Detroit Lions 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions got off to a decent 3-4-1 start last season, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested, ranking 23rd in first down rate differential at -3.00% and things just got worse from there. Quarterback Matt Stafford suffered a back injury that cost him the final 8 games of the season, a big loss as Stafford was arguably playing the best football of his career before going down, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 8.59 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while ranking 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Without him, their offense that ranked 15th in first down rate through the first 8 games of the season at 36.75% fell to a 31.29% first down rate, most equivalent to the 30th ranked Redskins on the season, while their defense continued to struggle, finishing 23rd in the NFL with a 37.57% first down rate allowed on the season. As a result, the Lions didn’t win a single game the rest of the way, finishing at 3-12-1 and finishing the year 25th in first down rate differential at -3.52%. 

Stafford is expected to be back healthy in 2020, but the Lions obviously need to significantly improve around the quarterback to be a contending team, especially since they can’t count on Stafford being quite as good as he was during the first half of last season. Overall, Stafford has completed 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 237 touchdowns, and 113 interceptions over the past 8 seasons, while finishing in the top-13 among quarterbacks on PFF in 5 of those 8 seasons, including a career best 7th ranked finish in 2016. 

Stafford’s injury history is becoming a concern, as he’s now suffered back injuries in back-to-back years, but last year’s injury was the first injury to cause him to miss any time since 2010 and, in his age 32 season, he’s not over the hill for a quarterback, so he has a good chance to return to form if his back problems are behind him. That being said, it would have been good to see the Lions get a better backup for Stafford this season, as the play of Jeff Driskel (75.3 QB rating) and David Blough (64.0 QB rating) was a big part of why they struggled so much on offense without Stafford. The Lions did sign Chase Daniel to a 3-year, 13.05 million dollar deal in free agency, but he has made just 5 starts in 10 seasons in the league as primarily a professional clipboard holder, so it’s unclear how much better of a backup he is.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Not only was Stafford highly productive in the first half of last season before his injury, but his receivers were as well, as their top-3 wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola were on pace for slash lines of 70/1280/14, 84/1070/12, and 66/806/2 respectively through 8 games, while tight end TJ Hockenson was on pace for a a 44/596/4 slash line. Only Golladay came close to reaching what he was on pace for, finishing with a 65/1190/11 slash line to lead the team in receiving by a pretty wide margin. 

A third round pick in 2017, Golladay also led this team in receiving in his second season in the league in 2018 with a 70/1063/5 slash line and he was especially productive down the stretch during that season, with 40 catches for 586 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 games of the season, meaning he has a 75/1226/9 in his last 16 games with a healthy Matt Stafford. That’s a reasonable projection for Golladay in his age 27 season 2020 if Stafford and Golladay can both stay healthy all season and Golladay has shown he can be productive even with backups under center as well.

Danny Amendola, meanwhile, finished at 62/678/1, which isn’t bad all things considered. Amendola is a slot only option though and he’s going into his age 35 season with a shaky injury history (two full 16 game seasons played in 11 years in the league), so he’s not necessarily going to be a reliable option again in 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss significant time or have a significant drop off in his level of play. Given that, it’s surprising the Lions did little to add competition or insurance behind him on the roster, only signing mediocre veteran free agent Geronimo Allison and using a 5th round pick on Quintez Cephus.

Marvin Jones and TJ Hockenson, meanwhile, not only saw their production fall off after Stafford got hurt, but they suffered injuries of their own. The 8th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson had a great debut with 6 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown week 1, but didn’t surpass 56 yards in a game the rest of the season and was limited to 10 catches for 71 yards and no scores in 4 games after Stafford went down. Overall, he had just a 32/367/2 slash line and earned a middling grade from Pro Football Focus on 525 snaps in 12 games. He still has obvious upside though and could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league if he and Stafford can both stay healthy. The Steelers also have tight end Jesse James as a blocking specialist in two tight end sets and, even though he was overstretched as a starter in Pittsburgh prior to arriving in Detroit, he’s not a bad #2 tight end.

Jones, meanwhile, is a veteran going into his 9th season in the league, but he’s not over the hill in his age 30 season. Injuries are the bigger concern, as he’s missed 10 of 32 games over the past two seasons combined. He’s still averaged a 71/936/10 slash line per 16 games over that stretch, more or less in line with his 62/969/6 average slash line per 16 games from the three prior seasons, so he hasn’t shown much drop off and continue easily continue earning above average grades from PFF, something he’s done in 5 straight seasons, but between injuries and age, his best days are likely behind him. There is a lot of upside in this group, but they’ll need to stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Lions also were without expected feature back Kerryon Johnson for a big chunk of last season, as he was limited to 113 carries in 8 games. In his absence, Bo Scarborough and Ty Johnson combined for a decent 4.28 YPC average on 152 carries (89 for Scarborough and 63 for Johnson), but both struggled mightily as pass catchers, combining for 3.26 yards per target on 35 targets, leaving bottom of the roster talent JD McKissic (34/233/1 on 42 targets) as the primary pass catching back down the stretch.

Kerryon Johnson is expected to be healthy for the start of the 2020 season, but he injuries have been a big concern for him in recent years, as he’s missed 14 of a possible 32 games in two seasons in the league, and he likely won’t be returning to the same role, as the Lions used the 35th overall pick on running back D’Andre Swift. It’s understandable the Lions would want to add more insurance behind Johnson given his injury history, but, given the Lions’ other needs, using such a high pick on a running back doesn’t seem necessary.

Johnson was a second round pick himself just two years ago in the 2018 draft and he’s shown a lot of promise when on the field thus far in his career. As a rookie, Johnson rushed for a 5.43 YPC average on 118 carries and ranked 12th among running backs with a 53% carry success rate and, while his YPC average fell to 3.57 in 2019, that was almost entirely because of his lack of long runs (no carries over 20 yards on the season), as he still ranked 11th in carry success rate at 52%. All in all, he’s averaged 4.52 YPC with 6 touchdowns on 231 career carries in 18 career games, with 3.02 YPC coming after contact. He’s also shown some promise as a receiver, averaging a 37/302/2 slash line per 16 games thus far in his career. 

Only in his age 23 season, I wouldn’t rule out Johnson still becoming a feature back at some point in the future, but the addition of Swift, arguably the best running back prospect in the draft, obviously complicates matters. How the carries are split up probably won’t be decided until training camp and may vary through the season, but I like Johnson’s chances of maintaining a role better than most. At the very least, Swift should still have a heavy change of pace role and figures to see significant action in passing situations as well. This is a talented young backfield, but the Lions probably should have used that high second round pick elsewhere given their other pressing needs.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

One of those other pressing needs was right guard, where the Lions lost Graham Glasgow to free agency this off-season, a big loss, considering Glasgow was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard in 15 starts. The Lions did use a third round pick on a guard, using the 75th overall pick on Ohio State’s Jonah Johnson, but he would likely struggle as a rookie if he had to see action. He’ll compete for the starting job with veterans Oday Aboushi and Kenny Wiggins, who have both been mediocre on 34 and 38 career starts respectively, at a position that figures to be a weakness regardless of who starts.

Right tackle Ricky Wagner is also gone, although that’s because the Lions released him ahead of 9 million owed for his age 31 season in 2020, after a 2019 season in which he ranked 66th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF, and replaced him with free agent acquisition Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who comes over from the Eagles on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal. A 5th round pick in 2016, Vaitai has generally fared well as a spot starter at both tackle spots for the Eagles over the past 4 seasons, but it’s worth noting that he has just 20 career starts total and struggled in 2017 in his longest stint as a starter, finishing 72nd out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in 10 starts. He’s been better the past couple seasons and could be a solid starter for the Lions, but he’s still a projection to a larger role, so it’s a surprise the Lions were willing to pay him so much.

The rest of this offensive line remains the same from last season. Left guard Joe Dahl could have been upgraded this off-season, but with the Lions not even retaining or replacing Graham Glasgow, Dahl is likely into a starting role for the second straight season. The 2016 5th round pick wasn’t bad in his first career extended starting action in 2019, after flashing on 253 career snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he was still only a middling starter and he’s still relatively inexperienced for his age, in his age 27 season with 17 career starts. He’s not a bad starter, but he’s not a particularly good one either.

Left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow are by far their best offensive linemen. A first round pick in 2016, Decker has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including a 19th ranked finish in 2019, the second highest rank of his career. Also a former first round pick, Ragnow earned a middling grade as a rookie in 2018 in 16 starts, but took a big step forward in his second season in 2019, finishing 6th among centers on PFF in starts. Ragnow is technically a one-year wonder, but both he and Decker are highly talented players in the prime of their career in their age 24 season and age 27 season respectively. They elevate an otherwise underwhelming offensive line.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Lions’ defense struggled last season, but free agent acquisition Trey Flowers wasn’t the problem, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked edge defender in the first year of a 5-year, 90 million dollar deal. Flowers only had 7 sacks and has never topped 7.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s consistently been much better than his sack totals have suggested over the past 4 seasons, as he’s added a 12.7% pressure rate and 55 hits to his 28 sacks over that stretch and he also plays at a high level against the run. 

Overall, Flowers has finished in the top-43 among edge defenders on PFF in each of those past four seasons, including three seasons in the top-20 and career best 3rd ranked finish in 2018. He also lines up on the interior in pass situations somewhat frequently, making his pass rush stats all the more impressive. Still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Flowers could easily have another strong season and it’s only a matter of time before he finally gets a big sack total.

The Lions will need someone else to step up as a pass rusher though, as they had the second fewest sacks in the league last season with 28 and, aside from Flowers, the only Lion with more than 2 sacks on the season was fellow starting edge defender Devon Kennard, who signed with the Cardinals this off-season. Kennard wasn’t a spectacular player, but he was a snap eater (58.4 snaps per game) and the Lions don’t have a good replacement for him.

Veteran Romeo Okwara has played 42.1 snaps per game over the past two seasons and has been a solid run stuffer, but he doesn’t get much pass rush, lining up either inside or outside in passing situations. His 7.5 sacks in 2018 were not indicative of his pass rush consistency (9.3% pressure rate) and he saw that total fall to 1.5 in 2019 with a very similar pressure rate (9.0%) on a similar snap total. 

For Okwara’s career, he has just a 8.2% pressure rate and, while he’s still young in his age 25 season, it seems likely he’ll top out as an above average run stuffer who isn’t a consistent pass rush option. He’ll likely continue seeing snaps for lack of a better option though. The Lions also added Romeo’s brother Julian Okwara in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft and he figures to compete for a role as a rookie as well, as will 2019 4th round pick Austin Bryant, who played 133 mediocre snaps as a rookie. None are particularly exciting options.

The Lions’ big off-season addition in the front seven was linebacker Jamie Collins, who figures to see some snaps off the edge as a pass rusher in sub packages. Collins was PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker last season in New England, but the 3-year, 30 million dollar deal the Lions gave him in free agency could easily prove to be an overpay. Collins also finished 6th and 7th at his position in 2014 and 2015 respectively in his first stint with the Patriots, but was only a middling player in two and a half years with the Browns after leaving New England and, now going into his age 31 season, there’s definitely concern that Collins will once again regress after leaving the Patriots. 

The Lions run a similar scheme to the Patriots, led by head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, which should help ease Collins’ transition, but that hasn’t necessarily always led to good results for former Patriots who have reunited with former Patriots assistants on other teams, so there’s a good chance Collins fails to match last year’s level of play. He should play a similar role to last season, when he had 189 pass rush snaps to 343 coverage snaps in passing situations, but he could easily not be as effective in coverage or as a pass rusher (16.9% pressure rate) and his run play and tackling (16 missed tackles) already left something to be desired in New England last season. With Collins likely to regress and only being a part-time pass rusher, it’s still pretty unclear where the Lions are going to get consistent pass rush besides from Trey Flowers.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

With Trey Flowers capable of rushing from the interior, the Lions seemed to have a very strong group on the interior going into last season, with Flowers as a situational player and A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison, Da’Shawn Hand, and Mike Daniels all coming off of strong 2018 seasons, the latter of whom came over from the Packers as a free agency. However, Hand and Daniels were limited to 110 snaps and 203 snaps respectively by injury and all four players struggled compared to 2018 when on the field. This off-season, Daniels and Robinson were set to hit free agency and, not only were they not retained, but the Lions also moved on from Harrison, rather than paying him 9.25 million non-guaranteed for 2020. Da’Shawn Hand remains and will compete for a role, but otherwise they’ve completely remade this position group.

A 4th round pick in 2018, Hand flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing 17th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus across 455 snaps in 13 games, dominating against the run and adding 3 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate. He had an injury ruined season in 2019, his rookie year ended with an injury as well, and he’s still an unproven player who wasn’t that highly drafted, but he was a highly touted recruit who has always had a huge upside. He’s hardly a reliable option and he’s obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had a breakout third season in the league in close to an every down role. The raw talent is there.

In free agency, the Lions added veterans Danny Shelton and Nick Williams on deals worth 8 million over 2 years and 10 million over 2 years respectively and both figure to have significant roles as well. Shelton is only a two down player, consistently grading above average against the run on PFF, but managing just 4.5 sacks and a 5.2% pressure rate in 75 career games in 5 years in the league since being selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Browns. Shelton is still only in his age 27 season and coming off of arguably the best year of his career with the Patriots last season, something Matt Patricia and the Lions are hoping can continue into 2020 in a familiar scheme, but he would be overstretched if he had to play more than the 33.8 snaps per game he’s played in his career.

Williams, meanwhile, was a much more head scratching signing. He wasn’t bad on 532 snaps for the Bears last season, but the 2013 7th round pick has actually just played 312 snaps total in his career besides last season and he’s already going into his age 30 season. It’s possible he could be a capable rotational player again, but that’s probably his ceiling and he comes with a pretty big floor, so it’s unclear why the Lions felt the need to pay him so much. He’ll likely begin the season in a big role, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he fell out of the rotation entirely by the end of the season, even though this is an underwhelming position group.

With so many injuries at the position last season, 2018 undrafted free agent John Atkins was forced into a significant role, playing 409 snaps in 12 games. He struggled mightily, finishing 119th out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF, but could still earn playing time in this group, given how thin they are. This position group has some upside because of Da’Shawn Hand’s breakout potential, but they also have a pretty big floor and are an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Jamie Collins figures to see significant action at one linebacker spot, even if he lines up on the edge somewhat frequently in passing situations, but the other roles in this linebacking corps are up for grabs. Jarrad Davis led this group with 654 snaps played last season, but he struggled mightily, finishing 95th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Davis was a first round pick back in 2017, but last year’s struggles were nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the bottom-20 of off ball linebackers on PFF in all three seasons in the league. Despite his experience and his first round pedigree, he shouldn’t be locked into a role, even in a questionable linebacking corps overall.

Christian Jones played the second most snaps at this position last season with 609 snaps, essentially playing the role Jamie Collins will play this season (though Collins figures to see more snaps), dropping into coverage on 64.2% of his pass snaps and rushing the passer on the rest. Jones wasn’t particularly good in any aspect of his game last season though, finishing 92nd out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. Jones wasn’t a good fit for the role he was in and he’s been better in the past, but only by default as the 6-year veteran has been middling at best in his career on an average of 527 snaps per season. He also shouldn’t be locked into a role.

Jahlani Tavai has the most promise of any returning linebacker, as the 2019 2nd round pick was capable across 597 rookie year snaps and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. He’s the best bet of this group to play every down as a traditional off ball linebacker, with Collins playing a hybrid role and Jones and Davis competing primarily for base package snaps, as the Lions like to use three safeties together frequently in sub packages to mask their lack of coverage linebackers. This isn’t a great group, but Collins’ addition should help even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season and Tavai has some breakout potential.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Lions figure to use three safeties together in sub packages again this year, although who those three safeties will be slightly different, with Tavon Wilson not being re-signed as a free agent this off-season and being replaced by another former New England Patriot in Duron Harmon, who comes over via trade for a swap of late round picks. Tracy Walker and Will Harris remain and all three figure to see significant action, regardless of who the nominal starters are.

Wilson was solid on 840 snaps last season, but Harmon should be an adequate replacement, as he’s earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons, on an average of 38.8 snaps per game, including a 24th ranked finish on 657 snaps last season. Harmon could play every down in Detroit and he’d be a slight projection to that role because he’s never topped 701 snaps in a season, but he’s still in his age 29 season and should be able to be at least a solid starter.

Walker and Harris, meanwhile, are recent third round draft picks, in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Walker’s career has gotten off to a good start, as he flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie, before finishing 25th among safeties on PFF on 843 snaps in a larger role in his second season in the league. He could easily take another step forward in his third season in the league in 2020, but even if he doesn’t, he should remain an above average starter at the very least. 

Harris, on the other hand, struggled as a rookie, finishing 85th out of 100 qualifying safeties on 667 snaps. He could be better in his second season in the league, but that’s not a given. He would be best as the 3rd safety, with Walker and Harmon starting. Tavon Wilson was the one who primarily played linebacker in sub packages last season, but even with him gone they should be able to make that formation work with their current personnel, with Walker probably being the most likely candidate to drop down to the line of scrimmage.

At cornerback, the Lions made significant changes this off-season. Darius Slay and Rashaan Melvin played 858 snaps and 870 snaps respectively last season, primarily as outside cornerbacks, but Slay was traded to the Eagles for a 3rd round and a 5th round pick, while Melvin was let go as a free agent and signed with the Jaguars this off-season. Both struggled last season, Slay surprisingly so, finishing 99th and 104th respectively out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, so it wouldn’t be hard for the Lions to have better outside cornerback play this season. 

Slay has been much better in the past and was still only going into his age 29 season, but he was owed 10.5 million in the final year of his contract and wanted a more expensive extension, so it’s understandable the Lions would want to move him, especially since they were able to get decent compensation and much needed draft picks in return for him. The Lions used the money freed up by moving Slay to sign Desmond Trufant to a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal and he figures to be an upgrade over anyone they had outside last season. 

A 7-year veteran, Trufant hasn’t been the most consistent cornerback and he’s had injury problems in recent years, missing 17 games over the past 4 seasons combined, but he’s finished above average on PFF in all 7 seasons in the league, including a 12th ranked finish in 2013, a 10th ranked finish in 2014, and a 20th ranked finish in 2017. Given that Trufant hasn’t played as well in recent years and that he’s had injuries, it’s likely his best days are behind him, but he’s still only going into his age 29 season and should at least be an above average cornerback again. 

The Lions also used the 3rd overall pick on Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who will also start outside and should also be an upgrade over anyone who played outside last season, even if he does have some rookie growing pains. He also has the upside to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league long-term if he can develop. The Lions also have good depth outside because 2019 5th round pick Amani Oruwariye flashed in limited action on 215 snaps as a rookie as an injury replacement and could easily remain a solid spot starter if needed in 2020.

Justin Coleman remains locked in on the slot, in the 2nd year of a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal that the Lions signed him to in free agency last off-season, making him one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league. Coleman seemed to be worth that salary when he signed, as he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017 and 2018, but with Slay and Melvin both missing time last season, Coleman had to lead this position group with 963 snaps played and he had play outside more than he was used to, playing outside 28.6% of the time, as opposed to 10.1% of the time in 2017 and 2018. Coleman has always been better inside than outside, allowing 1.05 yards per snap on the slot in 2017 and 2018 and 1.89 yards per snap outside, but he actually struggled in both aspects in 2019, allowing 1.45 yards per snap on the slot and 1.61 yards per snap outside. 

Overall, Coleman finished 84th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks in coverage grade on PFF in 2019, after finishing 31st in 2017 and 19th in 2018, making him hardly worth his large salary. Coleman has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 27 season, but he’s proven he’s a slot only option. Still, between Coleman’s bounce back potential, improved outside cornerback play, and a solid pair of projected starting safeties in Tracy Walker and Duron Harmon, this is a pretty solid position group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The 2019 Lions’ season was derailed by injury, most notably the injury that cost Matt Stafford the final 8 games of the season, but they also ranked 9th in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury overall. They should be healthier in 2020, at least at the quarterback position, which matters the most, but even with better health, it’s hard to see this team making the post-season in the NFC, even with three wild card spots available this year. It’s possible, but a lot of things would have to go right, so I wouldn’t expect it. That being said, they should at least be a competitive team and they should benefit from playing in a division where every other team looks likely to come short of their 2019 win total.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 74.77

Defensive Score: 73.07

Total Score: 73.92 (3rd in NFC North)

Minnesota Vikings 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings took a big risk two off-seasons ago, signing veteran free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar deal to fill their void at the quarterback position. That’s a lot of money, but it’s in line with what some other comparable quarterbacks are making annually, the guarantees were actually less than some longer non-fully guaranteed deals, and Cousins could have gotten more money elsewhere, choosing Minnesota because they had the most competitive roster outside of the quarterback position.

In the first year, the results weren’t what the Vikings were expecting, as the Vikings finished 8-8 and ranked just 23rd in first down rate at 34.80%, but Cousins wasn’t really the problem, as he ranked 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 70.1% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. The problem was that, despite a defense that kept games close (6th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%) and a poor pass blocking offensive line that allowed Cousins to be pressured at a 38.7% pressure rate (7th highest among qualifying quarterbacks), the Vikings still had 606 pass attempts to 357 rush attempts, the 6th fewest rush attempts in the league. That split was even more skewed before the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was in large part fired for his unwillingness to establish the run; new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called a 90/83 pass/run split in the final 3 games of the season.

Stefanski stayed on as offensive coordinator for 2019 and, along with new offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, they designed a completely different offense. They went from being pass heavy to having more rush attempts (476) than pass attempts (466), one of three teams in the league to do so last season (49ers and Ravens). They frequently ran two tight end and two back sets and called play action on 31.4% of Kirk Cousins’ pass attempts (6th most among eligible quarterbacks), with Cousins completing 71.8% of his passes for an average of 9.67 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions off play action, a 129.2 QB rating that ranked 4th in the NFL off play action.

All in all, Cousins completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.11 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while leading the Vikings to a 37.31% first down rate in his 15 starts (he sat in a meaningless week 17 game), which ranked 11th in the NFL over that stretch. Their defense remained strong (9th in first down rate allowed at 33.71%) and the Vikings ended up with 10 wins and a wild card berth. 

Cousins wasn’t the only reason for their offensive success, but he was a big part of a balanced attack and finished as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback on the season. Cousins has been a solid starter since 2015 (79 starts), completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 7.70 YPA, 137 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions, but last year was easily his highest graded season, as he finished between 10th and 20th at his position in every season from 2015-2018. 

Cousins may regress slightly in 2020, but he could easily continue playing at a high level, with accomplished offensive mind Gary Kubiak taking over as the full-time offensive coordinator and largely keeping the same scheme in place. Cousins has also never missed a start with injury in his career, but if he happens to miss time, the Vikings would have to turn to Sean Mannion, whose mediocre start in the Vikings’ meaningless week 17 game last season is the only start of his career. Obviously the Vikings want to avoid that.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The bigger problem than Cousins potentially regressing a little after a career best year is this team is becoming expensive to keep long-term, especially given Cousins’ salary, as he’ll make 96 million over the next three seasons after signing a 2-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season. The Vikings were able to make it to the second round of the post-season last season, but don’t seem to be in better shape to go on a deep run in 2020. With a tough financial situation this off-season, the Vikings made the decision to move on from several players, including highly paid wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was sent to the Bills for a first round pick and a swap of mid round picks.

Diggs led this team in receiving in 2019, putting up a 63/1130/6 slash line despite the Vikings being so run heavy, and ranking 2nd in the league among wide receivers in yards per route run with 2.69. He’s also consistently been an above average option since entering the league in 2015, but with the Vikings getting a first round pick for him, it’s understandable why they made the move. Given that this is a run heavy team, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for the Vikings to pay top of the market money to their quarterback and his top-two options and the Vikings already have Adam Thielen set to return after an injury-ruined 2019 season and owed 21.6 million over the next two seasons. This was also a good wide receiver draft class, which allowed the Vikings to find a much cheaper replacement in Justin Jefferson. 

Jefferson will almost definitely be a downgrade as a rookie, but he could still be a capable #2 wide receiver on a run heavy team and he has the upside to be as good as Diggs long-term. He will start opposite Thielen, who averaged a 91/1205/6 slash line in the three seasons prior to last season, ranked in the top-20 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons (including a pair of top-8 finishes in 2017 and 2018), and still averaged a solid 1.86 yards per route run on 225 routes in limited action in 2020 (28th among wide receivers). Thielen is going into his age 30 season, but isn’t totally over the hill and has never missed a game besides the injuries he had last season, so he has obvious bounce back potential, even if he’s not quite as good as he’s been in the past. His targets are capped by this being a run heavy offense, but he should still see plenty of balls his way as the clear cut #1 option.

Bisi Johnson was their 3rd receiver last year and saw 6 starts in Thielen’s absence, even though he was just a 7th round rookie, and he played about as you’d expect a 7th round rookie to play, ranking 90th out of 101 eligible wide receivers with 1.03 yards per route run. He’ll only face competition from free agent acquisition Tajae Sharpe, who has averaged just 1.19 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league as a #3/#4 receiver since going in the 5th round in 2016, so Johnson could easily remain third on the depth chart. He may be better in his second season, but it could be only by default.

Fortunately, this offense doesn’t go to three wide receivers all that given, given how often they use fullback CJ Ham (354 snaps) and their two tight ends Kyle Rudolph (791 snaps) and Irv Smith (612 snaps). Even third tight end Tyler Conklin saw 18.3 snaps per game, primarily as a blocker in obvious passing situations. All three of their tight ends and CJ Ham remain and will all have similar roles in 2020. Ham is a solid blocking fullback and also caught 17 passes last season as well, though his 5.73 yards per target average hardly makes him an efficient option (6.16 yards per target on 49 career targets). Rudolph and Smith also had decent slash lines of 39/367/6 and 36/311/2 respectively, despite receiving just 48 targets and 47 targets respectively.

Smith was a second round rookie last season and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF overall, something he could easily improve on in his second season in the league. Rudolph, meanwhile, is a 9-year veteran. He had injury problems early in his career, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 9 seasons in the league and he hasn’t missed a game due to injury over the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, he has averaged a 58/574/6 slash line, while being a solid blocker as well. 

Now going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible Rudolph will start to decline, but he didn’t really show any signs of being diminished last season, so he could easily remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons. Even if he does decline, the Vikings could compensate by giving more playing time to a developing Irv Smith. The Vikings will definitely miss Stefon Diggs, but they get Adam Thielen back healthy, they add a first round wide receiver to replace Diggs, they have good complimentary pass catching options at tight end and running back (Dalvin Cook also had a 53/519/0 slash line on 63 targets), and they’re a run heavy team that didn’t need two highly paid wide receivers. This is a solid group overall, largely depending on how close to his pre-injury form Thielen can be. 

Grade: B

Running Backs

Dalvin Cook was also a big part of this offense on the ground. In fact, him staying healthy and showing his potential over a full season is what allowed this offense to operate in the run heavy/play action way they operated in successfully last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cook showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 4.68 YPC and catching 3.4 passes per game, but he was limited to 207 carries in 15 games total due to injury, including a torn ACL that ended his rookie year. In 2019, Cook still missed two games, but he still ended up with 250 carries and turned those carries into 1,135 yards (4.54 YPC) and 13 touchdowns, in addition to what he did in the air. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked running back on the season.

Wanting to add insurance for the injury prone Cook last off-season, the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on Alexander Mattison and he had a role on this run heavy offense last season, rushing for 462 yards and 1 touchdown on 100 carries (4.62 YPC), while catching 10 of 12 targets for 82 yards. Mattison’s per carry average wasn’t bad, but it’s worth noting that 41.3% of his yardage came on 9 carries and he averaged just 2.98 YPC on his other 91 carries, while ranking dead last overall among qualifying running backs in carry success rate at 38%.

Mattison should have the same role in 2020 if everything goes as planned, but there are two somewhat realistic ways he could see more action. One is simply if Cook was to miss significant time, certainly a possibility for a running back who hasn’t made it through a full 16 game season yet. The other is if Cook holds out into the season in pursuit of a contract extension, ahead of the final year of his cheap rookie deal. A full season holdout is unlikely if only because those are exceedly rare, but a partial season holdout is definitely a possibility, even if the history of players who only show up for part of the season isn’t great (see Melvin Gordon 2019). 

Cook wants to be paid as a top running back, but the Vikings don’t have a lot of long-term financial flexibility and may not want to commit top dollar to a running back with a history of injury problems, especially when they have another back in Mattison who was a relatively high pick that the organization is still high on. This is a situation to monitor into the season as Mattison would be a significant drop off from Cook if he had to see every down work. Their depth is also limited with only Mike Boone, who has just 60 career carries since going undrafted in 2018 and Ameer Abdullah, a return man with a career 3.90 YPC average, behind Cook and Mattison.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line has been an issue for years and those issues continued into 2019. Cousins wasn’t pressured quite as much in 2018 as he was in 2019, but he was still pressured on 36.4% of his dropbacks, 10th in the NFL. This group did take a big step forward as run blockers though, as the Vikings went from 27th in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018 to 11th in 2019, a big part of why they were able to be so effective on the ground. The Vikings return 4 of 5 starters from last year’s offensive line, only losing right guard Josh Kline, who was released ahead of a 4.75 million dollar salary, following a middling 2019 season. Depending on how they go about replacing Kline, however, this line could look pretty different this season.

The easiest thing the Vikings could do would be to replace Kline with Dru Samia, a 2019 4th round pick who could take a step forward in his 2nd season after playing 31 snaps as Kline’s backup last season. The Vikings used the 58th overall pick on Boise State left tackle Ezra Cleveland though, which gives the Vikings the option to either try him at right guard or to keep him at left tackle and move Riley Reiff inside to guard, a position he has some experience at and where he could be a better fit as he ages (age 32 season in 2020). 

Reiff had a solid season in 2019, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, his 7th above average grade from PFF in 8 seasons in the league, and the Vikings kept him this off-season despite the fact that they could have saved a much needed 8.8 million in cap space by releasing him this off-season, but he will likely begin to decline over the next few years, something that could be slowed down if he moves inside. 

At the very least, Cleveland’s selection suggests the left tackle job isn’t Reiff’s for much longer. Where the Vikings want to play Cleveland will determine what they do with Reiff and Dru Samia, as Cleveland could either be a starting left tackle, a starting right guard, or a reserve left tackle. It’s also possible Cleveland or Reiff could play left guard and move incumbent left guard Pat Elflein to right guard. 

Regardless of where he plays, Elflein figures to be a starter in 2020. Elflein struggled earlier in his career as a center, finishing 23rd out of 39 eligible centers on PFF in 14 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2017 and dead last out of 39 eligible centers in 13 starts in 2018, but he was actually slightly above average in his new spot at left guard in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder, but could easily remain a solid starter going forward, only in his age 26 season, now at a position where he seems to be a much better fit.

Elflein was moved because the Vikings used their first round pick in 2019 on Garrett Bradbury, who made all 16 starts at center as a rookie. Bradbury had some growing pains as a rookie though, finishing 29th out of 35 eligible centers on PFF. He could obviously be better in his second season, however, and still projects as at least a solid starter long-term. Right tackle Brian O’Neill bookends this line and the 2018 2nd round pick took a noticeable step forward in his second season in 2019, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF after being a middling starter as a rookie. He could easily continue being an above average starter long-term. This line lacks a standout player, but they’re not a bad group overall, especially if they can figure out the right guard and left tackle spots.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Along with Stefon Diggs, the Vikings also moved on from edge defender Everson Griffen this off-season, releasing him ahead of 13.5 million dollars non-guaranteed owed in 2020. Griffen was still Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked edge defender, while playing 56.6 snaps per game, but he was heading into his age 33 season in 2020, so the Vikings didn’t bring him back at his scheduled salary. Griffen is still available on the open market and there’s talk that the Vikings could still bring Griffen back at a cheaper rate, which they have the cap space available to do, but as of right now, they haven’t done anything to replace him and have a big hole at the position as a result.

If Griffen isn’t brought back before the start of the season, they’ll likely start Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 2017 7th round pick, who flashed on 368 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season but is an obvious projection to a potentially every down starting role. Stephen Weatherly struggled on 422 snaps last season as the 3rd defensive end, but with him signing in Carolina this off-season, their best alternatives to Odenigbo would be bottom of the roster caliber veterans like Anthony Zettel or Eddie Yarborough, who were added this off-season, or 4th round rookie DJ Wonnum, who is very raw. 

Fortunately, the Vikings do still have Danielle Hunter, who was even better than Griffen last year, ranking 7th among edge defenders on PFF and especially excelling as a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate. Last year was the best season of Hunter’s career, but he’s not really a one-year wonder, ranking between 19th and 32nd among edge defenders on PFF in every season from 2016-2018, while totalling 34 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate over those three seasons combined. The 2015 3rd round pick is also still very young, not even turning 26 until December, so he could easily remain a high level edge defender for at least a few more seasons. He significantly elevates a position group that would be in big trouble if Hunter missed any time.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Vikings also released interior defender Linval Joseph this off-season, saving 11.75 million ahead of his age 32 season. Like Griffen, Joseph was still a useful player last season (38th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus), but unlike Griffen he was actually replaced, with the Vikings signing ex-Raven Michael Pierce to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal to replace him. Pierce is a similar player to Joseph, primarily a run stuffer who can also get to the quarterback on occasion, but he’s younger (age 28 season) and comes with much higher upside. 

Even in a down year due to injuries in 2019, Pierce still earned an above average grade as a run stopper and prior to last season he finished in the top-14 among interior defenders in run stopping grade in three straight seasons, including a career best 4th ranked finish in 2018. He’s not much of a pass rusher and he’s never topped 594 snaps in a season as primarily a base package player throughout his career, but his 6.9% pressure rate is better than you’d expect from a 340 pounder and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020. He’ll likely play around the 42.5 snaps per game that Joseph played in 2019.

Along with Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen (580 snaps) and Jaleel Scott (408 snaps) also saw significant action on the interior last season. Both struggled though, finishing 91st and 115th respectively out of 125 eligible interior defenders, especially struggling as pass rushers, with a combined 3.0% pressure rate. Stephen has been middling at best on an average of 413 snaps per season in 6 seasons in the league, while Johnson has struggled on 710 career snaps since being taken in the 4th round in 2017, so I wouldn’t expect much from either one this season, but both will likely have to see significant roles again in 2020, for lack of better options. 

The Vikings also won’t have the luxury of using three defensive ends together in sub packages and lining one up on the interior, which they often did last season, given their lack of depth on the edge. The Vikings did use a 4th round pick on James Lynch, who could see action as a situational pass rusher as a rookie, and they could also give more playing time to Hercules Mata’afa, a 2018 undrafted free agent who showed very little on the first 100 snaps of his career last season as primarily a situational pass rusher. The Vikings probably upgraded adding Michael Pierce for Linval Joseph, but the rest of this group is very questionable.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Vikings do return all of their key off ball linebackers this season, most importantly Eric Kendricks, who plays every down in the middle of this 4-3 defense. Largely a solid, but unspectacular every down off ball linebacker in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, Kendricks broke out with Pro Football Focus highest grade among off ball linebackers on the season. Kendricks had never finished above 30th before last season, so there’s obviously a good chance he regresses at least somewhat, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he has been consistently solid throughout 70 starts in 5 seasons in the league. I would expect him to be at least an above average starter, even if he doesn’t play nearly as well as last season.

Anthony Barr also returns as an every down player on the outside. Like Kendricks, Barr once had a dominant season, but it was way back in his second season in the league in 2015 when he ranked 5th among off ball linebackers on PFF and, in his other 5 seasons, he’s never finished higher than 23rd at his position. He’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, while averaging 62.3 snaps per game, though one of the two exceptions was last season, when he was a middling player across 930 snaps. Still only in his age 28 season, Barr has some bounce back potential, but I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his outlier year in 2015. 

The Vikings also have good depth in their linebacking corps, with both Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon returning to compete for the 3rd linebacker job in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. Wilson played 380 snaps in that role last season and wasn’t bad and the 2017 undrafted free agent wasn’t bad on the first 336 snaps of his career in 2018 either. Gedeon, meanwhile, is a 2017 4th round pick who has flashed potential on 658 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, primarily as a situational run stuffer. Either one would be a solid option in base packages and they give the Vikings better depth than most linebacking corps as well. Even if Eric Kendricks isn’t likely to repeat last year’s career best year, this is still a solid group.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Vikings’ safeties were definitely the strength of their defense last season, as Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were both among the best safeties in the league, and, even though Harris was a free agent this off-season, the Vikings were able to bring him back on the franchise tag to maintain arguably the best safety duo in the NFL. Harris’ ascension to being among the top safeties in the league kind of came out of nowhere, as prior to week 8 of last season, the 2015 undrafted free agent played just 621 career snaps (8 starts), but he took over as the full-time starter in week 8 of 2018, made the final 9 starts of the season, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety over that stretch. 

There were definitely legitimate questions about whether or not Harris could repeat that strong 9-game stretch over a full season, but he answered those questions by actually improving to 2nd among safeties in 14 starts in 2019. He’s still relatively unproven for his age (age 29 season), which may be why the Vikings franchise tagged him this off-season, rather than giving him a big long-term extension, but even if he isn’t quite as good in 2020 as he’s been over the past 23 starts, he should still be a high end safety.

Smith, meanwhile, has been one of the best safeties in the league since he entered as a first rounder eight years ago in 2012. With the exception of an injury ruined year early in his career, Smith has finished in the top-26 among safeties on PFF in every season in the league, including 6 finishes in the top-13 and 4 finishes in the top-5. His age is becoming a concern now in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any decline with a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and, even if he does decline a little in 2020, he should still be one of the top safeties in the league and should still form a dominant duo with Anthony Harris.

Cornerback, on the other hand, was a big weakness for this team in 2019. With three pending free agents at the position in Xavier Rhodes (795 snaps), Trae Waynes (769 snaps), and Mackenzie Alexander (534 snaps), the Vikings opted to start fresh at the position this off-season. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have better cornerback play though, as they’re going to be relying on a very young group. First round pick Jeff Gladney, third round pick Cameron Dantzler, and fifth round pick Harrison Hand were all added through the draft and Gladney and Dantzler at least figure to have significant roles.

Gladney could even be their nominal #1 cornerback as a rookie, with his top competition being Mike Hughes, a former first round pick in his own right, but one who has had a tough two seasons in the league, tearing his ACL after 244 snaps as a rookie and then finishing 92nd out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF on 500 snaps in 2019. He still has upside and, another year removed from the injury, could easily take a step forward, but it’s definitely a problem that he’s their top returning cornerback. Holton Hill, a 2018 undrafted free agent who has flashed on 527 career snaps, also returns and figures to be in the mix for a job in three cornerback sets, but he’s hardly a proven option. The Vikings’ safeties will mask their cornerback problems somewhat, but they’ll need at least one or two young cornerbacks to step up for this to be an above average secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Vikings were one of the most well-rounded teams in the league last season, with a 11th ranked offense in first down rate and a 9th ranked defense in first down rate allowed, but they lost key players on both sides of the ball this off-season, including wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Everson Griffen, while other players like Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Eric Kendricks may struggle to repeat the best year of their career. They also are unlikely to have the fewest adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league again like they did last season. The Packers weren’t as good as their 13-3 record suggested last season and aren’t noticeably improved this season, so the NFC North should still be winnable for the Vikings, but I wouldn’t consider the Vikings true Super Bowl contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.60

Defensive Score: 73.87

Total Score: 74.74 (2nd in NFC North)

Green Bay Packers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship last year, but they weren’t as good as that suggests. For one, their point differential of +63 is not only more in line with a 9-10 win team than a 13 win team, but it’s also the lowest point differential ever for a team with 13 or more wins. That’s despite the fact that the Packers had a +12 turnover margin, something they won’t necessarily be able to count on going forward, given how unpredictable turnovers are week-to-week and year-to-year. 

With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers under center who rarely turns it over, the Packers are always going to have a better chance to win the turnover battle than the average team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be at +12 again. In fact, the Packers are just +10 in turnover margin in their previous 4 seasons combined. For a team that went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2019, even a slight difference in turnover margin could have affected their win total by at least a couple games.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers ranked 14th at +1.15%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 35.69% and their defense ranking 12th in first down rate allowed at 34.54%. That’s actually not far off from 2018, when the Packers ranked 20th in first down rate differential at -0.81%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 36.16% and their defense ranking 16th in first down rate allowed at 36.97%, in a season in which they ended up at just 6-9-1. The Packers aren’t necessarily going to regress that much in terms of win total in 2020, but they figure to have a hard time winning as many games as last season if they don’t significantly improve their level of play.

Perhaps most concerningly for the Packers last season was how they fared against the NFC’s top team the San Francisco 49ers, who beat them twice by scores of 37-8 and 37-20, doing so the second time in the NFC Championship, en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Packers may have won the same amount of games as the 49ers last season, but those two games showed they have a long way to go to catch the top team in the conference.

Aaron Rodgers still played at a high level in 2019, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s now going into his age 37 season and, if you look at his recent history, it’s clear he’s at least somewhat past his prime, finishing outside of the top-5 quarterbacks on PFF in 4 of the past 5 seasons, including each of the past three seasons. Over those past three seasons, Rodgers has completed just 62.6% of his passes and averaged 7.21 yards per attempt, down from career averages of 64.6% and 7.75. 

His 67/12 TD/INT ratio over the past three seasons is still very impressive, but his passing touchdown totals of 25 and 26 over the past two seasons are the two lowest single season totals of his career in a full season and his interception rate has been kept low by being overly conservative with the ball, with an average of 2.92 throwaways per game over the past 3 seasons, including a league leading 98 throwaways over the past two seasons. Rodgers’ 0.9% interception rate over the past 3 seasons is less impressive when you realize he’s thrown 8.1% of his passes out of play over that stretch. Obviously you don’t want your quarterback forcing things too often, but it’s hard to consistently sustain drives when you throw that many passes out of play and, with as much throwing ability as Rodgers has, he should be more willing to throw into tight windows.

Rodgers should still remain an above average quarterback at the very least in 2020, but his best days are likely behind him and even the Packers seem to be thinking about life without him, trading up to use the 26th overall pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Love drew some comparisons to Patrick Mahomes as a prospect, but that’s hardly a guarantee he ever develops like Mahomes, so the Packers are taking a big risk using a first round pick on him rather than someone who can help the team win now. The same could be said of taking Aaron Rodgers originally back in 2005, but Rodgers fell into the Packers’ lap, while Love was traded up for, and the Packers actually fell to 4-12 the season after taking Rodgers. 

That’s not necessarily going to happen again in 2020, but it’s clear that the Love selection was about the long-term, not the short-term. Now the clock starts to tick for Rodgers, who is guaranteed 43.55 million over the next two seasons, but theoretically could be traded at any point if the Packers like how Love is developing behind the scenes. Realistically, I would expect Rodgers to be elsewhere by the 2022 season because the Packers will want to evaluate Love under center before deciding whether or not to pick up his 5th year option for 2024, a decision they’ll have to make after the 2022 season. For now, Rodgers is a good but declining quarterback at the helm of a team that is solid, but not nearly as good as their record last season suggests.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem for Rodgers over the past few years has been his receiving corps, as he’s lacked a consistent pass catcher aside from Davante Adams. In that sense, it’s understandable that Rodgers would throw so many balls out of play entirely, but his offensive line is giving him plenty of time to throw, so he needs to do a better job of trying to throw guys open. Rodgers’ need for receiver help just makes the Packers’ decision to use their first round pick on a replacement for him instead all the more questionable and, on top of that, the Packers didn’t make any free agent additions outside of taking a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar flyer on Devin Funchess. 

Funchess was limited to a 44/549/4 slash line in 2018 and missed all but one game with injury last season, but his 63/840/8 slash line in 2017 shows his upside, he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young in his age 26 season. Funchess was signed to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency by the Colts just last off-season before his injury-ruined 2019 campaign, so the Packers are getting a good value by getting him for a fraction of that price.

Marques Valdez-Scantling (542 snaps), Geronimo Allison (638 snaps), and Allen Lazard (479 snaps) all saw significant action behind Adams last season, but Valdez-Scantling and Allison both struggled mightily, finishing 92nd and 97th respectively out of 101 qualifying wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so Funchess has a good chance to earn playing time in three wide receiver sets with Adams and likely Allen Lazard, a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed with 1.62 yards per route run in the first significant action of his career in 2019. Lazard is still very raw and unproven, but he likely has more upside than any of the Packers’ other options, with Allison signing with the Lions this off-season and Valdes-Scantling underwhelming on 1,233 career snaps (1.28 yards per route run) since the Packers took him in the 5th round in 2018.

Adams is still their only reliable pass catcher and should remain their top pass catcher. He “only” had a 83/997/5 slash line last season, but he was limited to 678 snaps in 12 games by injury and was very effective on a per snap basis, ranking 6th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.33) and 10th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade. Adams has only topped 1000 yards in 1 of his 6 seasons in the league, but he’s come within 3 yards of 1000 in 2 of those seasons and has only been the clear cut #1 option with a healthy Aaron Rodgers over the past 2 seasons. His 111/1386/13 slash line in 2018 shows the kind of upside he has when he and Rodgers are healthy and, overall, Adams has finished in the top-13 among wide receivers on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Without other reliable options in this passing game, Adams figures to be one of the most targeted receivers in the league this season.

Tight end is also a position of concern. Last year starter’s Jimmy Graham is gone and, even though he struggled, finishing 36th out of 44 qualifying tight ends on 622 snaps on PFF, the Packers don’t have a proven replacement for him. Marcedes Lewis remains as a dominant blocking tight end, but he’s going into his age 36 season and has caught just 18 passes over the past two seasons, so he’s basically a 6th offensive lineman more than anything at this point in his career. 

Robert Tonyan played 193 snaps last season and caught 10 passes, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 260 nondescript snaps in his career and is hardly a reliable option. Instead, it’s more likely that 2019 3rd round pick Jace Sternberger opens the year as the primary pass catching tight end, but he was limited to 60 snaps in 5 games as a rookie due to injury and ineffectiveness and didn’t catch a single pass in the regular season, so he’s obviously a projection to a much bigger role. The Packers also used a 3rd round pick on Josiah Deguara in this year’s draft and he could be in the mix for playing time as well. This offense will likely struggle to find a consistent 2nd option in the passing game again, but there is a little bit more talent than last year.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a consistent #2 passing option last season, running back Aaron Jones actually ranked 2nd on the team with 68 targets and he turned those into a 49/474/3 slash line. With not much changing this off-season, Jones figures to be relied on heavily in the passing game again. Jones also was very involved as a runner, rushing for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns on 236 carries (4.59 YPC), and, overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back on the season.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Jones had always shown this kind of potential prior to last season. His 4.30 yards per target on 53 targets prior to last season was unimpressive, but he’s hardly the first running back to improve his passing down abilities after a couple years in the league, and he’s always shown promise as a runner, rushing for 5.50 YPC on 214 carries prior to breaking out in a bigger role in 2019. Jones is technically a one-year wonder and his history of conditioning and durability problems are still worth mentioning, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat his strong 2019 season.

The question now becomes whether or not the Packers will lock Jones up long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Packers used a 2nd round pick (62nd overall) on Boston College running back AJ Dillon, at the expense of potentially adding a wide receiver or help on defense, and, while the Packers like to rotate running backs, giving #2 back Jamaal Williams 146 touches last season, Dillon’s draft slot suggests the Packers view him as a long-term lead back, which probably makes it unlikely they’ll break the bank to keep Jones off the open market.

In the short-term, Dillon is more of a threat to Jamaal Williams’ role than to Jones’ in 2020. A 4th round pick in 2017, Williams has been underwhelming overall in his career, averaging 3.88 yards per carry and 6.04 yards per target, but he wasn’t bad last season, rushing for 4.30 YPC and 1 touchdown on 107 carries and putting up a 39/253/5 slash line on 45 targets, while earning PFF’s 11th ranked running back grade overall, so there’s no guarantee Dillon is able to beat him out for the #2 role as a rookie. This is a deep backfield, but Jones remains the clear cut lead back after an impressive 2019 season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Rodgers’ offensive line gives him plenty of time to throw, as even though Rodgers ranked 6th in the NFL with 2.92 seconds per dropback last season, he was still pressured on a below average 34.5% of his dropbacks. That was also the case in 2018, when he held the ball 2.95 seconds per dropback (5th in the NFL), but was pressured on a below average 33.0% of his dropbacks. Given that, he should have enough time to be able to throw guys open down the field.

Overall, the Packers ranked 1st among offensive lines on Pro Football Focus in pass protecting grade in 2018 and 4th in 2019 and they also fared well as run blockers in 2019, ranking 6th in that aspect. The Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency and he was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season, but he’s not as big of a loss as it would seem, as he can either be replaced by free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner or by pushing right guard Billy Turner out to right tackle and replacing him at right guard with experienced reserve Lane Taylor.

Taylor opened last season as the Packers’ starting left guard, where he had earned solid grades over 45 starts over the previous 3 seasons, but went down for the season with an injury after week 2 and second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who finished 20th among guards on PFF in 14 starts his absence, seems to have locked that job down permanently. Taylor is now going into his age 31 season, but he’s an experienced starter who finished 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2018, so if he does make it back into the starting lineup at right guard with Turner moving to right tackle, he should continue being at least a serviceable starter.

Turner playing right tackle is not a guarantee however, as he’s been a solid starting guard over the past two seasons, including a 30th ranked finish among guards on PFF in 16 starts in last season, but generally he hasn’t been as good in his 5 career starts at tackle, while free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner earned an average or better grade at right tackle in 5 straight seasons (73 starts) prior to falling to 66th out of 89 qualifiers in 12 starts last season, including a pair of seasons in the top-19 among offensive tackles (2014 and 2017). Wagner’s age is a concern in his age 31 season, but even if his best days are behind him, he could still have some bounce back potential to be a serviceable starter. I would trust him more than Turner given their histories, but it’s really possible any two of Lane Taylor, Billy Turner, and Ricky Wagner will start on the right side this season.

Along with Elgton Jenkins being locked in at left guard, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are also locked in as starters. They’ve been fixtures at their respective spots over the years and have both played at a high level. Bakhtiari has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league (106 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-11 among offensive tackles, while Linsley has finished with at least an average grade in all 6 seasons in the league (86 starts), including a pair of seasons in the top-7 (2014 and 2018) and a 14th ranked finish in 2019. Both are still in their primes in their age 29 seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both this season. Even with some uncertainty on the right side, this is a talented offensive line and they have three at least capable starters for two spots on that right side.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Packers went on a big defensive spending spree last off-season, signing three outside defensive free agents to contracts worth at least 9 million annually, including a pair of edge defenders in Za’Darius Smith (4 years/66 million) and Preston Smith (4 years/52 million). Overall, the spending spree didn’t achieve the goal of making this a top flight defense, as they only improved from a 16th ranked first down rate allowed of 36.97% in 2018 to a 12th ranked first down rate allowed of 34.54% in 2019, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the free agent class and the signing of Za’Darius Smith obviously proved to be a smart move in year one, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked edge defender on the season and was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Za’Darius Smith saw his snap count increase in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to joining the Packers last season, from 407 as a rookie to 691 in 2018, and he developed into a good pass rusher as well, with a 10.5% pressure rate over those 4 seasons and 8.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate as PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender in pass rush grade in 2018, but Smith’s 2019 season was still a huge leap forward. 

Playing a career high 872 snaps, Smith totaled 13.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a ridiculous 17.1% pressure rate, while taking a big step forward against the run, something he struggled with in Baltimore. Smith is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may struggle to repeat his career best season, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season and even if he regresses a little bit he should still be among the best players in the league at his position, at least as a pass rusher.

Preston Smith wasn’t as good of a signing. He had an impressive sack total with 12, but wasn’t as good as that suggests, as he benefited significantly from Za’Darius being consistently disruptive opposite him and finished as just PFF’s 59th ranked edge defender overall. Smith only had 4 sacks in 2018, but actually finished significantly better on PFF, ranking 22nd among edge defenders, finishing with a 11.3% pressure rate, and playing well against the run. That remains his highest graded season in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s unlikely to ever become a dominant player, but he should remain at least a slightly above average starter.

The Packers also used a first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Rashan Gary, who primarily played on the edge as a rookie. He was limited to just 244 mediocre snaps though and the Packers are obviously going to be expecting more from him in his second season in the league. Not only is he a former high draft pick, but with top edge reserve Kyler Fackrell (415 snaps in 2019) no longer with the team and no other obvious option on the roster, Gary will be needed for a significant reserve role on the edge.

Gary will primarily play on the edge in base packages and he may also see some action as a situational pass rusher on the interior in sub packages at 6-4 277, if he can show he’s one of the Packers’ four best rushers. A boom or bust prospect coming out of the draft, Gary has a questionable future after a down rookie year, but could easily take a step forward and become a good rotational 3rd edge defender. Za’Darius Smith elevates this position group significantly by himself and it’s a solid group overall.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Regardless of how much Rashan Gary sees action on the interior in passing situations, Kenny Clark will still be the top interior pass rusher and their top interior defender overall. A first round pick in 2016, Clark had a solid rookie year and then broke out as one of the top interior defenders in the league over the past three seasons, finishing in the top-13 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Also a strong run stuffer, Clark has totaled 16.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate over the past three seasons and, still not even 25 until October, it’s possible he could keep getting better. Even if he has peaked, he should remain one of the top players at his position for years to come if he can continue avoiding injuries (just 4 games missed in his career).

For the first three years of his career, Clark played inside with Mike Daniels in passing situations and they were one of the better pass rushing duos in the league, even as recently as 2018, when Daniels had a 13.7% pressure rate. However, Daniels was let go in a cost cutting move last off-season and they lacked a consistent #2 interior rusher without him, which hurt this defense. Dean Lowry ranked second at the position in snaps with 637 and was an above average run stopper, but he hardly got any pass rush, with 0 sacks, 2 hits, and a 6.3% pressure rate all season. A 2016 4th round pick who has averaged 609 snaps per game over the past three seasons, last season was largely par for the course for Lowry. He’ll likely still have a big role, but he’s not the interior pass rusher they need.

Tyler Lancaster (381 snaps), Montravius Adams (187 snaps), Keke Kingsley (94 snaps) all saw action last season too, but they combined for just a 2.1% pressure rate and didn’t play well in general. All three remain though and could see similar roles. Kingsley is a 2019 5th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Adams has played just 465 snaps total since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, while Lancaster, probably the best by default, has shown some promise as a run stopper in 2 seasons (653 snaps) since going undrafted in 2018. He’ll probably be the primary starter in base packages with Clark and Lowry, with Gary likely working as a situational interior rusher with some regularity and Adams and Kingsley providing deep reserves. This is a generally underwhelming group, but Clark elevates this group significantly by himself.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the loss of Mike Daniels last off-season, another reason why the Packers’ defense didn’t improve drastically from 2018 to 2019 despite key off-season additions is that they got a significantly down year from every down off ball linebacker Blake Martinez, as he finished 58th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 17th the season before. Martinez especially struggled against the run, finishing 79th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in that aspect, but he struggled in coverage as well. 

Despite his down contract year, Martinez got 10.25 million annually from the Giants in free agency this off-season, and the Packers will replace him with free agent acquisition Christian Kirksey. A 3rd round pick of the Browns in 2014, Kirksey was a solid player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing part-time in his first two seasons and then every down in 32 starts in the next two seasons, topping out 28th among off ball linebackers as a part-time player in 2015 and 35th as a full-time player in 2016. However, injuries have limited him to 586 snaps in 9 games over the past 2 seasons, so, even though he’s still only in his age 28 season, he has a somewhat uncertain future. If he isn’t a diminished player after the injuries and can stay on the field, he should be a solid starter, but he was a risky signing on a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal that pays him 7 million for 2020.

The Packers frequently use three safeties at the same time with one of them lining up near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, especially in sub packages, so they don’t have much need for other off ball linebackers besides Kirksey, but their lack of depth is concerning, especially given Kirksey’s injury history. BJ Goodson (254 snaps) and Oren Burks (57 snaps) were the only other true off ball linebackers to see any action last season and Goodson is no longer with the team, which will likely force Burks into a nominal starting role in base packages. 

They won’t need much from Burks in that role, but he’s struggled mightily on 183 career snaps since the Packers took him in the 3rd round in 2018, so he could easily continue struggling, and the Packers’ only other possible alternative is 2019 7th round pick Ty Summers, who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. As much as the Packers were criticized for taking Jordan Love over a wide receiver, the Packers probably would have been better off using the 27th overall pick on off ball linebacker Patrick Queen, who went one pick later, rather than taking a quarterback or a wide receiver. Without a significant investment at the position in the draft, the Packers will really need to hope Kirksey can avoid a third straight injury plagued season because they will have the worst linebacking corps in the NFL without him.

Grade: D

Secondary

Along with the two Smithes on the edge that they added last off-season on big free agent deals, the Packers also added safety Adrian Amos from the divisional rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it’s arguably a bargain when you compare him to similar safeties, as Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago and earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including a 3rd ranked finish in 2017 and a 10th ranked finish in 2018. 

Amos didn’t disappoint in his first season in Green Bay, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF, and, still in his age 27 season without much injury history (4 of 80 possible games missed in 5 seasons in the league), Amos is likely to continue playing at a similarly high level in 2020. He’ll continue starting in base packages next to Darnell Savage, who was also added last off-season in a significant investment, going 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he also didn’t disappoint, making 14 starts and earning a slightly above average grade on PFF (44th overall). Now going into his second season in the league, with a high upside, he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league.

The Packers also used a first round pick in 2018 on a defensive back, taking Jaire Alexander 18th overall. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s been the Packers’ top cornerback in two seasons in the league (27 starts), finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2018 and 26th in 2019. Still only in his age 23 season in his 3rd season in the league, he could easily keep getting better and develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the league a few years down the line.

The only questionable one of the Packers’ four every down secondary starters is #2 cornerback Kevin King. King was drafted high in the 2nd round in 2017 (33rd overall), but he missed more games than he played in his first 2 seasons (17 of 32 games missed) and, while he stayed relatively healthy last season (805 snaps in 15 games), he was pretty underwhelming, finishing 72nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Still only going into his age 25 season, King has upside, but there’s no guarantee he’ll improve or even stay healthy.

Reserve roles are also up for grabs and there should be plenty of reserve snaps to go around, given how often the Packers are in sub packages. Tramon Williams played 761 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last year and excelled on the slot, but wasn’t brought back ahead of his age 37 season. Chandon Sullivan flashed on 350 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, after going undrafted in 2018, playing both on the slot and some safety. Josh Jackson also saw snaps as a hybrid player last season and, though he only played 102 snaps last season after struggling on 721 snaps as a rookie (102nd out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks), he’s a 2018 2nd round pick who still has some upside, so he could easily earn a role. Bringing back Tramon Williams is also an option, though he’d also be a question mark even his advanced age.

Sullivan and/or Jackson could also see some action at safety, where Will Redmond (271 snaps) and Raven Greene (70 snaps) also remain as reserves. Redmond and Greene have struggled throughout their careers, Redmond on 276 snaps since going in the 3rd round in 2016 and Greene on 115 snaps since going undrafted in 2018, but they should be in the mix for snaps for lack of another option. The Packers have some talented players in this secondary, but their questionable depth is a concern, especially given how often they’re in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers were not as good as their record in 2019 and don’t seem to be noticeably more talented than last season, failing to address significant needs in the receiving corps and at linebacker. They won’t need to win 13 games to win the NFC North again and they’ll definitely remain in the mix for a wild card spot even if they can’t win the division for the second straight season, but I would put New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Dallas and possibly Tampa Bay ahead of the Packers right now. Given that, it’s going to be a tough path out of the NFC to a Super Bowl appearance. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 78.50

Defensive Score: 73.73

Total Score: 76.12 (1st in NFC North)

Chicago Bears 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears used the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on quarterback Mitch Trubisky and, like many teams that feel they have a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, they were aggressive about adding talent to this team, in order to maximize their chances of winning while their quarterback is still cheap. An off-season spending spree after Trubisky’s first season in 2017 pushed the Bears up to 3rd in the NFL in total average salary under contract for the 2018 season and 7th for the 2019 season, even though they were hardly spending any money on the quarterback position.

No move was a better example of the Bears being aggressive than their decision to trade for Khalil Mack on the eve of the 2018 season. Mack is undoubtedly one of the top few defensive players in the entire NFL, but the Bears had to give up a pair of future first round picks, which  became the 24th pick in 2019 and 19th pick in 2020, to acquire Mack and they had to give him a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension that still makes him the highest paid non-quarterback in the league two years after it was signed.

The moves seemed to work at first. Trubisky took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league after a nondescript rookie year and the rest of this roster played at a high level as well, including a defense that ranked 1st in first down rate allowed, led by Defensive Player of the Year contender Khalil Mack. As a result, the Bears jumped all the way up to 12 wins and, though they lost in heartbreaking fashion in their first post-season game, the future seemed bright for this team.

However, as things tend to do in this league, things have changed quickly in Chicago. Instead of taking another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, Trubisky regressed significantly, while the rest of this team wasn’t as good, due to a few off-season departures and overall less injury luck, having the 13th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league after having the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018. The defense was still solid, finishing 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, but their offense plummeted to 28th in first down rate at 31.89%, so they were lucky to even finish 8-8.

Now the Bears are at a crossroads. Teams built around defense usually aren’t built to last because it becomes difficult to keep all of their defensive talent under the cap long-term and that has become a problem for the Bears, who still have the 7th highest average salary, but have had to let several key defensive players leave over the past two off-seasons. This team is only going to become more expensive to keep going forward, especially since their quarterback costs will increase going forward.

Not only is Trubisky is now in the final year of his cheap rookie deal, but his struggles in 2019 caused the Bears to go out and add more expensive competition, sending a 4th round pick to the Jaguars for Nick Foles, who will make 8 million this year with the potential to earn more, after agreeing to a restructured 3-year, 24 million dollar contract. Unless the Bears can end up with a high pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, they’re almost definitely going to be paying more for quarterback play going forward, given the cost of even a capable veteran starting quarterback in today’s NFL, which will make it even tougher for them to keep talent on the rest of this roster.

For 2020, the Bears will have a competition between Foles and Trubisky in what is one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. Trubisky has shown flashes since the Bears drafted him, but he’s struggled to develop into a consistently competent quarterback, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 6.68 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions, while finishing in the bottom third among qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in all three seasons. Perhaps more importantly, he seems to be heading in the wrong direction in terms of his development, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of just 6.08 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Trubisky’s high draft status will get him another chance, but if he hasn’t improved from last year and this is a fair competition, Foles should be able to beat him out pretty easily.

This isn’t to say Foles is a good option though. He certainly has his moments, posting the 3rd highest QB rating of all time in a single season in 2013 (119.2) and taking the Eagles on back-to-back playoff runs as a backup quarterback in 2017-2018, including a Super Bowl victory in 2017, but he’s been wildly inconsistent. In five of his eight seasons in the league, he’s finished with a QB rating of 85 or lower, including the 2017 regular season, which was a microcosm of his career, as he struggled in 3 regular season starts before going on one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs of all-time. 

Even at his best, Foles has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF, nor has he ever made it through a full 16-game season as a starter, due both to injury and poor performance. Now in his age 31 season, it’s unlikely Foles turns into a consistent 16-game starter in his 9th year in the league, but he’s likely to give this offense a much higher upside week-to-week than Trubisky, who would almost definitely be among the worst few quarterbacks in the league if he had to see action again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Along with Trubisky’s regression at quarterback, the biggest reason this offense struggled in 2019 compared to 2018, when they ranked 14th in first down rate, is that their offensive line fell off significantly, going from Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked offensive line in pass blocking grade and 12th ranked in run blocking grade in 2018 to 20th in both pass and run blocking grade in 2019. That’s despite the fact that little changed in terms of personnel. In fact, the only change to their expected starting five upfront between the two seasons was that they flipped center Cody Whitehair and left guard James Daniels and even that move was reversed by mid-season. 

Whitehair was only an average guard last season, after finishing in the top-13 among centers on PFF in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to moving to guard, which is likely why he was moved back, but Whitehair wasn’t necessarily better last season after being moved back. Daniels, meanwhile, was just an average starting guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2018 (10 starts) and wasn’t much better at center to start last season, but the final 8 games of last season at left guard was by far the best stretch of his career, as he was PFF’s 12th ranked guard over that period of time. For that reason, Daniels is likely to stay at left guard and, while he might not be quite as good over a full 16 game season, there’s a good chance he’s an above average starter, while Whitehair has obvious bounce back potential at center, still only in his age 28 season.

Right guard Kyle Long missed most of last season with injury, limited to 250 snaps in 4 games, but that wasn’t really a big change from 2018 either, as he also was limited to 511 snaps in 8 games with injuries in 2018. His extensive injury history caused him to retire ahead of what would have been his age 32 season this off-season, leaving the Bears to either start Rashaad Coward, a 2017 undrafted free agent who finished 71st out of 89 qualifying guards on 660 snaps in his first career action in 2019, or Germain Ifedi, an underwhelming free agent acquisition.

Coward profiles as a backup at best long-term, but if Ifedi would be an upgrade it would only be by default, as the former 2016 31st overall pick struggled mightily in 4 seasons with the Seahawks, earning a below average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons across 60 starts (46 at right tackle, 14 at right guard), including a 72nd ranked finish out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in 2019. Still in his age 26 season, he has theoretical upside, but would likely struggle as a starter this season. Regardless of who wins the job, right guard figures to be a position of weakness.

The biggest difference from 2018 to 2019 was at tackle, where left tackle Charles Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie finished 18th and 33rd respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, but didn’t come close to matching that level of play in 2019. Massie was a middling starter in 10 games and wasn’t really missed when he was out for the final 6 games of the season, as swing tackle Cornelius Lucas was solid in his absence, while Leno fell to 68th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF, a big change for a player who earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons as a starter prior to last season (61 starts). Given that he’s still only in his age 29 season, he has obvious bounce back potential in 2020 and could easily be a solid starter again, even if his best days happen to be behind him at this point.

Massie’s bounce back chances aren’t as good, however, as he’s going into his age 31 season and has never finished higher than his 33rd ranked finish in 2018 in any of his other 8 seasons in the league (102 career starts total). He should be capable and the Bears don’t have another option, but I wouldn’t expect much more than capable play. Leno and Whitehair have enough bounce back potential that this group should be better in 2020, but they have an obvious hole at right guard and are highly unlikely to be as good as they were in 2018.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bears were also worse on the ground in 2019. Their 4.14 YPC average in 2018 wasn’t great (27th in the NFL), but lead back Jordan Howard consistently kept this offense on schedule (17th among running backs in carry success rate at 50%) and their YPC average dropped to 3.69 in 2019. Their rushing attempts also fell from 468 (7th in the NFL) to 395 (20th in the NFL), as the Bears weren’t consistently leading as much and dialed up more pass attempts as a result. Quarterback and offensive line play were part of the reason for their rushing production decreasing, as there wasn’t much room to run, but running backs were part of the problem too. 

The Bears got rid of 2018 lead back Jordan Howard for basically nothing ahead of the final year of his rookie deal and decided to move forward with 3rd round rookie David Montgomery instead, which proved to be a mistake as Montgomery rushed for just 889 yards and 6 touchdowns on 242 carries (3.67 YPC), while ranking 29th among running backs in carry success rate at 46% and adding just 5.29 yards per target on 35 targets. Without any real competition added for Montgomery this off-season, they will hope he can be better in his second season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee.

Passing down back Tarik Cohen also struggled last season, averaging just 3.33 YPC on 64 carries and a ridiculously inefficient 4.38 yards per target on 104 targets. A 4th round pick in 2017, Cohen was better in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 4.38 YPC on 186 carries and 5.93 yards per target on 162 targets, but, even if he does bounce back in 2020, the miniscule 5-6 191 pounder would never be a threat to Montgomery’s lead back role.

The Bears lack traditional running back depth behind Montgomery and Cohen on the depth chart, with their other three backs all being former undrafted free agents with 2 career carries between them who aren’t roster locks, but wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson sees carries from time to time (17 carries for 103 yards last season), either as a running back, as a wide receiver, or as a wildcat, and the 6-2 238 pounder has shown he can play some traditional running back in a pinch as well in the past. This position group could be better than last season, but that’s not a guarantee and it still looks like an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Top wide receiver Allen Robinson was by far the Bears’ best offensive player last season and was arguably the only Bears offensive player to be better in 2019 than 2018. Even though the offense around him wasn’t as good, Robinson still saw his slash line improve from 55/754/4 to 98/1147/7, as he was a big beneficiary of this team having to pass more, with his target total shooting up from 94 to 154. Robinson also jumped to 14th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, from 34th in 2018.

Robinson missed almost all of 2017 with injury, so it’s not surprising he was able to be better in 2019 than 2018, another year removed from the injury, especially since Robinson also missed 3 games with a different injury in 2018. Robinson has been a bit inconsistent in his career, but he’s averaged a 79/1084/8 slash line per 16 games over the past 5 seasons and his 80/1400/14 slash line and 15th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF in 2015 show his high end ability. Even after some injuries, Robinson still has a high ceiling, only in his age 27 season, and, perhaps most importantly, he’s shown he can be productive even with bad quarterback play in his career, playing primarily with Blake Bortles in Jacksonville before arriving in Chicago two off-seasons ago.

Taylor Gabriel opened last season as the #2 receiver, but he was limited to 445 snaps in 9 games by injury, allowing Anthony Miller, who opened the season as the #3 receiver, to finish second on the team among wide receivers with 686 snaps played. Gabriel, who averaged 1.21 yards per route run last season, is no longer with the team, allowing Miller to be the every down #2 wide receiver going forward. The 2018 2nd round pick has shown some promise thus far with 1.30 yards per route run on 828 routes run in two seasons in the league and could easily take a step forward in his third season in the league.

With Gabriel gone, the #3 wide receiver job is up for grabs. Cordarrelle Patterson is an experienced veteran, but he hasn’t topped 52 catches in 7 seasons in the league and has averaged just 349 snaps played over the past four seasons, so he’s not likely to have more than a situational role. 2019 4th round pick Riley Ridley would make sense as the 3rd receiver, but he played just 108 snaps as a rookie, behind 2018 7th round pick Javon Wims. Wims finished 101st out of 102 qualifying wide receivers on 487 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, but Ridley isn’t a guarantee to beat him out for the job.

Without a first round pick and with limited cap space, the Bears didn’t have many resources to spend this off-season, but one position where they spent significant resources is tight end, as they signed veteran Jimmy Graham to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal and used the #43 overall pick on Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet. It was definitely a position where they needed help, as they completed just 46 passes to tight ends in 2019, but Graham was a massive overpay and, while Kmet was a solid value where he was picked, he may be too raw to contribute in a big way as a rookie.

Graham was once one of the top tight ends in the league in his prime, but he hasn’t been the same player in recent years, with his last above average year on PFF coming in 2016. Since then, Graham has averaged just 1.13 yards per route run on 1,409 routes, despite playing with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, giving him an average 50/534/5 slash line over the past 3 seasons. He’s also finished below average overall on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a 36th ranked finish out of 44 qualifying tight ends last season. 

Now going into his age 34 season, Graham is likely to continue declining and probably shouldn’t even be starting anymore, let alone making significant money, but his salary suggests they view him having a big role in the passing game, for better or for worse. Graham was never a good blocker in his prime and his athleticism and passing catching ability have significantly fallen off, so he’ll almost definitely continue struggling this season. The Bears guaranteeing him 9 million was one of the strangest moves any team made this off-season. With Kmet as an up and coming option, however raw he may be, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he overtook Graham as the starter by season’s end.

The Bears also still have 2017 2nd round pick Adam Shaheen in the mix, though he’s only played 573 career snaps thus far, in part due to injuries that have limited him to 27 games total in 3 seasons, and any chance of him having a bigger role in his 4th season went down significantly when Graham and Kmet were added ahead of him on the depth chart. It’s possible Shaheen could earn a situational role with a good off-season, but it’s clear they don’t view him as a big part of their future anymore. The Bears’ tight ends should be better by default this season, but this is still a questionable receiving corps overall, without a consistent option behind #1 wide receiver Allen Robinson.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Bears’ defense was still good in 2019, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, but that was a steep dropoff from their league best 2018 unit, which allowed just a 30.38% first down rate on the season. Part of the reason why the Bears weren’t quite as good was simply that their schedule was tougher, but they also weren’t as talented. Not only did they lose a pair of every down players in the secondary last off-season, but they also weren’t nearly as healthy in 2019 as 2018, going from the 4th fewest adjusted games lost on defense to the 12th fewest.

The biggest absence was interior defender Akiem Hicks, who finished 4th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2018 and then was limited to just 191 snaps in 5 games in 2019. The Bears can’t count on being as healthy as they were in 2018 again, as injuries are just part of the game, but having Hicks back will be a boost. He’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of an injury plagued season so his best years are likely behind him, but he was a top-36 interior defender on PFF in 3 straight seasons prior to last season and even last season he fared well in limited action, so even if he declines he should still be an above average starter unless his abilities totally fall off a cliff. 

Eddie Goldman also had a dominant year alongside Hicks in 2018, finishing 14th among interior defenders on PFF. He wasn’t injured in 2019, but he didn’t play at the same level, falling to 41st among interior defenders. He especially fell off as a pass rusher, going from a 8.0% pressure rate to a 5.4% pressure rate. Goldman has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 26 season, but in his 5-year career, his 2018 campaign is an obvious outlier, as he has just a 7.1% pressure rate for his career and has never finished higher than 22nd among interior defenders on PFF in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. He should still be an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was in 2018.

With Hicks out last season, Roy Robertson-Harris (544 snaps), Nick Williams (532 snaps), and Bilal Nichols (445 snaps) all saw significant action. Williams is gone, but Robertson-Harris and Nichols remain with the team and should continue having situational roles. Nichols figures to start with Goldman and Hicks in base packages on the Bears’ 3-man defensive line, as he’s a pure base package player who has struggled as a pass rusher in his career (5.1% pressure rate). The 2018 5th round pick also struggled as a run stuffer last season, but was significantly better as a rookie (445 snaps total), when he earned an above average run stopping grade from PFF. He has a good chance to bounce back in a situational run stuffing role in 2020.

Robertson-Harris, meanwhile, is a situational pass rusher who figures to rotate in heavily in sub packages. The 2016 undrafted free agent has seen his snap count increase every year in the league from 0 to 212 to 354 to 544 and has always been a productive pass rusher in a situational role, with 7.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 9.0% pressure rate in his career. He should continue giving the Bears more of the same. The Bears also added veteran run stuffer John Jenkins in free agency and, even though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 41st among interior defenders on PFF on 480 snaps. They won’t be as good at this position as they were in 2018, but with Hicks and Goldman as their top-2 guys and solid situational depth, this is a strong group.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The one big addition the Bears were able to make this off-season despite their lack of cap space was edge defender Robert Quinn, who comes over from the Cowboys on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal to replace Leonard Floyd, who was released ahead of a 13.222 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. That should prove to be a smart swap, as Floyd has developed into a solid run stuffer, but little else in 4 seasons since the Bears drafted him 9th overall in 2016. In many ways Quinn is the opposite, as the 9-year veteran has consistently struggled as a run defender throughout his career, but has been a consistently good, if not dominant pass rusher, with 80.5 sacks, 88 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate in 125 career games.

Quinn’s age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but he’s coming off of one of his better years, with 11.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 14,1% pressure rate, while earning Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked pass rush grade among edge defenders. The other minor concern is that Leonard Floyd played 899 snaps last season and the Bears, who lack depth on the edge, may need Quinn to play a similar role, even though he struggles against the run and hasn’t played more than 647 snaps in a season since 2014 and has never played more than 836. He should remain an above average starter overall though, as a result of his strong pass rush ability.

On the other side, Khalil Mack shouldn’t have any problem with a huge snap count, as he has averaged 59.2 snaps per game in 94 career games in 6 seasons in the league and has thrived, finishing in the top-14 among edge defenders on PFF in all 6 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-4. All in all, he has 61.5 sacks, 58 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in his career, while dominating against the run. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with no real injury history, Mack should continue being one of the top defensive players in the league in 2020.

Free agent acquisition Barkevious Mingo is likely to be their primary reserve on the edge, though largely by default, as Aaron Lynch, who was their top reserve with 344 snaps last season, is no longer with the team. Mingo has only finished above average on PFF in 2 of 7 seasons in the league, on an average of just 394 snaps per season and, now he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of a season in which he played 75 defensive snaps total, so he’s a really underwhelming reserve option. His primary competition for reserve snaps will be Isaiah Irving, who played the most snaps of any returning reserve from last season with 128, but has overall been underwhelming on just 286 career snaps since going undrafted in 2017. Mack and Quinn will have to play significant snaps at a position with little depth.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Bears also had injury problems at the off ball linebacker spot, as expected starters Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith were limited to 559 snaps in 9 games and 719 snaps in 12 games respectively. The Bears didn’t really miss them much, as reserves Nick Kwiatkowski (512 snaps) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (213 snaps) both played well in their absence, but this off-season Trevathan, Kwiatkowski, and Pierre-Louis were all set to hit free agency, so the Bears had to make some decisions. They opted to bring back Trevathan on a 3-year, 21.75 million dollar deal, while letting Kwiatkowski sign with the Raiders on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and Kevin Pierre-Louis sign with the Redskins on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. 

Trevathan was one of the better off ball linebackers in the league in his prime, but the Bears may have made a mistake picking him. While Kwiatkowski is going into his age 27 season and has fared well in his last two extended starting stints, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 382 snaps in 2017 and 16th on 512 snaps last season, Trevathan has had a lot of injuries (32 of 96 possible games missed over the past 6 seasons) and appears to be declining ahead of his age 30 season, dropping from 11th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2017 to 23rd in 2018 to 45th in 2019. 

Even if Trevathan is the more proven player, the Bears probably would have been better off over the next few seasons going with Kwiatkowski instead. Trevathan still played at a high level against the run last season, but struggled mightily in coverage, while Kwiatkowski showed himself to be more of a three down player. Trevathan could bounce back a little bit in 2020 because he’s not totally over the hill, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and there’s a good chance he misses time at some point.

Roquan Smith remains locked in as the other starter, now going into his 3rd season in the league since the Bears took him 8th overall in 2018. He’s been a middling starter in 26 career starts, actually taking a small step back in his 2nd season from his rookie season, falling from 45th among off ball linebackers on PFF to 76th out of 100 qualifiers. Now going into his third season in the league, he could easily have the best season of his career in 2020.

With both Kwiatkowski and Pierre-Louis gone, depth becomes a big problem for the Bears at the off ball linebacker position. 2018 4th round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe would seem to be the favorite for the job, but he’s played just 27 snaps in his career, with just 3 of those snaps coming last season, so he would be a big question mark if he ever had to see significant action as an injury replacement. This isn’t a bad group, but they likely would have been better off keeping Kwiatkowski instead of Trevathan.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Bears’ secondary is the group that declined the most from 2018 to 2019. That’s unsurprising, considering the Bears lost Bryce Callahan, Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback in 2018, and Adrian Amos, PFF’s 10th ranked safety in 2018, in free agency last off-season. Callahan was replaced by free agent acquisition Buster Skrine, who finished below average on PFF on 727 snaps, but that wasn’t the only issue at cornerback, as starting outside cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara fell from 8th and 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018 to 72nd and 48th in 2019. At safety, HaHa Clinton-Dix wasn’t a huge downgrade from Amos, but his 22nd ranked finish among safeties on PFF was still a dropoff from Amos, while fellow starting safety Eddie Jackson fell from 1st among safeties in 2018 to 50th among safeties in 2019.

This season, things look likely to be even worse. Clinton-Dix is gone and was replaced with a much more middling veteran in Tashaun Gipson, while Prince Amukamara was let go ahead of a 9 million dollar guaranteed salary and replaced with 2nd round rookie Jaylon Johnson and veteran flyer Artie Burns. Only Fuller and Jackson remain from the Bears’ 2018 secondary and both are coming off of significantly down years. If they can bounce back, it will be an obvious boost to this secondary, but that remains to be seen.

For Jackson, his 2018 season stands as an obvious outlier, as the 2017 4th round pick was also a middling starter as a rookie. Only in his age 27 season, Jackson has some bounce back potential, but it’s very possible he’ll never be quite as good as he was in 2018 again. Fuller, meanwhile, has had other good seasons in 6 years in the league, but he’s never been as good as 2018 in any of his other seasons (29th ranked finish in 2017 is his 2nd best season) and he’s been pretty inconsistent overall in his career.

Fuller will start outside opposite either Jaylon Johnson and Artie Burns. Johnson would likely have a lot of growing pains as a rookie, but he still might be a more reliable option than Burns. A first round pick in 2016 by the Steelers, Burns’ career got off to a promising start, as he was a solid starter in 25 starts in his first two seasons in the league, but he then fell out of favor with the coaching staff due to concerns about his work ethic and discipline and he only played 375 middling snaps over the past two seasons, as a result. Still only going into his age 25 season, Burns is a worthwhile flyer and maybe just needs a change of scenery, but it’s unlikely he ever develops into a consistently solid starter. Regardless of who starts, they will almost definitely be a downgrade from Amukamara, even though Amukamara had a down 2019 season compared to his 2018 season.

It’s possible both Johnson and Burns could see action, with one of them playing the slot, but the Bears kept incumbent slot cornerback Buster Skrine even though they could have saved 3 million by releasing him, so he’s likely to remain in that role even after finishing 87th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 727 snaps in 2019. Skrine’s struggles weren’t just limited to last season either, as he’s somehow played 9 years in the league (89 starts) despite never being more than a middling cornerback. Now going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly get better. He’s not the worst slot option in the world because of his experience, but he’s a very underwhelming player.

Tashaun Gipson is also coming off of a down year, ranking 77th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF on 868 snaps (14 starts) with the Texans. Gipson has been better in the past, but he’s been inconsistent throughout his 8-year career (104 starts) and now is going into his age 30 season, so he’s a clear downgrade from Clinton-Dix. Outside of Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson, who have been inconsistent in their careers, the Bears have a very underwhelming secondary. Even if Fuller and Jackson both manage to bounce back, this is still a far cry from their 2018 secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Bears were a 12 win team in 2018, led by a dominant defense and a passable offense, but they’ve gotten significantly worse on both sides of the ball since then. Their 2018 defense benefitted from several players having career years and from barely having any notable injuries, but that was always unlikely to continue, especially with the Bears losing talented defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last off-season. The Bears have also lost some key players from that 2018 defense as well, particularly in the secondary.

Their 2018 offense, meanwhile, benefitted from a serviceable year from quarterback Mitch Trubisky and good play by the offensive line and running game, three things they didn’t get in 2019 and that they are unlikely to get in 2020. Their offense could be a little better by default this season, after finishing 28th in first down rate, but I wouldn’t expect their defense to even be as good as their 8th ranked finish in first down rate allowed last season and, as a result, this team figures to have a tough time making it back to the post-season. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.33

Defensive Score: 73.86

Total Score: 72.60 (4th in NFC North)

Kansas City Chiefs 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when the Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was controversial. Not only was Mahomes considered a boom or bust prospect, but remember the Chiefs were coming off of a 12-4 season and seemed to have a viable quarterback in place in Alex Smith and the two first round picks (#27 in 2017 and eventually #22 in 2018) they gave up to move up to take Mahomes at 10 could have been used on non-quarterbacks to add pieces to an already strong roster. 

It’s the kind of decision that could have badly backfired if they had selected a quarterback who didn’t pan out, but Mahomes has proven the Chiefs to be spectacularly right for taking a chance on him. Mahomes spent his rookie year on the bench behind Smith, only starting a meaningless week 17 game, and then the Chiefs traded Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller and anointed Mahomes the starter for his second season in the league in 2018. 

All Mahomes did was win the MVP in his first season as a starter, joining Peyton Manning as the only quarterback in the 5,000 yard/50 touchdown club, while completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who had almost a hundred fewer pass attempts. Overall, the Chiefs led the league with a 45.18% first down rate on the season, the highest single season mark in recent memory.

The Chiefs’ 2018 season ended in the AFC Championship game, but that was hardly Mahomes’ fault, as he got them within a defensive penalty of making the Super Bowl, despite being supported by a league worst defense that allowed a league leading 42.20% first down rate on the season. In 2019, with a better supporting cast, Mahomes was able to take this team all the way, giving him a regular season and a Super Bowl MVP in his first 2 seasons as a starter, the only quarterback in NFL history to do that.

The story is a little bit more up and down than that, as Mahomes dealt with leg injuries early in the 2019 season and at one point looked like he had suffered a potentially devastating knee injury during a week 7 game against the Broncos, but he ended up only missing two and a half games, returning in week 10 to take this team all the way. In fact, that knee injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Mahomes to fully rest a lingering ankle injury that could have limited him all season if he didn’t rest it. 

In the last two games between injuring his ankle and going down with the knee injury, he had completed just 55.4% of his passes for an average of 8.03 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions and had led the Chiefs to a 40.36% first down rate, after a 45.34% first down rate in his previous 20 career starts prior to the ankle injury. Even at less than 100%, Mahomes is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but the Chiefs likely would not have won the Super Bowl if he remained limited for the rest of the season.

Upon Mahomes’ healthy return in week 10, the Chiefs lost their first game in close fashion to a Tennessee team that turned out to be better than they looked at the time, but then the Chiefs ripped off 9 straight wins en route to the Super Bowl, including 7 wins by double digits. Including the Tennessee loss, the Chiefs had a 43.06% first down rate in 10 games after Mahomes returned. Mahomes also earned PFF’s highest quarterback grade from week 10 on and was arguably better down the stretch last season than he was in his MVP season, which just shows the kind of player he can consistently be if he can stay healthy long-term.

Mahomes’ injury also lined up with when this defense started playing better, which may be coincidence more than anything, but the Chiefs allowed a 34.36% first down rate in their final 10 regular games and their three post-season games, starting with that game against Denver, a drastic improvement from a 41.85% first down rate allowed in Mahomes’ previous 22 career regular season starts. All in all, the Chiefs had a +7.82% first down rate differential from Mahomes’ return in week 10 through the Super Bowl, so it’s not surprising they were able to go all the way. I’ll get into their defense later, but if they can be even serviceable on that side of the ball this season they should be very much in the mix to become the NFL’s first back-to-back champion since the 2003-2004 Patriots.

With Mahomes still only going into his age 25 season, there’s no question that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the NFL for the next decade. The only question was how the Chiefs would keep him long-term and how much they’d have to pay to do so. There was speculation that the Chiefs would get creative with his contract structure and they certainly did, signing Mahomes to an unheard of 10-year extension that pays him 450 million in new money, with another 25 million available in incentives for Super Bowl appearances and MVPs. On top of that, because of the structure of the deal, the whole contract is functionally guaranteed.

Those are eye popping numbers, but the Chiefs were always going to have to break the bank to keep Mahomes long-term and it’s a more team friendly deal than you’d think because of the length and the way the cap has been going in recent years. Including the 2 years and 28 million remaining on his current rookie deal, it’s a 12-year deal in total that keeps him under team control through 2031. If you look at just the first 4 years of the extension, Mahomes is set to make 155.8 million in new money, 38.95 million annually, which is obviously a lot, but it’s not a bad value when you compare it to the 35 million, 33.5 million, and 32 million annually that Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz got annually on 4-year extensions, as those three are all older and not as good as Mahomes. Most estimates had a 4-year extension for Mahomes valued at 40 million annually this off-season, so in that sense the Chiefs got off easy.

After the first 4 years, Mahomes is set to take home 294.6 million in new money over 6 years, an average of 49 million annually, but that’s actually where the real value of this deal comes in. In just the past 6 seasons, the salary cap has increased 50% and the average salary of the highest paid quarterback (prior to Mahomes’ new deal) increased by 60% from 22 million to 35 million, so it’s conceivable that just 4 years into Mahomes’ extension, the highest paid quarterback could be making 55 million annually (a roughly 60% increase), making Mahomes’ 49 million dollars annually look like a bargain by comparison, with another 6 years to go on the deal. As much money as this is, the Chiefs almost definitely would have ended up paying him more over the next twelve years if they had signed him to a series of shorter term deals.

Anyway you look at it though, it’s a lot of money and a steep increase from his rookie deal, so there’s concern that the Chiefs won’t be able to keep talent around him long-term. That will definitely become a concern at some point, but the way this deal is structured, his cap hits are just 5.347 million and 24.807 million over the next two seasons respectively, so it won’t hamper them just yet. In fact, they managed to bring back the 2nd most snaps of any team in the league this off-season and have a good chance to repeat as a result. However, with Mahomes becoming the Chiefs 11th player making more than 8 million annually (169.9 million combined), something will have to give at some point, even if the cap keeps climbing like it has.

No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. Mahomes is set to count between a projected 12%-19% of the cap throughout most of his new contract, but if any quarterback is capable of being the exception it’s Mahomes. We’ve already seen him take a less than stellar supporting cast, including a terrible defense, to the brink of the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs obviously hope they never have to use their backup quarterback, especially since their backup is an underwhelming option in Chad Henne, who has just a 75.5 QB rating in his career in 53 starts and hasn’t made a start since 2014. Matt Moore wasn’t horrible last season in Mahomes’ absence last season, completing 59 of 91 for 659 yards and 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and if the Chiefs can convince him to come back for his age 36 season he’d probably be a better option than Henne. Either way, this team will go as Mahomes goes, so they’d be in a lot of trouble if they had to turn to a backup regardless of who it is.

Update: Moore has been re-signed.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As good as this offense was down the stretch last season, the Chiefs were still able to potentially add a new dimension to this unit when they used the 32nd overall pick on LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs didn’t have a bad running game last season, rushing for 4.18 YPC, 20th highest in the NFL, but that was primarily because teams couldn’t stack the box against the run, for fear of Mahomes beating them deep. They also had the 6th fewest carries in the league with 375 and that includes 43 carries by Mahomes himself, so running backs were really not a big part of this offense in 2019.

The Chiefs used to have a dominant feature back, using a 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Kareem Hunt, who not only played well on the ground, rushing for 2,151 yards and 15 touchdowns on 453 carries (4.75 YPC) in 27 games, but also was a big threat out of the backfield as a receiver, averaging a 47/494/6 slash line per 16 games. However, Hunt was kicked off the team in the middle of the 2018 season for disciplinary reasons. In his absence the Chiefs have turned to Damien Williams as their lead back and used both Williams and aged veteran LeSean McCoy in tandem together last season (111 carries and 101 carries respectively).

Williams hasn’t been bad, rushing for 4.68 YPC on 161 carries in 27 games with the Chiefs, but he’s a 6-year veteran who has never topped 111 carries in a season and he has a career 4.19 YPC average, so he’s a very underwhelming lead back. Edwards-Helaire, meanwhile, profiles more similarly to Hunt as a player, as he’s not only a talented runner, but also he was the best pass catching running back in the draft. McCoy is no longer with the team and Damien Williams looks like the clear #2 back right now, so Edwards-Helaire should be a big part of this offense. How big of a part remains to be seen, as they still may want to keep Williams somewhat involved so they don’t overload the rookie, but Edwards-Helaire has feature back upside as a rookie and looks like an obvious upgrade at a position of need.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Aside from the upgrade at running back, the rest of this offense looks more or less the same as the one they won the Super Bowl with last season. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski is the only missing starter on offense and he’s a middling player who only made 2 regular season starts, so he won’t be hard to replace. The Chiefs will likely go back to Andrew Wylie, who began last season as the starting left guard before missing time with injury and eventually losing his job. Wylie went undrafted in 2017, but has earned a slightly above average grade from Pro Football Focus on 21 starts over the past two seasons, so he’s not a downgrade. 

The other option would be Mike Remmers, a veteran who can play both tackle and guard. Remmers was a solid starter in his prime and earned a middling grade from PFF last season in 14 starts at right tackle for the Giants, but he’s now going into his age 31 season and may end up as versatile depth more than anything. With Wisniewski and swing tackle Cameron Erving gone, the Chiefs needed to replenish depth upfront this off-season and they did just that with Remmers, even if he doesn’t end up beating out Wylie to start week 1.

Aside from that, the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year and they could possibly be better this season with better health. Left tackle Eric Fisher was the most notable absence, as he missed 8 games in the regular season and his replacement Cameron Erving finished 85th out of 87 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season. Fisher isn’t a spectacular player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 6 seasons (85 starts), maxing out at 24th in 2016, so having him in the lineup for 16 games or close to it would be significant.

Right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif also missed a couple games due to injury, but that’s been the norm for him, as he’s never started all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. He played at a high level in 2017, finishing 19th among guards on PFF in 11 starts, but he’s otherwise been a middling starter in 57 career starts, so that year looks like an obvious outlier. Still in his age 29 season, Duvarney-Tardif should remain at least a capable starter when on the field, though he’s likely to miss time at some point if history is any indication.

Center Austin Reiter and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz were the only two Chiefs offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season. Reiter was serviceable in his first full season as a starter, finishing 23rd out of 38 qualifying centers on PFF, after the 2015 7th round pick flashed on 333 snaps in the first 4 seasons as his career prior to last season, and, though he’s relatively unproven, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a comparable year in 2020.

Schwartz, meanwhile, is hands down their best offensive lineman and arguably the top right tackle in the whole league. Schwartz has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league, including three seasons in the top-15 among offensive tackles, He’s going into his age 31 season now, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down, setting and matching a career high 5th ranked finish at his position over the past two seasons respectively, and he has no injury history, missing just 6 snaps total in his entire career, including a 7,894 consecutive snap streak that ended last season. Even if he slows down a little bit, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t one of the best in the league at his position again. He leads an overall solid offensive line that should benefit from better health in 2020.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs could also benefit from better health in the receiving corps, as #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill was limited to 563 snaps in 12 games by injuries last season. Hill still finished with a 58/860/7 slash line, as he was highly efficient on a per route run basis, ranking 4th in the NFL with 2.45 yards per route run. That’s largely par for the course for him, as he’s averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league. He’s also finished in the top-12 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in which he’s been a starter. Still only going into his age 26 season, if Hill can stay healthy all season with a healthy Mahomes in 2020, he should match or surpass his 87/1479/12 slash line from 2018 (4th in the NFL in receiving yards).

If Hill can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have a pair of thousand yard receivers in 2020, like they did in 2017 and 2018, with tight end Travis Kelce having surpassed that mark in four straight seasons. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Kelce had significant injury concerns coming out of the draft and missed his whole rookie season with injury, but he remarkably hasn’t missed a game due to injury in 6 seasons and he has had at least 862 receiving yards in each of those seasons, including 103/1336/10 and 97/1229/5 slash lines in two seasons with Mahomes. He’s not a great run blocker, but he can hold his own and has overall finished in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he has shown no signs of decline, he has no recent injury history, and, even if he does decline a little, he would still be one of the top tight ends in the league.

The Chiefs also have good depth in the receiving corps. Most thought #2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his 14 million dollar non-guaranteed salary were gone this off-season, but the Chiefs were able to come to an agreement to bring him back for 9 million. Watkins never developed into the #1 receiver it looked like he would be, after going #4 overall pick in 2014 and putting up a 60/1047/9 slash line in just 13 games in 2015, as a series of injuries have seemingly sapped his explosiveness and limited him to a 54/754/5 slash line per 16 games over the past four seasons, with no full 16-game seasons played since his rookie year, but he’s still a solid #2 wide receiver who has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and who is still only going into his age 27 season. He’s almost a guarantee to miss time at some point, but he should be an asset while on the field.

With Watkins and Hill both missing time last season, DeMarcus Robinson played 735 snaps, but he was highly ineffective given the offense he played in, totalling just a 32/449/4 slash line and averaging just 0.96 yards per route run. Robinson is a good athlete who went in the 4th round in 2016 and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he should have averaged more than 0.87 yards per route run in his career, given the offense he has played on. There was some speculation that Robinson could get a big contract somewhere this off-season based on upside, but that speculation never made much sense and Robinson ended up having to take a 1-year, 2.2975 million dollar deal back in Kansas City. 

It’s very possible Robinson won’t be any higher than 4th on the depth chart this season, as 2019 2nd round pick Mecole Hardman flashed on 471 rookie year snaps and seems to have earned a bigger role, especially if Robinson is his only real competition. Hardman finished with a 26/538/6 slash line on 41 targets (13.1 yards per target), while averaging 1.84 yards per route run as well. The speedster is a perfect fit for this vertical offense and, while he might not be quite as efficient in a bigger role in 2020, he still has a chance to put up good production even as the 4th or 5th option in the passing game.

The Chiefs also upgraded at the #2 tight end spot this off-season, signing Ricky Seals-Jones to replace Blake Bell, who finished 65th out of 73 qualifying tight ends on PFF on 398 snaps last season. Seals-Jones isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s averaged a decent 1.29 yards per route run in three seasons in the league. He won’t get much playing time or many targets behind Travis Kelce, but he’s a better fit for the #2 tight end role than Bell was. This is a deep and talented receiving corps overall.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player whose days with the team could be numbered after the Mahomes extension is interior defender Chris Jones, who remains unsigned long-term after being slapped with a 16.126 million dollar franchise tag. Jones wants upwards of 20 million annually on a long-term deal, something he could get if he hit the open market, as he’s finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, has totalled 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that stretch, and is still only going into his age 26 season. However, the Chiefs really don’t have the flexibility to add another big deal long-term. Jones has recently said he won’t play for the Chiefs without a new deal and, while he has plenty of financial incentive to not actually sit out the season, it’s possible the Chiefs end up having to explore a trade for him before the season starts if they don’t want to meet his asking price. 

If they do end up trading him, they may end up settling for less than they could have gotten had they moved him earlier in the off-season. Considering the Colts gave up the 13rd overall pick to acquire DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and gave him 21 million annually on a long-term extension, the Chiefs probably could have gotten a similar deal had they been willing to move Jones before the draft. Now at the very least the Chiefs wouldn’t get an asset that could help until 2021 if they moved Jones and it’s debatable if they could even still get a first at this point in the off-season, with the Chiefs running out of time to reach an extension.

Obviously the ideal would be to keep him for at least one more year on the franchise tag, as they have to cap space to do so and don’t have anyone close to being able to replace him at the defensive tackle position. Derrick Nnadi was the other starter and played 598 snaps total. He was adequate against the run, but got no pass rush, with 1 sack, no hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate on the season. The 2018 3rd round pick also had a similar year on 448 snaps as a rookie prior to last season. He may take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee and it’s very possible he never develops as a pass rusher and his ceiling is as an above average situational run stuffer.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick in 2019 on an interior defender in Khalen Saunders, but he didn’t show much on 303 rookie year snaps. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but even in that case I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a solid rotational player. Saunders particularly struggled as a pass rusher, with just a 2.0% pressure rate on the season, so the Chiefs used oversized defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (6-7 289) inside somewhat frequently in passing situations, but he struggled as well. He may have to play that role again though, for lack of a better option. The Chiefs have some young talent at this position, but Chris Jones elevates the position group by himself and if they had to trade him before the season begins, this would become a big position of weakness.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Tanoh Kpassagnon also saw significant snaps at the edge defender position, especially down the stretch, playing 691 snaps total, but he earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. The reason he had to play significant snaps down the stretch is because both Alex Okafor (42.1 snaps per game) and Emmanuel Ogbah (41.0 snaps per game) suffered season ending injuries. Ogbah is no longer with the team, but Okafor returns from injury, as does 2018 2nd round Breeland Speaks, who missed all of 2019 with injury. Those three will compete for snaps on the edge, with Frank Clark locked into an every down role (51.8 snaps per game) at one spot.

Clark is obviously the best of the bunch, though he did struggle to begin last season due to a neck injury. From week 11 on, he was PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender and totalled 4 sacks in 6 games with a 12.2% pressure rate. That’s much more in line with what he did in his three prior seasons, when he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons (career best 20th in 2018) and had a 12.7% pressure rate with 33 sacks in 47 games. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Clark should continue being an above average starter in 2019 if he’s healthy. The Chiefs probably overpaid by giving up a first and second round draft pick to acquire him and give him a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension, money that could have been better spent on Chris Jones, but if they can keep both Clark and Jones for 2020, they should be a strong inside/outside pass rush duo.

The rest of this group is questionable. Speaks came into the league with a lot of upside as the 46th overall pick in 2018, but his long-term projection is more questionable now after he struggled on 475 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. Kpassagnon also went in the 2nd round, back in 2017, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career in 2019 and is no guarantee to get better. 

Okafor is the veteran of the bunch and has some history of success, finishing 28th among edge defenders on PFF on 486 snaps in 2017 and 38th on 658 snaps in 2018, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 114th out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on 421 snaps before the injury, and he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career. Injuries are also not new for him, as he’s missed 34 games and suffered three season ending injuries in 7 seasons in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but, like the rest of this group aside from Clark, he’s not a reliable option.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ linebackers were their worst position group last season. Of the 5 players who played any significant snaps for them, only Reggie Ragland, a situational run stuffer who played 235 snaps total, earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus, and he’s no longer with the team. The Chiefs addressed this position in the second round with Willie Gay and he could easily play a significant role, even though he’s still a raw rookie. Damien Wilson (709 snaps), Anthony Hitchens (699 snaps), and Ben Niemann (400 snaps) were their top-3 linebackers last season in terms of snaps played and, even though all three struggled and are underwhelming options, they should all be in the mix for roles again in what looks like a weak group again.

Hitchens is the most proven option, as he earned an above average grade from PFF as a rotational player in 2016 and 2017, but he’s also finished below average in his other 4 of 6 seasons in the league and he’s really only their most proven option by default. Wilson was a first year starter last year, never topping 321 snaps in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he wasn’t even good as a reserve, so it’s hard to see him ever developing into a capable starter at this point. 

Niemann, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who barely played as a rookie before struggling in a larger role in 2019. With the unproven rookie Gay as their only potentially good coverage option, the Chiefs could frequently use three safeties in sub packages, with one lining up near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season. Linebacker looks likely to be a position of weakness again.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround last season was their safety play, as not only is safety a position where the Chiefs go three deep in sub packages, but they also have one of the better safety duos in the league as their starters in base packages. That wasn’t the case at all in 2018, when their horrendous defense had probably the worst safety play in the league, but the Chiefs fixed the problem quickly by signing Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal and using a second round pick on Juan Thornhill last off-season. Together, they made all 16 starts and finished 21st and 33rd respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus.

Mathieu’s career has been a winding road since entering the league as a 3rd round draft pick in 2013. He appeared to be on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2015 respectively, finishing 9th and 1st respectively at his position on PFF in those two seasons, but both seasons ended with a torn ACL and he wasn’t nearly as good in injury plagued seasons in 2014 (428 snaps) and 2016 (561 snaps). 

He played all 16 games in 2017, but wasn’t as good as he had been previously, so the Cardinals released him ahead of the 4 years and 42.5 million remaining on his 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension. However, he’s bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons, finishing 20th among safeties in 2018 on a one-year deal with the Texans and then 21st last season in his first year in Kansas City. Perhaps most importantly, he’s stayed healthy, playing all 48 games over the past 3 seasons. 

Still in his age 28 season, Mathieu should remain at least an above average safety for several more years if he can continue avoiding injury. Thornhill has his own injury concerns, coming off of a torn ACL suffered in week 17, which complicates his projection for 2020, but he could easily remain an above average starter and continue getting better long-term. So far everything seems to have gone well with his recovery, as he’s reportedly considered likely to be ready for week 1, roughly 8 months after the injury. The Chiefs also still have veteran Daniel Sorensen, who has struggled when he’s had to play every down in his career, but was capable in a sub package role last season (563 snaps), primarily playing as a coverage linebacker.

At cornerback, the Chiefs have to replace Kendall Fuller, their only real off-season loss (4-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Redskins this off-season). Fuller was an underwhelming player last season though and was only playing a part-time role down the stretch, while expected replacement Rashad Fenton flashed a lot of potential on 166 rookie year snaps. Fenton is still obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was comparable to Fuller, who finished 78th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF.

Fenton could end up as high as 2nd on the depth chart coming into the season, which would guarantee him an every down role. His primary competition for that job would be veteran Bashaud Breeland, although Breeland is facing potential discipline for an off-the-field incident and could be sidelined to begin the season anyway. Breeland has generally been a solid starter throughout his career (77 starts), but he’s coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 122nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts. Still only in his age 28 season, Breeland has some bounce back potential whenever he’s allowed to play, but he’s obviously a shaky option. While he’s absent, the Chiefs would likely turn to 4th round rookie L’Jarius Sneed, who is expected to be the #4 cornerback.

Chavarius Ward is the nominal #1 cornerback of this group, largely by default, as Ward was solid in his first significant action last (16 starts), but likely lacks #1 cornerback upside, as a former undrafted free agent (2018). He finished 39th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, which isn’t bad, but there’s no guarantee he’s even that good again. The Chiefs talented safeties mask their cornerback problems a little bit, but this secondary has obvious concerns at corner.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s no question the Chiefs will have a dominant offense this season and for the foreseeable future as long as Mahomes is under center. The question is if their defense is closer to the unit that struggled to begin last season or the one that played well down the stretch during their Super Bowl run. If it’s the latter, the Chiefs should be considered favorites to repeat. If it’s the former, the Chiefs should still be in the mix, but not as the favorites. I tend to side with the latter more because, outside of Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones (who may get dealt before the start of the season), this is a pretty underwhelming group, but there’s no doubt this is one of the top few teams in the league any way you look at it.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 81.32

Defensive Score: 71.77

Total Score: 76.55 (1st in AFC West)

Los Angeles Chargers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Chargers in 2019. They finished just 5-11, but most of their losses were close, with 9 of 11 coming by 8 points or fewer, giving the Chargers just a 2-9 record in such games. They actually finished with a winning record in games decided by more than 8 points (3-2) and their -8 point differential was much more in line with a 8-8 record. That’s despite the fact that the Chargers had a league worst turnover margin at -17. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis and in terms of first down rate differential, which de-emphasizes the turnover margin, the Chargers actually finished 7th in the NFL last season at +3.84%, far better than their record suggests.

That’s despite the fact that the Chargers weren’t close to full strength all season due to injuries. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. 

Given their turnover margin, the amount of talent they were without for much of the season, and how many close games they lost, not to mention the fact that they play in front of road crowds every week in Los Angeles, it’s actually pretty impressive this team was even able to go 5-11 last season. Injuries, turnovers, and close games tend to vary highly from year-to-year and the Chargers might not have to play in front of fans at all this season, so the Chargers at first glance appear to have a lot of potential for a big jump forward in the win total. 

This is a very different Chargers team in some ways though. The Chargers ranked middle of the pack with the 16th fewest snaps lost this off-season, but the big change is at the quarterback position, where Philip Rivers wasn’t brought back as a free agent for his age 39 season, after starting 224 straight games for the Chargers over 14 seasons dating back to his 3rd season in the league in 2006. 

Rivers never led the Chargers to the Super Bowl, but that usually wasn’t his fault, as he finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 10 of those 14 seasons and completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.81 YPA, 397 touchdowns, and 198 interceptions overall, likely putting him in Hall-of-Fame territory even without the Super Bowl appearance. However, he fell to 17th among quarterbacks on PFF last season, while completing 66.0% of his passes for 7.81 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, prompting the Chargers to move on, rather than try to match the 1-year, 25 million dollar deal Rivers received from the Colts this off-season.

To replace Rivers, the Chargers used the #6 overall pick on Oregon’s Justin Herbert and they still have incumbent backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who started 46 games from 2015-2018 with the Bills and Browns, and he could potentially open the season as the starter. At first glance, Taylor and Herbert may seem like very different quarterbacks, but Herbert is a better runner and athlete than you’d expect, while Taylor’s passing skills are underrated, so the Chargers can do some of the same things with both quarterbacks. Both fit what head coach Anthony Lynn looks for in a quarterback better than the statuesque Rivers, who carried just 12 times for 29 yards last season.

Taylor also already has experience with Lynn, not only last season as Rivers’ backup, but in 2015 and 2016 with the Bills, where Lynn was the assistant head coach and eventually offensive coordinator, prior to leaving to take the head job with the Chargers. Taylor had some success in Buffalo, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 3 seasons as the starter from 2015 to 2017 (43 starts), while adding 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns on 283 carries (5.57 YPC). 

Taylor only averaged 28.2 pass attempts per start, leading a run heavy offense, and he didn’t make many big plays downfield, but he was a big part of that run heavy offense himself as a runner, he did a good job protecting the ball and not committing turnovers, and his receiving corps was a big part of why he didn’t have many big plays downfield. Overall, he finished 11th, 16th, and 9th among quarterbacks in 2015-2017 respectively on PFF and went 23-20 with an underwhelming roster around him.

Taylor’s time with the Browns stands out as a rough stretch, as he completed 42 of 85 (49.4% for 473 yards (5.56 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, before being replaced by Baker Mayfield midway through the 3rd game of the season, which is likely why he was available as a backup for the Chargers the following off-season, but that stretch can be chalked up to him being a poor fit for Todd Haley’s scheme. In a more familiar scheme, he has a good chance to win the starting job over an inexperienced rookie and could start later into the season than most expect if he plays like he did with the Bills, as the rest of this roster is talented enough for Taylor to win with if he does that. Herbert could also win with this roster, but he’s a more questionable option as a rookie and the Chargers may hesitate to bench Taylor if he’s winning. Either way, this isn’t a bad quarterback situation.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

I mentioned Tyrod Taylor had problems with his receiving corps in Buffalo, but that won’t be the case with the Chargers. Wide receiver Keenan Allen and Mike Williams put up slash lines of 104/1199/6 and 49/1001/2 respectively, making them one of five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards receiving last season, and, while they’ll have trouble doing that again on what figures to be a run heavier offense, they should remain a big part of the offense in 2020. 

Williams was the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, flashed on 234 snaps as a rookie, posted a 43/664/10 slash line and averaged 1.74 yards per route run as the 3rd receiver in 2018, and then had a mini breakout last season, when he averaged 1.91 yards per route run and finished 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only in his age 26 season, Williams could keep getting better and should remain an above average starter regardless.

Allen, meanwhile, has been playing at a high level basically since he entered the league as a 3rd round pick in 2013, averaging a 97/1192/6 slash line per 16 games in his career. He’s had injury problems in the past, including 23 of 32 games missed from 2015-2016, but he’s shed the injury prone label by playing in 48 straight games over the past three seasons. Over those 3 seasons, he’s finished 5th, 4th, and 14th among wide receivers on PFF and, still in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue playing at the same level in 2020.

Wide receiver depth was a big problem last season though, as the Chargers didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 9 catches. Andre Patton ranked 3rd among Chargers wide receivers with 507 snaps played, but he averaged just 0.18 yards per route run (worst among wide receivers with at least 15 targets) with a 6/56/0 slash line on 303 routes run and he finished dead last among qualifying wide receivers on PFF, in the first action of the 2017 undrafted free agent’s career. It would be hard for Patton to be worse in 2020, but he’s not necessarily a guarantee to be better and, despite that, all the Chargers did to address their wide receiver depth this off-season was use a 5th round pick on Joe Reed and a 7th round pick on KJ Hill, who will both have opportunities to earn roles, even as late round rookies.

To mask their lack of wide receiver depth, the Chargers threw frequently to tight end Hunter Henry and pass catching back Austin Ekeler. Henry put up a 55/652/5 slash line, despite missing 4 games with injury, and finished 14th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade, while Ekeler had a 92/993/8 slash line that ranked him 2nd among running backs in receiving yardage and he finished 1st among running backs in pass catching grade on PFF.

For Henry, staying healthy has always been the key, as he’s missed 23 of 64 games since the Chargers drafted in the 2nd round in 2016. He’s averaged a 53/667/7 slash line per 16 games, despite spending his first two seasons as a part-time player behind Antonio Gates on the depth chart, and he has averaged 1.87 yards per route run and 8.85 yards per target in his career, while also faring well as a run blocking and finishing in the top-14 among tight ends in all 3 seasons in which he’s played a snap. 

Despite missing time last season, he still finished 9th among tight ends in receiving yards and was on a 73/869/7 pace that would have put him among the best in the league at his position. He’s always an injury risk, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and has all the tools to have a big year if he can put it all together, so the Chargers were wise to keep him on the 10.607 million dollar franchise tag, rather than letting him leave or signing him to a big long-term deal with significant guarantees. He could easily end up as one of the top overall tight ends in the league this season. With only blocking tight end Virgil Green (99 catches in 131 career games) behind Henry on the depth chart, the Chargers badly need Hunter to stay healthy this season.

Ekeler, meanwhile, could be taking on an even larger target share with tandem back Melvin Gordon leaving for the Broncos last season, after receiving 55 targets in 12 games and turning it into 42/296/1 last season. Justin Jackson will likely take over as the #2 back and he’s averaged just 5.23 yards per target on 30 career targets in two seasons in the league, so he’s not nearly the threat Gordon was out of the backfield. 

This offense figures to be run heavier with Herbert and especially Taylor under center, so Ekeler might not necessarily see more targets overall even if his target share goes up, but he’s averaged 2.49 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league, while finishing in the top-9 among running backs in pass catching grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. With Allen and Williams leading the way at wide receiver and Henry and Ekeler involved as intermediate passing options, the Chargers lack of depth at wide receiver, however severe, isn’t a big deal, barring injuries.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Taylor taking off and running on his own is a big part of why this offense figures to be run heavy, but the Chargers’ running backs figure to be heavily involved as well, even without Melvin Gordon. Gordon averaged just 3.78 YPC on 162 carries last season and, while that might have been partially due to Gordon being out of shape after an ill advised holdout, Ekeler was still the better runner, averaging 4.22 YPC on 132 carries. 

Ekeler hasn’t been as good as a runner as he’s been as a receiver, but he’s still averaged an impressive 4.81 YPC in his career. The concern is that he’s never topped 132 carries in a season, with just 285 carries total in 3 seasons in the league, and, while he should exceed that this season, it’s fair to wonder by how much, as Ekeler also figures to see a bunch of touches in the passing game and the Chargers are likely to be wary of how much they overload the 5-10 200 pounder. 

With that in mind, there should be opportunities for their backups to see carries, not just 2018 7th round pick Justin Jackson, who has flashed with a 5.14 YPC average on 79 carries as the #3 back over the past two seasons (3.28 YPC after contact), but also 4th round rookie Joshua Kelly, who could also see action, even if he opens the season as the #3 back. Both are unproven and it’s unclear if either can translate to being a capable #2 back, let alone the 1b to Ekeler’s 1a they may need if they want to avoid overloading Ekeler. This isn’t a bad backfield, especially when you factor in Ekeler’s pass catching, but they may want to add a veteran early down back to the mix if they want to run the ball consistently to protect either Taylor or the rookie Herbert.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chargers’ biggest problem on offense last season was their offensive line, which ranked 2nd worst in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 6th worst in run blocking grade. Injuries were part of the problem, with left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey being limited to just 257 snaps and 305 snaps respectively, and they didn’t get good play from anyone else, with right guard Michael Schofield being their only healthy starter to earn even an average grade from PFF.

Schofield is no longer with the team and the same is true of Okung, who was sent to the Panthers for Trai Turner, who will replace Schofield at right guard. It’s strange to see two offensive lineman get traded for each other, but the move made some sense for the Chargers, as Okung was owed 13.5 million in his age 32 contract year in 2020, with Turner is still only going into his age 27 season and has 20.5 million in non-guaranteed money left over the remaining 2 years of his contract. A 3rd round pick by the Panthers in 2014, Turner has made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, with his best years coming in 2015 (10th among guards) and 2017 (16th). Coming off of a 37th ranked finish and still in the prime of his career, he should remain an above average starter in 2020.

The Chargers also added right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. The Chargers probably got a bit of a discount with Bulaga because he’s going into his age 31 season and has an extensive injury history (45 games missed in 10 seasons in the league), but he made all 16 starts last season for just the second time in his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down yet, finishing in the top-26 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of his last 3 non-injury ruined seasons (2016, 2018, 2019), including a 13th ranked finish last season. Even if he does decline a little bit in 2020, he should remain an above average starter.

Turner and Bulaga should play well, but the rest of this line is a concern. They get center Mike Pouncey back from injury, but injuries have been a persistent problem for him in recent years. A first round pick in 2011, Pouncey’s career got off to a great start, as he made 46 of 48 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league and finished above average on PFF in all 3 seasons, including a pair of 9th ranked finishes in 2012 and 2013, but then he was limited to 12 games in a down season in 2014 season, en route to missing 28 games over the past 6 seasons. 

Those injuries seem to have taken their toll on him, as he’s finished below average on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including 28th out of 36 qualifying centers on PFF last season. Now going into his age 31 season, not only are his best days almost definitely behind him, but he could be on his last legs. 2018 5th round pick Scott Quessenberry wasn’t an upgrade in 9 starts in the first significant action of his career last season (27th among 36 qualifying centers), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the starting lineup by season’s end, whether by Pouncey getting hurt or getting benched.

Dan Feeney returns at left guard, but the 2017 3rd round pick has been middling at best in 41 career starts, including a 70th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying in 2019. He’s likely locked into the job because his only competition is Forrest Lamp, also a 2017 draft pick, who has played just 174 mediocre snaps in 3 seasons in the league due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Regardless of which player starts, they are likely to struggle, even if there’s a small chance one of them takes a significant step forward, now in their 4th season in the league.

Left tackle is up for grabs, with at least three players in the mix to replace Okung, and regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness. Sam Tevi is the incumbent right tackle who is losing his job to Bulaga and could flip over to the left side. He’s made 29 starts at right tackle over the past two seasons, but the 2017 6th round pick has struggled in both seasons, finishing 78th among 85th qualifying offensive tackles in 2018 and 61st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, and he’s unlikely to be better on the blindside.

Trent Scott made 9 starts as an injury fill in last season (7 at left tackle and 2 at right tackle), but the 2018 undrafted free agent struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career, finishing 83rd among 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. 2019 3rd round pick Trey Pipkins is probably their best option as he held his own on 251 snaps as a rookie and could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but he’s hardly a reliable option either. This offensive line should be better than last season, but it could be largely by default.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, turnover margin was a big problem for the Chargers last season, as they finished dead last at -17, which, given how many of their losses were close, could arguably be the sole reason why this team didn’t win nearly as many games as their 7th ranked first down rate differential would suggest. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis though and it’s not hard to see how the Chargers could be significantly improved in that area. 

Philip Rivers’ interceptions were part of the problem and that is something that will almost definitely improve with the more careful Tyrod Taylor under center, even if their offense becomes less explosive as a result, but their defense was actually a bigger part of the problem with a league low 14 takeaways. They ranked 14th in first down rate allowed at 34.78%, and have much more talent than their takeaway total would suggest, so the takeaways should come eventually. Even getting to the 20 takeaways they had with similar personnel in 2018 would make a big difference and they certainly have the talent to do so.

Arguably the top player on this talented defense is edge defender Joey Bosa. Bosa arguably got overshadowed by his younger brother Nick, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year and made the Super Bowl with the 49ers last season, but Joey is the more proven player. Since going #3 overall in 2016, Bosa has totalled 40 sacks, 44 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate in 51 games, while also holding his own against the run. Aside from an injury ruined 2018 season (7 games), he’s finished in the top-8 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in every season in the league, including a 5th ranked finish in 2019, and he could easily keep getting better, only in his age 25 season.

Melvin Ingram remains as the starter opposite Bosa, coming off of a season in which he was limited to 13 games by injury, one of several key players to miss time on this defense. Ingram still played pretty well when on the field, especially as a pass rusher, with 7 sacks, 5 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. His age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season and he has fallen off a little bit over the past two seasons, but falling off for him means finishing 36th and 27th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively, after finishing 10th and 12th in 2016 and 2017 respectively. He’s still not totally over the hill and the 3 games he missed last season were his first since 2014, so he could easily remain an above average starter and, even if he continues to decline, he still should be someone you can do a lot worse than.

The Chargers don’t have much need for reserves at this position, but they return their top-2 reserves from last season in Uchenna Nwosu (362 snaps) and Isaac Rochell (274 snaps). A 2nd round pick in 2018, Nwosu has shown a lot of promise in two seasons in the league and could arguably be a starter in his own right, but he’s been limited to 628 snaps total at a position where Bosa and Ingram dominate the snaps when both are healthy. Rochell, meanwhile, is more of a deep reserve, as the 2017 7th round pick has struggled throughout his career on a total of 862 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. With a talented starting duo and a high level reserve in Nwosu, the Chargers are in good shape at this position.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

By contrast, the Chargers were not nearly as good on the interior of their defensive line last season. Justin Jones (504 snaps), Brandon Mebane (408 snaps), Damion Square (402 snaps), and Jerry Tillery (354 snaps) all saw significant action and all finished with below average grades on Pro Football Focus. There are reasons to believe they can be significantly improved at this position in 2020 though. For one, they let Mebane go after he finished 121st out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF last season and replaced him with free agent acquisition Linval Joseph, who figures to be a significant improvement.

Once one of the top interior defenders in the league in his prime, Joseph is clearly on the decline, now going into his age 32 season, but he’s still finished 43rd and 38th among interior defenders on PFF over the past two seasons respectively and, even if he continues declining, he should still be a significant upgrade unless his abilities totally fall off a cliff. The 2-year, 17 million dollar deal the Chargers signed him to doesn’t break the bank, so he was a very smart signing at a position of desperate need.

The Chargers should also get more from Jerry Tillery this year, even if only by default, as the 2019 28th overall draft pick shockingly finished as PFF’s worst ranked interior defender as a rookie. Tillery struggled as a pass rusher (2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 5.4% pressure rate) and, more importantly, he consistently offered little resistance against the run. Tillery has nowhere to go but up and he still has a high ceiling as a former first round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a big step forward in 2020, but even a big step forward might not make him even a middling starting option.

Tillery could earn the starting role next to Joseph, but he’ll have to compete with Jones and Square, who still remain from last season. Jones has the most upside of the two, as he was a 3rd round pick just two years ago and is still only in his age 24 season, while Square is going into his age 31 season and has never been more than a capable reserve (414 snaps per season over the past four seasons), but Jones has struggled on 804 career snaps and is not a guarantee to improve. Regardless of who wins the starting job, all four players will likely play significant snaps at this position. Even with Joseph coming in and Tillery likely improving, this group still has problems, but they should still be noticeably improved from last year’s weak group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker was also an underwhelming position for the Chargers in 2019. They weren’t as bad as they were at the interior defender spot, but they lacked a standout player and got middling play at best. Thomas Davis led the position with 805 snaps played and earned a middling grade, but he’s no longer with the team. Instead, the Chargers traded up to select Kenneth Murray 23rd overall in the first round and they added veteran Nick Vigil on a 1-year, 2.4 million dollar deal to compete with holdovers Denzel Perryman (359 snaps), Dre Tranquill (382 snaps), and Kyzir White (372 snaps) for playing time in this linebacking corps.

Even though he’s a rookie who has never played a snap, Murray is arguably their best off ball linebacker going into the season, as Vigil and the rest of the options are all underwhelming. As a result, Murray seems likely to play a three down role in the middle as a rookie, even as early as week 1. Vigil and Perryman are the veterans of the group, making 37 starts in 4 seasons in the league and 45 starts in 5 seasons in the league respectively, but Vigil was largely starting out of necessity with the Bengals, while Perryman is purely a base package player who has been injury prone throughout his career and has never topped 481 snaps in a season. He should at least earn a base package run stuffing role, but he likely wouldn’t play every down, even without a better option.

Tranquill and White, meanwhile, are less proven, but come with more upside, as they went in the 4th round in the 2019 and 2018 NFL Drafts respectively and have shown promise in limited action thus far, Tranquill on 382 snaps as a rookie last season and White on 514 snaps between two seasons in the league. Both players will have significant opportunity to earn playing time in this unsettled group, though both are obviously projections to larger roles. The Chargers also like to use 3 safeties together in sub packages, with one playing around the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, and that’s something they figure to continue doing to mask their lack of coverage ability at linebacker. With an unproven rookie leading the way, this is a shaky group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Chargers’ expected week 1 starting safeties last season were Adrian Phillips and Derwin James, but injuries limited them to just 7 games and 5 games respectively, while 2nd round rookie Nasir Adderley, who could have started in their absence, was limited to 10 snaps by an injury of his own. Despite that, the Chargers’ secondary wasn’t bad last season and they should be a lot better this season. Phillips is no longer with the team, but both James and Adderley are expected to return from injury and the Chargers also added veteran cornerback Chris Harris on a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal.

Harris has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the past decade with the division rival Denver Broncos, finishing in the top-18 among cornerbacks in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, including five top-4 finishes and a pair of #1 finishes, but he fell to 38th last season and now is going into his age 31 season, so he was greeted by a relatively cold market. Harris was also a weird fit for the Chargers because he’s been best in his career on the slot, while the Chargers seemed to need an outside cornerback more than anything. Playing primarily outside was part of the reason why he wasn’t the same player last season in Denver and he would be more likely to continue declining if he has to play more outside in Los Angeles.

With the Chargers, it’s unclear where he’ll play primarily. Michael Davis has made 21 starts outside over the past two seasons, but he’s been middling at best and is coming off of a season in which he finished 92nd among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 659 snaps, while slot cornerback Desmond King has allowed an impressive 1.05 yards per route run on the slot in 3 seasons since the Chargers took him in the 5th round in 2017 and has finished in the top-31 among cornerbacks on PFF in all 3 seasons.

One possibility is the Chargers could play Davis outside, Harris on the slot, and move King to safety at least in passing situations, which would allow the Chargers to regularly use three safeties together in sub packages, to mask their lack of linebacker depth. It would be a risky move because King has played so well on the slot, but some pegged him as a safety coming out of college, so it could be a relatively natural fit for him and it would allow Harris to play his natural position on the slot. The other two safeties in three safety packages would be Derwin James and either Nasir Adderley, who is now healthy after missing his most of his rookie season, or Rayshawn Jenkins, 2017 4th round pick who was middling in 16 starts in the first significant action of his career last season.

Adderley and Jenkins are decent options with some upside, but Derwin James is obviously the best of the bunch. The 17th overall pick in 2018, James burst onto the scene with a 6th ranked finish among safeties as a 16-game starter as a rookie and his absence was the one that affected the Chargers the most last season, as he didn’t return from an off-season injury until week 13. Upon his return, he was still PFF’s 7th ranked safety from week 13 on and, only going into his age 24 season, James still has a massive ceiling if he can stay healthy long-term. He could easily be one of the top safeties in the league this season, so he’s a huge re-addition. He’s also incredibly versatile with his ability to play anywhere in the back seven and he would likely be the one who would work as a linebacker in sub packages when the Chargers use three safeties.

#1 cornerback Casey Hayward is also one of the best in the league at his position and he remains locked into his role as an every down outside cornerback. Hayward has finished in the top-17 among cornerbacks on PFF in each of his four seasons with the Chargers (62 starts) and, though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s yet to show any decline, finishing 4th among cornerbacks on PFF last season. Even if he does start to decline this season, he should be more than capable of being a top cornerback.

Who plays where besides Hayward is still up in the air. The most likely scenario is Hayward and Harris play together outside in base packages with James and either King, Jenkins, or Adderley at safety and then in sub packages, Harris will move to the slot, Davis will enter as the 3rd cornerback and play outside, and the Chargers will frequently use three safeties at once to mask their lack of linebacker depth. They have some versatile options in a secondary that should be significantly better with Derwin James healthy and Chris Harris being added.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chargers went 5-11 last season because of close losses, injuries, and a league worst turnover margin, three things that are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, with a very similar roster in 2018, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, had a +1 turnover margin, and ranked 20th in adjusted games lost to injury, and, largely as a result, they won 12 games and made it to the 2nd round of the post-season. The Chargers don’t have Philip Rivers anymore, but I’m higher on Tyrod Taylor than most, now in a system that fits his skillset again, and the rest of this roster has a lot of talent. They’re obviously behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild card spots in the AFC. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.91

Defensive Score: 76.16

Total Score: 74.54 (2nd in AFC West)

Las Vegas Raiders 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the 2017 season, the Raiders decided to take things in a drastic new direction. They were coming off of a 6-10 season and, while they were 12-4 the season before, they were never as good as their record suggested that season (19th in first down rate differential at -0.49%) and that was their only playoff appearance since 2002. To try to turn back the clock to their recent glory days, the Raiders gave former head coach (1998-2001) and at the time ESPN Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden a 10-year, 100 million dollar deal that not only gave him total job security, but complete control over the roster. 

Even though Gruden didn’t inherit a bad roster, he wasted no time starting to rebuild the team the way he wanted to, armed with complete job security. He made several major personnel changes in his first off-season, but none were bigger than trading Khalil Mack, one of the top defensive players in the league, to the Bears for a pair of first round picks. Obviously losing a player like Mack is a significant blow, but the Raiders would have had to pay him upwards of 22 million annually to keep him long-term and the money they saved by not extending him and the draft picks they received by trading him gave Gruden significant long-term flexibility with this roster.

The short term results have not been good. In Gruden’s first season, the Raiders fell to 4-12 and finished 28th in the league in first down rate differential at -4.96%. In his second season, the Raiders seemed better, winning 7 games, but they still ranked 29th in the league in first down rate differential at -5.27%. All 7 of their wins were close games, decided by 8 points or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while 6 of their 9 losses came by 18 points or more, giving them a -106 point differential on the season, which is much more in line with a 4-5 win team than a 7-win team. The offense wasn’t really the problem last season, as they ranked a middle of the pack 17th in first down rate at 35.39%, but their defense ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 40.66%. I’ll get into their defense later, but it will be impossible for the Raiders to take a step forward in 2020 if their defense continues to play at that level.

Given how much has changed since Gruden arrived and that Gruden’s background is with quarterbacks, there has been constant speculation since Gruden arrived that he would look for an alternative to starting quarterback Derek Carr. Instead, Carr has actually started all 32 games since Gruden took over, one of the few parts of this team that hasn’t changed. A 2nd round pick by the Raiders in 2014, Carr has started 94 of 96 possible games in 6 seasons in the league and has generally been a solid starter, finishing in the top-21 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 5th ranked finish in 2016 and a 10th ranked finish in 2015. Carr’s first season in Gruden’s system was one of the worst of his career, as he finished 21st among quarterbacks on PFF, but he was noticeably improved in his second season with Gruden, moving back up to 12th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019.

That doesn’t mean Gruden hasn’t looked for alternatives though, as it’s simply that none of the reclamation projects Gruden has taken on (Mike Glennon, Nathan Peterman, DeShone Kizer, AJ McCarron) have even developed into capable backups and that Gruden hasn’t found a quarterback to his liking in the draft yet. This off-season, Gruden added a quarterback that has the best chance of anyone yet to dethrone Carr as the starter, signing Marcus Mariota from the Titans and paying a high price to do so, giving him a 2-year, 17.6 million dollar deal that suggests he’s viewed as a little bit more than a true backup. 

The Raiders have publicly backed Carr this off-season and he figures to be the week 1 starter, but as Mariota knows from being on the opposite side of this last season when the Titans added Ryan Tannehill in the off-season, sometimes things can change quickly when you have an experienced veteran backup behind you on the depth chart. Titans’ offense got much better when Tannehill was inserted into the lineup for Mariota last season and Mariota typically did not lead effective offenses in 61 starts in Tennessee, but he also showed some promise, including 14th and 18th ranked finishes among quarterbacks on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Still in his age 27 season, the former #2 overall pick definitely has the upside to end up under center for another team at some point and it’s very possible his eventual second stint as a starter will end up being better than his first, so he was a worthwhile flyer for the Raiders, even though he didn’t come cheap. He’s not a guarantee to dethrone Carr this season and he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade if he did, but I don’t expect Mariota’s days as a starter to be totally finished. With a solid starter and a capable alternative, this is a pretty good quarterback situation.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with getting an improved season from Derek Carr from 2018 to 2019, another big reason why the Raiders’ offense was better in 2019 than 2018 was the addition of talented running back Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, one of the two first rounders they got in the Khalil Mack trade. Jacobs was limited to 13 games by injury and was not 100% for most of the season, but he still rushed for 1,150 yards and 7 touchdowns on 242 carries (4.75 YPC), with 3.48 YPC of his yardage coming after contact and a position leading 69 broken tackles as a runner. He wasn’t just breaking big runs either, as he also had the 14th highest carry success rate of any running back in the league at 51%, consistently keeping this offense on track. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back in rushing grade.

The one area where Jacobs wasn’t a factor as a rookie was in the passing game, totalling just 20 catches on 27 targets all season. Jacobs wasn’t used much in the passing game in college either, but there was some speculation he could see a bigger role in the passing game in his second season in the league in 2020. The chances of that happening would seem to have dropped significantly when the Raiders used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. 

One of the most interesting prospects in the draft, Bowden played both receiver and option quarterback in college, but he saw carries at both of those positions and the Raiders are expected to use the 5-11 204 pounder as a passing down running back, a role he’s likely to see action in immediately. The Raiders could also use him on some trick plays, especially with his ability to play wildcat quarterback and at least keep teams honest in the passing game.

Aside from trick plays, the Raiders didn’t really seem to need Bowden because they have Jalen Richard, who had a 68/607/0 slash line in 2018 and then followed that up with a 36/232/0 slash line in 2019 and who also has a career 5.02 YPC average on 233 carries in 4 seasons in the league. However, there are enough targets for running backs in this offense for both Bowden and Richard to have a role, with DeAndre Washington also adding a 36/292/0 slash line last season. Both Bowden and Richard could surpass 30 catches, but neither is likely to have a big role as a runner behind Jacobs, who could surpass 300 carries and push for the rushing title if he can stay healthy this season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This offense also got good play on the offensive line last season, with all five starters earning average or better grades from Pro Football Focus. In 2020, not only do they return all five starters, but they also could be even healthier, as only one of the five played all 16 games last season and they only had their expected starting five together for 4 full games all season. If they can stay relatively healthy, they should be an even better offensive line this season.

Left tackle Kolton Miller was their only 16-game starter last season and he was arguably their worst starter, though he still earned an average grade from PFF, which was a big step forward from his rookie year in 2018 when he finished 81st out of 85 qualifiers at his position. Miller was a reach as the 15th overall pick, but he still profiles as a solid starter long-term and could take another step forward in his third season in the league in 2020.

On the other side, right tackle Trent Brown was the most banged up starter they had upfront, as he was limited to 582 snaps on the season and frequently played through multiple injuries even when on the field. He still finished 35th among offensive tackles on PFF, his third straight season with an above average grade (40th among offensive tackles in 2018 and 27th in 2017), but he’s also missed 11 games with injury over that stretch. He’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and he should remain a solid starter when on the field this season, but he’s not as good as his 4-year, 66 million dollar contract suggests, as he’s the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary, only behind the Eagles’ Lane Johnson. He’s a good player, but not on that level.

At guard, Richie Incognito made 12 starts on the left side, while Gabe Jackson made 11 starts on the right side. Jackson was only about an average starter, but he’s been better in the past, finishing in the top-32 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season, including a pair of top-15 finishes in 2016 and as recently as 2018. Injuries were likely part of the reason for his struggles last season and he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, but it’s worth noting that injuries have kind of piled up for him in recent years (10 games missed over the past 3 seasons, while being limited in several others), so even if he bounces back a little bit, it’s very possible his best days are behind him. 

Incognito, meanwhile, is coming off of a better season, finishing 11th among guards on PFF, but he’s going into his age 37 season. Incognito has had a crazy career that has included two full seasons missed for off-the-field reasons, among other missed time, but he’s continued to get chances because of how well he’s played, finishing in the top-23 among guards on PFF in each of the past 8 seasons in which he’s played, dating back to 2010 (115 starts). He’s hardly a reliable player, especially given his age, but unless his abilities significantly fall off or he gets in serious trouble again, he should remain at least a capable starter in 2020.

Center Rodney Hudson was mostly healthy last season, missing only about a game and a half. He was once again one of the top centers in the league, ranking 11th among centers on PFF, his 6th straight season in the top-11 among centers, including a pair of top-5 finishes in 2016 and 2018. Hudson’s age is becoming a minor concern in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down yet and he’s been pretty healthy in recent years, missing just 4 games over the past 7 seasons. He anchors an offensive line that should be at least an above average unit again, returning their starting five from last year, hopefully getting better health, and also still having top reserves like David Sharpe and Denzelle Good around just in case.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one group that didn’t help Derek Carr much last season was this receiving corps. Tight end Darren Waller had a 90/1145/3 slash line, which gave him the second most yards of any tight end in the league, while slot receiver Hunter Renfrow averaged 2.09 yards per route run, 11th most among wide receivers, but Renfrow is a slot only option who was limited to 13 games last season and the Raiders really lacked consistent play at the outside receiver spots. 

In order to try to correct that, the Raiders used a first round pick on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs and a third round pick on South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards. They also hope to get a healthier season from Tyrell Williams, who was held to 1.58 yards per route run and a 42/651/6 slash line in the first year of a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar contract the Raiders signed him to as a free agent last off-season. With Renfrow locked in on the slot, those three will compete for outside receiver snaps.

Edwards will have a shot to earn time, but is likely a long-shot for a top-3 role, given that Ruggs went higher than him in the draft and that Williams is highly paid. Williams isn’t a guarantee to play as well as his contract, however, even if he can stay healthier than he did last season. Williams had a 69/1059/7 slash line in 2016 as Philip Rivers’ #1 option and he ranked 30th among wide receivers on PFF that season, but he’s averaged just a 42/677/5 slash line over the past 3 seasons, while earning middling grades from PFF, so he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 receiver. He may need to be their de facto top outside receiver for another year though, as Ruggs may be too raw for that role as a rookie. The Raiders should be better at the outside receiver spots in 2020 than 2019, but this is still a questionable group.

Renfrow still looks like their most reliable wide receiver, given how much promise he showed as a mere 5th round rookie last season, and he could easily see more playing time this season, after seeing limited snaps early last season and then missing time with injury later in the season, but he’s capped on the amount he can play because he’s only a slot option at 5-10 185 and he was pretty NFL ready when he came into the league and, already going into his age 25 season, without high end athleticism, it’s possible he’s already very close to his ceiling. He could easily develop into an above average slot option, but he’s hardly true a #1 option.

Tight end Darren Waller will likely remain their #1 option, though he may not have the same target share as he had last season, when he ranked 2nd among tight ends with a 22.4% target share (117 of 523 pass attempts), given that this should be a more talented receiving corps overall. Waller showed very little as a blocker, but his performance as a receiver was so good that he still finished 5th overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Given where Waller was a couple years ago, he’s really come a long way, in more ways than one.

A 6th round pick by the Ravens in 2015, Waller was very raw when he entered the league, only catching 44 passes as a big wide receiver on a run heavy wishbone offense at Georgia Tech, but he’s always had the upside to develop into a mismatch at the tight end position because of his combination of size and athletic ability. However, he never developed in Baltimore due to drug problems, catching just 12 passes in 2015 and 2016 before being suspended for all of the 2017 season and ultimately getting released by the Ravens ahead of the 2018 season.

Waller eventually got clean and signed with the Raiders, who he played 42 snaps for late in the 2018 season (6 catches), before having a breakout off-season and a breakout season in 2019, with his drug problems behind him, hopefully for good. He’s still a one-year wonder and might not be as productive in 2020 due to sheer regression, even if he does get the same target share as last season, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he should continue being an above average pass catching tight end for years to come if he can avoid relapsing.

The Raiders signed veteran tight end Jason Witten this off-season, but he’s unlikely to eat into Waller’s targets as much as the wide receivers. Witten was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in his prime, averaging a 90/994/5 slash line from 2007-2013, but now he’s going into his age 38 season. He still had a 63/529/4 slash line last season, but that was primarily due to opportunity, as he averaged just 1.19 yards per route run on a good Cowboys offense last season and earned a below average grade from PFF overall. 

Witten is still a capable blocker who can catch some passes as an underneath option in two tight end sets, but he’s much more of a replacement for Foster Moreau, who had a 21/174/5 slash line last season as a 4th round rookie, than a threat to any of Waller’s playing time. With Moreau moving into the #3 role, I would expect similar production from Witten in a receiving corps that is improved, but still lacks a legitimate #1 receiver.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Given that the Raiders had the worst defense in the league last season in terms of first down rate allowed, there is nowhere to go but up for this unit. The interior defender spot was their best position last season, as Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall had the two highest grades on Pro Football Focus of any Raiders defender last season, finishing 30th and 46th respectively among interior defenders on PFF, while Johnathan Hankins earned a middling grade. Those three split snaps pretty evenly, with Hurst playing 522 snaps, Hall playing 551 snaps, and Hankins playing 670 snaps and this season they add ex-Cowboy Maliek Collins to the mix on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. All four could see pretty equal playing time if all four can stay healthy.

Hurst is still the best of the bunch, earning above average grades from PFF on 522 snaps and 472 snaps in two seasons in the league. He’s a capable run stuffer, but he brings the most value as an interior pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate in his career. Hurst was just a 5th round pick in 2018, but could have gone much higher if not for a medical condition that has yet to be a concern, so he projects as a long-term above average starter. Hall, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as Hurst, he still earned an average grade from PFF on 512 snaps as a rookie in 2018 before taking a step forward in 2019 and he could easily keep getting better. He’s more of a base package player than a sub package rusher, but he can play in both situations.

Hankins figures to continue to see a significant role in base packages. The 7-year veteran has never been much of a pass rusher, with 13.5 sacks and a 6.2% pressure rate in 98 career games, but he’s earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in every season he’s been in the league and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he should be able to keep it up. Collins, meanwhile, struggles against the run, but has developed a capable interior pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate last season. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being that level of a player, but he has a 7.9% pressure rate for his career and the 2016 3rd round pick could theoretically keep getting better, still only in his age 25 season. This is a deep position group.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Raiders also added edge defender Carl Nassib this off-season on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal. A 3rd round pick by the Browns in 2016, Nassib was pretty underwhelming in his first two seasons in Cleveland, leading to him being released ahead of final cuts in 2018, but he proved the Browns gave up too early on him, earning slightly above average grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons with the Buccaneers, on snap totals of 598 and 630. He’s best against the run, but has also added 12.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past two seasons as well.

Nassib may not start at defensive end in this 4-3 defense, but he’ll at least be heavily involved as a rotational player, at a position group where reserves Arden Key, Benson Mayowa, and Josh Mauro all struggled last season. Nassib may even rotate evenly with nominal starters Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, who are both going into their second season in the league. Crosby led this team with 10 sacks, but his peripheral pass rush snaps (6 hits, 9.4% pressure rate) weren’t as good and he struggled against the run, so he only ended up with an average grade overall from PFF on 750 snaps. He still exceeded expectations for a 4th round rookie and he projects as a solid starter long-term, but he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested and he’s not a guarantee to get better this season.

Ferrell, meanwhile, should be better this season, as the 2019 4th overall pick has a high upside and, though he earned a middling grade overall for his rookie season, he was significantly better down the stretch, ranking 8th among edge defenders on PFF from week 12 on. He might not be able to continue that over a full 16 game season and he was primarily a run stuffer, with a mediocre 7.4% pressure rate overall as a rookie, but he projects as an above average starter and could take a step forward both as a pass rusher and against the run in 2020. Nassib, Ferrell, and Crosby should play the vast majority of the snaps at this position, but Arden Key, a 2018 3rd round pick who has struggled on 823 career snaps, would be the top reserve if needed. Even though he hasn’t played well yet in his career, he still has upside and he’s not a bad #4 end in what is a decent position group overall, even if they lack a high level player at the position.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Raiders’ big off-season addition this year was middle linebacker Cory Littleton, who comes over from the Rams on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL in average annual salary. An undrafted free agent in 2016, Littleton worked his way from a reserve and practice squadder in his first two seasons in the league to a capable starter in 2018, when he finished 35th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, to a dominant season in 2019, in which he finished 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF, leading to the Raiders signing him to a big contract. Littleton is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may not be able to repeat his career best year from 2019, but he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and should remain an above average every down off ball linebacker at the very least.

The Raiders also signed ex-Bear Nick Kwiatkoski to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and he figures to play every down outside in this 4-3 defense. A 4th round pick in 2016, Kwiatkowski has never been a regular starter, making just 22 starts in 4 seasons in the league as a spot starter, but he’s fared well in his last two extended starting stints, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 382 snaps in 2017 and 16th on 512 snaps last season. He deserves to get a shot at a full-time starting role and the Raiders will give it to him. He’s a projection to that role, but could easily end up as an above average starter, still only in his age 27 season.

Littleton and Kwiatkowski are big additions because the Raiders’ linebacking corps was led by Tahir Whitehead (941 snaps) and Nicholas Morrow (728 snaps) last season and they finished 68th and 90th respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. Whitehead is gone, but Morrow remains on the team and will compete for the 3rd linebacker job, which would play only in base packages. Morrow isn’t a lock for that role though, as the 2017 undrafted free agent has struggled mightily throughout his 3 seasons in the league and will have to fend off 3rd round rookie Tanner Muse to even keep a part-time role. This is a solid group thanks to off-season additions.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Raiders also made a few additions to their secondary this off-season. At cornerback, they signed veteran Prince Amukamara to a deal that barely pays him more than the league minimum, which could be a steal for a player who was still a solid starter last season in Chicago and who was only released because the cap-strapped Bears didn’t want to pay his 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. 

Amukamara is going into his age 31 season and has only played all 16 games in a season once in 9 years, but he’s also played at least 13 games in 6 of 9 seasons and he has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of his past 8 seasons as a starter (99 starts), including a 13th ranked finish as recently as 2018. Even if he declines in 2020, he should be able to be at least an average starter. 

Amukamara was signed after the Raiders drafted Damon Arnette 19th overall this past April and, with Arnette still being a raw prospect, Amukamara should at least open the season as the starter, unless Arnette has a big training camp. It’s possible both Amukamara and Arnette could start outside, but that’s unlikely, as 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen is likely locked into a starting role after holding his own on 675 snaps (10 starts) as a rookie. Mullen could easily take a step forward in 2020 after a middling first season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee.

At safety, the Raiders added veteran Damarious Randall on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal and he could prove to be a steal as well, as he has started and has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons with the Browns. The former first round pick struggled earlier in his career at cornerback with the Packers, but is a more natural fit at safety. Injuries that cost him 5 games last season may have depressed his market and he’s never made it through a full 16 game season without missing at least a game in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should be at least a solid starter.

The Raiders also get 2019 first round pick Johnathan Abram back, after an injury limited him to 48 snaps as a rookie. Abram is still unproven, but he has a high upside and getting him back is like having an extra first round pick. The Raiders also have plenty of depth options at safety, as Erik Harris, who has held his own in 18 starts over the past two seasons with the Raiders, and free agent signing Jeff Heath, who has been a capable starter over the past three seasons in Dallas (44 starts), are both available as depth options.

Given how deep they are at safety, the Raiders are likely to leave LaMarcus Joyner at slot cornerback, even though he struggled mightily there last season, in the first year of a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal, and even though his best days with the Rams prior to signing with the Raiders were at free safety. Joyner finished 2nd among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 28th in 2018, but fell to 126th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season. 

A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner also struggled at cornerback earlier in his career, so it should be clear that safety is his best spot, but he looks likely to remain at slot cornerback given the other personnel in this secondary. Other slot options would include 4th round rookie Amik Robertson and 2019 4th round pick Isaiah Johnson, who played 14 snaps as a rookie, and neither of those players would be reliable options. Much like this defense as a whole, this secondary still has some problems, but looks to be significantly improved from last year’s league worst unit.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Oakland Raiders were not as good as their record in 2019, with all seven of their wins coming by 8 points or fewer and 6 of their 9 losses coming by 18 points or more, but there are reasons to believe this team can play significantly better than last season, now in their first season in Las Vegas. The big one is simply that they’re more talent after some smart off-season additions, particularly on defense, where they still have problems, but figure to be much improved from last year’s league worst season. 

The Raiders also should be healthier this season, after losing the 7th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, which will especially matter on offense, where their desired offensive line and top running back Josh Jacobs rarely all were on the field at the same time. Led by this running game and offensive line and Derek Carr setting up play action off the run, this offense could take a big step forward this season along with their improved defense. They’re starting from a lower base point than most realize because they were much worse than their record suggested last season, so they might not have a big increase in win total, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild cards in the AFC.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.57

Defensive Score: 72.29

Total Score: 74.43 (3rd in AFC West)

Denver Broncos 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, but they did so in spite of their quarterback play, not because of it, and over the past few seasons the Broncos have shuffled through various options trying to find the right solution. Their defense has remained consistently good, but the 2015 Broncos defense was one of the best defenses in the league over the past decade, so they haven’t been able to maintain that level of play and their inability to find a quarterback has caused them to miss the post-season in every season since their Super Bowl win. As recent as that Super Bowl seems, the Broncos now have tied for the 4th longest active streak of not making the post-season, only behind the Browns, Buccaneers, and Jets, so the urgency is obviously there for this team to return to the post-season.

Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler were their quarterbacks in 2015, but Manning retired and Osweiler signed with the Texans, so the Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He turned out to be a megabust though, making just 4 starts in 2 seasons before being let go. Instead, backup caliber quarterback Trevor Siemian made 24 starts between 2016 and 2017 and Osweiler also came back and made 4 starts in 2017, after proving to be a bust on a big contract with the Texans. 

Neither Siemian and Osweiler were getting the job done, so the Broncos turned to free agent acquisition Case Keenum in 2018, who pocketed 22 million for one mediocre season before being sent to the Redskins for a late round pick. They then tried Joe Flacco in 2019, acquiring him from the Ravens for a 4th round pick and taking on his 18.5 million dollar salary, but he lasted just 8 mediocre starts before going down for the season with a neck injury. 

The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick last off-season on quarterback Drew Lock, but he broke his thumb in the pre-season and was not available when Flacco got hurt, leaving the Broncos to start practice squad caliber quarterback Brandon Allen for 3 games, before Lock eventually returned for the final 5 games of the season. Lock was a mixed bag in those 5 starts, but he showed enough for Broncos fans to be excited that he could potentially be the long-term starter. 

Lock’s overall numbers weren’t great, as he completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.54 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers, but even that was enough for this team to go 4-1, only losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, so this is a very intriguing team going into 2020. The 34.95% first down rate the Broncos moved the chains at in Lock’s 5 starts last season isn’t great, but it’s a noticeable improvement from the 30.83% first down rate they had in the first 11 games of the season and it made a big difference in the win/loss column for a team with a defense that finished 7th in first down rate allowed last season at 33.20%. 

The Broncos clearly liked what they saw from Lock, releasing Flacco and not pursuing a veteran replacement besides career backup Jeff Driskel (79.6 QB rating in 8 career starts), so they are all in on Lock at the position. Lock comes with a lot of uncertainty, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be the best quarterback they’ve had since Manning’s last good year in 2014. If they can get capable quarterback play and play at a high level on defense, this team could make some noise in the AFC.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

I’ll get into whether or not their defense can continue playing at a high level later, but on offense everything is looking up and not just because of Drew Lock’s potential, as the Broncos have done a good job adding talent around the quarterback on offense. That’s especially true at the wide receiver position, where they used their first two picks this year on Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Penn State’s KJ Hamler to give them a high upside young trio with incumbent #1 option Courtland Sutton. 

Hamler enters the league pretty raw, but he has a high upside and Jeudy was arguably the top wide receiver in the draft, so he was a great value at #15 overall and can have an immediate impact. Relying on rookies is tough, but the Broncos didn’t have a wide receiver other than Sutton or Emmanuel Sanders, who was traded away mid-season, that topped 297 receiving yards last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for the rookies to be an upgrade.

In the second half of last season when Sanders was gone, including Lock’s 5-game stretch, Sutton was the Broncos’ only consistent passing game option, but at least the 2018 2nd round pick was able to break out as a legitimate #1 option in his second season in the league. After a middling rookie year in which he had a 42/704/4 slash line on 84 targets, Sutton jumped to 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2019 and finished the season with a 72/1112/6 slash line on 124 targets, despite frequent double teams and inconsistent quarterback play. 

Sutton might not have the same target share as last season (24.6%) in a deeper group, but he could still post similar numbers on a smaller target share if this passing game is improved as a whole and other wide receivers draw coverage away from him. Sutton is technically a one-year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come.

The Broncos have also used significant draft capital on the tight end position in recent years, taking Noah Fant in the first round in 2019 and using a 4th round pick this year on Albert Okwuegbunam. Fant had a pretty underwhelming rookie year, but still finished the season second on the team with a 40/562/3 slash line and he has obvious upside going forward. He may never develop into a good blocker, but he has the upside to be a major mismatch in the passing game. He might not have a breakout year this year, but he could easily take a step forward in his second season.

Okwuegbunam, meanwhile, will compete for the #2 job with incumbent #2 Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman is a mediocre option who isn’t much of a blocker and has never topped 281 receiving yards in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but Okwuegbunam enters the league pretty raw, especially as a run blocker, so he probably wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie. This is definitely a deeper receiving corps than last year and they have a huge ceiling, but their overall lack of experience also gives them a low floor.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Broncos also added at the running back position this off-season, signing ex-Charger Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal. It was a surprising signing because the Broncos didn’t seem to need to spend significant money on the running back position, with lead back Phillip Lindsay having topped 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past two seasons and still only going into his age 26 season without a significant injury history. In total, Lindsay has rushed for 16 touchdowns and 4.92 YPC on 416 carries over the past two seasons, while earning Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest and 9th highest rushing grade over the past two seasons respectively.

The Broncos also probably overpaid for Gordon, even if Gordon settled for less than the 10 million he was originally offered by the Chargers prior to his ill-advised holdout last season. Gordon tried to cash in on a 2018 season in which he rushed for 5.06 YPC and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries and finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked running back overall, but the Chargers wouldn’t give him the top of the running back market deal he wanted, leading to him sitting out the first 4 games of the 2019 season. 

The Chargers were wise to not pay him at the top of the market, as they were arguably better in the games that Gordon didn’t play last season, with Austin Ekeler impressing as the lead back and Gordon struggling (3.78 YPC on 162 carries) upon his return. His holdout likely caused some of his struggles, but when you look at his 5 seasons with the Chargers in total, his 2018 season stands out as an obvious outlier, as he’s never topped 4 YPC in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Poor offensive line play was part of the problem, but he’s also never finished higher than 19th among running backs on PFF in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Even as the 7th highest paid running back in the league, he’s overpaid and he wasn’t really necessary for a team that had a strong lead back already.

The biggest area Gordon helps this running back group is in the passing game, as Lindsay has averaged just 4.60 yards per target in his career thus far and last year’s passing down back Royce Freeman averaged just 5.12 yards per target, while Gordon has averaged a 53/447/3 slash line per 16 games in his career. In addition to playing most passing downs, Gordon figures to split early down work with Lindsay and there could be a lot of carries available for both on a team that will likely try to be run heavy to protect their young quarterback.

It also wouldn’t be hard for Gordon to be an upgrade as a runner over Freeman, who averaged just 3.76 YPC and ranked 42nd out of 45 qualifying running backs with just a 41% carry success rate, but the Broncos probably would have been better off adding a running back through the draft or a cheaper veteran, rather than paying significant money for a running back with one strong year out of five. This is a deep backfield though, with Freeman now moving into at best the #3 back role.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Broncos made some offensive line additions this off-season, though they primarily were replacing off-season departures, with starting center Connor McGovern and starting right guard Ron Leary no longer with the team. Leary won’t be a big loss, but McGovern was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season. The big addition was Graham Glasgow, who comes over from the Lions on a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal. 

A 3rd round pick in 2016, Glasgow has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and he has earned an above average grade on PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a career best 10th ranked finish among guards in 2019. In addition to being an above average starter, he’s versatile and proven at different spots (18 starts at left guard, 26 starts at center, 14 starts at right guard). It’s unclear where Glasgow will play in Denver, but wherever he ends up the Broncos will be expecting him to essentially be a replacement for McGovern.

Where Glasgow ends up playing may come down to how the Broncos feel about other starting options on this line. If Glasgow plays right guard, the Broncos would likely have to start 3rd round rookie Lloyd Cushenberry at center. If Glasgow plays center, the Broncos would likely start Elijah Wilkinson at right guard. Wilkinson struggled in 12 starts at right tackle last season, but the 2017 undrafted free agent was better in 7 starts at right guard in 2018. He may never develop into a consistent starter anywhere, but he’s not a bad option if the Broncos aren’t comfortable starting a rookie at center and want to move Glasgow to the pivot instead.

Wilkinson was also only an injury fill in at right tackle last season, with the Broncos signing Ja’Wuan James from the Dolphins on a 4-year, 51 million dollar last off-season and then watching him play just 63 snaps all season due to a knee injury that he had multiple setbacks with. Injuries have been a problem for him in the past as well, as he’s been limited to 8 games or fewer in 3 of 6 seasons in the league, but he’s expected to be healthy at least going into this season, which would be a big boost for this team. James is not as good as his contract suggests, as, in addition to his injury history, he’s never finished higher than 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s also been an average or better starter in every season in the league as well and he’s only in his age 28 season, so he should be a solid starter again in 2020 if he can stay on the field.

The left side of this offensive line remains the same, with Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner locked in at left tackle and left guard respectively. Bolles was a first round pick in 2017 and has had a lot of problems with penalties, committing 45 in 48 career starts, but he’s otherwise developed into a high level player, allowing 6 sacks over the past 2 seasons and finishing 29th and 16th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively. 

If Bolles can ever figure out his penalty problem, he could be one of the top offensive tackles in the league. That’s easier said than done and he’s older than most players in their 4th season in the league (age 28), but even if he continues to play the same as he has, you could do a lot worse at left tackle. Risner, meanwhile, is a 2019 2nd round pick who was a capable starter in 16 rookie year starts and could take a step forward in his second season in the league. This could be a solid group if they’re healthy, but they have at least one starting spot where they’re likely going to be relying on an underwhelming option.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Broncos’ offense should take a step forward in 2020, after ranking 27th in first down rate in 2019 at 32.08%, so if their defense can continue playing at a high level, after ranking 7th in first down rate in 2019 at 33.20%, they could easily take a step forward from last year’s 7-9 record and compete for a playoff spot. At the interior defender spot, the Broncos are actually better than they were last season. 

Shelby Harris led the position with 636 snaps last season and finished 19th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, but the Broncos weren’t expecting to be able to re-sign him at the start of the off-season, so they traded for Jurrell Casey from the Titans, flipping late round picks to acquire Casey and the 37.9 million over 3 years remaining on his contract in a salary dump. Then when Harris’ market didn’t develop, he agreed to return on a 1-year, 3.095 million dollar deal in hopes of getting a more favorable market next off-season.

The Broncos didn’t bring back long-time starter Derek Wolfe (108 starts over 8 seasons), but he was a middling starter in 2019 and Harris and Casey, who will both start and play significant roles, are both above average starters. It’s not that surprising that Harris’ market didn’t develop the way he expected because, as well as he played last season, it was the first season of his career in which he was a starter, but he had showed plenty of promise in 2017 and 2018 as a reserve as well, playing the run at a high level and totalling 7 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate, so he could easily continue being an above average starter in 2020, which makes him a steal at his salary.

Casey is more expensive, but could also prove to be a good value, considering the Broncos hardly gave up anything in terms of draft compensation to acquire him. Casey had a down year in 2019, but for him a down year means finishing 26th among interior defenders on PFF, after 4 straight seasons in the top-19 prior. Any decline is a concern for a player who is going into his age 31 season, but even if he keeps declining, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him remain an above average starter for at least the next couple years, even if his best days are behind him.

The Broncos run a base 3-4 defense and in base packages Mike Purcell will be the 3rd interior defender, playing the traditional base package run stuffing nose tackle role, a role he thrived in last season, when he finished #1 among interior defenders on PFF in run stuffing grade. Purcell is a complete one-year wonder though, as not only were the 416 snaps he played last season a career high, but last season was his first career above average grade from PFF and it was also the first time he had played a defensive snap since 2016. 

Purcell is highly unlikely to be as good as he was last season again, but he’s still in his age 29 season and it’s possible he’s a late bloomer who can continue playing well in a situational early down role going forward. The 6-3 329 pounder certainly looks the part and, while he doesn’t get much pass rush at all (3.3% career pressure rate), the Broncos won’t need him to play in sub packages because they have Casey and Harris, who are capable of playing every down.

The Broncos also have good depth at this position, so much so that I wouldn’t expect all of the players in the mix for roles to make the final roster. Casey, Harris, and Purcell are obviously locked in to roster spots, as are 3rd round rookie McTelvin Agim and 2019 3rd round pick Dre’Mont Jones. Agim might not have a big rookie year role, but Jones showed promise as a situational pass rusher as a rookie (10.5% pressure rate) and, now in his second season in the league, he’s likely to exceed the 283 snaps he played as a rookie and will likely be their top reserve.

That leaves 2017 2nd round pick DeMarcus Walker and Christian Covington competing not only for playing time, but possibly for roster spots. Walker was a high pick, but has been limited to 341 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. He’s played both inside and outside in this defense, but hasn’t been able to find a consistent role anywhere. Last season, he was primarily a situational interior pass rusher and wasn’t bad (8.7%), but he only played 220 snaps total and it’s hard to see how there would be more snaps available for him in 2020, unless injuries hit. Covington, meanwhile, is a free agent acquisition who has excelled as a rotational reserve throughout his career, only averaging 330 snaps per season over the past four seasons, but earning an average or better grade from PFF in all four of those seasons. This is a deep group that should be improved from last season.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Broncos should also be improved in the edge defender group, set to get Bradley Chubb back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season after 4 games, following a rookie season in which the 5th overall pick led all rookies with 12 sacks in 2018. Chubb’s return isn’t as big of a deal as you’d think though, as he wasn’t quite as good of a pass rusher as his rookie year sack total suggested and the players who replaced him weren’t much of a dropoff. 

Malik Reed (468 snaps), Jerry Attaochu (322 snaps), and Justin Hollins (266 snaps) couldn’t match Chubb as a pass rusher, but they were upgrades against the run, an area in which Chubb struggled as a rookie. There are other factors involved, but the Broncos were actually better defensively in the 12 games they played without Chubb last season (32.16% first down rate allowed), as compared to the 4 games they played with Chubb (36.55% first down rate allowed).

Now coming off the injury, Chubb’s future is a little bit more uncertain, but he still has the upside to develop into one of the best edge defenders in the league long-term, even if he hasn’t been as good as his rookie year sack total has suggested thus far in his career. Whether or not he can take a big step forward in his third season in the league in his first year back from the injury in 2020 is the question. If he can, it will be a big boost to this defense, but that remains to be seen. 

It’s possible the Broncos could play Malik Reed, the best of the three players who played in Chubb’s absence last season, more on early downs and save Chubb as a pass rush specialist to hide his struggles against the run and keep him fresher to rush the passer. Either way, Reed, a 2019 undrafted free agent who flashed on 465 rookie season snaps, figures to be the primary reserve, while Hollins and Attaochu are still around and could make the roster again as deep reserves.

Von Miller figures to remain in an every down role on the opposite side, so unless Reed can earn an early down role at Chubb’s expense, the Broncos won’t have much need for reserves, barring injuries. Miller has been one of the best edge defenders in the league over the past decade, totalling 106 sacks, 122 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate in his career, while also excelling against the run. Selected #2 overall in 2011, Miller finished in the top-4 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, before slipping to 22nd among edge defenders in 2019. 

Any decline is concerning for a player now going into his age 31 season, but he still managed 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate, while maintaining his usual level of play against the run. Even if his best days are behind him, he could remain one of the top players at his position for several years to come if he ages gracefully. With Miller elevating his group by himself, Chubb returning opposite him, and some good depth led by Malik Reed, this figures to be a strong position group again.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Broncos defense was significantly improved after the first 4 games of last season, in spite of Bradley Chubb’s season ending injury. Part of that was Chubb’s replacements holding their own, but it also lines up with the insertion of AJ Johnson into the lineup at middle linebacker in place of Josey Jewell, who fared well as a run stuffer as the early season starter but struggled mightily in coverage. Johnson didn’t play a defensive snap in the first week 4 weeks of the season, but he became an every down player in week 5 and beyond (60.9 snaps per game) and he was a revelation, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest graded off ball linebacker over that stretch.

Not only did Johnson not play a defensive snap in the first 4 weeks of last season, but he also had never played a defensive snap in the NFL ever prior to week 5 of 2019, even though he was technically part of the 2015 NFL Draft class. I say technically because Johnson was kicked off the team at the University of Tennessee during his senior season in 2014 after being charged with rape and, as a result, he went undrafted in 2015 and went unsigned until the Broncos gave him a shot in 2018, signing him to their practice squad following his acquittal. 

It certainly seemed unlikely a few years ago that Johnson’s career would ever get started, let alone that he’d ever been one of the top players at his position for a 12-game stretch, but he had the potential to be a high draft pick before his legal troubles and he still doesn’t turn 29 until the end of December so, even if he doesn’t quite match what he did last season, it wouldn’t surprise me if he remained an above average every down player in 2020 and a few years beyond.

Johnson will continue to start alongside Todd Davis, who will also play close to every down. Davis has made 59 starts for the Broncos over the past 4 seasons and has consistently been an above average run stuffer, but he only recently developed into a capable coverage linebacker as well, which has allowed him to play 58.0 snaps per game over the past two seasons, after playing just 40.6 snaps per game in 2016 and 2017. Davis has finished 24th and 34th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively and, still only going into his age 28 season, he should continue playing around the same level in the same role in 2020.

Josey Jewell is still around, but only as a pure reserve. A 4th round pick in 2018, Jewell has shown potential against the run in both seasons in the league, but he’s consistently struggled in coverage and has played just 674 snaps total. He’s not a bad reserve because he’s at least very capable in one aspect of the game, but the Broncos’ coverage unit would take a big hit if he had to fill in for Johnson or Davis. As long as both are on the field, Johnson and Davis should remain an above average starting duo.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The one big loss the Broncos had on defense this off-season was Chris Harris, who has been their #1 cornerback for years. Harris fell to 38th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season, after finishing in the top-18 in each of the first 8 seasons prior to last season, and is now going into his age 31 season, so the Broncos didn’t want to bring him back on a deal similar to the 2-year, 17 million dollar deal he signed with the Chargers and instead they sent a 4th round pick to the Jaguars for AJ Bouye, to whom the Jaguars did not want to pay a 13.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020. 

Time will tell if that was the right move. Bouye is younger than Harris, going into his age 29 season, but may be declining faster, finishing 5th among cornerbacks on PFF on 2016, 7th in 2017, 22nd in 2018, and then falling to 92nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks in 2019, which led to the Jaguars wanting to move on. He has some bounce back potential because he’s not totally over the hill, but it’s not a guarantee that he’s going to rebound, so the Broncos are taking a risk moving on from Harris to add him.

One reason going with Bouye over Harris makes sense is because Bouye is a natural outside cornerback, while Harris has been at his best on the slot in his career. The Broncos tried to have Harris play outside more last season, which is probably part of why he wasn’t as good as usual in 2019, and now they are getting slot cornerback Bryce Callahan back from an injury that cost him all of last season, so they really need a natural outside cornerback more than anything.

An undrafted free agent of the Bears in 2015, Callahan played 84.2% of his coverage snaps on the slot in 4 seasons in Chicago and lacks the size to play consistently outside at 5-9 185, but he allowed just 0.77 yards per route run on the slot in his final two seasons in Chicago, while finishing 26th among cornerbacks on PFF on 512 snaps in 2017 and 11th on 676 snaps in 2018. That landed him a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal from the Broncos last off-season, but he has yet to play a snap on that deal, missing all of last season with a foot injury. Injuries have been an issue for him throughout his career, as he’s never played more than 13 games in a season, but he’s still in his age 29 season and, if he’s healthy in 2020, he should remain an above average slot option for however many games he can make it through.

The one job up for grabs in this cornerback group is the other outside cornerback job opposite Bouye, with Bouye locked in on one side and Callahan locked in on the slot. Isaac Yiadom ranked second among Bronco cornerbacks in starts (8) and snaps (504) and may be the favorite for the #2 cornerback job this season, but he struggled last season, ranking 120th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks, after struggling on 264 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018, so he’ll have to compete for the job. His primary competition may be 3rd round rookie Michael Ojemudia, but he enters the league pretty raw and the Broncos have several holdovers who saw action last season who could be in the mix for roles in 2020.

Davontae Harris made 6 starts outside last season, but he too struggled, finishing 114th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 429 snaps, in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career. De’Vante Bausby was better in his 2 starts, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has played just 395 snaps total in his career, so he’s highly unproven. Duke Dawson also played 343 snaps last season and he played pretty well, earning an average grade from PFF, but he was primarily a slot cornerback in Callahan’s absence, so he probably isn’t a real contender to start outside and will likely open the 2020 season as Callahan’s backup. He’s good depth to have because of Callahan’s injury history, but their lack of a #2 cornerback is an obvious problem.

Fortunately, the Broncos are very strong at the safety position, with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson coming off of a season in which they finished 1st and 8th respectively among safeties on PFF. They may not be quite as good in 2020, for different reasons, but they should both remain above average starters at the least. Simmons’ reason is simply that he is a one-year wonder as an elite safety, finishing 30th among safeties in his first season as a starter in 2017, then falling to 77th out of 100 qualifiers in 2018, before shooting up to the top in 2019. It’s possible the 2016 3rd round pick has permanently turned a corner, but it’s also very possible he continues to be inconsistent going forward. Still only going into his age 27 season, he could have more dominant seasons in his future, but 2020 might not necessarily be one of them.

The concern with Jackson, meanwhile, is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, having one of the best seasons of his career in 2018, finishing 5th among cornerbacks, before moving to safety and having another strong season in 2019. A consistently above average cornerback throughout his prime (137 career starts in 10 seasons in the league), Jackson can age more gracefully at the safety position because he won’t need to be as athletic, so he could easily remain an above average starting safety for at least another couple seasons, even if his best days are now behind him. He and Simmons could easily be one of the top safety duos in the league, which elevates a position group that has some question marks at cornerback, but looks to overall be an above average group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Broncos ranked 7th in first down rate allowed last season, but their offensive struggles led to them still finishing with a negative first down rate differential at -1.12% and, as a result, they finished out of the playoffs for the 4th straight season, going just 7-9 overall. This year, their defense is changed, but looks to still be one of the top defenses in the league once again, so if an offense that has added a lot of young talent in recent off-seasons can take a step forward, this team could easily be in playoff contention in 2020, especially with a 3rd wild card spot opening up. How much of a step forward they take is largely dependent on unproven 2nd year quarterback Drew Lock. If he can be even an average starting quarterback, this could be a dangerous team, but being an average starting quarterback is a lot easier said than done. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.66

Defensive Score: 76.89

Total Score: 74.28 (4th in AFC West)

San Francisco 49ers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It wasn’t hard to see how the 49ers could be significantly improved from 2018 to 2019. The 2018 49ers went just 4-12, but they were significantly better than that in first down rate differential, ranking 19th at -0.05%. Their struggles in 2018 were primarily due to their horrific league worst turnover margin of -25, but turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis in general and the 49ers were getting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back from a torn ACL that limited him to 3 games in 2018 and they made some significant defensive additions, so it wasn’t hard to see how they could be significantly improved in the turnover margin, even beyond the natural randomness of turnovers.

However, I don’t think anyone foresaw the 49ers being as good as they were in 2019, as they exceeded expectations on both sides of the ball, finishing in the top-10 in first down rate (9th at 38.24%) and in first down rate allowed (6th at 32.95%), joining only the Ravens as one of two teams to do so last season. Overall, the 49ers went 13-3, earned the #1 seed in the NFC, finished 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at 5.29%, and came within a half quarter of winning the Super Bowl, blowing a double digit 4th quarter lead to the Chiefs.

The question now becomes what can the 49ers do for an encore and can they make it all the way. History suggests they can’t, as there have only been three teams to ever win the Super Bowl the year following a Super Bowl defeat, including just one team over the past 47 years, and the 49ers were also handicapped by a lack of cap space this off-season. However, they still managed to rank 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and they return 18 of 22 offensive and defensive starters. They should also be healthier this season, after having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2019, so there is plenty of reason to believe the 49ers can continue to play at a high level. 

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns, after making all 16 starts last season for the first time in his career. The jury is still out on him being an elite quarterback and he’s not as young as you’d think given his relative lack of experience (26 career starts), but he showed last season that he’s good enough to take this team very far with the right supporting cast. His injury history is still a minor concern, but the fact that he played all 16 games last season is very promising and it’s very possible we could see him take a step forward in 2020 in his 2nd year removed from the injury.

For a quarterback who completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and who ranked 13th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, any noticeable improvement from him in 2020 would likely put him among the top-10 of starting quarterbacks in the league. He may never become the true elite quarterback he flashed signs of one day being earlier in his career, but as long as he can stay healthy, he should at least be a consistently above average starter long-term.

The 49ers are also in good shape at the backup quarterback spot, as 2017 undrafted free agent Nick Mullens showed some promise as the 49ers’ 3rd starting quarterback option in 2018, completing 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.31 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and leading the 49ers to a 37.80% first down rate in his 8 starts, most equivalent to the 12th ranked Seahawks if he had done that over the full 2018 season. Mullens would obviously be a dropoff from Garoppolo and he’s still very inexperienced, but they could get by with him for a few games if needed, given the level of talent on the rest of this roster.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

One of the four starters the 49ers lost from 2019 is left tackle Joe Staley, who opted to hang them up this off-season, rather than return for his age 36 season in 2020. Staley was still Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle last season, so he was still playing at an above average level, though injuries did limit him to 434 snaps last season. The 49ers did a good job replacing him though, sending a 2021 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Redskins for disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams. 

Williams held out all last season and is now going into his age 32 season, so he comes with some uncertainty, especially since he seemed to be declining in his most recent season in 2018, but for him declining means finishing 20th among offensive tackles on PFF after 7 straight seasons in the top-14, including 4 finishes in the top-6. Even if he continues to decline in 2020, he should still be an above average starter. He’s a comparable starter to Joe Staley and not a downgrade, especially since he’s likely to play more than Staley was able to last season.

The 49ers also need a new right guard as 14-game starter Mike Person also retired this off-season. He wasn’t bad last season, earning an average grade from PFF overall, but the 49ers have some decent options to replace him. 2017 undrafted free agent Daniel Brunskill and 2019 6th round pick Justin Skule both showed promise at tackle as injury fill-ins last season, playing 474 snaps and 545 snaps respectively in the first action of either of their careers, and they could be options at right guard. Brunskill has a much better chance of winning the starting right guard job though, as he was better than Skule last season at left tackle and also saw a pair of starts in place of an injured Mike Person down the stretch. Brunskill is still relatively unproven, but has the potential to develop into a consistently solid starting right guard, while Skule will likely back up Williams at left tackle.

The 49ers also added veteran Tom Compton to the mix this off-season, signing him to a 1-year, 2.75 million contract that suggests he’ll get a chance to win the starting job. Compton has only made 34 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s generally been a capable spot starter, even earning an average grade from PFF on 837 snaps (14 starts) in 2018. However, he fell to 75th out of 88 qualifying guards last season on 363 snaps and is now going into his age 31 season. He could start in a pinch, but he’s an underwhelming option who is probably best as a reserve. 

Ben Garland, their top interior reserve last season, is also an option, as he’s flashed in 10 starts over the past 3 seasons. He played center for the 49ers down the stretch last season, but has experience at guard as well. He got a late start to his career and is already in his age 32 season though, so he may also be an underwhelming option. Brunskill, Garland, and Compton all have a legitimate chance to start at right guard and it’s possible whoever wins the job can be a capable starter, but that’s not a guarantee.

Garland could also potentially have to open the season as the starter at center, as regular center Weston Richburg suffered a torn patellar tendon down the stretch last season and is questionable for the start of the year. Patellar tendon tears are arguably the toughest injury to come back from, even for an offensive lineman who isn’t as reliant on athleticism, and Richburg was already struggling before the injury, finishing 32nd out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in 2018 and 23rd out of 36 qualifying in 2019. Richburg is still only going into his age 29 season and he finished 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, but he’s been pretty banged up in his career, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. Even if he is ready for the start of the season, he may be a below average option.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson and right tackle Mike McGlinchey return and are locked into their spots. McGlinchey was a first round pick by the 49ers in 2018, 9th overall. His career got off to a great start, as he finished 23rd among offensive tackles on PFF, but he had a bit of a sophomore slump in his 2nd season, slipping to 39th among offensive tackles. He still has a bright future though and part of his struggles last season were likely due to an early season knee injury, as he played better down the stretch. He could easily have a bounce back year in 2020 and long-term could develop into consistently one of the better right tackles in the league.

Tomlinson, meanwhile, is also a former first round pick, selected 28th overall in 2015, but he was largely a bust in two seasons with his original team the Detroit Lions, struggling in 24 starts and getting traded to the 49ers for a 5th round pick prior to the 2017 season. Tomlinson was able to prove the Lions gave up on him too early, however, making 47 starts in 3 seasons with the 49ers and grading out as a solid starter in all 3 seasons. Still only in his age 28 season, he should remain a solid starter for years to come. This isn’t quite the same line as last season, but they also could be healthier and all of the players they lost this off-season were adequately replaced, so this should still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Along with the two starting offensive lineman they lost, the 3rd offensive starter they lost this off-season is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who joined the team in week 8 via trade and averaged a 58/803/5 slash line per 16 games across 10 regular season games with the team, while ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver over that stretch. In the regular season, their first down rate split between games Sanders played and games he didn’t play was 40.03%/35.61%. 

That being said, losing him didn’t seem to be a big deal because the 49ers used the #25 overall pick on wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and they have promising young talent Deebo Samuel going into his second season in the league, after he averaged 2.04 yards per route run as a rookie and totaled 35 catches for 575 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 regular season games (70/1150/4 slash line over 16 games), also largely coinciding with the 49ers offensive improvement down the stretch. However, Samuel broke his foot in an off-season workout and not only seems unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, but also could possibly begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, costing him the first 6 games of the season.

Without Samuel, the 49ers’ wide receiver depth will be tested. They have some intriguing reserve options, but no sure things, leaving the rookie Aiyuk as their #1 option to open the season, even though he’s never played a down of professional football. The 49ers have another couple recent high draft picks at this position, taking Dante Pettis in the 2nd round in 2018 and Jalen Hurd in the 3rd round in 2019, both of whom have upside, but Hurd missed his whole rookie year with injury, while Pettis hasn’t shown much consistency on 766 career snaps and spent most of last season in the doghouse after a promising finish to his rookie campaign.

Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor are also options, but they’re better fits on the slot than on the outside and the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets. Bourne isn’t a bad player, totalling a 42/487/4 slash line on a 57.2% snap share in 2018 and a 30/358/5 slash line on a 43.7% snap shart in 2019, but the 2017 undrafted free agent doesn’t have a huge ceiling and shouldn’t be much more than #3/#4 receiver. Taylor, meanwhile, flashed with a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but was limited to 26/215/1 in 2018 and missed all of 2019 with injury. Physically limited on the outside, he’s a slot only option and could easily play behind Bourne.

The reason the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets is because they like to run two tight end sets and two back sets. Ross Dwelley played 359 snaps as the #2 tight end last season, while fullback Kyle Juszczyk led all fullbacks with 388 snaps played, despite missing 4 games with injury. These aren’t just running formations either. Dwelley struggled both as a pass catcher and a blocker last season, but Juszczyk caught 20 passes in 12 games and has a 32/293/1 slash line over the past 5 seasons, while also being a good run blocker, and of course top tight end George Kittle can be just as productive as any wide receiver in the passing game.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Kittle was average as a rookie, but has quickly broken out as the best all-around tight end in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, taking that title from Rob Gronkowski, a player he compares favorably to. Kittle had a 88/1337/5 slash line in 2018 and, though that fell to 85/1035/5 in 2019, that was primarily due to the 49ers being more run heavy and Kittle missing some time due to injury, as his yards per route run actually improved from 2.82 to 3.12, both of which were position leading marks in the respective year. In addition to being a high level pass catcher, Kittle is also one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL and has finished #1 among overall tight ends on PFF in each of the past two seasons. He’s arguably the most dominant offensive player in the league regardless of position.

Still only in his age 27 season, Kittle has a lot of high level football ahead of him if he can stay healthy, something that hasn’t been a significant concern for him thus far in his career. The 49ers didn’t upgrade on Ross Dwelley as the #2 tight end, even though the 2018 undrafted free agent showed very little on 359 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but Kittle and Juszczyk will allow them to continue getting big passing plays out of non passing formations, which will mask some of their depth problems at wide receiver. Deebo Samuel’s injury hurts this group, but when he’s back they should be an above average group again if he can continue developing, especially with George Kittle elevating this group by himself.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

This will remain a run heavy team, after a 498/478 run/pass split in 2020, making them one of three teams in the league (Ravens, Vikings) to have more rush attempts than pass attempts last season. This season, they’ll perhaps be even more run heavy at the beginning of the year, with top wide receiver Samuel likely to be sidelined. The 49ers traded away running back Matt Brieda after he averaged 5.07 YPC on 123 carries last season, but they still have a deep running back group, with holdovers Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman in the mix and long-injured running back Jerick McKinnon looking likely to be healthy for 2020.

McKinnon is the biggest unknown of the group, given that he was expected to play a big role for the 49ers two off-seasons ago when they signed him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar contract in free agency, but he has yet to play a snap for the team, missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL and all of 2019 after suffering another knee injury during his rehab. McKinnon averaged just 4.05 yards per carry on 474 carries in 4 seasons with the Vikings, but a lot of that was due to a poor offensive line (2.40 yards per carry after contact) and his primary value is as a receiver. 

In his final season in Minnesota, he caught 51 passes in a part-time role and averaged 2.63 yards per carry after contact, and the 49ers clearly had big plans for him when they brought him in, given the contract they signed him to. He had to take a pay cut down to 1.16 million for 2020 and he’ll likely be limited to primarily passing down work, assuming he can even stay healthy, but this offense had three backs with more than 123 carries last season, so McKinnon will have an opportunity to earn some carries as well.

With McKinnon likely to be the primary passing down back, Mostert and Coleman are expected to split early down work. How they split the work is up in the air though. Mostert was a breakout star down the stretch last season, taking over as the lead back in week 13 and starting the final 5 regular season games and their three playoff games, in which he rushed for a combined 715 yards and 11 touchdowns on 117 carries (6.11 YPC). All in all, Mostert averaged 5.64 YPC on 137 carries in the regular season and 6.34 YPC on 53 carries in the post-season and could easily continue in the lead back role in 2020.

Whether or not he can continue running as well is up for debate though. As impressive as his 8-game stretch was, he’s still highly unproven, with just 114 career carries outside of those 8 games, even though he’s already in his age 28 season. He certainly wouldn’t be the first obscure running back to ever break out in a Shanahan blocking scheme and he’s shown promise throughout his 3 seasons in San Francisco, with a 6.01 YPC average. Even if he is able to translate to a larger role over a 16-game season, he’s highly unlikely to hit that mark, but he could easily keep having success in this offense.

Coleman has also spent most of his career in the Shanahan blocking scheme, playing for now 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta where Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, before eventually following him to San Francisco. Coleman has had some success throughout his 5-year career, rushing for 4.34 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 665 carries, so he’s not a bad lead back option, but Mostert will likely be given the first chance after how he finished last season. Neither Mostert nor Coleman are much of a receiver, but the 49ers are hoping the return of Jerick McKinnon can add that new dimension to their offense. This is a good group overall.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The position where the 49ers were most improved from 2018 to 2019 was the edge defender spot. It was predictable they’d get better play at the position, using the #2 overall pick on Nick Bosa and trading a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, who they extended on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar deal. Ford was limited to 226 snaps by injury, but just about everything else went well. Ford played at a high level when on the field, particularly as a pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks and a 14.4% pressure rate, while Bosa exceeded most expectations by finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th edge defender and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In addition to playing at a high level against the run, Bosa had 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate and he has the upside to become even better in the future. 

In addition, the 49ers got a somewhat surprising breakout year from Arik Armstead, who played a little on the interior, but saw the vast majority of his snaps on the edge in place of Ford. Armstead finished 3rd among edge defenders on PFF, playing the run at a high level and totalling 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. Armstead had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons prior to last season, but he is a former first round pick and he had shown signs of being a consistently above average player prior to last season, despite the low sack total. Injuries were part of the problem, as he was limited to 46 out of 64 games over those 4 seasons, but he still added 15 hits and a 12.3% pressure rate and was an above average run defender. He’s a one-year wonder, but not as much as it seems, so he could easily remain an above average starter if he can stay healthy.

It’s likely Armstead sees more action inside this season, as Ford seems to be healthy. Durability has been a concern for him in recent years, as he was also limited to 316 snaps in 6 games in another injury plagued season in 2017, but in between he finished 10th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, which is why the 49ers gave up a premium pick in order to acquire him, even though he needed a big extension. Ford is still only going into his age 29 season and he’s shown he can play at a high level when on the field, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, but that’s not quite a guarantee.

The 49ers also get reserve edge defender Ronald Blair back from injury, after he went down with a torn ACL in week 10. A 5th round pick in 2016, Blair played 981 nondescript snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, but seemed to be on his way to a strong season as a reserve before getting hurt last season. He was limited to 199 snaps total in 9 games, so he’s still very unproven, and the injury complicates his outlook, but he could return as a talented reserve again.

Solomon Thomas is also in the mix for a reserve role on the edge. Like Armstead, Thomas played some on the interior last season, but primarily played on the edge. He wasn’t particularly good on 425 snaps total though, earning a below average grade from PFF. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in 2017, but he’s been a massive bust thus far, earning middling at best grades in 3 seasons in the league, on an average of 38.4 snaps per game in 46 games. Still only in his age 25 season, he may have some late breakout potential, but it’s hard to expect much from him. He could be used on the interior more this season, as this is a deep and talented edge group.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Part of the reason why the 49ers will likely play Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas on the interior more often this season is that they lost top defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who played 811 snaps and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked interior defender last season. The 49ers couldn’t afford to keep Buckner long-term and they used the first round pick they got for trading Buckner to the Colts on a replacement in Javon Kinlaw, who is much cheaper and has a huge upside long-term, but he’s unlikely to be as good as a rookie and could be a significant dropoff even if he doesn’t have a bad season.

The 49ers also lost reserve Sheldon Day, but he was underwhelming on 325 snaps last season. They still have DJ Jones, who was better on 304 snaps last season than Day was, especially against the run. A 2017 6th round pick, Jones didn’t show much on 304 snaps in the first two seasons of his career before showing improvement last season and he doesn’t have a huge upside, but he could remain a capable reserve. He’ll play a role along with Kinlaw, Armstead, and Thomas, at a position group that lost its best player from last season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers were also improved in the linebacking corps last season. This wasn’t really a surprise, as the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal in free agency, but Alexander was actually limited to 357 middling snaps in the regular season by injury. Instead, this group took a step forward because Fred Warner stepped up in his 2nd year in the league and 5th round rookie Dre Greenlaw proved to be a steal, holding his own in an every down role in Alexander’s absence and finishing 38th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 725 snaps.


Warner is likely locked into an every down role again in 2020, after playing in that capacity in each of his first two seasons in the league and improving from his rookie year to his 2nd season, in which he finished as PFF’s 28th ranked off ball linebacker. A former 3rd round pick only in his age 24 season, Warner has the ability to keep getting better. Alexander and Greenlaw, meanwhile, will compete for the other every down role, with the loser likely to play in a pure base package role when the 49ers play with 3 off ball linebackers. 

Greenlaw is still pretty unproven and Alexander’s contract and coverage ability suggests he’s the favorite, but Alexander has never played as well as he’s being paid, topping out at 33rd among off ball linebackers (2016) in 5 seasons in the league and consistently struggling against the run and as a tackler (86 missed tackles in 54 career games), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Greenlaw outplayed him in training camp and the pre-season and won the job. Alexander has also had each of his last three seasons impacted by significant injuries (26 games played out of 48 possible), so there’s a good chance Greenlaw ends up in an every down role at some point one way or another. This is a deep and talented group, even if it lacks an elite player.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The 49ers were also better in the secondary last season than 2018 and, unlike the other defensive position groups where they were better, they didn’t make any major additions to the secondary. Instead, they just got much better play from pretty much everyone across the board. No player was more important than #1 cornerback Richard Sherman, as the multi-time All-Pro turned back the clock in 2019 and finished #2 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Sherman seemed to be on the decline going into 2019, tearing his Achilles midway through the 2017 season, falling to 49th among cornerbacks on PFF upon his return in 2018, and now on the wrong side of 30, but last season he showed himself to be every bit of the cornerback who finished in the top-10 among cornerbacks on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2011-2015. Sherman’s age is still a concern, but in his age 32 season it’s reasonable to expect he could continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons even if he declines, especially since he’s much more reliant on intelligence than athleticism. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2020 as he was in 2019, but Sherman could easily decline gracefully over the next few years if he can avoid further injury.

Slot cornerback K’Waun Williams also made a big jump from 2018 to 2019, ranking 58th among cornerbacks in 2018 before jumping to 10th in a 2019 season in which he also ranked 17th in yards per route run allowed among slot cornerbacks (0.99). Last year was the best year of Williams’ career, but he’s not a one-year wonder, finishing in the top-34 among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 of 5 healthy seasons in the league and allowing 0.98 yards per route run on the slot in his career. Still in his age 29 season, he should remain one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league even if he isn’t as good as he was last season.

Sherman and Williams are locked in, but the other outside cornerback spot opposite Sherman is up for grabs. Ahkello Witherspoon opened last season as the starter and played at a high level in the first 3 weeks of the season, but then he got injured, missed 6 games, struggled upon his return, and then eventually was benched. Witherspoon has been up and down throughout his 3 seasons in the NFL, but he’s still a former 3rd round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could have a mini-breakout year in 2020 if he can stay healthy, but, given how inconsistent he’s been in the past, he’s not guaranteed to even win his old job back.


Emmanuel Mosley started in Witherspoon’s absence last season and eventually took his job down the stretch. Undrafted in 2018, Mosley wasn’t bad in the first 577 snaps of his career last season (9 starts). It’s still worth noting that every team including the 49ers let him fall out of the draft, given that he still has very little NFL experience, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he beat the undrafted rookie odds and developed into a consistently capable starter long-term. Neither him nor Witherspoon are sure things to be solid starters in 2020, but both have upside.

At safety, the 49ers got a big improvement between 2018 and 2019 from Jimmie Ward, who finished below average on PFF on 388 snaps in an injury plagued season in 2018, but then jumped to 7th among safeties in 2019. Ward still missed 3 games with injury and injuries have plagued him throughout his career, costing him 32 of a possible 96 games since the 49ers took him in the 1st round in 2014. 

Ward is also a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, so even if he does stay relatively healthy, he’s unlikely to play as well. He’s definitely shown potential in the past when healthy though and is a good fit in his role as the deep safety in this defense, after moving around both safety spots and the slot cornerback spot early in his career. Still only in his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have another above average year, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good and he’s an obvious injury risk.

Fellow safety Jaquiski Tartt didn’t improve from 2018 to 2019, but he remained a solid starter and played more games, playing in 12 after being limited to 8 the previous season. Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his 5-year career, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed a total of 19 games over the past 3 seasons, but he’s generally been an above average starter when healthy. He’ll probably miss time at some point again, but should continue playing around the same level when on the field. 

With two injury prone starting safeties, depth will be important for the 49ers at the safety position, but they will be in reasonably good hands if either of their starters goes down, as 2018 3rd round pick Tavarius Moore showed some promise on 234 snaps last season and could easily be an above average reserve in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. The 49ers might not be quite as good in the secondary in 2020, but this is still a well above average group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

It’s typically tough for teams to be as good as the 49ers were last season in back-to-back years, but the typical risk factors for regression aren’t really present here. The 49ers didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also bring back all key members of their coaching staff. None of this ensures the 49ers will win the Super Bowl this year or even make it back, but they should be considered one of the top few contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.85

Defensive Score: 77.02

Total Score: 76.44 (1st in NFC West)

Seattle Seahawks 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks won 11 games and made the post-season last year, their 7th post-season trip in 8 seasons with Russell Wilson, but they played a lot worse than their record suggests. Of their 11 wins, only one came by more than a touchdown and they actually had a losing record on the season in games decided by a touchdown or more at 1-3. At least two of their wins came because the opponent missed a makeable field goal at the end of the game. 

Their +7 point differential was more in line with an 8-8 team and, going into week 17 last season, the Seahawks actually had the worst point differential ever for a 11-4 or better team. In terms of first down rate differential, they were even worse, ranking 19th at -1.17%, worst among playoff qualifiers, as they relied heavily on a +12 turnover margin to win many of those close games, something that tends to be highly unpredictable on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis. If the Seahawks want to win double digit games and make it back to the post-season in 2020, they’ll likely need to elevate their level of play.

The Seahawks’ offense was not the problem in 2019, as they ranked 12th in first down rate at 37.00%, unspectacular, but above average. The Seahawks’ offense has consistently been above average throughout Wilson’s tenure in Seattle, despite Wilson not always having the best supporting cast. Last year was arguably Wilson’s best season, as he finished a career high 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.97 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while adding 4.56 YPC and 3 touchdowns on 75 carries.

Overall, Wilson has been a top-16 quarterback on PFF in every season of his career, including 5 of 8 seasons in the top-7 among quarterbacks. Over his career, he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 227 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions, while adding 5.55 YPC and 19 touchdowns on 720 carries. In addition to being a high level quarterback, Wilson is also incredibly tough and durable, having never missed a game in his career (128 starts) despite routinely taking significantly more hits than your average quarterback. Because of that, the Seahawks have never invested in a backup for him and will once again go with veteran Geno Smith (72.2 QB rating, 31 career starts). Needless to say, he’d be a significant dropoff from Wilson if he had to see action.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

There were once again a lot of issues with Russell Wilson’s supporting cast last season, but an obvious strength were their top-2 wide receivers, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Both players earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus and they had slash lines of 82/1057/8 and 58/900/7 respectively, despite playing on a relatively run heavy offense. That’s not surprising from Lockett, who had a 57/965/10 slash line in 2018, but Metcalf was just the 64th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and was considered very raw entering the league, so few expected a big rookie year from him.

After his impressive first season in the league, Metcalf looks like he could develop into one of the better wide receivers in the league long-term, even if it takes him a few seasons to get there. In 2020, he’ll need to avoid a sophomore slump to take a step forward. Lockett, meanwhile, finished in the top-34 among wide receivers on PFF last season for the 3rd times in 5 seasons in the league and is still in his prime in only his age 28 season, so he should remain an above average receiver for at least another couple years. This could be one of the better wide receiver duos in the league for years to come if Metcalf can continue developing quickly.

The Seahawks really lacked a 3rd option in the passing game last season though, as no other pass catcher topped 349 receiving yards and a whopping 40.6% of their passing targets went to either Lockett or Metcalf. Among wide receivers, David Moore ranked 3rd with 34 targets received, turning them into 17/301/2, while Malik Turner (242 snaps), Jaron Brown (374 snaps), and Josh Gordon (136 snaps) also saw notable action. Moore remains, but the other three are all gone, leaving Moore to compete with free agent acquisition Phillip Dorsett, 2019 7th round pick Josh Ursua (11 rookie year snaps), and 6th round rookie Freddie Swain for the #3 receiver job and for reserve roles.

The two veterans, Moore and Dorsett, are likely the favorites for the job, but both would be underwhelming options, hence why they’ll have to compete with inexperienced late round picks. Moore was selected by the Seahawks in the 7th round in 2017 and has been middling at best in limited action over the past two seasons. He’s best as a situational deep threat, as he’s caught just 43 of his 87 career targets (49.4%), but for an average of 17.3 yards per catch, 6th most among players with at least 40 catches over the past 2 seasons.

Dorsett, meanwhile, comes over from New England on a close to minimum level deal. He was a first round pick by the Colts in 2015 and then was traded to the Patriots for Jacoby Brissett two seasons later, but he was a disappointment for both teams, earning mediocre grades from PFF throughout his 5-year career and never topping more than 33 catches in a season, despite ample opportunity with the Patriots over the past two seasons. Whoever wins the #3 receiver job figures to be underwhelming.

At tight end, Jacob Hollister led the way with a 41/349/3 slash line, even though he didn’t join the team until week 6. The 2017 undrafted free agent wasn’t bad in the first significant action of his career, but he’ll face competition for playing time, with 2019 week 1 starter Will Dissly returning from injury and free agent Greg Olsen arriving from Carolina on a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal that suggests he’ll at least have a big role, if not start.

Dissly was drafted by the Seahawks in the 4th round in 2018 and has shown a lot of upside as both a blocker and a receiver (2.43 yards per route run), but he’s suffered a torn patellar tendon and a torn achilles tendon over the past two seasons respectively, limiting him to just 376 snaps total. It’s possible he could break out in a starting role if healthy and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, but he’s still unproven and his durability and long-term athleticism after a pair of significant injuries are both big question marks.

Olsen has also had injury problems over the past three seasons, limited to 30 games total over that stretch. Prior to the past three seasons, he finished in the top-12 among tight ends on PFF in 5 straight seasons and averaged a 77/969/5 slash line over that stretch, including a 3-year stretch from 2014-2016 where he was the only tight end in the league to surpass 1000 yards receiving in all 3 seasons, but he’s been limited to a 51/575/4 slash line per 16 games over the past 3 seasons and is now going into his age 35 season, so, even if he can stay healthy, he’s likely to be a significantly diminished player from what he was in his prime. He’s not a bad starting option, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty. 

Along with 4th round rookie Colby Parkinson, who could also be in the mix for a role, the Seahawks are hoping they can find a couple productive players at the tight end position, to mask their lack of depth at the wide receiver position, but that’s far from a guarantee. This isn’t a bad receiving corps, talented by a talented top duo, and their overall depth is better, but they may still lack a consistent 3rd option in the passing game.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Seahawks have always been a run heavy team in the Russell Wilson era, in part because of Wilson’s propensity to take off and run himself, but also because this offense loves to feed the ball to running backs as well. Chris Carson has been the beneficiary of that over the past two seasons, totalling 525 carries in 29 games, which he has taken for 4.54 YPC and 16 touchdowns, leading to him ranking 11th and 7th in rushing grade among running backs on Pro Football Focus over the past two seasons respectively. 

Unfortunately, Carson’s 2019 season was ended in week 16 by a serious hip injury and, making matters worse, backup running back Rashaad Penny, who has flashed with a 5.26 YPC average on 150 carries in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2018, also suffered a season ending injury that week, going down with a torn ACL. With #3 back CJ Prosise also injured at the time, the Seahawks had to turn to 6th round rookie Travis Homer and former lead back Marshawn Lynch, who was signed out of retirement.

Carson is expected to be ready to return for week 1, even if he spends most of the off-season rehabbing, but Penny is very much in doubt for the start of the season and Prosise is gone. Likely in an attempt to avoid last year’s disaster situation, the Seahawks added a pair of reinforcements at the position this off-season in veteran Carlos Hyde and 4th round rookie DeeJay Dallas. Dallas is probably more of a long-term play, barring significant injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart, but Hyde is an experienced back who figures to open the season as the #2 back until Penny is able to return and he provides insurance for Carson as well, as not only is Carson returning from a significant injury, but he also has a history of significant injuries.

Hyde has primarily worked as a lead back in his career, averaging 13.4 carries per game in 80 games in 6 seasons in the league, but he figures to be a true backup as long as Carson is healthy, as Carson figures to regain his 2019 role. Hyde’s career 4.08 YPC average is underwhelming and he does nothing on passing downs (129 catches in 80 games with a 3.87 yards per target average, while struggling as a pass protector), but he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career, rushing for 1,070 yards and 6 touchdowns on 245 carries (4.37 YPC) with the Texans in 2019, and he’s a perfect fit for what the Seahawks look for in a running back, as they value tough between the tackles runners and don’t often throw to running backs out of the backfield (Carson has just 57 catches over the past 2 seasons). He’s useful depth behind Penny and Carson, who have injury concerns, in a deep backfield overall.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Russell Wilson has consistently had offensive lines that have struggled in front of him. That was the case last season and, while they made significant changes this off-season, it seems likely that will remain the case in 2020. Of their five regular starters last season, two of them, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Germain Ifedi were set to hit free agency and, while Iupati returned, the Seahawks also cut center Justin Britt, ahead of an 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, and right guard DJ Fluker, ahead of a 3.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so the Seahawks will have at least three new starters upfront this season.

Left tackle Duane Brown is the only starter locked in at the position he played last season, understandably so, as he was by far their best offensive lineman. That’s been the case since Brown arrived in Seattle in 2017, as he’s finished in the top-25 among offensive tackles in all 3 seasons, including a 20th ranked finish in 2019. That streak of high level play actually goes back a full decade, as his last finish outside of the top-25 at his position was his 2nd season in the league in 2009. Over that ten year stretch, Brown has finished in the top-10 at his position in 5 of 10 seasons and he’s been one of the consistently better left tackles in the league overall. His age is a concern in his age 35 season though, especially given how important he is to this line. He could easily decline noticeably this season and the Seahawks really can’t afford that happening, given the state of the rest of this group.

Iupati is probably locked in at left guard too. He was underwhelming last season, but he was a capable starter and, with the Seahawks having to replace right guard DJ Fluker already, it’s unlikely that Iupati won’t be able to lock up a starting job. Even though Iupati was a marginal starter in 2019, the big news is that he played all 16 games, after missing 21 games over the previous 2 seasons combined. Iupati is going into his age 33 season, so his days of being an above average starter like he was in his prime are almost definitely gone, but if he can remain healthy he could remain a capable starter for another couple seasons.

The Seahawks didn’t add any veterans to replace Fluker, so they’ll have to turn to someone inexperienced to replace Fluker. Fluker didn’t play at a particularly high level last season, but it’s hard to see how any of his replacements would be a significant upgrade. Their options are 2019 4th round pick Phil Haynes, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, 3rd round rookie Damien Lewis, and 2018 5th round pick JaMarco Jones, who played 317 snaps as a versatile reserve last season in the first significant action of his career, seeing action at left tackle, left guard, and right guard. Jones might be their best option because he has some experience, but the Seahawks like his versatility as a reserve and may opt to keep him in that role. There’s also an outside chance two guards from that group start, sending Iupati to the bench, but that’s unlikely in an underwhelming group.

At center and right tackle, the Seahawks did make veteran additions this off-season, signing BJ Finney and Brandon Shell respectively. Shell, a 5th round pick by the Jets in 2016, has developed into a capable starter over the past 3 seasons (37 starts). He may have reached his ceiling, but his 2-year, 9 million dollar deal is pretty fair for his skill set and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade by default over Germain Ifedi, who finished last season 72nd out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles.

Finney, meanwhile, only has made 13 starts in 5 seasons in the league as a reserve, but he’s played pretty well in limited action and his 2-year, 8 million dollar contract suggests he’s viewed as a full-time starter in Seattle. Finney is a versatile player who has played both center and guard, but he has a much clearer path to playing time at center, without another capable center on the roster. Finney is a projection to a larger role, so he’s not a guarantee to be an upgrade over Britt, who finished last season 25th out of 36 qualifying centers, but he comes with some upside. Overall, this group should struggle again in 2020, especially if Duane Brown regresses significantly at left tackle.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Seahawks’ biggest problem last season was their defense, which ranked 25th in first down rate allowed. They had the 3rd most takeaways at 32, behind the Patriots and Steelers, who were also the top-2 defense in first down rate allowed, but turnover margin tends to be unpredictable on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis and defenses that rank significantly higher in takeaways than they do in overall team defensive stats almost always see significant regression in their takeaway total the following season. The Seahawks are never going to be a team that turns the ball over a lot because Russell Wilson is one of the least turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, but I wouldn’t expect them to match their +12 turnover margin from last season, which will have a noticeable effect for a team who won so many of their games by a thin margin last season.

In addition to natural regression in takeaways, this defense also lost some key players this off-season, most notably edge defender Jadeveon Clowney. The Seahawks haven’t ruled out a reunion with Clowney, but as of right now he’s not on the roster, after a 2019 season in which he finished 9th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, despite playing most of the second half of the season through injuries. Clowney’s sack total (3) wasn’t overly impressive, but he added 10 hits and a 11.4% pressure rate while dominating against the run and he did all that while being consistently double teamed. His absence will have a noticeable effect on a defense that had a lot of problems to begin with.

In Clowney’s absence, the Seahawks have a variety of options to try to replace him, although none have Clowney’s upside. The Seahawks signed a pair of veterans in free agency in Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa to deals of 1-year, 5.5 million and 1-year, 3.05 million and they used 2nd and 5th round picks on Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor and Syracuse’s Alton Robinson. They also have 2019 first round pick LJ Collier set for a bigger role after an injury plagued rookie season in which he was limited to just 152 mediocre snaps and they have a pair of holdovers in Rasheem Green and Branden Jackson who could also be involved.

Both Green and Jackson were both pretty mediocre last season, but Green was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and still has some upside, so he’s likely to still be involved, while Jackson is an 2016 undrafted free agent who has struggled throughout his career and may not be a lock for a roster spot at a position group with a lot of options. Collier also still has significant upside, despite his terrible rookie year, though it’s worth noting many considered Collier in the 2nd-3rd round range, rather than the late first where the Seahawks took him. Darrell Taylor also has upside and could earn a role as a rookie, but Alton Robinson seems better suited for a deep reserve role at this stage of his career.

Veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa should also be in the mix. Mayowa struggled early in his career, but has been a solid rotational player on an average of 404 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and, still in his age 29 season, could see a similar role with the Seahawks this season. Irvin, meanwhile, is coming back to where his career started, spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Seattle before spending the past 4 seasons with the Raiders, Falcons, and Panthers. Irvin is now going into his age 33 season and has been noticeably worse over the past two seasons, earning middling at best grades from PFF after being an above average starter for most of his prime. He’s still played 540 snaps per season over the past two seasons and should still have a role in 2020, but he could continue declining. 

The Seahawks will have to determine roles in this group in training camp and the pre-season. They have plenty of depth, with Bruce Irvin, LJ Collier, Benson Mayowa, and Rasheem Green being most likely to see significant snaps and Darrell Taylor, Branden Jackson, and Alton Robinson also potentially in the mix, but they lack a clear top edge defender and there’s unlikely to be one that emerges from this group to even come close to effectively replacing Jadeveon Clowney. Until they bring back Clowney, this looks like an underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

The Seahawks also lost players on the interior of their defensive line, losing Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods. Woods was a strong run stuffer, while Jefferson was a capable pass rusher (9.7% pressure rate), so they’ll be missed, especially since the Seahawks did nothing to replace them. As a result, they have little depth on the interior, in contrast to the edge where they have up to 7 options for playing time. They also don’t really have top end talent at this position either, with Jarran Reed and Poona Ford, their top holdovers from 2019, looking locked into starting roles.

Ford has shown a lot of promise as a run stuffer in 2 seasons in the league, flashing on 231 total snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and then carrying that over into a larger role in 2019, playing 506 snaps total and finishing 17th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run stuffing grade. He may be overmatched in an every down role though, as he’s not much of a pass rusher, with 0.5 sacks, 3 hits, and a 4.2% pressure rate in his career. He should play at a high level on early downs, but on passing downs he’ll probably be a liability.

Reed, meanwhile, was a well-rounded player as a solid starter for the Seahawks in 2017 and 2018, but he missed the first 6 games of 2019 with suspension and was not the same upon his return, earning a middling grade from PFF. Only in his age 28 season, the 2016 2nd round pick has bounce back potential, but he was never as good as his 10.5-sack total in 2018 suggested and it’s surprising the Seahawks couldn’t re-sign him to a more favorable deal as a free agent this off-season given how last season went for him, bringing him back on a 2-year, 23 million dollar deal that pays him as an above average starter and lets him hit the open market again before he’s 30.

Ford and Reed may be solid starters, but depth is a big problem. Bryan Mone, who played just 89 snaps last season, is the only other player at the position who played at least 1 snap for this defense last season and they didn’t add any reinforcements. Despite being a highly unproven 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled in what limited action he’s seen thus far, Mone could still have a big role as a rotational reserve in 2020. 2019 6th round pick DeMarcus Christmas would also seem to be an option, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Depth is a huge problem at this position and their starters aren’t good enough to compensate.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Despite their issues on the defensive line and other parts of this roster, the Seahawks surprisingly decided to use their first round pick on off ball linebacker Jordyn Brooks. The Seahawks have had one of the best linebacker duos in the league over the past decade or so with Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright and, even though Wright is on the wrong side of 30 and seems to be on the decline, the Seahawks also used a 3rd round pick in last year’s draft on off ball linebacker Cody Barton, who seemed like a potential future starter, so linebacker didn’t seem like much of a need. They also used 5th round picks in 2018 and 2019 on Shaquem Griffin and Ben Burr-Kirven, so they had solid young depth as well. On top of that, Brooks was considered by many to be a 2nd-3rd round prospect and the Seahawks drafted him one spot ahead of Patrick Queen, who was arguably the top off ball linebacker in the draft class.

Brooks’ draft status suggests he’ll play as a rookie, but he may be limited to being the 3rd linebacker and only playing in base packages, as Wright could keep his every down role for another season. Wright had earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of his first 8 seasons in the league prior to last season (108 starts), but he fell to about average last season in 16 starts and now is heading into his age 31 season. He may have another couple solid seasons left in the tank as an every down player, but he could also continue declining and obviously his long-term future with the team seems shaky, given all the draft capital they’ve spent on the position in recent years.

Bobby Wagner is also now in his 30s, as of this summer at least, and he’s also coming off of a relatively down year, but for him that means he finished 12th on PFF among off ball linebackers after 3 straight seasons in the top-4 prior to last season, including back-to-back seasons as the #1 overall player at the position in 2017 and 2018.  Wagner could continue declining over the next few seasons, but he should remain an above average every down linebacker, something he’s been throughout his 8-year NFL career (118 starts). Wagner and Wright might not be what they once were, but the Seahawks have no shortage of promising young depth players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The one big addition for the Seahawks on defense this off-season was cornerback Quinton Dunbar, or at least it seemed that way when he was acquired. Dunbar had a breakout season with the Redskins in 2019, starting all 11 games he played and finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus overall, but the Seahawks were still able to get him for just a 5th round pick this off-season. Dunbar flashed in the first four seasons of his career prior to last season, but he made just a combined 14 starts over those 4 seasons, so he’s a complete one-year wonder, and he’s never made it through a full 16-game season without missing time with injury. He’s also going into the final year of his contract and wants a big extension, which is why the Redskins wanted to move him, but he was still an obvious steal for a 5th round pick.

Unfortunately, the situation has changed since Dunbar was acquired, as he was arrested for armed robbery in May. The details of the case are still unclear and it seems like there’s at least a chance that Dunbar was set up, but it’s a serious legal situation that complicates his status for the season. Even if he doesn’t end up facing legal charges, he could still be subject to league discipline, although the league usually lets the legal process play out first, so he may not be suspended realistically until 2021 at the earliest. If he can play, he should be a solid starter even if he regresses from last season, but it’s not a guarantee he’ll be allowed to play.

If the Seahawks have Dunbar available, they’ll have a solid cornerback duo with him and incumbent #1 cornerback Shaq Griffin. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Griffin was up and down in his first 2 seasons in the league (27 starts), before breaking out with an 11th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF in 2019. He’s still a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s an experienced starter who is only going into his age 25 season, so he could easily develop into a consistently above average starter long-term.

If Dunbar is out, the Seahawks would likely have to turn back to Tre Flowers, who has made 30 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has finished 103rd out of 126 qualifiers and 110th out of 135 qualifiers among cornerbacks on PFF in coverage grade in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Flowers is still young, in his age 25 season, and he’s a solid run defender, but the former 5th round pick is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable coverage cornerback. It makes a lot of sense that the Seahawks would bring in Dunbar as an upgrade over him and if the Seahawks have to go back to Flowers because of Dunbar’s off-the-field situation it would be a big blow to this secondary.

Tre Flowers could still be the 3rd cornerback, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the primary slot cornerback, as the Seahawks are much deeper at safety than they are at cornerback and could easily use 3 safeties together in sub packages with regularity. 2019 4th round pick Ugo Amadi could also be in the mix for the #3 cornerback job, after playing 76 nondescript snaps as a rookie last season.

If the Seahawks decide to go with three safeties as their primary sub package look, 2019 2nd round pick Marquise Blair seems like the best option to cover the slot. Blair was a relatively high pick and showed a lot of potential on 230 snaps as a rookie, but he doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job at safety and could be a natural fit on the slot. At safety, Blair’s biggest competition for a starting job is Bradley McDougald, who has made 39 starts for the Seahawks over the past 3 seasons. He finished 33rd among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 25th in 2018, but fell to 72nd out of 100 qualifiers in 2019 and is now going into his age 30 season, so it’s possible Blair could push him into the #3 safety role, but it’s unlikely and he’d probably have a big role either way, as will Blair likely.

Quandre Diggs is locked in as an every down player at the other safety spot, after being acquired from the Lions for a 5th round pick at last year’s trade deadline, which proved to be a steal, as Diggs was PFF’s 4th ranked safety from week 8 on after joining the Seahawks. Diggs had been a capable starter throughout the previous two and a half seasons with the Lions, showing his versatility by playing both safety spots and on the slot, but the Seahawks got the most out of him by playing him as a single high safety on almost every snap, something the Lions never did with him. 

Diggs probably won’t be quite as good as he was down the stretch last season, but it’s entirely possible he’ll have a big of a late career breakout in his age 27 season, his 6th season in the league, now in a spot that seems to fit him the best. The Seahawks’ cornerback depth is suspect, especially with Dunbar potentially looking at a suspension, but if he can play, This secondary has a massive upside if Griffin, Diggs, and Dunbar can all play like they did last season. The downside is there as well there.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Seahawks weren’t as good as their record suggests last season and that’s the baseline coming into this season. On top of that, they lose probably their best defensive player from last season in Jadeveon Clowney. However, this defense could be significantly better on the backend if Quinton Dunbar is able to play, as Dunbar and 2019 mid-season addition Quandre Diggs would really boost this secondary, potentially back to “Legion of Boom” esque levels, although that’s far from a guarantee. The Seahawks also appear to be slightly improved in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, even though they didn’t make any major off-season additions. The Seahawks are probably still behind the 49ers in the division, but they could still qualify for one of the three wild card spots depending on how everything shakes out. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.54

Defensive Score: 72.32

Total Score: 74.43 (2nd in NFC West)