Cincinnati Bengals 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For most of the 2010s, the Bengals started Andy Dalton at quarterback and got largely middling starting quarterback play. When the Bengals were able to surround Dalton with talent, it led to five straight playoff appearances, but they were never able to get over the hump in the post-season, losing in their first playoff game all five times, and eventually they started losing a significant amount of talent, culminating in a 2-14 season in 2019. During that season, Dalton posted career worst numbers, was briefly benched before rookie backup Ryan Finley proved to be overmatched, and was ultimately released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020, with the Bengals having the opportunity to add a promising franchise quarterback prospect on a cheap rookie deal with the #1 overall pick, LSU’s Joe Burrow.

However, Burrow’s rookie year did not go as planned, as Burrow lasted just 10 games before a torn ACL ended his season, ending his rookie season with a 2-7-1 record. That poor record was not really Burrow’s fault though. The Bengals had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.64%, and, while their offense wasn’t significantly better, ranking 23rd in first down rate over expected at -1.18%, Burrow was not the main problem, as the Bengals had a poor offensive line, struggled on the ground, and lacked a consistent third target in the passing game. Burrow, for his part, was PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback at the time he went down and he completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, despite minimal help from his offensive supporting cast and having to pass frequently for a team constantly trailing.

The Bengals predictably struggled mightily on offense in Burrow’s absence, finishing the season ranked 29th in first down rate over expected at -2.87% and ending up with a 4-11-1 record, despite the Bengals’ defense actually improving noticeably down the stretch, to finish a not totally terrible 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.93%. Even with that defensive improvement, however, the Bengals still ended up ranked 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate in 2020 at 3.80%, so, even though Burrow is expected to return healthy for week 1, the Bengals still have a lot of work to do to get back to being a competitive team.

One thing that would go a long way towards that goal would obviously be if Burrow not only returned to form after his injury, but also took a step forward in his second year in the league. Unfortunately, neither of those things are guaranteed, as quarterbacks tend to struggle in their first year back from an ACL tear and, even without the injury, Burrow wouldn’t necessarily be a lock to improve in his second season, as development of young players, especially at the quarterback position, is often not linear. Burrow gives this team a high variance and the upside to surprise teams this season, but that upside comes with downside and the rest of this roster is such that Burrow will probably need to be a top-10 quarterback for this team to even be in playoff contention, which doesn’t seem likely.

For what it’s worth, the Bengals aren’t concerned enough about Burrow to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, even though Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley are among the worst backup quarterback options in the league and both struggled mightily in Burrow’s absence last season. Finley is not even with the team anymore, leaving Allen, who has a 76.9 QB rating in 8 career starts since being selected in the 6th round in 2016, as the sole backup in case Burrow goes down again. It’s a shaky situation behind a high variance starter.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The most obvious issue on this offense last season was the offensive line. Their running game was an issue, averaging a 4.06 YPC average that ranked just 27th in the NFL, and I will get into that later, but their running game issues were mostly due to the absence of lead back Joe Mixon with injury and due to an offensive line that ranked 21st in run blocking grade on PFF. They were even worse than that in pass protection, ranking 27th in pass blocking grade. Burrow was only pressured on 32.2% of his dropbacks, 21st highest among 39 eligible quarterbacks, but that was mostly because he got the ball out under 2.5 seconds at the 9th highest rate in the league at 56.9%.

The injury that Burrow suffered is an obvious downside of offensive line issues and, given that, many expected the Bengals to use their 5th overall pick on Penei Sewell, the top offensive lineman in the draft, resulting in some criticism of the Bengals when they decided instead to upgrade their receiving corps with Burrow’s college teammate JaMarr Chase. I thought that decision made a lot of sense though and may have telegraphed by the Bengals’ decision to sign veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff in free agency. 

Reiff is going into his age 33 season, only signed to a one-year deal, and could have moved to guard had Sewell been the selection, but he’s also a satisfactory short-term solution at right tackle opposite 2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams, a solid starter in his own right, leaving the interior of this offensive line as the most pressing need. Without an interior offensive lineman worth taking in the top-5, adding Chase, who I thought was a little bit better of a prospect than Sewell regardless of position, and focusing on their offensive line with later picks seemed like the Bengals’ best option.

I will get into JaMarr Chase later in the receiving corps section, but the Bengals’ offensive line selections were 2nd round pick Jackson Carmen and 4th round pick D’Ante Smith. Both players were primarily tackles in college and could play there if needed at the professional level, but they project best as guards, which also happens to be their easiest path to playing time. Their biggest competition for playing time is a trio of holdovers in Quinton Spain, Xavier Su’a-Filo and Michael Jordan, who all earned negative grades from PFF in 8 starts, 5 starts, and 10 starts respectively. 

Billy Price and Fred Johnson also saw some action at guard last season, but both were horrible in limited action and, if they make the team, they would likely slot in as a backup at center and tackle respectively rather than guard, as those are more natural positions for them. Spain is the most experienced guard option. He was a solid starter earlier in his career in Tennessee, making 48 starts in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2015-2018, but he has received below average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons (26 starts) and, going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him. 

Su’a-Filo also has some experience, with 58 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, he’s going into his age 30 season as well, and he’s made just 17 starts combined over the past 3 seasons as a reserve and spot starter. Jordan, meanwhile, is a 2019 4th round pick who has made 19 starts in his two seasons in the league, but largely out of desperation, struggling even more as a rookie than he did in 2020. It’s a very underwhelming trio so one or both of the Bengals’ rookies could see significant action in a very unsettled position group.

The Bengals are in better shape at center, where holdover Trey Hopkins is likely to remain in his starting job, without any meaningful competition being added for him this off-season. Hopkins is an unspectacular player, but he wasn’t really the problem last season, ranking 22nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF in 15 starts. He’s played around that level throughout the past four seasons, a stretch in which he’s made 52 starts, after never starting a game throughout his first three seasons in the league as a former undrafted free agent. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021.

As alluded to earlier, offensive tackle is the relative strength of this group, with Williams remaining at left tackle and Reiff being added opposite him. Williams’ biggest concern is durability, as he missed his entire rookie year in 2019, before missing another 6 games in 2020. He was PFF’s 43rd ranked offensive tackle in 10 starts when he did play and he has the upside to be better than that going forward, but he’s still pretty inexperienced, so it’s tough to confidently project his ceiling, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he missed more time with injury.

Reiff, meanwhile, finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked offensive tackle, his 9th above average grade from PFF for a season in as many seasons in the league. His age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 33 season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline and have one of the worst years, if not the worst year of his career, but, even still, he should be an upgrade on Bobby Hart, a departed free agent who Reiff replaces. The Bengals aren’t in bad shape at left tackle, right tackle, and center, but guard remains a position of concern and they don’t have any dominant blockers at any position, barring a big breakout year from Williams.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

JaMarr Chase joins a wide receiver group that already has a pair of talented starters in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and he’ll replace AJ Green, another former high draft pick (4th overall by the Bengals in 2011). The Bengals will be very happy if Chase can replicate Green’s career, but there’s no doubting Green had suffered a significant decline by the end of his tenure in Cincinnati, missing all of 2019 with injury and then returning in 2020 to average just 1.02 yards per route run and post just a 47/523/2 slash line on 104 targets. Even as a rookie, it won’t be hard for Chase to be an upgrade and he has the potential to make a big impact, even in year one, although that kind of thing is tough to depend on.

Tee Higgins was a rookie last year, but that didn’t stop him from leading this group with a 67/908/6 slash line. The first pick in the second round in 2020 (#33 overall), Higgins has a sky high upside and could take another step forward in his second season in the league. Development of young players is not always linear, but Higgins should see his production increase just from increased opportunity, after taking until a couple weeks to crack the starting lineup as a rookie, and the potential is there for him to have a big year. He averaged 1.82 yards per route run as a rookie, 25th among eligible wide receivers, and he earned PFF’s 36th highest grade among wide receivers for the season.

Tyler Boyd had a similar caliber season to Higgins, finishing with a 79/841/1 slash line on 110 targets, averaging 1.65 yards per route run, and finishing as PFF’s 37th ranked wide receiver on the season. That is slightly down from his 76/1028/7 and 90/1046/5 slash lines from 2018 and 2019 respectively, but the Bengals spread the ball evenly to Higgins, Boyd, and Green and, with Chase replacing Green this off-season, they will have three talented young wide receivers to spread the ball around to in 2021, which will likely limit any one of them from posting huge numbers. 

Higgins probably has the highest upside of the bunch, but Chase has the potential for a big rookie year impact and Boyd is a talented receiver who is still in his prime, in his age 27 season, coming off three straight above average seasons as a starter. The Bengals also have good wide receiver depth because projected #4 receiver Auden Tate is a 2018 7th round pick who has averaged 1.44 yards per route run over the past two seasons, including a 40/575/1 slash line when he saw the most action of his career as an injury replacement in 2019.

The tight end position is likely to remain a relative non-factor in this offense, but, after just 71 targets made their way to tight ends in 2020, that number could increase with the return of primary receiving tight end CJ Uzomah from an injury that ended his season after 96 snaps in 2 games. Uzomah had 8 catches in those two games before going down, but it was unlikely he would have sustained that pace, as he’s largely been an underwhelming receiving option throughout his career, averaging 1.02 yards per route run over 6 seasons in the league since being selected in the 5th round by the Bengals in 2015. Even after a major injury, he’s expected to retain his receiving tight end role, but only by default.

Drew Sample filled in as the primary receiving tight end in Uzomah’s absence, in addition to his normal role as a blocking specialist. Sample remained an above average blocker, but managed just a 40/349/1 slash line with an average of 0.85 yards per route run on the season. Sample was actually a second round pick in 2019, but he was a big reach because of his lack of receiving upside. With Uzomah set to return, Sample will go back to being a #2 tight end who focuses on blocking and doesn’t see any sort of significant target share. He’s part of an underwhelming tight end duo, but this group is obviously carried by a talented receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned earlier, the absence of featured running back Joe Mixon for most of last season was a big part of the problem for the Bengals on the ground. However, Mixon didn’t really produce at a high level either when healthy, averaging just 3.60 YPC and a 46% carry success rate (39th out of 47 eligible running backs). The offensive line was a big part of the problem and Mixon largely did his part by contributing 2.55 YPC, 70.8% of his yardage, after first contact, but overall Mixon finished last season with the lowest PFF grade of his career, after finishing in the top-17 among running backs in each of his first 3 seasons in the league.

Mixon was also still noticeably better than backup Giovani Bernard, who averaged 3.35 YPC on 124 carries, 2.32 YPC after contact, and had a carry success rate of 48% as Mixon’s primary replacement. Mixon is also only going into his age 25 and averaged 4.23 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 693 carries in his first 3 seasons in the league, while adding a 36/290/1 slash line per season and just missing two games total due to injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential. The Bengals seem to agree, letting Bernard walk this off-season and not replacing him. Bernard had become an ineffective runner in recent years, but he had been the Bengals’ primary passing down back for years and, without another passing down specialist on this roster, expect Mixon to see his biggest passing game role yet (his career high is 55 targets in 2018).

Mixon was already on his way to putting up a massive touch total last year before getting hurt, averaging 23.3 touches per game in the 6 games he did play, up from an average of 18.2 per game in his first three seasons in the league, and, now without Bernard to steal passing down snaps, Mixon could exceed even last year’s per game touch total. His heavy workload may have contributed to his relatively inefficiency and his eventual injury, but the Bengals don’t have a choice but to use Mixon as a true three down feature back and he has the upside to be very productive in that role, especially if the Bengals can be improved on the rest of this offense and open up more running lanes. Expect Mixon to finish among the league leaders in touches, assuming he can avoid another injury.

With Bernard gone, it looks like Samaje Perine will be Mixon’s primary backup. He’ll be a true backup in that role and has shown little promise on passing downs throughout his career, so he’s not a candidate to be used like Bernard was. The good news is he has a lot more upside than Bernard as a runner. A 4th round pick in 2017, Perine’s career got off to a rough start as he averaged just 3.46 YPC across 188 carries while bouncing around three different teams in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he landed in Cincinnati for 2020 and showed some promise down the stretch, averaging 4.78 YPC on 63 carries. Still only going into his age 26 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Perine continue being a capable #2 runner, but he is very unproven.

Perine’s primary competition for the #2 job will be Trayveon Williams, who also flashed some potential as a backup last season, averaging 6.04 YPC on 26 carries. Williams is even less experienced and proven than Perine though, as those carries are the only carries of Williams’ brief career, after being selected by the Bengals in the 6th round in 2019. Both he and Perine would only be true backups if they won the job, with Mixon dominating this backfield. If Mixon were to suffer another injury, the Bengals would be in big trouble at this position, but his return should give them a boost.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

For years, the Bengals have been led upfront by edge defender Carlos Dunlap and interior defender Geno Atkins, who were consistently high level players throughout most of their tenure in Cincinnati, but last season was the beginning of the end for both. In his age 31 season in 2020, Dunlap played just 277 snaps in 7 games and, unhappy with his playing time, was sent to the Seahawks for a late round pick and instantly proved he had something left in the tank. Atkins, meanwhile, stayed on the roster all year, but played just 119 snaps in 8 games as the last place Bengals wanted to test out other options and made the 32-year-old Atkins a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch, before releasing him for financial reasons this off-season.

I will get into what the Bengals have done on the interior to try to replace Atkins in a little bit, but on the edge, Dunlap was replaced last season by 2017 4th round pick Carl Lawson and 2018 3rd round pick Sam Hubbard, who both earned above average grades from PFF in 2020, across 665 snaps and 723 snaps respectively. Lawson was the better of the two, finishing 16th among edge defenders on PFF, but he was a free agent this off-season and the Bengals opted to let him walk on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal to the Jets to instead sign ex-Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson to a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal.

Hendrickson and Lawson got the same amount annually and Hendrickson had the significantly bigger sack total last season with 13.5, compared to 5.5 for Lawson, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While Hendrickson played on one of the most talented overall defenses in the league in New Orleans and added 11 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate in addition to his sack total, Lawson surpassed those totals with 24 hits and a 14.6% pressure rate, despite seeing much more frequent double teams on a less talented overall defense. 

That is true of their career numbers too, as Hendrickson has totaled 20 sacks, 24 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate in 45 career games, while Lawson has totaled 20 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in 51 career games. The Bengals could have kept a better, more familiar player for the same price, but instead they opted to sign an inferior player who has never played in their scheme, which is a head scratching move if you look beyond just 2020 sack totals.

Hubbard remains as the other starter opposite Hendrickson. He’ss not a great pass rusher, but he has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (28 starts in 44 games, an average of 46.0 snaps per game) because he is a good run stuffer who has also added 16.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in his career. Hubbard still may have untapped upside, now going into his age 25 season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain the player he has largely been throughout his entire career.

Depth was a big concern at the edge defender position last season, especially after Dunlap was traded, as top reserves Amani Bledsoe and Khalid Kareem struggled across 312 snaps and 259 snaps respectively, especially rushing the passer, combining for just 1 sack, 2 hits, and a 4.9% pressure rate. Both were seeing the first action of their careers, Bledsoe as a 2019 undrafted free agent and Kareem as a 2018 6th round pick, but neither is a guarantee to improve going forward, so the Bengals didn’t waste time in adding more youth to the group, using 3rd, 4th, and 7th round picks on edge defenders. 

Third round pick Joseph Ossai would seem to have the clearest path to a rotational role as a rookie, but fourth round pick Cameron Sample is one to watch as well at a position that significantly lacked depth in 2020. Neither Hubbard nor Hendrickson are high level starters (despite Hendrickson’s sack total last season) and their depth, while likely improved, still consists of unproven young players, but this isn’t a bad position group overall.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals’ decision to move on from Geno Atkins in the near future was likely made when the Bengals made their biggest free agent addition in years last off-season and signed ex-Texan DJ Reader to a contract worth 53 million over 4 years. Reader’s season was ended after 259 snaps across 5 games, but even Reader’s injury did not get Atkins significant playing time, as the Bengals instead opted to give significant snap counts to underwhelming veterans Mike Daniels (356 snaps), Christian Covington (559 snaps), Xavier Williams (311 snaps), and Margus Hunt (293 snaps). All four earned below average grades and none are promising young players, so the Bengals didn’t even get any long-term clarity at the position from benching one of the best defensive players in franchise history. At least on the edge, Dunlap had been benched for significantly younger options.

Atkins is gone, as are all of the aforementioned players aside from Mike Daniels, who was retained in free agency. The Bengals also signed Larry Ogunjobi from the Browns to a 1-year, 6.2 million dollar deal, who figures to start opposite Reader, who is set to return from injury. Ogunjobi got decent money, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he’ll be for the Bengals. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Ogunjobi flashed a lot of potential across 300 rookie year snaps, but he hasn’t been able to translate that into a larger role. 

Ogunjobi has averaged 784 snaps per game over the past 3 seasons, but has never earned more than an average grade from PFF, including back-to-back seasons in which he has finished 104th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF and 103rd among 123 eligible respectively. Now in his age 27 season, it’s unlikely he has further significant untapped upside, so he will likely remain a middling snap eater at best for this unit.

Reader’s return is what gives this group the potential to be a lot better in 2021. Reader didn’t quite show his best form before the injury, but he’s only in his age 27 season and he has plenty of bounce back potential. A 5th round pick by the Texans in 2016, Reader earned an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons in Houston and improved in every season, culminating in a 2019 season in which he ranked 7th among interior defenders on PFF across 622 snaps, not only dominating against the run at 6-3 347, but adding 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate. All in all, he has a 7.8% pressure rate for his career, including last season. Reader might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2019, but he figures to be an above average starter at the least for the Bengals at a position that was a significant problem without him in 2020.

Daniels returns as a backup and, while he did struggle last season, he at least has a history of success. Daniels was one of the best interior defenders in the league in his prime and finished 20th among interior defenders on PFF as recently as 2017, but injuries have limited him to 30 total games and a max of 419 snaps in a season in the past three seasons since and they seem to have sapped his abilities as well, leading last year’s career worst rank, finishing 108th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s safe to say his best days are behind him, but if he can manage to stay relatively healthy he might not be a bad rotational option. There’s also a possibility he completely falls off though, which the Bengals seem to have prepared for by using a 4th round pick on LSU’s Tyler Shelvin to give them added depth.

The Bengals also get run stuffing specialist Josh Tupou back from opting out of the 2020 season. Tupou finished the 2019 season as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender against the run, while totaling 465 snaps, but he’s not a pass rush threat, without a sack or a hit in his career and, aside from that 2019 season, the 2017 undrafted free agent has otherwise played just 173 snaps. It’s possible he picks up right where he left off as a valuable run stuffer, even after a year off, but that’s far from a guarantee and he’s highly unlikely he has untapped pass rush upside. This is a deeper group than a year ago, but they’ll need Reader to play at a high level in his return from injury because this is an otherwise underwhelming group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Bengals linebacking corps was arguably their worst defensive group in 2020, with every linebacker who played more than 100 snaps for this defense earning a below average grade from PFF. Despite that, the Bengals didn’t make any notable additions to this group this off-season. Instead, they let go of veteran Josh Bynes, who led this group with 761 snaps, and will be hoping their young linebackers can step up in larger roles. 

Behind Bynes, 2019 3rd round pick Germaine Pratt was 2nd in this group with 686 snaps, but he struggled mightily, ranking 90th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. He still has theoretical upside, only in his age 25 season, but he struggled on 437 snaps as a rookie as well and, even if he’s better in 2021 than he was in 2020, it’s likely to only be by default. Meanwhile, 2020 3rd and 4th round picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Gaither-Davis will be relied on for larger roles in their second season in the league, despite struggling across 343 and 314 snaps respectively as rookies.

Jordan Evans has only played 139 snaps over the past two seasons and, in the only seasons in his career in which he has seen significant action, the 2017 6th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie across 312 snaps and then again across 510 snaps in 2018, but he could still be forced into somewhat significant action in a thin group. The Bengals will be counting on underwhelming young players in a group that will almost definitely struggle again in 2021.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Cornerback wasn’t really a weakness in 2020 for the Bengals, but they had a lot of free agents at the position this off-season and, in fact, lost their top-3 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played this off-season, with William Jackson, Mackenzie Alexander, and LeShaun Sims all no longer with the team, so it was a position of need this off-season. To address this need, they handed out contracts worth 21.75 million over 3 years and 24 million over 4 years to Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Hilton from the Steelers respectively. Awuzie will start opposite Trae Waynes, a free agent addition from last off-season who missed all of 2020 with injury, with slot specialist Hilton on the slot in sub packages.

Waynes is probably the shakiest of the trio because of the injury and the missed season, but he was a capable starter throughout the previous 4 seasons prior to last season (52 starts in 59 games) and is still relatively young in his age 29 season, so he should be able to remain a capable, if unspectacular starter. Awuzie is also coming off of an injury plagued year, struggling across 452 snaps in 8 games, but he was a solid starter in 2018 and 2019 (30 starts), especially playing well in 2019 when he ranked 27th among cornerbacks on PFF, and he’s still young in his age 26 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential, now healthier and away from Dallas’ terrible scheme.

Hilton, meanwhile, is one of the better slot specialists in the league, ranking in the top-15 among cornerbacks in slot coverage snaps per game over the past four seasons with the Steelers and averaging just 1.17 yards per route run allowed on those slot coverage snaps. He’s not just a good coverage cornerback though, as he’s also a solid run defender and as good of a blitzer off the edge as any slot cornerback in the league, totaling 9.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 16.0% pressure rate in 59 career games. 

Assuming the Bengals don’t misuse him by playing him outside frequently, which they likely won’t need to, Hilton should continue being the same player in his new city, still only in his age 27 season. The Bengals also have holdover Darius Phillips, who showed a lot of promise across 593 snaps last season, after doing the same across 108 snaps in 2019. The 2018 5th round pick is still pretty inexperienced, but he’s good insurance to have as a 4th cornerback. 

At safety, the Bengals return starters Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell and they were probably the biggest strength on an otherwise underwhelming defensive unit. Bates in particular was dominant, finishing the season as PFF’s top ranked safety overall. He might not be the biggest name, but he allowed just two catches of 20+ yards and no catches of 40+ yards, despite playing as a deep coverage safety on about 75% of his snaps and despite having minimal support from his supporting cast. On top of that, Bates also batted away 12 passes, 3 more than any other safety.

Bates is a one year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, most recently finishing 73rd among 98 eligible safeties on PFF in 2019, and, even last season he left something to be desired against the run, but the 2018 2nd round pick also ranked 12th among safeties on and, only in his age 24 season, he has the upside to continue playing at a high level for years to come. He’s also very experienced and durable, starting from week one of his rookie year and not missing a game due to injury en route to making 48 of a possible 48 starts in his career. Even if he’s somewhat unpredictable and even if last year ends up being the best year of his career, Bates could still be one of the better safeties in the league in 2021 and beyond.

Bell, meanwhile, is primarily a box safety, making him a good complement to Bates. Bell leaves something to be desired in coverage, but even with that taken into account, he’s still earned an average or better overall grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, making up for his deficiencies in coverage by finishing in the top-9 among safeties in run defense grade 4 times in 5 seasons in the league since the Saints selected him in the 2nd round in 2016. 

Signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal by the Bengals last off-season, Bell proved to be a solid addition in year one and, only in his age 27 season with just 3 career games missed due to injury in 5 seasons in the league, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021. The Bengals also have good safety depth because they signed veteran Ricardo Allen, who is in his age 30 season and probably isn’t quite good enough to be a starter anywhere any more, but who also has 76 career starts in 6 seasons in the league and can provide above average veteran depth. With a talented safety duo and a retooled cornerback group that looks at least respectable, the Bengals’ secondary is the strength of their defense.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bengals will get Joe Burrow back from injury this season and he gives them a relatively high upside, but this team had a lot of problems outside of the quarterback position last season and didn’t really do enough to address them. They should be better on the offensive line and in the receiving corps and they’ll get a key player back on each side of the ball in Joe Mixon and DJ Reader, but the Bengals didn’t have an unusual amount of injuries last season, so they can’t necessarily depend on better health overall, and their big splash move on defense Trey Hendrickson is probably a downgrade over the player he’s replacing. The Bengals should be reasonably competitive, but I think they’re at least a year away from being a playoff team unless they can get a borderline MVP caliber year from their young quarterback in his first season back from knee surgery. I will have a final prediction for the Bengals at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2018, the Steelers fell just short of the post-season at 9-7, despite having one of the better offenses in the league, finishing the season 6th in first down rate. In 2019, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season with an elbow injury in week 2 and backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were horrible in his absence, which, along with other issues on offense around the quarterback, led to the Steelers bottoming out on offense, falling to 31st in first down rate. However, they still managed an 8-8 finish because their defense took a big step forward in Roethlisberger’s absence, finishing the 2019 season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed.

With Roethlisberger returning in 2020 along with most of their defense, many expected the Steelers would be able to put it all together on both sides of the ball and indeed they did start the season 11-0, but that was one of the most misleading records of all-time. Just three of those 11 wins came by more than 10 points and two of them, wins over the Jaguars and Bengals, came against among the worst teams in the league. Overall, they had arguably the easiest schedule in the league to begin the season, including one score victories over the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, the COVID depleted Ravens, the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys, and the eventual 4-12 Texans. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Steelers ranked 5th at +2.60% through their 11-0 start, good, but not nearly as good as their record would have suggested. On top of that, while the Steelers continued playing at a high level on defense, ranking 1st in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.65%, their offense did not do its part, ranking 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.06%, despite their record. An aging Ben Roethlisberger did not play nearly as well as he had prior in his career, while his supporting cast no longer had top receiver Antonio Brown and overall was not as impressive as in 2018. 

That was especially concerning because offensive performance tends to be much more consistent week-to-week and year-to-year than defensive performance, so, even though the Steelers were 11-0, they seemed very likely to regress going forward and see their season end short. Their collapse exceeded even my expectations, however, as they went on to lose four of their final five games, including an embarrassing upset loss to the last place Bengals as two touchdown favorites, and eventually they lost at home in the first round of the post-season to the underdog Cleveland Browns. 

Despite that collapse, their season-long numbers in first down don’t look drastically different than they did six games prior when they were 11-0. They finished 28th in first down rate over expected at -2.83%, 2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.30%, and 11th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.46%. Going into 2021, I expect the Steelers to continue regressing. While their offense seems unlikely to be drastically better than it was last season, their defense is starting to go the way of every dominant defense before them who has found it impossible to keep all their talent under the cap long-term, losing a trio of above average starters this off-season in Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Bud Dupree, which will almost definitely lead to them regressing somewhat on that side of the ball. 

Even with those three players and others from recent years no longer with the team, the Steelers are still right up against the cap. However, at the same time, because of where they are in the life cycle of most of their contracts, they have the 4th lowest active cap spending in the league (even with Roethlisberger having a cap hit of 25.91 million) and, in terms of combined average annual value of the players on their roster, the Steelers have the least expensive roster in the league, which will show in the lack of talent the Steelers have at several positions.

At one point this off-season, it seemed like a legitimate possibility that the Steelers would release Ben Roethlisberger entirely for cap reasons, as his cap hit was at one point 41.25 million, but Roethlisberger signed a restructured one-year deal that pays him 14 million for 2021, which could easily be his final season of his career, now in his age 39 season. His cap hit is still the 7th highest in the league among quarterbacks because of years of accumulating dead cap and he figures not to play anywhere near that well, but he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense last season (more on that later) and the Steelers weren’t in position to find an upgrade on him either through free agency or the draft this off-season, so bringing him back at a reduced rate makes sense. The dead cap also would have been owed either way, so, while it hurts the Steelers’ ability to add and keep talent elsewhere, it was irrelevant to the Steelers’ decision to bring him back.

Even though he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense, Roethlisberger didn’t help matters, completing 65.6% of his passes for just 6.25 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions (with another 10 interceptions dropped by defenders) and ranking 25th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, a pretty steep drop off for a quarterback who has finished in the top-12 in 12 of 17 seasons in the league and who is almost definitely bound for the Hall of Fame. That’s still an upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who ranked 37th and 39th respectively among 39 eligible in 2019 on PFF, and it’s possible Roethlisberger could turn the clock back a little bit this season, but it’s equally likely he continues declining and is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Either way, he is likely to need a lot of help for this team to be a legitimate contender and the rest of the roster seems to fall short.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Roethlisberger was not the primary problem on this offense last season. That would be their running game and, to a lesser extent, their offensive line, two things largely intertwined. Overall, the Steelers finished dead last in the NFL with 3.62 YPC and 1,351 rushing yards on the season and by the end of the season the Steelers had largely given up on their running game, leading to them finishing with just the season with just the 5th fewest carries of any team in the league with 373. Starting running back James Conner averaged 4.27 YPC, but he was banged up often and backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland averaged just 3.32 YPC on 111 carries and 3.42 YPC on 33 carries respectively. Conner also signed with the Cardinals as a free agent this off-season, making their running back need even more dire.

The Steelers addressed the position on draft day, using their first round pick, #24 overall on Alabama’s Najee Harris and, while he is certainly an upgrade, it’s a questionable use for a first round pick for a team with other needs, given how easy it is to find capable running backs later in the draft. Also, for as talented as Harris is, he could still easily be stifled by poor offensive line play and a lack of a downfield passing game to consistently force guys away from the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers also didn’t add any other running backs this off-season, meaning this is completely Harris’ backfield. Benny Snell and his career 3.63 YPC average are tentatively expected to be the #2 back and spell Harris for a few touches per game, with McFarland, a 2020 4th round pick who may still have some upside, being the only competition for Snell’s #2 back role. One problem is the Steelers don’t really have a passing down back, as Harris is not known for his receiving ability and Snell and McFarland have totaled just 13 catches and 6 catches respectively in their careers.

The Steelers do have tight end turned fullback/running back Jaylen Samuels, who has a very underwhelming career 3.50 YPC and had just 18 touches in 14 games last season, but who also has some experience as a passing down back, totaling a 47/305/1 slash line as a passing down specialist for the Steelers in 2019, and who is a relatively reliable set of hands out of the backfield, given his history at the tight end spot. He’s still an underwhelming pass catching option in a backfield that lacks depth, but the addition of Harris in the first round, even if it may not have been their best choice at the time, makes this group a lot better because he has the upside to become one of the best runners in the league over the next few seasons.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

It’s really been a steep dropoff for the Steelers on the offensive line in recent years and it continued into this off-season, when they lost a trio of starters from an already underwhelming 2020 unit, making matters even worse upfront for this offense. For years, the Steelers had been able to count on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert and, even when Gilbert started missing significant time with injuries, the Steelers found a good replacement for him in Matt Feiler and eventually let the injury prone Gilbert go.

It was predictable that their offensive line would decline as those players got up in age, but how fast things have fallen apart upfront is pretty incredible. It started last off-season, when Foster retired, prompting the Steelers to move Feiler inside to guard and start Zach Banner at right tackle. Banner didn’t make it through his first game before suffering a season ending injury and Feiler struggled to adapt to his new position early in the season and then later in the season suffered an injury of his own hurt that caused the Steelers to turn to rookie 4th round rookie Kevin Dotson at left guard, who played well enough that he kept the job for the rest of the season.

Feiler left this off-season, which was not really a surprise, but he was followed out the door by Villanueva, who, after 7 seasons in Pittsburgh, signed for more money with divisional rival Baltimore this off-season, and Pouncey, who opted to retire ahead of his age 32 season, after spending his entire 11-year career with the Steelers. On top of that, the Steelers didn’t have the financial flexibility this off-season to spend big in pursuit of replacements. 

Right guard David DeCastro is still around, but he heads into his age 31 season as the only starter remaining from the consistently dominant units the Steelers had just a couple years ago and he’s coming off a down year by his standards, finishing 42nd among guards on PFF, down from 7 straight seasons in the top-16 at his position. He could bounce back somewhat in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee and his best days are likely behind him. He and Kevin Dotson, who flashed on 358 snaps as a rookie, but still is a projection to a season long starting role, are the only starters locked in on this offensive line going into 2021. Guard is the relative strength of an offensive line that has unsettled competitions involving underwhelming options at both tackle spots and at center.

At offensive tackle, the Steelers brought back Zach Banner as a free agent and are hoping he can be what they were expecting him to be last year before he got hurt. That’s far from a guarantee though, as Banner was a projection even before last year’s injury, having played just 243 prior snaps in his career, primarily as an extra offensive linemen, before missing most of last season. Banner is a former 4th round pick who has flashed on limited action in his career, but the Steelers are putting a lot of faith in an unproven player coming off of a major injury.

Chukwuma Okorafor took over at right tackle for Banner when he got hurt and ended up making 15 starts, but he struggled, finishing 77th among 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. Like Banner, Okorafor was also a relatively high pick, being selected in the 3rd round in 2018, but he also played very little early in his career, playing just 229 snaps total in 2018-2019 prior to last season and, unlike Banner, he has yet to even flash potential, earning below average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league. He’s still young enough that it’s possible that could change, still only going into his age 24 season, but that’s far from a guarantee. A better athlete than the massive 6-8 360 pound Banner, Okorafor is the most natural fit at left tackle, but he could easily prove to be totally overmatched on the blindside.

The Steelers are probably hoping to be able to start Okorafor and Banner, but they did add veteran competition for the inexperienced young players, signing Joe Haeg in free agency. A 5th round pick in 2016, Haeg actually started 29 games in his first two seasons in the league and wasn’t bad, earning middling grades from PFF in both seasons, but he’s been a reserve on some teams with great offensive lines in the Colts and Buccaneers over the past three seasons and has made just 9 starts over those 3 seasons. 

Haeg is a versatile player who has made 10 of his career 38 starts at guard, but right tackle is his clearest path to playing time and he could continue being a capable starter if he ends up in the starting lineup at one point or another. There is probably more reason to be confident in him than either of their currently projected starting tackles. The Steelers also used a 4th round pick on Dan Moore, but it’s unclear how much, if any, he will contribute as a rookie.

At center, the Steelers have a three way battle to replace the retired Pouncey. JC Hassenauser was their backup center last season, but the 2018 undrafted free agent was underwhelming in the first action of his career across 303 snaps. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Illinois’ Kendrick Green and also brought back former backup center BJ Finney, who spent last season in Seattle, where he proved to be a bust on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal, never playing an offensive snap and getting released just one off-season later, so Hassenauser probably isn’t even a lock to make the final roster.

Finney is going into his age 30 season and only has 13 career starts, but he has shown some promise in limited action when counted on in the past. Green is probably their highest upside option, but all three options are underwhelming and, like both tackle positions, center figures to be a position of weakness for the Steelers in 2021. Their guard play saves them somewhat, but this still looks like one of the worst offensive lines in the league, as they are noticeably thinner and less experienced than last year’s already underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

One big move for the Steelers this off-season was keeping wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who seemed as good as gone at the start of the off-season, as it seemed likely that Smith-Schuster would receive a big contract elsewhere that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to match. However, Smith-Schuster met a cold market like many in this reduced cap year and ended up returning to the Steelers on a team friendly 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that gives him another crack at free agency again next off-season, likely in better circumstances.

Smith-Schuster looked like one of the best young wide receivers in the league, as the 2017 2nd round pick posted a massive 111/1426/7 slash line in just his second season in the league in 2018, but without Antonio Brown drawing double teams opposite him, Smith-Schuster has yet to develop into the #1 wide receiver they were expecting he’d become, averaging 1.37 yards per route run and a 79/790/7 slash line per 16 games in two seasons since Brown was let go. Rather than being a clear #1 wide receiver, Smith-Schuster has been one of three wide receivers the Steelers spread the ball to about evenly, also including Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, with 4th receiver James Washington also seeing a few targets per game.

That depth at wide receiver is the result of the Steelers using a 3rd round pick or higher on a wide receiver in each of their past four drafts, starting with Smith-Schuster in 2017 and continuing with each of the Steelers’ top-4 wide receivers. That depth seemed like all the more reason Smith-Schuster would not be back, which would have led to more targets for other Steeler wide receivers, but with Smith-Schuster back, not much changes in this group.

Smith-Schuster is still only going into his age 25 season, so he could still develop into more of a #1 option long-term, but he also finished 3rd on this team in receiving yards with a 97/831/9 slash line in 2020 and could easily finish third again in 2021 as the Steelers’ other wide receivers also have upside. Probably the highest upside member of this group is 2020 2nd round pick Chase Claypool, who finished with a 62/873/9 slash line as a rookie despite taking a few weeks to get regular playing time. 

Claypool’s 1.90 yards per route run average not only led the team, but ranked 25th in the NFL and, overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 38th ranked wide receiver overall. Perhaps the most exciting part of all of this is Claypool was regarded as pretty raw coming out of Notre Dame and has the physical upside to be one of the better wide receivers in the league someday. I’m not saying he will become that in year two and development is not always linear, but Claypool seems likely to surpass last year’s receiving totals just on the basis of more playing time in his second season and he has the upside for a lot more.

Diontae Johnson led this group in receiving with a 88/923/7 slash line, after the 2019 3rd round pick had a 59/680/5 slash line in lesser playing time as a rookie. Johnson doesn’t have the upside of Claypool or perhaps even of Smith-Schuster, but his 1.70 yards per route run average in two seasons in the league is above average, he’s earned just above average season long grades from PFF as well, and, still only in his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in his third season in the league in 2021.

James Washington was their 4th receiver last year, but he still played 486 snaps and had a 30/392/5 slash line on 56 targets. He saw his playing time decrease down the stretch as Chase Claypool emerged, but he should still have a role in this offense in 2021. The 2018 2nd round pick also showed he can take on a larger role if needed, like he did in 2019, when he finished with a 44/735/3 slash line and 1.76 yards per route run, despite having arguably the worst quarterback play in the league with Roethlisberger out, and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has further untapped upside. The Steelers legitimately go four deep at wide receiver and have a couple players with #1 receiver potential in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. A solid young group from a year ago could easily take a step forward in their second season together.

The one thing that is different in this receiving corps is the Steelers released veteran tight end Vance McDonald, who struggled last season on 483 snaps, finishing 57th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, and replaced him with second round pick Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth enters the league very raw, but he comes with a upside and won’t be relied on for a significant role as a rookie, likely beginning his career in McDonald’s old role as the #2 tight end behind starter Eric Ebron.

Ebron is best known for the 13 touchdowns he had in 2018 with Andrew Luck, as part of a 66/750/13 slash line, but that stands out as an obvious fluke for a player who 19 receiving touchdowns in his other 6 seasons in the league combined and, even that season included, Ebron has averaged just 1.40 yards per route run and 6.91 yards per target throughout his career. He’s a great athlete for the tight end position, but he has never been a good blocker, nor has he ever had reliable hands, dropping 10% or more of his targets in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, undoubtedly contributing to his underwhelming receiving averages for his career. 

Ebron is also coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing 54th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, struggling against as a blocker and managing just 1.18 yards per route run and 6.13 yards per target. Ebron is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’s not guaranteed to be better than he was last season and, even if he is, he’s still likely to be around the same caliber of player as he has been throughout his 7-year career, which is underwhelming. Fortunately, the Steelers’ passing game primarily is focused on their wide receivers, which are a strong group, though their overall youth and inexperience could prove to be an issue again.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

They say defense wins championships and, while that may or may not be true, defensive led teams tend to have much less staying power as top level teams than offensive led teams. Offensive statistics tend to be much more consistent and predictive on a year-to-year basis than defensive statistics, so teams that play at a high level on defense are significantly less likely to repeat that the following season than teams that play at a high level on offense. 

The reason for this is financial. Teams can have a good offense with strong quarterback play and an adequate supporting cast, which tends to be relatively less inexpensive than keeping together the 7-9 above average defensive starters you need to consistently year in and year out play at a high level on defense. The Steelers finished 4th in first down rate allowed in 2019 and 2nd in 2020, but they are starting to lose talented players for financial reasons like many top level defenses before them, losing a trio of above average defensive starters in edge defender Bud Dupree and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this off-season and not really replacing them. This is still a talented group, but they could slip a few spots in the defensive rankings as a result of their off-season losses, which would further expose a limited offense.

Dupree will be replaced internally by 2020 3rd round Alex Highsmith. Dupree was a solid, but unspectacular starter, while Highsmith flashed potential on 440 snaps as a rookie, so he could prove to be an adequate replacement, but he’s still a projection to a larger role and him moving into the starting lineup depletes their depth. To replenish depth, the Steelers used a 6th round pick on Quincy Roche and signed veteran journeyman Cassius Marsh, who has never earned an above average grade from PFF or played more than 550 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league and who struggled mightily across 197 snaps with three different teams last season. Needless to say, depth is a concern, especially given that the Steelers will be relying on an unproven starter in Alex Highsmith.

Fortunately, the Steelers still have TJ Watt, who leads this group and is one of the best players in the league at his position. A first round pick in 2017, Watt was an above average starter in his first two years in the league and has taken it to another level over the past two seasons, ranking 2nd and 1st among edge defenders in 2019 and 2020 respectively and totaling 29.5 sacks, 49 hits, and a 15.6% pressure rate, coinciding with the Steelers’ rise to among the top few defenses in the league.

It’s the most impressive two-year stretch by any defender other than Aaron Donald over the past two seasons and, only in his age 27 season, there’s plenty of reason to expect Watt to remain among the game’s best for at least the next couple seasons. It seems like only a matter of time before he gets a Defensive Player of the Year award, after finishing in the top-3 in back-to-back seasons. Even if this defense declines this season, Watt’s presence should ensure they are still one of the better units in the league. He significantly elevates a position group that otherwise has question marks.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Along with Watt, the strength of this defense is the interior defender position. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Hayward have been arguably the best 3-4 defensive end duo in the league over the past few years, but there was some concern with this group going into last season, having lost nose tackle Javon Hargrave on a big contract to the Eagles. Instead, the Steelers plugged in veteran Tyson Alualu, who excelled, and they got good play from reserve Chris Wormley, who was acquired from the Ravens in a trade last off-season. All four of those key players return to a group that looks likely to be among the league’s best again in 2021.

One concern is age, as both Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu are getting up there, heading into their age 32 season and age 34 season respectively. A first round pick by the Steelers in 2011, Heyward has yet to start to decline, continuing a streak of six straight healthy seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF (excluding an injury plagued 2016 campaign), but that doesn’t mean he won’t begin to decline this season. Even at less than his best, Hayward should at the very least remain an above average starter, but it could be noticeable for an elite defense if one of their elite players does not play up to his usual standards.

Alualu is the bigger concern as not only is he older, but he’s also coming off of a career best season, finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked interior defender against the run. Alualu has always been a capable run stuffer, but it would be a surprise to see him repeat the best season of his career again at age 34. Alualu doesn’t play a huge role on this defense, seeing 448 snaps last season, but if he isn’t elite against the run again this season, that also could have a noticeable effect on this defense.

Stephon Tuitt is the safest bet of this group, still in his prime in his age 28 season, on a streak of four straight seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF. Equally good against the run and as a pass rusher, Tuitt has totaled 23 sacks, 43 hits, and a 11.4% pressure rate in 47 games the aforementioned four-year stretch. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, though one thing that could also remain the same is the fact that he hasn’t made it through a full season without missing time since his rookie year back in 2014. If he were to miss significant time, this would obviously be a big blow to this defense as he’s otherwise their safest bet on the interior.

Chris Wormley plays by far the least of the aforementioned group, but he is good insurance in case any of the Steelers’ top-3 miss significant time, something they didn’t do last season, leading to Wormley’s snap total of just 148. The 2017 4th round pick showed a lot of promise on those snaps though and also had solid seasons in larger roles in 2018 and 2019 with the Ravens, playing 446 snaps and 401 snaps respectively. This is as deep and talented of an interior defender group as any team in the league has, even with some concerns around aging players.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Steelers didn’t have many injuries last season, totaling the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, but they did lose every down linebacker Devin Bush for the season in week 6. A first round pick in 2019, Bush struggled early in his rookie year, but had the kind of second half of the season that suggested he had a good chance to ultimately make good on his sky high upside. The injury complicates matters and Bush’s play left something to be desired in 2020 when he was on the field, but a third year breakout season for a player only in his age 23 season is definitely possible, although obviously not a given. 

One benefit of Bush’s injury was it allowed unknown 2018 undrafted free agent Robert Spillane to see some action, playing 379 snaps, after seeing just 4 defensive snaps in his career prior. Spillane flashed a lot of potential in 2020, especially in coverage, ranking 13th among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on PFF. Spillane’s play against the run was not nearly as good and he’s still very inexperienced overall, but the Steelers retained veteran run specialist Vince Williams this off-season, so Spillane will only have to be a sub package coverage specialist.

Williams was overstretched last season with a snap total of 672 on the year, with Bush’s injury forcing him to stay on the field in obvious passing situations more than the Steelers would have liked, but he’s been a consistently solid run stuffer in his career and, even going into his age 32 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a platoon player. This group doesn’t jump off the page, but that would obviously change if Bush can have a breakout year, with Williams and Spillane splitting time opposite him. That’s far from a guarantee, but it gives this linebacking corps more upside than comparably ranked teams. 

Grade: B-

Secondary

Cornerback is the position where the Steelers lost the most this off-season, as Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton both earned above average grades from PFF on 908 snaps and 464 snaps respectively and the Steelers didn’t replace either of them, opting to rely on internal solutions in Cameron Sutton, who was re-signed this off-season on a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal, and Justin Layne. Both are former 3rd round picks, 2017 and 2019 respectively, who have upside, but both are projections to a larger role.

Sutton probably has the most upside of the two, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons, but that came across just 268 snaps in 2019 and 552 snaps in 2020, after struggling across 353 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. He has the upside to be an above average starter and his versatility to play both outside and on the slot makes him likely to see an every down role, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him struggle in the first extended action of his career. Layne, meanwhile, is an even bigger projection, as he’s played just 122 nondescript snaps in two seasons in the league. Making matters worse, he was involved in an off-the-field issue this off-season and could face potential discipline.

Even if Sutton and Layne can step up in larger roles, depth is still a major concern for a position group that didn’t add any notable replacements this off-season. Former Jets cornerback Arthur Maulet was signed in free agency and will likely be their primary reserve cornerback. Undrafted in 2017, Maulet was not bad across 349 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but he fell to 112th among 131 eligible cornerbacks across 405 snaps in 2020 and would be a very underwhelming starting option if forced into action. 

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent who showed some potential as a rookie, but played just 30 snaps total, is also in the mix for a reserve role in a thin group. Even if first round pick Najee Harris becomes a good starting running back, the Steelers could easily regret not taking cornerback Greg Newsome instead, letting him get selected by the division rival Browns. It’s much easier for teams to find competent running backs than it is to find good depth at cornerback, which the Steelers severely lack.

The Steelers’ lack of cornerback depth is even more concerning because their only returning starter and de facto #1 cornerback Joe Haden has been very injury prone throughout his career, making it through a full season without missing time just twice in 11 seasons in the league and just once since his rookie year, which is unlikely to change as Haden gets up there in age, now heading into his age 32 season. There is also some concern that Haden declines significantly in 2021, given his age. He’s been at least a solid starter throughout his career (137 career starts), but his 46th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 was the 3rd lowest finish of his career and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fall further down this season, as his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

At safety, the Steelers have a pair of 2018 first round picks, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. Fitzpatrick was originally drafted 11th overall by the Dolphins, but the Steelers flipped their 2020 first round pick to Miami for Fitzpatrick at the beginning of the 2019 season to start opposite Edmunds long-term. The move paid off immediately. Fitzpatrick earned middling grades from PFF throughout his brief tenure in Miami, in part because the Dolphins failed to utilize him properly, but the Steelers plugged him in as a full-time safety and he instantly broke out, finishing the 2019 season 11th among safeties on PFF and then following that with a 7th ranked finish in 2020. Still only in his age 25 season, Fitzpatrick is already one of the better safeties in the league and it’s possible we still haven’t seen his best yet.

Edmunds, meanwhile, was the Steelers’ pick, 28th overall, and, while he hasn’t been the high level player Fitzpatrick has been, he’s still been a solid starter across 43 starts in 47 career games. His 21st ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2020 was a career best, which he’s not guaranteed to repeat, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so he may have further untapped potential. Even if he remains about the same level of player as he has been recently, the Steelers are in great shape at the safety position aside from depth concerns. The Steelers will likely need that to help mask their shaky cornerback situation. 

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Steelers rode an easy schedule and a great defense to a bunch of close wins en route to a 11-0 start last season, but their offense was exposed as the season went on and the schedule got tougher, leading to the Steelers dropping 5 of their last 6 games, including their first round playoff loss to the Browns. The Steelers added running back Najee Harris in the first round of the draft this off-season, but their offensive line is noticeably worse from even last year’s underwhelming group, starting unproven players at every spot except right guard, and Ben Roethlisberger could be nearing the end of his line, so I would expect this group to continue to struggle. 

Meanwhile, a defense that has been among the league’s best in each of the past couple seasons is starting to leak talent and lose depth, which could easily lead to them falling a few spots in the rankings, further exposing a weak offense. The Steelers have the least money committed to their roster of any team in the league in terms of average annual salary and, while part of that is the result of some talented young players on rookie deals, overall that lack of financial investment shows in several key spots on this group, including the offensive line and secondary. 

That’s not necessarily the Steelers’ fault as it’s the result of several years of trying to win now with an aging roster and quarterback, which has led to consistent playoff appearances, but it’s likely to result in the Steelers struggling to make the post-season in 2021, especially when you add the fact that their schedule looks likely to be significantly more difficult this season. I will have a final prediction for the Steelers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Detroit Lions 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions have been one of the least successful NFL teams in recent memory. Dating back to the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Lions have qualified for the post-season just three times, all three times as a wild card, and they’ve come up short in their first game all three times. You’d have to go back to 1993 for the last time the Lions made the post-season as a division winner, almost a decade before the current divisional alignment, and their playoff victory drought goes back even further, dating back 30 years to their 1991 NFC Championship appearance. Going even further back than that, the Lions haven’t appeared in the Super Bowl ever since its origin in 1967, one of four teams with no Super Bowl appearances in franchise history and the only one who has not done so despite being in existence throughout the Super Bowl era.

The Lions’ last playoff appearance was in 2016 when they qualified at just 9-7. The Lions followed that up with another 9-7 season in 2017, but they didn’t make the post-season that season and both of those 9-7 finishes relied on things that would be unlikely to continue going forward. In 2016, the Lions didn’t beat a single post-season qualifier all year and still managed just one victory by more than two scores. In 2017, the Lions had a few more multi-score victories and beat some tougher teams, but they were reliant on a +10 turnover margin, which is one of the least predictive stats. In both seasons, despite their 9-7 record, the Lions finished the season just 27th in first down rate differential.

The Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell following that 2017 season, replacing him with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who oversaw three straight seasons in which the Lions were non-competitive and never won more than six games, culminating in Patricia being let go midway through last season. Patricia was not liked by many of his players and may have been in over his head as a head coach, but I thought he unfairly got too much of the blame for this team’s struggles over the past three seasons, as they were likely to regress significantly after their back-to-back 9-7 seasons regardless, especially with the Lions also suffering a rash of injuries to key players over those three seasons.

With GM Bob Quinn also out the door, the Lions are bringing in yet another new regime to try to finally make this team into a consistent winner. When new regimes take over, they usually have to make some decisions on what direction to take the franchise, to rebuild completely or to try to add pieces to an existing core, but for the Lions’ new regime, that decision was made for them as franchise quarterback Matt Stafford decided he was finally sick of losing and demanded a trade from the team who drafted him #1 overall back in 2009.

Even though it wasn’t really the Lions’ choice to move Stafford, it was arguably their best option given the circumstances. Stafford hasn’t been the problem for the Lions over the years and his play hadn’t slipped in recent years, but he has been accumulating increasing amounts of injuries and he’s owed 43 million on his current contract for his age 33 and 34 in 2021-2022 combined, on a team with no realistic chance of competing for a Super Bowl over that time frame, due to the team’s lack of financial flexibility to add the upgrades needed around Stafford in free agency.

I thought the Lions would send Stafford somewhere for an early second, maybe late first round pick and then would select their quarterback of the future to replace him long-term, either with their 7th overall pick or with a higher pick after moving up. Instead, the Lions took a different approach, sending Stafford to the Rams for a 3rd round pick in 2021, first round picks in 2022 and 2023, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who will replace Stafford as the starter under center.

At first glance, that seems to be a bigger haul than I was expecting them to get, but it’s more complicated than that. The Rams already did not have their own first round pick in 2021 from the Jalen Ramsey trade, so the Lions will have to wait two years to see the full value of this deal and, with the Rams looking like contenders over the next two seasons, it’s likely both of those draft picks will fall in the 20s, rather than being premium picks. On top of that, Goff’s contract pays him about 10 million dollars more over the next two seasons than Stafford’s does, even though he’s a noticeable downgrade on the field, and all of that money is functionally guaranteed, locking Goff in at starting quarterback money for the next two seasons. 

That might not have been the best approach for a team that was in position to add a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie deal through the draft, with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones ultimately being available to them with their 7th overall pick. Hitting on a pick like that could have allowed the Lions to have a 3-4 year stretch where they are paying significantly below market value at the quarterback position, allowing them to spend more than most teams to fill out the rest of their roster.

At the same time, it’s not a terrible idea for the Lions to be patient with their rebuild. Even though they are future first round picks, they’re still first round picks and the Lions’ situation as a team that is unlikely to compete in the next two seasons anyway means they are less time sensitive to when those picks are delivered. Furthermore, while they still didn’t have much financial flexibility to improve this team this off-season, they figure to have significant flexibility in a couple off-seasons, when they’ll hopefully have a better pipeline of young talent from the extra picks acquired in their trade with the Rams and from their own picks, which seem likely to be high over the next two drafts, given the current state of this roster. The combination of financial flexibility and young talent could cause this team to shoot up in a couple years time, but that’s a long way off at this point.

In the meantime, the Lions will give Jared Goff, a former #1 overall pick, the chance to rehabilitate himself and prove he can be the Lions’ long-term solution at the position. However, his chances of doing so do not seem promising. Goff’s quarterback rating over the past four seasons is just three points behind Stafford’s, but he’s done that in Sean McVay’s quarterback friendly scheme with a lot more talent around him and he’s only ranked higher than Stafford on PFF once in those 4 seasons, with Stafford currently riding a streak of 5 straight seasons in the top-17 among quarterbacks on PFF, while Goff is coming off of a season in which he finished just 22nd.

It’s also worth noting that Goff ranked dead last among quarterbacks on PFF in 2016 in his only season without McVay and, while he was of course a rookie then, it’s concerning that the head coach who helped him out of his early career funk didn’t believe he was a quarterback that could get him all the way, to the point that he was willing to ship away two first round picks to find an upgrade. Goff probably won’t be quite as bad as he was in a rookie, but he’s in a tough situation with an inexperienced coaching staff and a severe lack of talent on this roster around him, on a transitioning/rebuilding team that looks to be playing for the #1 pick more than a playoff spot. I would imagine he would fall short of even his worst statistical season with the Rams.

The Lions are at least confident enough in him to not draft a quarterback at all, but they could say more about how they viewed the middle and late round quarterbacks in this draft than anything about Goff, who the Lions can’t realistically replace for at least a season and probably two. However, they do have a concerning backup quarterback situation and one they should address before the season begins. 

Former Packers backup Tim Boyle signed as a free agent this off-season, but he is a 2018 undrafted free agent who has thrown just 4 career passes as Aaron Rodgers’ clipboard holder, while holdover David Blough has been the third quarterback in Detroit over the past two seasons since the Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and his 64.0 QB rating in 5 career starts (all losses) leaves something to be desired. Both would be in a really tough situation if they had to see significant action and would likely struggle mightily with minimal supporting cast help.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Goff won’t even have the benefit of a good receiving corps, which was the one unit that Stafford could count on throughout most of his tenure as the starter. Even last season, the Lions came into the season with a solid receiving corps, but their expected top-three wide receivers for 2020 (Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola) are no longer with the team, among others. Top wide receiver Golladay missed all but five games last season so his loss isn’t as big as it otherwise would have been, but even with Golladay missing most of the season, the Lions still saw a higher target market go out the door this off-season than any team in the league, with a whopping 64.1% of their targets vacated from a season ago. 

The Lions also didn’t do much to address the position this off-season, only taking a flyer on a couple veterans in free agency in Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman and not using a draft pick on a wide receiver until taking Amon-Ra St. Brown in the 4th round. Even as a 4th round rookie, St. Brown has a good chance to see playing time, as those three aforementioned players will compete with Quintez Cephez, a 2020 5th round pick and the lone noteworthy holdover, for roles in a very unsettled and underwhelming group.

Cephez only played 365 snaps as a rookie, even with Golladay missing much of the year, and even though he flashed potential with a solid 1.64 yards per route run average and could take a step forward in his second season in the league, the Lions still will likely enter the season with the veterans Perriman and Williams as their starters in two-wide receiver sets, with the less experienced Cephez and perhaps St. Brown seeing playing time in sub packages, though that could obviously change as the season goes on.

Tyrell Williams topped 1000 yards in 2016, serving as Philip Rivers’ top wide receiver in place of the injured Keenan Allen, totaling a 60/1059/7 slash line on the year with average of 1.87 yards per route run in the process, but he hasn’t been able to match that in three seasons since, averaging a 42/677/5 slash line from 2017-2019 with 1.46 yards per route run, before missing all of last season with an injury, leading to the Raiders releasing him 2 years into a 4-year, 44 million dollar contract. Williams is still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and could get a significant target share on a team that lacks better options, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him improve on his recent season long numbers, but he’s unlikely to be an efficient target. 

Perriman, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2015, but hasn’t come close to topping 1000 yards, maxing out with a 36/645/6 slash line in 2019. A massive bust with the Ravens, Perriman missed his entire rookie season with an ACL and, upon his return, he lasted just two more seasons in Baltimore and averaged just 1.06 yards per route run over those seasons before being let go. He’s been better over the past three seasons since leaving the Ravens, but it’s been largely by default, as his 1.56 yards per route run average is still underwhelming and he’s still never surpassed 651 snaps in a season.

Perriman also now on his 4th team in as many seasons, bouncing from the Browns to the Buccaneers to the Jets before signing in Detroit this off-season. His career 16.5 yards per catch average is impressive and he’s consistently among the league’s leaders in average depth of target, but he is best as a situational deep threat rather than a starter. In a very underwhelming position group, a starter is likely what he’ll have to be unless both of the Lions young receivers can step up in a big way.

Given all that the Lions have lost at wide receiver, they figure to focus much more on tight end TJ Hockensen. The 8th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson already took a big step forward from year one to year two, going from a 32/367/2 slash line to a 67/723/6 slash line and improving as a run blocker to finish 10th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade, but he could take another big leap forward in 2021. Not only does he have a clear path to a big target share, but he’s also a very high upside player who is going into his age 24 season and his new head coach Dan Campbell is a former tight end and tight ends coach himself, which should work to Hockenson’s advantage. The young Hockenson could easily be seen as one of the best all-around tight ends in the league by season’s end.

Hockenson will be backed up by veteran Darren Fells, a true backup who figures to not factor into this offense significantly unless Hockenson gets injured, in which case the Lions would be in big trouble. Neither an above average run blocker nor pass catcher throughout his career (123 catches in 102 career games), Fells’ 6-7 270 frame makes him a theoretical red zone threat, but his 21 career touchdowns aren’t impressive either. He’s also now heading into his age 35 season and could easily be a below average option, even as a #2 tight end. The Lions will need Hockenson to stay healthy to avoid a completely embarrassing receiving corps, as he is their only real playmaker of the bunch.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

To try to mask their issues in the passing game, the Lions figure to become more of a run heavy team than they’ve been in recent years, hiring a run heavy play caller in Anthony Lynn and adding ex-Packer Jamaal Williams in free agency to pair with 2020 2nd round pick D’Andre Swift in the backfield. Swift showed a lot of potential as a rookie, rushing for 4.57 YPC on 114 carries and adding a 46/357/2 slash line as the primary passing down back, but he didn’t take over as the clear feature back until midway through the season, even though the Lions’ other running backs Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson averaged just 3.87 YPC on 156 carries and 3.48 YPC on 52 carries respectively.

Swift looked likely to continue to have a significantly larger role into his second season, after averaging 16 touches per game in his final 6 games of last season, but Williams’ addition on a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal complicates matters. Williams’ career 3.97 YPC is underwhelming, but he’s seen that jump to 4.27 YPC average on 226 carries combined over the past two seasons and he’s been even better than that suggests, ranking 7th in carry success rate at 53% in 2019 and 6th at 57% in 2020, while ranking 11th and 27th respectively among running backs on PFF and picking up 64.6% of his rushing yardage after contact.

Williams’ weakness is his lack of breakaway speed, as he has just 7 carries of 15+ yards over the past two seasons, but if anything that makes his YPC average more impressive, as he’s done it without busting the big runs, consistently helping his team move the chains between the tackles. He’s also a capable pass catcher as well. He and Swift figure to complement each other well, with Swift being a speedy back and Williams being a more powerful runner and both figure to see usage in the passing game as they look to make up for their lack of wide receiver talent, though Swift is definitely the better bet for a big receiving year. 

Overall, when you include catches, there should be enough touches for both backs to see significant usage, but the Lions may not get to use their running back duo as much as they would like if they are trailing frequently and the presence of both backs should prevent the other from producing too big of a statistical season. Still, this position group is one of their few obvious strengths and one they will have to lean on if they are going to move the ball consistently. 

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In support of their new run heavy approach, the Lions used their 7th overall pick on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, passing on Heisman winner Devonta Smith, who could have stepped in instantly and been their #1 receiver. Sewell will take over at right tackle for the Lions and projects to be an above average starter long-term, even if he has some growing pains as a rookie. The Lions signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai to a 5-year, 45 million deal in free agency last off-season to be their right tackle, but he missed the start of the season, leaving swing tackle Tyrell Crosby to start in his absence, and, when Vaitai returned, he spent most of the year at guard, only moving over to right tackle when Crosby went down for the season in week 13. 

Vaitai is locked into a 9 million dollar guaranteed salary and Crosby was a capable starter last season, but both will have to play guard if they want to see action in 2021, barring injuries. Vaitai’s salary likely locks him into the right guard job, but his contract has looked like a mistake from the start and has only gotten worse since. A 5th round pick in 2016, Vaitai was never a regular starter with the Eagles and was never better than a capable spot starter in 20 starts over 4 seasons, but the Lions felt that justified paying him above average starter money. In his first season in Detroit, Vaitai wasn’t even an average starter, finishing slightly below average on PFF. He could be better in 2021, but he doesn’t seem to have the high upside the Lions are paying him like he has.

If Crosby remains a starter, it will likely be at left guard, but the Lions are reportedly shopping Crosby in trades and are likely to stick with 2020 3rd round pick Jonah Jackson as the starter. Jackson earned a below average grade as a rookie, but could be better in his second season in the league, though that’s not a guarantee and it’s arguable that Crosby would be a better option. If Crosby is not traded, he’ll likely remain in a depth role, which is what the 2018 5th round pick did in his first two seasons in the league, when he played just 527 snaps total, before making 11 starts in 2020.

Left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragniow remain as the Lions’ top-two offensive linemen and arguably the best two players on this whole roster. Both are former first round picks who have panned out, two of their rare recent smart draft choices, getting drafted in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Decker burst onto the scene by finishing 16th among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie and has made 71 starts over the past five seasons, with five season long above average grades from PFF and three finishes in the top-18 at his position, including a career best 11th ranked finish in 2020.  

Raginow, meanwhile, has gotten better in every season of his career, earning a middling grade as a guard as a rookie before finishing 6th among centers in 2019 and 3rd among centers in 2020. Going into their age 27 season and age 25 respectively, both are still very much in the prime of their careers and I wouldn’t expect anything different from either of them this season. With Sewell being added to give this group a third talented first round pick, this is a solid group that should be improved over last season, but guard could be a bit of a problem, even if the Lions do have some intriguing options.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Lions were actually a solid offensive team last season, ranking 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +1.37%, they were a horrendous defensive team, not only ranking dead last in first down rate allowed at +4.31%, but by a significant amount, with the 2nd worst team finishing at +3.05%. They were especially bad in coverage, allowing a 112.4 QB rating that would have been the second best in the league by a quarterback, meaning the Lions made the average passer they played last season look better than anyone with the exception of MVP Aaron Rodgers. 

The Lions almost definitely will be worse offensively this season, possibly by a significant amount, due to their downgrade at quarterback and the loss of most of their key pass catchers, so they will need to be better on defense if they’re even going to be competitive. Fortunately, defensive performance tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than offensive performance and it wouldn’t be hard for the Lions to be significantly better by default, given how bad they were last season. There are still a lot of concerns on this unit, but there are actually some reasons to be optimistic. 

One reason is they should be healthier, as not only did they have the 11th most adjusted games lost to injury on defense last season, but those injuries disproportionately affected their most important players. One of their most important players is defensive end Trey Flowers, who they gave a massive 5-year, 90 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a deal that guarantees him 54 million over the first three seasons, including 14.375 million for 2021. Flowers played well in the first year of that deal in 2019, finishing the season as PFF’s 20th ranked edge defender on 705 snaps, but was limited to just 309 snaps in 7 games in his second season in 2020. 

Flowers has never had a sack total that has jumped off the page, with his career high being just the 7.5 sacks he had in 2019, but he’s been better than that suggests, totaling 28 sacks, 55 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate over the four seasons prior to last year’s injury plagued year, while playing at a high level against the run and finishing in the top-20 in overall grade among edge defenders on PFF in 3 of those 4 seasons. Only going into his age 28 season with just 4 games missed due to injury in 4 seasons prior to last, Flowers is a great bet to bounce back and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was, he’ll still be a welcome re-addition for a Lions team that largely got poor edge defender play in Flowers’ absence and that totaled just 24 sacks on the season, 6th fewest in the NFL.

The one exception for the Lions at the edge defender position last season was Romeo Okwara, who broke out in Flowers’ absence, leading the team with 10 sacks, which really puts into context the lack of pass rush from the rest of this roster, which combined for just 14 sacks. Okwara didn’t just post a big sack total either, as he also added 9 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate, earning him PFF’s 10th highest ranked edge defender pass rush grade. 

Okwara struggled mightily against the run, ranking 114th out of 124 eligible edge defenders on PFF, and is a complete one-year wonder as a pass rusher, entering last season with 10 sacks, 20 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in 67 games for his career, since going undrafted in 2016, so he could easily regress in 2021 and go back to being the middling player he was prior to last season. At the same time, he’s still very young, only in his age 26 season, and may have permanently turned a corner as a pass rusher. The Lions are betting on the latter, locking him up for 39 million over 3 years as a free agent this off-season, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Flowers and Okwara are locked in as the starters at edge defender, but depth is still a bit of a concern, as the Lions will likely be relying on young, unproven players. Julian Okwara is the other Okwara brother the Lions have and, while he saw just 69 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in a very thin position group in 2020, he still has the upside to develop long-term. Austin Bryant, meanwhile, is a 2019 4th round pick who has struggled on snap counts of 133 and 221 over his first two seasons in the league respectively. 

The Lions also signed former first round pick Charles Harris this off-season and, even though the 2017 1st round pick is still only heading into his age 26 season, it’s unlikely he has a sudden breakout and he’s not guaranteed to make this final roster, after totaling just 6.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate across 54 games in his first four seasons in the league. Both Bryant and Okwara have upside, but it’s very possible they struggle in extended action, so the Lions will have to hope that their starters can both stay healthy and play up to their potential in an otherwise thin position group. Flowers’ return should make this group better than they were a year ago by default, even if Romeo Okwara can’t repeat by far the best pass rushing season of his career, but there are still concerns.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Lions also should be better at defensive tackle this season, as they added veteran Michael Brockers in a trade, used 2nd and 3rd round picks on the position, taking Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike and NC State’s Alim McNeill, and could get a healthier season from holdover Da’Shawn Hand, who was limited to 353 snaps in 10 games last season. Holdovers Nick Williams and John Penisini remain as well, after playing 537 snaps and 576 snaps respectively last season, but Williams struggled and had to take a pay cut down from 5 million to about the league minimum and is not guaranteed a significant role, while Penisini was even worse last season, finishing 130th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF on 576 snaps, unsurprising given that was a 6th round rookie. He will likely have to earn any playing time he gets in a deeper group in his second season in the league.

Brockers is the only one likely locked into a starting role, as the Lions gave him a new 3-year, 24 million dollar deal as part of that trade, to acquire a player who has consistently been a solid starter since entering the league in 2012 (136 starts in 138 games). Brockers has always been a solid run stuffer and he hasn’t been a terrible pass rusher either, totaling 28 sacks, 42 hits, and a 5.9% pressure rate for his career, but he’s going into his age 31 season and there is some concern he is on the decline, earning the worst run stuffing grade from PFF of any single season in his career in 2020 and the worst overall grade for a season since his 2nd season in the league. He could remain a capable starter, but he doesn’t have a high upside and there is significant downside with him if his abilities fall off noticeably. 

As I mentioned, holdover Da’Shawn Hand should see playing time if healthy, but that’s becoming a big if. Not only did he miss significant time with injury last season, but the 2018 4th round pick has missed 22 of a possible 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 13 games played in 2018 and playing just 918 snaps across his three seasons in the league. Hand is a former five star recruit who showed a lot of potential as a rookie on 455 snaps, particularly flashing against the run, but also impressing as a pass rusher. 

However, he hasn’t been able to live up to that due to all of the injuries he’s dealt with since and it’s possible at this point that he either remains injury prone for the rest of his career and/or that all of his injuries have diminished him and he’ll never show the potential he showed as a rookie. In total, he has 3 sacks and a 6.4% pressure rate in his career and is a solid run stopper, but he’s been noticeably worse over the past two seasons and might not turn it around in 2021. This group should be better by default in 2021, but it still lacks high end talent and will be relying on two rookies for key snaps.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Lions have replaced outgoing free agents Reggie Ragland and Jarrad Davis with 4th round rookie Derrick Barnes and free agent acquisition Alex Anzalone, but that might not make a noticeable difference and there are still concerns for the Lions at a position group that was also a weakness last season. The Lions will be counting on better years from top holdovers Jamie Collins and Jahlani Tavai, who led this group with 829 snaps and 624 snaps played respectively last season and will likely see similar snap counts in 2021.

The Lions made a big investment in Collins last off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal after he finished the 2019 season as PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker as a member of the New England Patriots. However, Collins once again proved incapable of repeating that level of play away from Bill Belichick and company, falling to 28th among off ball linebackers on PFF, similar to how he went from 6th and 8th ranked finishes with the Patriots in 2014 and 2015 to earning middling at best grades from 2016-2018 with the Browns, before returning to New England and picking up where he left off in 2019. Collins is also going into his age 32 season in 2021 so, while he could remain a solid starter in an every down role, he comes with considerable downside and his best days are almost definitely behind him.

The Lions also made a pretty big investment in Tavai, selecting him in the 2nd round in 2019, but he has yet to develop. He’s played an average of just 39.4 snaps per game in his career as primarily a base package linebacker who comes off the field in sub packages and, while he wasn’t bad in 2019 as a rookie, his play significantly fell off in his 2nd season, especially in coverage, where he had the 2nd worst QB rating allowed of any linebacker in the league, allowing 10.1 yards per target and 3 touchdowns while never even getting his hands on a pass. Also struggling against the run, Tavai finished last season 96th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and was a big part of the problem for this league worst defense.

Tavai will face significant competition for playing time from Anzalone, who is a significant upgrade in coverage. However, Anzalone also struggled against the run throughout his 4 seasons with the Saints, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2017, and he has serious durability concerns, missing 26 of 64 possible games in his career and never topping 525 snaps in a season. He should see at least a sub package role and has the opportunity to set a new career high in snaps per game and snaps for a season if he can stay relatively healthy in a thin position group, but his durability issues date back to his collegiate days, so there is plenty of reason to expect him to miss at least some time. The rookie Barnes may factor into this group down the stretch, but it’s unclear how much of a positive impact he can make as a rookie, so this is still a questionable group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Lions used three safeties together in sub packages last season quite often, to try to mask their lack of depth at linebacker, but that isn’t as likely this season because the Lions are much thinner at safety. The Lions let veteran Duron Harmon go this off-season even though he was both their leader in snaps played at safety with 1,102 and also their only safety to earn even an average grade from PFF and, not only did they not replace him, but they also let Jayron Kearse, who played 503 snaps, leave as well. 

Kearse struggled last season like rest of the Lions’ other safeties, but without him and Harmon the Lions are left with a shaky starting duo of Will Harris and Tracy Walker and lack any proven depth behind them, with 2019 undrafted free agent CJ Moore and his 81 career snaps possibly to be the first one off the bench in case of injury. Both Walker and Harris are recent third round picks, drafted in 2018 and 2019 respectively, so they both have upside, but they both come with a lot of downside. 

Walker would seem to have the most potential as he flashed a lot of promise on 268 snaps as a rookie before finishing 26th among safeties on PFF in 843 snaps in his second season in the league in 2019, but he saw that rank fall all the way to 86th out of 99 eligible on 755 snaps last season, leaving a once promising once safety with a less certain future. He has bounce back potential, but that’s not a guarantee. 

Harris, meanwhile, finished 84th among 98 eligible safeties on PFF across 668 snaps as a rookie in 2019 and last season found himself largely buried on the depth chart, playing the 4th most snaps by a Lions defense with 312, despite staying healthy for all 16 games. He also didn’t seem to be noticeably better than his rookie year, even in a lesser role. The Lions are really putting a lot of faith in two inconsistent at best young players as season long starters at a position with very suspect depth.

Things aren’t much better at cornerback, where the Lions didn’t have a single player exceed 60 snaps and earn even an average grade from PFF for the season. The Lions cleared out disappointing veterans Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, and Darryl Roberts, who all struggled across 324 snaps, 470 snaps, and 469 snaps respectively last season, and replaced them with veteran free agent additions Quinton Dunbar and Corn Elder and 3rd round draft pick Ifeatu Melifonwu, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in this group.

Melifonwu has the tools to develop into a starter long-term, but he enters the league very raw, so Dunbar is definitely the more intriguing short-term addition. Dunbar’s contract season went about as bad as it could have gone, as, shortly after he was sent to the Seahawks for a 5th round pick for demanding a massive extension ahead of the final year of his contract, Dunbar was arrested and, while the charges were eventually dropped before he missed any game time with suspension, things did not get better from there, as Dunbar was dealt with injuries all season that caused him to finish the year ranked 119th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and ended his season after just 397 snaps in 6 games. 

Dunbar was arguably justified in asking for big money last off-season, following a shockingly dominant 2019 campaign in which he finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback, but his contract year was so bad that Dunbar had to settle for a one-year deal worth just 1.1275 million this off-season. Dunbar could prove to be a steal for the Lions, but even in that 2019 season, Dunbar was limited to 613 snaps in 11 games by injury, which has been a key issue for him throughout his career. 

In total, the 2015 undrafted free agent has missed a third of his games, 32 of his 96, since entering the league 6 seasons ago and 2019 was the only season in his career where he even topped 397 snaps in a season, as largely a middling depth cornerback aside from 2019. Dunbar is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he is a former undrafted free agent with durability issues and his 2019 campaign will almost definitely go down as a complete fluke. 

Dunbar’s primary competition for a starting job will likely be Amani Oruwariye, who made 15 starts for this team in 2020, but finished 108th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. He showed a lot more promise as a 5th round rookie in 2019, but that was across just 215 snaps, so it’s not a guarantee he ever develops into a capable starter. Dunbar likely is the higher upside option, for at least as long as he can stay healthy, and should be considered the favorite to win that competition.

If Dunbar wins the starting job, he will start opposite another cornerback the Lions are hoping will bounce back in 2021, Jeff Okudah, a high potential cornerback who the Lions selected 3rd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, only to watch him finish his rookie season as PFF’s 125th ranked cornerback among 136 eligible in an injury plagued season that was heavily affected by injuries that limited him to 460 snaps total on the season. It’s not hard to see how Okudah could be a lot better in 2021 and beyond, but the rough start to his career makes him a much shakier long-term projection than he looked a year ago, when he was seen by most as the top defender in the draft class outside of Chase Young.

Dunbar, Okudah, Oruwariye, and even Melifonwu are all best as outside cornerbacks, so slot specialist Corn Elder is likely to be the #3 cornerback regardless of how the snaps are broken out outside. A 4th round pick in 2017, Elder played just 63 total defensive snaps across his first 3 seasons in the league, but injuries were a big part of the problem and in a much healthier 2020 season, he played 411 snaps and showed potential in the first significant action of his career, almost all of which came on the slot. 

Elder should play that same role in Detroit and could easily set a career high in snaps if he can continue to stay healthy, though that’s far from a guarantee. Very little is guaranteed in this group, but there is at least the upside for this group to be noticeably improved over last year’s disaster. Still, when you add in the Lions shaky starting duo and lack of depth at safety, you get a secondary that still enters the season as one of the worst in the league on paper.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Most teams have at least something to feel confident in going into the season, but the Lions are one of the few teams in the league who figure to almost definitely be below average on both sides of the ball. Perhaps their league worst defense will be a few spots improved over last year’s group, but the decline of this offense will likely be greater than any improvement by their defense, a huge problem for a team that already finished 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential last season. 

Additionally, while the three teams who ranked below them, the Jaguars, Jets, and Bengals, have exciting young quarterbacks who were selected in the top-2 picks of the past two drafts and could be significantly better in 2021, while the Lions figure to be worse and have yet to even attempt to find a long-term signal caller and instead will commit 51.8 million to subpar veteran Jared Goff over the next two seasons. 

If there is a plan that results in this team rising back into playoff contention and possibly finally going beyond that, it’s at least 2-3 years out, after this team finds a long-term franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal that will give them the flexibility to build around him, once other veteran contracts have come off their books, and that’s assuming the Lions draft better than they have in recent drafts and are able to give this roster the infusion of talented youngsters it needs with their upcoming draft capital.

In the meantime will be a team that is neither competitive in the short-term nor full of intriguing young long-term prospects. Perhaps the Lions will be able to find their franchise quarterback in next year’s draft after a 2021 season that is likely to result in a high draft pick, perhaps the #1 overall, though it’s worth noting next year’s quarterback class figures to be a significant dropoff from this past year’s. Still, bottoming out and getting a high pick would probably be the best outcome this season for this team, as winning a few games will only set their rebuild back, but even bottoming out isn’t a guaranteed outcome, as they have enough talent that they could pull a few upsets and end up outside of the top few picks. I will have a final prediction for the Lions at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Tennessee Titans 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Prior to a couple of seasons ago, the Titans had not been known for their offense in recent memory, as they went almost two decades without a top-10 finish in first down rate for a season. That changed in 2019, when they finished 9th, and more specifically the change was when the Titans inserted veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill into the starting lineup, replacing inconsistent and injury prone former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota midway through a week 6 loss. Tannehill kept the job the rest of the way, a stretch that saw the Titans rebound from a 2-4 start to go 7-3 in their final 10 regular season games to make the post-season at 9-7, where they pulled a pair of upsets on the road en route to a surprising AFC Championship appearance.

Tannehill was not the only reason for the Titans success during that stretch and I will get into that more later, but he was a clear upgrade at quarterback and allowed an otherwise talented offense to shine. PFF’s top ranked quarterback, Tannehill finished the 2019 regular season with a 117.5 QB rating that also led the NFL, completing 70.3% of his passes for an average of 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and, while his playoff numbers were underwhelming, as he completed just 36 of 60 for 369 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception in 3 games, the Titans still decided to lock Tannehill up long-term as a free agent last off-season, signing him a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal that functionally guarantees him 91 million through 3 seasons.

As surprising as the Titans’ AFC Championship run was, it was an even more surprising turn of events for Tannehill. In seven seasons in Miami after being selected 8th overall in 2012, Tannehill never posted higher than a 93.5 QB rating or ranked higher than 9th on PFF for a season, and he was especially disappointing at the end of his tenure, missing 24 games with injury in his final 3 seasons and finishing dead last on PFF among 39th eligible quarterbacks in his final season with the team in 2018. That led to Tannehill having to take a pay cut down to 7 million plus incentives for the 2019 season, with the Dolphins paying 5 million of that just to get the Titans to take him off their hands for a mid round pick. A year later, the Titans were guaranteeing him 91 million and, as crazy as it sounds, it was an understandable decision at the time.

It was also a decision that largely paid off in year one, as Tannehill continued to play at a high level, ranking 6th among quarterbacks on PFF, completing 65.5% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions (106.5 QB rating) and leading an offense that was improved even from 2019, with Tannehill now the season long starter, as they ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate over expected. Unfortunately, while the Titans did exceed 2019’s win total as well in a 11-5 season, they did not exceed their playoff performance, falling short at home in the first round.

Tannehill again struggled in the playoff game, completing 18 of 32 for 165 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, which is starting to become a worrying theme for a quarterback making significant money, but the bigger problem for the Titans last season was their defense, which was almost the polar opposite of their offense, ranking 30th in first down rate allowed over expected, leading to the Titans ranking just 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.31%, despite their record. 

Normally teams with strong offenses and weak defenses can expect their defense to improve more than their offense declines the following season, leading to overall improvement, but the Titans are starting from a lower base point than their 2019 record suggests. Not only did the Titans benefit from a 7-2 record in one-score games last season, but they also had a league leading +11 turnover margin, which is one of the least predictive team stats from year-to-year, and they faced one of the easiest schedules in the league as well.

On top of that, there are reasons to be considered with Tannehill and this offense. Tannehill’s contract may have been justifiable, but it was part of the reason why the Titans lacked financial flexibility this off-season, which caused the Titans to lose four players this off-season who started week one for them on offense in 2020. In addition, the Titans lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the Falcons and his ascension to the Titans’ offensive coordinator job two off-seasons ago coincided with this team’s rise and Ryan Tannehill’s improvement. The Titans are also highly reliant on running back Derrick Henry, arguably even more so than Tannehill, despite Tannehill’s impressive statistical production and, while Henry is clearly one of the best runners of the football in the league, rushing production tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than passing production, which I will get into more later.

All of this is especially a concern because, as well as Tannehill has played over the past two seasons, he still has a significantly longer history of struggling in Miami with lesser supporting casts and coaching. If the Titans can’t be as good around the quarterback or as well coordinated as they have been over the past two seasons, the effects of that could compound with Tannehill’s play dropping off significantly, as well as the play of his supporting cast. If the Titans can’t be noticeably improved on defense, they could have a tough time even topping .500 in 2021.

One particular concern for this Titans offense is their lack of a proven backup quarterback with Logan Woodside, who has just 3 career pass attempts since being drafted in the 7th round in 2018, and Deshone Kizer, last seen as the primary starting quarterback of the 0-16 Browns, currently being their only other quarterbacks on the roster. The Titans were lucky in general last year with injuries, with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, but they were also the only team in the league whose starting quarterback and featured running back(s) didn’t miss any time due to injury, something that could easily not repeat itself in 2021, which would especially comprise this team’s chances to win games. Even if Tannehill doesn’t play as well as he has the past two seasons, the Titans badly need him to continue to stay healthy and not revert to his injury prone days from the end of his tenure in Miami.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, as well as Ryan Tannehill has played over the past two seasons, this offense has been very reliant on running back Derrick Henry playing at a high level. Not only has Henry produced at a high level himself, but the threat of him carrying the ball has led to the Titans having one of the best play action passing games in the league, as Tannehill ranked 3rd in the NFL in 2019 with an increase of 5.7 YPA on play action plays vs. non-play action plays and then ranked 6th in 2020 with an increase of 2.8 YPA.

A second round pick in 2016, Henry didn’t make a huge impact in his first two seasons in the league, rushing for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns touchdowns on 110 carries (4.45 YPC) as a rookie and then 744 yards and 5 touchdowns on 176 carries (4.23 YPC) as a sophomore, but he broke out in his third season in year, rushing for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.93 YPC) and he has continued to improve his rushing totals in every season since, rushing for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 carries (5.08 YPC) in 2019 and then rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on 378 carries (5.36 YPC) in 2020, becoming just the 8th running back to surpass 2000 rushing yards in a season. He also finished as PFF’s #1 ranked running back in rushing grade last season, his 3rd straight season in the top-10 at his position.

In Henry’s breakout third season in 2018, he began the season with more of the same from his first two seasons, rushing for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.33 YPC) in the first 8 games of the season, before exploding for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns on 125 carries (6.07 YPC) in the final 8 games of the season. He has continued that trend in 2019 and 2020 as well, rushing for 3.85 YPC on 151 carries in the first 8 games in 2019, followed by 6.31 YPC on 152 carries in the final 8 games, and then in 2020, rushing for 4.63 YPC on 182 carries in the first 8 games in 2019, followed by 6.03 YPC on 196 carries in the final 8 games. A uniquely bruising running back at 6-3 247, Henry seems to get noticeably better as defenses get tired as seasons go on, averaging over 6 yards per carry in the second half of each of the past three seasons.

All of this being said, there is concern that Henry won’t be able to keep this up. Running backs are notoriously injury prone as a position group, but beyond that, running game production also tends to be much more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than passing game production. In fact, there is almost no history of a running back producing like Henry did last season and then repeating it the following season. Of the 22 running backs ever to rush for more than 1,700 yards in a season, only 7 of them ever surpassed that total again in their career, only one of them repeated it a third time, only 3 surpassed that total again the following season, and only 2 improved their rushing total.

In total those 22 running backs rushed for an average of 1,867 yards on 367 carries (5.09 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in 30 total seasons with more than 1,700 rushing yards, but the following season, they saw their YPC fall by 13.9%, their carries fall by 23.7%, their rushing yards fall by 34.3%, and their rushing touchdowns fall by a whopping 41.8%. Applying those percentages to Henry’s 2020 production gets 1,332 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.62 YPC), which are good totals and he’ll get a 17th game to add to them this season, but if Henry is only good instead of incredible, it’s not hard to see how this offense could fall significantly, especially given the other losses they have on this offense. He could especially struggle by his standards early in the season, like he has over the past three seasons, before turning it up in the second half of the season again.

The worst case scenario would obviously be a Henry injury, especially because they lack a proven backup behind him. The Titans used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on Darrynton Evans to be that backup and it’s possible he still could develop into that, but he barely played as a rookie, seeing just 16 touches on 33 carries. Instead, it was veteran journeyman Jeremy McNichols who ranked 2nd on this team with 271 snaps by a running back, primarily spelling Henry in passing situations, where Henry notoriously struggles (his 19 career catches in 2020 were a career back). Despite being a passing down back specialist, he really struggled in that aspect of the game as well, averaging just 0.36 yards per route run and 3.24 yards per target. 

McNichols didn’t do much as a runner either, averaging 4.34 YPC on 47 carries. McNichols remains on the roster and could remain in his backup role, but the 2017 5th round pick bounced around 7 teams in his first 3 seasons in the league and managed just 2 carries over that span, so he really doesn’t have much of a track record at all. The Titans are almost definitely hoping Evans can show more in year two and beat McNichols out for the passing down specialist role. Either way, neither back figures to see more than a few carries per game and the Titans would be in trouble regardless of which one would be the lead back in Henry’s absence.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Note: This was written before the Julio Jones trade, which I get into in the conclusion.

The group on this offense that lost the most this off-season is the receiving corps, which saw 4 of its top-6 in receiving yards leave this off-season, including #2 wide receiver Corey Davis, starting tight end Jonnu Smith, and week one starting slot receiver Adam Humphries, who was ultimately limited to just 7 games by injuries that led to his release this off-season. The Titans also did very little to replace them, only signing middling veteran Josh Reynolds in free agency and adding a pair of draft picks in the 4th and 6th round. #1 receiver AJ Brown remains and Reynolds is expected to start opposite him, but he may be overmatched in a #2 receiver role and the Titans will need at least one other unproven young player to step up as the 3rd receiver.

Brown should benefit from the losses around him in this receiving corps by seeing more balls come his way, which should benefit a player who has averaged a league leading 2.66 yards per route run and and a league leading 11.1 yards per target since entering the league two off-seasons ago as a second round rookie, but he also figures to see a lot more frequent double teams without another consistent option in this passing game to take away coverage, which will almost definitely hurt his efficiency. Now in his third season in the league, Brown still looks likely to have the best statistical year of his career due to the lack of other targets in the passing game, but he’s also unlikely to be as efficient, which figures to hurt this offense as a whole.

Reynolds, meanwhile, was never more than the #3 or #4 receiver with the Rams in the first four seasons of his career, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2017. His 52/618/2 slash line from last season was a career high, but even still his 1.26 yards per route run average was unimpressive and only a minor improvement over his 1.19 career yards per route run average. Reynolds should get more opportunity than he ever has before (his career high is 81 targets), even on a Titans team that figures to be run heavy once again, but he’s likely to be overmatched as a #2 receiver and even if he does post decent receiving totals, he probably won’t be very efficient.

As for the #3 receiver role, the Titans don’t have a clear option. Cameron Batson is their top returning receiver behind AJ Brown, but he had just a 12/100/1 slash line and has averaged just 0.69 yards per route run for his career since going undrafted in 2018. 2020 undrafted free agent Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was even less productive last season, catching just 3 passes and averaging 0.52 yards per route run. The Titans signed veteran Chester Rogers in free agency, but he averaged just 1.04 yards per route run in 4 seasons with the Colts from 2016-2019 and was out of the league entirely in 2020. Unless one of their rookies, 4th rounder Dez Fitzpatrick or 6th rounder Racey McMath, can step up in a big way, the Titans have a very thin wide receiver group.

Tight end Jonnu Smith is also gone and, while his 41/448/8 slash line from 2020 is both underwhelming and a career high, he has been better than that suggests, averaging 1.64 yards per route run and 8.14 yards per target over the past two seasons. His raw totals are the result of splitting time with other tight ends and of being asked to block on 61.1% of his snaps over that stretch, both in the run game in this run-heavy offense and as a pass protector as well. The Titans did not replace him in free agency and will instead rely on bigger roles from the two tight ends that Smith was rotating with.

Geoff Swaim is a blocking specialist who has just 57 career catches in 53 games, so the majority of tight end targets figure to go to Anthony Firkser, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has flashed potential over the past three seasons, but is a projection to a larger role. He’s never run more than 232 routes in a season, but he has a career 1.69 yards per route run average as a rotational tight end, so he does have obvious upside. 

Whether or not Firkser can translate that into a larger role is a question though, as is his run blocking, so, even though the Titans have still other tight ends, the Titans will still miss Jonnu Smith, their most complete and productive tight end. That is especially true when you consider how thin the Titans are at wide receiver as well. Outside of AJ Brown, who figures to see frequent double teams, the Titans really are lacking for consistent, proven pass catching options.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Titans also lost right tackle Dennis Kelly this off-season, the second straight off-season they lost their starting right tackle. Jack Conklin last off-season was a bigger loss because he was a better player, but the Titans look likely to start unproven second round rookie this season Dillon Radunz in place of Kelly, who last season was a solid starter in place of Conklin. Originally, Kelly wasn’t supposed to be the replacement for Conklin, as the Titans used their first round pick last year on an offensive tackle in Isaiah Wilson, but Wilson proved to be one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory. 

Not only did Wilson lose to journeyman backup Dennis Kelly in the starting right tackle competition, but he didn’t impress the coaching staff enough to get on the field even as the Titans also lost their first and second string left tackles to injury and he caused enough headaches off the field for the Titans to send him to the Dolphins for a late round pick this off-season. That proved to be a relatively smart move, as Wilson never reported to the Dolphins and was released for nothing a couple weeks later.


If the Titans don’t want to start the rookie Radunz to begin the season, their options are limited to swing tackle types in Ty Sambrailo, David Quessenberry, and Kendall Lamm. Sambrailo was a 2nd round pick of the Broncos back in 2015, but the 5 starts he made last season when left tackle Taylor Lewan went down for the season were a career high and he was underwhelming, as he has been throughout his career. 

Sambrailo also suffered a season ending injury of his own, leaving David Quessenberry to make the first 6 starts of his career in his absence and he was underwhelming as well, in his first extended playing experience. A 6th round pick in 2013, Quessenberry’s career was put on hold for several years due to cancer treatments, but, as impressive as his journey and ascension to the starting lineup last season is, he’s already heading into his age 31 season and would be an underwhelming season long starting option. 

Kendall Lamm was added to the mix in free agency, after spending the past two seasons as a swing tackle with the Browns. Lamm made 13 starts for the Texans in 2018, but was underwhelming and has otherwise made just 14 starts in his other five seasons in the league. If any of the Titans’ veterans have to start at right tackle, it would be a bad sign for the rookie and it would likely make right tackle a position of weakness, which could be the case even if Radunz wins the job, although he’d obviously give them the highest upside of their options.

Fortunately, the Titans will benefit from getting left tackle Taylor Lewan back after he was limited to just 237 snaps in 5 games last season. Lewan is coming off of a major injury and is now heading into his age 30 season, but he’s been an above average starting left tackle for this team since the Titans selected him in the first round in 2014, making 85 starts over that stretch and maxing out as PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2016. 

Lewan did show some signs of slowing down even before the injury and, though that was in a small sample size, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play less than his best in his return. Lewan has also missed time with injury in five of seven seasons in the league. Even still, the Titans will take it compared to last season, as, even at less than his best, Lewan should still be a solid starter at one of the game’s most important positions and should be expected to play at least most of the season. Whoever loses the right tackle battle will also provide depth on the left side and would step in if needed, so the Titans don’t have terrible depth.

On the interior, the Titans return all three starters, left tackle Rodger Saffold, center Ben Jones, and right guard Nate Davis, but there are concerns with Saffold heading into his age 33 season, Jones heading into his age 32 season, and with the trio missing just one game between them last season, something that might not continue into 2021. Saffold and Jones still played well last season, ranking 16th among guards and 4th among centers on PFF respectively, but they could easily regress this season, given their ages. They also are both on streaks of 5 straight seasons and 9 straight seasons respectively where they have started at last 15 games and earned an above average grade from PFF, but I would bet against them both doing so this season, as it’s likely at least one of them will significantly decline and/or get hurt.

Davis is much younger than Saffold and Jones, going into just his third season in the league since being selected in the 3rd round by the Titans in 2019. Davis might not be as good as he was last season either though. His 18th ranked finish among guards on PFF well exceeded his rookie rank of 81st out of 82 eligible (in 12 starts), so it’s possible he regresses a little, but he also may have turned a corner as a player and will continue developing into an above average starter, after being overmatched as a rookie. Overall, this offensive line has more questions going into the season than they have had the past few seasons, but the return of left tackle Taylor Lewan will obviously benefit them and it’s possible they could be an above average unit if they can stay relatively healthy.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

While the Titans had problems last season throughout their defense, which was one of the worst in the league, nowhere did they have a bigger problem than their pass rush, specifically their edge rush. The Titans had the third fewest sacks in the league last season with 19 and, aside from Harold Landry and his 5.5 sacks, they didn’t have a single edge rusher with more than a single sack last season. 

That was a massive disappointment for a team that made big investments in the position last off-season, signing Jadevon Clowney to a 1-year, 13 million dollar deal and Vic Beasley to a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal, only to watch neither of them manage a sack all season or to finish the season healthy with the team, with Beasley being released midway through the season after being benched and Clowney going on injured reserve after week 10, before signing with the Browns on another one-year deal in free agency this off-season.

With limited financial flexibility, in part due to the big contract they gave Tannehill last off-season, it didn’t seem like the Titans would be able to make the same kind of financial investment at the position this off-season and instead would have to address the position in the draft, but the Titans released players at other positions, most notably cornerback, to free up the money to sign Steelers edge defender Bud Dupree to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that guarantees him 34 million over the next two seasons. The Titans then used that first round pick on a cornerback, as well as a third round pick, and I will get into all of that in the cornerback section, but it’s very possible that Dupree will not prove to be worth what the Titans paid him and that the team will be worse off for having cut salary at other positions to hand him a big contract.

A first round pick in 2015, Dupree looked like a bust in his first four seasons in the league, with 20 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate in 54 games and unremarkable play against the run and, while he broke out with a 11.5-sack season in 2019, his peripheral pass rush stats were not as impressive, as he totaled 9 hits and just a 9.4% pressure rate, suggesting his sack total was more the product of playing on a talented defense with disruptive players all around him. 

Dupree played the run well in 2019 though and overall finished 24th among edge defenders on PFF, but that was an obvious outlier in his career, so the Steelers franchise tagged him for 2020 rather than giving him a long-term extension, making Dupree prove it again. He did not, finishing with 8 sacks, 10 hits, a 11.8% pressure rate, and a middling grade from PFF, before tearing his ACL in December. It seemed like all that would hurt his stock significantly in free agency, but it did not, with the Titans handing out a contract that looks even worse when compared with the cold markets most free agents were met with in a reduced cap year. A player who has never posted an impressive sack total without dominant players around him and who has a concerning injury history, Dupree is the prototype of an edge defender that winds up not being worth his contract.

Dupree will start opposite Harold Landry, who was the only edge defender who did anything beneficial for this team last season. Landry was only a middling edge defender, earning a middling grade from PFF and totaling 5.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate, but that was better than the rest of the position group. That is also in line with what we’ve seen from him in 3 seasons in the league since being selected in the 2nd round in 2018, as he’s totaled 19 sacks, 24 hits, and a 9.5% pressure rate in 47 career games. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he still has another level that he will show this season, but he also could easily remain just a middling starter.

Depth is also a major concern at this position, as their only other edge defender addition this off-season was 4th round pick Rashad Weaver and their top returning reserve is Derick Roberson, a 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled on 248 snaps in the first significant experience of his career, not managing a sack and totaling just 2 hits and a 7.6% pressure rate. Weaver has some upside and could easily win the top reserve job as a rookie, but both would likely be overmatched if they had to see significant action.

Harold Landry played the most snaps among edge defenders in the league last season, after ranking 3rd in 2019, and, even with Dupree coming off of a major injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of them rank among the league leaders in snaps per game at their position because of the Titans lack of depth options. That figures to make them less efficient on a per snap basis and leave them more susceptible to injury, in which case the Titans would be in big trouble. This position group is better than a year before, but only by default, as it’s still a shaky group overall.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Titans are better on the interior, with a group led by 2019 1st round pick Jeffrey Simmons, who may already be their best defensive player. The Titans took a major chance on Simmons when they selected him 19th overall because he had off-the-field concerns and was coming off of a torn ACL suffered in the pre-draft process that caused him to ultimately miss the first 6 games of his career. However, Simmons would have been a likely top-5 pick if not for the injuries and off-the-field concerns and he showed why by making an instant impact as a rookie and not looking back since. 

Simmons flashed on 315 rookie year snaps, particularly against the run, and took a big step forward in his second season, another year removed from the injury. Remaining a dominant run stuffer, Simmons added 3 sacks, 11 hits, and a 7.6% pressure rate from the interior and ended the season as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender overall. Still only going into his age 24 season, Simmons looks like he could develop into one of the better players at his position in the entire league over the next few seasons and, while development isn’t always linear, I would expect another strong season from him in 2021, now over two years removed from his injury.

The Titans lost DaQuan Jones, a long-time starting interior defender and high level run defender for this team, but they replaced him with another veteran in Denico Autry, who seems likely to take over Jones’ old job. Jones and Autry are very dissimilar players though, as Jones is a big 6-4 320 run stuffer who can play some nose tackle, but has just a 5.8% career pressure rate with 9 sacks in 99 games, while Autry is built more like a big edge defender at 6-5 270. He leaves something to be desired against the run, but at the same time, he’s compiled 30.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate in 96 career games. Autry is going into his age 31 season and coming off of a middling overall season with the Colts, so he’s unlikely to be a huge impact player, but he could easily remain a solid starter for a team that badly needed a replacement for Jones.

Autry could also play on the edge at times, to help mask their lack of depth at that position, but that would expose their lack of depth on the interior, which remains a significant concern. No Titans reserve interior defender played more than 197 snaps last season and that player, Matt Dickerson, is no longer with the team, leaving 2020 5th round pick Larrell Murchison as their likely top reserve, even though he struggled mightily on 136 snaps as a rookie. 

Teair Tart, a 2020 undrafted free agent, has some experience on the nose and will likely see a bigger role in base packages with Jones gone, but he also struggled mightily on 155 rookie season snaps. Aside from Tart and Dickerson, inexperienced in their own right, the Titans don’t have any experienced reserves. Simmons is a high level interior defender and Autry is a capable if aging starter, but they are relying on lowly drafted or undrafted second young guys who struggled in limited action as a rookie as their top reserves, so depth is a major concern, especially if injuries strike.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

One key free agent the Titans brought back this off-season was linebacker Jayon Brown, who returns on a one-year deal worth 5.3 million. At one point, it looked like Brown could become one of the highest paid off ball linebackers in the league when he eventually signed his new contract, as the 2017 5th round pick broke out in his second season in the league in 2018, finishing 8th among off ball linebackers on PFF, and then followed that up with a 17th ranked finish in 2019, especially excelling in coverage in both seasons. 

However, a combination of things led to Brown having to take that team friendly deal. First, Brown had a down season in 2020, still covering well, but getting exposed in a big way against the run and falling to 24th among off ball linebackers on PFF. Making matters even worse, his season was limited to 10 games, being ended by an elbow injury that gave teams pause in free agency and dampened his market.

When you add in the reduced cap from lost ticket sales in 2020, you end up with a player who is still very much in his prime in his age 26 season who is one of the best every down linebackers in the league at his best settling for a one-year deal that pays him a third of the top players at his position. Even if it’s only for one year, it’s a smart deal that should pay off for the Titans, as Brown would be worth that salary even if he plays like he did last season, in his worst season as a starter.

Brown returning is especially important when you look at the rest of this linebacking corps. Fellow starter Rashaan Evans was a first round pick in 2018, but has yet to live up to his promise, earning below average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league (39 starts), especially struggling in coverage. Meanwhile, David Long, a 2019 6th round pick, struggled on 378 snaps in the first significant action of his career in place of the injured Brown last season. 

Had Brown not been brought back, the Titans would have had to start Evans and Long together, but instead Brown will start opposite Evans, who the Titans will be hoping can finally take a step forward in his fourth year in the league, and Long will be a reserve, a role he is more qualified for. The Titans also added Georgia’s Monty Rice in the 3rd round to give them even more depth at the position. He’ll begin his career as a reserve, but the long-term plan is likely for him to start, with Brown on a one-year deal and Evans heading into a contract year, now after having his 5th year guaranteed option declined. With Brown being brought back and additional depth being added through the draft, this is a decent group overall.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As I mentioned, cornerback is the group that took the biggest hit from the Titans needing to free up cap space for Bud Dupree. Projected starting cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson were released ahead of non-guaranteed salaries of 12.2 million and 10.244 million respectively, while top slot cornerback Desmond King signed with the Texans in free agency, after the Titans already released their former slot cornerback Johnathan Joseph mid-season when they acquired King in a trade from the Chargers. 

With those players gone, the Titans will rely on some combination of 2020 2nd round pick Kristian Fulton, who saw just 203 snaps as a rookie, veteran free agent acquisitions Kevin Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, and 1st and 3rd round rookies Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden. First round pick Caleb Farley definitely has the highest upside of the bunch, but he’s also a major question mark, coming off of off-season back surgery that dropped him from being a likely top-10 pick to the Titans at 22. 

Farley also has an injury history beyond this recent injury and he opted out of the 2020 season, so he comes into the NFL with limited tape and experience and a major injury history, including a serious injury he is currently dealing with, making him a big risk, especially for a team that already had to cut ties with last year’s first round pick for almost nothing. Fulton doesn’t have the same upside as Farley, but he still projects as a starter long-term, despite an underwhelming rookie year. The slot might be his most likely path to snaps in 2021. Third round pick Elijah Molden projects as a good slot cornerback long-term, but might not be ready to contribute in a meaningful way as a rookie.

As for the veterans, Janoris Jenkins is definitely the more accomplished of the veterans, making 125 starts in his career and earning an average or better grade from PFF in every season of his career, but he’s now going into his age 33 season and hasn’t finished above 42nd among cornerbacks on PFF since 2016. He could remain a capable starter and is likely to see a significant amount of starts even if Farley is healthy, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see his abilities fall off significantly, given his age, and I don’t think he comes with much upside anymore either. He was a bit of an overpay on a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season, given what other cornerbacks received this off-season.

Kevin Johnson comes cheaper than Jenkins, signing a 1-year deal worth 2.25 million, but there is a good reason for that as Johnson has been highly injury prone in his career, missing a third of his career games, 32 of 96, and not playing more than 579 snaps in a season since back when the former first round pick was a rookie in 2015. Johnson flashed potential when healthier earlier in his career, but the injuries have to have caught up with him, as he was PFF’s 107th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible on 575 snaps with the Browns last season. Only going into his age 29 season, Johnson could be better in 2021, but he could just as easily struggle or miss a significant chunk of the season. The Titans have a reasonably deep cornerback group, but are working with a group that is a combination of inexperienced, aging, and injury prone.

At safety, the Titans lost starting safety Kenny Vaccaro, but that was more by design, as Vaccaro struggled last season, finishing 63rd among 99 eligible safeties, and the Titans have a ready made replacement for him in Amani Hooker, a 2019 4th round pick who has flashed a lot of upside on 805 career snaps and arguably should have taken Vaccaro’s starting job last season. Depth is a bit of a concern now, but the Titans did sign Matthias Farley, who has only once played more than 201 snaps in a season in his career, but proved to be a solid starter in that season, finishing 28th among safeties on PFF in 15 starts. That was back in 2017, but Farley is still only going into his age 29 season and is not a bad depth option, as he plays special teams and can start at safety if needed.

The Titans also retain top safety Kevin Byard, although he had a down year last year, a big part of the reason why the Titans struggled so much defensively last season. Byard broke out in his second season in the league in 2017, finishing 8th among safeties on PFF and then followed that up finishing 7th in 2018 and 14th in 2019, but he fell to 34th in 2020 and especially struggled in coverage. He allowed almost as many receiving yards last season as he had his previous two seasons combined and he saw his interception total fall to just 1 after picking off 17 combined over the previous 3 seasons, even though he was also targeted a career high amount in 2020. 

Byard is still in his prime in his age 28 season and he has been otherwise very reliable, not missing a game in five seasons in the league, so last season’s performance was probably random variance more than anything, showing the floor for a durable and otherwise high level safety. I would expect him to bounce back in 2021, perhaps in a big way, which would be a big boost for a defense that otherwise doesn’t look significantly improved over last year’s horrible group, spending what little financial flexibility to overpay Bud Dupree and then having to replace their cornerback group with draft picks and cheap free agent signings.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Titans went 11-5 last season, but were reliant on an easy schedule, a 7-2 record in one score games, a league best +11 turnover margin, and the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, four things that all could easily not continue into 2021. On top of that, the Titans lost talent around the quarterback on offense this off-season and, while their defense should be better by default, it still is a below average unit overall on paper. 

The Titans are one of the higher variance teams in the league and could continue winning like they have the past two seasons if Tannehill can continue producing like a top level quarterback despite less talent around him and if Derrick Henry can continue producing like the best runner in the league despite less talent around him and a ton of mileage on his treads over the past few years at a position known for parity and attrition. Those are big ifs however and I would expect the Titans to have trouble making it back to the post-season in the most likely case. I will have a final prediction for the Titans at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Update: The Titans have swung a blockbuster move with the Falcons, acquiring Julio Jones for a 2022 2nd round pick. Jones is a big name and obviously makes the Titans better, but it’s important to realize that the Titans might not be acquiring the prime Julio Jones. Jones still played at a high level when on the field last season, averaging a 2.60 yards per route run average that ranked 9th in the NFL, but, after being plagued by nagging injuries for several seasons, Jones was limited to just 9 games in 2020 and his lowest receiving total at 51/771/3 since his injury plagued 2013 season.

On top of that, Jones is heading into his age 32 season and a look at the history shows that Jones might drop off a lot quicker than the Titans are expecting. Not only is age 31 to age 32 the biggest single season drop off in terms of elite production probability, but a 32-year-old wide receiver is about half as likely to top 1000 yards receiving in a season as a 30-year-old wide receiver and about a third as likely as a 28-year-old wide receiver, a steep drop off in a 4-year span. Even if Jones resembles his prime self for another year, he doesn’t solve all the issues with this team and, with AJ Brown already locked in as a #1 wide receiver, Jones really upgrades the #2 wide receiver spot more than anything.

Jones obviously makes the Titans better and, in an unsettled AFC South, he could be the piece that pushes them over the top, but if the Titans were overrated before this trade, they are overrated after it, perhaps even more so. In addition to giving up a premium draft pick, the Titans will also have to restructure some contracts and eat into future cap space to fit Jones’ 15.3 million dollar salary into their cap for 2021 and he’s owed another 23 million after that for 2022-2023.

Prediction: TBD

New Orleans Saints 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For over a decade, the Saints haven’t had to worry about the game’s most important position, with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees arriving before the 2006 season and playing at a high level basically every season. In total, Brees completed 68.8% of his passes for an average of 7.78 YPA, 491 touchdowns, and 190 interceptions in 228 starts with the Saints, while finishing in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in every season from 2006 to 2019, before falling off to a middling grade in 2020. Brees also led the Saints to a 142-86 regular season record in his starts, with 9 playoff appearances in 15 seasons and a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 44 at the end of the 2009 season. Now, with Brees opting to retire ahead of what would have been his age 42 season, the Saints are in very unfamiliar territory.

The Saints have gotten a taste of life without Brees over the past two seasons, as he has missed 9 games with injury over the two seasons combined, and the Saints have fared surprisingly well in those games, going 8-1, but that’s misleading and not indicative of long-term life without Brees for a couple reasons. For one, the Saints had unsustainably good luck in those 9 games, going 5-1 in one score games and only once winning by more than two scores in a game in which the Broncos had to play without any quarterbacks. They also faced a relatively easy schedule overall and if you look at how the Saints’ offense played in those games, it’s not hard to see how they could have won those games by more points had Brees been available.

The Saints also had a very strong roster outside of the quarterback position on both sides of the ball, much stronger than they figure to have in the post-Brees era. The Saints for the past several seasons have managed their cap like the next season was going to Brees’ last, constantly squeezing every cent out of their cap and mortgaging future cap space to spend among the most money in the league on their roster in every season. The results were good, at least in the regular season, as the Saints went 49-15 over the past 4 seasons, the best record in the NFL over that stretch, and their supporting cast has been as much the reason for that as Brees.

However, the Saints never got a Super Bowl out of it, in part due to some bad luck in the post-season, and now the bill is coming due and at the worst possible time, with the cap shrinking for the first time in years due to lost revenue from lack of in person attendance. The Saints had to part with several key contributors this off-season without being able to add much in the way of replacements and, even still, they are up against this year’s cap and projected to be slightly over next year’s cap. 

That could change depending on where next year’s cap ends up, but it’s clear that the Saints are going to be in a tough financial situation for at least the next couple years, as they are paying for years of spending beyond their means in an attempt at one last Super Bowl run. That means whoever the Saints next starting quarterback is won’t have the luxury of having the talent around him on this roster that Drew Brees did.

Who that quarterback will be is yet to be determined and Brees’ recent missed time hasn’t really made their long-term plans at the position clearer. Teddy Bridgewater was their replacement for Brees when he missed time in 2019, but he parlayed that into starting jobs in Carolina and Denver. Bridgewater was replaced last off-season by ex-Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback off the bench in place of Brees when he went down last season, completed 6 of 10 for 63 yards and in the second half of a win over the 49ers, with Taysom Hill remaining in his usual role as a wildcat quarterback/pass catcher.

However, the Saints switched things up for the four full games that Brees missed, giving Hill the opportunity to start and play a full game at quarterback for the first time ever in his age 30 season, while Winston didn’t attempt a pass throughout the four games. Hill left something to be desired as a passer, but was ultimately better than expected in the four games, completing 71.9% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. 

Where Hill really added value was on the ground, unsurprising given his athleticism, rushing for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns on 39 carries (5.36 YPC). He was only PFF’s 20th ranked quarterback out of 35 eligible for those 4 games and, like in 2019 when Bridgewater was out, the Saints’ offensive efficiency went down noticeably with Brees out of the lineup, but it seemed that Hill was destined to become the successor when Brees ultimately retired, given that he’s been a favorite of head coach Sean Payton’s for years and didn’t faceplant in his 4-game tryout, while Winston was set to hit free agency again.

However, the Saints brought back Winston on a 1-year, 5.5 million deal in free agency and he seems to be not only a competitor for the starting job, but according to some reports, the favorite to win the job. Hill’s salary is substantially more, as he’s set to make 12.159 million in the final year of his contract in 2021, but that could be more representative of his overall role as a versatile, positionless player rather than him being cemented as the starting quarterback.

Winston has plenty of experience, with 70 career starts with the Buccaneers, and he’s a former #1 overall pick (2015) who is only going into his age 27 season, but he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career and has never finished higher than 15th in a season on PFF. Overall, he’s completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 121 touchdowns, and 88 interceptions in his career. Being with Sean Payton in New Orleans is one of the best places a quarterback like Winston could be and, in fact, Payton took on a pretty big reclamation project when the Saints first signed Drew Brees, who was replaced with the Chargers by Philip Rivers and passed over by the Dolphins for Daunte Culpepper. 

That’s not to say that Winston is going to become a future Hall of Famer, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Winston could earn the starting job and Payton could coax the best season of his career out of him. That’s probably a more likely scenario than Taysom Hill suddenly becoming a more than replacement level starting quarterback for the first time in his career in his age 31 season and it would allow Hill to continue in his unique role as a runner (5.36 career YPC on 151 carries), passer (7.81 career YPA on 134 attempts), and receiver (30 career catches for 336 yards and 7 touchdowns). It’s a position group with some upside, but it’s hard to understate how much the Saints will miss Drew Brees, even if he wasn’t at his best in 2020.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

I will get into the positions where the Saints have concerns later, but whoever wins the starting quarterback job will still have some talent around them, especially at the running back position, led by feature back Alvin Kamara. Kamara has never had more than 194 carries in a season, but he’s averaged a 4.97 YPC in his career that is the 4th highest in the NFL since he entered the league in 2017 among all running backs with at least 600 carries over that stretch, and he makes up for his lack of heavy carries with his usage in the passing game, as he’s had at least 80 catches in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, averaging 8.66 yards per catch and totaling 15 receiving touchdowns, to go with his 43 rushing touchdowns. 

Overall, Kamara has finished in the top-8 among running backs in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, with the exception of a 2019 campaign in which he was at less than 100% for most of the season due to injury. He plays a position with a higher than average chance of injury and higher than average positional turnover, but he’s only missed 4 games total in 4 seasons in the league and, still only going into his age 26 season, he’s about as close to a sure thing as there is at the running back position in the entire NFL. 

Kamara also doesn’t need to take on a massive workload as a runner because the Saints have power back Latavius Murray as a complement. The 6-3 230 pound Murray has seen 146 carries exactly in each of his two seasons with the Saints and has overall rushed for 9 touchdowns and a 4.42 YPC average. His age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, but the Saints don’t rely on him for a huge workload either, so he could continue being an effective complement for another couple seasons. He doesn’t add much value as a receiver, but Kamara will play the vast majority of passing downs.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Kamara will also once again be relied on for a heavy load in the passing game, though it’s arguable if he’ll be used quite as much. On one hand, the Saints’ two quarterback options both have strong arms and they might not have as many check downs in the playbook as they did under Drew Brees, who famously loved targeting running backs in the passing game throughout his career, especially when he lost arm strength towards the end.

On the other hand, the Saints are even thinner in the receiving corps this season than they were last season. Kamara was one of four Saints with at least 35 catches and 55 targets last season and two of the four are no longer with the team, with Emmanuel Sanders (61/726/5) and tight end Jared Cook (37/504/7) both going elsewhere this off-season, Cook as a free agent and Sanders as a cap casualty. The Saints really didn’t do anything to replace either one and instead will be counting on young players stepping up and their star offensive players taking on a large volume.

Along with Kamara, the Saints’ other star offensive player is wide receiver Michael Thomas and the Saints will get an obvious boost getting him back after he was really not healthy all season last year, following a week one high ankle sprain. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas had the most productive start to a career of any wide receiver ever before last season, posting a 92/1137/9 slash line as a rookie in 2016, a 104/1245/5 in 2017, a 125/1405/9 in 2018, and a league leading 149/1725/9 in 2019, while finishing as a top-8 wide receiver on PFF in all four seasons, including top-3 finishes from 2017-2019. However, Thomas was limited to just a 40/438/0 slash line in just 7 games last season.

Thomas only missed one game in his career prior to last season and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so he’s as close to a sure thing to bounce back as any player in the league this season and possibly a favorite for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Thomas might not be quite as productive without Drew Brees throwing him the ball, but, in an offense that lacks other proven weapons, he figures to get a massive target share and he’s proven in the past that he can make contested catches regularly against heavy coverage.

Fourth year receiver Tre’Quan Smith is expected to be the #2 receiver, barring any cheap additions the Saints may be able to make with their limited remaining cap space. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Smith has gotten opportunity to play in his career, but last season, when he finished 5th on the team in targets and had a 34/448/4 slash line, was the most productive he’s ever been, which shows you the lack of productivity from him in his career. He also finished last season as PFF’s 99th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible on a career high 672 snaps. 

In all, Smith has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run in his career, despite playing primarily with Drew Brees under center. It’s possible he could benefit from having a quarterback under center who throws downfield more and the Saints don’t really have much of a choice but to give him more targets than he’s ever had before, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a sudden breakout season. He is only the #2 receiver by default, as their other options for playing time are a trio of recent undrafted free agents, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Deonte Harris from 2019 and Marquez Callaway from 2020. 

Callaway played the most of the three in 2020, seeing 266 snaps, but he didn’t show much and finished with just a 21/213/0 slash line. Deonte Harris showed a little bit more, playing just 169 snaps and almost matching Callaway’s production with a 20/186/1 slash line, but he’s highly inexperienced, having played just 235 career snaps, and his 5-6 170 frame may limit him as a player. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, meanwhile, has played even less in his career, playing just 118 snaps, and has shown no sign of developing into a long-term contributor. 

Second year tight end Adam Trautman has more upside than their young wide receivers. A 3rd round pick, Trautman didn’t show much as a receiver in his rookie year with just a 15/171/1 slash line, but he was one of the better blocking tight ends in the league and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his receiving take a big step forward in 2021. He wouldn’t be the first tight end to take a big step forward in his second season in the league and his receiving production was in part limited by his usage last season, receiving the ball just 3.7 yards from the line of scrimmage on his average catch and showing impressive after the catch ability with 7.7 yards after per catch. With the starting tight end job to himself and a quarterback under center who figures to throw downfield more, Trautman has the potential to have a solid receiving year in this offense and figures to get a significant target share regardless.

Depth is a concern at tight end because the Saints didn’t just lose Jared Cook this off-season, but also lost long-time #2 tight end Josh Hill to retirement, ahead of what would have been his age 31 season. Instead, it looks like Nick Vannett, a 5-year veteran journeyman who has never topped 29 catches in a season, will be the #2 tight end. Vannett is an adequate blocker, but little else and is unlikely to make an impact in the passing game. This passing game is very top heavy with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara at the top and question marks beyond them, and, since Kamara is counted with the running backs, that leaves the Saints with arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the league. Michael Thomas returning to form will elevate this whole group, but they desperately need at least a couple young players to step up.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

One area where the Saints remain strong is the offensive line, where they return all five starters from a unit that was among the league’s best last season. The strength of this group is the offensive tackle position, where left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk have been one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in recent years. Armstead has been a top level starting left tackle since entering the lineup in 2014, finishing in the top-24 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-8. 

Durability has always been the concern for him, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season, most recently missing a pair of games with injury last season. He will probably miss at least some time again with injury, but the Saints retained swing tackle James Hurst, so they at least have a decent insurance policy. They also have 2018 7th round pick Will Clapp as a versatile reserve, but he will probably focus on being a backup on the interior and he’s an underwhelming option anyway. 

Another growing concern with Armstead is he’s going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and isn’t necessarily going to start declining in 2021. Ramczyk, meanwhile, was added opposite Armstead in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he’s been one of the top right tackles in the league since the word go, finishing in the top-14 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a #1 ranked finish in 2019, while making 63 of 64 starts over that stretch. Very much still in his prime in his age 27 season, there is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Saints also have a talented young center in Erik McCoy, a 2nd round pick in 2019. McCoy quietly had a dominant rookie year, finishing 4th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, while he wasn’t quite as good in 2020, he still finished 11th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, still only going into his age 24 season, he looks like he will be one of the better centers in the league for years to come. 

Guard is the Saints’ weakest position upfront, even though they have a pair of former first round picks at the position. Andrus Peat was a first round pick back in 2015, but he has had trouble staying healthy, never playing all 16 games in a season, and it seems his recent injury history has caught up with him, as he hasn’t earned higher than an average grade from PFF in any of the past three seasons, after a promising start to his career. The Saints still locked Peat up on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal last off-season, but that quickly looks like an overpay. 

Still only in his age 28 season, Peat theoretically has some bounce back potential if he can finally stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee, especially now three years removed from his last above average season. Right guard Cesar Ruiz, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2020, but he was mediocre on 744 rookie year snaps. He could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Even if he doesn’t, this should still be an above average offensive line regardless of their guard play.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Saints also lost some key players on defense this off-season. Probably the most talented player they lost was defensive end Trey Hendrickson, whose 13.5 sacks were tied for the 2nd most in the NFL last season, leading to him securing a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal from the Cincinnati Bengals that was far out of the Saints’ price range. Hendrickson might not be that big of a loss though, for a few reasons. For one, he wasn’t quite as good as his sack total last season, as his production was in part because of the talent around him.

Hendrickson was also technically the Saints’ third defensive end, as Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are both talented starters. The Saints like to rotate players at the defensive end position, but they used their first round pick on a defensive end, taking Houston’s Payton Turner 28th overall and he will essentially replace Hendrickson. Turner was a bit of a questionable pick, not just because most expected him to fall into the second round, but also because the Saints had more pressing needs. That doesn’t mean he will be a bust, but they probably could have used that pick better.

Jordan and Davenport are also former first round picks, in 2011 and 2018 respectively, and both are under contract for the foreseeable future, 3 years and 2 years respectively. Jordan’s age is becoming a minor concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and has been as durable as any player in the league in his career, remarkably playing in all 160 possible games in 10 seasons in the league, the longest active streak on defense, and regularly finishing among the league leaders in snaps played at his position, averaging 56.3 snaps per game in his career. 

Even if he does start to regress in 2021, Jordan should still be one of the better players in the league at his position. He has had a great career overall, but he’s especially been impressive over the past 6 seasons, finishing in the top-15 among edge defenders on PFF in all 6 seasons, totaling 65.5 sacks, 67 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch and playing the run at a high level as well. Unless his abilities fall off a cliff, he should be a very valuable player again on this defensive line.

Davenport, meanwhile, has shown all the potential to be an above average every down player, but he needs to stay on the field. Davenport has played just 37 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and, with other talented players at the position, he’s also been limited to just 35.7 snaps per game when he has been healthy, which is a big part of the reason why he has been limited to just 12 total sacks, but he’s added 25 hits and a 13.0% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run. His highest rated season on PFF came in 2019 when he was PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender on 533 snaps (13 games) and, still only going into his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed that if he can finally stay healthy. That may be a big if, but he’s dripping with potential.

The Saints also signed veteran Tanoh Kpassagnon as a free agent this off-season, but that was before the draft when they selected Turner and it’s unclear how much of a role Kpassagnon will have with Turner in the mix. That’s a good thing, however, as Kpassagnon has been one of the worst starting defensive ends in the league over the past two seasons with the Chiefs. He’s finished 109th out of 121 eligible edge defenders and 101st out of 125 eligible edge defenders respectively, while totaling just 5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.5% pressure rate. 

Kpassagnon may be better off in a reserve role, but the Saints are probably best off with him only playing a few snaps per game. 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun could also be in the mix, but the hybrid player only played 82 snaps as a rookie and only 28 of them came on passing plays, on 19 of which he dropped into coverage rather than rushing the passer. If he sees a significantly increased role in his second season in the league, it will likely be primarily as a traditional off ball linebacker. This is a talented position group led by a trio of former first round picks in various stages of their careers and they have sufficient depth options as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints also lost a pair of defensive tackles this off-season, with Sheldon Rankins signing with the Jets on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal that the Saints would have had a hard time matching if they wanted to and Malcom Brown being traded to the Jaguars for a late round pick in a salary dump that saved the Saints another 5 million. Neither player was a major contributor last season, playing 415 snaps and 345 snaps respectively, but they’re both solid players and the Saints did nothing to replace them.

Third year player Shy Tuttle is expected to move into the starting lineup and, while he’s shown a lot of promise against the run thus far in his career, he’s still a former undrafted free agent who has only played 340 snaps and 326 snaps in two seasons in the league and he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, with just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in his limited playing time. Tuttle could see his snap total close to double this season and he’s a major projection to a larger role.

Cameron Roach is also likely to be in the mix for playing time, even though the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 135th out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 233 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in his second season in the league, but he looks far from ever developing into a contributor. Veteran Ryan Glasgow is also likely to see action. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow’s career got off to a promising start, particularly his play against the run, but injuries have derailed his career, starting with a torn ACL that he suffered early in the 2018 season. 

Since then, Glasgow has played just 152 snaps total and, after the Bengals cut him in final cuts last off-season, he spent last season bouncing around the Texans, Patriots, and Saints practice squads before finally appearing in two games for the Saints down the stretch. Injuries are always the main concern with him, but he has a pretty clear path to a roster spot and a likely rotational role if he can stay healthy. Glasgow isn’t a pass rush option though, so the Saints could try to mask their lack of interior pass rushers with their depth at defensive end and use one of their defensive ends on the interior in sub packages.

Fortunately, the Saints still have David Onyemata, an every down player who is by far their best interior pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has steadily developed throughout his career. He struggled overall as a rookie, but took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his 2nd season in the league and has totaled 16 sacks, 22 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate in 4 seasons since. His play against the run left something to be desired early in his career, but he has developed in that aspect as well and finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender overall, excelling as a pass rusher (6.5 sacks, 10 hits, 11.6% pressure rate), but also earning an above average run stopping grade. 

Onyemata might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in his career best 2020 season, but he’s very much in his prime in his age 28 season, so he should at least remain an above average every down player. He elevates a position group that otherwise has a lot of question marks and a concerning lack of depth. Even if their defensive end depth is able to somewhat mask their lack of defensive tackle depth, the Saints still figure to get noticeably worse interior play this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Saints also lost a couple linebackers this off-season, with Alex Anzalone signing with the Lions in free agency and Kwon Alexander being cut for salary purposes. Like the defensive tackles they lost, neither player was a major contributor, playing 525 snaps and 350 snaps respectively, but both were capable players and the Saints are thinner at the position without them. They did address the position in the draft, using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s Pete Werner, and, as I mentioned earlier, 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun figures to see a bigger role as a linebacker this season, but both are significant question marks because of their lack of experience. 

Fortunately, top linebacker Demario Davis remains and should continue playing his normal every down role, in which he’s played 60.3 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Saints. Davis was a late bloomer who was underwhelming earlier in his career with the Browns and Jets, but he’s finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 straight seasons, including a career best #2 ranked finish in 2019, and has cemented himself among the better players in the league at his position. 

Davis’ age is a concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 6th among off ball linebackers on PFF last season, and, even if he declines, he should remain an above average every down linebacker. He also has no real injury history to speak of, playing 144 of a possible 144 games since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2012, which bodes well for his chances of continuing to play at a high level. The Saints will need him to continue playing well and staying healthy because he is their only proven linebacker and this position group lacks depth in a concerning way.

Grade: B

Secondary

Safety Malcolm Jenkins also saw significant action as a linebacker last season, but he might not play there quite as much this season because the Saints are also thinner in the secondary. The big loss was cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was a solid starter last season, but was let go for financial reasons ahead of what would have been his age 33 season. The Saints didn’t replace him until using a third round pick on Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo, so PJ Williams, a hybrid cornerback/safety who would play safety when Jenkins played linebacker, could have to see more action at cornerback this season.

Regardless of where he plays, PJ Williams is a pretty uninspiring option, as he has received below average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including one of the worst in the league last season. A 6-year veteran, Williams has been better in the past, but, even only in his age 28 season, it seems like his best days are behind him. Fellow veteran Patrick Robinson’s best days are definitely behind him, but he too looks to be in the mix for playing time at cornerback. Highly inconsistent even in his prime, Robinson’s best season came in 2017 for the Eagles, when he finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF on 710 snaps, but he’s subsequently played just 528 snaps with the Saints in 3 seasons since then, due in part to both injury and ineffectiveness, and now he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he has anything left. 

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was the #3 cornerback and slot specialist last season, but he may see more action outside this season, given that their only other starting options are the aforementioned Williams and Robinson and a raw third round rookie. A 4th round pick by the Saints in 2019, Gardner-Johnson flashed on 547 snaps as a rookie before being more of a middling player on 861 snaps in 2020. He showed versatility as a rookie by playing safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback, before becoming the Saints’ primary slot cornerback in 2020, but outside cornerback would be a new challenge for him. He’s a versatile player who has shown upside, but his best play came in limited action and the Saints may be hurting his development if they move him around too much.

Marshon Lattimore remains the #1 cornerback, but the 2017 1st round pick has yet to match the heights he reached as a rookie, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. In 3 seasons since then, he hasn’t finished above 29th on PFF. After allowing a 52.9% completion and 0 touchdowns to 5 interceptions as a rookie, he has allowed 59.2% completion and 12 touchdowns to 5 interceptions since, taking three seasons to match his rookie year interception total. He’s still a young player, only going into his age 25 season, and he’s loaded with potential, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back to his rookie year form. 

Safety Marcus Williams doesn’t get the recognition that Lattimore gets, but he is actually the best defensive back in this secondary and one of the top safeties in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams has started 60 games in 4 seasons in the league and has ranked in the top-8 among safeties in 3 those 4 seasons, with the outlier coming in a 31st ranked season in 2018. Williams is also still young, going into his age 25 season and, barring major injuries, should remain one of the top safeties in the league long-term. 

The Saints had to push more cap hits to the future to do it, but they were able to keep Williams on the 10.612 million dollar franchise tag this off-season and, while signing him to a long-term deal is another challenge, given his likely asking price at the top of the market (15-16 million) and the Saints’ dire cap situation for the next few off-seasons, he is one of their most important players and the Saints seem to be prioritizing him as such. If they had let him walk this off-season, their secondary would be in much worse shape.

Malcolm Jenkins remains as the other starting safety, but the Saints may have cut him this off-season if they could have, as he’s now going into his age 34 season and the 4-year, 32 million dollar extension he signed just last off-season now looks like a mistake, as he’s set to take home a guaranteed 6.2 million this season, after showing significant decline a year ago in a season in which he took home 10.55 million, including a 9 million dollar signing bonus. 

Jenkins had earned an average or better grade from PFF in 7 straight seasons prior to signing that deal with the Saints, with the previous 6 of those seasons coming with the Eagles, but in 2020, he fell to 57th among 99 eligible safeties, especially struggling in coverage, ranking 82nd in coverage grade at his position. It’s possible he is able to turn back the clock in 2021, but at his age, that’s far from a guarantee and he could easily continue declining, especially if asked to cover on the backend too often. This group is obviously better for having retained its top player, safety Marcus Williams, but it’s a group with plenty of question marks as well.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The big concern with the Saints is the loss of quarterback Drew Brees, but he was far from the Saints’ only loss in an off-season where the Saints had to cut significant salary to get under the cap. The Saints have managed to win without Brees over the past two seasons because of their dominant supporting cast, but now more pressure will be placed on the Saints’ replacement signal caller with the rest of this roster thinned out. The Saints will also face a much tougher schedule this season than their schedule without Brees over the past two seasons and the fact that the Saints didn’t win most of those games convincingly is a concern, especially since their offensive efficiency noticeably dropped. 

There is still enough on this team that the Saints could still be in the mix for a wild card spot in the NFC, but they’re obviously behind Tampa Bay in the division now and it’s clear that the Saints have had among the biggest talent drop offs of any team in the league. They were starting from a high baseline, but any time a team loses significant talent in an off-season, it’s a concern. I will have a final prediction for the Browns at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Cleveland Browns 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been synonymous with losing in the NFL. On a decade plus long playoff drought dating back to 2002, the Browns underwent a radical tear down of their roster that saw the team roll large amounts of cap space to the future, accumulate a significant amount of future excess draft capital, and play a borderline unprecedented amount of young, cheap, and inexperienced players. 

The result in the short-term was a 2-year stretch in which the team won a single game total from 2016-2017, going 1-31, but in the process they received back-to-back #1 overall draft picks, only adding to their stockpile of future assets with which to build this team. It took a few years, but the Browns are definitely starting to see the results of that process, going 11-5 in 2020 and securing the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 18 seasons and first playoff win in 26 seasons. 

Probably the most important decision the Browns have made throughout the process was the selection of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was selected #1 overall immediately following Cleveland’s winless 2017 season. It wasn’t a slam dunk decision for the Browns, who considered multiple options in a strong quarterback class and even could have selected running back Saquon Barkley and used another first round pick they acquired, 4th overall, to select their quarterback. 

Even in hindsight, it’s not clear that the Browns made the best decision they could have made, with 7th overall pick Josh Allen and 32nd overall pick Lamar Jackson so far having shown a higher ceiling. However, Mayfield is clearly the best quarterback the Browns have had in decades and he looks like an obvious long-term franchise quarterback just three seasons into his career. He’s completed 61.9% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 75 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions, while finishing 11th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2018, 17th in 2019, and 14th in 2020.

For the Browns to take the next step, however, they will need Mayfield to take the next step and consistently play at a level he hasn’t been able to maintain for a full season yet, unlike his contemporaries in Allen and Jackson. It’s somewhat concerning that Mayfield’s highest rated season on PFF still remains his rookie season and, even though last season was by far his most successful season from a wins and losses standpoint, he also had by far the most talent around him on offense and, even with all that talent, the Browns still ranked just 11th in the NFL in first down rate over expected, which they arguably should have exceeded given how talented the Browns are at other offensive positions. 

Mayfield is still young (age 26 season in 2021) and has shown a high level for stretches throughout his limited time in the NFL, so he could easily have some untapped potential and continue to get better, but that’s not a guarantee. The Browns will have to make a decision on his long-term contract in the next couple years and Mayfield is eligible for an extension now, but, after seeing the Carson Wentz and Jared Goff contracts end in disaster for their respective teams, the Browns may want to give Mayfield another year to prove he’s worth top quarterback money before giving it to him, even if it means ultimately paying a little more in the long-term. 

Mayfield has one remaining cheap year on his rookie deal before a much more expensive option for 2022 kicks in at 18.858 million and Mayfield will almost definitely exceed that amount on an annual basis on his next contract, with top quarterbacks now getting contracts in the range of 35-40 million annually. Whenever it happens, Mayfield will almost certainly be signing long-term with the Browns, who are all in on their young quarterback, with only veteran backup Case Keenum, a 9-year veteran in his age 33 season with a career 85.2 QB rating in 62 career starts, behind him on the depth chart as another option. Keenum is an above average backup, but, unless Mayfield gets hurt, Keenum will ride the pine all season. If Mayfield can stay healthy and take a step forward, this should be one of the best offenses in the league, but that’s of course not a guarantee.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest reason that Mayfield had easily the best offensive supporting cast of his career last season was the Browns’ drastically improved offensive line. A subpar group for Mayfield’s first two seasons in the league, the Browns saw significantly improved play at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard in 2020. At left tackle and right tackle, the Browns made significant investments last off-season, signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a 3-year, 42 million dollar contract and using the 10th overall pick on left tackle Jedrick Wills, but arguably their best offensive lineman was one that was added without much fanfare, right guard Wyatt Teller.

A 5th round pick of the Bills in 2018, Teller made 7 starts as a rookie, but he was underwhelming and, when the Bills overhauled their offensive line from 2018 to 2019, he was the odd man out and was sent to the Browns ahead of the 2019 season for a swap of late round picks, so the Bills could get at least something for a player they were presumably planning on releasing with final cuts. Teller’s first season in Cleveland was more of the same, as he made 9 underwhelming starts down the stretch, but he maintained his starting job throughout last off-season and shocked everyone with a breakout 2020 season, finishing first among guards on PFF, especially dominating as a run blocker, but also holding up well in pass protection.

Teller is the definition of a one-year wonder and it wasn’t even a full season as injuries limited him to 11 games, so it’s far from a guarantee that Teller will come close to duplicating last season’s level of play, but he should remain at least an above average starter and if he can stay healthier this season, that will be a big benefit to this team because they were noticeably worse running the ball when he missed time last season. The Browns also have to make a decision on his contract shortly, heading into the final year of his rookie deal. It may be risky to extend him now after just one strong season, but if he can repeat that season in 2021, Teller could become the highest paid guard in the league on the open market.

Right tackle Jack Conklin wasn’t quite as dominant, but he still had a great season, making 15 starts and finishing 8th among offensive tackles on PFF, a career best finish for the 2016 first round pick. Conklin has also finished 18th in 2016 and 13th in 2019 and, with the exception of a couple injury limited seasons in 2017-2018, he’s been a consistently high level blocker throughout his career. Still only going into his age 27 season, Conklin should continue playing at a high level as long as he continues to remain healthy, now over three years removed from a devastating torn ACL.

Left tackle Jedrick Wills was probably their worst offensive lineman last season, but that says more about the rest of this offensive line than it does about Wills. Wills fared well in pass protection, but left something to be desired in the run game and committed 11 penalties, leading to him only earning a middling grade from PFF overall. Still, the rookie stabilized a key position of need for the Browns in 15 starts and he should keep getting better going forward. Though it’s not a guarantee he ever reaches it, he has the potential to be one of the better left tackles in the league for years to come. A breakout 2021 by him would only make this offensive line that much more dominant.

Center JC Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio have been with the team much longer, dating back to when their offensive line had a lot of problems, but they were never the problem and they continued playing at a high level in 2020. Bitonio has been with the team since all the way back in 2014, when the Browns selected him in the 2nd round, and he’s been an above average starter from the word go, finishing 14th among guards on PFF as a rookie and finishing in the top-19 in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, including top-8 finishes in each of the past three seasons. He is getting up there in age a little bit, going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off and, while he did miss some time with injury earlier in his career, he hasn’t missed a game in 4 seasons. Even if he does drop off a little bit in 2021, he should remain one of the better guards in the league.

Tretter, meanwhile, originally arrived in Cleveland as a free agent. A spot starter earlier in his career with the Packers, where he made 10 starts in 4 seasons and played 4 different positions, Tretter signed a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal with the Browns before the 2017 season and has made all 64 starts at center in 4 seasons since, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including top-9 finishes in each of the past three seasons and a 5th ranked finish in 2020. He signed a 3-year, 32.55 million dollar extension during the 2019 season and is now rightfully one of the highest paid centers in the league. Like Bitonio, he’s heading into his age 30 season, but he also hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and even if he does drop off a little bit, he should continue playing at a relatively high level. 

The Browns also have good depth upfront in case injuries strike. Chris Hubbard struggled in 2018 and 2019 as a starter for the Browns, but he fared well last season on 290 snaps (5 starts) as a versatile reserve and has proven himself throughout his 8-year career to be an above average spot starter, even if he’s been overmatched as a full-time starter. The Browns will obviously be in worse shape if they lose one of their starters, but Hubbard’s versatility and experience makes him a better option than most teams have off their bench. On top of that, the Browns used a 4th round pick on the University of Cincinnati’s James Hudson, a good value pick who could potentially develop into a starter in the long-term and, in the short-term, should provide capable depth. 

Few teams, if any, have a more complete, deep, and talented offensive line than the Browns. Conklin, Tretter, and Bitonio all are close to locks to have strong seasons, Jedrick Wills could take a step forward, and Wyatt Teller could be healthier, though it’s not a guarantee that he plays as well he did last season or that the Browns have better health overall on the offensive line, as injuries as part of the game. Even if injuries strike though, the Browns should be better prepared than most teams because of their depth.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Browns also had a key injury at the running back position last season, with lead back Nick Chubb, otherwise one of the best running backs in the league, missing 4 games and most of a 5th with injury last season. However, even with him out, the Browns still were able to run the ball well because of their talented offensive line and their running back depth. #2 running back Kareem Hunt has also proven himself as a talented feature back from his days in Kansas City and when he and Chubb are both healthy, they are arguably the best running back duo in the NFL.

A 2nd round pick in 2018, Chubb has been arguably the best runner in football since entering the league, finishing in the top-4 among running backs on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and ranking 3rd in rushing yards (3,557), 6th in rushing touchdowns (28), and first in yards per carry (5.23 YPC, minimum 500 carries) over that stretch. Still only going into his age 26 season with no injury history aside from the 4 games he missed last season, there is no reason to expect Chubb to drop off in 2021, aside from the inherent higher risk of injury that running backs have.

Chubb leaves something to be desired as a pass catcher, averaging just 6.01 yards per target in his career and catching just 72 passes in 44 games, but that’s primarily what Hunt is for, as he has an average 48/446/5 slash line per 16 games in his career, including a 38/304/5 slash line last season. Hunt also has a career 4.57 YPC average on 694 carries and has a history as a feature back, averaging 16.8 carries per game in the first two seasons of his career with the Chiefs in 2017-2018, before being kicked off the team for off-the-field reasons. 

The Browns took a chance on Hunt and have been rewarded for it on the field. He’s averaged just 8.7 carries per game when Chubb has been healthy, but he gives them a valuable insurance policy in case Chubb misses time and, even when Chubb is healthy, Hunt still sees plenty of action, not just because of his passing down abilities, but also just because of how much this team runs the ball in general.

The running game is such an important part of this offense, as they ranked 3rd in the league in carries last season and that’s even more pronounced if you take into account that the Browns don’t have a running quarterback, with only Derrick Henry and the Titans averaging more carries per game by running backs in 2020. The Browns running frequency and ability make things significantly easier for this passing game, which especially benefits on play action plays. Baker Mayfield averaged 3.0 yards per attempt more on play action than non-play action plays last season, 4th most in the league, and that’s not a coincidence. 

The Browns don’t have any proven depth behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but D’Ernest Johnson, however inexperienced the 2019 undrafted free agent may be (37 career carries), showed a lot of promise last season as the #2 back when Chubb was out, averaging 5.03 YPC to give him a 5.05 career YPC average. He would only see action in case of an injury, but he’s not a bad insurance policy to have in a very talented overall position group.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

With the Browns being a run heavy team, there is less importance on the receiving corps in this offense, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have good depth and talent at those positions as well. The Browns were somewhat thin at wide receiver last season, with underwhelming options like Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge seeing action (268 snaps and 292 snaps respectively), but they should be in better shape this season, with starting wide receiver Odell Beckham set to return from a torn ACL that cost him all but 316 snaps last season and rookie Anthony Schwartz being added in the third round to provide depth. 

The Browns also retained Rashard Higgins, who was the #2 wide receiver in Odell Beckham’s absence last season, to play in three wide receiver sets with Beckham and Jarvis Landry, meaning Peoples-Jones and Hodge could find themselves competing for a final roster spot this season, rather than playing significant snaps. Landry and Beckham both have histories of being 1000+ yard receivers, with Landry topping that mark three times and Beckham five times, in seven seasons each, but it’s going to be tough for either player to top that mark on this run heavy team, as long as the other one is healthy to take away targets.

Landry couldn’t even manage a 1000 yard season last season with Beckham missing most of the season, but that’s not to say he had a bad year. His 72/840/3 slash line is actually pretty impressive all things considered and he ranked 17th in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.11, while earning PFF’s 16th highest wide receiver grade overall. Remarkably consistent throughout his 7-year career, Landry has topped 758 receiving yards and finished 34th or higher among wide receivers on PFF in every season in the league, while never missing a game due to injury. He’s not overly explosive, averaging just 11.1 yards per catch in his career, but he’s been a very reliable possession receiver who has caught 66.6% of his career targets. Still only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason why anything would be different this season, even if he doesn’t put up flashy numbers in a run heavy offense that has plenty of other talented options in the passing game

Also a 7-year veteran, Beckham has been the more productive player on a per game basis in their careers as compared to Landry, but Landry has been more productive overall because of his durability, as Beckham has missed 30 games in his career, including the 9 games he missed last season. He’s topped 1000 yards receiving in all five healthy seasons in his career, while finishing in the top-10 among wide receivers on PFF in four of those seasons, and he has averaged a 95/1333/10 slash line per 16 games throughout his career, but his injury history is a growing concern and, even if he can bounce back from the ACL tear and stay healthy all season, his receiving production is unlikely to approach to his career averages in this offense.

Rashard Higgins fared pretty well last season in Beckham’s absence, totalling a 37/599/4 slash line on the season, including a 57/971/4 per 16-game slash line in the games in which Beckham was hurt and a 2.04 yards per route run average on the season that actually ranked 23th among wide receivers in the league. The 2016 5th round pick has never had an impressive season long receiving total, but he also showed potential in 2018, when he had a per 16-game slash line of 58/822/6 in the final 5 games of the season, before an injury ruined 2019 campaign.

Higgins is unlikely to come close to those totals in 2021, however, unless the Browns have more injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. He is expected to be the third receiver after re-signing in free agency, but, in addition to being a run heavy team, the Browns use two and three tight end sets as much as any team in the league, so Higgins won’t get the playing time or targets that a typical third receiver gets. He’s still a useful player, but the box scores probably won’t show it.

As of right now, the Browns go three deep at tight end with Austin Hooper, a free agent addition signed to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal last off-season, David Njoku, a 2017 1st round pick, and 2020 4th round pick Harrison Bryant. I say as of right now because Njoku is on his 5th year option, which is set to pay him 6.013 million, but none of that is guaranteed. The Browns aren’t strapped for cap space right now, but Njoku’s salary stands out as being excessive given the Browns depth at the position and the role that Njoku will likely play in this offense and he could also have trade value to a team looking to upgrade their starting tight end, so there is a chance that either by trade or release, Njoku is not on the final roster.

Njoku is only going into his age 25 season and has shown potential, but has not proven to be worth the draft pick the Browns invested in him. He seemed to be on his way, progressing from a 32/386/4 slash line as a rookie to a 56/639/4 slash line in his second season in the league, but injuries limited him to just 5 catches in 4 games in 2019 and, while he was healthier and played in 13 games, he found himself in a much more crowded depth chart with Hooper and Bryant being added to the mix. As a result, Njoku played just 410 snaps and mostly contributed as a run blocker, with a 19/213/2 slash line on just 29 targets. A trade may make the most sense for all involved, as Njoku is not worth his salary to play the role he played last season, but he’s talented enough that he could start at least a few teams around the league.

An Njoku trade would benefit Bryant the most, but he still played 590 snaps as a rookie last season even with Njoku on the roster, so he is going to have a significant role either way, now with a full season under his belt. Bryant wasn’t overly impressive as a rookie, as his 0.94 yards per route run carry were significantly behind both Njoku (1.23) and Hooper (1.43) and he ranked 40th out of 48 eligible tight ends on PFF overall, but he wouldn’t be the first tight end to take a big step forward from year one to year two and it’s clear the Browns believe in him long-term, so he is going to get an opportunity to prove himself for better or worse.

Hooper remains as the starter, though it’s fair to question if the Browns overpaid for him after an underwhelming first season with the team. Hooper earned an above average grade from PFF overall, his 3rd straight season doing so, but he did not repeat his 2019 season, in which he finished 8th among tight ends on PFF and had a 75/787/6 slash line in 13 games. Hooper’s passing stats were always going to take a hit going from pass heavy Atlanta to the Browns, but his 46/435/4 slash line in 13 games in 2020 was a significant drop off. 

Only going into his age 27 season, it’s possible Hooper is better in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee, as his 2019 campaign stands out as a bit of an outlier right now. With a deep receiving corps that goes three deep at both wide receiver and tight end and that has a talented pass catching back in Kareem Hunt, Hooper isn’t going to get the targets to have a big statistical season even if he is better this season, but from a team perspective, the depth they have is an obvious benefit. Even if Beckham is healthier in 2021, injuries are part of the game and the Browns can’t expect everything to go perfectly, but they are better prepared for adversity than most teams.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Browns had a solid offense (11th in first down rate over expected) and won 11 games last season, but their defense really struggled (29th in first down rate over expected allowed) and, overall, the Browns were not as good as their record, finishing with a -11 point differential and ranking 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.48%. They benefited from winning a high percentage of their close games, going 7-2 in games decided by one score or less, but that isn’t predictive on a year-to-year basis. However, there are reasons to believe the Browns’ defense can be a lot better this season and be a complementary unit to this offense, meaning the Browns wouldn’t have to rely on winning close games like they did last season to accumulate a significant win total. 

The first reason is simply that defensive performance is much less predictable and consistent on a year-to-year basis. Teams that struggle on defense tend to fare much better defensively the following season when you compare to the average improvement on offense among teams that struggle on that side of the ball. The Browns also should be healthier on defense this season. While they didn’t have an excessive amount of injuries on offense and can’t necessarily depend on better health on that side of the ball this season, the Browns finished with the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury on defense last season and I would expect that to be somewhat better in 2021.

On top of that, the Browns added a significant amount of talent to this unit this off-season. One key addition was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney takes the place of Olivier Vernon, who was not the problem last season, but Vernon tore his achilles in week 17 and Clowney has a good chance to be an upgrade, so it’s understandable why they brought him in. Clowney comes with his own injury risk, as he has played all 16 games just once in 7 seasons in the league and had his 2020 season cut short after 8 games. Concerns about his durability already forced Clowney to settle for a one-year deal in free agency last off-season after being franchise tagged in 2019, but that one-year deal was still for 13 million. Now after last year’s injury, Clowney had to settle for 8 million from the Browns.

It’s a move that could definitely pan out. Clowney gets a lot of heat for not getting a sack before getting hurt last season, but he played better than that suggests, as he had 6 hits and 22 hurries on 266 pass rush snaps (10.5% pressure rate) and played the run at a high level as well, leading to Clowney ranking 18th among edge defenders on PFF at the time he went down. That’s essentially been the story of Clowney’s career, as he’s never had double digit sacks in a season (though he’s had 9 and 9.5 before), but he plays the run at a high level and has a 10.4% career pressure rate that is made more impressive by the fact that he has lined up on the interior in passing situations throughout his career more than your typical edge defender does. 

Before last year’s injury ruined campaign, Clowney finished 10th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018 and 9th in 2019 and, overall, he hasn’t finished worse than 36th since his rookie year in 2014. A former #1 overall pick who is still only going into his age 28 season, Clowney comes with a lot of bounce back potential and was worth the risk for a Browns team that badly needed a replacement for Vernon. He’ll start opposite Myles Garrett, who is also a former #1 overall pick, selected in 2017, the first of two straight #1 overall picks for the Browns during their 1-31 stretch.

Garrett has been even better than Mayfield and, if he and Clowney can both stay healthy, they could be one of the top edge defender duots in the league. Like Mayfield, Garrett’s selection was not a no brainer, as the Browns were in desperate need of a quarterback and could have chosen between Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, or Mitch Trubisky, but the Browns opted to take one of the top defensive prospects of the decade and the decision has panned out, as Garrett has developed into a Defensive Player of the Year caliber player and the Browns found their quarterback the following year.

Garrett has made an impact from day one and he’s also gotten better every season, progressing from 25th among edge defenders on PFF in 2017 to 13th in 2018, 12th in 2019, and a career best 4th last season. All in all, he has 42.5 career sacks and 44 hits in 51 career games, while averaging a 12.2% pressure rate and also playing at a high level against the run. Still only going into his age 26 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Garrett be even better in 2021 and even if he isn’t, he should remain one of the top players in the league at his position. He’s also played all 16 games once in four seasons in the league, but durability isn’t a major concern for him. Some of the time he has missed was with suspension and illness, so he hasn’t missed a game due to injury since his rookie season. The Browns will obviously hope that continues in 2021.

The Browns will really need both Garrett and Clowney to stay healthy, not just because they’re talented players who should be key parts of this defense, but also because their depth at the position is suspect. Adrian Clayborn struggled on 404 snaps as their top reserve last season and was not retained this off-season. In an attempt to upgrade, the Browns took a flyer on former first round pick Takkarist McKinley in free agency, which could prove to be a smart signing, especially on only a 1-year, 4 million dollar contract, but that’s not a guarantee.

McKinley was picked 26th overall by the Falcons in 2017 and had 13 sacks in his first 2 seasons in the league combined, while adding 13 hits and a 12.1% pressure rate. That sack total fell to 3.5 in 2019 though and, while he still had 10 hits and a 11.1% pressure rate, he injured his shoulder late in the season, leading to the Falcons declining his 5th year option and making 2020 his contract year. McKinley was off to a solid start to the 2020 season with 1 sack and 4 hits week one against the Seahawks, but he played just 42 snaps the rest of the way due to injury, ultimately being released by the Falcons and bouncing around multiple teams with whom he was unable to pass a physical. 

If he’s healthy, McKinley gives the Browns some upside as an edge rusher, still only in his age 26 season, but that may be a big if and he’s always been an underwhelming player against the run, so the Browns will want him to be only be a situational pass rusher, possibly with Garrett and/or Clowney seeing some action on the interior in sub packages. The Browns also have Porter Gustin in the mix, after the 2019 undrafted free agent saw 225 snaps as a rookie and 326 snaps last season, but he hasn’t shown much in his limited action and would be an underwhelming option if he had to play significant snaps. This group has a high upside, but both Clowney and McKinley come with significant potential downside.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Browns lost Sheldon Richardon and Larry Ogunjobi this off-season, after they started 16 games and 15 games respectively at defensive tackle last season, but Ogunjobi struggled, finishing 103rd out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF, so only Richardson will be missed and the Browns added some options to replace him. Richardson, who finished 37th among interior defenders on PFF last season, was released ahead of a 12 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 31 season in 2021, but he remains available as a free agent, so it’s also possible the Browns could reunite with him at a cheaper rate. 

The Browns other moves this off-season may signal that won’t happen though, as they added veterans Malik Jackson and Damion Square in free agency and used a 4th round pick on Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, in addition to getting another veteran Andrew Billings back from an opt out. Along with holdover 2020 3rd round pick Jordan Elliott, who played 307 snaps as a rookie, the Browns have a variety of options at the defensive tackle position.

Unfortunately, all of their options have significant question marks. Jordan Elliott has the upside to get better, but he struggled as a rookie, finishing 96th among 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF, especially struggling as a pass rusher, not recording a sack or a hit on the quarterback all season and only hurrying the quarterback three times on 157 pass rush snaps. Togiai also doesn’t project as much of a pass rusher, so, if he contributes as a rookie, it’s likely to be in an early down role. 

Veterans Andrew Billings and Damion Square also are primarily run stuffers. Billings has the best chance to start and see early down snaps, as he played 632 snaps in 2018 and 657 snaps in 2019 with the Bengals prior to last year’s opt out and earned a slightly above average grade overall from PFF in both seasons, after missing his rookie year in 2016 and showing little on 334 snaps in 2017. It’s never ideal when a player misses an entire season like Billings did last year, but he is still in his prime in his age 26 season and doesn’t have a recent injury history. He’s at his best against the run, but also added 3.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate in 2018-2019 combined, which could make him valuable to a Browns team that lacks interior pass rush options.

Square, meanwhile, has been a capable rotational player for the Chargers over the past 5 seasons, but he’s averaged just 382 snaps per season with a maximum of 530 snaps played in a season over that stretch and, while he’s a capable run stuffer, he’s never gotten any pass rush, with 6.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 4.1% pressure rate in 91 career games. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s pretty unlikely he gets any better and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was unable to earn himself a role or make the roster in a position group that is unsettled, but has depth.

Malik Jackson is the best pass rusher of the bunch and should see a significant amount of snaps purely for that reason. Jackson was one of the better players in the league at his position for a few years, finishing in the top-29 among on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2014-2017, but he’s fallen off pretty significantly, earning middling grades in 2018 and 2020, with a lost season due to injury in between. He’s still shown pretty well as a pass rusher recently, with 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate last season, but he has been a liability against the run. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are almost definitely behind him and he could easily continue declining as well. The Browns will be counting on him for a significant role in an underwhelming position group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Browns also made some additions at linebacker this off-season. BJ Goodson was the closest thing the Browns had to an every down linebacker last season, as he played 848 snaps in 12 games. He fared well against the run, but left something to be desired in coverage, so the Browns opted not to retain him and instead to add Anthony Walker from the Colts in free agency and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame in the second round of the draft. The Browns also bring back Malcolm Smith (559 snaps), Sione Takitaki (435 snaps), Jacob Phillips (169 snaps), Mack Wilson (372 snaps), who saw playing time last season, to compete for roles in an unsettled group.

Owusu-Koramoah is basically the opposite of Goodson, as he might be the best coverage player of the bunch as a rookie, but his lack of size is a concern against the run. He might not play every down, but he should have a role at least in coverage situations and he had the potential to go in the first round if not for medical concerns, so he could easily develop into an every down player long-term and well exceed the value of his draft slot. 

Walker, meanwhile, has started 46 games over the past three seasons with the team that drafted him in the 5th round in 2017 and he has been something close to an every down player, averaging 46.9 snaps per 16 games, but he’s never been more than a replacement level starter and is coming off of a season in which he finished 74th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF, so he shouldn’t be guaranteed a role, despite his recent history of receiving significant playing time. 

Malcolm Smith is also a veteran, but he’s past his prime, going into his age 32 season. He was an every down player in 2015 and 2016 with the Raiders, but was never particularly good and has been limited to just 978 snaps in 4 seasons since. He actually fared well in coverage last season and could continue seeing playing time as a situational coverage linebacker, but he’s not a candidate to play an every down role in this crowded group. It would even be a small surprise to even see him exceed the 37.3 snaps per game he played last season.

Takitaki, Phillips, and Wilson, meanwhile, are all young, going in the 3rd round in 2019, the 3rd round in 2020, and the 5th round in 2020 respectively. Takitaki played the most of the trio last season and was also by far the best, earning an above average grade overall from PFF on 435 snaps. Phillips and Wilson, meanwhile, both ranked among PFF’s worst off ball linebackers in limited action. Both could be better in their second season in the league, but Takitaki seems like by far the most likely of the three to develop into an every down player long-term. Even in a crowded group, I would expect him to have a role, even if just in base packages. The Browns have plenty of depth in this group, but need some young players to step up if they’re going to be improved over last year’s group.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Of all the position groups that the Browns upgraded this off-season, their secondary is by far the most improved. The Browns added cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson both on significant contracts in free agency, locking them up for 9 million over 2 years and 33.75 million over 3 years respectively, and they also used a first round pick on Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome. On top of that, a pair of recent second round picks, cornerback Greedy Williams (2019) and safety Grant Delpit (2020), are set to return from injuries that cost them all of 2020. With all of that, there’s a good chance this unit, which was a massive liability in 2020, could be one of the better groups in the league.

Denzel Ward remains as the #1 cornerback, after being by far their most valuable defensive back in 2020. The 4th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, selected three picks after Mayfield, Ward’s best season still remains his rookie season, when he finished 15th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he still had a solid season in 2019 (36th) and 2020 (21st) and, only in his age 24 season, he still has the potential to take a step forward and have his best season yet in 2021. 

It would also be of significant benefit if Ward were to be more durable this season, after maxing out at 13 games played thus far in his career, but it definitely shouldn’t be a surprise if he misses time with injury again. Regardless, he comes with a pretty low floor with three impressive seasons under his belt and he has a ceiling that could make him one of the top cornerbacks in the league this season.

Newsome and Hill are likely to be the 2nd and 3rd cornerbacks in some order. Greedy Williams is expected to be back this season, but he’s very inexperienced, playing just 680 mediocre snaps as a rookie before missing all of last season, and the injury he suffered last season could remain a long-term issue, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to beat out either Newsome or Hill for playing time, especially given how big of an investment the Browns made in both players this off-season.

Who is actually the #2 and #3 cornerback between Newsome and Hill is unknown and ultimately might not matter. Hill is at his best on the slot and he figures to be their primary option there in sub packages, while Newsome projects as a boundary cornerback, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both ultimately play around the same amount of snaps. Hill is obviously the more proven of the two and is coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback, so he could prove to be a steal in free agency, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and, while he had shown promise before last season, last season was his first full season as a starter, never topping 538 snaps in a season prior, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of having the kind of season he had last season. 

Hill could easily have another solid season, even if he isn’t quite as good, but Newsome obviously has the greater upside long-term and projects as a future starter opposite Ward, even if he takes some time to get used to the NFL. With Ward, Hill, and Newsome as their top-3 cornerbacks and Williams providing valuable insurance, the Browns are well positioned at the cornerback position for 2021 and have great depth, after having disastrous play behind Ward for most of last season.

The Browns also have great depth at safety. Not only will John Johnson and Grant Delpit be significant upgrades over Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo (85th and 95th respectively out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF in 2020) as the top-2 safeties (660 snaps and 918 snaps respectively), but they also have Ronnie Harrison as a 3rd safety and he showed a lot of promise when he made starts last season, though injuries ultimately limited him to just 325 snaps total on the season. 

A 3rd round pick of the Jaguars in 2018, Harrison was underwhelming in 22 career starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, before being sent to the Browns for a late round pick last off-season, but it’s possible the Jaguars gave up on him too soon and he’s still only going into his age 24 season. He won’t see a ton of playing time, but the Browns will probably try to get all three safeties on the field together in certain situations and Harrison could easily be a plug and play starter if either Johnson or Delpit gets hurt. Delpit is also a question mark because he’s not only coming off of a major injury, but also has yet to play in the NFL, so Harrison is a good insurance policy to have in case Delpit struggles.

Johnson should be locked in as a starter, as his contract is actually an underpay for the caliber player he is. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Johnson barely played in his first few games, but made the final 11 starts of the season and, aside from 10 games missed due to injury in 2019, he hasn’t looked back, finishing 11th among safeties on PFF in 2017, 8th in 2018, and career best 3rd last season, bouncing back in a big way from his injury ruined 2019 campaign.

Otherwise healthy in his career and one of the better safeties in the league when on the field, Johnson, still not even 26 until December, likely would be have been as one of the top few safeties in the NFL if this was a normal cap year, but instead he settles for a 3-year deal that locks him in as the 8th highest paid safety, a rank that will almost definitely fall throughout the course of the deal. He should prove to be a relative steal over the next few years. He’s the headline addition for a Browns secondary that is significantly improved from last season’s group. If the Browns make a big leap defensively, which they have a good chance to do, the secondary should be the biggest reason why. 

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Browns already had one of the more talented and complete offenses in the league, but their defense should be a significant amount improved this season, putting the Browns firmly into Super Bowl contention for the 2021 season. If quarterback Baker Mayfield can take a step forward and play at a level he hasn’t played at yet for a whole season, I could definitely see this team making it out of the AFC and representing the conference in the Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction for the Browns at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Basically since the inception of the franchise, the Buccaneers have been consistently among the worst teams in the league, most recently missing the post-season for 13 straight seasons from 2007-2019, the longest post-season drought of any team in the league aside from the Browns over that stretch. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, but, even with that season included, they had an all-time winning percentage going into last season that was the worst in the entire NFL.

Last off-season, in need of a quarterback in free agency, the Buccaneers aggressively pursued former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who had won a record 6 Super Bowls, but was heading into an unprecedented age 43 season and on shaky long-term standing with the only team he had played for throughout the two decades of his career. To the surprise of many, Brady ended up in Tampa Bay on a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million deal contract that included a full no trade clause, the right to turn down a franchise tag, complete control over his future, and security through his age 44 season.

In his first season in Tampa Bay, Brady, whose winning percentage of 77.4% over 20 seasons in New England far exceeds that of any quarterback all-time, led the Buccaneers to an 11-5 season that not only snapped their playoff drought, but also culminated in the franchise’s second Super Bowl Championship, giving Brady his seventh, more than any single franchise in NFL history. A perennial loser had turned into a champion overnight and their new quarterback, the winningest of all time, seemed to be the natural pick to get the majority of the credit, and doing so at an age by which almost all NFL quarterbacks are long retired. 

That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. For starters, Brady ending up in Tampa Bay was no accident. The Patriots had won 12 games in 2019, but severely lacked offensive weapons around Brady. They had the league’s best defense, but they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade and, in the long-term, the outlook for a veteran heavy defense with numerous key free agents was not overly promising.

Brady couldn’t have foreseen the Patriots also having a league most opt outs for the 2020 season, including key linebacker Dont’a Hightower and key safety Patrick Chung, but the Patriots fell all the way to 23rd in first down rate allowed in 2020 and likely would have seen a big drop off from 2019 even if Hightower and Chung had been available. The Patriots’ offense, which only ranked 21st in first down rate in 2019, continued to have problems, especially because of their lack of offensive weapons, culminating in a 7-9 season for New England in 2020. 

Had they brought Brady back, the Patriots might have won another game or two in 2020, but considering how much their offense underwhelmed in 2019 even with Brady, it’s hard to imagine them going on a deep playoff run even had Brady returned and Brady likely felt there was a good chance that would be the case, which influenced his decision to leave. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, were coming off of just a 7-9 season, but they finished 9th in the NFL in first down rate differential and their losing record was largely the result of a -13 turnover margin (5th worst in the NFL), primarily due to quarterback Jameis Winston having the first 30+ interception season by a quarterback since 1988. 

Merely by stabilizing the Buccaneers’ turnover margin, Brady likely saw he would be able to take an offense with a lot of talent, most notably two of the top wide receivers in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and turn it into one of the more effective in the league, particularly if he could recruit his old friends Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown to join as well. 

The Buccaneers also had a budding young defense that was one of the best in the league in the second half of the 2019 season and a coaching staff led by veteran head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, two of the better coaches in the league in their respective roles. 

Brady himself played a part, of course, completing 65.7% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions while finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked quarterback, which is remarkable considering his advanced age, but he’s not quite the quarterback he was in his prime and would not have been able to take this Buccaneers’ team on a long playoff run if he didn’t have a lot of talent around him, which is why the Buccaneers, who were truly a quarterback away from being a contender, were a perfect fit for him as a free agent last off-season. However surprising Brady’s decision to join the Buccaneers was, it made perfect sense given the circumstances, as did their ultimate ascension to Super Bowl Champions.

Now the big question, of course, becomes whether or not the Buccaneers can repeat. At first glance, they would seem to be an obvious candidate to do so after incredibly managing to retain every key player from last year’s team, dipping deep into future cap space to do so in a cap shrunken season, mortgaging their future to maximize a short-term Super Bowl window. Retaining all of those players doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will be as good, which I will get into more throughout this preview, but the other obvious concern is Tom Brady’s age, now in his age 44 season. 

Predictions that Tom Brady will one day see his abilities fall off a cliff have gotten tired at this point as Brady has continued to defy the odds year after year, but the fact that we’re in uncharted territory can’t be ignored. Even though it may seem like we can, we can’t just treat Tom Brady as a perpetual 30-year-old quarterback who will never decline. That’s not to say he will in 2021, but that’s an element of risk with this team that obviously needs to be included in this projection. Any noticeable decline from Brady, who will miss most of the off-season because of knee surgery, significantly hurts this team’s chances of repeating.

The Buccaneers’ don’t seem too concerned about Brady long-term, tacking on another fully guaranteed 25 million dollar for the 2022 season onto his original 2-year deal in a move that also helped the Buccaneers free up cap space to keep other key players, but they do have one eye on the future, using the 64th overall pick at the end of the second round on Florida’s Jeff Trask, who could be the Buccaneers’ quarterback of the future if Brady doesn’t just outlast yet another “quarterback of the future” as he did several times in New England. In the short-term Trask has a good chance to win the backup job even as a rookie because uninspiring journeyman Blaine Gabbert, who has a career 72.3 QB rating in 48 career starts, was their backup all last season. 

That didn’t matter because Brady yet again played all 16 games, now not missing a game due to injury in 12 straight seasons, but injuries are a possibility for all players and, even though he may seem invincible, the possibility that Brady misses some time with injury is one that the Buccaneers need to account for. Trask gives them a better chance of continuing to play at an above average level offensively in the event of a Brady injury that the-tried-and-failed Gabbert. Regardless, the Buccaneers are obviously hoping that scenario doesn’t occur and that Brady continues playing at a level that this team can remain top Super Bowl contenders.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Buccaneers retained every key player from last season, and that is no small feat. Teams almost never return exactly the same group from one year to the next, let alone Super Bowl Champions, and it’s not as if the Buccaneers didn’t have pending free agents. Going into the off-season, 10 of the 31 players who played at least 200 snaps on either side of the ball for the Buccaneers last season were set to hit free agency. 

On top of that, the Buccaneers didn’t seem to have the financial flexibility to bring back all of their top free agents, let alone every key contributor. However, they got creative with their contract structure and used significant amounts of future cap, and while that will lead to problems for this franchise down the line, it’s the kind of aggressive win now approach that makes sense for a team with a 44-year-old quarterback.

One player the Buccaneers could have let walk this off-season was wide receiver Chris Godwin, not because he wasn’t an important part of this team, but because they already have one highly paid receiver in Mike Evans (82.5 million over 5 years) and could have brought back Antonio Brown as an every down receiver with promising third year wide receiver Scotty Miller taking over as the 3rd receiver. Instead, the Buccaneers tagged Godwin and will bring back arguably the league’s deepest and most talented receiving corps.

Evans and Godwin both topped 1000 yards in 2019 and that likely would have happened again in 2020 had Godwin not missed 4 games with injury, as Evans topped the 1000 yard mark at 70/1006/13, while Godwin finished with 65/840/7 slash line in 12 games. Godwin has only topped 1000 yards once in his 4-year career, but that’s really only because of the games he missed last season and the fact he was kind of buried on the depth chart in the first two seasons of his career prior to 2019. 

Godwin still averaged 1.93 yards per route run in those first two seasons, not far off of the 2.24 average he had in 2019 when he finished with 86/1333/9 and, though that dipped back to 1.94 in 2020, Godwin being at less than 100% for most of the season is likely to blame. He’s also finished in the top-24 among wide receivers on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, including a pair of seasons in the top-10 and a top overall ranked finish in 2019. Still only going into his age 25 season, he should have several seasons left in his prime and should remain a high level receiver for the foreseeable future.

Evans, meanwhile, has actually topped 1000 yards in all 7 seasons in the league, since being selected 7th overall by the Buccaneers in 2014, and he’s still in his prime as well in his age 28 season. The 109 targets he saw last season were the fewest of his career, after averaging 135 per season over the first six seasons of his career, and I would expect that to be the case again in 2021, as there are just so many weapons in this passing game. 

In fact, with the Buccaneers expected to get a full season out of Antonio Brown after he missed the first 8 games of last season with suspension, both Evans and Godwin could see their usage rates drop even more, after falling from 17.7 targets per game combined in 2019 to 13.8 in 2020. Even if they don’t produce huge numbers though, the Buccaneers clearly have one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

Brown was once one of the top, if not the top wide receiver in the league, but he’s had an interesting decline, to say the least. A top-5 wide receiver on PFF in 5 straight seasons with the Steelers from 2013-2017, Brown averaged 2.47 yards per route run over that stretch, but saw that number fall to 1.94 in 2018, worst since his 2012 season, and he finished just 26th at his position overall on PFF. In his age 30 season in that 2018 season, there was reason to be concerned about him long-term on the field, but he showed even more reasons to be concerned off the field, frequently getting into conflicts with his quarterback, head coach, and other teammates, before eventually demanding a trade out of town.

The Steelers eventually obliged, sending him to the Raiders, and, though they had to trade him at a discount because everyone knew he wanted out, the Steelers actually won the trade, getting a third round pick for a player who ultimately never played a regular season game for his new team, in a saga that included Brown missing significant training camp action due to a self inflicted foot injury and then refusing to suit up in protest of the NFL’s new helmet rules and that ended with Brown being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, voiding his guaranteed money and leading shortly after to his release. 

Brown then made his way to New England but, while he did suit up for the team, his stay with the Patriots was even shorter than his stay with the Raiders, as allegations of improper conduct off-the-field and potential legal trouble led to Brown being released by the Patriots after just one game, not only ending his tenure with the Patriots, but effectively ending his season, as he remained unsigned for the remainder of the season, with more accusations piling up. Going into the 2020 off-season, Brown faced a very uncertain future, having to find a new team in the midst of ongoing legal proceedings and an impending suspension.

Eventually, Brown ended up in arguably the only place that made sense for him, in Tampa Bay with the quarterback who he made a quick bond with in his brief time in New England, with an organization willing to do anything and everything to win and keep their star quarterback healthy. Brown missed the first 8 games of the season with suspension and was only the third receiver with Evans and Godwin already in the fold, but his 2.07 yards per route run average was 19th in the NFL and actually surpassed his last full season in 2018. In total, Brown had a 53/564/6 slash line in 11 games with the Buccaneers, including the post-season, a slash line of 77/820/9 per 16 games that is pretty impressive when you consider his limited playing time behind two dominant wide receivers and his limited targets in a deep receiving corps.

Most importantly, Brown has stayed out of trouble off-the-field since arriving in Tampa Bay last off-season and, after once again finding a cold free agent market, Brown returned on a 1-year, 3.075 million dollar deal this off-season. Brown is still a hard player to depend on, especially as he now heads into his age 33 season and could further decline on the field, but, as long as he can stay on the field, there’s no denying he’s well over-qualified for a #3 receiver role even if he declines. In addition to seeing a significant role in 3 wide receiver sets, Brown also is great insurance in case either Evans or Godwin misses time.

Scotty Miller is set to be the 4th receiver and he too is good insurance, as he would slide into the #3 receiver job if someone ahead of him on the depth chart was injured. A 6th round pick in 2019, Miller saw his snaps increase from 177 as a rookie to 440 last season and also was more productive on a more route basis, going from 1.46 yards per route run to 1.62. Miller wasn’t a high pick and doesn’t have a huge ceiling, but he should be a solid player if needed. Justin Watson and Tyler Johnson, 5th round picks in 2018 and 2020 respectively, are also in the mix for reserve roles, but they have been underwhelming on 461 career snaps and 264 career snaps respectively.

The Buccaneers are also incredibly deep and talented at the tight end position, especially with OJ Howard set to return from a torn achilles that cost him all but 132 snaps in 4 games last season. Howard played well in those 4 games, posting a 11/146/2 slash line, 44/584/8 extrapolated over a full 16 game season, which is made more impressive by the fact that he didn’t play every down. In fact, on a per route run basis, Howard ranked 4th in the NFL among tight ends over the first 4 weeks of the season with 2.39 yards per route run.

This isn’t the first time the 2017 1st round pick Howard has shown a lot of potential, as he averaged 2.23 yards per route run and was on a 54/904/8 pace through 10 games in 2018 before that season ended with another injury. In between, Howard had a disappointing 2019 campaign in which he received a below average grade from PFF and managed just a 34/459/1 slash line in 14 games. Howard has never played all 16 games in a season and is coming off of a major injury, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and the potential is obviously there if he can ever put it all together and stay healthy, especially with a quarterback like Brady throwing him the ball. Howard is also a capable blocker and, though he’s unlikely to see a massive workload because of the Buccaneers other tight ends, he has the ability to be an every down player if needed.

Howard’s presence early in the season last season largely made the Buccaneers’ other tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, non-factors in the passing game. Brate barely played at all, totaling just 32 snaps in the 4 games Howard played and catching just 1 pass, while Gronkowski was mostly limited to blocking duties and caught just 9 passes. Howard’s injury opened up more targets for both players, who finished with slash lines of 28/282/2 and 45/623/7 respectively.

Gronkowski definitely wasn’t his prime self last season, but the future Hall of Famer still finished 12th among tight ends on PFF and might not necessarily just go back to a pure blocking role when Howard returns, having shown he can still play after a season away from the game. Perhaps most important from Gronkowski was that he played all 16 games last season for just the second time in his illustrious 10-year career. 

That’s certainly not a guarantee again in 2021 and he’s another year older now as well, but still only in his age 32 season, Gronkowski could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. Despite his pledge to only ever catch passes from Tom Brady, Gronkowski reportedly considered Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills this off-season, which would have given him more playing time and a return home to upstate New York with a team that is also in contention, but he ultimately decided to stay with the Buccaneers, signing on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that was likely more money than the Bills offered.

Cameron Brate’s return is more surprising, as they could have cut him to save 6.5 million in non-guaranteed pay, a significant amount for the release of a third tight end who figures to be little more than an insurance policy as long as Howard and Gronkowski are both healthy. Instead, they truly committed themselves to bringing everyone back and restructured Brate’s deal, guaranteeing some of his pay with a signing bonus that spread his cap hit out over future years and that reduced his expected pay for the 2021 season to 3.1 million.

Brate posted 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 slash lines as a starter in 2016-2017, but he’s seen his playing time fall over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t topped 311 yards or 535 snaps played in any of those three seasons as a situational player. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so his best days are likely behind him and indeed his yards per route run have fallen over the past three seasons, in addition to his playing time, but it’s hard to argue that he’s overqualified for a #3 tight end role. This is as deep and talented of a receiving corps as you’ll find in the NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

While the Buccaneers returned all of their key players from a year ago, there are a couple spots where they might not be as good in 2021 as they were in 2020. Quarterback is an obvious one, given Brady’s advanced age, but even if he doesn’t fall off, the Buccaneers aren’t guaranteed to be as good in front of him in 2021. As talented as they are on the offensive line, the Buccaneers also benefited from the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league on the offensive line last season and, though they did eventually lose right guard Alex Cappa for the season during their playoff run, the Buccaneers had just 4 regular season starts missed by their five starting offensive linemen in 2020, something that is unlikely to continue into 2021.

Three of those missed starts were by left guard Ali Marpet, who is arguably their best offensive lineman, so at least the Buccaneers can reasonably expect to get more snaps out of a player who is one of the best guards in the league when on the field. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Marpet has been one of the better guards in the league basically since day one, finishing 22nd among guards on PFF as a rookie and then finishing in the top-14 at his position in all 5 seasons since. He’s also played in all 16 games in half of his six career seasons and has missed just 11 total games overall in his career. Still in his prime in his age 28 season and coming off of a career best 3rd ranked finish among guards in 2020, there is no reason to expect any drop off from him in 2021.

As good as Marpet is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if right tackle Tristan Wirfs ended the season as the Buccaneers’ best offensive lineman. A first round pick in 2020, Wirfs proved to be the most important addition that the Buccaneers made last off-season aside from Brady, as Wirfs made all 16 starts and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle on the season. That’s not a guarantee that he’ll play all 16 games or even that he’ll play that well again, as progression of young players isn’t always linear, but either way, Wirfs looks like one of the best young offensive linemen in the league and should be at least an above average starter at the right tackle position for years to come. His addition was a huge boost for a team last off-season that had a hole at right tackle, but otherwise returned their starting offensive line from 2019.

Along with Marpet, left tackle Donovan Smith has been with this group the longest, also going in the 2nd round in 2015. Smith hasn’t developed into nearly the dominant player that Marpet has, but he’s made 94 of a possible 96 starts and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, including a career best 34th ranked season among offensive tackles in 2019 and a 38th ranked season in 2020. He doesn’t have a huge ceiling, but he’s been a consistently reliable player at the most important position on the offensive line and that shouldn’t change this season, still in his prime in his age 28 season.


While injuries may be a more of an issue for this group in 2021 than 2020, center Ryan Jensen is the only player whose age should be remotely a concern for this group and even he’s only going into his age 30 season. A free agent acquisition from the Ravens on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, Jensen’s tenure in Tampa Bay has been up and down, which is not what you want out of a player who is the 5th highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but that’s not overly surprising from a player who had only had one full season as a starter when the Buccaneers had signed him, a 2017 contract season in which he finished 10th among centers on PFF. Jensen fell to 30th out of 38 eligible centers in his first season in Tampa Bay in 2018, before shooting up to 2nd in 2019, and then falling somewhere around the middle in a 21st ranked 2020 season. He should be expected to have a solid season, but his range of outcomes is larger than your typical solid starter.

Right guard Alex Cappa completes this offensive line, expected to make a full recovery from the injury that ended his season in the playoffs last year. Prior to that, Cappa had made all 16 starts and finished a career best 19th ranked among guards on PFF. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Cappa is still pretty inexperienced with just 29 career starts and only two full seasons as a starter under his belt, but he was solid in 2019 as well (37th) and seemed to take a step forward in 2020. That’s not a guarantee he continues improving or even matches the best season of his career, but he should remain a solid starting guard as long as he can return to form after the injury. 

Joe Haeg, a talented veteran reserve and their top backup offensive lineman last season, is no longer with the team, so the Buccaneers, who don’t have another proven reserve offensive lineman, could be in tough shape at any of their starting five offensive line spots if injuries strike. They used a 3rd round pick on Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey, but he’s not a guarantee to be ready to contribute if needed as a rookie, while swing tackle Josh Wells has shown himself to be one of the worst offensive tackles in the league when depended on for extended playing time in his career. Injuries are really the only threat though, as this starting five is one of the best in the league on paper, a talented group whose oldest starter is 30 and who will benefit from the continuity of having the same starting five again. 

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Running back was one position where the Buccaneers seemed like they might try to find an upgrade this off-season, with Leonard Fournette set to hit free agency and other running backs available to replace him with through free agency and the draft, but instead the Buccaneers brought Fournette back on a one-year deal and will continue to use him in tandem with Ronald Jones. Jones, a 2nd round pick in 2018 by the Buccaneers, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, so without either signed beyond this season, I was expecting the Buccaneers to at least add another running back through the draft, particularly one who could be more efficient in the passing game, with Jones and Fournette averaging a mere 4.47 yards per target through the air last season.

The Buccaneers decision not to draft a running back likely says something about 2020 3rd round pick Keshawn Vaughn, who theoretically has the upside to be the passing down back this offense needs. Vaughn was seen as a sleeper in this backfield when he was drafted because of the pass catching ability he flashed at the collegiate level, but he ultimately ended up with just 31 touches and 99 snaps played in a disappointing rookie season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward and contribute in his second season in the league, but, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s unlikely to see more than a few carries per game, even if he can earn a passing down role.

Jones led the team in carries, actually by a pretty wide margin with 192 carries to Fournette’s 97, and he was the more effective back as well, averaging 5.09 yards per carry to Fournette’s 3.78. That changed in the post-season though, in part due to Jones dealing with an injury that caused him to miss the Buccaneers’ first playoff game. Even when Jones returned, Fournette had 45 carries to Jones’ 35 carries in the final 3 playoff games and he was more effective as well, with a post-season averaging of 4.69 YPC to Jones’ 3.97. It’s unclear whether that will continue into 2021 or whether Jones will revert to the lead back when healthy. 

Fournette has shown promise before, only to continue being wildly inconsistent. The 4th overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft by the Jaguars, Fournette topped 1000 yards in two of his first three seasons in the league, but largely did so on volume rather than effectiveness, rushing for 3.95 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 666 carries, and after multiple problems with the coaching staff, Fournette was let go ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season, leading to him signing a cheap one-year deal with the Buccaneers in free agency. He’s never been an effective pass catcher either, with a career average of 5.62 yards per target. He’s only in his age 26 season, but running backs age differently and I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly have a mid-career breakout.

Jones has also been ineffective as a pass catcher throughout his career, averaging 5.58 yards per target, but he’s shown a lot of talent as a runner over the past two seasons as a starter, averaging 4.21 YPC on 172 carries in 2019 and then jumped up to 5.09 YPC on 192 carries on a better offense in 2020, after hardly playing as a rookie. Still only in his age 24 season with minimal injury history, I would expect him to be about the same in 2021, being the more effective part of a tandem with Fournette, however the split ends up being.

Regardless of the early down split, it seems highly likely that neither back will see the passing game usage they saw last season, when they struggled across a combined 89 targets. Not only could Keshawn Vaughn emerge in a passing down role, but the Buccaneers also signed veteran Giovani Bernard in free agency. Once an effective change of pace runner as well, Bernard has seen his averaged plummet to 3.42 YPC on 233 carries over the past three seasons and, while the lack of talent around him on the Bengals offense was part of the problem, he’s unlikely to improve significantly, now in his age 30 season. 

However, Bernard still added 47 catches last season and has caught an average of 43 catches per season as the Bengals’ primary passing down back. He’s unlikely to see more than a few carries per game and he’s not guaranteed a roster spot with only 850K guaranteed on his contract and three other backs who all seem like roster locks, but if he does make the roster, I would expect him to be utilized as a veteran passing down back and a reliable third down option for Tom Brady. This is a solid, if unspectacular group of running backs.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

While wide receiver Chris Godwin was probably their most talented free agent, edge defender Shaq Barrett might have been their most important free agent because they don’t have the same depth at the position as they do in the receiving corps. He also couldn’t have been kept as easily with the franchise tag because he had already been tagged last off-season and played the 2020 season on the 15.828 million dollar franchise tag, a number that would have increased by 20% with a subsequent tagging.

Originally an undrafted free agent by the Broncos in 2014, Barrett flashed a lot of potential early in his career as a reserve with the Broncos, never topping 664 snaps in a season and managing just 14 sacks, but adding 22 hits and a 12.2% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run. However, he was forced to settle for a one-year, 4 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers two off-seasons ago, which proved to be the steal of the off-season, with Barrett breaking out with a league leading 19.5 sacks, to go with 18 hits and a 14.1% pressure rate in an every down role for the first time in his career. 

Understandably skeptical, the Buccaneers tagged Barrett last off-season instead of extending him long-term, but Barrett proved himself again in 2020. His sack total fell to 8, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an effective pass rusher, adding 8 hits and a 15.7% pressure rate, and overall he finished as PFF’s 30th ranked edge defender on the season. With concerns about Barrett possibly being a one-year wonder quelled, the Buccaneers committed to their talented edge defender with a 4-year, 68 million dollar extension this off-season. 

Barrett will continue starting opposite Jason Pierre-Paul, who is also heading into a contract year. Pierre-Paul is still performing well, but he seems a lot less likely than Barrett to get a long-term deal. Not only is he not quite as important of a player, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and the Buccaneers seemed to signal that he’s not in their long-term plans by using their first round pick in April’s draft on Washington edge defender Joe Tryon.

Pierre-Paul led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, but his peripheral pass rush numbers (5 sacks, 8.4% pressure rate) aren’t as impressive. He was one of the better edge defenders in the league in his prime, but he hasn’t finished higher than 40th among edge defenders on PFF since 2016, so his best days are almost definitely behind him at this point in his career. He’s continued to earn middling grades from PFF and he could continue doing that in 2021, but he is a declining player regardless.

Tryon might not see a ton of action as a rookie, but his addition could lead to the Buccaneers spelling their starters more often, after Barrett averaged 54.9 snaps per game and Pierre-Paul averaged 58.9 snaps per game last season. Pierre-Paul, in particular, would seem to be at risk of having his snaps decreased, given that he’s the less effective of the two. Less playing time could allow the veteran to be fresher and more effective on a per snap basis though. Regardless of how much he plays, Tryon should be an upgrade on the underwhelming Anthony Nelson, who was their only significant reserve last season, seeing just 324 snaps. With Barrett being re-signed and Tryon being added in the draft, this is a strong group that is even stronger than last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Buccaneers had a trio of contributors at the interior defender position set to hit the open market in Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, and Rakeem Nunes-Roches, but all three were retained, and the Buccaneers will also get Vita Vea back from injury after he was limited to 224 snaps in 5 games last season, giving them a deep group at this position group as well. Vea actually returned for the NFC Championship and Super Bowl and played 63 snaps across the two games, but he wasn’t 100%. Prior to the injury, Vea seemed on his way to a dominant Pro-Bowl caliber season, as he was PFF’s #2 ranked interior defender at the time he went down. 

A first round pick in 2018 and a rare athlete at 6-4 347, Vea totaled 2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 11.6% pressure rate in those 5 games, and also expectedly dominated against the run as well. In 2019, he played all 16 games and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender, and he showed a lot of promise as a rookie as well. He earned PFF’s 11th highest grade among interior defenders from week 12 on, after dealing with an injury early in the season, and, over that 6-game stretch to end the season, he played 46.8 snaps per game while totaling 2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 12.8% pressure rate and playing at a high level against the run. Injuries have been a concern for him in his career, but, only in his age 26 season, he still has a lot of football left ahead of him and it’s obvious he has the potential to be one of the top interior defenders in the league.

Ndamukong Suh was the most significant of the trio that the Buccaneers returned, re-signing on a one-year, 9 million dollar deal, after playing 788 snaps last season to lead the position group for the Buccaneers. Suh was one of the best at his position in his prime, but he’s seen his effectiveness steadily drop off the past four seasons, from a 14th ranked season among interior defenders on PFF in 2017, to 27th in 2018, 48th in 2019, and a career worst 71st last season, as he was largely a snap eater more than an impact player across his playing time last season. With Vea returning and Suh now going into his age 34 season, Suh could easily see his snaps reduced. I would still expect him to start and finish 2nd in this group in snaps played, but he’s clearly not the player he once was and the Buccaneers have enough depth and talent that Suh doesn’t need to play 40-50 snaps per game again.

William Gholston figures to be the third starter on this 3-man defensive line in base packages, after finishing 2nd in the position group with 606 snaps played last season, but he too could see his role scaled back by Vea’s return. Gholston’s 2020 snap total was the 2nd highest of his 8-year career and, now going into his age 30 season, having never earned more than a middling grade from PFF, he would probably be better in a smaller role. 

Gholston was one of the worst defensive linemen in the league as recently as 2018, but he’s found a good fit over the past two seasons in Todd Bowles scheme, especially impressing as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 24 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate overall in 32 games. He figures to continue to see a significant role on passing downs, as well as early downs, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline a little as he enters his 30s.

Steve McLendon should also see a significant role on early downs in base packages, as that is his area of expertise. McLendon is going into his age 35 season and saw his effectiveness fall off significantly last season, split across the Jets and then the Buccaneers after a mid-season trade, but he still earned an above average grade against the run on 443 regular season snaps. He’s never played more than 488 snaps in a season though and is a pass rush liability with a career 5.2% pressure rate, including no sacks or hits and a 3.5% pressure rate last season, so he is not a candidate to play in sub packages, but he could still be a useful contributor on early downs.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches also doesn’t get much pass rush, with a career 4.2% pressure rate, but the difference is, he hasn’t played well against the run either, never earning more than a middling grade from PFF and finishing 123rd out of 138 eligible interior defenders on 483 snaps last season, which also happened to be in career high in snaps. He was brought back almost entirely for insurance and depth purposes, so I wouldn’t expect more than a dozen snaps out of him unless injuries strike. The Buccaneers have a few players in this group who are getting up there in age, but they have solid depth at the position overall and Vita Vea leads the position group as one of the better defensive tackles in the league in the prime of his career.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Linebacker Lavonte David was also a key free agent retention, as he was one of the best off ball linebackers in the league last season, finishing 5th on PFF among off ball linebackers, and, beyond that, he’s been one of the Buccaneers’ best players and one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years. Originally a 2nd round selection by the Buccaneers in 2012, He’s been a little inconsistent throughout his 9-year career, but he’s earned at least an average grade from PFF in every season in the league, including 6 finishes in the top-18 among off ball linebackers and 4 finishes in the top-6, especially excelling in pass coverage. His age is a concern, now heading into his age 31 season, but he didn’t show any signs of decline in 2020 and, even if he starts to decline in 2021, I would still expect an above average season from him.

Devin White will continue starting next to David, now going into his third season in the league since being drafted 5th overall by the Buccaneers in 2019. With David excelling in coverage, that freed up White to blitz more than your average off ball linebackers and White excelled as a blitzer, totaling 9 sacks, 8 hits, and 14 hurries on just 109 blitzes, a ridiculous 28.4% pressure rate. White also finished with 140 total tackles, 5th in the NFL, but his traditional stats are a little misleading, as he also missed 16 tackles, 4th most among off ball linebackers, and allowed a position leading 86 receptions on just 98 targets. A similar thing happened as a rookie in 2019, when he missed 13 tackles in 13 games and allowed 40 of 49 completion. He has the tools to develop into one of the better all-around off ball linebackers in the league, but he’s a little overrated if you only look at his sack and tackle totals.

The Buccaneers also retained veteran free agent Kevin Minter this off-season, keeping a player who plays at a high level on special teams and provides valuable insurance at the inside linebacker position. Minter made 37 starts with the Cardinals from 2014-2016, but he was underwhelming in his extended action and he’s been limited to just 586 total defensive snaps as a reserve in 4 seasons since, including just 93 snaps last season. Now going into his age 31 season, his days of being a starting caliber player are well behind him, but you could do worse in a top reserve. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him capably hold down the fort for a few games if needed. He gives a good position group needed insurance.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Like the rest of the defense, the Buccaneers should get good play from their secondary, who retained their only significant free agent Ross Cockrell. Cockrell only played 238 snaps last season, but he earned an above average grade from PFF for his play and made enough of an impression on the Buccaneers to be brought back with everyone else, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play a more significant role in 2021. Cockrell was a solid starter from 2015-2017 (32 starts) before a badly broken leg cost him all of 2018 and likely led to a down 2019 season in which he finished 94th among 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. 

Cockrell’s down 2019 season led to him having to settle for a practice squad role with the Buccaneers last off-season, but he was called up in the second half of the season and showed his pre-injury form in his limited action. His age isn’t ideal in his age 30 season, but now 3 years removed from his injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue to be a serviceable player. That would likely him make an upgrade on #3 cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was the weak point of this defense last season, finishing 83rd among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. Murphy-Bunting was a second round pick in 2019 and he played better as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cockrell beat him out for the primary slot cornerback job, which is where Cockrell is at his best.

Starters Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis are also young, going in the 3rd round in 2019 and the 2nd round in 2018 respectively, but they’ve developed a lot better than Murphy-Bunting has, combining to be one of the better starting cornerback duos in the league in 2020, finishing 11th and 41st respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Davis is the more proven of the two, making 40 career starts and earning average or better grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but Dean has shown a higher upside and especially played well down the stretch last season, when he was the clearly better of these two cornerbacks. That might not necessarily continue in 2021, but either way, they should remain a solid starting cornerback duo.

The Buccaneers also have good young players at safety, with 2018 4th round pick Jordan Whitehead actually being the most experienced player the Buccaneers have at the position. Whitehead has made 41 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but prior to last season, he had struggled, finishing 66th among 99 eligible safeties on PFF on 660 snaps as a rookie and then 97th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF on 919 snaps in 2019, but he made a big leap forward in 2020 and finished 37th at his position. He’s a one-year wonder and not a guarantee to play that well again, but it’s also possible he’s turned a corner and will remain a solid starter going forward.

Antoine Winfield, a 2nd round pick in 2020, was the Buccaneers’ best safety last season, despite being a rookie, finishing 33rd among safeties on PFF. He should remain at least a solid starter and has the upside to take a big step forward in his second season in the league. Winfield is locked in as a starter, but Whitehead may have to compete for his role because 2019 3rd round pick Mike Edwards could also be in the mix. 

Edwards struggled as a rookie, finishing 80th among 98 eligible safeties on PFF across 614 snaps, but he flashed a lot of potential on 189 snaps last season, suggesting he may deserve another shot at a bigger role. Even if he doesn’t, he is well qualified as a third safety. This is a deep and talented young group overall. Their youth may give them more variance and potential downside than a comparable veteran unit, but they also have a much higher upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Super Bowl winners historically have a hard time repeating, doing so just 7 out of 55 times, with many defending champions not even coming close to making it back. The Buccaneers have brought back every key member of this team in an unprecedented attempt to try to avoid the usual pitfalls of defending Super Bowl Champions, but there are still some concerns for a team with a quarterback who is playing very much in uncharted territory in his age 44 season and that likely won’t have as good of injury luck as last season, particularly on the offensive line, which had the fewest games lost to injury of any offensive line in the league. The Buccaneers will definitely be in the mix to repeat, but the potential downside is there as well. I will have a final prediction for the Buccaneers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Los Angeles Chargers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the story for the Chargers was almost always the same. They would look good on paper at the beginning of the season, but would almost always be derailed by injuries, poor special teams, and a poor record in one score games. In first down rate differential, the Chargers rank 4th in the NFL dating back to 2004, only behind the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints and ahead of nine teams that have won Super Bowls and five others that have at least appeared in one.

I typically prefer first down rate differential to other stats because it doesn’t account for things like special teams and record in close games that tend to be highly non-predictive week-to-week and year-to-year, but, with the exception of a few seasons where they have managed a significant win total, the Chargers have always been the outlier to that. On top of that, in the seasons where they did manage a significant win total, they always came up short, never advancing to even a single Super Bowl, with their last one now dating back 27 years to 1994, when they lost their first and only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Injuries also tend to be something that’s highly unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, but the Chargers consistently found themselves among the most banged up teams in the league as well.

I never bought the argument that likely Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers was the biggest reason for the Chargers’ consistent underachieving, because he had nothing to do with two of the three main factors, special teams and injuries, and the third factor, record in close games, is a team stat more than anything, as evidenced by many Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks having career records around .500 in games decided by one score or less. However, I understood the Chargers decision to move on from Rivers before his age 39 season in 2020, which he spent with the Colts, making 25 million in what ended up being his final season in the league. 

Rivers was a cost prohibitive short-term solution at best and the Chargers had the opportunity to secure a franchise quarterback in the draft with their 6th overall pick and replace Rivers with a much cheaper option who could potentially be a long-term franchise quarterback. The Chargers also had veteran backup Tyrod Taylor as an inexpensive short-term bridge quarterback and intended to start him until their rookie quarterback, University of Oregon’s Justin Herbert, was ready. Herbert ended up being thrown into action far before being deemed ready though, as a medical situation during week 2 sidelined Taylor for a couple weeks, and Herbert played well enough that he never gave the job back, making the final 15 starts of the season. 

For the first half of the season, it was more of the season for the Chargers. They started 2-7, with all 7 losses coming by one score or less, including three games against elite teams (Chiefs, Buccaneers, Saints) in which the Chargers held a halftime lead. Their special teams were among the worst in the league. And an injury streak that started in the pre-season when stud safety Derwin James was lost for the season then continued into the season, with other key players missing time with injury early in the season.

However, their luck seemed to turn in the second half of the season. They got healthier, their schedule got easier, and they ended up winning five of their last seven games, including four one-score wins, to end the season with a 5-7 record in one-score games and a 7-9 record overall. The Chargers also did that despite still finishing the season with the worst special teams in the league by DVOA and with the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury overall. If they can have even average injury luck and special teams play, the Chargers could win a couple more games just from that alone. 

The Chargers didn’t finish last season quite as high in first down rate differential as they have in the past, but they still ranked 14th with an even first down rate differential, allowing a first down rate that was 0.93% lower than expected given their competition (10th in the NFL) and picking up first downs at a rate that was 0.93% lower than expected given their competition (22nd in the NFL). Normally I would be a little concerned that a team was more reliant on defense than offense because defense tends to be the less predictable side of the ball, but with the players they are set to get back from injury, they should be better on offense and could also be improved on defense as well, depending on how things go.

Herbert was not the problem on this offense, as he went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after being thrown into the lineup before being “ready.” I will get into the problems with this offense later, but Herbert finished the season with among the best statistics ever by a rookie quarterback, completing 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, which is made even more impressive when you consider the problems that he was dealing around him on offense. Herbert also showed his athleticism, adding 234 yards and 5 touchdowns on 55 carries (4.25 YPC), and overall finished as PFF’s 16th ranked quarterback on the season. 

The development and growth of young quarterback isn’t always linear, as evidenced by the up and downs of the quarterback who held many of the records that are now held by Herbert, Baker Mayfield, who looked like a potential future MVP candidate as a rookie in 2018, but arguably hasn’t reached the level he played as a rookie in his two subsequent seasons since. That’s not to say Herbert won’t eventually develop into a top-5 quarterback and an MVP candidate, but it probably won’t be a linear development and his dominant rookie year isn’t necessarily indicative of an MVP caliber ceiling.

That being said, the Chargers are obviously thrilled to have the quarterback position locked down for the foreseeable future and for the next three years at an affordable rate, with Herbert on a rookie deal. That will allow the Chargers to be aggressive in adding talent to this team without having to worry as much about the salary cap, with a quarterback making well below the market average for a top level signal caller, something the Chargers took advantage of to some extent this off-season. One position where they didn’t spend significant resources was backup quarterback, with career clipboard holder (5 starts in 11 seasons in the league) Chase Daniel signed to replace Taylor as the #2 quarterback. The Chargers rightfully committed to Herbert at quarterback for the long-term.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Given the disparity between the Chargers’ passing offense last season and their overall offensive performance, you might think the Chargers struggled on the ground and you’d be right, as they finished with the 3rd lowest YPC in the league at 3.83, but it’s more complicated than that. If you look at their top 5 players in carries, you would see two that stand out as especially struggling, while the other three had solid averages. One of those three was Justin Herbert, who obviously doesn’t count towards their running backs, but the other two, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, averaged 4.57 YPC on 116 carries and 4.58 YPC on 59 carries respectively, while Joshua Kelly and Kalen Ballage averaged 3.19 YPC on 111 carries and 3.30 YPC on 88 carries respectively. 

You might be wondering why the Chargers would give such a big chunk of the carries to Ballage and Kelley if Ekeler and Jackson were clearly the better runners and there are a few reasons for that, most importantly, availability, as Ekeler and Jackson were limited to 10 games and 9 games respectively. Ekeler is also undersized at 5-10 200 and sees significant usage in the passing game, so the Chargers try to limit his usage in the running game. He had 63 touches in his three games (47 carries, 16 catches) prior to the hamstring injury that cost him six games and most of a seventh, but upon his return was used a little more sparingly, with 104 touches (67 carries, 37 catches) in the six games upon his return, an average of 17.3 touches per game, down from 21.0 per game prior to the injury.

His 2021 usage will probably be somewhere in between those touch numbers, but I would expect at least a third of them to come in the passing game, which would put Ekeler at about 12-14 carries per game, leaving plenty of carries for other running backs. There is also still concern even at that workload about whether or not he can hold up over a full season. The former undrafted free agent largely fell out of the draft because of his lack of size and, while he’s shown plenty of ability, with 4.74 yards per carry and 7.97 yards per target, he’s also never topped 224 touches in a season, which is 14 touches per game in a 16-game season. Ekeler is a dynamic back who is still only going into his age 26 season and the Chargers are a much better offense when he’s healthy and on the field, but any way you look at it, the Chargers will still need to rely on at least one other running back for significant action this season.

Ideally, Justin Jackson would be the second back who works in tandem with Ekeler, but he is an even bigger injury concern. He has averaged 4.90 YPC for his career, but he’s missed 19 of 48 games since the Chargers selected him in the 7th round in 2018 and is highly unproven with just 138 career carries. He’s shown some ability in the passing game as well and could easily have a significant role in this offense if he’s healthy, but that’s a big if. He also doesn’t have the ideal size to take on a significant workload at 6-0 199.

Given the durability concerns of Ekeler and Jackson and how much Joshua Kelley, who was still penciled in as the third back, struggled last season, I expected the Chargers to add another running back this off-season, but the only addition they made was 6th round pick Larry Rountree. Rountree could push Kelley for the #3 back job, but Kelley, a 4th round pick in last year’s draft, may have the leg up on the lightly drafted rookie, even as much as Kelley struggled last season. This backfield will be in better shape if they can be healthier, which they probably will be even if only by default, but they should have done more to solidify the position this off-season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

A big part of the reason for the Chargers’ struggles on the ground last season was their offensive line play. Their offensive line got a lot of attention as a unit that they needed to improve to better protect and support Herbert and they ranked 30th in pass blocking grade as a team on PFF last season, while allowing Herbert to be pressured at a 36.6% rate that was the 12th highest in the league among 39 eligible quarterbacks, but they actually struggled even more as a run blocking unit, ranking dead last on PFF in that aspect. 

Their poor run blocking also probably affected this offense more than their poor pass protection, as Herbert incredibly led the league with a 99.4 QB rating while pressured, completing 57.0% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions on those pressured dropbacks. That’s not to say that the Chargers didn’t need to pass protect better for him long-term, but improved run blocking would lead to a more consistent running game and more favorable down and distance situations for their quarterback, which might have been needed even more than better pass protection.

With their obvious needs on the offensive line in mind, the Chargers made a splash signing in free agency, taking advantage of Herbert’s cheap rookie deal and signing ex-Packers center Corey Linsley to a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid center in the league. A 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley well exceeded his draft slot and became the Packers starting center in week one of his rookie year, making all 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked center on the season. In total, Linsley made 99 starts in 7 seasons with the Packers, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons, including four seasons in the top-7 among centers on PFF. 

Linsley also arguably saved his best season for last, finishing last season as PFF’s 1st ranked center. It’s somewhat concerning that the Chargers are giving a top of the market deal to a player who is coming off of a career best contract year and is now going into his age 30 season, but even if he isn’t quite as good as he was last season, he will be a big upgrade for this team as both a pass and run blocker and centers somewhat regularly play at a high level into their 30s, so I would expect him to have at least another 2-3 good seasons left in the tank, which is the guaranteed portion of his contract. He was a big addition at a huge position of need, where incumbent Dan Feeney finished as PFF’s 37th ranked center out of 38 eligible in 16 starts last season.

The other big addition the Chargers made to this unit was their first round pick, Rashawn Slater, who they selected 13th overall out of Northwestern. Slater played left tackle at Northwestern, but lacks the prototypical size for an NFL left tackle. The Chargers could have selected a more prototypical player in Christian Darrisaw, who fell to the Vikings at pick #23, but, even if Darrisaw ends up being the better left tackle long-term, Slater was still the right selection for the Chargers, who could kick Slater inside to guard and have him fill a big need at that position if the left tackle position doesn’t work out for him at this level. Regardless of future position, there is an argument to be made that Slater was the best offensive lineman in the whole draft, even ahead of #7 overall pick Penei Sewell.

Slater will probably begin his career at left tackle, but the Chargers do have an intriguing third year tackle in Trey Pipkins, who the front office talked up publicly this off-season. A third round pick in 2019, Pipkins has only played 822 career snaps (8 starts) for a team that has desperately needed offensive tackle help and he has been underwhelming in that limited action, but he’s held his own for a young player and could still have the upside to develop into a starter long-term. It’s possible if he has a strong off-season program, the Chargers could reconsider where Slater plays long-term and move him inside to guard, where he could ultimately end up being a perennial Pro-Bowl caliber player.

One reason Slater moving to guard could make sense is because left guard is currently a position of oncern. Incumbent Forrest Lamp was not retained this off-season, understandable, given that he finished 77th out of 86 eligible guards on PFF in 16 starts last season, but the Chargers didn’t really upgrade on him, instead signing veteran journeyman Oday Aboushi. Aboushi is experienced, with 42 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s never been more than a middling starter and he’s never been a full-time starter either, maxing out at 10 starts and 722 snaps way back in his rookie year in 2014. 

Aboushi is a very underwhelming starting option, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the incumbent and the Chargers don’t really have another good option. They used a 5th round pick on Brenden Jaimes, who could play guard long-term, but he’s unlikely to be a starting option as a rookie. Center Scott Quessenberry could also kick over to guard and provide competition, but he was underwhelming in 2019 in the only extended experience of the 2018 5th round pick’s career and couldn’t earn his way into the starting lineup at either center or guard last season, despite poor play from the starters at both positions. 

Right guard is in better shape, after the Chargers signed Matt Feiler. Feiler’s addition isn’t as big as Linsley or Slater, but he still signed a pretty sizable contract, signing for 21 million over 3 years, and is a pretty sizable upgrade over injury prone Trai Turner, who was released this off-season to save 11 million. Turner missed most of the first half of the season with injury, but the Chargers were arguably better off without him upfront, as he finished the season as PFF’s 84th ranked guard out of 86 eligible on 536 snaps. Neither Ryan Groy nor Cole Toner showed much in Turner’s absence last season either, while Feiler finished last season as PFF’s 36th guard and should be able to have a similar season in 2021, still only in his age 29 season.

Feiler, who made 26 starts at right tackle in 2018-2019, was arguably better at that position, finishing 34th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 and 18th in 2019, but the Chargers probably won’t have a need for him to play there. I say probably because right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been pretty injury prone over the years, including last season, his first with the Chargers after signing a 3-year, 30 million dollar contract last off-season. In total, he’s missed 51 games in 11 seasons in the league and has only made all 16 starts twice.

One of those two seasons came in 2019, which was arguably the best season of his career overall, ranking 14th among offensive tackles on PFF. That season helped him secure the big contract the Chargers gave him, but he was only an average starter in 10 games last season and was limited to just 444 snaps overall. He’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season since his rookie season and he’s finished in the top-30 at his position 5 times, but he’s now going into his age 32 season and it’s fair to wonder if his best days are behind him. 

The Chargers may have overpaid Bulaga based on past performance and now are stuck with a declining player. He could easily still be a capable starter this season, but he’s being paid to be more than that and he’s almost a guarantee to miss time with injury at some point. If the Chargers keep Slater at left tackle, that would put Trey Pipkins in the swing tackle role, in which case he would be the starter in Bulaga’s absence. Additionally, they could move Slater to guard, play Pipkins at left tackle, and move Feiler to right tackle. The Chargers don’t have good depth options beyond Pipkins and left guard is still a position of weakness, but overall this is a much improved offensive line that could easily have four new starters this season, with the fifth being a player who missed most of last season’s disastrous offensive line performance.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

In addition to improving their offensive line, the Chargers also opted to use their two third round picks (one a compensatory pick for losing Rivers) on young pass catchers, taking Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer with the 77th pick and Georgia tight end Tre McKitty with the 97th pick. Both will compete to earn playing time as rookies. At tight end, the Chargers found themselves in a strange position this off-season. For years, they had the future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates at the position and then Hunter Henry, who developed as the #2 tight end at the end of Gates’ career, has played well as the starter in recent years. However, Henry signed with the Patriots on a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, after spending the 2020 season on the franchise tag. 

Instead of trying to outbid the Patriots’ offer or going for another top tight end on the market like Jonnu Smith, who also signed a similar size deal with the Patriots, the Chargers settled for a one-year rental of veteran Jared Cook at 4.5 million and a draft pick, even though they had the financial flexibility to spend at the top of the market. Cook has been a solid receiving tight end throughout his career, averaging a 50/674/5 slash line per 16 games if you exclude the first two seasons of his career in 2009 and 2010, but he’s never been a good blocker and he seems to be slowing down as a receiver, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a season in which he had a 37/504/7 slash line in 15 games with the Saints. McKitty, meanwhile, could develop into a starter long-term, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a pass catcher.

This could be part of a little bit of an intentional shift away from using the tight end position as much in the passing game in the absence of Philip Rivers, who famously loved targeting the position. Henry’s 60/613/4 slash line in 14 games last season was solid, but not in line with his per game averages with Rivers under center, as Herbert preferred to target wide receivers down the field instead, most notably getting a 28/511/3 season out of #3 wide receiver Jalen Guyton, a 2019 undrafted free agent who had never caught a pass prior to last season. That comes after a 2019 season where, other than the Chargers’ top-2 wide receivers, they had just 25 completions to a wide receiver all season in Philip Rivers’ final season with the team.

Guyton still finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 111st ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible though, averaging just 0.88 yards per route run (4th worst among eligible receivers) and catching just 50.9% of his targets. His speed and Herbert’s arm strength led to Guyton averaging an impressive 18.3 yards per catch, but he won’t do that every season and he would be best as a situational deep threat rather than as the primary #3 receiver. The Chargers may agree, as evidenced by the selection of Palmer, who could push Guyton for the #3 receiver job, even as a rookie. He may not be a huge upgrade, but it would be hard for him to be more one-dimensional than Guyton. 

Keenan Allen and Mike Williams remain locked in as the top-2 wide receivers, as they have for the past two seasons. Both topped 1000 yards in 2019, but both failed to reach that mark in 2020, for different reasons. For Williams, the reason is that his 1000 yard year in 2019 was primarily the result of an unsustainable 20.4 yards per catch. His catch total has stayed about the same for the past three years, catching between 43-49 passes in each season, but his yards per catch, which was already an impressive 15.4 in 2018 and 15.8 in 2020, shot up in 2019 to the point where he could top 1000 yards with just 49 catches. Williams is a talented former first round pick who should continue averaging a high yards per catch, but he probably won’t reach his 2019 mark again and I wouldn’t expect his catch total to shoot up either, in an offense where Justin Herbert loves to spread the ball around to many receivers.

Keenan Allen, meanwhile, missed the 1000 yard mark because of injuries, as he missed two games and almost all of a third and still managed an impressive 100/992/8 slash line that fell just short. Allen still had a catch total similar to the catch totals he had in 2017-2019, when he played in all 16 games and had between 97-104 catches in every season, but his yards per catch average fell to 9.9. Allen has always been a possession receiver with just a career 11.9 yards per catch average, but he seems to be trending even more that way, as his 7.3 average depth of target in 2020 was well behind his 9.4 career average. 

Allen’s 1.91 yards per route run average wasn’t far off his career average of 2.11 and Allen is still theoretically in the late prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s had a lot of injuries over the years and may have to get his yardage total more on volume of targets rather than depth of target going forward. With Williams as a deep threat on the other side, the Chargers have a talented wide receiver duo who complement each other well. There are question marks in this receiving corps and Hunter Henry won’t be easy to replace, but they are hoping to offset his loss with the veteran Jared Cook and a pair of third round picks. This isn’t a bad group overall.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Chargers had injury problems on both sides of the ball last season, the injury bug hit them harder defensively, as they had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Those injuries hit key players as well. I already mentioned the loss of safety Derwin James and I will get into that more later, but in James’ absence edge defender Joey Bosa became the Chargers’ clear cut best defensive player and he too had his own injury issues, limited to just 549 snaps on the season in 12 games. Bosa made the most of his playing time, totaling 7.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 17.4% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run and earning PFF’s 3rd highest edge defender grade overall. 

That’s nothing new for Bosa, who has earned a top-8 grade among edge defenders from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league since being selected 3rd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, but unfortunately neither are injuries, as he’s been limited to 12 games or fewer in 3 of his 5 seasons. He’s been very productive given the relatively limited playing time, with 47.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate in 63 career games, and, still only going into his age 26 season, his best days may still be yet to come. If he can stay healthy for a full season and play like he has at his best, he has Defensive Player of the Year upside and even if he isn’t in contention for that award, he should be one of the top edge defenders in the league once again this season.

Bosa’s long-time complement Melvin Ingram also had his own injury issues last season, limited to 361 snaps in 7 games, but he was let go this off-season, so the Chargers won’t benefit from his return this season. Ingram played well in his limited action last season, but it’s understandable why the Chargers let him walk, as he’s going into his age 32 season and the Chargers have a homegrown replacement in Uchenna Nwosu who will be taking over for Ingram. 

A 2nd round pick in 2018, Nwosu is a projection to a larger role because he’s been limited to a max of 362 snaps in a season because of the talent ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s shown well both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 21 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate for his career. His best year came last year, when he finished as PFF’s 23rd ranked edge defender on 356 snaps. Still only going into his age 25 season, Nwosu has a ton of upside and is a perfect fit for the Chargers new base 3-4 defense, so he easily could have a breakout season in his first full season as a starter.

With Nwosu moving into the starting lineup and fellow reserve Isaac Rochell (438 snaps) no longer with the team, the Chargers needed to replenish depth at the position this off-season and did so by using a 4th round pick on Duke’s Chris Rumph and signing veteran journeyman Kyler Fackrell in free agency. Rumph might not make much of an impact as a rookie, but he was a good value in the 4th round and could develop into a contributor long-term.

Fackrell, meanwhile, comes over on a cheap 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. A 3rd round pick by the Packers in 2016, Fackrell had a 10.5-sack season in 2018, but that’s a very misleading total as he managed just 2 other quarterback hits and had a pressure rate of just 9.5% on the season, showing that his sack total came more from being in the right place at the right time rather than consistently generating pressure. 

That sack total also stands out as a huge outlier, as he has just 10 sacks combined in his other 4 seasons in the league and, though his career 9.8% pressure rate is actually better this his 2018 mark, it’s still an underwhelming rate for an edge defender and he doesn’t make up for it with his play against the run. Fackrell has played 524 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons, but he’s a low upside option that figures to be a snap eater at best. He’s not a bad depth option, but the Chargers will really need their top-two edge defenders Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu to stay healthy.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

While the Chargers are in pretty good shape at the edge defender position, the interior is a different story. The Chargers are transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base, which doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to because base packages are being used less and less frequently every year, but it does mean that the Chargers will play with three interior defenders together in base packages against running formations. That’s a concern for a team with limited depth at the position. 

Big 6-4 329 pound Linval Joseph figures to line up over the nose and, though he’s going into his age 33 season, he hasn’t seen his play against the run fall off significantly and he still earned an above average grade from PFF last season for his run defense, but his pass rush ability seems to have disappeared. He’s never been a great pass rusher, but his pressure rate is at 7.1% for his career and, over the past three seasons, that has fallen to 5.5%, with just 4 sacks and 7 hits in 44 games over that stretch. He played 726 snaps last season and could play close to that many snaps again this season as more of an every down player than a true two down run stuffer, but that’s more out of necessity due to the Chargers’ lack of other options rather than Joseph still having every down ability.

Justin Jones also played a significant amount last season (527 snaps) and will continue to have a significant role, but he doesn’t offer much pass rush either, with his best play coming against the run. Jones broke out as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in run defense grade last season, but that’s still an outlier in his 3-year career and the 2018 3rd round pick has yet to develop any pass rush, with 1.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 5.2% pressure rate in 40 career games. He’ll play a significant role and should be solid against the run even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season, but I don’t see him suddenly breaking out as a pass rusher.

Jerry Tillery is the best pass rusher of the bunch, totaling 3 sacks, 13 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate, while leading the position group with 747 snaps played on the season. He should continue seeing a significant role this season, considering he is their only reliable interior pass rush option, but the problem is, while he’s solid as a pass rusher, he is one of the worst run defenders in the league at his position, earning PFF’s 129th ranked run defense grade out of 138 eligible interior defenders last season, leading to him ranking 127th out of 138 overall on the season, despite being a capable pass rusher. 

Tillery was a first round pick in 2019, but his rookie year was even worse, as he struggled as both a run stopper and a pass rusher and earned PFF’s worst interior defender grade, while being limited to just 354 snaps. Tillery still has upside and could have the best season of his career in 2021, but that’s far from a guarantee and, even if he does, I still expect him to be a liability against the run. Like Joseph and Jones, he’ll see significant action largely out of necessity.

Damion Square was their best reserve last season and, with him gone and the team switching schemes, the Chargers will be reliant on unproven players like Cortez Broughton and Breiden Fehoko. Broughton was a 2019 7th round pick who has played just 115 career snaps, while Fehoko is a 2020 undrafted free agent who has played just 19 career snaps, but unless the Chargers make a veteran addition or two, both players will likely see action this season, for lack of a better option. This is a position group of concern.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Chargers lost a pair of linebackers this off-season in Nick Vigil and Denzel Perryman, but they played just 312 snaps and 317 snaps respectively in 2020, so they won’t really be missed, especially since they will have less need for off ball linebackers as they switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base. Kenneth Murray and Kyzir White, who led the position in snaps last season with 959 and 538 respectively, both return and should play significant roles and they also have Drue Tranquil returning from injury after missing all but 5 snaps in 2020 and he will be in the mix for a role as well. 

Murray played an every down role last season and should remain in that role in 2021. He wasn’t great, only earning a middling grade from PFF, but he was just a rookie and the 23rd overall pick has plenty of upside to get better in year two and beyond. He could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. Tranquil has upside as well, as he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF overall on 382 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2019 and looked poised for a bigger role in 2020 before the injury.

With Murray locked into an every down role, Tranquil will compete with White for playing time. White is relatively young as well, going in the 4th round in 2018, but he doesn’t have quite the same upside as Tranquil. Prior to last season, he had played just 514 snaps in his career, in part due to injury, and, in the most extended playing time of his career in 2020, he finished 65th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 538 snaps. Tranquil could overtake him with a good training camp if he’s healthy. This is a young group, but they have upside.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As I mentioned, by far the biggest injury absence for the Chargers last season was safety Derwin James, who went down for the season with a knee injury before the season even began. When he’s been on the field, James is arguably more important to this defense than even Joey Bosa, so it can’t be understated how big his absence was. James played all 16 starts as a rookie and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked safety on the season, but he missed the first 11 games of the 2019 season with a foot injury and, while he finished as PFF’s 8th highest ranked safety in the 5-game stretch in which he did play, now having missed 27 of the past 32 games with significant lower body injury, it’s fair to wonder if James can return his top level form. Even if he doesn’t though, the Chargers will still benefit immensely from his presence on the field and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s definitely still possible he puts his injury woes behind him and continues his ascension among the top safeties in the league.

James is returning to a secondary that is very different from the secondary around him in 2018. That season, top outside cornerback Casey Hayward finished as PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback on the season, while slot cornerback Desmond King finished 2nd, giving the Chargers one of the best secondaries in the league. Neither was able to repeat that season and both have since been let go, with King being traded to the Titans in the middle of the final year of his rookie year last season and Hayward getting cut this off-season, ahead of a 9.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 32 season.

The transition in this secondary started when they signed ex-Broncos cornerback Chris Harris to a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last season. Harris is at his best on the slot, causing the Chargers to move King around and play him as a safety more often than a cornerback before trading him, and Harris’ salary made it less likely the Chargers would give Hayward a chance to bounce back from a down season. The Chargers also gave a 3-year, 25.2 million dollar deal to Michael Davis, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has developed into a capable, if unspectacular starter over the past few seasons (35 starts since 2018, including 14 in 2020). The Chargers also used a 2nd round pick on Asante Samuel, who figures to see a significant role and round out the Chargers top-3 cornerbacks.

Davis hasn’t shown a high upside and Samuel is only a rookie, so Harris will probably be counted on as the top cornerback. Harris was once one of the top cornerbacks in the league with the Broncos, but he has not continued that with the Chargers and has pretty noticeably dropped off over the past two seasons. Harris finished in the top-18 among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 straight seasons from 2012-2018, including 5 seasons in the top-4, but he fell to 38th in his final season in Denver before falling to 64th in 2020 with the Chargers in an injury plagued season that saw him play just 568 snaps in 9 games. 

Harris has been pretty durable in his career, playing all 16 games in 7 of 10 seasons in the league, and he could easily remain a solid starter for another couple seasons, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued declining and became a liability. His best play comes on the slot, but he’s played both inside and outside in his career and will likely continue playing in that capacity in 2021. With Tevaughn Campbell, a 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled on the first 326 snaps of his career last season, expected to be the 4th cornerback, the Chargers’ depth is suspect as well, so they’ll need their top cornerbacks to stay healthy.

Rayshawn Jenkins made 15 starts last season and was a solid starter, but with James set to return, Jenkins was allowed to walk as a free agent this off-season and signed with the Jaguars. The Chargers have their starters set even without him, with third year player Nasir Adderley expected to continue starting after making 14 starts last season, but they may regret letting Jenkins walk, not just because of James’ injury history and their lack of depth at the position, but also because Adderley struggled last season, finishing 87th out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF. A 2nd round pick in 2019, Adderley has the talent to be better going forward, but he missed all but 10 snaps as a rookie before struggling last season, so he really hasn’t proven anything. The Chargers will need James to stay healthy because this secondary is pretty uninspiring otherwise.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Chargers should have better health and special teams play next season due to sheer regression to the mean and they did a pretty good job of adding more talent this off-season at positions of name, most notably on their offensive line, which looks likely to go from being a league worst unit to at least a serviceable group. All of that could easily boost a team that went 7-9 last season into playoff contention. They have the upside to be more than that, but much of that relies on Justin Herbert taking another step forward after having one of the better rookie years ever by a quarterback, which is far from a guarantee in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Chargers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Minnesota Vikings 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Vikings finished the 2020 season just 7-9, their worst record since 2014, but there are reasons to be optimistic about this team. For one, their major problem last season was special teams, which tends to have a very high variance on a year-to-year basis. The Vikings ranked 8th in offensive DVOA and 18th in defensive DVOA, but ranked only ahead of the Chargers in special teams DVOA, so if they can have even average special teams play in 2021, that alone could lead to a couple more wins for a team who lost a trio of games by 3 points or fewer in 2020.

First down rate differential shows this as well, as the Vikings finished the season 8th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.69%, ranking 3rd in first down rate over expected at +3.01% and 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.33%. Obviously that defensive performance is concerning, but defensive performance tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than offensive performance and the Vikings are set to get some key defensive players back from injury, which could allow them to much more closely resemble the defense that ranked 13th in first down rate allowed in 2019. 

The Vikings’ defense was actually a middling unit for most of the season until bottoming out due to so many key injury absences down the stretch. They will probably have more injuries on offense this season, after finishing with the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020 (as opposed to the 3rd most on defense), but their offense was actually the best in football on early downs last season, which tends to be the most predictive down. 

The Vikings ranked 1st in the NFL in first down rate on 1st and 2nd down at 34.78% (the Bills ranked 2nd at 33.83% and the league average was 30.01%) and somewhat ridiculously they converted first downs at a higher rate on 1st and 2nd down than all but four teams did when you include all downs (league average 32.72%). If the Vikings had converted 3rd and 4th downs at a higher than average rate last season (16th at 42.65%), they could have been the best offense in the league. 

The Vikings didn’t have much financial flexibility in free agency this off-season and lost some key players as a result, but they did do a good job with the limited financial flexibility they had and they arguably had one of the best drafts in the league. I’ll get into all of that later, but one obvious reason for the Vikings limited financial flexibility is the financial investment they have in Kirk Cousins, who has made 94 million from the Vikings since signing with them 3 seasons ago and is set to make another guaranteed 56 million over the next 2 seasons.

It’s certainly debatable whether Cousins is worth that kind of money, but his performance hasn’t been the problem and, despite his team’s record, he had one of the best seasons of his career last season, ranking 10th among quarterbacks on PFF and completing 67.6% of his passes for an average of 8.27 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He played especially well on first down, averaging a ridiculous 9.26 yards per attempt. His 105.0 QB rating was 8th in the NFL and only the second best of his career only to the 107.4 QB rating he had in 2019, which was also the only season in which he ranked higher on PFF, ranking 5th. 

Overall, Cousins has completed 69.0% of his passes for an average of 7.77 YPA, 91 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions in 3 seasons with the Vikings, while never finishing worse than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF. Cousins is still in the prime of his career in his age 33 season and hasn’t finished worse than 20th on PFF in 6 seasons as a starter in his career or missed a game due to injury over that stretch, so there is no reason to expect any sort of drop off from him this season, even if he isn’t necessarily quite as good as he has been over the past couple seasons.

The Vikings didn’t have a short-term need for a quarterback this off-season, but part of why I liked their draft so much was the selection of Kellen Mond with the 66th overall pick at the top of the third round, one of four picks the Vikings had in the third round after some movement around the board, including a move down from 14 to 23 in the first round. In a draft that saw 5 quarterbacks go in the top-15, it was a surprise to see Mond, arguably the best of the rest of the quarterbacks in the draft class, fall all the way to #66. 

Mond went two spots behind Jeff Trask, who was the 6th quarterback off the board, but Mond possesses a much higher ceiling and could easily develop into a long-term starter. The Vikings aren’t looking to move on from Cousins any time soon, but if Mond develops as a cheaper replacement in the background, they may opt to move on from Cousins at the end of his current deal in 2022 and, in the short-term, the Vikings lacked a clear backup behind Cousins, a role Mond will likely serve in as a rookie. How he would prove as a rookie is unclear, but Cousins’ durability and consistency will likely make that irrelevant. 

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

One consequence of the Vikings’ lack of financial flexibility this off-season was they released left tackle Riley Reiff, who finished last season above average on PFF in 15 starts, but was owed a non-guaranteed 12.75 million for his age 33 season in 2021 and was let go to free up money to address other areas. That would be a big loss if not for the Vikings selecting Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw in the first round, 23rd overall, after trading down with the Jets. Darrisaw could have some growing pains as a rookie, but was the clear 2nd best pure left tackle prospect in the draft class behind Penei Sewell (Rashawn Slater projects best at right tackle or guard) and should be a plug and play starter who will start in the NFL at the always important left tackle position for a long time. He might not be quite as good as Reiff right away, but his addition was a necessary one on draft day.

The Vikings also used a draft pick, one of their third round picks, on Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis, who could compete to start at left guard, the Vikings’ other offensive line position of need on draft day. Journeyman and 7-year veteran Dakota Dozier made 16 starts at left guard last season, after making just 11 starts in his first 6 seasons in the league, and it did not go well, with Dozier finishing 82nd among 86 eligible guards on PFF. Dozier is going into his age 30 season, so he’s unlikely to get better at this point, but it wouldn’t be hard for Davis to be an upgrade by default if he can get into the starting lineup at some point.

Regardless of who starts at left guard, the Vikings have young talented starters at their other three offensive line spots as well. Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings first round pick in 2019, starts at center, while 2018 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill starts at right tackle, and 2020 2nd round pick Ezra Cleveland starts at right guard. Bradbury struggled as a rookie, finishing 30th out of 37 eligible centers on PFF, but he took a step forward in 2020 and was about an average starter. It’s not what you would want out of a first round pick and Bradbury is a little older than his service time would suggest, going into his age 26 season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take another step forward, even if that’s not a guarantee.

O’Neill is the best of the bunch and probably will be their best offensive lineman overall. He’s taken a step forward in every season in the league, going from a middling starter in 11 starts as a rookie to PFF’s 33rd ranked offensive tackle in 15 starts in 2019 and their 24th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season. The Vikings probably considered moving him to right tackle before selecting Darrisaw because the left side is the more important side, but it was probably best to add a left tackle and leave O’Neill at the position he is playing well.

Ezra Cleveland didn’t take over as the starter until week 6 and only made 9 starts total as a rookie, but he earned PFF’s 29th highest grade for a guard and was an obvious upgrade over Dru Samia, who made 4 starts and finished as PFF’s 85th ranked guard out of 86 eligible. This off-season, the Vikings upgraded on Samia as a reserve, acquiring Mason Cole from the Cardinals for a late round pick. 

Cole is an underwhelming offensive lineman, but a serviceable and a versatile one. He’s made 32 career starts and played 4 different positions in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2018 and he provides good insurance on the interior in case of injury. The Vikings also have Rashod Hill as their swing tackle and he’s shown a lot of promise in 17 career starts, so they have good depth overall. Losing Reiff hurts, but this is a talented young offensive line with a high upside across the board.

Grade: B

Running Backs

While the Vikings have an intriguing offensive line, the reason they were so good offensively last season was their offensive skill position players and, if they play at a high level offensively again this season, that will once again be the reason why. The Vikings have a pair of great wide receivers who I will get into later, but this is a team built around the run, which is a big part of why they play so well on early downs. 

The difference between Dalvin Cook’s performance on first down and the rest of the downs was not as pronounced last season as Kirk Cousins, but he still averaged 5.48 yards per carry on first down. On top of that, Kirk Cousins had the 5th highest play action QB rating in the league at 122.3 (as opposed to 97.6 on non-play action plays) and Cook’s presence almost definitely was the biggest reason for that. That was also the case in 2019 when Cousins had the 4th highest play action QB rating for the league at 129.2 (97.2 on non-play action plays) alongside Cook having another dominant season.

All in all, Cook has totaled 2,692 yards and 29 touchdowns on 562 carries (4.79 YPC), while adding 97 catches for 880 yards and another touchdown through the air over the past two seasons, and he has earned PFF’s 7th and 3rd highest overall grades for a running back in those two seasons. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cook was known for his durability issues and talent early in his career, rushing for 4.68 YPC, but on just 207 carries in 15 games combined in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s been as durable as any running back in the league over the past two seasons, despite a significant workload. It’s always a risk that a running back gets hurt or slows down after a big workload, especially if they have an injury history, but Cook has a good chance to remain among the league’s best running backs for a third straight season, still only in his age 26 season.

If Cook can’t do that, the Vikings have a good insurance policy in 2019 3rd round pick Alexander Mattison. Mattison doesn’t offer much as a pass catcher, but has averaged 4.57 yards per carry on 196 carries in 2 seasons in the league and should be involved as a backup even if Cook stays healthy, on a team that ranked 8th in the NFL in carries last season. #3 running back Mike Boone also flashed last season with a 5.36 YPC average on 11 carries and, while he’s no longer with the team, the Vikings used a 4th round pick on Iowa State’s Kene Nwangwu, helping to ensure they continue to have good depth at the position. They have one of the best running back groups in the league.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Vikings have a pair of great wide receivers. That has been the case for this team since 2016, but from 2016-2019 those two receivers were Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. In 2020, those receivers were Thielen and Justin Jefferson, a rookie wide receiver who the Vikings selected 22nd overall with a draft pick acquired from the Bills in a trade for Stefon Diggs, who was growing upset with being the 1b receiver on a run heavy team and was consequently traded.

The common opinion is that both teams won that trade because both Jefferson and Diggs had incredible seasons in 2020, but that ignores the key factors of age and salary. Diggs certainly isn’t over the hill, now heading into his age 28 season, but he had 55.5 million over 4 years remaining on his contract when acquired, while Jefferson, who is still only going into his age 22 season, is on a rookie deal that will pay him just 13.123 million over the first 4 seasons. Diggs led the league in receiving in his first season in Buffalo and posted a 127/1535/8 slash line overall, but Jefferson finished 4th with a 88/1400/7 slash line, despite playing on a run-heavier team and not breaking into the starting lineup until week 3. 

In all, Diggs received 41 more targets than Jefferson and averaged 1.95 yards per target fewer. Yards per route run also showed Jefferson to be the more efficient player, as he ranked 2nd at 2.66, while Diggs ranked 6th at 2.51. Jefferson also had the slight edge in overall grade on PFF, ranking 2nd while Diggs ranked 4th. It’s not as if the Bills lost the trade because Diggs was exactly what their offense needed and we don’t know if they would have selected Jefferson had they not traded the pick, but the Vikings got a comparably good player who is 6 years younger and a fraction of the cost, so they clearly did better for themselves in the deal. Jefferson might not be quite as efficient as he was last season in every season of his career, but it looks obvious that he is going to be one of the best receivers in the league for years to come.

Adam Thielen kind of got lost in Justin Jefferson’s shadow, but also had a solid season himself, finishing with a 74/925/14 slash line on 108 targets, ranking 3rd in the NFL in receiving touchdowns, averaging 1.86 yards per route run, and earning PFF’s 6th highest grade for a wide receiver. Thielen had his 2019 season derailed by injury, but this level of production has become expected from Thielen when healthy, as he’s averaged a 88/1153/8 slash line per 16 games, excluding 2019, and has otherwise missed just 1 game due to injury. He’s also finished in the top-20 among wide receivers on PFF in each of his last four healthy seasons, including three straight healthy seasons in the top-8. 

Now going into his age 31 season, it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thielen slow down over the next few years and, either way, he looks likely to take a backseat to Jefferson going forward and operate more as a true #2 receiver. As a #2 receiver, he’s one of the best in the league, even if he’s unlikely to maintain last year’s touchdown rate regardless of whether or not he drops off. Even if Thielen isn’t quite as good as he’s been, he and Jefferson should remain one of the top wide receiver duos in the NFL.

With a wide receiver duo this good and a talented pass catching back in Dalvin Cook, on a team that is more run heavy than pass heavy, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for other pass catchers in this offense. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had been with the team since being selected in the 2nd round in 2011, was disappointed with his role, receiving just 37 targets in 12 games last season, and consequently asked for his release when requested to take a paycut. Rudolph has been a solid player for this team for a long time, but he wasn’t worth his 8.8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary to play a part-time role in what would have been his age 32 season.

Rudolph’s release should free up more playing time for third year tight end Irv Smith, a 2019 2nd round pick who has been splitting playing time with Rudolph since entering the league. Smith has posted slash lines of 36/311/2 on 47 targets and 30/365/4 on 43 targets in two seasons in the league and I would expect a significant increase on that in his 3rd season in the league, as a good portion of the 42.5 targets per season that Rudolph received in 2019-2020 will now be going Smith’s way. He comes with significantly more pass catching upside than the veteran Rudolph, although his blocking still needs some improvement.

Along with Smith’s blocking, the other concern at tight end is their lack of depth. 2018 5th round pick Tyler Conklin is tentatively penciled in as the #2 tight end and should see a significant role in two tight end sets on a team that uses them with above average frequency, but he’s struggled throughout his career on just 869 career snaps, struggling both as a blocker and a receiver (32 career catches in 47 games). He could be a little better by default in 2021, but with only him behind Smith on the depth chart, the Vikings tight end depth is very suspect.

At wide receiver, the Vikings didn’t have another wide receiver aside from Jefferson and Thielen with more than 30 targets and, in all, other Vikings wide receivers saw a total of just 49 passes thrown their way. That number may come up a little bit in 2021, but with the other pass options available on an otherwise run based offense, there just isn’t a lot of opportunity for other wide receivers in this offense, not to mention the fact that the Vikings really lack depth at the position behind Thielen and Jefferson. 

Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson split the #3 receiver role last season, playing 314 snaps and 239 snaps respectively, but neither showed much. Neither has a history of success either, as Beebe is a 2018 undrafted free agent who had played 89 career snaps prior to last season, while Johnson is a 2019 7th round pick who saw more playing time as a rookie when Thielen was out (538 snaps played), but hardly did anything with the opportunity, finishing with a 31/294/3 slash line. 

The Vikings used a 5th round pick in this year’s draft on the position, taking a player in Ihmir Smith-Marsette who could have gone in the 3rd round and could prove to be a steal, but that’s not a guarantee he’ll contribute as a rookie, even if he probably has the most upside of the Vikings’ options for the #3 receiver job. Regardless of who wins the job, the Vikings badly need both Thielen and Jefferson to stay healthy, as this is a very top heavy receiving corps that lacks depth. All of the pieces are in place for the Vikings to have a dominant offensive season, but they might not be as lucky injury wise as they were last season and lack depth at a couple key spots.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Vikings might not be quite as lucky injury wise on offense, they will almost definitely have better injury luck on defense, where the absence of several key players for extended periods of time sunk this defense to among the worst in the league. It’s not hard to see how they could be significantly improved on this side of the ball if they can stay relatively healthy. Arguably their biggest injury absence was edge defender Danielle Hunter, who went down for the season before the season even began.

Hunter was one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2019, finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender and totaling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 14.2% pressure rate, so it’s hard to understate how big his absence was. The Vikings attempted to replace Hunter by trading a 2nd round pick to the Jaguars for the franchise tagged Yannick Ngakoue, but Ngakoue was only a middling player in 6 games and, with a tough start and some bad luck close losses leading to a 1-5 start, the Vikings cut their losses and sent Ngakoue to the Ravens for a third round pick. Without him, the Vikings didn’t have another edge defender who finished the season with more than 3.5 sacks.

Prior to the injury, Hunter had been one of the best pass rushers in the league throughout his career, totaling 54.5 sacks, 32 hits, and a 13.3% pressure rate in 94 career games. It took him a couple years to develop against the run and become a complete player, but he had developed into one of the most complete players in the league at his position. A return to form for Hunter is not guaranteed given the severity of his injury, but prior to the injury, he was as dependable as they come, missing just 2 games in his first 5 seasons in the league, including 48 straight starts from 2017-2019, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, so Hunter’s chances of bouncing back would seem to be better than most. Even if he’s not quite as good as he was in 2019, Hunter’s return to the lineup would be a huge boost for this defense.

The other spot opposite Hunter is still a question mark though. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who led this group with 696 snaps played and 3.5 sacks last season, signed with the Giants this off-season and, while he won’t be hard to replace, the Vikings didn’t add a clear upgrade. Veteran Stephen Weatherly, added in free agency, is the most likely option to start, now actually in his second stint with the team. Drafted by the Vikings in the 7th round in 2016, Weatherly spent his first four seasons in Minnesota before spending last season with the Panthers, but he struggled in Carolina, finishing 107th out of 119 eligible edge defenders on PFF and not recording a sack on 358 snaps in 9 games, and he was subsequently cut 1 year and 6.65 million into a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal.

Weatherly returns to Minnesota on a cheap one-year deal worth just 2.5 million, but he doesn’t come with much bounce back potential because he didn’t play all that well with the Vikings either, most recently finishing 113th out of 121 eligible edge defenders on 422 snaps in 2019. All in all, he’s totaled just 6 sacks, 15 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate in 58 career games and hasn’t been much better against the run.

Weatherly will probably be the week one starter by default, but third round rookie Patrick Jones has the most upside of the bunch and could easily be a starter by season’s end, as part of what looks like a very strong draft class overall. 4th round rookie Janarius Robinson isn’t as exciting of a prospect, but I wouldn’t rule out him having a role as a rookie. DJ Wonnum and Jalyn Holmes, recent 4th round picks in 2020 and 2018 respectively, will also probably be in the mix for snaps, but both struggled on 471 snaps and 617 snaps respectively. 

Wonnum has a little more upside of the two, still only in his 2nd season in the league, but Holmes has struggled throughout his career on 748 total career snaps, most noticeably struggling as a pass rusher with just 1 career sack and a miniscule 5.0% pressure rate, and he doesn’t seem like he’s about to turn a corner and develop into a useful contributor. The Vikings will need Danielle Hunter to be something close to his top form because of their lack of other reliable options at the position, but getting anything from Hunter by default should make this group better than it was a year ago.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

It wasn’t as big of a loss as Danielle Hunter, but the Vikings also had a key defensive tackle whose season was over before it started, as free agent acquisition Michael Pierce, who the Vikings signed last off-season for 27 million over 3 years, opted out of the season for medical reasons. Pierce will be back in 2021 and the Vikings used some of what limited financial flexibility they had to sign free agent Dalvin Tomlinson to a 2-year, 21 million dollar deal to start opposite Pierce, so after Shamar Stephen (662 snaps), Jaleel Johnson (654 snaps), and Armon Watts (392 snaps) all earned middling or worse grades from PFF as the team’s leaders in snaps played among defensive tackles, the Vikings should be in much better shape at the position this season.

Prior to his opt out, Pierce was one of the best pure run stuffing defensive tackles in the league. He had a bit of a down year in 2019 due to injury, but he finished in the top-14 among interior defenders in run stopping grade in three straight seasons from 2016-2018, including a career best 4th ranked finish in 2018, and even if that was a couple years ago, he’s still theoretically in his prime in his age 29 season. 

Pierce is not much of a pass rusher and he’s never topped 594 snaps in a season as primarily a base package player throughout his career, but his 6.9% pressure rate is better than you’d expect from a 340 pounder. He’s a risky projection because of the full missed season, but he should be able to give this defensive line a big boost against the run, even if he isn’t as good as he was at his best.

Tomlinson also is a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he’s a more complete player and a much less risky projection, having played all 64 games in his first 4 seasons in the league and only going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick by the Giants in 2017, Tomlinson has finished in the top-31 among interior defenders on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2019, when he was PFF’s 14th highest ranked interior defender against the run. 

Tomlinson only has a career 6.0% pressure rate with 8 career sacks, but he took a big step forward as a pass rusher last season with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate. Even if he can’t quite continue that level of pass rush productivity, he should be a plug and play above average starter for this team based off of his ability against the run and his history of consistently and durability.

Depth is still a concern at the position though, especially since both Tomlinson and Pierce are likely to come off the field in many passing situations. Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, who were the de facto starters last season, are no longer with the team and, while neither played well in their extended action, they could be valuable reserves and the Vikings are now left with fewer options behind their new starters. 

Armon Watts is still around, but he didn’t show much on 392 snaps and the same was true for him as a rookie in 2019, when the 6th round pick played just 121 snaps. James Lynch, who the Vikings selected in the 4th round in 2020, could see a bigger role in his second season in the league, but it’s hard to expect too much from him if he couldn’t get on the field for more than 59 snaps in a weak position group as a rookie. The Vikings used a 6th round pick in this past draft on Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman, who could have easily gone in the 3rd or 4th round and who easily could prove to be a steal, but that doesn’t ensure he’ll be able to contribute in any meaningful way as a rookie. Pierce and Tomlinson are a solid starting duo, but depth remains a concern at this position. 

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Vikings also had injury issues in their linebacking corps, with their two talented every down linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr both missing extended action with injury. Barr went down for the season week 2 after just 94 snaps played on the season, while Kendricks missed the final 5 games of the season, which coincided with this defense bottoming out at the end of the season. On top of that, the Vikings tried to improve their depth at linebacker this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and signing veteran Nick Vigil in free agency. 

Eric Wilson (1,034 snaps) and Todd Davis (201 snaps), who struggled in significant action last season, are no longer with the team and, while Troy Dye (281 snaps) is still around, he’s a 2020 4th round pick who could still develop long-term and it doesn’t look like he’ll be any higher than the 5th linebacker on the depth chart, with Kendricks and Barr retaining their every down roles and Surratt and Vigil likely to compete for the third linebacker spot.

Kendricks has only played all 16 games once in 6 seasons in the league, but last season was also the first time he had ever missed more than 2 games in a season and, prior to going down with injury, he had been one of the best linebackers in the league over the past two seasons, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s 1st ranked off ball linebacker and ranking 4th at his position in 2020 at the time he got hurt. 

Kendricks had never played at that level prior to 2019, but he’s been a consistent starter since entering the league as a 2nd round pick in 2015 (81 career starts) and he has taken his game to another level over the past two seasons. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect him to regress this season and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he has been over the past two seasons, he should still be one of the best every down middle linebackers in the league. 

Barr isn’t quite as good, as the 3rd ranked season on PFF among off ball linebackers that he had in 2015 stands out as a huge outlier in his 7-year career, but he’s also earned an above average grade for his play in all but one healthy season as a starter and, prior to last season, he had only missed 11 games in 6 seasons in the league. A first round pick in 2014, Barr has started all 87 career games he’s played, playing an average of 61.9 snaps per game, showing ability in coverage, against the run, and as a pass rusher (15 sacks, 28 hits, and 18.6% pressure rate on an average of 7.6 pass rush snaps per game). Still only in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect any sort of significant drop off from him this season.

At the third linebacker spot, the veteran Vigil may be the favorite to start week one, but the Vikings are probably hoping Chazz Surratt can win the job at some point. Not only does Surratt have the higher long-term upside, but it wouldn’t take much for him to be a short-term upgrade, as Vigil has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 5 seasons in the league. He has plenty of experience, playing 2,839 snaps in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s mostly just shown himself to have a limited ceiling as a player. Even if he does win the job, the third linebacker comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, so Vigil is unlikely to exceed the 312 snaps he played last season regardless. This has the potential to be a strong group thanks to the return of Kendricks and Barr and the addition of Surratt as a high upside young option.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Vikings also had a key player miss time with injury in the secondary as third round rookie Cameron Dantzler, who was their best cornerback when healthy, missed 5 games. When on the field, Dantzler played 601 snaps and made 10 starts in 11 games, while finishing as PFF’s 28th highest grade for a cornerback. Even with the time missed due to injury, Dantzler showed himself to have a bright future and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in a full season in 2021, though that’s not necessarily a given.

Dantzler was one of three cornerbacks the Vikings drafted last off-season, along with 1st round pick Jeff Gladney and 5th round pick Harrison Hand. Neither Gladney nor Hand has nearly as bright of a future as Dantzler though. Gladney struggled as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 110th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible in 15 starts and, while he would have been a strong candidate for a second year leap, he was arrested this off-season on serious charges that could end his career if proven true. In the short-term, Gladney’s status for the start and all of the 2021 season are very much in doubt. Hand, meanwhile, played just 163 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a projection to a larger role, if he can even earn one.

Fortunately, the Vikings did sign Patrick Peterson in free agency, even before the news broke about Gladney, one of two big free agent signings they made this off-season. Peterson was once one of the best cornerbacks in the league and, while he seems past his prime, going into his age 31 season off of back-to-back middling seasons, he should still be a capable starter and a stabilizing veteran presence for a Vikings team that needed one even before Gladney’s arrest. His deal is only for one season and may prove to be an overpay at 8 million, given the depressed market overall this off-season, but he’ll fill a big hole as the starter opposite Dantzler.

The Vikings also brought in another two veteran cornerbacks in free agency, ex-Chiefs Bashaud Breeland and a familiar face in Mackensie Alexander, a 2016 second round pick who spent the first four seasons of his career in Minnesota before playing for the Bengals in 2020 on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal. Alexander wasn’t bad on a career high 642 snaps for the Bengals last season and has proven himself as a capable 3rd and 4th cornerback for the Vikings in the past, so he could prove to be a great value on a deal that barely pays him over a million for a season to return to Minnesota.

Breeland, meanwhile, has been a starter for most of his 7-year career, starting 88 of 94 career games and, while he’s been somewhat inconsistent, he’s generally been a solid starter with the exception of a couple seasons. One of those exceptions was 2019, when he finished 122nd among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 912 snaps with the Chiefs, but he bounced back well in 2020, finishing 36th among cornerbacks across 690 snaps, the 2nd best finish of his career behind his 21st ranked 2015 season. He’s not the most reliable player, but he’s a good cheap option for this team to add at a position of need. The addition of Alexander and Breeland ensures the Vikings won’t need to rely on Gladney for a big role in 2021 and the Vikings also used a 4th round pick on Camryn Bynum, who could have easily gone a round earlier.

At safety, the Vikings lost Anthony Harris to the Eagles on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal, but Harris had a down year in 2020, finishing 38th among eligible safeties on PFF, after finishing 5th and 3rd in 2018 and 2019 respectively, so he might not really be missed, especially since the Vikings did a great job of replacing him with former Cowboys safety Xavier Woods on a one-year deal worth just 1.75 million.

Woods had a down year with the Cowboys last season as just about everyone on that defense did, but he still earned about a middling grade from PFF, after earning above average grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season, including a career best 28th in 2019. A mere 6th round pick in 2017, Woods has already started 48 games and is only going into his age 26 season. He could prove to be one of the biggest steals of the off-season in the likely event he bounces back to his pre-2020 form, now away from that horrible Dallas defensive scheme. 

Woods will start opposite Harrison Smith, a mainstay on this defense who stood out as their best defensive player throughout last season. Smith may be slowing down a little bit, as he is going into his age 32 season now and his 15th ranked finish among safeties on PFF last season was his 2nd lowest since 2014, but that is just a reminder of how good he has been over the years. At his best, he’s finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF 4 times in his 9-year career. Even if he continues to slow down, he should remain a solid starter at least for another couple seasons. The Vikings’ safety depth is suspect, but the rookie Camryn Bynum could potentially move to safety if needed and overall this is a solid secondary on what looks like a much improved defensive unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Vikings went just 7-9 last season, but injuries and bad special teams were a big part of the problem and both of those things should be better in 2021 due to sheer regression to the mean. They were in a tough situation this off-season from a financial flexibility situation, but they made the most of the resources they had, including a draft class that looks like it could potentially be one of the most impactful in the league in year one. 

With a potentially dominant offense and defensive and special teams units that look likely to be better after being among the worst in the league last season, the Vikings should be in playoff contention in the NFC and, with uncertainty in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers’ long-term situation, Minnesota could easily sneak in and win the division, with both Chicago and Detroit both having a less promising outlook. I will have a final prediction for the Vikings at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Kansas City Chiefs 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs made a bold decision that would redefine their franchise for years to come. With a team stuck in good, but not good enough mode, posting five straight winning seasons and making the post-season in four of those seasons, but only managing just one playoff win, the Chiefs decided the best way to upgrade their team was not to use their first round pick on a needed starter on defense, but to package that pick together with a future first round pick to move up to 10th overall to select promising, but raw quarterback Patrick Mahomes to give them a higher upside option under center long-term, with incumbent veteran Alex Smith personifying the good, but not good enough nature of this team.

It could have easily backfired given how much they were giving up to replace a serviceable starter with an unproven commodity and Mahomes didn’t see any meaningful action at all as a rookie, but Smith was traded after the 2017 season and Mahomes instantly became one of the best and most successful quarterbacks in the league. In his first season as a starter, he became just the 2nd quarterback in NFL history to have 5,000 passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns in the same season, winning the MVP for his efforts. 

His Chiefs came up just short in the 2018 AFC Championship, but it was still a remarkable finish for this team to win 12 games and make a conference championship with a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in first down rate allowed, a testament to the effectiveness of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ league best offense. In 2019, the Chiefs fell to 3rd in first down rate, but that was only because Mahomes missed two and a half games with a knee injury and upon his return he played probably the best stretch of football of his career, leading this team all the way to a Super Bowl victory this time, now supported by a defense pulling its weight by ranking 20th in first down rate allowed.

The 2020 season started as more of the same of 2019, but that changed as the season went on. However, that wasn’t really noticeable because the Chiefs kept winning, just by a lot less, with their final 7 regular season wins coming by 6 points or fewer. The Chiefs finished at 14-2 and with the #1 overall seed in the AFC, despite losing a meaningless week 17 game when their starters didn’t play, but they finished the season just 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential and their record was largely the result of a 8-1 record in one score games.

It may seem like an elite quarterback like Mahomes could consistently win a high percentage of one score games, but most elite quarterbacks are unable to do so for an extended period of time, including Mahomes himself, who was just 9-8 in one score games in the first two seasons of his career, so it was concerning to see the Chiefs’ margin of victory (which was 14.4 points per game in Mahomes’ starts prior to the second half of 2020) drop off so drastically. It was especially concerning because there was an obvious culprit, with stud right tackle Mitchell Schwartz going down for the season with injury week 6.

The Chiefs’ offensive line problems became even worse when Schwartz’s counterpart, talented left tackle Eric Fisher, tore his achilles in the AFC Championship. With guard Kelechi Osemele also out for the season, the Chiefs headed into the Super Bowl without their top-3 offensive linemen and it was glaringly obvious, with Mahomes on the run for most of a blowout 31-9 loss, being pressured on a ridiculous 55.4% of his dropbacks, while nursing a toe injury of his own that eventually required off-season surgery.

Simply put, Mahomes is a generational quarterback, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.39 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in his first 3 seasons as a starter. However, even generational quarterbacks need the right pieces around them to win Super Bowls, as evidenced by poor defense doing the Chiefs in during 2018 and a poor offensive line doing them in last season. Mahomes should compete for multiple MVPs over the next decade and the Chiefs should be perennial Super Bowl contenders, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers have shown that doesn’t always result in many actual Super Bowl victories. 

The Chiefs’ ability to surround Mahomes with talent is also about to become a lot more complicated over the next decade, with Mahomes’ record breaking 10-year, 450 million dollar extension set to kick in after this season, representing a significant increase on his cost controlled rookie deal. With salary caps set to rise over the next decade and quarterback salaries always increasing, Mahomes’ deal will probably look like a relative steal in a few years, but there’s no denying that any way the Chiefs structure and restructure it, Mahomes is going to count for a significant portion of their cap for the next decade, some years more than others. 

In the salary cap era, just 7 of 27 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks accounted for more than 10% of their team’s cap and none have accounted for more than 14%. All of those Super Bowl winning quarterbacks are current or likely future Hall of Famers, with Eli Manning standing out as a possible exception in a group that includes Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, so, in that sense, the Chiefs paying that kind of money to Mahomes is a lot more justifiable than teams giving slightly less money to significantly lesser quarterbacks, but it goes to show how difficult it is to build a Super Bowl caliber roster when your quarterback takes up such a large percentage of the cap. The Chiefs should remain contenders in 2021, but I wouldn’t consider them favorites necessarily and certainly not clear favorites, despite their incredible starting quarterback.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Chiefs’ offensive line was obviously in bad shape after the Super Bowl and things looked to be getting worse when the Chiefs cut both Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, their injured long-term starting offensive tackles, but that proved to be part of a larger plan. The Chiefs saved 18.255 million in cap space by moving on from a pair of players over 30 and coming off of serious injuries and they then used most of their newly found cap space to sign top free agent guard Joe Thuney, who is going into his age 28 season and hasn’t missed a start in 5 seasons in the league. 

A 3rd round pick by the Patriots in 2016, Thuney has developed into one of the best guards in the league. After a solid rookie year, Thuney took a big step forward in his second season in the league and has finished in the top-14 among guards on PFF in all 4 seasons since, with his best season coming in a 5th ranked finish in 2019. As reliable as they come and still in the prime of his career, there is no reason to expect anything different from Thuney in 2021.

The Chiefs also re-signed Mike Remmers, an unspectacular, but serviceable starter who mostly held up as an injury replacement in 10 starts (9 at right tackle) last season, bringing him back on a 1-year, 3.3 million dollar deal. They also signed free agent center Austin Blythe and recently unretired Kyle Long to one-year deals worth 1 million and 1.5 million respectively. With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who made 57 starts at right guard for the Chiefs from 2015-2019, also set to return after opting out of the 2020 season, the Chiefs seemed set at every position except for left tackle ahead of the draft. 

However, instead of drafting a left tackle as most expected, they swung a surprisingly pre-draft trade for Orlando Brown of the Ravens, in a swap of picks that saw the Chiefs send their first round pick to Baltimore. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown is still on his rookie deal, so it wasn’t hard for the Chiefs to fit his 3.384 million dollar salary under the cap, but he’s heading into the final year of his rookie deal and wants top left tackle money, which is why Baltimore decided to move on and get a significant draft pick haul while they could.

It makes for a complicated situation in the long-term because the Chiefs won’t want to let Brown leave for nothing after giving up a first round pick for him, but he’s yet to prove himself as a top left tackle, never finishing higher than 26th on PFF in a single season and playing better on the right side, where he made the first 32 starts of his career, than the left side, where he made the final 10 starts of last season in the absence of the injured Ronnie Stanley. Still, in the short-term, he’s an obvious upgrade for a team previously lacking a reliable left tackle and, only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he’s still capable of a higher level that he hasn’t shown yet.

After trading their first round pick for Brown, the Chiefs also added Creed Humphrey in the 2nd round for good measure, so an offensive line that once was a huge concern now looks like a strong group. Humphrey could potentially play guard as well, but he’s most likely to see action for the Chiefs at center, where he’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition Austin Blythe, who can also play some guard. 

Guard is actually where Blythe had the best season of his career, finishing 10th among guards on PFF in 2018 in 16 starts, but he struggled mightily at the position to begin the 2019 season and was subsequently moved to center, where he fared better. He then continued that into 2020, when he finished 13th among centers on PFF. The 2016 7th round pick is a capable starting center, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pushed for his job by the rookie Humphrey.

Left tackle Orlando Brown and left guard Joe Thuney are the only ones locked into a role on this offensive line. Humphrey and Blythe are competing at center and could play guard if needed, but most likely they won’t be needed to. Not only is Thuney locked in on one side, but Long, Duvernay-Tardif, and Remmers are likely to compete for the right guard and right tackle spots, leaving Humphrey and Blythe as primarily options at center. 

Duvernay-Tardif is the only one of that aforementioned trio who likely isn’t an option to start at right tackle, with all of his career starts coming at right guard, but he might also be the most likely to secure a starting role, having made 57 starts for the Chiefs in the 5 seasons prior to opting out of last season. His best days are likely behind him though, as he struggled in 2019, earning the first below average grade from PFF of his career, after an injury plagued 2018 season in which he was limited to just 331 snaps. Now after a year off, Duvernay-Tardif is going into his age 30 season and is a shakier starting option than he was just a few years ago.

Long is also a shaky starting option, as he basically opted out of the 2020 season, retiring for a year after an injury plagued previous 4 seasons from 2016-2019, a stretch in which he made just 29 starts. Long had earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first six seasons in the league after being drafted in the 1st round by the Bears in 2015, but by the end of his injury plagued stretch, Long was a shell of his former self, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s worst ranked guard on 250 snaps, leading to his temporary retirement. 

Long could be better this season, but only by default, as his best days are clearly behind him, now in his age 33 season. He’s not a bad option to have because he can play both right guard and right tackle and he didn’t cost the Chiefs all that much, but he would be tough to rely on as a starter. He’s also been significantly better at right guard than right tackle in his career, so, in order to be a starter, he would either have to displace the long-time starting Duvernay-Tardif or play out of position at right tackle.

Mike Remmers is probably the favorite to start at right tackle, where he wasn’t bad in Mitchell Schwartz’s absence last season, before the post-season. Remmers is experienced with 88 career starts (70 at tackle, 18 at guard) and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 7 seasons as a starter in his career, but he’s also never finished higher than 34th at his position and his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 32 season. He could remain a capable starter in 2021, but he doesn’t come with much upside and it’s good the Chiefs have insurance for him. 

Overall, this is a deep and talented offensive line with seven starting options and they have good versatility as well, with multiple players having experience at multiple positions. They’re well positioned to have solid or better offensive line play this season, even when injuries inevitably hit. Early season continuity may be a concern with a unit consistently of mostly off-season additions, but they’ve done a great job re-tooling this offensive line on the fly this off-season, without significant financial flexibility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

While the Chiefs did a good job of retooling the offensive line, it came at the expense of some other needs, including wide receiver. That’s not to say that the Chiefs weren’t smart to prioritize the offensive line, but it’s the reality for a team that will be working with increasingly fewer resources over the next few off-seasons. Sammy Watkins, who was their #2 receiver when healthy over the past three seasons, signed with the Ravens in free agency and the Chiefs didn’t replace him and instead will rely on inexperienced players like Mecole Hardman, DeMarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, and possibly 5th round rookie Cornell Powell. 

Given that, the Chiefs figure to once again give heavy target shares to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, who were targeted on a whopping 280 of Mahomes’ 588 regular season pass attempts last season, 47.6%, a number that could even increase this season with Watkins gone. Both Hill and Kelce are dynamic players who are among the best at their position, but the lack of a reliable third option is a concern and would especially become a concern if either Hill or Kelce were to miss time with injury.

Kelce hasn’t missed a game with injury since his rookie season in 2013, but that’s not a guarantee he stays healthy all season this year, especially with his age creeping up, now in his age 32 season. Kelce has shown no signs of slowing down, in fact posting a career best 105/1416/11 slash line last season, despite sitting out the Chiefs’ meaningless regular season finale. He has overall averaged a 102/1327/9 slash line in 3 seasons with Mahomes, a jump from an already impressive 77/975/6 average slash line in 4 seasons with Alex Smith, while finishing in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 straight seasons and 6 seasons overall. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his decline begin this season, given his age. 

Even if he’s not quite at his best, Kelce would still be one of the top few tight ends in the league, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially in a top heavy receiving corps that severely lacks tight end depth. Nick Keizer was 2nd on the team in tight end snaps with 302, but the 2018 undrafted free agent finished 80th out of 82 eligible tight ends on PFF in the first action of his career. Fellow 2018 undrafted free agent Deon Yelder played 194 snaps last season, but he’s been underwhelming across just 242 career snaps. 

The Chiefs also brought back Blake Bell, who finished 63rd out of 71 eligible tight ends as the Chiefs’ #2 tight end in 2019, before spending the 2020 season in Dallas. He has some experience, but he has never topped 398 snaps in a season or earned an above average grade in a season from PFF and now he heads into his age 30 season. The Chiefs desperately need Kelce to continue to stay healthy and to not decline significantly.

Top wide receiver Tyreek Hill has more of a recent injury history than Kelce, but he’s still only missed 5 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league and he also remains very much in his prime in only his age 27 season. Off-the-field concerns caused Hill to fall to the 5th round in 2016, but he flashed in part-time action as a rookie and has broken out as a #1 wide receiver in the four seasons since, posting a 75/1183/7 slash line in 15 games with Alex Smith in 2017 and averaging a 86/1345/13 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons since Mahomes became the starter, serving as the perfect deep threat complement to the big armed Mahomes. Even including his rookie season, Hill has averaged at least 2.16 yards per route run and finished in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, making him among the most consistent #1 wide receivers in the league. I see no reason for that to change in 2021.

Of the Chiefs’ inexperienced pass catchers, Mecole Hardman has by far the best chance to breakout in a bigger role. A 2nd round pick in 2019 who profiled almost identically to Hill as a prospect aside from the off-the-field concerns, Hardman has yet to surpass 500 snaps in a season, but he’s shown promise with an average of 1.73 yards per route run and 16.4 yards per catch and, with the #2 wide receiver job in this explosive offense seemingly his to lose, he could easily break out with an impressive statistical year in his third season in the league. He may end up being one of those players whose raw stats are more impressive than his actual play, as someone who could get a big target share in an explosive offense that takes a lot of deep shots, but you could do worse as a #2 wide receiver and he comes with plenty of upside.

Even if Hardman can step up as the #2 wide receiver, their depth behind him is pretty suspect. DeMarcus Robinson has gotten opportunity, as the 2016 4th round pick has averaged 426 routes run per season over the past 4 years, but he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in every season and has managed just 0.90 yards per route run in his career, despite incredible quarterback play. 2018 undrafted free agent Byron Pringle is the other realistic candidate for the #3 receiver job because the Chiefs seem to like him, but he’s barely played in his career, totaling just 383 snaps and his 1.46 yards per route run average is nothing to write home about either. This is a talented, but top heavy receiving corps that can’t afford an injury to their top-2 guys.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Chiefs also lack depth at the running back position and instead seem likely to rely on 2020 1st round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a larger capacity in his second season in the league. Edwards-Helaire was originally drafted to work in tandem with veteran Damien Williams, but he opted out of the 2020 season, leaving inexperienced 2018 undrafted free agent Darrel Williams as the #2 running back, at least until the Chiefs were able to sign veteran Le’Veon Bell when the Jets released him mid-season. Bell ate up 63 carries and limited Edwards-Helaire to 181 carries and 36 catches, but he wasn’t retained in free agency and Damien Williams was traded to the Bears upon return from his opt out, so Darrel Williams is currently the #2 back again, despite just 93 carries in his career, and Edwards-Helaire seems primed for a larger role.

Edwards-Helaire showed himself to be a good runner as a rookie, averaging 4.44 yards per carry with a 9th ranked 56% carry success rate and, while he benefited from defenses selling out to stop the pass, he still averaged 2.98 yards per carry after contact and earned PFF’s 21st highest run grade among running backs. However, one area he will need to improve if he is going to become a true featured back is as a receiver, as he averaged just 5.50 yards per target and 1.04 yards per route run last season, despite a dominant quarterback throwing him the ball. Even if he can become a featured back in 2021, Edwards-Helaire will still probably come off the field in some passing situations for Jerick McKinnon, a veteran who comes over from the 49ers as a free agent this off-season. 

McKinnon isn’t a candidate to get more than a few carries per game, as he was a mediocre runner in 4 seasons with the Vikings (4.03 YPC on a max of 159 carries in a season) even before missing all of his first two seasons with the 49ers with leg injuries in 2018 and 2019, which continued to limit him in a 2020 season in which he averaged 3.94 YPC on 81 carries. However, he’s a capable pass catcher who had a career best 51/421/2 in his final season with the Vikings in 2017 and continued to show something with a 33/253/1 slash line last season, although his 5.50 yards per target average left something to be desired. He’s a situational pass catching back only at this stage of his career, but he could still see action in a thin backfield. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs add another cheap, capable running back to the mix at some point, given that it wouldn’t be that hard for them to do so inexpensively.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The biggest and most important need that the Chiefs didn’t address this off-season while prioritizing their offensive line is the defensive end position, where the Chiefs didn’t have a player other than Frank Clark with more than 3 sacks in the regular season. In total, the Chiefs managed just 32 sacks as a team last season, a below average total that is especially disappointing for a team that plays with many leads. That total was despite team sack leader Chris Jones being an interior pass rusher, further highlighting their issues at the edge defender position. 

Despite that, the Chiefs didn’t make a significant addition at the position aside from 4th round rookie Joshua Kaindoh and they actually lost a pair of players from last year’s group in Tanoh Kpassagnon (720 snaps) and Alex Okafor (283 snaps), who, while they didn’t play well, at least have starting experience. Kaindoh figures to have a good chance to earn a significant role as a rookie and, as of right now, it looks like 2020 5th round pick Michael Danna will be the starter opposite Clark, even though he was underwhelming in just 334 snaps as a rookie. 

The Chiefs also took a flyer on former Cowboys first round bust Taco Charlton, who has played for three different teams in just four seasons in the league and has played middling at best across an average of 322 snaps per season, including just 91 snaps last season for a Chiefs team that called him up off the practice squad mid season. Charlton isn’t that young anymore, now in his age 27 season, so it’s a long shot that he has serious untapped potential. The Chiefs will be counting on one or two of Danna, Charlton, and the rookie Kaindoh to surprise, otherwise they figure to once again get poor play at the position behind Frank Clark.

Even Frank Clark didn’t have a great season last season and, while he’s had some big post-season moments, his regular season play has been disappointing in two seasons with the Chiefs, given that the Chiefs gave up not only a first round pick to acquire him, but signed him to a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal that still ranks 6th in the NFL among edge defenders. A second round pick by the Seahawks in 2015, Clark had 32 sacks, 29 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons with Seattle, but he’s seen that drop off to 14 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in two seasons since joining the Chiefs, hampered by multiple nagging injuries. 

Never a particularly good run defender either, Clark hasn’t justified his salary thus far and could be entering a make or break season, owed a non-guaranteed 19.5 million in 2022 on a team that lacks long-term financial flexibility. Still only in his age 28 season, Clark is theoretically in the prime of his career and could bounce back, but that’s not a guarantee now three years removed from his career best 20th ranked finish among edge defenders on PFF in 2018. The Chiefs will need him to bounce back, at a position group that otherwise looks very thin and lacks proven players.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Chiefs are in a lot better shape on the interior. Chris Jones led the team in sacks last season and, while he had just 7.5 sacks, he added another 21 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate and he had 24.5 sacks combined in the previous 2 seasons, so last year’s relatively reduced sack total is mostly the result of bad luck and I would expect it to bounce back in 2021, with Jones still very much in his prime in his age 27 season. 

A 3rd round pick in 2016, Jones showed a lot of promise as a rookie and broke out as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league in his second season in the league, finishing in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in 4 straight seasons since then. He’s been especially dominant as a pass rusher over the past 3 seasons with 32 sacks, 50 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate, among the best in the league by an interior rusher, and I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Chiefs also bring back Derrick Nnadi, who doesn’t get much pass rush, with just 1 sack and 1 hit and a 5.2% pressure rate in 3 seasons since the Chiefs took him in the 3rd round in 2018, but who excels against the run, improving in all three seasons in the league, culminating in a 8th ranked finish in run defense grade among interior defenders. Nnadi played just 460 snaps last season as almost exclusively a base package player and he’s never topped more than 598 snaps in a season, but the Chiefs improved their depth at the position this off-season by acquiring ex-Seahawk Jarran Reed, following his release by Seattle this off-season.

Reed’s release was the result of not being worth a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but, while he struggles against the run, he’s been an effective pass rusher over the past 4 seasons, with 20.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate, earning him middling grades overall from PFF, despite his struggles against the run, so he could be a good addition for the Chiefs at the reduced 5.5 million dollar salary they signed him at. He and Nnadi complement each other well and will likely rotate frequently depending on the situation.

Reed addition leaves Tershawn Wharton, a 2020 undrafted free agent who actually finished his rookie season 2nd on the team in interior defenders snaps slightly ahead of Nnadi with 518, with an uncertain role going forward, especially with 2019 3rd round pick Khalen Saunders set to return from an injury that limited him to just 74 snaps in 3 games last season. Wharton wasn’t bad last season, but he could be upgraded on, which the Seahawks did by adding Reed, leaving Wharton to compete with Saunders for playing time. He may win that job, despite Saunders being a higher draft pick, but only because Saunders has yet to show anything across 377 career snaps, struggling as a rookie in limited action before last year’s injury plagued season. This is a deep group overall and it’s led by one of the best in the league at his position in Chris Jones.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Chiefs did address their linebacking corps this off-season, adding Missouri’s Nick Bolton in the 2nd round of the draft, a much needed move because this team lacked an every down linebacker last season, instead stringing together a group of capable run stuffers Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens, capable coverage linebacker Ben Niemann, and hybrid safety/linebacker Daniel Sorensen, who saw frequent action as a true linebacker in sub packages. In all, the group wasn’t terrible, but no one played more than 603 snaps and there was definitely room for improvement.

Bolton might not play every down as a rookie and could have growing pains even if he doesn’t, but the potential of him and last year’s 2nd round pick Willie Gay breathe some life into a group that has been mostly a liability for years. Gay was only limited to 269 snaps as a rookie, which was strange because he showed potential in an otherwise underwhelming group and earned the unit’s highest overall grade from PFF, both in overall grade and in coverage grade, but he easily could see a much bigger role in his 2nd season in the league.

Damien Wilson is no longer with the team, but Anthony Hitchens was retained, somewhat surprising, as the cap strapped Chiefs could have saved 6.5 million by moving on from a player who played just 603 snaps last season and struggled in coverage, but he remains and, assuming he isn’t a late cap casualty, he should remain in primarily a base package role and could easily see his playing time fall even more with Bolton being added and Gay likely receiving a larger role. The Chiefs like the veteran leadership of Hitchens, probably the main reason why he remains on the roster, but he’s struggled in coverage throughout his 7-year career, has only surpassed 700 snaps in a season once, and hasn’t earned an above average grade overall from PFF since 2017.

Ben Niemann and Daniel Sorensen are also underwhelming options if they have to continue seeing playing time in sub packages. Niemann isn’t bad in coverage, but he’s a 2018 undrafted free agent whose 499 snaps last season were a career high, and he struggled mightily against the run. Sorensen, meanwhile, has been adequate at best as a coverage linebacker in his career and is unlikely to suddenly get significantly better, now going into his age 31 season. This should be a better group this season, but they need their young players to step up for this group to be significantly improved and no longer be a liability.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Daniel Sorensen may also see some action at safety, but Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill are locked in as the starters. A second round pick by the Chiefs in 2019, Thornhill had an impressive rookie season, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked safety in 16 starts, but he tore his ACL in week 17 and, though he returned for week 1 in 2020, he did not seem to be the same player, finishing 84th among 99 eligible safeties and especially struggling in coverage. Now another year removed from the injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce back and resume developing into an above average starter, although that can’t be considered a guarantee.

Mathieu also had a bit of a down year last year, in part due to giving up more big plays than normal, but he still finished an above average 49th among safeties on PFF, after ranking 21st in 2018 and 20th in 2019. A versatile joker type player who can play deep safety, in the box, and on the slot, Mathieu is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and could easily bounce back in 2021 from his slightly down 2020 season. Both he and Thornhill look likely to be better in 2021 than 2020 and likely to be an above average starting safety duo once again, leaving Sorensen as a reserve safety and situational linebacker.

At cornerback, things are a lot less settled, primarily due to the loss of cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was PFF’s 38th ranked cornerback last season. While Breeland was their only significant loss at the position and their top-3 returning cornerbacks all received average or better grades from PFF, Bashuad was their de facto #1 cornerback when in the lineup, playing 690 snaps in 11 games, while returning cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton, and L’Jarius Snead played just 782 snaps, 527 snaps, and 410 snaps respectively last season. Further complicating the situation, the Chiefs took flyers on a pair of recent first round picks in Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who are likely to be in the mix for roles as well, so this is very much a position in flux.

Snead played the best of all the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season, finishing 20th among cornerbacks, despite being only a 4th round rookie, but that came across just 410 snaps, so he’s very unproven and not necessarily a guarantee to translate that into a season long starting role. Fenton is a similar situation. The 2019 6th round pick is also inexperienced, having played just 693 career snaps, but he’s flashed a lot of promise on those limited snaps, including a 31st ranked finish among cornerbacks on 527 snaps last season. Like Snead, he has the upside to develop into a solid season long starter, but he’s a projection to a larger role.

With Breeland missing time with injury, Ward played the most snaps among the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season with 782 and is the most experienced of the bunch this year. After making 29 starts over the past two seasons and largely holding up as a solid starter, he figures to be as close as to a lock to be a starter as the Chiefs have. The 2018 undrafted free agent hasn’t shown a high ceiling thus far in his career, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and it’s possible that could change.

As much as the Chiefs’ returning cornerbacks are wild cards who are tough to predict, that’s especially true of the former first round picks Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who the Chiefs took flyers on. Hughes was a first round pick in 2018 by the Vikings and showed some promise his rookie year, but he suffered a torn ACL week 6 and his career has been derailed ever since, as he has dealt with more injuries, has struggled when on the field, and has overall been limited to 917 snaps played in 24 games in 3 seasons in the league, leading Minnesota sending him to the Chiefs for a swap of late round picks this off-season. If he can stay healthy, Hughes theoretically still has upside in his age 24 season, but it might be a long shot that he doesn’t get hurt and becomes a capable starter.

Baker, meanwhile, was a first round pick of the Giants in 2019, but he followed up a miserable rookie season in which he finished 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts with an off-the-field incident that led to the Giants cutting ties with him last off-season after just one season. The Chiefs actually picked him up towards the end of last season after his charges were dropped, but he played just 45 snaps total before a leg injury ended his season. If he can stay out of further trouble and stay healthy, he also has theoretical upside in his age 24 season, but like Hughes he might be a long shot. The Chiefs cornerback group has upside, but a lot of uncertainty. This isn’t a bad secondary, but their cornerback situation gives them a high variance as a unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Chiefs are obviously one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season, but they may still be a little bit of an overrated team. They patched up the offensive line problems that caused many of their wins to be close calls in the regular season and that eventually caused their defeat in the Super Bowl, but it came at the expense of not addressing other needs at the offensive skill positions and on defense, not notably their lack of edge rushers. They’ll be contenders, but they’re not the favorites that many may view them as. I will have a final prediction for the Chiefs at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD