2018 NFL Season Predictions

AFC East

New England 13-3

NY Jets 4-12

Miami 4-12

Buffalo 3-13

AFC North

Pittsburgh 10-6

Cincinnati 8-8

Cleveland 7-9

Baltimore 6-10

AFC South

Tennessee 10-6

Jacksonville 10-6

Houston 8-8

Indianapolis 5-11

AFC West

LA Chargers 10-6

Denver 9-7

Kansas City 7-9

Oakland 6-10

NFC East

Philadelphia 13-3

Dallas 8-8

Washington 8-8

NY Giants 4-12

NFC North

Green Bay 12-4

Minnesota 10-6

Chicago 9-7

Detroit 6-10

NFC South

Atlanta 11-5

New Orleans 11-5

Carolina 6-10

Tampa Bay 5-11

NFC West

LA Rams 10-6

Seattle 10-6

San Francisco 7-9

Arizona 6-10

AFC Wild Card

Tennessee over Denver

LA Chargers over Jacksonville

NFC Wild Card

Atlanta over Seattle

LA Rams over New Orleans

AFC Divisional

New England over Tennessee

LA Chargers over Pittsburgh

NFC Divisional

Philadelphia over LA Rams

Green Bay over Atlanta

AFC Championship

New England over LA Chargers

NFC Championship

Green Bay over Philadelphia

Super Bowl

New England over Green Bay

Philadelphia Eagles 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Eagles went from dead last in the NFC East at 7-9 in 2016 to Super Bowl Champions in 2017, but that shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. The 2016 Eagles were better than their record suggested, as they finished with a +36 point differential that was better than 5 playoff teams. That was despite the fact that they were without stud offensive lineman Lane Johnson for most of the season with suspension (5-1 in the 6 games he played) and despite their underwhelming passing game, with rookie Carson Wentz throwing to one of the thinner receiving corps in the league. With Johnson returning from suspension, Wentz going into his second season in the league, and an improved receiving corps, a big jump in win total looked likely for them last season so, while they were not an obvious Super Bowl choice, it’s not a surprise that they had a strong season.

What pushed this team from a good team to a great one was their quarterback play. Carson Wentz took a huge statistical step forward in his second season in the league. After completing 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.23 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions as a rookie, Wentz completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.49 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his second season in the league and he almost doubled his rushing yardage from 150 to 299. Part of his statistical improvement came from having a much improved receiving corps, but there’s no denying Wentz was a vastly improved quarterback from year 1 to year 2. He jumped from 23rd to 5th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and was considered an MVP front runner for most of the year.

Wentz is still only going into his age 26 season, so he could keep getting better, but his development hit a snag when he tore his ACL down the stretch last season. Backup quarterback Nick Foles was still able to guide this team to a Super Bowl victory, but Wentz’s injury could end up having long-term effects if he isn’t able to return at 100% right away and it complicates his development. He could easily have another strong season in 2018, but it could be a few years before he develops into a consistently top level quarterback.

Foles returns to the backup role with Wentz returning and, assuming Wentz is able to start week 1 as planned, Foles will be the first Super Bowl MVP in NFL history to begin the next season on the bench. Foles played incredibly well in both the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, but he had some bad games late in the season and he’s been inconsistent throughout his career, so Wentz is the obvious choice to remain the starter. The Eagles finished the regular season 8th in first down rate at 35.91%, but were much better with Wentz under center, moving the chains at a 37.53% rate in his 13 starts, as opposed to 28.02% in Foles’ 3 regular season starts. Foles also struggled in their first post-season game.

Given Foles’ inconsistency, it’s a surprise that the Eagles were offered a high 2nd round pick for him in a trade this off-season, after he was available on just a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. The Eagles ended up turning that offer down because they are in win now mode and know the value of a reliable backup quarterback, even if they expect Wentz to return to form. This is arguably the best quarterback situation in the NFL and both quarterbacks are under contract inexpensively, which has allowed the Eagles to spend significant money at other positions.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Unlike many Super Bowl winners, the Eagles have a very good chance to repeat. Not only do they get their franchise quarterback back from injury, but they had almost no losses this off-season, with most of their key players already locked up on long-term deals. As important as their quarterback play was last season, this was also probably the best all-around team in the league last season and that allowed them to keep winning down the stretch, even when Foles had some underwhelming starts.

On the other hand, the Eagles have little financial flexibility long-term. They are already well over the 2019 cap, even before re-signing several key players who are scheduled to hit free agency next off-season. Wentz will also be eligible for an extension next off-season as well and will be due a massive increase at some point, assuming he returns to form. The Eagles kept this team together for 2018 and will compete for another Super Bowl, but 2019 might be a different story.

Top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was scheduled for free agency this off-season, signed from the Bears last off-season on an incentivized one-year deal that ended up paying him 9.75 million, but the Eagles locked him up long-term on a 4-year, 52 million dollar extension late last season. Jeffery only had a 57/789/9 slash line, but he had much better chemistry with Wentz than Foles. In his 13 games with Wentz, he had a 52/732/8 slash line, which extrapolates to 64/901/10 over a 16 game season. Wentz also did not throw a single interception on a target to him all season, on 105 targets. Primarily a deep route runner, he should benefit the most from Wentz’s return.

Jeffery should also benefit from better health of his own. While he played all 16 games, he played through a shoulder injury for most of the season. From 2013-2016, he averaged a 85/1263/7 slash line per 16 games with the Bears. He probably won’t see the 9.1 targets per game he saw with the Bears, as part of a deep receiving corps, but he had 7.5 targets per game last season with Wentz, which is still a fair amount, and he has obvious statistical bounce back potential.

The Eagles also added Torrey Smith last off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 15 million dollar, but he spent most of the year as the third receiver behind Nelson Agholor, who had a mini-breakout year, finishing 18th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and posting a 62/768/8 slash line on 95 targets. Agholor’s season comes as a bit of a surprise, as he was one of the worst receivers in the league in his first 2 seasons in the league, finishing dead last among wide receivers on PFF on both seasons, but he was a first rounder in 2015 and finally showed why last season. Converting him into a slot receiver proved to be a smart move, as that’s where he did most of his damage last season. He’s a one year wonder, but he’s also only in his age 25 season, so he could keep getting better.

Tight end Zach Ertz is also a big part of the passing game, with a 74/824/8 slash line on 110 targets last season. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Ertz flashed as a part-time player early in his career with slash lines of 36/469/4 and 58/702/3 in his first two seasons in the league respectively and has averaged a 76/831/5 slash line in the three seasons since. He’s also gotten a positive grade from PFF for his pass catching in all 5 seasons in the league, maxing out as PFF’s 4th ranked pass catching tight end in 2017. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s only in his age 28 season with no injury history, so he should remain one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league.

The Eagles also added to their receiving corps this off-season, signing veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace to a 1-year deal worth 3 million and using a second round pick on South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert. Wallace will replace Torrey Smith, who was sent to Carolina this off-season, following a miserable 2017 season in which he had just a 36/430/2 slash line on 69 targets, finished 115th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF, and lost playing time down the stretch to #4 receiver Mack Hollins, a 2017 4th round pick. Owed 5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Eagles were going to release Smith for nothing if they couldn’t trade him, so credit them for getting a promising young cornerback in Daryl Worley, even if they had to release Worley a couple months later after an off-the-field incident. Why Carolina wanted Smith at his current salary badly enough to trade anything for him is unclear.

Wallace should be an upgrade on Smith, but that doesn’t mean he won’t face competition from Hollins, who was decent on 282 snaps as a rookie. Wallace has been a capable starting receiver in recent years, but he’s going into his age 32 season and the Eagles didn’t exactly give him a big contract, so he’ll have to earn his role. He had a 52/748/4 slash line with the Ravens last season, but that was on 92 targets as their #1 receiver. He’ll have a much smaller role, albeit on a much better offense, in Philadelphia.

Goedert, meanwhile, will slot in as the #2 tight end. The Eagles have had arguably the deepest tight end group in the league in recent years, with a pair of talented backups in Trey Burton and Brent Celek, but Burton was signed by the Bears on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season, while Celek was released, ahead of his age 33 season, in which he would have been owed 4 million. Tight end depth was one of the Eagles’ few needs this off-season and Goedert should have an immediate role. He’s raw, but won’t have to play a huge role and he has a high upside. This is a solid group overall once again, possibly even better with Wallace replacing Smith.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with wide receiver, running back was a position of need for the Eagles last off-season, as Ryan Mathews, who spent 2017 out of the league, led the 2016 Eagles with 155 carries. The Eagles added veteran running back LeGarrette Blount in free agency and signed promising undrafted free agent Chris Clement, but their big upgrade at running back didn’t come until mid-season, when they sent a 2018 4th round pick to the Dolphins for Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline.

Ajayi was a 1200+ yard rusher and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in run grade in 2016, but he averaged just 3.37 yards per carry through 7 games with the Dolphins in 2017 and they decided to scapegoat him for their offensive issues by dealing him for cheap, even though he was PFF’s 3rd ranked running back in terms of running grade at that point in the season and averaged 2.77 yards per carry after contact.

On a much better offense with the Eagles, he had a 5.83 yards per carry average. He only had 10 carries per game in 7 regular season games, but that number went up to 14 in the post-season and, with LeGarrette Blount signing with the Lions this off-season, expect his carry total to keep going up. Blount averaged 4.43 yards per carry on 173 carries last season, but Ajayi has a much better upside. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could easily be his final season on Philadelphia, but could have a big year as the lead back on a strong offense.

Ajayi’s one weakness is pass catching, as he has just 58 catches in 38 career games, but the Eagles fortunately have Darren Sproles returning from an injury shortened season. He will return to his old passing down role and will also mix in as a change of pace back, after playing just 89 snaps in 3 games last season before tearing his ACL. Sproles averaged 63 catches per season in his previous 7 seasons prior to the injury, but I would expect him to have fewer this season. Not only is he coming off the injury, but he’s also now two years older than his last full season (52 catches) and is going into his age 35 season. Sproles has already announced this will be his final season in the league. Unlike most running backs, Sproles has never topped 100 carries in a season, so he’s fresher than most backs in their mid 30s.

The Eagles also have Corey Clement, a jack of all trades back with 4.34 yards per carry on 74 carries, 10 catches for 123 yards, and 6 total touchdowns as an undrafted rookie. He’ll rotate in both on early downs and on passing downs and he should have more touches than he did as a rookie. Blount leaves behind a significant amount of carries and Clement figures to be second on the team in carries behind Ajayi. This is an improved backfield, even from a year ago, with Sproles returning and Ajayi taking on a larger role.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Wentz was not the not major injury the Eagles dealt with on the road to the Super Bowl, as they lost several other key players for the season. Probably the biggest loss was left tackle Jason Peters, who went down for the season after 7 starts with a torn ACL. In his absence, the Eagles started Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a second year swing tackle and 2016 5th round pick, but he struggled mightily, finishing 79th among 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He was a big downgrade from Peters, who was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle at the time of his injury. A top-13 offensive tackle on PFF in 6 straight healthy seasons prior to last season, Peters will be a big re-addition for this team, but he’s not a lock to return to form, coming off of a serious injury and going into his age 36 season.

Even with Peters out for the year, this was still one of the best offensive lines in the league. Left guard was a bit of an issue, as week 1 starter Isaac Seumalo struggled mightily and then was benched for veteran Stefen Wisniewski midway through week 3. Wisniewski was decent in 11 starts, but then missed two games down the stretch with injury and his replacement Chance Warmack also struggled. Wisniewski has 94 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is still only in his age 29 season. A consistent capable starter, he should start week 1 this year and the Eagles would benefit from him making all 16 starts if possible.

The rest of this offensive line all played at a Pro-Bowl level, as right tackle Lane Johnson, center Jason Kelce, and right guard Brandon Brooks finished 10th among offensive tackles, 1st among centers, and 3rd among guards on PFF respectively. Johnson has missed 14 games in his career due to two suspensions for performance enhancing drugs, but he’s only missed one other game in 5 seasons in the league and has been a top-17 offensive tackle on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons.

Originally drafted 4th overall in 2013, Johnson was drafted by the Eagles with the idea of playing him at left tackle long-term after Peters, but Peters has played well into his mid 30s and, even with Peters out last season, Johnson stayed at right tackle, with Vaitai playing the blindside instead, even as Vaitai continued to struggle. It’s unclear if that’s their new long-term plan because Johnson has played so well at right tackle or if they just didn’t want to move him mid-season, but Peters is nearing the end and Johnson’s 11.252 million dollar annual salary is much more in line with left tackles than right tackles. He’s the highest paid right tackle by over 1.75 million annually, but would rank just 13th among left tackles. He has the athleticism to play either side, but figures to remain at right tackle for the foreseeable future.

Kelce and Brooks are also highly paid, on deals worth 6.3 million and 8 million annually, but both are bargains at that price. They’ve made 76 starts and 74 starts respectively in the past 5 seasons combined and both have finished in the top-8 at their respective position in 4 of those 5 seasons. Kelce is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but Brooks is only in his age 29 season. Both should at least have another solid season on an offensive line that could easily be even better in 2018, with Peters returning from injury.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a strong defense last season, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, which carried them down the stretch when Foles was struggling. They were led by their defensive line, which is arguably the deepest and most talented in the entire league. They rotated in 7 different linemen who all topped 400 snaps, but their two most dominant defensive linemen were defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, who formed a devastating inside/outside combination.

Cox and Graham finished 6th and 4th among defensive tackles and 4-3 defensive ends respectively on Pro Football Focus. Both only see about two thirds of the snaps on a deep defensive line, but that keeps them really fresh and they ranked 3rd and 9th respectively at their position in pass rush productivity on a per pass rush snap basis in 2017, while also playing well against the run.

Both are far from one year wonders too, as Cox has ranked in the top-6 at his position on PFF in 4 straight seasons, while Graham has ranked in the top-8 among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF for 4 straight seasons, with back-to-back seasons in the top-4. Cox is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and, while Graham is now going into his age 30 season, he shouldn’t have that much of a drop off in 2018, if he has any.

Cox is locked up long-term on a 6-year, 102.6 million dollar deal that he is well worth, while Graham has been an absolute steal on a 4-year, 26 million deal, though he now enters the final year and is owed a significant increase that the Eagles may not be willing to give him, given his age and their cap situation. This could be his final season in Philadelphia, but it should be another good one unless he sees a significant drop off in his play.

Vinny Curry also played a big role on this defensive line last season, finishing with the third most snaps and starting all 16 games opposite Graham. He only had 3 sacks, but added 17 hits and 27 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps (13th among 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush productivity), played the run well, and finished 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. Owed 9 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season, Curry was let go by the Eagles this off-season, but only because they traded a late round pick to the Seahawks for replacement Michael Bennett, who is set to make 5.65 million in 2018.

Bennett figures to take over as the starter opposite Graham and saves them a little bit of money, but he could easily be a downgrade and he too is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. Bennett finished in the top-7 among 4-3 defensive ends in 6 straight seasons from 2011-2016, but he fell to around middle of the pack in 2017 and his best days are likely behind him. He also has off-the-field concerns and had issues with his coaching staff at the end of his time in Seattle. If the Seahawks could not find a taker for his contract, they likely would have just released him, even though he was just starting an extension that the Seahawks already paid him a 8 million dollar signing bonus on last off-season.

Reserve defensive ends Chris Long and Derek Barnett also played a role last season, with 496 snaps and 424 snaps respectively, and both earned positive grades. Long is going into his age 33 season and is unlikely to see a bigger role in 2018, but Barnett is a 2018 1st round pick who could easily play more snaps at a higher level in his second season in the league. The Eagles had more pass rush depth outside than inside last season, so they lined the 6-2 265 pound Graham up inside in passing situations about a third of the time. They still have more pass rush depth outside than inside this season, so I would expect them to continue using 3 defensive ends in passing situations with some regularity. Not only can Graham line up inside, but the 6-4 274 pound Bennett also has some experience as an inside rusher, playing about 40% of his pass rush snaps there last season.

Timmy Jernigan will be the primary inside rusher with Fletcher Cox in passing situations. Acquired from the Ravens for just a swap of third round picks last off-season, Jernigan was PFF’s 17th ranked defensive tackle on 493 snaps in 2017 and was given a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension late in the season, keeping one of their few key free-agents-to-be off the open market. Despite being acquired so inexpensively last season, Jernigan is not a one-year wonder. While last season was the best of his career, the 2014 2nd round pick earned positive grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league with the Ravens and started 28 of the 43 games he played in those 3 seasons.

They don’t have another good pass rushing defensive tackle though, which is where their defensive end depth will come in handy. Beau Allen was their 3rd defensive tackle with 422 snaps last season, but he didn’t provide much pass rush and he signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent this off-season. The Eagles replaced him with Haloti Ngata, a 12-year veteran. Ngata is coming off of a lost year due to a torn biceps and is only a two down player in his age 34 season, but that’s all the Eagles will need him to be on a deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

One key player the Eagles had that did hit the open market as a free agent this off-season was starting outside linebacker Nigel Bradham. Bradham earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and made 15 starts, but he was not expected to be brought back. The Eagles had every down linebacker Jordan Hicks returning from injury and Mychal Kendricks, who played well in Hicks’ absence last season, could also play every down. Instead, the Eagles kept Bradham on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal and sent Kendricks packing, rather than paying him 6 million non-guaranteed.

Kendricks was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is much better against the run than he is in coverage, so the Eagles might have made the correct choice. Bradham’s contract is a steep increase on his previous 2-year, 7 million dollar deal, but he signed that deal after a miserable final year in Buffalo, when he finished dead last out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. In two seasons in Philadelphia, where he reunited with ex-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Bradham has been much better, earning positive grades in both seasons and finishing 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2016.

A 2012 4th round pick, Bradham has made 56 starts in the past 4 seasons combined and has earned a positive grade in all 3 seasons he’s played with Schwartz as his coordinator. The contract the Eagles gave him is also pretty low risk, as it guarantees just 6 million in the first year and the Eagles can get out of it at any point after 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I’d expect another strong year from him, though he will serve a suspension week 1 for an off-the-field incident from 2016.

Hicks returns to his every down role at middle linebacker, after tearing his achilles last October. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hicks has played well when on the field in his career, but he had his rookie year ended by a torn pectoral and has played in just 31 of 48 games, so he hasn’t been the most durable player. Hicks was PFF’s 5th ranked middle linebacker in 2016 in his one healthy season and is still only in his age 26 season, but he’s a bit of a question mark going forward health wise. He’s one of the players the Eagles have on an expiring contract and I wouldn’t expect them to address his contract until they see him healthy on the field again. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the players they have to keep, as they lack depth at linebacker.

With Hicks out last season, Najee Goode, Joe Walker, and Dannell Ellerbe all struggled in stints as the 3rd linebacker. The Eagles signed veteran journeyman Paul Worrilow this off-season to hopefully give them a boost, but he tore his ACL this off-season and is out for the year. With Goode and Ellerbe gone and Walker likely locked in as the backup at middle linebacker, the Eagles are expected to start 2017 5th round pick Nathan Gerry, who played just 20 snaps as a rookie, as the 3rd linebacker in base packages. It’s a weakness in an otherwise strong group, but fortunately it’s just a base package role that won’t even play half of the snaps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback is another area where the Eagles were significantly improved from 2016 to 2017. After having one of the thinnest cornerback groups in the NFL in 2016, the Eagles added veteran Patrick Robinson in free agency, used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, and then traded a 2018 3rd round pick and receiver Jordan Matthews to the Bills for Ronald Darby.

Those four cornerbacks had mixed results, but the Eagles also got a much better year from second year cornerback Jalen Mills and overall had a solid group of cornerbacks. A 7th round pick in 2016, Mills went from dead last among 120 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 661 snaps as a rookie, playing largely out of desperation, to finishing around middle of the pack (71st) and making 15 starts in a much stronger cornerback group in 2017.

Mills wasn’t the biggest surprise in this secondary though, as Robinson, a journeyman cornerback who signed for the minimum on a one-year deal last off-season, finished as PFF’s 4th ranked cornerback on 710 snaps, primarily playing on the slot (496 snaps). He signed with the Saints for 5 million annually this off-season, which the cap strapped Eagles could not justify offering to an inconsistent veteran slot cornerback who is going into his age 31 season. He’s by far the Eagles’ biggest free agent loss of the off-season.

Despite that, this is still a solid group, with both Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones returning to form after injury plagued 2017 seasons. Darby suffered an ankle injury week 1 and missed the next 8 games, but he was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback over the final 7 weeks of the season after returning and made a big impact during their playoff run. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Darby has earned a positive grade in all 3 seasons in the league, topping out as PFF’s 7th ranked cornerback as a rookie. Still only going into his age 24 season, he has obvious upside and can be a #1 cornerback if he can stay healthy. He may play himself out of the Eagles’ price range as a free agent next off-season.

Jones, on the other hand, came into the league injured, tearing his achilles working out before the draft, which dropped him from a possible top-15 pick into the middle of the 2nd round. That’s a serious injury, but he had a good recovery, even returning to play 27 snaps in the Eagles’ week 17 game, before being deactivated for the playoffs. He should be close to 100% for week 1 and, while he’s unproven and could take some “rookie” lumps, he has obvious upside. He’ll at least have a role in the slot, replacing Robinson, and could compete with Mills for the other outside job in base packages. Douglas, who played 423 nondescript snaps as a 3rd round rookie, and this year’s 4th round pick Avonte Maddox, will likely be reserves.

At safety, the Eagles bring back the starting duo of Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins for the third straight season. Both players earned positive grades from PFF last season and both are proven starters. Jenkins is a 9-year veteran with 127 career starts and 4 straight seasons with a positive grade from PFF, while McLeod is a 6-year veteran with 78 career starts and 3 straight seasons with a positive grade from PFF. Jenkins is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, and has been on the decline a little since finishing #1 among safeties in 2015 (19th in 2017), but he could easily have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter. McLeod, meanwhile, is in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. This is a solid secondary, even without Robinson.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles didn’t lose much this off-season and the players they did lose they did a good job of replacing. They could also be healthier, with key players like Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks, and Ronald Darby missing big chunks of last season. Given that, the Eagles have as good of a chance of repeating as any team in recent memory. On paper, this is arguably the most talented and complete roster in the NFL.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Eagles enter the season a little shorthanded with Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery still recovering from injuries and Nigel Bradham serving a one game suspension, but they are still the most talented team in the league and should push for another Super Bowl appearance, even in a loaded NFC.

Prediction: 13-3 1st in NFC East

Dallas Cowboys 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2016 season, things looked bleak for the Cowboys. They went 4-12 the previous season, including 1-11 in games not started by Tony Romo, who missed most of the season with injury. The Cowboys improved their supporting cast in the off-season, but when Romo went down with another injury before the season started, forcing 4th round rookie Dak Prescott into action, it looked like it would be another lost season for the Cowboys.

Instead, the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016, led by an offense that ranked 3rd in first down rate. Prescott finished the season as Pro Football Focus’s 10th ranked quarterback and completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while adding 282 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (4.95 YPC). He held off Romo as the starter all season, despite Romo returning to health down the stretch, and, with Romo retiring last off-season, he became the Cowboys’ long-term franchise quarterback.

His 2017 season got off to a similar start. Through 8 games, the Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in first down rate at 38.10%. Prescott ranked 10th among quarterbacks on PFF during those 8 games and completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. However, he completed 62.8% of his passes for an average of just 6.52 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the final 8 games of the season and the Cowboys moved the chains at a mere 32.17% rate in those games. Prescott finished as PFF’s 17th quarterback and the Cowboys finished the season 11th in first down rate and out of the playoffs at 9-7.

What happened in the second half of the season? Well, Pro-Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for 6 games for domestic violence and Pro-Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith missed 4 of the team’s final 8 games with injury. Prescott’s strong rookie season and beginning to his 2nd season were largely as a result of a strong supporting cast and, when that supporting cast started to show cracks, Prescott got exposed and began to struggle.

It’s a concerning development for a quarterback who the Cowboys are going to have to pay a lot of money to keep in the next year or two. The Cowboys aren’t always going to be able to surround him with top level talent on offense and, for him to be worth top quarterback money, he needs to be able to take over even when his supporting cast is struggling or when game situations are not favorable. Prescott is a talented quarterback who obviously exceeded his draft stock, but he still has flaws in his game and opposing defenses exploited those more in his 2nd season in the league, especially without Elliott and Smith.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

To Prescott’s credit, he’s had a pretty underwhelming receiving corps in his career. That made life really hard for him when injuries struck at other positions. The Cowboys changed up their receiving corps this off-season, but not necessarily because they wanted to and they might not be better. The Cowboys released #1 receiver Dez Bryant, a still capable receiver, because had declined in recent years and was no longer worth his 12.5 million dollar salary, and then replaced him with free agent acquisition Allen Hurns, who is cheaper (12 million over 2 years), but not necessarily better.

Meanwhile, tight end Jason Witten decided to hang them up and join the Monday Night Football booth and, making matters worse, the timing of his retirement was terrible, coming after the both draft and free agency, leaving the Cowboys with no good alternatives. Witten looked like he was running in slow motion in 2017, averaging just 8.89 yards per catch and just 1.52 yards per catch after the catch, but he played a whopping 1,048 snaps (most among tight ends), caught 63 passes on just 87 targets, and was an above average run blocker, so he won’t be easy to replace.

Last year’s #2 tight end James Hanna played just 276 snaps last season and he’s not even with the team anymore. Witten was going into his age 36 season, so the Cowboys probably should have been better prepared for even a surprise retirement by Witten, but they have just one tight end on the roster who has caught a pass in his career: Geoff Swaim, who played 171 snaps as the 3rd tight end last year and has just 9 catches in 3 seasons in the league since the Cowboys drafted him in the 7th round in 2015. He’s a solid blocker at 6-4 260, but little else.

The other three tight ends that will compete for playing time have just 3 career snaps between them, all of them by 2017 undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin. He’s drawn good reviews for his pass catching this off-season, but he’s obviously very unproven. Besides Swaim, Jarwin’s competition for snaps will be 2016 6th round pick Rico Gathers, a converted basketball player who spent his rookie season on the practice squad and his 2nd season on injured reserve, and 4th round rookie Dalton Schultz. I wouldn’t expect any Dallas tight end to have more than 25 catches.

At wide receiver, Allen Hurns is locked in as a starter and could easily lead this team in receiving, although largely for lack of a better option. Hurns topped 1000 yards in 2015 with the Jaguars and was given a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension, but he combined for just 961 yards in 2016 and 2017 and was released this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in 2018. Injuries were part of the problem, as he’s missed 11 games over the past 2 seasons and was limited in several others, and, only his age 27 season, he has some bounce back potential, but he also struggled as a rookie in 2014 and was originally an undrafted free agent, so he’s a one-year wonder and his 2015 season could easily prove to be a fluke. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to produce in Dallas though, as Bryant leaves behind 133 targets, 12th most in the NFL last season.

Opposite Hurns, incumbent starter Terrance Williams will compete with 3rd round rookie Michael Gallup for the starting job. A 3rd round pick himself back in 2013, Williams has made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league, while playing 80 of 80 games, but he’s averaged just 671.8 yards per season and is coming off of a 53/568/0 slash line on 688 snaps in 2017. It seems like the Cowboys have been trying to upgrade him for years. Gallup might not be that upgrade, but the early reviews have been good and it would be hard for him to outproduce Williams.

Slot receiver Cole Beasley will remain involved in 3 wide receiver sets. The 5-8 180 pounder doesn’t play much outside and only plays about half the snaps. He had a 75/833/5 slash line in 2016, but he hasn’t topped 536 yards in any of his other 5 seasons in the league. He could see an uptick in targets with the Cowboys lacking an over the middle target, but he’s a limited player. This is a very thin receiving corps.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

While the Cowboys definitely were not the same offense without Ezekiel Elliott, backup running back Alfred Morris actually had a higher YPC, averaging 4.76 yards per carry on 115 carries. He did not do quite as well as Elliott in carry success rate, as Elliott ranked 2nd at 57th, but Morris still ranked 7th at 51%, so he did a good job keeping this offense on schedule. The difference was that defenses didn’t fear him like they feared Elliott, so they didn’t stack the box as much or bite on play action as often and Prescott had trouble adapting.

Elliott returns in 2018 and, in only his age 23 season with no injury history, he should have another strong season as the feature back. They probably won’t give him 24.2 carries per game like they did last season, as that would be 387 carries over 16 games, but he could easily have the 21.5 carries per game he had as a rookie, which is 343 carries over 16 games. His YPC average dropped from 5.07 to 4.06 from 2016 to 2017, but he still had a strong carry success rate and his relatively low YPC came from the fact that he had just 5 carries of 20+ yards, after having 14 such carries as a rookie.

Running backs are notoriously unreliable though, even really good ones. Elliott is one of just 16 running backs all-time to have at least 1500+ rushing yards in either of their first 2 seasons in the league. Of the previous 15, six of them never topped 1500 rushing yards again in their career. Elliott may prove to be a Hall of Fame running back when all is said and done, which is what the list of running backs with multiple 1500+ yard seasons largely consists of, but it’s always a risk building an offense around a feature back.

Elliott also doesn’t do much in passing situations, with just 58 catches in 25 career games. Backup Alfred Morris is no longer with the team, leaving Rod Smith, who flashed down the stretch last season, as the primary backup. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Smith managed just 1 carry in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he averaged 4.22 yards per carry on 55 carries last season and added 19 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown on 23 targets. He should play a passing down role and see a handful of carries as the primary backup.

The Cowboys also traded for Tavon Austin from the Rams and are planning on converting him from a wide receiver to a running back. He’s undersized at 5-8 179, but he’s not a bad fit as a scatback because his game as a receiver was mostly catching short passes and making guys miss. He had an average depth of target of just 3.09 yards on 194 catches, but averaged 5.62 yards per catch after catch and added 1,238 yards on 184 carries (6.73 YPC).

After acquiring him, Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said they envision him getting 12-24 touches per game. Austin is set to make 7 million this season, 5 million of which is fully guaranteed, so the Cowboys wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t have a role in mind, but 12-24 touches seems like obvious hyperbole. Not only is he undersized, but he’s also likely not a good pass protector, which he would have to be to earn a major passing down role in the backfield.

The Cowboys may ultimately end up using him similarly to the Rams did, lining him up around the formation. He may exceed the 5.0 touches per game he’s averaged in his career, but probably not by much, even with the Cowboys lacking weapons in the passing game. He’ll probably finish 3rd on the team in carries behind Elliott and Smith in what should be a strong backfield as long as Elliott remains on the field. With Prescott being a mobile quarterback, the Cowboys have been close to 50/50 in terms of pass plays vs. run plays the past two seasons and I would expect that to be the case again in 2018, as they try to hide an underwhelming passing game.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

In addition to a strong running game, a strong offensive line was also a big key to the Cowboys’ success in 2016, opening up big holes on the ground and protecting Prescott well. In 2017, they took a step back on the offensive line. Not only did Smith miss time with injuries, but the Cowboys also lost a pair of above average starters in left guard Ron Leary and right tackle Doug Free last off-season and didn’t do much to replace either. In their absence, the Cowboys started Jonathan Cooper, a former first round bust they took a flier on last off-season, and La’El Collins, a 2015 undrafted free agent. Collins struggled, finishing 62nd out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and, while Cooper was about a league average starter, he signed with the 49ers this off-season, so offensive line was a position of need this off-season.

They did more to upgrade the offensive line this off-season than they did last off-season, but left guard and right tackle could still be positions of weakness, as they did not add a reliable starter. Ex-Patriot Cameron Fleming was signed to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A 2014 4th round pick who flashed in 20 starts in 4 seasons in New England as the swing tackle, Fleming will compete with Collins for the starting right tackle job and he also gives them better insurance at left tackle behind Tyron Smith, whose backups Chaz Green and Byron Bell were horrendous in his absence last season. He’s a projection to a larger role, but was a smart signing on a one-year deal. It won’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Collins, who has struggled in 30 starts in 3 seasons in the league.

Collins could move to left guard if he doesn’t win the right tackle job and he’s been better at guard than tackle in his career, but he’d face competition for the starting role at left guard too, as the Cowboys used a 2nd round pick on Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams. Williams is a great athlete, but injury and strength concerns dropped him to the 2nd round and, even though he played tackle in college, his short arms (33 inches) likely make him a better fit inside at the next level. He has upside, but could struggle as a rookie. The Cowboys may end up regretting not re-signing Cooper.

Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line is Pro-Bowl caliber when they’re healthy. Smith returning should give them a boost in 2018, though it’s not a guarantee that all three will be able to stay healthy all season and losing any one of those three would be a big blow to this offense. Smith finished last season as PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle, which sounds good, but that was his lowest rank since his second season in the league in 2012 and he’s finished in the top-4 at his position in 4 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s also played in all 16 games in 4 of 7 seasons in the league and has missed just 7 games total. Still only in his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential.

Frederick and Martin, meanwhile, have never missed a game, although that’s not a guarantee to continue. First round choices in 2013 and 2014 respectively Frederick and Martin have been among the best in the league at their positions since day 1 in the NFL. Frederick has finished in the top-6 among centers on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, while Martin has been a top-5 guard in all 4 seasons in the league.

The Cowboys wisely locked Frederick up after just 3 seasons, giving him a 6-year, 56.4 million dollar extension that is now only 4th among centers in average annual salary and keeps him under team control through 2023. With Martin, the Cowboys had to reset the guard market to keep him, giving him a 6-year, 84 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season, but they couldn’t exactly let him leave and now have him under team control through 2024. With Prescott and Elliott due big extensions in the next year or two, it’ll be interesting to see how the Cowboys keep everyone long-term and still have enough money to fill out their roster. For now, the Cowboys have one of the better offensive lines in the league, even if they’re not as good as they were in 2016.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense has been strong at full strength in recent years, the defense has been pretty mediocre, even during their strong 2016 season. They finished that season 21st in first down rate allowed and then finished last season 19th in that metric. One player not responsible for their mediocre play last season was defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end. He had 14.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 52 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps and also played well against the run.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys might not be able to keep him long-term, given the other big contracts they have to hand out over the next couple off-seasons. The Cowboys franchise tagged him this off-season and will pay him 17.143 million in 2018, but if he has another season like he did last season they’ll have to pay upwards of that annually on a long-term deal to keep him, which they might not be able to afford long-term. This could easily be his final season in Dallas.

Franchise tagging Lawrence makes sense on a number of levels, as it probably wouldn’t have been wise to give him a massive long-term deal this off-season, even if the Cowboys didn’t have other major financial obligations. Lawrence played at a high level in 2017, but he also missed 16 games with injury in 2014 and 2016 combined, totalling just 1 sack between the 2 seasons, and in his other healthy season in 2015 he had just 8 sacks and was about an average starter. A second round pick in 2014 and only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible he could continue being one of the best defensive linemen in the league, but he’s also a one-year wonder with an injury history. He’s not a guarantee to be as good again in 2018.

Given that, the Cowboys will need someone to step up opposite him. Fellow starter Tyrone Crawford had 4 sacks, 7 hits, and 26 hurries on 394 pass rush snaps last season and has earned a positive pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, but the 6-4 290 pounder is a better pass rusher from the interior, where he sees about a third of his pass rush snaps, and he’s not much of a run stuffer, although he did have a solid season against the run in 2017. He’s played about 60% of the snaps over the past 4 seasons and will probably be around there again in 2018, but he’s more of a tweener than a pure edge rusher.

Last year’s first round pick Taco Charlton is the best bet to step up as the other edge rusher, but he struggled on just 399 snaps as a rookie and the Cowboys added competition for him this off-season, signing ex-Jet Kony Ealy in free agency and using a 4th round pick on Kansas edge rusher Dorance Armstrong, who is a much more polished pass rusher than you normally can find in the 4th round, even if he’s undersized at 6-4 257 and struggles against the run.

Ealy is bigger at 6-4 275 and went in the 2nd round in 2014, but he struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league, before earning the first positive grade for a season of his career from PFF in 2017. He struggled against the run, despite his size, and only had 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits, but he added 25 hurries and 9 pass deflections on 306 pass rush snaps. He’ll have a role and could keep playing well as a part-time player, only in his age 27 season, but that’s not a guarantee, given his history of struggles.

Crawford could see more time than usual at defensive tackle early in the season. Maliek Collins and David Irving will be the starters when both are available, but Irving is suspended for the first 4 games of the season for substance abuse and Collins broke his foot in May and is up going to be up against it to make it back healthy before week 1. Collins is struggles mightily when on the field anyway, finishing dead last among 73 defensive tackles on PFF on 662 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016 and then finishing 78th among 79 eligible at his position in 2017 on 684 snaps. He especially struggles against the run. He’ll probably continue to start for lack of a better option, but he should play fewer snaps in 2018.

David Irving also is not good against the run, but he’s more than good enough of a pass rusher to make up for it. Despite going undrafted in 2015, he’s earned a positive pass rush grade in all 3 seasons in the league and he has 11.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 52 hurries on 701 pass rush snaps in his career. The problem, in addition to his struggles against the run, is he hasn’t been reliable. He was suspended 4 games for performance enhancing drugs last season and also missed 4 games with injury, so he was limited to 338 snaps in 8 games. He should play more in 2018, but he’s missing from training camp dealing with personal issues and may not report to the team until after his suspension, so his season isn’t off to a good start.

With Irving, Lawrence, and Collins all struggling against the run, the Cowboys lack obvious base package defensive tackles. Behind those three, the Cowboys next two defensive tackles in terms of snaps in 2017 were Richard Ash and Brian Price, who struggled mightily on 233 snaps and 150 snaps respectively. Both are former undrafted free agents, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, so they’re no guarantee to get any better, but the only competition the Cowboys brought in for them is former Raiders bust Jihad Ward.

A reach in the 2nd round in 2016, Ward struggled mightily on 637 snaps as a rookie, finishing dead last among 51 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on PFF, and then was limited to 125 mediocre snaps in an injury plagued second season in 2017, before being traded to the Cowboys this off-season for reserve receiver Ryan Switzer. Outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, this defensive line has issues, especially with Irving dealing with off-the-field issues, and even Lawrence is no guarantee to have as strong of a season as he did in 2017, given that he’s an injury prone one-year wonder.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Like on the defensive line, the Cowboys have a very important linebacker who might not be with the team much longer, even their financial situation. Sean Lee has been one of the best linebackers in the league when healthy, but he’s frequently hurt and will be owed 7 million non-guaranteed in his age 33 season in 2019, so this could be his final season in Dallas. That might change if he has another strong season. He was limited to just 622 snaps in 11 games last season, but still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked linebacker and was clearly missed when not out there. He’s finished in the top-10 among linebackers on PFF in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, but he has missed 42 games in 8 seasons in the league and is unlikely to become more durable at his age.

Perhaps preparing for life without Sean Lee, the Cowboys used a first round pick on a linebacker this year, taking Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall, two years after using a high second round pick (34th overall) on Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch was just a one year starter in college and he comes into the league with some durability concerns, but he’s a freak athlete (4.65 40 at 6-4 256) and he’s coming off of a dominant season. He has a sky high upside and could ultimately be their new Sean Lee long-term. As a rookie though, there could be some growing pains and he may struggle to be an adequate replacement for departed free agent linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was above average on 544 snaps last season.

Smith also has a high upside if he can ever return to form, now over 30 months removed from a brutal knee injury in the final game of his college career that sunk his stock from a possible top-10 pick and cost him his entire rookie season. Smith played 575 snaps in 2017 and wasn’t bad, but he didn’t seem to be have quite the same athleticism as he did before the injury. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, still only his age 24 season, he could take a step forward. Lee figures to be an every down player, leaving Smith and Vander Esch competing for the other sub package role. Given Lee’s injury history though, it’s likely all three linebackers will see significant playing time. It’s a high upside group, but there’s a low floor here too if Lee gets hurt and their young linebackers are overwhelmed in his absence.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Cowboys also have a young group in the secondary, as 5 of their top-6 defensive backs are still on their rookie deals and the one who isn’t, safety Jeff Heath, is signed to a deal only worth 7.671 million over 4 years. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was owed 3 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season, but he struggled in 2017 and the Cowboys let him go. With expensive players at other positions, the secondary is where the Cowboys have decided to save money, but they might be able to get away with it if some of their young players play up to their potential.

Byron Jones probably has the highest upside. A first round pick in 2015, Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked safety in 2016 and is only going into his age 26 season, but he had a down year last year, with the Cowboys moving him from free safety to strong safety. He still earned a positive coverage grade from PFF, as he’s done in all 3 seasons in the league, but he struggled mightily against the run. Now the Cowboys are probably moving him back to cornerback, where he spent most of his rookie season. He’s always covered the slot in sub packages regardless of where he’s played in base packages and the slot is where he’s at his best, allowing 0.60 yards per route run last season and 1.00 yards per route run in his career. He may have some issues outside, but he has the upside to develop into an above average starting cornerback.

2016 6th round pick Anthony Brown and 2017 3rd round pick Jourdan Lewis led this team in cornerback snaps last season and, with Scandrick gone, they will compete for roles at cornerback with 2017 2nd round pick Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie played just 309 snaps as a rookie, but that was largely because of injury and he played well enough in limited action to warrant starting consideration in 2018. He played 78.3% of the snaps in the final 5 games of the season as was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback in those 5 weeks. Lewis also had an impressive rookie year, finishing 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF on 746 snaps as a rookie. Brown, on the other hand, has been underwhelming in 20 career starts in 2 seasons in the league. They lack a clear #1 cornerback, but it’s a deep group.

With Jones moving to cornerback, 2017 5th round Xavier Woods is expected to play every down at safety. Like fellow rookies Lewis and Awuzie, Woods flashed as a rookie, earning a positive grade on 547 snaps as the 3rd safety. He’s a projection to a larger role and wasn’t a high pick, but could easily develop into a capable every down player. He’ll play opposite Jeff Heath, a 2013 undrafted free agent who earned a positive grade in 15 starts in the first extended starting experience of his 5-year career. He may prove to be a one-year wonder, but this is a high upside secondary overall.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Cowboys’ offense has been really good over the past couple seasons when all of their stars have been on the field around Dak Prescott, but Prescott struggled to adjust when Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith were out of the lineup and, while Smith and Elliott return this season, there’s no guarantee all their offensive stars all stay healthy for the entire season. In fact, the odds are usually against that kind of thing happening, even if it did happen in 2016 for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys also don’t have the same receiving corps or offensive line as they did in 2016, so I would not expect them to return to that level even if all their stars stay healthy. On defense, they have a young group with upside, but could be an underwhelming group as a whole once again. The Cowboys are a borderline playoff team, but they have a low floor and a lot of good teams to jump over to get back into the post-season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Cowboys playoff chances took a big hit when Travis Frederick was ruled out indefinitely with a rare illness. Ezekiel Elliott is back, but they don’t have the same offensive line or receiving corps as 2016 and their defense is young and unproven.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in NFC East

Washington Redskins 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s not often a team lets a healthy franchise quarterback in the prime of his career walk in free agency, but that’s exactly what the Redskins did this off-season with Kirk Cousins. Originally franchise tagged after a breakout 2015 season, in which he completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.67 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, Cousins was made to prove it again in 2016. That was probably a smart decision on the Redskins’ part, but then when he did prove it again in 2016, completing 67.0% of his passes for an average of 8.11 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, they franchise tagged him again and lowballed him with long-term offers.

The Redskins actually took it one step further, announcing their lowball offer to the public in an attempt to make it seem like Cousins was being unreasonable turning down their offer, The contract they offered him had just 2 guaranteed years on it, even though he already had 1 guaranteed year locked in with the franchise tag and he would cost about 34 million to franchise tag again in 2018. At this point, it became clear that Cousins and the Redskins were heading for a divorce after the season, but Cousins still played well in 2017, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, despite losing a pair of thousand yard receivers in free agency last off-season and playing behind a banged up offensive line.

Seeing the writing on the wall with Cousins, the Redskins moved quickly to acquire veteran quarterback Alex Smith from the Chiefs. Smith is coming off arguably the best season of his career, completing 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, but he’s going into his age 34 season, meaning he’s 4 years older than Cousins, and he doesn’t come cheap, as the Redskins had to surrender a 3rd round pick and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller in the trade and then they had to give him a 4-year, 94 million extension with 55 million guaranteed to keep him beyond 2018. That’s ironically more guaranteed money than they ever offered Cousins. Cousins, meanwhile, took a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar deal from the Vikings.

Smith is not a bad fall back option and could easily be an adequate replacement for him in the short-term, but, given his age and how much they had to give up to acquire him, it was probably worth offering Cousins more guaranteed money last off-season. Smith is a solid starter, but you never want to have to change quarterbacks and there could be some growing pains for him in his first season in a new city in a new system with new teammates.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Redskins had major injury problems on the offensive line last season. Only Miami and Baltimore had more adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. It wasn’t just their offensive line that had injury problems though, as they led the league in adjusted games lost as a team. They also had the 3rd hardest schedule in the NFL in terms of DVOA. A 7-9 team in 2017, it won’t be easy for them to make the post-season in a what is once again a tough NFC, but they could easily win more games if they have better health.

Center Spencer Long missed the most games with injury last season, limited to just 397 snaps in 7 games. He’s no longer with the team though, signing with the Jets on a 4-year, 27.4 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, and the Redskins didn’t really do anything to replace him, so they can’t count on improved play at the center position in 2018. Chase Rouiller, a 2017 6th round pick who made 7 starts in Long’s absence last season, is expected to be the starter, but he was pretty underwhelming last season and was not a very high pick, so he’s not a guarantee to ever develop into a starting caliber player.

Left guard Shawn Lauvao also missed 7 games, but he wasn’t really missed, as he’s been one of the worst starting guards in the league over the past few seasons. He has 85 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus in 5 of the past 6 seasons and finished last season 62nd out of 80 eligible guards. Now going into his age 31 season, Lauvao could remain the starter now that he’s healthy, as the Redskins didn’t add another option this off-season, but they also left him unsigned into May before bringing him back and might opt to move forward with 2015 4th round pick Arie Kouandjio, who made 6 starts in Lauvao’s absence last season. Kouandjio has just 8 career starts in 3 seasons in the league and has been pretty unimpressive, but he at least gives them more upside than Lauvao.

Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line should be pretty strong if they can stay healthy. Left tackle Trent Williams is typically one of the best players in the NFL at his position, but that was not the case last season, as he missed 6 games and was limited in several others with a knee injury that eventually needed surgery. He still finished 13th among offensive tackles on PFF, his 6th straight season in the top-22 at his position, but he was their #1 offensive tackle in 2016 and also finished 2nd in 2013, so he has higher upside than he showed last season. His age is becoming a minor concern in his age 30 season, but, assuming he’s healthy, he should be one of the top left tackles in the league again.

Right guard Brandon Scherff is also one of the better players in the league at his position. Only missing 2 games with injury, Scherff finished last season as PFF’s 9th ranked guard. The 5th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Scherff has improved in every season in the league, going from 28th among guards on PFF as a rookie to 20th in 2016 and then taking another step forward last season. Now in his 4th season in the league, he could keep improving. The Redskins made the no brainer decision to pick up his 5th year option for 2019, which guarantees him 12.525 million for injury, and will work to reach a long-term extension with him in the next year or so. He could push to be the highest paid guard in the league, upwards of 14 million annually.

Right tackle Morgan Moses made all 16 starts, but he suffered a ankle injury week 13 and, though he played through it for the rest of the season, he needed surgery in the off-season and is questionable for the start of training camp. Moses was having a pretty disappointing year even before the injury and ended up falling to 41st among offensive tackles on PFF, after ranking 15th in 2015 and 13th in 2016. A 2014 3rd round pick, Moses is only going into his age 27 season and has obvious bounce back potential, but he needs to stay healthy. The Redskins signed him to a 5-year, 38.5 million dollar extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, making him the 3rd highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary, so they need him to get healthy and return to form.

The Redskins also used a 3rd round pick on Louisville offensive tackle Geron Christian. With Moses out, he’s seen a lot of work with the first team this off-season and figures to be the swing tackle as a rookie, though he may end up at guard long-term, where he has a clearer path to playing time. With no clear starter at left guard, Christian could end up making starts there as a rookie and might be the first one off the bench after an injury at either tackle or guard. The Redskins are obviously hoping they can stay healthier though.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

In addition to a banged up offensive line, Kirk Cousins also had a pretty underwhelming group of pass catchers. After losing a pair of thousand yard receivers in free agency last off-season (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon), the Redskins were banking on leaps forward by young receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson and a big year from free agent addition Terrelle Pryor, but they didn’t really get any of those. Pryor and Doctson played roles, as did 2014 5th round pick Ryan Grant, but none of them topped 600 yards receiving. Jamison Crowder led the team with a 66/789/3 slash line, but that was actually down from his 2016 numbers, 67/847/7, despite receiving 7 more targets in 2017 than 2016.

Crowder could have his breakout year in 2018 though, as he’s only going into his age 25 season and is a good fit with new quarterback Alex Smith, who prefers underneath targets that can make plays after the catch. A 4th round pick in 2015, Crowder has an average depth of target of just 5.99 yards from the line of scrimmage in 3 seasons in the league, but adds about 5.57 yards per catch after the catch. He’s been about a league average receiver in his career, but could be better now in his 4th season in the league. He’s the favorite to lead this team in catches and yards.

In 3 wide receiver sets, Crowder will move to the slot, where the undersized 5-9 177 pounder is at his best, with Josh Doctson and free agent acquisition Paul Richardson serving as the two outside receivers. Unlike Crowder, Doctson and Richardson are not good fits with Alex Smith because they primarily run deep routes, averaging 14.3 yards per catch and 16.0 yards per catch respectively last season. Smith did a good job on deep balls last season, but that was mostly because he had Tyreek Hill at his disposal, which he doesn’t with the Redskins.

The Redskins are hoping Smith can have that same connection with Richardson, giving him a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal, but that seems like wishful thinking for a team that struck out with Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins at the top of the market. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Richardson was only a part-time player in 2014 and 2016, with a lost year due to injury in between, before having a 44/703/6 slash line in his first year as a starter in 2017. Those are decent numbers, but he also played with a much better deep ball thrower with Russell Wilson last season and he finished slightly below average on Pro Football Focus on the season. Only 26, he could be keep getting better, which is probably what the Redskins are banking on, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Doctson also has upside, going in the first round in 2016, but he’s shown very little thus far in his career. Limited to 31 snaps by injury as a rookie, Doctson played 74.3% of the snaps in 2017, but had an underwhelming 35/502/6 slash line on 78 targets and finished as PFF’s 91st ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and may struggle to get on the same page with Alex Smith. Both Richardson and Doctson could disappoint statistically with Smith looking to other parts of the field, but, with Grant and Pryor leaving this off-season, they should be locked into their roles.

Two of Smith’s favorite targets will likely be tight end Jordan Reed and running back Chris Thompson, assuming both can stay healthy. That’s far from a guarantee with either of them though. Limited by chest, shoulder, toe, and hamstring injuries, Reed played just 234 underwhelming snaps in 6 games last season and managed just a 27/211/2 slash line. He was a top-4 pass catching tight end on PFF in 2015 and 2016 though and has averaged a 85/866/7 slash line per 16 games in his career.

The problem is he’s never actually played all 16 games, missing 28 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and maxing out at 14 games played in 2015, when he had a 87/952/11 slash line. Only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious upside with Alex Smith if he can stay healthy, but history suggests he’ll miss at least a few games. He’s also never been a good run blocker at 6-2 245. When on the field, expect him to be Smith’s favorite target, much like Travis Kelce was with the Chiefs.

Thompson, on the other hand, was actually having a great season last year before going down, rushing for 294 yards on 64 carries (4.59 YPC), catching 39 passes for 510 yards, and scoring 6 touchdowns in 10 games, before going down for the season with a broken leg. An undersized scat back at 5-8 193, Thompson has durability concerns dating back to his collegiate days, but he has Dion Lewis type upside when he’s healthy. He probably won’t average 13.1 yards per catch again, but he’s averaged 50.5 catches per 16 games over the past 3 seasons and could easily top that number with Smith under center if he can stay healthy.

Backup tight end Vernon Davis will also be in the mix, after posting a 43/648/3 slash line on 69 targets last season. Assuming this receiving corps is healthier in 2018, I don’t expect him to have quite as big of a role in the passing game and his age is also a concern, going into his age 34 season, but he’ll continue having a role in two-tight ends with Reed and is good insurance behind an unreliable starter. This is a decent receiving corps with upside if they stay healthy and young players progress.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Even with Thompson averaging 4.59 yards per carry on his 64 carries, the Redskins still only managed just 3.61 yards per carry on the season, 30th in the NFL. Between that, their banged up offensive line, and their underwhelming receiving corps, this offense ranked just 23rd in the NFL in first down rate last season, despite a strong season from Kirk Cousins. Thompson will continue to have a role as a runner, but he averaged just 6.4 carries per game and is unlikely to see significantly more carries per game this season. Not only is he not built to handle a big workload, the Redskins also used a 2nd round pick in the draft on LSU running back Derrius Guice.

Guice is not much of a pass catcher, but the 5-11 224 pounder could have an immediate role as an early down hammer and he complements Thompson well. He’ll face competition from Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley, but both are underwhelming options. Perine averaged just 3.45 yards per carry on 175 carries as a 4th round rookie in 2017, while Kelley averaged 4.19 yards per carry on 168 carries as an undrafted round rookie in 2016, but then was limited to 3.13 yards per carry on 62 carries in an injury plagued 2017 season. Neither does much on passing downs either, so they’re probably just competing for one spot. If Thompson can stay healthy and Guice has a solid rookie year, this should be a much improved backfield.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While their offense was underwhelming in 2017, their defense was actually surprisingly solid, finishing 11th in first down rate allowed. That’s despite the fact that they had some significant injuries on defense as well. On the defensive line, their biggest injury was first round rookie Jonathan Allen, who flashed on 159 snaps in 5 games before going down for the season with a foot injury. Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 defensive end at the time of the injury, Allen could have a breakout second season in the league if he can stay on the field. At one point considered a likely top-5 pick, Allen fell on draft day because of durability concerns, but he has a sky high upside.

In Allen’s absence, Matt Ioannidis led this defensive line in snaps with 584 and the 2016 6th round pick had a mini-breakout year. He struggled against the run, but had 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 34 hurries on 379 pass rush snaps and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in pass rush grade. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season, so he could easily keep getting better. He and Allen should play the majority of the snaps inside in sub packages. 2016 undrafted free agent Anthony Lanier will also be in the mix in sub packages. He’s terrible against the run, but the 6-6 285 pounder flashed with 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 8 hurries on just 232 pass rush snaps last year in the first significant action of his career.

In base packages, this year’s first round pick Da’Ron Payne figures to have a big role. The 13th overall pick will be their nose tackle in base packages and has the potential to develop into a better pass rusher and stay on the field in sub packages, although he might not do so as a rookie. He’ll replace Ziggy Hood, who finished as PFF’s worst ranked defensive tackle out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on 539 snaps as the starting nose tackle last season.

A 9-year veteran, Hood has earned a positive grade on PFF just once in his career and has frequently been one of the worst defensive linemen in the league. The Redskins also used a 5th round pick on Virginia Tech defensive tackle Tim Settle, so Hood is not a roster lock, owed 1.7 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season. If he makes the roster, he may play most of his snaps as a base defensive end, where he has some experience.

Stacy McGee is also a base defensive end. He had a solid season in his first season in Washington on 432 snaps, after signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last season, coming over as a free agent from the Oakland Raiders. He’s never played more than 40% of the snaps in a season in 5 years in the league and likely won’t this season either, but he’s developed into a capable rotational player. With Allen returning from injury and Payne replacing Hood on the nose, this should be an improved defensive line. It’s a solid unit overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Redskins had injury problems in the linebacking corps as well, as starting middle linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster both suffered major injuries and outside linebacker Trent Murphy tore his ACL before the season even began. Foster played just 288 snaps in 5 games before going down for the season with a shoulder injury, while Foster played through leg injuries for most of the second half of the season and then missed the final 3 games with the Redskins eliminated from playoff contention. The Redskins re-signed both Brown and Foster as free agents this off-season and they should remain the starters inside in Washington’s 3-4 defense.

Foster may have to compete for his job though, as he only re-signed on a 2-year, 3.4 million dollar deal. He has 76 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s been an marginal starter at best throughout his career. The Redskins don’t really have good competition for him though, as the players they started in the absence of Brown and Foster didn’t show much. Zach Vigil was the only one to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, playing a career high 394 snaps and making the final 6 starts of the season. The 2015 undrafted free agent is probably Foster’s biggest competition, while bottom of the roster talents Martrell Spaight and Josh Harvey-Clemons will compete for a roster spot with 6th round rookie Dion Hamilton. I expect Foster to start, even if he has to compete for it.

Brown, on the other hand, is locked in as an every down player, after re-signing on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season. In 5 seasons as a starter, he’s made 61 starts and has earned a positive grade from PFF for a season 4 times, topping out at 13th in 2016. He fell to 22nd in 2017, but that was largely due to the injury, as he ranked 4th among middle linebackers through week 8. Only in his age 29 season, he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy all year. Having him and Foster healthy should be a boost for this linebacking corps.

At outside linebacker, Trent Murphy won’t be returning, signing with the Bills on a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Considering he missed all of last season, he won’t really be missed. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith will remain the starters. Kerrigan is as reliable as they come, playing all 112 games in 7 seasons in the league since the Redskins drafted him with the 16th overall pick in 2011 and he’s been a consistently good pass rusher, getting at least 7.5 sacks and earning a positive pass rush grade from PFF in all 7 seasons.

All in all, he has 71.5 sacks and 50 quarterback hits in his career and, after struggling against the run early in his career, he’s earned positive grades against the run in each of the past 2 seasons. As a result, he’s finished 12th and 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Going into his age 30 season, he may begin to decline in the next couple years, but he has no injury history and should still have a strong season in 2018.

Smith is not as good, but the 2015 2nd round pick is only in his age 26 season, so he could keep getting better. After struggling early in his career, he’s improved in every season in the league and was about an average starter on 754 snaps in 2017. He should play a similar role in 2018. Now going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could be a candidate for an extension this off-season.

Junior Galette was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, playing 407 snaps in a rotational role and excelling as a situational pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 25 hurries on just 258 pass rush snaps. He was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, but the Redskins did a good job replacing him with ex-Bear Pernell McPhee. McPhee has been limited to 658 snaps in 22 games by injury over the past 2 seasons combined, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league and topped out at 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in both 2014 and 2015.

Now going into his age 30 season, given his injury history, McPhee’s best days are probably behind him, but he can still make an impact in a situational role if he’s healthy. He’s not the most reliable option, but he was worth a flyer on a 1-year, 1.8 million dollar deal and the Redskins have insurance for him in 2017 2nd round pick Ryan Anderson. Despite being a high pick, Anderson played just 193 mediocre snaps as a rookie, but he could be better in his 2nd season in the league and should have a bigger role, especially if McPhee can’t stay healthy. With better health at middle linebacker, this should be an improved linebacking corps in 2018.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Injuries were also an issue in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland each missed a pair of games, while safety Montae Nicholson went suffered a season ending concussion week 11 after 319 snaps. Third cornerback Kendall Fuller played all 16 games, starting 6 of them, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback on 719 snaps. He was traded to the Chiefs in the Alex Smith trade though, which is a big blow to this secondary.

The Redskins also lost Bashaud Breeland in free agency, but at least they prepared for his departure, taking Fabian Moreau in the 3rd round in 2017. He played just 59 snaps as a rookie, but should be a top-3 cornerback in 2018 and could easily be the starter opposite Josh Norman. Breeland also didn’t play as well as Fuller, grading out about average on PFF, so he won’t be as hard to replace. Fuller’s replacement will likely be veteran free agent addition Orlando Scandrick, who comes over from the Cowboys.

Scandrick has been a solid starter for a number of years, making 50 starts since 2013 and earning positive grades from PFF in each of his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to 2017, but he’s going into his age 31 season and was PFF’s 115th ranked cornerback out of 121 eligible in coverage grade last season. Originally owed 3 million non-guaranteed before being released by the Cowboys, the Redskins actually gave him a raise with a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal. He’s a low upside veteran stopgap, though his ability to play the slot will be valuable. With the Redskins not drafting a cornerback until the 7th round, his only real competition is Quinton Dunbar, a 2015 undrafted free agent who has been a decent reserve cornerback in 3 years in the league, but he’s never played more than 372 snaps in a season and is a projection to a larger role.

Josh Norman remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback in 2015 with the Panthers, Norman hasn’t quite lived up to the 5-year, 75 million dollar deal they gave him the following off-season, but he’s been an above average starter in both seasons in Washington and has earned 4 straight positive grades for a season overall. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a dominant top level cornerback and he’s already going into his age 31 season, so he could decline over the next couple seasons, but he should still be a solid starter and is probably the Redskins’ best defensive back.

Safety DJ Swearinger was their only defensive back to make all 16 starts last season. A 2nd round pick by the Texans in 2013, Swearinger was a bust early in his career, bouncing around from the Texans to the Buccaneers to the Cardinals, but he had a breakout year in his contract year in 2016 in Arizona, finishing 8th among safeties and, though he fell to 27th in his first season in Washington, he proved to be more than worth the 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal the Redskins signed him to as a free agent last off-season. Still only going into his age 27 season, Swearinger should remain a solid starter.

Montae Nicholson is expected to return after his rookie season was cut short by a bad concussion in 2017. A 4th round pick, He played well enough in limited action to warrant starting again, but he’s still pretty inexperienced, so he probably won’t be handed the job. Deshazor Everett, a 2015 undrafted free agent, made 8 starts in Nicholson’s absence last year in the first significant action of his career and wasn’t terrible, though Nicholson is the higher upside option. The Redskins also used a 4th round pick on Penn State Troy Apke, but it’s unclear if he’ll have much of a role beyond special teams as a rookie. A freak athlete, Apke has developmental upside, but was considered a late round pick at best on tape before an eye opening combine. This isn’t a bad secondary overall, but they’ll miss Kendall Fuller.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Redskins bungled their quarterback situation and had to give away a high pick and a promising young cornerback in order to get a starting caliber quarterback this off-season, but Alex Smith isn’t really a downgrade and this supporting cast should be healthier in 2018. The problem is they play in the NFC, which will have numerous talented teams competing for wild card spots. The Redskins played a hard schedule last year, but it won’t be much easier this season, so they’ll have a hard time qualifying for the post-season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Redskins are being overlooked coming into the season, but they are a solid team. If they were in the AFC, they’d like be a playoff team, but they’ll have a tough time qualifying in the NFC.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC East

New York Giants 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants made the post-season in 2016 with a record of 11-5, but this offense still had major concerns and they largely went unaddressed  last off-season. The Giants finished the 2016 season ranked 29th in first down rate and, while their defense allowed the lowest first down rate in the league, they still were not as good as their record suggested, as they had a point differential of just +26 and went 8-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

The main reason their offensive issues went unaddressed last off-season is that they had no cap space to work with, after a spending spree on the defense after the 2015 season. That spending spree paid off, as the Giants had a dominant stop unit in 2016, but it left the Giants in a very inflexible cap position. In 2017, the Giants 7 highest cap figures took up a combined 86.521 million, or 52% of the 167 million dollar cap.

Five of those cap figures were defensive players: defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All five played well in 2016, but that was not the case in 2017 and the defense slipped to 15th in first down rate allowed as a result. Considering how reliant they were on their defense to win games in 2016, that had a major negative impact on the team.

Their offense was also worse in 2017. As bad as they were in 2016, the Giants fell to dead last in first down rate in 2017, only picking up first downs at a 28.67% rate. None of the Giants’ offensive issues from the previous season improved and things went from bad to worse when they lost All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham with a broken ankle week 5. Before the break, Beckham was already at less than 100% with an ankle injury he suffered in the pre-season. He missed the first game of the season and, though his production in 4 games extrapolates to a 100/1208/12 slash line over 16 games, he did not look nearly as explosive as normal when on the field.

Despite never being at 100%, Beckham was missed immensely when he went down for the year. In the 4 games he played, the Giants picked up first downs at a respectable 33.21% rate, which would have ranked 19th in the NFL last season and would have been a noticeable improvement from 2016. In the 12 games he didn’t play, the Giants picked up first downs at a pathetic 27.13% rate and fell to dead last overall on the season. Their defense was disappointing, but their stagnant offense was the reason they ranked 30th in first down rate differential at -5.08% and finished with a 3-13 record, a year after making the post-season.

Quarterback Eli Manning’s numbers took a big hit without Beckham as well. Manning completed 65.9% of his passes for an average of 6.82 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 games with Beckham, but just 60.0% of his passes for an average of 5.77 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in his other 12 games. Overall on the season, he had a QB rating of 80.4, his 2nd worst in the past 10 seasons and just 26th in the NFL out of 32 eligible quarterbacks.

Manning hasn’t been the same quarterback in years though. He was just exposed more than normal last season without his best weapon. Manning has earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, finishing 31st among 36 eligible quarterbacks in 2016 and 34th among 40 eligible quarterbacks in 2017. Over those 5 seasons, he’s completed just 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 128 touchdowns, and 84 interceptions, a QB rating of just 84.7, which ranks 29th over that time period out of 33 quarterbacks with 1000+ passing attempts. Now going into his age 37 season, Manning is unlikely to get better going forward.

Manning was actually briefly benched for Geno Smith last season, a bizarre decision that probably got head coach Ben McAdoo fired. I understand wanting to give other quarterbacks a look in a lost season, but Smith is a tried and failed starter who was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, so there wasn’t much point in giving him a try. Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that the Giants went immediately back to Manning after just one start and started him for the rest of the season, never giving 3rd round rookie Davis Webb a shot. Unlike Smith, Webb has developmental potential and is under contract inexpensively for another 3 seasons. Looking at a high pick in a good quarterback draft, it would have made sense to at least see if he could show more in game action than he did in practice.

The Giants ultimately opted against taking a quarterback with their 2nd overall pick and instead took Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who most considered the top overall prospect in the draft and one of the top running back prospects of the past 15 years. It’s an understandable move from the Giants’ perspective. They made the post-season 2 seasons ago. They’ve seen the Cowboys and Jaguars use high picks on running backs in the past two drafts and make it to the post-season. Barkley might not make the most long-term sense, considering career length and injury proneness of running backs, but for a team that believes they’re in win now mode, it’s an understandable decision.

However, this was a deep running back draft and a talented young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal is the most valuable asset in the NFL. With Manning owed 33 million over the next 2 seasons, he is basically the opposite of that. The Giants had their choice of 3 quarterbacks who would eventually go in the top-10, including eventual 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold. They could have taken one, sat him behind Manning for a year, and then moved on from Manning next off-season, saving 17 million in the process, which could have been used to address other needs.

The Giants aren’t quite as top heavy cap wise as last season, but their top 6 cap figures combine for 80 million, which is about 45.1% of this season’s 177.2 million dollar cap. Justin Pugh, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are no longer with the team, but the Giants added left tackle Nate Solder on a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal this off-season and Odell Beckham is now making 8.459 million in the final year of his rookie deal.

With Beckham due an extension worth upwards of 17+ million annually (the current highest annual salary for a wide receiver), the Giants would really benefit from being able to get out from Manning’s contract at some point soon. Instead, the Giants look locked into Manning for at least one, probably two more seasons at least. On top of that, because of the relatively low salaries of the highest paid running backs, the Giants are also locked into a rookie deal with Saquon Barkley that makes him the 4th highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary, before he even takes a snap.

They Giants used a 4th round pick on Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, but he’s a developmental prospect at best. Considering Davis Webb couldn’t even get on the field last year, he doesn’t seem particularly close to being a reliable starting option either. Manning’s numbers should be better in 2018 with Beckham healthy, but this wasn’t even a good offense with Beckham healthy in 2016 and now Manning is two years older. The Giants may regret not taking their quarterback of the future when they had the chance.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The Giants are hoping that plugging in Saquon Barkley at running back will give this offense the big boost they need. Even assuming Barkley definitely pans out and ignoring the history of running back busts in the top-10, he alone can’t make this an above average offense. Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette have made the post-season as top-5 pick rookies in each of the past two seasons, but Elliott joined a Dallas team with a great offensive line and he played a talented rookie quarterback, while Fournette actually struggled down the stretch with injuries for the Jaguars and was not the primary reason why they made the post-season, as they were led by a dominant stop unit.

Barkley will definitely give a boost to their running game though and the Giants need one badly, as they haven’t averaged more than 4 yards per carry since the 2012 season. Barkley is a freak athlete who runs a 4.40 40 at 6-0 233. He has incredible college tape and not just as a runner, as he’s a very refined pass catcher and pass protector for a rookie and could immediately push for 50 catches in an every down role. They’ll make him earn his playing time, but it would be a surprise if he wasn’t an every down player for them down the stretch. He could easily surpass 300 touches as a rookie.

The Giants also added Jonathan Stewart this off-season on a 2-year, 6.8 million dollar deal. That deal didn’t make any sense at the time and it made even less sense after they used the 2nd overall pick on Barkley. Once a solid runner, Stewart has averaged just 3.62 YPC over the past 2 seasons with the Panthers and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s also not much use on passing downs, with 162 catches in 131 career games, so the Giants are paying a significantly salary for a running back who will purely be an early down backup and who hasn’t been good in years. He was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked running back out of 60 eligible last season.

Stewart will compete for the #2 running back job with 2nd year back Wayne Gallman, who actually flashed on 111 carries as a rookie, averaging 4.29 yards per carry. With young, fresh legs Gallman is undoubtedly the better option of the two, but GM Dave Gettleman seems to have fond memories of Stewart from their time together with the Panthers and his salary suggests he’ll see more carries than Gallman. Gallman is also not much use on passing downs (4.02 yards per target on 48 targets as a rookie), so Barkley will handle the vast majority of passing downs, with Gallman and Stewart spelling him on early downs. After averaging 603 pass attempts over the past 2 seasons, the Giants will probably try to hide Manning with their running game a lot more in 2018.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One fix for their cap woes that the Giants reportedly entertained this off-season was trading Odell Beckham, although no team came close to offering them their reportedly asking price of two first round picks. A top-13 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league before the lost year due to injury in 2017, Beckham is only going into his age 26 season and, even with the uncertainty coming off of the ankle injury, he’s worth paying around the highest paid wide receiver in the league, currently Antonio Brown at 17 million annually.

The problem is Beckham reportedly wants to reset the non-quarterback market and make upwards of 20 million annually on his next deal, a number the Giants have shown no interest in offering him. Not only do they have major cap problems, but they’re also transitioning to more of a run heavy offense and don’t want to be locked into paying a wide receiver that kind of money if his production is going to be reduced on a team that isn’t throwing 600+ times per season anymore.

If no deal is reached by the start of free agency next off-season, the Giants will undoubtedly franchise tag him, but Beckham has been putting pressure on the front office since last off-season for a new deal and has not softened his tone following his injury, so he could hold out next off-season if franchise tagged and force the Giants to trade him. Beckham made some noise about a holdout earlier this off-season, but he reported for minicamp and told reporters he would report to training camp as well, but next off-season might be a different story. For now, his return will be a big boost to a passing game that lacked life without him last season.

The Giants also lost veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall for the season at the same time they lost Beckham last season, but Marshall did very little through 5 games and was not really missed. Owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2018, he was an easy cap casualty decision this off-season. Slot receiver Sterling Shepard also got hurt at the same time, though he eventually returned to play another 6 games down the stretch.

Despite only playing 11 games, Shepard caught 59 passes for a team leading 731 yards and he was also their only wide receiver to earn a positive from PFF. He might not have the same production in 2018 though, even if he plays all 16 games. While he averaged 9.0 targets per game in 7 games without Beckham, that number dropped to 5.3 in 4 games with him. With Beckham returning from injury and more of an emphasis on the run, Shepard might not get enough targets to have a big statistical year.

Shepard will also play more on the outside this season. He played 89.7% of the snaps in the 11 games he played last season, so he was almost an every down player, but he ran just 71 of his 439 routes from the outside, as the Giants threw almost exclusively out of 3 wide receiver sets. With the Giants going more run heavy in 2018, they are likely to use fewer 3 wide receiver sets, which means Shepard will have to see more playing time outside, even in passing situations.

While he averaged 1.74 yards per route run on the slot last season, he averaged just 1.38 yards per route run on the outside and that’s a trend that dates back to his rookie year, when he averaged just 0.55 yards per route run on the outside. A 2016 2nd round pick, Shepard should be a dangerous slot weapon in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s undersized at 5-10 194 and the Giants may continue struggling to get the ball to him on the outside.

Rookie tight end Evan Engram also had a productive year in Beckham’s absence, catching 64 passes for 722 yards and 6 touchdowns, actually the 3rd most receiving yards by a rookie tight end since the switch to a 16 game season in 1978. He wasn’t as good as his numbers suggested though, as those numbers came on 115 targets. Quarterbacks had just a 77.5 QB rating when targeting him and he dropped 11 passes on the season, most in the NFL among tight ends. He actually had a negative pass catching grade overall from PFF and, thanks to his awful run blocking, he finished as PFF’s 71st ranked tight end overall out of 72 eligible.

That being said, he flashed his obvious athleticism and if he can keep developing and become surer handed he can develop into one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league. The 6-3 240 pounder will likely never be a good blocker, but he can be a matchup nightmare in the passing game. However, with Beckham coming back and more of an emphasis on the running game, I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to match last season’s production, even if he actually becomes a more effective player on a per target or per route run basis. He won’t see 115 targets again.

Engram has the athleticism to move all around the formation, which they did with him last season, when he ran 136 of his 526 routes on the slot and another 69 routes split out wide. They figure to continue doing that in 2018. With Marshall not coming back, free agent acquisition Cody Latimer is penciled in as the 3rd receiver, playing outside opposite Beckham when Shepard moves to the slot, but Engram could see time outside in those situations as well and the Giants also have Roger Lewis in the mix for snaps.

Regardless of whether Lewis or Latimer wins the #3 receiver job, it figures to be a position of weakness. Lewis actually led all Giants wide receivers with 693 snaps last season, given all of the players who missed time, but he did not play well, managing just a 36/416/2 slash line on 72 targets and finishing 111th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career. He likely won’t be better in 2018.

Latimer, on the other hand, is a 2014 2nd round pick, but he’s actually less experienced than Lewis, playing just 826 snaps in 4 seasons in the league. Half of his career 35 catches came last season, when he caught 19 passes for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns on a career high 380 snaps, earning the first positive grade of his career for a season. Only going into his age 26 season, he still has some upside and the Giants are taking a chance that he’ll be better on his 2nd contract, giving him a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal in free agency, but he’s a projection to a larger role and likely won’t see many targets behind Beckham, Shepard, Engram, and Barkley on a run heavy team.

Run blocking tight end Rhett Ellison will also be in the mix for a role. A hybrid who also sees snaps at full back, Ellison played 538 snaps last season and will likely see a similar role, if not a bigger one on a team that will run the ball more in 2018. Ellison has never topped 24 passes in a season and that largely came out of desperation last season on a team with few options in the passing game, but he’s consistently one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league. He’s earned a positive run blocking grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and finished last season 9th among tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade. He won’t see as many balls go his way on a much deeper receiving corps this season, but he’ll still be an important part of this team, given how much they want to run the football.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even with good skill position talent around Manning, the Giants’ offense could be derailed by poor offensive line play again. The Giants have had offensive line problems for years, but they were even worse upfront last season, with their top two offensive linemen Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg missing most of the season with injury. Rather than re-sign Pugh and/or Richburg this off-season as free agents, they let them take deals worth 45.025 million over 5 years from the Cardinals and 47.5 million over 5 years from the 49ers respectively, and then they used pretty much all of their available cap space to sign ex-Patriots left tackle Nate Solder to a deal worth 62 million over 4 years.

Solder undoubtedly plays a more valuable position than Pugh or Richburg, neither of whom are left tackles, but the Giants are still paying him more than any other offensive linemen in the league in average annual salary. That may change in a few months, with players like Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan going into the final year of their rookie deals in 2018, but Solder will remain one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the league throughout the duration of his contract, even though he’s never been an elite left tackle and now is going into his age 30 season.

A 7-year veteran, Solder’s best seasons have come in 2012, 2013, and 2016, when he’s finished 18th, 15th, and 12th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but in his other 4 seasons he’s been about average and he’s dealt with several injuries in recent years. He made all 16 starts last season, but only finished 35th among offensive tackles on PFF and is now going into the later stages of his career. He fills a huge need for the Giants and this was not a good off-season to need left tackle help, but he was an irresponsible overpay for a team that already had major salary cap problems and that had needs at several other positions.

Solder will move incumbent left tackle Ereck Flowers over to the right side. Selected 9th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Flowers has been overmatched at left tackle in 3 seasons in the league and the Giants are finally giving up on him at that position. He made 46 of 48 starts in 3 seasons at left tackle, but has finished in the bottom-20 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 3 seasons. When the Giants signed Solder, they said Flowers would have to compete for the job at right tackle, though it’s unclear who he’ll be competing with, as the Giants did not add any viable competition for him this off-season.

Chad Wheeler is the only player who started at right tackle for them last season that was brought back this off-season and the 2017 undrafted free agent struggled in 5 starts as a rookie. None of their other offensive tackles have any NFL experience. Only going into his age 24 season, Flowers still has upside and could be better at his new position. I would expect him to be able to beat out Wheeler, although their long-term plan is still unclear, after declining Flowers’ 12.525 million dollar option for 2019 this off-season. They reportedly tried trading him during the draft, despite not taking a single offensive tackle all weekend, and this could easily be his final year with the Giants even if he is better on the right side.

While they didn’t draft an offensive tackle, did take a guard, using the 34th overall pick at the top of the 2nd round on UTEP guard Will Hernandez. A massive run blocker who was expected by many to go in the first round, Hernandez is a plug and play starter for the Giants at a position of need. He’ll compete with veterans John Jerry and Patrick Omameh for one of the two starting guard jobs and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t a starter at one of the two spots week 1.

John Jerry made all 16 starts last season, making starts at both guard spots, and he was arguably their best offensive lineman, although that isn’t saying much. He finished slightly above average on PFF and has 101 starts in his career, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and has finished below average on PFF in 6 of 8 seasons in the league. He’s not a terrible starting option, but he’s not a reliable option either.

With Omameh coming in on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, Jerry is not a lock to remain a starter and would likely be cut loose if he can win a starting job, owed 2 million non-guaranteed. Omameh is experienced too, with 45 starts the past 4 seasons, and he’s younger than Jerry, going into his age 29 season, but he’s been pretty mediocre in his career and finished last season 45th out of 80 eligible guards with the Jaguars. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Jerry.

At center, Brett Jones, who made the final 12 starts in place of an injured Weston Richburg last season, will compete with Jon Halapio, a converted guard who the Giants have been impressed with at his new position this off-season. Jones wasn’t bad last season, finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked center, but the 2013 undrafted free agent had just 82 career snaps going into 2017, so he’s a one-year wonder at best. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued playing well though, still only in his age 26 season. Halapio, meanwhile, was a 6th round pick in 2014 and struggled on 403 snaps at guard last season in the first significant action of his career. Even if the off-season reviews of his move to center have been positive, Jones is probably the better option. This is an improved offensive line by default, but they still have major issues.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

In 2016, this defense was so dominant because they got incredible seasons from 6 players: defensive tackle Damon Harrison, defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and safety Landon Collins. Harrison finished 4th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, Pierre-Paul and Vernon finished 5th and 4th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends, Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie finished 7th and 4th respectively among cornerbacks, and Collins finished 2nd among safeties.

Of those 6, only Harrison had the same kind of season in 2017, actually moving up to 3rd among defensive tackles on PFF. The Giants made some major changes on defense this off-season, cutting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and trading Jason Pierre-Paul to the Buccaneers for a 3rd round pick in a pair of moves that saved them 18 million in cash for 2018. The Giants will also transition to a 3-4 defense, as new head coach Pat Shurmur brings ex-Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher with him. Bettcher has done a great job with the Cardinals’ defense in the past 3 seasons, but was left without a job when Bruce Arians retired this off-season.

Regardless of the scheme, Damon Harrison will continue to anchor their run defense in base packages. The 6-4 345 pounder isn’t a great pass rusher, with 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 5 seasons as a starter, but he’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in run stop grade in all 5 of those seasons, including 3 seasons finishing #1 overall in that metric, and he’s capable enough as a pass rusher to stay in for some sub packages, playing about 60% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons, despite his size. Now in a 3-4 defense that he fits like a glove, he should continue playing a similar role. He may begin to decline soon, in his age 30 season, but he should remain a dominant run player for at least another couple seasons. Of all their free agent signings two off-seasons ago, he was their best, coming over from the Jets on a 5-year, 46.25 million dollar deal.

Dalvin Tomlinson is also coming off of a strong season as the other starting defensive tackle with Harrison, finishing 14th among defensive tackles on 588 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2017, replacing free agent departure Johnathan Hankins. Tomlinson will move to defensive end in base packages in this new defense, but he’s familiar with 3-4 schemes from his time at the University of Alabama, so he should have another strong season in the new defense. He’s a promising young defensive linemen, but, like Harrison, he isn’t much of a pass rusher. While he ranked 9th among defensive tackles in run stopping grade, he had just 1 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 12 hurries on 276 pass rush snaps.

Jay Bromley was their 3rd defensive tackle last season, playing 424 snaps, but he’s no longer with the team, so free agent acquisition Josh Mauro and 3rd round rookie BJ Hill will compete for snaps at the other defensive end spot in base packages. Mauro is familiar with James Bettcher’s system from Arizona and is a capable run stuffer, but he doesn’t get much pass rush either and has never played more than 389 snaps in 4 seasons in the league.

Mauro is also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which could give Hill the opportunity to take the job and run with it, but he’s also not much of a pass rusher. The Giants also used a 5th round pick on a defensive lineman, taking Miami’s RJ McIntosh. The 6-5 286 pounder slipped because of his lack of size, but he could prove to be a steal for a Giants team that desperately needs interior pass rushers. He could have an immediate role in sub packages. This will be a strong run stopping defensive line, but don’t expect many sacks unless McIntosh has a breakout rookie season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Giants only had 27 sacks as a team last season, 3rd fewest in the NFL, and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 15 of those sacks. JPP was underwhelming by his standards in 2017, finishing 33rd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but he had 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 40 hurries on 585 pass rush snaps and played solid run defense as well, so they’ll definitely miss him now that he’s in Tampa Bay.

The Giants trading him for a 3rd round pick seems like an odd move for a franchise that otherwise seemed to be in win now mode this off-season, especially since they already paid 22.5 million of the 4-year, 62 million dollar deal they re-signed him to last off-season, but the Giants would not have been able to afford Nate Solder if they kept JPP, so they effectively choose the pass protector over the pass rusher. He also was a questionable fit in their new 3-4 defense.

Olivier Vernon is also on a big contract, signing for 85 million over 5 years as a free agent two off-seasons ago, coming over from the Miami Dolphins. He lived up to the contract in the first year of the deal, finishing 4th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF, a year after finishing 1st among 4-3 defensive ends with the Dolphins in 2015, but he slipped to 22nd in 2017. All in all, he has 23 sacks and 50 quarterback hits over the past 3 seasons combined, while playing strong run defense, and he’s only going into his age 28 season, so he could easily have another strong season in 2018. He’s never played in a 3-4 defense before, but projects as a good fit and is a talented edge rusher in sub packages, regardless of the scheme.

Without Pierre-Paul, the Giants have a big hole opposite Vernon. They used a 3rd round pick on Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter and also bring in Kareem Martin, who follows James Bettcher and Josh Mauro from Arizona. Those two will compete for playing time and both could easily struggle. Carter enters the league as a raw rookie, while Martin spent the first 4 seasons of his career as a rotational player with the Cardinals, maxing out at 457 snaps in a season and finishing below average on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons. Both are significant downgrades opposite Vernon. 2017 5th round pick Avery Moss, 2014 undrafted free agent Kerry Wynn, and 2016 undrafted free agent Romeo Okwara could also be in the mix for snaps, but all three are bottom of the roster talents that lack a clear position in this new 3-4 defense. None of them should be considered roster locks.

The Giants did make a big money addition at middle linebacker this off-season, trading a 4th and 6th round pick to the Rams for Alec Ogletree. The Rams gave Ogletree a 4-year, 42.75 million dollar extension with an 8 million dollar signing bonus last October, but he proved to be a poor fit in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense and probably never should have been given that extension, as he’s never been better than a league average starter in 4 seasons in the league. He finished last season as PFF’s 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible in his first season in a 3-4 defense. Given that, it’s definitely strange that the cap strapped Giants, who run a 3-4 defense, would trade a draft pick to acquire him, despite a 10 million dollar guaranteed salary for 2018.

Only going into his age 27 season, the 2013 first round pick still has upside and he upgrades a position that was a major problem for the Giants last season, but he’s unlikely to be worth his salary. The Giants restructured his deal so his cap number is just 4.75 million this season instead of 10 million, but the Giants now will accumulate 5.25 million in dead cap if they release him after the season and his cap number is now 1.75 million higher in each of the next final 3 seasons of the deal: 11.75 million in 2019, 11.75 million in 2020, and 10.75 million in 2021. For a team that already has cap problems without having locked up Odell Beckham long-term, he may be tough to keep around long-term.

In the short term, he should be an upgrade, as the Giants had arguably the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last season. The Giants also get BJ Goodson back after he was limited to 374 snaps in 7 games by injury last season and he figures to start in the other middle linebacker spot next to Ogletree. The 2016 4th round pick only played 13 snaps as a rookie, but he was supposed to be an every down player last season before the injuries struck and he flashed against the run in limited action, so he should get another crack at the starting job, with the Giants lacking a better option. Outside of Olivier Vernon, this is a pretty underwhelming group and they will miss Jason Pierre-Paul presence as an edge rusher opposite Vernon.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Giants also got rid of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback in 2016, but fell to 63rd in 2017 and the Giants did not think he was worth his 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 32 season in 2018. Janoris Jenkins also disappointed in 2017, finishing 55th among cornerbacks on PFF while missing 7 games with injury, after finishing 7th in the first year of a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal in 2016.

He remains with the team though and will get a chance to redeem himself in 2018. The problem is he’s going into his age 30 season and is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level cornerback he was in 2016, finishing no better than 24th in his other 5 seasons in the league. He has experience, making 81 starts in 84 games over the past 6 seasons, and he may bounce back a little bit, but his best days are probably behind him and I wouldn’t expect him to regain his 2016 form.

With Jenkins missing time, Ross Cockrell played 679 snaps last season, earning a positive grade, but he’s no longer with the team either, signing with the Panthers as a free agent. That leaves Eli Apple locked in as the starter opposite Jenkins, a big leap from where he was towards the end of last season, when he was a healthy scratch and did not get along with the coaching staff and some teammates. The new coaching staff is giving him a fresh start and the 2016 1st round pick certainly has talent and could have a breakout season in his 3rd year in the league in 2018, but he’s been underwhelming thus far in his career and has made just 18 of 32 starts, so he’s not a proven starter.

The Giants also have little depth behind Jenkins and Apple, so much so that Sam Beal, who the Giants just selected in the 3rd round of the supplemental draft, could open the season as the 3rd cornerback if he can learn the playbook in time. Considered a borderline first round pick in 2019 if he had stayed at Western Michigan, Beal decided to leave the team for academic reasons and declare for the supplemental draft, where he could prove to be a steal for the Giants if he pans out. His biggest competition will be William Gay. Gay has had a history of success covering the slot over the years and has made 102 starts in 11 seasons in the league, but he’s now going into his age 33 season and was underwhelming on 264 snaps as the 4th cornerback with the Steelers in 2017. He’ll likely cede snaps to Beal by mid-season. Both players could easily struggle, for different reasons.

Safety Landon Collins also wasn’t as good in 2017 as he was in 2016, falling from 2nd to 7th among safeties, but he still had a strong season and was the Giants best defensive back. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Collins struggled as a rookie, but he’s been one of the top safeties in the league over the past 2 seasons and is still only in his age 24 season. The problem for the Giants is they’ll have to give him a big extension to keep him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. If the Giants can’t come to an agreement with Odell Beckham, they may turn their focus to Collins so they’ll have the franchise tag available for Beckham next off-season. Collins could also be a franchise tag candidate if Beckham gets extended this year.

Fellow starting safety Darian Thompson finishes off this secondary. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Thompson made all 16 starts in 2017, after being limited to just 88 snaps by injury as a rookie, but he didn’t play all that well, finishing 76th among 89 eligible safeties. It’s possible he could face competition this off-season from Andrew Adams, who earned a positive grade in 13 starts as an undrafted rookie in Thompson’s absence in 2016, but Adams was underwhelming on 275 snaps in 2017 and the Giants still like Thompson’s upside long-term. Now in his 3rd season in the league, he could take a step forward in 2018. Led by Jenkins and Collins, this is a solid secondary, but they have concerns at the other cornerback and safety spots.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Giants should be healthier in 2018 and added Saquon Barkley at the top of the draft, which gives their offense an immediate boost, but don’t expect them to get back to the post-season in the loaded NFC. They have too much ground to climb and still have way too many flaws to be a competitive team in their conference, especially on a defense that basically carried them to the post-season in 2016. If they don’t do well in close games against tough competition, they could easily end up with a top-5 pick again and, even with an average record in close games, they could finish in the basement of the NFC East for the second straight season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Giants are still one of the weaker teams in the NFC, even with the addition of Barkley and the return of Odell Beckham. They still have issues at quarterback and on the offensive line and their defense could struggle in a transition year, especially if injured edge rusher Olivier Vernon misses extended action with an ankle injury.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC East

Kansas City Chiefs 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Despite going 39-22 in 4 seasons with Alex Smith as the starter from 2013-2016, the Chiefs decided to make a bold move at quarterback during the 2017 NFL Draft. With Smith going into his mid 30s with 30.3 million over 2 years left on his deal, the Chiefs decided to get younger and cheaper at the quarterback position, packaging together the 27th overall pick and their 2018 1st round pick (which eventually ended up being 22nd overall) in a trade to move up with the Bills to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes 10th overall.

It was a risky move. Not only is two first round picks a lot of compensation to give up for any player, but it’s especially risky when you already have a proven quarterback under center. Mahomes has elite arm talent and athleticism and could easily develop into an above average starting quarterback, but he played in a spread system against mediocre defenses in the Big 12 in college and could easily have growing pains. At the same time, it’s an understandable risk. If Mahomes develops, the Chiefs will have the most valuable asset you can have, a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, and the Chiefs were able to recoup a 3rd round pick and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller in their trade of Alex Smith to the Redskins this off-season.

Part of the reason why the Chiefs got so much for Smith, despite his age and contract status, is because he was coming off of arguably the best season of his career, completing 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, adding 355 yards on 60 carries (5.92 YPC), and leading an offense that ranked 7th in first down rate at 36.55%. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback.

They are confident enough in Mahomes that they were planning to get rid of Smith this off-season almost regardless of how well he played in 2017. Of course, that makes their decision to move on from him and go with Mahomes even riskier, as Mahomes could easily be a short-term downgrade for a team that was used to making post-season appearances under Alex Smith. Even if he develops into what they think he can be, the Chiefs might take a step back before they take a couple steps forward.

In some ways, Mahomes is the opposite of Smith. Both are athletic, mobile quarterbacks, but Mahomes is a gunslinger with a cannon arm who loves to throw deep and throw on the run, while Smith preferred to keep things in the short-to-immediate range, was very good at avoiding interceptions, and only used his feet when nothing was open downfield. With Smith gone and only veteran journeyman Chad Henne behind him on the depth chart, this is officially Mahomes’ show. He gives this offense a higher ceiling than Smith, but also a much lower floor, especially in his first season as the starter.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs are definitely giving Mahomes all the weapons he needs to succeed though. Already inheriting a receiving corps with tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, one of three pairs of teammates to top 1000 yards receiving in 2017 (Rob Gronkowski/Brandin Cooks, Golden Tate/Marvin Jones), Mahomes also gets to throw to Sammy Watkins, as the Chiefs applied the cap space they saved from moving on from Smith to giving Watkins a 3-year, 48 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season.

It’s another risky move, as Watkins is now the 4th highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary, despite a history of injuries and despite not topping 600 yards receiving in a season since 2015, but it’s the kind of risk the Chiefs can afford to take while they have a cheap starting quarterback and he could prove to be worth it. At one point, the 2014 4th overall pick looked like arguably the best young receiver in the league, with a 60/1047/9 slash line in 13 games in his age 22 season in 2015 and, still only going into his age 25 season, Watkins has obvious upside, which is what the Chiefs are paying for.

Since finishing 12th among wide receivers in 2015 on Pro Football Focus, Watkins has been about league average on PFF in back-to-back seasons. Injuries limited him to a 28/430/2 slash line in 8 games in 2016 and then concerns about his long-term durability caused the Bills to decline his 5th year option for 2018 and then eventually to trade him to the Rams for a 2nd round pick a few weeks before the start of the season. Watkins played 15 games with the Rams, but struggled to fit in after arriving so close to the start of the season and only had a 39/593/8 slash line on just 70 targets (4th on the team). The Chiefs obviously think he can stay healthy and bounce back after a full off-season with a team. He’s also a natural fit with Mahomes because he has a 15.9 career yards per catch average and the speed to chase down Mahomes’ deep balls.

Tyreek Hill is also a speedy deep threat. He hauled in 13 of 24 targets that traveled 20+ yards in the air for 628 yards, most in the NFL on deep balls last season, and could conceivably be even more effective on deep balls with Mahomes now under center, though Watkins figures to take some of targets. Smith threw downfield more than ever before in his final season in Kansas City and was effective with it, but that was more because of Hill’s ability to get seperation than any sudden leap in Smith’s deep ball ability.

After mostly running short routes and trying to make guys miss in the open field as a 5th round rookie in 2016 (9.72 yards per catch, 5.16 average depth of target on 61 catches), Hill ran a much more complete route tree in 2017 and had a great year, finishing with a 75/1183/7 slash line and ranking 9th among wide receivers on PFF. Only in his age 24 season, Hill has game breaking talent and mostly fell in the draft because of off-the-field concerns. If he can continue staying out of trouble, he could keep developing into one of the best wide receivers in the league.

Travis Kelce is also a very talented receiver, though he’s likely to see the biggest statistical hit from the addition of Watkins and the departure of Alex Smith. While Smith loved targeting tight ends and threw Kelce the ball 123 times last season (most of any tight end in the NFL), Mahomes figures to target his deep outside receivers more often. A top-3 tight end in pass catching grade in 3 of the past 4 seasons, Kelce will still have a big role in this offense and is a capable run blocker as well, but he’s unlikely to have the same 83/1038/8 slash line he had with Smith in 2017.

With Hill, Kelce, and Watkins as their top-3 guys, there probably won’t be a lot of targets left over for everyone else unless someone gets hurt, but running back Kareem Hunt should remain in the mix as a 4th option. He might not have as many targets as he had in 2017 when he had 63, but he was impressive as a pass catcher, putting up a 53/455/3 slash line, and is another weapon for Mahomes to utilize.

The Chiefs also likely get Chris Conley back from a torn achilles and he figures to be the 3rd receiver behind Watkins and Hill. Conley was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but has earned a negative grade in all 3 seasons in the league and now is returning from a major injury. Fortunately, he won’t have to play a big role, with all of the other options the Chiefs have. Demetrius Harris, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, but he’s struggled mightily in that role over the past 3 seasons, topping out at 18 catches in a season and struggling as a run blocker as well. Like Conley, he won’t have much of role in a very talented receiving corps.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Kareem Hunt also had a great season as a runner, despite only being a 3rd round rookie and not becoming the starter until veteran incumbent Spencer Ware got hurt in the pre-season. Hunt rushed for a league leading 1,327 yards on 272 carries (4.88 YPC) and rushed for 8 touchdowns. He also broke a league leading 77 tackles on 325 touches, averaged 3.08 yards per carry after contact, ranked 4th in elusive rating, ranked 18th in carry success rate (47%), ranked 4th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, and led the league with 19 carries of 15 yards or longer. Simply put, it was an outstanding overall first season in the league.

There are some reasons for concern though. Hunt was very inconsistent as a rookie, with fewer than 50 yards in 5 of 15 meaningful games, and he was not as good after the first month of the season, averaging just 4.12 yards per carry in his final 12 games, after averaging 8.53 yards per carry in his first four. Running back tends to be an inconsistent position as well. Hunt is the 27th running back since the beginning of 16 game seasons to rush for 1200+ yards as a rookie. Of the previous 26, nine of them did not even top 1000 yards the following season, due to a combination of injury and/or regression. That’s not to say Hunt can’t continue developing into one of the best all-around backs in the NFL, but he might not be quite as good in 2018.

With Ware due back in 2018, Hunt may see fewer carries. Ware has averaged 4.62 yards per carry on 289 carries in his career and ranked 16th in the NFL with 921 rushing yards on 214 carries in 2016 (4.30 YPC). He’s the only other proven runner on this roster though and he’s coming off of a major injury. No other Kansas City running back had more than 18 carries last season, as backup Charcandrick West played almost exclusively on passing plays (192 of 231 snaps).

West will now compete with veteran bottom of the roster caliber talents like Damien Williams and Kerwynn Williams, both added this off-season, for the #3 running back job. Ware is not useful on passing downs, but he may spell Hunt on some early downs, allowing Hunt to see the vast majority of the passing down work, after ceding about a third to West in order to stay fresh last season. The Chiefs have a good running back situation with Ware returning to provide needed depth.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Chiefs also had solid offensive line play last season, despite dealing with injuries. Zach Fulton made 12 starts last season, despite playing just 7 snaps in the first 2 weeks of the season, but he proved to be a solid starter and was versatile enough to hold his own at all 3 interior offensive line spots, making 4 starts at left guard, 1 start at right guard, and 9 starts at center. He’s no longer with the team though, after signing a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans this off-season, and the Chiefs didn’t really replace him, so they’ll need to stay healthier in 2018.

Center Mitch Morse missed the most time, as he played just 383 snaps in 7 games due to a foot injury. He originally suffered the injury week 2, missed 5 games, then returned for 5 games, struggling mightily before getting shut down for the season with a re-aggravation of the foot injury. A 2015 2nd round pick, Morse was a capable starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (31 starts), so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. Only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible 2018 could be his best season yet, which would be great timing for him, in the final year of his rookie deal.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif also missed 5 games with injury. His absence was bigger than Morse’s because he played at a pretty high level, finishing 19th among guards on Pro Football Focus, his second straight season earning a positive grade. A 2014 6th round pick, LDT struggled in his first season as a starter in 2015, but has improved in every season in the league and could keep getting better in his age 27 season if he can stay healthy.

Even with Morse and Duvernay-Tardif returning from injury, the Chiefs still would have benefitted from re-signing Fulton, who could have filled a hole at left guard. Bryan Witzmann made 14 starts there last season, but he finished 68th among 80 eligible guards in the first significant action of his career. Undrafted in 2014, Witzmann doesn’t have a high upside. He’ll have to compete for his job with 2016 4th round pick Parker Ehinger, who was supposed to start at left guard last season, but was never healthy in his first season back from an ACL tear and made just 1 start. Ehringer has played just 295 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is coming off of a major injury, so he’s far from a lock to be a capable starter, but he at least gives them more upside than Witzmann, so he’s probably the favorite to start week 1.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is probably their best offensive lineman. As consistent as they come, Schwartz has made all 96 starts at right tackle in 6 seasons in the league and finished in the top-30 among offensive tackles in all 6 seasons, topping out at 6th in 2015 and finishing 17th in 2017. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue his solid play in 2018. He was a smart free agent signing on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

Left tackle Eric Fisher has not been as consistent, but the former 1st overall pick has developed into a capable starting left tackle over the past 3 seasons, after struggling in his first 2 seasons in the league. Fisher will likely never be good enough to justify being taken first overall, but he’s hardly a bust either and should continue his solid play in his age 27 season in 2018. With the exception of left guard, this is a good offensive line, but they’ll need to stay healthier.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While the Chiefs were good offensively last season, they had major issues on defense, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 37.36% rate, 2nd highest in the NFL. As a result, they actually finished 19th in first down rate differential at -0.81% and only won as many games as they did because of a +15 turnover margin, 2nd in the NFL. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and it isn’t hard to see how a team that is going from Alex Smith to Pat Mahomes under center might commit more turnovers, after a league low 11 in 2017. Mahomes could still lead an explosive offense, given the weapons around him, but the Chiefs will probably need to be significantly better defensively if they are going make it back to the post-season.

This defense is not devoid of talent, as defensive lineman Chris Jones is one of the better defensive linemen in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end as a rookie, despite playing just 574 snaps, and then he broke out as PFF’s 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end on 678 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. He’s totaled 8.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 59 hurries on 803 pass rush snaps between the two seasons and is also a strong run stopper. Only going into his age 24 season, he could easily keep getting better. He’s not a mainstream name yet, but could be one of the top few defensive players in the league in a few years.

The problem is, outside of three stars, this defense was horrendous in 2017. Jones was Kansas City’s only defensive lineman to play more than 100 snaps and earn a positive grade from PFF last season. Allen Bailey and Bennie Logan were the other two starters on this defense line, playing 626 snaps and 574 snaps respectively. Bailey finished as PFF’s 37th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 43 eligible, while Logan earned a positive grade against the run as a base package nose tackle, but offered no pass rush and finished with a negative grade overall.

Logan is also no longer with the team, signing with the Titans this off-season, and his replacement could easily be a significant downgrade against the run, as they lack a proven option. They signed ex-Cardinal Xavier Williams, a 6-0 309 pounder who flashed on 249 snaps last season, but he is a projection to a larger role. The 2015 undrafted free agent has played just 418 snaps in his career and is hardly a proven player. His biggest competition for the nose tackle job will come from 3rd round rookie Derrick Nnadi, a 6-1 317 pounder who could develop into a solid nose tackle in time, but he could easily struggle as a rookie.

Allen Bailey is still with the team and will likely remain the other starting defensive end opposite Chris Jones, for lack of a better option. Bailey has earned a negative grade from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better, now in his age 31 season. He can be a decent run stuffer, but he’s never earned a positive pass rush grade for a season in his career. He’ll probably be pushed for snaps by 2nd round rookie Breeland Speaks, who is a much better interior rusher. He’s undersized at 6-3 283, but should have a immediate role in sub packages. If the Chiefs’ rookies on this defensive line can exceed expectations, they could be an improved defensive line, but they lack another proven player behind Jones.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs had a similar situation at linebacker, with outside linebacker Justin Houston having a dominant season, but the rest of the group struggling. Bouncing back from an injury plagued 2016 season, Houston finished 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Aside from 2016, he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in each of the past 5 seasons and he has 64 sacks and 40 quarterback hits in 74 games over the past 6 seasons. He’s had his share of injuries, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and should have another strong season in 2018.

They need someone to step up opposite him though. Fortunately, they do have some options. Dee Ford had 10 sacks in 2016, though he struggled mightily against the run and has a combined 7.5 sacks in his other 3 seasons in the league, including just 2 last season. Injuries were to blame last season, as he was limited to 316 snaps in 6 games, so he has bounce back potential as a pass rusher in 2018 if he’s healthy. A first round pick in 2014, Ford is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could get a big contract if he has another good pass rushing year, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back and he’s a liability on early downs.

With Ford missing time, Frank Zombo finished 2nd on the team among outside linebackers with 588 snaps, but he was a major liability, finishing dead last among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Zombo has played in 105 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF in 6 of those seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s no lock to even be the 3rd outside linebacker, as the Chiefs still like the upside of 2017 2nd round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon. He underwhelmed on 158 snaps as a rookie and couldn’t get on the field even with Ford out of the lineup, but he was always considered raw coming out of college and could take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Derrick Johnson was a solid starting middle linebacker for them last season, but the Chiefs opted not to pay him 8 million for his age 36 season and let him go this off-season. The Chiefs then used that cap space to sign ex-Cowboys middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a 5-year deal worth 45 million. Hitchens is definitely younger than Johnson, going into his age 26 season, but he’s never been that good of a player, so it’s unclear why they’re paying him that much.

Hitchens has never topped 585 snaps in a season and he finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, before earning the first positive grade of his career on PFF on 544 snaps in 2017. He’s developed into a solid run stuffer, but still struggles in coverage and should not be paid like an every down player. He could easily struggle in his first season in Kansas City and is unlikely to be much of an upgrade over Johnson.

Fellow base package starter Reggie Ragland is also a pure base package run stuffer who struggles in coverage, but, unlike Hitchens, he won’t be counted on for an every down role. A 2nd round pick by the Bills in 2016, Ragland never got on the field in Buffalo, missing his rookie year with a torn ACL and getting sent to the Chiefs for a 2019 4th round pick when a new coaching staff came in. He flashed against the run in a part-time role (321 snaps) in his first season in Kansas City though and could be better in a slightly larger role in his 3rd season in the league in 2018.

In sub packages, the Chiefs like to drop 6-2 208 pound safety Daniel Sorensen down as a 2nd linebacker. They figure to continue doing so in 2018, but he’s never earned a positive grade in 4 seasons in the league and was PFF’s 88th ranked safety last season out of 89 eligible, so he shouldn’t be locked into that role. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. He’s undersized at 6-1 223 and may be limited to special teams, but he could also get a shot as a coverage linebacker in sub packages. Outside of Houston, this remains a mediocre unit.

Grade: B-

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Marcus Peters was their dominant player, finishing 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, while the rest of the unit struggled. Despite that, the Chiefs shockingly sent him to the Rams this off-season for a 2018 4th round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick. Peters was just going into his age 25 season and had two years left on his rookie deal worth a combined 10.81 million, so the fact that the Chiefs were willing to part with him for less than a first round pick suggests they didn’t just make the move for football reasons. Peters was suspended a game by the team in 2017 and has had issues with his coaches dating back to his time in college, where he was kicked off the team in his final year at the University of Washington.

They’ll obviously miss him on the field, but the Chiefs could arguably be better in the secondary in 2018 even without him. One big reason for that is the return of Eric Berry for a torn Achilles. After signing a 6-year, 78 million dollar deal in the off-season that made him the highest paid safety in the NFL, Berry played stellar defense against Rob Gronkowski in the opener, only to tear his achilles late in the game and miss the rest of the season. Their defense was not close to the same without him.

Berry has missed close to 3 full seasons in 8 seasons in the league, missing time with a torn ACL, cancer, and now a torn achilles. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so he might not be the same player when he returns, but he’s played at least 15 games in his other 5 seasons and has finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF in his last 3 healthy seasons, so his return should be a big boost for this secondary even if he’s not at his peak.

At cornerback, the Chiefs lose Peters, but they’re significantly deeper, after adding Kendall Fuller and David Amerson in the off-season. They also should have Steven Nelson healthy after he was limited to 9 games by injury last season. Those should be their top-3 cornerbacks this season and they will compete for roles. Fuller has the most promise of the bunch and was a steal in the Alex Smith trade. He fell to the 3rd round in 2016 because of injury and was mediocre on 475 snaps in an injury plagued rookie season, but he broke out as PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback on 719 snaps last season, excelling on 637 slot snaps. Only 23, Fuller is already an excellent slot cornerback and deserves a shot at an every down role. He’s not the most proven or durable player, but he has a very high upside.

Nelson can also play both outside and on the slot. Injuries limited him to 512 snaps last season, but he’s made the start in 22 of the 24 games he’s played in over the past 2 seasons and has been a decent starter, holding his own in coverage and excelling against the run. Now healthy, the 2015 3rd round pick could have the best year of his career in the final year of his rookie deal in 2018 if he can stay healthy, still only going into his age 25 season.

Amerson, on the other hand, is just an outside cornerback, but he did finish 14th among cornerbacks on PFF in 12 starts in 2015. Amerson has 56 starts in 5 seasons in the league, since going in the 2nd round in 2013, but he’s finished below average on PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and is coming off of a season in which he was limited to just 287 snaps by injuries. Owed 6 million non-guaranteed, the Raiders released him and the Chiefs picked him up on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal this off-season. He may open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 27 season.

The one big weakness in this secondary is the other safety spot. Ron Parker and Daniel Sorensen led this team in safety snaps in Berry’s absence, but they finished 86th and 88th respectively out of 89 eligible safeties on PFF. Parker is no longer with the team, while Sorensen is not guaranteed a starting job, even without another good option. Eric Murray was their 3rd safety last season (437 snaps), coming in when Sorensen would move to linebacker, but he too struggled. Murray was a 4th round pick in 2016 and is only going into his age 24 season, so he has some upside, but he’s a converted cornerback who played just 65 snaps as a rookie and did not play well in a larger role in 2017.

The Chiefs like 2017 6th round pick Leon McQuay, but he played just 46 snaps as a rookie and it’s anyone’s guess if he’s ready for a larger role. They also used a 4th round pick on Texas A&M safety Armani Watts, but he probably won’t be ready to make starts as a rookie. They signed veteran Robert Golden in free agency and he’s been a valuable reserve for the Steelers, earning solid grades in 3 straight seasons, but he hasn’t topped 400 snaps in any of those seasons and would be a projection to a larger role. The Chiefs could end up using multiple starters at the position and none of them are guarantees to be any good. Outside of that, this is an improved secondary, thanks to the return of Eric Berry from injury.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Chiefs might be better defensively in 2018, but they still have problems on that side of the ball and they are switching to an unproven quarterback after getting a great year from veteran Alex Smith in 2017. Mahomes has a huge upside and has plenty of talent around him, but it would be harder for him to be better than Smith was last season and the Chiefs are also unlikely to turn the ball over as infrequently. They could have a tough time making it back to the post-season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The early reviews of Pat Mahomes were mixed and he’s likely to deal with growing pains in his first year as a starter. With a defense that still has major problems, the Chiefs will likely take a step back in win total in 2018.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC West

Denver Broncos 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After going 12-4 and winning the Super Bowl in 2015, the Broncos fell to 9-7 in 2016 and then 5-11 in 2017. Quarterback play got a lot of the blame last season and it definitely was a big problem, as the trio of Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler combined to complete 58.7% of their passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions on an offense that ranked 30th in first down rate, but they’ve had issues under center for years.

They finished 30th in first down rate in 2016 as well and were only marginally better (27th) in 2015, despite going on to win the Super Bowl. Their last season with good quarterback play was Peyton Manning’s last healthy season in 2014, as four quarterbacks have combined to complete 59.6% of their passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 58 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions over the past 3 seasons since.

The reasons for their win total decline are complicated. Part of it is just that they went 9-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015, but have gone just 4-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less since then. Their defense also has declined a little bit, falling from 2nd in first down rate in 2015 and 2016 to 7th in 2017. They also finished 31st in turnover margin at -17 in 2017. Their offense turning the ball over wasn’t a surprise, but their defense managed just 17 takeaways after having 54 in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Turnover margin tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis though. Since 2007, 17 teams have finished with turnover margins of -15 or worse. The following year, they, on average, have a turnover margin of +4.8 and win an average of 3.5 more games. Their defense isn’t as good as it was in their peak, but it’s not hard to see them having more takeaways in 2018, as they’re still a talented group on that side of the ball.

The Broncos also are turning the page at quarterback, which could easily help their turnover margin. Brock Osweiler signed with the Dolphins as a free agent. Trevor Siemian was traded to the Vikings for a late round pick. Paxton Lynch remains, but that’s because the Broncos are unwilling to give up on the 2016 1st round pick, but he’ll sit on the bench for the foreseeable future behind free agent acquisition Case Keenum, who signed on a 2-year, 36 million dollar deal this off-season. Despite terrible quarterback play, the Broncos finished last season 23rd in first down rate differential at -1.79%, so better quarterback play and more takeaways from the defense could put the Broncos right back in playoff contention in 2018.

That being said, it’s far from a guarantee that Keenum will repeat his strong 2017 season, when he completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback on the season. Not only is Keenum a one-year wonder who completed just 58.4% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions in his career before last season, but he also wasn’t put in that many tough spots game situation wise with the Vikings because he had such a good supporting cast and usually played with a lead. With the Broncos, he’ll have to do more on his own. Already in his age 30 season, it’s possible he’s a late bloomer and will continue playing well and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what they had last season, but I would expect him to regress at least somewhat in 2018.

If he regresses significantly, the Broncos’ only other option is Paxton Lynch, who has shown nothing since the Broncos drafted him with the 26th overall pick in 2016. He’s completed just 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.19 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and often hasn’t been healthy enough to get on the field for a team that has needed quarterback help. Only going into his age 24 season, he still has upside and the Broncos are not ready to give up on him, but they wouldn’t have given Keenum 25 million guaranteed if they were comfortable relying on Lynch in 2018, so they’ll obviously he hoping Keenum continues playing well.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Arguably the best thing Case Keenum had going for him in Minnesota was the duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at wide receiver, possibly the top wide receiver duo in the NFL. There was a time when people considered Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on that same level, as both topped 1000 yards in all 3 seasons from 2014-2016, but both are coming off of down seasons and going into their age 31 seasons. Thomas managed just a 83/949/5 slash line, failing to top 1000 yards for the first time since his second season in the league in 2011, while Sanders missed 4 games with injury and had just a 47/555/2 slash line, also his lowest receiving yardage total since his 2nd season in the league in 2011.

Part of that was because of their quarterback play, which should be better in 2018, but they used to be able to put up big numbers despite poor quarterback play and they also both earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus, suggesting it wasn’t just their quarterback play that was the issue. Not completely over the hill, they do have some statistical bounce back potential with an upgraded quarterback, especially if Sanders can stay in the lineup all season, but both players are clearly on the decline.

They may also not be as involved in the offense this year as normal. They’ve averaged a combined 18.8 targets per game over the past 4 seasons, but the Broncos will likely be a run heavy team even with Keenum under center and the Broncos have made an effort to add talented young receivers behind Thomas and Sanders on the depth chart in the past two drafts, so they won’t need to rely as heavily on them.

They’ve added young receivers in part because Sanders and Thomas are aging, but they lacked depth behind them regardless, which is why Sanders and Thomas received about half the team’s targets back in 2016, the last time both were healthy. Last year, Bennie Fowler struggled as the 3rd receiver, putting up a mediocre 29/350/3 slash line on 56 targets, despite playing 573 snaps and playing close to every down when Sanders was out.

Fowler is no longer with the team, as is the case with Cody Latimer, who played 380 snaps as the 4th receiver last year. To replace them, the Broncos added SMU’s Courtland Sutton, a borderline first round talent, with the 40th overall pick in the 2nd round, and then they added Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton in the 4th round. They also get last year’s 3rd round pick Carlos Henderson back from an injury that cost him his entire rookie season, though he may be facing a short suspension following an off-season arrest for DUI and marijuana possession.

Those three will compete for snaps behind Thomas and Sanders, with Sutton as the heavy favorite for the #3 receiver job. If they’re impressed with their young receivers, it’s possible the Broncos decide to move on from one or both of Thomas and Sanders next off-season, owed 14 million and 10.25 million respectively in non-guaranteed salaries. Since both will be in the final year of their deal in 2019, the Broncos can save those entire amounts on the cap by letting them go.

The Broncos will need one of their young receivers take step up because, not only are Sanders and Thomas getting up there in age, but they also have next to nothing at the tight end position. AJ Derby led the team with 19 catches by a tight end last season, which is a big drop off from the 57/532/8 slash line Kyle Rudolph put up with Keenum in Minnesota. Derby is no longer with the team anyway and neither is Virgil Green, a blocking specialist who caught just 14 passes. The Broncos bring back Jeff Heuerman, a 2016 3rd round pick who has developed into a capable blocker, but has just 18 catches on 557 snaps played in the past 2 seasons. He’ll have a bigger role in 2018 with little competition on the depth chart, but I wouldn’t expect him to become a factor in the passing game.

With Heuerman lining up in-line primarily, 2017 5th round pick Jake Butt is expected to be the primary pass catching tight end. He comes with upside and could have gone on the 2nd day of the draft if he wasn’t rehabbing a torn ACL at the time of the draft. Being cautious with him long-term, the Broncos sat him his entire rookie year, so he’s a major question mark going in 2018, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to top Derby’s production (19/224/2) if he’s healthy and he could develop into a capable all-around tight end long-term.

The Broncos also used a 5th round pick on a tight end in this year’s draft, taking Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli, though it’s unclear if he’ll have much of a role as a rookie. Neither a strong blocker nor a matchup problem in the passing game, he’ll probably open the season as the third tight end. The Broncos will be counting on young players to step up behind the aging Sanders and Thomas, but this could easily be an improved receiving corps over last season. It’s likely to be a steep drop off from what Keenum was working with in Minnesota though.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Broncos will likely be a pretty run heavy team in 2018. They ranked 8th in carries last season with 457, as they tried to hide their terrible quarterback play behind their run game and defense, and, even with Keenum coming in, I expect them to remain conservative with their play calling. Keenum is not someone who has experience carrying a team and threw just 32.9 attempts per start on a run heavy team with the Vikings last season, a big part of why he was so successful. The Broncos have a good enough defense that they don’t have to drop back and pass 35-40 times per game and I wouldn’t expect them to.

Given that, it’s pretty strange they’d let go of CJ Anderson, who was one of just nine running backs to have more than 1000 rushing yards last season, averaging 4.11 yards per carry on 245 carries, despite being on a bad offense. Anderson’s salary of 4.5 million was significant for a running back, especially a two-down back like Anderson that doesn’t contribute in the passing game, but the Broncos had other more obvious cap casualty candidates if they needed to free up cap space and they have about 9 million in available cap space as of this writing, so there wasn’t any urgent need to let him go.

Anderson’s direct replacement will be 3rd round rookie Royce Freeman, though he’s unlikely to have as big of a role as Anderson did last season. Freeman is similar to Anderson in that he’s a bigger back at 6-0 229 who isn’t a great receiver, but he could easily be a downgrade as a rookie. He was a very productive college runner and has the upside to be an above average runner at the professional level, but there’s concern about his speed and the fact that he had almost 1000 carries in college.

Freeman may lead the team in carries as a rookie, but third year back Devontae Booker figures to lead the team in snaps by a running back, as he’s the clear option in passing situations. A 2016 4th round pick, Booker has been unimpressive as a runner in his career, with a 3.60 YPC on 253 carries, but he has 61 catches for 540 yards and 1 touchdown on just 396 routes run between the two seasons and could easily have 40-50 catches as the primary passing down back in 2018. He’ll also have a role as a runner, as could 2017 6th round pick De’Angelo Henderson, though he managed just 49 yards on 9 touches as a rookie and is not considered a lock for the final roster. This backfield has potential, but Anderson would be useful to still have around.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Instead of Anderson, one player the Broncos could have let go of is right tackle Menelik Watson, who was signed to a 3-year, 18.375 million dollar deal last off-season, but was Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked offensive tackle through his first 8 games of the season, before going down for the rest of the season with a broken foot. Despite that, the Broncos let his salary guarantee by keeping him on the roster through mid-March and now owe him 6.125 million in 2018 between salary and bonuses.

The Broncos did let go of Donald Stephenson and Allen Barbre, who were also horrible at right tackle last season, taking over after Watson got hurt, but they also decided to trade a 6th round pick for ex-Cardinals right tackle Jared Veldheer, who they will have to pay 7 million this season between salary and bonuses. That makes him the 4th highest paid right tackle in the league this season in total compensation.

Veldheer would have been a good addition a few years ago, but he’s been missed 11 games over the past 2 seasons with injury, finished last season 58th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 13 starts, and is now going into his age 31 season. He likely would have been released if the Cardinals could not trade him and he could have been available for close to half the price. He did earn a positive grade in 2016 before a triceps tear knocked out the second half of his season, but his best play is probably behind him. He’ll be an upgrade by default, but he’s way overpaid.

With Veldheer likely locked in at right tackle, Watson’s clearest past to playing time is left guard, which was also a problem position for them in 2017, as Max Garcia finished 71st among 80 eligible guards on PFF in 16 starts. Watson is unlikely to be much of an upgrade though. He’s never played guard at the professional level and has struggled mightily throughout his career, since being drafted by the Raiders in the 2nd round in 2013. He’s also been very injury prone and has just 24 career starts in 5 seasons in the league.

A 4th round pick in 2015, Garcia wasn’t that bad in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts), before struggling last year. He could still keep his starting job, though he’ll also face competition from 2016 5th round pick Connor McGovern. McGovern also likely wouldn’t be an upgrade, as he struggled in 5 starts at right guard last season in the first action of his career, filling in for an injured Ron Leary. Many expected the Broncos to take Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson 5th overall, but they let Nelson fall to the Colts at 6 when NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb was unexpectedly still available at 5. Left guard will likely remain a position of weakness in 2018, regardless of who starts.

Right guard, on the other hand, should remain strong, especially if Ron Leary is able to stay healthier. Despite missing 5 games last season, Leary was still PFF’s 11th ranked guard and he is probably the Broncos’ best offensive lineman. Leary also finished 19th among guards on PFF in 2016 and has made 58 starts in the past 5 seasons, with the Cowboys and Broncos. He was a smart pickup on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season for a team that badly needed offensive line help and he was definitely missed when he was injured down the stretch.

Center Matt Paradis is also coming off of a solid season, finishing 10th among centers on PFF, although he was better a lot better in 2016, when he finished 2nd among centers on PFF. A 6th round selection in 2014, Paradis has made all 48 starts at center in the past 3 seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should have another solid season again, at the very least, and could easily earn a big contract in the next year, going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Second year left tackle Garett Bolles completes this offensive line. He had his ups and downs as a rookie, making all 16 starts after the Broncos made him the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he finished about average on PFF and could easily be better in his second season in the league. This offensive line on the whole could easily be better too, with Leary returning from injury, Veldheer coming in, and both Paradis and Bolles possibly having better seasons, but left guard is still a major problem and Veldheer is a shaky option at right tackle.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Broncos defense was not as good in 2017 as they were in 2015 and 2016, finishing 7th in first down rate allowed and managing just 17 takeaways. 7th in first down rate is still pretty impressive though and takeaways tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so they could easily have a few more this season, which could be the difference between a couple wins and a couple losses. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were at their peak though. Not only is the personnel not quite the same, but the Broncos also lost legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips last off-season.

When head coach Gary Kubiak retired at the end of the 2016 season and the Broncos replaced him with Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, a former understudy of Phillips as a defensive backs coaches with the Texans, it was assumed that the Broncos would be keeping Phillips, but Joseph went another direction, promoting defensive backs coach Joe Woods to defensive coordinator instead. Phillips then went to LA, where he did a great job with a resurgent Rams defense, while Woods got disappointing results in his first season in the job. He may be better in his second year, but he’ll never be Wade Phillips.

One area this defense did excel in was run defense, as they ranked 1st in yards per carry allowed with 3.34. Their defensive line was a big part of that. Their top-4 defensive linemen in terms of snaps played were Adam Gotsis (555 snaps), Shelby Harris (516 snaps), Domata Peko (460 snaps), and Derek Wolfe (458 snaps) and all 4 finished in the top-41 among interior defensive linemen in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus. None of them earned a positive grade as a pass rusher though, which is a concern. Despite getting good edge rush, the Broncos managed just 33 sacks last season, just 22nd in the NFL. That was a big part of why their defense was not as good as it had been in the previous 2 seasons.

The good news is they should get more out of Derek Wolfe this season, who is usually an every down player and totaled 11 sacks and 16 quarterback hits between 2015 and 2016, before being limited to 458 snaps in 11 games by a neck injury last season. Now reportedly 100% again after surgery, Wolfe could easily have a bounce back year. He’s earned a positive grade on PFF in 4 straight seasons, topping out as PFF’s 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in their Super Bowl year in 2015.

The Broncos are also moving 2017 2nd round pick DeMarcus Walker from outside linebacker to defensive end, after he played just 100 snaps as a rookie. Listed at 6-4 280 last season, Walker has the size to rush the passer from the interior and may add even more weight for the position switch. Despite not playing much as a rookie, Walker still has a good upside and could be a better fit in his new role. Gotsis, Peko, and Harris will continue seeing significant snaps in base packages, but Wolfe and Walker will likely be their primary interior pass rushers in sub packages.

Gotsis, Peko, and Harris all have issues though, in addition to struggling as pass rushers. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Gotsis is facing an uncertain legal future after being accused of rape from his collegiate days this off-season. Peko is going into his age 34 season and, before a revitalized year as the Broncos nose tackle last season, earned negative grades from PFF in 9 straight seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. Harris, meanwhile, is a 2014 7th round pick and a complete one-year wonder, as he played just 155 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined. With Walker moving to the line and Wolfe now healthy, they should get more pass rush from their defensive line this season, but they probably won’t be quite as good against the run.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Another reason why moving Walker to the defensive line makes sense is because the Broncos are really deep at outside linebacker, after using the 5th overall pick on Bradley Chubb. Considered the consensus top defensive prospect in the draft, Chubb was a great value with the 5th overall pick and was widely expected to go the Cleveland Browns with the 4th overall pick, rather than Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward. Chubb is the third outside linebacker the Broncos have drafted in the first round since 2011, when they took Von Miller 2nd overall.

Von Miller has worked out incredibly well. Miller has finished in the top-3 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons in the league, totaling 83.5 sacks and 96 quarterback hits in 104 games, while excelling against the run as well. Only going into his age 29 season with a limited injury history aside from a 2013 torn ACL, Miller should continue playing at a high level in 2018. The Broncos had to give him a massive 6-year, 114.1 million dollar deal to keep him as a free agent two off-seasons ago, but if he keeps playing well he’ll continue to be worth it.

Their other first round outside linebacker selection has not worked out as well, which is part of the reason why the Broncos took Chubb at 5 instead of filling a bigger need with Quenton Nelson. Selected 23rd overall in 2015, Shane Ray flashed as a pass rusher in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league (1,015 snaps combined between the two seasons) and was expected to be an every down player in 2017, but he was never healthy and struggled mightily on 354 snaps, finishing 40th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Even when healthy, the 6-3 245 pounder has shown little against the run and, given that he just had his fourth wrist surgery in a year, the Broncos made the obvious decision to decline his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 9.232 million for injury in 2019.

Ray is likely to open the season as the 4th outside linebacker even if he is healthy, as Shaquil Barrett was PFF’s 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on 664 snaps last season and will continue having a big role, even with the addition of Chubb. He might not play quite as many snaps, but he earned a positive grade as a rotational player in 2015 and 2016 as well and it doesn’t make sense to leave him on the bench. Now in the final year of his rookie deal, he’ll likely be able to get more money and playing time elsewhere next off-season, but, for now, he should split snaps with Chubb. If all three of Miller, Chubb, and Barrett stay healthy, Ray will play very little and could be traded before the season starts if the Broncos get an offer to their liking.

At middle linebacker, Brandon Marshall remains as an every down player, though he’s coming off of a down year, earning a negative grade for the first time in 4 seasons as a starter (56 starts). Marshall was PFF’s #2 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014 and their #6 ranked middle linebacker in 2015, but he missed 5 games with hamstring problems in a disappointing year in 2016 and did not look the same upon his return in 2017, even though he did play all 16 games. He should still be in his prime in his age 29 season and he lost weight this off-season in an effort to get faster and stay healthier, but his best days might be behind him, especially with Wade Phillips no longer in town.

Todd Davis is the other starter, but he’s only a base package run stuffer, playing just 520 snaps in 2017. He has earned positive run stopping grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, has finished as PFF’s 10th ranked run stopping middle linebacker in 2017, and was given a 3-year, 15 million dollar extension this off-season, but he struggles in coverage and is usually replaced by backup safety Will Parks in passing situations. Parks was pretty underwhelming in that role though and has struggled on 864 career snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 6th round in 2016, so the Broncos brought in ex-Redskin Su’a Cravens via trade and then used a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Josey Jewell during the draft, to provide competition.

Cravens has the most upside of the bunch, as the 2016 2nd round pick flashed on 294 snaps in a hybrid safety/linebacker role as a rookie, but he missed all of last season with concussions and was briefly retired for personal reasons. If he’s healthy and wants to continue his career, he still has a good upside and is only going into his age 23 season, but the uncertainty around his future caused the Redskins to trade him for the equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation. Jewell, meanwhile, does not have the same upside because of his lack of size and athleticism, but the Broncos like what he can do on special teams and may give him a shot to earn a role on defense as well. They’re definitely stronger outside than inside in this linebacking corps, but this is a strong group overall.

Grade: A

Secondary

Neither Parks nor Cravens has much of a path to playing time at safety, as the Broncos bring back a pair of capable starters in Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons. Stewart actually earned a slight negative grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017, but he earned positive grades in his previous 3 seasons and has made 58 of 64 starts in the past 4 seasons. Now going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he could easily remain a capable starter for at least another couple seasons. Simmons, meanwhile, is only going into his third season in the league and his best days could still be ahead of him. After flashing on 294 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, Simmons earned a positive grade in his first full season as the starter in 2017. He could have his best year yet in 2018.

The Broncos are pretty deep at cornerback too, despite trading Aqib Talib to the Rams for a 5th round pick in a move that saved them 11 million. Talib was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and the Broncos already have Chris Harris, PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback last season, locked into a big contract long-term and Bradley Roby, PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback last season, seeing a steep pay increase in the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, now making 8.526 million, and likely due another steep pay increase on a long-term extension in the next year.

Harris is the more proven of the two, making 89 starts in the past 6 seasons and finishing in the top-15 among cornerbacks on PFF in all 6 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-2, while Roby is more of a one-year wonder, as the 2014 31st overall pick graded out about average on PFF in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2014-2016. With Talib gone, Roby will play every down as an outside cornerback and should easily surpass his career high of 807 snaps. Harris, meanwhile, will play outside in two-cornerback sets and then move inside to the slot in sub packages, which is where he’s at his best.

Free agent acquisition Tramaine Brock is the favorite to be the other outside cornerback in sub packages, after signing a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. A solid starter with the 49ers from 2013-2016, making 40 starts in those 4 seasons combined and finishing 16th among cornerbacks as recently as 2016, Brock was cut by the 49ers after being accused of domestic violence last off-season and played just 51 snaps last season, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Vikings, after his case was dropped in August.

Now in the clear legally, the Broncos are betting on a bounce back and they may get it, though he’s going into his age 30 season, so his best days may be behind him. His top competition is 2017 3rd round pick Brendan Langley, who played just 106 snaps as a rookie, and this year’s 3rd round pick, Boston College cornerback Isaac Yiadom, who enters the league as a very raw rookie. Losing Talib hurts, but this is still a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Broncos had their first losing season since 2010 last season, but better quarterback play and more takeaways from their defense could easily push them right back into playoff contention. Case Keenum doesn’t have the same offensive supporting cast he had in Minnesota, but he’ll be supported by a strong defense and won’t have all the pressure to do everything himself. The Broncos play in arguably the toughest division in the AFC, but the AFC is the weaker conference overall, so they could compete for one of the wild card spots. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: It’s still unclear if Case Keenum can come close to repeating his strong 2017 season, but the Broncos should have better quarterback play this season, which should put them right back into playoff contention. Their defense isn’t as dominant as it was two years ago, but they could have their most productive offense in years.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC West