St. Louis Rams 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Football is a game of parity. A team sees an average change of 3 wins per season in either direction and teams that have big improvements on average regress about half of that the following season and vice versa. The Rams have been doing quite a bit of bouncing around in the past few years, going from 1 win to 7 wins to 2 wins to 7 wins and a tie. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to bounce into the playoffs at any point and if history is any indication, they are due to bounce back down, at least a little bit.

There were a couple unsustainable things that led to the Rams’ win improvement last season. They were 6th in the league in adjusted games lost, meaning they had significantly fewer injuries than the league average. This was a season after they ranked dead last in that category in 2011. They also exceeded their Pythagorean Expectations by a whole win (assuming a half win for the tie) as they were outscored by 49 points on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, 23rd in the NFL. They did have a really tough schedule last season, but things don’t look much easier this season.

The Rams will have to hope that all of the talent they’ve added through free agency in the past few off-seasons have paid off and that they will continue climbing the wins ladder because they are legitimately a more talented team. They’ve signed Harvey Dahl, Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Kendall Langford, Jake Long, and Jared Cook to significant contracts in the last 3 off-seasons, to go with Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, and Tavon Austin added in the first round of the last 3 drafts. Austin, Long, and Cook are the big additions of this off-season as the Rams made surrounding Sam Bradford with more talent the single primary concern of their off-season.

Quarterback

The Rams have a lot tied into Sam Bradford. They gave him 50 million guaranteed before he even took an NFL snap as they took him with #1 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, the final one of the non-rookie salary cap era. They also essentially traded Robert Griffin in favor of keeping Bradford as their quarterback when they had the opportunity to bring in Griffin through the draft last April. And so far, it’s really unclear what they have in him. There’s reason to be optimistic certainly, but he’s a big mystery.

Bradford had a very good rookie season, completing 60.0% of his passes for an average of 6.0 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, setting the NFL record for completions by a rookie, attempts by a rookie, and consecutive attempts without an interception by a rookie, leading the previously 1-win Rams to a respectable 7-9 record. However, 2011 was a lost season, as injuries caused him to miss 6 games and limited him to 53.5% completion, 6.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in a 2-14 campaign.

Bradford bounced back in his 3rd year in the league, playing all 16 games again and improving on his rookie numbers by completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in a 7-8-1 season. It was a respectable season by a young quarterback, but when you look at what even younger quarterbacks in Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick (technically Kaepernick is 5 days older), Andrew Luck, Matt Stafford, and even Andy Dalton (9 days older, but whatever) have done, Bradford’s young career pales in comparison.

He’s on better footing than Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, and Josh Freeman on the young quarterback totem pole as all 5 of those quarterbacks could lose their starting job this season, but at some point, Bradford will have to start proving he’s the type of guy who can win you a Super Bowl. That season could be this year as he has undoubtedly his most talented offensive supporting cast and you can give him a pass because of the crap he’s played with around him so far, but I need to see it from him first to make sure he’s not just Alex Smith, someone who is good enough to keep his job and that’s it. Needless to say, it’s a huge year for him.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

While Bradford has an improved supporting cast this season, I do think the players they brought in are being overrated, at least in terms of what they can add this season. It’s undoubtedly a better group, but there are still issues. For one, 8th overall pick Tavon Austin is still 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. Austin will do some nice things as a rookie and they’ll line him up in the backfield on occasion to get him his touches, but I think he’s at least a year away from being the type of player a lot of people think he already is. He might not even start as a rookie.

Austin is competing for a starting job with relative veterans Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, and Brian Quick. Givens is the one I’m actually most excited about and the player I think will lead this team in receiving. He was just a 4th round pick in 2012, but I had a borderline 2nd round grade on him coming out of Wake Forest, ahead of teammate Quick, a 2nd rounder in that same class, and ahead of 49er 1st round pick AJ Jenkins. After Kendall Wright, I thought he was the best speed receiver in the class, after a junior season in which he averaged 16.0 yards per catch on 83 catches for 1330 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has adequate size at 5-11 198 with steady hands, great route running ability, and recorded a 4.41 40 at The Combine.

As a rookie, he led the Rams’ nondescript receiving corps with 698 yards and caught 42 passes and 3 touchdowns. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round, as the statistic I mentioned earlier suggests. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. Givens, a 4th round rookie, exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should be able to improve on them as he’s another year matured and another year more comfortable with the offense and Sam Bradford, especially since he figures to play more snaps.

Givens didn’t see significant action until week 4 and only played in 386 of the team’s 641 pass snaps, which was 113 less than Brandon Gibson, who led the team. He averaged 1.90 yards per route run, 25th in the league out of 82 eligible wide receivers. This year, with Brandon Gibson and the oft injured Danny Amendola gone, Givens is by far the team’s leading returning receiver. Unlike the new batch of receivers, he has a year of experience in the offense and with Sam Bradford.

Austin Pettis, meanwhile, is actually listed as the other starter right now and that might continue to be the case going into week 1, with the raw Austin focusing on the slot early in his rookie year. Either way, he’ll see a lot of action. The 2011 3rd round pick is going into the 3rd season that is so often a breakout year for young receivers, but I don’t know if he has the talent to be more than a marginal starter at best going forward because he really lacks speed, athleticism, and after the catch ability. He’s probably best suited for a depth role. He’s caught 57 passes for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 2 seasons in the league as a depth possession receiver.

Brian Quick will also see a lot of action as the Rams figure to get all 4 of their young receivers action. Quick was, as I mentioned earlier, a 2nd round pick as a rookie last year, but he was very much upstaged by the 4th round pick Givens as a rookie, catching just 11 passes for 156 yards and 2 touchdowns. Still, he’s got a lot of talent and you can never write a talented receiver off after just one season, especially one that was always expected to be a project transitioning from Appalachian State to the NFL. He should be improved this season.

Jared Cook, by default, is the veteran of the group as the aforementioned 3 receivers are all in their 3rd year or younger. There might be too much youth here, especially with a young signal caller under center. Cook was given a 5 year, 38.5 million dollar contract this off-season, with 19 million guaranteed, but that looks like a serious overpay.

Jared Cook was underutilized in Tennessee and put up good per snap numbers as a receiver despite never really having great quarterback play. He has 1718 career receiving yards on 1057 career routes run, a rate of 1.63 yards per route run. For comparison, Owen Daniels had 1.63 yards per route run this season, good for 11th in the NFL. However, he doesn’t block, which is a big part of the reason why he was only a part-time player in Tennessee and he’s still relatively unproven. The Rams are paying a lot of money to find out if he can be an elite tight end in the right situation. They’ll give him every opportunity to live up to his contract, but I don’t think he will.

Also in the mix at tight end is Lance Kendricks, a 2011 2nd round pick. He’s not a bad 2nd string tight end, but he doesn’t complement Cook well because he can’t block at all either. He’s undoubtedly the 2nd best receiving tight end on their roster, catching 45 passes for 529 yards and 4 touchdowns in his 2nd season in the league last year, but he could lose playing time to blocking specialist Cory Harkey, a 2012 undrafted free agent who is a solid blocker, but can’t pass catch at all.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The other big time off-season addition they made was on the offensive line, where they signed Jake Long to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed to play left tackle. Long is a household name because he was the 1st overall pick of the Dolphins in 2008 and because he deservingly made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, after ranking 10th, 2nd, and 2nd on ProFootballFocus in 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively, injuries helped drop him to 21st in 2011 and all the way down to right around league average in 2012. There’s a reason the Dolphins didn’t seem too eager to bring him back and why the Rams gave him an extensive physical before signing him. If he can stay healthy, they’re getting a steal, but that’s a big if and this might look like a big overpay in 2 years’ time because of his injury history.

At the very least, Long’s presence on the blindside will allow Rodger Saffold to kick to right tackle. Saffold wasn’t happy about the positional switch earlier this off-season, but has since calmed down and I think it fits his skill set better. He’s been pretty good on the blindside when healthy in his career, though he’s missed 13 games in 3 seasons and been limited in several others with injuries, but I think he could be one of the better right tackles in the league if he were to stay healthy. That’s a big if however for the 2010 2nd round pick. He’s going into a contract year, so maybe he’ll have a big year. Worst case scenario, he’ll be better than the Jason Smith/Barry Richardson mix they’ve been trotting out there at right tackle in the last few seasons. The lead footed Joe Barksdale is his backup so they’ll be in trouble if he can’t stay healthy.

On the interior of their offensive line, the Rams have two other big money offensive linemen in right guard Harvey Dahl and center Scott Wells. Dahl has been with the Rams for 2 seasons and he’s graded out significantly below average in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s been a reliable above average starter for years dating back to his days with the Falcons and the only concern here is that he’s heading into his age 32 season. It shouldn’t be an issue yet though.

Wells, meanwhile, graded out as an above average center in the previous 4 seasons before coming to St. Louis from Green Bay last off-season, including top-10 grades in 2008, 2010, and 2011, topping out at 4th in 2011. However, injuries limited him to 434 below average snaps in 2012. There’s definitely potential for a bounce back year, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and, unlike Dahl, he’s shown signs of slipping up so there’s definitely reason for concern here, especially considering they gave him the richest contract ever for a center last off-season.

Rounding out the line at left guard will be one of three players, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, or Rok Watkins. Chris Williams is a former first round pick (2008) bust of the Chicago Bears who has bounced all over the offensive line before winding up with the Rams last season after being a mid-season cut. He once again struggled with the Rams, playing significantly below average on 88 snaps. Smith, meanwhile, graded out significantly below average on 360 snaps last season in the 2010 6th round pick’s first real action in the NFL. Watkins, meanwhile, was a 5th round rookie last season who played 37 snaps week 1, struggling mightily before going on season ending injured reserve. It’s a position of serious weakness on an overall improving offensive line. The talent is there though, more so than it’s ever been in Sam Bradford’s career.

Grade: B

Running Backs

While the Rams have made major additions to their receiving corps and offensive line, they actually had a significant loss at running back as long time bell-cow back Steven Jackson signed with the Atlanta Falcons this off-season. Jackson is on the decline and the Rams didn’t put forth much effort into trying to bring him back, but he leaves behind an uncertain situation. In his absence, the Rams will have a 3-way battle for the starting job and all 3 backs figure to see carries.

Daryl Richardson was Jackson’s primary backup last season, rushing for 475 yards on 98 carries, while contributing 24 catches for 163 yards. The 7th round rookie leapfrogged 2nd round rookie Isaiah Pead on the depth chart for that job. Pead is also in the mix at running back this season, after just 10 carries as a rookie. The 2nd rounder has talent and I’m not going to write him off or anything, but it’s certainly been a disappointing start to the career of a player who I thought was overdrafted (he’s a change of pace/passing catching back/return man). The 3rd back is 5th round rookie Zac Stacy who I think could prove to be a steal. The 5-9 210 pounder is a very hard runner. Whatever happens, it’s a position of much youth and uncertainly, much like most of their offense.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On the defensive line, the Rams have a trio of former 1st round picks and a big contract free agent signing and it’s a big part of the reason why they had an NFL best 56 sacks last season. However, that’s a little misleading. They were ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked pass rush team and while I won’t argue that they were the 17th best pass rush team in the league last year, looking purely at sack numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

Their most talented defensive lineman is Chris Long, the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Long is legitimately one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the NFL, with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and 55 hurries on 568 pass rush snaps, a 13.3% rate. However, he got destroyed against the run, which is nothing new for him. Since 2010, he’s been one of the worst run stopping 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, grading out dead last in that aspect in both 2010 and 2011 and 4th worst in 2012.

However, he’s simultaneously been one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the league since his breakout 2010 season, ranking 7th in that aspect in 2011 and 4th in that aspect in both 2010 and 2012. Overall, he’s graded out as a significantly above average defensive lineman in the last 3 seasons, but his run play prevents him from being considered one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL in my book.

Opposite him, Robert Quinn, the 14th overall pick in 2011 NFL Draft, had 11 sacks in his first season as a starter. That’s an impressive total, but he benefitted incredibly from Long’s presence opposite him and even with Long, he still managed just 8 hits and 26 hurries on the season on 541 pass rush snaps, a 8.3% rate. You can’t just look at sack numbers because they don’t tell you anything about how long the quarterback held the ball, what kind of blocking the pass rusher faced, and who actually forced the sack. Quinn benefitted from good luck in all 3 of those aspects and was not the pass rusher those 11 sacks suggest. He also got blown up against the run and overall he was ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible. The former 1st round pick could be better this season, however.

The Rams also frequently use 3 defensive end sets on passing downs with reserves William Hayes and Eugene Sims coming into the game on passing downs. Sims struggled mightily to get pass rush with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 4 hurries on 244 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 4.5% rate. Hayes was better, but still pretty average rushing the passer with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 11 hurries on 225 pass rush snaps, a 10.7% rate. He excelled as a run stuffer though, ranking 5th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect.

The 3rd former 1st round pick on the line is Michael Brockers, the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Injuries delayed his debut until week 4, but the rookie still started 12 of 13 games upon his return, playing 615 snaps and grading out above average, especially against the run. He should be even better in his 2nd season in the league as he’s healthy and he doesn’t turn 23 until December. He was really raw coming out of LSU.

Brockers will once again start inside next to Kendall Langford. Langford signed a 4-year, 24 million dollar contract last off-season, but got blown up against the run in his first season playing 4-3 defensive tackle after spending his early career as a 5-technique defensive end in Miami. He rushed the passer alright though, with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 13 hurries on 411 pass rush snaps, a 4.9% rate. That’s not great for a defensive tackle, but it’s passable. The Rams were obviously counting on more from him when they gave him that contract though, so they’ll have to hope he bounces back. They don’t really have much of another option at the position if he doesn’t as Jermelle Cudjo, a mediocre backup, is their only other experienced player at the position.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Before last season, the Rams signed middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar deal that was a real overpay. Laurinaitis is a great leader on the field and always puts up big tackle numbers, but those tackles are more often filler than substance. Of his 482 total tackles in the last 4 seasons, last than half, 221, were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on second down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. I’m not saying he’s a bad player, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his 4 seasons and he’s nowhere near the middle linebacker that Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, even youngsters Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are. His deal was a serious overpay for a team that’s spent a lot of money in the last few off-seasons and seems headed for salary cap hell.

Laurinaitis will play every down once again, as will 1st round rookie Alec Ogletree. Ogletree was regarded as having top-10 talent, but fell to the Rams at 30th overall (after a trade down) because of off the field and work ethic concerns. We’ll have to see how this works out for the Rams, but it was certainly a risk for them. It’s not like it wasn’t a position of need, however.

Jo Lonn Dunbar actually graded out above average as an every down linebacker for them last season, but did so on a very strong run grade (3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers) and a strong blitzing grade with 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 9 hurries on 135 blitzes (further reason why I think it’s unlikely they match the 56 sacks they had last season). He struggled miserably in coverage, as could be expected from him, grading out worst at his position in that aspect, and he’ll be a much better fit in the 3rd linebacker spot. He’ll certainly be an upgrade over Rocky McIntosh, who graded out 37th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in that spot last year despite being a part time player. Jo Lonn Dunbar has a chance to be one of the better two-down linebackers in the NFL. He’ll come off the field on obvious passing downs for an extra defensive back.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Rams spent big money bringing Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis and reuniting him with former Head Coach Jeff Fisher last off-season, but he was largely a disappointment in his first season with the Rams. After grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback in 2011, he was below average overall in 2012, allowing 77 catches on 105 attempts for 747 yards, though he didn’t allow a touchdown and had 3 interceptions. He also just deflected 3 passes and missed 11 tackles, though he was penalized just twice. He’s really been up in down in his career as he ranked 96th out of 100 eligible in 2010 before that great 2011 season and he was a slightly above average player in both 2008 and 2009. It’s tough to know what to expect from him this season, but a bounce back wouldn’t really surprise me. He covers the slot in 3-cornerback sets, in addition to starting and covering #1 receivers.

The other starter for the Rams is Janoris Jenkins, a 2012 2nd round pick. Jenkins kept his nose clean in his first season in the NFL as off the field issues got him kicked off the Florida team and dropped him to the 2nd round after he transferred to North Alabama. He did some good things and some bad things on the field as a rookie. He scored 3 times on interception returns, though his overall total of 4 interceptions isn’t particularly impressive. However, he also missed a position leading 18 tackles and allowed 66 catches on 107 attempts for 715 yards and 5 touchdowns, while deflecting 10 passes and committing 2 penalties to go with those 4 interceptions. Overall, he graded out below average, ranking 101st out of 113 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie, but he should be more consistent in his 2nd season in the league.

Trumaine Johnson is also a 2nd year defensive back. He’ll be the 3rd cornerback and play outside with Jenkins when Finnegan moves to the slot. Johnson took over that role about halfway through last season from veteran Bradley Fletcher and played extremely well on 366 snaps, making 3 starts. Despite the limited playing time, Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked cornerback, allowing 22 catches on 42 attempts for 308 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and not committing a penalty. The big 6-2 205 pounder also played the run well. He was a 3rd round pick last April, but not for lack of talent. The Montana product also had off the field issues. He’ll see more playing time in his 2nd season in the league and could really show himself as one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and set himself up for a future starting job.

It’s possibly Johnson’s future as a starter could be at safety, considering his size and the fact that the Rams have much bigger holes at safety than cornerback. In fact, they might have the worst safety duo in the NFL. Craig Dahl and Quentin Mikell do not return as starters. Dahl won’t be missed that much because he was one of the worst safeties in the league last season, but Mikell was still an above average starter, playing the run well and showing himself to be an exceptional blitzer (3 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 65 blitzes).

In their absence, the Rams will start Darian Stewart and TJ McDonald. Stewart was one of the worst starting safeties in the NFL in 2011, grading out 83rd out of 87 eligible before seeing just 82 snaps as a pure reserve in 2012. Rams fans shouldn’t be excited to see him back in the starting lineup after he missed 20 tackles in 2011. McDonald, meanwhile, is a mere 3rd round rookie and he was a reach at that. The next Taylor Mays, the USC product has great speed and size (6-2 219, 4.59 40), but he’s a penalty prone, undisciplined tackler who can’t cover. Both of their safeties will be exposed early and often.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Jeff Fisher was out of the league in 2011 after being fired by the Tennessee Titans, but he remains a solid Head Coach. He held out for the right opportunity and was a hot commodity on the open market last offseason, deciding on St. Louis over Miami. He finished with a 142-120 record over 16+ seasons in Tennessee and was the longest tenured Head Coach in the league when he was finally fired. In his 16 full seasons, he’s finished at .500 or above 11 times. He made the playoffs 6 times, finishing 5-6 with one trip to the Super Bowl in 1999. In his first season with the Rams in 2011, he took them from 2-14 to 7-8-1 and has made them a competitive young team.

Grade: B

Overall

The Rams are undoubtedly a more talented team this season, but they would have probably seen another bounce down (at least a few games) this season if they hadn’t added the extra talent. I just have a hard time seeing them improve on last year’s record in the loaded NFC. They have talent, but they’re not a great team or anything and you look at the rest of the NFC, I don’t know if there’s a single NFC team that you can say, they’re definitely worse than the Rams. Someone has to lose all those games. I’m not saying they’ll lose a ton of games, but it’s more likely they go 4-12 than make the playoffs. Overall, I have them somewhere in between and making a small bounce back down wins wise. They’ll be a pesky opponent for playoff caliber teams though, as they’ve proven with wins over Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco last year that they can pull upsets.

That being said, they’ll be lucky to win one game against San Francisco and Seattle this year. Both of those teams are just significantly more talented. I’ll give them one and a season split with Arizona for a 2-4 divisional record. Outside the division, they host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Chicago, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay. Jacksonville and Tennessee should be pretty easy wins and they could pull an upset over New Orleans, a poor road team. Chicago and Tampa Bay won’t be unwinnable either, so I have them at 3-2 in those 5 games. However, trips to Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Carolina, and Indianapolis will be tough. They’ll be lucky to win one of those games

Projection: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Arizona Cardinals 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

When a team has a pre-season over/under win total of 6 or less, the over actually hits roughly 2/3rds of the time. It makes sense. The NFL is a parity filled league in which teams’ win totals change an average of 3 games per season. Teams that were bad the previous season, which are usually the teams with low over/unders, are usually not quite as bad the following season (and vice versa). This season, only three teams have pre-season over/under win totals of 6 or less, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Arizona.

Jacksonville and Oakland make sense. They had 2 of the top-3 picks in the draft last season, winning 6 games between them last season (Jacksonville, 2, Oakland, 4), but Arizona won 5 games last season and, unlike Jacksonville and Oakland, they seem significantly improved overall this season as compared to last season. I don’t love going over the 5.5 number on any of those 3 teams, but Arizona is the only team I would consider putting money on, which, given history, isn’t a bad idea.

The Cardinals’ largely return the same roster from last season, but they are significantly improved at two crucial spots, quarterback and Head Coach. Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t a bad coach at all, but, despite trying a ton of different quarterbacks, the only one the supposed offensive genius had success with was Kurt Warner, who took them to a Super Bowl.

New Head Coach Bruce Arians, meanwhile, was probably the best Head Coaching hire of the off-season. It’s rare that someone like Arians is available on the Head Coaching market and it took a special set of circumstances. Arians was actually the Coach of the Year last season in Indianapolis, taking over for the cancer stricken Chuck Pagano after week 3 and guiding the Colts to a playoff berth and the 2nd biggest single season turnaround in NFL history. The only reason he was available was because Pagano is in remission and set to take over as Head Coach once again. He was the only option on the market who wasn’t completely inexperienced or a retread who had recently been fired.

Prior to taking over as Interim Head Coach of the Colts last season, Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, where he guided many successful offenses (including a Super Bowl victory) in 5 seasons in that role. In Indianapolis, his work with rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts’ young offense was noticeable and he also demonstrated incredible leadership in very troubling times. If anyone can get the Cardinals’ stagnant offense off the ground, it’s Bruce Arians.

Stagnant might be too nice of a term. In 3 seasons since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have scored 18.1 points per game (26th), 19.5 points per game (24th), and last season a pathetic 15.6 points per game (31st).  Last season, they ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.6) and yards per carry (3.4), while allowing a league leading 58 sacks. That’s the stagnant offense trifecta. Their leading passer had 1169 passing yards and their leading rusher had 356 rushing yards. The last team to average fewer than the 4.1 yards per play they averaged last season was the 2008 Cincinnati Bengals and every team in the league averaged at least a half yard more per play than they did last season.

Quarterbacks

Things were probably the worst under center. Kevin Kolb did well to start the season, leading a game winning drive week 1 in relief of an injured John Skelton en route to an improbable 4-0 start. He actually went 4-2 overall in his 6 games, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, guiding a solid defense (16.2 points per game allowed in those 6 games) and not making a lot of mistakes.

However, when he was lost for the season, things became so bad it was actually really funny unless you were a Cardinals fan. The terrible trio of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer combined to complete 228 of 425 (53.6%) for 2214 yards (5.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 53.2. You could have put a drunken Derek Anderson or a purple dranked up JaMarcus Russell under center and gotten better production than that trio gave you.

The only game they won the rest of the way required them to get two pick sixes, another interception to start a drive on their opponent’s 3 yard line, and a 4th down stop deep in their opponent’s territory followed immediately by a 31 yard touchdown run. They gained 196 yards all game. If they had to play another 16 games with that trio under center, I guarantee you they would have not won more than 2 games at best and both of them would have required multiple return touchdowns/acts of God.

John Skelton is now in Cincinnati fighting to make their roster as their 3rd quarterback. Ryan Lindley remains on the Cardinals’ roster for the moment as the clear 3rd quarterback. There’s a very small chance the 6th round rookie from San Diego State was just incredibly overwhelmed being thrust into action like that last season, but if you watch his collegiate tape his accuracy was miserable there as well. Brian Hoyer, the only quarterback of the 3 who looked like he belonged on an NFL roster, is now in Cleveland, competing with Jason Campbell for the backup quarterback job.

Kevin Kolb is also gone as the Cardinals decided they had enough of the overpaid, injury prone quarterback. As I mentioned, the Cardinals also have a new quarterback along with Bruce Arians to help them fix this stagnant offense. Kolb has been replaced with a more durable option in Carson Palmer. Palmer isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll still be a million times better than what they trotted out there in the final 10 games of last season.

The soon to be 34-year-old is what he is at this point in his career and could be on the decline. He is a better fantasy quarterback than real quarterback. In reality, he turns the ball over too much, is too inefficient inside the red zone, and produces too much of his production in garbage time, which is why he was able to throw for 4000 yards with a 85.3 QB rating on a 4-12 team that scored 18.1 points per game last season in Oakland. However, he’ll have a much better group of supporting playmakers (more on that in a minute) and a great offensive minded Head Coach in Bruce Arians who is going to give him a lot of opportunities to make things happen downfield and accumulate yards.

Wide Receivers/Tight End

At the very least, he’ll be able to get the ball to a good group of receivers, which, again, makes him a million times better than what they had last season. You never would have been able to tell from their stats, but this is a very talented receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the great receivers of his generation. However, he has sadly never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years, but he’s always produced. Last year, however, was too much for even him to handle as Arizona’s pathetic quarterback play limited him to 71 catches for 798 yards and a career low 4 touchdowns. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games and he’s only missed 4 games with injury in his career. I expect him to bounce back.

What was lost in Arizona’s miserable 2012 season was that wide receiver Andre Roberts had a breakout year, as so many receivers do in their 3rd year in the league, just no one noticed because his production was limited by the guys throwing him the ball. Roberts’ 64 catches for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns not only  were all career highs, but they are pretty close to what Larry Fitzgerald produced and he did so on 40 fewer targets and 80 fewer pass snaps. Like the rest of this Arizona receiving corps, Roberts will benefit from improved quarterback play. He’ll probably rotate snaps in 2-wide sets with promising 2nd year Michael Floyd, but there will be enough 3-wide sets and enough yards to go around for both young receivers to get on the field.

Michael Floyd is the really exciting one. Floyd was a 1st round pick of the Arizona Cardinals last year, taken with the 13th pick at the urging of Larry Fitzgerald, who felt that Floyd could be what Anquan Boldin once was, someone to take the bracket coverage off of Fitzgerald. However, because of this fantasy football centric/immediate results world we live in, Floyd was seen as largely a disappointment.

However, when you look at history, there is nothing disappointing about his rookie year. Receivers, even 1st round picks, take at least a year to come around.  Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Floyd’s 45 catches for 562 yards and 2 touchdowns are actually right in line with that and he got better as the season went on, catching 32 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in his final 8 games, culminating in a 8 catch for 166 yards and a touchdown performance week 17.

Plus, he did that despite some of the worst quarterbacking in the NFL. It’s no surprise that Floyd’s big game week 17 came in the first game he played serious snaps with even a legitimate NFL backup caliber quarterback under center in Brian Hoyer, who went 19 of 34 for 225 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. He and Palmer should be able to hook up for some good production, as he figures to see plenty of single coverage. He could have a breakout year as a complement opposite Larry Fitzgerald.

Rob Housler, meanwhile, is the tight end. Housler caught 45 passes for 417 yards last year, which isn’t much, but again, consider who the Cardinals’ quarterbacks were. His 1.07 yards per route run were just a touch under Larry Fitzgerald’s 1.18. With a legitimate quarterback under center now, heading into his 3rd year in the league, the athletic 2011 3rd round pick could have a breakout year and establish himself as a solid pass catching tight end. He doesn’t block much though. Jeff King, the blocking tight end, will continue to come in during two-tight end sets. It’s a highly underrated receiving corps and at the very least, Carson Palmer should be able to let that show.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Things are not as good at running back and on the offensive line as they are in the receiving corps, but they should be improved over last season at the very least. As I mentioned in the opening, the Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL rushing for 3.4 yards per carry and didn’t have a rusher go for more than 356 yards. They had optimism going into the season with 2009 1st round pick Beanie Wells and 2011 2nd round pick Ryan Williams. Wells was coming off a breakout 245/1047/10 season from the year before and Williams was set to return after missing his rookie year with injury.

However, both struggled immensely. Wells averaged 2.7 yard per carry coming off off-season knee surgery and Williams averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, coming off his own injury problems. Williams went down for the season with a shoulder injury after week 5 and Wells missed 8 games of his own with injury before coming back and continuing to struggle. He famously said before the final game of the season that he was auditioning for the other 31 teams in that game. He didn’t see the field at all, putting himself in Ken Whisenhunt’s doghouse with his comments and this off-season he was cut. He remains a free agent at still 24 years old this off-season (25 in August). All of this led to way too much of Alfonso Smith (3.6 yards per carry on 60 carries) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (3.2 yards per carry on 110 carries) in Arizona’s backfield.

Williams is set to return this season. Injuries have limited him to 58 carries in his first 2 years in the league. Throw in an injury riddled final season at Virginia Tech in 2010 and you’ve got the definition of an injury risk. He clearly came back too early from his torn patellar tendon last year, before that unrelated shoulder injury ended his season. At this point, his knee is probably as good as it’s going to get and he’s still a talented back with plenty of opportunity (at only 23 years of age) in Arizona’s backfield if he can prove himself, but he might be damaged goods at this point.

Williams will compete for lead back duties and split carries with Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall, a 1st round pick of the Steelers’ in 2008, rushed for 3309 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter in Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t as good as those numbers would suggest. He was largely a volume rusher, with 794 carries in those 3 seasons, an average of just 4.2 yards per carry and even that had a lot to do with his surrounding offensive talent. He also contributes very little on passing downs, with just 66 catches in those 3 seasons. Last season, a torn ACL suffered in January limited him to 51 carries for 182 yards.

However, he’s another year removed from that injury this year and he reunites with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and there’s some bounce back potential here. Williams has by far the most upside though. I expect Mendenhall to handle most of the early down work and Williams to serve as a change of pace and passing downs back, at least early in the season. The two of them don’t make a particularly impressive running back committee, but they should, at the very least, be an upgrade over the mess they had at running back last season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Things on the offensive line are very similar to how they are at running back, not good, but not as bad as they were last season. I mentioned the league leading 58 sacks allowed last season. Things weren’t actually as bad as that made it seem. When hits and hurries are factored into the equation in a measure known as pass block efficiency, they actually ranked 30th in the NFL (though they were ProFootballFocus’ worst rated pass blocking offense). That’s not good, but it’s a little bit better than dead last.

On top of that, while their starting offensive tackles surrendered 25 sacks in the first 8 games of the season (more than double any other starting tackles in the NFL at that point in the season), they surrendered just 7 in the final 8 games of the season. What happened? Well, for one, turnstile D’Anthony Baptiste, who allowed 12 sacks in those first 8 games, got benched for 7th round rookie Nate Potter and played just 75 snaps the rest of the way. Despite his limited playing time, Baptiste still managed to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 79th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible.

Potter wasn’t great or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle in his limited time, but he wasn’t as bad as Baptiste, allowing just 7 sacks. The 2012 7th round pick could be better in his 2nd season in the league. He’ll compete with Levi Brown, who is returning from a triceps injury that cost him all of 2012.

Brown isn’t good or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst rated offensive tackle in 2009 and worst rated offensive tackle in 2010, but he did show signs down the stretch in 2011 before getting hurt, grading out 57th out of 76 eligible for the season and allowing just 2 sacks in his final 7 games of the season, grading out positively in all 7. At the very least, he’s a good run blocker and he’s not D’Anthony Baptiste, though he’s nowhere near the “elite” left tackle Bruce Arians is trying to sell him to the media as.

Meanwhile, at right tackle, Bobby Massie somehow didn’t give up a single sack from their 9th game of the season on, after allowing 13 sacks in the first 8 games of the season, including 6 sacks in one game against St. Louis week 5. The 4th round rookie just hit his stride and though he still graded out as ProFootballFocus 72nd ranked offensive tackle, he graded out alright against the run overall and really improved in pass protection down the stretch. In his 2nd season in the league, he might actually be an above average right tackle. He unfortunately doesn’t have the foot speed to ever be considered a legitimate candidate to move to the blindside.

The developmental of Massie and Potter, as well as the return of Levi Brown, made the Cardinals not feel the need to draft an offensive tackle in the 1st round this off-season. That might not have been the worst idea considering they would have had to reach for one at 7th overall, though they should have really added one at some point. Instead, they used that pick to shore up the inside of their offensive line, drafting Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina.

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. Cooper 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 even if he is just a guard. The Titans made a similar move 3 picks later, taking Chance Warmack from Alabama.

Cooper will slot in immediately at his natural spot at left guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. Cooper will move Daryn Colledge to right guard. Colledge isn’t a bad player or anything, but it makes more sense to play Cooper in his natural spot. Colledge is a marginal at best starter who will compete with intriguing 4th round rookie Earl Watford for the starting right guard job. Watford has generated a lot of buzz this off-season, but the transition from James Madison to the NFL might be too much for him to win the starting job as a rookie. They’d be better off going with the veteran.

Meanwhile, at center, Lyle Sendlein will return from a season ending torn MCL. He too is a marginal starter, though he’s a well-regarded captain of this offensive line and a great locker room guy. Overall, it’s not a great offensive line and they still lack at the all-important left tackle position, but they should be better than they were last season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I said in the opening, the Cardinals’ defense only allowed 16.2 points per game in the first 6 games of the season. That wasn’t totally a fluke. The previous season, they allowed 18.3 points per game in their final 9 games. That’s a solid 15 game stretch where they were allowing in the teens in terms of points per game. They did allow 26.0 points per game in the final 10 games of the season, but you can blame the offense’s inability to stay on the field and to establish good field position for that. In terms of defensive DVOA, they ranked 6th last season (but dead last offensively).

However, there are several reasons why I don’t think they’ll play quite that well this season, the most prominent being the uncertainty of middle linebacker Daryl Washington with off the field issues, which I’ll get into later. Washington is one of 3 big time building blocks for this season, one in each level of the defense and without him, things just aren’t the same.

On the defensive line, the building block is Calais Campbell. Despite missing 3 games with injury last season, he still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end, behind only JJ Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson. That’s nothing new for him as he graded out 2nd in 2011, 8th in 2010, and 4th in 2009. The 2008 2nd round pick has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in football in relative obscurity in Arizona. He’s worth every penny of the 5-year, 55 million dollar contract the Cardinals gave him before the 2012 season, after making him their franchise player. He’s still only going into his age 27 season.

Opposite him, Darnell Dockett used to be a similar kind of player. In 2011, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but in 2012, he ranked dead last at his position. He spent a lot of time this off-season blaming ex-defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme for that, but Campbell didn’t seem to mind it and Dockett did just fine under Horton the previous season. It’s possible a switch to a more penetrating scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will revitalize him and he is a better fit for a scheme that allows him to move around, rather than plugging two gaps, but it’s also possible that going into his age 32 season, his best days are behind him.

At nose tackle, the Cardinals have 2010 1st round pick Dan Williams. Williams hasn’t been a bad player in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t been able to be much more than a part-time player and a pure two-down nose tackle. He stops the run well, but little else and he’s also had weight and conditioning problems that have earned him a spot in former coaches’ doghouses. Going into his 4th season in the league, he may be counted on to play a new career high in snaps (right now it’s 428) and play more passing downs and rush the passer with Dockett on the decline. We’ll see if he can handle it. David Carter is another option. The 2011 6th round pick has been solid in reserve the last 2 seasons.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, stud middle linebacker Daryl Washington has a laundry list of off the field problems. Washington is already suspended for the first 4 games of the season in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but he could be facing additional games as his domestic assault case plays out in court. He’s been working with the 2nd team defense this off-season and while he’ll probably regain a starting job whenever he returns, it’s a clear message that he’s walking a thin line.

In his absence, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Minter will be the starters. Minter is a 2nd round rookie so we’ll see what he has. Dansby, meanwhile, returns to Arizona after 3 seasons in Miami. He’s a versatile player who can play 4-3 middle linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker, and 3-4 inside linebacker, which will be his primary position in Arizona. He graded out above average as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker last season, but he was cut in favor of the younger Dannell Ellerbe and took a while to find a new home. Heading into his age 32 season, we might not be able to expect him to be anything more than an average starter this season.

Certainly, Dansby and Minter will not have anywhere near the kind of impact that Daryl Washington had last season, though it’s good to see that Paris Lenon, who graded out as the 2nd worst middle linebacker in the league last year, is no longer a starter. Washington was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker last season and the 2010 2nd round pick is only going into his age 27 season. He excels at pretty much everything, especially stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. The latter is actually probably where he’ll be missed the most.

No team blitzed their middle linebackers more last season than the Arizona Cardinals, with a rush linebacker usually taking their spot in coverage. It wasn’t just Washington. Washington’s 154 blitz snaps were actually 2nd at his position behind Lenon (who was not nearly as good). It’s unclear if the Cardinals will continue to do that under new leadership defensively, but as long as Washington is on the field, they’d be stupid not to at least utilize Washington in that manner. He’s much better blitzing than he is in coverage as he had 9 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on those 154 blitzes. No middle linebacker graded out better blitzing the quarterback and it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t a fluke either as in 2011 he was 2nd at his position in terms of blitzing grade, with 6 sacks, 5 hits, and 19 hurries on 141 blitzes.

The reason this will probably be where he’s missed most is because they have absolutely no one who can get to the quarterback from the outside. Despite Washington’s strong play as a blitzer and Campbell’s strong play on the defensive line, they still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked team in terms of rushing the passer. Even though rushing the passer is not their primary job, Campbell and Washington still combined for 16 of the team’s 39 sacks. They’ll really struggle to get to the quarterback without him.

Sam Acho was ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked rush linebacker out of 34 eligible, particularly struggling rushing the passer. O’Brien Schofield, who started just 9 games due to injury, wasn’t much better, ranking 26th despite limited playing time. The oft injured Schofield is now buried on the depth chart, but not behind anyone they can expect much from. Alex Okafor is a mere 4th round rookie, while free agent acquisition Lorenzo Alexander is a 30-year-old career backup and special teamer. Even Tim Fugger, a 2nd year undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap for the team last season, is ahead of Schofield. It’s not a promising group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Cardinals also suffered some off-season losses in the secondary, losing starting safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Wilson was a declining player who was benched in sub packages down the stretch, so he won’t be a huge loss, but Kerry Rhodes was actually ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked safety last season and he only remains unsigned as of this writing because of his age (31) and asking price.

In their absence, the Cardinals will start Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson. Bell had somewhat of a bounce back year with the Jets last season, grading out just below average, but that was because he rarely played outside of the box. In 2011, with Miami, he was ProFootballFocus’ 74th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. Heading into his age 35 season, he could be one of the worst starting safeties in the league this season.

3rd round rookie Tyrann Mathieu would get the first crack of replacing Bell in the starting lineup should he expectedly struggle, though he’s undersized and inexperienced. Johnson, meanwhile, is a below average career backup who saw some action down the stretch in sub packages last season in place of Wilson. The 2009 3rd round pick played just 115 snaps last season and seems unlikely to be anything more than a marginal starter at best.

Fortunately, the Cardinals should expect an even better season from Patrick Peterson, the building block of their secondary. Peterson is a little overrated right now. That’s not to say he’s not a good player. However, he made the Pro-Bowl as a rookie in 2011 for his return skills and not for his coverage skills, as he graded out 102nd out of 109 eligible cornerbacks and, while he improved to 18th in 2012, he still was not deserving of the Pro-Bowl nod he got as a cornerback. However, going into his 3rd year in the league, he has a chance to breakout as legitimately one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He has that kind of talent and he’s only 23. It’s unclear if he’ll continue to return punts now that he’s their legitimate #1 cornerback.

Opposite him, however, things are a mess. Incumbent starter William Gay is gone, which isn’t bad because he was ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible last season, but replacements Jerraud Powers (81st) and Antoine Cason (107th) aren’t much better. They’ll compete for the starting job with 2012 3rd round pick Jamell Fleming, who graded out below average on 277 snaps as a rookie last year. Javier Arenas, a decent slot cornerback and nothing more, will also be in the mix for snaps on the slot. Whoever wins the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs, they will be positions of weakness.

Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson are really the only two players on defense who you can expect to be something more than an average starter. Washington belongs in that sentence as well as long as he’s on the field, but that’s a question mark. However, as good as those 3 are, they just have a lot of average at best defensively, which is why I can’t see them being the 6th best defense in the league like DVOA said they were last year and why I can’t see them allowing in the teens scoring wise even if their offense improves as it should.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

I think I’ve already said everything I can about Bruce Arians. I can’t remember a time when a reigning Coach of the Year switched teams in the off-season. This was absolutely the best hire they could make and it gives them their best chance of turning things around offensively. Even though he has just one year of Head Coaching experience, he excelled in that one year and he excelled as an offensive coordinator as well prior to that.

Grade: B+

Overall

While I expect the Cardinals to surpass their over/under projection of 5.5 wins, it won’t be by much. This is a much improved team, but they play in a loaded conference and an especially loaded division so I don’t see much more than 6 or 7 wins for them. They’ll be lucky to take one from Seattle and San Francisco in those 4 games and lucky to split with St. Louis. They’ll win 1 or 2 divisional games.

Outside of the division, they host Detroit, Carolina, Atlanta, Houston, and Indianapolis. All 5 of those teams might be better than them so they’ll be lucky to get 2 wins out of those 5. So far, I have them at 3 or 4 wins. Fortunately, they have trips to Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia, with only a trip to New Orleans appearing unwinnable. They should be able to get another couple of wins there and get to that 6 win total.

Projection: 6-10 4th in NFC West

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

San Francisco 49ers 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Last off-season, I predicted a down season for the 49ers for a variety of reasons. Teams that have huge jumps in win totals usually regress about half the total the following season (for the 49ers, that would have been 3.5, bringing them down to 9 or 10 wins). Teams that win 13 games like the 49ers did in 2011 on average actually only win around 9.5 games the following season anyway. The 49ers also won those 13 games thanks to virtually no injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball, an unsustainably good turnover margin of +28, and about 8 or 9 guys on the defensive side of the ball having career best seasons. My theory was that a significantly worse turnover margin, more injuries, and about half of those guys on defense having noticeably worse seasons would bring down the 49ers’ win total.

And I wasn’t completely wrong. The 49ers went from +28 to +9 in turnover margin. Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, and Donte Whitner all had noticeably worse seasons on the defensive side of the ball, as the 49ers gave up roughly 3 points more per game (not a huge difference, but significant). They didn’t have many injuries once again as they somehow managed to go from 8th in adjusted games lost to 1st in adjusted games lost. An injury to Justin Smith late in the season did really hurt their defense though, as in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game. That’s slightly skewed by the fact that, with the exception of a week 17 game against Arizona, they faced all playoff teams in that stretch, including New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta, but the injury really did hurt them.

What saved their season was actually another injury, however, as Alex Smith got hurt, allowing Colin Kaepernick to take over under center and make this a better team, in spite of the worsened turnover margin, defensive starter regression, etc. If you look at their respective records, it doesn’t look like Kaepernick really made this a much better team. Alex Smith went 6-2-1 in his 9 starts and, including playoffs, Kaepernick went 7-3. That’s not a noticeable difference, especially considering Smith did go 13-3 the season before. Even when you take into account that Smith was losing his final start to the Rams before Kaepernick came in and salvaged a tie, it still doesn’t look like Kaepernick was a significantly better quarterback just looking at records, but you have to go deeper.

While Smith played 3 eventual playoff teams in his 9 starts, Kaepernick faced 5 playoff teams in his 10 starts. That’s in addition to a game against 10-win Chicago and a trip to New Orleans. In addition, he had to go to Seattle late in the season, while Smith got to face them at home when Russell Wilson was still getting his feet wet. Even though Smith beat Seattle and Kaepernick lost his game to Seattle, they actually scored the same amount of points in those 2 games, 13. Smith also had more defensive support. In the 8 games he started and finished, the defense surrendered 12.9 points per game. In Kaepernick’s 10 starts, the defense allowed 23.5 points per game, largely due to a tougher schedule and Justin Smith’s injury. Smith also had the benefit of a defense that allowed 14.3 points per game in 2011.

How did he manage a similar record to Smith with much less defensively support? Well he led the offense to more points per game, despite a tougher schedule. While Smith led the offense to 23.6 points per game in 2012 and 23.8 points per game in 2011, Kaepernick led them to 28.8 points per game in his 10 starts. He did that despite less support on the ground from Frank Gore, who annually struggles in the 2nd half of the season. Gore averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed 4.0 yards per carry in the second 8 games of the regular season, though he did average 5.1 yards per carry in 3 playoff games.

With the schedule toughening, the defense about to start allowing more points, and Gore about to start struggling, the 49ers might have had a tough time making the playoffs had Smith started the 2nd half of their season, let alone getting to the Super Bowl. Had they not come back in that St. Louis game, they would have been 6-3 after 9 games.

They allowed 20.9 points per game in the final 7 games of the regular season. If they had continued to average around the 23 and a half points per game that Smith was leading them to for the past season and a half (optimistic considering Gore and the strengthed schedule), they probably would have gone 4-3 in those 7 games, putting them at 10-6. Seattle would have won the division and the 49ers would have been battling for the 10-win Bears and the 10-win Vikings for the 2 wild card spots in the NFC. They would have been much less likely to go to the Super Bowl.

If that’s enough to convince you that going from Kaepernick to Smith saved their season, Kaepernick also made throws of much higher difficulty and skill level. ProFootballFocus grades every throw a quarterback makes. In 7 ½ regular season games, Kaepernick graded out with a +12.8 throwing the football (not even taking into account his running ability). That was almost triple Smith’s score of +4.9 in 8 ½ games. In 16 regular season games in 2011, Smith was at +16.6, which fell to +10.4 after two playoff games. Kaepernick got better in the post-season, grading out at +20.0 with the post-season taken into account.

If Gore gets off to another hot start again this season and if the defense bounces back somewhat (I don’t think they’ll allow 23.5 points per game this season), they’re going to be near impossible to beat in the 1st half of the season and things aren’t going to get much easier for their opponents from there on out. They probably have the most non-quarterback talent in the NFL, even with a torn Achilles ending Michael Crabtree’s season, and now they actually have a top level quarterback who can win without the team needing to dominate the turnover battle.

There are a few concerns: one is the unlikely possibility that defensive coordinators have completely figured Kaepernick from an off-season of watching tape. The second one is more likely, it’s that their injury luck finally runs out (Crabtree’s torn Achilles could be just the start), but even then they should have to talent to compensate. There’s also the possibility that Justin Smith ages in a hurry (or gets hurt). He proved to be their most important defensive player last season. Without him, Aldon Smith and their secondary got completely exposed. They also probably won’t continue to recover 58.5% of their fumbles, though Kaepernick has given this team the ability to win without dominating the turnover battle.

Finally, no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. Still, I like this team a lot more going into 2013 than I did going in 2012. They should be among the best regular season teams and compete for a 2nd straight 1st round bye. And I won’t rule out them breaking that aforementioned trend.

Quarterbacks

I mentioned Colin Kaepernick’s throwing ability in the opening, but that’s only one side of him. He’s also, obviously, a very talented runner, rushing for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns on 75 carries in about 10 ½ games. His versatility is what will make it very hard for teams to adjust to him and he has a very low chance of a sophomore slump for that reason. Also, he has no history of serious injuries and at 6-4 230 he’s very sturdy running in the open field. He led them to 5 more points per game last season than Smith and should continue to lead the 49ers to the high 20s in points per game.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One player who should have been really helped out by Kaepernick’s presence last season is Frank Gore. Mobile quarterbacks from Tim Tebow to Vince Young to Robert Griffin to Russell Wilson all significantly helped their starting running backs because defenses have to worry about the quarterback’s ability to take off. However, Gore’s tendency to struggle in the 2nd half of seasons got in the way of that. In 2011, he averaged 4.9 YPC in his first 8 games and 3.6 YPC in his last 8 games, while in 2012, he went from 5.5 YPC to 4.0 YPC.

That makes sense considering Gore’s age as he heads into his age 30 season. The 49ers have drafted a running back in each of the last 3 drafts, adding Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and most recently Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore might not see a snap this season because of injury, but with Hunter and James maturing, they should cut into Gore’s touches even more this season, in an attempt to keep him fresher down the stretch.

49ers have cut his touches per game in each of the last 2 years, from 22.6 in 2010 to 18.7 in 2011 to 17.9 in 2012. Expect that number to shrink down even more in 2013 and he’s not as big a part of the passing game under Jim Harbaugh as he used to be, catching 45 passes in the last 2 years combined after averaging 51 per year in the previous 5 years. Colin Kaepernick, who rarely checks down, threw to him even less, as he caught just 11 passes in his 10 starts. However, fewer touches could help him on a per carry basis, as could Kaepernick’s presence for a whole season.

This will probably be Gore’s last season in San Francisco as they’re unlikely to want to bring him back for his age 31 season in 2014, when he’ll be owed a non-guaranteed 6.45 million. They seem confident in the trio of Lattimore, Hunter, and James for the future. There’s also a chance he could see his abilities fall off a cliff this season, but that’s not a huge concern as they have the running back depth to compensate.

Hunter has rushed for 844 yards and 4 touchdowns on 184 carries, with 25 catches for 255 yards, in 2 seasons since going in the 4th round in 2011. James, meanwhile, rushed for 125 yards on 27 carries with 3 catches for 29 yards in limited action as a 2nd round rookie as Gore’s primary backup in Hunter’s absence late in the season. He also rushed for 65 yards and a score on 11 post-season attempts. Meanwhile, fullback Bruce Miller is one of the best in the game, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked fullback last season after ranking 9th as a rookie in 2011.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Their running game is also helped by an unbelievable offensive line. They were much improved overall in 2012, as opposed to 2011. In 2011, they graded out 3rd in run blocking, 29th in pass blocking, and 24th in pass block efficiency. In 2012, they ranked 7th, 1st, and 17th respectively in those 3 measures. The right side of their offensive line was most improved. They went into 2012 with Anthony Davis, a 2010 1st round pick, looking like a bust at right tackle after 2 straight poor seasons, especially struggling in pass protection, and with an unknown at right guard. They “lost” incumbent Adam Snyder in free agency, but he was one of the worst guards in the league the season before. However, new starter Alex Boone was a converted tackle who had seen very little action anywhere since going undrafted in 2009 for character reasons.

Boone had a huge breakout season in his first year as a starter, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard, excelling as a run blocker. Davis, meanwhile, finally capitalized on his upside, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked offensive tackle (and 2nd ranked right tackle behind Andre Smith), excelling as a run blocker as well.

Also capitalizing on his upside and first round talent was left guard Mike Iupati, who broke out last season, ranking 5th on ProFootballFocus’ among guards, excelling in, yes, run blocking. Of the trio of breakout stars, he has the best chance of maintaining or even improving that level of play in 2013 and beyond because, even before his breakout season, he was ProFootballFocus, 13th and 11th ranked guard in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Boone and Davis are still one year wonders at this point, but they should continue playing well in 2013.

Their best offensive lineman was actually Joe Staley, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle on the blindside at left tackle. He’s another former 1st round pick, from the 2007 draft class, and while he never did anything like what he did last season before, he’s always been a solid starter so he should continue being one of the best left tackles in the game in 2013.

Their “weak point” was center Jonathan Goodwin. He did grade out 15th among eligible centers on ProFootballFocus, but he’s been inconsistent in the recent past and he’s heading into his age 35 season so there could be a falloff for him this season. However, if he’s your worst offensive lineman, you’re doing well. They will continue plowing open holes for their running backs and protecting Colin Kaepernick well.

Grade: A

[google_ad]

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One thing that people are saying could lead to Kaepernick having a sophomore slump is the loss of #1 receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree and Kaepernick showed tremendous chemistry last season, leading to former 1st round pick Crabtree having a breakout year. Crabtree had 46 catches for 665 yards and 6 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season and then added another 20 catches for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 playoff games. However, top level quarterbacks can succeed without great receivers. Kaepernick should be able to just go to the next man.

That next man is probably going to be Vernon Davis. Davis faded away big time down the stretch when Kaepernick took over. In the final 11 games of the season, including playoffs, Davis caught just 28 passes for 428 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, that was more because Crabtree got so many more targets from Kaepernick. In those 11 games, Crabtree was targeted 95 times and Davis was targeted 43 times. It wasn’t necessarily that he played poorly.  He did catch 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in those 3 playoff games and with a whole off-season together with Kaepernick, he should take over as their #1 receiver, which will help make up for Crabtree’s absence. It’s certainly not like Davis is untalented or anything, as he averaged 67 catches for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns per season from 2009-2011. He’s also a great run and pass blocker.

Anquan Boldin’s presence should also help make up for Crabtree’s absence. Boldin was acquired from the Ravens for a 6th round pick as the Ravens couldn’t afford his salary. Boldin is aging, heading into his age 33 season, but he’s never been reliant on athleticism so he should age pretty well. His hands and body control won’t really age that fast. He caught 65 passes for 921 yards (both his highest totals since joining the Ravens) and 4 touchdowns last season and then exploded in the post-season, catching 22 passes for 380 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 games, along with at least a half dozen incredible catches that the Ravens would not have won the Super Bowl without. This year, he’ll serve as a solid #2 receiver on the last year’s Super Bowl runner up, though his days as a 1000 yard receiver are probably over.

The issue is, after him, they really lack depth in the receiving corps. The only other receiver on their roster with a significant number of career catches is Mario Manningham, a marginal receiver whose status for the season is in doubt after tearing his ACL last December. After Boldin and Crabtree, their projected next 3 receivers do not have a single career catch between them. That’s because two of them are rookies and one of them did not catch a pass in his rookie season last year.

Those players are Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, and AJ Jenkins. Jenkins and Patton will compete for the 3rd receiver job. Jenkins was a 1st round pick of the 49ers in 2012, but played just 47 total snaps as a rookie. The 49ers wanted to ease him into action, but I think they would have liked more than 47 snaps from him (with no catches). He just didn’t impress in practice at all. A questionable pick at the time (I thought Chris Givens, who went in the 4th round, was a similar style player who would be a better pro), that decision looks even more questionable now.

Patton, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie and he could prove to be a steal. He’s not overly athletic, but he’s a great physical possession receiver, catching 183 passes for 2594 yards and 24 touchdowns in the last 2 seasons for Louisiana Tech, including a 21 catch, 233 yard, 4 touchdown game against Texas A&M in a near upset in their biggest game of the season in 2012. While he looks to have a bright future, the transition from Louisiana Tech to the NFL might be too big for him to have much of an impact as a rookie. The 49ers also have Kyle Williams at wide receiver, but he’s a depth receiver coming off a torn ACL and while his 35 career catches are more than most of the team, they’re not impressive.

Vance McDonald is the other rookie and he’ll serve as the #2 tight end, replacing Delanie Walker. Walker is a loss. Considering how much they like to use two-tight ends, he was essentially a starter, but, as good of a blocker as he was, he had lead hands and very little athleticism in the open field. McDonald, however, is incredibly raw, though he has a ridiculous upside.

One of the stars of the Combine, he ran a 4.69 40 at 6-4 267 with 34 3/8 inch arms, 10 1/8 inch hands, and threw up 31 reps of 225. He’s got upside as both a blocker and a receiver and wasn’t utilized properly at Rice, where he was essentially a big slot receiver, which is why he didn’t really produce. We’ll see how much the 2nd round pick can contribute as a rookie. He’ll compete for the #2 tight end job with Garrett Celek, who will probably be the 3rd tight end again. He has 4 career catches.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned in the opening, the defense kind of fell apart last season down the stretch. The tougher schedule had a lot to do with it, but you can also blame Justin Smith’s injury for a lot of it. As I mentioned, in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game, though their schedule skews that number. Still, with him not on the field or with him playing at nowhere near 100%, they were not the same defense.

Smith didn’t really do a whole lot in terms of rushing the passer last season, even before the injury, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 21 hurries on 518 pass rush snaps, an uninspiring 6.0% pass rush rate, but he dominated against the run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run and 5th overall at his position. He also drew double teams with regularity, allowing Aldon Smith to see much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers, a big part of the reason why he had such a good season rushing the passer (more on that later).

However, in the post-season, he didn’t draw double teams, he managed just 2 hurries total in 3 games, and he struggled against the run. Overall, he saw a significant decline in 2012 from 2011, when he was ProFootballFocus’ highest graded defensive player overall, and, going into his age 34 season after a ridiculous workload over the past 2 seasons (2141 total snaps), he will probably continue to decline. He’s so important to their defense, so it’s a real concern for them this season.

If Smith gets hurt, it’s unclear who would take over his spot. They drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round to be his future successor, but he’s coming off a torn ACL of his own, suffered back in November. He was able to work out before the draft in April so he might be good to go for the start of the season, but it’s unclear at what level he can play. The other option is Glenn Dorsey, a free agent acquisition, but he was pretty uninspiring as a starter at 5-technique in Kansas City. Besides, he’s slated to be the starting nose tackle.

Dorsey might seem like an odd fit at nose tackle considering his best role would be as a one gap penetrating defensive tackle in a 4-3, but the 49ers use a nose tackle less frequently than any other 3-4 team because they’re in sub packages so much. Dorsey will get opportunities to rush the passer from the traditional defensive tackle spot in 4-3 under packages, spelling Smith and Ray McDonald. He also can’t be as bad as Isaac Sopoaga, who really struggled in very limited action as their nose tackle last season. Ian Williams is the other nose tackle option. He’s more of a true nose tackle, but the 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 39 snaps in 2 seasons with the team.

On the other side of the formation, the aforementioned Ray McDonald will remain the starter. McDonald had a breakout season in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in his first year as a starter, but, as could be predicted, he didn’t play as well in 2012, grading out 9th at his position. He wasn’t bad or anything, but it was a significant difference. He should once again be a solid starter who plays the run and rushes the passer well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned how much of Aldon Smith’s success was tied to Justin Smith. Aldon was 2nd in the league with 20 sacks and for a while looked on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single season record. However, because of Justin Smith, he saw much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers. ProFootballFocus takes all of this into account and they graded him out 3rd at his position overall and 2nd at his position in terms of rushing the passer. And when Justin got hurt, Aldon recorded one sack in his final 6 games of the season, including playoffs. If Justin starts showing his age or gets hurt again, it could really negatively affect Aldon and this pass rush as a whole. That’s an issue because of how dependent on the front 7 their secondary is, as you’ll see later.

Aldon also wasn’t as productive rushing the passer as his 20 sacks would suggest, even with Justin in front of him tying up blocks. To go with those 20 sacks, he had 13 hits, and 39 hurries on 538 pass rush snaps, a 13.4% pass rush rate that’s impressive, but not as elite as 20 sacks would suggest. In terms of pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per 100 snaps), he actually was behind Paul Kruger and 2nd at his position. Geno Atkins, Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson also did better than him in this aspect at other positions. Smith was also not an elite run player and committed 8 penalties, 2nd most at his position. He’s a very good player, but overrated. Justin Smith’s impact, meanwhile, is underrated.

Opposite Aldon, the 49ers have Ahmad Brooks. Brooks is not nearly the pass rusher than Aldon is, but he’s much more well rounded, excelling in coverage and against the run and being used in a variety of different ways for that reason. Overall, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He wasn’t a bad pass rusher, but graded out below average in that aspect, with 7 sacks, 10 hits, and 33 hurries on 492 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% rate. They also added Corey Lemonier in the 3rd round of the draft to provide depth and he’s a great athlete and pass rusher, but incredibly raw so I don’t expect much from him as a rookie. If Aldon Smith becomes less productive this season rushing the passer, they could have trouble in that aspect of the game.

Meanwhile, at middle linebacker for the 49ers, things are about as good as they get in the NFL. Patrick Willis is hands down the best middle linebacker in the NFL, grading out as a top-2 middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus for 5 straight seasons, something no one else comes close to. He was their #1 ranked middle linebacker both in 2009 and 2012 and he excels in all aspects of the game.

One of the seasons Willis didn’t rank #1 was 2011 and that was because teammate NaVorro Bowman ranked #1 that season. Bowman, a 2010 3rd round pick, slipped up a little bit in 2012 and he’s not on the same level as Willis, but no one really is. He certainly didn’t play bad, grading out as the #7 ranked middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus in his 2nd season as a starter. There’s not a better inside linebacker pair in the NFL.

Grade: A

[yard_barker]

Secondary

I mentioned their secondary was exposed last season down the stretch as their front 7 and pass rush play slipped. Their secondary could be even worse this season. Dashon Goldson is gone. He’s an overrated player who wasn’t worth nearly what the Buccaneers paid him, but he was still an above average starter. 1st round rookie Eric Reid will start in his absence and he’ll probably be a downgrade, at least in his first season in the league.

Carlos Rogers could also be gone. Rogers had a down year in 2012 after a career year in 2011, as could be expected, but he still graded out above average. The 49ers are reportedly interested in making him a final cut, which would save them 4.25 million dollars. That might not be a bad idea considering he’s heading into his age 32 season and could be headed for a down season, but there’s no doubt that a top trio of cornerbacks that consists of three of Nnamdi Asomugha, Eric Wright, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver isn’t very imposing.

Brown is the only one of that quartet guaranteed a big role. Brown finished 2012 as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback, 7th if post-season is included. He didn’t allow a touchdown through the regular season, something only Cortland Finnegan and Antoine Winfield could also say among 16 game starters at cornerback. He was memorably burned for a touchdown by Julio Jones in San Francisco’s eventual NFC Championship victory over the Falcons, but that was the only touchdown he allowed all season, including playoffs, over 779 coverage snaps. He also missed just one tackle all season.

He finished the season allowing 61.1% completion on 113 attempts for 890 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 14 deflections, and 9 penalties. However, he really hit his stride starting week 8, grading out 2.0 (elite) or better on ProFootballFocus in 6 of his final 12 games, including 3 of 4 post-season games (Atlanta excluded). From week 8 on, he allowed 47 completions on 82 attempts (57.3%) for 551 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. In those final 12 games, he had 13 of his 14 deflections, including a 5 deflection game against Arizona week 8 that was his best game of the season.

While Carlos Rogers was technically the 49ers’ #1 cornerback, the 49ers have their cornerbacks exclusively cover one side of the field, rather than having one guy shadow the opponent’s best receiver, so Brown had plenty of chances to go against the best receivers in the league, especially down the stretch and he more than held his own. Working exclusively on the right side, Brown held Brandon Marshall to one catch for 8 yards on 3 attempts, Jordy Nelson to 1 catch for 8 yards on 2 attempts (in their post-season matchup with Green Bay), and Larry Fitzgerald to 1 catch for 15 yards on 5 attempts in 2 games.

Only Julio Jones, who burned him for 7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on 9 attempts, got the best of him among the elite receivers he faced down the stretch. With Goldson gone and Carlos Rogers aging and probably following him out the door, Brown could have his biggest responsibilities yet this season and could be San Francisco’s de facto #1 cornerback. Based on his play last season, he seems up to the challenge.

Eric Wright probably has the 2nd best chance to make the roster, if we assume Rogers is a goner, because he has the most experience on the slot, which has been Rogers’ specialty over the past 2 seasons. Wright was recently acquired from Tampa Bay for a late round pick and he’s not that good of a defensive back. When the Buccaneers signed Eric Wright to a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar contract last off-season, it looked like an absolutely ridiculous deal. Wright was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL the prior two seasons (just ask Cleveland and Detroit fans). There was a reason he was available for a 1-year deal the previous off-season before the 2011 season.

In 2011 with the Lions, he ranked 105 of 109 eligible cornerbacks by ProFootballFocus last season, allowing a completion percentage of 62.5%, 7.0 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, all while ranking below average against the run. He was actually thrown on more than any cornerback in the league except Jabari Greer, being thrown on 120 times. It was a move that reeked of desperation for a team with no defensive back talent and plenty of cap space to burn.

In 2012, he graded out below average on 518 snaps before the best possible thing that could happen for the Buccaneers happened: Wright got suspended for 4 games for performance enhancing drugs. That suspension voided all the guaranteed money on Wright’s deal and gave them all the leverage in the off-season, as they restructured his contract down to 1 year and a non-guaranteed 1.5 million for the 2013 season (rather than just cutting him outright).

However, he was arrested again for DUI earlier this month (he had a previous arrest last off-season) and that was apparently the last straw for the Buccaneers, who would have cut him outright (penalty free) and owed him no money, if they couldn’t find a trade partner. It was a pretty low risk trade for the 49ers because they aren’t giving up much (late round picks have a hard time making their roster because of their depth) and because he doesn’t have any guaranteed money, but he’s still not a great talent and there’s a chance he could be facing another suspension after another off-season DUI (last year’s was a felony and this was a misdemeanor, so that’s progress).

Culliver was their #3 cornerback, playing outside with Tarell Brown in 3-cornerback sets, when Rogers would move to the slot. He played 691 regular season snaps in that role last season because of how much they use sub packages. He graded out above average, allowing 36 catches on 73 attempts for 471 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 6 penalties. However, he struggled mightily in the post-season. He allowed 14 catches on 22 attempts for 252 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 3 penalties.

Asomugha is the other option and he’ll probably be on the outside looking out. He got old in a hurry after signing a massive deal with the Eagles 2 off-seasons ago. In 2011, he ranked 88th out of 109 eligible and in 2012 he ranked 101st out of 113 eligible. He’s going into his age 32 season this season and while he’s a better fit for the 49ers’ scheme than the Eagles’ scheme, he looks like the worst cornerback of the bunch. His speed is pretty much all gone.

Donte Whitner is the other starter in the secondary as he’ll play safety next to Eric Reid. Whitner made the Pro-Bowl last year, but only by association and because of the San Francisco Bay Area’s tendency to stuff the ballot box for All-Star games in all sports. He graded out below average and struggled mightily in coverage, especially in the post-season. In the regular season, he allowed 34 catches on 43 attempts for 330 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and not committing a penalty. In the post-season, he allowed 8 catches on 11 attempts for 86 yards, 1 penalty, 1 deflection, and another 4 touchdowns allowed. He allowed 12 touchdowns between the regular season and the post-season, a ridiculous amount considering the 49ers allowed just 26 passing touchdowns all season. He’s a box safety and that’s about it.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Not much explanation needed here. Harbaugh rebuilt Stanford’s football program, turning them from 1 win in 2006 to a perennial BCS bowl contender in 4 years and then won the NFL’s Head Coach of the Year Award in 2011, taking a perennial non-playoff team to the NFC Championship. The following season, he took them to the Super Bowl. He hasn’t been in the league very long, but he’s clearly one of the best.

Grade: A

Overall

Defensively, the 49ers won’t be the team that allowed 23.5 points per game in the 2nd half of last season and the playoffs and they definitely won’t be the team that allowed 31.8 points per game in the final 5 ½ games of the season. However, they are slipping on that side of the ball. Justin Smith, the most important cog, is aging and their secondary is really lacking on talent, which will be exposed if their pass rush struggles.

Offensively though, they averaged 5 points per more game under Kaepernick last season than they did under Smith in 2011 and the first half of 2012. Even if they start allowing 17-19 points per game, they’ll still outscore opponents by about 10 points per game because I expect them to also score 27-29 points per game. They remain one of the best teams in the NFL and they are built to win a Super Bowl more than they were at this point last season because they’re not as reliant on winning the turnover battle.

In the division, they should split with Seattle, an evenly matched team that is awesome at home and not as good on the road and they’ll probably sweep both St. Louis and Arizona, so I have them at 4 or 5 wins in the division. Outside of the division, they host Green Bay, Indianapolis, Houston, Carolina, and Atlanta. That’s a rough 5 games, but they should win at least 3 of them. They also go to Tennessee, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Washington, and Tampa Bay. New Orleans will be a tough place to win and Washington won’t be a pushover, but they should still win 12 or so games.

However, I won’t predict them to win the Super Bowl or even make it back to the Super Bowl because , no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. They could break that streak, but it’s more likely that it’s their turn to have a great regular season followed by a disappointing early playoff exit, following in the footsteps of Green Bay, Denver, and New England, who have done so in the last 2 seasons.

Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC West

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Philadelphia Eagles 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Eagles dubbed themselves the “Dream Team” after a “strong” off-season coming out of the lockout in 2011. Among the additions were Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, and Jason Babin. However, the team never lived up to expectations, going just 8-8 in 2011. Asomugha got old in a hurry, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struggled on the slot, and while, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin got to the quarterback a lot, their defensive line as a whole got destroyed against the run. That wasn’t helped by terrible linebacker and safety play. On top of that, they struggled mightily in close games, lost the turnover battle at an incredible rate, and were poorly coached, especially defensively where Juan Castillo was promoted to defensive coordinator from OFFENSIVE line coach.

In 2012, hopes were higher. They had a whole off-season together. They closed 2011 well. And history suggested that they wouldn’t be as bad in close games or lose the turnover battle as badly. After a week 4 win against the Giants, they stood at 3-1, giving them 7 wins in 8 games dating back to the previous season, but they would win just once more the rest of the way. Injuries on the offensive line to Jason Peters and Todd Herremans really hurt them and veterans Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, Jenkins, Babin, and Trent Cole all struggled. Juan Castillo did not improve in his 2nd year in the job and the team tuned out to Head Coach Andy Reid’s message.

They also once again struggled mightily with turnovers, turning the ball over 37 times and forcing just 13 takeaways for a differential of -24 that was tied for the worst in the NFL. It’s tough to win any games when you do that. However, that should turn around in 2012. Not only did they do a good job of personnel and coaching staff turnover, that type of thing is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis anyway.

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

Fumbles were the biggest issue for the Eagles as they lost 22 fumbles to 5 recovered defensively. They should improve on their 35.1% fumble recovery rate from 2012. That’s more luck than anything. Of course, they’ll never dominate the turnover battle or anything, as long as turnover machine Michael Vick is under center and they also have Bryce Brown, who might have the least fundamentally sound running style in the NFL. However, they’ll do much better that -24 in 2013 and that will lead to more wins. On top of that, Jason Peters and Todd Herremans returning from injury on the offensive line will really help.

Quarterback

Everyone remembers that ridiculous Madden-esque game Vick had against the Redskins in the 2010 season, but in the past 2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, he’s completed 457 of 774 (59.1%) for 5665 yards (7.2 YPA), 30 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, while rushing for 921 yards and 2 touchdowns on 138 carries, while fumbling 21 total times. He’s also running less often than he’s ever run.

Michael Vick was never going to age well. He’s way too reliant on athleticism. While quarterbacks playing at a high level into their mid and late 30s isn’t unheard of, running backs and wide receivers doing so is pretty rare. There’s a reason for that and as Vick aged and lost some of his athleticism, it was predictable he’d struggle, especially after spending 2 years away from the game in prison. Injuries don’t help things. Vick has played all 16 games just once in his career and has missed 13 games in the last 3 years alone. Not only does that make him incredibly unreliable going forward, all those injuries have really taken a toll on him.

Andy Reid made him look better than he was, just like he did with Kevin Kolb, AJ Feeley, Donovan McNabb, etc, but even Reid couldn’t do anything with him last year as Vick had his worst quarterback rating since 2006 and the 4th fewest rushing yards of his career (behind his rookie year, when he barely played, 2003, when he missed 11 games with injury, and 2009, his first year in Philadelphia, when he barely played). There’s a reason Reid gave up on him last season, keeping him on the bench in favor of the rookie Nick Foles even when Vick was healthy and not allowing Vick to see the field until week 17, when he lost 42-7 to the Giants in the absence of an injured Foles. Going into his age 33 season, Vick is pretty washed up.

The Eagles brought back him for another season for two reasons. One, this was a historically bad quarterback draft and, aside from trading for Alex Smith, which they didn’t have interest in, there wasn’t another option to find a starting quarterback this off-season. Vick isn’t very good, but he’s still one of the top-32 quarterbacks in the NFL and deserves a starting job for that reason. Two, he is an incredibly intriguing fit in Chip Kelly’s offense and if anyone can salvage his career, it’s Kelly.

Vick won’t be handed the starting job though. He will have to compete with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley and the Eagles are doing a very good job of hiding their intentions in all phases of the game this off-season. Foles was a 3rd round pick in 2012 and, as a rookie, he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. However, he was a much better fit for Andy Reid’s offense than for Chip Kelly’s. While Kelly has expressed admiration for the quarterback he used to face in the Pac-12, he has no other ties to him and, with his lead feet, lack of pocket presence, and long release, he’s doesn’t do the things that are the fundamentals of any Chip Kelly offense.

Matt Barkley is a 4th round rookie and he could be an intriguing choice. Barkley doesn’t have the mobility that Kelly likes, but that’s not a necessity. He’s an accurate, smart quarterback with a quick release and quick decision making ability. Kelly wants to run 75-80 plays per game and a quarterback who can move the chains, make quick audibles, and run quick plays will really help you do that. He’s the only quarterback on this roster drafted by Kelly and, while he has his flaws, he’s certainly got strengths that Kelly can build around. And on top of that, remember that their offensive coordinator is Pat Shurmur, whose system Barkley would fit perfectly. Kelly is going to have a lot more influence on the offense than Shurmur, but his presence is worth noting.

Vick is the favorite for the job, but not guaranteed to win it. If he doesn’t win the job, he might not even make the final roster. In that case, the Eagles may see the 3.5 million they gave him as a signing bonus as a sunk cost and cut him to save the 4 million he’ll be guaranteed if he’s on the week 1 roster. That wouldn’t be worth it for the Eagles if he’s not going to start and if they don’t need a backup.

Even if Vick does win the starting job, I expect this to be his final season with the Eagles (maybe in the NFL) and we’ll probably still see Foles and/or Barkley either way because of Vick’s injury history. As I mentioned, Vick has played all 16 games just once in his career and has missed 13 games in the last 3 years alone. As he ages, he’ll only be more susceptible to injuries, especially if he runs more in Chip Kelly’s offense. There’s a lot of certainty at this position and it’s really going to hold them back this season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I mentioned in the opening that the Eagles lost their two starting offensive tackles last season. Jason Peters was the bigger loss. Easily ProFootballFocus’ top ranked offensive tackle in 2011, Peters didn’t play a snap in 2012 after tearing his Achilles twice in the pre-season. Demetress Bell laughably attempted to replace him, but he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst offensive tackle in 2012 despite only making 7 starts. King Dunlap took over after that and was better, but only by default. Peters will be an obvious upgrade even in his age 31 season as long as he can stay healthy and if he can reach even close to his 2011 form, he’ll be a huge asset for this team. His athleticism makes him an especially good fit for Chip Kelly’s offense.

Herremans played 7 ½ games for the Eagles last season before he went down for the season and he played really well at right tackle, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 29th ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. In his absence, Dennis Kelly filled in and was also laughable in this attempt, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible despite his limited playing time.

He returns this season and will move back to his natural position at right guard, which will help him as he goes into his age 31 season. He’ll be a huge upgrade there over the Danny Watkins/Jake Scott combination that played there last season. Watkins was a huge bust as a 1st round pick in 2011, struggling mightily in about a year and a half as a starter before being benched for Jake Scott, who was signed off the street mid-season. He wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, in Herremans’ old right tackle spot, rookie 4th overall pick Lane Johnson will start. He’s obviously got a ton of upside and, like Peters, he’s going to be a great fit in Chip Kelly’s offense because of his absurd athleticism, but he’s really raw so there will be growing pains in his first season. He’ll be an upgrade over Dennis Kelly though. The Eagles are essentially adding three big time “additions” to the offensive line this off-season and all 3 will be major upgrades.

Complimenting that trio will be Evan Mathis at left guard, who played all of last season and was the lone bright spot on the offensive line. He’s arguably the best guard in the NFL, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked guard in each of the last 2 seasons by a considerable margin, allowing just 1 sack total and plowing open big holes on the ground with regularity.

The only hole on the offensive line is center, where Jason Kelce also returns from injury. Kelce was ProFootballFocus’ 33rd ranked center out of 35 eligible in 2011 as a 6th round rookie and while he looked good to start the 2012 season, he played just 138 snaps before going on injured reserve with a knee injury. The undersized 282 pound Kelce is a good fit for Chip Kelly’s offense because of his athleticism, so we’ll see how he plays this season, and he probably will be an upgrade over Dallas Reynolds, who was ProFootballFocus’ 34th ranked center out of 36 eligible in 2012. If he’s your worst offensive lineman, you’re in pretty good shape.

This should be a much improved offensive line. In 2012, they ranked 6th in run blocking grade, 26th in pass blocking grade, and 24th in pass block efficiency. In 2011, they ranked 4th, 14th, and 15th respectively in those 4 measures. In 2013, they should be much closer to where they were in 2011 than where they were in 2012 and they could even be improved on 2011. One thing that’s very good to see: they have one of the most, if not the most, athletic offensive lines in the NFL. That’s what they need to run this offense.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

I mentioned Bryce Brown’s propensity to fumbling in the opening. Brown fumbled 4 times on 128 touches last season and his atrocious running style is to blame. It was almost as if he had never watched another running back play because I’ve never seen anyone run with the football in the careless way he did. It’s very possible that Brown suffered from a severe lack of coaching as he spent one season at Tennessee in 2009, one at Kansas State ineligible after transferring in 2010, and then left the Kansas State program early in the 2011 season before declaring early for the draft in 2012. To his credit, he did seem to correct the problem shown the stretch, not fumbling in his final 4 games.

Brown was the #1 rated high school running back prospect, but he had just 104 collegiate carries because the aforementioned story. The Eagles took a risk on his natural talent in the 7th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and it was a smart decision. A 7th rounder is barely anything to lose and with the exception of the fumbling issue, Brown looked incredibly explosive as a rookie, taking over down the stretch for an injured LeSean McCoy. He rushed for 564 yards and 4 touchdowns on 115 carries and caught 13 passes for 56 yards. He had 2 very impressive starts against Carolina and Dallas, rushing for 347 yards and 4 touchdowns on 43 attempts, but fumbled 3 times in those 2 games. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, but rushed for just 76 yards on 40 carries in those final 4 games.

Andy Reid and his pass heavy offense are gone and Chip Kelly figures to have his offense run the ball a lot. Also, Kelly favors a two back approach much more than Reid, who preferred to have one back do everything. Brown will get plenty of action as the #2 back behind LeSean McCoy. He’ll spell him often and occasionally he might line up on the field at the same time as McCoy.

McCoy, however, will remain the starter. McCoy had a very solid stretch from 2010-2011, missing just 2 games and rushing for 2389 yard and 24 touchdowns on 480 carries, with 126 catches for 907 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. He looked like one of the best and most complete backs in the NFL. However, in 2012, he struggled along with the rest of the Eagles’ offense, rushing for just 840 yards on 200 carries, catching 54 passes for 373 yards and scoring just 5 total times, only twice on the ground. He also missed 4 games with injury. He should bounce back this year. He will see at least double Brown’s carries and both backs are good fits for Chip Kelly’s speed based offense.

Grade: A-

[yard_barker]

Wide Receivers/Tight End

In addition to McCoy and Brown getting a bunch of carries, wide receiver DeSean Jackson could also see carries. Jackson has rushed just 54 times in his career in 5 seasons, going for 371 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he could see that number increase this season as he’s expected to be used somewhat in that DeAnthony Thomas role. He won’t get a ton of carries, but the Eagles will do a lot of things to get the ball in his hands because of his speed. He’ll probably also see more short throws and screens than he normally does, as they attempt to get him the ball in space, and could easily surpass his career high 62 receptions, though he probably won’t reach his career 17.5 yards per reception average.

He’s got great long speed and great short area agility, but he’s not a great route runner and he doesn’t go over the middle well. In 71 career games, he’s caught 274 passes for 4785 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he’s only once played all 16 games in 5 seasons, missing 9 games total, including the final 5 games of last season. Because of the missed time with injury, he caught just 45 passes for 700 yards and 2 touchdowns last season.

His complement, Jeremy Maclin, is also fast, but he’s a better route runner. The 2009 1st round pick has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been very close in all 4 seasons and he’s caught 258 passes for 3453 yards and 26 touchdowns in 59 career games. Like Jackson, he’s only played all 16 games once, missing 5 games total, and he should get close to 1000 yards again. One of the draws to Philadelphia for Chip Kelly had to have been how many speedy players they have on offense, at all positions.

Jason Avant isn’t that speedy, but he’s a good slot receiver, who has caught 156 passes for 1900 yards and 2 touchdowns in the last 3 seasons in that role. He’ll continue to serve in that role this season, but it’s unclear if he’ll be utilized as much as he has been in the past. He’s heading into his age 30 season and the Eagles figure to use much more two-tight end sets than they have in that past. He’s unlikely to see anywhere near the 727 snaps (482 pass snaps) he’s averaged over the past 3 seasons.

It makes sense that they’d use two-tight ends more often because they plan to run more often. Kelly has certainly signaled a move in that direction with his off-season moves these past few months, drafting Zach Ertz in the 2nd round and signing fullback/tight end James Casey to go with decent incumbent starter Brent Celek. They’ll also throw out of this set to tight ends often because all 3 of those guys can catch passes.

Ertz was known for his pass catching at Stanford, catching 69 passes for 898 yards and 6 touchdowns last season as a starter. The 6-5 249 pounder ran a 4.76 at the Combine and put up 24 reps of 225 pounds. Casey moved all around the formation in Houston last season and figures to do the same again this season in Philadelphia. Primarily a fullback, Casey played 609 snaps last season, which would have led the position had they all been as a traditional fullback. He didn’t block that well, but he led the position in pass catching grade and caught 34 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns. Celek doesn’t block that well either, but he’s averaged 59 catches for 744 passes and 5 touchdowns. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of guys to throw to.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Defensively, the Eagles are switching up schemes in a major way too, going to a 3-4 from a wide nine 4-3, but the problem is their personnel doesn’t fit it well at all. Fletcher Cox remains on the defensive line, converting from a defensive tackle to a 5-technique defensive end. He has the size and athleticism to excel in that position and, coming out of Mississippi State, I thought that would be his best position in the pros. He’ll still play inside some at defensive tackle as the Eagles are expected to use a hybrid scheme with 4-3 under sub packages, but the scheme change will definitely do him some good. He’s also expected to play a fairly full set of snaps as he’s by far the Eagles’ best end after letting go of Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri, and Mike Patterson.

Cox finished the 2012 season as ProFootballFocus’ 18th rated defensive tackle on just 526 snaps, grading out above average as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. With 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 14 hurries on 303 pass rush snaps, he finished 13th among eligible defensive tackles in pass rush efficiency and he was also 20th in run stop percentage. Even better news for the Eagles, he got better as the season went on, especially as a pass rusher as he had 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries in weeks 10-16 (he didn’t play week 17 with injury). He could finish the year as a top-10 five-technique defensive end.

After him, things are pretty bleak on the defensive line. With Jenkins, Landri, and Patterson gone, Cedric Thornton is moving into the starting job opposite Cox after the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out negatively on 406 snaps last season. The Eagles drafted Bennie Logan in the 3rd round but the 6-2 309 pounder is not a natural fit for a 3-4 end position. He’ll serve primarily as a nickel rusher inside next to Cox in 4-3 sub packages, though it’s unclear how much of an impact he can have as a rookie. Thornton, meanwhile, will be a base end and I don’t expect him to play that well.

At nose tackle in base packages, the Eagles have Isaac Sopoaga, signed from the 49ers. However, Sopoaga really struggled in San Francisco on the rare occasions they actually used a nose tackle. He played just 335 snaps for them last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th lowest ranked defensive tackle despite the limited snap count, struggling mightily against the run and rushing the passer. Heading into his age 32 season, he’s unlikely to get better.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The one player who will most negatively be affected by a switch to a 3-4 defense is Brandon Graham. Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, finally was last season and came into his own in a big way. Despite making just 6 starts, he had 7 sacks, 7 hits, and 31 hurries, doing so on 220 pass rush snaps, a pass rush rate of 20.5%. His pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per snap * 100) was 17.3 which led his position. For comparison, the next highest player at any position was Cameron Wake at 12.9. He also played the run well and overall graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end despite his limited playing time, only behind Wake.

Graham played so well that the Eagles benched and cut Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks the season before and who was having a decent season. Once Graham took over as a starter for the final 6 games of the season, his play really flourished as he had 5 sacks, 3 hits, and 17 hurries on 131 pass rush snaps, a 19.1% pass rush rate. Graham, however, is a poor fit for a 3-4 defense and because of the scheme change, one of the league’s most promising pass rushers won’t even start this season. The Eagles signed Connor Barwin to a 6-year, 36 million dollar deal to start over him this off-season. Graham figures to only play in sub packages on clear passing downs as a pass rush specialist in a 4-3. That’s an immense waste of his talents. If I were a 4-3 team, I’d give up a 2nd rounder for him in a heartbeat.

Barwin has experience in a 3-4, playing in that scheme in the last 2 seasons in Houston, but he’s nowhere near the pass rusher that Graham was last season, even at his best. The 2009 2nd round pick had 12 sacks in 2011 in his first season as a starter, with 18 hits and 24 hurries on 520 pass rush snaps, a solid 10.4% pass rush rate, but he struggled against the run and overall wasn’t as good as the raw numbers suggested. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 28 eligible.

In 2012, he was even worse. He managed just 4 sacks, 12 hits, and 24 hurries on 570 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 7.0% rate for his position. He graded out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade and 3rd worst overall. That was not only a massive overpay, but he’ll block one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL from starting. This whole scheme change looks like a mistake.

Opposite him, Trent Cole isn’t a natural fit for the 3-4 either, though he’ll keep his starting job. Going into last season, Cole was one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. In 2008, he was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end. In 2009, he ranked 3rd and in 2010 and 2011 he led the way at the position. However, he struggled by his standards in 2012, grading 22nd. He had 4 sacks, 13 hits, and 29 hurries on 432 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pass rush rate, good, but well below his standards. Those 4 sacks paled in comparison to the 63 he had in the previous 6 seasons combined.

If the Eagles were still running a 4-3, I’d like his chances for a bounce back season, but instead he has to learn a whole new 3-4 scheme, one that he’s not a natural fit for at 6-3 270. Going into his age 31 season, I don’t see him getting much better this season. He’s reportedly looked like a “fish out of water” in this new system this off-season. He’ll probably only have a positive impact in sub packages rushing the passer from a 4 man front. With no guaranteed money on his contract after this season, this could sadly be his final season in Philadelphia.

Another player who doesn’t fit the 3-4 defense is DeMeco Ryans. In fact, the Texans traded him for a 4th round pick last off-season because he didn’t fit their 3-4. He was ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked middle linebacker last season in Philadelphia 4-3 playing every down, but in 2011, he was just a two-down linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 and graded out just about average, 22nd at his position. He can’t be happy about this switch. While he’ll continue to play every down, it’s really only because they don’t have another option.

The only returning linebacker who is probably happy about this switch is Mychal Kendricks, a 2012 2nd round pick who played in a 3-4 in college at California. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 42nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible as rookie in 2012, particularly struggling against the run. He should be better in his 2nd season in the league in a more natural position, but then again, he couldn’t exactly have been worse. I still don’t expect big things from him.

Grade: B-

[google_ad]

Secondary

As bad as the Eagles were defensively last season, 29th in the NFL allowing 27.8 points per game, their secondary was by far their worst defensive unit of all. Not only they did completely fail to force turnovers (as I mentioned earlier), they ranked 26th in the NFL allowing 7.6 YPA. They also struggled to tackle, missing 62 as a unit. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 98th and 101st ranked cornerbacks out of 113 eligible, while Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 84th and 85th ranked safeties out of 88 eligible.

Credit them for bringing in an entirely new starting crew in the secondary. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are both gone, while Allen and Coleman are mere reserves at the moment and might not even make the final 53 man roster. However it’s unclear how much of an upgrade they’ll be (though they should force more takeaways, if only because of how inconsistent that is on a year-to-year basis).

At cornerback, they brought in Bradley Fletcher from St. Louis and Cary Williams from Baltimore. Williams will probably be their #1 cornerback because he’s, by the default, the better of the two. The 2008 7th round pick has graded out as a league average played in 2 seasons as a starter though so there’s not a lot to get excited about here other than the fact that he’s not Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie.

Fletcher, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in the 2009 draft. His only season as a starter was 2010 when he graded out slightly above average. In 2011, he missed pretty much the whole season with a torn ACL, playing just 4 games. When he returned in 2012, it was in a reduced role as he played just 374 snaps, including just 20 in the final 7 weeks of the season after getting benched for rookie Trumaine Johnson as the 3rd cornerback. The Eagles are taking a chance that another year removed from that torn ACL will allow him to bounce back and become a solid starter again.

Brandon Boykin will remain the nickel back. He was the only defensive back who graded out above average for them last season, grading out just above average on 526 snaps as a rookie. He only fell to the 4th round because of an injury and because he was 5-9. If he was 6-0 and healthy he would have gone in the 1st round and I thought he was the best cover cornerback in that draft class after Morris Claiborne. He carved out a niche on the slot and will only be better in his 2nd season in the league. He’s a bright spot.

At safety, the Eagles rolled the dice with two injury prone safeties, bringing in Kenny Phillips from the Giants and Patrick Chung from New England. Phillips is one of the best safeties in the NFL when healthy, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th and 6th ranked safety in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Even in 2012, when he played just 304 snaps with injury, he still graded out as their 15th ranked safety despite the limited playing time. In addition to last season’s knee problems, he was also limited to 719 snaps in his first two seasons in the league in 2008 and 2009 with knee problems and he’s already had microfracture surgery. It’s a risk that could definitely pay off, but it’s a big risk nonetheless.

Chung, meanwhile, has missed 14 games in the last 4 seasons since the Patriots took him in the 2nd round out of Oregon in 2009. He’s played pretty well when healthy and the Oregon connection with Chip Kelly probably had a lot to do with why they brought him in. Kelly is going to know his former player better than maybe any other coach in the NFL. He’s still a risky addition. If either gets hurt, that would mean that Allen, Coleman, 5th round rookie Earl Wolff, or Colt Anderson, a special teamer who struggled in 4 starts last season, would see action.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Chip Kelly is the biggest Head Coach mystery in the NFL. Not only do we not know if his offense will work in the NFL, we don’t even know what type of offense he’s going to run. He’s done a great job of keeping things secretive this off-season. He’s clearly a smart man with innovative ideas (not just offensively, but in how he has his team practice). He has a great deal of collegiate success and he’s much more versatile than he’s given credit for, but it’s very tough to give him a grade. I have no idea how the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia will go.

Grade: B

Overall

The Eagles will once again struggle defensively largely due to an ill-advised switch to a 3-4 base defensive scheme that their personnel doesn’t fit, but they should be improved over last season as I expect them to force more takeaways. Offensively, their turnover number should go down and they’ll probably have better health with Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy all coming back from injuries that cost them serious time last season.

They won’t be a good team turnover wise, but even if they were to improve to -10 from -24 it would do them a world of difference. They actually outgained opponents by 174 yards last season, despite a 4-12 record, and were only -0.2 in terms of yards per play differential. They play in too tough of conference though to make the playoffs and they might still be the worst team in their division.

I have them going 2-4 in divisional action, splitting with 2 of Dallas, Philadelphia, or the Giants. Outside the division, they host San Diego, Kansas City, Arizona, Detroit, and Chicago. Detroit and Chicago should be tough ones, but San Diego and Arizona are easier so I could see them winning 2 or 3 of those games at home. They also go to Denver, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Green Bay, and Minnesota. They should win in Oakland and Minnesota and Tampa Bay will be winnable, but Denver and Green Bay won’t be. I think they’ll win 2 of those games and finish with 7 wins, an improvement, but not enough to get into the playoffs.

Projection: 7-9 4th in NFC East

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Washington Redskins 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

Last season, the Redskins won 10 games, including their last 7 regular season games, and could have easily won at least one playoff game, up 14-0 before Robert Griffin hurt his knee and became a shadow of his healthy self for the remainder of the game, before eventually tearing his ACL late in the 4th quarter. Injuries were the story of the season for the Redskins. Three of their 6 losses (their first 3 losses of the season) were largely the result of injuries.

First, the Redskins lost Josh Wilson, Adam Carriker, and Brian Orakpo in a week 2 loss by a field goal in St. Louis. Then, they lost Trent Williams in an eventual loss to the Bengals. Finally, Griffin himself went down with a lead in an eventual loss to the Falcons. If not for those injuries, they could have had an even better record. Overall, they ranked 29th in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury last year. And in spite of that, they still made the playoffs with a good chance at a playoff win, and they finished the season as ranked 8th in DVOA (6th in weighted DVOA, which puts higher weight on games later in the season).

However, injuries remain a concern going into 2013. Brian Orakpo is expected to return and he’ll be a big time “addition” and they may, overall, on the season lose less to injury, the status of Robert Griffin’s knee is a serious concern. His knee knocked him out of action twice (after a concussion knocked him out the first time around), causing him to miss the end of the Baltimore game, the entirety of the Cleveland game, and severely limited him against Seattle in the playoffs, before knocking him out for good.

He’s expected to be ready for week 1 of this season, but he has a history of knee problems so it’s unclear if he’ll be able to stay healthy for all 16 games and at what percent of his peak ability he’ll be able to play. They’re already talking about limiting his carries, which is such a big part of his game. There’s significant sophomore slump potential for him for that reason.

The sophomore slump isn’t limited to individual players. Teams who have big win improvements usually the regress the following season, on average about half of the improvement. The Redskins improved 5 games last season so they can be expected to regress about 2.5 wins, though that’s obviously just an average. They could regression fewer or more wins than that or even improve, but the concept is worth noting.

I think they’ll lose fewer than 2.5 wins off that 10 win total, but I do expect some regression because they were so reliant on winning the turnover battle last season. The Redskins turned the ball over just 14 times in 2012, as opposed to 31 takeaways, a +17 differential. That tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, however.

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.

Griffin threw just 5 interceptions all season on 393 attempts, a ridiculous, but unsustainable 1.3% interception rate. For comparison sake, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have career interception rates of 2.7%, while Tom Brady has a career interception rate of 2.1%. Even Aaron Rodgers, who has the lowest interception rate in NFL history among eligible quarterbacks, has a career interception rate of 1.7%.

Griffin is good, but he’s not THAT good. Tom Brady had an even better interception rate of 0.8% in 2010 before seeing that “balloon” to 2.0% in 2011. Griffin will see his “balloon” as well, especially if he plays hurt. And if Kirk Cousins has to play several games, it will really hurt their team turnover rate. Cousins flashed in limited action last season, but still had an interception rate of 6.3%. That’s unsustainably high and a small sample size, but he’ll be a clear downgrade interception-wise if he has to step into the lineup for a significant period of time.

Griffin is never going to throw a ton of interceptions though, and not just because he’s a great quarterback. It’s because, at least the way they ran things last season, they are a run heavy team. They rely heavily on Alfred Morris on the ground and Robert Griffin taking off on his own, and Griffin averaged just 26.2 pass attempts per game in his 15 starts, among the lowest in the NFL. He could see that number increase if they want to cut his carries to protect him, but he’ll probably never be tossing it around 35 times per game.

However, when you run as much as the Redskins do, you run the risk of fumbling and the Redskins certainly did a lot of that last season, fumbling 26 times, tied for 4th most in the NFL. However, they lost just 6 of those fumbles and overall they recovered a league leading 67.4% of fumbles that hit the ground, best in the NFL. That’s unsustainable and largely luck. For example, they wouldn’t have even made the playoffs last season if they hadn’t recovered their own fumble in the end zone against the Giants in a must win game last season. I don’t think they’ll dominate the turnover battle nearly as much as they did last season and that will lead to some of the win total regression that usually follows big win improvements.

Quarterbacks

I wrote about Griffin’s unsustainable interception rate in the opening, but other than that I have nothing but positive things to write about him. He was the rightful Offensive Rookie of the Year in a stacked year for that award and if it weren’t for his injury concerns, I’d say he has the best future of any of the young quarterbacks in the NFL today. Here was my argument for him being Offensive Rookie of the Year.

I’d like to start this by saying that I don’t see Andrew Luck as a legitimate contender for this award. Stats aren’t everything, but sometimes stats are too blatant to ignore. Griffin and Wilson were 3rd and 4th in QB rating, Luck was 26th. He took the Colts from 2 wins to 11 wins, but he did it against an incredibly easy schedule and with almost no convincing wins. He won just 2 games by more than a touchdown and just 3 games against .500 or better teams. A 9-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less is impressive, as were his league leading seven game winning drives, but when you remember most of those came against the likes of Tennessee, Detroit, Kansas City, and Buffalo, it’s not so impressive.

So that leaves us with Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson from arguably the best rookie quarterback class ever. I’m going with Griffin. Russell Wilson was never counted on to be a savior. The Seahawks won 7 games last year with 14 games of a banged up Tarvaris Jackson (7-7) and 2 games of Charlie Whitehurst (0-2) under center. They had the #7 scoring defense in 2011 and the #1 scoring defense in 2012. Wilson, as good as he was, had plenty of help.

Griffin, meanwhile, was the Redskins’ savior. They literally put all of their eggs in one basket with him, trading away three 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick for him, naming him the starting quarterback about 2 days after the draft, and building their entire new innovative offense around him. They asked him to single handedly turn around a 5-win team and he did that.

The Redskins’ had the league’s 21st rated defense in 2011 and it was even worse in 2012, despite having much less pressure on them thanks to the offense, as they ranked 22nd. Injuries were to blame as they were without top pass rusher Brian Orakpo for most of the year and also lost starters Brandon Meriweather and Adam Carriker for most of the year as well.

Injuries weren’t limited to defense, as Griffin was playing without expected right tackle Jammal Brown all season, lost talented tight end Fred Davis midseason, and played without #1 receiver Pierre Garcon for most of the year. And he still took them to the playoffs, where they were leading Wilson’s Seahawks 14-0 before he got hurt (it’s not a post-season award, but this is worth mentioning).

Plus, unlike Wilson, Griffin played well all year. Through 8 games, Wilson had 8 touchdowns to 7 interceptions (with one touchdown that should have been an interception) and the Seahawks were 4-4. After a 5 interception in two weeks stretch, in which the Seahawks lost to the Rams and barely beat the Panthers, there were calls for Wilson to be benched. Griffin never played that badly. He never had a multi-interception game, throwing just 5 all year, and even when the Redskins were 3-6 heading into the bye, Griffin still had an 8 to 3 touchdown to interception ratio.

Again, injuries are the one concern. He takes a lot of hits because of his style of play and unlike guys like Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, he’s not particularly big and sturdy. He now has a concerning history of knee injuries dating back to his collegiate days and he might also be a walking (well…running) concussion. Injuries are the reason I even have to discuss Kirk Cousins here when I usually don’t talk about backup quarterbacks. We could be seeing him play significant action this season.

Cousins was an unconventional pick, to say the least, when the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in the same draft they traded 3 first round picks and a second round pick to acquire Robert Griffin. However, there’s nothing wrong with using a mid-round pick on a backup quarterback. Teams with established starting quarterbacks (Giants, Patriots, Steelers, etc.) have done it in the very recent past. If you’re drafting for starting needs in the 4th round, you’re in trouble.

There was never going to be any quarterback controversy considering their relative price tags and it was highly unlikely that Griffin would be threatened by Cousins. Griffin once had the confidence to say he’d go to Indianapolis and beat out Peyton Manning if that was what he had to do to start. It was a non-story. Any idiot could have seen that (hello Skip Bayless).

However, Cousins is now seen as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL and I don’t think that’s quite deserved yet. He’s known for leading the comeback against Baltimore and beating Cleveland in a spot start, but he attempted just 2 throws against Baltimore and the Browns are, well, the Browns. He also struggled mightily in relief against both Atlanta and Seattle, combining to go 8 for 19 for 142 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. There’s a reason he went in the 4th round and he’s yet to prove he’s anything but a backup quarterback in the NFL. If they have to count on him to play significant snaps in 2013, they’re in trouble.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

It can be easy to forget because of what Robert Griffin did, but RG3 wasn’t the Redskins’ only rookie sensation. 6th round rookie Alfred Morris surprisingly won the starting job week 1 and did his best Terrell Davis impression for the rest of the season, rushing for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 attempts. However, Morris owes a lot of his success to Griffin taking the attention off of him. Defenses had to focus on Griffin’s arm strength and running ability and, as a result, Morris had a lot of running room in their read option offense. Credit Morris for his vision, intelligence, and for wasting no movement, but it’s definitely worth noting that Morris rushed for just 3.2 yards per carry without Griffin against Cleveland.

Morris’ running success will largely be tied to Griffin’s success and Morris also provides very little on passing downs, catching just 11 passes for 77 yards. Even though Morris had 324 more carries than him, Evan Royster actually played 180 pass plays to Morris’ 293. Royster is the favorite to continue that passing down specialist role, but he’ll have to hold off the oft injured Roy Helu, who might be more talented. They also used late round picks on Chris Thompson (5th round) and Jawan Jamison (7th round) because that’s just Mike Shanahan’s thing.

I also have to give mention to fullback Darrel Young, even though I don’t normally mention fullbacks. Young had a major breakout season in his 4th year in the league last season as he was a perfect fit for the read option offense and their zone blocking scheme. He was as big a part of their offensive success as any fullback in the NFL. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked fullback, 8th in run blocking, and also contributed as a runner and a pass catcher, with 14 carries for 60 yards and 8 catches for 109 receiving yards.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

I mentioned Trent Williams earlier in the introduction in the injury section. He didn’t miss serious time or anything, but his absence for the majority of the game against Cincinnati really hurt their chances of winning that game in an eventual 7 point loss. That’s because the former 4th overall pick from the 2010 NFL Draft class has emerged as one of the best left tackles in the game. His movement ability makes him a perfect fit for this offense.

He was ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle last season, 13th among left tackles, and the prior season he graded out 26th overall despite missing 6 games with injury and suspension. He’s very good in both pass protection and run blocking and his only issue is penalties and he’s totaled 16 in 26 games in the past 2 seasons. He is their only offensive lineman who had a strong season in both 2011 and 2012 and he’s a strong bet for another strong season.

Overall, they were a better offensive line in 2012 than 2011 without a lot of difference personnel wise. They went from being ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked run blocking offensive line to their 9th ranked. They also improved in pass protection as well. They went from being 26th ranked in pass protection grade and 28th in pass block efficiency to 19th and 17th respectively in those two categories.

One of the big reasons for their improvement was the breakout season of center Will Mongtomery, who improved from a below average starter to ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked center in 2012. He’ll have to prove he can do it again, but he should be an asset for them. Chris Chester at right guard also had a big improvement, going from ProFootballFocus’ 8th worst eligible guard in 2011 to their 15th best in 2012. 2011 looks like the outlier when you look at his career, as he’s usually been an above average starter, though he’s never done anything like what he did in 2012.

Right tackle Tyler Polumbus is the only player on their offensive line who has graded out below average in each of the last two seasons, playing really poorly in both seasons. In 2011, he only played 289 snaps as a reserve and wasn’t eligible for ProFootballFocus’ rankings, but if he had been, he would have ranked 64th out of 77 despite such a limited snap count. In 2012, he ranked 76th out of 80 eligible and if he does win the starting job again this season, he won’t be any better. He’s been a terrible player whenever he’s been called upon in his career.

He will have to beat out Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos for the job, but that won’t be that hard, even for Polumbus. Trueblood ranked 72th out of 76 eligible in 2011 and barely played in 2012, losing his job. Pashos, meanwhile, is heading into his age 33 season and coming off a season in which he didn’t play at all due to injury so while he’s had some solid years in the past, those days are probably long behind him. Tom Compton, a 2012 6th round pick, could also be in the mix, but they seem to prefer him as the backup left tackle. Whoever starts at right tackle, probably Polumbus, it will be a position of serious weakness.

The other position of weakness on their offensive line last season was left guard, where Kory Lichtensteiger started after tearing his ACL and missing most of the 2011 season. Lichtensteiger held up very well in pass protection, but was terrible as a run blocker. There’s a reason they averaged just 4.4 yards per carry behind the left guard, as opposed to 5.5 yards per carry elsewhere. He was ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked run blocking guard and also commited 10 penalties, grading out 72th out of 81 eligible overall. He’s never really been that great. 2012 3rd round pick Josh LeRibeus could push him for the job in camp, but I don’t know how much better he’ll be. Like right tackle, it’s a position of weakness, but they have a strong starter at left tackle and they should get good play at center and right guard again. It’s not a bad offensive line.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One area particularly hit by injuries was their receiving corps. The Redskins gave Pierre Garcon a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract last off-season, even though he had never had a 1000 yard season, despite playing with Peyton Manning for most of his career. The Redskins took a major chance giving Garcon that kind of money, banking on his natural athleticism and skill set allowing him to break out as the X receiver in Mike Shanahan’s offense, as the #1 target out of the shadows of others in Indianapolis’ loaded receiving corps, with Robert Griffin leading a downfield throw based offense. Garcon was only 25 and that point and the Redskins were really expecting a breakout year from him.

Midway into the 1st quarter of the Redskins’ week 1 game against the Saints last year, the Redskins looked pretty smart. Granted it was very, very early in the season, but Griffin targeted Garcon on 4 of his first 5 throws, including an 88 yard touchdown, as Garcon had 4 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown midway through the first quarter of an eventual upset of the Saints in New Orleans. However, Garcon hurt his foot and left the game immediately following his touchdown and did not return to the game, playing only 8 snaps total.

Garcon would return for week 4 and week 5, but he would only catch 4 passes for 44 yards in those 2 games, struggling through his injury and would not return again until week 11. Garcon was still not healthy after returning, only playing in 306 of his team’s 445 snaps over those 7 games, not exactly what the Redskins were hoping to get from their #1 receiver. However, Garcon was still very productive, in spite of his more limited role, catching 36 passes for 480 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 7 games.

Overall on the season, Garcon had 633 yards on 215 routes run, good for 2.94 yards per route run, 2nd in the NFL among eligible wide receivers behind Andre Johnson. He was targeted 63 times, giving him a very impressive yard per target rate of over 10 per and with 63 targets on 215 routes run, he was by far Robert Griffin’s favorite target to throw to when he was on the field. Griffin was also very efficient when throwing to him, completing 69.8% of his passes for 10.0 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, a QB rating of 116.7, 14th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. It’s clear that Garcon has a ton of upside in his role in Washington’s offense.

Garcon’s issue remains injuries as his foot is still not 100% and in addition he had off-season shoulder surgery. However, the shoulder is expected to be a non-issue and his foot should be better than it was last season. Assuming he plays close to a full set of snaps and isn’t overly limited on the field by his foot, Garcon could have an incredibly productive season, though much depends on Griffin’s health. Griffin is expected to throw more and run less to protect himself from injuries so the Redskins figure to pass more than the 442 times they did last year. Garcon could easily end up as one of the league’s top-10 receivers and a Pro-Bowler in 2013, but this is all speculative.

Despite all his issues, Garcon still led the team with 633 receiving yards, which speaks to their lack of depth after him. It’s not that their other receivers are bad, but they lack another impact receiver. In Garcon’s absence, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson, and Santana Moss led the team in snaps played from the wide receiver position.

Josh Morgan, a marginal talent, had 48 catches for 510 yards and 2 touchdowns on 393 routes run and caught just 4 passes for more than 20 yards. Moss caught 41 passes for 573 yards and 8 touchdowns on 328 pass snaps as the primary slot receiver, but, at age 34, he could be very close to done. Hankerson, a 2011 3rd round pick, caught 38 passes for 543 yards and 3 touchdowns on 307 routes run. He’s got the most upside of the aforementioned trio, but may never be anything more than a decent starting receiver. He’s going into his 3rd year though and that’s when receivers tend to breakout, so we’ll see what he has.

Garcon wasn’t the only receiver they had miss serious time with injury. Tight end Fred Davis went down with a season ending torn Achilles early in their 7th game of the season. He was brought back on a one year prove it deal that could pay dividends if he’s healthy. He’s only played in 18 full games over the past 2 seasons thanks to injury and suspension, but he has caught 82 passes for 1110 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 18 games, despite playing 12 of them with Rex Grossman as his quarterback. We’ll see how he bounces back after his injury, but he has great natural receiving ability. He’s not much of a blocker though.

In Davis’ absence, Logan Paulsen moved into the starting lineup. He’s pretty much the opposite of Davis, a good blocker, but little else. He caught just 25 passes for 308 yards and 1 touchdown on 265 pass snaps. He and Davis would work well together on two-tight end sets if Davis can stay healthy and bounce back. If Davis and Garcon can stay healthy and play well, this will be an improved receiving corps.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

I mentioned Adam Carriker in the injury section. He wasn’t exactly a big loss, but he was an injury worth noting. A well below average starter in 2011, Carriker went down with injury week 2 this season so he barely saw any action. He was replaced by Jarvis Jenkins, who actually played better than Carriker did in 2011, though he graded out below average overall because of his inability to get to the quarterback. They’ll compete for that job this season, but Jenkins likely has the upper hand. He also has the higher upside, as a 2011 2nd round pick. Last season was his first in the NFL after a serious injury caused him to miss all of 2011. He could easily be better this season.

Whoever wins that battle will only play in base 3-4 packages as a 5-technique end. The other two starting defensive linemen, Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield, play every down and stay in when they go to sub packages. Cofield lines up on the nose in base packages, but he’s really playing out of position. The 6-4 303 pounder is undersized for the position and has never been a good run player even back when he played with the Giants in their 4-3. Last year, he was at his worst against the run, as only one player graded out worse than him against the run on ProFootballFocus.

However, his pass rush ability makes up for it and it’s what makes him a dangerous player in sub packages. He had just 3 sacks last season, but 15 hits and 17 hurries on 505 pass rush snaps, a 6.9% pass rush rate. He’s a decent starter overall. Bowen is a decent starter overall as well, grading out just below average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter, after excelling as a reserve in Dallas in 2010. Chris Baker is another player to note as a solid situational run stopper. He graded out above average on 206 snaps last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The big player returning from injury is Brian Orakpo, a top level rush linebacker who was also lost for the season in that week 2 game, tearing his pectoral. In 2011, he was excellent, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, struggling against the run, but excelling as a pass rusher. He had 10 sacks, 6 hits, and 43 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, a 15.1% pass rush rate. He ranked 4th at his position in pass rush grade and 5th in pass rush efficiency. His return to full strength would be huge.

Opposite him, Ryan Kerrigan stepped up big time in his 2nd season in the league. The 16th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft did struggle against the run, but had 9 sacks, 9 hits, and 51 hurries on 587 pass rush snaps, a 11.8% rate. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked rush linebacker overall, 7th ranked in terms of pass rush, and ranked 8th in pass rush efficiency. He could be even better with another year under his belt and with Orakpo back to take the pressure off of him. They could be a very formidable duo and, at the very least, they’ll benefit from Rob Jackson and Lorenzo Alexander not splitting reps at one rush linebacker spot. They did some nice things, but struggled to get to the quarterback. Alexander is gone and Jackson will be a reserve.

At middle linebacker, their situation is not nearly as good. Perry Riley, who played very well in the 2nd half of 2011 after taking over as the starter, did not continue that in 2012. He wasn’t bad, but the 2010 4th round pick did grade out below average. I don’t know if he’ll be much better than that in 2013. London Fletcher, meanwhile, is the bigger name, but he did not play well at all, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible.

He couldn’t cover or shed blocks in the running game at all. Only 34 of his 115 total tackles were 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 he also missed a position leading 21 tackles, among the most in the NFL at any position. He also allowed more receiving yards and receptions in coverage than any other middle linebacker and only Perry Riley allowed more touchdowns among middle linebackers.

He made his 4th consecutive Pro-Bowl, but only on name recognition (and maybe to make up for the fact that he somehow didn’t make a Pro-Bowl until 2009). Fletcher has had a great career and is arguably the all-time leader in tackles depending on who you ask and his 240 consecutive games streak is incredibly impressive. He’s been long overlooked and should be a Hall of Famer eventually and he might be the best undrafted free agent of all time, but now he’s actually overrated based on name. Heading into his age 38 season, he’s the oldest defensive player in the NFL and should hang them up soon. This is probably his last season.

If either Riley or Fletcher struggles to the point where they are benched, Keenan Robinson, drafted in the 4th round in 2012 to be a potential successor to Fletcher, would enter the starting lineup. I don’t know how much positive we can expect from him though. He played a nondescript 68 snaps as a rookie and 4th rounders rarely become starters.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Redskins ranked 22nd in the NFL, allowing 7.4 yards per attempt last season, and it doesn’t look like things will be much better this season. They only made one change in their top-3 cornerbacks, swapping out Cedric Griffin as the 3rd cornerback for free agent acquisition EJ Biggers. Biggers actually graded out above average last season with Tampa Bay, but the 2009 7th round pick was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league in 2011 and graded out significantly below average in the two seasons he saw significant action in Tampa Bay. He reunites with former Head Coach Raheem Morris, who is the defensive backs coach in Washington, but Biggers had his worst years under Morris so I don’t know how that will help.

The Redskins did cut starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall this off-season, but he returns after taking a significant pay cut. He couldn’t find much money on the open market and it’s understandable why. Hall has graded out negatively in 4 of the last 5 seasons after signing that massive contract with the Raiders before the 2008 season (he didn’t even last a whole season before being cut). In 2012, he allowed 76 catches on 114 attempts for 1050 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 8 penalties. Only Sean Smith was thrown on more than him, only Patrick Robinson allowed more passing yards, and only Cortland Finnegan allowed more receptions. He played the run well and blitzed well to save his grade, but he’s not good in coverage at all. He ranked 90th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in pure coverage grade.

The lone solid player they had at cornerback last season was Josh Wilson, their de facto #1 cornerback. He’s been slightly above a league average starter in the past 2 seasons since an improbable breakout season in Baltimore in 2010 landed him a 3-year deal. They also have 2nd round rookie David Amerson in the mix, but he probably won’t see much action this season. He was drafted more for the future with Hall and Biggers signed to 1-year deals and Wilson entering his contract year.

Things aren’t much better at safety. Their best safety is probably Brandon Meriweather, but he can’t stay healthy. He played just 44 snaps last season thanks to a lingering knee injury, which he had 2 separate setbacks on, including a torn ACL suffered week 11. His status for the start of the season is in doubt and it’s not like he’s that great of a player when healthy anyway. He’s made 2 Pro Bowls, but that was largely a farce and he bounced around to 3 different teams in a calendar year after being a final cut of the Patriots before the 2011 season. Before grading out positively on those mere 44 snaps last season, he graded out negatively in each of the last 2 seasons.

Assuming he’s healthy, Meriweather will start in one spot, but that’s a doubt and it’s unclear who will start in the other spot. None of the options are that impressive. Reed Doughty, Jordan Pugh, and DeJon Gomes have never shown themselves to be starting caliber players while Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo are mere rookies, Thomas going in the 4th round and Rambo in the 6th. Amerson could also be in the mix because he has safety size, but he’s just a rookie too and he’d be learning a new position. Thomas is probably the early favorite, and while he has talent, it’s very, very hard to rely on a 4th round rookie starter. There’s just not a lot of talent in this secondary overall.

Grade: C

Head Coach

There was some doubt for a while in his first 2 seasons in Washington, but Mike Shanahan showed last season why he is still one of the better Head Coaches in the NFL. He has two Super Bowl rings and while he hasn’t won one since 1998, he has the pieces in Washington that you could envision him eventually winning another one. Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris did their best John Elway and Terrell Davis impressions as mere rookies last season.

Grade: A-

Overall

While this team rightfully has very high hopes for the future, I think they’ll take one step back this season before taking two steps before in 2014 and beyond. It’s just how these types of things work. They’ll have a bit of a sophomore slump. While they’ll have better injury luck overall, Griffin’s situation with the knee and the fact that they were so reliant on winning the turnover battle last season will hurt them.

In the division, I have them going 3-3, either splitting with all 3 teams or splitting with one of Dallas or New York, getting swept by the other and sweeping the Eagles. They’re the 3rd best team in this division, though it’s a tight one. Outside of the division, they have the toughest schedule of any team in the division because they won the division last season. They host Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, Kansas City and San Francisco. San Francisco will be a really tough game, but they should win at least 2, probably 3 of the other 4 games. On top of that, they go to Green Bay, Oakland, Denver, Minnesota, and Atlanta. Green Bay, Denver, and Atlanta will be tough places to win, but they should win the other 2, giving them 8 total wins. That’s not quite that aforementioned 2.5-game expected decline, but it’s close. That sounds reasonable.

Projection: 8-8 3rd in NFC East

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

New York Giants 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, but failed to make the playoffs in 2012. What happened? Well, nothing really. Their win total didn’t change at all, but while 9 wins allowed them to sneak into the playoffs and eventually take it the distance in 2011, 9 wins had them on the outside looking in last season. It was as I predicted before the season and just a reminder that the Giants were not an elite team, but rather a good team capable of getting hot and going the distance (as they’ve done on 2 occasions). In fact, in 9 seasons of the Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin era, they’ve surpassed 10 wins just twice. If they had made the playoffs in 2012, they would have been one of the scarier teams in the post-season on their sheer level of unpredictability, but, at the end of the day, they didn’t.

You could actually argue that they played better in 2012 than in 2011, at least regular season wise. They scored more and allowed fewer points in the 2012 season than in 2011, as they improved their offensive output from 24.8 points per game to 26.8 points per game and improved their defense from 25.0 points per game allowed to 21.5 points per game allowed. While they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 8 wins in 2011, allowing roughly the same amount of points as they scored, in 2012, they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10 wins, 9th best in the NFL and behind only Chicago in terms of non-playoff teams. They also ranked 7th in DVOA.

Usually that is a predictor of a future increase of wins and on top of that, they did so despite a lot of injuries, ranking 25th in the NFL in adjusted games lost. However, there are a few reasons why they won’t have a big wins increase. For one, while they suffered a lot of injuries last year, none of them were to key contributors, which the exception of Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Phillips, the latter of whom is no longer with the team.

They didn’t lose anyone like Jason Pierre-Paul to injury, but that’s a real concern for them going into 2013 as, in June, JPP had the same back procedure that everyone is freaking out that Gronk had. He’s in doubt for the first month of the season and, unlike Hakeem Nicks, his absence can’t be masked by Eli Manning and strong receiving depth. After Manning, JPP is their most indispensible player and they already have concerns about his health and the season hasn’t started yet. They also had the oft injured William Beatty healthy last season and playing well at the all-important left tackle position, but that might not continue considering he played just 1261 snaps in his first 3 seasons combined due to injury.

They also were really reliant on winning the turnover battle in 2012, with a +14 turnover differential. That tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, however. 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.

Winning the turnover battle was a big part of the reason why they were able to rank 12th in the NFL in opponent’s scoring, allowing 21.5 points per game, despite serious issues in their defensive back 7. Those issues haven’t really been fixed this season and things could be even worse if JPP has to miss significant time with injury. They’ll be a better team than they were last season and I don’t doubt they’ll be able to match the 26.8 points per game they scored last season, especially if Nicks can stay healthy, but their issues defensively could keep them out of the playoffs in the absolutely loaded NFC. Their chances of winning the NFC East, the NFC’s weakest division, might be better than their chances of winning a wild card spot.

Quarterbacks

Eli Manning proved he’s an elite quarterback by winning his 2nd Super Bowl, but as far as elite quarterbacks go, he’s on the lower end of the spectrum. He rarely posts huge regular season numbers like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or his brother Peyton, or huge win totals, and the Giants have only once ranked in the top-5 in scoring offense.

In 11 years as a starter, Tom Brady has missed the playoffs once and won a playoff game in all but 3 years. Peyton Manning has missed the playoffs just twice in his 14 season long NFL career, though he has suffered 8 exits without a postseason win. Aaron Rodgers, though more inexperienced than the quarterbacks already mentioned, has missed the playoffs once in his 5 year NFL career and won at least won playoff game twice in those five years, the same amount as Eli Manning has in 9. Eli Manning has had two incredible six week stretches in his career, leading to those 2 Super Bowls, and I’m sure the Giants wouldn’t trade 2 Super Bowls in 5 years for anything, but there’s something to be said for consistency and consistent excellence.

He’s a very good quarterback capable of getting hot and taking a team the distance and he’s incredibly scary because you never know what you’re getting from him, he makes throws that are near impossible, more so than maybe any other quarterback in the NFL, he can come back from any hole, and he’s at his best when he’s doubted.

He’s also a big part of the reason why the Giants have frequent 2nd half swoons.  Since Tom Coughlin took over in 2004, the same season as Eli Manning became the starter, the Giants are 53-19 in the first 8 games of the season and 30-42 in the second 8 games of the season. Eli Manning is not completely to blame, but his numbers are noticeably worse in the 2nd half of the season. His completion percentage drops about 3%. His YPA drops about 7/10ths of a yard per attempt. And his touchdown to interception ratio goes from 111/61 to 100/83.

This year, he completed 62.6% of his passes in the first half of the season, as opposed to 56.6% in the 2nd half, while averaging 7.8 YPA to 6.8. Only his touchdown to interception ratio (12/8 to 14/7) was improved in the 2nd half of the season. He once again had a strong season overall and you can’t really blame the Giants’ failure to make the playoffs on him, but he didn’t drag the Giants into the playoffs like the aforementioned trio has in the past.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One of the reasons why, in 2012, Eli led the Giants to the most points he’s ever led the Giants to in his career is his strong receiving corps. Even with Hakeem Nicks essentially missing 4 games and being limited in others, playing just 683 snaps and catching just 53 passes for a career low 692 yards and 3 touchdowns, the Giants still surrounded Eli with good receivers. Everyone knows about Victor Cruz. He didn’t match the 82 catches for 1536 yards and 9 touchdowns he had in 2011, but it would have been unreasonable to expect him to do that. He still caught 86 passes for 1092 yards and 10 touchdowns and he could do even better than that this season. His one issue last season was his 12 drops.

In Nicks’ absence, Domenik Hixon, Rueben Randle, and Ramses Barden combined for 72 catches for 1085 yards and 5 touchdowns. Hixon is gone, but Randle should be improved as the clear #3 receiver in his 2nd season in the NFL, after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft. Louis Murphy and Barden will serve as solid depth receivers. Randle will give them 3 talented wide receivers with Cruz and Nicks, assuming the latter can stay healthy. Remember, he averaged 78 catches for 1122 yards and 9 touchdowns per season in 2010 and 2011 despite missing 4 combined games in those 2 seasons. He’s never played a full 16 game set and I wouldn’t expect that to change this season, but I like his chances to get back over 1000 yards and give the Giants two 1000 yard receivers.

Tight end Martellus Bennett is gone and he was one of the better all-around tight ends in the NFL last season, but they’ve signed Brandon Myers to replace him and he should be able to do so coming over from Oakland. The Raiders had one of the least talented rosters in the NFL last season thanks to a decade of poor drafting and recent salary cap hell. One of several positions without a clear proven starter for the Raiders last year was tight end. When 4th year tight end Brandon Myers, a 2009 6th round pick, won the starting job, he was described as a decent blocker and little else and for good reason.

He had just 32 career catches in his 3 year career to that point, including just 7 in 5 starts in place of an injured Kevin Boss the year before. He wasn’t a premium draft pick, going in the 6th round and he didn’t have special athleticism. After not being invited to The Combine, he ran a 4.79 40 at 6-3 250 at his Pro Day in 2009, with a 31 inch vertical and 17 reps of 225.

However, Myers really surprised as a pass catcher, catching 79 passes for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the team in receiving ahead of bigger names like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore. He did this on just 101 targets, a very impressive 78% catch rate, and he was sure handed, dropping just 6 passes. He ranked 8th among eligible tight ends in terms of yards per route run.

While he managed just 10.2 yards per catch, and 3.6 yards after the catch per catch, both towards the bottom of the league, he did break 8 tackles and, because of his high catch rate, the Raiders actually averaged a very impressive 8.0 YPA throwing to Myers last year, over a full yard over the 6.8 YPA Raider quarterbacks averaged on the season. Overall, Raider quarterbacks had a 100.7 QB rating when throwing to Myers, well above their overall 82.5 rating.

Surprisingly, the one area Myers really struggled with was blocking, both pass and run blocking, which was supposed to be the only thing he was good at. No tight end graded out worse as a run blocker on ProFootballFocus than Myers, which actually led to him being the 2nd worst rated overall tight end, despite his great play in the passing game. However, it was revealed after the season he played most of last year with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder, which really effected his blocking. With an off-season to heal, he should do a better job of blocking in 2013.

Myers hit the open market this off-season and did not command a big deal, signing for just 2.25 million over 1 year in New York with the Giants. One of the things that is noteworthy is that Giants tight end coach the legendary Mike Pope requires his tight ends to be great blockers to get on the field so the fact that they signed him and are listing him as a starter is a good sign for his ability to bounce back as a blocker.

One other thing about New York and tight ends that is noteworthy is that Giants tight ends always seem to be productive in the passing game, regardless of who they are. Mike Pope is a big part of the reason for this, as is the offensive system and Eli Manning’s tendency to throw to the tight end. The Giants took Jeremy Shockey in the 1st round in 2002 and turned him into one of the league’s best tight ends.

Injuries didn’t allow him to play a full 16 game set in 6 seasons with the Giants, but he averaged 70 catches for 796 yards and 5 touchdowns per 16 games, back before the days of tight ends really putting up huge numbers. For his efforts, he was named to the Pro-Bowl 4 times in 6 seasons. However, when he got hurt down the stretch in their eventual Super Bowl winning 2007 season, a no name rookie named Kevin Boss took over and did well enough for the Giants to win without Shockey.

Boss ended up driving Shockey out of town that off-season, as the Giants got a 2nd and 5th round pick for him from the Saints, a good haul. The Saints, however, would not get what they paid for, as Shockey last just 3 years in New Orleans, averaging 59 catches for 615 yards and 3 touchdowns per 16 games despite Drew Brees throwing him the ball. He spent a final nondescript season in Carolina in 2011 before being forced to retire (technically he hasn’t retired, but if you’ve been out of the league for at least a year, you’re essentially retired) at age 31, due to lack of interest in his services around the league.

Boss, meanwhile, did a solid job filling in for Shockey, averaging 39 catches for 527 yards and 6 touchdowns per 16 games in 3 years as a starter, despite being just a 5th round pick in 2007. He earned himself a multiyear deal in Oakland and lasted just one year before getting cut. He then went to Kansas City, where the same thing happened and now he remains a free agent at just age 29, after 31 catches in the last 2 years combined.

Boss was replaced by Jake Ballard, a similar player, a blocker first that put up surprising pass catching numbers in 2011, catching 38 passes for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns. After he tore his ACL in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory, the Giants waived him and replaced him with Martellus Bennett. Bennett was a former 2nd round pick of the Cowboys, but largely a blocker first who had caught just 85 passes for 848 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 seasons. Bennett nearly matched those numbers in his one year in New York, catching 55 passes for 626 yards and 5 touchdowns, before signing a multiyear deal with the Bears, only to be replaced by Myers on the cheap.

Myers now comes to New York as the most NFL proven tight end they’ve brought to the team in at least over a decade and he should be able to continue to get his in the passing game as the 3rd option after Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Assuming he also bounces back as a blocker, by the end of the season, we may be able to call Myers one of the most complete all-around tight ends in the NFL. Not bad for a 6th round pick with limited athleticism. Even if Nicks misses some time again, Eli has plenty of players to talented players to throw to.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One of the other things that led to the Giants scoring a bunch of points in 2012 was the rebirth of their running game. In 2012, at least in the regular season, they ranked dead last in rushing yards and yards per carry, thanks to injuries Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs playing through injuries. However, in 2012, Bradshaw turned things around and power back Andre Brown emerged as a good complement to Bradshaw. Bradshaw is gone now, but 2012 1st round pick David Wilson will take over his old role and split carries with Brown.

Brown rushed for 385 yards on 73 carries and also scored 8 times as the short yardage power back. He should get more carries this year because the coaching staff doesn’t 100% trust David Wilson yet and because Brown is the better passing down back. Brown could get double digit touchdowns this season, though Wilson will probably lead the team in rushing yards. Wilson showed a lot of explosiveness as a rookie, especially on special teams, but he only got 71 carries. That should be closer to 200 this season. Brown and Wilson will serve as a strong complement to the passing game.

Grade: B

[yard_barker]

Offensive Line

The Giants really improved their offensive line play in 2012. After ranking 32nd on ProFootballFocus on pass protection, 25th in run blocking, and 32nd in pass blocking efficiency in 2011, they ranked 18th in pass protection, 4th in run blocking, and 26th in pass block efficiency in 2012. There were several big differences. One of the best differences was William Beatty staying healthy at left tackle. As I mentioned in the opening, Beatty, a 2009 2nd round pick, played just 1261 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the NFL, but he put it all together in his contract year in 2012, playing all 16 games and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked offensive tackle. I have questions about whether or not he can keep that up, especially now that he has long-term security with a 5-year contract.

Meanwhile, at left guard, Kevin Boothe had a breakout season in his first full season as a starter, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked guard. He’s already going into his age 30 season though and had never done anything like that in the past, struggling in limited action as a reserve throughout his career. Let’s see if he can do that again. Center David Baas and right guard Chris Snee also had much improved seasons in 2012. Snee’s poor 2011 season looks like the outlier in his career and, going into his age 31 season, he should once again be an above average starter. Baas, meanwhile, has been up and down in his career, playing both center and guard. He’s an average interior offensive starter at best.

Right tackle was the only spot on the line where they struggled last season, with Sean Locklear and David Diehl splitting time. In order to fix this problem, they drafted Justin Pugh in the first round. Pugh is a very accomplished collegiate left tackle, but was expected to fall out of the first round because of short arms. The Giants took him anyway and insisted they didn’t believe his short arms caused a problem on tape. They won’t be as big of an issue on the right side, but he may still end up at guard long term. Overall, it’s a talented offensive line, but it has a lot of questions and they should play somewhere between where they played in 2011 and 2012. They’ll once again score a bunch of points in 2013.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

I mentioned how Jason Pierre-Paul is the Giants 2nd most indispensible player after Eli Manning. The common belief is that he had a down season in 2012, when he had 7 sacks, after having 16 in 2011. However, that’s the trouble with just looking at sack numbers. He wasn’t really worse as a pass rusher at all with 4 hits and 43 hurries on 523 pass rush snaps, to go with those 7 sacks, a 10.3% pass rush rate. In 2011, he had those 16 sacks, but just 14 hits and 26 hurries on 580 pass rush snap, a pass rush rate of 9.7%. In terms of pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per 100 snaps), he was at 8.4 in 2012, better than the 8.2 he was at in 2011. He was also a better run stopper in 2012 than 2011. He was good in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run, but he led the position in that aspect in 2012.

Overall, he was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and 4th ranked in 2012. If he misses more than a couple of games, they’ll really miss him and it will really hurt if he doesn’t come back at 100%. They have a lot of defensive end depth because that’s GM Jerry Reese’s thing, but JPP’s potential absence will compromise their ability to run their signature 3 and 4 defensive end sets, where JPP and/or Justin Tuck line up inside at defensive tackle.

After Jason Pierre-Paul, they have Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Damontre Moore. Tuck has had back-to-back down regular seasons after grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2010 and he didn’t carry his strong 2011 post-season into last season. He’s really been around a league average player over the past 2 seasons, last season grading out slightly above average against the run, but slightly below average rushing the passer, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and 20 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, 8.2%, and only playing 662 snaps overall. Injuries have sapped his abilities and going into his age 30 contract year, I don’t see him getting much better. This might be his last season with the team.

Osi Umenyiora is gone, but he was really a league average player as well of late. Mathias Kiwanuka, a tweener linebacker/defensive end, will move back to the defensive line this year full time, playing there on all downs, rather than just passing downs. His passing down role won’t change and he had 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 14 hurries on 246 pass rush snaps, a mediocre 8.9% rate. On running downs, he could really struggle on the line. Despite his size at 265, he was a below average run stopping linebacker last season and moving to the line won’t help that. For what it’s worth, he was great as a run stopping linebacker in 2011, but his best role will be as a situational rusher and nothing more.

Moore is a 3rd round pick rookie. At one time, he was seen by the draftnik community as a top-5 pick as 20-year-old coming off an incredibly productive season at Texas A&M, but off the field concerns, character concerns, and athleticism concerns sunk his stock all the way to the 3rd round. He’ll be a pure sub package rusher as a rookie, but he could have to see significant snaps early in the season if JPP misses any games.

Because of how often their defensive ends move inside to defensive tackle, the Giants’ defensive tackles don’t play as many snaps as most teams’ defensive tackles. That being said, they still have a good one in Linval Joseph, a 2010 2nd round pick. Joseph has graded out above average in the last 2 seasons as a starter, ranking 21st among defensive tackles in 2012. Opposite him, they had issues last season. Chris Canty was limited to just 9 games with injuries and the 33-year-old Rocky Bernard played above average on 396 snaps, 2nd most among Giant defensive tackles.

Canty and Bernard are gone and have been replaced with two former Eagle veterans. The first is Cullen Jenkins, who is going into his age 32 season. He gets washed against the run, but had 4 sacks, 1 hit, and 25 hurries on 388 pass rush snaps, a 7.7% pass rush rate. He’ll be best in a rotational role and he’s not getting any younger, but he’ll be an asset for them. The other one is Mike Patterson, who was limited to 136 snaps last season because of brain surgery. He was ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked defensive tackle in 2011, but going into his age 30 season, his best days should be behind him. He’ll be a rotational player as well.

The Giants also have a pair of recent 2nd round picks in the mix, giving them 3 recent 2nd round picks at defensive tackle (including Joseph). Johnathan Hankins is a 2nd round pick rookie who will play a situational role stopping the run at 319 pounds as a rookie. Marvin Austin is the other one, but for a variety of different reasons, he’s played just 109 snaps in the last 3 seasons, dating back to his final season at North Carolina, when he was suspended for the whole season. He might be on the roster bubble.

The Giants were once known as one of the best pass rush teams in the NFL, but last year they were just ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked pass rush team and they could be even worse this season if Jason Pierre-Paul misses significant time with injury. He’s really the only above average player on this line (with the exception of maybe Linval Joseph), though he is a true blue chip stud when healthy and they have a lot of decent rotational players.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

With Mathias Kiwanuka moving to the defensive line and Chase Blackburn and Michael Boley both gone, the Giants are returning none of their three starting linebackers from 2012. That’s not such a bad thing. They didn’t play that well (there’s a reason Boley is still a free agent and Blackburn is a reserve/special teamer in Carolina). Kiwanuka and Boley ranked 38th and 41st out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season and Blackburn ranked 43rd out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. However, none of the 6 candidates for the 3 open spots are that good either.

Keith Rivers is the most experienced of the group. A 2008 1st round pick, he was once a solid linebacker in Cincinnati, but injuries derailed his career (he missed 29 games from 2008-2011) and the Bengals sent him to the Giants for a late round pick last off-season. He graded out negatively on 238 snaps last season as a reserve with the Giants last season. Aaron Curry is another former 1st round pick linebacker. He struggled mightily with the Seahawks for 2 ½ years before being sent to the Raiders for a late round pick. After a mediocre half season there in 2011, he played just 18 snaps with them last season thanks to injuries.

At middle linebacker, Dan Connor was a reserve in Carolina for 4 seasons and did well in limited action when injuries struck. He was signed by the Cowboys to a multiyear deal to be a starter last off-season, but lost to Bruce Carter in the battle for the job in the pre-season and barely played before being cut this off-season and snatched up by the Giants. He’ll battle Mark Herzlich for the starting job. Herzlich had his collegiate career derailed by cancer, which is the only reason why he went undrafted in 2011, but he’s cancer free and he’s done well to stay on the Giants roster over the past 2 seasons, though he did grade out negatively on 176 snaps last season.

The other two linebackers are Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger, both from the 2011 draft class, Williams as a 6th rounder and Paysinger as an undrafted free agent. Paysinger has played nondescript 187 snaps as a reserve in 2 seasons and, while Williams made a few starts as a rookie, he’s graded out negatively on 814 career snaps. These 6 will do battle for 3 spots and I’d be surprised if more than one took a starting job and did even an average job. It’s a group without a lot of talent.

Grade: C

[google_ad]

Secondary

Things aren’t much better in the secondary as they had ProFootballFocus’ 110th and 111th ranked cornerbacks out of 113 eligible last season. Corey Webster was #110, allowing 59 catches on 96 attempts for 988 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 6 penalties. Jayron Hosley was #111, allowing 33 catches on 47 attempts for 467 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 4 penalties.

Webster has been better in the past and could be better this season, but he’s also going into his age 31 season so his best days are probably behind him. Hosley was a 3rd round rookie and could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he might not be. After all, he was just a 3rd rounder and 3rd round picks turn into starters just about 30% of the time, so I don’t have huge expectations for them.

With Webster slipping, Prince Amukamara has been the de facto #1 cornerback. In his first full season as a starter after missing most of his rookie year with injuries, Amukamara played pretty well in 12 games (he missed 4 with more injuries), grading out about league average, allowing 33 catches on 63 attempts for 375 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 4 penalties. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the 2011 1st round pick could have his best year in 2013, but he needs to stay healthy first. Webster and Amukamara will start with Hosley once again serving as the 3rd cornerback, focusing on the slot.

Hosley could see more playing time than the 465 snaps he played last season because he’ll probably be the sole nickel back. Last season, when Kenny Phillips was healthy, Antrel Rolle would play there on passing downs, allowing the Giants to get 3 safeties on the field. Rolle played better in that role down around the line of scrimmage rather than back as a safety, but with Phillips now in Philadelphia, he’ll probably focus on being more of a true safety this year. After ranking in the bottom 10 among eligible safeties in 2010 and 2011, Rolle “improved” in 2012 and ranked 63rd out of 88 eligible. He’s an overrated and overpaid player who especially struggles in coverage. Going into his age 31 season, things won’t get better and they’ll probably get worse considering his past.

Stevie Brown served as the 3rd safety with Rolle and Phillips (who played incredibly well whenever he was healthy) last year and when Phillips got hurt, Brown stepped up big time as a starter in his absence. He’ll be a full time starter this year. He probably won’t repeat the 8 interceptions he had last season (remember how inconsistent turnovers are) and it’s important not to grade players purely on what they do on 8 snaps, but Brown graded out above average on 846 snaps last year, excelling in coverage, struggling a bit against the run and not committing a penalty in his first season of real action. We’ll have to see if he can keep it up. Will Hill is also in the mix and could serve as the 3rd safety, moving Rolle to the slot on passing downs, if they feel the need to do that. Hill has a checkered past, but graded out positively on 218 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season.

Overall though, it’s a very poor back 7. They ranked 31st in the NFL allowing 8.1 yards per attempt this season and I don’t know why they’d be much improved over that this season. They also won’t force as many turnovers as they did last season, which they were really reliant on to get stops last season. This figures to be a worse defensive team than they were last season and that’s what will stop them from having a big win improvement.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Tom Coughlin is one of the longest tenured Head Coaches in the NFL and the Giants have largely taken on his identity. While he’s often been written off by the media as someone who will be fired after the season after yet another late season swoon, he always comes back and the Giants have always had solid seasons under his leadership, including the two Super Bowls which have probably earned him job security for life. It’s tough to lead non-elite regular season teams all the way to a Super Bowl victory, getting the team to believe in the seemingly impossible, but Coughlin has done so twice. This season should be no different for him. They’ll be a solid team that competes for a playoff spot and they may have a stronger 1st than 2nd half. If they get in the playoffs, they’ll once again be scary.

Overall

I’ll predict the Giants season in two halves since they pretty much always fade in the 2nd half of the season. They have 3 divisional games in the first half of the season, both games against Philadelphia and a game in Dallas. They should win both Philadelphia games, but a trip to Dallas will be tougher, though they’re actually a better road team than home team. They should go 2-1 or 3-0 in those 3 games. Outside the division, they host Denver and Minnesota, two games they should split. They also have trips to Carolina, Kansas City, and Chicago. Those are 3 good teams, but they’re a good road team so I’ll give them 2 wins in those if I have them at 2-1 (or 1 win if I have them at 3-0) in the 3 divisional games and 1-1 in the other 2 games, putting them at 5-3 going into a conveniently placed week 9 bye.

After the bye, they have a home game against Dallas and both games against Washington in the division, and I think they’ll go 1-2 in those 3 games, putting them at 3-3 or 4-2 in the division. They host Green Bay, Oakland, and Seattle. Oakland should be a win and they should split the Green Bay/Seattle games. Seattle isn’t a good road team and that’s an early start. That puts them at 8-6 with games in San Diego and Detroit. I think they could win both of those games, which puts them at 9 or 10 wins, which sounds about right. I have them just below Dallas in the division and losing out in a tough Wild Card battle in the NFC.

Projection: 9-7 2nd in the NFC East

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Dallas Cowboys 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

When the Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a 6-year, 108 million dollar contract extension with 55 million dollars guaranteed this off-season, it got a lot of criticism, as could be expected. After all, Romo is the media’s favorite whipping boy, for whatever reasons. And, yes, when you compare it to the contracts of other top flight quarterbacks, it looks like an overpay.

However, I say about that extension the same thing I said when the Ravens paid Joe Flacco: if the Cowboys hadn’t kept him, teams would have been lining up to “overpay” him. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind Romo could have gotten that kind of money on the open market. Just ask fans of the Bills or the Cardinals or the Jaguars or the Browns how much they wish it could be their team paying Romo that kind of money to play quarterback for them. Because, at the end of the day, there are two types of teams in the NFL, teams with quarterbacks you can win with and teams without and, because of Romo, the Cowboys are the former.

In his career, Romo has completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA and 177 touchdowns to 91 interceptions, good for a career QB rating of 95.6, 5th highest all-time behind Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. He has a career record of 55-38 and while he has a reputation for not being clutch, he has led 18 4th quarter comebacks in those 55 wins and he has a career record of 19-19 in games decided by a touchdown or less. He also has the highest 4th quarter QB rating of any active quarterback. He may only be 1-3 in the post-season in his career, but, like with Matt Ryan, it’s not fair to judge a quarterback’s entire career on 4 games. I don’t understand why he takes the type of criticism he does.

Romo has a reputation for being someone who throws a lot of interceptions, but his career interception rate of 2.8% is barely higher than Peyton Manning’s 2.7% career interception rate (Drew Brees is also at 2.7%). In fact, the 19 interceptions he threw last season, which led the league, tied a career high and was the same amount he threw in his last two full seasons combined. Eli Manning led the league with 25 interceptions in 2010 and his 2011 turned out to be pretty good. Romo’s interception total should regress to the mean in 2013.

Turnovers were an issue overall for the Cowboys in 2012 as they had a turnover differential of -13 and managed just 16 takeaways. That tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, however. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

They should be better in that aspect this season and for that reason a better team. They actually have a good deal of talent on both sides of the ball so as long as they don’t get in their own way turnover wise or continue struggling to produce takeaways defensively, they should be an improved team in 2013. Of all the divisions in the NFC, theirs is the weakest and the most up for grabs. They should contend for the division title and the trip back to the post-season that would come with it.

Quarterback

I talked extensively about Romo in the opening and I’m not going to repeat myself. Just know that you can win a Super Bowl with Romo as your quarterback and that the media criticism of him is incredibly unfounded. The Cowboys haven’t had the supporting cast to complement him in a while, but I think this might be their most talented team in years.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

What really helps Romo is the development of #1 wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant has always had all the talent in the world and, as is often the case with wide receivers, he finally put everything together in his 3rd year in the league in 2012, catching 92 passes for 1382 yards and 12 touchdowns and playing in all 16 games for the first time. Among eligible wide receivers, only Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had higher quarterback ratings when thrown to than Bryant, as Romo completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 10.1 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when throwing to Bryant, a QB rating of 123.2.

He closed 2012 incredibly well, catching 50 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final 8 games and while you never like to see a receiver drop 11 passes in a season, 7 of those came in the first 7 games of the season. This off-season has actually been his first without any sort of off the field distraction so he could be even better in 2013. He finally seems to have turned a corner.

Romo also has one of the best tight ends in the NFL as Jason Witten led all tight ends with 110 catches for 1039 yards last year, to go with 3 touchdowns. Witten and Bryant were one of just five receiver duos in the NFL to each have 1000 yards receiving and the only one to feature a tight end. Witten is one of the most dependable players in the NFL regardless of position. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003, signing a waiver to play through a ruptured spleen week 1 of last season and his worst season since his rookie year was 2006, when he still caught 64 passes for 754 yards and 1 touchdowns.

Since 2004, his 2nd season in the league, he’s averaged 86 catches for 956 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and only going into his age 31 season coming off a career high in catches, I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. He’s also a phenomenal run blocker who has graded out significantly above average in that aspect on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 5 seasons. There’s a reason he was their #3 ranked tight end last season.

Miles Austin almost made it 3 receivers with over 1000 yards last season as he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns, rebounding from an injury plagued 2011 season. He might never produce the kind of numbers he had in 2009 and 2010 again, when he averaged 75 catches for 1181 yards and 9 touchdowns per season, because of Dez Bryant’s emergence and Jason Witten’s presence, and his final 8 game production from 2012 is concerning (25 catches for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns), but he’s only 29 and as your 3rd option, you can do a lot, lot worse.

The Cowboys have a great top receiving trio. All of their receiving numbers might be a little inflated because the Cowboys passed the ball 658 times in 2012, which was 3rd most in the NFL and 90 more attempts than any Cowboy team in the Tony Romo era. However, this is more and more becoming a passing league and while they’d probably prefer not to have to pass that many times in 2013, they’ll still be a pass heavy team that should throw the ball at least 600 times and you can’t deny their receiving talent.

The Cowboys also spent 2nd and 3rd round picks adding to this receiving corps, which was a need considering the only other player after their top 3 who had more than 262 receiving yards was Kevin Ogletree, who is now in Tampa Bay. 3rd round pick Terrance Williams will compete with 3rd year pro Dwayne Harris, a 2011 6th round pick who caught all 17 of his career receptions in the 2012 season, for the #3 wide receiver job. Williams appears to have the upper hand in that battle and should be able to win it. Williams is a straight line speedster who was incredibly productive at Baylor, but needs to work on his route running. Whoever wins that job will line up outside and push Austin to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, which they ran on 51% of offensive snaps in 2012.

That number could be lower in 2013 though. In 2011, they used two-tight end sets much more frequently than in 2012 and the reason for that was the loss of Martellus Bennett, following the 2011 season. Bennett was a 2nd round pick of the Cowboys’ in 2008 and while he was trapped behind Witten on the depth chart, he was secretly one of the best #2 tight ends in the NFL and saw the field frequently. There’s a reason he turned into one of the better all-around tight ends in the NFL once he got a starting job in New York in 2012. However, with John Phillips as the #2 tight end in 2012, they just weren’t able to do the same sort of things. Phillips played just 342 snaps, fewer than Bennett had in any season and he too is also gone as a free agent this off-season.

Seeing the opportunity to upgrade that spot, they used a 2nd round pick on Gavin Escobar, from San Diego State, and he should see the field plenty as a rookie. He’s not the same type of inline blocker than Bennett was, but he’s a more fluid athlete and pass catcher. He’ll be used more as a move tight end with Witten able to block inline and he’ll allow the Cowboys to get back to the two-tight end sets they love. Williams and Escobar add to this receiving corps’ depth and allow them more versatility and it really is overall one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One of the reasons why the Cowboys passed so much in 2012 was because they couldn’t get anything going on the ground. They averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, tied for 2nd worst in the NFL, rushed for just 1265 yards, 2nd worst in the NFL, and ran the ball just 355 times, also 2nd worst in the NFL. DeMarco Murray might be a little overrated off of his 25 carry/253 yard performance against St. Louis in his first NFL start as a 3rd round rookie in 2011. That was a completely hapless Rams defense at the time and if you take out that game, he’s averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in his career. Last season, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and since his first 4 starts, he’s managed just 866 yards on 225 carries, a 3.8 YPC clip. He’s not as proven as people think.

He’s also been hampered by numerous injuries, missing the end of his rookie season in 2011 and being limited to 161 carries in 2012. Injuries can not only keep a running back off the field, but also sap his explosiveness and Murray has injury issues dating back to his collegiate days at Oklahoma. There’s a reason he fell to the 3rd round. In Murray’s absence last year, the Cowboys rushed Felix Jones, Lance Dunbar, and Phillip Tanner, who combined to rush for 538 yards on 157 carries, a pathetic 3.4 YPC.

Seeing the need for an insurance policy behind Murray, the Cowboys used a 5th round pick on Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State, who will see carries should Murray get hurt or struggle. He has a good chance to see action, but I don’t know how effective he’ll be. He was just a 5th round rookie and he’s a one speed back who did most of his work in open space in college and his measurables, 4.63 40 at 6-0 204, don’t impress.

Grade: C+

[yard_barker]

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why they’ve struggled on the ground of late has been their poor offensive line play, though they are a better run blocking offensive line than pass blocking, ranking 26th on ProFootballFocus in terms of pass protection and 23rd in pass blocking efficiency last season. Seeing the problem, they spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman.

The problem is they reached for Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick, a self-proclaimed “2nd or 3rd round offensive lineman.” While I don’t have much doubt Frederick will be a solid starter in the NFL, the time for drafting solid starting interior offensive linemen isn’t the 1st round. That being said, he will be an upgrade for them on the offensive line, though it’s unknown where he’ll play. He has the versatility to play both guard and center and they need help at both spots.

Right guard is the position where they need the most help. They signed career backup Mackenzy Bernadeau to be their starter at right guard last season for some reason and it went exactly as you’d expect. Bernadeau graded out well below average at right guard and was even worse in 2 starts at center. At center, Ryan Cook actually did a solid job in 13 games, but it’s going to be hard to count on the career backup long term. Cook was only out there because Phil Costa was hurt.

Costa, who will start at center if Frederick plays guard, graded out above average last year on 126 snaps before getting hurt, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked center out of 35 eligible in 2011. Frederick will be able to plug one of these holes, but not both and I don’t think he’ll be a big time impact player. At left guard, Nate Livings actually played pretty well, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked guard in 2012, but in 2011 he was 52nd out of 78 eligible and 2012 was the first season he graded out above average, so I don’t know how reliable he can be.

Things aren’t much better at right tackle. After a strong 2010 season, the Cowboys rewarded left tackle Doug Free with a 4 year, 32 million dollar contract with 17 million guaranteed, even though he was only a one year starter. He proved to be a one year wonder. He struggled at left tackle in 2011 and was moved to right tackle this year, in hopes of turning things around.

He didn’t turn things around. In fact, he was worse. He was one of the worst tackles in the league, allowing 6 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback hurries, while committing a league leading 15 penalties. He split time with Jeremy Parnell down the stretch, who didn’t impress either. Free ranked 66th out of 80 eligible tackles on ProFootballFocus. He restructured his contract this off-season to stay with the team and will compete with Parnell, who graded out below average on 267 snaps in his first serious playing time since going undrafted in 2009. They’ve been linked to free agent right tackle Eric Winston, who would be a tremendous upgrade, but they won’t meet his asking price. If it comes down, which it could if he’s remains unsigned in 2 weeks’ time, he could be a Cowboy.

Their best offensive lineman is left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith was their right tackle in 2011 and played so well, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle, that he got to move to the blindside for 2012. He didn’t play as well, committing 11 penalties and struggling some in pass protection, but he run blocked incredibly well, 8th among offensive tackles in terms of run blocking, and overall graded out above average. The 9th overall pick in 2011, he is only 22 (23 in December) so he still has plenty of upside and could emerge as an above average blindside protector this season. Their offensive line has plenty of issues still though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Cowboys actually have a lot of defensive talent, but didn’t really play like it last season, allowing 25.0 points per game, 24th in the NFL. Part of this had to do with their inability to force turnovers, which should be better in 2013, as I mentioned earlier. However, a lot of the blame could fall on Rob Ryan, their Defensive Coordinator at the time. He has since been fired and replaced with Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin is an odd fit in Dallas because of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They spent big resources on Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne last off-season, but both fit a man press scheme better than Kiffin’s signature Cover 2. Kiffin says he won’t force the scheme on the cornerbacks, but why hire Kiffin if you aren’t going to run the Tampa 2? Kiffin is a good coordinator, but this is a weird fit and it looks like Jerry Jones only did it for the attention and his big name.

That being said, Kiffin will move their front 7 to a 4-3 alignment, which fits their personnel much better. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will move from rush linebacker to defensive end. They were among the best pass rushing duos in the NFL last season. Spencer, who was franchised for the 2nd straight off-season this off-season, actually graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top ranked rush linebacker last season. While last season was the first season he had big time sack numbers, he’s always gotten consistent pressure and been one of the best run stopping rush linebackers in the NFL. He’s been in the top-13 at the position in each of the last 5 seasons, grading out above average in all 5 seasons. Last season, Spencer had 11 sacks, 2 hits, and 27 hurries on 318 pass rush snaps, a 12.6% pass rush rate.

Ware, meanwhile, has the bigger name, but was the inferior overall player last year. He rushed the passer really well, grading out 3rd at his position only behind Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith, producing 14 sacks, 13 hits, and 32 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps, a 13.0% pass rush rate. However, his struggles against the run, in coverage, and his position leading 9 penalties can’t be ignored.

He’s only going into his age 31 season and from 2008-2011 he was in the top-4 at his position on ProFootballFocus. Both are among the best edge rushers in the league and while neither has ever played in a 4-3, I don’t have too many concerns about how they’ll adjust, especially considering nickel and dime packages in a 3-4 and a 4-3 aren’t that different. They are, however, the lightest defensive end duo in the NFL, so they could have some issues against the run. Tyrone Crawford, a 2012 3rd round pick, will be the 3rd defensive end. He graded out positively on 303 snaps as a rookie and at 274 pounds, he’ll help against the run in certain situations. He can also line up inside on passing downs.

Inside at defensive tackle, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher will start. Ratliff will be a better fit in a 4-3 than he was in a 3-4 because he’s at his best when he’s penetrating and getting up the field, rather than playing nose tackle. The issue is he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off a season where he played just 269 snaps due to injury. After restructuring his contract this off-season, he’s unlikely to be back in 2014 and beyond, but from 2008-2011 he was a top-11 defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in all 4 seasons despite playing slightly out of position, so there’s some hope for a strong year from him in his new position.

Hatcher, meanwhile, might not be as good of a fit for the scheme. At 6-6 285, he’s undersized for a defensive tackle, but not quick enough to play defensive end. In a 3-4, this “tweener” was a perfect fit as a 5-technique because of his combination of size, speed, and length, but it’s unclear how he’ll fit in a 4-3. For what it’s worth, he was incredible last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but that was really the first season he had ever done anything like that, though he had always been good in limited action. They’ll have to hope he can be even close to that good in their new scheme.

Sean Lissemore will serve as the 3rd defensive tackle. Like Tyrone Crawford, his role will be more as a run stopper than anything. All across their starting defensive line, they have great pass rushers who are undersized and going to struggle stopping the run, but that’s how Monte Kiffin’s defensive lines usually are. They’re built on size and pass rush, as opposed to size and physicality. They were ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked pass rushing team last season and have a chance to be even better than that this season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Despite their small defensive line, they might not struggle to stop the run. That’s because they have two excellent linebackers. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are also a little smaller than the average linebacker, but they’re so fast and sticky that they are very hard to engage in the running game and they’re both excellent fits for Monte Kiffin’s new scheme. Injuries are the only issue here.

Lee has a history of injury issues dating back to his collegiate dates at Penn State, part of the reason why he fell to the 2nd round in 2010. As a reserve as a rookie, he played incredibly well on 169 snaps. In 2011, in his first full season as a starter, he was ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker. In 2012, he was off to an incredible start before getting hurt and missing 10 games with a toe injury, but he was still ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker despite playing just 336 snaps. He absolutely has the potential to be one of the top-3 middle linebackers in the league, especially in this new scheme, should he stay healthy. At his best, maybe only Patrick Willis is better than him.

Bruce Carter will play outside as an every down linebacker alongside Lee. When the Cowboys selected Bruce Carter in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, they were taking a real chance. Carter had first round ability, with legitimate 4.4-4.5 speed at 6-1 241 and great weight room strength, throwing up 25 reps of 225 at The Combine, but was widely expected to go on day 2 because he had torn his ACL in the prior November. Not only would he likely not contribute as a rookie, he was a real question mark going forward. He couldn’t run the 40 at The Combine and it was a question whether he’d ever be able to regain that same explosiveness.

The Cowboys didn’t wait long into the 2nd day to take him, taking him 40th overall with the 8th pick of the 2nd round, doing so despite having 3 established middle linebackers ahead of him, Keith Brooking, Bradie James, and Lee and also despite running a 3-4 scheme that Carter didn’t seem to be a natural fit for. He’d be playing 3-4 middle linebacker, a position more focused on size and strength, coming up to plug the run, rather than speed, instincts, and athleticism, making plays in space. His sideline to sideline speed would not be best utilized in that scheme.

Carter predictably barely played as a rookie, but in his 2nd year in the league in 2012, with Brooking and James gone, Carter beat out free agent signee Dan Connor, widely perceived as the favorite for the job after landing a multiyear deal in free agency. Carter eventually became an every down linebacker at middle linebacker after injuries knocked out Sean Lee for the season, but once again, injuries found Carter when he dislocated his elbow on Thanksgiving and had to be put on IR. Still, despite only playing 625 snaps and despite playing out of position, Carter graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked inside linebacker out of 62 eligible, with only 3 players ranked higher than him that played fewer snaps than him.

Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Carter is healthy again, but more importantly the scheme has changed. Carter will be moving outside to weakside linebacker, where he will play every down in the role that Derrick Brooks thrived in with the Buccaneers for so many years under Kiffin. Carter’s skill set fits that role perfectly as his natural athleticism, instincts, and range will be allowed to shine. Provided he stays healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Carter emerged as one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL this season.

The 3rd linebacker will be Justin Durant. He’ll primarily be a run stopper and come off the field in passing downs for an extra defensive back. He’ll be a perfect fit for this role. He’s not a well-rounded player at all, but in the last three years, he’s graded out as ProFootballFocus  1st (2010), 7th (2011), and 8th (2012) ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on ProFootballFocus. Barring injury, this is one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. I like this front 7 a lot as a whole.

Grade: A

[google_ad]

Cornerbacks

Brandon Carr is their #1 cornerback. He’s an overrated player who wasn’t worth what they paid him last off-season. He played pretty well in Kansas City when he had Brandon Flowers to cover #1 receivers opposite him, but he had his worst season since his rookie year last season as Dallas’ #1 cornerback. Still, he graded out as a league average player, allowing 51 catches on 87 attempts for 644 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 3 penalties.

What would really help Carr is if Morris Claiborne could develop into a #1 cornerback. The 2012 6th overall pick certainly has the upside, but he struggled as a rookie, grading out below average and allowing 48 catches on 69 attempts for 571 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 8 penalties. He should be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he might be a year away from developing into a top flight cornerback, if he’s ever going to.

Orlando Scandrick will be the slot cornerback and with Mike Jenkins gone, he should see more than the 339 snaps he played last season. He graded out about league average, allowing 20 catches on 39 attempts for 222 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 3 penalties. He never developed into the player they expected him to be when they prematurely gave him a “forward thinking” 5 year, 25 million dollar contract with 10 million guaranteed two off-seasons ago. Owed 3.5 million in 2014, this could be his last season with the team, so the Cowboys drafted BW Webb in the 4th round. Webb will be their 4th cornerback this season.

The Cowboys may use 4 cornerbacks more than most teams, like they did last year with Jenkins, because of their lack of talent at the safety position. It could be even worse this season. They’ve essentially got 5 guys competing for two spots and none of them are very impressive. Barry Church started last year as a starter before tearing his Achilles. He’s only played in 399 snaps in his career since going undrafted in 2010 and hasn’t played very well, but he should win one of the starting jobs because of his salary. In yet another “forward thinking” extension by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys extended him for 4 years, 12.4 million last year after he tore his Achilles, even though he had another year left on his contract.

Will Allen, a career backup and special teamer going into his age 31 season, is another option. He graded out about average on 432 snaps with the Steelers last season. Danny McCray, who played in Church’s absence last season, graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 77th ranked safety out of 88 eligible despite playing just 658 snaps. Matt Johnson is an inexperienced 2012 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap last season. JJ Wilcox, meanwhile, is a 3rd round pick rookie who is incredibly raw. There’s not a lot to like here at safety and it’s really the weakness of their defense. However, they still have a lot of defensive talent and barring major injury or major issues adjusting to the new scheme by some of their premier players, they should be an improved defensive group next season and they should force more takeaways as well.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Jason Garrett gets a lot of criticism, but unlike Tony Romo, he does deserve a lot of it. His Cowboy teams have largely underachieved over the years, doing so last year while committing 118 penalties, 3rd most in the NFL. His name has been thrown around as a coach who could potentially get fired and if they don’t make it back to the playoffs this season, this could be it for him. He’s already had play calling duties taken away from him.

Grade: C+

Overall

As I said in the opening, the NFC East is really wide open. Washington won the division with 10 wins last year and they could easily not match that because of Robert Griffin’s health questions and because of the ridiculous fumble luck they had last season. The Giants are obviously a candidate to bounce back, but they still have major questions in their defensive back 7. Philadelphia, meanwhile, remains a mystery. The Cowboys could easily go 4-2 or better  in divisional play.

Outside of the division, they host St. Louis, Denver, Minnesota, Oakland, and Green Bay. Denver and Green Bay will be tough games, but they could win one of those games and they should win the other 3. On the road, they go to Kansas City, San Diego, Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago. New Orleans should be a very tough one and Detroit and Chicago won’t be easy, but Kansas City and San Diego will be easier and they should win 2 or 3 of those games. They should be able to win the 10 or 11 games it will take to win this division.

Projection: 11-5 1st in NFC East

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Buccaneers had the 31st ranked pass defense in the NFL in 2011, allowing 8.2 YPA. In order to fix this problem, they signed cornerback Eric Wright to a big contract last off-season and used the 7th pick in the draft (after a trade down) on Alabama safety Mark Barron. However, that barely improved things, as they ranked 29th in 2012, allowing 7.9 YPA. Wright proved not to be worth his contract on the field and also got himself suspended for 4 games for drug use. Aqib Talib, previously their #1 cornerback, was shipped to New England at the deadline as a pending free agent and an all-around bad apple in his time in Tampa. Barron wasn’t bad, but he reminded fans on several occasions that he was, in fact, just a rookie.

To solve the problem, the Buccaneers threw more money at the problem this off-season, signing the market’s top safety in Dashon Goldson to a record contract and trading a 1st round pick to the Jets for Darrelle Revis, who they signed to essentially a 6-year series of 1-year, 16 million dollar contracts. They restructured Wright’s contract, holding all the leverage after his suspension voided the guaranteed portion, and will bring him back to play opposite Revis.

Barron and Goldson will serve as the safeties and they also added Jonathan Banks in the 2nd round of the draft to be their nickel back, meaning that in 2 off-seasons they’ve effectively overhauled their entire secondary, doing so with high draft picks and big money contracts. Credit them for recognizing the issue and addressing the problem. The Buccaneers have been big spenders in general in the past 2 off-seasons, also signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks to large contracts on the offensive side of the ball. However, unfortunately for them, they play in a loaded division in a loaded conference and they have a quarterback who has a lot of issues.

The 2012 season must have felt like 4 different seasons for Buccaneers fans. They started 1-3, after losing their last 10 to finish 2011, and it looked like more of the same. However, after the bye, they ripped off wins in 5 of 6 games and looked like a potential playoff team. They lost a close one at home to Atlanta and then in Denver, but those were two of the best teams in the league so they still looked like they were in good position. That was until they lost at home to the lowly Eagles, and then got blown out by the Saints and Rams, to push their losing streak at 5. They finished out their season with an impressive win in Atlanta in a game that didn’t really matter.

Quarterback

It’s no surprise they’re this inconsistent when their quarterback is this inconsistent. It wasn’t just last year. They went 3-13 in 2009, 10-6 in 2010, and then 4-12 in 2011 as Josh Freeman posted 10/18, 25/6, and 16/22 touchdown to interception ratios in those 3 seasons respectively. Last year, he started the year with a 5/4 TD/interception ratio in their first 4 games, then had a 16/3 ratio in their next 6, and then a 5/9 ratio on that 5 game losing streak, before having a decent game against Atlanta. In wins, he had a 97.6 QB rating, which is comparable to Tom Brady’s and Ben Roethlisberger’s. In losses, that rating was 71.4, which is comparable to Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez.

Overall, his stats are solid. His career quarterback rating of 79.8 is nothing special, but it’s not terrible either. But, it must be so maddeningly frustrating for Buccaneers fans to have no idea on a game to game basis what they’re going to get when their quarterback takes the field. It seems to have frustrated the organization as well as Head Coach Greg Schiano has publicly put Josh Freeman on notice on several occasions this off-season and they also used a 3rd round pick to select Mike Glennon to not just be Freeman’s backup, but an alternative option should Freeman continue to not impress.

Freeman is in a contract year in 2013, so it’s going to be a huge year for him. In 2014, he could be anything from a well-paid starting quarterback for the Buccaneers to a backup elsewhere. Furthermore, he might not even last the season as the starter. Obviously switching quarterbacks mid-season would essentially be this team waving the white flag, but if they’re sitting there at 3-6 midway through the season they might want to see what the rookie has with Freeman heading into free agency so they can determine whether or not to use a higher pick on a quarterback in a much stronger 2014 quarterback class. A lot of different things could happen for the Buccaneers at the game’s most important position and that’s what makes it so tough to predict their season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Buccaneers have done a good job of building the offensive supporting cast around Freeman. They signed Vincent Jackson to a 5-year 55.5 million dollar contract last off-season that appeared risky at the time. Jackson, who had previously held out 10 games because he wanted to get paid, appeared to just be chasing the money going to Tampa Bay and could have easily just coasted. He was also going into his age 29 season so he was on the downside of his prime and probably wouldn’t get any better.

However, Jackson somehow turned in the best season of his career, catching 72 passes for 1384 yards and 8 touchdowns. He turned out to be a perfect fit for Josh Freeman, a natural deep ball thrower, and his presence reinvigorated Mike Williams, who no longer had to deal with opponent’s #1 cornerbacks. Williams himself also deserves credit for getting himself back into shape after a miserable 2nd season in the league in 2011. All of this led to the 2010 4th round pick totaling 63 catches for 996 yards and 9 touchdowns opposite Jackson. Williams was 4 yards away from giving the Buccaneers two 1000 yard receivers, something only Denver (Thomas/Decker), New Orleans (Colston/Moore), Atlanta (White/Jones), and Dallas (Bryant/Witten) could also say.

However, it was an incredibly top heavy receiving corps. Their 3rd leading receiver was actually the running back Doug Martin, who had 472 receiving yards. Tight end Dallas Clark, who is still unsigned of this writing, had 435. 3rd receiver Tiquan Underwood had 425. And no one else had more than 165. In an effort to fix this, they brought in Kevin Ogletree from Dallas to push Underwood for the 3rd receiver job, which should help a little bit.

However, they still have nothing at the tight end spot. The aged Clark is gone, which isn’t a huge loss, but now Luke Stocker will have to take on more receiving duties, in addition to just being a sound blocker. The 2011 4th round pick has just 28 catches in 2 seasons and doesn’t possess natural receiving ability. This probably will just be a spot they won’t get a lot of production from and finding a tight end to complement Stocker will then be a big focus of their 2014 off-season. If they hadn’t traded for Revis, they reportedly would have drafted tight end Tyler Eifert with the 13th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

I mentioned running back Doug Martin in the receiving group; he’s also a big part of their offensive supporting cast and not just for his strong work in the passing game. While he did catch 49 passes as a rookie, the most impressive thing he did, by far, is rush for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, emerging as a true, complete feature back from the word go.

As is the case with all running backs, his ability to replicate that in 2013 is dependent on whether or not he stays healthy. He does have a history of injuries from his days at Boise State, but he was still an incredible find with the 31st pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, after the Buccaneers traded back into the first to grab him, jumping ahead of the Giants, who were ready to take him one spot later. He should once again give them one of the better running games in the NFL and he has already emerged as one of the best running backs in the NFL. The one minor concern is that his backup is 6th round rookie Mike James. They may add a veteran if they don’t like what they see from him in Camp.

Grade: A

[google_ad]

Offensive Line

I mentioned the large contract the Buccaneers gave guard Carl Nicks last off-season in the opening; he signed a 5-year 47.5 million dollar contract that was, on a per season basis, the richest contract ever signed by a guard, but he isn’t their only highly paid guard. In the off-season after the 2011 season, the Buccaneers gave a 7-year 52.5 million dollar extension to guard Davin Joseph. However, both guards missed significant time with injury last season, with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks going down for the season after 7 games.

Both will return this season. Nicks’ presence will be huge. He was on his way to another fantastic season before getting hurt in 2012 and he was a top-4 guard on ProFootballFocus in every season from 2009-2011. He’ll certainly be an upgrade over Ted Larsen, who took over at center when Nicks’ injury forced Jeremy Zuttah back from center to left guard.

Joseph, meanwhile, is an overpaid and overrated player. In 2011, when he graded out slightly below average, that was actually his best season grade wise of the past 4 seasons. In 2008, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked guard out of 74 eligible. In 2009, he graded out 75th out of 84 eligible and in 2010, before he got that ridiculous extension, he was dead last among eligible guards. Going into his age 30 season coming off a major injury probably won’t help matters. He’ll probably be better than the Ted Larsen/Jamon Meredith train wreck that split time at right guard in his absence in 2012, but he won’t be a significant improvement or anything.

In between Joseph and Nicks, Zuttah will start at center. A guard throughout his pro career, Zuttah was shifted to center to make room for Carl Nicks by Greg Schiano, who was actually Zuttah’s college coach at Rutgers. He made 7 starts at center before having to move back to left guard and he was pretty much as he has always been, an average starter at both positions. I don’t expect anything different from him this year in what should be his first full season at center.

Starting at left tackle will once again be Donald Penn. Penn made news this off-season for reportedly failing to meet most of the weight clauses in his contract and angering management. It was a plausible report. He’s had issues with his weight before. However, Penn and management both refuted the report, Penn doing so angrily, and his on the field performance in 2012 certainly didn’t suggest he was out of shape. It’s likely that was a false report. He’s graded out 16th and 24th respectively in 2011 and 2012 on ProFootballFocus and is an above average left tackle. He’s also never graded out negatively in 5 seasons. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s good in both aspects and only committed 5 penalties last season. He also hasn’t missed a game in over 5 seasons. Though he’s heading into his age 30 season, he should be dependable once again.

Bookending Penn at right tackle will be either DeMar Dotson or Gabe Carimi. Dotson should get the nod as he was above average in his first season as a starter, only struggling with penalties (10), while Carimi has been largely a bust since going in the first round in 2011, with the exception of a few starts at right guard late last season. There’s a reason the Bears let him go for pretty much nothing. He’ll be better served as a reserve guard in case something happens to Nicks or Joseph again.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Defensively, the big acquisition was Darrelle Revis. One of the very powerful things he does is he can lock down one side of the field and allow the players around him to blitz more often. He also forces coverage sacks. That’s good news because the defensive line has plenty of questions, particularly about their ability to get to the quarterback. That’s because the Buccaneers lost their top pass rusher Michael Bennett this off-season.

Bennett is incredibly versatile and well rounded, lining up at two positions 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.

In 2012, he led the 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. His versatility was incredibly valuable because it allowed him to move to defensive tackle on passing downs and essentially get 3 defensive ends on the field at one time. He’ll be missed, especially for a team that managed just 27 sacks last season.

Fortunately, the Buccaneers will get Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers back. Clayborn, their 1st round pick in 2011, had a decent rookie year, contributing big time as a pass rusher with 8 sacks, 10 hits, and 32 hurries on 434 pass rush snaps, an 11.5% rate, but his terrible play against the run cancelled all that out and earned him an overall average grade. In 2012, he played poorly in the first 3 games of the season and before he could get things turned around his tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. He’s got talent and he’s going into a crucial 3rd year, but he might not have all of his explosiveness back.

Bowers, meanwhile, got hurt in the off-season and returned after 6 games on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but was unable to play more than limited snaps, playing just 292 on the season and grading out just above average. In 2011, as a 2nd round rookie from the same draft class as Clayborn, he graded out slightly below average on 505 snaps. He’ll be healthier in 2013 though. There’s definitely some upside here, but they’re also definitely unproven. They also lack depth, which could be a big concern considering they’re coming off serious injuries and have histories of injuries. The 3rd defensive end is Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who stopped the run alright, but managed just 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 18 hurries on 432 pass rush snaps last season, a pitiful 6.0% rate. It’s an area of concern for sure.

Their most dependable pass rusher is probably going to be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had 5 sacks, 12 hits, and 37 hurries on 635 pass rush snaps, a 8.5% pass rush rate, very impressive considering his inside position. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked pass rushing defensive tackle last season and could lead this team in sacks. He’s also well rounded and joined Geno Atkins and Kyle Williams as the only two defensive tackles to rank in the top-5 in pass rushing and run stopping among defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus and he only committed 3 penalties as well. Overall, he graded out as their #2 defensive tackle. The 2010 3rd overall pick always had talent and flashed whenever he had a chance in his first 2 years in the league, but injuries kept him off the field often. Last year’s performance was probably not a fluke, but his injury history can’t be ignored. That’s the one concern here.

At the other defensive tackle spot, Gary Gibson and Akeem Spence will probably split snaps. They’ll replace the departed Roy Miller, who played the run alright, but did little else. Gibson, like Miller, is purely a run stuffer, who doesn’t generate much pass rush. He’ll probably come off the field on passing downs for Spence, a 4th round pick rookie who specializes in getting to the quarterback. Still, things are pretty bleak as far as pass rushers go so their secondary will have to play really well. It is a defensive line that plays the run well though, thanks in large part to McCoy, as they ranked 1st in the NFL in stopping the run on a per carry basis in 2012. Bennett’s absence will hurt in that aspect as well, but not too much.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The play of their linebackers also had something to do with their strong run play. The most important player in this unit was Lavonte David, a 2nd round rookie who played every down from the word go and played them well. He was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and should have gotten serious consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year even against linebackers like Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. He excels in coverage and stops the run well.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster, however, struggled last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 38th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible. The 2011 3rd round pick would be best suited as a 3rd linebacker who specializes in stopping the run, but the Buccaneers don’t have another linebacker to take his spot at middle linebacker. That 3rd run stopping linebacker will be either Adam Hayward or Dekoda Watson, who essentially split the job after the now departed Quincy Black got hurt. Whichever player wins that battle won’t matter all that much as it’s a largely unimportant position. The winner will come off the field on passing downs for a 5th defensive back.

Grade: B-

[yard_barker]

Secondary

Because of all the resources they’ve put into it, the Buccaneers’ secondary has actually become the strength of their defense. However, not everyone they’ve brought in has been worth what they’ve spent on him. Dashon Goldson was signed to the richest deal a safety has ever signed this off-season, but that was largely out of desperation. He’s nowhere near that kind of player. San Francisco’s supporting cast merely masked his flaws really well over the past 2 seasons. Remember, he had to settle for a one-year contract 2 off-seasons ago.

In 2011, he was actually ProFootballFocus’ 64th ranked safety out of 87 eligible, but made the Pro-Bowl because of what he did on 6 snaps, as he had 6 interceptions. Being on the 49ers vaunted defense also didn’t hurt. However, he was generally torched in coverage. In 2012, he was better despite just 3 interceptions, grading out 20th and fixing his issues in coverage, but he still didn’t deserve to make the Pro-Bowl, which he did largely on name recognition, team recognition, and the uncanny ability of the San Francisco Bay Area to stuff the voter ballots for professional sport All-Star games. He definitely doesn’t deserve this kind of money the Buccaneers have given him. He’ll be an asset as long as he doesn’t get complacent now that he’s been paid, but he actually graded out lower at his position than incumbent Ronde Barber, a long-time great who is now retired.

Eric Wright obviously wasn’t worth what they paid him either. That’s clear now, but it was pretty clear even when they gave him that ridiculous 5 year, 37.5 million dollar deal. He was ProFootballFocus’ 104th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible the season prior. Last year, he graded out below average on 518 snaps before getting suspended.

They’re incredibly lucky that happened because it allowed them to restructure his contract down to 1 year and a non-guaranteed 1.5 million for the 2013 season. He might be a decent starter opposite Revis, but it’s hard to count on him and the value of a cornerback like Revis is lessened if opposing quarterbacks can easily through away from him. He doesn’t have Antonio Cromartie opposite him anymore. Perhaps Jonathan Banks can unseat Wright for the starting job. He wasn’t a mistake as a 2nd round rookie or anything, but it’s going to be tough to count on him this season as well. Leonard Johnson, who actually played pretty well in the absence of Talib and Wright last year as an undrafted rookie, is the other option. The 5-10 202 pounder could also be a natural fit on the slot.

Mark Barron, the other youngster in the secondary, was also a mistake with the 7th overall pick in 2012. The safety position is just not important enough to spend that high of a pick on someone unless they’re a truly elite prospect and Barron, while a solid prospect, was reached for because of the draft class’ extreme dearth of safety prospects. He graded out below average as a rookie, struggling in coverage and while he should be better this season, I don’t expect big things from him, despite the fact that he was a high pick.

Darrelle Revis is really the saving grace of all their recent secondary moves. It’s not that they’ve brought in bad players, but I don’t like the prices they’ve paid. For Revis, however, a 1st round pick and a series of 1-year 16 million dollar contracts is definitely the right price, if not a bargain, considering the type of game changer he can be when healthy.

Revis was ProFootballFocus’ top rated cornerback in 2011, a title he held in 2009 also. He was ranked 3rd in 2008 and his “down year” in 2010, when he ranked 8th, was due to an extended holdout and lingering injuries. Including last year, when he played just 1 ½ games thanks to injury, Revis has allowed 153 completions on 371 attempts (41.2%) for 1946 yards (5.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, while deflecting 62 passes, and committing 13 penalties over the past 5 seasons. That’s a QB rating allowed of 45.3.

No one else even comes close to that and he does it despite shadowing the opponent’s #1 wide receiver on every snap, something that most #1 cornerbacks don’t do anymore. Apologies to Richard Sherman, but he’s the only cornerback in the NFL who, when healthy, you can legitimately build your defense around. Sherman is a safer bet at a younger age with less of an injury history, but at his best, no one is better than Revis.

Players like him are almost never available and when they are, they are usually sold for a price that doesn’t meet their value because that’s simply not possible. It was a perfect storm that led to the Jets trading him, the cornerback equivalent of Peyton Manning being available last off-season. Antonio Cromartie’s emergence as a legitimate #1 cornerback in his absence last year, Revis’ pending free agency (his original contract was set to expire after the 2013 season), the Jets’ awful cap situation, and the fact that they weren’t going anywhere with or without him actually made it make sense for the Jets to move him and the Buccaneers are definitely the beneficiary of that situation, of course, provided he’s healthy. He’ll be 11 months removed from the ACL tear week 1 so I don’t have too many concerns.

Grade: B+

Head Coach

It may have just been that the 2011 Buccaneers under Raheem Morris were arguably the worst coached team of all-time, but Greg Schiano’s presence in his first year as the Head Coach of the Buccaneers made a noticeable difference. They only improved 3 wins at the end of the day, but they went from missing the most tackles a team has ever missed since that became an official stat to blitzing on end of the game kneel downs. You might not agree with his methods, but he at least he has a pulse, unlike Morris, and you can’t deny he’s changed the clubhouse culture in a big way and fast.

Grade: B+

Overall

The Buccaneers are a very tough team to predict because you don’t know what they’re getting out of their quarterback position. Darrelle Revis’ presence makes this a better defense that it was last season, even with other losses, but if Freeman plays the way he did last season, I don’t think that it will be enough to improve their record considering how rough their schedule is. He’ll have to elevate his game and I don’t know if he’s capable of that.

Furthermore, if Freeman struggles to start the season, the coaching staff might just pull the plug on him as the quarterback completely, which would essentially be a white flag and derail their season. Teams that bench their quarterback for reasons other than injury almost never make the playoffs and I don’t think this team is talented enough to make the playoffs in the NFC regardless. All 3 of their divisional foes are better than they are and they’ll be lucky to go 2-4 in the division. I have them at 1-5.

Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Philadelphia, Miami, Buffalo, and San Francisco. The former 4 games won’t be that tough, but the San Francisco game should be close to unwinnable. At best, I have them winning 3 of these games as they won’t win all 4 of those first 4 games. They also have trips to the Jets, New England, Seattle, Detroit, and St. Louis. They might win in New York and won other, but I have them winning 6 games total and finishing at 6-10. When you compare them talent-wise to the rest of the NFC, they’re no better than the 10th or 11th best team.

Projection: 6-10 4th in NFC South

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Atlanta Falcons 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Falcons won 13 games last year, but largely did so with smoke and mirrors and in a way that won’t be sustainable into 2013. 7 of those 13 wins came by a touchdown or less as they went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that tends to even out in the long run. While they did outscore opponents by a total of 120 points on the season (not unimpressive, though it was surpassed by San Francisco, Seattle, New England, and Denver), they actually outgained opponents by 57 yards total on the season. For example, while they ranked 5th in the NFL allowing 18.7 points per game, they were 20th in the NFL in YPA allowed, 29th in YPC allowed, and 24th in total yards allowed. On a per play basis, they were actually outgained on the season, allowing 5.9 yards per play, as opposed to just 5.8 yards per play gained.

A lot of this had to do with their superb turnover differential as they had 13 more takeaways than giveaways. 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). Just look at safety Thomas DeCoud, who led the Falcons with 6 interceptions last season. In his previous 3 seasons as a starter, he had 8 interceptions total. We’re talking about what players do on a tiny fraction of their snaps so it’s going to be inconsistent.

While I don’t expect Matt Ryan to see his interception total suddenly balloon, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons lose just 4 fumbles all season in 2012. It’s also unlikely that the Falcons recover 64.3% of fumbles that hit the ground next season. The Falcons also face a tougher schedule in 2013, which should help neutralize that turnover advantage.

In 2012, the Falcons faced just 2 playoff teams in the regular season. While they did defeat both of them, they did so by a combined 13 points and both games came in week 5 or earlier. They beat Denver in Peyton Manning’s 2nd game back and Washington in a game that Robert Griffin got hurt with a lead. Once in the playoffs, they drew Seattle, a West Coast team at a 1 PM ET start and a team that was 4-5 on the road to that point in the season (they would have been 3-6 if Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt against them the previous week) and they still only won that game by 2. The following week, they were eliminated at home by San Francisco, easily their toughest opponent of the season.

This year, they draw the NFC West (arguably the best division in football) and the AFC East rather than the NFC East and the AFC West, as they did last year. They trade out games against Arizona and Detroit for games against Washington and Green Bay and all 3 of their division foes are better than they were last season.

Simply put, if they want to win 13 games again or even 10-12 games, they’ll have to play better than they did last season. In terms of DVOA, which does a fantastic job of normalizing NFL team’s play regardless of their raw win-loss record, the Falcons actually ranked 10th in the NFL last season and they were 13th in terms of weighted DVOA, which weighs games later in the season more heavily.

I liken the 2012 Falcons to a 4 or 5 seed in the NBA that has a 13-3 stretch, not uncommon for that caliber of a team, but not indicative of the team’s level of talent. A significant decline in wins wouldn’t even be inconsistent with history as 13-win teams, on average, win 9.5 games the following season, but I think everything I’ve mentioned so far suggests that they could be even worse than that, in the neighborhood of 8-9 wins. The NFC is a loaded conference and there might not be room for them in the playoffs.

Almost every year, a team goes from a 1st round bye to out of the playoffs and I think of the 4 candidates from 2012 (Denver, New England, and San Francisco), Atlanta is the most vulnerable. Denver and New England are pretty much guaranteed playoff spots in their crappy conference barring injuries to Brady or Manning. Meanwhile, San Francisco, as they showed last season, is simply a more talented team than the Falcons, maybe more talented than any team in the NFL.

Quarterback

Dirk Koetter’s arrival in Atlanta led to Matt Ryan attempting a career high 615 passes last season, which led to a career high in completions (422), yards (4719), and touchdowns (32). He was also the most efficient he’s ever been on a per play basis, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 99.4 QB rating, a career high. Also a career high was his 68.6% completion percentage and his 7.7 yards per attempt were the 2nd highest of his career. While he did throw 14 interceptions, his interception rate of 2.3% was actually right in line with his career average. He could see inferior production this season as a result of a tougher schedule, though not a lot inferior and if they do miss the playoffs, it won’t be on him.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One thing that really helps Matt Ryan is his great receiving corps. The best way to describe his receiving corps would be to call them top heavy, meaning it’s 3 guys who are superb and then little else. No team in the NFL had their top 3 receivers play a higher percentage of possible snaps than Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, who played a combined 2823 of a possible 3219 snaps, 87.7%. They also received 386 of Matt Ryan’s 592 “aimed” pass attempts, 65.2%, caught 264 of Matt Ryan’s 422 completions, 62.6%, totaled 3479 of Matt Ryan’s 4719 yards, 72.7%, and 25 of his 32 touchdowns, 78.1%, all most in the NFL. Ryan completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 9.0 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions when throwing to that trio and they only dropped 15 passes between them.

All three return for this season with minor concerns. For one, Roddy White is heading into his age 32 season, so some statistical drop off is to be expected. He’s already noticeably less explosive than he was in his prime and he averaged just 3.6 yards average catch per catch last season. He’s much more of a possession receiver than anything else at this point in his career, though a very good one at that.

Tony Gonzalez, meanwhile, is even older, heading into his age 37 season and his 2.7 yards after catch per catch were even less than White’s. His mere 10.0 yards per catch also shows a lack of explosiveness and while he was a great possession receiver last year, he did have 13 fewer catches the year before and 23 fewer two years before that. I think it’s much more likely that his production falls off drastically than White’s and he also can’t run block at all. Fortunately, Julio Jones is heading into his 3rd year in the league, a year when receivers tend to break out, as if a receiver who caught 79 passes for 1198 yards and 10 touchdowns in his age 23 season could break out any more. I expect him to be their leading receiver though.

After them, however, no one else had more than 402 receiving yards and the player who had those 402 receiving yards was backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Harry Douglas, the #3 receiver, was largely inefficient with 396 receiving yards on 420 routes run, 4th worst in the NFL on a per route basis. Part of that is just that there weren’t a lot of balls to go around after the aforementioned trio, but part of it is on him too and he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible.

At tight end after Tony Gonzalez, the player with the next most snaps played in 2012 was Michael Palmer, who played just 180, as the Falcons used two-tight ends the least out of any team in the NFL. That could change in 2013 though with the addition of Levine Toilolo in the 4th round of the draft. Toilolo is the exact opposite of a seam stretcher, but he can block at an NFL level and at 6-8 he’s a real threat as a possession receiver down around the goal line. He’s not Tony Gonzalez’ future replacement or anything, but he can at least be someone like Scott Chandler and he should surpass those 180 snaps played.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons the Falcons were able to win despite barely winning the yardage battle in 2012 was their lack of penalties. Including special teams, they were penalized a league low 68 times in 2012 and their history in the Mike Smith era suggests that’s no fluke. They were the least penalized team in the NFL in 2010, the 3rd least in 2009, and actually the least penalized team in the league over the past 5 seasons. That’s something that, unlike record in close games and turnover differential, is sustainable. However, some personnel changes on the offensive line may negatively affect that because of a lack of continuity.

Since Sam Baker took over at left tackle in 2009, 4 of the 5 spots have been the same for the Falcons on the offensive line in all 4 seasons, with the exception being right guard and I think that has a lot to do with why their offensive line committed just 15 penalties last season. Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, and Tyson Clabo have been together for 4 seasons and last year they missed a combined 24 snaps in the regular and post-season combined.

However, while Baker was re-signed for 6 years this off-season and Blalock remains, center Todd McClure retired after 14 seasons with the Falcons, while right tackle Tyson Clabo was a cap casualty. In McClure’s place, Peter Konz will shift from right guard to center, with Garrett Reynolds taking over at right guard. Meanwhile, Lamar Holmes will start at right tackle.

Konz and Holmes were their 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively in the 2012 NFL Draft and the Falcons, who haven’t had a lot of draft picks of late because of the Julio Jones trade, really need them to pay dividends. Konz was a steal in the 2nd round and, while he struggled mightily as a rookie at right guard, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 76th ranked guard out of 81 eligible, he should be better in his 2nd season in the league at center, his natural position. Holmes, however, is much more of a question mark. On top of that, Reynolds, the new starter at right guard, was ProFootballFocus’ 64th ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2011, despite making just 11 starts. The right side of the offensive line is a concern, not just in pass protection and run blocking, but penalty wise as well.

Fortunately, things are much more familiar on the left side. Sam Baker has, more or less, been the starter at left tackle for 4 seasons now, but he hasn’t always been good. In 2009, he was a league average starter. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 69th ranked tackle out of 78 eligible. In 2011, 60th out of 76 eligible despite making just 8 starts due to injury.

He got everything together for his contract year in 2012, when he graded out as the 27th ranked offensive tackle and he was rewarded with a rich 6-year contract this off-season. The Falcons will obviously be hoping that’s not a mistake, but it could be if Baker’s past struggles or injury woes rear their heads once more. Alec Savoie, an undrafted free agent, is listed as the backup left tackle, though reserve right tackle Mike Johnson is likely to be the game day swing tackle.

The most reliable starter on the offensive line is Blalock at left guard, who hasn’t missed a snap, post-season or otherwise, in any of the last 5 seasons. He’s been an unspectacular player, grading out most recently just barely below average, but he doesn’t commit penalties or miss snaps and in 2010 he was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked guard. Overall though, there are plenty of concerns on this offensive line. They ranked 14th in the NFL in pass block efficiency last season. They may be in the bottom half in 2013.

Grade: B-

[google_ad]

Running Backs

The Falcons didn’t run block that well in 2012, but it might not have mattered as Michael Turner was probably the worst starting running back in the NFL last season. There’s a reason he doesn’t have a job as of this writing. Turner averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, broke off a run of 20 or more roughly once a month, struggled in short yardage situations, caught just 19 passes, and got arrested for DUI. He simply didn’t have any NFL level skills. While he led the team in carries, he actually played fewer snaps than “2nd string” running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who was a valuable change of pace and pass catching back.

Steven Jackson, who was brought in to replace Turner, can’t be worse, but Falcons fans might not be getting the guy they’re expecting. He turns 30 in July and has 2395 career carries. He’s 26th all-time in rushing yards at 10,135, but the average top-25 all-time running back has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. And after players have their drop off, they average just 169 carries per season at 3.5 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back. He should have one more good year in him, but there are no guarantees at this point in his career.

With Jackson coming in, it’s unclear what role Rodgers will have. Rodgers did well in 2012, catching 53 passes, to go with 94 carries, but Jackson is also a good pass catcher and unlike Turner will stay on the field in passing downs. Rodgers should go back to being a true backup and he’ll be insurance in case father time finally beats Jackson. Jackson doesn’t have a ton of explosive burst at this point in his career so Rodgers’ speed will serve well as a complement.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Falcons may run more different fronts on a regular basis than any team in the NFL under Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, so the best way to categorize their front 7 players is into interior defensive linemen, edge rushers, and non-pass rushing linebackers. Starting with their interior defensive linemen, they used a rotation of 4 guys last season and would frequently play 3 at the same time. They lost one of that foursome, Vance Walker, to free agency and he was actually the highest rated of the bunch last season. This means that Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, and Corey Peters will have to play more snaps this season and that the inexperienced Travian Robertson will move into the rotation. There have also been rumors about them signing Richard Seymour, but for now I will only discuss the guys actually on their roster.

While the departed Walker was their best interior defensive lineman last season, Jonathan Babineaux is probably the most talented of the bunch. While Walker had one good season in 2012, Babineaux has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, topping out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 rated defensive tackle in 2009 and their #13 rated defensive tackle in 2011, and he’s led their defensive line in snaps played in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Last season actually might have been his worst season in the last 5 years, as he graded out just above average, struggling against the run, but managing 6 sacks, 4 hits, and 20 hurries on 566 pass rush snaps. He turns 32 this season so that’s a concern.

Jerry and Peters, meanwhile, both graded out well below average last season. Peters was the worst offender as only one defensive tackle graded out lower than him last season and no one had a worse run stopping grade at his position. Jerry was better, but only by default, grading out 64th out of 85 eligible. Robertson, meanwhile, was a 2012 7th round pick who only played 47 regular season snaps so it’s tough to count on him. Walker will be missed.

Someone else who will be missed is John Abraham. Abraham is going into his age 35 season this year, doesn’t play the run well, and was on a snap count, but there’s something to be said for being an incredibly efficient pass rusher and that’s what Abraham was last season, though he did completely fade away in their post-season games and not record a single pressure. However, in the regular season, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end both overall and rushing the passer and he had 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 36 hurries on 436 pass rush snaps, a 12.4% rate. They technically could still bring him back if they wanted to as he’s still available thanks to his ridiculous asking price, but all reports say that the bridge between Abraham and the Falcons is burned. For a team that only had 30 sacks in 2012, 33 if you include the post-season, he’ll be greatly missed.

They brought in Osi Umenyiora to replace him, but he’s not the same. Once a very good pass rusher, Umenyiora has been a league average player for the most part in the 4 seasons since returning from a torn ACL suffered in 2008 and he’s heading into his age 33 season. He doesn’t play the run well nor does he rush the passer well enough to make up for it, with 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 32 hurries on 422 pass rush snaps last season, a 10.7% rate. He also doesn’t have any experience in a 3-4 so he probably won’t play in any packages that require edge rushers to rush from a standing position and potentially drop into coverage.

Kroy Biermann, meanwhile, is expected to be the other starting edge rusher. He is more comfortable playing a rush linebacker position than Umenyiora, but he’s also shown a startling inability to get to the quarterback since a mini breakout season in 2010, grading out well below average in that aspect in each of the last 2 seasons. The Falcons also have a stable of young, inexperienced pass rushers on the roster as they’ve taken Malliciah Goodman (4th round in 2013), Jonathan Massaquoi (5th round in 2012), Cliff Matthews (7th round in 2011), and Stansly Maponga (5th round in 2013), in the late rounds in the last few drafts. It’s tough to count on them for much though, so pass rush is really going to be hard to come by.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Poor defensive line play was a big part of the reason why the Falcons ranked 29th in the league, surrendering 4.8 yards per carry, but poor linebacker play was also part of it. Sean Weatherspoon, a 2010 1st round pick and a breakout star of their 2011 season, inexplicably had a poor year in 2012, grading out below average overall and struggling massively against the run. No 4-3 outside linebacker had a worse grade in that regard last season, though good coverage ability and consistently impressive blitz ability helped make up for that somewhat. He was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011 and he did have a bit of a knee problem last year, so maybe that was it, but it’s still tough to know what they’re going to get from him.

Stephen Nicholas, meanwhile, is the other non-passing linebacker. He was the opposite of Weatherspoon, grading out above average against the run, but struggling mightily in coverage. He should really be only a two-down third linebacker who comes off the field in base packages, but the Falcons don’t have enough depth at linebacker for him to serve in that role.

Their 3rd linebacker will once again be Akeem Dent, though they rarely use 3 linebackers, coming out in sub packages more than any team in the league besides Green Bay and San Francisco and also frequently using 5 defensive lineman (3 interior guys and 2 edge rushers). Dent graded out slightly below average on actually 504 snaps, though that was more due to injuries than his role actually being in demand for this team. Their tendency to use 5 defensive backs also likely contributed to their poor play against the run.

Grade: C+

[yard_barker]

Secondary

For a team that used an extra defensive back so often, you’d think they’d rank higher than 20th against the pass in terms of yards per allowed. San Francisco and Green Bay ranked 2nd and 8th respectively. However, you can blame their pass rush a lot for that. Their best defensive back was actually the nickel back Robert McClain, who had the highest grade in their secondary and actually their 2nd highest grade overall defensively behind Abraham, which speaks a lot to the lack of talent they have on this side of the ball.

McClain, coming into the lineup for an injured Brent Grimes, was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked cornerback last season. Only 6 players allowed a lower QB rating when thrown on while covering the slot and only 3 allowed fewer yards per slot cover snap. The Falcons used a 1st round pick on Desmond Trufant to insure that McClain could stay on the slot. Trufant will replace Dunta Robinson, a good tackling cornerback, but a stiff cover man who won’t be missed that much. Still, it’ll be tough to rely on a rookie cornerback, especially in the first half of the season.

The other starting cornerback is Asante Samuel. Samuel was really Robinson’s opposite last year, covering well, but in typical Asante Samuel fashion missing numerous tackles, leading all cornerbacks with 18. He allowed just 41 catches on 77 attempts for 596 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties, which is impressive, but he’s now 32 years old and won’t age that well considering his game is built on quickness, jumping routes, and taking chances. The Falcons drafted another cornerback, Robert Alford, in the 2nd round to be his eventual successor in 2014 and beyond, but for now Samuel, Trufant, and McClain will be their top-3 cornerbacks and see the field together often. It’s not an untalented bunch, but there are questions and lack of pass rush will hurt.

Thomas DeCoud will man one safety spot. I mentioned the 6 interceptions he had in the opening, but as I said, takeaways are very inconsistent. It’s important not to judge a guy on what he does on 6 snaps and overall DeCoud was a below average player last year, covering pretty well, but missing 21 tackles, 2nd most in the NFL among players at any position. Ironically, he graded out better in 2011, though not by much, when he had just 4 interceptions. He’s an average starter.

William Moore is the other starter at safety. He was given a 5-year contract this off-season, but he’s struggled to stay healthy thus far in his career, playing in just 42 of a possible 64 regular season games since being taken in the 2nd round in 2009. Ironically, his healthiest season, 2010, was his lowest rated season, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus 11th and 18th ranked safety in 2011 and 2012 respectively despite limited playing time. As long as he’s on the field, he’ll be an asset.

Overall though, I find it very hard to believe that the Falcons will have another top-5 scoring defense. The schedule will be harder, their talent level is lower, and they were 24th in terms of yards allowed last season. I like Mike Nolan a lot and I think he’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL and he won’t allow them to be awful, but if they do, in fact, miss the playoffs, it’s going to be much more on their defense than their offense.

Grade: B

Head Coach

Mike Smith doesn’t get his name mentioned among the best Head Coaches in the NFL, but that probably has more to do with the fact that his name is Mike Smith than anything. He took over a team in shambles following the Michael Vick arrest, the Bobby Petrino resignation, and the Joey Harrington playing quarterback fiasco and has taken them to the playoffs in 4 of his first 5 seasons in the league, with the one exception being a season in which what Matt Ryan missed 3 games. His regular season numbers are on par with John Harbaugh, though Harbaugh has the ring.

Smith’s Falcon teams have almost always had very few penalties, won a high percentage of their close games, and won the turnover battle. While the latter two tend to be unsustainable, Smith’s Falcon teams are almost at the point where we can consider them an outlier and the former is very sustainable, though with personnel turnover that will be tougher this season and he may overall have his work cut out for him if he wants to make it 5 playoff appearances in 6 seasons. He does have help from two great coordinators in Dirk Koetter and especially Mike Nolan.

Grade: A-

Overall

Overall, the Falcons have an above average offense and a below average defense and their offense is better than their defense is bad, if that makes any sense. However, they’re nowhere near the 13 win team they were last season and they have a brutal schedule in the loaded NFC South, facing a 1st place schedule in the loaded NFC, and also taking on the loaded NFC West in their non-divisional games.

Inside the division, I think 4-2 is the best case scenario, which 3-3 being more likely. They could also go 2-4. Even last year, they were 3-3 in the division. Every team in the division is improved. Carolina, who beat them easily once and could have done so a 2nd time, should be able to win at least one game against them and the same goes for the Saints.

Outside of the division, they host St. Louis, the Jets, Seattle, Washington, and New England. They do rarely lose at home and they luck out by getting to play Seattle at 1 PM on the East Coast, but, with the exception of the Jets, that’s a tough schedule and they won’t win all of those games, with New England being the most likely loss. They also go to Miami, Buffalo, Arizona, Green Bay, and San Francisco. Green Bay and San Francisco will likely be losses and any of the other 3 games could be trap games considering that this isn’t a very good road team. Overall, it looks like 8 or 9 wins, but for the sake of parity, I’ll call it 8. Either way, I have them on the outside looking in with the 7th or 8th best record in the NFC. If they were in the AFC, they’d be an 11 win team, but that’s not the case.

Projection: 8-8 3rd in NFC South

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

New Orleans Saints 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

How valuable is Head Coach Sean Payton? Well, if you look just at records, you could say he’s worth 6 wins. Last season, the New Orleans Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, a year after a 13-3 regular season. A lot of people blamed this on Sean Payton’s absence with a yearlong suspension, but Payton comes from an offensive background and the offense was not the problem in 2012. In fact, they ranked 3rd in the NFL in scoring behind only New England and Denver, but unlike the Patriots and the Broncos, who both earned 1st round byes, the Saints were sitting at home at the end of the regular season because of their defense. They allowed more yards than any team in NFL history and their scoring defense ranked 31st as only the Oakland Raiders allowed more points.

The first move made to change things this off-season was to fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While Spagnuolo is a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, winning a ring in 2007 with the Giants, his scheme never really fit in New Orleans. His scheme is largely reliant on a strong defensive line and being able to get to the quarterback with 4 guys, something the Saints just didn’t have the personnel to do in 2012. In 2011, they had a league average defense under disgraced defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is one of the most blitz happy coordinators in NFL history, sending an extra man over 50% of the time.

After firing Spagnuolo, the Saints immediately decided they wanted to switch up the defensive scheme entirely and targeted defensive coordinators with 3-4 backgrounds. This move made a lot of sense for 3 reasons. The first is simply that when you were as broken defensively as the Saints’ were in 2012, any change can’t possibly hurt. The second reason is that eventual hire Rob Ryan, while he runs a different base scheme than Williams, is very Williams-esque with the amount of blitzes he calls, which, after not using a single draft pick on a pass rusher until the 6th round, the Saints will largely rely on to get pressure in 2013.

The 3rd reason is that several players in their front 7 are more natural fits for the 3-4 than the 4-3, which will help compensate for the lack of added pass rushers this off-season. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a former 1st round pick in 2011, played in a 3-4 in college and has largely looked like a fish out of water at 4-3 end in the first 2 years of his career, playing the run well, but struggling mightily to get pressure.

Martez Wilson was a collegiate linebacker and will benefit from moving back to the linebacker position this year, after an attempt to convert to the defensive line in 2012. Junior Galette, meanwhile, should be able to start at rush linebacker in a 3-4. He’s been the Saints’ most efficient pass rusher over the past 2 seasons, but his inability to stop the run has forced him into a situational role. That won’t be as big of an issue in a 3-4.

In addition to changing up the defensive scheme, the Saints spent a large amount of their off-season effort on the defensive side of the ball, adding Kenny Vaccaro in the 1st round and signing Keenan Lewis from the Steelers. They also signed Victor Butler from the Cowboys, one of the best reserve rush linebackers in the league over the past few years, and he looked poised to breakout in his first chance as a starter, but he unfortunately tore his ACL this off-season. Still, their defense should be better than it was last year and overall having Sean Payton back will help, though he alone won’t solve all their issues.

Quarterback

There was concern about how Brees would do without Sean Payton last season, but he did fine, completing 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 43 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, while leading the NFL’s #3 ranked scoring offense. He’s now thrown for 5000 yards in 3 of the last 5 seasons, including the past 2, the first quarterback in NFL history to do so. Since 2008, he’s completed 2114 of 3134 (67.5%) for 24730 yards (7.9 YPA), 190 touchdowns, 83 interceptions. He’s led the #1, #1, #11, #2, and #3 offense in those 5 seasons respectively and should be able to lead a top-3 offense again this season. He’s up there with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One of the very valuable things about Drew Brees is his quick release and pocket presence. Only two quarterbacks were sacked on a lower percentage of pressured drop backs last season, 13.0%. In 2011, he once again ranked 3rd, getting sacked on 13.9% of pressured drop backs. He also ranked 3rd in 2009 and 2010 and 2nd in 2008. For this reason, the Saints felt they could afford to part with Jermon Bushrod, their long time left tackle, who commanded a 5 year, 36 million dollar contract this off-season from Chicago.

While left tackle is a very important position, Brees was the one making Bushrod look good, not the other way around. Jermon Bushrod was someone I felt would get overpaid and sure enough he did. Bushrod has made 68 starts over the last 4 seasons, including the post-season, and has allowed just 20 sacks, including 11 in his last 3 seasons, but he’s also allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. He’s really a middling talent that Drew Brees made look better than he is. He was ProFootballFocus’ 44th ranked offensive tackle last season.

The Saints will try to replace him with either Charles Brown, Terron Armstead, or Jason Smith. Brown was a 2nd round pick in 2010, but he’s played just 542 snaps in his 3 years in the league, primarily on the right side, and he hasn’t done a great job. Brees might be able to make him look passable, however. Armstead, meanwhile, is a 3rd round pick rookie, with tremendous athleticism, but his small school background may mean he takes a while to adjust to the NFL.

Smith is the dark horse candidate. The 2nd overall pick in 2009, Smith was a massive bust and is on his 3rd team in 3 years, getting traded from the Rams to the Jets for Wayne Hunter last off-season and then being cut by the Jets this off-season. He missed significant time with injuries in 2009 and 2011 and in his only full year as a starter in 2010, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked offensive tackle out of 78 eligible and he doesn’t have much experience on the left side. Last year, as a pure backup, playing only 265 snaps, he actually graded out very well. He came cheap and he’s only 27, but more likely than not he’ll be the backup right tackle this season.

Even if he does start the season as a backup at right tackle, he could break into the starting lineup at some point because that’s also a position with issues. After a breakout season in which he was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, Zach Strief graded out slightly below average this season and missed time with injury. He’s always had issues staying healthy in his career, so there may be opportunity here for Smith. Overall, the tackle positions are both concerns, but Brees will make them look better than they are.

Things are better on the interior of the offensive line, however. Jahri Evans is one of the better guards in the league. He’s been a top-10 guard on ProFootballFocus in 4 of the past 5 seasons, grading out 8th last season. Ben Grubbs, meanwhile, was even better, grading out 5th. Also one of the top guards in the league, he’s graded out in the top-16 in each of the last 4 seasons, topping out at 5th last year. They are one of the better guard combos in the NFL.

In between them at center is Brian La Puente, who had a breakout year last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked center last season, after ranking 12th in 2011, his first year as a starter. He’s on his way towards becoming one of the best centers in the NFL and this is arguably one of the best interior offensive lines in the NFL. That, and Brees’ pocket presence, will help make up for their weaknesses at tackle.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Saints’ strong interior offensive line really helps their running game. They were ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked run blocking team last year and I don’t see any reason why things would change in 2013. Mark Ingram will once again be the lead back and hoping to get things together in his 3rd year, after going in the 1st round in 2011. He’s averaged just 3.9 yards per carry since and had just 278 carries, struggling through injuries. He could breakout this season though and the Saints seem confident in him, trading away their top insurance option in Chris Ivory.

Pierre Thomas is the primary backup and has done a good job, rushing for 4.8 yards per carry in his career, though he’s maxed out at 147 carries. He’s also been a big part of the passing game as well, catching 188 passes in 66 games in the past 5 seasons. Darren Sproles has also been a very big part of the passing game in two seasons with the Saints and he’s essentially more of a slot receiver than a running back. He’s had 135 carries and 161 catches in the last 2 seasons and is a threat to score at any time, scoring 17 touchdowns. He gives them a great, safe check down option (with 1544 yards after the catch in the last 2 seasons) and adds another level to their explosive offense. On top of that, Jed Collins is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked fullback in 2012 and 2nd ranked in 2011.

Grade: B+

[yard_barker]

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Marques Colston gets a reputation for being injury prone and he has had a bunch of knee surgeries, but he’s only missed 10 games in 7 seasons and he’s been nothing if not reliable. With the exception of 2008 (when he played a career low 11 games), he’s caught 70 passes for 1000 yards and 7 touchdowns in every season of his career. Last season, he once again had big time production, catching 83 passes for 1132 yards and 10 touchdowns while not missing a game. He’s only 30 and he has great chemistry with Drew Brees so he should once again be Drew Brees’ top receiver.

Jimmy Graham was the Saints’ leading receiver in 2011, catching 99 passes for 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns, but injuries led to a league leading 15 drops in 2012 and he “only” caught 85 passes for 982 yards and 9 touchdowns in 15 games in 2012. He should get back over 1000 this season though. Lance Moore also had 1000 yards last year, catching 65 passes for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s an underrated receiver who has the talent to be an incredibly productive receiver when he has an opportunity and the starting job opposite Colston is all his, but he’s had a history of injuries, so that’s a concern.

Moore will move to the slot on passing downs and young receiver Joe Morgan will play outside as the #3 wide receiver. Morgan caught just 10 passes last season in his first season of significant action as the 4th receiver, but 8 of them went for 20 yards or more and he had 379 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, doing so on just 188 routes run. He has a lot of development to do, but he should be more efficient as the #3 wide receiver than Devery Henderson was last year.

Henderson was ProFootballFocus’ 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible last year, dead last in terms of pass catching. He caught just 22 passes for 316 yards on 44 attempts on 472 pass snaps and dropped 5 passes as well. That’s bafflingly poor for someone with Drew Brees throwing him the football and a big part of the reason why the 31-year-old is still unsigned as of this writing. Brees should once again have one of the better receiving corps in the game to complement his own abilities. They’ll put up a ton of points once again.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned in the opening, there are several players who are going to be better fits for the Saints’ new 3-4 defense. Cameron Jordan is one of those players. He was a 1st round pick in 2011 and played in a 3-4 at California. At 6-4 287, he was an odd fit for the 4-3, but the Saints picked him anyway and stuck him at left end. As you could expect, he didn’t get very much pass rush at all.

He managed just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 18 hurries on 318 pass rush snaps in 2011, a 6.8% rate and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 50th ranked pass rusher out of 62 eligible 4-3 ends. In 2012, he had 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 32 hurries on 605 pass rush snaps, a 7.4% rate and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked pass rushing 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible. However, he showed great ability against the run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked run stuffing 4-3 end in 2011 and 3rd ranked in 2012. He also led the defensive line with 1059 snaps played in 2012. He’ll be a much better fit as a 5-technique defensive end and he still has 1st round talent. He should be a real asset for them as an every down player.

Opposite him, Akiem Hicks will get the first crack at the starting job. Hicks was a 3rd round pick in 2012 and graded out positively on 383 snaps as a rookie. The 6-5 318 pounder is versatile and can play both five-technique and nose tackle and will probably be primarily an early down player. Tom Johnson will come in on passing downs, which are his specialty. Last year, he struggled against the run, but is good enough as a pass rusher to make up for that, with 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 11 hurries on 229 pass rush snaps, a 7.4% rate. Veteran Kenyon Coleman, who is in his age 34 season, will also be in the mix for snaps. He graded out positively on 167 snaps last season with Dallas. Brodrick Bunkley could also potentially play 3-4 defensive end.

Bunkley will serve primarily as the nose tackle, however. He should also be a better fit for the 3-4 because he was too one dimensional to see serious snaps in the 4-3 last year, playing just 369 snaps. He graded out well above average as a run stopper, but couldn’t get any pass rush. In 2011, he was actually the highest rated run stopping defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus and he should play well in a pure run stuffing role on the nose. Overall, I like this defensive line a lot better than last year’s.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I also like their pass rush a lot more thanks to an expected breakout year of Junior Galette. In 2011, he graded out as an above average pass rusher on ProFootballFocus and really shined down the stretch when given more playing time. He had 4 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 339 pass rush snaps, a 10.0% rate. His biggest weakness was the run, as he graded out below average as a run stuffer (and below average overall because of it), as could be expected of a 255 pound defensive lineman.

In 2012, he was expected to have a bigger role as the 3rd defensive end behind Cameron Jordan and Will Smith, both coming off of rough 2011s rushing the passer. However, because he missed 4 games with injury, he actually played fewer snaps than he did in 2011, playing just 301 snaps. 225 of these snaps were rushing the passer, but he managed an impressive 5 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries on them, a 13.3% rate.

Among 4-3 defensive ends who played as many snaps as he did, only Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson had higher pass rush efficiencies (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries/pass rush snaps). While he still struggled against the run (part of the reason why he didn’t get more playing time), he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked overall 4-3 defensive end, 14th ranked overall in terms of pass rush grade.

As a 3-4 rush linebacker, his lack of size and ability against the run won’t be as big of an issue and his natural pass rush ability will be allowed to shine. Galette should have a breakout year. He could easily have double digit sacks if he plays enough snaps. If he did that, he’d be the first Saints player to do so since 2009. The Saints obviously believe in him, locking him up to a 3 year deal this off-season after originally slapping a 2nd round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Given that the deal is worth less than 2 million per year, the Saints figure to be rewarded for their foresight.

Opposite him, however, things aren’t as bright thanks to Victor Butler’s torn ACL. Will Smith is expected to be the starter here, but he’s only on the roster because he took a massive pay cut. Once their top pass rusher, Smith has aged fast and managed just 7 sacks, 7 hits, and 23 hurries on 586 pass rush snaps last year, a pathetic 6.3% rate. He ranked 61st out of 62 eligible both overall and in terms of rushing the passer last year. On top of that, he is going into his age 32 season so he’s not getting any younger and at 6-3 283 he’s not an ideal fit as a rush linebacker either, even if he does lose some weight, which he’s trying to. He played the run pretty well last year, grading out above average in that aspect, so he might be able to contribute a little bit in that aspect, but he won’t give them any pass rush.

They may take Smith out in sub packages and replace him with Martez Wilson, who is the other rush linebacker on that side. Wilson was a collegiate linebacker at Illinois, drafted in the 3rd round in 2011, but because of his size (6-3 254), strong blitzing ability, and the Saints’ lack of pass rush, they converted him to the line for his 2nd season in 2012. He didn’t play the run well, but he produced well as a nickel rusher with 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 16 hurries on 206 pass rush snaps, an 11.7% pass rush rate. Back as a linebacker this year, he should do well in a situational role behind Smith, but that side of the pass rush is still a concern.

Inside, two linebackers who the Saints signed to long term deals before last season will start. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were both talented linebackers in Atlanta and Seattle respectively before coming to New Orleans. In 2011, Lofton graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 18th ranked middle linebacker with the Falcons and Hawthorne graded out as the 20th overall middle linebacker with the Seahawks. Lofton got a 5 year, 27.5 million dollar deal from the Saints, but struggled, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible with the Saints.

Hawthorne, meanwhile, only played 325 snaps at his new outside linebacker position after signing a 5 year, 19 million dollar deal and was ProFootballFocus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The Saints will be hoping both can bounce back at their new 3-4 middle linebacker spot. For each of them, it should be a more natural spot in terms of their abilities. There’s some bounce back potential here.

If one of them doesn’t bounce back, they do have Jonathan Vilma as insurance. He didn’t play well either last season, grading out 32nd out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers and he is going into his age 31 season, so there isn’t much bounce back potential here (he was 49th out of 51 eligible middle linebackers in 2011). However, he graded out better than Hawthorne and he has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and playing both inside and outside. He’s their best coverage middle linebacker so he should at least have a situational role in coverage.

Grade: B-

[google_ad]

Secondary

The Saints’ secondary was by far their biggest issue last season, which is saying a lot. Sure they couldn’t get after the quarterback or stop the run, but their secondary got torched on a very regular basis and they were arguably the worst secondary in the NFL. The Saints’ graded out as ProFootballFocus worst coverage team, but it wasn’t even just that.

Not only were they blowing coverages on a regular basis, but they couldn’t tackle either, a big part of the reason why the Saints ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 5.2 YPC (in addition to being tied for last allowing 8.1 YPA). They missed 76 tackles and allowed 19 runs of 20+ or more. Only the Colts allowed more than those 19 and only the Falcons allowed more than the 7 runs of 40 yards or more the Saints allowed. Only the Patriots and the Buccaneers allowed more than the 66 pass plays of 20 yards or more that the Saints allowed and no one allowed more than the 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more they allowed.

As you could expect, their safeties were most to blame. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins missed 32 tackles between them, most among any safety combo in the NFL. Harper and Jenkins graded out as ProFootballFocus 2nd worst and worst ranked safeties in the NFL. Harper missed fewer tackles between the two, “only” 12, and he graded out only slightly below average against the run, but he was horrific in coverage, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ lowest ranked coverage safety. He allowed 46 catches on 65 attempts for 663 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 3 penalties. He allowed 150 more receiving yards than any other safety in the NFL and also allowed the most catches.

Jenkins, meanwhile, was worse against the run, missing 20 tackles, 4th most in the NFL among players at any position, but he also struggled in coverage, allowing 29 catches on 43 attempts for 373 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 5 penalties. In order to shore up this area, the Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro in the 1st round. He’ll come in during nickel packages initially, moving tweener Jenkins to the slot cornerback spot. He could easily win a starting job outright and turn Jenkins into solely a slot cornerback.

Jenkins has a chance to bounce back in the contract year of the 2009 1st round pick’s 5-year deal. Before last year, he habitually graded out as an average player and improved pass rush and front 7 play could really help him. Harper, however, is unlikely to. An overrated player who is a box safety at best, he was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011 and has been getting torched in coverage since signing an extension before the 2011 season.

He might be a little bit better in Rob Ryan’s new defense because he’ll be able to blitz more and not have to cover as much, but he’s way too stiff in coverage to be an asset to them. He can’t play in reverse at all. Heading into his age 31 season, things are unlikely to get much better this season and after restructuring his contract this off-season, the writing is on the wall for him. He’s unlikely to be back in 2014.

The other off-season addition was Keenan Lewis, who signed a 5-year 26 million dollar deal coming over from Pittsburgh. Lewis played well in Pittsburgh last year, allowing 59 catches on 112 attempts for 694 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 16 passes and committing 8 penalties. However, it was his only year as a starter and the track record of cornerbacks leaving Pittsburgh’s system isn’t very good; just ask William Gay and Bryant McFadden.

Lewis will play opposite Jabari Greer, who was the only starter in this secondary who played alright last season, allowing 43 catches on 74 attempts for 626 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 3 penalties. He did miss 12 tackles of his own, but he was so much better than everyone else in this secondary. He’s always been a solid starter and going into his age 31 season they’ll need him to keep that up.

The biggest offender at cornerback for the Saints last year was Patrick Robinson, who allowed 61 catches on 109 attempts for a ridiculous 1071 yards and 9 touchdowns (most in the NFL), while picking off 3 passes and deflecting 14, committing 8 penalties in the process. He was ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He’ll be their 4th cornerback this season, which is good news for Saints fans.

Also good news for Saints fans is that Corey White and Johnny Patrick also won’t see much action this year. White is their 5th cornerback at best and Patrick is in San Diego. White graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 100th ranked cornerback last year as a 5th round rookie, allowing 35 catches on 45 attempts for 422 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He deflected just 2 passes and also missed 8 tackles.

Patrick, meanwhile, only played 218 snaps last year, but if he had been eligible, he would have been ProFootballFocus’ 102nd ranked cornerback, despite his limited playing time. He allowed 24 catches on 35 attempts for 339 yards, 5 touchdowns, no interceptions, and 1 deflection. He missed 4 tackles and committed 2 penalties. Vaccaro’s and Lewis’ presence will help, but it’s going to be tough to count on big things from either and this is still a very poor secondary, arguably one of the worst in the NFL still.

Grade: C

Head Coach

Sean Payton is one of 6 Head Coaches in the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and the Saints appeared to miss him when he was gone last season, but the offense did fine without him, scoring the 3rd most points in the NFL and he is really fortunate to have Drew Brees. He’s also fortunate to have a very strong group of offensive assistant coaches, but he’s still one of the best Head Coaches in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Overall

Sean Payton’s return will help and their defense has some added talent and will fit Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense better, but their defense will struggle too much for this team to be among the best teams in the NFL. They’ll once again be one of the best offensive teams in the country, possibly even better than last season, but their defense will probably be ranked somewhere in the early-to-mid-20s. They’ll win some shoot outs and lose some shoot outs, but they should be able to make it back into the playoffs. With the exception of last year, there are 5 teams every year that make the playoffs that didn’t the year before and I think the Saints are one.

They should win all 3 of their home divisional games, but games in Atlanta and Carolina will be tough, so I have them at 4-2 in the division. At home outside of the division, they host Arizona, Miami, Dallas, Buffalo, and San Francisco. With one of the best home field advantages in the NFL, those first 4 should be pretty easy wins and while San Francisco will be tough, that’s definitely a winnable game. On the road outside the division, they go to Chicago, New England, Seattle, St. Louis, and the Jets. Games in New England and Seattle will be really tough and St. Louis and Chicago aren’t pushovers either. I give 3 losses in those 5 games, one in the 5 home non-divisional games, and 2 in the division, putting them at 10-6, which sounds about right.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in the NFC South

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]