Houston Texans 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans were an average team in 2014, rebounding from a 2013 season that saw them go 2-14, largely because of a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -20 turnover margin, a -6 return touchdown margin, and a 44.44% rate of recovering fumbles. Those types of things tend to be very inconsistent from year to year and the Texans flipped those in 2014, going 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, having a +12 turnover margin, having a +3 return touchdown margin, and recovering 55.81% of fumbles. As a result, they went 9-7, one game out of the post-season, and finished 19th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.66%.

Their average performance in 2014 was the result of an above average defense that ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains allowed at 70.62% and a below average offense that ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains at 69.96%. The Texans played 4 different quarterbacks in 2014. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first 9 games of the season before getting benched for backup Ryan Mallett, who started the next 2 games, but then went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Fitzpatrick started the 3 games after that, but went down for the season early in that 3rd start with a broken leg, forcing 4th round rookie Tom Savage into action. By the end of the game, Savage had sustained a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 2 games of the season. That forced them to sign ex-Texan quarterback Case Keenum off of St. Louis’ practice squad to start the final 2 weeks of the season.

Fitzpatrick was easily the best of the bunch, even though he was the only one of the four to actually ever get benched. In games started and finished by Fitzpatrick, the Texans moved the chains at a 71.90% rate, as opposed to 66.06% in their other 5 games. If he had started all 16 games, there’s a good chance this team would have made the playoffs. In arguably the best season of his career, Fitzpatrick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, showing himself to be a great fit for first year head coach Bill O’Brien’s system. The rest of the team combined to complete 56.6% of their passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and all 3 other quarterbacks graded out below average. Fitzpatrick’s initial benching for the unproven Mallett in the middle of a playoff race was inexplicable and his season ending injury ultimately sealed their fate.

Continuing to show their best quarterback no respect, the Texans flipped Fitzpatrick to the Jets for a 7th round pick this off-season, even though he was only owed a very reasonable 3.25 million dollar salary in 2015. The Texans re-signed Ryan Mallett to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season and brought in Brian Hoyer from Cleveland on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal, both of whom are worse than Fitzpatrick. He may be a career journeyman, but he’s had the best two seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. He graded out below average in every season from 2008-2012, with Buffalo and Cincinnati, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, for the first two times he’s done that in his career. He may not be nearly as good in 2015 as he was in 2014 because he’s now going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg, but he was definitely worth bringing back. The Texans downgraded the quarterback position this off-season, which is never a good idea.

Hoyer and Mallett will compete for the starting job, with Tom Savage, who struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie, completing 10 of 19 for 127 yards and an interception, as the 3rd quarterback, assuming they decide to keep three. Hoyer is the most experienced of the two and the highest paid of the two, so he figures to be the week 1 starter, a hypothesis Texan beat writers have backed up. Hoyer had his moments in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2014, but ultimately proved to not be anything more than a solid backup caliber quarterback. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The former undrafted free agent’s career numbers aren’t much different, as he’s completed 56.5% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions on 630 career attempts.

Mallett is less experienced, but I’d start him just because he’s younger (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 30 for Hoyer) and not as much of a proven failure as Hoyer. Mallett had 4 career pass attempts in 3 seasons as a 2011 3rd round pick before coming to Houston and lasted just 2 games in 2014 before going down for the season with a torn pectoral. He actually played one of his starts with that torn pectoral and, as you can imagine, it was a trainwreck, as he completed 21 of 45 for 189 yards and an interception. He was better in his other start, completing 20 of 30 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, but he’s still completely unproven. Both figure to see starts this season and the quarterback position figures to be a position of major weakness as a result.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

If Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in the 11 games he started and finished, why didn’t the Texans have anything more than an average offense in those 11 games? Well, weirdly enough, the Texans actually didn’t run the ball that well last season. Arian Foster ran the ball well, rushing for 1246 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries, an average of 4.79 yards per carry. However, because he missed 3 games with injury and because the Texans ran the ball with such regularity due to lack of trust in the passing game, backup Alfred Blue got 169 carries and turned them into just 528 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 3.12 yards per carry. As a result, the Texans ranked 23rd in the NFL, rushing for 3.92 yards per carry. Despite that, the Texans ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL (26 more than 2nd place Seattle), which hurt their offense.

Because they’re probably going to have worse quarterback play this season, they’ll have to be run heavy again, so they’ll have to hope that Arian Foster can stay healthy and handle 300-350 carries. Blue proved himself to be completely incompetent as a backup handling any sort of workload last season, grading out 43rd among 57 eligible running backs last season, despite seeing just 341 snaps. I don’t expect much better from him this season, considering he fell all the way to the 6th round in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Texans didn’t do much to upgrade the backup running back position this off-season. The Texans should want him more in the 70-80 carry range. His only real competition for the backup job is Chris Polk, who was signed by the Texans after the Eagles let him go this off-season. The 2012 undrafted free agent has rushed for 270 yards and 7 touchdowns on 57 carries in his career. He might be better, but he’s, at the very least, unproven.

Keeping Foster healthy is going to be easier said than done, especially if he’s seeing 20 carries and 23 touches per game again, which is what he saw last season. The 2009 undrafted free agent has had an impressive career, rushing for 6309 yards and 53 touchdowns on 1391 carries (4.54 YPC), while adding another 2041 yards and 12 touchdowns on 227 catches through the air, but he’s only twice played more than 13 games and he’s missed 11 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. He’s consistently good, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons (including 12th in 2014), but he’s going into his age 29 season so he could decline a little bit this season in terms of effectiveness and he’s not going to become less injury prone as he becomes older. The Texans are going to have to rely on their running game to move the chains this season, but I don’t think they’re strong or deep enough at the running back position to effectively execute that kind of offense with regularity.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even though the Texans did have to cycle through 4 different quarterbacks because of injury and even though Foster missed time as well, the Texans actually had just the 6th fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season. Part of that is because Fitzpatrick and Foster combined to actually only miss 7 games, but part of that is because they didn’t really have very many injuries anywhere else on the field on offense. On the offensive line, their 5 starters missed a combined 1 game (Brandon Brooks week 6) out of 80 possible. They probably won’t have as good of injury luck upfront this season.

The Texans return 4 of 5 starters and have a replacement who was drafted with this situation in mind waiting in the wings. Chris Myers, who was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season, was released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary, ahead of his age 34 season. He’ll be missed, but the Texans do have a solid replacement plan. To replace him, the Texans will be moving left guard Ben Jones inside to center and starting 2014 2nd round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. Su’a-Filo struggled mightily on 130 snaps as a rookie, but he still could be a long-term starter. He’s just unproven.

Jones, meanwhile, was probably their worst starter last season, though he wasn’t bad at all, grading out only slightly below average. The Texans ranked 6th in team run blocking grade and 11th in team pass blocking grade upfront last season, something they’ll have trouble repeating in 2015 thanks to the loss of Myers and the fact that they’ll probably have more injuries upfront. Jones hasn’t played center in the NFL, but he did in college and the 2012 4th round pick is experienced, making 27 starts in 3 seasons in the league and grading out only slightly below average in all 3 seasons. Like Su’a-Filo, he projects as a decent starter in 2015.

Another way the Texans’ offensive line could be worse this season, in addition to the loss of Chris Myers and more injuries, is right tackle Derek Newton could regress, after being re-signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Newton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle, grading out below average in pass protection, but excelling in the run game, grading out 4th in that aspect in 2015. The issue, in addition to his struggles in pass protection, is the 2011 7th round pick is a one-year wonder. Newton has started 46 games over the past 3 seasons, but he was horrible in both 2012 and 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 72nd out of 76 eligible in 2013. He’s very hard to trust and that was a very risky deal.

The two other spots on the offensive line, left tackle and right guard, are very strong though, barring serious injury. Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.

At left tackle, Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. It’s still a strong offensive line, but one that lost a solid starter from last season, but one should have more injuries this season, and one whose right tackle could easily regress in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Whoever starts under center for the Texans will have a very talented wideout to throw to, 2013 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.

Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.

Hopkins’ emergence is a big part of the reason why the Texans felt comfortable letting Andre Johnson go, after 12 years with the team, since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2003. Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career in terms of yards per game since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. His overall numbers weren’t bad, but if you rank 27th among wide receivers in yards and 6th in targets, it’s a problem. Cutting him not only saved them 8.5 million, but it also freed up more targets for a budding young receiver. It’s tough, but Johnson is on the way down and Hopkins is on the way up, and that’s the way the NFL goes.

To replace Johnson, the Texans signed Cecil Shorts from Jacksonville. Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.

However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others, and he’s only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 98th out of 110 eligible wide receiver. He’s a marginal starting wide receiver at best, but he’s a decent value on a 2-year, 6 million deal. As weird as this sounds, from a financial standpoint, Shorts might be better for the Texans than Johnson would have been in 2015.

The Texans also have better depth at wide receiver than they did last season, as their 3rd receiver last year was Damaris Johnson, who graded out 107th out of 110 eligible wide receivers on 586 snaps. Nate Washington, signed to a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Tennessee, will probably be their 3rd receiver this year. Nate Washington has been around for a while, playing in every game in each of the last 9 seasons, catching 411 passes for an average of 6296 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Steelers and Titans. He’s never been great, with only one season of 1000+ yards, but he’s always been decent and dependable.

However, now he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of an underwhelming season in which he caught 40 passes for 647 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade. He’s not very good at this stage of his career, but he should be better than Johnson was last season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick on Jaelen Strong, further adding to their wide receiver depth. The team likes him, but he’ll probably be the 4th receiver at best as a rookie and push for more playing time in 2016 and beyond.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Garrett Graham, a 2010 4th round pick, was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out above average in the first 3 seasons of his career. He graded out 57th out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 55th out of 67 eligible in 2014. A poor blocker at 6-3 243, Graham has never had more than 49 catches in a season and has just 96 catches in his career. He’s a solid #2 tight end, but he’s not a starting caliber player.

The Texans drafted CJ Fiedorowicz in the 3rd round in the 2014 draft to potentially be a starter long-term, but he was awful as a rookie, grading out 63rd among 67 eligible tight ends on 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but I wouldn’t bet on him ever becoming a starting caliber player. Most 3rd round picks don’t. There’s a reason they fall to the 3rd round. Ryan Griffin is also in the mix for snaps, after grading out below average on 339 snaps last season. The 2013 6th round pick also graded out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t appear to be a starting caliber player long-term.

The Texans best tight end is arguably defensive end JJ Watt, who flashed on 9 snaps last season, catching 3 passes for 4 yards and 2 touchdowns. At one point a collegiate tight end, Watt could probably be a starting tight end in the NFL, but he’s far more valuable on defense and the Texans would risk tiring him out by having him play a significant amount of snaps at tight end. He might be able to handle it, but it’s not worth the risk, considering how good he is on defense. He’ll remain a gadget, goal line tight end, if anything. The Texans will struggle to find a consistent target after DeAndre Hopkins and struggle to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Speaking of JJ Watt, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season for the 2nd time in 3 years and probably should have won it in all 3 seasons. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at the most recent. The only season in his career when he didn’t grade out #1 at his position was his rookie year in 2011, when the 11th overall pick “only” graded out 5th among 3-4 defensive ends. Last season was arguably the best season of Watt’s career and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston did have more sacks than Watt last season, 23 as compared to 21, but Watt plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position. Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position from which to get to the quarterback. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston.

Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season. He’ll never be as valuable as a top quarterback and he probably won’t even make the playoffs again until his team figures out the quarterback situation, but he’s definitely the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s easily the biggest reason why the Texans ranked 10th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains last season, as the Texans didn’t have a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at their position. Extended for 100 million over 6 years last off-season, Watt is locked up through his age 32 season in 2021 and at a very reasonable price, considering Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh got 101 and 114 million respectively over 6 years.

Watt should actually have some help on the defensive line this season, as the Texans signed Vince Wilfork to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal. Cut by the Patriots to save 8.5 million, Wilfork isn’t the player he once was, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a torn Achilles in 2013, and he’ll only play a two-down base package role as a nose tackle this season, but he should still be useful to the Texans. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Ryan Pickett and Jerrell Powe, who played 290 and 277 snaps respectively at nose tackle last season. Both were disastrous, especially Powe, as no one played fewer snaps than Powe at the defensive tackle position and graded out worse.

Wilfork, meanwhile, has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. One of the seasons he didn’t was his injury shortened 2013 season and he bounced back in his first season back in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 6th against the run, which is his specialty. He’ll move back to his natural position of nose tackle in Houston in 2015, where his run stopping abilities can be best utilized (though he can still play 3-4 defensive end in a pinch), and he should have at least one more season of above average run play left in the tank. He was a risky signing because of his age, but he should work out.

Jared Crick will be the other starting defensive end, opposite Watt and next to Wilfork. The 2012 4th round pick has never graded out above average in his career, grading out below average on 220 and 277 snaps in 2012 and 2013 respectively as a reserve and then last season on 726 snaps as a starter. However, he was only slightly below average last season, so he’s not a horrible starter. The bigger problem is the Texans’ lack of depth behind him. Watt never needs to come off the field, so that’s not a concern, but Tim Jamison was their top reserve last season and he graded out 44th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 420 snaps. He’s gone now, but Jeoffrey Pagan, a 2014 6th round pick who struggled mightily on 191 snaps as a rookie, is their top reserve now, which isn’t a better situation. Still, it’s a strong defensive line, almost entirely because of Watt.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Texans didn’t have a lot of injuries on offense, they did have more than an average amount of adjusted games lost on defense (20th fewest). That alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a better defense this season, but they do have pair of talented linebackers who had serious injury problems last season that the Texans are hoping can bounce back. The first is middle linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing, a 2009 1st round pick, has had some fantastic seasons in his career, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2011. He graded out above average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career from 2009-2013, but he missed 20 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, suffering a torn ACL and a broken leg, and it appears those injuries have taken a serious toll on him.

Even though he played in 14 games in 2014, he was nowhere near his old self, grading out below average for the first time in his career, 38th among 60 eligible middle linebackers. Cushing dealt with ankle, wrist, and knee problems for most of the season and had surgery on all 3 of those body parts this off-season. The reviews of him this off-season have been good, so there’s some hope for a bounce back year, only going into his age 28 season in 2015, but it’s very hard to trust him to stay 100%. His last healthy season was way back in 2011. At the very least, I think the Cushing of 2009 and 2011 is gone.

The Texans added Benadrick McKinney in the 2nd round of the draft to start next to Cushing, so if Cushing gets hurt again, Mike Mohamed, who graded out above average on 524 snaps last season, would replace him. Mohamed is a 2011 6th round pick who had played 13 career defensive snaps prior to last season, so he’s hard to trust, but he’s more than adequate as a 3rd middle linebacker. The addition of McKinney makes them much deeper at the position and much better equipped to handle another Cushing injury.

The other linebacker with a serious injury concern is Jadeveon Clowney, the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Texans improved by 7 games in the win total last season in spite of him, not as a result of him, as he had about as of a disappointing rookie year as he could have had. Not only did he grade out below average, but he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee problems and had to have off-season microfracture surgery, which puts him in a race to play week 1. Even if he does play all or most of this season, microfracture surgery is a very tough surgery to recover from and he probably won’t come close to fulfilling his huge upside until 2016 at the earliest. It’ll be hard for the Texans to count on either Cushing or Clowney being significantly more valuable than they were last season or either one of them contributing to any sort of defensive improvement.

Unlike middle linebacker, the Texans don’t have good depth at outside linebacker behind Clowney. Brooks Reed, who graded out above average on 799 snaps last season, signed in Atlanta this off-season, leaving John Simon as the 3rd outside linebacker. Simon, a 2013 4th round pick, flashed on 239 snaps last season, after playing just 3 as a rookie, but is a long way away from convincing me that he can be a competent every down outside linebacker if the Texans need him to be. They’ll have to hope that Clowney can stay healthy, allowing Simon to work as a rotational player behind Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

Mercilus is locked in as an every down player at the other outside linebacker spot in Houston’s 3-4, after getting a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension this off-season. That deal was a classic case of a team overpaying for a marginal talent. Mercilus has largely been disappointing since the Texans drafted him 26th overall in 2012. Mercilus has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, including 28th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 42nd out of 42 eligible in 2013. He’s coming off of the best season of his career in 2014, but he still only graded out 35th out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling as a pass rusher. It’s a very underwhelming linebacking corps overall behind a strong defensive line.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have been a solid duo of starting cornerbacks for the Texans since they brought Joseph in as a free agent four off-seasons ago, but there was at least some potential that one or both of them would not be back in 2015. Jackson was a free agent, as his 5-year rookie deal had expired. The 2010 1st round pick has had an up and down career, grading out 11th among cornerbacks in 2014 and 12th among cornerbacks in 2012, but below average in the other 3 seasons. There are two ways to look at this. One is to see him as an inconsistent player. The other is to see him as someone who got off to a slow start in his career, but has generally been good since then.

Joseph, meanwhile, could have been cut this off-season, ahead of an age 31 contract year, in which he was owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million dollars. The Texans signed Johnathan Joseph to a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal four off-seasons ago and it’s largely been a good deal for them as Joseph has missed just 4 games in 4 seasons and graded out above average in all 4 years. Joseph’s best season came in the first season of his deal in 2011, when he graded out 11th at his position, but he’s played at only about a level lower in the other 3 seasons, grading out 44th, 25th, and 23rd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.

The Texans ended up keeping both of them, cutting salary at other spots, namely center (Chris Myers) and wide receiver (Andre Johnson). Joseph will return after signing an extension this off-season. He won’t make 8.5 million this season, but the Texans gave him 11.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 22 million dollar deal, which gives him some long-term security, in exchange for giving the Texans some additional financial flexibility. Even though he’s on the wrong side of 30, he should grade out above average for the 8th straight season. Meanwhile, Jackson was re-signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal which is risky, but pretty appropriate. Both should be above average starters again this season.

Despite that, the Texans used their 1st round pick (16th overall) on Kevin Johnson out of Wake Forest. Johnson doesn’t fill an immediate pressing need, but he should be an upgrade on AJ Bouye, who graded out 71st among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 644 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, and he should be a long-term replacement for Joseph, whenever the Texans decide to part ways with him. Johnson could take a little bit to get used to the NFL, but it’s a talented trio of cornerbacks.

While things are largely the same at cornerback this season, the Texans underwent a complete overhaul at safety this off-season. Kendrick Lewis (1097 snaps), DJ Swearinger (1037 snaps), and Danieal Manning (591 snaps) were their top-3 safeties last season in terms of snaps played and all 3 are gone. Lewis signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Manning retired ahead of his age 33 season. Both of those two players graded out above average last season and will be missed. Swearinger, however, graded out 78th among 87 eligible safeties last season and got cut with two very affordable years left on his rookie deal because of disciplinary problems, eventually latching on in Tampa Bay. Swearinger played around the line of scrimmage in place of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages last season, with Manning coming in for him in the secondary, but, with the addition of McKinney through the draft, the Texans no longer needed him to do that.

Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore were brought in as free agents this off-season on a 1-year, 825K dollar deal and a 3-year, 12 million dollar respectively and both will play every down as traditional safeties. They’re going to be a solid duo. Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps, as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season. As a result, he was forced to settle for a near minimum deal this off-season and he should be a strong value for the Texans.

Moore should also be a strong value. Given that it was a weak safety market, especially after Devin McCourty re-signed with the Patriots, I thought Rahim Moore had a good chance to be overpaid. There was an argument to be made that he was the best safety that hit the open market this off-season. Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2012 in his 2nd year in the league (only his age 22 season) and it looked like the 2012 2nd round pick had a very bright future. Moore hasn’t quite lived up to the upside he showed in 2012 over the past 2 seasons, and his career was briefly stalled by a frightening, rare leg injury that could have cost him his leg or his life. However, he’s still graded out around average in each of the last 2 seasons on Pro Football Focus and made all 16 starts in his return from injury this season. Besides, he’s only going into his age 25 season so his best football could definitely still be ahead of him. He and Brown are a solid duo in a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans were an average team that won 9 games last season. I have a hard time seeing them being better than that this season, considering they got rid of their best quarterback and considering that there isn’t really anywhere else on the field where they figure to be significantly better this season. With the Titans actually adding a legitimate franchise quarterback (or at least a potential legitimate franchise quarterback) and some nice parts on defense, the Texans could actually be leapfrogged in the division by the Titans. At the very least, they’re closer to the Titans and maybe even the hapless Jaguars than they are to catching the Colts. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Texans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC South

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Tennessee Titans 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2-14 and 31st in rate of moving the chains differential. The problem wasn’t just on one side of the ball, as they ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains and 28th in rate of moving the chains allowed. The Titans made a fair amount of moves all over the field to try to fix that, but easily the most franchise defining one was the selection of quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, turning down multiple trade offers to select the ex-Oregon quarterback and 2014 Heisman award winner.

Most teams that are picking as high as the Titans did in this past draft are doing so largely as a result of poor quarterback play and the Titans are no exception. Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and Zach Mettenberger all saw significant playing time under center for the Titans last season, as the Titans tried to find some sort of answer and they all struggled. Combined, they completed 58.3% of their passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, a huge part of the reason why the Titans moved the chains at a mere 65.44% rate. The Titans were fortunate enough to be picking high in a year where a legitimate franchise quarterback option was available to them and smart enough to pull the trigger.

It’s unclear how good Mariota can be as a rookie, but he’ll probably be an upgrade over the trio that played last season. That being said, he is pretty raw, only turning 22 this season, coming over from what was very much a college style offense at the University of Oregon and now having to adapt to a Ken Whisenhunt offense that has historically not been very friendly to young quarterbacks. For what it’s worth, Whisenhunt has said he will tailor his offense to fit Mariota’s skill set and incorporate some of what Mariota did well in college.

I think, long-term, Mariota will be better than Jameis Winston, who went #1 overall to Tampa Bay, because of his superior accuracy and athleticism, but he could struggle as a rookie. 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. With a weak supporting cast around him, the Titans fans shouldn’t expect too much more than that from their rookie signal caller. 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.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Titans’ weak offensive supporting cast around Mariota isn’t for lack of trying, as they spent both a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the offense. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how often teams that select a quarterback in the first round use their subsequent pick on an offensive player to help that quarterback. 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.

For the Titans, that next pick was 40th overall in the 2nd round (after a trade down) and they used it on former Missouri and Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB has great talent, great upside, and off-the-charts athleticism (4.49 40 at 6-5 237), but was kicked off the Missouri football team for a variety of off-the-field issues and didn’t play at all last season, only practicing with the Oklahoma football team. If not for the off-the-field stuff, he would have been an easy top-10 pick, but between his unreliable character and the fact that he hasn’t played in a real game since 2013, he’s one of the riskiest picks in the draft. He’s the definition of a boom or bust draft pick. As a rookie, he’ll battle for playing time in an overall very unresolved receiving corps.

Nate Washington led the way with 782 snaps last season, grading out 80th among 110 eligible wide receivers, including 96th in pure pass catching grade. He signed as a free agent in Houston this off-season and, though he had some good years in Tennessee, he won’t really be missed, going into his age 32 season. Kendall Wright (678 snaps) and Justin Hunter (605 snaps) remain, but they also graded out below average. Wright wasn’t terrible, but Hunter graded out 89th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. In addition to adding Green-Beckham, the Titans also signed veteran Harry Douglas, who was cut by the Atlanta Falcons.

Wright is the only one locked into a role and should lead Titan wide receivers in catches for the 4th straight year. The 2012 1st round pick graded out below average as a rookie, but seemed to have a breakout year in 2013. He caught 94 of 134 passes (70.1%) for 1079 yards and 2 touchdowns on 539 routes run, an average of 2.00 yards per route run, and graded out 18th among wide receivers that season. However, he saw his slash line fall to 57/715/6 in 2014 and, while he wasn’t horrible, he still graded out below average.

In 3 seasons in the league, he’s caught 215 of 315 passes (68.3%) for 2420 yards and 12 touchdowns on 1407 routes run, an average of 1.72 yards per route run. Part of his inability to put up #1 receiver numbers has to do with poor quarterback play and he hasn’t been a bust or anything, but he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a complementary receiver and the Titans are asking him to be a coverage changing #1 guy. The Titans picked up his 7.32 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so the fact that they did that doesn’t tell us a ton. They’ll be hoping he can have a bounce back year and provide a consistent target for their rookie quarterback.

The other three (Green-Beckham, Hunter, and Harry Douglas) will compete for the other starting job and playing time in 3-wide receiver sets. Hunter was predicted by many to have a breakout year last season and he certainly has the athleticism, as the 2013 2nd round pick ran a 4.44 40 at 6-4 196, but instead he fell flat on his face. He also graded out below average on 340 snaps as a rookie and has overall been a disappointment thus far. The Titans are probably holding out hope that he can have a breakout year this year, but the selection of Green-Beckham suggests they’re not too confident. Hunter could wind up as far down the depth chart as 4th.

Douglas, meanwhile, has never graded out above average in his career, since the Falcons took him in the 3rd round in 2008, largely playing as a slot specialist. Even in 2013, when he caught 85 passes for 1068 yards and 2 touchdowns in place of an injured Julio Jones, he wasn’t very efficient, as he was targeted 126 times. Things won’t get better as he heads into his age 30 season in 2015. He was cut by the Falcons this off-season to save 3.5 million and the Titans signed him as veteran insurance, bringing him in on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal that actually pays him more than 3.5 million annually. If he has to play a significant role this season, the Titans are in trouble in the receiving corps, but that could very well happen.

Tight end Delanie Walker actually led the Titans in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 63 passes on 100 attempts (63.0%) for 890 yards and 4 touchdowns on 503 routes run, an average of 1.77 yards per route run. Primarily a blocker throughout his career, since going in the 6th round in 2006, the Titans signed him to a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago with the intention of turning him into an every down tight end who could contribute in the passing game. It was a weird move and it looked like it wouldn’t work out as Walker put up just a 60/571/6 slash line in his first season in Tennessee, grading out below average in pass catching grade once again.

However, Walker inexplicably broke out as a pass catcher in 2014, grading out above average in pass catching grade for the first time since 2008 (when he played just 143 snaps). Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked tight end. Now going into his age 31 season, I’m skeptical that he can replicate that strong season as a receiver, but he should once again be a strong blocker at the very least. He’s graded out above average as a run blocker in all 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s not a bad player, but when he’s your best offensive playmaker, you’re in trouble.

Anthony Fasano, who the Titans signed to a 2-year, 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, will probably be the #2 tight end, focusing primarily on blocking in two-tight end sets. Anthony Fasano played 678 snaps in 2014 for the Chiefs at tight end, but he struggled mightily, grading out 61st out of 67 eligible, and now he’s going into his age 31 season. The Chiefs cut him to save 3.1 million. Fasano graded out above average in every season from 2007-2012, including 6th in 2011 and 18th in 2012, but those days are likely long gone. He’s a decent #2 tight end at best. It’s not a good receiving corps that Mariota has to work with.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Titans use a 2nd round pick on Dorial Green-Beckham after taking Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, they also used their 3rd round pick on an offensive player, taking offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi. He could start at right tackle as a rookie, following the release of Michael Oher, who graded out 75th among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season in 11 starts, before going down for the season with injury. That would definitely be a problem, especially since many draft experts thought he’d need to move to guard in the NFL because of his lack of athleticism, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Poutasi will compete with veterans Byron Bell and Byron Stingily. Bell is experienced, with 56 starts in 4 seasons since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he’s not very good at all. He was horrible to start his career at right tackle, grading out 69th out of 76 eligible in 2011, 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012, and 53rd out of 76 eligible in 2013. Predictably, he wasn’t better in 2014 when forced to play the blindside, grading out 83rd out of 84 eligible. Stingily, meanwhile, was a 2011 6th round pick. He’s graded out above average just once in 4 seasons in the NFL (2012) and has never played more than the 248 snaps he played last season. He played horribly in limited action last season. Even with Oher gone, right tackle remains a massive problem, to the point where the Titans’ best option might be to start a 3rd round rookie.

Taylor Lewan will start on the other side. The 2014 1st round pick was stuck behind veterans Michael Oher and Michael Roos when he was drafted, but made his first start week 6, after Roos went down for the season with injury. Lewan graded out above average on 359 snaps before going down for the season week 12 with an injury of his own. With Roos retiring ahead of his age 33 season this off-season, Lewan will go into his 2nd season as the undisputed starter and, now healthy, he has the talent to have a breakout year on the blindside. That’s not necessarily going to happen and he’s still unproven, but he is one of the few bright spots on this offensive line and having him healthy and starting for a whole season will be a boost to this team.

With so many injuries and inconsistencies upfront, the Titans had 12 different offensive linemen play a snap last season. Only 3 of them graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, the retired Roos, Lewan, and right guard Chance Warmack. Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, but he’s made 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and played decently, grading out slightly below average as a rookie and slightly above average last season. That, by default, makes him one of the best players on the Titans’ offensive line, and, only going into his age 24 season, he still has a good chance to continue improving. During the final 7 weeks of last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, a small sample size, but a very good sign for 2015 and beyond.

At the other guard spot, Andy Levitre will start once again. The 2009 2nd round pick has made all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but graded out below average for the first time since his rookie year in 2014. The Titans, who signed him to a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, kept him at a scheduled non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary for 2015 because they have a bunch of cap space, no better alternative, and they believe he can bounce back. Levitre graded out 36th, 5th, 8th, and 13th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively and he is only going into his age 29 season, so there definitely is bounce back potential.

Outside of Lewan and Warmack and maybe Levitre, the rest of the offensive line is in trouble. I already mentioned their problems at right tackle; things at center aren’t any better. Brian Schwenke was the starter there last season, grading out 32nd among 41 eligible centers before going down for the season week 12. He wasn’t any better as a 4th round rookie in 2013, grading out 30th among 35 eligible centers on 573 snaps, no surprise given where he was drafted. He doesn’t project as a starting caliber player long-term, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Chris Spencer took over for him after he went down for the season, but he was even worse and now is a free agent expected to retire ahead of his age 33 season, leaving the Titans with only 6th round rookie Andy Gallik behind Schwenke. Gallik probably won’t be an upgrade, but he could see action as a rookie because it’s such a problem position. It’s not a good offensive line, but if Lewan can stay healthy, Levitre can bounce back, and Warmack can continue developing, they should be improved this season and help this offense move the chains more effectively.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another thing the Titans can do move the chains better in 2015 is to run the ball better, after they rushed for 4.06 yards per carry last season, 18th in the NFL. Even worse, they picked up just 75 first downs on the ground, 25th in the NFL, 19 of which came from quarterbacks and wide receivers. You can’t really blame the offensive line for that as, while they ranked 28th in team pass blocking grade last season, they were middle of the pack (14th) in run blocking. Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene led the team in carries with 152 and 94 carries respectively and combined for just 44 rushing first downs on 246 carries. Sankey rushed for 569 yards and 2 touchdowns on 152 carries, an average of 3.74 YPC, while Greene rushed for 392 yards and 2 touchdowns on 94 carries, an average of 4.17 YPC.

Greene was let go this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 3.35 million ahead of his age 30 season, but Sankey remains. The 2014 2nd round pick was a bust as a rookie, not just struggling on the ground, but also struggling as a receiver, adding just 18 catches for 133 yards. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. More of a finesse runner at 5-10 209, Sankey could end up splitting carries in 2015 with 5th round rookie David Cobb, who is more of a powerful runner at 5-11 229, but fell in the draft because of a severe lack of speed and agility. It’s an underwhelming young duo of running backs.

Dexter McCluster remains as gadget player and an obvious passing situation running back behind both of them. The running back/wide receiver hybrid rushed for just 131 yards on 40 carries last season and has a career average of just 4.13 yards per carry on 192 carries, but he did add 26 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown last season and graded out above average on 238 snaps as a result. He definitely wasn’t worth the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Titans gave him last off-season, as they really like overpaying for marginal offensive talent (Shonn Greene, Anthony Fasano, Harry Douglas, etc.), but he does a serve. With Leon Washington (22 catches for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns last season) gone and the coaching staff, for whatever reason, talking about getting McCluster more involved, he could have 30-40 catches this season. He won’t help the Titans on the ground though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Titans didn’t take any meaningful steps to improve their offense in the short-term (aside from maybe the selection of Mariota), they did take steps on defense, adding cornerback Perrish Cox, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, and safety Da’Norris Searcy, all of whom are above average starters, in order to fix what was one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season. They didn’t really do anything on the defensive line, but that might not be the end of the world, as their defensive line wasn’t a huge problem last season.

Jurrell Casey led the way with 931 snaps played, epitomizing an every down player. The 2011 3rd round pick has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and got a well-deserved 4-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season. Casey spent the first 3 years of his career in a 4-3, grading out 16th, 8th, and 5th among defensive tackles, and then showed his scheme versatility when the Titans switched to a 3-4 last off-season. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014, as one of the Titans’ lone bright spots. Only going into his age 26 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, only with a better supporting cast.

The rest of the Titans’ 3-man defensive line is largely up for grabs, but there are some talented players in the mix. Sammie Lee Hill (597 snaps), Ropati Pitoitua (394 snaps), Mike Martin (357 snaps), Karl Klug (338 snaps), Al Woods (297 snaps), and DaQuan Jones (143 snaps) all played a decent amount last season and all 6 will return and play a decent amount of snaps again. Sammie Lee Hill was their starting nose tackle last season. The 2009 4th round pick graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, but never played more than 437 snaps in any of those seasons and graded out below average last season on a career high 597 snaps. He probably won’t play as many snaps again this season and he should be in the 300-500 snap range again. He’s a solid rotational player who has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. The 6-4 329 pounder can play both nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 defense.

Ropati Pitoitua played 12 games last season, starting 11 of them, and primarily playing in base packages. He graded out 9th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stopping grade, but didn’t do much as a pass rusher. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out above average as a run stopper in each of the last 2 seasons, but hasn’t graded out above average as a pass rusher since 2009, when he played just 48 snaps. The 2008 undrafted free agent is already going into his age 30 season and is only a base package player. Like Hill, Pitoitua will probably play fewer snaps per game this season because the Titans have mentioned they see 2014 4th round pick DaQuan Jones as a starter this season and he should have a regular role, at least in base packages, after he played just 143 below average snaps as a rookie. The 6-4 323 pounder could see action at both nose tackle and defensive end. I don’t have a ton of faith in him, but he could surprise.

Mike Martin and Karl Klug fit in as sub package rushers. Both graded out above average as pass rushers last season. Martin, a 2012 3rd round pick, has never played more than 435 snaps in a season and has only once graded out above average against the run, but he’s graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th among defensive tackles in 2013. He should have a similar season again this year on 300-400 or so snaps. Klug, meanwhile, is a similar, but probably slightly better player. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th in 2013, but has never graded out above average as a pass rusher or played more than 520 snaps in a season.

Woods rounds out the group and is probably the worst of the bunch, grading out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2010, never playing more than 297 snaps in a season. The 6-4 314 pounder was a backup nose tackle last season. He won’t have a very big role at all this season and will almost definitely play the fewest snaps of the bunch. Things won’t be too much different on the defensive line this season, but that’s not going to be a big issue because the defensive line wasn’t the problem last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The problem last season was the linebackers and the secondary and the Titans did a good job of adding talent there in free agency. Brian Orakpo comes over as a free agent from Washington on a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal, upgrading a position where Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, and Quentin Groves were awful last season on 549, 362, and 249 snaps respectively. Wimbley and Phillips graded out 44th and 43rd respectively out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, while Groves would have graded out 4th worst at the position if he had been eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position than Groves.

Orakpo should be a substantial upgrade. Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral. Now he hits free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals. He’s very talented when he’s on the field though. In addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. He’s an obvious injury risk, but he has a huge upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

He’ll play opposite Derrick Morgan, who was re-signed to a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal this off-season. A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability are very valuable and the Titans did well to lock up a talented young player. The only issue at outside linebacker is depth as 6th round rookie Deiontrez Mount could be their 3rd outside linebacker, which would become an issue if Orakpo were to get hurt again. However, Orakpo and Morgan are one of the best edge rusher duos in the NFL, as long as both are healthy.

Inside at middle linebacker, Avery Williamson was a steal as a 5th round rookie last season, playing 834 snaps, making 12 starts, and grading out above average, 17th among middle linebackers. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term starter. He should remain a starter in 2015.

Zach Brown, who missed all but 4 snaps last season with a torn pectoral, opening the door for Williamson, will compete with fellow veteran Wesley Woodyard for the other starting middle linebacker job and appears to be the favorite right now. The 2012 2nd round pick Brown graded out slightly above average as a rookie and slightly below average in 2013, making a combined 27 starts in those 2 seasons at outside linebacker in the Titans’ old 4-3 defense. Prior to last season, he had never missed a game with injury in his NFL career so I wouldn’t classify him as injury prone and he should be able to have a solid bounce back year.

Woodyard, meanwhile, signed a 4-year, 15.75 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Denver, but struggled in his first season in Tennessee, grading out 42nd among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The 2008 undrafted free agent is experienced, with 48 starts over the past 4 seasons, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons. With Brown and Williamson being better starting options, Woodyard could be just an expensive backup this season, making 2.75 million. He fits the Titans’ recent theme of overpaying for marginal veterans. With Brown healthy and Orakpo coming in, it’s a much improved linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a problem last season as well for the Titans and one they tried to fix this off-season with the additions of cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da’Norris Searcy on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal respectively. Cox will start at cornerback, where Blidi Wreh-Wilson started last season and graded out 106th among 110 eligible cornerbacks. Cox should be a significant upgrade, coming over from San Francisco. He was Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked cornerback last season in a breakout year.

Cox’s career has had an interesting trajectory. He was a 5th round pick by the Broncos in 2010 and graded out above average on 787 snaps as a rookie, but was let go after one year after being arrested on multiple sexual assault charges. Cox was out of the league entirely in 2011 because of those charges, coupled with a history of off-the-field issues from his collegiate days at Oklahoma State, which dropped him in the draft in the first place. However, early in 2012, he was found not guilty and the 49ers gave him another chance. He didn’t play much in either 2012 or 2013, playing 168 snaps in 2012 and 81 snaps in 2013 (11 of which were actually with the Seahawks). However, injuries opened up a starting role for him back with the 49ers in 2014 and he didn’t look back, playing 965 snaps, making 14 starts, and grading above average. He’s obviously a risky signing given his history, but he clearly has talent, showing it in both of his stints as a starter.

Cox will push Blidi Wreh-Wilson to 3rd on the depth cornerback at best. The 2013 3rd round pick flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie in 2013, but proved incompetent in his first season as a starter in 2014, leading to the addition of Cox. There’s still time for him to turn it around and I like him better as a 3rd cornerback, but I don’t have a ton of hope for his future. He’ll have to hold off Coty Sensabaugh for the #3 job. Sensabaugh, a 2012 4th round pick, has been the #3 cornerback for the past 2 seasons, after struggling on 319 snaps as a rookie. He graded out above average on 509 snaps in 2013, but graded out 96th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 737 snaps in 2014. Whoever wins this battle, I expect them to struggle.

Searcy, meanwhile, will take over a starting spot at safety where the Titans had struggles last season. Bernard Pollard played decently through 5 games and 351 snaps there last season for the Titans, but then went down for the season, leaving George Wilson to start and he graded out 82nd among 87 eligible safeties. Going into his age 34 season, Wilson remains unsigned as of this writing and will likely have to retire. Searcy, a 2011 4th round pick, should be an upgrade.

Searcy played just 511 snaps in his first 2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, but he made 20 starts over the past 2 seasons as a hybrid safety/linebacker at 5-11 223. He’s never played more than 753 snaps in a season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 (on 666 snaps) and only slightly below average in 2013, so I expected someone would give him starter’s money to be a traditional, every down starting safety for them. It’s a risky move for the Titans, but, like the Cox deal, I think it’s a solid value and, like the Cox deal, I think it will really help this secondary.

At the other two starting spots in the secondary, the Titans will be counting on bounce back years from cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin. McCourty graded out below average last season for the first time since he was a 6th round rookie in 2009. He’s made 63 of 64 starts since 2011 and graded out 20th, 8th, 6th, and 11th respectively from 2010-2013. A lot of that has to do with his strong play against the run, but he still graded out 15th, 32nd, 23rd, and 17th respectively in those 4 seasons in coverage grade (all above average) and the fact that he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL against the run in those 4 seasons is just a cherry on top. Only going into his age 28 season, I like his bounce back potential, which would really help this secondary.

Griffin’s bounce back potential is a little bit more questionable. The 2007 1st round pick has had some great seasons, but he’s also been incredibly inconsistent throughout his career. Griffin has graded out 37th, 9th, 41st, 10th, and 14th among safeties in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively, but also 87th out of 88 eligible in 2009, 87th out of 88 eligible in 2012, and 83rd out of 87 eligible in 2014. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him next season, especially as he goes into his age 30 season. The Titans kept him on board at a 6.3 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in hopes that he’d bounce back, but that was mostly because they had so much cap space that they could afford to. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more likely that he’s better this season than worse. He still might not be good, but he’s part of a secondary that should be much improved from last season on a defense that should be much improved from last season.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

I think the Titans had a pretty good off-season. They added a quarterback who I think will be the best quarterback in this draft class and a franchise quarterback long-term. He might not be great right away in the short-term, but he should be an upgrade over what they had last season and the Titans added talent to their defense to help in the short-term. I don’t see this team sneaking into the playoffs or anything, unless Mariota goes crazy as a rookie and elevates a poor offensive supporting cast that is only relying on bounce back years to improve, but they have a pretty easy schedule and should win a decent amount of games. They should also be healthier after having the 11th most injuries in the NFL last season, in terms of adjusted games lost, including some to some of their better players (Zach Brown and Taylor Lewan come to mind).

The Titans 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, Tennessee is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tennessee has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tampa Bay, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. At the very least, the Titans won’t be the pushover they were last season when they lost 10 games by more than a touchdown and will be much tougher for teams to beat. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Titans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 2nd in AFC South

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Indianapolis Colts 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It might not show it in the win/loss column, as the Colts have gone 11-5 in each of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL, but the Colts have gotten significantly better in each of Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL. In Luck’s rookie year, they went 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and, while they’ve done well in close games in every season, they’ve gotten progressively less reliant on eeking out close victories in each season, going 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2013 and 4-2 in 2014. This has been noticeable in the playoffs, as the Colts have gone from losing in the wild card round, to losing in the divisional round, to losing in the AFC Championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl, over the course of those 3 seasons, though there are other ways to tell that they’re improving as a team.

In 2014, much more so than the other two seasons, the Colts were an 11-5 team that deserved to be an 11-5 team. Far fewer of their victories were close games that could have gone either way. They finished the 2014 season 5th in rate of moving the chains differential, as the offense ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains, and their defense actually ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed. It’s important to remember that the Colts play in a terrible division that has allowed them to go 12-0 in divisional games (as opposed to 10-10 in non-divisional games) over the past 2 seasons. The division should be better this season, but not to the point where the Colts will be an underdog in any divisional game, either home or away, this season. The Colts should also be better too, after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. Even though they’ve been somewhat propped up by a bad division, this still looks like one of the most talented teams in the AFC.

So how have the Colts improved over the years? Well, they’ve spent a lot of money in free agency in recent off-seasons, with this off-season being no exception. They haven’t always spent that money wisely, but sometimes they have and they’ve had a lot of money to play with because many of their good players are under rookie contracts. That’s going to change rapidly over the next two off-seasons and it’s going to be impossible to keep everyone, so the Colts are largely in win now mode this season, but they have at least a decent chance to do exactly that.

And, of course, the biggest reason the Colts have improved is Andrew Luck. He might not be as “magical” in close games as he was when he was a rookie, but it’s much more important to be good in the NFL and Luck certainly has gotten better every season, grading out 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 9th in 2014, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season. He set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns with those numbers.

He’s not quite a top level elite quarterback, but he’s very close and, only going into his age 26 season, he could certainly keep getting better. He’s signed for about 19.5 million total over the next 2 seasons, but he’s expected to get a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months or so, ahead of his 2016 contract year, and will probably set an NFL record for average salary. Right now, Aaron Rodgers’ 22 million dollar annual salary is the record and Luck reportedly could get 25 million. That’s going to make it hard for the Colts to keep talent around Luck, even with a rapidly increasing salary cap, but they won’t have much of a choice but to keep a guy who could be the best quarterback in the NFL in 2 or 3 years.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One of the players the Colts brought in through free agency this off-season is former 49er running back Frank Gore, who was signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was brought in to fix a running game that averaged just 3.88 yards per carry last season, 25th in the NFL. Their top-3 running backs last season in terms of carries were mega-bust Trent Richardson, veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his leg week 11 and missed the rest of the season, and the unproven Boom Herron. That being said, the Colts will probably live to regret giving Frank Gore a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal and guaranteeing him 6.5 million of the 7.5 million he’s scheduled to make over the next 2 seasons.

Gore’s rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. However, he’s also going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. He might not have looked it last year, when he rushed for 1106 yards and 4 touchdowns on 255 attempts (4.34 YPC), caught 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, and graded only slightly below average, but he’s close to the end. This deal reminds me of when the Falcons signed an aging Steven Jackson two off-seasons ago, expecting him to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl team.

If Gore has a rapid decline or suffers an injury and another running back needs to step into a bigger role, the Colts don’t really have a good option. Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t re-signed this off-season, going into his age 29 season, following an off-season marijuana arrest that got him suspended for the first week of the 2015 season, and the Colts next 4 running backs on the depth chart behind Gore right now are Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, and Josh Robinson.

Herron is almost definitely the favorite for the #2 job right now. Even though he was a 2012 6th round pick with 9 career carries going into last season, Herron ended up being the lead back for the Colts down the stretch and into the playoffs. He wasn’t terrible, but he graded out below average in the regular season and was horrible in the post-season. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he rushed for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 123 carries (4.24 YPC) and showed himself to be pretty good as a receiver, catching 41 passes for 301 yards. Those numbers aren’t bad, but they weren’t great either and he also fumbled 4 times, a really high rate for the number of carries he had and a serious problem. He’s a decent backup, but little else.

The rest of the bunch is even more uninspiring. Vick Ballard hasn’t played since week 1 of the 2013 season, thanks to a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season and a torn Achilles that ended his 2014 season before it even started. He’s reportedly a candidate to start this season on the physically unable to perform list and miss at least the first 6 games, if he can even make the roster. He hasn’t proven himself to be a very good runner even when healthy, rushing for 877 yards and 2 touchdowns on 224 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC, in his career, while adding just 18 catches for 147 yards and another touchdown through the air. The 2012 5th round pick’s career is still very much in jeopardy, almost a whole year after the Achilles tear.

Tipton, meanwhile, was a 2014 undrafted free agent who rushed for 86 yards and 1 touchdown on 28 carries, an average of 3.07 yards per carry, with 9 catches for 90 yards and another touchdown through the air, between the regular season and post-season as a rookie. Josh Robinson, a 6th round rookie, rounds out an uninspiring group of backup running backs behind a starting running back who is at the end of his line. The Colts could be better on the ground than they were last season, but they might not be and I don’t expect them to get their money’s worth out of free agent acquisition Frank Gore.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Sticking with the theme of overpaying over 30 veterans, the Colts signed Andre Johnson to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, after the Texans released him to save 8.5 million dollars. He’ll probably help the Colts more than Gore, but I thought he’d get something closer to what Anquan Boldin got from the 49ers last off-season, a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with 6 million guaranteed.

Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career, in terms of yards per game, since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. That’s not bad, but it’s worse than what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s currently #12 on the NFL’s all-time receiving yardage list and likely Hall-of-Fame bound someday, but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Johnson is a declining player who could soon become a rapidly declining player.

He could still be an asset to this team though, simply by being an upgrade over Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks, who played 881 and 602 snaps respectively last season and graded out 106th and 105th respectively out of 110 eligible wide receivers. Neither was brought back as a free agent and the former remains unsigned and will likely retire at some point, ahead of his age 37 season. The Colts have already ruled out bringing him back. His last 1000 yard season was in 2012 in his age 34 season, just another reminder of how quickly a wide receiver can lose it.

The Colts also have a pair of young wide receivers, 2014 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief and rookie 1st rounder Phillip Dorsett. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie, stealing snaps from Wayne and Nicks down the stretch. He was seen as a breakout candidate prior to the addition of Johnson in free agency and Dorsett through the draft, but now will only play a situational role this season at most, at least to start the season. Dorsett will also only play a situational role at most and was likely drafted with the future in mind. Dorsett is 5-10 185, ran a 4.33 at the combine, and has a skill set similar to TY Hilton did when the Colts drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Hilton is going into his contract year and is reportedly far apart with the Colts on a long-term deal. With a lot of talent and expensive players to keep under the cap long-term, the Colts likely see Hilton as expendable and Dorsett as his long-term replacement.

As for 2015, Hilton is locked in as the #1 receiver. Like his fellow draft classmate Andrew Luck, Hilton has improved in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, leading to a 2014 season in which he caught 82 passes on 123 attempts (66.7%) for 1346 yards and 7 touchdowns on 572 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He’s graded out 86th, 34th, and 10th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and should have another strong season this year, only his age 26 season. It’s definitely helped him to have played with Andrew Luck, but he’s a great receiver in his own right and someone who will make a lot of money on his next deal. That deal just might not come from the Colts.

With so much wide receiver depth, the Colts will probably use a bunch of 3-wide receiver sets this season, at the expense of two-tight end sets, which they ran a lot of last season, with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Allen’s the better of the two and has the better all-around game, which should earn him more playing time than Fleener. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, including 2nd among tight ends as a rookie, thanks to great all-around play. Allen missed all but 1 game and 30 snaps with injury in 2013 and wasn’t as good in 2014 as he was as a rookie, but he still graded out 9th among tight ends on 633 snaps in 13 games. He’s never had more than 45 catches in a season, but he’s still a solid tight end with decent hands and great blocking abilities at 6-3 255.

Fleener, meanwhile, has 103 catches over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average as a pass catcher in both seasons, but grading out below average as a run blocker in both seasons at 6-6 247. He’ll still have a role this season, but he won’t play the 812 snaps he did last season most likely, barring another injury to Allen. He’ll primarily play as a #2 tight end, coming in for the #3 receiver in two-tight end sets, helping the Colts effectively pass out of two-tight end sets. With their wide receivers going 4 deep, their tight ends going 2 deep, Andrew Luck under center, and limited talent at running back, expect the Colts to pass a ton this season, even when they have a lead, and probably even more than last season, when they had 661 pass attempts (1st in the NFL) to 415 rushes (17th in the NFL). Their passing game is simply, by far, their most effective way of moving the football.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Colts had a lot of injuries last season, 3rd most in the NFL in terms of adjusted games lost. That was the case in 2013 as well and arguably their most injury prone player (other than Vick Ballard) over that time period has been Donald Thomas. The Colts signed Thomas to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, which looked like a good idea at the time as Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked guard in 2012 in 7 starts with the Patriots and looked like a budding starter.

However, Thomas has played just 72 snaps in 2 seasons with the Colts, missing 30 games with injury, including all of last season. He’s already going into his age 30 season and who knows what kind of playing shape he will be in after two separate thigh tears, but he’s graded out above average in every season he’s played a snap since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He’s only made 21 starts in his career though and he’s not expected to be back until training camp at the earliest and, if he can’t nail down a starting job, the Colts could cut him to save 3.5 million in cash, 3.25 million of which will come off their cap immediately.

Thomas will be competing with Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz for the starting job. The former is a 2014 2nd round pick who graded out slightly above average as a rookie, making 13 starts at left guard and 2 starts at right tackle, where he spent the majority of his time in college at Ohio State. Reitz, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman who went undrafted in 2008 and who is going into his age 30 season. He didn’t play an offensive snap until the 2011 season and he graded out below average in both 2011 and 2012 on 544 and 479 snaps, but he graded out above average in both 2013 and 2014 on 149 and 277 snaps respectively. The Colts gave him a 3-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season so they clearly value him and his ability to play both guard and tackle.

One of Mewhort or Reitz could start the season at right tackle in 2015 if oft injured right tackle Gosder Cherilus can’t get healthy in time for the start of the season, after off-season knee surgery. Cherilus has had some good seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008 by the Lions, grading out above average in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, including 12th in 2012 and 26th in 2013. There’s a reason the Colts gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

However, he’s had major issues with his knees throughout his career, including microfracture surgery, and his recovery from this latest knee problem is taking a while. He’s also going into his age 31 season and coming off of a season in which he graded out 70th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Colts couldn’t cut him this off-season as it would have cost them 1.8 million on the cap, but he’ll need a very good season to justify a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, 4.1 million of which the Colts would save on the cap immediately.

At center, mediocre linemen Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Holmes will battle it out for the starting job. AQ Shipley actually started last season at center for the Colts, making the first 4 starts of the season and grading out 3rd among centers over that time period before being inexplicably benched for the rookie undrafted free agent Harrison, who made 10 starts and graded out 35th among 41 eligible centers. Holmes finished out the season there, making the final 2 starts, and is reportedly seen as the favorite to start there this season. However, the 2013 4th round pick has played just 193 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and likely wouldn’t be an upgrade. He struggled in those 2 starts last season. Shipley, their only competent center last year, was let go and could start in Arizona this season.

The other two spots, right guard and left tackle, seem pretty settled. At right guard, Todd Herremans should start, after signing a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Philadelphia. Herremans is an accomplished veteran who has made 124 starts for the Eagles over the past 10 years since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2005, but he missed 8 games with injury in 2014 (making it 16 games missed over the last 3 seasons) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked guard out of 78 eligible.

Herremans was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2013, so he could bounce back in 2015, but he’s also going into his age 33 season. Also, the only reason Herremans graded out so high overall in 2013 was because he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in run blocking. He struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 79th out of 81 eligible in that aspect. In fact, Herremans hasn’t graded out above average in pass protection since 2009. He’s still a capable run blocker, but pass protection is more important in today’s NFL and it’s an area that Herremans has major issues in, especially at this stage of his career. The Colts are hoping he can at least be an upgrade over Hugh Thornton and Lance Louis, who played 584 and 543 snaps respectively and graded out 48th and 62nd among 78 eligible guards respectively.

Meanwhile at left tackle, Anthony Costanzo is locked into the spot where he’s been since the Colts drafted him in the 1st round in 2011, making 60 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12th among offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Assuming Cherilus misses some time with injury, I expect their offensive line to be (from left to right) Castonzo, Mewhort/Reitz, Holmes/Harrison, Herremans, and Reitz/Mewhort to start the season, with Reitz moving into a super-sub 6th offensive lineman role when Cherilus returns. Reitz could still see significant action at either right tackle or right guard if Herremans or Cherilus get hurt again or struggle more. It’s a below average offensive line overall I think.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On the defensive line in the Colts 3-4 defense, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois led the way in snaps played with 757 and 647 respectively last season. Both graded out above average, even if only slightly, but both are gone, the former signing in Arizona as a free agent and the latter getting cut ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing in Washington. The Colts brought Kendall Langford in as a free agent on a 4-year, 17.2 million dollar deal, coming over from St. Louis, to replace Redding.

Langford was cut by the Rams this off-season, but it wasn’t because he played badly last season. They cut him because his 6 million dollar salary was too much to pay for a 3rd defensive tackle. Langford graded out about average last season, but only saw 494 snaps as he was stuck behind recent 1st round picks Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. The Colts get him at less than 6 million annually and he’s still a starting caliber player, only going into his age 29 season. I like Langford in a 3-4 more than a 4-3 anyway. He had some success in St. Louis’ 4-3, but graded out below average twice in three seasons. In a 3-4 to start his career in Miami, he graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 7th at his position in 2009 and then 7th again in 2010. He might not be an upgrade over what Redding was last season, but he’s a lot younger than Redding so he’s better long-term.

Opposite Langford, the Colts are hoping to get more out of Arthur Jones, who they signed to a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal last off-season. Jones was limited to 371 snaps in 9 games by an ankle injury last season and really struggled when on the field, grading out 40th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends, despite the limited playing time. Now healthy, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also a one-year wonder. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in his career, the contract year of his rookie deal in 2013, which is why the Colts gave him such a large contract. He graded out 12th among 3-4 defensive ends that season, but it’s very possible the Colts made a big financial mistake giving that much money to a one-year wonder. We’ll see if he can come close to replicating that season in 2015. He’ll start opposite Langford, with 3rd round rookie Henry Anderson seeing a decent amount of action as a reserve.

Starting between them at nose tackle will be the 6-1 316 pound Josh Chapman, purely a two-down player. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but played 243 in 2013 and 385 in 2014. He graded out above average against the run in each of those 2 seasons, but below average overall because of his complete incompetence as a pass rusher. He’s good in his current role, but is a limited player. The Colts also have a pair of big defensive linemen, Montori Hughes and Zach Kerr, who will see limited action across the defensive line in base packages. Hughes, 6-4 335, has seen 272 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2013, while Kerr, 6-2 335, graded out below average on 289 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Like on offense, they’re mediocre in the trenches defensively.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Sticking with their theme of adding 30+ veterans, the Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. However, unlike Johnson and Gore, Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.

Bjoern Werner (762 snaps) and Erik Walden (669 snaps) led the team in snaps at the 3-4 outside linebacker position last season and both struggled. Werner was a 1st round pick by the Colts in 2013, but has largely been a bust thus far, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, culminating in him being a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship game last season. There’s still time for him to turn it around and he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Cole, but he’s unclear if he can do that. A better run stopper than pass rusher, he’s someone who could benefit from seeing only base package snaps, something the Colts have the outside linebacker depth to do.

Walden, meanwhile, is a 2008 6th round pick who hasn’t graded out above average once in 7 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been as bad in Indianapolis as he was in his final 2 seasons in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons, but he hasn’t been worth the undeserved 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Colts gave him two off-seasons ago. Going into his age 30 season, he’s not going to get better going forward.

Like Werner, Walden also probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season as he did last season and could be purely a rotational reserve. There are three reasons for that and the first and most obvious one is the arrival of Cole. The second reason is that Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 397 snaps as a rookie and deserves a bigger role, especially on passing downs. He should siphon off a fair amount of pass rush snaps that previously went to Walden and Werner.

The third reason is that the Colts expect to get more out of Robert Mathis this season than they did last season. Of course, that’s not going to be hard, considering Mathis missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. What’s still unclear is how much they’re going to get out of him and how good he’s going to be. Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker the last time he played in 2013 and he graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, but he’s now going into his age 34 season, coming off of a serious injury and, as good as he was in 2013, he did grade out below average in 2012, so he had shown some signs of aging even prior to the injury.

His recovery from the injury reportedly hasn’t been going great, not a surprise considering his age, and he’s unlikely to be ready for training camp, which would put him in a race to play week 1 and make him a candidate to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and miss the first 6 games of the season. The addition of Cole suggests that they aren’t too confident in him. Even before the injury, he was never a very good player against the run, grading out below average against the run in 4 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, so, when he returns, he should be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages. If the Colts can get 10 games of above average pass rush from him in a situational role, they should consider that a win.

The Colts struggled at middle linebacker last season, as Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson graded out 39th and 46th respectively among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The Colts signed Nate Irving to a 3-year, 7.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he should play at least a situational role at middle linebacker this season. A 2011 3rd round pick of the Broncos, Irving never played more than 353 snaps in a season in Denver, but graded out above average overall in each of the last 2 seasons and above average against the run in each of the last 3 seasons.

In 2014, he graded out 22nd among middle linebackers, including 12th against the run, on 353 snaps, before going down for the season with a torn ACL after week 9. Through 9 weeks, he ranked 4th against the run. His recovery is going well and he should be ready for week 1, 10 months removed from the injury. He should play at least a situational base package role against the run and, unless he struggles in his first year back from the torn ACL, he should be an asset for them in that role.

Irving’s snaps in base packages should come at the expense of Freeman, an undersized middle linebacker at 6-0 220 who graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in coverage last season, but 59th out of 60 eligible against the run. This isn’t anything new. In 3 seasons in the league since coming over from the CFL, he’s graded out above average in coverage twice, but he’s never graded out above average against the run. Going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, though in a role that better suits his skill set.

Jackson will remain an every down player, which could definitely be a problem again. Jackson was a solid player when he was younger, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in his final season in Cleveland in 2013 and then 46th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in his first season in Indianapolis in 2014. Things probably won’t get better as he enters his age 32 season in 2015 and he’ll need a strong season to justify a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. There’s depth in this linebacking corps and guys who can play roles, but they’re only an average linebacking unit at best.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the front 7 struggled last season, the Colts still performed well overall defensively because of great play from their secondary (poor competition also helped). Cornerback Vontae Davis was their 2nd most important player last season, behind Andrew Luck and ahead of TY Hilton. Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2009, but, when Joe Philbin’s coaching staff came in before the 2012 season, they felt he was out of shape, benched him, and put him on the trade block. Even though Davis had graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league (29th, 13th, and 39th) and even though he was still very young (only going into his age 24 season in 2012), they shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd and a 6th round pick before the 2012 season.

It looked like the Dolphins had won the trade at first, as Davis graded out below average in his first season in Indianapolis and missed 6 games with injury, which seemed to give some truth to the accusations that he was out of shape. However, Davis has developed into one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2nd among cornerbacks in 2014. He joins Darrelle Revis as one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-4 in each of those 2 seasons.

The Colts signed him to a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, risky considering his history of injuries (10 games missed from 2011-2012) and inconsistency, but now that deal looks like a steal after he backed up an incredible 2013 season by doing it again in 2014. He heads into his age 27 season having graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and as one of the best defensive players in the game, living up to his first round talent and then some. Still in the prime of his career, I expect nothing less than another dominant season from him again in 2015.

Mike Adams also had a dominant season in for the Colts in the secondary last season, but his was much more surprising. Adams graded out 7th among safeties in 2014 and made his first Pro Bowl, even though it looked like his career was over until the Colts signed him in June of last year. He wasn’t left unsigned because he played badly prior to last season, as he was a solid starter in 2011, 2012, and 2013, grading out above average in 2011 and 2012 and only slightly below average in 2013. He was left unsigned because of age, as he was going into his age 33 season. He was able to dominate in spite of that last season, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to repeat the best season of his career in his age 34 season in 2015. Still, there’s a good chance that he is an above average starter again and once again proves to be a good value. The Colts re-signed him to a very reasonable 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal this off-season.

The Colts have another good value at the other safety spot, as they signed Dwight Lowery to a veteran’s minimum contract this off-season. Lowery has always been a solid starting safety when healthy. The Falcons signed Lowery cheap last off-season, but there was a reason he was available so cheap, even though he graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 18th among safeties in 2012. Lowery missed 20 games in 2012-2013 combined and he hadn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008.

Lowery proved to be a smart signing by the Falcons, as he graded out above average again and, more importantly, made all 16 starts. His health is still a concern long-term, but, if healthy, he should once again prove to be a smart signing, this time by the Colts. I expected him to draw more interest in the open market after he managed to stay healthy last season, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Colts will be the beneficiary of that. The Colts also used a 4th round pick on Clayton Geathers, who would see action at safety if Lowery gets hurt or Adams seriously declines. He’s also seen action in sub packages at middle linebacker this off-season and could see some action there this season in place of D’Qwell Jackson, who didn’t play well in coverage last season. The 6-2 218 pound Geathers has the size to play around the line of scrimmage in the right situation and could see a decent amount of action as a rookie (300-500 snaps) if everything goes right for him.

The rest of the secondary is a little bit more suspect as the Colts don’t have great cornerback depth behind Davis. Greg Toler figures to be their other starting cornerback again this season, but he graded out 99th among 108 eligible cornerbacks last season. The 2009 4th round pick has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 34 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league, and has graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, with his worst season coming last season. I don’t think he’ll get better, going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Darius Butler, meanwhile, will be the 3rd cornerback again. Butler was a 2nd round bust of the Patriots in 2009 and bounced around from the Patriots to the Panthers to the Colts by 2012. Butler graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but had the best season of his career in 2012 with the Colts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked cornerback on 380 snaps, earning a 2-year deal worth 4 million that off-season. Butler remained inconsistent though, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Butler has never played more than 704 snaps in a season, has averaged 501 snaps a season, and has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL. The Colts re-signed him to a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s little more than a depth cornerback.

They also brought in D’Joun Smith in the 3rd round of the draft. He could push either Toler or Butler for playing time, but probably won’t see a significant role until 2016. As a rookie, I expect him to be the 4th cornerback. The Colts’ secondary is definitely the best part of this defense once again. It’s hard to figure out how the Colts’ defense had a strong performance overall last season from looking at the talent, except for they played such a bad schedule, and their defense doesn’t seem to be too much more talented this season. Their competition should be somewhat stronger this season, which will hurt them, and their defense should be closer to the middle of the pack this season.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It might not seem like it, but the Colts are in win now mode. With Luck’s impending record extension, impending free agency for guys like TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Anthony Castonzo, among others, 32 million in cap space for 2016 currently (at a projected cap of 150 million), and 10 key players going into their age 30+ season (Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Todd Herremans, Gosder Cherilus, Joe Reitz, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, Mike Adams, Greg Toler), this season is probably going to be the best chance the Colts have at a Super Bowl victory for a few seasons.

They’re going to be very good in certain areas. They have a great quarterback and a talented receiving corps and secondary. Trent Cole is better than any pass rusher they had last season and they should have better health than they had last season. As a result, they should be good at moving the chains through the air and stopping the pass. However, they still will have major issues running the ball, blocking on the offensive line, and stopping the run.

They made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but that was because they lucked out and caught the Broncos at the right time, before getting crushed in the AFC Championship 45-7 in New England. New England, Baltimore, and Denver were all better than they were last season in terms of rate of moving the chains differential and I think that should continue this season, especially with the Colts’ division gaining on them at least somewhat. They’re on my Super Bowl short list, but I think they ultimately come up short. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Colts after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): I have the Colts getting the AFC’s #1 seed, but I actually think they’re like the 4th or 5th best team in the AFC (behind the likes of Baltimore, Miami, Denver, and maybe New England). They just have such an easy schedule. They could definitely be exposed in the playoffs again though, especially with Arthur Jones out for the season. They were counting on him to shore up this front 7 and this run defense.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC South

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Detroit Lions 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions underachieved in terms of wins and losses in both 2012 and 2013, going 11-21. However, that was largely as a result of a 6-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -25 turnover margin, and a -10 return touchdown margin. Those things tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and, in 2014, everything swung the other way with the Lions. They went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had a +7 turnover margin, and had a +1 return touchdown margin. As a result, they went 11-5, but ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, after going 7-9 and ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013. As weird as this sounds, the Lions were worse in 2014 than 2013, despite their record. There’s a reason why their over/under win total is only 8.5 at sports betting site sportsbook.ag. Many think they’re due for a regression.

One of the big reasons why they weren’t as good in 2014 as they were in 2013 was quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford, who graded out 7th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 7th in 2013, graded out below average in 2014, coming in 22nd out of 39 eligible, all rankings from Pro Football Focus. The 1st overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has shaken off early career injury issues and made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has generally played pretty well, so there’s bounce back potential here. That would go a long way in fixing an offense that was way more the problem than the solution in 2015, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. In 2013, they were 10th, which I think is a reasonable goal for this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

An offensive line that struggled in 2014, after playing great in 2013, was also part of the problem. In 2013, they ranked 6th in team pass blocking grade and 16th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. In 2014, those rankings fell to 16th and 18th respectively. The Lions underwent some changes upfront on the offensive line this off-season, letting left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola go, going into their age 32 and age 37 seasons respectively. Both graded out below average last season, Sims grading out slightly below average and Raiola grading out 37th among 41 eligible centers.

Sims will be replaced by first round rookie Laken Tomlinson, who could be a steal of the first round, after dominating at Duke with, largely with a combination of intelligence and technique. Meanwhile, Travis Swanson will take over for Raiola. He struggled at guard as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 on 277 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, but he could be better back at his natural position of center. He played decently there in a week 17 start, in place of a suspended Raiola, but he’s obviously hard to trust.

The Lions did not let right tackle LaAdrian Waddle go this off-season or anything, but his status is still in doubt for the start of the season, as he recovers from a week 15 ACL tear. Waddle played well as an undrafted rookie in 2013, making 8 starts down the stretch and grading out 30th among offensive tackles on 553 snaps, but had a little bit of a sophomore slump. Waddle went into the season as the starter this time, but missed 6 games with injuries, including, eventually, that torn ACL. He still graded out above average on 561 snaps, but wasn’t as good as he was in 2013. The Lions are hoping he can be back for week 1, just 9 months after the injury, and that he can play all 16 games and play well, but that might not happen. Cornelius Lucas would be his replacement if needed, but he struggled on 455 snaps in Waddle’s absence last season as an undrafted rookie.

Another player who had a relative sophomore slump was 2013 3rd round pick Larry Warford. Warford had a fantastic rookie year in 2013, grading out 4th among guards and not missing a single snap. However, in 2014, Warford missed 3 games with injury and “only” graded out 16th among guards. That certainly wasn’t bad, but the Lions will be hoping for a bounce back year from a player who is a young building block. He’s much more likely to bounce back than Waddle, simply because he’s not recovering from a torn ACL.

On this young offensive line, Riley Reiff is actually the most experienced one and he’s only going into his 4th season in the league. The 2012 1st round pick flashed on 336 snaps as a backup during his rookie season, but has made 31 out 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out slightly below average in 2013, but ranked 23rd among offensive tackles in 2014. He’s an ascending player on a young offensive line that has a lot of upside, but that probably won’t reach it for at least a year or two. They’ll probably be better upfront than they were last season though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Lions also struggled to run the ball in 2014, averaging 3.59 yards per carry as a team, 29th in the NFL. They weren’t a great running team in 2013, when they averaged 4.03 yards per carry, but they were noticeably worse in 2014. You can’t really blame the offensive line here, as they weren’t horrible at run blocking last season, nor were they great at run blocking in 2013. In 2013, Reggie Bush was the lead back, rushing for 1006 yards and 4 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 4.51 YPC, while backup Joique Bell rushed for 650 yards and 8 touchdowns on 166 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC.

With Bush aging, the Lions made Bell the starter in 2014. His YPC didn’t look good in 2013, but he graded out 10th among running backs because of his passing down abilities and he also picked up 43 first downs on those 166 carries, a good ratio. 2014 was a different story for him. He rushed for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, similar to 2013, but he only picked up 43 first downs on 223 carries. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, but ended up grading out below average overall because he didn’t run well. Though he only missed 1 game with injury, a variety of nagging injuries were blamed as the culprit. Bush, meanwhile, was limited to 11 games by injury and rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries, an average of 3.91 YPC, though he did add 40 catches, 3rd on the team.

Bush signed in San Francisco this off-season, while Bell heads into his age 29 season with a career 4.08 YPC average. He’s been a better runner than that suggests for the most part and he does add value on passing downs, but he’ll have to compete with 2nd round rookie Ameer Abdullah to keep his job. Abdullah has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush for his speed and pass catching abilities. He should start the season as a complement to Bell, working in rotation, and, like in 2013 when Bush and Bell caught a combined 107 passes, there should be plenty of opportunity for both to get involved in the passing game. Abdullah will eventually overtake Bell as the starter though. It’s just a question of if he’ll do that before this season starts, during the season, or in 2016 and beyond. They’re hoping that the combination of Bell and Abdullah will get them out of the cellar in YPC, where they were last season.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Lions didn’t have a significant amount of injuries on either side of the ball last season, finishing in the middle of the pack in adjusted games lost, both offensively and defensively. However, they did have some significant injuries to very important players and that definitely had a noticeable effect on this team. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed 3 games and was a decoy in another 2 (catching just 3 passes for 19 yards) because of a severely sprained ankle. In the 11 games he played healthy, the Lions moved the chains at a 72.59% rate, as opposed to 68.92% in the other 5 games.

I think we can attribute most of that to Megatron. When healthy, he still put up great numbers, catching 68 passes for 1056 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games, which extrapolates to 99 catches for 1536 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those are absurd numbers, but Johnson averaged 95 catches for 1564 yards and 11 touchdowns per season from 2010-2013, so those numbers are just another day at the office for him. He “only” averaged 2.29 yards per route run in 2014, but, if you take out the 2 weeks he played hurt, that average becomes 2.46. From 2010-2013, he averaged 2.37 yards per route run, best in the NFL over that time period.

Despite playing two games at significantly less than 100% last season, Johnson still finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver on 705 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. If you throw out the weeks he was hurt, he graded out 3rd among wide receivers. Johnson graded out in the top-5 among wide receivers in every season from 2010-2013, something no one else can say, and now he’s graded out in the top-7 in each of the last 5 seasons, again something no one else can say. There are some people who think that, with Johnson going into his age 30 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, that we’re starting to see the beginning of a decline with him. That may be true and guys like Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and even Dez Bryant may be better than him, but he’s still one of the best players in the NFL and having him healthy all season will be a big boost to this team.

The one thing that was better for the Lions offensively in 2014 was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.

That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

The problem is the Lions really didn’t have a good 3rd option in the passing game last season, leaving them really top heavy and very vulnerable if an injury like Johnson’s hit. There’s a reason Bush was 3rd on the team with 40 catches, despite only playing 11 games and despite being a backup running back. Jeremy Ross was their #3 wide receiver last season and actually played the 2nd most snaps among Lion wide receivers last season, because of Johnson’s injury.

Ross graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 723 snaps, 107th in pure pass catching grade. The 2011 undrafted free agent played just 190 snaps in his career prior to last season and has never graded out above average. He probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season, as long as Tate and Johnson stay healthy, but he’s a bad insurance option. He’ll have to hold off Corey Fuller, a 2013 6th round pick who graded out below average on 405 snaps last season in his first career action, and TJ Jones, a 2014 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, for the job. The 3rd receiver spot remains a serious weakness for the Lions.

By far the Lions’ best option to step up and be a reliable 3rd option in the passing game for them (aside from running backs Bell and Abdullah) is tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but struggled mightily as a rookie, catching just 25 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown and grading out 45th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 452 snaps. However, the Lions knew he’d be raw when they drafted him and he still has great upside. A young rookie, Ebron is only going into his age 22 season and ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine. He should take over the starting tight end job from incumbent veteran Brandon Pettigrew and play at least 600-700 snaps this season. The Lions will be happy with 50 catches from him in 2015.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, was horrible last season, in the first year of an ill-advised 4-year, 16 million dollar contract that the Lions re-signed him to last off-season. He graded out 57th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 598 snaps last season and caught just 10 passes for 70 yards, giving him a position worst 0.34 yards per route run. He’s a solid blocker at 6-5 263, but didn’t even play that well in that aspect last season. The 2009 1st round pick has been a bust through 6 seasons, grading out below average as a pass catcher in all 6 seasons and grading out below average overall in each of the last 4 seasons. Already going into his age 30 season, Pettigrew will play a complementary, situational role this season. The only reason he’s on the roster still is because his 2.8 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed. It’s a talented receiving corps, but still not a very deep one.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Lions’ offense should be better this season, their defense could be a lot worse, after finishing 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season. That’s because they had a ton of losses on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley were their top-3 defensive tackles last season and all 3 of them left as a free agent. Also gone is defensive end George Johnson, who played 502 snaps in a situational role last season. They were unable to really do much to replace them.

Suh will be the biggest loss as he was Pro Football Focus 3rd ranked defensive tackle last season and one of two defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy) to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the last 3 seasons. He signed a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. The losses of Fairley, Mosley, and Johnson will hurt though too. Fairley and Mosley graded out 18th and 26th respectively among defensive tackles on 297 and 503 snaps respectively, while George Johnson graded 24th among 4-3 defensive ends (including 15th in pure pass rush grade) on 502 snaps.

The Lions brought in Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker at defensive tackle. They’re not bad players, but they’re a clear downgrade. Ngata comes over in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.

Walker isn’t nearly as established as Ngata, getting non-tendered by the Saints this off-season as a restricted free agent, rather than being paid 1.54 million, but he’s flashed in limited action thus far in his career and could be a steal for the Lions on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. The 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 119 snaps in 2013 and then 308 snaps last year, grading out 21st among defensive tackles last season, despite the limited action.

The 6-3 294 pounder played both defensive end and defensive tackle in New Orleans and will be a pure 3-technique defensive tackle in Detroit. It’s unfair to assume that he’ll definitely have a breakout season in his first season as a starter, because he’s so unproven, but he has potential and he could be a big time steal. The Saints could be kicking themselves for letting him go. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive tackle are 4th round rookie Gabe Wright, 2014 5th round pick Caraun Reid, who struggled on 112 snaps as a rookie last season, and starting defensive end Jason Jones, who has the size to play inside on passing downs.

Jones and fellow starting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah remain. Ansah was the 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but broke out in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. The Lions are obviously hoping that he can, not only continue that strong play, but become even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015. With so many losses along the defensive line, he becomes even more important to this team.

Jones, however, is not nearly as good. He was signed to a 3-year, 9.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago by the Lions, but he was limited to 87 snaps in 2013 by a torn patellar tendon and then graded out 47th out of 59 eligible this season as a starter. He played the run pretty well, but didn’t offer anything as a pass rusher. The Lions could have cut him to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space this off-season, but opted to bring him back, largely because they couldn’t afford to lose more experience on the defensive line. He’s had more career success at defensive tackle than defensive end so the Lions could use him more inside more on passing downs this season, with an opportunity open. In his career as a defensive tackle, the 6-3 274 pounder has graded out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and also graded out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his only season as a starter at defensive tackle in 2010.

As a defensive end, he hasn’t been nearly as good, including 2011 season in which he graded out 62nd among 67 eligible and last year’s poor play. Regardless of whether or not he moves inside in sub packages, he won’t be seeing many sub packages, if any, at defensive end, so the Lions will need someone to step up into George Johnson’s old spot. The candidates aren’t great. They include Devin Taylor, a 2013 4th round pick who has struggled on 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and Larry Webster, a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a single snap as a rookie.

Kyle Van Noy, a 2014 2nd round pick, is also in the mix. The 6-3 252 pounder was supposed to be a starting outside linebacker/defensive end last season, playing the Von Miller role, outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. However, he was limited to 51 snaps in 8 games by injuries. Even when he was healthy, he didn’t play much because he hadn’t gotten the system down (thanks to a lot of missed practice time with injury) and there were other guys ahead of him for snaps that were playing well. This season, with guys gone, he could see snaps on passing downs at defensive end. It’s certainly not the same defensive line as it’s been in recent years, but there is still talent here, though the depth is weak.

Grade: B

Linebackers

On offense, the major injury was to Calvin Johnson. On defense, it was to talented middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who looked on his way to another strong season before tearing his ACL week 3, which ended his season after 130 snaps. Tulloch graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in 2013, 6th among middle linebackers in 2011, and has graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He could bounce back, but he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of a serious injury, and he’s had problems with his knee before (in 2012, the only season he graded out below average, it was because he played through a serious knee problem). Given that, him bouncing back is not such a sure thing, but it will be good to have him back.

Tahir Whitehead played middle linebacker in his absence and played pretty well, struggling in coverage, but doing a good enough job against the run to grade out above average overall. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker against the run. With Tulloch gone, Whitehead will move to his natural position of outside linebacker and compete for the pure base package outside linebacker role with Van Noy, which better fits his skill set, as it’ll allow him to focus on the run and not have to drop in coverage as often. Even though he’s unproven, going undrafted in 2012 and never playing a single defensive snap before last season, he should be considered the heavy favorite for that role.

At the other outside linebacker spot, the every down spot, DeAndre Levy remains and might be the Lions’ best defensive player now, with Suh gone and Tulloch coming off of an injury. Levy has been a starter since the Lions drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009, making 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons. The Lions re-signed him two off-seasons ago anyway, bringing him back on a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar deal, and that’s been an absolute steal as Levy has broken to be a late bloomer.

He’s graded out 9th and 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively and is one of the best in the game at his position. I don’t expect anything else from him in 2015, still only his age 28 season. Levy is going into his contract year and the Lions would obviously like to lock him up ahead of that. Whether he gets paid now or next off-season on the open market, you can bet someone will pay a lot more money for his services than the Lions did two off-seasons ago. He and Tulloch make a great pair of every down linebackers, while Whitehead fits well in the two down role, meaning this is one of the most complete set of 4-3 linebackers in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

While all of the Lions’ losses on the defensive line will hurt them, the defensive line wasn’t the only area where the Lions had success defensively last season, as evidenced by their strong linebacking corps. They also had a strong secondary last season, as both starters at both cornerback and safety graded out above average. We’ll see if they can do that again this season as they have a pair of aging veterans in the secondary. Safety James Ihedigbo heads into his age 32 season, while cornerback Rashean Mathis heads into his age 35 season.

Mathis is in the more precarious position age wise. Rashean Mathis looked done 2 years ago, after the 2012 season, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he’s turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 12th in 2014. We’ll see how long that lasts, but he’s a nice stopgap starter and is once again a bargain on a 2-year, 3.5 million dollar deal the Lions gave him this off-season.

The problem is the Lions don’t really have any good depth behind him. It’s unclear who the 3rd cornerback will be, as youngsters Nevin Lawson and Alex Carter, along with journeymen veterans Josh Wilson and Chris Owens will compete for that job. Lawson is a 2014 4th round pick who struggled on 63 snaps as a rookie, before dislocating his ankle, while Carter is a 3rd round rookie. Owens was Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible last season in Kansas City on 500 snaps, though he has been better in the past, grading out above average in both 2012 and 2013. He’s graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 (2010 was the other season), though he’s maxed out at 545 snaps. He’s a decent depth cornerback at best.

Wilson, meanwhile, comes over from Atlanta. It’s hard to believe that Josh Wilson was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2010. Wilson has never done anything like that other than that season, but he did grade out above average in each of the first 6 seasons of his career, from 2007-2012. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and is arguably coming off of the worst season of his career in 2014, grading out 75th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 458 snaps. That’s not a good trend, as he goes into his age 30 season. Like Owens, he’s a decent depth cornerback at best. It’s not a horrible quartet of cornerbacks, but there isn’t a clear good choice for the 3rd cornerback job (Nevin Lawson is reportedly the favorite) and some of these guys won’t even make the roster.

While Mathis is heading nearing the end of his career, fellow starting cornerback Darius Slay is just going into his prime and coming off of a strong season. The 2013 2nd round pick really struggled on 353 snaps as a rookie, but had a breakout year in 2014, making all 16 starts and grading out 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 24 season, the Lions are hoping that Slay can continue his development, become a true #1 cornerback, and one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He certainly has the potential and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he’s still the Lions’ best cornerback and a real asset to this team.

Ihedigbo is also locked into a starting job, despite his age. A late bloomer, Ihedigbo only graded out above average once from 2007-2012, after going undrafted in 2007, and never made more than 12 starts in a season during that time period. However, he’s made 29 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 15th among safeties in 2013 in Baltimore and 14th among safeties in 2014 in Detroit, who signed him to a 2-year, 3.15 million dollar deal last off-season. Unhappy with his contract (owed just 1.6 million in 2015), Ihedigbo skipped some voluntary workouts this off-season, sensing that, given his age, this was the best chance he was going to get to cash in. He came gave up on that pretty quickly though and will be on the field this season. If he can continue his strong play, he could get a decent amount of money on a short-term deal next off-season, but that’s not necessarily going to happen, given his history and his age.

At the other safety spot is Glover Quin, who is probably their best defensive back. Quin, a 2009 4th round pick, has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, 1 at cornerback (2010), and the last 4 at safety. He’s been especially good since signing a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar deal with the Lions two off-seasons ago, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among safeties in those 2 seasons and making all 32 starts. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He’s a one year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant safety he was last season, but he’s still one of the best players on a defense that won’t be as good as it was last season thanks to off-season losses, but that will still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

In 2012 and 2013, the Lions were significantly better than their record. In 2014, they were significantly worse than their record and worse than they were in 2013, when they won 4 fewer games. This season could be a case of the team playing better, but winning fewer games. The offense definitely has bounce back potential (thanks to Matt Stafford’s bounce back potential and a presumably healthy Calvin Johnson) and could be closer to the top-10 offense they were in 2013.

However, the defense sustained a lot of losses on the defensive line and probably won’t be as good as they were in 2014, when they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They’ll probably be better than 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, where they were last season, but that might not translate to another playoff appearance. They’re one of the teams that will be in the mix for a wild card spot, but they’re squarely behind Green Bay in the division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Lions after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC North

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Minnesota Vikings 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings seem to have struck gold with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. After using the 9th overall pick on Anthony Barr (also a good pickup), the Vikings looked like they would head into day 2 with only Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Instead, they moved up from the 2nd round to grab quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sliding down the board, but likely wouldn’t have been available at the Vikings’ original 2nd round pick. Bridgewater had a fantastic college career and a lot of great tape, but concerns about his size, deep accuracy, and his poor Pro Day knocked him down boards.

The Vikings’ gain is the rest of the league’s loss. The Jaguars picked Blake Bortles 3rd overall over Bridgewater and the Browns picked Johnny Manziel 22nd over Bridgewater, despite spending 100K on a study that told them that Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the draft class (because Browns). Both of those quarterbacks struggled mightily as rookies and the latter’s career could be over before it starts if he doesn’t get his act together on and off the field. On top of that, there are several other teams that had a chance to draft Bridgewater in the first round (or trade back up into the first round) that probably would prefer Bridgewater to their current quarterback, including the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, the Jets, Houston, Oakland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia etc.

As a rookie, Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, rushed for 209 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries (4.45 YPC), graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, and ranked 15th among eligible quarterbacks. It’s important not to get too ahead of ourselves with Bridgewater, as he has a long way to go to become a proven franchise quarterback, but the future looks bright for the quarterback who is only going into his age 23 season. He certainly seems to have the brightest future of any quarterback in last year’s draft class and he definitely was the best of any rookie quarterback in the NFL last season.

The Vikings only ranked 24th in rate of moving the chains last season, but they were significantly better in the 12 games that Bridgewater started, moving the chains at a 70.52% rate, as opposed to 66.36% in their other 4 games. They were also significantly better in their final 6 games of the season, moving the chains at a 72.29% rate. Over those 6 games, Bridgewater completed 68.9% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while grading out 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus over that time period. It really seemed like something clicked for the rookie. You can’t necessarily extrapolate those 6 games to a whole career or even to the 2015 season, but I think there’s a very good chance that Bridgewater is better in his 2nd year in the league than he was in his first.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The one thing that Teddy Bridgewater will have this season that he didn’t last season is future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, who missed 15 games last season with team suspension, after getting arrested for child abuse after week 1. In his absence, Matt Asiata led the team in carries with 164, but only turned them into 570 yards (though 9 touchdowns), an average of 3.48 yards per carry. He graded out 56th among 57 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus as a result.

Jerick McKinnon, a 3rd round rookie, was better, rushing for 538 yards on 113 carries, an average of 4.76 yards per carry. He graded out above average as a runner, but below average overall because of his struggles on passing downs. His struggles on passing downs caused him to drop to the 3rd round in the first place, but he’s a good runner. His strong YPC average last season was part of the reason that the Vikings averaged 4.36 yards per carry on the season overall (11th in the NFL), despite Asiata’s struggles. On top of that, they had some fluky long runs, as the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Andrew Sendejo, and Jerome Felton all had 20+ yard runs. That’s two wide receivers, a fullback, and a safety.

Peterson will be a big boost to this offense, but you shouldn’t expect him to be the same back who rushed for 2000+ yards in 2012. As good as he’s been throughout his 8-year career, he’s only rushed for 1400+ yards twice and never in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, following that 2000+ yard year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 yards per carry, good, but not incredible. He barely played last season, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, and now he’s going into his age 30 season with 2054 career carries. He ranks 28th all-time in rushing yards with 10,190, but, of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He could be fresh off of a season off, but he could just as easily be rusty.

He should still be a big asset for them, as he ranked in the top-11 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, the only running back in the NFL who can say that. The Vikings will probably still give him 300+ carries as long as he stays on the field, because Norv Turner has always preferred feature backs who frequently carry the ball 20 times per game, but there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will average more yards per carry than they did last season, when they averaged 4.36 yards per carry. They will probably be more consistent on the ground though and pick up more than 90 rushing first downs on the season. McKinnon will work as a strict backup and probably only on running downs because he doesn’t possess any passing down abilities, though Peterson isn’t that good on passing downs either (neither is Asiata for that matter).

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t nearly as good in 2014 as it was in 2013, even though they returned the same starting 5. They weren’t bad as run blockers, grading out 10th in team run blocking grade, but they ranked 25th in team pass blocking grade, after grading out 7th in that aspect in 2013. The biggest culprit was injuries. After their starting 5 missed a combined 3 games with injury in 2013, they missed 20 games with injury upfront in 2014.

The biggest loss in terms of sheer games was right guard Brandon Fusco, who was limited to 176 snaps in 3 games by a torn pectoral. Fusco graded out 8th among guards in 2013 when healthy, earning him a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s still a one year wonder, who graded out 73rd among 81 eligible guards in 2012 in his first season as a starter, but having him back and healthy will be good for this team. Joe Berger was decent on 626 snaps last season, but Vladimir Ducasse struggled mightily on 417 snaps, grading out 61st among 78 eligible guards.

Left guard Charlie Johnson also missed 2 games with injury so Joe Berger also played a little bit there last season. Johnson is gone, after grading out 56th among 78 eligible guards last season, so Berger could start there this season. Berger has actually never graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, as a super-utility man, playing left guard, right guard, and center, but he’s also only made 38 starts over that time period. He’s also going into his age 33 season, though he could still be decent this season. Long-term, he’ll face competition from 2015 4th round pick TJ Clemmings, who was seen as a 2nd round pick before a pre-draft foot injury. Berger is the favorite in my mind, with 2014 5th round pick David Yankey, who didn’t play a snap a rookie, also in the mix.

Right tackle Phil Loadholt missed 5 games with injury last season, which was a big loss, as backup Michael Harris struggled on 376 snaps in his absence. Loadholt graded out only slightly above average last season in 11 games, though he’s been better in the past. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL, including the last 4. In 2012 and 2013 respectively, he finished 21st and 11th among offensive tackles, proving himself as one of the best right tackles in the game. Only going into his age 29 season, he should bounce back to at least have a solid year in 2015.

On the other side of the offensive tackle, Matt Kalil made all 16 starts, but he was horrific. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft had a great rookie year, grading out 21st at his position. He slipped to 51st in 2013, but a knee injury was blamed as the culprit. I don’t know what happened in 2014 though, as he graded out 81st out of 84 eligible, allowing 12 sacks and committing 12 penalties. He had more knee problems (though he’s never missed a game with injury), but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever bounce back. The Vikings picked up his 11.09 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s only guaranteed for injury, so his future with the Vikings is definitely not secure. They really need him to play well, but he’s highly unlikely to live up to such a large scheduled salary.

The only Viking offensive lineman who started all 16 games and played well was center John Sullivan, who graded out 12th among centers in 2014. He’s been better in the past though and, only going into his age 30 season, I think he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. The 2008 6th round pick was a late bloomer, not really coming around until his 4th season in the league in 2011, but he graded out 3rd that year, 1st in 2012, and 3rd in 2013, meaning last season was actually a down season for him. He’s made 63 out of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and should remain a valuable asset in the middle of their offensive line. They can’t count on being as healthy on the offensive line as they were in 2013, but they should be healthier than they were in 2014 and I think Joe Berger (assuming he wins the job) is probably an upgrade on Charlie Johnson, so things are looking up on the offensive line.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The offensive line wasn’t the only place the Vikings had significant injuries on offense last season as they had the 10th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph missed 7 games with sports hernia surgery, in the first year of a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar extension that the Vikings have him last off-season ahead of his contract year. They gave him that extension even though he missed 8 games with injury in 2013, because he was very solid in his first two years in the league in 2011 and 2012, grading out 12th among tight ends in both seasons. That was largely because of his blocking abilities at 6-6 259, but he still showed decent pass catching ability with upside and the Vikings clearly wanted him to be a part of their future.

Now his future looks a little bleaker. Rudolph only missed 1 game with injury in the first 2 seasons of his career, after an injury riddled tenure at Notre Dame that caused him to fall out of the first round, but he’s missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player even when on the field. He’s going into his age 26 season so a bounce back year that gets his career back on track is still a possibility, but he’s hard to trust.

In his absence, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford played 564 and 345 snaps respectively. Ellison is a fullback by trade (and a very good one) but moved to tight end out of desperation. He wasn’t bad, but he did struggle and ultimately proved he’s more valuable at fullback, where he graded out 4th as a 4th round rookie in 2012 and 8th in 2013. With another talented fullback Jerome Felton gone, Ellison should move back to his old spot, where he could see a fair amount of action, even as a situational player. Ford, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 151 snaps in 2013 and then on 345 in 2014. He’ll compete with 5th round rookie MyCole Pruitt for the #2 job and he should be the heavy favorite.

Greg Jennings has been the Vikings’ leading receiver in each of the past two seasons. However, he’s never put up very big numbers 68/804/4 in 2013 and 59/742/6 in 2014, which is disappointing, considering the Vikings brought him in to be a difference maker in the receiving corps, when they gave him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago. Part of that was quarterback play and he didn’t grade out below average in either season, but the Vikings made the right move releasing him this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season in 2015. That move saved the Vikings 9 million in cash, 5 million of which immediately comes off their cap. The Vikings ended up paying him 18 million over 2 years.

The problem is the Vikings didn’t spend that 9 million in freed up money well, as they traded a late round pick to the Dolphins for Mike Wallace and his 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015. The Dolphins probably would have outright released him if the Vikings hadn’t traded for him, even though he still had 3 million in guaranteed money left on his deal that they would have had to pay either way. There’s a reason why the Dolphins were trying to get rid of Wallace so badly. Wallace is a solid receiver, but his last 1000+ yard year was in 2011, also the last season he graded out above average.

In his final year in Pittsburgh in 2012, he held out long into the off-season, which caused him to have a horrible season. His 64/836/8 slash line wasn’t terrible, but he caught just 55.2% of his targets and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. That didn’t stop the Dolphins from giving Wallace a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal two off-season ago and he predictably didn’t live up to it, grading out below average in both seasons, putting up slash lines of 73/930/5 and 67/862/10, and reportedly quitting on his team on multiple occasions. He’s younger than Jennings and fits well into offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, but I don’t think he’s necessarily an upgrade. He’s an average starting wide receiver and someone who should not be your #1 receiver, which he’ll be in Minnesota.

Opposite him, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson will compete for the starting job. Patterson was brought in during the same off-season as Jennings and the Vikings expected them to turn around their receiving corps and play together long-term. That really didn’t work out, as Patterson looks like a bust through 2 years in the league and Jennings is gone. Patterson has provided some value, but not doing things that wide receivers are supposed to do. He’s averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return on 77 kickoff returns, with 1 touchdown. He’s rushed for 275 yards and 4 touchdowns on 22 carries. However, he hasn’t graded out above average as a receiver in either season and has only caught 78 passes on 130 targets (60.0%) for 853 yards and 5 touchdowns on 656 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run.

Patterson spent most of his rookie year behind journeyman Jerome Simpson, won the starting job late in the season, started 2014 as the starter, but struggled and lost his starting job to the unproven Charles Johnson. Now and he Johnson will compete for the starting job opposite Wallace and it’s very possible that Johnson, who is well liked by the coaching staff, wins that job. That would push Patterson into possibly the #4 wide receiver job, working in on offense as primarily a gadget player and specializing in returning kickoffs.

Johnson didn’t play a snap as a 7th round rookie in Cleveland in 2013, but ended up starting the final 6 games of the 2014 season for the Vikings and playing 451 snaps. His numbers in those final 6 games are solid, as he caught 19 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns, but that was largely to do with Teddy Bridgewater’s play over those 6 games, as Johnson still graded out below average on the season. Even over those final 6 games, Johnson only caught 19 of 36 passes (52.8%). As I mentioned, the coaching staff likes him and his size (6-2 215), but he’s not guaranteed to ever develop into a solid starter or anything beyond a situational deep threat.

Jairus Wright is probably locked into the slot job regardless. The 5-10 180 pounder couldn’t make a living outside, but does a decent job on the slot and should remain there. He’s not a spectacular player, only grading out above average once in 3 years in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, but he’s caught 90 passes on 137 targets (65.7%) for 1332 yards and 7 touchdowns on 805 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Expect more of the same from him this season. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of unresolved issues, holding back an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ defense wasn’t great in 2014, as they finished 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed, but they were noticeably better than 2015, when they finished 30th in that aspect. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Mike Zimmer’s history and background. Zimmer spent a whopping 14 years at the defensive coordinator level and did a great job across 3 stops, Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. When the Vikings hired him as their head coach last off-season, it was long overdue and the results were immediately noticeable, even if it didn’t get the team into the playoffs right away. The Vikings were helped by having the 3rd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season, something they won’t be able to count on again, but they have a good enough mix of talent and coaching where they can overcome that. With Zimmer and Bridgewater in the fold, the Vikings seem to finally have quarterback/head coach stability that they can build around.

Like on offense, the Vikings benefitted significantly from a first round rookie on defense, as 9th overall pick Anthony Barr contributed in a big way as a rookie, great to see from a guy regarded as really raw coming out of UCLA. He’s only going into his age 23 season and only his 4th season on offense after spending the first 2 seasons of his collegiate career as a fullback. He wowed at the Combine running a 4.66 40 at 6-5 255, looking like a running back in a pass rusher’s body, and he has a great future after such a strong rookie year. He ranked 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie, largely playing as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, dropping into coverage on 340 of 455 pass play snaps. With minimal depth on the defensive line, Barr could play more of a hybrid role this season, rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages, while staying at 4-3 outside linebacker in sub packages. He was much more effective as a pass rusher than he was in coverage as a rookie, and predictably so.

The Vikings were also helped by a breakout year from 4-3 defensive end Everson Griffen. The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons.

One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one. Griffen has experience playing defensive tackle in sub packages and he has the size to do it effectively at 6-3 273 so he could do that more this season, with Barr rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages.

One of the weaknesses of the Vikings’ defense last season was the other starting defensive end, Brian Robison. Kept long-term instead of Jared Allen, the Vikings gave Robison a 4-year, 22.4 million dollar extension during the 2013 season, but he bombed in 2014, grading out 52nd among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Going into his age 32 season, it’s very possible that his best days are behind him. He graded out above average in every season from 2008-2013, both as a starter and a backup, so there’s definitely bounce back potential here, but he can’t be allowed to play 932 snaps (5th at the position) again in 2015.

The Vikings should give Barr more pass rush snaps and should use 2014 3rd round pick Scott Crichton in a larger capacity, after he played just 16 nondescript snaps as a rookie. They also added Danielle Hunter in the 3rd round of the draft this year. Robison will need a good year to stay on the roster at his scheduled 4.05 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. At the very least, the Vikings will have better depth at defensive end than last season, when Corey Wootton was their 3rd defensive end. He played just 275 snaps, but still was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite the limited playing time. No one graded out worse at the position on fewer snaps.

Along with Everson Griffen and the rookie Barr, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd also had a breakout year in 2014, in his first year in Mike Zimmer’s system. The 2013 1st round pick graded out below average on 472 snaps as a rookie, but he lived up to his billing and then some in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. The 6-3 305 pounder seems to be Mike Zimmer’s new Geno Atkins. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has a ton of talent and is in a great system for his abilities. Only going into his age 24 season, he could even be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be more in the 700-800 snap range as an every down player.

Linval Joseph is the other starter. He signed a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal last off-season and played solid in his first season in Minnesota, grading out above average on 743 snaps. The 2010 2nd round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, maxing out at 24th among defensive tackles (2013), after grading out below average in each of the first 3 years in his career. He’s a solid, but unspectacular starter. The 6-4 328 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but he’s not useless on passing downs either. If Griffen plays inside on passing downs more this season, it would probably be at the expense of Joseph.

Tom Johnson was re-signed this off-season to a 3-year, 7 million dollar deal and will return as a talented reserve. Johnson graded out 23rd among defensive tackles on just 444 snaps as a reserve in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and has never graded out above average in his career prior to last season, dating back to when he went undrafted in 2006, so he’s unlikely to be as good again. Shamar Stephen, meanwhile, was the 4th defensive tackle last season as a 7th round rookie and he played like a 7th round rookie, grading out 67th among 81 defensive tackles on just 414 snaps played. With Griffen expected to line up inside more often this season and Floyd expected to play more snaps, Stephen should rightfully have his role reduced this season. It’s a strong defensive line, with the exception of the declining Robison. It’ll help to not have guys like Shamar and Wootton playing significant roles.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One of the reasons the Vikings figure to be deeper on the defensive line this season, a big problem for them last season, is because Barr is expected to play more at defensive end. That’s only possible because they probably will have a middle linebacker capable of playing every down this season, freeing up Barr to play defensive end in sub packages. That middle linebacker is Eric Kendricks, a 2nd round rookie. He might not be great as a rookie, but he’s not as limited of a player as Jasper Brinkley, their starting middle linebacker last season. Brinkley graded out above average among middle linebackers, including 8th against the run, but really struggled in coverage and played just 471 snaps as a result. He’ll be missed against the run, but Kendricks is a much more versatile player with greater upside.

Chad Greenway has been an every down starting outside linebacker since the Vikings drafted him in the 1st round in 2007, making 124 of 128 starts in 8 seasons in the league, missing the first 4 games of his career only last season. However, he could lose his starting job to youngster Gerald Hodges. Greenway almost got cut this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 7.1 million in his contract year in 2015, and only was brought back when he agreed to a 3.1 million dollar pay cut. Greenway signed a 5-year, 40.6 million dollar deal after the 2010 season, but he hasn’t graded out above average since then. He’s been especially bad over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013 and their 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014.

Going into his age 32 season, it sounds like the Vikings are finally going to stop giving him too much credit for past performance and his starting job could be in jeopardy as a result. If it’s a fair competition battle, Hodges should be the starter, but that might not be the case. Hodges is unproven, but the 2013 4th round pick played 495 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. Most of those snaps came when Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway were hurt last season and played great, grading out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. He’s better than Greenway, but the Vikings may continue giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt, to their own peril. With a rookie inside, Anthony Barr will be the only saving grace of this linebacking corps if Hodges doesn’t start and he’s only going to play there in base packages, with Kendricks, Greenway/Hodges playing every down.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was strong last season. Their top-5 defensive backs (3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties) all graded out above average and they missed a combined 1 game, as part of a defense that had great luck with injuries in 2014. Despite that, the Vikings still felt like they needed to upgrade the secondary, adding veteran Terence Newman and rookie first round pick Trae Waynes to the mix. The former is going into his age 37 season and coming off of a down season in which he graded out below average.

However, he’s been with Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati and has always played better with Zimmer around. Newman had his career revived once before by Zimmer, grading out above average as recently as 2012 and 2013, despite ranking 96th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks in 2011 in his final season in Dallas. It’s also possible that he’s just done as a quality player in the league at his age. He’s reportedly the favorite for the starting job right now over the rookie and he’ll make a decent amount of money this season (2.5 million), but Waynes should overtake him in the starting lineup sooner or later.

With Newman or Waynes occupying one starting spot, Captain Munnerlyn, who started all 16 games last season, will be pushed to the 3rd cornerback job and will be purely a slot specialist in sub packages. The 2008 7th round pick has played well in recent years, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, and 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at 10th among cornerbacks in 2013. He’s also made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. However, the 5-8 186 pounder does have some issues with bigger wide receivers outside and does his best work on the slot as a result. Over the past 3 years, he’s allowed 1.39 yards per coverage snap outside and 1.08 yards per coverage snap on the slot. He should be a good slot cornerback, with the loser of the Newman/Waynes battle falling to 4th on the depth chart.

Josh Robinson was the 3rd cornerback last season, but, with Newman and Waynes coming in, he seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff and will serve as nothing more than strong, experienced depth as the 5th cornerback. Robinson played alright last season, grading out above average in his 3rd year in the league, after going in the 3rd round in 2012. However, maybe the Vikings are right for still not trusting him, after he graded out 109th among 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012 and 99th among 110 eligible in 2013. On top of that, he tore his pectoral earlier this month and could miss a significant portion of the season as a result, but that won’t really matter because of all the talent the Vikings have in front of him on the depth chart.

The one thing that remains the same at cornerback is that Xavier Rhodes will once again be their #1 cornerback. A first round pick in 2013, Rhodes impressed on 686 snaps as a rookie and then was even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. He struggled against the run and committed 12 penalties, but ranked 14th among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade, allowing 53.0% completion, 6.34 YPA, and deflecting 15 passes (2nd at the position). Rhodes could be even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015, only his age 25 season.

He’s one of 8 first round picks the Vikings have made over the past 4 seasons, thanks to a series of trades back up into the end of the first round, and the 1st rounder they got from Seattle for Percy Harvin, which was a steal by the Vikings. Constantly trading back up into the first round was a risky strategy that could have really backfired if they missed on a bunch of those picks, but they have generally done well with these 8 first rounders (Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Cordarelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Trae Waynes) and that’s a huge part of the reason why the team is on the up.

Harrison Smith might be the best of the bunch, which is saying something. The talented safety shook off a sophomore season in 2013 in which he graded out below average and missed 8 games with injury, by playing all 16 games and grading out 2nd among safeties in 2014. He played at an All-Pro level and he’s not a one-year wonder either. His 2013 wasn’t great, but he played all 16 games and ranked 19th at his position in 2012. The Vikings made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year rookie option this off-season (another benefit of moving up into the first round to grab him) and hope that he continues this kind of top level play into his age 26 season in 2015 and beyond. They’ll try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year and it could rival or even surpass deals given to Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 48.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million). He’s one of the best safeties in the NFL.

At the other safety spot is another safety from the 2012 draft class, but a much more unheralded one. Robert Blanton was a 5th round pick in 2012 and was actually a teammate of Smith’s at Notre Dame, where Blanton played cornerback. Blanton flashed on 59 snaps as a rookie and then 405 snaps in 2013 (grading out above average both times) before winning the starting safety job in 2014, making 15 starts and grading out 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a one-year wonder, but I see no reason he couldn’t continue being at least a solid starter, considering he’s always played well when given a chance. Another strong season would set him up for a significant payday in free agency next off-season, assuming the Vikings are unable to lock him up beforehand.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Vikings were fairly mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, en route to a 7-9 finish and a 27th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential. However, they should be better on both sides of the ball this season. They’ll have Teddy Bridgewater under center for the full season this year and he could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league. On top of that, Adrian Peterson will be back and they should have fewer injuries on the offensive line.

On defense, they won’t be able to count on fewer injuries and will probably have more, but they have a lot of young talent and they should work in more fitting roles this season. Their defense was largely brought down by players like Brian Robison, Shamar Stephens, Corey Wootton, and Chad Greenway. The first 3 should definitely play smaller roles this season and Greenway could as well. This team still has weaknesses in the receiving corps and the linebacking corps, but they have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC. Whether or not they make the playoffs and how far they go once they get there is largely going to be on Teddy Bridgewater, but things are looking up and the future looks bright. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Vikings after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 3rd in NFC North

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Green Bay Packers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In case there was any doubt, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, something he proved last season. With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees aging and Andrew Luck not quite there yet, Rodgers could keep that title for a couple years, at least. In 2014, Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, quarterbacked a team that moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL, graded out #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, won the NFL’s MVP, and came close to knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship game and going to the Super Bowl.

It was about as good of a return from injury as the Packers could have expected from Rodgers after he missed 7 games and most of an 8th game with a broken collarbone in 2013. The Packers went 2-6 without Rodgers in 2013 and they are 18-6 with him over the past 2 seasons combined. Even in 2013, when injuries limited him to 592 snaps, he still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Since 2009, Rodgers has graded out 4th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, and 1st respectively among quarterbacks, with his only season out of the top-5 coming in an injury shortened season.

Over that time period, Rodgers has only missed 9 games with injury, so he’s usually durable. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes, for an average of 8.41 YPA, 197 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions since 2009, winning 64 of 86 games (74.4%). He’s also added 1577 yards and 16 touchdowns on 309 carries on the ground (5.10 YPC), as he simply doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2015, but that’s nothing for a top level quarterback. Plenty have had great success at that age and beyond. He could easily be the best quarterback in the NFL again, led the NFL’s top offense again, and pick up his 3rd MVP. He’s one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As well as Rodgers played last season, he only wasn’t the only reason for the Packers’ offensive success. The Packers have done a great job of surrounding Rodgers with good offensive talent. An offense that used to be so reliant on their quarterback and receivers has gotten significantly “tougher,” to use a cliché, over the past few seasons, meaning that now they have a strong running game and offensive line. The Packers return 11 of 11 starters from 2014 and look poised for strong offensive play once again. Their only real obstacle to being the #1 offense again is injuries, as the Packers really had none offensively last season, having the 3rd fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury. Of course, top offenses like Dallas (4th), Denver (5th), and Pittsburgh (3rd) also had no offensive injuries last season, so the Packers aren’t alone. Ironically, only the Saints (2nd) had a strong offensive performance despite some offensive injuries.

Eddie Lacy has proven to be a great complement for Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. In 2 years in the NFL since the Packers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013, Lacy has missed just 1 game with injury and rushed for 2317 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC), while adding 77 catches for 684 yards and another 4 scores through the air. Certainly, Rodgers’ presence helps Lacy, but Lacy also helps Rodgers and is a fantastic running back in his own right. He graded out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2013, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then finished 3rd in 2014. He joins Marshawn Lynch as the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season at a position where youth is such an asset, Lacy is one of the best running backs in the game.

James Starks will be his primary backup. A 2010 6th round pick, Starks flashed some starting running back potential early in his career, but injuries eventually did him in, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 3 years in the NFL from 2010-2012, which led to the Packers’ selection of Eddie Lacy in the 2013 NFL Draft. Starks has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, which is why he fell to the 6th round, but he’s played in 29 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons as Lacy’s backup, including all 16 for the first time in his career last season. His career numbers aren’t bad, as he’s rushed for 1760 yards and 7 touchdowns on 407 carries (4.32 YPC), while adding 63 catches for 491 yards and another score through the air. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL and is a solid backup. Obviously, any injury to Lacy would be a huge loss for this team, but Starks isn’t a bad 2nd option.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Packers have a strong offensive line too. They ranked 1st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 17th in team run blocking grade. Their only real weakness is left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since the Packers took him in the 4th round in 2013, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, grading out 62nd among 76 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie and then 53rd out of 84 eligible last season. He’ll start again in 2015, largely out of necessity, but the Packers are good enough across the rest of the line to make up for it.

They might have the best guard combination in the NFL in Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Sitton is the better of the two and arguably one of the best guards in the NFL. The 2008 4th round pick has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and graded out 8th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 4th respectively in the 6 seasons since then. No other guard has graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 6 seasons, or even come close to that. He’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league and, only going into his age 29 with minimal injury history, he’s still in the prime of his career. He should be dominant again in 2015.

Lang isn’t quite as proven, but he’s had a very impressive career as well, and the 2009 4th round pick is only going into his age 28 season, so he too is still in the prime of his career. He’s made 63 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 6 at right tackle. He’s struggled at right tackle, but he’s graded out above average at guard in all 4 seasons that he’s been the primary starter from 2011-2014, including 22nd in 2011, 15th in 2013, and 3rd last season. He and Sitton are a great combination, and one that is incredibly durable.

The Packers got a great center to go in between Lang and Sitton last off-season, drafting Corey Linsley in the 2014 draft. You wouldn’t expect a 5th rounder like Linsley to have the kind of rookie year that he did last year, but he exceeded all expectations, making 16 starts, grading out 5th among centers, and having one of the year’s best rookie seasons by an offensive player, regardless of position. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term, above average starter.

Rounding out at the offensive line at right tackle is Bryan Bulaga, who the Packers re-signed to a 5-year, 33.75 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Bulaga has been a starter for the Packers since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010, making his debut as a starter in week 5 of 2010. However, despite that, he’s only made 48 starts in 5 seasons, as he’s missed 30 games with injuries over that time period, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. When on the field, he’s been up and down. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 71st out of 78 eligible in 2010, but he ranked 7th among offensive tackles on 12 starts in 2011. In 2012, he graded out below average in 9 starts before missing all of 2013, but he returned in 2014 to make 15 starts and grade out 16th among offensive tackles. He’s a risky player and the deal they gave him to stay was a risky deal as a result, but it’s good that the Packers kept him for continuity reasons, even if it’s very tough to count on him being as healthy or as good as he was last season. It’s an overall strong offensive line again though.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with Bryan Bulaga, the Packers also re-signed Randall Cobb ahead of free agency this off-season, settling on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the wide receiver, after a long negotiation period that seemed like it would end with Cobb taking more money elsewhere. The Packers upped their offer from 9 million annually to 10 million annually at the last second and Cobb took less money to stay in Green Bay, passing on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Oakland Raiders. It’s the kind of compromise where both sides win.

In Oakland, Cobb would have likely struggled to put up numbers on a losing team and could have easily been cut midway through his contract for not putting up numbers comparable to his large salary. In Green Bay, he’s much more likely to be kept for the duration of the contract and he’ll hit free agency again in 4 years going into his age 29 season with a chance at another big payday. Even though he took less money to return to Green Bay, this deal likely maximizes his career earnings potential. Because of that and the obvious increased chance of getting a ring in Green Bay, Cobb was the real winner, but the Packers have to be pretty happy with the deal too.

The Packers didn’t get Cobb quite as cheaply as they would have liked, but they still got a discount over what he would have gotten on the open market and a solid value. While it’s not hard to get good production out of receivers when you have Aaron Rodgers under center, Cobb is still a very valuable part of this offense. Cobb didn’t see a ton of playing time as a 2nd round rookie in 2011 and he missed 10 games with a broken leg in 2013. However, in his other two seasons, he put up 80/954/8 (in 2012) and then 91/1287/12 (in 2014). Cobb was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2012 and then 9th in 2014. Other than the leg injury, he doesn’t have much of an injury history and he’s only going into his age 25 season so he could keep getting better.

Cobb will once again be a starter at wide receiver opposite Jordy Nelson. Much like Sitton and Lang at guard, Nelson and Cobb are among the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Obviously, having Rodgers under center is great for both of them, but in their own right they’re both great wide receivers and both a big part of the reason why this offense works so well. Nelson, a 2008 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 2nd in 2013 and then 2nd again in 2014, and is only going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Davante Adams worked as the 3rd receiver in 2014 as a 2nd round rookie. He was drafted with Cobb’s impending free agency in mind, but now gets stuck behind Cobb and Nelson indefinitely with Cobb returning long-term. It’s a tough situation for Adams, but it’s for the best for the Packers. Adams struggled as a rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. It’s not uncommon for a rookie wideout to struggle and that rough rookie year doesn’t doom his career, but he’s far from someone you can trust with a significant role. Bringing Cobb back was well worth it.

Adams will work solely in sub packages outside, moving Cobb to the slot in 3-wide sets. While he’ll be blocked for serious playing time barring injury, he still gets to catch passes for Aaron Rodgers with great help around him, so if he ever figures his game out, he can put up pretty decent numbers, like guys like James Jones did before him. This offense is a well-oiled machine in all facets and you can put up decent numbers even if you’re just along for the ride.

I mentioned earlier that 11 of 11 starters return for the Packers from their #1 offense in 2014. That might not end up being completely the case if they decide to cut tight end Andrew Quarless (11 starts in 2014), after he was arrested in an incident where he allegedly fired a firearm in public while involved in a fight. That happened just a few days ago so it’s unclear what the Packers response will be, but it could be to cut him, and, even if they don’t cut him, he could be suspended.

It wouldn’t be a huge loss. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out just once in 5 seasons in the NFL and he only played 60.2% of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. The 323 receiving yards he had last season were a career high. It’s possible the Packers were planning on moving him into more of a situational role this year anyway, in favor of having 2014 3rd round pick Richard Rodgers becoming the new starting tight end. He struggled mightily on 491 snaps as a rookie, but it could be worth seeing what he has, especially if Quarless’ off-the-field situation looks bad. Rodgers could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he has a long way to go if he’s going to turn the tight end position into a strength. 6th round pick Kennard Backman could be the #2 tight end if Quarless gets cut. The Packers’ lack of a good tertiary receiving option/tight end is the only weakness on an offense that could once again be the best in the NFL, barring major injuries.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

While things were great on offense for the Packers last season, that was not the case at all on defense, where they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.75% rate, 27th in the NFL. That’s why they “only” finished in 6th in rate of moving the chains differential despite an outstanding offense. Returning essentially the same offense for this season, the Packers could be the Super Bowl Champion in 2015 if their defense is better. That is going to be easier said than done though.

One of the things the Packers are banking on improving their defense is the return of BJ Raji from injury, after he missed all of last season with a torn biceps. However, Raji is overrated and not the nearly consistently dominant player people think he is. At best, he’s inconsistent. At worst, he’s a liability. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2012, but graded out dead last at his position in 2013 and then missed all of last season. The 2009 1st round pick has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL and his stock isn’t looking up, going into his age 29 season already and coming off of a significant injury. Besides, it’s not like the Packers had a ridiculous amount of defensive injuries last season or anything. They had more on defense than they had on offense, but they still had the 11th fewest adjusted games lost on defense so they won’t be able to count on better health to make them a better defense.

Letroy Guion started in Raji’s absence last season and he was arguably better. That doesn’t mean he was good, but he was still probably better than Raji would have. Guion has graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2008, including 4 straight seasons, a 2012 season in which he ranked 85th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles and a 2013 season in which he ranked 60th out of 69 eligible. He wasn’t good last season and he could be even worse this season. With Raji likely taking back the nose tackle job from the undersized 6-4 303 Guion, I expect him to see the majority of his playing time as a rotational player at 3-4 defensive end. I don’t expect him to be an asset.

The Packers are hoping that 2013 1st round pick Datone Jones can nail down one of the starting jobs at defensive end. His career hasn’t been off to a good start. Despite plenty of opportunity, he’s played just 586 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined. He graded out below average in 2013 as a rookie, struggling mightily in limited action, and, while he graded out above average in 2014, he still struggled against the run. The 6-4 285 pounder is a solid situational pass rusher, but he might just not have the size to hold up every down on the defensive line in a 3-4. He’s also suspended for the first game of the season because of marijuana. Josh Boyd is also in the mix for rotational snaps on the defensive line. The 2013 5th round pick has played just 495 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined and hasn’t shown much potential, grading out below average in both seasons. The 6-3 310 pounder was used primarily in base packages against the run last season, but he isn’t very good against the run, or as a pass rusher for that matter.

The only redeeming part of this defensive line is Mike Daniels. Daniels was drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and, after 231 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, Daniels has blossomed into a strong interior defensive lineman, with upside only going into his age 26 season. Daniels graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and followed that up by grading out 8th at the positon in 2014. The 6-0 294 pounder is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but is far from a liability in either area. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, Daniels would stand to make a lot of money next off-season if he can continue his strong play. He’s the only bright spot on a weak defensive line and one of the few bright spots on this weak defense.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

One of the other ways the Packers expect to be better this season is with better play at middle linebacker, a position that was a huge weakness for them last season. AJ Hawk, Sam Barrington, Jamari Lattimore, and Brad Jones all graded out below average last year and Hawk and Jones both graded out among the 10 worst middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That, combined with their horrible defensive line, was the source of their issues against the run and a big part of the reason why this defense was so bad last season.

Things got so bad last season that they had to move Clay Matthews inside to middle linebacker in base packages and it seems like they’re planning on doing that even more this season, in an effort to turn around their defense. Hawk, Jones, and Lattimore are gone, but Sam Barrington remains and the likes of Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan don’t exactly seem like starting caliber going into 2015. The former is a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, while the latter was drafted in the 4th round in this past draft. Barrington, meanwhile, has played 367 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since the Packers took him in the 7th round in 2013. At least one of that trio, if not two, will have a significant role at middle linebacker for the Packers this season. That’s a problem.

Despite the Packers’ lack of talent at middle linebacker, I still don’t think moving Matthews inside to play regular snaps is the right move. Even though it’s only in base packages, it still reduces his chances at rushing the passer, which is really where he’s best. He’s solid in coverage, but he’s better moving forward than backward. He also struggled against the run last season, largely due to the significant amount of time he spent out of position. On top of that, Matthews himself reportedly doesn’t like playing middle linebacker because he has such great pass rush ability and sacks get contracts. This move doesn’t make sense all around.

Matthews graded out 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers overall last season, doing his best work as a pass rusher, ranking 16th at the position in that aspect. That’s pretty good, but he’s been much better in the past when he’s played a more traditional role. Prior to an injury plagued 2013 season, Matthews graded 6th, 6th, 5th, and 1st respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012 and was one of the best defensive players in the game, primarily rushing the passer off the edge. The Packers shouldn’t mess with that.

One of the probable reasons why the Packers seem to want to experiment with Matthews inside is because they think their depth at outside linebacker is better than their depth at inside linebacker. That’s true, but it’s largely by default. Mike Neal was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, seeing a lot of playing time with Matthews sometimes playing inside in base packages and Julius Peppers sometimes playing defensive tackle in sub packages. He was horrible though, grading out dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, after grading out 40th out of 42 eligible in 2013.

The 2010 2nd round pick was better earlier in his career at 3-4 defensive end, but the Packers moved him to 3-4 outside linebacker two off-seasons ago and insist on keeping him there despite his struggles. The 6-3 294 pounder is not a natural fit for the position at all. He’s expectedly decent against the run, but doesn’t generate any pass rush. Maybe Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick, can beat him out for the #3 job, but that would require him to stay healthy, as he’s missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league. Even when on the field, he hasn’t been good. He has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxed out at 376 snaps in 2013, and averaged just 24.5 snaps played per game (32.9% of snaps) in 2014 as the clear 4th outside linebacker. The Packers have essentially admitted he’s a bust by declining his 5th year option for 2016, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed for injury only. Neither he nor Neal is good to have playing a regular role off the edge.

Julius Peppers is the other primary outside linebacker besides Matthews. Other than Matthews and Daniels, he’s one of just a few redeeming parts of this weak front 7. He primarily plays 3-4 outside linebacker and rushes the passer off the edge, but has the size at 6-5 283 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, which he did occasionally in 2014. Peppers’ career looked like it was coming to a close at this time last year, after he got cut by the Bears following a 2013 season in which he graded out 40th out of 52 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends.

While Green Bay picked him up and gave him a good amount of money, his future still looked bleak going into his age 34 season. Peppers proved a lot of people wrong by grading out 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first year at the position in 2014, after spending the rest of his career at 4-3 defensive end. However, he’s unlikely to repeat that in his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff. Even though he’s only graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and even though he’s likely Hall of Fame bound with 125.5 career sacks (16th most all-time), he’s hard to trust this season. Peppers and Matthews make a good 3-4 outside linebacker duo, but the former is getting pretty old and the latter is having his position fiddled with. They certainly aren’t enough alone to boost this mediocre linebacking corps or this mediocre front 7.

Grade: C

Secondary

Given how bad the Packers’ middle linebackers were last season, I actually had them taking middle linebackers with their first 2 picks in the draft in my final mock draft. Taking two guys at the same position with your first two picks in a draft is rare, but the Packers had a serious need there, few pressing needs elsewhere, and the value made sense both times. The Packers didn’t draft a middle linebacker with either of those two picks, but they did double up on a position, taking a pair of cornerbacks in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. As a result, they didn’t address the middle linebacker position until the 4th round, as they added a return man/depth receiver in Ty Montgomery in the 3rd round.

The secondary wasn’t nearly as big of a need as middle linebacker, but the two picks do make sense, after the Packers lost Tramon Williams (1032 snaps) and Davon House (411 snaps) to free agency. Williams was good, but aging, going into his age 32 season and House was unproven. However, those two losses did leave them thin at the position. Prior to the draft, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde were their top-3 cornerbacks, which is fine, but not ideal and they had no proven depth whatsoever.

Even with the 2 rookies coming in, Sam Shields remains locked into one starting cornerback spot, overpaid on a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal the Packers gave him last off-season. He graded out below average in the first season of that deal and missed 2 games with injury. That shouldn’t be surprising though, as the 2010 undrafted free agent has never played a full 16 game season and has only once graded out higher than 30th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his career. He’s certainly not a bad player and he’s a deserving starter, but he does get paid like something more than that.

Casey Hayward should be the starter opposite him. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.

Micah Hyde could be the 3rd cornerback, but he’ll have to hold off the rookie Randall. Randall, their first round pick, played both slot cornerback and safety in college at the University of Arizona, but it looks like he will focus on the slot cornerback job in the NFL. The Packers also reportedly think he has outside cornerback abilities, at least long-term, but he’d probably need Heyward to leave as a free agent to free up that kind of role.

Hyde, meanwhile, did play 720 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, but he graded out below average. He flashed on 428 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, but couldn’t translate that to more playing time. They didn’t need to upgrade him with Randall, but they probably did and Randall could take Hyde’s job away as soon as week 1. Rollins, on the other hand, will need to wait until someone like Heyward leaves as a free agent to get a significant role and won’t do much outside provide great depth as the 5th cornerback as a rookie.

Randall is a collegiate safety and Rollins is a physical cornerback, one who plays bigger than his 5-11 195 frame, but neither of them will be able to find a path to regular playing time at the safety position anytime soon, as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett seem pretty entrenched there, entering their 2nd season together. Clinton-Dix did grade out below average as a 1st round rookie in 2014, but not by much and could easily be noticeably better in his 2nd year in the league. He has good upside and doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere soon.

Burnett, meanwhile, is not the best safety in the league by any stretch of the any imagination, but he’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, including 16th in 2014. Also important is the fact that Burnett is only going into his age 26 season and signed fairly cheaply long-term, owed just 13.25 million dollars over the next 3 seasons combined. He also isn’t going anywhere anytime quickly. They’re not the best safety duo in the league, but they’re a solid group that could be playing together for a while, at least in football years. It’s a solid and deep secondary, but not one that will be able to mask the flaws of the front 7 completely.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers had the best offense in the NFL last season and return all 11 starters on a unit that doesn’t have a single player over 30 besides the quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who will be 32 later this year). They’ll probably have more injuries on offense this season, but, barring anything catastrophic, they have so much talent that they could still overcome a normal amount of injuries and be the best offensive team in the NFL again in 2015. If they can even be average defensively, this is probably the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

However, things are not nearly as good on defense as they are on offense. They had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season and didn’t do much to fix it this off-season, aside from adding 2 cornerbacks in the first 2 rounds of the draft, neither of whom fill a big need and the latter of whom probably won’t see much, if any, defensive action as a rookie. They still have major needs on the defensive line and at middle linebacker and figure to struggle mightily against the run again this season, allowing opponents to mount long scoring drives once again.

They could even be worse this season with Tramon Williams gone, Julius Peppers going into his age 35 season, and Clay Matthews getting unnecessarily moved all around the formation. This is still the favorite in the NFC North and on a short list of Super Bowl contenders, but they do have a major weakness, one that will likely do them in sooner or later. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Packers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North

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Chicago Bears 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears gave Jay Cutler a 7-year, 126.7 million dollar deal last off-season with 54 million guaranteed in the first 3 years. It’s a lot of money, but it’s the market rate for a franchise quarterback. The Bears assumed Cutler was a franchise quarterback based on his previous play last off-season, but now, one year later, that deal looks like a huge mistake. Cutler is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, as he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 6.80 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He was also benched before week 16 for Jimmy Clausen as the organization wanted to get a better look at the quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass since 2010, when he bombed as a 2nd round rookie in Carolina. Clausen also would have gotten the week 17 start too if he hadn’t suffered a concussion.

Cutler’s numbers from last season look decent, but much of his strong production came in garbage time. He completed 68.2% of his passes for an average of 8.27 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions when the Bears were down by 17 or more points last season. On top of that, he graded out 32nd among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That’s a big part of the reason why the Bears moved the chains at “only” a 73.17% rate, 15th in the NFL, after ranking 4th in that aspect in 2013.

The Bears tried pretty hard to move Cutler and get out of his contract this off-season, but they couldn’t find a taker. One deal would have sent Cutler home to Tennessee along with the 7th overall pick and probably something else for the Titans’ 2nd overall selection, which the Bears would have used on Marcus Mariota, but Tennessee predictably had no interest. The Bears’ inability to move Cutler could be somewhat of a blessing in disguise as you never want to have to sell low on a quarterback. Cutler will probably remain overpaid, but I think there’s decent bounce back potential with him.

Prior to last season, Cutler had graded out above average in 4 straight seasons from 2010-2013, including 10th among quarterbacks in 2013 and 15th in 2011. In his career, he’s completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 183 touchdowns, 130 interceptions, despite the fact that he routinely had much weaker supporting casts than the one he had last year for most of his career. He’s going into his age 32 season which hurts, but we’ve certainly seen quarterbacks play well into their mid-30s before, including guys who bounced back from uncharacteristically bad seasons (Philip Rivers and Eli Manning come to mind).

It’s possible that Cutler doesn’t bounce back, but there’s definitely solid potential a solid year from him in 2015. Cutler loses former Head Coach Marc Trestman, a strong offensive mind, but Cutler didn’t play well in his final season under Trestman so maybe that’s a good thing. On top of that, new offensive coordinator Adam Gase is a rising offensive mind who was tied to head coaching jobs this off-season and will likely get one within the next 2-3 years. Cutler’s upside isn’t huge, but I could definitely see him being at least an average starting quarterback this season, which is hard to come by. That would really help turn this offense around.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

If Cutler is going to bounce back in 2015, he’s going to have to do it without the player to whom Cutler has thrown the most career passes, Brandon Marshall. Marshall caught 279 passes for 3524 yards and 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons of his career in Chicago and also played with Cutler for 4 years when they were in Denver, from 2006-2009. However, Marshall caught just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. Going into his age 31 season off of a down year, the Bears shipped him off to the Jets for a 5th round pick, a move that saved the Bears 7.7 million in cash. He had some bounce back potential, but he’s hardly the indispensable player he once was.

Alshon Jeffery remains as now the undisputed #1 receiver and he’s a lot more indispensable. He graded out 28th among wide receivers last year, including 22nd in pure pass catching grade. On top of that, he graded out 9th among wide receivers in 2013 and is only going into his age 25 season, so he still has upside, as he enters his prime. Since struggling in limited action as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, Jeffery has caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined. The Bears want to lock him up long-term ahead of his contract year in 2015 and any extension he’s given will be paid for with the money they saved by moving on from Marshall.

Who starts opposite Jeffery in place of Marshall is unclear right now. The Bears used the 7th overall pick on Kevin White, a receiver from West Virginia, to be the long-term answer, but he’s currently listed as the 4th receiver on the depth chart. That might just be deference to the veterans and something White can easily overcome, but new Head Coach John Fox is known for being very tough on rookies, so it could be something that continues into the season. Besides, rookie wide receivers, even first round picks, tend to not be very good right away. 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. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Expecting White to produce like Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham did last year during their incredible rookie years just isn’t realistic.

The Bears signed Eddie Royal in free agency for 15 million over 3 years and he’ll be, at the very least, the 3rd receiver and a big part of this offense as a slot specialist. Eddie Royal caught 91 passes for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but combined for just 138 catches for 1361 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009-2012 combined. Royal bounced back over the past 2 seasons in San Diego though, catching 47 passes for 631 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 and 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. Now he reunites with Jay Cutler, with whom he put up those big rookie numbers. That alone doesn’t ensure he’ll put up those numbers again, but it definitely helps his chance of continuing his strong play from San Diego (and, for what it’s worth, he and Cutler are reportedly great friends).

Marquess Wilson is also in the mix and he’ll compete with White for snaps outside, at least early in the season. The Bears have always thought highly of the 2013 7th round pick because of his size at 6-4 194. He would have been a much higher pick if he hadn’t been kicked off the football team at Washington State for disciplinary reasons. However, he’s really struggled in 2 years in the league. He graded out below average on 76 snaps as a rookie and then 97th out of 110 eligible receivers in 2014 on just 386 snaps. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015, only his age 23 season, but the Bears are probably better off with him as the 4th receiver, White seeing most of the snaps opposite Jeffery, and Royal playing on the slot.

Tight end Martellus Bennett actually led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with catches last season with 90 and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards behind Jeffery, taking those 90 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Jason Witten for 4 years in Dallas to start his career, Bennett has broken out as a talented starting tight end over the past 3 years out of Witten’s shadow. He’s caught 210 passes for 2301 yards and 16 touchdowns combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out 6th, 19th, and 6th respectively among tight ends and playing in 48 out of 48 possible games.

Even when he was playing a more limited role as the #2 tight end in Dallas, he graded out above average every season, meaning the 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career. A well rounded tight end who can catch passes and block at 6-6 259, Bennett has graded out above average as a run blocker in all 7 seasons of his career and above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. He was understandably upset about his contract this off-season, owed just 10.185 million combined over the final 2 seasons of his contract in 2015 and 2016, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get his wish this off-season and it doesn’t look like that will lead to any sort of holdout. He attended mandatory minicamp and is expected to show up for the start of training camp later this month.

The Bears rarely use two-tight end sets, but Dante Rosario is expected to be the 2nd tight end again, after serving in that role and playing 323 snaps last season. Those 323 snaps were the most he played in a season in 5 years and he’s graded out below average 4 times in those 5 seasons, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s a low end #2 tight end at best. Fortunately, he won’t play a big role, especially with the Bears likely going to even more 3-wide receiver sets this season. It’s a talented and deep receiving corps, even without Marshall. The additions of White and Royal make up for the loss of the fading wide receiver.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

I mentioned earlier that Martellus Bennett led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with 90 catches last season. I made sure to specify wide receivers and tight ends because running back Matt Forte actually led the team with 102 catches, turning them into 808 yards (3rd on the team behind Jeffery and Bennett) and 4 touchdowns. Forte caught 176 passes over the past 2 seasons combined as Marc Trestman loved to feature him as a receiver out of the backfield. He won’t catch as many passes with Trestman gone, but he’s still averaged 63 catches per season over his 7 year career and he’s a great receiver, grading out above average as a receiver on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He could catch another 60 balls this season.

Forte isn’t just a good receiver out of the backfield. He’s a good all-around running back, also grading out above average as a runner on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’s been a feature back since the Bears drafted him in the 2nd round in 2008, missing just 5 games with injury in 7 seasons and rushing for 7704 yards, 51st all-time, and 41 touchdowns on 1807 carries, a solid average of 4.24 YPC that gets even better when you take out his first 2 seasons in the NFL (4.45 YPC). His 11,431 all-time yards from scrimmage are 65th all-time regardless of position.

There is one problem. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. Forte is only at 1807 carries, but he’s going into his age 30 season, with a bunch of extra touches from catches, and he’s also not as good as the top-25 all-time leading rushers. He could have another one or two strong seasons left in the tank, but he’s at the point where Bears fans should start to be a little concerned.

Also concerning is the Bears’ lack of depth. Jacquizz Rodgers was signed as a veteran backup from Atlanta this off-season, but nothing about his career 3.66 YPC average on 305 career carries suggests he could handle the load if Forte went down with an injury or push Forte for carries if his effectiveness starts to decline. Ka’Deem Carey was a 4th round pick in 2014, but he struggled on 100 snaps as a rookie. The Bears used another 4th round pick on a running back, Jeremy Langford, in this past draft, but there’s no guarantee he’s any better than Carey or Rodgers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to a likely bounce back year from Jay Cutler, another reason I expect the Bears to be an improved offensive team this season is that they should have fewer injuries, after having the 6th most offensive games lost to injury last year. The vast majority of those injuries came on the offensive line. After the line of Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, and Jordan Mills made a combined 80 of 80 starts in 2013, they all returned for 2014, but made a combined 59 out of 80 starts. None of the five played all 16 games.

Left guard Matt Slauson missed the most time as he missed 11 games with a torn pectoral. Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 2013 was limited to 272 lackluster snaps in 2014 as a result. However, considering he’s only going into his age 29 season, and that he graded out average in every season from being drafted in the 6th round in 2009 to 2013, and that he made all 64 starts from 2010-2013 without missing a game, I like his bounce back potential. That will be very good for the line. 2013 was uncharacteristic for him, but he’s a solid player at worst when healthy and he’s usually durable.

Center Roberto Garza missed the 2nd most time, missing 4 games. He’s gone completely now, after the Bears cut him this off-season, saving 1.1 million on the cap in the process. They cut him to replace him with Will Montgomery, who is younger, better, and cheaper. Montgomery is no spring chicken, going into his age 32 season, part of why he was available for just 900K, but he’s still younger than Garza, who is going into his age 36 season. He’s also better, grading out 15th among centers last year, while Garza graded out 21st.

Montgomery reunites with both John Fox and Adam Gase in Chicago. Montgomery was drafted by John Fox’s Panthers in the 7th round in 2006, played one season there, and then played another season for Fox in Denver last season, where Gase was also the offensive coordinator. The former late round pick has carved out a solid career for himself. After starting his career at guard and struggling, Montgomery has graded out above average as a center in each of the last 4 seasons, maxing out at 5th in 2012. As I mentioned, age is a concern, but the Bears should still be able to expect solid play from him at center in 2015.

Jermon Bushrod rounds out the left side of the offensive line and he missed 2 games with injury last season. The Bears gave him a 5-year, 35.965 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but they were tricked. Bushrod made 68 starts for the Saints from 2009-2012, including the post-season, and allowed just 20 sacks. However, that was largely because of Drew Brees’ quick release. Bushrod actually graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. Now in 2 seasons in Chicago, he’s graded out below average both times.

He was brought in and paid to be a positive difference maker upfront, but instead he’s been a weak spot on an otherwise pretty solid offensive line. He’s entering a make or break age 31 season in 2015, as another bad season should get him cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary due in 2016. That simply won’t be justifiable given his age and ability. Considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has graded out above average just one in 8 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2007, I think break is much more likely than make.

With Slauson, Garza, and Bushrod missing significant time with injury, Michael Ola and Brian De La Puente saw significant action in relief, playing 844 and 501 snaps respectively. Ola made 3 starts at left tackle, 6 starts at left guard, 1 start at right guard, and 2 starts at right tackle, but struggled mightily at all 4 spots. He may seem versatile, but I think versatility requires a certain level of competence to be legitimate. De La Puente was better, making 4 starts at center and 2 starts at left guard, grading out above average overall and ranking 7th among centers on just 320 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at the position and graded out better. De La Puente is gone as a free agent, but Ola remains, which isn’t a good combination of news.

The reason the Bears’ offensive line wasn’t worse in 2014 despite significant more injuries is the development of the right side of the offensive line. Kyle Long and Jordan Mills at right guard and right tackle respectively were rookies in 2013 and both played better in their 2nd year in the league in 2014. Long missed a game with injury last year, something he didn’t do as a rookie, but it’s just one game. Long went from 43rd among guards in 2013 to 12th in 2014. He was an older rookie and will be in his age 27 season in 2015, but expectations should still be fairly high for him.

Mills, meanwhile, missed 3 games with injury, something he also didn’t do at all as a rookie. He did improve, but anything would have been an improvement over how he played as a rookie, grading out 74th among 76 eligible offensive tackles. He still struggled in 2014, grading out 66th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The 2013 5th round pick doesn’t seem like a long-term starter. The Bears could move Long from right guard to right tackle, bench Mills, and start someone new at right guard who could be an upgrade. Better health, a still matured Kyle Long, and no Jordan Mills should make this a better offensive line in 2015, but the latter of those three things is not as promising as the former two.

That’s because the Bears don’t have any good options at right guard. Michael Ola would be a contender for the right guard job if Long moved outside, but I already mentioned how he struggled in 2014. The 2013 undrafted free agent is a long-term utility backup at best. The Bears drafted center Hronniss Grasu in the 3rd round this year and he could be an option at right guard, but relying on a 3rd round rookie converted center at right guard isn’t ideal. Vlad Ducasse is also in the mix, but the ex-Jet graded out 55th out of 81 guards on 331 snaps in 2013 and 61st out of 78 eligible on 417 snaps in 2014. As much as Mills sucks, I don’t think it’s worth moving a talented guard like Long to a place like right tackle where he’s never played in the NFL just to swap out Mills for someone like Ducasse, Ola, or Grasu on the offensive line. It’s overall a decent line though. I expect them to perform better than last season on an offense that will probably perform better than last season in general.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The offense wasn’t that bad last season. Their defense was a much bigger part of why they finished 5-11 and 24th in rate of moving the chains differential, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 75.71% rate, 30th in the NFL. They weren’t good in 2013 either, finishing 31st in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, but their offense was good enough to make up for it that year. This year, their defense should be actually improved. While the offense should be improved by better health and a bounce back year from Jay Cutler, the defense should also have better health (ranking 26th in defensive adjusted games lost in 2014), but they also added a fair amount of talent this off-season.

One of those talents added was actually not a player at all. It was Vic Fangio, ex-49ers defensive coordinator, who will serve in that same position in Chicago. One of the best defensive coordinators in the league under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Fangio asked to be named Head Coach upon Harbaugh’s departure this off-season and walked away when he didn’t get his request. He was a hot name on the open market and the Bears got a good one. He’ll be a big upgrade on Mel Tucker, defensive coordinator for the past 2 seasons, who proved to be in over his head, coaching two separate terrible units. He’s now the secondary coach at the University of Alabama.

Fangio will transition this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, like he ran in San Francisco, and the Bears have done a good job this off-season getting personnel to fit the new scheme. Eddie Goldman was added through the draft and will likely slot in as the starting nose tackle. He was only a 2nd round pick so he could be unreliable as a rookie, but the 6-4 336 pounder filled a big need as no other Bears defensive lineman is bigger than 315 pounds. He might just be a two-down run stuffer, but that’s all they need him to be.

Stephen Paea signed a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season with the Redskins, following a breakout 2014 season where he graded out 11th among defensive tackles. He’ll be missed and he wasn’t really replaced, but the Bears added more than enough talent in other area defensively to make up for it. The Bears added Ray McDonald as a free agent this off-season, in an attempt to replace Paea. They were hoping to get a steal with someone who was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season with Fangio’s 49ers and only got cut because of off-the-field issues.

However, McDonald got arrested again after signing with the Bears and was immediately cut. It’s no harm, no foul on the part of the Bears because he never played a snap or made a dime. Some will all the Bears enablers, but that assumes that McDonald wasn’t going to get arrested anyway. If anything, the Bears gave him a reason to stay clean, but he just couldn’t do it and they let him go. The Bears really could have used him though. That being said, Ego Ferguson, their 2nd round pick in 2014, was drafted with Paea leaving as a free agent in mind. After playing 318 non-descript snaps as a rookie, Ferguson will be a starter in 2015 at 3-4 defensive end in 2015. He’ll be tough to rely on, but there’s upside with him, particularly as a run stopper.

Jay Ratliff will be the other starter. The veteran looked like he was done at this time last off-season, missing 21 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, getting cut mid-season by the Cowboys, struggling in 5 games down the stretch with the Bears, and going into his age 33 season. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle last season on 474 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps at the position and grading out better. He still missed 5 games with injury last season and, with his injury history and his age, as he goes into his age 34 season, he’s very unlikely to play as well as he did last season. However, he could still be a capable starter at worst.

Will Sutton and Jarvis Jenkins will be reserves on the defensive line. The former has the size to play nose tackle if needed at 6-0 315, but the 2014 3rd round pick graded out 70 out of 81st eligible defensive tackles on 465 snaps as a rookie. Jarvis Jenkins, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent from Washington where he was a starter last year, but he came very inexpensively (1 year, 745K) because he struggled mightily in the first 4 years of his career in Washington. The 2011 2nd round pick graded out 45th out of 47 eligible last season and has never graded out above average. The Bears will hope that neither has to play very much this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I don’t expect either of them will. In fact, most of the Bears’ 3-4 defensive linemen will be primarily base package players who will see very few snaps in sub packages as interior pass rushers. Ratliff is their only decent or better interior pass rusher on the defensive line and both of the Bears’ starting base 3-4 outside linebackers are very comfortable rushing for the interior in sub packages. LaMarr Houston has been a 4-3 defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid throughout his career, while Pernell McPhee saw significant playing time outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle in Baltimore, where he spent the first 4 years of his career from 2011-2014.

McPhee was signed as a free agent this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. The 6-3 278 pounder is supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle. He’s never played more than 540 snaps in a season, so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter, and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. However, he’s also only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the better front 7 players in the game if he’s given a bigger role. He was a great add on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal.

Houston, meanwhile, was signed as a free agent last off-season (5 years, 35 million), after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. He was decent on 405 snaps last season, but missed 8 games with a torn ACL. He is only going into his age 28 season, will be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, and never missed a game with injury in the NFL prior to last season, so I like his bounce back potential. The 6-3 305 pounder graded out 20th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively before signing with the Bears. Getting him back from injury is like adding another free agent, along with McPhee. They’re both very big outside linebackers at 278 and 305 pounds, but they’ll only play there in base packages and see the majority of their snaps inside in sub packages. They should both be able to make significant positive impacts at both spots.

The Bears have a ton of depth at outside linebacker too with guys like Jared Allen, Willie Young, Sam Acho. They’ll see significant roles, primarily as edge rushers in sub packages. The former two were the Bears’ leaders in snaps played at defensive end last season with Houston hurt. Allen has had a fantastic career. He has 134 sacks in 11 seasons in the NFL, most among active players and 9th most all-time, setting him up with a really good Hall-of-Fame case. However, he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out above average last season, he only ranked 19th among 4-3 defensive ends, which is a significant fall from his prime, and he also graded out below average in 2013. He also hasn’t graded out above average against the run since 2011, so he’s best off as a mere situational pass rusher at this stage of his career. He’s never played in a 3-4 in his career, but he’ll rarely have to drop in coverage in his expected role, so that doesn’t really matter.

Acho was a free agent acquisition this off-season, signing for 745K on a one-year deal. He was a 4th round pick by the Cardinals in 2011. He made 26 starts in his first 2 seasons combined, but it was clear he was forced into starting action too quickly, as he graded out 25th out of 28 eligible in 2011 and 31st out of 34 eligible in 2012. In 2013, he played just 104 snaps in 3 games (2 starts) before going down for the season with a broken leg, but he bounced back to grade out above average in 2014 for the first time in his career, doing so on 483 snaps.

Willie Young, meanwhile, graded out below average last season, though he did grade out 15th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 with the Lions in his first career season as a starter and he has graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league since the Lions took him in the 7th round in 2010. The 6-4 254 pounder is a good fit as a situational pass rusher. With so much depth at outside linebacker and no real dominant interior pass rushers, it makes sense for the Bears to regularly use Pernell McPhee, LaMarr Houston, and two of Jared Allen, Willie Young, and Sam Acho as their primary pass rushers in sub packages.

Middle linebacker, however, is serious a problem for the Bears. Jon Bostic, Lance Briggs, Christian Jones, and DJ Williams were their top-4 non-rush linebackers in terms of snaps played last season. They didn’t play well as a group, as Briggs was the only one to grade out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, but missed 8 games with injury and was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. Briggs played 12 seasons in Chicago and made 7 Pro Bowls, but his career might be over. He’s a borderline Hall-of-Fame candidate.

Williams is also gone as a free agent, while Christian Jones will compete for a starting job with free agent acquisition Mason Foster. Jones struggled on 443 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014 and doesn’t project as anything more than a reserve long-term. Unfortunately, Foster isn’t much of a better option. He was a starter from the word go in Tampa Bay, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2011. In 4 years with the team, Foster played 57 of 64 games, starting all but 3 of them. However, he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, including 43rd out of 60 eligible in 2014. There’s a reason he was available for 825K on a one-year deal as a free agent. He’ll probably be a starter by default again.

Bostic, meanwhile, will be the other starter, also largely by default, even though he’s never played more than 614 snaps in a season or graded out above average in his career. He’s still young, going into his 3rd year in the league and an age 24 season in 2015, so there’s still upside for the 2014 2nd round pick. He also made a big leap from his rookie year to his 2nd year, grading out 51st among 55 eligible middle linebackers as a rookie, but moving up to 25th in 2014. Still, it’s tough to count on him as an above average starter.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Bears drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round (14th overall) in 2014, in an effort to turn around their horrible defense from 2013. However, like 2nd round pick Ego Ferguson and 3rd round pick Will Sutton, who were drafted for the same reason, Fuller failed to make a positive impact as a rookie. Fuller flashed to start the season, but ended up struggling mightily overall, thanks in large part to a variety of injuries he dealt with. Fuller didn’t miss a game, but hip, knee, and hand injuries undoubtedly had something to do with his poor season, as he graded out 107th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie. The Bears are really hoping that he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, with those injuries behind him and a full year of experience under his belt. There’s obviously no guarantee though.

More likely, Tim Jennings will remain the Bears’ top cornerback. Jennings is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he’s graded out above average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. The days of him grading out 15th among cornerbacks like he did in 2010 and 2011, or 7th like he did in 2012 are probably behind him, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and could have another strong season as the Bears’ de facto #1 cornerback.

The Bears have a trio of safeties that will all compete for playing time, Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen, and Antrel Rolle. The former two led the position in snaps played last season, while Rolle comes over from the Giants on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal. Mundy is a late bloomer who never played more than 292 snaps in a season in the first 5 years of his career from 2008-2012 and who only graded out above average once in that time frame. However, he’s graded out slightly above average in each of the last 2 seasons on 667 snaps in 2013 and 966 snaps in 2014. Going into his age 30 season, it’s hard to depend on the journeyman, but he’s their best safety and should be a starter once again.

Vereen, meanwhile, played 512 nondescript snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2014 and could lose his starting job to Rolle, who was clearly signed to play a significant role, as evidenced by his contract. The problem is Rolle isn’t very good and he’s also old, so he’s certainly not getting any better any time soon. He’s graded out below average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 33 season and coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 87 eligible. The Bears would be better off leaving Vereen as the starter just to see what the youngster has. Rolle seems like he’s done and just no one told the Bears.

One option for the Bears could be to play 3 safeties in sub packages, bring in Vereen, and move Rolle to slot cornerback, where he has experience from earlier in his career. He won’t be better at slot cornerback and would also struggle there, but if they insist on playing him as an every down player, this would allow them to get Vereen some action and take care of a slot cornerback position where there isn’t a clearly good option.

Those options include Alan Ball, Tracy Porter, and Demontre Hurst. The former two were cheaply signed free agents (1 year, 3 million, and 1 year, 870K million respectively), while the latter is a 2013 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on 373 snaps in 2014 in his first career action. Ball would seem to be the favorite of the bunch because he’s the highest paid. Ball, a 2007 7th round pick, graded out below average 5 of the first 6 seasons in his career, but has played decently over the past 2 seasons in Jacksonville. He graded out 22nd among cornerbacks on 1020 snaps in 2013 and then graded out above average again in 2014 in 7 games before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. He’s a decent player, but also a journeyman with no upside going into his age 30 season.

Porter, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick of the Saints in 2008 and played well in 2008 and 2009, including a pick six in Super Bowl XLIV, but he hasn’t graded out above average since 2009. He graded out 103rd among 110 eligible cornerbacks in Oakland in 2013 and still managed to get a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal from the Redskins last off-season. He predictably flopped in Washington, grading out below average on 89 snaps and getting cut this off-season. He’s a depth cornerback at best. The Bears’ front 7 should be better than it was last year and, as a result, the defense should be better overall, but the secondary is still a real problem.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I’ve outlined, the Bears should be better in 2015 on both sides of the ball, after a 5-11 season in 2014. Jay Cutler should bounce back from the worst season of his career, the additions of Kevin White and Eddie Royal should make up for the loss of Brandon Marshall, while the addition of Pernell McPhee more than makes up for the loss of Stephen Paea. They also should have significantly fewer injuries than they did in 2014, when they were one of the most injury prone teams in the NFL. Importantly, guys like Matt Slauson and LaMarr Houston will be back, after missing large chunks of last season. Neither one has a history of injuries so both should bounce back to their original form, which is consistently above average. I don’t know if this gets them into the playoffs or anything, but the arrow is pointing up. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bears after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 4th in NFC North

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Washington Redskins 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2012, the rookie year of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson, it was a legitimate debate which of the three was the best and a debate that Griffin often won. He won with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award voters, who gave him that award in 2012 ahead of Luck and Wilson. It all seemed well deserved, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback that year, and he seemed to have an incredible future ahead of him. Instead, while Luck and Wilson saw their careers progress, Griffin’s potential came to a screeching halt, as he’s had a pretty bad past two seasons.

It all started with an ACL tear suffered in a playoff loss to the Seahawks to end the 2012 season. Griffin made it back for week 1 in 2013, but he wasn’t the same, completing 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. His rushing totals fell from 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries in 2012 (6.79 YPC) to 489 yards and 0 touchdowns on 86 carries in 2013 (5.69 YPC). He missed the final 3 games of the season, in part to rest his knee with the season essentially over, in part because the organization wanted to get a better look at backup Kirk Cousins.

Griffin’s 2014 should have been better, but he didn’t bounce back. Excuses can be made. He suffered another injury, dislocating his ankle in week 2. He was never a good fit for new head coach Jay Gruden’s offense and Gruden never gave him a fair chance and refused to tweak his offense for him. It was evident all season long that Gruden never really thought much of the quarterback he inherited, even leaving him on the bench when healthy upon return from injury for a little bit to test out other quarterbacks.

Griffin enters 2015 as the starter, if only for lack of a better option, as only Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy return as alternatives again. However, Griffin is still an injury prone quarterback who hasn’t produced good tape since 2012 (the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus) and who isn’t a great system fit for his head coach’s quick drop back, quick throw offense. If he plays like he did last season, when he graded out 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks, the Redskins could pull the plug on him for good. They picked up his 5th year option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so if he can’t prove he’s worth that 16.2 million, the Redskins won’t give it to him. Griffin is likely playing for his next contract this season, but it’s unlikely that contract comes from Washington.

As I mentioned, the other Redskin quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, are not better alternatives. Cousins is a 2012 4th round pick who has played horribly over the past 2 seasons since flashing in limited action as a rookie. He’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in his career. McCoy, meanwhile, is a 2010 3rd round pick and is on his 3rd NFL team already, bouncing from Cleveland to San Francisco to Washington. He drew a few starts last season, but once again showed what’s been clear for his whole career, that he isn’t anything more than an NFL backup. He’s completed 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in the NFL. The Redskins better hope Griffin can flash his rookie year form, otherwise they’ll be in trouble this season. Gruden would be wise to study Griffin’s 2012 tape to figure out how he can tweak his offense to best fit his skill set.

Grade: C

Running Backs

One of the side effects of Robert Griffin’s diminished performance over the past two years has been the decreased productivity of the running game as a result. And I’m not just referring to Griffin’s own decreased rushing productivity. When Griffin was at his best in 2012, he was a dual threat that forced opponents’ defenses to stay honest with both his arm and his ability to take off and run. That made life easier for starting running back Alfred Morris. Over the past two years, however, Morris has seen his YPC drop from 4.81 in 2012 to 4.62 in 2013 to 4.05 last season. Morris’ YPC particularly dropped from 2013 to 2014 for two reasons. One was that his run blocking was much worse than it was in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. The second was that Morris really missed the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme that always gets the most out of running backs and offensive linemen. The latter is likely related to the former as well.

There are a lot of good things about Morris. His career YPC of 4.52 is solid and he’s graded out above average in pure running grade in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, with the exception of last season, when he only graded out slightly below average in that aspect. He also hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons in the league and his 876 carries over the past 3 seasons is 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind only Marshawn Lynch. He’s been an absolute steal since the Redskins drafted him in the 6th round in 2012. However, he’s not a great fit for Jay Gruden’s system and he’s a poor pass catcher, grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and totaling just 37 catches in 48 games over that time period.

The Redskins drafted Matt Jones in the 3rd round of the draft and have been heaping praise on him this off-season, some of which I’m sure is deserved. Jones is unlikely to cut much into Morris’ workload as a runner this season, but he’ll play a significant role on passing downs like Roy Helu did last season. Helu had 42 catches and 40 carries in 2014 and Jones could easily surpass both of those and push Morris below his career low of 265 carries. Jones is also likely seen as the feature back of the future, which means that, like fellow Shanahan draft pick Robert Griffin, Morris is auditioning for a new contract that will likely come from another team in the final year of his rookie deal this year.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Redskins’ offensive line struggled in their first season with Jay Gruden as the head coach and the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme gone. They went from grading out 4th in team pass protection grade and 9th in team run blocking grade in 2013 to 10th and 24th in 2014. The biggest issue was at right tackle, where Tyler Polumbus went from Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2013 in 16 starts to 62nd out of 84 eligible in 7 starts in 2014. Tom Compton also saw significant playing time at right tackle and graded out 68th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. Seeing the position as a big need, the Redskins drafted Brandon Scherff with the 5th overall pick in the draft. He’ll be an immediate upgrade, but the Redskins definitely reached for him that early. He did not grade out like a top-5 pick on College Football Focus and was seen as one of the biggest reaches in the draft by them.

The other big difference from the 2013 offensive line to the 2014 offensive line, aside from the significant decline in performance at right tackle, was the addition of Shawn Lauvao in free agency. Handpicked by Jay Gruden as a strong fit for his blocking scheme, Lauvao was given a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. He made 15 starts at left guard, but graded out below average overall, no surprise considering he’s never graded out above average in his career, dating back to his rookie year in 2010. The former 3rd round pick has 59 career starts, but has never been much better than a borderline starter.

Lauvao’s arrival pushed Kory Lichtensteiger from left guard in 2013 to center in 2014. Litchtensteiger played well at center, grading out 9th among centers last season, but Will Montgomery, their 2013 center, already was a solid starter, grading out 15th among centers in 2013 and then continuing to play well in his next stop in Denver in 2014. He just wasn’t a good fit for Gruden’s new offensive system so he was released. Lichtensteiger should continue to play well in 2015, having graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, both at center and guard, but there’s no denying that the Montgomery for Lauvao swap upfront hurt this offensive line.

Speaking of guys who were released for not being a good fit for the offense, Chris Chester was let go this off-season, despite grading out above average last season. He was going into his age 32 season and was owed 4 million non-guaranteed, but it’s rare that teams just cut functioning starters unless they’re really overpaid. Spencer Long, more in the mold of what Gruden looks for in an offensive lineman, will take over, despite playing just 18 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s completely unproven and 3rd round picks more often than not never develop into solid starters, so I don’t have a lot of hope for him.

The only constant on the offensive line from 2013 to 2014 was that Trent Williams remained by far their best offensive lineman, regardless of scheme. He didn’t grade out #1 among offensive tackles again in 2014 like he did in 2013, but very few players are able to repeat that kind of season. Williams still graded out 18th at his position, despite dealing with some nagging injuries in the 2nd half of the season, making it 3 straight years that he’s graded out top-18 at his position. Only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Joe Staley can also say that. Only going into his age 27 season, Williams should be dominant once again in 2015. The Redskins hope to lock him up long-term ahead next off-season, when he’ll hit free agency. He makes the offensive line a look a lot better, but they still have a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

One player who saw a big decrease in production from 2013 to 2014 was Pierre Garcon, who had a 113/1346/5 slash line in 2013 and only a 68/752/3 slash line in 2014. Garcon averaged 2.38 yards per route run in his first 2 seasons in Washington in 2012 and 2013 combined, including a 2012 season where he missed 6 games with injury and was limited in several others. That number fell to 1.37 in 2014. However, that wasn’t totally his fault as the addition of DeSean Jackson opposite him took away lot of his targets, as he went from 174 in 2013 (2nd among wide receivers) to 99 in 2014 (38th among wide receivers). He was targeted on 28.6% of routes run in 2012-2013, but that fell to 18.1% in 2014 upon Jackson’s arrival.

The Redskins have spoken on several occasions about how they need to get Garcon the ball more in 2015, but the 2008 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in his career outside of 2012 and 2013 and maxed out at 25th among wide receivers in his best NFL season (2013), so maybe that’s not the best idea. He’s purely a volume receiver and not one who can take the top off of the defense or gain a lot of yards after the catch. Jackson, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers in pass catching grade last season, is the better receiver.

Jackson put up good numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns, though he could see fewer targets in 2014 if the Redskins are serious about featuring Garcon more. That being said, Jackson only saw 87 targets in 2014 as strict deep threat so it wasn’t like the Redskins were forcing the ball to him on every play like they did with Garcon in 2013. He’s never been consistently as good as he was in 2013 with the Eagles, when he graded out 8th among wide receivers and caught 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and has surpassed 1000+ yards 4 times in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Eagles in 2008. His skill set and Garcon’s skill set complement each other well.

The problem is the Redskins’ receiving depth after Jackson and Garcon. Andre Roberts flopped in the first year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal last season, grading out 86th among 110 eligible (including 108th in pure pass catching grade) as the Redskins’ 3rd receiver. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as he’s never graded out above average once in his 5-year NFL career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010 by the Cardinals. That includes a 2011 season in which he graded out 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and a 2012 season in which he graded out 102nd out of 105 eligible wide receivers. The contract that the Redskins gave him was a big mistake. They’ll hope that either Ryan Grant or Jamison Crowder can push him for snaps this season. The former is a 2014 5th round pick who struggled on 187 snaps as a rookie last year, while the latter is a 4th round rookie. Neither projects as much of an upgrade.

Niles Paul led all Redskin tight ends in snaps played last season with 585. One of Mike Shanahan’s pet projects was converting the big bodied collegiate receiver into a professional tight end, after the Redskins drafted Paul in the 5th round in 2011. Ironically, he didn’t post good receiving numbers until Shanahan left, as Paul had 14 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown in the first 3 seasons of his career combined, but had 39 catches for 507 yards and a touchdown last season. He graded out about average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus, but, as you’d expect from a 6-1 224 pound former wide receiver, Paul struggled mightily as a run blocker, grading out 62nd in that aspect among tight ends out of 67 eligible. That led to him grading out 59th out of 67 eligible overall. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Redskins re-signed him to a 3-year, 6 million dollar deal this off-season, but they’d probably still prefer him to be a complementary piece more than a starting tight end.

In order for that to happen, Jordan Reed will have to stay healthy, something the 2013 3rd rounder has yet to do in his career, missing 12 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He was dominant in limited action as a rookie, both as a pass catcher and a run blocker, grading out 7th among tight ends on 384 snaps, but took a step back in his 2nd year in the league, grading out slightly below average on 377 snaps. Only going into his age 25 season, there’s definitely upside here, but he remains tough to rely on.

Logan Paulsen is also in the mix at tight end, but he’s purely a blocker with 79 catches in 75 career games. Paulsen hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher since his rookie year in 2010 when he barely played, but the 6-5 264 pounder former undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a run blocker twice in the last 3 seasons. The Redskins really have to hope Reed can stay healthy to give them a 3rd option in the passing game.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Redskins didn’t just have problems on offense last season, moving the chains at a 70.34% rate, 21st in the NFL. Their defense wasn’t good either, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 73.24% rate, 24th in the NFL, leading to a -2.90% differential that ranked 25th in the NFL. Unlike the offense, where they didn’t really do much this off-season, they made some significant additions to their defense in free agency. On the defensive line, those significant additions were Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, who got a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal and a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal respectively from the Redskins this off-season. Both were solid deals.

Paea comes over from Chicago, where he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s a one-year wonder because he graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after the Bears took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he was a very solid value as a free agent and he has a good chance to have another strong year in 2015. He’ll move to defensive end in Washington’s 3-4. He wouldn’t seem to be a great scheme fit at 6-1 303, but he should be an immediate and noticeable upgrade over Jarvis Jenkins, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible last year. He’s gone as a free agent.

Knighton, meanwhile, will line up at nose tackle next to Paea. Knighton was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 12th ranked in 2014. I expected him to get a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million over 5 years, but he didn’t come close to that because of concerns about his weight. The big defensive tackle known as Pot Roast reportedly played around 330 last season, which seems to be a comfortable playing weight for him, given how well he played last season, but when a player is that big, there’s always a chance his weight gets out of control and it’s very possible that he’s gotten out of shape since the season ended.

That’s a very real concern, but this deal is still an absolute steal. Not only is it significantly less money annually that what I was expecting him to get, but there’s no risk beyond this season if he does show up to Training Camp overweight. On top of that, the fact that he could only get this type of deal could serve as a wakeup call for him and I like that he’s betting on himself with this type of deal. He’ll have every reason to remain motivated this season and that should translate to continued strong play. Even though he’s 330 pounds, he’s a decent pass rusher and has a good chance to stay on the field in some sub packages, meaning he won’t just be a pure base package, two-down run stopper.

At the other defensive end spot opposite Paea, Jason Hatcher, a free agent acquisition last off-season, will once again be the starter. Like Paea and Knighton, Hatcher was a great value on a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season. The 2006 3rd round pick has been a late bloomer, but has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, including the last 4 as a starter. Over those past 4 seasons, he’s graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends (2011), 4th among 3-4 defensive ends (2012), 8th among defensive tackles (2013), and then 10th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, in his first year in Washington. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but he could still have a strong season in 2015. He’s yet to really show any decline. He was the only Redskins’ defensive lineman to grade out above average last season, but he’ll have a lot more help this season.

Also coming in as a free agent is Ricky Jean-Francois, who the Redskins signed to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll provide valuable depth. In Ricky Jean-Francois’ first trip to the open market in two off-seasons ago, he was given a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal by the Colts, a very weird move considering RJF had played just 715 snaps in 4 season with the 49ers from 2009-2012, after they drafted him in the 7th round. He did flash, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, but he didn’t deserve that kind of deal then and it predictably didn’t end well. The Colts cut him this off-season after two seasons. He made 23 starts in 26 games with the Colts and graded out about average in both seasons, but the Colts didn’t see him as worth his salary for 2015. He’s a decent player though and one who is in a much more appropriate role at a much more appropriate salary now. The Redskins have turned this defensive line around in a hurry over the past 2 off-seasons.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Redskins did lose Brian Orakpo to free agency this off-season, as he signed with the Titans, but he missed 9 games with injury last season and graded out only 22nd among 3-4 outside linebackers as a result, so he won’t be missed too much. Trent Murphy, who played 595 snaps and made 8 starts in Orakpo’s absence as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, is a capable starter with upside. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. The Redskins also drafted Preston Smith in the 2nd round this year and the rookie will see some action as a rotational reserve in 2015. Murphy is a better run stopper than pass rusher so, if Smith develops well as a rookie, he could steal sub package snaps from Murphy down the stretch.

Along with Murphy’s promising rookie year and Orakpo’s history of injuries, one of the major reasons why the Redskins were comfortable letting Orakpo go is Ryan Kerrigan, who has emerged as a strong edge rusher and 3-4 outside linebacker on the other side. Kerrigan will once again play every down in 2015 after playing 1000 snaps in 2014 (5th most at his position) and he is expected to be signed to a long-term extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, with money that the Redskins saved by letting Orakpo go. Younger than Orakpo (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 29 for Orakpo) with no games missed in 4 years in the NFL, Kerrigan, a 2011 1st round pick, has graded out 19th, 7th, 26th, and 5th among 3-4 outside linebackers from 2011-2014 and deserves to be well paid going forward.

Things aren’t as good at middle linebacker. Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley were Pro Football Focus’ 44th and 48th ranked middle linebackers out of 60 eligible in 2014. Robinson is a 2012 4th round pick who had played 69 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined before struggling as a starter last season, so he doesn’t profile as a long-term starter. Riley, a 2010 4th round pick, played well to start his career from 2010-2012, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including as a 16-game starter in 2012, but he’s graded out well below average in each of the last 2 seasons so his stock is sinking. He’ll need to improve in 2015 if the Redskins are going to keep him at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary for 2016, his age 30 season. Without much of an internal alternative for either Robinson or Perry, they’re stuck with both again this season. Middle linebacker is a weakness in an otherwise quietly strong front 7.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While things in the front 7 are solid, the Redskins’ secondary is still a mess. Things were so bad at cornerback last season that they desperately missed DeAngelo Hall, who missed 13 games with a torn Achilles. Hall isn’t great, but those 3 games he played were the only 3 games the Redskins had anyone resembling an NFL starting cornerback out there. David Amerson, Bashaud Breeland, and EJ Biggers were the Redskins top-3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps played and they finished 108th, 99th, and 102nd respectively out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, meaning the Redskins regularly played 3 of the worst 10 cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

The Redskins did make a good move to fill a major need at the position by signing Chris Culliver, previously of the 49ers, to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. He was just a 3rd round pick of the 49ers in 2011, but he’s quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He had a significant role from the word go in 2011, playing 425 snaps and then 691 in 2012, grading out above average in both seasons, including 29th at his position in 2012. He missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, but he bounced back in a big way from that torn ACL in 2014 in his first full season as a starter, making 14 starts and grading out 14th at his position. On top of that, that 2013 ACL tear is really the only issue he’s had with injuries, missing a combined 2 games in his other 3 seasons as a pro. He’s easily the Redskins’ best defensive back.

That’s where the good news ends in the secondary for the Redskins. DeAngelo Hall will be the other starter likely. While he was their best cornerback last season, that was only by default as he still graded out below average. On top of that, he’s going into his age 32 season, coming off of a significant injury, and hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. The only reason he’s still on the roster at his non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is out of desperation. He’s a weak starter.

With EJ Biggers gone, Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson will compete for the #3 job. The organization seems to have soured on Amerson, a 2013 2nd round pick, and rightfully so, as he’s graded out 84th out of 110 eligible and 108th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks in the first 2 seasons of his career respectively. He’s unlikely to beat out Breeland and win this job. Breeland struggled as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 108 eligible, but the Redskins seem to think he can turn it around going forward. They don’t have much of a choice. They’re also probably hoping that Breeland can lock down a starting job, which would allow Hall to focus on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but I think it’s more likely that Breeland starts the season as the 3rd cornerback, playing outside in sub packages only and moving Hall inside in sub packages.

As bad as things were at cornerback, things at safety might have equally bad. Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark were the starters last season and they graded out 60th and 87th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively. Neither one returns to the Redskins in 2015, with the former still available as a free agent going into his age 32 season and the latter retiring ahead of his age 36 season. However, that doesn’t mean that their safety play will be much better this season.

Dashon Goldson was acquired to be one starter, coming over in a trade from Tampa Bay for a future late round pick. I’m shocked that the Buccaneers got anything for him, as he was heading into a year where he was owed 8 million, including 4 million guaranteed. The Buccaneers signed Goldson to a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar contract 2 off-seasons ago and he proceeded to be one of the worst safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. Goldson was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 and their 87th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014. He was better before signing that deal, back when he was in San Francisco, grading out 20th in 2012, but that’s still one of only two seasons in his career that he’s graded out above average. Going into his age 31 season, I don’t think he’ll be very good this season. Even though the Buccaneers are paying the 4 million dollar guaranteed part of his salary, the Redskins still owe him 4 million this season if he’s on the roster and I don’t see him being worth that.

Jeron Johnson is expected to be the other starting safety, after the Redskins signed him to a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. Johnson spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Seattle, stuck behind Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. He never played more than 130 snaps in a season as a result and only made 1 start, but he graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons. The 2011 undrafted free agent is still incredibly unproven and hard to trust, but new Redskins GM Scot McCloughan was in Seattle’s front office from 2011-2013 so maybe he knows something we don’t. More likely, Johnson is just the best of a bad group of options.

The Redskins also get Duke Ihenacho back from injury after he missed all but 5 snaps last season with a foot injury. He really struggled in his last significant action before the injury, grading out 72nd out of 86 eligible safeties in 2013 with the Broncos. He’s never graded out above average in his career since he went undrafted in 2012 and he’s not a legitimate starting option, even in this weak secondary. He’ll backup both Johnson and Goldson. Outside of Culliver, it’s a really thin secondary.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Redskins struggled on both sides of the ball last season. I don’t see their offense being much better unless Robert Griffin can flash his 2012 form, unlikely considering his injury history and the fact that he’s not a good fit for the system. However, they did add some serious talent defensively this off-season, with guys like Stephen Paea, Terrance Knighton, and Chris Culliver coming in. Brian Orakpo was their only significant loss in free agency and he missed most of last season with injury anyway, so that loss should be able to be nullified by youngsters Trent Murphy and Preston Smith. The Redskins are unlikely to make the playoffs or climb out of the cellar of a strong NFC East, but they should win a few more games this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Redskins after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC East

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Dallas Cowboys 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cowboys shocked a lot of people by going 12-4 last season and they were easily my biggest whiff last off-season, as I had them 4-12 in my season preview last year. I expected them to have historically bad defense and for the offense to not be able to compensate. Instead, both units vastly exceeded my expectations, the offense doing so by being one of the best in the NFL, finishing 4th in rate of moving the chains. Things were perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, with only one player playing more than 200 snaps and grading out below average, starting wide receiver Terrance Williams. Things were actually too perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, as they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury offensively last season. That’s unlikely to continue.

Speaking of being too perfect, Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, which won’t be as good again this season because of likely increased injuries and the loss of DeMarco Murray (more on that later). Part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the big off-season loss by the Cowboys offensively was DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) in 2014, before signing a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles as a free agent this off-season. While much of that was an offensive line that ranked 2nd in run block grade on Pro Football Focus’ last season and while he probably wouldn’t have been able to replicate that kind of season again in 2015 and while they made the right move not overpaying him, he will be missed. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back last season, a big part of their offensive success, and someone who took the pressure off of Romo in a big way. Romo’s 435 pass attempts were just 23rd among quarterbacks (though he did miss 1 game with injury).

The Cowboys surprisingly didn’t add a running back through the draft, so they’ll be relying on an underwhelming group of veterans this season and hoping that the offensive line will make them look good. I believe in their offensive line, but there’s only so good these running backs can be made to look and there’s no question in my mind that they won’t run the ball as well as they did last season. 2013 5th round pick Joseph Randle, a backup for the past 2 years, seems like the heavy favorite to be the lead back. Randle struggled mightily as a rookie, rushing for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on 54 carries (3.04 YPC), but flashed in limited action in 2014, rushing for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns on 51 carries (6.73 YPC). His career 4.83 YPC looks good, but he’s very unproven and wasn’t highly drafted so it’s hard to get too excited about him as the starter.

Free agent acquisition Darren McFadden projects as the primary backup. McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.19 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 4 seasons since, he’s played a total of 45 games out of 64 and he’s rushed for just 2234 yards and 13 touchdowns on 601 carries (3.72 yards per carry). On top of that, he has been under 3.4 yards per carry in each of the last 3 seasons. A change of scenery and better blocking could help him, but he’s not a good runner.

Lance Dunbar should have a decent sized role on passing downs. The 2012 undrafted free agent played a career high 140 snaps last season and was fantastic as a pass catcher, catching 18 passes for 217 yards on 82 routes run, a strong 2.65 average per route run. In his career, he’s rushed for 324 yards on 80 carries (4.05 YPC) and added 31 catches for 309 yards through the air. He’s graded out above average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but, with 284 career snaps, he’s incredibly unproven. Also in the mix is Ryan Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick who has played just 5 career games thanks to injuries, hasn’t played a snap since 2012, and has rushed for just 164 yards on 58 career carries, a weak 2.83 YPC average. He’s no lock to make the roster, let alone make a positive impact. It’s a weak bunch of running backs.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The Cowboys ranked 3rd in team pass protection grade and 2nd in team run blocking grade last season, with everyone who played more than 75 snaps on the offensive line grading out above average on the season. They return all 5 starters from last season so they definitely have the potential to be the best offensive line in football again, but they’ll need to avoid the type of major injuries upfront that they didn’t have last season. Left guard Ronald Leary missed one game with injury, while Doug Free missed 5 games, but that was it.

Free was re-signed by the Cowboys for 15 million over 3 years this off-season, a very solid deal for the Cowboys. He’s going into his age 31 season and he struggled mightily in 2011 and 2012, to the point where he was briefly benched down the stretch in 2012. He graded out 51st out of 76 eligible in 2011 and 68th out of 80 eligible in 2012. However, those two seasons were sandwiched in between 4 seasons in which he graded out above average, including 20th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. The 8-year veteran has made 83 starts for the Cowboys over the past 6 seasons and has generally played well.

In Free’s absence last season, Jermey Parnell made 5 starts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle on 388 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Pernell is gone, parlaying that strong stretch into a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars this off-season, but the Cowboys did add someone on the offensive line that helps make up for that.

The Cowboys signed La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent this off-season, essentially the same as getting a free 1st round pick, as Collins was a projected 1st rounder before his name was tied to the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Collins was the victim of poor timing as the story broke right before the draft and he wasn’t able to speak to police to clear his name until after the draft. Once he did and it was clear that Collins had nothing to do with it, he became an incredibly hot commodity as a free agent and he was a big pickup by the Cowboys.

A collegiate offensive tackle, Collins will probably move to guard with the Cowboys, a position many thought pre-draft would be his best pro position. He’ll compete at left guard with incumbent Ronald Leary. Leary, a 2012 undrafted free agent, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out below average both as a run blocker and a pass protector in 2013, but improved mightily as a run blocker in 2014, grading out 5th at his position in that aspect and above average overall. He’s never been a very good pass protector, which is why he could still lose out to the rookie, but, either way you look at it, the Cowboys have 6 legitimate starting offensive linemen once again, so they can probably manage one significant injury, like they did last year when Free went down.

Of course, if one of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, or Travis Frederick gets hurt, it will be very noticeable, as the talented trio all made 16 starts last season. Those are their 3 best offensive linemen. All three are recent first round picks and all three have panned out, which is how this offensive line has become so good, so quickly. Martin is the most recent first rounder, as he went 16th overall in 2014 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 16 starts at right guard as a rookie. The center Frederick was a first rounder the year before, grading out 8th among centers as a rookie in 2013 and then 2nd last season, while making all 32 starts.

Smith is the veteran of the bunch, going 9th overall in 2011. The USC product has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 25 season. He’s graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively. One of the best offensive tackles in football, the Cowboys locked Smith up on a 8 year, 97.6 million dollar extension, with 22.118 million guaranteed, last off-season. Barring major injuries, the Cowboys’ offensive line should be arguably the best in football again this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The receiving corps is another area where the Cowboys should expect to have more games lost to injury, as their top-5 wide receivers and their top-3 tight ends all played all 16 games last season. There’s already a chance that the Cowboys could lose a game from their most important receiver, Dez Bryant, without any injury, as he’s reportedly threatening to sit out the first game of the season in protest of his lack of a new contract, after being franchise tagged this off-season. It’s unclear how real of a threat that is and Bryant has shown up at the Cowboys’ facility a few times this off-season in a show of good faith, but it’s clear he’s serious about getting a long-term deal done that would pay him as the top wide receiver in the NFL and doesn’t want to play out 2015 on his 12.82 million dollar franchise tender with no long-term security.

Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player, but, in the unlikely case that he holds out into the season, he’d definitely be missed. The other concern the Cowboys have to worry about is that Bryant holds out deep into training camp and that hurts him during the season, as has been the case with players before.

If Bryant misses time, Terrance Williams would be the #1 guy, which is a problem because, while he’s a serviceable starter, he’s an unspectacular player. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out below average on 700 snaps as a rookie and then on 830 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley remains locked in as the #3 receiver and a pure slot specialist pretty much no matter what. He’s an ascending slot receiver who has seen his snaps go up in every season since he went undrafted in 2012, playing 128 snaps in 2012, 247 snaps in 2013, and 443 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. Devin Street is the #4 receiver and would see significant playing time if anyone missed time, a problem because the 2014 5th round pick played poorly on 150 snaps as a rookie.

At tight end, Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.

James Hanna was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 335 snaps, after the 2012 7th round pick graded out below average on 109 snaps as a rookie in 2012 and then on 315 snaps in 2013. He’s a serviceable #2 tight end in a smaller role, but the Cowboys would probably like 2013 2nd round pick Gavin Escobar to surpass him at some point. Escobar has been decent on 207 and 263 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively thus far in his career and could be deserving of a bigger role in 2015, as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and only his age 24 season. It’s still a strong offense, but the loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, they’ll have more injuries, and Tony Romo is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in his age 35 season.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

If the Cowboys are going to go to the playoffs again, they’ll probably need their defense to be better. Like their offense, their defense exceeded expectations last season, but, unlike their offense, they only did so by managing to not be one of the worst defenses in league history, as it looked like they could be on paper before the season. They still finished just 26th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, leading to an 8th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential.

How did the Cowboys exceed expectations in 2015? Well it was a combination of great coaching by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (underratedly one of the best in the business) and guys having breakout years. The latter was largely a product of the former. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end.

The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.

The problem at defensive tackle is everyone except Crawford. Henry Melton, Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season, is gone as a free agent. Nick Hayden remains, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s completely overmatched as a starter, grading out worst among defensive tackles in 2014 and 2nd worst in 2013. This should be no surprise, considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012, played just 33 snaps in 2011, and graded out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles in 2010. I have no idea what the Cowboys see in him, but he seems to be locked into a starting role for the 3rd straight season.

With Melton gone, either Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop will be the 3rd defensive tackle. The latter is a 2014 7th round pick who played 66 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average. The former is a 2011 3rd round pick who played so badly as a rookie (83rd out of 88 eligible in 2011) that he saw just 203 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined, grading out below average both times. The Cowboys actually got decent play out of him on 329 snaps last season, but he’s really hard to trust in a larger role. Also, neither he nor Bishop nor anyone else on the roster who could win the #3 job is anywhere near the pass rusher Melton was.

The Cowboys will probably use defensive end Jeremy Mincey inside in sub packages in obvious passing situations next to Crawford. He doesn’t have much experience inside and he’ll be undersized at 6-3 263, even in sub packages and even in a Rod Marinelli scheme that highlights the strengths of smaller defensive linemen, but he could get solid pass rush inside in certain situations next to Crawford. Mincey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in a bounce back season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and has a history of inconsistency.

From 2007-2009, Mincey played just 166 snaps, but he became a starter in 2010 and 2011, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2011. He turned that into a 4-year, 27.2 million dollar deal, but fell flat on his face in the first year of the deal in 2012, grading out 47th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Mincey continued not to live up to expectations in 2013 and also had injury problems and got himself cut mid-season, finishing out the year in Denver, before signing in Dallas as a free agent last off-season. He can be a solid player, but he’s tough to rely on and he’s aging. He’ll start outside in base packages this season, moving inside in sub packages.

In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent. If all things are right, he’ll start opposite Mincey, but the Cowboys signed Hardy knowing about his history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. The Cowboys were expecting 4-6 games, but the league instead handed down 10, which Hardy is appealing. There’s talk it could be shortened to 4-6 upon appeal.

Not to defend someone who did what he did, but I think 10 games is excessive given that he already missed 15 games last season. I realize that was team imposed and that he still got paid, but something like an additional 4 game league suspension and a 10 game league fine would be more appropriate, giving him some sort of credit for time already missed. A total 25 game suspension would be unprecedented for this kind of thing, especially a first offense.

The Cowboys would obviously be much happier with 4-6 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field. Whether he misses 4-6 games or 10 is going to matter a lot to this defense.

In his absence, the Cowboys will be counting on a pair of recent 2nd round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The former was a 2014 2nd round pick and was limited to 223 snaps as a rookie, in part because of injuries, while the latter is a 2nd round rookie. Lawrence did flash as a rookie though and Gregory was seen as a top-10 pick before he failed a combine drug test, weighed in under 240, and before concerns about his personal life and his mental health came up. Despite being seen as the best natural pass rusher in the draft class by many in the league before the draft, Gregory fell to the 60th pick, which makes him the definition of a boom or bust pick. With Hardy suspended and Mincey expected to play inside in sub packages, both youngsters should see significant action in 2015, particularly in pass rush situations. It’s tough to grade this unit without clarity on Hardy’s situation, but it’s a unit that has some talent, but a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The other breakout star the Cowboys had last season was Rolando McClain. Like Crawford, he’s part of the reason why this defense was at least passable at times. Out of the league entirely in 2013 because of off-the-field problems, McClain graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked middle linebacker last season. That’s no fluke, as the 2010 8th overall pick has been impressive whenever he’s been on the field in his career, grading out above average in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012.

The fact that he’s been arrested 3 times is concerning, as is the fact that he got kicked off the Raiders in the middle of a productive season in 2012. He suffered multiple concussions down the stretch in 2014 and was given a 4 game fine for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He received a very cold free agent market this off-season, settling for 3 million over 1 year with the Cowboys, but he’s so good whenever he’s on the field that he should be a bargain for the Cowboys, provided he can stay on the field.

Speaking of staying on the field, Sean Lee will return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2014 and caused the Cowboys to bring in McClain out of retirement in the first place. With McClain locked in at middle linebacker, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there. He should be an upgrade over Bruce Carter, who graded out 35th among 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

The Cowboys better hope he can stay healthy because, with Carter and Justin Durant gone as free agents, that would leave Anthony Hitchens, expected to only see two-down work opposite Lee, to play an every down role outside in Lee’s absence. Hitchens is a much better fit in a two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. The 2014 4th round pick graded out 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last year, but also graded out above average as a run stopper. Kyle Wilbur will back up all 3 spots and see action if anyone can’t stay on the field, but the 2012 4th round pick and one-time defensive end has never graded out above average in his career. It’s a strong group if everyone can stay on the field, but also an unreliable group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a serious problem going into the draft so they drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the first round. Jones won’t fix all their issues overnight though, as rookies, even talented ones, can be very tough to rely on. Sterling Moore (Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2014) is gone, but Brandon Carr remains, which is a problem. The Cowboys signed him to a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after he had graded out above average in 3 straight seasons from 2009-2011. However, he’s never graded out better than 52nd among cornerbacks in 3 seasons in Dallas and finished last season 90th out of 108 eligible. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s some bounce back potential here, but I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the team at his currently scheduled non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary, especially after the addition of Jones.

Orlando Scandrick will work as the other starter opposite Carr, with Jones playing the #3 cornerback role. Scandrick has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and 10th overall among cornerbacks in 2015. Scandrick turned that strong 2014 season into a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar extension this off-season, but is still signed for just 20 million over the next 5 seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, but he’s only going into his age 28 season and should once again be an asset for the Cowboys in the secondary and their top defensive back.

Things were not good at safety last year. There’s some talk that Jones could start his career at safety, but that would require a healthy Morris Claiborne at cornerback. The Cowboys are hoping that Claiborne, who missed 12 games with a torn patellar tendon last season, can contribute this season, but the Cowboys are used to being disappointed by Claiborne. After the Cowboys traded a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, he’s played in just 29 games in 3 seasons, missing 19 games with injury.

Claiborne has also never graded out above average in his career. His future certainly didn’t get brighter when he tore his patellar tendon, arguably the most significant lower body injury a player can suffer. The list of guys who have returned to form after such an injury is basically non-existent and Claiborne’s recovery reportedly isn’t going well, as he’s lost 15-20 pounds and is now down to 172 pounds. The Cowboys declined his 5th year option for 2016 this off-season, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and Claiborne will now head into his contract year with major questions around his future

That means Jones will likely stick at cornerback as a rookie, leaving JJ Wilcox and Barry Church to once again start at safety. Church wasn’t bad last season, but Wilcox graded out 76th out of 87 eligible safeties last season in the first extended starting experience of his career (he made 5 starts during a 2013 season in which he played 530 snaps). The 2012 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career and doesn’t profile as a starter long-term.

Church was better than Wilcox last year, but still graded out below average, something the 2010 undrafted free agent has done in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. However, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and has never really been that bad, grading out only slightly below average both times. He’s not a great player or anything, but he’s a serviceable starter and, unlike Wilcox, doesn’t need to be upgraded. It’s a weak secondary outside of Scandrick and possibly the rookie Jones though.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

This is still a talented team, but I have a hard time seeing them winning 12 games again this season. For one, winning 12+ games in 2 straight seasons is very tough to do and rarely happens. Two, the Cowboys were slightly worse than their record suggested last season, finishing just 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. Three, their offense probably won’t be quite as good as it was last season due to the loss of DeMarco Murray, likely regression in Tony Romo’s play, and likely more injuries. The defense gets Sean Lee back, but who knows for how long and the Cowboys didn’t have enough injuries defensively last season where they can point to that as a reason why they’ll be better this season.

Greg Hardy’s addition is important, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually get to play this season, while the losses of guys like Henry Melton and Sterling Moore will hurt more than people realize. Outside of Crawford, Scandrick, McClain and maybe Lee, Hardy, and Mincey, it’s a pretty thin defense. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they certainly won’t be guaranteed one. Obviously, much depends on Hardy’s availability. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC East

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Philadelphia Eagles 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2013, Nick Foles seemed to set the world on fire, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, after the 2012 3rd round pick took over for an injured Michael Vick early in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia. He had a QB rating of 119.2, actually the 3rd best QB rating all-time. However, that was largely the result of the system and the surrounding offensive talent, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback.

Chip Kelly always seemed to understand that and didn’t overvalue Foles. Because of that and the fact that Foles, who was drafted by Kelly’s predecessor Andy Reid, never was an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly wants from a quarterback in terms of having strong mobility and pocket presence, Foles was heavily shopped this off-season, after a down 2014 season. Last season, he completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, missed 8 games with a broken collarbone, and graded out 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks. It was very similar to his rookie year, when he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and graded out 31st among 38 eligible, so his above average 2013 season looks like a fluke now.

I have no problem with Kelly trusting his system and not seeing Foles as a long-term solution, especially with Foles going into the contract year of his rookie deal, with average or better quarterbacks getting boatloads over the past few years. However, I don’t think they got a fair return in the trade that sent Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Not only did the two teams swap quarterbacks, but the Eagles sent a 4th rounder and a 2016 2nd rounder to St. Louis for a 5th rounder, which suggests they see Bradford as an upgrade on Foles.

As lukewarm as I am on Foles, I disagree with the Eagles’ assessment. In 5 seasons in the NFL, Bradford missed 31 games (including 25 straight over the past 2 seasons with a twice town ACL), completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. He’s been better than his stats have suggested, as he always had horrible supporting casts in St. Louis, and he actually graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013 before his extended absence, but he’s still very tough to trust, especially coming off the injury. Early reports of him at practice haven’t been great.

The Eagles are also in the same situation contract wise with Bradford as they were with Foles as both are in the final year of their rookie deals, but the difference is Bradford’s rookie deal was the #1 overall’s under the old CBA, while Foles is a former 3rd round pick whose deal was signed after the new CBA passed. That means that Bradford is owed just under 13 million this season, while Foles is under a million.

For that reason, many thought the Rams would outright cut him this off-season. Certainly I don’t think anyone would have thought they could have gotten a 2nd round pick and a cheap functional quarterback for him. Many also thought the Eagles just acquired Bradford to flip to the Browns for a first rounder to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who Kelly coached in college, but Bradford wasn’t even in their final offer for Mariota, so it’s clear they legitimately like Bradford. Bradford is a decent fit for Kelly’s offense and Kelly should be able to get the most out of him, but it’s unclear how much that actually is.

With Bradford’s health looming large, his backup is relevant. That backup is still Mark Sanchez, who backed up Foles last season and made 8 starts in his absence. Everyone was quick to say that Mark Sanchez had turned it around in Philadelphia last year working with Chip Kelly instead of Rex Ryan, but Sanchez was still a backup caliber quarterback. Overall though, he really didn’t turn it around. He completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Out of the league in 2013 because of injury, Sanchez has ranked 27th (2014), 37th (2012), 36th (2011), 27th (2010), and 39th (2009) on Pro Football Focus since being drafted in the first round by the Jets in 2009. He’s somehow made 76 starts over that period of time. If he has to make starts, the Eagles will be in trouble, as his previous employers have been when he’s had to start.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, part of Foles’ success in Philadelphia was his supporting cast. The Eagles don’t have quite the same supporting cast as they used to though, which hurts Bradford’s chances. It’s still better than what he was used to in St. Louis, but that’s not saying much. Last off-season, it was DeSean Jackson getting cut after a career best 82/1332/9 year in 2013 because the Eagles thought he was overpaid. That wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been because the Eagles had Jeremy Maclin coming back from injury and he had a career best 85/1318/10 year in 2014, grading out 14th among eligible receivers, but now he’s gone too. I don’t blame them for not matching Kansas City’s 5-year, 55 million dollar deal as that’s a lot for a guy with one career 1000+ year, but there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.

In order to replace him, the Eagles drafted Nelson Agholor in the first round and are expected to give a bigger role to 2014 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews. As a rookie, Matthews caught 67 passes on 98 targets (68.4%) for 876 yards and 8 touchdowns on 484 routes run, an average of 1.81 yards per route run, grading out above average as a pass catcher on 779 total snaps as the #3 receiver, primarily focused on the slot. He’ll see more action this season and could be their leading receiver. Rookie wide receivers usually don’t produce like he did as a rookie, as even first round pick wideouts have averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns as rookies since 2005, even when you include last year’s insane wide receiver class, which is not the norm. That’s good news for Matthews, who could push for 1000+ yards, but also a reminder that Agholor could take a year or two to be what they think he’ll be.

Riley Cooper and Josh Huff will compete for the #3 job, largely playing outside with Agholor and Matthews both seeing significant snaps in the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Huff, a dynamic kick returner, graded out below average on 210 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year, but has a good chance to win the #3 job because of how horrible Riley Cooper was last season. The veteran caught 55 passes on 91 targets (60.4%) for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns on 561 routes run, an average of 1.02 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver as a result.

The big 6-3 222 pounder showed an incredible inability to get separation or gain yards after the catch and was infrequently targeted as a result, only redeeming himself slightly as a run blocker on the outside. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because the Eagles foolishly signed him to a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season and his 4 million dollar salary for 2015 is guaranteed whether he’s on the roster or not. It doesn’t guarantee him a role though, as the Eagles will roll with the youngster if they feel they have to. The Eagles are hoping that Cooper flashes the form that got him that deal, when he graded out slightly above average in 2013, but that’s unlikely. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league, that 2013 season, and is the definition of a one-year wonder.

With Maclin leaving, the Eagles are likely to use more two-tight end sets at the expense of three-wide receiver sets. That looked like the case to many people last season as well, with DeSean Jackson leaving, and it never really panned out, but that was because of Jeremy Maclin’s return from injury. They don’t have anyone like that walking through those doors this year with Agholor likely at least a year or two away, so a greater focus on tight ends makes a lot of sense, especially since Bradford has always liked to focus on the short to intermediate parts of the field, thanks to limited deep ball arm strength.

Brent Celek has been the Eagles’ starting tight end for many years, but the added focus on tight ends should benefit “#2” tight end Zach Ertz more than anyone. Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.

Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Maclin gone and Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. If the Eagles want to get their best players on the field regardless of position in the receiving corps, frequently going two-tight ends with Agholor, Matthews, Ertz, and Celek makes a lot of sense.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Eagles also suffered a major loss on the offensive line as they released Evan Mathis, who graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury last season. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded his contract be dealt with, rightfully so, as Mathis was owed just 5.5 million in the final year of his contract. He wanted either long-term security or a short-term pay raise and the Eagles were unwilling to give him either. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s still unsigned as of this writing, but he’s expected to get both more money annually and more years on the open market. He’s going to be missed in Philadelphia.

Allen Barbre is expected to start in his absence. He graded out above average last season, but went down for the season with a season ending ankle injury week 1, starting at right tackle in place of the suspended Lane Johnson. Prior to last season, the 2007 4th round pick had never graded out above average, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get from Mathis. He was originally supposed to be the starter at right guard, where Todd Herremans was also let go this off-season. Herremans struggled mightily last season (57th out of 78 eligible) and missed 8 games with injury so he won’t be missed immediately, but he played well as recently as 2013 so the Eagles have gone from really strong to really weak at the guard position really quickly.

With Barbre switching sides, it’s unclear who will start at right guard. Matt Tobin is reportedly the favorite, but he’ll face competition from Andrew Gardner and maybe even Dennis Kelly. None of them are good options. Tobin made 7 starts last season when Mathis was hurt and finished 52nd out of 78 eligible guards, after not playing an offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Gardner also graded out below average last season on 683 snaps, struggling mightily in 2 starts at offensive tackle early in the season, but playing decently in 6 starts at guard down the stretch.

The big 6-7 304 pound converted tackle is probably a better option than Tobin, but the 2009 7th round pick has never graded out above average in a season in his career and he had never played more than 35 snaps in a season prior to 2014, so he’s a very uninspiring option in his age 29 season. The longshot Kelly has also never graded out above average in his career, since the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round in 2012. He struggled on 202 snaps last season, didn’t play a snap in 2013, and was horrible in 2012, grading out 70th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.

On the other side, the Eagles have a much younger player, as right tackle Lane Johnson will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.

The Eagles also have another young stud at center. Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s still talent upfront on this line, but they aren’t what they used to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Trading Foles for Bradford, releasing Mathis and Herremans, letting Maclin sign with the Chiefs, and drafting Nelson Agholor in the first round were not the only things the Eagles did to shake up their offense this off-season. They also made another trade earlier in the off-season, sending LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. The Eagles were seen as the clear losers of that trade, but I think that’s because people either didn’t take McCoy’s contract into account or overestimated how good McCoy was (or underestimated how good Alonso is, but that’s a point for another time).

It’s hard to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2013 production, when he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC) and added 52 catches for 539 yards and another two touchdowns through the air. It’s not that tough to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2014 production, when he rushed for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries (4.23 YPC) and added just 28 catches for 155 yards through the air. McCoy fell from being Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2013 to their 3rd worst in 2014.

Because of the 7.8 million in difference between McCoy’s and Alonso’s salary, the Eagles were able to sign DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back. The Eagles didn’t downgrade the running back position this off-season and basically got a free above average middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t overpay Murray, but the McCoy trade allowed their overpay of Murray to not be so bad. I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons.

For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.

Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. The Eagles had a strong run blocking offensive line last season, but the loss of Mathis deals a big blow to that.

The Eagles strangely also signed Ryan Mathews this off-season. What reportedly happened is they had a handshake deal with Matthews before they ended up signing Murray and didn’t want to go back on their promise so they kept Matthews as a backup. Going into last season, I thought of Matthews and Murray very similarly. Obviously, they both had very different 2014s, as Matthews missed 10 games with injury, but I think he’s still a good value on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal as a bounce back candidate.

Mathews obviously has an injury history, playing all 16 games just once in 5 seasons, missing 20 games combined, including 10 last season. However, when he’s healthy, he has feature back potential. In 2011, he rushed for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 attempts (4.91 YPC), with 50 catches for 455 yards. In 2013, he rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 attempts (4.40 YPC), with 26 catches for 189 yards and another touchdown. He’s a strong replacement if Murray gets hurt and will provide valuable, frequent breathers for Murray. The Eagles clearly plan to run the ball a lot in 2015 and I could see them getting like a 70/30 split with Murray seeing around 280-300 carries and Matthews seeing around 120-130.

Darren Sproles remains and, even with Murray and Matthews both in the fold, his role is so unique that it’ll likely remain unchanged. The only potential issue with Sproles is he’s going into his age 32 season, an advanced age for running backs usually, especially ones so reliant on speed. However, Sproles doesn’t see a ton of action, so he’s avoided a lot of hits in his career, and he’s also coming off of a fantastic season. Last season, he rushed for 329 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (5.77 YPC) and added another 40 catches for 387 yards through the air, grading out above average overall. Over the past 5 seasons, Sproles has graded out above average all 5 times and has been between 50 and 87 carries and 40 and 86 catches in all 5 seasons, while missing just 5 games with injury. I expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a bunch of personnel changes on defense this off-season, though everything on the defensive line remains the same. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan will continue to be the starters in base packages on Philadelphia’s 3-man defensive line. All 3 graded out significantly above average against the run, but only Fletcher Cox also graded out above average as a pass rusher. Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better.

Thornton is the other starter and, while he’s graded out 3rd and 8th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run in 2 years as a starter, he’s also graded out below average as a pass rusher both seasons. The 6-3 309 pounder is a great two-down base player, but that’s it. Nose tackle Bennie Logan is in a similar boat, though that’s naturally supposed to be a two-down position. After grading out below average in both aspects as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Logan improved his run play in 2014, but struggled so much as a pass rusher that he still graded out below average overall.

In sub packages, Logan comes off the field, as does Thornton, and pass rush specialist Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are the primary interior pass rushers. The 6-3 266 pound Curry is basically the polar opposite of the bigger Thornton. He struggles against the run, but is a very tough interior pass rusher. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in his current role for 2 seasons and has graded out 8th and 9th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade in 2013 and 2014 respectively, doing so on 322 snaps in 2013 and 397 snaps in 2014. He should play a similar role in 2015. The pieces on this defensive line fit together really well. The only difference between 2014 and 2015 could be that the Eagles had very few injuries on defense in general, 2nd in defensive adjusted games lost. They’re unlikely to have such good luck again in 2015.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will be the primary 3-4 outside linebackers and will also rush the passer off the edge in sub packages with Cox and Curry inside. The Eagles released Trent Cole this off-season, after 10 productive seasons with the team. The moved saved the Eagles 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million in cap space and Cole was going into his age 33 season, but Cole did still play well last season, grading out 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on the season. The Eagles are hoping that they can make up for that loss by giving Brandon Graham an every down role for the first time in his career. They opted to keep the younger Graham on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season, rather than retaining Cole.

That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.

Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.

Connor Barwin remains the every down player on the other side. He had 16 sacks last season, which is impressive, but when you take into account that he only added 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries on 349 pass rush snaps, he only ranked 6th at his position among eligible players in pass rush productivity, not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest. He also graded out below average both against the run and in coverage, leading to him grade out only 24th at his position, despite the big sack numbers.

That’s also not the norm for him as the 2009 2nd round pick has only graded out above average in one other season in his career, not including a 2010 season where he missed 15 games with injury. He’s never graded out better than 16th at his position. Going into his age 29 season, Barwin is still an asset and a solid starter, but he’s not as good as you’d think just from looking at pure sack numbers. The Eagles also have Marcus Smith in the mix. A surprise first round pick in 2014, Smith struggled in practice as a rookie and only made it onto the field for 74 underwhelming snaps. He should have a slightly bigger role in 2015, but he remains a clear backup.

Inside at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso is the big addition. Not only did the McCoy trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.

The McCoy trade looked like it would free up more than just McCoy’s salary, as Alonso’s arrival seemed like the end for DeMeco Ryans with the Eagles. Cutting him would have saved the Eagles 6.9 million in cash and cap space and seemed like a no brainer with Alonso and Mychal Kendricks seemingly locked in as the starters. However, the Eagles made the peculiar move to keep Ryans on a restructured 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal, with 4 million guaranteed in the first year.

They should have just outright cut him instead. Even forgetting the fact that Ryans isn’t necessary anymore with the Kiko Alonso trade, Ryans just isn’t that good. He’s coming off a torn Achilles that limited him to 8 games last season and he’s going into his age 31 season. He wasn’t horrible in those 8 games in 2014, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, his last healthy season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. The Eagles keeping him, but not Mathis baffles me.

Kendricks should be the other starter next to Alonso, though the Eagles did shop him this off-season, ahead of his contract year. His name was featured in some prominent trade rumors for Marcus Mariota and they also reportedly independent shopped him, but couldn’t find anyone willing to give up a 2nd round pick for a guy in a contract year. He could still get moved, but I think it’s likely he stays in Philadelphia for at least one more year.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. He and Alonso should form a strong middle linebacker duo as long as both are healthy, but it’s unclear what Ryans role will be behind them. At the very least, he should provide better depth than the likes of Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, who struggled in Ryan’s absence last year, but the Eagles need to avoid giving Ryans too much playing time at the absence of Alonso or Kendricks, who are clearly superior players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary is the unit where the Eagles arguably underwent the biggest changes this off-season, as they return just 1 of 4 starting defensive backs from last season. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are both gone, the former as a cap casualty and the latter as a free agent. They won’t really be missed as both graded out below average last season and finished 49th and 92nd respectively among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

To replace Williams, the Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from Seattle. Maxwell was at the top of my list of guys I expected to get overpaid this off-season and sure enough he was overpaid, as his deal is worth 63 million over 6 seasons, with 25 million over the first 2 years guaranteed. Maxwell was a 6th round pick in 2011, played 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined, and then broke into the starting lineup in 2013. He flashed top cornerback ability in limited action in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 494 snaps with 5 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better among cornerbacks in 2013.

However, Maxwell has never shown that kind of ability over a full season, grading out about average overall in 2014 as a 13-game starter (he missed 3 games with injury) opposite Richard Sherman. He was Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014 and allowed 63.4% completion. Things aren’t going to get easier for him now that he’s away from Seattle’s scheme, coaching, and supporting cast. He should be better than Williams was, but, considering Kareem Jackson got 8.5 million annually and Brandon Flowers got 9 million annually this off-season, it’s absurd that Maxwell got 10.5 million annually.

To replace Fletcher, the Eagles drafted Eric Rowe in the 2nd round and he’ll compete with veteran Nolan Carroll. The veteran would seem to have the upper hand right now. As the #4 cornerback last year, Carroll graded out above average on 388 snaps, including a week 17 start, and he also has prior starting experience back in his days in Miami. Carroll, a 2010 5th round pick, made 26 starts from 2011-2013, including 23 in 2011 and 2012 and 13 in 2013. He graded out slightly below average in both 2011 and 2012, but graded out slightly above average in 2013. He’s only a marginal starting caliber player, but he’ll function as a stopgap as Rowe develops. Rowe should slot in as the #4 cornerback as a rookie.

Brandon Boykin remains as the slot #3 cornerback. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years since the Eagles grabbed him as a steal in the 4th round in 2012 that he now wants to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles reportedly aren’t budging on that because they don’t think the 5-9 182 pounder has the size to regularly play outside and Boykin reportedly isn’t happy about this. Going into a contract year, this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia. In 3 years in the league, Boykin has graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He should have another strong season on 500-600 snaps as a slot specialist 3rd cornerback.

Safety Nate Allen also left as a free agent. He had an up and down tenure in 5 years in Philadelphia, but he graded out 28th among safeties last season and signed a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal in Oakland this off-season, so he will be missed. Replacing him will either be Earl Wolff or free agent acquisition Walter Thurmond. Wolff graded out below average on 538 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and then graded out below average on 79 snaps last season. Thurmond is reportedly seen as the favorite, but talent has never been the problem for the converted cornerback.

In 5 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 by the Seahawks, Thurmond has missed 44 games with injury and played in just 36 thanks to injury issues that date back to his collegiate days. Last year, in his only season with the Giants, he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral. If he can stay healthy, he could be solid at his new position. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback. Of course, he’s never played more than 480 snaps in a season and he might be undersized at safety at 5-11 183 and he’ll probably just get hurt again, but the upside is certainly there. Wolff would see starts if Thurmond got hurt and Eric Rowe could even see some time at safety as a rookie, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job at cornerback. The 6-1 205 pounder is a big corner and could fit in at safety in the short-term.

The only remaining starter from last season in Philadelphia’s secondary is Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins had a great first season in Philadelphia, after the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety, but it’s important to remember his inconsistent history. In 5 years in New Orleans, he only twice graded out above average and never finished higher than 33rd among safeties. He graded out 103rd among 107 eligible cornerbacks in 2009, 88th among 88 eligible safeties in 2012, and 65th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, given his history. This secondary is the weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles were the only 10 win team to miss the playoffs last season and they finished 16th in rate of moving the chains, 12th in opponent rate of moving the chains, and 12th in differential, which suggests they were a borderline playoff team. The Eagles made a ton of moves this off-season designed to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. I don’t expect their passing game to be better, losing Jeremy Maclin and going from Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez to a hobbled Sam Bradford and likely Mark Sanchez again at some point. The running game could be better because DeMarco Murray is coming in as a replacement for LeSean McCoy and McCoy really didn’t play well last year, but losing Evan Mathis, their top run blocker, really hurts.

Defensively, they should be solid again. They have same defensive line again and, while they lost Trent Cole, they add Kiko Alonso inside and Brandon Graham could have a breakout year in the biggest role of his career. The secondary still has problems, but, once again, the front 7 should prop up a mediocre back 4. Whether or not they break into the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on Sam Bradford’s health and his effectiveness. Injuries will likely strike more than they did last year, but their supporting cast on both sides of the ball is one of the best in the NFL overall. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC East

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