Tennessee Titans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, the Titans looked like a potential breakout team. They finished the 2017 season 9-7, just missing the post-season, and finished 6th in the NFL in both first down rate differential at 1.59% and in offensive touchdown differential at +10, suggesting they were significantly better than their record suggested. They also had a lot of cap space to work with and had extra draft capital, including a pair of first round picks, thanks to their trade down with the Rams the previous year. The Titans did a good job using their cap space and draft capital to fill needs and they made the post-season and even won a playoff game, but they actually had a pretty disappointing season all things considered.

They fell all the way to 20th in first down rate differential at -0.88% and also had a negative point differential of -22. They only made the post-season because they went 6-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less and played in the easier of the two conferences with arguably the easiest schedule in the league. They also had the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Their playoff victory in Kansas City was pretty impressive, but they trailed by 21-3 at halftime before the Chiefs lost Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs were an overrated team all season.

The biggest reason for the Titans’ disappointing season was the disappointing season quarterback Marcus Mariota had. After completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, many expected the former #2 overall pick to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league. Instead, he completed just 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.14 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, the Titans ranked just 20th in first down rate at 33.06%.

Probably the strangest thing about his disappointing season was much how he struggled with a clean pocket. Mariota had the 3rd best QB rating in the NFL under pressure, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (82.7 QB rating), but completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions with a clean pocket, a clean pocket QB rating of 78.2 that ranked 36th among 40 eligible quarterbacks. His 13 clean pocket interceptions were tied with Deshone Kizer for the most in the NFL. He only had 2 interceptions dropped all season, fewest by anyone with at least 350 attempts, so that was partially bad luck, but it’s a concern that he threw so many interceptions without being pressured.

Mariota missed week 5 with a hamstring injury and many have blamed that injury lingering for his poor statistical performance. However, he didn’t get off to a great start before that, completing just 60.0% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his first 4 games of the season. His hamstring injury also didn’t really limit him on the ground. He took off just as many times as he did the previous season (60) and, though he had a career low in YPC, he still averaged just 5.20 YPC and rushed for a career high 5 touchdowns, so he didn’t look slowed by the injury.

Coaching and play calling were part of the issue as well. The Titans were coached for the past 3 seasons by Mike Mularkey, an old school offensive mind with a very vanilla playbook. Mularkey went 9-7 the past 2 seasons, but he largely underachieved with a talented roster and was just 18-39 in in 3 and a half seasons as a head coach prior to the past 2 seasons, so he was deservedly let go. He’ll be replaced by ex-Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, a former linebacker of the Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs.

Vrabel is just 43 and only coordinated the Texans defense for one season, with veteran defensive mind Romeo Crennel helping him significantly, but he’s been on a head coaching fast track since retiring and the Titans are going in the opposite direction of their previous coach with a much younger coach. Vrabel also brings Matt LaFleur with him as offensive coordinator, which is most important for Mariota. LaFleur has never called plays in the NFL, but worked under Kyle Shanahan with the Falcons in 2016 and Sean McVay with the Rams in 2017, so he has experience on very successful offenses under bright offensive minds. He should give Mariota more of a chance to be successful.

Durability is a concern for him though, even if that wasn’t the main problem last season. Not only did he get hurt last season, but he’s never played more than 15 games or thrown more than 453 passes in 3 seasons in the league. Mariota takes more hits than an average quarterback because of how often he takes off and runs and, even if he wasn’t injury prone in college, injuries could be a problem for him in the NFL against bigger defenders. The Titans clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, worth 20.922 million guaranteed for injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, he still has a high upside and could develop into a franchise quarterback, but last year was definitely a disappointing year for him.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem is that Marcus Mariota’s upgraded receiving corps were also a disappointment. The Titans used the 5th overall pick on wide receiver Corey Davis and signed veteran wide receiver Eric Decker to a 1-year deal worth 4 million in free agency, but Davis missed 5 games with injury and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 88th ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible on 517 snaps, with just a 34/375/0 slash line on 65 targets, while Decker lacked explosiveness and put up a mere 54/563/1 slash line in 16 games, despite playing 72.7% of the snaps.

Decker is no longer with the team and was not really replaced, so the Titans will go into 2018 with 2017 3rd round pick Taywan Taylor as their 3rd receiver. He played just 245 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, but could be better in his 2nd season in the league and is a natural fit on the slot. The Titans will also be hoping for more out of Davis, who was a surprise pick with the 5th overall selection. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has a high upside and could also be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league, but he was not regarded as a universal top-10 pick going into the draft and may end up proving to be a reach.

With a pair of second year players on the depth chart, veteran Rishard Matthews could once again led Titan wide receivers in yards, after doing so in 2016 with a 65/945/9 slash line and in 2017 with a 53/795/4 slash line. Matthews isn’t a big name, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 straight seasons and has averaged a 63/937/7 slash line per 16 games over the past 3 seasons, since first becoming a starter with the Dolphins. Matthews has exceeded the 3-year, 15 million dollar deal the Titans gave him in free agency two off-seasons ago and, still only in his age 29 season, could be in line for a higher paid extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his contract.

Matthews missed a couple games with injuries, so tight end Delanie Walker was actually the team leader in receiving yards, with a 74/807/3 slash line. Walker has earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 of his past 7 seasons, but he was a late bloomer, as he didn’t really become a starter until signing with the Titans after the 2012 season. Originally a 49er, Walker has 96 career starts in 175 career games in 12 seasons in the league, but 56 of them have come in the past 5 seasons with the Titans. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 34 season, but he’s been remarkably consistent over the past 4 seasons, topping 800 yards, playing at least 15 games, and finishing in the top-15 among tight ends on PFF in all 4 seasons. He may start to decline in 2018, but he could easily have another solid season or two left in the left.

Walker is also in the final year of his deal and could get a short-term extension this off-season, but the Titans also planned for his eventual departure by using a 3rd round pick on Jonnu Smith in last year’s draft, so they may be unwilling guarantee him much beyond 2018. Smith was a terrible run blocker as a rookie, finishing 63rd among 72 eligible tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade, but he was not bad as a receiver in a limited role and can improve as a blocker. The Titans may wait to see how he develops in his 2nd season in the league before deciding what to do with Walker long-term. The Titans didn’t add anything of note to this receiving corps this off-season, but they have some second year players who can be better in 2018 than they were as rookies.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Thought they didn’t add anything of note to their receiving corps, the Titans did make some big additions this off-season, as they once again entered the off-season with significant cap space. On offense, their biggest addition was running back Dion Lewis, formerly of the New England Patriots, who signed on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll basically replace DeMarco Murray, who split carries in 2017 with Derrick Henry. Murray had slightly more carries (184 vs. 176) and played significantly more snaps (647 vs. 408) because of his passing down involvement, but Henry was by far the more explosive back, averaging 4.23 yards per carry vs. 3.58 yards per carry. Murray was a capable pass protector, but he was let go owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million this off-season and ultimately retired this off-season ahead of his age 30 season, after not finding an offer to his liking.

Lewis is a much better use of money. Prior to last season, he had never topped 100 carries in a season and he’s still never topped 200 carries in a season, but he has a career 4.81 YPC average and was one of the best running backs in the league last season on a per carry basis. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry (3rd in the NFL), picked up 3.17 yards per carry after contact (6th in the NFL), broke a tackle per 4.29 carries (best in the NFL), and had a carry success rate of 56% (4th in the NFL).

Despite starting last season as a backup, he was New England’s lead back by October, rushing for 797 yards and 5 touchdowns on 161 carries (4.95 YPC), while adding 25 catches for 172 yards and another 3 touchdowns through the air in his final 11 games of the season. Part of that was because he got to play on such a good offense with the Patriots, but also he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in overall grade. He’s undersized at 5-8 195 and has a pretty significant injury history with 58 games missed in 6 seasons prior to 2017, but he’s also still only going into his age 28 season and could easily continue being an explosive runner as part of a tandem with Henry if he can stay healthy.

Henry is a much more powerful back at 6-3 247. Henry averaged 4.45 yards per carry on 110 carries as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and 4.23 yards per carry on 176 carries in his 2nd season in the league and looked poised for a huge role in his 3rd season in the league before the Lewis signing. Henry may still lead this team in carries and touchdowns, but Lewis will have a significant role as a speed back and will be the primary passing down back. Lewis isn’t as good of a pass protector as Murray was, but he’s earned a positive pass catching grade in 3 straight seasons from PFF, while Henry has just 24 catches in 2 seasons in the league. Both are talented backs and they complement each other well.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The one downside of the Titans winning a playoff game is talented young right tackle Jack Conklin tearing his ACL in their 2nd round loss in New England. The Titans were fortunate to avoid injuries for most of the season, but the timing of Conklin’s injury makes him a question mark for week 1 in 2018, as he’ll be less than 8 months removed from the injury. Even if he does return, he’s no guarantee to be 100%, which is a shame because his career has been off to a great start since the Titans took him 8th overall in 2016. He’s made all 32 regular season starts in 2 seasons in the league and finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 14th in his second season in the league last season. His backup is veteran journeyman Dennis Kelly, who has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 seasons in the league, so they’d really miss Conklin if he missed time.

When Conklin is healthy, the Titans have arguably the best young bookend tackles in the NFL, with Taylor Lewan on the left side, although Lewan is coming off of a down season. He still earned a positive grade for the 4th straight season to start his career, but fell to 27th among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 20th in 2015 and 8th in 2016. He still pass protected well, but struggled to open up holes on the ground and committed 10 penalties as well. Only going into his age 27 season, he has obvious bounce back potential. The 11th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Lewan is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could push Nate Solder (4 years, 62 million) as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league on his next deal. If the Titans can’t come to an agreement with him before free agency, he’ll likely be franchise tagged.

Their other three starting offensive linemen all earned above average grades from PFF as well, with Quinton Spain making 14 starts at left guard, Josh Kline making 16 starts at right tackle, and Ben Jones making 16 starts at center. None of the three was quite as good as they were in 2016 though. Spain and Kline finished 15th and 25th respectively among guards in 2016, while Jones finished 10th among centers, but Spain and Kline fell to 39th and 28th respectively in 2017, while Jones fell to 16th at his position.

Kline was re-signed this off-season on a 4-year deal worth 26 million. Originally undrafted in 2013, Kline struggled in his first full season as a starter with the Patriots in 2015, but he has proven to be a smart waiver pickup by the Titans, after New England released him. He could easily have another solid season. Spain’s play, on the other hand, was less consistent from 2016 to 2017 and he also struggled in 6 starts as an undrafted rookie in 2015. He should remain at least a solid starter, but he may never be as good as he was in 2016 again.

Jones is the proven most of the bunch, making 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 64 over the past 4 seasons. The 2012 4th round pick started his career at guard, but has been better since moving to center over the past few seasons, first in 2015 with the Texans and then the past two seasons with the Titans. He’s been at least a league average starter in all 3 seasons and should have another solid season in 2018. Tackle is the strength of this offensive line, assuming Conklin makes it back close to 100% at some point, but the interior of this offensive line is not a weakness either.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Titans also had a pretty underwhelming defense in 2017, finishing 16th in first down rate allowed at 33.94%, despite an easy schedule. New head coach Mike Vrabel obviously comes from a defensive background, though his scheme will be similar to the 3-4 defense they ran under Dick LeBeau last season. The Titans tried to make an impact signing on the defensive line, going after Ndamukong Suh and Muhammad Wilkerson, but they ended up having to settle for signing Bennie Logan to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal.

Logan will replace Sylvester Williams, who played 349 snaps last season, primarily as a base package nose tackle. He was not bad against the run, but did not get any pass rush and was not worth his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. The 6-2 315 pound Logan is also a solid run stuffer as well, earning positive run grades from Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, but he also has earned negative grades for his pass rush and has just 5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the past 4 seasons combined. He’s probably not a huge upgrade on Williams.

The Titans also gave defensive end Daquan Jones a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season, keeping the 2014 4th round pick around. Jones has never earned a positive pass rush grade for a season in any of his 4 seasons in the league, totaling just 6 sacks and 12 hits, but he’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons, while his best year coming in 2016, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade. The massive 6-4 322 pounder was limited to just 436 snaps in 12 games by a biceps injury in 2017, but he’s played about 60% of the snaps over the past 3 seasons as a starter, primarily playing in base packages.

The Titans also have 2016 2nd round pick Austin Johnson in the mix. He played just 190 snaps as a rookie and 319 snaps in 2017, but he could have his biggest role yet in 2018. Unfortunately, he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher too at 6-4 314. He’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in both seasons in the league, but has been negative as a pass rusher in both seasons, totaling just 1.5 sacks, 1 hit, and 6 hurries on 281 pass rush snaps. He’ll need to play a role on a relatively thin defensive line, but he’s looked like purely a base package player thus far in his career.

Jurrell Casey is the only true every down defensive lineman they have, but he’s a good one. A 4th round pick in 2011, Casey has finished well above average in all 7 seasons in the league, but he’s especially excelled in the past 5 seasons as an every down player, on about 80% of the snaps. After playing well in a rotational role in his first 2 seasons in the league, Casey has made 77 starts over the past 5 seasons and has missed just 2 games due to injury. He’s finished in the top-9 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-5, and has totaled 34.5 sacks and 53 hits, while also dominating against the run. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Casey is the picture of consistency and durability and should continue his strong play in 2018. They lack another interior pass rusher inside next to him, but they should be pretty good against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Titans also got great run defense from starting middle linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson last season. That combined with their defensive line is a big part of the reason why the Titans ranked 3.57 in yards per carry allowed (4th). Woodyard and Williamson ranked 8th and 2nd respectively among middle linebackers in run grade on Pro Football Focus, though both earned negative grades in coverage. Williamson was largely a base package player, playing just 60.0% snaps in 16 games, while Woodyard struggled mightily in coverage in an every down role, playing 93.2% of the snaps in 16 games. They used 5th round rookie Jayon Brown as a coverage linebacker in sub packages, but he also struggled, finishing 46th among 52 middle linebackers on PFF on 485 snaps, with 401 of them coming on coverage snaps.

The Titans let Williamson walk this off-season, as he signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Jets, and instead replaced him with first round rookie Rashaan Evans. Evans is probably immediately a downgrade against the run, but he also has the ability to play all three downs and has a much higher upside. He figures to play every down immediately, which will allow Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard to split snaps at the other middle linebacker spot.

Brown could be better in his second season in the league and has the athleticism to develop into a good coverage linebacker at 5-11 226, but he could also continue being a liability. Meanwhile, Woodyard is going into his age 32 season and close easily begin to decline. He’s earned a positive run stopping grade in 3 straight seasons, but, at this stage of his career, he needs to go back to being a part-time player like he was in 2015 (47.3% of the snaps) and 2016 (56.3%) of the snaps. This linebacking corps probably won’t be quite as good against the run in 2018, though they’ll hopefully be more athletic in coverage.

The Titans also used a 2nd round pick on a linebacker, trading up 16 spots in the 2nd round (giving up a 3rd round pick in the process) to select Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry with the 41st overall pick. Projected by many to be a first round pick, Landry fell because of concerns about durability and his ability to stop the run, but the 6-3 252 pounder is a natural edge rusher who could have an immediate role in passing situations. He reminds some of Atlanta’s Vic Beasley.

Starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are proven players, but they’re also in the final year of their deals. They used a 2nd rounder on an edge defender in 2016, taking Clemson’s Kevin Dodd 33rd overall, but he’s played just 271 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is reportedly on the roster bubble for 2017 after skipping voluntary off-season workouts. Veteran journeyman Erik Walden was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, but he struggled, finishing 34th among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on 582 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for Landry to be an upgrade and he should play a similar amount of snaps.

Orakpo was the better of the two starters, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. A 9-year NFL veteran and first round selection by the Redskins in 2009, Orakpo has earned a positive season grade in 8 straight seasons. He missed 24 games with injury in 3 seasons from 2012 to 2014, but he hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since. The concern with him is age, as he’s going into his age 32 season. He may start to decline soon.

Morgan is younger, only going into his age 29 season, but he hasn’t been as good as Orakpo in recent years, finishing below average on PFF in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He still earned a positive pass rush grade in 2017, his 5th straight season earning one, with the exception of an injury plagued 2015 season. He’s been relatively durable in his career and is still in the prime of his career, but he’s only a slightly above average starter. This is a solid linebacking corps, though they are relying on some young players.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Titans biggest free agent signing this off-season was cornerback Malcolm Butler, also a former New England Patriot. They signed him to a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Butler was most recently seen sitting on the sidelines of Super Bowl 52 while his defense got torched, inexplicably never put into the game on defense by Bill Belichick, but, aside from that, he had a pretty successful tenure in New England and the Super Bowl did not seem to hurt his value this off-season.

After flashing on 197 regular season snaps as a rookie in 2014 and making a game saving play in that season’s Super Bowl, Butler made 47 starts from 2015-2017 and finished with positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. He finished 18th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 5th among cornerbacks in 2016, though he did fell to 48th in 2017. The list of free agents to leave New England and have the same success elsewhere isn’t long and Butler was passed on by the entire league on draft day before landing in New England, so there’s some uncertainty about how he’ll do with a new franchise, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and could easily have a bounce back season after struggling by his standards in 2017.

The Titans also added a pair of cornerbacks last off-season, signing another former Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal and drafting USC’s Adoree Jackson with the 18th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Both earned positive grades as a starter in 2017, so the Titans now have three above average starting cornerbacks with Butler coming in. Expect them to run 3-cornerback sets with regularity and spend the majority of the snaps in sub packages.

Ryan should continue playing the slot, but he might not have a role in base packages when the Titans only use 2 cornerbacks. He played 90.0% of the snaps in 15 games last season, but I would expect that to go down this season. A 3rd round selection in 2013, Ryan has never been a dominant player, but he’s earned a positive grade in all 5 seasons in the league, excelling on the slot, and has started 42 games in the past 3 seasons combined. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 12th among cornerbacks, though he did fall to 56th in 2018. Still, he might be the top #3 cornerback in the NFL.

Jackson, meanwhile, finished 28th among cornerbacks last season as a rookie and made all 16 starts. He got off to a slow start, but got a lot better down the stretch. Considering he was thought of as very raw coming out of college, the fact that he was able to play so well down the stretch as a rookie is a good sign for his future. Only in his age 23 season, it’ll probably take him another 2-3 years to reach his potential and he’s still inexperienced, but he could easily continue improving in his second season in the league. He’s likely the favorite to start opposite Butler.

The Titans also made a significant addition at safety last off-season, signing ex-Jaguar John Cyprien to a deal worth 25 million over 4 years, but he struggled in his first season in Tennessee, finishing 83rd among 89 eligible safeties on PFF. That be shouldn’t a huge surprise, as Cyprien also struggled in his first 3 seasons in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Cyprien had a breakout year in his contract year in 2016, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but he also finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including bottom top-5 seasons in 2013 and 2015.

An injury may be part of the reason behind his struggles in 2017, as he went down with a knee injury week 1, missed the next 6 games, and struggled for the remainder of the season. Only going into his age 28 season, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was for the Jaguars in 2016. He’ll start again for lack of a better option, but will probably need to improve to keep his job past this season, as he’s owed 6 million non-guaranteed in 2019.

Cyprien did not pan out, but the Titans did get a breakout year from 2nd year safety Kevin Byard. A 2016 3rd round pick, Byard flashed on 655 snaps as a rookie, but took his game to a whole new level in 2017, playing all but 5 snaps, ranking 3rd among safeties on PFF, and intercepting a league leading 8 passes. He might not be quite as good again in 2018, but, then again, he’s going into his age 25 season and could keep developing into consistently one of the top safeties in the league if he stays healthy. With the addition of Malcolm Butler in free agency, this secondary is much improved. Cyprien is their one weakness, but they have a trio of starting caliber cornerbacks and a stud safety.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Titans are more talented and should be better coached than they were a year ago. On paper, they are one of the better teams in the AFC, as the AFC is easily the weaker of the two conferences. Their schedule and their division should be harder, especially with both Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson returning from injury, and they’ll likely have more injuries of their own, but this team should be very much in the running for the division title.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Titans will need to play a lot better to make it back to the post-season in 2018, as their schedule will be much tougher. However, on paper they are one of the more talented teams in the AFC and they should be better coached. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them have an increase in win total.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Colts have had great quarterback play. They had Peyton Manning as the starter for 13 straight seasons and then when he missed a year with injury they got the #1 pick in the draft with the clearest #1 choice since Manning and drafted his replacement in Andrew Luck. Luck has not been as good as Manning, but, much like Manning towards the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, Luck has been able to mask a lot of problems on this roster. He even brought them to the post-season in his first 3 seasons, although that was largely because they had a 18-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and went 16-2 against a division that was the worst in football back then.

When Luck missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury, the Colts bottomed out, much like they did when Manning was out. The Colts won 4 games, but those wins came against the Brian Hoyer led 49ers, the Tom Savage led Texans (twice), and the Deshone Kizer led Browns and none of those wins came by double digits. The Colts ranked 30th in point differential at -141 and were even worse than that suggests, as they did that despite having a +5 turnover margin. They lost a league high 5 games in which they won the turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, so the Colts won’t be able to rely on that again in 2018, and, outside of their turnover margin, they were arguably the worst team in the league last season. They finished dead last in first down rate differential at -6.01%, despite a relatively easy schedule.

Offensively, they finished 31st in the NFL in first down rate. Backup Jacoby Brissett was obviously not great, but he wasn’t bad all things considered and he was far from the only problem. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. The bigger problem was their lack of supporting cast, which has been an issue for years. It’s usually been masked by strong quarterback play, but the Colts have drafted a total of just 3 Pro-Bowlers since 2007. One of them was Luck, which was a no brainer pick. Another was punter Pat McAfee. And the third is TY Hilton, a 3rd round pick in 2012. In 11 years, they’ve drafted just one position player who exceeded his draft slot and made a Pro Bowl.

Given the players around him, Brissett had little chance. He completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries (4.13 YPC). His worst attribute was that he held the football too long and took too many sacks. He averaged 2.68 seconds from snap to throw, 5th slowest in the NFL. The Colts had offensive line problems, but Brissett didn’t help matters, taking a sack on 23.1% of his pressured drop backs, 3rd highest in the NFL. The Colts led the NFL with 56 sacks allowed, which stalled many drives.

Brissett’s interception rate of 1.49% is impressive and was arguably the biggest reason for their positive turnover margin, but interception rates tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and it’s unlikely that Brissett would have continued what would have been the lowest interception rate of all-time for much longer. Luck is also unlikely to have an interception rate that low, as he’s thrown interceptions on 2.57% of his career passes.

Luck is also a major question mark after missing all of last season with a throwing shoulder injury. Luck originally suffered the injury in 2015, opted not to have surgery, played through it in 2016, and then had surgery on it in January 2017 in hopes of returning for training camp. Instead, Luck did not return at all in 2017 and did not even start throwing a football again until this summer, more than 500 days after the initial surgery. He’s expected to return week 1 and he’s definitely doing better this off-season than last off-season, but he’s considered questionable for training camp and nothing can be taken for granted with him.

Prior to the injury, Luck finished 14th, 8th, and 3rd on PFF among quarterbacks in his last 3 healthy seasons respectively (2013, 2014, and 2016). Despite a weak supporting cast, he’s completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 132 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions in his career and has added 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 286 carries (5.04 YPC). He’s still only going into his age 29 season and the Colts will obviously be hoping he returns to form, but that’s far from a guarantee at this point.

The Colts were confident enough in him long-term to eschew drafting a quarterback at the top of what was one of the strongest quarterback classes in years. Rather than staying at 3 and taking a quarterback, they traded down to 6 with the Jets, who drafted USC quarterback Sam Darnold, and picked up a trio of second round picks in the process. They received picks 37 and 49 in 2018 and another second round pick in 2019, much needed for a team with holes across the depth chart. Even if Luck returns to form, they’ll need their supporting cast to be better for the Colts to contend for a playoff spot in an improved division.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

After trading down, the Colts used the 6th pick on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson was arguably the top player in the draft and would not have been a bad pick at 3, but fell out of the top-5 because of his position. At the very least, he’s probably the safest and most NFL ready pick in the draft. He’ll plug in as an immediate starter at a major position of need and could be one of the better guards in the league in a few years. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Jeremy Vujnovich, who started 16 games at left guard last season and ranked dead last out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus.

The Colts also used one of their 2nd round picks on Auburn’s Braden Smith, who can play offensive tackle, but most project to guard because he has just 32 1/4 inch arms at 6-6 315. He’s unlikely to start at guard as a rookie though, with Jack Mewhort returning from injury. Mewhort has missed 17 games with knee injuries in the past 2 seasons, so they need good insurance for him, but he’s been great for them when healthy and will be given another shot in 2018, in only his age 27 season.

Prior to the injuries, he finished 14th among guards in 2015 and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league. The Colts re-signed the 2014 2nd round pick to a one-year deal worth just 1.5 million this off-season, an absolute steal given Mewhort’s age and upside. Smith, meanwhile, could play right tackle. Mewhort also has experience at right tackle and could also move out there at some point, though he’s been a lot better at guard.

Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, and Le’Raven Clark all made starts at right tackle last season, but all three struggled. The Colts also added veteran right tackle Austin Howard and he has a good shot to earn the starting job. He has 88 starts in the past 6 seasons and signed a one-year deal that pays him low end starters money at 3.75 million this off-season, after spending 2017 with the Ravens. Howard has been inconsistent in his career and he’s going into his age 31 season, but he was about a league average starter in Baltimore last season and could give the Colts much needed veteran stability at right tackle.

Along with Jack Mewhort, the Colts also get center Ryan Kelly back from injury, after he was limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. A first round selection in 2016, Kelly was seen as one of the safer picks in the draft, but he was underwhelming in 16 starts as a rookie and struggled through injuries in 2017, finishing 28th among 38 eligible centers on PFF. Kelly could be much better in his 3rd season in the league if he’s healthy, but his career has gotten off to a disappointing start and he’s no guarantee to ever improve.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2018. A first round selection in 2011, Castonzo has made 105 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has been one of their few good high draft picks. He’s never made a Pro Bowl, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could have easily made at least a couple Pro Bowls. He finished a career best 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017, but he also finished 16th in 2016 and 9th in 2014. His age is becoming a minor concern in his age 30 season in 2018, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and he’s rarely had major injuries, playing all 16 games in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He should remain a good blindside protector in 2018 and the rest of the offensive line should be much improved as well, with Kelly and Mewhort returning and Nelson, Howard, and Smith added to the mix.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

An improved offensive line should be good for Luck, especially returning from a major injury, but the Colts don’t have a ton of skill position talent around Luck, especially at running back. The Colts ranked just 28th in the NFL in yards per carry in 2017 with 3.68, led by lead back Frank Gore, who averaged 3.68 yards per carry on 261 carries. Gore was better than that suggests though, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and ranking 23rd with a carry success rate of 44%, pretty good considering the lack of talent around him on offense. Gore left as a free agent this off-season though and the Colts did not do much to replace him, only using 4th and 5th round picks on North Carolina State’s Nyheim Hines and Mississippi’s Jordan Wilkins.

Second year running back Marlon Mack is likely to be the lead back, but he was pretty underwhelming as a rookie. The 2017 4th round pick averaged just 3.85 yards per carry despite having 7 of his 93 carries go for 15+ yards. He had 45.8% of his 358 yards on those 7 carries and averaged just 2.26 yards per carry on his other 86 carries, consistently getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. He flashed as a receiver, with a 21/225/1 slash line on 33 targets on 169 routes run, but he allowed 3 sacks as a pass protector and needs to improve his blocking technique. He has some upside, but he’s a weak starting option.

Hines, meanwhile, is an 5-8 198 scatback who reminds of Tarik Cohen, while Wilkins was a late round prospect who doesn’t have a huge upside. Hines will probably be limited to change of pace/passing down work, while Wilkins does not project as a lead back in the NFL. The Colts also have veteran Robert Turbin, but he’s been suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and has averaged just 3.83 yards per carry and 4.44 carries per game in 6 seasons in the league. He’s a capable passing down back and is probably their pass protector, but his career high is 80 carries in a season and he’s unlikely to surpass that in 2018, even in a wide open backfield like this. The Colts arguably have the weakest running back group in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

The one key skill position player they have is #1 receiver TY Hilton. Hilton did not have good chemistry with Jacoby Brissett and also was not as good himself, possibly not giving as much effort on a last place team. After averaging a 81/1250/6 slash line in 4 seasons as a starter from 2013-2016 and finishing in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, Hilton had just a 57/966/5 slash line in 2017, finishing under 1000 yards since his rookie season in 2012, and was about a league average receiver on PFF.

Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Hilton has obvious bounce back potential if Luck can return to form. In 2016, he and Luck connected for 91 catches for 1448 yards and 6 touchdowns and he was PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver, the highest he’s ranked in his career. He’ll face plenty of double teams with the Colts lacking other good options at wide receiver, but he should be Luck’s go to receiver and could be one of the league’s leaders in targets.

Donte Moncrief and Kamar Aiken were their #2 and #3 receiver last season in terms of snaps with 614 and 587 respectively, but neither is with the team anymore. Neither played well, but they didn’t really do much to replace them. Chester Rogers has been their #4 receiver the past 2 seasons and the 2016 undrafted free agent has not been great, struggling on 447 snaps as a rookie and 429 snaps last season, but, for lack of a better option, he’ll compete with free agent acquisition Ryan Grant for the week 1 starting job opposite Hilton, with the loser of that battle likely playing as the 3rd receiver.

Grant originally signed with the Ravens on a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal, but the deal did not go through because the Ravens failed him on his physical. That will likely prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Ravens, as that contract would have guaranteed him 14.5 million over the next 2 seasons. Instead, he gets 5 million on a one-year deal from the Colts and he may not even be worth that. After being drafted by the Redskins in the 5th round in 2014, Grant was only a depth receiver until last season, when he played a career high 613 snaps, but he posted an underwhelming 45/573/4 slash line and has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 4 seasons in the league. He was a desperation signing for a team with a thin receiving corps and money to spend.

With several high picks, I expected the Colts to draft a wide receiver early, but instead they only used 5th and 6th round picks, taking Northern Iowa’s Daurice Fountain and Clemson’s Deon Cain. Cain has had a strong off-season, but it’s too early to tell if that will translate to the field. It’s possible neither would be an upgrade as rookie if they saw action. Fellow rookie Nyheim Hines is also an option as a receiver because he’s a good pass catcher and has the versatility to move around the formation.The Colts could also pursue Dez Bryant or another veteran receiver on the free agent market to help one of the thinnest wide receiver groups in the NFL.

The Colts did add talent at tight end, signing ex-Lion Eric Ebron to a 2-year deal worth 13 million. Incumbent starter Jack Doyle remains, so the Colts could run a lot more two tight end sets this season to offset their lack of depth at tight end. Doyle had an impressive 80/690/4 slash line in 2017, despite the quarterback situation, but that was largely because he received 107 targets and played 910 snaps (3rd most among tight ends). In 2016, he played 748 snaps and had a 59/584/5 slash line on 75 targets in his first season as a starter. He’ll play significantly fewer snaps in 2018 with Ebron coming in, so his 2016 numbers are probably a more reasonable expectation. The 6-6 262 pounder is not that explosive and averages just 8.52 yards per catch in his career, but he’s good at finding soft spots in the underneath coverage, he has reliable hands, and he’s a good blocker.

Ebron, meanwhile, is an athletic freak that ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine and went 10th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he did not pan out in 4 seasons with the Lions and they released him ahead of his 5th year option for 2018, which would have paid him 8.25 million. Ebron was considered a matchup nightmare coming out of college and has showed flashes of it, but he’s averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line thus far in his career, topping out at a 61/711/1 slash line in 2016, and he never developed as a blocker either. Still only 25, the Colts are taking a flyer on him and hoping he can put it all together, but he hasn’t been the most reliable player thus far in his career. In a thin receiving corps, Doyle and Ebron could easily be 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Colts were not quite as bad defensively as they were offensively in 2017, finishing 22nd in first down rate allowed at 35.28%. Their defensive line was actually pretty good, particularly against the run (3.95 YPC allowed, 8th in the NFL), but they are transitioning from a bigger 3-4 defense to a more athletic 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, whose recent experience was with a Tampa 2 defense in Dallas with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, and they are making major changes on the defensive line as a result. Johnathan Hankins, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, and Henry Anderson all excelled against the run on 686 snaps, 576 snaps, 563 snaps, and 380 snaps respectively last season, but Hankins was let go, owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, while Anderson was traded to the Jets for a late round pick ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Woods and Hunt, meanwhile, are poor fits for the new scheme. Woods is a 6-4 330 pounder who has never earned a positive pass rush grade in 8 seasons in the league and is unlikely to improve, while Hunt is a bit of a tweener in a 4-3 system at 6-8 298 and earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in a 4-3 defense with the Bengals prior to arriving in Indianapolis last off-season. Both are also going into their age 31 season, so they’re highly unlikely to repeat the best seasons of their careers in a new system.They’ll likely be limited to base package snaps at defensive tackle and defensive end respectively, assuming they make the final roster, each owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed.

In sub packages, expect the Colts to regularly use 3 and 4 defensive ends at the same time, lining up a defensive end or two inside. Defensive end is where they have the most depth and they have a few defensive ends with the size to line up inside in passing situations. Margus Hunt is one option, even though he’s never been much of a pass rusher, and the Colts also have the 6-3 265 pound Jabaal Sheard and 6-3 269 pound Tyquan Lewis, who both have experience rushing the passer from the inside.

Sheard figures to lead this line in snaps, after finishing 3th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 900 snaps in 2017. He had just 5.5 sacks, but added 8 hits and 54 hurries and was a great run stuffer. A versatile player who has proven himself in multiple systems in his career, Sheard has earned positive grades from PFF in 6 of the past 7 seasons, including 5 straight seasons. His best seasons came in 2017 and in 2015, when he was PFF’s 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end as a hybrid defensive lineman with the Patriots. He figures to have a similar role in Indianapolis’ new 4-3 defense. Lewis should have a similar role too, but the 2nd round rookie probably won’t play a ton of snaps in his first season.

The Colts also selected Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round, another defensive end. He’s smaller than Lewis at 6-5 253 and is more of an edge rusher, but he should at least have an immediate role in sub packages on a reworked defensive line. The Colts also have last year’s 3rd round pick Tarell Basham, a 6-4 266 pounder who played 220 snaps as a rookie. He struggled against the run, but flashed as a pass rusher and is a better fit in their new 4-3 defense than their old 3-4. He should have a larger role in his 2nd season in the league.

The Colts also have John Simon, who has 11.5 sacks and 20 hits as a rotational 3-4 outside linebacker over the past 3 seasons, but he is not a great fit for their new scheme at 6-1 260. He’s currently penciled in as the third outside linebacker in base packages and may see some rotational snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, but he’s also not considered a roster lock at a 3.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. His fit in the scheme is a concern, but he’s earned a positive run stopping grade in each of his first 4 seasons in the league on PFF and the Colts don’t need the cap space, so keeping him makes sense.

At defensive tackle, the Colts added ex-Raider Denico Autry on a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Autry is undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-5 270, struggles against the run, and was probably an overpay, but he perfectly fits what this new coaching staff is looking for out of a defensive lineman. He’ll likely have a significant role as a sub package interior pass rusher. In 3 seasons as a heavy rotational player in Oakland, he totaled 10.5 sacks and 11 hits and he earned a positive pass rush grade from PFF in 2 of 3 seasons.

The Colts also have 2016 4th round pick Hassan Ridgeway and 2017 4th round pick Grover Stewart, but Ridgeway has played just 617 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Stewart is purely a base package player at 6-4 333 and is not an ideal fit in this new scheme. The Colts have a lot of rotational options, but lack impact players on this defensive line outside of Sheard. This is line is unlikely to play as well as they did last season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Colts also will look different in the linebacking corps this season. Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison started 14 games and 15 games respectively for this team in 2017, but the former signed with the Steelers this off-season, while the latter finished 51st among 52 middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and is not a lock to remain a starter. Bostic was a solid run stuffer, but struggled in coverage. His likely replacement is 2nd round rookie Darius Leonard, an athletic 6-2 234 pounder who is basically the opposite of Bostic. He comes from a small school (South Carolina State) and is a bit undersized, but he’s a perfect fit as a sideline to sideline linebacker in this defense. He’ll fill the Sean Lee role in this linebacking corps, though he’s obviously not as proven.

The other every down linebacker job is up for grabs. Morrison could remain the starter, for lack of a better option, but he’ll face competition from 2017 5th round pick Anthony Walker. He played just 117 snaps as a rookie, but is their best internal competition for Morrison. Morrison was a 4th round pick in 2016, so both he and Walker have some upside, but the other middle linebacker spot should remain a position of weakness in 2018. Leonard will need to step up big time as a rookie.

The Colts may mix safety Clayton Geathers in as a linebacker in sub packages, as the 6-2 220 pounder has experience in that role and could be a good fit in this new defense, but he has yet to practice this off-season and was limited to 112 snaps in 5 games by a neck injury in 2017. He earned a positive grade on 558 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, after going in the 4th round in 2015, but his neck injury threatens to derail his development. Consider him out indefinitely.

As mentioned, John Simon will be the 3rd linebacker unless he’s let go. He’s an odd fit for the scheme and will only play about half the snaps as a linebacker, either coming off the field or moving to the defensive line in sub packages when a 5th defensive back enters. He won’t elevate this linebacking corps much. With a 2nd round rookie as their top linebacker, the Colts have serious issues at linebacker. They completely lack proven starting 4-3 linebackers and are hoping for young players to step up.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Part of the reason they could use Geathers at linebacker is that they’re actually pretty deep at safety. Even if healthy, Geathers might not be any higher than their 4th safety on the depth chart. The Colts used a 1st round pick on Malik Hooker in 2017 and a 2nd round pick on TJ Green in 2016, but 2016 undrafted free agent Matthias Farley led this team in snaps by a safety with 927. Despite only playing 67 snaps as a rookie, Farley actually played pretty well in a mini breakout season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Hooker is expected to be back for week 1 if not sooner, after tearing his ACL last October, but Farley is likely to remain a starter. He might not be quite as good and last season could prove to be a fluke for a player who was not highly thought of coming into the league, but he could also remain a capable starter.

His biggest competition will be TJ Green. Green was a relatively high pick, but has been a disappointment thus far in his career. He finished dead last among 90 eligible safeties on 477 snaps as a rookie and was limited to 381 underwhelming snaps last season, even with Hooker going down with injury. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has upside, but thus far he’s been a massive bust. Hooker, on the other hand, was having a solid rookie year before the injury. Just 22 years old, Hooker still has a huge upside, but the injury could set his development back a little bit. If he’s on the field, he should be a capable starter at least, but it could take a couple years for him to reach his potential.

Their safeties are not bad, but they have arguably the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. Cornerback was a problem last season and they lost Rashaan Melvin, PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback last season, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency. Despite that, they did basically nothing to address the position this off-season, aside from adding some undrafted free agents. Instead, they’ll go into 2018 with a trio of 2nd year cornerbacks, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, and Kenny Moore, and journeyman Pierre Desir atop the depth chart.

Wilson has the most upside, after flashing on 402 snaps as a rookie, but he’s not somewhat you want as your de facto #1 cornerback. Hairston, meanwhile, went in the 5th round and struggled on 537 snaps as a rookie, while Moore played 382 nondescript snaps as an undrafted rookie. Neither profiles as a long-term starter. Desir does not either, already on his 4th team in 4 seasons in the league since the Browns drafted him in 2014. He’s never played more than 399 snaps in a season and would be a desperation play in a larger role than that in 2018. They have arguably the thinnest cornerback group in the NFL, which brings this whole secondary down significantly.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Colts should get Andrew Luck back from injury this season, but they have arguably the worst supporting league in the league. They’ve improved their offensive line, but they lack depth at wide receiver and running back and their defense could be the worst in the league, as they transition to a completely new defensive scheme. Johnathan Hankins and Rashaan Melvin were arguably two of their top-3 defensive players last season, but neither are with the team anymore, while players like Al Woods and Margus Hunt are coming off of career years that they likely won’t repeat and do not fit the new scheme. The Colts have the lowest active spending on their roster and it shows. It’ll take a career year from Andrew Luck to get them back into the post-season and I don’t see that happening.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Andrew Luck will not solve all of the Colts’ problems, even if he is 100%, as the Colts have probably the worst supporting cast in the NFL. In a much improved AFC South, the Colts look likely to finish in last.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in AFC South

Houston Texans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014-2016, the Houston Texans started 8 different quarterbacks, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Despite that underwhelming quarterback carousel, the Texans went 9-7 in all 3 seasons, winning the division twice, and even winning a playoff game over the Connor Cook led Oakland Raiders during the 2016 season. Part of that was their lack of competition, especially in the weak AFC South and in that playoff win over the Raiders, but their defense carried them as well. Combined with their defense, it looked like if they could ever solve the quarterback position they’d be a Super Bowl contender.

With that idea in mind, the Texans were aggressive in upgrading the quarterback position last off-season. Incumbent starter Brock Osweiler had a 16 million dollar guaranteed salary, as a result of the Texans previous aggressive impact to upgrade the quarterback position, but Osweiler was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL in 2016. Rather than giving him another shot in 2018, the Texans traded a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Browns for a 2017 4th round pick in a pure salary dump of Osweiler’s contract. They then packaged together the 25th pick in the 2017 NFL draft and their 2018 1st round pick in another trade with the Browns to move up and grab Deshaun Watson with the 12th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

It was a risky move because it left them without a first or second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but it worked, at least for a while. Despite being considered raw coming into the league, Watson took over as the starter after Tom Savage was benched midway through their week 1 blowout loss to the Jaguars and completed 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground on 36 carries (7.47 YPC), in about 6 and a half games. The Texans moved the chains at a 39.15% rate in Watson’s 6 starts, which would have been 2nd best in the NFL over 16 games, but then he tore his ACL during practice and missed the final 9 games of the season with injury.

Not only was the Watson injury a major setback in his development, but the Texans went just 1-8 the rest of the way and finished at 4-12, so those draft picks sent to the Browns turned out to be 4th and 35th, so now those trade don’t look as good as they did mid-season. Tom Savage took over as the starter after Watson went down and he completed just 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.33 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on the season.

Savage went down with injury late in the season as well, so 3rd string quarterback TJ Yates entered the lineup and he was even worse, completing just 48.5% of his passes for an average of 5.39 YPA, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. In 10 games where Watson did not start, the Texans moved the chains at a 30.74% rate, which would have been 27th in the NFL over 16 games, a significant drop off from their play with Watson in the lineup.

Watson is expected to be back for week 1 and could easily continue developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the same immediately. Robert Griffin III is an example of the worst case scenario of what can happen to a mobile quarterback after a rookie year ACL tear, but, even if Watson’s recovery isn’t the worst case scenario, he still might not be the same quarterback immediately, given how important mobility is to his game.

Watson averaged 7.47 yards per carry as a rookie, but he did not look to run until he had no other options. Instead, he used his athleticism to buy himself extra time so his receivers could get open downfield. He held the ball longer than any quarterback, averaging 2.91 seconds from snap to attempt, and faced pressure on 47.7% of his dropbacks, but he took a sack on just 16.5% of those pressured dropbacks and led the NFL in both average depth of targets (11.2 yards) and in percent of targets beyond 20 yards (19.6%). Watson got into some trouble on deep throws, throwing 4 of his 8 interceptions on his 40 targets of 20+ yards, but he also completed 18 passes for 559 yards and 7 touchdowns on targets of 20+ yards. If he isn’t able to maneuver the pocket or throw on the run as easily after the injury, it could be a big problem for him.

The Texans seem confident in his ability to bounce back, only signing veteran Brandon Weeden to be his backup. A journeyman who has been on 4 teams in 6 seasons in the league, Weeden has completed 57.9% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions in his career and hasn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2015, in his first stint with the Texans. The Texans would be in big trouble if Watson were to get hurt again, but, even if he stays on the field all season, he might not be 100% in his first season back from the injury, especially given how reliant he is on his mobility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Watson’s play especially took off when starting wide receiver Will Fuller returned after missing the first 3 games of the season recovering from an off-season broken collarbone. Watson and Fuller only played together for 4 games, but they connected for 13 catches for 279 yards and 7 touchdowns and the Texans moved the chains at a 43.07% rate in those 4 games, which easily would have been the best in the NFL over 16 games. Fuller is a great deep threat, so it makes sense he and Watson would have good chemistry.

Fuller wasn’t nearly as good the rest of the season, catching 15 passes for 144 yards and no touchdowns in 6 games without Watson and missing another 3 games with injury, so he finished with just a 28/423/7 slash line in 10 games. The 2016 1st round pick also missed 2 games with injury as a rookie and had an underwhelming 47/635/2 slash line in 14 games. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and could easily have a breakout season in 2018 if both he and Watson can stay healthy all season. He probably won’t average 21.5 yards per catch or have a 53.8% touchdown rate like he did in 4 games with Watson last season, but he could still easily push for 1000 yards if he and Watson play all 16 games.

Top receiver DeAndre Hopkins also put up big numbers with Deshaun Watson, but he put up big numbers regardless of who was under center. In 6 games started by Watson, he caught 38 passes for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns and then he caught another 58 passes for 827 yards and 7 touchdowns in 9 games started by other quarterbacks. Down the stretch, almost the entire Texans’ passing offense was chucking it downfield and hoping Hopkins could make a play, despite frequent double and triple teams. From week 14-16, he had 64.1% of the Texans’ receiving yardage in a 3 game span, before missing week 17 with an injury.

Despite playing just 15 games, he caught 96 passes (6th in the NFL) for 1,376 yards (4th) and 13 touchdowns (1st) and he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver. Over the past 4 seasons, DeAndre Hopkins has 361 catches (7th in the NFL over the past 4 seasons) for 5,064 yards (3rd) and 34 touchdowns (3rd), despite having consistently terrible quarterback play. A 2013 first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, Hopkins should post monster numbers again in 2018 with a healthy Deshaun Watson.

Watson wasn’t just helped by having DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller making plays. This entire receiving corps dropped just 2 passes on 204 attempts with Watson under center, a drop rate of just 0.98%, easily the lowest among quarterbacks last season. The league average drop rate was 5.28%, so Watson’s completion percentage was bumped up a few percentage points simply because his receivers almost always held on to the ball. With a league average drop rate, he would have had about 11 drops and those extra 9 drops would have translated to about 121 lost passing yards, about 0.6 yards per attempt.

That drop rate seems like a fluke that is unlikely to continue though. Houston receivers dropped 20 passes thrown by their other quarterbacks on 321 attempts (6.23%) and this receiving corps lacks reliable options after Hopkins and Fuller. Watson only completed 61.8% of his passes last season and, between what should be a higher drop rate and possible rustiness after the injury, he could easily be under 60% in 2018. I don’t expect him to average over 8 yards per attempt again either, unless he returns 100% to form and a capable 3rd receiver steps up in the passing game.

Tight end CJ Fiedorowicz was supposed to be the 3rd guy in the passing game last season, as the 2014 3rd round pick had a 54/559/4 slash line in 2016 with Brock Osweiler. The Texans gave him a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar extension last off-season, but he was limited to just 229 snaps in 5 games by concussions in 2017 and opted to retire this off-season rather than risk further injury. In his absence, the Texans did not have another pass catcher behind Hopkins and Fuller that topped 350 yards. Part of that was quarterback related, but they definitely lack other proven weapons. Hopkins and Fuller were their only wide receiver/tight ends to earn a positive pass catching grade from PFF last season.

With Fuller in and out of the lineup, Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller played 590 snaps and 426 snaps respectively at wide receiver last season, but they managed slash lines of just 29/330/2 and 19/162/1 respectively. Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick who missed 22 games in his first 3 seasons in the league before underwhelming in the first significant action of his career last season. Miller, meanwhile, is a 2016 3rd round pick and converted quarterback who has struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league. He’s averaged just 4.58 yards per target on 57 targets and 0.55 yards per route run on 473 routes. Both Miller and Ellington could be pushed for their role by 4th round rookie Keke Coutee, a speedster who is having a strong off-season and is a natural fit with Deshaun Watson. Coutee is likely to be inconsistent as a rookie and he is undersized at 5-10 181, but he may prove to be their best option as the #3 receiver, given the alternatives.

In addition to Fiedorowicz missing 11 games with injury, the Texans were also without fellow veteran tight end Ryan Griffin for 9 games. Griffin struggled in his first significant passing game role in 2016, averaging 5.89 yards per target, and has not topped 20 catches in a season in any of his other 4 seasons, but the 6-6 255 pounder is a capable blocker. Fortunately, Griffin and Fiedorowicz missed action at different times for the most part, so they had at least one of them able to provide a blocking complement to passing down tight end Stephen Anderson for most of the season, but both Fiedorowicz and Griffin were out for weeks 14-17 and the Texans had to resort to using backup offensive linemen as blocking tight ends, including 6-5 310 pound backup center Kyle Fuller, who played 27 snaps at tight end week 17.

Anderson is a 6-2 230 pound converted wide receiver who ran routes on 318 of his 435 snaps, with 184 of them either coming on the slot (165) or out wide (19). Despite that, he managed just a 25/342/1 slash line and he can’t block either. A 2016 undrafted free agent who struggled the first significant action of his career in 2017, Anderson is unlikely to ever develop into much more than a situational player. Griffin should be healthier in 2018 and the Texans also added tight ends in the 3rd and 6th rounds of the draft, taking Central Florida’s Jordan Akins and Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas, but both are considered raw and might not be much help as rookies. The Texans didn’t run a lot of two-tight end sets last season and that is likely to be the case again in 2018. Hopkins and Fuller figure to get the majority of the targets in a thin receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier that Watson was pressured on a high percentage of his dropbacks (47.7%) in part due to how long he held the ball trying to set up plays downfield, but the offensive line was a big part of the problem too. They didn’t have a single offensive lineman earn a positive grade all season and Tom Savage was pressured on almost as many of his dropbacks (46.7%), despite getting the ball out almost a half second quicker (2.51 seconds from snap to attempt). On the season, they had the 2nd most sacks allowed with 54.

Basically starting from scratch up front this off-season, the Texans signed 3 free agent offensive linemen, signing Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Seantrel Henderson to contracts worth 28 million over 4 years, 12 million over 3 years, and 4 million over 1 year respectively, and they also used a 3rd round selection on Mississippi State’s Martinas Rankin. None of those players are left tackles though, so the Texans are expected to start 2nd year lineman Julie’n Davenport on the blindside.

Davenport was one of 5 players to start on the blindside last season and struggled on 238 snaps in 4 starts, but the Texans like the 2017 4th round pick’s upside and lack a better option. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league and it would be hard for him to be a downgrade over what they had at left tackle last season, but the Texans go into the season with arguably the shakiest left tackle situation in the NFL.

Breno Giacomini and Xavier Su’a-Filo led this offensive line in snaps last season, with 1095 and 1075 respectively, as both made all 16 starts at right tackle and left guard respectively, but both were horrendous, finishing dead last out of 83 eligible offensive tackles and 79th out of 80 eligible guards respectively. Both are no longer with the team, but the Texans do bring back Nick Martin (971 snaps), Jeff Allen (728 snaps), and Greg Mancz (560 snaps), who also struggled mightily last season. They’ll compete for roles with the newcomers.

Martin started 14 games at center last season and went in the 2nd round in 2016, but he missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury and then finished 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season as the starter. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league and the Texans will probably give him another shot as the starter, but Zach Fulton can also play center, as can Greg Mancz, who actually finished 9th among centers on PFF in the first 16 starts of his career in Martin’s absence in 2016, before struggling when he moved to guard in 2017, finishing 56th out of 80 eligible. Mancz went undrafted in 2015 and is a below average athlete, so his 2016 season could prove to be a fluke, but it would be a good idea for them to move him back to center, even as just a reserve.

Fulton and Kelemete are most likely to open the season as the starting guards. Fulton was their biggest free agent offensive line signing, as the ex-Chief cost them 7 million annually. The 2014 6th round pick struggled in 16 starts as a rookie, finishing 69th out of 78 eligible guards on PFF, but he’s made 30 starts since then and has been about an average starter in all 3 seasons. He’s played both guard spots, but also has 8 career starts at center and is an option to move inside.

Kelemete can also play multiple positions and is a candidate to move outside to right tackle, although his frame and arm length (6-3 303, 33 1/2 inch arms) suggests he’s better suited at guard. He’s made 22 starts in the past 3 seasons, 5 at right guard, 16 at left guard, and 1 at left tackle, but he’s earned negative grades in all 3 seasons and has never been a full-time starter, so he’s a projection to a larger role. His contract (4 million annually) suggests he’ll start, but that’s largely for lack of a better option.

Jeff Allen is also an option at guard, especially if either Kelemete or Fulton move to another position. Allen signed with the Texans on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but has been a massive bust in 2 seasons in Houston, finishing well below average in both seasons. Allen was PFF’s 19th ranked guard in his contract year in 2015, but he struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013, after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft, and then barely played in his third season in the league in 2014. Even in his one strong season in 2015, he made just 8 starts. He has the versatility to play both guard and tackle and could also be an option at right tackle, but he’s not a capable starter anywhere and he’ll likely be let go if he can’t lock down a starting job somewhere, owed 6.25 million non-guaranteed.

Henderson and Rankin are the primary candidates at right tackle. Henderson’s salary (4 million) suggests he’ll get a real shot at the job, but he’s played just 78 snaps in the past 2 seasons due to health problems and was not a good starter prior to the last 2 seasons, as the 2014 undrafted free agent finished 79th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie in 16 starts and then 56th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 in 10 starts. Rankin should be able to push him for the job at some point, but is expected to miss at least the start of training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of winning the week 1 job, and some think he’ll have to move to guard long-term because of his lack of size and length (6-4 308, 33 3/4 inch arms).

Between Davenport, Fulton, Martin, Mancz, Kelemete, Allen, Henderson, and Rankin, the Texans have 8 offensive linemen competing for 5 spots upfront. They are probably more talented upfront than they were last season, but largely by default, as this was not a good off-season to need offensive line help, particularly offensive tackle help. Watson has plenty of talent, but he’s coming off of a major injury, will be under pressure regularly, and lacks depth in the receiving corps. He’ll make plenty of big plays downfield, but also figures to be pretty inaccurate and make some blunders as well. I don’t expect things to go as smoothly for this offense as it did in Watson’s 6 starts last season.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The offensive line also caused problems in the running game. Despite having a mobile quarterback under center for half the season and a pair a capable running backs, the Texans were a middle of the road rushing team in 2017, ranking 16th in the NFL with a 4.11 YPC average. Lead back Lamar Miller only averaged 3.73 yards per carry on 238 carries, but he still earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. He picked up 2.45 yards per carry after contact and had an above average carry success rate (45%). He didn’t have a carry longer than 21 yards and only broke 21 tackles on 238 carries, but he’s a consistently solid lead back.

Originally a 4th round pick by the Dolphins in 2012, Miller has averaged 219 carries per season in the past 5 seasons, 3 with the Dolphins and the last 2 with the Texans, and he has averaged 4.25 yards per carry and 26 touchdowns per season. He’s not a great pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 35.6 catches per season, including 36 last season, and has earned a positive overall grade on PFF in all 5 seasons. Still only in his age 27 season, Miller has only missed 5 games with injury in his career and should continue running well for at least another couple seasons.

The Texans added Dont’a Foreman in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft as insurance and he saw a significant role as the #2 running back as a rookie, but he tore his achilles in November, ending his season after 10 games. He averaged 7.8 carries per game in those 10 games, which would be 125 carries over the course of the season, and he averaged 4.19 yards per carry on those carries, but the injury is obviously a major complication in his development. He might miss the entire off-season and is questionable at best for week 1. Even if he returns for the start of the season, he could easily not be 100%.

Miller played 68.7% of the snaps in 16 games last season and will likely see a significant share of the snaps again. Not only is Foreman coming off the injury, but he doesn’t do much on passing downs and their only other experienced running back is 3rd string back Alfred Blue, a 2014 6th round pick who has averaged just 3.64 yards per carry on 523 carries in 4 seasons in the league and re-signed for the minimum this off-season. This is a solid running back group overall and they should have more room to run with Deshaun Watson back from injury, as defenses will have to focus on him.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the offense played in Watson’s 6 starts, the Texans went just 3-3, as their defense had key injuries. Right as Will Fuller returned and this offense took off, the Texans lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season in a week 5 loss to the Chiefs. The Texans only had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, but the Texans arguably had the most impactful injuries of any team in the league, with Watson, Watt, and Mercilus all going down for the season.

From week 5 on, they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.67% rate, which would have been 30th in the NFL over 16 games. Between that and their offensive struggles down the stretch, it’s a bit of a surprise they were even able to win one of their final 9 games, beating an equally banged up Arizona team week 11.The Texans finished 4-12 last season, but could easily be a lot better in 2018 if they have better health.

Watt was obviously the biggest defensive loss, as he’s a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. From 2012-2015, Watt was the most dominant player in the NFL. He finished #1 overall among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons as PFF’s highest graded overall player, and anchored one of the top defenses in the league. He had a total of 67 sacks and a ridiculous 139 quarterback hits in 4 seasons, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and also played well against the run. However, since the end of the 2015 season, he’s had a groin surgery, two back surgeries, and a knee surgery and he’s played a total of just 8 games.

In 2016, he struggled even before going down, as he returned too early from off-season back surgery, but he was on his way to another dominant season in 2017 before breaking his knee. He didn’t have a sack, but had 5 hits and 10 hurries on 125 pass rush snaps and was PFF’s 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end through 4 weeks. He should still be in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but it’s fair to question if he’ll ever be as dominant as he once was. That being said, even if he’s at 90% of his peak, he’s still one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and his return will have a big impact on this defense.

In his absence, nose tackle DJ Reader actually led this defensive line in snaps, despite only playing 58.4% of the snaps in 14 games. Reader played well, finishing 16th among defensive tackles. The 6-3 335 pounder is primarily a run stuffer, but he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher in limited action. He has 2 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 434 pass rush snaps in 2 seasons in the league. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Reader could play a larger role even with Watt coming back, as none of their other defensive linemen stood out in Watt’s absence.

Christian Covington was their only other defensive lineman who played well last season with Watt out and he played just 166 snaps in 7 games before going down for the season with a torn bicep. A 6th round pick in 2015, Covington earned negative grades on 170 snaps and 415 snaps respectively in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was a dominant run stuffer in limited action last season, finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stuffing grade despite the limited action. He’s inexperienced and a projection to a larger role, but he should be the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line, at least in base packages.

Second year lineman Carlos Watkins should also have a significant role as a rotational player, even he doesn’t start. Watkins only played 328 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season, but he wasn’t bad and could be better in his 2nd season in the league. On a defensive line that doesn’t have much pass rush outside of Watt, Watkins could play a lot of snaps in sub packages as an interior rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback as a rookie, but did have 12 hurries on 188 pass rush snaps. That would leave Joel Heath and Brandon Dunn, bottom of the roster talents, competing for a rotational role. Watt’s return upgrades this defensive line significantly and, while they lack a 2nd interior pass rusher opposite him, they should be a stout defensive line against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Whitney Mercilus is not as big of a name of Watt, but his injury was a big loss for this defense too. Prior to last season, he finished in the top-6 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, totaling 19.5 sacks and 20 hits. The 2012 1st round pick got off to a slow start to his career, getting negative grades from PFF in his first 3 seasons, but he finally delivered on his potential in 2015 and 2016. He played just 203 snaps last season before tearing his pectoral, but he should be able to bounce back in his age 28 season. Unlike Watt, who has a significant injury history, Mercilus missed just 2 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season.

In Mercilus’ absence, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney was actually 2nd among linebackers in pass rush snaps with 229. Of those 229 snaps, 99 came as a traditional edge rusher, with coverage linebacker Eddie Pleasant taking his spot inside, while the other 130 came as a middle linebacker. McKinney looks like an edge rusher at 6-4 260 and has had some issues in coverage in his career, but he struggled mightily as a pass rusher, totaling just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 12 hurries.

With Mercilus coming back, he’ll likely be used more traditionally as an every down middle linebacker, but should still blitz somewhat frequently. A 2015 2nd round pick, McKinney is still only in his age 26 season and has earned a positive grade against the run in all 3 seasons in the league, with his best season against the run coming last season, when he finished 5th among middle linebackers on PFF in run grade. He isn’t great in coverage, but he’s adequate enough to play every down. The Texans locked him up this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension this off-season that makes him the 4th highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL.

Zach Cunningham will also play every down inside. A 2nd round rookie in 2017, Cunningham finished as PFF’s 16th ranked middle linebacker on 812 snaps, despite beginning the season as a reserve behind McKinney and veteran Brian Cushing. Cushing was limited to 163 snaps in 5 games by injury, suspension, and poor performance, so Cunningham took his job and ran with it. With Cushing no longer on the team, Cunningham is locked in as an every down player and could develop into one of the better middle linebackers in the league.

Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney will also continue playing every down in this linebacking corps, after playing 895 snaps in 2017. The 1st overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney came into the league with a massive upside, but his career got off to a rough start because he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee injuries as a rookie. He bounced back though, finishing in the top-9 among 3-4 outside linebackers in the 3 seasons since and missing just 5 total games with injury.

Over the past two seasons, he’s played 85.2% of the snaps in 30 games and totaled 15.5 sacks and 25 hits, while playing well against the run. Last season was the best of his career, as he finished 5th at his position and played all 16 games. Still only going into his age 25 season, Clowney has gotten better in every season in the league and could easily continue getting better. He did have off-season knee surgery, which isn’t ideal, but it’s not expected to sideline him for training camp.

Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Clowney could push to be the highest paid defensive player in the league. He has the upside to be worth it, though he needs to get more disciplined after being penalized 22 times in the past 2 seasons and he needs to keep staying on the field. Already making 12.306 million on his 5th year option, Clowney would likely be franchise tagged if they can’t reach a long-term agreement with him ahead of free agency next off-season.

Brennan Scarlett will likely remain the top reserve outside linebacker, although he played just 302 snaps in 11 games last season even with Mercilus out. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, Scarlett also struggled as a rookie on 113 snaps. He could be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie Duke Ejiofor, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Depth is a problem in this linebacking corps, but they have a strong starting 4 of every down players, as long as everyone is healthy.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Texans also had major issues in their secondary. In fact, even with the injuries to Watt and Mercilus, the Texans’ secondary still might have been their worst defensive unit. The Texans clearly saw it as a weakness too, as they signed Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu to deals worth 34 million over 4 years and 7 million over 1 year respectively and then used a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s safety Justin Reid. Safeties Andre Hal and Marcus Gilchrist started 16 games and 13 games respectively last season and both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus, but Gilchrist signed with the Raiders this off-season while Hal is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with lymphoma this off-season.

Mathieu played both slot cornerback and safety with the Cardinals in his first 5 seasons in the league, but the Texans were planning on playing him every down at safety even before Hal’s diagnosis. At one point, Mathieu looked like he was going to be one of the best slot defensive backs in the league, but he tore his left ACL after finishing 2nd among cornerbacks in 13 games as a rookie in 2013 and then tore his right ACL after finishing 1st among cornerbacks in 14 games in 2015. Mathieu also missed 6 games with a shoulder injury in 2016 and 3 games while working back from the ACL tear in 2014.

He played all 16 games for the first time in 5 seasons in the league last season, but he was not nearly the same player as he was at his peak, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, which led to the Cardinals releasing him rather than paying him 11 million non-guaranteed. Still only his age 26 season, Mathieu has some bounce back potential and could benefit from mostly playing in just one spot, but he’s undersized at 5-9 185 and may be breaking down physically. It’s unclear if he’ll ever be the same player he was in 2013 and 2015 again, but he should still be a solid starter at the very least for the Texans as long as he can stay on the field.

With Mathieu playing safety every down, fellow free agent acquisition Aaron Colvin will play the slot, where he played 565 of his 700 snaps in 2017 with the Jaguars. A 4th round pick in 2014 who fell in the draft because he was injured, Colvin played just 281 snaps as a rookie because of the injury, but he was about a league average starter in 15 starts in 2015 and then earned the first two positive coverage grades of his career in the past 2 seasons on the slot. At 8.5 million annually, he’d be the highest paid pure slot cornerback in the NFL, so he’ll probably get a shot outside as well.

Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph, and Kevin Johnson were their top-3 cornerbacks last season with 868 snaps, 746 snaps, and 579 snaps respectively, but Jackson is expected to move to safety this off-season, while both Joseph and Johnson earned negative grades from PFF in 2017. Jackson had a negative coverage grade last season, but he was PFF’s #1 ranked cornerback against the run, so it makes some sense that he’d get move to safety despite his lack of size at 5-10 190. Jackson has made 108 starts at cornerback in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2010, playing both outside and on the slot, and he has been about a league average starter, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and moving to safety could prolong his career. His primary competition for playing time will be 3rd round rookie Justin Reid.

Jackson moving to safety would leave Joseph and Johnson as the primary cornerbacks outside cornerbacks in sub packages and possibly the starters depending on how they use COlvin. Joseph was a capable starter for years, finishing above average in 9 straight seasons on PFF from 2008-2016 and making 14 starts over that time period, but he finished below average last season for the first time since his 2nd season in the league in 2007 and now is going into his age 34 season. He appears to be on the decline. Johnson, meanwhile, was a first round selection in 2015 and has yet to pan out. He was underwhelming on 817 snaps as a rookie and has missed 14 games with injury in the past 2 seasons. Going into his age 26 season, he still has upside, but he was PFF’s worst ranked cornerback in 2017 and may just end up being a bust.

If Jackson stays at safety, their only other real option at outside cornerback in sub packages besides Johnson and Joseph is free agent signing Johnson Bademosi. Bademosi was primarily signed for his special teams ability, but his contract is worth 6.25 million over 2 years, suggesting they expect him to compete for a role on defense as well. He’s made just 6 starts in his career, but they’ve all come in the past 2 seasons and he was not bad. The Texans could also move Jackson back to cornerback and start Reid at safety, but he could struggle as a rookie. This secondary is improved, but it’s still a weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense was incredible last season in the 4 games in which Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, and DeAndre Hopkins were healthy, but they’re unlikely to be as good over a 16 game season, even if all 3 of them stay healthy all season. Not only did we only see them together for 4 games, a very limited sample size that could prove to be a little fluky, but Watson is coming off of a major injury, their offensive line is still terrible, and they still lack pass catching options around than Fuller and Hopkins. The Texans also are unlikely to have as low of a drop rate as they did with Watson in the lineup in 2018, so Watson could struggle to complete more than 60% of his passes.

Accuracy isn’t everything for quarterbacks with mobility and big arms (Cam Newton comes to mind as a quarterback who has been successful without a high completion percentage), but even Newton has had an up and down career. You could look at several different 4-6 game stretches in his career and see an elite quarterback, but you could look at several other 4-6 games stretches in his career and see a low level starter at best. Watson flashed as a rookie, but I would pump the breaks about being too excited about him just yet. That’s not to say the Texans can’t be an above average offense this season, but I don’t know if they’re quite at the elite level they flashed last season.

The Texans should also be better defensively, with Watt and Mercilus returning and improvements in the secondary, though there’s some uncertainty about whether or not Watt can return to his peak form. They have the upside to be a Super Bowl contender if everything goes right and they should at least compete for the division title, even in a tougher than usual AFC South. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Texans should be better in 2018, after dealing with serious injury problems last season. They have the upside to be a contender if Watson bounces back from injury and proves his play last season was not a fluke and if JJ Watt returns to form, but those are two big ifs, especially the former, given that Watson won’t catch the league by surprise as much this season and is unlikely to have the same drop rate from his receivers. They still have issues on the offensive line and in the secondary that could keep them out of the post-season in suddenly strong AFC South.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC South

Detroit Lions 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at -3.29%, but they still won 9 games, largely because of their +10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis though, so the Lions won’t be able to count on that this season. Case in point, the Lions had a -1 turnover margin in 2016 with a similar roster. They also won 9 games in 2016, but only one of their wins came by more than a touchdown, they finished 28th in first down rate differential at -1.90%, and they didn’t beat a single playoff team. The Lions had trouble with tougher competition in 2017 as well, going 1-5 against teams that made the post-season.  

The Lions’ turnover margin could easily regress in 2018. Matt Stafford led all quarterbacks in dropped interceptions last season and their defense was able to force 32 takeaways (3rd in the NFL), despite a terrible overall season. Only the Jaguars and Ravens, much better defenses, had more takeaways. The Lions’ defense allowed a league high 37.48% first down rate, the biggest reason why the Lions ranked where they did in first down rate differential. Unless they play significantly better overall, they’re unlikely to have as many takeaways this season.

Their offense, on the other hand, was not bad last season, finishing 15th in first down rate at 34.18%. They were led by Matt Stafford, who, though he should have probably had more passes intercepted, still had a solid season overall. He completed 65.7% of his passes for a career high 7.87 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback. He’s made all 112 starts in the past 7 seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of those seasons, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 9th at his position.

The Lions have a new head coach in Matt Patricia, but he’s a defensive minded guy and he kept Jim Bob Cooter on to lead the offense, which is great news for Stafford, who has played arguably the best football of his career in 2 and a half seasons with Cooter, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 73 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. Still in the prime of his career in his age 30 season, Stafford should continue playing well in 2018 in a familiar system.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Lions would have been a much better offense last season, but they struggled mightily on the ground, averaging a league worst 3.36 yards per carry. Running the football was a problem for them in 2016 as well, when they ranked 27th in yards per carry. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick led the team with 165 carries and 84 carries respectively in 2017 and they averaged just 3.27 YPC and 3.40 YPC respectively. Riddick is a converted wide receiver with a 3.44 YPC average on 248 career carries and should only play on passing downs, while Abdullah is a 2015 2nd round pick who hasn’t panned out, averaging 3.83 yards per carry on 326 carries and playing just 32 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league.

The Lions were aggressive upgrading their running backs this off-season, signing veteran LeGarrette Blount to a fully guaranteed 1-year, 2 million dollar deal in free agency and trading up to select Kerryon Johnson with the 43rd overall pick in the 2nd round of the draft. With Riddick locked into a passing down role and Blount and Johnson locked into roster spots, Abdullah could easily not make this final roster. Even if he does make the final roster, he’s unlikely to have much of a role. Blount and Johnson will compete for early down work.

Blount is a proven runner, with 5,888 yards and 51 touchdowns on 1,341 carries (4.39 YPC) in 8 seasons in the league. He’s earned a positive running grade from PFF in 6 of those 8 seasons. He’s going into his age 32 season though and the younger Johnson (only 21 this summer) is a much more explosive runner. Blount still ran well while splitting carries last season, averaging 4.43 yards per carry, and he’ll likely open the season in a rotation with Johnson, but if Johnson runs well he could run away with the lead back job as the season goes on. Johnson is also a much more versatile player, as Blount has just 54 career catches in 116 career games. Johnson is still raw as a passing down player, but he can develop into a three down back long-term.

For now, Riddick will continue handling the vast majority of passing downs, a role he’s been successful in for 4 seasons. Over those 4 seasons, he’s averaged 55 catches per season for an average of 457 yards and 3.5 touchdowns, while earning a positive pass catching grade from PFF in all 4 seasons. Last season, he was PFF’s 6th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade. He’s not much of a runner, but he should continue having success in a passing down role and catch another 50-60 passes. He was the one thing about this running back group that was good last season, but the Lions should do a better job on earlier downs this season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Lions are also expecting to be better on the offensive line in 2018. They had three starters earn positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017, Graham Glasgow, TJ Lang, and Ricky Wagner, but Lang and Wagner were both limited to 13 starts by injury and they didn’t have another lineman who earned a positive grade, so they definitely had some problems upfront. Glasgow was their only offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season and he didn’t even make them all in the same place. He spent most of the season at left guard, but made 5 starts at center in place of an injured Travis Swanson. Swanson is no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 31st out of 38 eligible centers, so he won’t be missed.

The Lions used their first round pick, 20th overall, on Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow. Ragnow spent his final 2 seasons at Arkansas at center and played really well, but the Lions seem to prefer Glasgow at center, so Ragnow will begin his career at left guard. Ragnow played guard earlier in his collegiate career and at 6-5 312 he looks more like a guard than a center. Glasgow has good size too at 6-6 310, but the 2016 3rd round pick has been better at center (9 starts) than left guard (18 starts) thus far in his career. The Lions could always flip them at some point if they want. Glasgow struggled as a rookie, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a capable starter and Ragnow is unproven, but both have the upside to be above average starters and Ragnow should be a major upgrade on Swanson regardless of where he plays.

The Lions should also get more out of Lang and Wagner this season. They didn’t miss that much time last season, but they are arguably their two best offensive linemen, so they were definitely missed when they were out down the stretch. Offensive line was a major problem for them in their week 16 upset loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that ended their playoff hopes. The Lions signed Lang and Wagner to contracts worth 28.5 million over 3 years and 47.5 million over 5 years respectively last off-season, to replace Larry Warford at right guard and Riley Reiff at right tackle respectively, after both Warford and Reiff left as free agents.

When on the field last season, Lang was PFF’s 16th ranked guard, while Wagner ranked 11th among offensive tackles. Lang has made 104 starts in the past 7 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons, with his best seasons coming in 2014 (7th among guards on PFF), and 2015 (5th). He’s missed 6 games in the past 2 seasons and seems to be on the decline a little bit, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily remain an above average starting guard for at least another couple seasons.

Wagner, meanwhile, has made 58 starts in the past 4 seasons, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles in 3 of 4 seasons, with his one down season coming in 2015, when he dealt with a foot injury for most of the season. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, he’s one of the best right tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2018. When Wagner and Lang are both out there, they form a strong right side of the offensive line.

The Lions are also counting on a healthier year from left tackle Taylor Decker. Decker missed the first 8 games of last season after off-season shoulder surgery. In his absence, Greg Robinson and Brian Mihalik both made starts and both were horrendous, but Decker was not much better when he returned. He was much before the injury though, finishing as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle in 2016 as a rookie, after the Lions used the 16th overall pick in the first round on him. Now healthier, Decker is only going into his age 24 season, still has a high upside, and could have the best year of his career in 2018. He has a ton of bounce back potential. If this starting 5 can stay healthy, they could be one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As well as Stafford played, he did get a lot of help from his receiving corps. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both topped 1000 yards (61/1101/9 and 92/1003/5) respectively. They were the only wide receiver duo to both top 1000 yards last season and they joined Tyreek Hill/Travis Kelce and Brandin Cooks/Rob Gronkowski as the only teammates to both top 1000 yards receiving. Jones and Tate also complement each other well. Jones is a big outside receiver at 6-2 198 who ranked 1st in the NFL in yards per catch at 18.0 and 2nd in the NFL in average depth of target at 14.8, whereas Tate is built more like a running back at 5-10 202 and picked up 6.9 of his 10.9 yards per catch after the catch, while breaking a position leading 22 tackles.

Despite having fewer yards, Tate actually had the better year. He was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver, while Jones ranked 21st and he averaged 1.88 yards per route run, while Jones averaged 1.76. While Jones was an every down player outside, ranking 5th among wide receivers in snaps with 1005, Tate was more of a slot specialist, playing just 792 snaps on the season (76.1%), with 619 of them coming on the slot. A 2nd round pick by the Seahawks in 2010, Tate has earned positive grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons. He didn’t put up huge numbers early in his career on a run heavy Seattle offense, but he’s topped 90 catches in all 4 seasons in Detroit and has topped 1000 yards in 3 of 4. His age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but he also hasn’t missed a game since 2012, playing 80 out of 80 regular season games.

Jones, on the other hand, topped 1000 yards for the first time in his career last season. He’s been a consistently good receiver for a while too though, earning positive grades in 4 straight healthy seasons, though he did miss all of 2014 with an injury. Last season was the best season of his career and he might not be quite as good again in 2018, but he’s averaged a 58/890/8 slash line in his last 4 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game due to injury, so he should be a reliable outside option for them again in 2018, still only in his age 28 season.

With Tate primarily playing on the slot (121 routes run on the outside in 2017), young receivers Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones split snaps outside opposite Jones, playing 473 snaps and 398 snaps respectively. Both showed promise in limited action, posting slash lines of 28/477/3 (1.66 yards per route run) and 30/399/1 (1.49 yards per route run) respectively, but Golladay has the most upside long-term and could run away with other outside receiver job. Golladay is a 2017 3rd round pick with the tools to be an above average starter long-term, while Jones is a 2014 6th round pick who caught just 15 passes in 13 games (216 snaps) in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Golladay has breakout potential in this offense in his 2nd season in the league.

The Lions figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, as they have way more depth at wide receiver than tight end, where they lack a capable pass catcher. Eric Ebron was 3rd on the team with 53 catches, 574 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2017, but he was let go this off-season, owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed. The Lions also lost #2 tight end Darren Fells, a solid blocker who played about half the snaps and posted a 17/177/3 slash line.

The Lions didn’t do much to replace them, signing backup caliber talents Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo from the Seahawks and Falcons respectively. They were signed to deals worth 2.5 million over 1 year and 1.5 million over 1 year respectively. Both are 5-year veterans and are capable blockers, but Willson’s career high is 22 catches in a season and Toilolo’s career high is 31 catches in a season. Those career highs came way back in 2014 too, and they had just 15 catches and 12 catches respectively in 2017. The Lions won’t be able to rely on either for a big role in the passing game.

The same is true of Michael Roberts, a blocking specialist who played 220 snaps as the 3rd tight end as a 4th round rookie in 2017. He could have a bigger role in a wide open depth chart, but he caught just 4 passes as a rookie and was not much of a pass catching threat in college either. The 6-5 265 pounder is like a 6th offensive lineman and could continue to improve as a blocker, but he lacks the athleticism to be a receiving threat. Matt Stafford will have to rely heavily on his wide receivers and running back Theo Riddick, but they still have a lot of pass catching talent.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Lions had major problems on defense last season. Outside of takeaways, they had real trouble getting off the field all season, allowing the 2nd most first downs in the NFL with 350. On the defensive line, injuries were at least part of the problem. Kerry Hyder, their 2016 leader in sacks with 8, tore his achilles and went out for the year before the season even started, while top run stuffer Haloti Ngata suffered a torn biceps week 5 that ended his season after 145 snaps. Hyder actually wasn’t missed that much, as 2nd year defensive end Anthony Zettel had a mini-breakout year in his absence, while fellow starter Ezekiel Ansah bounced back off of a career worst 2016 season.

The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah had 22 sacks and 40 quarterback hits from 2014-2015 and ranked 8th and 14th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in those two seasons, but his sack total dropped to just 2 in 13 games in 2016, as he played most of the season through an ankle injury. He added 12 hits and 21 hurries and earned a positive pass rush grade overall, but he was not the same player the Lions were used to.

In 2017, he was more what they were used to. He only played 516 snaps in 14 games, but he had 12 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 320 pass rush snaps and played the run well. He finished as PFF’s 25th ranked 4-3 defensive end on the season, solid, although not as good as he’s been in the past. Unable to reach a favorable long-term deal with Ansah this off-season, the Lions gave him the 17.143 million dollar franchise tag to keep him for 2018.

The Lions will probably try to extend him long-term before the start of the season, but they may want to see him stay healthy in 2018 before committing top defensive lineman money to him long-term. His age is also a concern. He’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he should have another strong year, but he’ll be 30 next off-season, something the Lions need to take into account when trying to extend him.

Zettel, meanwhile, was just a 6th round pick in 2016 and played just 214 mediocre snaps as a rookie, but he led this defensive line in snaps with 752 last season. His sack total of 6.5 isn’t huge for someone who played as many snaps as he did and he earned a negative pass rush grade overall, but he added 5 hits and 31 hurries and did a great job stuffing the run. Overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 26th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’s a one-year wonder, but could continue playing well. With Hyder returning, they won’t need as much from him in 2018. Zettel may play primarily a base package role, with Hyder coming in as a pass rusher in sub packages.

Hyder and Zettel also both have the size at 6-2 275 and 6-4 270 respectively to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. New head coach Matt Patricia comes from New England where lining up defensive ends inside in sub packages was commonplace. They’d probably prefer keeping Ansah on the edge because he has very little experience on the interior, but Zettel and Hyder could be more effective as interior pass rushers and moving one inside would allow them to get their best pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Hyder is a mystery after the injury and he originally went undrafted back in 2016, but he burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie, totaling 8 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps and earning a positive pass rush grade from PFF. He’s far from a guarantee to pick up where he left off, but his return should help this defensive line, at least for depth purposes.

Hyder’s return will likely eat into the role of Cornelius Washington the most, as he played 487 snaps as the 3rd defensive end last season. He struggled though, as outside of Zettel, Ansah, and the injured Haloti Ngata, the Lions’ defensive linemen all earned negative grades last season. Washington wasn’t awful, but he’s never earned an above average overall grade for a season in 5 seasons in the league and last season was a career high in snaps.

At 6-4 290, Washington also has the size to rush the passer from the interior, but he probably won’t have a big role overall on a deeper defensive line. The Lions also have 4th round rookie Da’Shawn Hand in the mix for snaps, both inside and outside at 6-4 297, while Devon Kennard, a starting linebacker signed in free agency, has the ability to rush the passer off the edge at 6-4 256 and could see a significant role as a sub package edge rusher, in addition to being a base package linebacker.

While Hyder wasn’t missed that much at defensive end, Ngata was definitely missed at defensive tackle, as he was their only defensive tackle to earn an above average grade from PFF. In Ngata’s absence, A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence were the starters and they finished with 734 snaps and 661 snaps respectively. Neither player was bad, but both were underwhelming. Robinson was drafted in the 2nd round in 2016 and could have his best year yet in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, after being about a league average starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts in 32 games). Spence, meanwhile, is a career journeyman who was sent to the Dolphins this off-season for a late round pick with a new coaching staff coming in.

Spence’s direct replacement will be free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams, but I wouldn’t expect Williams to play as many snaps as Spence did, with defensive ends likely seeing more action inside this season. Williams isn’t really an upgrade on Spence. He struggled mightily as a starter in Denver before earning the first positive grade of his career on 349 snaps with the Titans last season. The Titans still let him go, rather than paying him 5 million guaranteed in 2018, so the Lions signed him to a 1-year deal worth 3.5 million. At 6-2 328, he’s a better fit for Matt Patricia’s scheme than the 6-1 307 pound Spence, even if he’s not a great player. He and the 6-4 322 pound Robinson will try to anchor the run in base packages with smaller defensive tackles and defensive ends seeing the majority of the snaps in passing situations.

Jeremiah Ledbetter is one of their smaller defensive tackles at 6-3 295. A 6th round rookie, Ledbetter was underwhelming on 349 snaps in 2017, but could see a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Da’Shawn Hand is also a smaller defensive tackle, although he may see some time at defensive end as well. Hand has the potential to be a steal in the 4th round and he has all the tools to be a long-term starter in this league, but he had an underwhelming college career after going to Alabama as the #5 ranked recruit in 2014 and comes into the league very raw. He may struggle to carve out a rookie year role on what should be a deeper defensive line as long as everyone is healthy.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

In the linebacking corps, the Lions are arguably worse than they were last season and they were not that good last season. Each of their top-3 linebackers earned a negative coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last season and their top-2 linebackers, Tahir Whitehead and Jarrad Davis, finished 73rd and 88th respectively among 90 linebackers in coverage grade. The reason they could be worse is they lost Whitehead in free agency. Whitehead had his issues in coverage, but was a great run stuffer, ranking 12th among linebackers in run stuffing grade, and he led this linebacking corps with 950 snaps.

On top of that, his replacement, free agent acquisition Christian Jones, is a major downgrade. Jones made 31 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, after they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2014, but he earned negative grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finished last season as PFF’s 45th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible, playing inside in Chicago’s 3-4 defense. He was only signed for 6.35 million over 2 seasons, but could have close to an every down role at outside linebacker in the Lions’ 4-3 defense, for lack of a better option. He could struggle mightily in such a large role, considering he’s played just 57.7% of the snaps in 63 games in his career. His primary competition is 2017 4th round pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who flashed on 239 snaps as a rookie. He’s probably their best coverage linebacker by default, but he’s undersized at 6-0 230 and unproven in a larger role.

One reason the Lions might not be worse in the linebacking corps is middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, a 2017 1st round pick who could be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league. Davis played 85.8% of the snaps in 14 starts as a rookie and played the run pretty well, but had major issues in coverage and finished as PFF’s 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll be better in 2018, but he still has a high upside and could develop into a capable every down player long-term.

The Lions also added ex-Giants linebacker Devon Kennard in free agency, which is an upgrade at the 3rd linebacker spot. Free agent departure Paul Worrilow only played 272 snaps in 12 games (8 starts) in that role last season, but Kennard’s 3-year, 17.25 million dollar deal suggests he’ll have a much bigger role. In addition to starting as the third linebackers in base packages, he figures to rotate as an edge rusher in sub packages, similar to the role he played with the Giants.

A 5th round pick in 2014, Kennard has earned a positive run stuffing grade in all 4 seasons in the league, though he’s earned just one positive pass rush grade (2014). On 487 career pass rush snaps, he has 9.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 28 hurries. Last season, he had a career high 191 pass rush snaps and accumulated 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 6 hurries. He’s a decent addition, but he won’t boost this linebacking corps that much as he’s just a base package linebackers. Unless either of their second year linebackers (Davis and Reeves-Maybin) takes a big step forward, this could be one of the worst sub package linebacking corps in the NFL.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Lions made some changes in the secondary as well. Veteran cornerback DJ Hayden, who played 488 snaps last season, is no longer with the team, while Quandre Diggs is moving full-time to safety after leading the team in slot snaps in each of the last 3 seasons (463 slot snaps last season). Neither cornerback played all that well last season though, so it won’t be hard for their replacements to be better. Holdovers Nevin Lawson and Teez Tabor could play bigger roles, while veteran DeShawn Shead was added in free agency on a one-year, 3.35 million dollar deal.

Lawson and Shead both topped 900 snaps and earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2016 (924 snaps and 918 snaps respectively), but that was not the case in 2017. Lawson struggled mightily and was limited to 555 snaps in 15 games as a result, while Shead didn’t play a defensive snap as he was working his way back from a January 2017 torn ACL. Both players are also one year wonders, as Lawson has finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, while Shead struggled in 2015, finishing 87th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on 520 snaps in the only other significant action of his career, aside from 2016.

Tabor played just 190 snaps last season and did very little of note, but he may have the best shot at locking down the #2 cornerback job opposite Darius Slay. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Tabor has more upside than either Lawson or Shead. None of three have any real slot experience, but Tabor played 103 of his 190 snaps there last season and would be a natural fit on the slot because his primary weakness is his long speed. He has the clearest path to a job, but it could be close to a wide open competition. The Lions also used a 3rd round pick on the University of Louisiana’s Tracy Walker and he has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety at 6-1 206, though he comes into the league very raw and might not play much as a rookie.

Slay remains locked in as the #1 cornerback and is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Slay has started all 61 games he’s played in the past 4 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finishing in the top-15 in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 8th among cornerbacks on PFF and led the NFL with 8 interceptions. That number will likely come down, as he had just 6 career interceptions going into 2017, but he’s a legitimate #1 cornerback nonetheless and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season.

As mentioned, Diggs has moved to safety after spending most of his 3-year career as a slot cornerback, where he was about league average in coverage. He started the final 5 games of last season at safety with Tavon Wilson out with a shoulder injury, so he has some experience at his new position, but he didn’t play all that well and is a bit undersized at 5-9 200. He only played 43 slot snaps in those 5 games, though he could conceivably still play a large role on the slot in 2018 if none of their cornerbacks can lock down the slot job.

Wilson returns after shoulder surgery, so the Lions could regularly use 3-safety looks in sub packages with Diggs on the slot. Wilson struggled in 2017 before the injury, finishing 74th out of 89 eligible safeties, and he had just 18 career starts in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he earned positive grades in each of those 5 seasons, after going in the 2nd round in 2012, and was PFF’s 16th ranked safety in 14 starts in 2016. Still only in his age 28 season, he has bounce back potential, but may be best in a situational role like he played in to begin his career.

Veteran Glover Quin remains as the other starter and will once again play every down. He’s started 144 of 144 games in the past 9 seasons, playing 97.1% of the snaps. His age is becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s been incredibly durable and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 4th among safeties on PFF. He also finished 4th among safeties in 2014 and 11th among safeties in 2013, and he has earned a positive grade in 7 of 9 seasons in his career. He probably won’t be quite as good in 2018 as he was in 2017, but he should remain a solid starter at least another couple seasons. He and Slay lead a secondary that needs help from other players in 2018.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Lions have gone 9-7 in each of the past 2 seasons, but have not been as record as their record suggested in either season. Matt Stafford leads a good passing game, but they haven’t had the running game or defense to complement it. They could be better in both aspects in 2018, but that might not necessarily show up in the win/loss column, especially in the tough NFC. The Lions are squarely behind both the Vikings and the Packers in the NFC North and it will be tough for them to lock down one of the wild card spots. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Lions’ path to the post-season got even tougher when the Raiders traded Khalil Mack to the Bears. With Rodgers returning to the Packers, this is arguably the toughest division in football and the Lions look likely to finish in last, even if they have a solid season.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC North

Green Bay Packers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers started last season 4-1 and looked on their way to another year contending for the Super Bowl, but Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in week 6 against Minnesota, which effectively ended their season. Through 5 games, the Packers picked up first downs at a 41.19% rate, 2nd in the NFL at the time and best in the NFL if they had done it over the entire season. Rodgers completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in those 5 games and ranked as Pro Football Focus #4 quarterback through 5 weeks.

The rest of the way, the Packers moved the chains at a mere 31.42% rate, which would have been 25th in the NFL over the whole season. Backup Brett Hundley was a major disappointment, completing 60.8% of his passes for an average of just 5.81 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. Rodgers returned week 15, but was not at 100% in a season ending loss in Carolina and then was shut down for the season the following week, with the Packers eliminated from the post-season. Hundley then started the final 2 weeks of the season and the Packers finished at 7-9, missing the post-season for the first time since Rodgers’ first season as a starter in 2008.

The Packers weren’t even as good as that suggests, as they went 3-0 in games that went to overtime, 6-2 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -2.02%. Their defense was part of the problem, as they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.55% rate, 3rd highest in the NFL, but if Rodgers were healthy all season they likely still would have made the post-season, despite their defensive issues.

Whether or not they bounce back in 2018 is all dependant on Rodgers’ health. In 142 career starts since 2008, Rodgers has completed 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 312 touchdowns, and 77 interceptions, while adding 2,623 yards and 25 touchdowns on 514 carries (5.10 YPC). He has the highest QB rating of any quarterback in the NFL over that time period at 104.2 and the highest career QB rating all-time. On PFF, he finished in the top-8 in quarterbacks in his first 9 seasons as a starter from 2008-2016, prior to last season.

The concern isn’t just that he’s coming off of a broken collarbone, but he also broke the other collarbone back in 2013 and he’s now going into his age 35 season. We’ve seen talented quarterbacks continue playing well into their late 30s, but Rodgers takes more punishment than the average quarterback because he takes off and runs about 58 times per 16 games. Last year’s collarbone injury was even more serious than the 2013 injury because it was to his throwing shoulder and he did not remotely look right in his return in Carolina.

Rodgers should have the kind of season we’ve come to expect from him again in 2018, but there’s a little bit more uncertainty with him going into this season than normal. His backup situation is also still a concern. A 5th round pick in 2015, Hundley at one time looked like one of the more promising backups in the league because of how well he performed in the pre-season, but he was exposed in his first extended regular season starting experience. The Packers brought in DeShone Kizer from the Browns this off-season to provide competition for Hundley.

Kizer was a 2nd round choice of the Browns in 2017, but he was horrendous in 15 rookie year starts, completing 53.6% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s worst ranked quarterback, so the Browns replaced him with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield and sent him to the Packers for defensive back Damarious Randall and a swap of mid round picks. Kizer is still young, going into his age 22 season, and could really benefit from a couple years on the bench developing behind Aaron Rodgers, but he could easily struggle again if pressed into action in 2018. The Packers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Even though the Rodgers injury was the main reason why the Packers missed the post-season last season, they still had other issues and decided to basically clean house personnel wise this off-season, after being arguably the most stable organization in the NFL behind the Patriots over the past decade. The Packers did not renew contracts for offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt and fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was the longest tenured coordinator in the NFL at 9 years.

They also removed Ted Thompson from the general manager role and promoted Brian Gutekunst to replace him. Thompson was once regarded as one of the top GMs in the league for building the Packers almost entirely through the draft, but their draft picks had not been as good in recent years and he was frequently criticized for not doing enough to improve the roster in free agency. Gutekunst seemed to have a different philosophy this off-season.

His most prominent move was letting go of Jordy Nelson, Rodgers’ long-time #1 receiver who had been with the Packers since they drafted him in 2008, and replacing him with free agent acquisition Jimmy Graham, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. That contract was bigger than any contract given to an outside free agent by Thompson in 13 seasons on the job and the fact that they released Nelson to free up the money to do it just shows the stark contrast in strategy. Thompson was always immensely loyal to players who had developed through the system.

It’s unclear if this new strategy will pan out though. Nelson had a very underwhelming 53/482/6 slash line last season and averaged 0.95 yards per route run on 506 routes (6th lowest in the NFL), but that was mostly because he was never able to get on the same page with Hundley. In the 4 games he played with Rodgers where both were healthy, he caught 19 passes for 230 yards and 6 touchdowns, a 76/920/24 slash line over 16 games, and he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on the season, despite the underwhelming statistical performance.

His age was becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he topped 1000 yards in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to last season and he was always Rodgers’ go to guy. Rodgers expressed dissatisfaction with some of the changes the Packers made this off-season and that he was not consulted on them, specifically getting rid of Nelson and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt. Nelson’s salary of 10.25 million might have been too much to pay, but it would have made more sense to come to an agreement with him on a new, cheaper deal than to let him go and bring in Graham instead.

A few years ago, Rodgers to Graham would have been one of the most deadly combinations in the league, but Graham is arguably just as washed up as Nelson is and the Packers made him the highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s only going into his age 32 season, but he suffered a torn patellar tendon in 2015, so he has a pretty significant injury history, and he’s coming off the first negatively graded season on PFF of his 8-year NFL career. He finished tied for 2nd in the NFL with 10 receiving touchdowns, so the 6-7 265 pounder was a threat around the goal line, but he also had just 57 catches for 520 yards on 98 targets (5.31 yards per target) and showed comparatively less explosiveness than we’ve seen from him in recent years.

Graham finished 3rd among tight ends on PFF as recently as 2016, when he put up a 65/923/6 slash line, so he has some bounce back potential and he’ll be an upgrade over Lance Kendricks, who led all Packer tight ends in snaps with 468 in 2017 and finished as PFF’s 63rd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible, but the Packers still overpaid a declining player. The Packers also added blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis in free agency. He’ll slot in as the #2 tight end and is like a 6th offensive lineman at 6-6 270, but he hasn’t topped 25 catches in a season since 2012 and is now going into his age 34 season, so he won’t be a factor in the passing game.

The Packers also gave a big contract to #1 receiver Davante Adams, signing him to a 4-year, 58 million dollar extension last December, before he was scheduled to hit free agency this off-season. Adams is now the 7th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, but he has a much better chance of being worth his contract than Graham. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Adams was a slow developer and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which he finished 118th among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF, but he developed into a capable starter in 2016, posting a 75/997/12 slash line and then took his game to a new level in his contract year in 2017.

Adams was Green Bay’s only pass catcher who was not affected by the switch to Hundley, as Adams caught 46 passes for 543 yards and 5 touchdowns in 8 games with Hundley and had a team leading 74/885/10 slash line on the season in just 14 games. He was also PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver and Green Bay’s only wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF on the season. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder as a top level receiver, but he doesn’t earn turn 26 until December and could keep getting better. Now the clear #1 target with Nelson gone, Adams could have a massive statistical year in 2018 if Rodgers stays healthy.

Randall Cobb remains as the #2 receiver. Like Jordy Nelson, he’s highly paid and coming off of an underwhelming season, but the Packers decided to keep him at a 9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Cobb is much younger than Nelson, only going into his age 28 season, but he’s also hasn’t topped 1000 yards in a season since 2014 and has averaged just a 68/697/5 slash line in 3 seasons since re-signing on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, as he had basically fallen to third on the depth chart the past 2 seasons with Adams emerging. With Nelson gone, Cobb should have a bigger role in 2018 and is young enough to still have a bounce back season, now in the contract year of that 4-year deal, but he’s been limited by nagging injuries and has been a middling receiver over the past 3 seasons.

With Nelson gone and Cobb going into the final year of his contract, the Packers used 3 draft picks on wide receivers, taking Missouri’s J’Mon Moore in the 4th round, South Florida’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the 5th round, and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown in the 6th round, but none of those players are likely to have much of an impact as a rookie. The Packers also used a 5th round pick on Trevor Davis in 2016 and DeAngelo Yancey in 2017, but Davis has played just 192 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Yancey spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad.

Instead, it’ll likely be 2016 undrafted free agent Geronimo Allison working as the 3rd receiver behind Adams and Cobb. Allison has been their 4th receiver in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 183 snaps as a rookie and 343 snaps last season. He hasn’t played all that well, but the Packers like him and he’s worked with the first team in 3-wide receiver sets all off-season. He might not put up huge numbers and could be pushed for playing time down the stretch if any of their other young receivers develop, but he’s likely to open the season as the 3rd receiver. This is not quite the same receiving corps Rodgers is used to having.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The isn’t the same offensive line Rodgers is used to having either. After losing left guard Josh Sitton two off-seasons ago and right guard TJ Lang last off-season, the Packers did not bring back replacement right guard Jahri Evans this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. The Packers also have a shaky situation at right tackle, where Bryan Bulaga is rehabbing from a November torn ACL. Bulaga also missed time with an ankle injury last season and played just 232 snaps all season.

In his place, the Packers started several different players, with Justin McCray leading the way with 6 starts. McCray also made a start at left tackle and 2 at left guard, but he struggled pretty much wherever he played. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible. McCray is a 2014 undrafted free agent who never played an offensive snap before last season, but the Packers still seem to like him and are expected to start him at right guard this season, in place of Evans. Despite his age, Evans was not bad last season, so McCray could be a serious downgrade.

Bulaga is expected to start week 1, but that’s not a guarantee. Not only is he coming off of the ACL tear and the ankle injury, but he’s had injury issues throughout his career. He’s made all 16 starts just once in 8 seasons in the league and has missed 43 games in his career. He’s only going into his age 29 season, but he may be falling apart physically. He’s also been really inconsistent in his career, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 16th in 2014, and 14th in 2016, but earning negative grades in his other seasons. He could have another strong season in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.

His backup is likely to be 2016 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs. Spriggs came into the league with a lot of upside and was projected by some to be a late first round pick, but he struggled mightily on 238 snaps as a rookie and then could not take advantage of Bulaga’s absence last season because he missed 9 games with injuries of his own. He did made 5 starts down the stretch last season, but he was once again underwhelming. One possibility if Spriggs performs well in practice would be starting him at right tackle and moving Bulaga to right guard, but, for now, it looks like McCray is locked in at right guard and they are shooting to have Bulaga back at right tackle for week 1.

At left guard, Lane Taylor is entering his 3rd season as the starter since taking over for Josh Sitton. He’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons, after making just 2 starts in his first 3 seasons with the Packers, with whom he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Taylor hasn’t been all that good, finishing slightly below average on PFF in both seasons, but the Packers like him enough to continue starting him. They gave him a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension last off-season, which is about the market rate for an average veteran starting guard.

Center Corey Linsley has started on this offensive line for 4 years, and was a key cog on this line during their dominant days, but he had a down year in 2017, finishing 27th among 38 eligible centers. A 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley earned positive grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-8 among centers in both 2014 and 2016. He missed 10 games from 2015-2016 though, and, while he did play all 16 games in 2017, he did not perform up to his usual standard. The Packers don’t seem to have any concerns about him long-term though, giving him a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar extension in December, keeping him off the open market as a free agent this off-season. He could easily have a bounce back season in 2018, still only in his age 27 season.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari was the only Green Bay offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF last season, although he played well enough to elevate this whole offensive line. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle, especially excelling in pass protection, allowing just 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits all season, though he did miss 4 games with injury. A 4th round pick in 2013, Bakhtiari struggled early in his career, but he’s gotten better every season, has 74 career starts under his belt, and has finished 2nd among offensive tackles in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 27 season, he is still in the prime of his career. With Joe Thomas retiring, he’s arguably the best left tackle in the NFL. He elevates an otherwise underwhelming offensive line.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Packers also struggled for consistency on the ground last season. They averaged 4.47 yards per carry, 5th in the NFL, but a lot of that is because of quarterback runs and they went through 3 different starting running backs over the course of the season. Ty Montgomery began the season as the starter, but was limited to 71 carries in 8 games by rib and wrist injuries. 5th round rookie Aaron Jones was the next man up and had 62 carries in 4 starts, but then he injured his knee and saw just 19 carries the rest of the way. 4th round rookie Jamaal Williams finished the season as the starter and totaled 153 carries on the season, most on the team. Montgomery and Jones are both back healthy, so the Packers will have close to a wide open competition for roles at running back. All three backs have their strengths, but they all have their weaknesses as well.

Jones had the highest YPC average last season and it wasn’t close, as he averaged 5.53 yards per carry on 81 carries, but he’s useless on passing downs, averaging 1.22 yards per target on 18 targets and struggling mightily as a pass protector, and he’s suspended for the first 2 games of the 2018 season after an off-season marijuana arrest. He also wasn’t as good as his rookie year YPC suggests, as he had a large chunk of his yardage on just a few carries. He totaled 182 yards on his 8 longest carries (40.6% of his total rushing yardage) and averaged just 3.64 yards per attempt on his other 73 carries. Undersized at 5-9 206, Jones might just be a good change of pace back long-term.

Williams was probably their most complete running back. He only averaged 3.63 yards per carry on 153 carries, but he was a very consistent runner. He only managed 1 carry longer than 15 yards all season, which kept his average down, but he ranked 14th in carry success rate at 48%, despite playing on a terrible offense, so, all things considered, he did a good job of keeping this offense on schedule. He also added a 25/262/2 slash line on 34 targets and held up as a pass protector. He lacks explosive top level speed at 6-0 213, but could be a strong chain mover on what should be a much better offense in 2018 with Rodgers.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is a converted wide receiver who is their best passing down option. The 2015 3rd round pick has averaged 4.93 yards per carry on 151 career carries, but he’s never topped 77 carries in a season and is unproven as a lead back. Last year, in his first real attempt at being a lead back, he averaged just 3.85 yards per carry and dealt with several injuries. With Williams and Jones showing promise in his absence, Montgomery is unlikely to reclaim the lead back job barring injuries to the other two and will likely spend 2018 as a situational backup, focusing on passing downs. The Packers have options at running back, but probably don’t have one running back who is going to run away with the job.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Even with Dom Capers gone, the Packers will remain a base 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. As bad as this defense was last season, they still had a strong defensive line, as most of their issues were in coverage. This season, they could be even better with the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency. A few years ago, Wilkerson was one of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 3rd, 2nd, and 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but then the Jets gave him a 5-year, 86 million dollar extension and he was never the same, seemingly losing all motivation after getting paid and frequently showing up late for practice.

After accumulating 38 sacks and 56 quarterback hits in 5 seasons on his rookie deal, he had just 8 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2 seasons on his extension, before being let go this off-season when the guaranteed money on his contract expired. The Jets ended up paying him 37 million for 2 years. The Packers, on the other hand, are getting him on a 1-year deal worth just 5 million with another 2.75 million available in incentives. Still only in his age 29 season, Wilkerson has bounce back potential if he’s motivated, which he should be, given that he’ll want to earn his incentives and get a big multi-year deal in free agency next off-season. He also reunites with Pettine, his defensive coordinator with the Jets in his first 2 seasons in the league, including his dominant 2012 season

Wilkerson will start on this base 3-man defensive line with Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels and rotate with them inside in sub packages. Clark and Daniels led this defensive line with 684 snaps and 629 snaps respectively in 2017 and were two of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 14th and 17th respectively among interior defensive linemen on PFF. Clark is a one-year wonder, as he only played 332 snaps as a rookie in 2016, but he’s a former first round pick who is still only going into his age 23 season, so he could easily develop into one of the top defensive linemen in the league. The 6-3 317 pounder plays nose tackle in base packages and also added 4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and 22 hurries on 344 pass rush snaps.

Daniels, on the other hand, is much more proven, finishing in the top-7 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 5 seasons as a starter, since the 2012 4th round pick first entered the starting lineup in 2013. The 6-0 305 pounder is more of a pass rusher than Clark, totaling 25 sacks and 36 hits in those 5 seasons, but he’s also a good run stuffer as well. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing well in 2018. He missed 2 games with injury last season, but those were the first games he missed since his rookie season.

Dean Lowry was the 3rd starter last season, but he only played 493 snaps and primarily played on run snaps. The 2016 4th round pick hasn’t gotten much pass rush in 2 seasons in the league, with 4 sacks, 1 hit, and 26 hurries on 322 pass rush snaps, but he’s developed into an above average run stuffer. He’ll fit in well as a situational reserve. The Packers also have 2017 3rd round pick Montravius Adams. He played just 65 snaps as a rookie, but could easily have a bigger role as a reserve in 2018. This is a very deep defensive line and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson could make them arguably the best 3-man defensive line in the league.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Packers don’t have quite the same depth at outside linebacker, where Clay Matthews and Nick Perry start as every down edge defenders. Matthews and Perry are coming off of strong seasons, but both are injury prone and they have little proven depth behind him them on the depth chart. 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell struggled as the 3rd outside linebacker last season, finishing 35th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 446 snaps, and he wasn’t much better in limited action (159 snaps) as a rookie either. He’ll be pushed for his role by 2017 4th round pick Vince Biegel, who flashed on 121 snaps as a rookie, after missing the first half of the year with a broken foot. Both Biegel and Fackrell have upside, but they are also unproven.

Matthews is a big name player, but the 8.5 sack, 11 quarterback hit season he had in 2017 has not been the recent norm for him. After 4 straight strong seasons to start his career from 2009-2012, totaling 42.5 sacks and 57 quarterback hits, Matthews finished below average on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons from 2013-2016, totaling 30 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. Injuries were a big part of the problem, as he missed 9 games and was limited in several others. Even in a bounce back year in 2017, he still missed a couple games with injury. He finished 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF last season, but, going into his age 32 season, with his recent injury history, he’s far from a guarantee to repeat that.

Perry has had even more injury problems. He’s missed 24 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never once played all 16 games in a season. As a result, the 2012 1st round pick took a while to develop, but, after 4 straight negative grades to begin his career, Perry has finished 9th and 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF in each of the past 2 seasons, totaling 18 sacks and 11 hits, while playing good run defense as well. He could continue playing well, but he’s also likely to miss time again with injury and, even though he’s only going into his age 28 season, he may break down quicker than a normal player because of all of the injuries he’s sustained.

Middle linebacker is where the Packers defense will be most different under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers liked using 3 or 4 safeties on the field at a time in sub packages, including one that plays around the line of scrimmage as a 2nd linebacker, Pettine prefers to let his linebackers handle most of the snaps at linebacker. Safeties Morgan Burnett (6-1 209) and Josh Jones (6-2 220) played 339 snaps and 358 snaps respectively at linebacker last season, but Burnett was allowed to leave as a free agent this off-season, while Jones is expected to be an every down safety in his 2nd season in the league.

Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan were their top-2 middle linebackers in terms of snaps played last season, with 978 and 506 respectively, but neither player is trustworthy in coverage. A 4th round pick in 2016, Martinez flashed as a run stuffer on 439 snaps as a rookie, but was exposed in coverage as an every down player (93.1% of the snaps in 16 starts) in 2017. He dominated against the run, finishing 4th among middle linebackers in run grade, but he finished 46th out of 52 eligible at his position in coverage grade.

Ryan, meanwhile, is 2015 4th round pick who earned the first positive coverage grade of his career in 2017. He hasn’t been tested much in coverage though, as he’s largely been a two-down player through 3 seasons in the league. Despite making the start in 27 of 43 career games, he’s played just 54.3% of the snaps in those 43 games and just 51.1% of the snaps last season in 14 games. He’s a capable run stuffer who has earned positive run stopping grades in each of his first three seasons in the league, but he could be overstretched in an every down role.

Given the issues Martinez and Ryan have in coverage, the Packers were smart to use a 3rd round pick on Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks. Burks is undersized at 6-3 233, but he’s incredibly athletic and capable of contributing immediately in the passing game. Expect him to earn a role in sub packages. Despite his youth, he’s their best option to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. This is a young linebacking corps, but there is upside here.

Grade: B

Secondary

As mentioned, the Packers frequently used 3 and 4 safeties in sub packages last season under Dom Capers. Not only did Burnett and Jones frequently line up as linebackers last season, but they also saw significant snaps as slot cornerbacks, playing 244 snaps and 86 snaps respectively. HaHa Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, and Josh Jones all saw significant snaps overall last season, playing 1,043 snaps, 730 snaps, and 724 snaps respectively. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also saw time, playing 289 snaps and 150 snaps respectively. In 2018, with Pettine as the defensive coordinator and Burnett gone, they figure to be a lot more traditional with their safeties, playing Jones and Clinton-Dix every down at safety.

Letting Burnett go this off-season not only signaled a shift in defensive style, but in front office approach. Burnett had been with the Packers for 8 years and was still a capable starter, but the Packers let him sign in Pittsburgh on a very reasonable 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal and used the money they saved elsewhere. Had Ted Thompson still been GM, they may have been more loyal to him. Burnett is getting up there in age and had missed time with injury in recent years and the Packers liked Jones and Clinton-Dix more as every down safeties, but Burnett was a versatile chess piece for this defense and will likely be missed.

Clinton-Dix has been an every down safety for the Packers for 3 seasons, topping 1000 snaps in all 3 years. A first round pick in 2014, Clinton-Dix has played all 64 games in 4 seasons in the league and has started every game since week 7 of his rookie season. He struggled a bit as a rookie, but has earned positive grades in each of the past 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2015, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. Only in his age 26 season, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him. He’ll make 5.957 million in the final year of his 5-year rookie deal this season and figures to get a raise from that on his next contract. They may extend him before the start of the season.

Jones, on the other hand, was not an every down safety last season, lining up all over the place. He also struggled, finishing 78th among 89 eligible safeties on the season, but the 2017 2nd round pick still has a high upside and could benefit from sticking to one position in his 2nd season in the league. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also return, but neither was all that impressive in their limited action last season, so Jones is likely locked in as the starter even if he continues to struggle.

Cornerback was the big weakness on this defense in 2017 and it became even more of a need with Burnett leaving and Jones focusing on safety every down rather than covering the slot. The Packers also lost their leader in cornerback snaps from last season, Damarious Randall, when they sent him to the Browns in the Deshone Kizer trade, though he struggled in coverage and probably won’t be missed much. The Packers bring back Davon House and Josh Hawkins, their #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps with 658 and 402 respectively, but they both struggled too, so the Packers were aggressive in adding cornerbacks this off-season.

The Packers signed veteran Tramon Williams to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency and then used first and second round picks on cornerbacks, taking Louisville’s Jaire Alexander 18th overall and Iowa’s Josh Jackson 45th overall. They also have last year’s 2nd round pick Kevin King set to play a larger role in his 2nd season in the league, after playing just 380 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued rookie season, and they have 2015 2nd round pick Quinten Rollins returning after missing the final 10 games of last season with an ankle injury. Hawkins is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has struggled on 410 career snaps, while House is a 7-year veteran journeyman who was guaranteed just 90K on the one-year deal he was re-signed to this off-season, so they’re likely competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster, now buried on a much deeper depth chart.

With so many new players in the mix, the Packers will likely have close to open competition, but Williams’ contract suggests he’s at least the favorite for one of the two starting jobs. A 2006 undrafted free agent, Williams actually spent 9 seasons in Green Bay from 2006-2014, before making stops in Cleveland and Arizona and returning this off-season. Williams has made 129 starts over the past 10 seasons and has been at least a capable starter in each season. His age is becoming a major concern, as he goes into his age 35 season, but he’s also coming off one of the better seasons of his career, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback on 666 snaps with the Cardinals last season. The Packers are hoping he can continue to at least be a capable starter.

The Packers’ other cornerback options are on the other end of the spectrum age wise, as Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Kevin King, and Quinten Rollins are going into their age 21, 22, 23, and 26 seasons respectively. Rollins is the veteran of the group, but he also has the least upside and is the least likely to earn a role on this defense. He was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and flashed on 334 snaps as a rookie, but he’s missed 15 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league and has not been the same player in the past 2 seasons, getting negative grades from PFF in both seasons. Even before his injury last season, he was just 4th on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if he doesn’t have a good off-season.

King is the only other cornerback that has an NFL experience, though he was underwhelming on 380 snaps in 9 games, while also missing time with a concussion and a shoulder injury. He still has a big upside though. The 33rd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, King could have easily been a first round selection and could take a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league if he can stay healthy and lock down a significant role. Alexander and Jackson also have big upsides, but they could be a bit raw as rookies and take a couple years to develop.

At the very least, this cornerback group is deeper and will be better prepared for injuries in 2018, but they could also be a lot better if one or two of their young players step up and Williams continues to play at a high level. At safety, losing Morgan Burnett hurts, but they could get a better year from second year player Josh Jones. The Packers will be counting on unproven young players in big roles in 2018, but they have a lot more upside than last year’s mediocre group. The Packers’ defense has the potential to be much better in 2018.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

Last season, the Packers were one of the worst teams in the league without Rodgers, as backup Brett Hundley struggled and their defense could not stop anymore. Their only 3 wins after Rodgers got hurt came by 7 points or fewer, with 2 of them coming in overtime. Rodgers returns this season, but he enters the season with more uncertainty than usual, given his age and injury history, and he doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast he did a few years ago. They should be better defensively, especially in coverage, and are one of the better teams in the NFL overall, but they play in a division with a loaded Minnesota team and they play in easily the tougher of the two conferences, so a playoff berth is not a guarantee for them. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: With a healthy Aaron Rodgers and an improved secondary, the Packers should be in the mix for a Super Bowl appearance, even in the tougher NFC.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North

Minnesota Vikings 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings have had quite a quarterback carousel the past few seasons. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick at the end of the first round in 2014 and he went 17-11 in 2 seasons at the helm of a run heavy offense, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, while adding another 4 scores on the ground. Just went it looked like he was going into a 3rd year breakout season, Bridgewater suffered a brutal leg injury in training camp in August 2016 and has basically missed the past two seasons.

After Bridgewater went down, the panicked Vikings traded a 2017 first round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford, who had just been benched for Carson Wentz. It was a risky move because they were paying a steep price for a quarterback who had less than a week to get ready for week 1, but it went pretty well. Bradford was just 7-8 in 15 starts, but that was in large part due to an injury plagued supporting cast. Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Bradford entered 2017 with a better supporting cast and had one of the better games of his career week 1 against the Saints, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he injured his knee the following week during practice and threw just 11 passes the rest of the way. With both Bridgewater and Bradford hurt, the Vikings turned to veteran journeyman Case Keenum, who they signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal last off-season. Undrafted in 2012, Keenum had made 24 career starts going into last season, but he had completed just 58.4% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions in his career.

Despite that, Keenum shockingly was one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season. In 14 starts, he completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while adding 160 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries. He went 11-3 and was so good that the Vikings stuck with him as their starter down the stretch even when Bridgewater and Bradford returned from injury. Keenum benefited from a defense that allowed him to frequently play with a lead (2nd in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 29.60%) and he had a strong supporting cast on offense, but Keenum deserves a lot of the credit for their strong season. He led an offense that finished 10th in the NFL in first down rate and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback.

This off-season, Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum all hit free agency, giving the Vikings a tough choice. With among the most cap space in the NFL going into the off-season, the Vikings decided not to choose any of their quarterbacks and instead signed ex-Redskins starter Kirk Cousins to the first fully guaranteed deal in NFL history, worth 84 million over 3 seasons. The structure of the contract made headlines, but the Vikings undoubtedly saved some money on an annual basis by fully guaranteeing the deal and 3 years guaranteed is pretty standard for top quarterback contracts anyway, as quarterbacks are not as inconsistent year-to-year and don’t get injured as often as other positions. Matt Ryan was signed to an extension this off-season that guarantees him 94.5 million in the first 3 years and 117.5 million in the first 4 years, so, by comparison, the Vikings made a shrewd signing.

Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum all had upside, but Cousins is a much safer option. While Keenum was a one-year wonder and both Bradford and Bridgewater were injury risks, Cousins has been a solid starter for 3 seasons and hasn’t missed a game due to injury in those seasons. He completed 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in those 3 seasons and now gets to play on the best team he’s been on in his career. Proven starting quarterbacks with no injury history in the prime of their career rarely hit free agency, but the Redskins were unwilling to give him top quarterback money on a long-term deal and backed themselves into a corner after franchise tagging him twice. Cousins might not be an upgrade on what Keenum did last season, but he’s more reliable and should be able to keep this team in contention.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

With a strong defense leading the way, the Vikings were able to run more of a run heavy offense, which made Keenum’s life much easier. They had the 12th fewest pass attempts per game at 32.9 and the 2nd most rush attempts at 31.3. Even with Cousins coming in, the Vikings probably aren’t going to become a 35-40 pass attempt per game offense and figure to still run the ball regularly, as long as the defense continues playing at a high level.

The Vikings also get Dalvin Cook back from injury, after he missed the final 12 games of last season with a torn ACL, which is even more reason for them to want to run the ball. A 2nd round rookie, Cook burst onto the scene in 4 games as a rookie, averaging 4.78 yards per carry on 74 carries. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of run grade when he went down. The injury is obviously a setback, but he’s still a young talented back with a bright future. He could have easily gone in the first round if not for concerns about his underwhelming athletic measurements, but he plays much better than he tests.

In his absence, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon split carries, carrying the ball 216 times and 150 times respectively. Neither had an impressive average, averaging 3.90 YPC and 3.80 YPC respectively, but their offensive line deserves a lot of the blame, as both runners received positive grades for their run ability. McKinnon also added 51 catches and was PFF’s 7th ranked running back overall, while Murray was a useful goal line hammer, with 6 scores from inside 5 yards, 3rd most in the NFL.

McKinnon signed with the 49ers this off-season, but Murray remains. He’ll probably split carries with Cook early in the year as Cook works back from the injury, but if Cook returns to form he should be the clear feature back by the end of the season, leaving Murray as a change of pace back and possible goal line back. Murray has averaged just 4.11 yards per carry on 759 career carries and caught just 15 passes last season and has never earned a positive grade from PFF for his pass catching ability, but he runs with good power and has 20 scores in the last 2 seasons combined. Cook should play the majority of the passing downs as well, though he’s not a great receiver. His return makes this a better backfield, even with McKinnon gone.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

In addition to a strong defense making his life easier, Case Keenum had arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last season. They finished as Pro Football Focus 10th and 11th ranked wide receivers respectively. Theilen was the higher rated player and had the better stats, with 91 catches (8th in the NFL) for 1276 yards (5th in the NFL) and 4 touchdowns, but Diggs put up a 64/849/8 slash line in 14 games and could have had a 1000+ yard year if he stayed healthy all season, despite being the clear #2 receiver in terms of targets. Theilen received 143 targets, while Diggs received just 95.

Diggs was also more efficient on a per target basis, as he finished 7th in the NFL with a 119.1 QB rating when targeted. Theilen still had an impressive QB rating when targeted, 98.7, but not nearly as good as Diggs. Combined, Minnesota quarterbacks completed 65.1% of their passes for an average of 8.93 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when targeting Thielen and Diggs, a 106.7 QB rating. Cousins may prefer to throw to Diggs more and Theilen less, but he can’t really go wrong throwing to either if both continue playing like they did last season.

Thielen is a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level statistical receiver, as last season was his first season topping 1000 yards, but he also had a 69/967/5 slash line and finished as PFF’s 14th ranked wide receiver on 788 snaps in 2016. Diggs, meanwhile, has never had a 1000 yard season, but, in addition to his strong 2017 season, he also finished 21st among wide receivers on 693 snaps in 2016 and could have topped 1000 yards in each of the past 2 seasons if he stayed healthy. He’s never played more than 14 games in a season in 3 years in the league, which is the one major concern with him. Only in his age 25 season, Diggs could easily have his first 1000+ yard season in 2018 if he can stay healthy. Thielen, meanwhile, is in his age 28 season and also in the prime of his career. Both should continue playing at a high level.

The Vikings locked Thielen up long-term on a 4-year, 19.246 million dollar extension last off-season that now looks like a bargain. They won’t be able to get that same value with Diggs, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, but they are fully expected to try to re-sign him regardless. He could push for #1 wide receiver money, upwards of 13+ million annually. His best football is likely still ahead of him.

The Vikings also have a talented pass catching tight end in Kyle Rudolph. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s earned a positive pass catching grade from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He didn’t put up huge pass catching numbers in 2017, posting a 57/532/8 slash line, but he wasn’t needed in a big role with Thielen and Diggs as the top-2 guys. He received just 81 targets. In 2016, he had 132 targets and posted a 83/840/7 slash line.

He should be closer to his 2017 production than his 2016 production this season, still as the 3rd guy behind Diggs and Thielen, but Kirk Cousins was a pretty tight end friendly quarterback in Washington and Rudolph is always a threat around the goal line (20 touchdowns in the past 3 seasons). Rudolph will be backed up by blocking specialist David Morgan, who was PFF’s 3rd ranked run blocking tight end last season on 392 snaps. He barely plays in the passing game, but the 6-4 265 pounder is like a 6th offensive lineman and complements Rudolph well.

The Vikings didn’t get much production out of their wide receivers behind Diggs and Thielen last season, but that could change in 2018 with the addition of veteran Kendall Wright in free agency on a 1-year deal. A first round pick of the Titans back in 2012, Wright never became the player it looked like he would after he posted a 94/1079/2 slash line in 2013, but he has still been a capable rotational receiver since then, grading out about average on about half the snaps. Injuries cost him 13 games from 2014-2016, but he played in all 16 games in 2017 and led the Bears in receiving with a 59/614/1 slash line.

Wright probably won’t have as big of a role in Minnesota as he did in a much less crowded receiving corps in Chicago (91 targets), but he should still play a role in this offense and he should still be an upgrade over incumbent #3 receiver Laquon Treadwell, who finished 103rd out of 118 eligible wide receivers on 499 snaps last season. Treadwell caught just 20 passes for 200 yards and averaged just 0.67 yards per route run. He was the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so the Vikings will keep giving him chances, especially since he’s still only in his age 23 season, but he barely played as a rookie and struggled mightily in his 2nd season and will open his 3rd season as the 4th wide receiver on the depth chart at best. This is one of the better receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Vikings’ offensive line struggled to run block last season. They were not as bad in pass protection and they were better than they were in pass protection in 2016, but they had issues in pass protection as well. They only allowed 27 sacks on the season, but that was largely because Keenum was so good under pressure, only taking a sack on 10.7% of his pressured snaps (2nd lowest in the NFL) and completing 55.7% of his passes under pressure (2nd highest in the NFL).

Kirk Cousins has some other advantages over Keenum, but he’s not as good at avoiding the rush as Keenum was last season. He completed just 50.0% of passes under pressure and took a sack on 18.5% of his pressured dropbacks. Those are solid numbers, but Keenum was one of the best in the league under pressure last season. The Vikings also lost arguably their best offensive linemen this off-season, with veteran right guard Joe Berger retiring ahead of his age 36 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked guard last season in 15 starts, so he’ll be missed.

The Vikings made upgrading the offensive line a priority last off-season, after a horrendous 2016 season upfront, adding Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers through free agency and Pat Elflein through the draft. Remmers was the only one who panned out though, grading out about average on PFF, after signing a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal, but even he missed 5 games with injury. While he was out, he was replaced by Rashod Hill, a 2016 undrafted free agent who made the first 9 starts of his career in 2017. Hill wasn’t that good, finishing as PFF’s 54th ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible, but the Vikings liked him enough that they moved Remmers inside to guard down the stretch and kept Hill in the starting lineup at right tackle.

Remmers has made 34 starts at right tackle over the past 4 seasons (in addition to 13 at left tackle) and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons at right tackle, but, with Berger retiring, Remmers appears to be moving inside to guard permanently. He’s a projection to the new role, but it could end up being a good thing for him in the long run as interior offensive linemen tend to age a little bit better. For now, Remmers is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and should be a capable starter again in 2018, assuming he can get used to the new position. Hill, meanwhile, will compete for 2nd round rookie Brian O’Neill for the starting right tackle job. The Vikings still like Hill, so he’s probably the week 1 favorite for the job, but O’Neill could end up making starts down the stretch if Hill continues to have issues.

Left tackle Riley Reiff was not as good in his first season in Minnesota, but he’ll get another shot, for lack of a better option. After signing the ex-Detroit Lion to a 5-year, 58.75 million dollar deal last off-season, Reiff finished the 2017 season as PFF’s 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible. He’s been better in the past though, as he was about a league average starter in 5 seasons (69 starts) with the Lions. His age is becoming a small concern in his age 30 season, but he definitely has bounce back potential. Though he only missed 1 start, injuries to his back, knee, and ankle may have contributed to his disappointing season.

Rookie Pat Elflein also struggled in his first season in Minnesota, as the 3rd round pick finished as PFF’s 36th ranked center out of 38 eligible, especially struggling as a run blocker. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league and the Vikings value his intelligence at the center position, but he’s no guarantee to ever develop into a solid blocker. The same is true of left guard Nick Easton, who returns after finishing as PFF’s 65th ranked guard out of 80 eligible in 2017. Undrafted in 2015, Easton has made 17 career starts and appears locked in as the week 1 starter in 2018, with little competition on the roster, but he’s struggled mightily in his career and could easily struggle again. If the Vikings have offensive issues this season, their offensive line will likely be the culprit.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

The Vikings had a really strong defense last season, the biggest reason why they did went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship. They benefited from barely having any injuries though. They had some major injuries on offense, Bradford, Cook, etc., but on defense they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. That’s unlikely to be the case again in 2018. The good news is the Vikings are bringing back almost every key player from last year’s defense. The only major change is at defensive tackle, as Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen, 673 snaps and 384 snaps respectively, left the team as free agents this off-season and Sheldon Richardson was added on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal to replace them

Johnson was a capable interior pass rusher and Stephen was a solid run stuffer, but Richardson is an upgrade over both and more capable of playing every down. He played “only” 654 snaps last season in his one season in Seattle, but that’s out of the ordinary, as he’s played 77.1% of the snaps in 73 games in 5 seasons in the league. A good run stuffer and pass rusher, Richardson has finished in the top-21 at his position all 5 seasons and has totaled 19 sacks and 42 quarterback hits. The former first round pick is also still in his prime in his age 28 season. He’s had disciplinary problems in the past, but he has plenty of reason to be at his best after just getting a one-year deal in free agency. With a strong season, he may find more favorable multi-year deals next off-season. He can also earn up to another 3 million in incentives.

Richardson will start next to Linval Joseph, who is also an every down player (663 snaps in 16 games last season). A 2nd round pick in 2010, Joseph has made 106 starts in the past 7 seasons and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons, but he’s been especially good in recent years, finishing 5th, 8th, and 8th among defensive tackles on PFF in the past 3 seasons respectively. The 6-4 329 pounder just looks like a big run stuffer, but he can get to the quarterback as well. He has 20 sacks and 43 hits in the past 7 seasons, with 8 sacks and 20 hits coming in the past 3 seasons.

Originally signed by the Vikings to a bargain 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal that he significantly outplayed, the Vikings gave him a 4-year, 50.35 million dollar extension last off-season, despite him having two years left on his contract. Originally, 2018 would have been his contract year, but he’s now under team control through 2022. Going into his age 30 season, he could start declining, but he could still easily have another strong season in 2018.

At defensive end, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter return as the starters, after playing 790 snaps in 15 games and 772 snaps in 16 games respectively last season. Both have also recently received big extensions. Like Joseph, Griffen also had 2 years left on his previous deal when he was extended last off-season, but he significantly outplayed his previous 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal and, much like with Joseph, the Vikings wanted to make a show of faith in him long-term. They gave him 58 million on a 4-year extension that takes him through 2022.

He’s finished with a positive grade in all 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-18 among 4-3 defensive ends in each of the past 5 seasons. His age is becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he’s also coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 7th among 4-3 defensive ends and putting up 13 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. In 4 seasons as a starter, he has 43.5 sacks and 53 quarterback hits in 62 games and also plays the run well. He should have another strong season in 2018.

Hunter, meanwhile, is still very young, only going into his age 24 season. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hunter’s 5-year, 72 million dollar extension is more about what they think he can do long-term than what he’s done in the past, but he’s had a strong start to his career as well, despite his youth. He’s seen increased playing time in all 3 seasons in the league, playing 42.4% of the snaps as a rookie in 2015, 58.1% of the snaps in 2016, and 77.6% of the snaps last season in 16 starts.

He was more efficient as a pure sub package player, totaling 18.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 55 hurries on 674 pass rush snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, earning positive grades in both seasons and finishing 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF in 2016. He still had a strong year as an every down player though, with 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 49 hurries on 503 pass rush snaps. He also had his best year against the run and finished as PFF’s 21st ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. His best play could still be ahead of him, so he could be one of the top defensive linemen in the league in a couple years. The Vikings were wise to lock him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Top reserve defensive end Brian Robison also returns, after playing 562 snaps last season. He was a solid player in his prime, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons and is now going into his age 35 season. He had to take a significant pay cut from 3.5 million to 1 million to stay on the roster this off-season and is expected to retire after the season. He could easily see his role scaled down in 2018.

The Vikings have arguably the best starting 4-man defensive line in the league, but their depth is suspect, with Robison at the end of the line and Shamar Stephen leaving as a free agent. Second year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson should have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, but the 4th round pick played just 41 snaps last season and is unproven. He doesn’t have much competition, so he’ll likely be their primary reserve defensive tackle unless he struggles this off-season.

The Vikings also have this year’s 4th round pick Jalyn Holmes. The 6-5 283 pounder is raw, but he has the size to line up both inside and outside, which could help him earn a rookie year role on a thin defensive line. He was just a rotational player on a good defensive line in college at Ohio State, but he has the athleticism to be a better professional player than college player. He’ll likely take a couple years to develop though. Even with their lack of depth, this is still a dominant overall unit.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Vikings also bring back their starters in the linebacking corps, including every down linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, who played 97.2% and 92.8% of the snaps respectively while making all 16 starts in 2017. Originally both were going into their contract years in 2018, but the Vikings locked up Kendricks on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal this off-season.

Kendricks has played 89.5% of the snaps in 45 games in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015, but this extension will make him the 4th highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL in terms of average annual salary and he’s only been about league average thus far in his career. Three down linebackers don’t grow on trees and he could still get better, only going into his age 26 season, but if he doesn’t, this contract will likely prove to be an overpay.

Barr, meanwhile, remains unsigned going into the final year of his rookie deal. Kirk Cousins, Riley Reiff, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes have all gotten big contracts in the past calendar year or so, while both Stefon Diggs and Sheldon Richardson are set to hit free agency next off-season along with Barr, so it’s possible that Barr ends up being the odd man out as the Vikings try to fit all their talent under the cap long-term.

The 9th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Barr has finished in the top-6 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, but he struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 29th out of 31 eligible at his position, and he’s a lot better against the run and as a blitzer than in coverage. His contract negotiations are also complicated by the fact that he’s set to make 12.306 million in 2018 in the 5th year of his rookie deal and probably won’t want to take a big pay cut on a long-term deal. He’s a solid linebacker who is still going into his age 26 season, so there are reasons why the Vikings would want to keep him, but I doubt they’re going to be willing to give him a massive multi-year contract.

The Vikings also have 2017 4th round pick Ben Gedeon as a potential internal replacement. Gedeon was the other starting outside linebacker in base packages last season and he played well when on the field, but he was limited to 244 snaps because the Vikings spent so much of last season in sub packages with 5+ defensive backs and just 2 linebackers. He’s unlikely to have a big role this season either, but he could be ready for an every down role in his 3rd season in the league in 2019 if Barr signs elsewhere next off-season. For now, this is a solid linebacking trio.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The reason the Vikings spent so much time in sub packages last season is because they’re very deep at cornerback. This season, they are even deeper, after using their first round pick (30th overall) on Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes. It was a surprise pick because cornerback was not a need, but the Vikings like taking defensive backs high, using first round picks in 2013 and 2015 on Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. It’s worked out so far, as Rhodes and Waynes are currently the starters, but it’s tough to see where Hughes fits in long-term. Waynes has two years left on his rookie deal and Rhodes just signed a 5-year, 70.1 million dollar extension last off-season that makes him the 4th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary and keeps under team control through 2022.

Rhodes shows flashes of being a top level cornerback deserving of that kind of money and he allowed just 54.8% completion last season, but he’s been inconsistent and penalty prone. He’s committed 44 penalties in 62 starts in the past 4 seasons as a starter and gets a lot of help from his pass rush. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback, actually the highest he’s finished for a season in his career. He’s earned positive grades in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and should have at least another solid season in 2018, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever clean up the penalties, now going into his age 28 season.

Waynes is also coming off the highest rated season of his career, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked cornerback in his 3rd season in the league. Last season was his first season as a starter (16 starts), but the former 11th overall pick played well in limited action in his first 2 seasons in the league as well (777 snaps combined). Only in his age 26 season, Waynes could continue getting better with more experience. Waynes’ salary will jump to 9.069 million in 2019 in the final year of his rookie deal and, with Hughes coming in and this team getting more expensive, it’s unclear what they plan to do with him long-term. They may try to extend him next off-season in order to keep him long-term and get his 2019 cap number down, but he won’t be cheap to keep long-term if he continues playing like he did last season.

For now, Hughes can only compete for the #3 cornerback job and he’ll face plenty of competition from Terence Newman and Mackenzie Alexander. Alexander was drafted in the 2nd round in 2016, another high pick used on a defensive back, but he’s been limited to 389 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have a clear path to a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league unless he can beat out Hughes and Newman. Hughes was a first round pick and Newman played well as the 3rd cornerback last season, so Alexander will have to have a strong off-season to beat them out.

Newman is an ageless wonder, now going into his age 40 season, making him the oldest defensive player in the NFL. Despite his age, he’s finished above average on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons and played 554 snaps last season, with 417 of them coming on the slot, where he allowed 0.91 yards per route run. His age makes him a major question mark going into 2018, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he had another solid season. He’ll probably have a smaller role in a deep cornerback group though and could even see some more snaps at safety.

There won’t be much room for him to play at safety though, as starters Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo return and are locked into their starting roles. Smith is arguably the best player on this entire defense and is probably the top safety in the entire league. He’s finished in the top-2 among safeties on PFF in 3 of the last 4 seasons, with the one exception coming in 2016, when he ranked 7th at his position through week 13, before being hobbled down the stretch by an ankle injury that required surgery last off-season. Injuries have been a problem for him in his career, as the 6-year veteran has missed 13 games, but he made all 16 starts last season and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, he should continue playing at an elite level in 2018.

Sendejo is also coming off the best season of his career, finishing 17th among safeties, but he’s not nearly the player Smith is and he’s unlikely to be as good again in 2018. Sendejo has 53 starts in the past 5 seasons, but he earned a negative grade from PFF in 3 of the previous 4 seasons prior to last season, with his one other positive season grade coming in a 149 snap 2014 season. His worst season came in 2015, when he finished 77th among 87 eligible safeties. Now going into his age 31 season, he’s highly unlikely to match what was easily the best season of his career last season. He could be pushed by Newman if he struggles, as this is a very deep secondary once again.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Kirk Cousins was the best quarterback option they could get this off-season, as he’s healthy, proven, and in the prime of his career, but it’s unclear if he’ll actually be an upgrade over how Case Keenum played last season. He could actually be worse than Keenum if the offensive line is going to be as bad as it looks like it’s going to be, as he doesn’t have Keenum’s elusiveness to avoid sacks. Their offensive skill position talent is even better than it was last season with Dalvin Cook returning from injury and Kendall Wright coming in as a free agent, but their offensive line issues could make them inconsistent on offense this season.

On defense, they’re still one of the best defenses in the league, but they’re highly unlikely to stay as healthy as they did last season, when they had almost no injuries. They still one of the top teams in the league, but they play in the much tougher NFC and will have to deal with Aaron Rodgers returning from injury in the division, after beating the Packers twice without him last season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Injuries have made an already shaky offensive line situation worse, as Nick Easton is out for the year, while Pat Elflein is still working back from off-season surgery. Their offensive skill position talent is as good as anyone’s and their defense is an elite unit when healthy, but they’re unlikely to be as healthy defensively as they were in 2017 and poor offensive line play could make their offense inconsistent.

Prediction: 10-6 2nd in NFC North

Chicago Bears 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Bears made two aggressive moves for quarterbacks, signing ex-Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon to a 3-year deal worth 45 million with 18.5 million guaranteed and trading 4 picks to move up one spot to grab North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Glennon ended up being money down the drain, as Glennon made 4 mediocre starts before being benched for Trubisky and then released this off-season. Glennon completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of just 5.95 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Trubisky wasn’t much better though, completing just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In fact, the Bears moved the chains at a mere 30.45% rate in Trubisky’s 12 starts, even worse than the 33.86% rate at which they picked up first downs in Glennon’s 4 starts. They finished with the highest 3 and out rate in the NFL at 29.7% and ran the 2nd fewest plays in the NFL (934). Trubisky can obviously get better and he has a high upside, but he drew mixed reviews coming out of college because of his limited experience, so he’s far from a sure thing to develop into a franchise quarterback.

The Bears followed the Jared Goff model this off-season to try to get the most out of Trubisky in his 2nd season, firing old school defensive minded coach John Fox and replacing him with a young offensive mind, 40 year old ex-Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, and then adding talent around Trubisky in free agency. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work, Nagy is not necessarily going to be as good of a head coach as Sean McVay and Goff had much more of a proven track record coming into the league than Trubisky, but at least they’re giving Trubisky every opportunity to succeed. With only veteran journeyman Chase Daniel behind him on the depth chart, Trubisky is their only quarterback option.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Trubisky’s rookie year struggles were not completely his fault, as he had little to work with in the passing game. Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, and Markus Wheaton were projected to be their top-3 wide receivers in 2017, but injuries limited them to a combined 5 catches. In their absence, the Bears tried numerous different combinations at wide receiver. Slot receiver Kendall Wright was the only Chicago wide receiver to play more than half the snaps, leading the way with 581 snaps on the season. He was also their only receiver to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and he led the team with 59 catches for 614 yards.

Wright is no longer with the team, but the Bears added Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller this off-season and they could easily be their top-3 receivers. Robinson was by far their biggest addition, coming over from the Jaguars on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal, and he should be locked in as the #1 target. He could have easily been franchise tagged by the Jaguars, but he missed all but week 1 last season with a torn ACL and the Jaguars proved to have pretty strong wide receiver depth in his absence, so they moved on from him and spent the money elsewhere.

Robinson was a risky signing, and not just because of the injury. In 2016, before the injury, he put up an 73/883/6 slash line, which is hardly what you expect out of a #1 receiver. He dealt with poor quarterback play, but the Jaguars had the 4th most pass attempts in the league that season and Robinson caught just 48.3% of his 151 targets (7th most in the NFL). He also finished just about average on PFF. That being said, it’s obvious why the Bears were willing to give him the money they gave him. Not only does he fill a massive need, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season and he showed his upside in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, when he put up a 80/1400/14 slash line and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver. He’s inconsistent and coming off of a major injury, but he comes with obvious upside.

Taylor Gabriel also comes over on a relatively big contract, signing a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal with 14 million guaranteed as a free agent coming over from the Atlanta Falcons. It’s unclear why he got that much money though. Undrafted in 2014, Gabriel was a part-time player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing just 47.9% of the snaps. He still had a couple decent seasons, posting a 36/621/1 slash line in 2014 and a 35/579/6 slash line in 2016, but he earned negative grades from PFF in his other 2 seasons and was actually released by his original team the Cleveland Browns ahead of final cuts in 2016. He bounced back in Atlanta, but was underwhelming with a 33/378/1 slash line in his contract year. He also doesn’t have traditional wide receiver size at 5-8 165.

Making that contract even more head-scratching is the fact that they were unwilling to match the 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal the Saints gave to restricted free agent Cameron Meredith this off-season, even though Meredith posted a 66/888/4 slash line in 2016, before missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL. He would have been a much better value than Gabriel. Markus Wheaton is also gone, so Kevin White is the lone holdover who could earn a role in this receiving corps. He’ll compete with Gabriel and 2nd round rookie Anthony Miller for playing time.

White was actually the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but he remains a complete mystery, as injuries have limited him to 5 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s broken his leg twice and missed all but 1 game last season with a fractured shoulder blade. Still only in his age 26 season, White has theoretical upside, but he has yet to show it on the field and is a major injury concern going forward. The Bears predictably declined his 5th year option for 2019, which would have guaranteed him 13.924 million for injury. Miller is reportedly locked in as the slot receiver, so White could easily open the season as the 4th receiver. Either way, this is a much deeper wide receiver group in 2018.

The Bears also added at tight end, signing ex-Eagle Trey Burton to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. That deal makes him the 7th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary, so it’s a ton of money to give to a player as unproven as Burton. The third tight end in Philadelphia, Burton has never played more than 325 snaps in 4 seasons in the league, after the Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He’s made 5 career starts and he’s flashed in limited action, averaging 1.50 yards per route run on 420 career routes, but he’s a projection to a larger role. He’s also undersized at 6-3 235 and was not asked to block much in Philadelphia. He’ll be featured in the passing game, but will likely prove to be an overpay.

When Burton was signed, it looked like the Bears would be moving on from Dion Sims, but they kept him on the roster despite 4 million of his 6 million dollar salary guaranteeing in late March, so he’s likely locked in a roster spot. The Bears were not strapped for cap space, but it’s unclear why they kept him. He’s a 6-4 268 pound blocking specialist with a career high of 26 catches in a season in 5 years in the league and a career 9.88 yards per catch average. He’s also not even that great of a blocker and finished last season as PFF”s 60th ranked tight end out of 72nd eligible overall, while catching just 15 of 29 targets for 180 yards and a touchdown.

The Bears also have 2nd year tight end Adam Shaheen, who flashed on 239 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season and, earlier this off-season, looked poised for a bigger role in 2018. With Burton and Sims locked in at sizeable salaries though, it’s unclear what Shaheen’s role will be this season. The 6-6 275 pounder was primarily a blocking tight end last season, but he’s very athletic for his size and caught 12 passes for 127 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 routes run. He has a high upside, but he came into the league very raw out of Division II Ashland and may have to wait until his 3rd season in the league to get a shot at a big role.

Passing down back Tarik Cohen also figures to play a role in the receiving corps. Of the 212 routes he ran last season, 67 of them came on the slot and 57 came out wide. New Bears head coach Matt Nagy has compared him to Tyreek Hill, who he coached in Kansas City. Cohen has the same kind of straight line speed as Hill, but, other than that, I don’t think that comparison holds up. Cohen caught 53 passes last season, but averaged just 6.66 yards per catch and 4.97 yards per target. He also is very undersized at 5-6 181, which makes even the 5-10 185 pound Hill look big.

A 2017 4th round pick, Cohen finished his rookie season as PFF’s 6th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade and broke 23 tackles on 53 catches, and, based off the praise he’s been given by his new coaching staff, he should have a big role in the passing game in 2018, but he probably won’t live up to his coaching staff’s high expectations. This is also a much better receiving corps than last season, so he might not have as many targets as he did last season, when he finished 2nd on the team with 71 targets. They are largely better by default though, as they had arguably the worst receiving corps in the league last season. Now they are merely passable.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cohen will also have a role on the ground, after averaging 4.25 yards per carry and breaking 10 tackles on 87 carries as a rookie. At his size, he’s only a chance of pace back, but he could see a bigger role on the ground in his 2nd season in the league. Jordan Howard will remain the lead back regardless. The 2016 5th round pick has averaged 264 carries per season in 2 seasons in the league and should be right around there again on run heavy offense that should run more plays this season.

Howard’s average dropped significantly from 2016 to 2017, as he averaged 5.21 YPC as a rookie and 4.07 YPC as a sophomore. In terms of carry success rate, he fell from 17th at 49% to 35th at 42% and he also had just 364 yards on carries of 15+ yards, after 485 yards on carries of 15+ yards as a rookie. He also dropped significantly on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 4th in run grade in 2016, though he still finished with a positive run grade.

He also struggles mightily in the passing game. He has just 52 catches for 423 yards and a touchdown on 82 career targets, with 14 dropped passes. He’s earned negative grades for pass catching in both seasons in the league and finished last season 59th out of 60 eligible running backs in pass catching grade, earning him a negative overall grade on the season, despite a solid year running the ball. Cohen should play the vast majority of passing downs and mix in as a speed complement as well. It’s a solid running back duo.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bears have also had good offensive line play in 2017. They might not quite be as good this season though, as they lost arguably their best offensive linemen this off-season. Josh Sitton is going into his age 32 season and would have been owed 8 million, but it’s still a surprise that the Bears declined his option this off-season, considering he finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. He’ll be replaced by 2nd round rookie James Daniels.

Daniels’ best position in college was center and current center Cody Whitehair can also play guard, but it looks like the Bears are going to start Daniels at guard for now and keep Whitehair at center. Whitehair was also a 2nd round pick, back in 2016, and has finished 6th and 9th among centers in 2 seasons in the league. It’s probably best that he stays at center, but it’s unclear how the undersized Daniels will adjust to playing guard in the NFL. He played under 300 pounds in college, while Whitehair is 6-3 310.

With Sitton gone, the Bears will need a bounce back year from right guard Kyle Long to avoid a big drop off upfront. Long has missed 15 games in the past 2 seasons and is recovering from elbow, neck, and shoulder surgeries this off-season. He’s also had ankle and triceps injuries. He finished in the top-18 at his position in 2014 and 2015, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and is far from a lock to ever return to form, as he seems to be falling apart physically. The Bears don’t have a good backup behind him, so they’ll need him to stay healthy.

At tackle, the Bears return Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, after they made 16 stats and 15 starts respectively. Leno has made 45 starts on the blindside over the past 3 seasons. He hasn’t always been good, but he’s gotten better in all 3 seasons and finished last season as PFF’s 19th ranked offensive tackle. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level player and he needs to clean up the penalties (28 over the past 3 seasons), but the 2014 7th round pick is in the prime of his career in his age 27 season and could easily continue playing well in 2018. The Bears locked him up prior to the final year of his rookie deal last off-season, giving him a 4-year, 38 million dollar deal that could look like a bargain if he keeps playing at a high level. He’s just the 16th highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL and will only get comparatively less expensive over the course of his 4-year extension as salaries rise around the league.

Massie, meanwhile, was signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago, after spending his first 4 seasons in Arizona. He’s not as good as Leno, but he is more proven, as he’s been a capable starter for each of the past 4 seasons and has 76 starts in his career. In his age 29 season in 2018, he should continue being a capable starter. Losing Sitton hurts, but this is still a solid offensive line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Not only were the Bears able to add a bright young offensive mind as head coach, but they were also able to keep defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was the best part of ex-head coach John Fox’s staff. An accomplished play caller with 18 years of experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Fangio consistently gets the most out of his players. The Bears finished last season 9th in first down rate allowed at 32.53%. As a result, they were able to finish 21st in first down rate differential at -1.16%, despite a stagnant offense.

They wnte just 5-11 last season, but some of that was because of bad luck, as they went 2-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer. They also faced the toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of opponents’ DVOA and opponents’ record. If they can continue playing well on defense with what should be an improved offense, this team could compete for a playoff spot against a slightly easier schedule in 2018.

All 3 starters return on Fangio’s 3-man defensive line, led by Akiem Hicks, whose 900 snaps led all interior defensive linemen in the NFL last season. He was also very effective on those snaps, finishing 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. The 6-5 332 pounder isn’t just a big run stuffer, as he added 8.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 31 hurries on 539 pass rush snaps, despite 92.2% of them coming from the interior. He has rare athleticism and durability for his size, playing 85.8% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons and missing just 3 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league.

Hicks has been a good player throughout his career, making 65 starts in 6 seasons in the league and finishing with a positive grade on PFF in 5 of 6 seasons, but he’s been especially good in the past 2 seasons with the Bears. He also finished 8th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and clearly comfortable in Fangio’s system, Hicks should continue playing at a high level in 2018.

Eddie Goldman was 2nd on this defensive line in snaps with 608. The 6-4 320 pounder plays nose tackle in base packages, but also stays on the field in for some sub package snaps as well. He’s not as good of a pass rusher as Hicks, but he has 8.5 sacks and 6 hits in 36 career games and moves pretty well for a big guy. A 2nd round pick in 2015, he’s been a little bit better than an average starter in 3 seasons in the league, though he did miss 10 games with injury in 2016. He was healthy in 2017 though and, still only in his age 24 season, he could easily have the best season of his career in 2018. The Bears would be wise to lock him up this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Jonathan Bullard is the 3rd starter in base packages. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Bullard developed into a solid run stuffer in a part-time role in his 2nd season in the league (437 snaps, 214 of which came on run plays), but he hasn’t gotten any pass rush thus far in his career, with just 2 sacks and 2 hits in 30 career games. The Bears lost Mitch Unrein, a talented reserve run stuffer who finished as PFF’s 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in run stop grade on 389 snaps last season, so Bullard is locked into his role.

Without Unrein, the Bears have a depth problem upfront. Roy Robertson-Harris and John Jenkins are their top returning reserves, but they played just 212 snaps and 109 snaps respectively. Robertson-Harris went undrafted in 2016 and struggled in his first career action in 2017, so he’s unlikely to ever develop into a capable reserve. Jenkins has more of a shot, since he’s been a capable reserve in the past, but he’s been limited to 328 snaps in 17 games over the past 2 seasons and has dealt with weight and conditioning issues throughout his career. He’s a capable run stuffer when he’s in shape, but that’s far from a guarantee. Hicks and Goldman lead this defensive line, but their lack of depth could prove to be a big problem.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Bears also have depth problems at outside linebacker. They bring back starters Sam Acho and Leonard Floyd, but they lost veteran backups Pernell McPhee, LaMarr Houston, and Willie Young this off-season. They played just 385, 231, and 119 snaps respectively, but the Bears didn’t do much to replace them and now are very thin behind Acho and Floyd. Acho and Floyd are hardly proven starters either. Both earned negative grades last season, on 623 snaps and 582 snaps respectively.

Floyd has the upside to be a lot better, but the 2016 9th overall pick has had a disappointing start to his career. He’s struggled with injuries, missing 10 games, and has been underwhelming on the field, earning negative grades in both seasons. Known as a pass rush specialist coming out of the University of Georgia, he has just 11.5 sacks and 9 hits in his career. If he can stay healthy, he could easily have his best season yet in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, but that’s a far from a guarantee.

Acho, meanwhile, is a 2011 4th round pick and has struggled throughout his 7-year NFL career, earning negative grades from Pro Football Focus in 6 of those seasons. He has 57 career starts, but hasn’t played well and is now going into his age 30 season. He figures to continue to struggle, but the Bears lack a better starting option. Their top reserve is free agent acquisition Aaron Lynch, who has played just 379 snaps over the past 2 seasons due to disciplinary and conditioning problems and is far from reliable.

Lynch is a worthwhile flyer for the Bears, as he ranked 16th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 816 snaps in 2015 and he’s still only going into his age 25 season, but he’s not someone you want to rely on as your primary reserve. He does have familiarity in the system though, as he played for Fangio in 2014 in San Francisco, so maybe Fangio can get the most out of him. Lynch had 12.5 sacks and 21 hits in his first 2 seasons in the league, but just 2.5 sacks and 6 hits in the past 2 seasons.

At middle linebacker, things are better, with Danny Trevathan returning to an every down role and 8th overall pick Roquan Smith being added to the mix. Trevathan suffered a torn patellar tendon in 2016, missing the final 7 games of the season. That’s typically not an injury players return 100% from, but Trevathan was back in the starting lineup week 1 in 2017 and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked middle linebacker, though he was limited to just 12 games by a calf injury and a one-game suspension for a personal foul.

Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he also missed all but 100 snaps in 2014 with a fractured leg, but he’s finished in the top-10 at his position in each of his last 3 healthy seasons (2013, 2015, and 2017). Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and another year removed from the patellar tendon tear, Trevathan should have have another strong season in 2018 as long as he stays healthy. Smith, meanwhile, is a plug and play every down linebacker who should be an upgrade over the various linebackers they tried next to Trevathan in 2017. Trevathan and Smith are a talented duo inside, but their depth outside is very suspect.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Bears also return their top-7 defensive backs and should have a strong secondary again as a result. Safety Adrian Amos is probably their best defensive back, even though he didn’t become the starter until week 4, after veteran Quintin Demps went down for the season with a broken arm. Amos played just 1 snap in the first 2 games of the season. Despite that, he finished as Pro Football Focus #2 safety on 670 snaps.

It’s a surprise that he opened the season on the bench, as the 2015 5th round pick made 30 of 32 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and earned positive grades from PFF in both seasons, but he’s definitely proven himself now and is locked in as a starter. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being as good as he was last season, but he’s still only in his age 25 season, so he could easily continue being one of the better safeties in the NFL.

Demps is no longer with the team, so 2nd year safety Eddie Jackson is locked in as the other starter. Like Amos, Jackson appears to be a mid round steal. Despite falling to the 4th round in the 2017 NFL Draft, Jackson played all but 3 snaps last season, even beating out Amos for the starting job in training camp, and was about a league average starter. He needs to prove it again and he fell in the draft because of concerns about his durability long-term, but he appears to have a bright future and could easily continue being a capable starter.

At cornerback, Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller return as the starters after being re-signed to deals worth 27 million over 3 years and 56 million over 4 years respectively. Both played pretty well last season, finishing 41st and 36th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Amukamara has had injury problems in his career, missing 29 games in 7 seasons and only once playing all 16 games, but he’s finished with a positive grade on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons and is a solid value as the league’s 20th highest paid cornerback in average annual salary.

Fuller’s contract, on the other hand, is an overpay and it was an avoidable one. Fuller was the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he missed all of 2016 with a knee injury that the Bears thought he could return from. They declined his 5th year option for 2018, which would have guaranteed him 8.526 million for injury, and there was talk he might not make the final roster. He ended up winning a starting job in camp, making all 16 starts, and having the best season of his career.

Had the Bears picked up his option, he could have been under contract for significantly cheaper this season and the Bears would have had more leverage in negotiations on his long-term deal. They could not reach a long-term deal with him before free agency started and they tried to save a little bit of money by giving him the 12.971 million dollar transition tag instead of the 14.975 million dollar franchise tag. The transition tag let him seek other offers though and only gave the Bears the right to match.

When the division rival Packers offered him a 4-year, 56 million deal, the Bears were forced to match a deal that guarantees him 19 million dollars in the first year. Fuller is a former first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season and he also played well in 2015 prior to the lost season in 2016, but at this time last year the Bears were questioning his toughness and now they’ve made him the 5th highest paid cornerback in the NFL.

Slot cornerback Bryce Callahan also remains. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Callahan is undersized at 5-9 188, but he’s developed into a solid slot cornerback. He played just 8 snaps outside last season and has played on the slot on 74.28% of his career coverage snaps, but he’s improved in all 3 seasons in the league, going from 0.90 yards per slot coverage snap allowed to 0.89 to 0.81 and earned the first positive coverage grade from PFF of his career last season. Now in the final year of his rookie year, he’s their next cornerback who will need to be paid. He could push to be one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the NFL, upwards of 6-7+ million dollars annually. His one issue is durability, as he’s played just 32 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league.

If any of their top-3 cornerbacks get hurt, Marcus Cooper and Cre’Von LeBlanc return as their top reserves, after playing 246 snaps and 212 snaps respectively last season. Cooper was actually released this off-season, originally owed 5 million, but he was brought back on a one-year deal worth 1.5 million. Cooper has made 28 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades from PFF in all 5 seasons. LeBlanc, meanwhile, played 696 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and wasn’t bad, but saw a much smaller role in his 2nd season in the league. This is still a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bears were better than their 5-11 record suggested last season, as they played a tough schedule and went 2-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer. They should be better offensively this season, which should push them closer to a .500 team. They have the upside to be more than that if Mitch Trubisky takes a big step forward in his second season in the league, but they also still play in the much tougher conference and figure to have a tough schedule again this season. They’re unlikely to make a leap into the post-season in the NFC, but they won’t be an easy opponent.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Bears’ defense got even stronger when they acquired Khalil Mack from the Raiders for a pair of second round picks. Mitch Trubisky is still a question mark, but he has better weapons this season and if his play improves the Bears look like a contender in the NFC. That’s a big if, but they’ll be a dangerous opponent either way because of their defense.

Prediction: 9-7 3rd in NFC North

Baltimore Ravens 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2012 and the Ravens have been paying for it ever since. Flacco had arguably the best 4-game stretch of his career during that playoff run, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions, which led to the Ravens re-signing him to a 6-year, 120.6 million dollar deal as a free agent after the season, but he was never nearly that good before and he hasn’t come close to being that good again since.

In the 5 seasons prior to the Super Bowl, he completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In the 5 seasons since, he’s arguably been worse, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 98 touchdowns, and 73 interceptions. For salary cap purposes, he’s restructured his contract several times, including a 3-year extension he signed in 2016, but he’s made a total of 112 million since the Super Bowl and is owed another 75 million over the next 4 seasons.

At the same time, he’s coming off of arguably the worst statistical season of his career, completing 64.1% of his passes for a career low 5.72 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. A lot of that is because of issues in the receiving corps and he was also playing through a back injury for most of the season, but he’s earned negative grades on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and is now going into his age 33 season.

He could be better in 2018, with a revamped receiving corps and hopefully better health, but the Ravens traded up into the end of the first round to draft Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall, so the writing is on the wall either way. Even if Flacco has a bounce back season in 2018, they’ll likely move on from him next off-season and build their team around the much less expensive Jackson (9.47 million over 4 years). None of Flacco’s remaining salary is guaranteed, so they can cut him at any time, although they’ll probably be able to get something for him in a trade next off-season.

Jackson is a tough quarterback to project to the next level and needs at least a year on the bench improving his technique and accuracy, but he has rare athleticism for a quarterback and made some big throws in colleges. Unless Flacco really struggles, I wouldn’t expect to see much of him as a rookie aside from some gadget plays, but it’s clear he’s the future in Baltimore. The Ravens would not have moved up into the first round to get him if they did not see him as their future signal caller.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the receiving corps was a big part of the reason why Flacco’s numbers were down last season. Just 146 of their 363 completions went to wide receivers in 2017 (40.2%), with the rest going to tight ends and running backs who all averaged less than 10 yards per catch. They also did not have a single wide receiver or tight end earn a positive pass catching grade from Pro Football Focus. As a result, the Ravens completely revamped their receiving corps this off-season.

Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, and Jeremy Maclin led this team in receiving with slash lines of 52/748/4, 61/522/4, and 40/440/3 respectively, but all three are no longer with the team. The Ravens replaced them by adding wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead in free agency and drafting tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the 1st and 3rd round respectively and wide receivers Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley in the 4th and 5th round respectively. It’s still far from the best receiving corps and it may take them a little while to gel, but it would be hard for this receiving corps to be worse than it was last season.

Crabtree should have the biggest immediate impact of any of their additions. Crabtree is coming off of a down season with the Raiders, playing just 599 snaps in 14 games and posting a 58/618/8 slash line. Now going into his age 30 season, the Raiders cut Crabtree rather than pay him 7.5 million non-guaranteed, but the Ravens clearly think he can bounce back, giving him a 3-year deal worth 21 million that guarantees him 8 million in 2018.

Crabtree seems to be slowing down, but could still prove to be a smart signing for a team desperate for wide receivers. Aside from injury plagued seasons in 2013 and 2014, Crabtree finished with a positive grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season (topping 850 yards in all 4 seasons) and should still have a couple seasons left in the tank. The Ravens also don’t risk losing compensation picks in 2019 by signing him, because he was released by his previous team.

Brown and Snead are also coming off of down years, but are not as proven as Crabtree. Brown seemingly had a breakout 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with a 65/1003/7 slash line, but injuries limited him to 1,085 snaps in 25 games in the 2 seasons since and he has a combined 60/816/5 slash line in those 2 seasons, including just 21 catches in 10 games last season. The Ravens are taking a flyer on him with a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal, but he has a sickle cell trait that could make him an injury risk for the rest of his career and he was an older rookie, so he’s already going into his age 29 season. I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his 2015 production.

Snead has a better chance of bouncing back. Originally undrafted in 2014, Snead had solid seasons in 2015 and 2016 with the Saints, posting slash lines of 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 respectively and earning positive grades in both seasons. In 2017, he was supposed to be a bigger part of the offense with Brandin Cooks out, but he was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for an off-season DUI and was limited to just 325 snaps in 11 games upon his return, partially for disciplinary reasons, partially because he was never healthy. When on the field, he earned a negative grade from PFF and only managed 8 catches. Still only in his age 26 season, Snead gets a fresh start with the Ravens, who signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent that the Saints did not match. He could easily return to form. He’ll compete with Brown for playing time in 2-wide receiver sets.

The rookies, Scott and Lasley, will likely begin the year in depth roles. Their main competition will be holdovers Chris Moore and Breshad Perriman, but the Ravens clearly don’t think much of either, given that they added 5 wide receivers between free agency and the draft this off-season. Perriman was a first round selection in 2015, but he’s been about as big of a bust as you can be. After missing his entire rookie year with injury, Perriman has caught just 43.0% of his targets for an average of 5.76 yards per attempt in his career and was a healthy scratch down the stretch in 2017, despite little talent ahead of him on the depth chart. Owed a 650K roster bonus on the 3rd day of training camp, he could be cut loose fairly soon. Moore, meanwhile, is a 2016 4th round pick who has underwhelming on 537 career snaps. 

At tight end, Hurst and Andrews will compete for roles with incumbents Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams. Hurst should be the primary pass catcher. He showed great pass catching ability and athleticism in 2 years as the starter at South Carolina, although he’s a risky first round pick because he’s already going into his age 25 season and he’s very raw as a run blocker. At 6-5 250, he has the size to be a better blocker, but he could take a couple years to develop. As a receiver, he’ll likely have a big role immediately. Andrews is also a better receiver than blocker and should see an immediate role in the passing game.

Boyle is their best blocking tight end, but the 6-4 270 pounder moves like an offensive lineman and has a 7.69 yards per catch average on 52 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He played close to every down snaps last season (695, 20th in the NFL by a tight end), but he should be more of a blocking specialist in 2018. Williams, meanwhile, is a former 2nd round pick, but he’s on the roster bubble, with Boyle, Hurst, and Andrews all likely locked into spots. Injuries have limited him to 47 catches in just 25 games in 3 seasons in the league and he’s not as good of a blocker as Boyle. If he stays healthy all off-season, he might have some trade value, but I would not expect him to be a big part of the Ravens’ season, even in an unsettled receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Ravens also had issues on the offensive line in 2017. Injuries were a big part of it, as left guard Alex Lewis missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, while right guard Marshal Yanda missed the final 14 games of the season with a broken ankle. Replacements James Hurst and Matt Skura finished 66th and 73rd respectively out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, so they had arguably the worst starting guards in the league last season.

Yanda will be the biggest re-addition, as he finished in the top-8 among guards in 6 straight seasons from 2011 to 2016, including 5 seasons in the top-2, but he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s very possible his best years are behind him. He should still be a good starter for another couple seasons and he missed just 5 games in 8 seasons prior to last season, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was before the injury.

Lewis is younger, as the 2016 4th round pick is only going into his age 26 season, but he’s not nearly as good as Yanda and he has more of an injury history, as he also missed 8 games with injury as a rookie. Lewis started the other 8 games, 3 at left tackle, 5 at left guard, but he struggled at both spots. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a capable starter. There has been talk that he’ll move to right tackle to replace Austin Howard, a league average starter who signed with the Colts as a free agent this off-season.

If Lewis stays at left guard, it’ll be James Hurst moving to right tackle. Despite the 2014 undrafted free agent struggling mightily in 31 career starts, the Ravens kept him on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal this off-season, suggesting he’ll start somewhere. His versatility is his biggest asset, as he’s made 14 starts at left tackle, 2 starts at right tackle, and 15 starts at left guard, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, with 3 seasons in the bottom-15 at his position. Third round rookie Orlando Brown could also be in the mix at right tackle.  

In addition to losing Howard this off-season, the Buccaneers also lost center Ryan Jensen, who finished 13th at his position in 2017. They did very little to replace him, only adding Bradley Bozeman in the 6th round of the draft, so they basically have an open competition at the position. Matt Skura could shift inside to center, but he struggled mightily in his first career action last season, so he’s not a promising option. Last year’s 4th and 5th round picks Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor could also kick inside to guard, but Siragusa missed his entire rookie year with injury, while Eluemunor struggled mightily in 198 rookie year starts at right guard. If Orlando Brown can lock down the right tackle job, the Ravens could shift either Lewis or Hurst inside to center as well, but neither player has experience at the position.  

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is their only offensive lineman who was healthy last season and is still on the team. He could arguably be their best offensive lineman in 2018. The 6th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Stanley has made 27 starts on the blindside in 2 seasons in the league and has earned positive grades from PFF in both seasons. He was their 32nd ranked offensive tackle last season. Only in his age 24 season, Stanley has a huge upside and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league. This offensive line should be better if they can stay healthier, but, outside of Stanley and Yanda, this is a very unsettled line.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite offensive line issues and a passing game that couldn’t take the top off the defense, the Ravens weren’t a bad running team. They ranked just 19th in YPC at 4.03, but they were a lot better down the stretch, after turning to Alex Collins as the lead back. On the season, Collins averaged 4.59 YPC on 212 carries, ranked 8th in carry success rate, 10th in elusive rating, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he began the season on the practice squad and did not play more than 30% of the snaps in a game until week 8.

From week 8 on, he was their featured runner, with 150 carries in 9 games, and their offense was a lot better down the stretch as a result. Through 7 games, they moved the chains at a mere 29.40% rate, dead last in the NFL at that time, but they moved the chains at a 35.21% rate in their remaining 9 games, which would have been 12th best in the NFL over the course of the season. After starting 3-4, they finished 6-3 in those 9 games. Collins is still unproven, as he was a 2016 5th round pick who had just 31 carries as a rookie in Seattle and then didn’t make their final roster in 2017, but he should be their featured runner in 2018 and could easily continue running well.

Collins’ one weakness is in the passing game, as he managed just 23 catches for 187 yards on 36 targets last season, so Buck Allen figures to handle most of the passing down snaps. Allen actually led the team in running back snaps last season with 464. He split carries with Collins early in the season, totaling 153 carries on the year (though just 54 in the final 8 games), and also saw passing down work with Danny Woodhead injured. He didn’t play as much down the stretch with Collins running well and Woodhead back in the lineup, but Woodhead is no longer with the team, so Allen has little competition for passing down work. He caught 45 passes as a rookie in 2015 and 46 last season, but he averaged just 5.43 yards per catch last season. An unexplosive athlete, he also has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry in his career.

The Ravens get Kenneth Dixon back from injury, though it’s unclear what his role will be. The 2016 4th round pick averaged 4.34 yards per carry on 88 carries as a rookie, but he’s not going to take many carries away from Collins unless Collins struggles and he’s not good enough on in the passing game to have a big passing down role. It’s also unclear if he can stay on the field. He’s already missed time with two separate knee injuries thus far, including a torn meniscus that cost him his entire 2017 season, and he’s also been suspended twice, once for performance enhancing drugs, once for substance abuse. If Collins continues running well, this is a strong backfield, but that’s far from a guarantee and backups Allen and Dixon are both question marks.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Despite their offensive struggles, the Ravens still won 9 games in 2017 and had the best point differential of any team that missed the post-season at +92. Their defense led the way, finishing 5th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 31.20%. They were not as good as that suggests though, as they faced arguably the easiest schedule in the league, including 6 backup quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, Matt Moore, Tom Savage, EJ Manuel, Case Keenum). They also faced the Bengals and Browns twice and the Bears. They played just 4 games against above average offenses: Pittsburgh twice, Minnesota, and Detroit.

All in all, the Ravens faced the easiest schedule in the NFL last season in terms of opponents’ winning percentage. They also benefited from a league leading +17 turnover margin, which is tough to sustain on a year-to-year basis. Teams that finish with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of +4.3 and win an average of 2.6 fewer games. It’s not hard to see how they could have a worse turnover margin in 2018. Not only do they face a significantly tougher schedule, but they’re also unlikely to do as well recovering fumbles as they did last season, when they led the league with a 65.85% fumble recovery rate.

That being said, this is still a solid defense. In base packages, they are anchored by defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who ranked 10th and 15th respectively among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in 2017. Williams is a 2013 3rd round pick who has finished in the top-19 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons as a starter, while Pierce is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has finished in the top-16 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in each of his first 2 seasons in the league.

Neither is much of a pass rusher though, and, at 330+ pounds each, they don’t play every down. Pierce played just 54.3% of the snaps last season, while Williams played just 53.9% of the snaps in 12 games (4 missed with injury). Pierce has just 3 sacks and 6 hits in 2 seasons in the league, while Williams has totaled just 4.5 sacks and 8 hits in 4 seasons as a starter. Williams has earned negative grades for his pass rush ability in all 5 seasons in the league, while Pierce has been about league average in limited pass rush opportunities in 2 seasons in the league. Despite that, both players are very valuable to this team because of what they do on early downs, with Williams even getting a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar extension as a free agent last off-season, the kind of big contract usually reserved for interior pass rushers.

Fortunately, this team has plenty of depth on the defensive line, so Pierce and Williams can focus on their roles. Willie Henry actually led this defensive line in snaps with 594 and was their primary interior pass rusher, playing 387 pass snaps. Despite not playing a single snap as a rookie, the 2016 4th round pick was not bad last season, holding up against the run and generating pass rush. He totaled 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 10 hurries on 384 pass rush snaps. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, he could continue improving, though it’s worth mentioning he’s still pretty unproven, especially against tougher competition.

Brent Urban also had a big role on this defense, playing 78.8% of the snaps in the first 2 weeks of the year, but he broke his foot week 3 and missed the rest of the season. A 4th round selection in 2014, Urban has flashed in limited action in his career, but has never been able to stay on the field. He’s played just 25 of a possible 64 career games and has already had an ACL tear, a biceps tear, and a broken foot. A better run stuffer than pass rusher, he’ll likely be the 3rd starter in base packages with Williams and Pierce, for as long as he stays healthy. His primary competition for that base package role is Carl Davis, a 2015 3rd round pick that has played just 539 career snaps, but flashed as a run stuffer on 300 snaps in Urban’s absence last season.

The Ravens also have a pair of recent 3rd round picks, but they may be competing for just one roster spot on this deep defensive line. Last year’s 3rd rounder Chris Wormley struggled on 120 snaps as a rookie, while 2016 3rd round pick Bronson Kaufusi played just 32 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, after missing his entire rookie season with a broken ankle. Wormley is the most likely of the two to make the final roster, but it could be tough for him to earn a bigger role on an already deep defensive line that gets Brent Urban back from injury.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens also have a deep group of edge rushers, which is good because, as talented as their defensive line is, they are not great at getting to the quarterback. The Ravens had 3 base outside linebackers total at least 500 snaps last season, Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, and Za’Darius Smith, the latter of whom lined up on the interior on 131 of 349 pass rush snaps. That doesn’t even include their 2nd and 3rd round picks in 2017, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, who spent their rookie seasons buried on the depth chart, playing 161 and 125 snaps respectively.

Terrell Suggs led all Baltimore outside linebackers with 845 snaps (77.3%) and was also their best player at the position, finishing 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and totaling 11 sacks, 8 hits, and 57 hurries on 525 pass rush snaps. Suggs is going into his age 36 season though, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Ravens reduced his snaps in 2018 with young depth behind him on the depth chart. He has 125.5 career sacks (17th all-time), 7 Pro-Bowl appearances, and a Defensive Player of the Year award (2011) and could easily end up in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done, but he’s at the stage of his career where it’s unclear if he can continue playing at such a high level.

Matt Judon also played a big role opposite Suggs, playing 787 snaps. He had 8 sacks, but he was not as good of a pass rusher as that suggests. He benefited from having Suggs opposite him and only added 8 hits and 18 hurries on 333 pass rush snaps. He also struggled against the run and finished as PFF’s 42nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible overall. The 2016 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s not a lock to remain the starter in 2018 in a deep edge rusher group.

Za’Darius Smith only had 3.5 sacks last season, but he has a better chance of earning a major role in 2018. Not only does the 6-4 275 pounder have the size to line up both inside and outside on the defensive line in passing situations, but he was also better than his sack total suggested, as he added 12 hits and 23 hurries on 349 pass rush snaps. He’s not much of a run stuffer, despite his size, but he should still have a big sub package role in 2018. Bowser and Williams could also earn roles. Bowser was the higher pick and should have the brighter future, but Williams could have gone in the first round if not for off-the-field concerns and he’s the better natural pass rusher of the two.

The Ravens are not as deep at inside linebacker though. CJ Mosley is a capable every down player, but their other starter, Patrick Onwuasor, is only a two-down run stuffer. The 2016 undrafted free agent earned a positive run stopping grade in the first significant action of his career last season (646 snaps), but struggled mightily in coverage. Reserve safety Anthony Levine played 141 of his 201 coverage snaps as a linebacker and held his own, but the 5-11 209 pounder is very undersized against the run. The Ravens added Kenny Young in the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft and he has the athletic tools to develop into a good coverage linebacker, but he enters the league very raw. The Ravens will likely have a rotation at the other middle linebacker spot next to Mosley.

Given that, the Ravens will need a strong year out of Mosley. The 17th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mosley has made 62 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has been an every down player from the first week of his rookie season, but he’s coming off of a down year, finishing below average on PFF for the first time in his career. Prior to last season, he finished 11th, 15th, and 11th respectively in his first 3 seasons in the league. Still only in his age 26 season, there’s no reason why he can’t bounce back.

The Ravens are fully expected to re-sign him to an extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll likely get upwards of 11+ million on his next deal and could push Luke Kuechly (12.35 million annually) as the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. Led by Mosley and Suggs, this is a solid linebacking corps with a lot of depth, but they need young players to step up, especially with Suggs getting up there in age.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Ravens got good play from their front 7 last season, but their secondary was arguably their best unit. They were led by #1 cornerback Jimmy Smith for the first 12 games of the season until he tore his achilles week 13 and missed the rest of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback when he went down and allowed 57.5% completion, 7.30 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 3 interceptions, but he wasn’t really missed because his replacement, Marlon Humphrey, played almost as well. A rookie first round pick who played just 264 snaps in the first 11 games of the season as the 4th cornerback, Humphrey was an every down player after Smith went down. On the season, he finished 37th among cornerbacks on 596 snaps, allowing 46.4% completion, 5.96 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 2 interceptions.

Smith is expected to be ready for week 1, but that’s not a guarantee and he could easily be less than 100%. He also has a pretty extensive injury history and is going into his age 30 season. He’s missed 26 games in 7 seasons in the league, only topping 12 games in 2 of 7 seasons, and struggled mightily in his last season returning from a lower leg injury, finishing 89th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 after missing 8 games in 2014 with a broken foot. He’s finished above average on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and was on his way to arguably his best season before getting hurt, but there’s no guarantee he returns to form in 2018.

Even with Smith returning, Humphrey is too talented to return to a reserve role and should be the other starter in his 2nd season in the league. Only turning 22 this summer, Humphrey has a sky high ceiling and could breakout in his first full season as a starter. The Ravens also get Tavon Young back from injury, after he missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Despite being a mere 4th round rookie, Young flashed on 833 snaps in 2016, leading the team in cornerback snaps and finishing 24th among cornerbacks on PFF. Because he suffered this injury last June, he’ll be 15 months removed from it by week 1, which helps his chances of being 100% in 2018.

Young is still unproven and coming off of a major injury, but, if he can return to form, he could easily win the #3 cornerback job. That would leave veteran Brandon Carr without a clear role. Carr has incredibly made 160 of 160 starts in 10 seasons in the league and has been about a league average starter in the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t earned a positive grade from PFF in a full season since 2011 and now is going into his age 32 season.

Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Ravens might not be able to justify keeping him on the roster if he can’t lock down a role in 3-cornerback sets, but they already paid him a 1.5 million dollar roster bonus earlier this off-season, so they might value his experience highly with both Smith and Young coming off injuries. The Ravens also have Maurice Canady, a 2016 6th round pick who wasn’t bad on 320 snaps (217 of which came in coverage on the slot) last season in the first significant action of his career, and Anthony Averett, a 4th round rookie, in the mix for cornerback snaps in sub packages.

At safety, the Ravens return Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, who both made all 16 starts last season and finished 26th and 29th respectively among safeties on PFF. After signing a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Ravens as a free agent last off-season, Jefferson struggled early in the season, but was much better down the stretch. He’s earned positive grades in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 7th among safeties. Still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, Jefferson could easily be better in 2018.

Weddle has also had better seasons in the past, but his age is a concern, in his age 33 season. He’s finished in the top-7 among safeties on PFF in 7 of the past 9 seasons and finished #1 as recently as 2016, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him. Even still, he should be at least a solid starter again in 2018. The Ravens got a bargain, signing him for just 26 million over 4 years two off-seasons ago. This is a very talented secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Ravens had the best point differential of any team to miss the post-season in 2017, but that was in large part due to their turnover margin. They still ranked 10th in first down rate differential at 1.54%, but that was against the easiest schedule in the league. They might actually be more talented overall in 2018 than 2017, but I don’t see that showing up in the standings. They won’t face 6 backup quarterbacks like they did last season and both the Browns and Bengals are better in the division. They could still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC, but they also could easily finish last in an improved division. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Ravens playoff chances took another hit when Jimmy Smith was suspended for the first 4 games of the season. With a tougher schedule and an improved division, the Ravens are likely to win fewer games than 2017.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers finished last season 13-3, tied for the best record in the NFL, but they lost at home in the divisional round to the Jacksonville Jaguars, after their first round bye. They had a strong season, but they were not as good as their record suggested, as they went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished the season 6th in first round rate differential at 4.67% and 7th in point differential at +98, good, but not as good as their record would suggest.

The offense had another strong year, finishing 4th in first down rate at 37.01%, and on paper they look like a strong offense again, returning almost everyone from last season. Much of that depends on Ben Roethlisberger continuing to play at a high level in his age 36 season. Roethlisberger completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2017 and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback.

Now going into his 15th season in the league, Roethlisberger has finished in the top-9 among quarterbacks on PFF in 8 of the past 9 seasons and he has finished in the top-3 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. In the past 10 seasons, he ranks 7th in passing touchdowns, 6th in passing yards, 5th in YPA (minimum 2000 attempts), 9th in completion percentage, and 9th in interception rate. He’s made 198 regular season starts in his career, though he’s only played in all 16 games three times in his career. He’s never suffered a major injury, but he usually misses a game or two with some sort of injury.

Given his injury history and his age, the Steelers have been proactive adding talent behind him on the depth chart, taking quarterbacks in the mid rounds in each of the last 2 drafts. They took Josh Dobbs in the 4th round in 2017 and then drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round in this past draft. Roethlisberger reportedly was not happy when the Steelers took Rudolph, but the addition of Rudolph says more about what they think about Dobbs long-term more than Roethlisberger. Rudolph was also reportedly very high on their board, so they probably would have selected him regardless of anything to do with Roethlisberger or Dobbs. Rudolph was expected to go in the top-50 picks and, when he fell in middle of the 3rd round, the Steelers moved up to 76 to stop his slide.

Landry Jones has been their backup for the past 3 seasons, making 5 starts, but he’s been pretty underwhelming. He’s completed 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, but he has 7 interceptions to 8 touchdowns and much of his production comes from playing with such a strong supporting cast. The 2013 4th round pick has never finished with a positive grade on PFF in 5 seasons in the league. Rudolph could easily beat him out for the backup job and, given Roethlisberger’s history, that means he could easily make a couple starts in 2018. If he plays well in a couple spot starts and helps this team keep their playoff seed, Roethlisberger may like the pick more. Rudolph is not close to being an immediate threat to Roethlisberger’s job, but could ultimately end up being his successor. For now, Roethlisberger remains a franchise quarterback.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Roethlisberger is far from the only reason why this offense is so consistently good, as he’s had a great supporting cast for years, led by running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Le’Veon Bell’s long-term future with the team is up in the air though, as he goes into his 2nd straight season on the franchise tag without a long-term deal. Between the two franchise tags, Bell will make 26.664 million combined in 2017 and 2018, but he wants a long-term deal worth 15+ million annually.

Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy are the two highest paid running backs in terms of average annual salary at 8.25 million and 8 million respectively, so what Bell is asking for is a steep price for a running back. Bell’s argument is that, not only is he the top running back in the league, but because he gets so much usage in the passing game, he should be paid like a top running back and a #2 wide receiver combined.

It’s not a bad argument. Bell gets a ton of use and should be compensated well beyond the top running back in the league. In his career, he’s averaged 398 touches per 16 games (317 carries and 81 catches) and last season he had 406 touches in 15 games (321 carries and 85 catches). He’s played 84.3% of the snaps in games he’s played in his career, including 90%+ in the past 2 seasons, and frequently stays on the field as a receiver in obvious pass situations (67 slot snaps, 48 at wide receiver in 2017). He’s finished in the top-3 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and has averaged 4.34 yards per carry in his career. He’s also still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season.

My concern with giving Bell such a big contract is whether or not he can stay on the field. Between suspension and injury, Bell has missed 18 games in 5 seasons in the league. He’s potentially one drug suspension away from a yearlong minimum suspension and running backs who consistently get 400+ carries per season don’t usually hold up well long-term. The Steelers may not want to pay him what he wants with that kind of risk involved. He’ll be owed the quarterback franchise tag value in 2019 if he’s franchise tagged a third time (upwards of the 23.189 million it was in 2018), so, if the Steelers can’t reach a long-term agreement with him this off-season, this could easily be his final season in Pittsburgh.

He’s also unlikely to report until week 1 if he isn’t extended. Because players are not technically on the roster until they sign the franchise tag, the Steelers can’t fine him for missing the off-season, so he can holdout until the start of the season without any financial penalty. It’s the same path he followed last off-season, but it might not have done him any favors, as he averaged 4.02 yards per carry and finished 11th at his position, both his worst marks since his rookie season in 2013. He could continue struggling by his standards in 2018 if he misses the off-season again.

James Conner was drafted in the 3rd round in 2017 to potentially be a long-term replacement, but he saw very little action as a rookie with Bell playing so many snaps. He ran pretty well, averaging 4.50 yards per carry on 32 carries, but didn’t catch a pass and is still very unproven. If Bell gets hurt, Conner will likely form a committee with 5th round rookie Jaylen Samuels, a hybrid running back/fullback/tight end that can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Steelers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Antonio Brown, fortunately, is locked up long-term, as the Steelers gave him a 4-year extension last off-season ahead of the final year of a bargain 5-year, 42 million dollar extension that Brown signed after just 2 seasons in the league back in 2012. He’s now signed through 2021. His new contract is a steep raise, as he’s now the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 4-year, 68 million dollar deal that pays him 44.2 million through the end of 2019, including a 19 million dollar signing bonus.

It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it, though his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 30 season. Over the past 5 seasons, Brown leads the NFL with 582 catches for 7,848 yards and 52 touchdowns and has finished in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-2. He’s very durable, missing just 3 games in the past 5 seasons, and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons.

The Steelers also have good talent behind Brown on the depth chart, after using a second round pick on a wide receiver in back-to-back drafts. JuJu Smith-Schuster put up a 58/917/7 slash line as a rookie, despite only playing about half the snaps in the first half of the season and missing two games down the stretch. On the season, he averaged 2.16 yards per route run (9th in the NFL) on 424 routes and led the NFL with a 134.0 QB rating when targeted. He also got better as the season went on, as he caught 41 passes for 686 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games of the season.

He needs to get more disciplined, as he had 7 penalties (second most among wide receivers) and was suspended for a game for a personal foul penalty, but he finished 14th among wide receivers on PFF in pass catching grade and has a sky high upside, only turning 22 in November. He’ll be an every down receiver in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and could easily top 1000 yards.

Martavis Bryant actually finished 2nd on this team among wide receivers with 703 snaps, but he averaged just 1.35 yards per route run and totaled just 603 yards. He was traded to the Raiders for a 3rd round pick during the draft, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. The Steelers then used their 2nd round pick (60th overall) to draft his replacement, Oklahoma State’s James Washington. Washington didn’t have the best combine, with a 4.54 40 at 5-11 213, but he plays bigger and faster and compares to Smith-Schuster on tape. He’s a great fit in Pittsburgh and could have an immediate impact as the 3rd receiver. Between these 3 receivers and Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has plenty of good options in the passing game.

They are hoping for more out of the tight end spot though, after Jesse James, Vance McDonald, and Xavier Grimble combined for 62 catches for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns on 96 targets last season. The Steelers did not add a tight end this off-season, but they are hoping to get more out of McDonald, who played just 271 snaps in 10 games in his first season in Pittsburgh in 2017. McDonald dealt with injuries and did not pick up the playbook quickly after arriving via trade from San Francisco just before the start of the season, but he was easily their most explosive receiving option with 13.4 yards per catch on 14 catches, as opposed to 8.7 yards per catch on 43 catches for Jesse James.

McDonald is a freak athlete, but has never lived up to his potential as a receiver, maxing out at 30 catches in a season in 5 years in the league. This is probably the best offense he’s played on and he could put up solid numbers if given the opportunity, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF for his pass catching ability in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. He’s a strong blocker though, so he should play a much bigger role in his 2nd season regardless.

Jesse James has started 29 games over the past 2 seasons and has played 80.4% of the snaps, but he’s combined for a 82/710/6 slash line across two seasons and has only been average as a run blocker. He was PFF’s 58th tight end out of 72 eligible on 906 snaps (4th most among tight ends) in 2017. He and McDonald should see a more even split in 2018. Xavier Grimble also remains and he’s a capable blocker, but he’s played just 366 snaps over the past 2 seasons. The wide receivers will remain the focus of this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Steelers have also had a strong offensive line for years as well, although last season was arguably their worst performance upfront in a few seasons. The biggest reason for that was veteran Ramon Foster, who struggled at left guard. Foster earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons from 2011-2016 (89 starts) and ranked 6th as recently as 2016, but he fell to 53rd out of 80 eligible in 2017 (14 starts). He could bounce back in 2018, but he’s also in his age 32 season, so his best days are probably behind him. Without a better option on the roster, the Steelers will be hoping he can be a capable starter for at least one more season. He’s in the final year of his contract and the Steelers will likely try to find an upgrade next off-season.

The Steelers are also hoping for a bounce back year from center Maurkice Pouncey, who finished 26th among 38 eligible centers in 2017. Pouncey earned a positive grade in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to 2017 and finished 11th at his position in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, though it’s worth noting he has a history of injury. He missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL and then missed 2015 with a broken leg. He may be starting to break down physically, though I would expect somewhat of a bounce back year from him.

The Steelers should also get more out of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was limited to 7 starts by a hamstring injury and a 4-game performance enhancing drugs suspension. Backup Chris Hubbard was about league average in his absence, so Gilbert wasn’t missed that much, but he’ll still be a welcome return to the lineup. Gilbert was PFF’s 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2016 and has earned positive grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons.

The concern is he’s going into his age 30 season and has played in all 16 games just twice in 7 seasons in the league (82 starts). Hubbard is no longer around, signing as a starter with the Browns this off-season, so the Steelers could be in trouble if Gilbert doesn’t make it through the season. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Western Michigan’s Chukwuma Okorafor, but he’s a developmental prospect that could struggle if he has to play as a rookie.

With Pouncey and Foster having down years and Gilbert missing more than half of the season, the Steelers were fortunate to get a career year out of right guard David DeCastro, who finished 2nd among guards on PFF and could have finished 1st if he didn’t sit out week 17 with the Steelers’ playoff seeding locked in. DeCastro has been a strong starter for 5 seasons (78 starts), earning positive grades in all 5 seasons, and finished 8th in 2016 as well, so he’s not exactly a one-year wonder. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, DeCastro should be one of the best guards in the league again in 2018.

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva rounds out this offensive line. A former US Army Ranger and converted defensive lineman who gained close to 100 pounds to play the offensive line, Villanueva has developed into a capable starter on the blindside for the Steelers, one of the more improbable stories in the NFL. He’s made 42 starts over the past 3 seasons and has been about a league average starter at arguably the most challenging spot on the line. Last season, he was PFF’s 36th ranked offensive tackle. Because he was a late bloomer, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he could easily continue being a capable starter for another couple seasons. The Steelers return all 5 starters on the offensive line and could be better than they were last season with Gilbert returning and a couple players potentially having bounce back seasons. This is a strong line.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Steelers also had a strong defense in 2017, finishing 8th in first down rate allowed at 32.34%, though they were not nearly as good down the stretch without every down linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury in the first half of their week 13 game against the Bengals. Going into that game, the Steelers ranked 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.98%, but they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.54% rate over the final 5 games of the season, which would have been the worst rate in the league over a full season. In their playoff loss to the Jaguars, they could not stop anything. Shazier’s future is in doubt and he’s at the very least expected to miss all of 2018, so the Steelers might have some defensive issues this season.

Fortunately, they still have a strong defensive line. Starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were arguably the best 3-4 end duo in the NFL, finishing 2nd and 7th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Both are proven players, though last season was the first time they had strong years at the same time. Heyward missed 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2016 and Tuitt was not the same player he is now back in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015. A second round pick back in 2014, Tuitt is coming off of back-to-back finishes in the top-9 at his position and could continue getting better, still only going into his age 25 season. The Steelers wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 60 million dollar extension early in his contract year last September.

Heyward is also locked up on a big contract long-term, re-signing for 6 years, 59.2 million back in 2015. He’s been well worth it. The 2011 first round pick has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of his last 3 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game in his career aside from the pectoral tear. Heyward returned from that injury with his best season ever, especially dominating at a pass rusher. He had a career sack 12 sacks and also added 9 hits and 40 hurries on 467 pass rush snaps, despite rushing from the interior on 88.2% of them. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, he’s one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league.

The Steelers also have a talented nose tackle in between Heyward and Tuitt. Despite being a mere 3rd round pick in 2016, Javon Hargrave has made 25 starts in 31 games in which he’s played. He’s only played 50.2% of the snaps and is primarily a run stuffer, but also added 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 15 hurries on 231 pass rush snaps in 2017. About an average starter as a rookie, Hargrave took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 27th among defensive tackles on PFF, and could continue improving in his 3rd season in the league. He’ll start at nose tackle in base packages and play rotational snaps in sub packages behind Heyward and Tuitt.

With the starting trio they have, there isn’t much need for depth, as just two other defensive lineman played more than 14 snaps last season, Tyson Alualu (434 snaps) and Leterrius Walton (144 snaps). Alualu is an 8-year veteran who is a decent run stuffer, but provides no pass rush and is going into his age 31 season. Walton, meanwhile, is a 2015 6th round pick who has played sparingly in 3 seasons in the league and has not performed well. Even with questionable depth, this is still one of the best 3-man defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

When Shazier went down, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker and played in 90.5% of his team’s snaps, so he obviously was not going to be easy to replace. Sean Spence, TJ Fort, and Tyler Matakevich saw action in his absence and all 3 were very underwhelming. Fort and Matakevich remain on the roster, but it will likely be free agent acquisition Jon Bostic starting in Shazier’s absence, after signing a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season.

A 2nd round selection by the Bears in 2013, Bostic earned negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and missed all of 2016, but he had a mini breakout year in 2017 in 14 starts. He still struggled in coverage, but finished 12th at his position in run stop grade and earned the first positive grade of his career overall. He’ll likely never be good on all downs, but is still only in his age 27 season and could easily continue being a force against the run.

Vince Williams remains as the other starter. Like Bostic, he’s a run stuffer that struggles in coverage. The 5-year veteran was an every down linebacker for the first time in his career last season. Williams is a plus blitzer, with 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 8 hurries on 78 pass rush snaps last season, but coverage ability is more important for an inside linebacker and he struggled on 304 coverage snaps. The Steelers used their first round selection on hybrid safety/linebacker Terrell Edmunds. I would expect the 6-1 217 pounder to play the majority of passing downs around the line of scrimmage in place of one of their two middle linebackers.

At outside linebacker, the Steelers start a pair of recent first rounders, Bud Dupree (22nd pick in 2015) and TJ Watt (30th pick in 2017). Dupree has not panned out yet, earning negative grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2017 season in which he finished 44th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Despite playing roughly 70% of the snaps in 38 career games, Dupree has just 14.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in his career and he’s not a good player against the run either. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2019, so they are not ready to give up on him, but that 9.232 million dollar option is only guaranteed for injury, so he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league.

Watt, on the other hand, has a much brighter future, after a promising rookie season. Not only did he impress rushing the passer, with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 26 hurries on 296 pass rush snaps, but he also played the run well and held up in coverage on 176 coverage snaps. He was PFF’s 18th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and earned positive grades across the board in all 3 defensive aspects. His ability to drop into coverage allows the Steelers to get more creative with their blitzing and should help compensate for their middle linebackers’ inability to cover. He could be even better in his 2nd season in the league.

The Steelers’ outside linebacker depth is very suspect though. Anthony Chickillo was their top reserve last season with 269 snaps, but he struggled, finishing 41st out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers. The 2015 6th round pick has played sparingly thus far in his career and has struggled whenever he’s been on the field. Arthur Moats also saw some snaps as a reserve last season, but he’s no longer with the team and the Steelers did not add any depth this off-season. Without Shazier, this is a very suspect linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to adding Terrell Edmunds through the draft, the Steelers also added safety Morgan Burnett in free agency. Like Edmunds, Burnett is versatile and can play multiple different spots. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 83.1% of snaps last season with the Packers (6th in the NFL among safeties) and played 316 of his 386 coverage snaps as either a linebacker or a slot cornerback. The Steelers figure to use the 6-1 209 pounder in a similar fashion as Green Bay did.

Burnett was a great signing on a 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s made 98 starts in the past 7 seasons and has finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in 6 of those seasons. His injury history was probably part of why he was so inexpensive, as he hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012 and has missed 14 games in the past 5 seasons combined, but, even still, he was a good signing for a team with a need at safety.

Sean Davis was their leading safety in terms of snaps played last season with 949, but the 2016 2nd round pick struggled mightily. He’s made 25 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but finished 73rd among 90 eligible safeties as a rookie and then finished dead last among 89 eligible safeties last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it would be hard to be worse. Like Burnett and Edmunds, he can line up in various different spots. He played 74.1% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and lined up on the slot or as a linebacker on 221 of 557 coverage snaps. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

Michael Mitchell, their other starter last season, is no longer with the team, getting cut following a mediocre 2017 season, while backup Robert Golden, who was solid on 206 snaps last season, is also no longer with the team, but the Steelers did also add a safety in the 5th round, taking Penn State’s Marcus Allen. The Steelers figure to frequently use 3 or even 4 safeties in sub packages to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers. They are deeper and more talented at safety than linebacker, but largely by default, as they lack proven players beyond Burnett.

Fortunately, they are more talented at cornerback, where they return their top-3 from last season. Artie Burns and Joe Haden will remain the starters, while Mike Hilton will continue to man the slot in sub packages. A first round selection by the Steelers in 2016 (25th overall), Burns took over as the starter 7 games into his rookie year and has not disappointed. He’s made all 25 starts since and has earned positive coverage grades in both seasons. Still only in his age 23 season, Burns has a sky high upside and could easily have the best year of his career in 2018.

Haden, meanwhile, came over to the Steelers last off-season after being released by the Browns. Back-to-back down seasons by Haden in 2015 and 2016 led to the Browns deciding not to keep him on the roster for 2017 at a non-guaranteed 11.25 million dollar salary, but he bounced back in his first season in Pittsburgh after they signed him to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal, earning a positive coverage grade. He’s unlikely to ever again become the player he was in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2010-2013 (4 straight seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks on PFF), as injuries have sapped his abilities, and he hasn’t played in all 16 games since his rookie year (5 games missed with a broken leg in 2017), but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, despite this being his 9th season in the league, so he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2018.

With Burns and Haden locked in outside, Hilton can focus on being a pure slot cornerback, as he was last season, when he played 292 of 352 coverage snaps on the slot. Despite being an undrafted rookie, Hilton was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. He was targeted on 38 of his 292 slot snaps, but only allowed 198 yards, an average of 0.68 yards per coverage snap and 5.21 yards per attempt. He also was an above average run stuffer and blitzer (4 sacks, 4 hits, and 8 hurries on 79 blitzes) and finished as PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback overall. It’s unclear if he can have that kind of a season again, as he’s a one-year wonder that the entire league did not deem worthy of a draft pick just a year ago, but he should be an above average slot cornerback either way.

When Haden missed time last year, it was Coty Sensabaugh and Cameron Sutton who took over his snaps, as the 5-9 183 pound Hilton lacks the size to hold up outside. Sensabaugh and Sutton will compete for the #4 cornerback job this off-season, though Sutton was a 3rd round pick in 2017 and is likely the heavy favorite. He only played 113 snaps as a rookie, but he didn’t play badly and he has the tools to be a starter long-term. Sensabaugh is a veteran journeyman who is not a lock to make the final roster with a 1.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. This is a solid secondary overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Steelers should still have one of the better offenses in the league as long as Ben Roethlisberger does not decline and the key players stay healthy, but their defense should take a step back without Ryan Shazier. They’re also unlikely to do as well in close games and their division has improved, so they’re likely to regress by a few wins in 2018. They’re still the favorites in the AFC North, but they’re highly unlikely to go 6-0 in the division again.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Not only will the Steelers’ defense take a step back in 2018, but their offense could take a step back if Le’Veon Bell continues holding out into the season. The Steelers are still my AFC North winner, but their division has improved and if they don’t get Bell back quickly they could be very vulnerable.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2017 Bengals got off to about as bad of an offensive start to the season as you can have, not scoring a single offensive touchdown in their first 2 games of the season. They faced a pair of tough defenses, Baltimore and Houston, but that was obviously not the way they wanted to start the season and, as a result, they fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor.

The Bengals were better offensively under Lazor, who previously was the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins from 2014-2016, but they were only better by default. The Bengals finished 22nd in first down rate at 32.15%, which isn’t terrible, but they also had tied for the fewest first downs (267) and they had the fewest plays run (927), so they weren’t exactly stringing together a lot of long drives. As a result, their defense had to play the most snaps in the league at 1,091 and was on the field for a league leading 32:51 per game.

Quarterback Andy Dalton’s numbers were not good either, as he had the lowest completion percentage (59.9%) and YPA (6.69) since his rookie season in 2011. He did throw for 25 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but the Bengals only had 6 rushing touchdowns, so his touchdown total was more the result of the Bengals being pass heavy in the red zone, rather than Dalton actually regularly leading this offense on scoring drives.

Dalton didn’t actually play all that badly though, as he finished 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, tied for the 2nd highest rank of his career (he finished 8th in 2015). Largely a league average starting quarterback throughout his career, Dalton’s numbers have fluctuated from year-to-year, but that’s primarily because of how the talent around him on offense has changed. Last year was arguably the worst supporting cast he’s ever had around him. If his supporting cast is better in 2018, that will show on his stat sheet.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The most important improvements the Bengals had to make on offense this off-season were on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league last season. The 40 sacks they allowed isn’t terrible (13th most in the NFL), but that was largely because of Dalton’s quick release, as he got the ball out in 2.38 seconds on average, 3rd fastest in the NFL. They ranked 22nd in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 26th in term run blocking grade.

Dalton has been a significantly worse quarterback when pressured in his career, perhaps more so than any quarterback in the league, completing just 43.6% of his passes for an average of 6.49 YPA when pressured and 67.4% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA with a clean pocket. In 2015, when this Bengals’ offense was at its peak, they had one of the best offensive lines in the league, but just one starter remains from that 2015 line and their replacements did not fare well in 2017.

Fortunately, the Bengals understood how important improving their offensive line was this off-season and did a solid job upgrading it. Their biggest weakness was left tackle, where Cedric Ogbuehi finished 75th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles in 13 starts last season on the always important blindside last season. This was not a good off-season to need a left tackle, as both the draft and free agency lacked capable left tackle options, but the Bengals got creative and traded for Cordy Glenn from the Bills.

Glenn was limited to 16 games between 2016 and 2017 due to foot and ankle injuries and he was not cheap, as he has a 11.25 million dollar salary for 2018 and the Bengals swapped the 12th pick for the 21st pick to acquire him (the equivalent of giving up a late 2nd round pick), but he’ll be worth it if he can return to form. Glenn was a top-25 offensive tackle in 4 straight seasons from 2013 to 2016 and finished 8th at his position in his last full season in 2015. Only in his age 29 season, he should theoretically be in the prime of his career and he was probably the best left tackle option the Bengals could acquire this off-season.

With Glenn coming in, Ogbuehi is moving to right tackle, where he’ll compete for the starting job with fellow 4th year lineman Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi and Fisher went in the 1st and 2nd round respectively in 2015, so both still have upside, but their careers have not gotten off to great starts. Ogbuehi played just 68 snaps as a rookie, before struggling mightily at right tackle in 2016 (64th out of 76 eligible) and then at left tackle last season. Fisher, meanwhile, has made just 11 starts in 3 seasons in the league (including 7 at right tackle last season), but he has struggled mightily when on the field. The Bengals are holding out hope that one of these players can develop into a capable starter, but this could easily remain a position of weakness in 2018.

The Bengals also used their 21st overall pick an offensive lineman, taking Ohio State center Billy Price. Between Price and Glenn, the Bengals were able to get two starting offensive linemen out of their first round pick. Price could have been a top-15 pick, but tore his pectoral at the combine, which may have knocked him down a few spots on teams’ boards. He’s expected to be healthy for training camp though and projects as a week 1 starter with the upside to be one of the better starting centers in the league in a few years. He also played guard in college, but it appears the Bengals prefer him at center, where he played as a senior. He’ll be an upgrade on last year’s starter Russell Bodine (now with the Bills), who finished 32nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF.

Left guard Clint Boling was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 and he’s also the only starter left over from their dominant 2015 offensive line. Boling finished as PFF’s 13th ranked guard, a career best, although he did struggle mightily in 2 starts down the stretch at left tackle. A 4th round pick in 2011, Boling has made 90 of 96 starts in 6 seasons since becoming the starter in 2012 and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of 6 seasons. As long as he stays at left guard all season, Boling should be an above average starter again.

Trey Hopkins will likely remain the starter at right guard, though he’s not nearly as good of a player as Boling. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Hopkins had just 10 career offensive snaps prior to last season, but he made 12 starts, only missing the other 4 due to injury. He was not bad in pass protection, but finished 66th out of 80 eligible guards in the run game and got a negative grade overall. His main competition this off-season will come from 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman, but he struggled at left guard in the first 2 starts of his career last year. Right guard should remain a position of weakness either way. The Bengals are much improved on this offensive line, but still have some holes and could be in big trouble if Cordy Glenn doesn’t stay healthy and return to form.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Bengals offensive line issues were foreseeable, after the Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency and didn’t replace either. What was not foreseeable were the issues the Bengals had at the skill position spots, including in the receiving corps. The Bengals used their first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on wide receiver John Ross (9th overall) and running back Joe Mixon and they had running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert coming back from injury and a returning receiving corps that included Pro-Bowler AJ Green, experienced veteran Brandon LaFell, and 2016 2nd round pick Tyler Boyd.

Despite that, the Bengals had just one pass catcher earn an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. AJ Green was more or less his usual self, though his numbers were not quite what you’d expect him him. Over his career, he’s averaged a slash line of 87/1288/9 per 16 games, so his 75/1082/8 slash line in 16 games in 2017 was a noticeable dip. That can mostly be attributed to the lack of talent around him. Not only did the offense struggle to stay on the field, but the lack of other receiving threats around him meant Green saw constant double teams. He was targeted on 28.4% of the Bengals’ pass attempts last season, but caught just 51.7% of them and was the target on 7 of Dalton’s 12 interceptions.

He still finished as PFF’s 17th ranked wide receiver, his 6th straight season in the top-21 at his position. His best seasons have come in 2012 (9th) and 2015 (6th). His age is becoming a slight concern in his age 30 season, but he’s missed just 10 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and should continue being a #1 caliber receiver for another couple years at the very least. They just need players to step up around him. He was their only receiver to top 548 receiving yards in 2017.

Brandon LaFell actually led this receiving corps with 860 snaps. He’s been a capable starter in the past and has 85 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s coming off of a terrible season, finishing 113th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF, and may be at the end of his line, going into his age 32 season. He posted a mediocre 52/548/3 slash line on 88 targets and averaged just 1.04 yards per route run on 528 routes. He’s unlikely to get much better at this stage of his career. The Bengals are hoping one of their young receivers can step up and take a big chunk of LaFell’s playing time. The only reason he’s still on the roster at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is because of the uncertainty behind him on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if other guys impress this off-season.

John Ross has the upside to be an above average starter long-term, but he didn’t catch a pass as a rookie and fumbled on the only touch he received all season (a 12 yard carry). Injuries and underwhelming practices limited him to just 17 offensive snaps in 3 games. It’s about as bad as a rookie year can go, especially since he came into the league with durability concerns. He has blazing speed (combine record 4.22 40) and a high upside as a deep threat, but is undersized at 5-11 188 and is a complete unknown going into his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he should give them more than he gave them as a rookie, but they need him to be a starter by the end of the season.

Tyler Boyd also dealt with a injury in 2017, missing time with a knee injury, but he was also a healthy scratch on occasion and had disciplinary problems with the coaching staff. He played in just 10 games total. Boyd doesn’t have the upside than Ross does, but he hasn’t looked bad when on the field and has played in 60.2% of the snaps in 26 career games. Only in his age 24 season, Boyd could develop into a capable receiver in 2018 if he stays healthy and out of trouble.

The Bengals also have two other young receivers who saw playing time last season, 2017 4th round pick Josh Malone (247 snaps) and 2016 undrafted free agent Alex Erickson (185 snaps), but both were pretty underwhelming. This receiving corps is so wide open that they could earn roles with strong off-seasons if other guys disappoint, but I wouldn’t expect much from either. Malone has the higher upside of the two, hence why he went in the 4th round, while Erickson is best as a return man. 7th round rookie Auden Tate has also drawn rave reviews in practice this off-season, but we’ve yet to see him do it in pads. The Bengals should get more out of their young wide receivers in 2018, but they need a consistent second option to step up opposite AJ Green.

The Bengals should also get more out of their tight ends, though that mostly depends on the health of Tyler Eifert. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has played in just 24 in the past 4 seasons since his rookie year, due to a variety of injuries (elbow, neck, ankle, knee, back). He’s scored 18 times in those 24 games and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end in his one healthy season in 2015, when he caught 52 passes for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 13 games, but he’s played just 10 games total in 2 seasons since. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, but he’s rehabbing from his second back surgery and is not considered a lock for training camp. He should give them more than last season when he played just 2 games, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever be healthy enough to live up to his potential.

In Eifert’s absence, Tyler Kroft led Cincinnati tight ends with 825 snaps, 9th most at his position. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Kroft was a capable backup tight end on about a third of the snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was overstretched in a larger role, finishing 64th among 72 eligible tight ends. He had a 42/404/7 slash line on 381 routes run, an average of just 1.06 yards per route. He’d be best as a #2 tight end, but that can only really happen if Eifert is healthy. Outside of Eifert and Kroft, the Bengals’ tight ends had just 12 catches in 2017. CJ Uzomah, a 5th round pick in 2015, is a capable blocker, but that’s about it. Despite that, they didn’t add any help at the position this off-season. They should get more out of Eifert, but how much more is a big question. There’s upside in this receiving corps, but questions all around.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bengals also struggled to run the ball in 2017, though that was mostly the fault of the offensive line, which should be better this season. Joe Mixon was the lead back and averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 178 carries, but 2.34 yards per carry came after contact, as he showed an impressive ability to fight for extra yards. He earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, despite the underwhelming statistical performance. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Mixon had the talent to go in the top-10 if not for off-the-field concerns and still has a huge upside, only turning 22 this summer. If the offensive line is better, he could have a breakout statistical year.

Mixon is not their only capable running back, as Giovani Bernard is also a former 2nd round pick (2013) and has earned positive grades in all 5 seasons in the league. Bernard actually averaged a significantly higher YPC than Mixon, averaging 4.36 yards per carry on 105 carries, but that was largely because he was mostly running in obvious passing situations when the defense was in sub packages. He also had a lower carry success rate than Mixon (41% vs. 40%). He should continue taking some playing time away from Mixon, but, if Mixon gets going, the Bengals will likely ready the hot hand.

Bernard actually played more snaps than Mixon last season because he got the majority of the passing down work. He finished 3rd on the team with 43 catches and has averaged 46 catches per season in his career. Mixon was not bad as a receiver either, catching 30 passes for 287 yards, and could easily see more passing game work in his 2nd season in the league, but Bernard will likely remain their preferred passing down back. The Bengals also used a 4th round pick on the University of Miami’s Mark Walton, but he doesn’t fill an obvious need and likely won’t play a big role as a rookie. He’s a versatile back though and can push either Mixon or Bernard for playing time if they struggle. This is a deep running back group.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Despite constantly being on the field as a result of an ineffective offense, the Bengals’ defense was actually pretty solid last season, finishing 10th in first down rate allowed at 32.81%, despite playing a league leading 1,091 snaps. As a result, the Bengals actually finished middle of the pack in first down rate differential, finishing 17th at -0.67%. Their 7-9 record in 2017 was not bad all things considered and, if they improve on offense and continue playing well on defense, they should definitely compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC.

Their defensive line was a big part of their success defensively last season. Every down linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap lead the way upfront once again, as they have for years. A defensive tackle and defensive end selected in the 4th and 2nd round respectively in 2010, Atkins and Dunlap combined for 16.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits in 2017 and have a total of 125.5 sacks and 196 hits in 8 seasons with the Bengals. They also are both above average run stuffers. They’re an inside/outside terror on the defensive line.

Atkins tore his ACL in 2013 and was quite not the same player when he returned in 2014, but, outside of those 2 seasons, he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 5 straight seasons. Even including those two seasons and his rookie year, he’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league. He’s also never missed a game with injury aside from the ACL tear. Dunlap, meanwhile, has also been incredibly durable and consistent, playing in all 80 games in the last 5 seasons and finishing in the top-19 among 4-3 defensive ends in all 5 seasons, including 17th in 2017. His top level isn’t as good as Atkins, but he’s still a talented edge player nonetheless.

Age is becoming a bit of a concern, as Atkins is in his age 30 season and Dunlap is in his age 29 season, and they’re also both going into the final year of their contracts and are due significant raises (they’re owed 9.55 million and 7.3 million respectively in 2018), but they should continue playing at a high level in 2018 and the Bengals are reportedly hoping to have both extended long-term before the start of the season. Both could push for 14-15+ million annually.

Even with two defensive linemen playing every down, the Bengals still like to rotate defensive linemen. Michael Johnson finished 3rd on this defensive line in snaps with 685, playing 425 outside and 260 inside (including 182 of 364 pass rush snaps). The veteran defensive end was coming off of 3 straight poor seasons, but moving him around the line seemed to help him, as he finished as about an average starter. He was dominant in a contract year in 2012 and then on the franchise tag in 2013, finishing 13th and 3rd respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as that since and is now going into his age 31 season. He may continue being a capable rotational defensive lineman, but he’ll almost definitely have a smaller role in 2018 and is not considered a roster lock at a non-guaranteed 5 million dollar salary.

The reason for that is because the Bengals have a trio of young defensive ends behind him on the depth chart that will push Johnson for snaps. Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson were added in the 3rd and 4th round respectively in 2017 and then they used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard. Both Willis and Lawson proved to be steals, as both flashed a lot of upside in limited action as a rookie.

Willis primarily played on run plays as a rookie (212 of 360 snaps), but he played the run well and also added a sack and 10 hurries on 143 pass rush snaps. He’s expected to play more of an every down role in his 2nd season in the league, though he’s still a projection to a larger role. Lawson, on the other hand, is a pure pass rush specialist, playing just 72 run snaps and rushing the passer 389 times, 3rd most on the team. He totaled 8.5 sacks, 11 hits, and 38 hurries, though he did struggle mightily against the run. He’ll likely remain a pass rush specialist and could easily have another strong season in that role. Hubbard, meanwhile, can line up inside and outside and could be a replacement for free agent departure Chris Smith (223 snaps inside, 178 snaps outside last season). Smith finished 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Hubbard to be an upgrade. Johnson will need a good off-season to stay on the roster, given all of the competition he faces for playing time.

At defensive tackle, Geno Atkins was the only every down player the Bengals had last season, but they added veteran Chris Baker this off-season to give them another potential every down option. The 6-2 320 pounder looks like a pure run stuffer, but gets more pass rush than you’d think. A late bloomer, Baker broke out as an every down player with the Redskins in 2015 and 2016, after the 2009 undrafted free agent played sparingly to begin his career. He finished 11th and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in those 2 seasons respectively, totaling 10.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits between the two seasons.

That earned him a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers, but he had work ethic issues in Tampa Bay and was limited to 455 underwhelming snaps in one season before being let go this off-season, owed 4.875 million non-guaranteed. The Bengals are getting him on a one-year deal worth 3 million with just 300K guaranteed and it’s a worthwhile flyer if he’s motivated. His age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily be an upgrade at the other defensive tackle spot. He’s reportedly in much better shape.

Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings were 2nd and 3rd on the Bengals among defensive tackles in snaps played with 412 and 334 respectively last season, but both were underwhelming and were purely base package players. Glasgow was a decent run stuffer, but was useless as a pass rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback on 176 pass rush snaps. Billings, meanwhile, was not good in either aspect, finishing 75th among 79 eligible defensive tackles. They were recent 4th round picks (Glasgow in 2017, Billings in 2016) playing the first action of their career, so they could get better going forward, but Baker is an obvious upgrade on both if he plays up to his potential. They also used a 5th round pick on defensive tackle Andrew Brown, but it’s unclear if he’s going to have a role as a rookie on an overall deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The one big concern on this defense is every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict being suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs. When on the field, Burfict is a true game changing linebacker. That was evident last season, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.99% rate in the 10 games Burfict played last season (which would have been 8th in the NFL), as opposed to 34.26% in the 6 games he missed (which would have been 19th in the NFL). He’s been a top-6 4-3 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons, but, between multiple suspensions and injury, he’s been limited to just 36 games in the past 4 seasons and he’ll play a maximum of 12 games in 2018. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Burfict needs to stay out of trouble going forward.

With Burfict limited to 10 games last season, Nick Vigil and Vincent Rey led this linebacking corps in snaps with 759 and 607 respectively, but both struggled, finishing 86th and 66th out of 90 eligible linebackers. With Burfict’s pending suspension, the Bengals actively sought linebacker help this off-season, signing ex-Bill Preston Brown to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal and using their 3rd round pick on Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. It’ll be an open competition for snaps, especially with Burfict out.

Brown’s salary suggests he’ll be a starter. The 2014 3rd round pick started 62 of 64 games in 4 seasons with the Bills, but he was overall a below average starter. He was an average starter as a rookie, but struggled in the next 3 seasons, with his worst play coming in 2015, when he finished dead last out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. Last season, he finished 41st out of 52 eligible. He was understandably greeted by a cold free agency market.

Vincent Rey started at middle linebacker last season and the veteran could end up back there if Brown continues to struggle, but Rey struggled last season there and is more of a starting candidate at the other outside linebacker spot. The 8-year veteran has been a useful depth linebacker because of his versatility, but he’s only earned positive grades from PFF in 2 of the past 6 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s best as a two-down run stuffer at this stage of his career. At the very least, he should see playing time early in the season with Burfict out.

Rey’s biggest competition for the other outside linebacker job is Nick Vigil. Vigil played 94.6% of the snaps in 11 games last season, but figures to have a smaller role in a deeper linebacking corps once Burfict returns. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled mightily last season, but could be better in a smaller role in his 3rd season in the league. If not, Rey provides them good insurance. Malik Jefferson could also earn a role down the stretch in an unsettled linebacking corps. He’s a freak athlete, but he’s a boom or bust prospect that needs to get more physical. Burfict is their only true every down linebacker and he’s out for the first 4 games of the season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Bengals also have a strong secondary, lead by a trio of recent first round picks. The Bengals used the 17th pick in 2012 on Dre Kirkpatrick, the 24th pick in 2014 on Darqueze Dennard, and the 24th pick in 2016 on William Jackson. Jackson looks like he’s going to end up being the best of the three, as he finished 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his first full season of action last season, after missing his entire rookie year with torn pectoral.

He allowed just 15 completions and no touchdowns on 43 targets (34.9%) and 0.38 yards per route run on 396 routes (best in the NFL), with an interception and 10 pass deflections. He’s inexperienced, as even last season he still only played 65.6% of the snaps and made 5 starts in 15 games, but he has the look of a future #1 cornerback and should be able to earn a starting role in 2018. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were the starters in 2017 (868 snaps and 899 snaps respectively), but Jackson outplayed both.

Dennard was their best slot cornerback in 2017, playing 357 of 566 coverage snaps there, allowing just 0.88 yards per snap, and finishing with a positive grade overall on PFF, but Jackson could cut into his outside snaps and make him more of a slot specialist in 2018, which is also the final year of his rookie deal. He made just 4 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, buried on the depth chart in a more veteran secondary, but he flashed in limited action in those seasons and fared well in his first season of significant action in 2017.

Kirkpatrick also did not see significant playing time until his 4th season in the league, as he made just 5 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014. Unlike Dennard, he struggled in limited action early in his career and was even worse in his first season as a starter in 2015, finishing 116th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks and committing 14 penalties. He’s finished closer to the middle of the pack in the last two seasons, but has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 6 seasons in the league and has 31 penalties in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals bizarrely re-signed him to a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He should remain a starter, but he’s the 3rd best cornerback on the team and he’s unlikely to be better in his 7th season in the league.

Starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams return at safety. Iloka has been a little better than an average starter in 5 seasons (76 starts), with his best season coming in 2014 when he finished as PFF’s 11th ranked safety. The 2012 5th round pick is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and should continue playing well. He’s also been very durable, missing just 4 games in the past 5 seasons. Williams, meanwhile, is coming off of a season in which he was limited to 579 snaps in 11 games by an elbow injury. In his absence, converted cornerback Josh Shaw played 449 snaps and finished 87th out of 89 eligible safeties.

A 2013 3rd round pick, Williams has made 30 starts in the past 3 seasons and has been about an average starter, so having him healthy for a full season should be a little bit of a boost for this secondary. They also added Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates in the 2nd round of the draft. He gives them needed insurance at the position, but was a bit of a surprising selection with both Iloka and Williams signed through 2020 on team friendly deals. This is a deep and talented secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals should be improved both on the offensive line and at the skill positions in 2018, while their defense still has a strong defensive line and secondary. Their defense may struggle to begin the season without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but they have top-10 talent on paper. If the offense can even be average, this team should be able to compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Bengals will be improved and compete for a playoff spot, but I have them just on the outside.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in AFC North