team plays well, as could happen.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Locker could be helped by a finally 100% Kenny Britt. In 2010, Kenny Britt, then a 2nd year receiver out of Rutgers and a former 1st round pick, caught 42 passes for 775 yards and 9 touchdowns. Those were impressive numbers for a 2nd year receiver, but even more impressive is that he did that in just 12 games and that he was just scratching the surface of his potential. Those numbers extrapolate to 56 catches for 1033 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Heading into his 3rd year in the league, frequently a breakout year for receiver, the 6-3 218 receiver with 4.56 speed looked poised for a breakout year in 2011, what was only his age 23 season.

Britt looked to be on his way to that breakout year early, but he tore his ACL midway through week 3 and finished the year with 17 catches for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns, impressive stats for 2 ½ games, but hardly what was expected of him. The following off-season, he got arrested again, bringing his career arrest total to 8, which earned him a one game suspension. He also had knee surgeries on both knees and was overall unprepared for the 2012 season. Despite his #1 receiver talent, he played the 3rd most pass snaps among wide receivers on the team, playing just 413 of 644 possible pass snaps. He did not play well when he did play, catching just 45 passes for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns, despite a career high 90 targets.

Now Britt is at a crossroads in his career, heading into the final year of his rookie contract. The writing is on the wall after the team used a 1st round pick on Kendall Wright, a receiver from Baylor, in 2012, and a 2ndround pick on Justin Hunter, a receiver from Tennessee, in 2013. However, he remains a starter and the #1 receiver job is his if he wants it. Britt is a more talented and experienced receiver than both of the young receivers and he’s more talented than Nate Washington as well. He has all the talent and he doesn’t even turn 25 until September. So far, he hasn’t gotten hurt or arrested this off-season and reports about him have all been positive, that he finally has things together.

If that continues, he’ll be over a year removed from any arrests or surgeries when week 1 comes around. If he puts everything together and plays all or most of his team’s games, he’s fully capable of having a thousand yard season or more. Quarterback play is a concern, but Britt has posted big time per game receiving numbers in the past with Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, and Rusty Smith throwing him the football. Britt’s skill set fits well with Locker’s desire to throw downfield.

It seems like I’ve been predicting a breakout year for Britt for each of the past 3 off-seasons, but if he keeps up this off-season, he may finally have one. Or this season could go the opposite way for him. He could get passed on the depth chart by one or both young receivers and work only as a 3rd or 4th receiver and not be welcomed back as a free agent this off-season. This season is as make or break as it gets for a former 1st round pick and it’ll all be on him how it turns out. For the time being, it looks promising and I’m leaning towards breakout.

Britt will play with Nate Washington and Kendall Wright in 3-wide receiver sets, with Washington playing his natural slot role, but other than that, it’s unclear how playing time will be divided between the trio. Britt seems like the favorite to be their top receiver, but it’s not set in stone. Wright caught 64 passes for 626 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 1st round rookie last year, which is above the average for a 1st round rookie. He should be better this year now that he’s not a rookie, but it might take until his 3rd year for him to truly breakout.

Washington, meanwhile, is a slot specialist who has been pretty productive over the past few years, catching 46 passes for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns last year, but with so much young talent blossoming around him, the arrow is trending down, especially going into his age 30 season. Earlier this off-season, there was talk that Washington would be traded for a late round pick and cut if no deal was possible, but now it looks like they’re going to hold onto him. 2nd round rookie Justin Hunter will be the 4th receiver. He’s 6-4 with 4.4 wheels, but needs to work on his route running, his hands/concentration, and bulk up. Early reviews out of Training Camp have not been positive for him, so this could essentially be a redshirt year for him.

The Titans did lose pass catching tight end Jared Cook this off-season, opting not to bring him back after he fell to 2nd on the depth chart behind blocking specialist Craig Stevens last season. He was an efficient pass catcher, but couldn’t block at all. To replace him, the Titans brought in Delanie Walker from San Francisco, undoubtedly a better blocker, but a very poor pass catcher. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked run blocking tight end last year, being used frequently (more often than any other #2 tight end in the NFL behind Houston’s Garrett Graham), but he had just 21 catches to 9 drops and has never caught more than 29 passes in a season.

He offers very little after the catch and has averaged just 1.08 yards per route run over the past 4 seasons. He’s not really that dissimilar from Craig Stevens, who caught 23 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown last season on 212 pass snaps, 1.30 yards per route run, while run blocking well. Stevens is already on their roster and, unlike Walker, did not cost 17.5 million over 4 years. Stevens looks like he’ll be headed to fullback this season.

It’s very unclear who will take over Jared Cook’s old pass catching role, but the Titans do have high hopes for 2nd year tight end Taylor Thompson. Thompson was a 5th round pick out of SMU, where he played defensive lineman, but because of his athleticism (6-6 259 4.59) and his soft hands in individual workouts, the Titans converted the collegiate defensive end to tight end, despite the fact that he hadn’t played receiver of any kind since he was a wideout in high school. He showed well as a blocker as a rookie, but caught just 6 passes for 46 yards on 83 pass snaps with 2 drops. Most of Tennessee’s receiving production will come from wide receivers, but they have a talented bunch. They just might need a different quarterback to show that.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Jake Locker should also be helped by what should be an improved offensive line. Going into last season, the interior of the Titans’ offensive line was a huge weakness, while their tackles remained a strength. A year later, the interior of their offensive line has been turned to a strength and their tackles remain sturdy. They might have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

What’s happened since the start of last season? Well, Fernando Velasco broke out in place of an injured Eugene Amano, who was one of the worst offensive linemen in the league prior to his injury. In his first year as a starter, Velasco graded out well above average as ProFootballFocus’ 11th ranked center. He’s still a one year wonder so I’ll need to see the 2008 undrafted free agent do it again, but he should be considered an above average starter.

At left guard, the Titans signed Andy Levitre this off-season. Levitre got 46.8 million over 6 years from the Titans, which is a lot for a guard, but it’s still less than Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans and Levitre is right there in that tier below them. He’s worth what they paid him and he fills a massive hole. The 2009 2nd round pick has never missed a start and can play left tackle in a pinch. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked guard in 2012 and 6th ranked in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over the aged and since retired Steve Hutchinson at left guard.

Also filling a massive hole is rookie right guard Chance Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Along with 7th overall pick Jonathan Cooper, that was the first time a true interior offensive lineman had been drafted above 15th overall in 15 years, but it wasn’t a bad move. They needed the guard help and it was a historically poor draft in terms of top level talent. Warmack is one of the best guard prospects in a long time and might have more Pro-Bowl potential than any player in the entire draft behind Cooper and maybe the top-two tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, even if he is just a guard.

Warmack will slot in immediately at his natural spot at right guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. He’ll be a massive upgrade over the Deuce Lutui/LeRoy Harris duo that split time at the position last season. Levitre and Warmack should upgrade their run blocking that graded out 16th in the NFL last season on ProFootballFocus and they’ll also help in pass protection, where they ranked 8th last season, including 5th in pass block efficiency. As I said, this could be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL this season.

Michael Roos and David Stewart remain on the outside. They’ve been starters since 2006 and both come from the 2005 draft class, Roos in the 2nd round and Stewart in the 4th round. It’s uncommon that you can find two offensive tackle starters in the same draft, let alone two that stay together as long as Roos and Stewart, are as dependable as Roos and Stewart, and play as well as Roos and Stewart. Both have graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons. Last season, Roos was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle, while Stewart ranked 28th. In 2011, Roos was 11th and Stewart was 3rd. There was some concern about Stewart’s slow recovery from a broken leg earlier this off-season, but he seems fine. The only minor concern is both are heading into their age 31 season. Still, it’s an offensive line with no holes.

Grade: A

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Running Backs

An improved offensive line has to be music to Chris Johnson’s ears because of how reliant on a good offensive line he is. He’s incredibly explosive through holes, but when there aren’t holes, he doesn’t do a lot to help himself, frequently dancing around in the backfield, and getting little after contact. It’s why he has such good games against bad run defenses and bad games against good run defenses. He’s as good as anyone in the NFL when the hole is there though so he could have a very good season.

In his rookie season, he rushed for 4.9 yards per carry on 251 carries, managing 3.1 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 11th in run blocking, grading out significantly above average. In 2009, he rushed for 5.6 yards per carry on 358 carries, managing 3.0 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 12th in run blocking, grading out well above average.

In 2010, he rushed for 4.3 yards per carry on 316 carries, managing 2.8 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked dead last in run blocking, grading out significantly below average. In 2011, he rushed for 4.0 yards per carry on 262 carries, managing 2.1 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 18th in run blocking, grading out below average. Last year, he rushed for 4.5 yards per carry on 276 carries, managing 2.0 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 16th in the NFL in run blocking, grading out slightly above average.

He’s done more dancing as his career has gone on and managed fewer yards after contact, but still has explosive ability to run through holes. This could be a top-5 run blocking offensive line this season, especially with their blocking tight ends and fullbacks factored in, so we could see Johnson average in the high 4s per carry even if he continues to average in the low 2s per carry after contact. It’s definitely a good situation for him.

He could see fewer carries, but only slightly with Shonn Greene coming in. Greene will serve as primarily a backup and change of pace short yardage back. He is a marginal runner with minimal explosiveness, but he does fit his new role well, even if it was an overpay to give him 10 million over 3 years to serve in that role. Unless he steals a bunch of touchdowns, he won’t hurt Johnson’s production too much. Johnson is also active in the passing game, catching 230 passes in 5 years and he’s missed just 1 game in his career. The running game will help move this offense, but Jake Locker under center could hurt their ability to go too much over the 20 points per game or so they’ve been averaging over the past 2 seasons.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While I don’t expect them to be significantly improved offensively, they’ll probably be significantly improved defensively, though it’s unclear how much. The talent is there though. On the defensive line, the Titans will be using a system similar to what Seattle and now Jacksonville use, as the NFL is a copycat league and this type of thing is catching on. Derrick Morgan will remain as an every down end in the Chris Clemons role. The 2010 1st round pick at one point looked like a bust, but he turned in a very good 2012 season.

Morgan had 9 sacks, 21 hits, and 42 hurries on 530 pass rush snaps, a 13.6% pass rush rate. He ranked tied for 5th at his position in pass rush productivity and ranked 6th at his position in pass rush grade. He also played the run well and overall graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends. While this was the first time he had ever played this well in the NFL, he was a 1st round pick in 2010 and a player who I thought was the top pass rusher in that draft class. He struggled with injuries through his first 2 years in the league, which is his excuse, but now that he’s healthy, I don’t see why he can’t, once again, have a strong season as an every down end.

Opposite him, Kamerion Wimbley will not remain an every down end, moving out of the starting lineup and into that Bruce Irvin type nickel rusher role. In the first season of his career playing 4-3 end (he’s played 3-4 rush linebacker and 4-3 hybrid end/linebacker), Wimbley continued to rush the passer well, with 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 47 hurries on 546 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pass rush rate. He graded out above average as a pass rusher, but his awful play against the run (2nd worst at his position) sunk his grade to below average overall. He’s undersized at 6-4 245, which is why last year was his first as an every down end and it looks like it will be his last, at least for the time being. The role change should be good for him.

Playing in base packages at that spot will be Ropati Pitoitua, who will be playing the Red Bryant role. Pitoitua is a 6-8 290 career backup who has played 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 throughout his career with the Jets and Chiefs since going undrafted in 2008. He’ll play the run well at that size, but he won’t get any pass rush and I don’t think he’ll have the same impact that Bryant has had in Seattle. He’s just not the same type of player.

At defensive tackle, the Titans will use a trio of players. Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin return and will largely play the same role. 3rd round picks in the 2011 and 2012 draft respectively, both played very well last season, Casey ranking 7th at his position on 789 snaps, excelling as a run stopper (2nd at his position) and Martin ranking 10th at his position on 435 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher (10th at his position.

The only difference is that Sammie Lee Hill comes in and will take the departed Sen’Derrick Marks’ old role, which played 691 snaps last season. Marks was awful. Last season was actually his best season in 3 years as a key contributor, ranking 73rd out of 85 eligible. He was a bottom-10 player in 2010 and 2011. Sammie Lee Hill was buried on the depth chart in Detroit behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but the 4th round pick 2009 was one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 3 years, grading out above average in all 3 years and topping out at 19th at his position on just 367 snaps in 2010.

He more than deserves this chance at a starting job and will give the Titans a 3rd talented defensive tackle for their trio. They also have Karl Klug, a good situational pass rusher, as the 4th defensive tackle. He’ll probably play around the 256 snaps he did last year. On top of that, linebacker Akeem Ayers also plays defensive end from time to time as a situational pass rusher and does a very good job. Overall, it’s a very underrated defensive line with lots of talented players who fit roles and rotate. They were among the best in the NFL with 44 sacks last season and could be similarly good this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Despite good defensive line play, the Titans did only rank 15th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. That has more to do with their back 7 play. As I mentioned, Colin McCarthy struggled mightily last season in the 7 games he did play. Struggling mightily through ankle and concussion problems, he was ProFootballFocus’ 49th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible on just 388 snaps, especially struggling against the run.

In his absence, Will Witherspoon and Tim Shaw had to see more action. Shaw wasn’t awful on 230 snaps, but Witherspoon looked completely done, struggling mightily both inside and outside on 393 snaps in his age 32 season, especially struggling against the run. McCarthy was better in a half season starting in 2011 as a 4th round rookie and showed promise for the future. If he can put his injuries behind him, he could be a decent starter, though he’ll have to hold off career backup Moise Fukou for the job. Fukou might just be limited to be a pass coverage job, which is the journeyman’s specialty.

On the outside, the Titans have a pair of recent 2nd round picks, Zach Brown from the 2012 draft and Akeem Ayers from the 2011 draft. Brown played well as a rookie and showed himself to be worthy of an every down job in 2012. He was one of my top linebacker prospects of the 2012 draft class and I thought he was a steal in the 2nd round for his coverage ability, blitz ability, and sideline to sideline ability. He might take a leap forward in his 2nd year in the league.

Ayers, meanwhile, is a solid two-down run stuffer who doesn’t cover well, but makes up for it by rushing the passer well. On 133 pass rush snaps last season, he had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries and he could see a bigger role as a nickel rusher in sub packages when he’s not playing linebacker this season. He’s the linebacker who comes off the field (or at least out of the linebacking corps) for an extra defensive back in sub packages.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

Along with McCarthy, safety Michael Griffin was the other starter for the Titans last year who was awful. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 86th ranked safety out of 88 eligible, only ahead of the two New Orleans safeties. He especially struggled in coverage allowing 17.1 yards per reception and 7 touchdowns thanks to a league leading 22 missed tackles. He’s been pretty much alternating good seasons and bad seasons, grading out 9th in 2008, 2nd worst in 2009, about average in 2010, and then 10th in 2011 before last year, so he could be due for a bounce back.

However, it’s also possible he struggles again and that his best days are behind him now that’s he’s gotten a big contract, as the Titans gave him 35 million over 5 million after franchising him before last season. He’s had work ethic concerns in the past and might have just coasted once he got paid. Obviously a bounce back year, even to an average player, would be very important for the Titans. If he plays like he did last year though, it could be his final year with the Titans as cutting him would save about 800K on the cap and 6.2 million in real cash. Obviously cutting him 2 years into a 5 year deal, with 15 million guaranteed down the drain, would be a huge disappointment, but at that point, they might have to just cut their losses.

Opposite him, Jordan Babineaux was not much better, grading out below average and ranking 60th out of 87 eligible safeties and getting benched down the stretch for Robert Johnson, who also didn’t play well. Babineaux has been cut and the Titans have brought in veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Pollard is the early heavy favorite for the job, but Wilson was the better player last season, grading out 8th at his position. However, he was never really that good in the past and he’s heading into his age 32 season so the Titans seem content with him as the 3rd safety behind Griffin and Pollard. We’ll see how quick they are to put him into the starting lineup if Griffin or even Pollard struggles.

Pollard is known best for being a Patriot killer, but he’s an inconsistent player who is going onto his 4th team since 2008 and has been cut/non-tendered 3 times. Pollard was once a promising young safety in Kansas City after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, but lasted just 3 years before being cut in training camp in 2009.

He then caught on in Houston in 2009, where he was so good the Texans tendered him at the highest possible level as a restricted free agent in the next offseason, but a year later, he was unwanted once more, as Houston non-tendered him. He was then forced to settle for just 2.7 million over 2 years from Baltimore. However, he played well enough in 2011 to get a 12.3 million dollar extension over 3 years. After a decent, but unspectacular first season of his new contract, he was cut by the cap scrapped Ravens and now heads to Tennessee for only his age 29 season.

At cornerback, the Titans have a pair of solid players in Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. They ranked 6th and 24th respectively in 2012 and 8th and 14th respectively in 2011, though both times a lot of that was run grade. In coverage, they ranked 46th and 23rd respectively in 2011 and 39th and 50th respectively in 2012. Run play is important and both of them are consistently among the best run cornerbacks in the NFL, but coverage is what they’re out there for.

Last season, McCourty allowed 63 catches on 97 attempts for 800 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, deflecting 11 passes and committing 2 penalties, while Verner allowed 53 catches on 84 attempts for 556 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 1 penalty. They’ve lacked a good 3rd cornerback ever since they lost Cortland Finnegan. There is a 3-way battle for that job this season, between Coty Sensabaugh, who struggled in that role as a 4th round rookie last year, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 3rd round rookie, and Tommie Campbell, a physical and much talked about 2011 7th round pick who has played just 68 snaps in his career.

There’s also been some talk that Verner is falling out of favor with the coaching staff and doesn’t fit the new coverage scheme. He may be demoted to the 3rd cornerback job if one of the aforementioned cornerbacks can establish himself. Verner has even gotten some looks at safety because of his run stopping ability, but that looks like just an experiment. At this point, I consider Verner the favorite to start. Overall, it should be an improved defense over last year’s last place finish, even if only because it’s way more talented than that.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Mike Munchak won 9 games in his 1st season with the Titans in 2011, the first time anyone other than Jeff Fisher had been their Head Coach since 1994. However, after last year’s disappointing performance, there were calls for his job, especially after Owner Bud Adams blew up at the team mid-season and said that something needed to change. I thought those talks were premature, but another rough season and he could be on the hot seat, especially since Bud Adams turns 91 in January. He fired already top executive Mike Reinfeldt, promoting GM Ruston Webster.

Grade: C+

Overall

The Titans look like another team that will play better this year, but not really have it show up in the standings. They were one of the worst teams in the league last year, maybe outside of Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Oakland and while they’ll be better, they’ll probably still allow significantly more points than they score. They have upside and talent, but I think Jake Locker’s deficiencies at quarterback will hold them back.

They’re not better than Houston or Indianapolis and will be lucky to win more than 1 of those games, though they’ll probably sweep Jacksonville, giving them 2 or 3 divisional wins. Outside of the division, they host San Diego, the Jets, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Arizona. San Francisco will be very tough, but they could split the other 4, which puts them at 4 or 5 wins at this point. However, they have to go to Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and Oakland. Oakland is the only likely win there, though St. Louis is winnable. I have them at 5-11.

Projection: 5-11 3rd in AFC South 

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Indianapolis Colts 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Colts made the 2nd biggest single season win improvement in NFL history, going from 2-14 to 11-5 last season. However, like the team who made the biggest single season win improvement in NFL history (the 2008 Miami Dolphins who went from 1-15 to 11-5 back down to 7-9 the following season), I expect the Colts to be significantly worse in 2013. In fact, teams with big win improvements generally regress about half the following season (and vice versa). There are two things about the Colts’ 2012 season that are unsustainable and that show they are an overrated team.

For one, they had a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 9-1 in those types of games. In fact, they had just 2 wins by a touchdown or more, and one came against the 2-win Jaguars. Meanwhile, 3 of their 5 losses came by more than 20 points and only one of those teams made the playoffs. They lost 35-9 to the Jets! Overall, they were -30 on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 7.2 wins. They made the playoffs because they were ridiculously good at pulling out close wins. Call it #ChuckStrong magic if you want, it’s not going to happen again this year. That type of stuff evens out in the long run.

All of those close wins would be more impressive if they weren’t against teams like Cleveland, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Buffalo. They had an incredibly easy schedule, playing just 6 games against teams that went 8-8 or better. While they went 3-3 in those 6 games, the wins were by 3, 3, and 12, while the losses were by 20, 35, and 12. Their season essentially consisted of them barely beating bad teams and getting blown out by good teams. They had just 1 win by more than a field goal against a team better than 6-10 and it was a week 17 game against the Texans. Once they got to the playoffs, they were just overmatched by the Baltimore Ravens, who beat them 24-9.

When you combine their ridiculous record in close games and their weak schedule, the advanced metrics do not like them. They ranked 25th in DVOA and had the lowest DVOA by an 11-win team in DVOA’s 22 year history, dating back to 1991. They had poor injury luck, ranking 29th in the league in adjusted games lost, but they weren’t really missing anyone who was a big time impact player, with the exception of maybe Vontae Davis. If they want to win 11 games this season or come close, they’ll have to play significantly better.

Fortunately for them, they had a good deal of cap room going into this off-season so they had a good chance to improve their roster. However, they completely bungled free agency, shelling out 3 years, 15 million for the oft injured Greg Toler, 4 years, 16 million the awful Erik Walden, 4 years, 24 million for the seen better days LaRon Landry, 4 years, 22 million for career backup Ricky Jean-Francois, and 5 years, 34.5 million for one year wonder Gosder Cherilus. Only a 4 year, 14 million dollar deal for promising career backup Donald Thomas represented a good deal among their 6 multiyear signings, while Ahmad Bradshaw and Darrius Heyward-Bey were added to the mix on reasonable one year contracts. I don’t know how much better the Colts really made their roster this off-season. It’s better, but not worth what they spent.

While the Colts had a very good off-season last year, drafting incredibly well, one off-season is not enough to rebuild this team into a permanent winner. While the Bill Polian era started out incredibly well, with Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Bob Sanders, all drafted by the Colts, among the best at their respective positions at one point or another with the Colts, the Polian-led front office failed to draft a future Pro-Bowler in any draft from 2006-2011. Their roster was completely barren when new GM Ryan Grigson took over. Peyton Manning’s injury exposed that in 2011, as they won just 2 games. While it’s better, it’s not where they appeared to be last season. This year, I expect them to play better, but have a significantly worse record.

Quarterbacks

Speaking of playing better but having a worse record, it’s Andrew Luck. Luck got a lot of credit for the Colts huge turnaround last season, but we’ve already established they weren’t as good as they seemed. Luck wasn’t either. Luck completed just 54.1% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 76.5, 26th in the league among eligible quarterbacks, one spot behind Blaine Gabbert. He led the Colts’ offense to just 22.3 points per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

ProFootballFocus didn’t like him too much either, grading him 24th among all quarterbacks throwing the ball on tape, right behind Jake Locker, though he saved his grade somewhat with his running ability (255 yards and 5 touchdowns on 61 carries). He also ranked just 25th in adjusted QB rating, which takes into account drops, yards after catch, throw aways, hit as throwns, and spikes.

You can say his 9-1 record in close games and league leading 7 game winning drives were impressive and make up for the raw statistics, but consider the level of competition he was doing it against. Is a game winning drive against Kansas City or Tennessee really that impressive? It’s not like his 4th quarter numbers were really that much better, as he completed 53.4% of his passes for an average of 7.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. His 4th quarter QB rating of 75.3 was actually worse than his overall QB rating. He’s not nearly in the neighborhood of Robert Griffin or Russell Wilson.

That being said, there are 3 reasons why Luck will play better this season. The first is that he’s just too talented. Rookie struggles hardly doom a career, especially for a talent like Luck. Peyton Manning had an even lower rookie QB rating, at 71.2, with 56.7% completion, 6.5 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, but he bounced back with a 90.7 QB rating in the following season, completing 62.1% of his passes for 7.8 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Luck might not be that good next season and he certainly might not have quite the same career Manning has had, but you can’t place too much value on his rookie year.

The second reason is he’ll fit the offensive scheme better. Bruce Arians is a great offensive coordinator and did a phenomenal job keeping this team together as Interim Head Coach after Chuck Pagano’s diagnosis. However, Luck was always a weird fit for his offense because his arm strength isn’t his best attribute and he very rarely played with 3-wide receivers in college. He was not meant to lead the league with 101 throws 20+ yards downfield or more, like he did last season. This season he gets back Pep Hamilton, his old offensive coordinator at Stanford, and he’ll install a more two-tight end, short to intermediate throw heavy offense that Luck will suit much better.

The 3rd is that he’ll be better protected. They may have not have allowed a ton of sacks last season, but that’s because Luck’s incredible pocket presence made them look better than they were as he took a sack on just 14.9% of pressured drop backs, 7th best in the NFL. When hits and hurries are taken into account, they ranked dead last in pass block efficiency and Luck was pressured in 38.1% of his drop backs, 5th most in the NFL. He completed just 39.9% of throws under pressure, 5th worst in the NFL. Gosder Cherilus might have been an overpay, but he and Donald Thomas will upgrade this offensive line. They won’t be great or anything, but they won’t be the worst again. I can definitely see Luck playing better, his team doing worse, and everyone asking what’s wrong with Andrew Luck.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

In addition to being dead last in pass block efficiency, the Colts also were ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked pass blocking team and 24th ranked run blocking team. Only Arizona was also in the bottom-10 in both. Donald Thomas was the smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He’s a career backup, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked guard last season, despite making just 7 starts in place of injured guards with the Patriots. He also graded out above average in 13 starts in 2 seasons from 2008-2009 earlier in his career with the Steelers. He’s a projection as a full-time starter, but at just 14 million over 4 years, he’s worth the minor risk and the Colts very well may have found themselves an above average starting interior offensive linemen, a huge need of their off-season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector.

Gosder Cherilus was the not so smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle last season, but he hadn’t done anything that good before. At 34.5 million over 5 years, the Colts are paying him hoping that he can keep up his elite 2012 performance and ignoring his only average to above average 2008-2011 performance. He was an older rookie too so the 2008 1st round pick is already going into his age 29 season.

He’s also just a right tackle, which is a less important position for the Colts and he has a history of knee problems. He’s had microfracture surgery in the past and had to go to Germany for treatment. It was so concerning that the Lions didn’t seem to want anything to do with bringing him back as a free agent this off-season, even though he’s only missed 4 games in 5 seasons. The upside, best case scenario is that the Colts have an appropriately paid elite right tackle, but there’s also a good chance they’ve wound up with a lemon. He’ll probably be an upgrade at right tackle, though incumbent Winston Justice wasn’t bad. Justice is gone so it’s unclear who would fill in should Cherilus get hurt.

The only returning starter who graded out above average last season is left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo, a 2011 1st round pick, improved on an average rookie season with an above average 2nd season and even better is that he had some of his best performances in the 2nd half of the season. He allowed just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 11 hurries in the 2nd half of the season, while committing just 2 penalties, as opposed to 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 24 hurries, while committing 3 penalties, in the first half of the season, all while run blocking well throughout. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could take another leap forward.

That’s where the good news ends for the Colts on the offensive line. Samson Satele graded out 4th worst among eligible centers last season, despite being limited to 642 snaps by injuries and AQ Shipley, who played well in his absence last year, is gone, replaced by 4th round rookie Khaled Holmes. Satele was better in 2011, but graded out below average in every season from 2008-2010, so he looks like one of the worst starting centers in the NFL.

Right guard Mike McGlynn was even worse, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst guard last season by a good amount. He started 15 games there and was equally bad in his one game at center. He’s been pretty bad throughout his career and should not be expected to play much better this season. The Colts will have to hope that 3rd round rookie Hugh Thornton can push for playing time at some point this season, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he can be as a rookie. Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz are other options at guard and they’ll probably be their top two reserve offensive linemen, but both were awful last season as well. Right guard is one of the reasons why this remains a below average offensive line, though they’ll protect Luck better than they did last season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned earlier that the Colts drafted really well in 2012. It wasn’t just Andrew Luck. It would have been pretty hard to mess that one up. But they found good values in the later rounds. Nowhere is that more evident than in your young receiving corps, as they wisely made building the skill positions around Luck a priority of their first draft. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the 2nd and 3rd round respectively give them two young tight ends and 3rd rounder TY Hilton showed well as a rookie wide receiver. They also got a nice value with Lavon Brazill in the 6th round, as he flashed as a rookie, though his roster spot is currently in jeopardy after a 4 game suspension for marijuana.

Fleener and Allen will be a big part of the Colts’ new two-tight end heavier offense. Allen was a later draft pick, but because he was an NFL ready blocker, he saw more snaps than Fleener, which should continue to be the case this season, with Allen playing in-line and Fleener functioning more as a move tight end. Allen showed very well as a rookie, blocking very well (both run and pass) and adding 45 catches for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 368 routes run (1.41 yards per route run).

Because of his all-around game, he was actually ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season. He also played the 12th most snaps of any player at his position, so he had a really big role as a rookie, playing 925 snaps. It only got bigger as the season went on as he played at least 73% of his team’s snaps in every game from week 7 on, after doing so just once in his first 5 games. He also played some fullback from time to time.

Fleener played about half the snaps that Allen did, playing 461 snaps, but in his 2nd year in the league, in Pep Hamilton’s new offense, he should see that number increase. He was pretty mediocre as a rookie and disappointed as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns on 252 routes run (1.12 yards per route run). Still, he’s a natural pass catcher who should have an improved 2nd season in the league. Having his old offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should help. Even with the Colts’ running more two-tight end sets, I still do expect them to pass often. Luck might not attempt 627 passes again, but he’s very comfortable throwing out of two-tight end sets and Allen and Fleener are both comfortable catching passes.

With the Colts playing fewer 3-wide receiver sets this season, TY Hilton will have to win the starting job opposite Reggie Wayne if he wants to have the breakout season he’s capable of. I predict he will. As a rookie in 2012, TY Hilton put up some pretty impressive stats for the Colts, catching 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns. He did this on 88 targets and while his catch rate of 56.8% is not very impressive, he caught so many deep balls and had so many big plays that he managed a very impressive 9.8 YPA. He also had the 7th highest catch rate (10 of 20) on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air among receivers who caught at least 10 such passes. In terms of quarterback rating when thrown to, he ranked 21st, as Andrew Luck had a 102.5 QB rating when throwing to him, nearly 30 points higher than Luck’s overall QB rating.

In his 2nd year in 2013, I have reason to believe he’ll be even more productive. For starters, he’ll obviously be more experienced. He doesn’t turn 24 until November and the 2012 3rd round pick has hardly peaked. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but significantly above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round.

Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. And Hilton, a 3rd round rookie, greatly exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should improve on those numbers. One area that can be cleaned up is drops, as he dropped 10 passes last year. Just looking at his game 9-16 splits, you can see that Hilton became a better player as the season when on, catching 26 passes for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games, 52 catches for 1012 yards and 10 touchdowns over 16 games.

The second reason I expect more production from him this year is that he’ll play more snaps. Last year, he worked as the 3rd receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and only played 49 total snaps in his first 3 games. This year, Avery is gone and, while they’ve added Darrius Heyward-Bey, he figures to be a backup and depth receiver with Hilton serving as the #2 receiver. Avery played 687 pass snaps to Hilton’s 508. If Hilton had played, say, 650 pass snaps last year, extrapolation off his rookie numbers alone gets him to 64 catches for 1102 yards and 9 touchdowns.

The third reason is that he figures, in addition to playing more snaps, to become a bigger part of the offense and get more targets per pass snap. That goes hand and hand with being a year more experienced, but he also has an aging Reggie Wayne opposite him. Wayne also had a huge season catching 106 passes for 1355 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he also received 179 targets and had the 6th highest targets per routes run in the NFL (TY Hilton was a modest 27th among 45 qualifying receivers).

Wayne also turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37.

Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns, meaning Hilton almost out produced him in the 2nd half of last year. Going into 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Hilton were this team’s leading receiver and even if he isn’t, he should still have a 1000 yard breakout year and he looks like a Pro-Bowl sleeper, again, assuming he wins the starting job.

With Wayne aging, Andrew Luck’s receiving corps still appear to be in good hands for the future with Hilton having the profile of a future #1 receiver. He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL, flashing 4.34 speed at The Combine, and is developing the rest of his game. His size (5-10 183) could be the one thing that holds him back, but receivers such as Steve Smith (5-9 185), Antonio Brown (5-10 186) and DeSean Jackson (5-10 175) have all developed as #1 receivers in spite of their lack of size. Hilton has a similar skill set. There’s a reason he was one of my favorite sleeper prospects of the 2012 draft class. At the very least, he’ll serve as a downfield complement to aging possession receiver Reggie Wayne this year. Darrius Heyward-Bey, a marginal receiver, will provide depth and play on 3-wide receiver sets, moving Wayne to the slot.

Grade: A-

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Running Backs

In addition to all of the good skill position players they added in the receiving corps in the 2012 NFL Draft, they also found a good value with Vick Ballard at running back in the 5th round.  Ballard took over the starting job from Polian-era 1st round bust Donald Brown week 5 and averaged 15.8 carries a game from that point on, rushing for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries with 17 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, but you can blame his offensive line for that somewhat (he averaged a decent 2.5 yards per carry after contact) and he’s the type of back who would be better in tandem with another back.

That’s where Ahmad Bradshaw comes in. Bradshaw was cut by the Giants this off-season going into just his age 27 season because they grew tired of his laundry list of injury problems, after he had a 4th foot surgery this off-season (to go with 2 career ankle surgeries). It took him a while to get picked up this off-season, settling for a 1-year deal with the Colts, but he’s one of the toughest running backs in the NFL, missing just 7 games in 4 years (the last 3 as a starter) despite all the injury problems.

He’s rushed for 3687 yards and 30 touchdowns on 831 carries in those 4 seasons, a 4.4 yards per carry clip, and he’s added 125 catches for 1033 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air. He’s also averaged 15.9 carries per game over the past 3 years as a starter, so being able to work in tandem with another back will help him. He’ll probably split early down work with Ballard and handle most of the passing down work, which is his strength at this point in his career.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Colts averaged just 22.3 points per game last season, 18th in the NFL, defense was the bigger issue. While they had young talent on offense, they had mostly replacement level talent on defense, a unit that ranked 21st in the NFL, allowing 24.2 points per game. There wasn’t really a thing they were good at last season other than winning close games against bad teams. In effort to fix their defense, the Colts spent a lot of money this off-season, signing 4 players to multi-year contracts. They could be better as they’ll likely force more turnovers (more on that in a second), but I don’t know if they’re significantly more talented.

Onto turnovers, the Colts forced just 15 of them last season, as opposed to 27 turnovers offensively (not a huge number). Still, they were -12 in turnovers on the season. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be very 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). I don’t know if they’ll cut down on their turnovers offensively (Luck’s development will help), because that’s not an unreasonable amount, but their defense should force at least 20 takeaways next season to get them to a more even turnover margin. So for that reason, they should be better defensively, but not by much. In terms of pure yardage, they were actually 26th in the NFL, allowing 5988 yards (23rd in YPA allowed and 31st in YPC allowed) and their off-season additions won’t help much. A return to form for cornerback Vontae Davis could be their biggest potential boost.

On the defensive line, their big off-season addition was Ricky Jean-Francois, who got 22 million over 4 years coming over from San Francisco. It’s a lot of money for a former 7th round pick who has played just 715 snaps in 4 seasons and hasn’t been all that remarkable on them. It wouldn’t be the first time a San Francisco player went from backup to above average starter with no indication in his past that a higher level was possible (Alex Boone, Ray McDonald, NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, etc), but all of those players did so with the 49ers. If Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke had felt Jean-Francois was capable of much bigger things, they probably would have shown more interest in trying to keep him around behind an aging Justin Smith, instead of signing Glenn Dorsey.

He could be an average starter (though he could be worse) and he’ll probably be an upgrade over the mess they had on the defensive line last season, but they’re paying him to be an above average starter and I don’t think they’ll get that. Opposite him, the Colts have Cory Redding, once an above average starter, but he struggled last season and going into his age 33 season, it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

In between them, Josh Chapman will probably start. The Alabama product fell to the 5th round in the 2012 NFL Draft because of injuries, but he’s healthy and ready to start now so it looks like another smart draft move from the Colts. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie though, so it’s unclear what kind of player he’ll be. He’ll face competition for the job from off-season addition Aubrayo Franklin, who hasn’t been the same player in 2 seasons since leaving the 49ers. He’d be a marginal starter at best if he wins the job. They’ll probably get better play than what they got from Antonio Johnson last year. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible.

The Colts could also have Fili Moala, Ricardo Matthews, Drake Nevis, and Lawrence Guy in the mix depending on how the starters do. They used a lot of rotation on the defensive line last season, though a lot of that had to do with how little talent they had. I think the Colts would prefer not to have those guys play a bunch of snaps again because only Nevis and Guy graded out above average, doing so just barely and on 264 and 189 snaps respectively. It’s not as bad of a unit as it was last year, but not by much.

Grade: C

Linebackers

In their linebacking corps, the big addition was Erik Walden, who signed for 16 million over 4 years. He’s essentially been a starter for the past 2 seasons, playing opposite Clay Matthews in 2011 with the Packers, getting replaced in the starting lineup by 1st round pick Nick Perry in 2012, but coming back into the lineup when Perry got hurt early in the year. He was absolutely awful in both seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons. He especially struggled as a pass rusher last season, managing just 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 12 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, a 6.2% pass rush rate.

He won’t start in Indianapolis, thankfully, because of the addition of Bjoern Warner in the first round of the draft, but he’ll still have a big role as the top reserve behind the rookie and aging veteran Robert Mathis. Werner is a very refined pass rusher for his age, but he doesn’t appear to have the natural athleticism to be a good fit to play rush linebacker in Indianapolis’ 3-4. We’ll see what he can do as a rookie.

Mathis, meanwhile, is an overrated player at this point in his career, making the Pro-Bowl last season. He did have 8 sacks, but he managed just 5 sacks and 16 hurries to go with those 8 sacks on 301 pass rush snaps, a 9.6% pass rush rate. He ranked just 16th out of 32 eligible in pass rush productivity at his position and, while he graded out above average rushing the passer, he struggled mightily against the run and in coverage and graded out below average overall. He also was limited to just 642 snaps due to injury. He’s heading into his age 32 season and doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the Colts’ new 3-4, after playing in a 4-3 for his whole career. His best days are probably behind him.

Things are better at middle linebacker, but not by much. Jerrell Freeman took the starting job and ran with it in his first season over from the CFL. He was among the tops in the NFL in tackles, though a lot of that was just mopping up messes. Only 55 of his tackles were for a stop (sack or tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) and overall he graded out as just about an average starter.

Freeman became the starter because Pat Angerer missed a lot of time with injury. When Angerer returned, he cut into the playing time of Kavell Conner, rather than Freeman. Angerer and Conner will compete for the starting job opposite Freeman this season. Conner struggled mightily in 2011 at outside linebacker, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 45 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. The 2010 7th round pick played much better inside in Indianapolis’ 3-4 in 2012 on 326 snaps. Angerer, meanwhile, has struggled mightily throughout his career since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. The best case scenario is that Conner can win the job and play as well as an every down starter as he did last year in a more limited role. It’s a big time projection.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

One of the free agent additions in the secondary was Greg Toler, who was signed to a 3 year deal worth 15 million, a serious overpay considering injuries have limited him to 308 snaps last season and caused him to miss the entirety of the 2011 season. He played very well last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 27th ranked cornerback and 15th ranked cover cornerback despite his limited playing time, as he allowed 17 catches on 41 attempts for 266 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 3 penalties. There’s upside with him, if he can ever stay healthy, but the Colts are taking a big risk.

Toler will start opposite Vontae Davis, who has his own injury history. They acquired him from the Dolphins for a 2nd and 5th round pick before last season, expecting the 2009 1st round pick to bounce back to 2010 levels, when he was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked cornerback. However, he was also coming off an injury riddled 2011 season in which he played just 699 snaps and because of durability and work ethic issues, the Dolphins actually demoted him out of the starting unit in Training Camp. It was a risk and it didn’t really pay off, as he graded out below average on 606 snaps. In 4 years in the league, he’s only made 16 starts once and he’s missed 10 games over the past 2 seasons. He played really well in 2010 and he could be a bounce back candidate going into his contract year, but there’s no guarantee.

On the slot, Darius Butler returns. A flameout as a 2nd round pick of the Patriots in 2009, Butler actually played well down the stretch once taking over as their slot back with the Colts, the 3rd team he’s played for in his short career. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked cornerback and 24th ranked coverage cornerback, doing so on just 380 snaps. He allowed 27 catches on 50 attempts for 309 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 2 passes and not committing a penalty. He ranked 2nd in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed and 4th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed while on the slot. Of course, that was very limited playing time and he has never been dependable in the past. It’s going to be hard to count on him.

Given that it’s going to be very hard to count on any of their top-3 cornerbacks, it’s very possible #4 cornerback Cassius Vaughn could see serious playing time again. He actually led the team in snaps played by a cornerback, playing 840 last season and he was awful, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst ranked cornerback, allowing 66 catches on 106 attempts for 794 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 9 penalties.

The other free agent addition in the secondary was LaRon Landry, who was signed to a 4 year deal worth 24 million. He was once one of the best safeties in the NFL, grading out 5th in 2008 and 15th in 2010 (with a 83rd out of 88 eligible ranked season in between), but those days could be gone because of injuries, going into just his age 29 season. Achilles problems limited him to 512 snaps in 2011 and forced him to settle for a one year deal with the Jets last off-season, where he graded out significantly below average, ranking 65th out of 88 eligible safeties.

He’ll play opposite Antoine Bethea, the Colts’ 3rd longest tenured player behind Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. He’s been better in the past, grading out slightly above average in every season from 2008-2011, but last year graded slightly below average. It’s possible he could bounce back, but he’s never really had a great season. He’s an average to above average starter, going into his age 29 season. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and he’s an incredibly reliable starter, which makes him pretty much the opposite of the rest of this secondary.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Bruce Arians won Coach of the Year for his work filling in as Interim Head Coach for Chuck Pagano last season and while Pagano coached just 4 games due to his leukemia diagnosis, he was a huge off the field inspiration to this team and locker room presence when his body allowed for it. On top of that, he put in all the work with this team before the season. You don’t just roll out of bed week 1 much improved team. He was their coach for 4 months from rookie camp to week 1 before he was even diagnosed with cancer and laid the framework for Arians to take over and have the kind of success they did. I argued the two of them should have split the Coach of the Year award. That being said, we’ve yet to see how he can do as the Head Coach of a team for a full year, so it’s tough to grade him. As I do with 1st year Head Coaches, it’s important to temper expectations.

Grade: B

Overall

Andrew Luck will take a leap forward offensively and they have added talent defensively, so the Colts will probably play better this season, but they only played about as well as a 7-win team last season, before you even take into account their schedule. Their schedule isn’t a ton tougher this year, but they are unlikely to make a 2nd straight playoff appearance, unless Luck takes a major leap forward.

In the division, they’ll probably take both games from Jacksonville, but they’re more likely to split with Tennessee (an improved team who they beat by a combined 10 points last season) than they are to beat Houston, a team who is on a higher level. I have them at 3-3 in the division. Outside the division, they do host Oakland, which should be a win, but Miami and St. Louis will be tougher and Denver and Seattle will both will very tough. I think they’ll win 2 or 3 of those games. On the road, they have to go to San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. They were -61 on the road last season, so they’ll have a tough time winning more than a game or two of those. They’ll probably be between 6 and 8 wins, but for parity’s sake, I have them at 6-10.

Projection: 6-10 2nd in AFC South

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Houston Texans 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

In 2011, the Texans won 10 games despite having their starting quarterback and top receiver only play together in 4 games. Before Matt Schaub went down with injury and missed the final 6 games of the season, the Texans were 7-3, scoring 27.3 points per game and allowing 16.6, which would have been 5th and 3rd respectively over the course of the season. Those numbers translate to a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.2 wins, which would have been second in the league that season. And all of that was despite Andre Johnson playing in just 4 of those 10 games, and Arian Foster missing 3 of those games.

Even after Schaub got hurt, they finished 10-6, going 3-3 without him and a 4th ranked scoring defense (17.4 points per game) and a 2nd ranked rushing offense (2448 yards) carried this team to the AFC semis, winning a playoff game. They lost Mario Williams going into 2012, but he missed all but 5 games with injury in 2011, so it didn’t look like it would be a loss that would set the Texans back much. Going into 2012, the Texans looked poised to be one of the best teams in the league.

For the first 5 games of the season, the Texans looked every bit as good as I expected. They won their first 5 games and unlike the only other undefeated team in the league at the time, Atlanta, they were doing it in impressive fashion, either knocking off a future playoff team or winning in blowout fashion by 20 or more in 4 of those games. However, things changed after week 5, a 6 point win over the Jets (their least impressive showing at that point in the season).

They went 7-4 the rest of the way, but not in impressive fashion. From week 6 on, they got blown out at home by the Packers, blew out the Ravens (their only really impressive game), beat the Bills by 12, beat the Bears by 7, which looked more impressive at the time than it was, especially since Jay Cutler didn’t even make it to halftime. Then they won in overtime against both the Jaguars and Lions and beat the Titans by 14 before their final 4 games, where they played 4 playoff teams, New England, Minnesota, and the Colts twice, losing 3 times by double digits.  After a less than impressive win over the Bengals in the post-season, they lost convincingly in New England to the Patriots in the next round.

What happened week 5? Well, against the Jets, stud middle linebacker Brian Cushing got hurt. Without him, they ranked 18th in opponents’ scoring and 13th in opponents’ yardage, after starting the season as the top yardage and scoring defense in the NFL. They also saw top cornerback Johnathan Joseph miss time and struggle through a groin injury and not play anywhere near the level they were expecting him.

They finished the season much worse than their 12-4 record would suggest. They had a less than stellar scoring differential, going +85 on the season, including +9 in their final 11 games, +2 if you include the playoffs. Overall, they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10 wins, despite a weak schedule. They ranked 11th in the NFL in DVOA, 19th in weighted DVOA (weighs later games more heavily). They also were very reliant on winning the turnover battle, with a +12 turnover margin, with 29 takeaways and 17 turnovers.

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.

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). The Texans were actually just +2 in interceptions, but were +10 in fumbles, thanks to a fluky 64.1% fumble recovery rate. It’s not hard to see how the Texans’ turnover margin will even out in 2013. If it weren’t for this unsustainable turnover margin, the Texans would have been even worse in 2012.

Once again, the Texans were one of the league’s top “what could have been teams,” a team that flashes greatness when totally healthy, but can’t hold it together when injuries strike. They’ll never be completely healthy and it’s not like they’ve had an absurd amount of injuries, ranking 8th in adjusted games lost in 2012 and 11th in 2011. They just don’t seem to be able to take hits and keep on going and it’s very possible they’re just an above average team which flashes elite ability in the perfect scenario. They’re still the best team in their division, but I think they’re behind both Denver and New England in the AFC and maybe even Baltimore.

Quarterback

In 9 games against playoff teams in 2012 (including playoffs), Matt Schaub was 207 of 320 (64.7%) for 2329 yards (7.3 YPA), 9 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, a QB rating of 85.3, leading the Texans to 23.3 points per game. In the other 9 games, he was 206 of 313 (65.8%) for 2284 yards (7.3 YPA), 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, a QB rating of 95.3, leading the Texans to 28.1 points per game. Going into his age 32 season, we know what he is. He’s an average to slightly above average quarterback who is noticeably better against easier opponents. He’s also missed 16 starts in 6 years as a starter and just posted his worst QB rating in 5 seasons, suggesting he may be on the decline. You can win a Super Bowl with him, but you need everything around him to be right.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Matt Schaub used to be able to rely on great production from Arian Foster. Last season, that wasn’t really the case. In fact, Foster might be the most overrated player in the NFL. A lot of this has to do with fantasy football as Foster as he’s perennially a top-5 scoring running back in fantasy football because he gets a ton of carries on a good offense. Even his fellow NFL players overrate him, as he was 8th in the player’s top-100 list, 2nd among running backs behind, of course, Adrian Peterson.

In reality, he didn’t have that good of a year. He averaged just 4.1 yards per carry and only had so many yards because he got 351 carries, more than anyone in the NFL and 61 more than anyone in the AFC. He also ran behind a good offensive line (ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked run blocking offensive line) and many backs could total those kinds of numbers behind that line with that many carries. He averaged just 2.2 yards per carry after contact, 40th out of 59 eligible backs.

The only thing commendable about his 2012 season was that he managed to have that many carries without getting hurt, but if he had, any back filling in for him probably would have given them comparable production. Add in his surprisingly mediocre season as a pass catcher and the fact that only 8 backs graded out worse than him in pass protection and you have a guy who barely graded out above average on ProFootballFocus. He also, as did the rest of the team, faced a fairly easy schedule and 4 of his mere 5 performances were he went over 5 yards per carry came against teams that ranked 21st or worse in YPC allowed.

Since his breakout 2010 season, Foster has been trending down. His YPC has fallen from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1. Losing one of the top fullbacks in the NFL in Vonta Leach after 2010 and two more starters on the offensive line after 2011 have hurt, as the Texans have gone from 3rd to 7th to 13th in terms of run blocking in the last 3 seasons. Things probably won’t be much better there this season and it’s not like they’re awful upfront or anything. They just aren’t the elite run blocking offensive line they used to be when Foster was a more efficient back.

Part of it also has to do with the sheer volume of work he’s gotten over the past 3 years, as he’s had 1115 regular season touches, plus another 128 post-season touches. Last season, he led the NFL with 351 carries which is bad news for his 2013. Since 1988, only 4 of 24 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. 2 of those backs were Emmitt Smith and one was a 22 year old Edgerrin James in his 2nd year in the league. The other was a 27 year old Clinton Portis, so it’s not impossible to do it several years into your career without being Emmitt Smith, but the numbers are against him. Portis also went on to break down the very next year (124/494/1) and was out of the league before his 30th birthday. Foster is 27 next month, by the way.

Since 1988, backs who lead the league in carries have averaged 367.7 carries per season, rushed for 1620.4 yards, and scored 14.3 touchdowns. The following season, they averaged 266.0 carries per season, rushed for 1063.5 yards, and scored 8.9 touchdowns. This is for two reasons. For one, it’s almost impossible to keep up that kind of production on a yearly basis and that doesn’t just apply to running backs.

What does apply to only running backs is how much they tire out. All of those carries puts a lot of tread on their tires in a short period of time. We’re talking about guys who are lucky if they have 8 year careers. Foster is already struggling through a calf injury in Training Camp. We could see a career worst season from him this year. I said the same thing about Maurice Jones-Drew last off-season. He was only 5 months older and managed just 414 yards and a touchdown on 86 carries thanks to an injury.

In the likely event that Foster struggles or gets hurt, it will open the door for Ben Tate. Tate struggled through injuries of his own in 2012, rushing for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 65 carries, but in 2011, he rushed for 942 yards and 4 touchdowns on 175 carries. In the 8 games he had double digit carries, he managed 721 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries. He’s a more than capable #2 back and fill in starter when necessary, assuming he doesn’t get hurt himself. He’s played just 26 of a possible 48 games in his first 3 seasons in the NFL thanks to various injuries. He should have a bigger impact this season than last though and, if he impresses, it could open the door for him to get a starting job elsewhere in 2014 as a free agent.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Texans lost 2 starting offensive linemen in the 2012 off-season, losing right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston. It hurt the Texans’ run blocking, taking them down a level or two from being an elite run blocking offensive line. The effect was less noticeable in pass protection, as they went from 7th to 11th in terms of pass blocking grade and 7th to 8th in pass block efficiency.

The rock of their offensive line is left tackle Duane Brown, who has quietly emerged as maybe the best left tackle in the game, grading out 5th among offensive tackles (2nd among left tackles) on ProFootballFocus in 2011 and 2nd in 2012. No other tackle can say the same and only Joe Thomas can even say he was in the top-7 tackles both seasons. Unlike Thomas, Brown is very good both in pass protection and run blocking. In some order with Thomas and Joe Staley (#1 last year), he’s a top-3 left tackle at worst. Sacks aren’t a tell all stat, but from week 16 of the 2010 season to week 7 of the 2012 season, he didn’t allow a single sack, 27 games including playoffs, and he also had just 8 penalties.

The other elite offensive lineman for the Texans is center Chris Myers, a better run blocker than pass protector, but still a very, very good center. He’s graded out in the top-8 overall in each of the last 4 seasons, including 7th last season. Only Nick Mangold can say the same among centers. Going into his age 32 season, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and it’s not unheard of for interior offensive linemen to play well into their mid-30s.

Sandwiched between Brown and Myers is left guard Wade Smith. Smith was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2010 in his first year as a starter after being very, very good in limited action in Kansas City early in his career, but he ranked 63th out of 78 eligible in 2011. Last season, he was right in the middle, just above average, but not significantly above average. That’s probably about the type of player he is, but considering his past, it’s tough to know what to predict from him though. I consider him a solid starter, however.

The right side of the offensive line is the much bigger concern. After all, they did lose the right side of their line in the 2012 off-season, without really replacing them. At right guard, the Texans used a rotation of Ben Jones and Antoine Caldwell and at right tackle they rotated Derek Newton and Ryan Harris. Harris is the only player in that quartet to grade out above average, doing so on just 416 snaps.

This season, instead of using a rotation, the Texans will be using a more traditional system at right guard and right tackle, which is good news considering how important continuity is to an offensive line. 2012 3rd round pick Brandon Brooks will compete with 2012 4th round pick Ben Jones for the right guard spot. Jones, despite being the lower pick, played 702 snaps to Brooks’ 101 last season, but Brooks played better in his snaps and is the higher pick so he’s seen as the favorite going into 2013.

The big guard has slimmed down to 325 pounds, which will help him be a better fit for this zone blocking scheme and even when he was bigger, he was pretty athletic, running a 4.98 40 at his Pro Day at 6-4 348 after not being invited to the Combine. We’ll see if he can translate that to the field. Jones, meanwhile, is better suited to being a utility interior lineman.

At right tackle, Derek Newton is seen as the favorite, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 65th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season. The 2011 7th round pick is nothing special at best. He’ll face competition from Ryan Harris, but Harris is actually listed as the 2nd string left tackle right now and may be headed for a swing tackle role. The Texans drafted Brennan Williams in the 3rd round to provide competition, but he recently had knee surgery. It probably won’t cost him many regular season games, if any, but it will severely hurt the rookie’s chances at winning the right tackle job. Overall, it’s a good offensive line, but it has holes and it’s not what it used to be.

Grade: B+

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Texans got a vintage year from Andre Johnson in 2012, as he caught 112 passes for 1598 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards per route run with 3.01 and ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards overall behind Calvin Johnson (who played over 200 more pass snaps). Those yards were actually a career high and those catches were 2nd in his career, pretty impressive considering he has 818 catches for 11,254 yards over 10 seasons. It was also unexpected considering he was 31 years old and coming off a season in which he played in just 7 games with injury.

However, the Texans saw the need for another receiver this off-season. Johnson has still missed 12 games in the last 3 seasons and is going into his age 32 season. The concerns about him before last season had merit. They just didn’t prove to be an issue, but they could be this season. Besides, after him, no other wide receiver had more than 64 targets last year (and that was a soon to be 32-year-old Kevin Walter who was cut this off-season). In fact, 4 of their 6 receivers last year were two tight ends, a fullback, and a running back. After Johnson and Walter, no wide receiver had more than 10 catches (Keshawn Martin), 26 targets (Keshawn Martin), or 151 yards (Lester Jean).

The Texans filled that need in the draft, using a 1st round pick on DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson. Hopkins has a bright future, but he’s just a rookie. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season as rookies. He’s not a serious threat to eat much into Johnson’s targets or production and the Texans better hope that Johnson can perform as an elite receiver for one more season.

As I mentioned, there’s some concern about whether or not he can do that, especially with his injury history. Johnson is 27th all-time with 11,254 receiving yards but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Johnson has 2 years before he gets to that point, but it’s just an average so we’re within range, which means it’s time to be a little bit concerned.

Hopkins will start immediately, though more out of need than anything. He’ll see a lot of snaps in that #2 wide receiver role as the Texans don’t rotate outside receivers much, giving the mediocre Walter 837 snaps last season. He’s an above average run blocker, which will be important to the Texans because of their run heavy nature. Keshawn Martin figures to be the slot receiver. It’s a role more suited to his skill set than Lester Jean or DeVier Posey.

Martin was a 4th round pick in 2012 and pretty inefficient as a rookie, catching 10 passes for 85 yards on 26 targets with 5 drops and a pass catch rating that would have been 5th worst at his position on ProFootballFocus if he had been eligible, despite limited playing time. Posey was a 3rd round pick in that same draft, but a torn Achilles suffered in January has his season in doubt. He’ll almost definitely miss the first 6 games on the physically unable to perform list. Jean, meanwhile, was undrafted in 2011, but had a lot of hype going into last season because of his physical skill set. He disappointed though, with just 6 catches. He’s going into his 3rd year in the league, but I think it’s more likely that he’s the next Jacoby Jones (at best) than anything special.

Martin won’t see a lot of action in that slot role this season though. After Johnson and Walter, the other 3 receivers who saw action last season, Martin, Jean, and Posey, saw just 613 combined snaps, including just 351 pass snaps. That’s because the Texans rarely use 3-wide receiver sets, preferring to use two-tight end sets and fullback sets with regularity. That might change a little bit in 2013 with great pass catching fullback James Casey (who lined up as a fullback, h-back, and tight end last season on 609 snaps) gone, but new fullback Greg Jones figures to play a bunch of snaps still, especially on running downs and tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham will still see a lot of action.

Graham did well in Joel Dreessen’s old role last season, run blocking well on 334 run block snaps despite concerns about his 6-3 243 frame and adding 28 catches for 263 yards on 232 pass snaps. Despite being a #2 tight end, he played the 30th most snaps at his position. That doesn’t sound like much, but they were the only team in the NFL with 2 tight ends in the top-30 in snaps played and that’s before you take into account James Casey’s tight-end-esque role. The intermediate passing game is a huge part of their offense.

Owen Daniels, meanwhile, remains a solid tight end, catching 62 passes for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns. He gets overlooked. The only issue with him, aside from slightly subpar run blocking is that he’s missed 15 games in the last 4 seasons combined and has failed to play in all 16 games since 2008. With Casey gone, it’ll be up to Ryan Griffin to play in 2-tight end sets if Daniels gets hurt again. He’s a mere 6th round rookie.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

JJ Fucking Watt. At 23 years of age in his 2nd year in the league, playing with torn ligaments in his elbow, Watt had what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called the “absolute best” season by any defensive lineman in NFL history. Phillips would know, considering he’s been in the NFL since 1976 and has coached DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Clyde Simmons, who, along with Watt, have combined for 6 of the 13 highest single season sack totals in NFL history.

I haven’t seen as much football as Phillips, but I’m inclined to agree with him. While his 21 sacks don’t break the single season record, Watt had those 21 sacks despite being an interior defensive lineman, having to fight through more junk to get to the quarterback and not having the luxury of coming from a quarterback’s blindside. You can’t say that about any other player who has ever had as many sacks in a season as Watt did last season.

He also had an NFL record 15 batted passes and played the run incredibly well. His 57 solo tackles not only led his position and not only led all defensive linemen in 2012, but they came for an average gain of 0.16 yards by the ball carrier, best in the NFL among players at any position. He also had 72 stops (tackles or sacks within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards of the line of scrimmage on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). That was best in the NFL among players at any position and he missed just 2 tackles in the process.

Along with those 21 sacks, he also had 25 quarterback hits and 30 quarterback hurries on 610 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% rate which is absolutely ridiculous for his position. He was 1st at his position in pass rush productivity at 10.8 (sacks + .75 hits +.75 hurries). No other eligible player at his position had a pass rush productivity higher than 9.5, in addition to leading his position in run stop percentage (percentage of run snaps with a stop) by 5.3%.

He had the highest regular season grade in ProFootballFocus history (5 years, but still) of +101.8. No one else has ever posted a season of +80.0 at any position and no one has ever been higher than +49.5 at 3-4 defensive end. He was incredibly consistent, not posting a score lower than +1.9 in a single game throughout the regular season, before a -0.1 in the playoff loss to New England. He was above +4.5 in every regular season game except that +1.9 game (against Chicago). As a rookie, he ranked 5th at his position on ProFootballFocus and played very well down the stretch, going over +4.1 in 4 of his last 8 games and over +2.4 in 6 of his last 8 (including playoffs). Last season wasn’t a fluke. It was just a supremely talented player coming into his own.

I can definitely understand why Phillips sees is as the greatest season a defensive lineman has ever had. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, winning 49 of 50 votes, and he should be the heavy early favorite to repeat in 2013, with another year of experience and a healthy elbow. He’d join Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis as the only players to win the award multiple times and join Taylor as the only one to win it in back-to-back seasons (he did it in a strike shortened season). At the end of the day, he could surpass Lawrence Taylor’s record 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watt might not improve on 2012, but that will only be because it’s tough to improve on the best. There’s no non-quarterback I’d rather start a team with, hands down.

Opposite him, Antonio Smith isn’t too shabby either. He was never anything special (at best) before Wade Phillips came along before the 2011 season, but he’s ranked 8th and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus in the last 2 seasons. At 6-3 274, he was a tweener in Houston’s old 4-3, but he’s been an excellent fit in Wade Phillips’ 3-4. He’s a bit undersized for a 5-technique end and he struggles against the run, but he’s great at getting to the quarterback. He’s ranked 2nd at his position rushing the passer in each of the last 2 seasons, last year coming in 2nd only to Watt, as he had 8 sacks, 8 hits, and 31 hurries on 548 pass rush snaps, a 8.6% rate. Watt’s presence helps him as he rarely sees double teams, but he’s an excellent pass rusher in his own right.

The only minor concern is he’s going into his age 32 season, which also happens to be a contract year. Some decline can be expected. The Texans have 2012 4th round pick Jared Crick behind him as insurance and he might be a starter in 2014 and beyond. Crick showed well as a rookie in 2012, on 220 snaps, especially playing well against the run. He was seen as a 2nd round talent before an injury ended his senior season early and hurt his draft stock.

In between Watt and Smith is Earl Mitchell, the nose tackle. The 6-2 296 pounder is undersized for the position, but Wade Phillips usually has undersized nose tackles. He’s only a base package player who comes off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s a decent player who doesn’t play an overly important role, but he could see more snaps this season now that Shaun Cody, a mediocre reserve, is gone.

Terrell McClain, who was awful as a 3rd round rookie in 2011 with the Panthers, is their top reserve at the position now. He played just 10 snaps last season and based on his rookie play, it’s not a good thing if he’s on the field, so Mitchell will have a bigger role, unless 6th round rookie Chris Jones can surprise. That being said, it’s not an overly important position and the Texans still have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL because they have maybe the best pair of 5-technique ends in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Despite JJ Watt’s presence on the defensive line (and Smith’s), the Texans got shockingly little production from their rush linebackers last season. Watt and Smith combined for 29 sacks (and that’s not even their primary job as 5-technique ends), but the rest of the team combined for just 18. After an okay first season as a starter in 2011, Connor Barwin sucked in 2012, grading out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade and 3rd worst overall. He managed just 4 sacks, 12 hits, and 24 hurries on 570 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 7.0% rate for his position, especially considering the play of the defensive line.

He’s gone, but it’s not like they really replaced him. Top reserve Whitney Mercilus will move into the starting lineup for him opposite Brooks Reed and rookies Sam Montgomery (3rd round) and Trevardo Williams (4th round) will compete to be the primary backup. Mercilus also sucked last season, managing just 6 sacks, 1 hit, and 14 hurries, including playoffs, on 310 pass rush snaps, a very poor 6.8% pass rush rate, splitting snaps with Brooks Reed opposite Connor Barwin. He was ProFootballFocus’ 29th rated 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible.

However, I loved him coming out of Illinois and he’ll line up almost exclusively at right outside linebacker, the primary pass rushing position in Wade Phillips’ scheme (the DeMarcus Ware, Connor Barwin role), rather than moving around the formation, as he did as a rookie. This could very well help him, especially since he played almost entirely on the right side in college at Illinois. It’s a projection, but I expect him to have at least a decent year.

Opposite him, Brooks Reed was the best of their 3 rush linebackers last season, grading out about average, but he too struggled rushing the passer with 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 18 hurries on 308 pass rush snaps, a 7.8% rate, despite sharing a side with JJ Watt, who ate up blockers in front of him. He made for it by playing the run well and covering well and not committing a penalty, but he’s been a poor pass rusher in his 2 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. There’s been some talk of him moving to middle linebacker, which might fit his skill set better, but in order for that to happen, someone would have to step up and take his spot as a starter and even then it would leave them dangerously thin at the position.

The Texans are hoping one or both of their rookies, Sam Montgomery or Trevardo Williams can do so. They’ll probably be really disappointed with Montgomery. Athletically, he’s a poor fit for a 3-4 and he also has serious red flags. He interviewed terribly, admitting to betting in college and taking games (not plays, games) off. On top of that, he was slammed by his former coaches and reports say that the Texans may not have had the whole story when they drafted him and that no one who knew that whole story would have touched him anywhere near the 3rd round. He’s not off to a good start, landing on the non-football injury list, coming to camp out of shape and with an ankle problem. Williams, meanwhile, seems more promising, but it’ll be hard to count on him as a rookie.

Part of the reason why there is talk of moving Reed to inside linebacker is that there’s a big hole inside next to Brian Cushing. There was way too much of Bradie James, Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud inside last year, especially after Cushing got hurt. None of those four graded out above average. The Texans planned to select Arthur Brown in the 2nd round to fill that void, but the Ravens traded up ahead of them to grab him.

They only addressed the position this off-season by signing Joe Mays late in the off-season, after he was cut by the Broncos. He’s a pretty mediocre starter who was benched early last season before eventually ending up on injured reserve with a broken leg. He doesn’t represent much of an upgrade. The Texans will be giving the mediocre (at best) Sharpton another shot, provided he doesn’t get hurt like he always does. He’s already on the non-football injury list with a bad groin, after spending much of the off-season struggling to come back from a late season hip injury. That’s part of the reason why they signed Mays, who figures to get the first great at the job if Sharpton can’t go. Even if that situation, he might only be a two-down player.

Cushing, meanwhile, is coming back from his own injury, that aforementioned torn ACL. He’ll be 11 months removed from it by week 1 so he should be good to go, but it’s possible that he won’t be the same player he was before, at least early in the season. I mentioned how much this defense went downhill after he got hurt. That wasn’t all him, but it had something to do with it, especially considering their atrocious depth at the position. Prior to his injury, the 2009 1st round pick was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker in 2011 and on to his way to another good season before the injury. He was also ProFootballFocus 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in the Texans’ old 4-3 in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, with a suspension shortened season in between. He’s easily their best linebacker in a unit full of question marks.

Grade: B-

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Secondary

As I mentioned earlier, Johnathan Joseph suffered a groin injury mid-season and wasn’t the same. Fortunately for them, 2010 1st round pick Kareem Jackson finally came into his own in his 3rd year in the league. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback last season, allowing 44 completions on 94 attempts for 611 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 10 passes and committing 5 penalties.

He was pretty bad in his first 2 years in the league, so I’ll have to see it again and he rarely covers opponent’s #1 cornerbacks, so I can’t consider him elite or anything, but he’s a very important part of this secondary. If Joseph can bounce back this year, it will make their secondary so tough to throw on because they’ll no longer be able to just throw away from Joseph and pick on the other side of the field.

Joseph was ProFootballFocus 9th ranked cornerback in 2011 in his first year in Houston and had graded out positively for the previous 4 seasons, including a 6th place ranking in 2009. He was off to a similarly good start in 2011, allowing 8 completions on 19 attempts for 86 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and not committing a penalty. However, a groin injury suffered before week 4 limited him the rest of the way, causing him to miss 2 games in the process. He allowed 44 completions on 73 attempts for 552 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception the rest of the way, while deflecting just 4 passes and committing 4 penalties. He finished the season as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked cornerback, just above average. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate, only going into his age 29 season.

Brice McCain will continue to work the slot, after re-signing for 3 years this off-season. The 2009 6th round pick has been their #3 cornerback dating back to 2010, moving to the slot in 2011. He played well on the slot in 2011, allowing a 48.7 QB rating on slot snaps, but wasn’t nearly as good there in 2012, with a 92.8 rating on slot snaps, and he was awful when he tried to play outside in Joseph’s absence. He was also awful in 2010 as an outside cornerback. At best, he’s a solid slot cornerback who can’t play on the outside, which makes sense given that he’s just 5-9 180. He could be pushed by Brandon Harris, a 2011 2nd round pick who hasn’t done anything in his two years in the league, playing just 205 snaps. He’s starting to look like a bust.e wH

The Texans lost starting safety Glover Quin this off-season, which wasn’t a huge loss. He’s an average starter who was overpaid by the Lions, who gave him 25 million over 5 years. The problem is the Texans made an even bigger overpay to replace him, signing Ed Reed for 15 million over 3 years. Reed is a future Hall of Famer, but he’s also coming off a season in which he ranked below average overall, turning 35 in September, and dealing with a bad hip that could cost him regular season games.

The Texans reportedly didn’t know of Reed’s hip injury and eventual need for surgery before signing him (while the Ravens did), so this looks like a big mistake on their part. His days as a solid starter are gone and they may be lucky if they get 12 games out of him from the looks of it. He had surgery in late April. 2nd round rookie DJ Swearinger could be seeing more action than they expected. He was drafted as the heir apparent to Reed, but it’s tough to count on him as a rookie.

At the other safety spot, Danieal Manning remains an above average starter. He’s going into his age 31 season so his best days might be behind him (he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked safety in 2010), but he’s graded out positively in each of the last 4 seasons since moving from cornerback to safety. He’s not over the hill yet. It’s not a perfect secondary, but they could very well have one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL and that counts for a lot.

Grade: A-

Head Coach

Once a perennial candidate to be fired (at least in the media), Gary Kubiak has strung together 10 and 12 win seasons and rewarded the Texans for being patient with him, ignoring the calls for his job for continuity’s sake. After Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, and Tom Coughlin, he’s the 4th longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL (along with Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy, who also came in before the 2006 season). It’s helped him greatly that he’s added Wade Phillips to his coaching staff to coordinate the defense, allowing Kubiak to focus on offense, where the Mike Shanahan disciple is an underrated game planner, play caller, and strong schematically, with his signature zone blocking offensive line and two-tight end heavy offense.

Grade: B+

Overall

As I mentioned in the opening, I think the Texans are a good team that flashes greatness, but something always goes wrong (usually injuries that they can’t excel in spite of). I could say that the Texans will be one of the best teams in the NFL this season now that Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing are all healthy at the same time (it’s happened just 6 times in the last 2 seasons, all wins), but the NFL is messy. Nothing will ever be a perfect world. I’ve given up projecting them as that top, top level team.

That being said, they’re by far the best team in their division. I’ll get into why the Colts are overrated in their write up, but the Titans and Jaguars aren’t going to be tough opponents. They should go 5-1 in their division again. Outside the division, they host Seattle, St. Louis, Oakland, New England, and Denver. Seattle, New England, and Denver will be tough opponents, but the Seahawks aren’t good on the road and St. Louis and Oakland should be easier wins. They should go at least 3-2 in those 5 games. They also go to Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, and Kansas City. Baltimore and San Francisco will be tough places to win and Kansas City is underrated and San Diego could even be tough late at night on Monday Night Football week 1, but they should win at least 2 of those games. 10-6 seems about right.

Projection: 10-6 1st in AFC South

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Seattle Seahawks 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Seahawks were an incredibly different team at home and on the road last season, going 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road. At home, they outscored opponents by 18.5 points per game (30.4-11.9), beating 4 eventual playoff teams, and on the road, they outscored opponents by just 2.3 points per game (21.1-18.8), despite playing just 1 eventual playoff team (a loss in San Francisco). It wasn’t just one unit getting significantly worse as their defense and their offense each essentially went a touchdown in each direction when they went on the road.

Things got better on the road as the Seahawks got better as the season went on (7-1 in their final 8 games) and Russell Wilson really came into his own, but only 3 of their final 8 games were on the road and while they beat Chicago and Buffalo, they also lost to Miami. In the post-season, they could have easily lost to the Redskins in Washington if Robert Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt up 14-0 and they followed that up with a loss in Atlanta the following week.

This isn’t a new thing. Going back to 2007, they are 15-37 on the road, getting outscored by 6.63 points per game, and 32-18 at home, outscoring opponents by 6.32 points per game. For that reason, I think the Seahawks aren’t as good talent wise as they appear. It’s not that they are an elite team that has issues on the road. I think that they’re a very solid team that plays like an elite team at home and shows their true colors on the road. Their incredible home crowd and home field advantage is a huge part of the team and makes them appear better than they are.

Fortunately for them, that crowd isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it’s only going to get louder and more powerful now that the team is in contention. They’re attempting to break a world record for stadium volume in their home opener week 2. On top of that, they appear to be a more talented team than the one that won 11 games last season.

They’re a young team that should be improved with another season of experience, especially Russell Wilson, who set the world on fire in the 2nd half of last season (albeit playing just 3 road games and 2 eventual playoff teams, both at home). They’ve added Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield and might now have the best slot cornerback and slot receiver in the NFL. An injury to Chris Clemons on their defensive line hurts, but they’ve added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help make up for that. Home field advantage taken into account, this looks like one of the most talented teams in the league on paper.

Also, despite their 11 wins, they still didn’t meet their Pythagorean Expectation last season, outscoring opponents by a total of 167 points and posting a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.4 wins, tied with the Patriots for best in the NFL last season. Given that they played a tougher schedule than the Patriots last season, you could easily make an argument that this was the best regular season team in the NFL last season and DVOA would agree. Not only were they DVOA’s top rated team last season, they were the 6th highest ranked team in DVOA’s history, dating back to 1991, behind the 1991 Washington Redskins (Super Bowl Champs), the 2007 New England Patriots (Super Bowl runner ups), the 2010 New England Patriots (eliminated in the divisional round at home by Mark Sanchez…wait what?!), the 1996 Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl Champs), and the 1995 San Francisco 49ers (eliminated in the divisional round).

So they were probably the best team in the NFL last season, despite being one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and they’ve added more talent in the off-season. So what’s the problem? Well, it’s fourfold. The first issue is that they were ridiculous lucky in terms of injuries, ranking just 4th in the NFL in adjusted games lost. This type of thing tends to be more luck than anything. For example, the previous season they were 27th.

They’ve already lost Chris Clemons for an undisclosed amount of time and Percy Harvin, who they added in the off-season, is one of the more injured prone stars in the NFL and already may need hip surgery. Sidney Rice also has a history of injury problems, as does left tackle Russell Okung, and I don’t have to tell you how much it would hurt if something were to happen to Russell Wilson or Richard Sherman. I’m not saying something will, but history suggests the injury bug won’t be as friendly to them this season as it was last season.

They also benefitted from a turnover margin of +13, with 31 takeaways and 18 turnovers. 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.

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). I’m not saying that Russell Wilson is going to suddenly start throwing a bunch of picks, but, for example, Richard Sherman had 8 interceptions last season. That could easily be cut in half this season.

Interceptions are very unpredictable for defensive backs. A cornerback can have 8 interceptions in a season and 3 in another and not play any worse. That’s just the nature of the position and the pitfall of judging a cornerback purely on interception numbers. Darrelle Revis is one of the best cornerbacks in the game and since a 6-interception season in 2009, he has 5 total in 31 games. Part of it is teams will just throw away from him more. I know he has Brandon Browner opposite him, but Revis had Antonio Cromartie opposite him. Part of it is he’ll just get fewer good balls to pick off. Either way, he should have fewer interceptions and the Seahawks, overall, should have a less impressive turnover margin in 2013.

The third issue is just that teams that have significant win improvements tend to regress about half of that amount the following season. It’s just an average, but it’s just a rule of thumb in the NFL to note. The fourth issue is their schedule and the fact that they play most of their tough opponents on the road. Of the 6 games they play against reigning playoff teams from last season, 4 of them are on the road. They also go to Carolina and the Giants and have two nationally televised games against divisional opponents in Arizona and St. Louis that won’t be easy. Remember, those two teams beat them last season and, while the Seahawks are improved, so are they. Also, 4 of those games are 1 PM ET starts on the in the Eastern Time Zone (Indianapolis, the Giants, Carolina, and Atlanta).

There could be 4 or 5 losses on that road schedule so even if they go undefeated at home against (not unlikely considering they don’t face any tough teams outside of San Francisco and maybe Minnesota or a sucks on the road New Orleans team), they might not win more than 11 or 12 games. In any other division, that wouldn’t be a big deal, that might mean 2nd place in the NFC West behind the 49ers, which would mean winning the Super Bowl would once again require winning 4 games away from home. I don’t think this team can do that. If they’re going to win the Super Bowl, I think they’re going to have to win the division. The circumstances with the schedule and with San Francisco being in their division I think will prevent them from doing so.

Quarterback

As I mentioned earlier, Russell Wilson set the world on fire in the 2nd half of the season and even into the playoffs. After a 4-4 start in which he completed 61.4% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions (with 36 carries for 128 rushing yards), leading the team to 17.5 points per game, he went 8-2 the rest of the way, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions (with 488 yards and 5 touchdowns on 73 carries), leading the team to 32.4 points per game.

However, he’s just not as good on the road. He completed just 63.6% of his passes for an average of 7.5 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions on the road, a QB rating of 86.1. That’s opposed to 64.6% completion, 9.2 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions at home, a QB rating of 123.6. And I already mentioned the Seahawks scored about 9 fewer points per game on the road than at home. Wilson was better on the road as the season went on, completing 65.1% of his passes for an average of 8.7 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and an interception, a QB rating of 107.6, but it wasn’t as good. He still went just 3-2 (would have been 2-3 if Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt), and while he did score 29.2 points per game, that was down about 6 points from his 2nd half home stats.

And of course, I don’t expect him to keep up his 2nd half stats into the entire 2013 season because that would be ridiculous. He’ll still be a great home quarterback and I don’t expect him to lose a home game, but there’s no denying that he’s a noticeably worse quarterback on the road, no matter how well he’s playing. If he were drafted by any team other than the Seahawks, even if they had the same supporting cast, playbook, and coaching staff, he would not be as good of a quarterback. He wouldn’t be bad, but it would be noticeably worse (though you could say the same thing about Drew Brees). And I think there are at least 4 or 5 road games he’ll lose next season and I don’t think he’s capable of winning 4 straight away from Seattle to win the Super Bowl.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Marshawn Lynch has completely revitalized his career in Seattle. He was acquired from the Bills for just a 4th round pick in 2010 because he hadn’t lived up to his potential and because he had a history of off the field problems. He struggled in his first season in Seattle, with the exception of the beast mode run in the post-season against the Saints, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but in 2011, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 285 carries with 12 touchdowns.

In 2012, he improved that to 5.0 yards per carry on 315 carries with another 11 touchdowns as Russell Wilson’s arm and rushing ability took the defense’s attention off of Lynch. Everything has gone about as well as the Seahawks could have hoped when they acquired him in 2010, with the exception of a DUI last off-season. It looks like a change of scenery was all the 2007 1st round pick needed. His only real flaw is he’s caught just 51 passes in the last 2 seasons.

I don’t see why Lynch can’t do something similar again in 2013, though he may see slightly fewer carries heading into his age 27 season as the Seahawks used a 2nd round pick on a running back in Christine Michael. This marks the 2nd straight draft they’ve brought in a running back and 2012 4th round pick Robert Turbin isn’t exactly a poor runner either, rushing for 354 yards on 80 carries and adding 19 catches as Marshawn Lynch’s primary backup and a passing down specialist.

Michael just adds another talented back to their stable. With Russell Wilson adding 94 carries of his own, no team ran the ball more often than the Seahawks in 2012, who ran 536 times to 438 pass plays (including sacks). That means they ran on 55.0% of their offensive plays. Even with Wilson going into his 2nd season in the league, I don’t expect that to change this season and Michael’s addition only adds to that likelihood.

Even when Wilson broke out in the 2nd half of last season, he passed just 22.5 times per game, which was actually less than the 26.25 times per game he passed in the 1st half of the season. Part of that was they were playing with a lead more, but the point is, I don’t expect the Seahawks to pass much more than they did last season. They’ll still be a run heavy team with Lynch leading the way, two talented backups, and Wilson’s own scrambling ability. They’re a solid bet to lead the league in rushing.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight End

Another player who will add to their ground game production is Percy Harvin, their big off-season addition. The wide receiver Harvin has rushed for 683 yards and 4 touchdowns on 107 carries in 4 seasons with the Vikings and the run heavy, read option loving Pete Carroll could give him upwards of 30 carries this season. Of course, Harvin’s biggest asset will be his receiving ability, but those projecting big time numbers for him this season are mistaken.

Harvin has been very efficient on a per snap basis over the past 2 seasons. 1652 receiving yards on 651 routes run, which is among the most efficient in the NFL. And yes, he was doing that with mediocre quarterback play, but he was also his team’s only option and targeted relentlessly, which won’t be the case in Seattle. He was targeted 199 times on those 651 routes run, 30.6% of the time. With Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Zach Miller, and all them in Seattle, he won’t be targetted nearly as frequently and they also won’t pass nearly as much.

And, of course, he’s a solid bet to get hurt. While he’s only missed 10 games in his 4 year NFL career, he’s coming off a 9-game season last year, which also happened to be the first time in his career he was an every down player and not just a slot specialist. He’s never played more than 623 snaps in a season. He has serious durability issues and there’s already concern about his hip, as of this writing, on the first day of Seahawks Training Camp. He may need surgery.

I think 1000 yards receiving is incredibly optimistic for him. I think the best case scenario is the Seahawks run 500 pass plays (62 more than they did last season), Harvin plays 450 of those pass snaps (28 more than any Seattle receiver did last season), is targeted 100 times and catches 80 passes for 1000 yards (12.5 yards per reception, almost a full yard above his career average). More likely, he is somewhere below that, though, assuming he stays moderately healthy, he’ll save his fantasy value (if you’re into that kind of thing) with his rushing yardage and the fact that he should surpass his career high of 6 touchdowns.

Sidney Rice will line up opposite him. Rice played all 16 games for the 2nd time in his 6 year career last season and, while you wouldn’t know it from his stats, he played very well. He caught just 50 passes for 748 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he did that on 422 routes run (includes sacks). If he had been on a more pass heavy team like he was in 2009, his breakout season when he ran 547 routes for Brett Favre, he would have had 65 catches for 970 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked receiver last year. He’s a very solid #2 receiver, but with Harvin coming in and his history of injury problems (23 games missed in 6 seasons), the smart money is on him not matching even the 50 catches for 748 yards and 7 touchdowns he had last season.

Golden Tate also had a very solid year last year, as the 2010 2nd round pick broke out in his 3rd season in the league the way so many receivers do. Again, the stats didn’t show it as he caught just 45 passes for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he did that on just 378 routes run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 24th ranked wide receiver overall. However, with Harvin coming in, like with Rice, the smart money is on his production going down as he’ll be the 3rd receiver. The Seahawks ranked 26th in the NFL in 3-wide receiver sets last season, which shouldn’t significantly go up this season. His best shot at statistical and fantasy relevance is a Rice or Harvin injury, though that’s not unlikely at all.

Doug Baldwin will be the 4th receiver and while he’s talented, he’s unlikely to come anywhere near the 29 catches for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns he had last season. Still, he’s a more than capable 4th receiver and the Seahawks have come a long way from 2011, when Baldwin actually led the team by catching 51 passes for 788 yards and 4 touchdowns out of sheer necessity as an undrafted free agent rookie. Add in Zach Miller, a solid all-around tight end, and this is a talented bunch. 5th round rookie Luke Willson will serve as the 2nd string tight end, in place of the injured Anthony McCoy, who is already on injured reserve with a torn Achilles. Willson wasn’t a great blocker in college, but he has great natural receiving ability and can serve as more of a move tight end with Miller capable of serving as an inline tight end.

Grade: A-

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Offensive Line

The Seahawks’ weakest unit on either side of the ball is their offensive line and it isn’t really that close. While left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger are coming off very strong seasons, the rest of their offensive line is a mess and Okung and Unger might not even play as well this season. Okung graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, as the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft allowed just 1 sack all season (partially due to Russell Wilson’s mobility but still) and run blocked well, though he committed 13 penalties, 2nd worst at his position.

However, he has a history of injury problems, as he was limited to 556 snaps as a rookie and then struggled mightily through injuries in 2011, grading out below average on 799 snaps. He could have a 2nd straight strong season, but he could also get hurt again. Unger, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked center last season, but was largely a league average player before that. I don’t doubt he can have another strong season, but I’ll need to see it again before I can consider him a top level center.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends on the offensive line for the Seahawks. Breno Giacomini will once again line up at right tackle, where the mediocre career backup as ProFootballFocus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season. At right guard, Paul McQuistan is in a similar career situation, though he wasn’t quite as bad last season and he has the ability to play both right and left guard depending on where he’s needed. Still, he’s a below average player.

Opposite McQuistan at guard, the Seahawks tried 3 different players last season, James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and JR Sweezy. Carpenter was a first round pick in 2011 and the surprise pick looks well on his way towards being a bust. Injuries have limited him to 352 snaps in 2 seasons and he didn’t play well at all during those snaps and he’s already been moved inside to guard from right tackle, where he was originally supposed to bookend Okung.

Sweezy, meanwhile, saw 311 snaps last season as a 7th round rookie who played defensive tackle the year before at NC State and he played about as well as you would expect, grading out 71st out of 81 eligible guards despite the limited playing time. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made a lot of smart decisions, but I have to make fun of them for that one. Sweezy said he hadn’t played offensive line since middle school. How did they decide to convert him to offensive line? Did they watch his middle school tape?

Moffitt, a 3rd round pick from that same draft as Carpenter, has been absolutely awful thus far in his career, grading out as the 3rd worst guard in 2011 despite playing just half the snaps. He was only slightly better in 2012. Carpenter will get the first crack at being the starting left guard, but it looks like a position of major weakness, much like right guard and right tackle.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, Chris Clemons tore his ACL in the playoff win over Washington. He’s a very strong candidate to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury week 1. That would cost him 6 games and even when he returns, it’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old playing as many snaps per game as he did last season, especially with Cliff Avril being added to the mix.

An absolute steal in a trade from Philadelphia (he arrived as a throw-in in a deal that send Darryl Tapp to the Eagles for a 4th rounder), Clemons has been a top-11 4-3 defensive end on ProFootballFocus in all 3 seasons as a starter with the Seahawks, playing the Leo role in Pete Carroll’s defense. Last season, he had his worst season with the Seahawks, grading out “just” 11th overall at his position, though 4th in terms of rushing the passer with 11 sacks, 11 hits, and 37 hurries on 511 pass rush snaps, a 11.5% pass rush rate. However, his poor run grade (5th worst at his position) hurt his grade. He’ll see mostly pass rush snaps this season when he does play.

Clemons not being at 100% will hurt, but, as I mentioned, the Seahawks did add Cliff Avril to the mix this off-season. Avril is undersized, but was a natural fit in a wide nine scheme in Detroit and is a perfect fit for the Leo role in Seattle. He’s not the same pass rusher Clemons is when healthy, grading out well above average, above average, and average in the last 3 seasons in that aspect, and he also struggles against the run as well. He might be at his best and most efficient when he doesn’t play a full set of snaps (like he did in 2010, his best season, when he played 649 snaps), which is good because the Seahawks do have a lot of defensive end depth, especially when Clemons returns.

On the other side, Red Bryant will start in base packages. Bryant doesn’t get any pass rush, but that’s not what he’s out there for. He’s out there to hold down the edge against the run and he usually does a great job of that. However, last season he actually graded out below average in that aspect and because of his poor pass rush ability (0 sacks, 0 hits, and 11 hurries on 343 pass rush snaps, 3.2% pass rush rate), he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd lowest ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 641 snaps. That’s part of the reason why the Seahawks ranked 23rd in YPC allowed. He played through a foot injury all season though, so maybe he’ll bounce back. He did get off to a great start to the season in the first 3 weeks of the season.

In sub packages, Bruce Irvin will continue to come in and rush the passer. A surprise pick as the 15th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Irvin had 10 sacks as a rookie as a part time player. However, he wasn’t as good as that would suggest. To go with those 10 sacks, he had just 12 hits and 20 hurries on 344 pass rush snaps, an impressive 12.2% rate, but not as impressive as 10 sacks as a part-time player would suggest. He graded out above average as a pass rusher, but struggled against the run, grading out average overall. He especially struggled against the run in his one start against Atlanta, with Chris Clemons out. Michael Turner, who hadn’t done anything all year, trampled the Seahawks for 98 yards on 14 carries and Irvin was a big part of the reason why.

He must have proved to the coaching staff that he could never be a starter on the defensive line because the Seahawks converted him to linebacker this off-season. He’ll play the Von Miller role, playing the run as a two-down linebacker on running downs in base packages and then moving to the line to rush the passer as a defensive end in sub packages. It’s a better role for his skill set, but it could take him a little bit to adjust to playing linebacker and he’s also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for Adderall.

With Irvin and Clemons out early in the season, free agent acquisition Michael Bennett will probably play more end early in the season, though he was signed to be a situational rusher at defensive tackle, coming over from Tampa Bay. Bennett is incredibly versatile and well rounded, lining up at two positions (end and tackle) with the Buccaneers and grading out well above average both against the run and as a pass rusher.

In 2011, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated 4-3 defensive end in a more limited role, excelling against the run at 6-4 274, but also accumulating 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 338 pass rush snaps, a 11.2% pass rush rate. In 2012, he led the Tampa Bay defensive line in snaps, grading out 7th among 4-3 defensive ends again. Along with Cameron Wake and Greg Hardy, he was one of three 4-3 defensive ends to grade out in the top-10 as a run stopper and pass rusher and he accumulated 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 48 hurries on 600 pass rush snaps, a 11.8% pass rush rate.

Along with him at defensive tackle, the Seahawks have Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane. Mebane is a consistently above average starter who can rush the passer and stop the run. He’ll lead the position in snaps. McDaniel will take over Alan Branch’s old run stuffing role. Branch was a one dimensional player, but exceled in that role, topping out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked run stopping defensive tackle in 2011. McDaniel, a mediocre career backup, won’t do as well. He’ll face competition from Clinton McDonald, another career backup, and Jaye Howard, a 2012 4th round pick who played just 22 snaps as a rookie.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Bruce Irvin will be moving to linebacker and playing the 3rd linebacker role in base packages, a role vacated by veteran LeRoy Hill, who did alright in that role last season. In the 4 games Irvin will miss with suspension, Malcolm Smith will start in that role. The 2011 7th round pick has flashed in 236 career snaps in reserve, but he’s still a mystery. Fortunately, it’s not that important of a position.

KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner will continue to play the every down linebacker roles. Wright graded out above average in his first season in that role and the 2011 4th round pick also played well in the two-down linebacker role as a rookie. Wagner, meanwhile, played incredibly well as a 2nd round rookie last season, grading out 2nd on ProFootballFocus among middle linebackers. He finished 2nd in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Luke Kuechly and actually played better than Luke Kuechly at the same position. The Seahawks are in good hands with these two young every down linebackers.

Grade: A-

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Secondary

I mentioned Richard Sherman in the opening. After Russell Wilson, he’s their most indispensible player. In his 2nd year in the league, the 2011 5th round pick allowed 41 catches on 87 attempts for 634 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while deflecting 14 passes and committing 5 penalties. He was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback last season and, though he ranked below average against the run, he was by far their top cover cornerback. He might not pick off 8 passes again, but as I mentioned, that won’t necessarily mean he has a worse season. He played well as a rookie as well, grading 16th in more limited action and the 25-year-old might not have peaked yet. He’s arguably the top cornerback in the NFL. Darrelle Revis is more proven and has had better seasons than Sherman had last year, but he’s also coming off a torn ACL and 3 years older.

Brandon Browner does a solid job opposite him, grading out 22nd among cornerbacks, allowing 34 catches on 63 attempts for 421 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 7 penalties and missing 4 games with suspension. He improved over a solid first season in the league in 2011, coming over from the CFL, and he’s a young and very capable #2 cornerback opposite Sherman. Opposing quarterbacks will probably throw away from Sherman more this season and Browner looks like he can hold up to extra attention.

They might be the best outside cornerback duo in the NFL and they added arguably the best slot cornerback in the NFL this off-season, signing Antoine Winfield from Minnesota. Winfield was actually ProFootballFocus’ top ranked cornerback last season, though he wasn’t quite as good as that would suggest. A lot of that was run grade as he was by far the best run stopping cornerback in the league, but he only ranked 19th in coverage grade, allowing 60 catches on 90 attempts for 575 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties. He also didn’t cover much downfield and he’s going into his age 36 season with a recent history of injury problems, missing 17 games in the last 4 seasons combined.

However, he’ll be a natural fit as a part time player on the slot. He ranked 13th in the NFL in slot coverage QB rating allowed last season. He’s a great fit for the Seahawks physical man-to-man coverage scheme as well and, of course, he’ll help stuff the run. He’ll be a sizeable upgrade on the Marcus Trufant/Jeremy Lane/Byron Maxwell/Walter Thummond quartet who were their primary depth cornerbacks last season.

The Seahawks also have a great pair of safeties who complement each other well, with Kam Chancellor playing up closer to the box, playing 54.4% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, 7th in the NFL among eligible safeties, and Earl Thomas serving as the deep center field safety. Chancellor, a 2010 5th round pick, is one of the biggest safeties in the NFL at 6-3 232. He didn’t play as well in 2012 as he did in his breakout 2011 season, when he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked safety, as he ranked 21st in 2012, but he is one of the top-10 or so safeties in the NFL.

Thomas, meanwhile, is just a little bit behind that. He’s a little overrated because of his tendency to take bad routes to the ball and miss tackles (17 missed tackles last season, 4th in the NFL, and 29 in the last 2 seasons), but he was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked safety in 2012 and their 34th ranked in 2011. He’s clearly an above average safety though and they have one of the best safeties duos in the NFL. This might overall be the best secondary in the NFL. They ranked 3rd in the NFL allowing 6.2 YPA last season, ranking 1st in coverage grade on ProFootballFocus, and they could be even better this season.

Grade: A

Head Coach

Last season, I said in Seattle’s preview that Pete Carroll doesn’t get his name mentioned enough with the best coaches in the NFL, but he should. Now, a season later, he does. He’s rebuilt this team from a 5-11 veteran team to an 11-5 exciting, young team in 3 seasons (going 25-23 and winning 2 playoff games). Along with GM John Schneider, he’s discovered and developed a ton of young talent during his time with the Seahawks.

Chris Clemons was a situational player who he turned into one of the better pass rushers in the league. KJ Wright and Richard Sherman were 4th and 5th round picks respectively in 2011. Brandon Browner was in the CFL. He got Marshawn Lynch for a 4th round pick. Kam Chancellor was a 5th round pick. Bobby Wagner was a 2nd round pick. Russell Wilson was a 3rd round pick. Russell Okung and Earl Thomas were 1st round picks, but they’ve also developed into top level players. He also did a fantastic job at the collegiate level at USC.

Grade: A-

Overall

As I mentioned in the opening, with their home field advantage factored in, this might be the most talented team in the NFL, but they only get 8 home games and they could have a hard time winning more than 3 or 4 of their tough road games. They could once again run the table at home and still not win the division and have to go on the road throughout the post-season.

I have them going 4-2 in the division, splitting with San Francisco and dropping one in either St. Louis or Arizona, nationally televised games in places they lost last season. Outside of the division, they host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and New Orleans and they shouldn’t have much problem winning all 5 of those games. They also go to Carolina, Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta, and New York. That’s three 2012 playoff teams, a Giants team that won 9 games last season, and 2013 sleeper in Carolina, and 4 of those games are on the East Coast at 1 PM ET. They should lose about 3 of those games, to put them at 11-5 for the 2nd straight season.

Projection: 11-5 2nd in NFC West

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