Oakland Raiders 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Raiders broke out as a 12-4 team in 2016, after over a decade since their last winning record, but then they regressed to 6-10 in 2017, with largely the same supporting cast. What happened? Well, after going 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and posting a +16 turnover margin (1st in the NFL) in 2016, the Raiders went 4-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a -14 turnover margin (3rd worst in the NFL). Turnover margin and record in close games tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so that’s not a total surprise, but it also shouldn’t be a surprise if we see their turnover margin swing back to around even in 2018. That alone could add a few wins to this team’s total.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders were actually better in 2017 than 2016, finishing with a -0.18% margin, as opposed to -0.49% in 2016. Their offense was significantly worse, moving the chains at a 33.93% rate, as opposed to 36.29% in 2016, but offense was down across the league last season, so the Raiders only fell from 15th in first down rate to 17th in 2017. Defensively, they were better both in raw numbers and rank, ranking 18th with a 34.10% first down rate allowed, after ranking 23rd with a 36.78% first down rate allowed in 2016.

A big part of the reason why they were not as good offensively in 2017 is the disappointing play of quarterback Derek Carr. Not only did Carr turn the ball over more often (16 turnovers vs. 9 in 2016), he also saw his completion percentage fall from 63.8% to 62.7% and his YPA fall from 7.03 to 6.79. A back injury is probably to blame, as he was never 100% after getting hurt week 4. He only missed about a game and a half, but he completed 67.9% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions prior to the injury and did not look right after his return.

Carr also broke his leg at the end of the 2016 season, effectively ending any shot the Raiders had at a playoff run, so injuries are becoming a bit of a concern with him, but, if he’s healthy, he could easily have a bounce back season in 2018, his 5th season in the league and only his age 27 season. He also gets a new head coach in Jon Gruden and a new offensive system that should fit his skill set better than the one they ran last year under head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who struggled in his one season as play caller.

Carr probably won’t repeat the 1.07% interception rate he had in 2016, as that would be the lowest of all time over the course of a career and is a fluky season for most quarterbacks, but he could easily see his completion percentage and YPA rise up back to 2016 levels. If the Raiders can play turnover neutral football and get a bounce back year from Derek Carr and this passing game, they could easily make it back to the post-season.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Another big issue with this passing game was the disappointing season that most of their pass catchers had. In fact, Carr did not have a single wide receiver or tight end earn a positive pass catching grade from Pro Football Focus. That’s a big difference from 2016, when wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree both topped 1000 yards. Cooper and Crabtree were still their top-2 wide receivers in 2017, but neither played nearly as well as they did the season before, managing slash lines of just 48/680/7 and 58/618/8 respectively.

They also each missed 2 games with injury and were limited to 709 snaps and 599 snaps respectively. In fact, “third receiver” Seth Roberts actually led this team in wide receiver snaps with 749, but he was easiest the worst of the bunch, managing just a 43/455/1 slash line and averaging just 0.95 yards per route run (7th worst in the NFL). He was PFF’s worst ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible.

As a result, the Raiders revamped their wide receiver group this off-season. Cooper remains as the #1 option, but they released Crabtree, rather than pay him 7.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season, and then added Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant to be the new #2 and #3 receivers. 2017 4th round pick Ryan Switzer was also acquired in a trade with the Cowboys and, even if he doesn’t play a big role in 2018, he has upside long-term and could keep Seth Roberts and his 2.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary off the roster. Roberts has been a bottom-10 receiver on PFF in each of the past 2 seasons and is not a favorite of the new coaching staff.

The most important thing for this receiving corps is getting Amari Cooper back to form. The 4th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Cooper put up slash lines of 72/1070/6 and 83/1153/5 in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively, so his 2017 production, or lack thereof, was a big surprise. His production was even worse than it looked, as almost a third of his yardage (210 yards) came in one game. He managed just 470 yards in his other 13 games combined and had fewer than 35 yards in half of his 14 games.

Drops have been an issue for him throughout his career, as he’s dropped 32 passes in 3 seasons in the league, including 10 last season, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has a massive upside. The Raiders may move him around the formation more in 2018, as they lack a true slot option and Cooper has flashed on the slot thus far in his career (2.66 yards per route run on 291 routes). That could really benefit him. Lingering injuries were also probably a big part of the problem for him last season and he has obvious bounce back potential in 2018.

Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, meanwhile, will play in 3-wide receiver sets and compete for playing time in 2-wide receiver sets. Bryant is a pure outside receiver, but Nelson’s has some experience on the slot and will likely see action there along with Cooper in 3-wide receiver sets.. Nelson’s 2-year, 14.2 million dollar contract suggests he’s the favorite for the #2 job, but the Raiders also gave up a 3rd round pick to get Martavis Bryant, so they made a big investment in him as well. Both were head scratching moves. Nelson gets about the same as Crabtree would have gotten if they kept him, despite being older (age 33 season), coming off of a worse season (53/482/6), and not being familiar with quarterback Derek Carr, who played with Crabtree for 3 seasons.

Prior to 2017, Nelson had 1000+ yard seasons in 4 straight healthy seasons and finished in the top-9 among wide receivers on PFF in all 4 of those seasons, but he has a pretty significant injury history, wide receivers tend to lose it quickly, and he was not nearly the same player when Aaron Rodgers went down last season. Derek Carr is an obvious upgrade on Brett Hundley, who Nelson played with for most of last season, but Nelson’s most valuable trait at this point in his career is his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, which is why it’s so surprising that the Packers did not bring back him on a cheaper salary and that the Raiders decided to give him significant money on a 2-year deal.

Bryant, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his rookie deal and is a failed drug test away from at least a season long suspension, so it’s a major surprise that the Raiders were willing to give up a 3rd round pick to get him. A 4th round pick in 2014, Bryant flashed as a rookie and then had a 50/765/6 slash line in 11 games in 2015, but he missed the entire 2016 season with suspension and was not a huge help to the Steelers when he returned. He managed just a 50/603/3 slash line on 684 snaps, fell to third on the depth chart, earned a negative grade from PFF, and got into disputes with the coaching staff. He probably could have been acquired for less. Now going into his age 27 season, Bryant’s chances of a breakout season are dwindling and he’s not the most reliable player either.

With Cooper and Crabtree struggling, the Raiders were actually led in receiving yardage by tight end Jared Cook, who had a 54/688/2 slash line. He still earned a negative overall pass catching grade though and struggled mightily as a blocker as well. Cook has been a capable starter for most of his career, but he’s also never topped 760 yards in a season, is not a great run blocker, and is now going into his age 31 season, so he could start to decline soon. #2 tight end Lee Smith will also play a role, although the 6-6 265 pounder is more of a 6th offensive lineman. The 7-year veteran has never had more than 12 catches in a season, but plays a role as a run blocker. This is a solid receiving corps, but they need Amari Cooper to have a big year as the #1 guy.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the Raiders were comfortable parting with a third round pick in their trade for Martavis Bryant is because they acquired an extra two third round picks by trading down in each of the first two rounds. In the first round, they moved down from 10 to 15 with the Cardinals, who drafted quarterback Josh Rosen, and picked up the 79th and 152nd pick in the process. They then used that 15th overall pick on offensive tackle Kolton Miller. The Raiders were originally targeting Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the 10th pick, but he surprisingly went a pick earlier to the 49ers.

McGlinchey might not have been a top-10 prospect in this draft, but he was the consensus top offensive tackle and the only one universally considered a first round pick in a weak offensive tackle class, so it made sense that the Raiders, who had a hole at right tackle and a soon-to-be-35-year-old Donald Penn at left tackle, would reach a little bit for the only true plug and play offensive tackle in the draft and it makes sense that they then traded down when he was not available, but Miller is a major reach at 15.

Unlike McGlinchey, an NFL ready starter who with a low floor, Miller is a project that drew mixed reviews coming out of college and was not considered a first round lock, even in a weak offensive tackle class. He has the athletic tools to develop into an above average starter, but he’s not nearly as safe of a pick as McGlinchey would have been and he did not make a lot of sense with defensive difference makers like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Derwin James still on the board. Miller will slot in immediately at right tackle, but could struggle as a rookie.

Miller is not the only big investment the Raiders have made on this offensive line, as their other 4 starters all make at least 9.35 million annually on multi-year deals. In 2016, this was arguably the best offensive line in the league and they’re not far away from getting back there. Right tackle was a big weakness last season, with Marshall Newhouse finishing 70th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after veteran Austin Howard played well there in 2016. Miller might not play well as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Newhouse.

The Raiders will also be hoping for a bounce back year from right guard Gabe Jackson, after he finishing 35th among guards in 2017. That’s definitely not bad, but it’s a disappointing season for him, considering the 2014 3rd round pick finished 25th among guards as a rookie, 12th among guards in 2015, and 21st among guards in 2016, leading to the Raiders giving him a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension last off-season that makes him the 3rd highest paid guard in the league in average annual salary. Only in his age 27 season, he has obvious bounce back potential.

The rest of this offensive line still played really well in 2017. Penn’s age is a concern at left tackle, but he still finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF last season. He’s earned a positive grade in 7 straight seasons and finished 10th among offensive tackles as recently as 2016, so, while he may be on the decline, he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Raiders also used a 3rd round pick on an offensive tackle, taking North Carolina A&T’s Brandon Parker. He’s very raw, but the Raiders likely see him and Miller as bookend tackles of the future in a few years time. In what was universally considered a weak offensive tackle class, the Raiders decided to double dip with two raw offensive tackles in the first 65 picks. With other pressing needs not getting addressed, we’ll see if it turns out to be worth it.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Rodney Hudson are the surest things on this offensive line, as both are coming off of strong seasons and in the prime of their careers. Osemele is going into his age 29 season and finished 15th among guards on PFF last season, while Hudson is also going into his age 29 season and finished 5th among centers on PFF last season. Osemele has been a top-15 guard on PFF in 4 straight seasons, while Hudson has been a top-7 center on PFF in 4 straight seasons. Signed to deals worth 58.5 million over 5 years and 44.5 million over 5 years respectively, in 2016 and 2015 respectively, both have been great free agent additions and are big parts of why the Raiders improved from being perennially one of the worst teams in the league. This should be a strong offensive tackle again, even if Miller is raw at right tackle and Penn is aging at left tackle.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One of the biggest stories around the Raiders going into last season was running back Marshawn Lynch deciding to unretire after taking the 2016 season off and requesting the Seahawks trade him to Oakland, where he grew up. Lynch kind of went under the radar because the Raiders weren’t winning, but he ended up having a pretty good season. He averaged 4.30 yards per carry on 207 carries and ranked 13th in carry success rate at 49%.

Perhaps most importantly, he looked to be as violent of a runner as ever, averaging 3.09 yards per carry after contact, breaking 42 tackles, and finishing 7th in elusive rating. Elusive rating, which measures broken tackles and yards after contact, is a metric in which Lynch has finished in the top-15 among running backs in all 10 seasons in the league and from 2011 to 2014 he led the NFL with 272 broken tackles on 1,181 carries. After running behind a patchwork offensive line for years with the Seahawks, Lynch gets to run behind arguably the best offensive line he’s ever run behind with the Raiders.

The one concern with Lynch is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season. He did take the entire 2016 season off, which could help him long-term, but he also has 2,623 career touches and plays a notoriously rough style of football. Given his age, I expected the Raiders to add a young back in the draft, but instead they just signed veteran Doug Martin to a one-year deal. Martin is only 29, but he’s run like he’s about 40 over the past two seasons, averaging just 2.93 yards per carry on 282 carries.

Martin put up a 319/1454/11 slash line as a first round rookie in 2012 and then a 288/1402/6 slash line in his contract year in 2015, but he’s somehow averaged just 3.27 yards per carry on 543 carries in his other four seasons combined. He’s also had numerous disciplinary and work ethic issues. The Raiders are taking a flyer on him, but there might not be anything left in the tank. Fortunately, they didn’t guarantee him anything, so they can cut him without penalty if he struggles this off-season, but they could have benefitted from adding another back, especially a young back through the draft. If Martin does make the final roster, he shouldn’t take too many carries away from Lynch, who seems to have much more left in the tank, despite his age.

The Raiders also have 2016 undrafted free agent Jalen Richard. He’s undersized at 5-8 205 and will likely never be a lead back, but he’s averaged 5.51 yards per carry on 139 carries and may have earned a larger role in his 3rd season in the league. He’ll also play a significant passing down role again, as neither Lynch nor Martin do much in passing situations. With Lynch managing just 151 receiving yards on 20 catches, Richard led Oakland running backs with 256 receiving yards on 27 catches. He should have around that same level of passing game usage in 2018. This looks like a solid backfield, but they’re relying on Marshawn Lynch not breaking down, as veteran off-season addition Doug Martin is unlikely to pan out.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Lost in the Raiders’ disappointing 2017 season is the fact that their defense was actually noticeably improved. After allowing 318 first downs and 45 offensive touchdowns in 2016, they allowed just 304 first downs and 35 offensive touchdowns in 2017. That didn’t stop them from firing Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator, following a particularly bad defensive performance against the Patriots, but they did a good job replacing him with ex-Bengal defensive coordinator Paul Guenther this off-season. Guenther left the Bengals following the expiration of his contract this off-season, but he was a solid defensive coordinator for 4 seasons and spent the previous 6 seasons on Mike Zimmer’s staff when Zimmer was the Bengals defensive coordinator.

The one main difference between Guenther and Norton is that, while Norton ran more of a hybrid scheme in base packages, Guenther runs a pretty straight up 4-3 defense. The Raiders are expecting him to help boost the 14 takeaways they had last season (2nd fewest in the NFL), though that would likely happen regardless, as takeaways tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Raiders had 30 takeaways (2nd most in the NFL) back in 2016 in Norton’s first season as defensive coordinator. They’ll probably be somewhere right in the middle of those two numbers in 2018.

Regardless of the scheme, this defense is built around edge rusher Khalil Mack, who is one of the best defensive players in the league and has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, totaling 40.5 sacks, 42 quarterback hits, and dominating against the run as well. Owed 13.846 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, Mack is an obvious candidate for an extension this off-season, but he wants to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, upwards of 20 million annually, so negotiations are taking a while. Worst case scenario, the Raiders would have the franchise tag available to keep him next off-season. He’s not going anywhere any time soon and should continue being one of the best defensive players in the league.

Bruce Irvin remains as the other edge rusher opposite him. He’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but he is a better run stuffer than pass rusher and is capable in coverage as well. In a 4-3, he’ll play outside linebacker in base packages and then rush the passer off the edge in sub packages. He’s a hybrid player, but has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and should have another solid season in his age 28 season.

Mario Edwards will play opposite Khalil Mack in base packages. The 6-3 280 pounder has played both inside and outside and will remain a hybrid player in this 4-3, rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages when Irvin moves down to the line. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Edwards flashed as a rookie, finishing 24th among 3-4 defensive ends on 608 snaps, but a hip injury limited him to 35 snaps in 2016 and then he was not as good upon his return on 475 snaps in 2017. Still only in his age 24 season, he still has upside and could have a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With Mack and Irvin playing outside linebacker in base packages, Denico Autry had the most snaps among any of the Raiders’ pure defensive linemen in 2017 with 594. He played pretty well, but wasn’t a good fit for the new scheme and was allowed to sign with the Colts on a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal. The Raiders do bring back Eddie Vanderdoes (464 snaps), Justin Ellis (462 snaps), and Treyvon Hester (346 snaps), along with Mario Edwards.

Ellis re-signed this off-season on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with just a half a sack and 2 quarterback hits in 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2014, but the 6-2 335 pounder has developed into a strong run stuffer and was PFF’s 14th ranked defensive tackle against the run last season. He’s not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense, but he should play a base package run stuffing role and was not a bad re-signing on an inexpensive 3 year deal.

Vanderdoes and Hester, meanwhile, are a pair of second year players who will compete for the other base package role and will also rotate in sub packages. Vanderdoes was a 3rd round pick, while Hester went in the 7th, but Hester was the better of the two players, flashing on 346 snaps, while Vanderdoes struggled on 464 snaps. Vanderdoes still has the higher upside, but Hester might still be the better player in 2018. They both have potential, but they might not be anything more than rotational players this season.

The Raiders also used 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks on Sam Houston State defensive tackle PJ Hall, LSU defensive end Arden Key, and Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. They could all compete for roles as rookies on an unsettled defensive line. Key could easily be their 3rd defensive end, while Hall and Hurst could be part of the rotation at defensive tackle with Edwards, Ellis, Vanderdoes, and Hester.

Hall faced weak competition, was not invited to the combine, and does not fit the prototype at 6-0 310, but he played well at the East/West shrine came and lit up his Pro Day. Key and Hurst, meanwhile, were at one point projected to be 1st round picks, but Key had a disappointing junior year and had off-the-field concerns, while Hurst has a heart problem that could be a long-term concern. Because have huge upsides, but they come with a lot of risk. They need someone to step up on this line other than Khalil Mack, but they have some options.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

After Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Raiders were led in linebacker snaps by NaVorro Bowman, who proved to be a smart mid-season addition after being released by the 49ers, finishing 8th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 643 snaps. Bowman is no longer with the team though and neither is Cory James, who finished 3rd among Raider middle linebackers with 455 snaps. Nicholas Morrow returns, but the 2017 undrafted free agent predictably struggled on 553 snaps as a rookie and likely wouldn’t be much better in his 2nd season in the league.

Instead, it’ll be free agent acquisitions Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson starting in base packages with Bruce Irvin. Both players can play both inside and outside, but Whitehead spent last season at outside linebacker, while Johnson spent last season at inside linebacker and that figures to be where they’ll play with the Raiders. A 5th round pick in 2012, Whitehead purely played special teams in his first 2 seasons in the league, not playing a single defensive snap, but he’s made 55 starts in 4 seasons since.

Whitehead has impressed as a run stuffer, earning a positive run stuffing grade in 3 of 4 seasons and finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in run grade on PFF in 2017, but he’s struggled in coverage, never earning a positive coverage grade from PFF. For lack of a better option, he’ll play an every down role with the Lions and they are paying him like an every down player on a 3-year, 19 million dollar deal, but he figures to struggle in sub packages.

Johnson, on the other hand, is still good in coverage, but struggles against the run. The 13-year veteran was once one of the best linebackers in the league, but he tore his achilles in 2014 and 2016 and is now going into his age 36 season. He’s still been about an average starter over the past 2 seasons, but he’s struggled against the run and could see his coverage abilities go this season as well. He was worth a flyer on a one-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, but he might not be reliable. For some reason, the Raiders did not address their linebacker corps until the 6th round of the draft, so Morrow is their top reserve. This figures to be an underwhelming group in 2018.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Raiders also made some changes in the secondary, which was a weakness in 2017. Those changes weren’t all positive though, as the Raiders lost cornerback TJ Carrie to the Browns on a 4-year, 31 dollar deal, after he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season in 16 starts. He was arguably their best defensive back in 2017. The Raiders also let go of Sean Smith and David Amerson, who were owed 8.5 million and 6 million non-guaranteed respectively and received negative grades from PFF on 701 snaps and 287 snaps respectively. The Raiders bring back Dexter McDonald, who ranked 3rd on this team in cornerback snaps last season with 534, but the 2015 7th round pick struggled in the first significant action of his career and is unlikely to be significantly better going forward.

Instead, the Raiders are expected to start free agent acquisition Rashaan Melvin and 2017 1st round pick Gareon Conley. Melvin was PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback last season, but he was a one-year wonder, as he had never finished in the top-50 at his position before in 5 seasons in the league. Already going into his age 29 season, Melvin’s 2017 season could easily prove to be a fluke, especially since he only played 552 snaps in 10 games due to injury, but he was a worthwhile flyer for the Raiders on a one-year deal worth 5.5 million. If he has another strong season in 2018, he could command 10+ million annually on a multi-year deal next off-season.

Conley, meanwhile, was limited to 92 snaps as a rookie by leg injuries, but flashed in limited action and still has a high upside, only going into his age 23 season. He could easily have a breakout second season in the league, though that’s obviously far from a guarantee. The Raiders also used a 2nd round pick on a defensive back in the 2017 NFL Draft, taking hybrid Obi Melifonwu, but injuries kept Melifonwu off the field for most of his rookie year as well, as he played just 34 snaps, while dealing with knee and hip injuries.

He has an easier path to playing time at cornerback than safety and could end up being their slot cornerback, though he’ll have to compete with 4th round rookie Nick Nelson, waiver claim Daryl Worley, who flashed on 865 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, but struggled on 726 snaps in 2017 and has off-the-field problems, and veteran journeyman Leon Hall, who is going into his age 34 season and struggled on 205 snaps in 2017. None of those are obvious options, so Melifonwu could easily end up winning the job.

At safety, the Bengals bring back starters Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson and also added veteran starter Marcus Gilchrist in free agency. Joseph, a 2016 1st round pick, is locked in at one starting spot, after earning positive grades from PFF in each of his first 2 seasons in the league. He could have a breakout 3rd season in the league, in only his age 25 season. Nelson, meanwhile, is going into his age 35 season and finished as PFF’s 59th ranked safety out of 89 eligible last season, especially struggling in coverage. Prior to last season, he earned a positive grade in 5 straight seasons, but he could easily continue declining, given his age, which is why they signed Gilchrist.

Gilchrist comes over from the Texans on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal. His salary (vs. 2.5 million for Nelson who also got a one-year deal this off-season) suggests he’ll start, but that’s far from a lock. He’s made 74 starts in the past 5 seasons and has been a solid starter, but he’s going into his age 30 season and earned a below average grade from PFF in 2017 in his first season back after tearing his patellar tendon. Both he and Nelson are underwhelming options in a patchwork secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Raiders should have a better turnover margin and an improved passing game in 2018. They’ve never been as good as their record suggested in 2016, but they were better than their record suggested in 2017 and could easily make it back to the post-season in a weak AFC. It’s unclear how Jon Gruden will do in his first year as head coach, after nearly a decade away from coaching, but he did do a good job of assembling a staff and inherits a pretty talented roster. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

Jacksonville Jaguars 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A 3-13 team in 2016, the Jaguars made one of the biggest leaps in win total last season, winning 10 games and the AFC South and coming within a blown 4th quarter lead in the AFC Championship of going to the Super Bowl. Their big leap forward should have not been seen as a huge surprise though, as they were much better than their record suggested in 2016 and made several key off-season additions.

Despite just winning 3 games, the Jaguars finished the 2016 season 15th in first down rate differential. They could have easily gone about 8-8, but they went 2-8 games in decided by 7 points or fewer and they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -16. Record in close games and turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year, so a significant uptick in wins for the Jaguars made sense last season.

Turnover wise, the Jaguars swung the complete opposite way, finishing with a +10 turnover margin that was 5th best in the NFL. Many thought the Jaguars would always be a terrible turnover margin team because of Blake Bortles, but Bortles only threw 3 fewer interceptions (mostly because he threw less frequently) and the Jaguars still frequently won the turnover margin. In fact, the offense only had 6 fewer turnovers. The big difference was on defense, where they had 20 more takeaways than they had in 2016. In 2016, they were a good defense that didn’t take the ball away. In 2017, they were a great defense that had the 2nd most takeaways in the league.

The Jaguars could see their turnover margin swing more to the middle in 2018, but they also finished 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.95%, so the they weren’t just dominating the turnover margin. Not only did their defense take the ball away often, but they also had the lowest first down rate allowed. They ranked 6th in 2016, but they were on another level in 2017, as opponents only picked up first downs at a 28.50% rate against them, over a percent lower than any other team. They also only finished 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a +149 point differential that was 3rd best in the NFL, so they were statistically a lot better than most 10 win teams.

There are a couple reasons to be a little skeptical about this team making another jump up in wins though. They were healthier than most teams last season, with just the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury, including the fewest on defense. They also will face a much tougher schedule this season, after facing arguably the easiest in 2017. Not only do they trade a last place schedule for a first place schedule, but the Colts and Texans get their starting quarterbacks back from injury, while the Titans figure to be good again, so their division is as tough as it’s been in years.

If the Jaguars want to make it back to the post-season, they’ll need Blake Bortles to continue at least being a passable starting quarterback. Bortles was the 3rd overall pick in 2014, but completed just 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league. Even in 2015, when he threw for 4400 yards and 35 touchdowns, he threw league leading 18 interceptions and accumulated a lot of his yardage and touchdowns in garbage time.

The Jaguars stuck with him in 2017 largely for lack of a better option and spent most of the season hiding him behind the run game and their defense, but Bortles wasn’t bad. He completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and led an offense that ranked 14th in the NFL in first down rate, a big jump from 23rd in 2016. His numbers weren’t flashy and he threw just 523 attempts after averaging 616 attempts per season in the previous 2 seasons, but it was still the best season of his career. After finishing below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, Bortles was their 18th ranked quarterback in 2017.

That was enough for the Jaguars to not just commit to him as their starter in 2018, but also likely 2019. The Jaguars could have kept Bortles on the roster at a 19.053 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal, but instead they gave him a 3-year, 54 million dollar contract that guarantees him 26.5 million, including 6.5 million of his 16 million dollar salary in 2019. It’s a risky move, but, if he keeps being a solid starter, it could prove to be a good value, as he likely would have cost most annually on a long-term extension next off-season if he had another solid season. Perhaps the Jaguars figure they will be picking late in the draft for the next few years and, as a result, they will be unable to find an immediate upgrade.

The Jaguars did take a quarterback in the 6th round, taking Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, but he’s not an immediate threat to Bortles’ job, even if Bortles does struggle again. Lee will likely compete for the backup job with ex-Brown Cody Kessler, also added this off-season. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Kessler made 8 starts with the Browns and completed 63.8% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he took too many sacks, got injured often, and only finished 4 of his 8 starts. Last season, he could barely get on the field for the worst offense in the league, with just 23 attempts all year. The Jaguars only gave up a conditional 7th round pick for him and will not owe anything if he doesn’t make the final roster, which is not a lock if Lee has a good off-season or if they add another quarterback. This is Bortles’ job for the foreseeable future, for better or worse.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Even more surprising about Bortles’ solid 2017 season is the fact that he was able to do it without top receiver Allen Robinson, who tore his ACL week 1 and went down for the season. In fact, the Jaguars were so impressed at how their passing game was able to perform without Robinson that they let him walk as a free agent this off-season, when most expected they’d franchise tag him. He signed with the Bears on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal that makes him the 11th highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary.

In Robinson’s absence, Jaguar wide receivers were led in snaps and receiving yards by undrafted rookie Keelan Cole, who earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus on 749 snaps and had a 42/748/3 slash line on 81 targets. Cole was especially good down the stretch once he got more consistent playing time, totaling 36 catches for 701 yards and 3 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season, which extrapolates to a 58/1122/5 slash line over 16 games. The Kentucky Wesleyan product is still unproven and his rookie year may prove to be a fluke, but he could also continue developing into an above average starting receiver.

The Jaguars also had a 4th round rookie, Dede Westbrook, but he wasn’t as good as Cole. Westbrook missed the first 9 games of the season with injury and, though he played 77.7% of the snaps in the final 7 games of the season, 380 snaps in total, he had just a 27/339/1 slash line on 51 targets and earned a negative overall grade from PFF. Westbrook is more talented than his draft slot suggests, as he fell because of off-the-field issues, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Veteran Marqise Lee was their 2nd leading receiver last year, earning a positive grade on 737 snaps and posting a 56/702/3 slash line on 96 targets. He was also a free agent like Robinson, but the Jaguars opted to bring him back on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Lee struggled in his first 2 seasons and missed 9 games with injury, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in back-to-back seasons, topping 700 yards in both seasons and missing just two total games between the two seasons. Still only in his age 27 season, he should be a capable starter for the Jaguars for at least a couple more seasons as long as he continues to stay healthy.

Fellow veteran receiver Allen Hurns was not brought back. Hurns came into the league in the same year as Robinson and Lee and was given a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension after a breakout 2015 season that gave him 16 million over the past 2 seasons in almost entirely new money, but he never lived up to his 2015 season and was subsequently let go this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in 2018. Limited to 21 games combined between the two seasons, Hurns did not even total 1000 yards between 2016 and 2017.

He was more or less replaced by ex-Colt Donte Moncrief, who signed a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. It was one of the more head scratching deals of the off-season. Not only is a 9.5 million salary a lot to pay for a player who has not proven himself, but, even if he does have a breakout season, this deal has no upside, as the Jaguars will need to pay him even more on a long-term extension to keep him beyond this season. A 3-year deal worth 9.5 million in the first year with some option years for 2019 and 2020 would have at least had upside for the Jaguars.

Moncrief was a 3rd round pick in 2014 and is still only going into his age 25 season, but he hasn’t done much over the past 2 seasons, after a respectable 64/733/6 slash line in 2015. Moncrief looked poised for a 3rd year breakout year in 2016, after Luck missed half of the season with injury in 2015, but instead he was limited to a 30/307/7 slash line in 9 games by injuries of his own. In 2017, with Luck out for the entire season, he could not get on the same page with new quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He had just a 26/391/2 slash line in 12 games and averaged just 1.02 yards per route run on 384 routes, while finishing 105th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. The talent is there, but he’s far from a guarantee to perform and the Jaguars are betting a lot of money with no upside beyond 2018.

Moncrief also joins a very crowded receiving corps, with Lee, Westbrook, and Cole. It’s unclear how they plan to break up the reps, but they may have close to an open competition for wide receiver roles. They also used a 2nd round pick on LSU’s DJ Chark. He may develop into a starter long-term, but he’s considered very raw coming into the league and likely won’t have much of a rookie year role in a deep wide receiver group.

The Jaguars also added a tight end in free agency, signing ex-Jet Austin Seferian-Jenkins to a deal worth 10.5 million over 2 years. He’ll replace veteran Marcedes Lewis, who was released this off-season rather than being paid 3.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2018. Seferian-Jenkins should be an upgrade as a receiver, as Lewis was not much of a contributor in that aspect late in his career, but Lewis was consistently one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, basically serving as a 6th offensive lineman at 6-6 275, so Seferian-Jenkins figures to be a significant downgrade in that aspect.

A 2nd round pick in 2014 by the Buccaneers, ASJ lasted just over 2 seasons with the Bucs, catching just 45 passes in 19 games before getting released after a DUI and signing with the Jets in September of 2016. He did not do much on the field in 2016, but won the starting job in 2017 after getting sober and played 652 snaps in 13 games, after serving a 2 game suspension to start the season. He caught 50 passes, though he averaged just 7.14 yards per catch, 2.24 yards per catch after the catch, and 4.82 yards per target.

Still only 26, the Jaguars are betting he can continue improving now that he’s cleaned up his act off-the-field and that he will post better numbers in a better passing offense, after underwhelming statistically with the Jets. Considering the lack of available talent at tight end this off-season, he’s a worthwhile flyer. A capable blocker at 6-5 262, he’d be a solid all-around tight end if he improved in the passing game. Their only other option is blocking specialist Ben Koyack, a 2015 7th round pick who played 413 snaps last season and caught just 5 passes on 112 routes. They’re deeper at wide receiver than tight end, but lack a true #1 option without Allen Robinson.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Along with their wide receiver depth, another reason letting Robinson walk made sense is because the Jaguars are a run heavy team and may not have wanted to commit a significant chunk of their cap to a wide receiver. Instead, they used the money they could have given to Robinson and used it to upgrade their offensive line in a big way, signing ex-Panther Andrew Norwell to a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal to replace free agent left guard Patrick Omameh. It’s a massive upgrade, especially in the run game, and fits the style of football this team wants to play.

Omameh is a journeyman who finished 45th among 80 eligible guards last season, while Norwell is one of the top interior offensive linemen in the league, hence why he is now the top paid guard in the league. Despite going undrafted in 2014, Norwell flashed on 696 snaps as a rookie and has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-12 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. In the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Norwell is coming off of his best season, finishing as PFF’s #4 ranked guard, and should remain one of the top guards in the league for at least a few more seasons.

They still have issues on the offensive line, as both left tackle Cam Robinson and right guard AJ Cann were also among the worst in the league at their position. Robinson at least was only a rookie and could be better in his 2nd season in the league, although the one-time projected top-15 pick fell to the Jaguars in the 2nd round because of concerns he wasn’t quick enough to play left tackle and he didn’t dispel those concerns at all as a rookie. He finished 82nd among 83 eligible offensive tackles, allowing a league leading 12 quarterback hits, committing 12 penalties, and even struggling in the run game. The Jaguars didn’t add any competition for him this off-season, so they’re hoping for a 2nd year leap, but he may need to move to right tackle or guard long-term.

Cann, on the other hand, is already going into his 4th season in the league and the 2015 3rd round pick has not shown much promise through 3 seasons. He’s made 44 of 48 starts in his career, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF for all 3 seasons and is coming off of arguably his worst season in 2017, finishing 69th among 80 eligible guards. He’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, so it’s possible the Jaguars let him walk next off-season, find a new left tackle, and move Robinson inside to right guard.

The Jaguars could also find a new left tackle, move Robinson to right tackle, and then move right tackle Jermey Parnell inside to right guard, but Parnell is actually coming off of a solid season, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked offensive tackle. That may not be the case in a year, as Parnell turns 32 this year and is getting up there in age. A late bloomer, Parnell has made 49 starts in the past 4 seasons, after making just 2 in his first 5 seasons, and he has earned positive grades in all 4 of them, but he could start to decline soon, possibly this season. Moving to guard in a year or two could prolong his career.

Center Brandon Linder was probably their best offensive lineman last season, finishing 7th among centers on PFF. A 3rd round selection in 2014, the Jaguars wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 51.7 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal. Linder has the ability to play both guard and center and likely would have commanded a similar deal to Norwell on the open market.

Linder finished 11th among guards as a rookie, 5th among centers in 2016, and then 7th among centers last season, with an injury shortened season in 2015 in between. Also in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, he should continue playing well. He and Norwell could be one of the better interior offensive line duos in the NFL. The addition of Norwell makes this a much better offensive line, but they still have some obvious problems and need second year left tackle Cam Robinson to step up in a big way.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Even without good run blocking, the Jaguars still averaged 4.29 yards per carry last season, 9th in the NFL, and could have been even better, if lead back Leonard Fournette had not suffered an ankle injury 6 weeks into the season. After averaging 4.58 yards per carry on 130 carries in the first 6 games of the season, Fournette averaged just 3.22 yards per carry on 138 carries the rest of the way and finished with an underwhelming 3.88 yards per carry average on the season. He also missed a game with a quad injury and overall seemed to hit a rookie wall as injuries piled up over the course of the season.

Fournette lost weight this off-season in an effort to be more durable in his 2nd season in the league. The 4th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Fournette obviously has a huge upside and, even with all the injuries he suffered, he still finished 7th in the NFL with 268 carries and 5th in the NFL with 20.6 carries per game. If he stays healthy all season, he could easily push for 300 carries and a top-5 rushing season in his 2nd season in the league. He’s also a capable all-around player, adding 302 yards and another touchdown on 36 catches and holding up surprisingly well in pass protection for a rookie.

#2 back Chris Ivory also had an underwhelming 3.41 YPC average (112 carries). An unexplosive plodder, Ivory was a no brainer cap casualty this off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed. TJ Yeldon will be the #2 back instead. Yeldon was actually a 2nd round choice back in 2015, but his career high is 218 touches in a season and he had just 79 last season as the 3rd back. He averages just 4.04 yards per carry for his career, but he averaged 5.16 yards per carry on 49 carries last season, he has 116 career catches in 37 games despite being a part-time player, and he’s earned a positive overall grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league.

Fournette will be the workhorse, but this is going to be a run heavy team, so Yeldon will have a role on the ground too and will also see passing down snaps. The Jaguars also have Corey Grant, a 4th year undrafted free agent who has a career 6.09 YPC average on 68 carries and averaged 8.27 yards per carry on 30 carries last season. He’s unproven, but could be in the mix for a role as the #3 back. This is a talented group of backs.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Jaguars’ defense was already good in 2016, but a couple free agent signings last off-season pushed them to great in 2017. One of those signings was defensive lineman Calais Campbell, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. The Jaguars gave him a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid defensive lineman in the league in average annual salary, but he was well worth it, as he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end. He also finished 2nd in the league in sacks with 14.5 and added 14 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries on 492 pass rush snaps.

Making those pass rush snaps even more impressive is the fact that about half of his pass rush snaps (257 of 492) came as an interior pass rusher, as the 6-8 300 pounder frequently lined up inside in sub packages. Campbell’s background is primarily as a 3-4 defensive end, finishing in the top-7 at his position in 6 straight seasons on PFF prior to signing with the Jaguars last off-season, so he has plenty of experience as an interior pass rusher, but he was also a strong edge rusher as well. Going into his age 32 season, he may begin to decline soon, but he’s about as consistent as they come and has missed just 6 games in 10 seasons in the league. He was an excellent signing.

The Jaguars also made a big signing on the defensive line the previous off-season, signing ex-Bronco Malik Jackson to a 6-year, 85.5 million dollar deal. He isn’t quite as good as Campbell, but he’s been equally consistent, finishing in the top-11 at his position in 4 straight seasons on PFF, dating back to his final 2 seasons in Denver. Jackson has experience in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense and has played both defensive end and defensive tackle in a 4-3, but he’s purely an every down defensive tackle with the Jaguars. He was a big part of the reason why the Jaguars were so good defensively in 2016 and now he and Campbell form a fierce interior pass rush duo in sub packages.

Marcell Dareus is also a highly paid defensive tackle, although he was added via trade. Re-signed to a 6-year, 96.6 million dollar deal with a whopping 25 million dollar signing bonus by the Bills after the 2014 season, Dareus lasted just 2.5 seasons on the deal before being sent to the Jaguars for a 6th round pick in a complete salary dump at last year’s trade deadline. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus finished 7th among defensive tackles on PFF in his 3rd season in the league in 2013 and then finished 3rd in 2014, leading to the Bills extending him. He played well in the first season of the extension, finishing 9th among defensive tackles, but he was limited to 8 games by a suspension and injury in 2016 and was not the same player in 2017 before getting sent to Jacksonville.

It was a strange acquisition for the Jaguars, given that his contract paid him a prorated 5.735 million for the remainder of the season and a guaranteed 10.175 million in 2018 and yet he didn’t really play all that much, totaling just 278 snaps in 9 games, primarily as a base package run stuffer. He didn’t play badly and could have a bigger role in his 2nd season in Jacksonville, but there aren’t a ton of snaps available in sub packages behind Jackson and Campbell. He’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’ll likely need a big season to stay on the roster in 2019 at a non-guaranteed 10.585 million dollar salary. This defense is going to get expensive to keep together long-term and Dareus hasn’t been the same player since 2015.

Perhaps anticipating Dareus’ departure following the 2018 season, the Jaguars used their first round selection on Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan. Bryan won’t have a huge role as a rookie, but could develop into a starter long-term. His main competition for snaps will be veteran Abry Jones, who played 488 snaps last season. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Jones has been a capable rotational player over the past 4 seasons, but lacks a clear role on this defensive line with the addition of Bryan. He is locked into a roster spot though, owed a 3 million dollar guaranteed salary, to go along with a 500K workout bonus.

The Jaguars are also deep at defensive end. Third year defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is an every down player, playing opposite Campbell in base packages. The 6-2 246 pounder is not much of a run stuffer, but he broke out as a pass rusher in his second season in the league, with 12 sacks, 14 hits, and 43 hurries on 469 pass rush snaps. He finished as PFF’s 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in pass rush grade and, despite a negative run stopping grade, he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. The 2016 3rd round pick was not as good as a rookie, but he’s only in his age 23 season and could easily continue developing into one of the top edge rushers in the game.

In sub packages, Ngakoue typically plays opposite Dante Fowler, a sub package pass rush specialist who comes in when Campbell moves inside. Of his 464 snaps last season, 367 came on pass plays. He had 8 sacks, 2 hits, and 26 hurries on 354 pass rush snaps and earned a positive pass rush grade, but he struggled mightily against the run at 6-3 255 and also committed 9 penalties. As a result, he was PFF’s 60th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible.

Fowler was the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL and has not developed into the player the Jaguars expected he would be. He played just 569 snaps in his first season back from injury in 2016 and also struggled, finishing 42nd among 53 4-3 defensive ends. Fowler is still only going into his age 24 season and has upside, but he’s also had multiple off-the-field incidents and the Jaguars opted to decline his 5th year option for 2019, which would have guaranteed him 14.2 million for injury.

That was a wise decision, as he’s highly unlikely to be worth that salary in a year. Fowler could be better in his 4th season in the league, now the final year of his rookie deal, but Ngakoue has taken over the role he was supposed to have and he could be pushed for playing time by 2017 3rd round pick Dawuane Smoot. Smoot played 252 snaps as a rookie as could be ready for a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, but he might not be able get much more playing time on this deep defensive line. The Jaguars could also use Taven Bryan at defensive end in base packages, moving the versatile 6-5 291 pounder around in an attempt to get him on the field as a rookie. This is arguably the best defensive line in the league.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Jaguars return everyone of note on the defensive line, but they did lose a couple significant contributors this off-season on defense. They’ll also likely have more injuries, after having the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2017, and they’ll face a tougher schedule. That being said, they should still be a clear top-5 defense, barring any seriously bad injury luck. Along with a strong defensive line, they also bring back their two every down linebackers, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.

Smith was the better of the two, finishing 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while Jack finished 17th at the position. In addition to playing outside linebacker, Jack also moves inside to middle linebacker in passing situations. Jack fell to the 2nd round in 2016 because of injury concerns, but he hasn’t missed a game in 2 seasons in the league and was considered by many to be a possible top-5 pick if teams were not concerned about his health. Only going into his age 23 season, Jack could easily have the best season of his career in 2018 if he can continue staying healthy.

Smith is more proven than Jack, making 53 starts in 4 seasons in the league, despite going in the 5th round in 2014. Smith’s lack of size at 6-3 215 was a major concern for teams coming out of college, but he’s improved in every season in the league and he’s earned a positive grade in every season in the league. Still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Smith should continue to play well as an every down outside linebacker in Jacksonville’s 4-3 defense.

One of the players the Jaguars did lose is middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who retired ahead of his age 34 season this off-season, but was also PFF’s 7th ranked middle linebacker, excelling against the run. He only played 478 snaps though, spending most of the season in a base package role. Aside from the 183 snaps he played in 3 games when Smith was out with injury, Posluszny played just 35.5% of the snaps in 13 games last season, as the Jaguars spent a lot of time in sub packages with 5+ defensive backs. He’ll be missed, but not that much and the Jaguars have an internal replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Blair Brown. Brown is obviously a projection to a larger role, but he flashed on 48 snaps as a rookie and won’t have to play that many snaps unless either Jack or Smith get hurt.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Jaguars also lost nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin, who earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus on 700 snaps last season, including 565 slot snaps, with the Jaguars frequently in sub packages. Rather than using a draft pick on the position to replace him, with very few pressing needs on draft day, the Jaguars opted to give a 3-year, 19 million dollar deal to veteran journeyman DJ Hayden, who has never earned a positive grade in 5 seasons in the league. He played 422 of his 489 snaps outside last season, but also has some slot experience, so that figures to be where he plays in 2018. With 2.2 million of his 5.75 million dollar salary guaranteed for 2019, Hayden seems locked in as an expensive 3rd cornerback for the next 2 seasons, a bizarre move for a team that is about to get expensive quickly.

Fortunately, the rest of this secondary remains, as they were arguably the best in the NFL in 2017. Outside cornerback duo Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye both had dominant seasons, finishing as PFF’s 3rd and 5th ranked cornerback respectively. Bouye was the other big free agent the Jaguars added last off-season, coming over from the Texans on a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar deal. He was a very risky signing, as, even though he finished 7th among cornerbacks on PFF in his contract year in 2016, he was completely unproven.

Undrafted in 2013, Bouye played just 831 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined, earning negative grades from PFF in all 3 seasons. Even in his strong season in 2016, he played just 670 snaps and began the season as the 4th cornerback before injuries struck above him on the depth chart. He easily could have regressed, but instead he continued playing well and could prove to be a steal if he keeps playing like this, as he’s only the 7th highest paid cornerback in the league and will continue to fall down the list as other young cornerbacks get paid in the next few years.

One of those other young cornerbacks that figures to get paid in the next few years is Jalen Ramsey, who is off to a great start to his career and could push to be the highest paid cornerback in the league on his next contract. Like I said, this defense is going to get expensive quickly. For now, he’s still on a reasonable rookie deal, but he has two years left before being highly paid on the 5th year option and will be eligible to sign an extension as soon as next off-season. Ngakoue and Jack will also be eligible for extensions next off-season, ahead of the final year of their rookie deals in 2019.

The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey finished 21st among cornerbacks as a rookie and before taking his game to the next level in his 2nd season in the league. He also hasn’t missed a game with injury thus far in his career and has made 32 of 32 starts. Only going into his age 24 season, he might be the best cornerback in the NFL this season. He and Bouye are the most dominant cornerback duo in the entire league.

The Jaguars also bring back veteran safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, after both earned positive grades in 16 starts in 2017. Signed by the Jaguars to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season, Church has been a solid player throughout his career, flashing as a reserve in his first 3 seasons in the league and then making 73 starts in the past 5 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons. His age is becoming a minor concern, as he goes into his age 30 season, but he could easily remain a solid starter for another couple seasons.

Gipson, on the other hand, should still be in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistent. The 2012 undrafted free agent, Gipson has made 71 starts over the past 5 seasons, the first 3 with the Browns and then the past 2 with the Jaguars, but he only earned positive grades in 2 of those 5 seasons. His best season came in 2014, when he finished 12th among safeties on PFF, but he hasn’t been reliable.

The Jaguars also used a 3rd round pick on Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison, perhaps suggesting that Gipson or Church will be let go next off-season as the Jaguars try to save cap space. Gipson would make the most sense, owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed in the 4th year of a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal. For now, Harrison will be a special teamer and reserve. This will likely remain one of the top, if not the top secondary in the NFL, even after losing Colvin.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Statistically, the Jaguars were one of the best teams in the league last season, although they faced an easy schedule and had next to no injuries, two things that likely will not be true again in 2018. Their defense is still arguably the best in the NFL and their offense could be better with the addition of Andrew Norwell and Leonard Fournette going into his 2nd season in the league, but they also still have the inconsistent Blake Bortles under center and he could easily be worse in 2018. They won the AFC South in 2017, but they may have trouble holding off both the improved Tennessee Titans and the healthier Houston Texans this season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Tennessee Titans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, the Titans looked like a potential breakout team. They finished the 2017 season 9-7, just missing the post-season, and finished 6th in the NFL in both first down rate differential at 1.59% and in offensive touchdown differential at +10, suggesting they were significantly better than their record suggested. They also had a lot of cap space to work with and had extra draft capital, including a pair of first round picks, thanks to their trade down with the Rams the previous year. The Titans did a good job using their cap space and draft capital to fill needs and they made the post-season and even won a playoff game, but they actually had a pretty disappointing season all things considered.

They fell all the way to 20th in first down rate differential at -0.88% and also had a negative point differential of -22. They only made the post-season because they went 6-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less and played in the easier of the two conferences with arguably the easiest schedule in the league. They also had the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Their playoff victory in Kansas City was pretty impressive, but they trailed by 21-3 at halftime before the Chiefs lost Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs were an overrated team all season.

The biggest reason for the Titans’ disappointing season was the disappointing season quarterback Marcus Mariota had. After completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, many expected the former #2 overall pick to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league. Instead, he completed just 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.14 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, the Titans ranked just 20th in first down rate at 33.06%.

Probably the strangest thing about his disappointing season was much how he struggled with a clean pocket. Mariota had the 3rd best QB rating in the NFL under pressure, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (82.7 QB rating), but completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions with a clean pocket, a clean pocket QB rating of 78.2 that ranked 36th among 40 eligible quarterbacks. His 13 clean pocket interceptions were tied with Deshone Kizer for the most in the NFL. He only had 2 interceptions dropped all season, fewest by anyone with at least 350 attempts, so that was partially bad luck, but it’s a concern that he threw so many interceptions without being pressured.

Mariota missed week 5 with a hamstring injury and many have blamed that injury lingering for his poor statistical performance. However, he didn’t get off to a great start before that, completing just 60.0% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his first 4 games of the season. His hamstring injury also didn’t really limit him on the ground. He took off just as many times as he did the previous season (60) and, though he had a career low in YPC, he still averaged just 5.20 YPC and rushed for a career high 5 touchdowns, so he didn’t look slowed by the injury.

Coaching and play calling were part of the issue as well. The Titans were coached for the past 3 seasons by Mike Mularkey, an old school offensive mind with a very vanilla playbook. Mularkey went 9-7 the past 2 seasons, but he largely underachieved with a talented roster and was just 18-39 in in 3 and a half seasons as a head coach prior to the past 2 seasons, so he was deservedly let go. He’ll be replaced by ex-Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, a former linebacker of the Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs.

Vrabel is just 43 and only coordinated the Texans defense for one season, with veteran defensive mind Romeo Crennel helping him significantly, but he’s been on a head coaching fast track since retiring and the Titans are going in the opposite direction of their previous coach with a much younger coach. Vrabel also brings Matt LaFleur with him as offensive coordinator, which is most important for Mariota. LaFleur has never called plays in the NFL, but worked under Kyle Shanahan with the Falcons in 2016 and Sean McVay with the Rams in 2017, so he has experience on very successful offenses under bright offensive minds. He should give Mariota more of a chance to be successful.

Durability is a concern for him though, even if that wasn’t the main problem last season. Not only did he get hurt last season, but he’s never played more than 15 games or thrown more than 453 passes in 3 seasons in the league. Mariota takes more hits than an average quarterback because of how often he takes off and runs and, even if he wasn’t injury prone in college, injuries could be a problem for him in the NFL against bigger defenders. The Titans clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, worth 20.922 million guaranteed for injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, he still has a high upside and could develop into a franchise quarterback, but last year was definitely a disappointing year for him.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem is that Marcus Mariota’s upgraded receiving corps were also a disappointment. The Titans used the 5th overall pick on wide receiver Corey Davis and signed veteran wide receiver Eric Decker to a 1-year deal worth 4 million in free agency, but Davis missed 5 games with injury and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 88th ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible on 517 snaps, with just a 34/375/0 slash line on 65 targets, while Decker lacked explosiveness and put up a mere 54/563/1 slash line in 16 games, despite playing 72.7% of the snaps.

Decker is no longer with the team and was not really replaced, so the Titans will go into 2018 with 2017 3rd round pick Taywan Taylor as their 3rd receiver. He played just 245 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, but could be better in his 2nd season in the league and is a natural fit on the slot. The Titans will also be hoping for more out of Davis, who was a surprise pick with the 5th overall selection. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has a high upside and could also be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league, but he was not regarded as a universal top-10 pick going into the draft and may end up proving to be a reach.

With a pair of second year players on the depth chart, veteran Rishard Matthews could once again led Titan wide receivers in yards, after doing so in 2016 with a 65/945/9 slash line and in 2017 with a 53/795/4 slash line. Matthews isn’t a big name, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 straight seasons and has averaged a 63/937/7 slash line per 16 games over the past 3 seasons, since first becoming a starter with the Dolphins. Matthews has exceeded the 3-year, 15 million dollar deal the Titans gave him in free agency two off-seasons ago and, still only in his age 29 season, could be in line for a higher paid extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his contract.

Matthews missed a couple games with injuries, so tight end Delanie Walker was actually the team leader in receiving yards, with a 74/807/3 slash line. Walker has earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 of his past 7 seasons, but he was a late bloomer, as he didn’t really become a starter until signing with the Titans after the 2012 season. Originally a 49er, Walker has 96 career starts in 175 career games in 12 seasons in the league, but 56 of them have come in the past 5 seasons with the Titans. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 34 season, but he’s been remarkably consistent over the past 4 seasons, topping 800 yards, playing at least 15 games, and finishing in the top-15 among tight ends on PFF in all 4 seasons. He may start to decline in 2018, but he could easily have another solid season or two left in the left.

Walker is also in the final year of his deal and could get a short-term extension this off-season, but the Titans also planned for his eventual departure by using a 3rd round pick on Jonnu Smith in last year’s draft, so they may be unwilling guarantee him much beyond 2018. Smith was a terrible run blocker as a rookie, finishing 63rd among 72 eligible tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade, but he was not bad as a receiver in a limited role and can improve as a blocker. The Titans may wait to see how he develops in his 2nd season in the league before deciding what to do with Walker long-term. The Titans didn’t add anything of note to this receiving corps this off-season, but they have some second year players who can be better in 2018 than they were as rookies.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Thought they didn’t add anything of note to their receiving corps, the Titans did make some big additions this off-season, as they once again entered the off-season with significant cap space. On offense, their biggest addition was running back Dion Lewis, formerly of the New England Patriots, who signed on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll basically replace DeMarco Murray, who split carries in 2017 with Derrick Henry. Murray had slightly more carries (184 vs. 176) and played significantly more snaps (647 vs. 408) because of his passing down involvement, but Henry was by far the more explosive back, averaging 4.23 yards per carry vs. 3.58 yards per carry. Murray was a capable pass protector, but he was let go owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million this off-season and ultimately retired this off-season ahead of his age 30 season, after not finding an offer to his liking.

Lewis is a much better use of money. Prior to last season, he had never topped 100 carries in a season and he’s still never topped 200 carries in a season, but he has a career 4.81 YPC average and was one of the best running backs in the league last season on a per carry basis. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry (3rd in the NFL), picked up 3.17 yards per carry after contact (6th in the NFL), broke a tackle per 4.29 carries (best in the NFL), and had a carry success rate of 56% (4th in the NFL).

Despite starting last season as a backup, he was New England’s lead back by October, rushing for 797 yards and 5 touchdowns on 161 carries (4.95 YPC), while adding 25 catches for 172 yards and another 3 touchdowns through the air in his final 11 games of the season. Part of that was because he got to play on such a good offense with the Patriots, but also he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in overall grade. He’s undersized at 5-8 195 and has a pretty significant injury history with 58 games missed in 6 seasons prior to 2017, but he’s also still only going into his age 28 season and could easily continue being an explosive runner as part of a tandem with Henry if he can stay healthy.

Henry is a much more powerful back at 6-3 247. Henry averaged 4.45 yards per carry on 110 carries as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and 4.23 yards per carry on 176 carries in his 2nd season in the league and looked poised for a huge role in his 3rd season in the league before the Lewis signing. Henry may still lead this team in carries and touchdowns, but Lewis will have a significant role as a speed back and will be the primary passing down back. Lewis isn’t as good of a pass protector as Murray was, but he’s earned a positive pass catching grade in 3 straight seasons from PFF, while Henry has just 24 catches in 2 seasons in the league. Both are talented backs and they complement each other well.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The one downside of the Titans winning a playoff game is talented young right tackle Jack Conklin tearing his ACL in their 2nd round loss in New England. The Titans were fortunate to avoid injuries for most of the season, but the timing of Conklin’s injury makes him a question mark for week 1 in 2018, as he’ll be less than 8 months removed from the injury. Even if he does return, he’s no guarantee to be 100%, which is a shame because his career has been off to a great start since the Titans took him 8th overall in 2016. He’s made all 32 regular season starts in 2 seasons in the league and finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 14th in his second season in the league last season. His backup is veteran journeyman Dennis Kelly, who has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 seasons in the league, so they’d really miss Conklin if he missed time.

When Conklin is healthy, the Titans have arguably the best young bookend tackles in the NFL, with Taylor Lewan on the left side, although Lewan is coming off of a down season. He still earned a positive grade for the 4th straight season to start his career, but fell to 27th among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 20th in 2015 and 8th in 2016. He still pass protected well, but struggled to open up holes on the ground and committed 10 penalties as well. Only going into his age 27 season, he has obvious bounce back potential. The 11th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Lewan is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could push Nate Solder (4 years, 62 million) as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league on his next deal. If the Titans can’t come to an agreement with him before free agency, he’ll likely be franchise tagged.

Their other three starting offensive linemen all earned above average grades from PFF as well, with Quinton Spain making 14 starts at left guard, Josh Kline making 16 starts at right tackle, and Ben Jones making 16 starts at center. None of the three was quite as good as they were in 2016 though. Spain and Kline finished 15th and 25th respectively among guards in 2016, while Jones finished 10th among centers, but Spain and Kline fell to 39th and 28th respectively in 2017, while Jones fell to 16th at his position.

Kline was re-signed this off-season on a 4-year deal worth 26 million. Originally undrafted in 2013, Kline struggled in his first full season as a starter with the Patriots in 2015, but he has proven to be a smart waiver pickup by the Titans, after New England released him. He could easily have another solid season. Spain’s play, on the other hand, was less consistent from 2016 to 2017 and he also struggled in 6 starts as an undrafted rookie in 2015. He should remain at least a solid starter, but he may never be as good as he was in 2016 again.

Jones is the proven most of the bunch, making 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 64 over the past 4 seasons. The 2012 4th round pick started his career at guard, but has been better since moving to center over the past few seasons, first in 2015 with the Texans and then the past two seasons with the Titans. He’s been at least a league average starter in all 3 seasons and should have another solid season in 2018. Tackle is the strength of this offensive line, assuming Conklin makes it back close to 100% at some point, but the interior of this offensive line is not a weakness either.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Titans also had a pretty underwhelming defense in 2017, finishing 16th in first down rate allowed at 33.94%, despite an easy schedule. New head coach Mike Vrabel obviously comes from a defensive background, though his scheme will be similar to the 3-4 defense they ran under Dick LeBeau last season. The Titans tried to make an impact signing on the defensive line, going after Ndamukong Suh and Muhammad Wilkerson, but they ended up having to settle for signing Bennie Logan to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal.

Logan will replace Sylvester Williams, who played 349 snaps last season, primarily as a base package nose tackle. He was not bad against the run, but did not get any pass rush and was not worth his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. The 6-2 315 pound Logan is also a solid run stuffer as well, earning positive run grades from Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, but he also has earned negative grades for his pass rush and has just 5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the past 4 seasons combined. He’s probably not a huge upgrade on Williams.

The Titans also gave defensive end Daquan Jones a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season, keeping the 2014 4th round pick around. Jones has never earned a positive pass rush grade for a season in any of his 4 seasons in the league, totaling just 6 sacks and 12 hits, but he’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons, while his best year coming in 2016, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade. The massive 6-4 322 pounder was limited to just 436 snaps in 12 games by a biceps injury in 2017, but he’s played about 60% of the snaps over the past 3 seasons as a starter, primarily playing in base packages.

The Titans also have 2016 2nd round pick Austin Johnson in the mix. He played just 190 snaps as a rookie and 319 snaps in 2017, but he could have his biggest role yet in 2018. Unfortunately, he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher too at 6-4 314. He’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in both seasons in the league, but has been negative as a pass rusher in both seasons, totaling just 1.5 sacks, 1 hit, and 6 hurries on 281 pass rush snaps. He’ll need to play a role on a relatively thin defensive line, but he’s looked like purely a base package player thus far in his career.

Jurrell Casey is the only true every down defensive lineman they have, but he’s a good one. A 4th round pick in 2011, Casey has finished well above average in all 7 seasons in the league, but he’s especially excelled in the past 5 seasons as an every down player, on about 80% of the snaps. After playing well in a rotational role in his first 2 seasons in the league, Casey has made 77 starts over the past 5 seasons and has missed just 2 games due to injury. He’s finished in the top-9 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-5, and has totaled 34.5 sacks and 53 hits, while also dominating against the run. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Casey is the picture of consistency and durability and should continue his strong play in 2018. They lack another interior pass rusher inside next to him, but they should be pretty good against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Titans also got great run defense from starting middle linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson last season. That combined with their defensive line is a big part of the reason why the Titans ranked 3.57 in yards per carry allowed (4th). Woodyard and Williamson ranked 8th and 2nd respectively among middle linebackers in run grade on Pro Football Focus, though both earned negative grades in coverage. Williamson was largely a base package player, playing just 60.0% snaps in 16 games, while Woodyard struggled mightily in coverage in an every down role, playing 93.2% of the snaps in 16 games. They used 5th round rookie Jayon Brown as a coverage linebacker in sub packages, but he also struggled, finishing 46th among 52 middle linebackers on PFF on 485 snaps, with 401 of them coming on coverage snaps.

The Titans let Williamson walk this off-season, as he signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Jets, and instead replaced him with first round rookie Rashaan Evans. Evans is probably immediately a downgrade against the run, but he also has the ability to play all three downs and has a much higher upside. He figures to play every down immediately, which will allow Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard to split snaps at the other middle linebacker spot.

Brown could be better in his second season in the league and has the athleticism to develop into a good coverage linebacker at 5-11 226, but he could also continue being a liability. Meanwhile, Woodyard is going into his age 32 season and close easily begin to decline. He’s earned a positive run stopping grade in 3 straight seasons, but, at this stage of his career, he needs to go back to being a part-time player like he was in 2015 (47.3% of the snaps) and 2016 (56.3%) of the snaps. This linebacking corps probably won’t be quite as good against the run in 2018, though they’ll hopefully be more athletic in coverage.

The Titans also used a 2nd round pick on a linebacker, trading up 16 spots in the 2nd round (giving up a 3rd round pick in the process) to select Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry with the 41st overall pick. Projected by many to be a first round pick, Landry fell because of concerns about durability and his ability to stop the run, but the 6-3 252 pounder is a natural edge rusher who could have an immediate role in passing situations. He reminds some of Atlanta’s Vic Beasley.

Starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are proven players, but they’re also in the final year of their deals. They used a 2nd rounder on an edge defender in 2016, taking Clemson’s Kevin Dodd 33rd overall, but he’s played just 271 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is reportedly on the roster bubble for 2017 after skipping voluntary off-season workouts. Veteran journeyman Erik Walden was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, but he struggled, finishing 34th among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on 582 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for Landry to be an upgrade and he should play a similar amount of snaps.

Orakpo was the better of the two starters, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. A 9-year NFL veteran and first round selection by the Redskins in 2009, Orakpo has earned a positive season grade in 8 straight seasons. He missed 24 games with injury in 3 seasons from 2012 to 2014, but he hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since. The concern with him is age, as he’s going into his age 32 season. He may start to decline soon.

Morgan is younger, only going into his age 29 season, but he hasn’t been as good as Orakpo in recent years, finishing below average on PFF in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He still earned a positive pass rush grade in 2017, his 5th straight season earning one, with the exception of an injury plagued 2015 season. He’s been relatively durable in his career and is still in the prime of his career, but he’s only a slightly above average starter. This is a solid linebacking corps, though they are relying on some young players.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Titans biggest free agent signing this off-season was cornerback Malcolm Butler, also a former New England Patriot. They signed him to a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Butler was most recently seen sitting on the sidelines of Super Bowl 52 while his defense got torched, inexplicably never put into the game on defense by Bill Belichick, but, aside from that, he had a pretty successful tenure in New England and the Super Bowl did not seem to hurt his value this off-season.

After flashing on 197 regular season snaps as a rookie in 2014 and making a game saving play in that season’s Super Bowl, Butler made 47 starts from 2015-2017 and finished with positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. He finished 18th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 5th among cornerbacks in 2016, though he did fell to 48th in 2017. The list of free agents to leave New England and have the same success elsewhere isn’t long and Butler was passed on by the entire league on draft day before landing in New England, so there’s some uncertainty about how he’ll do with a new franchise, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and could easily have a bounce back season after struggling by his standards in 2017.

The Titans also added a pair of cornerbacks last off-season, signing another former Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal and drafting USC’s Adoree Jackson with the 18th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Both earned positive grades as a starter in 2017, so the Titans now have three above average starting cornerbacks with Butler coming in. Expect them to run 3-cornerback sets with regularity and spend the majority of the snaps in sub packages.

Ryan should continue playing the slot, but he might not have a role in base packages when the Titans only use 2 cornerbacks. He played 90.0% of the snaps in 15 games last season, but I would expect that to go down this season. A 3rd round selection in 2013, Ryan has never been a dominant player, but he’s earned a positive grade in all 5 seasons in the league, excelling on the slot, and has started 42 games in the past 3 seasons combined. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 12th among cornerbacks, though he did fall to 56th in 2018. Still, he might be the top #3 cornerback in the NFL.

Jackson, meanwhile, finished 28th among cornerbacks last season as a rookie and made all 16 starts. He got off to a slow start, but got a lot better down the stretch. Considering he was thought of as very raw coming out of college, the fact that he was able to play so well down the stretch as a rookie is a good sign for his future. Only in his age 23 season, it’ll probably take him another 2-3 years to reach his potential and he’s still inexperienced, but he could easily continue improving in his second season in the league. He’s likely the favorite to start opposite Butler.

The Titans also made a significant addition at safety last off-season, signing ex-Jaguar John Cyprien to a deal worth 25 million over 4 years, but he struggled in his first season in Tennessee, finishing 83rd among 89 eligible safeties on PFF. That be shouldn’t a huge surprise, as Cyprien also struggled in his first 3 seasons in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Cyprien had a breakout year in his contract year in 2016, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but he also finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including bottom top-5 seasons in 2013 and 2015.

An injury may be part of the reason behind his struggles in 2017, as he went down with a knee injury week 1, missed the next 6 games, and struggled for the remainder of the season. Only going into his age 28 season, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was for the Jaguars in 2016. He’ll start again for lack of a better option, but will probably need to improve to keep his job past this season, as he’s owed 6 million non-guaranteed in 2019.

Cyprien did not pan out, but the Titans did get a breakout year from 2nd year safety Kevin Byard. A 2016 3rd round pick, Byard flashed on 655 snaps as a rookie, but took his game to a whole new level in 2017, playing all but 5 snaps, ranking 3rd among safeties on PFF, and intercepting a league leading 8 passes. He might not be quite as good again in 2018, but, then again, he’s going into his age 25 season and could keep developing into consistently one of the top safeties in the league if he stays healthy. With the addition of Malcolm Butler in free agency, this secondary is much improved. Cyprien is their one weakness, but they have a trio of starting caliber cornerbacks and a stud safety.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Titans are more talented and should be better coached than they were a year ago. On paper, they are one of the better teams in the AFC, as the AFC is easily the weaker of the two conferences. Their schedule and their division should be harder, especially with both Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson returning from injury, and they’ll likely have more injuries of their own, but this team should be very much in the running for the division title.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Colts have had great quarterback play. They had Peyton Manning as the starter for 13 straight seasons and then when he missed a year with injury they got the #1 pick in the draft with the clearest #1 choice since Manning and drafted his replacement in Andrew Luck. Luck has not been as good as Manning, but, much like Manning towards the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, Luck has been able to mask a lot of problems on this roster. He even brought them to the post-season in his first 3 seasons, although that was largely because they had a 18-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and went 16-2 against a division that was the worst in football back then.

When Luck missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury, the Colts bottomed out, much like they did when Manning was out. The Colts won 4 games, but those wins came against the Brian Hoyer led 49ers, the Tom Savage led Texans (twice), and the Deshone Kizer led Browns and none of those wins came by double digits. The Colts ranked 30th in point differential at -141 and were even worse than that suggests, as they did that despite having a +5 turnover margin. They lost a league high 5 games in which they won the turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, so the Colts won’t be able to rely on that again in 2018, and, outside of their turnover margin, they were arguably the worst team in the league last season. They finished dead last in first down rate differential at -6.01%, despite a relatively easy schedule.

Offensively, they finished 31st in the NFL in first down rate. Backup Jacoby Brissett was obviously not great, but he wasn’t bad all things considered and he was far from the only problem. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. The bigger problem was their lack of supporting cast, which has been an issue for years. It’s usually been masked by strong quarterback play, but the Colts have drafted a total of just 3 Pro-Bowlers since 2007. One of them was Luck, which was a no brainer pick. Another was punter Pat McAfee. And the third is TY Hilton, a 3rd round pick in 2012. In 11 years, they’ve drafted just one position player who exceeded his draft slot and made a Pro Bowl.

Given the players around him, Brissett had little chance. He completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries (4.13 YPC). His worst attribute was that he held the football too long and took too many sacks. He averaged 2.68 seconds from snap to throw, 5th slowest in the NFL. The Colts had offensive line problems, but Brissett didn’t help matters, taking a sack on 23.1% of his pressured drop backs, 3rd highest in the NFL. The Colts led the NFL with 56 sacks allowed, which stalled many drives.

Brissett’s interception rate of 1.49% is impressive and was arguably the biggest reason for their positive turnover margin, but interception rates tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and it’s unlikely that Brissett would have continued what would have been the lowest interception rate of all-time for much longer. Luck is also unlikely to have an interception rate that low, as he’s thrown interceptions on 2.57% of his career passes.

Luck is also a major question mark after missing all of last season with a throwing shoulder injury. Luck originally suffered the injury in 2015, opted not to have surgery, played through it in 2016, and then had surgery on it in January 2017 in hopes of returning for training camp. Instead, Luck did not return at all in 2017 and did not even start throwing a football again until this summer, more than 500 days after the initial surgery. He’s expected to return week 1 and he’s definitely doing better this off-season than last off-season, but he’s considered questionable for training camp and nothing can be taken for granted with him.

Prior to the injury, Luck finished 14th, 8th, and 3rd on PFF among quarterbacks in his last 3 healthy seasons respectively (2013, 2014, and 2016). Despite a weak supporting cast, he’s completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 132 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions in his career and has added 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 286 carries (5.04 YPC). He’s still only going into his age 29 season and the Colts will obviously be hoping he returns to form, but that’s far from a guarantee at this point.

The Colts were confident enough in him long-term to eschew drafting a quarterback at the top of what was one of the strongest quarterback classes in years. Rather than staying at 3 and taking a quarterback, they traded down to 6 with the Jets, who drafted USC quarterback Sam Darnold, and picked up a trio of second round picks in the process. They received picks 37 and 49 in 2018 and another second round pick in 2019, much needed for a team with holes across the depth chart. Even if Luck returns to form, they’ll need their supporting cast to be better for the Colts to contend for a playoff spot in an improved division.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

After trading down, the Colts used the 6th pick on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson was arguably the top player in the draft and would not have been a bad pick at 3, but fell out of the top-5 because of his position. At the very least, he’s probably the safest and most NFL ready pick in the draft. He’ll plug in as an immediate starter at a major position of need and could be one of the better guards in the league in a few years. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Jeremy Vujnovich, who started 16 games at left guard last season and ranked dead last out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus.

The Colts also used one of their 2nd round picks on Auburn’s Braden Smith, who can play offensive tackle, but most project to guard because he has just 32 1/4 inch arms at 6-6 315. He’s unlikely to start at guard as a rookie though, with Jack Mewhort returning from injury. Mewhort has missed 17 games with knee injuries in the past 2 seasons, so they need good insurance for him, but he’s been great for them when healthy and will be given another shot in 2018, in only his age 27 season.

Prior to the injuries, he finished 14th among guards in 2015 and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league. The Colts re-signed the 2014 2nd round pick to a one-year deal worth just 1.5 million this off-season, an absolute steal given Mewhort’s age and upside. Smith, meanwhile, could play right tackle. Mewhort also has experience at right tackle and could also move out there at some point, though he’s been a lot better at guard.

Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, and Le’Raven Clark all made starts at right tackle last season, but all three struggled. The Colts also added veteran right tackle Austin Howard and he has a good shot to earn the starting job. He has 88 starts in the past 6 seasons and signed a one-year deal that pays him low end starters money at 3.75 million this off-season, after spending 2017 with the Ravens. Howard has been inconsistent in his career and he’s going into his age 31 season, but he was about a league average starter in Baltimore last season and could give the Colts much needed veteran stability at right tackle.

Along with Jack Mewhort, the Colts also get center Ryan Kelly back from injury, after he was limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. A first round selection in 2016, Kelly was seen as one of the safer picks in the draft, but he was underwhelming in 16 starts as a rookie and struggled through injuries in 2017, finishing 28th among 38 eligible centers on PFF. Kelly could be much better in his 3rd season in the league if he’s healthy, but his career has gotten off to a disappointing start and he’s no guarantee to ever improve.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2018. A first round selection in 2011, Castonzo has made 105 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has been one of their few good high draft picks. He’s never made a Pro Bowl, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could have easily made at least a couple Pro Bowls. He finished a career best 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017, but he also finished 16th in 2016 and 9th in 2014. His age is becoming a minor concern in his age 30 season in 2018, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and he’s rarely had major injuries, playing all 16 games in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He should remain a good blindside protector in 2018 and the rest of the offensive line should be much improved as well, with Kelly and Mewhort returning and Nelson, Howard, and Smith added to the mix.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

An improved offensive line should be good for Luck, especially returning from a major injury, but the Colts don’t have a ton of skill position talent around Luck, especially at running back. The Colts ranked just 28th in the NFL in yards per carry in 2017 with 3.68, led by lead back Frank Gore, who averaged 3.68 yards per carry on 261 carries. Gore was better than that suggests though, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and ranking 23rd with a carry success rate of 44%, pretty good considering the lack of talent around him on offense. Gore left as a free agent this off-season though and the Colts did not do much to replace him, only using 4th and 5th round picks on North Carolina State’s Nyheim Hines and Mississippi’s Jordan Wilkins.

Second year running back Marlon Mack is likely to be the lead back, but he was pretty underwhelming as a rookie. The 2017 4th round pick averaged just 3.85 yards per carry despite having 7 of his 93 carries go for 15+ yards. He had 45.8% of his 358 yards on those 7 carries and averaged just 2.26 yards per carry on his other 86 carries, consistently getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. He flashed as a receiver, with a 21/225/1 slash line on 33 targets on 169 routes run, but he allowed 3 sacks as a pass protector and needs to improve his blocking technique. He has some upside, but he’s a weak starting option.

Hines, meanwhile, is an 5-8 198 scatback who reminds of Tarik Cohen, while Wilkins was a late round prospect who doesn’t have a huge upside. Hines will probably be limited to change of pace/passing down work, while Wilkins does not project as a lead back in the NFL. The Colts also have veteran Robert Turbin, but he’s been suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and has averaged just 3.83 yards per carry and 4.44 carries per game in 6 seasons in the league. He’s a capable passing down back and is probably their pass protector, but his career high is 80 carries in a season and he’s unlikely to surpass that in 2018, even in a wide open backfield like this. The Colts arguably have the weakest running back group in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

The one key skill position player they have is #1 receiver TY Hilton. Hilton did not have good chemistry with Jacoby Brissett and also was not as good himself, possibly not giving as much effort on a last place team. After averaging a 81/1250/6 slash line in 4 seasons as a starter from 2013-2016 and finishing in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, Hilton had just a 57/966/5 slash line in 2017, finishing under 1000 yards since his rookie season in 2012, and was about a league average receiver on PFF.

Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Hilton has obvious bounce back potential if Luck can return to form. In 2016, he and Luck connected for 91 catches for 1448 yards and 6 touchdowns and he was PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver, the highest he’s ranked in his career. He’ll face plenty of double teams with the Colts lacking other good options at wide receiver, but he should be Luck’s go to receiver and could be one of the league’s leaders in targets.

Donte Moncrief and Kamar Aiken were their #2 and #3 receiver last season in terms of snaps with 614 and 587 respectively, but neither is with the team anymore. Neither played well, but they didn’t really do much to replace them. Chester Rogers has been their #4 receiver the past 2 seasons and the 2016 undrafted free agent has not been great, struggling on 447 snaps as a rookie and 429 snaps last season, but, for lack of a better option, he’ll compete with free agent acquisition Ryan Grant for the week 1 starting job opposite Hilton, with the loser of that battle likely playing as the 3rd receiver.

Grant originally signed with the Ravens on a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal, but the deal did not go through because the Ravens failed him on his physical. That will likely prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Ravens, as that contract would have guaranteed him 14.5 million over the next 2 seasons. Instead, he gets 5 million on a one-year deal from the Colts and he may not even be worth that. After being drafted by the Redskins in the 5th round in 2014, Grant was only a depth receiver until last season, when he played a career high 613 snaps, but he posted an underwhelming 45/573/4 slash line and has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 4 seasons in the league. He was a desperation signing for a team with a thin receiving corps and money to spend.

With several high picks, I expected the Colts to draft a wide receiver early, but instead they only used 5th and 6th round picks, taking Northern Iowa’s Daurice Fountain and Clemson’s Deon Cain. Cain has had a strong off-season, but it’s too early to tell if that will translate to the field. It’s possible neither would be an upgrade as rookie if they saw action. Fellow rookie Nyheim Hines is also an option as a receiver because he’s a good pass catcher and has the versatility to move around the formation.The Colts could also pursue Dez Bryant or another veteran receiver on the free agent market to help one of the thinnest wide receiver groups in the NFL.

The Colts did add talent at tight end, signing ex-Lion Eric Ebron to a 2-year deal worth 13 million. Incumbent starter Jack Doyle remains, so the Colts could run a lot more two tight end sets this season to offset their lack of depth at tight end. Doyle had an impressive 80/690/4 slash line in 2017, despite the quarterback situation, but that was largely because he received 107 targets and played 910 snaps (3rd most among tight ends). In 2016, he played 748 snaps and had a 59/584/5 slash line on 75 targets in his first season as a starter. He’ll play significantly fewer snaps in 2018 with Ebron coming in, so his 2016 numbers are probably a more reasonable expectation. The 6-6 262 pounder is not that explosive and averages just 8.52 yards per catch in his career, but he’s good at finding soft spots in the underneath coverage, he has reliable hands, and he’s a good blocker.

Ebron, meanwhile, is an athletic freak that ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine and went 10th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he did not pan out in 4 seasons with the Lions and they released him ahead of his 5th year option for 2018, which would have paid him 8.25 million. Ebron was considered a matchup nightmare coming out of college and has showed flashes of it, but he’s averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line thus far in his career, topping out at a 61/711/1 slash line in 2016, and he never developed as a blocker either. Still only 25, the Colts are taking a flyer on him and hoping he can put it all together, but he hasn’t been the most reliable player thus far in his career. In a thin receiving corps, Doyle and Ebron could easily be 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Colts were not quite as bad defensively as they were offensively in 2017, finishing 22nd in first down rate allowed at 35.28%. Their defensive line was actually pretty good, particularly against the run (3.95 YPC allowed, 8th in the NFL), but they are transitioning from a bigger 3-4 defense to a more athletic 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, whose recent experience was with a Tampa 2 defense in Dallas with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, and they are making major changes on the defensive line as a result. Johnathan Hankins, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, and Henry Anderson all excelled against the run on 686 snaps, 576 snaps, 563 snaps, and 380 snaps respectively last season, but Hankins was let go, owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, while Anderson was traded to the Jets for a late round pick ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Woods and Hunt, meanwhile, are poor fits for the new scheme. Woods is a 6-4 330 pounder who has never earned a positive pass rush grade in 8 seasons in the league and is unlikely to improve, while Hunt is a bit of a tweener in a 4-3 system at 6-8 298 and earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in a 4-3 defense with the Bengals prior to arriving in Indianapolis last off-season. Both are also going into their age 31 season, so they’re highly unlikely to repeat the best seasons of their careers in a new system.They’ll likely be limited to base package snaps at defensive tackle and defensive end respectively, assuming they make the final roster, each owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed.

In sub packages, expect the Colts to regularly use 3 and 4 defensive ends at the same time, lining up a defensive end or two inside. Defensive end is where they have the most depth and they have a few defensive ends with the size to line up inside in passing situations. Margus Hunt is one option, even though he’s never been much of a pass rusher, and the Colts also have the 6-3 265 pound Jabaal Sheard and 6-3 269 pound Tyquan Lewis, who both have experience rushing the passer from the inside.

Sheard figures to lead this line in snaps, after finishing 3th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 900 snaps in 2017. He had just 5.5 sacks, but added 8 hits and 54 hurries and was a great run stuffer. A versatile player who has proven himself in multiple systems in his career, Sheard has earned positive grades from PFF in 6 of the past 7 seasons, including 5 straight seasons. His best seasons came in 2017 and in 2015, when he was PFF’s 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end as a hybrid defensive lineman with the Patriots. He figures to have a similar role in Indianapolis’ new 4-3 defense. Lewis should have a similar role too, but the 2nd round rookie probably won’t play a ton of snaps in his first season.

The Colts also selected Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round, another defensive end. He’s smaller than Lewis at 6-5 253 and is more of an edge rusher, but he should at least have an immediate role in sub packages on a reworked defensive line. The Colts also have last year’s 3rd round pick Tarell Basham, a 6-4 266 pounder who played 220 snaps as a rookie. He struggled against the run, but flashed as a pass rusher and is a better fit in their new 4-3 defense than their old 3-4. He should have a larger role in his 2nd season in the league.

The Colts also have John Simon, who has 11.5 sacks and 20 hits as a rotational 3-4 outside linebacker over the past 3 seasons, but he is not a great fit for their new scheme at 6-1 260. He’s currently penciled in as the third outside linebacker in base packages and may see some rotational snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, but he’s also not considered a roster lock at a 3.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. His fit in the scheme is a concern, but he’s earned a positive run stopping grade in each of his first 4 seasons in the league on PFF and the Colts don’t need the cap space, so keeping him makes sense.

At defensive tackle, the Colts added ex-Raider Denico Autry on a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Autry is undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-5 270, struggles against the run, and was probably an overpay, but he perfectly fits what this new coaching staff is looking for out of a defensive lineman. He’ll likely have a significant role as a sub package interior pass rusher. In 3 seasons as a heavy rotational player in Oakland, he totaled 10.5 sacks and 11 hits and he earned a positive pass rush grade from PFF in 2 of 3 seasons.

The Colts also have 2016 4th round pick Hassan Ridgeway and 2017 4th round pick Grover Stewart, but Ridgeway has played just 617 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Stewart is purely a base package player at 6-4 333 and is not an ideal fit in this new scheme. The Colts have a lot of rotational options, but lack impact players on this defensive line outside of Sheard. This is line is unlikely to play as well as they did last season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Colts also will look different in the linebacking corps this season. Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison started 14 games and 15 games respectively for this team in 2017, but the former signed with the Steelers this off-season, while the latter finished 51st among 52 middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and is not a lock to remain a starter. Bostic was a solid run stuffer, but struggled in coverage. His likely replacement is 2nd round rookie Darius Leonard, an athletic 6-2 234 pounder who is basically the opposite of Bostic. He comes from a small school (South Carolina State) and is a bit undersized, but he’s a perfect fit as a sideline to sideline linebacker in this defense. He’ll fill the Sean Lee role in this linebacking corps, though he’s obviously not as proven.

The other every down linebacker job is up for grabs. Morrison could remain the starter, for lack of a better option, but he’ll face competition from 2017 5th round pick Anthony Walker. He played just 117 snaps as a rookie, but is their best internal competition for Morrison. Morrison was a 4th round pick in 2016, so both he and Walker have some upside, but the other middle linebacker spot should remain a position of weakness in 2018. Leonard will need to step up big time as a rookie.

The Colts may mix safety Clayton Geathers in as a linebacker in sub packages, as the 6-2 220 pounder has experience in that role and could be a good fit in this new defense, but he has yet to practice this off-season and was limited to 112 snaps in 5 games by a neck injury in 2017. He earned a positive grade on 558 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, after going in the 4th round in 2015, but his neck injury threatens to derail his development. Consider him out indefinitely.

As mentioned, John Simon will be the 3rd linebacker unless he’s let go. He’s an odd fit for the scheme and will only play about half the snaps as a linebacker, either coming off the field or moving to the defensive line in sub packages when a 5th defensive back enters. He won’t elevate this linebacking corps much. With a 2nd round rookie as their top linebacker, the Colts have serious issues at linebacker. They completely lack proven starting 4-3 linebackers and are hoping for young players to step up.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Part of the reason they could use Geathers at linebacker is that they’re actually pretty deep at safety. Even if healthy, Geathers might not be any higher than their 4th safety on the depth chart. The Colts used a 1st round pick on Malik Hooker in 2017 and a 2nd round pick on TJ Green in 2016, but 2016 undrafted free agent Matthias Farley led this team in snaps by a safety with 927. Despite only playing 67 snaps as a rookie, Farley actually played pretty well in a mini breakout season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Hooker is expected to be back for week 1 if not sooner, after tearing his ACL last October, but Farley is likely to remain a starter. He might not be quite as good and last season could prove to be a fluke for a player who was not highly thought of coming into the league, but he could also remain a capable starter.

His biggest competition will be TJ Green. Green was a relatively high pick, but has been a disappointment thus far in his career. He finished dead last among 90 eligible safeties on 477 snaps as a rookie and was limited to 381 underwhelming snaps last season, even with Hooker going down with injury. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has upside, but thus far he’s been a massive bust. Hooker, on the other hand, was having a solid rookie year before the injury. Just 22 years old, Hooker still has a huge upside, but the injury could set his development back a little bit. If he’s on the field, he should be a capable starter at least, but it could take a couple years for him to reach his potential.

Their safeties are not bad, but they have arguably the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. Cornerback was a problem last season and they lost Rashaan Melvin, PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback last season, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency. Despite that, they did basically nothing to address the position this off-season, aside from adding some undrafted free agents. Instead, they’ll go into 2018 with a trio of 2nd year cornerbacks, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, and Kenny Moore, and journeyman Pierre Desir atop the depth chart.

Wilson has the most upside, after flashing on 402 snaps as a rookie, but he’s not somewhat you want as your de facto #1 cornerback. Hairston, meanwhile, went in the 5th round and struggled on 537 snaps as a rookie, while Moore played 382 nondescript snaps as an undrafted rookie. Neither profiles as a long-term starter. Desir does not either, already on his 4th team in 4 seasons in the league since the Browns drafted him in 2014. He’s never played more than 399 snaps in a season and would be a desperation play in a larger role than that in 2018. They have arguably the thinnest cornerback group in the NFL, which brings this whole secondary down significantly.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Colts should get Andrew Luck back from injury this season, but they have arguably the worst supporting league in the league. They’ve improved their offensive line, but they lack depth at wide receiver and running back and their defense could be the worst in the league, as they transition to a completely new defensive scheme. Johnathan Hankins and Rashaan Melvin were arguably two of their top-3 defensive players last season, but neither are with the team anymore, while players like Al Woods and Margus Hunt are coming off of career years that they likely won’t repeat and do not fit the new scheme. The Colts have the lowest active spending on their roster and it shows. It’ll take a career year from Andrew Luck to get them back into the post-season and I don’t see that happening.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Houston Texans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014-2016, the Houston Texans started 8 different quarterbacks, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Despite that underwhelming quarterback carousel, the Texans went 9-7 in all 3 seasons, winning the division twice, and even winning a playoff game over the Connor Cook led Oakland Raiders during the 2016 season. Part of that was their lack of competition, especially in the weak AFC South and in that playoff win over the Raiders, but their defense carried them as well. Combined with their defense, it looked like if they could ever solve the quarterback position they’d be a Super Bowl contender.

With that idea in mind, the Texans were aggressive in upgrading the quarterback position last off-season. Incumbent starter Brock Osweiler had a 16 million dollar guaranteed salary, as a result of the Texans previous aggressive impact to upgrade the quarterback position, but Osweiler was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL in 2016. Rather than giving him another shot in 2018, the Texans traded a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Browns for a 2017 4th round pick in a pure salary dump of Osweiler’s contract. They then packaged together the 25th pick in the 2017 NFL draft and their 2018 1st round pick in another trade with the Browns to move up and grab Deshaun Watson with the 12th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

It was a risky move because it left them without a first or second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but it worked, at least for a while. Despite being considered raw coming into the league, Watson took over as the starter after Tom Savage was benched midway through their week 1 blowout loss to the Jaguars and completed 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground on 36 carries (7.47 YPC), in about 6 and a half games. The Texans moved the chains at a 39.15% rate in Watson’s 6 starts, which would have been 2nd best in the NFL over 16 games, but then he tore his ACL during practice and missed the final 9 games of the season with injury.

Not only was the Watson injury a major setback in his development, but the Texans went just 1-8 the rest of the way and finished at 4-12, so those draft picks sent to the Browns turned out to be 4th and 35th, so now those trade don’t look as good as they did mid-season. Tom Savage took over as the starter after Watson went down and he completed just 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.33 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on the season.

Savage went down with injury late in the season as well, so 3rd string quarterback TJ Yates entered the lineup and he was even worse, completing just 48.5% of his passes for an average of 5.39 YPA, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. In 10 games where Watson did not start, the Texans moved the chains at a 30.74% rate, which would have been 27th in the NFL over 16 games, a significant drop off from their play with Watson in the lineup.

Watson is expected to be back for week 1 and could easily continue developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the same immediately. Robert Griffin III is an example of the worst case scenario of what can happen to a mobile quarterback after a rookie year ACL tear, but, even if Watson’s recovery isn’t the worst case scenario, he still might not be the same quarterback immediately, given how important mobility is to his game.

Watson averaged 7.47 yards per carry as a rookie, but he did not look to run until he had no other options. Instead, he used his athleticism to buy himself extra time so his receivers could get open downfield. He held the ball longer than any quarterback, averaging 2.91 seconds from snap to attempt, and faced pressure on 47.7% of his dropbacks, but he took a sack on just 16.5% of those pressured dropbacks and led the NFL in both average depth of targets (11.2 yards) and in percent of targets beyond 20 yards (19.6%). Watson got into some trouble on deep throws, throwing 4 of his 8 interceptions on his 40 targets of 20+ yards, but he also completed 18 passes for 559 yards and 7 touchdowns on targets of 20+ yards. If he isn’t able to maneuver the pocket or throw on the run as easily after the injury, it could be a big problem for him.

The Texans seem confident in his ability to bounce back, only signing veteran Brandon Weeden to be his backup. A journeyman who has been on 4 teams in 6 seasons in the league, Weeden has completed 57.9% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions in his career and hasn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2015, in his first stint with the Texans. The Texans would be in big trouble if Watson were to get hurt again, but, even if he stays on the field all season, he might not be 100% in his first season back from the injury, especially given how reliant he is on his mobility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Watson’s play especially took off when starting wide receiver Will Fuller returned after missing the first 3 games of the season recovering from an off-season broken collarbone. Watson and Fuller only played together for 4 games, but they connected for 13 catches for 279 yards and 7 touchdowns and the Texans moved the chains at a 43.07% rate in those 4 games, which easily would have been the best in the NFL over 16 games. Fuller is a great deep threat, so it makes sense he and Watson would have good chemistry.

Fuller wasn’t nearly as good the rest of the season, catching 15 passes for 144 yards and no touchdowns in 6 games without Watson and missing another 3 games with injury, so he finished with just a 28/423/7 slash line in 10 games. The 2016 1st round pick also missed 2 games with injury as a rookie and had an underwhelming 47/635/2 slash line in 14 games. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and could easily have a breakout season in 2018 if both he and Watson can stay healthy all season. He probably won’t average 21.5 yards per catch or have a 53.8% touchdown rate like he did in 4 games with Watson last season, but he could still easily push for 1000 yards if he and Watson play all 16 games.

Top receiver DeAndre Hopkins also put up big numbers with Deshaun Watson, but he put up big numbers regardless of who was under center. In 6 games started by Watson, he caught 38 passes for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns and then he caught another 58 passes for 827 yards and 7 touchdowns in 9 games started by other quarterbacks. Down the stretch, almost the entire Texans’ passing offense was chucking it downfield and hoping Hopkins could make a play, despite frequent double and triple teams. From week 14-16, he had 64.1% of the Texans’ receiving yardage in a 3 game span, before missing week 17 with an injury.

Despite playing just 15 games, he caught 96 passes (6th in the NFL) for 1,376 yards (4th) and 13 touchdowns (1st) and he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver. Over the past 4 seasons, DeAndre Hopkins has 361 catches (7th in the NFL over the past 4 seasons) for 5,064 yards (3rd) and 34 touchdowns (3rd), despite having consistently terrible quarterback play. A 2013 first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, Hopkins should post monster numbers again in 2018 with a healthy Deshaun Watson.

Watson wasn’t just helped by having DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller making plays. This entire receiving corps dropped just 2 passes on 204 attempts with Watson under center, a drop rate of just 0.98%, easily the lowest among quarterbacks last season. The league average drop rate was 5.28%, so Watson’s completion percentage was bumped up a few percentage points simply because his receivers almost always held on to the ball. With a league average drop rate, he would have had about 11 drops and those extra 9 drops would have translated to about 121 lost passing yards, about 0.6 yards per attempt.

That drop rate seems like a fluke that is unlikely to continue though. Houston receivers dropped 20 passes thrown by their other quarterbacks on 321 attempts (6.23%) and this receiving corps lacks reliable options after Hopkins and Fuller. Watson only completed 61.8% of his passes last season and, between what should be a higher drop rate and possible rustiness after the injury, he could easily be under 60% in 2018. I don’t expect him to average over 8 yards per attempt again either, unless he returns 100% to form and a capable 3rd receiver steps up in the passing game.

Tight end CJ Fiedorowicz was supposed to be the 3rd guy in the passing game last season, as the 2014 3rd round pick had a 54/559/4 slash line in 2016 with Brock Osweiler. The Texans gave him a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar extension last off-season, but he was limited to just 229 snaps in 5 games by concussions in 2017 and opted to retire this off-season rather than risk further injury. In his absence, the Texans did not have another pass catcher behind Hopkins and Fuller that topped 350 yards. Part of that was quarterback related, but they definitely lack other proven weapons. Hopkins and Fuller were their only wide receiver/tight ends to earn a positive pass catching grade from PFF last season.

With Fuller in and out of the lineup, Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller played 590 snaps and 426 snaps respectively at wide receiver last season, but they managed slash lines of just 29/330/2 and 19/162/1 respectively. Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick who missed 22 games in his first 3 seasons in the league before underwhelming in the first significant action of his career last season. Miller, meanwhile, is a 2016 3rd round pick and converted quarterback who has struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league. He’s averaged just 4.58 yards per target on 57 targets and 0.55 yards per route run on 473 routes. Both Miller and Ellington could be pushed for their role by 4th round rookie Keke Coutee, a speedster who is having a strong off-season and is a natural fit with Deshaun Watson. Coutee is likely to be inconsistent as a rookie and he is undersized at 5-10 181, but he may prove to be their best option as the #3 receiver, given the alternatives.

In addition to Fiedorowicz missing 11 games with injury, the Texans were also without fellow veteran tight end Ryan Griffin for 9 games. Griffin struggled in his first significant passing game role in 2016, averaging 5.89 yards per target, and has not topped 20 catches in a season in any of his other 4 seasons, but the 6-6 255 pounder is a capable blocker. Fortunately, Griffin and Fiedorowicz missed action at different times for the most part, so they had at least one of them able to provide a blocking complement to passing down tight end Stephen Anderson for most of the season, but both Fiedorowicz and Griffin were out for weeks 14-17 and the Texans had to resort to using backup offensive linemen as blocking tight ends, including 6-5 310 pound backup center Kyle Fuller, who played 27 snaps at tight end week 17.

Anderson is a 6-2 230 pound converted wide receiver who ran routes on 318 of his 435 snaps, with 184 of them either coming on the slot (165) or out wide (19). Despite that, he managed just a 25/342/1 slash line and he can’t block either. A 2016 undrafted free agent who struggled the first significant action of his career in 2017, Anderson is unlikely to ever develop into much more than a situational player. Griffin should be healthier in 2018 and the Texans also added tight ends in the 3rd and 6th rounds of the draft, taking Central Florida’s Jordan Akins and Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas, but both are considered raw and might not be much help as rookies. The Texans didn’t run a lot of two-tight end sets last season and that is likely to be the case again in 2018. Hopkins and Fuller figure to get the majority of the targets in a thin receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier that Watson was pressured on a high percentage of his dropbacks (47.7%) in part due to how long he held the ball trying to set up plays downfield, but the offensive line was a big part of the problem too. They didn’t have a single offensive lineman earn a positive grade all season and Tom Savage was pressured on almost as many of his dropbacks (46.7%), despite getting the ball out almost a half second quicker (2.51 seconds from snap to attempt). On the season, they had the 2nd most sacks allowed with 54.

Basically starting from scratch up front this off-season, the Texans signed 3 free agent offensive linemen, signing Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Seantrel Henderson to contracts worth 28 million over 4 years, 12 million over 3 years, and 4 million over 1 year respectively, and they also used a 3rd round selection on Mississippi State’s Martinas Rankin. None of those players are left tackles though, so the Texans are expected to start 2nd year lineman Julie’n Davenport on the blindside.

Davenport was one of 5 players to start on the blindside last season and struggled on 238 snaps in 4 starts, but the Texans like the 2017 4th round pick’s upside and lack a better option. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league and it would be hard for him to be a downgrade over what they had at left tackle last season, but the Texans go into the season with arguably the shakiest left tackle situation in the NFL.

Breno Giacomini and Xavier Su’a-Filo led this offensive line in snaps last season, with 1095 and 1075 respectively, as both made all 16 starts at right tackle and left guard respectively, but both were horrendous, finishing dead last out of 83 eligible offensive tackles and 79th out of 80 eligible guards respectively. Both are no longer with the team, but the Texans do bring back Nick Martin (971 snaps), Jeff Allen (728 snaps), and Greg Mancz (560 snaps), who also struggled mightily last season. They’ll compete for roles with the newcomers.

Martin started 14 games at center last season and went in the 2nd round in 2016, but he missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury and then finished 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season as the starter. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league and the Texans will probably give him another shot as the starter, but Zach Fulton can also play center, as can Greg Mancz, who actually finished 9th among centers on PFF in the first 16 starts of his career in Martin’s absence in 2016, before struggling when he moved to guard in 2017, finishing 56th out of 80 eligible. Mancz went undrafted in 2015 and is a below average athlete, so his 2016 season could prove to be a fluke, but it would be a good idea for them to move him back to center, even as just a reserve.

Fulton and Kelemete are most likely to open the season as the starting guards. Fulton was their biggest free agent offensive line signing, as the ex-Chief cost them 7 million annually. The 2014 6th round pick struggled in 16 starts as a rookie, finishing 69th out of 78 eligible guards on PFF, but he’s made 30 starts since then and has been about an average starter in all 3 seasons. He’s played both guard spots, but also has 8 career starts at center and is an option to move inside.

Kelemete can also play multiple positions and is a candidate to move outside to right tackle, although his frame and arm length (6-3 303, 33 1/2 inch arms) suggests he’s better suited at guard. He’s made 22 starts in the past 3 seasons, 5 at right guard, 16 at left guard, and 1 at left tackle, but he’s earned negative grades in all 3 seasons and has never been a full-time starter, so he’s a projection to a larger role. His contract (4 million annually) suggests he’ll start, but that’s largely for lack of a better option.

Jeff Allen is also an option at guard, especially if either Kelemete or Fulton move to another position. Allen signed with the Texans on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but has been a massive bust in 2 seasons in Houston, finishing well below average in both seasons. Allen was PFF’s 19th ranked guard in his contract year in 2015, but he struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013, after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft, and then barely played in his third season in the league in 2014. Even in his one strong season in 2015, he made just 8 starts. He has the versatility to play both guard and tackle and could also be an option at right tackle, but he’s not a capable starter anywhere and he’ll likely be let go if he can’t lock down a starting job somewhere, owed 6.25 million non-guaranteed.

Henderson and Rankin are the primary candidates at right tackle. Henderson’s salary (4 million) suggests he’ll get a real shot at the job, but he’s played just 78 snaps in the past 2 seasons due to health problems and was not a good starter prior to the last 2 seasons, as the 2014 undrafted free agent finished 79th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie in 16 starts and then 56th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 in 10 starts. Rankin should be able to push him for the job at some point, but is expected to miss at least the start of training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of winning the week 1 job, and some think he’ll have to move to guard long-term because of his lack of size and length (6-4 308, 33 3/4 inch arms).

Between Davenport, Fulton, Martin, Mancz, Kelemete, Allen, Henderson, and Rankin, the Texans have 8 offensive linemen competing for 5 spots upfront. They are probably more talented upfront than they were last season, but largely by default, as this was not a good off-season to need offensive line help, particularly offensive tackle help. Watson has plenty of talent, but he’s coming off of a major injury, will be under pressure regularly, and lacks depth in the receiving corps. He’ll make plenty of big plays downfield, but also figures to be pretty inaccurate and make some blunders as well. I don’t expect things to go as smoothly for this offense as it did in Watson’s 6 starts last season.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The offensive line also caused problems in the running game. Despite having a mobile quarterback under center for half the season and a pair a capable running backs, the Texans were a middle of the road rushing team in 2017, ranking 16th in the NFL with a 4.11 YPC average. Lead back Lamar Miller only averaged 3.73 yards per carry on 238 carries, but he still earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. He picked up 2.45 yards per carry after contact and had an above average carry success rate (45%). He didn’t have a carry longer than 21 yards and only broke 21 tackles on 238 carries, but he’s a consistently solid lead back.

Originally a 4th round pick by the Dolphins in 2012, Miller has averaged 219 carries per season in the past 5 seasons, 3 with the Dolphins and the last 2 with the Texans, and he has averaged 4.25 yards per carry and 26 touchdowns per season. He’s not a great pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 35.6 catches per season, including 36 last season, and has earned a positive overall grade on PFF in all 5 seasons. Still only in his age 27 season, Miller has only missed 5 games with injury in his career and should continue running well for at least another couple seasons.

The Texans added Dont’a Foreman in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft as insurance and he saw a significant role as the #2 running back as a rookie, but he tore his achilles in November, ending his season after 10 games. He averaged 7.8 carries per game in those 10 games, which would be 125 carries over the course of the season, and he averaged 4.19 yards per carry on those carries, but the injury is obviously a major complication in his development. He might miss the entire off-season and is questionable at best for week 1. Even if he returns for the start of the season, he could easily not be 100%.

Miller played 68.7% of the snaps in 16 games last season and will likely see a significant share of the snaps again. Not only is Foreman coming off the injury, but he doesn’t do much on passing downs and their only other experienced running back is 3rd string back Alfred Blue, a 2014 6th round pick who has averaged just 3.64 yards per carry on 523 carries in 4 seasons in the league and re-signed for the minimum this off-season. This is a solid running back group overall and they should have more room to run with Deshaun Watson back from injury, as defenses will have to focus on him.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the offense played in Watson’s 6 starts, the Texans went just 3-3, as their defense had key injuries. Right as Will Fuller returned and this offense took off, the Texans lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season in a week 5 loss to the Chiefs. The Texans only had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, but the Texans arguably had the most impactful injuries of any team in the league, with Watson, Watt, and Mercilus all going down for the season.

From week 5 on, they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.67% rate, which would have been 30th in the NFL over 16 games. Between that and their offensive struggles down the stretch, it’s a bit of a surprise they were even able to win one of their final 9 games, beating an equally banged up Arizona team week 11.The Texans finished 4-12 last season, but could easily be a lot better in 2018 if they have better health.

Watt was obviously the biggest defensive loss, as he’s a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. From 2012-2015, Watt was the most dominant player in the NFL. He finished #1 overall among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons as PFF’s highest graded overall player, and anchored one of the top defenses in the league. He had a total of 67 sacks and a ridiculous 139 quarterback hits in 4 seasons, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and also played well against the run. However, since the end of the 2015 season, he’s had a groin surgery, two back surgeries, and a knee surgery and he’s played a total of just 8 games.

In 2016, he struggled even before going down, as he returned too early from off-season back surgery, but he was on his way to another dominant season in 2017 before breaking his knee. He didn’t have a sack, but had 5 hits and 10 hurries on 125 pass rush snaps and was PFF’s 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end through 4 weeks. He should still be in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but it’s fair to question if he’ll ever be as dominant as he once was. That being said, even if he’s at 90% of his peak, he’s still one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and his return will have a big impact on this defense.

In his absence, nose tackle DJ Reader actually led this defensive line in snaps, despite only playing 58.4% of the snaps in 14 games. Reader played well, finishing 16th among defensive tackles. The 6-3 335 pounder is primarily a run stuffer, but he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher in limited action. He has 2 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 434 pass rush snaps in 2 seasons in the league. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Reader could play a larger role even with Watt coming back, as none of their other defensive linemen stood out in Watt’s absence.

Christian Covington was their only other defensive lineman who played well last season with Watt out and he played just 166 snaps in 7 games before going down for the season with a torn bicep. A 6th round pick in 2015, Covington earned negative grades on 170 snaps and 415 snaps respectively in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was a dominant run stuffer in limited action last season, finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stuffing grade despite the limited action. He’s inexperienced and a projection to a larger role, but he should be the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line, at least in base packages.

Second year lineman Carlos Watkins should also have a significant role as a rotational player, even he doesn’t start. Watkins only played 328 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season, but he wasn’t bad and could be better in his 2nd season in the league. On a defensive line that doesn’t have much pass rush outside of Watt, Watkins could play a lot of snaps in sub packages as an interior rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback as a rookie, but did have 12 hurries on 188 pass rush snaps. That would leave Joel Heath and Brandon Dunn, bottom of the roster talents, competing for a rotational role. Watt’s return upgrades this defensive line significantly and, while they lack a 2nd interior pass rusher opposite him, they should be a stout defensive line against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Whitney Mercilus is not as big of a name of Watt, but his injury was a big loss for this defense too. Prior to last season, he finished in the top-6 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, totaling 19.5 sacks and 20 hits. The 2012 1st round pick got off to a slow start to his career, getting negative grades from PFF in his first 3 seasons, but he finally delivered on his potential in 2015 and 2016. He played just 203 snaps last season before tearing his pectoral, but he should be able to bounce back in his age 28 season. Unlike Watt, who has a significant injury history, Mercilus missed just 2 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season.

In Mercilus’ absence, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney was actually 2nd among linebackers in pass rush snaps with 229. Of those 229 snaps, 99 came as a traditional edge rusher, with coverage linebacker Eddie Pleasant taking his spot inside, while the other 130 came as a middle linebacker. McKinney looks like an edge rusher at 6-4 260 and has had some issues in coverage in his career, but he struggled mightily as a pass rusher, totaling just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 12 hurries.

With Mercilus coming back, he’ll likely be used more traditionally as an every down middle linebacker, but should still blitz somewhat frequently. A 2015 2nd round pick, McKinney is still only in his age 26 season and has earned a positive grade against the run in all 3 seasons in the league, with his best season against the run coming last season, when he finished 5th among middle linebackers on PFF in run grade. He isn’t great in coverage, but he’s adequate enough to play every down. The Texans locked him up this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension this off-season that makes him the 4th highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL.

Zach Cunningham will also play every down inside. A 2nd round rookie in 2017, Cunningham finished as PFF’s 16th ranked middle linebacker on 812 snaps, despite beginning the season as a reserve behind McKinney and veteran Brian Cushing. Cushing was limited to 163 snaps in 5 games by injury, suspension, and poor performance, so Cunningham took his job and ran with it. With Cushing no longer on the team, Cunningham is locked in as an every down player and could develop into one of the better middle linebackers in the league.

Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney will also continue playing every down in this linebacking corps, after playing 895 snaps in 2017. The 1st overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney came into the league with a massive upside, but his career got off to a rough start because he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee injuries as a rookie. He bounced back though, finishing in the top-9 among 3-4 outside linebackers in the 3 seasons since and missing just 5 total games with injury.

Over the past two seasons, he’s played 85.2% of the snaps in 30 games and totaled 15.5 sacks and 25 hits, while playing well against the run. Last season was the best of his career, as he finished 5th at his position and played all 16 games. Still only going into his age 25 season, Clowney has gotten better in every season in the league and could easily continue getting better. He did have off-season knee surgery, which isn’t ideal, but it’s not expected to sideline him for training camp.

Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Clowney could push to be the highest paid defensive player in the league. He has the upside to be worth it, though he needs to get more disciplined after being penalized 22 times in the past 2 seasons and he needs to keep staying on the field. Already making 12.306 million on his 5th year option, Clowney would likely be franchise tagged if they can’t reach a long-term agreement with him ahead of free agency next off-season.

Brennan Scarlett will likely remain the top reserve outside linebacker, although he played just 302 snaps in 11 games last season even with Mercilus out. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, Scarlett also struggled as a rookie on 113 snaps. He could be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie Duke Ejiofor, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Depth is a problem in this linebacking corps, but they have a strong starting 4 of every down players, as long as everyone is healthy.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Texans also had major issues in their secondary. In fact, even with the injuries to Watt and Mercilus, the Texans’ secondary still might have been their worst defensive unit. The Texans clearly saw it as a weakness too, as they signed Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu to deals worth 34 million over 4 years and 7 million over 1 year respectively and then used a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s safety Justin Reid. Safeties Andre Hal and Marcus Gilchrist started 16 games and 13 games respectively last season and both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus, but Gilchrist signed with the Raiders this off-season while Hal is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with lymphoma this off-season.

Mathieu played both slot cornerback and safety with the Cardinals in his first 5 seasons in the league, but the Texans were planning on playing him every down at safety even before Hal’s diagnosis. At one point, Mathieu looked like he was going to be one of the best slot defensive backs in the league, but he tore his left ACL after finishing 2nd among cornerbacks in 13 games as a rookie in 2013 and then tore his right ACL after finishing 1st among cornerbacks in 14 games in 2015. Mathieu also missed 6 games with a shoulder injury in 2016 and 3 games while working back from the ACL tear in 2014.

He played all 16 games for the first time in 5 seasons in the league last season, but he was not nearly the same player as he was at his peak, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, which led to the Cardinals releasing him rather than paying him 11 million non-guaranteed. Still only his age 26 season, Mathieu has some bounce back potential and could benefit from mostly playing in just one spot, but he’s undersized at 5-9 185 and may be breaking down physically. It’s unclear if he’ll ever be the same player he was in 2013 and 2015 again, but he should still be a solid starter at the very least for the Texans as long as he can stay on the field.

With Mathieu playing safety every down, fellow free agent acquisition Aaron Colvin will play the slot, where he played 565 of his 700 snaps in 2017 with the Jaguars. A 4th round pick in 2014 who fell in the draft because he was injured, Colvin played just 281 snaps as a rookie because of the injury, but he was about a league average starter in 15 starts in 2015 and then earned the first two positive coverage grades of his career in the past 2 seasons on the slot. At 8.5 million annually, he’d be the highest paid pure slot cornerback in the NFL, so he’ll probably get a shot outside as well.

Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph, and Kevin Johnson were their top-3 cornerbacks last season with 868 snaps, 746 snaps, and 579 snaps respectively, but Jackson is expected to move to safety this off-season, while both Joseph and Johnson earned negative grades from PFF in 2017. Jackson had a negative coverage grade last season, but he was PFF’s #1 ranked cornerback against the run, so it makes some sense that he’d get move to safety despite his lack of size at 5-10 190. Jackson has made 108 starts at cornerback in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2010, playing both outside and on the slot, and he has been about a league average starter, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and moving to safety could prolong his career. His primary competition for playing time will be 3rd round rookie Justin Reid.

Jackson moving to safety would leave Joseph and Johnson as the primary cornerbacks outside cornerbacks in sub packages and possibly the starters depending on how they use COlvin. Joseph was a capable starter for years, finishing above average in 9 straight seasons on PFF from 2008-2016 and making 14 starts over that time period, but he finished below average last season for the first time since his 2nd season in the league in 2007 and now is going into his age 34 season. He appears to be on the decline. Johnson, meanwhile, was a first round selection in 2015 and has yet to pan out. He was underwhelming on 817 snaps as a rookie and has missed 14 games with injury in the past 2 seasons. Going into his age 26 season, he still has upside, but he was PFF’s worst ranked cornerback in 2017 and may just end up being a bust.

If Jackson stays at safety, their only other real option at outside cornerback in sub packages besides Johnson and Joseph is free agent signing Johnson Bademosi. Bademosi was primarily signed for his special teams ability, but his contract is worth 6.25 million over 2 years, suggesting they expect him to compete for a role on defense as well. He’s made just 6 starts in his career, but they’ve all come in the past 2 seasons and he was not bad. The Texans could also move Jackson back to cornerback and start Reid at safety, but he could struggle as a rookie. This secondary is improved, but it’s still a weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense was incredible last season in the 4 games in which Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, and DeAndre Hopkins were healthy, but they’re unlikely to be as good over a 16 game season, even if all 3 of them stay healthy all season. Not only did we only see them together for 4 games, a very limited sample size that could prove to be a little fluky, but Watson is coming off of a major injury, their offensive line is still terrible, and they still lack pass catching options around than Fuller and Hopkins. The Texans also are unlikely to have as low of a drop rate as they did with Watson in the lineup in 2018, so Watson could struggle to complete more than 60% of his passes.

Accuracy isn’t everything for quarterbacks with mobility and big arms (Cam Newton comes to mind as a quarterback who has been successful without a high completion percentage), but even Newton has had an up and down career. You could look at several different 4-6 game stretches in his career and see an elite quarterback, but you could look at several other 4-6 games stretches in his career and see a low level starter at best. Watson flashed as a rookie, but I would pump the breaks about being too excited about him just yet. That’s not to say the Texans can’t be an above average offense this season, but I don’t know if they’re quite at the elite level they flashed last season.

The Texans should also be better defensively, with Watt and Mercilus returning and improvements in the secondary, though there’s some uncertain about whether or not Watt can return to his peak form. They have the upside to be a Super Bowl contender if everything goes right and they should at least compete for the division title, even in a tougher than usual AFC South. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Detroit Lions 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at -3.29%, but they still won 9 games, largely because of their +10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis though, so the Lions won’t be able to count on that this season. Case in point, the Lions had a -1 turnover margin in 2016 with a similar roster. They also won 9 games in 2016, but only one of their wins came by more than a touchdown, they finished 28th in first down rate differential at -1.90%, and they didn’t beat a single playoff team. The Lions had trouble with tougher competition in 2017 as well, going 1-5 against teams that made the post-season.  

The Lions’ turnover margin could easily regress in 2018. Matt Stafford led all quarterbacks in dropped interceptions last season and their defense was able to force 32 takeaways (3rd in the NFL), despite a terrible overall season. Only the Jaguars and Ravens, much better defenses, had more takeaways. The Lions’ defense allowed a league high 37.48% first down rate, the biggest reason why the Lions ranked where they did in first down rate differential. Unless they play significantly better overall, they’re unlikely to have as many takeaways this season.

Their offense, on the other hand, was not bad last season, finishing 15th in first down rate at 34.18%. They were led by Matt Stafford, who, though he should have probably had more passes intercepted, still had a solid season overall. He completed 65.7% of his passes for a career high 7.87 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback. He’s made all 112 starts in the past 7 seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of those seasons, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 9th at his position.

The Lions have a new head coach in Matt Patricia, but he’s a defensive minded guy and he kept Jim Bob Cooter on to lead the offense, which is great news for Stafford, who has played arguably the best football of his career in 2 and a half seasons with Cooter, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 73 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. Still in the prime of his career in his age 30 season, Stafford should continue playing well in 2018 in a familiar system.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Lions would have been a much better offense last season, but they struggled mightily on the ground, averaging a league worst 3.36 yards per carry. Running the football was a problem for them in 2016 as well, when they ranked 27th in yards per carry. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick led the team with 165 carries and 84 carries respectively in 2017 and they averaged just 3.27 YPC and 3.40 YPC respectively. Riddick is a converted wide receiver with a 3.44 YPC average on 248 career carries and should only play on passing downs, while Abdullah is a 2015 2nd round pick who hasn’t panned out, averaging 3.83 yards per carry on 326 carries and playing just 32 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league.

The Lions were aggressive upgrading their running backs this off-season, signing veteran LeGarrette Blount to a fully guaranteed 1-year, 2 million dollar deal in free agency and trading up to select Kerryon Johnson with the 43rd overall pick in the 2nd round of the draft. With Riddick locked into a passing down role and Blount and Johnson locked into roster spots, Abdullah could easily not make this final roster. Even if he does make the final roster, he’s unlikely to have much of a role. Blount and Johnson will compete for early down work.

Blount is a proven runner, with 5,888 yards and 51 touchdowns on 1,341 carries (4.39 YPC) in 8 seasons in the league. He’s earned a positive running grade from PFF in 6 of those 8 seasons. He’s going into his age 32 season though and the younger Johnson (only 21 this summer) is a much more explosive runner. Blount still ran well while splitting carries last season, averaging 4.43 yards per carry, and he’ll likely open the season in a rotation with Johnson, but if Johnson runs well he could run away with the lead back job as the season goes on. Johnson is also a much more versatile player, as Blount has just 54 career catches in 116 career games. Johnson is still raw as a passing down player, but he can develop into a three down back long-term.

For now, Riddick will continue handling the vast majority of passing downs, a role he’s been successful in for 4 seasons. Over those 4 seasons, he’s averaged 55 catches per season for an average of 457 yards and 3.5 touchdowns, while earning a positive pass catching grade from PFF in all 4 seasons. Last season, he was PFF’s 6th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade. He’s not much of a runner, but he should continue having success in a passing down role and catch another 50-60 passes. He was the one thing about this running back group that was good last season, but the Lions should do a better job on earlier downs this season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Lions are also expecting to be better on the offensive line in 2018. They had three starters earn positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017, Graham Glasgow, TJ Lang, and Ricky Wagner, but Lang and Wagner were both limited to 13 starts by injury and they didn’t have another lineman who earned a positive grade, so they definitely had some problems upfront. Glasgow was their only offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season and he didn’t even make them all in the same place. He spent most of the season at left guard, but made 5 starts at center in place of an injured Travis Swanson. Swanson is no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 31st out of 38 eligible centers, so he won’t be missed.

The Lions used their first round pick, 20th overall, on Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow. Ragnow spent his final 2 seasons at Arkansas at center and played really well, but the Lions seem to prefer Glasgow at center, so Ragnow will begin his career at left guard. Ragnow played guard earlier in his collegiate career and at 6-5 312 he looks more like a guard than a center. Glasgow has good size too at 6-6 310, but the 2016 3rd round pick has been better at center (9 starts) than left guard (18 starts) thus far in his career. The Lions could always flip them at some point if they want. Glasgow struggled as a rookie, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a capable starter and Ragnow is unproven, but both have the upside to be above average starters and Ragnow should be a major upgrade on Swanson regardless of where he plays.

The Lions should also get more out of Lang and Wagner this season. They didn’t miss that much time last season, but they are arguably their two best offensive linemen, so they were definitely missed when they were out down the stretch. Offensive line was a major problem for them in their week 16 upset loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that ended their playoff hopes. The Lions signed Lang and Wagner to contracts worth 28.5 million over 3 years and 47.5 million over 5 years respectively last off-season, to replace Larry Warford at right guard and Riley Reiff at right tackle respectively, after both Warford and Reiff left as free agents.

When on the field last season, Lang was PFF’s 16th ranked guard, while Wagner ranked 11th among offensive tackles. Lang has made 104 starts in the past 7 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons, with his best seasons coming in 2014 (7th among guards on PFF), and 2015 (5th). He’s missed 6 games in the past 2 seasons and seems to be on the decline a little bit, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily remain an above average starting guard for at least another couple seasons.

Wagner, meanwhile, has made 58 starts in the past 4 seasons, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles in 3 of 4 seasons, with his one down season coming in 2015, when he dealt with a foot injury for most of the season. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, he’s one of the best right tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2018. When Wagner and Lang are both out there, they form a strong right side of the offensive line.

The Lions are also counting on a healthier year from left tackle Taylor Decker. Decker missed the first 8 games of last season after off-season shoulder surgery. In his absence, Greg Robinson and Brian Mihalik both made starts and both were horrendous, but Decker was not much better when he returned. He was much before the injury though, finishing as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle in 2016 as a rookie, after the Lions used the 16th overall pick in the first round on him. Now healthier, Decker is only going into his age 24 season, still has a high upside, and could have the best year of his career in 2018. He has a ton of bounce back potential. If this starting 5 can stay healthy, they could be one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As well as Stafford played, he did get a lot of help from his receiving corps. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both topped 1000 yards (61/1101/9 and 92/1003/5) respectively. They were the only wide receiver duo to both top 1000 yards last season and they joined Tyreek Hill/Travis Kelce and Brandin Cooks/Rob Gronkowski as the only teammates to both top 1000 yards receiving. Jones and Tate also complement each other well. Jones is a big outside receiver at 6-2 198 who ranked 1st in the NFL in yards per catch at 18.0 and 2nd in the NFL in average depth of target at 14.8, whereas Tate is built more like a running back at 5-10 202 and picked up 6.9 of his 10.9 yards per catch after the catch, while breaking a position leading 22 tackles.

Despite having fewer yards, Tate actually had the better year. He was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver, while Jones ranked 21st and he averaged 1.88 yards per route run, while Jones averaged 1.76. While Jones was an every down player outside, ranking 5th among wide receivers in snaps with 1005, Tate was more of a slot specialist, playing just 792 snaps on the season (76.1%), with 619 of them coming on the slot. A 2nd round pick by the Seahawks in 2010, Tate has earned positive grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons. He didn’t put up huge numbers early in his career on a run heavy Seattle offense, but he’s topped 90 catches in all 4 seasons in Detroit and has topped 1000 yards in 3 of 4. His age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but he also hasn’t missed a game since 2012, playing 80 out of 80 regular season games.

Jones, on the other hand, topped 1000 yards for the first time in his career last season. He’s been a consistently good receiver for a while too though, earning positive grades in 4 straight healthy seasons, though he did miss all of 2014 with an injury. Last season was the best season of his career and he might not be quite as good again in 2018, but he’s averaged a 58/890/8 slash line in his last 4 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game due to injury, so he should be a reliable outside option for them again in 2018, still only in his age 28 season.

With Tate primarily playing on the slot (121 routes run on the outside in 2017), young receivers Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones split snaps outside opposite Jones, playing 473 snaps and 398 snaps respectively. Both showed promise in limited action, posting slash lines of 28/477/3 (1.66 yards per route run) and 30/399/1 (1.49 yards per route run) respectively, but Golladay has the most upside long-term and could run away with other outside receiver job. Golladay is a 2017 3rd round pick with the tools to be an above average starter long-term, while Jones is a 2014 6th round pick who caught just 15 passes in 13 games (216 snaps) in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Golladay has breakout potential in this offense in his 2nd season in the league.

The Lions figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, as they have way more depth at wide receiver than tight end, where they lack a capable pass catcher. Eric Ebron was 3rd on the team with 53 catches, 574 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2017, but he was let go this off-season, owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed. The Lions also lost #2 tight end Darren Fells, a solid blocker who played about half the snaps and posted a 17/177/3 slash line.

The Lions didn’t do much to replace them, signing backup caliber talents Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo from the Seahawks and Falcons respectively. They were signed to deals worth 2.5 million over 1 year and 1.5 million over 1 year respectively. Both are 5-year veterans and are capable blockers, but Willson’s career high is 22 catches in a season and Toilolo’s career high is 31 catches in a season. Those career highs came way back in 2014 too, and they had just 15 catches and 12 catches respectively in 2017. The Lions won’t be able to rely on either for a big role in the passing game.

The same is true of Michael Roberts, a blocking specialist who played 220 snaps as the 3rd tight end as a 4th round rookie in 2017. He could have a bigger role in a wide open depth chart, but he caught just 4 passes as a rookie and was not much of a pass catching threat in college either. The 6-5 265 pounder is like a 6th offensive lineman and could continue to improve as a blocker, but he lacks the athleticism to be a receiving threat. Matt Stafford will have to rely heavily on his wide receivers and running back Theo Riddick, but they still have a lot of pass catching talent.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Lions had major problems on defense last season. Outside of takeaways, they had real trouble getting off the field all season, allowing the 2nd most first downs in the NFL with 350. On the defensive line, injuries were at least part of the problem. Kerry Hyder, their 2016 leader in sacks with 8, tore his achilles and went out for the year before the season even started, while top run stuffer Haloti Ngata suffered a torn biceps week 5 that ended his season after 145 snaps. Hyder actually wasn’t missed that much, as 2nd year defensive end Anthony Zettel had a mini-breakout year in his absence, while fellow starter Ezekiel Ansah bounced back off of a career worst 2016 season.

The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah had 22 sacks and 40 quarterback hits from 2014-2015 and ranked 8th and 14th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in those two seasons, but his sack total dropped to just 2 in 13 games in 2016, as he played most of the season through an ankle injury. He added 12 hits and 21 hurries and earned a positive pass rush grade overall, but he was not the same player the Lions were used to.

In 2017, he was more what they were used to. He only played 516 snaps in 14 games, but he had 12 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 320 pass rush snaps and played the run well. He finished as PFF’s 25th ranked 4-3 defensive end on the season, solid, although not as good as he’s been in the past. Unable to reach a favorable long-term deal with Ansah this off-season, the Lions gave him the 17.143 million dollar franchise tag to keep him for 2018.

The Lions will probably try to extend him long-term before the start of the season, but they may want to see him stay healthy in 2018 before committing top defensive lineman money to him long-term. His age is also a concern. He’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he should have another strong year, but he’ll be 30 next off-season, something the Lions need to take into account when trying to extend him.

Zettel, meanwhile, was just a 6th round pick in 2016 and played just 214 mediocre snaps as a rookie, but he led this defensive line in snaps with 752 last season. His sack total of 6.5 isn’t huge for someone who played as many snaps as he did and he earned a negative pass rush grade overall, but he added 5 hits and 31 hurries and did a great job stuffing the run. Overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 26th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’s a one-year wonder, but could continue playing well. With Hyder returning, they won’t need as much from him in 2018. Zettel may play primarily a base package role, with Hyder coming in as a pass rusher in sub packages.

Hyder and Zettel also both have the size at 6-2 275 and 6-4 270 respectively to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. New head coach Matt Patricia comes from New England where lining up defensive ends inside in sub packages was commonplace. They’d probably prefer keeping Ansah on the edge because he has very little experience on the interior, but Zettel and Hyder could be more effective as interior pass rushers and moving one inside would allow them to get their best pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Hyder is a mystery after the injury and he originally went undrafted back in 2016, but he burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie, totaling 8 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps and earning a positive pass rush grade from PFF. He’s far from a guarantee to pick up where he left off, but his return should help this defensive line, at least for depth purposes.

Hyder’s return will likely eat into the role of Cornelius Washington the most, as he played 487 snaps as the 3rd defensive end last season. He struggled though, as outside of Zettel, Ansah, and the injured Haloti Ngata, the Lions’ defensive linemen all earned negative grades last season. Washington wasn’t awful, but he’s never earned an above average overall grade for a season in 5 seasons in the league and last season was a career high in snaps.

At 6-4 290, Washington also has the size to rush the passer from the interior, but he probably won’t have a big role overall on a deeper defensive line. The Lions also have 4th round rookie Da’Shawn Hand in the mix for snaps, both inside and outside at 6-4 297, while Devon Kennard, a starting linebacker signed in free agency, has the ability to rush the passer off the edge at 6-4 256 and could see a significant role as a sub package edge rusher, in addition to being a base package linebacker.

While Hyder wasn’t missed that much at defensive end, Ngata was definitely missed at defensive tackle, as he was their only defensive tackle to earn an above average grade from PFF. In Ngata’s absence, A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence were the starters and they finished with 734 snaps and 661 snaps respectively. Neither player was bad, but both were underwhelming. Robinson was drafted in the 2nd round in 2016 and could have his best year yet in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, after being about a league average starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts in 32 games). Spence, meanwhile, is a career journeyman who was sent to the Dolphins this off-season for a late round pick with a new coaching staff coming in.

Spence’s direct replacement will be free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams, but I wouldn’t expect Williams to play as many snaps as Spence did, with defensive ends likely seeing more action inside this season. Williams isn’t really an upgrade on Spence. He struggled mightily as a starter in Denver before earning the first positive grade of his career on 349 snaps with the Titans last season. The Titans still let him go, rather than paying him 5 million guaranteed in 2018, so the Lions signed him to a 1-year deal worth 3.5 million. At 6-2 328, he’s a better fit for Matt Patricia’s scheme than the 6-1 307 pound Spence, even if he’s not a great player. He and the 6-4 322 pound Robinson will try to anchor the run in base packages with smaller defensive tackles and defensive ends seeing the majority of the snaps in passing situations.

Jeremiah Ledbetter is one of their smaller defensive tackles at 6-3 295. A 6th round rookie, Ledbetter was underwhelming on 349 snaps in 2017, but could see a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Da’Shawn Hand is also a smaller defensive tackle, although he may see some time at defensive end as well. Hand has the potential to be a steal in the 4th round and he has all the tools to be a long-term starter in this league, but he had an underwhelming college career after going to Alabama as the #5 ranked recruit in 2014 and comes into the league very raw. He may struggle to carve out a rookie year role on what should be a deeper defensive line as long as everyone is healthy.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

In the linebacking corps, the Lions are arguably worse than they were last season and they were not that good last season. Each of their top-3 linebackers earned a negative coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last season and their top-2 linebackers, Tahir Whitehead and Jarrad Davis, finished 73rd and 88th respectively among 90 linebackers in coverage grade. The reason they could be worse is they lost Whitehead in free agency. Whitehead had his issues in coverage, but was a great run stuffer, ranking 12th among linebackers in run stuffing grade, and he led this linebacking corps with 950 snaps.

On top of that, his replacement, free agent acquisition Christian Jones, is a major downgrade. Jones made 31 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, after they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2014, but he earned negative grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finished last season as PFF’s 45th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible, playing inside in Chicago’s 3-4 defense. He was only signed for 6.35 million over 2 seasons, but could have close to an every down role at outside linebacker in the Lions’ 4-3 defense, for lack of a better option. He could struggle mightily in such a large role, considering he’s played just 57.7% of the snaps in 63 games in his career. His primary competition is 2017 4th round pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who flashed on 239 snaps as a rookie. He’s probably their best coverage linebacker by default, but he’s undersized at 6-0 230 and unproven in a larger role.

One reason the Lions might not be worse in the linebacking corps is middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, a 2017 1st round pick who could be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league. Davis played 85.8% of the snaps in 14 starts as a rookie and played the run pretty well, but had major issues in coverage and finished as PFF’s 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll be better in 2018, but he still has a high upside and could develop into a capable every down player long-term.

The Lions also added ex-Giants linebacker Devon Kennard in free agency, which is an upgrade at the 3rd linebacker spot. Free agent departure Paul Worrilow only played 272 snaps in 12 games (8 starts) in that role last season, but Kennard’s 3-year, 17.25 million dollar deal suggests he’ll have a much bigger role. In addition to starting as the third linebackers in base packages, he figures to rotate as an edge rusher in sub packages, similar to the role he played with the Giants.

A 5th round pick in 2014, Kennard has earned a positive run stuffing grade in all 4 seasons in the league, though he’s earned just one positive pass rush grade (2014). On 487 career pass rush snaps, he has 9.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 28 hurries. Last season, he had a career high 191 pass rush snaps and accumulated 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 6 hurries. He’s a decent addition, but he won’t boost this linebacking corps that much as he’s just a base package linebackers. Unless either of their second year linebackers (Davis and Reeves-Maybin) takes a big step forward, this could be one of the worst sub package linebacking corps in the NFL.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Lions made some changes in the secondary as well. Veteran cornerback DJ Hayden, who played 488 snaps last season, is no longer with the team, while Quandre Diggs is moving full-time to safety after leading the team in slot snaps in each of the last 3 seasons (463 slot snaps last season). Neither cornerback played all that well last season though, so it won’t be hard for their replacements to be better. Holdovers Nevin Lawson and Teez Tabor could play bigger roles, while veteran DeShawn Shead was added in free agency on a one-year, 3.35 million dollar deal.

Lawson and Shead both topped 900 snaps and earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2016 (924 snaps and 918 snaps respectively), but that was not the case in 2017. Lawson struggled mightily and was limited to 555 snaps in 15 games as a result, while Shead didn’t play a defensive snap as he was working his way back from a January 2017 torn ACL. Both players are also one year wonders, as Lawson has finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, while Shead struggled in 2015, finishing 87th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on 520 snaps in the only other significant action of his career, aside from 2016.

Tabor played just 190 snaps last season and did very little of note, but he may have the best shot at locking down the #2 cornerback job opposite Darius Slay. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Tabor has more upside than either Lawson or Shead. None of three have any real slot experience, but Tabor played 103 of his 190 snaps there last season and would be a natural fit on the slot because his primary weakness is his long speed. He has the clearest path to a job, but it could be close to a wide open competition. The Lions also used a 3rd round pick on the University of Louisiana’s Tracy Walker and he has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety at 6-1 206, though he comes into the league very raw and might not play much as a rookie.

Slay remains locked in as the #1 cornerback and is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Slay has started all 61 games he’s played in the past 4 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finishing in the top-15 in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 8th among cornerbacks on PFF and led the NFL with 8 interceptions. That number will likely come down, as he had just 6 career interceptions going into 2017, but he’s a legitimate #1 cornerback nonetheless and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season.

As mentioned, Diggs has moved to safety after spending most of his 3-year career as a slot cornerback, where he was about league average in coverage. He started the final 5 games of last season at safety with Tavon Wilson out with a shoulder injury, so he has some experience at his new position, but he didn’t play all that well and is a bit undersized at 5-9 200. He only played 43 slot snaps in those 5 games, though he could conceivably still play a large role on the slot in 2018 if none of their cornerbacks can lock down the slot job.

Wilson returns after shoulder surgery, so the Lions could regularly use 3-safety looks in sub packages with Diggs on the slot. Wilson struggled in 2017 before the injury, finishing 74th out of 89 eligible safeties, and he had just 18 career starts in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he earned positive grades in each of those 5 seasons, after going in the 2nd round in 2012, and was PFF’s 16th ranked safety in 14 starts in 2016. Still only in his age 28 season, he has bounce back potential, but may be best in a situational role like he played in to begin his career.

Veteran Glover Quin remains as the other starter and will once again play every down. He’s started 144 of 144 games in the past 9 seasons, playing 97.1% of the snaps. His age is becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s been incredibly durable and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 4th among safeties on PFF. He also finished 4th among safeties in 2014 and 11th among safeties in 2013, and he has earned a positive grade in 7 of 9 seasons in his career. He probably won’t be quite as good in 2018 as he was in 2017, but he should remain a solid starter at least another couple seasons. He and Slay lead a secondary that needs help from other players in 2018.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Lions have gone 9-7 in each of the past 2 seasons, but have not been as record as their record suggested in either season. Matt Stafford leads a good passing game, but they haven’t had the running game or defense to complement it. They could be better in both aspects in 2018, but that might not necessarily show up in the win/loss column, especially in the tough NFC. The Lions are squarely behind both the Vikings and the Packers in the NFC North and it will be tough for them to lock down one of the wild card spots. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Green Bay Packers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers started last season 4-1 and looked on their way to another year contending for the Super Bowl, but Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in week 6 against Minnesota, which effectively ended their season. Through 5 games, the Packers picked up first downs at a 41.19% rate, 2nd in the NFL at the time and best in the NFL if they had done it over the entire season. Rodgers completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in those 5 games and ranked as Pro Football Focus #4 quarterback through 5 weeks.

The rest of the way, the Packers moved the chains at a mere 31.42% rate, which would have been 25th in the NFL over the whole season. Backup Brett Hundley was a major disappointment, completing 60.8% of his passes for an average of just 5.81 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. Rodgers returned week 15, but was not at 100% in a season ending loss in Carolina and then was shut down for the season the following week, with the Packers eliminated from the post-season. Hundley then started the final 2 weeks of the season and the Packers finished at 7-9, missing the post-season for the first time since Rodgers’ first season as a starter in 2008.

The Packers weren’t even as good as that suggests, as they went 3-0 in games that went to overtime, 6-2 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -2.02%. Their defense was part of the problem, as they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.55% rate, 3rd highest in the NFL, but if Rodgers were healthy all season they likely still would have made the post-season, despite their defensive issues.

Whether or not they bounce back in 2018 is all dependant on Rodgers’ health. In 142 career starts since 2008, Rodgers has completed 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 312 touchdowns, and 77 interceptions, while adding 2,623 yards and 25 touchdowns on 514 carries (5.10 YPC). He has the highest QB rating of any quarterback in the NFL over that time period at 104.2 and the highest career QB rating all-time. On PFF, he finished in the top-8 in quarterbacks in his first 9 seasons as a starter from 2008-2016, prior to last season.

The concern isn’t just that he’s coming off of a broken collarbone, but he also broke the other collarbone back in 2013 and he’s now going into his age 35 season. We’ve seen talented quarterbacks continue playing well into their late 30s, but Rodgers takes more punishment than the average quarterback because he takes off and runs about 58 times per 16 games. Last year’s collarbone injury was even more serious than the 2013 injury because it was to his throwing shoulder and he did not remotely look right in his return in Carolina.

Rodgers should have the kind of season we’ve come to expect from him again in 2018, but there’s a little bit more uncertainty with him going into this season than normal. His backup situation is also still a concern. A 5th round pick in 2015, Hundley at one time looked like one of the more promising backups in the league because of how well he performed in the pre-season, but he was exposed in his first extended regular season starting experience. The Packers brought in DeShone Kizer from the Browns this off-season to provide competition for Hundley.

Kizer was a 2nd round choice of the Browns in 2017, but he was horrendous in 15 rookie year starts, completing 53.6% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s worst ranked quarterback, so the Browns replaced him with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield and sent him to the Packers for defensive back Damarious Randall and a swap of mid round picks. Kizer is still young, going into his age 22 season, and could really benefit from a couple years on the bench developing behind Aaron Rodgers, but he could easily struggle again if pressed into action in 2018. The Packers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Even though the Rodgers injury was the main reason why the Packers missed the post-season last season, they still had other issues and decided to basically clean house personnel wise this off-season, after being arguably the most stable organization in the NFL behind the Patriots over the past decade. The Packers did not renew contracts for offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt and fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was the longest tenured coordinator in the NFL at 9 years.

They also removed Ted Thompson from the general manager role and promoted Brian Gutekunst to replace him. Thompson was once regarded as one of the top GMs in the league for building the Packers almost entirely through the draft, but their draft picks had not been as good in recent years and he was frequently criticized for not doing enough to improve the roster in free agency. Gutekunst seemed to have a different philosophy this off-season.

His most prominent move was letting go of Jordy Nelson, Rodgers’ long-time #1 receiver who had been with the Packers since they drafted him in 2008, and replacing him with free agent acquisition Jimmy Graham, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. That contract was bigger than any contract given to an outside free agent by Thompson in 13 seasons on the job and the fact that they released Nelson to free up the money to do it just shows the stark contrast in strategy. Thompson was always immensely loyal to players who had developed through the system.

It’s unclear if this new strategy will pan out though. Nelson had a very underwhelming 53/482/6 slash line last season and averaged 0.95 yards per route run on 506 routes (6th lowest in the NFL), but that was mostly because he was never able to get on the same page with Hundley. In the 4 games he played with Rodgers where both were healthy, he caught 19 passes for 230 yards and 6 touchdowns, a 76/920/24 slash line over 16 games, and he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on the season, despite the underwhelming statistical performance.

His age was becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he topped 1000 yards in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to last season and he was always Rodgers’ go to guy. Rodgers expressed dissatisfaction with some of the changes the Packers made this off-season and that he was not consulted on them, specifically getting rid of Nelson and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt. Nelson’s salary of 10.25 million might have been too much to pay, but it would have made more sense to come to an agreement with him on a new, cheaper deal than to let him go and bring in Graham instead.

A few years ago, Rodgers to Graham would have been one of the most deadly combinations in the league, but Graham is arguably just as washed up as Nelson is and the Packers made him the highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s only going into his age 32 season, but he suffered a torn patellar tendon in 2015, so he has a pretty significant injury history, and he’s coming off the first negatively graded season on PFF of his 8-year NFL career. He finished tied for 2nd in the NFL with 10 receiving touchdowns, so the 6-7 265 pounder was a threat around the goal line, but he also had just 57 catches for 520 yards on 98 targets (5.31 yards per target) and showed comparatively less explosiveness than we’ve seen from him in recent years.

Graham finished 3rd among tight ends on PFF as recently as 2016, when he put up a 65/923/6 slash line, so he has some bounce back potential and he’ll be an upgrade over Lance Kendricks, who led all Packer tight ends in snaps with 468 in 2017 and finished as PFF’s 63rd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible, but the Packers still overpaid a declining player. The Packers also added blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis in free agency. He’ll slot in as the #2 tight end and is like a 6th offensive lineman at 6-6 270, but he hasn’t topped 25 catches in a season since 2012 and is now going into his age 34 season, so he won’t be a factor in the passing game.

The Packers also gave a big contract to #1 receiver Davante Adams, signing him to a 4-year, 58 million dollar extension last December, before he was scheduled to hit free agency this off-season. Adams is now the 7th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, but he has a much better chance of being worth his contract than Graham. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Adams was a slow developer and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which he finished 118th among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF, but he developed into a capable starter in 2016, posting a 75/997/12 slash line and then took his game to a new level in his contract year in 2017.

Adams was Green Bay’s only pass catcher who was not affected by the switch to Hundley, as Adams caught 46 passes for 543 yards and 5 touchdowns in 8 games with Hundley and had a team leading 74/885/10 slash line on the season in just 14 games. He was also PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver and Green Bay’s only wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF on the season. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder as a top level receiver, but he doesn’t earn turn 26 until December and could keep getting better. Now the clear #1 target with Nelson gone, Adams could have a massive statistical year in 2018 if Rodgers stays healthy.

Randall Cobb remains as the #2 receiver. Like Jordy Nelson, he’s highly paid and coming off of an underwhelming season, but the Packers decided to keep him at a 9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Cobb is much younger than Nelson, only going into his age 28 season, but he’s also hasn’t topped 1000 yards in a season since 2014 and has averaged just a 68/697/5 slash line in 3 seasons since re-signing on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, as he had basically fallen to third on the depth chart the past 2 seasons with Adams emerging. With Nelson gone, Cobb should have a bigger role in 2018 and is young enough to still have a bounce back season, now in the contract year of that 4-year deal, but he’s been limited by nagging injuries and has been a middling receiver over the past 3 seasons.

With Nelson gone and Cobb going into the final year of his contract, the Packers used 3 draft picks on wide receivers, taking Missouri’s J’Mon Moore in the 4th round, South Florida’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the 5th round, and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown in the 6th round, but none of those players are likely to have much of an impact as a rookie. The Packers also used a 5th round pick on Trevor Davis in 2016 and DeAngelo Yancey in 2017, but Davis has played just 192 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Yancey spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad.

Instead, it’ll likely be 2016 undrafted free agent Geronimo Allison working as the 3rd receiver behind Adams and Cobb. Allison has been their 4th receiver in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 183 snaps as a rookie and 343 snaps last season. He hasn’t played all that well, but the Packers like him and he’s worked with the first team in 3-wide receiver sets all off-season. He might not put up huge numbers and could be pushed for playing time down the stretch if any of their other young receivers develop, but he’s likely to open the season as the 3rd receiver. This is not quite the same receiving corps Rodgers is used to having.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The isn’t the same offensive line Rodgers is used to having either. After losing left guard Josh Sitton two off-seasons ago and right guard TJ Lang last off-season, the Packers did not bring back replacement right guard Jahri Evans this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. The Packers also have a shaky situation at right tackle, where Bryan Bulaga is rehabbing from a November torn ACL. Bulaga also missed time with an ankle injury last season and played just 232 snaps all season.

In his place, the Packers started several different players, with Justin McCray leading the way with 6 starts. McCray also made a start at left tackle and 2 at left guard, but he struggled pretty much wherever he played. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible. McCray is a 2014 undrafted free agent who never played an offensive snap before last season, but the Packers still seem to like him and are expected to start him at right guard this season, in place of Evans. Despite his age, Evans was not bad last season, so McCray could be a serious downgrade.

Bulaga is expected to start week 1, but that’s not a guarantee. Not only is he coming off of the ACL tear and the ankle injury, but he’s had injury issues throughout his career. He’s made all 16 starts just once in 8 seasons in the league and has missed 43 games in his career. He’s only going into his age 29 season, but he may be falling apart physically. He’s also been really inconsistent in his career, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 16th in 2014, and 14th in 2016, but earning negative grades in his other seasons. He could have another strong season in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.

His backup is likely to be 2016 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs. Spriggs came into the league with a lot of upside and was projected by some to be a late first round pick, but he struggled mightily on 238 snaps as a rookie and then could not take advantage of Bulaga’s absence last season because he missed 9 games with injuries of his own. He did made 5 starts down the stretch last season, but he was once again underwhelming. One possibility if Spriggs performs well in practice would be starting him at right tackle and moving Bulaga to right guard, but, for now, it looks like McCray is locked in at right guard and they are shooting to have Bulaga back at right tackle for week 1.

At left guard, Lane Taylor is entering his 3rd season as the starter since taking over for Josh Sitton. He’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons, after making just 2 starts in his first 3 seasons with the Packers, with whom he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Taylor hasn’t been all that good, finishing slightly below average on PFF in both seasons, but the Packers like him enough to continue starting him. They gave him a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension last off-season, which is about the market rate for an average veteran starting guard.

Center Corey Linsley has started on this offensive line for 4 years, and was a key cog on this line during their dominant days, but he had a down year in 2017, finishing 27th among 38 eligible centers. A 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley earned positive grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-8 among centers in both 2014 and 2016. He missed 10 games from 2015-2016 though, and, while he did play all 16 games in 2017, he did not perform up to his usual standard. The Packers don’t seem to have any concerns about him long-term though, giving him a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar extension in December, keeping him off the open market as a free agent this off-season. He could easily have a bounce back season in 2018, still only in his age 27 season.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari was the only Green Bay offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF last season, although he played well enough to elevate this whole offensive line. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle, especially excelling in pass protection, allowing just 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits all season, though he did miss 4 games with injury. A 4th round pick in 2013, Bakhtiari struggled early in his career, but he’s gotten better every season, has 74 career starts under his belt, and has finished 2nd among offensive tackles in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 27 season, he is still in the prime of his career. With Joe Thomas retiring, he’s arguably the best left tackle in the NFL. He elevates an otherwise underwhelming offensive line.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Packers also struggled for consistency on the ground last season. They averaged 4.47 yards per carry, 5th in the NFL, but a lot of that is because of quarterback runs and they went through 3 different starting running backs over the course of the season. Ty Montgomery began the season as the starter, but was limited to 71 carries in 8 games by rib and wrist injuries. 5th round rookie Aaron Jones was the next man up and had 62 carries in 4 starts, but then he injured his knee and saw just 19 carries the rest of the way. 4th round rookie Jamaal Williams finished the season as the starter and totaled 153 carries on the season, most on the team. Montgomery and Jones are both back healthy, so the Packers will have close to a wide open competition for roles at running back. All three backs have their strengths, but they all have their weaknesses as well.

Jones had the highest YPC average last season and it wasn’t close, as he averaged 5.53 yards per carry on 81 carries, but he’s useless on passing downs, averaging 1.22 yards per target on 18 targets and struggling mightily as a pass protector, and he’s suspended for the first 2 games of the 2018 season after an off-season marijuana arrest. He also wasn’t as good as his rookie year YPC suggests, as he had a large chunk of his yardage on just a few carries. He totaled 182 yards on his 8 longest carries (40.6% of his total rushing yardage) and averaged just 3.64 yards per attempt on his other 73 carries. Undersized at 5-9 206, Jones might just be a good change of pace back long-term.

Williams was probably their most complete running back. He only averaged 3.63 yards per carry on 153 carries, but he was a very consistent runner. He only managed 1 carry longer than 15 yards all season, which kept his average down, but he ranked 14th in carry success rate at 48%, despite playing on a terrible offense, so, all things considered, he did a good job of keeping this offense on schedule. He also added a 25/262/2 slash line on 34 targets and held up as a pass protector. He lacks explosive top level speed at 6-0 213, but could be a strong chain mover on what should be a much better offense in 2018 with Rodgers.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is a converted wide receiver who is their best passing down option. The 2015 3rd round pick has averaged 4.93 yards per carry on 151 career carries, but he’s never topped 77 carries in a season and is unproven as a lead back. Last year, in his first real attempt at being a lead back, he averaged just 3.85 yards per carry and dealt with several injuries. With Williams and Jones showing promise in his absence, Montgomery is unlikely to reclaim the lead back job barring injuries to the other two and will likely spend 2018 as a situational backup, focusing on passing downs. The Packers have options at running back, but probably don’t have one running back who is going to run away with the job.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Even with Dom Capers gone, the Packers will remain a base 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. As bad as this defense was last season, they still had a strong defensive line, as most of their issues were in coverage. This season, they could be even better with the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency. A few years ago, Wilkerson was one of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 3rd, 2nd, and 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but then the Jets gave him a 5-year, 86 million dollar extension and he was never the same, seemingly losing all motivation after getting paid and frequently showing up late for practice.

After accumulating 38 sacks and 56 quarterback hits in 5 seasons on his rookie deal, he had just 8 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2 seasons on his extension, before being let go this off-season when the guaranteed money on his contract expired. The Jets ended up paying him 37 million for 2 years. The Packers, on the other hand, are getting him on a 1-year deal worth just 5 million with another 2.75 million available in incentives. Still only in his age 29 season, Wilkerson has bounce back potential if he’s motivated, which he should be, given that he’ll want to earn his incentives and get a big multi-year deal in free agency next off-season. He also reunites with Pettine, his defensive coordinator with the Jets in his first 2 seasons in the league, including his dominant 2012 season

Wilkerson will start on this base 3-man defensive line with Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels and rotate with them inside in sub packages. Clark and Daniels led this defensive line with 684 snaps and 629 snaps respectively in 2017 and were two of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 14th and 17th respectively among interior defensive linemen on PFF. Clark is a one-year wonder, as he only played 332 snaps as a rookie in 2016, but he’s a former first round pick who is still only going into his age 23 season, so he could easily develop into one of the top defensive linemen in the league. The 6-3 317 pounder plays nose tackle in base packages and also added 4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and 22 hurries on 344 pass rush snaps.

Daniels, on the other hand, is much more proven, finishing in the top-7 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 5 seasons as a starter, since the 2012 4th round pick first entered the starting lineup in 2013. The 6-0 305 pounder is more of a pass rusher than Clark, totaling 25 sacks and 36 hits in those 5 seasons, but he’s also a good run stuffer as well. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing well in 2018. He missed 2 games with injury last season, but those were the first games he missed since his rookie season.

Dean Lowry was the 3rd starter last season, but he only played 493 snaps and primarily played on run snaps. The 2016 4th round pick hasn’t gotten much pass rush in 2 seasons in the league, with 4 sacks, 1 hit, and 26 hurries on 322 pass rush snaps, but he’s developed into an above average run stuffer. He’ll fit in well as a situational reserve. The Packers also have 2017 3rd round pick Montravius Adams. He played just 65 snaps as a rookie, but could easily have a bigger role as a reserve in 2018. This is a very deep defensive line and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson could make them arguably the best 3-man defensive line in the league.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Packers don’t have quite the same depth at outside linebacker, where Clay Matthews and Nick Perry start as every down edge defenders. Matthews and Perry are coming off of strong seasons, but both are injury prone and they have little proven depth behind him them on the depth chart. 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell struggled as the 3rd outside linebacker last season, finishing 35th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 446 snaps, and he wasn’t much better in limited action (159 snaps) as a rookie either. He’ll be pushed for his role by 2017 4th round pick Vince Biegel, who flashed on 121 snaps as a rookie, after missing the first half of the year with a broken foot. Both Biegel and Fackrell have upside, but they are also unproven.

Matthews is a big name player, but the 8.5 sack, 11 quarterback hit season he had in 2017 has not been the recent norm for him. After 4 straight strong seasons to start his career from 2009-2012, totaling 42.5 sacks and 57 quarterback hits, Matthews finished below average on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons from 2013-2016, totaling 30 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. Injuries were a big part of the problem, as he missed 9 games and was limited in several others. Even in a bounce back year in 2017, he still missed a couple games with injury. He finished 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF last season, but, going into his age 32 season, with his recent injury history, he’s far from a guarantee to repeat that.

Perry has had even more injury problems. He’s missed 24 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never once played all 16 games in a season. As a result, the 2012 1st round pick took a while to develop, but, after 4 straight negative grades to begin his career, Perry has finished 9th and 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF in each of the past 2 seasons, totaling 18 sacks and 11 hits, while playing good run defense as well. He could continue playing well, but he’s also likely to miss time again with injury and, even though he’s only going into his age 28 season, he may break down quicker than a normal player because of all of the injuries he’s sustained.

Middle linebacker is where the Packers defense will be most different under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers liked using 3 or 4 safeties on the field at a time in sub packages, including one that plays around the line of scrimmage as a 2nd linebacker, Pettine prefers to let his linebackers handle most of the snaps at linebacker. Safeties Morgan Burnett (6-1 209) and Josh Jones (6-2 220) played 339 snaps and 358 snaps respectively at linebacker last season, but Burnett was allowed to leave as a free agent this off-season, while Jones is expected to be an every down safety in his 2nd season in the league.

Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan were their top-2 middle linebackers in terms of snaps played last season, with 978 and 506 respectively, but neither player is trustworthy in coverage. A 4th round pick in 2016, Martinez flashed as a run stuffer on 439 snaps as a rookie, but was exposed in coverage as an every down player (93.1% of the snaps in 16 starts) in 2017. He dominated against the run, finishing 4th among middle linebackers in run grade, but he finished 46th out of 52 eligible at his position in coverage grade.

Ryan, meanwhile, is 2015 4th round pick who earned the first positive coverage grade of his career in 2017. He hasn’t been tested much in coverage though, as he’s largely been a two-down player through 3 seasons in the league. Despite making the start in 27 of 43 career games, he’s played just 54.3% of the snaps in those 43 games and just 51.1% of the snaps last season in 14 games. He’s a capable run stuffer who has earned positive run stopping grades in each of his first three seasons in the league, but he could be overstretched in an every down role.

Given the issues Martinez and Ryan have in coverage, the Packers were smart to use a 3rd round pick on Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks. Burks is undersized at 6-3 233, but he’s incredibly athletic and capable of contributing immediately in the passing game. Expect him to earn a role in sub packages. Despite his youth, he’s their best option to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. This is a young linebacking corps, but there is upside here.

Grade: B

Secondary

As mentioned, the Packers frequently used 3 and 4 safeties in sub packages last season under Dom Capers. Not only did Burnett and Jones frequently line up as linebackers last season, but they also saw significant snaps as slot cornerbacks, playing 244 snaps and 86 snaps respectively. HaHa Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, and Josh Jones all saw significant snaps overall last season, playing 1,043 snaps, 730 snaps, and 724 snaps respectively. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also saw time, playing 289 snaps and 150 snaps respectively. In 2018, with Pettine as the defensive coordinator and Burnett gone, they figure to be a lot more traditional with their safeties, playing Jones and Clinton-Dix every down at safety.

Letting Burnett go this off-season not only signaled a shift in defensive style, but in front office approach. Burnett had been with the Packers for 8 years and was still a capable starter, but the Packers let him sign in Pittsburgh on a very reasonable 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal and used the money they saved elsewhere. Had Ted Thompson still been GM, they may have been more loyal to him. Burnett is getting up there in age and had missed time with injury in recent years and the Packers liked Jones and Clinton-Dix more as every down safeties, but Burnett was a versatile chess piece for this defense and will likely be missed.

Clinton-Dix has been an every down safety for the Packers for 3 seasons, topping 1000 snaps in all 3 years. A first round pick in 2014, Clinton-Dix has played all 64 games in 4 seasons in the league and has started every game since week 7 of his rookie season. He struggled a bit as a rookie, but has earned positive grades in each of the past 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2015, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. Only in his age 26 season, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him. He’ll make 5.957 million in the final year of his 5-year rookie deal this season and figures to get a raise from that on his next contract. They may extend him before the start of the season.

Jones, on the other hand, was not an every down safety last season, lining up all over the place. He also struggled, finishing 78th among 89 eligible safeties on the season, but the 2017 2nd round pick still has a high upside and could benefit from sticking to one position in his 2nd season in the league. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also return, but neither was all that impressive in their limited action last season, so Jones is likely locked in as the starter even if he continues to struggle.

Cornerback was the big weakness on this defense in 2017 and it became even more of a need with Burnett leaving and Jones focusing on safety every down rather than covering the slot. The Packers also lost their leader in cornerback snaps from last season, Damarious Randall, when they sent him to the Browns in the Deshone Kizer trade, though he struggled in coverage and probably won’t be missed much. The Packers bring back Davon House and Josh Hawkins, their #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps with 658 and 402 respectively, but they both struggled too, so the Packers were aggressive in adding cornerbacks this off-season.

The Packers signed veteran Tramon Williams to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency and then used first and second round picks on cornerbacks, taking Louisville’s Jaire Alexander 18th overall and Iowa’s Josh Jackson 45th overall. They also have last year’s 2nd round pick Kevin King set to play a larger role in his 2nd season in the league, after playing just 380 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued rookie season, and they have 2015 2nd round pick Quinten Rollins returning after missing the final 10 games of last season with an ankle injury. Hawkins is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has struggled on 410 career snaps, while House is a 7-year veteran journeyman who was guaranteed just 90K on the one-year deal he was re-signed to this off-season, so they’re likely competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster, now buried on a much deeper depth chart.

With so many new players in the mix, the Packers will likely have close to open competition, but Williams’ contract suggests he’s at least the favorite for one of the two starting jobs. A 2006 undrafted free agent, Williams actually spent 9 seasons in Green Bay from 2006-2014, before making stops in Cleveland and Arizona and returning this off-season. Williams has made 129 starts over the past 10 seasons and has been at least a capable starter in each season. His age is becoming a major concern, as he goes into his age 35 season, but he’s also coming off one of the better seasons of his career, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback on 666 snaps with the Cardinals last season. The Packers are hoping he can continue to at least be a capable starter.

The Packers’ other cornerback options are on the other end of the spectrum age wise, as Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Kevin King, and Quinten Rollins are going into their age 21, 22, 23, and 26 seasons respectively. Rollins is the veteran of the group, but he also has the least upside and is the least likely to earn a role on this defense. He was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and flashed on 334 snaps as a rookie, but he’s missed 15 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league and has not been the same player in the past 2 seasons, getting negative grades from PFF in both seasons. Even before his injury last season, he was just 4th on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if he doesn’t have a good off-season.

King is the only other cornerback that has an NFL experience, though he was underwhelming on 380 snaps in 9 games, while also missing time with a concussion and a shoulder injury. He still has a big upside though. The 33rd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, King could have easily been a first round selection and could take a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league if he can stay healthy and lock down a significant role. Alexander and Jackson also have big upsides, but they could be a bit raw as rookies and take a couple years to develop.

At the very least, this cornerback group is deeper and will be better prepared for injuries in 2018, but they could also be a lot better if one or two of their young players step up and Williams continues to play at a high level. At safety, losing Morgan Burnett hurts, but they could get a better year from second year player Josh Jones. The Packers will be counting on unproven young players in big roles in 2018, but they have a lot more upside than last year’s mediocre group. The Packers’ defense has the potential to be much better in 2018.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

Last season, the Packers were one of the worst teams in the league without Rodgers, as backup Brett Hundley struggled and their defense could not stop anymore. Their only 3 wins after Rodgers got hurt came by 7 points or fewer, with 2 of them coming in overtime. Rodgers returns this season, but he enters the season with more uncertainty than usual, given his age and injury history, and he doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast he did a few years ago. They should be better defensively, especially in coverage, and are one of the better teams in the NFL overall, but they play in a division with a loaded Minnesota team and they play in easily the tougher of the two conferences, so a playoff berth is not a guarantee for them. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North