2015 NFL Season Playoffs and Prop Bets

AFC Wild Card

Denver Broncos over New England Patriots

Baltimore Ravens over San Diego Chargers

NFC Wild Card

New Orleans Saints over Detroit Lions

Philadelphia Eagles over Minnesota Vikings

AFC Divisional

Denver Broncos over Indianapolis Colts

Baltimore Ravens over Miami Dolphins

NFC Divisional

Seattle Seahawks over New Orleans Saints

Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles

AFC Championship

Baltimore Ravens over Denver Broncos

NFC Championship

Seattle Seahawks over Green Bay Packers

Super Bowl

Seattle Seahawks over Baltimore Ravens

Prop Bets

Tennessee Titans OVER 5.5 wins

Atlanta Falcons UNDER 8.5 wins

Miami Dolphins OVER 9 wins

Baltimore Ravens OVER 9.5 wins

Baltimore Ravens +160 to win AFC North

Miami Dolphins +350 to win AFC East

Miami Dolphins +130 to make playoffs

New England Patriots 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I saved the Patriots for last intentionally and it’s not because I was trying to save the best for last with the defending Super Bowl champion. I did that because I wanted to maximize the odds that I’d be writing this preview at a point when Tom Brady’s status for the first 4 games wouldn’t be up in the air. That proved to be impossible. Brady was suspended for 4 games in early May after a supposedly independent report from Ted Wells suggested it was more likely than not that Patriot employees intentionally altered the air pressure of the AFC Championship balls to a non-legal level and that Tom Brady more likely than not knew about this. The team also lost their 1st and 4th round picks in 2016 and was fined a million dollars.

The Patriots chose not to appeal the team punishment, but Brady appealed this suspension in June. That didn’t go well because Commissioner Roger Goodell served as the arbitrator. Goodell announced in July that he was upholding the suspension, causing Tom Brady’s legal team to sue in federal court. Legal proceedings have been swift and it sounds like the case will be resolved before the start of the season, with both sides due in court multiple times before then. However, as of this writing, there is some percentage chance between 0% and 100% that Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season with suspension and we don’t know what that percentage is, making it very tough to do a season preview for them.

Before I get into what a possible Brady suspension would mean for this team, I want to take a look at Brady’s case. Brady’s side is likely to argue a number of things. First, they are going to argue that the Ted Wells report is not as independent as it claims to be, because of Ted Wells’ personal relationship with league executives, and they will try to back up this claim with evidence of missed steps in the investigative process by Wells. They will also argue that Goodell didn’t have the ability under the CBA to delegate the handing down of the suspension to league executive Troy Vincent, which then allowed Goodell to be a “neutral” arbitrator on this case.

Brady’s best argument is that there is nothing in the rules, nor any precedent, that allows for a player to be suspended for an equipment violation like this, as the rules only mention a fine as a punishment. In the past with similar equipment violations, the punishment has only been a fine. The NFL will argue that a suspension was still warranted because of the Patriots’ history of skirting the rules and because Brady seemingly didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation because he didn’t turn his phone over. However, Brady was never implicated at all in Spygate, never receiving as much as a fine or even a warning from the NFL. As for Brady’s refusal to turn over his cell phone, the NFL doesn’t have subpoena powers and cannot force a player to turn over their cell phone. Under the advice of his lawyers not to set a bad precedent, Brady refused to turn over his physical phone.

There’s undoubtedly more to both sides of the story than we know, but it seems like the NFL once again mishandled player discipline. The NFL has had little luck with their suspensions standing when ruled on by an independent 3rd party over the past, especially in federal court. The NFL lost their case against Jonathan Vilma and the rest of the BountyGate players, their case against Ray Rice, their case against Greg Hardy, and their case against with Adrian Peterson, with all four suspensions getting nullified immediately.

Antonio Cromartie, of the rival New York Jets, made the point well publicly this week that he’s on Tom Brady’s side because he doesn’t feel like the Commissioner being allowed to make up his own rules on discipline is a precedent that any player should want to see happen and, as much as Brady being suspended 4 games would help the Jets’ playoff chances, fairness is more important. This opinion seems to be shared by the rest of the league because, while 72% of NFL players believe Brady and the Patriots to be guilty, only 16% are upset by it, 68% say that they think other teams do the same thing, and 58% do not consider the Patriots cheaters. On top of that, 78% of players consider Brady’s punishment too harsh and a whopping 88% of players do not think that Roger Goodell should be handling player discipline. While the circumstantial evidence does suggest that Brady at least knew about this and didn’t put a stop to it, I think it’s hard to argue that, in fairness under league rules, he deserves to miss a quarter of the regular season.

It remains to be seen how many games Tom Brady will be allowed to play this season, but, in the long-term, the debate over DeflateGate will be a legacy one, about whether or not this and Spygate lessen Brady’s legacy. I don’t believe it does. Taking some air out of the ball and being able to watch recorded public practices certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s ability to perform, but he’s hardly the only player to bend the rules, as evidenced by those polls and as several others have admitted this off-season, including Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and if you think those are the reasons why Brady has been successful in his career, you don’t understand the game.

If Brady struggles by his standards on the field this season, it won’t be because the ball now has the minimum amount of air in it, instead of slightly less than the minimum amount. It’ll be because he’s going into his age 38 season and, depending on the result of his lawsuit, because he missed 4 games to start the season and it threw off his rhythm. In 7 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) since Pro Football Focus’ start in 2007, Brady has graded out 2nd (2007), 11th (2009), 8th (2010), 3rd (2011), 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), and 4th (2014). Brady looked to be on the slight decline in 2013 and to start 2014, but turned it around in a big way mid-season last season, en route to his 4th Super Bowl.

He’ll be missed for sure if the suspension is upheld. Jimmy Garappolo excites a lot of people long-term, but, as of right now, he’s an inexperienced 2nd year quarterback who went in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and whose limited NFL success has mostly come on the practice field and during the pre-season. Garappolo has completed 19 of 27 career regular season attempts for 182 yards, a touchdown, and no picks, flashing, but doing so in very, very limited, mostly meaningless action. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Tom Brady.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Regardless of who is under center, tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be a monster offensive weapon for them. It’s possible that, with Brady aging, Gronkowski has become their most important offensive player. He’ll obviously need to stay healthy though as, at this point last year, he was coming back from a torn ACL and was a serious injury concern. When he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back.

When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his collegiate days at the University of Arizona, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin in 2014, winning Comeback Player of the Year in the process. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns from the tight end spot. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3), propelling them to finish 6th in the league on the season in rate of moving the chains.

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been when on the field, possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker. He’s easily the top tight end in the league.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. Gronkowski has made Brady look better than he is over the past few years and he can do the same for Garappolo, to some extent. He’s 100% injury wise right now, but, if he were to get hurt again, it would be devastating for this offense.

Top wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are not nearly as good and could see a serious statistical dropoff in the first 4 games of the season if Brady doesn’t play, something that could continue if Brady isn’t quite his old self upon return. Edelman has put up solid numbers over the past 2 seasons, putting up a 105/1056/6 slash line in 2013 and a 92/972/4 slash line last season and even graded out 34th among eligible wide receivers in 2013. However, he graded out below average in 2014 and prior to 2014 he was a 2009 7th round pick who had played 930 career snaps and missed 16 games with injury. I’m not trying to diminish his development, but he’s a marginal starting wide receiver whose recent production is largely the result of Tom Brady. He’s younger than Wes Welker and better than he would have been, but he’s a poor man’s version of Welker in his prime at best.

LaFell put up decent numbers in 2014 as well, putting up a 74/953/7 slash line and grading out 33rd among eligible wide receivers. However, he too benefitted from playing with Brady. Prior to last season, he never really played that well, as the 2010 3rd round pick caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2010-2013, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013 and below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s a marginal starting receiver as result and one who will have trouble repeating the best season of his career in 2015. LaFell and Edelman are decent and complement each other well, but they’re an underwhelming pair of starting wide receivers.

Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola will compete for the #3 receiver job. After the Patriots lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez two off-seasons ago, they brought in Amendola and Dobson to replenish their receiving corps and essentially act as Edelman and LaFell did last season. Amendola got a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar contract, while Aaron Dobson was a 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Neither of them lived up to expectations, allowing an opening for Edelman to breakout as a starting caliber player and causing the Patriots to sign LaFell to play opposite him.

Amendola was forced to take a pay cut down to 2.25 million for the 2015 season and, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in 2016, is likely in his final season in New England. Amendola graded out above average in 2013, but played just 581 snaps in 12 games thanks to injuries. He was healthy for all 16 games in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 93rd among 110 eligible wide receivers on just 466 snaps. He did play decent down the stretch though, catching 27 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season, including the playoffs.

That gave the Patriots hope that Amendola could bounce back in 2015 and become the player who averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2012 with the Rams, which is why the Patriots brought him back. However, he’s an injury prone player (24 games missed in the last 4 seasons), who is going into his age 30 season, who has never played more than 679 snaps in a season (dating back to going undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft), and who hasn’t had a good season since 2012. He could win the #3 receiver job, but I don’t see him having a fantastic year or anything. Dobson, meanwhile, graded out 98th among 111 eligible wide receivers on 557 snaps as a rookie and then was limited to 57 nondescript snaps in 2014 by injuries. He’s recovered from those injuries and has drawn positive reviews in practice, but he’s on his last chance and seems like a long-shot for the #3 job, as of this writing.

The winner of that job will see the field about half the time, playing in 3-wide receiver sets. The Patriots have a decent fullback in James Develin that they’ll use on occasion, while free agent acquisition Scott Chandler is the #2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and will see a decent amount of action. Chandler replaces Tim Wright, who graded out above average on 357 snaps in one season in New England, coming over in the Logan Mankins trade. He was surprisingly waived this off-season, despite two more very affordable years left on his rookie contract.

The 6-7 265 Chandler is a very different player than the 6-4 220 Wright and is more of a replacement for Michael Hoomanawanui than anything. Chandler should be an upgrade over Hoomanawanui, who graded out 58th among 67 eligible tight ends last season, but only by default. Chandler graded out above average in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013 as a starting tight end, on an average of 769 snaps played per season, but graded out below average last season on 744 snaps, 47th among 67 eligible tight ends. Things won’t get better for him, as he heads into his age 30 season. He’d be a significant downgrade from Gronkowski if Gronk were to get hurt. Rob Gronkowski elevates this receiving corps to a new level on his own, but, outside of him, they lack weapons in the receiving corps, making them very vulnerable to another possible Gronkowski injury and making life hard for Jimmy Garrapolo (or whoever starts the season at quarterback) than you’d expect.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Patriots had a lot of trouble on the offensive line last season, especially in pass protection (29th in team pass blocking grade). They particularly struggled at left guard. Dan Connolly saw the most action there last season, making 10 starts, but graded out 72nd among 78 eligible guards. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey also made starts there, but both struggled, especially the latter, who graded out 70th among 78 eligible guards on just 306 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Cannon wasn’t quite that bad at any one position, but saw action at many different offensive line positions and struggled everywhere about as much as Devey did at guard.

This season, with Connolly retiring ahead of his age 33 season, the Patriots are expected to start 4th round rookie Tre Jackson, which is unlikely to be a serious upgrade. The Patriots like Jackson, but are largely starting him out of a lack of other options. His competition includes fellow 4th round rookie Shaquille Mason, a guard out of Georgia Tech that is currently penciled in as the backup center, and veterans Devey and Cannon. Cannon is the better of the two because he did grade out above average on 160 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2011 and 178 snaps in 2012, but he’s struggled mightily over the past 2 seasons and certainly isn’t a legitimate starting option. Devey, meanwhile, had never even played a snap as a 2013 undrafted free agent prior to last season’s struggles and is no lock to even make the roster. Jackson’s only real competition is Josh Kline, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has been respectable in 412 career snaps, but he’s certainly not a dependable starter either.

Connolly actually began last season at center, but 4th round rookie Bryan Stork took over as the starter week 4 and made 11 starts the rest of the way, holding his own, grading out 23rd among 41 eligible centers. He’s not a great starter, but he could be solid again in his 2nd year in the league. Stork stepping up as a respectable pivot mid-season really helped the Patriots’ offense and made sure they wouldn’t have to start both Connolly and Devey.

Right guard Ryan Wendell also saw some time at center last season before Stork locked down the job, but primarily just played guard. Wendell spent 2012 and 2013 as the Patriots’ center and had drastically different performances in those two seasons. Wendell burst onto the scene in 2012, grading out 2nd among centers, but finished 31st among 35 eligible in 2013. He appeared to be a one-year wonder, given that the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 566 career snaps prior to his one good year as a starter in 2012, but he played pretty well at right guard this season, grading out slightly above average. Overall, he averages out as a solid starter, like he was last season, but he’s very inconsistent. He’s also a much better run blocker than pass protector. He hasn’t graded out above average as a pass protector in any of his 3 seasons as a starter, not even in 2012, but he graded out 1st among in run blocking in 2012 and 10th last season (58th out of 78 eligible in pass protection).

The Patriots’ struggle for consistency wasn’t just on the interior of their offensive line last season. Nate Solder had a down year, grading out below average for the first time in his career, but he has a good chance to bounce back. The 2011 1st round pick graded out 34th in as a rookie, 17th in 2012, 9th in 2013, and only struggled last season because, as was revealed after the season ended, Solder had been treated for testicular cancer the previous off-season. He played better down the stretch, grading out above average in his final 13 games, and I expect that to continue into 2015. Now fully healthy and going into the final season of his contract, Solder should get a solid sized payday within the next calendar year.

On the other side, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy. With a full season of Stork at center and Solder back to 100%, the Patriots’ offensive line should be better this season, but they still have problems.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In 2011, the Patriots used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the running back position, taking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley respectively, with the idea of having Vereen, a smaller, quicker back with good passing down skills, working in tandem with Ridley, a talented between the tackles runner with no passing down skills. Both had up and down careers in New England, but both also had stretches of strong play. Stevan Ridley graded out 8th and 13th in pure run grade among running backs in 2012 and 2013 respectively, rushing for a combined 2036 yards and 19 touchdowns on 468 carries over those 2 seasons (4.35 YPC), while Vereen caught 99 passes in 2013 and 2014 combined and graded out 12th and 10th respectively among running backs in pure pass catching grade in those two seasons respectively. Both left as free agents this off-season though.

Ridley won’t be hard to replace, as the Patriots actually ran better after Ridley tore his ACL week 6 last season. He was replaced at first by Jonas Gray, who rushed for 412 yards and 5 touchdowns on 89 carries (4.63 YPC) on the season, and then by LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.69 YPC), after coming over mid-season from Pittsburgh. Blount also totaled 189 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 47 carries in 3 playoff games as the lead back. Ridley, meanwhile, was at 3.62 YPC before going down with injury. Blount returns as the favorite to lead this team in carries, but head coach Bill Belichick is known for having no loyalty to running backs so Jonas Gray is right in the mix for carries on a team that didn’t have a single running back hit 100 carries last season (Vereen had 96 carries and averaged 4.07 yards per carry).

Blount is the more proven of the two backs, as Gray is a 2012 undrafted free agent who never had a carry prior to last season. Blount is also a former undrafted free agent, falling out of the draft in 2010 for behavioral reasons, but has rushed for 3258 yards and 25 touchdowns on 704 carries in 5 seasons in the league, an average of 4.63 YPC. He’s bounced from Tampa Bay to New England to Pittsburgh back to New England because of those same behavioral issues, but Bill Belichick has always kept him in line and I expect that to continue. Both Gray and Blount graded out significantly above average as runners on Pro Football Focus last season, so the Patriots are going to be fine in that aspect, but they also have just a combined 34 career catches in a combined 80 career games, so they’re both useless in the passing game.

Vereen will be much tougher to replace for that reason. It’s currently a three-way battle between Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, and James White for the job and at least one, if not two of those players won’t even make the final roster. White’s roster spot seems to be the most in danger, as the 2014 4th round pick has struggled this off-season. He caught 39 passes in his senior year at Wisconsin, but played just 31 snaps as a rookie and hasn’t done much on the practice field to win over the coaching staff.

Cadet is probably the favorite. He has a mere 3.36 career YPC on 11 carries, but caught 38 passes with the Saints last season and graded out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career. Brandon Bolden is an internal option. He’s a much better runner, with a career 4.56 YPC, but he has just 25 career catches, has never graded out above average as a pass catcher, has only once graded out above average overall, and has missed 10 games with injury in 3 years in the league, since going undrafted because of injury concerns in 2012.

Bolden probably has the safest hold on a roster spot because he plays special teams well, but he’s no lock to exceed the mere 30 offensive touches he had last season. My guess is Cadet wins the passing down job, Blount and Gray make the team as the 1st and 2nd running backs, and Bolden makes the roster as a special teamer and insurance. The Patriots figure to still pass to running backs a decent amount in 2014, but I don’t see anyone catching the 52 balls that Vereen caught last season and they will miss him. The Patriots don’t have any great running backs, but they have a bunch of running backs who can play roles and Bill Belichick figures to use his running back stable to its fullest once again. It’ll be maddening from a fantasy football standpoint, but it should get decent results on the field.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Patriots’ lost 3 of their top-4 cornerbacks, in terms of snaps played last season, this off-season, including Darrelle Revis, arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and the biggest reason why the Patriots were able to finish 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season, after years of bad defense. Because of that, they had to either reload at the cornerback position or reinvent themselves defensively this off-season. They didn’t do the former at all, but they did the latter to some extent, by adding edge player Jabaal Sheard, formerly of the Cleveland Browns.

Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. The Patriots already had two solid edge players in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich prior to bringing in Sheard, but Sheard was such a bargain (11 million over 2 years) and Jones and Ninkovich averaged 66.1 and 67.3 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, the two highest per game snap averages among players at their position. As part of their reinvention on defense, they will rotate 4-3 defensive ends far more often and also regularly play all three on the field at the same time in sub packages. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England.

Jones is the biggest of the trio at 6-5 265, so he’d be tasked with rushing the passer from the interior sub packages, which he has some experience with. Jones is also probably the best of the trio. The 2012 1st round pick has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the NFL, including 11th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, despite missing 6 games with a hip injury. He does have some injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s healthy now and could have the best season of his career in his age 25 season in 2015, now playing a much more manageable amount of snaps. He has experience in a 4-3, as well as a 3-4, playing in a 4-3 in his first 2 seasons in New England in 2012 and 2013 and playing in one in college at Syracuse.

While Jones is on the way up, Ninkovich seems to be on the way down, going into his age 31 season. He graded out below average last season, snapping a 5-year streak of grading out above average. He definitely has bounce back potential, after grading out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011 and 6th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s not completely over the hill yet and he too should benefit from a smaller snap count, but he’s getting to the point where he can’t be trusted as more than a solid starter. Still, it’s a solid trio. Sheard definitely won’t make up for all of the Patriots’ losses in the secondary by himself, but the Patriots should get good pass rush this season, which would help their secondary at least a little.

The Patriots also made a big addition at defensive tackle this off-season, drafting Malcom Brown in the 1st round, though he was largely a replacement for Vince Wilfork, who was cut ahead of his age 34 season, after grading out 13th among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Still, the Brown pick makes it two straight years where they’ve drafted a defensive tackle in the first round, as they drafted Dominique Easley in the first round in 2014, so there’s definitely potential at the position. Easley is more of a pass rusher, while Brown is more of a run stuffer, and the Patriots are hoping they can blossom into a fearsome duo inside in the future.

Easley’s rookie year didn’t really suggest that he can live up to those expectations though. It’s certainly not too late for him to turn it around, but Easley tore both his ACLs in college at Florida, was limited to 270 nondescript snaps by knee problems as a rookie, and is still not at 100%. It seems unlikely that Easley will again ever be the top-5 talent that he would have been before the injuries. The Patriots should just hope that he can stay healthy this season and play solid in an expanded role.

Easley will probably see the majority of his snaps in sub packages as an interior pass rusher, along with Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard. Sealver Siliga looks like the favorite to start in base packages alongside Brown, but, like Brown, he’s going to be largely a two-down player this season. Siliga is a great fit for that role though, as the 6-2 307 pounder has graded out above average both overall and as a run stopper in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. The 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 467 total career snaps, maxing out at 242 in 2014, but he’s definitely deserving of more playing time, which he should get this season.

Christopher Jones finished 2nd among Patriot interior defensive linemen in 2014, grading out 42nd among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 511 snaps, after grading out dead last among 69 eligible defensive tackles on 792 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, largely playing out of desperation. He won’t have to play much this season, which is good. It’s a solid defensive line, but an unspectacular one that won’t make up for their losses in the secondary.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another player who will give the Patriots pass rush productivity, as he did last season, is linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins only blitzed 85 times last season, but managed to record 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries, an outstandingly good performance in that aspect for the collegiate defensive end. Collins isn’t just a good blitzer though, as he’s developed into one of the best overall linebackers in the game, easily making the position switch from college to the pros. He graded out 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. With the Patriots moving to a 4-3, Collins will move back outside, where he flashed on 302 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2013. He’s technically just a one-year wonder because he’s only been a starter in the league for one year, but, going into his age 26 season, Collins seems like a budding superstar linebacker.

Dont’a Hightower will remain in the middle in the Patriots’ new 4-3, after grading out 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, one spot ahead of Collins and only behind Luke Kuechly. Like Collins, he seems like a budding superstar. Also like Collins, Hightower helped with pass rush, adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 hurries on just 156 blitzes. The 2012 1st round pick graded out 8th and 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013 respectively and then dominated upon moving back to his natural, collegiate position of middle linebacker in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Hightower should continue this play into 2015 and beyond and is one of the best middle linebackers in the game.

The Patriots’ third linebacker, Jerod Mayo, used to be one of the best linebackers in the game, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012. However, he’s been limited to 12 games over the past 2 seasons by a torn pectoral and a torn patellar tendon and now has been relegated to two-down work, stopping the run in base packages. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because he had guaranteed money owed to him either way. The Patriots still made him take a pay cut down to 4.5 million from 9.1 million.

He played pretty well against the run in 2014 before going down, but a torn patellar tendon is incredibly tough to come back from. That injury is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent. He’ll likely never be as good as he used to be, but he could still be a solid two-down player in arguably the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. Because of how Hightower and Collins have stepped up over the past two seasons, Mayo is no longer needed like he once was.

Grade: A

Secondary

I mentioned earlier how much the Patriots lost at cornerback this off-season. Before I get into detail about that, I want to start with the good, which is the safety position, specifically Devin McCourty, who was brought back on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season. That is the 2nd highest average annual salary in the league for a safety, but he was well worth it. McCourty started his career as a cornerback, grading above average in his first 3 years in the league at that position, including 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2010 and 8th in 2012 on just 534 snaps.

McCourty played such few snaps at cornerback in 2012 because he moved to safety mid-season, finishing the season 14th among safeties on 564 snaps. His composite grade across both positions would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. He then followed that up by grading out 1st among safeties in 2013 and 8th in 2014. There’s been some talk that McCourty could be moving back to cornerback this season, with so many losses at the position. That hasn’t been substantiated by anything yet, but it is the Patriots so you never know. I don’t expect him to move back full-time to cornerback, but it would make sense for the Patriots to have him play on the slot in sub packages.

That’s because the Patriots’ safety depth is so much better than their cornerback depth, meaning they are much better equipped to play with 3 safeties on the field in sub packages than the traditional 3 cornerbacks. Patrick Chung returns as a starter opposite McCourty, after getting a 3-year, 8.2 million dollar extension during last season. Chung was a huge surprise for the Patriots in 2014, playing all 16 games and grading out 12th among safeties.

How well he played wasn’t really a surprise, as the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, though he’s never been as good as he was last season. What’s most surprising is the fact that he stayed healthy, after missing 18 games from 2010-2013. It’ll be tough to count on him to stay healthy and repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, especially since the Patriots’ lack of talent at cornerback means Chung won’t be able to play within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 67.7% of snaps again, 5th among eligible safeties. That could lead to him getting exposed in coverage more than he was last season.

The Patriots also have a pair of good backups, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. Harmon was a 2013 3rd round pick and has graded out above average on 431 and 283 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Richards, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in this past draft, but he wasn’t seen as a highly rated prospect and figures to be the Patriots’ 4th safety at best. Still, given that the 5-11 212 pound Chung doesn’t play nearly as well in reverse as he does moving forward, both Richards and Harmon could carve out sub packages roles, especially if McCourty starts playing on the slot.

Of course, as good as the Patriots’ safeties are, they can’t completely mask their losses at cornerback. Darrelle Revis (1032 snaps), Brandon Browner (591 snaps), and Kyle Arrington (451 snaps) were 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively in snaps played among cornerbacks in 2014 for the Patriots and they all left this off-season. Browner won’t really be missed, after grading out 79th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014, and Arrington was only alright, but Revis will be impossible to replace, given that he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback.

Logan Ryan was 3rd on the team among cornerbacks in snaps played last season and looks like he’ll slide into a starting job by default. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out above average on 608 snaps as a rookie and, even though he graded out below average on 519 snaps, he wasn’t horrible in 2014. He’s a steep downgrade from Revis and he only has 13 career starts, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season and could be a decent young starter for them. He’s pretty much the only cornerback on the team who is locked into some sort of secure role.

2nd year player Malcolm Butler is penciled in as the other starter, while veteran journeyman Robert McClain is penciled in on the slot. Butler well known for his Super Bowl clinching interception, but, while that was a great play, it’s also important to remember that he went undrafted in 2014 and graded out below average on 187 regular season snaps. Even though he graded out above average on 33 post-season snaps, he’s still incredibly unproven. McClain, meanwhile, had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but he proved to be a one year wonder (the 2010 7th round pick played a combined 134 snaps in 2010-2011). He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 90th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Neither inspires much hope in me.

Both players will have to hold off Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown, also journeyman veterans added as free agents this off-season. And, of course, it’s possible the Patriots rarely use 3 cornerbacks, favoring 3 safeties instead. As I mentioned, that’s probably a good idea because neither Fletcher nor Brown seems fit for a serious role, just like Butler and McClain don’t. Fletcher started all 16 games at cornerback last season for the Eagles, but he was horrible, grading out 92nd out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Fletcher was a 3rd round pick of the Rams’ in 2009, but last season was the first season in his career that he made all 16 starts and, though he’s had decent success as a reserve in his career, he’s not a starting caliber cornerback. He’s a depth cornerback at best and not a very reliable one, as he’s missed 25 games in 6 seasons in the NFL.

Brown, meanwhile, is probably a little better than Fletcher, but didn’t sign with the Patriots until late July. He was a 3-year starter in San Francisco, grading out 32nd, 13th, and 31st in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Brown turned down a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal from the 49ers last off-season, instead choosing to bet on himself and rehab his value after missing 3 games and being limited in others by rib problems in 2013, but that seems to have been a mistake. Brown made 3.5 million over 1 season in Oakland, missed another 2 games with injury, and graded out below average, leading to a minimum deal in New England. There’s even talk that 7th round rookie Darryl Roberts, seen as a steal by College Football Focus, could see playing time at some point. The Patriots like him and with good reason, but I don’t think he’ll be ready for action as a rookie. It’s a far cry from last year’s secondary and that will really hurt a defense that finished 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Patriots were Super Bowl champions last year and were a much better team down the stretch en route to winning the Super Bowl, particularly on offense, as Rob Gronkowski got back to 100% and the offensive line turned things around. However, the Patriots might not be able to carry their strong offensive play from early October through the Super Bowl into 2015 because Tom Brady could be suspended for the first 4 games of the season, which would really throw their offense’s rhythm off. Even if Brady does play all 16 games, he’s going into his age 38 season and can’t keep playing like this forever.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ defense is without a doubt worse, thanks to the loss of Darrelle Revis, among others. They still have some strong parts, including Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Devin McCourty, the latter of whom the Patriots did manage to keep as a free agent this off-season, and they have a solid defensive line. However, this defense is not going to be the same in 2015 as it was in 2014 and I think the same can be said of the rest of the team. It’s tough to make a prediction with Brady hanging in limbo, but I don’t think they’ll be as good and they might cede the division to Miami. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Patriots after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Patriots got Tom Brady back for the first 4 games, but they still have other problems. Their cornerbacks are a mess, Brady is 38, Brandon LaFell and Bryan Stork are already out for at least the first month of the season, thinning their offensive line and receiving corps, and they share a division with a much improved Miami team. I have them in 2nd in a virtual tie record wise with the Dolphins and they certainly could win the division again, but I’m taking Miami. Both teams will be tough in the playoffs.

Prediction: 11-5 2nd in AFC East

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New York Jets 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing just 28th in rate of moving the chains differential. Like most awful teams, the Jets had a terrible quarterback situation. Geno Smith played in 14 games (13 starts), while Michael Vick played in 10 games (3 starts) and they graded out 5th worst and 4th worst among quarterbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus. As a result, they finished 26th in rate of moving the chains. Unfortunately, they won just too many games to be able to select a top quarterback in the draft, going 4-12, as a result of a solid defense that ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Because neither Winston nor Mariota fell to the Jets’ pick at 6, the Jets had to settle for trading a 7th round pick to Houston for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and using a 4th round pick on Bryce Perry, who will only play as a rookie if disaster strikes. Fitzpatrick has actually played pretty well over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average for the first two times in his career, including arguably the best season of his career in 2014. He graded out 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions last season. Now in New York, Fitzpatrick is reunited with Chan Gailey, formerly his Head Coach in Buffalo and now the Jets’ offensive coordinator.

Usually I like when players reunite with former coaches because of the familiarity aspect, but Fitzpatrick never did very well under Gailey’s tutelage, as evidenced by the fact that some of his poor seasons earlier in his career were with Gailey. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked quarterback out of 37 eligible in 2010, 26th out of 38 eligible in 2011, and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012, the three seasons he played under Gailey. On top of that, he’s going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg. There’s reason why the Texans felt comfortable trading him for a mere 7th round pick, despite the fact that he is only owed 3.25 million this season. I’d still start him over Smith, but it sounds like the Jets are going to be sticking with the incumbent for at least a few weeks.

Smith has been terrible in 2 years in the league. He’s completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions, while grading out 40th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in 2013 and 36th among 39 eligible quarterbacks in 2014. He was better than Michael Vick last season though, as Vick completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 4.99 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. In the 5 games where Vick played more than 50% of the snaps, the Jets moved the chains at a 64.44% rate, as opposed to 69.18% in their other games. Neither of those rates is good, but the Jets’ quarterback situation figures to be better this season than last season simply because of the swap of Vick for Fitzpatrick. Their passing offense still won’t be a very effective way to move the chains though, unless Fitzpatrick is somehow able to win the job and repeat the best season of his career again at age 33, coming off of a broken leg.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do anything real at the quarterback position this off-season, the Jets spent a lot of money to upgrade their team around the quarterback spot this off-season, going into the off-season with close to the most cap space in the league. Their biggest move on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t a free agent acquisition. It was the trade of a 5th round pick to the Chicago Bears for Brandon Marshall, who will make 9 million dollars this season, after the Jets gave him a restructured 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon his arrival.

The Bears were willing to part with him because he’s coming off of a down year, catching just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, and grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. However, while he’s going into his age 31 season, he does have bounce back potential. He’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 8th in 2012, and 1st in 2013. He might be aging and a little overpaid, but he represents a significant upgrade for the Jets at wide receiver.

After #1 receiver Eric Decker, the Jets next 3 wide receivers in terms of snaps played in 2014 were Jeremy Kerley (752 snaps), Percy Harvin (373 snaps), and David Nelson (305 snaps). Harvin was decent in limited action, but Kerley and Nelson struggled mightily, grading out 76th and 109th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers. Nelson was especially bad, with no receivers grading out worse on fewer snaps. Harvin is gone, but Nelson is as well, and, with Marshall coming in, they have finally locked in a #2 receiver, moving Kerley to the 3rd receiver job, where he’s a much better fit.

Decker was their big off-season acquisition last off-season, coming over as a free agent from Denver and adding much needed life to a receiving corps that was led in snaps played by Stephen Hill in 2013. Decker didn’t continue his big numbers from 2012 and 2013, when he put up slash lines of 85/1064/13 and 87/1288/11 respectively, but that was to be expected, given the switch of Peyton Manning to Geno Smith at quarterback. Decker’s 74/962/5 slash line in 2014 was still very respectable given the circumstances he dealt with, frequent double teams and a hot mess at quarterback. He graded out 24th among wide receivers, which lines up with how he played in 2012 (42th) or 2013 (12th), and overall I’d say he lived up to his 5-year, 36.25 million dollar deal on a team that desperately needed a guy like him. He’s not a true #1 receiver, but he has Marshall to take some of the focus off of him this season, which should help him and this whole offense.

Kerley, meanwhile, will be a slot specialist between them in obvious passing situations. He’s a solid slot receiver. He’s graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft, catching 166 passes for 2073 yards and 7 touchdowns on 259 targets (64.1%) and 1408 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). He’s also plenty experienced, having played 2331 snaps in 4 seasons in the league and having started 23 of 58 career games. The trio of Decker, Marshall, and Kerley is solid and much better than what Jets fans are used to. Devin Smith, meanwhile, is the 4th receiver. The 2nd round rookie was seen as an option to beat out Kerley for the #3 job, but broke his ribs in training camp, essentially ending the battle. Smith is still expected to play week 1, but I don’t see him pushing for any real playing time until later in the season. He’s just missed too much valuable practice time.

Despite that, Kerley might not even finish 3rd on the team in yardage, because the Jets are expecting a breakout year from 2nd year tight end Jace Amaro. That might be wishful thinking, after the 2014 2nd rounder graded out below average on 385 snaps as a rookie, but he did show some upside and could easily be a solid starter in his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he’ll be a significant upgrade on Jeff Cumberland, who graded out dead last among 67 eligible tight ends last season. Cumberland, a 2010 undrafted free agent, has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, is coming off the worst season of his career, and has been overstretched as a starter over the past 2 seasons. He’s a low-end #2 tight end. He’s the only real weak spot in a solid receiving corps though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One area the Jets needed to improve this off-season on offense that they didn’t really was the running back position. They didn’t necessarily need to add a great runner, because lead back Chris Ivory is solid at running the football. Ivory has averaged 4.66 yards per carry on 636 carries in his career (2961 yards) and added another 17 touchdowns. The 2010 undrafted free agent has also graded out above average in pure running grade in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, including 10th among eligible running backs in pure running grade in 2014. The issue with Ivory is he’s useless in passing situations, with just 23 career catches in 55 career games. He’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and last season was so inept in both pass protection and pass catching on a career high 454 snaps that he graded out 39th among 57 eligible running backs, despite running the ball so well.

He’s a good runner, but he’s simply not a feature back. The Jets needed to add a complement for him this off-season, a smaller, speedier back that can complement the 6-0 222 pound Ivory as a runner and also handle all obvious passing situations. Chris Johnson played that role last season, but struggled mightily, grading out 46th among 57 eligible running backs. There’s a reason he remains unsigned as of this writing. Instead, the only running backs the Jets brought in this off-season were Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy, essentially lesser versions of Ivory. Now they just have three one-dimensional backs instead of one.

Both are solid runners between the tackles, but don’t represent any sort of change of pace from Ivory and they’ve caught a combined 67 career passes in a combined 79 career games. On top of that, neither one has ever graded out above average as a pass catcher in 6 combined seasons in the league. Both have had one season as a lead back, but both have also done little much else in their careers. Ridley (5-11 225) is probably the better of the two, grading out above average as a runner in 2 of 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, including 8th among running backs in pure run grade in 2012 and 13th in 2013. In his one year as a lead back (2012), he rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) and has rushed for 2817 yards and 22 touchdowns on 649 career carries (4.34 YPC) in his career.

Stacy (5-8 216), meanwhile, has rushed for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 326 carries (3.88 YPC) in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been better than those numbers have suggested, as he’s been stifled by consistently poor offensive line play, and he graded out 31st among running backs in running grade in 2013, but they’re still vastly inferior numbers to Ridley. Most of that production came as a starter as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and it was a quick fall for him, as the Rams (his old team) drafted Tre Mason in the 3rd round last year, Todd Gurley in the 1st round this year, and sent Stacy to the Jets for a 7th round pick during this year’s draft.

Ridley should be the favorite to be Ivory’s backup on pure talent, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered last October. He might not be ready for the start of the season and, even if he is, it’s unclear what kind of shape he’s going to be in. For that reason, Stacy could win the backup job. It’s also likely that whoever loses the battle for the backup job will be outright cut because the Jets don’t want to have three of the same backs. It would be weird to see the Jets outright cut Ridley, but they guaranteed him just 80K because of the knee so it’s certainly a possibility if he can’t get healthy.

Bilal Powell, meanwhile, will slide into Johnson’s old role and could lead this backfield in snaps played, as he did in this role in 2013 (633 snaps). Powell is a decent pass catcher and pass protector and caught 36 passes in 2013, but he has a career 3.90 YPC average and struggled mightily overall in 2013, grading out 50th among 55 eligible running backs. Powell is no guarantee to even be an upgrade on the departed Chris Johnson. It’s not a backfield without some talent, but it’s a very one-dimensional one.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The Jets also needed to upgrade the offensive line this off-season, particularly at guard. They spent money trying to do that, giving James Carpenter a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar deal to be their starting left guard, but they definitely overpaid and I’m not sure so he represents much of an upgrade. Carpenter, a 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, started just 39 games in 4 seasons (31 at left guard, 8 at right tackle) in the league. That’s a result of several injuries and overall poor play, as he’s graded out well below average in all 4 of those seasons.

Of course, the Jets had horrible guard play last season so Carpenter could still be an upgrade. Right guard Willie Colon struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible, and is now going into his age 32 season. Meanwhile at left guard, Brian Winters has been a disaster since they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible as a rookie and last year he was 66th out of 78 eligible, despite playing just 381 snaps. Oday Aboushi, a 2013 5th round pick, took over the starting job from him week 7 and was better, but only by default. None of those three players are capable starters.

Willie Colon remains the favorite to keep his starting job at right guard opposite Colon, despite the poor 2014 season. I don’t expect 2015 to be much better for him. After missing 36 out of a possible 48 games from 2010-2012 with injuries, Colon has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and actually graded out slightly above average in 2013. However, going into his age 32 season, with a very serious injury history, it’s definitely plausible that he could be done, at least as a starter. He’s certainly no lock to make all 16 starts this season and the sooner he’s benched the better.

Of course, the Jets’ other options aren’t very good. Obay Aboushi, as I mentioned, struggled last season, in the first 734 snaps of his career, after not playing a snap as a 5th round rookie in 2013. He wasn’t horrible (43rd among 78 eligible) and he’d be better than Colon, but he’s a below average starter. Dakota Dozier is the longshot option, after not playing a snap as a 4th round rookie in 2014. He’d probably need both Colon and Aboushi to struggle or get hurt to see the field. Guard figures to be a problem area for the Jets once again in 2015.

The rest of the offensive line isn’t terrible, with a trio of experienced veterans locked into their current spots, D’Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle, Nick Mangold at center, and Breno Giacomini at right tackle. Ferguson and Mangold have been staples on the Jets’ offensive line for years. Ferguson has made 144 starts in 9 seasons in the league (never missing a game) and has graded out above average in 5 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, while Mangold has made 141 starts in 9 seasons in the league (only 3 games missed) and has graded out above average in all 8 years in Pro Football Focus’ history.

However, they are going into their age 32 and 31 seasons respectively, which is a concern. Mangold hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, grading out 1st among centers last season, making it 8 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average. He’s been in the top-2 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and in the top-6 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and could easily do so again this season. However, Ferguson has been on the decline over the past 2 seasons, not grading out above average in either of them, after grading out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2008-2012. He could still be a decent starter this year, but he’s not the same player he used to be and he’s unlikely to be back in 2016, owed a non-guaranteed 10.375 million. Meanwhile, even though he’s played so well, Mangold’s age is a concern and he might not be quite as dominant in 2015, though he should still play very well.

Giacomini is also a veteran, but he hasn’t been around nearly as long as Ferguson and Mangold, who were both drafted by the Jets in the 1st round in 2006. He’s only been in New York for 1 year, signing with them as a free agent last off-season. Like Carpenter this off-season, Giacomini is a marginal player at best who was overpaid like a solid starter. Giacomini, who also came over from Seattle, signed a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season and proceeded to grade out 51st among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 2014, which is below average.

That is no surprise because Giacomini hasn’t once graded out above average in his career, since going in the 5th round in 2008. He’s experienced, with 49 starts in his career, but he’s not a good player and he won’t be better in his age 30 season in 2015. He wasn’t terrible last season, but he’s a marginal starter at best. It’s a weak offensive line overall on a weak offense overall. They’re more talented than they were last season thanks to some offensive additions, but not too much better and they should also have significantly more offensive injuries, after having the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. They’ll still struggle to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Jets also barely had any injuries on defense last season, with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on that side of the ball. Overall, they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, only behind the Denver Broncos. That’s not good news, considering how bad the Jets were last season. They’re more talented this season on both sides of the ball, but, if they could only win 4 games last season despite barely having any injuries, it’s clear that they weren’t that talented at all to begin with. This year, they should have more games lost on both sides of the ball, which will hurt their chances of being significantly improved.

Before even training camp started, the Jets were dealt a huge blow to their defense and it didn’t even involve an injury, as stud defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended for 4 games in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Making matters even worse, Richardson was arrested on a variety of counts after that, including reckless driving and drug possession, and now he’s expected to get an even longer suspension. Richardson, a 2013 1st round pick, has graded out 5th and 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014 respectively, emerging as one of the best defensive players in the whole league, only going into his age 25 season. He’ll definitely be missed, especially if he misses 6-8 games, which sounds likely.

The Jets were luckily prepared for this, at least as prepared for this as they could have been, using the 6th overall pick on Leonard Williams. That selection was seen as a weird one at the time, as the Jets already had a great pair of defensive ends in Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, but Williams was seen as a top-3 pick and fell out of circumstance, so the Jets decided they couldn’t pass on him. I didn’t like the move because it didn’t fill an immediate need and essentially signaled that they were giving up on re-signing Wilkerson (a 2016 free agent), but it ended up being the good move in hindsight because of the suspension. Now Williams goes from being a pure backup in 2015 and maybe starting in 2016 and beyond if Wilkerson leaves as a free agent next off-season to having a significant rookie year role. He should be more than capable of handling it. He obviously won’t be as good as Richardson would have been, but he should be a solid starter.

As I mentioned, Wilkerson remains on the other side and he should have yet another strong season. The 2011 1st round pick struggled as a rookie, but has graded out 2nd, 15th, and 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He heads into the contract year of his rookie deal in 2015 and is set to make a boatload from someone in the next calendar year and, with the selection of Williams, it doesn’t seem like that someone will be the Jets. The Jets would have been better off giving him a large extension this off-season and using the 6th overall pick to grab help somewhere else on the field, like taking edge rusher Vic Beasley, who went 8th to Atlanta. I think that plan would have worked better in the short-term and the long-term. The Williams selection only worked out in the short-term because Richardson did a bunch of stupid things.

The Jets are also strong at nose tackle, in between Williams/Richardson and Wilkerson, as Damon Harrison has shaken off early career weight problems to grade out 4th and 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2014 respectively, including 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in pure run grade. He’s just a pure two-down base player, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better pure two-down base player in the league. Weight concerns will always exist for the 6-4 350 pound 2012 undrafted free agent, but, as long as he’s in shape, he’s borderline impossible to move off the nose. It’s still a strong defensive line, despite the loss of Richardson for an extended period of time with a suspension, but the Richardson loss is obviously huge and the Williams selection took away much needed resources from other parts of the field.

Grade: A

Linebackers

One of those parts of the field that needed it, as I mentioned, was the outside linebacker/edge rusher spot, where Vic Beasley would have fit like a glove. Instead, the Jets are left with a pair of veterans who are both going into their age 35 season in Calvin Pace and Jason Babin, a borderline 2012 1st round pick bust in Quentin Coples, and 3rd round rookie Lorenzo Mauldin. Pace and Coples were the starters last season, but Babin actually played the best, grading out 9th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, on just 470 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He definitely can’t be counted on to repeat that in 2015 though, given his age and that he actually graded out below average in 2013. Last year’s success was likely a fluky thing for him. Recent reports have him not even making the 53-man roster, in favor of 2014 6th round pick IK Enemkpali, who flashed on 40 snaps as a rookie, a move that would save the Jets 1.5 million in cash and cap space.

Coples and Pace, meanwhile, struggled as starters, grading out 40th and 39th respectively among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers last season. Coples is only going into his age 25 season so he could be better this season, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being selected 16th overall in 2012 and appears on his way to becoming a bust. He does have more hope that Pace though, as Pace is going into his age 35 season and hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. Both he and Babin will be free agents after the season and this could easily not just be their final seasons with the Jets, but in the league. Mauldin was drafted more for 2016 as a long-term replacement opposite Coples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw a decent amount of action as a rookie down the stretch, given how unsettled things are ahead of him on the depth chart.

Things are better and much more settled inside at middle linebacker, where Demario Davis and David Harris remain the starters. Davis had a bit of a breakout year last season, grading out 15th among middle linebackers, the first time in the 2012 3rd round pick’s career that he had graded out above average. He’s obviously a one-year wonder and struggled mightily in his first year as a starter in 2013, grading out 49th among 55 eligible middle linebackers, so he might not continue this solid play, but, if he does, it could set him up for a decent sized payday as a free agent next off-season.

Harris, meanwhile, isn’t as good, but weirdly got a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Harris is, by all reports, a nice guy, a likeable teammate, and easy to coach. He’s been a defensive captain and signal caller for the Jets defensively for years and he’s been a leader on and off the field. I feel like that gets him overpaid. Four off-seasons ago, Harris signed a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Jets, even though he graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league and then just 21st and 25th respectively in 2009 and 2010.

The Jets kept him through the duration of that deal even though he graded out below average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 48th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and maxed out at 18th. He was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked middle linebacker in 2014. He didn’t get quite as much money the 2nd time around, but he’s also going into his age 31 season. He was still overpaid by a significant amount. He’s part of a weak and aging linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

The place where the Jets added the most this off-season was definitely the secondary. They added an all new top-3 cornerbacks through free agency, all on major multi-year deals, after they didn’t have a single cornerback that played more than 50 snaps grade out above average last season. The Jets reunite Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who played together from 2010-2012 and both started all 16 games for the Jets in 2011. Both are over 30 now, so they won’t be quite the same, but Revis is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Revis finished 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2008, 2nd in 2009, 18th in 2010, 1st in 2011, 1st in 2013, and 4th in 2014, with a torn ACL in 2012 that didn’t slow his career down in between. He’s bounced around from the Jets to the Buccaneers to the Patriots back to the Jets over the past few seasons for a few reasons. He tore his ACL in 2012 and then was traded to the Buccaneers for a 1stround pick ahead of his contract year. Tampa Bay then let him go rather than paying him $16 million in 2014 and the Patriots did the same this off-season, rather than paying him $20 million in 2015. However, he’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, one of the best players in the entire NFL, and absolutely deserves long-term security, even going into his age 30 season, which he got on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal. He’s yet to show a single sign of slowing down thus far.

Cromartie, however, has shown signs of slowing down and was overpaid on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. Cromartie was cut by the Jets’ old John Idzik/Rex Ryan regime last off-season after a nagging hip injury caused him to grade out 102nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013. Given that he was owed 9.5 million dollars non-guaranteed, it was absolutely the right move. The common narrative is that Cromartie, who graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, bounced back in 2014 in his one season in Arizona under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is the Jets’ new Head Coach.

That’s only half true though as, while Cromartie was dominant to start the season, he was horrible in the 2nd half of the season thanks to a nagging ankle injury and ended up grading out slightly below average overall. Cromartie graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, prior to the last 2 seasons, so there definitely has been a decline in his play and, even though he’s missed just 1 game with injury in 9 seasons in the league, the fact that injuries have been a big part of it makes it even worse. Going into his age 31 season, he could still be a decent starter, but he’s certainly not the player he was in 2011 and 2012 and he was definitely overpaid. The only good news is he can doesn’t have any guaranteed money beyond this season and can be cut after the season after only being paid 7 million over 1 year. Revis is still as good as he ever was, but the same cannot be said of his former and current co-starter.

The three major deals the Jets gave to cornerbacks this off-season were essentially the good, the bad, and the ugly. Revis was the good. Cromartie was the bad, because he was overpaid. Meanwhile, Buster Skrine is the ugly, signing a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal. Not only is 6.25 million annually way too much for a 3rd cornerback who is only going to play 50%-60% of the snaps, Skrine has struggled mightily thus far in his career, since going in the 5th round in the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s a below average 3rd cornerback, but he’s getting paid like the best 3rd cornerback in the league.

Skrine made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns, after they drafted him in the 5th round in 2011, and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. He was never good though, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. The Browns used a 1st round pick on Justin Gilbert to replace him last off-seasoj, but Gilbert struggled so Skrine kept his starting job. His 2014 campaign was better, but only by default, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible, thanks largely to the whopping 17 penalties he committed. There’s no way he deserves to be making this kind of money. He was one of the off-season’s worst overpays.

The Jets also gave a big contract to Marcus Gilchrist, who will start at safety for the Jets, after signing a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. If Gilchrist plays like he did in 2013, when he made all 16 starts and graded out 20th among safeties, he’s worth it, but the 2011 2nd round pick is a one-year wonder, grading out below average in 2011 and 2012 on 279 and 640 snaps respectively to start his career at cornerback (the reason why he converted to safety) and grading out 72nd out of 87 eligible safeties last season in another 16-start season at his new position. He’s unlikely to be as good as Dawan Landry was last season. Landry graded out 9th among eligible safeties before leaving as a free agent. They should have locked up Wilkerson long-term instead of giving Skrine and Gilchrist those kinds of deals and then used the 6th overall pick on an edge rusher or a cornerback.

The only significant member of this secondary who wasn’t brought in as a free agent this off-season is Calvin Pryor, their 2014 1st round pick. Pryor played well as a rookie, grading out above average, 29th among safeties. He only played 699 snaps because he was benched mid-season for being late to meetings, but his play was solid and, if he can avoid dumb rookie mistakes off-the-field in his 2nd year in the league, he could take the next step as a player. He’s a naturally talented player who is only going into his age 23 season. Gilchrist replacing the bigger Landry does allow Pryor to play in a more natural spot for him, closer to the line of scrimmage, which should help him.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Like on offense, the Jets have more talent on defense this season, but, like on offense, they’ll also have more injuries. They’re already missing Sheldon Richardson for a big chunk of the season due to suspension. Also, a lot of their big off-season additions were overpays and, as a result, the Jets have just 1.8 million in cap space for 2016 right now, without locking up Muhammad Wilkerson, Demario Davis, or Damon Harrison, all of whom will be big free agents this off-season. They’ll win more games than the 4 they won last season, but not enough to justify this spending spree and not enough for them to be a respectable team. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Jets after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): Geno Smith is out for an extended period of time after a teammate punched him and broke his jaw, but that might actually help this team because Ryan Fitzpatrick is the better of the two quarterbacks. Still, this is one of the worst teams in the league.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in AFC East

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Buffalo Bills 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills finished above average for the first time since 2004 last season, going 9-7. However, immediately after the best season in recent franchise history, their starting quarterback retired and their head coach quit. That was not good news for a team that was already working without a 1st round pick, after trading it in a deal to get Sammy Watkins during last year’s draft. The Bills solved the head coach problem by landing Rex Ryan, a solid head coach who was let go by the Jets after 6 seasons because they felt they needed to go in another direction.

However, the quarterback situation remains a nightmare. The retired Kyle Orton wasn’t fantastic by any means in 12 starts last season, as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while grading out 37th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and leading an offense that finished the season 29th in rate of moving the chains. However, he was still better than EJ Manuel, who graded out 41st among 42 eligible quarterbacks as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback through 4 weeks in 2014, prior to being benched for Orton. In the 4 games he started, the Bills moved the chains at a mere 63.30% rate, as opposed to a slightly better 66.67% rate in the 12 games started by Orton. The 2013 1st round pick has completed just 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.43 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in his career.

The Bills brought in Matt Cassel via trade with Minnesota this off-season, sending a 5th round pick and a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a quarterback in Cassel who will make just 4.75 million this season and who they were hoping could be their new Kyle Orton, a veteran stopgap game manager (the Bills also added a 6th round pick in the trade). Cassel was decent in 2013, grading out 28th among 42 eligible quarterbacks, and has decent career numbers, completing 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 96 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions. However, he struggled mightily on 146 snaps in 2014, before missing the final 13 games of the season with a foot injury, and is now going into his age 33 season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2010.

He had the potential to be what the Bills were looking for at quarterback, but he’s reportedly really struggled on the practice field in his return from injury this off-season, not exactly a surprise. Owed a decent amount of money next season, there’s talk that the Bills could let him go completely, if he can’t lock down the starting job, to get out of the non-guaranteed money they would owe him this season. This team needs as much long-term financial flexibility as they can get and they can transfer the cap space they save by letting him go to next off-season, when the likes of Cordy Glenn, Marcell Dareus, and Nigel Bradham become free agents.

With Cassel struggling, Manuel seems to be the favorite for the starting job. With the regime that drafted him now gone and nothing but poor tape to show for his first 2 years in the league, Manuel is on a very short leash and is only the de facto #1 quarterback out of sheer desperation. Tyrod Taylor, a free agent acquisition, has a very real chance to make starts for this team this season. The 2011 6th round pick never made a start in 4 seasons in Baltimore and has completed just 54.3% of his passes on 35 attempts for an average of 5.69 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his career. Except maybe Cleveland, no one has as bad of a quarterback situation as the Bills do, which severely hurts their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.

Grade: F

Running Backs

Without a first round pick, it was simply impossible for the Bills to find a solution at quarterback this off-season. Understanding that, the Bills made a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for star running back LeSean McCoy, in hopes that they could build a run based approach that would allow them to move the chains with some regularity, even without a strong passing game. Rex Ryan has long been a proponent of the running game, as his Jets teams averaged 501 carries per season in his 6 seasons there, trying to hide a weak passing game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman comes from the same school of thought, averaging 491 carries per season in 4 seasons as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco.

A lot of people loved the trade for Buffalo, remembering McCoy’s fantastic 2013 season, in which he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC), while adding 52 catches for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and grading out #1 overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that McCoy averaged just 4.23 YPC in 2014, rushing for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries, while adding 28 catches for 155 yards and no touchdowns. While he was #1 in 2013, McCoy ranked 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in 2014.

McCoy has bounce back potential for sure going into 2015 and will probably be closer to 2014 than 2013. However, 2013 is still the only season in his career in which he graded out higher than 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, in 6 years in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s not an elite running back; he’s a good running back who had one elite season. He’ll still help this running game, after they averaged 3.69 yards per carry on the ground last season (26th in the NFL) and lost CJ Spiller as a free agent this off-season, but the Bills reworked his contract after the trade and will owe him 40 million over the next 5 seasons with 26.5 million of that fully guaranteed. If he continues to decline, at a position with a short shelf life and with 1761 career touches going into his age 27 season, the Bills will really regret that contract.

Even if he puts up two more solid years, the Bills will probably really regret that contract. If McCoy was a free agent this off-season, he probably would not have even gotten that kind of deal, but the Bills gave him that deal and traded away a cheap young linebacker for the right to give him that deal. Alonso did miss all of last season with a torn ACL, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers as a rookie, is only going into his age 25 season, and, most importantly, is only owed about 1.8 million over the next 2 seasons combined on his rookie deal.

The Bills currently have just 2.8 million in cap space for 2016, even at an estimated cap of 150 million, 10 million more than 2014. That’s before re-signing Cordy Glenn, Nigel Bradham, and Marcell Dareus, who all become unrestricted free agents next off-season. This was not a financially smart move for the Bills to make. They’re going all in on a season when a deep playoff run will be impossible because of the quarterback situation and essentially mortgaging their future for, at most, a 1st round playoff exit. It’s a move they’ll end up regretting.

Spiller may be gone, but Fred Jackson, who led the team with 141 carries last season, returns. He’ll backup McCoy and have a significantly reduced role this season, in a true backup role behind a likely 300+ carry feature back in McCoy. That’s for the best because Jackson, who has averaged 573 snaps played per season over the past 5 seasons, appears to be on his last legs, going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t been the same since a 2011 broken leg, averaging 4.01 yards per carry in 2012-2014 combined on 462 combined carries, and has missed 14 games over the past 4 seasons combined.

The only value Jackson still provides is as a passing down back, as he’s caught 113 passes in the last 2 seasons combined. The Bills used a 5th round pick on Karlos Williams, so this is likely Jackson’s final season in Buffalo, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. With a strong defense (more on that later) supporting them, the Bills figure to run about 500 times this season with McCoy, Jackson, and the quarterback Manuel (or Taylor, who is also a mobile quarterback) in an effort to hide a horrible passing game. It’ll be their best method of moving the ball this season and they’ll be improved over last season on the ground, but this offense is still going to have a lot of problems.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

McCoy wasn’t the only major financial commitment that the Bills made this off-season, as they also signed tight end Charles Clay to a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal and Percy Harvin to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal. As I said, the Bills are weirdly going all in on this season. In addition to the overall weirdness of the strategy, they overpaid both Clay and Harvin, like they did McCoy. Clay was probably the bigger of the two overpays. Slapped with the transition tag by the Dolphins this off-season, Miami had the right of first refusal on any deal Clay signed, so the Bills essentially had to overpay Clay and structure the deal in a way that it is very hard on the cap in the first 2 seasons, to prevent the Dolphins from being able to match. Clay will be guaranteed 24.5 million over the first 2 years of the deal.

He’s a solid player, but he’s not worth ruining your immediate financial flexibility for. In his 2 years as a starter in the NFL, he graded out 34th among tight ends in 2013 and 14th in 2014, but he’s being paid like a top tight end, as only Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, and Rob Gronkowski have higher average annual salaries. He’ll be an upgrade over 2014 starting tight end Scott Chandler, who graded out 47th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and who was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, but he was an overpay. Also gone as a free agent this off-season is Lee Smith, a solid blocker who graded out above average as the #2 tight end last season. 2013 7th round pick Chris Gragg, who flashed on 215 snaps last season, after struggling on 52 snaps as a rookie, will step into the #2 role behind Clay.

Harvin is more of a reclamation project. He definitely has bounce back potential and he isn’t guaranteed anything beyond 6 million in the first season of his deal, but the Bills are paying him like something more than what he is by giving him that kind of money. He was good in 2012 and prior, but has had a rough past 2 seasons and has seen his star fade significantly since the Seahawks sent a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick to the Vikings for him and gave him a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, following 4 straight seasons in the top-13 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus to start his career, after going in the 1st round in 2009. The good news for Harvin is he got a ring out of the deal (along with a bunch of money), but that’s where the good news ends.

He missed all but 1 regular season game with injury in Seattle in 2013, reportedly caused locker room problems that got him kicked out of Seattle (to the Jets for a 6th round pick), and combined for 51 catches for 483 yards and a touchdown in 2014 between the Seahawks and the Jets. The Jets, unable to work out a restructured contract with him, cut him this off-season, rather than paying him a non-guaranteed 10.5 million dollar salary for 2015. His new 6 million dollar salary is obviously less than that, but it’s still too much for him.

Even in brighter times in Minnesota, he never went over 1000 yards in a season, missed 10 games in 4 seasons with injury, and had issues at times with his coaching staff. Usually a gadget player/slot receiver/return man type, Harvin will be counted on for an every down role in Buffalo, something he never did even in Minnesota (his career high is 650 snaps). He’ll be the starter opposite Sammy Watkins, moving Robert Woods to the 3rd receiver spot. He could be solid at it and it’s important to remember how good he used to be and that he’s only going into his age 27 season, but his recent history hasn’t been good.

Watkins, meanwhile, is coming off of a great rookie year, after the Bills traded their first rounder in 2014 and in 2015 to move up to grab him 4th overall. They definitely could have used that pick this year, but they have to be thrilled with having Watkins. He caught 65 passes for 982 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, as this team’s only real offensive weapon, numbers rookie receivers really put up. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns in their first season in the league.  He wasn’t quite as good as his receiving yards would suggest, as he caught just 52.4% of his targets, but poor quarterback play can be blamed for that to an extent. Even with a possibly even worse quarterback situation again this season, Watkins is still a candidate to go over 1000 yards.

Woods is another young player, but not nearly as good. The 2013 2nd round pick has caught 105 passes on 179 targets (58.7%) for 1286 yards and 8 touchdowns on 1061 routes run, an average of 1.21 yards per route run, in 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average on 924 snaps as a rookie and 921 snaps in 2014. He’s not a terrible player, but he’ll be a better fit as the 3rd receiver, where he’s an upgrade on Chris Hogan, who graded out 72nd among 110 eligible wide receivers in his first significant action of his career in 2014 (188 snaps played in the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013) and now will be a 4th or 5th receiver. Woods, meanwhile, will play outside, moving Harvin to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, and will be decent depth in the likely case Harvin gets hurt again. It’s an upgraded and solid receiving corps, but still one that’s less than stellar and one will have to deal with terrible quarterback play.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the Bills spent a lot of money on offensive playmakers this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Harvin, and Clay coming in, they didn’t do much to fix a horrible offensive line that ranked 21st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 31st in team run blocking grade last season. They figure to struggle in both of those aspects again as a result. LeSean McCoy is used to awesome run blocking playing all those years in Philadelphia and goes from Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked run blocking offensive line last year to likely one of the worst in the league this year. Coming off of a down year, McCoy could really struggle to move this offense forward this season for that reason. It’s hard to have an effective run heavy offense without good run blocking and poor pass protection will only make the passing game worse.

The Bills only real addition on the offensive line this off-season was Richie Incognito, who takes over at right guard, where Erik Pears graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. Incognito should be an upgrade, but he’s not the type of player to turn this offensive line around by himself. He was out of the league entirely last year and hasn’t played since week 9 of the 2013 season, following the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.

Incognito reportedly got help during his time away from the game and is ready to return. He was solid the last time he was on the field, grading out above average for 6 straight seasons from 2008 to 2013, including 23rd in 2012 and 9th through week 8 in 2013. However, it’s hard to trust someone who is going into their age 32 season off of an entire season off. I don’t think there will be problems with him and his teammates, as guys have been accepted back into locker rooms that have done a lot worse than what Incognito did, but he’s not a huge addition or anything.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn was the only Bills offensive lineman to play more than 40 snaps last season and grade out above average. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 of those seasons, 33rd in 2012, 13th in 2013, and 26th in 2014. He’s arguably their best offensive player and I think he was last season, but he heads into the contract year of his rookie deal with no extension in sight because of the Bills’ horrible cap situation.

The rest of the offensive line is a complete mess. Eric Wood remains at center, after grading out 25th among 41 eligible centers in 2014. The 2009 1st round pick has made 79 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but has graded out above average in just 2 of those seasons. He’s a marginal starter at best and will remain that, as he goes into his age 29 season in 2015. The rest of the offensive line is just going to be youngsters as 2014 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, 2014 7th round pick Seantrel Henderson, and 2015 3rd round pick John Miller will compete for the starting jobs at left guard and right tackle.

Henderson is the incumbent right tackle, surprisingly playing all 1086 snaps there last season as a 7th round rookie, starting over 2nd round rookie Kouandjio, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Henderson was horrific, as you might expect, so Kouandjio could definitely take the job away from him. Kouandjio is obviously inexperienced, but Henderson graded out 82nd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and it’s hard to be worse than that. It’s unclear right now which of the two will be starting, but it does figure to remain a position of weakness.

At left guard, Miller seems like the heavy favorite, even as a 3rd round rookie. With veterans Kraig Urbik and Chris Williams (who sucked in 2014) gone, the Bills don’t have much of another option. They could move the loser of the right tackle battle inside to left guard, but it’s unclear if either of them would play well there and the Bills have shown no real signs of wanting to do that. Cyril Richardson, a 2014 5th round pick who played 321 snaps last season, is still here, but he was awful last season, grading out 60th among 78 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. He’s reportedly not seen as a starting option. I expect the Bills’ offensive line to be Glenn, Miller, Wood, Incognito, and Henderson/Kouandjio, once again a weak unit that won’t help what is once again overall a weak offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As bad as the Bills’ offense was last season, they still won 9 games, as a result of an awesome defense. They finished #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014, but only finished the season 20th in rate of moving the chains differential because of their 29th ranked offense. The Bills lost talented defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz this off-season, but add Rex Ryan as head coach, so that’ll make up for that. He’ll be moving them back to the 3-4 type defense they ran in 2013, under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who used to be on Ryan’s staff in New York. The Bills also return 9 of 11 starters last year’s defense and the losses were two of the more insignificant starters, Brandon Spikes and Da’Norris Searcy. They combined to play just 1185 snaps last season, despite technically being starters.

Mario Williams played the “elephant” role in 2013 in the 3-4, playing both 3-4 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker and rushing the passer both from the inside and the outside in sub packages. The 6-7 291 pounder is a good fit for the role and graded out 17th among 3-4 outside linebackers that season. The #1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams has graded out above average in each of the 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 9th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, playing well both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Even going into his age 30 season, he should continue this strong play in 2015.

Williams will probably play more 3-4 defensive end than he did last time the Bills played in a 3-4, because nose tackle Alan Branch, who played well on 610 snaps in 2013 as largely two-down player, is gone, leaving the Bills without an obvious 3rd starting defensive lineman alongside Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, so Mario Williams will play there with some regularity. The Bills lack of defensive tackle depth without Branch in 2014 was obvious, as Corbin Bryant (361 snaps) and Stefan Charles (345 snaps) were the top reserves and graded out 71st and 64th respectively among 81 eligible defensive tackles in 2014, despite the limited playing time.

Aside from Williams, Bryant is their best option to be the 3rd starter in base packages, but he really sucks. The 2011 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in 4 seasons in the league and has been especially bad over the past 2 seasons. I talked about how bad he was last season, but he was equally bad in 2013, grading out 42nd among 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on just 338 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. Depth on the defensive line remains a serious problem for the Bills.

The good news is Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are both fantastic every down interior defensive linemen who rarely have to come off the bench. Dareus has lived up to expectations since going 3rd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, grading out above average in all 4 seasons, 15th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 14th in 2012, 6th in 2013, and a career best 4th in 2014. Only going into his age 26 season in 2015, Dareus should once again have a very dominant season. The 6-3 319 pounder is a rare type of defensive linemen who can play nose tackle in a 3-4 in base packages, but also can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages in any scheme. The only concern with him is that he’s had some off-the-field issues and he’ll miss week 1 of the season with a suspension, which will really hurt them in that game.

However, it doesn’t seem like that has affected the team’s opinion of him, as they are trying to get an extension done with him before his contract year in 2015. Even with the Bills lacking long-term financial flexibility, Dareus is expected to get a deal comparable to Gerald McCoy (7 years, 98 million), JJ Watt (6 years, 100 million), and Ndamukong Suh (6 years, 114 million). He’s their #1 priority long-term right now, even if it means they lose guys like Nigel Bradham and Cordy Glenn next off-season and have a hard time adding depth.

Kyle Williams, meanwhile, is older, going into his age 32 season, but he’s equally good and has shown no signs of declining. He has graded out above average in every season starting in 2008. His best season came in 2010, when he graded out 1st among defensive tackles and he’s bounced back well from a serious 2011 injury, grading out 3rd among defensive tackles in 2012, 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and 7th among defensive tackles last season. I expect basically the same thing from the scheme versatile veteran this season, back in a 3-4. Even with their depth problems, it’s still a great defensive line thanks to Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and occasionally Mario Williams.

Grade: A

Linebackers

In addition to having depth problems inside at defensive tackle last season, they had a depth problem outside at defensive end as well. #3 defensive end Manny Lawson graded out 48th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, despite playing just 349 snaps. Lawson was alright on 722 snaps in 2013 as a 3-4 outside linebacker, with Jerry Hughes playing just 621 snaps in more of a situational role. He’ll have to play that role again in 2014, even with Hughes now playing every down, because Williams will be playing more 3-4 defensive end. It’ll pretty much only be in base packages because the quartet of Williams, Hughes, Williams, and Dareus is too good upfront in sub packages, but Lawson will play 500-600 snaps in a situational role, run stuffing this season. He could be decent again and has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of an awful 2014. He is a weakness in an overall strong front 7.

As I mentioned, Hughes is now an every down player and should play similar to the 807 snaps he played in 2014, after getting a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal to return to Buffalo this off-season. The 2010 1st round pick was written off as a bust by the Colts two off-seasons ago, as he got sent to Buffalo for reserve linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, after playing just 240 snaps in 2010 and 2011 combined and grading out 25th among 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012 on 610 snaps. Hughes turned out just to be a late bloomer, grading out 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and then showed scheme versatility and proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder last season, by grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. An integral part of this dominant front 7, Hughes very much deserved his new deal.

As good as Kiko Alonso was in 2013, the reason they felt comfortable moving him for McCoy this off-season is because Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown broke out as solid every down linebackers in Alonso’s absence last season. I didn’t have a problem with them moving Alonso, but I don’t feel like the Bills got appropriate value in return for a talented, cheap, young linebacker. Bradham and Brown will play as every down middle linebackers this season, after grading out 13th and 15th respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

They were both first time starters last season. Brown was a 3rd round rookie, but Bradham has some history so I’m pretty confident that he can continue solid player in his contract year in 2015. The 2012 4th round pick flashed on 402 snaps in 2012 and 288 snaps in 2013, prior to breaking out as a starter last season. I don’t mean to say that Brown will struggle, but it’s worth mentioning that he’s not nearly as proven as Bradham and will be harder to count on for that reason. They should remain a solid duo inside this season.

The Bills lost Brandon Spikes as a free agent this off-season. He was only a two-down player at middle linebacker last season, playing 519 snaps, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers in pure run stopping grade. The Bills have a strong front 7 overall, but a serious depth problem behind the likes of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Preston Brown, and Nigel Bradham. The Bills had a decent amount of injuries defensively last season, ranking 11th (fewest) in adjusted games lost. However, much of that was Alonso who is gone. The aforementioned 6 players played a combined 92 of 96 possible games last season, which is unlikely to happen again this season, especially with Dareus already suspended for the first game of the season. Any injuries to those guys would hurt their front 7 mightily, because of their lack of depth. It’s a solid linebacking corps, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Bills also lost Da’Norris Searcy this off-season, as he signed a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal with the Titans this season, following a 2014 season where he graded out 18th among safeties on 666 snaps. Duke Williams was originally slated to be his replacement, after flashing on 551 snaps last season, in the first significant action of his career, following a 36-snap 2013 season, as a 4th round rookie. However, he struggled this off-season, so the Bills seem to have moved away from that plan. The used their first draft pick on cornerback Ronald Darby, taking him in the 2nd round, and will be moving cornerback Corey Graham to safety to take Searcy’s spot.

Graham was the steal of the off-season for the Bills in 2014, grading out 8th among cornerbacks, after signing 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over from Baltimore. That’s the best season of his career and he might not be able to repeat it, moving to safety for his age 30 season, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, playing both outside cornerback and slot cornerback. I expect the 5-11 195 pounder to be a solid safety in his first year at the new position.

Darby will work as the 3rd cornerback behind starters Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Gilmore is clearly the better of the two. The 2012 1st round pick (10th overall) has made 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league and, though he just graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, he’s always been pretty solid. Rex Ryan has been talking him up as his new Darrelle Revis this off-season. He’s definitely not that good, but should have a solid season as the #1 cornerback in his age 25 season.

McKelvin has a much shakier hold on the starting job, after playing 511 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2014 and dealing with a serious ankle problem this off-season. He could be pushed for the starting job by Darby at some point this season and the Bills could always move Graham back to cornerback and put Duke Williams in the starting lineup. Injuries have always been the problem for the 2008 1st round pick McKelvin, as he’s missed 23 games in 7 seasons in the league, including 6 games last season. Largely as a result of those injuries, he’s graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including last season.

He’s tentatively expected to play week 1, but the Bills did admit that he had a setback in his recovery from his ankle problem and that he’ll be missing a significant portion of training camp, at the very least. Things aren’t going to get better for him, especially injury wise, as he goes into his age 30 season in 2015. Nickell Roby is their 4th cornerback and would see significant action if McKelvin were to get hurt again. The 2013 undrafted free agent surprised as a rookie, grading out 27th among cornerbacks on 629 snaps, but fell back to earth in 2014, grading out 89th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 665 snaps.

Back at safety, Aaron Williams will start opposite Graham. Like Graham, Williams is a converted cornerback, after the 6-0 204 pound 2011 2nd rounder struggled mightily at cornerback to start his career, grading out 88th among 109 eligible cornerbacks on 444 snaps in 2011 and 95th among 113 eligible on 563 snaps in 2012. He’s been better since moving to safety two off-seasons ago, actually grading out 29th among safeties in 2013, landing him a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season. He wasn’t as good in the first season after signing that deal, grading out 70th among 87 eligible safeties, and has only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s a decent starter. It’s not a great secondary or anything, but it’s solid and supported by a strong front 7.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Bills appear to have gone all on this season, signing Charles Clay, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy to significant multi-year contracts this off-season, moves that have left them with about 2.8 million in 2016 cap space, before re-signing Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Nigel Bradham. It’s a bad move because the Bills are so limited at the quarterback position to make any sort of run. Their defense was the best in the league last season and still have a lot of good players, but they lost some key players who weren’t replaced, have no depth in the front 7, will probably have more injuries to major players, especially in the front 7, and their secondary is only okay, so it’s hard to predict them to be #1 once again. In some order, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams, Preston Brown, Nigel Bradham, and Corey Graham are their 7 best defensive players. They missed a combined 4 games last season, great luck that is unlikely to repeat itself.

Meanwhile, offensively, they have arguably the worst quarterback situation in the game, only maybe behind Cleveland. They added talent around the quarterback spot this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Clay, and Harvin, but they overpaid them and probably won’t get as much help out of them as they were expecting when they signed them. They also still have major problems on the offensive line, particularly in run blocking, which is going to severely inhibit their plan to run the ball a lot and rely on a strong defense. I think they’re worse than the Browns, who have an equally bad quarterback situation, but a stronger supporting cast, as a result of an outstanding offensive line. The Bills went all in this off-season expecting to make the playoffs, but they’re probably going to be much closer to the 6-8 win range and they’ll be feeling the financial hangover of this spending spree next off-season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bills after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update: Tyrod Taylor won the Bills’ quarterback competition, not like it really matters. Ultimately, they’re going to once again be a poor offense and, while their defense is good, they lack depth and they’re not good enough for this to be more than a mediocre team. A 9-win team that wasn’t quite as good as their record last season, I see them with 6 wins against a tougher schedule in 2015.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC East

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Miami Dolphins 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Aside from the Baltimore Ravens, no team had a bigger offensive improvement from 2013 to 2014 in terms of rate of moving the chains than the Miami Dolphins, who went from 26th in rate of moving the chains in 2014 to 8th last season. As a result, they went from 24th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 to 10th last year, 2nd best among non-playoff teams. They certainly played well enough to qualify for the playoffs, which should give their fans hope until 2015. The biggest reason for this improvement and for this hope is quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the 2012 8th overall pick, who is coming off a strong season in his 3rd year in the league in 2014.

Tannehill has gotten better statistically in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8 last season. He finished 2014 having completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.  On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.

However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPC). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.

Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat than anything, as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate.

Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.

He hasn’t really had much help on offense, but the 2012 8th overall pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 63 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 760 yards and another 4 touchdowns on 145 carries (5.24 YPC). The Dolphins gave him a 4-year, 74 million dollar extension this off-season and I think he was well worth it. Right now, there are 19 quarterbacks in the NFL, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 13+ million dollars. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other player makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season, so the deal makes sense.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Dolphins had a great running game last season, ranking 2nd in YPC with 4.69 YPC. That was another why reason why they were so improved over 2013 offensively, as they averaged just 4.13 YPC in 2013, 17th in the NFL. Tannehill’s emergence was a big part of why the running game improved, but the running game helped Tannehill out a lot too, making life easier for him. The Dolphins probably want to become more of a run centric offense, because of how effective it was last season and because of how infrequently they did it last season, but it’s unclear if they have the volume in their backfield to do so. They didn’t think they did last year and their only off-season addition was 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi.

Lamar Miller was a great runner last season, grading out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure running grade and averaging 5.09 YPC on 216 carries, 2nd in the NFL among eligible running backs. However, there’s a reason why he only had 216 carries in 16 games, just 13.5 per game. The first is that he’s useless in passing situations, grading out below average in that aspect in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, including 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in pass catching grade in 2014.

The second is that the Dolphins feel he tires out too much as the game goes on, something that is supported by the 3.81 yards per carry that he’s averaged in his career on carry 15+ of the game, something he’s only done in 11 of 45 career games. No one else could do anything at running back behind Miller either last season, so you had a starting running back with below average endurance and no depth, the reason why they ran so infrequently. Tannehill finished 2nd on the team with 311 yards on 56 carries. Meanwhile, Daniel Thomas finished with 3.82 YPC on 44 carries and Knowshon Moreno finished with 4.77 YPC on 31 carries.

Both are gone and 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi will be the backup running back. Don’t let the fact that he went in the 5th round fool you; Ajayi was seen as a 2nd or even a 1st round pick pre-draft, before teams found out about his bad knee. If he can stay healthy, which he apparently is now, he could develop into a really good #2 back and passing down back (72 catches in his final 2 seasons at Boise State). Ajayi will be a great complement for Miller, but the Dolphins should still give Miller a chance to be a 20 carry per game type back, something he’s done just once in a game in his career. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and has an impressive career 4.64 YPC average on 444 carries, so he deserves a shot to be a feature back, especially on a team without another proven running back. If he can, it’ll really help this offense and and help Miller financially, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. Even if he can’t, it’ll still allow Ajayi to ease into the NFL before getting more carries by mid-season. It’s a solid and promising backfield.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

While their running game was strong last season, the Dolphins were weak both in the receiving corps and especially on the offensive line, as I also mentioned earlier. They ranked 31st among teams in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 27th among teams in run blocking grade, making their strong quarterback and running back productive even more impressive. The Dolphins were weak upfront in 2013 as well, grading out 15th among teams in pass blocking grade and 30th among teams in run blocking grade. In order to fix this, the Dolphins made significant changes upfront last off-season, leading to an all new starting 5 in 2014, with 4 new starters and no one playing at the same spot as they played in 2013. That complete overhaul obviously didn’t work.

That being said, they could be noticeably improved upfront this season, for a few reasons. For one, Branden Albert, the only offensive lineman to play more than 20 snaps for the Dolphins last season and grade out above average, will be back from a torn ACL that cut his season short during the Dolphins’ 9th game of the season in 2014. He’ll be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, so his status for week 1 is not in doubt, but what is in doubt is whether or not he can return to form, going into his age 31 season, following a serious injury like that.

When on the field, Albert is a solid offensive tackle, grading out above average in each of his last 5 seasons, including 18th among offensive tackles in 2011, 24th in 2012, 28th in 2013, and 8th in 2014. He was on his way to easily the best season of his career last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle through week 9, and still finished the season with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out better at the position. However, he’s getting up there in age and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons combined.

Given that they gave him a 5-year, 47 million dollar deal last off-season to help turn this offensive line around, the Dolphins are obviously hoping he can continue playing well for a few more seasons, but it’s unclear if he can do that. What is clear is that, barring another major injury, the Dolphins should have better left tackle play overall this season thanks to the fact that Albert should play more games. Right tackle Ja’Waun James was horrendous on the blindside last season in Albert’s absence, while right tackle replacement Dallas Thomas was even worse on that side.

Speaking of James, he should have a better season in 2015 than 2014, the 2nd reason why this offensive line should be better this season. He won’t just be better because he’ll be able to stay at right tackle this season, but also because he’s not a rookie anymore. The 2014 1st round pick was clearly overwhelmed as a 22-year-old rookie last season, grading out 80th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. It’s unclear whether or not he can ever develop into a solid starter, but he has upside and he can’t be worse in 2015.

The third reason the Dolphins defense should be better this season is that Mike Pouncey will be moving back to his natural position of center, after struggling mightily in 12 games at right guard last season, following an early season hip injury. He graded out 69th among 78 eligible guards last season, but the 2011 15th overall pick made 46 starts at center from 2011-2013 and graded out 22nd, 12th, and 14th in those 3 seasons respectively. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey is a major bounce back candidate back at his normal position. The Dolphins clearly agree, giving him a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the contract year of his rookie deal. At the very least, he should be a drastic upgrade over Samson Satele, who was signed off the streets in August and inexplicably remained the starter at center even once Pouncey returned from injury. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 41 eligible.

While the Dolphins’ should be better at left tackle because of Albert’s return, at right tackle because of Ja’Wuan James’ development, and at center because Pouncey is moving back there, the Dolphins still have a major issue at guard. As much as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will help this defense (more on that later), the Dolphins might have been better off bringing back defensive tackle Jared Odrick (who got 5 years and 42.5 million from Jacksonville) and using the remainder of the money on guard Mike Iupati, who signed for 40 million over 5 years in Arizona, rather than giving Suh 114 million over 6 years.

Mike Pouncey (792 snaps), Daryn Colledge (763 snaps), Shelley Smith (367 snaps), and Dallas Thomas (362 snaps) led the Dolphins in snaps played at guard last season and graded out 69th, 74th, 54th, and 58th respectively among 78 eligible guards. Colledge and Smith are gone, while Pouncey moved back inside to center, leaving Dallas Thomas to compete with 2014 3rd round pick Billy Turner, who played just 17 snaps as a rookie, 4th round rookie Jamil Douglas, and veteran free agent addition Jeff Linkenbach. Two of those four will be the starters at guard week 1 and none of them provide much hope.

Turner might be their best guard, even though he’s inexperienced, because he’s not a proven failure and he’s young, going into his age 24 season and his 2nd season in the league. However, it is concerning that he couldn’t get playing time as a rookie on this horrible offensive line and he was only a 3rd round pick so there’s certainly no guarantee he ever emerges as a starter. He should be given a shot though. Jamil Douglas is also young, but he was just a 4th round pick this past May and isn’t ready for serious action. If he starts, it’ll be out of complete desperation at guard.

Thomas is also young, but has had a miserable career since going in the 3rd round in 2013. After playing just 2 snaps as a rookie, Thomas played 695 in 2014, 362 at guard and 333 at tackle, struggling mightily at both spots. In addition to grading out 58th among 78 eligible guards on 362 snaps, he graded out 75th among 84 eligible tackles on 333 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse among tackles. He’ll likely be given another shot at guard in 2015, but only by default. His best case scenario long-term seems to be as a versatile reserve/6th offensive lineman, but he’ll likely be counted on to start in 2015.

Linkenbach is the veteran option, but he might be even worse than Thomas. Jeff Linkenbach has graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since going undrafted in 2010. He’s made 36 starts in 5 seasons in the league and struggled mightily in his only season as a full-time starter, grading out 70th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2011. He’s versatile, but, like Thomas, he’s a 6th offensive lineman at best and a pretty poor one at that. The offensive line should be better this season, but remain a problem.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

The Dolphins receiving corps wasn’t as bad last season as their offensive line, but they put a lot of energy into remaking it this off-season and have made it better as a result. The Dolphins got rid of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson this off-season and they played 842, 836, and 516 snaps respectively in 2014, but all three of them graded out below average last season and they saved a combined 17.97 million in cash by letting them go, which they re-allocated well. Hartline and Gibson were the worst of the trio, grading out 103rd and 100th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers in 2014. Wallace was better, but certainly not good enough to justify a 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015, so the Dolphins traded him with a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a 5th round pick.

The Dolphins did a good job replacing that trio and will also have Jarvis Landry, a 2014 2nd round pick and easily their best receiver as a rookie last season, playing a larger role, after playing 702 snaps last season. He graded out 16th among wide receivers as a rookie, even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Landry wasn’t even drafted until the 2nd round and he caught 84 passes on 105 targets (80.0%) for 755 yards and 5 touchdowns on 434 routes run, an average of 1.74 yards per route run. He could top 1000 yards on 550 or so routes run this season and could definitely lead this team in receiving yardage.

They also traded for Kenny Stills, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers last season, a steal at the price of a 3rd round pick, especially since he’s only going into his age 23 season and signed very cheaply for the next 2 seasons. He caught 63 passes on 80 targets (78.8%) for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns on 458 routes run, an average of 2.03 yards per route run, in 2014 with the Saints. He doesn’t have Drew Brees anymore, but should continue putting up strong numbers this season. He’ll be option 1b to Landry’s 1a, or vice versa.

Greg Jennings was signed to a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal by the Dolphins this off-season and is expected to be the 3rd receiver. He spent the last 2 seasons with the Vikings, who signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, expecting to get the guy who had 3 seasons of 1000 yards or more in Green Bay. However, Jennings wasn’t able to come close to those numbers without Aaron Rodgers, averaging 64 catches for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2 seasons in Minnesota, prior to being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 9 million dollar salary this off-season. He’s now going into his age 32 season and hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2010, but he wasn’t horrible in 2013 and 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. He’ll be a solid 3rd receiver.

The Dolphins also used a 1st round pick (14th overall) on Devante Parker, but, without a pressing need in the top-3 at wide receiver, he’s expected to start the season as the 4th receiver, especially after missing most of the off-season with a foot injury. He’s just too behind the 8-ball, after missing all of that practice. He’ll probably steal snaps from Jennings down the stretch, but won’t have a big rookie impact. As I mentioned earlier, rookie receivers, even talented ones, tend to struggle. He should still be a big contributor in 2016 and beyond though. The one concern is that his foot problems date back to his collegiate days at the University of Louisville, so they’re definitely something for the Dolphins to be concerned about. That’s part of why they should ease him into action.

The Dolphins also lost Charles Clay this off-season and he was pretty solid, grading out 14th among tight ends in 2014 and signing a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal with the Bills this off-season. However, Jordan Cameron, who the Dolphins signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season, is no slouch. He’s a downgrade from Clay though. Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, after playing just 398 snaps and catching 26 passes in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012. The 2011 4th round pick didn’t match that production in 2014 though, as he missed 6 games with concussions and caught just 24 passes for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron is a one year wonder with a concerning concussion history and no full 16 game seasons played, but upside.

Even his 2013 season wasn’t as good as his numbers looked as he was fortunate enough to be on one of the pass heaviest teams in the NFL. His 1.47 yards per route run was just 19th among eligible tight ends. Sure poor quarterback play hurt him, but I’d argue that the amount the Browns passed that season helped him more than his quarterback play hurt. After all, the Browns finished 11th in the NFL in total passing yards that season. He’s also graded out below average as a run blocker in each of the last 3 seasons, including 60th out of 67 eligible in that facet in 2014. He’ll be a move tight end who, if healthy, should have an impact in the passing game. Blocking tight end Dion Sims will remain the #2 tight end, after the 2013 4th round pick graded out below average on 280 snaps as a rookie and then 522 snaps in 2014. It’s a remade and stronger receiving corps overall.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh this off-season and he’ll really upgrade this defense, after they ranked 19th in opponents’ rate of moving the chains last season and 14th in 2013. They could approach the top-10 this season. Suh is a fantastic football player, one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and arguably one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. He’s been a top-4 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, joining only Gerald McCoy as the only two players who can say that.

That being said, he was definitely overpaid on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, with 60 million guaranteed. That is too much for any non-quarterback, except for maybe JJ Watt, but he’s on his own level. Even Watt got “only” 100 million over 6 years. The Dolphins, with pressing needs at guard and cornerback, would probably have been better off re-signing Jared Odrick, who signed for 42.5 million over 5 years in Jacksonville, and adding help at both guard and cornerback. However, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins will be better off with him on board and that he’ll be an upgrade on Odrick, who graded out 19th among defensive tackles last season.

Suh isn’t their only dominant defensive lineman as Cameron Wake is one of the best edge rushers in the game. He graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2009, 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010, 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, 1st among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 1st among 4-3 defensive ends. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season. However, I’d call him the best defensive end in the game if not for his age and he’s yet to show any sort of signs of decline so I think we can count on another dominant year from him. Him and Suh on the same defensive line is going to be a nightmare for opponents’ offenses.

The Dolphins have a good supporting cast around Suh and Wake too. Olivier Vernon will be an every down defensive end opposite Wake once again, after grading out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends last season. The 2012 3rd round pick is still a one-year wonder, after grading out below average in 2012 and 2013, including 39th among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on 929 snaps in 2013. However, only going into his age 25 season, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he continued strong play. Derrick Shelby, meanwhile, remains the 3rd defensive end, a role the 2012 undrafted free agent has played in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s graded out slightly below average in 2013 and 2014 on 446 and 420 snaps respectively, but he’s a decent 3rd defensive end and only plays as a reserve role behind Wake and Vernon.

At defensive tackle, Earl Mitchell should remain the other starter, going into the 2nd year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Dolphins signed him to last off-season. He’s a marginal starting caliber player who graded out right about average on 543 snaps last season. He had never graded out above average prior to last season, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, but he spent 2011-2013 out of position as the starting nose tackle in Houston 3-4. The 6-2 296 pounder is a much better fit in Miami’s 4-3 and could be solid again in 2015.

He’ll rotate heavily with CJ Mosley, who was signed from Detroit as a free agent and who will replace Randy Starks, who graded out slightly below average on 544 snaps last season. CJ Mosley has been the 3rd defensive tackle for the Lions over the past 2 seasons, but he’s made 9 starts, played 836 snaps, and graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He’s one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the game. The only issue is he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should remain a solid rotational player. Also in the mix is 2nd round rookie Jordan Phillips. It’s one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Dolphins, in an attempt to overhaul their linebacking corps, signed Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to a 5-year, 34.75 million dollar deal and a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal respectively two off-seasons ago, but that quickly backfired. Ellerbe was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, while Wheeler graded out dead last among 4-3 outside linebackers. Ellerbe missed almost all of 2014 with injury and it was a blessing in disguise.

With Ellerbe out and Wheeler moving to the two-down outside linebacker role, Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi had solid seasons in every down roles. Jenkins graded out above average in a breakout year, after grading out below average on 127 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’s pretty unproven, but can continue being solid in his age 23 season in 2015. Misi, meanwhile, once again had another solid season. The perennially underrated linebacker graded out 12th among middle linebackers. A 2010 2nd round pick, Misi has done that in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. They should remain a solid duo in 2015.

With Ellerbe and Wheeler gone this off-season, it’ll be the youngster Chris McCain and veteran free agent acquisition Spencer Paysinger competing for the less important two-down outside linebacker. Wheeler played decently there last season, grading out slightly above average, so they do have semi-decent sized shoes to fill. McCain is seen as the favorite right now and I think he’d be a downgrade. The 6-5 250 pounder 2014 undrafted free agent played 46 nondescript snaps at defensive end last season and now moves to outside linebacker. I don’t expect much out of him, but Paysinger isn’t very good either. He did grade out slightly above average on 707 snaps in 2013, but has never played more than 137 snaps in another season in the league, since going undrafted in 2011, and graded out below average on 81 snaps last season. I’d probably go with Paysinger, but the organization seems to like McCain. It’s a weakness regardless, but an overall solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

In addition to guard, cornerback and safety are weak spots for the Dolphins that they really didn’t address this off-season. Cortland Finnegan and Jimmy Wilson played 712 and 458 snaps for them last season, 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks, and graded out 74th and 94th respectively among 108 eligible at their position. They’re both gone, but the Dolphins didn’t do anything to replace them with upgrades. Instead, they’re going to be relying on the quartet of Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Walt Aikens, and Brice McCain to fill those two spots.

The Dolphins are probably hoping that Taylor can nail down the other starting cornerback job. The 2013 2nd round pick has played just 344 snaps in 2 seasons in the league though, and has graded out below average in both seasons, so it’s unclear if he can take that next step in his 3rd year in the league. Davis also comes from that draft class (3rd round) and also has barely played, playing a combined 200 snaps in 2013 and 2014 and grading out below average in both seasons. Aikens, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in last year’s draft and played 64 nondescript snaps as a rookie.

McCain is the veteran option, one who the Dolphins are probably hoping will only have to be depth. Brice McCain was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback in 2011 and looked like a potential future star, but that’s the only season of his 6 year career in which he’s graded out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 and dead last ranked in 2013. He played 615 snaps for the Steelers in 2014 out of necessity, despite not playing a snap in weeks 1-3, but he wasn’t that good. Cornerback depth is a problem.

The good news is that Brent Grimes remains as the #1 cornerback. What’s concerning is he’s coming off of a down year, grading out below average for the first time since 2009, in the first year of a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. He graded out 9th among cornerbacks in 2010, 3rd in 2011, and 2nd in 2013, prior to re-signing last off-season. He missed 15 games with a torn Achilles in 2012, but has played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons and injuries weren’t the cause his relative struggles last season. The issue was likely age, something that’ll likely continue being an issue, as he goes into his age 32 season in 2015. There’s definitely bounce back potential here, but his age is becoming a concern.

At safety, Louis Delmas is not as bad as guys like Taylor, Davis, and McCain at cornerback, but he is someone I thought the Dolphins would find an upgrade on this off-season, with Delmas going into free agency. That was because he was coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in week 14 of 2014 and has a history of knee problems. The Dolphins, rather than upgrading him, brought him back on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal and he will remain the every down starter.

Delmas looked like a promising young safety in 2009 and 2010, starting 30 games in his first 2 years in the league after the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2009, grading out above average in both seasons. However, knee problems limited him to 19 games in 2011 and 2012 combined and he graded out below average in both of those seasons. He seemed to turn his career around in Miami, making 29 straight starts and playing decently as a starting safety, but then came the ACL tear. He’s expected back for week 1, but he’ll be just 9 months removed from the injury, a concern for a guy with as much of an injury history as him, so he might not be good, especially early in the season.

Reshad Jones is locked in as the other starting safety, after grading out 3rd among safeties last season. He also graded out 3rd among safeties in 2012, but it’s hard to consider him one of the top safeties in the NFL because of his inconsistency. In 2013, between those two dominant seasons, he graded out 66th among 86 eligible safeties and he has graded out above average in just 3 of 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, including just 2 of 4 seasons as a starter. He overall averages out to a significantly above average starter and is the Dolphins’ best defensive back, but it’s hard to know what you’re getting from him. It’s a below average secondary overall and one that probably should have been given more attention this off-season, but it’s supported by a great front 7 on what should be a solid and improved defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins were arguably the best non-playoff team last season, finishing 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, and they should be even better this season. They do have some weaknesses, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary, but they might be one of the top-5 teams in the league talent wise. I think they certainly have a good chance to make it into the playoffs this year and I think are the best positioned of any 2014 non-playoff team to make a real leap. Almost every season there’s a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye and, especially with Tom Brady suspended for the first 4 games of the season, the Dolphins have a shot to win the AFC East and do just that this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Dolphins after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final note (9/9/15): Even with Tom Brady’s suspension getting thrown out, I still like this team to win the AFC East, though it certainly won’t be easy. I think they’re a little bit better than New England on paper.

Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC East

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers finished last season 2-14, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the worst record in the NFL, and got the #1 pick in the draft. They might not have been definitely the worst team in the NFL, but they were pretty close, finishing 30th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains and a defense that ranked 29th in rate of moving the chains allowed. As you can probably imagine, poor quarterback play was a huge part of the problem.

Josh McCown made 11 starts last season and was awful, grading out 34th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He completed 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Mike Glennon was a little better, but only by default and he didn’t see much action because head coach Lovie Smith preferred to stubbornly stick with the veteran unless there was an injury to McCown or his play was so horrible that he needed to be benched. Glennon completed 57.6% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 6 games, 5 starts and 1 in relief of an injured McCown.

McCown is gone now, being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.25 million dollar salary for his age 36 season in 2015. Glennon will remain a pure backup because, like many teams do when they have the 1st overall pick (13 of the last 18 instances), the Buccaneers selected a quarterback, taking Jameis Winston out of Florida State. Glennon has shown some upside in limited action in his career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013, but taking a quarterback like Winston when they had a rare opportunity to do so was a no brainer.

It’s unclear how good Winston can be as a rookie, but he should represent an immediate upgrade, even though he’ll only be in his age 21 season. He could struggle as a rookie, as, over the past 10 years, quarterbacks drafted in the top-5 have completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 140 interceptions, finding life in the NFL much harder than they expected it to be. Buccaneers fans will have to be patient. Those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a death sentence, as that group includes the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Matt Stafford, but it’s definitely a reality. Developing a young quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint. Winston should help them win a few additional games this season though. It’ll be up to the rest of the team to also be improved if the Buccaneers are going to make any real noise this season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers

Winston walks into a pretty good situation as far as #1 picks go. Most #1 pick quarterbacks walk into horrible situations and that’s true for Winston in a lot of areas, but he has a great wide receiver duo to work with. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of 4 wide receiver duos last season to each have a 1000+ yard season (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb). While those other 3 duos all had good quarterback play (Matt Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers), Evans and Jackson had abysmal quarterback play. Both players could be even more productive this season with a competent quarterback under center.

Evans was the better of the two last season and figures to see the bigger uptick in production in 2015. It wasn’t just that Evans had more yards than Jackson last season (1051 to 1002), he also graded out 13th among wide receivers and caught 58.6% of his targets, while Jackson graded out 32nd and caught 50.7% of his targets. Evans is also younger and has much more upside, going into his 2nd year in the league, only his age 22 season. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had a dominant rookie year and rookie wide receivers aren’t really supposed to do that, even the really good ones. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Evans has as much upside as any receiver not named Odell Beckham going into the future.

Jackson, meanwhile, is on the way down, going into his age 32 season, and will be more of a complementary receiver opposite Evans this season. That doesn’t mean he can’t have 1000 yards again with a better quarterback under center and a receiving corps that still lacks a proven good 3rd option, but I don’t see him finishing 9th among wide receivers in targets again like he did last season (138 targets) and he won’t have 1300-1400+ receiving yards, which Evans definitely could. The days of Jackson grading out 6th among wide receivers, like he did in 2012, are gone, but he’s graded out at least above average in all 8 seasons on Pro Football Focus’ history and he could do that again in 2015.

As I mentioned, the issue with this receiving corps is they didn’t have a good tertiary receiving option behind Evans and Jackson. Evans and Jackson are a great duo, but the Buccaneers would probably prefer to not have to target them on 47.8% of pass attempts (254 out of 531) like they did last season. The player most likely to step up this season, if anyone does, is 2nd year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who graded out below average on 464 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015.

Seferian-Jenkins, at the very least, should see a significant increase in playing time this season, making him an every down starting tight end and pushing Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker into complementary roles at most. Myers and Stocker played 475 and 331 snaps respectively last season, but really struggled, especially Myers, who graded out 53rd among 67 eligible tight ends in 2014. Neither of those two has a good history, as Myers hasn’t graded out above average since he did so on just 84 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2009, while Stocker has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2011.

The one intriguing addition this off-season was Tim Wright. It was technically a re-addition because Wright was traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with a 4th round pick, to the New England Patriots for guard Logan Mankins before the start of last season. When the Patriots released him this off-season, the Buccaneers snatched him off of waivers and reunited with him. Wright was decent in his one season in New England, grading out right around average on 357 snaps, so it’s unclear why the Patriots let him go, but the Buccaneers will take him back.

The 6-4 220 pound 2013 undrafted free agent has carved out a nice role for himself in the NFL as a hybrid player. He can play both as the 3rd wide receiver and the 2nd tight end for the Buccaneers, depending on the situation, and should see similar to the 626 snaps he saw in 2013 in his rookie year with Tampa Bay. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns, but understandably struggled as a blocker. He could have a decent impact in the passing game this season. His biggest competition for snaps as the 3rd receiver will be Louis Murphy, the incumbent, who graded out 102nd among 110 eligible wide receivers on 472 snaps last season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 6 seasons of his career and shouldn’t be seeing significant snaps. The Buccaneers have a strong wide receiver duo, but their lack of a tertiary option and lack of depth hurts this offense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Since 2005, 19 of 25 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round have used their next pick on an offensive player, which I don’t think is a coincidence. If you make a huge investment in a young quarterback, you tend to plan the rest of your draft around helping him feel as comfortable as possible as a rookie. The Buccaneers were no exception, taking Donovan Smith with their 2nd round pick. He’ll start at left tackle as a rookie. Smith will obviously be hard to trust, but he should be an upgrade over Anthony Collins, who graded out 63rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and got himself released this off-season, as a result.

DeMar Dotson remains at right tackle, where he’s been quietly one of the better right tackles in the game over the past few seasons. A 2009 undrafted free agent who didn’t become a starter full-time until 2012, Dotson has graded out 40th, 14th, and 28th among offensive tackles over the past 3 seasons respectively, making all 48 starts over that time period. Dotson has spent much of the off-season trying to get a lucrative contract extension from the team ahead of his age 30 contract year in 2015. Owed just 1.75 million this season, Dotson is vastly underpaid, in addition to being underrated and, even going into his 30s, deserves a pay raise and some long-term security.

Dotson may or may not get that extension, but either way, he should be an above average right tackle for the Buccaneers again this season. There was talk earlier this off-season about him moving to left tackle to replace Collins, but, when the Buccaneers drafted Smith, they announced Smith would be the starting left tackle, while Dotson would be moving back to right tackle. Ordinarily, you want your best offensive tackle on the blindside, but Dotson has barely played left tackle in his career (4 career games) and you risk wasting a solid right tackle if he moves to the blindside and struggles, so I don’t mind the move to let Smith play left tackle. It’s certainly the safer choice.

Smith won’t be the only rookie they start upfront on an offensive line that was clearly seen as a problem by the Buccaneers this off-season, after a 2014 season where they ranked dead last among teams on Pro Football Focus in pass blocking grade (though 8th in run blocking grade). Ali Marpet, another 2nd round pick, after the Buccaneers traded up from the top of the 3rd round to grab him, is expected to start at right guard. Like Smith, Marpet could struggle as a rookie, especially since he comes from Division III Hobart College, but, like Smith should be over Collins, Marpet should be an upgrade over incumbent Patrick Omameh. He graded out 55th among 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season. Like Collins, he was a big part of their poor pass protection last season.

A pair of solid veterans round out their offensive line, with left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith locked in as starters again, after they made 31 of 32 starts last season. Logan Mankins came over from the Patriots right before the season started, in the aforementioned trade that sent Tim Wright (along with a 4th round pick that turned out to be defensive end Trey Flowers) to New England. Mankins was largely a salary dump by the Patriots and he is overpaid at a scheduled 7 million dollar salary, but he played well last season and the Buccaneers are hurting more for talent than cap space.  He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard last season, grading out above average again, something he’s done in all 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s definitely on the decline, as he goes into his age 33 season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue being a solid starter this season, coming off yet another strong season.

Smith, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s only been a starter for the past 2 seasons, as the 2009 undrafted free agent didn’t become a starter until his 5th season in the NFL. He played well in 2013 with the Packers, grading out 7th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, which got him a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers last off-season. Smith wasn’t nearly as good in his first season in Tampa Bay, grading out right around average (19th among 41 eligible centers), but he was decent and should be a decent starter again in 2015. He’s being paid appropriately.

The Buccaneers struggled on the offensive line last season, but they should be a lot better this season Collins and Omameh won’t be starting any more, and, even though they’ll be replaced with rookies, they should be better at left tackle and right guard respectively, as a result. Right tackle, center, and left guard were not problems last season and will not become problems this season. Along with the rookies coming in and replacing Collins and Omameh, they should also have better depth this season, a huge problem last season. Omameh isn’t great as a starter, but he’ll be better depth than the likes of Oniel Cousins and Garrett Gilkey were last season. Cousins was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 343 snaps in place of an injured Collins, with no one grading out worse on fewer snaps at the position, while Gilkey was horrible at both guard and center last season on just 214 snaps. They’re still not a great offensive line, lacking top level talents and relying heavily on rookies, but they’ll be better.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Buccaneers also struggled on the ground last season, ranking 24th in the NFL, averaging 3.90 yards per carry. The offensive line wasn’t bad in run blocking, as I mentioned, so the blame does fall on the backs themselves. They didn’t add to the position this off-season and are left without a clear lead back, with 3, if not 4 guys who could see a decent amount of action. Doug Martin (134 carries, 13 catches), Bobby Rainey (94 carries, 33 catches), and Charles Sims (66 carries, 19 catches) all saw decent action last season. They all could see decent action again, as could Mike James, who only saw 20 touches last season, but played well in limited action in 2013.

Martin figures to get the first short at the lead back job, the 4th straight season he’d be the week 1 starter, since being drafted 31st overall by the Buccaneers in 2012. He burst onto the scene as a rookie, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 attempts (4.58 YPC), adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back. However, his star has faded significantly over the past 2 seasons.

The running back equivalent of Robert Griffin III, Martin missed 15 games with various injuries over the past 2 seasons and also really struggled while on the field, combining for 950 yards and 3 touchdowns on 261 attempts (3.64 YPC) over those 2 seasons, less combined than he had as a rookie. He also graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible running backs in 2013 and 45th out of 57 eligible in 2014. He’ll face a ton of heat for his starting job from Charles Sims, who was drafted in the 3rd round in 2014, but struggled on 237 snaps (2.80 YPC) as a rookie, after missing 8 games with an ankle injury. They’ll be hoping that, now healthy, he can be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.

That leaves Rainey and James fighting for the #3 job, though either could see a decent amount of action. Rainey is a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 972 yards and 6 touchdowns and 244 attempts, an average of 3.98 YPC, in his career, all while struggling mightily in pass protection. He was decent last season, rushing for 406 yards and 1 touchdown on 94 attempts, an average of 4.32 yards per carry, while adding 33 catches for 315 yards and another touchdown through the air, but graded out well below average overall because of awful pass protection. James, meanwhile, flashed as a 6th round rookie in 2013, rushing for 295 yards on 60 carries (4.92 yards per carry), but then rushed for just 37 yards on 19 carries this season (1.95 yards per carry) in 2014. Going into his 3rd season in the league, he’s an inexperienced former 6th round pick who is averaging 4.20 yards per carry on 79 career carries. They don’t figure to be strong on the ground at all this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers had some good players on their defense last season, but didn’t play well as a unit because they had so many holes and no depth in too many spots. They attempted to patch up holes this off-season. Michael Johnson (648 snaps), William Gholston (587 snaps), and Jacquies Smith (470 snaps) led the team in snaps at defensive end, grading out 53rd, 37th, and 38th respectively among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. They didn’t do a ton to fix the position, cutting Michael Johnson and bringing in George Johnson on a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal through a trade from Detroit for a 5th round pick.

Johnson (George) is the definition of a one-year wonder. A 2010 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Johnson played a combined 155 snaps in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, spending time on both the Buccaneers’ and the Vikings’ rosters, not recording a single sack, and not playing a single snap in 2013. Detroit signed him as a camp body last off-season and he ended up not just making the final roster, but recording the first 7 sacks of his career. The Buccaneers are banking that Johnson (who was signed off their practice squad by the Vikings in 2012) is more of a late bloomer than a one-year wonder.

However, it’s obviously a risky deal as Johnson is already going into his age 28 season and, even in the best season of his career last year, Johnson still only graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, obviously playing well as a pass rusher in a situational role, but struggling against the run. The transition to being an every down player could be tough for him even if he doesn’t regress. All that being said, he should be an upgrade over what Michael Johnson was in 2014.

Gholston and Smith remain and will play the same roles this season, meaning this is still a position of weakness. Gholston is the favorite to start again. The 2013 4th round pick has graded out below average on 320 and 587 snaps respectively in 2013 and 2014 to start his career. Smith, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on the first 470 snaps of his career in 2014. Weirdly enough, the Buccaneers didn’t use a single draft pick on the position, aside from the one they traded to Detroit for George Johnson, even though it’s such a weak position.

Things are better at defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive players in the game. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy has graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and has beaten early career injuries problems to grade out 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. After missing 13 games with injury in 2010-2011 combined, he’s missed just 3 over the past 3 seasons. The Buccaneers locked McCoy up on a 7-year, 95.2 million dollar extension this off-season, which looked like a bargain when Miami paid 114 million over 6 years for a comparable player in Ndamukong Suh. The only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-2 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons, McCoy very much makes the defensive line respectable by himself.

Akeem Spence was the big problem at defensive tackle last season, grading out 79th among 81 eligible defensive tackles on 502 snaps, after grading out 67th among 69 eligible on 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He won’t have a very big role at all this season, barring an injury to McCoy or free agent acquisition Henry Melton. Melton has had issues with injuries in the past, but was very much worth the 1-year prove it deal he was given this off-season, worth 3.75 million.

Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, both seasons with the Bears, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. Because he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, declining his 3-year, 24 million dollar option this off-season.

Melton did play well when on the field in 2014 though, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. He’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season when on the field, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury. Being reunited with Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith, a strong defensive mind who was Melton’s head coach in Chicago for his best years, certainly doesn’t hurt him. He was a great free agent addition and will be a serious upgrade over Spence.

Clinton McDonald, the starter next to McCoy last season, will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season and rotate with Melton. He’s very qualified for the role. A late bloomer, McDonald, a 2009 7th round pick, didn’t grade out above average once in his first 4 seasons in the league, up through 2012, on a combined 794 snaps. However, he had a breakout 2013 season in Seattle, grading out 27th among defensive tackles, earning him a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers. McDonald proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder in 2014, grading out 31st among defensive tackles, above average for the 2nd straight season. He should continue being a solid value for them this season, as the 3rd defensive tackle. The additions of George Johnson and Henry Melton might not seem huge, but they’re both significant upgrades over the players they’re replacing and them give them two much needed supporting players on the defensive line around McCoy.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers also had a huge problem last season at middle linebacker, as Mason Foster and injury replacement Dane Fletcher were horrible. Like defensive tackle and defensive end, they have upgraded the position this off-season, signing Bruce Carter to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. Even though he was overpaid, Carter should still help this defense this season. The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts that season, 2012.

Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and now he’s a borderline starting linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons and an ACL tear from late in his collegiate days. Carter did play well at middle linebacker in 2012, which is the intriguing thing about this addition, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s never played inside in a 4-3.

Lavonte David remains as the three-down 4-3 outside linebacker, a role which he plays arguably better than anyone in the NFL. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, has played 46 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, grading out 6th, 2nd, and 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Only going into his age 25 season in 2015, David is just entering the prime of his career. Going into his contract year, the Buccaneers are hoping to get him signed to an extension before the start of the season and will also be hoping that Carter can at least somewhat resemble the capable every down partner that David needs in the linebacking corps.

Danny Lansanah remains as the other starting outside linebacker, dominating in the two-down role last season, grading out 16th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 569 snaps, including 18th in pure run grade. That being said, he’s a career journeyman who is going into his age 30 season and whose history makes him hard to trust. Lansaneh, a 2008 undrafted free agent, had played just 4 career defensive snaps prior to last season, spending most of 2008-2013 either in the UFL or as an NFL special teamer. There’s talk that the Buccaneers could have him play middle linebacker every down if Carter proves incapable and needs to be moved to a two-down run stopping role outside, but it’s very unclear if he can handle that, as promising as he looked last season. It’s a solid linebacking corps that becomes more than that if Carter can live up to his contract.

Grade: B

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Alterraun Verner is another talented player who was stuck on a terrible defense with a horrible supporting cast in 2014, one that is expected to be a lot better this season. Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best.

Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.

Johnathan Banks and Leonard Johnson struggled on 937 and 401 snaps respectively as the 2nd and 3rd cornerback respectively though. They graded out 93rd and 88th respectively, among 108 eligible cornerbacks. The Buccaneers are hoping that they’ll have better play at those two points and there are a couple reasons why they could. The first is that the Buccaneers brought in Sterling Moore on a 1-year, 1.525 million dollar deal, which could prove to be a complete steal, after Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback last season.

Moore is a one-year wonder who played just a combined 683 snaps from 2011-2013, after going undrafted in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and could continue being a solid contributor in 2015 and beyond. He’ll be at least the 3rd cornerback, as he specializes on the slot, but could win the other starting cornerback job opposite Verner. The Buccaneers would probably prefer that he be able to stay on the slot and that someone else steps up as the starter, because Moore is inexperienced outside, but he is an option.

Mike Jenkins was a cheap free agent acquisition last off-season, signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. Jenkins played 32 snaps week 1, but went down with a torn pectoral and missed the rest of the season. The Buccaneers brought him back on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll have a chance for playing time in this thin secondary. Even before the injury, Jenkins was a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the previous 4 seasons from 2010-2013. 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 30 season and he’s graded below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Banks or Johnson, but he wouldn’t really be a downgrade either. In his last healthy season, Jenkins graded out 72nd among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 931 snaps, which is better than anything Banks or Johnson did last season.

My guess is that Banks remains the starter opposite Verner with Moore on the slot. Banks is a naturally talented 2013 2nd round pick, but has graded out well below average in his first 2 seasons in the league, including 100th among 110 eligible as a rookie. He still has upside, going into his 3rd year in the league, but he’s probably on his last chance as a starter and the Buccaneers could have a quick hook with him. Johnson, meanwhile, could start the season as far down the depth chart as 5th because, unlike Banks, he doesn’t have much upside. Since going undrafted in 2012, Johnson has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks should be improved by the addition of Moore, but it’s still a weak group overall after Verner.

At safety, Dashon Goldson was the big problem, grading out 86th among 87 eligible safeties. He was traded to Washington this off-season, in exchange for a swap of 6th and 7th round picks in 2016. The Buccaneers will still have to pay him the 4 million they owed him guaranteed, but they saved 4 million by letting him go and somehow got something in return. Like with so many other Buccaneer starters last season, it’ll be addition by subtraction. However, the Buccaneers do still have a completely unsolved safety situation this off-season, with Major Wright (520 snaps) and Bradley McDougald (455 snaps) returning and Chris Conte and DJ Swearinger coming in as free agents.

McDougald, I would guess, has the best claim to a starting job, considering he was the only Buccaneer safety to play more than 100 snaps and grade out above average last season. McDougald is an inexperienced 2013 undrafted free agent, but one who flashed on the first 455 snaps of his career last season, grading out above average, 32nd among eligible safeties. He’s obviously hard to trust, but he deserves a chance to be a full-time starter. The Buccaneers reportedly agree.

Major Wright played 520 snaps at safety for them last season and played pretty well, but will have to hold off free agent acquisition Chris Conte for the job. Both Wright and Conte played for Head Coach Lovie Smith in Chicago. Wright didn’t play terribly last season, but he still graded out below average, marking the 4th time in 5 seasons he had done so. Wright graded out 23rd as recently as 2012, but dead last as recently as 2013. He’s a one-year wonder who has had an overall poor career.

That being said, Conte probably isn’t much better, if he is at all. Conte was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and he made 52 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, but he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2013, when he graded out 82nd out of 86 eligible safeties in the same awful secondary with Major Wright. Lovie Smith wasn’t coaching that defense so maybe he can get the most out of one of them, but I don’t expect either to ever have too firm of a hold on a starting job this season.

DJ Swearinger is in the mix and could push for snaps later this season. The 2013 2nd round pick is only going into his age 24 season, but was cut by the Texans despite two very affordable years left on his rookie contract this off-season for disciplinary reasons. The Buccaneers inherit those two years on his contract, by virtue of the waiver claim they put in for him, but he’s no guarantee to play well, after grading out 71st among 86 eligible safeties in 2013 and 78th among 87 eligible in 2014. He’ll need to improve both his game and his coachability to make it into the starting lineup in 2015. Outside of Alterraun Verner, it’s still a weak secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers have some talented players, including the likes of Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Alterraun Verner, but went 2-14 because of so many horrible players playing significant roles. That includes guys like Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Patrick Omameh, Akeem Spence, Michael Johnson, Mason Foster, Dashon Goldson, and Leonard Johnson, none of whom figure to play a significant role, if any, this season. The Buccaneers didn’t add a ton of talent this off-season, but upgraded a bunch of spots simply with addition by subtraction.

The biggest real addition is probably Jameis Winston, who will instantly upgrade the quarterback position. He might not play great as a rookie, but he gives them a ton of long-term hope and should be one of the reasons why they win more games this season. The Buccaneers over/under right now is 5.5 wins. Teams that have an over/under of 6 or fewer usually go over more often than not. This year, Tampa Bay is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tampa Bay has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tennessee, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Buccaneers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): With the Saints and Panthers both having rough Augusts, the Buccaneers had an opportunity to overtake them going into the season. Unfortunately, they had a rough August as well. Right tackle DeMar Dotson will miss at least a month with injury on an already weak offensive line. Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston struggled in the pre-season, as did free agent acquisition Bruce Carter, who has already been benched.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC South

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Atlanta Falcons 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.

Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.

The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20th and 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest problem on offense over the past 2 seasons for the Falcons has been the offensive line, as they ranked 30th in team pass blocking grade in 2013 and then 15th in 2014, along with 23rd in team run blocking grade in 2013 and 28th in 2014. The Falcons tried to fix the problem last off-season with a couple of additions. The biggest one was left tackle Jake Matthews, the 6th overall pick in the draft. However, he was a massive disappointment as a rookie, grading out dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles. On top of that, he went down week 17 with a Lisfranc injury, which caused him to miss some valuable practice this off-season. He’s back and healthy now and he still has upside, going into his age 23 season with a lot of natural talent, but his career has started off about as bad as it possibly could have.

One addition that did work out was the free agent acquisition of right guard Jon Asamoah on a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, coming over from Kansas City. He started 15 games and graded out 24th among guards, the 5th straight season he’s graded out above average to start his career. The 2010 3rd round pick has started 56 games in 5 seasons in the league and his best season came in 2012, when he graded out 10th among guards. Only going into his age 27 season, he should continue above average play this season.

Justin Blalock, the other starting guard, also graded out above average, 26th at his position. However, he was released this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.35 million dollar salary that he was owed in his age 32 season in 2015. He eventually retired, after 8 years in the NFL, all in Atlanta. The Falcons brought in Chris Chester on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal to replace him this off-season. Chester is going to be a better fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, but he’s not as good of a player.

Chester has experience in zone blocking schemes, as he played in Washington from 2011-2013 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. Chester made 48 starts in those 3 seasons and, though he only graded out above average once in three seasons, he graded out 15th in 2012. Even last year, in Jay Gruden’s new power blocking scheme, Chester graded out above average. The issue is that he’s going into his age 32 season, which is part of why the Redskins cut him, saving 4 million on the cap and in cash in the process. However, he’s still a stopgap starting caliber player.

Another reason why the Falcons offensive line was slightly better in 2014 than 2013, other than the addition of Asamoah, was the emergence of right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder never played more than 15 snaps in a game until week 8 of last season, but was able to take advantage of injuries and struggles at offensive tackle from guys like Sam Baker, Gabe Carimi, and Lamar Holmes. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle on 655 snaps. He’s only a one-year wonder as the 2013 undrafted free agent struggled on 315 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily be a solid starter over the whole season in 2015.

The Falcons also had serious problems at center last season as reserve James Stone took over for an injured Joe Hawley after week 4, grading out 34th among 41 eligible centers on 681 snaps. Hawley isn’t a great player, but he should be an upgrade on Stone as he returns from injury. The Falcons kept him at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary, coming off of a torn ACL, for lack of a better option. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL, averaged 344 snaps per season, and started a total of 23 games, 9 at right guard and 14 at center. He’s a mediocre interior linemen, especially coming off of a serious injury, but, like I said, he should be an upgrade over Stone by default. Hawley was part of an offense that had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. As a result of likely fewer injuries, among other things, the Falcons should have a better offensive line this season, though they still have some issues.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite a strong passing game that took a lot of pressure off the running game (632 pass attempts to 372 carries), the Falcons finished just 21st in yards per carry last season at 4.02. Part of the problem was the offensive line, but the running back talent itself wasn’t very good either. The Falcons have changed things up as a result. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who lead the team with 429 and 360 snaps played at running back respectively last season, are not back, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and 3.74 yards per carry respectively.

Devonta Freeman, who graded out below average as a runner on 65 carries last season as a 4th round rookie, is expected to get a much bigger role. He’s a good pass catcher who graded out above average in that aspect and above average overall on 237 snaps as a result, catching 30 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, but he’ll need to improve on his 3.82 YPC average in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’ll be paired with Tevin Coleman, who went in the 3rd round in this past draft. They’re a pair of very unproven running backs so the Falcons don’t figure to run the ball well again this season either, even if the offensive line will be better.

Coleman was brought in this off-season because they only had one other running back on the roster, besides Freeman, who had at least 1 career carry, journeyman backup Antone Smith. With Coleman being a rookie, that will remain the case, but Smith should still be a clear 3rd running back. Smith flashed last season, rushing for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries (6.26 YPC), while adding 13 catches for 222 yards and another 3 scores, and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus on 96 snaps. However, the 2009 undrafted free agent has just 44 touches and 148 snaps played in 6 seasons in the league, is going into his age 30 season, and is undersized at just 5-9 190. He’s not a real threat for a significant role, even in an inexperienced backfield.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Easily the most helpful offensive player for Matt Ryan over the past few seasons has been wide receiver Julio Jones, who is arguably their best player. Jones only played in 5 games with injury in 2013, but caught 41 of 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. Through the first 5 weeks of the season, before going down with a season ending foot injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver.

Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014, grading out 6th among wide receivers and catching 104 passes on 156 attempts (66.7%) for 1593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 585 routes run, an average of 2.72 yards per route run, 5th in the NFL. Jones enters the contract year of his rookie deal, his age 26 season, with 278 catches for 4330 yards and 26 touchdowns in 49 career games, coming off of 3 straight strong seasons (15th among wide receivers in 2012 as well). The only issue with him is injuries, as he’s missed 15 games with injury in 4 seasons and has issues with his foot dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama. He should eventually get a long-term deal similar to the 5-year, 70 million dollar deals that Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got this off-season, most likely from Atlanta. If they can’t agree to a long-term deal with him this off-season, ahead of his contract year, he’ll almost definitely be franchise tagged next off-season.

The rest of the receiving corps is a mess though. Roddy White, at one point, had 6 straight seasons of 1000+ receiving yards, 2007-2012, but he’s been really inefficient over the past 2 seasons. His total numbers haven’t been bad, as he’s caught 143 passes for 1632 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined, but it’s been on 1117 routes run, an average of 1.46 yards per route run, mediocre for a #2 receiver in a good passing offense. He’s also graded out 97th among 111 eligible wide receivers (2013) and 107th among 110 eligible wide receivers (2014). Things won’t get better, as he heads into his age 34 season in 2015.

White has had a great career since going in the 1st round in 2005 and is currently 38th all-time in receiving yards with 10,357, but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. White is a noticeably declining player who is at the tail end of his career. Owed a non-guaranteed 4.25 million in his age 35 season in 2016, White is likely in his final season with the Falcons.

The problem is the Falcons don’t have another option behind White. Leonard Hankerson, signing as a free agent on 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Washington, is currently expected to be the #3 receiver. He’s impressed the coaching staff and played with new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from 2011-2013 with the Redskins, but he hasn’t played since week 11 of the 2013 season thanks to a nasty knee injury, which included a torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from the injury week 1 and, as I mentioned, the off-season reports have been good, but we’ll see what happens in game action. Hankerson is coming off a brutal injury, has missed 33 games with injury in 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, and has never graded out much above average. Even only going into his age 26 season, I don’t see a ton of upside with him.

Hankerson would replace Harry Douglas as the #3 receiver, after he was cut this off-season, going into his age 30 season, coming off a bad year, and owed a non-guaranteed 3.5 million dollar salary. He will have to hold off Devin Hester, who was the 4th receiver last year, but played a decent amount of snaps, at 396. However, Hester has never graded out above average as a receiver is his career and that won’t change as he heads into his age 32 season. They’d be better off going with the youngster because he’s at has some upside and it sounds like that’s what they’re going to do. 4th round rookie Justin Hardy could also be in the mix, but he was more drafted for 2016 and beyond. I expect him to be the 5th receiver as a rookie.

One thing I expect the Falcons to do is run fewer 3-wide receiver sets and run more 2-tight end sets this season. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a big fan of 2-tight end sets and tight ends in general and the Falcons barely ran them at all last season. #2 tight end Bear Pascoe played just 148 snaps last season, which is how #4 wide receiver Devin Hester was able to play 396, almost three times more. Even #5 receiver Eric Weems had more snaps (202) than Pascoe. They didn’t add a lot of talent at the position this off-season, but they at least added experience and gave themselves more depth and talent than they had last season.

Jacob Tamme is expected to be the starter this season, after signing a 2-year, 3.2 million dollar contract this off-season. He’s not great, but he’ll be better than Levine Toilolo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible last season. Tamme has graded out above average 4 times in 7 seasons, including last season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has never been a consistent starter in his career, averaging 308 snaps per season and only making 23 starts in 7 seasons in the league. The 6-4 232 is a decent pass catcher, but not a capable #1 tight end.

Tony Moeaki also enters the fold as a free agent. Moeaki has missed 44 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league, including all of 2011 and 2013. He graded out 5th among tight ends in 2010 and 43rd in 2012, but didn’t appear to be the same player, as a result of all of the injuries, grading out below average on 196 snaps in 6 games. Toilolo will now be the 3rd tight end, which is the good news, but the bad news is neither of the two tight ends they brought in this off-season are that great and one of them will probably get hurt, forcing Toilolo back into meaningful action. They should be better equipped to deal with weak wide receiver depth this season than last season, but still not that well equipped.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The defense is the side of the ball that has the most room for improvement this season, after ranking 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 and 31st last season. In order to improve the unit, they fired head coach Mike Smith, who comes from a defensive background, and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who has been the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks over the past 2 seasons. They made the Super Bowl in both of those seasons. Of course, the Seahawks had a solid defense before he became defensive coordinator, but he took them to a next level in place of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was hired by the Jaguars as head coach.

He’ll be implementing a Seattle style 4-3 defense, much like Bradley also runs in Jacksonville. Tyson Jackson will play the Red Bryant spot as a big base run stopping 4-3 defensive end. He fits the bill at 6-4 296 and is a much better run stopper than pass rusher. The 2009 3rd overall pick was signed to a 5-year, 25 million dollar contract last off-season, after grading out 14th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, including 8th against the run. However, that contract was a mistake as Jackson graded out below average last season and remains a one-year wonder. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and, aside from 2013, has generally been a bust in his career. He can be a solid two-down 4-3 defensive end, but that’s not that hard to find. He might not return at a 4.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2016.

The Falcons biggest need going into the draft was to find someone to play the other defensive end spot, like Cliff Avril does in Seattle and Chris Clemons does in Jacksonville. They found exactly that guy with the 6th overall pick, taking Vic Beasley out of Clemson. Beasley is undersized at 6-3 246, but these types of defenses have usually had undersized defensive ends on one side. Beasley won’t play the run well, but he’s a very explosive pass rusher. He probably won’t come close to his potential until his 2nd or 3rd season in the league, but he should provide a much needed edge rusher to a team that’s really needed one over the past two seasons, since losing John Abraham.

Brooks Reed will be the other edge rusher in sub packages, when Jackson comes off the field. He’ll play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. That’s not his strength. Reed will boost the Falcons’ run defense, but he’s not the edge rusher they’re paying him like, at him 22.5 million over 5 years with 9 million guaranteed. Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, making 54 starts in the process. The only exception was 2013, when he graded out 41st out of 42 eligible players. However, Reed has graded out negatively as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons, doing his best work against the run and, to a lesser extent, in coverage.

The Falcons also have Adrian Clayborn as pass rush depth. Clayborn was a first round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011 and he had a decent rookie year, struggling mightily against the run, but getting good pass rush and overall grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. The story of his career from there was injuries though, as he’s played just 20 games over the past 3 seasons. He missed all but 3 games in 2012 with a torn ACL, struggled mightily in his first year back in 2013, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, and, just when there was optimism for his future again in 2014, he tore his biceps and missed all but 1 game. There’s still upside here and he’s a decent flier, but he’s nothing more than a depth player.

Kroy Biermann is another player in the mix and he actually led the Falcons’ defensive line with 867 snaps last season, but struggled and was part of the reason why they had a poor pass rush. Biermann, a 2008 5th round pick, started his career well, grading out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2009 and their 19th ranked in 2010. However, he graded out 57th out of 67 eligible in 2011, below average again in 2012, was limited to 2 games by a torn Achilles in 2013, and then graded out below average again in 2014. Now Biermann heads into his age 30 season. He’s still capable of a significant role, but he’s an unspectacular player and fits much better as a 3rd or 4th defensive end.

At defensive tackle, Ra’shede Hageman and Paul Soliai should be the starters, but neither one of them will play a lot of snaps. Hageman is inexperienced, grading out below average on 227 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season, while Soliai is just a two down player. Soliai has graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 4th round in 2007, including 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s averaged just 531 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and won’t be getting any better going into his age 32 season in 2015. Like Jackson, he was a mistake on a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season. He will somewhere play around the 519 snaps he played last season, but Hageman won’t play near the 708 snaps that Jonathan Babineaux played as the starter last season.

Babineaux played pretty well last season, grading out above average, something he’s done in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. However, going into his age 34 season, the Falcons are slowly phasing him out of the defense. He’ll play much fewer snaps this season, rotating heavily with Hageman. A much better pass rusher than run stopper, Babineaux should play primarily in sub packages this season. Grady Jarrett, a 5th round rookie, should also be in the mix for the snaps. Even though he was drafted so late, he could still be a good contributor as a rookie because he was an absolute steal in the 5th round. Like Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels before him, he was under-drafted based on his height and has a good chance to prove a lot of people wrong like they did. It’s still a below average defensive line, but they’re getting better, especially if some rookies can step up.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

I already mentioned Brooks Reed will be the third outside linebacker, playing primarily in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu will probably lead the position in snaps played. They’re a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents who have played a significant amount of action over the first two seasons of their careers. Worrilow has really struggled in two seasons in the league, grading out 45th among 55 middle linebackers in 2013 and 59th among 60 middle linebackers in 2014. The league let him go undrafted just two years ago and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s a starter long-term.

Bartu has been a little better, but he’s still graded out below average in both seasons, including 33rd out of 40th eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on 496 snaps last season. He played the run well as a rookie, grading out 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013, but was so bad in coverage that he still graded out below average overall. He’s a solid two-down run stopper at best. He shouldn’t be an every down player. He could be pushed for snaps by Justin Durant, but Durant is a similar player. He was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007 and has quietly had a very solid career, grading out above average in 7 of the 8 seasons he’s been in the NFL. However, he’s averaged just 585 snaps per season, often playing as purely a two-down run stopper, a role he excels in. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s played just a combined 538 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off a torn biceps injury. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was the best part of the Falcons’ horrible defense and should remain that this season, even if they get a little bit better in the front 7. Veterans Robert McClain and Josh Wilson are gone, but they struggled last season on 642 and 458 snaps respectively in 2014 anyway. Now they’re very young in their top-3 at cornerback. Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick, is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant has graded out 7th and 6th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2014 respectively to start his career and should continue being dominant, going into his age 24 season in 2015. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the whole league.

Robert Alford, a 2nd round pick in 2013 in the same draft as Trufant, will be the other starter. He hasn’t been nearly as good in two seasons in the league, grading out 87th among 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013 on 585 snaps and 81st among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014 on 630 snaps. He might not be ready to be a starter, if he ever will be. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Jalen Collins in this past draft and, while he’ll start the season as the 3rd cornerback, he could move into the starting lineup if Alford continues to struggle. He’s no guarantee to be an upgrade though.

Dwight Lowery was their best safety last season, making 16 starts and grading out 43rd among eligible safeties last season (above average), but he’s gone as a free agent to Indianapolis this off-season. That might not matter because William Moore will be returning from injury, after being limited to 327 snaps in 7 games last season. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and missed 33 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better or more durable going into his age 30 season. However, he does have some bounce back potential, after grading out 11th among safeties in 2011 and 15th among safeties in 2012. He’s unlikely to be a serious downgrade on Lowery, but he won’t be as good.

Kemal Ishmael, who stepped into serious action last season because of Moore’s injuries, will remain the starter in 2015, this time opposite William Moore. Ishmael graded out below average last season, but he wasn’t awful. The 2013 7th round pick played just 3 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t seem to have too bright of a future, but he’s not a horrible starter. It’s not a great secondary, but it’s easily their best defensive unit. Trufant is one of the few bright spots on a team that’s become quickly devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s crazy how quickly this team has fallen to the bottom of the NFL, but, if you look at their roster, they once again appear to have one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Outside of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Desmond Trufant, they really don’t have much other than problems throughout this roster. Having the quarterback position stabilized is very valuable and Ryan will help them win some games that they otherwise shouldn’t have, but I see this team once again in the cellar of the NFL, after winning a combined 10 games over the past 2 seasons. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Falcons after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Falcons are the only team in the NFC South that didn’t have a rough August and they actually got better by adding Andy Levitre at left guard in a trade with the Titans. Levitre struggled last year, but was one of the better guards in the league before that and is a good fit for the Falcons’ zone blocking scheme. However, this is still one of the least talented teams in the NFL. Their quarterback play and their weak schedule will win them some games, but I still have them in last.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC South

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