2014 NFL Season Predictions

NE 12 4 CIN 12 4 IND 10 6 DEN 12 4
BUF 7 9 BAL 9 7 HOU 9 7 SD 8 8
MIA 6 10 PIT 9 7 TEN 6 10 KC 5 11
NYJ 4 12 CLE 6 10 JAX 2 14 OAK 5 11
PHI 10 6 DET 12 4 NO 12 4 SF 12 4
WAS 8 8 GB 12 4 ATL 9 7 SEA 12 4
NYG 5 11 CHI 6 10 CAR 8 8 ARZ 6 10
DAL 4 12 MIN 6 10 TB 7 9 STL 5 11

 

AFC Wild Card Round

Indianapolis Colts 24 Baltimore Ravens 17

Cincinnati Bengals 17 Houston Texans 9

NFC Wild Card Round

Seattle Seahawks 20 Philadelphia Eagles 17

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 20

AFC Divisional Round

New England Patriots 31 Indianapolis Colts 20

Denver Broncos 27 Cincinnati Bengals 13

NFC Divisional Round

New Orleans Saints 27 Seattle Seahawks 17

San Francisco 49ers 20 Detroit Lions 16

AFC Championship

New England Patriots 30 Denver Broncos 27

NFC Championship

New Orleans Saints 27 San Francisco 49ers 20

Super Bowl

New Orleans Saints 34 New England Patriots 31

Awards

MVP: QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)

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

Offensive Rookie of the Year: WR Brandin Cooks (New Orleans)

Defensive Rookie of the Year: OLB Jadeveon Clowney (Houston)

Comeback Player of the Year: WR Julio Jones (Atlanta)

Coach of the Year: HC Jim Caldwell (Detroit)

Prop Bets

Chicago Bears under 8.5 (+135)

Detroit Lions over 8.5 (+110)

Green Bay Packers over 9.5 (-120)

New York Jets under 7 (+115)

Detroit Lions (+400) to win NFC North

Detroit Lions (+210) to make playoffs

Jacksonville Jaguars (+450) to have the worst record in the NFL

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St. Louis Rams 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I’d say the greatest enigma at quarterback going into 2014 is Sam Bradford. The question isn’t so much what type of quarterback has he been in the past, but how will he do in 2014 in his 5th year in the league? Can you win a Super Bowl with him going forward or do the Rams have to start over at the position? The Rams drafted Bradford #1 overall in 2010, the final season before the rookie salary cap, so they’ve already given him 51 million over 4 seasons. Bradford is owed another 14.015 million in 2014 and 12.985 million in 2015, both non-guaranteed. They were hoping that he’d get this team out of being stuck in the mud when they drafted him, but they haven’t won more than 7 games in any of the 4 seasons he’s been with the team, going 23-40-1, including 18-30-1 in games that Bradford has started. As a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 or gone above .500 since 2003.

The Rams kept him for 2014 at that 14.015 million dollar amount, opting to pass on a quarterback both with the 2nd and with the 13th overall pick in the first round, in order to add talent at other positions. This was in spite of the fact that the regime that drafted him is gone. Bradford will need to play well and prove he’s the long-term solution this season in his 5th year in the league. If he doesn’t, not only will the Rams not want to pay him the 12.985 million non-guaranteed he’ll be owed in 2015, but they won’t want to go into 2015 with a contract year quarterback or pay Bradford the type of money it’s been costing teams to keep their quarterbacks recently.

The reason the Rams kept Bradford for this season was because it was a poor quarterback draft and they didn’t want to start over at the quarterback position when Bradford had shown signs of becoming the long-term answer last season. Bradford completed 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 2013. That TD:INT ratio looks pretty good, but I put more stock in completion percentages and YPAs because they show you what happens on a greater percentage of snaps. Even if Bradford has a breakout season, he won’t throw an interception on just 1.5% of throws like he did last season. Bradford set a career high in completion percentage and had the 2nd best YPA of his career, but neither 60.7% nor 6.44 YPA is really that impressive.

On top of that, Bradford went down with a torn ACL after 7 games and missed the rest of the season. We’ve seen better quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Robert Griffin, Carson Palmer) all struggle in their first season back from that type of injury so it doesn’t really bode well for his chances of having the type of season he needs to stay long-term and the Rams need to be competitive this season. Also concerning is that this isn’t his first serious injury, as he missed 6 games with a severe ankle problem in 2011. He was also severely limited when on the field that season, completing 53.5% of his passes, for 6.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.

The Rams went 3-4 in games that Bradford started last season and 4-5 in games that he missed and backup Kellen Clemens started. That doesn’t necessarily mean Clemens was as good as Bradford. Bradford finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked quarterback (17th in passing grade), while Clemens finished 25th (23rd in passing grade). He completed 58.7% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. The Rams offense moved the chains at a 68.78% rate when Bradford was in the lineup and a 67.58% rate when Clemens was in the lineup. And that was even though the Rams averaged 4.64 yards per carry in games Clemens started (1258 yards on 271 carries) and 3.19 yards per carry in games Bradford started (494 yards on 155 attempts).

The Rams should benefit from Bradford’s return, but he might not be 100% and he could get hurt again, which would leave backup Shaun Hill under center. Hill has a 62.0% completion, 6.69 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in 12 seasons in the league as a career backup, but he’s also going into his age 34 season and didn’t attempt a pass last season. The Rams’ chances of being much better offensively than they were last season, when they finished 22nd in the league, moving the chains at a 68.11% rate, aren’t great.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

If the Rams can run like they did to end last season and Bradford can be 100%, they could be an improved offense. I’ve already explained why one of those things is unlikely, but it’s also unlikely that the Rams average over 4.6+ yards per carry next season as well. That’s because feature back Zac Stacy only averaged 3.89 yards per carry (973 yards and 7 touchdowns on 250 carries) last season, including just 3.59 yards per carry in the 2nd half of the season (625 yards and 7 touchdowns on 174 carries).

The reason they were able to put up big rushing numbers and make up for the absence of Bradford in the 2nd half of the season is because backup running back Benny Cunningham and slot receiver Tavon Austin combined to rush for 412 yards on 56 carries, an average of 7.36 yards per carry. That’s unlikely to continue. Most of Austin’s rushing yards came on one fluky 65-yard run and Cunningham might not even be Stacy’s backup this season, as the Rams drafted Tre Mason in the 3rd round. Mason will probably be Stacy’s primary backup and the Rams’ change of pace back.

Mason could also cut into Stacy’s carries as well. Stacy carried the ball 249 times in his 12 starts (an average of 20.75 carries per game, 332 carries over 16 games). Stacy rushed for 2.45 yards per carry after contact, as the 5-8 216 pounder ran with great power and strength, but he didn’t average a high YPC overall because he doesn’t have great burst or ability to turn into a 2nd gear. There’s a reason he fell to the 5th round in the 2013 NFL Draft. He’s also pretty poor as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 141 yards. I don’t expect him to have more than 300 touches this season with Stacy as his primary backup and I don’t expect a high YPC either.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Jake Long was the Rams’ best offensive player last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked offensive tackle. However, he tore his ACL week 16 and, even if he is on track for week 1, he might not be 100%, especially not to start the season. It wouldn’t be as concerning if Long didn’t have an injury history. Long, the 1st overall pick in 2008, was arguably the best offensive tackle in the game from 2008-2010, grading out 10th, 2nd, and 3rd respectively on Pro Football Focus in those 3 seasons.

However, back problems slowed him in 2011 and 2012, causing him to finish 20th and 46th in those 2 seasons respectively and miss a combined 6 games. The Rams’ medical staff had to give him a thorough physical before they signed him last off-season and Long had to settle for a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal, when he could have gotten upwards of 10-12+ million dollars yearly if he had continued to play as well as he did from 2008-2010. Now going into his age 29 season, I expect him to be inferior to last season in 2014.

The Rams used the 2nd overall pick on Long’s long-term replacement, Greg Robinson. The massive 6-5 332 pounder will begin his career at left guard, a la Jonathan Ogden, who his abilities were compared to pre-draft. He should be an immediate upgrade over Chris Williams, Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season, even though Robinson is only 21 years old (22 in October) and doesn’t have much guard experience. He has a massive upside long-term.

The Rams will also start a former offensive tackle at the other guard spot as Rodger Saffold will be their starting right guard. Saffold, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league at left tackle and then again last season at right tackle last season, but he was much better in 6 starts at right guard last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked guard on just 353 snaps. The Rams re-signed him on a 5-year, 31.7 million dollar deal this off-season with the intention of having him play right guard long-term. That makes him the 8th highest paid guard in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.

His experience at the position is really limited, but he could continue to be an above average starter next season. His biggest issue is injuries as he’s missed 17 games and been limited in others in the past 3 seasons combined. He originally had a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal agreed to with the Raiders to play left tackle, but it fell through because he failed their physical. The Rams are clearly comfortable with his health, but it’s still a glaring issue for Saffold. Their primary reserve at the position is veteran Davin Joseph, who was signed to a cheap deal in late May, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked guard in 2013 and going into his age 31 season.

With Saffold and Robinson playing guard, the Rams will keep Joe Barksdale at right tackle. Barksdale, a 2011 3rd round pick, played a combined 282 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons and getting cut by the Raiders mid-season in 2012. That appeared to be a mistake for the Raiders as Barksdale broke out as a starter in St. Louis last season, making 13 starts, playing early in the season when Saffold was hurt and late in the season when Saffold was at guard. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle. He’s still a one-year wonder so there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good as that next season, but the Rams made the right choice putting Robinson and Saffold at guard and leaving Barksdale at right tackle. Now in his contract year, another good year could get him a significant contract next off-season.

The weakness on the offensive line is center, where Scott Wells was kept on a cheaper, restructured deal this off-season, going into his age 33 season. Wells was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2011 in Green Bay, helping him get a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Rams. However, he’s graded out below average in both seasons in St. Louis, finishing 24th out of 35 eligible centers in 2013, and missing a combined 13 games with injuries. I guess the Rams really didn’t have much of another option except keeping him, with 2013 4th round pick Barrett Jones reportedly struggling and still listed as the 3rd string center. Wells could really struggle this season. The guard positions are better for the Rams this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Long, Wells, and Barksdale all had inferior seasons in 2014, as compared to what they did in 2013.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Rams have tried really hard to surround Bradford with pass catchers, leading the league in draft capital spent on wide receivers and tight ends since 2010, the year they drafted Bradford. That includes a first round pick, two second round picks, two third round picks, and three fourth round picks. They also gave tight end Jared Cook a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal last off-season. As a result, the Rams have a lot of quantity at wide receiver and tight end, but they have yet to show much quality as they haven’t had even a 700+ yard receiver in any of the 4 seasons Bradford’s been in town. Some of that is on Bradford, but you can’t argue the Rams have done a good job evaluating pass catchers pre-draft.

My pick to lead this team in receiving and quite possibly go over that 700+ yard threshold is Tavon Austin. Austin was the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, after the Rams moved up to get him, the biggest investment they’ve made in a pass catcher through the draft in the Bradford era. Austin only caught 40 passes for 415 yards and 4 touchdowns on 62 attempts (61.5%) on 305 routes run, an average of 1.37 yards per route run. He contributed as a runner (9 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown) and a return man (18 kickoff returns for 398 yards and 33 punt returns for 280 yards and a touchdown), but not as a pass catcher. That’s led to a lot of people calling him a bust, but I think that’s really premature.

Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. Austin could be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league. He finished the season out well, catching 9 passes for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 4 games. That’s 844 yards and 8 scores over a 16-game season.

The biggest thing he needs to improve on is route versatility. Austin primarily caught short passes and screens and attempted to turn them into long gains. He averaged 5.5 yards per catch after catch, showing tremendous athleticism in the open field, but he couldn’t get open downfield, averaging just 5.0 yards per catch in the air and catching just 6 of 16 targets 10+ yards downfield.  He should be more productive overall in his 2nd season in the league, but he might not have a true breakout year until 2015 and he might need better quarterback play. On top of that, there’s a chance that the lightest receiver drafted in the top-10 ever (5-8 174) just never turns into a #1 wide receiver. He was drafted highly in what was regarded as one of the weakest drafts in NFL history at the top.

Austin is currently working as the starting slot receiver with Kenny Britt and Brian Quick starting outside. Britt is the wild card of the receiving corps. He wasn’t drafted by the Rams, instead being picked up for the minimum this off-season as a free agent. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run.

However, a torn ACL suffered 3 games into 2011 derailed his career big-time. As good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including that torn ACL. He averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 2012 in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees.

In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches, which is why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency. He’s reportedly dominating off-season practices though, which is why he’s listed as a starter. I’m still skeptical, but he’s only going into his age 26 season, we know he has insane natural talent, and he has every reason to give 110%.

Brian Quick, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick of the Rams in 2012, but he’s yet to live up to his talent and athleticism, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, on a combined 548 snaps. He’s caught a combined 29 passes for 460 yards and 4 touchdowns on a combined 61 targets (47.5%) and 339 routes run, an average of 1.36 yards per route run. The Rams are holding out hope he can put it all together in his 3rd year in the league, but he could easily continue to struggle.

Also in the mix are Stedman Bailey, Austin Pettis, and Chris Givens. Bailey played 194 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2013 and could have a bigger role in 2014, after he returns from a PED suspension that will cost him the first 4 games of the season. Austin Pettis is the “veteran” of the group as the 2011 3rd round pick is going into the contract year of his rookie deal. He’s graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 598 snaps in 2013. He’s caught 95 passes for 916 yards and 8 touchdowns on 151 targets (62.9%) and 885 routes run, an average of 1.04 yards per route run. He’s pretty much maxed out in terms of his abilities and should be purely a depth receiver this season.

Chris Givens is an interesting case. Givens caught 42 passes for 698 yards and 3 touchdowns as a 4th round rookie in 2012, the highest receiving total by a Rams receiver since Torry Holt in 2008. However, he only caught 54.5% of his targets and graded out below average as a pass catcher. He also didn’t progress going into his 2nd year in the league in 2013, catching 34 passes for 569 yards and 0 touchdowns on 77 targets (44.2%) and 438 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 99th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible. Now he’s buried on the depth chart going into his 3rd in the league. The former 4th round pick is showing why he only went in the 4th round and may have maxed out his abilities already.

The Rams’ leading receiver in 2013 was tight end Jared Cook, who caught 51 passes for 671 yards and 5 touchdowns. Still, he didn’t really live up to the insane 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal he got last off-season, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. That deal was undeserved as he graded out above average in just 2 of 4 seasons in 2009-2012. He’s not much of a run blocker and he’s maxed out at 49 catches for 759 yards and 3 touchdowns.

My guess is either he or Austin leads this team in receiving yards, but Austin has more long-term upside. As for the rest of the receiving corps, it’s very up for grabs. For fantasy purposes, the Rams might not have a single other fantasy relevant receiver. Rounding things out is Lance Kendricks, who is their #2 tight end and primary blocking tight end. The Rams drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011 in hopes that he’d be a solid starting tight end, but he struggled in his first 2 seasons as a starter as a pass catcher, grading out below average in pass catching grade. After Cook got brought in, Kendricks became primarily a blocker, which is something he’s typically done a better job with in his career, grading out above average in that aspect in 2 of 3 seasons.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I said, I don’t expect the offense to be much better than last season, so the defense will have to be better. The Rams drafted Aaron Donald 13th overall in the draft. Donald was expected to be a top-10 pick and is drawing rave reviews in practice. The Rams didn’t need another defensive tackle, but he was just too good to pass on. He’ll work in a rotation with Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford and I expect above average play. He’ll add to a defensive line that was already one of the best in the NFL last season.

Brockers is another first round pick, taken 14th overall in 2012. He hasn’t lived up to expectations, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, only his age 24 season, but the 6-5 322 pounder could just be best off as a base player and a situational run stopper. Langford, meanwhile, is a veteran, getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. He signed a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal after the 2011 season, after grading out above average in 2 of 4 seasons in Miami as a 3-4 defensive end, including #7 in both 2009 and 2010. He hasn’t been as good in St. Louis in a 4-3 as a defensive tackle, grading out below average in both seasons, including 82nd out of 85 eligible in 2012. Owed 6 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his deal in 2015, his age 29 season, this could be his final season with the team.

The best player on this defensive line is Robert Quinn, who was arguably the best defensive player in the league last season, finally cashing in on his 1st round talent in his 3rd year in the league, after getting drafted in 2011. He graded out by far as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end last season. The only player who had a bigger gap between them and the player ranked in 2nd below them at their position on Pro Football Focus was JJ Watt.

He tied for the league lead with 19 sacks, but that wasn’t all he did. He also added 21 hits and 51 hurries on 514 pass rush snaps, a 17.7% rate. Quinn’s pass rush productivity number of 15.3 was not only far and away the best among 4-3 defensive ends (Cameron Wake was 2nd at 14.0), but only Jerry Hughes, a 3-4 outside linebacker from the Bills of all people, had a higher pass rush productivity at any position and he was at 15.4.

Quinn also played well against the run as his 25 run stops on 312 run snaps gave him an 8.0% rate that ranked 14th at his position. As a result, Quinn graded out 3rd at his position against the run, which is part of how he was able to grade out so much higher than everyone at his position. He’s still only a one year wonder, grading out well below average in each of his first two years in the league, including 49th out of 67 eligible in 2011 and 57th out of 62 eligible in 2012. However, he’s naturally very talented so I won’t be surprised at all if he continues to dominate. The Rams wisely picked up his 5th year option for 2015, expecting him to continue that level of play. Any regression in his play will really hurt this team.

Quinn has already surpassed veteran Chris Long, who was a 1st round pick in 2008 (2nd overall), giving them 4 former 1st rounders on the defensive line. Long is the most veteran of the bunch, going into his age 29 season. As Quinn is on the up at his position, Long appears to be going down, grading out below average last season. That was actually the 3rd time in his career that he had graded out below average overall, first doing so in 2008 and 2009. However, he’s graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 6 seasons in the league, including 7th in pure pass rush grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, 7th in 2012, 4th in 2011, and 7th in 2010. He really struggles against the run, but rushing the passer is more important and Long does that well.

William Hayes is the primary reserve at defensive end. Hayes has turned into one of the best 3rd defensive ends in the NFL, after grading out above average twice in 4 years in Tennessee, who drafted him in the 4th round in 2008. In 2 years with St. Louis, Hayes has graded out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and 8th in 2013, on 374 snaps and 354 snaps respectively, who no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher than him in either season. He could easily step into the starting lineup if needed, adding to the depth of this strong defensive line. The Rams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd best team in pass rush grade last season and could easily be as good or better this season. By the way, if you’re looking for Michael Sam here, he’s not going to be written about because he’s not relevant. If you want a 20 minute breakdown of the one tackle he had in the Rams’ first pre-season game, let me refer you to NFL Network.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Rams’ defensive line will have to play really well this season because their back 7 is a mess. At linebacker, James Laurinaitis is another overpaid veteran, signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension early in the 2012 season. Laurinaitis graded out above average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league after going in the 2nd round in 2009, but he was never worth that kind of money, maxing out at 15th in 2010. Since signing that deal, he’s graded out below average in both seasons, including 31st out of 55 eligible in 2013. He’ll continue to play every down, but he’s not as good as his raw tackle total and salary suggest.

Also playing every down is Alec Ogletree, who the Rams drafted in the 1st round in 2013. He graded out below average as a rookie, finishing 27th out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. JoLonn Dunbar will continue playing a two-down role outside. Dunbar was a dominant run stuffer in 2012, finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in pure run grade, but he struggled overall in 2013, finishing 31st out of 35 eligible at his position. He could be better this season, now that he won’t be starting the season with a 4-game suspension. His role isn’t terribly important anyway, as it’s purely a two-down, base package position with an emphasis on run defense.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Rams cut Cortland Finnegan this off-season, which isn’t a big loss, considering he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback last season, despite being limited to 367 snaps by a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. The Rams are now going forward with a full-on youth movement in the secondary. 2012 2nd and 3rd round picks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will be the starters, as they were for most of last season.

Jenkins was the better of the two in 2012, but he still graded out slightly below average and he struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 101st out of 113 eligible cornerbacks. Johnson graded out slightly more below average in 2013, but flashed on 366 snaps as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. They’re now going into their 3rd years in the league and either one could have a breakout year, but, for right now, I don’t expect much better than average play from either of them.

Rodney McLeod was a hybrid safety/slot cornerback last season. The Rams also drafted LaMarcus Joyner in the 2nd round who fits that mold. Both will see significant playing time this season. McLeod can play every down, playing safety in base packages and nickel cornerback in sub packages, with Joyner coming in and playing safety in that situation. The other way around is also possible. We could also see McLeod focus purely on safety and Joyner play purely on the slot and vice versa. Either way, they’re going to be big parts of this secondary, which is an issue considering Joyner is an unproven 2nd round rookie and McLeod is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first season of serious playing time.

TJ McDonald is locked into the other safety spot, which is also an issue. McDonald graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety as a 3rd round rookie in 2013. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he was only a mere 3rd round pick and a reach of a 3rd round pick at that, so no one should be surprised if he never develops into the solid starter the Rams want him to become. He’s part of a secondary whose top-5 players have all been drafted (or undrafted) since 2012. On top of the youth and inexperience, there might also not be a lot of talent, unless some young guys breakout. The Rams’ back 7, especially the secondary, is a serious problem.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Rams weren’t as good as their 7-9 record suggested in 2013, as they finished 28th in rate of moving the chains differential at -5.32%. They moved the chains at a 68.11% rate, 22nd in the NFL, and they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 73.44% rate, 23rd in the NFL. They were able to go 7-9 because of some fluky things. Since 1989, there have only been 28 instances of a team winning a game by 17+ points despite losing the first down battle by 9. The Rams did that 3 times last season alone. Despite those 3 fluky blowout wins, they didn’t exceed their Pythagorean Expectation (-16 point differential), as they also had 5 losses by 15+ points. They were very reliant on fluky things to get to even 7 wins.

The Rams could be better on both sides of the ball this season, with a potentially healthy Sam Bradford and the addition of Aaron Donald, but not improved enough for it to be noticeable in their record. If I had to pick over/under the Rams’ 7.5 win odds maker projection, I’d probably take the under. This team hasn’t won more than 7 games since 2006 and they play in the toughest division in football. The talent just isn’t really here for them to get out from stuck in the mud. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC West

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San Francisco 49ers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterbacks

The 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the past 3 seasons who hasn’t won a Super Bowl. They’ve made three straight NFC Championships, losing to the Giants in 2011 and the Seahawks in 2013 (both of whom went on to win the Super Bowl) and beating the Falcons in 2012, before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. All three games were decided by a touchdown or less and all three losses were by a touchdown or less. They could have easily won any of those three Super Bowls. Is this the year they break through, after watching their bitter rival Seahawks win it all last season, or will their off-season issues derail them (Aldon Smith’s off-the-field issues, multiple players holding out, NaVorro Bowman’s injury, and multiple holdouts)?

One thing is for sure, if they are going to win the Super Bowl in 2014, they’re going to need to move the chains at a rate higher than last season’s, when they moved the chains at a 70.35% rate, 20th in the NFL. A lot is riding on the shoulders of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, maybe even more so than last season after signing a 6-year, 126 million deal this off-season. That’s a lot of money, as the people who freaked out about it on twitter will let you know, but it’s a team friendly deal (with only 13.073 million guaranteed) and this type of deal is the new normal for a quarterback of Kaepernick’s caliber.

It’s a have and have not league with QBs and I think Kaepernick falls on the have side. The cap has increased and quarterbacks are the ones benefiting. Deals that guys like Kaepernick, Cutler, and Dalton have gotten this off-season are proving this. This is the new normal with NFL quarterbacks. These are now average deals for slightly above average quarterbacks, while the deals that Brees, Rodgers, Manning, Brady etc have are absolute steals. That wasn’t a bad deal for Kaepernick.

Still, he was worse in 2013 than 2012 and he’ll need to be better in 2014. In his first year as a starter in 2012, he completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 8.32 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 415 yards and 5 touchdowns on 63 carries, an average of 6.59 YPC. In 2013, he completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 attempts, an average of 5.57 YPC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked quarterback in 2012 on just 536 snaps, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps at his position. In 2013, he made 16 starts, played 999 snaps, and graded out 18th at his position.

Kaepernick played well against easy opponents, but struggled mightily against the tougher ones. In games against teams that finished with 11 or more wins last season, Kaepernick completed 98 of 189 (51.9%) for 1019 yards (5.39 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while rushing for 324 yards and a touchdown on 51 carries. In his other 12 games, he’s 190 of 309 (61.5%) for 2745 yards (8.88 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns on 67 carries. Kaepernick has now played 3 games in Seattle in his career. He’s completed 46 of his 88 passes for 524 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in those 3 games. That’s not what you want if you’re a 49ers fan.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

So will Kaepernick be better this year, in his 4th year in the league and his 2nd full season as the starter? Even if he himself doesn’t improve, I do expect him to post better numbers simply because he’ll have top receiver Michael Crabtree back from injury. In 8 games, including playoffs, with Crabtree, the 49ers moved the chains at a 73.84% rate, as opposed to 69.13% in their other 11 games. They went 7-1 in those 8 games, only losing in Seattle in the NFC Championship, and Kaepernick completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 7.78 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in those 8 games, numbers more reminiscent of 2012. That’s as opposed to 56.7% completion, 7.41 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in their other 11 games.

This isn’t a surprise as Kaepernick loves throwing to Crabtree and they were incredibly thin at wide receiver without Crabtree as no wide receiver other than Boldin had more than 328 snaps among wide receivers last season. Down the stretch in 2012, Crabtree looked on his way to finally becoming the top receiver the 49ers envisioned he’d become when they drafted him 10th overall in 2009, before tearing his Achilles last off-season. After Kaepernick took over as the starter full time in week 11, Crabtree caught 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games.

The scary thing is that the 49ers’ offense got so much better when Crabtree came back last season and Crabtree wasn’t even 100%, just 6-7 months removed from that torn Achilles. He caught 34 passes for 487 yards and a touchdown in 8 games (including playoffs), 68 passes for 974 yards and 2 touchdowns over 16 games, which is good but nowhere near as good as he was down the stretch in 2012. He did that on 58 attempts (58.6%) and 226 routes run, an average of 2.15 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average.

Assuming he’s healthy, and he should be as he’ll be 16+ months removed from his injury, Crabtree could surpass his career best line of 85/1105/9 from 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver, catching 72.0% of targets for an average of 2.55 yards per route run. The 2009 1st round pick had graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons from 2009-2012 before the injury. He should be a huge boost to this offense.

One player that Crabtree’s return will hurt is tight end Vernon Davis. When Crabtree is in the lineup, Kaepernick tends to ignore Vernon Davis. In 18 games with Crabtree in the lineup and Kaepernick under center, including playoffs, Davis has 43 catches for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns and he has 38 catches for 623 yards and 9 touchdowns in the other 10 games he’s played with Kaepernick under center. The 49ers just don’t pass enough for both Crabtree and Davis to put up big numbers.

The good news is the 49ers might open it up more this season with Crabtree healthy, which would get Davis more targets, and, even if he doesn’t get a ton of targets, he’s still an efficient pass catcher and a valuable run blocker on the edge. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons overall and in all 6 seasons as a run blocker. His best overall season was last season, when he graded out 6th among tight ends overall. He was also 9th in 2010 and 7th in 2012. He’s one of the better tight ends in the league overall, even if he isn’t the focus of the passing offense.

The 49ers’ leading receiver last season in Crabtree’s absence was Anquan Boldin, who caught 85 passes for 1179 yards and 7 touchdowns on 123 targets (69.1%) and 462 routes run, an average of 2.55 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked wide receiver overall last season. Unlike Davis, he didn’t have his production affected by Crabtree’s return. In fact, he was even more productive with Crabtree in the lineup, as he caught 49 passes for 682 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 8 games that Crabtree played, as opposed to 52 passes for 724 yards and 5 touchdowns in the other 11 games.

The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin’s 11,344 career receiving yards are 29th all-time. There’s still a good chance he doesn’t show serious decline this season, in spite of that. He didn’t show any decline last season. In fact, he had one of the best seasons of his career, going above 1000 yards for the first time since 2009. He also doesn’t have a significant injury history and has only missed 4 games over the past 5 seasons combined.

On top of that, he’s never been someone reliant on his athleticism, dominating with his ability to make contested catches first and foremost, and that’s not something that’s going to go away with age as fast as athleticism might. He won’t be as good as last season though. He could also see fewer targets just because Crabtree is now 100%. However, he should still remain an asset for them at wide receiver and give the 49ers an incredibly dangerous trio of Crabtree, Davis, and Boldin, which will make life easier for Kaepernick. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he finished with a receiving yards total between 837 and 921, like he did in every season from 2010-2012.

The 49ers also added Stevie Johnson this off-season and he’ll work as the 3rd wide receiver. Johnson had a career worst year last season missing 4 games and posting a 52/597/3 slash line in Buffalo’s run heavy offense, but he still graded out above average for the 3rd straight season and there’s a very good chance he is better this year, after posting 1000-yard seasons in 2010, 2011, and 2012. In 4 years as a starter, he’s caught 289 passes for 3720 yards and 26 touchdowns on 510 targets (56.7%) and 2033 routes run, an average of 1.83 yards per route run, despite poor quarterback play. The 4 games he missed last season were the only 4 games he missed in those 4 seasons.

He won’t be that productive as the 3rd wide receiver in an offense that doesn’t usually spread it out, but he’ll be an asset for them, especially considering the 49ers’ personnel moves this off-season have signaled a pending switch to a more spread open offense. If Kaepernick can take a step forward this season, their passing offense will be much improved and this will become a very dangerous offense and, even if he doesn’t, they’ll still be better than last season.

Vance McDonald is the #2 tight end. The 49ers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013 to replace Delanie Walker and he graded out below average on 494 snaps as a rookie, particularly struggling as a pass catcher. The 6-4 267 pounder is raw as a pass catcher, but he’s a solid run blocker and he has the athleticism to become a better pass catcher. He could be better overall in his 2nd year in the league. That being said, if the 49ers spread it out more this season, either McDonald or fullback Bruce Miller will see fewer snaps. Miller played 534 snaps last season (the most by a pure fullback) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked fullback. He’s been a top-10 fullback in all 3 seasons since going in the 7th round in 2011. We’ll see how the 49ers choose to use their personnel, but they have significantly more offensive skill position talent than last season.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The other reason why the 49ers could easily spread it out more this season is because they aren’t as talented at running back. Frank Gore is going into his age 31 season with 2187 career touches. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one 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 3.52 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back.

Gore is “only” 29th all-time with 9,967 rushing yards and he could easily see his abilities completely fall off of a cliff this season or suffer some sort of significant injury. He already showed signs of decline last season, rushing for 1128 yards and 9 touchdowns on 276 carries, an average of just 4.09 yards per carry, despite having Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked run blocking unit in front of him. That’s the worst YPC season of his career.

He was even worse in the 2nd half of the season, averaging 3.61 yards per carry on 164 carries in his final 10 games, going over 4 yards per carry in just 3 games and totaling 3 touchdowns. Overall on the season, he had the 4th worst elusive rating in the league as he broke just 25 tackles on 292 touches and averaged just 2.00 yards per carry after contact. His elusive rating was the worst of his career since the stat has been kept track since 2007. He also doesn’t do much as a pass catcher anymore, with 61 catches for 489 yards and a touchdown over the past 3 seasons combined. He’s still incredibly valuable as a pass protector, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked blocking running back last season and grading out above average in that aspect in each of the last 3 seasons, but last season could easily be the final 1000-yard season of his career.

The 49ers did prepare for this though, drafting a running back in the 4th round or earlier in each of the past 4 drafts. They took Kendall Hunter in the 4th round in 2011, LaMichael James in the 2nd round in 2012, Marcus Lattimore in the 4th round in 2013, and Carlos Hyde in the 2nd round this past draft. Hunter is out for the season with a torn ACL. James hasn’t shown anything in 2 years in the league, rushing for 184 yards on 39 carries. He was on the roster bubble before the Hunter injury and, while he should make the roster now, he won’t have much impact. He’s also currently dealing with an injury of his own, dislocating his elbow in training camp.

Marcus Lattimore, meanwhile, didn’t play a snap as a rookie thanks to injuries. He suffered two debilitating knee injuries in college and was purely a flier when the 49ers drafted him, based on his immense talent when healthy. Lattimore is still not practicing as of early August and might just end up being a wasted pick. He’ll be third on the depth chart at the highest this season. Carlos Hyde, a 2nd round rookie, will be Gore’s primary backup and has the best chance of being their lead back long-term. He could end up having a significant role as a rookie if Gore gets hurt or declines significantly.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the 49ers were the 2nd best run blocking team last season. They were also 10th in pass blocking grade as a team. That’s really good, but they weren’t nearly as dominant as they were in 2012, when they ranked 1st in run blocking grade and 7th in pass blocking grade. Their offensive tackles were still fantastic in 2013, but they were significantly worse in at both guard spots as opposed to 2012. Alex Boone and Mike Iupati graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd and 5th ranked guards respectively in 2013. However, in 2013, both graded out just about average and Iupati missed 4 games with injury.

Iupati has a solid chance of bouncing back this season. The 2010 1st round pick is going into his contract year so he has every motivation to play his best. Another strong season could make him one of the highest paid guards in the NFL. He also isn’t a one-year wonder, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard in 2010 and 11th ranked guard in 2011. He’s only missed 4 games in his career, those 4 games last season, and last season was the fluke when looking at his career, not 2012. He could easily have another strong season in 2014.

Boone, meanwhile, is a one year wonder. He’s only started in 2 seasons, dominating in 2012 and grading out only average in 2013. In the other 3 seasons he’s been in the league since going undrafted in 2009, he’s played a combined 195 snaps. To make matters worse, he’s holding out in favor of a new deal, with 2 years left on his current deal, and he seems pretty set in with this hold out, even though the 49ers don’t have the financial flexibility to give him an extension. All he’s doing by holding out is hurting his chances of bouncing back this season, as he could get out of shape during this holdout and miss valuable practice time. His checkered off-the-field history and history of weight and durability concerns doesn’t give me confidence that he can stay 100% while he’s away from the team.

If Boone misses any regular season time, either Joe Looney or Jonathan Martin will start at right guard. Looney has played just 71 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012. Martin, meanwhile, is best known for being the victim of the Richie Incognito incident. What was lost in that story is that Martin hasn’t resembled an NFL starter in 2 years in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 as a 2nd round rookie and 58th out of 76th eligible on 458 snaps in 2013.

His Miami teammates (even the ones not involved in the hazing incident) publicly questioning his toughness doesn’t give me confidence that he can ever develop into a starter. Also, inadvertently through this situation, it’s come out that Martin was not in the physical shape that the Dolphins wanted him to be in and, through his text messages with Incognito, it was revealed that Martin didn’t even know how to watch film during the off-season. He also doesn’t have any experience at guard. If Boone misses any regular season time, they’ll struggle at right guard no matter who starts.

As I mentioned, the 49ers were still really good at tackle last season. Left tackle Joe Staley wasn’t the #1 ranked offensive tackle he was in 2012, but he still ranked 5th at his position. The 2007 1st round pick has graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since being drafted, especially dominating over the past 2 seasons. He’s the only offensive tackle in the league who has graded out in the top-5 at their position on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, dominating as both a pass protector and a run blocker. He’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game.

Right tackle Anthony Davis was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012. He was only 29th in 2013, which isn’t as good, but that’s still pretty solid. The 49ers will take that from him again in 2014 and he could bounce back a little bit. The 2010 1st round pick has a ton of natural talent, but doesn’t always live up to it. He graded out well below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out 75th out of 78 eligible in 2010 and 57th out of 76 eligible in 2011, before turning into a talented starter over the past 2 seasons.

At center, the 49ers are expected to start 3rd round rookie Mike Martin, after losing veteran Jonathan Goodwin as a free agent. Goodwin was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked center last season, grading out above average, but the 49ers had to move to the future with Goodwin going into his age 36 season. It’s hard to trust a 3rd round rookie, but interior offensive linemen tend to adjust to the NFL quicker than other positions and Martin was widely regarded as a steal in the 3rd round. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an average starter in 2014. This should once again be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The 49ers’ offense should be better this season and could be a lot better, but their dominant defense could be less dominant this season. They were 4th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a mere 67.24% rate last season, allowing them to finish 9th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 3.11%, despite a mediocre offense. If their offense can live up to their potential this season and their defense remains that dominant, this could be the best team in the NFL this season, but there are things that could derail this unit.

One thing is Justin Smith’s age as he goes into his age 35 season. Smith is one of the better interior defensive linemen of his era, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 among 3-4 defensive ends in 2009, 2010, and 2011. However, he’s an aging player who has gone from 1st at his position in 2011, to 6th in 2012, to 16th in 2013. He’s also seen his snaps go down from 947 to 840 to 796 last season and he could see closer to 700 this season.

The 49ers are prepared for this decline as they drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round in 2013. Carradine didn’t play a snap as a rookie after tearing his ACL in his final season at Florida State, but he has first round talent when healthy and it sounds like he’s healthy right now. The incredibly athletic defensive lineman ran a 4.75 40 at 6-4 273 pounds at the combine just 5 months removed from that torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from that injury week 1 and he’s reportedly now up to 295 pounds, which makes him a great fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He could be a valuable reserve for them this season, though the 49ers are obviously going to miss Justin Smith’s dominant form.

The other thing that could hurt the 49ers is that nose tackle Glenn Dorsey tore his biceps and is expected to miss the whole season. Dorsey graded out above average last season and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, excelling as a run stopper, grading out 9th at his position in that aspect. Either Quinton Dial or Ian Williams will be the starter in his absence as they are the only ones with the size and skill set to play inside. Dial (6-5 318) played 19 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, while Ian Williams (6-1 305) has played 71 snaps in 3 seasons since going undrafted in 2011. He was supposed to have a bigger role last season, but he was limited to 2 games by ankle problems and has had 4 surgeries on his ankles over the past year. He’s a significant question mark for the start of the season. It’s only a two-down position, but they’ll miss Dorsey.

Ray McDonald will remain the other starting 3-4 defensive end.  He’s played at least 500 snaps in each of the last 4 seasons, missing a combined 3 games over those 4 seasons, and grading out above average in all 4 seasons. He hasn’t been able to match his 2011 season, in which he graded out 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends (only behind Smith), grading out only slightly above average in the other 3 seasons. He won’t match that 2011 season this year, going into his age 30 season, but he is still a solid starter. It’s still a solid defensive line, but there are more issues than there were last season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

At their best, the 49ers’ linebackers are the best part of this team and arguably the best linebacking corps in the NFL. However, they are not as their best right now. NaVorro Bowman is expected to open the season on the PUP list and miss at least the first 6 games of the season after a brutal knee injury sustained in the NFC Championship. Even when he returns, there’s a good chance he’s not nearly as good as the 49ers have come to expect him to be, especially not right away.

It’s a shame because he’s an insanely talented young player (only going into his age 26 season) coming off of arguably the best season of his career in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker. The 2010 3rd round pick was also #1 at his position in 2011 in his first year as a starter and graded out 6th in 2012, in a “down” season. Only teammate Patrick Willis and the Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson have also graded out in the top-6 among middle linebackers in each of the last 3 seasons.

When healthy, he’s the best middle linebacker other than Willis and, if not for the injury, I’d call him one of the top-10 defensive players in the league. I can’t do that anymore unfortunately. I hope he can bounce back long-term. The options the 49ers have in his absence are less than spectacular. Michael Wilhoite has played 178 snaps in 3 years in the league since going undrafted in 2011, grading out below average on 168 snaps last season. Chris Borland, meanwhile, is a 3rd round rookie. It’s possible they split snaps in Bowman’s absence with Borland playing in base packages and Wilhoite playing in sub packages, but, either way, it’s a serious downgrade.

Aldon Smith, meanwhile, could miss the first 4-8 games of the season with a suspension. Not only will his suspension cost him serious game action, but it could really put him behind the 8-ball and lead to him being less than 100% upon his return. Smith has a troubling off-the-field record over the past calendar year with a DUI, a stint in rehab, and a false bomb threat in LAX airport. Smith missed 5 games last season while he got treatment, which makes it even more concerning that he had another arrest this off-season, even if the charges were eventually dropped and he claims no alcohol or other substance use was involved.

The 49ers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 anyway because he’s so talented when on the field though. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and, even with all of his issues, he still finished 5th at his position in 2013 on just 582 snaps. If he and Bowman can both be on the field and 100% for the post-season run, it’s going to go a long way towards helping this team get the ultimate prize, but they’ll really miss both of them to start the season.

The good news is, unlike at Bowman’s position, the 49ers do have some decent options at Smith’s spot in his absence. Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta split snaps in Smith’s absence last season and both graded out above average. Lemonier was a sub package specialist, playing 216 pass snaps on 284 snaps overall, while Skuta played 148 run snaps on 302 snaps overall. Skuta graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at that position. He played well as both a run stopper and a pass rusher, but the 2009 undrafted free agent is pretty much a career backup. Before last season, he had played 304 snaps in 4 seasons in the league, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons, including a 2010 season spent at fullback.

Lemonier, a 2013 3rd round pick, actually has long-term upside. The 6-3 255 pounder doesn’t play the run well, but he excelled as a pass rusher last year and has the potential to get better going forward. He would have graded out 17th at his position in pure pass rush grade last season he had played enough snaps to be eligible, despite the limited playing time. He could be a future starter in 2015 when Ahmad Brooks, the starter opposite Smith currently, could be gone. In the mean-time, Lemonier will be a valuable pass rusher in Smith’s absence, though obviously not enough to make up for the loss of Smith.

The reason Brooks could be gone next off-season is because he’s owed 6.75 million non-guaranteed, going into his age 31 season in 2015, and he’s coming off of a down year going into 2014. The 49ers don’t have the financial flexibility to keep him around at that salary for 2015. He was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible last season. He was 5th at his position in 2012, but that’s a fluke, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of his last 4 seasons, and his best days are probably behind him anyway. My guess is this is his last season with the team.

Fortunately, in all this mess, the 49ers still have Patrick Willis, who is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. Willis was Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked middle linebacker last season, in what was the worst season of his career. Prior to last season, he had ranked in the top-2 among middle linebackers in every season since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including first place finishes in 2007, 2009, and 2012. The picture of consistent dominance, Willis has missed 6 games in 7 seasons, made 7 Pro-Bowls, 6 All-Pros, and somehow never won a Defensive Player of the Year award, which is a shame. Only going into his age 29 season, Willis already looks like a 1st ballot Hall-of-Famer and should be remembered as one of the best of his generation. He leads a linebacking corps is that, at its best, is one of the best units of any type in the entire NFL, but they are having some issues right now with injury and suspension.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary has always been the 49ers’ weakest unit on an otherwise dominant defense and this season it could be especially weak, as they lost Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Donte Whitner to free agency. With Brown (31st among cornerbacks) and Rodgers (66th among cornerbacks) gone, Tramaine Brock will be their top cornerback this season. He was their best cornerback last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback (9th in pure coverage grade), in a breakout season.

However, he’ll take on a completely different role this season with Brown and Rogers gone and have to match up with opponents’ best receivers more often. He’s also still a one year wonder and hasn’t made it through an entire season yet. He played 678 snaps in 14 games last season, including 7 starts, and he had only played a combined 145 snaps in the first 3 seasons of his career after going undrafted in 2010. The 49ers clearly like him, giving him a 4-year, 16 million dollar extension early last season, a forward thinking deal that could allow them to keep an above average starting caliber cornerback long-term for average starter price. However, he might not be as dominant this season as he was last season.

After him is a serious question mark too. Chris Culliver is expected to be the other starter. The 2011 3rd round pick is coming off of a torn ACL that cost him his entire 2013 season and he has never been a starter. He graded out above average as the 3rd cornerback in both 2011 and 2012 on 425 and 691 snaps respectively, including a 2012 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback, but there’s no guarantee that he’s 100% coming off of that injury and that he can hold up as a starting cornerback over the course of a full-season.

The other competitor for a starting job is former Viking Chris Cook, who the 49ers were able to get for the veteran’s minimum this season and for good reason. He’ll purely be insurance. The 2010 2nd round pick has been limited to 34 games in 4 seasons (missing 30 games combined) thanks to a combination of injuries and off-the-field problems. He has a lot of natural talent and showed it from time to time, grading out above average in both 2011 and 2012, but it was on 263 and 632 snaps respectively. He saved his worst for last in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible on 753 snaps, in the only season of his career in which he played more than 10 games. He was a free agent flier and nothing else for this team.

On the slot, the 49ers are expected to play 1st round rookie Jimmie Ward, a slot cornerback/safety hybrid who is expected to play safety long-term. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle in their first year in the league and this could be especially true for Ward because his cornerback experience is limited and because he missed some valuable off-season practices with a foot injury. The 49ers are going to a youth movement at cornerback, a risky move considering their inexperience, but there’s definitely talent here.

At safety, the 49ers signed Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner. Whitner was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety last season, so Bethea will be a downgrade, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked safety last season. Bethea has been a starter since getting drafted in the 6th round in 2006 and making 14 starts as a rookie. He’s generally been a solid player, grading out above average in every season from 2007-2011 and he hasn’t missed a game since the 2007 season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons.

Now going into his age 30 season, it looks like the veteran is simply on the decline and his best days are behind him. He has no guaranteed money on his “4-year, 21 million dollar deal” beyond the 6.25 million he’ll make in bonus and base salary in 2014 so there’s a good chance the cap strapped 49ers simply see him as a one-year rental. In that case, Jimmie Ward would move to safety full-time in 2015 and beyond.

If Ward ends up at safety long-term, it’ll give the 49ers a pair of 1st rounders at the position as Eric Reid is the other starter and he was the 18th overall pick in 2013. The LSU product had a strong rookie year, making all 16 starts and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety. He could be even better in his 2nd year in the league. As solid as he is though, he might be the best defensive back on a secondary that lacks difference makers unless Reid takes it to a completely new level or Brock continues to play as well as he did last season in a bigger role.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The 49ers should be better offensively this season, but there’s a good chance their defense concurrently takes a step back. They had the 10th most adjusted games lost last season. Normally, it’s incorrect to suggest that a team is going to have a lot of injuries in a season again just because they had a lot of injuries the previous season, but there is evidence to suggest that might not end up being the case for the 49ers this season, as they’ve already lost Glenn Dorsey and Kendall Hunter to serious injuries and NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith could both miss the first half of the season.

If Crabtree can come back healthy and play like he played down the stretch in 2012 and they can avoid any more major injuries to major players and both Smith and Bowman can be 100% for the stretch run, it’s going to go a long way towards making this team potentially a Super Bowl winner or front runner, but for right now I can’t consider them anything more than just one of several top level teams I could see winning it all. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them when I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC West

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Seattle Seahawks 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season. Even though no team has repeated since the 2003-2004 Patriots and no team has even won a playoff game the year after winning the Super Bowl since those Patriots, the Seahawks are a popular pick to repeat. That makes some sense. They were legitimately one of the best teams in the league last season (unlike recent champions like the Giants and Ravens) and their young core is still intact after the off-season. I disagree that they’ll repeat though.

While I wouldn’t be surprised if they won this year and while I do expect them to win another Super Bowl at some point while their core is still together and while I do expect them to win at least one playoff game and snap that streak, there are three reasons why I wouldn’t pick them to win the Super Bowl. One is purely that Super Bowl champions rarely repeat. It’s very tough to do. This is a young team. A lot of them got paid this off-season. They could easily just not be as hungry as they were last season and they won’t catch anyone off guard as the whole league has spent the off-season figuring out how to beat them.

Two, while they didn’t lose any of their core this off-season, they still had losses and they are more top heavy than they were last season. Clinton McDonald, Breno Giacomini, Michael Bowie, Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Sidney Rice, Brandon Browner are all gone this off-season and they didn’t really replace any of them. None of those were their core guys, but their depth is a lot more suspect this season. They might look like the best team in the NFL right now, but injuries always strike.

Three, they aren’t going to be able to dominate the turnover battle like they did last season, when they had a league best +20 turnover margin. They should still have a positive turnover margin because of how talented they are and because they weren’t overly reliant on recovering fumbles to do that (51.67%, 14th in the NFL), but turnover margins tend to be very hard to rely on and very inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis so +20 isn’t what I would predict for them (or any team) this season.

Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38.

In terms of pure rate of moving the chains differential, the Seahawks were “only” 5th in the NFL at 6.12% (behind Denver, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Carolina). Their defense was 3rd in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a mere 66.23% rate, but their offense wasn’t spectacular, moving the chains at a 72.35% rate, 13th in the NFL. If they’re unable to dominate turnovers like they did last season, they’re not the best team in the league, especially when you add in their off-season losses and the psychological effects of winning the Super Bowl.

One of the biggest parts of that young core is quarterback Russell Wilson. The 2012 3rd round pick has proven to be one of the greatest draft steals in NFL history. Obviously he got a lot of help from his supporting cast en route to winning the Super Bowl in his 2nd season in the league, but he did a lot of it on his own, completing 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.09 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 2 seasons in the league (100.6 QB rating). He’s also added 1028 yards and 5 touchdowns rushing on 190 carries (5.41 YPC) in 2 seasons.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback in 2012 and 4th ranked quarterback in 2013. He’s slightly worse than that in terms of pure passing grade as a lot of his high grade comes from his running ability, but, even as a pure passer, he’s graded out 8th overall in both seasons. In pure running grade, he’s graded out 2nd overall in both seasons. Only going into his age 26 season, his 3rd year in the league, he might not have even peaked yet and he’s put himself among the NFL’s top quarterbacks.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Wilson hasn’t just gotten help from his defense. He’s also gotten it from his running game, which has allowed him to only attempt 800 passes in 2 seasons in the league. Defenses focusing on the running game sets up easier passes downfield and allows Wilson to throw downfield more easily. Some of it is Wilson himself, as he’s averaged an impressive 5.41 yards per carry on 190 carries in 2 years in the league, but a lot of it is Marshawn Lynch.

Lynch, a former first round pick run out of Buffalo, has completely turned around his career over the past 3 seasons in Seattle, rushing for 4051 yards and 35 touchdowns on 901 carries (4.50 yards per carry) and adding 87 catches for 724 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air. He’s been even better than that as he’s done that despite poor blocking up front. He doesn’t do much as a pass catcher, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th, 4th, and 2nd ranked running back in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively in terms of pure rushing grade. Last season, he broke 75 tackles, 18 more than any running back in the NFL (Adrian Peterson). That propelled him to the 4th best elusive rating in the NFL as he broke 86 tackles on 337 touches and averaged 2.50 yards per carry after contact.

However, there’s some reason for concern. Lynch is going into his age 28 season with 1753 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one 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 3.52 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back. Lynch is 52nd all-time with 7389 rushing yards.

He’s not at the level where the Seahawks should be worried that his abilities completely fall off a cliff, but age is starting to become a factor. He could show some decline this season, especially since he’s had 988 regular season touches over the past 3 regular seasons combined. Last season, he had 403 touches including post-season, most in the NFL. That’s especially concerning considering his violent running style. On top of that, Lynch missed a significant amount of off-season practices with a holdout, which won’t help him. The Seahawks are most likely going to cut him after this season, rather than paying him 7 million dollars non-guaranteed in 2015. There’s a reason they wouldn’t give him an extension this off-season. He could easily be on the decline this season.

The good news is the Seahawks have Christine Michael waiting in the wings behind him. The 2013 2nd round pick didn’t do much as a rookie, with 18 carries for 79 yards and just 26 snaps played, but he’s drawn rave reviews this off-season going into his 2nd year in the league. He’ll siphon some carries off from Lynch as they try to keep the veteran fresh and take over as the lead back in 2015 and beyond. Given the success in running backs drafted outside of the first round over the past few years, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he turned into an above average starter long-term.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Wilson gets a lot of help from his running game, but he doesn’t get a lot of help from their offensive line. I mentioned that their offensive line doesn’t run block well (22nd in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season), but they were also 20th in team pass blocking grade. Russell Okung and Max Unger are the big investment offensive linemen they have as Okung was the 6th overall pick in 2010 and Unger was re-signed to a 5-year, 25.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago. Neither of them really lived up to those investments last season.

Okung was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but he’s graded out below average in each of the other 3 seasons he’s been in the league and he’s missed 19 games in 4 seasons combined with injuries, never once playing all 16 games. Last season, he was limited to 441 snaps in 8 games with a foot injury that he needed to get another surgery on this off-season. That’s not promising as he heads into his contract year. This could easily be his last season with the Seahawks.

Max Unger was better last season, grading out above average as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked center last season, but he also missed 3 games with injury and overall was not worth his contract. That being said, he’s graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league as a starter, at both right guard and center, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012, excelling as a run blocker. He should have a bounce back season this year.

The rest of the offensive line isn’t very good. Right tackle will be a competition between 2nd round rookie Justin Britt and veteran Eric Winston, who was still available into the end of July as a free agent. There’s a reason for that as he was Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible with the Cardinals last season. He graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007 before last season, so there’s some bounce back potential, but he’s going into his age 31 season so those days could just be gone. Whoever starts at this position, I expect below average play.

The Seahawks lost Breno Giacomini, a marginal starter at right tackle, this off-season. They also lost Michael Bowie to a season ending injury this off-season and 2013 7th round pick was one of just two Seahawk offensive linemen to grade out above average last season, doing so on 539 snaps at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard last season. Paul McQuistan is also gone. Even though he was awful at left tackle and left guard, he and the two other aforementioned offensive linemen being gone has completely depleted their depth on the offensive line. After the loser of the right tackle battle and Wade Smith (who was still available as a free agent in August going into his age 33 season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2013), the Seahawks don’t have a single other offensive lineman I would trust if they had to play significant action.

The Seahawks are also stuck with James Carpenter and JR Sweezy at left and right guard respectively and they don’t really have any competition for them. Carpenter was a first round pick in 2011, but has largely been a bust in 3 years in the league. The Seahawks did not pick up his 5th year option for 2015. Carpenter has made just 26 starts in 3 years in the league, struggled to find a position, and has graded out well above average in all 3 seasons, including 65th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles on 531 snaps in 2011 and 65th out of 81 eligible guards on 781 snaps in 2013. The Seahawks will need him to lock down that left guard spot this season if they’re going to have even average offensive line play, but that seems unlikely.

Sweezy at the right guard position isn’t much better. The collegiate defensive tackle was drafted in the 7th round in 2012 and looked like a late round converted defensive lineman as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible on just 311 snaps in 2012. He was better in 15 starts in 2013, but he still graded out below average, finishing 47th out of 81 eligible guards. It’s hard to trust him as a starting guard going forward into his 3rd year in the league. He’s part of an overall poor starting offensive line that also lacks depth.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The biggest off-season loss the Seahawks suffered this off-season was Golden Tate. Tate never put up huge numbers in Seattle, but that was largely because it was such a run heavy offense. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run and 2.01 yards per route run in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The Seahawks are hoping they can replace him with the “addition” of Percy Harvin. I put addition in quotation marks because Harvin was technically on the team last season, after the Seahawks acquired him from the Vikings for a 1st and 3rd round pick last off-season, but he only played 20 snaps thanks to injury.

Harvin was dominant in Minnesota, averaging 2.45 yards per route run in his first 4 seasons in the league despite less than stellar quarterback play. He also adds value as a return man (115 kickoff returns for 3241 yards and 5 touchdowns) and a ball carrier (683 yards and 4 touchdowns on 107 carries). He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th, 4th, 9th, and 10th ranked wide receiver in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively.

However, he’s missed 25 games in 5 seasons, including 22 games over the past 2 seasons. If he’s on the field, he should average over 2 yards per route run (while adding value as a runner and a return man), even if he doesn’t get targeted as frequently as he did in Minnesota (targeted on 28.75% of routes run), but his statistical production will be limited by how run heavy the offense is and injuries are still an obvious concern. He’s never had more than 1000 yards or 390 routes run in a season and I don’t expect either of those things to change this season. Given his injury history, he’s not nearly as much of an upgrade over Tate as people think.

The Seahawks need Harvin to stay healthy because their depth at wide receiver is poor, especially with Sidney Rice forced into early retirement by injury. Doug Baldwin will be the other starting receiver, which isn’t bad. Doug Baldwin hasn’t been incredibly productive in his career thus far, as the 2011 undrafted free agent has posted lines of 51/788/4 and 50/778/5 in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with a 29/366/3 line in 2012 in between. However, much of that is because of much of a run heavy team the Seahawks are. He averaged 1.83 yards per route run (on 425 routes run) in 2013, 27th in the NFL, and was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked wide receiver. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver and, even in 2012, he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He just didn’t see as much playing time. He’s averaged 1.91 yards per route run in his career.

However, after him and Harvin, they have don’t have a proven wide receiver. It’s currently a 3-way battle for the #3 wide receiver job. Paul Richardson was a 2nd round pick of the Seahawks, but reports suggest they view him as more of an option for 2015 and beyond. Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything and he could open the season as low as 5th on the depth chart. Jermaine Kearse is probably their best “veteran” option. I put veteran in quotes because the 2012 undrafted rookie has played just 564 snaps in 2 seasons in the league.

However, 486 of them came last season as he played a big role down the stretch with Harvin and Rice both hurt and he graded out above average. He caught 22 passes for 346 yards and 4 touchdowns on 38 targets (57.9%) for 237 routes run, 1.46 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average as a pass catcher, but the 6-1 209 pounder was a strong run blocker. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s also an inexperienced former undrafted free agent so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he doesn’t turn into a talented contributor. Ricardo Lockette is also in the mix. He has played 110 snaps in 3 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2011.

At tight end, the Seahawks have veteran Zach Miller and 2013 5th round pick Luke Willson, who showed well as a rookie. Miller was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end last season, impressing as a pass catcher and especially excelling as a run blocker, grading out 4th in that aspect. He caught 33 passes for 387 yards and 5 touchdowns on 51 attempts (64.7%) and 294 routes run, an average of 1.32 yards per route run. This is nothing new as he’s graded out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2007. He’s a perfect fit for this run heavy Seattle offense, but he’s owed 4.8 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2015, so this could be his last year with the team, especially with Willson behind him on the depth chart ready for a bigger role long-term.

Willson could also see an increase in snaps played this year from the 415 he played as a rookie, at the expense of Zach Miller (742 snaps last season). Willson graded out slightly above average both as a pass catcher and overall last season. He’s not the blocker Miller is, but he caught 20 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown on 26 targets (76.9%) and 178 routes run, an average of 1.53 yards per route run. There are no guarantees that he continues to develop into a starter, given that he was only a 5th round pick, but he’s definitely got potential and a significant role for a Seattle offense that prefers to use two-tight ends rather than spreading it out. They’re still overall thin in the receiving corps though.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Seahawks obviously still have a fantastic defense, but they did lose depth on the defensive line with Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, and Clinton McDonald all gone as free agents. They did retain Tony McDaniel as a free agent, which is good because he had a strong season last year. He played defensive tackle last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked defensive tackle last season, but he’ll be moving to Red Bryant’s old position at defensive end.

He should be a good fit for that spot. It’s purely a base defensive end position and it’s incredibly valuable in setting the edge against the run for the Seahawks. The run is the 6-7 295 pounder’s specialty, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle against the run last season on 536 snaps last season (266 run snaps, 270 pass snaps). On top of that, he has experience at defensive end, playing 5-technique defensive end for several seasons in Miami’s 3-4, which is essentially what he’ll be doing in Seattle. The issue is he’s graded out above average in just 2 of 7 seasons since 2007 and last year was by far the best season of his career, so he’s still a serious one year wonder. The Seahawks should be happy if he matches Red Bryant’s 2013 season, in which he graded out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends, including 9th against the run, on 488 snaps.

With McDaniel moving to defensive end and Clinton McDonald (27th overall defensive tackle, 16th in pure pass rush grade in 2013) signing in Tampa Bay, the Seahawks have essentially lost two important defensive tackles from last season. To remedy this, the Seahawks brought in Kevin Williams as a free agent. Williams was still available into June as a free agent, but that was partially because of his asking price. Veteran guys like Daryl Smith, Karlos Dansby, John Abraham, and Quintin Mikell all made significant impacts last season after being signed late in the off-season. Williams could absolutely do the same.

He showed decline last season and now is going into his age 34 season, but part of the reason he showed decline was he was so good to begin with. The future Hall-of-Famer was a top-8 defensive tackle in 2007-2010 (maxing out at #1 in 2008) and didn’t finish below 13th until last year. Even last year, he was 29th, grading out slightly above average. He presumably still has another year or two left in the tank and can be valuable in a 500-600 snap role.

Williams will start next to Brandon Mebane, who remains after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle last season. That’s the best season of his career as the 2007 3rd round pick had never graded out higher than 5th (2008) and he’s only graded out above average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league. I don’t expect him to be quite that good again, but he could easily have another very strong season. With him and Williams as the starters, they’re fine, but the issue is that Jordan Hill will play a significant role. The 2013 3rd round pick only played 65 snaps as a rookie. There’s a chance he turns into a solid contributor in a significant role this season, but he could easily be a downgrade over the types of players they had playing significant roles last season.

Michael Bennett is also still around, after being re-signed to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. That deal was an absolute steal for the Seahawks and he undoubtedly took some sort of hometown discount to remain with the defending champs. He’s graded out as among the top-7 in 4-3 defensive ends in each of the last 3 seasons, including #5 overall last season. No other player at his position has done that. He’s a very well-rounded and versatile player who is equally good as a pass rusher and a run stopper and he plays both defensive end and defensive tackle. He could play more snaps this season than the 617 snaps he played last season because of all the off-season losses the Seahawks had on the defensive line. After 632 snaps in 2011 and 985 snaps in 2012, he’s more than up to the task. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league.

Chris Clemons is also gone, but he’ll be the least missed as the aging veteran graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible. He’ll still be missed though as they don’t really have a replacement for the 585 snaps, including 389 snaps on passing snaps, he played last season. He graded out above average in pass rush grade. In sub packages, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin will be the primary edge rushers. Avril has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2008, but he’s graded out above average as a pure pass rusher in 5 of 6 seasons.

The 6-3 252 pounder really struggles against the run, but rushing the passer is more important for a defensive lineman and he’s a perfect fit as a situational pass rusher (397 pass snaps out of 574 snaps last season). He’s graded out 5th, 30th, 17th, and 5th in pure pass rush grade in 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 respectively. Last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end, his best season since 2010, but he might not be that good again next season. Still, he should be a real asset for them in sub packages.

Irvin, meanwhile, plays base outside linebacker and moves down to the defensive line in sub packages. He played 512 snaps last season in 12 games (233 run defense snaps, 121 pass rush snaps, 158 coverage snaps) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, showing terrific all-around ability. He graded out 4th in pass rush grade, 11th in coverage, and 15th against the run. The surprise 2012 1st round pick struggled as a rookie as a pure defensive end, grading out 34th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on 452 snaps, but he’s proven to be a better fit as a hybrid.

The issue is that his status for the start of the season is in doubt thanks to a hip injury. Even if he plays week 1, he could be less than 100% and behind the 8-ball after missing off-season practice and the pre-season. 4th round rookie Cassius Marsh could also be in the mix for snaps as a rookie, which shows their lack of depth. It’s still one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, but it’s worse than last season because of serious depth problems.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Bruce Irvin will play some base outside linebacker. The Seahawks have Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith at outside linebacker and he might not even have a role. He can play base outside linebacker in Irvin’s absence. He can play some base outside linebacker in coverage situations as the 6-0 226 pounder acts as essentially a box safety. He can also rotate at middle linebacker and the other outside linebacker position. Smith isn’t as good as his Super Bowl MVP would suggest, but, after 232 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after going in the 7th round in 2011, Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 490 snaps last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He should have some sort of role on about 300-500 snaps.

KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner are expected to be the every down linebackers at outside linebacker and middle linebacker respectively. Wagner, a 2011 4th round pick, has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, 14th ranked in 2012, and 13th ranked in 2013. He should once again be an above average 4-3 outside linebacker in both sub and base packages in his contract year in 2014.

Wagner, meanwhile, was a 2012 2nd round pick and arguably was better than Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, right behind only Patrick Willis. He graded out “just” 12th in 2013 thanks to injuries. He missed 2 games and was limited in others. He might not be as good as he was in 2012 again, but he should have a bounce back year as part of a still very strong front 7.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Seahawks’ secondary might be even better though. In 3 years in the NFL, Richard Sherman has allowed 115 of 248 (46.4%) for 1621 yards (6.54 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while deflecting 34 passes and committing 26 penalties. No other NFL cornerback really comes close to that, with the exception of Darrelle Revis, who has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, since 2008. Sherman is essentially Revis with better ball skills, less of an injury history, and 3 years younger, only going into his age 26 season. I think he’s the best cornerback in the NFL.

The Seahawks did lose both Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner at cornerback. Browner began last season as the starter, but he was limited to 8 starts last season thanks to a combination of injury and suspension. He graded out above average, but now he’s in New England. Thurmond, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season as their slot cornerback. The Seahawks have Bryon Maxwell, who played well in Browner’s absence last season, as the starter opposite Sherman, but the issue is they don’t have a proven 3rd cornerback.

Currently, Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon are competing for that 3rd cornerback role. Jeremy Lane is a 2012 6th round pick who has 338 career snaps, while Simon was a 5th rounder in 2013 who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Lane flashed on 167 snaps last season and Simon is drawing rave reviews in practice and the Seahawks’ recent history with developing defensive backs is promising, but both are very unproven. The good news is that Maxwell was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback last season on 494 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better as he allowed 51.1% completion and picked off 4 passes to 2 touchdowns allowed. The bad news is that there is no guarantee he plays that well over the course of a full season, especially since the 2011 6th round pick played just 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league combined.

This is also probably Maxwell’s last year with the team as the Seahawks have so many big contracts and important players that still need big contracts long-term, particularly in the secondary. Richard Sherman signed a 4-year 57.6 million dollar deal this off-season. Earl Thomas signed a 4-year 40 million dollar deal also this off-season, which made him the highest paid safety in the league in terms of average salary. Kam Chancellor got 4 years 28 million last off-season. I don’t see the Seahawks committing starter money to the 4th starting member of their secondary long-term. They’ll probably just rely on their ability to develop defensive backs.

Both Thomas and Chancellor deserve big contracts as they are arguably the best safety duo in the NFL and they complement each other so well. The big 6-3 232 pound thumping Chancellor plays within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 69.2% of snaps, 5th most in the NFL among eligible safety, while the rangy 5-10 208 pound Thomas plays within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 12.6% of snaps, 6th fewest in the NFL.

I don’t think Thomas was quite worth his deal. Some people consider Earl Thomas the top safety in the NFL. I disagree, in favor of Jairus Byrd. Byrd has graded out higher than Thomas on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons that Thomas has been in the league. Byrd was 3rd among safeties in 2011, 2nd in 2012, and 8th in 2013, only coming in 8th because he missed time with injury. Thomas, meanwhile, has never graded out higher than 8th, doing so in 2011, and finishing 10th in 2013, including 4th in pure coverage grade.

There’s something to be said for the fact that Thomas is 3 years younger (only going into his age 25 season). Thomas has also never missed a game, while Byrd has missed 7 games in 5 seasons, including recently 5 games missed in 2013 with foot problems. However, Byrd is the best safety in the NFL, not Thomas. The big difference: In 5 seasons, Byrd has missed 22 tackles, while Thomas has missed 55 tackles in 4 seasons, including 31 over the past 2 seasons alone. That might sound like splitting hairs, but when we’re talking about best safety in the NFL, that type of thing matters. Thomas is still a fantastic football player though.

Like Thomas, Chancellor has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. He didn’t start as a rookie, unlike Thomas, as Thomas was a 1st round pick and Chancellor went in the 5th in the same draft, but he’s graded out 5th, 20th, and 12th in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. While Thomas might be overrated, Chancellor might actually be underrated. He’s part of an overall fantastic secondary, even if it does lack depth at cornerback. It’s still a top level defense, but the depth issue can’t be ignored when discussing it.

Grade: A

Conclusion

If I had to put money on one team winning the Super Bowl this year, the Seahawks would probably not be that team. They won’t dominate in turnovers again this season. They lost a lot of depth and became a much more top heavy and thin team this off-season. They also won’t be as hungry. There’s a reason why no team has repeated since the 2003-2004 Patriots. The Seahawks should become the first team since the 2003-2004 Patriots to win a playoff game the year after winning the Super Bowl, but I don’t see them going all the way. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 2nd in NFC West

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Arizona Cardinals 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals were the only team in the NFL to win 10+ games and miss the playoffs last season, going 10-6, but finishing a game behind New Orleans for the 2nd wild card spot in the loaded NFC. They did that despite facing the 5th toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of opponent’s DVOA and playing in the NFC West, the toughest division in football. The Cardinals went 2-4 in the division (including the first win by a visitor in Seattle in the Russell Wilson era), but 8-2 outside of the division. Only Kansas City and Seattle (9-1) finished with better non-divisional records and the Cardinals were tied for 3rd in that aspect with New England, Cincinnati, and Denver.

They finished 10th in DVOA, best among non-playoff teams, and 11th in rate of moving the chains differential at 2.82%, 2nd best among non-playoff teams. Their defense was better than their offense, as they finished 8th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 68.19% rate, but their offense wasn’t terrible, moving the chains at a 71.01% rate, 18th in the NFL. Their improved offense was the reason they were able to have a 5 win improvement last season, after Cardinal quarterbacks combined to complete 55.4% of his passes for an average of 5.56 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions in 2012, a league worst 63.1 QB rating.

So why, if the Cardinals were so good, is their odds maker over/under at 7.5 wins? Is that a no brainer bet? I wouldn’t fall into that trap. When it seems too good to be true with the odds makers, it usually is. The Cardinals aren’t going to be as good of a team this season. Defensively, they could be a lot worse this season. Karlos Dansby is gone as a free agent. Daryl Washington got a season long suspension. Tyrann Mathieu is a major question mark coming off of a torn ACL suffered in December. Darnell Dockett and John Abraham are going into their age 33 and age 36 seasons respectively and the latter could be facing a suspension for his 2nd DUI.

The Cardinals will have to be more reliant on their offense this season and I don’t know if they’re up to the task. They weren’t great last season and now Carson Palmer is going into his age 35 season. Palmer completed 63.3% of his passes last season for an average of 7.47 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, a solid QB rating of 83.9. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked quarterback and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, but he could hit a wall in terms of his abilities at any time at his age. The Cardinals drafted Logan Thomas in the 4th round for that reason, but he’s not going to be anywhere near ready for action as a rookie. If he ever becomes a solid starter, it’ll be in 2015 and beyond, as Palmer has a voidable 10 million dollar salary for 2015.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

There are ways the Cardinals could be an improved offense this season if Palmer doesn’t completely fall off a cliff. The left side of their offensive line is much improved as they signed Jared Veldheer to a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal and they get Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, back from a broken leg that cost him his entire rookie season. Cooper is a complete wild card coming off of that injury with no career snaps under his belt, but he was regarded as one of the best interior offensive line prospects of the decade coming out of the University of North Carolina. He should be an upgrade over Daryn Colledge, who graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus last season and then left as a free agent to Miami.

Veldheer is the bigger addition. The 2010 3rd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 15th ranked offensive tackle in 2012. There might not have been a needier team for a blindside protector than the Cardinals. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Bradley Sowell. Sowell was horrific this season at left tackle, after taking over for Levi Brown, an overpaid offensive tackle who was traded to Pittsburgh. Sowell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked offensive tackle last season.

Veldheer comes cheaper than he would have because of an injury that limited him to 335 snaps in 2013, as the Cardinals get him for 35 million over 5 years when he probably could have commanded upwards of 40 million over 5 years he had not been hurt. It was smart for the Cardinals to pounce on him after an injury plagued year because he doesn’t have much of a history of injury before last season, because it was an upper body injury (torn triceps), which usually doesn’t cause many long-term problems, and because he’s still young, going into his age 27 season. He should bounce back in a big way this season.

The right side of the offensive line is still a big problem. Paul Fanaika played every snap at right guard last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. That’s no surprise as the 2009 7th round pick didn’t play an offensive snap in any of his first 4 seasons in the league. Ideally, the Cardinals would prefer that 2013 4th round pick Earl Watford beat him out for the starting job, but he was unable to get on the field over Fanaika for a single snap last season, reportedly because of mental errors. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but, considering he was just a mid-round pick, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he never develops into the starter they want him to become.

Right tackle is a three way battle and Bradley Sowell is currently in the lead, with Bobby Massie and Nate Potter as the competition. As I mentioned earlier, Sowell struggled mightily last season, grading out as the worst offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus. He could be better at right tackle, but he struggled mightily on just 52 snaps as an undrafted rookie at right tackle in 2012 in Indianapolis. If he wins the starting job, I do not expect him to play well and he could easily get benched at some point.

Massie and Potter also come from the 2012 draft class, getting taken in the 4th and 7th round respectively by the Cardinals. They saw significant action as rookies. Massie made all 16 starts at right tackle and graded out 74th out of 80 eligible. He got better as the season went on, grading out well below average in 5 of his first 10 games and well above average in just 1 of those first 10 games. However, in his final 6 games, he graded out well above average in 5 games and well below average in 1 game.

Potter, meanwhile, played 435 snaps in 8 games (6 starts at left tackle) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible, despite the limited playing time. Neither of the two played much in 2013, as Potter played 80 snaps and Massie played 57 snaps. Both graded out below average, Potter especially so. Eric Winston struggled at right tackle last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible, but there is no guarantee that they’ll have better right tackle play this season.

The only offensive lineman the Cardinals had last season who graded out above average was starting center Lyle Sendlein, who played every snap. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ranked 18th overall (out of 35 eligible). He’s become a solid, but unspectacular player since struggling in his first year as a starter in 2008, grading out above average in 4 of 5 seasons from 2009-2013, maxing out at 16th in 2011. It’s an overall improved offensive line, but there are still serious issues up front.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another area the Cardinals could be improved in offensively is running the football. The Cardinals averaged just 3.65 yards per carry last season, largely because Rashard Mendenhall averaged 3.17 yards per carry and the Cardinals still stubbornly stuck with him as the lead back, giving him 217 carries. This was despite backup Andre Ellington rushing for 652 yards and 3 touchdowns on 118 carries, an average of 5.52 yards per carry. Mendenhall is now gone so Ellington will become the lead back. The Cardinals seem to have finally realized what they have with him as they’ve been talking him up as a feature back all off-season.

Ellington is only 5-9 199 and the Cardinals were concerned about his ability to carry a load, which could have some merits, but he was definitely deserving of a bigger role. He also added 39 catches for 371 yards and a touchdown and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back on just 414 snaps, with no running back playing fewer snaps and graded out higher in pure run grade (7th). The 2013 6th round pick probably won’t average 5.52 yards per carry again this season, in a bigger role, but he should still average a high YPC and he could approach 300 touches as a three down back.

There’s a battle for the backup role between Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor, an important battle because both are big backs and Ellington might not be the goal line back this season. Either of them could be Ellington’s goal line vulture and see about 100 touches total on the season. The 5-9 216 pound Taylor averaged just 3.19 yards per carry (115 yards on 36 carries) as a 5th round rookie in 2013. Meanwhile, the 5-11 229 pound Dwyer has averaged 4.22 yards per carry (971 yards and 2 touchdowns on 230 carries) in 4 seasons in the league with Pittsburgh since going in the 6th round in 2010. The Cardinals need Ellington to be the feature back they think he can be because they don’t have another option, but, no matter what, they should be better on the ground this season than last season (the run blocking should be better too because the offensive line is improved) and they could easily be a lot better.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One area of the Cardinals’ offense that remains strong is the receiving corps as the Cardinals have one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Floyd broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2013, as the 13th overall pick in 2012 caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns on 107 targets (60.7%) and 569 routes run, an average of 1.83 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver last season. He’s still a one year wonder as an NFL player, after struggling as a rookie, but rookie receivers tend to struggle anyway and he’s got a ton of talent. He could be even better in his 3rd year in the league.

While Floyd’s career is on the up, Larry Fitzgerald’s career is on the way down, as he heads into his age 31 season. Fitzgerald has gone under 1000 yards receiving in each of the last 2 seasons. His 71/798/4 line in 2012 was understandable because he had supremely terrible quarterback play, but even with better quarterback play, he only caught 82 passes for 954 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013. That’s obviously still very solid, but this is the guy who averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games from 2005-2011, even though he never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years.

Now in his 30s, he’s simply not the same player any more. He’s still really good, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver last season (though just 25th in pass catching grade), catching 63.6% of his passes for an average of 1.59 yards per route run, but he’s not worth the absurd 16 million dollar non-guaranteed salary he’s owed in 2014, so this could easily be his last year with the team. Until then, he’ll continue to be a talented wide receiver and complement for Michael Floyd. Because the Cardinals have both of them, opposing defenses can’t lock on to one receiver.

Andre Roberts was the 3rd receiver last season and graded out below average. The Cardinals let him walk in free agency and replaced him with Ted Ginn, who graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season, catching 36 passes for 556 yards and 5 touchdowns on 62 targets (58.1%) and 350 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. However, the Cardinals are getting a one year wonder as last season was the best season of his career, as the bust of a 2007 1st round pick graded out below average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league. He has obvious value in the return game though.

The Cardinals also used 2nd and 3rd round picks on their receiving corps. Wide receiver John Brown was drafted in the 3rd round and reports about him have been promising this off-season. He could push Ginn for the #3 wide receiver role. More likely, he won’t see significant action until 2015 and beyond when Fitzgerald is gone. Rookie wide receivers rarely do much. Meanwhile, the Cardinals drafted Troy Niklas in the 2nd round. He could be their starting tight end this season.

The 6-6 270 pound Niklas is head coach Bruce Arians’ type of tight end because of his size and blocking ability. He’s raw as a pass catcher, but he could still see immediate snaps as a rookie. Arians’ offenses don’t feature the tight end as a pass catcher much anyway. He’s a little behind veterans John Carlson and Jake Ballard right now because he broke his hand and missed some off-season practice, but he’s good to go for training camp so he could overtake them before the start of the season.

Carlson is a marginal player who has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t played more than 505 snaps since 2010, when he graded out below average, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked tight end out of 63 eligible on 801 snaps that season. He’s played a combined 760 snaps over the past 3 seasons because he missed all of 2011 with injury and then he was a backup in 2012 and 2013 in Minnesota. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s probably best off in that role as a solid backup tight end.

Jake Ballard was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked tight end in 2011, but he tore his ACL in the Super Bowl that year and has played 176 snaps over the other 3 seasons of his career combined. The 2010 undrafted free agent has only graded out above average in one of his four seasons in the NFL.  Rob Housler is also in the mix, but the 6-5 250 pounder isn’t nearly the blocker that Arians is looking for. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and could be on the outside looking in at final cuts, if the Cardinals are unable to trade him before then. I expect the trio of Niklas, Carlson, and Ballard to split snaps at the position with Niklas likely leading the way in snaps played.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I mentioned that the Cardinals have a lot of issues defensively compared to last season. One of those issues is not Calais Campbell, who should remain one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the game. The 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons as a starter, dating back to 2009. He’s graded out in the top-3 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player at his position who can say that. He’s one of the best players in the NFL.

Darnell Dockett is the starter opposite him though and you can’t say the same thing about him. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last eligible in 2012. Last season, when he graded out 30th out of 45 eligible, it was actually one of his better seasons in the league recently. Now he goes into his age 33 season and he could easily struggle mightily again. The veteran is highly overrated. The Cardinals drafted Kareem Martin in the 3rd round to be his long-term solution and he should steal some snaps from Dockett as a rookie.

Dan Williams, meanwhile, is the nose tackle. The 2010 1st round pick hasn’t lived up to his expectations at all, as he’s never played more than 428 snaps in a season in 4 years in the league. However, he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and he’s pretty settled into his role as a two-down run stuffing nose tackle. The 6-2 327 pounder will continue to serve in that role this season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked defensive tackle on 291 snaps last season, including 12th in pure run stopping grade, despite the limited playing time.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

John Abraham was signed by the Cardinals to a 2-year, 4.6 million dollar deal last off-season in late July and he turned out to be one of the biggest steals of the off-season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. Despite his advanced age, this should not have been a surprise as the active all-time leader in sacks (9th all-time) and potential future Hall-of-Famer graded out in the top-4 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007 and 2012. This issue is now he’s going into his age 36 season and he got arrested for DUI for the 2nd time in his career this off-season and could be facing a short suspension. His abilities could fall off the cliff this season, after he already showed some decline last season (as compared to 2007-2012).

That would be really bad for the Cardinals because they don’t have any edge rush other than him. Matt Shaughnessy is the starter opposite him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible last season, including 40th in pure pass rush grade. This isn’t anything new as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012, including 59th in pure pass rush grade. He should only be a base package player, setting the edge against the run, but they don’t really have another option to be the sub package edge rusher.

The candidates to push Shaughnessy for that role include Sam Acho and Alex Okafor, a pair of former Texas Longhorns who went in the 4th round of recent drafts. Okafor (2013) has yet to play a snap in the NFL after missing his entire rookie year with injury, while Acho (2011) was limited to 104 snaps in 3 games by injuries last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 28 eligible in 2011. Neither is much of a better option than Shaughnessy.

Middle linebacker is where the Cardinals lost the most this off-season as Karlos Dansby signed with the Browns and Daryl Washington was handed a yearlong suspension for a variety of violations of league rules. Dansby was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked middle linebacker last season, while Washington was 20th after missing the first 4 games of the season with a different suspension. A special athlete, Washington excelled in coverage, grading out 6th in that aspect at his position.

The duo expected to start in their absence is a serious downgrade. Kevin Minter was a 2013 2nd round pick, but he played just 1 snap as a rookie, so he’s completely unproven. He’s expected to be an every down player. Jasper Brinkley, meanwhile, is expected to be a two-down player and only play in base packages. He flashed on 210 snaps last season, excelling as a run stopper, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 in the only season in his career in which he’s seen significant action. He wasn’t terrible against the run, which is more relevant to his current role, but he was 2nd worst at his position in coverage grade, which is something he’s not going to be able to escape. Rookie safety Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals’ first round pick, will come down and play linebacker in nickel packages. The 6-1 211 pounder is a powerful hitter for a safety.

Grade: C

Secondary

Bucannon will primarily play at safety at base packages. Ideally, Tyrann Mathieu will play at the other safety spot.  However, Mathieu tore his ACL week 14 and his status for the start of the season is in doubt. He could be put on the PUP list and be forced to miss the first 6 games of the season. Even when he returns, he could be less than 100% and completely behind the 8-ball after missing the entire off-season of practice and the first 6 weeks of the season. Last season, the 3rd round rookie graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback, splitting time as a slot cornerback and a safety. This year, with more depth at cornerback, the Cardinals want him to play full-time at safety, provided he’s on the field.

The 3rd safety role is going to be very important for the Cardinals this season, considering Mathieu could easily miss time and considering Bucannon will only play safety part-time. Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson will compete for that role. Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety on 643 snaps last season, in the best season of the marginal player’s 5-year career. Jefferson, meanwhile, flashed on 202 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season. Johnson is probably the favorite. Whoever loses this battle will be the 4th safety and play a part-time role in games that Mathieu misses.

At cornerback, Patrick Peterson remains as one of the young, healthy building blocks of this season. He got an absurd 5-year, 70 million dollar extension this off-season two years before the end of his rookie deal (the Cardinals picked up his 5th year option for 2015 earlier on the off-season). He’s not worth that money yet, but he’s only going into his age 24 season and he’s been very impressive over the past 2 seasons, after struggling as a rookie.

He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback in 2012 and 14th ranked cornerback in 2013. That is actually even more impressive than it sounds considering how inconsistent cornerback play has been over the past few seasons. Only Richard Sherman, Jason McCourty, and Chris Harris have also graded out in the top-16 in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s a very good cornerback right now who could easily become the great cornerback he’s being paid like over the next few seasons.

The Cardinals signed Antonio Cromartie to a cheap one-year deal (3.25 million) to start opposite Peterson this season. The reason they were able to get him so cheap is because Cromartie is coming off of an awful season. A league average cornerback from 2009-2011, Cromartie had a dominant 2012 campaign, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked overall cornerback, allowing just 46.0% completion, 5th best at his position.

However, Cromartie was awful in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst cornerback, 2nd worst in terms of coverage grade. He was torched with regularity, allowing 19.1 yards per completion, 2nd highest in the NFL. It’s possible his rapid decline last season was largely due to a hip injury and if he’s healthy in 2014, he could be a lot better. He’s only going into his age 30 season though so there are no guarantees.

With Cromartie coming in, Jerraud Powers, who started 16 games for the Cardinals last season at cornerback, will be moving to the 3rd cornerback role. It’s still a big role for the Cardinals because they use sub packages often and having a starting caliber cornerback as their 3rd cornerback is a good luxury to have, provided Cromartie can keep it together as the starter. Powers graded out about average last season and graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012. He has 58 games of starting experience and he averages out as an average cornerback. He also has a fair amount of slot experience. It’s still a defense that won’t be as good as last season though.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Cardinals’ offense could be better this season as a result of the addition of Jared Veldheer, the return of Jonathan Cooper from injury, and a larger role for Andre Ellington. However, Carson Palmer is going into his age 35 season and could torpedo the whole thing if his abilities fall off a cliff. Either way, their offense isn’t going to be good enough to make up for a defense that’s significantly inferior to last season’s.

John Abraham and Darnell Dockett are going into their age 36 and age 33 seasons respectively. Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are gone. Tyrann Mathieu is coming off of a torn ACL. The odds makers have them at 7.5 wins in terms of over/under and I bet everyone is pounding the over. That seems like a trap. Teams that have big win improvements like the Cardinals had last season (5-11 to 10-6) tend to decline by an average of about half the total the following year, which would put them right at that 7.5 number.

Given that they play in the toughest division in football, they could easily go under that number. Their schedule was tough last season, but it could be even tougher this season. They still have to play the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams in 6 games (2-4 last season), but their non-divisional schedule (8-2 last season) might actually be tougher this season. They swap out the horrible AFC South (4-0) and the NFC South (3-1) for the AFC West (three playoff teams last season) and the NFC East and instead of playing two last place teams like they did last season, they’ll face two third place teams. It’s not a whole lot tougher, but I don’t see this inferior team going 8-2 against that schedule again and I think 2-4 is very reasonable in the division again (at best) because Seattle and San Francisco are both better than them. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

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Atlanta Falcons 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons went 13-3 in 2012 and got the NFC’s #1 seed, but they did so in a largely unsustainable way and looked like a prime candidate to regress in 2013 and be that year’s team that went from a first round bye to out of the playoffs (there’s at least one almost every year). The Falcons did that and then some, falling all the way to 4-12. The good news is that a lot of the fluky things that helped them go 13-3 hurt them significantly last season so they are a prime candidate to bounce back. The real talent level of the Falcons is somewhere right in the middle of 4 and 13 wins. Teams that decline by a significant win total usually bounce back by an average of half the number of wins they declined by the following season. That would put the Falcons right in the middle at 8-9 wins (which, ironically, is where the odds makers put their over/under, 8.5 wins).

In 2012, the Falcons dominated close games, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less and winning 13 games despite a Pythagorean Expectation of 11.2 wins. In 2013, they went 3-7 in such games and won just 4 games despite a Pythagorean Expectation of 5.9 wins. They also faced a much tougher schedule, facing the #27 schedule in terms of opponents’ DVOA in 2012 and #2 in 2013. On top of that, the Falcons had way better luck with turnovers in 2012 as opposed to 2013. In 2012, they had a turnover margin of +13 with a fumble recovery rate of 64.29%, 2nd in the NFL. In 2013, they had a turnover margin of -5 with a fumble recovery rate of 48.57%, 20th in the NFL.

The Falcons were DVOA’s 10th ranked team in 2012, as opposed to 25th ranked in 2013, which shows that the difference between the two teams is not as significant as 9 wins. In terms of rate of moving the chains differential, the Falcons were 20th at -1.56%, which, again, shows they were significantly better than their record. The Falcons also had significantly more injuries in 2013 than 2012, with the 11th fewest adjusted games lost in 2012 and the 6th most in 2013. These weren’t just minor injuries either as top wide receiver Julio Jones went down for the season 5 games in. Highly paid left tackle Sam Baker played just 4 games thanks to injury. Roddy White only missed 3 games, but he was severely limited for most of the season with a variety of leg problems.

In 2013, the Falcons should be a lot healthier. They’ll also have better luck in close games (not at the 2012 level, but enough to help them win a few more games). They won’t as dominant in the turnover margin as they were in 2013, but they should be a little bit better in that aspect. They should also have an easier schedule. The Falcons also had the 6th overall pick as a result of last season’s collapse so they get to add a very talented young player into the mix in the form of Jake Matthews. This team has the important thing figured out (quarterback Matt Ryan) and they aren’t that far away from being a playoff team again.

Speaking of quarterback Matt Ryan, he really carried this team last season. Despite having no running game to help him, a crumbling offensive line, and a depleted receiving corps, he still led this offense to move the chains at a 73.69% rate, 11th in the NFL. He had his worst quarterback rating since 2009, but a quarterback rating of 89.6 is still really solid and most of his statistical decline can be attributed to the decline of his supporting cast. He completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 6.94 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked quarterback.

That’s the 2nd worst season of his career in that aspect (3rd in 2008, 20th in 2009, 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012), but he should bounce back and be a top-10 quarterback again this season. For his career, he’s completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.14 YPA, 153 touchdowns, and 77 interceptions. He’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league and with his offensive supporting cast likely to be much better this season, he should once again lead one of the NFL’s more explosive and dangerous offenses.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Easily the biggest injury the Falcons suffered last season was Julio Jones. Jones, the 6th overall pick in 2011, showed himself as one of the best young wide receivers in the game in his first 2 seasons in the league. In 2011 and 2012 combined, he caught 133 passes on 218 targets (61.0%) for 2157 yards and 18 touchdowns on 1035 routes run, an average of 2.08 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver in 2012.

He looked on his way to a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league (a common breakout year for wide receivers) in 2013, catching 41 passes on 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL among eligible receivers. However, he broke his foot 5 games into the season and missed the rest of the year, killing his chance at that breakout year. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver on just 298 snaps played, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher in pass catching grade.

He has a troubling injury history, particularly with his foot, dating back to his collegiate days. The good news is that reports out of training camp are really promising and he’s only going into his age 25 season. If he can stay healthy, he could absolutely dominate the NFL this season and make life much easier for Matt Ryan. Just for fun, his stats in 2013 extrapolate to 131 catches for 1856 yards and 6 touchdowns over 16 games. He won’t reach that level of production, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he led the NFL in receiving if he stays healthy. His injury history is the only thing stopping me from considering him as a receiver on the same level as Calvin Johnson.

Roddy White’s future isn’t as promising as he goes into his age 33 season. White missed 3 games and was severely limited for most of last season with leg problems, catching 20 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown in the first 8 games he played last season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 101st ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade out of 111 eligible overall, catching 63 passes for 711 yards and 3 touchdowns on 94 targets (67.0%) and 524 routes run, an average of 1.36 yards per route run. Those 3 games were the first games he missed in his career and last season was the first season since the 2nd season of his career in 2006 that he had fewer than 1000 yards. The once reliably solid wide receiver no longer is.

He did finish last season on a tear, catching 43 passes for 502 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 5 games of the season once he got healthy, which could be promising for 2014. However, his age and the fact that he’s coming off of a serious injury plagued down season are both concerns. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. White isn’t quite there right now, but he’s at the point in his career where is age is becoming a concern. White’s 9,436 career receiving yards are “only” 45th all-time. White will still probably have a better year than last year if I had to put money on it, both in terms of production and efficiency, but his best days are behind him.

Jones and White are likely both going to be better this year, but the Falcons did suffer a big loss this off-season when Tony Gonzalez retired. Dominant to the very end, even amidst a terrible Falcons season, the future Hall-of-Famer graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked tight end in pass catching grade last season. He caught 83 passes for 859 yards and 8 touchdowns on 115 targets (72.2%) and 609 routes run, an average of 1.41 yards per route run. He’ll definitely be missed, even if he was going into his age 38 season.

Part of that is because the Falcons are incredibly thin at the tight end position behind him. No Falcon tight end played more than 198 snaps other than Gonzalez last season, as the Falcons rarely ran two-tight end sets, and for good reason. They didn’t do anything to upgrade the position this off-season, except add blocking specialist Bear Pascoe from the Giants. Levine Toilolo, who played those 198 snaps, is currently penciled in as a starter. The 2013 4th round pick is completely unproven and a total wild card as a starter.

The Falcons will once again use a bunch of three-wide receiver sets this season. They’ll do a better job of that this year because White and Jones are healthier, allowing Harry Douglas to move back to his natural role on the slot as the Falcons’ 3rd receiver. Douglas caught 85 passes for 1067 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible, showing himself to be overstretched as a number #1 receiver. His production was largely a result of volume and having Matt Ryan under center, as he averaged 1.66 yards per route run, dropped 9 passes, and had 7 interceptions on passes thrown to him. He’s a much better fit as the 3rd receiver though. It’s an improved receiving corps compared to last season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The offensive line will also be improved over last season. Sam Baker played just 4 games and 190 snaps last season and sucked when he was on the field, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th worst ranked offensive tackle despite such limited playing time. No one even came close to playing as few snaps as he did and grading out worse. In his absence, Lamar Holmes was the starter and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst offensive tackle overall, meaning Ryan saw really poor blindside protection all season.

Holmes’ season was so bad that he isn’t starting at either tackle position this season. The Falcons used the 6th overall pick on Jake Matthews and, even as a rookie, he should be a solid starter from the word go. If Baker goes down with an injury again, Matthews will move to the blindside and Holmes will slot in at right tackle. The Falcons are obviously hoping that won’t happen again, considering they gave Baker a 6-year, 41.1 million dollar deal before last season, but it very well could happen.

Baker has played all 16 games just twice in his 6 season career, since going in the first round in 2008. In the other 4 seasons, he’s missed a combined 29 games, playing 10+ games just three times in six seasons. He’s also graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, including obviously last season, a 2010 season in which he graded out 72nd out of 78 eligible, and a 2011 season in which he graded out 59th out of 76th eligible on just 428 snaps at the position, getting benched early in the season and eventually moved to right guard for a start. He was 29th among offensive tackles in 2012 back at left tackle and played all 16 games, which is how he got that extension, but the Falcons overpaid for a one-year wonder. He’s unlikely to be worth his deal this season, though the Falcons will overall obviously have better tackle play this season than last, particularly on the blindside.

Matthews wasn’t the only addition on the right side, as the Falcons signed ex-Chief Jon Asamoah to a 5-year 22.5 million dollar deal to play right guard. It was a very good move at a position of need. Asamoah, a 2010 3rd round pick, made 41 starts over the past 3 seasons combined at right guard in Kansas City and graded out 16th, 10th, and 21st in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. Prior to signing him, the Falcons would have had to start Peter Konz at either right guard or center, but now they don’t have to, which is good news considering Konz was horrible last season, splitting time at right guard and center. He was Pro Football Focus’ composite worst ranked center and 5th worst ranked guard last season.

Asamoah will complement left guard Justin Blalock very well. Blalock was the only Falcons’ offensive lineman last season to make more than 10 starts and grade out above average, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard. This is nothing new for him as he’s made every start but 2 since his rookie year in 2007, including 100 straight dating back to 2007, and he’s graded out above average in each of his last 4 seasons, maxing out at 12th among guards in 2010. The Falcons have a pair of solid guards.

At center, the Falcons re-signed Joe Hawley to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal and he’s expected to be the starting center ahead of Konz. Hawley, 2010 4th round pick, played 40 snaps in 2010 and 2012 combined, but he played 876 snaps in 2011 and 553 snaps last season, splitting time at right guard and center in both seasons. In 2011, he struggled mightily at center, grading out as Pro Football Focus 6th worst center despite playing just 230 snaps there, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He then moved to right guard, where he graded out slightly above average. In 2013, he also graded out below average at center and among above at right guard, which is mildly concerning as he’s now a full-time center. It’s an overall improved offensive line though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Falcons also had an injury to a starter to running back, but they probably won’t be much better at this position next season. Steven Jackson was limited to 157 carries in 12 games and rushed for just 543 yards and 6 touchdowns, a pathetic average of 3.46 yards per carry. In his absence, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling really struggled. They combined to rush for 496 yards and 3 touchdowns on 140 carries, an average of 3.54 yards per carry.

Jackson probably won’t be better or healthier this season. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one 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 3.52 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back. Jackson has rushed for 10,678 yards (20th all-time), but Jackson is going into his age 31 season with 2553 career carries, so what happened last season is no surprise and should be seen as the beginning of a very swift end.

The Falcons obviously didn’t see either Snelling or Rodgers as the future at running back so they drafted Devonta Freeman in the 4th round. He has a good chance to open the see as the primary backup to Jackson and have a significant role from the start. And if Jackson continues to struggle or gets hurt, that role will grow. If I had to guess, he’ll lead Falcon running backs in touches this season. That being said, while there are a lot of people who will vouch for Freeman as another running back who will prove to be a steal in the mid rounds, he’s still just a 4th round rookie and could easily struggle this season. There isn’t a ton to get excited about at the position.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Along with adding to the offensive line, the Falcons clearly put a lot of emphasis on adding to the defensive line this off-season. The Falcons offense was going to get better with better health this season regardless, but the Falcons’ defense was terrible last season (27th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.25% rate) and needed an infusion of talent. They signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson as free agents to 5-year deals, worth 33 million (14 million guaranteed) and 25 million (11 million guaranteed) respectively. These moves signal that the Falcons and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are going to run a lot more 3-4 base sets this season as Soliai and Jackson both fit in best as base players in a 3-4.

The issue is that both are pretty much solely base players, as neither offers anything as a pass rusher. They played a combined 493 pass snaps last season and for good reason. Given that, the Falcons overpaid for both. Soliai had a solid season in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked defensive tackle, including 18th in run grade, as a part-time player on 526 snaps. However, he graded out as roughly a league average player in a part-time role in both 2011 and 2012 and, even in 2010, when he had another solid year, it was as a part-time player on 554 snaps, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle, including their 9th ranked in run grade. The 6-4 344 pounder is only a base package run stopper. He’s maxed out at 627 snaps in his career (2012, when he graded out below average) and he’s not going to get any better going forward, already going into his age 31 season.

Jackson is also coming off of a solid season, grading out 14th among 3-4 defensive ends, including 8th as a run stopper. However, he did so on just 509 snaps as the 6-4 296 pounder is just a pure base package run stopper. He’s younger than Soliai, but he doesn’t have nearly the proven track record that Soliai has. He was the 3rd overall pick in 2009, but he was a huge bust as last season was the first season he graded out above average overall and he’s never graded out above average as a pass rusher. The Chiefs seemed to wake Jackson up by slashing his salary for the 2013 season, his contract year, but who is to say he doesn’t coast now that he has all this guaranteed money in his pocket and revert to the bust of a former 3rd overall pick he was from 2009-2012? Even if he doesn’t, he’s still just a part-time player.

The Falcons also gave a multi-year contract to defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux, re-signing the veteran to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal and ensuring that the career Falcon would stay in Atlanta for his 10th season in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but this deal was still a better value than the deals that brought Jackson and Soliai to town. He’s not the run stopper either of the other two are, but he’s much more well-rounded and will be able to play in both base and sub packages. He could lead this defensive line in snaps played for the 3rd straight season (he played 924 snaps last season).

Babineaux is definitely on the decline though, grading out above average in every season from 2008-2011, but grading out slightly below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible. Now moving to more 3-4 defensive end, I don’t expect him to be much better than that. He’s not terrible though. The Falcons also drafted Ra’Shede Hageman in the 2nd round and will use him in a rotational role as a rookie, before giving him a bigger role in 2015 and beyond. Corey Peters could also be in the mix for snaps, after playing 667 snaps last season, but he tore his Achilles in week 16 last season and could miss the first 6 games of this season on the PUP and be limted upon his return. He’s also graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. The Falcons have better options so he’s highly unlikely to see as many snaps as he saw last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Falcons beefed up their new 3-man defensive line this off-season and improved their run defense, but they didn’t do anything to fix their miserable pass rush, which ranked as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass rush last season in terms of team grade. Neither of their off-season additions, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, can do anything on passing downs and they didn’t add anyone at the edge rusher spot. The only “addition” the Falcons have at edge rusher is they will be getting Kroy Biermann back from injury, but that won’t really help them.

Biermann was limited to 99 snaps in 2 games last season before going down with a torn Achilles, which will be a tough injury to return from for a player who wasn’t great to begin with. Biermann has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible, after looking like a promising future starter to begin his career as a reserve in 2008-2010. The 6-3 242 pounder is a better fit now as a full-time outside linebacker in a scheme that will use more 3-4 bases, but don’t expect a ton from him.

The Falcons best pass rusher last season in terms of sacks was Osi Umenyiora, who had 7 sacks. However, even he graded out below average, both as a pass rusher and overall, as the once dominant veteran proved to be a shadow of his former self. He also graded out below average in 2012 in his final year with the Giants. The Falcons kept him on for this season, even at a 3 million dollar salary, but that was largely out of necessity as he’s sadly their best pass rusher.

He’s going into his age 33 season and he’s not a natural fit for a 3-4, after playing his whole career in a 4-3. He’s lost a significant amount of weight, down to 250, in preparation of the position switch, but he’s completely unproven at that position and that weight, after he played in the 265-280 range for most of his career. He’s expected to only be a situational pass rusher and only play in sub packages for that reason, which is also what he did down the stretch last season, as the Falcons benched him in favor of younger options.

None of those younger options showed much of anything though and things are pretty up for grabs at the other starting 3-4 outside linebacker position. Jonathan Massaquoi played the most snaps of any edge rusher other than Umenyiora last season, playing 540 snaps, but he struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible. That’s to be expected as the 2012 5th round pick was completely unproven coming into the season, playing just 27 snaps as a rookie.

Malliciah Goodman is an option, but the 2013 4th round pick struggled on 305 snaps as a rookie and isn’t an ideal fit for a 3-4 at 6-4 274. Stansly Maponga also struggled as a rookie as the 2013 5th rounder graded out well below average on just 131 snaps as a rookie. Cliff Matthews was a 7th round pick in 2011 and he too struggled mightily last season, doing so on 172 snaps. He’s only played 253 snaps in 3 seasons anyway. The Falcons have spent a lot of mid-to-late round picks on edge rushers over the past few drafts, but none of those fliers have panned out into anything remotely resembling a starter. The Falcons are obviously hoping that one of them can break out this season, but it’s doubtful. Sadly, Biermann (a 2008 4th round pick) is the best mid-to-late round edge rusher they’ve drafted recently. There’s not much to be happy about in terms of pass rush for the Falcons.

At middle linebacker, the Falcons were hoping to get Sean Weatherspoon back from injury, after he was limited to 7 games and 399 snaps by injuries in 2013, but he tore his Achilles this off-season and will miss the entire year. As a result, the Falcons will again turn to a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents in Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow that played significant roles as rookies, 789 and 790 snaps respectively. Bartu was better than Worrilow, grading out 22nd out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus, while Worrilow ranked 45th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers. However, neither is very good and both are unproven and have yet to prove that the league made a mistake not drafting them last year.

Also, with Bartu, while he was the better of the two last season, he’ll now be playing primarily middle linebacker, which is an unfamiliar position for him, as he played outside last season and both outside linebacker and defensive end in college. He also really struggled in coverage, grading out 3rd worst in that aspect, while grading out 6th best at his position against the run. Coverage is more important for a linebacker. He’d be better off in pure base package work, but the Falcons don’t really have that luxury with Weatherspoon out.

The Falcons’ options at middle linebacker in case either of them struggles and needs to be benched are very limited. Prince Shembo is a mere 4th round rookie and if they have to turn to him for serious snaps as a rookie, it would be pretty bad. Pat Angerer is a free agent acquisition, but he was available into July on a minimum deal because he had microfracture surgery on his knee that ended last season. Angerer has graded out below average in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and he’s been limited to 811 snaps in 22 games over the past 2 seasons thanks to injuries. Microfracture surgery is one of the most serious procedures an athlete can receive so they shouldn’t expect much from him. Their linebacking corps is in trouble.

Grade: C

Secondary

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Falcons in 2014 was 1st round rookie Desmond Trufant, who started all 16 games at cornerback and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.4% of passes when throwing on him and tying for the league lead with 15 pass deflections. He’s still a one-year wonder technically as he was only a rookie last season, but he’s a phenomenal first round talent only going into his age 23 season.

Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle in their first year in the league, but Trufant looked like a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He could easily be as good or better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. Even more promising is the fact that he played his best football down the stretch last season, grading out well above average in 4 of his final 6 games after doing so in just 2 of his first 10 games. He allowed 15 completions on 31 attempts in those 6 games and didn’t grade out below average once. He’s on the fast track to becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL if he stays on this trajectory.

The cornerback position after him is pretty shaky though. The Falcons cut Asante Samuel this off-season because he was overpaid and aging (going into his age 33 season). Samuel graded out below average last season, got benched down the stretch, and is still available on the open market for good reason. The Falcons will be counting on Robert Alford and Robert McClain season. Alfred was their 2nd round pick in 2013 and he graded out below average on 585 snaps as a rookie. That’s not a surprise for a rookie cornerback. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees.

Robert McClain was a dominant slot cornerback in 2012, grading out 14th overall on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks on 613 snaps, including 5th in pure coverage grade, with no one grading out higher in coverage and playing fewer snaps at his position. However, he graded out below average overall last season. He’s still a one year wonder, only grading out above average that one time in 4 seasons in the league since going in the 7th round in 2010. However, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he had a solid season this year and showed some of what he was in 2012 again.

Another bounce back candidate in the secondary is safety William Moore. Moore graded out slightly below average last season, but he graded out above average in both 2011 and 2012, grading out 11th and 15th among safeties on Pro Football Focus in those two seasons respectively. He missed 4 games in each of those 2 seasons and last season was concerning, but I do expect him to have a better season in 2014, even if he does end up missing a couple games with injury again.

The Falcons should get better play at the other safety spot this off-season as well. The Falcons cut Thomas DeCoud this off-season, after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season. Whoever they have at the position this season should be an upgrade. Veteran Dwight Lowery is the favorite to start right now, but he’s a serious injury risk. He hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008, missing 28 games over the past 5 seasons, including 20 games over the past 2 seasons. He played just 129 snaps in 3 games last season thanks to concussions.

However, he’s an underrated player when healthy, grading out above average in every season from 2008-2012, both as a safety and a slot cornerback. He was never dominant, but he’s always been solid, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2012 on just 557 snaps. There’s a reason he was available for the veteran’s minimum into April, but he could also be one of the real steals of the off-season. Assuming he’s healthy, he should be a solid starter again, but that’s a big assumption. If he gets hurt or isn’t as good as he usually is, the Falcons’ other option is 3rd round rookie Dezmen Southward. He’d probably struggle if forced into action. He’s also probably next man up if Moore gets hurt too. The Falcons’ secondary overall is their strongest unit and a strong point on an otherwise weak defense.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons aren’t as bad as they looked last season and they aren’t as good as they looked in 2012. They’ll have better luck in close games, with injuries, and with turnovers this season. The offense, which was already above average last season, has a good chance to be even better this season, thanks to the return of guys like Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Sam Baker from injury. They did lose Tony Gonzalez and neither Baker or White is a lock to return to 2012 form and they still have issues on the offensive line and in the running game, but they have a good chance to be a top-10 offense, primarily on the strength of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones.

Defensively, they’re still a mess though. Their secondary is solid, but their front 7 is one of the worst in the NFL. They should continue being one of the worst defenses in the league overall next season. They’re going to win a lot of shoot-outs this season, but they’re also going to lose a lot of shoot-outs and I think overall they average out to be an average football team at around 8 or 9 wins. That’s right at their over/under (8.5 wins) and right halfway between the 13 wins they had in 2012 and the 4 wins they had in 2012. I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC South

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s almost impossible to find something talking about the 2014 Buccaneers without hearing about the Buccaneers’ “basketball offense” (and I guess now that I mentioned it, this isn’t the outlier). You hear it so much you’d think the Buccaneers were an NBA team. They talk about how they added Mike Evans (6-5 231) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-5 262) in the first and second rounds of the draft respectively to go with Vincent Jackson (6-5 241).

They talk about how the Buccaneers brought in quarterback Josh McCown from Chicago, who excelled last season in Chicago’s “basketball offense” with Brandon Marshall (6-4 222), Alshon Jeffery (6-3 216), and Martellus Bennett (6-6 259). They talk about how McCown will continue that success in Tampa Bay because he has tall receivers there as well. As a result, the Buccaneers are commonly mentioned as someone who could surprise this season (to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did) and yet the Buccaneers’ over/under win total remains steady at 7 wins. The Buccaneers are at the point where they’ve been mentioned as overrated so many times that they’ve become underrated. Because no one has ever thought of using tall receivers before.

There are two flaws in the “basketball offense” logic. The first is that McCown won’t just continue having the kind of success he had in Chicago just because his receivers are tall like they were in Chicago. McCown doesn’t get to bring Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer with him to Tampa Bay. Lovie Smith is the head coach in Tampa Bay. Smith was a good hire, but, as good as his defenses were in Chicago when he was head coach (2004-2012), his offenses usually struggled, especially at quarterback.

He also typically had issues hiring competent offensive coordinators to run his offenses. Going into his first year in Tampa Bay, he has tabbed Jeff Tedford to be his offensive coordinator. Tedford is a bit of a wild card. He coached 6 different future NFL 1st round pick quarterbacks while in college at the University of California, the University of Oregon, and Fresno State, but only Aaron Rodgers panned out as the other 5 included Kyle Boller, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and David Carr, who are among the biggest busts in NFL history (the 6th is Trent Dilfer). He also doesn’t have any NFL experience and was unemployed last season after the Golden Bears fired him mid-season in 2012. I want to give Smith the benefit of the doubt with his judgment of offensive minds, but he hasn’t earned that with his history. McCown is definitely downgrading in terms of the offensive minds he’ll be working with.

There’s also a very good chance that McCown would have regressed even if he had stayed in Chicago with Trestman and Kromer, though probably not as much as he will in 2014 in Tampa Bay. Going into last season, Josh McCown was a 34-year-old quarterback who hadn’t posted a quarterback rating of over 70 since 2006. McCown played very solid in limited action with the Bears last season, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception on 224 attempts, but it’s hard to believe that he suddenly just became a better quarterback at age 34.

Now he’s going into his age 35 season. Sure, a tried and failed quarterback suddenly having a legitimate late career breakout isn’t completely unprecedented. Rich Gannon is a name that comes to mind. However, that’s hardly the norm and even Gannon deteriorated very quickly once he got into his mid-to-late 30s and fell out of the tutelage of Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Now in Tampa Bay without Trestman and Kromer, McCown will probably struggle and it won’t matter how tall his receivers are.

If McCown struggles so much that he needs to be benched, the Buccaneers will have to turn to Mike Glennon. He’s probably the better option for the Buccaneers. Mike Glennon wasn’t perfect in his first year in the league last season, but he was the best of the rookie quarterbacks and showed enough that he deserved another chance to be the starter. He completed 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.27 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions.

He only graded out 33rd out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and the Buccaneers only moved the chains at a 67.20% rate in the 13 starts that Glennon made, but he showed some of the tools necessary for him to develop into the type of quarterback that can take this team somewhere. The Buccaneers have to hope that bringing in McCown and making him the starter doesn’t stunt Glennon’s development and confidence long-term.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The other flaw in the “basketball offense” logic is that just because the Buccaneers have tall receivers like the Chicago trio doesn’t mean they are good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett. Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are mere rookies. Evans is really talented, but he’s a raw rookie who doesn’t even turn 21 until the end of August. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

The same isn’t necessarily true for tight ends, but Seferian-Jenkins is a mere 2nd round rookie and won’t necessarily even start as the Buccaneers have yet to give him the starting job over Brandon Myers. That should remind you to temper your expectations for him in his rookie year because Myers isn’t very good. Myers has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 5 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2009, including in the last 2 seasons as a starter in Oakland and with the Giants. He ranked dead last in 2012 and 53rd out of 64 eligible in 2013. And if that doesn’t convince you he’s not very good, he’s only 6-3!

Vincent Jackson is the only proven one of the group. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 with San Diego in 2009 and #6 in 2012 with Tampa Bay. Over the past 6 seasons, he’s caught 351 passes for 6227 yards and 43 touchdowns on 624 targets (56.3%) and 2835 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He’s a deep threat and not a consistent volume receiver, but he’s one of the better wide receivers in the league. The one minor concern is that he’s going into his age 31 season, but that’s probably not a problem yet.

The Buccaneers don’t really have a proven #3 wide receiver and there are several players competing for the slot receiver role. Louis Murphy is reportedly the favorite, but he’s graded out below average in each of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. He also only played 100 snaps last season with the Giants. Chris Owusu was a 2012 undrafted free agent and has played 297 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined, struggling mightily last season on 272 snaps. Robert Herron is a mere 6th round rookie.

Tim Wright could also be in the mix. He played 626 snaps last season at tight end as an undrafted rookie. The 6-4 220 collegiate receiver struggled as a blocker, but graded out slightly above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes on 72 attempts (75.0%) for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns on 386 routes run, an average of 1.48 yards per route run, running 62.2% of his routes from off of the line, 6th among eligible tight ends. He could be a better fit in a situational role as a slot receiver, but he was also undrafted in 2013 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season. He could be a better blocker as a slot receiver this year, but he could struggle as a pass catcher. Overall, the receiving corps is not nearly as good as people think. The same thing is the case for the whole passing offense.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Buccaneers completely revamped their offensive line this off-season. They only have one starter locked in to the same role as last season. That starter is right tackle DeMar Dotson. Dotson has been a very solid starter since becoming a starter in 2012. He was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then he was even better in his 2nd season as a starter last year, grading out 14th among offensive tackles (2nd among right tackles). He’s still a one year wonder as a top level player so he could regress a little bit this season, but he should still be one of the better right tackles in the game.

The Buccaneers also upgraded the left tackle and the center position through free agency this off-season. Anthony Collins was signed to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. He’s been the Bengals’ swing tackle for years and he’s always shown well when given the chance, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle.

Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action. He’s unproven, but he should be an upgrade over last year’s starter, the aging Donald Penn, who graded out 32nd at his position last season, struggling in pass protection. The Buccaneers made the right move releasing Donald Penn, saving 7.4 million in cap space, and then signing Collins to that deal.

At center, they signed ex-Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith to a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal. Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. He’s still just a one year wonder, but it was absolutely the right move trading Jeremy Zuttah for a late round pick, saving 4.5 million on the cap, and getting Dietrich-Smith. Zuttah was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked center last season and was not worth his salary.

The guard position is a serious weakness and completely up for grabs. The Buccaneers cut Davin Joseph after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst guard last season and they cut Carl Nicks after he was limited to 605 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined by injuries, including just 150 last season. There are four players competing for 2 spots. Jamon Meredith is the only player involved in the position battle who played guard for the team last season, playing 488 snaps, primarily at left guard, in the absence of Carl Nicks last season. He struggled mightily, grading out 64th out of 81 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. That’s nothing new as the 2009 5th round pick hasn’t graded out above average since 2009, when he played just 265 snaps.

Last season, only 3 players played fewer snaps than Meredith at guard and graded out worse. One of those players was Oniel Cousins, of the Browns, who is also competing for a starting job in Tampa Bay. Cousins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 322 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. Prior to last year, he had played just 473 snaps in 5 seasons in his career and graded out below average in 4 of them.

The other two competitors have never played a snap in the NFL. Patrick Omameh was signed off of San Francisco’s practice squad last season and didn’t play a snap as an undrafted rookie. Somehow, he’s reportedly the leader in the clubhouse for one of the two starting spots, which shows you how bad things are here. 5th round rookie Kadeem Edwards is in the mix as well. Other than the guard position, the Buccaneers’ offensive line is very solid and better than it was last season, but their guards really hold them back.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Doug Martin, a 2012 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, 4.56 YPC, and adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back overall. His sophomore season was about the opposite. Martin lasted 6 games before going down for the season with a shoulder injury and in those 6 games, he rushed for 456 yards and a touchdown on 127 carries, 3.59 YPA, and added just 12 catches for 66 yards. Despite playing just 317 snaps, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst running back overall and no one played fewer snaps and graded out lower.

Given that, the Buccaneers didn’t really miss him when he was gone. All three of the backs who replaced him averaged more yards per carry than Martin did last season. All 3 also graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in rushing grade. Mike James was the best of the bunch, rushing for 295 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 attempts, an average of 4.92 yards per carry. That’s even better when you consider that the Buccaneers’ offensive line struggled to run block. James averaged 3.10 yards per carry after contact and broke 9 tackles on 70 touches. Despite his limited playing time, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in rushing grade if he were eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher in that regard.

Brian Leonard and Bobby Rainey, meanwhile, averaged 3.87 yards per carry (182 yards on 47 carries) and 3.88 yards per carry respectively (532 yards on 137 carries), largely being inhibited by this offensive line. The Buccaneers also drafted Charles Sims in the 3rd round and have mentioned on several occasions that they’re going to more of a committee in the backfield. Martin is highly unlikely to match the 368 touches he had in 2012, even if he stays healthy. Meanwhile, James and Rainey are battling for one roster spot as Martin, Sims, and return man Jeff Demps all seem locked into roster spots.

Martin should be healthier this season and he should bounce back somewhat as a runner, but he has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days and he’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a proven NFL running back. Martin’s 2012 seems out of reach for him at the moment, especially given how bad the Buccaneers’ run blocking could be this season. They ranked 28th as a team in run blocking grade last season and they could be even worse this season, given their pathetic situation at both guard spots. Something like 220 carries for 900 yards seems reasonable for Martin, with Sims and James siphoning off about 150-170 carries combined.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers also struggled defensively last season, though not as much as they did offensively. They finished 21st, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 72.95% rate. This was despite having the trio of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Darrelle Revis all grade out among the very best at their respective positions. All three players arguably showed themselves to be top-10 players in the NFL at any position. The issue is they were incredibly top heavy. As good as those three players were, they were the only three players they had who played more than 452 snaps and graded out above average.

The good news is threefold though. One, it’s easier to find several starting caliber players to fill out around top level players than it is to find a top level player to elevate the level of the defense. Two, the Buccaneers did spend a fair amount of resources upgrading their defense this off-season, losing Darrelle Revis, but adding Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald. Three, the Buccaneers added Lovie Smith, who is a fantastic defensive head coach.

Revis is gone, but, as much as he will be missed, he wasn’t an ideal fit for Smith’s defensive scheme and the talent the Buccaneers added this off-season will cancel out that loss and then some. McCoy and David, meanwhile, are ideal fits for Smith’s scheme. McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in 2010 and he has immense talent. He was limited to 19 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed when he was on the field in 2010 and 2011.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s graded out #2 and #1 overall respectively among defensive tackles and hasn’t missed a single game. He’s especially dominant as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 14 hits, and 56 hurries on 594 pass rush snaps (a 13.5% rate) last season as an interior defensive lineman, despite next to no help from the other Buccaneer defensive linemen. He’s the best defensive tackle in the NFL and the 6-4 295 pound one-gap penetrator is an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme, so he could be even better this season.

Clinton McDonald, who the Buccaneers signed to a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal coming over from Seattle, will start next to him. Clinton McDonald was a 7th round pick in 2009 and played just 794 snaps in his career before in 2013, failing to grade out above average in all 4 seasons in the league from 2009-2012. He was actually cut by the Seahawks in final cuts and re-signed in mid-September. Given that, it might seem weird that McDonald got that kind of money, but McDonald had a very solid season as one of the cogs on a Seattle defensive line that helped them win the Super Bowl.

McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked defensive tackle, grading out above average overall. He struggled against the run (58th out of 69 eligible), but he excelled as a pass rusher (16th), which is more important. The 6-2 285 pounder is also an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme. He’s still a one year wonder and you don’t know how he’ll do outside of Seattle’s system, but he should still be an upgrade over Akeem Spence, who started and played 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He played about as you’d expect, grading out 3rd worst at his position overall. Spence will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season, a role he’s better suited for.

McDonald wasn’t the biggest free agent acquisition the Buccaneers had on the defensive line, as they signed Michael Johnson to a 5-year, 43.75 million dollar deal. Johnson is an incredibly athletic defensive end who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end.

The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again. At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries on 575 snaps (a 10.6% pass rush rate, as opposed to 10.3% in 2012), to go with 7 batted passes. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end last season.

Adrian Clayborn will continue to start opposite him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible last season. The 2011 1st round pick has largely been a bust and the Buccaneers declined his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. However, he could be better this season. Much of his struggles last season could be attributed to the fact that he tore his ACL in 2012. He wasn’t great before the injury either, grading out below average in both 2011 and 2012 (doing so 187 snaps in 2012). However, in his only other healthy season (2011), he wasn’t as bad as he was in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. He still has some upside going into his 4th year in the league, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him. The Buccaneers should still be better at every spot on the defensive line around Gerald McCoy this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Lavonte David is another fantastic player who should excel in Lovie Smith’s scheme. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2012 and their 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. He might be the best linebacker from the 2012 draft class and that includes Luke Kuechly. The 6-1 233 pounder excels in coverage and he’ll be like a rich man’s version of Lance Briggs for Lovie Smith.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is a marginal talent who fits Lovie Smith’s defense like a square peg in a round hole though. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, grading out dead last among middle linebackers in 2011, 38th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and 32nd out of 55 eligible in 2013. Lovie Smith mentioned earlier in the off-season that he’d ideally be able to find a replacement for him in the middle, some sort of at least poor man’s version of Brian Urlacher.

The Buccaneers failed to do that, only bringing in career reserve Dane Fletcher from New England. Fletcher could still win the job though. He’s only played 634 snaps in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010, but he’s essentially been a league average player in limited action so he could end up being an upgrade over Foster. He’s also in the mix for the two-down outside role (as could Foster be if he loses the middle linebacker job).

Jonathan Casillas is currently penciled in there. He’s been decent on 455 snaps over the past two seasons, but he struggled in the only season in the league in which he saw significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible on 560 snaps in 2011. Most likely, he starts there, Foster starts inside, and Fletcher remains a reserve and a useful special teamer, but things are up for grabs in the linebacking corps other than the dominant David.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned that the Buccaneers released Darrelle Revis this off-season, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked cornerback last season. Obviously, the loss of him will hurt, but his talents would have been wasted in the Buccaneers’ new zone coverage scheme under Lovie Smith and new regime decided he wasn’t worth his non-guaranteed 16 million dollar salary. They opted to replace him with Alterraun Verner, who has spent 4 years as a zone coverage cornerback in Tennessee, on a 4-year, 26.5 million dollar deal. All things considering, including price tag and scheme fit, Verner is the better value.

Verner has never been spectacular, maxing out 10th overall in 2011 (he graded out 13th last season). However, he’s made all 64 starts since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 and he’s graded out in the top-25 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, something only Joe Haden and Jason McCourty can also say at the inconsistent cornerback position. The common opinion is that Verner broke out last season, when he had a career high 5 interceptions, after a combined 6 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league, but that’s the danger with just looking at interception numbers. He’s been a solid player in entire career in Tennessee’s zone defense.

Johnthan Banks will continue to be the other starter. He struggled mightily last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, finishing above average against the run, but finishing 107th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He was just a rookie and rookie cornerbacks do tend to struggle. He was a 2nd round pick so he has talent and upside. He could be noticeably improved in his 2nd year in the league, but there are obviously no guarantees.

Leonard Johnson also struggled last season, doing so as the 3rd cornerback, as the 2012 undrafted free agent unsurprisingly struggled in his first season of significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible on 711 snaps. He was solid as a rookie, grading out 34th at his position on 594 snaps, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone he flopped last season given that recently (April 2012) no one thought he was even worth a draft pick. The Buccaneers brought in veteran Mike Jenkins to compete for the 3rd cornerback job and he could easily win it.

Jenkins is a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick had a Pro-Bowl year in 2009, grading out 13th at his position, but it’s been all downhill from there. He’s already going into his age 29 season and he’s graded below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league. That being said, he’s never been horrible and he was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. That’s not great, but he should be an upgrade over Johnson.

At safety, the Buccaneers have a pair of players that they invested heavy resources into that haven’t really panned out. Mark Barron was the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Dashon Goldson got a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Barron has graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out 70th out of 88 eligible safeties in 2012 and 55th out of 86 eligible in 2013. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He could just end up being a bust.

Goldson, meanwhile, could easily end up being a free agent bust and 22 million guaranteed down the drain. He was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season. This is nothing new for him as he graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter in San Francisco, including 77th out of 88 eligible in 2009 and 64th out of 87 eligible in 2011. He was 20th in 2012, the year before he got that massive deal. The Buccaneers fell into the one year wonder trap and also signed someone who looked better than he was because of all the surrounding defensive talent the 49ers had. They’re stuck with him for another season as he goes into his age 30 season and he should struggle again. Outside of Verner, this secondary isn’t very good, but they have plenty of talent in the front 7 and a strong defensive head coach.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers should have a pretty solid defense this season. They lost Darrelle Revis, but they added Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald to a defense that needed all of those things and they added Lovie Smith as head coach. With the aforementioned trio and McCoy and David, they should be above average overall on that side of the ball. However, the optimism about their offense just because their receivers resemble a basketball team is unfounded.

Josh McCown goes from Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer to Jeff Tedford and just because the Bears’ pass catchers are tall doesn’t mean they’re going to be as good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett from Chicago. McCown will show his true colors this season as a journeyman in his age 35 season. The Buccaneers also have issues at guard. They had a well below average offense last season and I don’t see them being significantly better this season, which will hold this team back. I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: 7-9 4th in NFC South

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