Los Angeles Rams 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

No team has been more aggressive in pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy over the past few years than the Rams, dating back to their selection of quarterback Jared Goff with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Having not made the post-season in over a decade and with four straight seasons with either six or seven wins, the Rams made a big move up the draft board from #15  to #1, giving up their 2017 first round pick, a pair of 2016 second round picks, and a 2017 3rd round pick to get the deal done. Goff did not live up to expectations in year one, sitting on the bench for most of the first half of the season and then showing why when he eventually got a chance to play, leading to the Rams finishing at 4-12 and sending their #5 overall pick to the Titans to complete their trade up for Goff, which was quickly looking like a potential disaster.

Fortunately, despite their recent issues and their lack of a first round pick, the Rams were still able to land promising young head coach candidate Sean McVay, who instantly turned things around for this team, most especially Goff, en route to a 11-5 finish and an eventual first round playoff loss. The Rams didn’t really make aggressive personnel moves during McVay’s first off-season, aside from sending a 2018 second round pick to Buffalo for wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his expiring rookie contract, but Watkins was largely a bust and was not the reason for this team’s big turnaround, which was almost exclusively due to improved coaching bringing out the best in existing young players and targeted free agent moves that worked out well, most notably #1 wide receiver Robert Woods and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

However, the Rams were not going to be satisfied with losing in the first round and, now with a young, cheap starting quarterback locked in, the Rams got even more aggressive in adding to the rest of this roster and trying to maximize their championship window. They were already without their second round pick from the Watkins trade, but Watkins didn’t stay and the Rams were again in need of a wide receiver, so they also sent away their 2018 1st round pick, acquiring Brandin Cooks from the New England Patriots, another player in the final year of his rookie deal.

Cooks was actually extended, but he didn’t come cheap, signing a 5-year, 81 million dollar deal. The Rams also extended cornerstone players on both sides of the ball, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, to contracts worth 57.5 million over 4 years and 135 million over 6 years respectively.

The Rams weren’t done trading draft picks either, despite not having a first or second round pick in 2018, trading away a 2019 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters, who was also heading towards the end of his rookie year, another short-term, win now move, and then made a similar move mid-season for edge defender Dante Fowler of the Jaguars, sending a 2019 3rd round pick to the Jaguars as compensation. 

The moves paid off and added to a talented existing core from the season before, leading to the Rams making it all the way to the Super Bowl in their second post-season appearance under McVay, but there the Rams were defeated and somewhat embarrassed by a New England Patriots team that held their high powered offense out of the end zone completely and managed to win a game in which Tom Brady at least resembled a 41-year-old quarterback, with the final score being just 13-3.

The following off-season was relatively quiet, aside from a somewhat predictable 4-year, 134 million dollar extension that the Rams gave to Jared Goff as he was heading towards the end of his rookie deal and, while the Rams didn’t pick in the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft either, it was due to a trade down from their 31st overall pick, which is where they were originally picking after their Super Bowl defeat. However, when the next season got off to a disappointing start, the Rams decided to change some things up at the trade deadline, trading away Marcus Peters for a late round pick in what amounted to a salary dump for a player in the final year of his rookie deal, and using their new found cap space to acquire cornerback Jalen Ramsey for the Rams for the price of their 2020 and 2021 1st round picks. 

The Ramsey trade did not lead to the Rams turning their season around significantly, as they missed the post-season at 9-7, but the defense was not to blame, as suddenly Sean McVay’s Jared Goff led offense started to struggle. Losses on the offensive line, as a consequence of the Rams spending significant capital elsewhere, were somewhat to blame, but the problem was deeper than that. Goff had not played as well as he had in recent years and highly paid skill position players Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks were also not living up to expectations, so the Rams got aggressive in a different kind of way.

Rather than waiting for Gurley and Cooks to rebound, the Rams moved on from both of them. Gurley was released outright when the Rams could not find a trade partner, meaning the Rams moved on from him having already paid him 20 million on an extension on which he never actually played a snap, and, while Cooks was able to recoup the Rams a second round pick in a trade with the Texans, the Rams had already paid him 34 million on an extension on which he played just one season. In total, the Rams took 41.8 million in dead cap between the two, with 33.4 million of that hitting the cap during the 2020 season, which significantly hampered their ability to do anything else aggressive last off-season, but gave them more financial flexibility going forward.

The Rams didn’t seem to miss either one much as they were able to make it back to the post-season in 2020, despite not having a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and using their two second round picks on replacements for Cooks and Gurley. However, they once again were not able to make much noise in the post-season, falling short in the divisional round after a good, but not good enough 10-6 season and their defense once again compensated for a disappointing offensively performance. 

Even with Cooks and Gurley mostly off the books this off-season, the Rams still lacked financial flexibility in a cap shrunken year and, without a first round pick, it seemed unlikely that the Rams would be able to make any aggressive moves to improve their offense this off-season. However, the Rams got creative and they actually combined a couple of their aggressive strategies together in one move to make a significant offensive upgrade. 

The Rams moved on from Jared Goff, eating 24.7 million in dead cap for the 2021 season in the process and once again moving on from a player who was paid significant money (30 million) on any extension and never ended up playing for the team on it, but they didn’t just trade him away for a draft pick, sending him to the Lions with the Rams’ 2022 and 2023 first round picks to acquire veteran quarterback Matt Stafford, who wanted out of Detroit after many years with a losing organization and who is clearly viewed as a significant upgrade on Goff by Sean McVay and the Rams. Most of Stafford’s contract has already been paid out by the Lions and the 43 million over 2 seasons he’s owed is below market value, but the Rams will likely have to give him a top of the market extension in the next year or so to keep him around long-term, so he won’t be cheap from a salary standpoint either. 

Overall, the Rams obviously have a ton invested in Stafford. Not only will they not have seven straight first round picks from 2017-2023, barring something changing, but the Rams aren’t in good financial shape for the next few off-seasons either. They couldn’t do anything this off-season after taking Goff’s cap hit and adding Stafford, aside from re-signing edge defender Leonard Floyd on a 4-year, 64 million dollar deal that borrows a ton of future cap space to make it work. Beyond that, they are one of three teams that is already over next year’s cap, even as the cap is set to rise back up significantly, and they rank in the bottom-5 in projected cap space in each of the next three off-seasons.

So far, this aggressive strategy has mostly worked out for the Rams, who have managed to avoid the bottom falling out. How they’ve done it is by drafting well. Despite their recent lack of first round picks, half of the 26 players who played at least 450 snaps on either side of the ball last season are home grown, from the 2015-2019 drafts, outside of the first round. That doesn’t include the 2020 draft, which saw 6th round pick Jordan Fuller make 12 starts as a rookie and 2nd round pick Cam Akers emerge as a feature back down the stretch.

History suggests the draft is more of a crap shoot than anything. The Pete Carroll/John Schneider Seahawks were known for finding late round gems in the early 2010s, but a look at their recent drafts clearly shows their hit rate has regressed to the mean and then some. Bill Belichick’s Patriots found arguably the greatest quarterback and tight end of all-time, both outside of the first round, along with a #1 receiver and Super Bowl MVP in the 7th round and several other draft steals, but even his record has some clear misses on it, especially in recent years.

To the Rams’ credit, they seem to understand the value of trading back on draft day as much as any team, including New England, treating the draft as the largely unpredictable event that it is and going with a quantity over quality approach in terms of draft picks, maximizing their chances of finding a steal. The Rams might not have selected in the first round since 2016, but they still selected 36 times overall from 2017-2020 and they’ve benefitted from that. They might not continue quite having the draft success they’ve had, but they’ve proven they are as good at identifying and developing young talent as any team in the league.

Whether this team can not only continue avoiding the bottom falling out, but also finally capture a Super Bowl victory, rests very much on the arm of Matt Stafford. Stafford has been an above average starting quarterback throughout his 12-year career with the Lions, who selected him #1 overall in 2009, but I’m not sure if he’s shown himself to be good enough to justify the Rams’ investment in him. Overall, he’s completed 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 282 touchdowns, and 144 interceptions, which is impressive when you consider that he usually had underwhelming supporting casts.

However, he’s never finished higher than 7th among quarterbacks on PFF in a season in his career and he’s only finished in the top-10 three times, so, while he’s also never dropped lower than 22nd in 10 straight seasons and gives the Rams a low floor at the position, he might not have the elite quarterback upside that the Rams are essentially committing to him as if he has. He’s finished higher than Goff in four of the past five seasons and should overall be an upgrade, but Sean McVay and company are really betting on being able to coach Stafford up into a better quarterback than he’s shown himself to be for over a decade. 

It may beat the alternative of being locked into Goff’s massive deal for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean it is going to result in the Rams finally getting a Super Bowl victory. It’s just another way for the perpetually aggressive Rams to continue trying to extend their Super Bowl window and borrowing against the future to do so. This offense should be better than their 21st ranked finish in first down rate over expected (-0.86%) from a year ago, but they will need to be noticeably better just to remain in playoff contention, as their defense is likely to take a big step backwards after leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected (-4.90%). 

I’ll get into this more later, but not only is defense the tougher side of the ball on which to be consistent dominant, the Rams also, despite keeping top edge defender Leonard Floyd, lost a lot of talent on defense this off-season, with three of their top-8 in snaps played from a year ago no longer with the team and brilliant young coordinator Brandon Staley also no longer around, becoming the head coach of the crosstown Chargers this off-season. This offense is going to need to take a big step forward just to compensate for a likely big step back on the other side of the ball.

The Rams also would be in worse shape than most teams if they lost their starting quarterback to injury, which has been a growing concern for Stafford, who has either missed time with and/or played through serious injuries in each of the past three seasons and now heads into his age 33 season. John Wolford is likely to remain the backup, but the 2018 undrafted free agent didn’t show much in his first career 44 pass attempts last season in place of an injured Jared Goff last season, while off-season addition Devlin Hodges was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in his only extended action in 2019 with the Steelers, when he finished dead last among eligible quarterbacks on PFF in 6 starts in place of an injured Ben Roethlisberger. Either option would likely struggle if Stafford missed significant action.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Without their first round pick this year (and for the next two years), the Rams had a big decision to make with their second round pick this year and surprisingly decided on Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell. Not only was the very undersized Atwell (5-9 165) expected by many to go in the 4th round or later, but wide receiver seemed like one position where the Rams did not have a need and, to the extent they did, they have already proven they develop wide receivers well and don’t need to spend premium resources on adding depth at the position.

Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are already signed long-term on big extensions worth 65 million over 4 years and 47.25 million over 3 years respectively. The Rams also used a 2nd round pick last year on wide receiver Van Jefferson and, while they lost Josh Reynolds in free agency this off-season, they were expected to give Jefferson a bigger role and even signed veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson on an overpaid 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal to presumably be the #4 wide receiver in the short-term, so it’s unclear where Atwell fits, either short-term or long-term.

Woods and Kupp should remain the 1a and 1b receivers in some order in 2021 and beyond and they are the best example of this team developing wide receivers well. Woods was a second round pick in 2013, but had never topped 700 yards in a season in four seasons with the Bills, with whom he averaged just 1.32 yards per route run, prior to joining the Rams in the 2016 off-season. However, Woods proved to be well worth the 5-year, 34 million deal that the Rams signed him to, having averaged 1.90 yards per route run and a 87/1104/8 slash line per 16 games across 59 games in 4 seasons with the Rams. 

Woods’ worst season was actually in 2020, when he still finished with a 90/936/6 slash line in 16 games and earned an above average grade from PFF, and, still in his prime in his age 29 season, there is no reason to expect this to be any sort of permanent decline. The Rams had to sweeten his deal to keep him happy, but even at an increased salary, he’s a valuable member of this team and should be a good bet to see his production improve in 2021 with better quarterback play.

Kupp, meanwhile, joined this team as just a 3rd round pick in 2017 and has been about as productive as Woods, averaging 2.05 yards per route run and a 85/1058/7 slash line per 16 games, while also finishing in the top-31 among wide receivers on PFF in all four seasons with the Rams, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Kupp was an old rookie and is already in his age 28 season, but he should remain an above average starting wide receiver for at least another couple years and he’s also well worth his new increased salary.

Jefferson will have to compete for the #3 wide receiver role, but he showed enough promise in limited action as a rookie (1.43 yards per route run) that he should be considered the heavy favorite to hold off his competition and the #3 wide receiver role is near an every down player in this offense, so Jefferson will have the opportunity to play a significant role. Jackson, meanwhile, is no more than a flyer, despite what the Rams paid him this off-season. 

In his prime, Jackson was one of the best deep threats in the game, but he’s going into his age 35 season and has played a total of just eight games over the past two seasons due to a variety of injuries. His 2.34 yards per route run average over those eight games suggests he might have something left if he can stay on the field, but he’s tough to project to a significant role given his age and recent injury history. He figures to slot in as a depth receiver and situational deep threat. The same should be true of Atwell, a similar player, but obviously younger. 

The Rams also used a 4th round pick on tight end Jacob Harris, although that is more understandable than their selection of a wide receiver in the 2nd, given that the Rams lost backup tight end Gerald Everett this off-season to the Seahawks in free agency this off-season. There is no guarantee that Harris will be able to replace Everett though, as Everett produced more than most backup tight ends, averaging 1.42 yards per route run with a 33/364/2 slash line per 16 games. Harris will also likely face competition for playing time from holdovers Johnny Mundt, who has played just 381 snaps in 4 seasons with the Rams as a deep reserve, and Brycen Hopkins, a 2020 4th round pick who saw just 2 offensive snaps as a rookie.

With Everett gone and no proven option to replace him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rams give more playing time and targets to starting tight end Tyler Higbee. A 4th round pick in 2016, Higbee has been a solid starter for the Rams over the past four seasons, earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons, impressing as a run blocker, while also averaging 1.69 yards per route run and a 42/501/3 slash line per 16 games. I wouldn’t expect him to see too many targets though, even with Everett gone, as the wide receivers are obviously the focus of this offense, given how many of their resources they have concentrated at the position.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Rams have also spent multiple relatively high draft picks on running backs in recent drafts, trying to find a replacement for what Todd Gurley used to be for this offense. They first selected Darrell Henderson in the 3rd round in 2019 when they still had Gurley, hoping he could take the load off Gurley, but Henderson managed just 39 rookie year carries and the Rams went back to the draft for another running back the following year after releasing Gurley, using a 2nd round pick on Cam Akers. 

Akers and Henderson split carries about evenly last season, totaling 145 and 138 respectively, but the Rams seemed to commit to Akers over Henderson down the stretch, giving 132 carries to Akers over his final 6 games, including the post-season. Henderson was out for three of those games, but Akers still out-carried him 65 to 6 in the final three games before Henderson got hurt, so Henderson’s injury was not the catalyst for Akers taking over the feature back role.

Henderson was actually a little bit more effective on the season, averaging 4.52 YPC and a 55% carry success rate, while Akers averaged 4.31 YPC and a 48% carry success rate, but the Rams may view him as more of a change of pace back going forward at 5-8 208, with Akers as the feature back at 5-10 217. That could change depending on who has the hot hand, however, but all in all, they’re a decent running back duo and both players have the upside to be better than they’ve been.

The one area the Rams might like to see Akers and Henderson take a step forward the most might be as pass catchers, as neither have shown much in that aspect in their careers (1.15 yards per route run and 1.06 yards per route run respectively). All in all, the Rams threw just 73 times to running backs last season, with 33 of those going to Malcolm Brown, who also led Rams running backs in routes run, but who is no longer with the team. 

The Rams probably won’t throw many times more to running backs in 2021, given their talent in the receiving corps, but they would probably like to see Akers and Henderson be more effective on their opportunities, especially since that was an aspect in which Gurley excelled when he and their offense were at their best. They should get solid production on the ground from their running back duo, but the passing game is more questionable.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

With the Rams concentrating a lot of their resources into offensive skill position players, one group that has been somewhat neglected has been their offensive line. Fortunately, they have gotten the most out of a lot of their additions. Their biggest addition was signing ex-Bengal Andrew Whitworth during the 2017 off-season, which somewhat not so coincidentally lined up with when this offense and this franchise turned around significantly. 

Whitworth was getting up in age, so he was a risky signing on a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal, but he had finished in the top-12 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 of his previous 8 seasons prior to the Rams signing him and he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, finishing 7th, 6th, 26th, and 4th respectively in four seasons with the team. There seemingly is speculation every off-season that he is going to hang them up, but he’s re-signed with the Rams on another three year deal, worth 30 million, which takes him through the next two seasons. 

Whitworth could continue playing at a high level, but he’s in his age 40 season now, making him the oldest player in the league aside from quarterbacks and kickers, so his projection is going to be shaky every year from here on out. I wouldn’t put it past him to continue playing at a high level, but he also could drop off significantly, which would have a noticeable negative impact on this offense. The Rams’ insurance policy for him and possible long-term replacement is 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom, who held his own in Whitworth’s absence last season, but also performed much worse in 376 snaps in 2019 and has yet to show himself as anything more than a decent spot starter.

Along with Whitworth’s age, another concern upfront for this group is the loss of center Austin Blythe, who was PFF’s 13th ranked center in 16 starts last season, but signed with the Chiefs this off-season. He will either be replaced by Brian Allen or Bobby Evans, a pair of inexperienced young offensive linemen. Allen is a natural center and the 2018 4th round pick made 9 starts at center in 2019, but he struggled, finishing 27th out of 37 eligible centers, and then went down for the year with a devastating knee injury that ultimately ended up keeping him on the bench for all of 2020, as the Rams did not trust him enough to put him back into the lineup. Another year removed from that injury, that may have changed, especially with the Rams now having a big need at the center position, but it’s worth noting he wasn’t playing at a high level even before the injury.

Evans, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and was originally drafted as a right tackle, but he struggled there in 472 rookie year snaps and was converted to guard in 2020. Evans only played 1 snap last season, but he’ll have an opportunity to earn a starting role in 2021, in which case the Rams would shift right guard Austin Corbett inside to center. Corbett is another one of the good values the Rams have found in recent years, acquiring a player who the Browns selected 33rd overall in 2018 for just a late round pick in the middle of the 2019 season and watching him break out as PFF’s 13th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2020. 

Corbett is a complete one-year wonder who played just 556 mediocre snaps prior to last season and, while he theoretically has the versatility to move to center, that isn’t a guarantee that he will be as good there as he was at guard last season, but he was highly drafted and he wouldn’t be the first talented young player to shake off a couple rough years and develop into a consistently above average starter. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2021 as he was last season, especially if he has to move inside to center, but he should remain at least a capable starter.

Left guard David Edwards has also been a good value for the Rams, who selected him in the 5th round in 2019. Edwards was solid in 10 rookie year starts and took a step forward in his second season, making 14 starts and finishing as PFF’s 15th ranked guard on the season. He might not be quite that good again, but he could also keep developing into a consistently above average starter. He should be locked into his starting role. 

Right tackle Rob Havenstein rounds out this offensive line and is the longest tenured member of this group, being selected in the 2nd round in 2015, back when the Rams were not a competitive team. Havenstein has been a starter since his rookie season, making 84 starts in six seasons in the league and finishing above average on PFF in five of those seasons. The exception was 2019, when Havenstein finished 79th among 86 eligible offensive tackles, but that stands out as an obvious outlier in his career, especially when you consider that season is surrounded by a 3rd ranked finish in 2018 and a 16th ranked finish in 2020. 

Havenstein has been somewhat inconsistent in his career and isn’t guaranteed to play as well as he did in 2018 in 2020, but he’s still in his prime in his age 29 season and should be at least a solid starter once again. This group looks shakier than last year with Blythe gone, Whitworth another year older, and players like Edwards, Havenstein, and Corbett who might not match last year’s performance, but it could once again be a solid group.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Rams led the league last season with a first down rate allowed over expected of -4.90%, but I wouldn’t expect them to be that good again in 2020 and they could drop off significantly. High level defensive play tends to be much tougher to sustain year-to-year than high level offensive play because so much of offensive play is determined by quarterback play, while a defense needs 7-9 starters playing at a high level to play at a high level as a unit, which gets tough to keep together long-term, due to injuries and increased financial expectations. 

The Rams felt the squeeze of the cap on their defense this off-season, losing cornerback Troy Hill, safety John Johnson, and interior defender Michael Brockers, who were three of their most important players a year ago and none of whom did the Rams properly replace this off-season. They also won’t have the benefit of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who was so good in his one year on the job that he became the Chargers head coach this off-season.

Brockers was probably the least important of the trio of departed players, but he still earned an above average grade from PFF across 625 snaps, providing solid play against the run and adding 5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate. The Rams also lost Morgan Fox, an effective pass rush specialist with 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate in a part-time role (403 snaps on the season), who signed with the Panthers this off-season. Their only addition to the interior defender position this off-season was 4th round pick Bobby Brown, who could see a significant role as a rookie. Aside from him, the Rams will also be hoping their existing players can take a step forward.

The best candidate to do that would be A’Shawn Robinson, who was signed to a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, but was a disappointment in year one, struggling across 111 snaps in 8 games. Robinson probably would have been let go this off-season if he didn’t have guaranteed money on his contract for 2021, but he has a similar profile to Brockers if he can get past last year’s down season, which may have been caused by a mysterious early season injury. At his best, he’s primarily a run stuffer, but also adds some pass rush as well, with a 6.2% pressure rate from 2017-2019. He’s also a former 2nd round pick who is only in his age 26 season, so he has plenty of bounce back potential.

Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines are younger options who could take on larger roles, but they are both projections to that role. Joseph-Day has been solid across 481 snaps and 412 snaps over the past two seasons respectively, but he might not have more upside than that, as only a 6th round pick in 2018. Gaines, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2019 and has shown promise in two seasons in the league, but that’s across a total of just 384 snaps. 

The Rams, of course, still have Aaron Donald, who is not only the best defensive player in the league, but one of the best of all-time, if you look at the consistent dominance across his whole career. Unfortunately, Donald alone doesn’t guarantee the Rams will be a dominant defense, as evidenced by the fact that the Rams ranked 4th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 21st, and 11th in first down rate allowed in 6 seasons with Donald prior to last year’s league best finish. 

Still, it’s hard to ignore the dominance of a player who has finished in the top-2 among interior defenders on PFF in all 7 seasons in the league since being selected 13th overall in 2014, including 6 straight #1 finishes at his position. Not only a dominant pass rusher, with 85.5 sacks, 114 hits, and a 15.3% pressure rate in 110 games, despite frequently being double teamed on the interior, but he’s also one of the best run stopping defensive linemen in the league as well. He’s in his late prime in his age 30 season, but I wouldn’t expect him to drop off significantly. As he should be every season, Donald should be considered the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year this season, which would give him a record 4 DPOY awards if he does in fact win it. He significantly elevates a group that takes a hit with the loss of Michael Brockers this off-season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Rams did retain top edge defender Leonard Floyd in free agency, but, at the price of 64 million over 4 years, the Rams might have been better off letting him walk and using that money elsewhere. Even with most of his cap hits pushed out beyond 2021, the Rams still had to move Brockers to keep Floyd and his cap hits are set to count for a combined 58.5 million from 2022-2024. Floyd’s sack total of 10.5 last season was impressive, but he had never done anything like that in the first four seasons of his career with the Bears (18.5 sacks total in 54 games) and he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested last season. 

Floyd finished the season ranked just 40th among edge defenders on PFF and managed just a 9.1% pressure rate overall, with many of his sacks coming as a result of being in the right place after Aaron Donald disrupted the play on the interior. Floyd is a former first round pick, selected 9th overall by the Bears in 2016, but his pressure rate last season was in line with his career 10.0% pressure rate and I don’t see that suddenly improving going forward, so it’s hard to justify giving Floyd the kind of money they did in an off-season where most players had to settle for below market deals. 

Floyd could post an impressive sack total again as a result of Donald’s continued presence on the interior, but the Rams could have found a much cheaper option who could have done essentially the same thing, which is what they did last off-season when they added Floyd in the first place to replace Dante Fowler, who signed a big contract with the Falcons and quickly proved to be a bust with Donald no longer around. They seemed to understand they didn’t need to pay top edge rusher money to get sack production off the edge last off-season, but for some reason changed their mind on that this off-season, even with plenty of cheaper plug and play options available.

One other position the Rams could have addressed with the savings from not re-signing Floyd was simply the other edge defender spot which, despite Donald’s presence, did not have a player surpass 4.5 sacks all season and then saw that player with 4.5 sacks, Samson Ebukam, sign elsewhere this off-season. With only a 4th round pick, Earnest Brown, and a 7th round pick, Chris Garrett, being added to the mix this off-season, the Rams will be hoping for more out of holdovers Justin Hollins (349 snaps), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (158 snaps), and Terrell Lewis (124 snaps). 

Lewis should have the most upside of the bunch, as he was a relatively high pick, selected in the 3rd round in 2020, and he showed some promise as a rookie in an overall injury plagued rookie season. It’s not a guarantee he ever develops into a starter, but he definitely has a good chance to take a step forward in year two. Okoronkwo was a 5th round pick in 2018, but has played just 273 nondescript snaps in his career and would almost definitely struggle in a bigger role. Hollins has the most experience of the bunch by default, but the 2019 5th round pick has played just 615 snaps in two seasons in the league and was so underwhelming in 266 rookie year snaps that his original draft team, the Denver Broncos, let him go as part of final cuts in 2020, after just one season. 

The Broncos might have given up on Hollins too soon, as he was better in 2020 after being claimed off waivers by the Rams, but his value comes more from his versatility as a run stopper and coverage linebacker, rather than his pass rush ability, as his mediocre 7.3% pressure rate in 2020 actually matched his rookie year mark. He’ll play a role in a thin position group, but he’s not someone to expect a big sack total from, even with Aaron Donald’s presence on the interior. Led by an overrated player in Leonard Floyd, this is a concerning position group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Rams’ off ball linebackers were their worst defensive position group last season and, without a significant upgrade made to this group this off-season, this will likely remain a position of weakness. A trio of players, Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, played significant snaps in this group last season, playing 559 snaps, 472 snaps, and 423 snaps respectively and all three remain on this roster, but it’s unclear if the Rams will get better play for them this season. 

Kiser and Young were the worst of the bunch, finishing 92nd and 89th respectively among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and, while Reeder was solid, that was a big surprise as the 2019 undrafted free agent struggled mightily across 298 rookie year snaps and might not be able to repeat his solid 2020 campaign in 2021. Kiser and Young don’t have much of a track record either, with Kiser, a 2018 5th round pick, playing just 1 snap in his career prior to last season, and Young, a 2018 4th round pick, playing just 470 nondescript snaps.

The Rams’ only addition to this group this off-season was 3rd round rookie Ernest Jones from the University of South Carolina, who could play a significant role in this group even as a rookie. He’ll compete with the aforementioned trio of holdovers in a very thin position group and, though he could easily struggle in a big way as a rookie, he probably has the most upside of the group by default and could develop into an every down player long-term. His addition marginally improves this group.

Grade: C

Secondary

This defensive front led by Aaron Donald was one of the reasons for the Rams’ defensive success last season, but arguably a bigger reason was their secondary, which was possibly the best in the entire league overall last season. However, they lost two key players this off-season, safety John Johnson, who ranked 3rd among safeties on PFF in 2020, and cornerback Troy Hill, who ranked 18th among cornerbacks. Not only that, but they didn’t do much to replace either one and will be relying on getting more from players already on this roster. Even if those existing players do give them more, however, it’s hard to expect anyone to play at the level of the players the Rams lost this off-season.

Cornerback was their bigger position of strength last season and, even without Hill, they could still have a pair of talented cornerbacks, but after having three cornerbacks finish in the top-18 among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, the Rams’ projection going into 2021 is much shakier. Not only is Hill gone and set to be replaced either 2019 3rd round David Long, who has played just 225 career snaps, or 4th round rookie Robert Rochell, who could easily be overmatched in year one, but the Rams also got an improbable year from Darious Williams last season, which might not happen again, especially if the Rams defensive coaching isn’t as good as it was last season with Brandon Staley.

Williams was PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback across 824 snaps last season, but the 2018 undrafted free agent has played just 225 snaps aside from that in his career and is in his age 27 season already. He probably won’t fall off completely and should remain an above average starter, but I would bet against him matching last year’s dominant performance, which will be a noticeable impact on this defense, especially with Troy Hill also gone. Fortunately, the Rams should be able to count on at least one of their cornerbacks playing at a high level, as Jalen Ramsey has largely been worth the steep price tag the Rams paid to acquire him during the 2019 season, not just the two first round picks, but also the 5-year, 100 million dollar extension they ultimately gave him. 

Ramsey had some inconsistent play earlier in his career in Jacksonville, but he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback in 2019 once acquired by the Rams and then finished last season ranked 7th. Even in his inconsistent play in Jacksonville, he still managed a dominant second season in the league in 2017, finishing 2nd among cornerbacks, and he never ranked lower than 31st at his position overall. A former 5th overall pick, still only in his age 27 season, he’s one of the surest bets at the cornerback position in the league.

While the Rams’ cornerbacks should still be good, even if not as good as last season, safety is a little bit more concerning as the Rams will be going with a full youth movement to try to replace one of the best safeties in the league in John Johnson. Taylor Rapp was originally drafted in the 2nd round in 2019 to start next to Johnson long-term, but he ended up seeing his most significant action (823 snaps) as a rookie when he started in place of an injured Johnson and, while Rapp started next to Johnson for a time in 2020, Rapp’s season was ended early by injury after just 365 snaps.

Now with Johnson gone and Rapp going into his 3rd season in the league, he is likely to be an every down starter and, having held his own in his playing time thus far, it’s likely he’ll be a solid starter, with the upside for more. When Rapp was out last season, Jordan Fuller picked up the slack and ended up playing decently across 708 snaps, despite being just a 6th round rookie. Fuller was overlooked by the entire league, including the Rams, and had his issues in coverage, with his best play coming against the run, so he might not necessarily develop into a consistently solid starter going forward, but he at the very least looks like a great value pick. 

Terrell Burgess was selected much earlier in 2020, in the 3rd round, but injury and ineffectiveness led to him seeing just 49 rookie year snaps. Still, he can’t be written off completely after one season and, even if he can’t beat out Fuller or Rapp for a starting job, he could still earn a sub package role as a slot cornerback or a coverage linebacker. There is still talent in this secondary overall, but they will obviously miss Hill and Johnson and they can’t count on Darious Williams’ repeating last season’s improbable breakout season.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Rams’ offense should be better with the switch from Jared Goff to Matt Stafford under center, but their offensive line is a little bit more questionable than it was a year ago, while their defense looks likely to take a big step back from last year’s league best unit, losing a trio of key players and their very valuable defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. It’s likely their offense compensates enough for their defensive drop off that this team remains in the mix for a playoff spot, but anyone expecting the Rams to be a Super Bowl contender because they’re adding an upgrade at quarterback to an elite defense are missing that their defense is likely to take a step back. 

The Rams are all in for a Super Bowl victory in the short-term, but the most likely result is this team competing to make the post-season, which will be made even tougher by the fact that they play in the best division in football and won’t have the benefit of playing the worst division again, the NFC East, against whom the Rams went 4-0 last season, as opposed to 6-6 in their other 12 games. I will have a final prediction for the Rams at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

New York Jets 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Three years ago, the Jets thought they had finally solved their long-standing quarterback problem. Early in a planned rebuild, the Jets won a few more games than expected, but still ended up with the 6th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rather than staying put at 6, where they would have had the opportunity to select Pro Bowler Josh Allen behind of division rival Buffalo at 7, the Jets were aggressive and traded away a trio of second round picks a couple months before the draft just to move up to 3 to secure a more preferred quarterback, which ended up being Sam Darnold. 

Darnold showed some promise in year one, despite being the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history, and he was especially good at the end of the year, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception in his final 4 games of the 2018 season. However, that proved to be the highlight of Darnold’s tenure in New York. New head coach Adam Gase was brought in and, rather than building off his strong finish to 2018, Darnold regressed in each of the past two seasons, finishing 31st out of 39 eligible quarterbacks in 2019 and 28th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks in 2020.

2020 was an overall disaster of a year for Darnold and the Jets. The Jets lost their first 13 games of the season, with Darnold both missing some time with injury and not noticeably being an upgrade over veteran backup Joe Flacco when he was on the field. The Jets’ defense was actually decent last season, ranking 16th in first down rate allowed over expected, but their offense was by far the worst in the league, with a -5.21% first down rate over expected, with even the 31st ranked Broncos being noticeably better at -4.01%. 

There was a lot of debate whether Darnold or his supporting cast were most to blame for the Jets’ offensive struggles, but in reality it was both equally, as Darnold was simultaneously pressured at a league high 42.1% rate and had the worst clean pocket passer rating in the league at 81.7, meaning Darnold was not only pressured more than anyone, but even when he wasn’t being pressured, he was still the worst quarterback in the league. 

Making matters even worse, the Jets actually managed to win a couple games down the stretch to put themselves out of position for the #1 overall pick, which would have given them the surest #1 overall pick quarterback prospect in years in Trevor Lawrence, who ultimately went to the 1-15 Jaguars, who also were slightly behind the Jets in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (-5.62% vs. -5.85%) because of a much worse defense.

Had Lawrence fallen into their laps, the decision would have been an easy one for the Jets, but even though they only fell one spot to the 2nd overall pick, suddenly they had a lot more options to pick between, as there were 3-4 quarterback prospects who legitimately could have been the 2nd best quarterback prospect in the draft and there was also the possibility of keeping Darnold, only going into his age 24 season in 2021, and trading the pick for additional later picks to build around Darnold. Ultimately, the Jets settled on trading Darnold to the Panthers for a package of picks centered on a 2022 2nd round pick, a far cry from what the Jets gave up to acquire Darnold initially, and then used the 2nd overall pick on BYU’s Zach Wilson.

Wilson is far from the slam dunk option that Lawrence would have been, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Darnold and he should be better supported as well, with more talent around him and a coaching staff that can’t do a worse job of developing a young quarterback than Adam Gase’s crew, with new defensive minded head coach Robert Saleh bringing promising young offensive mind Mike LaFleur with him from the 49ers. 

With only 2020 4th round pick James Morgan (0 pass attempts as a rookie) and veteran journeyman Mike White (also 0 career pass attempts) behind Wilson on the depth chart, the Jets are not even pretending they will have a quarterback competition and, while a more experienced veteran could still be added, there is no reason aside from injury not to expect Wilson to be under center week 1. Rookie quarterbacks are one of the toughest things to project and it’s possible the Jets could get poor quarterback play once again this year, but Wilson also gives them a much higher upside at the position than they had previously, which gives this team a lot of variance in terms of the range of outcomes of their 2021 season.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Jets’ biggest off-season addition to help their young quarterback was giving a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal to Corey Davis to bring the former Tennessee Titan to New York to be Zach Wilson’s #1 receiver. The 5th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Davis never had the big numbers you would expect out of a player selected that high, in fact never surpassing the 1000 yard mark, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Davis had a 65/891/4 slash line in his second season in the league in 2018, averaged 1.83 yards per route run, and finished 30th among wide receivers on PFF, which seemed to predict more from him going forward. However, in 2019, the Titans added #1 wide receiver AJ Brown and committed themselves more to the run, leaving Davis to average 1.48 yards per route run and total just a 43/601/2 slash line while finishing as PFF’s 51st ranked wide receiver, after which the Titans opted to decline his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury in 2021.

Not much changed on the Titans’ offense in 2020, but, despite the circumstances, Davis still almost surpassed the 1000 yards mark in 14 games, finishing with a 65/984/5 slash line. He ranked 5th in yards per route run at 2.58 and was PFF’s 8th ranked wide receiver overall. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s averaged a respectable 1.95 yards per route run and 9.07 yards per target over the past three seasons combined and, now going into his age 26 season on an offense where he will almost definitely see more targets, Davis could have a breakout statistical year in 2021. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as efficient as 2020, but he has a good chance to have his first 1000 yard receiving year as the #1 option in this passing game.

Jamison Crowder led the Jets’ in receiving in 2020 with a 59/699/6 slash line and he did it in just 12 games, while averaging an above average 1.79 yards per route run and finishing 39th among wide receivers on PFF, but he’s mostly just a slot specialist at 5-9 177 and the Jets made him take a significant pay cut down from 10.5 million this off-season for the final, non-guaranteed year of what was originally a 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal he signed with the Jets two off-seasons ago. He’s averaged a solid 1.59 yards per route run in six seasons in the league and is only in his age 28 season, but he’s run 75.3% of his routes from the slot in his career, including 72.2% last season, and I would expect that number to increase in 2021, with the Jets having more capable outside options.

Corey Davis is one of those options, but the Jets also signed ex-Jaguar Keelan Cole to a 1-year, 5.5 million dollar deal in free agency, then used a 2nd round pick on Mississippi’s Elijah Moore, and they are expecting more out of 2020 2nd round pick Denzel Mims, who was limited to just 439 snaps in 9 games by injury as a rookie. Mims’ 1.45 yards per route run average wasn’t bad, but off-season practice reports show that this year’s 2nd round pick Moore is already ahead of him and, as a result, Mims could find himself buried on the depth chart in a much deeper group in 2021, though he’ll obviously have the opportunity to earn playing time.

Keelan Cole also isn’t guaranteed a starting role, despite his salary. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Cole’s best year was still his rookie year when he had a 42/748/3 slash line and averaged 1.61 yards per route run. He saw his playing time and production drop over the next two seasons, down to slash lines of 38/491/1 and 24/361/3 respectively, and, while it picked back up in 2020 to 55/642/5, that was largely due to volume, as he averaged just 1.11 yards per route run. 

Overall in his career, Cole’s yards per route run average is just 1.27 and he hasn’t earned an above average grade from PFF since that rookie season. The Jets also have a good backup slot receiver in Braxton Berrios, who has gotten limited playing time in his career (375 career snaps), but has shown promise with a 2.04 yards per route run average. This is a very deep group and the Jets should be able to find a combination that works pretty well, even if some of the members of this group are a little bit questionable.

Tight end is a lot more questionable, as the Jets didn’t make any significant additions to a group that caught just a combined 41 passes last year. The Jets may be banking on more from fourth year tight end Chris Herndon, but the former 4th round pick’s career has gone south in a hurry. After showing promise with a 1.65 yards per route run average in a part-time role as a rookie, Herndon missed most of 2019 with injury and had a mediocre 31/287/3 slash line in 2020, despite playing 42.2 snaps per game in 16 games. 

Overall, Herndon’s yards per route run average has plummeted to 0.86 over the past two seasons, about half of what it was as a rookie, and he’s not a good enough run blocker to make up for it. Still only going into his age 25 season, Herndon has theoretical upside, but we haven’t seen it in two years and, with Herndon now in the final year of his rookie deal, it’s a bit of a surprise the Jets didn’t add competition and/or a future replacement for him.

Without a better option, the Jets will likely turn back to Ryan Griffin as the #2 tight end. Griffin has plenty of experience, but he’s been marginal at best throughout his career, totaling just 179 catches in 105 career games, averaging 1.09 yards per route run, and not impressing as a blocker either. Going into his age 31 season, Griffin is unlikely to get any better going forward and could be coming to the end of his line. He’ll face competition from blocking specialist Trevon Wesco, who has played just 350 career snaps and caught just three passes since being added in the 4th round in 2019, and their one off-season addition, Tyler Kroft.

Kroft is similar to Griffin, in that he’s been in the league for 6 seasons, but has never earned more than a middle overall grade from PFF, while catching just 85 passes in 72 career games. Like Griffin, he would also be an underwhelming option. Barring a breakout year from Herndon, tight ends once again figure to take a backseat to wide receivers in this offense, especially since the Jets have improved their wide receiver group significantly this off-season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Jets also made a big addition on the offensive line this off-season, packaging their later first round pick, 23rd overall, acquired from the Seahawks in last year’s Jamal Adams trade, with a couple later round picks and sending them to the Vikings to move up to 14th overall to select USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, who is expected to play guard for the Jets. This team definitely needed offensive line help, ranking 31st in pass blocking grade and 20th in run blocking grade on PFF last season, but it was surprising to see the Jets trade a trio of picks just to move up for a guard when they had many other needs to address as well. 

This was the second straight year the Jets selected an offensive lineman in the first round, after Mekhi Becton was selected 11th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Becton was easily their best offensive lineman as a rookie, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF, while playing the always important blindside. The only real problem with his rookie season was injuries limited him to just 691 snaps and when he was out the Jets didn’t have a chance of blocking opposing defensive fronts. Now going into his second season in the league, Becton obviously could keep getting better and he has the upside to develop into one of the top left tackles in the league, though that’s not a guarantee and even if he does develop into that kind of player, that development isn’t always linear and might not include a year two leap.

The Jets also made a big investment at right tackle last off-season, signing ex-Seahawk George Fant to a 3-year, 27.3 million dollar contract, but that move didn’t work out as well, as Fant was middling at best across 14 starts in his first season in New York and likely would have been released this off-season if a portion of his 2021 salary was not already guaranteed. Fant’s addition not working out isn’t all that surprising either, as he struggled mightily in the only extended starting experience of his career in 2016, before tearing his ACL and missing all of 2017, and only showing promise in limited action as a 6th offensive lineman upon his return in 2018-2019. It was very odd to see the Jets guarantee so much money to a player without much track record of success and it predictably has not paid off.

What made the move even stranger is that the Jets used a 3rd round pick the previous off-season in 2019 on offensive tackle Chuma Edoga and, though he struggled across 421 rookie year snaps, he could have played a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Instead, he was limited to 235 snaps as the swing tackle behind Fant and Becton. Edoga showed some promise in that limited action though and, even with Fant’s salary, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Edoga push to start at right tackle in 2021, now in his third season in the league. If he can’t take Fant’s job, he will settle in as an above average swing tackle.

The Jets also got disappointing play out of another 2020 off-season signing in Connor McGovern, who signed a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal to join the Jets from the Broncos and proceeded to finish 25th out of 38 eligible centers on PFF in 16 starts. McGovern at least has some bounce back potential because he ranked 9th among centers on PFF in 2019 in 16 starts, somewhat justifying his contract, but the 2016 5th round pick has also been pretty inconsistent across 52 career starts, so he’s hardly a guarantee to bounce back. His salary and lack of competition lock him into a starting role though.

Rounding out this offensive line at right guard, the Jets have a pair of veterans who both saw action last season in Greg Van Roten (752 snaps) and Alex Lewis (544 snaps). They occasionally played together, with Lewis on the left side and Van Roten on the right, but with Vera-Tucker coming in, they will now compete for one job. Neither one played badly last season, but they’ve been middling at best in their careers, across 40 starts in 9 seasons in the league and 39 starts in 5 seasons in the league respectively. 

Lewis is slightly higher paid and slightly younger, with Van Roten heading into his age 31 season and possibly on the decline, but Van Roten has also been a slightly better player over the past couple seasons. Whoever loses the right guard job will provide depth on the interior, along with off-season acquisition Dan Feeney, who made 57 starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers (39 at guard and 18 at center), but never earned an above average grade and was PFF’s 2nd worst ranked center in the league last season. There is still some uncertainty in this group, but they have a pair of back-to-back first round pick offensive linemen to give them a high upside and center Connor McGovern has bounce back potential as well.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One position where the Jets could have made a bigger investment this off-season was running back. The Jets ranked 24th with 4.15 yards per carry last season and they did make additions this off-season in what is largely an overhauled group, but they didn’t make any high end additions, instead signing veteran Tevin Coleman to a 1-year, 1.1 million dollar deal in free agency and using a 4th round pick on North Carolina’s Michael Carter. 

New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur comes from the 49ers where they regularly used multiple running backs, including Tevin Coleman, who spent two past seasons in San Francisco, but they had a much better offensive line and this running back group doesn’t have anyone with a high upside. Along with Coleman and Carter, I would expect 2020 4th round pick Lamical Perine to factor into the mix, even though he averaged just 3.63 YPC as a rookie.

Perine and Carter have some upside, but Coleman figures to be the lead back because of his experience. Coleman has never topped 167 carries in a season and has only once played all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league, including a 2020 campaign in which he averaged just 1.89 YPC on 28 carries, but the 2015 3rd round pick is only in his age 28 season and has averaged a decent 4.24 YPC on 693 carries for his career. He’s not much of a receiver though, maxing out at 31 catches in a season, so it’s possible Carter or Perine will steal passing down work from him, in addition to being change-of-pace reserves.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

It might have been hard to tell because of how terrible their offense was, but the Jets actually had a decent defense last season, ranking 16th in first down rate allowed over expected. However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have big needs to address this off-season on the defensive side of the ball. One of those needs is the edge defender position, where the Jets didn’t have a player with more than 3.5 sacks last season and, in fact, have not had a player top 8 sacks since the 2013 season. That could change in 2021 though and the biggest reason for that is the addition of former Bengal Carl Lawson on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal. 

Lawson has only topped that 8-sack mark once in four seasons in the league, but that is in part due to injuries that cost him significant chunks of two seasons and his peripheral pass rush stats suggest he was better than his sack total, as he had just 20 sacks in 51 games, but added 60 hits and a 14.3% pressure rate. He leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s finished in the top-27 among edge defenders in pass rush grade on PFF in three out of four seasons, including a 11th ranked finish in 2018 and a 8th ranked finish in 2020. Only in his age 26 season, he should give the Jets a much needed top level edge rusher for years to come, provided he can avoid further injury.

Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins led this group with 734 snaps and 528 snaps respectively, but both were underwhelming pass rushers and neither is with the team anymore, so this is a completely revamped group. Along with Lawson, the Jets also made some lower level veteran free agent additions this off-season, signing ex-Eagle Vinny Curry and ex-49er Ronald Blair to one-year deals worth 1.3 million and 1.1 million respectively. 

Curry doesn’t have a huge sack total in his career, with just 32.5 in 123 games, but he’s always impressed as a situational pass rusher, playing just 27.4 snaps per game total and still posting impressive peripheral pass rush numbers with 66 hits and a 12.7% pressure rate. He’s now in his age 33 season and seems to be somewhat on the decline, but even if he isn’t, he’s not going to be more than a situational pass rusher for this team. He could be valuable in that role if he doesn’t drop off though.

Blair, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick of the 49ers in 2016 and showed some promise in his first four seasons of his career in San Francisco, with his best play coming in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, but he was always buried on the depth chart on a talented defensive line, averaging just 25.1 snaps per game in 47 games over those four seasons, and his best season in 2019 was ended midway by a torn ACL, which ultimately led to him missing all of 2020 with injury. If he’s past his injury, he’s still theoretically in his prime in his age 28 season and he’s familiar with the system from his time in San Francisco with Robert Saleh, but between his injury and his overall lack of experience, he’s hard to project to a significant role. 

The Jets are also moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense and will be playing John Franklin-Myers, one of their best interior rushers in 2020, almost exclusively on the edge in this new defensive front. Franklin-Myers is a big edge defender at 6-4 288, but it’s likely that Robert Saleh views him as his Arik Armstead in this defense and Armstead plays mostly outside at a similar weight. Franklin-Myers only played about half the snaps last season, but he was very effective as a pass rush specialist, totaling 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate, despite lining up in the interior on 79.9% of his pass rush snaps. However, that kind of came out of nowhere from him and he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level.

Franklin-Myers was a 4th round pick in 2018 and showed a little promise across 301 rookie year snaps, primarily playing on the edge, but couldn’t make the Rams’ final roster in year two and, after being signed by the Jets during the 2019 season, he got hurt and never ended up playing a snap for them all year, so his 2020 breakout year was unexpected to say the least. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner as a player, but I would bet against him matching last season’s level of play, even if he should be able to remain a capable rotational player upfront for the Jets.

Young options at this position who could earn roles include 2020 3rd round pick Jabari Zuniga, who played just 103 snaps as a rookie, 2020 undrafted free agent Bryce Huff, who also saw limited rookie year playing time with 296 snaps, and 2019 undrafted free agent Kyle Phillips, who has played 720 snaps in two seasons in the league, but has largely been mediocre. Zuniga would seem to have the highest upside of the three young players based on his draft status, but his draft status alone doesn’t guarantee he’ll become a contributor. Fortunately, the Jets won’t need to rely heavily on any of them in an improved group overall.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

On the interior, the Jets will mostly lose John Franklin-Myers from last year’s group, with him expected to play most of his snaps on the edge this year, and they’ll also be without Henry Anderson, who was solid for them across 549 snaps last season and signed with the Patriots this off-season, but they won’t need quite as many snaps from interior defenders this season in their new 4-3 defense and they also made a significant signing in free agency, signing ex-Saint Sheldon Rankins to a 2-year, 11 million. 

Rankins was a former first round pick of the Saints in 2016, selected 12th overall, and at one point it seemed like he would break the bank when he hit free agency, but instead he’ll actually take a paycut from the final year of his rookie deal, in which he got paid 7.69 million, due to the NFL’s shrunken cap this off-season, combined with Rankins having probably the worst year of his 5-year career in his 2020 contract year. 

In 2018, Rankins seemed to have broken out as the player he was drafted to be, finishing 25th among interior defenders on PFF across 642 snaps, but the last two seasons have been filled with injury and inconsistency and he’s managed to play just 738 snaps in 22 games combined over those two seasons, while earning middling at best grades from PFF. It’s possible his injuries have permanently sapped his effectiveness and he also missed significant time as a rookie as well, meaning he’s missed 17 games total in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s still a former first round pick with something of a track record who is only in his age 27 season, so he was a worthwhile pickup on a relatively inexpensive two-year deal.

Rankins should start opposite another former first round pick Quinnen Williams, who led this group with 587 snaps played in just 13 games last season, despite only being in his second season. Williams also played at a high level, finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender and especially excelling as a pass rusher, leading this team with 7 sacks and adding another 9 hits and a 10.3% pressure rate. 

Williams was only middling across 512 rookie year snaps in 2019, but he was the 3rd overall pick in 2019 and, not even turning 24 until December, he obviously has a massive upside and could develop into one of the top interior defenders in the league for years to come. Even if he does that, it isn’t a guarantee that he’ll take another big step forward right away in year three, but the future obviously looks very bright for him and his upside elevates the upside of this group significantly.

The Jets also still have reserves Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd, who played 507 snaps and 336 snaps respectively last season and should continue seeing rotational roles in 2021. A 6th round pick in 2018, Fatukasi isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a career 4.3% pressure rate, but he finished as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender against the run in 2020 and he had a similarly strong season on 390 snaps in 2019, finishing 2nd among interior defenders against the run. He might not have much more upside, but he should remain a very useful early down player for this defense.

Shepherd, meanwhile, saw more sub package snaps, but he wasn’t particularly good at anything last season and finished as PFF’s 116th ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible across 336 snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Shepherd has shown more promise in the past, but he hasn’t played a whole lot, averaging just 304 snaps per season in his career. He could be a solid rotational player and he has the upside for more in his 4th season in the league, but he’s the least impressive of the four primary options the Jets have at a position that looks like a strength.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

In the linebacking corps, the Jets big addition is actually a re-addition, as expected top off ball linebacker CJ Mosley opted out of the 2020 season and will return for 2021. Mosley was signed to a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal with 43 million guaranteed in free agency two off-seasons ago, but he was limited to 114 snaps in two games by injury in year one and then didn’t play a snap last season. The Jets didn’t have to pay his salary in 2020, but his contract tolls forward a year, meaning that instead of having his last year of guaranteed money on his deal in 2021, he’ll now have it in 2022, when he’ll be in his age 30 season. If Mosley doesn’t bounce back in 2021, the Jets may want to move on from him next off-season, but his contract situation won’t make that feasible.

Obviously, the Jets will be hoping he can bounce back and that’s definitely possible, but he was an overpay on this contract to begin with. He was selected in the first round in 2014 by the Ravens and was always at least a solid starter in his five seasons in Baltimore, a stretch in which he only missed 3 games and averaged 64.2 snaps per game, but he also never finished higher than 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF in any of those seasons. I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021 after basically missing two straight seasons, but his re-addition should still be a benefit for this defense.

The Jets also added ex-Lion Jarrad Davis on a 1-year, 5.5 million dollar deal. That was a bit of a head-scratching deal because it’s a significant amount of money in an off-season in which most players had to take a below market value one-year deal and, even if Davis proves to be worth his pay in 2021, the deal doesn’t have any upside and the Jets will have to pay even more to keep him next off-season. 

Davis’ deal also has significant downside as he was a consistently below average starter across 60.0 snaps per game in 41 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, including a career worst 97th out of 100 eligible across 654 snaps in 2019, and only earned his first average grade from PFF in 2020 when he played just 329 snaps as a reserve. The Jets seem likely to play him more than that and, even though he has theoretical upside in his age 27 season, he is likely to struggle in that increased role like he did early in his career.

None of the Jets’ off ball linebackers played well last season, but the Jets also let pretty much everyone walk, leaving them with little depth behind Mosley and Davis, which is a concern because neither one is a sure thing and, with the Jets moving to a 4-3 defense, they will have to play three off ball linebackers together in base packages on occasion, something they didn’t have to do in a 3-4. 

Blake Cashman is their top returning linebacker and he only played three snaps all last season. That lack of playing time was primarily due to injuries and Cashman was a 5th round pick in 2019 who saw a more significant snap count (424) as a rookie, but Cashman struggled mightily in that rookie year action, finishing 83rd among 100 eligible off ball linebackers, and he had that season cut short by injury as well. 

Assuming he can stay healthy, Cashman should see a role as the Jets’ third linebacker in base packages and could have to play an every down role if Davis and/or Mosley get injured and/or struggle. The Jets did use a 5th round pick on linebacker Jamien Sherwood and a 6th round pick on hybrid safety/linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen, but it would be hard to rely on either one as a rookie, so Cashman seems likely to be the third linebacker by default. Even with Mosley coming back, this is a somewhat concerning position group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Even though the Jets went on a big shopping spree this off-season, the one position they neglected was cornerback. On the contrary, the Jets actually let talented slot cornerback Brian Poole leave this off-season and are going to be embracing a youth movement at the position. Despite that youth movement, the Jets also didn’t spend any premium draft picks on the position, opting instead to use a pair of 5th round picks (Michael Carter, Jason Pinnock) and a 6th round pick (Brandin Echols) on developmental prospects that are unlikely to make an impact in year one. 

Given that, the Jets will be depending on young cornerbacks already on this roster taking a step forward, including their top-3 returning cornerbacks Blessuan Austin (681 snaps), Bryce Hall (547 snaps), and Lamar Jackson (453 snaps), who all earned below average grades from PFF in 2020. None of those three were high draft picks either, so it’s tough to project any of them to take a significant step forward.

Austin, a 6th rounder in 2019, showed more promise as a rookie, but it was across just 388 snaps. Hall and Jackson, meanwhile, were just rookies last season, going in the 5th round and undrafted respectively. Javelin Guidry could also be in the mix for a role and he was also an undrafted free agent in 2020. He was probably the best of the bunch last season, but his promising play came in just 174 snaps. Barring more reliable veteran additions, it’s hard not to see cornerback as anything but a position of weakness for the Jets in 2021.

Fortunately, things are better at safety, even after the Jets traded Jamal Adams to the Seahawks for a pair of first round picks last off-season. Marcus Maye was selected in the 2nd round in the same 2017 NFL Draft as the Jets selected Adams 6th overall and, in Adams’ absence, Maye broke out as one of the top safeties in the league in 2020, finishing 4th among safeties on PFF. Needing to keep at least one of their talented safeties drafted in 2017, the Jets wisely gave Maye the franchise tag this off-season and will either extend him before the season starts or make him prove it another year on the tag. 

Last year was the best year of Maye’s career, but he’s not a one-year wonder, as he finished 21st among safeties in PFF in 2019 and ranked 11th in 2018 through 6 games before suffering a season ending injury. Still very much in his prime in his age 27 season, he should be relatively safe to lock up long-term. Making him prove it another year is only going to increase his price, especially if they wait until after the Seahawks sign Adams, and is not really necessary, so the Jets should be trying to get him extended long-term, even if they have to pay him at the top of the safety market (14-16 million annually). Either way, barring an extended holdout, Maye should be a big asset for the Jets on defense in 2021, regardless of his contract situation.

At the other safety spot, the Jets used a 3rd round pick on safety Ashtyn Davis in 2020 to essentially be Jamal Adams’ replacement, but he’s not locked into a starting role in year two, after struggling across 402 rookie year snaps, finishing 82nd out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF. He could win an every down starting job for this team, but he’ll face competition from veteran free agent addition LaMarcus Joyner, who signed on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal this off-season. That’s a steep drop off from the last contract Joyner signed in free agency, when he inked a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Raiders, after spending a year making 11.287 million on the franchise tag with the Rams, but Joyner was so bad in two years with the Raiders that this was the best he could get this off-season. 

In some ways, Joyner not being worth that contract wasn’t a surprise, not because Joyner never proved himself as a top level safety with the Rams, finishing 2nd among safeties in 2017 and then 28th in 2018, but because the Raiders tried to use Joyner more as a slot cornerback, where he had early career struggles. Those struggles predictably returned as Joyner returned to his former spot, as he finished 124th among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 706 snaps in 2019 and 97th among 133 eligible across 670 snaps in 2020, basically giving the Raiders no benefit in exchange for the 22 million he was paid over his two seasons in town. 

That was really the Raiders’ fault more than anyone though and Joyner has some obvious bounce back potential now back in a more comfortable position at safety, though it’s worth noting he’s 31 now and going on three years removed from his last effective season. He was a worthwhile flyer for the Jets, who are hoping they can find at least one capable starting option out of their competition between him and Ashtyn Davis. It seems like at least somewhat of a safe bet that one of them can be that for them. That would be a big help for a Jets team that will badly need to mask their inexperienced cornerback group.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jets should be significantly improved on offense this season. Their have significantly more talent around the quarterback than last season and, while the jury is still out on #2 overall pick Zach Wilson, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Sam Darnold. However, they were the worst offensive team in the league by far last season, so even being significantly improved would likely have them as a below average unit. 

On defense, they were a middling unit last season and they are improved in some areas this season, but their issues at cornerback will likely prevent them from being significantly improved on an already decent group from a year ago. The Jets should be more competitive this season, but it would take a very unlikely rookie season from Wilson to elevate this team into post-season contention in the AFC. This year is mostly just about developing Wilson and hoping to see improvement throughout the season, as the Jets look to compete in 2022 and beyond. I will have a final prediction for the Jets at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

New England Patriots 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots parted ways after the most successful two decade stretch in NFL history, in which the Patriots won 17 division titles, 9 AFC Championships, and 6 Super Bowls and set countless records. The breakup between the two sides is undoubtedly complicated and there are likely things we will never know about how it went down, but the decision appeared to be at least somewhat mutual. 

Patriots Head Coach and GM Bill Belichick did not want to commit to a soon-to-be-43-year-old Brady at a significant level and Brady was unwilling to stay without a commitment at that level, instead opting to take a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers that barred Tampa Bay from franchise tagging him at the end of the contract, giving Brady both short-term guarantees at a high salary while leaving him completely in control of his NFL future, despite his advanced age. Beyond that, the Patriots seemed to be heading into something of a rebuilding year with or without Brady, while the Buccaneers gave Brady a talented roster that was legitimately a quarterback away from being Super Bowl contenders.

Brady’s Buccaneers didn’t just contend for that Super Bowl, but ended up winning it, giving Brady his 7th ring and his 1st away from Belichick and the Patriots, who fell to 7-9 in his absence. At first glance, the Patriots seem to be the obvious losers of that exchange, but it’s more complex than that. As I mentioned, the Patriots were heading into something of a rebuilding year with or without Brady. The 2019 Patriots won 12 games, but they did so thanks to a league best defense, while their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate and got progressively worse as the season went on.

That defense was always likely to regress in 2020, as they had lost significant talent in free agency and, though Brady could not have seen these things coming when he made his decision in March, opt outs further depleted their talent on defense. As a result, the Patriots fell all the way to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.22%, a year after leading the league in that metric by a significant amount. 

Assuming that would have happened with or without Brady, it’s hard to see the Patriots making a serious run in 2020 either way, as they did not have the necessary talent in the receiving corps for their offense to be significantly improved from 2019 regardless of their quarterback situation. As well as Brady played in Tampa Bay, it’s important to remember he had so much more talent around him than he would have had he stayed in New England.

The Patriots could have kicked the can on their cap issues another year to bring back Brady and potentially some help around him on defense, but by taking their lumps last year and not attempting what would have almost definitely been an ill-fated attempt to win one last Super Bowl with Brady, the Patriots are in much better shape going forward in 2021 and beyond. After years of spending to keep talented players around Brady, the Patriots essentially paid off the credit card last season and had the 3rd lowest average annual salary in the league, a metric that highly correlates with winning. The Patriots were only ahead of the Jaguars and Jets, who went a combined 3-29, so, by those standards, the Patriots winning 7 games seems like something of a miracle.

The Patriots’ reward for that was having among the most cap space in the league this off-season, in an off-season when most teams lacked financial flexibility due to a shrunken cap, which led to the Patriots going on an unprecedented shopping spree this off-season that has pushed them all the way up to 9th in average annual salary. The Patriots have almost never spent big money in free agency, but that is because they’ve had to reserve most of their cap for keeping some of the talented players they drafted and developed over the years. The Patriots’ drafts have fallen off in recent years, so a big free agency was necessary for this team to try to get back on top.

It’s admittedly not as effective of a strategy for building a team as drafting and developing, but the Patriots didn’t have much of a choice, they’re not starting from that low of a basepoint (7-9, 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential) and there is no denying, between free agency and players returning from opt outs, that this team has a huge infusion of talent coming in this season. They’re also, of course, still coached at a high level by Bill Belichick and his coaching staff and, for as many recent draft misses as Belichick has, he still has a lot more hits historically and he remains probably the best evaluator of pro talent in the league, which likely came in handy when he was on his big off-season shopping spree.

The Patriots shooting up to 9th in average annual salary this off-season doesn’t tell the whole story either, as six of the eight teams ahead of them are all paying their quarterback significant money, while the Patriots have concentrated their funds on the rest of their roster and are hoping they’ve found a cheap young franchise quarterback through the draft in Alabama’s Mac Jones, who they selected 15th overall. 

If they have, the Patriots chances of winning a Super Bowl in the next few years shoot up significantly, as having a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal and being aggressive surrounding that quarterback with talent is the best way to contend for a Super Bowl, outside of having a transcendent talent like Brady or Patrick Mahomes. Since the beginning of the salary cap in 1994, just 7 of 27 teams have won the Super Bowl with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of their salary cap and all 7 are future Hall of Famers. Beyond that, more than half (14 of 27) of those Super Bowl winning quarterbacks took up less than 7% of their team’s salary cap and a third accounted for less than 5%. 

That’s a big if though, as with any quarterback selected in the first round, Jones’ chances of becoming a franchise quarterback are questionable. Jones might not even make it into the starting lineup as a rookie until midway through the season, as the Patriots have brought back incumbent starting quarterback Cam Newton and could use him as a stopgap if they don’t feel Jones is ready. Newton drew a lot of the blame for the Patriots’ down season last year, but it was hardly his fault given the rest of this roster and, as crazy as it might sound, the Patriots actually converted first downs at a higher rate relative to the rest of the league with Newton in 2020, when they ranked 18th, than with Brady in 2019, when they ranked 21st.

That’s not to say that Newton was an upgrade on Brady, but while the 2019 Patriots’ offense mostly consisted of Brady trying and largely failing to consistently string together drives through the air with one of the worst receiving corps in the league. Newton at least gave them an added dimension as a runner, averaging 4.32 YPC and scoring 12 touchdowns on 137 carries and opening up running lanes for the rest of this backfield, leading to the Patriots jumping from a 25th ranked 3.81 YPC in 2019 to an 8th ranked 4.67 YPC in 2020. 

That somewhat offsets passing numbers, 65.8% completion, 7.22 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, that almost definitely would have been better had Newton had a better receiving corps to throw to and had he not cannibalized so many of his own passing touchdowns by rushing for it instead. Overall, Newton was PFF’s 23rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, not great, but probably better than the common perception. If the Patriots have to start Newton for a stretch, I would expect him to be better than last year, now with another year in the system and a lot more talent around him, although it goes without saying that the veteran’s best days are almost definitely behind him and that the young Mac Jones gives them a much higher upside. 

Unless Newton takes a big step forward, it’s hard to see him keeping the job all season, but this is a genuine competition and the Patriots have enough talent around the quarterback that they could be competitive with either option, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Newton start into mid-season if the team is winning consistently. Jones also could just outright take the job in training camp, which would probably be the best case scenario for this team, assuming it doesn’t come by default because of Newton being totally washed up or getting hurt. The most likely scenario, however it comes, is the Patriots getting at least capable play under center from one of their two quarterbacks.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Given the Patriots’ issues in the receiving corps last season and really for the past two seasons, it’s not a surprise that was a big focus of their off-season shopping spree. However, instead of spending at the top of the wide receiver market, the Patriots instead signed free agency’s two best tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, to contracts that pay them among the top tight ends in the league, and instead shopped more in the middle of the market at the wide receiver position.

The numbers might look like an overpay for the tight ends, as both become the third highest paid tight end in the league in average annual value on contracts worth 50 million over 4 years (Smith) and 37.5 million over 3 years (Henry), but the tight end market has been undervalued for years, so these contracts are pretty reasonable values. For years, the top receiving tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz were all signed to well below market value deals that they signed early in their careers and, because NFL contracts are largely determined by contracts given to peers at the same position, that led to no tight end even reaching 10 million annually until Austin Hooper signed a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Browns last off-season.

Kelce and breakout tight end George Kittle followed shortly after with big extensions, but the tight end position still looks undervalued when you consider that if you take into account wide receivers. Kittle and Kelce rank just 19th and 21st among pass catchers in average annual salary, even though they produce like top level receivers and also block inline. Smith and Henry might not jump off the page as top level tight ends, but they’re two of the exceedingly rare tight ends in the league who are both above average run blockers and pass catchers and, if you look at their contracts compared to wide receivers, they rank just 23rd among pass catchers in average annual salary. Top free agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay signed for 18 million annually, not far behind the combined 25 million annually that the Patriots are giving their two tight ends and I think the Patriots will get significantly more value out of the two of them than if they had just spent the money on one wide receiver.

Henry entered the league as a second round pick of the Chargers in 2016, selected to be the successor for future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who was in the twilight of his career. Henry showed a lot of promise in his first two seasons in the league as a part-time player behind Gates, averaging 2.02 yards per route run, blocking at a high level, and finishing 6th and 2nd among tight ends on PFF in those two seasons respectively. In 2018, it seemed as if Henry was destined for a breakout year with Gates no longer with the team, but instead he got hurt before the season began and missed most of the year, causing the Chargers to have to bring back Gates for one last season. 

Henry has been relatively healthy the past two seasons and saw more playing time with Gates gone for good, but he still missed six games between the two seasons and he didn’t quite live up to early career expectations either, ranking 14th among tight ends on PFF in 2019 while posting a 55/652/5 slash line and averaging 1.67 yards per route run and then ranking 18th among tight ends on PFF in 2020 while posting a 60/613/4 slash line and averaging just 1.28 yards per route run, with new quarterback Justin Herbert not targeting the tight end position as much as his predecessor Philip Rivers. However, Henry is still an above average tight end who is only heading into his age 27 season and his career 8.12 yards per target average is pretty impressive, even if he hasn’t always been the focus of the offense enough to produce massive receiving yardage totals. 

Smith, meanwhile, was a third round pick of the Titans in 2017. Smith has never posted a big receiving total either, never topping 448 yards in a season, but that’s because he took a couple years to develop and then over the past two seasons he’s split time with other tight ends on a team that runs the ball a lot. Over those two seasons, he averaged an impressive 1.64 yards per route run and 8.14 yards per target, but his lack of targets limited his overall production. Also a solid blocker, Smith has finished 16th and 11th among tight ends overall on PFF in those two seasons respectively, showing he’s been a lot better than you’d think just by looking at his raw receiving totals. Still only going into his age 26 season, Smith could keep getting better and at the very least should remain in his prime for several seasons.

The Patriots having two tight ends might conjure up images of Tom Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (or Martellus Bennett), but there are some big differences, aside from the obvious of Brady being gone and neither Smith or Henry likely to live up to the level of Gronkowski. For one, both players can block and catch the football at an above average level, meaning that when the Patriots line up in two tight end sets, which is likely to be frequently, opposing defenses will have to either cover both with linebackers, which will create mismatches, or they will have to cover them with safeties, in which case the Patriots have the offensive line and power running game to take advantage of that mismatch. 

If anything, a better recent comparison might be the kind of offense the Baltimore Ravens ran in 2019.  Obviously Lamar Jackson isn’t around and the Patriots’ offense doesn’t have that same upside as a result, but the Ravens having multiple tight ends that could catch the football allowed them to play a style of football that defenses had a hard time matching up with and the Patriots’ offensive line and running backs compare favorably to the same position groups of those 2019 Ravens. 

I was expecting the Patriots to target a mobile quarterback in the draft to compete with Cam Newton, so that the Patriots’ offense would have that extra element of the quarterback taking off and running as well. However, Mac Jones is about as far away from Lamar Jackson as you can get so, while Jones is very likely to ultimately be a better thrower of the ball than Cam Newton, the Patriots will only have that added benefit of defenses having to account for a quarterback run when Cam Newton is under center, although I wouldn’t rule out the Patriots using Newton as some sort of short yardage/goal line quarterback, given how tough he is to stop in those situations.

The Patriots also have good depth at the tight end position. Their tight end group was abysmal last season, totaling just 18 catches on 32 targets, including just 2 catches and 3 catches respectively from third round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but they would hardly be the first tight ends to improve significantly after a bad rookie season and they’re good depth to have in the 3rd and 4th tight end spots, behind what looks like arguably the best tight end duo in the league.

The Patriots didn’t go after the top level wide receivers, but they made additions at that position as well. The biggest one and probably their most questionable signing of the off-season was a 2-year, 22 million dollar deal given to Nelson Agholor that guarantees him 16 million. If Agholor plays like he did last season, he’ll be worth that contract, as he finished with a 48/896/8 slash line while averaging 2.04 yards per route run and 10.93 yards per target, but that’s far from a guarantee given his history, as Agholor had averaged just 1.04 yards per route run and 6.89 yards per target across just first five seasons in the league prior to last season.

In fact, Agholor ended up signing just a one-year, 1.05 million dollar deal with the Raiders last off-season and the Patriots, who desperately needed wide receiver help, went with other options at a similar price, so it’s strange that Belichick would suddenly think Agholor is worth this kind of money after one year. If we’re sticking with the Ravens offense metaphor, Agholor was clearly signed to be the deep threat who takes the top off the defense while they’re focused on dealing with the tight ends and the running game, similar to Marquise Brown. 

Agholor’s 18.7 yards per catch average last season would suggest he is a good fit in that role, but that came after averaging just 11.2 yards per catch over his first 5 seasons in the league. Agholor is a former first round pick who may could prove to be a late bloomer, still in his late prime in his age 28 season, and his usage with the Raiders last season was very different than his first five seasons in the league, as his average depth of target shot up from 11.3 to 15.7, suggesting that simply having him run deeper routes may have been the trick to unlocking him, but I would bet against him not repeating his career best year, even if he only regresses a little.

Kendrick Bourne, meanwhile, was a much better value on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. He’s also coming off of a career best year, finishing with a 49/667/2 slash line, but his 1.49 yards per route run average was both decent and not out of the ordinarily for a player who averaged 1.31 yards per route run in his first 3 seasons in the league, after the 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Bourne didn’t get a chance to see significant playing time until injuries ahead of him on the depth chart in his fourth season in the league, but he could remain at least a marginal starting wide receiver for the Patriots, who will take that compared to much of what they got last season.

Their only wide receiver or tight end to play significant snaps and earn even an average grade from PFF last season was Jakobi Meyers, who had a sneaky good season in the midst of all of the Patriots’ problems in the receiving corps. Meyers wasn’t inserted into the lineup until week 7, before which he had played just 22 snaps, and he finished the season having played just 665 snaps, but he averaged a very impressive 2.24 yards per route run average (12th among wide receivers) and 9.00 yards per target, en route to finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked wide receiver overall on the season and totalling a 59/729/0 slash line.

Meyers is a 2019 undrafted free agent who only averaged 1.32 yards per route run as a rookie and he’s very unlikely to see the same target share this season as he did down the stretch last season, with several key additions made to this group this off-season, but Meyers should still be in the mix for the #2 or #3 wide receiver role and probably has a higher upside than Bourne. The Patriots two tight ends likely mean they won’t play many three wide receiver sets compared to the rest of the league, but all three of Agholor, Bourne, and Meyers are likely to see significant playing time as none of them are really a #1 wide receiver.

Reserve options farther down the depth chart include 2019 1st round pick bust N’Keal Harry, who has averaged just 0.93 yards per route run in limited action in his career and only theoretically still has upside because of his draft status, which may also be the only reason he makes this final roster, and journeyman deep threat Marvin Hall, who has just 37 catches in 5 seasons in the league but has taken 14 of them for at least 20 yards and has averaged a 1.69 yards per route run average in his limited action. Hall is not a candidate for a larger role than he’s seen, but he gives this offense another option to take the top off the defense in the rare occasions they decide to spread the defense out. This is not a spectacular group, but it’s hard to ignore how much better they’ve gotten just by adding several competent or better options.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Even with an improved receiving corps, the offensive line and running backs still figure to be a big focus of this offense. Damien Harris was their lead back last season, rushing for 5.04 YPC on 137 carries, after just seeing four carries as a 3rd round rookie in 2019. Harris also rushed for 3.02 YPC after contact last season and ranked 19th in carry success rate at 53%. Now going into his third year in the league, Harris would seem to have a lot of upside if they gave him a larger role, but they also don’t seem ready to give him that larger role. 

Sony Michel returns and, while he’s missed 10 games in 3 seasons in the league and has been limited in countless others, he’s still rushed for 4.28 YPC over 535 carries with 2.68 YPC after contact and the former 2018 1st round pick has a similar profile to Harris as a runner, so he figures to continue eating into his work when on the field. The Patriots also used a 4th round pick on Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who also fits a similar profile, even if he’s obviously very raw and unproven. He probably won’t have a huge role as a rookie, but like Michel he could prevent Harris from getting a significant workload for a team that doesn’t like to commit to one back. 

Stevenson being added as the third back is great news for James White, who will have his pass catching role to himself, as Harris (5 catches in 10 games), Michel (26 catches in 38 games), and Stevenson (28 catches in 18 collegiate games) all leave something to be desired in the passing game. While those three backs are very similar, White could not be more different, with more catches (369) in his career than carries (309). White’s 49/375/1 slash line across 62 targets in 2020 was down from his 63/557/5 average slash line across 86 targets from his five seasons as Brady’s primary passing down back, but it was to be expected that he would fall off without Brady, who was notorious for targeting running backs in the passing game.

It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see White’s receiving numbers pick back up a little in a better offense in 2021, especially with former fellow passing down back Rex Burkhead no longer stealing work from him (33 targets in 2020). White has just a career 4.01 YPC average and is unlikely to see more than a few carries per game, but he’s firmly locked into his passing game role, with Stevenson being the only other running back on this roster with even theoretical upside as a pass catcher. The Patriots will use several backs this season, but they have a solid stable of situational players. 

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

On the offensive line, the Patriots are losing one of the better interior guards in the league in left guard Joe Thuney, who signed a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal with the Chiefs, after finishing 10th among guards on PFF in 2020, but this offensive line was still so talented aside from him and they added veteran Trent Brown in free agency to give them another starting option to replace Thuney, so they should still remain one of the top offensive lines in the league. Brown won’t replace Thuney directly at left guard, but he could play either left or right tackle for them, allowing Michael Onwenu, who saw action at both guard and tackle last season, to focus on guard in 2021.

Onwenu is really the key to replacing Thuney, as the 2020 6th round pick played well enough as a rookie, primarily at right tackle, to make Thuney expendable. Overall, Onwenu finished 8th among offensive tackles on PFF, showing himself to be arguably the best value pick of the entire draft. He might not be quite that good going forward and the fact that the league let him fall all the way to the 6th round just a year ago can’t be ignored yet, but he projects as an above average replacement at left guard and he could prove to be better long-term inside than outside.

While Onwenu is a big part of how they plan to replace Thuney, Brown’s addition was big as well. This is actually his second stint in New England, as Brown spent a year in New England as part of their Super Bowl winning team in 2018. Brown was a steal when they acquired him from the 49ers for a swap of mid round picks and paid him just a 1.907 million dollar salary for a season in which he made 16 starts at left tackle and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF, after proving himself as a right tackle the previous season in San Francisco, when he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF as a 10-game starter.

The Patriots were also smart not to keep Brown on a deal like the 4-year, 66 million dollar deal that he ended up signing with the Raiders that off-season, as Brown was limited to just 16 starts in two seasons with the Raiders and was basically salary dumped on the Patriots this off-season, who restructured his deal down to a much more manageable 9 million over 1 year. Brown didn’t show any dropoff on the field when he did play with the Raiders and he should still be in his prime in his age 28 season, so he has bounce back potential if he can stay on the field, but that is a big question after the past two seasons.

Regardless of whether Brown starts on the right side or the left side, he’ll start opposite Isaiah Wynn, who has been the starter at left tackle in Brown’s absence over the past two seasons. A first round pick in 2018, Wynn’s career started on an unfortunate note as he missed all of his rookie year with a torn achilles, but he’s developed pretty well in the two seasons since, ranking 35th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019 and improving up to 10th among offensive tackles in 2020. 

However, durability has remained a problem for Wynn, as he has missed another 14 games over the past two seasons, so it’s a big question mark whether he’ll be able to make it through the whole season without missing time, perhaps even more so than Brown. Justin Herron, a 2020 6th round pick who played 352 nondescript snaps as a rookie, would probably be the first one off the bench in case of an injury, so it’s a bit of a concern, although they could move Onwenu back to tackle in that scenario and plug in a reserve at guard instead.

At guard, Shaq Mason will play opposite Onwenu and, with his former counterpart Thuney gone, Mason is probably their best player upfront now and that may have even been the case before Thuney left. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Mason has made 83 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including five straight seasons in the top-12 among guards, four seasons in the top-6, and a 5th ranked finish in 2020. Still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect anything different from him this season.

The Patriots also retained David Andrews in free agency, bringing their center back on a 4-year, 19 million dollar deal that looks like a steal. Andrews missed all of 2019 with illness and fell to 15th among centers on PFF upon his return in 2020, which likely led to him having a depressed market in free agency this off-season, but he finished 4th and 10th in the two seasons prior to that missed season and is still in his prime in his age 29 season, so he could easily bounce back. Even if he doesn’t, he’s finished above average on PFF in four straight seasons and should remain at least a solid starter, on a very team friendly deal.

Earlier in the off-season, it looked like Andrews would go elsewhere after turning down the Patriots initial offer, which they responded to by signing former Patriot Ted Karras, who filled in for Andrews in 2019 and spent 2020 as the starting center in Miami. Karras has made 31 starts across the past two seasons and has largely held his own, earning middling grades from PFF, but Andrews is definitely a better option, while Karras fits in well as a reserve because he can also kick over to guard if needed. Aside from depth behind their injury prone offensive tackles, which could be made up for by moving Onwenu and plugging Karras in at guard in case of an injury at tackle, this is a talented group with no glaring issues that could easily be one of the best in the league once again.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Patriots also made some much needed additions on defense this off-season, most notably edge defender Matt Judon, who signed the biggest contract the Patriots handed out this off-season, coming over from the Ravens on a 4-year, 54.5 million dollar deal. Judon spent last year making 16.806 million on the franchise tag and lived up to expectations in his one year on the tag, so I suspect in a normal off-season, Judon would have gotten significantly more money annually, perhaps in the range of 18-20 million annually, which would have put him in the top-10 at his position. By locking Judon in as the 22nd highest paid edge defender in the league (a rank that will almost definitely fall even further over the next couple seasons as the cap normalizes), the Patriots seem to have gotten a great value.

Judon leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s been a very efficient pass rusher throughout his career, totalling 34.5 sacks, 69 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate in 76 games, including 6 sacks, 15 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 14 games in 2020. Judon has also posted those numbers despite dropping into coverage on 23.8% of his pass snaps, and, while he hasn’t been overly impressive in coverage, his experience dropping is probably why he appealed to New England because they like edge players that can drop into coverage if needed.

Judon joins a group that should be a lot better this season, after being led in snaps last season by veteran journeyman John Simon, who finished 120th among 124 edge defenders on PFF across 702 snaps. Chase Winovich is their top returning edge defender, playing 593 snaps last season. He primarily is valuable as a pass rusher, with 11 sacks, 13 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 32 games as a part-time player since entering the league as a 3rd round in 2019, and he leaves something to be desired against the run, but he can drop into coverage a little bit (7.1% of his career pass snaps) and should at least continue having a heavy sub package role in this defense.

This group will also benefit from the return of Dont’a Hightower from his opt out. Hightower is kind of a hybrid linebacker/edge defender, but he rushed the passer on 59.3% of his pass snaps in his last season in 2019, primarily off the edge, and fared well, with 5.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. He’s also a solid run stuffer and can hold his own in coverage, making him very valuable to this defense, which badly missed him last season. 

Hightower’s age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, after a year off, and durability has always been a concern, as he’s only played all 16 games once in his career, back in his second season in the league in 2013, but he hadn’t shown many signs of slowing down before the opt out, finishing 21st among off ball linebackers on PFF in his last season in 2019, and, even if he declines a little in 2020, he should at least remain a solid starter.

Kyle Van Noy is also returning to this group after a year away, but not because he opted out last season. Van Noy was PFF’s 19th ranked edge defender in his last season in New England in 2019 and he cashed in with a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, but failed to live up to expectations and was only a middling player for Miami, leading to them releasing him after just 1 season and 15 million, which led to him rejoining the Patriots on a much team friendlier 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season. 

Van Noy’s 2019 campaign stands out as an outlier when you look at his 7-year career as a whole and he may be on the decline, now heading into his age 30 season, but he’s been at least a capable starter for each of the past four seasons and the familiarity of returning to a scheme that got his career best year out of him should be a benefit for him, even if he doesn’t play nearly as well as he did in that 2019 season. Like Hightower, he is capable of playing some off ball linebacker as well, dropping into coverage on 45.2% of his pass snaps over the past four seasons combined.

The Patriots also added Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins in the third round of the draft and they have a pair of second year players who could earn roles as well, 2020 2nd round pick Josh Uche and 2020 3rd round pick Anfernee Jennings. Uche has the higher upside of the two second year players, not only because he was the higher pick, but because he flashed a lot of potential across 176 snaps last season in a rookie year otherwise plagued by injury. If he’s past his rookie year injuries, Uche has the potential to be valuable to this team in a situational role. Jennings, meanwhile, may still have untapped potential, but didn’t show much across 293 rookie year snaps and now may be buried on the depth chart in a much improved position group. 

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Patriots also made some additions on the interior as well. Last season, four players, Deatrich Wise (565 snaps), Lawrence Guy (503 snaps), Adam Butler (481 snaps), and Byron Cowart (419 snaps) all saw significant action on the interior. Wise and Guy were the best of the bunch and the only two to earn an above average grade from PFF, but Butler is now with the Dolphins and the Patriots added a trio of defensive tackles this off-season who could all see playing time, which will likely leave Cowart buried on the depth chart, after the 2019 5th round pick finished 107th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF, in the first significant action of his career last season.

Those three defensive tackles are veterans Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, signed to deals worth 15 million and 7 million respectively over two years, and second round pick Christian Barmore. Godchaux missed most of last season with injury and has never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 4.7% pressure rate, but the 2017 5th round pick earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league prior to last year’s injury plagued year, including a career best 17th ranked finish among interior defenders as a run stopper in 2018. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, having only missed 1 game to injury prior to last season, he has a good chance to bounce back and be an asset on early downs.

Anderson, meanwhile, is more of a pass rushing option, but he’s also been a consistently solid run defender throughout his career, even if he’s typically been used more as a pass rushing specialist. He hasn’t been bad as a pass rusher either, totaling 11.5 sacks, 33 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate in 74 career games and he’s overall been a solid rotational player across an average of 37.8 snaps per game throughout his career. The only major issue he’s had in his career has been injuries, which have caused him to miss 22 games in 6 seasons in the league. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so he’s probably not getting any better, but he has managed to play all 16 games in two of his past three seasons.

Anderson is well-rounded enough that the Patriots could use him as a run stuffer or a pass rusher, but he was most likely signed to be a pass rush specialist, as this group is otherwise run focused. I’ve already mentioned Davon Godchaux, but the rookie Barmore is also more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, while holdover Lawrence Guy should also continue playing in a base package role, even if he doesn’t quite see the 516 snaps he’s averaged over the past six seasons. Guy has earned an above average grade from PFF in all six of those seasons though, so, even if he does start to decline in his age 32 season, he should be a capable player on early downs in a rotational role.

Fellow holdover Deatrich Wise also is likely to play a significant role, as he’s a situational pass rush specialist, excelling with 14 sacks, 41 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate in 62 career games, but consistently mediocre play against the run. He’s an asset for them in sub packages though and, even if he doesn’t match his career high 565 snaps from last season in a deeper group, the Patriots are shorter on pass rushers than they are on run stuffers in the middle of their defensive line and they didn’t re-sign Wise on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal if they didn’t plan on continuing to use him in a significant role. Like on the edges, this is a much improved group in 2021.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Dont’a Hightower and at times Kyle Van Noy will play some traditional off ball linebacker as well. The Patriots will also use safety Adrian Phillips and/or safety Kyle Dugger as linebackers in sub packages, which I will get into later. As for traditional off ball linebackers, Ja’Whaun Bentley led the way with 608 snaps last season, but he played mostly a base package role and he wasn’t that good, finishing 58th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers. Bentley was a 5th round pick in 2018 and showed more promise earlier in his career, but that was across just 413 snaps played in his first two seasons in the league and he has yet to translate that to even a situational role like he had last season. Behind Bentley, 2019 undrafted rookie Terez Hall struggled across the first 259 snaps of his career.

In addition to adding Hightower and Van Noy, this group is improved by adding Raekwon McMillan in free agency. McMillan was not one of their most heralded signings and in fact he is on just a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar deal, after playing just 170 snaps with the Raiders last season, but he was PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker in run defense grade in 2018 and their 11th ranked in run defense in 2019, as a base package specialist with the Dolphins, who originally selected him in the 2nd round in 2017. 

His lack of coverage ability led to him falling out of favor with the Dolphins and then he was buried on the depth chart with the Raiders, but he was a strong run stuffer as recently as 2019 and he’s only in his age 25 season, so he could prove to be a smart signing as a situational linebacker. He could easily play over Bentley, while Hall will have to compete for a roster spot in another position group that is much improved.

Grade: B

Secondary

As mentioned, the Patriots will frequently use three safeties together in sub packages to mask their lack of coverage linebackers, with either Adrian Phillips or Kyle Dugger playing closer to the line of scrimmage as essentially a linebacker. Along with long-time Patriot Devin McCourty, the Patriots were pretty deep at safety last season. They were expecting to be even deeper in 2021 with Patrick Chung back from an opt out and, while he decided to stay retired, the Patriots replaced him by signing ex-Eagle Jalen Mills to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal. Along with 2019 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams, a hybrid cornerback/safety, the Patriots have plenty of talent and depth at the safety position. 

Mills also has the ability to play some cornerback as well, but the 2017 7th round pick proved over his five seasons with the Eagles that he was better at safety. He was pretty inconsistent overall, but his best play has always come at safety, including a career best year in 2020 when he finished 24th among safeties on PFF as almost exclusively a traditional safety. He’s an unspectacular signing, but he probably won’t be an every down player and he gives them good versatility. Kyle Dugger might be the favorite to start opposite McCourty, after showing some promise across 520 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2020, but even if he earns an every down role on this defense, he figures to see action at multiple spots. He has the most breakout potential of the bunch.

McCourty, meanwhile, is coming to the end of the line, heading into his age 34 season and his 12th season in the league since the Patriots selected him 27th overall in 2010. In his 11 seasons in the league, he’s finished in the top-20 at his position in 8 seasons and has never once finished below average on PFF, but his 43rd ranked finish among safeties in 2020 was the lowest of his career. He could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank and I wouldn’t rule out him being a little better this season than last season, but he could also fall off significantly. Fortunately, the Patriots have enough depth at the position to deal with that if that happens.

Adrian Phillips also played 747 snaps last season as a hybrid safety/linebacker and earned a slightly above average grade from PFF for his efforts. That’s largely been the case for him throughout his career, although his snap count last season was a career high for the 7-year veteran. He should remain a versatile, rotational piece for this defense and should hold up well, but he’s very unlikely to be an every down player. JoeJuan Williams is currently buried on the depth chart after having played just 252 snaps across two seasons in the league, but he could earn a rotational role if players ahead of him underwhelm. The Patriots have a lot of options at safety.

They’re also in good shape at cornerback, although a lot of that depends on cornerback Stephon Gilmore being on this roster week 1. Prior to this off-season’s shopping spree, Gilmore was the most significant outside free agent the Patriots had ever signed, signing a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal with the Patriots four off-seasons ago. Some viewed Gilmore as an overpay at the time and in fact Gilmore had never finished higher than 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 5 seasons with the Bills prior to free agency, including a 71st ranked finish in his final season in 2016, but the 2012 10th overall pick proved to have plenty of untapped potential upon his arrival in New England, finishing 24th, 1st, and 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first three seasons respectively and winning 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.

After accomplishing all of that, Gilmore went from being viewed as overpaid by some to being universally viewed as underpaid. Gilmore took notice and tried to get a new contract out of the Patriots last off-season, but instead ended up only getting some money from 2021 moved up to 2020. Normally a move like that is followed by a new contract the following off-season, but Gilmore remains on the roster at his reduced 7.5 million dollar salary. Gilmore’s down 2020 campaign, where he finished 67th among cornerbacks on PFF and missed 5 games with injury, may have something to do with the Patriots’ hesitance, but Gilmore would still be paid significantly more on the open market and is understandably upset with his salary, having seen the Patriots go on a massive spending spree of outside free agents this off-season.

Gilmore held out of minicamp and, while it’s possible that something will get worked out before training camp, a trade may end up being the most likely scenario, even if it would have made more sense for the Patriots to do that earlier this off-season when they could have acquired a draft pick this year and used it on an asset that could help this team immediately, rather than moving him for a pick in 2022 and/or beyond. If he remains on the roster in 2021 one way or another, he does have obvious bounce back potential after an uncharacteristically down year, even if he’s at the point in his career (age 31 season) where his best days are probably behind him. If Gilmore is not on the roster in 2021, the Patriots will either have to find a replacement somewhere or use Jalen Mills and/or JoeJuan Williams more at cornerback than safety.

Regardless of Gilmore’s status, JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones are locked into roles in the Patriots’ top-3 cornerbacks and the presence of those two talented young cornerbacks may be part of why the Patriots don’t want to pay up for Gilmore. Jackson, in particular, is due a big raise going into the final year of his rookie year and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as his interception totals over the past two seasons (14 interceptions), he’s still finished above average on PFF in three straight seasons, including a 49th ranked finish in 2019 and a 32nd ranked finish in 2020. Still only going into his age 26 season, he could keep getting better and figures to get paid big money by someone next off-season.

Jones, meanwhile, signed a 3-year, 21 million dollar extension a couple off-seasons ago that looks like a steal now, as Jones has seen his snap count increase in each of the past four seasons from 438 to 516 to 619 to 730 and has developed into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, ranking 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2019 and 4th in 2020 and impressing both in coverage and especially off the edge as a run defender. This secondary will have a higher upside if they can keep Gilmore in the fold, but this is a talented group regardless.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots had their worst season in a couple decades last season, but they still managed seven wins in a rebuilding year and it’s not hard to see how they could be significantly better this season, with a big infusion of talent coming in, particularly at their positions of weakness in the receiving corps and on the defensive front. They also figure to have better quarterback play, whether that is from Cam Newton having another year in the system or Mac Jones beating him out to be a starter as a rookie. Quarterback play might ultimately be what keeps a talented overall roster from being a true Super Bowl contender, unless Jones can exceed expectations in year one, but this team would seem to have a relatively low floor and should be able to at least make it back into the post-season in the AFC. I will have a final prediction for the Patriots at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Philadelphia Eagles 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the Eagles won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2017 season, it looked like they would be a contender for years to come. They won that Super Bowl despite losing Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and he was playing at an MVP level before going down for the season in December. They had a well-rounded roster around the quarterback that finished the 2017 season ranked 10th in first down rate and 3rd in first down rate allowed. And most of their core was locked in for years to come, including Wentz and Super Bowl winning backup Nick Foles.

However, things did not go as planned. The Eagles made it back to the post-season the following two seasons, but with just a record of 9-7 and they failed to advance beyond the divisional round in either season. And then in 2020, the bottom fell out, leading to a 4-11-1 finish, the franchise’s worst since Andy Reid’s final year in 2012. How did this happen? Well, injuries were a big part of the problem, as the Eagles have had the most, 10th most, and 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury over the past three seasons respectively. 

Carson Wentz continued to get hurt, with his 2018 and 2019 seasons ending similarly to 2017, with him sidelined with injury, watching his team play in the post-season, only instead of winning a Super Bowl, Wentz watched Foles unable to repeat his magic from the previous year in 2018 and by 2019 Foles had gone elsewhere, leaving a 40-year-old Josh McCown to take over for Wentz when a concussion knocked him out early in the Eagles’ first round playoff game. Even McCown himself played most of that game through a torn hamstring after getting hurt early in his relief appearance.

In 2020, Wentz once again did not finish the season as the starter, but for a very different reason, as he was perfectly healthy, but his performance was so poor that the Eagles benched the one time MVP candidate. Wentz never regained his 2017 MVP level form, completing 66.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions across 27 starts in 2018-2019, but he was at least a league average starting quarterback and finished 14 among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons.

In 2020, that fell to 57.4% completion, 6.00 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and a league leading 15 interceptions, despite only making 12 starts. Wentz wasn’t totally to blame as his supporting cast had a lot of issues, most notably a receiving corps that dropped a league high 10.7% of Wentz’ pass attempts, but he still finished the season ranked 34th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, while the Eagles offense as a whole sputtered to a 25th ranked finish in first down rate over expected at -1.44%. 

Wentz arguably should have been benched sooner, especially since the Eagles had a second round rookie with potential in Jalen Hurts, who they selected 53rd overall. The Hurts selection did not make a lot of sense, not only because Hurts was arguably a reach at that point in the draft, but also because Wentz had just signed a 4-year, 128 million dollar extension the previous year that technically would not even take effect until 2021. With Wentz seemingly in the prime of his career in his age 28 season in 2020, there didn’t seem to be any feasible way to get Hurts on the field enough to justify that selection, even if Wentz’ injury history would lead them to need to invest in the backup quarterback position more than the average team. 

However, as much as Hurts’ selection did not make sense, it made even less sense that he remained on the bench throughout most of the season while Wentz struggled. Why invest that high of a pick in a quarterback if you won’t go to him until the very end of a season when your quarterback is leading the league in interceptions? The answer to that question was apparently organizational chaos, as head coach Doug Pederson and GM Howie Roseman seemed to have widely different views on Wentz and Hurts that led to a front office investing heavily in a player and a coaching staff not using that player even when it would make perfect sense to.

Hurts eventually took over for Wentz in week 14 and actually won his debut over the Saints, albeit a Saints team without Drew Brees, but that win was mostly because of a strong defensive effort and Hurts catching off guard a Saints defense that seemed to not realize he was a good athlete, rushing for 106 yards and on 18 carries, to make up for a 17 of 30 for 167 yards passing performance. 

That actually proved to be arguably his best passing performance of the season though, as Hurts finished the season completing just 52.0% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while adding 354 yards and 3 touchdowns on 63 carries (5.62 YPC). Even with his rushing production though, Hurts still actually finished with a lower grade from PFF overall than Wentz, ranking 40th among 42nd eligible quarterbacks, further calling into question why the Eagles felt the need to select him in the second round in the first place.

Hurts being moved into the starting lineup also didn’t do anything to help with the organizational chaos. Wentz seemed to almost immediately make his mind up that he was done with the Eagles, ultimately demanding an off-season trade that saw him reunite in Indianapolis with the offensive coordinator with whom he had his dominant 2017 season, now Colts head coach Frank Reich. Pederson, still apparently highly unimpressed with Hurts, decided to bench Hurts in the middle of their week 17 game against Washington, only not for Wentz, who was inactive due to the Eagles not wanting to risk him getting hurt ahead of an off-season trade, but instead for long-time third string quarterback Nate Sudfeld. 

The Eagles likely would have lost the game either way and Hurts was in the middle of a 7 for 20 passing performance when he was pulled, but Sudfeld was even a downgrade from that and the rest of the team became noticeably dejected by the move. That decision, along with long standing tension and disagreement with the front office, eventually led to Doug Pederson being let go as head coach this off-season, a decision that surprised many, but ultimately made sense even from a purely football standpoint, as Pederson had regularly struggled to get the most out of a talented roster since losing Frank Reich after the Super Bowl victory. 

With Wentz and Pederson gone, the Eagles committed themselves to Hurts at least for 2021 and, seemingly trying to get that Frank Reich magic back, the Eagles made somewhat of an out of left field head coaching hire in Nick Sirianni, who had been Reich’s offensive coordinator with the Eagles for the past three seasons and had generally gotten good results, but was not viewed as a head coaching candidate anywhere else this off-season. 

The Eagles had the opportunity to select another quarterback with their first round pick which was originally 6th overall and in fact they tried to move up to Miami’s original spot at 3 to select Zach Wilson, only to abandon that plan when they realized Wilson was likely going 2nd to the Jets and instead they facilitated a trade that allowed the 49ers to move up to 3 to select Trey Lance, with the Eagles gaining a future first round pick from the Dolphins and picking in the 49ers’ spot at 12, with the Dolphins taking over the Eagles’ spot at 6. 

The Eagles eventually moved back up to 10, but not for a quarterback, even with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones available, as they used that 10th overall selection on much needed help at the wide receiver position in Devonta Smith. The only quarterback the Eagles did bring in this off-season was veteran Joe Flacco, a one-time Ravens franchise quarterback who is firmly in the journeyman backup stage of his career, on his 3rd team in as many seasons, now in his age 36 season. He may be an above average backup quarterback and he could provide veteran leadership and mentorship as well, but he’s not a real threat to Hurts job, so it seems like Hurts will get the chance to be a season long starter.

He may only get that one season though as, even though the Eagles did not take a quarterback in this year’s draft, they did gain enough ammunition that they’ll likely be in position to add a top level quarterback in next year’s draft, getting that extra first round pick from Miami and a second round pick that could become a first from Indianapolis for Wentz. The Eagles also seem likely to be picking high in the draft again next year, not only because Hurts seems likely to continue struggling in year two, but because the rest of this supporting cast isn’t good either.

The Eagles will probably be healthier after having the third most adjusted games lost to injury last season, but at this point the Eagles’ injury problems are seemingly more than a personnel issue rather than bad luck. And to the extent that the personnel has changed on the field for the Eagles, this is a much less talented roster than they’ve been in recent years. After consistently spending near the top of the market in average annual salary, finishing in the top-8 in every season since 2011 in that metric, including four seasons ranked #1, the Eagles simply didn’t have the financial flexibility to spend at a high level this off-season after years of kicking the can forward on cap problems.

Their past financial aggressiveness coupled with an overall decline in the salary cap this off-season due to lost ticket revenue led to the Eagles now ranking just 25th in average annual salary, a metric that actually correlates with winning at a pretty high rate. Part of the issue is the Eagles paid Wentz 30 million dollars on an extension that he never played a snap on, so even if they do end up getting a first round pick for him, it’ll have come at the cost of 30 million dollars. If Hurts can’t be significantly improved after looking like one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in limited action as a rookie, the Eagles are going to have a tough time consistently winning games this season and I would bet against Hurts developing significantly.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Hurts didn’t have as many of his passes dropped as Wentz did, 6.1% vs. 10.7% for Wentz, making his lack of passing game production even more concerning, but either way the Eagles did need to add significant talent to this group this off-season. Overpaid, injury prone veteran wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson were easy cap casualty decisions this off-season and, without the financial flexibility to add significant veteran talent in free agency, the Eagles are going with a full youth movement at the wide receiver position, led by 10th overall pick Devonta Smith, who projects as a long-term #1 receiver even if he has some growing pains as a rookie.

Smith isn’t their only recent first round pick at the position though, as they also used the 21st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on a wide receiver in Jalen Reagor. He had an underwhelming rookie year though, only playing about half the snaps and averaging just 1.30 yards per route run, leading to him totaling just a 31/396/1 slash line for a team that had plenty of opportunity in the receiving corps, which didn’t have a pass catcher who topped 539 yards receiving.

With Reagor struggling and veterans Jeffery and Jackson hurt for most of the season, Travis Fulgham ended the season as a surprising team leader in receiving at 38/539/4, after the 2019 6th round pick didn’t catch a pass across 63 snaps as a rookie with the Lions, who made him a final cut before the 2020 season. Once landing in Detroit, Fulgham wasn’t spectacular, but he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF and averaged a somewhat respectable 1.50 yards per route run average, so he should be able to maintain a role in the Eagles’ top-3 wide receivers along with Reagor and Smith. 

The primary competition for those top-3 receivers is Greg Ward, who finished second on this team among wide receivers with a 53/419/6 slash line last season. Those are pretty unimpressive numbers considering how much Ward played though, as he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and finished 102nd among 112 eligible wide receivers on PFF overall. The Eagles also have 2020 5th round pick John Hightower and 2020 6th round pick Quez Watkins, but they didn’t show much as rookies across 346 snaps and 119 snaps respectively. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 2019 2nd round pick, could also theoretically be in the mix for a role, but his draft slot is the only reason he’s still on this roster, as he’s averaged a pathetic 0.67 yards per route run in his career. This wide receiver group definitely has more upside than last season, but they’re still a very inexperienced young group with questionable depth.

The Eagles are more experienced at tight end, but they’re likely to be moving on from their most experienced tight end Zach Ertz at some point. Ertz was an above average tight end for the Eagles for many years, averaging a 87/938/6 slash line per 16 games from 2014-2019, but he saw that fall to 36/335/1 with a 0.92 yards per route run average in 11 games last season and, owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed for an age 31 contract season in 2021, Ertz doesn’t fit into the rebuilding Eagles’ plans. The Eagles are trying to trade him for a somewhat substantial pick, but they will likely have to settle for a late round pick if not outright releasing him as his salary is a tough selling point for an aging tight end  in a cap-condensed season.

The Eagles would also be in good shape at tight end even without Ertz, as tight end was actually a position of strength in 2020, in contrast to wide receiver. Dallas Goedert was limited to just 11 games due to injury, but he still had a 46/524/3 slash line that was 2nd on the team and, also a good blocker to boot, Goedert finished as PFF’s 6th ranked tight end overall. That’s nothing new for Goedert, a 2018 2nd round pick who ranked 10th among tight ends as a rookie and then 5th in 2019 and, with Ertz likely on the way out, he figures to see his biggest workload yet, still only in his age 26 season. He comes with significant breakout potential if he can continue playing at a high level in a bigger role.

The Eagles also have Richard Rodgers to back up Goedert and he was pretty impressive in limited action last season with both Ertz and Goedert missing stretches of time. Rodgers finished with a 24/345/2 slash line and averaged a ridiculous 2.65 yards per route run average, 2nd in the NFL among tight ends. Rodgers was mostly out of the league in 2018-2019, catching one pass across those two seasons and dealing with significant injury concerns, and he’s averaged just 1.03 yards per route run over his career, but if he’s healthy, he could be a capable #2 tight end, even without Ertz. The Eagles will once again need to focus on their tight ends in the passing game because of concerns at wide receiver, but they at least have upside at wide receiver with back-to-back first round picks being used on the position.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Eagles were injury plagued as a team last season, but no unit lost more to injury than their offensive line. In fact, it’s possible that Philadelphia’s offensive line was the most injury affected unit of any position group in the league. They led the league with adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line and it wasn’t even really close between them and the team with the second most, the Dallas Cowboys, who saw their top-3 offensive linemen all miss significant time. For Philadelphia, they had four of their projected five starting offensive lineman all miss significant time, with none of the four playing more than 9 games, but it was even worse than that suggests.

It started in the off-season when right guard Brandon Brooks, one of the best players in the league at his position in 2019, tore his achilles, ending his 2020 season before it could even start. The Eagles then coaxed long-time left tackle Jason Peters out of semi-retirement to replace Brooks at right guard, with Peters having already been replaced at left tackle by 2019 1st round pick Andre Dillard, but then Dillard’s season ended before it could begin with a torn biceps that cost him all of 2020, meaning the Eagles were down 40% of their expected offensive line before the season could even start and forcing Peters back to the blindside.

Making matters worse, Peters, who wasn’t even counted in that original group of five projected starting offensive linemen, also missed significant time with injury, playing just 509 snaps in 8 games. Left guard Isaac Seumalo played just 588 snaps in 9 games, while right tackle Lane Johnson was limited to 405 snaps in 7 games, leaving the Eagles with a group that was in shambles for most of the 2020 campaign, with only center Jason Kelce avoiding the injury bug and making all 16 starts.

Kelce even had a bit of a disappointing year too, making every start for the 6th straight season, but falling to 12th among centers on PFF after finishing in the top-2 at his position in five of the past seven seasons. That’s especially concerning when you consider Kelce’s age, now heading into his age 34 season. It’s very likely that his best days are behind him and it’s possible he could keep declining even further. He may have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter, but I wouldn’t expect much more from him.

Fortunately, the rest of this bunch is set to return, except for Jason Peters, who struggled last season when on the field and was not needed for his age 39 season on what should be a much better offensive line. Right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks are established at their positions and did not have anyone impress in their absence enough to challenge them for their job, but Andre Dillard and Isaac Seumalo could face competition to earn back their old role.

Dillard would seem to have the shakiest hold on his starting role, as he spent most of his rookie season on the bench behind Peters and struggled across 337 snaps when he did play, before missing all of last season with injury, so he’s highly unproven, while Jordan Mailata, who made 10 starts at left tackle in place of Dillard and Peters, actually earned an above average grade from PFF for his efforts. Dillard is a former first round pick, while Mailata was a 7th rounder in 2018 and has a much less impressive background, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Mailata outplays him in training camp and wins the job. Regardless of who wins the job, they are going to be starting someone inexperienced on the blindside, but both options do have upside.

Seumalo, meanwhile, has made 40 starts in 5 seasons in the league since the Eagles selected him in the 3rd round in 2016, including a 2019 campaign in which he finished 18th among guards on PFF as a 16-game starter, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and Nate Herbig flashed a lot of potential as an injury replacement guard last season, playing on both sides of the line and finishing 12th among guards on PFF across 12 starts. The 2019 undrafted free agent played just 3 snaps as a rookie and is otherwise very unproven aside from last year, but Seumalo has been inconsistent enough in his career that Herbig should at least get a chance to challenge Seumalo for his job.

On the right side, both Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks are locked in, but a combination of age and injury makes their 2021 projection shakier than their recent projections. Johnson has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league, including four top-ten finishes, but he’s missed 29 games over his career, including 25 games over the past five seasons, a stretch in which he failed to complete a 16-game season without missing time. 

Last season, Johnson was limited to just 405 snaps in 7 games and, while he still finished above average, his 39th ranked finish among offensive tackle on PFF was the worst finish single season finish of his career, a big concern given that he’s now heading into his age 31 season and could easily be on a permanent decline, especially given his injury history. He’s a safe bet to miss at least a little bit of time and when he is on the field, I would expect that his best days are behind him and possibly that he could drop off significantly.

Brooks doesn’t have the same injury history as Johnson, playing in all 16 games in 3 straight seasons prior to last year’s fluke injury and making at least 14 starts in every season of his career except his rookie year in 2012, and he has been one of the best guards in the league as well, finishing in the top-30 among guards on PFF in all seven healthy seasons as a starter, including four finishes in the top-13 and a career best #1 ranked finish in 2019. However, he’s a year older than Johnson, now heading into his age 32 season and, at the very least, it’s highly unlikely he’ll repeat his career best year at his age off of a major injury. It’s also possible we could see him decline significantly as well.

The Eagles can’t count on this whole group being healthy in 2021, but they have decent depth, as the losers of the left tackle and left guard battles should provide good insurance policies both outside and inside, while second round rookie Landon Dickerson gives them depth and a potential long-term starter at center, and it would be hard for the Eagles to be more banged up upfront than they were last season. This group’s combination of age, inexperience, and injury history makes their projection shakier than it’s been in recent years heading into the season, but the upside is there for this to be an above average offensive line.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Eagles were actually pretty effective moving the ball on the ground last season, especially compared to their passing game, led by lead back Miles Sanders, who averaged 5.29 YPC on 164 carries in 12 games. Sanders did very little in the passing game, finishing as PFF’s 2nd worst ranked pass catching running back and averaging an abysmal 3.79 yards per route run and 0.67 yards per target, but he ran well enough to rank 28th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade and earned an average grade from PFF overall.

That was surprising, as it’s basically the opposite of what Sanders was as a rookie second round pick in 2019. Sanders finished with a 50/509/3 slash line and a 1.53 yards per route run average, but was underwhelming as a runner. His 4.57 YPC average was somewhat impressive, but it was largely the result of several long runs, which are unpredictable on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, and he ranked just 34th out of 45 eligible running backs in carry success rate at 45% and finished with a below average rushing grade from PFF. In 2020, his long carry rate (15+ yards) dropped from 3.9% to 3.7%, but his carry success rate shot up to 55%, 13th in the NFL, allowing him to have a significantly improved average even without as many long runs.

Sanders’ inconsistency throughout his first two seasons in the league makes his projection tough, but it seems as if the Eagles believe he’ll be more like the back he was last year than the one he was as a rookie, using a 5th round pick on a passing down specialist running back in Kenneth Gainwell and signing 2018 2nd round pick Kerryon Johnson off of waivers from the Lions to give the Eagles more passing down options to compete with Boston Scott, who took a significant amount of the passing down work from Sanders and was marginally better, but still underwhelming with a 1.00 yards per route run average. 

Scott also took 80 carries from Sanders last season and averaged an impressive 4.68 YPC, but 51 of those came in 4 games that Sanders missed with injury and Sanders averaged 13.7 carries per game in the 12 games he played, so Scott was a true backup whenever Sanders was in the lineup and, if Sanders keeps running like he did last season, it’s going to be hard for the Eagles not to give him more work. Scott isn’t even locked into his backup role either, as prior to impressing in limited action last season, the 2018 6th round pick averaged just 4.02 YPC on 61 carries in his first career action 2019 and clearly the Eagles aren’t totally sold on him after adding a pair of backs to compete for his role this off-season.

Gainwell was arguably the best receiving back in the draft, but is an underwhelming prospect as a runner and probably won’t see more than a few change of pace carries as a rookie. Kerryon Johnson is the most intriguing of the backup options as he was highly drafted and looked on his way to developing into a feature back as a rookie, with 5.43 YPC on 118 carries and a 32/213/1 slash line in 10 games as a rookie, but that season was ended short by injuries and the past two seasons since returning have basically been a wash for him. 

Injuries further limited Johnson to 113 carries in 8 games in 2019 and his 3.57 YPC average was a steep drop off as well. In 2020, Johnson actually played in every game, but was buried on the depth chart as the third running back and showed very little with a 3.48 YPC average on 52 carries in his limited opportunity. Johnson is still only heading into his age 24 season and has shown at least enough as a passing down back (1.22 yards per route run average) that he could earn a receiving back role in this offense, but he also has the upside for more as a runner if he can get past his injuries and show some of his rookie year form. This isn’t a great backfield, but the Eagles don’t have bad options.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Even though the Eagles struggled on offense last season, they actually finished the season ranked a middling 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.21% because of a defense that ranked 9th in first down rate allowed over expected. That suggests the Eagles should have finished better than 4-11-1 and in fact a big part of the problem for this team last season was a -10 turnover margin that ranked 4th worst in the NFL, a metric that tends to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Eagles will win more games this season though. We’ve already established the Eagles’ offense is likely to continue struggling, but their defense seems unlikely to match last year’s performance. Defense is already the much more inconsistent side of the ball, but the Eagles are relying on an aging core and didn’t have the financial flexibility to fill in holes around them this off-season.The defensive line has led the way for a team that has actually finished in the top-9 in first down rate allowed in five straight seasons, but the players who have deserved the most credit for this defensive line’s strong play over the years, edge defender Brandon Graham and interior defender Fletcher Cox, are going into their age 33 and age 31 seasons respectively. 

I’ll get into Cox later, but Graham was arguably the Eagles’ best defensive player last season, averaging 47.4 snaps per game as a 16-game starter and finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked edge defender, playing at a high level against the run and adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate. That is a pretty typical year for Graham, who has finished in the top-16 among edge defenders on PFF in 7 straight seasons, providing consistently high level play against the run and adding 47.5 sacks, 69 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate in 111 games. However, at his age, a drop off can come suddenly and it would actually be a little bit of a surprise if he didn’t start declining a little bit this season. The Eagles can’t afford much dropoff from him given his importance to their defensive success last season.

The Eagles tried to prepare for this by using the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Derek Barnett, but he has yet to develop. Barnett is nominally a starter for this defense and has averaged 39.3 snaps per game in his career, but he’s also missed 16 of 64 games, without ever making it through a full 16 game season, and his performance has left something to be desired as well, earning consistently middling grades from PFF and totaling just 19.5 sacks, 40 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate in 48 career games. Barnett may still have untapped potential, only in his age 25 season, but I would bet against a 5th year breakout year from him and he’ll likely miss at least a couple games with injury again.

The Eagles do have solid depth at the edge defender position though. Josh Sweat is a 2018 4th round pick who has totaled 10 sacks, 12 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in his career in 39 games, despite playing just 21.6 snaps per game. He’s never played more than the 422 snaps he played last season and he might not translate to a larger role if needed, but he’s likely to remain as a reserve unless injuries strike and he does theoretically have the upside to develop into a starter if needed. The Eagles also replaced departed veteran reserve Vinny Curry, who impressed across 310 snaps last season, signing another veteran, long-time division rival Ryan Kerrigan from Washington, to replace Curry.

Kerrigan was one of Washington’s best players of the past decade, after being selected by them 16th overall in 2011. His prime came from 2014-2018, when he totalled 60 sacks, 39 hits, and a 14.4% pressure and finished in the top-23 among edge defenders on PFF in four of five seasons. However, Kerrigan fell off pretty quickly after that. In 2019, he earned just a middling grade from PFF and missed the first games of his career, limited to 12 games total. In 2020, he played in every game, but was a clear reserve, playing just 398 snaps and his performance across those snaps was underwhelming. 

Now going into his age 33 season, two years removed from his last good season, Kerrigan’s best days are almost definitely behind him, but the Eagles won’t need him for a big role and it’s possible he could be useful as a reserve if he can bounce back a little bit from last year’s underwhelming performance. If not, the Eagles did use a 6th round pick on edge defender Tarron Jackson, but him contributing in a major way as a rookie seems like a stretch. This is a relatively deep edge defender group, but they lack a top level player outside of Brandon Graham, so this group will go as he goes and it’s possible he drops off significantly, given his age. 

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Fletcher Cox’s age isn’t as big of a concern, as he’s still only heading into his age 31 season, but he did show some signs of slowing down last season. Cox still finished as PFF’s 28th ranked interior defender, especially playing well as a pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate, but that was still a noticeable drop off for a player who finished in the top-14 among interior defenders from 6 straight seasons and in the top-8 in 5 straight seasons prior to last season, while totaling 39.5 sacks, 71 hits, and 11.9% pressure rate over that stretch. Cox is young enough that he still has some bounce back potential, but his best days are likely behind him and it’s possible he could keep declining, in which case this defense would be in trouble.

The Eagles tried to prepare for Cox aging by signing ex-Steeler Javon Hargrave to a 3-year, 39 million dollar contract last off-season, but, like the addition of Derek Barnett opposite Brandon Graham, that move has not paid off, at least not yet, as Hargrave was largely a middling player across 602 snaps in 2020. Hargrave finished 37th, 23rd, and 9th among interior defenders across his final 3 seasons in Pittsburgh respectively and, still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, he comes with some bounce back potential, but that’s not a guarantee.

Top reserve Malik Jackson, who was mostly a snap eater across 537 snaps, is no longer with the team, but the Eagles did use a 3rd round pick on Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams. Williams projects as a long-term starter, either in place of Cox if he continues to decline and needs to be replaced over the next couple seasons or if Hargrave does not bounce back in 2021, in which case his 13 million dollar salary for 2022 would very much come into question. In the short-term, Williams figures to be a reserve, perhaps the Eagles’ top reserve at the position.

Williams primary competition for reserve snaps figures to be Hassan Ridgeway, who only played 138 snaps last season and has been only a middling player across an average of 214 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, but it’s possible he could see an uptick in playing time with Jackson gone if Williams isn’t ready to contribute in a significant way as a rookie. The Eagles also used a 6th round pick on another interior defender Marlon Tuipulotu, but he’s unlikely to be a factor as a rookie. Fletcher Cox’s age is a concern in this group, as possibly is their depth, but Cox and fellow starter Hargrave at least come with some bounce back potential and upside.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

While the Eagles got strong play from their defensive line last season, which elevated this unit as a whole, the rest of this defense had issues and, without the resources to address those issues, most still remain. At linebacker, the Eagles were able to piece together a decent unit, but they didn’t have any true every down players, instead playing four different linebackers between 479 snaps and 750 snaps. That might have worked last season, but two of those players Nathan Gerry (479 snaps) and Duke Riley (571 snaps) are no longer with the team. Fortunately, those were the worst two of the bunch, but their depth is thin without them, which could force the other two linebackers, TJ Edwards (492 snaps) and Alex Singleton (750 snaps) into larger roles, in which they could struggle.

Both Edwards and Singleton are also very unproven in general. Edwards went undrafted in 2019 and, while he flashed potential as a rookie, it was only on 112 snaps. He was solid in 2020 as well, but again it came in limited action, primarily as a base package run stuffer, so he is still a major projection to a larger role. Singleton, meanwhile, played a larger snap total than Edwards did last season, but was also primarily a base package player and struggled in coverage on the occasions he played in passing situations. 

Singleton also had never played a defensive snap in the NFL prior to last season, despite technically being a part of the 2015 NFL Draft class, spending his rookie year on practice squads, then spending three years in Canada in the CFL, before playing in a special teams only role with the Eagles in 2019 and then eventually working his way into the starting lineup last season in a thin linebacking corps. It’s an impressive story, but Singleton could struggle to repeat even his middling performance from last season, especially if he has to play an even larger role and drop into coverage more often. Because it took him 5 years to actually get onto the field on defense, Singleton is already in his age 28 season.

To try to replace Gerry and Riley, the Eagles converted defensive end Genard Avery into a linebacker and also signed ex-Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson. Both moves are unlikely to pan out. Avery has actually flashed potential as a pass rusher in his career, with a 11.4% pressure rate in three seasons in the league, but he’s been buried on the depth chart at defensive end with the Eagles, playing just 160 snaps in about a year and a half since they traded a mid round draft pick to the Browns for him. He’s unlikely to have more success as a linebacker, which is arguably a worse position for him. At the very least, even if he has success as a run stuffer, which he could, he’s highly unlikely to help with this unit’s coverage issues, as he’s struggled mightily in that aspect in the rare occasions he’s dropped into coverage in his career.

Wilson, meanwhile, has at least shown some coverage ability in his career, but the 2017 undrafted free agent played just 716 snaps over his first three seasons, before being forced into a larger role for an injury plagued Minnesota linebacking corps in 2020, playing 1,034 snaps and finishing below average on PFF, especially struggling against the run, ranking 85th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers in run defense grade. The Eagles could also potentially give more playing time to 2020 3rd round pick Davion Taylor, although his poor performance across 33 snaps last season is pretty uninspiring. 

Shaun Bradley, a 6th round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, also saw very little action as a rookie, playing 77 snaps, and doesn’t have the same upside as Taylor, who at least theoretically could develop into a solid starter long-term. Jacoby Stevens, a 6th round pick this year, could also be in the mix, but he’s unlikely to be a factor. This is an underwhelming group heading into the season, one that would be in even worse shape if they lost one of their top-2 linebackers, who they are already going to be relying on for likely career high snap counts.

Grade: C

Secondary

To mask their lack of coverage ability in the linebacking corps a little bit, the Eagles would use a 3rd safety around the line of scrimmage in sub packages who essentially functions as a 2nd linebacker, more often than most teams do. The Eagles lost Jalen Mills, who earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2020 while leading this position group with 1,034 snaps played, but they replaced him with their one significant free agent addition, ex-Vikings safety Anthony Harris and their other safeties from last season, Rodney McLeod (873 snaps), Marcus Epps (365 snaps), and K’Von Wallace (203 snaps), all return as well so the Eagles could continue using their safeties in the same way.

Either way, Harris and McLeod are locked in as starters. Harris had a down year in 2020, finishing 38th among safeties on PFF, after ranking 5th and 2nd respectively in 2018 and 2019. Harris was forced to take a big pay cut down to 1-year, 4 million on his contract with the Eagles this off-season, after spending 2020 on the franchise tag in Minnesota, and he could prove to be a great value if he bounces back to his 2018-2019 form. 

That’s far from a guarantee though because Harris is a relatively unproven player. The 2015 7th round pick played just 637 snaps in the first three seasons of his career prior to breaking out in 2018, and now he heads into his age 30 season, so his best days could easily be behind him. Even if he is just the middling starter he was last season though, he should be a good value for an Eagles team that needed a replacement for Mills this off-season.

McLeod is also getting up there in age, heading into his age 31 season. He’s yet to really show any decline yet though, finishing last season 22nd among safeties on PFF in 2020, his 7th straight season receiving an average or better grade from PFF as a starter (94 starts). In fact, other than an injury shortened 2018 campaign and his first year back from that injury in 2019, McLeod has finished in the top-35 among safeties on PFF in 4 straight seasons. He could easily start to decline in 2021, but it would be a surprise to see him remain a capable starter.

Neither Marcus Epps nor K’Von Wallace project as reliable starters, so the Eagles will need their starting safeties to both stay healthy, allowing Epps and Wallace to remain in reserve roles. A 4th round pick in 2020, K’Von Wallace still has some upside, but struggled across 203 snaps as a rookie. Epps, meanwhile, was just a 6th round pick in 2019 and, while he showed some promise in his limited action last season, he’s still highly unproven, playing just 110 snaps as a rooke (split between the Eagles and the Vikings) before last year’s limited action. They’re solid depth, but probably would struggle as anything more.

The Eagles are not nearly in as good of shape at cornerback though. They probably thought they solved their longstanding cornerback problem by trading for Darius Slay last off-season, giving up a 3rd and 5th round pick and making Slay one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league in the process, by giving him a 3-year, 50.05 million dollar extension. However, while Slay did a solid job locking down on side of the field, opposing passing attacks were able to easily just pick on the Eagles’ other cornerbacks, as the Eagles cycled through several options and didn’t have another cornerback play more than 35 snaps last season and earn even an average grade from PFF.

Avonte Maddox (509 snaps) and Nickell Robey-Coleman (612 snaps) were the most notable cornerbacks to struggle, finishing 134th and 104th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. Robey-Coleman was let go this off-season, but he wasn’t replaced and, aside from 4th round pick Zech McPherson, the Eagles made no notable additions at this position this off-season. As a result, Avonte Maddox will be forced back into a starting role opposite Slay, despite struggling mightily as a starter in 2020 and never earning even an average grade from PFF since being selected by the Eagles in the 4th round in 2018. 

Even Darius Slay is a bit of a question mark as he’s heading into his age 30 season now and has fallen off a little from his prime, when he finished in the top-28 among cornerbacks in five straight seasons from 2014 to 2018, including three seasons in the top-15. Beyond that, Slay and Maddox are the only cornerbacks on this roster with any real experience and, as a result, it wouldn’t really be a surprise to see the Eagles have to turn to the 4th round rookie McPherson for a significant year one role, in which he would almost definitely struggle. He at least has upside though, which might not be the case with the rest of this bunch, who also likely would struggle if forced into a significant role. 

Michael Jacquet played the most snaps of any other returning cornerback last season, but the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled mightily across 160 snaps. Other options including fellow 2020 undrafted free agent Jameson Houston, who played just 22 snaps as a rookie, 2018 undrafted free agent Craig James, who has played 82 career snaps, and 2016 6th round pick Kevon Seymour, a journeyman who has never topped 317 snaps in a season and struggled mightily in that action when he did play. Opposing passing attacks should have no problem attacking the Eagles’ cornerbacks, even if Slay doesn’t start to show his age. They are better at safety, but only by default in what looks like an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Eagles finished higher in schedule adjusted first down rate differential than their record suggested last season, ranking 1th at -0.21%, but finishing with just a 4-11-1 record. Their -10 turnover margin, 4th worst in the league, was to blame for much of the difference and history suggests they will be much improved in turnover margin just due to the natural random variance of the statistic. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win more games. Their offense should be healthier and has more receiving talent this season, but Jalen Hurts is likely to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season unless he takes a big step forward from year one, so this offense figures to remain among the worst in the league, after ranking 25th in first down rate over expected at -1.44%.

Their defense, meanwhile, figures to struggle to repeat last season’s 9th ranked first down rate allowed over expected at -1.23%. Their four most important defensive players last season, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Rodney McLeod, and Darius Slay are all over 30 and probably their fifth most important player, Jalen Mills, is no longer with the team. Anthony Harris should be a solid replacement for Mills, but he’s also going to be over 30 aside from his addition, the Eagles really did not do much to fill holes on an overall top heavy defense. The Eagles also will be transitioning from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, one of the more accomplished defensive coordinators in the league, to an unproven former position coach with the Colts, Jonathan Gannon.

With top players seemingly likely to regress, more questionable coaching, and the depth still not there, the Eagles figure to be middling at best on defense. Overall, they have lost a lot of talent in recent off-seasons and are now spending an unordinarily limited amount on their roster, having to finally pay for years of spending among the most money in the league and being creative to fit it all under the cap. Unless they can get an improbable breakout year from their quarterback, they are likely to be among the worst teams in the league in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Eagles at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Washington Football Team 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, Washington was among the worst teams in the league, finishing at 3-13 and ranking 31st in first down rate differential at -4.40%. In 2020, things seemed to be going the same way, with Washington starting just 2-7, but there was plenty of reason to believe they would be better going forward. As bad as their record was, part of it was just their 0-3 record in games decided by 3 points or less, including two losses to the Giants by a combined 4 points in which Washington won the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, but lost both games narrowly because they lost the turnover battle by a combined six, missed a makeable field goal, and allowed a return touchdown, all highly inconsistent metrics on a week-to-week basis. 

Washington also had a league worst fumble recovery rate and a league worst net field goal rate through those 9 games, which are also highly inconsistent metrics. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington actually ranked 10th through their first 9 games, despite their underwhelming record and first down rate differential tends to be much more consistent and predictive. All of this was a good sign for this team going forward.

The one thing that was a bad sign for Washington though was how dependent on their dominant defense they were over those nine games, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected, but just 27th in first down rate over expected. Normally, teams with that kind of profile regress going forward because defense is significantly less predictive than offense, so teams with a dominant defense and a weak offense are more likely to regress on defense than improve on offense. 

However, even their offense had reason to be somewhat optimistic once this team changed to veteran Alex Smith at quarterback. Even in his first two games, both field goal losses by Washington to drop them to that 2-7 record, Smith looked noticeably better than Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen who started games before him and, while Smith was never a spectacular quarterback during his stint as a starter last season, he was a steadying hand for an offense that otherwise had decent talent, leading to a noticeable offensive improvement that offset any regression by their defense. 

They finished 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.52%, not much different from where they ranked when they were 2-7, but, as is often the case in this situation, the team’s record predictably started catching up with where they ranked in first down rate differential, leading to Washington finishing with a 7-9 record that was actually enough to win the pitiful NFC East. Smith’s insertion into the starting lineup got most of the credit for their turnaround and, in fact, their two losses over that stretch were games started by backup Dwayne Haskins in place of an injured Alex Smith, but even those losses were one score losses and, while Smith obviously helped this team, all he really did was provide a replacement level upgrade under center to offset any regression from their defense. 

The predictable swing of the metrics that worked against Washington earlier in the season would have likely led to at least somewhat of a turnaround even without Smith, although you can definitely make the argument that they would not have won the division and made the post-season without Smith. Beyond that, even replacement level play from Smith was something of a miracle for a player who suffered a devastating broken leg and subsequent bouts of infection in 2018, which threatened not just his career, but his life and mobility off the field. However, after almost two years and countless surgeries, Smith returned to the field in 2020.

Even after rejoining Washington last off-season, Smith still seemed to have a long way to go to see any playing time, as Washington had 2019 first round pick Dwayne Haskins, who was drafted to replace him, and Kyle Allen, a former Panthers backup and spot starter that new head coach Ron Rivera, formerly of the Panthers as well, liked as a potential starting option in case Haskins struggled, leaving Smith as the third quarterback and seemingly more of an emotional leader and coach than someone who would do anything notable on the field. However, Haskins continued to struggle on the field and behind the scenes with the coaching staff, leading to his benching and ultimate release, while Allen suffered a leg injury of his own that opened the door for Smith to start.

Smith played well enough to win Comeback Player of the Year (though just stepping on the field might have been enough for that) and to steady this team to the post-season, but, at the same time, the lasting effects of Smith’s injury were noticeable. Once an above average runner at the quarterback position, Smith seemingly lacked all mobility, rushing for just 3 yards on 10 carries and being limited to being a pocket passer. On top of that, Smith strained his calf on that surgically repaired leg, causing him to miss the two games that Haskins started in his place late in the season.

Even when Smith returned in week 17, he was clearly even more hobbled than before the injury and ultimately was ”benched” and replaced with Taylor Heinicke, another of Ron Rivera’s former backup quarterbacks from Carolina, who closed out their division clinching win over the Eagles week 17 and then started a playoff game against the Buccaneers in which Washington only lost by one score to the eventual Super Bowl champs with a 4th string quarterback, once again showing the potential of this team if they can get the quarterback position resolved.

The struggles Smith had with his leg last season ultimately led to Smith hanging them up this off-season at age 37, finishing an overall impressive 16-year NFL career that will probably be best remembered for his improbable comeback in 2020. Dwayne Haskins, originally supposed to be this team’s quarterback of the future before he proved himself to be a megabust, is no longer with the team, leaving Washington needing to find a replacement for Smith under center this off-season. 

Allen is set to return from his leg injury and Taylor Heinicke impressed enough in his limited action to earn a 2-year, 4.75 million dollar deal, but they are career backups with 18 starts between them and a career QB rating of 84.4 and 71.7 respectively, so Washington obviously needed to add more to the mix. Picking 19th overall because of their division title last season, Washington wasn’t in position to select one of the top quarterbacks in the draft unless they paid a steep price to move up like the Bears did for Justin Fields, so they found their quarterback before the draft, signing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Fitzpatrick is heading into his age 39 season and is certainly not a long-term solution for a team that will likely be searching for another quarterback again next off-season, but in the short-term, he could be a nice fit for a team that otherwise has a strong roster. Fitzpatrick is the ultimate journeyman, now joining his 9th team for his 17th season in the league, having never stayed in one place more than four seasons, but, even though he was not a high level quarterback in his prime, Fitzpatrick remarkably has not shown his age at all, in fact having some of the best seasons of his career in his mid-to-late 30s.

Fitzpatrick hasn’t entered the season as the undisputed starter since 2016 and his last 16-game starting season was 2015 when he struggled, but he’s still made 27 starts over the past three seasons and has finished 10th, 14th, and 19th among quarterbacks on PFF over those three seasons respectively, while completing 64.8% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. Fitzpatrick also has some much more mediocre seasons earlier in his career and it’s possible he’ll regress to that now that he’s back in a season long starting role, or maybe age will finally catch up with him, but Fitzpatrick has the upside to be a solid starting quarterback for this team.

Even his worst case scenario probably isn’t worse than what Washington had under center last season. He’s not a slam dunk solution, but he wasn’t a bad signing for this team given the circumstances and he could easily make them better offensively than they were a year ago, when they finished just 27th in first down rate over expected, even with Smith playing reasonably well down the stretch. Washington didn’t add a quarterback at all through the draft, leaving just the two former Panther backups behind him on the depth chart, so this is pretty undisputedly his job unless he struggles mightily. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Washington otherwise had a decent offense outside of the quarterback position last season. I’ll get into the key skill position players later and what Washington has done to supplement them this off-season, but one underrated group on this offense last season was their offensive line, which saw all five starters have above average grades on PFF by the end of the season. Washington did have some struggles upfront earlier in the season, but two things turned that around. One big one was just the return from injury of right guard Brandon Scherff, who missed three games early in the season, but otherwise finished as PFF’s 7th ranked guard in his 13 starts. 

On top of that, Washington finally found a left tackle, settling on Cornelius Lucas, who made 8 starts down the stretch last season and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle. Lucas also earned PFF’s 28th highest grade among offensive tackles across 536 snaps (9 starts) in 2019, although prior to 2019 the veteran journeyman had made just 14 starts in 5 seasons in the league and had never earned more than an average grade from PFF for a season, so it’s understand Washington was a bit skeptical of giving him the starting job week one, cycling through lesser talents in Geron Christian and David Sharpe before finding Lucas, whose insertion into the starting lineup also somewhat coincided with this team’s offensive improvement, although obviously the change at quarterback was a big part of that as well.

Washington still seems somewhat skeptical of Lucas, signing ex-Bears left tackle Charles Leno to a one-year deal in free agency and using their 2nd round pick on Texas’ Samuel Cosmi, but they did release right tackle Morgan Moses ahead of a non-guaranteed 7.75 million dollar salary, so Lucas still has a good chance to earn a starting job at one of the two tackle positions and he has experience on both sides, even if he’s still very unproven for a player now heading into his age 30 season.

Leno, meanwhile, has made all 16 starts over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in four of those five seasons, maxing out at 13th in 2017 and ranking 30th last season. He’s going into his age 30 season and could begin declining a little bit, but he’s only a short-term option on a one-year deal, with Cosmi looking like a long-term starter behind him. Cosmi could also beat out Lucas with a good training camp if the coaching staff is still skeptical of Lucas as a season-long starter. 

However, even with two talented players being added to this group this off-season, releasing Moses is still a big of a head scratching move. It did save them significant money and he was going into his age 30 season, but he still finished 15th among offensive tackles on PFF last season and by swapping him for Leno, Washington essentially replaced one aging tackle with a slightly less talented, slightly cheaper option. Washington isn’t in dire financial straits so it didn’t seem like a necessary move, but Leno should still remain at least a solid starting left tackle, with Lucas as the most likely early season option on the right side.

One move Washington could have made to free up some immediate cap space was to come to a long-term agreement with Brandon Scherff, who currently has a cap hit of 18.036 million, his one-year salary on his second straight franchise tag. Injuries have become a predictable occurence for Scherff, not only missing the three games last season, but not topping 14 games since 2016 and missing 18 games in 4 seasons since. 

Scherff is also going into his age 30 season, so all in all it’s somewhat understandable they haven’t come to a long-term deal yet, but Scherff has also been one of the best guards in the league when healthy, finishing in the top-29 among guards in all six seasons in the league since being selected 5th overall by Washington in 2015, including four straight top-15 finishes and a 7th ranked finish in 2020, so it’s a bit surprise he hasn’t been extended yet.

Center Chase Rouiller and left guard Wes Schweitzer weren’t quite as good last season as Scherff, but they had strong seasons as well, finishing 6th among centers and 19th among guards respectively across 16 starts and 13 starts respectively. For both players it was a career best year, but Rouiller has more of a track record, earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league (53 starts) since being selected in the 6th round in 2017, including a 15th ranked finish among centers in 2019, while Schweitzer was previously about a league average starter across 36 starts, after being selected in the 6th round in 2016 by the Falcons. 

Rouiller should remain an above average starter, but Schweitzer is actually probably headed to the bench, despite last year’s solid season, with Washington bringing in Ereck Flowers via trade with the Dolphins to be his likely replacement. Flowers was with Washington in 2019 and was originally replaced by Schweitzer last off-season, after Flowers signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal with the Dolphins last off-season. Flowers wasn’t bad last season in Miami, finishing with the same rank, 32nd, among guards on PFF as he did the previous season in Washington.

However, Miami decided not only to move on from him, but to also eat 6 million of his 9 million dollar guaranteed salary, effectively paying him 17 million for one year and sending him back where he came from for seemingly no reason. He should be a capable starter, with Schweitzer then slotting in as excellent depth. This group probably won’t be quite as good as they were down the stretch last season, but it remains an above average offensive line and could be more consistent overall this season, after struggling to find a capable left tackle for most of the first half of last season.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Washington also has one of the most promising young wide receivers in the league in Terry McLaurin, a 2019 3rd round pick. As a rookie, McLaurin posted a 58/919/7 slash line on an otherwise pitiful offense, ranking 14th in yards per route run at 2.05 and earning PFF’s 5th highest grade among wide receivers. In 2020, McLaurin saw more playing time on an improved offense and finished with a 87/1118/4 slash line, but he did actually fall to 34th in yards per route run at 1.87 and 28th in overall grade from PFF. 

However, he was better than that before playing the final 4 games of the season through an ankle injury, as through week 12, as he ranked 9th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade and had the 13th highest yards per route run average as well at 2.29. He was also on pace for a ridiculous 100/1401/5 slash line, which would have been the 4th most receiving yards in the league if he maintained it for a full season. Now going into his third season in the league with his best quarterback yet, McLaurin has a massive statistical upside if he can stay healthy and he could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league over the next couple seasons, just entering his prime in his age 26 season.

The issue last season is Washington didn’t have another consistent target in the passing game. Tight end Logan Thomas and passing down back JD McKissic were 2nd and 3rd on this team with slash lines of 72/670/5 and 80/589/2, but they were mostly just check down options who did little downfield, with Thomas averaging 1.10 yards per route run, 6.09 yards per target, and 9.31 yards per completion and McKissic averaging 1.48 yards per route run, 5.35 yards per target, and 7.37 yards per completion. Behind McLaurin, wide receivers Cam Sims, Steven Sims, and Isaiah Wright posted slash lines of just 32/471/1, 27/265/1, and 27/197/0 respectively.


Cam Sims was the best of the bunch, but his 1.22 yards per route run average only looks good by comparison with Stevens Sims and Isaiah Wright, who averaged 0.97 yards per route run and 0.83 yards per route run respectively, and all three earned below average grades from PFF. Sims could still potentially compete for a role in 2021, but this is a much improved group after adding a pair of veteran free agents in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries and third round pick Dyami Brown.

Samuel was the biggest investment of the bunch coming over from the Panthers on a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal and he figures to have a significant role as the #2 receiver opposite McLaurin. Carolina picked Samuel in the 2nd round when Ron Rivera was there, so he has that connection, but he actually didn’t have his best season until Rivera left, averaging 1.14 yards per route run over the first three seasons of his career, before seeing that jump to 1.93 in 2020, when he also finished 31st among wide receivers on PFF on overall grade.

His 77/851/3 slash line fell short of 1000 yards, but it came as the third receiver on an offense with an underwhelming quarterback and he topped 1000 yards if you include the 200 yards he added on 41 carries (34 out of the backfield, 7 on end arounds or sweeps). Samuel is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season and could easily keep getting better going forward. Washington will likely continue getting him the ball in creative ways, although his 31 carries in his first three seasons with Ron Rivera would seem to suggest he’ll be used as more of a traditional wide receiver in Washington than he was in his last season in Carolina. Either way, he’ll give Washington a much needed upgrade to take some coverage away from McLaurin.

Adam Humphries, meanwhile, is a much shakier veteran addition, as evidenced by his 1-year, 1.19 million dollar contract. Humphries has been a capable slot receiver over the past five seasons, averaging a 61/648/3 slash line per 16 games with a 1.39 yards per route run average and earning middling grades from PFF, but injuries have limited to him just 19 games over the past two seasons combined, including a concerning series of concussions that seemed to have his long-term future in doubt at one point. 

Humphries is still only going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a solid slot receiver if he can stay on the field, but that isn’t a guarantee. He could have to face competition from Dyami Brown, Cam Sims, or even 2020 4th round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, who struggled across 124 rookie year snaps, but could still be better going forward. Either way, this is a much improved wide receiver group, with players who saw significant action last season now competing for bottom of the roster spots.

With a much better wide receiver group, tight end Logan Thomas should see much less volume and his production should fall off significantly as a result. A converted quarterback, Thomas had never topped 16 catches or 336 snaps in a season prior to last season and only really saw significant action last season out of pure desperation. Now going into his age 30 season, Thomas is unlikely to have significant untapped potential. He could also have to face competition for playing time from 4th round rookie John Bates, a blocking first tight end who is likely to earn the #2 tight end role even as a rookie, given their lack of other proven options. This isn’t a spectacular group overall, but it’s a significant upgrade on last year’s group.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with having a talented #1 receiver in Terry McLaurin last season, Washington also had a talented lead back in Antonio Gibson. Gibson was just a third round rookie, but he showed a lot of promise, even though he was never made into a true feature back, with JD McKissic stealing 85 carries from him along with most of the passing game work and even plodding backup Peyton Barber stole 94 carries. Gibson didn’t show much as a receiver in the limited passing game action he saw, but as a runner he rushed for 4.68 YPC and, while that was partially due to great run blocking by Washington’s offensive line, Gibson still ranked 21st in carry success rate, and 19th in elusive rating and was PFF’s 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.

Gibson was limited to 170 carries on the season, in part because of inexperience early in the season and in part because of some injuries he picked up late in the year, but, even though McKissic and Barber both return for 2021, they averaged just 4.29 YPC and 2.74 YPC respectively, despite having the same great blocking, so Washington’s offense would almost definitely benefit from giving Gibson the lion’s share of the carries and could easily do so. Gibson also could easily see more passing game work, which would cut even more into McKissic’s target share, on an offense that has more wide receiver talent this season and won’t need to target running backs as often as a result.

McKissic doesn’t have much of a track record either, never topping more than 80 touches in a season before being stretched into a much larger role on this underwhelming offense last season, but he may have a better history than Barber, who has plodded his way to 3.48 YPC across 645 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but somehow remains on an NFL roster. Any of his carries that are given to Gibson instead give this offense a much better chance of staying on schedule. With Gibson at the top of this group, Washington’s running game has a high upside.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Ordinarily, teams with strong defenses have a harder time maintaining that year-to-year than teams with strong offenses and, as a result, teams with Washington’s profile, struggling on offense (27th in first down rate over expected at -2.40%), but dominating on defense (3rd in first down rate over allowed expected at -3.93%), tend to regress in win total the following season, with their strong defenses regressing to the mean more often than their weak offenses. 

However, we’ve already established that Washington has a good chance to be significantly improved on offense this season as a result of upgrades at quarterback and in the receiving corps and I think their defense will have more staying power than most top defenses. The reason for that is simply that this is a young, relatively inexpensive unit that Washington was able to keep together this off-season, with only two of Washington’s top-17 defenders in terms of snaps played from last season no longer with the team and, those two players, Ronald Darby and Kevin-Pierre Louis were both arguably upgraded on this off-season, which I’ll get into more later. 

Defenses tend to be more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than offenses because strong quarterback play can elevate an offense year after year, while defenses need above average play in at least 7-9 spots to play at a high level, which gets very expensive to keep together after a while, but Washington has avoided the talent attrition for now. This young, talented defense was led by a starting defensive line of four recent former first round picks who have all managed to pan out, giving Washington one of the best defensive lines in football for the foreseeable future. 

Probably the best known of the bunch is 2020 2nd overall pick Chase Young, who instantly showed why he was selected so high, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 6th ranked edge defender and being selected Defensive Rookie of the Year, despite missing a game and playing through injury for most of the first half of the season. It’s not hard to see how Young could be even better in year two and, while development is not always linear, it’s at the point where it would actually be surprising if Young didn’t develop into one of the best defensive linemen in the league over the next few years, as long as he can stay healthy.

Montez Sweat might not be as well known, but he is a former first round pick in his own right and, not only that, but if not for some questionable medicals, Sweat could have been a top-10 pick, ultimately ending up in Washington with pick number 26. Everyone else’s loss has been Washington’s gain as, after a middling rookie year across 724 snaps, Sweat showed his top-10 potential in 2020, totaling 9 sacks, 12 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate, while dominating against the run and earning PFF’s 12th highest edge defender grade overall, forming one of the best all-around edge defender duos in the league with Young.

Sweat is technically still a one-year wonder and, even if he does keep getting better going forward, he might not necessarily be improved in year three, but with a pair of talented, young, former first round picks, Washington is in very good shape at this position for the foreseeable future. However, depth is a bit of a concern behind Young and Sweat, as Washington has gone from having good depth with Ryan Kerrigan (398 snaps) and Ryan Anderson (146 snaps) to having next to no depth with both Kerrigan and Anderson signing elsewhere this off-season. 

Washington drafted a pair of players in the 7th round in William Bradley-King and Shaka Toney and also used a 7th rounder on the position in 2020, taking James Williams-Smith, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie and any of those three players would likely struggle if forced into significant action. Washington badly needs Young and Sweat to both stay healthy, not just because of how talented they are, but because of how big the dropoff would be without either one. Washington would benefit from making a cheap veteran addition or two just to get somewhat proven depth added to the mix.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

On the interior, Washington has another pair of first round picks in 2017 17th overall pick Jonathan Allen and 2018 13th overall pick Da’Ron Payne. Allen has left something to be desired against the run, but he’s totalled 17 sacks, 27 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate in 52 career games, including a career best 2020 season in which he had 2 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender overall. Allen is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season, so he’s just entering his prime.

Payne, on the other hand, is more of a big run stuffing nose tackle at 6-3 319, earning above average run stopping grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, but never earning more than an average grade as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 10 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate in 47 career games. Payne is still only going into his age 24 season and may have further untapped potential, but he’s essentially been the same player throughout the first three years of his career and might not have another level. 

Allen and Payne aren’t as talented of a duo as Young and Sweat, but they are a solid starting duo and the depth situation is much better on the interior as well. Tim Settle was the primary reserve with 348 snaps played last season and he earned an above average grade from PFF for his limited action, but their depth should be even better in 2021, with Matt Ioannidis set to return after having his 2020 season ended after 81 snaps in 3 games by injury. 

Ioannidis played an average of 617 snaps per game from 2017-2019 before last year’s injury ruined season and he was a great situational pass rusher over that stretch, totaling 20.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 44 games. He has struggled against the run and probably won’t see the same snap count as he averaged in those three seasons in a very deep and talented group, but his return should allow Payne to focus on more of a base package role, which should upgrade their interior pass rush noticeably. He should play above Settle, a talented reserve in his own right, as, in addition to last season, the 2018 5th round pick also earned an above average grade from PFF across 314 snaps in 2019. This is a loaded position group with plenty of depth and talent.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, Washington lost veteran linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis this off-season, but he only played about half the snaps (506 snaps) as a situational player and could easily be upgraded by 19th overall pick Jamin Davis, who profiles as an every down player long-term. Not only is Davis expected to replace Pierre-Louis in the starting lineup, but he could replace Jon Bostic as the top linebacker, as Bostic ranked a pretty underwhelming 60th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season across 966 snaps and could benefit from playing a smaller role in 2021.

Cole Holcomb, who showed promise down the stretch last season, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF across 555 snaps, is also in the mix for a role. The 2019 5th round pick was underwhelming in a larger role as a rookie and he’s unlikely to play above Jamin Davis, but he could easily play above Jon Bostic, who he at the very least figures to split snaps with. Bostic has made 77 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s finished above average on PFF just once in those seasons and is now heading into his age 30 season. With Davis being added this off-season and Holcomb showing promise down the stretch last season, which could bury the veteran Bostic on the depth chart, things are looking up in this position group, even if they are relying on young players.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Cornerback Ronald Darby also let go this off-season, but, even though he finished 14th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, Washington arguably might have upgraded by signing ex-Bengal William Jackson to a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal. Jackson had a similar season to Darby in 2020, ranking 26th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he has a better track record than the injury prone Darby, finishing in the top-28 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of the last four seasons, while missing just five games due to injury over that stretch. A former first round pick who is still in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

Jackson will start opposite Kendall Fuller, who was added last off-season on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal. Fuller actually began his career in Washington, being selected in the 3rd round in 2016 and spending his first two seasons there, including a 2017 campaign where he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league and ranked 2nd among cornerbacks overall on PFF across 720 snaps. That 2017 season drew him enough attention from the Kansas City Chiefs for him to be included with a draft pick in the trade that originally brought Alex Smith to town, but Fuller has yet to have a season nearly that good since.

Fuller wasn’t bad in his first season in Kansas City, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks and starting all 16 games as an every down player for the first time in his career, but injuries and ineffectiveness led to him playing just 498 snaps in 11 games in a 2019 season in which he finished slightly below average on PFF. That led to his market being weaker than it likely would have been as a free agent last off-season, but Washington was still willing to give him a chance on a multi-year deal because of their familiarity with him.

Fuller didn’t perform at his 2017 level in 2020, but he at least bounced back to his 2018 level and earned an above average grade from PFF as an every down player in 14 starts, leading to Washington locking him up long-term on a more lucrative deal this off-season. He might never be as good as he was in 2017 again, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and should remain at least an above average starter. He’ll play both outside and inside for this secondary, but the slot is his best location.

Jackson and Fuller are a solid starting duo, but the third cornerback spot is a concern. Jimmy Moreland, a 2019 7th round pick, was the third cornerback last season, but he ranked 78th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 601 snaps. He’s still young and has theoretical upside, but he struggled across 471 snaps as a rookie as well and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed, given how late he was drafted. 

Moreland will face competition from 3rd round rookie Benjamin St-Juste and veteran journeyman Darryl Roberts, who has played 532 snaps per season over the past five seasons, but has finished below average on PFF in four of five seasons, including a 95th ranked finish out of 136 eligible across 469 snaps in 2020. Whoever wins this job could easily struggle, but St-Juste at least gives them some upside as he projects as a starter long-term.

At safety, Washington lost Landon Collins for the season with a torn achilles after 398 snaps in 7 games, which would seem like a crippling blow for this defense, as Collins is one of Washington’s highest paid players and one of the highest paid safeties in the league on a 6-year, 84 million dollar deal, but Collins was actually pretty mediocre before getting hurt last season and, while Washington had to cycle through several different options at the position in his absence, with five safeties, including Collins, all playing 263 snaps or more for Washington last season, they were able to find a couple diamonds in the rough in Kamren Curl and Jeremy Reaves.

Curl was just a 7th round rookie last season, but he found his way onto the field for 763 snaps and held his own, finishing just above average on PFF. Players drafted as low as him don’t have great long-term track records and it’s possible Curl doesn’t have a huge ceiling as a player or that he’ll regress after his rookie year, but he could also remain a solid starting safeties for years to come. Reaves, meanwhile, didn’t see any action until week 12 of last season and had played just 113 snaps in two seasons in the league prior, since going undrafted in 2018, but from week 12 on he played 263 snaps and was PFF’s 6th highest ranked safety over that stretch. He’s still very unproven and will most likely be the 3rd safety with Collins returning and Curl likely to remain a starter, but he has more upside than most 3rd safeties and it’s possible Washington could use more three safety looks this season to mask their lack of proven depth at cornerback.

With Curl and Reaves showing a lot of promise in his absence, Collins will probably need to have a good year in 2021 in his return from injury to justify his contract beyond this year. Collins was a second round pick by the division rival Giants in 2015 and in his second and third years in the league he looked like one of the best safeties in the NFL, finishing 10th and 12th respectively among safeties on PFF, but he fell to 39th in his contract year in 2018 and, though that didn’t stop Washington from giving him a big contract, that contract looks like a big mistake now, as Collins continued regressing in his first season in Washington in 2019, ranking 41st among safeties, before his injury plagued 2020 campaign when he was a relative non-factor even when healthy.

Washington actually could have moved on from Collins this off-season if they wanted, as only 5 million of his 13 million dollar salary was guaranteed, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and Washington is hoping he can somewhat return to his top form even after a serious injury. If he can’t show that in his third season in Washington in 2021, it’s hard to see him seeing the 13 million, 14 million, or 15 million in non-guaranteed money he has scheduled for 2022-2024. For a player who lacked elite mobility even before the injury, he could easily be a liability in coverage, but Washington should get more out of him than they did last year. Even if they don’t, they may have the depth to compensate. This isn’t a great secondary, but it’s a solid unit overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Washington’s defense might not be quite as good as it was last season, but with largely the same personnel, led by a dominant defensive line, without any glaring weaknesses, they should remain one of the best in the league on that side of the ball. On top of that, their offense should be significantly better, as they should have better health, after having the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020, and they have made upgrades at quarterback and wide receiver, which were major positions of weakness last season. 

Any regression by their defense will likely be compensated for by improvement on offense and it’s very possible that their offense could improve more than their defense regresses. Washington is also starting from a higher base point than most realize as they finished last season 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.53% and could have been 9-7 if not for improbably losing both games to the Giants, despite winning the first down rate battle by +4.60% across the two games. The Giants and Cowboys will also be better in 2021, but Washington has a good chance to defend their division title, this time in a division that is a little more legitimate.  I will have a final prediction for Washington at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Dallas Cowboys 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cowboys came into the 2020 season with high expectations, but their season got off to about as bad of a start as they could have imagined. Their 1-3 start was disappointing enough, but then in their week 5 game against the Giants, quarterback Dak Prescott, one of the bright spots from their disappointing start, suffered a broken ankle that ended his season. The Cowboys held on to win that game, but without Prescott, many expected this season would fall to one of the worst in the league.

Their first two games with Dalton, a pair of blowout losses, seemed to suggest that would be the case and then Dalton got hurt, leading to the Cowboys losing their next two games with bottom of the roster types under center in Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert, dropping their record to 2-7 and 0-4 since the game in which Prescott got hurt. However, then Dalton returned and something changed and the Cowboys actually closed out the season by winning 4 of their last 7 games and finishing a 6-10, even having a chance at winning the pitiful division, had they pulled off a week 17 victory over the Giants.

What changed for the Cowboys and really an overarching theme for the Cowboys’ season last year was turnovers. Their 1-3 start was despite ranking 11th in first down rate differential over those 4 games, as their -7 turnover margin was the primary reason for their struggles. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, while their turnover struggles continued through week 7, when they sat at -13, they saw that turnover margin flip to +10 over their final 9 games. That didn’t lead to wins right away because Dalton was hurt, but when Dalton got healthy and the turnover situation continued to be drastically improved, that is when they were able to start winning games.

In total, the Cowboys finished last season ranked 16th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.05%. Their best unit was this offense, which ranked 13th in first down rate over expected at +0.86%. They did that despite, not only the injuries at the quarterback position, but elsewhere on this offense, which had the 4th most adjusted games lost to in the league. All of their key injured players should be back in 2021, including quarterback Dak Prescott.

The last time this roster was healthy in 2019, they still missed the post-season at 8-8, but that was largely due to a 0-5 record in one score games (sandwiched in between a 2018 season in which they went 9-3 in one score games and a 2020 season in which they went 4-4) and they actually finished 2019 ranked 6th in both first down rate differential and in point differential. They’re not quite as talented overall as that team was anymore, but Dak Prescott was actually playing the best football of his career before the injury, despite the team’s record. Overall, he completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 9 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and led an offense that ranked 4th in first down rate over the first four weeks of the season.

This comes after a 2019 season in which he completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 8.22 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, while leading an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate. Across his whole 5-year career, Prescott has completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 106 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions, while adding 5.07 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 259 carries and finishing 8th, 18th, 19th, 11th, and 8th among quarterbacks on PFF. 

The Cowboys had to pay significantly to keep Prescott as a free agent this off-season, locking him up on a 4-year, 160 million dollar deal, and history would suggest that teams have a very tough time winning the Super Bowl with a quarterback taking up a significant portion of their cap unless that quarterback is a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, but Prescott was too good and too young for the Cowboys to move on from him, even after his injury. Just entering his prime as an age 28 quarterback, having never missed another game due to injury, it’s possible that last year’s improved play becomes the norm for him and that he develops into a consistently elite quarterback.

The Cowboys would still be wise to add a better backup quarterback though. Dalton played well enough last season to earn more money and potentially a starting job with the Bears, leaving the Cowboys with Gilbert, DeNucci, and another bottom of the roster talent in Cooper Rush. Those three players have combined for just 90 very underwhelming pass attempts throughout their careers. The Cowboys should still be able to find a low end veteran backup to give them a little better, more experienced insurance, but obviously this offense will go as their quarterback does and they would be in big trouble if something happened to him again.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, it wasn’t just Prescott who missed significant time for this offense. The group most affected was their offensive line, which had the second most adjusted games lost to injury on the season. Not only that, but the players who missed time were disproportionately their best offensive linemen. In 2019, right tackle La’El Collins ranked 4th among offensive tackles on PFF, right guard Zack Martin ranked 3rd among guards, and left tackle Tyron Smith ranked 15th among offensive tackles. In 2020, Collins missed the entire season, Martin was limited to 618 snaps in 10 games, and Smith was limited to 154 snaps in 2 games. With all three set to return for 2021, this group could be a lot better, after being an obvious weakness last season, ranking 26th on PFF in pass blocking grade and 29th in run blocking grade.

As dominant as all three players have been, Zack Martin has had the most impressive career of the bunch, as he’s been probably the top interior offensive lineman in the league throughout his career. The 16th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Martin has finished in the top-5 among guards in all 7 seasons in the league, including five straight seasons in the top-3. Age and injury are becoming more of a concern for him, as he’s now going into his age 31 season and, after playing all 64 games in first 4 seasons in the league, he’s missed 8 over the past three seasons combined. Even in last season’s injury plagued year, he finished 2nd among guards though and, even if he does start to decline a little, he should remain one of the top few players in the league at his position as long as he’s on the field.

Martin also kicked out to right tackle for a stretch last season, where he was almost as dominant as he’s been on the interior in his career, and his versatility just adds to his value for this team, but with La’el Collins set to return, there shouldn’t be any reason for Martin to see action there unless Collins gets hurt again. Collins had some injury issues earlier in his career before he became a full-time starter, but he had made 47 of 48 starts in the three seasons prior to last as a full-time starter and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he should have a good chance of avoiding another serious injury.

Collins might not be as good as he was in 2019, as he’s unlikely to repeat the best year of his career after a significant injury and he ranked a more modest 53rd and 31st among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively before shooting up to 4th in his dominant 2019 season, but he should remain at least an above average starter as long as he remains on the field. That will obviously be a big boost for this team after getting nothing out of him in 2020.

Smith is probably the one with the most concern going forward, as he’s the same age as Martin, going into his age 31 season, but has a much more extensive injury history, being limited to 13 games exactly in four straight seasons prior to last year, when his season ended in week two. It’s hard to tell if Smith had started to decline prior to last year’s injury because of the limited sample size, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his best days were behind him. For a player with four top-7 finishes and eight top-16 finishes offensive tackles on PFF in the nine relatively healthy seasons of his career, even being less than his prime form would make him still an above average left tackle likely, but he’s the most concerning one in a very talented trio that are all coming off of serious injuries.

It’s not just those three players that the Cowboys have to be excited about upfront though, as they had a couple young players who had promising 2020 seasons in the midst of all their issues upfront. One of those players was left guard Connor Williams, a 2018 2nd round pick who finished 14th among guards on PFF last season as a 16-game after middling grades in his first two seasons in the league (21 starts), which at least a little bit compensated for all the Cowboys’ other absences upfront last season. 

With those injured players returning, this offensive line has a very high ceiling if Williams can keep up that level of play. Williams is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, but he easily could have permanently turned a corner as a player and could even keep getting better, still only going into his age 24 season, another year removed from a torn ACL suffered late in 2018 that complicated his early career development.

Connor McGovern, a 2019 3rd round pick, also took a step forward last season, missing his whole rookie year with injury, but earning middling grades from PFF across 8 starts in 2020. Those starts came at right guard, where Zack Martin obviously occupies, but McGovern could be an option to kick inside to center, where his only competition would be 2020 4th round pick Tyler Biadisz, who was underwhelming across 427 rookie year snaps as a reserve behind now departed veteran Joe Looney. 

McGovern would seem to be the better option, but Biadisz could also take a step forward in his second season as well. The loser of that competition would provide depth on the interior, with veteran swing tackle Ty Nsekhe being signed to fill that role at the tackle position. Depth is a bit of a concern, but this should be not only a much improved group from last year, but possibly one of the better units in the league if everyone stays healthy and can avoid dropping off significantly.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

While Cowboys quarterbacks didn’t get much help from their offensive line, they did at least have a talented group of skill position players, including one of the top wide receiver trios in the league. The Cowboys already had one of the top wide receiver duos in the league in 2019, as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup were one of three wide receiver pairs to both surpass 1,100 yards receiving that season, but then CeeDee Lamb fell into their laps with the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which just made this group that much better. In 2020, despite quarterback problems, all three had impressive receiving totals, with slash lines of 92/1114/5, 59/843/5, and 74/935/5 respectively, and they all earned above average grades from PFF as well. With Prescott returning in 2021, all three players have a good chance to see their numbers increase even more.

It hasn’t always been the case that Prescott has had a dominant wide receiver group and, in fact, early in his career, he arguably had among the worst in the league, as this group is fairly newly constructed. Michael Gallup was technically the first of the three added, selected in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he didn’t break out until his second season and it was Cooper’s addition a few months later, midway through the 2018 season, that began the transformation for this group. 

Even though the Cowboys were in desperate need for wide receiver help at the time, acquiring Cooper wasn’t a slam dunk move at the time, as they had to give up a first round pick to acquire a player who had caught just 70 passes for 960 yards and 8 touchdowns in 23 games over the past season and a half and he had just a year and a half left on his rookie deal, including a steeply increased salary on his 5th year option for 2019.

However, Cooper was still just 24 at the time and had posted 72/1070/6 and 83/1153/5 slash lines in 2015 and 2016 respectively after being selected 4th overall by the Raiders, so the upside was obviously there and he’s made good on it since being acquired, averaging a 87/1182/7 slash line per 16 games. The Cowboys also were able to keep him on a 5-year, 100 million dollar extension, which, while expensive, was actually a discount compared to offers Cooper had on the open market. 

With Gallup developing alongside him and Lamb being added to the mix as well, this group has gotten really good, really fast and all three players are still very much in their prime, with Cooper being the oldest of the bunch in his age 27 season. They don’t need much depth in this group, but they have 2018 6th round pick Cedrick Wilson, who has shown promise across 306 career snaps, and also added Simi Fehoko in the 5th round of this year’s draft.

Tight end Dalton Schultz also had a decent slash line at 63/615/4 and, though his 1.11 yards per route run average left something to be desired, he was also a capable blocker and earned a middling grade from PFF in the first significant action of the 2018 4th round pick’s career. It was originally another young tight end that was supposed to break out last season though, as 2017 undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin was getting his first career starting chance after averaging 1.56 yards per route run as a reserve throughout his career, including 1.82 yards per route run in 2019 (9th among tight ends). However, Jarwin unfortunately tore his ACL week one, yet another key injury on this offense, opening the door for Schultz to start. 

Now with Jarwin set to return, it’s unclear how the Cowboys plan on splitting up the work, but I would expect both to see action, a problem for Schultz, whose numbers last season were more the result of his opportunity rather than his talent level. Jarwin also possesses a higher upside than Schultz as a receiver and his re-addition to this lineup could prove to be yet another boost for this receiving corps, which looks like one of the best in the league.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cowboys also have good talent at the running back position, although you wouldn’t be able to tell based off of their 23rd ranked 4.16 YPC average last season. That was primarily the fault of the offensive line though as they have a talented lead back in Ezekiel Elliott and one of the better backup running backs in the league in Tony Pollard, who both earned above average grades from PFF last season, despite relatively underwhelming production. It was yet another reminder that even good running backs have a hard time producing if they don’t have the blocking and that the key to building a consistently good running game is building a good offensive line rather than investing in running backs.

The Cowboys have done both and last year’s offensive line performance was the result of injury rather than lack of investment, but last season’s performance by Elliott at least needs to call into question the 6-year, 90 million dollar extension Elliott was given two off-seasons ago, which he is just entering the first season of in 2021. Again, Elliott himself played relatively well, but he proved he’s more dependent on his blocking and the talent around him than most realized previously, rushing for 979 yards, 4.01 YPC, and 6 touchdowns, all career lows. He also earned the worst rushing grade of his career from PFF, but he still earned an above average rushing grade and picked up 70.3% of his rushing yardage after contact. 

One big concern for Elliott last season was fumbling, leading running backs with 5 lost on the season, part of the problem for the Cowboys with the turnover situation early in the season. That should prove to be a fluke though and, in fact, 4 of those lost fumbles were in a 5-game stretch early in the season and Elliott has lost just 6 fumbles in 66 other career games aside from that stretch. The bigger concern was his issue in the passing game, as he averaged just 4.76 yards per target and 0.87 yards per route run and he has been underwhelming on passing downs throughout his career, averaging 6.21 yards per target and 1.09 yards per route run. 

Pollard hasn’t been better, averaging 4.98 yards per target and 1.07 yards per route run, but he’s been very impressive as a runner in limited action since the Cowboys selected him in the 4th round in 2019. In total, he’s averaged 4.76 YPC on 187 carries with 4.02 YPC of that coming after contact and 46 broken tackles on 187 rushes, giving him the highest and second highest elusive rating in the league over the past two seasons respectively. 

Pollard probably wouldn’t maintain that rate over a larger role if forced into the starting role by an injury to Elliott, but he would probably be more than capable of filling in if needed and, in the meantime, he’s also one of the most talented backup running backs in the league. This is an impressive backfield that should be a lot more productive with the rest of this offense much healthier and more talented this season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Cowboys’ offense didn’t fall off completely without Dak Prescott and their injured offensive linemen, finishing the season ranked 13th in first down rate over expected, their defense struggled throughout the season, even after their turnover margin improved down the stretch. However, they weren’t as bad as their 25th ranked points per drive allowed would suggest, as they were actually an above average offense on 1st and 2nd second down, allowing a 30.31% conversion rate across those two downs (11th in the NFL), but ranking 26th in 3rd and 4th down conversion rate at 46.96%. Fortunately for the Cowboys, 1st and 2nd down defensive performance is significantly more predictive on a year-to-year basis and, even if their defense were to just average out to their overall rank in first down rate allowed over expected, they would still be around a middling defense, ranking 21st in that metric overall in 2020.

The Cowboys are also hoping for better coaching, as former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and his outdated schemes seemed to result in a down year for most players on this defense and have now been replaced by ex-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who previously was one of the better defensive signal callers in the league as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. Quinn is a few years removed from being a coordinator, doesn’t have the same talent he had in Seattle, and largely had underwhelming defenses with the Falcons, but it would be hard for him to be worse than Nolan and he has a good chance to continue being an above average defensive play caller.

The Cowboys also clearly recognized their defensive needs on draft day, as they had six picks in the top-115 and used all six on defensive players, but they didn’t have the financial flexibility to do much in the way of adding or keeping veteran talent this off-season and, in fact, have just two of their top-nine in terms of snaps played on this 2019 defense still on this roster. This could be an improved group in 2021, but it’s an overhauled group that won’t resemble their recent defenses in terms of personnel, so there are a lot of questions.

One constant for this defense has been defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been the longest tenured member of this unit, being selected in the 2nd round in 2014, franchise tagged for the 2018 season, and then extended on a 5-year, 105 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago. It would seem Lawrence’s production has fallen off since signing that extension, as he’s totaled just 11.5 sacks over the past two seasons, compared to 25 sacks in the two seasons prior to being extended, but his peripheral pass rush numbers haven’t fallen off significantly, going from 15.1% pressure rate in 2017-2018 to 12.3% in 2019-2020, despite significantly more double teams over the past two seasons, and he’s remained a dominant run defender as well. 

Easily the most impressive player on this defense last season, Lawrence finished the season 5th among edge defenders despite a modest sack total, his 4th straight season ranked in the top-13 among edge defenders on PFF. Lawrence has also shaken off some early career injury issues to play in all 64 possible games over those past four seasons and, still probably in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect to see him begin to decline in 2021. He’s an obvious bright spot for this defense.

The rest of this edge defender group is in much worse shape though. Aldon Smith was the starter opposite Lawrence last season and he surprisingly turned back the clock to have a solid season across 809 snaps, despite being out of the league for about 5 seasons for off-the-field reasons, but Smith had another incident off-the-field this off-season and was not retained. Instead, the Cowboys will be relying on another player who was impressive in his return from off-the-field issues in 2020, Randy Gregory, as well as 2018 fourth round pick Dorance Armstrong, who should see an uptick from the 368 snaps he played last season, and third round rookie Chauncey Golston, who figures to see significant action in this thin position group as a rookie.

Gregory has the most upside of the bunch and, though he played just 270 snaps last season, he excelled as a situational pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate. However, he comes with a lot of downside because he’s been frequently suspended throughout his career, he’s played just 26 career games due to injuries and suspensions, and he’s running out of time to make good on his promise as a former second round pick who could have gone in the top-10 if not for off-the-field concerns, as Gregory is already heading into his age 29 season. Gregory’s career 12.2% pressure rate shows he’s been a consistent pass rusher throughout his career, not just in 2020, but the 6-5 255 pounder has never held up well against the run and would likely to mostly limited to situational edge rush work even if he manages to stay on the field for the entire season. 

Armstrong, meanwhile, was more of a run stopping specialist across his limited action last season, but he didn’t really hold up that well in that role. On top of that, he’s never surpassed 368 snaps in a season and his career 6.4% pressure rate really leaves something to be desired. Armstrong may still have some untapped potential in his 4th year in the league, but he’ll be expected to play a significantly bigger role this season than he has in the past and I would expect him to struggle. Golston also has upside, but also figures to struggle as a mere third round rookie. Aside from Lawrence and some situational pass rush potential from Gregory, this is a concerning position group. Lawrence seems destined to see frequent double teams yet again.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As bad as things were on the edge last season for the Cowboys, they were even worse on the interior. Throughout the season, the Cowboys cycled through seven different interior defenders who all played more than 150 snaps and somehow none of them managed to earn even an average grade from PFF, even though this group did contain some proven veterans. The Cowboys have overhauled this position this off-season, jettisoning most of their veterans and only still having three of those seven returning from last season, 2019 2nd round pick Trysten Hill (212 snaps), 2020 3rd round pick Neville Gallimore (416 snaps), and 2015 undrafted free agent and journeyman Justin Hamilton (236 snaps). 

Hamilton was horrific across his limited action last season and had only played 143 defensive snaps in his career previously, so he would be a very underwhelming option if he had to see action in 2021. In a wide open position group, it’s possible that could happen, but the Cowboys did add a pair of defensive tackles through the draft in third rounder Osa Odighizuwa and sixth rounder Quinton Bohanna and they also added veteran journeyman Brent Urban and another veteran Carlos Watkins to the mix in free agency as well, so they at least have other options besides Hamilton.

Hill and Gaillimore will likely be the nominal starters, but even as only nominal starters, they are likely to see significantly more action than they have in the past, with neither having topped 416 snaps in a season in their careers. For Hill, his limited snap count last season was largely the result of an injury that limited him to 5 games, but he also struggled mightily when on the field, finishing 136th among 139 interior defenders on PFF in 2020, following a rookie year in 2019 when he played just 121 nondescript snaps. A former second round pick who is still only in his age 23 season, the upside is still there, but he’s far from a guarantee to reach his upside and could struggle mightily in a larger role. Gallimore, meanwhile, was also underwhelming in his limited action last season and would need to take a big step forward in his second year to not be a liability as a starter.

With Hill and Gallimore being inexperienced, a pair of rookies possibly in the mix, and Justin Hamilton also having played very little in his career, veterans Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins are the most proven of this bunch by default, even though neither has an impressive track record. Watkins was selected by the Texans in the 5th round in 2017 and spent his first four seasons there, but he was mostly a backup in his first three seasons (212 snaps per seasons), he didn’t show much as a backup, and then he was horrible in 2020 in his first extended action, ranking 122nd among 139 eligible interior defenders across 542 snaps.

Urban, meanwhile, actually was dominant against the run in limited action for the Bears last season, playing just 370 snaps overall and finishing 3rd interior defenders on run defender grade, and he’s been a consistently solid run defender throughout his career, but he’s also averaged just 379 snaps per season over the past three seasons, he’s on his 4th team in as many seasons, he has an extensive injury history, he has just a 6.5% pressure rate for his career, and now he’s heading into his age 30 season. That he is the most proven of this group tells you something about the rest of the bunch, though they do at least have theoretical upside in a very young position group.

Grade: C

Linebackers

A few years ago, the Cowboys seemed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the league and one that would stay together a long-time. Leighton Vander Esch, a 2018 1st round pick, and Jaylon Smith, a 2016 2nd round pick, finished the 2018 season ranked 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on PFF, despite being just in their age 22 and age 23 seasons respectively. Vander Esch was under team control long-term on a rookie deal, while Smith signed a 6-year, 68.421 million dollar extension to keep him around for the long haul as well.

However, things have gone south quickly. Vander Esch has missed 13 out of 32 possible games over the past two seasons and has also seen his play drop off significantly, falling to 60th and 67th among off ball linebackers on PFF in those two seasons respectively. Smith, meanwhile, has been healthy, not missing a game, but fell to 19th among off ball linebackers in 2019 and then 53rd in 2020. With a decision on Vander Esch’s 5th year option needed this off-season, the Cowboys decided to use another first round pick, 12th overall, on a linebacker, taking Penn State’s Micah Parsons, and subsequently declined Vander Esch’s option, making this very likely his last season in Dallas. 

Smith hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and has a lot more bounce back potential than Vander Esch, having finished in the top-25 among off ball linebackers in his three seasons prior to last, still only being in his age 26 season, now being in a defensive scheme that should fit him better. However, if he doesn’t bounce back, it’s possible he could see himself on the way out in the next couple off-seasons as well, owed non-guaranteed salaries of 9.2 million and 11 million in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Unless Vander Esch can show something resembling his rookie year form, Parsons should play over him as a rookie and it’s possible he could play over Smith as well. Overall, all three players have a high upside, but they could with significant uncertainty, even the rookie Parsons, who could struggle to adapt to the NFL as many even highly drafted rookies do.

The Cowboys also added further depth by selecting LSU’s Jabril Cox in the 5th round of the draft and signing veteran safety Keanu Neal, who is expected to play at least part-time as a linebacker. Neal was a first round pick by Dan Quinn’s Falcons in 2016 and he looked on his way towards developing into one of the better safeties in the league with back-to-back above average grades from PFF for his first two seasons in the league, especially excelling against the run at 6-1 215. However, injuries completely derailed his career after that.

A torn ACL and achilles in back-to-back years limited him to just 4 games total over 2018 and 2019 combined and he was not the same player upon his return in 2020, earning a middling grade from PFF and showing noticeably decreased athleticism, leading to him having to settle for a one-year deal with Dallas as a free agent to be a hybrid linebacker/safety. Though he’s currently listed as a linebacker first, it’s unclear what his path to playing time is in a deep linebacking corps, barring injury. This is a high variance group, but it’s not hard to imagine that they could get above average play from this group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Neal could have an easier path to playing time at safety, which remains a position of weakness, as it has seemingly been forever. Xavier Woods, who led this group with 990 snaps in 15 starts and earned a middling grade for it, went out the door as a free agent this off-season, with Neal being added to the mix along with fellow former Falcon Damontae Kazee, journeyman Jayron Kearse, and 6th round rookie Israel Mukuamu to try to replace Woods. They’ll compete for roles along with a pair of holdovers in Donovan Wilson, who showed promise across his 673 snaps last season, and Darian Thompson, who struggled mightily across his 479 snaps last season.

Wilson seems like the best bet of the bunch to secure a starting role, given the way he closed out last season, ranking as PFF’s 5th ranked safety from week 7 on. However, that comes after he struggled so much earlier in the season that he finished just 19th among safeties overall on the season, solid, but not the level of dominance he showed down the stretch. On top of that, the 2019 6th round pick had only played 16 career snaps prior to week 4 of last season, so he’s still very inexperienced. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain an above average safety going forward, but he comes with downside as well as an inexperienced and somewhat inconsistent former late round pick.

With Neal technically listed with the linebackers, Kazee is the most experienced of the bunch, actually leading the league with 7 interceptions as a converted cornerback in place of the injured Keanu Neal in 2018 with the Falcons, a season in which Kazee finished 22nd among safeties overall. However, Kazee was more of a hybrid cornerback/safety in 2019 and didn’t come close to matching his level of play from the previous year, before a 2020 season that ended with a torn achilles after 241 snaps. The injury is obviously concerning, but he’s proven to be better at safety than cornerback in his career and if he’s healthy it’s possible he bounces back somewhat and is an above average starter as a full-time safety.

Jayron Kearse has been in the league for five seasons, but has mostly been a backup, and finished 73rd among 99 eligible safeties last season across a career high 503 snaps. Mukuamu is likely going to be too raw to contribute in a big way as a rookie. Darian Thompson has 28 career starts in five seasons in the league, but has never been more than a middling starter and was one of the worst safeties in the league last season, ranking 92nd among 99 eligible safeties on PFF. Unless Neal moves back to safety, Wilson and Kazee seem like the favorites for the starting jobs, although it’s possible the Cowboys cycle through a couple different options throughout the season.

While the Cowboys have had issues at cornerback for years, they actually had good cornerback play as recently as 2019, when Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis ranked 17th, 27th, and 41st among cornerbacks on PFF on 917 snaps, 1020 snaps, and 590 snaps respectively. However, Jones left as a free agent last off-season and Awuzie and Lewis both struggled in Mike Nolan’s scheme, finishing 102nd and 116th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks. 

Lewis has some bounce back potential with Nolan gone, but Awuzie signed with the Bengals this off-season, leaving Lewis to compete for a role in a group that includes 2020 2nd round pick Trevon Diggs, veteran depth cornerback Anthony Brown, and a trio of players who have never played a defensive snap in the NFL in 2nd round rookie Kelvin Joseph, 3rd round rookie Nahshon Wright, and 2020 4th round pick Reggie Robinson, who was limited to special teams as a rookie.

Diggs was selected last year to replace Byron Jones and held his own across 758 rookie year snaps, which made him probably the Cowboys’ best cornerback last season, so I would expect him to be locked in a starting role in his second season in the league, in which it’s possible, although hardly guaranteed that he could be significantly improved. Anthony Brown has made 41 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF and is coming off the worst year of his career, finishing 92nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 534 snaps, so it shouldn’t be too hard for Kelvin Joseph to beat him out for playing time as a rookie. 

Jourdan Lewis will have to compete for his role as well, after struggling across 817 snaps last season, but the 2017 3rd round pick was an above average slot cornerback across an average of 508 snaps per season over the first three seasons of his career prior to last season and he was retained by the Cowboys as a free agent on a somewhat significant 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal, so I like his chances of beating out unproven options at least for the slot cornerback role. There is another depth and young talent here that the Cowboys have good upside in the secondary, but that comes with significant downside.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cowboys have had some bad luck over the past two seasons, failing to win any of their close games in 2019, in the middle of a stretch where the Cowboys are otherwise 13-7 in one score games, and then in 2020 their season was completely derailed, first by the turnover margin swinging against them significantly early in the season and then, by the time it swung all the way back, the Cowboys were without their starting quarterback and top-3 offensive linemen. 

Expected to get those players back in 2021, the Cowboys’ offense should be much improved and, in fact, an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate in 2019 and 4th in first down rate over the first four games of 2020 before Prescott’s injury could easily be one of the best in the league if their key players stay relatively healthy. Their defense is less promising, but, compared to 2020, they should be better on more important downs (3rd and 4th) and be better coached, so things are looking up on that side of the ball. 

The NFC East is still very winnable and the Cowboys won’t need more than passable play on that side of the ball to win the division if their offense can live up to expectations, but their young defense will need to exceed expectations for this team to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That’s within the realm of possibilities, but I would expect this to be another good, but not good enough year for the Cowboys, although that is an upgrade compared to their disappointing finishes the past two seasons. I will have a final prediction for the Cowboys at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

New York Giants 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

With the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Giants surprised many by selecting Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. The selection of a quarterback was not surprising, with long-time signal caller Eli Manning clearly in the twilight of his career, but the selection of Jones so early, after many projected him as a mid to late first round pick who the Giants even could have gotten with their other first round pick at #17 overall, drew a lot of criticism, with many preferring Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who fell to division rival Washington at 15.

Haskins’ poor work ethic and issues with the coaching staff led to him not even lasting two full seasons in Washington, so by default the Giants ended up with the better of the two quarterback prospects in a draft that has yet to produce another consistent starter aside from #1 overall pick Kyler Murray, but there have still understandably been questions about Jones’ long-term viability as an NFL starting quarterback.

Jones’ career got off to an underwhelming start, as he finished his rookie year completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, ranking 26th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, and only providing above replacement level ability as a runner, taking 45 carries for 6.20 YPC and 2 touchdowns. In his second season, his numbers might have actually been a little worse, as he completed 62.5% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 6.51 YPC and 1 touchdown on 65 carries. However, those numbers don’t come close to telling the whole story of Jones’ 2020 season.

A critical moment for Jones last season was in the second half of the Giants’ week 12 game against the Bengals, when Jones suffered a hamstring injury. Prior to that injury, Jones had completed 63.2% of his passes for an average of 6.47 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while 7.33 YPC and 1 touchdown on 55 carries. These are still pretty unimpressive numbers, but they need to be understood with two important pieces of context. 

For one, Jones’ receivers dropped 9.5% of his passes over that stretch, with only Carson Wentz having a higher drop rate among quarterbacks who played as much as Jones. That still left Jones with an adjusted completion percentage that ranked just 21st out of 40 eligible quarterbacks, but being middle of the pack isn’t that bad, especially when you factor in how tough the Giants’ early season schedule of defenses was. 

Prior to that game against the Bengals in which Jones got hurt, in nine of the Giants’ first ten games of the season, they played a defense that finished in the top-10 in first down rate allowed over expected, the Steelers (2nd), the Rams (1st), Washington twice (3rd), the Eagles twice (9th), the 49ers (6th), the Bears (7th), and the Buccaneers (5th). The Giants schedule was so tough over that stretch that, even though they ranked just 27th in first down rate, when schedule adjustments were taken into account, they ranked 15th and actually outperformed expectations against their schedule. Jones’ production was underwhelming, but when you take into the schedule, how often he was pressured (3rd most in the NFL), and how tough of a schedule he faced, Jones wasn’t that bad, all things considered.

That seemed to give the Giants hope for the final 6 games of their season, a stretch in which their schedule got significantly easier starting with that game against the Bengals, but then Jones got hurt, which derailed his season and ended any chances the Giants had of getting back into playoff contention. Jones still played in another 3 games after that, but really struggled despite the easy schedule and, in the games Jones missed, backup Colt McCoy showed very little, even if he did give them just enough against a weak Seahawks defense that the Giants could pull the upset with an uncharacteristically huge defensive effort.

After the season, the severity of just how bad Jones’ hamstring injury was came out, with it being described as an injury most quarterbacks wouldn’t have even been able to play through, so I’m pretty comfortable just throwing out all the tape from those last few starts and just giving him credit for toughness. Based on how Jones played the rest of last season, there is actually quite a bit to be excited about with him. Most prominently is the progress he made as a deep ball thrower last season, an aspect in which he was actually one of the best in the league, prior to his injury. 

Up until he went down against the Bengals, Jones actually led the league in completion percentage (59.3%), yards per attempt (19.81), quarterback rating (143.1), and big time throw percentage (50.0%) on passes 20+ yards downfield, among quarterbacks who went deep as often as he did. He also ranked 10th in the league in big time throw percentage on any type of pass attempt over that stretch. That’s all despite the grueling slate of defenses that Jones squared off with over that period of time. His statistical production might not look like much, but when you take into account who he was playing, how many passes his receivers dropped, how often he was pressured, and how well he threw the ball downfield, it’s a lot more understandable that Jones would have ranked 12th among quarterbacks on PFF prior to his injury. 

We’re still working with a relatively small sample size of about ten and a half games for a quarterback who didn’t show nearly as much promise as a rookie, but it’s an encouraging sign for a Giants team that spent much of their resources this off-season on getting Jones a more reliable receiving corps to throw to, in an effort to reduce the amount of his passes that are dropped and to try to open up the playbook more for a quarterback who, despite good deep throwing ability, ranked below average in air yards per attempt last season.

The Giants also nominally tried to upgrade the backup quarterback spot in case Jones gets hurt again, signing veteran journeyman Mike Glennon, who has a 83.5 QB rating across stints with five different teams in eight seasons in the league (27 starts) and is now heading into his age 32 season. Obviously, the key to the Giants’ success in 2021 will be Jones staying healthy and continuing to develop with more talent around him.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The biggest addition the Giants made this off-season was signing wide receiver Kenny Golladay to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal. Most teams didn’t have significant financial flexibility this off-season, leaving most free agents to settle for the best one-year deal they could find with a hope of trying again in free agency next off-season, but the Giants and Golladay were the exception, in part because of the financial flexibility provided by having their quarterback signed to a cheap rookie deal. Golladay was also one of the best free agents available this off-season, so him getting paid at the top of the market was not surprising, even after he was surprisingly not franchise tagged by the directionless Lions. 

Perhaps the Lions were scared off by an injury that limited him to 225 snaps in 5 games last season, but he doesn’t otherwise have a significant injury history, he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, and he didn’t show any signs of slowing down last season before the injury, actually averaging a career high 2.47 yards per route run (7th among eligible wide receivers) in the limited action he saw last season. That comes after he finished with a 70/1063/5 slash line (1.87 yards per route run) and a 65/1190/11 slash line (2.03 yards per route run) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, seasons in which he also ranked 20th and 16th respectively among wide receivers on PFF. Assuming he’s healthy, he’s a legitimate #1 receiver and a big upgrade for this team.

After signing Golladay, it seemed like the Giants would mostly be finished adding at the wide receiver position. Golladay was set to replace Golden Tate, who averaged a mediocre 1.28 yards per route run last season, giving them a top-3 that included Sterling Shepard, who is just 1 year and 16 million into a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension, and Darius Slayton, an impressive 2019 5th round pick who has two years remaining on his rookie deal. However, the Giants decided to add even further, trading down with the Bears from 11th to 20th, picking up a future first round pick in the process, and selecting Florida’s Kadarius Toney with the 20th overall pick.

I’ll get into what the Giants could have done in the first round instead later and Toney doesn’t seem to have a clear path to significant playing time in year one or year two barring injuries or Shepard being released prematurely next off-season, but the Giants at least get credit for getting an extra first round pick out of the exchange, which makes the Giants’ decision with this year’s first round pick a little less impactful. Toney could still develop into a talented wide receiver long-term and he’ll provide valuable depth as a rookie, but I wouldn’t expect him to have the opportunity to put up significant production in year one.

Even with Golladay and Toney coming in, Shepard and Slayton figure to continue having significant roles, after leading this group with slash lines of 66/656/3 and 50/751/3 respectively in 2020. For Shepard, it’s been back-to-back years where injuries have prevented him from a bigger receiving total. When the Giants traded Odell Beckham to the Browns two off-seasons ago, Shepard became their de facto new #1 receiver and, after averaging a 84/1085/3 slash line per 16 games in 2017 and 2018 combined without Beckham, it looked like Shepard had a good chance to break out in his absence. 

Instead, he’s averaged a 89/896/4 slash line per 16 games, but has missed 10 of 32 games with injury and has been more of a 1a or a 1b receiver than a true #1 when on the field. Now with Golladay added to the mix, Shepard will be back to being no better than the #2 receiver in this offense and I would expect his per game production to go down. Even if he doesn’t put up huge numbers, he should still be a better than average #2 option though and, while his injury history is concerning (at least 4 games missed in 3 of 5 seasons in the league), the Giants have the depth to be prepared for him missing time if it happens again.

For Slayton, last year’s level of production is largely in line with what he did as a rookie, when he had a 48/740/8 slash line, but it’s possible the former 5th round pick doesn’t have much remaining untapped upside and, even though he’s only going into his age 24 season, doesn’t have significantly better days ahead of him. He should still be a capable receiver in 2021 after back-to-back slightly above average grades from PFF in the first two seasons of his career, but his chances of getting a long-term deal with this team at some point went way down this off-season.

Tight end was where the Giants had the biggest problem with drops last season, led by starter Evan Engram, who dropped 8 passes on the season, including an egregious one on fourth down against the Eagles that would have clinched a win for the Giants that ultimately would have won them the division. Engram’s career per 16-game average slash line is above average at 69/774/4 and the 2017 first round pick does have impressive athleticism for his size at 6-3 240 that allows him to get separation regularly, but he has a career drop rate of 10.4%, he averages just 6.80 yards per target, getting most of his production from volume, and he hardly makes any contested catches, with a career 31.2% contested catch rate, including a 19.1% rate (4 for 21) that was worst in the league among tight ends last season. 

Engram gets open often, but when he doesn’t, he has a hard time fighting off defenders for the ball and even when wide open sometimes he drops the ball completely. He also has shown little as a run blocker and has had some injury problems as well, missing at least five games in half of his seasons. Engram is still relatively young, but, going into his age 27 season, he’s running out of time to become a drastically different player than the one he has been throughout his career. 

Depth was also a concern at tight end last season, with no other tight end topping 112 receiving yards or showing anything remarkable as a blocker, so the Giants went out and also made an addition at the tight end position this off-season, signing ex-Viking Kyle Rudolph a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal to not only provide depth at the position, but possibly to provide competition for Engram as the top tight end as well. 

Rudolph should add to the position by default and could see a significant role, but he was probably an overpay in an off-season where most players had to settle for taking a significant discount on a one-year deal. A long-time starter for the Vikings since they selected him in the 2nd round in 2011, Rudolph is now going into his age 32 season and has seen his playing time decreased in each of the past two seasons, culminating in a 2020 campaign in which he played just 573 snaps and was shortly after released ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. 

Rudolph’s 1.20 yards per route run average over those two seasons isn’t far off from his 1.24 yards per route run average for his season, but it’s not very impressive either, especially for a part-time player, and he’s seen his run blocking fall off somewhat as well. He could still be a useful #2 tight end for another couple seasons, but the Giants are paying him to be more than that. He’s an upgrade by default though for a receiving corps that overall has a lot more talent than a year ago.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Giants didn’t make any big additions at the running back position this off-season, but they didn’t need to add anyone to be a lot better at the position this season, with feature back Saquon Barkley set to return from a season ending torn ACL that limited him to just 25 touches in two games last season. Barkley has averaged 4.72 YPC on 497 carries since the Giants selected him 2nd overall in 2018, including 3.25 yards per carry after contact, but he won’t just help this team on the ground, as he’s also a dynamic player in the passing game, averaging a 77/629/3 slash line per 16 games in his career. 

In Barkley’s absence last season, the running back position was simply not a big part of this passing game, as other Giants running backs combined for just 74 targets, on which they averaged just 4.57 yards per target, about a yard and a half down from Barkley’s career average. Barkley is only going into his age 24 season and there is no reason not to expect him to return at least mostly to form and be one of the best running backs in the league. That, of course, assumes he can stay on the field, which is becoming a growing concern as a major injury has now affected two of his three seasons in the league and he plays a position notorious for players getting hurt. 

You might not be able to tell from his overall stats in 2019, but Barkley was limited by an ankle injury for a big chunk of that season, impressively returning having missed only three games with what was expected to be a 6-8 week injury, but not returning to form for much of the season. The biggest difference from 2018 and 2019 for Barkley statistically was his relative lack of big plays, as he had 54.0% of his yardage on 20 carries of 15+ yards in 2018, but just 33.0% of his yardage on 9 carries of 15+ yards in 2019.

Big plays tend to be much more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than consistently stats like success rate and in fact Barkley was significantly below average in that metric in each of his first two seasons in the league, ranking 40th among 47 eligible running backs with a 41% carry success rate in 2018 and 38th among 45 eligible at 44% in 2019, but Barkley is also arguably the most explosive running back in the league, so it makes sense that he would continue having a significant amount of big plays going forward and his more limited big play total in 2019 was probably largely the result of his ankle injury limiting his burst. On top of that, even with that ankle injury and limited big play total, Barkley still averaged 4.62 YPC on an otherwise underwhelming Giants offense in 2019. As long as he can avoid further injuries, the Giants will obviously benefit from his presence on the field in a big way this season.

Backup running back Wayne Gallman led the way in Barkley’s absence last season, followed by a trio of mediocre veterans in Dion Lewis, Devonta Freeman, and Alfred Morris. This season, the Giants have essentially cleaned house at the position behind Barkley and will have off-season additions Devontae Booker and Corey Clement competing for a true backup job behind a running back who almost never comes off the field when healthy, averaging 53.2 snaps and 20.8 touches per game in his career.

Booker probably has the upperhand for the backup job after signing a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal and, while the 2016 4th round pick struggled in the only extended action of his career as a rookie, rushing for 3.52 YPC on 174 carries, he’s somewhat redeemed himself with a 4.39 YPC average since that season, albeit on a max of 93 carries in a season. He’s also an experienced passing down back, although his 5.79 yards per target average leaves something to be desired. Clement, meanwhile, is even less experienced, with 200 career touches in 46 games since the Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. The Giants are obviously hoping they don’t have to use either for more than a few touches per game.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If there is a reason this offense, which has plenty of skill position talent, doesn’t perform at a high level in 2021, it will likely be the fault of the offensive line. This group already had problems a year ago, ranking 23rd as a team in run blocking grade from PFF and dead last in pass protection grade. Daniel Jones was pressured at the 3rd highest rate of any quarterback in the league at 40.3% and was significantly better when not pressured, with a QB rating over 37 points higher than when pressured and the 10th best clean pocket big time throw percentage at 5.7%. Part of that is because the Giants faced such a tough schedule for the first 10 games of the season and then had an injured and largely immobile Jones under center for most of the rest of the season, but there is no denying this offensive line needs to be better this season.

Despite that, the Giants did very little to upgrade this group this off-season, actually releasing right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was aging and overpaid, but also arguably their best offensive lineman a year ago. I mentioned earlier that, while the Kadarius Toney pick was not a bad pick when you take into account that they acquired a first round pick for trading down to select him, the Giants didn’t need another big investment wide receiver and might have been better off just staying put at 11 and selecting Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, who could have been a big upgrade at any of the interior offensive line spots for the Giants in 2021, with the ability to kick out to tackle as well if needed. Even if the Giants didn’t like Slater enough to do that, it was still strange to see the offensive line go unaddressed on draft day.

Instead, the Giants will be hoping to get more out of some young players already on the roster and will welcome back veteran left tackle Nate Solder from a 2020 opt-out. In Solder’s absence last season, 2020 #4 overall pick Andrew Thomas, originally selected to play right tackle, was forced over to the blindside as a rookie, where he had an up and down year. He still has a massive upside though and could be a lot better in his second season in the league, now on the right side.

Solder, meanwhile, is likely on the downswing, now heading into his age 33 season, having not played for a full year. He earned an average grade from PFF as a 16-game starter in 2019, but that was a career worst for a player with 127 starts in 9 seasons and 6 finishes in the top-25 among offensive tackles on PFF in his career. Still, the Giants would take a middling season from Solder compared to Cameron Fleming, a journeyman swing tackle who started 16 games last season, and Solder’s presence allows Thomas to move back to the right side as well. It’s always possible he completely sees his abilities fall off a cliff this season, but unless that happens, it’s likely his return will be a benefit for this group. The Giants also used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on offensive tackle Matt Peart, but he only played 150 snaps as a rookie, despite Solder’s absence, and he is unlikely to be more than the swing tackle in 2021, barring injuries.

At guard, signing veteran Zach Fulton was the closest thing they did to replacing Zeitler and he’s not guaranteed a starting job. Fulton has started 90 games over the past 7 seasons, but hasn’t been much more than a middling starter and now is going into his age 30 season. He probably wouldn’t be more than a replacement level player if he winds up with a starting role, although the alternatives could be a lot worse, as his primary competition for a role will likely be 2020 5th round pick Shane Lemieux, who showed some promise as a run blocker, but was horrific in pass protection as a rookie and ultimately finished as PFF’s lowest ranked guard across 504 snaps. It’s very possible he’s better in his second season in the league, but he’d have to be a lot better to even be a capable starter.

When Lemieux played last season, it mostly came at the expense of another young guard, 2018 2nd round pick Will Hernandez, which should tell you something about how Hernandez’s year went. As a rookie, it seemed like Hernandez would live up to being selected 34th overall, as he made 16 starts and finished 23rd among guards on PFF, but he fell to 53rd out of 82 eligible in 16 starts in 2019 and things got worse in his third season in 2020, as he was benched for most of the second half of the season and finished 59th among 86 eligible guards across 525 snaps. Injuries have been part of the problem and Hernandez is still young enough to turn it around in his age 26 season, but his rookie year remains the outlier. He’ll likely begin the year as a starter in 2021, but if he doesn’t turn it around, he might again not end it as one.

Young center Nick Gates was also underwhelming last season, finishing 29th among 38 eligible centers on PFF as a 16-game starter. He showed some promise in limited action prior to last season, but he was new to the center position and couldn’t translate that promise to a season long starting role. It’s possible he could be better in his second season as a starter but the 2018 undrafted free agent has a very limited track record, with just 291 snaps played in his career prior to last season. This isn’t a terrible offensive line, but it’s the obvious weakness of what should otherwise be a talented offense.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Giants’ offense was above average in schedule adjusted first down rate last season before Daniel Jones got hurt (15th at +0.74%) and they’ll essentially add (or re-add) both Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay to that mix for Jones’ third season in the league, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if they are at least capable on that side of the ball in 2021, with the upside to be more. However, the Giants will still need to get more out of their defense as well, after finishing last season 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.98%.

One thing that could hurt the Giants in that attempt is the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson to the Minnesota Vikings. Tomlinson had been an above average starter for the Giants throughout his four year career, including a 2020 season in which he ranked 25th among interior defenders on 658 snaps, but the Giants are actually in pretty good position to deal with his loss because the interior defender position is by far where they had their most depth last season.

Fellow pending free agent Leonard Williams was kept on a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal and will continue in his usual role after ranking 18th among interior defenders on PFF across 803 snaps last season. Williams played at a high level against the run and added 11.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate as well. That sack total is out of line with what we’ve seen from Williams in the past, as he’s totaled just 17.5 sacks in his other 5 seasons in the league, but that doesn’t mean the 2015 6th overall pick is a one-year wonder, as he’s consistently posted impressive peripheral pass rush stats throughout his career and has consistently played at a high level against the run. 

In total, Williams has totaled 29 sacks, 106 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate in 95 career games and he has earned an above average overall grade from PFF in all 6 seasons of his career, including top-23 finishes among interior defenders in three of six seasons. He might not quite have the same sack total in 2021 as he did in 2020, but he should continue playing at a high level, still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, having only missed one game ever due to injury, despite playing an average of 52.5 snaps per game.

The Giants also have another talented former first round pick interior defender in Dexter Lawrence, who they selected 17th overall in 2019 NFL Draft, with the pick they many expected the Giants were saving for a quarterback before their surprise selection of Daniel Jones at 6. The jury is still out on the Jones pick, but Lawrence has been as advertised, if not better. The 6-4 342 pounder is predictably a dominant run defender and a natural fit as a nose tackle in this 3-4 defense in base packages, but he’s also an above average pass rusher, adding 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate for his career. 

Overall, Lawrence has finished 21st and 19th respectively among interior defenders on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively and, a former first round pick who is not even 24 years old yet, he could get even better going forward and develop into one of the top overall interior defenders in the league. An every down player, Lawrence played 655 snaps last season, after 701 snaps as a rookie, and could see even more playing time in 2021 with Tomlinson gone.

The biggest beneficiaries from Tomlinson’s departure in terms of playing time will be BJ Hill and Austin Johnson, who played just 375 snaps and 231 snaps respectively last season, but fared well in the limited action. Hill has the higher upside of the two, as he has averaged 501 snaps per season since being selected by the Giants in the 3rd round in 2018 and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all three seasons. At 6-3 315, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but the Giants will mostly just need him to be a run stuffing third base package lineman and he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher either, with 7.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate in a part-time role throughout his career. 

Still only going into his age 26 season, Hill could have a mini breakout year in a bigger role in place of the departed Tomlinson. Austin Johnson, meanwhile, has never played more than 399 snaps in a season since being selected in the 2nd round in 2016, due to his complete lack of pass rush (3.3% career pressure rate), but the 6-4 315 pounder is not a bad situational run stuffer. He’s likely to play behind Hill, but he’ll probably also see an uptick in playing time from Tomlinson’s departure. 

Additionally, the Giants also signed veteran journeyman Danny Shelton in free agency, another big, run defense oriented player. The 6-2 335 pound Shelton is coming off of a down year, finishing 114th among 139 interior defenders on PFF across 498 snaps, and he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 5.1% pressure rate, but, prior to last season, he had earned an above average run stopping grade from PFF in his first five seasons in the league. Still only in his age 28 season, he should be able to bounce back in a rotational role for this defense. Even with Dalvin Tomlinson gone, the Giants are in good shape at this position with a talented duo of every down players, a promising third base package player, and capable depth.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Giants were deep and talented on the interior last season, almost the opposite was true on the edges. The Giants cycled through six different edge defenders who all played at least 100 snaps on the season and they didn’t get much production out of any of them, with no one topping 4 sacks on the season. Two of those players were Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, who had potential, but hardly played due to injury, limited to 234 snaps in 5 games and 110 snaps in 4 games respectively. 

Carter and Ximines will return in 2021, as will 2020 7th round pick Carter Coughlin, who struggled on 193 rookie year snaps and may not ultimately make this final roster. Those three holdovers will compete for roles in a wide open, largely overhauled position group that added a pair of players through the draft, 2nd round pick Azeez Ojulari and 4th round pick Elerson Smith, and a pair of veterans in free agency, Ryan Anderson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. 

Ojulari probably has the most upside of the bunch and was a great pick at 50th overall, as he easily could have been a late first round selection, but both of their rookies are raw and obviously unproven. Carter is probably the most proven of the position group, but that says more about the rest of this group than it does about Carter, who has just 9.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate in 35 career games since being selected in the 3rd round by the Giants in 2018. Carter is a solid run defender, can cover as well on occasions, and has earned slightly above average overall grades from PFF in his career, while averaging 40.1 snaps per game, but his chances of being significantly better in his 4th season in the league in 2021 would seem to be reduced by him coming off of a torn achilles.

Ximines isn’t coming off quite as severe of an injury and is also a former 3rd round pick, selected in 2019, but he was mediocre over 502 snaps as a rookie before last year’s lost year due to injury, so, while he does have some upside, it’s hard to depend on anything from him. Free agent additions Ryan Anderson and Ifeadi Odenigbo haven’t shown much in their careers either. Anderson was a second round pick in 2017 by Washington, but he has only had a significant snap count in one of his four seasons in the league, finishing 95th among 121 eligible edge defenders on 551 snaps in 2019 and spending the rest of his career buried on the depth chart. 

Odenigbo, meanwhile, was a 7th round pick in 2017, who played just 7 snaps in his first two seasons, but flashed potential across 368 snaps in 2019, before earning a middling grade in a larger role across 696 snaps in 2020. I wouldn’t expect him to be significantly better in 2021, but he could be a useful part of a rotation. This group has a lot of questions, but they might be able to put together decent play on the edges if they manage their rotation right and young players bounce back from injury and/or take a step forward.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

In the linebacking corps, the Giants got a big boost last off-season with free agent signing Blake Martinez, who signed a 3-year, 30.75 million dollar contract and paid immediate dividends by finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF as an every down 16-game starter. Martinez also has a 18th ranked finish among off ball linebackers in 2018 with the Packers, but he’s still a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he did last season and he’s been pretty inconsistent in his career overall, earning middling grades in his other three of five seasons since being selected in the 4th round in 2016. He could remain an above average every down player and his durability is an asset as well, having played all 64 games while playing 64.3 snaps per game over the past four seasons, but he probably won’t be quite as good as he was last season again.

At the other linebacker spot, the Giants didn’t have nearly as good of an option and instead relied on a trio of Tae Crowder, Devante Downs, and David Mayo, who all saw action at different points of the season, playing 403 snaps, 233 snaps, and 194 snaps respectively. All three struggled mightily though and I wouldn’t expect much to be different in 2021. The one change in this group is Mayo is gone, with another veteran journeyman Reggie Ragland coming in to take his place. Ragland can’t cover at all, but he might be a better run stuffer than any of the three who saw action next to Martinez last season and he’s shown a little bit of potential as an edge rusher and blitzer as well. 

Ragland will probably only be a base package player and has never exceeded 582 snaps in a season in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s not a bad fit in that role. Ragland especially looks like a good option compared to Crowder and Downs, a 2018 undrafted free agent and a 2020 7th round pick who finished 93rd and 81st respectively among 99 eligible off ball linebackers respectively last season in the first significant action of either of their careers. Even in a thin position group, neither is guaranteed a role. This group will once again go as Blake Martinez goes and I would bet against him repeating last year’s career best year.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Giants had some players who saw significant playing time in the secondary last season who struggled, most notably safety Julian Love, who finished 75th among 99 eligible safeties across 722 snaps, and cornerbacks Isaac Yiadom and Darnay Holmes, who both saw action at cornerback, but ranked 82nd and 116th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 634 snaps and 442 snaps respectively. However, this should be a more talented group in 2021 and it’s very possible those aforementioned players won’t see more than a reserve role.

At safety, the Giants are expecting more from 2020 2nd round pick Xavier McKinney, who suffered a serious injury before the season started and only returned to play 211 snaps as a rotational player in the final six games of the season. Even with last year’s injury plagued season, McKinney still projects as a starter long-term and he flashed plenty of potential in that limited action. He’s a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be a solid every down starter with upside in his second season in the league.

Jabrill Peppers remains as the other starter. He wasn’t a problem for the Giants last season, earning a middling grade from PFF as a 15-game starter, across a career high 65.7 snaps, but the 2017 1st round pick has yet to live up to the expectations that came with being a high pick or that came with being acquired as part of the Odell Beckham trade. Peppers finished 23rd among safeties across 765 snaps on PFF in his second season in the league with the Browns in 2018, before being traded to the Giants, which seemed like a sign of things to come, but he’s been only a middling starter across 25 starts in 2 years with the Giants. Only going into his age 26 season, he may still have some untapped upside, but he also might just remain a capable, but unspectacular starter.

Hybrid player Logan Ryan also sees some action at safety, although his primary value to this defense is covering the slot. Because of the lack of depth in this group last season, Ryan was forced into playing almost every snap last season, 65.7 snaps per game over 16 games, but I would expect that snap count to come down this season in a deeper group. Peppers and McKinley will be the primary starting safeties, with Ryan mostly working as a slot specialist. 

Ryan has been a middling or better defensive back throughout his 8-year career, but he’s going into his age 30 season now, so it’s probably for the best that his playing time will likely be reduced somewhat. The Giants also still have Julian Love and the 2019 4th round pick did show more promise as a rookie across 408 snaps, but I have a hard time seeing a path to significant playing time for him without someone getting hurt ahead of him on the depth chart.

Love can also play some cornerback, but he won’t be needed for a role there either, with the Giants signing ex-Titan Adoree Jackson to a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal and using a 3rd round pick on Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson. Robinson might not see much action as a rookie, but he’ll provide depth at a position where their other depth options, Isaac Yiadom and Darnay Holmes, have already proven to struggle in significant action, although as a 2018 3rd round pick and a 2020 4th round pick respectively, it’s possible both young players do still have some untapped upside.

Regardless, Adoree Jackson will start at cornerback opposite last year’s big free agent cornerback signing James Bradberry. A solid cover cornerback throughout his first four years in the league with the Panthers, albeit one who frequently ranked among the league leaders in yards allowed while going up against some of the best wide receivers in the league one-on-one in the NFC South, Bradberry took things to another level in his first season in New York, finishing a career high 7th among cornerbacks on PFF. Bradberry is a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season and he might not be as good again in 2021, but he should at least remain an above average starter.

Jackson, meanwhile, was a bit of a surprise free agent this off-season. A first round pick by the Titans in 2017, Jackson seemed like one of the more promising young cornerbacks in the league, finishing 35th, 30th, and 16th respectively among cornerbacks in his first 3 seasons in the league, but knee problems limited him to 155 snaps in 2020 and the cap strapped Titans made the surprising move to release him ahead of a his non-guaranteed 10.244 million dollar 5th year option. 

Jackson wound up getting more money annually from the Giants, which normally isn’t a good thing, but this was such a weird off-season that Jackson’s deal could prove to be a solid value for the Giants if he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off before his injury. Only going into his age 26 season, there is still plenty of time for Jackson to bounce back. If he’s on the field in 2021, he should remain an above average starter and if he’s not, the Giants don’t have terrible depth at the position, even if most of it is young and inexperienced. The Giants are also deep and pretty talented at safety in a secondary that overall has a lot of talent and is noticeably improved from a year ago.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Giants aren’t regularly talked about as a team that could make a leap in 2021, but quarterback Daniel Jones was better than most realize in his second season in the league last season and, if he can stay healthy, he could easily step a big step forward statistically in his third season in the league, especially with an improved supporting cast. The Giants haven’t always spent their money in the best ways, but they have certainly been aggressive in building around Jones in the past two off-seasons, trying to maximize their window with a quarterback still on a cheap rookie deal. Even with Jones making significantly less than most quarterbacks, the Giants still rank 7th in the league in average annual value of the players they have signed to contracts and, while that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a strong supporting cast, there is a good amount of talent on this roster overall. 

The one big concern is the offensive line, which could derail this offense. The Giants may regret spending more resources on pass catchers and skill position players than offensive linemen, selecting a wide receiver in the first round and spending money that could have been spent on offensive line upgrades to pay Devontae Booker and Kyle Rudolph a combined 8.75 million annually. Still, I would expect this team to be better than most think and contend for a playoff spot in the NFC, even with the division being tougher than last year’s hapless group. They should be at least a capable team on both sides of the ball and have upside for more. I will have a final prediction for the Giants at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Carolina Panthers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers moved on last off-season from long-time signal caller Cam Newton, who they selected #1 overall in 2011 and went to a Super Bowl with in his MVP season in 2015, but whose injury problems, particularly his surgically repaired shoulder, led to the Panthers deciding to change course long-term. The Panthers took the money they saved by releasing Newton and his 19.1 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and gave it to Teddy Bridgewater, one of the top free agent signal callers, who joined on a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal.

In Bridgewater’s first season in Carolina, the results were not what the Panthers wanted, as they finished just 5-11, but they were better than their record suggested. Most of the Panthers’ losses were close, with all but three coming by one score, and their 3-8 record in one score games is more the product of bad luck than anything this team was doing wrong. The Panthers also had one of the toughest schedules in the league, in part due to sharing a division with the Buccaneers and Saints, who happen to be the only teams to hand them multi-score losses all last season. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Panthers ranked a middling 17th at -0.08%, more suggestive of an 8-8 team than one that went 5-11. With an easier schedule and likely better luck in close games, it wasn’t a stretch to expect the Panthers to take a step forward in 2021 and win a few more games, even without drastically upgrading this roster. However, the Panthers decided they didn’t want Bridgewater to stick around for another year to be part of that, shipping him to the Broncos for a late round pick and eating most of the guaranteed money remaining on his deal. In total, the Panthers paid Bridgewater about 31 million for just 15 starts in one season and received just a late round pick in compensation for him in a trade. 

To replace Bridgewater, the Panthers sent a package of picks, including a 2022 2nd round pick, to the Jets for 2018 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, who did not develop in three seasons with the Jets, but could benefit from a change of scenery, ahead of still only his age 24 season. The Panthers seem pretty committed to Darnold, not only giving up a future premium pick to acquire him, but also passing on both Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the 8th overall pick and functionally tying themselves to Darnold for at least two seasons by picking up his guaranteed option for 2022 at 18.858 million, though I suppose the Panthers could also salary dump him in a year like Bridgewater if he doesn’t pan out.

Even though this team was better than it’s record, trying to upgrade Bridgewater was understandable. His contract was an overpay to begin with, based on Bridgewater going 5-0 against an easy schedule with a very talented supporting cast in New Orleans, and looked worse a year in, after Bridgewater finished 31st among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in 2020. Bridgewater’s statistical production wasn’t bad, completing 69.1% of his passes for an average of 7.59 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and the Panthers offense was a little better than average, finishing 15th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +0.50%, but Bridgewater had help from a solid supporting cast and plays in a relatively quarterback friendly offense, coordinated by up and coming young coaching candidate Joe Brady.

This season, the Panthers are hoping those same benefits can get the most out of Darnold, who was viewed by some as the most talented quarterback in a draft class that included Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield three years ago, but has had about as tough of a start to his career as he could have, getting no support from his supporting cast or coaching staff in New York with the Jets. In three seasons, Darnold completed just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions.

Darnold’s highest rated season on PFF was actually his rookie year in 2018, when he finished 29th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks and actually showed signs of progress in the second half, but that was before the Jets hired head coach Adam Gase, whose coaching staff undoubtedly stunted Darnold’s growth and led to him ranking progressively lower on PFF in each of the next two seasons, ranking 31st out of 39 eligible in 2019 and 38th out of 42 eligible in 2020. Simply put, the Panthers are betting that he isn’t damaged goods and that they can build off some of the promise he showed earlier in his career and turn him into a capable starting quarterback. 

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a quarterback written off as a bust turned it around and Darnold is younger than most, but his youth also means it’s possible that Darnold could still become a successful quarterback in the NFL someday, without him necessarily showing great progress in his first season in Carolina. Think of quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Alex Smith, former high draft picks, who had to wait until several seasons into their career to turn into something more than a low end starting quarterback. It’s also very possible Darnold’s issues go beyond the Jets and, as much as his supporting cast deserves some of the blame for his struggles, he also had the worst QB rating in the league last season with a clean pocket. Darnold still comes with upside, but he’s far from a guarantee to make good on that in 2021.

If he doesn’t, the Panthers don’t have another option on this roster, not only passing on Fields and Jones at 8, but not selecting a signal caller at any point in the draft. PJ Walker was their backup last season and made the one start that Bridgewater missed with injury, actually winning the game to give the Panthers one of their five wins on the season, but that was largely a defensive effort as the Panthers won 20-0 over the hapless Lions in a game in which Walker completed 24 of 34 for 258 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. 

Walker also struggled even more in his other action last season, most notably his second half appearance in week 17 against the Saints after the Panthers pulled a struggling Bridgewater mid-game, only to see Walker go out and complete just 5 of 14 with 3 interceptions. In total, Walker completed 57.1% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions in 2020, in the first career action for a 2017 undrafted free agent who only came onto the NFL’s radar when he had a dominant season in the shortened first season of the XFL. 

Barring a massive improvement, it doesn’t look like Walker will ever translate that to the NFL, but he’s likely to remain the backup for lack of a better option, as his primary competition is Will Grier, a 2019 3rd round pick who was drafted by the old coaching staff and who has completed just 28 of 52 for 228 yards, no touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his career, a pathetic 33.2 QB rating. The Panthers will need their risky acquisition of Sam Darnold to pay off, lacking anything resembling a capable alternative, but Darnold comes with a very low floor, for as high as his theoretical ceiling still may be.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

The biggest strength of this offense around Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 was their receiving corps, more specifically their top-3 wide receivers, DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel. All three earned above average grades from PFF, ranked in the top-30 among wide receivers in yards per route run with at least 1.93 yards per route run, and posted significant receiving yardage, totaling 66/1193/4, 95/1096/3, and 77/851/3 slash lines respectively. 

Moore and Anderson joined DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as one of two wide receiver duos to both surpass 1000 yards receiving in 2020 and Samuel also surpassed 1000 yards if you include the work he did as a runner, totaling 200 yards on 41 carries (4.88 YPC), lining up in the backfield on 35 of those 42 carries and taking the other 7 as end arounds or wide receiver sweeps. Samuel was a free agent this off-season and signed a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal in Washington, but the Panthers didn’t do a bad job replacing him. 

In free agency, the Panthers signed ex-Seahawk David Moore, who is an unspectacular player, but he averaged 1.42 yards per route run over the past three seasons as the Seahawks’ #3 receiver behind Metcalf and Lockett and at least gives the Panthers a relatively high floor at the position, while second round rookie Terrace Marshall gives them a high ceiling if he can beat out Moore for the job as a rookie. Marshall could have been a first round pick if not for injury concerns, so he could prove to be a steal for a Carolina team that snagged him with the 59th overall pick.

Moore and Anderson both remain and will try to repeat last season’s feat with a new quarterback in town. For Moore, topping 1000 yards was nothing new, as the 2018 first round pick also had a 87/1175/4 slash line in 2019 with worse quarterback play, earning PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver grade in the process. Moore did not have 1000 yards as a rookie in 2018, but his 55/788/2 slash line and 1.81 yards per route run average were impressive for a rookie and he’s only gotten better from there. Still only in his age 24 season, it’s possible he could keep getting better. He still has two years left on his rookie deal, but the Panthers are likely trying to figure out how to lock him up long-term.

Anderson has been in the league longer, now heading into his sixth season in the league, but last season was his first 1000 yard year, so he’s a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of being that level of a receiver. Prior to signing a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal with the Panthers last off-season, Anderson spent the first four years of his career with the Jets and actually already has a couple years of experience with Sam Darnold, his quarterback with the Jets in 2018 and 2019. In those two seasons, Anderson averaged just 1.52 yards per route run and had slash lines of 50/752/6 and 52/779/5 respectively. 

Anderson wouldn’t be the first player to improve permanently after leaving the Jets and the same thing could happen with Darnold, but even last season his production was largely the result of a high volume (136 targets, 10th in the NFL, and 18 more than even DJ Moore) and he’s never finished higher than 41st among wide receivers on PFF in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s more of a high end #2 wide receiver, while Moore is a true #1 receiver who could take another step and become one of the top wide receivers in the league in his fourth season in the league in 2021.

As talented as the Panthers were at wide receiver, they had arguably the worst tight end group in the league last season, completing just 27 passes to tight ends. In an attempt to remedy this, the Panthers used a third round pick on Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble, who will get a chance to play as a rookie. The Panthers also signed veteran Dan Arnold in free agency, who has a good chance to win the starting job in a group that only contains a third round rookie and underwhelming incumbent Ian Thomas, a 2018 4th round pick who has averaged just 0.63 yards per route run, 5.58 yards per target, and has caught just 72 passes in 48 games in his career.

Arnold only has 51 catches in 31 career games in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2017 and he doesn’t give you much as a blocker, but he’s shown a lot of promise in limited action as a receiver, averaging 1.58 yards per route run for his career, so he could have a decent receiving total if he gets a significant target total for the first time in his career. Arnold was technically a starter last season with the Cardinals, but they don’t focus on the tight end position in their offense and Arnold received just 45 targets as a result. 

The tight end is not a big part of this offense either, but I would expect him to exceed that total if he wins the starting job. Unless Tremble can exceed expectations as a rookie or Thomas can unexpectedly take a big step forward, I would expect Arnold to be able to do that. The Panthers will miss wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who left as a free agent this off-season, but they added decent replacements for him at wide receiver, and if the Panthers can get more out of the tight end spot, that will make up for some of Samuel’s absence as well. Led by Moore and Anderson, this is a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One key player that Teddy Bridgewater did not have the benefit of for most of last season was feature back Christian McCaffrey, who was limited to 76 touches and 171 snaps in 3 games by injury. McCaffrey led the league with 403 touches in 2019, after 326 touches in 2018, so it’s not really a surprise that McCaffrey got hurt in his 3rd attempt at a massive workload (25.3 touches per game), but he has never missed a game with injury aside from last season and, still only going into his age 25 season, he’s a good bet to bounce back in 2021, even if the Panthers give him a massive workload again.

I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t as, not only is McCaffrey an incredible playmaker, but the Panthers also don’t have much depth at the position after letting veteran backup Mike Davis, who was solid in McCaffrey’s absence last off-season, walk as a free agent this off-season. Not only is McCaffrey a dominant runner, 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, after struggling as a runner as a rookie in 2017, but he posts receiving numbers similar to a #2 wide receiver, with a 80/651/5 slash line as a rookie, a 107/867/6 slash line in 2018, and a 116/1005/4 slash line in 2019. Overall, he finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 8th ranked running back and the 2019 season as their 3rd ranked running back. I would expect a similar season from him barring another fluke injury.

McCaffrey’s re-addition also won’t take too many pass attempts away from the Panthers’ wide receivers, as between the 19 targets McCaffrey had in 3 games last season and the 70 attempts they gave to Mike Davis in McCaffrey’s absence, the Panthers already had a good amount of targets go to running backs last season. McCaffrey, who has averaged 6.71 yards per target in his career, figures to be a lot more effective in the passing game than Davis, who averaged just 5.33 yards per target on those targets. He should also be an upgrade on the ground for a team that averaged a below average 4.19 YPC last season (22nd in the NFL).

With Davis gone, the Panthers used a fourth round pick on Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard to replace him and, even as a rookie, he has a pretty good chance to lock up the #2 running back job, as his only competition are a trio of running backs in Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, and Trenton Cannon who saw limited action behind Davis in 2020. Smith led the bunch with 41 carries, but the 2020 undrafted free agent averaged just 3.80 YPC in the first significant action of his career. 

Bonnafon is also a former undrafted free agent, signing in 2019, and he has just 28 career carries in two seasons in the league. Cannon, meanwhile, is a former 6th round pick of the Jets in 2018, but has averaged just 3.04 YPC on 48 carries in three seasons in the league. Hubbard has by far the most upside of their backup options, but even he would be a big downgrade from McCaffrey if McCaffrey gets hurt again. Assuming that doesn’t happen, this Panthers offense will benefit from having one of the best running backs in the league back in the lineup for a full season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The one group on this offense around the quarterback that was a concern for the Panthers heading into the off-season was their offensive line, which held up pretty well last season, but had numerous contributors set to hit free agency. The Panthers did lose some of those contributors and they have some major concerns on this group heading into 2021, but they kept their most important free agent, right tackle Taylor Moton, with the franchise tag, guaranteeing him 13.754 million for 2021, assuming a long-term deal isn’t worked out in the meantime.

That long-term deal is probably in the Panthers’ interest though, as Moton has proven himself as one of the better right tackles in the league and he is very much still in his prime in his age 27 season, without a single game missed to injury in his career. After only playing 70 snaps as a rookie, the 2017 2nd round pick was inserted into the starting lineup in his second season in 2018 and he hasn’t looked bad, making all 48 starts since and finishing 16th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, 16th in 2019, and a career best 13th in 2020. Whether it’s on the franchise tag or a long-term deal, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021.

Unfortunately, the Panthers did not retain left tackle Russell Okung. Okung is getting up there in age, heading into his age 33 season, and he’s had a concerning injury history, including a 2020 season in which he played just 406 snaps in 7 games, so it’s somewhat understandable the Panthers wouldn’t pay him significant money to return, but they really didn’t replace him and, even though his playing time was last limited, he was still by far their best left tackle and finished 34th among offensive tackles on PFF, so he will be missed. In his absence last season, three different players, Greg Little, Trent Scott, and Dennis Daley, all saw starts and the Panthers added another potential starting option this off-season in Cam Erving, as well as a long-term option in 3rd round rookie Brady Christensen.

Those are all underwhelming options though. Scott saw the most action in Okung’s absence last season and most held up across 347 snaps (4 starts), but the 2018 undrafted free agent also finished 82nd among 85 eligible offensive tackles on PFF as a 9-game starter in 2019, in the only extended starting experience of his career, and would likely struggle in a season long role. Greg Little has the most upside, being selected in the 2nd round in 2019, but a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 358 below average snaps thus far in his career. He could take a big step forward in his third season in the league and may be the favorite for the starting job, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

Daley saw 9 starts at left tackle in 2019 as a 6th round rookie, replacing an injured Greg Little, but Daley was predictably pretty ineffective, finishing 69th among 86 eligible offensive tackles. In 2020, even though he had opportunities to play more, he saw just 135 snaps all season, the majority of which came at guard, which could be where Daley ultimately ends up starting in 2021, as the Panthers also lost some guards in free agency this off-season. 

Cam Erving can also play guard, but he’s never been good anywhere, earning below average grades from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league. He nominally has experience (47 career starts) and versatility (20 starts at tackle, 15 at guard, 12 at center), but if you take into account that he’s struggled throughout that playing time, the experience and versatility don’t mean a whole lot. Unless Little can step up in a big way in his third season in the league, left tackle should be a big position of weakness for the Panthers in 2021, which wasn’t the case for most of 2020 when Okung played half the season and Trent Scott was able to hold up in a few spot starts.

At guard, Michael Schofield (270 snaps), John Miller (910 snaps), and Chris Reed (892 snaps) all saw significant action last season and, while they were unspectacular, they held up pretty well overall, so it was a concern going into this off-season that all three were set to hit free agency. The Panthers retained Miller on a one-year deal and also signed Pat Elflein in free agency, giving them up to a four player competition for the two guard spots, depending on whether or not Daley or Erving kick inside.

Daley may fare better at guard than he has at tackle, though it’s worth noting it would hardly be a disappointment for him to never develop into a consistent starter as a 6th round pick. Erving’s history of struggles suggests he will almost definitely struggle if counted on for significant action, but I would expect him to end up in the lineup somewhere at one point or another, if for no reason other than the Panthers gave him a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal and have an unsettled group upfront.

Elflein also got a significant contract this off-season, signing 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal, also a head scratching deal considering Elflein was released by the Vikings mid-season last season and struggled in 6 starts for the Jets after resurfacing later in the season. Elflein is a 2017 3rd round pick who is experienced with 49 career starts and he earned a middling grade from PFF in 15 starts in 2019, so he has some bounce back potential, but he has been very inconsistent throughout his career, including his first two seasons in the league in 2017 and 2018 when he played center.

John Miller is the safest bet of the bunch, as he’s made 74 starts in 6 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2015 and, with the exception of his rookie season, he’s always earned around a middling grade from PFF. He’s an unspectacular player who has never finished higher than 23rd among guards on PFF, but he’s a steady starting option at a position of weakness, so I would expect him to win one of the two starting jobs, after making 14 starts in 2020. Even with Miller though, this is an unsettled and underwhelming position group.

Compared to all the decisions the Panthers had to make at other positions upfront, center was a relatively boring position for Carolina this off-season, with center Matt Paradis entering his third season in Carolina and the final year of a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal that he signed with the Panthers two off-seasons ago. That deal made sense at the time, as Paradis had finished in the top-11 among centers on PFF in all 4 seasons as a starter with the Broncos (57 starts), including a career best 2nd ranked finish in 2016 and a 3rd ranked finish in his contract year in 2018. However, Paradis has been about an average starter in 32 starts for the Panthers, so he’s been a disappointment. 

There are several things that likely led to the decline and I wouldn’t expect things to turn around at this point. Paradis was an older free agent two off-seasons ago and is now already heading into his age 32 season and Paradis had also suffered a broken leg at the end of his tenure in Denver and it’s possible he hasn’t been the same since. Either way, his best days are almost definitely behind him, even if he continues being a solid starter for a few more seasons. He’s still a useful player on an offensive line that can’t afford any more unsettled positions.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Panthers weren’t that good defensively last season, ranking 17th schedule adjusted in first down rate allowed at -0.58%, but they had one of the youngest defenses in the league and exceeded expectations by even being a middling unit. Probably the biggest reason for their success was the emergence of second-year defensive end Brian Burns, who the Panthers selected 16th overall in 2019. Burns wasn’t bad as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate, despite only playing about half the snaps, but he took a big step forward in his second season, totaling 9 sacks, 13 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate and finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked edge defender on 750 snaps. 

The 6-5 250 pound Burns has been significantly better as a pass rusher than a run stopper in both seasons, but he was a capable run defender last season, in addition to finishing 6th among edge defenders on PFF in pass rush grade. He’s technically a one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was last season, but, at the same time, he’s still only in his age 23 season, so he could easily develop into one of the top players in the league at his position over the next few years. Development of young players is not always linear, but I would expect another strong year from him, even if he comes with more variance than comparable players. 

Burns could also benefit from getting more pass rush snaps, after the Panthers somewhat questionably dropped him into coverage on 17.9% of his pass snaps last season, an aspect in which he struggled. That’s because the Panthers signed Haason Reddick in free agency, who will play opposite Burns and drop into coverage on occasion, hopefully allowing Burns to focus on the aspect of the game in which he dominated last season. Reddick wasn’t great in coverage either, but he dropped into coverage on 26.7% of his pass snaps in 2020, which was actually down significantly from the first three seasons of his career in which he was a hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker, dropping into coverage on 64.7% of his pass snaps.

A first round pick in 2017, Reddick was highly inconsistent across those three seasons, including a terrible 2019 campaign in which he finished 96th among 101 eligible off ball linebackers across 690 snaps. Moving to a more traditional edge defender role led to Reddick having a breakout 2020 campaign though, especially as a pass rusher, as he actually finished below average both against the run and in coverage, but ranked 24th among edge defenders overall because he finished 11th in pass rush grade and totalled 12.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate on the season. 

Reddick and Burns would likely both benefit from not having to drop into coverage as much, but Reddick is the better option to drop in coverage if they have to drop one of them on occasion, not just because of his experience as a coverage linebacker, but because he’s been a less consistent pass rusher than Burns throughout his career. Burns is such a dominant edge rusher that it really doesn’t make sense to regularly have to drop into coverage rather than try to pressure the quarterback. 

Yetur Gross-Matos, a 2020 2nd round pick, should also see a role. The 6-5 265 pounder is more of a traditional defensive end and only dropped into coverage on 5.7% of his pass snaps last season. He finished below average on PFF across just 377 snaps, but he dealt with injuries that limited him to just 12 games and could be improved in his second season in the league, perhaps significantly so. 

Marquis Haynes, a 2018 4th round pick, could also continue seeing playing time after playing a career high 390 snaps last season, but he’s very inexperienced and has finished with a negative grade from PFF in all three seasons, despite his limited playing time. He would only see a deep rotational role in a group with three clear options ahead of him, including a duo that are both coming off of great pass rush seasons, even if they both had never had a season that good previously.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

What made the Panthers’ capable defensive performance last season even more surprising was that it mostly came without one of their most proven interior defenders Kawann Short, who went down for the season after 123 snaps in 3 games. In his prime, Short was one of the Panthers’ best players and one of the best interior defenders in the league, but he’s had two straight seasons derailed by injury, playing 199 snaps total over that stretch, so the Panthers made the decision to move on from him this off-season, rather than paying him 14.5 million for his age 32 season in 2021.

Derrick Brown, the Panthers 7th overall pick in 2020, was originally supposed to form a talented duo with Short, but instead he is more of a replacement for him. Brown had an up and down rookie year, but ultimately ended up with about a middling grade from PFF across 742 snaps, generating consistent pass rush, but leaving something to be desired against the run. Obviously given Brown’s draft status, he has a lot more untapped potential and could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league, en route to becoming one of the best players in the league at his position. That’s not a guarantee, but I would expect more from such a talented player in year two.

Along with Short, the Panthers lost several other free agents at the interior defender position this off-season, including most notably Zach Kerr, who excelled on 390 snaps in a rotational role last season. To remedy this, the Panthers signed a pair of free agents in DaQuan Jones and Morgan Fox. They’re very different players for two guys who play the same position, so they should complement each other well, working in a platoon depending on the situation. 

Jones is a bigger run stuffer at 6-4 320 who has earned an above average grade from PFF for his run defense in six straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-15 among interior defenders in run defense grade over that stretch, but he has barely contributed as a pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 22 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate in his career. He did play a career high 706 snaps in 2020, but it was one of his more underwhelming seasons overall and, now going into his age 30 season, it’s possible Jones could take a step back overall in 2021. Still, he’s a solid signing for a team that needed help at the position.

Fox, meanwhile, has averaged 363 snaps per season over the past three seasons as a situational pass rusher with the Rams. The 6-3 275 pound former undrafted free agent has predictably earned a below average grade from PFF for his run defense in each of those three seasons, but he has also added 10.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in his limited action, consistently showing pass rush ability in all three seasons. He should have a significant sub package role for the Panthers and could exceed last year’s career high of 403 snaps. If he exceeds that total drastically, he could struggle, but he should be able to be a decent rotational option.

While the Panthers lost most of their leaders in snaps played at the interior defender spot from last season, they do retain Bravvion Roy, a 2020 6th round pick who saw 419 snaps as a rookie. Roy was terrible across those snaps though, finishing 128th among 139 interior defenders on PFF. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better by default in 2021 and he should continue to have a role in this group, but it’s worth mentioning that 6th round picks typically don’t even develop into useful rotational players. The Panthers also used a 5th round pick in this past draft on Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon and, while he was generally regarded as a steal, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll contribute as a rookie or develop long-term. This retooled group isn’t bad overall, but they’ll need a breakout year from Derrick Brown to get to another level.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Part of why the Panthers were expected to be so bad defensively last season was that an already underwhelming defense in 2019 lost All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to an early retirement. Shaq Thompson took over as the Panthers top linebacker in his absence, but a formerly solid linebacker had the worst campaign of his career in 2020, finishing 71st among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Thompson had only earned average or better grades from PFF in 5 seasons prior and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so I like his chances of bouncing back even without Kuechly next to him, but even at his best, he’s a massive downgrade from what Kuechly was.

The rest of this linebacking corps consisted of situational players last season, with Tahir Whitehead and Jermaine Carter serving as the other two base linebackers in the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme and safety Jeremy Chinn frequently moving down around the line of scrimmage in sub packages to play as second coverage linebacker next to Thompson. This season, Whitehead is gone, but he was replaced by free agent Denzel Perryman and the rest of this group should remain about the same. 

Swapping Whitehead for Perryman should prove to be an upgrade, perhaps significantly so, after Whitehead finished 97th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 398 snaps last season. Perryman has left something to be desired in coverage throughout his career and has never played more than 481 snaps in any season in his 6-year career, partially because of his lack of coverage abilities, but also because he’s missed 27 games due to injury in his career. However, he’s a high level run defender who has finished in the top-6 among eligible off ball linebackers against the run twice in his career, including 2020, and, though he’ll probably miss some time with injury, he’s otherwise a perfect fit as a base linebacker in this defense.

Jermaine Carter is less impressive, having played just 631 snaps in 3 seasons since the Panthers selected him in the 5th round in 2018, but he at least earned the first above average grade of his career from PFF last season, albeit across just 284 snaps. He’s an underwhelming player who would likely struggle if stretched into a larger role, but he’ll probably be a capable base package linebacker, which is all the Panthers really need from him.

Chinn, meanwhile, earned an above average coverage grade, including the occasions he covered as a deep safety, where he was not as effective as he was as a linebacker, but he also finished below average against the run. His tackle total of 117 was impressive, but his 7.1 yards average depth of tackle and 4.2% run stop rate are both underwhelming for someone who plays in the box as much as he does and his 18 missed tackles were among the most in the league. 

It’s possible the 2020 2nd round pick takes a step forward in his second season in the league, but the 6-2 212 pounder is always going to be undersized for a linebacker. He definitely adds to their coverage unit though and he’s the kind of versatile player you can move around to mask his weaknesses. The Panthers obviously lack anyone the caliber of Luke Kuechly, but they could piece together a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Along with linebacker, Chinn also plays safety, where he typically started next to Tre Boston last season. Boston struggled, finishing 79th among 99 eligible safeties on PFF, and was not retained this off-season. Without any significant additions made to this group this off-season, the Panthers will instead rely on getting more out of Juston Burris, who played 790 snaps as the 3rd safety last season, coming in as a sub package safety when Chinn played linebacker, and Sam Franklin, a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled across 251 snaps as a reserve as a rookie. Burris figures to start next to Chinn, with Franklin taking over Burris’ old role as the 3rd safety and likely seeing significant action.

Along with Franklin, Burris also was underwhelming last season, so, while Boston didn’t play very well, losing him without replacing him could hurt this group for depth purposes. Burris has been better in the past, but not in every season and he had also never played more than 409 snaps in a season prior to last season, so I would expect him to struggle as a season long every down starter at safety. Franklin, meanwhile, is likely to struggle as well, unless he takes a big step forward in year two, something that might never happen for a player who was allowed to fall out of the draft entirely just a year ago.

At cornerback, the Panthers lost Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder, who held up over 821 snaps and 411 snaps respectively last season, but they replaced them by using the 8th overall pick on South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and signing veteran AJ Bouye to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal in free agency. That should be an upgrade and they definitely give the Panthers a higher ceiling at the position, but they come with some downside as well, Horn because he’s a rookie and Bouye because he’s earned below average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons, after reaching a career peak from 2016-2018, when he ranked 5th, 7th, and 22nd among cornerbacks on PFF. Bouye isn’t that old, still just going into his age 30 season, but his best days are probably behind him. His injury history is concerning as well, as he’s played in all 16 games just once in 8 seasons in the league.

Horn and Bouye should start, leaving Donte Jackson as the likely 3rd cornerback. Jackson wasn’t bad across 599 snaps last season, but he’s been pretty inconsistent throughout his career since being selected by the Panthers in the 2nd round in 2018, including a 2019 campaign in which he finished 103rd among 109 eligible cornerbacks across 726 snaps. Still only going into his age 26 season, Jackson is young enough that he could still get better and perhaps his play last season was a sign of things to come, but the Panthers don’t seem willing to commit to a starting role for him, adding Horn and Bouye and leaving Jackson as the third cornerback at best.

Jackson’s primary competition for the third cornerback role will be 2020 4th round pick Troy Pride, who will need to make a big step forward after finishing 132nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 529 snaps as a rookie, and veteran Rashaan Melvin, who hasn’t earned an above average grade from PFF since 2017, missed all of last season with an opt-out, and now is going into his age 32 season. Depth is a bit concerning at cornerback, but overall they’re in much better shape at cornerback than safety. Their top-3 cornerbacks all possess significant upside, but also significant downside and their safety group is very underwhelming outside of Jeremy Chinn, a part-time linebacker.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Panthers played better than their 5-11 record last season, losing a bunch of close games against a tough overall schedule, but it also feels like that level of play was overachieving, compared to their talent level. Overall, the Panthers have some high level players, mostly from nailing their past four first round picks (Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Brian Burns, and Derrick Brown), but the talent isn’t really there behind those players and, in fact, the Panthers have just two other players on this roster (Jeremy Chinn and Taylor Moton) that they’ve drafted outside of the first round that have developed into consistent starters and they were both second round picks, with essentially nothing of note coming out of the third round or later from any of their recent drafts. That lack of depth shows when you look at this roster.

Perhaps this young coaching staff will get the most out of this roster again, but even if they do, they aren’t significantly more talented than they were a year ago, so it’s hard to see this team contending for a playoff spot, even with Drew Brees’ retirement making their divisional schedule a little easier. Their decision to swap out Teddy Bridgewater and replace him with Sam Darnold gives them a higher upside under center, but also a significantly lower floor. 

Without a capable backup quarterback, in the scenario where Darnold doesn’t improve noticeably from his time with the Jets, the Panthers would either be stuck with a struggling Darnold or would have to turn to an unproven backup quarterback who would likely struggle even more. In either case, the Panthers would likely find themselves among the worst teams in the league, so they are really relying on improvement from Darnold. I will have a final prediction for the Panthers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Miami Dolphins 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Two off-seasons ago, the Dolphins undertook an aggressive rebuilding strategy. After years of mediocrity, somehow winning between 6 and 8 games in 9 of the previous 10 seasons, with the exception being a 10-6 season in which they lost in the first round of the post-season, the Dolphins rapidly parted ways with players, either for financial reasons and/or to acquire future draft assets, with the intention of playing young players, accumulating significant draft capital, rolling forward future amounts of cap space, and probably picking up high draft picks of their own over the next couple seasons because of a roster that was significantly subpar. 

Among others who went out the door, the Dolphins traded away long-time starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and even traded away recent first round picks Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick for future first round picks. The Dolphins also fired head coach Adam Gase after three seasons and brought in promising Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores, a young coach who understood what he was getting into with a rebuilding team.

The result was not expected to be any good in the short-term and, to begin the 2019 season, they might have even been worse than expected, losing each of their first 4 games by at least 20 points per game and an average of 34.3 points per game. However, things improved pretty rapidly from there. They didn’t win their first game until a few weeks later, but the margin of defeat dropped significantly and, after a 0-7 start, they actually managed to win 5 of their final 9 games of the season. 

Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who replaced an overwhelmed young player in Josh Rosen, proved to be a steady hand under center, while the Dolphins’ impressive new coaching staff managed to get the most out of the rest of this roster. Perhaps the most important thing is that they managed to do that without playing themselves out of draft position for a top quarterback prospect. While they did not wind up with the #1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, as at one point seemed inevitable, which would have gotten them Heisman winner and National Champion Joe Burrow, their 5th overall pick still allowed them to select a former National Champion and Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa, albeit one who was coming off of a major hip injury. 

The Dolphins still finished the 2019 season 30th in first down rate differential at -3.58%, despite their solid finish to the year, but there was still a lot of reason for this team to be optimistic going forward, with a potential franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal in the fold in Tagovailoa and significant draft capital and financial flexibility coming in the future. The Dolphins used some of that financial flexibility and draft capital last off-season to improve this roster and, overall, the Dolphins seemed likely to take a step forward in their second season of the rebuild. However, few expected the Dolphins to do what they did in 2020, which was to finish 10-6 and just on the edge of the post-season in the AFC.

That being said, the Dolphins weren’t quite as good as that suggests, as they finished the season ranked 20th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.60%. Part of it was they faced arguably the easiest schedule in the league. Four of the Dolphins’ wins came against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals, while just two of their wins came against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-8 Cardinals and a win over the 10-6 Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable way to week in week and week out.

Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins benefitted from other metrics that have little predictive value, ranking 2nd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 73.91%, 7th in fumble recovery rate at 56.76%, and 3rd in turnover margin at +9. Recovering fumbles and opponents missing field goals are not replicable skills, while turnover margin is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. 

I’ll get into this more in the defense section, but their defense also significantly benefited from being unsustainably good on 3rd and 4th down, as compared to how they played on 1st and 2nd down, allowing opponents to pick up a first down on a league low 33.02% of 3rd and 4th downs, but actually ranking 29th by allowing a 34.07% first down conversion rate on 1st and 2nd downs, meaning that somehow it was easier to convert on 1st and 2nd down against the Dolphins last season than it was to do so on 4th down.

On top of that, the Dolphins offense was actually at it’s best not when rookie Tagovailoa was on the field, but when they played veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick started the first 6 games of the season, but was then benched for Tagovailoa, only to see Tagovailoa not come close to matching his production level, completing 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions (another 8 dropped by defenders) on the season and finishing as PFF’s 33rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, while Fitzpatrick completed 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback. Perhaps most concerning for Tagovailoa is he was actually outperformed on the ground by the aging veteran, averaging 3.03 YPC on 36 carries, while Fitzpartrick averaged 5.03 YPC on 30 carries, even though Tagovailoa was known for his athleticism before his injury.

On several occasions, the Dolphins actually benched Tagovailoa mid-game for Fitzpatrick who was a noticeable improvement and even occasionally led the Dolphins to a comeback victory, but they refused to go back to the veteran permanently and this off-season they let him walk as a free agent, where he signed in Washington to be their expected starter. The Dolphins added an above average insurance policy for Tagovailoa by signing ex-Colt Jacoby Brissett, who has made 32 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but he has largely been an underwhelming starter and would likely be a downgrade over Fitzpatrick’s 2020 performance if he had to see action.

Of course, the Dolphins are hoping that doesn’t happen, expecting Tagovailoa to take a big step forward in his second season in the league, another year removed from his injury. The Dolphins had the financial flexibility and draft capital to make a big trade for a veteran this off-season or they also could have used the 3rd overall pick they acquired from the Texans as part of the Laremy Tunsil trade on a different young quarterback in a strong quarterback draft class, but instead they traded down and opted to build around Tagovailoa in the draft and in free agency. 

If Tagovailoa can take a step forward and the supporting cast the Dolphins have been building up over the past two off-seasons can do so as well, that should counter the fact that they will have a much tougher schedule, that they are unlikely to win the turnover margin by as much, that they are likely to regress on third and fourth downs on defense, and that they are unlikely to have the same special teams and return touchdown success. However, I have some questions about this supporting cast holding up its end of the bargain, which I will get into, and Tagovailoa is the big question, which makes the Dolphins among the most high variance teams in the league. 

If Tagovailoa can bounce back from the significant injury that ended his college career and from his underwhelming first season and develop into the franchise quarterback it looked like he would one day become, the rest of this team is talented enough that the Dolphins could still be playoff contenders, but if Tagovailoa plays like he did last season, the Dolphins are bound to disappoint. I would lean more to the latter than the former because of how many question marks Tagovailoa comes with as an inexperienced, unproven player who may never be the same after a significant injury and, even if he someday does reach his potential, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is going to be an above average starter in year two, but the scenario where he makes a big leap is a possibility as well. 

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The group the Dolphins upgraded the most this off-season was their receiving corps, which was a big problem last season, lacking any consistent wide receivers behind #1 option Devante Parker. Parker led the team with a 63/793/4 slash line, but no other wide receiver topped 36/373/1 on the season. To remedy this, the Dolphins address the position in free agency and in the draft, signing Texans wide receiver Will Fuller to a one-year deal, 10 million dollar deal and using the 6th overall pick after trading down from the 3rd pick on Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Parker, Fuller, and Waddle figure to play together in a much improved group of top-3 wide receivers.

Parker is a former first round pick in his own right, being selected 14th overall by the Dolphins in 2015. Parker’s first four years in the league left something to be desired, as he never played all 16 games, frequently disappointed coaches with his work ethic, and maxed out with a 56/744/4 slash line in his second season in the league in 2016. After Parker had a career worst 24/309/1 slash line in 2018, it looked as if he would be released ahead of the expensive 5th year option on his rookie deal, but the Dolphins instead re-signed him to a cheaper deal and he rewarded them with his long awaited breakout year in his 5th season in the league in 2019, finishing with a 72/1202/9 slash line, playing all 16 games for the first time, and ranking 17th among wide receivers on PFF.

That slash line fell to 63/793/4 in 2020, but that was more because he missed a couple games with injury and because the Dolphins were much run heavier in 2020 than 2019. His 1.75 yards per route run average was still only slightly down from his 1.89 average in 2019 and was still the 2nd best of his career. He also finished 32nd among wide receivers on PFF in 2020, only slightly behind 2019 and also the 2nd best finish of his career. 

Parker isn’t quite a true #1 receiver and, though he is still young in his age 28 season, he probably is as good as he’s going to get, but having proven it for two years now, I would expect his early career issues to mostly be in the past now and that he will continue being an above average starting option for at least the next couple seasons. The Dolphins locked him up long-term after 2019 on a 4-year, 30.5 million dollar extension that was a risk at the time for the Dolphins, but a risk that seems to have mostly paid off.

Fuller is also a former first round pick, being selected 21st overall by the Texans in 2016, and he’s also had some issues to start his career. His biggest issue has simply been staying on the field, as he has yet to surpass 14 games in a season in 5 seasons in the league. Fuller didn’t show much early in his career, in part due to poor quarterback play, and he missed 8 of his first 32 games as well, but he showed a lot more promise over the past three seasons in Houston with Deshaun Watson healthy under center, averaging 2.24 yards per route run, 2.03 yards per route run, and 2.28 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons respectively.

However, that has translated to just slash lines of 32/503/4, 49/670/3, and 53/879/8 respectively, as he was limited to 7 games and 11 games by injury in 2018 and 2019 and, in 2020, when it seemed like he was finally going to make it through a full season, and on pace for a 77/1279/12 per 16 game slash line through 11 games while ranking 10th among wide receivers on PFF, Fuller was suspended for the rest of the season for performance enhancing drugs, a 6-game suspension that will also keep him out for week 1 of 2021. 

Fuller has assured the Dolphins it was a one-time mistake and the Dolphins are taking a chance on him with a one-year deal, not just because of the PEDs, but because of his injury history, but it’s a risk that could pay off, though the one-year nature of his deal limits the overall upside. Waddle’s selection may mean Fuller is likely to ultimately be one and done in Miami, but for now, they will be a talented wide receiver trio, as long as all three are healthy. Waddle is coming off of an injury plagued season as well in his last collegiate season, while Parker has only made it through one full season without missing time in 6 tries, so that might be easier said than done, but having all three at least gives them some insurance.

The Dolphins also have some decent depth options. They return Jakeem Grant (36/373/1), Preston WIlliams (18/288/4), Lynn Bowden (28/211/0), and Mack Hollins (16/176/1) from last year’s group and will also have a pair of veterans in Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson who are returning from opting out of the 2020 season and they totaled slash lines of 32/416/2 and 43/351/1 respectively in 2019. All would be underwhelming starters if they had to see extended action and none of them may be guaranteed a roster spot, but it’s a group with some promise.

Preston Williams might have the most, as he has averaged a decent 1.51 yards per route run averaged in two seasons since signing with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, but he has struggled to stay on the field, playing just 16 of a possible 32 games. Lynn Bowden is a 2020 3rd round pick, although he was traded by the Raiders to the Dolphins before his rookie year even started and his 1.00 yards per route run average as a rookie is really underwhelming. 

Jakeem Grant is a good situational deep threat, but has never played more than 370 snaps in a season and the 5-7 169 pounder isn’t anything more than a situational player. Mack Collins was a 4th round pick by the Eagles in 2017, but he’s managed just 42 catches in 48 career games and 0.99 yards per route run. Hurns and Wilson have some history of success, especially Hurns, but they’re going into their age 30 and age 29 season, after missing an entire season. The Dolphins were right to focus on upgrading this group, but the holdovers they replaced don’t make bad depth options.

Lacking options at wide receiver behind Devante Parker last season, tight end Mike Gesicki finished 2nd on this team in receiving with a 53/703/6 slash line. That was a big step forward for Gesicki, a 2018 2nd round pick who improved his yards per route run average from 1.04 over the first two seasons of his career to 1.60 last season. Gesicki’s 51/570/5 slash line from 2019 isn’t bad, but it was primarily the product of the amount of opportunity he received. 

In 2020, despite receiving a few targets fewer than in 2019 (89 in 2019 vs. 85 in 2020) and despite running almost 100 fewer routes on a more run heavy team, he saw his receiving yardage increase by about 23.3%. He also finished 7th among tight ends on PFF in pass catching grade, after never earning more than a middling grade previously. Gesicki is a one-year wonder in terms of playing like he did as a receiver last season and he’s never been much of a blocker, but he entered the league with a high upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being an above average pass catcher. If he does, he figures to get a significant contract from someone as a free agent next off-season.

That contract might not come from Miami though, as they have pretty solid depth behind him. Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen added 451 snaps and 367 snaps played respectively last season as primarily blocking specialists and both earned above average grades from PFF in that limited role, not only blocking well, but showing a little bit of potential as receivers for the first time in their brief careers, with Smythe being a 4th round pick in 2018 and Shaheen being selected in the 2nd round in 2017 by the Bears, who eventually shipped him to Miami after he didn’t pan out in Chicago. The Dolphins also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Boston College’s Hunter Long, though that might be more of a move focused on the future, with both Gesicki and Smythe heading into the final year of their deals. In the meantime, the Dolphins have a deep tight end group as part of an overall much improved receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

It was also expected that the Dolphins would invest significantly at the running back position this off-season, after rotating through five different starters at the position, but instead they only added veteran backup Malcolm Brown and wanted until the 7th round to select a running back, when they took Cincinnati’s Gerrid Doaks. That is good news for Myles Gaskin, who led this group with 142 carries in 2020 and was the starter for most of the season, and, to a lesser extent, Salvon Ahmed, who was their primary backup down the stretch and also returns for 2021 along with Gaskin.

Gaskin is hardly a proven lead back though, so it was surprising they didn’t even add a more capable complement at some point. A 7th round pick in 2019, Gaskin managed just 3.69 YPC on 36 carries as a rookie, before seeing that average improve to 4.11 YPC on 142 carries in his 2nd season in the league, decent, but unspectacular. Gaskin missed 6 games with injury last season and could see his carry total increase just because of improved health, but he’s a projection to a feature back role and would be best in tandem with another running back.

Salvon Ahmed could be that other back, but he’s highly unproven, as the 2020 undrafted free agent didn’t see his first career offensive touch until week 9 and finished the season with just a 4.25 YPC on 75 carries in 6 games. Malcolm Brown, meanwhile, has never topped the 101 carries in a season he had last season, despite having 6 seasons in the league. His 4.15 YPC average left something to be desired as well, as does his career average of 3.99 across 298 career carries. Given their other options, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see 7th round rookie Gerrid Doaks see extended action at some point. Barring a big breakout season from one of their backs, this figures to be a below average backfield once again in 2021.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Dolphins also needed to add talent on the offensive line this off-season, but they didn’t really do much here either. They used a 2nd round pick on Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, who can play both tackle and guard, but he’s mostly just a replacement for veteran Ereck Flowers, who finished 32nd among guards on PFF in 14 starts last season, but was salary dumped in a trade with Washington this off-season. They also signed ex-Raven Matt Skura to replace center Ted Karras, who signed in New England as a free agent, but he could also be a downgrade. Fellow veteran signing DJ Fluker, a guard/tackle, is equally uninspiring.

The Dolphins had a trio of rookies see significant action for this group last season, with first round pick Austin Jackson making 12 starts, second round pick Robert Hunt making 11 starts, and fourth round pick Solomon Kindley making 13 starts and the Dolphins will be hoping this young group can take a step forward in year two, but by replacing Flowers with Eichenberg, they have made this group arguably even younger and less experienced than a year ago. 

Jackson has the best chance to take a step forward in year two, not just because of his draft status as the 18th overall pick (Miami’s second of three first round picks in 2020), but because he drastically underperformed his draft slot as a rookie and has a lot of room for improvement, after finishing 84th among 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. He still has a high ceiling and could easily be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league, but it might be optimistic to expect more than middling play from him in year two, even if he does take a step forward.

Solomon Kindley also struggled, finishing 76th among 86 eligible guards in 13 starts and, as only a former 4th round pick, there is much less guarantee he ever improves and develops into a starter. He’s probably not even locked into a starting job in year two with 2019 3rd round pick Michael Deiter and a pair of veterans in DJ Fluker and Jesse Davis also in the mix for roles in the interior of this line with Eichenberg and Kindley. 

Deiter played just 23 snaps last season after finishing 79th among 82 eligible guards in 15 starts as a rookie, but he still has theoretical upside. Davis has made 56 starts over the past 4 seasons (31 at tackle and 25 at guard), but has never been more than a replacement level player and is now heading into his age 30 season. Similarly, Fluker has also never been more than a replacement level player in 96 career starts (40 at tackle, 56 at guard) and is now heading into his age 30 season.

Additionally, the Dolphins could start either Eichenberg or Davis at right tackle and move Robert Hunt inside to guard. Hunt might have been their best offensive lineman in 11 rookie year starts at right tackle though, even if he finished just slightly above average on PFF, so the Dolphins may want to leave him there. Whether it’s at guard or tackle though, Hunt still projects as a long-term starter and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, though that’s not a guarantee.

New center Matt Skura, meanwhile, is probably locked into a job, just because the Dolphins lack a better option. Skura has made 51 starts over the past four seasons, but the 2016 undrafted free agent has never been more than a middling starter. He’s an underwhelming addition for a team that had the assets needed to upgrade this group this off-season, but that will instead be relying on a mix of very young, inexperienced players and middling at best veterans. Even with a lot more skill position talent around the quarterback this season, the Dolphins’ offensive line woes could inhibit this offense significantly unless their young players step up in a hurry.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Dolphins’ defense ranked 5th in points per drive allowed last season, but they benefited from one of the easiest schedules in the league and, as mentioned earlier, they were unsustainably good on third and fourth downs. Even though they allowed the 4th highest conversion rate in the league on 1st and 2nd down at 34.07%, the Dolphins led the NFL with a 33.02% conversion rate allowed on 3rd and 4th downs, somehow allowing a lower conversion rate on third and fourth downs than first and second. The Dolphins ranked just 12th in first down rate allowed, 15th when schedule is taken into account, but third and fourth downs are significantly more important downs, which allowed the Dolphins to rank where they did in points per drive.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that something like that is sustainable. There is zero correlation year-to-year in how much a team outperforms on third and fourth down as compared to first and second down and, beyond that, first and second down performance tends to be much more predictive on a year-to-year basis than third and fourth down performance, by a factor of about 2.5. That means that the Dolphins are likely to be about as good on third and fourth down as you would expect based on their first and second down performance and that their performance across all downs is probably more likely to be closer to their 29th ranked conversion rate allowed on first and second downs in 2020, as opposed to their 1st ranked conversion rate allowed on third and fourth downs.

The Dolphins had the financial flexibility and draft capital to make significant additions to this group this off-season, but they don’t look significantly better overall, which is concerning given they are starting from a lower base point than most realize, based on their easy schedule and their unsustainably good performance on third and fourth downs. In fact, one of the Dolphins moves this off-season was to reverse course on a big signing from last off-season, releasing edge defender Kyle Van Noy only a year and 15.075 million into a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal.

Van Noy was only a middling player in 2020 and he was more of a hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker, dropping into coverage on 50.8% of his pass defense snaps, but he played 811 snaps in 14 games, so releasing him isn’t a small move. Additionally, the Dolphins also reversed course on their signing of fellow edge defender Shaq Lawson, who actually did play relatively well in the first year of a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked edge defender on 571 snaps in 14 games.

The Dolphins at least got linebacker Benardrick McKinney in a trade with Houston for Lawson, but losing Lawson and Van Noy still opened up a significant amount of edge defender snaps for the Dolphins. To fill those snaps, the Dolphins used their other first round pick on University of Miami’s Jaelen Phillips and will also likely use 2019 5th round pick Andrew Van Ginkel in a larger role, after he saw 479 snaps last season. 

Van Ginkel showed a lot of promise against the run last season in that role, after struggling on 197 rookie year snaps in 2019, and, like Van Noy, he can drop into coverage a little bit as well, but he has yet to show much as a pass rusher, with just 6.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate in his career. He could remain an above average run defender, but he’s a projection to a larger role and I wouldn’t expect much pass rush from him.

Emmanuel Ogbah was the only edge defender that the Dolphins signed last off-season who remains, with Lawson and Van Noy already gone. Signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal, Ogbah was well worth it in year one, leading the team with 9 sacks, 13 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate. That’s by far a career best though, for a player who has just 27 sacks, 35 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate in his career, and he continued being an underwhelming run defender, as he has been throughout his career.

Ogbah came into the league with a high upside as the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and he isn’t a complete one-year wonder, showing signs of being an above average pass rusher in 2019, leading to the Dolphins signing him to that aforementioned deal, though that came in an injury plagued season, when he had 5.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 10.8% pressure rate in 10 games, so he’s still pretty unproven. He could continue being an above average pass rusher, in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, and he could see an even bigger snap count after playing 792 snaps last season, in what looks like an overall thinner group this season, but Ogbah also comes with some potential downside.

The Dolphins will also get Vince Biegel back from a torn achilles that cost him all of 2020 and he figures to be able to carve out a rotational role in this thinner group. How he plays in that role is a bit of a question, but he did earn an above average grade from PFF on 627 snaps in a very thin group in 2019, playing well against the run and totaling 2.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate, so he does come with some upside. He’s also a former 4th round pick, but he only played 124 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, which is his only NFL experience aside from 2019, so he’s a complete one year wonder coming off of a significant injury, so it’s hard to project him to more than a rotational role. This isn’t a bad position group, but there are concerns as well.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

On the interior, the Dolphins lost free agent Davon Godchaux, who signed a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Patriots and replaced him by signing former Patriot Adam Butler to a 2-year, 7.5 million. One to one, Butler is a downgrade from Godchaux, which shows in their contracts, but Godchaux was limited to 172 snaps in 5 games by injury last season, so his loss won’t affect them that much and all Butler will need to do to be an upgrade is stay relatively healthy. In Godchaux’s absence, Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, and Zach Sieler led the way with 637 snaps, 538 snaps, and 532 snaps respectively and all three return and all figure to see playing time in a four man rotation including Adam Butler.

Wilkins and Davis have the most upside of the group and will likely start and lead the way in snaps, after being selected in the first round in 2019 and the second round in 2020 respectively. Wilkins has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons to begin his career, across snap counts of 730 and 637 respectively, and has the higher upside overall, as he could still develop into one of the better interior defenders in the league over the next few years, but Davis had a promising rookie year as well, across 538 snaps. Both figure to at least be capable starters in 2021 with the upside for significantly more if one or both break out.

That leaves Sieler and Butler to play reserve roles, but they still figure to see significant snap totals. Sieler was a bit of a surprise last season, as the 2018 7th round pick of the Ravens saw just 135 snaps in his first two seasons combined and was already on his second team, but when Godchaux went down, that freed up playing time for him and he held up pretty well, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF across 532 snaps, especially impressing as a pass rusher with 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder who might not repeat last season’s performance, but he also could have permanently turned a corner and will remain a solid rotational player. Either way, he’ll be counted on for a significant role, particularly in sub packages.

Butler, meanwhile, is also primarily a sub package option. In New England, he never exceeded 481 snaps in a season and played on a pass snap 74.2% of the time, in 4 seasons after being signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Butler totalled 15 sacks, 9 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 63 games, including 4 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.5% pressure rate in a career best year in 2020, but his inability to hold up against the run kept him from ever earning more than a middling overall grade from PFF for a season, including a 112nd ranked finish out of 139 eligible among interior defenders in 2020. He could be a decent part of a rotation, but the Dolphins will need either Wilkins or Davis to break out for this to be more than a middling group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, the Dolphins made a swap this off-season of edge defender Shaq Lawson for Benardrick McKinney. The deal also featured a swap of late round picks, but those were largely irrelevant to the trade, which was otherwise a rare swap of above average veterans. I mentioned the Dolphins will miss Shaq Lawson off the edge, but McKinney does fill a need in the linebacking corps, where the loss of Kyle Van Noy will also be felt, as he played off ball a significant amount. 

McKinney missed all but 4 games with injury last season, but prior to last season, he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons of his career, with a career best 9th ranked finish in 2018 and a 25th ranked finish in his most recent full season in 2019. On top of that, he had only missed 2 of a possible 64 games over the past two seasons and was largely an every down player, averaging 64.2 snaps per game, and, still only going into his age 29 season, he has plenty of bounce back potential if he can avoid another fluke injury. 

McKinney also has a little experience as a rusher off the edge and blitzing at a high rate, rushing the passer on 24.4% of his pass snaps for his career, which understandably made him appealing to a Dolphins team that likes to blitz their off ball linebackers and to occasionally line them up off the edge. McKinney has not fared as well as a pass rusher as he has against the run or in coverage though, totaling 11.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 11.0% pressure rate, despite frequently being an extra rusher, so it’s fair to wonder if he should just be used as more of a traditional linebacker, but that’s unlikely in Miami.

Jerome Baker, who led this group with 868 snaps last season and who will also play every down with McKinney, also was used in that fashion last season, rushing the passer on 23.9% of his pass snaps. Baker finished last season with 7 sacks, but that is a bit of a misleading total, as he added just 4 hits and a 12.6% pressure rate, despite almost always being an extra rusher. He also struggled against the run and earned a middling grade overall from PFF. 

The 2020 season was an improvement over 2019 for Baker, where his terrible run play landed him 87th among 101 eligible off ball linebackers overall, even though he held up in coverage and as a pass rusher, but Baker has still yet to live up to the potential he showed across 678 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. Perhaps he’ll take a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2021, but he will need his run play to improve significantly for that to happen.

The Dolphins run a hybrid defense that uses more 3-4 base concepts than 4-3, so they don’t often line up with three off ball linebackers at the same time, but their depth options could still become a factor at some point if injuries strike. The Dolphins had several free agent departures in the linebacking corps this off-season, but they did retain Elandon Roberts, keeping the former Patriot for a second straight season on a one-year deal. 

That comes despite the fact that he struggled mightily in limited action last season, finishing dead last among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF on 402 snaps. Roberts was at least a capable run stuffer in New England in the first 4 seasons of his career, but he never earned more than a middling grade overall and his career high 558 snaps came in a 2017 campaign in which he finished 90th among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. He’s not a horrible insurance policy, but he would likely struggle if he had to see significant action, especially in coverage.

The Dolphins also signed Duke Riley in free agency to serve in a depth role, but he’s pretty underwhelming as well. A third round pick in 2017 by the Falcons, Riley is already on his third team and the only season of his career in which he didn’t finish below average on PFF was the 2019 season, in which he played just 29 snaps. Like Roberts, he isn’t terrible depth, but he would likely struggle if he had to see significant action. With the addition of McKinney, this is a solid group overall, but they don’t have a terribly high upside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

By far the Dolphins’ best defensive player in 2020 was top cornerback Xavien Howard, who led the league with 10 interceptions, finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback overall, and made a case to be named Defensive Player of the Year, joining winner Aaron Donald and runner up TJ Watt as one of three players to receive a vote. Howard has always had great potential if he could stay healthy and put it all together, but even still his 2020 campaign, coming in the fifth season of the 2016 2nd round pick’s career, was a surprise.

Howard did record 7 interceptions in 2018 as well, but he also allowed a terrible 16.2 yards per catch average and was frequently beaten deep, leading to him ranking just 19th among cornerbacks on PFF, despite an elite interception total. Even that was by far the best year of his career prior to 2020 though, as he had totaled just 5 interceptions in his other 3 seasons, had consistently received middling grades from PFF in those 3 seasons, and had missed 24 games in a 4-year stretch as well. 

It’s possible Howard could repeat his dominant 2020 campaign again, but it’s more likely his history of inconsistency and injuries rears its head again and he comes short of last season’s performance. That could easily still mean he’s an above average cornerback and a capable #1 cover cornerback, but it’s unreasonable to assume he’ll be as good as he was again last season, especially with the Dolphins facing a much tougher schedule of passers this season. In many ways, he reminds me of Stephon Gilmore, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, before taking a step back against a tougher schedule in 2020, but with more of an injury history and less of a history of consistent success than Gilmore.

With Howard likely to take a step back in 2021, the Dolphins will be counting on more from their other starting cornerback Byron Jones, who was a bit of a disappointment in the first year of a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal he signed with the Dolphins last off-season, coming over from the Dallas Cowboys. In many ways, more was expected of Jones than Howard going into 2020 and the fact that his contract made him the highest paid cornerback in the league at the time, a noticeable increase from the 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension the Dolphins gave Howard following the 2018 season, shows that the Dolphins probably expected a little more out of him as well. 

Jones finished 7th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018 and 17th in 2019, joining Stephon Gilmore as the only cornerback to finish in the top-17 in both seasons at a position where consistent high level play is tough to come by, so it was understandable the Dolphins paid Jones what they did, but Jones fell to 57th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first season in Miami in 2020, a big disappointment given how big his contract was.

Jones was a much more middling player earlier in his career, prior to his final two seasons with the Cowboys, but that was back when the 2015 first round pick played safety, which he did for most of the first three seasons of his career. Most likely, last season was just a fluke down year for a talented player at a notoriously inconsistent position, who is otherwise in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with just 3 games missed due to injury in 6 seasons in the league. He has a good chance to bounce back in 2021, which should make up for any regression from Howard opposite him. Overall, Jones and Howard are likely to be one of the top cornerback duos in the league again in 2021.

The Dolphins also made a big investment into another cornerback last off-season, using the final of their three first round picks, 30th overall, on cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, and he too was a disappointment. He was limited to just 286 snaps in 10 games, finished 135th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, and spent most of the year behind second year undrafted free agent Nik Needham, who also struggled, finishing 112nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks on 617 snaps.

The Dolphins also don’t seem terribly committed to giving Igbinoghene a bigger role in 2021 either, adding a pair of veteran slot cornerbacks this off-season in Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty, who could both see sub package snaps over Igbinoghene. Coleman was an above average slot cornerback in 2017 and 2018 with the Seahawks, but fell off significantly over the past two seasons after signing a big contract with the Lions, culminating in a 2020 season in which he ranked 120th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on 470 snaps, which led to his release this off-season. Only in his age 28 season, Coleman has bounce back potential, but he’s been pretty inconsistent in his 6-year career, so he’s hard to depend on.

McCourty, meanwhile, has been much more dependable throughout his career, but his age is becoming a big concern, now in his age 34 season. McCourty was one of the better cornerbacks in the league in his prime in Tennessee from 2010-2013, excelling against the run, but also holding up in coverage and finishing in the top-22 among cornerbacks in all four seasons and, while he fell off in some injury plagued years from 2014-2016, his career had a second life as a depth cornerback with the Browns and Patriots over the past four seasons and McCourty even finished 22nd among cornerbacks across 474 snaps as recently as 2019 and 14th among cornerbacks across 835 snaps as recently as 2018. 

However, he fell off significantly in 2020, falling to 85th among cornerbacks among 136 eligible across 665 snaps, so he might not have much of anything left in the tank, given his age. He was a worthwhile flyer to take, especially because of his veteran leadership, but he might not see much real action. With Nik Needham, who was a little better on 743 snaps as a rookie before struggling last season, also still in the mix, this is a deep group of cornerbacks, even if they lack a clear 3rd option behind a talented top-two. Igbinoghene has the highest upside of the bunch obviously and, after being one of the youngest rookies in the league in 2020, only turning 21 in the middle of the season in November, he could still develop into an above average player long-term and take a big step forward in year two.

The Dolphins also added to an already deep safety group this off-season, so they may use more three safety sets in sub packages at the expense of three cornerback sets. Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain were both serviceable starters last season, while 2020 3rd round pick Brandon Jones showed some promise on 385 snaps, but the Dolphins still added Oregon’s Jevon Holland to the mix in the second round of this year’s draft and he could push to start as a rookie. With Jones going into his second season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see something of an open competition at the position, but the veterans Rowe and McCain both having to fend off multiple challengers for their starting role, something they could fail to do, allowing higher upside, but higher variance options into the starting lineup. 

Both Rowe and McCain have backgrounds as cornerbacks and have never been more than middling safeties, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for either one of them to see some action at cornerback if needed this season, though neither has been much better there either, with the exception of an above average season on the slot by Bobby McCain in 2017, when he played 664 snaps. The Dolphins have options in a deep and talented secondary that is led by arguably the best cornerback duo in the league.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Dolphins are a popular pick to take a step forward in 2021 and become a contender, but they’re starting from a much lower base point than most realize, given all the things that went in their favor last season that are unlikely to continue. They also didn’t upgrade this supporting cast as much in the off-season as they probably could have, with only their receiving corps looking noticeably better from a year ago and, unless second year signal caller Tua Tagovailoa can take a step forward in his second year in the league, the Dolphins also figure to have worse quarterback this season than last season, when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw about half their pass attempts and outplayed Tagovailoa. 

The wild card here is this team’s youth, which gives them a high upside, especially if Tagovailoa can make a big step forward in his second season in the league, and this coaching staff led by Brian Flores seems like one of the better in the league, which has led to a team that has outperformed their talent level in back-to-back seasons, but a lot needs to go right for this team to make it to the post-season against a much tougher schedule in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Dolphins at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Baltimore Ravens 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens were one of the most dominant regular season teams in recent memory. They finished the season ranked 1st in the NFL in first down rate at 35.38%, 5th in first down rate allowed at 28.75%, and 1st in first down rate differential at +6.63%, a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Saints at +3.81% and the 4th highest mark by a team since the 2004 season. That was true regardless of what down it was. 

Their offense picked up a first down on 31.93% of 1st and 2nd downs, which led the league, and on 49.76% of 3rd and 4th downs, which also led the league, while their defense allowed a first down on 26.47% of 1st and 2nd downs, 4th lowest in the league, and on 36.79% of 3rd and 4th downs, 9th lowest in the league. The Ravens fell short in a post-season loss to the Titans, but the Titans were playing great football at the time and still that game largely came down to the Ravens having a -3 turnover margin and going 0 for 4 on 4th down, a complete fluke for that team based on how they played during the regular season. 

In 2020, the Ravens largely brought back the same core, aside from retired guard Marshal Yanda and safety Earl Thomas, and continued to play well on 3rd and 4th downs on both sides of the ball. The offense converted on 50.00% of 3rd and 4th downs, 3rd in the NFL and actually improved from the year prior, while their defense allowed conversions on just 35.84% of 3rd and 4th downs, 2nd in the NFL and also improved from a year ago. This time around, they beat the Titans in the post-season. 

However, that was a much weaker Titans team that they only beat by one score and, in the regular season, despite the Ravens’ continued success on 3rd and 4th down, they dropped off strikingly on 1st and 2nd downs on both sides of the ball. They ranked just 27th on offense by converting on 27.23% of 1st and 2nd downs and ranked 28th on defense by allowing conversions on 34.02% of 1st and 2nd downs, in a season that ultimately ended the week after defeating the Titans in a multi-score loss in Buffalo.

Simply put, this is unprecedented. Every once in a while, a team will have a drastic disparity like that on one side of the ball. For example, while the Ravens’ offense led the league in with a 22.77% higher conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down in 2020, the Ravens’ defense, which allowed just a 1.82% higher conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down, actually ranked 2nd behind a Dolphins team that somehow allowed a 1.05% lower conversion rate on 3rd and 4th as they did on 1st and 2nd (more on this absurd stat in the Dolphins’ preview). The 2019 Patriots defense did the same thing, allowing a lower conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down than 1st and 2nd down. For a team to significantly outperform their expected 3rd and 4th down performance on both sides of the ball like that is unprecedented though.

There is no evidence that something like that can be repeated. Not only is it unprecedented to do it once, but there is almost no year-to-year correlation of outperforming expectations on third and fourth downs, compared to what you would expect from a team based on their 1st and 2nd down performance. On offense, the correlation is about 10% and, on defense, the correlation doesn’t exist at all. So it’s reasonable to assume that the Ravens won’t come close to repeating that and that they will roughly be the team on 3rd and 4th down that you would expect based on their 1st and 2nd down performance on both sides of the ball. 

The question, obviously, is at what level that performance will be. It may be tempting to assume their 1st and 2nd down performance will catch up with their 3rd and 4th down performance, but 1st and 2nd down performance is actually what correlates at a stronger rate from year-to-year, significantly more so on defense (about 2.5X). I will get into the defense later, but based on that, it would be reasonable to assume the Ravens would rank somewhere around where they ranked across all downs.

The bad news for the Ravens is they ranked just 21st last season across all downs with a 32.31% first down rate. They ranked 9th in points per drive, but that was largely the result of their unsustainable overperformance on 3rd and 4th downs, which last season made up for their underwhelming conversion rate on 1st and 2nd downs. However, the Ravens’ first ranked finish in first down rate just a season prior in 2019 with largely the same group shows they have the upside to bounce back and be a lot better than that. Whether or not they do so is the big question for a team that could be a Super Bowl contender if they can, but would likely struggle to make the post-season if they couldn’t.

There were several ways in which this offense was worse in 2020 from 2019, but part of it was just quarterback Lamar Jackson not repeating his MVP performance from the year prior. Jackson was certainly not bad, but he fell from PFF’s 3rd ranked quarterback in 2019 to 15th, while completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, with 6.32 YPC and 7 touchdowns on 159 carries, impressive numbers, but all down from 2019. Part of it was he didn’t have quite as good of a supporting cast and a big part of it was the Ravens’ play calling simply did not catch teams off guard the way it had the year prior when this offense was new, but Jackson also failed to live up to his level of play from the year prior. 

That, of course, is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a reminder that Jackson’s 2019 season could end up being one of the best couple seasons of his career, even if he goes on to have a long, productive, successful career as an NFL starting quarterback. And if he can’t repeat that 2019 form again in 2021, it’s very unlikely this offense will reach the heights they reached in 2019, even if they are noticeably improved in first down rate from 2020.

The Ravens are also less prepared for an injury to their quarterback than most teams in the league, not only because of how important Jackson is to what this offense does, but also because they have one of the league’s shakiest backup situations. Barring another off-season addition, the only quarterbacks aside from Jackson on this roster with any NFL experience are 2019 6th round pick Trace McSorley, who has 10 career pass attempts, and 2020 undrafted free agent Tyler Huntley, who has 5 career pass attempts. Needless to say this team would be in big trouble if Jackson suffered an injury that caused him an extended absence, something that will always be an elevated risk with him because of the extra contact inherent to his playing style.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One thing that Lamar Jackson hasn’t really benefited from in his career is a good receiving corps. While I think his 2019 receiving corps was an underrated group, led by a talented trio of tight ends that caused nightmares for defenses that lined up expecting a run and a dangerous deep threat in Marquise Brown, Jackson’s 2020 group definitely had serious issues. Their tight end trio was no more after Hayden Hurst was traded in the off-season and Nick Boyle got hurt, which exposed their lack of wide receiver talent behind Brown. 

Boyle is expected back this season and I will get into their tight ends later, but the Ravens clearly put an emphasis on getting Jackson better wide receivers to throw to this off-season, signing veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency, only after striking out on every major free agent wide receiver, and then supplementing him with first round pick Rashod Bateman and fourth round pick Tylan Wallace. Along with Marquise Brown, a recent first round pick in his own right (2019), and a pair of other young receivers in Miles Boykin (2019 3rd round pick) and Devin Duvarney (2020 3rd round pick), this is a group that the Ravens are hoping will give them a dimension they have lacked over the past two seasons, making this offense more versatile and less reliant on Lamar Jackson taking a lot of hits.

Marquise Brown has the highest upside of the bunch for the 2021 season. Selected 25th overall by the Ravens in 2019, Brown’s production has been limited by the run heavy nature of this offense, posting slash lines of 46/584/7 and 58/769/8 respectively across his first two seasons in the league, but his 1.76 yards per route run average for his career is above average and he’s also earned above average overall grades from PFF in both seasons as well. Brown is undersized at 5-9 180 and a bit of a one-dimensional deep threat, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because defenses have to stack the box to defend against this team’s running attack, leaving Brown with more space to work deep. It definitely wouldn’t surprise me to see him have the best year of his career in his third season in the league in 2021.

Sammy Watkins is also a former first round pick, going 4th overall in 2014. At one point, it looked like Watkins would make good on his high draft slot, posting a 60/1047/9 slash line in 13 games in his second season in the league in 2015 at the age of just 22, averaging 2.68 yards per route run (5th in the NFL) despite suspect quarterback play, but Watkins missed another 8 games with injury the following season and was never the same. Since that highly promising 2015 campaign, Watkins has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 23 games in 5 seasons, has never topped 673 yards receiving in a season, and has averaged just a 55/740/5 slash line per 16 games with a below average 1.49 yards per route run. 

The Bills dealt him after his injury plagued 2016 season to the Rams, where he spent 2017, before signing in Kansas City as a free agent and playing there the past three seasons, largely being a bust on a 3-year deal that still paid him almost 43 million in total even after he was forced to take a pay cut in the third year. Watkins is going only his age 28 season, but if he couldn’t produce at a high level with three seasons of playing with Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, I don’t see it happening in Baltimore or anywhere for that matter. 

Watkins could be a capable #2, but it’s worth noting the Ravens tried to sign pretty much every other wide receiver this off-season before settling for Watkins, who, only on a one-year deal on a team with a bunch of young wide receivers, could easily be one and done in Baltimore. Brown, Watkins, and Rashod Bateman figure to play together in three wide receiver sets, although the Ravens’ frequent use of two tight ends means they won’t play together as often as most top-3 wide receivers.

The other rookie Tylan Wallace figures to compete with fellow youngsters Miles Boykin and Devin Duvarney for depth roles. Boykin and Duvarney were both third round selections, but neither has done much yet, with 32 catches in 32 career games and 20 catches in 16 career games respectively. Both have enough upside that it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them develop into a capable player, but this is a high variance group of wide receivers, without a proven player in the bunch.

Even with an improved wide receiver group, tight end Mark Andrews is still the favorite to lead this group in receiving, with the tight end position remaining a focus in the passing game, particularly in the play action game. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Andrews flashed as a rookie with a 2.01 yards per route run average and he has translated that into a larger role over the past two seasons, averaging 2.89 yards per route run (2nd among tight ends) while leading the team with a 64/852/10 slash line in 2019 and averaging 2.00 yards per route run (6th among tight ends) while leading the team with a 58/701/7 slash line in 2020. Also a capable blocker, Andrews has ranked 2nd and 5th among tight ends in overall grade on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively and, only in his age 25 season, there is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.

Boyle, meanwhile, is basically a 6th offensive lineman who can also catch the ball if needed. One of the league’s best run blockers at a mammoth 6-4 270, Boyle also has reliable hands, catching 73.6% of his career 163 targets and dropping just 6. His 1.20 yards per route run and 8.73 yards per catch average leave something to be desired, but he is still valuable to this passing game as a reliable underneath option off play action. 

When Boyle went down last season in week 10, he was replaced by veteran journeyman Eric Tomlinson, who played 123 snaps in 6 games and was a noticeable downgrade both as a receiver and a blocker. With Boyle expected back in 2021 though, the Ravens will once again be able to effectively run two tight end sets, not just to run out of, but to also catch the defense off guard with a pass to either one of their two underneath tight ends or one of their deep wide receivers. They’re still inexperienced and unproven at wide receiver, but there is a lot more talent and upside there than they have had in recent years and they have one of the better tight end duos in the league.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Probably the biggest difference between the 2019 Ravens offense and the 2020 Ravens offense was their offensive line play. The Ravens knew going into the season they wouldn’t have right guard Marshal Yanda, who retired after being one of the best players at his position throughout his career, including a 2019 season in which he ranked 4th among guards on PFF and was an underrated part of the Ravens’ offensive success. With him being replaced by players who had never seen any significant action in their career before, it was understandable this line would drop off in 2020, but things got significantly worse when the Ravens also lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley for the season in week 8.

Stanley was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2019, so his loss after just 312 snaps in 6 games was arguably an even bigger loss than Yanda. The Ravens were able to move right tackle Orlando Brown to the left side, where he continued his above average play, but he was still an obvious downgrade from one of the best left tackles in the league, while Brown’s replacement on the right side was underwhelming career journeyman DJ Fluker, who the Ravens were lucky to get middling play out of in 8 starts.

Stanley will return this season and, only in his age 27 season, I would expect the former 6th overall pick to bounce back mostly to form, finishing in the top-16 among offensive tackles on PFF in three straight seasons, including last season’s injury shortened campaign. However, he is expected to be the only starter from that 2019 group that lines up in their original spot. Some of that was planned, like the Ravens letting center Matt Skura, who has been injury plagued and middling at past over the past two seasons, leave as a free agent this off-season and replacing him by using a 3rd round pick on guard Ben Cleveland and moving left guard Bradley Bozeman inside to center.

Both Cleveland and Bozeman will be new starters at their position, but Bozeman was only a middling starter at left guard in 2019 and 2020, the only two seasons of his career in which he’s been a starter, and the 2018 6th round pick may benefit from a move inside to center for his fourth season in the league, while it wouldn’t take much for Cleveland to be an upgrade on Skura, even as a third round rookie, so the fact that the Ravens have changed starters from their 2019 group at these two spots is not a huge deal.

Likewise, while not having a player of Yanda’s caliber at right guard is obviously a downgrade, the Ravens at least did a better job of replacing Yanda this off-season, signing veteran Kevin Zeitler to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency to replace the combination of Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips, who finished 56th and 79th among 86 eligible guards on PFF across 513 snaps and 418 snaps respectively in 2020. 

Zeitler is getting up in age as well, going into his age 31 season, and he fell to 32nd among guards on PFF last season, a career worst for the 2012 first round pick, who started his career with 8 straight seasons in the top-26 at his position and also entered the 2020 season with 6 straight seasons in the top-15, but the Ravens will take Zeitler’s 2020 form over what they had last season and, even if he continues to decline, he should at least be able to give them a dependable starter that they didn’t have last season. At the same time, he isn’t totally over the hill yet, so another couple seasons of above average play from him isn’t out of the question either.

Zeitler’s addition will likely send Powers and Phillips to the bench, although it’s conceivable one of them could push for the left guard job if the rookie Cleveland proves he isn’t ready to start right away. Both players are also still young, selected in the 4th round in 2019 and the 3rd round in 2020 respectively, so they still have the upside to potentially get better, though that’s obviously not a guarantee. In addition to being a reserve at guard, the Ravens could also give Phillips some reps at right tackle, where he could also provide depth.

The Ravens also have Patrick Mekari, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has proven himself as a spot starter across 13 starts over the past two seasons (10 at center, 3 at right guard), who could also push to start at left guard, but he’s still a projection to a season long role and, if the Ravens wanted him to be a starter, they likely would have plugged him at center in place of Skura rather than moving Bozeman. I would consider the rookie Cleveland to be the favorite to start barring a terrible off-season, though it doesn’t hurt that the Ravens have at least somewhat experienced and talented backups in case Cleveland struggles more than expected or if there is an injury somewhere.

The move the Ravens didn’t plan on making upfront this off-season was trading away Orlando Brown, who was set to go back to his old position at right tackle, where the 25-year-old had already proven himself as one of the better right tackles in the league. However, Brown decided after just a half season on the blindside that he wanted to stay there and be paid like a high level left tackle on an extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, even though the Ravens already had Stanley and were paying him at the top of the market, leaving the Ravens with no choice but to trade the promising youngster for a package of draft picks from the Kansas City Chiefs that included a first round pick.

The Ravens then turned around and signed ex-Steeler Alejandro Villanueva to a deal worth 2-year, 14 million to be a lower upside replacement for Brown. Villanueva is an experienced player who has made 90 starts over the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons in the top-22 among offensive tackles on PFF prior to last season, but his age is a big concern, now heading into his age 33 season. He didn’t really show many signs of slowing down last season, still finishing 30th on PFF at his position, but drop offs can happen pretty suddenly for players at his age and he doesn’t have much upside anymore either, so he’s definitely a downgrade from Brown. 

Depth is also a concern at the offensive tackle position because, aside from Tyre Phillips potentially moving to right tackle, their best reserve tackle option is veteran journeyman Andre Smith, who last played 254 nondescript snaps for the Bengals in 2019 and now is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2020 with an opt out. Still, this a solid offensive line overall, even if they’re unlikely to match their 2019 heights without Brown and Yanda.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One constant between the 2019 Ravens and the 2020 Ravens offense was their running game, which led the league with 5.54 YPC in 2019 and an almost identical 5.53 YPC in 2020. A lot of that was Lamar Jackson’s rushes and, even when Jackson wasn’t keeping the ball himself, just his presence on the field as an option to pull it out and run with it himself makes life much easier for the Ravens’ running backs, but the Ravens’ running backs are also talented in their own right.

The breakdown of carries by their running backs did change drastically though. In 2019, veteran Mark Ingram dominated this backfield with 202 carries and, while backup Gus Edwards still saw 133 carries as a reserve, 21 of those came in a meaningless week 17 game in which Ingram was being rested for the post-season. In 2020, however, the Ravens added second round rookie JK Dobbins, who took 134 carries, while Edwards continued to have a role with 144 carries, leaving just 72 carries for Ingram, who was a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch and was predictably released this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season.

No additions were necessary to this group to replace Ingram and the Ravens didn’t make any, leaving the duo of Dobbins and Edwards to dominate this backfield together, with 2019 4th round pick Justice Hill (83 career touches) as a deep reserve and special teamer who would only see significant carries in case of an injury to one of the top-two backs. Edwards is a perfect fit as a north-to-south power runner at 6-1 238 in this offense, rushing for 5.20 YPC on 414 carries in 3 seasons in the league signed the Ravens signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but he’s a one dimensional power back who doesn’t run as well outside the tackles and who doesn’t add anything as a receiver (18 catches in 43 career games), so Dobbins seems likely to get the bulk of the touches in this backfield.

In fact, in the final 11 games of last season in which both backs played, including the playoffs, the rookie Dobbins outcarried Edwards 128 to 105, a split that could continue into 2021. On top of that, even though this offense doesn’t target running backs as pass catchers often (49 catches by running backs in 2019 and 47 in 2020), Dobbins figures to get the lion’s share of the passing down work and lead this backfield in catches by a comfortable margin. That would still leave a good amount of touches for Edwards in this run heavy backfield, but Dobbins is the higher upside and more well-rounded option. 

Either way, they are a talented duo on an offense that looks a lot more talented than their 21st ranked finish in first down rate in 2020 and that should exceed that mark in 2021, even if that doesn’t translate to more points per drive because of their inevitable regression on third and fourth downs. They probably won’t be the dominant offense they were in 2019, for a variety of reasons, including that this offense doesn’t catch teams off guard anymore, but they have the talent to still be a top level offensive team.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While there are reasons to be optimistic that the Ravens can significantly improve their 21st ranked first down rate from a year ago, I am less optimistic about a defense that finished 14th overall in first down rate allowed at 32.89%. They did rank 4th in points per drive allowed, but that was primarily because of how disproportionately better this defense was on the more important downs on 3rd and 4th down, allowing a 2nd ranked 35.84% conversion rate, as opposed to a 28th ranked 34.02% ranked conversion rate on 1st and 2nd down. 

While there may be a little evidence that teams can somewhat consistently outperform their 1st and 2nd down performance on 3rd and 4th down on the offensive side of the ball, there is no year-to-year correlation of teams doing that on defense. If there were a team that could consistently do so, that team would likely be one with a consistently dominant pass rush, but the Ravens’ pass rush will probably take a hit this season, which could lead to them falling even further from 14th ranked in first down rate allowed. 

I know the Ravens played at a high level defensively just two seasons ago in 2019, but defense is a much less consistent side of the ball year-to-year than offense, that 2019 defense had several players who had career years, and they’ve also lost seven of their top-13 in terms of snaps played from that group, so I would expect them to continue being a middling group, possibly even worse depending on how effectively they are able to replace lost pass rushers.

More specifically, the Ravens have to replace their top-two edge defenders in terms of snaps per game last season in Matt Judon (40.2 snaps per game) and Yannick Ngakoue (38.6 snaps per game), who both played at above average levels last season and signed lucrative deals elsewhere this off-season. Overall, they combined for 9 sacks, 17 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate in 23 games, so it’s definitely not a small amount of production the Ravens need to replace, even if they were relatively deep at the group last season with five players all seeing regular seasons.

Three of those players, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser, and Pernell McPhee, still remain and figure to see expanded roles with Judon and Ngakoue gone and the Ravens also added edge defenders in the first and fifth round, taking Penn State’s Jayson Oweh and Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes, the latter of whom was selected with the 31st overall pick the Ravens acquired from Kansas City Chiefs in the Orlando Brown trade. 

Oweh has a great chance to earn significant playing time in year one in a retooled group, as he probably has the highest upside of the group, even as a rookie. Ferguson and Bowser were relatively high picks, Ferguson going in the 3rd round in 2019 and Bowser in the 2nd round in 2017, but neither have shown much thus far. Ferguson hasn’t been bad when he plays, but he’s averaged just 28.6 snaps per game in 28 career games and has been an underwhelming pass rusher, totaling 4.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 9.6% pressure rate. 

Bowser, meanwhile, has seen his playing time increase in recent years, but he’s still never played more than 540 snaps in a season and, while his career pass rush numbers are respectable, with 10.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 11.6% pressure rate in limited action, he’s still a projection to a larger role. For what it’s worth, the Ravens seem to somewhat believe in him, locking him up on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Both he and Ferguson figure to play more than they ever have before in a thinner position group.

Pernell McPhee is the veteran of the bunch, going into his age 33 season and his 11th season in the league since being selected in the 5th round in 2011. The Ravens actually were the ones to select him initially and he played four years with the Ravens before pursuing more money elsewhere, playing in Chicago and Washington, and eventually being brought back for a second stint beginning back in 2019. 

In his prime, McPhee was quietly one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league on a per snap basis, but he was never more than a rotational player in his first stint with the Ravens and suffered a rash of injuries after leaving town, so he has never topped 594 snaps in a season and posted an impressive sack total, with his career high sitting at 7.5 sacks, back in 2014. On top of that, he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since that 2014 season, the final season in his first stint with the Ravens, and he’s averaged just 316 snaps per season over the past 5 seasons. 

McPhee has still totaled a 10.9% pressure rate over that stretch and may still have something left in the tank as a rotational reserve, but the Ravens won’t be able to count on him for a larger role in 2021 with Ngakoue and Judon gone because the 458 snaps he played last season were already the most he’s had in a season since 2015. Expect the young guys Oweh, Bowser, and Ferguson to get the vast majority of the snaps, with the veteran McPhee rotating in for 20-25 snaps per game. They obviously have upside, but it comes with significant downside for a high variance group that is missing it’s top two players from a year ago.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Ravens’ interior defender group on their base 3-man defensive line is the position group that will have the least change from last season, as they retain their top-5 players in terms of snaps played from a season ago. This group also should be healthier next season, after none of the five played more than 14 games last season, although, as I will get into, this is mostly an aging group. Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell led this group in snaps played with 621 snaps in 14 games and 410 snaps in 12 games respectively last season and both figure to remain as starting defensive ends and play similar snap counts per game in 2021.

Both are veterans who have been around for a long-time, but Campbell has had the significantly more impressive career. A dominant pass rusher and run stopper who has played both outside and inside in his career, Campbell has arguably had a Hall of Fame caliber career, highlighted by a 6-year stretch where he finished in the top-10 at his position on PFF in every season, including 4 seasons in the top-3. That stretch came to an end in 2020 however and, while he still finished an above average 35th among interior defenders on PFF, that is a steep drop off and a big concern for a player who now heads into his age 35 season and could drop off even further. Even if he doesn’t, his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

Wolfe, meanwhile, has been at his best against the run in his career, although he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher either, totaling 34 sacks, 56 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate in 122 career games. He’s not as old as Campbell, but his age is becoming a concern as well, now going into his age 31 season and, while he remained a strong run stuffer in 2020, finishing 3rd among interior defenders in run stopping grade, he barely contributed as a pass rusher with 1 sack, 3 hits, and a 2.8% pressure rate, a problem because the Ravens have counted on him and will likely continue to count on him for significant sub package snaps as more or less an every down player. He and Campbell will both play in that role and there is significant downside with both aging veterans.

Nose tackle Brandon Williams is also getting up in age, going into his age 32 season, and he too struggles as a pass rusher, to the point where he was limited to just 354 snaps in 13 games last season as almost exclusively a base package nose tackle. Williams actually hasn’t topped 525 snaps in a season in any of the past four seasons, but, despite that, the Ravens have kept him on the roster for the duration of a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal that he will play out this season after the Ravens once again restructured his deal to free up immediate cap space. 

I would expect him to play a similar snap count and, after the lowest rated season of his career from PFF both in overall grade and in run stopping grade in 2020, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline further. Even if he doesn’t, he’s only a two down player, as he has just 6.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 4.9% pressure rate in 110 career games and he saw that pressure rate drop to just 3.2% in 2020. He’s also seen his play against the run decline in recent years. The Ravens are going to be counting on a trio of aging players who figure to start upfront for the Ravens in base packages.

The one young player of this group is 2020 3rd round pick Justin Madubuike. He only played 259 snaps as a rookie, primarily as a run stuffer, but he showed enough promise that he’ll likely get more playing time as part of this otherwise aging group in 2021. Given that their starters are getting to the end of their lines and the Ravens did not draft any interior defenders in this year’s draft, Madubuike is obviously viewed as a future every down starter and giving him more playing time in year two will be important to that goal. Broderick Washington was also selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, but the 5th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie on 161 snaps, so his outlook isn’t nearly as promising as Madubuike.

Justin Ellis is also a reserve option, but he’s also getting up in age in his age 31 season and he isn’t coming down from the level the Ravens’ starters played in their primes. Ellis hasn’t played more than 627 snaps in a season since 2014 and, prior to seeing 358 snaps last season as primarily an injury replacement, he played just 193 snaps total in the prior two seasons. I wouldn’t even expect Ellis to be a roster lock. This is an overall aging and declining group and, unless Campbell can turn back the clock, they don’t have any high level every down players, but they have solid depth overall and they have at least one promising young player.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Nothing significant has changed at linebacker either, with the Ravens bringing back their top-4 off ball linebackers in terms of snaps played. First round rookie Patrick Queen led this group with 858 snaps played and was one of four defensive rookies to get at least one Defensive Rookie of the Year Award vote, finishing third with 4% of the vote. It’s understandable why Queen would get a couple votes, as his traditional counting stats were impressive, including a team leading 106 tackles, but Queen also led the league with 22 missed tackles and struggled in coverage as well, allowing a 85.0% completion, 10.0 yards per catch, and 4 touchdowns on 60 targets, with just 1 interception and 1 deflection.

The only aspect in which Queen did not struggle was as a blitzer, but he only blitzed on 11.8% of his snaps. On those snaps, he did have 3 sacks, 7 hits, and a 19.8% pressure rate, but off ball linebackers don’t often blitz more than Queen did last season, so he will need to improve significantly both against the run and in coverage next season, after ranking among the worst off ball linebackers in the league on PFF in those aspects of the game in 2021. Fortunately, he possesses a sky high ceiling and is only in his age 22 season, so he could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league, although that isn’t a guarantee.

Queen played more or less every down last season, but at the other off ball linebacker spot the Ravens had three players see action, fellow rookie Malik Harrison, a 3rd round pick who played 265 nondescript rookie year snaps, 2018 undrafted free agent Chris Board, who was also nondescript across 263 snaps in the first significant action of his career, and veteran backup/special teamer LJ Fort, who is at least a solid run stopper, but who also has never played more than the 381 snaps he played last season and he is going into his age 31 season, so he can’t be relied on for a significant role. The Ravens will most likely be hoping Harrison can take a step forward in his second season, but it’s likely all three players will see action again. This is a young group with a high ceiling, but a low floor and very suspect depth.

Grade: C

Secondary

Not much changes in the secondary either, though the Ravens will get slot cornerback Tavon Young after a torn ACL ended his season in week 2. The Ravens didn’t have an unreasonable amount of injuries last season though, having the 8th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, so they won’t be able to count on better health overall next season. They also won’t be able to count on Young himself, who has been one of the most injury plagued players in the league in recent years. 

Prior to last season, Young missed all of 2019 with injury and he also had a completely lost season due to injury in 2017 as well. In between all the missed time, Young has been a solid starter when on the field and even earned a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension after staying healthy in 2018, but his best season by far is still his rookie season in 2016 prior to all of the injuries, when he ranked 17th among cornerbacks on PFF, and Young has missed 30 of 32 games since inking that extension. Young is still only in his age 27 season, but it’s hard to be confident that he can stay healthy or return to his old form.

The Ravens had a talented trio of cornerbacks even without Young last season, in Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith, so the Ravens won’t force him back into the lineup if he can’t show his old form in training camp and, in fact, they have already made him take a pay cut down to 2.65 million to keep his roster spot for this season, much more in line with a 4th cornerback than a top-3 cornerback. If there is one cornerback he could potentially displace in the top-3, it would be Jimmy Smith, whose age is becoming a concern, now heading into his age 33 season.

Smith still played pretty well last season, ranking 16th among cornerbacks on PFF, but that came on just 454 snaps in 11 games. Missed time with injury is becoming a recurring theme with Smith as well, as he’s missed at least 4 games in 5 straight seasons and in 8 of his 10 seasons in the league. Last season was also Smith’s highest ranked season on PFF since 2017, so it would be a surprise if he could repeat that again in 2021, given his age. 

Smith has always at least been a capable starter in his career, but at his age it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him drop off significantly. The Ravens are likely envisioning a competition between Young and Smith for the #3 cornerback job, but in reality, given how injury prone both players are, it’s more like they are insurance for each other and I would expect both to see action at different points of the season.

Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, meanwhile, are locked in as starters, signed to contracts worth 97.5 million over 5 years and 42 million over 3 years respectively. Humphrey was the Ravens first round selection in 2017, 16th overall, and he’s been an above average player since entering the league, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including two seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks and a career best 13th ranked season in 2020. After being more of a rotational player in his first two seasons in the league, Humphrey has started all 30 games he’s played over the past two seasons, and, still only going into his age 25, it’s possible he has a higher level that he has yet to show. Even if he doesn’t, he figures to remain an above average cornerback at the very least.

Peters has been a lot more inconsistent throughout his career. Peters was also a first round pick, but he was selected originally by the Chiefs. After an up and down rookie year in 2015, Peters seemed to developing into one of the better cornerbacks in the league, finishing 16th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and 14th in 2017, but issues between him and the coaching staff and his impending contract situation caused the Chiefs to cut ties with Peters and send him to the Rams for a second round pick. 

With the Rams, Peters regressed mightily, earning middling grades at best from PFF over about a season and a half, leading to the Rams trading him to the Ravens for a 5th round pick in what amounted to a salary dump in the middle of the 2019 season, which allowed the Rams to then trade for Jalen Ramsey. However, Peters seemed to come back alive as soon as he left the Rams, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s 4th ranked cornerback and earning himself the aforementioned extension contract in the process. 

Given Peters’ high end ability when he is at his best and his relative youth, that was an understandable extension, but Peters fell to 54th among cornerbacks on PFF in the first season of that deal, continuing to show the inconsistency that has plagued him throughout his career. Peters is still only in his age 28 season and has obvious bounce back potential, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s giving the same effort now that he has gotten paid. At the very least, Peters should remain a capable starter, but the Ravens are paying him to be a lot more.

At safety, Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott both remain as starters. Both are relatively new starters, Clark stepping in for the injured Tony Jefferson after week 5 of the 2019 season and Elliott taking over for Earl Thomas when he was released last off-season, but both have held their own, despite entering the league as late round picks. Clark was just a 6th round pick back in 2017 and played just 315 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, but he finished 29th among safeties on PFF in 12 starts as an injury replacement in 2019 and the following off-season the injured Jefferson was released and replaced full-time by Clark, who also signed a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension in the process. 

Clark wasn’t quite as good as a season long starter in 2020, but he still earned a slightly above average grade from PFF and he proved his 2019 campaign was no fluke. Still only in his age 26 season, he should remain a solid starter for years to come and could possibly even have further untapped upside. Elliott, meanwhile, was a 6th round choice in 2018 and only had played 40 career snaps before Thomas was released and he became his replacement, but he responded pretty well, also earning a slightly above average grade from PFF as a 16-game starter in 2020. He’s not as proven as Clark is yet, but it would be a surprise to see them be a capable starting safety duo again. Cornerback is the strength of this secondary which is the strength of a defense that looks like it could be more middling than most expect this season overall.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

At first glance, there might not seem like much difference between the 2019 Ravens and the 2020 Ravens statistically, but the 2020 Ravens’ overperformed their 1st and 2nd down performance by a significant amount on 3rd and 4th downs on both sides of the ball, which masked a team that actually finished 22nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, despite finishing 9th points per drive and 4th in points per drive allowed, a steep drop off from their 1st ranked finish in 2019. 

There are some reasons to believe the Ravens can repeat that points per drive mark on offense, but they will have to play much closer to the level they did on early downs in 2019, as I don’t expect them to significantly outperform expectations on 3rd and 4th downs again. Significant early down improvement seems at least doable on offense though, compared to their defense, which looks likely to be a middling group, as it seems highly unlikely they will either be drastically improved on 1st and 2nd down or that they will sustain their 3rd and 4th down overperformance on that side of the ball, especially without their top-2 pass rushers from a year ago. 

All in all, this is still a playoff caliber team, but I am less bullish on them as a top level Super Bowl contender. With the Browns taking a big step forward defensively this off-season and looking like one of the better teams in the league, the Ravens look likely to be competing for a wild card spot in the AFC, barring another MVP caliber season from Lamar Jackson.  I will have a final prediction for the Ravens at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD