2016 NFL Season Predictions

AFC East

NE 11-5*

BUF 8-8

NYJ 7-9

MIA 6-10

AFC North

PIT 10-6*

CIN 9-7*

BAL 8-8

CLE 4-12

AFC South

TEN 8-8*

IND 7-9

HOU 7-9

JAX 7-9

AFC West

OAK 10-6*

SD 9-7*

KC 8-8

DEN 8-8

NFC East

PHI 9-7*

NYG 8-8

DAL 8-8

WAS 8-8

NFC North

GB 11-5*

DET 9-7*

MIN 8-8

CHI 6-10

NFC South

CAR 12-4*

TB 7-9

NO 6-10

ATL 6-10

NFC West

ARZ 12-4*

SEA 11-5*

SF 4-12

LA 4-12

Wild Card Round

Cincinnati over Tennessee

Pittsburgh over San Diego

Seattle over Philadelphia

Green Bay over Detroit

Divisional Round

New England over Cincinnati

Pittsburgh over Oakland

Arizona over Seattle

Carolina over Green Bay

Conference Championships

New England over Pittsburgh

Arizona over Carolina

Super Bowl

Arizona over New England

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Miami Dolphins 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Ryan Tannehill’s career progression was promising throughout the first 3 seasons of his career, as his quarterback rating increased every season, culminating in a 2014 season in which he had a 92.8 QB rating and finished 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Tannehill took a step back in 2015 though, on an offense that finished 31st in rate of moving the chains. His overall numbers weren’t bad, as his 88.7 QB rating was the 2nd best of his career, but his numbers are misleading because much of his production came in garbage time, on a team frequently playing from behind. In terms of QBR, which takes situations into account, he had the worst rating of his career. He completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 7.92 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when the Dolphins were trailing by 17+, but just 61.4% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in all other game situations.

Much of that’s not his fault though and he actually still finished 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, suggesting he’s not the problem with this offense. One major problem in 2015 was how much of the offensive burden was put onto Tannehill’s shoulder. Between pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback runs, Tannehill was involved on 663 plays last season, as opposed to 314 plays in which he wasn’t, a very high 67.9% usage rate for an average talent at best. Add in the poor play of Miami’s offensive line (more on that later) and you had an average quarterback dropping back to pass as frequently as anyone in the league, behind an offensive line that couldn’t protect him, trying to block a defensive line that knew the Dolphins were probably going to be passing. It wasn’t a winning formula. Tannehill took 45 sacks, as compared to 586 pass attempts, and couldn’t get into a rhythm in meaningful game situations all season.

Part of the reason they had to pass so frequently was because the defense was playing terribly, allowing opponents to move the chains at the 4th highest rate of any team in the league, but Tannehill should benefit from new head coach Adam Gase coming in, after both Joe Philbin and interim head coach Dan Campbell planned very pass heavy game plans all year last year. Not only will Gase bring more balanced play calling to the Dolphins, he’s also a gifted quarterback whisperer who has gotten the most out of both Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler in recent years. Tannehill has to be happy with the hire.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Tannehill also has to be happy that the Dolphins used their first round pick on an offensive lineman, to try and fix what’s been an annual problem in Miami throughout Tannehill’s career. At one point seen as a candidate to go #1 overall before the Rams and Eagles traded up into the top-2 to draft quarterbacks, Mississippi offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil was seen as a top-6 lock going into draft day, but fell all the way to the Dolphins at 13 because someone hacked his twitter account during the draft and posted a video of (presumably) him smoking weed out of a gas mask. Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked draft prospect, Tunsil figures to have a strong career if he can stay out of trouble and could have a big impact as a rookie at a position where the Dolphins struggled mightily in 2015.

He’ll start his career immediately at guard, with the long-term plan being to move him to left tackle, where the aging Branden Albert is currently the starter. Only going into his age 32 season, Albert should have a couple more solid seasons left in the tank, after grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons, including 27th in 2015. However, owed 8.9 million non-guaranteed and 9.6 million non-guaranteed in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with an obvious successor on the roster, Albert is no lock to be in Miami beyond this season. Tunsil will get his time on the blindside. For now, he and Albert should form a solid duo on the left side of the offensive line.

On the right side, the Dolphins get 2014 1st round pick Ja’Wuan James back from injury, after he was limited to just 7 games in his 2nd year in the league last year. James struggled mightily in 16 starts as a rookie, finishing 80th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but seemed much improved before the injury in 2015, finishing above average through 7 games. If he can continue that over the whole season in 2016, it’ll be a big boost to this offense and his first round pedigree suggests he has a good chance to.

While the Dolphins fill what were huge holes last season at left guard and right tackle with Tunsil coming in and James returning, their major hole at right guard was not filled this off-season. Veteran free agent acquisitions Jermon Bushrod and Kraig Urbik came cheap (1.5 million and 1.25 million respectively) for a reason. Bushrod has 96 career starts in 9 years in the league, but has graded out above average just once and was benched mid-season by the Bears last year. He’s also new to the guard position, spending all of his career thus far at offensive tackle. Urbik, meanwhile, was a 42-game starter at guard from 2011-2013, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, but has made just 13 starts over the last 2 seasons combined and graded out below average in both seasons. Going into their age 32 season and age 31 season respectively, neither is a good starting option.

However, their holdover options aren’t any better, as Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner, and Jamil Douglas finished 80th, 69th, and 82nd respectively among 82 eligible guards in 2015. Douglas didn’t even make the final roster. Thomas started all 16 games at left guard last season, but he’s one of the worst interior offensive linemen in the league. It’s not just how badly he played last season; he’s been horrible as a 25-game starter over the past 2 seasons. Turner was the best of the bunch last season in the first 12 starts of his career at right guard, but the 2014 3rd round pick still doesn’t look like a long-term starter. Whoever starts at right guard, it figures to be a position of weakness once again in 2016.

Speaking of center, that figures to be a strong position once again, as center Mike Pouncey finished 11th among centers last season. That was a bounce back year for him, as he was horrible in 2014, dealing with a hip injury all year and playing out of position at right guard. The 2011 1st round pick has finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among centers in his last 3 seasons at the position and figures to play well once again in 2016, only his age 27 season. With better play expected at left guard and right tackle, it seems like a much improved Miami offensive line.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The coaching change and the improved offensive line are the good news for Tannehill, but the bad news is this team lost arguably their best offensive weapon in running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.59 YPC in 4 seasons in Miami and finished last year 4th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Adam Gase still figures to try to implement a more balanced offense, but that offense won’t be as effective as it would have been if Miller were still around. The 4-year, 26 million dollar deal he signed with the Texans this off-season was a very reasonable value.

Instead, the Dolphins will turn to the man who Miller replaced in Houston, veteran Arian Foster. Foster is a big name, especially with the fantasy football community, but he’s going into his age 30 season and seems to be breaking down quickly, not uncommon for a running back. Foster has been limited to 25 games by injury over the past 3 seasons and didn’t even sign with the Dolphins until late July, as he was working his way back from a torn achilles he suffered last October, a very significant injury. The early training camp reports have been good and he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in his last healthy season (13 games) in 2014, but his best days are likely behind him.

Even if he locks up the starting job in training camp, which it appears he might, he figures to work in heavy rotation with one or two other backs, in order to keep fresh. The Dolphins like holdover Jay Ajayi, even though he averaged just 3.82 YPC on 49 carries as Miller’s backup last season and has a history of knee problems, and used a 3rd round pick on Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, even though he had just 233 carries in his collegiate career. As long as he’s healthy, Ajayi figures to be the primary backup and see a good amount of carries, while Drake will likely need someone to get hurt to see significant action. His best asset is his pass catching and Foster averages over 3 catches per game for his career, so he doesn’t offer them anything Foster and Ajayi don’t. It’s far from the best running back group in the league, but it’s a position with potential.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

With Miller gone, wide receiver Jarvis Landry becomes the Dolphins’ best offensive weapon. On an otherwise miserable offense, Landry finished last year with a 110/1157/4 slash line and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver, after posting a 84/758/5 slash line and finishing 16th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus on 683 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2014. Already a legitimate #1 receiver, Landry is still only going into his age 24 season, meaning his best years are still ahead of him. Even if the Dolphins run more often this season, another 1000 yard year seems likely for Landry.

With Rishard Matthews leaving as a free agent this off-season, 2015 1st round pick DeVante Parker is expected to become the other starter, after flashing on 468 offensive snaps as a rookie, 4th most on the team by a wide receiver. A broken foot suffered in the off-season put him behind the 8-ball early, but he played 365 snaps in the final 6 games of the season and caught 22 passes for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns over that stretch. That’s 59/1187/8 slash line over 16 games, very possibly a sign of things to come. He could easily have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league.

With veteran Greg Jennings also gone (307 snaps in 2015), Kenny Stills (594 snaps in 2015) is locked in as the 3rd receiver. Stills was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, posting a 63/931/3 stash line on 458 routes with the Saints (2.03 yards per route run), but was not a good fit in Miami in his first season, posting just 27/440/3 in limited playing time and grading out below average for the 2nd time in his 3-year career. In a new offense, there’s some bounce back potential here, so he’s not a bad bounce back candidate, but he could also be pushed for snaps down the stretch by 3rd round rookie Leonte Carroo, a possible steal who earned a high 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus. It’s a deep group of wide receivers.

The same is not true at tight end though. Starter Jordan Cameron posted an impressive 80/917/7 slash line in 2013 with the Browns, but benefitted from being on one of the pass heaviest teams in the league that season and still graded out below average overall because of his issues as a run blocker. He has never been good as a run blocker, but he also has only 59 catches for 810 yards and 5 touchdowns in 26 games combined over the past 2 seasons and is coming off of a 2015 season in which he finished 43rd out of 67 eligible tight ends. Dion Sims, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, but he was even worse than Cameron last season, finishing 63rd among tight ends, and has finished below average in all 3 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2013. Landry and Parker figure to dominate targets in a receiving corps that is much like their running backs, far from the best, but plenty of potential.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Dolphins made a big splash last off-season, bringing Ndamukong Suh in from Detroit as a free agent on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, then the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. However, they still surprisingly fell from 14th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014 to 29th in that category in 2015. Suh drew some criticism for his attitude a couple times during the season, but he was far from the problem, finishing 4th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s now finished in the top-4 at his position in 4 straight seasons, the only defensive tackle in the league who can say that, and, only going into his age 29 season, he figures to play just as well again in 2016.

He wasn’t the Dolphins’ only dominant defensive lineman last season, as Olivier Vernon finished 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. He signed with the Giants on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal this off-season though. Also gone is Derrick Shelby, who finished above average on 836 snaps last season, but signed a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal with the Falcons this off-season. The Dolphins would have loved to have kept both, but had next to no cap space to work with. The Dolphins kind of went all in on 2015 (which obviously didn’t work) and, as a result, couldn’t do much this off-season. Big deals (like the one they gave Suh) took up a lot of the Dolphins cap, leaving them with very little flexibility. The Dolphins have 8 different players with cap numbers of 8 million or higher in 2016.

As a result, the Dolphins will rely on bounce back years from a pair of veteran starters at defensive end. Mario WIlliams was signed to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over as a free agent from Buffalo after the Bills cut him this off-season. Williams struggled mightily in 2015, finishing 93rd out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, leading to his release, but graded out above average in every season from 2007-2014. Not completely over the hill, going into his age 31 season, Williams is now back in a 4-3 system that fits his skill set a lot better and he has obvious bounce back potential. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end as recently as 2014.

On the other side, Cameron Wake returns from a torn achilles that cost him the final 9 games of the 2015 season. Prior to 2015, he had missed just 3 games in the previous 6 seasons with injury and he finished in the top-4 at his position in all 6 of those seasons. He’s coming off of a significant injury and going into his age 34 season, but it’s possible he still has another couple solid seasons left in the tank. He’s not as sure of a bet as Williams to bounce back, but he has much better upside if he’s healthy, considering he was one of the best defensive players in the league prior to last season. Even last season, before the injury, he was playing at a pretty high level on 249 snaps. The Dolphins seem confident in his recovery, keeping him on a 2-year, 15 million dollar renegotiated contract with 10 million guaranteed this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his deal in 2016.

With two aging veterans at the position, the Dolphins’ depth will be key. They added veterans Andre Branch and Jason Jones in free agency and also get Dion Jordan back from a season long suspension. Branch made 13 starts in 51 career games in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, after they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, but graded out below average in all 4 seasons. Jones is older, going into his age 30 season, but he’s probably their best option behind the starters, with 65 career starts in 95 career games in 8 years in the league. He’s graded out above average in 4 of those 8 seasons, including last season on 542 snaps. At 6-5 278 pounds, he specializes in stopping the run and could see a good amount of action in base packages.

Jordan is the wild card of the group. He was actually the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but has been a massive bust thus far, playing just 560 nondescript snaps in 2013 and 2014 combined and then missing his entire 3rd season in the league in 2015 after being suspended for a 3rd failed test for performance enhancing drugs. Jordan has been reinstated and is being given a shot to make this team and possibly carve out a role. Only going into his age 26 season, I wouldn’t rule it out, but he’s unlikely to be a huge contributor on this team.

Meanwhile, Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips will compete for the other starting defensive tackle job, rounding out this 4-man defensive front. Both struggled in 2015, on 504 snaps and 430 respectively, but Mitchell has been an unremarkable player throughout his career, while Phillips is still young and was a relatively high pick, going in the 2nd round in 2015, so he’s probably the front runner. He’s no guarantee to improve in his 2nd year in the league, but he does still have some upside. It’s a defensive line that will miss some departed players and that is relying on some aging veterans, but there’s still talent here, led by Ndamukong Suh.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The back 7 was really the problem for the Dolphins in 2015. They will really need to improve in 2016 because the defensive line figures to take a step back this season on a defense that was not good last year anyway. The Dolphins made the weird decision to move down from the 8th pick to the 13th pick before the draft, in exchange for veteran defenders Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell from the Eagles. The Dolphins still got Tunsil at 13 (while the Eagles moved up further to take a quarterback at 2), but the draft trade value chart says that the Dolphins gave up a 3rd round pick’s worth of value to get Alonso and Maxwell, a steep price considering Alonso hasn’t been healthy in 2 seasons and only has one year left on his rookie deal, while Maxwell is owed 17 million over the next 2 seasons (11 million of which is guaranteed) and played terribly last season.

Alonso also played pretty terribly last season, when he was on the field, as knee problems limited him to 472 snaps in 11 games. He finished 92nd out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Alonso was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a 2nd round rookie in 2013, but hasn’t been the same since an ACL tear that wiped out his entire 2014 season. His knee problems and overall poor play last season can be traced back to that injury. The Dolphins are counting on him to fill a big hole at middle linebacker and he does have some bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, still only going into his age 26 season, but he’s not a reliable player. Even if he does play well in 2016, he’ll be a free agent next off-season, so I don’t understand giving up a 3rd round pick’s worth of value and taking on Maxwell’s horrible contract to get Alonso.

Alonso will play every down inside, while Jelani Jenkins remains as the every down linebacker outside. He wasn’t bad in that role last season, grading out slightly above average for the 2nd straight year. The 2013 4th round pick has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons and is an extension candidate ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Koa Misi will be the 3rd linebacker. He struggles in coverage, but will primarily play against the run as a pure base package linebacker in 2016, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s a good player against the run (finishing 13th among linebackers in run grade in 2015), so he’s a good fit in that role. If Alonso can bounce back, it’s a solid group, but that’s a big if.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Maxwell, meanwhile, was probably a negative value coming over in that trade, given his salary. Maxwell was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 484 snaps (5 starts) in 2013 with the Seahawks, but fell to 45th in 2015 as a 13-game starter. Despite that, the Eagles still foolishly gave him a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal last off-season (one of the reasons Chip Kelly is no longer in Philadelphia). Maxwell struggled mightily in his first season in Philadelphia, finishing 75th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it borderline miraculous that the Eagles found someone willing to take on his contract in a trade. It’s the Dolphins’ problem now. There’s very little bounce back potential here with a player who has never been that good as a full-time starter.

In order to make room for Maxwell’s deal under the cap, the Dolphins had to release last year’s #1 cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes wasn’t great in 2015 and might not have been worth his 7.8 million dollar salary in his age 33 season in 2016, but he played a lot better last season than Maxwell did. Also gone is Jamar Taylor, who was horrible on 712 snaps in 2015, finishing 108th among 111 eligible at his position. By sending him to the Browns for a late round pick, the Dolphins did a little bit of addition by subtraction.

That being said, the Dolphins didn’t have an obvious replacement on the roster for Taylor and might still get poor play from that cornerback spot this season. The Dolphins drafted Baylor cornerback Xavien Howard a round too early in the 2nd round. He’ll compete with 2nd year players Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett (both 5th round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft) for playing time behind Maxwell, as will free agent acquisition Chris Culliver when he’s healthy. McCain played just 308 nondescript snaps as a rookie last season, while Lippett played well, but did so on just 133 snaps.

Culliver, meanwhile, graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2014 (he missed 2013 with a torn ACL), including 14th as recently as 2014, which earned him a “4-year, 32 million dollar deal” with the Redskins in free agency last off-season. However, Culliver finished the 2015 season 110th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on just 350 snaps before another torn ACL (different knee) ended his season after 6 games. He also was suspended one game for an off-the-field infraction, which nullified the rest of his guaranteed money and allowed the Redskins to cut him after just one year and 7.8 million. The Dolphins didn’t even sign him until early August and he’s expected to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season, which severely limits his bounce back potential. The Dolphins might have the worst cornerbacks in the league this season.

Fortunately, their safeties are a lot better. Reshad Jones finished last season 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, the 3rd time in 4 seasons he’s finished at least 12th at the position. Jones had a bit of an up and down start to his career, but has turned into one of the better safeties in the league. Going into his age 28 season, Jones already has 74 career starts and should play well as a starter again in 2016. After Suh, he’s their 2nd best defensive player by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, Isa Adbul-Quddus and Michael Thomas will compete for the other safety job. Abdul-Quddus received a 3-year, 12.75 million dollar deal in free agency, which suggests he’s viewed as at least the favorite to start, after he finished 21st among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts last season. He’s only made 16 starts in his career since going undrafted in 2011, but has been serviceable at the very least whenever he’s been called on to play. Thomas, meanwhile, had 12 starts last season in the absence of injured veteran safety Louis Delmas and finished above average in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (12 starts). He has experience covering the slot in sub packages at 5-11 197 and could be a candidate for the #3 cornerback job, considering how thin they are at cornerback. They’re far deeper at safety than corner in an overall weak secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Dolphins finished last season with the 2nd worst rate of moving the chains differential last season and the 5th worst point differential, so it’s a long climb for them to get into the playoff race this season. They improved their offense by adding to their offensive line and hiring head coach Adam Gase, who will help a team that’s been one of the worst coached in the league over the past few seasons. However, they also lost talented running back Lamar Miller and their defense lost talented defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby. This isn’t a very talented roster and that should show on gameday.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC East

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New York Jets 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Despite missing out on the playoffs because of a week 17 loss in Buffalo, making them the only 10 win team in the league to miss out on the post-season, the Jets actually finished last season with the best rate of moving the chains differential in an AFC that was incredibly wide open and lacked an elite team in the regular season. The Jets finished 4th in the league in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.08%, behind Arizona, Carolina, and Seattle and just ahead of fellow AFC teams Cincinnati and New England. Just one of their losses came by more than a touchdown, while 6 of their wins came by 13 or more, so they were definitely better than their record and could have easily won 11 or 12 games and been a tough opponent in the playoffs had they made it.

That was a huge improvement over 2014, when they finished 4-12 and finished 28th in rate of moving the chains differential. Despite the strong season overall, their offense was merely okay, finishing 15th in rate of moving the chains, as they were carried by the league’s #1 ranked defense in rate of moving the chains allowed. Still, their offense was a major improvement from 2014, when they finished 26th in rate of moving the chains. Along with a huge improvement on defense (from 15th and 1st in rate of moving the chains allowed), that’s why they were so much better as a team in 2015.

The addition of veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick made a big difference. Fitzpatrick was far from good, completing 59.6% of his passes for 6.95 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions and finishing 30th out of 38 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he was a drastic improvement over Geno Smith, who completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. The 2013 2nd round pick made 29 starts in those 2 seasons and was a big part of the reason why this offense struggled mightily in both seasons, but he was limited to 42 pass attempts and didn’t make a start as Fitzpatrick’s backup in 2015.

The Jets were almost in danger of having to start Geno Smith once again in 2016, with Fitzpatrick hitting free agency this off-season. Fitzpatrick was unhappy with the Jets’ contract offers all off-season and held out long beyond the point where any other team had a starting job open for him. The Jets wanted to re-sign him for 24 million over 3 years, essentially high end backup money, with 12 million over that coming in the first year. Fitzpatrick wanted more money on the back end and ultimately the two sides agreed on the first day of training camp to a 1-year, 12 million dollar deal that allows Fitzpatrick to hit free agency again next off-season and possibly get more than the 12 million the Jets were offering him for 2017 and 2018 combined.

It’s a move that makes a ton of sense for both sides. The Jets had the cap space and the obvious need at quarterback, while Fitzpatrick didn’t have another real option other than retiring, ahead of his age 34 season. It might hurt the team that they didn’t have their starting quarterback for a lot of the off-season, but he’ll be present for all of training camp and it could easily prove to be a non-factor. He’s getting up there in age and has graded out above average just twice in eight seasons as a starter (102 starts), but he’s an obvious upgrade over Smith and gives them a good chance to be a capable offense again in 2016.

With Fitzpatrick returning, Smith goes from the likely starting quarterback to possibly off the roster. The Jets just used a 2nd round pick on Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and likely see him as the heir apparent to Fitzpatrick. Hackenberg could prove to be a huge reach in the 2nd round, as the one-time top recruit and promising true freshman starter struggled mightily with his footwork and accuracy in both his sophomore and junior year in 2014 and 2015 respectively and earned an undrafted grade from Pro Football Focus. The upside is there and his roster spot is certainly safe given the high pick they used on him, but he’s a long way away from being ready to play and off-season reports and pre-season play have not been promising.

With Fitzpatrick and Hackenberg locked in, that leaves Geno Smith to compete with 2015 4th round pick Bryce Petty for the final quarterback spot, unless the Jets decide to keep 4 quarterbacks. WIth Hackenburg being a year away at least from even being a capable backup and Smith being the only other quarterback on the roster with NFL experience, Smith seems like the favorite, especially with a reasonable 1.1 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie contract. However, his NFL experience has been far from good and they might still like Petty’s upside. He didn’t throw a pass as a rookie, but they did use a 4th round pick on him just a year ago knowing he was a project and may not want to give up on him just yet. With Smith going into the final year of his deal, Petty could be the long-term backup behind Hackenberg. At the very least, Smith is likely available via trade if quarterback needy teams are interested.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Fitzpatrick was an important addition last off-season, but another veteran might have been even more important, ex-Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall was available for just a 5th round pick and a 3-year, 26 million dollar extension last off-season because he was coming off of a down year in 2014, finishing 46th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in pure pass catching grade and catching just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games, the first season since his rookie year in 2006 that he didn’t have 1000 yards.

It was a risky deal because they guaranteed him 9 million for 2015 as part of the trade and he was on the wrong side of 30, but he had a huge bounce back year last season. Marshall finished 4th in the league in receiving yards, catching 109 passes for 1502 yards and 14 touchdowns, and was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked wide receiver. His age is still a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s graded out above average in 8 of the past 9 seasons and he’s finished in the top-16 in 3 of his last 4 seasons, so he’s still playing at a high level.

Marshall’s 11,273 receiving yards are already 31st all-time, even though he’s only been in the league for 10 years thus far. 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. That suggests he’s got a couple good years left in the tank, but we’re at the point in his career where his age can’t be ignored, as he goes into his age 32 season.

Not only did Marshall put up big numbers, but his presence, along with an upgrade at quarterback, made life much easier for fellow starting receiver Eric Decker. A 1000 yard receiver in both 2012 and 2013 with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, Decker had just 74 catches for 962 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, but that’s actually pretty impressive considering who was throwing him the ball. In 2015, those numbers jumped to 80 catches for 1027 yards and 12 touchdowns, giving the Jets a pair of pass catchers with 1000+ yards. They were one of just 4 sets of teammates to both go over 1000 yards in 2015 (Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, Allen Robinson/Allen Hurns, Larry Fitzgerald/John Brown).

That being said, Decker and Marshall weren’t quite as good as their numbers suggested as both received a ton of targets, finishing 17th and 5th respectively in the NFL in targets. Their 305 combined targets were 50.5% of the Jets’ pass attempts, the highest percentage of targets going to two players of any team in the league. Still, Decker’s 22nd place finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus is impressive and he’s now finished above average in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at 12th in 2013.

He and Marshall should remain one of the league’s best pass catching duos in the NFL in 2015. They make life much easier for a mediocre veteran starting quarterback like Fitzpatrick and allow this to be a capable offense. Much of Fitzpatrick’s production in 2015 was the result of having these two big outside receivers to throw to (6-3 214 and 6-4 230 respectively). Fitzpatrick’s 88.0 QB rating was the 2nd best of his career, even though he didn’t play all that well.

Marshall wasn’t the only wide receiver the Jets added last off-season, taking Ohio State’s Devin Smith in the 2nd round in 2015 to be the 3rd receiver and eventual long-term replacement for Marshall. His rookie year went about as bad it could have though. He missed the start of the season and much of the off-season with broken ribs, which put him behind the 8 ball from the word go as a rookie, and he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked wide receiver on 312 snaps in 10 games. Making matters worse, he tore his ACL late in December and is highly questionable for the start of the season. He’ll likely begin the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which would cost him the first 6 weeks of the season, and could play sparingly again when he returns. The Jets will probably have to wait for his 3rd year in the league in 2017 for him to become a contributor.

Smith’s injury and the departure of veteran Jeremy Kerley locks Quincy Enunwa into the #3 receiver job. He finished 3rd on the team in snaps by a wide receiver last season, but was a huge dropoff from Marshall and Decker and largely played out of necessity, finishing 5th worst among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus’ on 522 snaps in the first significant action of his career, after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2014. The fact that his 315 receiving yards on 22 catches were the most 3rd on the team by a wide receiver shows their lack of depth at the position. With Smith hurt and Kerley gone, the Jets will be even thinner at the position to start the year and 7th round rookie Charone Peake could open the year as the 4th receiver.

That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the Jets had good tight ends, but they’re even thinner at that position. The Jets had just 9 catches by a tight end all season and frequently used 3 and 4 wide receiver sets even though their wide receiver depth wasn’t good. The Jets used a 2nd round pick in 2014 on tight end Jace Amaro, but he played 385 nondescript snaps as a rookie, missed the entire 2015 season with injury, and then got cut this off-season, so they don’t have a single pass catching tight end on the roster. Kellen Davis is penciled in as the starter, but the 6-6 265 pounder is nothing more than a blocker. He has just 53 career catches in 8 years in the league and is going into his age 31 season. It’s a talented receiving corps at the top, but a very top heavy one without anything resembling a consistent 3rd pass catcher.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Amaro has a good chance to finish 3rd on the team in catches and receiving yards among wide receivers and tight ends, but it was a running back who finished 3rd on the team in both of those statistics in 2015 and it likely will be a running back who finishes 3rd on the team in both of those statistics again in 2016. Passing down back Bilal Powell was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal, suggesting he’ll have a big role again, after catching 47 passes for 388 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2015 and adding another 70 carries for 313 yards and a touchdown on the ground (4.47 YPC). He’s no one-year wonder as a pass catcher either, playing well on passing downs throughout his career.

They also added veteran running back Matt Forte on a 3-year 12 million dollar deal and his 487 catches in the last 6 seasons are the most by any running back over that time period. That suggests they’re planning on using their running backs in the passing game a lot to compensate for their lack of depth in the receiving corps. Both Forte and Powell could see time at wide receiver as a way to get both of them on the field and both figure to catch a significant amount of passes out of the backfield as well.

Powell isn’t much of a runner, with a 4.00 career YPC average on 402 carries in 5 years in the league since the Jets drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, so Forte figures to get the majority of the carries left behind by departed free agent Chris Ivory, who rushed for 1070 yards and 7 touchdowns on 247 carries (4.33 YPC) and finished 11th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2015. Forte finished 10th at the position last season, but his age is a concern as he heads into his age 31 season, which is why he didn’t get a big contract this off-season.

A 2008 2nd round pick, Forte’s 8-year tenure in Chicago was a very productive one. I already mentioned what he did as a pass catcher, leading all running backs in catches over that time period, but he also rushed for 8620 yards and 45 touchdowns on 2035 carries (4.24 YPC), and graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons. His rushing yards are 38th all-time, but, among 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. The end is likely near for Forte, though another solid season from him is certainly not out of the question.

With Powell primarily playing on passing downs, fellow free agent acquisition Khiry Robinson could be Forte’s primary backup and figures to be the Jets’ short yardage back regardless at 6-0 220. Robinson is inexperienced with 186 career carries and not much of a pass catcher with 25 career catches, since going undrafted in 2013, and has missed 20 games with injury 3 seasons in the league, including 8 with a broken leg in 2015. However, he’s averaged 4.12 yards per carry in his career, which isn’t bad, and has scored 8 times. He could vulture a handful of touchdowns away from Forte, but won’t be a huge factor as Forte and Powell will both have significantly more total touches. It’s a solid stable of running backs that will help mask their lack of depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Jets lost veteran left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson this off-season when he retired ahead of his age 33 season. Remarkably durable, Ferguson never missed a start and missed one total offensive snap in 10 years in the league, but he was a declining veteran before retiring. Ferguson graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2008-2012 in the prime of his career, but finished below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including a horrible 2015 season in which he finished 60th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. Owed a non-guaranteed 10.375 million in 2016, Ferguson could have been a cap casualty anyway if he had not retired.

The Jets used the cap space freed up by his retirement to add another veteran left tackle to replace him in Ryan Clady, who was acquired from the Broncos for a 5th round pick. Clady is not nearly as durable as Ferguson, missing 30 games over the past 3 seasons, including all of 2015 with a torn ACL. In 8 years in the league, Clady has finished above average 5 times, but his only healthy season in the last 3 seasons was 2014 and he graded out below average that season. Going into his age 30 season, he’s probably past his prime, but was not a bad value on a renegotiated 1-year, 6 million dollar deal.

Ferguson isn’t the only veteran offensive lineman the Jets lost this off-season, as right guard Willie Colon was not brought back as a free agent ahead of his age 33 season and may ultimately end up retiring as well, as he remains unsigned as a free agent as of this writing. Colon isn’t a big loss as he struggled mightily in each of his last 2 seasons, including an injury plagued 2015 season in which he finished 68th out of 81 eligible guards in just 6 starts, but the Jets don’t have a clear option to replace him.

Fourth year player Brian Winters is expected to get the first shot at the starting spot because he has experience, making 28 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but the 2013 3rd round pick has been disastrous whenever he’s been counted on to play in his career. His 2015 season, in which he finished 58th out of 81 eligible on 765 snaps, was actually the best of his career so far. He’ll be pushed for the starting job by 2014 undrafted free agent Brent Qvale. The Jets reportedly like Qvale, but starting him is far from a reliable option, as he’s played just 33 nondescript snaps in his career. Either player could be even worse than Colon was last season.

Qvale, a collegiate offensive tackle at the University of Nebraska, is also an option to start at right tackle. The Jets also added right tackle Brandon Shell in the 5th round of the draft, but they needed to do more to add youth to an offensive line that had the league’s highest average age of any starting offensive line in the NFL in 2015 and didn’t play that well. Most likely, veteran Breno Giacomini will be the starting right tackle for another season, purely out of lack of a better option. Giacomini has plenty of starting experience, with 65 career starts in 8 years in the league, but has never once graded out above average on Pro Football Focus and finished last season 64th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts. He’s not a good starting option. He also could miss the start of the season with injury, which would likely push Qvale into the starting lineup.

Veterans James Carpenter and Nick Mangold round out this still veteran offensive line at left guard and center respectively. Only going into his age 27 season, Carpenter is practically a rookie compared to the rest of this offensive line, but he’s made 39 starts in 5 years in the league. In the first year of a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar deal, Carpenter was a big addition for the Jets last off-season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard in 16 starts, a big part of the reason for the Jets’ offensive improvement from 2014 to 2015. He’s a one-year wonder though, as he graded out below average in each of the first 4 seasons of his career. He could easily regress in 2016.

Center Nick Mangold, meanwhile, is coming off of a down year, a major concern as the 2006 1st round pick heads into his age 32 season. A top-2 center on Pro Football Focus in 6 of 10 seasons in the league, Mangold is likely Canton bound someday, but finished just 17th among centers in 2015. He’s a bounce back candidate, but last season could also be the beginning of the end for him. He can’t play at a high level forever. Despite no longer having declining veterans D’Brickahsaw Ferguson and WIllie Colon, this is still one of the oldest offensive lines in the NFL. It’s not a particularly talented one either and could be a huge problem for the Jets. Upgrading the offensive line and adding youth should be a priority for the Jets next off-season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On what was an outstanding defense in 2015, the Jets’ defensive line led the way and was arguably the best 3-4 defensive line in football. The Jets surprisingly used the 6th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on USC’s Leonard Williams. It was a surprise for two reasons. For one, Williams was seen as a lock to go in the top-5 on draft day, so the fact that he was even still there was a shock to most. Two, defensive end, the position Williams plays in the Jets’ 3-4 defense, was not a need for the Jets going into the draft. Ultimately, they decided the value was too good to pass on, which made some sense. Muhammad Wilkerson was heading into the final year of his contract and, as good as he is, the Jets saw Williams as a younger replacement with a more team friendly contract.

Sheldon Richardson, the other starting defensive end, was suspended for the first 4 games of the season last season, after failing a drug test, which opened up a chance for Williams to start early in his rookie year. Williams started and played well and remained part of the rotation with Wilkerson and Richardson, even upon Richardson’s return. Arguably the best defensive rookie in the league, Williams finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end on 809 snaps, just one spot behind Wilkerson and 8 spots ahead of Richardson, who finished 13th.

Wilkerson, a first round pick in 2011, has been a top-15 3-4 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, while Richardson, a first round pick in 2011, was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 defensive end as a rookie in 2013 and their 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014, before slipping a bit last year. Despite Williams’ emergence, the Jets not only surprisingly franchise tagged Wilkerson ahead of free agency this off-season, but ended up reaching an agreement on a 5-year long-term deal worth 86 million at the eleventh hour before the franchise tag deadline.

Now the Jets have Williams, Richardson, and Wilkerson all under contract for at least the next two seasons. Keeping Wilkerson calls into question what the Jets plan to do long-term with Richardson, who will miss the first game of the season after an arrest last off-season. Richardson still has 2 more years left on his rookie deal and the 2013 1st round pick is a great player who isn’t going anywhere soon, but his off-the-field act may be wearing thin with the Jets. They may attempt to trade him next off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

For now, the Jets will continue to figure out creative ways to get all 3 players on the field at the same time. Last season, they had Sheldon Richardson play outside linebacker in base packages often, but, with nose tackle Damon Harrison leaving as a free agent this off-season, there’s room on the defensive line for all 3 to play in base packages. None of the three are obvious candidates to play nose tackle though, as the 6-4 315 Wilkerson is the biggest of the trio and has very little experience lined up on the nose.

Harrison will be a big loss, as he finished 5th among defensive tackles in 2015, including #1 in pure run grade at 6-4 350. The Giants paid a lot for him considering he’s only a two-down player, signing him for 46 million over 5 years, but if the Jets had matched that instead of re-signing Wilkerson and used the remaining 40 million to sign an above average starter at another position, they would have been a better team that fit better together for it. Steve McLendon will directly replace Harrison, but even he admits he is only nominally Harrison’s replacement.

A 2009 undrafted free agent going into his age 30 season, McLendon is a capable run stuffer at 6-4 320 and has graded out above average in that aspect in 5 straight seasons, but he doesn’t get any pass rush and has never graded out above average overall in a season in which he’s played more than 355 snaps. He won’t see nearly the 577 snaps Harrison played last season as Williams, Richardson, and Wilkerson will all dominate snaps on the Jets’ defensive line. Losing Harrison hurts, but it’s still a loaded unit, even if the parts don’t clearly fit together.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The position where they needed to add talent the most this off-season was outside linebacker. Rather than re-signing Wilkerson for 86 million over 5 years, it would have made more sense to re-sign Harrison for 46 million over 5 years and then add a talented edge rusher with the money that was saved from letting Wilkerson walk. As it currently stands, the Jets might have the least edge rush talent of any 3-4 team in the league, a big problem if they want to continue to be a dominant defense, and a major difference from their defensive line.

With veterans Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples gone, Lorenzo Mauldin is locked into a starting job because he has the most experience of anyone at the Jets have at the position. That really tells you a lot about the state of the Jets’ outside linebackers, as he played just 261 nondescript snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015. He’ll probably play every down this year, which will be a major stretch for him. They’ll need a 2nd year breakout year from him, but that may be wishful thinking.

This year’s 3rd round pick, Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins, could start opposite him as a rookie, despite getting just a 4th round grade from Pro Football Focus. Jenkins could be a good player in time, but figures to struggle as a rookie. Deion Barnes and Trevor Reilly would be the backups behind Mauldin and Jenkins and both could see significant action out of necessity. Barnes is a 2015 undrafted free agent who has never played a snap in his career, while Reilly, a 2014 7th round pick, hasn’t played much outside of special teams in 2 years in the league, grading out below average on 79 snaps in 2015. Sheldon Richardson could also see snaps at the position again, but he’s out of position at outside linebacker at 6-3 294 and figures to see the majority of his snaps on the defensive line this season.

Many thought the Jets would use their first round pick on an outside linebacker, given the dire state of the position, but instead they drafted inside linebacker Darron Lee 20th overall. Lee will split snaps as a rookie with run stuffer Erin Henderson as the Jets replace departed free agent Demario Davis, who struggled as a starter last season. Lee was a reach in the first round and earned a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus, but has great upside in coverage. He’ll play primarily in sub packages as a rookie, with Henderson playing in base packages.

Out of the league entirely in 2014 due to off-the-field issues, the Jets took a flier on Henderson before last season and were rewarded, as he excelled against the run in limited action. He’s not good in coverage, but he has finished above average against the run in each of the last 4 seasons in which he’s played and is well-suited for a two-down role and a platoon with the much more athletic Lee. The two concerns here are that he’s going into his age 30 season and that he’s only played 242 snaps over the past 2 seasons and is tough to rely on as a result.

Veteran David Harris remains as the other starter and will once again play every down, going into his age 32 season. The 2007 1st round pick has made 132 starts in 9 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 5 of those 9 seasons, so he’s been a solid player, but his age is becoming a concern, even if he’s coming off of a solid year. He could take a step back this season, though he probably has another couple solid seasons in the tank. The Jets likely view Lee as his long-term heir apparent. They’re not nearly as strong at linebacker as they are on the defensive line.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Thin at the cornerback position in 2014, the Jets added 3 cornerbacks in free agency last off-season, signing Darrelle Revis for 70 million over 5 years, Antonio Cromartie for 32 million over 4 years, and Buster Skrine for 25 million over 4 years. Despite the Jets’ overall improvement, none of the three lived up to their contract. Revis was the best of the bunch, but was a far cry from his former self. A top-4 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in 5 of his previous 7 seasons, including 2014 with the Patriots, Revis fell all the way to 30th among cornerbacks in 2015.

There’s bounce back potential here, but a down year has to be very concerning, considering he’s now on the wrong side of 30. Going into his age 31 season, he likely has a few good seasons left in the tank, but it’s possible that his best years are behind him. For the Jets, It’s nice to have the likely future Hall of Famer back with the team that drafted him after he spent 2013 with the Buccaneers and 2014 with the Patriots, but they may, in hindsight, end up regretting making him the 2nd highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary and guaranteeing him 39 million. With 6 million of his 15 million dollar salary for 2017 guaranteed, the Jets are likely going to end up paying him 50 million over the first 3 years of his deal.

At least Revis played somewhat well last season, as Cromartie and Skrine were both major liabilities in coverage. Cromartie was so bad that he got cut 1 year and 7 million into his 4-year deal and remains unsigned as a free agent ahead of his age 32 season, following 3 straight down seasons for the once talented cornerback. Skrine will move into the starting spot with Cromartie gone. He has experience as a starter, starting 44 of 80 career games in 5 years in the league since being drafted in the 5th round by the Browns in 2011, with 38 of those starts coming in the last 3 seasons, but he’s not any better than Cromartie, finishing last season 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. At least Cromartie used to be good. Skrine has graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league and was a ridiculous overpay on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season.

With Skrine moving from the 3rd cornerback spot to the starting role, it opens up consistent playing time in sub packages for Marcus Williams, who was solid on 292 snaps last season and actually led the team in interceptions with 6, despite the limited playing time. He’s a promising young cornerback with great ball skills, but expectations should be tempered considering he’s a 2014 undrafted free agent with limited experience who was far from perfect in coverage in his first season of significant action in 2015, despite the impressive interception numbers. He should still be an upgrade over Skrine though and Skrine probably won’t be worse than Cromartie. Add in a possible bounce back year from Revis and the Jets’ cornerbacks could easily be better than they were last season.

The free agent acquisition that paid off the most in the Jets’ secondary was actually the addition of ex-Charger safety Marcus Gilchrist, who finished 18th at his position in the first year of a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal in 2015. His signing wasn’t as big news as the other three, but the Jets had a hole at safety previously and Gilchrist seems to have filled it. Gilchrist struggled in the first 2 years of his career at cornerback and struggled in the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, but he’s graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league at safety and the 2011 2nd round pick is in the prime of his career, heading into his age 28 season. He should have another solid season again in 2016.

2014 1st round pick Calvin Pryor is locked in as the other starting safety. He’s been a solid player through 2 years in the league and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. He and Gilchrist give the Jets a pair of solid safeties to help mask their lack of good depth at cornerback. With issues at linebacker and the loss of Damon Harrison in free agency, the Jets’ secondary is going to have to play better this season if they’re going to be as dominant of a defense. A tougher schedule should also hurt.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Jets were the best team to miss the playoffs last year, but they might have missed their chance at a deep playoff run. This is one of the oldest rosters in the league and figures to take a step backwards this season as a result. They also figure to have a tougher schedule this season, after finishing 29th in strength of schedule in terms of DVOA last season. They could still make the playoffs in a wide open AFC that looks like the significantly weaker of the two conferences going into 2016, but they’re unlikely to make much noise once they get there.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC East

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Buffalo Bills 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills have been right on the cusp of the post-season for the past two seasons, finishing 9-7 in 2014 and 8-8 in 2015. However, the two teams were very different from each other. In 2014, they finished 19th in rate of moving the chains, but won games because of a defense that finished 1st in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their defense wasn’t nearly as good in 2015, falling to 19th, but their offense picked up the slack on a much more balanced, but not necessarily improved overall team, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. If their offense can play like they did in 2015 and their defense can play like they did in 2014, or somewhere close to there, this team has a good chance to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought and make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

Whether or not their offense plays well again in 2015 depends heavily on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, whose breakout 2015 season was the single biggest reason behind their offensive improvement. After the underwhelming duo of Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel combined to complete 62.7% of their passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2014, Taylor completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 2015, making the first starts of his career in his 5th year in the league.

The Bills are not a team built on the pass, as they were one of 4 teams (Seattle, Carolina, Minnesota) to run the ball more times than they passed in 2015, but Taylor is also a big part of this team’s running game, rushing for 568 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 carries (5.46 YPC). Overall on the season, Taylor finished 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He remains an obvious one-year wonder, so it’s hard to trust the 2011 6th round pick, but he definitely could have another strong season. The Bills gave him a 5-year, 90 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his contract this off-season, but only 9.5 million in 2016 is guaranteed, so they can get out of the rest of the deal after the season if they need to. Most likely, they won’t need to. He’s their best quarterback since Jim Kelly.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

In addition to Taylor averaging 5.46 YPC on 104 carries, starting running back LeSean McCoy averaged 4.40 YPC on 203 carries and backup running back Karlos Williams averaged 5.56 YPC on 93 carries. As a team, the Bills averaged 4.77 yards per carry, best in the NFL. They figure to run the ball a whole lot once again in 2016, especially if the defense is improved and lets them play with more leads. Taylor figures to be somewhere around where he was last season in terms of carries. McCoy, meanwhile, figures to see more than the 203 carries he saw last season.

The most obvious reason he figures to exceed his 2015 carry total is that he’s most likely going to play more games, after missing 4 games with injury last season. The second reason is Karlos Williams was cut this off-season, despite a strong year as a 5th round rookie in 2015. Williams showed up 20-25 pounds overweight for training camp, got suspended for failing a drug test, and then was cut in August after he failed to lose any weight. With Mike Gillislee, a 2013 5th round pick with 53 career carries, and rookie 5th round pick Jonathan Williams are now the backups, McCoy figures to dominate carries and could have his 3rd career 300-carry season if he can stay healthy.

In a league with very few true feature backs, McCoy figures to finish among the league leaders in touches and yards from scrimmage in 2016. Not a dominant running back, never finishing in the top-10 outside of a 2013 season in which he finished #1 at the position, McCoy is a solid running back and a valuable contributor nonetheless. He’s finished above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, including 20th among running backs in 2015. It’s a thinner running back group than last year, but McCoy is one of the league’s better backs.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Along with Tyrod Taylor and the running game, the left side of the Bills’ offensive line was a big part of this team’s offensive success in 2015. Left tackle Cordy Glenn finished 10th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, a career best for a player who has finished in the top-33 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2012, and who has made 61 starts over those 4 seasons. Last year may have been his best year, but he’s far from a one-year wonder. He may not quite be an elite left tackle, but the Bills didn’t have a choice but to franchise tag him and eventually re-sign him to a 5-year, 65 million dollar contract this off-season.

Left guard Richie Incognito was re-signed, after a dominant 2015 season on a one-year deal. One of the biggest reasons for the Bills’ offensive turnaround and dominant running game in 2015, Incognito finished 2nd among guards on Pro Football Focus. Out of the league for a year and a half after a bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins, Incognito made the most of his 2nd chance in Buffalo. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 33 season, but he’s finished above average in each of the last 7 seasons he’s played. He might not repeat the best year of his career, but he should still be a valuable asset upfront if he can continue to stay out of trouble. He was well worth being re-signed to a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal this off-season.

The rest of the offensive line isn’t as good. Center Eric Wood is solid and actually finished 8th among centers in 16 starts last season, but the 2009 1st round pick has graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including 2014. He’s plenty experienced with 95 career starts and he’s certainly a capable starter, but he’s also going into his age 30 season. While Wood is at least decent at center, the right side of the offensive line was a complete disaster in 2015 and figures to be a disaster again in 2016.

Right guard John Miller finished 77th out of 81 eligible at his position in 12 starts. Fortunately, he was just a rookie, but there’s no guarantee he’s much better in his 2nd year in the league. Miller was a mere 3rd round pick, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if he never becomes consistent starter in the NFL. If he does emerge as a starting caliber player, it might not be for a couple years, as he’s still young. He’ll probably be better than he was last season, but it might be only by default. Veteran Kraig Urbik is no longer with the team, after making 4 starts last season, so Cyril Richardson is their other option if Miller continues to struggle. Richardson didn’t play a snap in 2015 after a miserable 2014 season in which the 5th round rookie finished 60th out of 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus on 321 snaps. He’s probably not a better option.

Meanwhile, at right tackle it’s a three-way competition. Seantrel Henderson has made 26 starts there over the last 2 seasons, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has struggled mightily, finishing 3rd worst among offensive tackles as a rookie and 8th worst among offensive tackles last season. Making matters worse, Henderson is dealing with complicated medical issues and might not be ready for the start of the season. Even if he is, he’s unlikely to see any action this off-season, which obviously hurts him in a tight competition. It’s not like he has a strong history to fall back on.

Jordan Mills made the final 5 starts of the season in Henderson’s absence last season, but wasn’t really much better, finishing 57th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched him with the Bears. A week 1 starter after the Bears drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Mills made 29 starts in 2 seasons with the Bears and finished 3rd worst at his position in 2013 and 19th worst at his position in 2014, barely better than how Henderson started his career. As a result, the Bears benched and cut him, which is how he ended up in Buffalo. He wouldn’t be an upgrade over Henderson.

The wild card of the competition is 2014 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Despite being a high pick, Kouandjio was beaten out for the starting right tackle job as a rookie by Henderson, who went undrafted that same year. After not playing a snap as a rookie, Kouandjio didn’t even get the starting job when Henderson went down in 2015 and was limited to 227 total snaps. For what it’s worth, he flashed on those snaps and he probably has the highest upside of the bunch, but Mills is reportedly the favorite. Kouandjio is also theoretically an option at right guard at some point. It’s an offensive line with both strong starters and positions of major weakness that averages out to around average as a unit.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

#1 wide receiver Sammy Watkins also had a big season for the Bills and was a big part of their offensive success. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Watkins almost had 1000 receiving yards as a rookie on an overall terrible offense and then surpassed 1000 yards on a much better offense in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, despite missing 3 games and being limited in others with injuries. Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked wide receiver in 2015, Watkins caught 60 passes for 1047 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games. Most importantly he played his best football down the stretch, catching 35 passes for 679 yards and 6 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. Watkins broke his foot this off-season, but is expected back for week 1. He’s dripping with upside and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016 (still only his age 23 season), as long as he stays healthy.

Unfortunately, the Bills really lack secondary receiving options. Outside of Watkins, no Bill had more than 554 receiving yards in 2015. Part of that was that they ran the ball often, but the lack of talent is also an obvious problem. Robert Woods is a mediocre #2 receiver, while last year’s #3 receiver Chris Hogan signed with New England this off-season. Despite that, they didn’t do anything to address the position this off-season aside from drafting Kolby Listenbee in the 6th round, but he won’t be ready to play as a rookie.

Woods is locked in as the #2 receiver for the 4th straight year, as the 2013 2nd round pick has made 38 starts in 44 games in 3 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been good though, finishing below average on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including 107th out of 121 eligible last season. A groin injury was likely the culprit last season and he could be better in 2016 after having off-season surgery, but he’s never been a great player and he’s not a high upside starter, even if he’s healthy. They also have no depth as Greg Salas (who has 46 catches in 5 seasons in the league) is currently penciled in as the 3rd receiver.

Last off-season, they spent big money to bring ex-Dolphin tight end Charles Clay to town to be a valuable target over the middle, but he didn’t live up to his 5-year, 38 million dollar contract in the first year of that deal in 2015. He’s graded out above average in each of the past 3 seasons, making 42 starts over that time period, but has never finished better than 12th and is the 7th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s a good all-around tight end, but he’s not going to put up huge numbers in the passing game. Mediocre veteran Jim Dray will back him up. He’s not the #2 receiver this offense needs either.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, even with a much improved offense, the Bills actually finished with 1 fewer win than they did in 2014, as the results of a defense that was not nearly as good. They weren’t bad, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains allowed, but that’s far worse than 2014 when they were best in the NFL in that measure. One of the problems was defensive lineman Kyle Williams missing 10 games with injury, a huge loss considering he has finished in the top-7 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 4 healthy seasons.

Even when on the field in 2015, Williams was not nearly the same player, finishing much closer to middle of the pack at his position. That’s a major concern, considering he’s going into his age 33 season. He’s an accomplished veteran who has graded out above average in 8 straight seasons, but he’s missed 22 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and seems to be breaking down. He could still be a nice re-addition for them upfront, but anyone expecting him to be the same player he once was will probably be disappointed.

In his absence, Corbin Bryant finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played with 781 and played surprisingly well. A 2011 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, including bottom-10 finishes among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014, Bryant graded out above average for the first time in his career in 2015. It’s unclear if he can repeat that season though. He’ll play a much smaller role with Williams back, playing primarily in base packages as a two-down run stuffer, and he probably played well enough last season to begin the season as the starter, but could be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie Adolphus Washington sooner rather than later.

Washington could also see playing time early in the season with Marcell Dareus getting suspended for the first 4 games of the season, after failing a drug test. He’ll be missed. The one constant between 2014 and 2015, Dareus finished 10th among defensive tackles last season. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus has been a top-15 player at his position in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. One of the few nose tackles in the NFL capable of playing every down effectively, Dareus elevates this entire defensive line and allows Bryant’s spot to be only a two-down position. Williams and Dareus will see the majority of snaps inside in sub packages after Dareus returns, with Washington working in as an interior pass rusher while Dareus is out.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Jerry Hughes will be the primary edge rusher in sub packages on one side and is locked in as an every down player once again. A first round pick by the Colts in 2010, Hughes was a bust through 3 years in Indianapolis, playing just 850 snaps in those 3 seasons combined and struggling mightily in his only season of significant action in 2012. However, since the Bills acquired him for a backup linebacker prior to the 2013 season, he’s proven himself as one of the better edge defenders in the league over the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-14 at his position all 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’ll once again play outside linebacker in sub packages in the Bills’ base 3-4 defense and provide the most value to the Bills as a rusher off the edge in sub packages.

The other side is much more of a mystery. Mario Williams was horrible there last season, finishing 93rd out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. Williams had graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season of his career prior to last season, including 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, so his poor play last season was a huge part of the reason why the Bills weren’t as good defensively as they were in 2015. A 10-year NFL veteran, Williams was released ahead of his age 31 season this off-season and replaced by Shaq Lawson, the Bills’ first round pick this year.

A top-10 talent, Lawson fell to the Bills at 19 because of a questionable medical on his shoulder. The Bills were comfortable with his medicals, but may be re-thinking that after he further injured his shoulder this off-season and needed surgery in May. His timetable of 5-6 months means he’ll likely start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, keeping him off the roster for 6 weeks, and might not return until week 10 or later. A rookie with little off-season practice, Lawson figures to be very much behind the 8 ball when he returns and may just be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages as a rookie. It’s unfortunately shaping up as close to a lost first season in the league for a player who could very well become a great pass rusher down the line.

In his absence, veteran Kroy Biermann figures to start. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why he was available into August for the Bills to sign. He graded out slightly above average on 516 snaps in 2015, but last season was his first above average season since 2010. He’s an obvious downgrade from Lawson, who will be missed. Lawson wasn’t the only linebacker the Bills drafted early and he’s not the only one they lost to injury either, as 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland was supposed to start at middle linebacker, but instead will miss his entire rookie season after taking his ACL.

Along with Washington in the 3rd, the Bills used their first 3 draft picks on defense and could wind up with 3 starters down the road, but they could get very little from their draft class as rookies. WIth Ragland out, veterans Brandon Spikes and Zach Brown figure to split snaps. Spikes was out of the league in 2015 because of off-the-field issues, but was one of the better run stopping linebackers in the league in the first 5 years of his career from 2010-2014. He graded out 4th, 22nd, 1st, 1st, and 9th among middle linebackers against the run in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and spent 2014 with the Bills.

Spikes has never played more than 742 snaps in a season because of his issues in coverage, but he will only play base packages this season and could easily play well in that role. Brown, meanwhile, is a better coverage athlete and has starting experience (33 starts in 49 career games in 4 years in the league), but isn’t nearly as physical as Spikes. In 3 healthy seasons in the league, the 2012 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in coverage, but below average in all 3 seasons against the run. He was a good value on 1-year, 1.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he and Spikes figure to be a solid platoon.

At the other inside linebacker spot, Preston Brown remains as the every down player. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Brown finished 15th among middle linebackers as a rookie, but finished 90th out of 97 eligible linebackers in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, a huge part of the reason for the Bills’ defensive decline. Though he struggled in his first year in Rex Ryan’s defense, Ryan talked him up this off-season and he’s certainly a bounce back candidate, but that’s far from a given, considering he’s not really that proven. Still, he wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2016. If not for injuries, this would be a strong group, but the injury situation can’t be ignored.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Cornerback was the real strength of this team last season, as Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby were arguably the best cornerback duo in the NFL. They might not be who you’d think of first when you think of the best cornerbacks duos in the NFL, but they had a combined 39 pass deflections last season, most by any pair of cornerbacks. Gilmore, Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback in 2015, was not a surprise, as the 2012 1st round pick has always had great upside and showed steady improvement throughout his career.

Gilmore is a one-year wonder in terms of being a dominant #1 cornerback like he was last year, but he’s made 51 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 26 season. The one concern is he’s missed 11 games with injury over the past 3 seasons. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, The Bills will try hard to extend Gilmore ahead of free agency next off-season and would likely use the franchise tag if it came to that. The 4-year, 41.1 million dollar extension the Ravens gave to Jimmy Smith last off-season should serve as a framework for Gilmore’s extension. Smith has had a similar career path to Gilmore and is currently the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary.

Darby’s strong season was much more of a surprise, as the 2nd round rookie was only in the lineup early in the season because of injuries. Darby ended up making 15 starts and finishing 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Though Kansas City’s Marcus Peters tied for the league lead with 8 interceptions and won Defensive Rookie of the year, I would have chosen Darby for that award. He didn’t have nearly as many interceptions and deflections as Peters (34 to 23), Darby allowed far fewer big plays and was overall the better player. It might be tough for both Darby and Gilmore to be as good as they were in 2015 again in 2016, but both are young and have bright futures, so I expect another strong year from both.

Their depth at concern is suspect though, as Nickell Robey remains as the 3rd cornerback. He finished 90th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 673 snaps. Robey flashed on 629 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but has fallen back to earth over the past couple of seasons, finishing in the bottom-20 in both seasons. The Bills would really be in trouble if Gilmore or Darby got hurt. Roby isn’t good on the slot, but he’d be even worse outside, as he’s way undersized at 5-8 165.

Corey Graham used to be the Bills’ slot cornerback, but has moved to safety permanently as he heads into the later part of his career. After finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons from 2011-2014 as a slot cornerback, Graham finished slightly below average in 2015 in his first season as a safety. He finished 8th among cornerbacks as recently as 2014, but going into his age 31 season, at a new position, Graham’s best days are likely behind him. He probably has a couple solid seasons left in the tank though.

Aaron Williams is expected to return as the other starting safety, after suffering a scary neck injury last season. Even only going into his age 26 season, Williams is a major injury concern going forward and has missed 28 games in 5 seasons in the league. A 2011 2nd round pick, Williams struggled mightily in his first 2 years in the league at cornerback, but has proven to be a capable starter at safety over the past 3 seasons, grading out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons. If he’s healthy, it’s a nice re-addition, but that’s a big if.

If he’s not healthy, free agent acquisition Robert Blanton would likely become the starter, taking the place of departed safety Bacarri Rambo, who started in Williams’ absence last season. Blanton has starting experience, making 13 starts with the Vikings in 2014, and was a nice, cheap signing this off-season on 1-year, minimum deal. Prior to a 2015 season in which he struggled on just 231 snaps, Blanton had graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career, including 17th in 2014. It’s unclear why he barely played in his final year in Minnesota, but the 2012 undrafted free agent has nice bounce back potential. If everyone’s healthy, the Bills may reportedly experiment with using more 3 safety looks rather than 3 cornerback looks in sub packages and lining Graham up on the slot in sub packages, to help mask their lack of cornerback depth. Even without great depth at cornerback, it’s a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

A couple months ago, I had the Bills as a playoff team, but they’ve had horrible luck since then. Their top-two draft picks are both dealing with serious injuries, while top defensive lineman Marcell Dareus will miss the first 4 games of the season with injury and running back Karlos Williams was let go after he showed up way overweight to training camp and failed a drug test. They still have enough talent to sneak into the playoffs, after coming very close in each of the last 2 seasons, but that’s less likely than it was in May.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in AFC East

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New England Patriots 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After more than 500 days and seemingly endless headlines and litigation, deflategate officially came to an end this off-season. Brady’s initial suspension was struck down in federal court last off-season, allowing him to play the entire 2015 season, but the NFL won in appeals court this off-season and, after Brady was denied the opportunity to have the case heard by a larger panel of judges, Brady’s and his legal team dropped the case and accepted a 4 game suspension to start the 2016 season.

He could have taken the case to the Supreme Court and would likely have been granted at least a stay by the country’s highest court, but fears that he could miss playoff games if the court made an unfavorable decision late in the season caused Brady to abandon the case. The NFL players association is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court on Brady’s behalf, but the outcome of that case will purely be for precedent’s sake. While debates will continue about whether or not the suspension was warranted and whether or not the most recent collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association gives the commissioner too much power to hand down suspensions arbitrarily, this particular case is over. Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season and 3rd year player Jimmy Garoppolo will start.

How Garoppolo will perform in those 4 games is still very much a mystery though. All the reports this off-season have been favorable, but those can often be exaggerated and not translate to regular season success. Because Brady has made all 37 starts for the Patriots in Garoppolo’s 2 years in the league, Garoppolo has been limited to 31 pass attempts in mop-up duty thus far in his career, which doesn’t give us a lot of insight as to how he’ll play in his first 4 starts of the season. He figures to be an obvious downgrade from Brady, but just how much of a downgrade remains to be seen.

What also remains to be seen is how Brady’s suspension will throw off his rhythm and the rhythm of this offense in general. That’ll be a concern when he returns. The other major concern when he returns his age, as he’ll turn 39 before the season starts. With rival Peyton Manning retiring this off-season, Brady is now the league’s oldest starter, excluding kickers and punters. Brady was still Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback last season, the 6th time in his last 8 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) he’s finished in the top-4 at his position, but it’s fair to question how long he can keep this up.

We’ve seen quarterbacks like Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Carson Palmer all play at high levels in their late 30s in recent years, but both Favre and Manning showed how quickly you can lose it in the NFL, while Brees and Palmer are both still younger than Brady. Brady is the same age as Manning was last season when he turned from a Pro Bowler to a scrub overnight. Brady’s relative lack of injury history and his commitment to physical fitness give him a better chance than most to play at a high level in his late 30s and early 40s, but Father Time is still undefeated.

Given his age, it’s concerning that Brady’s production fell off significantly late last season. The Patriots won their first 10 games of last season in a row, as Brady’s completed 66.3% of his passes for an average of 8.12 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions over that stretch, but won just 2 of their final 6 regular season games and ended up losing the #1 seed to the Broncos and losing the AFC Championship in Denver by 2. In the final 6 games of the regular season, Brady completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.74 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Even if Brady’s abilities don’t fall off a cliff like Manning’s did last season, it’s fair to expect him to decline somewhat.

Garoppolo, who has just one season left on his rookie deal after this season, might be auditioning to be a starting quarterback somewhere else this season, and figures to be available through trade next off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, if Brady is still playing at a high level, but the Patriots may have drafted their future at quarterback in this past draft, taking North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brissett in the 3rd round. Brissett is raw and was not expected to be drafted that high, but the team really likes him and he should have plenty of time to get used to the NFL sitting behind Brady for likely at least a couple years. It’s a good group of quarterbacks in a league where you can never have enough depth at the position, but Brady’s suspension and age are both obvious concerns.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brady definitely doesn’t deserve all the blame for this offense sputtering down the stretch though, as the Patriots’ supporting cast around him fell apart because of injuries. Top wide receiver Julian Edelman was the biggest injury, as he broke his foot early in the Patriots’ 9th game of the season and missed the rest of the regular season. He was on a career best 114/1278/14 pace through 8 games and the Patriots moved the chains at a 80.56% rate in their first 8 games (8-0), as opposed to a 66.53% rate in their final 8 games (4-4).

In addition to Edelman’s injury, running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler, guard Josh Kline, and offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer missed a combined 33 games over the Patriots’ final 8 regular season games, so Edelman’s injury wasn’t the only factor involved and Brady isn’t blameless either, but, any way you look at it, the Patriots’ offense should benefit from better health this season, after having the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season.

Edelman returned for the playoffs last season and appeared to be at least close to 100%, a big boost for this offense, even though they came up just short on the road against a great Denver defense in the AFC Championship. He had another cleanup procedure this off-season and the Patriots are being very careful with him and holding him out of off-season work, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll miss the start of the season. However, his injury history (25 missed games in 7 years in the league) and age (going into his age 30 season) are worth mentioning and he’s unlikely to be as good in 2016 as he was to start 2015.

Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver in 2015, Edelman was a solid starting receiver in both 2013 and 2014, but never finished higher than 34th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Much of his production over the past 3 seasons has been the result of playing with Tom Brady, with whom he has impeccable timing, so it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with Garoppolo in the lineup. On average, going the 4th round of fantasy drafts right now, Edelman seems to be getting overdrafted.

One player who figures to continue to put up numbers regardless of who is under center is tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk seems to have shaken off early season injury issues that threatened to derail a potentially Hall of Fame career, missing just 1 game with injury over the past 2 seasons, after 7 surgeries on his knee, arm, and back in a 14 month span from November 2012 to January 2014 and 14 games missed due to injury from 2012-2013. A 2010 2nd round pick, Gronkowski has been a top-3 tight end overall on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, despite all of the injuries, and finished last season as their top ranked tight end by a wide margin.

All the time he missed with injury proved his worth, as Brady has completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions over the past 5 seasons when Gronk’s been healthy, including playoffs, but when Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes just 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end.

Over those 5 seasons, he’s caught 338 passes for 5009 yards and 55 touchdowns in 65 games. As good as Brady as, Gronkowski has been making him look better for years and he can do the same for Garoppolo. A terrific run blocker in addition to a matchup nightmare in the passing game, Gronkowski might be more valuable to the Patriots’ offense than any other non-quarterback in the league is to their offense. Only going into his age 27 season still, Gronkowski should be a dominant player for at least another 2-3 years, if he can continue to stay healthy.

After Edelman and Gronkowski, things are up in the air in the passing game, in terms of who the targets will go to. After having to rely on the fringe roster types like Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper in key situations down the stretch last year, the Patriots put an emphasis on adding wide receiver depth this off-season, signing veterans Chris Hogan and Nate Washington and using a 4th round draft pick on Georgia’s Michael Mitchell. Washington ended up getting cut, ahead of his age 33 season, but both Hogan and Mitchell are competing for roles this season.

The Patriots also upgraded #2 tight end Scott Chandler by trading for ex-Bear Martellus Bennett this off-season and figure to use more two-tight end sets as a result. Bennett has finished in the top-21 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, including 6th in 2012 and 6th in 2014, but was available this off-season for the price of a swap of late round picks and a reasonable 5.185 million dollar salary because of issues with the coaching staff in Chicago and an injury plagued 2015 season (5 games missed). An above average run blocker in all 8 years of his career at 6-6 275, Bennett is not Aaron Hernandez and will line up inline as a true tight end, but he’s also graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons. Only going into his age 29 season, Bennett figures to have a bounce back year in the final year of his contract. He and Gronkowski are easily the best tight end duo in the NFL.

Brandon LaFell actually led the team in snaps played by a wide receiver with 659 last season, but he was one of the worst wide receivers in the league, finishing 118th out of 121 eligible on Pro Football Focus. The Patriots released him this off-season, addition by subtraction. Danny Amendola finished 2nd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver with 576 last season, but he’s coming off of off-season knee and ankle surgery and could miss the start of the season. Injury problems are nothing new for him, as he’s missed 26 games in the last 5 seasons with injury, though just 2 in the last 2 seasons.

Amendola hasn’t been worth the 28.5 million over 5 years he was given by the Patriots in free agency four off-seasons ago and has had to take significant pay cuts in each of the last two off-seasons to stay on the roster. His 1.6 million dollar salary for 2016 is guaranteed and very reasonable for him, but he’s no lock to remain as a starter when he returns from injury, in his age 31 season in 2016, even after finishing last season 29th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015, the 2nd time in 3 seasons in New England in which he’s graded out above average.

Hogan is his primary competition, after the Patriots signed the ex-Bill to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent this off-season. The Bills had the option to match the deal and, even with a thin receiving corps, declined to do so, normally not a good sign. At first glance, it seems like an overpay for a player who has just 87 catches in 3 years in the league and has graded out significantly below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 years, the only 2 years of his career in which he’s seen significant action.

Perhaps the Patriots see something in him that the rest of the league doesn’t (that certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened), but he’s probably best off as a 4th wide receiver, maybe a 3rd receiver at best. Fourth round rookie Michael Mitchell is also in the mix, though it’s hard to trust rookie receivers, especially ones that weren’t highly drafted. Gronkowski and Edelman figure to dominate targets, with possibly Martellus Bennett operating as the 3rd option in the passing game. Danny Amendola also figures to see a good amount of playing time and targets. Whoever is under center will have plenty of good options.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Though the Patriots figure to be healthier this season by default, they still have injury issues going into the season. Passing down running back Dion Lewis is expected to miss at least the first 6 games of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, after having cleanup surgery on his knee in August, following an ACL tear suffered during the Patriots’ 7th game of the season last season. A dynamic playmaker through the first 7 games of last season for the Patriots, he was missed last season and will continue to be missed this season.

A 2011 5th round pick with 39 career touches coming into the 2015 season, who hadn’t played a regular season snap in 2 seasons thanks largely to injuries, Lewis came out of nowhere to carve out a role as a speed/pass catching back in New England’s thin backfield and thrived early on in the season in New England’s offense. Through 6 games, Lewis was on pace for 120 carries, 587 rushing yards, 85 catches, 931 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns as a slipperier, more explosive version of ex-Patriot Shane Vereen. The Patriots took notice early and locked him up on a still shrewd 2-year, 3.1 million dollar extension a few games into the regular season.

However, he’s a one-year wonder (if you can even call him that) with just 124 career touches and a very tough injury history, playing just 31 games in 5 years in the league and suffering multiple significant lower leg injuries, including this past ACL tear. Expectations should be tempered for him even when he returns from injury, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and fits this offense like a glove. Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked running back before going down last season, he’s got a good chance to put up solid numbers upon his return if he can stay healthy.

LeGarrette Blount also went down for the year with injury last season, albeit later in the year in week 14. Between injury and suspension, Blount only played 12 games last season, but he played well when on the field, rushing for 703 yards and 6 touchdowns on 165 carries, an average of 4.26 YPC. Not much of a pass catcher with 39 catches in 84 career games, Blount is purely a two-down back, but he has a career 4.56 YPC average and has graded out above average as a runner on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons in the league.

It’s still a little surprising the Patriots didn’t add another back as insurance this off-season. Down the stretch last season, they completely abandoned their running game for long stretches with Blount and Lewis out. The Patriots’ offense was far too one-dimensional to win on the road against a stacked Denver defense in the AFC Championship game last year. James White is the 3rd running back and he did his best Lewis impression last season, catching 39 passes for 436 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 9 games including the post-season last season, finishing 3rd among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade.

White will be the passing down back to open the season, serving as a nice complement to Blount, but couldn’t carry the load if Blount were to go down. He had just 56 rushing yards on 22 carries last season and has rushed for just 94 yards on 31 carries in 2 years in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 4th round in the 2014 NFL Draft. They’re thin on ball carriers after Blount and figure to use their short passing game as a run game substitute a lot next season, even though doing so produced mixed results last season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Another player coming off of a significant injury is left tackle Nate Solder. Before missing the rest of the season with a torn pectoral, Solder didn’t play that well in 4 games last season and actually hasn’t graded out above average since 2013, but has still graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and is only going into his age 28 season. Even though he finished below average in 2014, his last healthy season, he wasn’t bad that season and he has bounce back potential in 2016 if he’s healthy. He’s missed just 1 other game with injury in his career and will be a welcome re-addition, as the Patriots struggled mightily at the position without him last season.

The Patriots used a 3rd round pick on Joe Thuney, who played well on the blindside at NC State last season, earning a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, and he could provide depth at the left tackle position that they didn’t have last season. However, he’s expected to start his career at guard, another position he played in college, and likely will be the week 1 starter on the left side. That leaves Josh Kline to compete with off-season acquisition Jonathan Cooper on the right side.

Josh Kline is probably the heavy favorite, after grading out above average as a first-time starter in 2015. The 2013 undrafted free agent has just 18 career starts, but has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league and has generally always played well when given the opportunity. Cooper, meanwhile, was acquired as a throw-in in the Chandler Jones trade (more on that later). Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited the 2013 7th overall pick to 11 starts in 28 games in 3 years in the league and is already dealing with a foot injury early in training camp. Cooper was okay in limited action last season (638 snaps) and is not a bad dart throw in a throw-in in a trade, but I don’t expect him to open the season as the starter.

At center, Bryan Stork has made 17 starts over the past 2 seasons and played decent, but was traded to Washington this off-season for a conditional late round pick, failed a physical, and was ultimately sent back to the Patriots and released. Instead, David Andrews, a 2015 undrafted free agent, will be the starter. He wasn’t bad either last season, actually finishing one spot higher than Stork on Pro Football Focus (20th vs. 21st), but it’s tough to trust a player who went undrafted a year ago. Stork would have been the better option if healthy, but it doesn’t sound like he was.

The Patriots also lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to injury, as he’s expected to miss the entire season with a hip injury. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he’s only once made all 16 starts in 7 years in the league and has missed a combined 24 games over that stretch. However, he was always a solid player when healthy and, even going into his age 32 season, he’ll be missed. He’s graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career, though he fell to a career worst 42nd in 2015.

Marcus Cannon and/or LaAdrian Waddle will see action in his absence. Cannon struggled mightily last season, finishing 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles, and has graded out below average in each of the past 3 seasons, making 18 starts over that time period. Waddle, meanwhile, was a waiver claim late last season after being cut by the Lions. The Patriots re-signed for 2.35 million over 2 years this off-season, suggesting they like him more than Detroit did.

Waddle was awful in 2015 with the Lions, finishing dead last among 77 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 6 starts, but made 18 starts in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2013-2014 and graded out above average in both of them. The 2013 undrafted free agent’s career seems to have been derailed a little bit by a torn ACL he suffered late in the 2014 season, but he has bounce back potential another year removed from the injury. Cannon could begin the year as the starter, but Waddle could surpass him by the end of the season. It’s still a weak offensive line on an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Patriots made the surprising decision this off-season to send standout defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2nd round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper. It’s a weird decision by a team that’s built to win now with an aging Hall of Fame quarterback, but it does make some sense. Jones was one of a number of Patriots with expiring contracts, including fellow defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and tight end Martellus Bennett.

As much as it might seem to make sense to go all-in on 2016 and keep Jones, with Brady aging and so many pending free agents, the Patriots still always have one eye on the long-term. Both Hightower and Collins are franchise tag candidates and Jones would have likely cost upwards of 17 million annually on the open market. Instead of only getting a 3rd round compensation pick in 2 years when Jones leaves next off-season, the Patriots got an extra 2nd rounder in this year’s draft (much needed after Goodell took away their first rounder as part of Deflategate) and a potential starter at guard. Jones had 12.5 sacks last season, but was not as good as that suggests, finishing “just” 35th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus.

Even with Jones gone, the Patriots still have solid depth at the position, especially after signing veteran Chris Long to a one-year deal in free agency this off-season. Long was let go by the Rams this off-season because he was owed 11.75 million non-guaranteed and is a declining player going into his age 31 season. However, he could still have another couple solid seasons left in the tank and he was a nice value for the Patriots on 1-year, 2.375 million dollar deal, about 20% of what he was originally going to make with the Rams.

A top-7 pass rusher among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus from 2010-2013, injuries have limited Long to 18 ineffective games over the past 2 seasons. His best days are likely behind him, but, if he can stay healthy, he could be a valuable pass rusher off the edge. Even though he’s older, he’s not completely over the hill yet. He’s never been good against the run, but will see primarily sub package snaps in the Patriots’ defensive end rotation, which will minimize the amount of run snaps he plays.

Like Long, Ninkovich is also a declining veteran, going into his age 32 season, off of back-to-back below average seasons on Pro Football Focus. He finished above average in 5 straight years from 2009-2013 in the prime of his career, but that seems to be behind him. He’s also dealing with a triceps injury and is suspended for the first 4 games of the season anyway after failing a drug test, so his season won’t start until week 5. Even when he returns, he could see a much smaller role this season than last season, when he led the defensive line in snaps played with 891. Jones was 2nd with 863, so, even with Long coming in, there are snaps up for grabs, especially early in the season. Second year defensive end Trey Flowers, a 2014 4th round pick, figures to see a bigger role this season, after being limited 4 snaps as a rookie.

Even though Sheard played fewer snaps than Jones and Ninkovich last season (558 snaps) and even though he didn’t have Jones’ gaudy sack numbers, Sheard was actually the best of the trio, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, splitting time between defensive end and defensive tackle and often wreaking havoc as an interior pass rusher in sub packages at 6-3 265. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing as well as he did last season, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and was a great value on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal last off-season. Still only going into his age 27 season, he’ll likely have a bigger role this season and figures to cost a lot more to keep next off-season that it did to originally sign him.

Along with Sheard, Dominique Easley got good pass rush from the interior in sub packages last season, albeit in limited action as injuries limited him to 545 snaps in 22 games. However, the Patriots made the surprising decision to cut Easley this off-season, just two years after using a first round pick on him, ahead of what would have only been his age 24 season. Easley’s two-year tenure in New England was injury filled, but there’s undoubtedly more to the story that we don’t know. His presence will be missed, especially in sub packages.

The Patriots used a 3rd round pick on a defensive tackle to replace Easley, taking the University of Nebraska’s Vincent Valentine, but he’s raw and figures to open the season as a reserve behind Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. He’s also a different kind of player than Easley. Easley was a leaner pass rusher at 6-2 290, while Valentine is a bigger run stuffer at 6-4 329. Brown and Branch are also bigger guys at 6-2 320 and 6-6 350 respectively. Sheard still remains as an interior pass rusher, but they don’t have another good sub package option.

Malcolm Brown was drafted in the 1st round by the Patriots in 2015, which likely means they see him as an every down player long-term, and he could definitely get an opportunity to do that this season, after seeing just 555 snaps as a rookie. However, he noticeably struggled as a pass rusher as a rookie, leading him to finish below average overall on the season. He still has upside though and the Patriots could really use a breakout year from him having suffered several losses on the defensive line this off-season. In addition to Jones and Easley, the Patriots also lost Akiem Hicks, who quietly played well on 301 snaps for the Patriots last season, after they acquired him mid-season in a trade with the Saints.

Branch, meanwhile, moves well for his size and has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but is purely a two-down player, especially going into his age 32 season. He was a dominant run stuffer from 2011-2013, finishing in the top-7 at his position against the run in all 3 seasons, but has been limited to 595 snaps over the past 2 seasons and appears to be on the decline. He’s only starting by default and shouldn’t see more than half the snaps upfront, with Sheard moving inside and sending Branch to the bench in sub packages. It’s a weakened defensive line.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

With Jones gone, the focus shifts to keeping linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower long-term. The Patriots’ defense has gotten a lot better over the past couple years, but they can’t afford to lose both Jones and one or both of Hightower and Collins. Hightower’s cap number is already at 7.751 million for 2016 and could even be lowered by a big extension, depending on how it’s structured, so it makes sense to lock him up now and then deal with Collins next off-season, when they have the franchise tag available for him. Arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL, neither would be an overpay if they were to become the highest paid non-rush linebacker in the NFL. Luke Kuechly’s 5-year, 61.8 million dollar deal currently leads the way in average annual salary.

Collins is the more athletic of the two, but still has great size at 6-4 250, while Hightower is bigger at 6-3 265, but moves well for his size. A 2013 2nd round pick, Collins flashed on 302 snaps as a backup as a rookie and then finished 3rd among middle linebackers in his first year as a starter in 2014 and backed that up by finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers again in 2015. Hightower, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2012 and has been a starter since day one. After finishing 8th and 12th respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013, Hightower moved inside in 2014 and has really broken out there, finishing 2nd among middle linebackers in 2014 and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2015. Both can play both inside and outside and both are huge parts of the reason why this defense finished 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2015. It’s very important both be re-signed long-term in the next calendar year.

Off-season additions Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo will compete for the 3rd linebacker job. It’s only a base package job, as teams swap out their 3rd linebacker for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but both players are hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end types who could rush the passer off the edge in sub packages, especially early in the season with Rob Ninkovich out. Sheard rushes the passer from the interior usually, so they need another primary edge rusher opposite Long.

McClellin is probably the favorite, given the 3-year, 8.95 million dollar deal the Patriots gave him this off-season. He’s never been that good of a player though, as he’s largely been a bust through 4 years in the league, after the Bears used the 20th overall pick on him in 2012. He’s played a lot and has seen time at defensive end, outside linebacker, and middle linebacker, but he’s graded out below average in each of those 4 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 84th out of 97 eligible linebackers.

Mingo is also a former first round pick, going 6th overall in that dreadful 2013 draft (the same one in which right guard Jonathan Cooper went 7th). He disappointed in 3 seasons in Cleveland, hence why the Patriots could acquire him for a mere 5th round pick this off-season. Mingo showed potential in 2014, when he finished 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, showing well both in coverage and against the run, but barely played in 2015 (256 snaps) and overall finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s never been a great pass rusher, but he’s a nice dart throw, only going into his age 26 season, with unreal athletic ability. He definitely has a higher upside than McClellin, but could start the season behind him, especially since he just arrived in mid-August. It’s a loaded linebacking corps though.

Grade: A

Secondary

Starting cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are two other players that the Patriots have to make long-term decisions on in the next calendar year, as both are heading into the final year of their contract. Butler is only going into his 3rd year in the league, so he’d be a restricted free agent, which means the Patriots could keep him fairly inexpensively in 2017, but he raised concerns about his contract this off-season and may become a full blown holdout next off-season without a long-term extension.

With only 2 years under his belt, the Patriots were wise not to give Butler an extension this off-season. Butler has had a monumental rise from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero to starting cornerback, but he’s a one-year wonder, so it’s fair for the Patriots to ask him to do it again before they make a long-term commitment. Even though he made the deciding play in the Super Bowl, Butler saw just 187 regular season snaps and 33 post-season snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, before stepping into the lineup in 2015, making 16 starts, and finishing 24th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Ryan actually finished a couple spots better on the other side, finishing 22nd at his position, and he’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next off-season, going into the final year of his 4-year rookie deal. The 2013 3rd round pick didn’t become a full-time starter until last season, but has 27 career starts in 48 career regular season games (none missed to injury) and has graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons. WIth another solid year like last year, he could get a good amount on the open market as a free agent. The addition of Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft suggests they are willing to let him test the open market.

Neither Butler nor Ryan were Darrelle Revis last season, but the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks in 2015 still might have been better than they were in 2014, as Brandon Browner, the other starter in 2014, was a liability. With Revis declining in the first year of a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal with the Jets last season, the Patriots seem to have made the correct choice letting him walk. They also made the correct choice keeping safety Devin McCourty on a 5-year 47.5 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season, even though it’s obviously a lot of money for a safety (4th highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average annual salary).

After an up and down tenure at cornerback for the first 2 ½ years of his career, McCourty, a 2010 1st round pick, moved to safety in the middle of the 2012 season and hasn’t looked back in the 3 ½ years since, finishing in the top-8 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including 7th in 2015. With the Patriots having more depth at safety than cornerback, McCourty frequently covered the slot in sub packages in 2015, with 3rd safety Duron Harmon coming onto the field as the 5th defensive back, but it’s unclear if that will continue with Jones coming in. Jones is a natural fit on the slot at 5-10 198 and may be ready to contribute as a rookie. Wherever he plays, McCourty should play well, only going into his age 29 season.

Patrick Chung, the other starting safety, actually finished higher than McCourty last season, finishing the year 6th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. That’s pretty remarkable considering the Patriots were able to sign him for 1.07 million on a one year deal just two off-seasons ago. Chung has always been a talented player, but injuries threatened to derail his career, as he missed 16 games with injury from 2011-2013 and struggled mightily with the Eagles in 2013. Chung has missed just 1 game in the past 2 seasons though and has graded out 12th and 6th in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in his career and, if he can stay healthy, he should have another strong year in 2016, still only going into his age 29 season. The Patriots’ version of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, McCourty and Chung are one of the best safety duos in the NFL.

Add in Duron Harmon, who finished 31st among safeties on 603 snaps as the 3rd safety last year, and the Patriots might have the best group of safeties in the whole league. Harmon has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since the Patriots drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013, though last year was a career high in snaps and he has just 8 career starts. On top of that, the Patriots oddly used a 2nd round pick on Stanford’s Jordan Richards in 2015 and he couldn’t even get on the field as the 4th safety as a rookie, finishing above average on 239 snaps last season. With Cyrus Jones coming in, it’s a deep and abundantly talented secondary. This is a very balanced New England team and one that could be carried by its defense early in the year with Brady suspended.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Injuries derailed a promising season for the Patriots in 2015, costing them another trip to the Super Bowl. With Brady getting up there in age, it’s tough to lose golden opportunities like that. In an AFC that’s overall weaker than the NFC, the Patriots have another good opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl in 2016, but injuries have already started to pile up again and Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season. They should still have better health than last season though and they have a great supporting cast around Brady, so this team is once again on the Super Bowl shortlist going into the season. Favored in 3 of their first 4 games, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 when Brady returns, which puts them in position to win 11-12 games, as they always do.

Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC East

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Cleveland Browns 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2012, the Browns had the 4th overall pick and a massive need at quarterback. Andrew Luck was a lock to go #1, but the Rams, picking 2nd overall, didn’t need Heisman winner Robert Griffin, so there was an opportunity for the Browns to move up to get him. They were unable to and the Redskins leaped the Browns, paying a pair of 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick to move up from 6 to 2 to take Griffin. The Browns were left taking running back Trent Richardson and then taking quarterback Brandon Weeden later in the first round, both of whom busted. Neither spent more than 2 years in Cleveland.

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 that debate 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.

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. He entered 2015 as the starter, but lost the starting job to Cousins in the pre-season and didn’t play a snap all season.

Still annually in need of quarterback help, the Browns signed Robert Griffin to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season and are giving him a fresh start and a chance to prove that 2012 wasn’t a complete fluke. He’s in an offense under new head coach Hue Jackson that fits his skill set better than Gruden’s in Washington did and his body should be in as good of physical shape as possible after a year of rest on game days. With low expectations, I like his chances of surprising and showing he still has something left in the tank, still only going into his age 26 season. I know this isn’t saying much, but he’s arguably the most talented quarterback the Browns have had since rejoining the NFL in 1999.

Incumbent starting quarterback Josh McCown is still around and the Browns have made him expensive to acquire in trade, so it’ll probably stay that way into the season. McCown would be the next guy up if Griffin were to get hurt again. McCown is an 14-year NFL veteran with 57 career starts, but he has career QB rating of just 78.7 and has graded out above average just twice in 9 seasons on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 37 season, he’s nothing more than a veteran backup, following a 2015 season in which he missed 8 games with injury and finished 29th out of 38 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Browns also added USC quarterback Cody Kessler in the 3rd round of the draft. He’ll start his career as the 3rd quarterback and is unlikely to make snaps in 2016, but could be a starting option down the line and may see action late in the year if the offense is struggling and the season has been rendered meaningless.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Unfortunately, the Browns; offense could struggle even if Griffin does have a bounce back year. The Browns ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains in 2015 and had plenty of problems beyond the quarterback position. The same is true of the team as a whole as they finished 29th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2015, finishing just 3-13. Making matters worse, the Browns lost several key starters as free agents this off-season from a team that wasn’t very talented to begin with. Griffin is unlikely to ever reach his 2012 form again and that’s what he’d have to do for this team to even sniff the playoffs.

Two of those key starters were offensive linemen, and they were valuable ones, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack. Schwartz signed with the Chiefs for 33 million over 5 years, very reasonable considering he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked offensive tackle in 2015. The Browns had plenty of cap space to outbid the Chiefs, but Schwartz reportedly had no interest in returning to the Browns, who have been stuck in the cellar of the NFL for a decade and a half and are showing no signs of turning it around soon.

Mack reportedly had no interest in returning either, opting out of the final 3 years and 24 million of the 5-year, 42 million dollar extension the Browns signed him to two off-seasons ago and taking a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in Atlanta. As now the highest paid center in the league, Mack was overpaid, but he’ll definitely be missed. The Browns were anticipating losing either Schwartz or Mack this off-season and used the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Cameron Erving, who played all over the offensive line at Florida State, but losing both Mack and Schwartz complicates matters.

On top of that, Erving struggled mightily on 425 snaps at guard in 2015, finishing 79th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. It’s far too early to write him off as a bust and the Browns are hoping that he can have a much improved 2nd year in the league now at his best collegiate position of center. The Browns gave him a show of confidence by not drafting a single center, but there are certainly no guarantees he plays well. Even if he’s significantly better this season, he has a long ways to go to be good.

At right tackle, the competition is much more wide open. The Browns used a 3rd round pick on Auburn’s Shon Coleman, but he’ll have to compete with a pair of veterans for the starting job. One of those veterans is Austin Pasztor, but he struggled last season on 301 snaps at guard. He’s made 27 starts between guard and tackle in 4 seasons in the league, but the 2012 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average at right tackle. The other veteran is Alvin Bailey who has just 8 career starts in 3 years in the league since going in the 4th round in 2013. He’s struggled mightily in each of the last 2 seasons, including 67th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on 271 snaps in 2015. He’s reportedly the favorite and would be a huge dropoff from Schwartz. Whoever wins the starting job, this should be a position of weakness and we could see 2-3 different starters.

The rest of the offensive line is still in good shape though, as left tackle Joe Thomas, left guard Joel Bitonio, and right guard John Greco all return. Even on an overall bad team in 2015, the offensive line played well and was easily the Browns’ best unit. It’s still easily their best unit, but only by default. Thomas is still playing at an incredibly high level on the blindside, finishing 1st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The best offensive tackle of his generation, Thomas hasn’t missed a snap in 144 of 144 possible starts in 9 seasons in the league since the Browns drafted him 3rd overall in 2007.

Thomas has finished in the top-10 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 9 seasons in the league and, even going into his age 32 season, he should do so again in 2016. A future Hall-of-Famer, it’s a shame Thomas has spent most of his career on bad teams surrounded by little talent. To his credit of his patience, he says he wants to stay in Cleveland through this next rebuild, but you start to wonder if he’ll get sick of losing and want out sometime in the next couple years as he gets into his mid 30s.

Bitonio and Greco, meanwhile, are one of the league’s better guard duos. They finished 32nd and 25th respectively among guards in 2016. Bitonio was better as a rookie, finishing 5th among guards before an injury plagued 2nd season in the league in which he only played 10 games. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the 2014 2nd round pick has obvious bounce back potential. Greco’s 2015, on the other hand, was pretty par for the course, as he’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons in his career, including the last 4 as a starter. He’s finished 19th, 30th, 11th, and 25th respectively in those 4 seasons and made 54 starts over that time period. Even going into his age 31 season, he should have a couple more solid seasons in the tank. It’s still a strong offensive line, but they’ll obviously miss Mack and Schwartz.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Though they have arguably the weakest lineup in football, they did have 14 draft picks to try to turn this team around long-term, after trading down from #2 to #8 to allow the Eagles to move up to take quarterback Carson Wentz. From the Eagles, the Browns got a 3rd round pick and a 4th round pick this year, along with a 1st round pick in 2017, and a 2nd round pick in 2018 to move down 6 spots and then picked up another 3rd and a 2017 2nd round pick in a trade with Tennessee in which they moved down again from 15 to 8.

Not only did the Browns end up with a ton of picks this year, but they have added extra high picks in the next two drafts. Between those and the compensatory picks they’re expected to get next off-season to cover all of their off-season losses this year, the Browns should have a lot of draft picks in the next two drafts as well. Those will obviously be critical to this rebuild, as they enter another new regime with head coach Hue Jackson (formerly offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals) and general manager Sashi Brown coming in.

The Browns desperately need a quarterback though, so, if Wentz pans out, many will question, in hindsight, the Browns decision to trade down, let the Eagles have Wentz, and instead go into 2016 with the veteran Griffin and rookie 3rd round pick Kessler. In addition to using that 3rd round pick on a quarterback, the Browns used two picks on the offensive line (right tackle Shon Coleman in the 3rd round and then reserve guard Spencer Drango in the 5th round) and a whopping five picks in the receiving corps. With the Browns losing Travis Benjamin and Brian Hartline, who made a combined 19 starts in 2015 and finished 1st and 2nd among wide receivers in receiving yardage, a couple of those rookies could have to play big roles as a rookie. Neither Benjamin nor Hartline were great players, but this is a very young group right now.

Corey Coleman, who the Browns selected 15th overall after trading down with the Titans, figures to start and could be their leading receiver. He could easily see the 124 targets the departed Travis Benjamin saw and could put up similar numbers (68/966/5), even as a rookie. He may not play great as a rookie, but Benjamin didn’t play great either and only had solid numbers because he had such a big role and caught just 54.8% of his targets. Coleman, Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked draft prospect and top ranked wide receiver prospect, has much higher upside long-term than the departed Benjamin and might even be better in 2016.

Josh Gordon is expected to be the starter opposite Coleman when he finally returns from suspension, after missing all of last season and all but 5 games in 2014, as a result of multiple failed drug tests. Gordon might be another slip up away from being permanently kicked out of the league, but he’ll be a welcome re-addition this season, considering he was one of the best receivers in the league in 14 games in 2013 and is still only going into his age 25 season. Gordon wasn’t the same player in limited action in 2014 and could be rusty after all the time off, but he’s definitely better than the Browns’ other options.

For the first 4 games of the season, it’s unclear who the starter opposite Coleman will be. Ex-quarterback Terrelle Pryor has looked good this pre-season, but he’s still very raw and very unproven as a wide receiver; he’s played just 91 career regular season snaps at the position. Andrew Hawkins is a veteran option. Hawkins was actually Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2014 and the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out above average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, he fell to 89 out of 121 eligible on 415 snaps in 8 games in an injury plagued 2015 season, easily the worst year of his career. Hawkins is best as a slot receiver at 5-7 180 and has never played more than 667 snaps in a season. Owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2016, on a roster with a lot of rookie receivers, he’s not even a lock for the final roster.

If Hawkins doesn’t make the final roster, 5th round rookie Rashard Higgins would open the year as at least the 3rd receiver behind Coleman and Pryor. As much as you don’t want to count on a 5th round rookie receiver for a significant role, Higgins was a steal and earned a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, so they could do a lot worse. When Gordon returns, he and Pryor will compete for snaps behind the starters. The Browns also drafted Ricardo Louis in the 4th round and Jordan Payton in the 5th round. Neither figures to have much of a rookie year role, but they should still make the final roster. Teams don’t like to give up on even mid round picks this early and there’s no guarantee either would pass through waivers unclaimed if the Browns tried to add either to the practice squad.

Seth DeValve, a 4th round pick, was the other pass catcher the Browns added through the draft. The big 6-4 245 pound ex-wide receiver out of Princeton will convert to tight end in the NFL. He got an undrafted grade from Pro Football Focus and will be the #2 tight end at best because starter Gary Barnidge led this team in receiving in 2015, catching 79 passes for 1043 yards and 9 touchdowns, and could easily do so again in 2016. He wasn’t quite as good overall as those numbers suggest, as the 6-6 250 pounder struggled mightily as a run blocker and finished “just” 15th overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, but he finished 8th in pure pass catching grade and joined Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, and Delanie Walker as the only four tight ends to have a 1000+ yard season in 2015.

He’s also a complete one-year wonder who had just 44 catches in his career going into 2015 and he’s already going into his age 31 season and his 9th year in the league. Still, he was an obvious value on the 3-year, 12.3 million dollar extension the Browns gave him last December, ahead of his pending free agency. He’ll be a liability in the run game and might not match last year’s numbers, but he’s one of their best offensive players. DeValve, meanwhile, will compete with 2015 undrafted free agent EJ Bibbs, who played just 37 nondescript snaps as a rookie, for the #2 job and may be seen as the long-term heir apparent to Barnidge. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of problems, but also a lot of upside. Overall, the Browns’ receivers are probably improved over last season, though that’s not saying a lot.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

With as many picks as they had, it’s really surprising the Browns didn’t add a single running back in the draft. The Browns have a pair of young running backs in Duke Johnson (3rd round in 2015) and Isaiah Crowell (undrafted in 2014) that both had 150+ touches last season, but both are from the previous regime and they averaged just 3.64 YPC and 3.82 YPC respectively in 2015, so most believed they’d add another back at some point. Johnson provides value as a pass catcher out of the backfield in the Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead role, catching 61 passes for 534 yards and 2 touchdowns as a rookie and grading out 4th among running backs in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus, and he still has upside as a runner, going into his 2nd year in the league.

However, Crowell has averaged just 3.94 YPC on 333 carries and has caught just 28 passes in 32 career games in 2 seasons in the league, since going undrafted in 2014. The Browns should have at least added competition for him, but all they added was 2015 undrafted free agent Terrell Watson, who follows Hue Jackson from Cincinnati, where he didn’t see a snap as a rookie. He’s expected to be their 3rd running back, which puts a lot of pressure on the top-2. The Browns have been talking them up all off-season and Hue Jackson seems to think they’re comparable to Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who he had in Cincinnati, but that seems like wishful thinking. Johnson matches Bernard as a pass catcher, but both backs could easily struggle on the ground again. Quarterback Robert Griffin may have to run often for this team to do well on the ground and that might not be the best idea, considering his injury history.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As bad as things are on offense, they’re probably worse on defense. The Browns finished 2015 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed and lost several starters on defense this off-season, in addition to all they lost on offense. Their defensive line lacks anything resembling an above average starter. Instead, they relied on 6 different players to play between 366 and 547 snaps on the Browns’ 3-man defensive line in 2015. Randy Starks was the best of the bunch (on 467 snaps), but he’s no longer with the team. The Browns also lost starting defensive end Desmond Bryant for likely the entire season with a torn pectoral suffered in the off-season. He led the Browns’ defensive line in snaps played with 547 and was their 2nd highest rated defensive lineman, behind Starks.

With Bryant and Starks gone, the Browns don’t return a single defensive lineman who graded out above average last season. They added Carl Nassib out of Penn State in the 3rd round, but the 6-7 275 pounder played 4-3 defensive end at Penn State and will need to bulk up about 20 pounds to see regular playing time at defensive end in the Browns’ 3-4. He could have a significant role as an interior pass rusher in sub packages as a rookie though, especially with Bryant gone. The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on a defensive end in 2015, taking Xavier Cooper, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked interior defender as a rookie, on 363 snaps. He’ll have to play a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league, so the Browns will be hoping he can improve. It’ll be hard for him to be worse, but he’s a long way away from being even a serviceable rotation player.

Another 2nd year player who the Browns will be counting on for a larger role is 2015 1st round pick Danny Shelton. Shelton was just a two-down nose tackle as a rookie, playing 514 snaps, but should see more playing time in sub packages this year and should lead this defensive line in snaps played with Bryant injured. He played well against the run as a rookie, but struggled mightily as a pass rusher. His weight might have been the issue, as he reportedly ballooned up to 360 pounds and now is closer to his college weight of 330, which should help him be quicker off the line. The Browns obviously drafted him with the intention of him being more than a part-time player, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever develop as a pass rusher. With little other options, he’ll get a shot in 2016.

In base packages, Shelton will start at nose tackle with John Hughes and Jamie Meder as the defensive ends. Nassib and Cooper will primarily play in sub packages. Hughes and Meder are basically just two-down players; Meder saw more run snaps than pass snaps last season and Hughes played just a few more pass snaps than run snaps. Hughes was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, but the 2012 3rd round pick has thus far proven to be a one-year wonder, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. He has some bounce back potential, but, even at his best, he’s never been much of a pass rusher. Meder actually outplayed Hughes in 2015, even though the 2014 undrafted free agent spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad. Meder only played 389 snaps and still graded out below average, but just barely. He may be overstretched to a larger role though. It’s one of the worst defensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Along with Starks and Bryant, the Browns also lost veteran middle linebacker Karlos Dansby this off-season. Dansby was going into his age 35 season, but still played at a high level in 2015, finishing 11th among middle linebackers. The Browns also lost middle linebacker Craig Robertson in free agency this off-season. He wasn’t a starter, but he was a key contributor, grading out above average on 382 snaps in 2015. He essentially split snaps with Chris Kirksey, who will now become the every down player in his 3rd year in the league, with Robertson gone. He’s new to being an every down player, but the 2014 3rd round pick played 684 snaps in 2014 and 590 snaps in 2015, finishing above average last season. He might not be great, but he seems ready for a starting job.

Free agent acquisition Demario Davis will replace Dansby at the other middle linebacker spot and he figures to be a noticeable downgrade. The 2012 3rd round pick showed his upside in 2014, finishing 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus that year, but remains a one-year wonder, grading out below average in the other 3 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 77th out of 97 eligible linebackers. That’s why he had to settle for a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal from the Browns. It’s not a bad idea to bet that he has a bit of a bounce back year in 2016 and he’s cheaper than Dansby was, but Dansby, even at his age, was the much more reliable player and the Browns were certainly not strapped for cap space this off-season. They still have 42 million remaining in cap space and that’s evident when you look at this roster.

At outside linebacker, they used a pair of picks on Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah (2nd) and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert (4th) and consequently cut veteran Paul Kruger before final cuts to save 6.5 million, a weird move considering Kruger was one of their better defensive players (not that that’s saying much) and the Browns weren’t exactly hurting for cap space. They’re currently about 51 million under the cap and their roster seems like it needs about 51 million dollars worth of talent added to it. Their active cap spending is 18 million dollars less than any team in the league and it shows. Ogbah figures to start opposite second year player Nate Orchard, with Schobert likely being the first one off the bench. Orchard played the run well as a 2nd round rookie in 2015, but graded out below average overall on just 480 snaps and will be counted on for a much bigger role in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll need to take a step forward. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C

Secondary

With Kruger gone, cornerback Joe Haden is also arguably the Browns’ best defensive player. They’re certainly paying him to be, giving him a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, two off-seasons ago. The 7th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Haden was a top-20 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but fell to 28th in his first year after the extension and then struggled mightily on 286 snaps in 5 games last season in an injury plagued season. Haden certainly has bounce back potential, finishing in the top-28 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to 2015, but he’s also another concussion away from possibly having to retire.

Tramon Williams made 15 starts at cornerback last season and has started 94 out of a possible 96 games over the past 6 seasons, grading out above average in all 6 of them. However, he’s going into his age 33 season and facing competition from off-season acquisition Jamar Taylor. Taylor has just 9 career starts in 3 years in the league though, since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Dolphins in 2013, and has graded out below average in all 3 of those seasons, including 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 712 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. There’s a reason he was available for a swap of late round picks this off-season, despite still being affordable on a rookie deal. If he starts, it’s a bad sign for Williams’ career.

At the very least, Taylor should open the season as the 3rd cornerback, after the Browns cut slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, even though he excelled in that role over the past 2 seasons, since going undrafted in 2014. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback on 351 snaps as a rookie and then finished 43rd in a larger role (516 snaps) in 2015. He apparently had ankle surgery against the team’s wishes and they cut him, locking Taylor into a top-3 job. He’s an obvious downgrade.

The Browns also lost both of their starting safeties this off-season, two of many starters who are not returning. Tashaun Gipson struggled last season, finishing 87th out of 89 eligible safeties, but Donte Whitner finished 24th and the Browns don’t have an obvious replacement for either of them. At one spot, last year’s 4th round pick Ibraheim Campbell will compete with this year’s 4th round pick Derrick Kindred out of TCU. Kindred is likely too raw to start as a rookie and Campbell flashed on 102 snaps as a rookie, so he figures to get the first shot at it, but there’s no guarantee he can play well in a much bigger role. It wouldn’t be shocking if the rookie saw action in 2016.

At other spot, last year’s 3rd safety Jordan Poyer will compete with veteran free agent addition Rahim Moore. Poyer struggled mightily on 425 snaps last season in the first significant action of the 2013 7th round pick’s career, finishing 75th out of 89 eligible safeties. Moore has much more of a history of success, finishing 11th among safeties in 2012. Moore hasn’t come close to that since and graded out below average on 451 snaps last season, but, other than last season, he’s graded out at least around average in every season of his career, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. Still only going into his age 26 season, he’s a bounce back candidate. It’s going to be a tough season overall for the Browns’ defense.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

It’s going to be a tough season overall for the Browns. One of the worst teams in the league last season, the Browns lost a lot of talent this off-season and should remain in the cellar again this season. They still have a strong offensive line, even after losing 2 key starters, and they have an intriguing passing game with Robert Griffin coming into a system that fits him well, with promising deep threats to throw to, including rookie 1st round pick Corey Coleman and the finally reinstated Josh Gordon (after week 5). However, on the other side of the ball, they probably have the worst defense in the league. The Browns set themselves up well for the future by trading down multiple times in the draft, but this team is 2-3 years away at the least.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

2015 was the season from hell for the Baltimore Ravens, especially on offense. The Ravens had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and their offense had the most adjusted games lost to injury of any offense in the league. As a result, they finished 29th in rate of moving the chains, plummeting from 7th the season before. Even the always durable Joe Flacco wasn’t spared from the injury bug, tearing his ACL week 11, snapping a 122-game consecutive start streak that was tied for 6th longest in the NFL at the time.

Flacco’s injury was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the season was basically lost anyway when he went down. They moved the chains at a worse rate in the 6 games he missed, moving them at a 67.20% rate, but they only moved them at a 68.37% rate in the 10 games he was healthy. Flacco completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.76 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt, and interceptions per attempt were all below his career average. He didn’t play horribly, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus, but didn’t have much of a chance to produce given how much talent the Ravens were missing around him.

Even though he’ll be just over 9 months removed from the injury week 1, Flacco’s recovery has reportedly gone very well and there’s no reason to expect him not to be ready to go for the start of the 2016 season. That being said, it’s not unreasonable to think that it could take him a little bit to get back into the flow of things with the repaired knee. Even if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t expect him to have the kind of year he had in 2014, when he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Those numbers all exceeded his career averages and I’m not expecting a career best year or anything from him coming off of an injury and going into his age 31 season. He kind of is the quarterback he is at this point, solid, but unspectacular. He’s only been a bottom-10 quarterback on Pro Football Focus once in his career (2013), but he’s also only graded out above average in 3 of 8 seasons in the league since the Ravens drafted him in the first round and made him an instant starter in 2008.

In fact, I wouldn’t expect the Ravens’ offense as a whole to play as well as they did in 2014. They finished 7th in rate of moving the chains that year, but 29th in 2015 and 30th in 2013. Injuries can be blamed for a lot of last season, but 2014 also just happened to be a particularly good year this offense, coached by talented offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. They could easily stay healthier and have a bounce back year and be a passable offense, but they’re not a top-10 offense on paper. Flacco isn’t a top-10 quarterback on paper either.

In his absence last year, the Ravens started Matt Schaub, Ryan Mallett, and Jimmy Clausen. The veteran Schaub came into the season as Flacco’s backup and got the first crack at the starting job after Flacco went down, while Mallett and Clausen struggled in limited action in Houston and Chicago respectively, before being put on waivers and getting a chance in Baltimore when Schaub struggled. Schaub is gone, but Clausen and Mallett remain to compete for the starting job. Neither played well last year and neither has ever really played well, but Mallett has the greater upside and played a little bit better last season, so he should be Flacco’s primary backup. He’s a steep dropoff from Flacco though, so the Ravens are obvious hoping that Flacco can play his 8th 16-game season in 9 years in the league and shake off that ACL tear.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Flacco wasn’t the only starter to go down week 11, as running back Justin Forsett broke his arm in that game and subsequently missed the final 6 games of the season along with Flacco. Owed 3 million in his age 31 season in 2016, Forsett was let go ahead of final cuts this off-season, so the Ravens will go forward with 3 younger backs at the position. The Ravens got a steal with Kenneth Dixon in the 4th round of the draft, as he earned a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, but he’s dealing with a knee injury, so Terrance West figures to open the season as the starter.

West will also probably finish the season as the team leader in carries, though that’s less of a guarantee. West has averaged just 3.88 yards per carry on 233 carries in 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014 by the Browns (he also spent time in Tennessee), but he’s had a good off-season and is only going into his age 25 season, so he could be better this season. He figures to be a downgrade from Forsett though, as Forsett averaged 4.25 yards per carry last season on 151 carries, and Dixon could overtake him by the end of the season.

Meanwhile, 2015 4th round pick Buck Allen struggled as a runner as a rookie, but proved himself as a pass catcher in Forsett’s absence, finishing 6th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade, catching 45 passes for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns. West struggles as a receiver (15 career catches for 85 yards), so Allen should at least see the majority of the passing downs, even if he isn’t a serious threat for a ton of carries. Trestman’s offenses have always had a lot of opportunities for running backs to catch passes out of the backfield (Matt Forte had 102 in 2014 for Trestman’s Bears), so that’s a significant role. It’s a decent group of running backs.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Nowhere were the Ravens hit worse by injury than in the receiving corps; only the Bears had more adjusted games lost to injury at wide receiver. First round pick Breshad Perriman’s season never got off the ground, as he ended up missing the whole season with a knee injury suffered in the pre-season. Aging ex-Panther Steve Smith carried the receiving corps on his back for the first 7 games of the season, catching 46 passes for 670 yards and 3 touchdowns, while grading out 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but then he tore his achilles and missed the rest of the season.

Smith is a potential future Hall of Famer and changed his mind about retiring because he didn’t want to go out the way his 2015 season ended, but he’s going into his age 37 season and coming off of a serious injury, so it’s very uncertain what kind of season he’ll have in 2016 or if he’ll even make it through the season. It’s tough to bet against him, but this time around it might be a good idea to. He’s the oldest receiver in the league and only 2 receivers have had more than 600 yards in an age 37+ season in the last 20 years (Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice).

With Smith originally announcing last off-season that 2015 would be his final season, the Ravens drafted Perriman to be the future #1 receiver at this point and, even with Smith still around, he may have to be. However, his future is obviously clouded by the knee injury that cost him his entire rookie season. Making matters worse, he suffered another knee injury this off-season. Though he’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, it’s still a concern as, at the very least, he’ll miss more off-season work.  A combine star considered very raw coming out of the University of Central Florida who missed his entire rookie season, Perriman needs all the experience he can get, even if it’s just practice experience. Injuries and inexperience are serious concerns for a player the Ravens need to be good in 2016.

Without Perriman and Smith in 2015, Kamar Aiken stepped up as the #1 receiver. The 2011 undrafted free agent led the way with 75 catches for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite playing with some suspect quarterbacks down the stretch, and finished 19th on Pro Football Focus among wide receivers. AIken was kept on a 2.55 million dollar 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent this off-season, but could start the season as the Ravens’ 4th receiver, as they signed Mike Wallace to a 2-year, 11.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season.

That’s starter’s money, but, even with the Ravens needing insurance behind Smith and Perriman, it’s an overpay. Wallace was one of the better receivers in the league in 2010 and 2011, but struggled in the contract year of his rookie deal in 2012 after holding out, disappointed in 2 seasons in Miami, after being signed to a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal, got traded to Minnesota for basically nothing but a salary dump last off-season, and then was horrible in his one season in Minnesota.

Wallace caught just 39 passes for 473 yards and 4 touchdowns, finishing 96th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus on 751 snaps. He was an easy cap casualty for the Vikings this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 11.5 million dollar salary in 2016. He’s a good fit in Baltimore, as he’ll be paired with a capable deep ball thrower in Joe Flacco, after three seasons of short-to-intermediate passers in Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater. However, he hasn’t been a top-40 receiver on Pro Football Focus since 2011 and is going into his age 30 season, so it’s hard to count on much from him.

Even if Aiken starts the season as the 4th starter, it would not surprise me at all if he finished the season with more snaps and yards than Wallace. If either Smith or Perriman get hurt again, Aiken would probably become the go-to guy before Wallace, though it’s worth noting that Aiken is a complete one-year wonder after playing just 295 below average snaps in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2011-2014. I don’t expect any Ravens receiver to put up big numbers, but it’s definitely a deeper and improved group from 2015.

Tight end Dennis Pitta is another Ravens’ pass catcher that missed the entire 2015 season. In fact, the 2010 4th round pick has played in just 7 games over the past 3 seasons combined thanks to two separate hip dislocations. Many expected him to retire ahead of his age 31 season this off-season, but he’s reportedly been practicing without limitations this season and the Ravens expect him to play a role. In his last healthy season in 2012, Pitta caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns and was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in pure pass catching grade, but it’s very hard to expect him to match his best season in 2016. A poor blocker, Pitta will primarily play on passing downs.

Pitta figures to be behind a pair of young tight ends, Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams. Gillmore, a 2014 3rd round pick, flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie and then had a mini breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, finishing 11th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. His slash line doesn’t look great (33/412/4), but he was 3rd on the team in receiving and he did that on just 520 total snaps in just 10 games and he fared well as a blocker. Like so many Ravens, Gillmore’s 2015 season ended on injured reserve, as he missed the final 4 games of the season with a back injury. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout 3rd year in the league.

Williams figures to be their primary pass catching tight end though, as the 6-6 260 pound Gillmore is better as a run blocker than a pass catcher. A 2015 2nd round pick, Williams flashed as both a run blocker and a pass catcher on 477 snaps and, at 6-4 257, has the potential to be a good all-around tight end long-term. He could take another step forward in his development in his 2nd year in the league. It’s a solid tight end duo, but they figure to both keep each other’s receiving numbers down because there are only so many targets and Pitta is also going to have a role.

The Ravens also have one of the best receiving fullbacks in the league in Kyle Juszczyk. He’s not much of a blocker, but he caught 41 passes for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2015 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked receiving fullback. Baltimore doesn’t have a standout pass catcher at either wide receiver or tight end and they have a lot of players that are either aging, coming off of injury, or both, but this is a much deeper receiving corps than they had in 2015 and they should also have overall fewer games lost to injury in the receiving corps than they had in 2015.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As you might expect, the Ravens also had significant injuries on the offensive line, as left tackle Eugene Monroe was limited to 317 snaps in 6 games and center Jeremy Zuttah was limited to 613 snaps in 9 games. Both were playing well prior to going down, but Monroe is no longer with the team. Owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million in 2016, Monroe was a cap casualty this off-season, following back-to-back injury plagued seasons and the Ravens’ selection of Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley 6th overall, and ultimately retired ahead of what would have been his age 29 season.

Stanley will be a week 1 starter at left tackle as a rookie and, though he could have some growing pains, he should be an upgrade over what they had at the position last year if he can stay healthy. With Monroe injured, swing tackle James Hurst was horrendous in 8 starts, forcing talented left guard Kelechi Osemele to move to left tackle for the first time in his career. He wasn’t bad, but he was clearly playing out of position. Osemele also doesn’t return to the Ravens either, signing with the Raiders as a free agent. That made it harder to part with Monroe and I think the Ravens would have been better off keeping Monroe and playing Stanley at left guard to start his career, as now they have a big hole at left guard. Monroe likely would not have retired if he hadn’t been released by the Ravens.

Ryan Jensen played 419 snaps at left guard last season, with Osemele moving outside late in the season, but the 2013 6th round pick graded out below average in the first significant action of his career in 2015. He’ll compete for playing time with rookie 4th round pick Alex Lewis and 2014 5th round pick John Urschel, a natural guard who struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2015, playing out of position at center. On 547 snaps, he finished 31st out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. The Ravens don’t have a good option at the position, so losing both Monroe and especially Osemele will hurt this offensive line.

The good news is center Jeremy Zuttah is now again healthy and still with the team, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center on 613 snaps before tearing his pectoral in 2015. He’s an unspectacular player going into his age 30 season, but he’s made 71 starts in the past 5 seasons and graded out above average in all 5 seasons, with his highest ranked season coming in limited action in 2015. He’s an obvious upgrade over Urschel and a huge re-addition for this offensive line.

Right tackle Rick Wagner didn’t miss a game with injury, but played like he was playing hurt, after breaking his foot late in the 2014 season. Wagner had a breakout 2014 season, finishing 16th among offensive tackles tackles on Pro Football Focus, but fell to 49th in 2015. The 2013 5th round pick is a bounce back candidate, but he’s also a one-year wonder who is no guarantee to bounce back. I’d like his bounce-back chances better if he was hurt last year and is now healthy, but that remains unclear. Another big year would likely land him a big contract in free agency next off-season and would give this offensive line a big boost.

Easily the Ravens’ best remaining offensive lineman is right guard Marshal Yanda. Yanda was a top-5 guard on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2011-2013, but seemed to fall off a little bit going into his early 30s in 2014, finishing “just” 15th. Even getting up there in age, the Ravens extended him instead of Osemele last off-season, keeping him on 4-year, 32 million dollar extension, which proved to be a steal. Yanda was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard in 2015 and has a good chance to have another dominant season in 2016, even going into his age 32 season. He elevates this whole offensive line and this whole offense. Outside of Flacco’s, he’s their most important offensive player and he’s fortunately only missed 2 starts in the past 6 seasons.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Ravens’ offense should be improved in 2016, the defense is what’s going to have to carry this team. They weren’t bad defensively last season, finishing 16th in rate of moving the chains, but they also don’t have nearly as many players returning from injury on defense as they do on offense, so they can’t count on better injury luck. They finished last season with the 12th fewest adjusted games lost to injury. This is not the same dominant Ravens’ defense we’re used to, but there are definitely still talented starters on this defense, including nose tackle Brandon Williams.

After flashing on 93 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Williams has made 30 starts in 32 games over the past 2 seasons, grading out 10th among defensive tackles in 2014 and 8th among defensive tackles in 2015. The 6-1 335 pounder is a limited pass rusher and primarily a base package nose tackle, so the 727 snaps he played last season are likely his ceiling, but he’s still an important part of this defense and could easily lead this defense line in snaps played for the 3rd straight season.

Going into the final year of his contract, Williams could command a deal similar to the 5-year, 46.25 million dollar deal Damon Harrison got from the Giants this off-season. Only Harrison had a higher grade against the run among nose tackles than Williams did in 2015. The Ravens’ front office said this off-season they believe he’s the best nose tackle in football, so you can expect them to try hard to extend him this off-season. They are arguably right about that. At the very least, he’s one of the best at his position.

A bunch of players will compete for snaps around Williams on the Ravens’ 3-man defensive line. Veteran Chris Canty began last season as the starter, but was limited to 286 snaps in 9 games by injury and is no longer with the team, ahead of his age 34 season. Younger players Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy were actually 1st and 2nd among the Ravens’ 3-4 defensive ends in snaps played last season, with 531 and 485 respectively. Jernigan, a 2014 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. Even if he doesn’t, he’s a solid starter.

Guy also graded out above average, playing primarily as a two-down run stuffer. The 2011 7th round pick had made 3 career starts in 4 seasons prior to last season, so he’s a one-year wonder, but he was a shrewd re-signing on a cheap 2-year, 2.3 million dollar deal this off-season. He should remain as a situational run stuffer in base packages. As young as they are, Jernigan and Guy are actually the experienced ones at the position, as 2015 3rd round pick Carl Davis, who played 241 nondescript snaps as a rookie, and rookie 4th round pick Willie Henry figure to be the primary reserves and rotate heavily with the starters. It’s not the same Ravens’ defensive line you’re used to, as it’s very young, but it’s still talented, led by Williams.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens have the opposite issue at outside linebacker, as starters Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are going into their age 32 and age 34 seasons respectively. Suggs is also coming off of a torn achilles suffered week 1 of last season that cost him the rest of the season, the one major injury the Ravens had on defense. His age is a concern, as is the fact that he’s missed 23 games over the past 4 seasons with two separate torn achilles, but he’s been a top-10 player at his position in every healthy season since 2010, so he’s still a welcome return, even if he plays a smaller role than he’s used to and doesn’t play as well.

Elvis Dumervil fell to 39th among edge defenders in 2015, after finishing 3rd and 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 2014 respectively. His age was likely a factor, but the fact that he had to play 813 snaps as an every down player was also part of it. He’s undersized at 5-11 255 and doesn’t play the run well, but still had a good pass rush season in 2015, finishing 18th among edge defenders in pure pass rush grade, and he’s much better when he can play around 600 snaps and play primarily as a pass rusher in sub packages. Even at his age, he should be able to get to the quarterback in 2016. He’s finished in the top-10 among pass rushers at his position in 5 of 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history.

Za’Darius Smith was the 3rd outside linebacker as a rookie with Suggs injured, grading out below average on 416 snaps, but could see more playing time in his 2nd year in the league even with Suggs back. Courtney Upshaw, who led the position with 799 snaps played last season, left as a free agent, freeing up a ton of playing time. He wasn’t a very good player, so he won’t really be missed, but Smith hasn’t shown much yet. The Ravens also used a 2nd round pick on Boise State’s Kamalei Correa, though the 6-3 243 pound collegiate defensive end has been seeing action at both outside linebacker and middle linebacker this off-season. He received a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus and compares unfavorably to former 1st round bust Shea McClellin, who has been a man without a position thus far in the NFL. If he sees significant playing time either inside or outside, he’ll probably be a liability as a rookie.

The reason he could see playing time at middle linebacker is because the Ravens let another 30+ year old starting linebacker go this off-season, releasing Daryl Smith following a terrible 2015 season, ahead of his age 34 season. The move made some sense, but the Ravens didn’t have an obvious replacement on the roster, nor did they add one this off-season. Zach Orr is penciled in as the starter, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has never made a start, so there’s definitely an opportunity for Correa to be the starter here at some point this season. It figures to be a position of weakness regardless.

The other middle linebacker spot is a different story, as 3rd year player CJ Mosley is an obvious bounce back candidate. Even in a down year in 2015, he still graded out above average, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2014. Still only going into his age 24 season, with a first round pedigree, Mosley still has a very bright future and could easily have another big season again in 2016. He’s quickly becoming the leader of an aging linebacking corps that is not what it used to be.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback Jimmy Smith played all 16 games in 2015, but still struggled through an injury. Smith missed the final 8 games of the 2014 season with a broken foot, but was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback when he went down. That was enough for the Ravens to give the 2011 1st round pick a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension ahead of his contract year in 2015, despite the injury and the fact that he had never finished higher than 35th among cornerbacks in a full season in his career. The injury seemed to still really bother him in 2015, as he graded out well below average as a 16-game starter and needed an additional procedure this off-season. That extension now looks ill advised and he’s a very shaky bet going into 2016.

Lardarius Webb was the other starting cornerback opposite Smith last season, making 14 starts in 15 games played, but the aging cornerback will be moving to safety this season, for his age 31 season. Kendrick Lewis, a 15-game starter at safety in 2015, remains, but he graded out below average in 2015 and is expected to lose his job to Webb, who was actually the Ravens best cornerback last season. It remains to be seen how he’ll adapt to the new position and his age is becoming a concern, but he’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league.

Will Hill was the other starting safety in 2015, making 14 starts in 16 games. He finished 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but the Ravens also have a new starter at that position as well, as Hill was suspended indefinitely for yet another failed drug test. In his place, the Ravens signed ex-Charger Eric Weddle to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. Weddle was quietly one of the best safeties in the NFL from 2010-2014, finishing in the top-6 among safeties in all 5 seasons, the only safety in the league to do so, but fell off a little bit in 2015, coming in 33rd. That’s a concern, as he heads into his age 31 season, but he should have a couple more solid seasons in him at the very least and there’s definitely bounce back potential here.

With Webb moving to cornerback, the Ravens will start Shareece Wright, who they re-signed to a 3-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season, opposite Smith. Wright graded out above average in 485 snaps in 2015, but, prior to that, was a healthy scratch in the first 4 weeks of the seasons by the 49ers, who ultimately put him on waivers. Wright was a 27-game starter in 2013 and 2014 combined, but was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible in 2013 and their 105th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible in 2014. It’s possible the 2011 3rd round pick has permanently turned a corner, but the Ravens are betting a good amount of money to find out. He’s not a reliable starter.

Free agent acquisition Jerraud Powers is expected to be the nickel cornerback, with Wright moving into a starting role. Powers was a nice, cheap signing on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal, as he has 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 3 of those seasons, though he struggled last season. His only real competition for the job is veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington, who fell to 4th on the depth chart last season and needed to take a paycut to stay with the team. Arrington graded out above average in every season from 2011-2014, before grading out below average in 2015, and has some bounce back potential, even going into his age 30. He’ll provide valuable depth with Smith still rehabbing from his latest foot surgery. Like the rest of this defense, it’s a solid, but unspectacular unit.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Ravens figure to be a lot healthier in 2016, especially on offense, where they were destroyed by injuries last season. That’ll go a long way towards this team getting back into the post-season, but, even healthy, their offense is unspectacular on paper, as is their aging defense, which is not nearly what it used to be. There’s still good talent on both sides of the ball and they have a chance to sneak back into the playoffs in a weak and wide open AFC, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC North

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