2019 NFL Season Previews

Updated 6/18/19

 

These season previews will be posted throughout the summer and provide a foundation for my season picks (60% against the spread in 2018).

These previews will be very similar to past year’s previews with a couple exceptions.

Interior and edge defenders will be graded separately rather than a total defensive line grade. In the past, I’ve graded 3-4 edge defenders as part of linebackers and 4-3 edge defenders as part of the defensive line. Now edge defenders in both schemes are graded as their own unit, separate from off ball linebackers and interior defenders.

Scores for offense, defense, and the overall team will be included. Scores are based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100). Win total projections will still be posted at the end of all previews after I simulate each team’s schedule, but team scores give an idea of how these teams rank relative to each other in the meantime.

Entire divisions will be posted at once, ranked by team score. Approximate completion dates are included for unfinished divisions.

 

NFC West: Posted 5/18/19

1. Los Angeles Rams

Record: TBD

Team Score: 76.33 (78.12 offense, 74.53 defense)

2. San Francisco 49ers

Record: TBD

Team Score: 74.54 (76.03 offense, 72.04 defense)

3. Seattle Seahawks

Record: TBD

Team Score: 73.76 (75.80 offense, 71.71 defense)

4. Arizona Cardinals

Record: TBD

Team Score: 72.49 (70.89 offense, 74.08 defense)

AFC East: Posted 5/28/19

1. New England Patriots

Record: TBD

Team Score: 77.94 (80.52 offense, 75.35 defense)

2. Buffalo Bills

Record: TBD

Team Score: 73.22 (71.11 offense, 75.32 defense)

3. New York Jets

Record: TBD

Team Score: 73.10 (71.96 offense, 74.24 defense)

4. Miami Dolphins

Record: TBD

Team Score: 69.13 (67.43 offense, 70.83 defense)

NFC East: Posted 6/3/19

1. Philadelphia Eagles

Record: TBD

Team Score: 77.15 (78.37 offense, 75.92 defense)

2. Dallas Cowboys

Record: TBD

Team Score: 76.45 (76.93 offense, 75.97 defense)

3. New York Giants

Record: TBD

Team Score: 71.85 (73.39 offense, 70.31 defense)

4. Washington Redskins

Record: TBD

Team Score: 71.14 (70.68 offense, 71.60 defense)

AFC North: Posted 6/9/19

1. Cleveland Browns

Record: TBD

Team Score: 75.84 (76.89 offense, 74.78 defense)

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: TBD

Team Score: 75.74 (77.63 offense, 73.85 defense)

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Record: TBD

Team Score: 74.42 (74.58 offense, 74.26 defense)

4. Baltimore Ravens

Record: TBD

Team Score: 72.57 (70.58 offense, 74.55 defense)

NFC South: Posting 6/18/19

1. New Orleans Saints

Record: TBD

Team Score: 78.30 (80.03 offense, 76.56 defense)

2. Atlanta Falcons

Record: TBD

Team Score: 76.37 (78.44 offense, 74.40 defense)

3. Carolina Panthers

Record: TBD

Team Score: 75.11 (76.16 offense, 74.06 defense)

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record: TBD

Team Score: 72.30 (73.38 offense, 71.21 defense)

AFC South: Posting date approximately 7/7/19

NFC North: Posting date approximately 7/20/19

AFC West: Posting date approximately 8/2/19

New Orleans Saints 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Saints last two seasons have ended in heartbreaking fashion, with their 2017 season ending on a Hail Mary against Minnesota in the NFC Divisional Round and their 2018 season ending in overtime against the Rams in the NFC Conference Championship in a game in which the Saints could have run out the clock if not for a blatantly missed pass interference penalty. Not much changes for the Saints in 2019, but you have to think they feel their championship window closing, with Drew Brees going into his age 40 season, which makes how their last two seasons have ended all the more heartbreaking.

If Brees plays like he has throughout his career, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl, but that’s becoming less and less of a certainty every season. Brees’ numbers from 2018 look great as always, as he completed 74.4% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, but upon closer inspection he slowed down significantly down the stretch, completing 69.2% of his passes for an average of just 6.67 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions in his final 4 regular season starts and two playoff starts. Through 11 games, the Saints had a 45.96% first down rate, but that fell to 35.90% during the stretch where Brees struggled. The Saints still could have made the Super Bowl even without Brees at his best if the refs hadn’t missed a call, but it was also a Drew Brees interception in overtime that cost the Saints a chance to win the game in spite of the call.

That stretch could prove to be an aberration, but quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have lost it quickly at similar ages and the track record of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their 40s is very limited. Tom Brady won an MVP at 40 and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Brees does the same in 2019, but it also shouldn’t surprise anyone if he continues playing like he did down the stretch last season. At the very least, it’s a concern that Brees seemed to wear out at the end of the season. Even he if gets off to a strong start in 2019, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him slow down again come December and January.

In order to keep Brees fresh, the Saints have run the ball more in recent years, as Brees’ pass attempts have dropped from 40.5 per game from 2007-2016 to 33.1 per game in the past 2 seasons. Last year, part of that was swapping Brees out for wildcat quarterback Taysom Hill a few times per game. The Saints also have both quarterbacks on the field at the same time on occasion and Hill played 184 total offensive snaps on the season. He threw 7 passes, but primarily played in running situations, averaging 5.30 yards per carry across 37 carries on 136 total run play snaps.

Hill isn’t much of a threat as a passer, so veteran backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was re-signed this off-season, even though Bridgewater had an opportunity to start in Miami. Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 and showed a lot of promise in his first 2 seasons in the league, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, with another 401 yards and 4 scores on the ground, but a brutal knee injury during the 2016 off-season cost him close to 2 years and he’s thrown just 25 passes since, 23 of which came in a meaningless week 17 loss last season. It’s possible, but not likely that Bridgewater could see starts if Brees declined quickly like Favre and Manning did, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. The Saints are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen, as they attempt to contend for another Super Bowl.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Even if Brees isn’t as good in 2019, the Saints could still be a tough offense to stop. As I mentioned, the Saints have put more of an emphasis on the run game in the past couple years to take the pressure off of Brees. Part of why they’ve been able to do that is improved play on defense that has allowed them to play with a lead more often, but they’ve also been one of the most effective teams on the ground, averaging 4.48 yards per game over the past 2 seasons, 7th best in the NFL over that stretch. Wildcat quarterback Tayson Hill is part of it, but the biggest factor was the arrival of running back Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Kamara only had 120 carries as a rookie, but he led the league with 6.06 yards per carry (4th most in a season in the Super Bowl era by a running back with 100+ carries) and was a perfect complement to lead back Mark Ingram, who averaged 4.89 yards per carry on 230 carries. In 2018, Ingram missed 4 games with injury and Kamara took on more of the load overall even when Ingram returned. His 4.55 YPC average was a significant dropoff from his rookie year, but still one of the better averages in the league and he scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 194 carries. He also improved his carry success rate from 53% as a rookie (6th in the league) to 58% (2nd in the league) in 2018.

In addition to being an effective runner, Kamara is also a weapon out of the backfield, with slash lines of 81/826/5 and 81/709/4 in 2 seasons in the league and a 79.0% career target catch rate with just 8 drops. He can also play on the slot, running 135 routes from the slot over the past 2 seasons, 2nd most in the NFL by a running back. He averaged 2.71 yards per route run on those 135 routes. Overall, he’s finished 1st and 7th respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he should be one of the best running backs in the league for years to come if he can continue avoiding injury.

Mark Ingram is no longer with the team, so Kamara could have a bigger role this season, but he’s not suddenly about to become a 350-400 touch back. The Saints like to use two backs in tandem to keep Kamara fresher and signed veteran running back Latavius Murray to a 4-year, 14.4 million deal in free agency. Murray isn’t as good as Ingram, but he has a similar skill set and is an experienced between the tackles runner, averaging 4.01 yards per carry on 817 carries over the past 4 seasons. He also has 32 rushing touchdowns in 62 games over those 4 seasons and should get plenty of opportunities near the goal line with the Saints. He’s never done much in the receiving game, with 128 catches for 883 yards and no scores in 77 career games, but the Saints’ offense has a way of getting receiving production out of running backs that ordinarily aren’t great receivers. Murray is a decent replacement for Ingram and the Saints should remain an effective rushing team in 2019.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with Alvin Kamara, #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas was a frequent target in 2018, with 147 targets, 11th most in the NFL. Thomas and Kamara combined for 252 targets, which represents 48.6% of the team’s pass attempts, as they lacked as third receiving option (no other pass catchers with more than 427 yards). Like Kamara, Thomas made the most of his targets, with a 125/1402/9 slash line. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas has been one of the best receivers in the league since day 1, finishing 8th, 3rd, and 2nd among wide receivers in the past 3 seasons respectively on Pro Football Focus and totalling 321 catches (most in the NFL) for 3787 yards and 9 touchdowns over those 3 seasons, with a remarkable 76.8% target catch rate. Still only in his age 26 season, Thomas should remain one of the top receivers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Thomas is due a steep pay increase.

Thomas and Kamara could see fewer targets this season because of the addition of free agent tight end Jared Cook, who gives them the legitimate 3rd receiving option that they didn’t have last season. Cook has always been a solid receiving tight end and averaged a 46/590/3 slash line from 2011-2017, but he exploded for 68/896/6 in 2018, setting career highs across the board. Ordinarily I wouldn’t predict a player in his age 32 season and his 10th season in the league to match or surpass his career highs, but Cook is joining a very tight end friendly offense in New Orleans and is the closest thing Drew Brees has had to Jimmy Graham in recent years.

Cook wasn’t cheap on a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal, but the Saints are aggressive in trying to win while Brees is still playing and he fills a huge need for a team that had just 63 total catches by tight ends in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Josh Hill, who is an adequate run blocker, but little else. He’s never surpassed 16 catches in a season in 6 seasons in the league and has 83 catches in 87 career games. He will once again not be much of a factor in the passing game.

At wide receiver, the depth chart is pretty unsettled behind Thomas. Ted Ginn was the week 1 starter opposite Thomas last season, but was limited to 196 snaps in 5 games by a knee injury. He was on a 54/669/6 pace in 5 games and averaged a 50/759/6 slash line from 2015-2017, but he’s going into his age 34 season and could easily see his role scaled back in 2019. Ginn is primarily a deep threat and might not age well, especially if he continues suffering leg injuries.

In Ginn’s absence, youngsters Tre’Quan Lewis, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr all struggled, averaging 1.34 yards per route run, 1.60 yards per route run, and 0.63 yards per route run respectively. Lewis has the most upside of the bunch, as he was a 3rd round rookie last season, while Kirkwood and Carr went undrafted. Lewis showed that upside with a 10/157/1 slash line week 12 against the Eagles, but he was incredibly inconsistent throughout the season. Perhaps he’ll become more consistent in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. He should earn a top-3 wide receiver job.

The Saints also added veteran Rishard Matthews in free agency and he’s an intriguing signing. Matthews quit the team in Tennessee last season over playing time and the team’s handling of his injury, but he averaged a 54/801/6 slash line in 3 seasons prior, despite playing on a run heavy offense. Only in his age 30 season, Matthews has bounce back potential if he’s recommitted to football. He definitely could earn a role in training camp in an unsettled receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Saints had strong play on the offensive line in 2018 too and they return 4 of 5 starters, only losing center Max Unger to retirement. Unger was an experienced veteran, but finished just 19th out of 39 qualifying centers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, so he isn’t that big of a loss. Ex-Viking Nick Easton was signed in free agency to a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, which suggests they view him as a starter, but they also made a big investment in the offensive line during the draft as well, giving up a 2020 2nd rounder to move up from 62 to 48 to select Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy. The hefty price the Saints were willing to pay suggests they had a first round grade on McCoy. Easton was signed at a time when the Saints, without a first round pick, didn’t think that McCoy would be available to them, but now with McCoy in the mix, Easton could easily end up as a reserve.

Even as a rookie, McCoy could be a better option. Not only he is a borderline first round talent, but Easton has struggled in 17 career starts and missed all of last season with a neck injury. Both have the versatility to play guard as well and whoever doesn’t win the position battle will serve as interior depth. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them start at left guard at some point this season, as left guard Andrus Peat is coming off of a down year, finishing 87th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF.

Peat has been better in the past though, finishing 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2017 and the first round pick can also outside to left tackle in a pinch, which is useful. The Saints clearly believe he can bounce back, keeping him on the roster at a non-guaranteed 9.625 million dollar salary for 2019. He dealt with numerous injuries last season, which could be why he struggled so much. Only in his age 26 season, Peat has obvious bounce back potential, but this could be his final season in New Orleans either way, in the final year of his rookie deal.

The strength of this offensive line is the tackle position, with left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramcyzk finishing 2nd and 6th respectively among tackles on PFF in 2018. Durability is a serious concern for Armstead though, as he’s played just 54 of a possible 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has never made it through all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. When on the field, Armstead is still one of the best offensive tackles in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in all 5 seasons as a starter, including a pair of seasons finishing in the top-3 at his position, and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He should continue playing at a high level again in 2019, but will likely miss time with injury again. Veteran backup Jermon Bushrod started in his absence last season, but he’s no longer on the roster, so they could move Peat to left tackle and start either Easton or McCoy at left guard if Armstead gets hurt again.

Ramcyzk, meanwhile, has made 31 of 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted 32nd overall in 2018. One of the best right tackles in the league from his first career start, Ramcyzk has finished 9th and 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively and could easily remain one of the top players at his position for years to come. He could potentially play left tackle if Armstead gets hurt again, but the Saints understandably seem hesitant to move from him a spot where he’s been so good in his career.

At right guard, Larry Warford remains locked in as the starter for the 3rd straight season. Signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, Warford has been worth it so far, finishing 24th among guards on PFF in 2017 and 32nd in 2018. He hasn’t matched any of his best seasons from his 4 years in Detroit yet, where he finished 6th at his position in 2013 and 13th at his position in 2016, but he’s settled in as an above average starter on a strong overall offensive line.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints didn’t have that many injuries overall last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, but were dealt a big loss when Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles in their post-season victory over the Eagles. Injuries are unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, so the Saints are unlikely to have to have as good of injury luck as they had last season and Rankins could easily miss the start of the season because he suffered the injury in mid-January. He’s unlikely to do anything this off-season and is very much a candidate to start the year on the physically unable to perform list, costing him at least the first 6 games.

Prior to the injury, Rankins was on his way to becoming one of the better interior defenders in the league. A first round pick in 2016, Rankins was limited to 335 rookie year snaps by a broken leg and did not play well when on the field, but he earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 810 snaps in 2017 and took his game to the next level in 2018, finishing 24th among interior defenders on PFF. Also a strong run stuffer, Rankins had 8 sacks, 6 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate on the season. It’s concerning that he’s suffered two major injuries in just 3 seasons in the league, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and still has a bright future. Even though it guarantees him 7.69 million for injury, picking up Rankins’ fifth year option for 2020 was an easy decision for the Saints this off-season

Tyeler Davison, a situational run stuffer who played 422 snaps and started next to Rankins in base packages last season, is no longer with the team, but the Saints did add depth at the position this off-season, signing veterans Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards, and Sylvester Williams. Brown was the most expensive signing, coming over from New England on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. The 2015 first round pick never developed as a pass rusher, with 8.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate for his career, but he’s an above average run stuffer who will fit in Davison’s old role nicely and he might still have some upside, still only in his age 25 season.

If Rankins misses time, situational pass rusher David Onyemata will be their top interior pass rusher. He already played heavily in sub packages last season, totalling 618 snaps on the season, and he was pretty effective, with 4.5 sacks, 1 hit, and an 8.1% pressure rate. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has gotten better in every season in the league and is set up for a big pay increase on his next contract, going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Sylvester Williams’ contract barely has any guaranteed money on it, so he’s not guaranteed a final roster spot, but if Rankins misses time early in the season he could make this team as a situational reserve. He could compete with 2018 undrafted free agent Taylor Stallworth, who flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but managed just a 1.6% pressure rate and played just 318 snaps, for a base package role in Rankins’ absence. Williams is experienced, with 63 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been better than an average starter and is now going into his age 31 season and coming off of a 2018 season in which he played just 376 mediocre snaps with the Lions and Dolphins. He’s not someone who moves the needle as a free agent addition.

Mario Edwards’ contract (4.7 million over 2 years) suggests he has more of a guaranteed role and the converted defensive end could play significant snaps early in the season as an interior pass rusher if Rankins is sidelined. A 2nd round pick in 2015 by the Raiders, Edwards flashed on 599 snaps as a rookie, but injuries have limited him in recent years and seem to have sapped his abilities, as he’s played just 743 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons since, even getting cut by the Raiders before final cuts last off-season and spending 2018 with the Giants, where he played just 232 snaps in a rotational role. He’s just a flyer for the Saints, but, only in his age 25 season, he’s worth a shot. Maybe he’ll see more snaps this season at defensive end, which he hasn’t played regularly since his rookie season in 2015. The Saints have solid depth at defensive tackle, but this is a much stronger unit with Rankins on the field and close to 100%, which is not a guarantee.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Saints lost starting defensive end Alex Okafor to the Chiefs in free agency this off-season and he finished 37th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 658 snaps in 2018, but they have some young players ready to step up in his absence. Marcus Davenport, who the Saints gave up the 27th overall pick in 2018 and the 30th overall pick in 2019 to move up and select 14th overall in 2018, is expected to be the new starter, after flashing on 416 snaps as a rookie.

The Saints also have 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson, who has played just 417 career snaps, but has shown himself to be deserving of a larger role. He has just 2 sacks in 2 seasons in the league, but has added 6 hits and has a 10.3% pressure rate. He could have a mini breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in a larger role. Davenport obviously has plenty of breakout potential as well, after managing 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate as a part-time player as a rookie.

In addition to adding hybrid defensive lineman Mario Edwards, who could see snaps at defensive end, the Saints also signed ex-Panther Wes Horton, although his contract barely has any guaranteed money and he has not played at a high level in 6 seasons in the league. Strictly a situational pass rusher, Horton has just 15.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate in 77 career games and finished last season as PFF’s 112nd edge defender out of 113 qualifying. He doesn’t add much to this group and shouldn’t be considered a lock for the final roster.

Cameron Jordan remains locked in as their top edge defender and gets a nice 3-year, 52.5 million dollar extension this off-season, despite having 2 years and 19 million left on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal he signed in 2015. He’s well worth the big money, finishing in the top-6 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons. He’s totalled 62.5 sacks, 70 hits, and an 11.7% pressure rate in the past 6 seasons and has gotten better as a run stuffer as the years have gone on. Even in his age 30 season, he should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. He’s probably the Saints’ best defensive player overall and he leads a still talented group even after the departure of Alex Okafor.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Saints bring back all three starting linebackers, middle linebacker Demario Davis and outside linebackers AJ Klein and Alex Anzalone. Davis led the way with 877 snaps last season. A 7-year veteran, Davis was just an average starter in his first 5 seasons in the league (66 starts), but he has proven to be a little bit of a late bloomer, finishing 22nd and 4th among off ball linebackers in run defense grade on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018 respectively. He’s still not great in coverage and is much better moving forward than moving backwards, but he has also been a consistently good blitzer through his career, totalling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate on 775 career blitzes. Going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly improve in coverage, but he should remain a useful player for at least another couple seasons.

At outside linebacker, Klein outsnapped Anzalone 670 to 487 last season, but they were working in close to an even split down the stretch (234 snaps for Klein in the final 6 games of the season, as opposed to 239 for Anzalone). Anzalone is the better player, especially in coverage, and could easily outsnapp Klein in 2019, in his third NFL season. Anzalone went in the 3rd round in 2017 and flashed on 158 rookie year snaps as well, before going down with a season ending shoulder injury.

Shoulder problems have plagued him since college and could become an issue again in the future, but he had the talent to be a first round pick if not for medical concerns and he played all 16 games in 2018. He has breakout potential this season if he can continue staying healthy. Klein, meanwhile, is best as a situational run stuffer. Veteran Craig Robertson, who has been adequate in 64 career starts, is also in the mix, but he played a career low 90 snaps in 2018 will likely remain in a pure depth role behind a solid group of starters.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Saints also frequently line up in nickel packages, which limits snaps for their linebackers. Not only do they frequently use 3 cornerbacks, but they also use 3 safeties more than most, with 3rd safety Kurt Coleman playing 359 snaps last season. Coleman struggled, finishing 85th out of 101 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, and is no longer with the team. He could be replaced with 4th round rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a versatile 5-11 210 pound defensive back who surprisingly fell in the draft. He can play deep safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker and could easily have a situational role as a rookie.

The 5-11 210 pound Vonn Bell can also play some linebacker. The 2016 2nd round pick has improved in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 26th ranked safety, excelling against the run. He’ll continue to start next to Marcus Williams, who plays as the deep safety. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams had a great rookie year, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but fell to 32nd at his position in his 2nd season in the league. He has obvious bounce back potential though and his best days could easily still be ahead of him, going into just his age 23 season. He could easily be one of the best safeties in the league over the next few seasons.

Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Saints for much of last season, until they acquired Eli Apple from the Giants for a 2019 4th round pick and 2020 7th round pick. Apple started all 10 games and played 609 snaps total after being acquired. He wasn’t great, but he was an upgrade over Ken Crawley and PJ Williams, who finished 124th and 115th respectively out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 409 snaps and 693 snaps respectively. Crawley was better in 2017, finishing among 28th cornerbacks in 13 starts, but he’s a former undrafted free agent and one-year wonder, while Apple is a former 10th overall pick who still has a big upside, only going into his age 24 season. He’ll likely remain the starter and could take a step forward. He had issues with his coaching staff in New York, but he could prove to be a steal for the Saints.

The Saints also get slot cornerback Patrick Robinson back from injury. They signed him to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping he’d put this defense over the top, but he was limited to just 110 snaps in 3 games by a season ending ankle injury. In addition to the injury concern, Robinson is also heading into his age 32 season and has been wildly inconsistent in 9 years in the league, including 5 seasons with the Saints from 2010-2014 after they drafted him in the first round.

Robinson finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, which is why the Saints signed him to a significant contract, but his 2nd highest ranked season in his career was his 2011 season, in which he finished 26th at his position. During his dominant 2017 season, Robinson was playing on a veteran’s minimum contract with no guaranteed money after an awful 2016 season in which he finished 110th out of 132 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. An aging career journeyman who is capable of high and low levels of play, it’s unclear what the Saints are going to get from Robinson in 2019, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over PJ Williams, who was their primary slot cornerback in 2019.

Marshon Lattimore remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. Selected 11th overall in 2017, Lattimore won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished 8th at his position on PFF, but he wasn’t quite as good in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 26th at his position. Lattimore is still only in his age 23 season and obviously has a massive ceiling, so he could easily bounce back this season and could be one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. If the Saints get a full season from Eli Apple and Patrick Robinson and bounce back years from Lattimore and Marcus Williams, this would be a much improved unit.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Unless Drew Brees’ play falls off a cliff, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl in 2019. Some regression from Brees wouldn’t be a surprise, but this team is talented enough to get by with less than Brees’ best and they don’t have an obvious weak spot on paper. It’s very possible the Saints will end up as my pick to win it all this season and they should at least repeat as NFC South Champions, even with every other team in the division looking likely to be better this season than last. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Team Score: 78.30

Offensive Score: 80.03

Defensive Score: 76.56

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Atlanta Falcons 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons made it all the way to the Super Bowl during the 2016 season, coming about as close to winning a Super Bowl as you can without actually winning it, lead by a dynamic offense that not only ranked #1 in the NFL in first down rate, but did so by a wide margin (3.20%). That allowed the Falcons to finish 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77%, despite finishing 27th in first down rate allowed. In 2017, their offense was merely good instead of the dominant unit they were in 2016, finishing 5th in first down rate differential, and their defense did not improve significantly (25th in first down rate allowed), so they finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%. They qualified for the post-season again, but couldn’t go on a long run like they did the previous year.

In 2018, the Falcons’ offense once again played well, finishing 9th in first down rate, but their injury plagued defense finished among the worst in the league, allowing the 2nd highest first down rate in the league. As a result, the Falcons finished 21st in first down rate differential at -1.62% and missed the post-season entirely, finishing with a 7-9 record overall. The Falcons could easily have better health on defense this season, but that alone won’t make them a strong unit, so the Falcons’ offense will have to lead the way again.

Fortunately for the Falcons, their offense hasn’t made major changes in recent years, with 7 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in their Super Bowl appearance still in the starting lineup. Three of the four who are not (slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, right tackle Ryan Schreader, and right guard Chris Chester) have been replaced with recent first round draft picks. The Falcons used their first round pick in 2018 on wide receiver Calvin Ridley to replace Gabriel and then in 2019 they used their first round pick on right guard Chris Lindstrom and then traded up into the end of the first round to select right tackle Kaleb McGary.

Most importantly, Matt Ryan is still the quarterback of this team. Drafted 3rd overall in 2008, Ryan has been a starter since week 1 of his rookie year and has made 174 of a possible 176 starts in 11 seasons in the league. For his career, he’s completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 295 touchdowns, and 133 interceptions, while finishing in the top-7 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 of 11 seasons in the league. His last 3 seasons have arguably been his best 3-year stretch, as he’s completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. Ryan is going into his age 34 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and could easily continue playing at a high level into his late 30s like other quarterbacks have.

Ryan hasn’t missed a game since 2009 and his consecutive starts streak of 147 is the 2nd longest active streak by a quarterback, but on the off chance they need him, their backup quarterback is long-time veteran Matt Schaub. Schaub has 92 career starts and was a solid starter in his prime, but he hasn’t started since 2015 and his last successful stretch as a starter came in 2012. He’s also going into his age 38 season and might not have anything left in the tank. Without another option on the roster, Schaub would start if Ryan went down, which would obviously be a huge blow to this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Falcons used a pair of first round picks on offensive linemen this year, taking guard Chris Lindstrom 14th overall and tackle Kaleb McGary 31st overall. Considering they had to give up their 2nd and 3rd round picks to move up to 31 and didn’t pick again until the 4th round, the Falcons committed a huge chunk of their draft capital to the offensive line. Right tackle Ryan Schreader was merely average in 2018 and none of the five players who started at guard (Zane Beadles, Andy Levitre, Brandon Fusco, Wes Schweitzer, and Ben Garland) stood out, but the offensive line didn’t seem like a big need going into the draft, especially after the Falcons signed veterans James Carpenter (4 years, 21 million) and Jamon Brown (3 years, 18.75 million) and re-signed reserve Ty Sambrailo (3 years, 14.25 million) this off-season. All three players are paid like starters.

Instead, the Falcons will likely start rookies at right guard and right tackle, leaving left guard as the only open job. Carpenter and Brown will compete for that role in training camp. Sambrailo can also play some guard as well, in addition to right tackle, but he’ll likely serve as versatile depth. Carpenter has the most experience of the bunch, starting 97 games in 8 seasons in the league, but his play has fallen off in recent years, earning below average grades from Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, and he’s now going into his age 30 season.

Brown is still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, but the 2015 3rd round pick hasn’t put it together consistently yet. After flashing in limited action early in his career, Brown earned an average grade from PFF in 16 starts in 2017, but he was suspended for the first 2 games of the season in 2018 and ended up losing his job and eventually his roster spot. He resurfaced with the Giants later in the season, but struggled in 8 starts in New York. Sambrailo, meanwhile, was a bust as a 2015 2nd round pick in Denver, where he struggled on just 450 snaps in 2 seasons, but he’s been better as a spot starter with the Falcons over the past 2 seasons. He’ll likely remain in that role in 2019.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack remain locked into starting roles. Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has made 79 of 80 starts at left tackle since entering the league. After struggling as a rookie, Matthews has earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-13 at his position and a 2018 season in which he finished a career best 9th. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing at a high level in 2019.

Mack has also played at a high level for several years, earning an above average grade from PFF in 10 seasons in the league (149 starts), including 8 seasons in the top-10 among centers. Mack still finished 3rd at his position in 2018, but his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 34 season. He could continue being an above average starter for another couple seasons, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see his play fall off in 2019. Even a slight decline from Mack could hurt this offensive line, given how well he’s played in recent years. Despite all of their off-season additions, the Falcons’ offensive line might not be much better in 2019 unless one or both of their rookies have a major immediate impact and it could be worse if Mack doesn’t play like he usually does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One aspect of Atlanta’s offense that should be better in 2019 is their running game. They averaged a 4.48 yards per carry average in 2018, 13th in the NFL, but that’s skewed by a few long runs. Top back Tevin Coleman ranked just 37th in the NFL in carry success rate among 47 qualifying running backs, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on the season, but accumulating 48.5% of his rushing yardage on his 15 longest carries. Backup running back Ito Smith, meanwhile, averaged just 3.50 yards per carry on 90 carries. Neither running back consistently kept the offense on schedule, which is a disappointment on an offense with so much talent around the running back position. The Falcons also had one of the biggest pass/run splits in the league last season, with 659 pass plays and 351 run plays.

Fortunately, the Falcons get Devonta Freeman back healthy, after he was limited to just 14 carries in 2 games by injuries last season. Freeman finished the 2017 season 9th in carry success rate, while averaging 4.41 yards per carry and scoring 7 times on 196 carries. In 3 seasons as a starter prior to last season’s injury plagued season, he averaged 4.37 yards per carry with 29 touchdowns on 687 carries, while adding another 1,357 yards and 6 scores through the air on 163 catches. He missed just 3 games in his first 4 seasons in the league before 2018, so he doesn’t have a huge injury history, and in his age 27 season he’s not totally over the hill for a running back. Freeman has obvious bounce back potential in 2019.

The Falcons usually like to use two backs in tandem, giving backup Tevin Coleman an average of 9.03 carries per game from 2015-2017, despite Freeman running well ahead of him. Coleman signed with the 49ers this off-season, so Freeman may have to carry a little bit more of the load, but I would see expect whoever wins the #2 back job to have a role. Ito Smith is probably the favorite for the job, despite his miserable 2018 season, because he was a 4th round pick in 2018 and has the upside to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. His biggest competition will be 5th round rookie Qadree Ollison and 2017 5th round pick Brian Hill, who has just 34 touches in two seasons in the league. Depth is a concern here, so the Falcons really need Freeman to stay healthy this year.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even with Freeman returning, this will still be a pass heavy team. Not only do they have a great quarterback, but they legitimately go three deep at wide receiver with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley, and starting tight end Austin Hooper is a solid receiver as well. All four of those players topped 650 yards receiving in 2018 and all four return in 2019. Ridley is the newest addition of the group, added with the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie, putting up a 64/821/10 slash line, despite being the third receiver. His 1.77 yards per route run average was 37th among qualifying wide receivers and his 124.4 QB rating when targeted was 8th. He’s earned a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league and has obvious breakout potential if he becomes an every down player. He should open the season as the #2 opposite Julio Jones.

Julio Jones will continue being Ryan’s most frequent target. He’s been one of the most targeted receivers in the league over the past 3 seasons, with 447 total targets, 4th in the NFL. He also ranks 6th in catches (284) and 1st in yardage (4,530) over that time period and has averaged a league leading 3.03 yards per route run. A top-5 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons and arguably the top receiver in the entire league, Jones is going into his age 30 season and could begin to decline in the next couple years, but he should still be among the league’s leaders in receiving yardage in 2019. He’s owed just 21.026 million over the final 2 seasons of his contract, but he’s fully expected to get a long-term extension this off-season that pays him among the highest paid wide receivers in the league.

Mohamed Sanu started all 16 games opposite Jones last season, but could be more of a slot specialist in 2019 if Ridley plays a bigger role. Sanu has averaged a 64/731/4 slash line in 3 seasons in Atlanta and he’s been even better than that suggests, catching 70.8% of his targets with just 8 drops total, earning him an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. Already a better real life player than fantasy player, Sanu’s numbers could take a bit of a hit this season if he plays a smaller role, but he’s still a great 3rd receiver to have. He’s going into his age 30 season, which is a bit of a concern, but assuming he continues to give them solid play, this is one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL. They’ll play the vast majority of the wide receiver snaps, with Justin Hardy (76 career catches in 4 seasons in the league) likely coming in during 4-wide receiver sets.

Tight end Austin Hooper will be a significant part of this passing game again. He’s not a great receiver, but finished 7th among tight ends in receiving yards and 4th in catches last season with a 71/660/4 slash line and he is an adequate blocker as well. His well-roundness allows him to be an every down player and his 809 snaps played in 2018 ranked 9th among tight ends. The 2016 3rd round pick has improved in every season in the league and could easily take another step forward, still not even turning 25 until October. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate for a big pay increase on a long-term extension.

Logan Paulsen played 362 snaps as the #2 tight end and blocking specialist in 2018, but the Falcons signed Luke Stocker in free agency and his contract (5.5 million over 2 years), suggests he’ll have a role over Paulsen. Both are very similar players, blocking tight ends who don’t contribute much in the passing game. Paulsen has 91 career catches in 120 career games, while Stocker has 68 career catches in 99 career games. Stocker flashed as a receiver down the stretch last season, forced into action for a banged up Tennessee team and averaging 1.50 yards per route run on 110 routes, probably part of why the Falcons felt he would be an upgrade on Paulsen, but Stocker is going into his age 31 season and his 9th season in the league, so I don’t expect him to suddenly break out as a receiving threat. Whoever wins the #2 tight end job will have a minimal role in this passing game, especially with so many other reliable targets on the team.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the Falcons’ defense dealt with a lot of injury absences last season. In terms of adjusted games lost, they “only” had the 8th most, but most of the absent players were among their best defensive players, including linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, who all spent time on injured reserve. Those injuries couldn’t be overcome, as they finished the season 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.13%.

The Falcons should be better defensively in 2019, with better health, but there are still a lot of concerns on this defense, which hasn’t played well in recent years, even when healthy. In 2017, they had the 8th fewest points allowed, but that was primarily because they faced the fewest drives in the league, ranking 18th in points per drive allowed. They were strong in the red zone, allowing the 2nd lowest red zone touchdown percentage in the league, but struggled between the 20s, finishing 25th in first down rate allowed. Even in their Super Bowl year, they ranked just 27th in first down rate allowed and points per game allowed.

Their biggest problem is their defensive line. The Falcons had the 2nd worst pressure rate in the league last season, despite their defensive line staying relatively healthy. Despite that, the Falcons didn’t do much to improve this unit during the off-season, with limited cap space to work with in free agency and most of their draft capital going to the offensive line. The Falcons were targeting Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins at 14, but he went one spot earlier to the Dolphins, forcing the Falcons to settle for Chris Lindstrom instead.

Wilkins would have made a nice duo inside with Grady Jarrett, who is easily their best defensive lineman. Just a 5th round pick back in 2015, Jarrett has improved in every season in the league and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked interior defender in 2018. He finished 16th in 2017, but only had 4 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate. In 2018, he took his game to the next level as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 11 hits, and an 11.4% pressure rate. Even though he rushes from the interior, he still might be this team’s most effective pass rusher and he’s a dominant run stuffer as well. The Falcons couldn’t afford to lose him as a free agent this off-season, so they kept him on a 15.209 million dollar franchise tag and are working on a long-term deal. Expect him to end up among the highest paid interior defenders in the league (15-18 million annually).

In base packages, the Falcons will start either second year player Deadrin Senat or free agent acquisition Tyler Davison next to Jarrett. Davison was a 5th round pick by the Saints in 2015 and has developed into a solid run stuffer in the past two seasons, but he doesn’t generate any pass rush, with 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 3.9% pressure rate in his career. Senat is a similar player, but the 2018 3rd round pick has more upside. He didn’t have a sack as a rookie and managed just a 5.0% pressure rate, but he flashed as a run stuffer and has the higher ceiling overall. Both players will likely see snaps, but I would expect Senat to end up as the nominal starter.

Converted defensive end Jack Crawford is also in the mix as a sub package interior rusher. Crawford was an underwhelming player in his first 6 seasons in the league, but the 6-5 288 pounder seemed a lot more comfortable inside with the Falcons last season, generating 6 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder going into his age 31 season, but he could prove to be a late bloomer, now at a position where he seems to fit better. The Falcons don’t have bad depth after Jarrett, but Jarrett is their only defensive tackle who can play every down.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The one addition the Falcons did make on the defensive line through the draft was 4th round pick John Cominsky. He comes from Division II Charleston College, but could still have a role as a rookie. He’s raw as a pass rusher, but has the size at 6-5 287 to have a base package role. That’s needed because the Falcons’ top two edge defenders Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are undersized at 6-3 246 and 6-2 255 respectively and do not hold up well against the run.

McKinley is at least a solid pass rusher, leading the team with 7 sacks in 2018, while adding 9 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. The 2017 1st round pick also flashed on 401 rookie year snaps and could take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Vic Beasley is also a former first round pick, going 8th overall in 2015, but he hasn’t played like one recently. He led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016, but even that season he wasn’t that great, adding just 4 hits and with an 11.2% pressure rate, while struggling mightily against the run. He finished 22nd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus that season, solid, but not what his sack total would suggest.

In the two seasons since, he has just 10 total sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate, while continuing to struggle against the run. His 23 missed tackles over the past 2 seasons lead his position and he finished dead last among edge defenders overall on PFF in 2018. The Falcons still believe in him, keeping him on his 5th year option at a 12.81 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, and he’s still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, but he’s far from a guarantee to bounce back as a pass rusher.

The Falcons also added Adrian Clayborn to the mix in free agency, welcoming back a player who played for the Falcons from 2015 to 2017, before spending 2018 in New England. Clayborn has good size at 6-3 280, but is just a situational pass rusher and has never played the run well. He had a strong year rushing the passer in 2017, with 9.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate, but that’s an outlier when you look at his career. In 8 seasons in the league, he’s totalled 32.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate. Last season in New England, he could barely get on the field, playing just 318 snaps total, after averaging 554 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta. He could play a larger role in 2019 now back with the Falcons, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is unlikely to come close to the kind of pass rush production he had in 2017. Only signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract, he doesn’t fix the Falcons’ defensive line problems.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Probably the Falcons’ biggest injury loss last season was middle linebacker Deion Jones, who missed 10 games with a foot injury and was replaced by 6th round rookie Foyesade Oluokun, an obvious downgrade. In the 10 games Jones missed, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 44.23% rate, as opposed to 36.36% in the 6 games Jones played. That’s still middle of the pack and, as mentioned earlier, the Falcons have struggled defensively in recent years even with Jones healthy, but there’s no denying that Jones’ return will be big for this defense.

In Jones’ last healthy season in 2017, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked off ball linebacker, in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and, still only in his age 25 season, he has the upside to be one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s another player the Falcons need to figure out how to keep long-term.

In Jones’ absence, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell had to take on more responsibilities on defense and he struggled, finishing 68th out of 96 qualifying linebackers on PFF, especially struggling in coverage. A reliable tackler and run stuffer, the 2016 4th round pick has been better in the past and could bounce back with Jones now healthy again, but he’s a middling starter at best. He’ll continue to play close to an every down role, for lack of a better option.

Duke Riley opened last season as the 3rd linebacker, playing only in base packages, and he briefly took on a larger role after Jones went down, but he struggled mightily, which is when the Falcons turned to Foyesade Oluokun and moved Riley back into the 3rd linebacker role. Despite being a 3rd round pick in 2017, Riley has shown very little in 2 seasons in the league, struggling as a rookie, getting benched, and playing 224 snaps total, and then finishing 90th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on 408 snaps last season. He could easily lose his base package job to Oluokun, who was close to an every down linebacker for a stretch last season and held up better than most 6th round rookies would have. This is a much better group with Jones healthy, but there are still some concerns.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons also get week 1 starting safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal back from injury, after going down with a torn ACL during week 1 and a torn Achilles during week 3 respectively. Damontee Kazee played well in their absence, finishing 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but at the other safety spot both Jordan Richards and Sharrod Nesman, a pair of career special teamers, were both underwhelming.

Neal was the bigger absence, as the 2016 1st round pick finished 21st and 17th among safeties in his first 2 seasons in the league and likely would have had a similar season in 2018 if not for the injury, but Allen is a big re-addition as well, as he made 45 starts from 2015-2017 and earned average or better grades from PFF in all 3 seasons. It’s possible they aren’t 100% in their first games back, but they should still be a good safety duo.

With Allen and Neal back, Damontee Kazee is expected to move to slot cornerback, where he’ll replace Brian Poole, who wasn’t bad on an average of 766 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta, but was still non-tendered by the Falcons this off-season as a restricted free agent. Kazee is a one-year wonder, playing just 165 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, and could prove to be better at safety than cornerback, but cornerback is actually his natural position, so he’s an obvious fit on the slot now that the Falcons’ starting safeties are back healthy.

The Falcons are also replacing outside cornerback Robert Alford, who finished 114th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season, making him an easy release at an 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Second year cornerback Isaiah Oliver will take over his starting spot, after flashing on 240 snaps as a rookie, and he has the upside to be a big upgrade on Alford. He’s unproven, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Alford was last season. The Falcons also added cornerbacks in the 4th and 5th rounds of the 2019 draft, taking Ohio State’s Kendall Sheffield and Washington’s Jordan Miller, but neither one is expected to have much of a rookie year role.

Desmond Trufant remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. He’s coming off of a bit of a down year, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (88 starts), with his best seasons coming in 2013 (11th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2014 (11th), and 2016 (20th), and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He could easily bounce back in 2019. With Trufant likely being better in 2019, Isaiah Oliver likely upgrading on Robert Alford, and both of their starting safeties running from injury, this should be a much improved group in 2019.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons’ passing game was one of the best in the league in 2018, but an inconsistent running game and a terrible defense kept them out of the playoffs. With starting running back Devonta Freeman and a trio of key defenders in Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal all set to return, the Falcons could easily be a playoff team again in 2019. Injuries are almost certain to happen and the Falcons didn’t have a ton of injuries overall in 2018, with the 16th most adjusted games lost to injury, but if injuries strike less critical players in 2019 they could still compete. I wish they would have focused more on this defensive line rather than their offensive line in the draft and the 12.81 million they are giving to Vic Beasley could probably have been spent in better ways, but this is still a pretty talented roster overall. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Team Score: 76.37

Offensive Score: 78.44

Defensive Score: 74.30

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Buccaneers used the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Jameis Winston, they were expecting him to develop into a franchise quarterback that could get them back to the post-season. Winston has had stretches of that level of play, but he’s also missed time with injury and suspension and has been very inconsistent, even getting benched for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick on a couple occasions last season. Overall, Winston has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 88 touchdowns, and 58 interceptions in 54 career starts, while fumbling 15 times, most in the NFL by a quarterback over the past 4 seasons combined.

Winston played well in his second stint as the starter last season, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 7 games, but he entered this off-season with a lot of uncertainty. Not only was Winston owed a non-guaranteed 20.922 million in 2019, a steep increase from the first 4 seasons of his career, but the Buccaneers also fired head coach Dirk Koetter at the end of the season, creating additional uncertainty.

The Buccaneers’ head coach hire ended up being about the best that Winston could have hoped for though, with the Buccaneers hiring ex-Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. Not only is Arians a proven NFL head coach, but he’s a big fan of Winston’s talent and runs an offense that can take advantage of his deep passing ability. The Buccaneers let Ryan Fitzpatrick go this off-season and didn’t make a significant addition at quarterback, only signing Blaine Gabbert, who was a backup quarterback with Bruce Arians the Cardinals in 2017. Winston’s contract status is still uncertain in 2020 and beyond, but for 2019 this is his starting job completely.

Still only going into his age 25 season, Winston breakout potential is obvious, but it’s far from certain and, unlike last season, they don’t have a good alternative if Winston struggles, like they did last season with Ryan Fitzpatrick. In fact, the Buccaneers’ offense moved more effectively last season with Fitzpatrick as the starter than with Winston, with a 43.61% first down rate in the 5 games Fitzpatrick started and finished and a 40.15% first down rate in the 8 games Winston started and finished (in the other 3 games one was benched for the other).

Fitzpatrick had a higher interception rate at 4.8% compared to 3.7%, but Winston has been one of the most interception prone quarterbacks in the league over his 4-year career, as his 3.0% interception rate is 2nd worst in the NFL over that stretch. If Winston doesn’t improve on that this season, the Cardinals will only have Blaine Gabbert (71.7 QB rating in 48 career starts) to turn to. This is as close to a boom or bust situation as any team has at quarterback.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The biggest reason why the Buccaneers’ offense was effective last season (41.23% first down rate on the season, 4th in the NFL) was the play of the receiving corps more than the play of the quarterbacks. The Buccaneers legitimately went 4 deep at wide receiver and 2 deep at tight end and had 5 pass catchers top 550 receiving yards. They couldn’t keep everyone together this off-season though, trading wide receiver DeSean Jackson (41/774/4 in 12 games) to the Eagles in what amounted to a salary dump and losing slot receiver Adam Humphries (76/816/5 in 16 games) to the Tennessee Titans on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal.

With Jackson and Humphries gone, it’s a prime opportunity for Chris Godwin to breakout in his 3rd season in the league. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin has 93 catches for 1367 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league, despite not being an every snap player. He’s averaged 1.93 yards per route run and in his 7 career starts he has a total of 23 catches for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns (53/990/7 extrapolated over 16 games). A freak athlete with a massive upside, Godwin is still only going into his age 23 season and could easily have a breakout 2019 season as an every down player. He’s expected to move to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, playing the Larry Fitzgerald/Hines Ward role in Arians’ offense.

Mike Evans will likely still remain the team’s leading receiver, after leading the way with a 86/1524/8 slash line in 2018. That’s a new career high in yardage for Evans, but he’s far from a one-year wonder, averaging a 79/1221/8 slash line in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted 7th overall in 2014. Still only in his age 26 season, Evans should continue producing at a high level in 2019. His 17.7 yards per catch average last season was the highest in the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches, which makes him a great fit for Arians’ downfield offense.

The Buccaneers don’t have much receiver depth behind Evans and Godwin though and lack a clear third receiver. Breshad Perriman is their only veteran option and the most likely candidate to play in 3 wide sets. A former first round pick bust with the Ravens, averaging just 5.70 yards per target with 9 drops on 101 targets in 2 seasons in Baltimore, Perriman flashed down the stretch last season with the Browns, catching 15 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. The Buccaneers took a flier on him this off-season in hopes he can continue that. His blazing speed makes him an intriguing fit in this offense and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he might not be anything more than a situational deep threat. He’ll face competition from 2018 5th round pick Justin Watson, who played just 73 snaps as a rookie, and 6th round rookie Scott Miller, who has earned positive reviews this off-season.

The Buccaneers could run more two tight end sets to mask their lack of depth at wide receiver. Leading the way at the position is OJ Howard, someone Jameis Winston didn’t have the benefit of having down the stretch last season, as Howard missed the final 6 games with injury. He was one of the better receiving tight ends in the league before getting hurt, with a 48/565/5 slash line in 10 games, which extrapolates to 77/904/8 over a full 16 game season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end overall and finished 3rd among tight ends with 2.26 yards per route run. The 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard also flashed as a receiver as a rookie in limited action, finishing 6th among tight ends with 1.85 yards per route run. As long as he stays healthy, Howard could also have a breakout third season in the league in 2019.

Cameron Brate is the #2 tight end and he was surprisingly kept this off-season, despite a 7 million dollar salary that didn’t guarantee until the middle of march, which suggests they have a role for him. Brate is coming off of a down year, with a 30/289/6 slash line and just 13 catches for 130 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without OJ Howard, but he had slash lines of 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 in 2016 and 2017 respectively and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He likely won’t match those numbers behind OJ Howard, but he’s a good #2 tight end to have, especially near the end zone (20 touchdowns in 3 seasons). Even without DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, the Buccaneers still have a talented receiving corps.

Grade: A

Running Backs

It’s impressive that the Buccaneers’ offense was able to be as productive as it was in 2018 without much of a running game. While their passing game ranked 2nd in the NFL with 8.20 yards per pass play, their running game ranked 2nd worst in the NFL with 3.92 yards per run play. The Buccaneers didn’t add more talent at the position this off-season, but lack of talent wasn’t their problem last season. Lead back Peyton Barber averaged just 3.72 yards per carry, but that was primarily the fault of his blocking, as he broke 43 tackles and averaged 2.68 yards per carry after contact on 234 carries, giving him the 25th best elusive rating in the NFL. For his career, he has 62 broken tackles and averages 2.62 yards per carry after contact on 397 carries in 3 seasons in the league, despite an underwhelming 3.82 YPC average overall.

The Buccaneers also have 2018 38th overall pick Ronald Jones, who is plenty talented, but had a terrible rookie year. Originally seen as a potential rookie year starter, Jones didn’t impress during the off-season and ended up rushing for just 44 yards on 23 carries, but he still doesn’t even turn 22 until this August and he has the talent to make a 2nd year leap in a bigger role. At the very least, he’ll be more involved as a receiver, with passing down back Jacquizz Rodgers no longer with the team and Peyton Barber not doing much in passing situations (20 catches for 92 yards in 2018). The Buccaneers could add a veteran to the mix (retaining Rodgers is one option) if Jones continues struggling this off-season, but for now Jones has every opportunity to earn a role, with no other proven backs on the roster.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Despite the Buccaneers’ issues in run blocking in 2018, they didn’t do anything to improve their offensive line. They weren’t a bad group in pass protection and they return all 5 of their week 1 starters from 2018, but there are still some positions of concern upfront. The biggest one is right guard, where Caleb Benonoch made all 16 starts, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked guard out of 88 qualifying. A 5th round pick in 2016, Benonoch struggled in 6 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league as well and is probably best off as a reserve going forward.

Benonoch will face competition from 2018 3rd round pick Alex Cappa, who struggled in 106 rookie year snaps, and Evan Smith, who was a solid starter in his prime, but has made just 13 starts in the past 4 seasons combined and is now in his age 33 season. Cappa has the most upside of the group and is likely the favorite for the job, after the Division 2 product essentially spent his rookie season as a redshirt. Barring a breakout season from Cappa, this will likely remain a position of weakness in 2019.

Center was also a position of weakness for the Buccaneers last off-season. The Buccaneers thought they’d get a high level of play at the position after signing ex-Ravens center Ryan Jensen to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency, but he ended up finishing 30th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in his first season in Tampa Bay. Jensen finished 11th among centers in 2018, but he’s a complete one-year wonder, making just 9 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to 2017, after going in the 6th round in 2013. He has some bounce back potential, but he was a massive overpay on a deal that makes him the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary.

Left guard Ali Marpet is the Buccaneers’ best offensive lineman. He has played center in the past, but the Buccaneers seem to prefer him at guard long-term. He’s finished in the top-9 among guards on PFF in his last 2 seasons at guard, with a season in which he finished 5th among centers sandwiched in between. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Marpet is still only in his age 26 season and could easily continue being one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The Buccaneers wisely locked him up long-term during the middle of his contract year in 2018, re-signing him for 54.125 million over 5 years.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was also set to hit free agency this off-season, but the Buccaneers locked him up long-term too, re-signing him to a 3-year, 41.25 million dollar deal ahead before the start of the new league year. Smith was also a 2nd round pick in that same 2015 draft, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as his classmate, earning middling grades from PFF in 64 career starts. He’s a solid pass protector, but isn’t much of a run blocker and his 40 penalties in the past 4 seasons are tied for the 2nd most by an offensive lineman over that time period. Left tackles don’t grow on trees and Smith could keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season, but, unless he takes a big step forward, this will likely end up being an overpay.

Right tackle DeMar Dotson bookends this offensive line opposite Smith. He had a solid season in 2018 and has earned average or better grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons (89 starts), maxing out at 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2013, but he’s going into his age 34 season, which is a major concern. He only finished 47th at his position in 2018 and could easily keep declining. It’s possible the Buccaneers view Alex Cappa, a collegiate tackle currently playing guard, as his long-term replacement at right tackle. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay. For now, they need him to continue holding up, as this underwhelming offensive line would be in trouble if he started struggling.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Buccaneers got good play from their offense in 2018, but struggled mightily on defense, which was the biggest reason why they had trouble winning games, ranking 30th in first down rate allowed at 40.98%. They were marginally better after canning defensive coordinator Mike Smith and making linebackers coach Mark Duffner their play caller, but they still finished with a 38.59% first down rate allowed in their final 11 games of the season after making the coordinator change.

Up against the cap, there wasn’t much the Buccaneers could do to significantly improve their stop unit this off-season, so they are banking that new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can get the most out of this unit. Bowles coordinated impressive units as Arians’ defensive coordinator from 2013-2014 with the Cardinals and was most recently head coach of the Jets for the past 4 seasons. He’ll transition this team to a base 3-4 defense.

In part because he wasn’t deemed a good scheme fit and in part because his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019 was a lot for a team with little cap flexibility, the Buccaneers released their longest tenured defensive player, 2010 3rd overall pick Gerald McCoy. McCoy was expensive and seemed to be on the decline ahead of his age 31 season, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked interior defender in 2018, earning an above average grade overall, making him one of the few bright spots on this defense.

The Buccaneers did a good job of replacing him though, immediately signing free agent Ndamukong Suh, who is cheaper (9.25 million on a one-year deal) and possibly a better scheme fit, after playing in a similar scheme with the Rams in 2018. Suh was actually the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he had a slightly better season than McCoy in 2018, finishing 28th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, and could easily do so again in 2019. Swapping the two could easily prove to be a smart move.

The player who benefits the most from the scheme change could be Vita Vea, a massive 6-4 347 pounder who will play on the nose in base packages. Vea isn’t just a pure nose tackle either, with 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 10.2% pressure rate on 255 pass rush snaps in 2018. He’ll likely stay on the field for most sub packages as well. The 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Vea has a ton of potential and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, after a solid debut season.

Veteran holdovers Beau Allen and William Gholston will compete for the 3rd base package job. Both are very underwhelming options. Gholston has been a hybrid defensive lineman on Tampa Bay’s 4-3 defense line since being drafted in the 4th round in 2013, but has managed just 11 sacks, 23 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 6 seasons in the league and hasn’t been much better against the run. He played 402 snaps last season and finished as PFF’s lowest ranked interior defender. The 6-6 281 pounder might be a better fit in a 3-4, but could easily have another poor season.

Beau Allen, meanwhile, is a career rotational player with 16 starts in 5 seasons in the league and a career high of 423 snaps in a season. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush either, with 2 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.4% pressure rate for his career. The big 6-3 327 pounder is probably a better fit for a base package role than Gholston. Whoever does not win the starting job will still be involved in a rotational role. The Buccaneers don’t have much depth behind Suh and Vea, especially lacking interior pass rushers.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

In addition to losing Gerald McCoy this off-season, the Buccaneers could also be without edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul for the entire season, after he suffered a neck injury in an off-season car accident. Unlike McCoy, they did not replace Pierre-Paul, as his injury did not occur until after free agency and the draft. He was given a 5-6 month timeframe, which could have him back by mid-season, but it’s not certain he’ll be able to play at all this season or if he would be 100% upon his return. His 12.5 sacks led the team in 2018 and, even though he’s going into his age 30 season and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good (8 hits and an 8.6% pressure rate), he’s still obviously a big loss, especially without another good pass rusher on this roster. In 9 seasons in the league, JPP has 71 sacks, 69 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate.

The Buccaneers did make some additions at this position this off-season even before Pierre-Paul got hurt, signing ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett in free agency and using a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Anthony Nelson. They’ll compete for roles with Carl Nassib, their top returning pass rusher, and Noah Spence, a 2016 2nd round pick who could be a better fit in the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme. Nassib isn’t great, but the former 2016 3rd round pick took a step forward in 2018, with 6.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate on 346 pass rush snaps, after struggling in his first 2 seasons in the league with the Browns, totaling 5.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.6% pressure rate. With Pierre-Paul hurt, Nassib is likely locked into a starting role. They’ll need him to continue developing and not regress to his pre-2018 form.

Shaq Barrett is probably the favorite to start opposite him. Barrett’s sack numbers (14 in 61 career games) don’t jump off the page, but he hasn’t even played half of the snaps in his career, stuck in a deep edge rotation in Denver. Also a strong run defender, Barrett has added 23 quarterback hits and 64 quarterback hurries on 833 career pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.1% pressure rate for his career. Only in his age 27 season, Barrett has breakout potential on a defense where he has a chance to be an every down player and he could prove to be a steal on a one-year, 4 million dollar contract.

Barrett and Nassib starting leaves Spence and Nelson in reserve roles. Spence came into the league with a lot of upside as the 39th overall pick in 2016 and flashed on 569 snaps as a rookie, but he’s played just 291 snaps in 2 seasons since, missing 10 games with injury in 2017 and being buried on the depth chart in 2018. Spence gained significant weight last off-season to hold up better against the run as a 4-3 defensive end, but the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme prioritizes athleticism for edge defenders over size, so he can go back down to a more natural weight this season. Spence is probably more comfortable playing in the 240-250 pound range than 260+ and he has the opportunity to earn a significant role in a thin position group. Nelson also brings some upside, but both he and Spence come with considerable downside as well. Depending on Pierre-Paul’s recovery, the Buccaneers could have a lot of trouble getting to the quarterback this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

With McCoy gone, linebacker Lavonte David becomes their longest tenured defensive player, joining the team as a 2nd round pick back in 2012. He’s made 105 starts in 7 seasons with the team and though he’s been up and down a little bit, he’s still finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 7 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th among off ball linebackers. The long-time outside linebacker will move to inside linebacker in the Buccaneers’ new 3-4 defense, but it should make much of a difference and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He’ll start inside next to 5th overall pick Devin White, who has a massive upside and the ability to be an every down player even as a rookie. He compares favorably to 2018 8th overall pick Roquan Smith.

The Buccaneers also added some veteran linebackers this off-season, taking flyers on a pair of former starters for Bruce Arians in Arizona, Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter. Bucannon was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2014 and finished 25th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, but injuries limited him to 38 games in the next 3 seasons combined and seemed to sap his abilities significantly. He fell all the way to 93rd among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in 2016 and finished 88th out of 96 qualifying on just 389 snaps in 2018, getting benched on one of the worst defenses in the league. Only in his age 27 season, he’s a worthwhile flyer, but he’s no guarantee to bounce back.

Minter, meanwhile, made all 32 starts for the Cardinals from 2015-2016 and played every down, but was underwhelming and has played just 218 snaps in 2 seasons since. He’s also a former high draft pick, going 45th overall in 2013, and he’s still relatively young in his age 29 season, but he’s never played well in coverage and shouldn’t be anything more than a situational run stuffer. With Devin White coming in, Bucannon and Minter will purely be reserves. This is a more talented and deeper linebacking corps than last season.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As bad as this defense was overall in 2018, the secondary was by far the Buccaneers’ worst defense unit in 2018. A lack of pass rush didn’t help, but the Buccaneers allowed quarterbacks to have a 110.9 QB rating against them last season. For comparison’s sake, that would have ranked 3rd in the NFL by a quarterback and is most similar to Russell Wilson’s QB rating. Essentially, the Buccaneers made the average quarterback they faced look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Injuries were part of the problem, but none of the players who got hurt were high level players and better health alone won’t improve this group significantly.

This is a young group though, so the Buccaneers are hoping multiple players can take steps forward in 2019. They also added cornerbacks in the 2nd round (Sean Bunting) and 3rd round (Jamel Dean) and a safety in the 3rd round (Mike Edwards). Adding more young players to an already young group might not be all that effective, but the Buccaneers didn’t have the financial flexibility to add veteran defensive backs in free agency and clearly wanted to add more talent to the group. The Buccaneers also didn’t retain veteran cornerback Brent Grimes. He led this secondary with 791 snaps played in 13 starts last season, but he is now going into his age 36 season and the Buccaneers seem to be fully embracing the youth movement in the secondary.

Rookie cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean will compete for roles with 2016 4th round pick Ryan Smith, 2016 1st round pick Vernon Hargreaves, and 2018 2nd round picks Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart. These positional battles will play out during training camp and the pre-season. Because they are recent high picks, Bunting, Dean, Davis and Stewart are all likely roster locks, meaning Smith and Hargreaves are likely competing for one cornerback spot, unless they plan on carrying 6 cornerbacks, which would be unusual.

Hargreaves missed almost all of 2018 with injury, playing just 53 snaps in 1 game, but his return isn’t exactly a boost for this secondary. Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he was underwhelming in his first 2 seasons in the league (23 starts) before last year’s injury plagued season. Only going into his age 24 season, Hargreaves still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league. The Buccaneers exercised his 5th year option for 2020, showing they haven’t given up on him yet, but that 9.954 million is only guaranteed for injury, so this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay if he doesn’t show signs of being a long-term starter. Hargreaves should be considered the favorite for a roster spot ahead of Smith, who has been underwhelming in 16 starts over the past 2 seasons, and Hargreaves could easily earn a starting role in an unsettled position group.

Davis and Stewart seem likely to earn roles as well. Stewart played just 301 snaps as a rookie, but that’s because he was limited to 8 games by injury, while Davis started 12 of the 13 games he played as a rookie. Both earned below average coverage grades from Pro Football Focus, but they have the talent to take a step forward in their 2nd season in the league. The two rookie cornerbacks could push them for their jobs, but both rookies are raw, so Davis and Stewart should at least play in 3 cornerback sets. Stewart is at his best on the slot, while Davis is a pure outside cornerback.

The Buccaneers are young at safety as well, where 2017 2nd round pick Justin Evans and 2018 4th round pick Jordan Whitehead led the way in terms of snaps and starts last season. Evans played well enough to keep his job and has the ability to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy (8 games missed in 2 seasons in the league), while Whitehead will likely face competition from rookie Mike Edwards and the lone veteran of the group, free agent acquisition Kentrell Brice.

Brice made 10 starts last season for the Packers, but he has just 14 career starts and has struggled in all 3 seasons in which he’s played, including a 2018 season in which he finished 95th out of 101 qualifying safeties on a career high 648 snaps, leading to him being non-tendered by the Packers this off-season. With Brice being an underwhelming option and Edwards likely too raw to make a huge impact as a rookie, Whitehead could easily remain the starter and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. The Buccaneers are banking on multiple breakout years from young defensive backs in 2019. If they don’t get that, they could have major issues against the pass again, especially with their top edge rusher out for the first half of the season at the least.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers were better than their record suggested in 2018 in terms of first down rate differential at +0.25% (16th in the NFL), going 5-11 primarily because of a -18 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, but the Buccaneers lost the more effective of the two quarterbacks who started last season and are still starting one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston, so they’ll likely have a negative turnover margin again and I don’t expect them to quite as effective at picking up first downs. They also don’t have quite the same receiving corps as last season and could struggle to run the ball again. If Jameis Winston can have the best season of his career in his 5th season in the league, this offense has plenty of upside, but the defense figures to struggle unless multiple young players break out.

They should have better health in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost in 2018, but they only have a few key players returning from serious injury and are already without top edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul possibly for the season due to a neck injury, which might be a more consequential absence than any they had last season. I like their head coach and defensive coordinator hire and it’s possible they play better than they look on paper with a strong coaching staff, but on paper this definitely looks like the worst team in the NFC South. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Team Score: 72.30

Offensive Score: 73.38

Defensive Score: 71.21

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Carolina Panthers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers started last season 6-2, but fell completely out of playoff contention, losing 7 straight games before winning week 17 against a Saints team that was resting starters for the playoffs in a meaningless game. Why they did fall off so suddenly? Well part of it was bad luck, as 5 of those 7 losses came by a touchdown or less, including 3 losses by a field goal or less and at least one loss came as a result of missed kicks.

Part of it was also a drop off in quarterback play. Cam Newton completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season, but he played the rest of the season through an injured shoulder, still completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 7.22 YPA, but totaling just 9 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his final 6 games, before being shut down for the season and replaced for the final two games of the season with backups Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, who weren’t better. Newton also ran significantly less down the stretch, with 73 carries for 342 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed to 28 carries for 146 yards and 0 touchdowns in his final 6 games.

Newton had surgery on that shoulder this off-season and there was originally some concern about his status for 2019, but his recovery has gone well and he has been cleared to throw at minicamp, meaning there’s no doubt about his week 1 status. If healthy, Newton has obvious bounce back potential in his age 30 season in 2019. In his career, he’s completed 59.7% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 182 touchdowns, and 107 interceptions, while adding 5.18 yards per carry and 58 touchdowns on 929 carries. His playing style seems like it would make him more susceptible to injury, but he’s missed just 6 starts in 8 seasons in the league. Assuming his shoulder issues are behind him, there’s no reason he can’t regain his old form in 2019.

The Panthers added additional insurance behind Newton when they took West Virginia quarterback Will Grier in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft this off-season. Also still on the roster are Heinicke and Allen, who combined to complete 61.3% of their passes for an average of 6.28 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in their first career starts in week 16 and week 17 respectively last season. Grier’s addition isn’t a good sign for their roster chances, but they will likely still have the opportunity to battle for a backup job. The Panthers are obviously hoping their backups don’t see the field in 2019.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Even when he was playing hurt, Cam Newton still was completing passes at a career best rate last season. His 67.9% completion percentage for the season exceeded his previous career high by a whopping 6.2%. The Panthers hired experienced play caller Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator last off-season and he made a deliberate effort to get Newton more short completions and to get the ball out of his hands quicker so he doesn’t take as many hits. That will obviously remain important with Newton coming off of shoulder surgery.

The biggest thing Turner did was making 2017 8th overall pick running back Christian McCaffrey a bigger part of the passing game. McCaffrey had a 80/651/6 receiving slash line as a rookie in 2017, but took things to the next level in 2018, leading this team in receptions (107), receiving yards (867), and receiving touchdowns (6), while catching 86.3% of the targets thrown his way and not dropping a single pass all season. That obviously had a big effect on Newton’s completion percentage.

McCaffrey also took his game to the next level as a runner, averaging 5.01 yards per carry and scoring 7 times on 219 carries, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and scoring 2 times on 117 carries as a rookie. Overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back overall. McCaffrey is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the high level he played at in 2018, but he has the talent to be one of the best all-around backs in the league for years to come, still only in his age 23 season.

In addition to having an every down back’s skill set, McCaffrey has the stamina to literally play almost every snap, playing 91.2% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in 2018, including 8 games where he played every single offensive snap. If he ever were to miss time with injury, the Panthers would likely turn to a timeshare of Cameron Artis-Payne, a 2015 5th round pick with 128 career touches, and 5th round rookie Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett has the talent to exceed his draft stock, falling primarily because of off-the-field issues, but the Panthers would obviously be in a lot of trouble if McCaffrey were to miss time with injury. As long as McCaffrey is healthy, don’t expect many available touches for backups.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

After McCaffrey, Cam Newton’s favorite target last season was #1 wide receiver DJ Moore, who finished with 55/788/2 slash line. That’s pretty impressive considering he didn’t become a starter until the 7th game of the season. From that point on, he had 42 catches for 597 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games, a 67/955/2 slash line extrapolated across 16 games. On the season, he averaged 1.81 yards per route run, 33rd in the NFL among qualifying wide receivers. The 24th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Moore has a huge upside and is still only going into his age 22 season. He could easily take another step forward in 2019, now locked in to a starting role.

The rest of the wide receiver depth chart is unsettled. Devin Funchess was 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season with a 44/549/4 slash line, but he signed with the Colts this off-season. Funchess was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and showed flashes of brilliance, but he never topped a 63/840/8 slash line in 4 seasons in Carolina and played just 94 snaps in 4 games after week 11 last season, after falling down the depth chart. It’s not a surprise that the Panthers didn’t bring him back this off-season.

Curtis Samuel was the beneficiary of Funchess’ reduced role down the stretch. After playing just 112 snaps through week 11, Samuel was close to an every down player in the final 6 games of the season, playing 355 snaps and catching 22 passes for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns. Over a 16 game season, that extrapolates to a 59/840/5 slash line. Samuel is still unproven with 54 total catches in 2 seasons in the league, but he went in the 2nd round in 2017 and could easily continue developing into a starting caliber receiver. He’s probably the favorite for the #2 receiver job in 2019.

The rest of this wide receiver group is all mediocre veterans, with Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright returning and Chris Hogan coming in as a free agent. Smith and Wright are going into their age 30 seasons, while Hogan is going into his age 32 season. Smith was once a feared deep threat, but he’s caught just 106 of 209 targets (50.7%) in the past 4 seasons, including just 11 catches as a situational deep threat in 2018. Wright actually set a career high in catches in 2018, but still only caught 43 passes and isn’t anything more than a slot specialist. Hogan, meanwhile, has never topped 41 catches in a season despite spending 3 seasons with Tom Brady. Wright’s ability on the slot makes him the favorite for the #3 receiver job, with Smith and Hogan serving as rotational reserves.

With a thin group at wide receiver, the Panthers could run more two tight end sets in 2019 to compensate. Tight end Greg Olsen used to be Newton’s favorite target, leading the team in receiving for 4 straight seasons from 2013-2016, including 1000+ yard seasons in 2014-2016, but injuries and age have caught up with him in recent years. He’s managed just 44 catches for 482 yards and 5 touchdowns combined in the past 2 seasons, while missing 16 of 32 games due to recurring foot problems. Now going into his age 34 season, his best days appear to be behind him, but he could remain a capable starter if he can stay on the field.

With Olsen out, Ian Thomas was the Panthers’ primary pass catching tight end in 2018, posting a 36/333/2 slash line on the season, including 28 catches for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 7 games Olsen missed. Thomas was only a rookie last season and the 4th round pick showed the potential to develop into a starting tight end long-term, but as long as Olsen is healthy he should play ahead of Thomas. The Panthers could use both at the same time to create mismatches and they also have pure blocking tight end Chris Manhertz (5 career catches) in the mix for snaps on run plays as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this receiving corps, so expect a heavy dose of checkdowns to Christian McCaffrey again in 2019.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Cam Newton already takes enough hits as ball carrier, so protecting him from taking additional hits in the pocket is obviously important, especially with Newton going into his 30s and coming off of shoulder surgery. The Panthers had pretty underwhelming offensive line play in 2018 though. They were better in 2017, but lost left guard Andrew Norwell in free agency last off-season and then lost both projected week 1 starting offensive tackles to season ending injuries, with left tackle Matt Kalil missing the entire season and right tackle Daryl Williams missing all but 56 week 1 snaps. Those injuries definitely didn’t help this offensive line, as they had to turn to mediocre veterans Chris Clark and Marshall Newhouse at left tackle and at right tackle they had to turn to Taylor Moton, who they were hoping would replace Norwell at left guard.

Matt Kalil is no longer with the team, but was never more than an average starter even when healthy. Clark and Newhouse weren’t terrible in Kalil’s absence last season, but neither one was re-signed this off-season, with the Panthers shooting higher at the left tackle position with 37th overall pick Greg Little, who they traded up to acquire. Little has first round upside, but work ethic concerns and a horrible combine performance dropped him to day 2. He profiles as a boom or bust prospect and might not necessarily be an upgrade as a rookie.

Daryl Williams, meanwhile, returns to the team on 1-year, 6 million dollar deal, after not finding a multi-year deal to his liking in free agency this off-season. Moton played well in his absence though, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, so Williams will kick inside to left guard. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Moton barely played as a rookie (70 snaps), but he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best right tackles in the league, still only in his age 25 season. If Little struggles on the blindside, it’s possible they flip their offensive tackles, but Moton might not be as good of a fit on the blindside, so that’s probably not something they want to do.

Williams wouldn’t be a great fit on the blindside either, but he has obvious bounce back potential at left guard if he can stay healthy. He was PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2017 before last year’s injury plagued season. A position change complicates matters and he’s only a one-year wonder, earning average grades from PFF in his other 3 seasons in the league (17 starts total), but he could easily be an above average starter at left guard in 2019. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Greg Van Roten, a 2012 undrafted free agent who was mediocre in the first 16 starts of his career in 2019. He’ll be a backup this season and would only see action if there’s an injury ahead of him on the depth chart.

The Panthers also have a new starter at center. The off-season retirement of long-term Panther Ryan Kalil, who made 145 starts in 12 seasons with the Panthers, left a big hole, but they filled it quickly in free agent with ex-Bronco center Matt Paradis, who comes in on a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it could easily prove to be a great value, as Paradis gets less annually than lesser players like Ryan Jensen and Mitch Morse have gotten in the past two off-seasons and he is only the 5th highest paid center in terms of average annual salary.

Paradis’ deflated value probably is partially because he’s coming off of a broken leg that ended his 2018 season after 9 games, but he made 57 consecutive starts in 4 seasons prior to that, so he’s hardly an injury prone player and he’s finished in the top-8 among centers on PFF in 3 straight seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Paradis is older than most first time free agents, but interior offensive linemen tend to age better than other positions, so he could easily continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons.

With Kalil gone, right guard Trai Turner is now the longest tenured offensive lineman the Panthers have, as he’s made 67 starts in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014. Turner isn’t quite as good as his contract, which makes him the 5th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual value (4 years, 45 million), but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-25 at his position. He’s also still only in his age 26 season, despite his experience, so he should remain an above average starter for years to come. It’s risky that the Panthers are planning on starting a rookie at left tackle, but this is otherwise a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Panthers’ defense struggled in 2018, finishing 25th in first down rate allowed at 37.97%. Head coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator, took over the play calling for the final 4 weeks of the season, but it didn’t make much of a difference. The Panthers kept defensive coordinator Eric Washington this off-season, but Rivera will remain as the play caller and will transition this defense to a 3-4 base, which is what Rivera traditionally ran back when he was a defensive coordinator. It’s extra responsibilities for the head coach, but having Norv Turner as the “head coach” of the offense allows Rivera to be more involved defensively.

Their biggest problem on defense last season was their inability to get to the quarterback, as they finished 27th in the NFL with just 36 sacks on the season. Simply switching schemes won’t fix that problem, but the Panthers did add some players to help them get to the quarterback. Their biggest addition was a late one, signing former Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy after he was released by the Buccaneers in May, ahead of a non-guaranteed 13 million dollar salary.

McCoy is going into his age 31 season and coming off of a down season by his standards, but he still could prove to be a smart signing on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal with incentives worth another 2 million. He still finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked interior defender and had 6 sacks, 12 hits, and an 8.5% pressure rate on the season, down from his 10.5% pressure rate from 2013-2017, but still pretty impressive for an interior rusher. He also fills a big need for the Panthers as a base defensive end in their new 3-4 defense and gives them a much needed interior pass rusher in sub packages.

Kawaan Short will be the other interior rusher in sub packages and will also be a base defensive end. Short is also coming off of a down year rushing the passer, with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and an 8.9% pressure rate on the season. From 2015-2017, he had 24.5 sacks, 34 hits, and 11.1% pressure rate. A bounce back year from him would be a big help to this defense, but now going into his age 30 season his best days might be behind him. He should still be a solid pass rusher at the very least and he’s also still one of the better run stuffing defensive tackles in the league, finishing 20th overall among interior defenders on PFF in 2018, but his days of being a dominant interior rusher could be in the past.

The player who probably benefits the most from the scheme change is Dontari Poe, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 nose tackle in Kansas City from 2012-2016. Poe was known for his ability to stay on the field for close to every snap in Kansas City, despite his mammoth size at 6-3 346, averaging 55.9 snaps per game in his final 4 seasons with the Chiefs, but with McCoy and Short as the primary interior rushers in Carolina, Poe may struggle to even match the 515 snaps he played last season. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 17 hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons, but he’s a strong run stuffer who has earned an above average grade in that aspect from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He’ll primarily be a base package nose tackle in 2019, where he is a great fit, but could also see a few sub package snaps as well.

Kyle Love and Vernon Butler return in reserve roles, after playing 467 snaps and 329 snaps respectively last season. With McCoy added to the mix, they may have a tough time even matching those snap totals in 2019. Butler was actually a first round pick back in 2016, but he’s barely seen the field in 3 seasons in the league, averaging 22.8 snaps per game in 38 career games, while not making a single start. The Panthers already declined his 5th year option for 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t end up making the final 53. If he does make the final roster, the big 6-4 330 pounder will serve as a situational run stuffer and backup nose tackle.

Love, meanwhile, is a career journeyman who has started just 31 of 100 games with 4 teams, but he’s actually coming off of a pretty solid season, setting a career best PFF grade in his 9th season in the league in 2018. Going into his age 33 season, his age is obviously a concern and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he couldn’t match the best season of his career, but he should be ahead of Butler for snaps. Like Butler, Love is primarily a run stuffer on 6-1 310, earning PFF’s 31st highest run stuffing grade in 2018. This defensive line has a lot of potential, especially if McCoy and Short can turn back the clock a little bit. In 2017, they would have been arguably the best interior defender duo in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Panthers also needed to add help at the edge defender position this off-season. Edge defender Mario Addison led this team with 9 sacks and fellow edge defender Julius Peppers was 2nd with 5, but Peppers retired this off-season and their 3rd edge defender, Wes Horton, finished as Pro Football Focus’ 112th ranked edge defender out of 113 qualifying on 471 snaps in 2018 and managed just 1.5 sacks and no quarterback hits all season. To replace them (Horton also signed with the Saints this off-season), the Panthers used the 16th overall pick on Florida State’s Brian Burns and signed veteran Bruce Irvin. Along with Addison, those will be their top-3 edge defenders in 2019.

Addison has been their best edge rusher the past two seasons and could easily be their best again in 2019. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s totalled 20 sacks and 5 hits, with a 12.2% pressure rate. Addison is a late bloomer who made just 4 starts in his first 6 seasons in the league prior to the last two seasons, but he’s always been a good situational pass rusher, with a career 12.4% pressure rate. His age is becoming a concern in his age 32 season, but he could easily continue being an above average pass rusher in 2019.

Irvin, meanwhile, earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first 6 seasons in the league prior to 2018, but he struggled last season, spending the first 8 games of the season in Oakland, before getting released and signing with the Falcons. He was better in Atlanta than in Oakland, but he’s also going into his age 32 season, so his age is a concern too. Addison and Irvin both being over 30 is likely one of the reasons why Burns was their selection at 16. He’s raw and undersized, but freakishly athletic and could contribute as a situational pass rusher immediately. They’ll need him to in a thin group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Panthers are entering a new era at linebacker. Not only are they converting schemes, but they lost veteran linebacker Thomas Davis to the Chargers this off-season, after 14 seasons in Carolina. It’s not a surprise that they lost him though and, at one point, it seemed likely that Davis would retire, rather than play his age 36 season in 2019. In fact, the Panthers actually prepared for this day 4 years ago, when they selected Shaq Thompson with the 25th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

With Davis ahead of him, Thompson has been limited to 38.1 snaps per game in 4 seasons in the league, working as a 3rd linebacker in base packages and occasionally even as a slot cornerback in sub packages, as the Panthers got creative with ways to leave him on the field in passing situations. A freak athlete at 6-0 230, Thompson has the ability to develop into an above average coverage linebacker, run stuffer, and blitzer and has earned average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, including a 33th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on 599 snaps in 2018. Still only in his age 25 season, Thompson has obvious breakdown potential now that he’s finally in an every down role.

Thompson will start inside in this 3-4 defense next to perennial Pro-Bowler Luke Kuechly, who remains a constant in this group. Kuechly has never played in a 3-4 defense, but it’s hard to imagine the scheme change affecting him negatively. Kuechly has finished in the top-3 among off ball linebackers on PFF in 5 straight seasons and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He’s one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. The Panthers don’t have much depth behind Kuechly and Thompson, but it shouldn’t be needed, as this could be one of the best off ball linebacker duos in the NFL this season.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Panthers’ secondary was their weakest defensive group in 2018 and things don’t look better in 2019. Safety Mike Adams and slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn are no longer with the team, after playing 938 snaps and 630 snaps respectively in 2018. Neither player played well and they won’t really be missed, but the Panthers didn’t do anything to replace either one of them. They do have 2018 3rd round pick Rashaan Gaulden waiting in the wings after playing just 143 snaps as a rookie, but he can only fill one of those spots and is no guarantee to be an upgrade in his first extended action.

It looks like Gaulden is going to end up playing at safety, where he’d start next to Eric Reid. Reid has made 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league with the 49ers and Panthers and he’s a solid starter, earning average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons, but he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd among safeties since his rookie year in 2013. If someone else doesn’t step up in this group, Reid could easily be Carolina’s best defensive back this season, which is not what you want.

With Gaulden likely playing safety, a pair of veterans coming off of injury will compete for the Panthers’ 3rd cornerback job. Ross Cockrell missed all of 2018 with a badly broken leg, while Kevon Seymour missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Cockrell is likely the favorite for the job and he earned above average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 (32 starts in 47 games), but Seymour was potentially going to start in this secondary in 2018 before the injury, so he can’t be ruled out. Seymour has played just 603 nondescript snaps since being drafted in the 6th round in 2016 though, so Cockrell probably has more upside if he’s past last year’s brutal injury.

James Bradberry and Donte Jackson return as the two starting outside cornerbacks. Bradberry was selected in the 2nd round in 2016 and has made 45 starts in 3 seasons since, but he’s been average at best as a starter and finished last season 59th among cornerbacks on PFF. In his age 26 season and the final year of his rookie contract, Bradberry has the upside to be better in 2019, but that’s far from a guarantee. Jackson, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2018 and finished as PFF’s 66th ranked cornerback in 16 rookie year starts. He’s also a candidate to take a step forward in 2019. Depending on who wins the 3rd cornerback job, Jackson could see more action as a slot cornerback in sub packages this season. There’s upside here if young players can take a step forward and Cockrell can return to form after his injury, but on paper this is an underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Panthers collapsed in a big way in 2018, finishing 7-9 after a 6-2 start, but they still finished the season 12th in first down rate differential at +1.69%, 2nd best among non-playoff teams behind the Steelers. Many of their late season losses were close and likely would have been wins if they had a healthy Cam Newton, which they should in 2019. The defense is also trending upwards after a mediocre 2018 season. They probably aren’t good enough to overtake the Saints in the NFC South unless Drew Brees drops off significantly at age 40, but they should be very much in the mix for a wild card spot. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Team Score: 75.11

Offensive Score: 76.16

Defensive Score: 74.06

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Cincinnati Bengals 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals are ushering in a new era, letting head coach Marvin Lewis go after 16 seasons with the team. Lewis seemingly had nine lives in Cincinnati and only Bill Belichick had been head coach of his current team longer than Lewis before the Bengals let him go, but the Bengals have missed the post-season for three straight seasons and felt it was the right time to make a change in leadership. Prior to those last 3 seasons, Lewis led the Bengals to 5 straight post-season appearances and 7 total in his 16 seasons with the team, but he never took his team past the wild card round, losing all 7 post-season games.  

There’s hardly any guarantee the Bengals’ next head coach will be better though, especially since Cincinnati is a notoriously hard place to coach. Owner Mike Brown controls all aspects of football operations, including the 53 man roster, and is known for overvaluing his own starters and rarely if ever adding outside free agents. The Bengals have had just 7 winning seasons in Brown’s 28 seasons in control of the team, all of which came during Lewis’ tenure, and they went an embarrassing 55-137 in Brown’s first 12 seasons before Lewis showed up. This isn’t to say that the Bengals are suddenly going to become a laughing stock again just because their fired their coach, but it’s a reminder of the tough situation that the Bengals’ new coach is walking in to.

Likely due to Brown’s reputation, the Bengals had a tough time finding someone to take their head coaching job, getting turned down by several high profile candidates and ultimately settling for Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. After Taylor was hired, the Bengals had an even tougher time finding a defensive coordinator, not hiring Lou Anarumo until right before the NFL combine in late February. Anarumo’s only NFL play calling experience comes from a 12-game stretch as an interim defensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2015, which is also when Zac Taylor’s only NFL play calling experience comes from, as he was the Dolphins’ interim offensive coordinator for the final 5 games of the 2015 season.

Taylor fits the recent trend of hiring young (he turned 36 in May) offensive minds from successful teams and his work with quarterback Jared Goff over the past 2 seasons with the Rams is very impressive, but fitting a recent trend doesn’t necessarily mean someone is going to be a head coach, nor does spending a couple years with Sean McVay. The key thing that Taylor is missing is an experienced coach on his staff, like McVay has with Wade Phillips. Instead, Taylor has a defensive coordinator with limited play calling experience and an offensive coordinator in Brian Callahan who has never been anything higher than a quarterbacks coach.

Many thought that with a new head coach coming in that the Bengals would make a move signaling a long-term change at the quarterback position, possibly even with a quarterback drafted 11th overall, but they didn’t address the position until the 4th round when they took NC State’s Ryan Finley, who will compete for the backup job in 2019 with Jeff Driskel, a 2016 6th round pick with a 5.70 YPA average and a 59.7% completion percentage on 176 career attempts.

Dalton has just two years left on his current contract and is not a spectacular quarterback, but moving on from him before the end of his contract (which pays him a relative bargain 33.9 million over the next 2 seasons) would be counterproductive because he’s still a solid starter. If the Bengals really don’t want to pay Dalton the going rate for a solid starting quarterback on his next deal, they can target quarterbacks high in a much better quarterback draft in 2020.

The Bengals were actually a pretty effective offense in 2018 before injuries hit. Through the first 8 games of the season, the Bengals ranked 7th in first down rate at 40.33%. AJ Green then got hurt and played just 17 snaps the rest of the way and then Dalton suffered an injury of his own that knocked him out for the final 5 games of the season. As a result, the Bengals had just a 32.75% first down rate in their final 8 games and fell to 15th overall on the season.

Through 8 games, Dalton completed 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, a 92.9 QB rating. Even though that QB rating fell to 76.5 without Green, Dalton still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback on the season. A starter since week 1 of his rookie season in 2011, Dalton has made 120 of 128 starts since (missing 8 with injury) and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league, maxing out at #8 in 2015. All in all, he has completed 62.3% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 188 touchdowns, and 86 interceptions in his career. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s understandable why the Bengals don’t want to give him a mega extension worth upwards of 25 million annually to keep him long-term, but it wouldn’t be easy for the Bengals to find an upgrade.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Before getting hurt, AJ Green was on pace for a 90/1374/12 slash line last season. That’s in line with his career average 87/1284/9 slash line per 16 games, in 8 seasons (111 games) in the league. His age is becoming an issue, going into his age 31 season, and he’s developing an injury history, with two of his past three seasons ending on injured reserve, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down on the field and even if he begins to decline he could easily still be one of the better receivers in the league. With Green going into the final year of his contract, the Bengals will have to make a long-term decision on him shortly.

Green wasn’t the Bengals’ only productive wide receiver in 2018, as fellow starting wide receiver Tyler Boyd finished with a 76/1028/7 slash line in just 14 games and was even on pace for a 98/1240/10 slash line through 8 games with AJ Green as the primary target. Boyd is a one-year wonder, with just 76 catches for 828 yards and 3 touchdowns total in his first two seasons in the league (26 games) prior to his breakout 2018 season, but he’s also a former 2nd round pick and doesn’t turn 25 until November, so he could easily continue being one of the more productive receivers in the league. If Boyd and Green can stay healthy and perform even close to as well as they did to start last season, this offense is going to be a lot better than people think.

They’ll be even better if Tyler Eifert can stay healthy too, as they had a whopping 45.56% first down rate through 4 games (3rd in the NFL) before he broke his ankle and went down for the season. That’s a big if though, as Eifert has been as injury prone as any player in the league in his career, missing 53 of 96 games since the Bengals took him in the first round in 2013. He had a breakout 52/615/13 season in just 13 games in 2015, coinciding with the Bengals’ best season of the Andy Dalton era, but Eifert has played in just 14 of 48 games since. Still only going into his age 29 season, Eifert is theoretically still in the prime of his career and played well in limited action last season, but it’s hard to count on him. If the trio of Green, Boyd, and Eifert all stay healthy and produce like they can, this could be an explosive passing game.

That’s easier said than done though, so the Bengals are hoping someone else emerges in this receiving corps. The most likely candidate is John Ross, the 2017 9th overall pick, who is still likely to be the 3rd wide receiver, despite an awful start to his career. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to 17 snaps in 3 games in a catchless rookie season and then he struggled mightily when forced into a larger role in 2018, ranking dead last among qualifying receivers in Pro Football Focus grade, drop rate (25.0%), yards per route run (0.57), and target completion percentage (36.2%). It’s too early to complete write him off, but he’s entering a make or break third season in the league. Alex Erickson and Cody Core struggled in limited action in 2018 (364 snaps and 311 snaps respectively), so Ross doesn’t have much competition for the #3 wide receiver job.

At tight end, the Bengals re-signed CJ Uzomah to a 3-year, 18.3 million dollar deal and used a second round pick on Washington tight end Drew Sample this off-season, understandably not confident that Eifert can give them a full 16 games. Uzomah’s contract suggests he’ll start, but Sample is the better blocker and Eifert is their best passing game weapon, so it’s unclear how Uzomah fits in. Uzomah also has never topped 43 catches in a season and has just 79 in 4 seasons in the league, so his contract looks like another case of Mike Brown overvaluing his own free agents.

Sample was not much of a receiver in college, with 46 career catches, and likely won’t have a big passing game role as a rookie, but he’s an NFL ready blocker and athletic for his size at 6-5 255, so he might have some untapped receiving potential. He has much more upside long-term than Uzomah, who may need Eifert to get hurt again to see significant playing time. This is a strong receiving corps overall when healthy and at the very least they’ll probably be healthier in 2019 than they were in 2018.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

In addition to the talent the Bengals have in the receiving corps, the Bengals also have a solid running back duo. Joe Mixon is the lead back, rushing for 1168 yards and 8 touchdowns on 237 carries (4.93 YPC) in 2018 and ranking 9th among running backs in run grade on Pro Football Focus. That’s a steep increase from the 3.52 yards per carry he averaged on 178 carries as a 2nd round rookie in 2017, but he was better than that raw average suggests, averaging 2.43 yards per carry after carry and earning an above average run grade from PFF, so his mini breakout season in 2018 isn’t much of a surprise. A top-10 talent who only fell to the 2nd round because of off-the-field concerns, Mixon could easily keep improving, still only turning 23 this summer.

Mixon isn’t nearly as good as a receiver though. His catch total jumped from 30 to 43 from year 1 to year 2, but he averaged just 5.4 yards per target last season, earned a below average pass catching grade from PFF, and dropped 4 passes as well. Fortunately, the Bengals have a good passing down specialist in Giovani Bernard who can play in obvious passing situations, in addition to serving as a change of pace back (4.18 yards per carry on 744 career carries).

As long as Mixon is healthy, Bernard won’t average the 10.6 carries per game he averaged in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2013-2016, as he’s averaged just 5.8 carries per game over the past 2 seasons, but his catch totals haven’t really dropped, averaging 3.4 catches per game in his first 4 seasons in the league and 2.8 catches per game in 2 seasons since Mixon was drafted. He should be a good bet for another 40-45 or so catches in a situational role in 2018.

The Bengals also added a pair of running backs in the 6th round of this year’s draft, drafting Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson with picks 182 and 211 respectively, but neither is expected to have much of a rookie year role as long as Mixon and Bernard are healthy. They are more replacements for Mark Walton, a 2018 4th round pick who had 19 touches as the 3rd back in 2018, but was ultimately let go this off-season after multiple arrests. They won’t be needed much behind Mixon and Bernard.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bengals have plenty of talent at the skill positions on offense, but their offensive line needed some work this off-season. Four of their five offensive line starters in 2018 earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus and their highest ranked offensive lineman, left guard Clint Boling, only ranked 41st at his position (out of 88 qualifying). Right tackle Bobby Hart, who finished as PFF’s 73rd ranked offensive tackle out of 85 qualifying in 16 starts last season, was set to hit free agency this off-season, giving the Bengals the opportunity to find an upgrade in free agency, but in typical Bengals fashion they decided instead to bring Hart back on a 3-year, 16.15 million dollar deal.

This is the same Bobby Hart who struggled mightily with the Giants in 2017 (90th out of 92 eligible offensive tackles on PFF) and got kicked off the team before the season even ended. He was a little better in 2018, but largely by default and he’s shown no signs of ever developing into an above average starter. The 2015 7th round pick has 37 career starts and is still only going into his age 25 season, but he’s earned below average grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and would likely be one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league again in 2019 if he continues starting.

The Bengals did sign an outside free agent at right guard, signing ex-Bill John Miller to a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal, but he likely won’t move the needle much. Miller has been a capable starter for stretches of his career in 4 seasons in the league (47 total starts), including a solid 2018 season, but he has been inconsistent and was benched by the Bills for veteran journeyman Vlad Ducasse after 4 games in the 2017 season. He’d be an upgrade over Alex Redmond, who struggled in 15 starts at right guard last season, but he may not be an upgrade by much.

The biggest addition the Bengals made on the offensive line this off-season was using the 11th overall pick on Alabama’s Jonah Williams. Williams was not the Bengals’ primary target at 11, as linebacker Devin Bush was taken one spot ahead of them, and his addition complicates things upfront a little bit, even if he does project to be a solid player long-term. Williams has the versatility to play both tackle and guard, but the Bengals already have veterans making starter’s money at both guard and both tackle spots, so starting him would mean paying starter’s money to a reserve. Right tackle and right guard would be the best spots for him, but the Bengals are also trying him at left tackle. Incumbent left tackle Cordy Glenn could move to guard or right tackle, but Williams lacks elite foot speed and doesn’t have great length, winning more with technique in college, so he might not be a great fit on the blindside.

Wherever he ends up playing, Cordy Glenn will remain a starter for the Bengals in 2019. It’s understandable why the Bengals would want to move Glenn off the blindside, as his play has fallen off in recent years and he’s now going into his age 30 season, but his salaries the next two years (9.25 million in 2019 and 9.5 million in 2020) are cost prohibitive for a right tackle or guard, unless he happens to find a 2nd life as a Pro-Bowl caliber player at a different position. Glenn was PFF’s 21st ranked offensive tackle as recently as 2016 and their 6th ranked offensive tackle in 2015, but those days are likely behind him now. He’s also missed 18 games with injury over the past 3 seasons.

Clint Boling is their incumbent left guard, but Glenn has seen action at that spot this off-season, so Boling will likely have to compete for a starting job upfront, even though he was the Bengals’ best offensive lineman in 2019. Boling’s versatility works to his advantage because he can play both tackle spots and both guard spots and he’s plenty experienced, starting 106 of 112 games over the past 7 seasons and earning an average or better grade from PFF in all 7 of those seasons.

Boling’s age is becoming a concern, now in his age 30 season, but he should remain a starting caliber player for at least a couple more seasons and deserves a starting job somewhere on this line. Boling, Glenn, Williams, Miller, and Hart will compete for roles this off-season, with one of them ending up as a reserve. Hart is the weakest of the bunch, but his salary suggests he is at least in the mix for a starting role. At the very least, the Bengals have more depth and options upfront this season.

The only offensive lineman who seems to be locked into a starting spot going into 2019 is center Billy Price, who ironically might have been their worst offensive lineman in 2018, finishing 36th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF. Price dealt with injuries all season though, which seemed to sap his effectiveness, in addition to limiting him to 558 snaps in 10 games. Price was also a rookie last season and the 2018 21st overall pick is an obvious candidate to take a big step forward in 2019 if he can stay healthy. He rounds out an offensive line that has better depth and more options than last season, but that still lacks a dominant starter.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Bengals had major issues on defense in 2018, finishing the season 28th in first down rate allowed at 38.34%, probably a big part of the reason why Marvin Lewis was let go, as his background is as a defensive coach. Lewis stepped in to call the plays on defense after week 10, firing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in the process, but it didn’t make much of a difference for this unit. The biggest problem was injuries. Much like on offense, where the Bengals had the 27th most adjusted games lost to injury, the Bengals also had the 23rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Probably their biggest loss was Carl Lawson, their top edge rusher who went down in October with a torn ACL after 7 games.

Lawson had just 1 sack in those 7 games, but he added 7 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate. He also had 8.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate on 389 pass rush snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2017. Lawson almost never plays on run plays and he might not be 100% right away in his return this season, but even at less than his best he could still be their best edge rusher. Without him, the Bengals didn’t have another edge rusher with higher than a 10% pressure rate.

Carlos Dunlap used to be a dominant edge rusher, with 55 sacks, 118 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in a 7-year stretch from 2012-2017. In 2018, he still had 8 sacks and 14 hits, but just a 9.0% pressure rate and earned just an average pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus. Dunlap was still a dominant run stuffer, ranking 7th among edge defenders on PFF in run defense grade, but he turned 30 this off-season and his best days as a pass rusher may be behind him. He should still have at least a couple more seasons left as an above average starter though. After playing 74% of the snaps in 2018 (52.4 per game), it’s possible the new coaching staff cuts his snaps a little bit to keep him fresher.

With Lawson hurt, Michael Johnson (467 snaps), Jordan Willis (537 snaps), and Sam Hubbard (508 snaps) all saw action on the edge last season. Lawson is only a sub package player and nominal base starter Michael Johnson is no longer with the team, currently unsigned after finishing 95th out of 113 qualifying edge defenders on PFF in 15 starts in 2018, so Willis and Hubbard will compete for the starting base package defensive end job opposite Dunlap. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Willis doesn’t get to the quarterback at all, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.1% pressure rate in 2 seasons in the league, and last season he finished 103th out of 113 eligible edge defenders on PFF, but he showed a lot more promise as a run stuffer as a rookie and could easily bounce back in his 3rd season in the league.

Hubbard, meanwhile, was also a 3rd round pick, being drafted in 2018. He showed a lot more pass rush than Willis as a rookie, with 6 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.9% pressure rate, and wasn’t a bad run stuffer either. He seems to have more long-term upside than Willis and could easily be better in his 2nd season in the league in 2019, but Willis can still win the base package job if he proves himself to be a better run stuffer this off-season. Both will have a role either way. The Bengals are counting on a bounce back year from Dunlap and Willis, a breakout year from Hubbard, and a healthy season from Lawson, but there’s definitely potential here. They should get more edge rush than they did in 2018.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

With Lawson out, the Bengals’ most productive pass rusher in 2018 was defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who remains one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league, with 10 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate last season, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked interior defender. That’s actually a bit of a down year for him, as he was a top-4 interior defender on PFF in 5 of the 7 seasons prior to 2018, with the exceptions being a 2013 season that was cut short by a torn ACL and a 2014 season where he wasn’t 100% in his return from that injury. Even with those years included, Atkins has 71 sacks, 98 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 9 seasons in the league. The one concern here is age, as he goes into his age 31 season. The Bengals are obviously hoping last year’s slight decline isn’t the start of a trend. Even if it is, he could easily be an above average starter for at least another couple seasons. He’s still probably their best defensive player.

Andrew Billings returns as the other starting defensive tackle, after making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from PFF in 2018. Billings is a one-year wonder, going in the 4th round in 2016, missing his entire rookie season with injury, and then struggling mightily on 334 snaps in 2017, but he could easily continue his solid play going forward. The 6-1 325 pounder is at his best against the run, but showed surprising pass rush ability in 2018, with 2.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.2% pressure rate, after managing just 5 pressures on 127 pass rush snaps in 2017. If he continues developing as a pass rusher, he could play every down.

The Bengals also have Ryan Glasgow returning from an injury. The 2017 4th round pick looked on his way to a dominant year as a run stuffer in 2018, but he ended up tearing his ACL in his 3rd game of the season, which ended his promising season after just 92 snaps. Glasgow wasn’t bad on 412 snaps as a rookie in 2017 and, assuming he’s healthy, he could continue developing into a valuable run stuffer for them. The Bengals lack an interior pass rush specialist to play next to Atkins in obvious passing situations, but Sam Hubbard has the versatility to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, lining up on the interior on 46.3% of his pass rush snaps in 2018. He’ll likely continue doing that in 2019. If Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow are both healthy in 2019, this should be an improved defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

By far the Bengals’ worst defensive unit in 2018 was their linebackers. Former Pro-Bowler Vontaze Burfict missed 9 games with injury, but he also struggled mightily when on the field and the Bengals didn’t have a single linebacker who earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus on the season. The Bengals let Burfict go ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, but they didn’t really do anything to replace him.

The Bengals were banking on linebacker Devin Bush falling to them at 11, but everyone knew he was their target, so the Steelers were able to move up to 10 and snatch him ahead of them, leaving the Bengals to settle for drafting NC State’s Germaine Pratt in the 3rd round. Pratt will compete for a role as a rookie with 2018 3rd round pick Malik Jefferson, who played just 11 snaps as a rookie, and other holdovers like Preston Brown, Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans, and Hardy Nickerson.

Vigil and Brown were both starters in 2018, although they played just 11 games and 7 games respectively due to injury and did not play well. Brown was re-signed to a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar contract this off-season, rather than the Bengals trying to find an upgrade in free agency, suggesting he’ll likely be the starter at one of the linebacker positions. The 2014 3rd round pick is an adequate run stuffer, but struggles in coverage and is not worth his salary. In an ideal world, he would just play the third linebacker spot, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Bengals’ lack of linebacker talent will likely force him into a larger role.

Nick Vigil was probably their best linebacker by default last season, but the 2016 3rd round pick has finished below average on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league. He’ll likely remain in an every down role, as he has been in the past 2 seasons (65.0 snaps per game), but he’ll have to face some competition for the job. The rookie Germaine Pratt is probably the best of the Bengals’ other options, but it’s unclear if the 3rd round pick can contribute in a positive way as a rookie. Vigil has missed 10 games with injury over the past 2 seasons, so Pratt may end up in the starting lineup at some point even if he doesn’t win the job in training camp.

Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson saw action last season because of injuries, but they struggled mightily and are backup quality players at best, so they shouldn’t be playing significant roles. Malik Jefferson theoretically has upside because he’s athletic and went in the 3rd round last year, but the fact that he couldn’t get on the field as a rookie in a horrible linebacking corps is not a good sign. The only reason Jefferson is in the mix for a role in 2019 is because this group didn’t really get any better. It would be a surprise if the Bengals had even average linebacker play this season.

Grade: D

Secondary

The Bengals’ secondary was their healthiest group on defense in 2018, and subsequently their best. They also return every defensive back who played a snap for them in 2018 and added BW Webb on a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in free agency, which by the Bengals’ standard is a big outside investment. Webb wasn’t bad in 16 starts for the Giants last season, but he’s a one-year wonder. He went in the 4th round in 2013, but earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, while making just 10 starts, and then he spent the 2017 season out of the league, not playing a snap. He could prove to be a late bloomer and continue playing well, but he’s already going into his age 29 season and could regress in 2019.

It looked like Webb was originally signed as a cheaper alternative to slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a 2014 1st round pick who seemed likely to get more money on the open market, but his market never developed and he ended up returning on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal, in hopes of getting better long-term offers next off-season. He’ll likely return to his old slot role, pushing Webb into a depth role as the 4th cornerback.

Despite his high draft status, Dennard barely played in the first 3 seasons of his career, averaging 15.3 snaps per game, but that number has jumped to 54.3 snaps per game in the past 2 seasons and he’s played well. In addition to being a solid slot cornerback, he’s also held up on the outside when asked to play there, so It’s a surprise the 24th overall pick couldn’t find a good deal on the open market in a thin cornerback free agency class. Perhaps a knee injury, which required off-season surgery, was part of the reason, but he’s fully expected to be healthy for week 1.

William Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick remain as the starting outside cornerbacks. They are also former first round picks, going 24th overall in 2016 and 17th overall in 2012 respectively. Jackson is the better of the two. He missed his entire rookie season with injury, but flashed a lot of potential on 698 snaps in 2017, allowing just 15 catches with 11 pass breakups on 43 targets. That earned him the starting role in 2018 and, though he wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2017, he still allowed just a 55.1% completion rate, while breaking up 10 passes in 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked cornerback. Jackson should continue playing at a high level in 2019.

Kirkpatrick is paid like he’s the kind of cornerback that Jackson is, re-signed to a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal 2 off-seasons ago, but he’s never been much better than an average cornerback. Like Dennard, Kirkpatrick didn’t play much early in his career, despite being a high draft pick, playing 591 snaps combined in his first 3 seasons in the league. He’s made 56 starts in the past 4 seasons, but has never finished higher than 42nd among cornerbacks on PFF. He’s not a bad starter, but he’s overpaid and the Bengals may ultimately decide to move on from him to re-sign Jackson, who has two years left on his deal. Kirkpatrick’s 9.85 million dollar salary for 2020 is not guaranteed.

At safety, Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates remain as starters. Williams has been a starter since 2016 and has earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons. Williams is coming off of another solid season in 2018 and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so I wouldn’t expect a drop off. Bates, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2018 and had a very impressive rookie year.

Bates showed well enough in training camp and the preseason for the Bengals to cut incumbent starter George Iloka and replace him with Bates in the starting lineup and then he went on to finish as PFF’s 13th ranked safety while starting all 16 games. Bates has a bright future and could easily develop into one of the better safeties in the league. The Bengals should get solid secondary play overall again in 2019, with promising young defensive backs William Jackson and Jessie Bates leading the way.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals were 4-1 last season before injuries started piling up. Injuries are part of the game, but the Bengals had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2018, including season ending injuries suffered by key players like quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver AJ Green, tight end Tyler Eifert, and edge defender Carl Lawson. The Bengals have a good chance to be better in 2019 simply by being healthier. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a true playoff contender though. They still have obvious issues in their linebacking corps and their offensive skill position talent could once again be held back by an inconsistent offensive line.

The new coaching staff is an interesting wrinkle as well. It’s possible that fresh voices in the locker room will be good for this team, but this coaching staff is very inexperienced and many of their coaches were not their first or second choice, including head coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals could be better than people think, but they’re still behind Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the AFC North. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Team Score: 74.42

Offensive Score: 74.58

Defensive Score: 74.26

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Baltimore Ravens 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens are entering a new era at quarterback. Drafted 18th overall in 2008, Joe Flacco was a week 1 starter for the Ravens as a rookie and went on to start 163 games over the next 11 seasons in Baltimore, winning a Super Bowl in 2012, but he never matched his Super Bowl run in subsequent seasons and his contract became harder and harder to justify every year. The writing was on the wall for Flacco last off-season when the Ravens traded up into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall. Flacco started the first 9 games of the 2018 season, but then suffered a hip injury and never got his job back, ultimately being sent to the Broncos for a mid round pick this off-season.

The reason Jackson remained as the starter last season even after Flacco recovered is that they were winning, going 6-1 with Jackson, as opposed to 4-5 with Flacco. It’s unfair to attribute that to a change in quarterback though and, in fact, their offense was more productive in Flacco’s 9 starts (36.46%% first down rate) than it was in Jackson’s 7 starts (34.48% first down rate), even though Jackson got to face bottom-10 defenses in 5 of 7 games. The Ravens also had a +53 point differential in Flacco’s 9 starts, as opposed to +49 in Jackson’s 7 starts, despite the fact that all 4 of the Ravens’ return touchdowns came in Jackson’s 7 starts. The only games Jackson won by more than a touchdown all involved return touchdowns pushing the margin of victory beyond a single score.

All in all, Jackson actually led fewer touchdown drives in his 7 starts (13) than the Ravens’ defense allowed during that stretch (14), even though the Ravens had a dominant defense all season, finishing the year 2nd in first down rate allowed on the season at 32.65%, including a 33.17% first down rate allowed in Jackson’s 7 starts. When the Ravens made it to the post-season, things got even worse, as the Ravens’ offense managed just 5 first downs in the first 3 and a half quarters of the game and trailed the Chargers 23-3 before finally being able to move the ball against a prevent defense late in the 4th quarter. Even with that late stretch against a prevent defense included, the Ravens managed a pathetic 22.03% first down rate in that game.

The Ravens are revamping their offense this off-season, but it’s hard to imagine an offense that fits Jackson’s skill set better than the one that allowed him to carry the ball 17 times per game in his starts. The problem with that and the reason they are revamping their offense is that Jackson likely won’t be able to hold up long-term averaging that many carries per game (272 carries over a 16 game season). It’s hard enough for running backs to withstand that kind of punishment year in and year out and Jackson is much more slender than most running backs.

Jackson also won’t be able to always count on having the kind of defense supporting him that he had last season, which allowed the Ravens to run an ultra run heavy offense and not have to play from behind often. The Ravens lost 5 defensive starters this off-season, so they are very unlikely to be as effective defensively this season as they were last season. It’s also concerning that the Chargers’ defense was able to have so much success against this offense the 2nd time they faced them. They may have written the blueprint for stopping this run heavy offense, which is to stack the box with hybrid safety/linebackers who have the athleticism to get to the outside against outside runs.

Jackson’s running and athletic abilities obviously are valuable, but whether or not he is successful as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens is going to be dependant on how he develops as a passer. Throwing against defenses that were stacking the box to play the run, Jackson completed just 58.2% of his passes last season for an average of 7.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while also fumbling 12 times total. He will definitely need to improve his accuracy and ball security going forward, but his mechanical issues may prevent him from ever doing so.

Despite that, the Ravens are committed to Jackson long-term. With Flacco gone, the Ravens have doubled and tripled down on dual threat quarterbacks, re-signing veteran Robert Griffin as the backup quarterback and using a 6th round pick on Penn State’s Tracy McSorley, an option quarterback who ran the fastest 40 by a quarterback at the combine this year (4.57). Jackson has a higher than average chance of injury because of his playing style, so it’s very possible one or both of their backup quarterbacks has to start at some point this season.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

It certainly doesn’t help matters that Lamar Jackson has one of the thinnest receiving corps in the league to throw to. Two of the Ravens’ top three receivers from 2018 are gone, replaced with rookie 1st and 3rd round picks Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, who have clear paths to playing time, despite their inexperience. Receivers weren’t that important in the Ravens’ offense down the stretch last season, but with Jackson set to throw more pass attempts per game this season, receivers become much more important. The combination of an inaccurate quarterback and a thin receiving corps is not a good one.

Willie Snead is the Ravens’ top returning wide receiver. He had 45 catches in 9 games with Flacco last season, but that plummeted to 17 catches in 7 games with Jackson. Snead is a bit of a weird fit for this offense because he’s an underneath slot receiver, while Jackson likes to throw deep off play action on the occasions he does throw the ball. Snead is a capable receiver who had a 69/984/3 slash line and a 72/895/4 slash line in 2015 and 2016 respectively with the Saints, but he’s unlikely to come close to those numbers in this offense.

Even though they are rookies, Brown and Boykin are better bets for production than Snead because they are both deep threats. Their biggest competition for the starting outside receiver jobs is Chris Moore, a 2016 4th round pick, who played 469 snaps as the 4th receiver in 2018, but caught just 19 passes, including just 7 from Jackson in 7 games. Those 19 catches are also a career high, so he would be an underwhelming starting option. The Ravens also used 4th and 5th round picks on receivers in the 2018 draft, taking Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, but Scott missed his entire rookie year with injury, while Lasley was a healthy scratch all season. These uninspiring position battles will play out in training camp and ultimately it’s likely that a rookie leads this group in yardage.

The Ravens are deeper at tight end. In fact, tight end Mark Andrews was the only pass catcher to still produce with Lamar Jackson in the lineup, catching 13 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown in Jackson’s 7 starts. The 3rd round rookie averaged 2.01 yards per route run on the season (5th among qualifying tight ends) and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in receiving grade. The Ravens also used a 1st round pick in the 2018 draft on tight end Hayden Hurst, but injuries limited him to 275 snaps as a rookie. Still not healthy this off-season, the clock is ticking for a player who will already be 26 in his 2nd season in the league. He’s likely behind Mark Andrews in the pecking order for playing time in passing situations.

Both Andrews and Hurst are adequate blockers, which is important in an offense that figures to still be run heavy, but Nick Boyle is the primary run blocking tight end, re-signing this off-season on a 3-year, 18 million dollar contract after playing 652 snaps last season, most by a Ravens tight end. Boyle has earned an above average run blocking grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and he’s not terrible as a receiver. He’s never topped 28 catches in a season and averages just 8.2 yards per catch, but he’s caught 72.8% of the targets thrown to him in his career and is a reliable target, with just 3 career drops. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens run a lot of two and three tight end sets to compensate for their lack of proven options at wide receiver. The Ravens figure to have one of the worst passing games in the league in 2019.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Even though the Ravens are going to have to open up their passing game more in 2019, this offense will still revolve around the run and should still be among the league leaders in run attempts. The Ravens made moves this off-season to improve their running game, signing ex-Saint Mark Ingram in free agency to a 3-year, 15 million dollar contract, and using a 4th round pick on Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill. Ingram’s salary obviously suggests he’ll be the lead back, but there will definitely be opportunity for multiple backs to see carries.

Gus Edwards was their lead back down the stretch last season and he ran well, so he should remain involved in a timeshare role. Edwards’ promotion to the starting lineup coincided with Jackson’s promotion and he finished the season with 718 yards and 2 touchdowns on 137 carries. His 5.24 yards per carry ranked 5th in the NFL among running backs with at least 100 carries and he did that without a bunch of long runs, leading the league with a 63% carry success rate. He doesn’t do anything in the passing game (2 catches) and he went undrafted a year ago, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed as a runner in his 2nd season in the league, but he should continue being involved in this offense even after the addition of Mark Ingram.

Ingram comes over from New Orleans, where he spent the first 8 seasons of his career after being drafted in the first round in 2011. Ingram dealt with injury issues early in his career, but he hasn’t missed a game with injury since 2015 and has averaged 4.91 yards per carry on 573 carries over the past 3 seasons. Ingram has also improved as a pass catcher as his career has gone on, with 175 catches in the past 4 seasons, after just 53 catches in his first 4 seasons in the league, although it’s hard to see him getting a lot of targets in the Ravens’ offense. Ingram is going into his age 30 season and has never had more than 230 carries in a season, always being more effective in a timeshare, but he won’t be carrying the load by himself in Baltimore and could easily remain an effective runner for another couple seasons.

Justice Hill is an interesting pick in the 4th round and has the blazing speed to play a role as a change of pace back, but he’ll likely be no better than the 3rd running back to start his career. He’ll have to compete for that role with Kenneth Dixon. A 4th round pick himself back in 2016, Dixon has shown a lot of promise in his career, with 4.83 yards per carry and 45 broken tackles on 148 carries in his career, but a combination of injury and suspension have limited him to just 18 games in 3 seasons in the league. Dixon still has upside in an unsettled running back group on a run heavy team, but he’s also not a lock for the final roster after the addition of Hill because he doesn’t play special teams.

If Ingram can avoid slowing down as he gets older and Edwards can come close to repeating what he did to close out last season, this running game could be very tough for defenses to stop, especially with Lamar Jackson obviously being a threat to take off and run himself on every play. Jackson being a threat to keep the ball and run himself on misdirections definitely makes life easier for running backs, although if he can’t consistently threaten defenses with his arm they will stack the box and make life more difficult for running backs. This is a deep group even if Dixon doesn’t end up making the final 53, but the NFL is as much of a passing league now as it ever has been.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Ravens’ running game would also obviously be helped by strong blocking upfront. Center and left guard were positions of weakness upfront for the Ravens in 2018 though and, with other more pressing needs, they weren’t able to address those needs this off-season, only using a 4th round pick on Oklahoma guard Ben Powers, who probably won’t be able to contribute immediately in year one. Center Matt Skura started all 16 games in 2018, but finished 26th out of 39 eligible at his position on Pro Football Focus. The 2016 undrafted free agent also struggled in 12 starts at right guard in his first career action in 2017 and would be best as a versatile reserve. Skura’s only competition for the starting center job is 2018 6th round pick Bradley Bozeman though, so he could easily remain the starter.

Bozeman made 31 starts at center in college at the University of Alabama, but his 223 rookie year snaps actually came at left guard and he’s likely an option for the starting job at that position as well, even though he didn’t show much as a rookie. Week 1 starting left guard Alex Lewis started all 10 games he played in 2018, but dealt with injuries, finished 75th among 88 qualifying guards on PFF, and ended up getting benched for James Hurst, who started the final 4 games of the season at left guard. A 4th round pick in 2016, Lewis showed promise as a rookie in 8 starts, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy the past two seasons and is already in his age 27 season. Hurst, meanwhile, has 42 career starts, playing both tackle and guard, but he’s struggled at both spots, earning a below average grade from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. The Ravens lack good options at both left guard and center.

Hurst was the week 1 starter at right tackle in 2018, but he got hurt and ended up losing his job to 3rd round rookie Orlando Brown, before kicking inside for the final 4 games of the season. Brown wasn’t great, but he was better than Hurst and showed a lot of promise in his 11 starts. Brown is a massive blocker at 6-8 345 with 35 inch arms, but struggled with weight issues throughout college and isn’t fleet of foot, which is why he fell in the draft. If he stays in shape and keeps his weight in check, he could develop into a Trent Brown type player who makes up for his lack of foot speed with a huge frame and long arms.

Right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are their best offensive linemen. Yanda is going into his age 35 season, which is an obvious concern, and the Ravens are obviously hoping he continues playing at the level he has. He has finished in the top-9 among guards on PFF in his last 7 healthy seasons, missing all but 2 games with injury in 2018, but bouncing back and finishing 4th at his position in 2018. Quietly a Hall of Fame caliber player, Yanda would still be one of the better guards in the league even if he did begin declining, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see his play drop off over the next couple seasons.

Stanley, meanwhile, is still young, going into his age 25 season, and the 2016 6th overall pick could easily continue getting better going forward. Stanley has started 42 of 48 games at left tackle in 3 seasons in the league and has improved in every season, going from 29th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2016 to 21st in 2017 and 16th and 2018. He needs to be tougher in the run game, but he’s allowed just 8 sacks and 6 hits total in his career, with a modest 20 penalties. He has the potential to be one of the best pass protecting left tackles in the league for a long time. This isn’t a bad offensive line, but it has its weaknesses.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Ravens lost 5 starters from last year’s defense that ranked 2nd in the league in first down rate allowed. Those 5 starters are defensive end Brent Urban, outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, middle linebacker CJ Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle. They did sign safety Earl Thomas to not just replace but upgrade on Weddle (more on that later), but they didn’t do much to replace the others, with other more pressing needs on offense. If the defense regresses, that could have a ripple effect on an offense that wants to be able to run the ball consistently.

The position group that took the biggest hit was the edge defenders, with Smith and Suggs signing with the Packers and Cardinals respectively. They ranked 34th and 40th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2018 on 691 snaps and 743 snaps respectively. Smith leaving was not a surprise, as the Ravens didn’t have the financial flexibility to match the 4-year, 66 million dollar deal he got from Green Bay, in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, but Suggs has been with the Ravens his entire 16-year career. It’s a surprise he’d want to leave the Ravens to take a one-year deal with a last place Cardinals team, but he’s originally from Arizona and seems to want to finish his career there. Both he and Smith will be big losses.

The Ravens did add some options this off-season, taking bargain flyers on Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee in free agency and using a 3rd round pick on Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson. They also have a pair of 3rd year players who could take on larger roles, 2017 2nd round pick Tyus Bowser and 2017 3rd round pick Tim Williams, and they return Matt Judon, who played 674 snaps in 2018. They may not all make the final roster, but they could all compete for roles this off-season.

Judon is probably the best of the bunch and the most likely to lock down a starting job. The 2016 5th round pick has played 45.7 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons and has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons. He doesn’t excel any one area, but he’s a capable run stuffer and has added 15 sacks, 23 hits, with a 11.3% pressure rate over the past 2 seasons. He may not be quite as effective if a pass rush threat doesn’t emerge opposite him, but he’s a solid starter nonetheless.

The rest of the group is a bunch of question marks. Ferguson is a 3rd round rookie. Bowser and Williams haven’t shown much on just 326 snaps and 245 snaps respectively in their career. Pernell McPhee played for the Ravens from 2011-2014 and was once one of the most efficient edge rushers in the league, with 13.5 sacks, 34 hits, and a 18.9% pressure rate in a 2-year stretch from 2014-2015. His pressure rate has only dropped to 11.4% in the 3 seasons since, which is still solid, but injuries have limited him to 861 snaps in 35 games in those 3 seasons and now he heads into his age 31 season. He had 8 hits and 7 hurries on 117 pass rush snaps in 2018, showing he can still get to the quarterback in the limited role even though he didn’t have a sack last season, but his best days are likely behind him.

Shane Ray has also had problems with injury in recent years, missing 13 of 32 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons, but he’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 26 season and comes with a lot of upside if he can stay healthy. He had 12 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in his first 2 seasons in the league, but has just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate in 2 seasons since, dealing with several injuries and falling down the depth chart in a deep position group in Denver. He could prove to be a smart flyer, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Ravens have a lot of uncertainty at this position.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Ravens also lost Brent Urban in free agency and he led this team in snaps by an interior defender, playing 523 snaps in 16 games in 2018. The Ravens didn’t do anything to replace him, but they do get Willie Henry back after he was limited to 81 snaps in 3 games by multiple injuries last season. A 2016 4th round pick, Henry played 596 snaps in 2017 and could see a similar role in 2019 if he can stay healthy. That’s a big if though because he’s missed most of his rookie season with injury as well. When healthy, Henry will be a situational pass rush specialist like he was in 2017, when he had 3.5 sacks and 10 hits, but also an underwhelming 6.3% pressure rate.

Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, and Chris Wormley all return after playing 518 snaps, 388 snaps, and 401 snaps respectively in 2018 and will likely be the starters on the Ravens’ 3-man base defensive line. Williams and Pierce both have great size at 6-1 336 and 6-0 340 respectively and have the ability to play both base defensive end and nose tackle. Both Williams and Pierce are unsurprisingly at their best against the run, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons and all 3 seasons respectively in their careers.

Williams has been doing it longer, but Pierce has outplayed him against the run in recent years, finishing 14th, 11th, and 4th against the run on PFF in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, while Williams has finished 27th, 16th, and 26th. Pierce has also been the better pass rusher as well, with 3 sacks, 9 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate in 46 career games, while Williams has 5.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 5.2% pressure rate in 83 career games.

Wormley, meanwhile, is strictly a defensive end in base packages at 6-5 300. The 2017 3rd round pick played just 120 snaps as a rookie, but earned about an average grade from PFF in a larger role in 2018. In addition to being a capable run stuffer, he wasn’t a bad pass rusher either. Even though he had just 1 sack and 1 hit, he had a 8.6% pressure rate on 232 pass rush snaps, which is solid for an interior rusher.

Wormley, Williams, Pierce, and Henry will play the vast majority of the snaps for the Ravens on the interior in 2019. They used a 5th round pick on Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack, but it’s unclear what kind of impact he can have as a rookie and he would likely need an injury ahead of him to see any real playing time. They don’t have a dominant interior rusher, but they should be a strong group against the run.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Middle linebacker CJ Mosley might have been the Ravens’ biggest loss this off-season. It’s a surprise to see the Ravens lose a signature defensive player in the prime of his career like that, but the Ravens couldn’t match when the Jets decided to completely reset the off ball linebacker market and give Mosley a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal with an average annual salary 26% higher than any other off ball linebacker in the NFL. Mosley isn’t great in coverage, but he’s an elite run stuffer who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked off ball linebacker overall and the Ravens did nothing to replace him.

Patrick Onwuasor (435 snaps, 12 starts) and Kenny Young (371 snaps, 3 starts) both saw action opposite Mosley last season and are now their top-2 linebackers. Both players were pretty underwhelming in their limited action last season though. They’re adequate run stuffers, but struggle in coverage and occasionally came off the field in obvious passing situations for Anthony Levine, 5-11 207 pound hybrid safety linebacker who played a career high 280 snaps last season. He flashed as a coverage linebacker, but saw very limited action and is already going into his age 32 season.

Young was a 4th round pick in 2018 and has the upside to be better in his 2nd season in the league, but Onwausor was undrafted in 2016 and seems to have maxed out as a capable run stuffer and occasional blitzer after 3 seasons in the league. Both could easily be overstretched in larger roles in 2018. Levine will likely still be in the mix as a coverage linebacker and could set a new career high in snaps in a thin group.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The Ravens’ big free agent addition was safety Earl Thomas, who replaces Eric Weddle on a 4-year, 55 million dollar deal. Weddle was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety in 2018, but Thomas will likely be even better. The concern with Thomas is his age, going into his age 30 season, and his injury history, ending two of the past three seasons on injured reserve with a broken leg, including a 2018 season in which he played just 237 snaps in 4 games. His age and injury history are the reasons why the Seahawks didn’t want to pay top dollar to keep him after 9 seasons with the organization, but he still played at a very high level when on the field in 2018 and has finished in the top-13 among safeties on PFF in 6 straight seasons. PFF’s #2 ranked safety in 2018 when he went down, he could easily remain a high level player for another couple seasons at the least.

Thomas’ addition makes an already strong secondary even better. The Ravens had four cornerbacks play at least 600 snaps in 2018 and all four of them finished above average and return to the team in 2019. Jimmy Smith used to be their #1 cornerback, but injuries and age seem to be catching up to him, as he has missed 21 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s not a bad cornerback, but he earned a middling grade from PFF in 2018 last season and his best days are likely behind him. He was rumored to be a cap casualty candidate this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 9.5 million dollar salary, but with so many other defensive losses they decided to keep him. Despite his salary, he’ll likely have to compete for playing time with Tavon Young and Brandon Carr.

Tavon Young covered the slot in 2018, but he was better as an outside cornerback as a 4th round rookie in 2016, when he finished as PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback on 833 snaps. Young missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and may not have been at 100% in his first season back in 2018, but he is still only going into his age 25 season and the Ravens don’t seem too concerned about his long-term health and abilities, giving him a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season. Nickel cornerbacks are getting paid more and more, but that salary suggests he has a chance to start outside as well, which is probably his best spot anyway. He has bounce back potential another year removed from his injury.

Carr is also pretty highly paid, on a 4-year, 23.5 million dollar extension that he signed two off-seasons ago. He actually led this group with 876 snaps played in 2018 and has the ability to play both inside and outside. Even if he’s the 4th cornerback in 2019, his versatility as an outside cornerback and slot cornerback make him valuable depth and he could have a rotational role even if everyone is healthy. Carr has earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, though his age is becoming a concern in his age 33 season.

Marlon Humphrey is the Ravens’ new #1 cornerback and should play closer to every down in 2019, after playing 718 snaps in 14 games in 2018. Despite battling some injuries, Humphries still ranked 16th among cornerbacks on PFF and had a 52.5% completion percentage allowed. He also had a 46.4% completion percentage allowed as a rookie in 2017 and the former 16th overall pick has huge upside. He could easily put it all together in his 3rd season in the league in 2019, only his age 23 season. He has obvious breakout potential and the Ravens have great depth behind him at cornerback if everyone is healthy.

Tony Jefferson will start at safety opposite Earl Thomas and he’s also an above average starter. He’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, making 44 of 48 starts and maxing out at 30th among safeties on PFF in 2016. Still in the prime of his career only in his age 27 season, he should have another strong season in 2018. This secondary is the saving grace of a defense that will have a very tough time being as good as they were last season.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Ravens won the AFC North and made the playoffs in 2018 on the strength of a 6-1 run to end the season with Lamar Jackson under center, but great defensive and special teams play masked the fact that this offense became less efficient with Jackson under center, even as the schedule got easier. Jackson will also have to become more of a passer in 2019, for three main reasons. For one, he needs to protect himself long-term and is not built to take hits on 250+ carries and hold up year after year. Two, the Ravens’ defense figures to take a step back in 2019 after losing a lot of talent in free agency. Three, opposing defenses will be more prepared to stop their offense if they don’t open up the passing game, as the Chargers’ wrote the blueprint in the post-season last year.

Unless he takes a big step forward, Jackson passing more is not a receipt for success. The Ravens will be a good run team and they have a solid offensive line, but they have an inaccurate quarterback throwing to an inexperienced receiving corps and a defense that could be closer to middle of the pack in 2019. They also had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018 and would be in a lot of trouble if they started losing several starters to injury. On paper, this looks like the worst team in the AFC North.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Team Score: 72.57

Offensive Score: 70.58

Defensive Score: 74.55

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)