Minnesota Vikings 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship with backup quarterback Case Keenum, who took over as the starter week 2 after Sam Bradford got hurt. Keenum had a career QB rating of 77.8 in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he finished the 2017 season with a 98.3 QB rating and was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback. Going into the 2018 off-season, Keenum was set to become a free agent, as were Bradford and fellow injured quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, giving the Vikings a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position, but also a lot of flexibility. Bradford and Bridgewater seemed unlikely to return either way, but the Vikings could have opted to hold on to Keenum, in hopes that he was a late bloomer who could repeat his career best season.

Instead, the Vikings shot higher at the position, giving a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar contract to ex-Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Unlike Keenum, Cousins had a consistent track record, recording a 97.5 QB rating over a 3-year stretch as a starter from 2015-2017, while making all 48 starts, and seemed to be the safer option, even if he was more expensive. However, the Vikings ended up missing the playoffs at 8-7-1 in their first season with Cousins under center, leading some to question that deal. 

Cousins is probably a little overpaid as the 6th highest paid quarterback in the NFL in average annual salary, but if the alternative was re-signing Keenum, it’s hard to see how the Vikings made the wrong choice. Keenum pocketed 22 million from the Broncos for one mediocre season as their starter, proving to be a one-year wonder, and only returned the Broncos a swap of late round picks via trade with the Redskins this off-season. Bradford, meanwhile, got 15.938 million from the Cardinals and wound up making just 3 starts, while Bridgewater took a backup job with the Saints. The Vikings could have opted to take a quarterback like Lamar Jackson in the first round of last year’s draft, but that scenario comes with it’s own risk. Given their options last off-season, signing Cousins was still probably their best choice.

Cousins was not the problem last season anyway, as he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked quarterback and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. His 99.7 QB rating was right about the average of his 3 seasons in Washington, so he hardly disappointed. Cousins’ contract gives him plenty of job security and, with only former Rams 3rd round pick Sean Mannion (53 career pass attempts) behind him on the depth chart, he’s in no danger of losing his job. It’s unlikely any of the Vikings’ three 2017 quarterbacks are starters anywhere this season and it’s unclear where the Vikings could have found a better available quarterback than Cousins last off-season. 

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even with Cousins having a solid season, the Vikings finished just 23th in first down rate, leading to them missing the playoffs, in spite of a defense that ranked 6th in first down rate allowed. There were two main problems with this offense last season and the offensive line was definitely number one. They finished 29th worst in the NFL in pass block efficiency, leading to Cousins being pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks, 7th most among qualifying quarterbacks. Given that, it’s pretty impressive that he was even able to put up the numbers he did and he ranked 2nd in the NFL with a 64.0% completion percentage under pressure. 

The Vikings seemed to make upgrading their offensive line a priority this off-season, particularly the interior of their offensive line. They used their first round pick on NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, who was probably the most complete interior offensive line prospect in the draft. He has experience at both guard and center, but will play exclusively center in Minnesota, kicking incumbent Pat Elflein to left guard. 

The Vikings are hoping that adding Bradbury upgrades two positions at once. Elflein was a 3rd round pick in 2017, but has struggled in 2 seasons at center, finishing 24th out of 39 qualifiers as a rookie and dead last out of 39 qualifiers last season. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league at a new position, but that’s far from a guarantee. His only competition is 2017 5th round pick Danny Isadora, who hasn’t shown much in 3 career starts, so Elflein should remain a starter.

The Vikings also signed guard Josh Kline to a 3-year, 15.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at right guard. Kline struggled in 16 starts with the Titans last season, leading to him being released just 1 year and 7.25 million into a 4-year, 26 million dollar contract, but he earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in 3 seasons prior to last season (43 starts). Going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he’s not a bad addition for a team that had a significant weakness at the guard position in 2018. If he continues to struggle in 2019, it’s possible they turn to 4th round rookie Dru Samia down the stretch, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. 

The Vikings were better at the tackle positions last season than they were on the interior. Rashod Hill made 8 starts and finished 70th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles, but left tackle Riley Reiff finished 23rd in 13 starts and 2018 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill overtook Hill at right tackle by season’s end and was an upgrade. Reiff has made 89 starts in the past 6 seasons and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, though his age is a concern going into his age 31 season. O’Neill, meanwhile, could stay a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, his first as a full-time starter. There are still some concerns on this offensive line, but it should be better than last year’s group.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The other issue with this offense last season was their lack of running game. Not only did they finish 25th in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.18, but they also had one of the bigger pass/run splits in the league, with 646 pass plays and 357 run plays, despite having a strong defense that can allow them to play conservatively. Starter Dalvin Cook missed 5 games with injury and backup running back Latavius Murray only averaged 4.13 yards per carry, but they really should have run a more balanced offense, especially when Cook was healthy, as he averaged 4.62 yards per carry on 133 carries. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after week 14 last season, mostly for not calling enough run plays, and new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.

Stefanski was kept this off-season, so expect them to continue running a more balanced attack. That will be a lot easier if Dalvin Cook can stay healthy and have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Cook has a career 4.68 YPC in 2 seasons since the Vikings took him in the 2nd round in 2017, but has been limited to 209 carries in 15 games by various injuries, including a torn ACL suffered as a rookie. Still only going into his age 24 season, the upside is obvious with him, especially since he added 40 catches in 11 games last season, but it’s not a guarantee he can make it through a full season.

As insurance, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Boise State’s Alexander Mattison, who will replace free agent departure Latavius Murray as the #2 back. Mattison should also see a significant role even if Cook is healthy, if they want to spell Cook frequently to keep him fresh. Mattison is not a guarantee to be an upgrade on Murray and a big part of why they struggled on the ground last season was their offensive line play, which could continue to be a problem, but Mattison definitely comes with some upside. I’d expect him to average about 6-8 carries per game while Cook is healthy. He’s solid insurance.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one thing Cousins did have going for him last season was his top two receivers Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs, who were one of three wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards, with slash lines of 113/1373/9 and 102/1021/9 respectively, joining Brandin Cooks/Robert Woods and Antonio Brown/JuJu Smith-Schuster. They could see their numbers drop a little bit in 2019 on a more balanced offense, but they’re still one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Neither is a one-year wonder either, as Theilen had a 69/967/5 slash line in 2016 and a 91/1276/4 slash line in 2017 as well, while Diggs averaged a 80/989/6 slash line per 16 games in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Still in their age 29 and age 26 seasons respectively, there’s no reason to expect a dropoff from either player. 

The Vikings do have a serious depth problems behind Theilen and Diggs though and would be in a lot of trouble if one of them ever missed significant time with injury. Laquon Treadwell has been their 3rd receiver the past 2 seasons, but he’s put up slash lines of just 20/200/0 and 35/302/1 respectively and has averaged just 0.75 yards per route run. Treadwell is a former first round pick and keeps getting chances, but he hasn’t shown anything in three seasons in the league and the Vikings seem to be growing tired of him. He’s not considered a roster lock and the Vikings could definitely turn to second year player Chad Beebe, who played just 46 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2019, as their 3rd receiver. Beebe might not be an upgrade, but the coaching staff reportedly likes him a lot and he may be the favorite for the 3rd receiver job.

With the Vikings thin at wide receiver, they could use more two tight end sets to compensate. Starting tight end Kyle Rudolph remains and they also added Alabama’s Irv Smith in the 2nd round of the draft. Going into a contract year, Rudolph was surprisingly given a 4-year, 36 million dollar extension even after the selection of Smith, but his contract is structured in a way where he still has little long-term security with the team, as he’s still not guaranteed any money beyond 2019. Originally owed 7.625 million in 2019, Rudolph will now make 9.35 million, in exchange for essentially giving the Vikings option years at a similar price for 2020-2023. 

Rudolph has averaged a 63/625/6 slash line in the past 4 seasons as a starter and is also a solid run blocker, but Smith has the potential to develop into a similar player at a cheaper cost. The Vikings have a lot of other big contracts on their books, so Rudolph could easily become superfluous at some point. For now, he and Smith will be a solid duo, but they may not be together than long. Even without a proven 3rd receiver, this is still an impressive group, especially when you include what Dalvin Cook can do as a receiver out of the backfield. 

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Vikings were a strong defensive team last season, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, after finishing 2nd in that metric in 2017. They were especially good down the stretch, allowing a first down rate of 31.50% in the final 9 games of the season (2nd in the NFL during that stretch), coinciding with the return of defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen’s replacement Stephen Weatherly wasn’t bad in his absence, but Griffen’s return allowed Weatherly to move back into a reserve role, giving the Vikings a talented trio of edge defenders, with Griffen, Weatherly, and fellow starter Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings considering moving on from Griffen and his 11.4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season and moving forward with Weatherly as the starter long-term, but they opted to bring him back at a renegotiated rate of 7.5 million. Griffen is going into his age 32 season and was not as good last season as he previously had been, so he appears to be on the decline. In his first 4 seasons as a starter from 2014-2017, he had 43.5 sacks, 51 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate, but that fell to 5.5 sacks, 7 hits, and an 8.4% pressure rate in 2018. He still played the run well though and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked edge defender as recently as 2017, so he could easily continue being a useful player for another couple seasons, likely in a reduced role. 

Weatherly would be the beneficiary of a reduced role for Griffen. He finished last season with 524 snaps played, with 264 of those snaps coming in the 5-game stretch that Griffen missed. Like Griffen, he was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, with just 3 sacks, 6 hits, and an 8.8% pressure rate on the season. The 2016 7th round pick is complete one-year wonder, playing 94 snaps total in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, so he’s pretty unproven, but he could also continue developing into a solid starter, still only in his age 25 season.

Hunter will likely lead this group in snaps again, as he did last season with 879 snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Hunter has quickly developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league, with 40 sacks, 21 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his career, with 34 of those sacks and 17 of those hits coming in the past 3 seasons. Also a solid run stuffer, Hunter finished last season as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender and, still only going into his age 25 season, could easily keep getting better. WIth Griffen back, this is an impressive trio.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Vikings kept Everson Griffen this off-season, but with so many other big salaries on their books, they were unable to keep defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who signed in Cleveland for 37 million over 3 years, after playing last season in Minnesota on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal. Richardson was an above average starting defensive tackle last season, playing 719 snaps in 16 starts, and was their best interior pass rusher, with 4.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.8% pressure rate.

Richardson will likely be replaced on early downs by free agent acquisition Shamar Stephen, who returns to Minnesota where he spent the first 4 seasons of his career, before spending 2018 with the Seahawks. He comes back on a 3-year, 12.45 million dollar deal and should start in base packages. He’s not bad against the run, but is not a replacement for Richardson as a pass rusher, with a career 3.4% pressure rate. The Vikings will also likely give third year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson more playing time in 2019. The former 4th round pick has some upside, but hasn’t shown much on 322 career snaps.

Their other starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph is still in town and should continue to start, but his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s coming off of a disappointing season as a pass rusher. He still had a strong season against the run, but had just a 5.0% pressure rate, a big drop from the 8.0% pressure rate he had in 8 seasons in the league prior to last season. He still played 671 snaps and could still a similar snap count in 2019, but he could also be taken off the field in more sub packages. He had an 8.2% pressure rate as recently as 2017, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall, so he has some bounce back potential, but his best days could easily be behind him at this point.

Everson Griffen used to line up as an interior rusher in sub packages earlier in his career, so maybe the Vikings will put all three of their defensive ends on the field at once in obvious passing situations, to mask their lack of interior pass rush depth. Hybrid defensive end Jalyn Holmes could also carve out a role as a situational pass rusher on the interior. The 2018 4th round pick played just 58 snaps as a rookie, but could see a bigger role in his second season in the league. This group should stop the run pretty well, but interior pass rush is a significant concern with Richardson gone. 

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Vikings were unable to re-sign Sheldon Richardson this off-season, but they did bring back linebacker Anthony Barr, in a surprising move. Barr had seemingly agreed to terms with the Jets on a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar deal, but changed his mind right at the end of the legal tampering period and wound up re-signing with the Vikings on that same deal. It’s not just a surprising deal because it looked like he was gone, but also because the Jets were looking at him as an edge defender at that salary. For an off ball linebacker, which Barr has been throughout his career in Minnesota, that contract value is 2nd highest at the position on an annual basis. 

It’s possible the Vikings could play him more at edge defender in sub packages, if Griffen lines up inside more often, but there’s no indication that they want to play him at defensive end full-time. He has an impressive 18.2% pressure rate for his career and last season had 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 22.3% pressure rate, but he only rushed the passer 103 times (46 as an edge defender, 57 as a blitzer) and has never rushed the passer more than 112 times in a season. Even at his new salary, I wouldn’t expect that to change.

Given that, it’s pretty surprising that Barr was brought back over Richardson. Barr is a good blitzer and run stuffer, but the 6-5 255 pounder is built like a defensive end and struggles mightily in coverage, earning below coverage average grades from Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons. Barr is a great athlete, but now in his age 27 season it seems unlikely he’ll ever develop into a consistent player in coverage. If the Vikings continue to use him the way they’ve used him in recent years, he was a big overpay for a team with limited financial flexibility. 

Barr will continue to start outside next to Eric Kendricks, who is an every down player in the middle. Kendricks is an unspectacular player who has never finished higher than 32nd among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but the 2015 2nd round pick has started 55 of a possible 64 games and has earned an average or better grade both against the run and in coverage from PFF in 3 straight seasons. He should continue giving them solid every down play in the middle.

Third year linebacker Ben Gedeon is likely to continue starting as the third linebacker, playing outside in base packages. He played just 311 snaps last season, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but he hasn’t been bad in coverage in limited action in his career. The 2017 4th round pick could see a bigger role this season if Barr does end up playing more defensive end. He’s very unproven overall with just 556 career snaps, but he definitely has some upside. They would have been better off moving on from Barr, re-signing Richardson, and giving Gedeon a shot as an every down outside linebacker. It’s harder to find good interior pass rushers than it is to find good run stopping linebackers. This isn’t a bad group, but they overpaid to keep it together.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was probably their best unit in 2018, with safety being their biggest position of strength. Veteran safeties George Iloka and Andrew Sendejo left this off-season, which depletes their depth, but they bring back their top-2 safeties from last season, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Smith is a proven player and his 15th ranked finish among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season was actually a down year for him, as he had finished in the top-5 among safeties in 3 of the previous 4 seasons prior to last season. Smith is going into his age 30 season and it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he also has some bounce back potential and, either way, he should remain an above average starter at the very least.

Harris, meanwhile, had a breakout year out of nowhere in 2018, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 9 starts, despite only playing 580 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and going undrafted back in 2015. Already in his age 28 season, it’s possible Harris proves to be a one-year wonder, but he could also prove to be a late bloomer. At the very least, he deserves a chance to be a 16-game starter, which is what he’s getting with Iloka and Sendejo gone and little depth behind him.

The Vikings have a lot more depth at cornerback than safety. They’re getting 2018 first round pick Mike Hughes back from a torn ACL that ended what looked like a promising rookie season after just 244 snaps in 6 games. He likely won’t be any higher than third on the depth chart though, with starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes both returning as well. In fact, Hughes may have to compete with his injury replacement Mackenzie Alexander for the 3rd cornerback job, as Alexander finished as PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback on 564 snaps last season. He’s a one-year wonder and only played 391 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he was a 2nd round pick back in 2016 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the 3rd cornerback job. Even 5th cornerback Holton Hill showed promise on 378 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season. This is a very deep group.

Not only are the Vikings getting Hughes back from injury, they’re also getting a healthier Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes played 771 snaps in 14 games last season, but was not himself for most of the season because of injuries to his hamstring, knee, and ankle. After finishing 21st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and 38th in 2017, he fell to 109th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks in 2018. Only in his age 29 season, he should bounce back if healthy, which would be a boost for this defense.

Trae Waynes will continue to start opposite Rhodes. He was limited to 693 snaps in 14 games by injury last season, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 2 seasons as a starter (30 starts). Waynes was the 11th overall pick in 2015 and has developed into a solid starter. He’s one of several high draft picks in this secondary, with Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith also being first round selections as well. The Vikings have invested significant draft resources in their secondary and it’s paid off in a strong group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are reasons to be optimistic for the Vikings’ offense, with a new balanced offensive system, a healthy Dalvin Cook, and an improved offensive line, but their defense could take a little bit of a step back without Sheldon Richardson. It wouldn’t surprise me if this team ended up making the playoffs and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot until the end, but the NFC might be too loaded for them to sneak into the post-season, especially in a very tough division. Both the Lions and Packers look likely to be better in 2019, while the Bears return most of their team that went 12-4 last season. 

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC North

Team Score: 74.29 (19th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.51

Defensive Score: 75.06

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

Chicago Bears 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears were the most improved team in the league last season, going from 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018. There were a lot of reasons for their improvement, but a big one was the improvement of their passing game. Rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky started 12 starts in 2017, but completed just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In 2018, he started 14 games and completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.43 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, their offense went from 25th in first down rate in 2017 to 14th in 2018.

It’s unclear how much of Trubisky’s statistical improvement is because of his own improvement though and how much is a result of the added help he had around him. Trubisky spent his rookie year with nothing to work with in the receiving corps and played in an uninventive offense, but he got an entirely new top-3 receivers and starting tight end in 2018 and got to work with new head coach Matt Nagy, who was able to get the ball out of Trubisky’s hands faster with more predetermined throws. Trubisky himself actually fell from 28th out of 42 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus as a rookie to 33rd out of 39 qualifying in 2018. 

Going into his 3rd season in the league, Trubisky has yet to show himself as being worth the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, especially ahead of quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. He obviously still has upside though, still only going into his age 25 season, and he has a strong roster around him. If he does take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, this could be a very dangerous team. 

Chicago’s record last season is even more impressive when you consider that backup Chase Daniel had to make a pair of starts while Trubisky rested a shoulder injury. The Bears had just a 35.07% first down rate in Daniel’s 2 starts, as opposed to 37.32% in Trubisky’s 14 starts, but the Bears could do worse than Daniel as a backup quarterback. He’s only thrown 154 career passes in 10 seasons in the league, but has a solid 85.5 QB rating and is well regarded around the league. As good as the rest of this team is, Daniel could probably hold down the fort for a little while if Trubisky was to suffer an injury.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Trubisky basically got an entirely new receiving corps from 2017 to 2018, which was a big help. His 2017 receiving corps had its projected top-3 receivers go down with injury and combine for 5 catches and no pass catcher on the team topped 614 receiving yards. His 2018 receiving corps added wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton in free agency, as well as wide receiver Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the draft. All four players finished in the top-5 on the team in receiving, joined by passing down back Tarik Cohen, who had a breakout season with a 71/725/5 slash line. 

Allen Robinson was the big off-season prize, coming in on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. Robinson’s 55/754/4 slash line is underwhelming for a highly paid player, but that’s largely the result of the Bears spreading the ball around in the passing game, with Robinson’s 94 targets (42nd in the NFL) leading the team. Robinson still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus, the 3rd straight healthy season in which he’s done that (a torn ACL limited him to 3 snaps in 2017), and finished as PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver overall. He also missed another 3 games with injury, which deflated his stats a little bit, but he could easily see an uptick in 2019 if he can play more games, especially if Trubisky takes a step forward as a passer.

The rest of this group returns as well. Anthony Miller is the potential breakout player of the group. He had just a 33/423/7 slash line as a rookie, but played just 576 snaps as the 3rd receiver and received just 54 targets. He also played most of the year through a serious shoulder injury. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. Taylor Gabriel led this wide receiver group with 830 snaps played in 2018, with Robinson missing time with injury, but Miller could easily overtake him for the starting job, putting Gabriel into the 3rd receiver role. Miller can play outside in two-wide receiver sets and move inside to the slot in 3+ wide receiver sets, with Gabriel playing outside opposite Robinson. 

Gabriel is probably best as a 3rd receiver. He didn’t have a bad 2018 season with a 67/688/2 slash line, but he had never exceeded 617 snaps in a season prior to last season and the 5-8 165 pounder is probably overstretched as an every down player. He was only signed to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in free agency, so his salary isn’t cost prohibitive for a 3rd wide receiver. He averaged a 33/455/2 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season and could be closer to those numbers than his 2018 numbers this season. 

Tight end Trey Burton had a decent 54/569/6 slash line, but the Bears were probably expecting more when they signed him to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season that makes him the 8th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. It was a risky move because Burton had only played 696 snaps in 4 seasons in the league as the Eagles’ 3rd tight end, but he showed promise with a career 1.50 yards per route run and the Bears were desperate for playmakers. In his first season in a large role, he managed just 1.16 yards per route run and only earned about an average grade from PFF. I wouldn’t expect much more from him in 2019.

Third year tight end Adam Shaheen will be the #2 tight end. The 2017 2nd round pick flashed on 239 rookie year snaps, but was limited to 160 nondescript snaps in 6 games by a foot injury last season. He’s very unproven, but still has plenty of upside and, with veteran blocking tight end Dion Sims gone, he’s locked into the #2 tight end role. He might not be that productive in a crowded receiving corps, but could still see a somewhat significant role, especially as a run blocker. This is a solid group overall. 

Grade: B

Running Backs

As mentioned, running back Tarik Cohen also had a big impact in the passing game. A 4th round pick in 2017, Cohen had a 53/353/1 slash line as a rookie, but then took that to the next level in 2018 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back in pass catching grade. Matt Nagy comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, so it’s no surprise that he’d use a running back heavily in the passing game. Jordan Howard was their clear lead running back last season with 250 carries, but he managed just 20 catches and was sent to the Eagles for a conditional 2020 late round pick this off-season. His 3.74 YPC average last season was unimpressive, but he did a good job keeping this offense on schedule, ranking 17th among running backs with a 50% carry success rate.

He’ll be replaced by a pair of running backs who fit Matt Nagy’s offense better. Veteran Mike Davis was signed in free agency to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, while Iowa State’s David Montgomery was added via the third round of the draft. Davis averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 112 carries with the Seahawks last season and added 34 catches, but he had just a 2.85 YPC average on 122 career carries in 3 seasons prior to last season and also had just 25 catches total in those 3 seasons. 

It looked like Davis was in line for a big role when Howard was traded, but the addition of Montgomery in the draft definitely hurts his chances. Montgomery has earned positive reviews this off-season, both as a runner and a receiver, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t play ahead of Davis, even as early as week 1. Montgomery underwhelmed at the combine (4.62 40 time), which is he why he fell in the draft, but he’s a violent runner on tape and led college football in broken tackles last season. 

The addition of Montgomery and Davis could cut into Tarik Cohen’s passing game production a little bit, but the Bears had 101 catches by a running back last season even with Howard as the lead back and could easily surpass 110+ catches by running backs in 2019, so there will be plenty of balls to go around. Montgomery and Davis could also cut into Cohen’s role as a runner (186 carries in 2 seasons in the league), but the 5-6 181 pounder is probably best as a sparingly used change of pace back on the ground anyway. This is a solid group, even without Howard.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky was also helped by a strong offensive line, which finished 2nd in pass block efficiency and allowed Trubisky to be sacked just 24 times in 14 starts. The Bears return all 5 starters in 2019, though it looks like they will be flipping the positions of incumbent left guard James Daniels and incumbent center Cody Whitehair. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Daniels entered the starting lineup at left guard week 8 in his rookie year and wasn’t bad in 10 starts, but his natural position is center and it looks like he’ll get a shot there in his second season in the league in 2019. Whitehair, meanwhile, made 4 starts at guard in 2017, but has primarily been a center in 3 seasons in the league and he’s been a good one, finishing in the top-12 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, so changing his position is kind of risky. If it doesn’t work out, the Bears could flip their positions back pretty easily, so it’s not a huge risk.

At tackle, Charles Leno and Bobby Massie both made all 16 starts on the left and right side respectively and finished 18th and 34th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF. Both are proven starters, making 61 starts in 4 seasons as a starter and 76 starts in 5 seasons as a starter respectively, and both have earned average or better grades from PFF in all of those seasons, maxing out at 12th and 33rd respectively. Massie is getting up there in age a little bit in his age 30 season, but Leno is still only in his age 28 season and they should remain a solid starting tackle duo for at least another season.

Right guard Kyle Long is their only starting offensive lineman who missed time with injury last season, finishing the season with just 511 snaps played in 8 starts. Unfortunately, injuries are becoming expected from him. After missing just 1 game with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2013-2015, Long has played in just 25 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons. Now going into his age 31 season, injuries seem to be catching up with him, as he earned a middling grade from PFF in 2018, after being one of the better guards in the league earlier in his career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was in the lineup for more games in 2019 and he seems to be having a healthy off-season, but his best days are likely behind him and if he misses time with injury again the Bears don’t have a good replacement. In fact, depth is an issue all across this offensive line, though the starting 5 is an impressive group. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The improvement of the Bears’ offense was a big part of why they improved significantly as a team from 2017 to 2018, but the Bears’ defense led the way for this team, finishing with the lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 30.38%, over 2% better than any other defense in the league (Baltimore was second). The Bears were a solid 9th in that metric in 2017, but their defense took it to the next level in 2018. There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest was the addition of edge defender Khalil Mack, who was acquired the week before the season started. 

The Bears paid a steep price for him, surrendering a pair of first round picks to the Raiders and giving Mack a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension that makes him the highest paid defensive player in the entire league, but he is one of the top defensive players in the NFL and is an annual candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (which he won in 2016). The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has started 77 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-6 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including first place finishes in 2015 and 2016. He dominates against the run and has totalled 49 sacks, 41 hits, and a 15.3% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons. In his first season in Chicago, he had 12.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate in 14 games and finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, there’s no reason to expect any sort of dropoff from Mack in 2019. 

Former first round pick Leonard Floyd remains as the starter on the other side. Floyd hasn’t quite become the player the Bears expected when they drafted him 9th overall in 2016. He’s developed into a strong run stuffer and coverage linebacker, but hasn’t been a great pass rusher, with just 15.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate in 38 career games. Floyd was an older rookie and is already going into his age 27 season, so he might be maxed out as a player. He’s not a bad starter, but he is a bit of a disappointment. 

Aaron Lynch also remains as the 3rd edge defender, playing 353 snaps in a reserve role last season. That’s not a big role, but it was the most he had played since 2015 and he was a pretty effective player. Lynch looked like a promising young edge defender early in his career, playing 1,310 snaps in his first 2 seasons with the 49ers from 2014-2015 and earning an average or better grade from PFF in both seasons, but injuries and off the field issues limited him to 379 snaps in 14 games in 2016-2017. 

Lynch seems to have gotten back on track, but it’s a concern for him that he’s losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was also his defensive coordinator in San Francisco and now is the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio’s absence could be felt across this entire defense, as he’s been one of the best defensive coordinators in the league over the past decade. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano isn’t a bad replacement, but it’s tough to replace arguably the best. They still have plenty of talent though, including at edge defender, though obviously they’d be in trouble if Mack were to ever miss extended time with injury.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bears also have continuity on the interior of their 3-4 defense, returning their top-5 interior defenders in terms of the amount of snaps they played last season. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman lead the way and they were among the best interior defenders in the entire league last season, finishing 4th and 15th respectively among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. It was a career best year for both players. 

Hicks has been in the league for 7 seasons and had some solid seasons in the past, but never anything like last season, as he previously maxed out as PFF’s 21st ranked interior defender in 2016. In addition to dominating against the run, Hicks also had 7.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate last season and played 74.1% of the Bears’ defensive snaps. Going into his age 30 season, it may be tough for him to match his career best year, but he could easily have another strong season.

Goldman, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and is still only in his age 25 season. The 6-4 320 pounder lines up at nose tackle in base packages, but is not just a base package player, playing 552 total snaps last season and adding 3 sacks and an 8.0% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Goldman showed a lot of promise in his first 3 seasons in the league, but could never stay healthy. In 2018, he played all 16 games for the first time and had a breakout season. His durability long-term could still be a concern, but at his age he could easily continue developing into one of the best nose tackles in the league. 

The trio of Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, and Jonathan Bullard will compete to be the 3rd starter on this defensive line in base packages. They played 354 snaps, 329 snaps, and 298 snaps respectively last season and will all likely continue playing a rotational role, regardless of who is the nominal starter. Nichols had the best year of the bunch last season, playing well against the run and flashing as a pass rusher as well, with 3 sacks, 5 hits, and an 8.5% pressure rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2018 5th round pick take a step forward in his second season in the league, after a promising rookie year.

Robertson-Harris also had a solid year in limited action. He barely played against the run, but had 3 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher. The 2016 undrafted free agent is very unproven and could regress a little bit in 2019, but the Bears don’t need him for a large role. Bullard, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2016. He’s developed into a decent run stuffer, but doesn’t get any pass rush with a career 5.0% pressure rate. He won’t be needed much either on a very deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Bears also return both starting middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. Trevathan was the better of the two last season, finishing 23rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd season in the top-23 in the past 4 seasons. Injuries have been a concern for him in the past though, as he’s missed 25 of 80 games in the past 5 seasons. He played all 16 seasons in 2018, but he’s far from a guarantee to do that again in 2019. Smith, meanwhile, was a middling starter last season in 14 starts, but the 2018 8th overall pick still has a huge upside and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league in 2019.

Reserve linebacker Nick Kwiatoski isn’t a bad fallback option if either Trevathan or Smith get hurt. The 2016 4th round pick only played 112 snaps last season, but he’s held down the fort in 14 career starts, especially playing well against the run. He’ll likely be limited to special teams unless injury strikes, but he’s good depth to have. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, Kwiatoski could easily end up getting starter’s money on the open market next off-season, so the Bears essentially have three starting caliber middle linebackers on the roster.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bears were able to bring back their entire front 7 more or less this off-season, but, like all teams built around defense, it’s tough for them to keep all their talent together under the cap long-term. The Bears were unable to re-sign safety Adrian Amos and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan this off-season and had to settle for cheaper replacements in HaHa Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine. Even still, the Bears are already 26 million over the cap for 2020. The Bears spent aggressively last off-season to try to maximize their chances of winning while Trubisky is on a cheap rookie deal, but at some point it becomes tough for teams to keep all of their talent together.

Amos was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety last season, while Callahan finished 11th among cornerbacks, so both will be missed. Amos will probably be missed the least, as the Bears did a good job finding a cheap replacement for him, signing HaHa Clinton-Dix to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. He’s not as good as Amos, but he’s made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a career best 17th ranked season among safeties in 2018. It’s surprising he wasn’t able to get a bigger long-term deal on the open market, but perhaps he’ll find one he likes better next off-season. 

Callahan, on the other hand, is being replaced by one of the worst slot cornerbacks in the league in Buster Skrine. He’s made 79 starts over the past 6 seasons and has averaged 59.7 snaps per game in 91 games, but he’s earned a below average coverage grade from PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a steep downgrade from Callahan. The 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal with 8.5 million guaranteed that the Bears gave Skrine this off-season looks like wasted money for a team that needs to make savvy financial moves. They would have been better off with a draft pick or veteran Sherrick McManis, who was solid down the stretch last season when Callahan missed time with injury. 

The rest of this secondary returns, which is a good thing since they had arguably the best secondary in the league last season. Safety Eddie Jackson led the way. Despite only being a 4th round pick in 2017, Jackson was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his second season in the league in 2018, leading the league with 8 interceptions (on just 44 targets) and finishing as PFF’s 1st ranked safety. Jackson is a one-year wonder in terms of being an elite player, but he was solid in 16 rookie year starts as well and, still only in his age 25 season, could easily be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come. 

At cornerback, the Bears had arguably the best starting cornerback duo in the NFL last season in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who finished 8th and 13th among cornerbacks on PFF. That was a career best season for both players though, so one or both might not be quite as good in 2019. Amukamara had never finished higher than 34th in 7 seasons in the league prior to last season and age and injury are becoming a problem for him. He’s going into his age 30 season and has missed 30 games with injury in his career, while making it through all 16 games just once in 8 seasons. It could be tough for him to match his career best season in 2019 and he’ll likely miss time again. 

Fuller is younger, still only in his age 27 season, which gives him a better shot at playing at the level he played at in 2018. A first round pick in 2014, Fuller was PFF’s 35th ranked cornerback in 16 starts in 2015, but then missed all of 2016 with injury, leading to the Bears surprisingly declining his option for 2018. That proved to be a mistake, as Fuller returned in 2017 to finish 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 16 starts and the Bears had to give him a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal to keep him in free agency, rather than paying him 8.526 million on his 5th year option. Fuller proved to be well worth that contract in the first year of the deal though and he could easily continue doing so. Even with some key off-season losses, this is still a strong group. 

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bears finished last season first in the NFL with a +6.64% first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time qualifying for the post-season in 2019, for a few reasons. For one, they’re going to face a much harder schedule, after finishing with the 2nd easiest schedule in the last league last in terms of opponents’ DVOA. They go from a first place schedule to a last place schedule and their division is one of the toughest in the NFL, with Green Bay and Detroit looking likely to improve and all four teams potentially looking like playoff contenders. 

The Bears also could have more injuries, after having the 3rd fewest in the league last season, and lost a couple key members of their secondary this off-season, as well as their talented defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up making it back to the playoffs, but it could be a tough road. A step forward in play from third year quarterback Mitch Trubisky would obviously go a long way towards making that happen. 

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC North

Team Score: 75.46 (13th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.75

Defensive Score: 79.17

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

Houston Texans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014 to 2016, the Texans went 27-21, but were carried by their defense and started 8 different underwhelming quarterbacks over those three seasons: Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Hoping to find their missing piece, the Texans were aggressive trading up from 25 to 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Deshaun Watson, giving up a future first round pick in the process.

Watson appeared to be that missing piece as a rookie, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, but then he tore his ACL in practice week 9 and missed the rest of the season. Dealing with an injury situation from hell, the Texans were also without their top defensive player JJ Watt for most of the season, as well as several other key starters, leading to the Texans finishing just 4-12.

In 2018, they were healthy and went on to win 11 games, but still seemed short of being a true contender, finishing 8th in first down rate differential at +2.99% and losing at home in their first playoff game against the Colts. Their defense was back to being dominant with Watt healthy, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense was a middle of the pack unit, finishing just 17th in first down rate, even with Deshaun Watson making all 16 starts.

Watson was not the problem though and in some ways he played better in 2018, even though he was coming off of a serious injury. He completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while adding 551 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground, and finished 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. His best improvement came in his accuracy and his completion percentage jumped 6.5% as a result. 

Durability is always going to be a concern for Watson because of his playing style and even last season he played through a serious chest injury for much of the season, but as long as he can stay on the field, he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best all around quarterbacks in the league, still only going into his age 24 season. The Texans did improve their backup quarterback situation this off-season by signing AJ McCarron, who has a career 91.4 QB rating on 136 attempts in 13 games (3 starts), but they’d obviously still be in a lot of trouble if Watson was to get injured again.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

This biggest thing that held this offense back in 2018 was their offensive line, which has been a problem for years. Watson led the league with 62 sacks taken and was pressured on a league most 44.7% of his dropbacks last season, making his high completion percentage all the more impressive (he finished 5th in the NFL with a 57.9% completion percentage under pressure). The Texans started 8 different offensive linemen, but only one earned an average or better grade from PFF, guard Greg Mancz, who started just 4 games.

The Texans did make upgrading the offensive line a priority this off-season, signing Matt Kalil to a 1-year, 7.5 million dollar deal in free agency and using first and second round picks on offensive linemen, taking Alabama State’s Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping. All three players will compete for roles, but it’s unclear if any of them are going to move the needle upfront. Scharping was a solid value in the 2nd round, but Howard was a reach in the first round, after the Eagles moved up one spot ahead of them to select original target Andre Dillard, and Kalil missed all of 2018 with a knee injury and was a head scratching signing at that salary. Those three will be among 10 players potentially competing for jobs upfront this off-season. 

Kalil’s salary suggests he’ll start, probably at left tackle. He was a solid left tackle early in his career, making 64 of 64 starts for the Vikings from 2012-2015, but he’s had two of his last three seasons wiped out by injury and finished just 56th out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his one recent healthy season in 2017. With Kalil now going into his age 30 season, it’s unclear who the Texans were competing with to sign him for 7.5 million dollars, especially since his deal doesn’t give the Texans any long-term option beyond 2019 on the off chance he does bounce back. He’ll likely be an upgrade over Julie’n Davenport, who finished 77th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles in 16 starts last season, but that could largely be by default and he could easily miss time with injury again. 

Right guard Zach Fulton’s salary also suggests he’ll start. He finished 65th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts, but the Texans signed him to a 4-year, 28 million dollar contract last off-season and his 7 million dollar salary for 2019 is fully guaranteed, so they don’t have much of a choice but to give him another shot. He was a better player in the first 4 years (46 starts) of his career in Kansas City before signing that contract, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been better than a middling starter.

Draft picks Tytus Howard and Max Scharping both played tackle in college, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latter moved inside in the NFL because of his arm length. Howard will likely be in the mix to start at right tackle week 1, where he would replace free agent departure Kendall Lamm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Howard struggle as a rookie though and most expected him to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. Davenport could also compete at right tackle, but the 2017 4th round pick has shown very little in two seasons in the league and likely isn’t a roster lock. 

Also in the mix at right tackle is Seantrel Henderson, who was re-signed to a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He started at right tackle week 1 last season, but missed all but 11 snaps with a broken ankle and has played just 89 snaps in the past 3 seasons. The 2014 7th round pick made 26 starts at right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career and is still in his age 27 season, but he also earned below average grades in both of those seasons and could easily struggle again if he manages to win the job.

If Scharping moves inside to guard, he could compete with incumbent left guard Senio Kelemete, who finished 59th out of 88 qualifying guards in a career high 14 starts last season. He earned average grades from PFF as a spot starter with the Saints from 2015-2017 (22 starts), but he may be overstretched as a full-time starter. Kelemete could also be pushed for his job by 2018 3rd round pick Martinas Rankin, who struggled mightily at tackle as a rookie and is now moving inside to guard, and veteran Greg Mancz, who wasn’t bad in 4 spot starts last season. Mancz was also a solid starter at center in 2016, making 16 starts as an injury replacement, though his experience at guard is more limited (11 career starts).

Mancz could also be an option at center, but it’s likely the Texans will continue starting Nick Martin. Martin was underwhelming last season, finishing 22nd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but he played every snap and the 2016 2nd round pick has made 30 starts at center over the past 2 seasons. He was underwhelming in 2017 as well, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a bit of a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, now in his contract year. The Texans added talent to this unit this off-season and it would be hard for them to be worse than last season, but there’s a lot of uncertainty upfront and this looks likely to be weakness again.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Texans also didn’t get much from their running backs in 2018. They ranked a decent 19th in YPC as a team with 4.28, but that was buoyed by a 5.57 YPC average on 99 carries by Deshaun Watson. Lead back Lamar Miller averaged 4.63 YPC on 210 carries, but did a poor job of consistently keeping this offense on schedule, finishing 35th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 44% carry success rate. He had about 10% of his season rushing total on one carry, so that distorts his average a little bit. Meanwhile, #2 back Alfred Blue averaged just 3.33 yards per carry on 150 carries with a 41% carry success rate, 39th among qualifying running backs.

The Texans didn’t do anything to address the running back position this off-season, only using a 7th round draft pick on fullback Cullen Gillespia, so they’ll once again be relying on Lamar Miller as their lead back. Miller is unspectacular, but he’s about as reliable as they come, topping 150 carries in 6 straight seasons (one of 3 running backs to do so over that stretch), averaging 4.31 YPC, totalling 203 catches in 92 games, and missing just 4 games due to injury. He’s also somehow only still in his age 28 season, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, and much of his struggles consistently keeping this offense on schedule last season were due to the offensive line’s inconsistent run blocking. He’s a good bet for another 200 or so carries in 2019, but could be inefficient on a per carry basis again if the offensive line continues to struggle. 

The Texans will also be hoping to get more from third year running back D’onta Foreman, whose 2018 season was ruined by injury. It would be hard for the Texans to get less from him in 2019, as he actually lost rushing yardage on the season with -1 yard on 7 carries, but the 2017 3rd round pick showed promise as a rookie before tearing his Achilles late in the season, averaging 4.19 yards per carry on 78 carries and he could easily bounce back in 2019 if he’s healthy, which he never was last season. He could see a significant role as a rotational running back, though he doesn’t do much in the passing game (13 catches in 27 career games in college and just 6 catches as a rookie in 2017). With little depth behind Foreman, they need him to bounce back.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The most valuable player the Texans have on offense around Deshaun Watson is #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished last season with a 115/1572/11 slash line, finishing in the top-5 in the NFL in all 3 categories. A first round selection in 2013, Hopkins has averaged a 95/1327/9 slash line in the past 5 seasons, despite having underwhelming quarterback play for much of that, and he has 153 catches for 2123 yards and 17 touchdowns in 22 career games with Deshaun Watson (111/1544/12 slash line over 16 games). Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in the entire NFL. 

The rest of this receiving corps was a weakness last season though. Will Fuller had a 32/503/4 slash line in 7 games, but then he tore his ACL and in his absence no one else topped 305 yards receiving on the season. The Texans didn’t make any big additions this off-season and will instead be counting on better health from Fuller and 3rd receiver Keke Coutee, who had a 28/287/1 slash line in just 6 games last season. 

Both players have upside, especially Fuller, who has 45 catches for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games with Deshaun Watson (65/1137/16 slash line over 16 games), but both have significant injury histories as well, with Fuller missing 17 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and Coutee having chronic hamstring problems dating back to his collegiate days, part of why he fell to the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s concerning that the Texans didn’t do anything to improve their depth behind Fuller and Coutee this off-season. 

The one addition they did make to their receiving corps this off-season was 3rd round tight end Kahale Warring. His addition coincided with the release of veteran Ryan Griffin, who was 3rd on the team in receiving last season with a 24/305/0 slash line, but he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and was not much of a blocker either. With Griffin gone, the Texans are going with a youth movement at the position, with 2018 3rd round pick Jordan Akins and 2018 6th round pick Jordan Thomas also in the mix for snaps, after playing 388 snaps and 470 snaps respectively as rookies last season. 

Neither Akins nor Thomas showed much though, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and 1.38 yards per route run respectively and underwhelming as blockers. Warring enters the league pretty raw, with just 51 catches in his collegiate career, so it’s possible the Texans don’t get much more out of any of their tight ends again in 2019. This receiving corps could easily be better in 2019 than 2018 with better health and some young talent, but this group remains a concern.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Texans were led by one of the best defenses in the league last season. A huge part of their defensive success is the edge defender trio of JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans have to get creative to get three all on the field at the same time, frequently playing JJ Watt as a defensive end in 3-4 base packages, with Clowney and Mercilus as 3-4 outside linebackers, and also using both Clowney and Mercilus as off ball linebackers occasionally in obvious passing situations, with Clowney seeing snaps as a blitzer from the middle linebacker spot and Mercilus leading all edge defenders with 168 coverage snaps in 2018. 

Watt used to be primarily an interior defender earlier in his career, but he’s played more and more on the edge in passing situations in recent years, as the Texans feel it’s a better use of his pass rush ability. It hasn’t really matter where he’s played, as he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, including #1 ranked seasons in 2013 and 2014. In total, he has 92 sacks, 176 hits, and a 13.4% pressure rate in 104 career games. He’s going into his age 30 season and missed close to two entire seasons with injury (he played just 8 games in 2016 and 2017 combined), but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was one of the best defensive players in the league again in 2019. 

Like Watt, Mercilus missed most of 2017 with injury, going down with a torn pectoral in the same game Watt broke his leg, and he was a welcome re-addition last season as well. He had just 4 sacks, but added 11 hits and an 11.4% pressure rate. A first round pick in 2012, Mercilus was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons dating back to 2015 and he has 24.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 52 games over that stretch. 

Mercilus has also been relatively durable aside from the 2017 pectoral tear, missing just 2 games in his other 6 seasons. Still only in his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2019. He did struggle mightily in coverage last season, allowing 23 completions on 25 targets with no pass breakups, and the 258 pounder is not a natural coverage athlete, so it’s possible they scale back his coverage role this season, but the Texans like lining him up in different spots and using him in different ways.

The Texans also like lining Jadeveon Clowney in different spots, though he also saw 29 coverage snaps in 2018. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney had durability problems early in his career, but he’s missed just 3 games with injury over the past 3 seasons and has played close to every snap in those games, averaging 56.3 snaps per game. He doesn’t have the big sack totals, with a career high of 9.5 sacks in a season and just 24.5 sacks in the past 3 seasons, but he’s added 35 hits and a 10.9% pressure rate in those 3 seasons and is a great player against the run as well. 

Clowney finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender, a career best, and could still keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season. The Texans made the obvious decision to franchise tag Clowney this off-season, keeping him off the market with a 15.967 million dollar salary for 2019, but they are reportedly not close on a long-term extension. Assuming he doesn’t hold out, he should continue being a part of a dominant edge defender trio.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

With JJ Watt playing primarily on the edge in 2018, DJ Reader, Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington led the team in snaps by an interior defender, with 639, 429, 347, and 257 respectively. Covington is no longer with the team, but he had the smallest role of the four and the Texans have an obvious replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Carlos Watkins. Watkins has played just 371 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but has shown some potential and should have a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league.

DJ Reader will likely continue to lead the way. He plays on the nose in the Texans’ base 3-4 defense, but the 347 pounder isn’t just a base package run stuffer, with a 7.8% career pressure rate and an average of 583 snaps played per season over the last 2 seasons. The 2016 5th round pick has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season 41st among interior defenders on PFF. Still only in his age 25 season, Reader could keep getting better in 2019 and beyond. He’ll be owed a steep pay increase on his next contract, owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019.

Brandon Dunn will likely continue starting at defensive end opposite JJ Watt in base packages (10 starts in 14 games in 2018). The 2014 undrafted free agent has developed into a solid run stuffer, which is what he’s primarily relied on for, but he gets no pass rush, with just 4 pressures on 171 pass rush snaps last season. Angelo Blackson isn’t much better as a pass rusher, with a 4.4% pressure rate in 2018, but he’s relied on as an interior pass rusher out of necessity. The 429 snaps he played last season were a career high and the 2015 4th round pick will play a similar role in 2019, after being re-signed on a 3-year, 12 million dollar contract this off-season. This is a strong group in base packages, especially when JJ Watt plays defensive end, but they lack interior pass rush, with nose tackle DJ Reader arguably being their best interior pass rusher. 

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Starting middle linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham return, after playing 919 snaps in 16 games and 753 snaps in 14 games respectively last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has made 27 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has been solid in both seasons. He’s better as a run stuffer than in coverage, but he holds his own in coverage as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019.

McKinney also is better against the run than he is in coverage, but he earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus for both last season and finished a career best 8th among off ball linebackers on the season. Also a former 2nd round pick, McKinney has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons. He might not quite match his career best season in 2019, but he should be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league again. 

Depth is a problem for the Texans at this position though, with only former undrafted free agents Dylan Cole and Brennan Scarlett behind McKinney and Cunningham on the depth chart. Cole is a 2017 undrafted free agent with 326 career snaps, while Scarlett went undrafted in 2016 and has played just 523 career snaps. Mercilus and Clowney do play some inside linebacker in certain situations, but they couldn’t play the position every down, so the Texans would be in trouble if McKinney or Cunningham suffered a serious injury.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While not much is changing for the Texans in the front seven, they had some big losses in the secondary. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson were their top-2 defensive backs in terms of snaps played last season with 1,045 and 985 respectively and both signed elsewhere this off-season. Safety Andre Hal and cornerback Kevin Johnson only played 237 snaps and 65 snaps respectively last season, but they both have prior starting experience and are also no longer with the team. 

Not only did Mathieu and Jackson play significant snaps last season, but they also played at a high level, finishing 20th among safeties and 4th among cornerbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus last season, so they won’t be easy to replace. Mathieu was replaced by ex-Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson, who signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Gipson was released by the Jaguars ahead of an 8.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s a surprise he was able to get a deal that basically guarantees him 15.5 million over the next 2 seasons. 

Gipson has started 87 games in the past 6 seasons, including all 48 in the past 3 seasons, but he’s been an inconsistent player. He finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked qualifying safety, but he’s finished as high as 15th among safeties in 2014 and as low as 94th among 101 qualifying safeties in 2016. He’s not a bad starting option and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s not reliable and he’s an obvious downgrade from Mathieu. He’ll start next to second year safety Justin Reid, who finished as PFF’s 28th ranked safety on 906 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. He should have another solid season in 2019. 

Jackson, meanwhile, is being replaced by ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who signed a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick in 2014, Bradley Roby earned average or better grades from PFF in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, playing about two thirds of the snaps as the 3rd cornerback behind the talented duo of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. With Talib traded to the Rams last off-season, Roby became an every down cornerback and matched up with opponents’ top outside receivers more often than not, but he got exposed in that role, allowing a 117.3 QB rating into his coverage and finishing 102nd among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Giving him 10 million dollars on a deal that doesn’t even give the Texans an option to keep him beyond 2019 if he bounces back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and he could easily struggle again. 

Roby will start outside opposite Johnathan Joseph. Joseph is coming off of an impressive season, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF, but the 13-year veteran is going into his age 35 season and could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next season or two. Joseph has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 10 straight seasons, but last season was his highest ranked season since 2015. I don’t expect him to be as good again in 2019 and there’s a chance he declines significantly.

At slot cornerback, the Texans are counting on a bounce back year from Aaron Colvin. Colvin was signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar contract in free agency last off-season, becoming one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league, but ended up playing just 317 snaps in 8 games and finishing as PFF’s 120th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifiers. His 7.75 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed, so the Texans don’t have any choice but to give him another shot, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy. The 2014 4th round pick earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he’s had injury problems dating back to college, including a torn ACL that caused him to fall in the draft and an ankle injury that ended his 2016 season. 

With Joseph getting up there in age, the Texans used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson as a long-term replacement. Johnson is a workout wonder, but wasn’t a standout player in college and may need a couple years to develop. He’s unlikely to start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart, but could be forced into action if Colvin gets hurt again or Joseph declines significantly. With Mathieu and Jackson gone and Joseph likely to regress, this could be a very average secondary in 2019.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Texans were a good, not great team last year, with 11 of 16 games decided by a touchdown or less (6-5 record). They should be similar this season. On defense, their secondary likely won’t be as good in 2019 as it was last season, while their offense has more talent around the quarterback, but still some significant questions, especially on the offensive line. They’ll be in contention for a playoff spot, even with a tough schedule in a suddenly tough AFC South, but I think they are behind at least the Colts in the division. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South

Team Score: 74.71 (16th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.63

Defensive Score: 75.78

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

Indianapolis Colts 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year ago, the Colts looked to be in one of the worst situations in the league. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck’s long-term future was uncertain because of a lingering shoulder issue that kept him out for all of 2017. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t play badly, but Luck’s absence exposed a supporting cast that was one of the worst in the league because of years of mismanagement and Brissett was only able to lead them to a 4-12 record in 2018 as a result. The Colts thought they were going to poach Josh McDaniels away from New England to replace Chuck Pagano as head coach, but he changed his mind at the last second and returning to New England, forcing the Colts to settle for Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

That looks to have been a blessing in disguise as now just a year later the Colts are in a great situation, coming off an improbable run to the post-season. The Colts started last season 1-5, but injuries were a big part of that and once they got healthy they went on to win 9 of their last 10 regular season games and a post-season game in Houston, before ultimately losing in Kansas City in the 2nd round. Even with the slow start included, the Colts finished the season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56%.

Second year general manager Chris Ballard did a great job of rebuilding this roster in the fly with inexpensive additions last off-season (more on those later), but the biggest reason for their turnaround was Andrew Luck’s return to form in head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system. Luck understandably started slow after a year off, completing 64.6% of his passes for an average of 6.22 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in their first 6 games, but he completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in the final 10 games of the season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback overall, his 2nd time finishing in the top-3 in his career. 

Most importantly, Luck played all 16 games, leaving backup Jacoby Brissett to only attempt 4 passes all season. Nonetheless, Brissett is still valuable insurance to have. The 2016 3rd round pick started 15 games in 2017 and had a 81.7 QB rating, despite little help around him. Brissett reportedly could have gotten the Colts a 2nd round pick via trade, but the Colts value him too much to let him go at that price, especially with Luck’s injury history. He’s arguably the best backup quarterback in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’ll likely end up getting a long-term starting job somewhere in the future. The Colts have a very enviable quarterback situation. 

Grade: A

Offensive Line

With Luck coming off of a serious injury, pass protection was paramount for the Colts in 2018. That also happens to be where the Colts made their biggest improvement from 2017 to 2018. Luck consistently played behind poor pass protection before the 2017 season, taking 156 sacks in 70 games, but last season he took just 18 sacks. Part of that was the offensive scheme getting the ball out of his hands quicker on average, but the offensive line deserves a lot of credit as well. 

Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castanzo were their only two returning starters from 2017 to 2018 and Kelly barely played in 2017, limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. Injuries have been a problem for Kelly the past two seasons and he missed another 4 games last season, but he took a big step forward in the field in 2018, finishing 11th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Durability remains a question, but he could remain a solid starting center for years to come, still only in his age 26 season.

Castonzo, meanwhile, has been starting since back when he was the only above average starter on this line. A first round pick in 2011, he’s made 116 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-8. He actually missed 5 games with injury early last season, part of why they got off to such a slow start, but he ended up finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle. He’s getting up there in age in his age 31 season, but could easily remain a reliable starting left tackle for at least another couple seasons. 

The rest of this starting offensive line consisted of a pair of draft picks, 6th overall pick left guard Quenton Nelson, PFF’s 6th ranked guard as a rookie, and 37th overall pick right tackle Braden Smith, PFF’s 27th ranked offensive tackle as a rookie, as well as free agent addition Mark Glowinski, who struggled mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career with Seattle and didn’t even make it into the starting lineup last season until week 7, but ended up finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked guard on the season. Glowinski is a complete one-year wonder, but the Colts brought him back on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal this off-season, ensuring complete continuity on this offensive line that played so well down the stretch last season. It’s possible we see some regression from an offensive line that had 4 out of 5 starters have career years in 2018, but this offensive line has a very bright future.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Colts were also much improved on the ground last season, after finishing below 4 yards per carry in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of that was the improved offensive line play, but they also had improved running back play as well, with lead back Marlon Mack leading the way. Mack missed 4 of the first 5 games with injury, but was a big part of their turnaround down the stretch, rushing for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns on 195 carries (4.66 YPC) and finishing 8th in carry success rate at 54%. A 4th round pick in 2017, Mack is a one-year wonder who averaged just 3.85 yards per carry on 93 rookie year carries, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily be one of the better runners in the league for years to come if he can stay healthy.

Mack doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 17 of 26 targets for an average of 3.96 yards per target and 3 drops last season, but they have Nyheim Hines to play in obvious passing situations. A 4th round rookie last season, Hines caught 63 passes for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked running back in pass catching grade. He also received 85 carries, but just 4.7 per game in the 12 games Mack played and was not terribly effective, averaging 3.69 yards per carry. He’ll likely still see a change of pace role to in addition to his passing game role, but he’s much more valuable as a receiver than as a runner.

Jordan Wilkins also saw his playing time drop dramatically with Mack in the lineup last season. He had 60 carries on the season and averaged an impressive 5.60 yards per carry, but he saw just 2.2 carries per game with Mack active and will likely see a similar role in 2019 as long as Mack is healthy. Unlike Hines, he doesn’t do much in the passing game (16 catches for 85 yards last season), but he’s good insurance to have in case Mack gets hurt again. He’s also very young, going in the 5th round in 2018. The Colts have done a great job of turning around the running back position in the past couple off-seasons with just a few mid round picks. 

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

It’s impressive that the Colts were able to have such a strong offensive performance last year (8th in first down rate) without a consistent #2 receiver. Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, and Dontrelle Inman all saw starts, but none of them topped 485 yards. The Colts made addressing this position a priority this off-season, using the 59th overall pick on Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell and signing ex-Panther Devin Funchess to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency.

Campbell was a good value at that spot and will likely open the season as the 3rd receiver, but Funchess’ contract is kind of head scratching. Funchess definitely has upside, as the 2015 2nd round pick is still only in his age 25 season and had a 63/840/8 slash line in 2017, but that fell to 44/549/4 in 2018 and he played just 94 snaps in his final 4 games last season, effectively being benched. He could prove to be worth his salary, but that’s far from a guarantee and even if he does he’ll likely cost even more to keep long-term beyond 2019. It would have made more sense if the Colts could have gotten him on a 3-year deal with minimal guaranteed money beyond the first year, giving them option years if Funchess pans out, but this contract doesn’t have much long-term upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed his career highs with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball though. His salary likely locks him in to the #2 receiver role.

Funchess figures to see plenty of single coverage opposite TY Hilton, who was by far their leading receiver among wideouts in 2018, with a 76/1270/6 slash line. Hilton underwhelmed with a 57/966/4 slash line without Luck in 2017, but he’s averaged a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games in his past 51 games with Luck under center. Hilton is going into his age 30 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and has only missed 4 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league. He dealt with a serious ankle injury down the stretch last season, but he showed incredible toughness, not just playing through it, but arguably having his best stretch of the season after getting hurt. As long as Luck is healthy, Hilton should remain among the most productive pass catchers in the league in 2019.

With depth problems at wide receiver, tight end Eric Ebron finished 2nd on the team with a 66/750/13 slash line on 110 targets, posting new career highs across the board. Ebron is unlikely to see quite as many targets this year though, after finishing 4th in the NFL among tight ends in targets last season. Not only did the Colts add talent at wide receiver this off-season, but they should also get more from #2 tight end Jack Doyle, who played just 331 snaps in 6 games last season. Doyle had slash lines of 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively as the starter and was on a 69/653/5 pace in 6 games last season, even with Ebron added to the mix last off-season. Doyle is also the better blocker of the two and should have a big role.

Ebron averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league with Detroit and will likely be closer to that than his 2018 numbers. He’ll still be involved as a red zone threat because this is an explosive offense and because Luck likes targeting tight ends near the goal line, but he’s unlikely to approach 13 scores again, after just 11 in his first 4 seasons in the league combined, in a much deeper receiving corps. This will likely be a very tough offense to stop next season, if they can stay healthier, after losing the 7th most games to injury on offense in the league last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Colts also had a lot of injury problems on defense last season, also finishing with the 4th most games lost to injury on defense. Despite that, they finished 11th in first down rate allowed. After years of relying on Andrew Luck to carry them, the Colts finally were a balanced team in 2018. The front office deserves a lot of credit for assembling the unit, but a lot of the credit should go to the coaching staff, led by first year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who successfully transitioned this defense from a bigger 3-4 to a 4-3 defense with more athleticism on the field. Eberflus was originally Josh McDaniels’ choice to be defensive coordinator and the Colts honored his contract even after McDaniels reneged, which proved to be a wise decision. He’s one of the best up and coming defensive coaches in the league and already received a couple head coaching interviews this off-season, after just one year as an NFL coordinator. 

In 2017, when the Colts ran a 3-4, their top two interior defenders in terms of snaps played were Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods, who tip the scales at about 325 and 330 pounds respectively. In transitioning to a 4-3, Hankins was cut ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, while Woods saw his role scaled back significantly, playing just 375 snaps as a situational run stuffer last season. Instead, it was converted defensive end Margus Hunt and hybrid defensive lineman Denico Autry, signed to a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal last off-season, leading the way on the interior, at just 295 and 275 pounds respectively. 

Both players had breakout years in a scheme that fits their skill sets perfectly. Hunt was a late bloomer, making 15 starts in 2018 after starting just 5 games in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to last season and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked interior defender on a career high 724 snaps. Hunt didn’t get much pass rush, with 5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.1% pressure rate, but he excelled against the run, even though he isn’t a traditional 320-330 pound run stuffer. The only concern with Hunt is that he’s already going into his age 32 season. The Colts didn’t seem too concerned when they re-signed Hunt for 9 million over 2 years this off-season, but he’s always been a better run stuffer than pass rusher and it’s very possible they scale his pass rush snaps back a little bit this season so he can focus on stuffing the run. 

Autry was their best interior pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 3 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate on the season, and he wasn’t bad against the run either, despite his lack of size. Autry is also a bit of a late bloomer, earning a career best PFF grade in his 5th season in the league in 2018, after earning middling grades at best in his first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland. Autry is going into his age 29 season, but he should continue giving them solid play from the interior, now in a defense that seems to fit his skillset better. 

Tyquan Lewis played primarily defensive end last season, but he’s expected to see more snaps on the interior this season and could be their primary interior pass rusher inside with Autry. A 2nd round pick out of Ohio State in 2018, Lewis was limited to an underwhelming 337 snaps in 8 games by injury last season, but still has a good upside. Weighing in at 269 pounds at the combine, Lewis will likely have to put on about 10 pounds this off-season to move inside, even in this undersized scheme, but that’s definitely doable and he could prove to be a better fit at his new position.

Al Woods is no longer with the team, leaving 6-4 333 pound Grover Stewart as the only situational run stuffer on their bench. The 2017 4th round pick struggled on a career high 292 snaps last season, but could see more playing time this season with Woods gone. He’s unlikely to ever develop into an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be improved in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. He and Hunt could be their primary early down players with Lewis and Autry as their primary sub package interior rushers. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The reason the Colts are moving Lewis inside is because they are deeper at defensive end than defensive tackle. In addition to drafting Lewis in the 2nd round last year, they also took Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round last year and then they used a 2nd round pick on TCU’s Ben Banogu in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. They also made a big free agent signing this off-season, signing ex-Chief Justin Houston to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal. He’ll start opposite incumbent starter Jabaal Sheard.

Houston used to be one of the best defenders in the entire league, finishing in the top-4 on Pro Football Focus among edge defenders in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, while totalling 40.5 sacks, 21 hits, and an 18.3% pressure rate in 38 games. However, injuries seem to have caught up with him. He’s missed 26 games over the past 6 seasons with a variety of injuries, only once playing all 16 games, and, in 3 seasons since that dominant 2013-2015 stretch, he’s seen his pass rush numbers drop to 22.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 32 games. 

That’s still impressive though and he still has a very impressive 14.8% pressure rate for his career, with 78.5 sacks and 51 hits in 102 career games. Even last season, he still finished 12th among edge defenders on PFF last season, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 12 games. Going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why the Chiefs parted ways with him rather than pay him a 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he could easily have at least a couple seasons of strong play left in the tank if he can stay on the field. He was a worthwhile signing by the Colts at a cheaper rate than what the Chiefs would have had to pay him to keep him. 

Sheard should also give them strong play on the other side. He’s never put up a big sack total, not surpassing 8 sacks in a season in 8 years in the league, but he’s been a top-31 edge defender on PFF for 4 straight seasons. He just has 24 sacks over that time period, but has added 27 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level. Like Houston, Sheard is going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and could easily have another couple seasons of above average play left in the tank. He and Houston make an impressive starting duo unless one expectedly sees their play fall off a cliff this season. 

With Houston and Sheard locked into starting roles, Kemeko Turay and Ben Banogu will be reserves, but both could see still see significant snaps in a rotational role. Turay was decent on 383 rookie year snaps and, like his draft classmate Tyquan Lewis, he could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Banogu, meanwhile, is a tremendous athlete, but still pretty raw as a prospect. 2017 6th round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad could also be in the mix, after flashing as a run stuffer on 415 total snaps in the first significant action of his career last season. With the addition of Houston, this is a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The biggest reason for the Colts defensive improvement last season was the addition of linebacker Darius Leonard in the 2nd round of the draft. Leonard flew a little under the radar in the draft because he went to South Carolina State, but passing on him proved to be a mistake for the rest of the league, as Leonard finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked off ball linebacker and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not only does Leonard excel in coverage and against the run, but he also pressured the quarterback 10 times on just 44 blitzes, including a ridiculous 7 sacks. He might not do that every season, but he should continue developing into one of the top linebackers in the NFL. 

The Colts lacked another good linebacker next to him last season though. Anthony Walker started 14 games last season and was a decent run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in coverage. The 2017 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but this could be his ceiling as a player. A pair of 2018 7th round picks, Matthew Adams and Zaire Alexander, struggled on 215 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, and also aren’t guaranteed to get any better. 

The Colts had the cap space to sign an upgrade in free agency this off-season, but opted to only use a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s Bobby Okereke. He could push Walker for his starting job, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. This is a very young group overall, so they have some upside, but for now Darius Leonard looks like their only reliable linebacker. Fortunately, he’s one of the best in the game, which elevates this entire group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback was probably the Colts’ most improved position group on defense from 2017 to 2018. That’s despite the fact that the Colts didn’t make any major additions between the two seasons. Their top-4 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played last season were all on the roster in 2017, though their top-3 did all see more playing time in 2018 than 2017, including a pair of starters in Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore who both had breakout seasons. 

Both breakout seasons were pretty improbable, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Desir had played just 907 defensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league with 4 teams, since being drafted by the Browns in the 4th round in 2014, and had never shown much in limited action, before finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 28 season last season. Moore, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2017 and was decent, but underwhelming on 384 rookie year snaps, before finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on PFF as a 15-game starter in 2018. Desir and Moore are both one-year wonders and could regress in 2019, but the Colts don’t seem to see that happening, re-signing both on long-term deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 30 million over 4 years respectively.

Quincy Wilson was the 3rd cornerback last season. The 2017 2nd round pick played just 435 snaps, but that was a slight bump from his rookie season, when he played 402. He wasn’t bad in either season, but could be pushed for the #3 cornerback job by 34th overall pick Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin easily could have gone in the first round and profiles as an above average starter long-term. Even if he spends his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Nate Hairston, a 2017 5th round pick who has struggled on 950 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. Hairston is not a roster lock with Ya-Sin coming in. Whoever wins the 3rd cornerback job will play outside opposite Desir in three cornerback sets, with Moore on the slot where he’s at his best. 

At safety, the Colts return starters Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers. It looked likely that the Colts would move on from Geathers as a free agent this off-season, but they were outbid for Landon Collins by the Redskins and decided to bring Geathers back on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. Hooker and Geathers both missed time with injury, playing 14 games and 12 games respectively. That’s been a theme for both of them in their careers unfortunately, but both are above average starters when healthy.

Hooker has the higher upside of the two, as he was the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished as PFF’s 15th ranked safety in 2018, despite coming off of a torn ACL that ended his 2017 season, and he is still only in his age 23 season, but Geathers is a solid starter as well. He’s been limited to 41 games in 4 seasons in the league, but in the two seasons he’s played at least 500 snaps, he’s finished 38th among safeties on PFF (2016) and 39th (2018). Still in the prime of his career, he was worth bringing back on a reasonable contract and the Colts have good insurance behind because Matthias Farley was a capable starter in 15 starts as an injury replacement in 2017. Even if there is some regression from the starting cornerbacks, this is still a deep and talented group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs against a tough Kansas City team on the road in one of the worst games the Colts played all season, but before being eliminated they were very much in Super Bowl contention, given how well they played once some players got healthy. This season, they go into the year without any major weaknesses on their roster and should be able to pick back up right where they left off contending for the Super Bowl. Their schedule will be tougher this season (they had the easiest schedule in the league last season in terms of opponents’ DVOA) and their division has suddenly become one of the tougher divisions in football, but they have the talent to win their division if they can stay healthier than last season, when they had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury. 

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC South

Team Score: 77.40 (3rd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 79.58

Defensive Score: 75.21

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

Jacksonville Jaguars 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2017, the Jaguars looked like a young team on the rise, winning the AFC South and coming within minutes of beating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl. That seemed to continue into 2018, when they started 3-1, including a rematch victory over New England week 2, but everything went downhill quickly from there and they ended the season at 5-11. Suddenly, a seemingly up and coming team regressed back to the team that finished 3-13 in 2016. Much like their 2016 team, the 2018 Jaguars had a strong defense (6th in first down rate allowed in 2016 and 5th in 2018) that was held back by an ineffective, turnover prone offense and a poor record in close games (2-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2016, 2-6 in 2018). 

A team’s record in close games tends to even out over the long run, but the Jaguars finished just 30th in first down rate in 2018, so changes needed to be made on offense. Highly paid quarterback Blake Bortles was benched mid-season for backup Cody Kessler and releasing him to save 11.5 million for 2019 was the obvious decision this off-season. Bortles showed flashes of being the player the Jaguars envisioned when drafting him 3rd overall in 2014, over players like Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham, but he was widely inconsistent and turnover prone.

After moving on from Bortles, the Jaguars had to decide between signing a veteran in free agency or using their 7th overall pick on a quarterback like Dwayne Haskins. They chose the former, which is understandable for a team that felt that were a quarterback away from being right back in Super Bowl contention, but it cost them, as they had to give ex-Eagles quarterback Nick Foles a 4-year, 88 million dollar contract in free agency. Signing Foles allowed them to save the 7th overall pick to use on the best available player, who ended up being defensive end Josh Allen, but the Jaguars could have signed 2-3 starters at other positions in free agency with the money they ended up committing to Foles.

Ultimately, whether or not this decision pays off depends on what version of Nick Foles the Jaguars get. Moving on from a quarterback who was widely inconsistent, the Jaguars signed a quarterback who has also been widely inconsistent. Foles definitely has a better top level than Bortles, but his career has had plenty of ups and downs. Foles had the 3rd highest single season QB rating of all time in 2013 and led the Eagles on back-to-back playoff runs as the backup quarterback without Carson Wentz the past 2 seasons, including a Super Bowl victory in 2017. 

However, he’s also been below an 82 QB rating in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including the 2017 regular season, which was a microcosm of his career, as he struggled in the regular season before going on one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs of all-time. Plenty of quarterbacks could be made to look bad by Jeff Fisher’s offense, which Foles played in during the 2015 season, but he also had a 79.1 QB rating in 2012 with Andy Reid as his head coach and a 81.4 QB rating in 2014 in the same Chip Kelly scheme that he had a 119.2 QB rating in the previous season. Foles is already going into his age 30 season, but it’s tough to know what kind of quarterback he is and he doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback week-to-week.

It’s also concerning that Foles has never made it through an entire 16 game season in his career. Part of that is because he’s been a backup in recent years, but he’s dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career and could easily miss a couple starts in 2019. If that happens, the Jaguars lack another good option, with only 2018 6th round pick Tanner Lee and 6th round rookie Gardner Minshew behind him on the depth chart. It might be the worst backup quarterback situation in the league, so the Jaguars will need Foles to start all 16 games if they are going to get back on top in a now much tougher AFC South. Even if they do get 16 starts from him, how he performs in those starts is tough to project.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

One key to helping Foles succeed in Jacksonville is putting infrastructure around him, both in terms of players and coaching. That was something he severely lacked with the Rams the first time he left Philadelphia and his second stint outside of Philadelphia might not go much better if the Jaguars can’t put the right pieces around him. Fortunately, they were able to bring back in his old quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to coordinate the offense. DeFilippo’s first attempt at coordinating an offense last season with the Vikings didn’t go well, leading to him getting fired midway through the season, but he’s still regarded as an up and coming offensive mind and the familiarity with Foles should work to his benefit.

The Jaguars also figure to try to be a run heavy team to take the pressure off of Foles. They’ll likely open up the passing game more with Foles under center than they did with Bortles, but the Jaguars still have a strong defense and can afford to be conservative on offense. This team was built in large part by former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who is about as old school as they come, and he has built this team in that image, now in an executive role. That’s probably a big part of why the Jaguars pursued Foles this off-season rather than starting a rookie, even if doing so would have allowed them to add talent at other positions. Coughlin wants an experienced signal caller under center.

Coughlin isn’t coaching anymore obviously, but head coach Doug Marrone is entering his 3rd season with the team, working under Coughlin, and is obviously on the same page with Coughlin in terms of the kind of offense they are going to run. In 2017, the Jaguars ran just 551 pass plays to 527 run plays and, while they might not have quite that even of a split in 2019, it’s clear the blueprint they want to follow to win games. 

The problem with that is they have a lot of uncertainty at running back. The Jaguars used the 4th overall pick in the 2017 draft on running back Leonard Fournette, but his career has been a mixed bag so far. He’s been relied on as a feature back whenever active, averaging 20.6 carries and 16.7 carries per game in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s been limited to 21 games in 2 seasons in the league and has just a career 3.69 YPC average. 

Lack of offensive talent around him has been a big part of his struggles and he’s actually done a decent job keeping this offense on schedule all things considered, ranking 25th out of 46 qualifying running backs in carry success rate in 2017 (44%) and 26th out of 47 qualifying in 2018 (47%), but he hasn’t been the back the Jaguars expected when they drafted him 4th overall. There were rumors this off-season that the Jaguars were actually looking to move on from Fournette this off-season, after a one-game personal foul suspension last season that voided the remainder of his guaranteed money. 

That didn’t end up happening and recent reports have been positive about Fournette’s standing with the team long-term. Still only in his age 24 season, Fournette still has a huge upside and could easily have a breakout 3rd season in the league, supported by better quarterback play. That’s far from a guarantee though and he’ll need to stay healthy, something he has had a lot of trouble doing thus far in his career. Few running backs have his combination of power and explosiveness, but he hasn’t shown it consistently thus far in his career.

The Jaguars especially need Fournette to stay healthy and be more productive because they don’t have much depth behind him anymore. TJ Yeldon has been their passing down back and backup running back the past two seasons (85 catches, 155 carries), but he’s no longer with the team and the Jaguars don’t have a clear replacement. Free agent addition Alfred Blue has 673 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but just a 3.58 YPC average and he isn’t a passing game threat, with 69 catches in 73 career games. 

Fellow free agent Thomas Rawls exploded on to the scene by averaging 5.65 YPC on 147 rookie year carries with the Seahawks in 2015, but injuries have limited him to 3.03 YPC on 167 carries in 3 seasons since and he’s also not a pass catcher, with 31 career catches in 34 career games. 5th round rookie Ryquell Armstead is also a redundant talent, a downhill runner who doesn’t contribute in the passing game. None are guaranteed to make the final roster.

Benny Cunningham, another free agent addition, also isn’t a lock for the roster, but he at least has some experience as a passing back down, catching 71 balls in 2 seasons from 2014-2015. However, he has just 78 total touches in 3 seasons since and has never topped 66 carries in 6 seasons in the league. He’s also already going into his age 29 season. He might have the clearest path to a role because his skillset isn’t redundant, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him.

Even if Cunningham can earn a situational pass catching role, I would still expect Leonard Fournette to be more involved in the passing game in his 3rd season in the league than he’s been thus far in his career. He has just 58 catches in 21 career games and wasn’t a great pass catcher in college either, but, even if he isn’t the most refined passing down back, it still makes sense for the Jaguars to try to get the ball in his hands in the open field in multiple ways, given his talent level. If Fournette plays well, it wouldn’t make much sense to regularly take him off the field for a bottom of the roster talent like Cunningham. This group has a high ceiling if Fournette can stay healthy and have a breakout year, but they also have a very low floor if Fournette struggles or gets hurt, because they lack depth.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Fournette was not the only player the Jaguars were missing on offense last season. In fact, they finished with the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in the league, only behind the Redskins. Poor quarterback play is the biggest reason why they struggled on offense last season, but their banged up supporting cast definitely made things even worse. No unit was more banged up than their offensive line, which had seven players spend time on injured reserve last season, including four of five week 1 starters.

Five of those seven players were their top-5 offensive tackles. Starting left tackle Cam Robinson tore his ACL week 2 and missed the rest of the season. He was replaced by Josh Wells and then Josh Walker, who both followed him to injured reserve. At right tackle, starter Jermey Pernell made it 13 games without getting hurt, but a knee injury ultimately landed him on injured reserve and his backup, 4th round rookie Will Richardson, went on injured reserve back in week 7 with a knee injury, before ever playing an offensive snap. 

Needless to say, the Jaguars should have better health at this position in 2019. Robinson is expected to return as the starter at left tackle and, while Jermey Pernell was let go this off-season ahead of a 6 million dollar salary, the Jaguars can replace him with either Will Richardson or 2nd round rookie Jawaan Taylor. Even though Richardson didn’t play a snap as a rookie, he’s still well regarded by the coaching staff and will at least have a shot at the job. Taylor is likely the favorite though, as he was considered a likely first round pick and the Jaguars moved up to get him 35th overall after he surprisingly slipped into day 2. Both players are obviously unproven, but they come with upside.

Left tackle Cam Robinson also comes with some uncertainty, not just coming off of the injury, but also because the 2017 34th overall pick didn’t play all that well as a rookie, finishing 62nd out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Robinson has plenty of upside and he was off to a better start in 2018 before the injury, but that was just 71 snaps. He could continue to struggle in 2019, especially early in the season, coming off of a serious injury.

Left guard Andrew Norwell and center Brandon Linder are also coming off of significant injuries, Norwell going down week 12 with an ankle injury and Linder going down week 10 with a knee injury. Both are set to return in 2019 though and they’re much better players than anyone who is returning at tackle. Norwell was a big free agent addition last off-season, signing on a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal, after finishing in the top-21 among guards on PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, maxing out at 8th in 2017. Prior to going down last season, he ranked 21st at his position, so he was obviously a big loss.

Linder, meanwhile, was PFF’s 5th ranked center when he went down, his 3rd straight season in the top-7 among centers, dating back to when he changed positions from right guard to center in 2016. Linder can play guard if needed and played pretty well there earlier in his career, but he seems to be a better fit at center. Like Norwell, he’ll be a big re-addition. Both Norwell and Linder are also still in the prime of their careers, only in their age 28 and age 27 seasons respectively. 

Right guard AJ Cann only missed 1 game with injury last season, but he didn’t play all that well. He’s started 59 games in 4 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but he’s never been better than an average starter. The Jaguars had an opportunity to try to find an upgrade this off-season with Cann set to hit free agency, but they opted to bring him back on a 3-year, 15.055 million dollar deal. He’s an underwhelming option, but he’s not overpaid and might be the best the Jaguars could do after giving Nick Foles a big contract. This offensive line still has problems, but the re-additions of Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder will be a big boost and they could easily get better play at the tackle positions as well.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Jaguars also lost starting wide receiver Marqise Lee with a knee injury before the season even started. He finished 2nd on the team in receiving with a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017. Even without him, it still looked like the Jaguars would have a deep receiving corps, with Donte Moncrief coming in as a free agent, DJ Chark coming in via the second round of the draft, and a pair of 2nd year receivers in Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole looking likely to take the next step. However, Chark did next to nothing as a rookie (14 total catches), Cole regressed, Moncrief was average at best, leaving Westbrook, who led the team across the board with a 66/717/5 slash line, as the only receiver to meet expectations. 

Westbrook looks like the favorite to lead them in receiving again in 2019 and he could easily surpass last year’s totals if he’s able to develop good chemistry with his new quarterback, but he’ll have plenty of competition. Not only is Marqise Lee returning from injury, but they added Chris Conley in free agency to replace Moncrief and both Cole and Chark will likely also be in the mix for a role. A 4th round pick in 2017, Westbrook also flashed as a rookie with a 27/339/1 slash line in just 7 games and he has shown the ability to play both outside like he did as a rookie and on the slot like he did last season, which allows him to play in all packages. He’s the most obvious slot option on the team, so he should at least have a role on the slot in 3-wide receiver sets.

Lee could return to a starting outside role and has averaged a 60/777/3 slash line in his last 2 healthy seasons in 2016-2017, but he’s not expected to be ready for the start of training camp and could easily be less than 100% to start the season. He also has a concerning injury history, being limited to just 52 catches in 23 games in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014-2015 by various injuries. He could easily end up being a significant part of this passing game by season’s end, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with him. 

Keelan Cole actually led the Jaguars in receiving in 2017, even with Lee healthy, posting a 42/748/3 slash line. Making that even more impressive is the fact that the 2017 undrafted free agent barely played the first 6 weeks of the season, before catching 36 passes for 701 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 10 games of the season (58/1122/5 slash line extrapolated over 16 games). Cole looked likely to take the next step as a full season starter in 2018, but finished with just a 38/491/1 slash line and progressively saw less and less playing time as the season went on. 

Before DJ Chark went down with an injury week 11, Chark was seeing more and more playing time at Cole’s expense and, even after Chark went down, depth receiver Rashad Greene saw some playing time as the 3rd receiver at Cole’s expense. Cole has some bounce back potential in 2019, but it’s important to remember the entire league let him go undrafted, so it’s possible his rookie year proves to be an aberration. He could easily end up behind Chark on the depth chart going in 2019, as Chark has the much higher ceiling and could make a leap from year 1 to year 2. 

Free agent acquisition Chris Conley could also end up higher than Cole on the depth chart, as he’s reportedly had a very strong off-season, but it’s important to remember that Conley has always been a workout freak whose athleticism hasn’t translated to meaningful games. In 4 seasons in the league, the 2015 3rd round pick has averaged just 0.87 yards per route run with a career high of 530 yards in a season, despite playing with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes under center in Kansas City. Now in his age 27 season, it would be a surprise to see him suddenly break out, but he could still carve out a rotational role as an outside receiver in an unsettled receiver group. 

The Jaguars also had serious injury problems at tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins was signed to a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at tight end, but he managed just a 11/90/1 slash line in 5 games before going down for the season. His replacements Niles Paul and David Grinnage soon followed him to injured reserve, leaving veteran journeyman James O’Shaughnessy to start the final 8 games of the season. O’Shaughnessy was actually impressive as a run blocker, but struggled mightily as a receiver, averaging 0.78 yards per route run on 276 routes on the season. 

Seferian-Jenkins was let go this off-season (as were Paul and Grinnage), making tight end a pressing need for them going into the off-season, but they didn’t do a ton to address the position, using a 3rd round pick on San Jose State tight end Josh Oliver and signing ex-Cowboy Geoff Swaim in free agency. Oliver is a promising receiving prospect and could lead the position group in receiving by default as a rookie, while Swaim will compete with O’Shaughnessy for the blocking tight end job. 

Swaim’s contract (2 years 6 million) suggests he’s the favorite for the job. He had just 9 catches in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2015-2017, but didn’t embarrass himself as a receiver in 9 games as the Cowboys’ lead tight end last season, averaging just 9.3 yards per catch pn 26 catches, but catching 81.3% of his targets. He likely won’t be a big factor in the passing game in Jacksonville, but he gives them a little bit better of receiver than O’Shaughnessy without sacrificing blocking ability and he should have a significant role, with rookie Josh Oliver very raw as a blocker. This is an underwhelming receiving corps overall, even if they stay healthier than last season.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

The Jaguars have been one of the best defensive teams in the league in each of the past 3 seasons, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed in 2016, 1st in 2017, and 5th last season. They were held back significantly by their offense in two of those three seasons, but they should be better on that side of the ball this season, so if their defense continues to play at a high level, they should be right back into playoff contention. Changes have taken place on this defense in the past two off-seasons though, as they have lost 7 of their top-13 in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2017 defense. 

Two of those seven players were defensive linemen, as they traded Dante Fowler (464 snaps in 2017) to the Rams at the trade deadline last year for draft picks and then cut Malik Jackson (756 snaps in 2017) for salary purposes this off-season, but the Jaguars have also used their past two first round picks on defensive linemen, so they still have a very deep unit upfront. This year, they had arguably the best defensive player in the entire draft fall to them at 7th overall in Kentucky’s Josh Allen. He’ll instantly have a significant role on this defense, especially as an edge rusher in sub packages. 

He’ll primarily line up opposite Yannick Ngakoue in sub packages. The Jaguars have to deal with the issue of Ngakoue’s contract long-term, as he’s currently holding out ahead of a 2.025 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, but if they can lock him up long-term and Allen can become the player he’s expected to be, they could be one of the best edge rush duos in the league for years to come, with Ngakoue still only going into his age 24 season. The 2016 3rd round pick has 29.5 sacks, 45 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league, though the undersized 6-2 248 has struggled against the run. Given his age, his best days could still be ahead of him. 

Calais Campbell is also a dangerous pass rusher, but he’ll likely see more action on the interior in sub packages, with Allen coming in and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who still played 628 snaps last season, no longer on the team. Campbell’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he’s had an impressive career, finishing in the top-10 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 11 seasons in the league and excelling as both an edge defender and interior defender. 

Since signing with the Jaguars before the 2017 season, Campbell has been primarily an edge defender and has totalled 25 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate and he also has a 9.7% pressure rate for his career, despite being primarily an interior defender for most of his career. Even if he takes a step back in 2019, he should still be a versatile pass rushing force on this defensive line. The Jaguars also have 2017 3rd round pick Dewuane Smoot in the mix for a situational role at defensive end. Despite being a relatively high pick, Smoot has played just 424 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he played 21.4 snaps per game last season after Fowler got traded and flashed with a 10.4% pressure rate. Still only in his age 24 season, he could easily take a step forward in 2019. This is a very deep group. 

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Along with Calais Campbell, hybrid defensive lineman Taven Bryan is also likely to become primarily an interior defender this season with Malik Jackson gone. A first round rookie last year, Bryan was seeing more playing time at Jackson’s expense down the stretch last season, averaging 28.2 snaps per game in the final 6 games of the season, after just 13.2 during the first 10 games. He only played 301 snaps overall, but he showed a lot of promise and made it a relatively easy decision to move on from a declining Malik Jackson and his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019. He should have a bigger role in 2019 and could easily have a breakout season.

In base packages, Marcell Dareus and Abry Jones will start at defensive tackle. A 8-year veteran, Dareus has always been a strong run stuffer and finished 22nd among interior defenders in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018, but he hasn’t been as good as a pass rusher in recent years, with 8.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons, as opposed to 28.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 5.4% pressure rate in the first 4 seasons of his career. 

Now in his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly find his old pass rush form, but he should remain a strong run stuffer. The Jaguars made him take a paycut down to 10.585 million from 8.085 million to keep his roster spot for 2019. He’ll play around the 563 snaps he played in 2018. Abry Jones, meanwhile, played 498 snaps last season and is a good early down run stuffer. He’s earned an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons on an average of 483 snaps per season, but he also has just a 5.2% pressure rate for his career. He’ll also likely play a similar role in 2019 on a still very deep defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One loss the Jaguars did not plan for was linebacker Telvin Smith, who unexpectedly walked away from the team this off-season. Smith fell to 43rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, after finishing in the top-25 in both 2016 and 2017, so it’s possible whatever caused him to walk away was an issue for him last season as well. He’s still a big loss though. The Jaguars seemed to have some idea they might be without Smith on draft day, taking Alabama linebacker Quincy Williams in the 3rd round. Now he’ll have to play a significant rookie year role.

Williams will likely primarily play in passing situations as a rookie. Not only is the undersized 5-11 225 pounder a converted safety, but the Jaguars have 2018 7th round pick Leon Jacobs, who flashed as a run stuffer in very limited action as a rookie (146 snaps), and Jake Ryan, who earned an average or better run stopping grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 on an average of 422 snaps, before missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL. Ryan and Jacobs will likely start alongside Myles Jack in base packages, with Williams coming in along with a 5th defensive back in sub packages.

Jack remains as an every down player and is clearly their best linebacker now without Telvin Smith. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jack has started all 32 games the past 2 seasons. He hasn’t been a dominant player, but there isn’t an obvious weakness in his game, as he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping, pass coverage, and blitzing (4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 17.4% pressure rate on 132 blitzes) in each of the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Jack’s best days could still be ahead of him, but this isn’t nearly as good of a linebacking corps as 2017, with Paul Posluszny (PFF’s 6th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving last off-season and Telvin Smith (14th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving this off-season.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Jaguars also lost both of their starting safeties this off-season, cutting Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church ahead of non-guaranteed salaries of 8.25 million and 6.25 million respectively, in order to free up money to sign Nick Foles. They also didn’t do anything to replace either of them this off-season and will be replacing them internally with a couple of young players. Barry Church won’t really be missed because he struggled last season and 2018 3rd round pick Ronnie Harrison, who was seeing snaps at Church’s absence down the stretch last season, could easily be an upgrade.

Gipson will be tougher to replace though, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked safety in 2018 and is being replaced with inexperienced 2016 undrafted free agent Jarrod Wilson. Wilson flashed in 3 games as the starter down the stretch last season, but he’s played just 305 snaps in his career total. The Jaguars seem sold on him though, giving him a 3-year extension worth 7.25 million dollars this off-season. If Wilson breaks out as a starter, that will look like a steal, but that’s far from a guarantee considering he went undrafted and is very unproven. 

Last off-season, the Jaguars lost slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, who was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, and replaced him with veteran journeyman DJ Hayden. Hayden missed 6 games with injury, but was a pleasant surprise when on the field, finishing 25th among cornerbacks on PFF on 456 snaps. Injuries have always been a problem for him, as he’s missed 25 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league, and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, but the former first round pick could prove to be a bit of a late bloomer. 

Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye remain from their 2017 team as the starting outside cornerbacks. They were better in 2017 though, finishing 2nd and 7th among cornerbacks respectively on PFF, which fell to 31st and 22nd respectively in 2018, still impressive, but not what they were the year before. Both have bounce back potential though. Last season was Ramsey’s lowest ranked season in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted 5th overall in 2016, and he still has as much upside as any cornerback in the league, still only in his age 25 season. Bouye, meanwhile, is very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and last season was also his worst season in 3 seasons. This secondary definitely has some questions, including a lack of depth if injuries strike, but they still have one of the best cornerback duos in the league.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jaguars will likely have better quarterback play, a more even turnover margin, and a better record in close games this season than last season, but their defense has lost some luster the past couple off-seasons, as it’s been impossible to keep all of this talent together, especially now with Foles taking up a big part of their salary cap for the next few years. They’re also in a much tougher division now than they were in 2017, when Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all missed significant time with injury. They could be in the mix for a playoff spot, but I think it’s more likely they end up on the outside looking in. They do have a high upside if both Nick Foles and Leonard Fournette can play up to their potential on offense, but that’s a big if. 

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC South

Team Score: 73.49 (22nd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.90

Defensive Score: 75.08

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

Tennessee Titans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s not often a team goes into an off-season with backup quarterback near the top of their needs list, but that was the case for the Titans this off-season. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota has never made it through a 16 game season in 4 seasons in the league and the Titans have never had a competent backup behind him, turning to the likes of Zach Mettenberger, Matt Cassel, and Blaine Gabbert when Mariota has missed time in his career. 

That need was filled this off-season when the Titans made a deal with the Dolphins for their former starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, sending a 2020 4th round pick to Miami, who will pay 5 million of the 7 million dollar reduced salary that Tannehill agreed to as part of the deal (none of his 18.75 million dollar salary was guaranteed for 2019). Tannehill was a failed starter in Miami, but he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has a career 87.0 QB rating, so he’s as good as backup quarterbacks come. 

Some have suggested that Tannehill might be a legitimate contender for the starting job, but there are no real indications the Titans plan on benching Mariota, at least not for week 1. Mariota hasn’t played badly when on the field, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions in 55 career starts, while adding 1270 yards and 11 touchdowns on 218 carries (5.83 YPC), numbers that would have been better if Mariota hadn’t played so many games at less than 100%.

Last season, Mariota got off to a horrible start after suffering a week 1 injury to his throwing arm and the Titans were just 3-4 heading into their bye, but he completed 71.3% of his passes for an average of 8.28 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his final 8 starts (6-2), before being knocked out for a week 17 game that the Titans ended up losing, eliminating them from post-season contention. Mariota actually was knocked out of 3 separate games with his neck/arm injury last season and missed week 2 and part of week 3, as well as week 17. In 2017, he missed 1 game and was limited in others with a hamstring injury. In 2016, he broke his leg week 16, ending the Titans’ playoff chances that season as well. And as a rookie, he missed four games and was limited in others with knee injuries.

Going into his 5th season in the league, the Titans are coming to a crossroads with Mariota, who was originally the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Mariota gets a big pay raise to 20.922 million this season on his 5th year option and could cost a similar amount annually on a long-term extension, going into the final year of his rookie deal. Some players are more injury prone than others and Mariota just might be one of those players, especially since he’s a quarterback who likes to take off and run, which leads to him taking extra hits. The Titans will have to decide how that factors into his value long-term, especially since he’s been a middling starter even when healthy. He can earn a lot of money with a strong 2019 season and, even if he gets hurt again, the Titans at least have a better backup option this time around.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Marcus Mariota’s improved play is a big part of the reason why the Titans were able to go on that 6-2 run last season, but they also were a better running team in the second half of the season as well, especially after deciding to give more work to Derrick Henry in the final 6 weeks of the season. Henry and Dion Lewis split carries pretty evenly for the first 10 weeks of the season, 110 and 122 respectively, but Henry had 105 carries to 33 for Lewis in the final 6 weeks of the season.

It’s hard to believe it took the Titans that long to make that decision. By season’s end, Derrick Henry had 1,059 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.93 YPC) and had a 51% carry success rate, while Lewis had 517 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 155 carries (3.34 YPC) and had a 34% carry success rate. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Henry had always had a lot of talent as a runner and seemed to break out down the stretch last season, rushing for 655 yards and 8 touchdowns on 105 carries (6.24 YPC) in those final 6 games of the season. Even if he regresses a little in 2019, he still has a career 4.58 YPC average on 501 carries, with 3.52 yards per carry after contact and 93 career broken tackles. He should be the clear lead back in 2019.

Dion Lewis will still be involved though, especially in the passing game. Lewis had a 59/400/1 slash line as a receiver last season and has caught 144 passes in his last 46 games, while Henry has just 39 catches for his career and is unlikely to suddenly become a big threat in the passing game. Lewis will still have a role on the ground too, even as he clear #2 back, as this will likely remain a run heavy team, in part to try to hide Marcus Mariota. Lewis struggled mightily on the ground last season, but averaged 4.82 yards per carry on 293 carries in 3 seasons in New England prior to joining the Titans on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal last off-season and has some bounce back potential. This is a solid running back tandem, especially if Henry continues to get the majority of the carries.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even though this will likely remain a run heavy team, the Titans did make some moves this of-season to try to open up their passing game, adding ex-Buccaneers slot receiver Adam Humphries on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal and using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi wide receiver AJ Brown. They were needed additions for a wide receiver group that only had one player top 500 yards receiving last season. 

Corey Davis led the way last season with a 65/891/4 slash line, but he’ll likely see fewer targets this season, after receiving the ball on 26.4% of pass attempts last season. His 112 targets were 24th in the NFL, even though the Titans had the 2nd fewest pass attempts of any team last season. If Davis wants to improve on last season’s numbers, he’ll need to take a step forward as a player and do it on fewer targets. The 5th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Davis certainly has the talent to do so. 

Humphries could push Davis for the team lead in receiving yards. He’s had slash lines of 55/622/2, 61/631/1, and 76/816/5 in the past 3 seasons respectively and is still only going into his age 26 season. He’s purely a slot receiver though and might not see much action in two wide receiver sets. AJ Brown could be the nominal #2 receiver, playing outside opposite Davis in two-wide receiver sets, but he could be pushed for snaps by holdovers Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe.

Taylor is the better of the two and the 2017 3rd round pick flashed last season on 446 snaps, averaging 1.87 yards per route run and finishing 2nd on the team in receiving yards with a 37/466/1 slash line. Sharpe, meanwhile, has averaged just 1.03 yards per route run in his career and probably isn’t a lock for this final roster. At the very least, Taylor will provide solid depth for a wide receiver group that got a lot deeper during the off-season.

The Titans also get tight end Delanie Walker back from a broken ankle that cost him all but one game last season. Walker is going into his age 35 season and coming off of a significant injury, but he averaged a 74/896/5 slash line from 2014-2017. He likely won’t come close to those numbers on a run heavy team with other passing game targets, but he’s always been a solid run blocker and could still be a significant part of this offense even without putting up huge passing game numbers. Even at less than his best, he’ll be a welcome re-addition for a team that didn’t have much at tight end in his absence.

In Walker’s absence last season, second year tight end Jonnu Smith led the team with 611 snaps played in 13 games before suffering his own injury. He was an obvious downgrade, averaging just 1.04 yards per route run with a 20/258/3 slash line and struggling as a blocker as well. The 2017 3rd round pick likely still has the inside track on the #2 tight end job behind Walker, but he hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league. As long as Walker is healthy, Smith will primarily be a blocking specialist on a team that should have more passing game options in 2019.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Offensive line play was also a problem last season, as Marcus Mariota took 42 sacks, 8th most in the NFL, which isn’t ideal for a quarterback as injury prone as Mariota. Part of that is Mariota’s fault, as he led the league by taking a sack on 29.8% of his pressured dropbacks, but offensive line play deserves some of the blame as well. On top of that, the Titans lost their starting guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline this off-season, Spain signing with the Bills as a free agent and Kline being released ahead of a 6.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing with the Vikings. 

The Titans did add Rodger Saffold in free agency and he’ll likely be better than both Spain or Kline. Saffold had injury problems early in his career, but he’s made 46 of 48 possible starts at left guard in the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-8 among guards on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and the Titans are paying a lot for his services, making him the 6th highest paid guard in the league in average annual value with a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal, but he should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, even if he does start to decline.

Right guard is still a question mark though. The Titans used a 3rd round pick on UNC Charlotte’s Nate Davis, but it’s unclear if he’ll be able to start as a rookie. Their only other experienced option is veteran journeyman Kevin Pamphile, who has 35 career starts, including 29 from 2016-2017, but he finished 78th out of 85 qualifying guards and 49th out of 92 qualifying guards on PFF in those two seasons respectively and would be a very underwhelming starting option in 2019.

Former first round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin remain the starters at left and right tackle respectively. They used to be one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL and Lewan is still one of the best left tackles in the league, finishing in the top-22 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons (62 starts), but Conklin’s career has kind of been derailed by injury. The 8th overall pick in 2016, Conklin finished 31st and 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively, but he tore his ACL in their playoff loss in New England in January 2018. 

Conklin didn’t make his 2018 season debut until week 4 and was limited to 498 underwhelming snaps in 9 games by subsequent knee injuries. He’s still not healthy this off-season, and had his 5th year option for 2020 declined, even though it’s guaranteed for injury only, which is not a good sign. There’s no indication his status for week 1 is in doubt and he could still get a significant contract next off-season if he can stay healthy in 2019, but the Titans didn’t want to take the risk with an option worth 12.866 million, which would have put him among the 3 highest paid right tackles in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but might not be the same player he was in 2016-2017. If he misses time with injury again, the Titans would likely turn to Dennis Kelly, a career journeyman with 27 career starts.

Center Ben Jones also remains as the starter. He’s started all 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 12th among centers. Jones is going into his age 30 season, but centers can have long careers and I see no reason to expect him to suddenly fall off in 2019. He should have another solid season on an offensive line that looks strong except for right guard. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Unlike the Titans’ offense, which struggled, ranking 24th in first down rate at 34.12%, the Titans’ defense played well, allowing the 4th lowest first down rate in the league at 32.77%. Their one weakness was their edge rush, as they didn’t have a single edge defender with more than 4.5 sacks. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan were the nominal starters, starting 13 games and 12 games respectively, but they had just 1.5 sacks and 0.5 sacks respectively. Orakpo and Morgan were both free agents this off-season, giving the Titans an opportunity to upgrade.

In free agency, the Titans signed long-time Dolphin Cameron Wake to a 3-year, 23 million dollar contract. A 10-year veteran (all with Miami), Wake has had 98 sacks, 151 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate in his career. Now going into his age 37 season, his age is a significant concern, but he was still an effective rusher as a part-time player last season, with 6 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 17.3% pressure rate. He’s unlikely to significantly top the 517 snaps he played in 2018 and, at his age. his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but he could continue being effective in a situational role. 

With Morgan and Orakpo both missing time with injury last season, rookie Harold Landry actually led Titan edge defenders with 592 snaps played last season. He didn’t show much, with 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate on the season, but he’ll still likely play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league in 2019 and the 2nd round pick has the talent to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. 

With Landry and Wake working as the primary edge rushers, reserves Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch will be situational run stoppers. Correa has never topped 323 snaps in a season and has just a career 6.7% pressure rate, but the 2016 2nd round pick has developed into a solid run stopper and could set a new career high in snaps in 2019, still only in his age 25 season. Finch, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed on 206 rookie year snaps. He looks deserving of a larger role. The addition of Cameron Wake will probably give the Titans more edge rush than last season, but that’s not a guarantee at his age, and the Titans lack a standout edge defender.

Grade: B- 

Interior Defenders

Arguably the Titans’ best defensive player is interior defender Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense. Just a 4th round pick 2011, Casey has started 123 of 128 starts since entering the league and has finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, including 2 seasons in the top-10 and a 17th ranked season in 2018. Casey is going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and would still be one of the better interior defenders in the league even if he started to decline a little.

Casey will be an every down player and will start alongside nose tackle Austin Johnson and fellow starting defensive end Daquan Jones in base packages. The 6-4 314 pound Johnson is a pure nose tackle and played just 399 snaps total in 2018, actually a career high. He was a 2nd round pick in 2016 and is a solid run stuffer, but has just a 2.7% pressure rate in his career and is only a situational player. He seems unlikely to develop into much more.

Daquan Jones is also a much better run stuffer than pass rusher, earning an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, but managing just a 5.7% pressure rate for his career. He plays more than Johnson, averaging 592 snaps per game during those 4 seasons, but he’ll likely come off the field frequently in passing situations for free agent addition Brent Urban, who was a situational pass rusher with the Ravens last season.

Urban has just a career 6.7% pressure rate though and has missed 39 of a possible 80 games, since going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft. He’s an underwhelming signing for a team that doesn’t have another interior pass rusher. The Titans could also get first round pick Jeffrey Simmons back late in the season, but he’s considered highly questionable to play at all as a rookie because of a torn ACL suffered in the pre-draft process in February and wouldn’t be back until December at the earliest. This group will be stout against the run again, but Jurrell Casey can expect to see frequent double teams in pass rush situations. 

Grade: B+

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Titans had a trio of players rotate snaps last season. Jayon Brown (852 snaps) and Wesley Woodyard (714 snaps) were their primary coverage linebackers, with Rashaan Evans (494 snaps) rotating as a situational run stuffer. All three players return and should see similar roles in 2019. Evans was a first round pick in 2018 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but he didn’t show much in coverage and will likely have to wait until Woodyard becomes a free agent next off-season to have a shot at a bigger role, unless injuries strike. 

Woodyard is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s still a solid player, finishing 21st among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018. He’s never been a standout player and has never earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, but he’s started 108 of the 165 games he’s played in 11 seasons in the league, including 92 starts in the past 7 seasons, and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He may decline in 2019, but could remain a capable starter. 

Jayon Brown is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 9th among off ball linebackers on PFF. The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder though, finishing 77th among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on 487 rookie year snaps. Brown could continue playing at a high level, now in his 3rd season in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed a little bit from last season. Even still, this is an impressive trio of linebackers. Even if one of the starters were to get hurt, Rashaan Evans should be capable of moving to an every down role if needed.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Titans got solid play from their front seven last season, but the strength of this defense was the secondary and they bring back their top-5 defensive backs in terms of snaps played. Safety Kevin Byard is the best of the bunch and arguably their best defensive player overall. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Byard broke out in 2017, finishing 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and leading the league with 8 interceptions. 

In 2018, that interception total got cut in half, but that was mostly because defenses stopped testing him, throwing into his coverage about half as frequently as 2017. He still finished as PFF’s 6th ranked safety and, only going into his age 26 season, looks likely to be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could push to be the league’s highest paid safety (upwards of 14 million annually) on his next contract.

Kenny Vaccaro remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick by the Saints in 2013, Vaccaro had an up and down 5 seasons in New Orleans and had to settle for signing a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal with the Titans late in the off-season last year, but he was a solid starter in 13 games in 2018 and the Titans wanted to keep him as the starter long-term, re-signing him for 24 million over 4 years this off-season. His history of inconsistency is a concern and he was PFF’s 92nd ranked safety out of 95 qualifiers as recently as 2017, but there are worse starting safeties and he’s plenty experienced (80 career starts).

At cornerback, the Titans’ trio of Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler finished 30th, 35th, and 55th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018, on 959 snaps, 855 snaps, and 836 snaps respectively. The Titans have made big investments in all three players in the past couple off-seasons and have overhauled their secondary in a hurry. Jackson was a first round pick in 2017 and has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons in the league (29 starts). Still only going into his age 25 season, Jackson has the talent to develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and could keep getting better.

Ryan and Butler, meanwhile, both come from the Patriots, Ryan on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and Butler on a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Ryan is an unspectacular player, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons and he has the versatility to play both outside and on the slot. Butler was a disappointment in his first season in Tennessee and he was underwhelming in his final season in New England as well (47th among cornerbacks on PFF), but he does have some bounce back potential, finishing 25th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 6th in 2016. LeShaun Sims, a 2016 5th round pick who has played 879 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league, while likely remain as the 4th cornerback. He likely won’t be needed much behind a talented cornerback trio.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are some reasons to be optimistic about the Titans’ chances of making it back to the post-season. Their offense played better down the stretch last season with Derrick Henry as the lead back and Marcus Mariota healthy and their defense remains one of the better defenses in the league. They also addressed their biggest weaknesses, edge defender and wide receiver, this off-season. Mariota could easily get hurt again at some point this season, but backup Ryan Tannehill won’t be a huge downgrade if he has to start. That being said, this division is much tougher than when they made the post-season two years ago, with Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all back healthy, so a return to the post-season is far from a given.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South

Team Score: 75.06 (15th)

Offensive Score: 74.33

Defensive Score: 75.78

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

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 Ramczyk 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.

Ramczyk, 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, Ramczyk 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. 

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC South

Team Score: 78.30 (1st in NFL)

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)