Carolina Panthers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2015, the Panthers had the league’s best record at 15-1, took an undefeated season into week 16, and made a Super Bowl appearance. Not only did head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton win Coach of the Year and MVP respectively that season, the Panthers also had Luke Kuechly, relatively fresh off his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award. However, the Panthers lost that Super Bowl to the Broncos and have not been able to find that form again in 4 seasons since, going 29-35 in the regular season with just one wild card berth, no playoff victories, and no division titles.

In the past few months, the Panthers have undergone rapid change. There have been other changes, but most notably the Panthers fired Ron Rivera during the season last year, released Cam Newton this off-season, and watched Luke Kuechly retire due to health concerns after repeated concussions. In short order, the pillars of their team for the past decade or so were all gone. In many ways, the changes started when new owner David Tepper took over the team from long-time owner Jerry Richardson before the 2018 season. 

Tepper has not been shy about making his mark on the franchise and clearly wants to rebuild the team over the long run. He brought in a somewhat unorthodox new head coach to oversee this rebuild, hiring Baylor University’s Matt Rhule to a 7-year, 62 million dollar deal that makes him one of the highest paid coaches in the NFL. Rhule exceeded expectations in multiple stops in the college ranks, but has just one year of NFL experience as a position coach and brings along an offensive coordinator in Joe Brady and a defensive coordinator in Phil Snow whose experience is primarily from college as well, with neither having served in a role higher than a position coach in the NFL either. There’s certainly upside with this coaching staff, but the Panthers are taking a big risk going all in on college coaches.

Long-time NFL GM Marty Hurney is still nominally the GM in Carolina, but it sounds like Rhule got final say over the roster as part of his huge deal and he didn’t waste much time turning over this roster this off-season, most noticeably at the quarterback position, where Newton was replaced after missing 16 of his last 24 games with foot and shoulder injuries and playing banged up in the other 8. The Panthers saved 19.1 million in cash and cap space by releasing Newton ahead of the final year of his contract and put that cap space towards a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal for free agent Teddy Bridgewater.

What’s unclear is how effective these moves are going to be long-term. Rhule could develop into a good NFL coach, but it’s worth wondering if the Panthers were too quick to move on from Rivera, who had been consistently successful before his franchise quarterback got hurt and who was arguably the hottest head coaching candidate on the market this off-season. The team certainly didn’t improve their level of play without Rivera last season, with a -7.80% first down rate differential in 4 games without him, as opposed to -3.39% in 12 games with him. They especially struggled on Rivera’s side of the ball on defense, which went from a 38.06% first down rate allowed with Rivera to a 42.08% first down rate without. Rhule should bring more than an interim head coach, but I’m definitely not convinced he will prove to be an upgrade over Rivera.

Teddy Bridgewater was also a risky signing, as he’s still played very little since a horrific career altering knee injury that he suffered before the 2016 season. Bridgewater missed all of 2016 and threw just 25 passes from 2017-2018, none of which came in meaningful game situations. In 2019, he got an extended chance as the starter with Drew Brees out for almost 6 games and, while he won all 5 of his starts, he wasn’t the primary reason they were winning.

Those 5 games happened to be their best defensive stretch of the year, as they allowed just a 32.01% first down rate, which allowed the Saints to win those games despite posting a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field last season. That rate is most equivalent to the 24th ranked Lions over the course of the season, which isn’t bad, but the Saints have a ton of talent on offense around the quarterback and a very quarterback friendly system, so that’s kind of disappointing. For comparison, they had a 41.86% first down rate with Brees as the starting quarterback last season, which would have been best in the NFL over the full season.

Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 and looked like a potential future franchise quarterback before the injury, but now close to 5 years since his last pre-injury season, it’s definitely fair to wonder if he’ll ever reach the heights he could have had he not had his career derailed by injury. I hope he can stay healthy and have a long career in the NFL, but he projects as more of a low end starter/high end backup than a franchise quarterback.

The Panthers hedged their bet a little bit by only guaranteeing 10 million of the 18 million he’s scheduled to make in 2021, which gives the Panthers some flexibility if they want to move on from him next off-season, a smart move because, if this season goes badly enough, they could easily end up with the opportunity to take a quarterback like Justin Fields or even local product and consensus projected #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence atop next year’s draft. 

For now though, the Panthers are locked into Bridgewater with only 2019 3rd round pick Will Grier and XFL star PJ Walker behind him on the depth chart. Grier was a relatively high pick, but couldn’t get on the field for a bad team as a rookie and struggled mightily (33.2 QB rating) when he finally got his chance down the stretch. The Panthers will need Bridgewater to stay healthy to avoid a league worst quarterback situation.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Another long-time Panther who was let go this off-season is Greg Olsen, who was released ahead of what would have been a non-guaranteed 7.975 million dollars owed for his age 35 season in 2020. Olsen was a 3-time Pro Bowler in 9 seasons in Carolina and topped 1000 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016, the only tight end in the NFL to do so over that stretch, but he missed 16 games with injury combined from 2017-2018 and was limited to a 52/597/2 slash line in 14 games upon his return in 2019. The Panthers clearly felt his best days were behind him and wanted to move forward with third year tight end Ian Thomas as the starter.

Thomas showed potential in 7 starts as a rookie in 2018 in Olsen’s absence, catching 28 passes for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns, a 65/613/5 slash line extrapolated over 16 games. However, with Olsen mostly healthy in 2019, Thomas shrunk in the background, totaling just a 16/136/1 slash line and averaging just 0.74 yards per route run, 3rd worst among qualifying tight ends. Thomas is only going into his age 24 season and the former fourth round pick still has upside as a receiver, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career.

Thomas has also struggled mightily as a blocker, leading to him finishing 40th out of 44 qualifying tight ends overall on PFF last season, so it’s a bit surprising the Panthers didn’t add any competition for him this off-season. Blocking specialist Chris Mannertz remains, but he has just 6 career catches in 51 career games and isn’t a good enough blocker to make up for it and their only other options are undrafted free agents and veterans who have never caught a pass. It’s a very thin position.

Perhaps the Panthers are planning on not using the tight end spot in the passing game much, as they actually have plenty of receiving talent at wide receiver and, of course, running back, where all-everything feature back Christian McCaffrey had a 116/1005/4 slash line last season in the first 1000/1000 rushing/receiving year since Marshall Faulk in 1999. I’ll get into more about McCaffrey later in the running back section, but at wide receiver the Panthers got a much needed third option this off-season, adding Robby Anderson to replace Jairus Wright, who averaged 0.58 yards per route run last season, worst among qualifying wide receivers, and finished dead last among qualifying wide receivers in overall grade on Pro Football Focus.

It wouldn’t be hard for Anderson to be better than Wright, but Anderson is also a capable player in his own right. He never topped a 63/941/7 slash line and a 42nd ranked finish on PFF (2017) in 4 seasons with the Jets, who signed him undrafted in 2016, but he was at least an average wide receiver in each of his final 3 seasons in New York and averaged a 55/824/6 slash line, despite some inconsistent quarterback play. Now in his age 27 season, Anderson may never develop into a true #1 receiver, but he should remain a capable starter for at least the 2-year, 20 million dollar deal he signed.

Anderson won’t need to be a true #1 receiver either. Along with McCaffrey topping 1000 yards receiving, top wide receiver DJ Moore also surpassed that total with a team leading 87/1175/4 slash line last season. Both players benefited from the constantly trailing Panthers dropping back and passing 633 times, 2nd in the NFL, but they also dealt with poor quarterback play, as the team finished just 20th in passing yards and 28th in yards per attempt. Moore finished as PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver overall. Teddy Bridgewater may not be a high end quarterback, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade and the Panthers figure to still be trailing plenty because of their defense, so McCaffrey and Moore should be able to produce big numbers in the passing game again. 

Moore is also a former first round pick only going into his third season in the league, so he could easily take another step forward, after making a leap last year from a 55/788/2 rookie year slash line. Fellow starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel was not nearly as effective last season, catching just 51.4% of his intended targets and averaging just 0.97 yards per route run. He finished 83rd out of 102 qualifying wide receivers on PFF, which isn’t good, but it suggests that his numbers were somewhat the result of poor quarterback play. 

Samuel was a 2nd round pick in 2017 and is still only going into his age 24 season, so he has plenty of upside still. His career got off to a slow start, but he’s progressed from a 15/115/0 slash line to a 39/494/5 and a 54/627/6 slash line. He’s also totaled 278 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 carries and has the kind of speed and quickness that allows you to play him in different spots. With Anderson coming in, he’ll likely be the #4 passing game option, which he’s not underqualified for. Tight end is a problem position, but the Panthers can mask the problem with receiving talent at other positions.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Christian McCaffrey is also a great runner as well, rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns on 287 carries (4.83 YPC) last season and 1,098 yards and 7 touchdowns on 219 carries (5.01 YPC) in 2018. He struggled as a runner during his rookie season in 2017, rushing for 435 yards and 2 touchdowns on 117 carries (3.72 YPC), but that’s the only time he’s been less than superhuman in any aspect of his game. His receiving totals have improved from 80/651/5 to 107/867/6 to 116/1005/4 in 3 seasons in the league and he’s finished in the top-6 among running backs in overall grade on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, while playing 190 snaps more than any running back in the league over that stretch. 

Despite having accomplished all of this, the former 8th overall pick is still only going into his age 24 season and, while he plays probably the most injury prone position, it seems like nothing short of injuries will stop him from being one of the best players in the NFL for years to come. Normally I don’t recommend signing running backs to big long-term extensions, but McCaffrey is probably worth it given how much of their offense goes through him and the 4-year, 64 million dollar extension he got this off-season kind of feels like the Panthers got off easy, even though he’s now the highest paid running back in the league.

McCaffrey rarely comes off the field and hasn’t suffered any serious injuries, but if he were injured, the Panthers don’t have any depth behind him, so they’d be in a lot of trouble. 2018 undrafted free agent Reggie Bonnafon was the Panthers #2 back last season, but he only got 16 carries in the first action of his career last season and, while he had 116 yards, almost half of it came on one run. The Panthers brought in veteran competition late in the season last year when they signed ex-Bear Mike Davis and, without another option, Davis and Bonnafon will compete for the #2 role. Davis has been underwhelming through his 5-year career, with a 3.60 career YPC, so the Panthers are obviously hoping they don’t have to play any stretch of time with McCaffrey. So far they haven’t, but we’ll see if that continues.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Panthers also made some changes on the offensive line this off-season, most notably trading right guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for left tackle Russell Okung. It was a strange move and not just because teams rarely swap starting offensive linemen. Turner was signed for more years and less money per year, signed for 20.5 million over 2 years vs. 13 million over 1 year. He’s younger, going into his age 27 season, while Okung is going into his age 32 season. He also is coming off a better season, finishing 36th among guards on Pro Football Focus, while Okung finished 57th among 89 qualifying tackles in a season where he was limited to 257 snaps by health problems.

The Panthers were likely going to cut Turner if they couldn’t move him, so they probably view getting anything for him as a win, but his 9 million dollar salary was not cost prohibitive for a player still in his prime who has finished in the top-50 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (80 starts), topping out at 10th in 2015. If anything, acquiring Okung might be acquiring negative value. Okung has been an above average offensive tackle for most of his career, finishing 13th among offensive tackles as recently as 2018, but given his age and injury history, it’s very likely his best days behind him and his salary still pays him like he’s in his prime. It was a weird move, especially for a team taking a long-term approach.

Okung also replaces Greg Little at left tackle and the Panthers used the 37th overall pick on him in 2019. With Taylor Moton locked in at right tackle, Little will have to play out of position at guard if he wants to win a starting role. Seeing as Little will likely have to take over at left tackle in a year, given Okung’s contract situation and age, it doesn’t make much sense for the Panthers to acquire Okung as a stopgap for a year they’re unlikely to be competitive. Little was underwhelming on 224 snaps in an injury plagued rookie year, but he could have been better in his 2nd season as a starter. We’ll see how he adjusts to a new position.

Little isn’t guaranteed to win a starting role on the interior, as fellow converted tackle Dennis Daley is also in the mix for the two starting roles with veteran free agent additions Michael Schofield and John Miller. Like Little, Daley was a rookie last season and the 6th round pick ended up seeing more action than his highly drafted classmate because of Little’s injuries. Daley made 9 rookie year starts on the blindside, though his play left something to be desired, as he ranked 69th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. He won’t necessarily be better in his 2nd season in the league in a new position.

Schofield and Miller, meanwhile, come over from the Chargers and Bengals respectively on 1-year deals worth 1.5 million and 4 million respectively. Both have plenty of experience, as Schofield has made 66 starts in 6 seasons in the league (47 at right guard and 19 at right tackle), while Miller has made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but both are low upside options who have never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in a season.

Schofield is probably the better of the two and finished a career best 37th among guards last season, significantly ahead of Miller, who ranked 56th out of 89 qualifiers, but both will have opportunities to earn roles at a wide open position. With not only right guard Turner gone but also left guard Greg Van Roten (PFF’s 24th ranked guard in 11 starts before suffering an injury) gone from last year’s line, the Panthers should see a drop off at both guard positions regardless of who starts.

As mentioned, Taylor Moton is locked in as the starting right tackle, where he is among the best players in the league at his position. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Moton barely played as a rookie, but has made all 32 starts on the right side over the past 2 seasons and has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in both seasons. Still only going into his age 26 season, Moton has a bright future. He figures to be one of the higher paid right tackles in the league on his next contract, whether that’s on a new deal with the Panthers or elsewhere, after the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Panthers should obviously make bringing him back long-term a priority.

Center Matt Paradis anchors this offensive line in the middle. He received a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season to come over from the Broncos, where he made 57 starts from 2015-2018, finishing in the top-13 among centers in all 4 seasons. He proved to be a disappointment in his first year in Carolina though, finishing a career worst 21st out of 35 qualifying centers. It’s possible he was not fully recovered from the broken leg that ended his final season in Denver and he definitely seemed to get better as the season went on. Given that, Paradis has some obvious bounce back potential if he’s back at 100% this season, but, going into his age 31 season, his best days could also easily be behind him. 

The Panthers shuffled this offensive line this off-season, with only Paradis and Moton remaining in their previous spot, but outside of Moton, they don’t have a sure thing on this line, with guard being unsettled and both Okung and Paradis being over 30 with injury concerns. Both Okung and Paradis have bounce back potential, but there’s also a lot of potential downside on this unit and their guard play figures to be worse this season than last year’s regardless of who starts.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Panthers have some reason to be hopeful on offense, but their defense has some major concerns. As I mentioned earlier, this defense got worse when they fired head coach and top defensive mind Ron Rivera mid-season, going from a 38.06% first down rate allowed in games with him and a 42.08% first down rate allowed in games without him. That wasn’t all because of Rivera being fired though, as the Panthers’ defense started falling off significantly even before Rivera was let go. 

After posting a reasonable 33.97% first down rate allowed through the first 6 games of the season, the Panthers defense totally fell apart after their week 7 bye and they allowed a 42.47% first down rate the rest of the way to finish 29th in the NFL with a 39.06% first down rate on the season. And that was with Luke Kuechly, who finished 5th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and decided to retire early this off-season. It’s impossible to understate how big his absence on this defense will be.

It’s not all bad news for the Panthers on defense though, as their struggles down the stretch last season were at least in part due to injury absences. The Panthers ranked middle of the pack in adjusted games lost to injury on defense, but the games that were missed were primarily by key players. That was especially true on the Panthers’ 3-man defensive line, where arguably their top players Kawaan Short and Dontari Poe went down for the season in week 2 and week 12 respectively. In their absence, Vernon Butler (440 snaps) and Kyle Love (412 snaps) had to play significant roles and ranked 100th and 118th respectively on PFF out of 125 qualifying interior defenders. That’s a big part of the reason why they ranked dead last in the NFL with 5.16 yards per carry allowed.

Short returns for 2020, but he’s the only familiar face as their top-4 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season (Gerald McCoy, Butler, Love, and Poe) are all gone. The Panthers did well to add Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown with the 7th overall pick and he and Short could form a strong duo immediately, even if Brown is a little raw as a rookie. Short is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but he finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons prior to last year’s fluke injury, and he could easily return to close to his old form. With the Panthers moving back to a 4-3 defense this season, Short and Brown figure to have significant roles inside at defensive tackle this season.

Their depth is a big problem, however, as they did little else to add to the position aside from adding Brown. Zach Kerr is probably their best backup, but he’s primarily a base package run stuffer at 6-2 334 and he’s never played more than 394 snaps in any of his 6 seasons in the league. Meanwhile, fellow veteran Chris Smith has never played more than 401 snaps in 6 seasons in the league and has been underwhelming throughout his career. It’s possible even 6th round rookie Bravvion Roy could carve out a rotational role at a thin position. Short and Brown will be relied on for heavy snaps, which could tire them out and hurt their effectiveness, and they’d be in a lot of trouble if they ever lost either player to injury.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Another long-time Panther that is no longer on the team is defensive end Mario Addison, who signed a 3-year, 30.45 million dollar deal in Buffalo this off-season, after 8 seasons in Carolina. Addison didn’t become a productive regular until 2015 and didn’t become a starter until 2017, but he earned an average or better grade on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons and he led the team with 9.5 sacks and a 11.4% pressure rate last season. Bruce Irvin was 2nd on the team with 8.5 sacks and a 10.4% pressure rate, but he’s gone as well, so the Panthers have a lot to replace on the edge too.

They did a slightly better job adding depth at the defensive end position than they did inside at defensive tackle this off-season, using the 38th overall pick on Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and signing ex-Viking Stephen Weatherly to a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar contract in free agency. Gross-Matos was a good value at the top of the second round, but Weatherly was pretty underwhelming in a rotational role in Minnesota over the past two seasons, averaging 29.6 snaps per game. He had a decent 9.3% pressure rate, but struggled against the run and shouldn’t play a bigger role in Carolina.

The Panthers also have some other young holdovers, led by last year’s first round pick Brian Burns, who they will undoubtedly be counting on for a larger role this season. Burns’ play against the run left something to be desired as a rookie, but he had 7.5 sacks and a 10.3% pressure rate, despite being limited to 478 snaps by a wrist injury, and he could easily take a big step forward in 2020. Only 22 years ago, Burns is an incredible athlete and has a huge upside, even if he takes another few years to get there. 

They also have former undrafted free agent Efe Obada (495 career snaps in 2 seasons in the league), 2018 4th round pick Marquis Haynes (256 career snaps), and 2019 4th round Christian Miller (91 snaps as a rookie), but none of them have had much impact yet in their careers. Burns, Weatherly, and Gross-Matos figure to get the bulk of the snaps, but they’re all young too, so they may struggle for consistency as a group.

Grade: C+ 

Linebackers

As mentioned, Luke Kuechly’s loss will be massive for this team, as he was a top-5 off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 6 seasons. The Panthers still have 2015 first round pick Shaq Thompson, who has developed into a solid player in his own right, but he’s still nowhere near as good as Kuechly. He’s graded an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league and he’s a versatile linebacker with the ability to even play some defensive back. 

However, Thompson got them grades in limited action behind Kuechly and Thomas Davis for the first 4 years of his career (38.1 snaps per game) and his first season as an every down player in 2020 was good (32nd among off ball linebackers), but not spectacular and his 12 missed tackles were a big part of the Panthers struggles against the run. Thompson is still only going into his age 26 season and could improve more, but he’ll also have to take on even more responsibility as the top linebacker and could get exposed more,

Tahir Whitehead was nominally signed to replace Kuechly, although he obviously isn’t the same player. He’ll start at least in base packages, but it’s fair to wonder how much playing time he’ll see in passing situations. Whitehead has been an every down player across 63 starts over the past 4 seasons with the Lions and Raiders, but he finished in the bottom-20 among off ball linebackers on PFF in all 4 seasons in coverage grade, so he’s been overmatched in a large role and would be best in a pure base package run stuffing role. Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t really have another option to play next to Thompson in nickel packages, so he’ll likely have to play significant snaps again. Now going into his age 30 season, Whitehead is highly unlikely to be significantly improved this season.

Third linebacker Jermaine Carter remains and will likely continue in that role, but the 2018 5th round pick struggled on 261 snaps in the first real action of his career last season and he is not really an option to play a larger role than his pure base package role. He could also face competition from 2018 7th round pick Andre Smith (36 career snaps) and it’s possible that the Panthers could use an edge defender like Marquis Haynes in a hybrid role and play him at linebacker in base packages. Some teams use a 3rd safety as a linebacker in certain situations, but the Panthers have depth problems in the secondary too, so that wouldn’t necessarily be a better option. Outside of Shaq Thompson, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Panthers also lost top cornerback James Bradberry in free agency. He was probably overpaid on a 3-year, 43.5 million dollar deal, as he earned a middling grade from PFF last season and has finished in the top-15 among cornerbacks in yards allowed in each of the past 3 seasons, including 2 seasons in the top-7, but he also regularly matched up with #1 wide receivers in a division with Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans and the Panthers didn’t do much to replace him. Also gone are Ross Cockrell (733 snaps) and Javien Elliott (439 snaps), so the Panthers are completely re-working their cornerback depth chart and they’re doing it without much in the way of outside reinforcements.

Third year cornerback Donte Jackson is the only one of their top-4 cornerbacks remaining from last season and figures to be pushed into the #1 cornerback role by default. Jackson struggled last season, finishing 103rd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he was better as a rookie and a groin injury that he suffered last season may have been the culprit, as he got hurt following his best game of the season week 3 and was not the same when he returned in week 8. Jackson could have the best year of his career in his 3rd year in the league in 2020 if he can stay healthy, but the Panthers are asking a lot of him.

Their one free agent addition at the position was Eli Apple, who figures to start opposite Jackson. Apple is considered a bust since he was taken 10th overall by the Giants in 2016 and was subsequently traded to the Saints for a 4th and a 7th round pick in the middle of his 3rd season in the league, which is somewhat fair, as he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but he also has a lot of starting experience (48 starts) and is only going into his age 25 season, so he was a worthwhile flyer on a one-year, 3 million dollar deal for a cornerback needy Panthers team. 

He’s not necessarily a reliable starter though, but the Panthers don’t have the depth to really push him. Corn Elder, a 2017 5th round pick, is currently penciled in as the starting slot cornerback, but he’s barely played in 3 seasons in the league. That’s in large part due to injury and he still has some upside in his age 26 season, but he’s a risky player to rely on as a 3rd cornerback. His only real competition for the job is 4th round rookie Troy Pride, who would likely be overwhelming in a significant role as a rookie.

The Panthers also have a rookie in line to play significant snaps at safety, as 64th overall pick Jeremy Chinn will only have to compete with veteran journeyman Juston Burris. Burris was a 4th round pick by the Jets in 2016, but struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons (521 snaps) with the team at cornerback and was ultimately sent down to the practice squad for several weeks, before bouncing from the Raiders to the Browns. 

With the Browns last season, he was converted to safety and got his first extended starting experience when the Browns had injuries at the position down the stretch. Burris looked much better at his new position, earning a middling grade on 409 snaps, but it would still be hard to rely on him as a 16-game every down starter. It’s possible both Burris and Chinn will see action together in sub packages, with the bigger Chinn (6-3 219) functioning as a 2nd linebacker in place of Tahir Whitehead in nickel packages. The Panthers are going to have to get creative to mask flaws and depth problems on this defense.

At the other safety spot, veteran Eric Reid is probably locked in as the starter, even though he was a big part of the problem in what was a down year for him in 2019, finishing 97th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Reid has been better in the past though and the former first round pick is still somehow only going into his age 29 season, so he has bounce back potential. He’s earned an average or better grade in 5 of 7 seasons in the league (98 starts), so he’s still one of the more reliable players in this secondary. Like the rest of this defense, the Panthers have a lot of problems on the back end.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

The Panthers were arguably the worst defensive team in the league down the stretch last season and things look even worse on that side of the ball this season, following the retirement of All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and other off-season departures. Offensively, they have some talent around the quarterback, but their offense line is still questionable and Teddy Bridgewater is probably in the bottom third of NFL starting quarterbacks, not to mention what their quarterback situation would be if Bridgewater ever missed time with injury. It’s going to be tough for them to keep up with what their defense is allowing and they figure to be one of the worst teams in the league this season unless they get lucky. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.71

Defensive Score: 68.99

Total Score: 70.85

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After two decades with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady has decided to move south and join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If that seems weird, it’s because it is, at least at first glance. Brady spent 20 years in New England and went on to make the Super Bowl in half of his 18 healthy seasons as a starter, including a record 6 victories. Brady won at least 11 games in 15 of those 18 seasons and overall had a record of 219-64 as a starter in New England, a ridiculous 77.9% winning percentage. 

Part of that, of course, is attributable to Brady’s own performance, but even the greatest quarterback of all time couldn’t have that kind of consistent success without an organization that consistently built and coached up winning rosters around him, most notably head coach Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest of all time in his own right. Even last season, one of the most disappointing seasons of Brady’s time in New England, the Patriots won 12 games. 

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have been one of the worst teams in the league over the past decade plus. They haven’t made the post-season since 2007, the longest drought of any team other than the Browns, and since that last playoff appearance they have a 37.0% winning percentage (3rd worst in the NFL) and have cycled through 6 different head coaches. That being said, it’s definitely understandable why Brady would pick the Buccaneers over any of his other options besides New England. 

Arguably the most important piece was put into place last off-season when the Buccaneers lured head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. It’s a bit surprising they were able to get Arians, as the previous 4 Buccaneers coaches lasted an average of two and a half seasons and the Buccaneers were widely viewed as one of the least stable organizations in the league to work for, but Arians’ arrival not only led to better play on the field, it also legitimized the franchise to the point where getting a player like Tom Brady in free agency was even a possibility. Something tells me Brady would not have left the familiarity of Foxborough to play for Dirk Koetter or Raheem Morris. Arians isn’t Bill Belichick, but he’s still one of the most proven offensive minds in the league and has a track record of success with veteran quarterbacks.

Beyond Arians, there is reason to be excited about this up and coming young roster. The headliners are their dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which I’ll get into later, but this is a team that finished 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22% last season, despite starting a quarterback all season that couldn’t get a starting job anywhere this off-season. They have plenty of talent on this roster around the quarterback, on both sides of the ball. The Patriots, meanwhile, were in a tough salary cap situation this off-season and would have had something resembling a rebuilding year (at least by their standards) even if Brady had been kept.

That quarterback who started for them last season was Jameis Winston, who ironically is one of the biggest reasons why Arians went to Tampa Bay in the first place, as the famously aggressive head coach was intrigued by the potential of the former 2015 #1 overall pick and his rocket arm in Arians’ downfield passing attack. The result was Winston setting a new career high in passing touchdowns (33) and yards per attempt (8.16) and leading the NFL in passing yards with 5,109, but at the same time becoming the first quarterback since 1988 to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in a season. To give you an idea of how rare that is in the modern era, since 2011, there is only one other instance of a quarterback throwing more than 25 interceptions in a season. Winston’s interception total could have been even higher too, as he also led the league with 13 dropped interceptions.

Winston was always turnover prone prior to Arians coming in, as his 3.0% interception rate in the first 4 seasons of his career was 2nd highest in the league over that stretch, but Arians’ offense, while it did lead to big plays, exposed Winston’s recklessness in a big way. Primarily driven by Winston, the Buccaneers finished 5th worst in the NFL with a -13 turnover margin, leading to them winning just 7 games despite having a first down rate differential that was comparable to playoff qualifiers. 

Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis anyway, but it’s not hard to see how the Buccaneers could be significantly better in turnover margin given that they are switching from one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in NFL history to one of the most careful. While Winston threw 30 interceptions just last season, Brady has thrown just 29 over the past four seasons and has a microscopic 1.8% interception rate in his career. Brady will likely be asked to push it downfield more than he’s used to in Arians’ offense, but it’s hard to imagine him suddenly becoming an interception machine. 

The bigger question is how much of an upgrade, if at all, Brady will be than Winston on non-turnover snaps, as Winston’s 8.16 yards per attempt average was a big part of the reason why the Buccaneers finished 13th in first down rate at 36.92% and Brady has actually only ever topped that mark three times in his career. Brady may be more careful with the ball, but I wouldn’t expect the Buccaneers to be significantly better at picking up first downs than they were last year, as, when he wasn’t turning it over, Winston was pretty effective at that last season. This looks like a case where a team is going to have a significant improvement in win total without a significant improvement in first down rate differential.

Brady also comes with significant downside, considering he is entering truly uncharted territory going into his age 43 season. Brady’s whole career has largely been uncharted territory, so I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he defied the odds again, but no quarterback has ever thrown more than 10 passes in their age 43 season and Brady seemed to finally be showing signs of decline last season. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a grade higher than 80 from Pro Football Focus the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season. 

For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age. If that happens, the Buccaneers are not at all prepared as their only other option is Blaine Gabbert and his career 71.7 QB rating. There might not be a bigger drop off from starter to backup in the league, so even if he struggles mightily, it’s very hard to imagine him ever getting benched.

It’s also worth noting that the Patriots didn’t seem to try particularly hard to keep Brady this off-season. The contract that the Buccaneers gave Brady guarantees him 50 million over the next 2 seasons, has a no trade clause, and doesn’t give the Buccaneers the option to franchise tag him after the deal is done, giving him full control over his football future, which is a very generous offer for a player of Brady’s age, but if the Patriots felt confident Brady would remain a top level quarterback for the next two seasons, it’s the kind of contract the Patriots would have tried to match. The fact that Brady announced he was leaving the Patriots before he announced where he was going suggests the Patriots didn’t make the final cut and never gave him a competitive offer. Belichick has been as good as anyone at knowing the right time to move on from a player and could easily prove to be right in arguably his biggest gamble yet.

All that being said, Brady was a no brainer addition for a Buccaneers team that had the cap space, the need at the quarterback position, and the desire to be relevant for the first time in over a decade. Given that they were competitive in most of their games with a quarterback that was not viewed as a starter in free agency this off-season, you can definitely argue they entered this off-season a quarterback away from being legitimate contenders. Even if they had to “settle” for someone like Philip Rivers, I would have been excited about this team’s potential in 2020. Brady comes with some downside and he’s less of an upgrade over Winston than you’d think, given that Winston did regularly lead effective drives last season, but this team is undoubtedly better for the move they made at the game’s most important position this off-season.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Buccaneers have a dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which, aside from head coach Bruce Arians, was likely the biggest factor in Brady’s decision. With slash lines of 67/1157/8 and 86/1333/9 respectively, Evans and Godwin were one of three wide receiver duos to have more than 1,100 receiving yards each last season, even though Evans played in just 13 games and Godwin played in just 14. In terms of yards per route run, they ranked 7th and 9th respectively with 2.30 and 2.24 yards per route run and they also finished 5th and 1st respectively among wide receivers in Pro Football Focus, making them the only duo in the league to both finish in the top-9 in either metric.

Evans has been doing this kind of thing since entering the league, as the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft topped 1000 yards as a rookie and hasn’t gone under that mark since, making him the second wide receiver in NFL history to exceed 1000 yards receiving in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, topping out with a 86/1524/8 slash line in 2018. As consistently dominant as they come, Evans is still somehow only going into his age 27 season, so there’s no reason to expect anything different from him this season.

Godwin, meanwhile, broke out last season in his third year in the league, although it was hardly a surprise based on his performance in more limited action in his first 2 seasons in the league. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin put up a 34/525/1 slash line as a rookie and a 59/842/7 slash line in his 2nd season, despite never being higher than 3rd on the depth chart behind Evans and former Buccaneer DeSean Jackson. Given that he averaged 1.93 yards per route in his limited playing time in his first 2 seasons in the league, Godwin seemed likely to break out whenever he got a shot to be an every down player and playing in Arians’ wide receiver friendly offense didn’t hurt matters. Godwin is technically a one-year wonder as a top tier wide receiver, but his history suggests he’s been just waiting for an opportunity to explode and, going into his age 24 season, it’s possible he’s still only scratching the surface on his potential. He could easily be one of the best wide receivers in the league for the foreseeable future, barring fluke injuries.

Assuming both stay healthier than they did last season down the stretch, Evans and Godwin could easily exceed last year’s total numbers, though it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be as productive on a per game basis for a few reasons. For one, while they’re getting an obvious upgrade at the quarterback position, they’re switching to a quarterback who is much less willing to throw one up for grabs and hope the receiver can come down with it. The quarterback situation should lead to more wins, but it won’t necessarily lead to more yards, especially if the Buccaneers play with more leads and establish the run more than they did last season. They also could play fewer snaps as an offense than they did last season when they ranked 5th in offensive snaps, due in large part to allowing a league leading seven return touchdowns. 

Godwin seems to be the better fit with Brady given that he’s the primary slot receiver when the team uses 3+ wideouts, so I would expect him to lead this team in catches and yards again, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if both players had their roles scaled back somewhat on a more balanced offense. Evans and Godwin will also have to compete for targets with off-season addition Rob Gronkowski, who is returning to the league after a year off to rest his body and will reunite with his long-time quarterback Tom Brady in a new city. 

In Gronkowski’s prime, the Brady/Gronkowski combination was the deadliest in the NFL. From 2011-2017, Brady had a ridiculous 129.7 QB rating when targeting Gronkowski and Gronkowski averaged a 80/1234/12 slash line per 16 games from the tight end spot. Also a punishing blocker, Gronkowski earned PFF’s top overall tight end grade in an incredible 7 seasons in a row during that stretch. Even though he’s had a short career so far, he was at least in the conversation for greatest tight end of all-time while he was retired and now, returning at only 31 years of age, he has an opportunity to add to that legacy.

Gronkowski also comes with a good deal of risk, however. Not only did he not play at all last season, but he seemed to be a significantly diminished player in his most recent season in 2018. He remained a strong blocker, but had just a 47/682/3 slash line and finished as PFF’s 11th ranked tight end overall, good, but not what we’re used to from him. Gronkowski’s career has been marred by numerous injuries, including knee, back, and arm injuries that seem to have all piled up to slow him down and eventually led him to step away from the game for a period of time. His age isn’t a major concern, but a year off might not have improved his football ability and, while the rest may make him less susceptible to injury going forward, he should still be considered an injury risk. Gronkowski should help this football team, especially as a blocker, but Buccaneers fans shouldn’t be expecting prime Gronk.

Gronkowski probably won’t be an every down player either, which will reduce his injury risk, but also will cap his potential upside. The reason he won’t be an every down player is because the Buccaneers are very deep at the tight end position, with a pair of players with starting experience in OJ Howard and Cameron Brate behind Gronkowski on the depth chart. Both had underwhelming slash lines last season, 34/459/1 and 36/311/4 respectively, but that was in part because they cancelled each other out and in part because this offense is more focused throwing to wide receivers than tight ends.

A first round pick in 2017, Howard was on pace for a 54/904/8 slash line in 2018 before getting hurt and missing the final 6 games of the season. Howard won’t have a big pass catching role with Evans, Godwin, and Gronkowski around, but he’s still a plus blocker and could easily elevate his level of play in only his age 26 season, even if it doesn’t translate to increased production. Brate, meanwhile, had 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 slash lines in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but has taken a back seat to Howard over the past 2 seasons, totalling 30/289/6 and 36/311/4 respectively. Gronkowski being added won’t increase his passing game role and his inability to block makes him a liability on run plays. 

With Gronkowski and Howard being primarily inline tight ends, Brate will likely be limited to a situational role as a move tight end or a big slot receiver. His 4.25 million dollar salary for 2020 is guaranteed, but he’s not cost prohibitive for a team that wants to upgrade the tight end position, so the Buccaneers may be able to move him for a late round draft pick before the season if they want to go that route. Howard’s name was also thrown around in trade talks during the draft, but the Buccaneers had a much higher asking price for him and don’t seem to be in a hurry to move a player like Howard for a draft pick when the team is trying to win a Super Bowl right now with a 43-year-old quarterback.

If there’s one nit to pick with this receiving corps, it’s their lack of proven depth at the wide receiver position, with 2019 6th round pick Scott Miller and his 177 career snaps currently penciled into that role, and 2018 5th round pick Justin Watson (303 career snaps) and 5th round rookie Tyler Johnson providing competition. Bruce Arians’ offenses have never targeted the tight end in the passing game much, but you have to figure they’re going to use a lot more two-tight end sets and even three-tight end sets than a traditional Bruce Arians offense because their depth is so much better at that position. Whoever wins the 3rd receiver job would likely be no higher than 5th in the pecking order for targets, so it’s not a significant flaw in an otherwise dominant group.

Grade: A

Running Backs

In addition to all of the weapons the Buccaneers have at wide receiver and tight end, the Buccaneers could also get passing game production out of their running backs, given Brady’s history of checking down to running backs. The Buccaneers lacked a good passing down back last season, so they used a 3rd round draft pick on Vanderbilt Ke’Shawn Vaughn to potentially fill that important role for their new quarterback. 

Vaughn will ideally serve two purposes: being an upgrade over incumbent passing down back Dare Ogunbowale, who caught just 35 passes last season and did nothing on the few occasions he was asked to carry the ball (17 yards on 11 carries), and replacing free agent departure Peyton Barber, who had a stagnant 3.05 YPC on 154 carries last season and ranked 43rd out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 40% carry success rate.

It’s asking a lot of a rookie to be Brady’s primary passing down back, especially since he’ll also need to learn blitz pickup as well to earn Brady’s trust, but running back is one of the easier positions to contribute at statistically as a rookie and it’s not hard to see how Vaughn could be an upgrade over the running backs who he’s replacing. The 29 passes he caught last season suggest he can contribute as a pass catcher immediately, which is primarily why he was added, but he should have a significant role as a runner as well.

Ronald Jones was the lead back last season and, barring a strong off-season from Vaughn, it’s likely that Jones remains in that role and possibly even that the 2018 2nd round pick sees an uptick on the 172 carries he had last season with Barber gone and Jones now going into his third season in the league. Jones has looked lost in passing situations thus far in his career, however, especially in blitz pickup, so his snaps will be limited unless he improves significantly in those aspects. As a runner, he showed significant improvement from his rookie year last season, going from a 1.91 YPC on 23 carries to a 4.21 YPC on 172 carries, and, not even turning 23 until right before the season starts, he could easily take another step forward in 2020. It’s an underwhelming backfield, especially with Ogunbowale likely still the third back, but there’s some upside here.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Buccaneers also added to their offensive line during the draft, moving up one pick to secure Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick. Wirfs will start immediately at right tackle, replacing long-time veteran DeMar Dotson, who finished 30th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season, but was not brought back for his age 35 season in 2020. It may be difficult for Wirfs to be an upgrade as a rookie, but he should at least be a solid starter and obviously has a much higher upside long-term than Dotson.

The long-term plan could be to move Wirfs to the left side, but for now, Donovan Smith remains there for his 6th season as a starter, after making 79 of 80 starts in his first 5 seasons. A second round pick in 2015, Smith’s best ability has been availability, but he did finish a career best 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF last season and, still only going into his age 27 season, he should remain in his prime for at least another couple seasons. The 3-year, 41.25 million dollar extension the Buccaneers gave him last off-season was a little rich for his talent level, but it wouldn’t have been easy for the Buccaneers to find a replacement or upgrade.

Aside from Wirfs replacing Dotson, the rest of the Buccaneers’ starting offensive line remains from last season, with guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa and center Ryan Jensen locked in as starters on the interior. Marpet is probably the best of the bunch, making 72 starts since entering the league as a 2nd round pick in 2015 and finishing in the top-23 at his position on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-10. In the prime of his career in his age 27 season, there is no reason to expect any dropoff from him in 2020.

Jensen is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 2nd among centers last season. A 6th round pick in 2013, Jensen became a full-time starter for the first time in 2017 with the Ravens, finishing 11th among centers that season, which led to the Buccaneers giving him a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency. He was not worth that contract in his first year in Tampa Bay, finishing 30th among 39 qualifying centers, but he bounced back in a big way with the best year of his career in 2019. Still only going into his age 29 season, he could easily have another strong season in 2020, but his inconsistent history is definitely worth noting. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to repeat the best season of his career, but it’s a possibility.

Cappa, meanwhile, is going into his second season as a starter, as the 2018 3rd round pick made the first 13 starts of his career last season. He’s still inexperienced, but he earned an above average grade from PFF as their 39th ranked guard last season and could easily continue developing going forward. Assuming he doesn’t regress significantly, the Buccaneers don’t have an obvious weak point on this offensive line. They also have decent depth, led by 6th offensive lineman Joe Haeg, an experienced starter who can play both inside and outside if needed.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

In addition to the talent around the quarterback they have on offense, the Buccaneers also have an up and coming young defense. That’s a big improvement from a year ago, when they were coming off of a 2018 season in which they were one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing a 40.98% first down rate that ranked 30th in the NFL. There are many reasons for their sudden improvement, including off-season additions and big improvements by individual players, but one central reason was the addition of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bowles was underwhelming as head coach of the Jets, but the reason he got the top job in New York in the first place is because he’s a great defensive mind, most notably during his 2 years as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator in Arizona (2013-2014), so it’s unsurprising that Bruce Arians wanted to with reunite him and that Bowles was able to make an immediate impact.

Probably the Buccaneers’ biggest addition last off-season was edge defender Shaq Barrett, who signed with the Buccaneers on an under the radar 1-year, 4 million dollar deal and promptly broke out with a league leading 19.5 sacks. In some ways, a breakout year from Barrett isn’t overly surprising, as he had a 12.1% pressure rate in a rotational role with the Broncos in his first 4 years in the league and played the run well to boot. In fact, Barrett’s 14.1% pressure rate in 2019 isn’t much above his career high; he just finally got an opportunity. He’s a one-year wonder as an every down player, so it makes sense that the Buccaneers would franchise tag him and make him prove it again, but if he does, they won’t have a choice but to give him a big contract to try to keep him. In the meantime, he’ll get a big pay increase to 15.828 million while franchise tagged.

The Buccaneers also kept fellow edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul in free agency this off-season, re-signing him to a 2-year, 25 million dollar deal, and he’ll remain the starter opposite Barrett. Pierre-Paul missed the first 6 games of last season with a neck injury, but provided a big boost to this defense upon his return. Without him for the first 6 weeks of the season, the Buccaneers had a first down rate allowed of 36.97%, which was certainly better than their 2018 defense, but still just 19th in the NFL. In the 10 games he did play, the Buccaneers allowed a 33.33% first down rate, good for 9th in the NFL over that stretch. 

Injuries have been a problem for JPP in recent years, as he’s missed at least 5 games with injury in 4 of his last 7 seasons, but he also has 6 seasons of 16 games played in his 10 years in the league, so he’s been pretty durable aside from some freak injuries, including a pair of off-the-field accidents. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus last season for the 9th time in 10 seasons in the league and he had a 10.8% pressure rate, so he hasn’t lost much ability yet.

Along with Barrett and Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib, the Buccaneers’ 3rd edge defender last season, was also set to hit free agency this off-season and, unlike Barrett and JPP, Nassib was not brought back, instead signing with the Raiders on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal. Nassib played capably on 630 snaps last season and the Buccaneers didn’t do anything to replace him, so that’s a bigger loss than you’d think. 

Second year player Anthony Nelson seems to be in line to take over Nassib’s role. A 4th round pick, Nelson played 152 snaps as a rookie and flashed against the run, but barely breathed on the quarterback, with 2 hurries on 85 pass rush snaps. He has some upside, but he’s a projection to a larger role. Without another real option, Nelson is likely to play significant snaps as a reserve and rotational player. The Buccaneers’ lack of depth at the position means that both JPP and Barrett will have to play a big snap count and that if either player gets hurt they’d be in big trouble. That hurts their overall evaluation at this position.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Another big reason for the Buccaneers’ defensive improvement last season was the emergence of defensive tackle Vita Vea, the 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vea’s career got off to a tough start as he suffered a calf strain in training camp of his rookie year that kept him out until week 4 and limited him early in the season, but after he shook that injury off he showed why he was drafted so high, posting a 12.8% pressure rate in his final 6 games as a 6-4 347 pound nose tackle. Vea also saw his snaps per game go up to 46.8 in the final 6 games of his rookie year, after averaging 30.3 snaps per game in his first 7 games. 

In his 2nd year in the league in 2019, Vea picked up where he left off, averaging 47.4 snaps per game, pressuring the quarterback at a 11.1% rate, stuffing the run like you’d expect someone his size to do, and earning Pro Football Focus’ 15th highest overall grade among interior defenders. Still only in his 3rd season in the league in 2020, he could obviously keep getting better and develop into one of the top few players at his position over the next few years.

The Buccaneers also added interior defender Ndamukong Suh in free agency last off-season, although he was replacing Gerald McCoy, probably their best defensive player in 2018, so he wasn’t really an upgrade. Still, he had a solid season on the interior, actually seeing more playing time than Vea with 54.6 snaps per game and earning PFF’s 49th highest grade among interior defenders, his 8th straight season with an above average grade. Suh is going into his age 33 season, so he’s past his prime and could continue declining, but he was one of the best interior defenders in the league in his prime, so he could easily remain an effective player for another couple seasons even if he’s not what he was.

William Gholston was their 3rd starter on this 3-man defensive line in 3-4 base packages and should remain in that role in 2020. Gholston benefited significantly from the scheme change, as he had the highest PFF grade of his career in his first year in a 3-4 defense. He still only got a middling grade, but prior to last season he had just 11 sacks, 23 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 6 seasons in the league and wasn’t much better against the run, miscast as a 4-3 defensive end. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to be a solid player, especially since he primarily is a base package run stuffer who comes off the field in obvious passing situations, with Vea and Suh as the primary sub package interior rushers.

Like on the edge, the Buccaneers lack proven depth on the interior. Beau Allen signed with the Patriots this off-season and, even though he played just 179 snaps last season, he was a proven rotational player and they didn’t replace him. Rakeem Nunez-Roches played the most snaps among reserve interior defenders last season with 293, but he was pretty underwhelming and has struggled throughout his 5-year career (214 snaps per game). They also used a 6th round pick on Khalil Davis, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to contribute as a rookie. The Buccaneers will have to hope to continue to stay healthy, far from a given, even for a team that had the 4th fewest games lost to injury on defense of any team in the league last season. Their top-3 have a lot of upside if they can all stay healthy though.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers also added to their defense high in the draft last off-season, taking linebacker Devin White with the 5th overall pick. White stuffed the stat sheet with 3 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks, and 1 interception, but was actually pretty up and down overall. He led this team with 13 missed tackles despite missing 3 games with injury and looked overmatched in his coverage assignment frequently, and earned Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked overall grade among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers overall. White was pretty beat up last year playing with injuries and a late season illness and he still has a sky high upside, so a big improvement in his 2nd year in the league certainly wouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s not a given.

With White being up and down, it instead was a dominant year from fellow starting linebacker Lavonte David that elevated this linebacking corps and contributed to this improved defense. David has been with the Buccaneers for 8 seasons and has been one of the better off ball linebackers in the league over that time, but last season was arguably the best of his career, as he finished a career best 2nd among off ball linebackers on PFF.

David has also finished in the top-4 at his position in 2013 and 2017 and has consistently been at least an above average starter, something I don’t expect to suddenly change, even in his age 30 season. He may find it difficult to repeat arguably his career year, but he remains one of the best all-around off ball linebackers in the NFL and any regression from him could easily be compensated for by an improvement from White. The Buccaneers also have pretty solid depth at the position with Kevin Minter (46 career starts) as the top reserve. He only played 275 snaps last season as an injury replacement and a highly situational run stuffer, but he’s still only in his age 30 season and there are worse options to have to turn to if an injury happens. 

Grade: B+

Secondary

As I mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers’ defense got significantly better when they got Jason Pierre-Paul back after he missed the first six games of the season. They were actually even better down the stretch, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 30.27% from week 10 on and 3rd in first down rate allowed at 28.96% from week 12 on. That was partially because of JPP, but their cornerback play also significantly improved down the stretch, after the Buccaneers had one of the worst secondaries in the league throughout the previous season and a half.

The Buccaneers’ most improved cornerback was definitely Carlton Davis, who showed why he was a 2018 2nd round pick with his play in the second half of last season. Davis was about average on 718 rookie year snaps, but was pretty underwhelming in the first half of last season, in part due to injuries that cost him two games. Roughly coinciding with the Buccaneers’ second half defensive surge, Davis returned to the lineup week 11 and was PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback from that point on. Not even 24 until this December, Davis has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 cornerback, if not this season, then in the short-term future, though it’s worth noting his strong start streak is still just 7 games long.

Aside from Davis returning to play and taking a step forward, the other big difference at cornerback was a couple personnel changes. Slot cornerback and former first round pick bust Vernon Hargreaves was cut after week 10 and starting outside cornerback MJ Stewart suffered an injury during week 6 that limited him to 78 snaps the rest of the way, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hargreaves and Stewart finished as Pro Football Focus’ 127th and 79th ranked cornerbacks out of 135 qualifiers last season and they were replaced by a pair of promising rookies, second round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting and third round pick Jamel Dean. 

Murphy-Bunting primarily played on the slot and earned middling grades from PFF on 686 snaps, while Dean was PFF’s 12th ranked cornerback from week 9 on, when he played 368 snaps and made 5 starts. Both Dean and Murphy-Bunting are relatively unproven and could suffer sophomore slumps, but along with Carlton Davis, the Buccaneers top-3 cornerbacks have a ton of upside. MJ Stewart also remains and, while he hasn’t shown much on 615 career snaps, he was a 2nd round pick in 2018 with Davis and could easily still have untapped potential if he needed to step into a significant role again. He allows them to go four deep at the cornerback position and all four cornerbacks are very young.

The Buccaneers are also very young at the safety position. Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards led the position in snaps played with 919 and 616 last season and they were drafted in the 4th round in 2018 and the 3rd round in 2019 respectively. Whitehead has finished 66th out of 100 qualifying safeties and 99th out of 100 qualifying safeties in two years in the league though, while Edwards finished 81st out of 100 last season, so the Buccaneers didn’t get nearly as good of play at safety last season as they did at cornerback. Neither player is locked into a starting role in 2020.

The Buccaneers get 2017 2nd round pick Justin Evans back from a torn achilles that cost him all of 2019 and, if he’s back to full strength, he could be an asset, as he earned middling grades on an average of 660 snaps per season in his first 2 seasons in the league. And just to add another young defensive back to the mix, the Buccaneers also drafted hybrid cornerback/safety Antoine Winfield in the 2nd round this year. He would seem to have an easier path to playing time at safety, but he could see some work on the slot as well.

Relatively speaking, the veteran of this group is Andrew Adams, a 2016 undrafted free agent who was about average on 614 snaps as a rotational safety and occasional starter last season. Adams has been about replacement level on an average of 503 snaps per season in 4 years in the league and could find himself buried on the depth chart a little bit at a deep position, with Winfield coming in and Evans returning, but he could still earn a situational role and see limited snaps. This is a very deep and young secondary with a lot of upside, but I do worry about their consistency without any real proven veteran players. I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to play as well as they did down the stretch last season all season, even if the upside is there. 

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Buccaneers entered the off-season an upgrade at quarterback away from becoming a legitimate contender and they found one with arguably the greatest of all-time. They’re getting him at his twilight and at an unprecedented age, but Brady doesn’t need to be prime Brady for this team to be competitive, given the rest of the roster. They’re likely still behind the Saints in the division, but with 3 wild card spots available this year, they still have a good chance to qualify for the post-season, and they won’t be an easy out once they get there, at the very least. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 78.25

Defensive Score: 73.72

Total Score: 75.99

Buffalo Bills 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

With Tom Brady no longer in New England after two decades of dominating the division (16 consecutive division titles in healthy seasons), the Bills are expected by many to finally dethrone the Patriots in the division this season. The Bills gave the Patriots a run for the division last year and made the post-season as a wild card in their first double digit win season since 1999, so it’s understandable that many would expect this team to make the next step, but I wouldn’t be so sure. I already got into why I don’t think the Patriots are just going to disappear in 2019 during their season preview, but on top of that the Bills weren’t quite as good as their record suggested in 2019.

The Bills finished the season 13th in first down rate differential with a solid +1.53% mark, but they faced one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. For all the talk about how easy the Patriots’ schedule was, the Bills faced the same schedule, only instead of the Chiefs and Texans they faced the Brandon Allen led Broncos and the Marcus Mariota led Titans, who missed 4 makeable field goals in a 7-point loss. That win over the Titans was their only win over a team that finished with a winning record, as they lost their other 5 such matchups, including their first round playoff exit in Houston.

Quarterback Josh Allen’s splits against teams with a winning record standout, as, even with a solid game against the Titans included, he completed just 51.7% of his passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions against winning teams, as opposed to 62.6% completion, 7.26 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions against .500 or worse teams. Even with the struggles against tougher competition, Allen still took a big step forward from his rookie year, improving his QB rating from 67.9 to 85.3, but he still finished as just Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback and his struggles against tougher competition are concerning. 

Allen entered the league very raw, so it’s not a surprise he’s had some growing pains and has had troubles with tougher defenses. Still only 24, Allen will need to take another big step forward in his third year in the league for the Bills to be a true contender. The Bills will also need Allen to avoid injuries, with career backup Matt Barkley (65.7 career QB rating) and 5th round rookie Jake Fromm set to compete for the backup job. Allen played all 16 games last season, but missed 4 games as a rookie and his playing style and propensity to take off and run with the ball (1,141 yards and 17 touchdowns on 198 carries in 2 seasons in the league) make him more susceptible to injuries than most quarterbacks. 

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Probably the best thing about Josh Allen is he’s on a cheap rookie deal for another two seasons, which allows the Bills to commit more resources to the rest of their roster. As many teams have been in this situation, the Bills have been aggressive using free agency to build around the quarterback, but they haven’t really made the splash signings other teams have, instead opting for quantity over quality. On offense, the Bills had just 2 players, quarterback Josh Allen and left tackle Dion Dawkins, that started in the same position in 2019 as 2018.

On the offensive line, the Bills started 7 different players last season and only Dion Dawkins, who made all 16 starts at left tackle, was on the roster in 2018. Dawkins was the best of the bunch and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle overall, his third straight season with an above average grade since being taken in the 2nd round in 2017. This off-season was very different for this offensive line, as all 7 players who made a start in 2019 will return. If nothing else, they should benefit from continuity.

Mitch Morse was the big free agent prize on this offensive line last off-season, coming over from the Chiefs on a 4-year, 44.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary. Morse wasn’t as good as his salary would suggest, as he was PFF’s 17th ranked center on the season, but he was still a welcome addition. Now going into his age 28 season, Morse is unlikely to ever develop into a top level center and has never finished any higher than 14th at his position on PFF, but he should remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons.

At guard, veterans Spencer Long, Jon Feliciano, and Quinton Spain will compete for the starting roles. Long and Feliciano were signed last off-season to contracts worth 12.6 million over 3 years and 7.25 million over 2 years respectively, while Spain was signed to a 1-year, 2.05 million dollar deal and then re-signed for 15 million over 3 years this off-season. Long saw the least action last season, limited to 173 snaps, and that will likely remain the case in 2020 unless he has a big off-season. He was a solid starter earlier in his career, but hasn’t been the same since missing significant time in 2017 with knee injuries, finishing 38th out of 39 qualifying centers in 2018 and then barely making an impact last season. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s best as a versatile reserve, but he’s very experienced and you can do a whole lot worse than him if you have to turn to someone off your bench to fill a hole on the interior.

Feliciano and Spain, meanwhile, played 947 snaps and 1,063 snaps respectively last season and will likely remain locked in as starters in 2020. Spain was the more proven player going into last season, as he was a solid starter in Tennessee for the first 4 years of his career, while Feliciano had just 8 career starts and struggled mightily in his first extended action as an injury fill in with the Raiders in 2018. However, Feliciano actually had a significantly better 2019, having a mini breakout year with a 35th ranked finish on PFF, while Spain fell to a career worst 66th out of 89 qualifiers. Feliciano is a one-year wonder who could easily regress in 2020, but Spain has bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, so those kind of cancel out. With Long waiting in the wings if either player struggles, the Bills have a solid situation at the guard position.

The Bills also have great depth at right tackle, adding free agent Daryl Williams to the mix this off-season, after bringing in Cody Ford with the 38th overall pick and Ty Nsekhe on a 2-year, 10 million dollar contract last off-season. Nsekhe technically only made one start, but he averaged 35.8 snaps per game in the 10 games he played, as the Bills went with the unorthodox approach of rotating him and Ford at right tackle in the games they were both healthy. 

The Bills may continue that approach in 2020, though it’s unclear how Williams would figure into it. Ford also could take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league, after finishing 78th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season, while Nsekhe is going into his age 35 season and, though he’s flashed in limited action as an injury replacement in his career, he’s never been a full-time starter (17 career starts). Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ford became a traditional every down starting right tackle in 2020.

Ford will have to compete with that role though, not just with Nsekhe, but with Williams, who wasn’t a needed addition, but joins the growing contingency of former Panthers players on the Bills rosters. Williams might not end up playing much, but he could prove to be a steal on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal if he needs to see action. A 4th round pick in 2015, Williams seemingly had a breakout 2017 season, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts on the right side, but he missed all but 1 game with injury in 2018 and saw his replacement Taylor Moton keep the job long-term, which forced Williams to play out of position when he returned from the injury in 2019. 

Possibly still hampered by the injury, Williams received a below average grade from PFF last season, while making 3 starts at left tackle, 6 starts at left guard, and 3 starts at right guard. Williams is still an injury concern and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the caliber player he was in 2017, but still only going into his age 28 season, so he was a worthwhile flyer on a cheap one-year deal. He might not see much action though on a solid offensive line that is one of the deepest in the league, with up to 8 guys who could legitimately start elsewhere.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Bills also overhauled their receiving corps last off-season, most notably adding wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley on deals worth 27 million over 3 years and 29 million over 4 years respectively. Both players had impressive slash lines in their first season in Buffalo, 72/1060/2 and 67/778/6 respectively and finished in the top-37 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but this passing game was a little too dependent on them, as they accounted for 43.1% of the Bills targets and 53.7% of their receiving yards on the season. They needed to find a reliable third target this off-season.

Needing a third target, the Bills instead shot for the moon and acquired a legitimate #1 receiver in Stefon Diggs, who comes over from the Vikings. Diggs wasn’t cheap, as the Bills gave Minnesota the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (among lesser picks) and are picking up the remaining 47.5 million over 4 years left on his contract, but the Bills can afford to be aggressive with Josh Allen on a cheap rookie deal and, without many pressing needs this off-season, it made sense for the Bills to package together a few draft picks to bring in one of the better wide receivers in the league. Even with this being a deep wide receiver draft class, Diggs is better immediately than anyone the Bills could have gotten with #22 overall and the Bills are in win now mode. 

Diggs might not have come cheap, but he’s the kind of player it makes sense to give up a premium pick for in the right situation, as a player of his caliber in the prime of his career rarely would come available in free agency and, if they did, they would command a much bigger contract than what the Bills are picking up. Still only going into his age 27 season, Diggs is actually coming off the best year of his career. The only reason he was traded is because the Vikings are a run heavy team with cap problems that couldn’t justify paying top dollar for quarterback Kirk Cousins and both of his top targets Adam Thielen and Diggs.

Diggs’ 63/1130/6 slash line in 2019 was a career high, but he played even better than that suggests, given that he played on a team with other passing targets and that had more run attempts than pass attempts. Diggs had that yardage (17th in the NFL) on just 94 targets (45th in the NFL) and he finished the season only behind Michael Thomas in yards per route run with 2.69. Last year might have been his career best, but he’s hardly a one-year wonder, averaging 1.83 yards per route run for his career and finishing in the top-30 among wide receivers on PFF in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He’s joining another run heavy offense in Buffalo so I wouldn’t expect huge numbers from him, especially with Beasley and Brown still around to take targets away, but he should be the clear #1 receiver.

Brown’s addition will obviously take targets away from Beasley and Brown, who ranked 33rd and 26th in the NFL in targets last season, both ahead of Diggs. Brown probably stands the lose the most as Diggs now becomes their primary outside receiver. Brown is also coming off of a career best year, but it wasn’t his first thousand yard year, as he topped the mark with a 65/1003/7 slash line way back in 2015. In between, Brown dealt with illness and injury and hardly made an impact in 2016 and 2017, but he got healthy for 2018 and was on pace for a 60/1048/7 slash line through 9 games before the Ravens benched Joe Flacco for a raw Lamar Jackson, who barely looked his way. That allowed the Bills to snatch him up on a good value contract. He’s going into his age 30 season already, but he’s now the clear #2 receiver, a role he should still be well qualified for, even if he has a significant statistical drop off when fewer balls go his way.

Beasley should see fewer balls as well, but he remains locked in as this team’s primary slot receiver. He may see his snaps decrease slightly from the 729 he played last season, but he ran 74.2% of his routes from the slot last season and doesn’t have any real competition for slot snaps. Like Brown, his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he’s averaged a solid 1.43 yards per route run from the slot over the past 4 seasons and could easily remain an reliable slot option for at least another couple years. With Brown and Diggs on the outside around Beasley, this is one of the better top wide receiver trios in the NFL and they have adequate depth to boot, with 4th round rookie Gabriel Davis and gadget speedster Isaiah McKenzie (7.81 yards per catch after the catch on 27 catches last season) being the most intriguing of the bunch.

The Bills are also expecting more from tight end Duke Dawson, a 2019 3rd round pick who had an underwhelming 28/388/2 slash line as a rookie. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but there won’t be a lot of balls for him as the 4th receiving option at best on a run heavy team. Fortunately, he’s an adequate blocker, which should allow him to see significant playing time. Veteran blocking tight ends Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft remain as depth, though they caught just 10 passes combined last season. This is a talented receiving corps overall, with the addition of Diggs.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Bills are a run heavy team, with 465 run attempts (6th in the NFL) to 513 pass attempts (24th in the NFL) last season. Part of that is Josh Allen’s propensity to take off and run, something he did on 109 occasions last season, and the addition of Diggs may cause the Bills to open up their passing game more, but the selection of Utah’s Zack Moss in the 3rd round to replace Frank Gore as the backup running back suggests there are still plenty of carries for running backs on this offense. Running back is one of the easiest positions for rookies to have an immediate impact at and Moss will team up with last year’s third round pick Devin Singletary to potentially form a two headed monster at the running back position.

How the carries will be divided between the two is yet to be determined. Singletary was limited to 20 carries in the first 8 games of the season by a combination of injury and veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, but he rushed for 603 yards and a score on 131 carries (4.60 YPC) in the final 8 games of the season as essentially a feature back, significantly out-carrying veteran Frank Gore (60 carries). Moss’ draft status suggests he could take more carries away than that, but he could be primarily used as a passing down back, as he has much more ability in those situations than Singletary (4.73 yards per target as a rookie), and if Singletary continues running like he did last season it will be hard to take carries away from him. 

Not only did Singletary have long carries (10th in the NFL with 36.4% of his rushing yards coming on carries of 15+), but he also ranked above average with a 50% carry success rate, keeping this offense on schedule. Having Allen as a threat to take off and run makes finding running room much easier and that is something that should benefit both Singletary and Moss this season, even if Allen’s propensity to run limits the amount of carries running backs get. They should remain an effective running team this season, with Singletary going into his second year in the league and a talented running back replacing the aged Frank Gore (3.61 YPC in 2019).

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Bills’ offense was underwhelming last season, finishing 23rd in first down rate at 34.18%, their defense was much better, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, although that’s kind of misleading. Not only did they face one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they also were closer to the 17th ranked Cowboys than the 1st ranked Patriots with a 32.66% first down rate allowed. Still, this is a deep defense without obvious flaws and, while they had some off-season losses, they did a good job adding replacements. Much like on offense, the Bills have gone with a quantity over quality approach on defense, with few standouts but great depth.

On the edge, the Bills are replacing free agent departure Shaq Lawson and retired hybrid linebacker/defensive end Lorenzo Alexander. They combined for just 8.5 sacks last season, but Lawson’s 6.5 were second on the team and combined they had a 13.8% pressure rate, so those aren’t small losses. The Bills replaced them by signing ex-Panther Mario Addison to a 3-year, 30.45 million dollar deal in free agency and then using a 2nd round pick on Iowa’s AJ Epenesa. Epenesa might not make a big impact as a rookie, but Addison and incumbent starters Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy are all heading into their age 30 season or later, so Epenesa was an important pick for the long-term, and the Bills like to rotate their defensive linemen, so he’ll have at least a small role in the short-term as well.

Addison is the oldest of the bunch, going into his age 33 season. Originally undrafted in 2011, Addison was a very late bloomer, not becoming a productive rotational player until 2015 and not becoming a starter until 2017, but he has somewhat remarkably seen his snap total increase in each of the past 4 seasons, from 392 to a career high 729 last season. Unfortunately, he seems to be on the decline, as his Pro Football Focus grade has fallen in each of the past 3 seasons, from an 11th ranked finish among edge defenders in 2016 all the way to a 71st ranked finish out of 118 qualifiers in 2019. Given his age, that’s not all that surprising. He still wasn’t bad last season though and had a 11.4% pressure rate, down from the 13.1% pressure rate he has since 2015, but still solid. He could have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid player, especially if the Bills scale his snaps back in a rotational role, but he was a slight overpay, given that the Bills could have re-signed the much younger Shaq Lawson for around the same price.

Hughes is probably the best of the bunch, assuming his abilities don’t totally fall off in his age 32 season. He’s finished in the top-37 among edge defenders on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons with the Bills (12.7% pressure rate over that stretch), including a 11th ranked finish as recently as 2018, so even if he does decline, he should remain a high level rotational edge defender at the very least. He might see his snaps scaled back from the 663 snaps he played last season, but he’ll still have a significant role.

Murphy is the youngest of the three, by default, as he doesn’t turn 30 until December. Murphy had a 13.9% pressure rate in 2016, but hasn’t been the same since missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL. In two seasons since, he’s only missed 3 games, but he’s had a 8.6% pressure rate and has earned middling grades overall from PFF. Given his age, it’s likely his best days are behind him, but he’s not a bad rotational player and could have another couple decent seasons left in the tank. Even 2019 7th round pick Darryl Johnson, who played 224 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, could see a small rotational role on the edge. This is a deep position, even if it lacks a standout player.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Bills also lost defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in free agency, but they signed Quinton Jefferson from the Seahawks and yet another ex-Panther Vernon Butler in free agency and they’ll get Harrison Phillips back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season after 3 games, so they have plenty of depth at the position. Phillips did lead this team with 9.5 sacks, but he didn’t play nearly as well as that suggests, as he added just 5 hits and a 7.7% pressure rate and didn’t make much of an impact against the run. The Bills were wise not to get into a bidding war for his services with the Arizona Cardinals, who signed him to a 3-year, 30 million dollar contract.

The 2-year, 15 million dollar deal they gave Butler isn’t better though. Butler was a first round pick in 2016, but averaged just underwhelming 322 snaps per season in 4 seasons in Carolina and made 9 starts total, all of which came down the stretch last season as an injury replacement on an awful Carolina defense. It’s not a surprise the Panthers didn’t pick up his 5th year option for 2020 (which would have guaranteed him 7.69 million for injury only) and made little effort to bring him back as a free agent. Still only going into his age 26 season, he still has theoretical upside, but the Bills fully guaranteeing him 7.8 million just seems like the brain trust, led by former Panther assistants Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, overvaluing one of their former guys.

Jefferson’s 2-year, 13.5 million dollar deal is a much better value. Originally a 7th round pick in 2016, Jefferson broke out in 2019 with a 32nd ranked finish among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. In addition to his 3.5 sacks, he also had a 9.7% pressure rate and played above average run defense. Jefferson is primarily a defensive tackle, but has the versatility to play some defensive end in certain situations. He’s a one-year wonder, as he was underwhelming in the first significant action of his career in 2018 and played just 151 snaps total in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to that, but he was still a worthwhile addition given the contract he received. It’s possible he’s turned a corner as a player and will continue playing well going forward. Only going into his age 27 season, he could prove to be well worth this contract. 

Harrison Phillips is like a free agent addition, given that the Bills got just 77 snaps out of him before he got hurt. Phillips’ season was off to a good start before the injury and he earned an above average grade from PFF on 389 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018, so he has the potential to be a big re-addition, still only going into his age 24 season. He won’t have a huge role at a very deep position, but he’s a good run stuffer who showed improvement as a pass rusher in limited action last season.

Incumbents Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei also remain as the likely starters at a position that legitimately goes five deep when healthy. Lotulelei is arguably the worst of the five, despite his status as a starter. Also a former first round pick by the Panthers, Lotulelei is a solid run stuffer, but little else, with 13.5 career sacks in 108 career games and a 5.0% career pressure rate. The Bills gave him a 5-year, 50 million dollar contract in free agency as one of their first former Panther additions but, like Butler, that was a case of overpaying for a familiar player. The Bills restructured his contract this off-season and he may see fewer snaps than the 482 he saw last season at a position that looks even deeper, but they still guaranteed him 7 million for 2020, so he’ll still have a role. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him.

Oliver, meanwhile, should be the best of the bunch and should lead the position in snaps, assuming he doesn’t miss time with a suspension after an off-season incident. The 9th overall pick in 2019, Oliver earned an average grade from PFF on 557 rookie year snaps, but he is just scratching the surface on his potential. He could easily take a step forward in his second year in the league and in a few years he could be one of the best players in the league at his position. He leads a solid, if unspectacular group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Not much has changed at linebacker for the Bills this off-season. They did lose hybrid player Lorenzo Alexander, who played some linebacker in base packages, but they bring back their top-2 linebackers, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, both of whom play close to every down and stay on the field in nickel packages. Milano is actually one of the better coverage linebackers in the league, finishing 14th and 4th on Pro Football Focus in 2018 and 2019 respectively in coverage grade among off ball linebackers. 

The 6-0 223 pounder is unsurprisingly not as good against the run, missing 35 tackles over the past 2 seasons, but he has still finished 11th and 32nd among off ball linebackers overall on PFF in the past 2 seasons respectively. Still only going into his age 25 season, Milano may still have untapped potential and could take another step forward in 2020. Now going into the fourth and final year of his rookie deal, the former 5th round pick will be expensive to keep, whenever the Bills try to re-sign him.

Edmunds was a higher pick, going 16th overall in 2018, but he has yet to break out in the way that Milano has. Edmunds has filled up the stat sheet with tackles, but more than half of his tackles have been assists, and he’s also missed 35 tackles over the past 2 seasons, despite being much bigger than Milano at 6-5 250. Unlike Milano, who has made up for his missed tackles with his coverage ability, Edmunds has been unremarkable in coverage and has earned below average grades overall in both seasons in the league, though his 51st ranked finish out of 100 qualifiers in 2019 was a noticeable improvement from his rookie year. He’s also still somehow only going into his age 22 season, meaning he’s younger than many rookies, so he still has plenty of upside long-term.

With Alexander retiring, the Bills brought in yet another former Panther to play the 3rd linebacker role, signing AJ Klein, a 7-year veteran of the Panthers and Saints, to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal in free agency. It’s a lot of money for a player of Klein’s caliber, especially since he isn’t likely to play more than half of the snaps in a purely base package role. Klein has been close to an every down player in 43 starts for the Saints over the past 3 seasons, averaging 48.6 snaps per game, but he’s earned mediocre grades from PFF. He may be better in a pure base package role, but to be worth his salary, he’ll have to excel in that role. Even if he was an overpay though, he’s still a capable third linebacker in a solid overall position group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bills also added help to their secondary this off-season, signing, you guessed it, yet another ex-Panther, Josh Norman, most recently of the Redskins. Adding a veteran cornerback to the mix made sense because the Bills lost Kevin Johnson (335 snaps) in free agency and needed competition for young cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson, who finished 2nd and 3rd among Bills cornerbacks with 785 snaps and 495 snaps respectively. Norman’s contract, 6 million over one year, suggests he’s more than just competition though, which could prove to be a mistake.

During his time in Carolina, Norman developed into one of the better cornerbacks in the league, earning above average grades in his final 2 seasons with the team, including a career best 3rd ranked finish among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015. That season landed him a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal with the Redskins that made him the highest paid cornerback in the league for years, but Norman never finished higher than 26th among cornerbacks in any of his 4 seasons in Washington and he bottomed out in his final season, ranking 128th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks and getting benched down the stretch. 

It was an easy decision for the Redskins to move on from Norman this off-season rather than pay him his non-guaranteed 12.5 million dollar salary in 2020 and it’s surprising he even got the kind of contract the Bills gave him. He comes with some bounce back potential, but he’s already going into his age 33 season, so he may be coming to the end of the line and his best days are definitely behind him. Unless he has a strong off-season, he shouldn’t have a significant role in this secondary ahead of the younger cornerbacks.

Norman’s biggest competition for a starting job is likely incumbent Levi Wallace, who started all 16 games last season. Wallace wasn’t bad, earning a middling grade from PFF, but obviously the Bills feel they may be able to upgrade him with Norman. Wallace was undrafted two years ago, but flashed a lot of potential in 7 rookie year starts, earning PFF’s 3rd highest cornerback grade from week 10 on. He wasn’t as good over his first full season as a starter, but he’s proven himself now over 23 starts and has earned the right to keep his starting role.

Taron Johnson is likely locked in as the primary slot cornerback again, as Norman’s lack of slot experience (he’s never exceeded 100 slot snaps in a season) means he’s not a real threat to his job. He’s been a middling slot cornerback since entering the league as a 4th round pick in 2018, but he was slightly better when healthier on 405 rookie year snaps and could have his best year yet in his third year in the league 2020 if he can avoid injuries. Still, if the Bills were going to try to upgrade one cornerback spot this off-season, finding competition on the slot would have made more sense than adding competition for Wallace outside.

Tre’Davious White is locked in as the other outside cornerback, as he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league and has the upside to get even better. A first round selection in 2017, White finished 5th among cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie and 17th among cornerbacks last season. While he did have a down 2018 season in between, he’s still only allowed 54.2% completion, 7.06 YPA, and 5 touchdowns, as opposed to 12 picks and 24 passes broken up. Cornerback is arguably the toughest position in the NFL to be consistently dominant at, but White has the potential to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL for a long time, still only going into his age 25 season. He has two years left on his rookie deal, but he won’t become cheaper with time, so the Bills should be trying to lock him up long-term as soon as possible.

In addition to having one of the better #1 cornerbacks in the league, the Bills also have one of the better safety duos in the league and will bring back Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer for their fourth season together in 2020. Both were under the radar signings, Hyde coming in on a 5-year, 30.5 million dollar deal and Poyer coming in on a 4-year, 13 million dollar deal, but both have been much better on their second contract than they were with their previous teams on rookie contracts. 

Hyde went from playing 651 nondescript snaps per game as versatile defensive back depth in 4 seasons with the Packers to starting all 47 games he’s played in 3 seasons in Buffalo and finishing 7th, 9th, and 12th among on PFF safeties over the past 3 seasons respectively. Poyer, meanwhile, made only 10 starts in 4 seasons prior to joining the Bills, with 6 of them coming in his injury plagued final season in Cleveland, but he has finished 9th, 49th, and 22nd respectively among safeties on PFF in 3 seasons with the Bills. Hyde still has two years left on his bargain deal, while Poyer was given a deservedly massive pay raise with a 2-year, 19.5 million dollar extension this off-season. Still relatively young, with Hyde going into his age 30 season and Poyer going into his age 29 season, they should have another strong season together in 2020. Along with top cornerback Tre’Davious White, they lead this talented secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bills made the playoffs as a wild card last season against an easy schedule, but they really struggled against tougher competition, especially young quarterback Josh Allen, which is a big concern as they’re set to face one of the tougher projected schedules in the league this season. The same is true of the rest of their division, which became a lot more winnable when Tom Brady left New England, but the Patriots don’t seem likely to just disappear and, even if the Bills are able to win arguably the weakest division in football, it’s hard to see them going on a big run in the playoffs, unless they get a third year breakout year from quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills have given him a big help by adding a #1 wide receiver to what now looks like one of the better receiving corps in the league, but Allen has a big jump to make against tougher competition, so I think this team is probably at least a year away. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.15

Defensive Score: 74.80

Total Score: 73.48 (1st in AFC East)

Miami Dolphins 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this time last year, many were expecting the Dolphins to be one of the worst teams of all time and possibly not win a single game. After years of overspending in free agency to achieve mediocre results (from 2008-2018 the Dolphins won between 6 and 10 games every season and never won a playoff game), the Dolphins took a totally new approach last off-season, completely dismantling their roster to build up cap space and draft picks for 2020 and 2021 to go in all for 2022 and beyond. 

In the meantime, the result was a team with the youngest average age in the league and a payroll 9 million dollars less than any team in the league. At least on paper, they looked like one of the worst rosters in recent memory. Despite this being a better plan than their prior strategy, all the Dolphins fans had to look forward to in the short-term was the opportunity to “Tank for Tua,” who was seen as the consensus top quarterback prospect in the draft going into the 2019 season.

The season started as bad as expected, if not worse. The Dolphins lost the first down rate battle by 20% or more in each of their first 3 games of the season. For comparison, there were only 11 other instances of a team having a -20% or worse differential in a game all regular season. Including another double digit first down rate loss week 4, the Dolphins went into their week 5 bye with an unfathomably bad -23.11% first down rate differential on the season, totaling 53 first downs and 2 offensive touchdowns while allowing their opponents to pick up 110 first downs and score 19 offensive touchdowns.

When they came back from their bye, it started out as more of the same, as they were down 17-3 at home in the 4th quarter to the also winless Washington Redskins, but they swapped quarterback Josh Rosen for Ryan Fitzpatrick and nearly came back in the game, failing when they went for two at the end of the 4th quarter rather than going to overtime. Even though the Dolphins didn’t win that game or either of their next two, they ultimately ended up winning 5 games on the season and got much better quarterback play from Fitzpatrick going forward, as he finished the season with a 62.0% completion percentage, 7.03 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. For comparison, Rosen finished the season with a 53.2% completion percentage, 5.20 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only reason for the Dolphins’ improvement, as first year head coach Brian Flores and his coaching staff did a great job of getting the most out of this roster down the stretch, and Fitzpatrick had his struggles as well, especially early in the season when he saw limited time in the Dolphins’ September blowout losses, but he was the single biggest reason why this team exceeded expectations and was able to win even as many games as they did. They still finished the season 30th in the NFL with a -5.49% first down rate differential, but were actually about even after their bye, with a 36.50% first down rate and a 36.53% first down rate allowed.

That being said, Fitzpatrick is going into his age 38 contract year in 2020 and has a history of inconsistency, so he was not the long-term option this team needed to find at quarterback as part of their rebuild. He did play well enough to knock the Dolphins out of contention for the first pick, but ultimately they were still able to get Tua Tagovailoa regardless, albeit after he slipped a few picks following some injuries. The Dolphins’ 5 wins cost them a chance at eventual #1 pick Joe Burrow, a cleaner prospect coming off of one of the best seasons in college football history, but Tagovailoa has the upside to be the top quarterback out of this draft class if he can develop and stay on the field. If he does pan out, he’ll give the Dolphins the most valuable asset in football to build around, a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie contract.

In the short-term, Tagovailoa is almost definitely going to start his career on the bench. Between his recovery from injury, a limited off-season, and Fitzpatrick coming off of a solid season, there is no reason to rush him out on the field. However, the 5th overall pick’s draft status likely ensures he’ll see some action year 1, especially for a team that is still probably a year away from legitimately contending for a playoff spot. He should at least make a few starts down the stretch so he has some experience under his belt for his 2nd off-season.

As talented as Tagovailoa is and as good as he can become, it would be hard for him to match Fitzpatrick’s 2019 level of play, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked quarterback overall. For that matter, it’s going to be difficult for a 38-year-old Fitzpatrick to match one of the best seasons of his career. Given that, the Dolphins could easily have worse quarterback play in 2020 than they did down the stretch in 2019, so they will need more from the rest of this roster if they’re going to keep being a competitive team. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Fortunately, the Dolphins came into the off-season with plenty of resources to build the rest of this team. Besides using the 5th overall pick on Tagovailoa, the Dolphins also had another 5 picks in the first 70 selections, including a pair of other first rounders, and they had among the most cap space in the NFL entering free agency. The area that needed the most improvement was their offensive line, which finished as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass blocking and worst ranked run blocking line in the NFL last season, making Fitzpatrick’s solid production even more impressive. The Dolphins couldn’t continue to be that bad upfront and expect to have consistent offensive success, regardless of who was under center. The Dolphins seemed to recognize that and were very aggressive about adding several new players to compete for roles upfront.

The Dolphins didn’t make any splash additions, but the player with the biggest upside of the group is first round pick Austin Jackson, who is expected to start at left tackle immediately as a rookie. He’ll likely have some growing pains as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what the Dolphins had at the position last season and he has the upside to be a Pro-Bowl caliber player long-term. The Dolphins also used a 2nd round pick on Robert Hunt, a collegiate tackle who could move inside, and a 4th round pick Solomon Kindley, who will likely spend his rookie year as depth at guard.

Ereck Flowers was their top offensive line signing in free agency, coming over from the Redskins on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Flowers is probably most famous for being a bust as the 9th overall pick by the Giants in 2015, but after struggling at tackle with the Giants and Jaguars to begin his career, Flowers turned himself into a pretty solid starting left guard for the Redskins in 2019, finishing 31st among guards on PFF and making all 16 starts. 

His contract is a little rich for someone with one-year of experience at his new position, as he’ll be the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, but he’s still pretty young, going into his age 26 season and has plenty of physical upside to keep getting better. His salary is more in line with a tackle than a guard, but between the selection of Jackson and Flowers’ past struggles at the position, it seems unlikely that they’d back move him back to tackle unless they really needed to. 

The Dolphins also signed Ted Karras from the Patriots on a one-year deal. A 6th round pick in 2016, Karras was only a depth player in the first 3 seasons of his career, making 5 starts total, but was forced into the starting lineup in 2019 by the absence of center David Andrews and finished as PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38th qualifiers, holding his own overall. He has the versatility to play guard as well, but his easiest path to playing time is center. His 3 million dollar salary doesn’t lock him into a starting role, but without a better option on the roster, it’s hard to see him not being the heavy favorite for the job. He’s a low upside option with only one year of starting experience, but he’s a solid value signing and can be a serviceable starter.

Right tackle Jesse Davis and right guard Michael Deiter are the only players with a chance to start in the same spot as they started last season and both will face competition, after ranking 69th out of 88 qualifying tackles and 83rd out of 87 qualifying guards on PFF last season. Davis was the better player by default, but has earned a negative grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, while Deiter was a 3rd round pick last season and has more upside going forward.

Second round rookie Robert Hunt could be an option at either spot, while incumbent left tackle Julie’n Davenport will likely be in the mix for the right tackle job, despite finishing 73rd out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles last season on the left side. He could either replace Davis in the starting lineup or kick Davis inside to right guard, where he has some experience. Fourth round rookie Solomon Kindley could also be a long shot option, especially later in the season. The Dolphins are still a work in progress upfront and lack any offensive linemen who have consistently proven themselves as starters, but they have much more talent and many more options than a season before and should be at least somewhat capable upfront, with upside to be more than that if their young guys progress.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Running back is another position where the Dolphins desperately needed to upgrade this off-season. Not only did they finish 31st in the NFL with 3.31 yards per carry, but they were ridiculously led in rushing by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (243 yards), as they cycled through 5 different running backs who all received 36-74 carries and saw little success. Their only running back with any real talent was Kenyan Drake, who had just 174 yards on 47 carries (3.70 YPC) in 6 games with the Dolphins before being traded to the Cardinals at the deadline for a late round pick and promptly broke out as a feature back in Arizona. Offensive line problems were a big part of the reason for their struggles on the ground, but the Dolphins desperately needed to add multiple new options at the position this off-season.

Most expected them to use a high draft pick on a back, but instead they brought in a pair of veterans in Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, though they did use a 5th round draft pick to acquire Breida from the 49ers on draft day. Howard, meanwhile, came over from the Eagles on a 2-year, 9.75 million dollar contract. A 5th round pick in 2016, Howard burst on to the scene by rushing for 1313 yards and 6 touchdowns on 252 carries (5.21 YPC) as a rookie, but he’s been limited to 4.00 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 645 carries in 3 seasons since and is a very limited player in the passing game, maxing out with 29 catches in a season and averaging a pathetic 5.18 yards per target for his career. Given the veteran backs still available in free agency, it’s unclear why the Dolphins felt the need to rush out and sign Howard to a significant contract early in free agency.

Breida’s addition makes a little bit more sense, but I still don’t like the idea of using a draft pick to add a player who is in the final year of his rookie deal when you’ve already added Howard, as opposed to drafting a running back for the long-term. Breida also comes with significant risk. He has an impressive 4.99 YPC average in 3 seasons in the league, including 5.32 YPC in 2018 and 5.07 YPC in 2019, but he hasn’t consistently kept the offense on schedule, ranking 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 46% carry success rate in 2018 and 31st out of 45 qualifying with a a 46% carry success rate in 2019. 

Breida has 23 carries of 15 or more yards the past two seasons, but has averaged just 3.27 yards per carry on his other 253 carries. He’s also spent his whole career in a very running back friendly system in San Francisco that fits his skill set perfectly and gives him big holes to run through to get big gains, he’s undersized at 5-11 195 and has already had multiple injury problems over the past two seasons despite topping out at 153 carries in a season, and he’s limited in the passing game with a career high of 27 catches in a season. He might not be a bad change of pace back even outside of the 49ers’ system, but considering how relatively easy it is to find running backs in the mid-rounds that can make an impact immediately, I would have preferred the Dolphins draft a back instead. As of right now, none of their running backs are locked into a roster spot beyond 2020.

With Howard and Brieda both being limited in the passing game, Patrick Laird seems likely to see a significant role as the passing down back. Undrafted in 2019, Laird showed nothing as a runner with a 2.71 YPC average on 62 carries, but caught a pass on 14.6% of the 158 routes he ran and earned significant playing time down the stretch. He could continue being significantly involved in the passing game, but he figures to be more of a snap eater than an impact player and the Dolphins lack a capable pass catching back behind him if he gets hurt. This is a better group than last year’s by default, but it’s still an underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The one offensive group the Dolphins didn’t upgrade this off-season was their receiving corps. It was their strongest group around the quarterback on offense in 2019, but it’s still surprising they didn’t add at least some competition. They have solid depth at wide receiver, but expected #2 wide receiver Preston Williams comes with a lot of risk. Preston Williams had a solid 32/428/3 slash line while playing 79.7% of the snaps in 8 games, but he’s coming off of a November ACL tear and is still a relatively unproven second year undrafted free agent, so he’s a bit of a question mark.

Top wide receiver Devante Parker also comes with a lot of risk. A first round pick in 2015, Parker had his long awaited breakout year in 2019, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver and ranking 5th in the NFL in receiving yards on a 72/1202/9 slash line. It was a bit of a quiet breakout year, in part because he played on a bad team, in part because he had 248 receiving yards combined in weeks 16 and 17 to shoot himself up the yardage ranks at the last second, but he finally consistently showed the #1 receiver ability he was drafted for.

Consistency is the key, as he’s shown flashes at times before last season, but had struggled to put it together consistently, in part because of work ethic issues that lead to him being called out publicly by coaches. Still only going into his age 27 season, Parker theoretically has a few years left in his prime, but he could easily regress in 2020, having never topped more than 744 receiving yards in any of his other four seasons in the league. 

The Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up on a 3-year, 30.5 million dollar extension this off-season and not bringing in any competition, but he could easily go back to his old ways now that he has guaranteed money in the bank. The Dolphins can theoretically move on after 1-year and 14.6 million, but given that they could have had him at a 5 million dollar salary for his contract year in 2020 and made him prove it again, that extension could easily look like a mistake quickly. Realistically, he’s locked in for 2 years and 22.95 million.

The Dolphins do have solid depth behind Williams, with veterans Allen Hurns, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant all in the mix for roles, but none of them have much upside and, aside from Hurns, who was extended on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal during the season, the Dolphins could have moved on and found upgrades this off-season. Grant’s 3.78 million dollar salary didn’t guarantee until the middle of March, while Wilson was kept after taking a pay cut from 9.5 million down to 3 million.

Hurns is the most proven of the bunch as, seemingly in another life, he had a 1000+ yard receiving year in his 2nd season in the league with the Jaguars in 2015, after which he signed a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension that would kick in after the final two years of his rookie deal. However, he never made it to the extension portion of his new deal, getting cut two years and 16 million in guaranteed new money later, and has since bounced from Jacksonville to Dallas to Miami on low-to-mid range contracts, never topping 484 yards in a season since 2015. Hurns is still only going into his age 29 season, but he’s been pretty banged up and it seems likely that the former undrafted free agent just had a fluke year in 2015, especially since he had a large percentage of his yards come in garbage time on a bad Jaguars team that year.

Wilson and Grant, meanwhile, have never topped 554 yards receiving in a season, with Grant never going over 268 yards. Grant is dynamic in the return game, but the 4-year, 19.7 million dollar extension the Dolphins gave him in last August suggested they believed he’d developed into a contributor in the passing game as well, but that has yet to happen, in part due to injuries that have limited him to 10 games apiece in the past two seasons. He hasn’t been effective when healthy either, as his route tree has been mostly limited to short screens. He has 18.4% of his career receiving yards on 2 catches and outside of those has averaged just 10.2 yards per reception in his career. Now going into the 5th year of his career, I don’t expect much more from the 2016 6th rounder, but he could have a new career high in catches just by staying healthy. He’ll have opportunities to play.

Wilson is a little bit more proven than Grant, but the 3-year, 24 million dollar deal he signed with the team two off-seasons ago was not in line with his level of production in Kansas City and was one of many questionable signings the Dolphins have made over the years. It’s not surprising the Dolphins forced him to take a pay cut to stay on the roster after injuries have limited him to 69 catches in 20 games over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 28 season, he has some upside if he can stay healthy and his yards per route run since joining the Dolphins is respectable at 1.69, but I wouldn’t expect a big receiving total from him even in the best case scenario.

The Dolphins also stood pat at the tight end position this off-season, despite getting just 66 catches from tight ends in 2019, just 17.8% of their overall total. The Dolphins are clearly banking on improvement from third year tight ends Mike Gesicki and Dalton Smythe, who went in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively in 2018. Gesicki is more productive in the passing game, jumping from a 22/202/0 slash line as a rookie to a 51/570/5 slash line last year, but that’s an underwhelming total considering he ran 521 routes on the season (32nd among 44 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run at 1.09) and he’s been one of the worst blocking tight ends in the league thus far in his career. 

Smythe, meanwhile, has just 13 career catches, but has at least been a capable blocker in two tight end sets. The Dolphins have little depth at the position behind them, so they’re stuck with these two as their top tight ends and, as underwhelming as they are, they would be in big trouble at the position if one were to miss time with injury. It’s not a horrible receiving corps overall, but it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add any help at all this off-season, as they are led by a one-year wonder #1 receiver and a second year undrafted free agent who is coming off of a major knee injury.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Like the Dolphins’ offense, the Dolphins’ defense struggled mightily at the beginning of the year, allowing a 47.78% first down rate before their week 5 bye, but after the bye that fell to 36.53%, which would have been 21st in the NFL over the full season. They didn’t have any stand out players on defense, but they went through a ridiculous volume of contributors, with just two players playing more than 750 snaps, but 17 players playing more than 300 and 27 players playing more than 100, and by mid-to-late season they had identified some diamonds in the rough after cycling through so many players, which elevated their overall level of play.

They still finished 31st in the NFL on the season with a 39.41% first down rate allowed, but there are reasons to believe they’ll be better this season. Like on offense, their young guys are more experienced and they’ve added a significant amount of players through free agency and the draft. On top of that, they should be healthier this season, after having the second most games lost to injury on defense in the league last season, including 11 games missed by one of their few high level players, cornerback Xavien Howard. 

The area the Dolphins upgraded the most this off-season was the edge, which was much needed, as the Dolphins had 8 different players play at least 100 snaps off the edge last year, including linebackers Jerome Baker and Sam Eguavoen, but none of them topped 5 sacks and the team finished dead last with 23 sacks on the season. In order to fix that, the Dolphins signed defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, as well as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has experience as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker with the Patriots, where he previously played for Brian Flores in a similar defensive scheme. 

Van Noy was the big addition, coming over from New England on a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal. Van Noy was a second round pick by the Lions in 2014, but was just sitting on Detroit’s bench having played 406 snaps in two and a half seasons in the league when the Patriots acquired him at the 2016 trade deadline for a late round pick. He immediately saw more playing time with the Patriots, whose scheme he fit much better, and, while he was mostly a snap eater for his first 2 years in New England, he developed into a much better player in his final 2 seasons in New England, finishing 41st among off ball linebackers in 2018 on Pro Football Focus and 19th among edge defenders in 2019.

Van Noy is a rare player who can play the run, rush the passer, and drop back to coverage effectively, but his value is primarily as a pass rusher. He’s rushed the passer on 62.9% of his pass snaps over the past 2 seasons, managing 10 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate. In Miami, he’ll directly replace Sam Eguavoen in the lineup, which will be a big boost, given that Eguavoen ranked 78th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF last season. 

Eguavoen rushed the passer on 59.5% of his snaps as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and I would expect a similar percentage from Van Noy, although he’s obviously an upgrade and should play closer to every down than the 621 snaps Eguavoen played last season. Van Noy’s age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season and the Dolphins are paying him a premium for him because he played his best year in a contract year, but he was definitely a worthwhile addition and wasn’t overpaid by much.

With Van Noy playing a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role, Ogbah and Lawson are likely to be their starting defensive ends, though they’ll face competition from top holdover Vince Biegel, who was one of the diamonds in the rough the Dolphins discovered down the stretch last season. Biegel was a 4th round pick by the Packers in 2017, but saw just 124 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, bouncing from Green Bay to New Orleans before ending up in Miami in 2019. 

With the Dolphins, he barely played to start the season, but averaged 52.5 snaps per game in his final 11 games of the season and finished with 627 snaps on the season, leading all Miami edge defenders. He had just 2.5 sacks, but added 12 hits and had a 10.7% pressure rate, while holding up against the run and showing the versatility to play some linebacker and drop in to coverage. He’s still unproven with one year of production, so he could regress, but, on the other hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to improve in his 4th year in the league.

Ogbah and Lawson, meanwhile, come over from the Chiefs and Bills respectively on contracts worth 15 million over 2 years and 30 million over 3 years respectively. Unlike Biegel and Van Noy, they are traditional defensive ends who won’t play much if any linebacker. Ogbah was a second round pick in 2016 and got plenty of playing time early in his career in Cleveland, playing 52.9 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Browns, but he didn’t do much with the opportunity, posting 12.5 sacks in 40 games, pressuring the quarterback at a 7.8% rate, and earning mediocre grades from PFF in all 3 seasons.

The Browns then traded him to Kansas City and he promptly looked much better in a smaller role, playing 40.9 snaps per game in 10 games, posting 5.5 sacks and a 10.8% pressure rate, holding up against the run, and finishing as PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender overall through week 10, before suffering a season ending chest injury. Ogbah’s salary in Miami is more in line with his role in Cleveland, so he could prove to be an overpay if he can’t translate his solid play in 2019 to a larger role, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who doesn’t tun 27 until later this year, so he comes with plenty of upside.

Lawson was also a late bloomer, going in the first round in 2016, but showing very little in his first 2 seasons in the league, while limited to 21 of 32 games with injury. In two seasons since, he’s played 29 of 32 games and has shown impressive ability as an all-around defensive end, albeit in a limited role, maxing out at 520 snaps played. Over the past 2 seasons as a part-time player, Lawson has managed 10.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate, while holding up against the run. Like Ogbah, he’s unproven in a bigger role, but he still has upside only going into his age 26 season. At the very least, Ogbah and Lawson should be able to hold up against the run, but they have upside as pass rushers as well.

Along with Biegel, the only remaining holdovers from last year’s edge defender group are Trent Harris, a 2018 undrafted free agent who played the first 253 snaps of his career as primarily a situational run stuffer in 2019, and 2019 5th round pick Andrew Van Ginkel, who underwhelmed on 197 snaps last season, but still has some upside in this defense as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. They also used a 5th round pick this year on Boise State’s Curtis Weaver, who also fits the mold of a hybrid edge player. He could also be in the mix for a reserve role along with Van Ginkel and Harris. This is a much deeper and more talented group than last year, but they’re banking on a couple of Ogbah, Lawson, and Biegel continuing to develop and taking another step forward as edge rushers opposite Van Noy.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Things were much more stable inside at defensive tackle last year, where Davon Godchaux and Christian Wilkins made all 16 starts and were among the leaders on the defense with 718 snaps and 730 snaps respectively. Neither player was spectacular, earning middling grades from Pro Football Focus, but they were still two of the Dolphins’ better defensive players last season and both should remain locked into starting jobs in 2020.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Godchaux has played consistently well against the run since entering the league, maxing out with a 18th ranked finish on PFF in run grade among interior defenders in 2018, but he hasn’t gotten to the quarterback much, with just 3 career sacks and a 4.8% pressure rate. He’s only going into his age 26 season, but he was not highly drafted because of his lack of pass rush ability and it’s fair to wonder if he’s ever going to develop into a consistent quarterback disruptor. He may max out as a run stuffing defensive tackle, but a good one at that. Wilkins, meanwhile, is more well-rounded (8.5% pressure rate last season) and has much more upside after going 13th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He could easily take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020. 

John Jenkins also played all 16 games last season, playing 480 snaps as the primary reserve, and he actually played the best of the Dolphins top trio on a per snap basis, finishing as PFF’s 41st ranked interior defender. He signed with the Bears this off-season, which is a bigger loss than most would think, but the Dolphins did replenish depth through the draft, taking Alabama’s Raekwon Davis in the 2nd round and North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge in the 5th. Davis is much more likely to fill Jenkins’ old role given where he was drafted, leaving Strowbridge to compete for a deep reserve role in his first year in the league. Losing Jenkins will hurt a little, but this is still a solid group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

In addition to signing Kyle Van Noy from the Patriots, the Dolphins also brought another one of Brian Flores’ former linebackers from New England over in a more under the radar move, signing Elandon Roberts to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract. In addition to playing special teams and dabbling as a fullback, Roberts has averaged 365 snaps per season as a linebacker since the Patriots took him in the 6th round in 2016. Roberts has struggled when counted on for a larger role, but has been more comfortable in a situational run stuffing role over the past two seasons, though he did play just 202 snaps last season. His contract isn’t much, but he should at least compete for a base package role alongside Van Noy and Raekwon McMillan. 

McMillan excelled against the run last season in a part-time role, playing 516 snaps overall and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but he was very much the opposite in coverage, ranking 87th out of 100 qualifiers on PFF in that aspect. The same was true in 2018, when he finished 8th against the run, but finished 88th out of 95 qualifiers in coverage. McMillan was a 2nd round choice in 2017, but the big 6-2 248 pounder wasn’t known for his athleticism coming out of college and a torn ACL that cost him his whole rookie season doesn’t seem to have helped matters. He should excel in a base package role again, but would likely be overstretched in a larger role, though he may still have untapped potential, not even turning 24 until later this season. If he does break out and as every down caliber linebacker, this would be a great time for it, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season.

Jerome Baker actually led this linebacking corps with 1,080 snaps played last season, but he was mostly a liability, ranking 86th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on the season. He wasn’t bad in coverage, but finished 96th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in run grade. The 2018 3rd round pick was better in a smaller role (678 snaps) as a rookie, so he has some bounce back potential, but with Van Noy, Roberts, and McMillan all better against the run, Baker may be limited to situational work as a coverage linebacker. The Dolphins also figure to use 6 defensive backs somewhat frequently in obvious passing situations to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers, though that would leave them very susceptible if opponents decide to run instead. The concerns about coverage ability are legitimate, but they should be a tough linebacking corps to run on.

Grade: B-

Secondary

If there is one strength on this team, it’s the cornerback position, as, much like his former mentor Bill Belichick, Brian Flores wants to build his defense around the secondary. The Dolphins spent significant resources this off-season making the cornerback position a strength, signing ex-Cowboy Byron Jones to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid cornerback in the league in average annual salary and then using their third first round pick (30th overall) on Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. Add in holdover Xavien Howard, who is healthy now after missing 11 games with a knee injury in 2019, and the Dolphins have a very intriguing top trio of cornerbacks.

Jones and Howard are two of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league, with Howard ranking 3rd in among cornerbacks on a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season, so obviously they will start in base packages, but Igbinoghene has a clear path to the 3rd cornerback job, with only 2019 undrafted free agent Nik Needham potentially pushing him for the role. Needham flashed as a rookie and was one of the diamonds in the rough  that the Dolphins uncovered, but he overall earned a middling grade from PFF on 743 snaps and is probably best as a depth cornerback long-term. Assuming Igbinoghene beats him out for the job, there should be plenty of playing time for him as the 3rd cornerback, given how much teams use three cornerbacks at the same time, even with Jones and Howard unlikely to come off the field much if at all.

Jones and Howard are paid similarly, but Jones is the better player. Cornerback is a position that is very difficult to be consistently good at in the NFL and Jones joins now division rival Stephon Gilmore as one of two cornerbacks to finish in the top-15 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His best year came in 2018, when he finished 7th, but his 2019 wasn’t too shabby either. The 2015 first round pick wasn’t quite as good earlier in his career, but that’s because he bounced around from slot cornerback to both safety spots before settling in as an outside cornerback. Still only going into his age 28 season, he should have at least a couple more seasons left as a top level cornerback and his versatility to play other spots in a pinch if needed just add to his value.

Howard has played as well as Jones at his best, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistently good as his interception numbers (12 in 40 career games) would suggest, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback in 2018. In addition, he’s had durability issues throughout his career, missing 24 of 64 games and only playing in 16 games once, while his new running mate Byron Jones has missed just 1 game in 5 years in the league. Howard is still only going into his age 27 season and has the potential to keep getting better and put together some more strong seasons if he can stay healthy, but he comes with a lot of risk and isn’t quite worth his salary. He could also be facing a short suspension to start the season, after an off-the-field incident.

While things are pretty clear at cornerback, playing time at safety is much more up for grabs, with converted cornerbacks Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe competing for playing time with 3rd round rookie Brandon Jones and holdovers Steven Parker and Adrian Colbert. Parker and Colbert weren’t terrible last season and were part of the reason why this defense wasn’t bad down the stretch, but they played just 339 snaps and 361 snaps respectively, so they’ll likely settle in to reserve roles if they make the roster, while Jones is likely a year away from contributing significantly, leaving veterans McCain and Rowe as the favorites to start.

Rowe is another former Patriot on this defense, spending 3 years there from 2016-2018, after spending just a year with the Eagles who took him in the 2nd round in 2015. Rowe was never able to stay healthy consistently while in New England, missing 27 of 48 games, and he didn’t play well even when on the field, but he started all 16 games with the Dolphins in 2019 and wasn’t bad, earning himself a 3-year, 16.15 million dollar extension that he signed in December. 

Rowe’s 16 starts last season were split 12 and 4 between safety and cornerback, but with the Dolphins’ moves at cornerbacks this off-season, he looks locked in as a pure safety for the first time in his career, having spent most of his 5-year career as an oversized cornerback at 6-1 205. He’s not a lock for a starting job, but his salary suggests he’ll get significant playing time and safety is the only position where he can do that on this roster. Still only going into his age 28 season, he comes with some upside at his new position, but his injury history remains a concern.

McCain is also a converted cornerback, making the conversion last off-season, after previously playing primarily as a slot cornerback. McCain lacks Rowe’s size at 5-11 192, but wasn’t bad last season in 9 starts before getting hurt, playing primarily as a deep safety. Expect him to continue playing there with the bigger Rowe working as a box safety and occasional linebacker. McCain has been an unspectacular player wherever he’s played throughout his 5-year career, but you could do a lot worse at the position. Jones, Parker, and Colbert, meanwhile, figure to compete for reserve snaps on a defense that will likely try to mask their lack of coverage linebackers with frequent dime packages. Their safeties are unspectacular overall, but cornerback is the strongest position on the roster.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Dolphins exceeded expectations and won a few games in 2019 and added a lot of new players this off-season through the draft and free agency, but they look at least another year away from contending for a playoff spot, even in the weaker AFC. Given how well Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up playing last season, the biggest reason why they won any games, there’s good reason to expect that the Dolphins won’t get as good of quarterback play this season, either from a rookie coming off of a serious injury and a shortened off-season or from a 38-year-old journeyman who will likely struggle to repeat one of the better years of his career. The Dolphins upgraded the rest of their roster, but this is still not a playoff caliber supporting cast. This team will be more competitive this season overall, but could ultimately still end up in last place in their division. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 69.58

Defensive Score: 73.20

Total Score: 71.39 (4th in AFC East)

New York Jets 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets had a clear plan when they began rebuilding during the 2017 off-season: clear cap space in the short-term, acquire a high pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to get a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, and use that freed up cap space to be aggressive in building around that quarterback in free agency while the quarterback is still cost controlled. They’ve more or less stuck with the plan, but it has yet to yield results, in part because neither the quarterback they drafted nor the veterans they’ve added around him have been as good as expected yet.

I’ll get to the disappointing veteran signings later, but the quarterback, former 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, still has plenty of time to change things, as he’s still only turning 23 this summer. Darnold was considered raw coming out of USC and was the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history when he won the job in training camp as a rookie, so it’s not a surprise he’s had growing pains. He still has a high ceiling.

Darnold especially struggled to begin his career, completing 55.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his first 9 career starts before getting injured and missing 3 games. When he returned, he appeared to be a different quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception in the final 4 games of the season, which gave the Jets a lot of hope for his second year.

Instead, Darnold ended up getting sick early in the year, costing him 3 games, and when he returned he didn’t seem to be 100% and couldn’t regain his late rookie season form, finishing with 61.9% completion, 6.86 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions to give him a QB rating that was less than 7 points higher than his rookie year rating and that ranked just 26th in the NFL out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus’ graded him similarly to his statistical production, giving him the 31st highest grade out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks.

Even as underwhelming as Darnold was, the Jets still had a winning record when he was in the lineup at 7-6 and they finished the season on a bit of a roll, winning 6 of their last 8, but they benefited one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. None of their 7 wins came against a team that finished with a winning record until they beat the Bills’ backups in a meaningless week 17 game. Aside from the Bills, the combined record of the teams they defeated was 35-61 and just two of those wins came by more than a touchdown. Even during their 6-2 stretch, they lost by multiple scores to a Bengals team that won 2 games all season and against the one better than average team they faced they were blown out in Baltimore. Despite one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, the Jets finished 26th in first down rate differential at -3.61%.

Part of that is simply how bad the Jets were without Darnold, as they managed a pathetic 18.01% first down rate in the 3 games Darnold missed, but the 31.28% first down rate they had in Darnold’s 13 starts would have ranked just 30th in the NFL over the full season and they had a negative first down rate differential in those starts (-1.42%), despite a winning record. The Jets’ schedule goes from one of the easiest in the NFL last year to one of the hardest this year, so Darnold is going to have to take a big step forward in his third year for the Jets to keep winning games.

If Darnold misses time again, as he has in both seasons he’s been in the league, the Jets are hoping they have a better backup situation after both Trevor Siemian and especially Luke Falk were awful in Darnold’s absence last season. With both Siemian and Falk not under contract for 2020, the Jets looked elsewhere for a backup this off-season, bringing in former Ravens and Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco. 

Flacco is going into his age 35 season and, if his play over the past few seasons is any indication, he’s done as a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL, but he has plenty of experience (171 career starts) and you could do a lot worse than Flacco if you need to go to a backup. The issue is Flacco is still recovering from a neck injury that ended his 2019 season prematurely, so he might not be ready to be the backup at the start of the year, potentially leaving only raw 4th round rookie David Morgan behind Darnold on the depth chart for the start of the season, meaning they’d be in trouble if Darnold missed time early in the season again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Jets weren’t able to be as aggressive in free agency this off-season as they were in 2018 and 2019, when they guaranteed 102.8 million (2nd in the NFL) and 124.5 million (1st) respectively to outside free agents, but they still ranked 9th in the NFL with 51 million in guarantees to outside free agents this off-season. The offensive line was their focus and rightfully so, as they were Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked run blocking offensive line and 5th worst pass protecting offensive line last season, which is a bigger reason why they struggled than anything wrong with Darnold’s game. We saw it last year when Darnold was out; this offense didn’t have a chance with him, partially because of who was backing him up, but in large part because of the supporting cast and offensive line.

Seemingly inspired by the Bills’ moves on the offensive line last off-season, the Jets went for quantity over quality this off-season. With several pending free agents on last year’s troubled line, the Jets were able to completely retool their offensive line by signing 3 free agents, using a pair of draft picks, and re-signing incumbent left guard Alex Lewis. Those players will compete with holdover right guard Brian Winters and holdover right tackle Chuma Edoga for starting jobs on this new look line.

Whether these additions will be worth the investment the Jets made is questionable, particularly top free agent signing George Fant, who comes over from the Seahawks on a 3-year, 27.3 million dollar deal that was one of the more head-scratching contracts of the off-season. Undrafted in 2016, Fant struggled mightily as a rookie in what to date is still the only extended starting experience of his career, making 10 starts at left tackle and finishing as PFF’s 83rd ranked offensive tackle out of 86 qualifiers. He then missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, and, while he’s been better in 2 seasons since, he’s been limited to 843 snaps and has primarily played as a blocking tight end/6th offensive linemen on obvious run plays in the Seahawks’ run heavy offense. Of the 843 snaps he’s played over the past 2 seasons, 438 of them have come at tight end, as opposed to 263 at left tackle and 142 at right tackle.

It’s one thing to have success as a 6th offensive lineman who plays almost exclusively on run plays, but as a starter he’ll need to hold up in pass protection as well, something he struggled with in his first stint as a starter. It’s also worth noting that despite having poor right tackle play throughout Fant’s tenure as the 6th offensive lineman, the Seahawks never gave him a chance to be a regular starter, which is saying something coming from the team that had him for 4 years.

Even though he’s a projection to a starting role, the Jets are paying him close to top-5 right tackle money on an annual basis and they already had an intriguing right tackle on the roster in Chuma Edoga, a 2019 3rd round pick who struggled in 8 rookie year starts, but who still had long-term upside. For a while, it looked like both Fant and Edoga would start, but the selection of Louisville’s Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick likely means that Fant will start on the right side, with Edoga as the swing tackle and Becton on the blindside. Fant was an overpay any way you look at it.

The Jets also signed ex-Bronco Connor McGovern and ex-Panther Greg Van Roten this off-season, bringing them in on deals worth 27 million and 10.5 million respectively over 3 years. McGovern’s salary locks him in as the starting center, where he made all 16 starts for the Broncos last season. Originally a 5th round pick in 2016, McGovern began his career at right guard, where he made 5 starts in 2017 and 15 starts in 2018, but he struggled, including a 56th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF in 2018, before moving to center in 2019. McGovern seemed much more comfortable with his new position, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked center on the season. His contract only makes him the 11th highest paid center in the league and is less than Fant’s, so it’s a much better value, even if he is only a one-year wonder.

Van Roten, meanwhile, will compete with incumbent guards Alex Lewis and Brian Winters. Van Roten has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons, but he has earned middling grades and those are the only starts of his 8-year career, so he’s probably best as a reserve. His contract is more in line with being a backup though, which is what he’ll most likely be, so he was a solid signing. Lewis’ 3-year, 18.6 million dollar contract likely locks him back in at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season. Lewis earned middling grades as well, as he did in 18 starts in 3 seasons with the Ravens, but the Jets apparently liked what they saw, paying him 6 million for 2020.

Winters’ 7.3 million dollar salary seems to suggest he’ll keep his starting job, but none of that is guaranteed, so the Jets could still move on without penalty if Van Roten beats him out in camp. Winters has been a capable starter over the past few seasons, making 79 starts in 7 seasons in the league, all with the Jets, but his salary is a little oversized and he’s been pretty injury prone as well, only once making all 16 starts and being limited to 7 games last season. Fourth round rookie Cameron Clark could also be in the mix for playing time at some point, but almost definitely not until later in the season. This is a retooled offensive line and should be improved over last year’s group, but that could be largely by default, as they lack a standout offensive lineman and heavily overpaid for their biggest offensive line signing George Fant.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Jets also made a significant external signing at wide receiver, bringing in Breshad Perriman from the Buccaneers to replace free agent departure Robby Anderson as their top outside receiver. Perriman’s 1-year, 6.5 million dollar contract is less money than Anderson’s 2-year, 20 million dollar deal with the Panthers, but Perriman has the upside to be better than Anderson who, in four years with the team, topped out with a 63/941/7 slash line and a 42nd ranked finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2017.

A first round pick in 2015 by the Ravens, Perriman’s career got off to about as bad of a start as possible. He missed his entire rookie year with injury and was limited to 43 catches for 576 yards and 3 touchdowns over the next two seasons, while averaging 1.06 yards per route run. As a result, he was let go by the Ravens and forced to take a minimum deal with the Browns for the 2018 season. He barely played early on, but caught 16 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns on 2.54 yards per route run over the final 8 games of the season, which earned him a bigger one year deal with the Buccaneers for 2019. 

In Tampa Bay, he again didn’t make much of an impact early in the season, but mostly because he had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin playing above him, dominating targets. Both Evans and Godwin suffered injuries late in the season and Perriman responded to the additional playing time by topping 100 yards receiving in each of the final 3 games of the season. He finished with a career best 36/645/6 slash line and a 41st ranked finish on PFF. Still only going into his age 27 season, Perriman could easily have his best statistical year yet in 2020. He doesn’t quite fit the system as well as he did in Tampa Bay with Jameis Winston and Bruce Arians’ aggressive downfield attack, but he’ll get a much bigger share of the targets and Darnold has plenty of arm to hit him deep, as he did with Anderson (15.0 yards per catch over the past 2 seasons).

Anderson wasn’t the only wide receiver the Jets needed to replace this off-season, as fellow starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas also had his contract expire, but he’s not tough to replace, as he had just a 36/433/1 slash line in 11 games. The Jets opted to replace him in the draft, dipping into a deep wide receiver class and getting a great value with Baylor’s Denzel Mims at 59 overall. Mims should see playing time immediately as a starter in three wide receiver sets, with no real competition for playing time. He’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie, but brings an explosive element that the veteran Thomas didn’t have anymore.

Jamison Crowder remains locked in as the primary slot receiver and could easily end up leading this team in receiving for the second straight year, after doing so with a 78/833/6 slash line in 2019. The 5-9 177 pounder is only a slot receiver, running 75.8% of his routes from the slot in his career, and he’s likely maxed out in terms of his abilities, but he’s averaged a 66/769/4 slash line per 16 games for his career and, still only going into his age 27 season, could easily continue being a solid slot receiver for several more years. Depth is a problem behind the Jets top-3 receivers though, as Vyncint Smith has been underwhelming on 496 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while free agent acquisition Josh Doctson is a journeyman who has never topped 532 yards receiving in a season despite ample opportunity. 

The Jets didn’t make an addition at tight end this off-season, but they do get Chris Herndon back from injury, which could be a big boost. As a fourth round rookie in 2018, Herndon showed a lot of potential, totaling a 39/502/4 slash line and averaging 1.66 yards per route run (11th among qualifying tight ends), while finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end overall on 625 snaps, but injuries and suspension limited him to 18 snaps and one catch in his second season in the league. The Jets remain high on his upside, so he could easily have his expected 2019 breakout year a year late in 2020, still only in his age 24 season.

In Herndon’s absence, Ryan Griffin led all tight ends with 662 snaps played and posted a 34/320/5 slash line in just 13 games. He’s best as a #2 tight end, as he’s never topped 442 receiving yards or earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 7 years in the league and that’s what he’ll be when Herndon is healthy. Griffin’s usage in the passing game as a limited talent just shows the potential that a talent like Herndon can have in this offense when he’s healthy. This receiving corps lacks a true #1 receiver, but it’s not a bad group when everyone is healthy.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a true #1 wide receiver, the Jets could really use a bounce back year from feature back Le’Veon Bell. Signed to a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar contract, Bell was the prize of the Jets’ off-season last year and was expected to take this offense to another level, but instead he led the way for a team that had a league worst 3.28 yards per carry on the season. Bell carried the ball 145 times, but didn’t produce one carry of more than 20 yards and averaged just 3.22 YPC, worst in the NFL among backs with at least 160 carries.

It wasn’t just that he wasn’t busting the big carries either, as he ranked 40th out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 42% carry success rate, struggling to keep this offense on track. Blocking was a big issue and Bell’s peripheral numbers suggest he wasn’t the main problem, as he averaged 2.67 YPC after contact and broke 41 tackles on the season, but he ranked just 21st among running backs on Pro Football Focus overall, a far cry from his top form and the back that the Jets thought they were getting when they signed him to a massive contract.

At his best, Bell was one of the top dual threat running backs in the league, averaging a 322/1462/9 slash line on the ground and a 87/738/2 slash line through the air per 16 games in his final 4 seasons in Pittsburgh. However, his average dropped to 4.02 yards per carry in his final season with the Steelers and he didn’t do himself any favors by taking the 2018 season off because he was unhappy with being franchise tagged by the Steelers. It was expected his numbers would take a hit with a worse supporting cast in New York, but few expected him to be arguably the least efficient running back in the NFL. Bell has bounce back potential with a better supporting cast in 2020, but he’s going into his age 28 season with 1,852 career touches, even though he took a whole season off and has only once played all 16 games due to a combination of injury and suspension, so it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

Bell has also had issues with head coach Adam Gase, who in a bizarre organizational move was given total control of the roster in his first year with the team, after the Jets let former GM Mike Maccagan spend significant money in free agency. Gase reportedly didn’t agree with the decision to bring Bell in and, after an underwhelming first season in New York, that doesn’t seem to have changed. With a guaranteed 13.5 million dollar salary for 2020, the Jets were unable to trade him this off-season, but they did bring in something they didn’t have last season, which is another back that Gase can give some of the work, as veteran Frank Gore was signed to a 1-year deal.

Gore is remarkably entering his 15th year in the NFL at the running back position, but seemed to be running out of gas last season, averaging 3.61 yards per carry and ranking 36th out of 45 qualifying with a 45% carry success rate. Gore ranks 3rd all-time in rushing yards with 15,347 and has somehow topped 100 carries in every season of his career, but the history of running backs who have been productive at age 37 or later is basically non-existent. If he carries the ball more than 13 times he’d join Marcus Allen and John Henry Johnson (1966) as the only backs to do that at 37 or older and he has a decent shot at breaking Allen’s record for 124 carries in a season after age 37. 

Gore has the trust of Adam Gase, who worked with him in Miami in 2018, so he should steal at least some of Bell’s work, even if he isn’t all that effective. The Jets also used a 4th round pick on Lamical Perine, but he’s not likely to get much of a chance if any until 2021, when Gore could be retired and when Bell will likely be let go ahead of a 11.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It’s not a bad backfield, but the Le’Veon Bell of his prime Pittsburgh days could be gone forever and Gore could be totally over the hill.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Despite the Jets having an underwhelming season overall, they actually finished 4th in first down rate allowed, although that’s a little misleading. Not only did they face one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they also were closer to the 17th ranked Cowboys than the 1st ranked Patriots with a 32.66% first down rate allowed. The biggest reason why they had success defensively last season was the 3-man defensive line on the interior of this 3-4 defense, which was a big part of the reason why the Jets ranked 2nd with 3.34 yards per carry allowed. They traded pending free agent Leonard Williams at the trade deadline, but they’re so deep on the line that it didn’t really matter and, aside from Williams, the Jets return their top-5 in snaps played on this defensive line for 2020, so expect more of the same from this group.

Quinnen Williams has the most upside of the group, as he was the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and is still only going into his age 23 season. His rookie year wasn’t as good as it could have been, as he missed 3 games with injury and was limited in others, but he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 512 snaps. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, he’s an obvious candidate for a breakout year and a bigger snap share. He has the ability to play anywhere on the interior of this defensive line in any situation. He was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher last season (5.4% pressure rate), but he has the upside to be a high level player in both aspects.

Williams still led the position in snaps despite the injuries and missed time, as the Jets like to rotate the rest of these linemen. Steve McLendon had the 2nd most snaps with 465 and was arguably the best of the bunch. Not only did he excel in a primarily base package role, earning PFF’s 10th highest run stopping grade among interior defenders, he also showed some pass rush in the limited opportunities he got to rush the quarterback, with 2.5 sacks and a 7.6% pressure rate. That’s higher than his career 5.4% rate, but he’s consistently been a solid base package run stuffer and has finished in the top-26 at his position in run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons. He’s never played more than 488 snaps in a season though, so his upside is capped, and he’s going into his age 34 season, so he comes with significant potential downside if his abilities fall off.

Henry Anderson figures to remain the other starter in base packages, as he started all 13 games he played last season and had the 3rd most snaps on this 3-man defensive line with 446. Unlike McLendon, who is a pure base package player, Anderson has the versatility to play in all situations and stay on the field for obvious passing downs. A third round pick in 2015, Anderson has a career 8.4% pressure rate, while being an above average interior run stuffer. 

Anderson is coming off the lowest PFF grade of his career though and, while that was likely due to playing through some injuries, he’s had injury problems throughout his career, missing 22 of 80 possible games and only once playing a full 16 game set. He’s only in his age 29 season, so he should have at least another couple seasons left as a solid starter, but he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Even if he does, he could exceed last year’s snaps total, but given how much the Jets like to rotate defensive linemen and how much depth they have at the position, there’s a cap to how much he’ll play on a per game basis.

Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd remain as the top reserves. A sixth round pick in 2018, Fatukasi had a mini breakout year last year as a run stuffer, after playing just 3 snaps as a rookie. He only played 390 snaps last season, but he finished as PFF’s 5th ranked run stopper. He barely breathed on the quarterback with just a 3.3% pressure rate, but he played 52.6% of his snaps on run plays, as primarily a base package player, so he isn’t needed much as a pass rusher. He might not be quite as good as a run stuffer in 2020, but he should at least have another solid season in a situational role.

Shepherd, on the other hand, is more of a pass rusher, with a 8.5% pressure rate in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been limited to 575 snaps total, in part because he missed 7 last season, but the 2018 3rd round pick could easily set a new career high in snaps this season and take another step forward in his third season in the league. This remains a deep defensive line and one that should continue playing well, especially against the run.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Jets are strong on the interior, the same is not true on the edge, so it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add an edge defender as part of their off-season shopping spree, for the 3rd off-season in a row, opting instead to only use a 3rd round pick on Jabari Zuinga to try to improve the position. Zuinga enters the league very raw, but still should compete for a significant role as a rookie, given the Jets’ issues at the position.

The Jets did hand out one new contract at the position, bringing back Jordan Jenkins on a 1-year, 3.75 million dollar deal. Jenkins isn’t a high level player, but he’s been a capable starter in 4 years with the Jets since being added in the third round in 2016, so it’s a bit surprising he didn’t have more of a market, especially since he’s still only going into his age 26 season. The Jets have to be happy to have him back at that price, as he’s been their best edge defender by default over the past 2 seasons and should continue doing so in 2020. He should also be considered the favorite to lead this team in sacks for the third straight season, after doing so with 7 sacks in 2018 and 8 sacks in 2019.

Holdovers Tarell Basham and Kyle Phillips will also be in the mix for snaps, after playing 590 and 549 respectively last season, but neither look likely to emerge as the edge defender they need opposite Jenkins. Basham has the most upside of the two and is coming off a better season as well. Originally a third round pick in 2017 by the Colts, Basham played just 231 snaps in 16 games in a year and a half with the Colts before being let go and ending up with the Jets. In his full first season in New York in 2019, he finally started to show why he had been drafted relatively high. 

Basham only managed 2 sacks last season, but had a solid 11.9% pressure rate overall, suggesting he should have had a few more sacks. He’s a one-year wonder as even a solid rotational player, but he has the upside to keep getting better, only in his age 26 season. Phillips, meanwhile, is a second year undrafted free agent who was solid against the run, but didn’t get any pressure on the quarterback, with a 5.8% pressure rate. After struggling in a larger role, he should be limited to situational work going forward, even in a thin position group.

One option for the Jets on the edge would be to go after free agent Jadeveon Clowney, who remains unsigned despite his high level talent because of a questionable injury situation and a significant salary demand. Clowney is reportedly willing to come down on his ask a little bit and the Jets should be interested if Clowney is willing to play for the Jets, as he’s the kind of player who can elevate this whole defense when healthy and he’d fill a tremendous need. The Jets don’t have a ton of cap space left with about 14 million, but they could release expendable veterans like guard Brian Winters if they needed to free up space for Clowney, who would provide significantly more value. For now, this is a very underwhelming edge group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Jets had a ton of injury problems last season, actually leading the league in adjusted games lost to injury. Most of the players who missed time with injury are either insignificant, no longer with the team, or still injured, so the Jets aren’t going to be getting nearly as much help from players returning from injury as you’d think, but one position where they should be significantly better in 2020 due to better health is linebacker. Not only did expected starter Avery Williamson tear his ACL before the season started, costing him his whole season, but his expected running mate CJ Mosley was limited to 114 snaps in two games by a groin injury. In their absence, Neville Hewitt, James Burgess, and Blake Cashman played 762, 662, and 424 snaps respectively and all three struggled mightily, finishing 95th, 70th, and 83rd respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF.

Mosley was the bigger loss, as, along with Le’Veon Bell, he was the prize of last off-season’s free agent spending spree, coming over from the Ravens on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid off ball linebacker in the league. It was an overpay, but there’s no denying he’ll make them a better defense if he can stay on the field. A first round pick in 2014, Mosley has been an above average starter basically since the word go, starting every game he’s played in his career and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in every season in the league. His salary is an overpay because he’s never finished higher than 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he’s miles better than what the Jets had at the position last season. He’s also still young, only going into his age 28 season, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t have a significant injury history, missing just 3 games in 5 seasons prior to last year.

Williamson, meanwhile, had only missed 1 game in 5 seasons in the league prior to last year, so he doesn’t have any significant injury history either and he’ll be a full year removed from the injury by the start of the season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he returned to form, only in his age 28 season. He’s not as good of a player as Mosley, but he’s started 75 of 79 career games, averaging 55.9 snaps per game, and he excels as a run stuffer, finishing 4th, 2nd, and 9th among off ball linebackers against the run in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. He’s not as good in coverage, but Mosley will be the primary coverage linebacker. There’s been talk that the Jets might move on from Williamson and his 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but considering how bad the Jets’ linebackers were in his absence last year, they would be better off moving on from someone else like Brian Winters if they need to free up cap space. Assuming they’re together and healthy, Mosley and Williamson should be a strong duo in the middle of this defense.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Cornerback is another position that the Jets didn’t really address significantly this off-season. They made the obvious choice to move on from free agent bust Trumaine Johnson and the rest of his 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal, immediately saving 11 million in cash for 2020 in the process, and they moved on from the also disappointing Darryl Roberts and his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary as well, but they didn’t do much to replace them, only signing veteran free agent Pierre Desir to a one-year deal and using a 5th round pick on Virginia’s Bryce Hall.

Desir is only set to make 3.75 million this season, but he looks likely to be a starter outside by default. Desir signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Colts just last off-season, after a career best year in 2018 when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but he fell to 91st out of 135 qualifying in 2019 and was cut ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season. It’s possible Desir could find his 2018 form again, but he’s never come close to being that good in any of his other 5 seasons in the league and he’s already going into his age 30 season, so he’s an underwhelming starting option.

Young cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Blessuan Austin will compete to start at the other outside spot, with Austin likely having the edge. Despite only being a sixth round pick, Austin flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked cornerback on 388 snaps. He didn’t play a single snap until week 10, but was a starter down the stretch and has earned a chance at being the starter long-term. Maulet also saw starts down the stretch last season, but was not as effective and he has played just 442 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league since going undrafted. He’s best as a depth cornerback.

The Jets did re-sign slot cornerback Brian Poole to a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, which could prove to be one of the best value signings of the off-season, as Poole was easily the Jets’ best cornerback last season and was arguably one of the slot cornerback in the NFL, allowing just 0.57 yards per route run on 417 slot coverage snaps, tied for lowest among qualifying cornerbacks. Also a capable run stopper and blitzer, Poole finished last season as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level player, but he was a capable slot cornerback in 3 seasons with the Falcons prior to joining the Jets and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so it’s surprising the Jets were able to keep him so inexpensively. He should remain their top cornerback in 2020, even if he isn’t quite as good as last year’s career best year.

Safety is a much stronger position than cornerback for the Jets, with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye being one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Adams gets all the attention and rightfully so, as the 2017 6th overall pick has finished 3rd and 4th among safeties on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively and doesn’t even turn 25 until later this season, but Maye was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and finished 21st among safeties this past season. He wasn’t as good as a rookie, but neither was Adams and Maye showed signs of his eventual 2019 breakout season during an injury plagued 2018 season, when he was PFF’s 11th ranked safety on 393 snaps in 6 games. 

Assuming both stay healthy, they should remain a high level safety duo and one or both could easily take another step forward. The Jets used a 3rd round pick on Ashtyn Davis to give them strong depth at the position as well, but unfortunately his addition could be a sign that the Jets aren’t planning on re-signing both Adams and Maye when their rookie contracts expire. Adams’ name has already been thrown around in trade talks with two years left on his deal and, while his price tag is expected to be high (a first round pick and more) it wouldn’t be a surprise if a team decided that was worth it and made a move. For a team that has largely unsuccessfully spent their money on outside free agents over the past few off-seasons, it would be a huge mistake to let any of the few talented homegrown players on this roster leave. For now, the Jets have a great safety trio that boosts this whole secondary, but that might not be the case for long.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jets finished last season on a nice run, but their schedule gets significantly tougher this year, so they’ll have to improve if they want to continue being competitive. They have the potential to do that, but much of that relies on quarterback Sam Darnold taking a step forward, as this is still an underwhelming roster around the quarterback position. They Jets spent a lot of money in free agency and should have better injury health this year than last year, but they didn’t sign any high level players and, outside of CJ Mosley, Chris Herndon, and Avery Williamson, they aren’t getting much in terms of injury reinforcements, as many of the players who missed time last season are irrelevant, gone, or still injured. Barring a big breakout year from Sam Darnold, this team looks unlikely to take the next step and become a playoff contender. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 70.90

Defensive Score: 74.05

Total Score: 72.48 (3rd in AFC East)

New England Patriots 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In easily the biggest move of the off-season, Tom Brady in his first ever free agency after 20 years in New England decided to head south and join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady and head coach Bill Belichick had been the most stable and successful head coach and quarterback duo in NFL history over the past two decades, winning a record 6 Super Bowls and 36 more regular season games than any other team in the league over the past 19 seasons. Somehow, their second decade together was more dominant than the first, with a ridiculous 78.1% regular season winning percentage, an average of 2.3 wins per season more than the next best team. In fact, the second best team the Green Bay Packers were closer to being sub-.500 than to surpassing the Patriots’ win total.

Despite all their success together, it isn’t all that surprising that the two parted ways this off-season. The Patriots won 12 games in 2019, but ran out of steam after a 8-0 start and got eliminated in the wild card round for the first time since the 2009 season. Because they’ve been aggressive in restructuring contracts to create short-term cap space over the past 5 seasons, the Patriots lacked the financial flexibility to give Brady the contract he was looking for this off-season and even if they kicked the can forward another year on their cap problems, they wouldn’t have been able to afford the upgraded weapons Brady was seeking in the passing game. 

The Buccaneers had the cap space to add the recently unretired Rob Gronkowski to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL to begin with, they have a seemingly up and coming young defense, and they have a well respected coach in Bruce Arians who has a proven track record with veteran quarterbacks. The Patriots, meanwhile, couldn’t afford to bring back key linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins on defense even without re-signing Brady or signing a veteran replacement and did little to upgrade their roster in general in free agency. 

Despite that, they still have among the least cap space in the league going into the 2020 season. That doesn’t mean they are spending a lot of money on players, however, as they have the 7th lowest payroll in the NFL in terms of actual cash spend. Not only do they have the 4th most cap space committed to players not on the team of any team in the NFL, they have several other players deep into their contracts that have significant dead money making up their cap hit after years of restructuring contracts to fit consistent Super Bowl quality rosters under the cap for the past 4-5 seasons. The credit card is coming due for the Patriots.

The good news is that they’re paying it off in one season, with a projected 92 million in cap space for 2021 as of right now, 4th most in the NFL. The Patriots may not have Tom Brady anymore, but for the first time in his tenure as Patriots coach/GM, Belichick will have close to unlimited resources to build this team the way he wants to build it through free agency next off-season. Belichick has rarely had the financial flexibility to make big external signings, but if the addition of Stephon Gilmore a few off-seasons ago was any indication, Belichick can find value at the top of the market just like he can in the lower tiers of free agency.

It’s not all bad news for the Patriots in the short-term either. Even with one of the lightest payrolls in the NFL, this isn’t a bad roster overall and Bill Belichick has proven time and time again that he can get the most out of his players. That probably doesn’t mean contending for a Super Bowl with this roster, but there are reasons to think this can still be a competitive team. How competitive will come down to what the Patriots have in their unknown under center, second year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who looks poised to get the first crack at replacing Brady after the Patriots didn’t add any meaningful competition for him this off-season aside from bringing back long time backup Brian Hoyer. There is talk the Patriots could give Cam Newton a look when they are able to work him out and test his surgically repaired foot and shoulder, but the Patriots’ financial situation makes that unlikely unless Newton is willing to take a significant pay cut. 

Despite having arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, the Patriots actually invested pretty heavily in the quarterback position through the draft throughout Brady’s tenure in New England. Including Stidham, a fourth round pick in 2019, the Patriots have used five picks in the 4th round or higher on a quarterback since 2008, only trailing the Jets and Browns (6) over that stretch. Ryan Mallett and Kevin O’Connell washed out of the league, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett were outlasted by Brady and were starting quarterbacks elsewhere in 2019, leaving Stidham to be the one to finally get a chance long-term in New England.

Stidham (133th) wasn’t as highly drafted as Garoppolo (62) or Brissett (91) and the track record of quarterbacks taken outside of the top-3 rounds over the past couple decades is very unimpressive, but Belichick has proven to be noticeably better than average at identifying quarterback talent late in the draft. Since 2000, just 12 quarterbacks who have fallen out of the first 3 rounds of the draft have thrown more than 1400 pass attempts in their career. Belichick has identified three of them, taking Tom Brady in the 6th round in 2000 and adding Matt Cassel in the 7th in 2005 and Brian Hoyer as an undrafted free agent in 2009. 

Brissett and Garrappolo were higher picks, but it’s still unusual for 2nd and 3rd round quarterbacks to be consistent starters in the NFL. Along with Brady, Brissett and Garrappolo were 3 of just 11 quarterbacks who were not originally first round picks that attempted more than 400 passes last season. Mallett and O’Connell are examples that show Belichick isn’t perfect, but it’s clear he’s better than your average NFL decision maker at identifying quarterback talent after the first round. 

Also in the case of Mallett and O’Connell, Belichick seemed to recognize his mistake pretty quickly with both quarterbacks. O’Connell lasted just one season with the team and only threw 6 passes despite Brady missing that season with a torn ACL. Mallett lasted three seasons, but didn’t become the backup until year 2 and threw just 4 total passes before being traded for a 6th round pick. Stidham, on the other hand, was the backup as a rookie and would not have gotten to this point in the off-season as the de facto starting quarterback unless he’s impressed Belichick behind the scenes, so he’s likely more similar to Brissett or Garoppolo as a prospect than he is to Mallett or O’Connell.

Coming out of Auburn University, Stidham was seen as a bit of a boom or bust prospect. He was highly recruited out of high school and flashed early in his career with Baylor, before transferring in the aftermath of the Baylor athletics scandal. In his first year at Auburn, Stidham was highly productive leading one of the better teams in the country and looked like a potential future first round pick, before falling off statistically with a worse supporting cast in his second season in 2018 and falling in the draft as a result. 

Still, Stidham has an NFL arm and is experienced against the toughest defensive competition in college football in the SEC and, even in his down year, he rarely made significant mistakes. He never threw more than 6 interceptions in a season and had a career 1.53% interception rate, despite frequently throwing downfield and averaging 8.51 yards per attempt. He was a work in progress coming into the league, but all indications are that his progress has been significant behind the scenes.

Stidham might not be the next Tom Brady, but he doesn’t have to be the greatest quarterback of all-time to compete for Super Bowls. For the first 3 Super Bowl victories of his career, Brady wasn’t quite the quarterback he’d turn into later, leading teams built around defense. Brady arguably got better every season of his career before peaking around 40 but, as impressive as Brady has been in fighting off regression for most of his career, he started to show signs of falling off last season, so Stidham’s isn’t exactly replacing a prime quarterback.

Brady finished the 2019 season with his lowest QB rating in 13 seasons and his lowest YPA in 17 seasons and he was even worse later in the season, completing 56.6% of his passes for an average of 5.91 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions from week 9 on. The Patriots won 12 games, but their defense, which had the best first down rate allowed in the NFL by a wide margin at 29.64%, covered for an offense that ranked 21st at 34.70%, including 23rd at 33.73% from week 6 on.

Issues with his offensive supporting cast were part of the reason for his lack of production, but it wasn’t just statistically that Brady dropped off, as the “eyeball” test showed some regression as well. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season. 

For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age. Brady has defied the odds before, but going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory, with no quarterback ever throwing more than 10 passes in his age 43 season. 

Even with a lack of financial flexibility, the Patriots could have still made Brady a similar offer to the one the Buccaneers gave him if they felt he would continue playing at a high level, but it would have almost certainly have meant parting ways with franchise tagged offensive lineman Joe Thuney, and Belichick thought purely from a football perspective, guaranteeing top quarterback money for a quarterback in his age 43 and age 44 seasons wasn’t in his best interest, which may prove to be the case if Brady continues declining like he did down the stretch last season. Stidham is close to a complete wild card and obviously comes with a bigger downside, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he wasn’t much of a dropoff from what Brady was last season.

As I mentioned, the Patriots did very little to improve their offensive supporting cast in free agency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Stidham will have as bad of an offensive supporting cast as Brady did last season, as they should be significantly healthier after losing the 3rd most games to injury on offense of any team in the league last season, which doesn’t even take into account that top-2 wide receivers Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu played most of the second half of the season and their playoff loss through seriously limiting injuries. 

Their defense suffered some major losses and should have more injuries after losing the fewest games to injury of any defense in the league in 2019, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots finished better than the 21st they finished in first down rate in 2019 on offense, if Stidham can show some promise in his first year and his supporting cast can stay relatively healthy. All this being said, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a lot more uncertainty at the game’s most important position for the Patriots than they’ve had in decades.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Probably the biggest loss of the season for the Patriots’ offense in 2019 was center David Andrews, who was ruled out for the entire season with blood clots last off-season. He’s expected to make a full recovery, which is great news for him personally, but also great news for the Patriots’ offense in 2020. Andrews was one of the better centers in the league before going down and he was badly missed by a team that fell from 4.26 in yards per rushing attempt in 2018 to 3.81 in 2019. 

An undrafted free agent in 2015 and a bit of a late bloomer, Andrews finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2017 and their 11th ranked center in 2018, holding his own in pass protection and excelling as a run blocker. In his absence, backup Ted Karras was PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38 qualifiers. Only going into his age 28 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Andrews return to form if his medical issues are behind him, which would be a big boost for this offense. With Karras gone and no clear backup on the depth chart, they can’t afford to lose him again. 

Left tackle Isaiah Wynn also missed significant time with injury, and was limited to just 7 starts in the regular season. While Andrews’ absence hurt their run game significantly, Wynn’s absence hurt their pass game significantly, as Wynn is an above average pass protector and was replaced by veteran journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who finished 58th out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF and allowed a team 6 sacks despite making just 9 starts. A first round pick in 2018, injuries have been the story of Wynn’s career thus far, as he missed his entire rookie year with an achilles tear as well.

Even when on the field he has left something to be desired in the run game, but he’s shown a lot of promise in pass protection and, still only in his age 24 season, could easily take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league if he can finally stay on the field. If not, they’d likely turn to Yodny Cajuste, a 2019 3rd round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injuries of his own. Cajuste has upside as well, as he could have gone much higher in the draft if not for injury concerns. He’s a complete unknown at this point, but he has more upside than most backup left tackles and only has to beat out bottom of the roster talent Korey Cunningham for the swing tackle role with Newhouse gone.

The rest of this offensive line stayed relatively healthy, with right tackle Marcus Cannon and right guard Shaq Mason missing a game a piece and left guard Joe Thuney making all 16 starts for the fourth straight season since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016. Now at the end of his cheap rookie deal, Thuney seemed likely to depart in free agency, but the Patriots somewhat surprisingly kept him off the open market with the franchise tag, even though doing so meant they wouldn’t be able to make Tom Brady a competitive offer. 

The Patriots have used the franchise tag several times in the Belichick era, but there are only four other instances of Belichick using it on a non-special teamer he intended to keep (Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones were tagged and traded), so Thuney getting tagged is somewhat of a rarity. Belichick clearly values his reliability and the continuity of keeping this offensive line together and, with 3 straight seasons in the top-14 among guards on PFF, including a career best 5th in 2019, it’s hard to argue Thuney doesn’t deserve a top of market deal, still in his prime in his age 28 season.

Shaq Mason was given close to a top of the market extension two off-seasons ago, re-signing for 45 million over 5 years, but that looks like a bargain now. Now only the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, Mason has finished in the top-12 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at #1 in 2018, and is still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. Mason still has 4 years left under team control and doesn’t project to have a cap number higher than 5% of the cap in any of those seasons, so he has one of the better veteran contracts in the league. His average salary rank will continue to fall as he gets further into his contract and other guards sign for more money.

Assuming Wynn and Andrews are healthy, the biggest question mark on this offensive line is right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is going into his age 32 season and coming off of his lowest rated season on PFF since before he became a full-time starter back in 2015. He still finished around middle of the pack at his position, but appears to be on the decline, with his PFF grade falling in each of the past 3 seasons. He could have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter, but it’s possible the Patriots view Cajuste as the future on the right side if he’s over his injury. Overall, this has the potential to be one of the better offensive lines in the league if healthy, but their depth is suspect if injuries strike again, especially on the interior. Using what little cap space they have left on some reliable veteran depth would be a good idea.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Patriots also dealt with a lot of injuries in the receiving corps last season as well, most prominently Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, who were supposed to be their two leading receivers. Edelman didn’t miss a game and Sanu only missed one, but both were playing very banged up down the stretch. Sanu, a mid-season acquisition from the Falcons, caught 10 passes in his 2nd game with the team week 9, but suffered an ankle injury and didn’t surpass 35 receiving yards in a game the rest of the way, averaging just 0.66 yards per route run over that stretch. 

Edelman, meanwhile, was dealing with shoulder, knee, and rib injuries by season’s end and, though he still finished with a 100/1117/6 slash line and was one of 5 receivers to have 100+ receptions, he averaged just 34.3 receiving yards per game in the final 3 games of the season and the Patriots playoff loss to the Titans, a game in which he significantly cost the Patriots with key drops. It’s not a coincidence that Sanu and Edelman’s drop offs due to injuries coincided with this team’s drop off down the stretch last season. Having both healthier this season should be a boost to this team.

That’s not to say they are surefire locks to bounce back though, given that both are on the wrong side of 30, with Edelman entering his age 34 season and Sanu going into his age 31 season. Edelman has averaged a 102/1117/6 slash line per 16 games since 2013, but much of his value has come from his familiarity with Tom Brady and, with the combination of Brady leaving and Edelman getting up there in age, there is significant potential for statistical drop off for Edelman in 2020. That’s not to say he can’t remain a reliable possession receiver for Stidham for another couple seasons and he hasn’t shown much sign of drop off when healthy, but it’s likely his days of topping 1000 yards in a season, something he’s done three times in his career, are over.

Sanu is a few years younger than Edelman, but isn’t as proven, maxing out with a 66/838/4 slash line in 2018. That being said, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better this year than last year, given how ineffective he was after his ankle injury. Sanu is an unspectacular player, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and was on pace for a 75/715/2 slash line with the Falcons last season before the Patriots acquired him for a 2nd round pick to replace Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, who fell out of favor with the team. 

Part of the reason they parted with a premium pick to acquire Sanu is that he is owed just 6.5 million for the 2020 season, which allows the Patriots to get a capable receiver on a below market value rate in a year when they don’t have much financial flexibility. The Patriots could have acquired Emmanuel Sanders instead and, while that may have made sense in hindsight, Sanders commanded a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season, almost double what Sanu makes annually. Sanu doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worth more than his salary and he should give Stidham a reliable receiver, assuming he can stay healthy.

N’Keal Harry also dealt with injuries last season and, as a result, the first round rookie could never get into the flow of the offense and managed just a 12/105/2 slash line on 221 snaps in 7 games, while making several mistakes and generally struggling on the field. Harry still has a lot of upside though and could easily progress significantly in his 2nd year in the league and if he can stay healthy and get the necessary practice reps. He’s tentatively expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Sanu and Edelman, but he has the upside to finish higher than that on the team in receiving yards.

With Harry missing time and Sanu spending the first half of the season in Atlanta, Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Myers finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver. Both players were pretty mediocre. Dorsett is no longer with the team and likely won’t be missed, as he provided a deep threat (10.9 air yards per catch), but caught just 53.7% of his targets and averaged just 2.8 yards per catch after the catch. 

The Patriots essentially replaced him by taking a flier on free agent Marqise Lee, who had a 63/851/3 slash line in 2016 and a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017, but has missed 35 games in his other 4 seasons in the league and has caught just 3 passes the past 2 seasons due his inability to stay on the field. He and Jakobi Myers, a 2019 undrafted free agent with some upside, will be Harry’s biggest competition for the 3rd receiver job. Lee has some upside as well, still in his age 29 season, but durability is a major question mark. He also lacks Phillip Dorsett’s speed, leaving this receiving corps without a true speedster. Still, they should get more from their wide receivers this year simply because they are healthy and Dorsett won’t be missed significantly.

The Patriots should also get more out of their tight ends this year, though that’s not saying much, as they completed just 28 passes to tight ends in 2019. That’s a big difference for a team that was once famous for their two-tight end sets and that once employed arguably the greatest tight end of all-time in Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots didn’t make any big investments at the tight end position this off-season, but seem to be trying to go back to their two-tight end roots, taking a pair of tight ends in the 3rd round in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, similar to how Gronkowski and his less beloved former running mate were taken in the 2nd and 4th in 2010. It’s unlikely either tight end will put up big numbers as a rookie, but they will get plenty of opportunity to play and are both capable blockers, which is at least better than what they had last year. This receiving corps lacks a clear top option, but has some interesting depth and overall should be healthier and deeper than last year.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With Brady gone, the Patriots will almost definitely be putting more of an emphasis on the running game this season. They were unsuccessful on the ground last season, ranking 25th in the NFL with 3.81 yards per carry, but the Patriots should be healthier on the offensive line and added a pair of solid blocking tight ends through the draft. The Patriots could also get a healthier year from Sony Michel, who fell to 3.69 YPC on 247 carries after a 4.45 YPC average on 209 carries as a rookie in 2018, along with 336 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on 71 carries (4.73 YPC) during the Patriots’ 3-game Super Bowl run. Michel didn’t miss a game in 2019, but consistently played through injuries, which, combined with the Patriots’ inability to block, significantly hurt his effectiveness. The former first round pick still has a lot of upside going into his third season in the league.

Michel has durability issues dating back to college, however, so there’s no guarantee he can ever stay healthy for a full season. Perhaps the Patriots will get more from 2nd year running back Damien Harris, who was barely active as a 3rd round rookie last season. It’s tough to project a major role for a player who has barely played, but the Patriots invested a somewhat premium pick in him and could easily still be high on his upside now that he’s had a year in the system. Carries are there for the taking on a run heavier offense if he develops. He’ll compete with jack of all traits Rex Burkhead to be 2nd in line for carries. Burkhead’s versatility is nice and he likely has the inside track on a roster spot because of his special teams and pass catching ability, but his 4.13 career YPC is pretty underwhelming, so Harris is the higher upside option.

James White will also be sprinkled in as a runner, though he’ll primarily contribute as the passing down back. White has averaged just 60.8 carries per season over the past 4 seasons, but he’s averaged 68.8 catches per season over that stretch and has been a key part of the passing game. Brady was notorious for targeting backs in the passing game, so how many balls White catches without Brady is a question mark, but he should be secure in his passing down role with Michel and maybe Harris working as the early down backs and Burkhead playing a utility role. It’s a solid group, though one with a low floor if Harris doesn’t develop and Michel can’t stay healthy.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the Patriots had the best defense in the league last season and it wasn’t really close, which made up for their lack of offense for most of the season. Despite finishing just 21st in first down rate, the Patriots finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential thanks to a defense that not only ranked 1st in first down rate, but by a wide margin. The Patriots finished at 29.64%, while the 2nd ranked Steelers finished at 32.43%, which was actually closer to the 16th ranked Saints than to the Patriots. The Patriots didn’t have the toughest schedule, but even when adjusted for schedule, they were still by far the best defense statistically in the league last season.

Obviously the players deserve a lot of credit, but defense is also where Bill Belichick does his best coaching and he and this defensive staff, which stayed intact this off-season, did an incredible job of getting the most out of their players last season. Even with key losses of Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy and the players who will inevitably get injured after the Patriots’ defense had the best injury luck in the league last season, there is still a lot of reason to expect this to be a strong unit. They still have a lot of talent and added some interesting players to replace departures.

Aside from the losses of Van Noy and Collins, the Patriots also had a few other minor losses, including interior defender Danny Shelton. Shelton was New England’s highest ranked interior defender on PFF last season, but was primarily a big run stuffer and the Patriots found a decent replacement in 6-3 327 pound Beau Allen, who came over from Tampa Bay this off-season. Allen has only been a rotational player in his career, maxing out at 423 snaps in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so he might not take over Shelton’s full role (492 snaps), but he has a similar set skill and can be a decent situational player against the run. Byron Cowart, a 2019 5th round pick, could also have a bigger role with Shelton gone, after playing just 43 snaps as a rookie.

Veteran Lawrence Guy remains as the other starting interior defender in base packages, primarily focusing on stuffing the run. A journeyman rotational player before arriving in New England, Guy has developed into a strong run-stuffer with the Patriots, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons with the team. He wasn’t quite as good last season as he was in 2018 when he finished 7th among interior defensive linemen in run stopping grade, but he had a strong year nonetheless. He doesn’t see many passing downs, but he isn’t lost when he rushes the passer, with 5 sacks and a respectable 7.7% pressure rate over the past three seasons. Age is a bit of a factor going into his age 31 season, but he could easily have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a high level role player.

While Guy and Allen are expected to start in base packages, Adam Butler will again be their primary interior pass rush specialist, after seeing 374 of his 474 snaps in 2019 come on pass plays. Butler’s 6 sacks jump off the page for a part-time player, but his peripheral pass rush stats are not as impressive (3 hits, 7.1% pressure rate) and he’s a liability against the run on the few run snaps he does play. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2017, Butler has gotten marginally better in every year in the league and is clearly valued by the Patriots, who kept him on a 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent this off-season, but his 2019 pressure rate was barely above his career average of 6.7%. Barring a big step forward, I would expect more of the same from Butler in 2020.

Deatrich Wise is also in the mix as a situational pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2017, Wise was underwhelming in the first two seasons of his career on the edge, but flashed as a situational interior pass rusher last season, with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a hyper-efficient 21.5% pressure rate while playing about 22.7% of the snaps. At 6-5 275, Wise isn’t a prototypical interior defender, but he has the size to hold up inside and his quickness makes him a mismatch on the interior in obvious passing situations. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a larger role in 2020. The Patriots lack a dominant interior player, but this was not the strength of this defense last season and they have some interesting parts that fit together well.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The area of this defense most affected by off-season losses is the edge, as both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were hybrid linebacker/defensive ends that saw significant snaps as a pass rusher off the edge. Van Noy saw 86 coverage snaps to 449 pass rush snaps and managed 6.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate, while earning positive grades as a run stuffer and in coverage from Pro Football Focus and finishing as their 20th ranked edge defender. Collins, meanwhile, saw 343 coverage snaps to 189 pass rush snaps and had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and a 16.9% pressure rate. He struggled a bit against the run, but excelled in coverage and finished as PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker overall. Needless to say, it won’t be easy to replace either player.

Most directly, they will be replaced by 2nd round rookie Josh Uche and 3rd round rookie Anfernee Jennings. Both players fit the mold of the player they’re replacing, but it’s unrealistic to expect either to be as good from day one. I would expect them to be more role players than the 813 snaps and 814 snaps that Collins and Van Noy played respectively. The Patriots also took a flyer on ex-Jet Brandon Copeland in free agency and he comes with more upside than you’d expect, as he flashed on 611 snaps in 2018 before falling out of favor with a new coaching staff in 2019. He hasn’t done much else in other 6 seasons in the league, but he had 5 sacks and a 10.6% pressure rate in 2018 while earning positive grades from PFF against the run and in coverage, so he fits what the Patriots look for at the position and has some bounce back potential in a friendlier system, still only in his age 29 season.

Dont’a Hightower, John Simon, and Chase Winovich are holdovers that will also be in the mix for snaps on the edge. The latter is a 2019 3rd round pick who flashed on 291 snaps as a rookie and will almost definitely be getting a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He has some breakout potential. Simon is a 7-year veteran going into his age 30 season. He’s never topped 631 snaps in a season, but he has a proven track record as a versatile role player, contributing in coverage and against the run and pressuring the quarterback at a 10.6% rate for his career. His age is a minor concern, but he should remain effective on a similar amount of snaps as last season (481 snaps).

Hightower is a hybrid linebacker who also sees significant snaps as a middle linebacker in base packages, in addition to rushing the passer on 59.3% of his pass snaps in 2019. A first round pick in 2012, Hightower is now one of the longest tenured players on the team. Injuries have sapped his abilities in recent years after he was one of the best linebackers in the league in his prime and now he’s going into his age 30 season, but he still earned average or better grades for his coverage, run stopping, and pass rush ability last season and he’s still a very valuable versatile weapon for this defense. It’s also worth noting he’s only missed a couple games with injury the past two seasons, though he hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2013, so he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Losing Van Noy and Collins hurts this unit, but the Patriots still have an intriguing group of edge players.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Dont’a Hightower will also see snaps as a traditional middle linebacker in this defense, although third year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is their best pure middle linebacker. He only played 275 snaps as season, despite playing all 16 games, but he has the opportunity to pick up vacated snaps left behind by situational run stuffer Elandon Roberts (202 snaps) and also Jamie Collins, who occasionally played some traditional linebacker in this defense as well. 

Bentley has thus far only played 413 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2018, but he’s played well in limited opportunities, earning positive grades from Pro Football Focus in both seasons in the league. His lack of playing time hasn’t really been his fault either, as he was limited to 3 games by injury as a rookie after earning a starting role in the pre-season and then was simply buried on the depth chart on a deep defense last season and couldn’t get more than a rotational role. With an opportunity for a larger role in 2020, he has breakout potential in his 3rd season in the league.

The Patriots also like to drop a 3rd safety down and play him as a linebacker in a lot of situations, which makes up for their lack of depth at the linebacker spot. Patrick Chung played 83.2% of his coverage snaps in the box last season and the Patriots signed ex-Charger safety Adrian Phillips, who has played 76.6% of his coverage snaps in the box over the past 2 seasons. The Patriots are very deep at the safety position, so expect Chung and Phillips to play significant snaps as linebackers.

Chung has been in New England for 10 of his 11 NFL seasons, but finished below average on PFF for just the 3rd time in those 10 seasons last season, seemingly due to nagging injuries that he played through after a good start to the season. Now going into his age 33 season, his age is becoming a concern, which is likely part of why the Patriots brought in Phillips. Phillips is a prototypical Belichick defensive back because of his versatility, not just to play linebacker, but cornerback and special teams as well. 

Phillips came as a bit of a bargain as a free agent this off-season because injuries limited him to 7 games last season, but he earned positive grades in 2017 and 2018 on 521 snaps and 685 snaps respectively and he played well while on the field last season as well. Still only in his age 28 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Phillips play his best football in a scheme that fits his abilities very well. He could easily take playing time away from Chung and be close to a full-time player even without a set position. The Patriots lack traditional linebacker depth, but have enough versatile players at other positions to cover and have a pair of players in Bentley and Phillips who have a lot of potential in this scheme. 

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Patriots are very deep at the safety position and that is true of their secondary in general. The Patriots traded away Duron Harmon, who played pretty well on 657 snaps last season, but not only did they add Phillips this off-season, they also used a 2nd round pick on Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger. Dugger might not play a ton of snaps as a rookie, but he should have a role. Dugger could also be Devin McCourty’s long-term replacement, as McCourty is now going into his age 33 season. A versatile player who played 53% of his snaps in the box last season, McCourty is also a ball hawk who finished last season 4th in the league with 5 interceptions and has 26 since entering the league as a first round pick in 2010, 7th most in the NFL over that stretch. 

Age will catch up to McCourty eventually and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off a little bit in 2020, but he still finished 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season, his 7th season in the top-19 among safeties in the past 8 seasons. Even with as much depth as the Patriots have at this position, don’t expect him to come off the field much. 2019 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams could also be in the mix for snaps at safety, although that’s mostly because the big 6-4 208 pound cornerback doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time at his natural position, which is also a deep position for the Patriots. Williams played just 80 snaps last season and, despite being a high draft pick, isn’t a roster lock in a deep secondary, especially after an off-season drug arrest.

The Patriots go four deep at cornerback as well, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Cornerback is arguably the toughest position in the NFL to be consistently dominant at and outside of Gilmore no other cornerback finished in the top-14 at the position on PFF in both 2018 and 2019, but Gilmore finished in the top-5 in both seasons and has allowed less than 50% completion in both seasons with a league leading 40 combined pass deflections over that stretch (no one else has more than 33). Gilmore also finished 24th among cornerbacks in his first season in New England in 2017 and 23rd in 2014, as he was a solid cornerback with the Bills before turning into the top cornerback in the league in New England. His age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued to dominate.

Behind Gilmore on the depth chart, roles are up for grabs, with Jonathan Jones, JC Jackson, and Devin’s twin brother Jason McCourty all competing for playing time. The Patriots use four cornerbacks at the same time somewhat regularly, so all four saw playing time last season, with McCourty having the fewest snaps at 474 only because he was limited to 12 games by injury. Expect them to all have roles again in 2020.

Jones is likely locked into the primary slot role, where he played 68.5% of his 619 snaps last season. Jones went undrafted in 2016, but saw 438 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and has seen his snap total in each of the two seasons since. Last season was also his best season, as he finished as Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked cornerback overall. He excels as a run stopper off the edge, but he also ranked in the top half among cornerbacks in yards per route run allowed on the slot and ranked 13th with 303 slot coverage snaps.

Jackson is also a former undrafted free agent, being signed by New England in 2018. He’s been a quick riser though, playing 395 snaps as a rookie and 682 snaps last season, while earning positive grades from PFF in both seasons. Jackson was PFF’s 47th ranked cornerback last season and could easily set a career high in starts in 2020 after starting 5 as a rookie in 6 last season. He has some breakout potential even if he’s not an every snap player in every matchup.

McCourty is the veteran of the bunch, obviously going into his age 33 season like his brother. A versatile chess piece who can play inside, outside, and some safety, McCourty should find somewhere to play in this secondary. An underrated player throughout his career, McCourty has finished in the top-22 among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 of the past 10 seasons, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Being an excellent run stuffer has a lot to do with it, but he’s also earned positive coverage grades from PFF in all 7 of those seasons as well. Age is a concern though, especially since he’s had some injuries in recent years, but he won’t need to play every down. This is probably the deepest and most talented secondary in the league.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The big story around the Patriots is Tom Brady’s departure, but replacement Jarrett Stidham might not a big downgrade considering the way Brady played down the stretch last season and the Patriots should be healthier on offense around the quarterback this season, most notably on an offensive line that is one of the league’s best when their starting five are in the lineup. The bigger concern is their defense, which lost two of their best players in free agency in Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins as well as a few lesser players, and that is unlikely to have as few injuries in 2020 as in 2019, when they had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Last season a dominant defense carried a mediocre offense to 12 wins, a division title, and a 3rd place finish in first down rate differential.

How close they come to that in 2020 will primarily be dependent on how much Belichick can coach up a less talented group. I like some of the replacements they added this off-season, but they had very little financial flexibility to add significant replacements and the rookies might not be able to contribute right away. The Patriots are severely handicapped by their financial situation right now and figure to be worse than they’ve been in a couple decades and not just because of the loss of Brady. Fortunately, it should only be temporary, given how much money the Patriots will have available next off-season, and even with a small payroll, this could still be a competitive football team in a weak division in 2020, especially if Stidham can be a capable starting quarterback. 

The Patriots look poised to get more with less once again, even if that more is not as many wins as they’re used to. They have one of the toughest schedules in football, but primarily because of their first place schedule and their non-divisional schedule. They play in one of the easier divisions in the league, which increases their chances of claiming a playoff spot for the 12th straight season, as does the addition of a 3rd wild card spot. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.72

Defensive Score: 75.10

Total Score: 73.41 (2nd in AFC East)