Cleveland Browns 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year after narrowly winning a week 16 game over the Chargers to finish 1-15, the Browns finished the 2nd 0-16 regular season in NFL history in 2017. Despite that, they actually finished 27th in first down rate differential at -3.45%. That’s obviously not good, but that’s not as bad as their record would suggest. The one area they really struggled was turnover margin, as they finished dead last with a -28 turnover margin. Not only was that the worst in the NFL last season, but it’s also the worst in the NFL since the Chargers posted the same mark in a 1-15 season in 2000. On average, the Browns lost the turnover margin by close to -2 per game. Teams that lose the turnover margin by 2 only win the game about 18.1% of the time, so the Browns’ turnover margin effectively made it impossible for this team to consistently win games.

The good news is that turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Since 2007, 17 teams have finished with turnover margins of -15 or worse. The following year, they, on average, have a turnover margin of +4.8 and win an average of 3.5 more games. Likewise, 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. That holds up week-to-week as well. Teams that have a turnover margin of +3 in a game, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, while teams that have a turnover margin of -3, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week.

It’s not hard to see how the Browns could be significantly better turnover wise in 2018. 28 of their 41 giveaways last season were quarterback Deshone Kizer’s and he’s no longer with the team. In fact, quarterbacks Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler combined for 34 giveaways last season and all 3 of them are no longer with the team. New starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor has just 20 giveaways total over the past 3 seasons as the starter in Buffalo (43 starts). His interception rate is just 1.29% in those 3 seasons, only behind Tom Brady over that time period.

Part of that is as a result of playing on a run heavy team. He did average the fewest attempts per game of any starter in the league over the past 3 seasons, with just 28.2 (451 attempts over a 16 game season), but he also provides value on the ground as a runner, rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC) in those 3 seasons combined. He’s finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons respectively. As long as the Browns don’t try to run a traditional pass heavy offense, Taylor should be a huge upgrade for a team that had easily the worst quarterback play in the NFL last season and that has started 28 different quarterbacks since returning in 1999 (none of whom won a playoff game). Acquiring him for the 65th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was a smart move by the Browns.

The Browns also used the 1st overall pick on a quarterback, taking Baker Mayfield over early favorite Sam Darnold and running back Saquon Barkley. Taylor only has 1 year left on his contract at a 16 million dollar salary and will likely be one and done as the Browns’ starter. Mayfield gives them a potential franchise quarterback of the future at a cost controlled salary. His rookie deal is projected to be worth just 32.5 million over 4 years, an absolute bargain, given that 20 quarterbacks in NFL make more than 18 million annually. That will allow the Browns to spend more to build around the quarterback than most teams in the league. Mayfield was easily the most accurate passer in the draft, but drew mixed reviews because of his lack of height and off-the-field issues. He should be their starter in 2019 and possibly long beyond if he proves to be the Browns’ long awaited franchise quarterback. For now, Taylor is the starter unless he uncharacteristically struggles.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Taylor was not the Browns’ only big off-season addition. At the start of the off-season, the Browns had the most cap space in the NFL, as a result of deliberate attempts in recent years to cut salary, roll cap space forward, and accumulate multiple high draft picks, while letting young players play. The Browns still have 70.9 million in cap space as of this writing and 36.1 million in 2019, but they were aggressive in their attempts to improve this roster this off-season. Aside from Taylor, their biggest move was the addition of Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins. Landry was franchise tagged and the cap strapped Dolphins could not afford him, so they traded him to the Browns for a 4th and a 7th round pick and the Browns made him the 5th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal.

A 2nd round pick in 2014, Landry has 400 catches in 4 seasons in the league, only behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones over that time period. He’s averaged just 10.0 yards per catch over that time period though, with more than half of that yardage coming after the catch (5.34 yards per catch after the catch). His average depth of target in 4 seasons in the league is just 4.79 yards from scrimmage. The 5-11 202 pounder ran a 4.77 40 at the combine, which is why he slipped in the draft, but he has reliable hands (just 21 career drops) and is tough to bring down in the open field (76 broken tackles, 2nd among wide receivers in the past 4 seasons). He’s quicker than fast and he’s built more like a running back than a receiver.

His reputation is as a slot receiver and he’s run 70.76% of his career routes from the slot, but he’s also averaged 1.88 yards per route run on the outside (as opposed to 1.94 on the slot), so he’s versatile enough to line up anywhere and play every down. He’s played 82.1% of snaps in 4 seasons in the league. He might not post as big of numbers with the Browns as he did with the Dolphins because they figure to be more run heavy with Taylor under center, but he should still have a solid statistical season. Like Taylor, he has to be used properly, but he’s a big addition to an offense that was devoid of playmakers in 2018.

Wide receiver was a major position of weakness last season. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis led Browns wide receivers with 663 and 573 snaps respectively and they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 106th and 114th ranked wide receivers respectively out of 118 eligible. The only Cleveland wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 was Josh Gordon, who returned from suspension with 5 games left in the season and showed pretty well on 257 snaps. He caught just 41.9% of his passes, but averaged 18.6 yards per catch and 2.01 yards per route run, despite terrible quarterback play. He was clearly their most talented receiver and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver, despite playing less than a third of the season.

Gordon is hardly the most reliable player, getting suspended several times and missing all of 2015 and 2016 with suspension, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and still has obvious talent. A 2nd round pick by the Browns in the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in which he’s actually played and finished 15th among wide receivers in overall grade in his last full season in 2013, when he posted a 87/1646/9 slash line and led the NFL in receiving in 14 games. Between disciplinary problems in college and in the NFL, Gordon has only played in 62 total games since 2010 and he is far from a guarantee to ever return to his 2013 form, but he should give the Browns more in 2018 than he did 2017, at the very least, which will be a boost to this offense.

The Browns also should get more out of Corey Coleman, who missed 7 games with a broken hand last season. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Coleman also missed 6 games with a broken hand as a rookie and has been a bust on the field as well. He’s caught just 43.1% of the targets thrown to him and has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run on 653 routes. Quarterback play is part of the problem, but he’s also earned poor grades from PFF in both seasons. Only going into his age 24 season, Coleman still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

With Landry and Gordon ahead of him on the depth chart, Coleman will have to earn a role in 3-wide receiver sets, with his primary competition being 4th round rookie Antonio Callaway. Despite not being a high pick, Callaway has first round talent and only fell because of off-the-field issues. If he can stay out of trouble, he has a chance to be an immediate contributor. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis, who led the Browns in wide receiver snaps in 2017, are now competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster in a completely revamped wide receiver group that should be much improved.

Tight end has a chance to be better as well, although that’s mostly reliant on the development of 2017 1st round pick David Njoku. Njoku has a high ceiling, but did not even turn 21 until 2 months after the draft and was widely considered a major project. Despite a lack of playmakers on this offense, Njoku played just 500 snaps as a rookie and was pretty underwhelming both as a receiver and a blocker. He split time with 2016 4th round pick Seth DeValve, a converted wide receiver who predictably struggled as a blocker and didn’t fare all that well as a pass catcher either.

Njoku and DeValve actually finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving yards in 2017, but that says more bad about the rest of the Browns’ receivers than anything good about Njoku and DeValve, as they had slash lines of just 32/386/4 and 33/395/1 respectively. Despite both Njoku and DeValve being plus athletes, the Browns regularly lined them up as inline tight ends. The average tight end lined up on the slot on 38.3% of his routes in 2018, but DeValve played on the slot on just 33.0% of his routes and Njoku did so on just 22.5% of routes. Perhaps they’ll be more inventive with them in 2018, though I would expect Njoku play more snaps at DeValve’s expense regardless. Njoku could still be pretty raw, but he could also be significantly improved in his 2nd season in the league.

The Browns also brought in Darren Fells as a free agent from the Lions. He’s primarily a blocking tight end, but signed a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal, which suggests he’ll have a significant role. Randall Telfer was their blocking specialist last season and led the Browns’ tight ends with 161 run blocking snaps, but he only played 300 total snaps on the season and caught just 3 passes. Fells has never topped 21 catches in a season, but is a little bit more of a pass catcher than Telfer was. He should take over as the #2 tight end, leaving DeValve as a situational player in a much deeper receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Running back Duke Johnson actually led this team in receiving in 2017 and by a considerable amount. His 71 catches were more than double anyone else on the team (2nd most was 33) and his 693 yards were almost 300 more than the next closest Cleveland receiver (395). That’s even more impressive when you consider he played just 53.0% of the team’s snaps. He averaged 2.08 yards per route run on 333 routes, 7th among running backs.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson has 188 catches in 3 seasons in the league and has also averaged 4.19 yards per carry on 259 carries. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, with his highest graded season coming in 2017, when he finished 5th among running backs in overall grade and 3rd in pass catching grade. He finished the season 8th among running backs in elusive rating, averaging 2.62 yards per carry after contact and breaking 39 tackles on 156 touches.

The Browns wisely re-signed Johnson to a 3-year, 15.6 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, but he’ll likely have a smaller role this season. With a better receiving corps, the Browns won’t have to rely on dump offs to the running back as often and I would expect their pass attempt total to drop as well (574 last season), as they have a quarterback who likes to take off and run and likely they won’t be in catch up mode as often as they were last season.

Johnson also figures to have a smaller role in the run game in 2018. The Browns lost lead back Isaiah Crowell (206 carries last season) to the Jets in free agency, but they signed Carlos Hyde from the 49ers to a 3-year, 15.25 million dollar deal and used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Nick Chubb. Much like his predecessor Crowell, Hyde is an early down power back who is basically useless on passing downs. He’s averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons in the league on some mediocre offenses in San Francisco and has earned positive run grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, but he’s also earned negative pass catching and pass protecting grades in all 4 seasons.

Hyde’s worst season on pass downs came last season, when the 49ers attempted to turn him into an every down back. He played a career high 388 pass snaps, but averaged just 4.02 yards per attempt on 87 targets, dropped 9 passes, and allowed 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 7 hurries on 111 pass block snaps. In Cleveland, he figures to be purely an early down back. Overall, he’s a slight downgrade from Crowell and he’s more injury prone, missing 14 games in 4 seasons in the league.

He is owed just 5.5 million in the first year of his deal and doesn’t have any guaranteed money left after this year, so it’s possible he could spend just one season in Cleveland. The Browns used the 35th pick on Nick Chubb, so they clearly envision a big long-term role for him. He’ll push Hyde for playing time immediately, though he’s a raw passing down player, so Johnson will play the vast majority of pass snaps. Johnson likely won’t get the ball as much in 2018 though, on an offense with much more skill position talent than 2017.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As bad as the Browns have been in the last decade, the one thing they could always count on was Joe Thomas’ strong play at left tackle. The 3rd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas played 11,058 straight snaps (167 starts) to start his career before tearing his triceps last season and he finished in the top-9 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 11 seasons in the league. The best pass protector of his generation spent his entire career on a team without much worth protecting, which is why it’s a shame that he decided to retire this off-season, right when it finally looked like the Browns were building something. He’ll almost definitely be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 5 years.

Thomas was going into his age 34 season, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury (he was ranked #1 at his position on PFF at the time) and he’ll obviously be missed. That’s especially true because this was a bad off-season to need a left tackle, as both free agency and the draft had few options. It will likely be one of two players replacing him, either last year’s starting right tackle Shon Coleman or rookie Austin Corbett, who the Browns selected with the first pick of the second round (#33).

Coleman was a 3rd round selection in 2016, but has struggled thus far in his career. After playing just 62 snaps as a rookie, Coleman made all 16 starts at right tackle in 2017 and finished 68th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles. He’s only in his 3rd season in the league, but he was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, and he’s unlikely to get significantly better on the more difficult blindside in 2018. He would be best as a swing tackle.

Corbett is probably the better left tackle option. He was a great collegiate left tackle but his lack of size (6-4 306) and arm length (33 ⅛”) had many expecting he’d move to guard or even center at the next level. The Browns don’t have a need on the interior of their offensive line and they probably wouldn’t use such a high pick on a backup, so they clearly are going to give him a shot to be the left tackle. I would expect him to be the week 1 starter, but there’s uncertainty at one of the most important positions in the game for the first time in a while in Cleveland.

Whoever wins the left tackle job, free agent acquisition Chris Hubbard is locked in at right tackle, after signing a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal in free agency. Hubbard was one of the headliners of a weak offensive tackle class in free agency, but he was never even a true starter with his previous team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Hubbard did make 14 starts (13 at right tackle, 1 at left tackle) with the Steelers over the past 2 seasons and was about a league average starter in those starts, but he’s a projection to a larger role. Largely a desperation signing for a team that badly needed offensive tackle help, Hubbard is the 4th highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary. He’s an overpay at that price, but he could be a solid starter for them at right tackle.

The Browns also gave out big contracts to their starting interior offensive linemen last off-season. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was their big free agent acquisition, as the ex-Bengal signed a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal that made him the highest paid guard in the league at the time. A first round pick in 2012, Zeitler has made 87 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 16 in his first season in Cleveland in 2017. He’s been an above average starter throughout his career and has finished in the top-10 among guards in 4 straight seasons. It didn’t show up in the win/loss column, but his addition made this offensive line significantly better. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Zeitler should continue playing at a high level for at least a few more seasons.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is also one of the highest paid guards in the league, as the Browns gave him a 5-year, 51 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. Bitonio was coming off of two injury plagued seasons, playing just 15 games in 2015 and 2016 combined, so his deal was much riskier than Zeitler’s, but he played in all 16 games in 2017 for the first time since his rookie season in 2014 and he showed his rookie year form, finishing 5th among guards on PFF, after finishing 4th as a rookie.

As long as he can stay healthy, he should continue playing well for at least a few more seasons as well, as he too is in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. He and Zeitler are arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. Bitonio played left tackle in college, so it’s possible the Browns flip him to left tackle at some point if Corbett struggles, but, like Corbett, he doesn’t have great size (6-4 302) or arm length (33 ⅞”) and the Browns probably don’t want to move him from a spot where he’s played so well to a spot where he hasn’t played since college.

Center JC Tretter rounds out this offensive line. He wasn’t as expensive as the Browns’ guards, but still got a solid contract last off-season, worth 16.75 million over 3 seasons. Like Chris Hubbard, Tretter was never really a starter on his previous team (Green Bay), but the 2013 4th round pick made 10 starts at center as an injury fill-in during his final 2 seasons in Green Bay and earned positive grades from PFF for both seasons. In 2017, he made all 16 starts for the Browns and finished as PFF’s 14th ranked center. He should continue being a solid starter in 2018. If Corbett doesn’t work out at left tackle, it’s possible they move him to center at some point in the future to compete with Tretter, but this is Tretter’s job for the foreseeable future. Even with unproven players at tackle, this is still a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Browns actually had a decent defense in 2017, finishing 21st in first down rate allowed at 34.80%. They allowed 42 touchdowns, 3rd most in the league, but that was largely because their offense so often stuck them with terrible field position. They allowed 315 first downs, just 15th most in the NFL. They struggled in pass coverage, allowing 7.39 YPA, 26th in the NFL, but they had the 2nd best run defense in the league, allowing 3.35 yards per carry. Given all of their cap space and their high draft picks, the Browns had an opportunity to get better on defense this off-season. They made a lot of moves, but it’s unclear if they actually got any better.

One of their weirder moves was sending defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the Patriots for a swap of a 2018 5th round pick for a 2019 3rd round pick. The 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Shelton only had 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits in 3 seasons with the Browns and was only a two-down player in the Browns new 4-3 defense in 2017 (469 snaps), but he was a dominant run stuffer and a huge part of the reason why the Browns were so good against the run last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked run stopping defensive tackle in 2016 and their 13th ranked run stopping defensive tackle last season. In his career, the Browns allowed just 3.9 yards per carry with him on the field, as opposed to 4.6 YPC without.

Fortunately, the Browns do have an obvious internal replacement for him, as 2017 3rd round pick Larry Ogunjobi flashed serious potential on 300 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he was PFF’s 18th ranked defensive tackle against the run and he also flashed more pass rush ability than Shelton. The 6-2 305 pounder is not quite the run stuffer Shelton is and he’s not nearly as proven, but he has much more upside as an every down player. He should see a significant role in his 2nd season in the league and could lead the Browns’ defensive tackles in snaps.

Ogunjobi is not their only 2nd year defensive tackle who could see a bigger role, as 2017 6th round pick Caleb Brantley also figures to play more in 2018. He wasn’t a high pick, but he fell mostly because of an uncertain legal situation around the time of the draft and was originally projected to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. He only played 217 snaps as a rookie, but fared well enough that he’s deserving of a larger role. The 6-2 307 pounder is a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but has the upside to be an every down player.

His primary competition figures to be Trevon Coley, who actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 656. The 2016 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie and bounced between the Ravens, Redskins, and Browns, but the Browns strangely gave him a large role in his second season in the league. Coley was a decent run stopper at 6-1 310, but led this defensive line in pass play snaps as well and managed just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 hurries on 360 pass rush snaps. He should still play a big role in 2018, but may be more of a two-down player. The Browns also have Jamie Meder returning from a season ending ankle injury, but he only played 178 snaps in 10 games last season. He’s been a capable depth player for the Browns over the past 3 seasons, but is not a lock to make the final roster.

The Browns also like lining up their defensive ends up inside in passing situations, which makes sense, because their defensive ends are bigger than average and their defensive tackles are not great pass rushers. Carl Nassib (6-5 275), Myles Garrett (6-4 272), and Emmanuel Ogbah (6-4 275) were their top-3 defensive ends in 2017 with 643, 518, and 462 snaps respectively and they also added Chris Smith (6-1 266) and Chad Thomas (6-5 281) this off-season.

The Browns struggled to get consistent pass rush in 2017, hence why they added Smith and Thomas. They had just 34 sacks as a team (21st in the NFL) and only one edge rusher finished with a positive pass rush grade on PFF. They should be better in 2018 though. Myles Garrett was easily their best pass rusher, but an ankle injury and a concussion limited him to 518 snaps in 11 games. Even on just 300 pass rush snaps, Garrett had 7 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries. He also played well against the run and finished 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF overall. The 1st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett has a sky high ceiling and is an obvious breakout candidate if he can stay healthy for a full season. He’ll likely lead this defensive line in snaps in 2018 and should push for double digit sacks and quarterback hits.

Emmanuel Ogbah should also be healthier, after missing 6 games with a broken foot last season. The 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ogbah has been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career. Despite playing 73.8% of the snaps in 26 career games, Ogbah has just 9.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. He’s developed into a capable run stuffer, but he’s earned a negative pass rush grade from PFF in both seasons in the league. He could be better this season, going into his 3rd year in the league, and he’ll likely be healthier as well. Of his 268 pass rush snaps in 2017, 120 of them came from the interior, so he has the versatility to play close to every down, even on a relatively deep defensive line.

Chris Smith is also versatile, playing 99 pass rush snaps outside and 176 pass rush snaps inside last season with the Bengals. Unfortunately, he isn’t that good. The 2014 5th round pick played just 312 total snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and was underwhelming in his first significant action in 2017, finishing 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. The Browns signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal with 4.5 million guaranteed as a free agent this off-season, so he’s locked into a roster spot, but he might not have much more than a rotational role.

Chad Thomas is also a roster lock, given that the Browns just used a 3rd round pick on him. He’s very raw though, so he might not play a huge role as a rookie, although he also has the versatility to line up in multiple spots. That leaves Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard competing for spots at the bottom of the roster. Nassib led all Cleveland defensive ends in snaps with 643 in 2017, but, with Garrett and Ogbah healthy and Smith and Thomas coming in, he falls down the depth chart.

Nassib is a decent run stopper, but he’s managed just 5.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits in 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, despite playing 30 of 32 games and 57.7% of the snaps. Orchard is also a former high pick that hasn’t panned out, going in the 2nd round in 2015. He’s been underwhelming on 998 career snaps in 34 games. Nassib’s versatility (239 pass rush snaps on the edge and 110 on the interior in 2017) likely gives him a better chance at a job, as the 6-4 255 pound Orchard is only an edge player. Even without Danny Shelton, this is still a deep defensive line. They should get more pass rush this season, though their run defense might not be quite as good.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Browns also like to rush their linebackers off the edge in sub packages. Jamie Collins is the best suited for that role, but he missed 10 games between a concussion and a knee injury. A do everything linebacker, Collins earned positive grades for his pass rush, pass coverage, and run stopping ability in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to his injury plagued 2017 season, with his best seasons coming in 2014 and 2015, when he finished 5th and 7th respectively among linebackers. On 427 career pass rush snaps, he has 13.5 sacks, 17 hits, and 41 hurries.

Given how good he’s been at his best, it was a surprise that the Browns were able to acquire Collins from New England for a mere 3rd round pick during the 2016 season. With Collins set to hit free agency, they re-signed him to a 4-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season, but his first season in Cleveland was a major disappointment. Not only did he miss the time with injury, but he was underwhelming even when on the field. He managed just 1 sack, 1 hit, and 1 hurry on 78 pass rush snaps and was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible. Collins is still probably in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Collins was technically their 3rd linebacker in 2017, as fellow linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey both played every single defensive snap last season. Unlike most 3rd linebackers, Collins played 92.0% of the snaps in the games he was healthy, as the Browns frequently kept all 3 on the field in passing situations, with one of them serving as an edge rusher or even a slot cornerback (Kirksey was 2nd on the team with 135 snaps on the slot, allowing 24 completions on 28 attempts). Even when Collins was out, backup James Burgess played 91.2% of the snaps in 9 starts, even though the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first significant action of his career, finishing 28th among 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers.

The Browns added veteran linebacker Mychal Kendricks in free agency this off-season to improve their depth. Kendricks has been inconsistent in his 6-year career, but he’s made 74 starts and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. The Eagles cut him this off-season, but that’s because his salary (6 million non-guaranteed) was excessive for a team with cap problems and an already strong linebacking corps. He doesn’t fill a huge need for the Browns, but he came inexpensive on a one-year deal (3.5 million) and should be a part of a rotation at linebacker. He fits in well in Cleveland because he’s a plus pass rusher for a linebacker, with 14 sacks, 25 hits, and 48 hurries on 436 pass rush snaps in his career.

As I mentioned, Schobert and Kirksey played every snap on defense last season, even staying on the field for dime packages. They were two of just three defensive players in the league to play every snap. With Kendricks coming in and and Collins coming back healthy, I would expect them to get more breathers in 2018. Schobert and Kirksey are both solid run stuffers, but they’re also underwhelming in pass coverage. This is an improved linebacking corps, but they still don’t have a great coverage linebacker.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Most of the moves the Browns made on defense this off-season were in the secondary. They added 3 cornerbacks through free agency, a new starting safety through a trade, and drafted a cornerback with the 4th overall pick. Then they traded last year’s starting cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor for last round picks, even though both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017 and had reasonable salaries (3 million and 4.25 million respectively).

Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward and free agent signing TJ Carrie (31 million over 4 years) were their biggest investments this off-season, so they figure to start. Ward was a surprise pick with the 4th overall pick, as most expected them to take defensive end Bradley Chubb, but the Browns felt they had a bigger need at cornerback for some reason and drafted a player most felt would go somewhere from picks 8-12. He has a bright future, but he’s no guarantee to be an upgrade over last year’s starters as a rookie.

Carrie also has a high upside, but he’s been inconsistent in his career. A 7th round pick in 2014 by the Raiders, Carrie made 14 starts in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but struggled mightily, finishing 108th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. As a result, he was limited to just 325 snaps in 16 games in 2016, but injuries forced him back into the starting lineup in 2017 and he finished 33rd at his position in 15 starts. It’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being an above average cornerback, but he’s a one-year wonder at that level. The Browns are set to pay him 16 million over the first two years of the deal, so it’s a risky signing, but it could pay off. He has the versatility to play both outside and slot cornerback, giving the Browns flexibility. He played 394 snaps on the slot last season, 4th most in the NFL.

Fellow free agent additions EJ Gaines and Terrance Mitchell will also compete for roles, as will incumbent slot cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Gaines is a talented cornerback when healthy and finished last season as PFF’s 23rd ranked cornerback, but concerns about his durability limited him to a 1-year prove it deal worth just 4 million this off-season. He was PFF’s 29th ranked cornerback in 15 starts with the Rams as a 6th round rookie in 2014 but then he missed all of the 2015 season with a foot injury and was not the same player in 2016, finishing 111st among 120 eligible at his position, which led to him being a throw-in to the Bills in the Sammy Watkins trade last off-season. Even last year, when he had a solid season, he missed 5 games with injury. He can earn a role as an outside cornerback with a strong off-season, but he might not make it through the season.

Mitchell was also a starter in 2017, playing 705 snaps with the Chiefs, but he’s not as good of a player as Gaines is when Gaines is healthy. Mitchell flashed in limited action early in his career, but the 2014 7th round pick only played 373 snaps in 3 seasons prior to struggling in the first significant action of his career in 2017. He’d be best as a depth cornerback, but his contract (10 million over 3 years with 4 million in the first year) suggests he’ll at least get a shot at a big role.

All of these off-season additions might leave Boddy-Calhoun as the odd man out, even though he was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He played 216 of his 346 cover snaps on the slot and allowed just 11 of 22 for 84 yards and a touchdown on those snaps. He allowed just 0.42 yards per coverage snap on the slot, which was the best in the NFL. The 2016 undrafted free agent was not as good outside as a rookie though and he faces an uphill battle against Carrie for snaps on the slot. It’s possible the Browns could trade him before the start of the season if they get a good offer.

The Browns also added Damarious Randall in a trade from Green Bay this off-season, giving up DeShone Kizer and a swap of mid round draft picks. Randall played cornerback with the Packers, but will move back to his collegiate position of safety in Cleveland. Randall struggled in 3 seasons with the Packers, earning negative coverage grades in all 3 seasons, which is why the Packers decided to move on from him, but moving back to his college position could help. He was a 1st round pick (30th overall) back in 2015 and is still only going into his age 26 season. If he continues to struggle, his 9.069 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed for injury only, so he could easily be one and done in Cleveland.

Randall will take the place of Derrick Kindred in the starting lineup. Kindred, a 4th round pick in 2016, was not bad in 2017 (10 starts), but Randall is a better fit next to 2017 1st round pick Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is best as a box safety, but Kindred is as well, so they lined Kindred up in the box (within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage) on 72.1% of snaps (12th most in the NFL) and lined Peppers up in the box on just 20.7% of snaps (6th fewest in the NFL).

Predictably, Peppers struggled, finishing 85th out of 89 eligible safeties on PFF. In his 2nd year in the league, he should have a much better year in a better spot. If he doesn’t, the Browns still have Kindred as insurance and could possibly bench Peppers down the stretch. This is a much deeper secondary than last year, but it’s unclear how much better they actually are. At the very least, they’re better prepared to deal with injuries and are more versatile to deal with a variety of different matchups.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Simply switching from the turnover prone DeShone Kizer to the much more careful Tyrod Taylor should have a big impact on this offense, but the Browns also have a much improved receiving corps and a solid running game and offensive line. They could easily be a capable offense. Defensively, they should be better at rushing the passer and they are deeper and more versatile in the secondary, though their run defense might not be quite as good. The AFC is definitely the weaker of the two conferences, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team compete for a playoff spot. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Browns might not make the playoffs, but they should be competitive for the first time in a while thanks to improved quarterback play and better offensive weapons.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC North

Los Angeles Rams 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2016, the Rams had the fewest points in the league with 224. In 2017, they scored 478 points, most in the league, the first time in NFL history a team had gone from worst to first in points. You can’t give the offense all of the credit, as they had 5 defensive return touchdowns, got another one from their special teams, and had fantastic special teams all season (2nd in special teams DVOA), but their offense was statistically one of the best in the league. They finished 9th in first down rate at 35.60% (after finishing dead last in 2016 at 27.92% and in 2015 at 29.13%) and had the 4th most offensive touchdowns in the league with 45 (only behind the Patriots, Eagles, and Saints), even though most of their starters took week 17 off.

The obvious difference from 2016 to 2017 was the coaching staff. In 2016, they were coached by old school, defensive minded Jeff Fisher who consistently employed uninventive offensive coaches. Fisher was fired with 3 games left in the 2016 season and the Rams replaced him in the off-season with bright young offensive mind Sean McVay, who was the youngest coach in modern NFL history when he was hired (30 years old) and went on to win Coach of the Year in his first season with the Rams.

Perhaps the most important impact McVay had on this team was on young quarterback Jared Goff. The 1st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, who the Rams traded a pair of first rounders (#15 in 2016 and #5 in 2017), a pair of second rounders, and a pair of third rounders to move up acquire, Goff had a miserable rookie year. He spent the first 9 games of the season on the bench behind veteran Case Keenum, who was not exactly setting the world on fire with his play, and it became apparent why he wasn’t playing once he finally got on the field. Goff started the final 7 games of the season and looked totally unprepared for the NFL. He completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and the Rams moved the chains at a pathetic 24.62% rate in those 7 games.

In 2017, like the rest of this offense, Goff’s play was night and day. He completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. He wasn’t quite as good as his numbers suggested, as a lot of his production came from throwing to open receivers, but he still finished a solid 15th on Pro Football Focus, up from 30th as a rookie. He also didn’t call any of the audibles at the line of scrimmage, as McVay handled all of that to make Goff’s life easier, but it clearly worked for this offense. Goff is still only going into his age 24 season, so he could easily continue getting better under McVay’s tutelage.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Not only is Goff a capable starter with upside, but he also comes at a very reasonable price, as he’s in just the 3rd year of a 4-year rookie deal worth a total of 28 million. In a league where 20 quarterbacks make more than 18 million annually, Goff is an absolute bargain. That allows the Rams to spend comparatively more on the rest of their roster than the majority of the league, which is a huge benefit. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Super Bowl with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles making a combined 12.2 million annually on their current contracts.

That window closes fast though. Goff’s 5th year option for 2020 will cost the Rams upwards of 20 million and his long-term extension could be worth upwards of 30 million annually in 2021 and beyond if he continues to develop. Even with a growing cap, that’s a big number and will limit their options for filling out the rest of the roster. As a result, the Rams are aggressively going all in on these next couple seasons.

This strategy was never clearer than when the Rams sent the 23th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft along with a 6th round pick to the Patriots this off-season for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. Cooks was sent to the Patriots from the Saints last off-season with a 4th round pick in exchange for picks 32 and 96, so the Rams are only paying about a 6th round pick less than the Patriots did for Cooks per the draft trade value chart, even though Cooks made just 1.563 million in 2017 and is set to make 8.459 million in the final year of his rookie contract in 2018. After that, the Rams will have to make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league (upwards of 15 million annually) in order to keep him long-term.

Cooks put up over 1000 yards last season in New England (65/1082/7), his 3rd straight 1000+ yard season, but he finished middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus. He’s been very productive in his career, but he’s played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tom Brady and has never finished higher than 30th at his position on PFF. He’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so he could easily continue getting better, but, between the first round pick they gave up for him and the long-term extension they’ll have to give him to keep him, the Rams overpaid.

Cooks replaces Sammy Watkins, who signed with the Chiefs this off-season. Watkins had a disappointing 39/593/8 slash line in 15 games for the Rams last season, after being acquired for a 2018 2nd round pick a month before the season started. Between that trade, the trade for Cooks, and trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the Rams were without their own 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th round pick in this year’s draft and will be without their 2nd round pick in next year’s draft. Through other trades, they ended up with 11 picks this year, but only one (#89) came in the top-100. On top of that, the Rams were without a 1st and 3rd round pick in 2017 due to the Jared Goff trade and Goff was their only pick in the top-100 in 2016. That could leave the Rams without much needed cheap young talent in a few years.

Making matters worse, the talent the Rams already have on this team is going to get very expensive to keep in the few off-seasons. Between Cooks, Peters, running back Todd Gurley, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams have four players who went in the first round in either 2014 or 2015 who will need to be paid near the top of their position to be kept long-term and that’s even before getting to Goff’s extension. The Rams have another 5 starters (Ndamukong Suh, LaMarcus Joyner, Jamon Brown, Rodger Saffold, and Rob Havenstein) set to hit free agency in 2019, so they’ll have some tough choices to make in the next year. Teams built around 5 or 6 highly paid players rarely make deep playoff runs, especially if they don’t have a lot of young talent on cheap rookie deals, so the Rams’ Super Bowl window could be pretty narrow.

Outside of Goff, the Rams have gotten very little out of their 2016 draft class, but, fortunately, they managed to have a strong draft in 2017, despite sending picks #5 and #100 (compensation pick for losing Janoris Jenkins) to the Titans in the Goff trade. The Rams still had their own third rounder and a third rounder they received for trading down with the Bills, the former of which they used on wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp played a big role as a rookie, catching 62 passes for a team leading 869 yards and 5 touchdowns. He primarily played on the slot (249 of 424 pass routes), but averaged 2.06 yards per route run as an outside receiver and 2.04 yards per route run as a slot receiver, showing impressive versatility. He was an old rookie and is already going into his age 25 season (he’s older than Cooks, who was drafted 3 years earlier), so he may have a low ceiling, but he should continue being a dependable receiver.

The Rams also have Robert Woods at wideout, in the 2nd year of a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal they signed him to as a free agent last off-season. Despite being limited to 12 games, the ex-Bill caught 56 passes for a career high 781 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 2.17 yards per route run on 360 routes. Even though he never put up big numbers in Buffalo, it’s not a huge surprise he broke out last season with the Rams. He was a former 2nd round pick who averaged 1.73 yards per route run on 355 routes in 13 games on a run heavy offense in Buffalo and he was only in his age 25 season in 2017.

Woods has had lingering injury issues and has only played in all 16 games once in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should continue being a dependable weapon for this passing game. With Woods and Kupp already on the roster, the trade for Cooks did not seem necessary. 2017 4th round pick Josh Reynolds also looked ready to take on a bigger role in his second season in the league, after flashing on 280 snaps as a rookie, but he’ll remain the 4th receiver at best in 2018.

The Rams also used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on a tight end, taking Gerald Everett 44th overall after trading down with the Bills. Everett did not nearly have as good of a rookie year as Kupp, but the South Alabama product was considered a project when he was drafted. He’s a freak athlete and showed big play ability as a rookie with catches of 39, 44, and 69, but he only had 13 catches for 92 yards combined the rest of the season and needs to get stronger as a blocker. He’s a candidate for a 2nd year leap, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With Everett still developing, he played just 296 snaps as a rookie, while second year tight end Tyler Higbee played 731 snaps as the starter. He was pretty ineffective though. The 2016 4th round pick has developed into a capable blocker, but he caught just 25 of 45 targets for 295 yards and 1 touchdown on 253 routes run (1.17 yards per route run). Higbee is only going into his 3rd year in the league, but projects a capable #2 tight end at best long-term. He and Everett could see closer to equal snaps in 2018. The wide receivers should remain the focal point of this offense regardless.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running back Todd Gurley actually finished 2nd on this team in receiving last year, turning 64 catches into 788 yards and 6 touchdowns. With Cooks coming in, Kupp and Everett going into their 2nd season, and Robert Woods likely playing more games, Gurley will probably see fewer than the 87 targets he saw last season, but he’ll remain a huge part of the offense regardless. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley has played 44 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and has averaged 17.9 carries per game in those 3 seasons (286 carries over a 16 game season).

Gurley’s YPC average has fluctuated from 4.83 in 2015 to 3.18 in 2016 to 4.68 in 2017, but he’s run well in all 3 seasons. From 2015 to 2016, the difference in his average was just a few carries. In 2015, he broke 11 runs of 20+ yards for 428 yards total (38.7% of his season total) and in 2016 he broke just 2 runs of 20+ yards of 46 yards total (just 5.2% of his season total). His carry success rate was 43% in 2015 and 41% in 2016, so, outside of a small percentage of his carries, he was more or less the same back. In 2017, with a better offense around him and a better coaching staff, Gurley saw that carry success rate jump up to 53% (5th in the NFL) and he finished the season as statistically the top running back in the NFL. He led the NFL with 19 touchdowns and 2,093 yards from scrimmage, in just 15 games.

His biggest season-to-season change has been his development in the passing game, as he’s gone from 21 to 43 to 64 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He averaged a ridiculous 12.31 yards per catch in 2017 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back on the season in overall grade. As long as he stays healthy, Gurley should push for 350+ touches again in 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 24 season, Gurley should continue to do big things in this offense, though it’s fair to wonder how much the Rams are going to be willing to pay him long-term, given all of the other players they need to pay and the devaluation of the running back position in general. For now, he’s a Pro-Bowl talent signed for 11.95 million over the next 2 seasons.

The Rams would be in trouble if he were to get hurt because they lack depth behind him. Malcolm Brown has been their #2 back over the past 2 seasons, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has averaged just 3.55 YPC on 85 career carries. He’ll be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie John Kelly. Gurley played 788 snaps last season, 2nd at his position, and I would expect that to continue to be the case in 2018.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

There are many reasons why this offense was so much better in 2017, the coaching change, the remade receiving corps, a drastically improved Jared Goff, and an All-Pro Todd Gurley, but it’s possible the biggest reason was the Rams’ improved offensive line. Unlike with their receiving corps, the Rams did not have to completely overhaul their offensive line in order for it to improve, as they only had two new starters, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan. Guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown had career years, while right tackle Rob Havenstein continued to play well. After years of having one of the worst offensive lines in the league, the Rams had one of the best in 2017.

They might not be as good in 2018 though, even though they return all 5 starters, for a few reasons. The first reason is simply that none of their starters missed a game with injury in 2017, which is incredibly rare. That’s unlikely to happen again in 2018 and their depth is very untested. They used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Joseph Noteboom and a 4th round pick on Michigan State center Brian Allen, but it’s unlikely either will be ready to start as rookies.

The reason the Rams drafted Noteboom and Allen is also another reason why the Rams might not be as good upfront in 2018; Whitworth and Sullivan are both getting up there in age. Whitworth is the bigger concern, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2017, a huge part of the reason why this offense was so good, but he’s also going into his age 37 season and it’s unclear if he can perform at that high of a level again in 2018. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down so far, finishing in the top-5 among offensive tackles in 4 straight seasons, but players can lose it quickly at his age.

Sullivan is not as old, going into his age 33 season, but he’s also not nearly as good of a player. In his prime, he was one of the best centers in the league, finishing as a top-9 center on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2011-2014 with the Vikings, with 3 seasons in the top-3. He missed all of 2015 with a back injury and played just 98 snaps as a reserve with the Redskins in 2016, but the Rams gave him another shot to be a starter in 2017 and it paid off, as he finished 12th at his position. He’s not the player he once was, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank.

Another reason why the Rams have might not have as good of play on the offensive line is that both guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown are coming off of career years and are unlikely to both be as good in 2018. Saffold finished a career high 7th among guards on PFF in his 8th season in the league last season. He’s earned positive grades in 5 of 8 seasons, but he’s never been as good as he was last season. He’s also had injury problems throughout his career, missing 29 games in his first 7 seasons in the league, before staying healthy throughout 2017, just his 3rd time doing so in 8 seasons. Now going into his age 30 season, Saffold might not be as good or as durable.

Jamon Brown is younger, going into his 4th season in the league, but the former 3rd round pick was horrendous in his first 2 seasons in the league. He struggled mightily in 9 starts as a rookie before breaking his leg and then was benched after 5 starts in 2016, before playing about league average in 2017. He could continue developing into a capable starter, but he could also revert back to his old ways. He’s been a terrible pass protector throughout his career and allowed a team high 7 hits on Goff last season.

Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the only starter who is unlikely to decline in 2018. The 2015 2nd round pick has been a consistently solid starting right tackle throughout his career, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons (43 starts). He’s a mauler in the run game at 6-8 330 and isn’t bad in pass protection either. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, only his age 26 season, Havenstein could have his eyes set on being one of the highest paid right tackles in the league and could leave as a free agent next off-season. For now, this remains a solid offensive line, with all 5 starters returning, but they’re unlikely to be as good or as healthy as they were in 2017.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams’ defense was also improved from 2016 to 2017, as they went from 16th in first down rate allowed to 12th. Like on offense, coaching was a big factor, as Sean McVay brought legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the Rams with him. Phillips converted this defense to his traditional 3-4, even though some players did not fit the scheme well, and was able to get a good performance out of them. This off-season, the Rams made significant changes on defense in order to get players who fit Phillips’ scheme better.

One big change was the addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who the Rams signed to a 1-year, 14 million dollar deal. Suh has been a top-7 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus for 6 straight seasons and signed a then record 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Miami Dolphins 3 off-seasons ago, but he’s going into his age 31 season, so the cap strapped Dolphins decided to cut him rather than pay him the 17 million non-guaranteed he was owed in 2018. His age is a slight concern, but he should still have a strong season.

Defensive line was not a weakness for the Rams in 2017, led by Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, but they did have some depth problems, so the addition of Suh will definitely help. Suh has never played in a 3-4 and is expected to play nose tackle in base packages, but the Rams will be in sub packages more than half of the time, so he should still get opportunities to rush the passer in passing situations. He might not post quite the numbers we’ve seen from him in the past (51.5 sacks and 86 quarterback hits in 8 seasons in the league), but Wade Phillips has gotten good play out of undersized nose tackles like Suh (6-4 305) in the past.

Donald and Brockers will continue lining up at defensive end in base packages. Donald is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, so Brockers will almost definitely see the bigger snap hit with Suh coming in. Brockers played 727 snaps last season and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on PFF, but he was an underwhelming pass rusher, so Suh should get pass rush opportunities inside next to Donald over him. The 6-5 305 pound Brockers has gotten a positive run stopping grade in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and finished last season 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade in arguably the best season of his career, but he’s also had just 19 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in 6 seasons in the league.

Donald should still play around the 788 snaps he played last season, likely more if he exceeds the 14 games he played last season, as he’s too good to take off the field except for breathers. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has been arguably the best defensive lineman in the league since being drafted and has proven it both in a 3-4 and a 4-3 base defense. He’s totaled 39 sacks and 67 quarterback hits in 62 games as an interior pass rusher and has also played well against the run. He’s never missed a game in his career with injury and is in the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season.

Donald did miss two games last year, week 17 for rest and week 1 while he was holding out for a new contract. Donald still has yet to receive that new contract, but the Rams are fully expected to extend him before the start of the season. Owed just 6.892 million in the final year of his rookie deal, Donald is owed a big raise and might not report to the team until he gets it. The Rams have other players to re-sign, but it would be a surprise if they give him the extension he wants. Worst case scenario, the Rams have the franchise tag available to use on him next off-season, but they probably want to extend him before the season to keep him happy and avoid the risk of another holdout into the season. When he gets paid, he’s expected to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, surpassing the 6-year, 114.1 million dollar deal that Von Miller received two off-seasons ago.

Donald, Suh, and Brockers will play the majority of the snaps on this defensive line, but the Rams also get Dominique Easley back from a torn ACL. Easley also had two ACL tears in college and missed 10 games with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2014-2016, but he’s also a former first round pick who earned positive grades in both 2015 and 2016. There’s no guarantee he’s going to be the same player or stay healthy, but he should have a rotational role in 2018. The Rams also have Ethan Westbrooks, their top reserve in 2017, returning. He was about league average on 333 snaps last season and is a capable rotational player. This is a loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The same is not true of the Rams’ linebackers though. Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin, and Robert Quinn were three of the Rams’ top-4 linebackers in terms of snaps in 2017 with 921, 657, and 629 respectively and all 3 are no longer with the team. Ogletree was sent to the Giants with a 2019 7th round pick for a 4th and 6th round pick in 2018. Quinn was sent to the Dolphins for a 4th round pick and a swap of 6th round picks. Barwin remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 32 season. All 3 players struggled and weren’t great fits in Phillips’ scheme, earning negative grades from PFF, but the Rams didn’t do anything to replace them and will instead rely on coaching up unproven players. If anyone can coach this unit up, it’s Wade Phillips, but linebackers are their clear achilles heel.

Middle linebacker Mark Barron is the only starting linebacker they kept, but they easily could have let him go, as he too struggled in his first season in Phillips’ system. The 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Barron was a bust as a safety in Tampa Bay, but the Rams traded for him and converted him into a linebacker, where he became a capable starter outside in a 4-3 in 2015 and 2016, before struggling inside in a 3-4 in 2017. The fact that they haven’t gotten rid of him yet shows they have hope he can bounce back with another year in the system, but, if he doesn’t, I would not expect him to be on the roster with a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2019, given all of the Rams’ other upcoming financial obligations.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it is a wide open competition to replace Ogletree. Cory Littleton was their top reserve middle linebacker in 2017 (277 snaps) and is considered the favorite, but he’s a 2016 undrafted free agent who has been unimpressive on 399 snaps thus far in his career. Bryce Hager was also a reserve with the Rams last season, but the 2015 7th round pick has also been unimpressive on 164 career snaps. The Rams also added ex-Chief reserve Ramik Wilson. He has the most experience of any of the candidates, making 17 starts in 3 seasons with the Chiefs after going in the 4th round in 2015, but he played just 125 snaps in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Chiefs as a restricted free agent this off-season. The Rams also added Virginia’s Micah Kizer in the 6th round of the draft and Indiana’s Tegray Scales as a priority free agent. The Rams have options, but this should be a position of weakness in 2018.

Outside linebacker should also be a position of weakness, as the Rams have wide open competitions for both starting roles. Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam were their top reserves last season with 377 snaps and 351 snaps respectively and are currently penciled into the starting jobs. A 2015 undrafted free agent, Longacre has been a capable reserve in 3 seasons in the league and totaled 5.5 sacks and 7 quarterback hits in 2017, but the 377 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Ebukam was a 4th rounder in 2017 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but showed little as a pass rusher with 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 138 pass rush snaps. Also in the mix are Ejuan Price, a 2017 7th round pick who played just 21 snaps as a rookie, and rookies Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young, who went in the 5th and 6th round respectively. Okoronkwo will be out until training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of earning a big role. The Rams will likely use 4 or 5 different outside linebackers in 2018 in an effort to find some edge rush. This is a highly unproven linebacking corps that Wade Phillips hopes to coach up.

Grade: D

Secondary

The Rams also revamped their cornerbacks this off-season. They let top cornerback Trumaine Johnson sign a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal with the Jets. They released Kayvon Webster, who finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 550, rather than pay him 3.5 million. To replace them, the Rams acquired Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib from the Chiefs and Broncos respectively. They will be their starting cornerbacks in 2018.

Peters getting traded was a surprise, especially since the Rams did not have to surrender a 1st round pick to acquire him. The Rams received him and a 6th round pick for a 4th round pick and a 2nd rounder next year. Peters was the 18th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has two cost controlled years left on his contract, is going into his age 25 season, and leads the NFL in interceptions since he entered the league with 19 in 3 seasons, so the upside is obvious, but he does come with some downside. His aggressive playing style leads to interceptions, but it also leads to him getting beat deep and getting penalized too often. He’s finished 17th and 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the last 2 seasons respectively, which is good, but not quite as good as his interception total suggests.

He also seems to have worn out his welcome in Kansas City, where he clashed with the coaching staff, which is why they were willing to move on from him for a relatively small return. Peters has had issues with coaches dating back to his college days, when he was kicked off the team at the University of Washington. The talent is obvious and he could easily continue getting better, but he’ll have to stay out of trouble over the next couple years if he wants a big long-term extension. He’s an obvious upgrade on Trumaine Johnson, who was underwhelming in his first season in Phillips’ system.

Aqib Talib is also an obvious upgrade as the #2 cornerback, as the Rams had a revolving door at that position in 2017. Unlike Peters, Talib is on the downside of his career, going into his age 32 season, but he was still PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback in 2017 and he reunites with his former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who coached him in Denver in 2015 and 2016. Talib played some of the best football of his career under Phillips, with his best season coming when he finished 3rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016.

His age is becoming a concern, but he’s been a very consistent player in his career, earning a positive grade from PFF in all 10 seasons he’s been in the league, and he should at least have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Broncos traded him because they didn’t think he was worth his 11 million dollar salary, but Wade Phillips and the Rams disagreed, as they surrendered a 5th rounder for him. His 8 million dollar salary for 2018 is non-guaranteed, so he’ll have to continue playing well to stay on the roster, especially given the other financial commitments they have to attend to.

Slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman might have actually been their best cornerback in 2017, with Johnson underwhelming as the top outside cornerback. Robey-Coleman allowed just 5.77 yards per attempt on the slot and was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in coverage grade overall on 654 snaps. The 5-8 180 pounder has always struggled when he’s had to play outside, but he played just 101 coverage snaps on the outside last season and that was largely for lack of a better option. He doesn’t play the run well either, but he’s earned a positive grade overall in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and when he’s struggled it’s largely been because of misuse. He’ll stay on the slot all season in 2018, with depth cornerback Troy Hill filling in if either Peters or Talib miss time.

At safety, things remain the same for the Rams in 2018, which is a good thing, because the Rams had one of the best safety duos in football down the stretch. LaMarcus Joyner returned from injury week 7 and 3rd round rookie John Johnson took over as the other starter week 5 and they finished the season as PFF’s 5th and 10th ranked safeties respectively. Along with Cooper Kupp, Johnson was a great pick in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. They’ll need to continue doing that as this team becomes more expensive.

The Rams kept LaMarcus Joyner by franchise tagging him this off-season. He’ll make 11.287 million in 2018, but there haven’t been any rumors of negotiations between him and the Rams and it’s possible the Rams don’t plan to keep him long-term, given all of the other players they have to keep. Making him prove it on the franchise tag isn’t a bad idea either way, as he’s a one-year wonder. He’s a former 2nd round pick who was a capable starter on 19 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, but last season was the first season he even resembled a Pro Bowl caliber safety and he didn’t even play a full season (12 games). Johnson (11 starts) is unproven as well, so it’s very possible this safety duo won’t be quite as good in 2018 as they were down the stretch last season, but their cornerbacks are much improved and this is overall one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Rams were arguably the most improved team in the league from 2016 to 2017, going from 4-12 to 11-5. Usually when teams make a big jump in wins like that, they regress by about half the amount of wins the following season. The Rams had great injury luck in 2017, with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury, and some of the players who had career years in 2017 will likely not do so again in 2018. However, with all of the reinforcements the Rams added this off-season, the Rams should be able to remain one of the top teams in the NFL, even if some players get hurt or regress. The Rams will have a challenge keeping this team together long-term, but they’re clearly all in on 2018 and will compete for a Super Bowl.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Rams are a little overrated right now, as casual fans look at the talent they added this off-season, but not the players they lost and the fact that they are unlikely to be as healthy and get as many career years from players as they did in 2017. They will still contend to make the Super Bowl, but it’s a little early to call them Super Bowl favorites.

Prediction: 10-6 1st in NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012, most did not think much of it. However, Wilson won the week 1 starting job as a rookie and has made every start since, leading the Seahawks to a 65-30-1 regular season record (2nd best in the NFL since 2012, only behind the Patriots), 5 playoff appearances, 2 Super Bowl appearances, and a victory in Super Bowl 48. Wilson does not deserve all the credit, as he was drafted by a talented team with a dominant young defense that was a quarterback away from contention, but he’s also been a big part of their success. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 161 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions, while adding 3,275 yards and 16 touchdowns on 578 carries (5.67 YPC). He’s finished in the top-8 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons and has earned a positive grade in every season in his career.

Unfortunately, Russell Wilson’s supporting cast seems to be crumbling around him. Their defense finished last season a very middling 14th in first down rate allowed at 33.43% and they had arguably the worst offensive supporting cast in the league around Wilson. Despite that, this team was in playoff contention all year, finishing one game out at 9-7, and Wilson’s play was the biggest single reason why they were even competitive last season. Despite little talent around Wilson, this team still ranked 18th in the NFL in first down rate at 33.47%.

Wilson completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, despite being pressured on a league leading 41.4% of his throws. Wilson also added 586 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground on 95 carries (6.17 YPC). The rest of this team managed just 1,043 yards and 1 touchdown on 314 carries (3.32 YPC). Wilson had some capable options to throw to, but he had no offensive line or running game. He accounted for 4,569 of his teams 5,608 yards from scrimmage, a whopping 81.5%, easily the most in the NFL.

Grade: A

Running Backs

In an attempt to improve their supporting cast around Wilson, the Seahawks used the 27th overall pick in the first round on San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, after trading down twice. Penny was a surprise first round pick and was the second running back off the board in a strong running back class. Given the Seahawks’ other needs and how easy it is to find good running backs outside of the first round, the Seahawks obviously think Penny has the ability to be a special running back, but that’s far from a guarantee. Penny averaged 7.23 yards per carry on 473 carries in his collegiate career and topped 2000 yards rushing in 2017 in his only season as a starter, but he’s very raw as a passing down back and did not face the toughest competition in the Mountain West Conference.

Despite the Seahawks’ inability to run the football last season, Penny does have some competition for playing time. Chris Carson and CJ Prosise return from injury, while Mike Davis and JD McKissic showed some promise down the stretch last season. Carson is probably his biggest competition, as the 2017 7th round pick was off to a great start to his career last season before breaking his leg and missing the final 12 games of the season. Despite offensive line issues, he rushed for 208 yards on 49 carries (4.24 YPC) and was Seattle’s only running back who earned a positive running grade from Pro Football Focus. He’s still unproven and has had injury issues dating back to college, hence why he fell in the draft, but he still has some upside.

Mike Davis started the final 6 games of last season, despite spending the first 10 weeks of the season on the practice squad, after the Seahawks cycled through Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy as starters. Davis was not bad all things considered, rushing for 240 yards on 68 carries (3.53 YPC), while adding 15 catches for 131 yards. Despite that, he was non-tendered as a restricted free agent and only re-signed on a cheaper salary, 1.35 million. Davis is a former 4th round pick, but he averaged just 2.00 YPC on 54 carries in his first 2 seasons in the league with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016. Only guaranteed 350K, he’s not a lock for the final roster.

Prosise and McKissic, meanwhile, will compete for passing down snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Prosise has more upside and could also see action as a speedy change of pace back, but he’s played in just 11 games in 2 seasons in the league. When healthy, he’s been explosive, averaging 4.76 yards per carry on 41 carries and 12.8 yards per catch on 23 catches, but he hasn’t seen that much action. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

McKissic, meanwhile, is a 3rd year undrafted free agent who led all Seahawk running backs with 34 catches and 235 routes run in Prosise’s absence last season. A converted collegiate receiver at Arkansas State, McKissic also averaged 4.07 yards per carry on 46 carries and ironically scored the Seahawks’ only rushing touchdown by a running back, though he was understandably raw in pass protection. Penny should see the lion’s share of the carries based on where he was drafted, but the Seahawks have some interesting backup options and have always stressed competition at all positions. At the very least, Penny should cede the majority of the passing down snaps to either McKissic or Prosise.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Seahawks’ running backs were only part of the reason why they couldn’t run the ball last season. The offensive line failed to consistently open up on the ground, finishing 25th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, and they were even worse than that in pass protection, finishing 30th. Wilson was the most pressured quarterback in the NFL and the Seahawks allowed the 10th most sacks in the NFL (43), despite Wilson’s mobility. Wilson completed just 47.4% of his passes while under pressure and had just 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions (as opposed to 26 touchdowns to 5 interceptions with a clean pocket), so his terrible pass protection had a noticeable effect on his statistical production.

Despite that, the Seahawks didn’t do anything substantial to improve this offensive line this off-season and will instead hope that some incumbent starters improve. The player with the most room for improvement is right tackle Germain Ifedi, a 2016 1st round pick who has been a massive bust through 2 seasons. He was PFF’s lowest ranked guard as a rookie in 13 starts at right guard and then finished 79th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts at right tackle last season. He only allowed 4 sacks and 3 hits, but also allowed 45 hurries, struggled as a run blocker, and committed a ridiculous 19 penalties, most in the NFL at any position. It might be too early to write him off as a total bust, but he’s unlikely to turn into a capable starter in his 3rd season in the league. If he’s better in 2018, it could be because it was hard to get worse.

It’s a similar situation at left guard with Ethan Pocic. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Pocic made 5 starts at left guard and 6 starts at right guard as a rookie, but finished as PFF’s 76th ranked guard out of 80 eligible. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but his career is off to a terrible start. The Seahawks seem to have settled in on him playing left guard (he played both guards spots and center in college) and are hoping that keeping him in one spot helps him develop.

Center Justin Britt was also a high pick, going in the 2nd round in 2014. Britt struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, first at right tackle and then at left guard, but he’s settled in as a capable starter at center over the past 2 seasons. He’s been about a league average starter, but the Seahawks clearly value him, giving him a 3-year, 27 million dollar extension before the start of last season that makes him the 6th highest center in average annual contract value. He’s unlikely to live up to that contract, but he’s a proven starter on an offensive line that lacks them.

While the Seahawks did not make any major additions to their offensive line this off-season, they did make one at the trade deadline last year, sending a 2018 3rd round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick to the Texans for Duane Brown and a 2018 5th round pick. It’s a big price to pay for a player who is in an age 33 contract season in 2018, but the Seahawks were desperate for a left tackle. Despite his age, Brown is still an above average left tackle. He was Seattle’s only offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2017, his 8th straight season with a positive grade. His best seasons came in 2011 (7th among offensive tackles), 2012 (2nd), 2014 (12nd), and 2016 (19th). Though his best days may be behind him, he should still have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Seahawks reportedly plan to extend him before the season starts.

Brown replaced Rees Odhiambo at left tackle and he was a massive upgrade, as Odhiambo was PFF’s 3rd worst ranked offensive tackle, despite just 7 starts. Odhiambo was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so the Seahawks are not giving up on him and have instead moved him to guard, where he’s expected to compete to be the starting right guard. His primary competition will be free agent acquisition DJ Fluker. The 11th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Fluker has 65 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades in 4 of 5 seasons, including the last 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 51st out of 80 eligible guards in 7 starts before going down for the season with a toe injury. Signed for only 1.5 million this season, Fluker is a desperation option on an offensive line that could be pretty terrible again.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

The one thing Russell Wilson did have going for him in 2017 was a decent receiving corps. However, he lost his #2 and #3 targets from last season in Jimmy Graham (98 targets) and Paul Richardson (80 targets) and the Seahawks didn’t do much to replace them. Instead, last year’s #4 target Tyler Lockett figures to take on a much bigger role. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Lockett has flashed talent in 3 seasons in the league, but has never had more than 69 targets in a season. With Richardson and Graham gone, he could see close to 100 targets. Still only going into his age 26 season, Lockett could have a breakout statistical year.

Top receiver Doug Baldwin also figures to have a big statistical year. He’s averaged 82 catches for 1,063 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over the past 3 seasons and could exceed his career high of 126 targets in 2018. He might not be quite as efficient when given more targets, but he could easily top those averages in 2018. He’s also been a top-7 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and has earned positive grades in all 6 seasons in the league. His age is only a small concern, as he goes into his age 30 season.

Snaps are up for grabs behind Lockett and Baldwin on the depth chart, as free agent acquisitions Jaron Brown and Brandon Marshall will compete with 2nd year receiver Amara Darboh for the #3 receiver job. Brown played sparingly in his first 4 seasons with the Cardinals before being forced into a larger role in 2017. Brown struggled mightily though, catching just 31 of his 69 targets (44.9%) and averaging just 0.90 yards per route run on 529 routes (4th worst among wide receivers). Part of that was his poor quarterback play, but he also graded out 96th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. He’s unlikely to turn into a capable weapon in his 6th season in the league in 2018.

Marshall is by far the most proven, as his career numbers are Hall-of-Fame worthy (top-25 all-time in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns). The question is whether or not he has anything left in the tank, going into his age 34 season. Marshall was PFF’s 18th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2015, but has gotten negative grades from them in the past 2 seasons and missed but all 5 games with an ankle injury last season with the Giants, who let him go this off-season rather than pay him 5.5 million non-guaranteed. His one-year deal with the Seahawks has a base salary of 1.105 million, guarantees him just 90K, and has a maximum value of 2.155 million with incentives. He’s a worthwhile flyer, but might not be able to be much of a contributor. Darboh has the most upside, but played just 191 underwhelming snaps as a rookie and is completely unproven.

At tight end, the Seahawks are not just replacing Jimmy Graham, but also #2 tight end Luke Willson, who played 377 snaps last season. They will attempt to do that with free agent acquisition Ed Dickson and 4th round rookie Will Dissly. Third year player Nick Vannett should also play a bigger role after playing just 364 snaps as the 3rd tight end in his first 2 seasons in the league. He was originally a 3rd round pick, so he has upside in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s completely unproven.

Dickson is plenty experienced, with 85 starts in 124 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’d be a weak starting option. He’s never earned a positive grade for a season in his career, struggling as both a pass catcher and a run blocker. After spending the previous 3 seasons as Greg Olsen’s backup with the Panthers, Dickson became the top tight end in 2017 when Olsen was hurt and still only managed a 30/437/1 slash line. The catch and yardage total were the 2nd highest of his career. Going into his age 31 season in 2018, he’s unlikely to improve. Dissly, meanwhile, is primarily a blocker who won’t see a big role in the passing game. This is a much thinner receiving corps than last season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As important as it was for the Seahawks to retool on offense this off-season, they had even more needs on defense. The Seahawks had the fewest points allowed in the NFL for 4 straight seasons from 2012-2015, but they were a middling unit in 2017 and now are basically unrecognizable. Up to 6 week 1 defensive starters from 2017, including all 3 members of the former Legion of Boom, might not start for the Seahawks week 1 in 2018.

On the defensive line, the Seahawks lost three starters this off-season, defensive end Cliff Avril, who retired due to a neck injury, hybrid defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who was traded to the Eagles after a disappointing season, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent. Avril will probably be the least missed, as he played just 151 underwhelming snaps last season before getting hurt, but Bennett and Richardson finished 1st and 3rd on this defensive line in snaps with 931 and 654 and both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus. Those are big shoes to fill.

The Seahawks used a 3rd round pick on a potential Michael Bennett replacement, taking USC’s Rasheem Green. Green has a high upside for a 3rd round pick and has his great athleticism at 6-4 275, but he just turned 21 and is considered very raw. He has the size to line up inside in passing situations like Bennett did frequently (217 of 578 pass rush snaps in 2017), but he’ll likely be a significant downgrade from Bennett as a rookie.

Marcus Smith and Dion Jordan also figure to play bigger roles, after playing 252 snaps and 132 snaps respectively in 2017. Both are former first round pick busts (2014 and 2013 respectively) whose careers the Seahawks are trying to revive. Formerly of the Eagles, Smith was underwhelming last season and has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 4 seasons in the league (just 676 snaps), but Jordan flashed down the stretch and the coaching staff is excited about his upside.

In 5 games, he had 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 5 hurries on 60 pass rush snaps and also played well against the run. He finally looked like the player the Dolphins envisioned he’d be when they drafted him 3rd overall five years ago. It was in very little action though, so he’s still far from a reliable starter. Jordan played just 562 snaps in his first 2 seasons with the Dolphins, earning negative grades in both seasons, and then missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injury and suspension before resurfacing with the Seahawks in 2017.

Fourth year defensive end Frank Clark could also see an increase in snaps with Bennett gone, even though he already played 740 snaps last season, 2nd on this defensive line. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Clark has developed into an above average starter. He flashed in limited action as a rookie and has 19.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits in 2 seasons as the starter, while also playing solid run defense. Still only going into his age 25 season, Clark could continue to get better. The Seahawks would be wise to lock him up long-term this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive end are hybrid linebacker/defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who will play the old Bruce Irvin role and see edge rusher snaps in sub packages, and 2016 undrafted free agent Branden Jackson, who played 263 underwhelming snaps in the first significant of his career in 2018.

To replace Richardson at defensive tackle, the Seahawks signed Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson from the Vikings and could give more playing time to Jarran Reed and Nazair Jones, a pair of recent high picks. Reed played 616 snaps last season, 4th on this defensive line, but he was primarily a base package player. He has just 3 sacks in 2 seasons in the league (1.5 in each season), but he had 6 quarterback hits and 16 quarterback hurries last season and earned a positive grade overall. He’s also a capable run defender. Now in his 3rd year in the league, the Seahawks may use the 2016 2nd rounder in more of an every down role and give him more pass rushing opportunities.

Jones, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2017. He only played 284 snaps as a rookie, but earned a positive grade and should see more playing time in his 2nd season in the league. His primary competition for the base package starting job next to Reed is Shamar Stephen, who signed a 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal with 1 million guaranteed this off-season as a free agent coming over from Minnesota. A 7th round pick in 2014, Stephen struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league and has never earned a positive grade from PFF for a season, but he wasn’t bad on 384 snaps last season. Jones has a lot more upside and should be the favorite to start.

Tom Johnson also comes over from Minnesota on 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal, suggesting he’s a roster lock (900K guaranteed) and should have a significant role. He’ll primarily be a sub package interior pass rusher. 470 of his 673 snaps came on passing plays in 2017 and, while he might not have quite as big of a role in Seattle, he should see a similar split of passing downs to run downs. He totaled 2 sacks, 9 hits, and 20 hurries on 468 pass rush snaps last season and has earned a positive pass rushing grade from PFF in his last 4 seasons, but he’s also going into his age 34 season and has had issues against the run. Rasheem Green could also see snaps on the interior in passing situations. The Seahawks are trying to patchwork together what used to be a dominant defensive line.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The one area on this defense that remains mostly unchanged is the linebacking corps, which is good because Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL. Their value was perhaps never more noticeable than 2017’s week 16 game against the Rams. Wright missed the game with injury, his first missed game in 4 seasons, while Wagner was playing at clearly less than 100%. As a result, the Seahawks were gashed on the ground for 244 yards in a 42-7 loss that basically ended this season.

Wagner is the better of the two and is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL. Despite being hobbled by injury down the stretch last season, he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker for the 2nd year in a row, both times finishing one spot ahead of Luke Kuechly. The 2012 2nd round pick has earned positive grades in all 6 seasons in the league and also finished in the top-5 among middle linebackers in 2012 and 2014. He’s equally good against the pass and the run and, going into his age 28 season, he shouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Wright is also in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season. A 4th round pick in 2011, Wright has made 103 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has earned a positive grade from PFF in every season. His best seasons came in 2014, 2015, and 2016 when he finished 4th, 2nd, and 3rd respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers, but he also finished 8th in 2017. He and Wagner should have another strong season as every down linebackers.

Barkevious Mingo, meanwhile, will play the 3rd linebacker role, though he might not come off the field in passing situations like 3rd linebackers traditionally do. Instead, he could see significant snaps on the defensive line as an edge rusher in passing situations. The 6th overall pick by the Browns in the 2013 NFL Draft, Mingo hasn’t lived up to his potential, but his versatility has allowed him to carve out a decent career. He had 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 16 hurries on 143 pass rush snaps last season and was decent in coverage and as a run stuffer as well. He’s a good fit in the role the Seahawks have him in. This should be a dominant linebacking corps again in 2018.

Grade: A

Secondary

When Seattle’s defense was at its peak, it was led by the Legion of Boom, cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. However, Sherman was let go this off-season following an achilles tear, owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018, while Thomas is going into the final year of his contract and is currently holding out for an extension, and Chancellor is out indefinitely and possibly permanently with a neck injury.

When Sherman was out last season, Byron Maxwell and Shaq Griffin were their top-2 cornerbacks, with Justin Coleman on the slot. That’s most likely going to be how their cornerbacks line up week 1 this season. Griffin has the most upside of the group. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Griffin made 11 starts as a rookie and earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. He’s still relatively unproven, but could easily develop into an above average starting cornerback. Part of the reason why they were so confident moving on from Sherman is because they believe in Griffin as a long-term #1 cornerback.

Byron Maxwell also has potential, but he comes with a lot of risk. Maxwell was originally a 6th round pick by the Seahawks in 2011 and he emerged as an above average starter opposite Sherman midway through his 3rd season. After his rookie deal, he took a whopping 6-year, 63 million dollar deal from the Eagles, despite having just 17 career starts under his belt. He lasted just one terrible season in Philadelphia before being traded to the Dolphins the following off-season.

In 2016 with the Dolphins, Maxwell returned to form, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he lasted just 2 starts with the Dolphins in 2017 before being benched and eventually cut. The Seahawks signed him after he got cut and he took over as the starter down the stretch when Sherman was out. The Seahawks brought him back on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal this off-season. Going into his age 30 season, Maxwell has a very inconsistent history, but he has the ability to be a solid starter and is a great fit in Seattle’s scheme.

Coleman, meanwhile, is a pure slot cornerback, with 410 of his 444 coverage snaps coming on the slot in 2017. Acquired from the Patriots before the start of the season for a mere 7th round pick, Coleman proved to be a steal, earning the first positive grade of his career. He’s a one-year wonder, as the 2015 undrafted free agent was underwhelming on 530 total snaps in first 2 seasons in the league, but he seems to also be a good fit for this scheme, so he could easily continue providing good slot coverage in 2018. The Seahawks also have 5th round rookie Tre Flowers and 2017 6th round pick Mike Tyson (0 snaps on defense as a rookie) in the mix for playing time, but they figure to begin the year as reserves. Even without Sherman, this is still a solid cornerback group.

At safety, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor both still remain on the roster, which is more than you can say about other former stars on this defense, but neither is a lock to start week 1. Thomas has the best chance to start week 1 as he’s actually healthy, but he’s owed just 8.5 million in the final year of his contract and wants an extension that pays him among the highest paid safeties in the NFL (around 12-13 million annually). Thomas was the subject of trade rumors during the draft and now is holding out, skipping mandatory minicamp. If Thomas won’t report without a new deal and the Seahawks are not willing to pay him what he wants, they may revisit trading him later this off-season.

He has to play just 6 games for his contract to toll, so he can miss the first 10 games of the season and still hit free agency next off-season. He’d lose out on gamechecks, but that may be the preferable option for him if he doesn’t want to risk injury for a team that won’t commit to him long-term. When on the field, he’ll be an obvious asset, after finishing in the top-10 among safeties in 4 of the last 5 seasons, though extended holdouts have slowed players in the past.

Chancellor chances of playing week 1 are much slimmer. In fact, head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this off-season that Chancellor would have a hard time ever playing again. Unlike Cliff Avril, who suffered a similar injury, Chancellor did not retire this off-season and still wants to keep playing. He’ll have his neck re-scanned in July, but his chances of being able to go week 1 are not good. He’s been a top-21 safety in 6 of the past 7 seasons and has made 93 starts over that time period. The Seahawks gave him a 3-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season that included a 10 million dollar signing bonus, so they’re obviously hoping he can recover and return to form, but that might never happen.

Fortunately, the Seahawks do have solid depth at safety. Veteran Bradley McDougald made 9 starts last season and earned a positive grade from PFF from the 3rd time in 4 seasons. The 2013 undrafted free agent is a capable starter with 45 career starts and the ability to play either Thomas’ spot or Chancellor’s spot. He’s obviously a downgrade, but he’s good insurance to have. The Seahawks also have 2017 3rd and 4th round picks Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson in the mix, though they played just 32 snaps and 8 snaps respectively on defense as rookies. The Seahawks also signed veteran Mo Alexander. Alexander made 14 starts for the Rams in 2016 and the first 4 starts of 2017, but he was underwhelming and was eventually released by the Rams after 4 games last season. The Seahawks still have good options in the secondary, but this is not the Legion of Boom anymore.

Grade: B

Conclusion

For years, the Seahawks have been one of the most talented teams in the league and a perennial Super Bowl contender. That is not the case anymore. Many of their former stars are no longer with the team and they surprisingly have done a mediocre job of drafting in recent years, so they don’t have a lot of good young players in the pipeline. The Seahawks brought in a bunch of options at different positions and are hoping that having pure competition will get the most out of their players and compensate for their relative lack of talent. In the tough NFC though, it’ll be a challenge for them to just make the post-season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Seahawks don’t have the big names on defense anymore, but they still have a solid defensive unit, especially with Earl Thomas ending his holdout. Offensively, they should be better on the offensive line and in the running game, even if only by default, while Russell Wilson should remain an MVP candidate. After narrowly missing the post-season for the first time in years in 2017, the Seahawks could easily sneak into the post-season in 2018.

Prediction: 10-6 2nd in NFC West

San Francisco 49ers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When John Lynch took over as GM of the San Francisco 49ers, his first order of business was to poach offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from the Atlanta Falcons to be his head coach. Shanahan had just coordinated the league’s #1 offense and had 9 years of offensive coordinator experience with 4 different teams (Texans, Redskins, Browns, and Falcons), despite only being 37 years old at the time he was hired. It’s impossible to predict for sure whether or not a good coordinator will turn into a good head coach, but Shanahan had made offenses better everywhere he went and had been around coaching basically his whole life, as he’s the son of 2-time Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan.

The next order of business was finding Shanahan a quarterback. With Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert set to hit free agency, Shanahan basically inherited an empty quarterback room. That can be a blessing for a new head coach as it allows him to pick his own guys, but it can also be a curse if there are simply not good quarterbacks available, which was the case for Shanahan last off-season. The 49ers signed veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer in free agency and opted to pass on selecting quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick, trading down one spot with the Bears, who selected Trubisky, and then using a 3rd round pick on Iowa’s CJ Beathard.

Hoyer had experience in Shanahan’s system, having arguably the best season of his career on Shanahan’s Browns in 2014, while Beathard was hand selected by Shanahan and was the only quarterback in the entire draft class that Shanahan wanted. Despite that, neither had success in 2017. Combined, they completed 56.4% of their passes for an average of 6.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in 11 starts. The 49ers had a 1-10 record and ranked 26th in the NFL in first down rate at 30.75% in those 11 starts.

Fortunately, John Lynch got a call from the New England Patriots at the trade deadline last year. The quarterback they tried to acquire the previous off-season, only to be told he was not available, was now available. With Jimmy Garoppolo in the final year of his rookie deal and Tom Brady showing no signs of slowing down, the Patriots sent Garoppolo to the 49ers for a 2nd round pick. The Patriots reportedly had a better offer from the Cleveland Browns, who were willing to give up the first round pick they acquired from Houston in a trade down in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Belichick preferred to send Garoppolo out of the conference to the 49ers, which should tell you how highly the legendary coach thought of Garoppolo’s potential.

At the time, it looked like the 49ers’ pick would be a high 2nd rounder, given their record, while the Houston pick looked like it would be in the 20s, as the Texans, led by upstart quarterback Deshaun Watson, looked likely to make the post-season. At the time, it might not have looked to Belichick that the picks would be more than 10 or so spots apart in the draft, but the Texans lost Watson for the season with a torn ACL the following week and that pick became the 4th pick in the draft, while the 49ers went on a winning streak with Garoppolo and that 2nd round pick became 42nd overall.

Given how Garoppolo ended the season, that trade looks like a steal in hindsight. Garoppolo took a few weeks to learn the system, but made the final 5 starts of the season and won all 5 of them with a team that previously had one of the worst offenses in the league and had a 1-10 record. After moving the chains at a 30.75% rate in the 11 games started by Hoyer and Beathard, the 49ers moved the chains at a 38.39% rate in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.76 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback during the final 5 weeks of the season.

Garoppolo is still relatively unproven, with 272 career pass attempts, but he has a 99.7 career QB rating and has won all 7 of his career starts, including 2 with the Patriots in place of a suspended Tom Brady in 2016. His history with Kyle Shanahan goes back beyond last season, as, not only did the 49ers attempt to acquire him last off-season, but Shanahan tried to get the Browns to draft him instead of Johnny Manziel when he was in Cleveland. Both Belichick and Shanahan saw it early and now Garoppolo seems to be blossoming into a franchise quarterback. The 49ers gave him a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension that makes him the 3rd highest paid quarterback in the NFL, so they clearly have no concerns about his long-term potential.

All that being said, Garoppolo might be a little overhyped going into the 2018 season. With a full off-season to study his tape, the rest of the NFL will be more prepared for him in 2018 and he may have some growing pains. On top of that, his supporting cast still leaves a lot to be desired. While the 49ers went undefeated in Garoppolo’s starts, they did not play a tough schedule. They played playoff teams in 3 of 5 games, but their week 17 game against the Rams came against their backups, as they were resting starters for the post-season, while their win over the Titans came by just 2 points at home, despite the Titans being a very underwhelming playoff team. Their only impressive win came at home against the Jaguars. They also beat the Bears and Texans, who were far from playoff teams. Many have high expectations for the 49ers in 2018, but they may struggle to even qualify for the post-season in a loaded NFC.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even after locking up Garoppolo long-term on a massive extension, the 49ers still had among the most cap space in the NFL this off-season and had plenty of opportunity to improve Garoppolo’s supporting cast. One of the big contracts they handed out in free agency went to center Weston Richburg, who is now the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary after being lured away from the Giants on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal. Richburg should be an upgrade on last year’s center Daniel Kilgore, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked center out of 38 eligible and was subsequently traded to the Dolphins this off-season when Richburg was signed.

That being said, you can definitely argue the 49ers overpaid Richburg. After struggling at guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, Richburg was an above average center in both 2015 and 2016, but is not one of the top centers in the league. On top of that, he played just 241 snaps in 4 games last season because of a bad concussion, which make this contract even riskier. If he suffers another concussion, he could miss a significant amount of time and may reconsider his playing future. For now he’s healthy, but that’s not a long-term guarantee.

Mike McGlinchey is the other new starter they added on the offensive line this off-season, though the 9th overall pick is not necessarily going to be an upgrade at right tackle over Trent Brown. McGlinchey was a bit of a strange selection, as the 49ers had good tackle play in 2017 with Brown and left tackle Joe Staley, but it made some sense because Staley is getting up there in age and Brown was going into the final year of his contract. McGlinchey was easily the top offensive tackle in a weak offensive tackle class and had the ability to kick inside to guard for a year or two if needed.

Despite that, the 49ers traded Trent Brown on day 2 of the draft, only moving up from 143 to 95 with the Patriots in return. Brown was going into the final year of his rookie deal, was coming off of major shoulder surgery, and has had an inconsistent career with a history of weight and conditioning problems, but it was still a surprise that the 49ers gave him up so inexpensively. Brown was an above average starter in 2017, dominating in pass protection on the right side, allowing just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 9 hurries in 10 starts. Injuries caused him to miss 6 games, including the final 4 of the season, which makes Garoppolo’s play at the end of the season even more impressive, but McGlinchey is not guaranteed to be an upgrade.

McGlinchey will likely end up at left tackle long-term, but Joe Staley had yet another strong season there in 2017 and remains locked in as the starter, going into his age 34 season. He looked to be declining a little in 2016, when he finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF, but he finished #1 at his position in 2017 and has finished in the top-11 at his position in 5 of the last 6 seasons, with 2016 being the lone exception. In his career, he’s made 158 starts in 11 seasons in the league and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all but one season. His age is becoming a concern, but he could easily have a couple strong seasons left in the tank. He has 2 years left on his current contract and has not publicly discussed retirement.

The 49ers will also have a new starter at right guard with Josh Garnett returning from a season lost to injury to replace the departed Brandon Fusco, who made all 16 starts in 2017. Garnett was a first round pick (28th overall) in 2016, but he could easily be a downgrade from Fusco, who was about a league average starter in 2017. Garnett struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 73rd out of 77 eligible guards, before missing all of last season with injury. A projected 2nd/3rd round pick going into the draft, the 49ers surprisingly traded up for him and he hasn’t panned out. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and is no lock to remain the starter for the whole season.

The 49ers also have a pair of former first round picks competing at left guard with Jonathan Cooper and Laken Tomlinson. Cooper’s salary (4.95 million on a one-year deal) suggests he’s the favorite for the job, but Tomlinson is the incumbent and made 15 starts last season. Despite both being former first round picks, neither is a guarantee to be any good. Tomlinson has 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in 2 seasons with the Lions, finishing 62nd out of 82 eligible guards in 2015 and 62nd out of 77 eligible guards in 2016, leading to him getting benched and eventually traded to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick last August. With the 49ers, he had the best year of his career, but still earned a negative grade from PFF.

Cooper is also coming off of the best year of his career, which is why he got a decent chunk of change as a free agent, despite being a massive bust as the 7th overall pick in 2013. Injuries limited him to just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and he struggled in his first extended action in 2015. As a result, the Cardinals traded him as a throw-in with a 2nd round pick to the New England Patriots for Chandler Jones. The Patriots tried to coach him up, but he never played a snap for them, before being cut mid-season. He spent the rest of the 2016 season with the Browns, making 3 starts, and then signed with the Cowboys on a minimum contract the following off-season.

With the Cowboys last season, he started a career high 13 games and was not bad, suggesting he may become a late bloomer. He has experience at both left and right guard, so it’s possible both he and Tomlinson start together at some point this season, if Garnett continues to struggle at right guard. Tomlinson, Garnett, and Cooper are going into their age 26, age 24, and age 28 season respectively, so it’s not inconceivable that one could have a breakout year, but none are sure things at guard in 2018. Fortunately, the 49ers should get good play at both tackle spots and center.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The 49ers also spent big money on a running back, signing ex-Viking Jerick McKinnon to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that makes him the 5th highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary. McKinnon replaces free agent departure Carlos Hyde, who signed a smaller deal, 15.25 million over 3 years, with the Cleveland Browns. A 2nd round pick by the 49ers in 2014, Hyde averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons with the 49ers, but his ineffectiveness in the passing game made him a poor fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which likes to feature running backs in the passing game. Hyde averaged just 4.22 yards per target on 83 targets last season, while dropping 9 passes. He also allowed 3 sacks and 3 quarterback hits on 110 pass block snaps.

Jerick McKinnon is a much better fit for this scheme, so much so that Kyle Shanahan compared him to Devonta Freeman, who made the Pro Bowl in each of Shanahan’s 2 seasons with the Falcons. That would explain why they were willing to pay so much for him. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be worth what the 49ers are paying him. Despite playing just 527 snaps, McKinnon finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back last season. He caught 51 passes as a part-time player and ranked 16th in the NFL in elusive rating, with 2.63 yards per carry after contact and 39 broken tackles on 201 touches. He only averaged 3.80 yards per carry, but that was in large part due to issues on Minnesota’s offensive line. More than two-thirds of just rushing yardage came after contact.

However, if he plays like he did in 2016, when he finished with a negative grade on PFF on 512 snaps, signing him will prove to be a mistake. He averaged just 3.39 yards per carry on 159 carries and just 5.93 yards per catch on 43 catches. It’s also unclear how well he’ll translate to a larger role, as he’s never topped 527 snaps or 202 touches in a season. McKinnon’s salary suggests they see him as at least a 250+ touch back. Freeman averaged 309 (245 carries, 64 catches) in 2 seasons with Shanahan.

Matt Breida and Joe Williams will compete for touches behind McKinnon on the depth chart. Breida is the incumbent backup and averaged an impressive 4.43 YPC on 105 carries as an undrafted rookie last season, but Williams was a 4th round pick before missing his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, so he could push Breida for the backup job this off-season. Unfortunately, neither player is reliable on passing downs. Breida struggled as a receiver and a pass protector last season, while Williams caught just 20 passes in his collegiate career and is likely still very raw as a passing down back after missing all of last season. McKinnon will play the vast majority of passing down snaps, with Breida and Williams mixing in on early downs. Unfortunately, McKinnon has not always been the most consistent back.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The 49ers did not add a big free agent at wide receiver, though they were reportedly interested in adding Allen Robinson before he signed with the Bears. They do get Pierre Garcon back, however, after he missed the final 8 games of last season with a neck injury. Garcon was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver in 2016 with the Redskins and was ranked 9th last season when he went down. He was on pace for 80 catches for 1000 yards, despite terrible quarterback play, which would have been the third 1000+ yard season of his career. The fact that Jimmy Garoppolo was able to do what he did last season even without Garcon makes it that much more impressive.

Garcon was signed last off-season from the Redskins to be a #1 receiver, coming over on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal, so having him back for Garoppolo to throw to is a big deal. He’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons. If he returns to form and stays healthy, he should be able to top 1000 yards with Garoppolo under center, but that’s not a guarantee, given that he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of a major neck injury.

In Garcon’s absence, Marquise Goodwin stepped up as the #1 receiver. He put up a 36/613/2 slash line in 8 games without Garcon, including a 29/384/1 slash line in the 5 games Garoppolo started, and finished with a 56/962/2 slash line on the season. He was rewarded with a 3-year, 19.25 million dollar extension this off-season, after getting just a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. It’s a substantial pay increase and may prove to be a mistake, as Goodwin is a complete one-year wonder.

Prior to last season, Goodwin had 49 catches in 4 seasons with the Bills, with 29 of them coming in 2016, when he made 9 starts, but caught just 46.0% of his targets and finished 103rd among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF. Goodwin is a blazing deep threat with a 16.6 career yards per catch average, but he’s undersized at 5-9 179. He fits Shanahan’s scheme well as a deep threat, but Garoppolo doesn’t like to throw the deep ball that often (Goodwin averaged just 13.2 yards per catch in Garoppolo’s 5 starts) and Goodwin will likely take a backseat targets wise to the returning Pierre Garcon. I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s numbers.

The 49ers also used a 2nd round pick on Washington wide receiver Dante Pettis, moving up from 59 to 44 to grab him. He may be a starter long-term, but for now he’ll compete with 2nd year player Trent Taylor for the #3 receiver job. Taylor is a slot specialist at 5-8 180 who lined up outside on just 85 of 382 pass routes last season as a 5th round rookie. He wasn’t bad, putting up a 43/430/2 slash line, including 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. He finished about average on PFF. He’ll likely stay as the slot receiver, while Pettis is learning all of the receiver spots and will likely spend his rookie year as a backup across the board. He’s also expected to return kicks.

At tight end, George Kittle and Garrett Celek return after leading the team in tight end snaps with 591 and 560 respectively in 2017. Celek is just a blocking tight end who hasn’t topped 29 catches in any of his 6 seasons in the league. He’s not a bad pass catcher and had 8 catches for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns in Garoppolo’s 5 starts, but he ran a route on just 220 of 560 snaps last season and is unlikely to improve as a pass catcher in his age 30 season.

George Kittle will be the primary pass catching tight end. A 5th round rookie, Kittle struggled early in the season, but got better as the year went on. He caught 15 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts and finished the year with a decent 43/515/2 slash line. He ran a route on 377 of his 591 snaps and is not much of a run blocker. Now in his 2nd season in the league, with a full season of Garoppolo, Kittle has some breakout potential as a pass catcher. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk also caught 33 passes on 151 routes run last season and has 111 catches over the past 3 seasons. Garoppolo has some good options to throw to.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The 49ers should have a pretty good offense in 2018, but they’ll need their young defense to take a step forward in their 2nd year under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (previously the Jaguars linebackers coach). They finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at 35.96%. Even during their 5-game winning streak, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 34.87% rate, despite facing a relatively weak slate of offenses. If they are going to continue their winning ways in 2018 against a tougher schedule, they’re going to have to improve defensively.

DeForest Buckner is one of the players who was not part of the problem, as he was quietly one of the better defensive tackles in the league. He only had 3 sacks, but added a whopping 19 quarterback hits and defended the run well. The 7th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Buckner showed promise as a rookie (6 sacks, 14 quarterback hits) at 3-4 defensive end before breaking out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. He’s also played a ridiculous 1,873 snaps over the past 2 seasons, most by any defensive lineman in the league. The definition of an every down player, Buckner is still only going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be yet to come. He could post a big sack total this season if the 49ers play with more leads and some of those quarterback hits turn into sacks. The 6-7 300 pounder drew comparisons to Calais Campbell during the pre-draft process and seems to be developing into that kind of impact defensive lineman.

Buckner is not the only recent high pick on this defensive line, as they used the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, after passing on Mitch Trubisky and trading down one spot with the Bears. Thomas finished 2nd on this defensive line with 696 snaps, but he struggled and was part of the problem for this defense last season. He only managed 3 sacks and added just 9 hits and 18 hurries on 401 pass rush snaps. He did a solid job against the run, but still finished as PFF’s 59th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible. He could easily be much improved in his 2nd season in the league though. A bigger defensive end at 6-3 273, Thomas plays defensive end in base packages, but lined up inside on 162 of 401 pass rush snaps. He should continue in that role in 2018.

Arik Armstead is also a bigger defensive end at 6-7 292. He’s also a former first round pick, going 17th overall. The 49ers essentially used their top pick in 3 straight drafts on players who play similar positions. Armstead flashed on 385 snaps in 16 games as a rookie in 2015, but he’s been limited to 14 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons and has not developed into the player it looked like he would as a rookie. He’s also not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense, after spending the first 2 seasons of his career in a 3-4.

Armstead was primarily a base package defensive end when on the field last season, but did rush the passer on 158 of 304 snaps. Of those 158 snaps, he lined up on the edge 120 times, as the 49ers tried to turned him into an edge rusher, but he managed just 1.5 sacks and 1 quarterback hit in 6 games before going down for the year with a broken hand. This season, he’s expected to line up on the interior in passing situations more.

With Buckner being an every down player inside and Thomas lining up inside frequently, there may not be a lot of sub packages snaps left over for Armstead. The majority of his snaps will probably still come as base package defensive end. He’s a solid run stuffer and still has upside, going into his age 25 season, if he can stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee. The 49ers did issue a vote of confidence in his long-term health by picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which would be worth around 9.046 million and is guaranteed for injury.

It’s understandable why the 49ers would not want to give up on Armstead’s upside, as they have very little depth on this defense line. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell will be the 4th starter in base packages inside next to Buckner, with Armstead and Thomas outside. Mitchell played 622 snaps last season, 344 of which came on run plays. Mitchell was terrible though, finishing 70th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF. An 8-year veteran, Mitchell has earned negative grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons and 6 of 8 seasons overall and is unlikely to improve in his age 31 season in 2018. He used to be an adequate run stuffer, but he’s not even that anymore and he has just 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in his career. He only remains a starter for lack of a better option.

The 49ers lack edge rusher options as well. Thomas will see a lot of snaps as an edge rusher, but he’ll also line up inside frequently and they lack options behind him on the depth chart. Elvis Dumervil led the team in edge rusher snaps last season with 287 and also led the team with 6.5 sacks. In addition, he added 9 hits and 34 hurries. Despite that, the 49ers declined his 2.75 million dollar option for 2018 and he remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 34 season. The 49ers only had 30 sacks (26th in the NFL) last season so they could miss Dumervil, who had 6.5 of those by himself as a part-time player.

Cassius Marsh figures to get the first shot at the other edge rusher job. Signed off waivers after being let go by the New England Patriots, Marsh flashed in 6 games with the 49ers last season. He had 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 11 hurries on 147 pass rush snaps and held up against the run, despite a slender 6-4 245 frame. Marsh has never earned a positive grade for a full season in 4 years in the league, but he was originally a 4th round pick and is only going into his age 26 season, so it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being a capable edge rusher. The 49ers clearly have faith in him, giving him a 2-year, 7.7 million dollar extension this off-season, keeping him off the open market with his rookie deal set to expire. That could prove to be a mistake if he regresses.

Eli Harold might be his primary competition. Harold is a linebacker in base packages, but the 6-3 257 pounder was a collegiate defensive end and is capable of rushing the passer off the edge. He rushed the passer on 106 of 215 pass plays last season, with 99 of those snaps coming as an edge rusher. He isn’t much of a pass rusher though, earning negative grades as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons since going in the 3rd round in 2015. He has just 5 sacks and 9 hits in his career in 48 games.

The 49ers also took a flyer on former Chargers second round pick Jerry Attaochu. Attaochu looked like a long-term starter in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with 6 sacks, 9 hits, and 32 hurries while playing 69.9% of the snaps in 15 games, but he’s played just 237 snaps in 12 games in 2 seasons since due to injury and ineffectiveness. He has just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 8 hurries in those 2 seasons.

Despite that, he still has upside, going into his age 25 season, and his 3 million dollar salary (2.5 million guaranteed) suggests the 49ers have a role planned for him, provided he’s healthy. Even though they’ve used 3 straight first round picks on the defensive line, the 49ers are not deep upfront and need a reliable pass rusher to step up alongside DeForest Buckner. They have some young players with upside, most notably Solomon Thomas, but this defensive line has a low floor and may struggle to get to the quarterback.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The 49ers also have a recent first round pick at linebacker, as they moved up to draft Reuben Foster 31st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. The 49ers were reportedly considering him with the 3rd overall pick if Solomon Thomas was not available and they were ecstatic to get him late in the first. His play as a rookie showed why the 49ers were so high on him, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker, earning positive grades for his run stopping ability and his coverage ability as a three down player. Unfortunately, he was limited to 553 snaps in 10 games by ankle and rib injuries.

The 49ers were hoping to get a boost from a full season of Foster in 2018, but he’s reportedly facing a multiple game suspension. Charges were dropped in his domestic violence case, but a lack of charges hasn’t stopped the NFL from giving big suspensions in the past and Foster was also arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama earlier this off-season. Foster also remains an injury risk. Injuries were part of the reason why he fell on draft day and they could continue to be an issue for him in the future. Between that and off-the-field issues, Foster comes with some risk and he’s unlikely to play all 16 games in 2018, but he’s a talented player who could still develop into one of the best linebackers in the league.

The 49ers also get Malcolm Smith back from an injury plagued season, after he missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral that he suffered in training camp. Smith was signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal last off-season, which guaranteed him 12.1 million in the first 2 years of the deal, but he struggled mightily in 2015 and 2016 with the Raiders, finishing 40th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2015 and 49th out of 59 eligible in 2016. Smith flashed in limited action earlier in his career, but never developed into a capable every down player. His return might not be a boost for this linebacking corps and he may not return to an every down role. In base packages, he’ll play outside linebacker with Reuben Foster lined up inside. He also has experience at middle linebacker, so he may play there if Foster misses time with suspension or injury.

The other base linebacker job is up for grabs. Eli Harold played that role last season, but he’ll face competition from 3rd round rookie Fred Warner and veteran holdover Brock Coyle, who filled in for Smith when he was injured last season. Coyle led this linebacking corps in snaps with 646, but he was PFF’s 30th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible in the first significant action of his career, after going undrafted in 2014. The 49ers valued him enough to bring him back on a 3-year, 8.4 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s not a lock for a starting job.

Warner has the highest upside of any of the candidates, but may spend his rookie year as a reserve. That being said, if Foster gets suspended for any period of time, that could push Warner into the lineup. The 49ers also added veteran Korey Toomer as insurance in case of a Foster injury. An 5th round pick in 2012, Toomer played just 1 snap in his first 4 seasons in the league, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Cowboys to the Rams to the Raiders, before settling into a part-time role with the Chargers over the past 2 seasons.

Toomer played 479 snaps in 2016 and 265 snaps in 2017, serving first as a coverage specialist in 2016 and then as a base package run stuffer in 2017, showing his versatility. He also earned a positive grade for both his coverage ability and his run stopping ability in both seasons, so he’ll be a valuable reserve for them, especially with Foster’s status uncertain. The 49ers definitely have depth at the linebacker position, but Foster is their only impact linebacker and he’s highly unlikely to play every game in 2018.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Safety Eric Reid also played significant snaps around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, lining up there on 416 of 736 snaps. The 6-1 213 pounder fit well as a hybrid player and proved to be a good coverage linebacker, but he was not retained this off-season. Despite that, the 49ers are still deep at safety. They get both Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward back from injury and have 2nd year safety Adrian Colbert also in the mix for snaps.

Tartt, a 2nd round pick in 2015, was on his way to a breakout year before breaking his arm midway through the 9th game of the season and going down for the year. Through the first 8 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. He could pick up right where he left off before the injury, but he also earned negative grades from PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league (14 starts), so he’s still unproven. The 49ers clearly still believe in him, giving him a 2-year extension worth 13 million this off-season.

Ward, on the other hand, is not a lock to get his job back. Colbert played 530 snaps in the final 9 games of last season and, despite being a mere 7th round rookie, he more than held his own and finished with a positive grade on PFF. He’s still unproven and was not highly thought of coming out of the University of Miami, but he could develop into a long-term starter for them. Ward, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his rookie deal.

A 1st round pick in 2014, Ward has flashed his talent from time to time, but he’s also missed 24 games in 4 seasons, including 9 games last season. His best attribute is his versatility, as he’s played outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and safety in his career. Because of his versatility, he could still see a lot of action this season even if he can’t lock down a starting job. Shanahan has said Ward could be the top backup at every spot in the secondary this season.

Outside of safety, Ward’s best shot at playing time will come on the slot, though he’ll have to compete with K’Waun Williams, who is coming off of a solid season. A capable slot cornerback with the Browns in 2014 and 2015, Williams missed all of 2016 with an ankle injury and was let go over a dispute on how to treat the injury. When healthy, he signed with the 49ers on a one-year deal as a free agent last off-season. He looked rusty to start the season, but played well down the stretch and ended the season with his 3rd positive season grade from PFF in 3 healthy seasons. He’s likely to remain on the slot. The 49ers locked him up long-term with a 3-year, 8.85 million dollar extension in September.

Outside cornerback was the 49ers’ big problem spot in 2017. Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson were the starters to begin the season, but Johnson finished as PFF’s 119th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible in 16 starts last season, while Robinson struggled through 7 starts before getting benched and eventually traded to the Jets for a 5th round pick. Third round rookie Ahkello Witherspoon took over for Robinson and played pretty well down the stretch, making 9 starts and earning a positive grade from PFF on 660 snaps. Now going into his 2nd season in the league, Witherspoon has the look of a long-term starter and should be locked into one of the starting jobs.

To address the other starting spot, the 49ers made a splash signing, signing Richard Sherman just days after he was released by the rival Seahawks, with whom he made 4 Pro Bowls in 7 seasons. Sherman was let go because he’s coming off of a torn achilles and was set to make 11 million in the final year of his contract, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury. He was a top-10 cornerback on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016 and ranked 14th at his position through 10 weeks before going down last season.

Despite that, given his injury and his age (going into his age 30 season), it’s fair to wonder if his best years are behind him. His 3-year deal with the 49ers could be worth up to 39.15 million, but the 49ers protected themselves against Sherman declining. Sherman will make just 7 million annually in all 3 years of the deal and can earn another 2 million annually in per game roster bonuses and up to 4 million annually in incentives (1 million for 90% playing time, another million for making the Pro-Bowl, another 2 million for making an All-Pro team).

He also has annual workout bonuses of 50K that bring the maximum contract value to 39.15 million dollars, but, if he struggles in 2018, the 49ers can get out of this deal having paid just 7-9 million dollars (depending on roster bonuses). Sherman is currently questionable for the start of training camp and is fully expected to be ready week 1. He’ll be a boost for a secondary that needed it, but he may not be the same player he was in Seattle.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The 49ers have high expectations after the way this team finished last season with Jimmy Garoppolo, but they may be a bit of a disappointment against a tough schedule with the rest of the league having an off-season to study Garoppolo’s tape. Garoppolo should still have a good season, but he’s not going to be able to carry this team by himself, so their supporting cast will need to be better. With Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, and Richard Sherman added this off-season and Pierre Garcon returning from injury, they should have a better supporting cast in 2018, but it could be tough for them to sneak into the post-season in the loaded NFC.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The 49ers are another team that is a little overrated. The way they closed last season is less impressive when you consider their schedule and they still have some significant weaknesses in their supporting cast.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC West

Arizona Cardinals 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2015, the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the league. They finished 1st in first down rate, 9th in first down rate allowed, and 1st in first down rate differential at +8.45%. in 2016, they were not all that much worse, finishing 6th in first down rate, 5th in first down rate allowed, and, while their first down rate differential of +5.92% was lower than the season before, they still finished 1st in the NFL in that metric. However, after winning 13 games and making the NFC Championship in 2015, the Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, despite not playing all that much worse on either side of the ball.

The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. Even if that’s a bit of a stretch, it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t have been a playoff team without league average special teams.

In 2017, the Cardinals went 8-8, but their season was derailed by injury and it took a lot of close wins to even get to 8-8, as they had a 6-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and finished with a -66 point differential. Despite that, they finished 14th in first down rate differential at +0.14%. They were not a bad team inside the 20s, but had major issues in both red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 41.67% of red zone opportunities (30th) and allowing a touchdown on 58.70% of red zone opportunities (25th). If those improve and they are healthier after having the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury, the Cardinals could be a surprise team in the NFC.

One of their biggest injuries last season was the loss of quarterback Carson Palmer for the final 9 games of the season with a broken arm. In the first 6 games of the season, they moved the chains at a 34.32% rate. Over the next 10 games, including the one in which the injury occured, they moved the chains at a 30.28% rate. Palmer had underwhelming passing numbers, completing 61.4% of his passes for an average of 7.41 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions on 267 attempts, but his backups Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton were noticeably worse.

Gabbert completed 55.6% of his passes for an average of 6.35 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on 171 attempts. Stanton completed 49.7% of his passes for an average of 5.62 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions on 159 attempts. Palmer decided to retire this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 39 season and the Cardinals have completely revamped their quarterback group. Both Stanton and Gabbert were allowed to leave in free agency, to the Browns and the Titans respectively, and at one point this off-season the Cardinals did not have a single quarterback on their roster.

They addressed the position in free agency by signing Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon. Glennon only got 8 million on a 2-year deal and is a backup caliber player, but Sam Bradford is a starting caliber quarterback if he’s healthy. If he’s healthy is the tricky part. Now going into his 9th year in the NFL, the 2010 1st overall pick has played more than 10 games just 4 times in his career. He missed 6 games with an ankle injury in 2011, 9 games with an ACL tear in 2013, the entire 2014 season with a second ACL tear, and then all but 2 games last season with a re-aggravation of that same knee, which has been described as degenerative.

The Cardinals clearly believe in him, giving him a 2-year deal worth a maximum of 40 million with 15 million fully guaranteed. He can earn another 5 million in per game roster bonuses in 2018 and the Cardinals have a team option for another 20 million in 2019. Even with his knee problems, it’s not hard to understand why the Cardinals are giving Bradford a chance. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in his last 4 healthy seasons, finishing 10th among quarterbacks in 2015 and 11th in 2016, and played one of the best games of his career week 1 last season, before the knee injury. He completed 27 of 32 for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns. Only going into his age 31 season, Bradford should have some good football left in him if his knee holds up and above average quarterbacks do not grow on trees.

In addition to bringing in Glennon as insurance, the Cardinals also moved up for quarterback Josh Rosen when he was sliding in the draft. Originally considered a candidate to go #1 overall, concerns about his character dropped him a little bit in a strong quarterback class. The Cardinals were picking at 15 and pounced on the chance to only have to trade a 3rd round pick to move up to 10 to grab him ahead of the Miami Dolphins.

Character issues aside, most agree he was the most NFL ready quarterback in the draft, after spending 3 seasons (30 starts) as the starting quarterback in a pro style offense at UCLA. He’ll have to compete with two experienced quarterbacks, but he is a candidate to start week 1 with a good off-season and would likely be their first option if Bradford goes down. The ideal situation for the Cardinals is Bradford staying healthy, making 16 starts, Rosen developing behind him, and then trading Bradford for a draft pick in 2019 and making Rosen the starter long-term. For 2018, the Cardinals should have better quarterback play than last season, barring a catastrophe.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another big injury was David Johnson, their do everything feature back who went down for the season with a broken wrist week 1, after just 17 touches. In 2016, Johnson was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back. Not only did he rush for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries, he also added 80 catches for 879 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air. In his absence, the Cardinals finished 31st in the NFL in yards per carry with 3.39 and no player other than Larry Fitzgerald topped 33 catches. He’s obviously a welcome re-addition.

The other big issue with Johnson missing basically all of last season is that it complicates his contract situation. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson did not become the starter until the final 5 games of his rookie season. Between that and his lost 2017, Johnson is going into the final year of his rookie deal with relatively little experience (22 career starts). Committing large amounts of money to running backs is a risky proposition to begin with because of how often they get hurt, but Johnson more or less being a one-year wonder makes things even riskier. Johnson also entered the league as an older rookie, so he’ll be in his age 28 season in 2019 and may begin to break down 2 or 3 years into an extension.

The Cardinals may be able to get him to sign a below market value extension this off-season because he’s coming off of an injury, but he’s more likely to want to bet on himself because with another strong season he’ll have a strong case to be paid similarly to Le’Veon Bell, who is looking for 14-15 million annually on a long-term deal. Even a below market extension would likely have to pay him at least 10 million annually for him to even consider it. The Cardinals will have the option to franchise tag him next off-season, but the franchise tag was worth 11.866 million for running backs this year and will undoubtedly be higher next year, so that’s not exactly a financially friendly option either.

The Cardinals also don’t have much depth behind Johnson, as evidenced by their struggles running the ball without him last season. Adrian Peterson and Kerwynn Williams led the team with 129 and 120 carries respectively and averaged just 3.47 YPC and 3.55 YPC respectively. Neither are with the team anymore. The Cardinals did use a 4th round pick on a running back, taking Fordham’s Chase Edmonds. He gives them long-term insurance behind Johnson and will compete for the #2 job immediately. Their other options are Eli Penny, a 2016 undrafted free agent who averaged 4.00 YPC on 31 carries last season, after spending his rookie year on the practice squad, and TJ Logan, a 2017 5th round pick who missed his rookie year with a dislocated wrist. Penny is a bigger back at 6-2 234, while Logan is a 5-9 196 scatback. They obviously need Johnson to stay healthy.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Johnson will once again have to play a big role in the passing game because the Cardinals remain thin behind Larry Fitzgerald. JJ Nelson (29/508/2), Jaron Brown (31/477/4), and John Brown (21/299/3) were their leading wide receivers behind Fitzgerald last season and now both John and Jaron Brown are gone. Neither will really be missed, but the Cardinals still have uncertainty at the wide receiver position. JJ Nelson remains and will compete with 2017 3rd round pick Chad Williams, rookie 2nd round pick Christian Kirk, and veteran journeyman Brice Butler, who was added in free agency.

Kirk and Williams are expected to get the first shot at roles in 3-wide receiver sets, despite their lack of experience. Williams caught just 3 passes as a rookie last season, but the Cardinals still are high on his upside. They’re obviously high on Kirk’s upside as well and their competition is very underwhelming. Nelson is an undersized deep threat at 5-10 160. The 2015 5th round pick has a career 18.6 yards per catch average, but has caught just 45.7% of his targets and has just 74 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He’s nothing more than a situational deep threat. Brice Butler, meanwhile, is going into his 6th season in the league and has never had more than 21 catches in a season.

The Cardinals are obviously hoping that Larry Fitzgerald can continue being a #1 caliber receiver. That’s not a guarantee at his age, going into his age 35 season, but he hasn’t really shown much sign of decline. He doesn’t have the same burst he had in his prime, averaging just 11.0 yards per catch over the past 6 seasons, but he’s topped 100 catches in each of the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-8 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons.

A future first ballot Hall of Famer, Fitzgerald ranks 3rd all-time in both catches with 1,234 and receiving yards with 15,545 and is within striking distance of #2 all-time behind Jerry Rice in both categories.The 3rd overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Fitzgerald has been everything you could hope for out of a high pick. He’s missed just 6 games in his entire career and has played in all 16 games in 11 of 14 seasons in the league. With a lack of other options around him, Fitzgerald should have the opportunity to catch 100 passes again in 2018, but his age is concerning. He might not quite be the same player and could opt to retire after the season when his contract expires.

The Cardinals are also thin at tight end as well. Jermaine Gresham (749 snaps) and Troy Niklas (414 snaps) were their top-2 tight ends last season, but neither did much in the passing game, posting 33/322/2 and 11/132/1 slash lines respectively. On top of that, Niklas is now with the Patriots, while Gresham is questionable for the start of the season after tearing his achilles in week 17 last season. He’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury by the start of the season.

That will give 2nd year tight end Ricky Seals-Jones an opportunity. As an undrafted rookie, Seals-Jones played just 1 snap in the Cardinals’ first 9 games, but flashed as a receiver in the final 7 games, catching 12 passes for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 67 routes run. RSJ isn’t much of a blocker, but has always had upside as a receiver. He had an underwhelming college career at Texas A&M, but was a 5-star wide receiver recruit out of high school. He should have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league and has some breakout potential. Bruce Arians’ offense never featured tight ends much in the passing game, but new head coach Steve Wilks brought Mike McCoy with him as offensive coordinator, who runs a different scheme. Sam Bradford has always liked throwing to tight ends as well.

Gresham has never been much of a receiver. He’s gotten negative grades for his pass catching from PFF in 7 of 8 seasons in the league. He hasn’t topped 500 yards in a season since 2012 and is unlikely to get better in his age 31 season, coming off of a major injury. The 6-5 260 pounder is a solid run blocker, but that’s about it. He also had a position leading 11 penalties in 2017 and finished 49th out of 72 eligible tight ends on PFF.

Behind Gresham and Seals-Jones on the depth chart, the Cardinals don’t have a single tight end who has caught a pass in the NFL and they did not use a draft pick on the position. They will have to hope they get good years from young pass catchers Chad Williams, Christian Kirk, and Ricky Seals-Jones and that Larry Fitzgerald continues playing at a high level because this is a thin receiving corps. David Johnson could easily finish as their #2 receiver again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Cardinals also had major injuries on the offensive line. Left guard Mike Iupati missed the final 15 games of the season with an elbow injury, while two injuries to the same knee limited left tackle DJ Humphries to just 204 snaps in 5 games. If healthy, they could form a talented left side of the offensive line for a team that had major issues on the offensive line last season. They allowed 52 sacks, 3rd highest in the NFL, and were a big part of the reason why they never got anything going on the ground. Humphries was the only Cardinal offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus.

A first round pick in 2015, Humphries is still a bit of an enigma. He didn’t play a single snap as a rookie and struggled at right tackle in 2016, but looked on his way to a breakout year in 2017 before the injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, he still has a high upside and the Cardinals showed confidence in his health by picking up his 9.6 million dollar 5th year option for 2019, which is guaranteed for injury. He could easily pick up where he left off prior to the injury, but he’s unproven for a 4th year player.

Iupati is also far from a guarantee, as he heads into his age 31 season, coming off of a lost season due to injury. He had to take a 3 million dollar pay cut down to 5 million in order to stay on the roster. He’s earned positive run blocking grades in all 8 seasons in the league and finished 13th overall at his position on PFF as recently as 2015, but his pass protection has slipped in recent years, even before the injury. Going into the final year of his contract, Iupati could be entering his final season with the Cardinals.

The Cardinals also should be better at right guard this season, after signing ex-Giant Justin Pugh in free agency. A first round pick by the Giants in 2013, Pugh played a lot of right tackle in 5 seasons with the Giants, but guard has always been his best position and that appears to be where he’ll play with the Cardinals. About a league average offensive tackle in his first 2 seasons in the league, Pugh flipped to left guard before the 2015 season and made 23 starts there between 2015 and 2016, finishing 15th and 14th respectively at his position on PFF in those 2 seasons.

In 2017, struggles at right tackle made the Giants decide to move Pugh back there and he was not the same player as he was at guard. He also struggled through a back injury that ended his season after 8 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, Pugh has obvious bounce back potential as long as he’s healthy. He did not need surgery on his back and is available for the full off-season. The Cardinals are clearly confident in him returning to 2015-2016 form, giving him a 5-year, 45.025 million dollar deal to fill a major position of need. He’s the 9th highest paid guard in the NFL.

The Cardinals still have problems at center and right tackle though. Center AQ Shipley played every single snap in 2017, but was one of the worst centers in the league, finishing 35th out of 38 eligible on PFF. Shipley was better in 2016, but prior to that he was a career backup with just 22 starts in his first 7 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 32 season, Shipley is an underwhelming starting option, but figures to remain the starter for lack of a better option. His biggest competition will be 3rd round rookie Mason Cole. Cole played more left tackle than center at the University of Michigan, but he spent 2016 at center and his lack of size and arm length make him a better fit at the pivot in the NFL. It’s possible he pushes for playing time down the stretch, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade.

At right tackle, the Cardinals got rid of right tackle Jared Veldheer this off-season. Veldheer made 13 starts in 2017, but he finished 58th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles and was not worth his 7 million dollar salary in his age 31 season in 2018. The Cardinals likely were going to outright release him, but they managed to get a 6th round pick from the Broncos in a trade for him. The problem is they lack an obvious replacement.

John Wetzel is their top internal option, but he’s a swing tackle at best. Wetzel has made 19 starts over the past 2 seasons, 9 at left tackle, 8 at right tackle, 1 at left guard, and 1 at right guard, but he’s struggled mightily wherever he’s played. He finished 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2016 and then finished 80th out of 83 eligible in 2017. The Cardinals brought in veteran free agent Andre Smith, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade.

Smith is plenty experienced, with 85 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but he’s gotten negative grades from PFF in each of his last 4 seasons and finished last year 60th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on 7 starts with the Bengals. Going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to improve. His contract, 8 million over 2 years, suggests he has a good chance to start, but only out of desperation, as Wetzel is not a starting caliber player. Even with holes at right tackle and center, this offensive line should be significantly better in 2018.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Even though their offense was statistically a lot worse without Carson Palmer, they actually went 5-4 in the 9 games he missed, as opposed to 3-4 in the 7 games he started. That’s because their defense got significantly better as the season went on. After allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.12% rate in the first 7 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 29.55% rate in the final 9 games of the season. That would have been the second best rate in the league last season, only behind Jacksonville, and they finished 6th in the NFL overall on the season at 31.68%.

The Cardinals were a good defensive team in 2015 and 2016, but how well they performed defensively last season was still a surprise. They lost 4 starters in free agency last off-season, most notably defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson, and they also dealt with a lot of injuries on defense. One of those injured Arizona defenders was edge defender Markus Golden, who tore his ACL after 230 snaps in 4 games. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden had 12.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in his first season as an every down player in 2016, but he managed just 3 hits with no sacks before getting hurt last season.

The Cardinals are moving to a new defensive scheme under new head coach Steve Wilks. Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator James Bettcher ran a base 3-4 defense, but Wilks comes from a 4-3 background with the Panthers and brings linebacker coach Mike Holcomb with him from Carolina to be his defensive coordinator. Golden played in a 4-3 defense in college, so the scheme change shouldn’t affect him negatively, but he’s a question mark coming off of the injury and the Cardinals have thus far not prioritized locking him up long-term, going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Like David Johnson, Golden is also a one-year wonder coming off of a major injury.

Another reason why the Cardinals may be hesitant to lock Golden up long-term is that fellow edge rusher Chandler Jones is already locked up long-term on a big deal worth 82.5 million over 5 years that he signed last off-season after being franchise tagged. Jones was the Cardinals’ best defensive player in 2017, finishing 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He also finished 5th at his position in 2016 and has 64 sacks and 73 hits in 6 seasons in the league, including 17 sacks (most in the NFL) and 18 hits last season. He’s also part of reason why Golden was able to put up big numbers in 2016, as he created disruption opposite him. Going into his age 28 season, Jones is still in the prime of his career and has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He’s one of the highest paid defensive players in the league, but he’s worth it.

In Golden’s absence, Kareem Martin, Haason Reddick, and Josh Mauro split snaps opposite Jones, who led all 3-4 outside linebackers with 1042 snaps (all but 16 snaps). Golden is an upgrade over all of those players, but Martin and Mauro followed ex-defensive coordinator James Bettcher to the Giants as free agents, while Reddick is expected to be more of an every down linebacker in 2018 in the new scheme, which leaves them thin behind Golden and Jones.

Benson Mayowa was signed in free agency and seems likely to be the #3 defensive end. Mayowa has been mediocre as a rotational defensive end over the past 4 seasons with the Raiders and Cowboys, but earned the first positive grade of his career on 381 snaps last season in Dallas. He’d be a liability if he ever needed to start, but both Jones and Golden should be every down players, so Mayowa will probably have a limited role. Their lack of depth at the position is a concern though.

One player the Cardinals are hoping benefits from the scheme change is Robert Nkemdiche. A first round pick in 2016, Nkemdiche had obvious upside as a prospect out of the University of Mississippi, but has barely been on the field in 2 seasons, playing just 334 underwhelming snaps. Injuries have been part of it, as have concerns about his work ethic, but playing in an unfamiliar 3-4 defense after spending his college career in a 4-3 may have had something to do with it as well. Now in a 4-3 with a new coaching staff that is willing to give him a fresh start, Nkemdiche has his best chance to become a meaningful contributor.

Frostee Rucker led all Cardinal interior defensive linemen with 606 snaps last season, but he’s no longer with the team, so there are plenty of snaps up for grabs. Rucker was not bad last season, but he’s going into his age 35 season and was not retained as a free agent this off-season with a new coaching staff coming to town. Corey Peters and Olsen Pierre, who ranked 2nd and 3rd on this team in snaps by an interior defensive linemen with 441 and 351 respectively, both were better than Rucker on a per snap basis.

Peters missed 4 games with injury, but played about 55% of the snaps when he was in the lineup and should be somewhere around there again in 2018. He’ll likely be one of the starters. A 8-year veteran, Peters has made 81 starts in 98 games in his career. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but has earned a positive run stuffing grade in 4 straight healthy seasons (excluding 2015, when he missed the season with injury) and earned the first positive pass rushing grade of his career in 2017. Last season was probably the best season of his career overall, as he finished a career best 33rd among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, Peters may not repeat his career best season in 2018, but he should still be a capable player in a defensive tackle rotation. He has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in his career.

Pierre, meanwhile, finished last season 13th among 3-4 defensive ends, despite a limited snap count. The 2015 undrafted free agent is unproven, as last year was the first action of his career and he still didn’t play all that much, but he earned positive grades both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher and has earned a bigger role in 2018. Rodney Gunter is also in the mix, but he’s been underwhelming on 950 snaps in 3 seasons in the league (317 snaps per season), since going in the 4th round in 2015, and shouldn’t have much bigger of a role in 2018. This is not the best defensive line in the league, but they should transition to a 4-3 defense well.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Haason Reddick should be more of a true linebacker in 2017, after moving to edge rusher when Markus Golden got hurt last season. That should be a good thing for him, as he managed just 2.5 sacks, 5 hits, and 9 hurries on 218 pass rush snaps last season. The 13th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Reddick played defensive end in college, but is not big enough at 6-1 235 to consistently matchup one-on-one against offensive tackles. He was originally drafted to be a true every down linebacker, only rushing the passer on 16 snaps in 3 games before the Golden injury, but, when Golden got hurt, they decided to give Reddick a shot as an edge rusher, which proved to be a mistake. He may develop into an above average blitzing linebacker, but his future is as a true linebacker, stuffing the run and dropping into coverage, two things he did reasonably well as a rookie. In a role he fits better, Reddick has obvious breakout potential in his 2nd season in the league.

Deone Bucannon should be the other every down linebacker. He’s a former first round pick as well, going 27th overall in 2014. A collegiate safety, Bucannon struggled as a rookie, but then was converted into a linebacker before his 2nd season in the league in 2015. At 6-1 211, Bucannon has predictably had issues against the run and has missed 41 tackles over the past 3 seasons, but he earned positive coverage grades in both 2015 and 2016, finishing 6th among middle linebackers in coverage grade on Pro Football Focus in both seasons.

In 2017, however, Bucannon struggled mightily, both against the run and in coverage, finishing as PFF’s 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible. An ankle injury is likely to blame for most of that. He only missed 3 games after off-season ankle surgery, but it seemed to affect him once he returned. He especially struggled in his first 5-6 games back, before improving in the second half of the season, part of this team’s strong second half play. Assuming he’s over his issues, he should have a rebound season in 2018. The Cardinals kept him on the roster despite a 8.718 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal and may seek to extend him long-term this off-season if they feel he’s all the way back.

Karlos Dansby actually led all Arizona linebackers with 920 snaps last season. He wasn’t all that bad, but was not brought back this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. Unless Dansby is brought back, Josh Bynes figures to be the 3rd linebacker. A natural middle linebacker, he’ll likely play inside in base packages with Bucannon and Reddick outside and then come off the field for a 5th defensive back when they go to sub packages, with Bucannon and Reddick staying in. Bynes is a capable run stuffer, earning a positive run stuffing grade from PFF in 5 of the last 6 seasons, and is not completely lost in coverage either. This has the makings of a solid linebacking corps if everyone stays healthy.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Along with Marcus Golden, the Cardinals also lost talented safety Tyvon Branch for the season with a torn ACL. Branch’s season lasted a little longer and he was one of their best defensive players through the first 9 games of the season prior to the injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked safety when he went down. However, despite those injuries, the Cardinals got significantly better on defense as the season went on. I mentioned Deone Bucannon’s improvement, but the biggest reason for their defensive improvement was their secondary, which played very well down the stretch even without Branch.

Their second half surge in the secondary was led by Budda Baker and Tramon Williams. The 36th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Baker played just 40 snaps in the first 8 games of the season, but he took over as an every down player week 10 when Branch tore his ACL and was one of the best safeties in the league over that time period, finishing with PFF’s 2nd highest grade from week 10 on. Tramon Williams, meanwhile, finished 3rd among cornerbacks over that same time period. That’s pretty shocking considering he was a 34-year-old who did not sign until June and played just 6 snaps in the first 5 games of the season. He allowed just 49.2% completion for 341 yards on 63 targets on the season.

With Tyvon Branch unsigned, Budda Baker should be an every down safety in 2018 and has a very bright future, still only going into his age 22 season. He’s undersized at 5-10 195, but has 4.45 speed, a nose for the football, and does a great job of turning speed into power. He doesn’t play like his size. He can play safety or play closer to the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback or coverage linebacker. Williams, on the other hand, signed with the Packers this off-season, which could prove to be a big loss.

The Cardinals also lost hybrid slot cornerback/safety Tyrann Mathieu this off-season. The Cardinals had Mathieu under team control through 2021, but cut him rather than pay him 11 million in 2018, despite signing him to an extension with a 15.5 million dollar signing bonus less than 2 years ago. Mathieu was PFF’s #3 ranked cornerback as a 3rd round rookie in 2013 and their #1 ranked cornerback in 2015, but both of those seasons ended with torn ACLs and he also missed 6 games with a shoulder injury in 2016.

Mathieu played all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2017, playing all but 4 snaps on defense (696 of which came as a slot cornerback), but he was not the same player he was in 2013 or 2015, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF. Only going into his age 26 season, Mathieu had bounce back potential another year removed from the ACL tear, but the Cardinals did not feel he was worth his salary and let him go when he refused a pay cut. Along with Tramon Williams, he will be missed.

#1 cornerback Patrick Peterson fortunately remains. He had a bit of a down year last year, finishing 54th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he finished 5th in 2015 and 11th in 2016 and has earned positive grades in 5 of the last 6 seasons, with the lone exception coming in 2014 when he had undiagnosed diabetes. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has made 112 of 112 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He should have another strong season in 2018. If he’s at his top form, it should help offset some of the loss of Mathieu and Williams.

The Cardinals also acquired veteran cornerback Jamar Taylor from the Browns for a 2020 6th round pick. A bust of a 2nd round pick in 3 seasons with the Dolphins, Taylor developed into a capable starter in 2 seasons with the Browns, earning positive grades from PFF in both seasons. Despite that, he was let go this off-season during the Browns’ secondary re-design. He should be a capable starter opposite Peterson in 2018, though he’ll likely be a downgrade from Williams.

Slot cornerback is the big weakness. The Cardinals used a 3rd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Brandon Williams, but he struggled on 240 snaps at cornerback as a rookie and then played just 1 snap on defense in 2017. Perhaps he’ll have a 3rd year leap, but he may never develop into the player the Cardinals thought he would be. The only other cornerback on the roster with NFL experience is free agent acquisition Bene Benwikere.

Benwikere showed promise as a 5th round rookie in 2014 with the Panthers, but struggled in 2015 and 2016 and was waived after one particularly bad game during the 2016 season. He then bounced around from the Dolphins to the Packers to the Bengals to the Cowboys before signing with the Cardinals this off-season. With the Cowboys, he played just 11 defensive snaps in 2017. Still only going into his age 27 season, Benwikere has theoretical upside, but is a long shot to develop into a useful player.

The only draft pick they used on a defensive back was their 6th round selection of Penn State’s Christian Campbell, so they figure to have significantly worse slot cornerback play this season with Mathieu gone. The Cardinals could still bring back Tyvon Branch, who remains unsigned. That would allow them to use more 3 safety sets and line up either Branch or Baker as a slot cornerback. However, there is no indication they are going to do that and Branch is going into his age 32 season with a huge injury history. He’s missed 44 games with injury in the past 5 seasons and is now coming back from a torn ACL. Without Branch, Rudy Ford is penciled in as the 3rd safety. He did not play a defensive snap as a 6th round rookie in 2017.

Meanwhile, Antoine Bethea is the other starting safety opposite Baker. He was not quite an every down player in 2017, entering the game in sub packages when Mathieu would move to the slot, but he still played 741 snaps and ranked 11th among safeties on PFF. Unless Branch is brought back, he’ll be an every down player in 2018 with Mathieu gone. He’s plenty experienced, with 168 starts in 12 seasons in the league, but he’s going into his age 34 season and struggled in both 2015 and 2016 before arriving in Arizona last off-season. At his age, he’s not a sure thing. As a whole, this secondary is not as good as it was to finish last season, with Williams and Mathieu gone and Bethea getting up there in age. This is still a solid unit though, led by Patrick Peterson and the emerging Budda Baker.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cardinals are expected by many to be one of the worst teams in the league, but I think they’ll be competitive. They were not a bad team last year, despite a terrible injury situation. This year, they get feature back David Johnson back from injury. They should have better quarterback and offensive line play. On defense, they may not be quite as good as they ended last season, but they’re still a capable unit that gets Markus Golden back from injury to give them another edge rusher opposite Defensive Player of the Year candidate Chandler Jones.

The big question mark with them is the new coaching staff. Bruce Arians was known for getting the most out of his offensive players and his defensive coordinator James Bettcher did a great job coordinating this 3-4 season over the past 3 seasons. Ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks takes over as head coach and brings in Mike McCoy, an experienced offensive play caller and former head coach, to run the offense.

Wilks was only the defensive coordinator for one season in Carolina though and there may be some growing pains as they implement new schemes on both sides of the ball. Arians’ deep attack will be replaced by more of a west coast offense that features more underneath throws and the defense will switch to a 4-3 base. The NFC is tough and they play in one of the tougher divisions in football in the NFC West, so they’re probably not a playoff team, but they won’t be a weak opponent. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Cardinals will be competitive in most of their games, but, by default, I have them as the worst team in the NFC West.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC West

New England Patriots 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Figuring out how to approach the end of a legendary quarterback’s career is a tough task. Some teams have lucked out and had clear replacements ready to go at the right time. The Packers had Aaron Rodgers fall to them at 24th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft and had no concerns about going to him when Favre retired after the 2007 season, even letting Favre go when he decided later in the off-season he wanted to return. The 49ers had Steve Young as a backup behind Joe Montana and he played so well when Montana was injured that they were comfortable trading Montana to the Chiefs. The Colts had to endure a 2-14 season while Peyton Manning was out with a neck injury, but, as a result, they got the #1 pick in the draft with the most obvious #1 pick (Andrew Luck) since Manning went #1 himself 14 years earlier.

Some teams have tried to have clear replacements ready to go, only to see that replacement struggle. The Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler in the 2nd round in 2012 as a future replacement for Manning after they signed him following his release by the Colts, but Osweiler struggled in his first career action in 2015 when Manning was out with a foot injury and the Broncos subsequently let him sign with the Texans as a free agent the following off-season, despite Manning’s retirement.

Not re-signing Osweiler proved to be wise because he struggled in Houston and eventually found his way back to Denver on a much cheaper contract, but the Broncos had to endure 2 years of horrible quarterback play before signing veteran Case Keenum to a big contract in free agency this off-season and even he isn’t a sure thing, after just one good season in Minnesota. The Broncos also had a similar issue when John Elway retired, as Brian Griese, drafted in the 3rd round a year before Elway’s retirement, never developed into the long-term franchise quarterback they were expecting him to be. The same thing happened with the Bills, who turned to 1995 2nd round pick Todd Collins in 1997, following the retirement of Jim Kelly. Collins lasted one season as the Bills’ starter.

Some teams did basically nothing to prepare for the future. After the Dan Marino retired, the Dolphins had to turn to career backup Jay Fiedler. When Steve Young suffered a career ending concussion, the 49ers had to turn to Jeff Garcia, recently signed from the CFL. The Cowboys had to turn to 2nd round rookie Quincy Carter following the retirement of Troy Aikman. There isn’t one blueprint for what to do when your Hall of Fame quarterback is in the late stages of his career.

The Patriots have chosen to invest resources in quarterbacks despite having Tom Brady. In fact, since 2008, they’ve drafted four quarterbacks in the first 3 rounds of the draft (Ryan Mallett, Kevin O’Connell, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett). Only the Browns have drafted more quarterbacks in the first 3 rounds since then. Despite that, they could still end up with a tough quarterback situation after Tom Brady retires.

The issue wasn’t that they were unable to find a good long-term replacement. Jimmy Garoppolo was more than ready to be the Patriots’ next quarterback and could have easily been their Steve Young/Aaron Rodgers/Andrew Luck. The issue, if you can even call it that, is that Tom Brady is still playing at an MVP level at age 40 and has outlasted the rookie contracts of his backups. Garoppolo, by far the most promising, was sent to the 49ers for a second round pick at the deadline last off-season, the Patriots’ last chance to trade him before his rookie contract expired, and he looked like a franchise quarterback down the stretch for the 49ers.

The Patriots’ trade of Garoppolo became even more interesting when it was reported that Bill Belichick did not want to trade Garoppolo, but his hand was forced by owner Robert Kraft, who wanted Tom Brady to remain a Patriot for life and not have to look over his shoulder at a talented young backup. Whether or not that report was true, the idea that Belichick at least considered keeping Garoppolo this off-season and moving on from Brady is not all that crazy. Belichick saw Garoppolo in practice for four years and knew what he had in him. Brady probably still gave the Patriots a better chance to win over the next couple years, but Garoppolo could have been a franchise quarterback for the next 10 years and the forward thinking Belichick might have prefered that if forced to pick between the two.

Belichick also knows how tough it is to find a quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo. In any given draft, there are usually only 1-3 true franchise caliber quarterbacks, if there are any at all, and they usually go in the top-10, a spot where the Patriots don’t normally select. The Patriots found Garoppolo in the 2nd round and famously found Tom Brady in the 6th round, but, as good as the Patriots are at finding talent, they’ve also used day 2 draft picks on quarterbacks like Kevin O’Connell and Ryan Mallett, who never even developed into capable backups.

There was a lot of speculation that the Patriots would try to find the next Jimmy Garoppolo in this draft and they certainly had opportunities to take a quarterback, but Belichick and company were clearly not sold on most of the quarterbacks in this draft class. With 4 picks in the first 2 rounds, the Patriots reportedly wanted to move up to select Baker Mayfield, but that became an impossibility when the Browns decided to select him #1 overall.

After missing out of Mayfield, the Patriots sat back and addressed other needs, only using a 7th round pick on LSU’s Danny Etling. The Patriots clearly saw something in him and he may prove to be a capable backup or a Brian Hoyer/Matt Cassel caliber spot starter, but I don’t think anyone expects him to actually be their quarterback of the future. If the Patriots thought he had that kind of potential, they would not have waited until the 7th round to grab him.

The Patriots did make several trades down to acquire an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick in next year’s draft, so they may try to trade up for a quarterback they like in next year’s draft, but next year’s quarterback draft is considered to be much weaker than this year’s. With Tom Brady going into his age 41 season, it could be very tough for the Patriots to get the timing right and have a clear replacement ready to go when Brady is ready to hang them up or when he is physically unable to perform at a high level anymore.

The Patriots are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen for a few years, but, at his age, Brady is year-to-year and nothing can be taken for granted. He showed last season he can still play at a high level, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while quarterbacking the league’s #1 ranked offense in terms of first down rate (40.84%) and picking up his 3rd MVP award. He’s finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback in each of the last 2 seasons.

At an age where most quarterbacks are finished, Brady is seemingly getting better. He’s kept himself in tremendous physical shape and every mental aspect of the game is beyond second nature at this point in his career. However, as we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it overnight and never get it back. As long as Brady continues playing at a high level, this team is a Super Bowl contender once again, but that’s no longer a guarantee.

Unless they want to turn to Danny Etling, the Patriots’ only option if Brady gets injured or declines significantly is veteran backup Brian Hoyer. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2009, Hoyer spent 3 seasons in New England and then made 37 starts with 5 different teams (Cardinals, Texans, Browns, Bears, 49ers) from 2012-2017, before returning to New England mid-season last season when the 49ers cut him to make room for Garoppolo. His career numbers are underwhelming, 59.4% percent completion, 7.02 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions, so, while he’s well exceeded his draft slot (or lack there of), he’s not someone the Patriots want to have to turn to.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brady is not the only high profile Patriot who is year-to-year at this point, as tight end Rob Gronkowski reportedly considered retirement this off-season and may decide to hang them up in the next year or two. Unlike Brady, Gronkowski is still relatively young, only going into his age 29 season, but he’s financially set, has opportunities to do other things like acting and wrestling, and he’s dealt with a lot of injuries thus far in his career. He’s had 3 back surgeries, 5 arm surgeries, and one knee surgery in his career, while missing 26 games in the past 6 seasons.

Despite that, Gronkowski has remained one of the most dominant offensive players in the NFL when healthy. He’s averaged a 80/1234/12 slash line per 16 games since his 2nd season in the league in 2011 and he’s an excellent blocker as well. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked tight end in each of the past 4 seasons in which he’s played more than 14 games (including 2017) and he’s finished in the top-6 at his position in all 8 seasons in the league, despite some injury plagued seasons. The Patriots managed to win the Super Bowl without him in 2016, but Brady’s passing numbers have been significantly better with Gronkowski on the field than without.

He was relatively healthy in 2017, missing one regular season game with a quad injury, missing another with a one-game suspension for a personal foul, and then missing the second half of the AFC championship with a concussion. He finished with a 69/1084/8 slash line in 14 games, the 4th healthy season in a row in which he’s topped 1000 yards receiving. However, all the injuries he’s suffered seem to be taking a toll on him mentally. He’s committed to 2018 and should remain one of the top tight ends in the NFL as long as he’s healthy, but his commitment beyond this season is a major question mark. Perhaps he continues playing until Brady retires and then follows him out the door.

Gronkowski was not the Patriots’ only 1000+ yard receiver in 2017, as wideout Brandin Cooks put up a 65/1082/7 slash line. Acquired last off-season with a 4th round pick in a trade that sent a first and third round pick to the Saints, Cooks was not quite as good as his numbers suggested in his one season in New England, finishing just about average on PFF, and was subsequently traded to the Rams for the 23rd pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Patriots came close to getting the same value in draft picks that they gave up for him (the difference was a 6th round pick per the draft trade value chart), so they were basically able to rent him for one-year for a mere 1.563 million dollar salary and a 6th round pick. The Patriots also lost their 2nd leading wide receiver from 2017, Danny Amendola. Amendola had a reasonable 61/659/2 slash line in 2017 and earned a positive grade from PFF on 568 snaps, but was not worth the 6 million annually he received from the Dolphins as a free agent, going into his age 33 season.

Even after losing Cooks and Amendola, the Patriots are still deep at wide receiver. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan were their top-2 receivers in 2016, but Edelman missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and Hogan was limited to 591 snaps in 9 games by a shoulder injury. Both should be healthier in 2018. Edelman has been their #1 wide receiver in recent years when healthy, averaging a 104/1113/6 slash line per 16 games since 2013, but, like Gronkowski, he’s had trouble staying on the field.

He played in all 16 games in 2013 and 2016 and played in 14 games in 2014, but he missed 7 games with a broken foot in 2015 and then missed all of last season. In fact, he and Gronkowski have played in just 17 games together over the past 3 seasons, making what Brady has done in recent years all the more impressive. Edelman’s return will have to wait until week 5, as he’s expected to be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and his age is becoming a concern, as he heads into his age 32 season, but his return should be a boost for this offense. The first 4 games of the season are far from the most important 4 games in a typical Patriots season, so his absence shouldn’t hurt them too much. If Edelman and Gronkowski can stay healthy, that will give Brady two targets that he’s had a lot of success with in the past.

Hogan hasn’t had the same success in the past. He was on pace for a 66/876/10 slash line through 8 games last season, but that was mostly because of who was throwing him the football. In 5 seasons in the league, he’s never earned a positive grade from PFF and now he’s going into his age 30 season. He wasn’t a bad signing on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent two off-seasons ago, but he’s not locked into a starting job.

His primary competition for the starting job will be free agent addition Jordan Matthews. Matthews is also coming off of an injury plagued season, which is why he had to settle for a 1-year deal worth up to 1.7 million with incentives (just 1 million base salary and 170K guaranteed), but he could prove to be a huge steal if he’s healthy, after off-season knee and ankle surgeries. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Matthews was about a league average starting receiver in his first 3 seasons in the league, averaging a 75/891/6 slash line and hauling in 64.5% of his targets, despite shaky quarterback play. Perhaps most importantly, he only missed 2 games with injury in those 3 seasons combined. Still only going into his age 26 season, Matthews is a perfect fit as a possession receiver in New England’s offense and has big statistical upside, especially with Edelman missing the first 4 games.

Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, and Phillip Dorsett are also in the mix for roles. Mitchell is coming off of an injury plagued season, as a knee injury kept him out all year, but the 2016 4th round pick flashed on 538 snaps as a rookie (32/401/4) and has the talent to develop into a long-term contributor if he can stay healthy. The Patriots are also hoping for a return to 2016 form from Kenny Britt, as he topped 1000 yards on a terrible offense with Jeff Fisher’s Rams that year (68/1002/5).

Britt was cut mid-season by the Browns last season after 9 underwhelming games (18/233/2 on 37 targets), despite getting 10.5 million guaranteed on a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal the previous off-season, and he’s had issues with his coaches in the past. However, when he’s motivated he’s a good receiver and he’s still somehow only going into his age 30 season, despite 9 seasons in the league. It’s possible he’s never the same receiver again, but he was worth a flier on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. None of his salary is guaranteed for 2018, so he’ll need to impress this off-season to stay on the roster.

Phillip Dorsett is likely also fighting for a roster spot, but he has the upside to be more if he can ever live up to his upside. A surprise first round pick by the Colts in 2015, Dorsett was disappointing in 2 seasons in Indianapolis (51 catches for 753 yards and 3 touchdowns on 99 targets) and was traded to the Patriots for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett before the start of last season. Dorsett struggled to fit in after arriving so late in the off-season and had just 12 catches on 378 snaps, but he could be better with a full off-season in the system and he’s still only going into his age 25 season. He’s undersized at 5-10 185, but has great deep speed and a 15.0 career yards per catch average. Even without Cooks and Amendola and with Edelman missing 4 games with suspension, the Patriots have plenty of depth at wide receiver.

The Patriots also have good depth behind Rob Gronkowski as Dwayne Allen remains on the roster despite a non-guaranteed 5 million dollar salary. He could still be cut later in the off-season, but the Patriots wouldn’t have much need for the cap space at that point and wouldn’t be able to find a good replacement. His receiving numbers don’t seem to justify that salary, as he caught just 10 of 19 targets for 86 yards and 1 touchdown, with 4 drops, but he’s also one of the better blocking tight ends in the league.

He finished last season as PFF’s 3rd ranked run blocking tight end and earned a positive grade overall as a result. He won’t have a big role in the passing game even if Gronk gets hurt (he had 2 catches for 10 yards on 5 targets in the two games Gronk missed last season), but the Patriots clearly value his ability to essentially be a 6th offensive lineman on running plays. He’s never topped his rookie year receiving numbers (45/521/6) and might not come close to those numbers in 2018, but he’s still a useful player and he played all 16 games last season for the first time since his rookie year in 2012. Even with him being a liability in the passing game, Tom Brady still has plenty of options to throw to, especially once Edelman returns. How playing time and targets are split up might be a week-to-week decision based on matchups.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Patriots also throw to their running backs a lot. Last season, they had 126 catches by running backs, 32.5% of their total. James White (56/429/3), Dion Lewis (32/214/3), and Rex Burkhead (30/254/3) led the way. Lewis also led the team in carries with 180 and was very impressive, averaging 4.98 yards per carry, rushing for 6 touchdowns, and finishing 3rd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. However, the Patriots lost him this off-season when he signed a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal with the Titans.

Despite that, the Patriots are still really deep at running back, especially after using the 31st overall pick on Georgia’s Sony Michel. The 5-11 214 pound Michel was one of the most explosive backs in the draft and could have an immediate impact. Rex Burkhead also figures to have a bigger role and will likely be Michel’s biggest competition for carries. He only had 94 touches last season, but that was because he missed 6 games with injury. If he’s healthy, he should push for double digit touches weekly. At 5-10 210, he’s a jack of all trades back that can play all 3 downs and special teams. He has the versatility to play receiver (35 of 112 pass routes were on the slot or out wide, 31.0%) and also has a career 4.23 YPC average.

The Patriots also signed ex-Bengal Jeremy Hill in free agency. He’s likely competing with Mike Gillislee for one roster spot. Both are bigger backs at 6-1 230 and 5-11 219 respectively. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Hill burst onto the scene with 222 carries for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie (5.06 YPC), but he’s totaled just 482 carries for 1749 yards and 20 touchdowns (3.63 YPC) in 3 seasons since and signed for just 1.5 million with only 150K guaranteed this off-season. Gillislee makes more money (2.4 million non-guaranteed), but Hill will need a strong off-season to take his roster spot.

The Patriots acquired Gillislee as a restricted free agent last off-season, after he averaged 5.70 yards per carry on 148 carries in 2 seasons as the backup in Buffalo. His YPC average plummeted to 3.69 on 104 carries in his first season in New England, but he did a good job picking up positive gains and keeping the offense on schedule. He led the NFL with a 58% carry success rate. He fell out of the rotation down the stretch as other backs were playing at a higher level, but he still earned a positive running grade from PFF. Assuming he makes the roster, he should have a limited role as a short yardage back and he doesn’t do much in the passing game, but he’s good insurance in case another back gets injured.

The reason Hill and Gillislee are fighting for one roster spot is because James White is locked into his role. More of a hybrid than a true running back at 5-10 205, White lined up on the slot or out wide on 89 of 293 pass routes (30.4%). The 2014 4th round pick has a career YPC average of 3.81 on just 113 carries, but the 56 catches he had last season were actually a decrease from 2016 when he had 60. In 2017, he played fewer snaps (382 vs. 425) in a more crowded backfield, but he was still able to put up a big catch number. He should have 50-60 catches again in 2018. He’s a trusty 3rd down option that can line up anywhere and keep you at least a little bit honest on the ground. This is still a very deep backfield.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While the Patriots’ running backs were good last season, a big part of why they were so effective on the ground was their supporting cast, especially their run blocking. They were Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked team in run blocking grade. The same is unfortunately not true of their pass protection. Brady was only sacked 35 times (13th fewest in the NFL), but he was also hit another 40 times, more than any quarterback in the NFL. Given Brady’s age, pass protection is incredibly important to this team, so they’ll need to be better in 2018.

Making matters even worse, the Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants on a record 4-year, 62 million dollar deal this off-season and, because of a weak offensive tackle free agency class, were unable to replace him in free agency. They lost also swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who flashed in 20 career starts in 4 seasons with the Patriots, including 6 games last season at right tackle in place of an injured Marcus Cannon.

Fortunately, they were able to address this position during the draft, using the 23rd pick (acquired for Brandin Cooks) on Georgia left tackle Isaiah Wynn and then trading their 3rd round pick (95th overall) to the 49ers for right tackle Trent Brown and a 5th round pick (143rd overall). Wynn was arguably the best left tackle in college football last year, despite facing NFL caliber talent on a weekly basis in the SEC. Lack of height and arm length (6-3 313, 33 3/8 inch arms) might mean he’s moving to guard as a professional and he certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a typical big, long armed Bill Belichick offensive tackle, but the Patriots may give him a shot at left tackle just based on his dominant college tape.

Trent Brown fits the Belichick offensive tackle profile much better, as the 6-8 355 pounder has massive 36 inch arms. He doesn’t have the foot speed of a typical left tackle, but his arms are long enough to compensate. Despite his size, he was actually a better pass protector than run blocker last season with the 49ers. In 10 starts, he allowed just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 9 hurries. He played right tackle last season and he’s a one year wonder and he’s coming off of shoulder surgery and might miss until training camp, but ultimately I think he’s the favorite for the week 1 starting job.

Whoever wins the job, the Patriots could easily have better left tackle play than last season. Nate Solder did a great job run blocking, but he was part of the problem in pass protection. He only allowed 4 sacks and 6 hits, but he also allowed 41 hurries and committed 9 penalties. The Patriots were wise to not get into a bidding war for him, even with a thin offensive tackle class in free agency.

The Patriots also get Marcus Cannon back from injury. Another big offensive tackle (6-6 335), Cannon was PFF’s 11th ranked offensive tackle in 2016 and was on his way to another solid season in 2017 before missing the final 9 games of the season with an ankle injury. Backup Cameron Fleming wasn’t bad in his absence and Cannon has an inconsistent history, but having him back healthy should be a boost for this team. Even if he’s not healthy, the Patriots have insurance because either Brown or Wynn could slide to right tackle.

If Wynn plays left guard, he would take the job of 3rd year player Joe Thuney. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Thuney has made all 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has developed into a good run blocker, but he’s struggled in pass protection. He’s allowed 5 sacks and 10 hits in each of his first 2 seasons in the league and has also committed 13 penalties. He was responsible for a quarter of the hits allowed on Tom Brady last season.

Right guard Shaq Mason was responsible for another quarter, but he only allowed 1 sack, committed just 1 penalty, and was PFF’s 9th ranked run blocking guard. A 2015 4th round pick, Mason has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons and has finished in the top-16 at his position in both seasons. He should be locked into his starting job, though it’s unclear if the Patriots will extend him beyond the final year of his rookie deal in 2018 if he doesn’t improve as a pass protector. It’s possible he does improve, as he came into the league very raw in pass protection, after playing on a run heavy Georgia Tech team in college.

Center David Andrews rounds out this offensive line. Despite going undrafted in 2015, Andrews has made 41 starts over the past 3 seasons. He was re-signed to a 3-year, 9 million extension last off-season, which proved to be a smart decision, as he’s gotten better in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 4th ranked center. He’s only a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level player, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. Even after off-season losses, the Patriots still have a solid offensive line and they are deeper and more versatile than they were last season.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

While the Patriots were great offensively in 2017, they were not nearly as good defensively. They finished 20th in first down rate allowed at 34.74%. Despite that, they only spent one pick in the first four rounds on the defense, opting to use their two first round picks to replace players they lost in free agency on offense and then making multiple trades down to pick up additional draft picks in 2019. They did not use a single draft pick on the defensive line, despite it being a major weakness in 2017.

They did make two major additions to their defensive line before the draft though, signing ex-Falcon defensive end Adrian Clayborn and acquiring defensive tackle Danny Shelton in a trade with the Browns for a swap of draft picks. Both were smart additions. Clayborn gives them a much needed pass rusher opposite Trey Flowers and he comes at a reasonable price, signing for 10 million over 2 years. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end.

Most of that is because of one game where he abused the Cowboys’ backup left tackles for 6 sacks, but he had a solid season even without that game. A 2011 1st round pick, injuries plagued Clayborn early in his career, as he missed 28 games in his first 4 seasons in the league, but he’s been relatively healthy for 3 straight seasons and was about a league average starter in 2015 and 2016 as well. Even if he regresses a little bit in his age 30 season, Clayborn should be a capable starter at the very least. He fills a major need for them.

Clayborn also has the size at 6-3 280 to line up inside in passing situations. The same is true of the Patriots other top-2 defensive ends, Trey Flowers (6-2 265) and Deatrich Wise (6-5 271). Flowers lined up inside on 192 of 465 pass snaps in 2017 (41.3%), while Wise lined up inside on 111 of 412 pass snaps (27.0%). Flowers finished 18th among 4-3 defensive ends last season and played 802 snaps, 7th at his position. He finished 11th at his position in 2016 as well, but did so on 564 snaps. He has just 13.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons, but has added 27 quarterback hits and has played well against the run.

With more depth at defensive end, the Patriots might prefer that he be closer to his 2016 total in terms of snap count, in order to keep him fresher. It’ll also help that he has another pass rusher opposite him to create disruption. Deatrich Wise finished 2nd on the team in snaps by a defensive end with 543 last season, despite being a mere 4th round rookie, and he played like a 4th round rookie, finishing 63rd among 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but, either way, the Patriots prefer him in a reserve role.

Danny Shelton, meanwhile, fills a hole at defensive tackle in place of Alan Branch, who is no longer with the team. Branch only played 274 snaps last season, as he struggled for most of the season, but Shelton has the ability to play a larger role. He should start inside in base packages with Malcom Brown. The 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Shelton only managed 1.5 sacks and 3 hits in 3 seasons with the Browns and was not a good fit for the Browns’ new defensive scheme, but he fits what Bill Belichick looks for in a defensive tackle. He has great size at 6-2 335 and has finished in the top-13 among defensive tackles in run stopping grade in each of the past 2 seasons. He should continue that strong base package play in New England.

Malcom Brown is a similar player, also going in the first round in 2015, though the 32nd overall pick is a little bit better pass rusher. The 6-2 320 pounder has 8.5 sacks and 8 hits in 3 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-11 among defensive tackles in run stuffing grade in 2 straight seasons. Both Shelton and Brown are still young, going into their age 25 and age 24 seasons respectively, so they could both improve as pass rushers and prove they are capable of staying on the field for more passing downs, but that’s not a guarantee.

Lawrence Guy is another run stuffing defensive tackle, though he’s not as big at 6-4 305. He played 582 snaps in 2017, but he is not as good as Shelton or Brown, so he should be the 3rd defensive tackle in base packages this season and play much fewer snaps. He’s earned a positive run stuffing grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, but he’s earned a negative grade as a pass rusher in 3 straight seasons. He’s not a bad player, but he’s one-dimensional and the Patriots have better run stuffers.

The Patriots’ top-3 defensive tackles all being run stuffers is a big part of the reason why they like lining up their defensive ends inside in passing situations. Adam Butler also lined up inside in passing situations frequently last season, with 342 of his 473 snaps coming in passing situations. The 2017 undrafted free agent was pretty underwhelming though. The Patriots also have 2017 3rd round pick Derek Rivers in the mix. He missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL, but he should have a role as a sub package edge rusher in 2018. The Patriots will frequently have three or even all four of their top defensive ends on the field in passing situations (Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers). This deep defensive line is also well equipped to stop the run. They should be a lot better upfront in 2018.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Patriots should also be a lot better at linebacker in 2018, although that won’t be hard, as they had one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last season. The biggest reason for their struggles was Dont’a Hightower having an injury plagued season and he should be healthier in 2018, which should be a big boost to this linebacking corps. He missed weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury and then missed the final 9 games and the post-season with a torn pectoral. Even when he did play, he struggled. That’s in part because he was in limited by the knee injury, but he also played out of position a lot of the time, often lining up as an edge rusher in passing situations.

With the Patriots deeper at defensive end, he should play more traditional linebacker this season and, assuming he’s healthy, he has obvious bounce back potential. He earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus last season, but that was the first negative grade of his career. The 2012 1st round pick finished in the top-21 among non-rush linebackers on PFF in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, maxing out at #3 in 2014 and finished 14th in 2016. He’s also still only going into his age 28 season, though he has a concerning injury history. He hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season since 2013. Even with his injury history, the Patriots are still very likely to get a lot more out of him this season than they did last season, which was derailed by injuries from the start.

Hightower’s return should lead to a smaller role for Kyle Van Noy, who was overwhelmed in the first every down action of his career. He was a jack of all trades for the Patriots with 187 pass rush snaps, 279 coverage snaps, and 244 run defense snaps, but earned negative grades in all 3 aspects from PFF and finished 31st among 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. With Hightower back and more depth at defensive end, Van Noy should be more of a two-down player focusing on stuffing the run in base packages.

Elandon Roberts is also a base package linebacker. More than half of his 558 snaps came on run plays (281) last season. The 2016 6th round pick showed promise against the run on 271 snaps as a rookie, but failed to translate to a larger role. The Patriots also used a 5th and 6th round pick on linebackers, taking JaWhaun Bentley and Christian Sam. They’ll likely focus on special teams immediately, but could earn playing time on defense later in the year in a thin linebacking corps. They also have special teamer and coverage specialist Marquis Flowers. Hightower is their only above average starter, but simply having him back makes this a much more passable linebacking corps.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Safety Patrick Chung also plays some linebacker in passing situations. The 5-11 215 pounder plays better closer to the line of scrimmage and the Patriots have plenty of depth in the secondary. Chung’s age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, but moving to more of a hybrid role in his 2nd stint with the Patriots has done wonders for his career. Originally brought back to New England on a 1-year, 1.07 million dollar deal after a terrible season in Philadelphia in 2013, Chung has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons with the Patriots, including 2017.

Devin McCourty is the other starting safety. Age is also becoming a bit of a concern for him, going into his age 31 season as well, and he is coming off of a down year by his standards. He still finished with a positive grade, but after 5 straight seasons in the top-14 among safeties he fell to 31st at his position in 2017. He should still have a couple solid seasons left in the tank at least and he’s missed just 5 games with injury in 8 seasons in the league, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

Duron Harmon is their 3rd safety, but he still played 700 snaps last season. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Hurmon has topped 500 snaps in 3 straight seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s good enough to be an every down safety for a lot of teams and plays close to every down snaps with the Patriots, despite being a 3rd safety. Even the Patriots’ 4th safety Jordan Richards played 273 snaps last season. Also a high pick, a 2nd rounder in 2015, Richards has held his own in limited snaps on defense and is also a key special teamer. The Patriots safeties all are versatile, which allows them to frequently line up 3 or 4 safeties on the field at the same time with a safety filling in for a linebacker and/or a slot cornerback.

At cornerback, Stephon Gilmore is locked in as the #1 guy. The Patriots shockingly signed him away from the Bills last off-season on a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. He’s the 8th highest paid cornerback in the league in terms of average annual salary and he’s by far the highest paid free agent the Patriots have signed in the Bill Belichick era. He struggled in his first 5 games and then missed 3 games with a concussion, but was one of the best cornerbacks in the league once he got more comfortable in the system. From week 10 on, he was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback and finished the season 31st overall at his position, despite the terrible start. The 2012 1st round pick was also a top-25 cornerback in 2014 and 2015 as well, though he had a down 2016 season. He’s been a bit inconsistent in the past, but, still only going into his age 28 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and could easily continue playing at a high level.

The Patriots essentially choose Gilmore over re-signing Malcolm Butler, who was going into the final year of his rookie deal when Gilmore was signed last off-season. After the Gilmore signing, it became clear that Butler was not going to get an extension to his liking from the Patriots. He eventually signed with the Titans on a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal this off-season. Aside from his still inexplicable benching in the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl, Butler had a successful tenure in New England, especially considering he arrived as an undrafted free agent. He earned positive grades from PFF in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 5th in 2016, though he did finish 48th in 2017 and was benched for the Super Bowl at least in part for performance reasons.

Between Butler’s down year in 2017 and the Patriots depth at cornerback, he might not be missed that much. Veteran Jason McCourty was acquired via trade and he’s likely the favorite to start opposite Gilmore. McCourty’s age is a bit of a concern, as he is going into his age 31 season (along with his twin brother Devin), but he’s coming off of one of the better seasons of his career. McCourty earned positive coverage grades from PFF from 2011-2013 and finished 25th and 18th respectively at his position in coverage grade in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but he earned below average coverage grades from PFF from 2014-2016 (while missing 14 games due to injury), leading to his release from Tennessee.

He rebounded in his one season in Cleveland. He finished 32nd in coverage grade and remained useful in run support, finishing 17th at his position in overall grade. He also was relatively healthy, missing just 2 games with injury. Despite that, the Browns were inexplicably going to cut McCourty to save his 3 million non-guaranteed salary before the Patriots jumped in at the last second and acquired a starting caliber cornerback with a reasonable salary for a swap of late round picks. He fits New England’s scheme well and should have the inside track at the #2 cornerback job, though the Patriots do have other options.

They used a 2nd round pick on Florida’s Duke Dawson, the only defensive player they drafted in the first 4 rounds of the draft. He’ll compete for a starting job and could also see action on the slot, although, given all of the Patriots’ depth at safety, there are not a lot of slot snaps available for cornerbacks. The Patriots also have Eric Rowe returning from an injury plagued season. He played just 260 snaps in 8 games last season, but he was their 3rd cornerback when healthy. He was underwhelming when on the field though, especially struggling on the slot. The 6-1 205 pounder is not a natural fit on the slot, but played 135 of 175 coverage snaps there. In 2016, when he played just 35 of 289 coverage snaps on the slot, he was about a league average starter on about half of the snaps. He’ll likely enter 2018 as their top reserve outside cornerback, assuming he makes the final roster.

Jonathan Jones is the opposite of Rowe. The 5-11 190 pounder is a natural fit on the slot and earned a positive grade last season in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career. He played 438 snaps total and lined up on the slot for 269 of 341 coverage snaps. He could be competing for one roster spot with 2016 2nd round pick Cyrus Jones. Jones was drafted to be a slot specialist and return man, but he played just 147 snaps as a rookie and missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. He also struggled as a return man as a rookie. He still has upside, only going into his age 25 season, which should help him stay on the roster, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Patriots have a deep secondary and there may just not be a role for him.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots aren’t the sure thing they’ve been in recent years because of Tom Brady’s age, but as long as he keeps doing what he’s been doing the Patriots should remain at the top of a weak AFC. Much was made of their big off-seasons losses, but they quietly did a good job of reloading talent, with additions like Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Duke Dawson, Trent Brown, and Jordan Matthews and they get Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman back from injury. With a lot of new players, the Patriots may take a few weeks to stride their stride, especially with Edelman suspended for 4 games, but I would expect them to be the AFC favorite by mid-season barring a major decline at the quarterback position. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: With a lot of new faces, the Patriots could take a little bit to get into the swing of things in 2018, especially with Julian Edelman suspended for the first 4 games of the season, but they should hit their stride by mid-season as usual, barring an unexpected dropoff in quarterback play.

Prediction: 13-3 1st in AFC East

Miami Dolphins 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins went 6-10 last season and were even worse than their record suggested. They went 5-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their 6 wins came by a combined 47 points, while their 10 losses came by a combined 159 points, giving them a point differential of -112, 29th in the NFL. In terms of first down rate differential, they also ranked 29th at -4.94% and they finished in the bottom-10 in both first down rate and first down rate allowed.

The good news is that they get starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill back from injury after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. When Tannehill went down in August, the Dolphins convinced Jay Cutler to unretire and rejoin his former offensive coordinator Adam Gase, now head coach of the Dolphins. Cutler was not the stopgap they were hoping he’d be though, as he struggled to get in a groove with his new teammates and also looked physically tired after spending most of the off-season retired.

He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 6.21 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible, only ahead of Trevor Siemian and DeShone Kizer. Backup Matt Moore also threw 127 passes, as Cutler dealt with injuries, and he was not an upgrade. Moore completed 61.4% for an average of 6.78 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Neither are with the team anymore, as Cutler again retired this off-season (probably for good this time) and Moore remains unsigned as a free agent.

Tannehill actually has been out since December of 2016, as knee problems caused him the miss the final 3 games of the 2016 season as well. Prior to the injury, Tannehill was a solid starting quarterback, as the 2012 8th overall pick earned positive grades from PFF in each of his first 5 healthy seasons in the league. His numbers look unspectacular, as he’s completed 62.7% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 106 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions, but that’s largely because of issues with his supporting cast, especially on the offensive line. He’s already going into his age 30 season and his health is a question mark, but he could easily continue being a capable starter going forward.

Given the uncertainty with Tannehill, the Dolphins were expected to add another potential starting option this off-season, but instead they only added tried and failed starters Brock Osweiler and Bryce Petty, who will compete for the backup job. Osweiler is probably the better of the two, but the Dolphins would be in trouble if Tannehill gets hurt again, regardless of who wins the backup job. They’ll need him to stay healthy if they’re going to have any shot of being respectable in 2018.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Tannehill’s health is so important to this team because they have major problems around the quarterback. As bad as they were last season, they still entered this off-season with one of the worst cap situations in the NFL and, as a result, had to shed talent to get under the cap and had to let key free agents walk. One key player they lost was top receiver Jarvis Landry, who was in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

A 2nd round pick in 2014, Landry has been arguably the best slot receiver in the league over the past 4 seasons and has led the Dolphins in catches in each of those 4 seasons. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons and was their 28th ranked wide receiver in 2017. The Dolphins franchise tagged Landry even though they could not afford to keep him under the cap. When he called their bluff and signed his franchise tender, the Dolphins had to trade him to the Browns for a 4th and 7th round pick. Considering they could have gotten possibly gotten a late 3rd round compensatory pick in 2019 had they just let him walk, the Dolphins basically got nothing in return for him by franchise tagging him.

Despite cap problems, the Dolphins spent a lot of money replacing Landry this off-season. In fact, between Danny Amendola’s 2-year, 12 million dollar deal and Albert Wilson’s 3-year, 24 million dollar deal, they’re going to be paying 26.5 million to two receivers over the next 2 seasons. That’s still less than the 34.05 million Landry will get over the first two years of his new deal with the Browns, but Amendola and Wilson are unlikely to match Landry’s production between the two of them and neither player presents the matchup problems for defenses that Landry did.

Amendola put up big numbers in the post-season with the Patriots, but probably won’t have the same success with Ryan Tannehill that he had with Tom Brady. There’s a reason the Patriots only valued Amendola at about 2 million annually over the past few years, making him take multiple pay cuts to stick on their roster. Amendola is also going into his age 33 season and has only played in all 16 games twice in 9 seasons in the league. He also never topped 65 catches, 659 yards, or 4 touchdowns in a season in 5 years in New England. He’s unlikely to top that on a worse passing offense in Miami.

Wilson at least has upside, only going into his age 26 season. Wilson went undrafted in 2014 and finished below average on PFF in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but he got better every season, earning a positive grade in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why the Dolphins thought he could be a Jarvis Landry lite player in their offense. He only caught 42 passes with the Chiefs last season, but he caught 75% of his targets and broke a whopping 15 tackles, tied for 3rd in the NFL by a wide receiver. He finished 2nd in the NFL with 7.55 yards per catch after the catch and 57.2% of his receiving yards came after the catch. It’s unclear who they were bidding against for his services at 8 million annually or why they felt they needed to add two slot specialists this off-season, but Wilson could be more productive on his second deal than his first. Like Landry, he’s good at catching short passes and making plays in the open field.

Adding two receivers also complicates things in terms of dividing up playing time and targets. The Dolphins still have Devante Parker and Kenny Stills as outside receivers and both figure to see a lot of playing time as well, since neither Wilson (5-9 200) or Amendola (5-11 190) have the size to consistently line up outside. Stills also makes a good amount of money, re-signing with the Dolphins for 32 million over 4 years last off-season, with a whopping 17 million guaranteed in the first two years of the contract.

Stills didn’t have bad numbers in the first year of that deal, putting up a 58/847/6 slash line, but he only caught 57.4% of his 101 targets and led all wide receivers with 4 fumbles and 9 penalties, while showing no effort as a blocker. As a result, he ended the season as PFF’s 2nd worst ranked wide receiver. He’s been up and down throughout his career, but isn’t anything more than a capable deep threat (16.1 yard per catch average in his career). It’s possible the Dolphins release him next off-season after his guaranteed money is all paid out.

Parker is also going into a make or break year. A first round pick in 2015, Parker is going into his 4th year in the league, which means he’s still on the inexpensive part of his rookie deal, but in 2019 he’s scheduled to make around 9.387 million on his 5th year option. That option is only guaranteed for injury though, so the Dolphins can get out of it easily if they want to. Parker has flashed his first round talent and is still only going into his age 25 season, but he’s been inconsistent and he’s had durability issues.

He’s only missed 6 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league, but has dealt with several nagging injuries that have sapped his effectiveness. He’s been about a league average receiver thus far in his career, but the Dolphins are still holding out hope for a breakout year. It’s very possible though that, unless he has that breakout year in 2018, this is his final season in Miami. The Dolphins’ top-4 wide receivers have a combined cap number of 33.47 million for 2019, so something will have to give. It’s highly unlikely they commit that much of their cap to one position, especially since none of their receivers are #1 receiver caliber.

The Dolphins figure to use a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets in 2018, as they have arguably the worst tight end situation in the NFL. Julius Thomas was underwhelming as the starter last season (41/388/3) and releasing him rather than paying him 6.6 million was the obvious move given the Dolphins cap situation, but It’s very possible that two rookie tight ends lead the Dolphins in snaps at the position in 2018, as they used a 2nd round pick on Michael Gesicki, an athletic receiving tight end, and then used a 4th round pick on Durham Smythe, a blocking complement. The other tight ends on their roster are Thomas Duarte (0 career catches), Gavin Escobar (30 career catches), AJ Derby (37), and MarQueis Gray (27). This is an underwhelming receiving corps overall.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Dolphins also released center Mike Pouncey this off-season. Like Julius Thomas, Pouncey was coming off of a bad season and had a large non-guaranteed salary (8 million), but releasing him wasn’t quite as obvious of a decision. Pouncey finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked center out of 38 eligible, but he’d been better in the past, finishing 8th as recently as 2015 and he was still only going into his age 29 season, so he had bounce back potential. On top of that, the Dolphins lacked an obvious replacement and already had one of the weaker offensive lines in the league, but ultimately concerns about the long-term health of Pouncey’s hip led to the Dolphins letting him go.

He’ll be replaced by veteran Daniel Kilgore, who the Dolphins acquired from the 49ers this off-season for a swap of 7th round picks. Kilgore is a backup caliber player who had to make 29 starts over the past 2 seasons on a bad San Francisco offensive line. Last season was the worst season of his career, as he finished 30th among 38 eligible centers on PFF, and now he’s going into his age 31 season. He’ll probably struggle again in 2018, but Pouncey wasn’t good last season either so he’s not really a downgrade.

New left guard Josh Sitton is an obvious upgrade, as the Dolphins had arguably the worst guard situation in the NFL last season. Jesse Davis (8 starts), Jermon Bushrod (10 starts), Ted Larsen (8 starts), and Anthony Steen (6 starts) all saw action and all four of them were terrible. They finished 55th, 63rd, 59th, and 47th respectively among 80 eligible guards on PFF. Sitton, on the other hand, finished last season as PFF’s 6th ranked guard, his 8th straight season finishing in the top-9 at his position. Age is becoming a concern, as he’s going into his age 32 season, and he’s missed 7 games over the past 2 seasons with injury, but he should at the very least be an above average starter for the Dolphins at a position that has been a problem for years.

Unfortunately, the Dolphins did not add another guard this off-season, leaving them with a big hole at right guard. Anthony Steen and Jermon Bushrod are no longer with the team, leaving Jesse Davis and Ted Larsen to compete for the starting right guard job. Davis went undrafted in 2015 and bounced around from the Seahawks to the Jets to the Dolphins before making his first career start week 8 last season, largely out of desperation. He did not prove himself in the slightest. Larsen probably isn’t a better option though. He’s made 73 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s earned a negative grade from PFF in all 8 seasons and is unlikely to get better in his age 31 season in 2018.

With center and right guard likely being positions of weakness, the Dolphins will need good play from their offensive tackles. They could benefit from left tackle Laremy Tunsil taking a big step forward in his 3rd season in the league, which is a strong possibility. Tunsil has shown flashes of why he went 13th overall in 2016 and he’s held up well in pass protection both at left guard as a rookie in 2016 and then at left tackle last season, but he needs to get better as a run blocker and committed 12 penalties last season, 6th most among offensive tackles.

Ja’Wuan James is the Dolphins’ only offensive lineman who received a positive grade from PFF last season, but he went down for the year after 8 games with a groin injury. James is scheduled to make 9.341 million on his 5th year option in 2018 and the Dolphins considered moving on from him this off-season for cap reasons, but fortunately decided not to. Moving on from their best offensive lineman would have been a major mistake.

The 19th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, James struggled mightily as a rookie, but became a league average starter in 2015 and has emerged as an above average starter over the past 2 seasons. He finished the 2016 season as PFF’s 25th ranked offensive tackle and was on his way to a similar season in 2018. Having him healthy for the whole year would be a big boost to this offense. If he stays healthy and Sitton continues to play at a high level and Tunsil takes a step forward, this will be a much improved offensive line, even if they still do have some holes.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Dolphins struggled mightily running the ball to start last season. Off of a breakout 2016 season in which he rushed for 1272 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries (4.89 YPC), Jay Ajayi managed just 465 yards and no touchdowns on 138 carries (3.36 YPC) through 7 games in 2017. That was almost entirely the fault of the offensive line though, as he picked up 2.77 of his 3.36 yards per carry after contact and was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of running grade at that point in the season.

Despite that, the Dolphins decided to trade Ajayi to the Eagles for a mere 4th round pick at the trade deadline, in an effort to improve their running game. It actually worked, but only because backup Kenyan Drake proved to be a diamond in the rough. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Drake split carries with Damien Williams for 4 games before the Dolphins committed to him as a feature back for the final 5 games of the season. He rushed for 444 yards and 2 touchdowns on 91 carries (4.88 YPC) in those 5 games and had a 4.84 YPC average on the season, despite horrific blocking.

He led the NFL in yards per carry after contact with 4.29 and broke 29 tackles on 133 carries. On roughly the same amount of carries, Drake had 7 carries of 20+ yards, as opposed to 2 for Ajayi and he was much more useful in the passing game, with 32 catches. Ajayi had just 48 catches in 31 games with the Dolphins. It was only a few games, but Drake was very impressive down the stretch last season and has a lot of upside behind an improved offensive line.

That being said, the Dolphins don’t seem 100% sold on him as a feature back and added a couple other running backs this off-season. Drake isn’t that proven yet, so it’s a good idea for them to have insurance and competition for him, but it begs the question of why they traded Ajayi for a mere 4th round pick in the first place. He and Drake could have worked in tandem. Instead, the Dolphins used that 4th round pick on Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, who may or may not be able to contribute as a rookie.

Instead, it’ll likely be veteran Frank Gore as the #2 back behind Drake. Going into his age 35 season, Gore can’t keep doing this much longer, but I’ve been saying that for half of a decade. Gore has proven to be ageless so far. He only averaged 3.68 yards per carry last season, but that was because he was on a terrible Indianapolis offense. He had a carry success rate of 44%, which is pretty impressive all things considered, and earned a positive grade from PFF. Perhaps most impressively, Gore hasn’t missed a game in 7 seasons, the only running back in the NFL who can say that. He’s not the same player he was in his prime obviously, but he hasn’t shown any real decline since his late 20s. It’s possible he has another solid season left in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee. He shouldn’t eat into Drake’s carries too much, as Drake deserves the opportunity to prove himself as a 20+ touch per game back.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

By far the most impactful cap casualty for the Dolphins this off-season was Ndamukong Suh, one of their very few truly great players. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle, but the Dolphins did not want to pay him his scheduled 17 million dollar salary in his age 31 season in 2018 so they let him go. Between Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins lost their best player on both sides of the ball this off-season.

Losing Suh seemed avoidable and will likely prove to be a mistake. The Dolphins did not need to sign both Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola. They also did not need to trade for defensive end Robert Quinn, who is owed 11.44 million in 2018. Quinn was likely going to be released by the Rams if they couldn’t trade him, so it’s a bit surprising the Dolphins were willing to surrender a fourth round pick for him, especially since defensive end was not a position of need.

Quinn will compete with Cameron Wake, Charles Harris, Andre Branch, and William Hayes for playing time at defensive end. From 2012-2014, Quinn was one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, totaling 40 sacks and 44 quarterback hits, but he has just 17.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in the past 3 seasons. Injuries cost him 15 games between 2015 and 2016 and have seemingly sapped his effectiveness.

He played in 15 games last season, but finished 43th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. He managed 8.5 sacks, but just 6 hits and 23 hurries on 402 pass rush snaps. He also committed 8 penalties and struggled mightily against the run. Going into his age 28 season, Quinn still has some bounceback potential and is a better fit in Miami’s 4-3 than he was in the Rams’ 3-4 defense last season, but he’s highly paid and was not a necessary addition for a cap strapped team.

Cameron Wake is probably still their best pass rusher, although his age is a big concern, in his age 36 season. Wake has totaled 92 sacks and 132 quarterback hits in 9 seasons in the league, after going undrafted and spending a few seasons in the CFL. Despite his age and an achilles tear that ended his 2015 season after 7 games, Wake does not seem to have slowed down much at all.

He has issues against the run, but finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end in pure pass rush grade, his 9th straight season in the top-12 at his position in that measure. Outside of the achilles injury, he’s missed just 3 games in his career and he could have another solid season left in the tank, but his age makes him a question mark. With as much depth as the Dolphins have at defensive end, they may scale back his role (610 snaps in 2017) in order to keep him fresh. He should still play the majority of passing down snaps.

Second year defensive end Charles Harris should also play a big role on passing downs. The 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Harris struggled against the run as a rookie and only managed 2 sacks, but he added 9 quarterback hits and 23 quarterback hurries on 309 pass rush snaps. Undersized at 6-4 250, Harris may never become a good run stuffer, but he could have solid sack total in a bigger role in 2018.

William Hayes is their best run stuffing defensive end. It looked like he’d be the odd man out when the Dolphins acquired Robert Quinn, but they re-signed Hayes as a free agent just days later, fully guaranteeing him 4 million on a one-year deal. Hayes was limited to just 10 games by a hamstring injury in 2017, but he still finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF on 271 snaps. He played more run snaps than pass snaps (140 vs. 131) and finished with the 5th best run stuffing grade at his position, but he also earned a positive pass rush grade and had 1 sack, 4 hits, and 13 hurries on 129 pass rush snaps.

In fact, Hayes has earned positive run stopping and pass rushing grades in each of the past 6 seasons from PFF. He’s only totaled 27.5 sacks in those 6 seasons, but he’s added 36 quarterback hits and was only a part-time player for most of that time, maxing out with 594 snaps in 2018. He was very effective on a per snap basis. He won’t be anything more than a part-time player in 2018 either, but his salary suggests the Dolphins have a role for him. His age is becoming a concern, as he’s going into his age 33 season, but he should prove to be useful once again. Even if he doesn’t, the Rams have enough defensive end depth to compensate.

Andre Branch may end up being the odd man out, after he was their worst defensive end in 2017. A second round pick by the Jaguars in 2012, Branch has earned a negative grade in all 6 seasons in the league. Branch originally arrived in Miami on a one-year deal that paid him 2.75 million in 2016, but the Dolphins inexplicably gave him a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with 17 million guaranteed the following off-season, after a mediocre 5.5-sack season. Branch followed that season up with an even worse season, but he’s locked into a roster spot because his 8 million dollar salary for 2018 is fully guaranteed. It’s one of many questionable contracts the Dolphins have given out in recent years. With four other more talented defensive ends on the roster, it’s unclear how much he’ll play this season.

While the Dolphins are deep at defensive end, they have major questions at defensive tackle after losing Ndamukong Suh. Suh led this defensive line with 877 snaps last season and no one player will be able to replace him. Young defensive tackles Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips, and Vincent Taylor will take on bigger roles, while veteran Akeem Spence will likely also be in the mix after being acquired from the Lions for a conditional 7th round pick.

Godchaux was second on the team in snaps by a defensive tackle with 500 last season, despite being a mere 5th round rookie. He actually did a decent job against the run, but did not record a sack on 234 pass rush snaps and only had 2 hits and 8 hurries. He also had a whopping 12 penalties and finished 67th out of 79 eligible at his position. If he can avoid penalties, he could be a solid base package run stuffer in 2018, but he’s hardly the every down player Suh was.

Phillips has the most upside of any of their defensive tackles. Even though Godchaux played more snaps than him (410 snaps), Phillips actually had more starts (11 vs. 5). A second round pick in 2015, Phillips struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league and continued his poor play through the first 3 games of last season before missing 3 games with an ankle injury. Upon his return, Phillips came off the bench for two games behind Godchaux and, when they plugged him back into the starting lineup week 10, he played by far the best football of his career and showed why he was a high pick in the first place. From week 10 on, he was PFF’s 22nd ranked defensive tackle and he finished the season with the first positive grade of his career. He’s hardly proven, but he has big upside, going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Taylor also flashed upside last season, earning positive grades as a run stuffer and pass rusher last season, despite being a mere 6th round rookie. He only played 185 snaps so he’s still a projection to a larger role, but he’s earned a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Spence, on the other hand, has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 seasons in the league. Owed 2.925 million non-guaranteed, Spence is not a lock for the final roster and the 7th round pick they surrendered to acquire him is conditional on him making the final roster, but he has a good chance to make the team just because he’d give them much needed veteran leadership at the position. This is a relatively deep defensive line, but they’re much better at defensive end than defensive tackle.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Dolphins have given out a number of questionable contracts in recent years. Two of those contracts were given last off-season to linebackers Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons. Alonso received an extension worth 28.91 million over 4 years, while Timmons received a 2-year, 11 million dollar contract to come over from the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. Alonso and Timmons finished 83rd and 74th respectively among 90 eligible non-rush linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2017. Fortunately, they were able to let Timmons go this off-season, but Alonso remains on the roster with a guaranteed 7.9 million dollar salary.

Alonso has not been the same since missing the 2014 season with a torn ACL, earning negative grades in 3 straight seasons since then. He’s a decent run stuffer, but struggles mightily in coverage. He could still be an every down player next season, but the Dolphins have some reinforcements arriving at the linebacker position. They used a 2nd round pick on middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL. He’s obviously unproven and coming off of a significant injury, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Timmons. He’ll likely be an every down player.

They also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a linebacker, taking Jerome Baker. He has the ability to be an every down player as well, but will probably be eased into action as a rookie. He’s currently competing with 4th year player Stephone Anthony. A bust of a first round pick by the Saints in 2015, Anthony was traded to the Dolphins for a 5th round pick early in the 2017 season and played 130 mediocre snaps in 8 games. Baker should win that competition. The Dolphins also could use safety TJ McDonald around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker in sub packages more often. The 6-2 223 pounder would be a good fit as a hybrid player. The Dolphins at least have better linebacker options than they did last season.

Grade: C+

Secondary

A big part of the reason why McDonald could play more linebacker in 2018 is because the Dolphins have three starting caliber safeties. Veteran Reshad Jones remains as one of the starters, after making his 2nd Pro Bowl in 2017. Ironically, 2017 was one of Jones’ less impressive seasons. He’s finished in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 8 career seasons, but “only” finished 32nd at his position last season, as he got beat deep for 6 touchdowns. Going into his age 30 season, it’s possible he’s slowing down a little bit, but he should remain a solid starter for at least a couple more seasons.

Despite that, the Dolphins used the 11th overall pick in the draft on Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick can also play slot cornerback, but the Dolphins gave slot cornerback Bobby McCain a 4-year, 27 million dollar extension this off-season, so Fitzpatrick figures to focus exclusively on safety. He may not be an every down player as a rookie, but the Dolphins figure to be in nickel and dime packages a fair amount next season and could use 3 safeties with regularity. McDonald has been about a league average starter over the past 4 seasons (51 starts) and would fit a hybrid role well. He missed 8 games with suspension for an off-the-field issue last season. Having him for a full season should give this secondary a little bit of a boost, as should the addition of Fitzpatrick.

As mentioned, Bobby McCain is locked in the slot cornerback. His contract is another questionable one handed out by the Dolphins. He is now the 2nd highest paid pure slot cornerback in the NFL behind Houston’s Aaron Colvin. A 5th round pick in 2015, McCain developed into a capable slot cornerback, earning his first positive coverage grade in 2017, but hasn’t proven himself worth what the Dolphins are paying him, especially with Fitzpatrick also being able to play slot cornerback.

At 5-9 195, McCain lacks the size to play outside and only played 27 snaps there last season. That leaves Xavien Howard, Cordrea Tankersley, and Tony Lippett to compete for the outside cornerback jobs. Howard is probably locked into one of the starting jobs. He made all 16 starts in 2017 and played well enough to remain in that role in 2018. He allowed just a 52.5% completion percentage and a 66.8 QB rating in his coverage last season, but he also committed 12 penalties and overall only graded out about average on PFF. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Howard played better down the stretch and could have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy.

Tankersley started in all 11 games he played in 2017 and wasn’t bad all things considered. Going into his 2nd year in the league, Tankersley has the tools to develop into a capable starter. He’ll have to compete with Tony Lippett, who returns after missing last season with a torn achilles. A 5th round pick in 2015, Lippett made 13 underwhelming starts in 2016 in the first significant action of his career. He could win the #2 cornerback job with a strong off-season, but Tankersley is a more talented player. Lippett’s return at the very least does give them valuable depth in a secondary that is overall deeper than last season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins are coming off of a terrible season and lost their best offensive and defensive player this off-season. However, there are some areas where they will be better this season. They have an improved offensive line and a promising young running back in Kenyan Drake. They get quarterback Ryan Tannehill back from injury and replaced Jarvis Landry with a Jarvis Landry lite in Albert Wilson. On defense, they have several young players who could have breakout seasons, including cornerback Xavien Howard, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, and defensive end Charles Harris. Overall though, they are an underwhelming team on paper. They should have an easy schedule, so they should win some games, but they’re unlikely to be playoff contenders unless everything goes right. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: On paper, the Dolphins are one of the least talented teams in the league in 2018, though they do benefit from having a terrible division.

Prediction: 4-12 3rd in AFC East

New York Jets 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2017 season, the Jets were a popular pick to finish with the worst record in the league and many believed they wouldn’t win a game. Much like the Browns, the Jets decided to go with a complete rebuild strategy, getting rid of basically all of their well-paid veterans in order to give their young players playing time, roll forward cap space into future off-seasons, and get a high pick in the draft. Despite that, to many people’s surprise, the Jets weren’t actually that bad last season. They only won 5 games and finished 28th in first down rate differential at -4.77%, but that exceeded most people’s expectations for this team.

The biggest reason they exceeded expectations was quarterback Josh McCown, who greatly exceeded expectations in first season in New York. A veteran journeyman with 60 career starts in 15 seasons in the league prior to 2017, McCown was mostly brought in as a stopgap quarterback for his veteran leadership, but ended up completing 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, before breaking his hand early in the Jets’ week 14 trip to Denver and going down for the season.

Proving McCown’s value to this team, they completely fell apart in the final 4 weeks of the season without him, losing all 4 games by a combined 62 points, playing like the team many thought they’d be all season. They managed just 52 first downs and 3 offensive touchdowns in those 4 games, picking up first downs at a pathetic 23.31% rate, after picking up first downs at a 32.89% rate in the 12 games McCown started and finished (5-7 win/loss record). Part of that is because backup Bryce Petty did not resemble an NFL starter, but it’s clear that McCown was the leading factor in this team winning games last season.

All that being said, you could definitely argue that McCown playing well last season hurt this team long-term. Because they won 5 games, the Jets ended up with the 6th pick in the draft and had to trade away three second round picks (their 2018 2nd round pick, the 2018 2nd round pick they acquired from the Seahawks for Sheldon Richardson, and their 2019 2nd round pick) to move up to 3 to grab the quarterback of the future they needed. With that 3rd pick, they selected USC’s Sam Darnold.

The Jets may feel they got a steal with Darnold, who was considered the favorite for the #1 pick throughout most of the process. The Browns passed on Darnold for the more NFL ready Baker Mayfield with the first pick, while the Giants decided to stick with Eli Manning for at least another year and draft running back Saquon Barkley with the second pick. Darnold emerged as a #1 pick candidate with a strong redshirt freshman season in 2016, but was not as good in 2017 as a redshirt sophomore with a worse supporting cast. Not yet 21 until June, Darnold would be the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history and may need a year of seasoning, but he has all of the tools to be a long-term franchise quarterback, something the Jets have lacked for the last decade.

Darnold will compete with McCown and free agent acquisition Teddy Bridgewater week 1 job this off-season. McCown may be the favorite because he was solid last season, but his age is definitely a concern (age 39 in 2018) and he’s been inconsistent in the past, topping a 75 QB rating in just 3 of 16 career seasons. Injuries have also been a problem for him, as he’s never played in all 16 games in a season. The Jets like him as a veteran presence, but he’s no guarantee to play as well as he did last season if he wins the job.

Teddy Bridgewater is their most intriguing option. A first round pick by the Vikings in 2014, Bridgewater made 28 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and looked like a future franchise quarterback, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, while rushing for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns on 91 carries. He finished 11th and 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

However, Bridgewater suffered a brutal leg injury in practice before the 2016 season and basically missed all of the next two seasons with injury. Bridgewater returned mid-season last year, but only threw 2 passes as the backup to Case Keenum, who had taken the starting job and run with it. In the post-season, Bridgewater fell to 3rd on the depth chart behind Keenum and Sam Bradford, who returned from an injury of his own.

A complete uncertainty as a free agent this off-season, Bridgewater had to settle for a contract with just 500K guaranteed from a team that is not promising him a starting job. He has theoretical bounce back potential, still only going into his age 26 season, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever be able regain his old form. He was a worthwhile signing for the Jets, but may not even make the final roster if he doesn’t win the starting job, as the Jets may not want to pay him the additional 5.5 million they’d have to pay him to keep him on the roster as a 3rd quarterback. This is a three way battle that could last deep into training camp. All three options have their flaws, but the Jets could easily get capable play from the quarterback position this season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

While the Jets got their much needed quarterback of the future this off-season, they’ll probably still struggle as a team in 2018. They came into the off-season with a lot of needs, but, unless Darnold has a big rookie year impact, they’re unlikely to get much from their rookie class, as they only had one other pick in the top-100 (#72), as a result of their trade up. The Jets also had a lot of money to play with in free agency, but, in a weak free agent class, were stuck using their money to overpay mid-level free agents, rather than adding impact players.

One of those free agents they added was ex-Redskin center Spencer Long. A 3rd round pick by the Redskins, Long made 33 starts over the past 3 seasons with the Redskins and was about a league average starter, first at left guard in 2015 and then at center in 2016 and 2017. As far as overpays go, he wasn’t a bad one at 4-year, 27.4 million. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over last year’s starter Wesley Johnson, who finished dead last among 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus last season, and teams like the Jets have to overpay a little to attract talent. The big issue with him is injuries, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and missed 9 games with quad and knee problems in 2017. As long as he’s healthy, he should be a capable starter.

Center was not the only position where they struggled upfront last season. In fact, every offensive lineman who played a snap for them last season received a negative grade from PFF. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum was their best offensive lineman, by only by default. Beachum was PFF’s #5 ranked offensive tackle in 2014, but tore his ACL 6 games into the 2015 season and has not been the same since, struggling in both 2016 and 2017. Only a one-year wonder before the injury, Beachum is unlikely to ever have a season like that again.

Guards James Carpenter and Brian Winters were their worst offensive linemen in 2017, finishing 75th and 77th among 80 eligible guards on PFF. Carpenter finished 23rd at his position in 2015 and 18th in 2016, but he’s gotten a negative grade in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, so he’s been very inconsistent in his career. Still only in his age 29 season, Carpenter has bounce back potential and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than last season, but he’s been a very tough player to predict throughout his career.

Winters, on the other hand, has never been that good. He was about a league average starter in 2016, but he’s finished in the bottom-25 among guards on PFF in his other 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2013. The Jets gave him a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal with 15 million guaranteed last off-season to keep him as a free agent, in hopes that he’d continue building on his solid 2016 season, but they may be regretting that move now. Winters and Carpenter will likely remain their starting guards in 2018, but that’s mostly because they lack a better option. Top reserve Dakota Dozier was underwhelming in 3 spot starts last season.

Right tackle Brandon Shell rounds out this offensive line. A 6th round pick in 2016, Shell wasn’t terrible in his first extended action in 2017 (12 starts), but he also had his share of struggles. Brent Qvale played 394 snaps in his absence last season and wasn’t much better, so Shell is probably locked into the starting job. He’ll likely remain a below average starter. The addition of Spencer Long at center helps this offensive line and the rest of this offensive line might be better by default in 2018, but this offensive line still has a lot of problems.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The Jets also added running back Isaiah Crowell in free agency, signing the ex-Brown to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Originally an undrafted free agent who fell out of the draft because of off-the-field problems, Crowell developed into a capable early down back in 4 seasons in Cleveland, averaging 4.23 yards per carry on 737 carries and staying out of trouble off-the-field. Still going into his age 25 season with no injury history (no games missed in 4 years in the league, one of 2 running backs to do so over that time period), Crowell doesn’t come with much risk and should remain a solid early down back. The downside with him is he doesn’t do much on passing downs. He has just 96 career catches in 64 games and struggles mightily in pass protection.

Matt Forte was their passing down back in 2017, finishing 4th on the team with 37 catches for 293 yards, but he retired ahead of his age 33 season this off-season. Bilal Powell caught 47 passes in 2015 and 58 passes in 2016, but that number dropped to 23 in 2017 and he has a mediocre 7.55 yards per catch average in his career. He’s also going into his age 30 season and might not have much left in the tank. He does have an impressive 4.37 YPC carry on 711 carries in 7 seasons in the league and should compete for playing time, but he’s not a lock for a roster spot at his current 4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary if he can’t earn a role this off-season.

Last year’s 6th round pick Elijah McGuire will also be in the mix for playing time, after flashing on 267 snaps (88 carries, 17 catches) as a rookie. He might be their best passing down option, so he could have a big role in 2018. The Jets also have Thomas Rawls and 6th round rookie Trenton Cannon in the mix, but neither is a lock to make the final roster. Rawls had an impressive 5.65 YPC average on 147 carries as a rookie in 2015, but hasn’t been healthy since and is useless on passing downs, while Cannon is an undersized scatback at 5-11 185 and likely will never develop into a lead back. They have options at the running back position, but this is an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Going into 2017, the Jets’ receiving corps looked like a major problem. Last off-season, they got rid of veterans Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, who were just two years removed from 1000-yard seasons in 2015, and then they lost new #1 receiver Quincy Enunwa for the year with a neck injury in August before the season even started. They did have issues in the receiving corps, with only 2 receivers topping 357 receiving yards, but they got good play out of starting wideouts Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse, who both topped 800 yards.

Anderson was the Jets’ #3 wide receiver as an undrafted rookie in 2016, posting an underwhelming 42/587/2 slash line on 475 routes run and finishing 111th out of 119 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He took a big step forward on the field in 2017, leading the team with a 63/941/7 slash line on 520 routes run and grading out as about a league average starting wide receiver on PFF. Prior to McCown’s injury, he was on pace for a 65/1095/9 slash line. He has a troubling off-the-field history, including an incident this off-season which he may face league discipline for, and he’s a one-year wonder who originally fell out of the draft completely, but he could continue developing into a reliable pass catching option if he can stay out of trouble.

Kearse, meanwhile, was acquired by the Jets just days before week 1, making his season even more impressive. Kearse ended up playing in all 16 games and putting up a 65/810/5 slash line on 565 routes run. Like Anderson, he graded out as about a league average starter. Considering he was just a throw-in in the trade in which the Jets sent Sheldon Richardson to the Seahawks for a 2nd round pick, the Jets have to be pleased with his first season.

Prior to last season, Kearse never had more than 49 catches for 685 yards in a season and he finished the 2016 season as PFF’s 118th ranked wide receiver out of 119 eligible, catching just 45.6% of his targets and leading the league in offensive pass interference penalties, so he’s been inconsistent in the past and may not be able to repeat his 2017 season. He’s owed a non-guaranteed 5.55 million in 2018, but the Jets aren’t strapped for cap space and will likely keep him on the roster this season.

The Jets also get Enunwa back this season and he should compete with Anderson and Kearse for playing time. A 6th round pick in 2014, Enunwa barely played as a rookie and struggled mightily as the #3 receiver in 2015, finishing 113rd among 119 eligible wide receivers, but he graded out as about a league average receiver in 2016 and put up a 58/857/4 slash line on 569 routes run. He is a one-year wonder and he’s coming off of a major injury, but his return should give them much needed wide receiver depth at the very least.

The Jets also added Terrelle Pryor in free agency to give them more depth at wide receiver. A converted quarterback, Pryor put up a 77/1007/4 slash line in his first full season as a receiver in 2016, though he did so on 140 targets and overall graded out as about a league average receiver. He received a one-year prove it deal worth 6 million from the Redskins as a free agent last off-season, but struggled mightily on 378 snaps before being benched and eventually shut down for the season with an ankle injury. He finished with just 20 catches for 240 yards and 1 touchdown.

The Jets are taking a flyer on his upside with a 1-year deal worth 4.5 million, but he may not be anything more than a solid depth receiver. The Jets also have last year’s 3rd and 4th round picks A’Darius Stewart and Chad Hansen in the mix. They played 231 snaps and 340 snaps respectively last season, but were underwhelming and now appear buried on the depth chart behind higher paid veterans. With as many capable receivers as they have, it’ll be tough for any one receiver to put up big numbers.

The Jets figure to use a lot of 3 or 4 wide receiver sets in 2018, as they have much more depth at wide receiver than at tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins was an underwhelming starter at tight end last season, catching 50 passes for 357 yards and 3 touchdowns on 74 targets, but the Jets may struggle to even get that much production out of their starting tight end this season, with Seferian-Jenkins signing in Jacksonville as a free agent this off-season.

The Jets will basically have a wide open competition at tight end. They added ex-Raider Clive Walford and then used a 4th round pick on the University of Miami’s Chris Herndon. They will compete with last year’s #2 tight end Eric Tomlinson and 2017 5th round pick Jordan Leggett. Walford was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and flashed on 446 snaps as a rookie, but struggled mightily as a starter in 2016, putting up just a 33/359/3 slash line and finishing 57th out of 65 eligible tight ends on 700 snaps. In 2017, he was limited to 129 snaps as a reserve before being waived after the season and claimed off waivers by the Jets. Already going into his age 27 season, Walford will likely never develop into much more than a depth tight end.

Tomlinson is also unlikely to ever develop into much more than a depth tight end. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Tomlinson is a capable blocker at 6-6 263 but he has just 8 career catches. He played 410 snaps last season and could have a significant role again because he’s arguably their best blocking tight end, but he’s unlikely to have much of an impact in the passing game. Leggett and Herndon have upside, but Leggett spent his entire rookie year as a healthy scratch and was not a high pick to begin with (#150), while Herndon is really raw and may take a year to develop. The Jets have good depth at wide receiver, but lack a clear #1 option, could be without Robby Anderson for a period of time because of a potential suspension, and lack any proven depth at tight end.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Jets used to have arguably the best defensive line in the league. In 2015, when they won 10 games and almost made the post-season with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, they had a dominant defensive line with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Damon Harrison. However, with both Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison set to hit free agency the following off-season, the Jets made a major mistake re-signing Wilkerson to a 5-year, 86 million dollar deal, while letting Harrison sign with the Giants for considerably less (46.25 million over 5 years).

Harrison has continued to be the most dominant run stuffing defensive tackle in the league with the Giants, while Wilkerson seemed to coast after getting his money, having back-to-back underwhelming seasons in 2016 and 2017 and before being cut this off-season after all of the guaranteed money on his contract ran out (37 million). Wilkerson’s contract also made re-signing Sheldon Richardson unlikely, so the Jets traded him for a Jermaine Kearse and a second round pick before the start of the 2017 season. That ended up being a good return for him, but, now with Wilkerson, Richardson, and Harrison all gone, this defensive line is hardly what it was a few years ago.

Leonard Williams is the only player who remains from that original four and he’s quietly remained a dominant player. The 6th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Leonard has been one of the better defensive linemen in the league since day 1, finishing in the top-10 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league. His sack numbers might not stand out (12 career sacks), but he also has 47 career quarterback hits and is a great run stuffer. Still only going into his age 24 season, he may not have reached his full potential yet, which is scary. He has two years left on his rookie deal, but the Jets would be wise to lock him up on an extension sooner rather than later. He could be one of the top few defensive linemen in the league in a couple years.

The Jets added Henry Anderson in a trade with the Colts as a replacement for Wilkerson this off-season. Wilkerson wasn’t bad in 2017, grading out about average on PFF, but Anderson has earned positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and should be an adequate replacement at a much cheaper price (owed 1.907 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2018). He’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but has earned positive grades in both aspects in all 3 seasons. He only has 3 career sacks, but has added 12 hits, 4 batted passes, and 40 hurries on 683 pass rush snaps.

Injuries have always been a problem with him though, as he’s missed 19 games in 3 seasons in the league and has never played more than 452 snaps or 11 games in a season. Injuries were likely a big part of the reason why the Colts were willing to part with him for a mere 7th round pick, in addition to him not being a great fit for the Colts’ new 4-3 defense and his expiring contract, but he could prove to be a huge steal for the Jets. Even if he doesn’t make it through the whole season, he should still be an asset when healthy and he fits as an end in their 3-4 scheme like a glove.

The Jets also added Nathan Shepard with the 72nd pick in the draft, their only other pick in the top-100. Shepherd has the upside to develop into an above average starter and the versatility at 6-4 315 to play anywhere on this 3-man defensive line, but he’s also very raw and did not face a high level of competition at Division-II Fort Hays State. He’ll likely compete with bottom of the roster talents like Xavier Cooper and Mike Pennel for the top reserve job on this defensive line and his versatility should help earn him playing time.

Veteran Steve McLendon is probably locked in as the starting nose tackle. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, but he’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in 7 straight seasons, including the past two with the Jets. Last season, he was PFF’s 8th ranked defensive tackle in terms of run stopping grade on 488 snaps. He’s only a two-down player and doesn’t get much pass rush, but he excels as a two-down run stuffing nose tackle. He’ll come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. This defensive line is hardly what it used to be, but there is still talent here.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Jets have always had a strong defensive line, they’ve had issues at the edge rusher spot for years. Last year the Jets had just 28 sacks as a team, 28th in the NFL, and were led by middle linebacker Demario Davis with 5. No edge rusher had more than 3.5 sacks and their top edge rusher in terms of pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus was Kony Ealy, who is no longer with the team after signing with the Cowboys this off-season. Ealy only had 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits on the season, but hurried the quarterback 25 times and batted 9 passes at the line (2nd most in the NFL) on 306 pass rush snaps.

Jordan Jenkins led all Jet edge rushers with 714 snaps last season and will likely do so again in 2018, for lack of a better option. He was an adequate run stuffer, but didn’t offer much of a pass rusher. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Jenkins could be better in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, but he’s been underwhelming thus far in his career. The Jets also used a 3rd round pick in 2015 on an edge rusher, taking Lorenzo Mauldin, but he’s been even more underwhelming in his career. He played 615 mediocre snaps between 2015 and 2016 and missed all of 2017 with back surgery. He’s reportedly on the roster bubble, but the Jets are so thin at the position that he could still earn a major role if he shows well in practice this off-season. He’s unlikely to ever develop into a capable starter though.

His primary competition for playing time will be veteran journeymen David Bass and Josh Martin. Bass was not even on the team to start the season, spending the first 2 weeks with the Seahawks, before getting released and picked up by the Jets. Despite that, he ended up leading all Jet edge rushers with 3.5 sacks. He only played 352 snaps on the season, but showed well on those snaps, earning the first positive grade from PFF in his 5-year career. He’s an unproven one-year wonder at best, but may have a bigger role in 2018 for lack of a better option. The Jets are his 5th team in 5 seasons in the league, after being drafted by the Raiders in the 7th round in 2013.

Martin is “only” on his 4th team in 5 seasons in the league and has been with the Jets since 2015, but he doesn’t have the same pass rush upside that Bass does. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but he has just 2.5 career sacks and the 489 snaps he played last season were by far his career high. In fact, prior to 2017, he played just 176 career snaps. He should play a base package role for this team in 2018, but he won’t help solve their pass rush problems.

Making their pass rush problems worse, the Jets also lost middle linebacker Demario Davis this off-season, as he signed with the Saints in free agency. Davis only rushed the passer 146 times, primarily as a blitzer from the middle linebacker spot, but led the team with 5 sacks and added 8 hits and 15 hurries as well. He was their most reliable source of pass rush and finished 5th overall among middle linebackers on PFF while playing 100% of the snaps. His replacement Avery Williamson is a strong run stuffer, finishing 2nd among middle linebackers in run stuffing grade, but he hasn’t earned a positive pass rush or pass coverage grade in 4 seasons in the league, since the Titans drafted him in the 5th round in 2013. He’ll probably be an above average starter for them, but he’s very one-dimensional.

Darron Lee is probably locked in as the other starting middle linebacker, but he was briefly benched down the stretch last season and has been a big disappointment in 2 seasons in the league, since the Jets used the 20th overall pick on him in 2016. He finished 51st out of 59 eligible middle linebackers on PFF in 2016 and then fell to dead last in 2017. It’s probably too soon to completely write him off as a bust, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

The Jets added proven competition for him this off-season, something they lacked last season, so Lee will likely be on a shorter leash in 2018. Five-year veteran Kevin Minter comes over on a minimum deal after spending last season in Cincinnati and could prove to be a steal. He was buried on the depth chart with the Bengals, playing just 196 snaps, but made all 32 starts in 2015 and 2016 with the Cardinals. He’s never been good in coverage, but he’s a capable run stuffer and was PFF’s 26th ranked middle linebacker in 2016. He’s unlikely to be a week 1 starter, but could play a role on run downs and could be the starter by season’s end if Lee continues to struggle. Even if Lee develops into a capable starter in 2018, this linebacking corps still has a lot of problems.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Jets biggest free agent signing this off-season was cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who is now the 2nd highest paid cornerback in the NFL after receiving a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal this off-season. A 3rd round pick in 2012, Johnson broke out in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, finishing 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in coverage grade. The Rams decided to franchise tag him instead of Janoris Jenkins, but didn’t give him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again.

In 2016, he did prove it again, finishing 23rd among cornerbacks in coverage grade, but he was slapped with the franchise tag again and not given a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove himself in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme. That turned out to be a smart decision, as he proved to be a poor fit in the new scheme and had an underwhelming season, finishing around middle of the pack.

Only going into his age 28 season, Johnson has obvious bounce back potential in a scheme that fits his skillset better, but, even if he bounces back, his contract is still an overpay because he’s never been a top level, elite cornerback. Bad teams like the Jets have to overpay for free agents though and he does fill a much needed hole in the secondary as the #1 cornerback. He also has the size to match up with bigger receivers at 6-2 213, something they lacked last season.

Morris Claiborne was their #1 cornerback last season, but will slide into the #2 role with Johnson coming to town. The 6th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Cowboys, Claiborne has not lived up to his potential due to injuries. He’s missed 34 games in 6 seasons in the league, including 17 games from 2014-2015 with a torn patellar tendon. Claiborne also struggled early in his career, but he’s graded out as about a league average starter over the past 2 seasons and played 15 games in 2017, tied for a career high. Claiborne is still only going into his age 28 season, so he could continue being a solid starter if he can stay healthy.

Buster Skrine was their other starter opposite Claiborne this season. He’s likely the favorite for the #3 cornerback job. A 5th round pick by the Browns back in 2011, Skrine is plenty experienced, with 73 career starts, including 68 in the past 5 seasons, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league. Owed 6 million non-guaranteed in the final year of a 4-year deal, Skrine isn’t a lock for the final roster, but the Jets are not strapped for cap space and he’s probably their best slot option, so I expect him to keep his roster spot, possibly after a pay cut or restructure.

Darryl Roberts and Juston Burris were their top reserve cornerbacks last season, but both are bottom of the roster talents that are not locks to make the team, despite being on inexpensive rookie contracts. Roberts went in the 7th round in 2015 and Burris went in the 4th round in 2016, but both have been mediocre on 752 career snaps and 519 career snaps respectively. The Jets also used a 6th round pick on Tulane’s Parry Nickerson, who has the tools to develop into a capable slot receiver, but he might not have a big role as a rookie.

At safety, the Jets have a pair of second year players, after using their first and second round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on safeties. Jamal Adams was their first round pick, going 6th overall, and he was arguably the top defensive player in his draft. He had an up and down rookie year and needs to improve in deep coverage, but he still earned a positive grade overall from PFF and he has the upside to be a lot better in 2018. Adams compared favorably to Eric Berry and Landon Collins as a draft prospect and could be one of the better safeties in the league in a few years. Marcus Maye is the other starter. He doesn’t have Adams’ upside, but could still develop into a capable starter, despite struggling a bit as a rookie. With the addition of Trumaine Johnson and their young safeties possibly taking another step forward, this secondary should be improved in 2018.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Jets won 5 games in 2017, but, outside of the quarterback position, they were one of the least talented teams in the league. With quarterback Josh McCown getting old, the Jets’ goal this off-season was finding a quarterback of the future. They did find one, taking USC’s Sam Darnold with the 3rd pick in the draft, but trading up for him hurt their ability to address other needs and he may not even be ready to play as a rookie. In free agency, the Jets did spend money, but did not add any game-changing talents and still have several major holes. This team is going in the right direction and could win some games in the weak AFC, but, on paper, they are one of the weaker teams in the league. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold looked good this off-season, winning the starting job in the process, but his supporting cast still has serious problems and he may not be an upgrade over Josh McCown’s solid 2017 performance, so I would not expect a big leap in wins from this team.

Prediction: 4-12 2nd in AFC East

Buffalo Bills 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills were a very improbable playoff team last season, for several reasons. They had the longest playoff drought in the NFL, with their most recent playoff appearance before last season coming almost two decades ago in 1999. Before the season, the Bills appeared to be building for the future, trading away their top receiver Sammy Watkins and their top cornerback Ronald Darby in August in trades that got them an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. On top of that, the way they actually qualified for the post-season was also improbable. Despite finishing 9-7, the Bills needed a Baltimore loss at home to the Bengals to qualify for the post-season, which came when the Bengals scored a stunning last second game winning 49-yard touchdown on 4th and 12.

Making their trip to the post-season even more improbable, the Bills really didn’t play all that well last season, despite winning 9 games. They were by far the worst team to qualify for the playoffs, finishing with a -57 point differential that was not only the worst among playoff teams, but also worse than 9 other non-playoff teams. Five of their 7 losses came by more than 10 points, as opposed to just 1 win by more than 10 points.

That’s despite the fact that they finished with a solid +9 turnover margin, 7th best in the league. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, so they won’t be able to rely on that in 2018. Case in point, the Bills had a league leading +14 turnover margin through the first 7 games of 2017 and were 5-2 with a +38 point differential as a result, but they were -5 in their final 9 games and went 4-5 with a -95 point differential in those games.

The Bills joined the Indianapolis Colts (+5) as the only teams in the league with a positive turnover margin and a negative point differential. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bills finished 31st in the league at -5.73%, easily the worst among playoff teams and only ahead of the aforementioned Colts. The Bills managed just 278 first downs on the season, as opposed to 348 for their opponents, a -70 differential that was the worst in the NFL last season. If you played the 2017 season 1000 times, I have a hard time believing the Bills would have made the playoffs even a quarter of the time.

Despite making the post-season, the Bills continued with their rebuild this off-season, trading starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for the 65th pick in the draft. Taylor was a solid starter in 3 seasons in Buffalo (43 starts), finishing 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively. Considering he came to Buffalo as a former 6th round pick who threw 35 passes in 4 seasons in Baltimore as Joe Flacco’s backup, Taylor was more than a pleasant surprise as the starter in Buffalo, but the Bills were never sold on him as their long-term starter.

Part of that was likely because he never fit the prototype for a franchise quarterback. In 3 seasons, his pass attempt totals were 380, 436, and 420, giving him an average of just 28.2 pass attempt per start, but he offset that by rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC), the second most rushing yards by a quarterback over that time period, only behind Cam Newton. He also put up decent passing numbers on those limited attempts, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.

Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the lack of talented weapons that Taylor had around him during his tenure in Buffalo. The lack of weapons around him also made his rushing abilities that much more valuable, as he could take off and run when receivers couldn’t get open downfield. The Bills got a decent return for him in a trade and save money by not having to pay his 16 million dollar salary for 2018, but he was an underappreciated starter and will likely be missed more than the Bills are anticipating.

Between their trades of Watkins, Darby, and Taylor, as well as their trade down with the Chiefs from 10 to 27 in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bills entered the 2018 NFL draft with an extra pick in the first round, an extra pick in the second round, and two extra picks in the third round (though they traded away with own 3rd rounder in another trade). They also traded away left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati this off-season in a deal that allowed them to swap the 21st pick for the 12th pick. The Bills then packaged the 12th pick, along with their two second round picks, in a deal to move up with the Buccaneers to draft Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen with the 7th overall pick.

Allen is a bit of a strange fit for the Bills, as he is a project who likely won’t be ready to start as a rookie and the Bills lack an experienced veteran quarterback to serve as the stopgap. Allen probably has the most upside of any quarterback in the draft, but is a major work in progress and put up disastrous numbers against ranked opponents in college. A quarterback like Josh Rosen, who is much more polished and NFL ready, seemed like a better fit for them given their situation, but they’re swinging for the fences with a quarterback that has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre, leaving Rosen to fall to the Cardinals at 10.

Allen will compete with AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, two quarterbacks with a combined 6 career starts, for the quarterback job. Peterman was a 5th round pick by the Bills in last year’s draft and still remains in high standing with the organization as a developmental prospect, despite struggling mightily in two rookie season starts, completing 49.0% for an average of 5.14 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. He likely won’t develop into anything more than a solid backup.

McCarron is the favorite to start week 1, after spending the past 4 seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. McCarron flashed in 4 spot starts when Dalton was hurt in 2015, completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 7.18 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and was widely regarded as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Even still, this is arguably the worst quarterback situation in the league unless Allen can exceed expectations and have success as a rookie. The Bills will likely start multiple quarterbacks in 2018 and may even start all three over the course of the season. Tyrod Taylor wasn’t the best quarterback in the world but, the Bills will likely miss him in 2018.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

While most of the Bills’ trades in the past year have been geared towards building for the future, they did acquire wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers for a 3rd round pick at the deadline last year to bolster their receiving corps. The move was a big surprise because Benjamin was Carolina’s #1 receiver and the Panthers were 5-3 and contenders in the NFC at the time. However, Benjamin never really meshed in Buffalo and dealt with lingering injuries, totaling just 16 catches for 217 yards and 1 touchdown in 6 games, so the Panthers look like the early winners of that trade.

That could obviously change if Benjamin has a big year in 2018 in his first full season in Buffalo, but that’s far from a guarantee. Benjamin had a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017 before getting traded, but that’s largely because of how many targets he was receiving. He’s caught just 53.8% of his targets in his career and has earned middling grades from Pro Football Focus as a result.

Part of that is because his quarterback in Carolina was Cam Newton, who has never completed a high percentage of his passes, but Benjamin was never as good as his numbers suggested in Carolina. He did show impressive ability on deep balls and has a career 14.4 yards per catch average, but, given all of the targets he received in Carolina, he should have done more with them. There’s a reason the Panthers were comfortable parting ways with him. He still has a lot of talent and upside, but, already going into his 5th season in the league, the Bills can’t expect him to be much better than what he’s been thus far in his career.

Benjamin could still have a big statistical year even if he doesn’t play all that well though, as he’ll likely remain a target monster on a team with a thin receiving corps. That could make him very expensive to keep as a free agent next off-season. Second year receiver Zay Jones is expected to be the other starter, but he was horrible as a rookie, catching just 27 of 74 targets for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns after going 37th overall. He averaged just 0.69 yards per route run on 461 routes, 2nd worst in the NFL, and finished 106th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF.

Jones dealt with shoulder and knee injuries during his rookie year, which could explain some of his struggles, but, after having off-season surgery to repair both injuries, he’s out indefinitely. It doesn’t sound like he’s in any danger of missing the start of the season, but it will cost him valuable off-season reps. If he’s healthy, he could be better in 2018, but that could be largely by default, given how overmatched he looked as a rookie. He’s no guarantee to ever develop into a competent starter, but the Bills need him to be that now, with no depth behind him and Benjamin on the roster.

With Jones struggling as a rookie and Benjamin not fitting in well as a mid-season addition, the Bills’ leaders in receiving yards in 2017 were tight end Charles Clay (558), running back LeSean McCoy (448), journeyman wide receiver Deonte Thompson (430), and backup tight end Nick O’Leary (322). Thompson is no longer with the team, signing with the Cowboys this off-season, so Jones is actually their leading returning wide receiver in terms of receiving yards.

Given that, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Bills didn’t add a wide receiver until the 6th round when they took Ray-Ray McCloud. They also took Austin Proehl in the 7th round, but neither are likely to make a rookie year impact, so it’ll be veterans Andre Holmes and Jeremy Kerley competing for the #3 receiver job. Both are journeymen and underwhelming options. Holmes had a decent 47/693/4 slash line in 2014, but hasn’t topped 354 snaps or 201 yards since then and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a bottom of the roster talent. Kerley is a more natural fit on the slot and is probably the favorite for the job, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and has been up and down in recent years, catching 16 passes in 2015, 64 passes in 2016, and 22 passes last season. Both will likely be involved in the offense, which is a testament to their lack of depth at wide receiver.

Given that, the Bills will have to rely heavily on their tight ends in the passing game again. Unfortunately, both Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary are underwhelming talents. Clay is a capable all-around tight end who has averaged 52 catches for 546 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he has degenerative knee problems and isn’t getting any younger, going into his age 29 season. He’s only missed 7 games in the past 3 seasons, but he’s only played all 16 games once in 7 seasons in the league. He may be their #2 option in the passing game, though largely by default.

O’Leary, on the other hand, is primarily a run blocker and even struggled in that aspect in 2017, which led to him finishing as PFF’s 62nd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible. He took on a larger role in the passing game out of necessity last season, but only finished with 22 catches for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 2015 6th round pick is now going into the final year of his rookie deal and looks unlikely to ever breakout as a real weapon in the passing game. The Bills once again lack weapons and depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: D

Running Backs

With a thin receiving corps, the Bills will once again rely heavily on feature back LeSean McCoy, both as a runner and a receiver. McCoy has topped 50 catches in each of the past 2 seasons and will likely do so again in 2018, barring injury. The Bills will likely become more of a pass heavy team with a more traditional quarterback under center, after finishing in the bottom-2 in pass attempts in all 3 seasons with Taylor at the helm. That shouldn’t affect McCoy’s carries though, as the reduction in rush attempts will come primarily from quarterbacks not taking off as often as Taylor did. McCoy has topped 200 carries in 8 straight seasons, the longest streak in the NFL, and should at least come close to the 287 carries he had in 2017, 2nd most in the league.

The concern with McCoy is twofold. For one, he likely won’t have a lot of room to run, given the lack of talent around him on offense. He’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he was helped by defenses having to worry about Taylor taking off and running and this is arguably the weakest supporting cast he’s had in 4 seasons with the Bills. The second issue is his age, as he’s going into his age 30 season.

McCoy is coming off of another strong season (despite an underwhelming 3.96 yards per carry average), finishing 8th overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but running backs break down quick after 30, especially ones like McCoy who have had a lot of touches in their career (2626 career touches). McCoy has never suffered a major injury, playing in at least 12 games in all 9 seasons in the league, but he’s dealt with a lot of nagging injuries and will likely break down and decline in the next 2-3 seasons. McCoy is probably the Bills’ most important offensive player, so if his abilities start to decline this season, it would be a big problem for this offense.

Ivory was signed to a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but won’t be anything other than a backup. Ivory has an impressive 4.36 career YPC on 1112 carries in 8 seasons in the league, but he is going into his age 30 season, has averaged just 3.59 yards per carry in the past 2 seasons, and is useless on passing downs, with just 94 catches in 95 career games. He shouldn’t see any more than 5-7 touches per game as long as McCoy is healthy.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Bills had issues on the offensive line last season and they could be even worse this season, after losing 3 starters this off-season, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, and Eric Wood. Glenn is the best player of the trio, but he missed 11 games with injury last season and the Bills also have an obvious internal replacement in Dion Dawkins, a 2017 2nd round pick who earned a positive grade in those 11 starts in Glenn’s absence last season.

Glenn was traded along with the 21st pick for the 12th pick, so the Bills got the equivalent of about a late second round pick for him. That’s not a bad return for a player who has missed 16 games with foot and ankle injuries in the past 2 seasons and who is owed 11.25 million in 2018 (6th most of any left tackle in the league), but Glenn was once one of the better left tackles in the league and is still only going into his age 29 season, so he had bounce back potential.

If they had kept Glenn, Dawkins could have played the right side. Instead, Jordan Mills remains locked in at right tackle. Mills has made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s been one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league over that time period. He was adequate in pass protection in 16 starts last season, but struggled mightily as a run blocker and finished 56th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’ll likely remain a liability in 2018.

Incognito and Wood will be tougher to replace than Glenn, as they don’t have obvious replacements for them. Both were capable starters in 2017 and Incognito was actually one of the better guards in the league, finishing 12th at his position on PFF, but both retired this off-season. The Bills signed Russell Bodine from the Bengals to replace Wood at center. He has plenty of experience, making all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons after going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s been one of the worst starting centers in the league over that time period. Last season, he was PFF’s 32nd ranked center out of 38 eligible. He’s not a lock for the starting job.

Ryan Groy is their other option at center. Groy doesn’t have Bodine’s experience, with only 11 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s flashed in limited action when counted on as a fill-in, both at center and guard. Groy’s versatility should also make him a candidate for either of the starting guard jobs. His primary competition for the guard jobs will be John Miller and Vlad Ducasse. Miller was the week 1 starter at right guard last season, but struggled so much in the first 4 weeks of the season that he was benched for Ducasse, a veteran journeyman.

Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has 32 career starts, but he’s struggled throughout his career. Ducasse performed admirably in 12 starts last season, but he is going into his age 31 season and earned negative grades from PFF in his previous 4 seasons prior to 2017. Fifth round rookie Wyatt Teller could also earn some playing time down the stretch, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Outside of new left tackle Dion Dawkins, this offensive line has major problems.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

With a lack of talent on offense, the Bills will need a strong performance from their defense if they’re going to have any shot of making it back to the post-season. They have more talent on defense than they do on offense, but they still finished just 27th in first down rate allowed last season. That was in large part due to their terrible run defense. They finished the season dead last in both rushing first downs allowed (121) and rushing touchdowns allowed (22) and got worse as the season went on, after trading overpaid defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars in a mid-season salary dump.

Given that, defensive tackle was a huge need for the Bills this off-season. They addressed it by signing ex-Panther Star Lotulelei in free agency, but they majorly overpaid him, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal that pays him 26 million over the first 2 years of the deal. Lotulelei is a competent run stuffer at 6-2 315, but doesn’t offer much on passing downs, with 11.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2013. He’s also coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, finishing last season 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’d be best as a two-down player, but his salary suggests they’ll be counting on him for an every down role.

Kyle Williams remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a one-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Just a 5th round pick back in 2006, Williams is by far the longest tenured Bill. He’s a 5-time Pro Bowler and was PFF’s 13th ranked interior defensive lineman as recently as 2016, but he’s going into his age 35 season and likely doesn’t have much left in the tank. He still earned a positive grade from PFF last season, while leading the Bills defensive line in snaps with 756, but didn’t play as well as the Bills were used to him playing and appears to be on the decline. After contemplating retirement this off-season, it’s very possible 2018 is his final season in the league.

Adolphus Washington finished with the second most snaps of any Buffalo defensive tackle last season with 509, but he struggled mightily, finishing 74th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled on 330 snaps as a rookie too and has been a major disappointment thus far in his career. He was a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run last season. He’ll have to compete to be the top reserve defensive tackle behind Williams and Lotulelei. The Bills also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a defensive tackle, taking Stanford’s Harrison Phillips with the 96th overall pick. He should also be in the mix for snaps and has the upside to develop into a long-term replacement for Kyle Williams.

The Bills are better at defensive end, led by top pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Hughes only managed 4 sacks, but that still led the team, as they had 27 sacks total. He also had 9 quarterback hits and 32 quarterback hurries on 454 total pass rush snaps, impressive considering he did not have a consistent pass rush presence opposite him, and he played well against the run. Hughes isn’t known for his run defense at 6-2 254, but he’s earned a positive pass rush grade in 6 straight seasons from PFF. He finished the 2017 season as PFF’s #10 ranked 4-3 defensive end and, despite going into his age 30 season, he should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank.

Shaq Lawson was the starter opposite Hughes last season. A first round pick in 2016, Lawson developed into a competent run stuffer in 2017 after a tough rookie year, but continued to struggle as a pass rusher. In 2 seasons in the league, Lawson has just 6 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback hurries on 374 pass rush snaps. He’s also missed 11 games with shoulder, knee, and ankle injuries. Growing impatient with Lawson’s development, the Bills signed ex-Redskin Trent Murphy to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season to give them a consistent pass rush presence opposite Hughes.

Murphy missed all of last season with a torn ACL, so it’s a bit of a surprise that he was able to get a good multi-year offer, but Murphy was an above average starter prior to the injury, so this signing definitely comes with a lot more upside than the Lotulelei signing. He was PFF’s 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both 2015 and 2016. He comes with risk, not just because of the injury, but also because he has a PED suspension on his resume and because he’s never played in a 4-3 front like the one the Bills run, but he should give their pass rush a boost. If Lawson can show a little bit more pass rush ability in 2018, the Bills would have a talented trio of edge rushers. This defensive line has still issues on the interior, but this isn’t a bad unit.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Along with defensive tackle, linebacker was also a huge position of need for the Bills this off-season. They got poor play from their linebacking corps, a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run, and they lost their top linebacker and leading tackler Preston Brown to the Bengals in free agency. In order to improve at the position, the Bills packaged their other first round pick (#22) with one of their extra third round picks (#65) to move up to 16th overall with the Ravens to draft Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.

Edmunds was a top-10 talent who slid because of an early run on quarterbacks and the Bills were wise to jump up and stop his slide. Not even 20 years old on draft day, Edmunds is a freak athlete with 4.54 speed at 6-5 253 and has the versatility to rush the passer, drop in coverage, and stuff the run. He’ll likely play close to every down as the Bills’ middle linebacker as a rookie, but could also see some snaps as a edge rusher because of his pass rush abilities. He may also be used as a blitzer more often than an average middle linebacker. Regardless of how they use him, he’ll have a big rookie year role for a linebacking corps that needs it. He’ll likely be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Second year linebacker Matt Milano is expected to be the other every down linebacker. Milano was just a 5th round pick and didn’t play a snap until week 4, but he flashed in limited action and was close to an every down player by the end of the season, playing in 68% of the team’s defensive snaps in the final 4 weeks of the season. Milano is a still projection to a larger role, but could easily develop into a capable starter.

His only real competition for snaps is Ramon Humber, a journeyman who is going into his age 31 season and who finished 33rd out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 570 snaps last season. He’s been in the league 10 years, but has primarily been a special teams player. He has just 28 career starts with 9 of them coming last season. He’d be a very underwhelming starting option. Milano at least gives them upside.

Veteran Lorenzo Alexander will likely remain the 3rd linebacker, though his age is a concern, going into his age 35 season. Largely a career special teamer, Alexander has taken on a larger defensive role over the past 2 seasons since arriving in Buffalo. He’s played 786 snaps and 672 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively, the two highest defensive snap totals of his 13-year career. Alexander shockingly put up 12.5 sacks in 2016, more than half of his career total (24.5), but did not play nearly as well in 2017, managing just 3 sacks and finishing with a below average grade on PFF.

He’s largely a one-year wonder, so I wouldn’t expect big things from him in 2018, especially at his age. He’ll be the 3rd linebacker in base packages and will also see some snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, though I would expect he’d be no higher than their 4th sub package edge rusher on the depth chart, behind Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, and Shaq Lawson. The addition of Tremaine Edmunds should upgrade this linebacking corps, as could Milano if he breaks out in an every down role, but both are young and unproven, so that’s far from a guarantee.

Grade: C+

Secondary

While the Bills had major problems against the run last season, their pass defense was solid, thanks primarily to their secondary. That came as a bit of a surprise, considering the Bills lost their top-2 cornerbacks from the previous season, losing Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency and then trading Ronald Darby to the Eagles. In fact, the Bills basically completely redid their secondary from 2016 to 2017 and they did it without adding any big name players.

Easily the most impactful addition they made to their secondary last off-season was first round pick Tre’Davious White, who excelled as the Bills’ de facto #1 cornerback as a rookie. Fellow first round cornerback Marshon Lattimore got more attention and certainly was deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award he won, but you could argue that White had just as good of a season. He allowed just 50.6% completion and 3 touchdowns on 77 targets, while picking off 4 passes and deflecting another 11. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback, 7 spots ahead of Lattimore. A sophomore slump is always a possibility, but he’s a first round talent with a bright future and could easily have another dominant season in 2018.

EJ Gaines had a solid season as the #2 cornerback opposite White, even though he was just a throw-in in the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams for a 2nd round pick. He finished the season as PFF’s 28th ranked cornerback, allowing just 5.12 yards per attempt and deflecting 6 passes on 60 targets. Despite that, the Bills opted to sign Vontae Davis, a cap casualty released by the Indianapolis Colts, early in February before free agency even started, rather than attempting to re-sign Gaines in free agency.

Gaines did have injury issues in 2017, missing 5 games with knee, shoulder, and hamstring injuries, but Davis also has an extensive injury history. Davis only missed 2 games in 2016, but dealt with ankle and groin injuries and finished the season as PFF’s 113th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible, after finishing 2nd at his position in 2014 and 24th in 2015. In 2017, his groin issues flared up again and he only played 5 underwhelming games before having season ending surgery.

Despite that, the Bills gave him a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. Davis has some bounce back potential, but he’ll need to stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. After seeing Gaines have to settle for just 4 million on a one-year deal from the Browns, the Bills might be kicking themselves a little bit for signing Davis instead. He’s unlikely to be better than Gaines was last season.

The Bills also got good play at the safety position in 2017 as well, with veterans Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer both having the best seasons of their career in their first season in Buffalo, finishing 16th and 18th respectively among safeties on PFF. Both are one-year wonders though, especially Poyer, a 7th round pick by the Browns in 2013 who made just 10 starts in 4 seasons before signing with the Bills. Hyde has more experience, making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers, who took him in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s never had a season like 2017 before. Both could continue their strong play into 2018, but there’s a good chance at least one of them regresses.

The only weakness the Bills had in the secondary last season was the slot, as top slot cornerback Leonard Johnson led the NFL with 603 slot yards allowed, including a whopping 355 yards after the catch (also most in the NFL). Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to be better on the slot this season, given their lack of depth at cornerback. Free agent addition Phillip Gaines is likely the favorite for the slot job, but he’s been one of the worst cornerbacks in the league over the past couple years, both outside and on the slot.

He finished the 2016 season as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible on 448 snaps and then finished the 2017 season 117th out of 120 eligible on 419 snaps. His primary competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Taron Johnson, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade immediately. The Bills should still get good secondary play in 2018, but they lost starter EJ Gaines and may not get the same performance from Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who are both coming off of career years.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bills surprisingly made the post-season last year, but they were arguably one of the worst teams in the league. Most of their wins were close, while most of their losses were not. And that was despite the fact that they had a capable quarterback under center and finished with a +9 turnover margin. This season, they have an unsettled situation at quarterback with a career backup competing with a raw rookie for the starting job and they’re unlikely to have the same success turnover margin wise, as that tends to be inconsistent week-to-week and year-to-year. As the Bills proved last year, you don’t have to be that good to sneak into the post-season in a 16 game season, but they’re unlikely to be able to repeat that and may end the season as one of the worst teams in the league. On paper, this team has a lot of problems.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Bills’ quarterback situation is easily the worst in the league. AJ McCarron struggled in the pre-season and was dealt to the Raiders for a late round pick. Nathan Peterman won the week 1 job after Josh Allen flopped in his first team debut. Allen will overtake Peterman sooner rather than later, but he’s unlikely to have much success, as he’s very raw and has very little talent around him.

Prediction: 3-13 4th in AFC East

Carolina Panthers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while adding 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground on 132 carries. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked quarterback and led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. However, Newton had never had a season nearly that good in the past and has struggled to live up to that season in the two seasons since. Newton has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF in another season and has arguably played some of the worst football of his career over the past 2 seasons.

In 2016, he finished 25th out of 36 eligible quarterbacks and completed just 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After posting a career best 99.4 quarterback rating in 2015 (10 points higher than any other season), Newton had a career worst 75.8 quarterback rating in 2016. He also posted some career worsts on the ground, averaging just 3.99 yards per carry on 90 carries and totaling 359 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career worsts.

Going into 2017, it was expected that diminished rushing production from him would be the new norm. Newton had never missed time with a significant injury, but he was coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and the Panthers wanted him to take fewer hits in order to preserve him long-term. Through the first 5 weeks of last season, he continued to post disappointing rushing numbers, as he had just 90 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 carries (3.10 YPC), but once he felt confident in his surgically repaired shoulder, he started taking off frequently again and actually ended the season with a career high in yards (754) and carries (139). The Panthers may have called fewer designed runs for him, but that did not stop him from taking off when he felt there was room to run.

While Newton’s rushing stats improved from 2016 to 2017, his passing stats really didn’t. His QB rating was higher than 2016, but not by much, as his 80.7 QB rating was the 2nd worst of his career. His completion percentage improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but he still only completed 59.1% of his passes and his completion percentage only went up because he was attempting more shorter, high percentage passes. His YPA average was the worst of his career at 6.71 and his touchdown to interception ratio of 22 to 16 was not impressive either. He once again earned a negative overall grade from PFF.

Going into his age 29 season, Newton is still young, but it’s becoming clear that his 2015 performance will look like the outlier when his career is all said and done. On top of that, Newton may not age as well as other quarterbacks because of the amount of hits he takes and because of how reliant he is on his athleticism. In 2018, he should still have the type of season we’re used to from him, but he’ll need better play around him if this team is going to have a shot at making another deep post-season run in the loaded NFC.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Despite a standard at best season from Cam Newton, the Panthers still had a big leap in wins from 2016 to 2017, going 11-5 after a 6-10 season. They improved noticeably in first down rate differential, going from -1.72% to +1.85%, though that’s not as drastic of a leap as their record suggested. The big difference is they improved dramatically in close games. After going 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less in 2016, they finished 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2017, a big part of the reason why they had such an improved record.

The Panthers made the post-season at 11-5, but were one of the worst qualifying playoff teams. Their 11 wins came by a combined 98 points, while their 5 losses came by 62 points, giving them a point differential of +36 that ranked just 12th in the NFL, behind non-playoff teams like the Ravens and Chargers. Once in the post-season, they lost in their first game in New Orleans. They were definitely not a bad team in 2017, but they were not as good as their record suggested. They could easily have a couple fewer wins in 2018 without playing any worse.

On top of that, they had arguably the biggest free agent loss of any team this off-season, with left guard Andrew Norwell signing with the Jaguars for 66.5 million over 5 years. That contract makes Norwell the highest paid guard in the NFL, but it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. A hidden gem of a 2014 undrafted free agent, Norwell became a starter midway through his rookie season and never looked back, making 54 starts in 4 seasons with the Panthers and finishing in the top-12 among guards each of the past 3 seasons, including a career best #5 rank in 2017.

The Panthers effectively made the decision to let Norwell go last off-season, when they gave big contracts to free agent acquisition left tackle Matt Kalil and right guard Trai Turner, who was also heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 along with Norwell. With center Ryan Kalil also on a contract that pays him well (7.125 million owed in 2018), it was hard to justify another large contract on the offensive line, especially with right tackle Daryl Williams going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Norwell was talented enough to at least get the franchise tag from the Panthers, but the Panthers just didn’t want to commit any more money to the offensive line, so they just let him walk.

The Panthers seem to have made a mistake giving Turner and Kalil big contracts instead of Norwell. Turner is a talented guard as well, but he hasn’t been as good as Norwell. Turner went in the 3rd round in 2014 and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, with his best coming in 2015 (4th), but he ranked just 24th in 2017 and 34th in 2016, so he’s not quite the consistent elite player that Norwell was. The Panthers re-signed him to a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. It’s not a bad contract, but the Panthers would have been better off keeping Norwell over him.

Kalil, on the other hand, looks like a complete waste of money just one year after being signed to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal that pays him 25.6 million in the first two years of the deal. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kalil looked like a future franchise left tackle when he finished 28th among offensive tackles in 16 starts at left tackle for the Vikings in 2012, but he’s finished below average on PFF in every season since his rookie year and 2017 was arguably his worst season, as he finished 74th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles, after missing all but two games in 2016 with injury. Why the Panthers decided to pay him like a franchise left tackle is beyond me. It’s possible he’ll be cut next off-season if he does not bounce back in 2018.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is probably their best offensive lineman, which is a big difference from this point last year, when Williams was just a 2016 4th round pick with 12 underwhelming career starts. In fact, the Panthers used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft as competition for him, taking Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton, but Williams won the job and ran with it, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. Williams is obviously a one-year wonder, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. He’ll probably be expensive to keep long-term, but, after losing Norwell this off-season, they can’t afford to lose Williams too.

With Williams locked in at right tackle, Moton will compete to replace Norwell at left guard. Moton profiled as a future starter coming out of college and, though guard is a new position for him, he could easily develop into a capable starter, after playing just 63 nondescript snaps as a rookie. His main competition will be Jeremiah Sirles, a veteran journeyman who has 15 career starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers and Vikings. Sirles has never received a positive grade from PFF since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and would be best as a reserve. He’ll likely only start if Moton struggles with the position switch this off-season.

Ryan Kalil, older brother of Matt Kalil, rounds out the offensive line at center. Ryan has had a much better career than Matt, making 5 Pro Bowls and 2 All-Pro teams in 11 seasons in the league. He also finished in the top-9 among centers on PFF in 6 seasons, with his most recent season in the top-9 coming in 2015, when he finished 3rd among centers. However, he’s been limited to just 14 underwhelming starts in the past two seasons and is unlikely to have a bounce back year in 2018 in his age 33 season. With only one more year left on his contract, Kalil has already announced he will be retiring after the season. He could have one more solid season left in him, but that’s far from a guarantee given his age and recent injury history. Backup Tyler Larsen was not bad in his absence last season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll even be an upgrade over him. His return won’t be enough to offset the loss of Norwell.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In addition to losing Andrew Norwell, the Panthers also lost wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, though that was a voluntary “loss,” as they sent him to the Bills at the trade deadline during the 2017 season for a 3rd round pick. At the time, it was a huge surprise. The Panthers were 5-3 at the time and very much in the playoff mix. Benjamin was their #1 receiver who totaled a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017.

Even if the Panthers were not planning on extending Benjamin beyond the final year of his contract in 2018, giving him up for a mere 3rd round pick with a year and a half left on his deal and with the team in playoff contention did not make a ton of sense. The Panthers claimed the move was made because they wanted to open up opportunities for other receivers, but Benjamin’s deep threat ability helped pull coverage away from other receivers, so that explanation never made any sense. There were likely issues going on behind the scenes that the general public was not aware of.

The Panthers do look like the early winners of the deal, but that’s primarily because Benjamin struggled with the Bills after joining mid-season, managing just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in 6 games. He dealt with nagging injury problems and never got on the same page with new quarterback Tyrod Taylor. In Benjamin’s absence, 3rd year player Devin Funchess did breakout a little bit to help compensate. He actually received fewer targets (53) in 8 games without Benjamin than he did in 8 games opposite him (58) and he caught fewer balls as a result (30 vs. 33), but his yards per reception average jumped from 10.8 to 16.1 and his yardage and touchdowns jumped from 357 yards and 3 touchdowns to 483 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Funchess enters the 2018 season as the #1 option. He could easily continue his strong play from the second half of last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s basically a one-year wonder and struggled earlier in his career. In 2016, he managed just a 23/371/4 slash line on 59 targets and finished 106th out of 119 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a talented former 2nd round pick and only going into his age 24 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career and it’s premature to consider him a true #1 receiver.

The Panthers also used a first round pick on a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Maryland’s DJ Moore with the 24th overall pick. Moore was the first wide receiver off the board in a weak wide receiver class, but he wasn’t a bad value at 24. Rookie receivers often take a year or two to develop, but Moore has the opportunity to start immediately with a good off-season. His main competition for playing time are 2017 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel and veteran journeyman Torrey Smith.

Samuel was a high pick, but is more of a hybrid running back/receiver than a true wideout. He played just 225 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, catching 15 passes for 115 yards and rushing for 64 yards on 4 carries. His best game came week 10 when he caught 5 passes for 45 yards on 40 snaps against the Dolphins, but he also broke his ankle in that game, which ended his season. Complications from that injury threaten to keep him out at least until training camp, which does not help his chances of earning a big role in 2018. With uncertain health and a non-traditional skill set, it’s unclear what his role will be this season.

Torrey Smith is the veteran of the bunch, although he hasn’t been good in years. Smith topped 750 yards in all 4 seasons with the Ravens, after they took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he hasn’t been nearly as good since leaving, averaging a 30/453/3 slash line over the past 3 seasons, first with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016 and then with the Eagles last season. He’s been especially bad over the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom-5 of wide receivers on PFF in both seasons.

The Panthers strangely decided to trade for him and his 5 million dollar salary, even surrendering a promising young defensive back (Daryl Worley) in the deal. They’re thin enough at wide receiver that he’s very much in the mix for a role and he’s still only going into his age 29 season, so there’s some theoretical bounce back potential here, but he hasn’t shown it in years. His skill set reminds of Ted Ginn, who has had success with Cam Newton in the past, so he’s a good fit, but the Panthers could have probably signed him for half of what he’s making if they had just waited for the Eagles to release him.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Panthers will need a bounce back year from tight end Greg Olsen, who had just 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in 2017 after three straight 1000+ yard seasons. Olsen broke his foot week 2 and was never the same. He was limited to 358 underwhelming snaps in 7 games. Going into his age 33 season in 2018, there’s some concern if he’ll ever return to his old form, but, even if he’s not quite his old form, he’s still a useful weapon. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but he finished in the top-2 in pass catching grade among tight ends in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

While Olsen was hurt last season, he briefly did some broadcasting work, hinting at a post-NFL career, and then he auditioned for Monday Night Football this off-season, though that might have mostly been a negotiating ploy, as he was trying to get an extension from the Panthers. He eventually did get that extension, worth 17.1 million over 2 years, which keeps him in Carolina through 2020, and now he says he’s committed to playing.

Even so, the Panthers needed to address the tight end position in the draft and did so by taking Ian Thomas with the 101th overall pick (4th round). Not only did they need a long-term successor for Olsen, but they needed someone to be their #2 tight end immediately. Ed Dickson led the team in tight end snaps last season with 870 in Olsen’s absence, but he’s no longer with the team. He finished last season 51st out of 72 eligible tight ends, so it’s not a huge loss, but Thomas is very raw, especially as a blocker, so he might not be an upgrade as a rookie. Blocking specialist Chris Manhertz will likely also be in the mix too, though he’s a pure blocker who blocked on 238 of 288 snaps last season and has just 3 catches in 3 seasons in the league. It’s an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Given how thin they are in the receiving corps, running back Christian McCaffrey will once again have to play a big role in the passing game. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey led the Panthers with 80 catches last season and finished second on the team with 651 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdown. McCaffrey is more of a hybrid than a traditional running back, playing 139 snaps on the slot and 59 snaps out wide and only carrying the ball 117 times.

McCaffrey actually only averaged 3.72 yards per carry on those 117 carries, though he got much better as his rookie year went on, averaging 4.68 yards per carry on 68 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. Even though he was a high pick, McCaffrey is unlikely to ever be a 300+ carry back, as the Panthers want to get him the ball 60-80 times in the passing game and he’s not built for 350 touches per year at 5-10 205. He’s an explosive playmaker who can line up all over the field, but the Panthers don’t want to wear him out.

It looked like McCaffrey would be in for a significantly larger role as a ball carrier when the Panthers let veteran running back Jonathan Stewart go and did not add a replacement for his 198 carries early in free agency or in the draft, but they signed ex-Bronco CJ Anderson a couple weeks after the draft. Anderson will likely take over most of Stewart’s vacated carries and he should be an upgrade.

Stewart was a plodding veteran that averaged just 3.43 yards per carry and finished 53rd among 60 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Anderson, on the other hand, is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 9th among running backs on PFF and totaling 1007 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 241 carries (4.18 YPC), despite playing on one of the worst offenses in the league in Denver. Anderson was only let go by the Broncos for salary reasons and is a great value on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Carolina.

Anderson doesn’t do much on passing downs, but neither did Stewart. He’s an excellent complement for McCaffrey. McCaffrey and Anderson are both talented runners, but they cap each other’s rushing production as long as both are healthy, as does the presence of Cam Newton, who is a sure bet to take off and run with the ball at least 100-120 times himself. The Panthers figure to once again be a run heavy team (490 carries to 501 pass attempts last season) and should get better production out of their backs with Anderson replacing Stewart and McCaffrey continuing to develop.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The reason the Panthers are able to be a run heavy team is because they have an above average defense that allows them run a more conservative offense. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly gets most of the attention, but defensive tackle Kawann Short is arguably just as important to this defense. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Short has finished well above average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, with his best play coming in the past 3 seasons. He’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in all 3 seasons, while totaling 24.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits and playing excellent run defense at 6-3 315. Outside of Aaron Donald, he’s arguably the best interior defensive lineman in football. Carolina wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar extension last off-season after franchise tagging him.

The Panthers also added defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the 2013 draft, taking him 14th overall in the first round, though he never came close to developing into the player Short did. Lotulelei signed with the Bills this off-season, but he won’t be missed, considering he finished 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF last season and considering the Panthers signed upgrade Dontari Poe to replace him. Poe comes in on a 3-year, 28 million dollar deal, which is actually less annually and in total money than Lotulelei got from the Bills (50 million over 5 years).

A 2012 first round pick, back problems forced Poe to settle for a one-year deal worth 8 million from the Falcons last off-season, as he couldn’t find the money on a long-term deal that he wanted. Poe finished as PFF’s 26th ranked defensive tackle on 784 snaps last season and didn’t miss a game with injury, so free agency went better for him the 2nd time around. Poe has been up and down in 6 seasons in the league and he’s dealt with several injuries, but he’s also only missed 2 games in his career, while averaging 850 snaps per season. At 6-3 346, Poe is built like a pure 3-4 nose tackle, but he has the versatility and the athleticism to play in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He’s a good fit in Carolina next to Short and should be an upgrade on Lotulelei.

The Panthers also have 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler in the mix at defensive tackle. Butler was a strange selection, given that the Panthers already had Short and Lotulelei ahead of him on the depth chart, and the decision doesn’t look any better now, with Poe coming in on a long-term deal and Short locked up on a long-term deal. Butler has played just 520 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have an easy path to playing time in 2018. The Panthers’ decision to sign Poe suggests that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with Butler as a starter yet, which is a bad sign for his development as he heads into his 3rd season in the league. He has some potential, but won’t play a huge role as a reserve. Veteran journeyman Kyle Love (377 snaps in 2017) is also in the mix and may even continue playing ahead of Butler, even though Love is an underwhelming talent.

The Panthers are not quite as well off at defensive end as they are at defensive tackle, but they did have a pair of double digit sack guys in 2017, with Mario Addison and Julius Peppers both tallying 11 sacks. Addison was the better of the two overall, as he also had 3 hits and 43 hurries and finished 24th among 4-3 defensive ends last season in overall grade on PFF. Addison was underwhelming earlier in his career, but he proved to be a late bloomer. In addition to his strong 2017, he also finished 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s not good against the run at 6-3 255, but he should have another solid season rushing the passer.

Peppers, on the other hand, is far from a guarantee. His sack total was impressive last season, especially since he only played 499 snaps, but he was not as good as his sack total suggested, as he had just 5 additional quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries. He finished with an average grade from PFF. Even more of a concern is the fact that he’s going into his age 38 season. Peppers is a future Hall of Famer and still showed himself to have something left in the tank last season, but he’s hard to trust given his age. He’s one of the oldest defensive players in the league.

Charles Johnson was their top reserve last season, but he struggled mightily on 389 snaps and was released this off-season. Wes Horton (359 snaps in 2017) is still in the mix, but he’s never been anything more than a rotational player and has never earned a positive season grade from PFF in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2013. Instead, second year defensive end Daeshon Hall may be their top reserve. Hall was selected 77th overall by the Panthers in 2017 and has the tools to develop into a starter, though he’s kind of an unknown commodity after missing all but 9 snaps with injury as a rookie.

The Panthers also added another defensive end in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes in the 4th round. With Julius Peppers possibly entering his final season and Mario Addison also on the wrong side of 30, the Panthers are stocking up on developmental defensive ends. Unlike Hall, Haynes is undersized at 6-3 235 and will likely never be an every down defensive end, but he could develop into a useful situational pass rusher. The Panthers may also give him a look at linebacker because of his athleticism. It’s unclear what his rookie year role will be, but he has upside as a Bruce Irvin type hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He adds depth to a talented defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly is an All-Pro caliber talent in this front seven. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been one of the best linebackers in the league basically from week 1 of his rookie year. He’s finished in the top-8 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including 4 straight seasons in the top-2, and he has both a Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Injuries have been a bit of an issue for him in recent years, as he’s missed 10 games in the past 3 seasons and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014, but, when healthy, he’s one of the most impactful defensive players in the league. He’s a true three down linebacker with no weaknesses in his game.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis used to be a similar caliber linebacker and, at one point, he and Kuechly were arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL, but Davis is now going into his age 35 season and on the decline. Davis was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as recently as 2014 and finished 8th at his position in 2015, but he’s been about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2017. He’s already announced he plans to retire after the season.

The Panthers used the 25th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft with this scenario in mind, taking Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington. Thompson has shown that first round talent, earning well above average grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but his 640 snaps in 2017 were a career high. He’s been mostly limited to a base package linebacker role behind Kuechly and Davis, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Panthers frequently kept him on the field against 3-wide sets as a slot cornerback in 2017, as he was simply too talented to take off the field. Davis has said he expects to play fewer snaps in his final season, suggesting Thompson may be close to an every down player at linebacker in 2018. More playing time at his natural position should be a good thing for him, as the 6-0 230 pounder struggled on the slot.

Thompson will be an every down player for the first 4 weeks of the season at least, as Thomas Davis will miss time with suspension after failing a drug test. When Davis returns, it will likely be to a reduced role, though he could easily still prove to be a useful player. David Mayo is expected to be the 3rd linebacker behind Kuechly and Thompson in Davis’ absence. A 5th round pick in 2015, Mayo saw 133 snaps last season when Kuechly was hurt and wasn’t bad. He may face competition from Marquis Haynes if they decide they want to try him as a linebacker, but Mayo should be able to hold down the fort in a base package role for the first month of the season. Even with Davis’ suspension, the Panthers have a strong linebacking corps, led by All-Pro Luke Kuechly and breakout candidate Shaq Thompson.

Grade: A

Secondary

While the Panthers still have a strong front 7, they’ve struggled in the secondary since losing cornerback Josh Norman after their Super Bowl season in 2015. To try to replace Norman, the Panthers used a pair of draft picks on cornerbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking James Bradberry in the 2nd round and Daryl Worley in the 3rd round. The results have been underwhelming. Both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus as rookies in 2016, in 13 and 11 starts respectively, but then both took a step both in their second season in the league in 2017. Worley was then shipped to the Eagles this off-season in the Panthers’ bizarre trade for Torrey Smith.

Bradberry remains and enters his third season in the league as the Panthers’ de facto #1 cornerback. He has the tools to develop into a top level cornerback, but has yet to show it consistently. The Panthers will be hoping he takes a leap forward in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee. Between Bradberry’s inconsistent play, Worley’s departure, and veteran slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s struggles in 2017, cornerback was an obvious position of need for the Panthers this off-season and they address it by adding another two cornerbacks in the draft and by signing veteran Ross Cockrell in free agency.

Bradberry is likely locked into a starting role outside, but the other starting outside spot and the top slot cornerback spot are up for grabs. Cockrell was a smart signing on a 2-year, 6.6 million dollar deal and is likely the favorite for the other starting job. He’s made 32 starts in the past 3 seasons, including all 16 with the Steelers in 2016, and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should be an upgrade on Worley if he wins the starting job.

Captain Munnerlyn was their primary slot cornerback last season, but he struggled, finishing 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and was limited to just 388 snaps on the season, with linebacker Shaq Thompson eating into his playing time on the slot as the season went on. Munnerlyn has been better in the past, earning a positive grade in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016, but he’s undersized at 5-9 195 and might not age well, going into his age 30 season. He’ll face plenty of competition for his natural slot role and doesn’t have the size to play outside consistently.

Second round rookie Donte Jackson will likely be Munnerlyn’s toughest competition, though last year’s 5th round pick Corn Elder could also be in the mix, as he’s a natural slot cornerback. Elder also missed all of last season with injury, so he’s not a lock for the final roster. The Panthers also used a 3rd round pick in this past draft on Rashaan Gaulden, but his lack of speed (4.63 40) may make him a better fit as a safety long-term, which is also a position of need for the Panthers.

Veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams were the starters in 2017, making 12 starts and 16 starts respectively, but Coleman finished 82nd out of 89 eligible safeties and was subsequently let go this off-season, while Adams is going into his age 37 season and won’t be able to keep doing this for much longer. Adams is likely locked into one of the starting roles and played pretty well last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is really up there in age, so he could easily struggle in 2018.

Veteran free agent acquisition Da’Norris Searcy is likely the favorite for the other starting spot, with Gaulden and possibly career special teamer Colin Jones providing competition. Searcy had 56 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but played just 365 underwhelming snaps for the Titans last season and is going into his age 30 season. He’s a solid box safety, but little else, so he’s not really an upgrade on Coleman. If he starts, it’s because the Panthers lack a better option. This secondary still has problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers went 11-5 in 2017, but needed to win a lot of close games to get there and they may not have the same success in close games in 2018. On top of that, they lost top offensive lineman Andrew Norwell in free agency. They upgraded running back and defensive tackle this off-season and could have a better linebacking corps with Shaq Thompson taking on an every down role, but they still have major issues in the receiving corps and in the secondary.

They do get tight end Greg Olsen back from injury, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the same upon his return given his age and the Panthers will also likely have to deal with other injuries, just because of the nature of the game. They had an average amount of adjusted games lost last season, so they can’t expect significantly better health in 2018. Olsen is also not their only starter who is well over 30 either, as they have 5 projected starters who are going into their age 33 season or older (Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Mike Adams). 

The Panthers will still be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they also play in the much tougher NFC and in arguably the toughest division in football, so it’s going to be tough for them to make it back. If they lose a lot of close games against a tough schedule, they could easily fall back under .500. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Panthers’ offensive line situation has gotten a lot worse since the last writeup, with both Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams going down with injuries. Williams may return early in the season, but Kalil is out indefinitely. Between that, the loss of Andrew Norwell, and the fact that they’re unlikely to do as well in close games, the Panthers are likely to have a down year in the loaded NFC.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC South