Arizona Cardinals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals went in a bold new direction last off-season. After the 2017 season, the Cardinals cleaned house and went forward with new head coach Steve Wilks and first round quarterback Josh Rosen, but the Cardinals struggled mightily in a 3-13 season and decided to abruptly change plans, firing Wilks after just one season, replacing him with college head coach Kliff Kingsbury, sending Josh Rosen to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick, and using the #1 overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, Kingsbury’s hand picked quarterback who he had recruited in college. Kingsbury ran an offense at Texas Tech that was very much not the traditional “pro-style” offense and Murray was unconventional himself, making just 17 college starts and measuring in at 5-10 207, both of which usually prevent guys from going in the first round, let alone #1 overall.

For as much talk as there was about this unconventional duo, they had a first season that was actually relatively boring. Grandiose predictions about the Cardinals running 1,200 plays or attempting 700 passes were always unrealistic and were never based on what Kingsbury’s offense actually did at Texas Tech, as they were always pretty run/pass balanced. Instead, the Cardinals ranked 22nd in offensive plays with 1,000 and 18th in pass attempts with 554, far from unconventional. The one signature feature that was present in Kingsbury’s offense was their tendency to use 3 and 4 wide receivers regularly at the expense of tight ends, but even that wasn’t as extreme as some expected, as there were predictions that the Cardinals would essentially run 4-wide receivers as their base set.

For a quarterback considered boom or bust coming into the league, Kyler Murray was pretty standard as a rookie, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.87 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 544 yards and 4 touchdowns on 93 carries (5.85 YPC). The Cardinals’ offense ranked just 18th in first down rate at 35.20%, but Murray wasn’t working with the best supporting cast and that was a huge leap from 2018, when the Cardinals ranked dead last in first down rate at 29.16%. 

All in all, Murray finished 28th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, not great, but not bad for a rookie quarterback. The jury is still out on Murray long-term and I don’t think he’s changed many people’s opinion of his chances to develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him at least take a small step forward in his 2nd season in the league and he obviously could take a much more significant step forward as well. 

The Cardinals have been all in on Murray since day 1, only ever having Brett Hundley (67.6 career QB rating on 337 attempts) behind him on the depth chart as the backup. Hundley had to see limited action in 2019 (11 attempts) and predictably struggled, so the Cardinals are obviously hoping Murray can avoid missing any time with injury. Murray’s small frame and propensity to take off and run seem like they would make him more injury prone, but he doesn’t have a significant injury history, so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made all 16 starts in 2020.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Like many teams with a young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, the Cardinals have been somewhat aggressive adding veteran talent around Murray, in order to maximize their chances of winning in the short window their quarterback is cost controlled. The Cardinals have maintained some long-term flexibility, with a projected 64 million in cap space for next off-season, but they made a big long-term addition when they traded for Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

It was a shocking move, not just because no one publicly knew the Texans were looking to move Hopkins, but because the Cardinals paid significantly less for him than the Browns did for Odell Beckham and the Bills did for Stefon Diggs, even though Hopkins is the best of that trio. While the Bills gave up a first, a fourth, and a swap of late round picks and the Browns gave up a first, a third, and starting safety Jabrill Peppers, the Cardinals gave up just a 2nd round pick and running back David Johnson for Hopkins and a 4th round pick. 

Obviously the Texans value Johnson highly, but they’d have to value him equivalent to a late first round pick for the Texans to have gotten fair value in that trade compared to what the Giants and Vikings got for Beckham and Diggs. In negotiations with any other team, Johnson may have been seen as a negative value in a trade, as the seemingly washed up former feature back had a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Thanks to the Texans’ bizarre affinity for Johnson, the Cardinals now have a legitimate #1 receiver for Murray. He’s not only the Cardinals’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson arrived in 2017.

With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams. Hopkins may want a pay increase, but he wouldn’t need a huge one, with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, and so far he’s shown no signs of wanting to hold out for that pay increase.

Hopkins will take over the #1 receiver role from future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, who remains with the team for his age 37 season, his 17th season in the league, all in Arizona, and possibly his final season overall. Fitzgerald obviously isn’t still what he was in his prime, when he averaged a 90/1136/8 slash line per season from 2005-2017, while missing a total of just 6 games due to injury, but he still led this team in receiving last season and finished above average on PFF, something he’s done in every season in the league. Fitzgerald’s 75/804/5 slash line and 49th ranked finish on PFF in 2019 weren’t great and he could decline further in 2020, but he won’t be needed nearly as much with Hopkins in town.

Before Hopkins was acquired, it looked like Christian Kirk would be the long-term #1 receiver after Fitzgerald, as he’s averaged 1.53 yards per route run in two seasons in the league since the Cardinals took him in the second round in 2018, but instead Kirk will be a complementary receiver behind Hopkins. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big role though, as the Cardinals figure to use Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk together on most snaps in 2020. Kirk could easily take a step forward in his third season in the league.

Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk being locked in as close to every down players leaves the three receivers the Cardinals drafted in 2019 to compete for the #4 receiver job, but the Cardinals use 4 wide receivers as much as any team in the league, so whoever wins that job could have a somewhat significant role. Andy Isabella was drafted in the 2nd round and seems like the obvious favorite for the role, but he was limited to 157 snaps as a rookie, behind 6th round rookie KeeSean Johnson, who played 370 snaps. Johnson struggled on those snaps and Isabella has more long-term upside, but there will be training camp battles to decide the depth spots, with 2019 4th round pick Hakeem Butler also potentially in the mix after missing his rookie year with injury.

The Cardinals don’t have much at tight end, but that’s not a big deal because they don’t use tight ends that often. The Cardinals completed just 40 passes to tight ends in 2019 and that number could be even lower as veteran Charles Clay (18 catches) is no longer with the team. That leaves Darrell Daniels and Dan Arnold, who have played just 333 snaps and 271 snaps respectively in 3 seasons in the league total since going undrafted in 2017, to compete for the #2 tight end job. Arnold at least has shown some upside (1.79 yards per route run in his career), but it’s tough to expect much from either player.

Clay’s departure should also open up more playing time for Maxx Williams, who led the position with 490 snaps last season. Williams has never topped 32 catches in a season in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to significantly improve on last year’s 15/202/1 slash line, even with Clay gone, but he’s at least a consistently strong run blocker, including a #1 ranked finish among tight ends in run blocking grade in 2019. With good depth at wide receiver, that’s really all the Cardinals need Williams to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Part of the reason why the Cardinals wanted to move David Johnson is because they had found a better lead back in Kenyan Drake, who took Johnson’s starting job down the stretch last season, and they couldn’t justify paying big money to both Johnson and Drake, who was set to hit free agency this off-season. Johnson one of the best running backs in the league in 2016, but had been limited to 3.60 YPC on 363 carries over 3 seasons since 2016, while Drake, acquired at the trade deadline last year for a mere 6th round pick, rushed for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries (5.23 YPC) in 8 games. 

Drake was originally acquired to be an injury fill-in for David Johnson and injured backup Chase Edmonds, but he ran so well that he kept the job. His play had a noticeable impact on this team, as they had a 37.53% first down rate in 8 games with Drake, most equivalent to the 10th ranked Colts on the season, as opposed to a 33.01% first down rate in 8 games without Drake, most equivalent to the 26th ranked Bengals on the season.

Drake’s breakout stretch isn’t all that surprising, as he had always shown a lot of talent in three and a half seasons with the Dolphins. His 4.60 YPC average on 333 carries with the Dolphins may not seem like anything spectacular, but 3.29 YPC of that came after contact, as he routinely ran behind terrible offensive lines in Miami. His offensive line isn’t much better with the Cardinals, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because he has the size and agility to take advantage of defenses lined up to defend 3-4 wide receivers and he’s a solid receiver in his own right, with 53 catches in 2018 and 50 catches in 2019, including 28 in 8 games with the Cardinals. He could easily catch another 50-60 passes in 2020 and, while he’s unlikely to be quite as efficient as a runner as he was down the stretch last season, he should continue having a lot of success on the ground as well.

With Johnson gone, the Cardinals kept Drake on a 8.483 million dollar transition tender while they work on a long-term deal and Drake is locked in as the feature back at least for 2020. Chase Edmonds remains, but he won’t be anything more than a true backup behind Drake. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds hasn’t been a bad backup thus far in his career, averaging 4.26 YPC on 120 carries and showing some potential in the passing game as well. He could easily take a step forward in his third season in 2020, although it would likely take an injury to Drake for any improvement from Edmonds to be noticeable. With 7th round rookie Eno Benjamin in the mix as a deep reserve, this is a solid position group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Cardinals made a big jump on the offensive line from 2018 to 2019. They still had problems upfront, but they were one of the worst offensive lines in the league in 2018 and were largely a capable unit last season. The Cardinals improved upfront despite any major off-season additions, only adding veteran right guard JR Sweezy and veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert on inexpensive deals, the latter of whom ended up missing the whole season with injury.

The big difference was that this group was much healthier than the year before, as, outside of Gilbert’s injury, the Cardinals had just 2 missed starts on the offensive line all season in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost on the offensive line in 2018. In 2018, left tackle DJ Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, and center AQ Shipley were limited to 522 snaps, 343 snaps, and 0 snaps respectively due to injury, but in 2019 all three made all 16 starts and they combined to miss just 43 snaps all season. All three also return to the Cardinals in 2019, along with right guard JR Sweezy and right tackle Justin Murray, so the Cardinals could start the same starting five again in 2020 if they want.

That being said, we could see new faces upfront at a couple positions, especially right tackle. Not only do the Cardinals have veteran Marcus Gilbert returning from injury at a position where his backup Justin Murray was serviceable at best in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career last season, but the Cardinals also used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Josh Jones, who could easily end up making starts before season’s end.

Marcus Gilbert is probably their best option, although it’s tough to know what to expect from him. Not only did he miss all of last season with injury, but injuries limited him to just 12 starts between 2017 and 2018 and he’s now going into his age 32 season. Gilbert performed well in limited action in 2017 and 2018 and was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in his last relatively healthy season in 2016, but Gilbert is a big question mark because of his age and injury history. He could easily not be the same player he was or get injured again. Murray showed he can be capable last season, but he’s still relatively inexperienced and probably would best as a backup long-term, while Jones could develop into a starter long-term, but would likely struggle as a rookie, so the Gilbert gives the Cardinals’ their best chance at capable right tackle play in 2020, even if he’s a very unpredictable option.

The Cardinals could also change starting centers. In 2018, Mason Cole made all 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in place of an injured Shipley and finished 36th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but Shipley wasn’t much better last season, finishing 30th out of 36 qualifying centers. Shipley, who hasn’t received an above average grade from PFF since 2016, is now going into his age 34 season, while Cole is heading into his 3rd year in the league and may be the better option. 

Even if Cole can’t lock down the starting job, I would still expect him to see some playing time as the top reserve option on this offensive line. In addition to playing center, he can also play guard, where he started in two games last season when Justin Murray was out, pushing typical left guard Justin Pugh out to right tackle in the process. Pugh should remain as the starting left guard, but his ability to move to right tackle in a bunch is a bonus. 

Pugh finished 22nd among guards last season on PFF last year and has mostly played well throughout his 7-year career, but injuries have been a big problem for him in recent years, costing him 22 games from 2016 to 2018 and limiting him to 779 underwhelming snaps combined in two seasons from 2017-2018. Pugh showed he can still be an above average starter when healthy last season, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and the days of him finishing 11th and 15th among guards on PFF like he did in 2015 and 2016 are probably gone at this point. He could remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons, but his injury history is concerning.

Left tackle DJ Humphries also has a concerning injury history, as he played all 16 games for just the first time last season, after being limited to just 27 games total in his first 4 seasons in the league combined. A former first round pick, Humphries showed some of why he was taken so high in his first healthy season, earning an average grade from PFF, and he’s showed plenty of potential in limited action in the past as well, so he has the potential to be a consistently solid left tackle going forward if he can stay healthy. 

The problem is the Cardinals re-signed him to a contract this off-season that basically pretends his injury history doesn’t exist, giving him 43.75 million over 3 years and guaranteeing 30 million of it over the next two seasons. Humphries is only in his age 27 season and could remain a solid starter in 2020, but if he gets hurt again the Cardinals could regret that contract quickly. If he were to miss time, the Cardinals would likely turn to rookie Josh Jones, who is the most natural fit on the left side of any of their right tackle options. 

JR Sweezy is locked in at right guard for the 2nd year in a row, after posting a middling grade in his first season in Arizona. An 8-year veteran, Sweezy has had stretches of solid play throughout his career, but his middling year last year was his highest ranked season since 2015, prior to a significant back injury that cost him all of 2016, and now he’s going into his age 31 season, so he’s unlikely to get better. He could remain a capable starter, but he comes with some downside as well. Overall, this doesn’t look like a bad offensive line, but they need to stay healthy and they have injury prone projected starters at left tackle (Humphries), left guard (Pugh), and right tackle (Gilbert).

Update: The Cardinals signed veteran offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, who has some starting experience and has generally been a solid starter. He’ll likely be a reserve in his age 31 season though, after earning a middling grade in 13 starts with the Jets last season, but he gives the Cardinals needed insurance at tackle and can play guard in a pinch as well.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

In addition to spending heavily to add DeAndre Hopkins and keep Kenyan Drake on offense, the Cardinals also spent some significant money on defense this off-season. At the interior defender position, their big addition was ex-Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Phillips seemingly had a breakout year with 9.5 sacks last season, but totalled just 5.5 sacks in his first 4 seasons in the league combined and he wasn’t nearly as good as his sack total in 2019, totalling just a 7.7% pressure rate and earning middling grades overall from Pro Football Focus, getting his high sack total primarily from being in the right place at the right time on a good Buffalo defense. 

Even only earning middling grades made 2019 the best season of Phillips’ career, as he’s consistently been mediocre at best in 5 seasons in the league, both as a run stuffer, and a pass rusher (7.2% career pressure rate), leading to the 2015 2nd round pick being available for just 4.5 million on a 1-year deal in his first trip to free agency last off-season. Even after last year’s big sack total, it’s hard to argue he deserves much more than that this off-season, so he’s an obvious overpay on a contract that guarantees him 14.5 million in the first year and will realistically pay him 20 million over 2 years before the Cardinals can comfortably move on. He’s also had work ethic concerns in the past, which could easily become a problem again now that he has significant guaranteed money. Either way, he’s not going to have the impact that the Cardinals are expecting.

Phillips will most directly replace Rodney Gunter, who played 602 snaps last season. Corey Peters led this defensive line with 805 snaps played last season, but that was a career high and I would expect that to go down in 2020. Not only is Peters primarily a run stuffer, earning above average grades from PFF as a run stuffer in 6 straight seasons, while only totalling a 4.6% pressure rate over that same time, including just 2.5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.3% pressure rate in an every down role in 2019, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and Phillips could easily overtake him in snaps in his first season in Arizona. He should continue to play a significant role, but he’s not someone you can regularly play in passing situations and expect to get consistent pass rush and he could easily decline in 2020, given his age.

Second year player Zach Allen will likely be the beneficiary of Peters playing reduced snaps, as he figures to be the 3rd starter in base packages with Phillips and Peters and he figures to play a role in passing situations as well. Allen barely played as a rookie, limited to 144 snaps by injury, but he was the 65th overall pick and still has the upside to develop into a capable starter, at the least. I wouldn’t expect huge things from him this season, but he should be a solid rotational player. The Cardinals also have reserve Jonathan Bullard, who has been a capable situational run stuffer while playing an average of 335 snaps per year over his 4-year career, and used 4th round picks and defensive tackles Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu, who could also see action as rookies. This is an underwhelming group that lacks high end talent and has questionable depth.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

On the edge, the Cardinals’ big free agent addition was Devon Kennard, who comes over from the Lions on a 3-year, 20 million dollar deal. Kennard isn’t much more than a snap eater though and the Cardinals no longer have a pair of key contributors at the position from last season in Terrell Suggs (638 snaps) and Cassius Marsh (429 snaps), so Kennard isn’t really an upgrade Kennard spent the first 4 seasons of his career with the Giants as a hybrid off ball linebacker/edge defender before moving more into a pure edge defender role with the Lions over the past 2 seasons. 

Kennard’s versatility is a plus, as is his experience in multiple defensive fronts, and he’s been a consistently solid run stopper regardless of where he’s lined up, but he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, totalling just 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons, despite playing 58.9 snaps per game, and adding just 16 quarterback hits and a 9.2% pressure rate. Now in his age 29 season, Kennard is who he is at this point, which isn’t a bad thing, but he doesn’t come with much upside.

Depth is also a big problem at the edge defender position because Kennard was their only off-season addition and two of the Cardinals’ only three edge defenders to surpass 100 snaps last season are no longer with the team. Without another good depth option, the Cardinals will likely play hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker Haason Reddick on the edge in a significant role as the primary reserve. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick was lauded for his versatility entering the league, but he still hasn’t found a consistent role and he unsurprisingly had his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 10.089 million for injury, declined this off-season. 

Reddick began his career primarily on the edge, but he failed to get consistent pressure (7.3% pressure rate) and was subsequently moved to more of an off ball role. As an off ball linebacker, Reddick developed into a plus blitzer, but struggled both in coverage and against the run, leading to him being benched down the stretch in 2019. Now he looks likely to move back to the edge just because the Cardinals are deeper at off ball linebacker than they are at the edge, but Reddick isn’t a guarantee to be much better than he was as a rookie. Still only in his age 26 season, Reddick theoretically still has untapped potential, but he’s running out of chances.

The Cardinals’ lack of edge defender depth isn’t as big of a deal as it would be for other teams because top edge defender Chandler Jones comes off the field as infrequently as any edge defender in the league, leading the position by a wide margin with 1,069 snaps played last season (no one else had more than 980) and averaging 62.8 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons, while not missing a single game due to injury. 

Jones isn’t just durable, as he’s also one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones leaves something to be desired against the run, but his 72.5 sacks over the past 5 seasons are first by a pretty significant amount (Aaron Donald is 2nd with 63) and he’s added 48 hits and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch as well, while finishing in the top-35 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-20 and a 15th ranked finish in 2019. 

Jones’ age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but even if he begins declining he should remain a top flight pass rusher. He should also continue playing close to every snap, as could Devon Kennard (935 in edge defenders snaps last season), to compensate for the Cardinals’ lack of depth at the position. Jones significantly elevates this group by himself, but they’d be in huge trouble if Jones ever missed significant time with injury and Kennard is a middling player overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cardinals are much deeper at off ball linebacker than they are on the edge, which is why Haason Reddick figures to play on the edge much more often. That wasn’t the case last season, but the Cardinals used the 8th overall pick on Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and signed ex-Falcon De’Vondre Campbell to a one-year deal worth 6 million in free agency. Along with holdover Jordan Hicks, added from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal last off-season, all three of the Cardinals’ top off ball linebackers figure to see significant snaps and they may also see the field together in some base packages.

Simmons is the most intriguing of the bunch. Not only is he highly talented, as evidenced by his high draft selection, but he’s also a very unique talent, as he’s 6-4 238, moves and covers like he’s about 215 pounds, and can rush the passer off the edge. He drew mixed reviews as a draft prospect, with some teams having him as their top ranked overall player and some teams having him much further down the board because of his lack of a clear position.

With a player like Simmons, it’s always a risk that he can’t find one area where he excels, but if he develops he has the ability to be a truly unique talent. The Cardinals seem relatively committed to playing him at linebacker and that definitely figures to be his base package position, but they could move him to the slot or to the edge or even to safety in sub packages, which would allow them to play their top-3 linebackers together in some sub packages. It’ll be interesting to see how Simmons develops long-term and, in the short-term, he may be the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Hicks also has upside, after a career worst 50th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, as he finished in the top-14 in his 3 healthiest seasons in Philadelphia. Hicks was still effective against the run in his first season in Arizona last year, but struggled in coverage. Hicks has a significant injury history, missing 8 games in 2015, 9 games in 2017, and 4 games in 2018, and those injuries may have piled up to sap his athleticism and slow him down in coverage. Contract guarantees made moving in from Hicks unrealistic this off-season, but it’s possible he sees primarily base package snaps, with Simmons and Campbell added to the mix this off-season and possibly working as the top-2 coverage linebackers. Hicks is only in his age 28 season though, and played all 16 games last season, so he has some bounce back potential if he can continue staying healthy.

Campbell also has issues in coverage, but his contract suggests the Cardinals have a big role in mind for him. Campbell has been a decent run stuffer in 4 seasons with the Falcons, but the 2016 4th round pick never developed in coverage and finished 80th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in his final season in Atlanta. It’s unclear why the Cardinals felt he was worth 6 million dollars and, even if he does take a step forward in his 5th season in the league, the Cardinals will have to pay even more to keep him when he hits free agency again next off-season. This isn’t a bad linebacking corps, but they lack another coverage linebacker besides the rookie Simmons, who may play elsewhere on a significant amount of sub packages.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Cardinals didn’t make a significant addition in their secondary this off-season, but they do get a significant addition from last off-season back from injury, as Robert Alford was signed to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and subsequently missed the entire 2019 season with injury. Alford isn’t a big re-addition though as, like many of the Cardinals’ signings this off-season, as he was an overpay, even before he missed an entire season. He was a capable starter in his prime, but he fell to 112nd out of 126 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his final season in Atlanta in 2018, before missing all of last season, and now he’s going into his age 32 season, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

Alford probably won’t have to play every down in this secondary, but he doesn’t have much competition for the #3 cornerback job and he may struggle even in a lesser role. Tramaine Brock was the Cardinals’ 3rd cornerback last season and he wasn’t bad in that role, but he’s no longer with the team, leaving 2018 undrafted free agent Chris Jones and 2016 undrafted free agent Kevin Peterson, who struggled on 275 snaps and 255 snaps respectively last season in the first significant action of their career, as their top alternatives to Alford. Even though he’s an underwhelming option, Alford seems likely to see significant action in sub packages.

Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy return as the top-2 cornerbacks and will play every down. Murphy struggled mightily last season, finishing 121st out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, but he was just a rookie and the 2019 33rd overall pick still has a huge upside, so he could easily take a significant step forward in 2020, even if only by default. Peterson, meanwhile, has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 5th overall in 2011 and he’s finished in the top-19 in 5 of 9 seasons with the team. He’s been a bit up and down though and last season he fell to 44th among cornerbacks on PFF, after finishing 10th in 2018. On top of that, his age is becoming a concern in his age 30 season. Peterson has some bounce back potential, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him at this point.

At safety, the Cardinals return 16-game starter Budda Baker at one spot and Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, who both made starts last season, at the other. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Baker took over as a starter halfway through his rookie year and has made 36 starts since. He’s underwhelming in coverage, but makes up for it with strong play against the run and his ability to blitz and rush off the edge in certain situations as well and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so his coverage abilities could improve going forward. Even with his underwhelming coverage play, he’s earned average or better overall grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a career best 33rd ranked finish in 2020. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he surpassed that in 2020.

Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, meanwhile, were both 5th round rookies last year, Jalen arriving through the supplemental draft and Deionte through the traditional draft. Jalen saw significantly more snaps (607 vs. 252) and played slightly better, but both struggled and there’s no guarantee either one is any better in 2020. They’ll compete for the starting job in training camp and it’s possible one of them can develop into a capable starter, but this looks like a weakness in this secondary as of right now. Their lack of proven depth at cornerback behind a possibly declining Patrick Peterson is a problem as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cardinals come into 2020 with some hype, with some expecting Kyler Murray to make a similar 2nd year leap like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have over the past, now that he has acquired DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 receiver. What Mahomes and Jackson did is hardly the norm, however, and Murray’s MVP betting odds, which currently give him the 6th highest chance to win the MVP ahead of players like DeShaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, show that he’s overhyped right now.

Also, aside from acquiring Hopkins, the Cardinals didn’t do much of anything to significantly upgrade this roster this off-season, with most of the money they spent in free agency going to players who aren’t upgrades on the players they’re replacing. The Cardinals will likely be better in 2020 than 2019, but they finished last season 27th in first down rate differential, so they have a long way to go to get into playoff contention, especially on defense, where they ranked 30th in first down rate allowed and don’t seem noticeably better in 2020. Barring a breakout year from Murray, I wouldn’t expect much from this team. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.91

Defensive Score: 71.34

Total Score: 71.63 (4th in NFC West)

Los Angeles Rams 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s common for teams with quarterbacks on a rookie deal to be aggressive in adding talent around the quarterback to maximize their Super Bowl chances while the quarterback is still cheap. The Rams took that to the extreme, trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 second round pick, and a 2021 fourth round pick to get cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a 2018 first round pick and a 2018 6th round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a 2018 2nd round pick for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a 2019 2nd round pick for cornerback Marcus Peters, a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2019 5th round pick for edge defender Dante Fowler, and a 2018 5th round pick for cornerback Aqib Talib. 

They also signed safety Eric Weddle, interior defender Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Robert Woods, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency and re-signed wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, tight end Tyler Higbee, and right tackle Rob Havenstein to deals that paid them among the highest at their position, while structuring deals in ways that hurt their long-term financial flexibility, while allowing them to maximize their talent under the cap in the short term.

The results were pretty good for a couple years. After the Rams finished 4-12 in 2016, the following season they shot forward to a 11-5 record and finished 8th in first down rate differential, in a season that ultimately ended with a playoff loss to the Falcons. The Rams then backed that up the following season by going 13-3, finishing 3rd in first down rate differential, and making the Super Bowl, where they lost to the New England Patriots.

That’s where things started getting tricky. Quarterback Jared Goff became eligible for an extension after the Super Bowl appearance because he was heading into his 4th season in the league and the Rams decided to tack on 4 years and 134 million with 73 million of guaranteed new money on to a deal that already had Goff under team contract for 27.042 million in 2019 and 2020 combined. 

The Rams could have waited, but they felt Goff’s price would increase if they did so and signed him to an extension that hampered their ability to fill out the rest of this roster and the Rams didn’t have as good of a supporting cast in 2019 as a result. That led to a 9-7 season in which they finished 11th in first down rate differential and finished just on the outside of a 3rd straight playoff berth. Their offense saw the biggest dropoff, falling from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 14th at 36.40% last season.

This off-season is when the Rams really had to pay the price for being so aggressive over the past few years. Faced with a tough cap situation, the Rams suffered significant personnel losses this off-season. They didn’t have to lose as many players as they did and they could have kicked the can on their cap issues a little bit longer, but paying off the bill in one year will lead to the Rams being more financially flexible long-term. The Rams have just 5 million of cap space remaining for 2020 even after all of their off-season losses, but that jumps to 43 million projected for next off-season. The Rams could be back in contention in a couple seasons.

The problem is this strategy leaves them with an underwhelming roster around the quarterback in the short-term, which is a problem, as quarterback Jared Goff has proven to be no better than his supporting casts, completing 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions on a terrible offense as a rookie, then completing 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in a very talented offense in 2017 and 2018, before falling to 62.9% completion, 7.41 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions on a middling offense in 2019.

Goff isn’t the same quarterback he was as a rookie, but in some ways as is, particularly under pressure, which has remained a consistent problem for him throughout his career. In 4 years in the league, Goff has finished in the bottom-10 among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage under pressure in all 4 seasons, completing between 41.3% and 43.3% of his pressured passes in a given season over that stretch. Goff has also consistently struggled when he’s had to look past his first option, with the biggest gap in Pro Football Focus grade between throws to his first read and throws to his second read or beyond of any quarterback in the league over the past 4 seasons.

Goff’s non-pressured stats improved significantly after his rookie year and he’s earned solid grades overall from PFF over the past 3 seasons, finishing 15th, 8th, and 20th respectively among quarterbacks. However, he needs a lot of help if he’s ever going to bring the Rams a Super Bowl and, currently owed 135 million over the next 5 seasons without a realistic out on his contract until 2023, Goff’s salary is likely to hamper the Rams’ ability to build around him. With an even weaker supporting cast than last season, expect both Goff and the Rams to struggle this season.

Backup quarterback is also a big concern. Last season, the Rams had former Jaguars starter Blake Bortles who, while he was a failed starter, was still among the top half of backup quarterbacks in the league, but he wasn’t retained this off-season and, if the season were to begin today, it looks like 2018 undrafted free agent John Wolford, who has never thrown a pass in a regular season game, would be the primary backup. That would obviously be a problem if Goff was to get hurt, although it’s worth noting Goff hasn’t missed any of his 54 career starts due to injury and that the Rams could still bring back Bortles later in the off-season. Either way, they’d be in trouble if they lost Goff, but Bortles’ experience would give him a better shot of replacing Goff for a few games if needed.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The most notable players that Goff lost around him on offense this off-season were running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. At one point, Gurley and Cooks looked like the future for the Rams, as the former first round pick Todd Gurley received a 4-year, 57.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, despite there being two years left on his rookie deal, while Brandin Cooks, acquired two off-seasons ago for a first round pick, was given a 5-year, 81 million dollar extension. However, the Rams got rid of them both this off-season, Cooks just one year and 30 million in new money into his extension and Gurley having received 20 million in new money on an extension that technically never started, as 2019 would have been the final year of his original rookie deal.

Not only did the Rams move on from both players, but they also did it in a way that barely freed up any immediate cap space, with Gurley and Cooks accounting for 31.05 million in dead cap in 2020. Doing so ensures that both Gurley and Cooks will be totally off their cap in 2021, so it helps their long-term cap situation significantly, and the Rams were also able to add a much needed extra second round pick in the Cooks trade, but in the short-term both players will be missed, even if they were coming off of injury plagued seasons in which they weren’t as good as they had been in the past, and the dead cap hurt their overall ability to fill out this roster.

The Rams also had adequate depth at both wide receiver and running back, which is another reason why it made some sense to move on from Cooks and Gurley, and it looked likely that, without a first round pick, they’d use their two second round picks on much needed additions to the defense and offensive line. Instead, they not only used the 2nd round pick they acquired from the Texans for Cooks on a replacement for Cooks in Van Jefferson, but they also used their original 2nd round pick on a replacement for Todd Gurley in Cam Akers. Making those selections helps ensure they’ll continue having talented skill positions long-term, but they might not necessarily help them much in the short-term and they come at the expense of addressing much more pressing needs.

The Rams bring back their top-2 wide receivers from last year in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, so Jefferson will compete for the #3 wide receiver job with last year’s #4 wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a 2017 4th round pick who has been capable on 1,092 snaps over the past 2 seasons and has experience as the #3 receiver job as an injury replacement. Reynolds would have been fine as the #3 receiver and could still end up in that role to begin the season because Jefferson is pretty raw, but it’s clear the Rams envision Jefferson as the long-term future.

Woods and Kupp, meanwhile, were one of three wide receiver duos to both surpass 1,100 yards receiving in 2019 and they should remain one of the best wide receiver duos in the league. Both players joined the Rams three off-seasons ago, Kupp as a 3rd round pick and Woods as a somewhat unheralded free agency signing. That’s coincides with the Rams’ turnaround as a team and that’s no coincidence, as Woods and Kupp have averaged a 86/1166/5 and a 80/1065/9 slash line respectively per 16 games over those three seasons and both have finished in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Even on a diminished offense overall, both players topping 1000 yards in 2020 is certainly a strong possibility if both can stay healthy.

Another reason it’s surprising the Rams used a premium pick to replace Cooks is that it seemed like the Rams were going to be using more two tight end sets in 2020. Over the past 3 years, they’ve routinely run 3 wide receiver sets as their base package, making their #3 receiver essentially an every down player, and usually only playing one tight end on the field at a time, either Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett. 

However, Higbee took over as an every down player in place of an injured Everett down the stretch last season and broke out in that role, suggesting he should be a true every down tight end, with Everett being a true backup #2 tight end, but Everett is a useful talent as well, so it makes sense to run two tight end sets more often to get both on the field together, something they’ve rarely done in the past. Even with the addition of Jefferson, this seems like a strong possibility because of how well Higbee played at the end of last season.

During Higbee’s final 5 games, he played 91.2% of the Rams’ offensive snaps, put up a 43/522/2 slash line (a ridiculous 128/1670/6 over 16 games), and was PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end overall over that stretch, playing well as a run blocker in addition to a pass catcher. Even if Higbee does remain an every down tight end, I wouldn’t expect him to have quite the same snap share with Everett back and he’s far from a guarantee to be anywhere near as efficient as he was in those final 5 games last season. 

A 4th round pick in 2016, Higbee averaged just 0.99 yards per route run in his first 3 seasons in the league combined before last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he averaged 1.81 yards per route run in his first 10 games in 2019 before breaking out with 3.16 yards per route run in the final 5 games, so it’s not as if he just has one good 5-game stretch under his belt. Also a consistently strong blocker throughout his career, Higbee should put up at least decent receiving numbers if he’s given close to an every down role and he has the upside for a lot more if they make him a bigger part of this offense with Cooks and Gurley gone.

Everett should also be involved in this offense as the #2 tight end, as the 2017 2nd round pick has flashed with 1.41 yards per route run in his career and still has upside in his age 26 season. He’s never played more than 440 snaps in a season though, as he’s only been a rotational tight end behind Higbee, and it’s unlikely he exceeds that total in 2020, given how Higbee played as the every down tight end in his absence down the stretch. The Rams will likely miss Brandin Cooks at least somewhat, but they still have a pretty deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

At running back, #52nd overall pick Cam Akers is added to a group that wasn’t bad even after getting rid of Todd Gurley, with talented long-time backup Malcolm Brown and 2019 3rd round pick Darrell Henderson in the mix. Along with Akers, there will be a three way competition for playing time in this backfield in 2020, though it’s hard to imagine the Rams don’t envision Akers as the long-term lead back given where they drafted him. Henderson was a relatively high pick too, going 70th overall in 2019, and he still has upside, but he showed very little as a rookie (3.78 carries for 39 yards) as the 3rd running back and is likely going to be behind Akers in the pecking order, especially since Akers projects as a better passing down back.

Brown, meanwhile, has never topped 69 carries in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s shown well as a backup, playing ahead of Henderson last season despite where Henderson was drafted, and he deserves a shot at a larger role with Gurley gone. Brown hasn’t shown much burst in his career, with no carries longer than 20 yards on 197 career carries, but his 3.90 YPC average is pretty impressive for someone who hasn’t broken any big runs, showing that Brown has been able to consistently keep this offense on track when he’s subbed in for Gurley over the years. Brown likely won’t have a huge role in 2020 and he’s limited as a receiver (20 catches in 54 career games seasons in the league), but he should carve out at least a rotational role on early downs. The Rams have some intriguing pieces at a position where roles figure to become clearer closer to the season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The biggest reason for the Rams’ offensive decline from 2018 to 2019 was the decline of this offensive line. Not only did they contribute to Jared Goff’s statistical decline, but they also were a big part of the reason why the Rams finished just 27th in yards per carry last season at 3.74.  In 2017 and 2018, the Rams didn’t have a single offensive lineman miss a game due to injury and the only change that ever occurred upfront was when the Rams lost 2017 starting right guard Jamon Brown to a suspension for the start of the 2018 season and had to start backup Austin Blythe, who proved to be an upgrade.

That all changed last season. The Rams knew things would be different going into 2019, losing left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan for financial reasons last off-season, but they felt they could replace them adequately with 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom and 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen respectively. Instead, both Noteboom and Allen struggled before suffering season ending injuries and returning starters left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Austin Blythe, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, all had significantly down years compared to 2018.

The Rams didn’t make any additions upfront this off-season, so they’ll have to hope they can find a combination of their existing players who can be a consistent starting five, after cycling through 9 different starters across this line in 2019, only one of whom (Whitworth) finished with an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus. The Rams cycled through several different starting units last season and the lack of continuity made things even worse. The Rams may benefit from more continuity this season, but it’s hard to see what combination upfront makes them a significantly improved unit without any additional options added this off-season.

The unit the Rams had for the final 6 games of last season had Whitworth at left tackle (where he started all 16 games), 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans at right tackle, 5th round rookie David Edwards at right guard, former right guard Austin Blythe at center, and mid-season acquisition Austin Corbett at left guard. The Rams could keep the same five, but it wasn’t a particularly good group and the Rams are getting some players back from injury, so I would expect every spot except left tackle to be up for grabs.

Even left tackle is a questionable position, given Andrew Whitworth’s age, now in his age 39 season. Whitworth was still PFF’s 25th ranked offensive tackle in 2019, but for a player who had finished in the top-11 at his position in 6 straight seasons prior to last season, it was a noticeable dropoff and potentially a sign of things to come. He could continue defying age and play at an above average level in 2020, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it would not be a surprise if he continued declining in what could easily end up being his final season.

Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein were one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in 2018 and, while both declined in 2019, it was surprisingly Havenstein who declined the most, falling from 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 to all the way down to 81st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, even though he was seemingly in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. It’s hard to tell why Havenstein declined so significantly, as he had been a top-38 offensive tackle in each of his first 4 seasons in the league before last year’s down year.

Havenstein missed some time with a knee injury, but it’s not clear if he was slowed by that injury prior to missing time and even upon his return he was benched for 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans, even though Evans struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. Havenstein was kept at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, suggesting the Rams still view him as a starter and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can win his job back from Evans. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be as good as he was in 2018 again, but it’s definitely possible he and Whitworth could both be above average starters again in 2020, which would definitely be a boost for an otherwise very questionable unit.

Brian Allen may reclaim his old starting job at center as well, back from a knee injury that cost him the final 7 games of last season, but Allen was PFF’s 26th ranked center out of 36 qualifiers before going down, and the Rams shifted Austin Blythe inside to center in his absence, so Allen isn’t a guarantee to get his job back. Even if he does, the 2018 4th round pick is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter and so far he’s shown little signs of doing so.

One reason the Rams may leave Blythe at center is simply that he was better there last season than he was at right guard. Blythe was surprisingly PFF’s 12th ranked guard in 2018 in the first real action of the 2016 7th round pick’s career, but he started the 2019 season as PFF’s 72nd ranked guard out of 76 qualifiers in the first 8 games of the season, before moving to center and ranking 25th out of 35 qualifying centers across the final 8 games of the season. 

Blythe’s best season came as a full-time right guard, but that season is a clear outlier when you look at his career, so it’s possible center will be his best position going forward. Re-signed on a 1-year, 3.9 million dollar deal this off-season, Blythe figures to start somewhere this off-season, whether it be center or right guard. If Blythe moves back to right guard, he would likely be sending 2019 5th round pick David Edwards back to the bench, although that wouldn’t be the worst thing, as he was PFF’s 46th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers on 10 rookie year starts and doesn’t necessarily project as a long-term starter, given where he was drafted.

Edwards could also move back to left guard, where he made two of his 10 rookie year starts. At left guard, he would be in competition with Joe Noteboom, a 2018 3rd round pick who was PFF’s 87th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers in the first significant action of his career last season, before suffering a season ending torn ACL, and Austin Corbett, a 2018 2nd round pick of the Browns who couldn’t get on the field in Cleveland (15 snaps in a season in a half), was sent to the Rams for just a 2021 5th round pick midway through last season, and then finished 69th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF on 541 snaps with the Rams. The Rams have enough young players upfront that one or two of them could break out as a capable starter and they should get a better season from right tackle Rob Havenstein, but with Andrew Whitworth’s age, there isn’t a position on this unit the Rams can be fully confident in.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Rams didn’t just suffer losses on offense, as they arguably lost more on defense, including some of their best defensive players. One of those players was edge defender Dante Fowler, who led the team with 11.5 sacks, finished 33rd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and signed with the Falcons this off-season on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal that the Rams simply didn’t have the financial flexibility to match. In a less important departure on the edge, the Rams also released edge defender Clay Matthews ahead of 5.75 million non-guaranteed, after he played capably across 614 snaps last season.

The Rams signed ex-Bear Leonard Floyd in free agency, but he’s a significant downgrade from what Fowler was last season. Floyd was a first round pick by the Bears in 2016 and has developed into an above average run stuffer, but he has not developed as a pass rusher. In fact, he’s seen his pressure rate drop from 13.4% in his first two seasons in the league to 8.5% over the past two seasons, including 3 sacks, 9 hits, and a 8.8% pressure rate in 2019. 

Floyd’s run play still led to him finishing above average overall on PFF at 44th, but that was a career best finish for him. He’s more of a replacement for Matthews than Fowler, but the Rams are paying him well on a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money for Floyd and it’s hard to see the upside of that deal for the Rams, as Floyd is already going into his age 28 season and, if he does happen to break out as a pass rusher, the Rams would have to pay even more to keep him long-term because he’s scheduled to hit free agency again next off-season.

Top holdover Samson Ebukam (565 snaps) figures to start opposite Floyd. The 2017 4th round pick was about average across those snaps, as he was on 692 snaps in 2018 and 351 snaps as a rookie in 2017. He’s a little better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, but his career 9.9% pressure rate isn’t bad. Ebukam may max out as a capable starter, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could keep getting better in 2020 and beyond.

Floyd and Ebukam aren’t bad starters, but depth is a big problem behind them. The Rams used a third round pick on Alabama’s Terrell Lewis and he could see their primary reserve, even as a rookie. Other options include 2018 5th round pick Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who played 115 nondescript snaps last season after missing his rookie year with injury, and 2018 7th round pick Justin Lawler, who played 33 snaps as a rookie and missed all of last year with injury. Lacking a top end starter and any proven depth, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Rams’ interior defender group is their only defensive position group that is likely to be improved this season. That’s because they return their top-5 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season and also added A’Shawn Robinson as a free agent to be an upgrade at nose tackle. A 2016 2nd round pick, Robinson isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a 5.7% career pressure rate, but he’s consistently been an above average run stuffer, maxing out at 6th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run grade back in 2018. That year stands out as an outlier in his career, but the 6-4 322 pounder is a natural fit on the nose. He should move Sebastian Joseph-Day, who was marginal on 481 snaps last season in the first action of the 2018 6th round pick’s career, to a rotational reserve role, where he’s a better fit.

Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers remain locked in as every down players. Donald not only is a saving grace on an otherwise underwhelming roster, but he’s easily the best player in the league in terms of being better than anyone else at his position. The 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 2nd among interior defenders on PFF only behind Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, and then he went on to finish 1st among interior defenders in each of the 5 seasons since his rookie year, totalling 63 sacks, 96 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate from the interior, despite figure double teams, while also playing at a high level against the run. 

Donald “only” has two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2017 and 2018), but he could easily have won more and, still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, having never missed a game to injury, Donald should continue dominating for at least another couple seasons and could easily win another Defensive Player of the Year award or two at some point. He should arguably be considered the favorite for that award going into 2020, as he has been in recent years.

Brockers isn’t nearly as good, but he’s still a strong run stuffer who has finished above average as a run stuffer on PFF in 6 straight seasons, including top-13 finishes in three of the past four seasons. He’s not nearly as good as a pass rusher, earning middling grades throughout his career in that aspect and managing just a 5.7% pressure rate throughout his 8-year career. Now in his age 30 season, he is who he is at this point and could even begin declining, though his 25th ranked finish among interior defenders in 2019 was the second highest finish of his career. Even if he does decline a little bit, he should remain at least a capable starter who excels against the run.

The Rams don’t have a good situational interior pass rusher to take Brockers off the field in obvious passing situations, so Brockers will have to continue to play an every down role, but the Rams do have solid depth on the interior. In addition to Sebastian Joseph-Day, who has shown some potential as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher (6.4% pressure rate) and could thrive in a reserve role, the Rams also have 2019 4th round pick Greg Gaines, who flashed as situational run stuffer in limited action (183 total snaps) as a rookie. Aaron Donald elevates this group significantly by himself, but this is a strong group throughout.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Arguably the Rams’ biggest loss on defense this off-season was off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, a former undrafted free agent and special teamer who had developed into one of the top overall off ball linebackers in the league, finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2019. As a result, he was priced out of the Rams’ market this off-season, signing with the Raiders on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal. Not only is Littleton a big loss, but the Rams also didn’t do anything to really replace him and they already had a thin group of off ball linebackers to begin with. Aside from Littelton, no other Rams true off ball linebacker played more than 298 snaps, with the Rams relying heavily on playing 3 safeties in sub packages to mask their lack of depth.

The Rams will continue using safeties as linebackers this season, but even still this is set to be a really thin group and they can’t rely on safeties to stop the run in base packages. The Rams have a good track record of developing linebackers in recent years, most notably Littleton, but that was with legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is no longer with the team. Troy Reeder was 2nd among Rams off ball linebackers with 298 snaps last season, but the 2019 undrafted free agent embarrassed himself, finishing as PFF’s second worst ranked off ball linebacker and missing a ridiculous 12 tackles in limited action. He would be very overmatched in any sort of significant role. 

Other off ball linebacker options include 2018 7th round pick Travin Howard, who played 102 nondescript snaps in his first career action in 2019, 2018 4th round pick Kenny Young, who played 470 mediocre snaps in 21 games with the Ravens before playing special teams only after being acquired by the Rams mid-season last season, and 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser, who played just 1 snap as a rookie and then missed his entire second season in 2019 with injury. Barring significant additions before the start of the season, this is probably the thinnest linebacking corps in the league.

Grade: D

Secondary

In the secondary, the Rams lost starting safety Eric Weddle, who was slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season and, less importantly, they lost Marqui Christian, who played 371 nondescript snaps last season as primarily a situational cover linebacker. However, this is still a good safety group, as they get John Johnson back from an injury that limited him to 395 snaps in 6 games last season and they used a 3rd round pick on Terrell Burgess, who figures to see action as a 3rd safety in sub packages with Johnson and second year player Taylor Rapp. 

A second round pick, Rapp could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020 and he’s a versatile player capable of player safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker. The same is true of Burgess, so both Rapp and Burgess figure to see significant action near the line of scrimmage in sub packages. Rapp is more experienced and has a higher upside, so he figures to be the better of the two, but Burgess might not necessarily be bad in that role.

That leaves John Johnson as their primary deep safety and he figures to play every down, assuming he’s over last year’s injuries. Prior to his injury ruined season, Johnson finished 11th and 8th among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively, even though those were just the first two seasons of the 2017 3rd round pick’s career, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in his age 25 season in 2020.

The Rams also lost slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, which is a bigger deal than you’d think, as he’s been one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league over the past few seasons, earning 4 straight above average grades from PFF, including 3 straight seasons in the top-20, and allowing among the fewest yards per route run in the league over those four seasons at 0.77. The Rams will replace him internally, likely with 2019 3rd round pick David Long, who flashed on 109 snaps as a rookie, but even though Long profiles as a starter long-term, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be as good as Robey-Coleman was immediately, especially since he’s not a natural pure slot cornerback. Long is the heavy favorite for the #3 job though, as his only competition is 2018 undrafted free agent Darious Williams, who flashed on the first 221 snaps of his career last season, but is ultimately probably best as a 4th cornerback.

Outside at cornerback, the Rams will start Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill. Going into last season, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib were their starting cornerbacks, as they were in their Super Bowl appearance the year before, but Talib got hurt week 5, which led to the Rams trading away Marcus Peters for next to nothing to free up cap space to trade for Ramsey, then of the Jaguars. Ramsey then started the rest of the way with veteran Troy Hill, who had largely been a backup in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to 2019.

It kind of worked, as the Rams allowed a 29.94% first down rate in games that Ramsey and Hill both started and finished, compared to a 37.78% first down rate in their other games. That’s highly unlikely to continue in 2020, however, and not just because of personnel losses and the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but also because Troy Hill is unlikely to match his career best 12th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF on a career high 538 snaps, after earning middling grades at best on an average of 264 snaps per game in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to last season.

It’s possible Hill has turned a corner and will remain a consistently solid starter, still only in his age 29 season, but his strong season last year was also only a 9-start stretch, so significant regression is also possible and it’s very possible that his 2019 season will end up being an outlier at the end of his career. He’s still locked in as a starter though, coming off of a strong season, without a better option.

Ramsey, meanwhile, should continue playing at a high level. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey has been a bit up and down in his career, but he’s never finished lower than 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 seasons in the league and he showed his top level ability with a 2nd ranked finish among cornerbacks in only his 2nd season in the league in 2017. Ramsey got off to a bit of a slow start with the Jaguars last season before being traded, possibly due to injury, possibly due to intentionally not going 100% while demanding to be traded, but Ramsey was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback from week 7 on after joining the Rams and, still only in his age 26 season, I’d expect him to be around there or better in 2020, though cornerback is a difficult position for anyone to play at a high level consistently.

The tricky part is figuring out how to keep Ramsey long-term. Many of the moves the Rams made this off-season to free up long-term cap space were likely made with Ramsey in mind, but any way you look at it Ramsey won’t be cheap, especially given that the Rams have already paid a pair of first round picks to acquire him. Darius Slay is the highest paid cornerback in the league at 16.683 million annually, but Ramsey is likely looking to be paid among the top defensive players in the league regardless of position in the range of 20 million annually. At the very least any long-term extension for Ramsey will likely start at at least 18 million annually and reset the cornerback market, given his age, experience, lack of injury history, and track record. 

The Rams have the ability to keep him on the franchise tag for 2021 at around 17 million, but other than that they have no real leverage with Ramsey, who knows the team can’t afford to lose him after paying multiple first round picks to acquire him, similar to how the Bears and Texans had to give Khalil Mack and Laremy Tunsil top of the market deals to keep them after giving up a pair of first rounders to acquire them. Ramsey has also shown he’s willing to hold out to get what he wants and he likely wouldn’t be happy about being forced to play on a franchise tag. 

It’s unlikely it gets to that point, however, as the Rams seem likely to cave and pay him what he wants eventually, but, even if they don’t, Ramsey is locked in as the #1 cornerback in a secondary that is good, especially with John Johnson returning from injury, but also that will miss safety Eric Weddle and slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and that likely will see cornerback Troy Hill likely regress in his first full season as a starter.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Rams suffered significant losses on both sides of the field this off-season, most notably losing wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, edge defender Dante Fowler, slot cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman, and safety Eric Weddle. Losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can’t be overstated either. This all comes after the Rams were already diminished from 2018 to 2019, particularly on their offensive line, which they didn’t upgrade this off-season. All in all, this appears to be a below average team in terms of overall talent, a steep fall for a team that was one of the league’s best a couple years ago. Barring a surprising breakout year from quarterback Jared Goff, I don’t expect this team to return to the post-season in 2020. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.42

Defensive Score: 73.55

Total Score: 72.99 (3rd in NFC West)

Houston Texans 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans went 10-6 in 2019, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested, finishing middle of the pack with a -7 point differential and a +0.01% first down rate differential, winning 10 games primarily due to a 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that will likely not continue into 2020. The Texans won a playoff game, but even at home they needed a huge comeback just to narrowly defeat an equally underwhelming playoff qualifier in the Buffalo Bills and then the following week they got blown out in Kansas City in a 51-31 loss that had the second most lopsided first down rate differential of any game in the league all year at 29.82%.

The Texans’ offense was not the problem, as they were actually improved from 2018, when they were a better overall team. In 2018, they finished 17th at 35.67% in first down rate, but they moved up to 8th at 38.35% last season. The problem was their defense, which plummeted from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% in 2018 to 26th in first down rate allowed at 38.33% in 2019. I’ll get more into their defense later, but they look likely to continue to struggle on that side of the ball, so they’ll need a lot from their offense to be legitimate contenders in 2020.

With Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the Texans will always be at least serviceable on offense, as he’s one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. A rookie year torn ACL threatened to derail the 2017 12th overall pick’s career, but Watson has bounced back with strong years in both 2018 and 2019. Not only has Watson played at a high level over the past two seasons, but his two seasons are close to identical.

In 2018, he ranked 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with 551 yards and 5 touchdowns on 99 carries (5.57 YPC), and in 2019 he ranked 9th and completed 67.3% for an average of 7.94 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with 413 yards and 7 touchdowns on 82 carries (5.04 YPC). Still only in his age 25 season, Watson could take another step forward in 2020.

Perhaps most important for Watson is that he hasn’t missed a single game to injury since returning from the ACL tear. Watson’s playing style and his propensity to take off and run lead to him significantly taking more hits than your average quarterback, which increases his changes of getting injured, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made it through the year without a significant injury again. If Watson does miss time, the Texans would have to turn to career backup AJ McCarron (86.2 QB rating on 173 pass attempts in 6 seasons in the league), who would obviously be a huge downgrade, as Watson is one of the top young quarterbacks in the league.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As good as Watson is, he’ll need help from his supporting cast if this offense is going to be as good as it was last season. Like many teams with quarterbacks on cheap rookie deals, the Texans have been aggressive spending money to try to maximize their Super Bowl chances while Watson is still inexpensive, as they have the 4th highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, in spite of Watson’s inexpensive deal. On offense, they have the 5th highest payroll in average annual salary and the 4 teams above them are all paying their quarterbacks 25 million or more annually.

How the Texans have spent that money is questionable, however. Head coach Bill O’Brien took over as the de facto general manager last off-season and he has definitely made his mark on this team with trades and free agent signings, but it’s hard to argue the result of all of his moves has been positive. No trade was more head scratching than his decision to send #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 4th round pick to the Cardinals for David Johnson and a 2nd round pick this off-season.

Hopkins was not only the Texans’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson. With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams.

Only going into his age 28 season with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, Hopkins should not have been moved for any less than the first and third round pick the Giants got for Odell Beckham last off-season. The only way the Texans got comparable value to what the Giants got is if they value David Johnson equivalent to the 28th overall pick and Johnson arguably is a negative value, as he has a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Moving Hopkins didn’t even really free up much money given Johnson’s salary and yet the Texans still went out and spent heavily to replace Hopkins, signing slot receiver Randall Cobb to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal and trading away their own second round pick to get Brandin Cooks and the 47 million over 4 years remaining on his contract. All in all, the Texans went from paying DeAndre Hopkins 12.5 million in 2020 to paying David Johnson, Randall Cobb, and Brandin Cooks 29.325 million combined, and they got to move up 17 picks in the second round. As a result, the Texans have the most expensive offensive supporting cast in the league and yet still lack a clear #1 wide receiver.

Cooks and Cobb will compete for targets and playing time with holdovers Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. Cooks is the closest thing they have to a #1 receiver and he actually topped 1000 yards in 4 straight seasons from 2015-2018, but he benefited from playing with Drew Brees and Tom Brady and never finished higher than 24th among wide receivers on PFF during that stretch. He also has a concerning concussion history and was limited to just a 42/583/2 slash line in an injury plagued 2019 season. Still only in his age 27 season, Cooks has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020, but he also legitimately could be one concussion away from having to retire. Even if he does stay healthy all year and bounce back, he’s still a significant drop off from Hopkins.

Cobb is the only natural slot option, so he’s likely locked in to that role. Cobb has been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career, running 84.5% of his routes from there in 9 seasons in the league. Cobb had strong impressive seasons early in his career with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, putting up slash lines of 80/954/8, 91/1287/12, and 79/829/6 in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but his 55/828/3 slash line last season in his first and only season in Dallas in 2019 was his best yardage total since 2015, as he averaged a 55/549/3 slash line over a 3 year span from 2016-2018. Injuries have been part of the problem as, while he stayed relatively healthy last season, injuries frequently limited him throughout his final years in Green Bay, even when on the field. Now Cobb is going into his age 30 season and could be on the decline. He should remain a useful slot receiver, but he probably won’t match last year’s numbers.

That leaves Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to compete for the other outside receiver job, with Stills as the heavy favorite. Fuller has shown #1 receiver ability in the past, as the former first round pick has averaged a 68/1056/10 slash line per 16 games in 22 games with DeShaun Watson, even with Hopkins dominating targets opposite him. The problem is he’s never played more than 14 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 20 games missed over the past 3 seasons combined. Now going into his age 26 season, it’s certainly conceivable he could have a breakout year with Hopkins gone, but of course he’ll have to finally stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee.

Fuller likely starting opposite Cooks would leave Kenny Stills as the 4th receiver. Stills is highly paid for a 4th receiver, with a 7 million non-guaranteed salary for 2020, so there’s some speculation the Texans will try to trade him or potential release him outright, but he’s worth keeping as depth, given the injury history of the Texans’ top-3 wide receivers and Stills’ ability to play both outside and on the slot. Stills has been a capable receiver throughout his 7-year career, finishing average or better on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and averaging a 43/671/5 slash line per season, including 44th ranked finish on PFF on 587 snaps and a 40/561/4 slash line in 2019. 

Stills’ salary is significant for a player who probably won’t have a defined role going into the season, but the Texans aren’t desperate for immediate cap space and they should be in win now mode with DeShaun Watson running out of cost controlled years on his rookie deal and Stills could easily end up seeing a fair amount of targets when all is said and done regardless of his week 1 role. The Texans also have 2018 4th round pick and slot specialist Keke Coutee in the mix for a reserve role and he’s shown some promise in limited action in two years in the league, though injuries have limited him to just 605 snaps in 15 games total. Now buried on the depth chart, I wouldn’t expect much from Coutee statistically in 2020, unless Stills is moved, but he’s a good depth option to have.

Another good reason to keep Stills is the Texans figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets to make up for their lack of tight ends. Jordan Akins and Darren Fells split time at tight end last season and played together in two-tight end sets, but they were limited to 1.07 yards per route run and 1.09 yards per route run respectively. Akins also struggled as a blocker, though blocking specialist Fells wasn’t bad in that aspect. The Texans didn’t make any additions to this tight end group this off-season, but they do have some upside in a young position group.

Jordan Akins probably has the most upside, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2018. He hasn’t shown much in two years in the league, playing 388 middling snaps as a rookie before a disappointing year in a larger role in 2019, but he still has upside and could be better in his third season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick in 2019 on a tight end, taking San Diego State’s Kahale Warring, but he missed his entire rookie year with injuries. Warring still has obvious upside, but he entered the league really raw and it’s unclear what the Texans can expect from him in his first career action. 

Warring will likely push both Akins and Fells for playing time, though Fells’ blocking ability makes him more likely to be locked into a role. Even if Fells does see significant playing time, I wouldn’t expect much from him as a receiver, as his 34 catches in 2019 were the best in his 7-year career and now he’s going into his age 34 season. The Texans also used a 6th round pick on a tight end in 2018 on Jordan Thomas, although he struggled mightily on 470 snaps as a rookie, finishing 45th out of 50 eligible tight ends on PFF, and then he barely played last season (67 snaps) even with Warring hurt, so he’s unlikely to lock down a role in 2020 and is probably not a roster lock either. I don’t expect much from the Texans’ tight ends, but there’s no denying their wide receiver depth, even if they’re lacking an obvious #1 option after the bizarre DeAndre Hopkins trade.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Given how much they are paying him and how much they valued him in the DeAndre Hopkins trade, it’s hard to imagine the Texans aren’t going to make David Johnson their feature back. Johnson has experience in this role and in 2016 was one of the top running backs in the NFL, rushing for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), while adding a 80/879/4 slash line through the air and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back overall, despite being in just his 2nd season in the league. If it was guaranteed that Johnson would do that again, the Texans’ trade for him might be justifiable, but the problem is he hasn’t come close to matching that 2016 season in 3 seasons since.

Johnson missed almost all of 2017 with injury, was not nearly the same player in 2018, rushing for 3.64 YPC and 7 touchdowns on 258 carries and adding a 50/446/3 slash line through the air, and then again struggled in 2019, averaging 3.67 YPC and being limited to just 94 carries, missing three games with injury and then being benched upon his return. Johnson didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast in Arizona over the past two seasons, so his low production isn’t all his fault, but it’s also fair to point out that Johnson had an incredible supporting cast on one of the best offenses in the league in 2016. 

Johnson is a useful passing down back, totaling a 36/370/4 slash line last season even in limited action and earning an above average pass catching grade from PFF, but he’s earned middling grades as a runner aside from his outlier 2016 season and is unlikely to bounce back, now 4 years removed from his best season, in his age 29 season. The Texans also already had a useful passing down back in Duke Johnson and they paid a fairly high price to acquire him from the Browns last off-season, sending away a 3rd round pick. Now with David Johnson coming in, his role is unclear.

Duke Johnson was already being underutilized compared to what the Texans paid to get him, as the Texans ended up turning to street free agent signing Carlos Hyde as their lead back last season, while limiting Johnson to 83 carries. Even Johnson’s 44/410/3 slash line was lower than his 59/543/2 average in 4 seasons in Cleveland. Johnson has a 4.44 YPC average for his career, but he’s never topped 104 carries in a season, so he was overvalued when the Texans gave up a 3rd round pick to acquire him and that trade doesn’t look better now that Johnson spent 2019 behind Carlos Hyde and now will play behind David Johnson.

Duke Johnson will likely have an even smaller role in 2020 than 2019 and may be used as a true backup, only coming in when David Johnson needs a breather. With little depth at the position behind the two Johnsons, Duke Johnson is locked into the #2 back role, but it’s unclear how much that role will be utilized. Even if he hasn’t had a good year since 2016, the Texans seem determined to use David Johnson as a feature back. I wouldn’t expect much from him aside from volume.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The biggest area in which the Texans have improved around DeShaun Watson in his career is on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league in Watson’s first two seasons. The Texans made significant investments in this unit last off-season, spending premium picks to add three new starters, drafting right tackle Tytus Howard in the first round, left guard Max Scharping in the second round, and trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, and the moves paid off. 

The Texans still allowed 49 sacks (8th most sacks allowed in the league) and Watson was still pressured on 38.4% of his dropbacks (6th in the NFL), but that was down from a league leading 62 sacks and a league leading 44.7% allowed pressure rate in 2018 and Watson’s tendency to hold the ball (3rd longest time in pocket per play in 2018 and 2nd longest in 2019) is partly to blame for how often he is sacked and pressured. This offensive line was also significantly improved in the run game from 2018 to 2019, which is a big part of the reason why the Texans ranked 9th in the NFL with 4.63 yards per carry.

The Texans return all five starters this year and could be improved even more because of continuity and young players taking a step forward. Laremy Tunsil figures to benefit the most from continuity because he arrived in Houston from Miami just about a week before the start of last season. Even still, Tunsil finished 18th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and allowed just 3 sacks, but he also led all offensive linemen with 18 penalties, probably in large part due to his relative unfamiliarity with the team. 

It’s not hard to see how Tunsil could have a significantly better season in 2020 just by cutting those penalties in half, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tunsil improved in other areas as well, as he’s a former first round pick still only going into his age 26 season. Tunsil has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-24 among offensive tackles in each of the past two seasons and could easily have his best year yet in 2020, especially if he can get his penalties down. The Texans are obviously banking on him improving long-term, not only giving up several premium draft picks to acquire him, but also extending him long-term on a 3-year, 66 million dollar deal that is almost fully guaranteed and makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league in average annual salary.

Second year players Tytus Howard and Max Scharping could also take a step forward. Scharping wasn’t terrible in 14 rookie year starts, but he still finished below average on PFF, ranking 61st out of 88 eligible guards, while Howard was more of a middling starter, but was limited to just 488 snaps in 8 games by injury. Both profile as long-term starters and could easily be better now that they have a year under their belts. At the very least, the Texans should benefit from Tytus Howard likely being healthier.

Right guard Zach Fulton and center Nick Martin are the relative “long-timers” on this offensive line, though Fulton is entering just his 3rd season with the team. Fulton was signed to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago in one of the Texans’ first big moves to improve this offensive line and, while he hasn’t quite lived up to his contract, finishing below average on PFF in both seasons (28 starts), he’s still been an upgrade for a team that once had the worst offensive line in the league. Fulton has made 74 starts in 6 seasons in the league and was a more capable starter earlier in his career in Kansas City, but I would expect him to be below average again in 2020, even if just slightly. Fulton is locked into a starting role to begin the season at least, without clear competition, but it’s possible 4th round rookie Charlie Heck could push him for his job before season’s end. 

Martin is also locked in at center, having finished 18th and 19th among centers on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his rookie year and struggled in his 2nd season. Having developed into a consistent starter and still only in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from Martin in 2020. The Texans also have solid depth with tackle/guard Brent Qvale (15 career starts), guard Senio Kelemete (37 career starts), and guard/center Greg Mancz (28 career starts) available as reserves. This is an unspectacular line overall, but they could be easily a solid unit and they should be better than last season overall, even if just because of continuity and experience.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense declined drastically from 2018 to 2019, falling from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% to 26th at 38.33% The reasons why are pretty clear. In 2018, their top-7 defensive players in some order were JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardick McKinney, DJ Reader, and Johnathan Joseph. In 2019, Clowney, Mathieu, and Jackson were elsewhere, Watt was limited to 469 snaps in 8 games by injury, McKinney was unable to match his career best year from 2018, and Joseph declined significantly, falling from 12th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 34 season in 2018 to 64th in his age 35 season in 2019. 

Watt should return healthy for 2020, but the defensive exodus continued this off-season, as Joseph is now with the Titans and DJ Reader signed with the Bengals, following a dominant 2019 season in which he ranked 6th among interior defenders on PFF. Without any key additions made on defense this off-season to replace all their lost talent, expect this unit to continue struggling, even if they get a healthy season from Watt.

Reader will be most closely replaced by 2nd round rookie Ross Blacklock, who the Texans took with the pick they got for DeAndre Hopkins. Blacklock projects as an above average starter long-term and could have gone in the first round, but it’s going to be difficult for him to replace Reader as a rookie, both as a pass rusher in sub packages and as a run stuffing nose tackle in sub packages, as Reader was above average in both aspects of the game last season. 

Charles Omenihu (443 snaps), Angelo Blackson (427 snaps), Brandon Dunn (399 snaps), and Carlos Watkins (265 snaps) all return from last season and it’s possible Eddie Vanderdoes could earn a role if he’s healthy, after playing 78 snaps in 3 games down the stretch last season. All five of those players earned below average grades last season though, so I wouldn’t expect much from this group as a whole without Reader and it’s possible the rookie Blacklock could be their best interior defender by default.

Omenihu probably has the best shot of the holdovers to develop into a solid starter or heavy rotational player, as the 2019 5th round pick wasn’t horrible as a rookie and flashed as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and an 8.3% pressure rate. He should at least have a sub package role as a situational interior pass rusher in 2020 and he has a good chance to exceed last year’s snap total in his second season in the league. 

Omenihu is a projection to a larger role and needs to get better against the run, but he should continue being a factor as a pass rusher and has the upside to develop into a starter long-term. Carlos Watkins may also have some upside, as he was a 4th round pick in 2017, but he’s been mediocre on 636 career snaps and is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to develop into anything other than a bottom of the roster talent. Even in a thin group, Watkins is not guaranteed a role.

Brandon Dunn is the biggest of the bunch at 6-2 310 and would be the most natural fit on the nose in base packages, as he’s been a capable run stuffer for most of his career. He has also never topped 416 snaps in 6 seasons in the league, he has a career 3.7% pressure rate, and he struggled in all aspects of the game last season, so he’s an underwhelming option. Fellow veteran Angelo Blackson also struggled mightily last season, finishing 122nd out of 125 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and he hasn’t been much better than that on an average of 308 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league.

Vanderdoes is the wild card of the bunch as he was a 3rd round pick in 2017 by the Raiders, but he struggled on 464 snaps as a rookie, missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, and then was waived/injured at final cuts after suffering a concussion in the pre-season before the 2019 season. The Texans claimed him to the practice squad and called him up later in the season. Still only in his age 25 season, it’s possible he could still develop into something long-term if he’s healthy, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him. This looks like a very weak group going into the season.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

JJ Watt is the saving grace is this defense, assuming he can stay on the field, which has hardly been a given over the past few seasons. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt burst onto the scene with one of the most dominant 4-year stretches ever by a defensive lineman from 2012-2015, as he finished in the top-2 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all four seasons and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards along the way, tying him with Lawrence Taylor for most all-time. 

Over that stretch, Watt totaled 69 sacks, 142 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and he dominated against the run as well, while playing 61.9 snaps per game in 64 of a possible 64 games. Unfortunately, the injuries have really piled up over the past 4 seasons, as he suffered season ending injuries early in 2016 and 2017 that limited him to 374 snaps total in 8 games and then, after playing in all 16 games in 2018, he again missed significant time with injury last season. 

Watt has still played at a relatively high level when on the field, now primarily playing on the edge. He’s had 21.5 sacks, 38 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in 32 games and he finished 2nd among edge defenders on PFF in his one healthy season in 2018 and was PFF’s 5th ranked edge defender through week 8 when he went down last season. However, it’s fair to wonder if all of Watt’s injuries will start to pile up and slow him down, especially now going into his age 31 season. Even a diminished JJ Watt would likely be one of the better defensive ends in the league and the Texans will obviously take that if he can stay on the field, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it’s far from a guarantee he makes it through the season.

With Watt injured and his former running mate Jadeveon Clowney traded last off-season, Whitney Mercilus took on a much larger role in 2019, going from 785 snaps to 950 snaps and, most importantly, going from 367 pass rush snaps to 591 pass rush snaps. That didn’t really lead to more pressure though. His sack total jumped from 4 to 7.5, but his quarterback hits fell from 11 to 6 and he had just 5 more total pressures on the season, dropping his pressure rate from 11.4% in 2018 to 8.0% in 2019. 

Mercilus has been an average or better starter for years and he finished 9th and 15th among edge defenders in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but he missed most of 2017 with injury, fell to 71st and 63rd respectively in 2018 and 2019, and now is going into his age 30 season. He could remain an average or better starter for another couple seasons at least, but his best days are likely behind him.

Brennan Scarlett (491 snaps) and Jacob Martin (220 snaps) saw significant action last season with Watt injured, with Scarlett working primarily as a base package player and Martin serving as a situational edge rusher. Both return to the team in 2020 and will compete for reserve roles behind Watt and Mercilus with third round rookie Jon Greenard, who could easily play a role even as a raw rookie. 

Scarlett has never been much of a pass rusher (7.6% career pressure rate) and he’s averaged just 254 snaps per season in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s been capable against the run and has the versatility to drop into coverage and play some off ball linebacker as well, something he could do situationally in 2020 if he can’t secure consistent playing time on the edge. 

Martin, meanwhile, has only played 445 snaps in two seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2018, but he’s shown some pass rush potential, with 6.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate in his career. He doesn’t hold up against the run, but his youth and pass rush ability make him a strong candidate to secure a sub package role. If Watt can stay healthy, this is a strong group with adequate depth, but that depth would really be tested if Watt were to miss time again.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, off ball linebacker Benardrick McKinney was one of their best defensive players on their dominant 2018 unit, but regressed in 2019. He still finished 25th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 4th time finishing in the top-25 in 5 seasons in the league, but that was a steep dropoff from his 9th ranked in 2018. McKinney is still young, in his age 28 season, but his 2018 season looks like an outlier when you look at his career, as he’s otherwise never finished higher than 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He should remain an above average starter, but I would be surprised if he regained his 2018 form.

Zach Cunningham will be the other starting off ball linebacker inside in their 3-4 defense, playing both base packages and nickel packages, but coming off the field for a 6th defensive back in dime packages. A second round pick in 2017, Cunningham has been underwhelming in coverage thus far in his career, but he’s still earned an average or better grade from PFF overall in all 3 seasons anyway because of his ability against the run. He’s finished above average on PFF among off ball linebackers against the run in all 3 seasons, including a 4th ranked finish in 2019. Still not 26 until December, Cunningham still has time to get better in coverage, but even if he doesn’t he’s still a solid starter all things considered.

The Texans don’t have much depth at this position, which is why Brennan Scarlett may also see situational snaps as an off ball linebacker, especially in situations where they need a coverage upgrade on Cunningham. Dylan Cole (136 snaps), Tyrell Adams (108 snaps), and Peter Kamalbayi (91 snaps) all struggled mightily in 2019 and are not roster locks even at a thin position. The Texans will have to hope that McKinney and Cunningham remain healthy again, otherwise they could be in a lot of trouble at this position.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Texans’ secondary is the unit that declined the most from 2018 to 2019, as they lost Tyrann Mathieu, who ranked 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 2018, and Kareem Jackson, who ranked 5th among cornerbacks, and they didn’t adequately replace them. Not much has changed in this unit from 2019 to 2020, so they should continue to struggle. The only personnel change is they released safety Tashaun Gipson, even though 3.25 of his 6.5 million dollar salary was already guaranteed, and they replaced him with ex-Brown Eric Murray on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. 

Gipson was an underwhelming starter in 2019, but Murray is unlikely to be an upgrade, as the 2016 4th round pick has made just 12 career starts at safety (3 starts at slot cornerback) and has been underwhelming on 1,568 career snaps in 4 seasons in the league. The Texans aren’t paying him a ton, but he’s still overpaid, as he’s clearly a below average starting option. His salary and lack of an alternative likely locks him into a starting role though.

Murray will start next to Justin Reid, who is probably their best defensive back overall. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Reid took over as a starter in week 6 of his rookie year, finishing 27th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, and then he jumped up to 14th among safeties on PFF in 15 starts in his second season in the league. He profiles as a potential Pro-Bowl caliber talent long-term and could take another step forward in 2020, now in his third season in the league.

At cornerback, the Texans have spent significant resources trying to replenish their talent after not only losing Kareem Jackson last off-season, but also watching cornerback Johnathan Joseph decline last season and then leave in free agency this off-season. So far, none of their moves to replace Jackson and Joseph have panned out. They used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson in the 2019 NFL Draft and then watched him finish dead last out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie on 531 snaps. They traded a 3rd round pick at last year’s trade deadline to acquire former 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley after two and a half disappointingly average seasons in Oakland and he ended up not being much better in 412 snaps with the Texans. 

They also signed ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and then re-signed him for 31.5 million over 3 years this off-season, even though he was just a middling starter in 10 starts in an injury plagued 2019. Roby’s contract likely makes him the de facto #1 cornerback, even though he’s only finished in the top-50 among cornerbacks on PFF in 2 of 6 seasons in the league and has never finished higher than 23rd in a single season. He’ll likely remain an adequate starter in 2020, but he was definitely overpaid this off-season.

Roby being the top cornerback leaves Gareon Conley and Lonnie Johnson to compete for the #2 cornerback job. The 3rd round pick the Texans gave up to acquire Conley at the deadline last year suggests they view him as a starter long-term, but they also declined his 5th year option for 2021, worth 10.244 million guaranteed for injury only, so perhaps they’ve already soured on him a little bit. 

Conley is still young, going into his age 25 season, he still has upside, as a former 24th overall pick, and he hasn’t been bad in 26 career starts so far, but he’s not locked into a starting role. Even as badly as Lonnie Johnson played as a rookie, the Texans are likely still high on his upside long-term and he could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season, even if it’s just by default. If he ends up in the starting lineup, it might say more about Conley than it says about him though.

Slot cornerback snaps are also up for grabs in three cornerback sets. Bradley Roby began last season moving inside to the slot in sub packages and the Texans could do that again with Conley and Johnson outside if they feel those are their best three cornerbacks, but Roby is better outside, so it’s more likely the Texans either stick with Vernon Hargreaves, who played the slot down the stretch last season after being signed mid-season from the Buccaneers, or even possibly that they go with 4th round rookie John Reid.

Normally starting a 4th round rookie isn’t recommended, but Reid is a natural fit on the slot, where he played extensively in college, and he’s significantly less raw than more 4th round picks, already in his age 24 season. He also doesn’t have great competition in Hargreaves, who has developed into an above average run stuffer in 4 seasons in the league since the Buccaneers drafted him 11th overall in 2016, but little else, struggling in coverage in all 4 seasons in the league, including a 126th ranked finish out of 135 eligible cornerbacks overall on PFF in 2019. Still in his age 25 season, the potential is still there, but he’s running out of time to develop. Regardless of how it shakes out, cornerback is obviously not a position of strength for the Texans and they have a below average starter at one of the two safety spots as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

It’s hard to argue the Texans haven’t gotten significantly worse in recent years, losing players like DeAndre Hopkins, DJ Reader, Kareem Jackson, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, and Johnathan Joseph over the past two off-seasons without adequately replacing any of them. They still have DeShaun Watson and they still have capable skill position talent around him and their offensive line has gotten a lot better, but their defense has gotten a lot worse very quickly and has become very dependent on JJ Watt, whose age and injury history are a significant concern. 

They won 10 games last year, but they played more in line with an 8-8 team and this year they look likely to be worse than that. They’ll win some shootouts, but they’re going to have a hard time making the playoffs, even with a third wild card being added and the AFC being a weaker conference. In the AFC South, I have the Texans clearly behind both the Colts and the Titans. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.50

Defensive Score: 72.23

Total Score: 73.87 (3rd in AFC South)

Tennessee Titans 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans’ season looked to be over early last season, as they were shut out in Denver week 6 in a 16-0 loss that dropped them to 2-4. Instead, that loss ended up saving their season, as that game convinced them to swap starting quarterbacks, inserting Ryan Tannehill into the lineup instead of Marcus Mariota. From that point on, the Titans won 7 of their final 10 regular season games to qualify for the playoffs at 9-7 and then pulled big post-season upsets in New England and Baltimore before coming up short in the AFC Championship in Kansas City against the eventual Super Bowl winning Chiefs.

The Titans were better than their 2-4 suggested during their rough start, as they managed a +1.76% first down rate differential, but it was their defense that was carrying them early in the season, as it had the season before, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed through the first 6 games after finishing the 2018 season also 4th in first down rate allowed. Down the stretch in 2019, the Titans’ defense actually got worse as the team went on their hot streak, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over the final 10 games of the season, but the offense more than compensated, going from 26th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season in 2019 and 24th in 2018 with Mariota to 2nd over the final 10 games of the season with Tannehill. 

Tannehill wasn’t the only reason for their offensive improvement, but he was the most noticeable one and by all measures was one of the top quarterbacks in the league in his 10 regular season starts. He finished the season with 70.3% completion, 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, a 117.5 QB rating that ranked #1 in the NFL, and he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season. Tannehill wasn’t needed as much in the post-season as the Titans went run heavy and attempted just 60 passes in 3 games, but Tannehill didn’t lose them any games, with a 5/1 TD/INT ratio. 

Wanting to see what Tannehill can do in a full season as the starter and beyond, the Titans opted to keep Tannehill on a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal with 91 million guaranteed this off-season, even with Tom Brady available as an interested potential replacement. Given the size of his contract and how successful this team was when he played well last season, the big question becomes whether or not Tannehill can keep this up beyond a single season or if his 2019 will prove to be a fluke. 

As well as Tannehill played last season, it’s important to remember he never topped a 93.5 QB rating in 7 seasons in Miami (88 starts) and that he was available via trade last off-season and no one, including the Titans at the time, were interested in him as an outright starter and even the Titans only took a chance at a base salary of 2 million. You can definitely argue that Tannehill had the best supporting cast of his career last season, but it’s still unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback overnight, now already in his age 32 season. I would expect him to play better in 2020 than he did in any season in Miami, but likely significantly worse than he played in 2019.

With Mariota signing with the Raiders this off-season, the Titans needed to find a new backup quarterback, but didn’t do anything to address the position outside of using a 7th round pick on Hawaii’s Cole McDonald, who will likely be too raw to be the #2 as a rookie. Instead, the most likely #2 is Logan Woodside, a 2018 7th round pick who has been on the practice squad for his whole career and has never thrown a pass. The Titans must like him somewhat to be comfortable with him as the backup right now, but he’d almost definitely struggle if he had to see action. The Titans will need Tannehill to stay healthy, even if he’s unlikely to be as good as he was last season.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Tannehill had a strong supporting cast around him last season. It’s impossible to talk about that supporting cast without starting with running back Derrick Henry, who, aside from Tannehill, was the biggest reason for this team’s offensive turnaround, rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on 190 carries (5.92 YPC) in his final 9 games of the season after 416 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries (3.68 YPC) in the first 6 games of the season. Henry then added 83 carries for 446 yards (5.37 YPC) and 2 touchdowns during the Titans’ 3-game playoff run, in which he was the obvious feature of this offense. In total, Henry rushed for 1,570 yards and 18 touchdowns on 273 carries in 12 games that he played with Tannehill, a ridiculous 364/2093/24 pace over 16 games.

Some of that had to do with Tannehill making defenses respect the pass, but Henry also had Pro Football Focus’ highest rushing grade against 8-man boxes and he has a history of getting much better as the season goes on, rushing for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns on 125 carries (6.07 YPC) in his final 8 games of the season in 2018 after 300 yards and 2 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.33 YPC) in the first 8 games of the season. Much like how he was PFF’s #3 ranked running back in rushing grade from week 8 and beyond in 2019, Henry ranked #1 in rushing grade during that 8-game stretch in 2018. It’s likely Henry would have seen his production increase drastically down the stretch even without Tannehill in the lineup, although Tannehill obviously helped.

Normally I don’t put much stock into certain players being better at certain times a year, but, given Henry’s unique running style, it makes sense that he would get better as the season goes on and defenses tire out, as they simply become unable to bring him down consistently late in the season. Given that, it’s likely that Henry will again struggle by his standards early in the 2020 season, before hitting his stride late in the year. That could easily still be enough to put him in the mix for the rushing title on a team that figures to feed him the rock regularly, but I wouldn’t expect him to pick up quite where he left off.

All in all, Henry has totalled a 5.02 YPC average and 28 touchdowns on 518 carries over the past 2 seasons. The 2016 2nd round pick wasn’t as good in his first 2 seasons in the league, averaging 4.31 YPC and scoring 10 touchdowns on 286 carries, but he’s consistently been able to keep this offense on track, finishing in the top-17 in carry success rate in all 4 seasons. He’s also consistently been a physical runner who gets significant yardage after contact, with a 3.77 YPC average after contact for his career, including a 4.19 YPC after over the past 2 seasons, with 103 broken tackles. Despite that, he has missed just 1 game in his career due to injury and he obviously doesn’t wear out as the season goes on. As a pure runner, he’s obviously one of the best in the entire league.

Like Tannehill, Henry was a free agent this off-season and, like Tannehill, the Titans obviously did not want to lose him, as he’s such a big part of their offense. Once Tannehill was locked in on a long-term extension ahead of free agency, that allowed the Titans to make the no brainer decision to apply the franchise tag to Henry and keep him for at least one season at a 10.278 million dollar guaranteed salary. Like many high level running backs, the decision of whether or not to pay Henry at the top of the running back market is a tricky one, given their short career spans and the ease of finding replacement level running backs, but it’s hard to imagine the Titans aren’t going to come to terms with such a key offensive player on a long-term deal.

One area where Henry does not play well is in the passing game, as he’s totaled just 33 catches over the past 2 seasons and 57 catches for his career, while receiving a below average grade from PFF for his pass catching in all 4 seasons in the league. Dion Lewis has served as the passing down back over the past two seasons, putting up slash lines of 59/400/1 and 25/164/1 respectively, but he’s no longer with the team. The Titans used a third round pick on running back Darrynton Evans, who could fill that passing down role, although he’ll need to learn to pick up NFL blitzes quickly. 

Henry could easily see a career high in catches if he’s used more in the passing game without a true replacement for Lewis on the roster, but he’ll need to get a rest sometime and it’s hard to see the Titans taking him off the field in too many running situations, so it makes sense that Evans would see the majority of the passing game work. Evans probably won’t take many carries away from Henry, but his third round draft status suggests the Titans may view him as long-term insurance in case they can’t get a deal done with Henry. He does have the potential to be a starter long-term and he’s likely not a bad backup in the meantime. With Henry leading the way, this is a dominant backfield.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Another reason why this offense got better down the stretch was the emergence of second round rookie AJ Brown, who broke out as a legitimate #1 receiver in just his first season in the league. Brown never surpassed 40 snaps in a game in his first 8 games of the season, but still managed to put up a 52/1051/8 slash line on the season, including a 38/778/6 slash line in 10 games with Tannehill (61/1245/10 extrapolated over 16 games).

Some of that increased production was because of the quarterback switch, but Brown also played at a high level himself, finishing 9th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in overall grade. In terms of yards per route run, he ranked 3rd among wide receivers with 2.67. Brown is still relatively unproven and he’s unlikely to be as efficient in 2020, especially since Ryan Tannehill unlikely to be as efficient under center, but Brown looks like an obvious #1 receiver long-term and he could exceed last year’s numbers due to increased volume.

The rest of this group was pretty underwhelming with their production, with no one else exceeding 601 receiving yards, but that’s unsurprising for secondary passing options on a run heavy offense and they still got solid play overall from their complementary receivers. Corey Davis (713 snaps), Tajae Sharpe (431 snaps), and Adam Humphries (375 snaps) all earned average or better grades from PFF and they averaged a respectable 1.48, 1.42, and 1.40 yards per route run respectively. Sharpe is no longer with the team and they didn’t replace him, so they’ll need their top-3 receivers to all stay healthy this season, with unproven speedster Khalif Raymond (148 snaps in 4 seasons in the league) likely to be the 4th receiver.

Humphries did not stay healthy last season, limited to 375 snaps in 12 games, but he wasn’t bad when on the field and he topped 600 yards receiving in each of his three previous seasons prior to last season, posting middling grades in 2016 and 2017, when he had slash lines of 55/622/2 and 61/631/1 respectively, and then having a career best 76/816/5 line and finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver in 2018. Still only in his age 27 season, Humphries could easily bounce back to being a consistent slot receiver if he can stay healthy in 2020.

Corey Davis, meanwhile, will remain the primary outside receiver opposite AJ Brown. In many ways, Brown is what Davis was supposed to be, as Davis was selected 5th overall by the Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft. Instead, Davis hasn’t been a standout and it’s understandable that the Titans would want to decline his 5th year option for 2021, given that it would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury, which would make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league.

Injuries haven’t really been a problem for Davis outside of his rookie year when he was limited to a mediocre 34/375/0 slash line in 11 games, but he hasn’t shown himself to be worth top end wide receiver money either, putting up on underwhelming 65/891/4 slash line as the #1 option on a bad passing offense in 2018 and then settling in as the #2 option on a good passing offense in 2019, posting a 43/601/2 slash line. Still only in his age 25 season, Davis still has upside and the Titans could still try to sign him long-term, but he could stand to make a good amount of money if he takes a step forward, which might price him out of the Titans’ range.

Tight end Jonnu Smith had a 35/439/3 slash line last season, seemingly underwhelming, but on a per route run basis he actually greatly outperformed all of the wide receivers except Brown, averaging 1.83 yards per route run, 8th highest at his position. The problem is Smith didn’t get a lot of opportunity to run routes, splitting playing time with Delanie Walker for half the season and primarily operating as a blocker when he did play, not only playing 53.2% of his snaps on run plays, but also staying in to block as a 6th pass protector on 24.1% of his pass snaps. All in all, he ran a route on just 35.5% of his 701 snaps, despite showing significant potential as a pass catcher. He also showed his athleticism on 4 carries, taking them for 78 yards, which is not terribly common for a tight end.

Smith is a one-year wonder in terms of even playing well in limited action as a receiver though, as he struggled as a pass catcher in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2017 and 2018 (1.01 yards per route run) and has never been a particularly good blocker either. Still, he’s a former 3rd round pick who has always had upside and he’s still in only his age 25 season, so he deserves a larger target share in 2020. He should get at least a small bump from Delanie Walker being gone, even if Walker was limited to 7 games last season, but the Titans should also strongly consider leaving Smith in to block less in passing situations and making use of his athleticism in the seam more often.

With Walker gone, Mycole Pruitt looks likely to be the #2 tight end. Given how much time Walker missed last season, Pruitt basically already was the #2 tight end, ranking 2nd on the team among tight ends with 441 snaps played. He didn’t show much in that role, as he was middling at best as a blocker and caught just 6 passes, which brings his career total to just 27 in 5 seasons in the league. This season, I wouldn’t expect much more than his career high of 10 catches and he’s unlikely to improve significantly as a blocker either, already in his age 28 season. His primary competition will be Anthony Firkser, who has shown promise over the past 2 seasons, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has still only played 379 snaps in his career and is highly unproven. Depth is a concern, but this is a solid top group, led by young #1 receiver AJ Brown.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Titans did a good job of keeping most of this offense together, but one key player who is no longer with the team is right tackle Jack Conklin, who signed a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season. It’s understandable the Titans had trouble keeping Conklin after paying Tannehill and tagging Henry, but he’ll still be a big loss, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked offensive tackle last season and was only heading into his age 26 season. Fortunately, the Titans have a couple potential options to replace him, re-signing talented swing tackle Dennis Kelly in free agency and using the 29th overall pick on Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson, a massive 6-6 350 pounder with a high ceiling. 

Wilson’s draft slot would suggest he’ll start as a rookie, but I wouldn’t rule out Kelly getting the nod, at least to begin the season. Kelly is going into his age 30 season with just 31 career starts and he’s never gotten an extended run as a starter outside of his rookie season in 2012, when he was overmatched as a 10-game starter, but he’s been solid as a spot starter throughout the rest of his career, especially over the past two seasons (9 starts). His 3-year, 17.25 million dollar contract suggests the Titans view him as a starter and, while that was before the Titans drafted Wilson, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the veteran beats out the rookie in training camp. Regardless of who wins this job, the loser will be a very highly qualified swing tackle.

Even though Dennis Kelly was solid in 4 starts in place of Taylor Lewan to start last season, the Titans still got a big boost when he returned, which is another reason why they were so much better offensively down the stretch. Lewan finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF, his 5th straight season in the top-22 at his position in as many seasons as a starter (74 starts). Lewan was a first round pick in 2014 and, unlike fellow former first round pick Jack Conklin, the Titans locked Lewan up long-term two off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal that makes him the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL. It’s hard to argue he’s not worth it and, still only in his age 29 season, he’s still very much in his prime.

The interior of this offensive line remains the same, with Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis starting at left guard, center, and right guard respectively. In the case of right guard, continuity isn’t a good thing, as Davis struggled mightily last season, finishing 86th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF and at one point getting benched for career backup Jamil Douglas, who unsurprisingly wasn’t much better, playing his first offensive snaps since 2015. Davis was just a third round rookie, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he’s hardly a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter.

Saffold and Jones, on the other hand, are coming off of strong seasons, finishing 16th among guards and 3rd among centers on PFF respectively. For Saffold, that was actually a down year compared to 2017 and 2018, when he finished 5th and 7th respectively among guards, but he’s on the wrong side of 30, going into his age 32 season, and, though he’s been a consistent above average starter for several years, he’s probably unlikely to match his career best years again at this stage in his career. 

Jones is also getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season and, while he didn’t show any signs of dropoff in a career best year last year, that’s a double edged sword as it’s also unlikely he’ll match the best season of his career at his age, especially since he’s never finished higher than 12th among centers in any of his other seasons in the league. Both on the wrong side of 30, Jones and Saffold are likely to take a step backward this season and the Titans lost right tackle Jack Conklin as well, so this is unlikely to be the same caliber of offensive line as last season, which will hurt this offense as a whole, but they should remain a solid group.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

While the Titans’ offense got significantly better as the season went on, their defense went the other way, allowing a 37.89% first down rate over their final 10 regular season games, compared to a 30.93% first down rate in their first 6 regular season games. Their offense played so well over that 10-game stretch that their defensive issues weren’t as noticeable, but if the Titans’ offense is likely to be less efficient on offense this season due to likely regression at the quarterback position and a diminished offensive line, they’ll need their defense to bounce back to compensate if they are going to continue being legitimate contenders like they ended up being down the stretch last season.

Injuries were a big part of the problem down the stretch last season. The Titans didn’t have substantially more injuries than an average team, but the players they lost were some of their best, as from week 9 on, top defensive lineman Jurrell Casey (2 games), top edge rusher Cameron Wake (5 games), and starting outside cornerbacks Adoree Jackson (4 games) and Malcolm Butler (7 games) all missed significant time with injury. Brown, Jackson, and Butler return, but the Titans did have some significant losses on defense this off-season that will make returning to their former level a problem. No off-season loss was more significant than Jurrell Casey, who was still their best defensive lineman in an injury plagued down year.

Casey is going into his age 31 season and had a down year by his standards last year, but for a player who finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons prior to last season, a down year still means he ranked 26th among interior defenders, so it’s surprising the Titans moved him in what amounted to a salary dump, getting a 7th round pick and getting out of the 11.85 million he would have been owed if they had kept him. Casey wasn’t really replaced this off-season, with the Titans only adding veteran rotational player Jack Crawford, and the Titans also lost situational run stuffer Austin Johnson, who was capable across 325 snaps last season, so this is a much thinner position group than last season.

Given their lack of depth, holdovers Daquan Jones and Jeffrey Simmons will have to play larger roles in 2020. Simmons has the biggest room for growth as the 2019 first round pick was limited to 305 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued rookie season, but fared well when on the field and still has the potential to develop into an above average every down player long-term. He’ll have plenty of opportunity with Casey gone and figures to more or less take over Casey’s old role (53.1 snaps per game over the past 7 seasons), though it’s far from a guarantee that Simmons will be able to match Casey’s level of play in such a big role in just his second season in the league.

Daquon Jones, meanwhile, is probably overstretched as it is, playing 679 snaps last season when he’s best as a situational run stuffer. Jones has a nose tackle’s frame at 6-4 322 and has earned an above average grade as a run stuffer from PFF in five straight seasons, including a 15th ranked finish among interior defenders in that aspect in 2019, but he’s managed just 7 sacks and a 5.7% pressure rate for his career. Jones thrives in his base package nose tackle role, but is a liability when left on the field in sub packages, something the Titans will likely have to do even more out of necessity this season. Last year’s 679 snaps were a career high and it wouldn’t surprise me if he surpassed that total in 2020.

Veteran free agent acquisition Jack Crawford will primarily compete with Matt Dickerson and Isaiah Mack and all three are very underwhelming options. Crawford has been in the league 8 seasons, but he’s averaged just 311 snaps per season and has consistently struggled as both a pass rusher (6.5% pressure rate) and a run stuffer. Last season with the Falcons he finished 117th among 125 qualifying interior defenders on 431 snaps and now he’s going into his age 32 season. 

Dickerson and Mack, meanwhile, are former undrafted free agents (2018 and 2019) respectively who have shown very little thus far in their careers. Mack at least showed some promise on 172 snaps last season, but Dickerson has been very underwhelming in 83 snaps over two seasons. I would expect both to surpass their career highs in snaps and for Crawford to play a similar amount to the 431 snaps he played last season, as the Titans have a big depth problem at this position. In addition to their depth problem, they also lack a top end player with Jurrell Casey gone, so this is an underwhelming position group.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Titans also lost edge rusher Cameron Wake this off-season. That might not seem like a big deal, considering he played just 195 snaps in 9 games last season, but 183 of those snaps came on passing plays and he managed 2.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 17.1% pressure rate in his limited action. When he wasn’t on the field, the Titans consistently struggled to get pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing situations. Without him, the Titans desperately needed to find edge rush help this off-season.

To fill that need, the Titans signed ex-Falcon Vic Beasley to a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal, which is a curious contract. Beasley is a former first round pick who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in his second season in the league in 2016, but he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested that year, managing just a 11.9% pressure rate, struggling against the run, and finishing 22nd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, which is good, but not as good as you’d expect from someone with 15.5 sacks. That year also stands out as an obvious outlier in his career, as he’s consistently struggled against the run and has just a 9.6% pressure rate for his career. 

The Titans are paying a lot of money on a one-year deal for a guy who has had one good year in five seasons and if he does happen to have another good year in 2020 they’ll have to pay even more to keep him long-term next off-season. I would consider it unlikely he develops into a consistently above average starter, 4 years removed from his last good season and already going into his age 28 season, but if this was a 2-3 year deal that only guaranteed his first year I would have seen the upside. This only being a one-year deal limits the potential upside significantly.

Beasley will start opposite Harold Landry, a third year player who will remain in an every down role. Not only did Landry play every down last season, he actually ranked 3rd in the NFL in snaps played by an edge defender with 953. The Titans have said they want to get that number down this season and that’s probably a good idea, as Landry is likely to be more efficient on a more reasonable snap count. 

Landry earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2019 and led the team with 9 sacks, but for as much as he played he arguably should have had more sacks and his 9.9% pressure rate left something to be desired. A 2018 2nd round pick, Landry still has good upside as an edge defender long-term and could take a step forward in 2020. Between that and a likely smaller snap count, Landry should become a more efficient pass rusher this season.

Landry and Beasley are both still likely to play significant snap counts though, as the Titans’ depth is questionable on the edge, in addition to on the interior. Behind Landry, Kamalei Correa (432 snaps) and Reggie Gilbert (294 snaps) were 2nd and 3rd respectively on the Titans among edge defenders in snaps played, but they hardly got to the quarterback, totalling 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate. Both were adequate run stuffers, but little else and that’s been the case for them their whole careers, as they have pressure rates of 7.4% of 8.4% respectively in their 4 years in the league. Even as reserves, both are underwhelming options.

Rashaan Evans, who primarily plays off ball linebacker inside in the Titans’ 3-4 defense, also played some snaps off the edge last season and the Titans have said they want to use him more in that position in passing situations in 2020. It makes some sense, given the Titans’ lack of edge rush depth and given that Evans has struggled mightily in coverage in two seasons, but he hasn’t shown much more as a pass rusher and him moving to the edge more often says more about their lack of depth on the edge than anything.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Titans also lost depth at linebacker this off-season as Wesley Woodyard, a capable situational player who saw 325 snaps last season, is no longer with the team. With Woodyard gone and Evans playing on the edge more often, the Titans have a big depth problem at linebacker and could regularly use three safeties in sub packages to compensate. Base packages won’t be a problem because Rashaan Evans, a 2018 first round pick, has consistently been an above average run stuffer in two years in the league, while fellow starter Jayon Brown is an every down player who fares well both in coverage and against the run, but Evans has yet to find a sub package role he can fare well in on this defense and their top true reserve linebacker is 2019 6th round pick David Long, who played just 68 snaps as a rookie.

Jayon Brown is the biggest bright spot in this group, as the 2017 5th round pick has developed into an above average starter over the past 2 seasons, finishing 7th and 17th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after a rough rookie year. He’s best in coverage, but the 6-0 226 pounder isn’t a liability on the ground either and, only going into his age 25 season, he has the ability to continue developing. The Titans would be wise to lock him up long-term ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. He significantly elevates this group by himself.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Titans’ have issues in their defensive front, but their secondary should be their strongest unit. They had problems defending the pass down the stretch last season, but this season they get starting cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler back after they were limited to 11 games and 9 games respectively last season, which is an obvious boost, as both players received above average grades from Pro Football Focus when on the field last season. Jackson was the better of the two last season, finishing 15th among cornerbacks on PFF, and the 2017 first round pick has the brighter future too, only in his age 25 season, with 35th and 30th ranked finishes in his first two seasons in the league also on his resume. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson had his best year yet in 2020.

Butler, on the other hand, is coming off the worst year of his career, finishing 57th among cornerbacks on PFF, just slightly above average. He also had a 55th ranked finish in his first season in Tennessee in 2018, after finishing 25th, 6th, and 46th his final three seasons in New England. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he should remain a capable starter at the very least and his return will still be a boost for a Titans team that struggled to find a consistent replacement for him last season.

Slot cornerback Logan Ryan is no longer with the team, but he was more of a snap eater than anything and the Titans did a pretty good job replacing him, signing veteran Johnathan Joseph and using a 2nd round pick on LSU’s Kristian Fulton. Joseph has been a long-time above average starter in this league, making 14 starts in 186 seasons with the Bengals and Texans, and he finished 12th among cornerbacks on PFF as recently as 2018, but he fell to 64th in 2019 and is now in his age 36 season, so he could easily continue declining. He’ll have a chance to win the #3 cornerback job with the Titans to start the season, but Fulton was a good value with the 61st overall pick and should find his way on the field sooner rather than later, leaving Joseph as a reserve. Going four deep at cornerback certainly isn’t a problem though.

At safety, the Titans go three deep, which is why they’ll likely use three safeties in sub packages frequently to mask their lack of linebacker depth. They did this occasionally last season and third safety Amani Hooker showed himself to be pretty capable on 335 snaps, 89.9% of which came in passing situations. Hooker was just a 4th round rookie, but he was a strong value where he was taken and could easily develop into a starter long-term or at least a capable third safety. He’s also versatile and can play the slot if needed, so he should find a way to exceed last year’s snap total.

Kevin Byard and Kenny Vacarro remain as the starters, after playing 98.7% and 95.5% of the snaps last season. Vacarro is primarily a box safety and has the size at 6-0 214 to play some linebacker in sub packages, though he was below average on PFF in coverage grade last season. His issues in coverage have been pretty consistent throughout his career, but on the flip side of that he’s also finished above average against the run in 5 straight seasons. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, you can certainly find worse starting safeties than Vacarro.

Byard, meanwhile, plays deep more often and is one of the top safeties in the league in that role, as his 17 interceptions over the past three seasons rank lead the NFL over that stretch and he has finished in the top-14 overall among safeties on PFF in all three of those seasons. Byard led the league in interceptions with 8 in just his second season in the league in 2017 and, though he has “just” 9 over the past two seasons, that’s largely because quarterbacks have stopped throwing at him, targeting him just 66 times total in two seasons after 47 in 2017 alone. He headlines a strong unit that is the saving grace of this defense.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Titans were one of the better teams in the league by season’s end last year, but there are reasons to expect their offense to not quite be as efficient in 2020, with Ryan Tannehill likely to regress and an offensive line that looks likely to be noticeably worse. Their defense wasn’t particularly good down the stretch last season, but it’s unlikely they’ll be better this season to compensate for offensive regression, as they got rid of their top defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and are very underwhelming on the defensive front, especially if injuries strike, as they lack depth across the board. The Titans will be in the mix for a playoff spot in the AFC, especially with three wild card spots available, but I have them behind the Colts in the division and I wouldn’t consider them true contenders.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.53

Defensive Score: 73.17

Total Score: 74.85 (2nd in AFC South)

Jacksonville Jaguars 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe, but the Jaguars were in the AFC Championship during the 2017 season, a season in which they finished 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.95%. Just two seasons later in 2019, the Jaguars fell to 6-10 and were even worse than that suggests, finishing dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64%. How did it fall apart so quickly? Well, that 2017 team was built around a defense that ranked 1st in first down rate allowed and that defense got too expensive to keep together, while their offense was only able to have a middling season in 2017 (14th in first down rate) because they got a surprisingly competent season out of quarterback Blake Bortles against a very easy schedule.

In 2018, with a much tougher schedule, Bortles struggled and eventually lost his job at the end of the season, leading to the Jaguars starting Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew at quarterback in 2019. With the Foles/Minshew duo under center, the Jaguars ranked 29th in first down rate, while their hollowed out defense ranked 28th in first down rate allowed. The Jaguars’ defense, which I’ll get into later, lost even more this off-season, leaving them with just 3 of their top-14 in terms of snaps played from their 2017 defense, but this offense looks equally concerning. 

The Jaguars traded Foles to the Bears this off-season, getting out of his 15.6 million dollar salary, as the Jaguars go into full cost cutting rebuild mode. On both sides of the ball, this season looks like it will be more about getting a high draft pick, letting young players play, and rebuilding cap space for the future after years of cap hell, which they’ve already done in a big way, with the third most projected available cap space in the league for 2021.

With Foles gone and only career backup Mike Glennon behind Minshew on the depth chart, this is officially Minshew’s job going into his second season in the league. Minshew might never develop into a long-term starter, but in many ways he’s a perfect quarterback for this team right now, because he’s inexpensive, he has upside, and if he struggles it will only help this team’s draft position. 

After falling to the sixth round, Minshew had his moments as a rookie and finished with 60.6% completion, 6.96 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, but he got worse as the season went on, ranking 26th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus from week 6 on, and he may still project best as a backup long-term, as the history of late round picks becoming long-term starters is very limited. Minshew will get an extended tryout for a team that figures to not win many games either way and he comes with some upside, but I wouldn’t expect much from him or this offense in 2020.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Minshew didn’t really have much help around him last season, but he did show a good rapport with second year wide receiver DJ Chark. Chark finished the season with a 73/1008/8 slash line on 118 targets, while averaging 1.69 yards per route run and earning Pro Football Focus’ 27th highest wide receiver grade. Chark is a total one-year wonder who barely made an impact on 291 snaps as a rookie in 2018, but he came into the league with a high ceiling and, while there’s some chance of regression from him this season, there’s also a chance he keeps getting better, only in his age 24 season.

The rest of this receiving corps was pretty underwhelming though, as Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook both earned middling grades as the other two wide receivers in 3 wide receiver sets, averaging 1.33 yards per route run and 1.20 yards per route run respectively, while their tight end production was among the worst in the league, with just 53 tight end completions. In order to try to improve this group, the Jaguars used a 2nd round pick on Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault and signed veteran tight end Tyler Eifert to a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal in free agency, who could both play significant roles.

At wide receiver, Shenault is expected to compete for playing time with Conley and Westbrook right away. A 4th round pick in 2017, Westbrook has been a solid, but unspectacular player across 38 career games, averaging a 67/723/4 slash line per 16 games, and earning average or better grades from PFF in all 3 seasons, while Conley’s underwhelming 2019 season was actually his career best, as the 2015 3rd round pick has earned middling at best grades across 5 seasons with the Chiefs and Jaguars. Conley is the more likely one to lose playing time to Shenault, especially since Westbrook is the Jaguars best option to play the slot. The Jaguars also have Keelan Cole, who has some starting experience, as a valuable reserve and he could see some situational snaps as well.

At tight end, the Jaguars are hoping Eifert can form a solid duo with 2019 3rd round pick Josh Oliver. Oliver’s rookie year was ruined by injuries, as he was limited to just 117 mediocre snaps in 4 games, but the Jaguars are still high on his future and he could easily take a big step forward in his second season if he’s healthy. Health has been a problem for Eifert throughout his career, as he’s missed 53 of 112 games in 7 seasons in the league. The former first round pick showed high end ability when healthy, posting a 52/615/13 slash line in 13 games in 2015 and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked tight end, but then he was limited to just 14 games over the next three seasons combined. 

Eifert then played all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, but all of the injuries seemed to have taken their toll, as Eifert earned a middling grade from PFF and had just a 43/436/3 slash line. Now going into his age 30 season, it’s likely his best days are behind him and he’s hardly a guarantee to make it through all 16 games again. If both are healthy, Eifert and Josh Oliver are, by default, an upgrade over what the Jaguars had at tight end last season, but they come with a lot of uncertainty, so the Jaguars will need someone to step up at wide receiver if they’re going to have a consistent 2nd option behind DJ Chark.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without much passing game production from the tight ends last season, running back Leonard Fournette finished 4th on the team in receiving yards with a 76/522/0, but that was more the product of opportunity than anything, as Fournette managed just 5.22 yards per target on 100 targets. Fournette’s passing game struggles are nothing new, as he’s averaged just 5.80 yards per target in 3 seasons in the league, which is why he was barely used in the passing game in his first two seasons in the league, but last season he was used frequently for lack of a better option.

The Jaguars don’t seem to want to do that again, bringing in ex-Redskins pass catching specialist Chris Thompson, who has averaged a 55/465/2 slash line per 16 games over the past 5 seasons. Thompson is highly unreliable when it comes to staying on the field though, missing 20 games over the past 5 seasons combined, including at least 5 games in 3 straight seasons, and he’s unlikely to suddenly become more durable now in his age 30 season, so it’s very likely Fournette will have to be an every down back again at some point in 2020.

Fournette has been better as a runner in his career than he’s been as a receiver, but he’s hardly been what the Jaguars were hoping for when they used the 4th overall pick on him in 2017, rushing for 2,631 yards and 17 touchdowns on 666 carries (3.95 YPC) and posting middling rushing grades on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league. This off-season Jaguars declined Fournette’s 5th year option for 2021, which would have guaranteed him 8.483 million for injury, and unsuccessfully tried to trade him on draft day, so his time with the team seems to be coming to a close, but in the meantime he should continue being the clear lead back on a team without another good rushing option.

Chris Thompson could see some action as a change of pace back and the speedster has an impressive 4.78 YPC average in 7 seasons in the league, but the diminutive 5-8 195 pounder has never topped 68 carries in a season and lacks the size and durability to carry a load. Given that, 2019 5th round pick Ryquell Armstead could be the Jaguars’ #2 back this season in terms of carries, but he showed very little as a rookie (3.09 YPC on 35 carries) to suggest he deserves a larger role, even with Fournette being an underwhelming starter. The addition of Chris Thompson helps this backfield, but this is still a questionable group, especially given Thompson’s inability to stay healthy in his career.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Jaguars also had underwhelming play on their offensive line last season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked run blocking team and their 24th ranked pass blocking team. The Jaguars didn’t really do much to upgrade this group this off-season though, so it should look largely the same in 2020. The one position which could potentially be different is right guard, where the Jaguars actually rotated a couple players last season, AJ Cann and Will Richardson.

Both players struggled mightily last season, especially Richardson who also saw some action at tackle and is expected to move to tackle full-time in 2020. Richardson, a 4th round pick in 2018, could still get better after face planting in his first career action last season, but Cann, while he’s more proven with 75 career starts, has never received more than a middling grade from PFF and is unlikely to get better, now in his 6th season in the league. With Richardson moving to tackle, he will be replaced at guard by 4th round rookie Ben Bratch, who will compete with and may rotate with AJ Cann at right guard, despite being raw. Regardless of who plays at right guard, it figures to be a position of weakness.

Richardson is likely to be a reserve at tackle, even though left tackle was a position of weakness with left tackle Cam Robinson finishing 75th out of 89 qualifying tackles on PFF. Robinson came into the league with high expectations with the 34th overall pick and he took over as the starting left tackle as a rookie, but hasn’t lived up to those expectations, struggling as a rookie in addition, finishing 81st out of 92nd qualifying tackles on PFF, and missing almost all of 2018 with a torn ACL before last year’s poor performance. 

Robinson still has upside, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from his ACL tear, but it’s possible he never develops into an even an average starter. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is also a former 2nd round pick, going 35th overall in 2019, and his development has gone better, as he was about an average starter in 16 rookie year starts at right tackle and could take a step forward in his second season in the league. It’s possible the Jaguars could flip their offensive tackles at some point if Robinson continues to struggle, but it’s unclear if Taylor would be as good at left tackle and Robinson wouldn’t necessarily be better at right tackle.

Center Brandon Linder was the best player on this unit last season, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked center while playing all but 7 snaps on the season. Playing at a high level is nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the top-7 among centers on PFF in 4 straight seasons (52 starts) since moving there from right guard, where he also had some success. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Linder should continue being one of the better centers in the league in 2020 and is probably the Jaguars’ best offensive player.

Left guard Andrew Norwell also has a history of success, finishing in the top-25 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, including a pair of top-10 finishes in 2015 and 2017. Norwell hasn’t been quite as good since joining the Jaguars from the Panthers two off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and he should continue being at least an above average starter going forward. Linder and Norwell elevate this offensive line, but this should remain an underwhelming group in 2020, having made few changes this off-season.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, the Jaguars struggled mightily on defense last season, finishing 28th in first down rate allowed at 38.50%, a drastic change from their #1 ranked defense of 2017. Even in 2018 in a disappointing season the Jaguars still finished 5th in first down rate allowed. In 2019, they actually got off to a pretty decent start, ranking 13th in first down rate allowed at 35.71% through the first 6 games of the season, but the wheels fell off when the Jaguars traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Rams ahead of week 7, as the Jaguars had the NFL’s 3rd worst first down rate allowed at 40.19% from that point on. 

This off-season, the Jaguars continued to shed talent as part of their rebuilding strategy. AJ Bouye, traded to the Broncos for a 4th round pick ahead of a 13.5 million non-guaranteed owed, and Marcell Dareus, released ahead of 20 million non-guaranteed owed, aren’t huge losses as both were middling players last season, but the Jaguars also sent Calais Campbell to the Ravens, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked interior defender last season, and got just a 5th round pick for him, moving him purely to avoid paying him 15 million for his age 34 season. He’s obviously a significant loss for this defense. All in all, the Jaguars are left with just 3 defenders from their top-14 in terms of snaps played from that dominant 2017 unit and they could easily be one of the worst defenses in the league in 2020.

One of those three who remains is edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, although it remains to be seen how long that will be in the case for, as Ngakoue has yet to sign his franchise tag tender and has demanded to be traded, with the Jaguars seemingly unwilling to pay him what he wants long-term. Ngakoue apparently wants to be paid in the Khalil Mack/Aaron Donald range (22+ million annually) as one of the highest paid defensive players in the league, so it’s understandable the Jaguars wouldn’t want to pay him at that level, as he struggles against the run and has only once finished higher than 33rd among edge defenders on PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and he has 37.5 sacks, 56 hits, and a 12.0% pressure rate for his career, so Ngakoue would likely get that kind of money from someone if he were available on the open market, given how young pass rushers are valued in this league.

Finding a team willing to give Ngakoue that kind of deal and give up a premium pick for him is the tricky part and the Jaguars unsurprisingly had no takers at their first round asking price on draft day and have yet to move him. It’s possible they still will move him for a future draft pick before the season starts, rather than losing him for nothing next off-season, especially since the Jaguars don’t seem to be trying to be competitive in 2020 anyway, but if the Jaguars don’t move him Ngakoue’s only option would be to holdout, which is possible, but his 17,788 million dollar guaranteed salary on the franchise tag may ultimately be tough to turn down. Even if he isn’t Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald, he would still have a big impact on this pass rush if he remains on the roster in 2020.

Possibly seeing the writing on the wall with Ngakoue long-term, the Jaguars used the 20th overall pick, one of the two first rounders they received for Jalen Ramsey, on LSU edge defender K’Lavon Chaisson, their second straight season using a first round pick on an edge defender, with Kentucky’s Josh Allen going 7th overall in 2019. Allen didn’t reach the same heights as fellow rookie edge defender Nick Bosa, with whom Allen was frequently compared before the draft, but Allen had a solid rookie year in his own right, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF, particularly playing well as a pass rusher, with 10.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate. 

Only going into his age 23 season, Allen has a sky high ceiling and could easily take a step forward in 2020 on his way to becoming one of the better edge defenders in the league a few years down the line. Chaisson isn’t as clean of a prospect as Allen was and will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but he too has a high ceiling, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Chaisson and Allen developed into one of the best edge defender duos in the league at some point in the future.

If Ngakoue is traded or holds out, the Jaguars would likely turn to veteran Cassius Marsh, who they signed in free agency this off-season, or 4th year player Dawuane Smoot, who is going into his 4th year with the Jaguars since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017. Despite being a relatively high pick, Smoot has shown very little in 3 years in the league, playing just 818 snaps and struggling both against the run and as a pass rusher (7.6% pressure rate). Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s entering a make or break year and is not a guarantee to lock down a role. Marsh, meanwhile, has been mediocre on an average of 455 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons as a reserve with the Seahawks, 49ers, Patriots, and most recently the Cardinals. Both are underwhelming options, but if the Jaguars can get Ngakoue on the field, this is a trio with a lot of upside, at least as pass rushers.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

With Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus both gone from this interior of this defensive line, the Jaguars will move forward with holdovers Taven Bryan (481 snaps) and Abry Jones (558 snaps), veteran free agent acquisition Rodney Gutner, and third round rookie Davon Hamilton. Bryan has the highest upside of the bunch, as he was the Jaguars’ first round pick back in 2018, making it three years in a row in which the Jaguars have taken a defensive lineman in the first round. Bryan hasn’t lived up to his draft status yet, playing just 782 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s flashed as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher and has obvious breakout potential in his third year in the league, now likely to get a shot at an every down role.

Jones is the also tenured member of the group, spending his whole 7-year NFL career with the Jaguars, including a 488 snap season on the Jaguars dominant 2017 team, making him one of those three significant players still remaining from that defense. Jones has never been more than a rotational player, as the 558 snaps he played last season were a career high, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he surpassed that total in 2020 as the nominal starter in an underwhelming group. Jones is still only in his age 29 season and he’s consistently proven to be an above average run stuffer, but his 9.5 sacks, 6 hits, and 5.1% pressure rate in 100 career games leave something to be desired in passing situations.

With Davon Hamilton entering the league as a pretty raw prospect, the veteran Rodney Gutner figures to be Jones’ biggest competition for the nominal starting job opposite Bryan. Gutner has played 641 snaps and 602 snaps over the past 2 seasons with the Cardinals, but he’s largely been a snap eater more than anything and that has been the case throughout his career, even when he played a small role back in 2015-2017. He’s not a bad player in any aspect of the game and could be valuable for a team without much depth at the position, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him. Barring a huge breakout year from Bryan, this should be an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Even with the Jaguars rebuilding, they did make one big outside financial investment this off-season, signing ex-Browns linebacker Joe Schobert to a 5-year, 53.75 million dollar deal. Schobert will team up with Myles Jack, the third remaining significant player from their 2017 defense and a player who is also well paid on a 4-year, 57 million dollar deal. In 2017, the Jaguars had Jack and the since retired Telvin Smith as their top-2 linebackers, who both played in nickel packages, and they were a big part of the Jaguars’ defensive success that season. The contract the Jaguars gave Schobert suggests they have sign expectations for him as Smith’s long-term replacement.

If Schobert plays like he did in 2018, when he finished 10th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, he’ll be worth his contract, but that’s not a guarantee, as the 2016 4th round pick has never finished higher than 30th at his position on PFF in any of his other 3 seasons in the league, including a 57th ranked finish in 2019. He’s a good coverage linebacker and was especially dominant in coverage in 2018, allowing a ridiculous 0.42 yards per route run, lowest at his position, but he tends to struggle against the run, especially last season, and his 57 missed tackles over the past 3 seasons definitely stand out as a problem. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was consistently a solid every down player, but it’s likely his 2018 season will end up being his career best when all is said and done.

Jack is also coming off of a disappointing year, finishing 87th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF, but injuries were largely to blame in a season in which he was limited to 613 snaps in 11 games and, prior to last season, Jack had finished above average on PFF in back-to-back season as a starter. Still only his age 25 season, the 2016 2nd round pick has obvious bounce back potential and could benefit from Schobert coming in to take over in the middle, allowing Jack to play in probably a more natural spot outside.

In 2017, the Jaguars also had a talented third linebacker, as veteran Paul Posluzsny was a dominant run stuffer in base packages, but he also has since retired and the Jaguars don’t have anyone like that anymore. The Jaguars used a 3rd round pick on Quincy Williams in 2019, but he was widely regarded as a reach and didn’t prove anyone wrong in a horrendous rookie season in which he finished as PFF’s 98th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2020, but it’s tough to trust him in any role. 

Leon Jacobs, a 2018 7th round pick, has flashed in limited action thus far in his career, particularly against the run, but he’s played just 471 snaps, so he’s hardly a reliable option either. It’s also possible 4th round rookie Shaquille Quarterman could get into the mix as the third linebacker at some point this season. Schobert and Jack aren’t a bad duo, but depth is a question mark.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Jaguars’ secondary is the unit that has changed the most since 2017, as they now have a completely new unit. At safety, the starting duo of Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, who were solid in 2017, were both let go after 2018 for salary reasons and the Jaguars then turned to inexpensive young prospects Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson to be their starting safeties in 2019 in place of Church and Gipson. Now going into 2020, Harrison and Wilson will remain the starters.

Harrison struggled in his first year as a starter, finishing 76th out of 100 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, after playing 328 underwhelming snaps as a rookie in 2018. A former 3rd round pick, Harrison still has starters’ tools and could take a step forward in his third season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee. Wilson, meanwhile, is a 2016 undrafted free agent who flashed in 305 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before breaking out as PFF’s 29th ranked safety in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder who might not be quite as good in 2020, but he still profiles as at least a capable starter going forward.

Cornerback was arguably the Jaguars’ best position on that dominant 2017 defense, led by Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, who finished 2nd and 7th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Both are no longer with the team, being traded in the past calendar year, while slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, who also had a solid year in 2017, is long gone, having left the following off-season. 

The Jaguars did a pretty good job of replacing Colvin, signing DJ Hayden in free agency and watching him prove to be a late bloomer, as the former first round pick has earned back-to-back above average grades as the third cornerback and primary slot cover cornerback (0.77 yards per route run allowed on the slot), after struggling in the first 5 seasons of his career. With Ramsey and Bouye both gone, however, Hayden will likely have to play a larger role and could be overstretched as an every down player, especially now on the wrong side of 30.

To replace Ramsey and Bouye as the primary outside cornerbacks, the Jaguars did use a first round pick, taking Florida’s CJ Henderson 9th overall, but he’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie and their other outside cornerback options are veteran free agent addition Rashaan Melvin and holdover Tre Herndon, who would both be underwhelming options. Undrafted in 2018, Herndon struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2019, finishing 107th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF across 902 snaps. 

Melvin, meanwhile, is going into his 8th season in the league, but he has been underwhelming at best in his career, aside from an impressive half season as a starter with the Colts in 2017, and he’s going into his age 31 season coming off of a 2019 season in which he finished 104th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks with the Lions. Unless CJ Henderson has a huge rookie year, this looks like a very underwhelming secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jaguars have the least expensive roster in the NFL by average annual salary and it shows. Their dominant 2017 defense is a thing of the past and should be even worse this season without Calais Campbell and others, as well as possibly Yannick Ngakoue, who wants a trade, while their offense looks to be one of the worst in the league, barring a surprising breakout year from quarterback Gardner Minshew, who has the history of late round quarterbacks in the NFL working against him. Ultimately, this team seems to be building for the future more than trying to compete in the short-term, stockpiling young talent, draft picks, and cap space for the future. The Jaguars might not be the worst team in the league this season but they’ll likely be in the mix for the #1 pick along with teams like the Redskins and Panthers. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 69.90

Defensive Score: 71.86

Total Score: 70.88 (4th in AFC South)

Indianapolis Colts 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this point last year, the Colts seemed to have a bright future. In their first season under new head coach Frank Reich in 2018, the Colts went 10-6, won a playoff game, and were especially good down the stretch, winning 9 of their final 10 regular season games, after some early season injuries that led to a 1-5 start. They finished the 2018 season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56% and, following a solid off-season in which the Colts had significant money to play with in free agency, the Colts looked like definite Super Bowl contenders going into the 2019 season. 

However, that all changed shockingly in late August, a few weeks before the season started, when Pro-Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement after a series of injury plagued seasons, hanging them up before what would have been only his age 30 season. Without Luck, the Colts still had one of the best supporting casts in the league and former backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett was one of the better backups in the league, but the drop off from Luck to Brissett was still too big for this team to overcome, as they fell short of the post-season at 7-9.

The Colts’ offense wasn’t really the problem, as they finished 10th in first down rate at 37.30%, en route to a 16th ranked finish in first down rate at +0.79%, which suggests they were slightly better than their final record. In fact, the Colts had a lot of close losses and could have won at least an extra two games if they hadn’t missed very makeable kicks. That doesn’t mean Jacoby Brissett wasn’t a problem, however, as the Colts were able to have some success offensively despite Brissett, not because of him. Despite a strong offensive supporting cast, Brissett completed just 60.8% of his passes for 6.58 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and on Pro Football Focus he finished 33rd out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. 

The Colts were never expecting Brissett to be their starter in 2019, turning to him only after Luck’s surprise retirement, so it’s not a surprise the Colts went out and found a replacement for him this off-season, signing at least a short-term solution in Philip Rivers, who joins the Colts on a one-year, 25 million dollar deal for his age 39 season after 16 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers overall has had a Hall-of-Fame career and he has finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in 10 of 14 seasons as a starter, while never missing a single start, but his age is obviously becoming a concern, especially off of a relatively down year in which he slid to 17th among quarterbacks on PFF. Overall, he completed 66.0% of his passes for 7.81 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions last season.

Rivers may have at least a couple years left in the tank as a starter and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Brissett, but his best days are probably behind him. Even still, with Rivers and Brissett as an above average backup behind him, this is a solid quarterback situation. Considering this offense had some success last season even with Brissett having an underwhelming season, it’s conceivable they could be one of the better offenses in the league if Rivers can be even a middle of the pack starting quarterback. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The biggest reason for the Colts’ success on offense last year was the running game, as the Colts understandably compensated for the loss of Andrew Luck by keeping it on the ground more, finishing the season 5th in the NFL with 471 carries, and they had a lot of success in doing so, rushing for the 7th most rushing yards in the league with 2,130 and finishing 12th in yards per carry at 4.52. Lead back Marlon Mack rushed for 1,091 yards and 8 touchdowns on 247 carries (4.42 YPC) and finished 10th in the NFL with a 52% carry success rate, which shows he was very efficient at keeping this offense on track. 

Mack gets a lot of help from an offensive line that ranked 2nd in the NFL in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus (more on the line later), but he is a solid running back in his own right, earning an average or better grade from PFF in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2017 (4.41 YPC and 20 touchdowns on 535 carries). Despite that, the Colts still used a high draft pick (41st overall) on Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor this off-season, suggesting they plan to remain relatively run heavy even with Rivers providing an upgrade under center.

Taylor’s addition likely means the Colts will not be paying Marlon Mack what he wants on a long-term extension, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, and in the meantime Mack and Taylor figure to split carries. How exactly it breaks out will likely be determined in training camp, the pre-season, and throughout the season, but it could ultimately be close to 50/50, as Taylor was arguably a first round talent, but Mack is a proven starter in the NFL. 

Mack and Taylor figure to get the vast majority of the carries on this season, with Jordan Wilkins (5.79 YPC on 111 carries in the past 2 seasons) providing nothing more than insurance, but passing down back Nyheim Hines figures to still have a role, as neither Mack nor Taylor are especially good in the passing game, with Mack catching just 52 passes in 40 career games and Taylor totaling just 39 catches in 3 seasons as a starter in college.

In fact, given the Colts’ quarterback upgrade and Philip Rivers’ tendency to check down to running backs, it would surprise me if Hines topped the 63/425/2 and 44/320/0 slash lines he’s had in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2018. His 3.74 YPC average on 137 carries shows his shortcomings as a runner, but he’s a decent pass catcher. He’s an important part of a deep and talented running back group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to excelling in the run game, the Colts’ offensive line is also strong in pass protection, allowing the 9th fewest sacks in the league last season (32), despite Jacoby Brissett averaging the 3rd longest time in the pocket of any quarterback. Philip Rivers, meanwhile, had the 3rd shortest average time in the pocket last season, frequently under pressure behind a terrible Chargers offensive line. He should benefit significantly from better pass protection with the Colts.

The Colts’ offensive line was dominant for stretches in 2018, but they only had their starting five together healthy for one 5-game stretch. In 2019, they had great injury luck upfront, with none of their starting five missing a single game, allowing them to dominate all season long. They probably won’t have quite the same injury luck in 2020, but they return the same five starters and look likely to be among the top offensive lines in the league once again.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is the longest tenured member of this group, making 132 starts in 9 seasons with the team that used the 22nd overall pick on him back in 2011. He’s been remarkably consistent over that stretch, finishing between 7th and 25th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in every season except for his rookie season and missing just 12 games total due to injury. Castonzo’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, but he didn’t show any decline in an 8th ranked finish in 2019 and is likely to remain an above average starter at least for another couple years. Castonzo reportedly considered retirement this off-season before re-signing for 33 million over 2 years, a deal that could possibly take him to the end of his career.

The rest of this group joined the team relatively recently. As good as this offensive line is overall, left guard Quenton Nelson is obviously their best player and he was arguably their team MVP last season, given how dependent they were on their running game and how Nelson paved the way on the ground. He finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked guard in overall grade, a year after the 6th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft finished 4th at his position as a rookie. As close to a sure thing as I’ve ever seen at the guard position coming out of the draft, it’s no surprise Nelson has instantly become one of the best guards in the NFL and, still only going into his age 24 season, it’s likely that only injuries could prevent him from being a perennial All-Pro for years to come.

Right tackle Braden Smith also was added through the 2018 NFL Draft, being taken by the Colts with the 37th overall pick at the top of the second round. He hasn’t been as good as Nelson obviously, but he’s developed into a talented young player in his own right, ranking 29th among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie and 9th in his second season in 2019. Also only going into his age 24 season, Smith could easily keep getting easier and he has the ability to be one of the best right tackles in the league for years to come.

Right guard Mark Glowinski also arrived in the 2018 off-season, although he arrived as a mere waiver claim after being released by the Seahawks, with whom he struggled mightily in 19 starts in three seasons after being drafted in the 4th round in 2015. It turns out the Seahawks gave up on him too quickly, as he took over as the starting right guard for the Colts in week 6 of 2018 and instantly made an impact, finishing the season as PFF’s 10th ranked guard. He wasn’t quite as good in a middling season as a 16-game starter in 2019, but he at least proved his 2018 season wasn’t a total fluke and that he could continue being a capable starter at best going forward. He was a good value re-signing on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal last off-season.

Ryan Kelly completes this offensive line on the pivot, entering his 5th season with the team after they took him in the first round in 2016. Kelly had a middling rookie year, followed by an injury ruined second season, but he’s finished in the top-10 among centers on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a career best 7th ranked finish in 2019. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s the only member of this unit not signed beyond next season, but the Colts have plenty of cap space to keep him, even if they have to reset the center market at upwards of 12 million annually to do so. It’s unlikely all five of these starters play all 16 games again in 2020 and depth is definitely suspect on the interior, but they at least have a solid swing tackle in Le’Raven Clark, a 2016 3rd round pick who has been capable across 12 career starts. It’s hard to find a more complete offensive line than this one.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with quarterback, the other unit on this offense that needs to play better in 2020 is this receiving corps. Fortunately, the problem was mostly injury related in 2019, as expected top-two wide receivers TY Hilton and Parris Campbell were limited to 478 snaps and 196 snaps respectively by injury, leaving Zach Pascal (799 snaps), Marcus Johnson (412 snaps), Chester Rogers (408 snaps), and Deon Cain (228 snaps) to play significant roles. Pascal surprisingly played pretty well, leading this team with a 41/607/5 slash line, after the 2017 undrafted free agent struggled on 527 snaps in the first action of his career in 2018, but the rest of this group struggled.

Things should be a lot better at wide receiver this season and Pascal could end up being no higher than 4th on the depth chart, as both Hilton and Campbell should be healthier and second round rookie Michael Pittman is expected to compete for a role in 3 wide receiver sets immediately. Campbell was a second round pick back in 2019, so he’s still very unproven after an injury riddled rookie year, as is the rookie Pittman, so it’s tough to know how much to expect from them, but the upside is obvious. Hilton, meanwhile, is the biggest re-addition, as he was Andrew Luck’s long-time #1 option, averaging a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games from 2014-2018 in games that Luck played. 

Hilton hasn’t been as good without Luck, averaging a 63/932/5 slash line per 16 games without Luck in his career, and he’s going into his age 31 season having dealt with a variety of nagging injuries over the past 2 seasons, but it’s very possible he could re-emerge as a legitimate #1 option now with Philip Rivers in town. He’s finished in the top-32 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 7 seasons, including three seasons in the top-11 (2014, 2016, and 2018) and a 28th ranked finish in limited action last season, so even if he’s on the decline, he still should remain an above average option for another couple seasons, provided he can stay healthy.

With underwhelming play at wide receiver, the Colts relied on tight ends in the passing game more last season and frequently ran two tight end sets with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron, who finished with slash lines of 43/448/4 and 31/375/3 respectively in 16 games and 11 games respectively. Ebron signed with the Steelers as a free agent on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, but Doyle remains and the Colts may have found a cheaper replacement for Ebron, signing ex-Bear Trey Burton to a cheap one-year deal.

Burton is coming off of a horrendous season, averaging a position worst 0.48 yards per route run, struggling as a blocker, and finishing as PFF’s 48th ranked tight end out of 50 qualifiers, leading to his release this off-season, but he was playing through serious injuries most of the time he was on the field last season and was limited to 283 snaps overall in 8 games. Burton was a capable starter for the Bears in 2018 (54/569/6) and flashed as a reserve with the Eagles in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to that, so he has some bounce back potential if he’s healthy in 2020, only in his age 29 season. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but neither has Ebron who he’s replacing, and Burton is unlikely to play as much as Ebron did, given the Colts’ improved depth at wide receiver.

Jack Doyle, meanwhile, should play a similar role as last season, but I would expect his production to go up, as not only does he get an upgrade at quarterback, but one that has historically targeted tight ends in the passing game. Doyle missed most of 2018 with injury, limited to 26/245/2 in 6 games, but that’s a 69/653/5 pace over 16 games and he totaled 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017. All in all, Doyle has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons, including 4 seasons as a starter (51 starts in 53 games), providing a reliable receiver underneath and a capable blocker as well. This is a deeper receiver corps, but Doyle should still be able to exceed last year’s production.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Colts’ defense wasn’t bad last season, finishing 20th in first down rate allowed at 36.51%, but the Colts had financial flexibility and the urgency to win now with an aging veteran quarterback on a one-year deal, so they made a big splash move before the draft to acquire 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for their first round pick, 13th overall. Buckner was a big part of the 49ers’ dominant defensive line in 2019, but the cap strapped 49ers didn’t have the financial flexibility to keep him long-term, so they sought to trade him. For the Colts, they’re paying a steep price, as they also had to give him a 4-year, 84 million dollar extension as part of the trade that makes him the third highest paid defensive player in the NFL in average annual salary behind Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack, but Buckner will provide a big boost to this defense.

The seventh overall pick by the 49ers in 2016, Buckner has been an above average starter since day 1, finishing 33rd among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus as a rookie, and then improving to finish 20th in 2017, 26th in 2018, and a career best 14th last season. All in all, he’s totaled 28.5 sacks, 52 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate from the interior in 4 seasons in the league, while playing at a high level against the run. Only going into his age 26 season, he has the ability to keep getting better, especially in an attacking 4-3 defense in Indianapolis that fits his skill set as a one gap penetrator well. He might have been a slight overpay, but he’ll help this defense in a big way.

Buckner will most directly replace free agent departure Margus Hunt and he is an obviously massive upgrade over Hunt, who is no longer with the team after finishing 114th out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF in 2019, but Hunt played just 451 snaps, so Buckner’s addition will likely also lead to reduced roles by both Denico Autry (620 snaps) and Grover Stewart (627 snaps). Autry is the better of the two players, so I would expect him to see his snaps reduced less, while Stewart will likely be limited to situational work as a run stuffer. 

Stewart has fared pretty well against the run in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2017, but the 6-4 333 pounder unsurprisingly has just a 4.5% pressure rate for his career. Autry, meanwhile, leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s an effective interior pass rusher who should continue playing in sub packages, after totaling 17.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate over the past 3 seasons and earning an above average pass rush grade from PFF in all 3 seasons.

Hybrid defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis could also be in the mix for snaps on the interior in sub packages and he has some upside as a 2018 2nd round pick, though injuries have limited him to 562 mediocre snaps in 17 games in 2 seasons in the league. The Colts also added veteran Sheldon Day in free agency and he could be in the mix for a role, especially if Lewis can’t secure one or gets hurt, though Day is an underwhelming option who has averaged just 281 snaps per game in 4 seasons in the league. Adding Buckner is a big boost to this position and the Colts have solid depth as well.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Along with DeForest Buckner disrupting offenses in a big way from the interior, the Colts should also have Justin Houston disrupting offenses in a big way on the edge, although that’s less of a sure thing, with Houston getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season. Houston hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet though, finishing last season 10th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, especially excelling as a pass rusher with 11 sacks, 9 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate. 

Now going into his 10th season in the league, Houston has finished in the top-22 among edge defenders on PFF in 8 straight seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-10. He had some injury problems for a stretch, missing 21 of 64 games from 2015-2018, but he played in all 16 games last season and has still totalled 89.5 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate for his career, even with the significant missed time. Even if he declines a little bit in 2020, he should continue playing at a high level.

With veteran edge defender Jabaal Sheard, who was about average across 569 snaps last season, no longer with the team, snaps are up for grabs aside from Houston and the Colts have some intriguing options, including third year defensive end Kemoko Turay. Originally a 2nd round pick, Turay was solid on 383 rookie year snaps and was expected to take on a larger role in his 2nd season, but his year was ended by injury after 4 games. Still, in those four games, Turay showed a lot to suggest he could have had a breakout year had he stayed healthy, with 1.5 sacks, 4 hits, and an amazing 20.3% pressure rate, while playing well against the run to boot. He’s still unproven, but he has obvious breakout potential in his age 25 season in 2020.

Ben Banogu is another option and he is also a former second round pick, going 49th overall in 2019. He struggled mightily as a rookie though, consistently struggling against the run and managing just an underwhelming 9.4% pressure rate off the edge, while only playing 272 snaps. He still has the upside to develop into a starter long-term, but he needs to take a step forward in his second season in the league to be worth a larger role. The Colts also have fourth year player Al-Quadin Muhammad in the mix for snaps, but he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, with an underwhelming 7.1% pressure rate for his career. The Colts’ have upside at the edge defender position, but need someone to step up as a consistent option opposite Justin Houston.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Colts also have a high level player in the linebacking corps, as 2018 2nd round pick Darius Leonard has developed into one of the best off ball linebackers in the league in just two seasons, finishing 7th at his position on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 6th in 2019. Only going into his age 25 season, Leonard could keep getting better and, barring injury, is likely to be one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years to come.

Along with Leonard, the rest of this linebacking corps is the same as last season, but unlike Leonard, the rest of this group didn’t play all that well, so the Colts will be banking on young players taking a step forward at this position. 2017 5th round pick Anthony Walker has played in a close to every down role over the past two seasons (48.6 snaps per game), but he has been a marginal player at best. He developed into a solid coverage player in 2019, but also led all off ball linebackers for 21 missed tackles. His 38 missed tackles over the past two seasons also are the most among off ball linebackers. He could be a little better in 2020, but doesn’t have a high upside.

Walker will likely be pushed for his every down role by 2019 3rd round Bobby Okereke, who flashed in 29.5 per game snaps in primarily a base package role last season. Okereke wasn’t tested much in coverage, but impressed against the run and played at a high level overall. He probably has a higher upside than Walker and could begin eating into Walker’s snaps as recently as this season. This is a young group with upside, but Darius Leonard is the only sure thing. He significantly elevates this whole group by himself though.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While the Colts linebackers are the exact same this season, they have made some changes in the secondary. At cornerback, the Colts released Pierre Desir, owed 6.85 million non-guaranteed after a down 2019 season in which he finished 91st out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, and will replace him with free agent acquisitions Xavier Rhodes and TJ Carrie, who will compete for snaps behind holdovers Kenny Moore and Rock Ya-Sin.

Moore will likely be their top cornerback again, as he’s been their de facto #1 cornerback over the past two seasons. Even though he was undrafted in 2017, Moore flashed on 384 snaps as a rookie and has finished 35th and 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus over the past two seasons respectively since becoming a starter. Moore is a better run stuffer than he is in coverage, but he’s still earned an above average coverage grade from PFF in both seasons. He’s at his best on the slot (0.92 yards per route run allowed on the slot over the past two seasons), but despite his limited size at 5-9 190 he can hold up on the outside and play every down as well. Still only going into his age 26 season, he should do more of the same for years to come and could keep getting even better.

Rock Ya-Sin also remains as a starter, after playing capably on 853 snaps (13 starts) as a rookie last year. The 34th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Ya-Sin has a high ceiling and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. That leaves newcomers Xavier Rhodes and TJ Carrie to compete for the third cornerback job, with Rhodes likely being the favorite, signing for 3 million on a one-year deal, compared to 1.05 million for Carrie. 

Rhodes also has the bigger track record of success, making 97 starts in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2013, with his best years coming in 2016 (21st among cornerbacks on PFF) and 2017 (37th), but he’s fallen off significant since then, falling to 107th out of 126 qualifying cornerbacks and 125th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks over the past 2 seasons respectively. Rhodes isn’t that old in his age 30 season, but he’s played through injuries in recent years that have consistently limited him and, even if he does bounce back in 2020, his best days are likely behind him. He’s not a bad third option, however, given his history. 

Carrie, meanwhile, is also experienced, with 51 starts in 92 games in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been as good as Rhodes at his best and he too is going into his age 30 season and coming off of a bad year, finishing 100th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season. Carrie is also primarily a slot cornerback and Moore has that role locked down, meaning Carrie is likely going to begin the season in a versatile depth role, able to fill in both inside and outside when needed.

At safety, the Colts let Clayton Geathers walk in free agency. Geathers had been with the Colts for 5 seasons since they took him in the 4th round in 2015 and he was generally a capable player across an average of 41.7 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons, but it’s not entirely surprising the Colts moved on, as Geathers had been very injury prone over the past four seasons (23 of 64 games missed) and lost his job to 4th round rookie Khari Willis down the stretch last season. Geathers also was a much better run stuffer than he was in coverage, which he frequently had trouble with. Willis is unproven with just 50.4 career snaps, but he was pretty solid last season and would be a more well-rounded long-term starting option than Geathers if he can continue to develop.

Malik Hooker remains as the other starting safety, though that may not be the case beyond this year, as the Colts declined the former 15th overall pick’s 5th year option for 2021, even though it would have guaranteed him just 6.7 million for injury. Injuries have always been a concern with Hooker, who has missed 14 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but the Colts will regret declining that option if Hooker has a big year in 2020, which he could easily do, as he’s shown a lot of potential when on the field in his career, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF in 14 starts in 2018 and 37th in 13 starts in 2019.

Only in his age 24 season with a huge upside, it’s surprising the Colts wouldn’t take a chance on Booker for 2021, but for 2020 he should be at least an above average starter when on the field. If he misses time, he’d likely be replaced by either George Odum, who has been decent on 489 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2018, or third round rookie Julian Blackmon. This is a solid secondary overall with good depth.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts made a big addition on both sides of the ball this off-season, adding Philip Rivers to upgrade the quarterback position and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to give them another dominant player on the defensive side of the ball. They also should get a healthier year from their #1 wide receiver TY Hilton, so it’s not hard to see how the Colts could be significantly better in 2020 and win an unsettled AFC South. The AFC in general is weak outside of the Ravens and Chiefs and, other than those two teams, the Colts look like they have the best shot to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 77.63

Defensive Score: 75.44

Total Score: 76.54 (1st in AFC South)

Washington Mascots 2020 NFL Season Preview

Update: The Washington Redskins will go by the name Washington Football Team in 2020 due to their inability to confirm a new name in time for the season. That is a stupid name. I will be calling them the Washington Mascots instead until they settle on a permanent name.

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe, but the Mascots were 6-3 and very much in the mix for the NFC East title going into week 11 of 2018. That week, their season was derailed by a devastating leg injury to franchise quarterback Alex Smith, which not only ended his season, but led to severe complications that have put his career in jeopardy. Backup Colt McCoy got injured a few weeks later and the Mascots had to resort to starting street free agents at quarterback down the stretch in what ended as a 7-9 season.

The Smith injury is an obvious reason for the decline, but the Mascots were never as good as their record with Smith, as they ranked 26th in first down rate differential when he went down,  with just a +1 point differential, despite a +11 turnover margin. That’s the reason why the Mascots still struggled in 2019, finishing with the 2nd worst record in the NFL at 3-13, even with quarterback play that was competent compared to what they got down the stretch in 2018. The Mascots were every bit as bad as their record suggested, finishing with the 2nd worst first down rate differential at -6.31%.

There are some reasons to be optimistic for the Mascots. The big one is new head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera was mostly successful in 9 seasons (76-63-1) in Carolina, including a Super Bowl appearance, and his dismissal mid-season last season was more about the Panthers simply wanting to make a change than anything. It’s hard to imagine too many coaches having success with the injury plagued rosters Rivera has had the past two seasons and it’s definitely not surprising the Panthers’ defense got even worse once they fired the defensive minded Rivera. Rivera could have had his pick of most of the available jobs this off-season, so it’s a bit surprising he picked Washington, but it’s a big win for the Mascots and legitimizes the organization at least somewhat.

A big part of the reason why Rivera took this job is probably second year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who was the 15th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, as it’s unlikely Rivera would have taken this job if he was not high on the former Ohio State quarterback. Haskins’ rookie year numbers aren’t impressive, as he completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and led the Mascots to a 33.42% first down rate in his 7 starts, but he led the Mascots’ offense to a 40.08% first rate down in his final 4 starts of the season before missing week 17, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception over that stretch, so he definitely got better as his rookie year went on.

It’s overly optimistic to assume Haskins can keep that kind of production up for 16 games, but it’s not hard to imagine Haskins taking a step forward in his second season in the league. Haskins was considered raw coming out of college, as he was just a one-year starter, though he had one of the most impressive statistical seasons in Big Ten history in that one season. Only going into his third season as a starter between college, Haskins has a high ceiling and could easily develop into an above average starter long-term, even if it isn’t this season.

Experienced Veteran Case Keenum began last season as the starting quarterback and made eight starts in total, but he’s no longer with the team, so this is completely Dwayne Haskins’ job now. To replace Keenum as the backup, Rivera sent a late round draft pick to his former employer to acquire Kyle Allen, who made 12 starts in Cam Newton’s absence for Rivera’s Panthers in 2019. 

Allen got off to a good start last season, but finished with 62.0% completion, 6.79 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, with another 12 potential interceptions dropped, giving him the most expected interceptions of any quarterback in the league besides Jameis Winston. Overall, Allen finished 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. The former undrafted free agent has his moments, but ultimately profiles as a backup at best long-term and he would likely struggle if he had to see action in Haskins’ absence this season. The Mascots are banking on Haskins taking a step forward and they may get that, though how much of a step forward remains to be seen.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

One factor working against Haskins is his lack of a supporting cast on offense. The Mascots had the most adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2019, which is normally a good sign for future improvement, as injuries tend to be very inconsistent year-to-year, but on offense a lot of the players they lost last season are no longer with the team, including top-2 tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis and former starting wide receiver Paul Richardson. 

The Mascots also did very little to upgrade Haskins’ supporting cast and as of this writing have the second most unused cap space in the league, along with 14 million in dead cap and a 21.4 million dollar cap hit for Alex Smith, who is unlikely to play a snap this season. Normally teams with potential franchise quarterbacks on a cheap rookie deal tend to be aggressive in free agency upgrading around that quarterback, but the Mascots were anything but, especially in the receiving corps, where the Mascots will be relying on a very young group.

The best of that young group by far is 2019 3rd round pick Terry McLaurin, who had a tremendous rookie season. Not only did he put up an impressive 58/919/7 slash line, but he did it despite not being an every down player for most of the season, ranking 33rd in the NFL in snaps played by a wide receiver. In terms of yards per route run, he ranked 14th in the NFL among wide receivers at 2.05, which is even more impressive when you consider how ineffective the rest of this offense was. Overall, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked wide receiver. 

McLaurin benefits from familiarity with Haskins, who was a college teammate at Ohio State, but he produced regardless of the quarterback last season. McLaurin was a little old for a rookie, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has a bright future as he and Haskins continue to develop together. Even if the rest of this offense struggles, I would expect McLaurin to top his 2019 production, as he’ll likely have a larger target share and play closer to every down.

No other Redskin topped 400 yards receiving last season and they didn’t make any real additions to this group this off-season; in fact, they lost free agent pass catching back Chris Thompson, whose 42/378/0 slash line made him the team’s 2nd leading receiver last year. Without proven options, the Mascots are banking on some young players taking a big step forward. Kelvin Harmon finished 2nd on the team among wide receivers in snaps played, though he only played about half the snaps, posting a middling grade across 482 snaps and averaging a mediocre 1.26 yards per route run. A 6th round pick in 2019, he’ll likely have a larger role in 2020 and is probably the favorite for the #2 receiver job, but he’s a very underwhelming starting option. 

Trey Quinn, a 2018 7th round pick, was the Mascots’ primary slot receiver for most of last season, but he was abysmal in the first significant action of his career, averaging just 0.66 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 98th ranked wide receiver out of 102 qualifiers before going down for the season with injury in week 13. His replacement Steven Sims was a clear upgrade in limited action, so Quinn isn’t going to be guaranteed to get his job back. 

Sims averaged 1.46 yards per route run on 213 routes, flashed his speed on 9 carries for 85 yards and a 1 touchdown, and earned a middling grade from PFF on 310 snaps, but he’s hardly a reliable option either, as speedy the but undersized (5-10 177 pounds) 2019 undrafted free agent has still barely played in the NFL. Other options for playing time at wide receiver include veteran Cody Latimer, primarily a special teamer who has never topped 24 catches in 7 seasons in the league, and raw 4th round rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden. They would both be underwhelming options as well.

Things aren’t any better at tight end either. Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis were once a solid tight end duo, but injuries cost Reed all of 2019 and limited Davis to 186 snaps in 4 games, leaving bottom of the roster talents Jeremy Sprinkle and Hale Hentges to lead the team with 601 snaps and 230 snaps respectively. Reed and Davis are both no longer with the team, but outside of signing another couple bottom of the roster talents in Richard Rodgers and Logan Thomas, the Mascots did nothing to address the position this off-season.

Sprinkle is penciled in as the starter, even though the 2017 5th round pick has struggled throughout his career as both a blocker and a receiver. That was especially the case last season in his first extended starting experience, as he averaged just 0.79 yards per route run on a 26/241/1 slash line and finished as PFF’s 42nd ranked tight end overall out of 44 qualifiers. Hentges was better, but only by default and the 2019 undrafted free agent still has very little NFL experience. 

Richard Rodgers is the most proven of the bunch with a 58/510/8 slash line in 2015, but that was largely due to playing with Aaron Rodgers and he’s been limited to just 43 catches in 4 seasons since, in part due to injuries. Thomas, meanwhile, has never topped 16 catches in a season in 6 seasons in the league. Outside of Terry McLaurin, it’s tough to see where Haskins is going to be able to find a reliable target in the passing game.

Update: Kelvin Harmon is out for the season with a torn ACL, capping this group’s upside even more. Steven Sims and Trey Quinn will now have to see significant roles.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With passing down back Chris Thompson now in Jacksonville, the Mascots used a third round pick on Antonio Gibson, who played both wide receiver and running back in college and is expected to be the primary passing down back in 2020. Gibson could also see some snaps at wide receiver in certain situations. The Mascots also added veteran Peyton Barber in free agency, although that one is a little harder to understand. 

Not only does Barber have a redundant skill set to their top-2 backs Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, as a two down between the tackles runner, but he’s also coming off of a horrendous season in Tampa Bay, ranking dead last in the NFL in yards per carry with 3.05 YPC average on 154 carries. He also has just a 3.60 YPC average for his career and has never topped 20 catches in a season. The 2-year, 3 million dollar deal the Mascots gave him in free agency seems like a total waste, as he figures to start the season 4th on the depth chart and likely wouldn’t be a useful option if even Peterson or Guice was to get injured.

Injuries have been the story of Guice’s career thus far, as the 2018 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL and was limited to 42 carries in five games last season by further knee injuries. Guice flashed on those 42 carries last season, averaging 5.83 YPC, and he still has plenty of talent and plenty of time to show why he was drafted highly, still only going into his age 23 season, but he’s hardly a reliable player. 

The Mascots originally signed Adrian Peterson after Guice tore his ACL and, despite his advanced age for a running back, he’s been a capable lead back for them, rushing for 1,940 yards and 12 touchdowns on 462 carries (4.20 YPC). How the carries would be divided between a healthy Guice and Peterson, now in his age 35 season, remains to be seen, especially with Peyton Barber around as a wild card option for carries. None of Barber, Guice, and Peterson are much of a pass catcher, so the only player likely locked in a role is the rookie Gibson on passing downs. There’s some potential at this position, but a lot of questions as well.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Another player the Mascots were without in 2019 was left tackle Trent Williams, who sat out the whole season, but he’s not coming back either, as the Mascots finally granted his trade request this off-season and sent him to the San Francisco 49ers for draft picks. The Mascots also lost Donald Penn, Williams’ replacement last season, and left guard Ereck Flowers, who were both capable starters last season, and they didn’t do much to replace either of them, so this is still a very underwhelming offensive line.

Left tackle is the biggest area of concern as, without Penn and Williams, the Mascots are down to free agent acquisition Cornelius Lucas and 2018 3rd round pick Geron Christian, who would both be questionable options. Lucas flashed in 5 starts down the stretch for the Bears last season, but that was on the right side and it’s very possible that stretch was a flash in the pan for a player who has made just 14 total starts in 6 seasons in the league. 

Lucas would almost definitely be overmatched as a 16-game starter on the blindside, but Christian wouldn’t necessarily be better, as he’s struggled on 189 career snaps and has been unable to earn coaching staff’s trust enough to get onto the field consistently, even with plenty of available opportunity on this unit. It’s possible 4th round rookie Saadhiq Charles could also see starts at left tackle down the stretch if neither Lucas nor Christian can lock down the job, though he enters the league very raw. Donald Penn also remains a free agent and could be brought back, but it’s unclear what he’d have left for his age 37 season or if he’d even want to return.

At left guard, free agent Wes Schweitzer is expected to be the replacement for Ereck Flowers, after coming over from the Falcons on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Schweitzer is experienced, making 36 starts in the past 3 seasons, but the former 2016 6th round pick has been middling at best, including a 62nd ranked finish out of 89 qualifying guards in 2019, so he’s an underwhelming option and figures to be a downgrade from Flowers, who ranked 34th.

The Mascots did fortunately keep right guard Brandon Scherff on the franchise tag, as he’s one of the few bright spots on this offense. He’s also a player the Mascots can expect more from this season, after injuries limited him to 11 games in 2019, though it’s worth noting he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season in 2016. Even with the injuries, Scherff has developed from the 5th overall pick in 2015 to one of the better guards in the NFL, finishing in the top-27 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including top-7 finishes in both 2017 and 2019. Even though he’s set to make 15.03 million on the franchise tag, retaining him was a no brainer and the Mascots should try to get him signed long-term as soon as possible, even if they have to make him one of the top paid guards in the league to do so.

Right tackle Morgan Moses and center Chase Rouiller also remain. Moses is a long-time starting right tackle for the Mascots, making all 80 starts there over the past five seasons. He’s never been a dominant player, but he’s been consistently average or better on PFF in every season, he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, and his durability is an added bonus. Rouliller, meanwhile, has been a middling starter in 37 career starts, since being drafted by the Mascots in the 6th round in 2017, and is coming off of his best season, ranking 15th among centers on PFF. There’s some continuity on this offensive line, but the left side is a real question mark.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Mascots have concerns on defense as well, but they are mostly in the backend. In fact, the Mascots are moving to a 4-3 defense this year after years of playing a 3-4 and their new 4-man defensive line is an obvious strength. The Mascots’ interior defenders and edge defenders played well last season and the Mascots got even better upfront this off-season when they used the 2nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Ohio State edge defender Chase Young. With Young coming in and this defense moving to an attacking 4-3 style, the Mascots could be very disruptive upfront this season.

Young has the potential to be one of the best edge defenders in the league long-term and he’ll immediately have a big role, even at a position where the Mascots were pretty deep last season. Along with using the 2nd pick on Young this year, the Mascots also used a first round pick on an edge defender in 2019, taking Montez Sweat 26th overall, and a second round pick in 2017, taking Ryan Anderson 49th overall. Add in former first round pick Ryan Kerrigan (16th overall in 2010) and the Mascots go four deep on the edge and should rotate their players heavily. Neither Sweat nor Anderson have broken out as more than a middling player yet though, so it definitely doesn’t hurt to add more talent to the mix. 

Sweat still profiles as an above average starter long-term, while Anderson’s future is murkier, as he’s going into his 4th season in the league and finished 92nd out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in the first starting experience of his career in 2019. Kerrigan, meanwhile, is coming off of his lowest graded season since his rookie year, not a complete surprise given his age, as he’s now going into his age 32 season. Kerrigan finished above average on PFF in 9 straight seasons prior to 2019, including a career best 15th in 2017, but he fell to 71st out of 118 qualifiers in 2019 and it’s likely his best days are behind him. He could still continue to contribute as a rotational player for another few years, but he could also continue declining.

Given his age and decline, it’s surprising Kerrigan wasn’t released or forced to take a pay cut this off-season, owed 10.75 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his contract next year. An extension that guarantees him some money beyond 2020 in exchange for a significant pay cut could make the most sense for both sides, especially with Kerrigan wanting to finish his career in Washington. This is a deep edge group, but they need a young player like Montez Sweat or Chase Young to breakout if they’re going to have a top level player at the position.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Mascots also have a bunch of recent high draft picks on the interior, including a pair of former first round picks in Da’Ron Payne (13th overall in 2018) and Jonathan Allen (17th overall in 2017). The 6-3 319 pound Payne was primarily a nose tackle in the Mascots’ old 3-4, but he played more sub packages than your typical nose tackle, averaging 50.2 snaps per game in his career thus far. He’s been a good run stuffer, but needs to develop as a pass rusher (5.7% pressure rate) if the Mascots are going to continue justifying playing him in sub packages. Fortunately, Payne is only going into his age 23 season, so he still has a high ceiling as a potential three down player. Allen, meanwhile, is a more well rounded player, but doesn’t excel in any one area.

Matt Ioannidis was only a 5th round pick in 2016, but he’s arguably developed into the Mascots’ best interior defender, earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, while averaging 42.0 snaps per game. Ioannidis leaves something to be desired against the run, but has consistently been a productive pass rusher for this team, totaling 20.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a very impressive 12.4% pressure rate from the interior over the past three seasons combined. The Mascots also have good depth on the interior, as 2018 5th round pick Tim Settle has shown promise on 449 snaps thus far in his career, both as a pass rusher (7.1% pressure rate) and a run stuffer. Little has changed with this unit, beyond their young players having another year another their belt, so this should remain an above average unit with upside.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

While the Mascots’ defensive front looks strong, their backend has a lot of problems. That was the case in the linebacking corps last season, as their top-2 linebackers Jon Bostic (1,031 snaps) and Cole Holcomb (718 snaps) finished 66th and 64th respectively among qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while top reserve Shaun Dion Hamilton (387 snaps) wasn’t much better. There’s a good chance things are better in 2020 though and not just by default, as the Mascots made a pair of additions in free agency in Thomas Davis and Kevin Pierre-Louis and they are also expected to get linebacker Reuben Foster back from a devastating knee injury that cost him all of 2019. All three have potential in 2020 and will compete for roles with the three holdovers in the Mascots’ new 4-3 linebacking corps.

Davis is easily the most proven of the bunch, although his best days are definitely behind him, now going into his age 37 season. Davis was once one of the better every down 4-3 outside linebackers in the league in his prime and he did so in Carolina with Ron Rivera, but last season with the Chargers, while he still played at a high level against the run, he struggled in coverage and was limited to base package work down the stretch. He has the opportunity to earn an every down role in a thin linebacking corps in Washington, but he could continue to struggle in coverage given that he doesn’t have the same athleticism he once did. He was signed to a one-year deal worth 3.5 million this off-season and could easily be entering the final year of what would be a 16-year NFL career.

Pierre-Louis also comes to town on a one-year deal, signing for 3 million this off-season. Pierre-Louis has primarily played special teams thus far in his career, never topping 273 defensive snaps in 6 seasons in the league, but he flashed in 4 starts down the stretch as an injury replacement for the Bears last season. He’s already going into his age 29 season and could prove to be a flash in the pan, but he’s a worthwhile flyer for a team that needs help at the position. The Mascots shouldn’t expect much from him defensively and he’s not guaranteed to lock down a role, but he does come with some upside and should at least help on special teams.

The player with the biggest upside is Reuben Foster, but it’s tough to know what to expect from him, given the extent of his leg injury. Foster was a first round pick by the 49ers in 2017 and his career got off to a good start, as he played well across 16 starts in his first two seasons in the league, but then his career was derailed by legal issues, followed by last season’s injury. The allegations against Foster proved to be largely unfounded, so he should be in the clear to return from a conduct standpoint, but he has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days and it’s tough to know what to expect from him from a health standpoint. If healthy, I would expect him to at least have a base package role and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he still has time to develop into an above average starter, but his future is very uncertain.

Among the three holdovers, Jon Bostic is the most experienced of the bunch, making 62 starts in 7 seasons in the league and playing 91% of the snaps for the Mascots last season, but he struggled last season and has never been more than a snap eater in his career, so he shouldn’t be guaranteed a starting role. Cole Holcomb also started 16 games last season, but he also struggled and, though the 2019 5th round pick could be better in his second season, there’s no guarantee he ever develops into a consistent starter. Shaun Dion Hamilton, meanwhile, has played just 516 snaps since being drafted by the Mascots in the 6th round in 2018 and probably isn’t a roster lock, even at a position without established roles. This is a deeper group than last year and one with more upside, but they also don’t have any sure things either.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Mascots also have a lot of problems in the secondary. At cornerback, the Mascots got rid of Quinton Dunbar and Josh Norman. Cutting Norman was a no brainer and won’t hurt this team, as he was owed 12.5 million non-guaranteed after a season in which he totally fell off and finished 128th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but Dunbar, who was traded because the Mascots didn’t want to sign him to a big contract long-term, was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season, finishing 3rd at his position on PFF. He’ll obviously be a huge loss for a team that had a lot of problems in the secondary last season even with Dunbar around.

Dunbar will be replaced by free agent acquisition Kendall Fuller, who returns to Washington on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, after spending the past two seasons in Kansas City, where he was sent as part of the Alex Smith trade. Drafted by the Mascots in the 3rd round in 2016, Fuller was dominant as the primary slot cornerback in his second and seemingly final season with the Mascots in 2017, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on PFF on 720 snaps (0.74 slot yards per route run allowed, 3rd in the NFL among cornerbacks).

However, he never matched that level of play in Kansas City, falling to 33rd among cornerbacks as an every down player in 2018 and then getting benched in a middling 2019 season in which he ended up playing just 498 snaps in 11 games. Given that, it’s surprising the Mascots paid him as much as they did to return, but, still only going into his age 25 season, Fuller still has upside going forward and he has obvious bounce back potential in 2020, even if he never repeats his dominant 2017 season.

The Mascots also signed ex-Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby to a one-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency and he has a good chance to lock down a starting job in Washington. Like Fuller, Darby has had success in the past, finishing 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 37th in 2018, but he’s missed 20 games over the past three seasons combined, he’s never played all 16 games in a season in 5 seasons in the league, and his injuries seem to have sapped his abilities, as he fell to 129th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 2019. Still only going into his age 26 season, Darby still has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, but he’s a big question mark.

The biggest reason Darby is likely locked into a starting role is the Mascots lack a good alternative, with holdovers Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland, who both struggled in 2019, being their only other real options for snaps at the position. Playing 664 snaps and 471 snaps respectively, Moreau and Moreland finished 115th and 96th respectively among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season. Both are young and could improve in the future, but Moreland was just a 7th round choice in 2019, while Moreau has been mediocre in 3 seasons in the league (17 starts) since the Mascots took him in the 3rd round in 2018. One of the two will have to play in three cornerback sets and, given Darby’s injury history, it’s likely both will see significant action together at some point this season.

At safety, Landon Collins remains as the starter at one spot, while free agent acquisition Sean Davis is likely to start at the other spot. Collins came to Washington last off-season on a huge 6-year, 84 million dollar deal that makes him the 3rd highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary. He’s not as good as that suggests, particularly because he’s a much better player against the run than he is in coverage, where he has his struggles from time to time, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 10th ranked finish in 2016 and a 12th ranked finish in 2017, though he was just 40th in 2019. Still very much in his prime in his age 26 season, Collins should remain an above average strong safety.

Davis, meanwhile, replaces Montae Nicholson, who was released this off-season after a miserable 2019 season in which he dealt with off the field problems and finished 95th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Davis should be an upgrade, although that’s not saying much. A 2nd round pick by the Steelers in 2016, Davis started 40 games in the first 3 seasons of his career and was a solid starter in 2018, but he struggled in both 2016 and 2017 and he missed all but 55 snaps last season with injury, so it’s tough to know what to expect him from in 2020. With only 2018 4th round pick Troy Apke, who flashed on the first 210 snaps of his career last season, is an alternative, Davis is likely locked into a starting role. Even if Davis is an upgrade at safety, it’s hard to say this secondary didn’t get worse by losing Dunbar at cornerback.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Mascots did well to get Ron Rivera as their head coach this off-season, quarterback Dwayne Haskins could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league, and the Mascots made the obvious decision to take Chase Young 2nd overall, but that’s about where the good news ends for the Mascots, who have positions of weakness across the depth chart, on both sides of the ball. This team has the 3rd lowest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, even with Alex Smith commanding significant cap space while injured and unavailable, and it shows with a roster that is arguably the NFL’s worst around the quarterback. Even if Haskins makes progress in his second season, it’s hard to see him having much luck in the win/loss column. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 70.24

Defensive Score: 71.27

Total Score: 70.76 (4th in NFC East)

Philadelphia Eagles 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The future seemed very bright for the Eagles after their Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2017 season. Not only did they win the Super Bowl, but they were able to do it despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz to injury late in the season and having to turn to backup Nick Foles. Prior to the injury, Wentz was a possible MVP candidate and was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback in just his 2nd season in the league, so getting him back to a team that had won the Super Bowl even without him seemed like a recipe for long-term success.

Instead, things have not been quite as good. The Eagles have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but have done so at just 9-7 both times. In terms of first down rate, they ranked 15th on offense, 8th on defense, and 8th in differential in 2018 and 15th on offense,10th on defense, and 12th in differential in 2019, good but below expectations for a team that some thought would be a perennial Super Bowl contender. Head coach Doug Pederson who looked like an offensive wizard in their Super Bowl season has proven to be overmatched without top offensive assistant Frank Reich, who has since taken over as the head coach with the Colts.

Carson Wentz hasn’t been bad, but he’s fallen to 14th and 16th among quarterbacks on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, making his strong 2017 look like an outlier, he hasn’t gotten the help he’s needed around him, and he hasn’t made it through a season without suffering a serious injury, totaling just two drives worth of playoff action thus far in his career. All in all, in the regular season, he’s completed 63.8% of his passes for an average of 6.90 YPA, 97 touchdowns, and 35 interceptions, while adding 785 yards and 3 touchdowns on 206 carries (3.81 YPA) on the ground, good numbers, but definitely not consistently elite.

In 2017, the Eagles could surround the quarterback, either Wentz or Foles, with a Super Bowl contending roster because they had just 4.4% of their cap space committed to Wentz and Foles combined, with Foles on a backup deal and Wentz on a rookie deal. Now Wentz, signed to a 4-year, 128 million dollar extension with 81.97 million guaranteed last off-season, takes up 9.4% of the cap in 2020 himself and is projected to take up 16.6% in 2021. 

The Eagles have gotten creative to fit the most expensive team in the NFL by average annual salary under the cap, but it’s getting harder and harder to consistently put Super Bowl caliber supporting casts around the quarterback and they’re already 52 million over the projected 2021 cap, assuming it doesn’t get cut by revenue losses. It might not be totally fair to knock Wentz as being injury prone just because he’s suffered some untimely injuries late in the season, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to stay healthy in 2020, but unless he can consistently find his 2017 form, it’s going to be tough for this team to be the perennial contender they once looked like they might be.

Given Wentz’s tendency to get hurt, it’s unsurprising the Eagles prioritized the backup quarterback spot in free agency this off-season, but what was surprising is that the Eagles used the 53rd overall pick on Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts to be that quarterback. Hurts has the upside to develop into a long-term starter, but the Eagles need a short-term backup and Hurts comes into the league very raw, so the Eagles almost definitely would be in better hands with a veteran backup this season. Hurts’ athleticism could allow the Eagles to use some creative packages, but it’s hard to justify the Eagles taking Hurts where they did, given Wentz’s age and the Eagles’ inability to realistically get out of his contract until 2023. The Eagles will have to hope Wentz can finally stay healthy for a full season this year, as Hurts would likely struggle as a rookie.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Eagles’ biggest problem on offense last season was their receiving corps, particularly the wide receiver position. Things looked strong at the position going into last season, as they retained their leading two wideouts from 2018, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, and added veteran DeSean Jackson and 2nd round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the off-season. However, Jeffery and Jackson were limited to 493 snaps and 65 snaps respectively with injury, while Agholor and Arcega-Whiteside both struggled mightily, and the various other options the Eagles tried at the position, Greg Ward (308 snaps), Mack Hollins (395 snaps), Robert Davis (103 snaps), Jordan Matthews (134 snaps), all were underwhelming as well. By the end of the season, the Eagles were calling up players from the practice squad to play significant snaps in 3-wide receiver sets and they had backup quarterback Josh McCown available to be the 4th wide receiver if needed.

With Jeffery and Jackson set to return from injury and Arcega-Whiteside going into his 2nd year in the league, things would have been better by default at wide receiver for the Eagles in 2020 even if they didn’t made any big moves at the position, but they clearly made upgrading the position a priority, adding 4 wide receivers on draft day, including veteran Marquise Goodwin, who came over from the 49ers for a swap of sixth round picks. Fifth round rookie John Hightower and sixth round rookie Quez Watkins are unlikely to make much of an impact right away, but first round rookie Jalen Reagor should be in the mix for snaps immediately.

Reagor will likely primarily compete for the #3 wide receiver job with Arcega-Whitside, who still has upside, despite averaging a 0.55 yards per route run and finishing in the bottom-3 at his position in Pro Football Focus, but Reagor could also have opportunity for even more playing time if Alshon Jeffery isn’t ready for the start of the season after suffering a serious foot injury down the stretch last season. Even if Jeffery plays week one, it’s reasonable to expect him to miss the whole off-season program and, going into his age 30 season coming off of a serious injury, he might not be the same player.

Injuries are unfortunately nothing new for Jeffery, who has played one full 16-game season in his last 5 tries, having missed a total of 20 games in the other 4 seasons combined. Prior to that stretch of injuries, Jeffery topped 1000 yards in back-to-back years in 2013 (89/1421/7) and 2014 (85/1133/10) and was on a similar pace in an injury limited 2015 season (54/807/4 in 9 games), but he’s been limited to a 68/923/7 slash line per 16 games over the past 4 seasons and I would expect that to continue to drop. 

Jeffery has still earned above average grades from PFF in each of those 4 seasons, but that’s a dropoff from his early prime when he finished in the top-25 in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, including top-6 finishes in 2013 and 2015. Jeffery may still be able to give the Eagles something in 2020, but the Eagles would have undoubtedly cut him this off-season if doing so wouldn’t have caused them to incur a huge dead cap hit.

Fellow veteran DeSean Jackson has a much better chance of bouncing back off of an injury ruined season and figures to at least start the season as the nominal #1 option. Jackson’s age is an even bigger concern, as he’ll turn 34 this December, but he’ll at least have a healthy off-season and he showed a great connection with Carson Wentz in limited action last season, averaging a ridiculous 4.18 yards per route run on 38 routes in his first season back in Philadelphia, most among any wide receiver with at least 10 targets last season.

Jackson has been frequently banged up in his career, playing all 16 games just twice in 12 seasons in the league with the Eagles and Buccaneers, but last season was also the first season he’d ever played fewer than 9 games, so he hasn’t had a lot of serious injuries and he’s had an impressive 62/1076/6 slash line per 16 games in his career, with 9 straight above average seasons on PFF. He’s likely on the decline and will probably miss at least a couple games with injuries, but he could still be the team’s leading receiver.

Veteran off-season acquisition Marquise Goodwin will just likely be reserve depth, but the Eagles need good depth, as both Jeffery and Jackson are aging and injury prone, Arcega-Whiteside is very raw, and Jalen Reagor is a rookie. In 7 seasons in the league, Goodwin’s 56/962/2 slash line in 2017 stands out, as he’s never topped 29 catches in any of his other seasons in the league, and he’s now going into his age 30 season, but he’s one of the fastest situational deep threats in the league with a career 16.6 yards per catch average, so he should provide valuable wide receiver depth for the Eagles.

With the Eagles’ wide receivers struggling in 2019, tight ends became a focal point of this offense and the Eagles fortunately have arguably the best tight end duo in the NFL, with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert leading this team with slash lines of 88/916/6 and 58/607/5 respectively. Ertz has been one of the best tight ends in the league for years, averaging a 86/914/6 slash line over the past five seasons and finishing in the top-18 among tight ends on PFF in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, including five top-10 finishes.

Goedert was right behind Ertz in yards per route run last season though (1.69 vs. 1.64) and is arguably the more complete player, as he’s a strong run blocker as well, while Ertz can struggle in that aspect. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Goedert has shown a lot of potential as a part-time player in two seasons in the league (1.57 yards per route run) and could be even better in his third season in the league, while Ertz’s age is beginning to become a concern in his age 30 season and he could begin to decline soon. Either way, they should remain one of the best tight end duos in the NFL, even if their target shares drop in a better overall receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

With the Eagles so thin in the receiving corps last season, their 3rd leading receiver behind their top-2 tight ends was actually pass catching running back Miles Sanders, who flashed with a 50/509/3 slash line. Sanders did that on 317 routes run, giving him a 1.61 yards per route run average that ranked 10th among running backs and he also was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in pass catching grade, despite being only a 2nd round rookie. Sanders has the upside to get better as a receiver going forward.

Sanders also has the upside to get better as a runner and he’ll need to. His 4.57 yards per carry average last season on 179 carries is impressive, but he didn’t consistently keep this offense on track as a rookie, ranking 34th out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 45% carry success rate, 

despite running behind an offensive line that was PFF’s highest ranked in team run blocking grade. Overall, finished with PFF’s 57th lowest run grade among 61 qualifying running backs. The Eagles let #2 running back Jordan Howard (4.41 YPC average and a 8th ranked 53% carry success rate) leave in free agency and didn’t replace him, so they’ll be counting on a lot from Sanders this season and it remains to be seen if he can rise to the challenge of being a feature back. Even if he has a higher success rate this season, that may not be reflected in his YPC average if he isn’t able to sustain a high percentage of breakaway runs.

With Howard gone, Boston Scott is expected to move up from the #3 back spot to the #2 spot, even though he had an underwhelming 4.02 YPC average in the first 61 carries of his career last season. How much work he takes from Sanders may be up to Sanders and how well he plays, as he has a clear path to every down work in this offense if he plays well. If both Sanders and Scott underwhelm in training camp, it wouldn’t be expensive for the Eagles to add a veteran to the mix, which could be a wise option at a thin position.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Not only did the Eagles’ offensive line excel in run blocking last season, they also were one of the best pass blocking teams in the league, ranking 3rd in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. That offensive line will look different in 2020 though and probably won’t be as good. The biggest loss was right guard Brandon Brooks, who tore his achilles in June, a devastating blow, as not only was Brooks was PFF’s top ranked guard in 2019, but the Eagles don’t have a clear replacement, having lost top reserve offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai this off-season as well, after he flashed on 477 snaps last season.

Third year offensive lineman Matt Pryor figures to get the first crack at the job, but he’s played just 79 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and wasn’t highly thought of coming out of college, going in just the 6th round in 2018. Outside of him, the Eagles’ best option is probably 4th round rookie Jack Driscoll, so it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Eagles go out and add a veteran at some point, with Brooks having just gone down a couple weeks ago as of this writing.

One veteran option could be simply reuniting with long-time left tackle Jason Peters. Peters started 140 games on the blindside for the Eagles in 11 seasons with the team and he still finished 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 13 starts in 2018, but was not brought back this off-season, ahead of his age 38 season, in favor of 2019 first round pick Andre Dillard. Peters likely wouldn’t be a candidate to move to guard, but the Eagles could move Dillard inside there for a year and would likely upgrade two spots at once. Drafted 22nd overall, Dillard is probably the future at left tackle, but there’s some concern about handing the blindside job over to him after 337 underwhelming snaps as a rookie as an injury replacement, especially with Brooks also gone. For now, Dillard is tentatively locked in on the blindside and he has obvious upside, but he’s far from a sure thing.

While left tackle and right guard are question marks, this rest of this offensive line remains the same. Right tackle Lane Johnson is probably their best offensive lineman with Brooks out. Drafted 4th overall in 2019, Johnson has made 92 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-23 on PFF in 6 straight seasons, with 4 finishes in the top-10 and a career best 2nd ranked finish in 2019. Johnson is going into his age 30 season, but he’s shown no sign of slowing down and even if he did decline a little he’d still be one of the best players in the league at his position.

Center Jason Kelce has also been one of the best players at his position for a long-time, making 108 of 112 starts over the past 7 seasons and finishing in the top-5 among centers on PFF in 6 of those 7 seasons, including 3 straight #1 finishes. Kelce’s age is becoming a concern though, going into his age 33 season, so he’s unlikely to be quite as good this year as he’s been in the past few years, even if he ends up among the top players at his position once again when all is said and done.

Left guard Isaac Seumalo is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 18th among guards on PFF, but he’s not nearly as proven as Johnson and Kelce. Seumalo was a relatively high pick, going in the 3rd round in 2016, but he was underwhelming in 15 spot starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, before breaking out as a 16-game starter in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder and might not be as good in 2020, but he could also remain a solid starter for years to come, only going into his age 27 season. The Eagles will badly need him, Kelce, and Johnson to stay healthy on an offensive line that is already missing key players from last season and that lacks depth overall.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Even with the Eagles lacking much financial flexibility this off-season, they still did make one big signing to somewhat offset their other losses, signing ex-Steeler defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal. Hargrave will have a cap hit of just 3.45 million this season thanks to some creative cap structuring, but Hargrave’s money will show up on the cap at some point or another, so the financially inflexible Eagles need any big contracts they sign to pan out. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern with Hargrave, who was one of the best defensive players available in free agency this off-season, regardless of position. 

A third round pick in 2016, Hargrave was primarily a base package nose tackle in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense for the first three years of his career, maxing out at 493 snaps, but he flashed as a pass rusher (8.1% pressure rate), in addition to playing well against the run, and in 2019 he took over an every down role in the absence of Stephon Tuitt and broke out with the best year of his career. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked interior defender on a career high 680 snaps, stuffing the run at a high level and adding 4 sacks, 2 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate. Hargrave might not be quite as good as last year in 2020, but he has three down ability inside at defensive tackle in the Eagles’ 4-3 defense and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season.

Hargrave will start alongside incumbent Fletcher Cox and they’ll be arguably the best interior defender duo in the NFL, as Cox has been consistently one of the best defensive tackles in the league in recent years. Cox finished last season 8th among interior defenders on PFF and that was actually his worst finish since 2014. All in all, Cox has made 119 starts in 8 seasons in the league and he has finished in the top-14 among interior defenders on PFF in 6 straight seasons, with 39.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate over that stretch, while playing at a high level against the run. Going into his age 30 season, Cox’s age is becoming a concern, but he should remain one of the better players at his position for at least another couple seasons.

The Eagles will also get Malik Jackson back as a reserve, after a foot injury ended his 2019 season after 32 snaps. Jackson was once one of the better players in the league at his position in his prime, finishing in the top-31 among interior defenders on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2014-2017, but he fell to 96th out of 130 qualifiers in 2018, missed most of last season, and now is heading into his age 30 season, so his best days are likely behind him. The Eagles likely would have let him go this off-season if his salary wasn’t guaranteed on the 3-year, 30 million dollar deal he signed last off-season, but he could still be valuable in a reserve role behind arguably the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL. This is one of the best interior defender groups in the league, a big upgrade from last season when they were very thin behind Cox.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

Along with Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave in the middle, the Eagles also have a dominant player on the edge of this defensive line in Brandon Graham. Like Cox, Graham is a former first round pick (2010) who has been consistently one of the best players in the league at his position for years. Graham’s career got off to a slow start because of two injury plagued years and then it took him a few years to become a regular starter, even after playing at a high level as a reserve, but in total he’s finished in the top-19 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 8 seasons, including 6 seasons in the top-10. 

Also a high level run stuffer, Graham has totaled a ridiculous 15.0% pressure rate over those past 8 seasons, including five seasons as a regular starter (73 starts). Graham’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, though his 16th ranked finish among edge defenders was his “worst” season since 2014. Even if Graham declines in 2020, he should remain among the better players at his position.

Another former first round pick (14th overall in 2017) Derek Barnett remains as the starter opposite Graham, although he hasn’t been the same caliber of player. Barnett was a solid reserve as a rookie (424 snaps), got off to a decent start to the 2018 season in his first year as a starter, before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season after 6 games, and then last season in his first full season as a starter, he disappointed, finishing as PFF’s 89th ranked edge defender out of 118 qualifiers. Barnett is still only going into his age 24 season with a high ceiling and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2020 than 2019, but it becomes less and less likely every year that he will ever deliver on his promise.

Vinny Curry was the top reserve last season with 393 snaps played and he excelled as a situational pass rusher (16.0% pressure rate), but he was not brought back for his age 32 season. In his absence, the Eagles could get more from last year’s #4 defensive end Josh Sweat, who was alright in 352 snaps in the first legitimate action of his career, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2018, but most likely it will be Genard Avery, a mid-season trade acquisition last season, who sees the biggest uptick in snaps with Curry gone.

Avery only played 34 snaps after being acquired by the Eagles, but they gave up a 2021 4th round pick for him, so they clearly have a role for him in mind long-term. Avery still has two years left on his rookie deal, so the Eagles likely made that move with the future in mind more than the present. Now that Avery has more time in the system under his belt, I would expect him to play significantly more, especially with Curry’s departure freeing up snaps. Drafted in the 5th round in 2018 by the Browns, Avery played a hybrid off ball linebacker/edge defender role as a rookie and flashed as a situational pass rusher, with 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate, but he weirdly fell out of the rotation entirely in 2019, playing just 5 snaps with the Browns, before being traded to the Eagles. 

With the Eagles, Avery is likely to just focus on being a reserve defensive end rather than playing linebacker as well. He’s undersized at 6-0 250, but he could still be a valuable situational rusher for them going forward. With him and Sweat, the Eagles have adequate depth behind Graham and Barnett, though Barnett remains a question mark, having been underwhelming through 3 seasons in the league.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, the Eagles have the highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. It’s also a pretty top heavy payroll, with 9 players making at least 10+ million annually and 12 players making at least 8+ million annually. One consequence of a top heavy payroll is that there are some position groups that get very little investment. For the Eagles, that is definitely the case in the linebacking corps this season. 

The Eagles released veteran Nigel Bradham ahead of a 8 million non-guaranteed owed to him in 2020, even though he was their best off ball linebacker last season and led the position with 717 snaps played. The Eagles also lost their 3rd linebacker in terms of snaps played Kamu Grugier-Hill (300 snaps) in free agency and released veteran hybrid safety/linebacker Malcolm Jenkins ahead of 7.85 million non-guaranteed. As a result, they are reworking their linebacking corps on the fly and they are doing it without making significant outside investments.

Free agent acquisition Jatavis Brown is probably the closest thing to a replacement for Bradham that they added this off-season, though the Eagles signed him for close to the minimum. A 5th round pick in 2016, Brown played 40.5 snaps per game in his first 3 seasons in the league, faring well in coverage, but struggling against the run, but in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, Brown was limited to just 94 defensive snaps as primarily a special teams player. It wouldn’t be hard for him to carve out at least a role as a situational coverage linebacker, but he’s a very underwhelming starting option and may end up focusing on special teams.

Another free agent acquisition Will Parks is probably the closest thing to a replacement for Malcolm Jenkins, as Parks has the versatility to play safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker, but he’s never topped 597 snaps in a season in 4 seasons in the league, so he’s probably not an every down option, and he’s earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus in 3 of those 4 seasons, so he’s an obvious dropoff talent wise from Jenkins, even if he does have the same versatility. Parks will likely see sub package snaps as a linebacker, in addition to any snaps he may play in the secondary in base packages.

Holdovers Nathan Gerry and TJ Edwards will also be in the mix for snaps. Gerry ranked 2nd on the team with 620 snaps as a linebacker, so he’ll likely be locked into a starting role in 2020, even though he struggled last season, finishing 61st out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF in the first significant action of the 2017 5th round pick’s career. He’s unlikely to be much better in 2020, but the Eagles don’t really have another option.

Edwards, meanwhile, flashed on 112 snaps as a run stuffer last season, despite being just an undrafted rookie. He showed he deserves a larger role in his 2nd season, but he’s still a projection to that role, so he’s no guarantee to develop into a long-term starter. The Eagles also have veteran Duke Riley, who played just 29 snaps for the Eagles last season, but played 632 snaps between 2017-2018 (16 starts) with the Falcons, primarily as a base package run stuffer. He’ll be in the mix for a base package role with Gerry and Edwards, even though he struggled mightily with the Falcons. Third round rookie Davion Taylor could also be in the mix, though he enters the league very raw. This is a very underwhelming linebacking corps.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The Eagles will also have to replace Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary and he was a solid starter last season, even if the aging veteran had dropped off a little from previous seasons. Also gone are veteran backups Andrew Sendejo and Johnathan Cyprien, who have starting experience in the past, so this is a very different safety group from last season. I already mentioned Will Parks, who will be in the mix for snaps in the secondary as well. He’ll primarily be competing for playing time with converted cornerback Jalen Mills and 4th round rookie K’Von Wallace, with Mills being the likely favorite for the job. 

A 7th round pick in 2016, Mills has primarily played cornerback thus far in his career, but he’s earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and he has adequate size (6-0 196), so the Eagles are trying him at safety, though he’s no guarantee to be better there. He also hasn’t been durable in recent years, missing 15 out of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons combined.

Rodney McLeod remains as the other starting safety, re-signed to a 2-year, 8.65 million dollar deal this off-season, after making all 16 starts in 2019. McLeod didn’t fare all that well last season, finishing slightly below average on PFF (56th out of 100 qualifying safeties), after 4 straight above average seasons prior to 2019. He also missed most of 2018 with a knee injury and is now going into his age 30 season, so it’s unlikely he finds his prime pre-2018 form again. He should remain a capable starter, but an underwhelming one.

Part of the reason why Mills is moving to safety is because the Eagles are significantly deeper and more talented at cornerback this season than they’ve been in the past. The headline move was the acquisition of long-time Lions #1 cornerback Darius Slay for the price of a third round pick, a fifth round pick, and a 3-year, 50.05 million dollar extension, but the Eagles also made a great under the radar signing when they signed slot cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman to a one-year deal that doesn’t pay him much more than the minimum.

Slay should be an upgrade over anyone the Eagles had at cornerback last season, but he was a risky acquisition at a high price, as he’s actually coming off of a pretty down season, finishing below average on PFF, after five straight seasons in the top-28 at his position prior. Slay is still relatively young in his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential, but he’s also never finished higher than 10th among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 seasons in the league, so he could easily prove to not be quite worth top cornerback money over the duration of his new contract. 

Robey-Coleman, meanwhile, has finished above average in 4 straight seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks on PFF. That’s a little misleading because Robey-Coleman is a pure slot cornerback (85.3% of his snaps on the slot), who predictably struggles outside at 5-8 180 when asked to play there, but his 0.77 yards per route run allowed on the slot over the past four seasons is among the best in the NFL and, only going into his age 28 season, I don’t expect that to suddenly change in Philadelphia. Even if it’s only for a year, Robey-Coleman will likely be a steal for an Eagles team that has had trouble finding a consistent slot cornerback in recent years.

At the other outside cornerback spot opposite Slay, the Eagles have a trio of holdovers competing for playing time: Rasul Douglas (583 snaps in 2019), Avonte Maddox (518 snaps), Sidney Jones (293 snaps). Douglas and Maddox both earned below average grades from PFF, finishing 116th and 89th respectively out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season, and have never been better than a middling cornerback since entering the league as a 2017 3rd round pick and a 2018 4th round pick respectively. Both still have some potential, but it’s possible neither ever develops into a consistent starter. 

Jones was a little better last season, but didn’t play that much and has been limited to just 643 snaps in 3 seasons since being drafted by the Eagles in the 2nd round in 2017, in part due to injury, in part due to ineffectiveness. He also has upside, but the #2 cornerback is a question mark. The addition of Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman make them better at cornerback, but the loss of Malcolm Jenkins without a true replacement will be significant and this is still a questionable secondary overall.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles still have a lot of veteran talent on this team, but it’s tough to keep all your players under the cap once you start paying your quarterback at the top of the market, after some underwhelming drafts, and the cracks are definitely getting bigger on this roster, with an underwhelming defensive backend, and a declining offensive line and running game. They should still compete for a playoff spot this year and aren’t in real trouble until next season when they have to figure out how to clear at least 50 million in cap just to get to even, but they’re significantly behind the Cowboys in the division, as the Cowboys should have better luck in close games this season, and the Eagles are not guaranteed to pick up one of the three wild card spots either, in a loaded NFC. It would help if they could find more low cost help in free agency at positions like linebacker, guard, and running back. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Update: The Eagles re-signed Jason Peters and he will replace Brooks at right guard, at least to start the season, though it wouldn’t surprise if he ended up at left tackle if Dillard doesn’t progress. Either way, he’s a big re-addition for this team and he improves their playoff chances.

Offensive Score: 76.06

Defensive Score: 73.19

Total Score: 74.63 (2nd in NFC East)

Dallas Cowboys 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2018, the Cowboys won the division at 10-6, but they had just a +15 point differential and ranked 17th in first down rate differential at -0.03%, with their record largely being the product of going 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A team’s record in close games tends to be very unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, so it was foreseeable that the Cowboys would have less success in close games in 2019, but what was not foreseeable was that the Cowboys would go totally the other way and go 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Aside from their inability to close out close games, the Cowboys were significantly better in 2019 than they were in 2018, finishing 6th in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, but all of their close losses caused the Cowboys to miss the post-season entirely at 8-8.

Just like the it was foreseeable that the Cowboys would do worse in close games in 2019 than they did in 2018, it’s now foreseeable that the Cowboys will do better in those games in 2020. The Cowboys were far and away better than any other non-playoff qualifier in first down rate differential and point differential, so if they can match those totals in 2020, they shouldn’t have much problem at all making the playoffs. That being said, this isn’t quite the same Cowboys team as last season, so they might not have quite as impressive of a first down rate and point differential. Like the Cowboys won fewer games in 2019 than 2018 despite being a better team, the Cowboys could easily win more games in 2020 than 2019, even if they aren’t as talented.

One key player who remains is quarterback Dak Prescott, who the Cowboys weren’t letting go anywhere this off-season, keeping him on the exclusive franchise tag. The exclusive franchise tag is worth 31.409 million for quarterbacks this season, but that’s actually relatively cheap compared to what it will cost annually to extend Prescott long-term, as Prescott turned down an extension worth 33 million annually and wants to at least surpass Russell Wilson’s 35 million annually to become the highest paid quarterback in the league on his next contract.

Even though most expect the two sides to get a deal done at some point, it doesn’t sound like they’ve made much progress this off-season. Prescott can afford to be patient, playing a position with relatively little chance of a career altering injury, with endorsements and insurance money locked in, and roughly 68 million owed to him if he’s franchised twice for 2020 and 2021, followed by an opportunity at free agency in 2022, when the salary cap is expected to increase significantly following a new TV deal. Perhaps the Cowboys, recognizing Prescott’s leverage, will significantly up their offer at the eleventh hour, having until the middle of July to work out a long-term deal ahead of the franchise tag deadline.

Regardless of how the contract works out long-term, Prescott will almost definitely be the Cowboys’ week 1 starting quarterback in 2020. Even though he’s likely to be paid at the top of the quarterback market, Prescott hasn’t quite been a top level quarterback thus far in his career, ranking 8th, 18th, 19th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 seasons in the league respectively. Still, he’s going into his age 27 season with 64 career starts and the reality of the NFL is that an experienced quarterback in his prime who is proven as an above average starter always ends up getting paid. 

That being said, if the Cowboys can’t come to an agreement with Prescott this off-season, they might be better off trying to tag and trade him next off-season in an attempt move up in the draft and get a long-term replacement, as his price is only going to keep going higher as other quarterbacks sign and, unless he takes a significant step forward, at some point he wouldn’t be worth it, especially if he could return valuable draft assets in a trade. 

Prescott is certainly good enough to win a Super Bowl, but you need to give him a lot of help and the Cowboys would have a difficult time doing that consistently if they are paying Prescott 40+ million annually, even if the cap is set to increase significantly. No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. While it wouldn’t surprise me if a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes were able to win a Super Bowl while making 40 million annually, Prescott is simply not that caliber of a quarterback. Once they sign Prescott long-term, the Cowboys’ Super Bowl window could close fast.

The Cowboys have never had a good backup for Prescott, but they “splurged” this off-season by signing ex-Bengals starter Andy Dalton to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal to be their #2 and he’ll arguably be the top backup quarterback in the NFL. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Dalton made 133 starts in 9 seasons in Cincinnati, completing 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.10 YPA, 204 touchdowns, and 118 interceptions (87.5 QB rating) and finished in the top-21 among quarterbacks on PFF in 6 of those seasons, but he’s coming off of probably the worst season of his career (78.3 QB rating, 25th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF) and he’s going into his age 33 season, so it’s unsurprising he couldn’t find a starting job this off-season. That being said, there might not be much dropoff if Dalton had to start for a few games in case of a Prescott injury, so he was a steal for the Cowboys on a cheap one-year deal.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, this isn’t quite the same Cowboys team as last season. In fact, they had the 3rd most losses this off-season of any team in the league in terms of 2019 snap count, losing 33.5% of snaps played last season. The biggest loss was center Travis Frederick, as, not only is he a talented player who finished 12th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2019 in 16 starts, but the Cowboys also didn’t do much to replace him. 

In his prime from 2014-2017, Frederick was arguably the best center in the league, finishing in the top-4 among centers on PFF in all 4 seasons, but he unfortunately had an illness that cost him all of 2018, affected him into 2019, and caused him to want to retire early this off-season, ahead of what would have been only his age 29 season. Even if he wasn’t the same player in 2019 as he was in his prime, he’s a big loss for a Cowboys team that needs a lot to continue going right if they’re going to match their 3rd ranked finish in first down rate (39.94%) from last season.

The Cowboys have a few options to replace Frederick, all of which are questionable. Veteran Joe Looney made all 16 starts in Frederick’s absence in 2018, but he finished 31st out of 39 qualifying centers and has otherwise been a backup in his career, making just 14 starts in his other 7 seasons combined. Now going into his age 30 season, Looney is unlikely to get any better, so the Cowboys are likely hoping either 2019 3rd round pick Connor McGovern or 4th round rookie Tyler Biadasz can run away with the starting job in training camp. McGovern has the better shot because he has at least an off-season under his belt, but he missed all of his rookie year with a torn pectoral, so both he and Biadasz are questionable options.

McGovern and Biadasz could also see some action at left guard. They both have experience at guard and incumbent starter Connor Williams is likely questionable for the start of the season after suffering a torn ACL late last season, while his replacement down the stretch Xavier Su’a-Filo is now in Cincinnati. Even if Williams can play week 1, he may not be 100% right away. It’s a shame because the 2018 2nd round pick had taken a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, earning a middling grade from PFF after struggling as a rookie. His injury dampens his long-term outlook a little and he might not be ready for the start of the season, though he still projects as a starter long-term, especially since he’s still only going into his age 23 season.

The rest of this offensive line is still strong fortunately, as left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and right tackle La’El Collins were all among the best players in the league at their respective positions in 2019. That has been the case for Smith and Martin for years. Smith, who finished last season 14th among offensive tackles on PFF, has finished in the top-15 at his position on PFF in 7 straight seasons, while Martin, who finished last season 3rd among guards on PFF, has finished in the top-5 at his position on PFF in 6 straight seasons. Despite their extended success, both are still somewhat in their primes, going into just their age 30 season, having shown no real signs of decline yet.

Collins, meanwhile, is coming off easily the best season of his career, finishing 4th among offensive tackles on PFF, after having never finished higher than 31st in a season. Collins went undrafted in 2015 despite first round talent because of some terrible timing, as he was a suspect in a murder case before the draft and couldn’t talk to police to clear his name until after. The Cowboys immediately played him in as a starter and, while he struggled out of position early in his career at guard, he’s made 47 starts at right tackle over the past 3 seasons, earning at least an average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons, and making a significant year-to-year improvement each season before putting it all together in 2019. He might not be quite as good in 2020, but he’s a very talented offensive lineman who is still just in his age 27 season, so he should remain one of the better right tackles in the league for at least the next few seasons. Center and left guard are concerns, but the rest of this offensive line is strong.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Cowboys also lost starting starting slot receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jason Witten this off-season and they were 3rd and 4th on the team with slash lines of 55/828/3 and 63/529/4 respectively. Despite their production, however, they won’t be missed, as the Cowboys should be able to replace both. Witten will be replaced internally by former backup Blake Jarwin, who actually comes with a lot more upside as a receiver. Witten is a future Hall of Famer who was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in his prime, but he averaged just 1.19 yards per route run in 2019 and earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus for his receiving, while Jarwin averaged 1.82 yards per route run and earned a positive grade from PFF, albeit on about half the snaps. 

Undrafted in 2017, Jarwin has flashed as a receiver throughout his career, with 1.56 yards per route run on 430 career routes, and, while it’s not a guarantee, he could easily translate that to a larger role in 2020. Depth is the concern at tight end, especially since Jarwin isn’t nearly as good as Witten as a blocker. The Cowboys didn’t make any real additions to replace Witten as a blocker and instead will be counting on 3rd year tight end Dalton Schultz to take a step forward and be the #2 tight end. He’s flashed as a run blocker thus far in his career, but the 2018 4th round pick has played just 417 career snaps and has caught just 13 career passes.


Cobb, meanwhile, will be replaced by first round rookie CeeDee Lamb, so, even though Cobb earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2019, there shouldn’t be much, if any drop off in the short-term and in the long-term Lamb has the potential to be the best of possibly a very strong wide receiver draft. Lamb was not expected to be available at 17 and the Cowboys had more pressing needs, but it’s hard to argue that the Cowboys shouldn’t have taken him, given that he fell into their lap and gives them arguably the top wide receiver trio in the league, with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both returning after being one of five wide receiver duos in the league to surpass 1000 yards receiving yards in 2019.

For Cooper, it was the 4th time he’d topped that mark in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted 4th overall in 2015 by the Raiders, though that doesn’t tell you the whole story of the ups and downs of his career. Cooper started out his career with back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons, going for 72/1070/6 in 2015 and 83/1153/5 in 2016, but then hit an unexplainable lull for a year in a half, as he averaged a 56/768/6 slash line per 16 games over a 20-game stretch in 2017 and the first half of 2018. Cooper was then traded to the Cowboys for a first round pick and his career was revitalized overnight, as he’s averaged a 84/1225/9 slash line per 16 games in 25 games since arriving in Dallas and is coming off of a career best 8th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF.

Cooper was given a 5-year, 100 million dollar deal with 40 million guaranteed to stick around long-term as a free agent this off-season, making him the 2nd highest paid wide receiver in the league now behind Julio Jones, and it’s possible he could coast a little like he seemingly was for a stretch in Oakland now that he has significant guarantees locked down, but it’s also encouraging that Cooper reportedly took less money to stay in Dallas over signing with the last place Redskins and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he could even keep getting better. As long as he stays motivated and healthy, Cooper should be one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come.

Gallup, meanwhile, had never topped 1000 yards in a season prior to last season, though it’s hard to fault him, given that last season was just the 2018 3rd round pick’s second season in the league. Gallup played significantly as a rookie too, but was more of a snap eater than anything, before breaking out with a 66/1107/6 slash line and a 34th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF in 2019. Gallup is technically a one-year wonder, but going into his age 24 season, he still has a massive upside. With Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb all young and under contract beyond this year, it’s hard to find a team with a better wide receiver situation, especially when you add in Tavon Austin, a useful 4th receiver who sees some situational work as a speedster (303 snaps in 2019), and tight end Blake Jarwin comes with upside as well.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cowboys don’t just have great skill position talent in the receiving corps, but they also have that at the running back position, led by feature back Ezekiel Elliott. Since being drafted 4th overall by the Cowboys in 2016, Elliott has arguably been the league’s best runner, rushing for 5,405 yards and 40 touchdowns on 1,169 carries (4.62 YPC) in 56 games. In addition, he’s exceeded 50% carry success rate in all 4 seasons and has ranked in the top-4 at his position in that metric in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. Last season, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back in rushing grade, while rushing for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns on 301 carries (4.51 YPC). 

There’s always uncertainty at the running back position, but Elliott is going into just his age 25 season with no real injury history, so he’s about as sure of a thing as there is at the position. The one knock against him is he’s just an average player in the passing game, catching 189 passes in 56 career games with a 54/420/2 slash line in 2019, and missing blitz pick ups from time-to-time, but he’s still a pretty complete running back.

Elliott isn’t the only talented back the Cowboys have either, as backup Tony Pollard flashed in limited action, rushing for 5.29 yards per carry, with 4.51 of those yards per carry coming after contact, and earning PFF’s 3rd ranked rushing grade among running backs. He only saw 86 carries, but that’s actually a lot when you consider that Elliott made all 16 starts and topped 300 carries on the season and his low carry total makes his 23 broken tackles all the more impressive. Between those broken tackles and his yards after contact, Pollard had the highest elusive rating in the NFL, suggesting the Cowboys might not see much drop off at the running back position even if Elliott were to get hurt.

The Cowboys made a concerted effort to get Pollard involved even while giving Elliott feature back type carries last season and, given the success he had in limited action as a fourth round rookie in 2019, they’re likely to do so again this season. Pollard may also see more action in passing situations to give Elliott more rest in situations where he doesn’t thrive. This is probably the best backfield in the NFL, with a legitimate feature back backed up by one of the best backups in the league.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

While the Cowboys have a few changes on offense this season, their defense is the unit that has seen the most significant changes, as 7 of their top-14 in snaps played from a season ago are no longer with the team. Their offense is likely to not be quite as good as last season when they ranked 3rd in first down rate, given that they’ll be without center Travis Frederick and likely will have more injuries than they had last season when they had the second fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, but their defense was middle of the pack last season, ranking 17th in first down rate allowed, so some changes could benefit them on this side of the ball.

No position had more changes than inside at defensive tackle, as their top-3 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season, Maliek Collins (763 snaps), Chrisitan Covington (481 snaps), and Michael Bennett (429 snaps), are all no longer with the team. All three were capable, but unspectacular players who were snap eaters more than anything. They will be replaced by free agent acquisitions Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy and third round rookie Neville Gallimore.

Poe and McCoy come to Dallas on deals worth 8.5 million over 2 years and 18.3 million over 3 years respectively and they figure to be the starters. Both players started last season with the Panthers and both earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus. Both players have also seen better days though and they are getting up there in age, heading into their age 30 and age 32 seasons respectively. 

Poe used to be one of the most durable interior defenders in the league, averaging 53.7 snaps per game from 2012-2017, but he’s been limited to 33.9 snaps per game in 27 games over the past two seasons and went down for the season last year with a torn quad during week 12. He’s still been useful in a rotational role, but he’s not what he was. McCoy, meanwhile, finished in the top-19 among interior defenders in 5 of 6 seasons from 2012-2017, but he’s fallen to 30th in 2018 and 34th in 2019. Both should be solid starters and largely upgrades, but they’re not what they were and they could easily continue declining.

Gallimore, meanwhile, will compete for reserve snaps with 2018 2nd round pick Trysten Hill, who will likely have a larger role after playing 121 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, and 5th year veteran Antwaun Woods. Woods played 585 snaps in 2018 and wasn’t bad, but he struggled in 310 snaps in 10 games last season and the 2016 undrafted free agent hasn’t had much success in any of his other seasons in the league, so he’s best as a backup. The Cowboys don’t have a standout player at this position, but they have good depth and their starters should be somewhat improved over last season.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Cowboys also lose their #2 and #3 in terms of snaps played on the edge at defensive end, Robert Quinn (647 snaps) and Kerry Hyder (439 snaps). Quinn is the bigger loss, as he led the team with a 14.1% pressure rate, but Hyder was valuable as a rotational run stuffer as well. To replace them, the Cowboys are counting on some bounce back years. They have long-time Cowboy Tyrone Crawford (8 seasons with the team) coming back from a hip injury that limited him to 90 snaps in 4 games last season and they have a pair of players who haven’t played in at least a season due to suspension in Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith.

Smith is the most interesting story of the bunch. Drafted 7th overall in 2011, Smith burst onto the scene with 42 sacks, 37 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate over the first 3 seasons of his career, while finishing in the top-7 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, but he was arrested for DUI midway through his 3rd season and things went downhill quickly from there.

Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while in rehab, then was suspended 9 games in 2014, 7 games in 2015, and hasn’t played a snap ever since, with multiple off-the-field incidents over that stretch. The NFL reinstated him this off-season and the Cowboys took a flyer, but it’s unclear how much he can contribute, given that he’s going into his age 31 season, that he hasn’t played in close to 5 seasons, and that he had his last high level season in 2013, as he was not the same player in 2014 and 2015, with a 12.0% pressure rate and middling grades on PFF.

Gregory, meanwhile, is still technically suspended, but he’s tentatively expected to be reinstated. He’s only missed one season on this most recent suspension, but suspensions also limited him to 2 games in 2016-2017 combined. All in all, he’s played just 768 snaps in 5 years since the Cowboys took him in the 2nd round in 2015. He’s flashed as a pass rusher, with 7 sacks, 16 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate, but he’s left something to be desired against the run, not surprising given his 6-5 250 frame. Gregory is still only going into his age 28 season and, after just a year off, has a better chance of shaking off the rust and being a valuable contributor as a sub package rusher, but he’s hardly a reliable player.

Crawford is probably the most reliable of the bunch, but he’s far from a sure thing, given that he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of a serious injury. Prior to last season, Crawford had earned an above average grade from PFF in back-to-back and three of the previous five seasons, showing well as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher in all 3 seasons. Even if he’s not quite the same player, he could still be useful in a rotational role if he can stay on the field.

The only one locked into a role is DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been an every down player on the edge for three straight seasons. Over that time, he has totaled 30 sacks, 38 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate, while excelling against the run as well. His sack total fell to 5 in 2019, but his peripheral pass rush numbers kept up (12 hits, 12.6% pressure rate) and he finished as PFF’s 13th ranked edge defender overall, his 3rd straight season in the top-13 at his position (1st in 2017 and 7th in 2018). Only in his age 28 season, having not missed a game in 3 seasons, I see no reason to expect a dropoff from him other than a fluke injury. He elevates a position group with a lot of certainty.

Update: Randy Gregory is now reportedly unlikely to be reinstated, making Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford even more important.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In 2018, the Cowboys had arguably the best off ball linebacker duo in the NFL, as every down linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch finished 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. In 2019, things were very different, as Smith slid to 19th at his position, while Vander Esch fell all the way to 59th and was limited to 510 snaps in 9 games by a neck injury that ruined his season. A first round pick in 2018, Vander Esch has obvious bounce back potential if he’s healthy, but his neck problems date back to his collegiate days and were flagged by some teams before the draft, so he’s not a sure thing to bounce back.

Smith’s “down” year is less concerning, as he was still one of the better off ball linebackers in the league. Also finishing 27th among off ball linebackers in his first season as a starter in 2017, Smith has consistently been an above average starter at the very least for 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 25 season, the 2016 2nd round pick could keep getting better. He looks likely to be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league for years to come.

With Vander Esch missing significant time last season, third linebacker and base package specialist Sean Lee was forced into close to an every down role down the stretch last season. Lee played all 16 games for the first time in his injury plagued 10-year career, but was a middling player at best on 637 snaps. Lee was one of the better off ball linebackers in the league in his prime when healthy, but he hasn’t been nearly the same player in recent years, as all of his injuries seem to have piled up and now he’s going into his age 34 season. He could still be useful in a part-time role in sub packages, but the Cowboys are hoping he doesn’t have to play more than that. If Lee plays well in a situational role and Vander Esch and Smith bounce back, this will be one of the top few off ball linebacking corps in the NFL, but there’s some uncertainty here.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Cowboys’ biggest loss on defense this off-season was top cornerback Byron Jones, who signed with the Dolphins on a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Jones finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback, which is more significant than you’d think, as cornerback is a very tough position to play consistently well at and Jones joins Stephon Gilmore as one of just two cornerbacks who have finished in the top-15 at the position on PFF in back-to-back years. 

However, while Jones’ absence will be big, the Cowboys are better prepared for it than most teams, as they went four deep at cornerback last season, with Chidobe Awuzie (1,020 snaps), Jourdan Lewis (590 snaps), and Anthony Brown (282 snaps) all earning average or better grades from PFF, and they used a 2nd round pick on Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs. Those four will compete for roles in Jones’ absence.

Awuzie will likely remain a starter and become the de facto #1 cornerback. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Awuzie has progressed well thus far in his career, flashing on 309 snaps as a rookie, being a capable starter in 14 starts in his 2nd season, and having a mini-breakout year with a 27th ranked finish in 2019. Awuzie is still a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average starter, but he’s also only going into his age 25 season and could easily keep getting better. We’ll see how often if at all the Cowboys use him to shadow the opponent’s top wide receiver.

Jourdan Lewis is the incumbent on the slot and he’s likely at least locked into that role. Drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, Lewis has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a 42nd ranked finish on 590 snaps last season. He has experience playing outside as well, back in his rookie year, so he could be a candidate for an every down role with Jones gone, manning the slot in sub packages and lining up outside as the 2nd cornerback in base packages. He’s never topped 746 snaps in a season, so he’s a projection to an every down role, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and has the potential to develop into an above average starter long-term.

Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs will also be in the mix for outside snaps opposite Awuzie. Brown has made 33 starts in 56 games in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s never been more than a middling starter and was the clear 4th cornerback last season, so the Cowboys are likely hoping the rookie Diggs can overtake him and play in at least sub packages at some point this season. Diggs went 51st overall in the second round, but was considered a borderline first round pick by many and profiles as a long-term starter, even if he takes a little bit to get there.

At safety, Xavier Woods remains at one spot and at the other spot the Cowboys are hoping free agent acquisition HaHa Clinton-Dix can be an upgrade on the middling Jeff Heath. Woods was just a 5th round pick in 2017, but he’s been more than worth it, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (33 starts), including a career best 27th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019, all before he turned 25 years old. Barring injury, he has a long prime ahead of him and could keep getting even better.

Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, was a first round pick back in 2014 and has been an average or better starter in all 6 seasons in the league (90 starts), including a 17th ranked finish on PFF in 2018 and a 22nd ranked finish on PFF in 2019. Given that, it’s surprising he’s had to settle for one-year deals the past two off-seasons. Signed for just 3.75 million, Clinton-Dix figures to be a steal for the Cowboys this season like he was for the Bears last season. Even without Byron Jones, this is a talented secondary, especially if one of their young defensive backs can break out.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys’ offense is unlikely to be quite as good as they were last season, as they lost center Travis Frederick and will likely have more injuries than last season, when they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury on offense, but they’re arguably more explosive in the receiving corps this year and they’re starting from a high starting point, finishing last season 3rd in first down rate at 39.94%. Their defense, which ranked 17th in first down rate allowed last season, loses top cornerback Byron Jones, but they get an upgrade at safety and defensive tackle and have some promising young players in the back end that could be improved in 2020 over 2019. 

The Cowboys might not be quite as good as they were overall in 2019, when they finished 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, but if they do a better job closing out close games after an 0-5 record in one score games, that alone should help them win more games, even if they aren’t quite as good. The Cowboys are also helped by being in one of the easier divisions to win. I would consider them the NFC East favorite at the moment, at the very least. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 78.37

Defensive Score: 75.32

Total Score: 76.85 (1st in NFC East)

New York Giants 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For 16 years, the Giants more or less had one quarterback under center. Drafted #1 overall in 2004, Eli Manning took over as the starter in week 11 of his rookie year and then started 232 of the next 233 games until being benched after week 2 of last season for another highly drafted rookie quarterback, 2019 #6 overall pick Daniel Jones. Manning made another 2 starts down the stretch as an injury replacement for Jones to bring his career total to 234 career starts in 16 seasons in the league, but he rode off into the sunset this off-season, officially making this Daniel Jones’ team.

Manning had a mixed career in New York, starting for over a decade in a half, resetting all of the team passing records, and winning a pair of Super Bowls and Super Bowl MVPs, but he never won a playoff game in any of the other 14 seasons, he finished with a .500 record overall, and he never led the league in a passing category other than interceptions. All in all, the Giants will be happy if Jones has the same kind of career, but the jury is very much still out on him.

Not particularly successful in college at Duke University, Jones entered the league with controversy, as most considered Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who eventually went 15th overall to the Redskins, to be a better quarterback prospect, while Jones was considered to be someone who would have been available with the Giants’ other first round pick at 17 overall. However, the Giants liked him enough to not take any chances and took him 6th overall. 

Jones didn’t do much to quiet his critics as a rookie. He definitely showed flashes of why he was drafted high and he adds much more as a runner than Manning, rushing for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns on 45 carries (6.20 YPC), but he completed just 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while leading the league with 18 fumbles (5th most in a single season in NFL history), which was a significant knock on him coming out of college. Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers last season and the Giants actually had a noticeably worse first down rate (33.99%) in Jones’ 12 starts than in Manning’s 4 starts (37.25%), even though Manning was in his age 38 season and on his last legs.

Jones still has plenty of upside and in some ways his 2019 season is a good first year to build on, but he didn’t change any opinions as a rookie. If you liked him being selected 6th overall a year ago, that is likely still the case, and the same is true for people who didn’t like the pick. It’s easy to expect he’ll be a little better in his 2nd season in the league, especially if he can improve his fumbling issues, but how much better is really up in the air, which makes it tough to project the Giants as a team in 2020. The Giants, for what it’s worth, don’t seem concerned at all about Jones, only bringing in career backup Colt McCoy (28 career starts, 78.4 QB rating in 10 seasons in the league) to hold the clipboard. If he can take a big step forward, this is a team that could make some noise.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The one big thing Daniel Jones has going for him is he has a lot of talent around him on offense. That was true at the skill positions last season too, but the problem was injuries, as their top-5 skill position guys didn’t play a single snap together last season and none of them played all 16 games. Wide receivers Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, and Darius Slayton were limited to 11 games, 10 games, and 14 games respectively, while pass catching tight end Evan Engram played just 8 games and feature back Saquon Barkley, who is also a big part of their passing game, was limited to 13 games and never seemed quite the same after an early season ankle injury. If those five players can all be healthy or mostly healthy for all or most of next season, this could be one of the more complete receiving corps in the NFL.

Though this is a deep receiving corps, none of them are true #1 receivers. Golden Tate has some experience in that role in the past, averaging a 80/968/5 slash line from 2012-2017, topping 1000 yards in 2014, 2016, and 2017, and finishing in the top-19 on Pro Football Focus among wide receivers in 4 of those 6 seasons, including a career best 7th in 2017. However, he was limited to a 74/795/4 slash line in 15 games in 2018, a 49/676/6 slash line in 11 games in 2019, and now is going into his age 32 season. He has still finished 48th and 35th among wide receivers on PFF in the past two seasons respectively, but at this stage of his career he’s much more of a #2 wide receiver than a #1.

Sterling Shepard is a similar player, although he’s on the way up instead of the way down, going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Shepard improved his receiving yardage in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, going from a 65/683/8 slash line as a rookie in 2016 to 59/731/2 in 2017 and 66/872/4 in 2018, and he was seen by many to be a potential breakout option in 2019 with Odell Beckham being traded to the Browns last off-season. 

Shepard had averaged a 84/1085/3 slash line per 16 games in 2017 and 2018 combined without Beckham and the Giants seemed to be trying to pre-emptively sign him long-term ahead of a breakout year, locking him up last off-season on a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension last off-season, but the breakout year never came, as he was limited to a 57/576/3 slash line in 10 games (91/922/5 per 16). Shepard did earn the highest grade of his career on PFF, finishing 23rd among wide receivers after topping out at 45th in the first 3 seasons of his career, a good sign for his chances of having something of a breakout year in 2020 if he can stay on the field.

With Tate and Shepard both missing significant time, rookie Darius Slayton actually led the team with a 48/740/8 slash line, even though he also missed 2 games. Slayton also played just 61 snaps in the first 4 weeks of the season, as he entered the year as an unheralded 5th round pick. He showed himself to be much more than that and earned PFF’s 49th highest grade among wide receivers overall and, while he’s still just a one-year wonder, he looks like a potential long-term starter. He gives them a talented trio of wide receivers with Tate and Shepard. The Giants also get #4 Corey Coleman back after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Coleman has had injury problems throughout his career and has just 61 catches in 27 career games, but he’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 26 season, so he could still have some upside, which makes him not a bad 4th option.

Tight end Evan Engram could also push for the team lead in receiving, although injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career. The 6-3 241 pound former first round pick moves like a wide receiver and has averaged a 72/831/6 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons in the league, so, only going into his age 26 season, he has the upside to be one of the better pass catching tight ends in the league in 2020, but he’s never made it through a full 16 game season and has missed 14 of 48 possible games total in 3 seasons in the league. He also doesn’t block well at all, which is a more minor concern, but still worth noting.

Blocking tight end Rhett Ellison was also limited to 10 games (18/167/1) last season by injuries and injuries eventually led him to hang them up this off-season, after 8 seasons in the league. Ellison was a consistently an above average run blocker and he was also a reliable set of hands as an underneath target, so replacing him won’t be as easy as it might seem. Veteran Levine Toilolo was signed in free agency, but he hasn’t topped 264 yards receiving in a season in 7 seasons in the league, despite plenty of opportunity, and he isn’t much better as a blocker. Kaden Smith, a 2019 6th round pick who played 434 snaps in the absence of Engram and Ellison last season, could also be in the mix, but he finished 38th out of 44 qualifying tight ends on PFF last season and isn’t much of a run blocker, so he may settle in as the 3rd tight end. Aside from some potential minor depth issues, this is a deep and talented group.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Feature back Saquon Barkley also is a huge part of this offense, both as a runner and as a receiver. The #2 overall pick in 2018, Barkley had an incredible rookie year, rushing for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns on 261 carries (5.01 YPC), while adding a 91/721/4 slash line through the air and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked running back. His 2019 season was derailed by injuries, however, as he hurt his ankle week 3, missed 3 games, and didn’t seem to be quite his usual self the rest of the way upon his return, finishing with season with 1,003 yards and 6 touchdowns on 217 carries (4.63 YPC) and a 52/438/2 slash line through the air, while ranking 24th among running backs on PFF.

The biggest difference between Barkley’s 2018 performance and his 2019 performance is the relative lack of big plays in 2019. Barkley has actually been below average at keeping this offense on track in his career, with a 41% carry success rate as a rookie (40th out of 47 qualifiers) and a 44% carry success rate last season (38th out of 45 qualifiers), but as a rookie he had 20 carries of 15+ yards for 706 rushing yards that accounted for 54.0% of his rushing total and in 2019 that dropped to 9 carries for 331 rushing yards. 

Big plays are tough to predict on a year-to-year basis, but Barkley has as much big play ability as any running back in the NFL, so I would expect more explosive runs and a better overall season from him in 2020 if he can stay healthy. Injuries are always part of the reality at the running back position more so than anywhere else, but Barkley doesn’t have a real injury history and his return in 3 games last season was actually ahead of schedule, given that he had a 4-8 timetable, even if he wasn’t quite the same back upon his return. Still only going into his age 23 season, Barkley has as much potential as any running back in the league going into 2020 and beyond.

Barkley is also as close to an every down back as they come, ranking 3rd among running backs with 853 snaps played in 2018. Even with Barkley missing 3 games in 2019, the Giants’ backup running backs combined just for 84 total carries. They don’t have bad depth though, as 2017 4th round pick Wayne Gallman has been alright with a 3.99 YPC on 191 carries thus far in his career, while free agent acquisition Dion Lewis has 116 catches over the past 3 seasons and offers some change of pace as well. Perhaps the Giants will take Barkley off the field a little more in 2020 in an effort to keep him healthy, though as durable and talented as he is, it would be hard to blame the Giants if they didn’t.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One thing that would help Saquon Barkley have a higher carry success rate and keep this offense on track more often would be better offensive line play, which he should have this season. This is a much improved unit from the one that was one of the league’s worst a few years back and this season they have new starters at the two spots of weakness on last year’s line, right tackle Mike Remmers and center Jon Halapio, who both earned negative grades last season. Halapio especially struggled, finishing 32nd out of 35 qualifying centers on Pro Football Focus.

Remmers was replaced with a big investment, as the Giants used the 4th overall pick on Georgia’s Andrew Thomas. Thomas may have a few growing pains as a rookie, but figures to be a capable starter at the very least from the word go and could make a big impact, even as a rookie. The long-term plan may be to move Thomas to left tackle, where Nate Solder is going into his age 32 season and has one expensive year (14 million non-guaranteed) left on his deal after this season. In that scenario, third round rookie Matt Peart would likely be the long-term right tackle.

In the meantime, Peart is unlikely to see action unless an injury strikes, while Nate Solder is likely locked in as the left tackle, going into his 10th season in the league (127 starts). Not only is Solder’s age becoming a concern, but he finished a career worst on PFF last season, earning a middling grade after earning an above average grade in each of the first 9 seasons of his career, including 6 seasons in the top-25 among offensive tackles. He’ll likely remain a capable starter for another couple seasons and may even have a little bounce back potential, but his best days are likely behind him and he could possibly keep declining.

At center, the Giants are having a competition between Spencer Pulley and Nick Gates for the starting role. Pulley is a natural center, while Gates has only ever played guard and tackle, but Gates is probably still the better option. Pulley made 25 starts from 2017-2018 with the Chargers, but finished 38th out of 40 qualifying centers on PFF in 2017 and 29th out of 39 qualifying centers in 2018, before being limited to 95 snaps as the Giants’ backup center last season. He’s a backup caliber talent who would almost definitely continue struggling if counted on to start. 

Gates, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed a lot of potential in the first 291 snaps (3 starts) of his career last season, playing both guard and tackle. He doesn’t have a clear path to playing time at either of those positions, so the Giants are trying him at center this off-season. He’s unproven overall and very new to the position, so it’s hard to count on him, but it wouldn’t be difficult for him to be an upgrade over Halapio or Pulley.

Guards Will Hernandez (left) and Kevin Zeitler (remain) as the starters. Zeitler is one of the best guards in the league and has been for a long time, finishing in the top-25 among guards in all 8 seasons in the league (119 starts), including 6 straight seasons in the top-15 and a 7th ranked finish in 2019. His age is a minor concern, going into his age 30 season, but he should remain at least an above average guard. 

Hernandez, meanwhile, went 34th overall in 2018 and looked to be on his way to having a Zeitler type career when he finished 21st among guards on PFF in 2018, but he fell to 57th in 2019, dampening his long-term outlook. Only going into his age 25 season, Hernandez still has a lot of upside and could easily have a bounce back season, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Even still, this looks like a solid offensive line, especially if Nick Gates can develop at center.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Giants won just 4 games in 2019, but they finished 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.16%, not good, but as bad as their record suggested. The difference is they had a -17 turnover margin on the season. Normally I like first down rate differential as a stat because it minimizes the impact of outlier plays like turnovers, which tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, but the Giants may consistently struggle with the turnover margin as long as they have a fumble prone quarterback under center. 

Even Jones fixes his fumbling problems and the Giants don’t struggle with the turnover margin this season, they weren’t particularly good in first down rate on either side of the ball last season either, ranking 20th in first down rate on offense and 21st in first down rate allowed on defense, so they have problems on both sides of the ball beyond turnover margin. I already got into some of the problems with their offense and there were definitely problems on defense as well. Their 16 takeaways, tied for 3rd worst in the NFL, should improve by pure randomness, so the Giants should have a better turnover margin in 2020 than in 2019 even if Jones continues fumbling, but their other problems aren’t so easily fixed.

The one area without problems is the Giants’ interior defenders and their 3-man defensive line in base packages, as this is definitely the strength of the defense. The Giants go four deep at the position with Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, and BJ Hill. All four are recent high draft picks who are still young and all four, strangely enough, are better run stuffers than pass rushers. They’re good players, but ordinarily you don’t want your top-4 players at a position to be all similar. They are the primary reason why the Giants ranked 4th with 3.86 yards per carry allowed last season, but also, along with their lack of edge rushers, they are a big part of why the Giants ranked just 22nd in the NFL with 36 sacks.

Williams is the best pass rusher of the bunch. He only managed a half sack last season, but added a ridiculous 19 quarterback hits and a 10.3% pressure rate. This has been a trend for Williams since he was drafted 6th overall by the Jets in 2015. He has just 17.5 career sacks in 79 career games (75 starts), but has added 86 hits and a 10.0% pressure rate. A strong run stuffer to boot, Williams has gotten an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league (maxing out at 10th in 2016) and his 43rd ranked overall finish in 2019 was actually the worst of his career. His relative down year didn’t stop the Giants from trading a 3rd and a future 5th round pick to acquire him from the Jets at the deadline and then franchise tagging him this off-season for 16.126 million. He’s a talented player and still very much in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, though he was kind of a weird addition to a team that was already deep upfront.

Dexter Lawrence also sees significant sub package snaps, even though he’s built more like a nose tackle at 6-4 342. Drafted 17th overall by the Giants in 2019, Lawrence’s run stopping ability was his best attribute as a rookie, but he added 2.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate as well and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender overall. Lawrence entered the league with a massive ceiling and, still only going into his age 23 season, he has a good chance to keep getting better and develop into one of the better players at his position in the league.

Dalvin Tomlinson and BJ Hill, meanwhile, are primarily base package players. They finished 14th and 11th respectively on PFF among interior defenders in run stopping grade, but combined for just 4.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 5.4% pressure rate. This is nothing new for Tomlinson, as the 2017 2nd round pick has finished in the top-24 among interior defenders in run grade in all 3 seasons in the league, but has managed just a 5.1% pressure rate for his career. 

Hill, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2018. He’s a better pass rusher with a career 6.9% pressure rate (although just 6.0% in 2019), but he wasn’t quite as good of a run stuffer as a rookie, so he’s not as proven in that aspect as Tomlinson. With Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson, and Hill at the position, this is a very deep group and one that should stuff the run again, even if their interior pass rush leaves something to be desired.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Giants’ edge rushers left something to be desired in 2019 as well. Things are unlikely to be better in 2020 and could easily be worse as they let Markus Golden (who led the team with 10 sacks last season) walk as a free agent. Aside from him, they didn’t have anyone with more than 4.5 sacks last season and they didn’t really replace him, so they should continue having trouble getting to the quarterback in 2020.

The only addition they made to this group was signing ex-Packer Kyler Fackrell to a 1-year, 4.6 million dollar deal in free agency. Fackrell probably won’t play the 917 snaps he played last season, but he should have a significant rotational role, along with holdovers Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines. Fackrell did have a 10.5-sack season in 2018, but the Packers shouldn’t expect anything close to that. 

Fackrell’s peripheral pass rush numbers were very underwhelming in 2018, adding just 2 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate and earning a middling grade overall from Pro Football Focus. Fackrell also totaled just 6 sacks in his other 3 seasons in the league. Even the Packers weren’t fooled by his sack total, as they added Za’Darius and Preston Smith last off-season on big contracts last off-season and gave Fackrell a reduced role in 2019 (626 snaps in 2018, 415 in 2019). He may play significant snaps with the Giants, but he’s unlikely to be anything more than a snap eater at best.

Carter and Ximines, meanwhile, are recent 3rd round picks, getting drafted in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Both were underwhelming pass rushers last season, 8.8% and 9.3% pressure rate respectively, but Carter has at least developed into a strong run stuffer off the edge and both still have upside to develop into more. The Giants will need one of them to take a big step forward though, or to make a big addition like Jadeveon Clowney or Yannick Ngakoue, otherwise they’ll have one of the more underwhelming edge defender groups in the league.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Giants’ lack of pass rush was a problem last season, but they also had significant problems in the backend of their defense in coverage. With issues rushing the passer and covering pass catchers, it’s unsurprising the Giants had the 3rd highest YPA allowed in the NFL. The Giants’ defense should be strong against the run again, but they’ll need to significantly improve against the pass if this is going to be a respectable defense. The Giants seemed to recognize this, even if they didn’t really address their pass rush, as they made several big investments in their coverage unit this off-season.

At linebacker, the big addition is former Packer Blake Martinez, who comes over on a 3-year, 30.75 million dollar deal. He’ll be a direct replacement for Alec Ogletree, who was released ahead of 10 million non-guaranteed owed in 2020, after finishing just 73rd out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. Martinez has been a tackling machine for the Packers, topping 140 tackles in each of the past 3 seasons, but that’s a little misleading, as he’s actually better in coverage than he is against the run. Overall, he’s earned middling grades from PFF in 4 seasons in the league, so he was a bit of an overpay on a deal that makes him one of the highest paid off ball linebackers in the league, but he should be an upgrade on Ogletree, even if he’s more of a snap eater than anything.

David Mayo remains as the other starting linebacker inside in their 3-4 defense. Mayo is only a two down player (631 snaps last season), but he excelled against the run, finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked off ball linebacker in run grade. Mayo is a one-year wonder who had never topped 145 snaps in a season prior to last season and he struggled mightily in coverage last season, but he’s a former 5th round pick who flashed as a run stuffer in limited action in a deep Panthers linebacking corps in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to joining the Giants last season and the Giants frequently use 3 safeties in sub packages, dropping box safety Jabrill Peppers near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, so Mayo won’t have to play many passing situations. He should remain a useful situational player. This is an unspectacular group, but with Martinez coming in as an upgrade as an every down linebacker and Mayo and Peppers essentially platooning at the other spot, this isn’t a bad group either.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary is the group that got the biggest investment this off-season, as the Giants signed ex-Panther James Bradberry to a 3-year, 43.5 million dollar deal to be their #1 cornerback and then used the 36th overall pick to take the draft class’ top safety Xavier McKinney, who projects as a long-term starter. Bradberry essentially replaces Janoris Jenkins, who was released late last season ahead of the final 1 year and 12.5 million of his deal, after an underwhelming 2019 season, while McKinney essentially replaces veteran Antoine Bethea, who was capable in 16 starts last season, but was still released ahead of 2.75 million non-guaranteed for his age 36 season in 2020.

Bradberry will take over immediately as the #1 cornerback and may continue shadowing #1 receivers in that role, as he did in Carolina. He has earned middling grades from Pro Football Focus throughout his 4-year career and has finished in the top-15 among cornerbacks in yards allowed in each of the past 3 seasons, including 2 seasons in the top-7, but he also regularly matched up with #1 wide receivers in a division with Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans and he should remain in his prime for at least a few more years, only going into his age 27 season.

When the Giants signed Bradberry, they likely envisioned him and 2019 1st round pick DeAndre Baker starting outside together for years to come, but Baker’s future is murky after an off-season arrest for armed robbery. He could be looking at significant prison time if convicted and is likely at least looking at a lengthy suspension from the league, barring something that totally exonerates him. Baker came into the league with a lot of potential, but he finished 122nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF as a 15-game starter as a rookie and now his long-term future is in doubt.

Baker being unavailable would be a problem, as the Giants have a depth problem at cornerback even with Baker available. Grant Haley, Sam Beal, Julian Love, and Corey Ballentine could all be in the mix for the #3 cornerback job, but they’re all questionable options. Grant Haley is a 2018 undrafted free agent who has played 851 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league. Sam Beal went in the 3rd round in 2018, but has been limited to 289 mediocre snaps by injury thus far in his career. Corey Ballentine is a 2019 6th round pick who struggled mightily as a rookie on 298 snaps. Julian Love is probably the best of the bunch, flashing on 408 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2019, but he may play some safety too, where he made 4 starts in place of an injured Jabrill Peppers last season. One of those 4 cornerbacks would have to start opposite Bradberry if Baker misses time. Aside from Bradberry, this is a very questionable group.

Second round rookie Xavier McKinney is likely locked in as a starter at safety, though he’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie, while Jabrill Peppers is locked in as well, but Love could still see some time at safety in sub packages, as Peppers is likely to line up as a linebacker with regularity in sub packages. A first round pick in 2017 by the Browns, Peppers was acquired as part of the Odell Beckham trade last year. He struggled as a rookie, but seemingly broke out with a 23rd ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2018, before falling back to 51st in 2019. Still only going into his age 25 season, Peppers has a lot of bounce back potential and could develop into a consistently above average strong safety/sub package linebacker long-term. The Giants are better at safety than cornerback, but only by default, as this is still an underwhelming secondary overall, despite some big investments this off-season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Giants should be better on offense, with an improved offensive line, Daniel Jones in his 2nd year in the league, and likely better health at the skill positions, while their defense should force more takeaways and should continue to stuff the run at a high level, but their defense still has a long way to go against pass to be a capable unit and could be even worse rushing the passer this season without their sack leader last year Markus Golden. The Giants’ offense has a lot of potential if Daniel Jones can be even an average starting quarterback, but even in that scenario their defense could still keep them out of a playoff berth and Jones showed he had a lot to work on as a rookie. This team is heading in the right direction, but I wouldn’t expect them to be true post-season contenders.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.57

Defensive Score: 70.93

Total Score: 71.75 (3rd in NFC East)