Baltimore Ravens 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens took a big risk at the end of the first round of the draft two years ago. With veteran Joe Flacco coming off multiple consecutive disappointing seasons and not getting any younger or cheaper, the Ravens decided to package together a pair of second round picks to move back into the first round to select quarterback Lamar Jackson at #32 overall. Jackson drew mixed reviews coming out of college because he had unparalleled athletic ability, but was very raw as a passer. Even the Ravens didn’t seem to be totally sold on him, opting to take tight end Hayden Hurst with their original first round pick before trading back up to get Jackson with the last pick in the first round when he continued slipping.

As a rookie, Jackson mostly sat on the bench for the first 9 games of his career behind Flacco as the backup quarterback, though he did see some limited action in ways that made use of his unique abilities (12 pass attempts, 28 carries, 2 pass targets in those 9 games). When Flacco injured his hip, Jackson then took over as the starter the rest of the way. The Ravens made the post-season, but Jackson very much seemed to fit his pre-draft scouting report, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns on 147 carries (4.73 YPC), but completing just 58.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, despite defenses selling out to stop the run. 

Overall, the Ravens ‘offense was actually slightly more effective with Flacco (36.46% first down rate) than it was with Jackson (34.48% first down rate), even though Jackson faced bottom-10 defenses in 5 of his 7 regular season starts. In the post-season against a much tougher Chargers defense, Jackson seemed especially overmatched, as the Ravens were held to 5 first downs through the first three and a half quarters of the game before garbage time. The Ravens moved on from the expensive Flacco last off-season and made Jackson the full-time starter, but there were still a lot of questions about Jackson’s ability to consistently lead a team if he did not improve as a passer.

Jackson answered those questions by improving as a passer arguably as much as any quarterback ever from one year to the next and the results were obvious. Jackson led the Ravens to the best record in the AFC at 14-2 and the NFL’s best first down rate differential at 41.73% and he won the MVP by completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while still adding an NFL quarterback record 1,206 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns on 176 carries (6.85 YPC). He also seemed to get better as the season went on, leading the Ravens to a 39.11% first down rate in his first 7 starts of the season and a 46.00% first down rate in his final 8 starts of the season. 

Jackson isn’t an exceptional passer by any means, but he is able to produce big numbers in the passing game anyway because he is able to create easier passing lanes with his mobility inside and outside the pocket. Many will say that Jackson proved the pre-draft scouting reports wrong, but in reality the scouting reports were right at the time. Even Jackson admitted he didn’t really know how to throw a football properly as a rookie. Jackson simply has gotten significantly better in two seasons in the league and that’s a credit to him and his work ethic.  It’s also a testament to how difficult drafting and pre-draft scouting can be that almost the whole league, including the Ravens, passed on Jackson at least once on draft day.

Credit should also be given to the Ravens for being willing to build their offense around Jackson’s unique skill set and it’s a big boost to this team’s chances of continuing to dominate on offense going forward that they were able to keep offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who understandably attracted head coaching interest this off-season. Roman has a history of working with dual threat quarterbacks in the past, getting the best years of their career out of both Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor, and he’s an excellent fit as this team’s offensive coordinator.

After winning an MVP in his age 22 season, the question for Jackson becomes what comes next. Many expect he’ll continue to get better as he gets more experience, but that’s not always the case. In fact, Jackson could have a Hall-of-Fame caliber career and still only match his 2019 season a couple times. He should remain among the top quarterbacks in the league, but he’s technically still a one-year wonder and I wouldn’t consider him the MVP favorite over guys like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson or even Drew Brees, who have proven it over multiple high level seasons.

Jackson also has a higher chance than usual for a quarterback of getting hurt, as his playing style leads him to taking significantly more hits. Obviously, the Ravens’ would take a big hit if Jackson were to go down. Backup quarterback Robert Griffin has at least somewhat similar of a skillset to Jackson, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers in his most recent season as a starter in 2016 and he’s thrown just 44 passes since, with 21 of those coming in an underwhelming start during a meaningless week 17 game last season, with the Ravens locked into the #1 seed. Griffin is probably in the best offense for his skill set, but would likely struggle if he had to start for an extended period of time. The Ravens are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The most noticeable feature of the offense the Ravens have built around Jackson is that they run the ball a lot, they run the ball in all situations, and they run the ball in a variety of different ways. That doesn’t just include Jackson’s 176 carries, as the Ravens’ 596 team carries were most in the NFL by a whopping 98 carries and they also ranked first in rushing yards (3,296), and YPC (5.53) by a wide margin, meaning that running backs were a big part of this offensive attack as well.

Lead back Mark Ingram rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 scores on 202 carries (5.04 YPC). Top backup Gus Edwards was very much involved as well with 133 carries for 711 yards and 2 touchdowns (5.35 YPC). Even #3 running back Justice Hill got into some action, with 58 carries for 225 yards and 2 scores (3.88 YPC), though it’s worth noting that 10 of those carries came in the meaningless season finale and that he was by far the least effective of the three backs. Jackson’s rushing ability develops makes life easier for the running backs because defenses are preoccupied with Jackson faking the handoff and running with it himself, but the running backs deserve plenty of credit as well.

The Ravens added further to their running back depth this off-season by using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s JK Dobbins. That may seem like a strange addition given that they were already pretty deep at the position, but Dobbins was a good value at #55 overall and, even as a rookie, he could be the Ravens’ 2nd most talented back overall behind Ingram, who is no spring chicken, now heading into his age 31 season. His addition is also likely a sign of how they feel about Hill long-term, as they don’t seem to be willing to make him the #2 back in this run heavy offense if there was ever an injury ahead of him on the depth chart.

Ingram figures to remain the lead back, even though running backs do tend to drop off pretty quickly in their early 30s. A first round pick by the Saints in 2011, Ingram dealt with injury problems early in his career, missing 18 games in his first 5 seasons in the league combined, but he’s missed just 1 game due to injury over the past 4 seasons and in his career he’s averaged 929 yards and 8 touchdowns on 201 carries (4.61 YPC) per 16 games, including a 4.94 YPC average and 34 touchdowns on 775 carries over the past 4 seasons. He’s had the benefit of playing on some of the best offenses in the league over the past 4 seasons with the Saints and Ravens, but he’s played well in his own right, finishing in the top-22 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including an 8th ranked finish in 2019. Even if he isn’t quite as good this season due to age related regression, he should still be a useful back.

With Ingram likely locked in as the lead back, that leaves JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards competing for #2 back work and it’s possible both backs see carries on an offense that gave 181 carries to backup running backs last season, even with Ingram only sidelined for one game. 133 of those carries went to Edwards, who has been a bit of a revelation as a runner in two seasons since the Ravens signed him as an undrafted rookie, rushing for 5.30 YPC on 270 carries in the two seasons combined. That’s the best in the NFL over that span among running backs with at least 200 carries, as is his 60% carry success rate.

Edwards has benefitted from playing almost all of his career with Jackson under center, but 62.4% of his rushing yards (3.30 YPC) have come after contact and he has finished in the top-14 among running backs on PFF in rushing grade in both seasons. He doesn’t do anything in the passing game (9 career catches), which is likely why the Ravens added Dobbins as a long-term every down back, but Edwards is a perfect fit as a powerful north to south runner (6-1 238) on an offense that spreads defenses out with probably the fastest sideline to sideline quarterback in NFL history. Ingram also is a great fit for this offense because he’s a power back as well at 5-9 215. 

Given how well Edwards fits this offense as a runner and how well he’s run over the past two seasons, it could be difficult for Dobbins to unseat him as 2nd to line to carries as a rookie, even if Dobbins does play more snaps than Edwards because he plays in passing situations. Realistically, it could be something close to a three man rotation at running back for carries, with Ingram and Dobbins splitting passing down work. Justice Hill, meanwhile, will need to show value on special teams to keep his job in arguably the deepest running back group in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Along with being the run heaviest team in the league, another key feature of the Ravens’ offense last season was featuring tight ends in the passing game rather than wide receivers. The Ravens had a pair of tight ends in Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst who were mismatches in the passing game and could hold their own as blockers as well and they had Nick Boyle, a dominant blocking tight end who was also a reliable possession receiver in the passing game. These three tight ends allowed them to regularly use two and three tight end sets and to both run out of these sets and to fake play action off of them and try to hit a mismatched tight end or a speedy wide receiver that sneaks behind the defense.

The Ravens traded Hurst to the Falcons this off-season for a 2nd round pick (eventually used to select JK Dobbins), a good return for a former first round pick who had fallen to 3rd on the depth chart and played just 457 snaps last season, but it’s surprising the Ravens didn’t do anything to replace him, given how important the tight end position is to this offense. Without him, the Ravens won’t be able to run three tight end sets effectively like they did last season and, if either Andrews or Boyle was to get hurt, the Ravens wouldn’t be able to effectively run two tight end sets either.

As long as they are healthy, however, Andrews and Boyle are arguably the top tight end duo in the league, especially given how their skill sets complement each other. Andrews led the team with a 64/852/10 slash line and was even better than that suggested, as he did that on a run heavy team, despite not playing every down. He ranked 2nd among tight ends in both yards per route run (2.89) and in overall grade on Pro Football Focus, behind only George Kittle in both categories. That comes after averaging 2.01 yards per route run (4th among tight ends) and ranking 6th among tight ends on PFF as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. Only going into his age 25 season, Andrews looks likely to be one of the best tight ends in the league for years to come and he could easily exceed last year’s receiving totals with Hurst now gone.

Boyle, meanwhile, is basically a 6th offensive lineman as a blocker, as he’s consistently been of the best blocking tight ends in the league throughout his 5-year career, but, despite his speed limitations (5.00 40), he’s not a bad pass catcher either, catching 73.1% of his career targets, though for just 8.81 yards per catch. Still, his ability to be an underneath target off play action is very valuable for this team and it’s no surprise he’s coming off the best receiving year of his career (31/321/2) and a career best 12th ranked finish among tight ends on PFF in an offense that fits his skill set so well. He’ll still primarily be a blocker, so I wouldn’t expect him to drastically exceed last year’s receiving totals even without Hurst, but he should still be a very valuable part of this offense.

The Ravens need their two tight ends to stay healthy, otherwise their lack of depth at wide receiver would be exposed, as it was in their surprising post-season home loss to the Tennessee Titans. In that game, the Ravens uncharacteristically got down big early because of turnovers, forcing Lamar Jackson into a career high 59 pass attempts, and, with such an underwhelming receiving corps, Jackson was unable to get the Ravens back into it in an eventual 16 point loss. 

The Ravens were better in first down rate differential in their post-season loss than the final score suggested at -3.24%, losing big primarily because of a -3 turnover margin, which is almost an entirely unpredictable stat from week-to-week, but the point remains that their wide receivers were a problem last season, with just one wide receiver topping 339 receiving yards in the regular season. Not much changed this off-season, however, with the Ravens only replacing veteran Seth Roberts with 3rd round rookie Devin Duvarney. The Ravens will be counting on young players taking a step forward at the position in 2020, including Duvarney, who should compete for playing time in this group, despite being a raw rookie. 

Last year’s first round pick Marquise Brown and last year’s 3rd round pick Myles Boykin will also be in the mix for playing time, with Brown obviously having more upside, after averaging 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie (compared to 1.10 for Boykin), despite being in and out of the lineup with injuries. Brown might not be that durable at 5-9 179, but he has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 receiver in his 2nd season in the league and he’ll likely remain their top option regardless, after leading Ravens wideouts with a 46/584/7 slash line. Boykin, meanwhile, could take a step forward as well, but doesn’t have the same upside.

Willie Snead is the veteran of the group, going into his 7th season in the league, and he should be in the mix for a role as well, even if only by default. Primarily an underneath slot receiver, Snead is a bit of an odd fit with Jackson. Snead put up 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 slash lines in 2015 and 2016 and was on his way to a 80/796/2 slash line in 2018 before Flacco got hurt (with an injury plagued 2017 season in between), but Snead has caught just 48 passes for 542 yards and 5 touchdowns in 25 career games with Jackson. The Ravens extended him with a one-year, 6 million dollar extension during last season, so they seem to still value him despite his recent underwhelming production, but I wouldn’t expect him to produce significantly better in 2020. The Ravens will need #1 receiver Marquise Brown and talented tight end duo Mark Andrews/Nick Boyle to stay healthy to mask their lack of depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

If there’s any one thing that could derail the Ravens’ chances of being a dominant offense again, it’s the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda, who still finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, despite being in his age 35 season. The Ravens used a 3rd round pick (Tyre Phillips) and a 4th round pick (Ben Bredeson) on guards and they have last year’s 4th round pick Ben Powers, who saw 30 snaps meaningless in the meaningless finale, but their most likely option is DJ Fluker, who has 88 career starts, but has never been more than a middling starter.

Center is also a position of uncertainty. Matt Skura started 11 games there last season and finished 16th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF, but the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first two seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 and his 2019 season ended with a torn ACL that makes him questionable for the start of the 2020 season. Even if he’s ready for the start of the season, Skura is no guarantee to repeat his solid 2019 season. It’s also possible Skura could lose his starting job entirely to 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, who flashed on 431 snaps as an injury replacement for Skura last season. Mekari could also potentially be in the mix to start at right guard, where he has a little bit of experience.

Along with Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley had a dominant year on an offensive line that was a big part of the Ravens’ offensive success last season. Unlike Yanda, Stanley is fortunately still around and, only going into his age 26 season, he’s very much in the prime of his career and could even keep getting better. The 6th overall pick in 2016, Stanley has improved in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2016, 21st in 2017, 15th in 2018, and 3rd last season. He could easily remain one of the top few left tackles in the league for years to come and is immensely valuable protecting Lamar Jackson’s blindside.

Orlando Brown remains as the starter on the opposite side at right tackle. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown took over as the starter in week 7 of his rookie year and has provided them with above average play since then (26 starts), including a 28th ranked finish among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019. Still only going into his age 24 season, Brown could easily keep getting better over the next few seasons.

Finishing off this offensive line is left guard, where 2018 6th round pick Bradley Bozeman is going into his 2nd full season as the starter. Despite his relative inexperience (17 career starts), Bozeman doesn’t have a high ceiling, as he was an old rookie who is already going into his age 26 season and he’s athletically limited. He could remain a solid starter in 2020 and beyond, but it’s worth noting he’s a former late round pick who has made just 17 career starts at this point. This is still a talented offensive line, but the loss of Yanda will be very significant and they might not get the same level of play at center or left guard either.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

In 2018, the Ravens made the playoffs with a raw Lamar Jackson at quarterback on the strength of a defense that finished the season with the 2nd lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 32.65%, but they suffered significant losses from 2018 to 2019. They lost 5 of their top-12 in snaps played on defense in free agency, including key players like Za’Darius Smith, CJ Mosley, and Terrell Suggs, and they then lost another two of those top-12 (Tavon Young and Tony Jefferson) to season ending injuries. All of their losses seemed to take their toll on this defense, as they ranked just 24th in first down rate allowed through the first 6 weeks of the season at 37.95%, despite facing a relatively easy schedule that included games against the Dolphins, Chiefs, Steelers, Browns, and Bengals, and Cardinals.

However, seemingly overnight, the Ravens became one of the best defenses in the league again. Despite the schedule getting tougher, the Ravens ranked 2nd in the NFL after week 6 in first down rate allowed after at 30.00%. Even after their slow start, they still managed to finish 5th in the NFL on the season in first down rate allowed at 32.86%. Along with their top ranked offense, the Ravens finished in the top-5 on both sides of the ball, the only team in the league to do so and just one of two teams (49ers) to finish in the top-10. 

Unsurprisingly, their +8.87% first down rate differential on the season was the best in the NFL by a wide margin, with the 49ers 2nd at +5.29%. The Ravens were especially dominant from week 9 to week 16, with a ridiculous +15.28% first down rate differential over that stretch. Of course, that didn’t matter when they lost at home in their first playoff game to the Titans in a game in which they didn’t give themselves a real chance because of a -3 turnover margin, but the fact remains that the Ravens were for most of the second half of last season close to a historically good team on both sides of the ball.

The primary reasons for significant defensive improvement are in the secondary and linebacking corps, so I’ll get into those later, but it’s worth mentioning upfront that the Ravens, much like they do on offense, run defensive schemes that are different than most of what the league runs. They run both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in base packages, they frequently use 6 defensive backs on the field at the same time in sub packages, and, the most notable feature, they blitz more than any team in the league, sending a 5th rusher 45% of the time last season.

Despite that and despite playing with frequent leads, the Ravens actually didn’t sack the quarterback that often. They ranked just 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks and had just one player with more than 5 sacks on the season. They especially struggled from the interior, as they didn’t have a single interior defender who played more than 150 snaps who earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus for rushing the passer. The Ravens clearly viewed improving this area as a priority this off-season, allowing Michael Pierce, a big 6-0 340 pounder with a 5.2% pressure rate last season, to leave in free agency and trading rotational reserve Chris Wormley (6.4% pressure rate last season) to the Steelers, while adding a pair of more pass rush oriented types in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.

Campbell is the big prize, even though he was acquired for just a 6th round pick in a trade from the Jaguars. Campbell is going into his age 34 season and was owed 15 million for 2020, so he was acquired by the Ravens largely as a salary dump. It’s understandable the Jaguars would want to move on from Campbell given that they are rebuilding and shedding salary, but it’s a surprise that they couldn’t get more than a 6th round pick for him. Despite Campbell’s age, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 3rd among interior defenders on PFF last season, his 8th straight season in the top-19 at his position on PFF, including 4 straight seasons in the top-3. 

Over those past four seasons, he has totaled 39.5 sacks, 62 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, while dominating against the run as well. He’s also a perfect fit for the Ravens’ defense because of his versatility. Not only does he have experience as a base end in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, but he can also rush the passer effectively from the edge and from the interior. Even if he declines over the next couple seasons, he was well worth the 6th round pick and 2-year, 25 million dollar extension (20 million guaranteed) that the Ravens gave up to get him, given that the Ravens are in win now mode and can afford to add expensive talent, with their franchise quarterback still on an inexpensive rookie deal. He should remain an effective player, at the very least.

Wolfe, meanwhile, is kind of a lesser version of Campbell. He’s played defensive end in a base scheme 3-4 in Denver for the past five seasons, but he also spent some time earlier in his career in a 4-3 defense, playing both inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end. In 8 seasons total with the Broncos, Wolfe averaged 48.1 snaps per game and earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his final 6 seasons with the team. He was better against the run than as a pass rusher, but added a 7.4% pressure rate as well and mostly played every down. 

Wolfe is going into his age 30 season, but should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, so he was a worthwhile addition on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. He and Campbell give the Broncos a pair of versatile defensive linemen who can play every down and play both inside and outside, giving them more versatility and pass rush than they had last season. Campbell may play more outside than Wolfe and is obviously the better player overall, but both should have significant roles.

With Campbell and Wolfe coming in as interior rush options in sub packages, that should allow holdover Brandon Williams to play more of a base package role, taking over for Michael Pierce at nose tackle, after playing out of position somewhat last season. Williams has earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, but he’s finished average or worse as a pass rusher in all 7 seasons and has just a 5.0% pressure rate for his career. That’s unsurprising, considering Williams is a big 6-1 335 pounder. 

Now going into his age 31 season, Williams is who he is at this point and could easily be on the decline, posting the lowest PFF of his career last year and finishing as PFF’s 54th ranked interior defender overall. He’ll be a better fit as primarily a base package player though and should see fewer than the 37.5 snaps per game he played last season in a better position group. He may still see some sub package snaps, especially when Campbell lines up outside, but he’s not someone you want playing significant sub package snaps and I wouldn’t expect him to do so.

Jihad Ward played 398 snaps as a reserve last season, but he struggled, as he has throughout his 4-year career, so he’s not guaranteed a significant role again. He has the ability to play both inside and outside in sub packages, but Campbell and Wolfe can both do so as well, and the Ravens used a 3rd round pick on Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who will likely compete to be the primary reserve on the interior, which could leave Ward without much of a role. This is a more talented, more versatile, and deeper group than last season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Edge defender Matt Judon was the only Ravens defender to have a significant sack total last season, leading the team with 9.5. Not only that, but he added 25 hits and a 14.1% pressure rate as well. His pressure rate is inflated because of how often the Ravens blitzed and because he was frequently the blitzer, frequently lining up inside at off ball linebacker in sub packages and blitzing up the middle, but he also had to drop back into coverage on 19.9% of the pass snaps he played because of the different blitz schemes the Ravens ran, which limited his pass rush opportunities. Judon earned Pro Football Focus’ 18th highest grade among edge defenders in pass rush grade and was clearly much better as a pass rusher than in coverage, where he struggled mightily. 

With the Ravens adding interior rushers that will help them get to the quarterback with four more easily and with the Ravens adding better coverage off ball linebackers (more on that later), it’s very possible the Ravens blitz less often this season and that Judon will play more of a traditional edge defender role and not move around the formation and drop into coverage as often, which should be a better role, even if fewer blitzes reduces his overall pressure rate. 

Judon is a one-year wonder in terms of getting to the quarterback at the rate he did last season, but he’s been at least a solid starter for 3 seasons in a row and he has a career 12.2% pressure rate in 4 years in the league. Going into his age 28 season, Judon should be in his prime for at least another couple seasons, though he’s yet to agree to a long-term extension after being franchise tagged as a free agent this off-season.

Tyus Bowser was essentially Judon’s backup last season, playing 389 snaps total and dropping into coverage on 26.5% of his pass snaps. Second on the team with 5 sacks, Bowser also had a 11.3% pressure rate and he wasn’t bad in coverage either, as the 6-3 242 pounder is a much more natural coverage athlete than the 6-4 264 Judon. Bowser hasn’t played much in 3 seasons in the league (715 snaps total) and snaps will be harder to come by in a deeper position group, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is going into his age 25 season and his versatility should earn him at least a rotational role.

At the edge defender spot opposite Judon, veteran Pernell McPhee was the starter for the first 7 games of the season, but he tore his triceps and missed the rest of the season, leaving 3rd round rookie Jaylon Ferguson to start the rest of the way, after he played just 82 snaps in the first 6 weeks of the season. Ferguson didn’t fare all that well, but he was just a 3rd round rookie, so he could still develop into a capable starter long-term. His role is uncertain going into this season, however, as not only can Campbell and Wolfe play on the edge, but McPhee is also returning from injury.

McPhee is only going into his age 32 season and was once one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league, posting a 18.0% pressure rate in 2014 and 2015 combined, but his career has been completely derailed by injury, as he hasn’t played more than 385 snaps in a season since 2015 and has missed 22 games total over the past 4 seasons combined. Last season, he played 41.3 snaps per game in the 6 games he finished without getting hurt, but then he got injured in week 7 and missed the rest of the season.

McPhee wasn’t particularly effective last season before the injury either (8.0% pressure rate and a middling grade from PFF) and now, another year older, it would be a surprise if he was able to bounce back to anything close to his prime form, even if he were to stay healthy. His versatility to play inside and outside is valuable, but he’s unlikely to have a significant impact. With Campbell and Wolfe able to play on the edge in addition to on the interior, the Ravens have improved their depth at this position this off-season and they have a pair of young players in Bowser and Ferguson who could take a step forward as well.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Ravens did a good job of getting better coverage off ball linebackers this season, which, along with their improved pass rush, will likely lead to them blitzing not quite as much and should lead to them playing players out of position less frequently. The Ravens’ off ball linebackers were not bad last season and in fact the mid-season additions of LJ Fort and Josh Bynes actually coincided directly with their defensive turnaround, though there were other factors. 

The big problem was that, while Fort and Bynes both earned above average grades against the run from Pro Football Focus, they played just 391 snaps and 254 snaps respectively and struggled in coverage and that no Ravens off ball linebacker played more than 473 snaps (Patrick Onwausor). The Ravens compensated for this by playing edge defenders like Judon and Bowser out of position in sub packages or using 3 safeties and dropping strong safety Chuck Clark near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, but their moves this off-season suggest they want to be a little more traditional in 2020.

LJ Fort still remains, but Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwausor are gone and, while Bynes was PFF’s 12th ranked off ball linebacker against the run last season, Onwausor ranked 82nd in overall grade out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers and the Ravens did a good job adding potential three down off ball linebackers through the draft. At 28 overall they got a steal with arguably the top off ball linebacker in the draft in Patrick Queen, who could play almost every snap every as a rookie and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and then they got another potential three down talent in the 3rd round in Malik Harrison. 

Harrison is rawer and not as much of a sure thing, but he still figures to compete for playing time immediately next to Queen. LJ Fort could remain an option in base packages and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping ability in back-to-back seasons, although he’s going into his age 30 season and has never played more than 305 snaps in a season. The Ravens also have enough depth in the secondary that they could still frequently play with 3 safeties in sub packages, but, unlike last season, they have enough depth at linebacker that it won’t be totally necessary to play a 3rd safety in sub packages.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The single biggest reason for the Ravens defensive improvement last season was the secondary. At cornerback, the Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young for the season with injury before the year began and then lost cornerback Jimmy Smith indefinitely week 1, but then they traded for Marcus Peters from the Rams before week 7 and got Smith back healthy for week 9. Peters and Smith playing outside allowed them to move Marlon Humphrey to the slot in sub packages, giving the Ravens a talented trio of cornerbacks, and it allowed 4th cornerback Brandon Carr to play more safety down the stretch, which allowed them to drop safety Chuck Clark down to linebacker in sub packages, to compensate for their lack of depth at the position. 

Carr was let go this off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2020, while Tavon Young returns from injury, so the Ravens will have to re-shuffle their cornerbacks a little bit, but it’s still a very strong group. Young’s best position is on the slot, so he figures to play there primarily, moving Humphrey outside every down outside Peters. That would leave the aging Jimmy Smith (age 32 season) as the 4th cornerback and a potential part-time safety.

Humphrey wasn’t bad on the slot and made not just his first career Pro Bowl, but also the All-Pro team last season, but he actually earned the lowest grade of his 3-year career from Pro Football Focus. He still ranked 33rd among cornerbacks overall, but he ranked 16th in 2018 and he is probably a more natural fit outside, even if he can play inside if needed in a pinch. The former first round pick still has a huge upside, only going into his age 24 season, and, now going into his 4th season in the league, back in a more natural spot outside, he could easily have the highest ranked season of his career.

Marcus Peters was the single biggest reason for their defensive turnaround, as he was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback from his arrival in week 7 and beyond and finished as their 4th ranked cornerback overall. It’s hard to believe the Ravens acquired Peters for a mere fifth round pick, but he was going into the final year of his deal with the Rams, who needed to clear cap space for the recently acquired Jalen Ramsey, and Peters has been inconsistent enough in the past that it’s understandable why the Rams would want to go with Ramsey instead. Peters also finished 16th among cornerbacks in 2016 and 14th in 2017, but on the flip side of that he finished 81st in 2015 and 98th in 2018. His history of inconsistency didn’t scare the Ravens off from giving him a 3-year, 42 million dollar extension and that’s not a bad value for him, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the quite same player this season, especially with 21 million guaranteed in his pocket.

Tavon Young should be locked in on the slot, but his injury history is pretty concerning, as he’s now missed 2 of 4 full seasons. A 4th round pick in 2016, Young burst onto the season as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback on 833 snaps, but then he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and didn’t seem to be quite the same in 2018, earning a middling grade from PFF. That didn’t stop the Ravens from giving him a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension that made him one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the league last off-season and it was reasonable to assume he’d bounce back in 2019, another year removed from the torn ACL, but then he missed all of 2019 with a neck injury. Still only going into his age 26 season, Young has some bounce back potential, but it’s worth noting his last high level season was 4 years ago.

Jimmy Smith is the odd man out at cornerback for now, but he’s expected to see some action at safety. Smith has rarely played safety in his 9-year career (83 starts, all at cornerback), but he has good size at 6-2 210 and would hardly be the first cornerback to make a successful late career switch to safety. Smith has had a lot of injuries over the years (20 games missed over the past 4 seasons) and hasn’t been the same player in recent years, but he was still a capable starter in 9 games last season and he’s probably overqualified as a 6th defensive back, which is what he’ll essentially be. Smith might not have a significant role to start the season, but he figures see significant playing time at one point or another, even if it’s only as an injury replacement.

Along with the positive changes at cornerback mid-season, the Ravens also got a positive change at safety when starting safety Tony Jefferson tore his ACL week 5. Jefferson was a solid starter in 2018, so may seem weird that his absence would be a benefit, but Jefferson was off to a terrible start in 2019, ranking 76th out of 89 qualifying safeties on PFF at the time of his injury, and his replacement Chuck Clark wound up being better than Jefferson was even in 2018, as Clark finished 28th among safeties on PFF in 2019. 

Clark’s impressive play led to the Ravens cutting Jefferson ahead of a non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary this off-season and locking up Clark long-term on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. A 6th round pick in 2017, Clark is a one-year wonder who played just 315 mediocre snaps in his first 2 seasons combined in 2017 and 2018, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has plenty of upside going forward. He’s also particularly valuable because of his ability to play both safety and linebacker and to both stop the run in the box and to cover backs and tight ends one-on-one. He could prove to be a real value signing if he continues to develop.

With Clark working as a box safety, Earl Thomas is the primary deep safety, a role he spent 9 seasons in with the Seahawks (125 starts), prior to signing with the Ravens last off-season. In his first season in Baltimore, Thomas had his lowest rated season on PFF since 2012, which is slightly concerning as he now heads into his age 31 season, but he still finished 14th after a stretch of 4 out of 5 seasons in the top-5, so even a declining Earl Thomas is still one of the better safeties in the league. This is a deep and talented secondary once again, arguably even deeper, with Tavon Young returning from injury.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Ravens were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the ball last season and entered the post-season as the most complete team in the league. It all fell apart in a divisional round home loss to the Titans by 16, but that game was much closer than the final score suggested, as the game entirely swung on a -3 turnover margin by the Ravens and a highly uncharacteristic 0 for 4 on 4th down. The Ravens have made some changes into 2020, but still look like one of the top few teams in the league going into the season. No one should be surprised if they claim the AFC’s top seed again and finish it off with a Super Bowl this time around, though I’m not sure I’d consider them the outright favorite. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 78.29

Defensive Score: 75.84

Total Score: 77.07 (1st in AFC North)

Cincinnati Bengals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2019 season, few had high expectations for the Bengals, but not many expected them to be terrible either, as they had never won fewer than 6 games in Andy Dalton’s 8 seasons as a starter. Instead, the Bengals finished with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14 and received the #1 overall pick as a result. The Bengals picked a good year to be bad as this draft class not only contained Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who had a sensational season in 2018 and was seen as the consensus #1 pick going in 2019, but also LSU’s Joe Burrow, who took over as the consensus #1 overall pick following an outstanding senior season and an injury to Tagovailoa.

Burrow not only won the Heisman and the National Championship with an undefeated 15-0 team, but he also broke the NCAA’s single season record for passing touchdowns and the SEC’s single season record for passing yards and he has all the tools to translate to the next level. That being said, it’s worth noting he is a bit of a one-year wonder. Unlike Tagovailoa, who had multiple high level years as a starter in the SEC, Burrow was up and down in his junior year in 2018 and was seen by most as a late round pick by this point last year. Burrow is also older than Tagovailoa (age 24 as a rookie vs. age 22) and might not have as high of a ceiling overall. That being said, considering Tagovailoa’s medical situation, it’s hard to fault the Bengals for taking Burrow, although time will tell if that proves to be the correct decision.

Even though the Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, you can definitely argue they weren’t terrible, as a lot of the problem was bad luck, or good luck depending on how you view getting the #1 pick and adding Burrow. Of their 14 losses, 8 were decided by 8 points or fewer, while both of their wins came by 10 points or more, even though they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -14. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals ranked 24th at -3.47%, certainly not good, but certainly not at the worst in the league either.

The Bengals likely would have finished even higher had they not benched Dalton for 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 weeks, as Finley was horrendous in his 3 starts, completing 47.1% of his passes for an average of 5.45 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Bengals had a pathetic 28.18% first down rate in Finley’s 3 starts, as opposed to 33.18% in Dalton’s 13 starts. It was understandable that the Bengals would want to go to Finley though, as they wanted to give the rookie a shot in a lost season, and the Bengals arguably would not have ended up with the #1 pick had they not started Finley for a stretch, as, even with Finley starting, two of those losses came by 7 points or fewer.

As soon as Dalton took back the starting job for the final 5 weeks of the season, the Bengals got their first win of the season and finished with a 2-3 stretch in which they actually had a positive first down rate differential at +1.81%, though an easy schedule during that stretch partially was a factor. Still, it’s good to see the Bengals end the season on a positive note, especially since they didn’t cost themselves draft position in the process, and it’s safe to say that Burrow is walking into a better situation than most #1 overall picks do in terms of existing talent on the roster, as they were far from the worst team in the league last season.

Burrow’s entrance officially closed the book on the Andy Dalton era, as Dalton was released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and ultimately signed with the Cowboys as a backup this off-season. During Dalton’s 9 seasons as the starter (133 starts), the Bengals were consistently respectable on the field until the end, but never won a playoff game. In his final season, he completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions while earning Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked quarterback grade out of 39 qualifiers, making it arguably the worst season of his career. Given that, Burrow won’t have a steep bar to pass, even as a rookie, though he’ll certainly have some rookie growing pains. With only Finley behind him on the depth chart as a mediocre backup, this is completely Burrow’s job before he’s thrown his first pass.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The way the Bengals finished last season is even more impressive because of all the injuries they suffered, particularly on offense, where they had the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. It wasn’t just that they lost a lot of players, but they also lost some of their most important players, most especially #1 wide receiver AJ Green, who missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Missing his long-time top receiver, it’s not a surprise Dalton had arguably the worst season of his career in 2019.

Green wanted to leave Cincinnati in free agency this off-season, to pursue a significant salary guarantee with a contender, with time running out on his career, going into his age 32 season and coming off of a significant injury. Green also missed 6 games in 2016 and 7 games in 2018, meaning he’s been limited to 35 games over the past 4 seasons, so he’s hardly a sure thing at his age, but the Bengals still wouldn’t let him leave, keeping around for at least another year on the franchise tag, in order to ease Burrow’s transition into the NFL.

Green can’t be happy about how the situation has turned out, especially with the Bengals in no hurry to give him the long-term guarantees he wants, but his only other option is to threaten to sit out the season to force a trade, which would be a tough move for him to pull off, given that he already missed all of last season and would undoubtedly hurt himself financially sitting out another year at his age. Green has averaged a 87/1284/9 slash line per 16 games in his career, including 85/1251/8 per 16 games over his recent injury plagued seasons, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the least even if he’s not in his prime form, but he’s a big question mark at this point and his best days are likely behind him.

Fortunately, the Bengals are pretty deep in the receiving corps. Tyler Boyd and John Ross both earned above average grades on Pro Football Focus in Green’s absence last season, though Ross was limited to 8 games by injury, while Auden Tate and Alex Erickson were about average on 647 snaps and 615 snaps respectively. They got even deeper this off-season when they used the 33rd overall pick on Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins. Even in a deep group with Green and Ross returning, Higgins figures to compete for a role in 3-wide receiver sets immediately.

Tyler Boyd was the #1 receiver last year with Green out, leading the team with a 90/1046/5 slash line and he’ll be more of a 1b to Green’s 1a than a true #2 receiver in 2020. That was the case the last time Green played in 2018, when Boyd finished with a 76/1028/7 slash line. Boyd seems to produce better with Green in the lineup, on pace for a 98/1240/10 slash line through 16 games in 2018 before Green got hurt, though I wouldn’t expect him to keep up that pace in 2020 on a passing offense with more options. Still, Boyd is a talented secondary passing option who can be a #1 for stretches. The 2016 2nd round pick’s career got off to a shaky start, but after back-to-back 1000+ yard years, he’s still only in his age 26 season. He still has several years left in his prime and looks like the long-term #1 whenever Green eventually is not around.

Ross was on pace for a 1000+ yard season last year if he had stayed healthy all season, with a 28/506/3 slash line in 8 games, but he wasn’t particularly consistent, as he topped 45 receiving yards in a game just three times. A bust as the 9th overall pick in 2017, Ross barely contributed in his first 2 seasons in the league (0.56 yards per route run on 377 routes), largely due to other injuries, and he has just 4 games with more than 45 receiving yards for his entire career. 

The Bengals seem to be underwhelmed, despite his flashes of brilliance, not only adding Higgins, but declining Ross’ 5th year option for 2021, which would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury, a big risk considering his inability to stay healthy thus far. Ross still has upside, not even 25 until November, and he could earn himself a lot of money with a big year in what is now a contract year, but he could also easily get hurt again or find himself on the bench behind Higgins by season’s end. Higgins’ arrival also likely means that Auden Tate and Alex Erickson will be stuck in reserve roles, despite faring alright in the first significant action of their careers in 2019. Tate, a 2018 7th round pick, in particular seems to have good long-term potential, even if he doesn’t see the field much this season.

The Bengals lost long-time tight end Tyler Eifert in free agency this off-season, as he took a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal in Jacksonville. Eifert was a former first round pick and had some moments of being among the top tight ends in the league earlier in his career, but he was limited to 43 games due to injury from 2013-2018 and, though he played in all 16 games for the first time in 2019, all of those injuries seemed to have taken their toll on him, as he was nothing more than a snap eater and had an underwhelming 43/436/3 slash line.

That line still led all Bengals tight ends, however, and the Bengals didn’t do anything to replace him. Instead, they’ll likely be expecting more out of Drew Sample, who played just 108 snaps and caught just 5 passes as a 2nd round rookie last year. Sample is primarily a blocking tight end, however, managing just 46 catches in his entire collegiate career. He may have some untapped upside as a receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to ever be a big factor in the passing game, so it’s strange the Bengals drafted him where they did. 

Veteran CJ Uzomah will likely be the primary pass catching tight end. He had a decent 43/439/3 slash line in 2018, but was limited to 27/242/2 in 2019. Even his meager production in 2019 was the 2nd best year of his career and he’s earned mediocre grades from PFF throughout his career as well. He’ll have a bigger pass game role in 2020 with Eifert gone, but I don’t expect the tight end position to be used that much in this offense, given that they are way deeper at wide receiver.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Bengals also had injury problems on the offensive line, which made things even worse for a group that wasn’t very good to begin with. First round pick Jonah Williams, who was expected to start at one of the two tackle spots, got hurt early in the off-season and missed the whole season. Cordy Glenn, who became locked in at left tackle when Williams got hurt, was limited to 291 snaps in 6 games, unsurprisingly coinciding with the Bengals’ best offensive stretch of the year at the end of the season. Aside from Glenn, the other 9 offensive linemen who played a snap for the Bengals all earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus.

Glenn was let go this off-season, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2020, after several injury plagued years, and the Bengals didn’t make any significant additions upfront either, so, while they get Jonah Williams back, this offensive line should still have a lot of problems this season. Williams himself is a question mark as well, expected to line up on the blindside at left tackle, despite having never played a snap in the NFL. Even if he has significant growing pains, he could be the Bengals’ best offensive lineman by default.

Center Trey Hopkins was probably their 2nd best offensive lineman, even though he finished just 24th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF. Hopkins was given a 3-year, 20.4 million dollar extension last season, suggesting they view him as the starter long-term. Hopkins has just 37 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, with 16 of those coming last season, and he has been pretty underwhelming overall, but he should be locked in to his starting job going into 2020.

Billy Price was drafted 21st overall in 2018 to be the Bengals’ starting center long-term, but he was limited to 558 snaps by injury as a rookie, finished 35th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, and eventually lost his starting job to his former backup Hopkins after an injury plagued off-season last off-season. Price played both center and guard in college and ended up seeing 586 snaps at guard in 2019, but he fared even worse there than he did at center, finishing 86th out of 89 qualifying guards on PFF. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Price may still have some untapped potential, but, with Hopkins locked in at center, he’ll have to compete for one of the starting jobs at guard and may find himself on the bench, at least to begin the season.

At left guard, Price’s primary competition will be 2019 4th round pick Michael Jordan. As a rookie last season, Jordan didn’t fare much better than Price did, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying guards, but he got better as the season went on and the Bengals still like his long-term upside, still only going into his age 22 season. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a consistent starter and even if he does it might not be in 2020, but it would be hard for him to be worse than he and Price were at left guard last season.

At right guard, veteran Xavier Su’a-Filo is Price’s primary competition and I would guess Price’s best shot to get into the starting lineup would be at right guard, where veteran John Miller was underwhelming as the primary starter last season (13 games) and is no longer on the team. Su’a-Filo signed with the Bengals for 9 million over 3 years this off-season, more in line with being a backup than a starter, and, while he’s a former 2nd round pick (2014) who made 31 starts for the Texans from 2016-2017, he was pretty underwhelming in those starts and has been a reserve and spot starter in his other 4 seasons in the league (22 starts total). Regardless of who ends up starting, guard figures to be a significant position of weakness again in 2020.

Right tackle Bobby Hart is also locked into a starting job, even though he’s not particularly good either. A 7th round pick in 2015, Hart has somehow made 53 career starts, including all 16 last season, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons as a starter, including 70th out of 89 qualifiers in 2019. Without any real competition for his job, Hart is locked in as a starter on what should be among the worst offensive lines in the league again this season.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Despite poor blocking in front of him, lead back Joe Mixon had a solid season, rushing for 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns on 278 carries (4.09 YPC). Mixon got most of those yards himself, rushing for 3.15 yards per carry after contact and the 6th most rushing yards after contact in the league with 877. That is more or less on par with how he’s fared in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017. Despite routinely underwhelming blocking in front of him, he’s rushed for 2,934 yards and 20 touchdowns on 692 carries (4.24 YPC) in his career, with 2.84 YPC coming after first contact. Overall, he’s been a top-17 running back on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 24 season, he could keep getting better in 2020.

The one area where Mixon isn’t particularly useful is in the passing game, with 108 catches in 44 career games with an average of just 6.49 yards per target. It’s not that he’s a bad pass catcher, but given that he gets most of the Bengals’ carries and that he needs rest from time-to-time, Mixon frequently comes off the field in passing situations for veteran back Giovani Bernard. Bernard has 295 catches in 99 career games in 7 seasons in the league and has matched the 108 catches that Mixon has over the past three seasons. 

In the past, Bernard has been a useful pace of change back as well, averaging 4.19 YPC over his first 4 seasons, but he’s seen his carries per game drop from 10.6 to 4.9 since the addition of Mixon 3 years ago and he averaged a career worst 3.21 YPC on a career low 53 carries last season. Bernard may have a little left in the tank in his age 29 season, but he shouldn’t see more than a few carries and a few check downs per game. This is Mixon’s backfield, as he’s been consistently one of the better backs in his three years in the league, despite his young age.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Bengals’ offense struggled last season, their defense was actually pretty solid overall, finishing 18th in first down rate allowed at 35.78%. It was really a tale of two seasons though, as they ranked 7th with a 32.03% first down rate allowed in the final 7 weeks of the season, after ranking 27th at 38.78% first down rate allowed through week 10. The biggest difference was the play of edge defender Carlos Dunlap. 

Dunlap got off to an underwhelming start in his first 5 games, was limited to 68 snaps due to injury in the next 4 games, but then finished the season on a tear, earning Pro Football Focus’ #1 edge defender grade in the final 7 games of the season. Over that stretch, he had 8 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 16.2% pressure rate, while also earning PFF’s highest run defense grade by an edge defender to boot. Despite his slow start, Dunlap still finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender on the season thanks to his late season tear, and he finished with a 13.2% pressure rate and the position’s 2nd highest grade against the run.

Playing at a high level is nothing new for Dunlap, as he’s finished in the top-35 among edge defenders in 9 straight seasons on PFF. Over that stretch, he has totalled 72 sacks, 146 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while consistently playing above average against the run. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, so he might not repeat one of the better years of his career again in 2020, but he has shown few signs of slowing down and he’s also been remarkably durable throughout his career. The 739 snaps he was “limited” to by injury last season still ranked 28th in the NFL among edge defenders, even though they were Dunlap’s fewest in a season since 2012. Last season was also the first time he had missed a game since 2012. Dunlap may slow down a little bit in 2020, but he should remain one of the better all-around edge defenders in the league, especially if he’s healthy all season.

With Dunlap a little banged up early in the season, fellow starting edge defender Sam Hubbard actually led Bengals edge defenders in snaps last season with 852. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Hubbard was solid on 508 rookie year snaps and carried that over to a larger role last season. He was mostly a snap eater, but he held up against the run, added 8.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate, and still has room to get better, only going into his age 24 season. A breakout 3rd season in the league is not out of the question and he should remain at least a solid starter.

The Bengals’ depth was solid at the position too. Fourth defensive end Arthur Brown was pretty underwhelming in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career last season, but he barely had a role, playing just 241 snaps, 110 of which came in the two games Dunlap missed, and he could be a little better in 2020. On top of that, third defensive end Carl Lawson is an effective situational edge rusher, even if he has a lot of trouble against the run. 

A 4th round pick in 2017, Lawson has totalled 14.5 sacks, 35 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league in a part-time role (33.1 snaps per game). A torn ACL ended his 2018 season after 7 games and he didn’t seem to be quite the same player while limited to 12 games in 2019, but, only going into his age 25 season, Lawson definitely has bounce back potential, now another year removed from the injury. He, Dunlap, and Hubbard should be able to effectively rush the passer consistently and Dunlap and Hubbard are good run stuffers in base packages as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals have been notorious in recent years for not spending significant money on outside free agents, opting instead to build through the draft and use their cap space to re-sign their own guys. That can be a viable strategy if you are consistently nailing your drafts and need the financial flexibility to keep the guys you’ve developed, but the Bengals have not drafted particularly well in recent years and they consistently have barely spent over the league minimum, suggesting their decision to sit out free agency was more financial than an actual team building strategy.

That changed this off-season, as the Bengals handed out four significant contracts to outside free agents, all on the defensive side of the ball. The best addition was ex-Texans nose tackle DJ Reader, who comes over on a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal. Reader is primarily a big run stuffer at 6-3 347, but has rare three down ability for his size, with a 8.4% pressure rate for his career and an average of 40.7 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons. 

Reader is also still only going into his age 26 season and is coming off of the best season of his career, excelling against the run, totalling 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate, and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall. Reader might not be quite as good in 2020, but he has plenty of years of his prime yet and could remain one of the better players at his position for the duration of his 4-year deal. He was a smart addition for a team that needed to replace free agent departure Andrew Billings, who gave them solid play on 657 snaps last season. Reader should play a similar role and be an upgrade.

He’ll pair with long-time Bengal Geno Atkins to make one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL. Along with Dunlap, Atkins has played at a high level on this line for years, finishing in the top-5 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 of his 9 years as a starter (133 starts). His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, possibly part of why they made the big investment in Reader, and he’s finished “just” 22nd and 21st among interior defenders over the past 2 seasons respectively, but he should remain at least an above average starter for another couple seasons.

Josh Tupou was the top reserve defensive tackle last season with 465 snaps, but he’ll likely have to compete for that role with Ryan Glasgow, who returns after being limited to 118 snaps in 5 games by a thigh injury and a torn ACL. Glasgow also tore that same ACL in 2018, limiting him to 92 snaps in 3 games, so he’s a big question mark and will have to earn his way back into the rotation. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow has flashed against the run in limited action thus far in his career (622 snaps), but he’s still highly unproven and coming off back-to-back serious injuries. Tupou, a 2017 undrafted free agent, flashed against the run in the first significant action of his career last season and earned an above average grade overall, so Glasgow isn’t a lock to get his job back even if healthy and may have to settle for deep reserve snaps. Glasgow and Tupou are solid depth behind one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Bengals had a solid defensive line last season, one that gets significantly better with the addition of Reader, their linebackers were arguably the worst in the league. With Nick Vigil (985 snaps) and Preston Brown (410 snaps) hitting free agency this off-season, the Bengals had a great opportunity to upgrade this group, but they didn’t do much of significance, signing veteran journeyman Josh Bynes and using a 3rd round (Logan Wilson), a 4th round, (Akeem Davis-Gaither), and a 7th round pick Markus Bailey on linebackers. Bailey is unlikely to see a significant defensive role as a rookie, but the other three will compete for roles with holdovers Germaine Pratt and Jordan Evans.

Pratt probably has the best shot to secure a role and could play every down. He wasn’t particularly good on 437 rookie year snaps, finishing 77th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he could be better in his 2nd season in the league and the Bengals are still high on his upside, so it’s hard to see him not being a significant contributor in a thin position group. Evans, meanwhile, was limited to 76 snaps last season and struggled mightily in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 on a combined 822 snaps. A former 6th round pick, he’s far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter, but he’ll still get a shot in this group.

Bynes may be a journeyman, now changing teams with the 4th time in 10 seasons in the league, and he only signed on a one-year, 1.65 million dollar deal, but he could prove to be a steal if he plays like he has in the past two seasons. In the first 7 seasons of his career, Bynes was primarily a special teamer and backup, making 29 total starts and exceeding 456 snaps in a season just once, but he always showed well against the run and he had a bit of a late breakout year in 2018 with the Cardinals after developing some coverage abilities as well, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 726 snaps. 

That wasn’t enough to land him a starting job going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens signed him as a situational run stuffer and he excelled in that role, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 391 snaps. His arrival also coincided with a drastic improvement in play on defense by the Ravens, though there were other reasons for the improvement beyond Bynes’ addition. Now going into his age 31 season, Bynes might not be able to keep this level of play up, but he could easily be a valuable base package player, though he’d likely be overmatched in an every down role. With mid round rookies legitimately competing for roles, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The biggest investments the Bengals made this off-season were all in the secondary, signing ex-Vikings cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to deals worth 42 million over 3 years and 4 million over 1 year respectively and signing ex-Saint Vonn Bell to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Waynes replaces starting outside cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, while Alexander replaces slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were limited to 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively last season due to injury, forcing underwhelming backup BW Webb into 834 snaps. This off-season, the Bengals have cleaned house, including Webb, and will start Waynes and Alexander in 3 cornerback sets with William Jackson.

Jackson had injury problems of his own last season, only missing the final 2 games of the season, but playing through a shoulder injury all season that clearly affected his play. A first round pick in 2016, Jackson missed his whole rookie year with a torn pectoral, but finished in the top-28 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018, allowing 47.3% completion over that stretch. In 2019, he fell all the way to 111st out of 135 qualifiers and allowed 60.9% completion on the season. Injuries have consistently been a problem throughout his career, and, since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 28 season, so he’ll have a shorter prime than most, but he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020.

Outside opposite Jackson, Waynes will start, as he did 44 times over the past 3 seasons with the Vikings. A first round pick in 2015, Waynes didn’t quite live up to expectations, barely playing in his first 2 seasons (776 snaps) and then putting up consistently middling grades in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals are paying him like he’s more than that, giving him the 7th highest annual salary of any cornerback in football, but, already going into his age 28 season, he’s unlikely to get much better at this point. He should remain a capable starter, but I wouldn’t expect more.

Alexander also comes over from the Vikings, where he was also a high pick, going 54th overall in 2016. Like Waynes, Alexander hardly played early in his career, playing 391 snaps total in 2016 and 2017, but he’s played 564 snaps and 534 snaps over the past 2 seasons as the Vikings’ primary slot receiver and he has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons. Alexander will likely be a pure slot cornerback in Cincinnati, but he has the ability to play outside in a pinch if needed as well.

At safety, Vonn Bell is likely a replacement for incumbent Shawn Williams. Williams has started 57 games over the past 4 seasons and was generally a solid starter, but he fell to 89th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, prompting the Bengals to search for an upgrade in free agency this off-season. Bell is definitely an upgrade against the run, as he’s finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF in run stopping grade in 3 of his 4 seasons in the league (45 career starts), but he’s also consistently struggled in coverage. Bell is only going into his age 26 season and the former 2nd round pick may still have some untapped potential in coverage, but he’s definitely a box safety first and foremost, which is why he’s likely replacing Williams rather than the other incumbent starter Jessie Bates, who is a deep coverage safety.

Bates finished just 76th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, but the 2018 2nd round pick was much better as a rookie (12th among safeties) and most of his issues last season were against the run, as he held up in deep coverage, but missed a league leading 23 tackles. As a rookie, he still wasn’t great against the run, but he only missed a modest 14 tackles and allowed just a 59.9 QB rating into his coverage, allowing 19 completions for 2 touchdowns and picking off 3 passes with another 4 broken up. Bates also got a lot better as his 2019 season went on, with PFF’s 19th highest grade among safeties in week 10 and later, part of why this defense turned around down the stretch. Only going into his age 23 season, Bates still has a ton of long-term upside and could easily have a strong third season in the league.

With BW Webb no longer on the team, after ranking 102nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on 834 snaps as an injury replacement last season, third year cornerback Darius Phillips is expected to take over as the fourth corner. A 5th round selection in 2018, Phillips has primarily played on special teams thus far in his career and he was underwhelming on 232 rookie year snaps, but he showed a lot more promise on 108 snaps last season. Despite his limited playing time, he intercepted 4 passes, including 2 in the season finale against the Browns, and broke up another 3 passes. 

Phillips is still very inexperienced and he’s a projection to a larger role, but he has a lot of upside from the #4 cornerback spot and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Bengals had to turn to him in case of an injury to one of their top guys. The Bengals also have good depth at safety with Shawn Williams as the 3rd safety. They could frequently use 3 safety sets in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker with both Bell (5-11 205) and Shawn Williams (6-0 212) capable of playing linebacker in passing situations. This is a deep secondary and one with a lot of upside if William Jackson and Jessie Bates can have bounce back years after down 2019 seasons.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, but they have more talent than most teams coming off of a 2-14 season, as most of their losses were close, especially down the stretch when their defense played at a high level. That defense now adds DJ Reader in free agency and should get bounce back years from defensive backs William Jackson and Jessie Bates. Outside of a terrible linebacking corps, they have as much talent as some of the best defenses in the league.

The addition of Joe Burrow atop the draft is also huge for them long-term, even if he isn’t necessarily going to be a huge upgrade on Dalton right away. Burrow will likely be under siege frequently behind a horrible offensive line that will hold the whole offense back, but the Bengals have plenty of skill position talent and should be better on offense than they were last season, at the very least. The Bengals are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot, but they were competitive in most of their games last season and should be able to at least win a few more of the close ones this season. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 69.81

Defensive Score: 75.20

Total Score: 72.51 (4th in AFC North)

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the league in 2018, finishing 6th in first down rate at 40.55%, and, even though most expected them to take a hit from losing Antonio Brown, they were still considered an above average offense by most people going into 2019. Instead, their offense plummeted to 31st in first down rate at 30.92%. After being basically shut out in New England week 1 against a Patriots defense that went on to be the best in the league by a wide margin, the Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in their week 2 game against the Seahawks and had to start backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges the rest of the way. 

There were other injuries on this offense that held them back and I’ll get into those later, but Rudolph and Hodges were by far the biggest reason for their anemic offense, as they were bad even by backup standards. They completed a combined 62.3% of their passes for an average of 6.38 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 37th and 39th respectively out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hodges was an undrafted rookie, so his struggles weren’t surprising, but Rudolph was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and was seen as possibly a long-term successor to Roethlisberger, so it’s highly disappointing that he played badly enough to be benched for an undrafted rookie and that he didn’t play better upon regaining the job.

Despite the Steelers’ big offensive dropoff, they were still pretty competitive, actually in the playoff race until late in the season and finishing at 8-8, although they weren’t quite as good as their record suggests, as they finished 21st in first down rate differential at -1.51% and had a -14 point differential despite a +8 turnover margin. The reason they were competitive was that their defense made a big jump forward. After finishing the 2018 season 14th in first down rate allowed at 36.17%, the Steelers finished 2nd in 2019 at 32.43%. If the Steelers can return to form on offense and maintain their high level of play on defense, it’s not hard to see how they could be Super Bowl contenders this season.

There are some problems with that optimistic projection though, on both sides of the ball. I’ll get into their defense later, but on offense one big concern is simply that Roethlisberger, even though he’ll return in 2020, is now going into his age 38 season coming off of a major injury to his throwing arm. Roethlisberger has completed 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.82 YPA, 363 touchdowns, and 191 interceptions in 16 seasons in the league (216 starts) and he has finished in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in 8 seasons, but he’s a big question mark going into 2020 and he already seemed to be declining a little in 2018 when he finished 16th among quarterbacks on PFF. Rudolph and Hodges remain as the only backup options (though they could still sign a veteran like Cam Newton), so the Steelers are banking on Roethlisberger returning to form, which is far from a sure thing.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Roethlisberger also doesn’t have the same supporting cast as he did in 2018. Antonio Brown’s absence is the big one, but there are some other players on this offense whose stock isn’t as high as a year ago. One of those players is Brown’s former running game JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off of an injury plagued 2019. A year after posting a 111/1426/7 slash line, Smith-Schuster went for just 42/552/3 in 2019. 

A second round pick in 2017, Smith-Schuster averaged 2.11 yards per route run in his first 2 seasons in the league and seemingly broke out in 2018, but there were questions about whether or could produce without Brown drawing double teams opposite him and, fair or not, those questions remain, as, for reasons unrelated to Brown, he didn’t get a real shot to prove himself in 2019. Smith-Schuster was limited to 573 snaps in 12 games by leg injuries that also sapped his effectiveness and he had to play with among the worst quarterbacks in the league. The double teams that came his way as a result of Brown being gone didn’t help matters, but they probably were not the primary reason why he didn’t produce.

If he and Roethlisberger can stay healthy, Smith-Schuster should get a fair shot as the #1 guy in 2020, as the double teams likely aren’t going anywhere, with young wide receivers Dionte Johnson and James Washington still the top guys behind him on the depth chart. Given that they lack another proven pass catcher, the Steelers will need a big year from Smith-Schuster. He is only going into his age 24 season and has all the financial incentive in the world to produce in a contract year, but he comes with some uncertainty.

Johnson and Washington do come with some upside, as they were drafted in the 3rd round in 2019 and the 2nd round in 2018 respectively, as does this year’s 2nd year rounder, Chase Claypool out of Notre Dame. Claypool may be too raw to contribute significantly as a rookie, even though his versatility to also potentially play tight end is intriguing, but Johnson and Washington will be depended on for big roles at wide receiver. Both Washington and Johnson earned middling grades last season, but they led the team with a 44/735/3 slash line on 80 targets and a 59/680/5 slash line on 92 targets respectively, with Smith-Schuster banged up for most of the season, and they had 1.76 yards per route run and 1.61 yards per route run respectively, pretty solid considering the lack of talent around them on offense. 

For Washington, it was a significant improvement on a horrendous rookie year (0.57 yards per route run) and a good sign for the former 2nd round pick’s long-term prospects and for Johnson it was an impressive rookie year that he could easily build on in his second season. If Smith-Schuster is healthy he’ll get a larger target share this season, but this should be a much better offense overall, with Roethlisberger under center and Smith-Schuster drawing away coverage, and one or both of Johnson and Washington could take a step forward themselves as well, so they could definitely exceed last year’s receiving totals even if they don’t get the same target share.

The Steelers should also get more out of their tight ends, after completing just 53 passes to tight ends all last season. Vance McDonald led the position with a just 38/273/3 slash line, but he had a 50/610/4 slash line in 2018 with Roethlisberger in the lineup, so he has some bounce back potential, though it’s worth noting he’s going into his age 30 season and hasn’t topped 391 yards receiving in any of his other 6 seasons in the league besides 2018. Still, he should be more productive than last season and he’s a strong blocker as well. The Steelers also added tight end Eric Ebron in free agency, who will also contribute as a pass catching tight end. He comes over from the Colts on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, so the Steelers are likely to use a lot of two-tight end sets. 

Ebron was selected 10th overall in 2014 and has shown flashes of why, but they’ve been inconsistent. His career best year came in 2018 when he had a 66/750/13 slash line, but he did that on 110 targets, catching just 60.0% of his targets for 6.82 yards per target, despite playing with Andrew Luck. In 2019, in a weaker offense with Jack Doyle healthy and snapping snaps with him, Ebron was limited to just a 31/375/3 slash line in 11 games. For his career, he has just a 55/616/5 slash line per 16 games. Still only going into his age 27 season, he could still have theoretical upside, but most likely he won’t be a game changer as a receiver and he also doesn’t block well either. The Steelers are young at wide receiver and could struggle for consistency as a result, but they have a high ceiling at the position and they have a solid tight end duo as well, so this has the potential to be a strong receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another player whose stock was higher a year ago is running back James Conner. At this time last year, he was coming off of what looked like a breakout year in his 2nd season in the league and his first season as a starter, as he rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.53 YPC), while adding a 55/497/1 slash line through the air. In 2019, injuries limited him to 328 snaps in 10 games and he rushed for just 464 yards and 4 touchdowns on 116 carries (4.00 YPC) with a 34/251/3 slash line through the air. Despite his relative struggles, Conner was missed when not in the lineup as, in his absence, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels were their top backs and they combined for 3.45 YPC on 174 carries on the season, a big part of the reason why the Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL with a team 3.66 YPC average.

Not only did injuries sap Conner’s abilities even when he was on the field, he was also held back by the offense around him, as were all of Pittsburgh’s running backs. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Conner still has a career 4.36 YPC average and is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential, but it’s worth noting he’s never made it through a full 16 game season. When healthy, he’s an every down back with the upside to be among the best in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee. Given that and the fact that Conner is heading into the final year of his rookie contract, the Steelers added to their running back depth this off-season, adding Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. He’ll compete with Snell and Samuels for snaps behind Conner.

Snell and Samuels are also recent draft picks, with Snell going in the 4th round in 2019 and Samuels going in the 5th round in 2018. Snell’s rookie year YPC of 3.94 on 108 carries is nothing to write home about, but part of it was just that he didn’t break a big run, as he actually did a pretty solid job keeping offense on track all things considered, as his 49% carry success rate was 24th out of 45 qualifying running backs. For comparison, Conner ranked 35th at 45%. The Steelers are highly unlikely to have the same 689/345 pass attempt/carry split they had in Roethlisberger’s last season in 2018, with Roethlisberger coming off of injury and a dependable defense supporting them, so Snell could earn himself a somewhat significant role as a change of pace back behind Conner and he’d of course be in line for an even bigger role if Conner was to get hurt.

Samuels, on the other hand, was limited to a pathetic 2.65 YPC average last season on 66 carries and, though he did have a 4.57 YPC average on 56 carries as a rookie, he’s still unlikely to ever develop into a significant contributor as a runner. Where he can be a contributor is as a versatile player in the passing game, not just out of the backfield, but also as a tight end or wide receiver as well, positions he’s played in the past. He had 47 catches last season after 26 as a rookie and, even if Conner is healthier this season, Samuel should remain active on passing downs. This is a young group with a lot of upside, but also downside.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Steelers were also disappointing on the offensive line last season, at least compared to their normal dominant selves, as they got below average play from the left guard and the center spot. Center Maurkice Pouncey has been better in the past, including 4 finishes in a row in the top-14 among centers on Pro Football Focus in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to finishing 34th out of 35 qualifying centers in 2019, but he’s going into his age 31 season now, so his best days could be behind him. He has some bounce back potential, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he kept struggling. 

At left guard, long-time veteran (145 starts in 11 seasons, all in Pittsburgh) Ramon Foster retired this off-season after turning 34 in January. Foster was underwhelming in his final season as a starter, so he won’t be terribly difficult to replace, and the Steelers have a couple different options. The simplest one would just be to plug in veteran free agent addition Stefen Wisniewski for the short-term. The ultimate journeyman, Wisniewski is now going into his 10th season in the league with his 5th team. 

Wisniewski is an experienced starter (103 starts) with experience at both guard and center and he was consistently an above average starter in his prime (77 starts in 5 seasons from 2011-2015), but he’s been limited to more reserve work over the past 4 seasons (26 starts) and is now going into his age 31. Still, Wisniewski has shown well as a spot starter as well, especially down the stretch for the Super Bowl winning Chiefs last season, and there are definitely worse players to have to start at guard this season. He could at least be an adequate replacement for Foster.

The Steelers’ other option is to move right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard. Feiler has broken out as an above average starting right tackle over the past 2 seasons, finishing 35th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 (10 starts) and 17th last season (16 starts), so it would be risky to try to change his position and hope he plays at the same level in a less familiar spot, but the Steelers have good offensive tackle depth and may feel that moving Feiler inside allows them to get their 5 best offensive linemen on the field at the same time. 

If Feiler were to move inside, right tackle duties would either be left to Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner. Okorafor has played just 229 mediocre snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he went in the 3rd round in 2018 and is still only going into his age 23 season, so he has plenty of upside. Banner, meanwhile, went in the 4th round in 2017 with the Colts, but spent his first 2 seasons in the league barely playing while bouncing from the Colts to the Browns to the Panthers to, eventually, the Steelers. With the Steelers, he flashed on 216 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career, but was primarily used as a situational 6th offensive lineman/blocking tight end and saw just 27 pass block snaps all season. He would be a huge projection to a larger role, even if he did show a lot of potential as a run blocker last season.

Along with Feiler, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and right guard David DeCastro are coming off of strong seasons, so, outside of left guard and center, this was still a strong offensive line last season. Both Villanueva and DeCastro have been starting in their current spot for several years, with Villanueva making 74 starts since 2015 and DeCastro making 111 starts since 2012. Both have played consistently well, with Villanueva finishing in the top-21 among offensive tackles on PFF in 4 straight seasons and DeCastro finishing in the top-17 among guards on PFF in 7 straight seasons. Age is becoming a concern for both of them, with Villanueva going into his age 32 season and DeCastro going into his age 30 season. Villanueva’s age is a bigger concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, nor has DeCastro. Even if they decline this season, they should remain at least solid starters. This group isn’t as dominant as it has traditionally been, but this is still a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

If the Steelers’ offense can at least be capable this season and their defense plays like it did last season when it finished 2nd only to the Patriots with a 32.43% first down rate allowed, the Steelers have a great chance to make it back to the post-season. There is reason to believe their defense won’t be quite as good in 2020, however, primarily due to the sheer number of players who had career best years on this side of the ball. The likelihood that happens again is low, so some regression is to be expected just from that. The Steelers were closer to the 15th ranked Saints on defense last year than they were to the 1st ranked Patriots, so even a little bit of regression on this side of the ball could have a big impact.

The two most obvious players who had career best years were starting edge defenders TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. Watt, a first round pick in 2017, made a big leap from his 2nd to his 3rd year, finishing 51st and 26th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018 respectively before jumping to #1 overall in 2019, when he was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 14.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate. 

Dupree, meanwhile, went in the first round in 2015 and suddenly broke out in his contract year in 2019, after 4 underwhelming years to start his career (9.4% pressure rate). Dupree had 11.5 sacks and while his peripheral pass rush numbers weren’t as good (9 hits, 9.4% pressure rate), he still finished 24th among edge defenders on PFF. Both players could regress in 2020, particularly Dupree, who is a complete one-year wonder, which is why he’s likely to spend the season on the franchise tag (15.828 million) and not get a long-term extension this off-season. Watt should still be one of the better players in the league at his position, but he could have a long productive career and still only ever match last year’s level of production a couple times, so he’s not a guarantee to be as good.

It’s also possible Watt or Dupree could miss time with injury, after both played in 16 games in 2019, which would expose the Steelers’ lack of depth at the position. Watt and Dupree played 86.3% and 90.4% of the snaps respectively last season because of their lack of depth and the Steelers are likely hoping they can do the same again this season. Even Anthony Chickillo, their top reserve with 146 snaps played last season, is no longer with the team, leaving raw 3rd round rookie Alex Highsmith and 2018 undrafted rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (71 career snaps) as their likely top reserves. Everything went well at the position in 2019, but injuries and/or regression are certainly possible in 2020, which would expose their lack of depth.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

On the interior, the Steelers get a talented player back from injury in Stephon Tuitt, who plays defensive end in base packages and stays on the field as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. Tuitt was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked interior defender in 2017, their 24th ranked interior defender in 2018, and then was ranked 6th at his position through 6 games when he went down for the season with a torn pectoral last year, but his absence didn’t actually affect this defense that much. Reserve Tyson Alualu (432 snaps) replaced Tuitt on early downs and, while he didn’t add much pass rush (7.4% pressure rate), he actually had a better run stopping grade on the season than Tuitt did, so he was arguably an upgrade in that aspect, finishing 12th on PFF among interior defenders on run stopping grade.

Meanwhile, nose tackle Javon Hargrave took over as more or less an every down player and finished the season as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender, excelling against the run, but also adding 4 sacks and a 13.1% pressure rate. Hargrave signed with the Eagles this off-season, so, while Tuitt’s return helps in a vacuum, it’s offset by the loss of Hargrave. Alualu is also unlikely to repeat arguably the most effective season of his 10-year career, now going into his age 33 season. On top of that, Tuitt is far from a lock to stay healthy, not having played in all 16 games since his rookie year back in 2014.

Cameron Heyward played all 16 games on the other side and had a dominant year as an every down player, finishing 2nd among interior defenders, only behind Aaron Donald. He’s unlikely to be quite as good in 2020, however. Heyward has been a high level player for years, finishing in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF in each of his last 5 healthy seasons, but prior to last season he had never finished higher than 7th at his position and that was his only other finish in the top-10. Now going into his age 31 season, Heyward should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons, but it’s likely his 2019 season will stand out as clearly the best year of his career when all is said and done. Any regression from him hurts their chances of remaining an elite unit in 2020.

The Steelers did replenish depth somewhat this off-season by trading for Chris Wormley, formerly of division rival Baltimore. Wormley was a 3rd round pick in 2017, but has been middling at best on 1,027 career snaps. Already going into his age 27 season, Wormley is unlikely to make a big impact and he’d be playing slightly out of position if he had to play nose tackle, which is most likely to be his primary spot, with Heyward and Tuitt as the ends in base packages and Alualu still around as a reserve. This should still be a strong group if everyone is healthy, but they can afford an injury much less this season than last season because of the loss of Hargrave and both Heyward and Alualu are on the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to repeat their career best year from 2019.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Linebacker was probably the Steelers’ worst group on defense last season and it doesn’t get better after losing starter Mark Barron in free agency. Barron was pretty underwhelming last season, but he played 750 snaps and they didn’t really replace him, which could force situational run stuffer Vince Williams into an every down role, with no good depth to speak of at the position. Williams played well against the run last season, as he has throughout his career, but he only played 397 snaps total and has never been good in coverage, which has limited him to a max of 785 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to suddenly get better, now going into his age 31 season. The Steelers may try to mask their lack of linebacker depth by using a 3rd safety as a linebacker frequently in sub packages, but their depth at safety is suspect as well, so that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Fortunately, Devin Bush remains as an every down player at the other off ball linebacker spot in this 3-4 defense. Bush had some growing pains early on, but finished with an above average grade on Pro Football Focus regardless and was their 19th ranked off ball linebacker from week 4 on. Still only going into his age 22 season, Bush is still dripping with upside and could easily develop into one of the best off ball linebackers in the league over the next few seasons. He elevates a position group that has a significant depth problem.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Top cornerback Steven Nelson is also coming off of the best year of his career. He has improved in all 4 seasons he’s been a starter (53 starts), but he finished 83rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2016, 74th in 2017, and 26th in 2018, so his 7th ranked finish in 2019 was a big jump. Still only going into his age 27 season, it’s possible Nelson has turned a corner and will remain an elite player and he should remain at least a solid starter even if he regresses, but he’s not a guarantee to repeat by far the best season of his career.

Along with the addition of Nelson on a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar deal last off-season, the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade after week 2 was among the biggest additions to this roster that led to their breakout season on defense last year. Like Nelson and many others, Fitzpatrick is coming off of a career best year, finishing 11th among safeties on PFF, but there is reason to believe he can keep it up.

Fitzpatrick was the 11th overall pick by the Dolphins in 2018 and had an underwhelming rookie year, while moving all over the formation, outside cornerback, slot cornerback, deep safety, box safety, which led to Fitzpatrick wanting out of Miami. He got his wish when the Steelers sent a 2020 first round pick (eventually 18th overall) to acquire him and immediately he broke out, playing primarily as an every down deep safety, which seems to be his best spot. Fitzpatrick is obviously still unproven, but he’s still very young, going into his age 24 season, and looks like he’s going to be one of the top safeties in the league for years to come.

Fellow starting safety Terrell Edmunds also went in the first round in 2018, taken directly by the Steelers at #28 overall. Edmunds hasn’t been as good as Fitzpatrick and doesn’t have as high of a ceiling, but he’s been a capable starter across 31 starts and has the upside to be a lot more going forward. He won’t necessarily have a breakout year this year, but he could and I would expect him to at least take a step forward after back-to-back middling seasons to begin his career.

At cornerback, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton remain as the #2 and #3 cornerbacks behind Nelson. Both earned above average grades last season, Haden ranking 34th among cornerbacks on PFF and Hilton ranking 51st. Haden is an experienced starter with 123 starts in 10 seasons in the league and he has earned an above average grade in 8 of those 10 seasons, with one of the exceptions being an injury wrecked season in 2015. His age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, but even if he declines a little, he should remain a solid starter at least another year or two.

With Nelson and Haden on the outside, Nelson specializes in the slot, where he has played 86.7% of his 1,121 coverage snaps over the past 3 seasons. He has ranked in the top-20 among cornerbacks in slot coverage snaps played in all 3 seasons and he has allowed just 1.13 yards per route run on those coverage snaps, but he’s not just a coverage cornerback, as he played the run well as well and adds value as a blitzer off the edge, with 6.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate on 200 career blitzes. Hilton went undrafted back in 2016, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in which he’s played and has developed into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league.

Hilton’s size limitations at 5-9 184 mean he’ll almost never play outside, but the Steelers fortunately do have good outside depth in Cameron Sutton, who is a good 4th cornerback. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Sutton hasn’t played much in his career yet (621 snaps, 2 starts) and he was pretty bad in his first 2 seasons, but he flashed on a career high 268 snaps last season and still may have a lot of upside, only going into his age 25 season. He’s probably overqualified as a 4th cornerback. Their depth isn’t as good at safety, where Kameron Kelly, who was horrendous on the first 133 snaps of his career in 2019, is likely going to be the 3rd safety, but this is still a strong secondary overall, led by Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who should have strong seasons even if they don’t match last year’s career bests.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

In 2018, the Steelers ranked 6th in first down rate at 40.55% with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. In 2019, the Steelers ranked 2nd in first down rate allowed at 32.43%. Now that Ben Roethlisberger is coming back, many expect they can have a top offense and defense and compete for the Super Bowl. I don’t think that’s quite true. On offense, Roethlisberger is going into his age 38 season, coming off of a major injury, without a competent backup, and his supporting cast isn’t the same as it was two years ago. On defense, the Steelers’ top-6 defensive players last season (TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Javon Hargrave, Steven Nelson, and Bud Dupree) all either had the best year of their career last season or, in Hargrave’s case, they are no longer on the team. 

They still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball and they get Stephon Tuitt back from injury to replace Hargrave, but a lot went close to perfect on defense last season and they may regress back closer to the middle of the pack in 2020. This should still be a competitive team that has a good shot to get one of the three wild cards spots in the AFC in this new expanded playoff format, but they’re clearly behind the Ravens in the division and I wouldn’t consider them true Super Bowl contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 74.69

Defensive Score: 76.96

Total Score: 75.83 (2nd in AFC North)

Cleveland Browns 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

2019 was finally supposed to be the Browns’ year. Dubbed off-season winners by most around the league, the Browns were expected not only to qualify for the post-season for the first time since 2002, but also to legitimately contend for a Super Bowl championship. It was an understandable projection, as the Browns had a young up and coming team that finished 5-2 in their final 7 games in 2018 and then added key veterans like Odell Beckham and Sheldon Richardson to the mix, but it didn’t end up being correct at all, as the Browns struggled throughout a mediocre and highly disappointing 6-10 season in which they finished just 23rd in first down rate differential at -3.21%.

How did things go so badly? Well there are four main reasons and there’s some overlap between them. For one, the problem was coaching. Freddie Kitchens was 5-3 in 2018 as the interim head coach after Hue Jackson was fired, but his ascension from position coach to full-time head coach was very quick and he proved to be overmatched in his first full year on the job, especially dealing with a new mix of players in the locker room and with the team’s new found high expectations. Kitchens lasted just one full season as the head coach in Cleveland and was replaced this off-season by Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, a long-time position coach in his own right, but one who at least has a year of coordinating experience under his belt.

The second reason is that, while this roster had plenty of star players on it, it was a very top heavy roster that somehow lacked depth even though they made 45 draft picks from 2015-2018. When key players disappointed or missed time in 2019, the Browns didn’t have the depth to compensate. I’ll get into specific absences and disappointments later, but the Browns lost defensive end Myles Garrett for the season after week 11 and fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon played just 63 snaps after week 9. Garrett and Vernon were one of the top defensive end pairs in the NFL last season when on the field together, but the Browns’ depth at the position was very suspect, leading to a massive drop off in level of play when Garrett and Vernon were out. 

The Browns had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL through the first 7 games of the season and one of the easiest schedules during the final 9 games of the season, but the Browns barely improved in first down rate differential (-3.70% in the first 7 games vs. -3.02% in the second 9 games) because their defense actually went from a 36.54% first down rate allowed in the first 7 games of the season to a 39.86% first down rate allowed in the final 9 games of the season, despite a drastically easier schedule. If Garrett and Vernon had been available for the 2nd half of the season or if they had at least had competent replacements, the Browns would have been in much better position to take advantage of their easy schedule and could have easily picked up a few more wins to at least put them in playoff contention.

The third reason is, specifically, regression at the quarterback position. The #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mayfield’s career got off to an underwhelming start, as he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the first 6 games of his career, but he completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 8.57 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in the final 8 games of his rookie season after Hue Jackson was fired, which many thought was a sign of things to come. Instead, Mayfield had a significant sophomore slump, completing 59.4% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked quarterback, down from 12th overall in his up and down rookie year.

Still only going into his age 25 season and his 3rd season in the league, Mayfield still has obvious upside, but even if he does develop into a long-term franchise quarterback who is among the best in the league, the path he takes to get there may not be the smoothest. He should be better in 2020 than he was in 2019, even if only because of better coaching and more talent around him, but I don’t necessarily expect a big leap from him overnight.

The Browns do have a better backup situation this season, signing journeyman Case Keenum in free agency. Keenum’s addition isn’t a surprise, as he had the best season of his career with Kevin Stefanski and the Vikings in 2017 (98.3 QB rating, 7th among quarterbacks on PFF) and came relatively inexpensively on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Keenum has struggled as a starter outside of that 2017 season (62 career starts), but you can do a lot worse than him as your backup quarterback. It would likely take a lot for Mayfield to actually get benched for Keenum, but it’s better to have an option like him behind Baker Mayfield than one like Drew Stanton (66.3 career QB rating), who backed him up in 2019. Obviously the Browns are hoping they never have to play Keenum, but he’s useful to have around at a position with uncertainty.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The fourth major reason for the Browns’ struggles in 2019 was their horrible offensive line play. Offensive line was the Browns’ biggest area of concern going into last season and things just got worse from there. Right tackle Chris Hubbard, who finished 52nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2018, fell to 82nd out of 89 qualifiers in 2019. Left tackle Greg Robinson showed some flashes down the stretch in 2018, but proved to be horrendous in his first full season as a starter. Right guard was their biggest weakness going into the season and they never solved the problem with either of the starting options they tried (Wyatt Teller and Eric Kush).

The Browns obviously viewed upgrading their offensive line as a priority this off-season. They didn’t add anything of note at right guard, but they signed right tackle Jack Conklin to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal to leave the Titans in free agency and then used their first round pick 10th overall on Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, who will slot in at left tackle. Wills is the more questionable starter, not just because he’s a rookie, but also basically he played primarily on the right side in college. At Alabama, the right side was the blindside because they had a left handed quarterback for most of Wills’ tenure, so he has experience on a quarterback’s blindside, but Wills will still have to re-learn his technique for the left side, which could add to his growing pains as a rookie.

Conklin, meanwhile, has some injury history, but was otherwise a very safe signing. Conklin tore his ACL in a playoff game in January 2018 and had a down 2018 season, finishing as PFF’s 47th ranked offensive tackle on 498 snaps, leading to the Titans declining his 5th year option which would have guaranteed him 12.86 million for injury in 2020. That proved to be a mistake as Conklin had the best season of his career in 2019, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on PFF. The 8th overall pick in 2016, Conklin also finished 18th and 31st in his first 2 seasons in the league, so aside from an injury affected season, he’s consistently been one of the better right tackles in the league and he’s still only going into his age 26 season. Assuming he can continue to stay healthy, he should continue playing at a high level for years to come.

Left guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter both remain and they were the lone bright spots on this line in 2019, both finishing 9th among guards and centers respectively on PFF. Bitonio has been a starter for the Browns since his rookie year in 2014 and he has finished in the top-19 among guards on PFF in 5 of 6 seasons in the league (79 starts), including 3 straight seasons in the top-11. Tretter, meanwhile, flashed as a spot starter early in his career in Green Bay and has earned an above average grade in all 3 seasons in Cleveland, while making all 48 starts at center, since signing with the team prior to the 2017 season. Originally signed to a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal, Tretter was extended on a 3-year, 32.55 million dollar deal during last season, making him one of the highest paid centers in the league. Both Bitonio and Tretter are going into their age 29 season, so I wouldn’t expect much drop off from either player.

Right guard is the only spot still unsettled on this line. Wyatt Teller made the final 9 starts of the season at the position last year, after being acquired from the Bills for a swap of late round picks last off-season, but he didn’t play particularly well, finishing 61st among 89 qualifying guards on PFF. A 5th round pick in 2018, Teller also struggled in 7 rookie year starts in Buffalo, which is what led to him being replaced in free agency and traded to the Browns. Teller doesn’t have a particularly high upside, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a dependable starter.

Teller will face competition from veteran Chris Hubbard, who struggled at right tackle last season, but who also has experience at guard as well, and 2019 6th round pick Drew Forbes, who missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury. Hubbard is probably their best alternative, as much as he struggled last season. He’s experienced (43 career starts), still relatively young in his age 29 season, has generally been better than he was last season, and he played some guard earlier in his career. He wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade on over Teller though and the same is true of Forbes, who is totally unproven. Right guard is a position of weakness on an overall strong and much improved offensive line.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even with some of the big off-season splashes the Browns have made in recent off-seasons, they still had cap space to play with this off-season. In addition to signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a big contract in free agency, the Browns also signed former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid tight end in the league. His contract may seem like an overpay, but the tight end market is undervalued due to great value contracts that were signed years ago by guys like Zach Ertz, Rob Gronkowski, and Travis Kelce. 

When those guys come up for extensions and when all-everything tight end George Kittle inevitably gets his massive extension after his rookie deal runs up next off-season, Hooper’s contract suddenly will look reasonable by comparison. If you look at his salary compared to wide receivers, he’d rank just 22nd at the position in average annual salary between Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd. That’s pretty reasonable for his skill set.

A 3rd round pick in 2016 by the Falcons, Hooper has seen his production increase in every season in the league, from 19/271/3 and 49/526/3 in 2016 and 2017 respectively to 71/660/4 and 75/787/6 in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Last season, he posted his career best numbers in just 13 games, giving him a 92/969/7 slash line extrapolated over 16 games, which would have been among the best in the league at the tight end position.

Hooper played on a very pass friendly offense in Atlanta and is an unspectacular player overall, but he’s very impressively caught 77.3% of his career targets and he’s one of the few tight ends in the league who is a threat in the passing game and who can also hold their own as an inline blocker. He’s also still got room to continue to get better, only going into his age 26 season. He’ll be a valuable addition for a Browns team that had just 42 catches by tight ends in 2019.

David Njoku was supposed to lead this tight end group last season, after the 2017 1st round pick was the Browns’ 2nd leading receiver with a 56/639/4 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2018. Instead of the breakout year many projected for him in 2019, injuries, inconsistent play, and problems with the coaching staff led to him playing just 99 snaps and catching just 5 passes in 4 games.

Hooper’s addition would seem to signal the end of Njoku’s time in Cleveland, but the Browns picked up his 5th year option for 2021, which guarantees him 6.013 million for injury, so they clearly still value him on some level. He’d need Hooper to get hurt to ever have the kind of breakout year he was expected to have last season, but new head coach Kevin Stefanski comes from Minnesota where the tight end position is very important where and two-tight end sets are used frequently, so there should still be a role for Njoku in 2020. The Browns also used a 4th round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant, who is likely to play a significant role if either Hooper or Njoku get hurt.

The Browns will need to use two tight end sets frequently to mask their depth problems at wide receiver. Outside of 1000+ yard receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, the Browns didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 12 catches in 2019 and they didn’t add anything of significance at the position this off-season. In fact, their wide receiver situation is made even more problematic by Jarvis Landry’s off-season hip surgery, which is threatening his availability for all of the off-season and even possibly into the start of the season.

Landry would be a big loss if he missed time, as he’s been their leading receiver the past two seasons. A 2nd round pick by the Dolphins in 2014, Landry has finished in the top-34 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, while averaging a 94/1031/5 slash line, topping 1000 yards three times, and topping 100 catches twice. After spending the first four seasons of his career in Miami, Landry came to Cleveland on a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

Landry has still been productive in Cleveland, but his usage has been very different. Landry still primarily lines up in the slot, but in Miami his average depth of target was just 4.67 yards from the line of scrimmage and he broke 76 tackles on 400 catches and averaged 5.43 yards per catch after catch. In Cleveland, his average depth of target is 8.75 yards from the line of scrimmage and he’s broken just 22 tackles on 164 catches and averaged just 4.36 yards per catch after catch.

It’s fair to wonder if the Browns would be better off using him as Miami did, as they completed 70.5% of their passes to Landry with 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, while the Browns have completed 57.1% of their passes to Landry with 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but there are no indications they plan on significantly changing how he’s used. If anything, he’s likely to be less productive overall, in part due to an injury recovery which could affect him into the season even if he doesn’t miss time and in part to the Browns being a run heavier team that uses more two tight end sets, which means fewer pass attempts and allows fewer opportunities for Landry on the slot in three wide receiver sets.

Odell Beckham is also recovering from an injury. Like Landry, he played all 16 games last season, but he was limited by a core muscle injury for most of the year and it affected him noticeably. Beckham’s 74/1035/4 slash line would be a good season for most wide receivers, but Beckham averaged a 106/1485/12 slash line per 16 games with the Giants, so that’s a disappointing total from him for a 16-game season. He also finished 58th among wide receivers on PFF after finishing in the top-10 in four of his five seasons in New York and he saw his yards per route run drop from 2.40 with the Giants to 1.81 last season with the Browns. His disappointing season is a big part of why the Browns disappointed in general, as he was the prize of their big off-season.

Beckham is a better fit than Landry for a run heavier offense that figures to use a lot of two tight end sets because they can set up big plays for him on the outside off play action, so I would expect him to lead the team in receiving this time around. Only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, though he’s been pretty banged up throughout his career and has only one other time played all 16 games. Both him and Landry are injury concerns, so the Browns’ lack of depth at the position is a big problem.

The Browns brought back Rashard Higgins on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll likely be the third receiver. Higgins was a 5th round pick in 2016 and seemed to be showing potential in 2018, with a 39/572/4 slash line as a part-time player and a 1.80 yards per route run average, but a combination of injury and ineffectiveness limited him to 4 catches and 172 snaps in 10 games last season. 

Overall in his career, his 2018 season is an outlier, as he’s averaged 1.01 yards per route run overall. With only bottom of the roster types like Taywan Taylor (53 career catches) and KhaDarel Hodge (6 career catches) competing with him for playing time, the Browns don’t have a better alternative for Higgins, who would likely be forced into action in two wide receiver sets if Landry misses the start of the season or if Beckham gets hurt at some point. They would likely struggle to generate plays through the air in that scenario.

Without a pass catching threat at tight end or a 3rd wide receiver last season, the Browns 3rd leading receiver was pass catching back Kareem Hunt, even though he played just 8 games. Hunt’s 37/285/1 slash line is nothing to write home about, but he’s averaged a 53/511/5 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons in the league and is one of the most gifted pass catching running backs in the NFL. He should remain actively used in that role and could push for 60 catches if he can stay in the lineup all season. With Hunt out of the backfield and two pass catching tight ends in Hooper and Njoku who will play significant roles, the Browns should be able to somewhat mask their depth problems at wide receiver, but they need both Landry and Beckham healthy. If both can stay healthy, there is definitely potential here, but there’s a lot of potential downside as well.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Hunt won’t be nearly as involved on the ground, but he did add 179 yards and 2 touchdowns on 43 carries (4.16 YPC) in 8 games last season. In addition to his pass catching ability, he’s also plenty proven as a lead back, averaging 4.75 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns on 453 carries in 27 games in the first 2 seasons of his career, after being drafted in the third round by the Chiefs in 2017. Hunt looked like he was going to be one of the best running backs in the league for years to come, but his career was put on hold when he was suspended indefinitely following a video release of a domestic violence arrest. Between the 5 games he didn’t play in 2018 after the Chiefs released him and the 8 game suspension he was given by the league after the Browns signed him last off-season, Hunt missed close to a full year, but is still only going into his age 26 season and, if he can stay out of trouble, he could give the Browns arguably the best running back duo in the NFL.

The other half of that duo is lead back Nick Chubb, a workhorse who has averaged 18.3 carries per game in 26 career starts. The 35th overall pick in 2018, Chubb somehow was only given 16 carries in the first 6 games of his career (despite a 10.81 YPC average) and the Browns front office actually had to trade veteran Carlos Hyde just to get Hue Jackson to make Chubb the starter, but, once he did, Chubb never looked back and has rushed for a 4.88 YPC and 14 touchdowns on 474 carries in 26 games since. He’s also done this despite an underwhelming offensive line in front of him and has averaged a ridiculous 4.04 yards per carry after contact in his career. Chubb is still only going into his age 25 season and it’s scary to think what he could do running behind easily the best offensive line of his career. 

The Browns obviously are going to want to get Hunt involved as a runner as well, but Chubb’s talent and durability make him tough to take off the field and they can give Hunt plenty of passing game work to make up for his lack of carries because Chubb (5.47 yards per target on 78 career targets) is not particularly useful on passing downs. Hunt’s return from suspension last season barely affected Chubb’s workload (154 carries in the first 8 games of the season compared to 144 in the final 8 games of the season) and there will be plenty of carries to go around on what should be a run heavier offense. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, despite his underwhelming play on passing downs, Chubb has a good shot to lead the league in rushing in 2020, especially if the Browns are winning games and playing with leads. He and Hunt are arguably the top running back duo in the NFL.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, this defense fell apart in the second half of the season without defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon. When on the field, Garrett and Vernon finished as Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 21st ranked edge defenders on 544 snaps and 508 snaps respectively and combined for 13.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate. Without them, the Browns had arguably the thinnest edge defender group in the NFL. It was especially disappointing because the Browns used high draft picks on edge defenders like Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib who developed into productive players elsewhere after the Browns got rid of them for next to no return.

In their absence, the Browns had to turn to a trio of Chad Thomas, Bryan Cox, and Porter Gustin at defensive end and they combined for just 5.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a pathetic 7.4% pressure rate. Gustin flashed against the run in limited action, but all three earned below average pass rush grades from PFF. Thomas in particular struggled, finishing last season as PFF’s 115th ranked edge defender out of 118 qualifiers on 464 snaps. It’s unsurprising the Browns were unable to stop some of the most underwhelming offenses in the league down the stretch last season, given their lack of pass rush.

Myles Garrett should return to full form, as his time missed was suspension related rather than injury related. As well as Garrett has played since being drafted by the Browns 1st overall in 2017, he’s played with a reckless streak that has led to him being penalized 27 times in 37 career games and he let that get out of control when he assaulted Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph with his own helmet, costing Garrett the final 6 games of the season. Garrett has also totaled 30.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in his career, while finishing in the top-25 among edge defenders on PFF in all 3 seasons, including back-to-back seasons in the top-13. His overall grades have been hurt by his penalties, but if he can play more under control in 2020, he still has Defensive Player of the Year type upside, still only 25 in December.

Vernon’s return I’m less sure about, as he’s going into his age 30 season and now has missed 15 games in the past 3 seasons combined. Vernon has finished in the top-32 among edge defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons, totaling 33.5 sacks, 77 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in 65 games over that stretch, but durability is becoming a significant concern for him and his best days could easily be behind him at this point. Having him back healthy will undoubtedly help this team, but he might not play at quite the same level he’s used to and he’s becoming close to a guarantee to miss at least some time with injury, not topping 12 games in a season since 2016.

The Browns signed ex-Falcon Adrian Clayborn in free agency to upgrade their depth. Clayborn has played just 26.1 snaps per game over the past two seasons and doesn’t contribute at all against the run and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he also has a 13.9% pressure rate over the past 3 seasons, so he could still be effective in a situational role. Chad Thomas will also likely still have a role as a reserve and, while he struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2019, the 2018 3rd round pick theoretically has some untapped upside and it would be hard for him to be worse in 2020. Depth is still somewhat suspect, but if Garrett and Vernon can stay on the field together all year, this is a strong group.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Browns also added depth inside at defensive tackle this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on Missouri’s Jordan Elliott and signing ex-Bengal Andrew Billings to a one-year, 3.5 million dollar deal. Both were great values. Elliott went 88th overall, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked player in the draft class and he could make an immediate impact as a rotational player. Billings, meanwhile, is a 2016 4th round pick who has developed into a solid player over the past 2 seasons, earning above average grades from PFF on 632 snaps and 657 snaps respectively. The big 6-1 325 pounder is best against the run, but has also added 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate over the past 2 seasons combined. He also is still only going into his age 25 season, so he could keep getting better.

Elliott and Billings will compete with incumbent starter Larry Ogunjobi for the starting job, although, regardless of who is nominally the starter, all three figure to rotate heavily. Ogunjobi has averaged 55.1 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, but has mostly been a snap eater and hasn’t made much of an impact. He played better on 300 snaps as a rookie in 2017 and the former 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 26 season and has plenty of upside, so he could have a strong year as a rotational player. Regardless of how the snaps are broken out, the Browns obviously have much better depth than last year when players like Chris Smith (144 snaps), Daniel Ekuale (114 snaps), Devaroe Lawrence (222 snaps), and Eli Ankou (178 snaps) were the primary reserves and struggled mightily.

Sheldon Richardson is the only every down player at the position and should play a similar amount as last season, when he played 774 snaps in 16 games. Richardson was one of the prizes of the Browns’ off-season last year and lived up to the 3-year, 37 million dollar deal the Browns gave him in free agency, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked interior defender, his 7th straight season in as many seasons in the league with an average or better grade on PFF and his 4th season in the top-27 at his position. His age is a minor concern as he turns 30 this season, but he should remain a solid every down player for at least another couple seasons. This is a much deeper position than last season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Linebacker was also a position of weakness for this defense last season, especially after every down linebacker Christian Kirksey went down for the season week 2. In his absence, 5th round rookie Mack Wilson was forced into significant action (942 snaps) and proved to be totally overmatched, finishing 93rd out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He was a big part of the Browns’ defensive struggles last season. 

Despite that, the Browns released Kirksey and his 8.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season and allowed free agent Joe Schobert, an every down player who was far and away the Browns’ top off ball linebacker last season, to sign a 5-year, 53.75 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season. Kirksey also signed a sizable deal, getting snatched up by the Packers on a 2-year, 12 million just a few days after he was released. The Browns had the cap space to keep one or both of those veterans this season, so they seem to be purposefully embracing a youth movement at the position, which could prove to be a mistake.

Wilson figures to remain an every down player and will likely take over Schobert’s role as the leader of this group. It’s possible he’s better in his 2nd season in the league, but there’s a reason the league let him fall to the 5th round, so he’s not necessarily a guarantee to improve. The Browns also drafted a linebacker in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Sione Takitaki, who also figures to have a significant role this season, though it’s concerning he was barely able to get on the field as a rookie (105 snaps) at a thin position group. His draft classmate Mack Wilson seems to be ahead of him despite being drafted later and struggling thus far in his career. The Browns also added another young linebacker in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, LSU’s Jacob Phillips, who will compete for a role.

Free agent acquisition BJ Goodson is the relative veteran of the group, though he’s only going into his 5th season in the league. Goodson is a solid run stuffer, but has struggled mightily in coverage throughout his career and has never topped 513 snaps in a season as a result. Even in a thin linebacking corps, I don’t expect that to change in 2020, as Goodson figures to be primarily a base package player. Merely because he’s had some success against the run in the past, Goodson is the most proven linebacker in one of the worst linebacker groups in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was also a problem for stretches of last season, primarily due to injury. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, and TJ Carrie and safeties Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett were supposed to be their top-5 defensive backs last season, but none of them played all 16 games. Ward and Williams were limited to 12 games each, while Carrie missed 1 game. Randall and Burnett were limited to 11 games and 8 games respectively. The Browns should be healthier in the secondary this season, just due to random variance.

The Browns have almost completely new faces at safety though. Morgan Burnett was released after a torn achilles and Randall was signed by the Raiders this off-season and their injury replacements Jermaine Whitehead and Juston Burris are elsewhere now as well. Only Sheldrick Redwine, who played 374 nondescript snaps as a 4th round rookie last season, remains from last year’s safety group, so this is a completely rebuilt group. The Browns didn’t make any splash additions, but they signed experienced veterans Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo in free agency and used a 2nd round pick on LSU’s Grant Delpit. Those 3 will compete with Redwine for playing time and the two starting jobs.

Joseph could prove to be a big value signing on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A first round pick by the Raiders in 2016, Joseph was a solid starter in 24 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he fell out of favor with the coaching staff when Jon Gruden took over. He’s been limited to just 17 starts over the past 2 seasons and had his 5th year option for 2020 declined, even though it would have guaranteed him just 6.466 million for injury. 

Joseph continued his solid play in more limited action over the past 2 seasons, so it’s surprising he wasn’t more highly valued on the open market, given that he’s a former first round pick with 41 career starts who is only going into his age 27 season, although a foot injury that ended his 2019 season after 9 games likely complicated his market. He should at least be a snap eater for this team, but he has the upside to be more. I like his chances of winning one of the two starting jobs.

Sendejo is even more experienced, starting 61 games in 10 seasons in the league, but he’s going into his age 33 season and has played just 710 snaps over the past 2 seasons, so he’s likely to be a reserve. Redwine could develop into a starter long-term, but the Browns figure to try to get Delpit onto the field sooner rather than later, given that they used the 44th overall pick on him, so I’d consider him the favorite to start for at least most of the season, even if he begins the season on the bench. It’s possible all four players see snaps at an unsettled position.

The Browns also got rid of #3 cornerback TJ Carrie this off-season. Carrie was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked cornerback out of 135 qualifying on 676 snaps last season, but Kevin Johnson, signed in free agency as his replacement, has had significant injury problems in his career. In total, Johnson has played in just 51 of a possible 80 games (19 starts) in his career and, while he played in all 16 games last season, it’s important to note he played just 335 snaps total as a reserve cornerback and that he hasn’t topped 579 snaps in a season since his rookie season in 2015. 

Johnson played pretty well last season when in the lineup, as he has for most of his career when healthy, and he’s a former 16th overall pick in just age 28 season, so he’s a worthwhile flyer who certainly has the potential to be an upgrade on Carrie, but he’s hard to rely on as your 3rd cornerback. His only real competition for the job is veteran Terrance Mitchell, who has made just 22 starts in 7 seasons in the league. Mitchell is a solid depth cornerback, but has topped 445 snaps in a season just once in his career and is best as a 4th cornerback. 

Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams remain as the outside cornerbacks. They finished just 37th and 108th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season, but they have the potential to be a lot better in 2020. Ward was the 4th overall pick in 2018 and lived up to it as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback. He had a down year in an injury plagued 2019 season, but still played relatively well all things considered and, only going into his age 23 season, Ward has obvious bounce back potential and could develop into one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. Williams is also young, going 46th overall in 2019 and not turning 23 until December, so he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. This should be an improved unit in 2020 simply by being healthier.

Grade: B

Conclusion

In 2019, the Browns disappointed because of their coaching, quarterback play, offensive line play, and depth when injuries hit. Whether or not first year head coach Kevin Stefanski is up for the job and whether or not Baker Mayfield can bounce back in his third season in the league are both up in the air and, while the Browns should have better depth in some spots this season, they still have some obvious weak spots, particularly on defense, and they can’t necessarily count on better injury luck, after having the 7th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2019. That doesn’t include Myles Garrett’s suspension, but all things considered, the Browns didn’t have an unreasonable about of absences last season.

The one thing that is drastically improved for the Browns between 2019 and 2020 is their offensive line, especially at both tackle positions. Between that and some improved depth in some areas, the Browns should be better equipped this season than last season. They could also benefit from lesser expectations in 2020. It’s going to take a lot to catch Baltimore atop the division, but the Browns should at least compete for one of the three wild card spots in the expanded post-season format and they have the upside to be a real threat if certain players progress, particularly Mayfield. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.26

Defensive Score: 72.47

Total Score: 74.37 (3rd in AFC North)

New Orleans Saints 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Over the past three seasons, no team has won more regular season games than the Saints, who are 37-11 over that span. However, all three seasons have ended in disappointing playoff losses before they could even reach the Super Bowl. In 2017, they lost on a last second Hail Mary now known as the Minnesota Miracle. In 2018, they lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship primarily because of a missed pass interference that was so paid it caused the NFL to temporarily change the rules to allow pass interference to be challenged. Last season, it wasn’t quite as bad, but they still lost a tightly contested game in overtime as big home favorites.

Three disappointing playoff exits would be tough for any team, but it’s especially tough for a team like the Saints, who have one of the most veteran rosters in the league and have consistently mortgaged future cap space to keep talented veteran rosters under the cap. No player has a ticking clock more than quarterback Drew Brees, who is heading into his age 41 season and what many expect will be his final season in the league, having already negotiated a media contract with NBC Sports for after retirement. Without Brees, this probably isn’t a true contending team, so their window is closing quickly and, when the window closes, it could easily close hard, given that they would be 23 million over the projected 2021 cap even if Brees retires. The Saints can’t afford another early playoff exit because they might not get another good shot for a while.

For now, the Saints’ Super Bowl window appears to be wide open, assuming quarterback Drew Brees doesn’t see his abilities fall off completely in his age 41 season. Even if he falls off a little bit, the rest of this team is talented enough to compensate, as they once again have kept a lot of veteran talent under the cap. I’ll get into the rest of the roster later, but Brees is coming off of another vintage year, completing 74.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, ranking 2nd in the NFL in QB rating and 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 14th straight season in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in as many years in New Orleans. The only real difference between Brees’ 2019 season and the rest of his tenure with the Saints is that he missed almost 6 full games with a thumb injury, after previously missing just 1 game due to injury in the previous 13 seasons combined.

The Saints lost the game Brees got hurt in, but actually went on to win their next 5 in a row, allowing Brees to return to a first place team. Part of the reason why they kept winning without Brees was the play of backup Teddy Bridgewater, an experienced starter and high level backup who completed 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Bridgewater had a lot of help on offense though and the offense was not what led them to victory in those games. 

With Bridgewater in the lineup, the Saints had just a 34.15% first down rate, most equivalent to the 24th ranked Lions on the season. They won those games primarily because Brees’ absence coincided with the Saints’ best defensive stretch of the season, as they allowed a 32.01% first down rate in those 5 wins, as opposed to a 36.10% first down rate the rest of the season. Even though the Saints won with Bridgewater, they were undoubtedly better with Brees in the lineup, as they had a 41.86% first down rate in games Brees started and finished last season, which would have been best in the NFL over the full season. If Brees keeps it up, the Saints should easily be among the top offenses in the league again, after ranking in the top-4 in first down rate in 7 straight seasons, even doing so last season with Brees missing about a third of the season.

Bridgewater’s play in limited action last season got him a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal from division rival Carolina, so the Saints had to find a new backup quarterback and did so by scooping up Jameis Winston, formerly of division rival Tampa Bay, on an incentivized 1-year, 1.1 million dollar deal. Winston became the first quarterback since 1988 to throw more than 30 interceptions in a season last year and has been the most turnover prone starting quarterback in the league over his 5-year career, but the former #1 overall pick also led the league in passing yards last season with 5,109, threw a new career high touchdowns with 33, and has a career 7.75 YPA average in 70 career starts, so he comes with plenty of upside as a reclamation project, still only going into his age 26 season. 

I’m not convinced Winston will ever figure it out consistently enough to be a capable starting quarterback, but there are few better places for him to rehabilitate his career than in New Orleans and, even as turnover prone as he is, he’s still better than most backup options. The Saints will obviously just have to hope they don’t need him. They also have the versatile Taysom Hill, who played 36 of his 243 offensive snaps as a traditional quarterback last season and threw 6 pass attempts. 

Hill still has just 13 career regular season pass attempts, but he’s added 352 yards and 3 touchdowns on 64 carries (5.50 YPC) and 22 catches for 238 yards and another 6 scores through the air over the past 2 seasons combined and the extension the Saints gave him this off-season with 16 million guaranteed suggests he could be seen as Brees’ long-term successor, or at least that they view him as a big part of the post-Brees plan. With Brees, Winston, and Hill, the Saints are as loaded as you can be at the quarterback position.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

When talking about the talent that Brees has around him, it’s hard not to start with prolific wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was added as a 2nd round pick in 2016. In 4 years with the Saints, Thomas has had a noticeable impact on Drew Brees’ production. Prior to the addition of Thomas, Brees completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 348 touchdowns, and 152 interceptions in 10 seasons with the Saints, great numbers, but not compared to Brees’ time with Thomas. 

In the past 4 seasons, Brees had completed 72.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 119 touchdowns, and 32 interceptions, a 108.2 QB rating (best in the NFL over that span), including a 116.9 QB rating specifically when targeting Thomas. It’s become easier to pass in recent years and passing numbers are up across the board, but there’s no denying the impact Thomas has had for Brees, as he is easily the most talented pass catcher he has gotten to play with throughout his incredible career. 

In 4 years together, they have combined for an average 118/1378/8 slash line per season on a ridiculous 77.9% completion. Thomas himself has finished in the top-8 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, including three straight seasons in the top-3. Not only are Thomas’ 470 career catches for 5,512 yards both the most ever for a player in his first 4 seasons in the league, but they also rank 1st and 2nd respectively in the NFL among all pass catchers over that period of time. Perhaps most impressively, Thomas has seen his catches and his yardage go up in every season in the league, going from 92/1137/9 as a rookie to 149/1725/9 last season. 

The Saints kept him long-term on an 5-year, 96.25 million dollar extension, which seems like a lot of money and in fact it made him the highest paid wide receiver in the league last off-season when it was signed, but he’s already only the 3rd highest paid wide receiver in the league behind Julio Jones and Amari Cooper and this contract value will just keep looking better as other wide receivers sign for more money and as Thomas continues performing at a high level throughout the final four years of his deal. Still only going into his age 27 season with just 1 game missed due to injury in his career, I see no reason to see him dropping off anytime soon. Obviously having Brees around allows him to be more productive, but he figures to be able to produce at a high level even after Brees is gone.

Aside from Thomas, no Saints wide receiver topped a 30/421/2 slash line last season, so they made adding at the wide receiver position a priority this off-season, signing veteran Emmanuel Sanders to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal to replace the underwhelming Ted Ginn as the Saints’ #2 wide receiver. Sanders figures to take some targets away from Thomas, but he’ll also draw coverage away from Thomas and allow him to have more one-on-one looks. 

A thousand plus yard receiver for 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016 with the Broncos, Sanders’ best days are behind him, now going into his age 33 season, but he still finished 19th among wide receivers on PFF in 2019. Traded from the Broncos to the 49ers at the deadline, Sanders had a 66/869/5 slash line in 2020 and averaged 1.76 yards per route run. Sanders won’t have as big of a target share in New Orleans as he did in Denver or San Francisco, but New Orleans has a better passing offense and, if he can avoid regression due to age, he should have another solid statistical season. His age is a significant concern, however.

With no other Saints wide receiver doing much last season besides Michael Thomas, the Saints’ 2nd and 3rd leading receivers were tight end Jared Cook (43/705/9) and running back Alvin Kamara (81/533/1). Both players could see fewer targets than last season (65 and 97 respectively) due to the arrival of Sanders, but they should remain heavily involved in this passing game. Kamara, in particular, has bounce back potential, as he was limited due to injury in 2019, after posting a 81/826/5 and a 81/709/4 slash line in the first two seasons in his career in 2017 and 2018 respectively. He only missed two games, but he was clearly not the same player and averaged just 5.49 yards per target, down significantly from 7.49 in the first 2 seasons of his career. He may see fewer targets this season and still produce more than last season if he can stay healthy.

Cook, meanwhile, could be going the other way, with his age becoming a concern ahead of his age 33 season. Cook is coming off of arguably the best season of his 11-year career, earning a career best grade from PFF and finishing as their 10th ranked tight end overall, even though he once again struggled as a blocker as he has throughout his career. His 705 receiving yards were 8th among tight ends, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, as he also averaged 10.85 yards per target and ranked second at the position with 9 touchdowns. Cook posted a 54/668/2 slash line in 2017 and a 68/896/6 slash line in 2018, but he’s unlikely to match arguably the best season of his career, now in his 12th season in the league, and could easily drop off noticeably. He may be no higher than 4th on the pecking order behind Thomas, Sanders, and Kamara.

Tre’Quan Smith remains as the #3 wide receiver, although he did next to nothing in that role last season, posting a 18/234/5 slash line and averaging 0.82 yards per route run, 120th among 131 eligible wide receivers. Without a better option, they’ll continue using him in the same role and hope the 2018 3rd round pick can improve his underwhelming production (1.09 yards per route run in 2 seasons) in his 3rd season in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he should still have untapped potential, but he’s not a guarantee to ever deliver on it. 

Josh Hill is also still around as the #2 tight end and, while his 25 catches in 2019 were the most of his 7-year career, he’s a solid blocker who isn’t lost as a pass catcher, so you can do a lot worse out of your #2 tight end. This is a talented receiving corps that should benefit from a healthier Alvin Kamara and the addition of Emmanuel Sanders as a replacement for Ted Ginn, even if tight end Jared Cook seems likely to regress.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Alvin Kamara’s injuries also limited him as a runner. In the first two seasons of his career, the 2017 3rd round pick averaged 5.14 yards per carry with 22 rushing touchdowns and a 56% carry success rate on 314 carries. In 2019, that fell to 4.66 yards per carry with 5 rushing touchdowns and a 52% carry success rate on 171 carries. Overall, he fell from 1st among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and 5th in his 2nd season to 24th last season. Still going into his age 25 season, Kamara has obvious bounce back potential, but, going into the final year of his contract, it’s fair to wonder how long he’ll stay in New Orleans, with the Saints in the long-term cap situation they’re currently in. 

Kamara is also unlikely to significantly exceed his career high of 194 carries, as he gets a significant amount of touches through the air and the Saints don’t want to overuse him and further risk injury, so backup running back Latavius Murray should have a significant role again, after averaging 4.36 yards per carry on 146 carries last season. Murray has been a solid if unspectacular back in his career (4.15 YPC and 39 touchdowns on 1,045 carries), but his age is a concern, now going into his age 30 season. 

He’s a great complement to the smaller Kamara though, as he’s capable of getting the short yardage runs at 6-3 230. His 60% carry success rate in 2019 (2nd in the NFL) drastically exceeds what his YPC would have suggested. He’s not much of a pass catcher, but the Saints have a way of getting passing game production out of any back and the 34 catches he had last season were the 2nd most in a season in his 7 years in the league, even though he only had a part-time role. Even if he’s slightly declined in 2020, he should still be a useful player.

The only other player at note at this position is veteran Ty Montgomery. Montgomery, a converted wide receiver, is primarily insurance for Kamara as a pass catcher, but could also see a few carries per game in the big back role (6-0 222) if Murray ever missed time. Montgomery has averaged a decent 4.62 YPC average in his career, although he has just 224 carries in 5 seasons in the league and has recorded those numbers primarily against defenses expecting the pass. He’s an underwhelming player, but provides decent depth, especially on passing downs. If Kamara and Murray are both healthy, Montgomery figures to barely play as they are one of the top running back duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Saints used their first round draft pick on an offensive lineman, taking University of Michigan guard/center Cesar Ruiz 24th overall. The Saints didn’t have many pressing needs, but it was still a strange choice. Ruiz was considered the best of the guard/center class this year, but was mostly being pushed up into late first round contention by need for his position, which the Saints didn’t have. 

In New Orleans, he figures to start immediately at right guard, but he’ll be replacing incumbent Larry Warford, who was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard last season, so it would be difficult for him to be an upgrade or even a comparable player as a rookie. Warford was owed 7.75 million non-guaranteed for his contract year in 2020, but he’s only going into his age 29 season, so that’s not an unreasonable amount for him and the Saints didn’t immediately need the cap space created by releasing him. It was a strange move for a team that is definitely in win now mode.

What’s also strange is the Saints paid significantly more earlier this off-season to keep pending free agent left guard Andrus Peat, even though Warford has been the clearly better player over the past few seasons. Peat is younger (age 27 season), can play left tackle in a pinch (17 career starts), and is a former first round pick (13th overall in 2015), but injuries have limited him to 23 games combined over the past 2 seasons and he has finished in the bottom-15 among guards on PFF in both seasons, after earning solid grades for 37 starts in the first 3 seasons of his career. 

Peat has some bounce back potential, but it’s hard to justify his contract off of back-to-back down years, especially when you combine it with the Saints unnecessarily cutting Warford. The Saints could have let Peat walk and then drafted Ruiz to start at left guard or they could have even gone elsewhere in the draft and plugged veteran Nick Easton into the starting lineup at left guard as a replacement for Peat. Easton was signed to a starter’s contract, 4 years, 23 million, in free agency last off-season and has 23 career starts, including 6 as an injury replacement for Peat last season. He’s been an underwhelming starter throughout his career and finished 78th out of 89 eligible guards on PFF last season, but starting him and Warford would make more sense than paying Peat and cutting Warford.

Easton was originally signed to start at center, but he got bumped to the bench when the Saints moved up and drafted center Erik McCoy with the 48th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Saints gave up a pair of second round picks (62nd overall in 2019 and what became the 56th overall pick in 2020) to get McCoy, suggesting they had a first round grade on him, and that proved to be a good assessment, as McCoy was one of the best rookies in the league at any position, finishing 4th in the NFL among centers on PFF. A sophomore slump is definitely possible, but he could also continue developing into one of the best centers in the league for years to come. He’s obviously locked in to his starting job for 2020.

At tackle, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramcyzk remain and they are arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL. Armstead’s durability is a question though, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season. He played in a career high 15 last season, but missed 21 of 48 games in the previous 3 seasons and has missed 37 games total in 7 seasons in the league. If he misses time, it’s a significant absence, as he’s finished in the top-24 among offensive tackles on PFF in 6 straight seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-8. He’s only going into his age 29 season, so, aside from injury, he should continue playing well. 

Ramcyzk, meanwhile, is much more durable, making 47 of 48 starts since being drafted 32nd overall in 2017, and he’s finished in the top-9 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a #1 overall finish in 2019. He should continue his high level of play into 2020. Armstead and Peat have durability concerns, but when everyone is healthy, this is a strong group, even with some questionable decisions made at guard this off-season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints’ defense carried the team during their 5-0 stretch without Brees, allowing a 32.01% first down rate over those games, but they were a pretty unremarkable group other than that, finishing 15th with a 35.04% first down rate allowed on the season. They didn’t make many significant chances defensively this off-season, so I would expect more of the same. That’s especially true at the defensive tackle spot, where they return their top-6 in terms of snaps played last season.

David Onyemata led the position with 565 snaps played and was kept off the open market on a 3-year, 23 million dollar extension this off-season. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has played an average of 594 snaps per season over the past 3 seasons and arguably had his worst season of the 3 last season, but he’s still been an average or better starter in all 3 seasons, playing adequately against the run and totalling 9.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate. He’s typically rotated in primarily in passing situations and that should continue in 2020.

Sheldon Rankins is expected to be the other starter at the position, at least nominally, on a team that rotates heavily at the position. Many expected Rankins to lead the position in snaps in 2019, but he missed the first 3 games of the season rehabbing from a January 2019 torn achilles and then he missed the final 3 games of the season after a precautionary procedure on his other achilles. In between, Rankins played 323 underwhelming snaps in 10 games. 

Two leg injuries put a damper on his long-term projection, especially since he also had a major leg injury as a rookie in 2016, but Rankins is a former first round pick who finished 24th among interior defenders on PFF in 2018 before the achilles tear, and, still only going into his age 26 season, he still has plenty of upside and bounce back potential. In the final year of his rookie deal, Rankins is entering a make or break year with the team, especially given their long-term cap problems beyond this season.

While Rankins and Onyemata figure to play primarily in sub packages, Malcom Brown and Shy Tuttle should play primarily base package roles, after playing 487 snaps and 340 snaps respectively in that role in 2019. Brown came over from the Patriots last off-season on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and largely played how he did in New England, earning an above average grade against the run, but managing just a 5.6% pressure rate (5.9% for his career). He should continue serving well in a situational role in 2019. 

Tuttle, meanwhile, was more of a surprise, as the 2019 undrafted free agent flashed on 340 snaps as a rookie, not just against the run, but also adding a pair of sacks and a 7.7% pressure rate in limited pass rush opportunities. He’s very unproven and it’s still worth remembering the whole league let him go undrafted a year ago, but he’s earned an opportunity for more playing time, especially in passing situations. He’s still a projection to that larger role, however, and could easily regress in his second season.

Veteran Mario Edwards could also be in the mix after playing 293 snaps last season, assuming he makes the roster. The 2015 second round pick flashed early in his career, but then got hurt and has been limited to an average of 259 underwhelming snaps per season in 4 seasons since a promising rookie year. He’ll be competing for playing time and roster spots with veteran free agent addition Margus Hunt and possibly third year undrafted free agent Taylor Stallworth, who played just 93 snaps last season and has played just 411 snaps in 2 seasons in the league. 

Hunt comes over from the Colts on a cheap one-year, 1.05 million dollar deal. Hunt had some solid years as a run stuffer with the Colts, but he’s never been much of a pass rusher and is now going into his age 33 season and coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 114th ranked interior defender out of 125 qualifiers on 451 snaps. He’s not guaranteed a roster spot at a deep position. As deep as they are though, they lack a standout player unless Rankins can get back on track and return to his 2018 form.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The only player on this defensive line who plays every down is defensive end Cameron Jordan, who played 877 snaps last season and has averaged 59.7 snaps per game over the past 8 seasons. Despite the massive snap totals, Jordan has never missed a game in 9 seasons in the league, the 2nd longest active streak in the NFL by a defensive player. He’s also been one of the best at his position over his career, finishing in the top-12 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons and totaling 58 sacks, 50 hits, and 12.5% pressure rate over that stretch, while dominating against the run. Going into his age 31 season, it’s reasonable to expect him to begin declining soon, but even a somewhat declined Jordan is one of the better edge defenders in the league.

Marcus Davenport also played at a high level on the other side last season, albeit on a much smaller snap count. Davenport averaged 41.0 snaps per game in 13 games and was PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender, playing at a high level against the run and as a pass rusher. His 6 sacks don’t jump off the page, but he added 10 hits and a 14.4% pressure rate in somewhat limited action. The 14th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Davenport played well on 416 snaps as a rookie as well and, now going into his 3rd season in the league, could easily earn himself a larger role and have a breakout season, which would force defenses to have to pay more attention to him, freeing up Jordan on the other side in the process.

Third defensive end Trey Hendrickson also figures to remain in the mix, even if Davenport sees a larger snap count. A third round pick in 2017, Henderson has earned middling grades on an average of 274 snaps per season, including a career high 404 in 2019. A competent run stuffer to boot, Hendrickson also has a solid 10.3% pressure rate in his career. Not even 26 until December, Hendrickson still has room to get better, but he’d need an injury ahead of him on the depth chart to see significant playing time. The Saints also used a third round pick on Zack Baun, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who could see snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages. This is a deep position led by a potentially dominant starting duo.

Grade: A

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Saints need to replace starter AJ Klein, who played 754 snaps and subsequently signed with the Bills this off-season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers, so it won’t be hard to replace him. Zack Baun could see some action at linebacker, but the undersized collegiate defensive end (6-2 238) is relatively new to being an off ball linebacker, so he probably won’t have a significant role as a rookie, even if he has the athleticism to develop into a plus starter long-term.

Instead, it will likely be Alex Anzalone who will get the first crack at replacing Klein. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Anzalone has always shown starter ability, but has had trouble staying healthy dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, most notably repeated shoulder injuries. In the most significant action of his career in 2018, Anzalone was PFF’s 25th ranked off ball linebacker on 487 snaps and played all 16 games, but he’s been limited to 204 snaps in 6 games total in his other two seasons combined. If he can stay healthy in 2020, he should play a lot, but that’s a big if.

Veterans Kiko Alonso and Craig Robertson are his biggest competition for playing time and one of those two would likely take over as the starter if Anzalone got hurt again. Even if Anzalone stays healthy, Alonso and Robertson figure to compete for playing time in base packages with Baun, though Alonso’s situation is complicated by a torn ACL suffered in January in the playoff loss to Minnesota, his third career ACL tear. Injuries have derailed a once promising career for Alonso and, while he showed well in limited action on 285 snaps in 2019, he’s now going into his age 30 season and coming off yet another significant injury, so it’s hard to count on him for much. Robertson, meanwhile, has 65 career starts, but he was never a particularly good starter, and now he is going into his age 32 season with just 279 defensive snaps played over the past 2 seasons combined.

Demario Davis is the only one locked into an every down role. Davis had a largely unremarkable first 5 seasons in the league, making 66 starts, but earning middling at best grades from PFF and ultimately getting benched and traded by the Browns to the Jets for a player who never made the Browns’ final roster. In his first season with the Jets in 2017, Davis finished a career high 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF and has gotten better from there, finishing 15th in 2018 and 2nd in 2019. Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unreasonable to expect Davis to repeat the best season of his career, but he’s not totally over the hill and could easily remain a solid every down player for another couple seasons at least. His presence elevates a group that otherwise has question marks.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Saints’ big addition on defense this off-season was safety Malcolm Jenkins, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans before spending the past 6 in Philadelphia. Jenkins comes back to the Saints on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal and will essentially replace free agent departure Vonn Bell as the primary box safety. Bell excelled against the run, finishing 1st in run stopping grade among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season, but struggled mightily in coverage, finishing 94th out of 100 eligible on PFF in that aspect.

Jenkins should be more balanced, but his age is a concern in his age 33 season and his 11th season overall. Jenkins has been very durable in recent years, not missing a game since his final season in New Orleans in 2013, but his 48th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019 was a noticeable dropoff after 5 straight seasons in the top-28 from 2014-2018. He could easily continue declining over the next couple seasons, so it’s surprising the Saints were willing to guarantee him 16.25 million over the next 2 seasons.

With Jenkins primarily playing in the box, fellow starting safety Marcus Williams will continue playing deep, where he has excelled in 3 years in the league. Williams finished 6th among safeties on PFF as a rookie and then 6th again last season, with a “down” year where he ranked 31st in between. Still only going into his age 24 season, Williams could somehow keep getting even better. Because Williams was a second round pick, the Saints don’t have a 5th year option for him, so, even with all their long-term cap problems, they should lock him up as soon as possible because his asking price isn’t going to go down.

The Saints didn’t add anything at cornerback this off-season and actually lost Eli Apple, who made 15 starts last season, but Apple finished 84th out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in coverage grade last season and was made expendable by an addition the Saints made late last season, signing veteran Janoris Jenkins after he was waived by the Giants. The Saints inherited the rest of Jenkins’ 5-year, 62.5 million dollar contract when they claimed him on waivers last season, but they did so with the intention of restructuring the rest of his non-guaranteed deal after the season, which they did, agreeing to a new 3-year, 27 million contract that guarantees him 11.25 million over the next year.

Jenkins is going into his age 32 season, so he did well to get that much guaranteed for one season, but he earned an above average grade on PFF for the 6th straight season in 2019 and, while he has never lived up to his 2016 season when he finished 9th, Jenkins has been a solid starting cornerback for several years and hasn’t shown many signs of decline yet, especially excelling in his final two games of last season after joining the Saints. His age makes him a risk, but he should be an upgrade on Apple.

Marshon Lattimore will start at cornerback on the other side and remains the Saints’ top cornerback. The 11th overall pick in 2017 NFL Draft, Lattimore burst on to the scene by finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he’s actually regressed in both seasons since, finishing 29th among cornerbacks in 2018 and 45th in 2019. Lattimore is still only going into his age 24 season, so he still has a massive upside, but he’ll need to bounce back in 2020 if he’s going to justify the massive extension he’s inevitably going to ask for, with two years left on his rookie deal.

The only spot unsettled in this secondary is the slot cornerback spot. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has plenty of experience on the slot and the Saints could use a lot of three safety looks in sub packages Williams with Chaucney Gardner-Johnson, who can also play the slot. Gardner-Johnson was just a 4th round pick in 2019, but he was expected to go a couple rounds earlier and definitely looked like he should have as a rookie, flashing on 547 snaps between cornerback and safety. Also versatile enough to play linebacker, he should have a role in this secondary, even if it’s not as an every down player.

PJ Williams was the third cornerback last season, but struggled in that role, finishing 118th out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on 799 snaps, so the Saints probably would prefer not to use him anywhere near as many snaps in 2020. Gardner-Johnson figures to be the primary beneficiary of Williams’ playing time being scaled back and the Saints also have veteran slot cornerback Patrick Robinson, who finished 6th among cornerbacks in 2017 with the Eagles, but has been very inconsistent throughout his career and has played just 280 snaps in 2 seasons since. Going into his age 33 season, he’s probably not a candidate for significant playing time. 

Another veteran DJ Swearinger was also added late last season, after starting the season with the Cardinals and Raiders. Swearinger has flashed in his career, even finishing 14th among safeties on PFF as recently as 2018, and he’s only going into his age 29 season, but he’s bounced around six teams already in his career because of issues with coaches. Despite his relative youth and how well he played in 2018, he was limited to mediocre 484 snaps with three teams last season and is nothing more than a flyer for the Saints. Still, he adds good depth to a secondary that has plenty of it. Janoris Jenkins and Malcolm Jenkins are concerns because of their age and the third cornerback spot is still being worked out, but this is a strong unit overall led by Marcus Williams and Marcus Lattimore.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Saints once again look like one of the top few teams in the league. They have a rare combination of talented young players on inexpensive rookie deals (Marcus Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Davenport, Ryan Ramcyzk, Alvin Kamara, Erik McCoy) and expensive veteran talent, with the second highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual value. They’ve kept all of that under the cap through some creative contract structuring that leaves them significantly over 2021’s cap without re-signing several key players with expiring rookie deals and they could be in trouble long-term when Drew Brees retires, but this team is once again all in and should once again be one of the top teams in the league in the regular season. The trick will be finishing it off in the post-season this time.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 81.71

Defensive Score: 76.37

Total Score: 79.04 (1st in NFC South)

Atlanta Falcons 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons’ 2019 season got off to a terrible start, as they lost 7 of their first 8 games. That would be bad for most teams, but the Falcons entered last season with one of the most veteran rosters in the league (5th in average age of their roster after final cuts) and surely believed they were capable of being contenders, so having their season essentially be over before the halfway point had to be especially disappointing. Going into the bye at 1-7, many didn’t expect head coach Dan Quinn would make it out of the week with his job, but the Falcons let him at least finish out the season (his 5th with the team) and the team seemingly turned things around overnight, winning 6 of their last 8 games to finish with a 7-9 record, looking like the contender some felt they could be at the beginning of the season.

What changed? Well, that’s a complicated question, but, overall, less changed than you’d think, as they were better than their record during their 1-7 stretch and worse than their record during their 6-2 stretch. For the first 8 games of the season, the Falcons were about even in first down rate differential at -0.29%, as their 1-7 record was largely the result of a -11 turnover margin. The reason why I prefer first down rate differential as a metric over other stats is because it minimizes the effect of outlier players like turnovers that tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, a team with a +4 turnover margin in a game on average has a turnover margin of +0 the following week and the same is true for a team with a -4 turnover margin.

The Falcons in the second half of the season were a perfect example of that, as they had a +6 turnover margin in the final 8 games of the season and went 6-2 as a result, despite only slightly improving in first down rate differential (+2.56%). With rare exceptions, we should always assume turnover neutral football when evaluating a team going forward, so they aren’t necessarily going to continue the turnover streak they had in the second half of last season, but they still finished last season 7-9 despite a -5 turnover margin and ranked 15th in rate differential on the season at +0.84%, so things are looking relatively hopeful going forward.

However, while not much changed overall with the Falcons before and after their bye in terms of first down rate differential, the kind of games this team played became different. In their first 8 games of the season, they were totally reliant on their offense, which ranked 4th over that stretch with a 41.41% first down rate, while their defense ranked 31st with a 41.70% first down rate allowed. In the second half of the season, their offense actually fell down to a 35.96% rate, 13th in the NFL over that stretch, but they were much more balanced with a defense that somehow shot up to 10th in first down rate allowed over the final 8 games of the season at 33.40%.

I’ll get into the defense later, but the offensive dropoff was reflected in quarterback Matt Ryan’s statistics, as he was less productive down the stretch when they were winning than he was early in the season. Prior to the bye, he completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions and after the bye he completed 62.2% of his passes for an average of 6.94 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. 

What happened? Well, part of it could be he never fully recovered from an ankle injury that caused him to miss week 8, right before the Falcons’ bye. He also didn’t have the same receiving corps in the second half of the season as he did in the first (more on that later). It could also just be regular variance and randomness within a season as well, as Ryan still finished the season around where he’s used to finishing statistically. His 92.1 QB rating on the season was slightly below his career average of 94.6, as was his 75.8 grade on Pro Football Focus (15th among quarterbacks), but he still had a solid season. Ryan is going into his age 35 season with just 3 missed starts due to injury in his career, at a position where high level players regularly play well into their mid-to-late 30’s, so he should continue getting it done at the same level for at least another couple seasons.

If Ryan does miss time like he did last year, the Falcons would still be turning to veteran Matt Schaub, who was brought back as the primary backup, even though he’s now entering his age 39 season. Schaub hasn’t been a regular starter since 2013 or a capable starter since 2012 and he has thrown just 167 passes over the past 6 seasons combined, but he performed admirably in Ryan’s absence last season against the Seahawks, completing 39 of 52 for 460 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception while leading the Falcons to a 45.07% first down rate in a game they ultimately lost. Schaub is probably in the bottom half of backup quarterbacks in the NFL and his age is a big concern, but he’s an experienced starter who may still have a little bit left in the tank if needed. His presence doesn’t meaningfully affect this position grade.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Matt Ryan wasn’t working with the same receiving corps in the second half of the season. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was traded to New England for a 2nd round pick after week 7, coinciding with Ryan’s statistical drop off, while tight end Austin Hooper and #2 wide receiver Calvin Ridley both missed 3 games with injury. Sanu didn’t do much in New England because he got hurt, but he was on pace for a 75/715/2 slash line before the Falcons traded him and he had a 66/838/4 slash line with the Falcons in 2018. Meanwhile, Hooper’s stats in 13 games would have been a 92/969/7 slash line extrapolated over 16 games, which would have been among the best in the league at his position, while Ridley was on pace for a 78/1066/9 slash line.

When the Falcons had Sanu, Ridley, and Hooper as targets behind wide receivers Julio Jones, they had among the best receiving corps in the NFL, but with Sanu in New England and either Hooper or Ridley missing time with injury, obviously it was a different situation. Ridley is still on the team, but Hooper signed with the Browns this off-season and Sanu is obviously gone, so the Falcons had to reload their receiving corps this off-season. They did so by using the 2nd round pick they got for Sanu to trade for Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst.

Hurst hasn’t played much in 2 seasons in the league (732 snaps), but he’s a former first round pick who has shown plenty of upside in limited action, averaging 1.58 yards per route run and showing promise as a blocker. Hurst hasn’t gotten much playing time because of injuries and players ahead of him on the depth chart in Baltimore, but he has a clear path to a significant starter role in Atlanta, with only blocking tight end Jaeden Graham of note behind him on the depth chart, so, if he can stay healthy, he could easily have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league on a pass friendly offense. He’s not a sure thing, however, and it’s worth noting he’s old for where he is in his career, already going into his age 27 season.

The Falcons didn’t do anything to replace Sanu though, instead opting to continue playing Russell Gage in the third receiver role, even though he struggled in that role in the second half of last season in Sanu’s absence. A 2018 6th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Gage finished last season with just a 49/446/1 slash line, averaging 1.18 yards per route run, a big drop off from Sanu and Ridley and a big part of the reason why Ryan’s production fell off down the stretch. Barely drafted, Gage isn’t guaranteed to get better in his 3rd season in the league, but they only added former Vikings first round pick bust Laquon Treadwell (65 catches in 53 career games), so Gage has the inside track to a big role as a starter in 3-wide receiver sets.

Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley remain as the top-2 wide receivers and likely the top-2 options in this passing game. Ridley had a solid 2019 season before getting hurt, earning Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked grade among wide receivers, and he was especially productive down the stretch before his injury, unsurprising considering he no longer had to compete with Sanu and Hooper for targets. In his final 4 games of the season, he caught 27 passes for 395 yards and 3 touchdowns, including 22/319/2 on 32 targets in the 3 games he played with Hooper sidelined. 

Ridley was a first round pick in 2018 and has averaged 9.12 yards per target thus far in his career, so he’s dripping with upside going into his 3rd year in the league and what is likely to be the highest target total of his career, even with Hurst coming in to take some targets. Ridley was on pace to exceed 1000 yards last season just by staying healthy and making it through the season and he could easily exceed that total in 2020 if he can stay on the field. He has a lot of breakout potential.

If Ridley exceeds 1000 yards, the Falcons figure to have two 1000+ yard receivers, with Julio Jones having easily exceeded that mark in 6 straight seasons. Over that stretch, he has averaged a 104/1565/6 slash line, best in the NFL, and he has five top-3 finishes among wide receivers on PFF. Age is becoming a concern as the prolific pass catcher is in his age 31 season and could easily decline this season, but even a slightly declined Jones is still one of the better wide receivers in the league. At the very least, he should have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, barring injuries. This is a top heavy receiving corps with little depth, but Jones and Ridley are a great wide receiver duo and Hurst has a lot of upside as a pass catcher at tight end.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Falcons had a productive passing game all season, but struggled mightily on the ground for most of the season, which held this offense back, even if they did finish 7th in first down rate on the season. Part of the problem was the offensive line, which I’ll get into later, but the Falcons also needed to add talent at the running back position, especially after letting go of injury prone lead back Devonta Freeman, who would have been owed 6.5 million in 2020 he had stayed on the roster. Freeman has been limited to a 4.03 YPC and 9 touchdowns on 394 carries over the past 3 seasons, so he’s not hard to replace and he wasn’t worth his salary, but, after releasing him, the Falcons became incredibly thin at the position.

The Falcons found a replacement with another released veteran running back, ex-Ram Todd Gurley. Gurley would have been a much hotter commodity two off-seasons ago, but he’s had injury problems as well, so the Falcons were able to snatch him up on a one-year, 5.5 million dollar flyer. It’s a worthwhile flyer, but he comes with a lot of risk. From 2017-2018, Gurley averaged 268 carries for 1,278 rushing yards (4.77 YPC) and 15 touchdowns per season, while adding an average 62/684/5 slash line through the air, and looked like an MVP candidate for a dominant Rams offense. However, arthritic knees started becoming a problem down the stretch in 2018 and that, combined with having less talent around him, especially on the offensive line, led to him rushing for just 857 yards and 12 touchdowns on 223 carries (3.84 YPC) in 2019.

The Rams could have brought him back for a potential bounce back year in 2020 for only 8 million more than releasing him, but they likely believed Gurley’s knee problems, which started in college, would prevent him from ever being the same running back again, and made the decision to cut him loose before the 4-year, 57.5 million dollar extension he signed two off-seasons technically even started. Given that the Rams guaranteed him about 19 million in new money on that new contract and he never actually played a snap for the team during any of the extension years, it has to go down as one of the worst extensions in recent memory.

However, it arguably would have gotten worse if the Rams hadn’t cut ties when they did, as Gurley could easily have been a sunk cost for them. The upside is still potentially there for a player still only going into his age 26 season and he’ll have the opportunity to be an every down back in Atlanta, but he comes with a lot of risk and, even if he does have a big bounce back year, he can earn up to another 3.5 million in incentives and the Falcons would likely have to give him a big contract to keep him in free agency next off-season, which caps the upside of this contract. The Falcons desperately needed help at the position, so it’s an understandable contract and if nothing else he’s probably a better option than Freeman was, but he could easily disappoint.

It’s also surprising the Falcons didn’t add another running back at some point, given the uncertainty with Gurley. The Falcons have always liked to rotate in a 2nd back somewhat frequently anyway, but they don’t have a good option right now. Holdovers Ito Smith and Brian Hill, who have ranked 2nd on the team in carries in the past two seasons respectively, figure to compete for the primary backup job. 

Hill, a 2017 5th round pick with a career 4.74 YPC average, has shown more in his career than Smith, who has averaged just 3.76 YPC in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 4th round in 2018, but they have just 109 carries and 112 carries respectively in their careers, so they aren’t proven in the slightest at the NFL level. It’s possible one emerges as a capable backup, but they’d likely split carries if Gurley were to get hurt, which would be a very underwhelming backfield situation. This group needs Gurley to stay healthy and perform at least better than he did last season, which is asking a lot.

Grade: B- 

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Falcons’ offensive line was part of the problem with their running game last season. Part of the problem on the offensive line was injuries, especially at guard, where week 1 starters James Carpenter and Chris Lindstrom were limited to 675 snaps and 309 snaps respectively. Carpenter being healthy wouldn’t have necessarily have helped matters, however, as he was one of the worst guards in the league when on the field, finishing 82nd out of 89 qualifying guards on Pro Football Focus. Injuries may have been part of the problem, but he’s also finished below average on PFF in 3 straight seasons and is now going into his age 31 season, so he’s a very underwhelming starting option. 

Wes Schweitzer, who led the position with 697 snaps last season, including 5 starts at left guard, is no longer with the team, so Carpenter’s only competition for the starting job is fellow veteran Jamon Brown, whose experience is primarily at right guard. Brown wasn’t much better last season, finishing 68th out of 89 qualifying guards on 587 snaps on PFF as an injury replacement for Lindstrom on the right side and he has been an underwhelming starter throughout his career (47 starts in 5 seasons in the league), so he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade, especially since his experience on the left side is limited. Left guard figures to remain a weakness.

Lindstrom’s return at right guard is a much bigger deal, as he was the 14th overall pick by the Falcons in the 2019 NFL Draft and showed promise in limited action at the beginning and end of the season, with a big chunk missed to injury in the middle. Lindstrom should be fully healthy for his second off-season and second season in the NFL, so he could easily have a breakout season. Guards rarely go in the top-15 and Lindstrom was a minor reach by a team that saw their original target Christian Wilkins go one pick ahead of them to the Dolphins, but Lindstrom has the upside to be one of the top-10 players at his position in a few years if he can stay healthy and develop.

Incumbent starters Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and Kaleb McGary remain at left tackle, center, and right tackle respectively. McGary was a first round pick like Lindstrom and stayed mostly healthy as a rookie, making 16 starts, but he was part of the problem, finishing 77th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in a disappointing rookie year. McGary could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he was a reach like Lindstrom and doesn’t have the same upside, going 31st overall when he was more of a 2nd-3rd round talent. Even if he improves, he still could struggle for stretches.

Matthews and Mack are the long-time veterans on this line, joining the team in 2014 and 2016 respectively and starting at their current spot since arriving. Matthews was the 6th overall pick in 2014 and, after a rough rookie year, he has finished above average on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-12 and a 10th ranked finish in 2019. Still only going into his age 28 season, Matthews is very much in the prime of his career and already has 95 starts under his belt, only missing one game to injury in his career.

Mack, on the other hand, is going into the twilight of his career, going into his age 35 season, but he still finished 8th among centers on PFF last season, his 11th top-12 finish in as many years in the league. That was slightly down from 2016-2018, when he finished in the top-4 in all 3 seasons, but he hasn’t shown much sign of really slowing down. That could change quickly at his age though, which would be a big blow to this offensive line. The Falcons may have selected his long-term successor in the 3rd round, Temple’s Matt Hennessy, who could potentially play a little guard in a pinch as a rookie if needed. Left guard and right tackle figure to be positions of weakness, but if Mack can hold up another season and Lindstrom can stay healthy, the rest of this line should be in good shape.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, the Falcons’ defense got significantly better in the second half of last season, going from a 31st ranked 41.70% first down rate allowed in their first 8 games of the season to a 10th ranked 33.40% first down rate allowed in their final 8 games of the season. The reasons for their improvement were much more scheme change related than personnel change related, as head coach Dan Quinn ceded defensive coordinator and play calling duties to assistants and it seemed to make a huge difference. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Falcons to continue their defensive level of play from the second half of last season, but the arrow is finally pointing up for the Falcons on defense after years of subpar finishes (31st in first down rate allowed in 2018, 25th in 2017, 27th in 2016, and 30th in 2015).

The Falcons also made some big investments in their defense this off-season, using their first two draft picks on defenders and signing ex-Ram Dante Fowler to a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal with 23 million guaranteed in free agency. Fowler has had an interesting career. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015 by the Jaguars, Fowler tore his ACL at his first practice as a professional, missed his whole rookie season, and had lost his starting job by his return, playing just 30.7 snaps per game in 39 games for the Jaguars before they traded him to the Rams for a 3rd and 5th round pick in the middle of the 2018 season. Fowler had shown promise as a pass rusher in limited action with the Jaguars, with a 10.6% pressure rate, but was underwhelming in his half season with the Rams, with a 9.0% pressure rate.

Fowler hit free agency last off-season because the Jaguars had declined his 5th year option, but the Rams were willing to bring him back on a one-year, 12 million dollar deal and were rewarded, as he had 11.5 sacks, a 13.2% pressure rate, and finished 34th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. With the Rams unable to afford to keep him around this off-season, the Falcons swooped in and got a player who is still only going into his age 26 season and potentially has several prime years left. Fowler is a risky signing because he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was last season, but he’s a worthwhile risk for a Falcons team that tied for the 2nd fewest sacks in the league with 28 last season.

Fowler will replace Vic Beasley, who, despite a bit of a late season run, still finished with a 9.0% pressure rate in 2019 and was overall inconsistent enough throughout 5 seasons in Atlanta that the Falcons felt they needed to find an upgrade this off-season. Takk McKinley remains as the other starting edge defender, but the Falcons declined his 5th year option for 2021, even though it only guaranteed him 10.05 million for injury, so they don’t seem to be much happier than McKinley, their first rounder in 2016, than they were with Beasley, their first rounder in 2014. 

McKinley is likely going into his final season with the team, but still has some upside, going into just his age 25 season. Thus far in his career he’s gotten middling grades on 34.8 snaps per game from PFF, struggling a bit against the run, while pressuring quarterbacks at a solid 11.8% rate, but he could take a step forward in his 4th year in the league, especially with significant money on the line, now in a contract year.

Adrian Clayborn (439 snaps) was the primary reserve last season and earned an above average grade from PFF for his play, but he left in free agency and was replaced by another former first round pick Charles Harris, who the Falcons acquired this off-season from the Dolphins for just a 7th round pick, just 3 seasons after Miami took him 22nd overall. Harris has just a 9.4% pressure rate and has averaged just 31.0 snaps per game in 41 games in 3 seasons in the league, but could still get better going into his age 25 season. 

 

The Falcons could also get more out of 2019 4th round pick John Comisky, who flashed on 100 snaps as a rookie, especially against the run. Neither McKinley nor Harris play the run well so Cominsky could have a significant role in base packages in his 2nd season in the league. There is upside with this group, but a lot of downside, especially if Dante Fowler regresses after a breakout 2019 contract year.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As mentioned, the Falcons also used their first two draft picks on defensive players, including using the 47th overall pick on Auburn defensive tackle Marlon Davidson. Davidson figures to be part of the Falcons’ interior defender rotation immediately and could directly replace the 431 snaps left behind by off-season departure Jack Crawford. Davidson will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but Crawford was Pro Football Focus’ 117th ranked interior defender out of 125 qualifiers last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Davidson to be an upgrade.

The rest of this position group remains the same as last season, though it’s possible 2018 3rd round pick Deadrin Senat could carve out a larger role after surprisingly being limited to 20 snaps despite being healthy last season, after playing 370 snaps as a rookie. Tyeler Davison and Allen Bailey were retained as free agents on deals worth 12 million over 3 years and 8.2 million over 2 years respectively and should play similar roles to last season, when they saw 560 snaps and 511 snaps respectively. Both were primarily base package players, focusing on stopping the run on early downs. Davison earned an above average grade from PFF for his play against the run, but had just a 4.7% pressure rate, while Bailey had a slightly better pressure rate (5.3%), but was underwhelming overall.

Davison has earned an above average run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons and should remain a useful early down player, but has just a 4.0% career pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to improve this season. Bailey, meanwhile, is more experienced going into his 10th season in the league (66 starts in 117 games), but has never been particularly good in any one aspect of his game and is now going into his age 31 season. He may remain a capable rotation player for another couple seasons, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him. 

Grady Jarrett remains as an every down player and the leader of this position. The 2015 5th round pick has averaged 47.4 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons and figures to be around there again in 2020. After solid play early in his career, Jarrett broke out as one of the best at his position in his 3rd year in the league in 2017 and has not looked back, finishing in the top-16 among interior defenders on PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a career best 4th in 2019. Still only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason for him to decline any time soon, so he should remain one of the best defensive tackles in the league for at least another few seasons. He elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Along with Grady Jarrett, linebacker Deion Jones is one of the best players on this defense. He missed 10 games with injury in 2018 and the impact of his absence was noticeable, as the Falcons allowed a 36.36% first down rate with him active and a 44.23% first down rate when he was out with injury. Having him healthy for a full season in 2019 seemed like it would be a big boost to the Falcons and, while that boost didn’t come until the second half of the season, Jones was a big part of their second half success and had a strong year overall, finishing 9th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd straight season in the top-17. Now going into his age 26 season and his 5th season in the league, Jones is very much in the prime of his career and, outside of that fluke injury in 2018, he’s missed just 1 game in his career. He should remain one of the top off ball linebackers in the league for several years.

De’Vondre Campbell also played a big role on this defense, playing 921 snaps (just 25 fewer than Jones), but he left as a free agent this off-season. His departure could be addition by subtraction though, as he was PFF’s 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers last season. He’ll be replaced internally by Foyesade Oluokun, a 2018 6th round pick who has shown enough in limited action in 2 seasons in the league (835 snaps total) to warrant a shot at a larger role. He’s a projection to that larger role, however, and far from a sure thing, though it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Campbell.

The Falcons also signed veteran Deone Bucannon to a one-year deal in free agency and he figures to be the third linebacker in base packages. A first round pick by the Cardinals in 2014, Bucannon seemingly had a breakout second season in the league in 2015, finishing 29th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he hasn’t come close to playing at that level since. Injuries limited him to 13 and 12 games respectively in the next two seasons and he fell to 58th among off ball linebackers and then 92nd among off ball linebackers in the process, clearly limited by lingering injuries. In 2018, he lost his starting job and continued to struggle in a limited role (389 snaps) and then was cut midway through an equally disappointing 2019 season after signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent, ending the year with just 244 underwhelming snaps between the Buccaneers and Giants. 

At this point, he’s nothing more than a long-shot flyer based on one good season he had now 5 years ago, though he’s young enough (age 28 season) that he could theoretically still have some upside. The Falcons also don’t really have another option for the third base package linebacker spot, besides 4th round rookie Mykal Walker, who isn’t likely to be an upgrade as a rookie. Fortunately, Bucannon wouldn’t have a significant role in this defense in terms of snaps, so he doesn’t factor into this grade overall that much. Like the interior defender position, the Falcons’ linebacking corps is heavily elevated by top linebacker Deion Jones.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons’ first round pick was used on a cornerback, Clemson’s AJ Terrell, and the 16th overall pick figures to start immediately as a rookie. He’ll directly place veteran Desmond Trufant, who was let go this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 10.75 million dollar salary for what would have been his 8th season in the league. Trufant didn’t have a bad 2019 season, finishing 34th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 7th straight above average season in as many years in the league, but he hasn’t been the same since finishing 11th in 2014 and in recent years has especially been limited by injuries, including 7 games missed last season. 

Trufant’s salary wasn’t unreasonable for him, but the Falcons were up against the cap this off-season and needed to let Trufant go to add Fowler in free agency. They could have kept Trufant and added an edge defender like LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson (the eventual 20th overall pick) with the 16th overall pick instead of signing Fowler and drafting Terrell, but evidently the Falcons liked the cornerbacks available at 16 more than the edge defenders and were confident they could find a replacement for Trufant at 16. Terrell comes with a lot of upside, but was a minor reach and could have growing pains as a rookie. It’s tough to rely on him as arguably your best cornerback. 

Third year cornerback Isaiah Oliver figures to continue starting at the other cornerback spot, after making all 16 starts last season, but he wasn’t particularly good, finishing 95th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The 2018 2nd round pick flashed on 240 snaps as a rookie and is still only going into his age 24 season, so he still has a lot of upside, but he’s not a sure thing to improve. Kendall Sheffield, a 2019 4th round pick who played 697 snaps as a rookie, figures to be the 3rd cornerback, and the Falcons will obviously need him to improve as well, after a rookie year in which he finished 124th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The Falcons also used a 5th round pick in 2019 on cornerback Jordan Miller, but the 25 snaps he played as a rookie suggests he’s squarely behind Sheffield on the depth chart, as much as Sheffield struggled as a rookie.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson is the only real veteran in the mix. He was solid on 336 snaps last season and was part of why the Falcons were improved down the stretch, playing all but 13 of his snaps in week 7 or later, but that was the most snaps he’s played in a season since 2014, when he struggled mightily on 675 snaps, and he’s now going into his age 31 season, so he’s nothing more than a depth cornerback and special teamer, barring an unlikely late career breakout. He may still see snaps the 4th cornerback, but can’t be counted on for more than that.

Damonte Kazee also has some experience as a slot cornerback, but he’s better as a safety. A 5th round pick in 2017, Kazee barely played as a rookie (165 snaps), but was thrust into significant action in 2018 (991 snaps) when starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both got hurt early in the season and he earned PFF’s 21st ranked grade on the season. With Neal and Allen both returning for 2019, the Falcons moved Kazee to cornerback, his collegiate position, and played him on the slot, but he struggled and was ultimately moved back to safety when Neal got hurt again and he played better at safety than he did at cornerback, though not as well as he played in 2018. Neal should return for 2020 and Allen is still around, so Kazee doesn’t have a clear path to playing time at safety, but it’s unlikely they use him in any significant role as a cornerback, so he’ll likely be hybrid depth at both spots.

Between the two injuries (2018 torn ACL and 2019 torn achilles), Neal has been limited to 203 snaps over the past 2 seasons and now a once promising career is suddenly a question mark, so having Kazee around as depth is certainly useful. A first round pick in 2016, Neal finished 21st and 17th among safeties on PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively and is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s an obvious injury risk as well. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could be facing a make or break year in the league.

Allen, meanwhile, stayed healthy in his first year back from his 2018 torn achilles, playing all 16 games, but he didn’t seem to be the same player, finishing 78th among 100 qualifying safeties on PFF, after earning top-42 grades in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 prior to the injury. Going into his age 29 season, Allen still has time to bounce back and could be better another year removed from the injury, but it’s definitely possible his best days are behind him. The Falcons are better at safety than they are at cornerback, but their secondary is definitely the weakest unit on their roster.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Falcons got off to a very disappointing start in 2019, but got better as the season went on and were better than their final 7-9 record suggests, finishing 15th in first down rate differential. Going into 2020, not much has changed, but they made a few changes that could pay off and, with three wild card spots available this year, the Falcons’ chances of sneaking into the post-season got significantly better, even with division rival Tampa Bay getting better this off-season and the fellow division rival New Orleans still around are seemingly the top dogs in the division. The Falcons’ defense will likely prevent them from being true contenders, but defenses tend to be much more inconsistent than offenses from year-to-year, so it’s possible the Falcons could surprisingly put together a solid defensive season and somewhat continue how they played down the stretch in 2019.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.44

Defensive Score: 72.20

Total Score: 74.32 (3rd in NFC South)

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 (4th in NFC South)

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 (2nd in NFC South)

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 (2nd 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: 69.64

Defensive Score: 73.20

Total Score: 71.42 (4th in AFC East)