Baltimore Ravens 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens shockingly won the Super Bowl in 2012, with just 7 of 14 of their wins coming by more than a field goal, but have been paying for it ever since. After sneaking into the playoffs with 10 wins, Joe Flacco played unlike he ever had in the Ravens’ 4 playoff victories, en route to the Super Bowl, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. As a result, the Ravens gave him a then-record 6-year, 120.6 million dollar deal to keep him as a free agent the following off-season, but he has not been able to recapture his 2012 post-season form.

In fact, his numbers have arguably gotten worse since. In the first 5 seasons of his career, prior to winning the Super Bowl, Flacco completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In the 4 seasons since winning the Super Bowl, he has completed 62.5% of his passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 80 touchdowns, and 61 interceptions. He’s finished above average over a season on Pro Football Focus just 3 times in 9 years in the league and finished last season 25th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks. He hasn’t nearly been worth his contract.

That contract has clogged their cap space up and forced them to part ways with important players ever since. As a result, they’ve made the post-season just once in 4 seasons since that Super Bowl victory. The Ravens have also re-negotiated the deal several times, in an effort to free up immediate cap space, at the cost of future cap space. In one of those re-negotiations, they made the deal 3 years longer and gave him more guaranteed money, so he is now under contract through his age 36 season in 2021. His cap number for 2017 is still a league high 24.55 million and the Ravens wouldn’t save cap space by releasing him until after the 2018 season. He’s already been paid 91 million since the Super Bowl and is scheduled to make 187 million total over a 9-year period under his current contract.

The Ravens should be doing more to find and develop a future franchise quarterback behind him. His salary is only going to get less justifiable as he gets older and he’s already going into his age 32 season. Even if the Ravens can’t realistically move on from him for two seasons, they should try to be prepared with another option by that point. In the meantime, the Ravens need to run the ball more consistently if they want to make it back to the post-season. They have led the NFL in passing attempts in each of the last 2 seasons and that is not that kind of offense Joe Flacco thrives in.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Ravens finished 24th and 20th in the league in yards per carry in 2015 and 2016 respectively and averaged just 3.92 yards per carry between the two seasons, despite often running in situations where the defense is playing sub packages and expecting the pass. They needed to add help at running back this off-season, but only added Danny Woodhead, who will be much more valuable to the Ravens in the air as a receiver than on the ground. His career high is 109 carries in a season and he heads into his age 32 season coming off of a season in which he misesed all but 2 games with a torn ACL.

Their best chance at having a true feature back at some point this season is second year back Kenneth Dixon, a 4th rounder in 2016. Dixon missed the first 4 games of his rookie season with injury and didn’t really get into the flow of things until mid-season, but he led the team with 61 carries over the final 6 games of the season. He had 8 more carries than Terrance West over that stretch, even though West led the team with 193 carries on the season. Dixon also outperformed West on the season, averaging 4.34 yards per carry on 88 carries, while West averaged just 4.01 yards per carry on his carries.

West, a 2014 3rd round pick, has just a career 3.94 YPC on 426 carries and is a low end lead back at best. Dixon has much more potential, but will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test this off-season, which definitely hurts his breakout potential. West will carry the load in Dixon’s absence, and West and Dixon will split carries in some fashion upon his return, likely with Dixon leading the way. Woodhead, meanwhile, may lead the position in snaps played because he figures to play in just about every passing situation. That will hurt Dixon and West in terms of many targets they get (64 combined in 2016), but Woodhead has had 75+ catches in his last two healthy seasons, so he’s obviously a better passing down option. They need Dixon to break out as a running down complement.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Ravens didn’t just have the most pass attempts in the league last season. They also lost the most targets this off-season, as players totalling 345 targets last season are no longer with the team, more than half of their total amount of 679. Most importantly, the Ravens lost wide receiver Steve Smith (103 targets) and Dennis Pitta (119 targets). The former retired this off-season, while the latter is likely to retire, after dislocating his hip for the 3rd time in 4 years. Even if he does not officially retire, he will not play this season.

Their top returning target is Mike Wallace, who was targeted 117 times. He impressively turned those 117 targets into 72 catches for 1017 yards and 4 scores. He’s unlikely to be that good again in 2017 though. Wallace is a well known name because of his speed, but last season was the first season in which he topped 1000+ yards and the first season in which he finished above average on Pro Football Focus since 2011. Wallace seems to have great chemistry with Joe Flacco, but is going into his age 31 season and could easily take a step back performance wise in 2017.

Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin could easily be this team’s #1 target. Maclin was let go by the Chiefs after the draft, but that was primarily because he wasn’t worth his 10 million dollar salary to a team that was in a rough spot in terms of cap space. The Chiefs claim he lost a step, but that’s probably because he played half of last season with a torn groin. Prior to his injury, Maclin was on pace for a solid 69/859/5 slash line.

Prior to last season, Maclin posted slash lines of 85/1318/10 and 87/1088/8 in 2014 and 2015 respectively and finished in the top-25 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He’s still only going into his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. That’s a big if though, as he’s played all 16 games just twice in 8 seasons in the league and has missed 26 of 128 games in his career. With injuries starting to pile up, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he’s still a solid starting caliber receiver at the very least when healthy. He’ll start opposite Wallace and move inside to the slot in 3 and 4 wide receiver sets.

Maclin was acquired partially because the Ravens still don’t trust 2015 1st round pick Breshad Perriman, who will remain the 3rd receiver with Maclin in town and play outside opposite Wallace in 3-wide receiver sets when Maclin moves inside. Perriman missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury and then was unspectacular on 486 snaps in 16 games last season, catching just 33 of 66 targets (50%) for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns and finishing 83rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 24 season, Perriman still has a high upside, but needs to show that he’s more than a situational deep threat. Considered a boom or bust prospect coming out of college, it’s possible Perriman never figures it out.

The Ravens will need their top-3 receivers to all play well because, with Pitta gone, they don’t have a single tight end on the roster who caught more than 10 passes or played more than 247 snaps last season. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was their de facto #2 tight end last season, catching 37 passes on 465 snaps, both league highs for fullbacks, but he’s in San Francisco now. Darren Waller finished 2nd on the team in catches by a tight end last season with 10, but turned them into just 85 yards and didn’t block well at all. A converted college wide receiver who was just a 6th round pick in 2015, Waller is suspended for the whole 2017 season after failing multiple drug tests.

Fortunately, the Ravens do have some options at tight end, though most of them are coming off of serious injury. Ben Watson is their most experienced receiving tight end, but also missed all of last season with a torn achilles and is going into his age 37 season, so he’s a complete question mark for 2017. Watson shockingly had a big receiving year in 2015 with the Saints, posting a 74/825/6 slash line, but that was largely because he got 109 targets on one of the best offenses in the league. Prior to 2015, Watson had 39 catches in his previous 2 seasons combined. He could still be a solid blocker, but I wouldn’t expect much from him as a receiver, given his age and the injury he suffered last season. He had to take a paycut from 3 million down to 1.25 million this off-season to keep his roster spot.

Maxx Williams is a promising tight end, but he played in just 4 games last season and basically missed the whole season with knee problems, as he played just 54 snaps and didn’t catch a pass. Williams, a 2015 2nd round pick, flashed as a receiver and a run blocker on 477 snaps as a rookie and still has upside if he can stay healthy, in still only his age 23 season. He’s not expected to be ready for training camp though, and could reportedly be placed on the reserve/PUP and miss the first 6 games of the season, so that’s a big if, but he’s easily their highest upside receiving tight end.

Crockett Gillmore, meanwhile, is their highest upside overall tight end, but he too is coming off of a serious injury. A 2014 3rd round pick, Gillmore flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked tight end in 2015 through 10 games, before missing the rest of the season with a back injury. That back injury carried into 2016 and he also dealt with shoulder, hamstring, and thigh injuries, which all limited him to 247 nondescript snaps in 7 games. If healthy, he has obvious bounce back potential. He isn’t a great receiver, but isn’t a bad one either (57/720/7 pace before injury in 2015) and is a strong blocker at 6-6 260. Best case scenario, he and Maxx Williams make a solid tight end duo, but both need to get healthy and stay healthy.

The Ravens also have Nick Boyle in the mix. He was limited to 116 snaps in 6 games last season, but not by injury, as he missed 10 games with a suspension for multiple failed drug tests. A 2015 5th round pick, Boyle was the slowest tight end at the combine and has averaged just 8.21 yards per catch on 24 catches in 2 seasons in the league (17 games), but is a strong run blocker at 6-4 260 and could earn a role in two-tight end sets, depending on the health of players ahead of him on the depth chart. A lot is up for grabs at the tight end position and Danny Woodhead figures to catch most of the balls in the typical tight end receiving areas. This receiving corps once again leaves a lot to be desired, especially for how often they pass.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

In addition to losing two starters in the receiving corps, the Ravens also lost two starters on the offensive line. Unlike Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta, who are relatively replaceable, both offensive linemen are going to be tough for the Ravens to replace. Center Jeremy Zuttah is not an irreplaceable player, but the Ravens don’t have an obvious replacement for him, which makes their decision to trade him to the 49ers for a swap of late round picks even more head-scratching. Zuttah was owed just 3.5 million in his age 31 season in 2017 and finished last season 13th among centers on Pro Football Focus as a 16-game starter.

With Zuttah gone, John Urschel and Ryan Jensen will compete for the starting center job. Urschel, a 2014 5th round pick, made 7 starts at center in place of an injured Zuttah in 2015, but finished 31st out of 39 eligible centers. He’s been better at guard in 6 career starts there, but is an underwhelming option at center. Jensen, meanwhile, is a 2013 6th round pick who has made 9 starts at guard over the past 2 seasons, and now moves to center out of desperation. He was never that good at guard, but might be a better option at center than Urschel. Both players seem best as backups though, so center figures to be a real problem position in 2017.

Right tackle Ricky Wagner, who signed with the Lions on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season, is also not an irreplaceable player, but he’s a significantly better player than Zuttah and the Ravens also don’t have an obvious replacement for him, so he’ll really be missed. He was Pro Football Focus 18th ranked offensive tackle last season in 14 starts. James Hurst, who has been their swing tackle for the past 3 seasons since going undrafted in 2014, is penciled in as the starting right tackle, but he has been horrendous in 16 career starts and is a very weak option. Unfortunately, the Ravens don’t really have another choice. Behind Hurst on the depth chart is 2015 undrafted free agent De’Ondre Wesley, who has never made a start, and 5th round rookie Jermaine Eluemunor, who is unlikely to be ready to start as a rookie.

The Ravens could move left guard Alex Lewis to right tackle, as Lewis has experience at tackle from his collegiate days at the University of Nebraska, but the Ravens don’t seem to want to do that. Even if they did, that would leave a hole at left guard that would have to be filled by either the loser of the center battle between Urschel and Jensen or by 4th round rookie Nico Siragusa, who would likely be overwhelmed as a rookie. Lewis, a 2016 4th round pick, isn’t that good either, finishing last season 61st out of 72 eligible guards in 8 starts. Regardless of who they decide to play where, left guard, center, and right tackle figure to be positions of weakness for the Ravens in 2017.

Fortunately, the Ravens should still get strong play at left tackle and right guard. Ronnie Stanley, the 6th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was solid in 12 starts on the blindside as a rookie, finishing 26th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, and could take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Still only 23, Stanley has a high upside and could be one of the best left tackles in the league in 2-3 years.

While Stanley is just beginning his career, right guard Marshal Yanda is in the later stages of his career. Yanda has been one of the best guards in the league for many years, but is going into his age 33 season and will probably start declining at some point soon. You wouldn’t be able to tell from his 2016 tape though. He did miss 3 games with injury, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked guard.

That was his 2nd straight season finishing #1 at the position and he’s finished in the top-5 in five of the last six seasons, since moving to right guard full-time (Yanda played some right tackle early in his career). Even if he does decline this season, he could easily still be one of the best guards in football. Stanley and Yanda make this offensive line somewhat respectable, but their issues at left guard, center, and right tackle will really hurt this offense. They finished last season 27th in first down rate and could easily be worse than that this season, with a weaker offensive line and no real improvements made at the skill positions.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

With their struggles on offense last season, their defense frequently had to bail them out. They finished the season 8th in first down rate allowed, which allowed them to still finish a respectable 8-8. Unfortunately, they also lost a lot on defense this off-season and have 6 new starters on this side of the ball, including two new starters on the defensive line. Former starting defensive ends Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy are now in Philadelphia and New England respectively. Both players finished above average on 631 and 487 snaps respectively, so they will be big losses. Guy was signed to a 4-year, 13.4 million dollar deal by the Patriots, while Jernigan was sent to the Eagles in order to move up 25 spots in the 3rd round because the Ravens likely would not be able to afford to bring him back as a free agent next off-season.

The Ravens did keep nose tackle Brandon Williams, who was probably the most important defensive lineman to keep. He has led this defensive line in snaps played for 3 straight seasons, playing 550 snaps in 2014, 727 snaps in 2015, and 639 snaps last season. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Williams has made 46 starts over the past 3 seasons. He fell to 22nd among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season, after finishing 10th and 8th at the position in 2014 and 2015 respectively, but is still in the prime of his career in only in his age 28 season and should have another strong season in 2017. He might have been a little overpaid on a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal, but that was what the Ravens needed to pay to keep him, so it’s not a bad deal.

Even at 6-1 340, Williams is more of an every down player than a true nose tackle, hence why he keeps leading this defensive line in snaps, but the Ravens completely lack another proven veteran on the line and need young players to step up. The Ravens have spent a whopping 5 draft picks in the 3rd and 4th rounds on defensive lineman over their last 4 drafts, but their best young defensive lineman might be 2016 undrafted free agent Michael Pierce, who finished 4th on this defensive line in snaps played as a rookie with 375 and finished 12th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. The 6-0 339 pounder is just a base package player, but is probably locked into a larger role for 2017, given how well he played the run as a rookie. He’s still unproven, but could easily be a useful run stuffer for them on about half the snaps.

All five of their recently drafted defensive lineman are still on the team, so they will all compete for roles too, with no other veteran options. Brent Urban is the most “veteran” of the bunch, going in the 4th round in 2014, but he has never made a start in 3 seasons in the league and played 151 nondescript snaps in 2016. The 6-7 295 pounder could carve out a role as an interior pass rusher in sub packages, but isn’t even a lock for the final roster. In 2015, they added Carl Davis to the mix in the 3rd round, but he played just 241 nondescript snaps as a rookie and then missed all of last season with injury, so he’s a complete unknown. At 6-5 321, Davis is best as an early down run stuffer, but, like Urban, isn’t a lock for the final roster. He could definitely earn a role with a strong off-season though.

In 2016, the Ravens added Bronson Kaufusi and Willie Henry in the 3rd and 4th round respectively, but neither played a single snap as a rookie. Kaufusi broke his ankle in training camp and missed the entire season, while Henry was a weekly inactive before being put on injured reserve with an unknown injury in November. Kaufusi was expected to have a rookie year role before the injury though and could be a starter now that he’s healthy. At the very least, the 6-6 285 pounder should contribute as an interior rusher in sub packages.

Henry, meanwhile, could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but he’s a complete unknown and it’s not promising that he was unable to even make it to the active gameday roster as a rookie. The Ravens also added Michigan’s Chris Wormley in the 3rd round of this year’s draft and could give him playing time immediately. The Ravens have options on the defensive line, but it’s unclear if any of those options are going to be good.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Ravens also have a couple of new starters in the linebacking corps as well. Elvis Dumervil opened last season as a starting outside linebacker, but was limited to 272 snaps in 8 games by injury and was subsequently released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million in his age 33 season in 2017. In his absence, Za’Darius Smith and Albert McClellan split snaps, but both struggled, finishing 92nd and 99th respectively out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, on 492 snaps and 605 snaps respectively.

The Ravens used a 2nd round pick on the University of Houston’s Tyus Bowser and he figures to have an immediate role. He’s pretty raw and could struggle with some of the finer points of the game as a rookie, but he is very athletic and should provide value in sub packages. McClellan could still see snaps in base packages because he’s an adequate run stuffer, but McClellan is a career special teamer who is going into his age 31 season, so Bowser will be an every down player before long. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2015, and is unlikely to have much of a role unless injuries hit.

Terrell Suggs remains as the starter on the other side, but he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 35 season. Suggs didn’t have a bad season in 2016, but was not as good as he normally is. He was a top-10 player at his position in every healthy season from 2010-2014 (he missed 8 games in 2012 with injury), but missed all of 2015 with a torn achilles and was not the same in 2016. He could continue declining in 2017. In addition to adding Bowser in the 2nd round, they drafted pass rush specialist Tim Williams in the 3rd round, who could be a long-term replacement for Suggs. He could eat into his snaps as a rookie.

The Ravens also lost starting middle linebacker Zachary Orr this off-season, after he made 15 starts in 2016. Orr was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Ravens this off-season, but only because he was diagnosed with a congenital spinal condition that forced him to retire this off-season, at age 25. Now, Orr has received a second opinion and wants to try a comeback, but he’s now an unrestricted free agent because he was never tendered and can sign anywhere.

Orr may want to return to Baltimore, but it’s unclear if the Ravens’ medical staff is going to be willing to clear him. One way or another, I don’t expect him to return to the Ravens, leaving 2016 2nd round pick Kamalei Correa to start in his absence. Orr led the Ravens in tackles in 2016, but struggled in coverage and finished 81st out of 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so he won’t really he missed. Correa has more long-term upside anyway, though he was limited to 49 snaps as a rookie, so he is unproven.

CJ Mosley remains as an every down middle linebacker inside next to Correa. A first round pick in 2014, Mosley is one of the Ravens’ best defensive players and has made 46 of 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league. He’s finished in the top-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2 of those 3 seasons and finished last season a career best 7th at the position. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best days could still be ahead of him. The Ravens will likely try to extend him long-term soon, though he is still under contract for just 10.33 million over the next 2 seasons on his rookie deal. He’s the best linebacker in a group that is not what it once was, on a defense that is overall on the decline.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Ravens’ secondary is their best unit on defense. They lost a pair of cornerbacks this off-season, but they’re arguably better in the secondary than they were last season. Their biggest loss is going to be Tavon Young, who led Baltimore cornerbacks in snaps played last season with 833 and finished 26th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, despite being just a 4th round rookie. He tore his ACL this off-season and miss will the entire season, a devastating blow to a young player who appeared to have a bright future before the injury. Young likely wouldn’t have had as big of a role this season, as he’s best on the slot and was only playing outside down the stretch last season because of injuries to their outside cornerbacks, but he’ll still be missed. He was one of the best pure slot corners in the league last season.

Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright were their top-2 outside cornerbacks last season and made 11 and 9 starts respectively, with both missing some time with injury. Smith returns as the #1 cornerback, but injuries have been a problem for him throughout his career, especially in recent years. Smith was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback in 2014 through 8 games, but then broke his foot and missed the rest of the season. The Ravens didn’t seem concerned, giving the 2011 1st round pick a 4-year, 41.1 million dollar extension the following off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal.

That deal has proven to be a mistake. Smith didn’t miss a game in 2015, but wasn’t healthy all season and finished below average on Pro Football Focus. He was better last season, but still finished just 42nd among cornerbacks and missed another 5 games with injury. All in all, he’s missed 22 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never finished higher than 35th among cornerbacks over a full season. Smith is now going into his age 29 season, so he’s no spring chicken anymore and it’s very possible he never lives up to his potential. The Ravens have already restructured his contract once, so they won’t get any real cap relief from releasing him until after the 2018 season. He’s scheduled to make 17.5 million over the next 2 seasons, with cap numbers of 12.6 million and 13.1 million.

Wright, meanwhile, is now in Buffalo, but he wasn’t good and the Ravens upgraded on him and added to their depth outside by signing veteran Brandon Carr in free agency and drafting Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey with the 16th overall pick in the draft. Carr signed a 4-year, 23.5 million dollar deal, so he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Smith, but Humphrey was a high pick and could push him by season’s end.

Carr was once seen as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but was largely a bust on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal with the Cowboys. He finished last season 50th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, which isn’t bad, but that was his best season in 5 years in Dallas and the Cowboys were definitely expecting more out of him. Now that he’s gotten paid again, his effort could decline and he could regress again. He’s also now going into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him. Humphrey was drafted to be his long-term replacement and could have the starting job sooner rather than later.

For now, Humphrey is likely to open the season as the #4 cornerback, even with Tavon Young injured. Humphrey is probably one of their three most talented cornerbacks, but he would be a poor fit in with Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in 3-cornerback sets because none of those three are natural fits on the slot. They paid Carr a lot of money and Humphrey is really young (21 in July) and could use a developmental year. He’ll mostly provide insurance as a rookie, but could see several starts if Smith gets hurt again or Carr struggles again.

Instead, Lardarius Webb and Brandon Boykin will compete for slot snaps. Webb is likely the heavy favorite. He played safety last season, but finished 15th at the position and was a corner in the first 7 seasons of his career from 2009-2015. Webb was actually cut this off-season, but only because they couldn’t fit him under the cap and he was brought back on a much cheaper 3-year, 6.3 million dollar deal two months later.  Webb is going into his age 32 season, but he’s finished below average just once in 8 seasons in the league and is a natural fit on the slot.

Boykin is a natural fit on the slot too and was once one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league in the first 3 seasons of his career with the Eagles from 2012-2014, but they traded him the following off-season and he’s bounced around to 4 different teams since, barely playing for 2 seasons. It’s unclear why, though a pectoral injury did wipe out his whole 2016 season, but he’s healthy now and still only going into his age 27 season, so it’s still possible he could find his old form. For now though, consider Webb the heavy favorite for the job.

The reason Webb is moving back to cornerback is because the Ravens signed talented safety Tony Jefferson to replace him in free agency this off-season, their one big free agent addition. Jefferson finished last season 5th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Last season was his first full season as a starter, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, as he flashed as a part-time player in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2013-2015, including a 2015 season in which he finished 18th among safeties on 756 snaps (7 starts). The Ravens signing him for just 34 million over 4 years was steal. He’s only the 8th highest paid safety in the NFL and could still get better in the future, only going into his age 25 season.

This was the second straight off-season that the Ravens signed a safety to a multi-year deal in free agent, signing Eric Weddle to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season. That too proved to be a steal, as he finished his first season in Baltimore as Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked safety. That’s nothing new for him, as he was a top-6 safety on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2014. The only reason he was signed so expensively last off-season is because he had a down year in 2015, finishing 33rd among safeties, and appeared to be on the decline, on the wrong side of 30.

Weddle proved his doubters wrong in 2016 and could easily have another strong season in his age 32 season in 2016. He will decline at some point soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he remained one of the top safeties in the league for another 2-3 seasons. He’s just the 13th highest paid safety in the NFL in average annual salary. Weddle and Jefferson are arguably the league’s top safety duo and both are bargains. That’s huge for a team that has had cap issues for several off-seasons. The Ravens at least still have a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Ravens look worse on both sides of the ball this season, after an off-season full of losses, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. They finished last season just 25th in first down rate and had 8 fewer offensive touchdowns than their opponents, so they’re not starting from a great baseline. A once strong veteran team that has struggled to develop enough young talent to replace the players they’ve been unable to keep under the cap over the years, the Ravens could have a tough year in 2017 and, at the very least, are likely to finish worse than last season’s 8-8. 

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC North

Cleveland Browns 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Browns were in full rebuild mode in 2016. Tired of always hanging around 5-11, the Browns got rid of pretty much any veteran who was making any significant amount of money last off-season, with the goal of letting young players play, rolling over a significant amount of cap space to the 2017 off-season, and picking up a high draft pick. The Browns went 1-15 in 2016, but ended up with the #1 overall pick and entered this off-season with the most cap space in the league, upwards of 100 million. There was nowhere to go but up and they had the ammunition to significantly improve their roster. It’s the same approach taken by the Oakland Raiders, who rebuilt in a hurry, winning 12 games last season after winning just 11 games combined from 2012-2014. It’s not always a successful approach, but it’s the right process for a rebuild.

The big key for the Raiders was finding a franchise quarterback in the draft in Derek Carr, a 2nd round pick in 2014. The Browns also used a 2nd round pick on a quarterback this season, taking Notre Dame’s Deshone Kizer 52nd overall. Unfortunately, most second round picks do not turn into Derek Carr and, unlike Carr, Kizer is nowhere near NFL ready. Kizer has all the tools, but struggles with his mechanics and reportedly did not interview well, coming off conceited and lazy. He’s only 21 and could develop into a franchise quarterback long-term if he’s mature enough to put in the work, but he’s likely to struggle if he has to play as a rookie.

Unfortunately, the Browns don’t have a great other option, so Kizer is likely to make starts at some point this season. Cody Kessler, a 2016 3rd round pick who made 8 starts as a rookie, seems to be the favorite to start week 1. Kessler isn’t much older than Kizer, going into his age 24 season, but doesn’t nearly have Kizer’s arm strength or upside. He also holds the ball too long, takes too many sacks, and isn’t durable, getting knocked out of the game in 3 of his 8 starts last season. He was also benched once, so he really only started and finished 4 games. His numbers weren’t bad, as he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and he finished 22nd among 34th eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, which isn’t terrible, but he’s an underwhelming starting option and seems best suited to be a backup long-term.

The Browns also used some of their cap space on the quarterback position this off-season, though not in a traditional way. In the type of trade that only happens in sports where players have fully guaranteed contracts, the Browns acquired Brock Osweiler, a 2017 6th round pick, and a 2018 2nd round pick from the Texans for a 2017 4th round pick, essentially buying a 2nd round pick. Osweiler was going into just the 2nd year of a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal with the Texans and was owed 16 million fully guaranteed, but he was so bad in his one season as a starter that the Texans were willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get out of paying him.

Osweiler isn’t just a salary dump for the Browns, as he actually has a legitimate chance of winning the starting job, given the Browns’ lack of a better option. Osweiler finished last season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus last season, completing just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and was benched down the stretch for the inexperienced Tom Savage, who was not considered a starting option at the beginning of the season. He was slightly better in 7 starts with the Broncos in 2015, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 7.15 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, but still struggled to move the Broncos’ offense and was benched for an ancient Peyton Manning when he returned from his foot injury.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Osweiler is still only going into his age 27 season, so he has some potential, but he’s running out of chances. He’s part of an open 3-man competition and all 3 quarterbacks could see action at some point this season. The Browns are likely to get poor quarterback play once again in what is likely going to end up as more of an evaluatory year than anything. The Browns will try to see if they have anything in any of their 3 quarterbacks and could consider another quarterback at the top of the draft in a much better quarterback year in 2018.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The Browns decided to spend their cap space first and foremost on the offensive line, again mirroring the Oakland Raiders, who have added 4 of 5 starters on their strong offensive line in free agency on multi-year big money deals. The Browns added two new starters upfront this off-season, signing Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals and JC Tretter from the Packers. The offensive line was a natural place to start, given that they led the NFL with 66 sacks allowed last season. Part of that was quarterbacks like Kessler holding the ball too long, but they had major issues upfront all season.

Left tackle Joe Thomas isn’t to blame though. He’s never been to blame. Tragically, the best offensive lineman of his generation has been stuck for 10 years in Cleveland without much worth protecting. The 3rd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas hasn’t just made all 160 starts in his career, but he’s never so much as even missed a snap and he’s finished in the top-10 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 10 seasons, including 5 seasons in which he finished #1. Last season, he “only” finished 5th, but he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of aging, going into his age 33 season. One of the few veterans who was kept during the Browns’ purge, Thomas would obviously like to see this team become a contender sooner rather than later. It wouldn’t be a shock if he declined a little bit this season, but he’s still arguably the best left tackle in the game.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is a very good player as well, but he missed 11 games with a broken foot last season, which really hurt this offensive line. Bitonio was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard as a rookie in 2014, but was limited to 10 games and fell to 32nd among guards thanks to injuries in 2015 and then had essentially a lost season in 2016 because of injuries. Still only going into his age 26 season, Bitonio has a very high ceiling if he can stay healthy, but that’s not a guarantee. The Browns still believe in him long-term though, giving him a 5-year, 51 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, making him the 3rd highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary.

Zeitler, meanwhile, comes in on a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal from the Bengals and is the highest paid guard in the NFL. Bitonio and Zeitler could be the best guard duo in the NFL if both are healthy. Zeitler missed 8 games in 2013 and 2014 combined, but otherwise has been healthy in his career, so he’s not really an injury risk. Going into his age 27 season, the 2012 1st round pick has 71 career starts and has finished above average in all 5 seasons in the league, including 4 seasons in the top-12 among guards. He finished a career best 7th in 2016.

JC Tretter, meanwhile, will slot in at center, after signing a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Tretter was never a regular starter in Green Bay, but made 10 starts in 4 seasons as an injury replacement and has the versatility to play all 3 interior offensive line positions. His longest stretch of starting came last season when he started the first 7 games at center in place of an injured Corey Linsley and finished 9th among centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a projection to a 16-game starting role and comes with some risk for that reason, but could definitely turn into a solid starting center. He should be an upgrade over Cam Erving, who made 12 starts at center last season and finished dead last at the position.

Erving was a first round pick by the Browns in 2015, but struggled mightily in limited action at guard as a rookie and then was even worse at center last season. In an effort to salvage his career, Erving will be moved to right tackle this season, the Browns’ only real weakness on this offensive line. Erving played tackle in college, but did not become a big-time prospect until he moved to center as a senior and is unlikely to find much more success at right tackle in the NFL.

Erving will compete for the starting job with 2016 3rd round pick Shon Coleman, who played just 72 snaps as a rookie. It’s also possible the Browns could throw left guard Spencer Drango into the mix at right tackle. Drango, a 2016 5th round pick, was adequate in 9 starts at left guard last season as an injury replacement for Bitonio and has the size and ability to move to right tackle. Like Erving, he spent a lot of time at tackle in college. Even with issues at right tackle, this is one of the better offensive lines in the league. This is a solid foundation for their rebuild.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Now the Browns just need to get better at other positions. Despite having the most cap space in the league entering this off-season, the Browns still let their best offensive free agent leave, as Terrelle Pryor signed with the Redskins and did so pretty inexpensively, taking an incentivized 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. Pryor led the Browns with 77 catches for 1007 yards and 4 touchdowns and finished the season 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He won’t be easily replaced, though the Browns did sign ex-Ram Kenny Britt to a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal in free agent to replacement him.

Like Pryor, Britt also had a 1000 yard season on a bad offense in 2016, catching 68 passes for 1002 yards and 5 touchdowns with the Rams. It was his first career 1000+ yard season and it was a long-time coming for him, as the 2009 1st round pick was in his 8th season in the league. Britt showed promise early in his career, but caught just 73 passes combined in 29 games from 2011-2013, thanks to several factors: injuries, motivation issues, off-the-field problems, and clashes with his coaching staff.

He got a fresh start in 2014 with the Rams and finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons there, culminating with his impressive 2016 season. He received a career high 111 targets last seasons, averaged 9.03 yards per target on a team that averaged 6.18 yards per pass attempt overall, and finished 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Somehow still only going into his age 29 season, Britt could be an adequate replacement for Pryor, but he does come with a lot of risk given his past.

Pryor got 140 targets last season, but the Browns are hoping Britt is more of a 1a to 2nd year receiver Corey Coleman’s 1b. That would obviously require Coleman staying healthy. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Coleman flashed in the beginning of the season, catching 7 passes for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first 2 games, but then missed 6 games with a broken hand and was not nearly the same upon his return, catching 26 passes for just 240 yards and 1 touchdown on 61 targets (3.93 yards per target) in his final 8 games of the season. Overall he caught just 33 of 74 targets (44.6%) and finished 100th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. The Browns need more from him in his 2nd season in the league, though he’s unfortunately missed most of the off-season with hamstring problems. He’s expected to return for training camp, but he’s far from a sure thing.

Coleman was one of four wide receivers the Browns drafted in 2016. With Coleman out, Andrew Hawkins actually finished 2nd among Cleveland wide receivers in snaps played with 647 last season, but he’s in New England now, so it’ll likely be one of the other 3 second year receivers who wins the #3 receiver job. Ricardo Louis, a fourth round pick who led the trio in snaps as a rookie with 316, is reportedly the favorite, but he will face competition from 5th round picks Rashard Higgins (180 snaps) and Jordan Payton (32 snaps).

None of the three played well as rookies, but Louis struggled mightily, finishing 104 out of 115th eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He caught just 50% of his targets and averaged fewer than a yard per route run. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee and he could still struggle even if he’s improved. Wide receiver depth is a serious problem for the Browns, especially since Coleman and Britt are injury risks.

Not only are Terrelle Pryor and Andrew Hawkins gone, but the Browns also moved on from tight end Gary Barnidge this off-season, rather than paying him 3 million non-guaranteed in his age 32 season in 2017, continuing their theme of getting rid of any veterans making significant money. Barnidge wasn’t a great tight end in 2016, but was capable as a pass catcher, run blocker, and pass protector was their 2nd leading receiver with a 55/612/2 slash line. Between Pryor, Hawkins, and Barnidge, the Browns lost 273 targets from last season, 3rd most in the NFL, so they’re completely remaking their receiving corps.

The catalyst for getting rid of Barnidge was the selection of David Njoku with the 29th overall pick in the first round, after the Browns moved up from 33 atop the 2nd round to grab him. Like last year’s first rounder Corey Coleman, they will need him to play a big role and develop into a playmaker in this new remade receiving corps. Not yet 21 until July, Njoku was one of the best athletes in the draft and has a huge upside, but may struggle with some of the finer points of the game as a rookie and needs to improve significantly as a run blocker.

He’ll face competition for snaps from Seth DeValve, a 2016 4th round pick who played 92 snaps as a rookie, and Randall Telfer, a 2015 6th round pick with 2 catches for 4 yards in his career. DeValve is a converted receiver and has reportedly looked good this off-season, while Telfer is probably the best blocking tight end left on the roster. This receiving corps is very young and probably won’t help their quarterbacks much. Britt is their only capable receiver who isn’t in his 1st or 2nd year in the league.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The Browns’ actually finished last season 2nd in the league in yards per carry with 4.89 last season, though that’s a little misleading because they spent a lot of last season in catch up mode against defenses expecting the pass. They only had 350 carries all season, tied for dead last in the NFL. Still, running the ball is easily their best chance of moving the ball on offense this season, especially with an improved offensive line. Game flow likely won’t allow them to run much more than they did last season though.

Isaiah Crowell led the team in carries with 198 and turned them into 952 yards and 7 touchdowns, an impressive 4.81 YPC average. That too is a little misleading, as Crowell got 20% of his yards on 3 carries, and averaged just 3.89 yards per carry on the other 195 carries, but he definitely took a step forward in his 3rd year in the league, after averaging just 3.94 yards per carry overall in his first 2 seasons in the league. The 2014 undrafted free agent was also significantly improved as a pass catcher, catching 40 passes for 319 yards, after catching just 28 passes in 2014 and 2015 combined. He finished the season 28th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, finishing above average for the first time in his career, and could easily have another solid season in 2017, his age 24 season and the final year of his rookie deal.

Passing down back Duke Johnson actually ran better than Crowell did last season, averaging 4.90 yards per carry, despite his longest carry only going for 22 yards. Granted, Johnson had just 73 carries and was primarily running the ball in situations where the defense was expecting pass, but he still was much improved from his rookie year, when the 2015 3rd round pick averaged just 3.64 yards per carry on 104 carries.

Johnson also has 114 catches in 2 seasons in the league, which is where he brings the most value. He’s finished 4th and 11th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure pass catching grade over the past 2 seasons respectively. With few proven options in the passing game, look for them to lean on Crowell and Johnson again in the passing game, after they caught a combined 93 passes in 2016. They’re a solid running back duo, though they lack any proven depth behind them, so they need both to stay healthy again.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

With no obvious franchise quarterback atop the draft, the Browns decided to use the #1 overall pick on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, the consensus top prospect in the draft. The Browns’ biggest need was quarterback, but it was a wise decision to take Garrett instead. They got a developmental quarterback in Deshone Kizer on day 2 and figure to be picking high again next year in a much better quarterback class if Kizer doesn’t pan out. Defensive end was also a big need for the Browns and Garrett is instantly their best player at the position. He’ll be a week 1 starter and play every down. He’s a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and could be one of the best pass rushers in the league in 3-4 years.

Emmanuel Ogbah led the Browns with 5.5 sacks last season, for a team that finished with just 26 sacks as a team, 2nd fewest in the NFL. The 33rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (the first pick in the second round), Ogbah struggled on 849 snaps as a rookie, finishing 94th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, particularly struggling against the run, but could be better in his 2nd season in the league. The Browns are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Ogbah could benefit from the switch. He played in a 4-3 in college at Oklahoma State and his skill set fits a 4-3 defense better.

The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on a defensive end in 2016, taking Penn State’s Carl Nassib. He too struggled as a rookie, finishing 107th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 541 snaps, but could also benefit from a switch to a 4-3. He’ll be their primary reserve at defensive end with Garrett coming in and can also rush the passer from the interior in sub packages at 6-7 275. In sub packages, Nate Orchard will be the Browns’ top reserve defensive end. A 2015 2nd round pick, Orchard hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league and was limited to 87 snaps in 3 games last season by injury. He’s also a candidate to play outside linebacker in base packages.

The player who is most negatively affected by the scheme switch is Danny Shelton, which is unfortunate because he was a first round pick by the Browns in 2015 and is coming off of a mini-breakout season. Shelton was alright on 514 snaps as a rookie, but jumped to 10th among defensive tackles on 748 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, excelling against the run at 6-2 335. He finished 5th among defensive tackles in pure run stopping grade. Shelton might not be good enough of a pass rusher to stay on the field for all 3 downs in this new 4-3 defense though and doesn’t fit Gregg Williams’ aggressive one-gap defensive line style.

Jamie Meder and Desmond Bryant will compete for the other starting job opposite Shelton, but both players should play a significant amount of snaps. Meder was a first-time starter last season and played 721 snaps on the season, but did not play well, finishing 105th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. The 2014 undrafted free agent could easily struggle again in 2017. Desmond Bryant might not necessarily be an upgrade though and is not even a lock to make the final roster, owed 3 million in his age 32 season, after missing all of last season with a torn pectoral. Bryant was a good player in Oakland in his prime, but he was pretty mediocre in three seasons with the Browns before the injury. He’s only still on the roster because the Browns are desperate at the position.

The Browns also used a pair of draft picks on the position, taking UNC Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi in the 3rd round and Florida’s Caleb Brantley in the 6th round. Ogunjobi didn’t face tough competition in college and could take a year to transition to the NFL, but will likely have a base package role as a rookie. Brantley, meanwhile, has first round talent, but fell to the 6th because of a pre-draft assault charge and because his motor ran hot and cold in college. He too could see base package snaps as a rookie.

The Browns also have 2015 3rd round pick Xavier Cooper, but he’s been terrible in two seasons in the league and isn’t even a lock to make the final roster. He finished last season 107th out of 127 eligible interior defensive lineman on 445 snaps on Pro Football Focus. The Browns have options on the defensive line, but lack difference makers and need young players to step up. They’re improved over last season, but largely by default.

Grade: C

Linebackers

In addition to the money they spent on Brock Osweiler, Kevin Zeitler, Joel Bitonio, and JC Tretter this off-season, the Browns also used a big chunk of their cap space to re-sign linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins. Kirksey received a 4-year, 38 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, after finishing 15th among middle linebackers last season. Kirksey is a one-year wonder because last season was his first full season as a starter, but he was solid in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015 as well and could easily continue playing well. The 2014 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 25 season and seems to have a bright future.

Collins, meanwhile, was acquired from New England mid-season last season. In one of the stranger trades in recent memory, the Patriots traded Collins for a 3rd round compensation pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, even though they would have received a 3rd round compensation pick in the 2018 NFL Draft if they had just kept him through the end of the season. Collins is one of the better linebackers in the league, but Bill Belichick, in the middle of another Super Bowl run, simply decided he liked his team better without him, growing tired of his antics and his freestyling on defense.

Collins’ play did slip in 2016, as he fell much closer to the middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-3 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014 and 2015. The Browns re-signed him for 4 years, 50 million this off-season, making him the highest paid non-rush linebacker in the league, so they clearly believe he can bounce back and be a difference maker for this defense going forward. He will likely move back to outside linebacker in this new 4-3 defense, with Kirksey remaining inside at middle linebacker. Both should be every down players again and Collins will probably be given a few chances at rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. The 6-3 250 pounder can cover, stop the run, and rush the passer.

Veteran Demario Davis was penciled in as the 3rd linebacker, a role that only plays in base packages and comes off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but Davis was traded to the Jets, leaving an opening. Nate Orchard was a solid run stopping outside linebacker in a 3-4 before he got injured, so he’s probably the best fit for the job, but he’ll face competition from 2016 4th round pick Joe Schobert, who was underwhelming on 246 snaps in primarily a base package 3-4 outside linebacker role as a rookie. His skill set fits the role as well.

There’s also talk that the Browns might move Kirksey outside and play career special teamer Tank Carder as a pure base package middle linebacker, with Kirksey moving inside in sub packages. Carder has just 2 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, so he would be a weird choice. Orchard and Kirksey seem like better fits. Regardless of who wins the job, it is just a two-down base package job, so it’s not that important. They will see about half the snaps at most. Collins and Kirksey make a solid every down linebacker duo and the linebacking corps is one of the Browns’ few strengths.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Browns’ secondary was also a major problem last season, particularly at the safety position. In the trade that sent Demario Davis to the Jets, the Browns acquired safety Calvin Pryor, who is penciled in as a starter. Pryor has 38 starts in 3 seasons in the league and the 2014 1st round pick actually played pretty well in his first 2 seasons, but he fell to 74th out of 90 eligible safeties last season and fell out of favor with the coaching staff.

After the Jets used their first two draft picks on safeties, there was talk that the Jets would cut Pryor if they could not trade him, despite owing him just 1.588 million in 2017. The Browns were willing to take a flyer on him and it could pan out, as Pryor is in just his age 25 season and may have just needed a change of scenery. Pryor’s biggest competition will be Ed Reynolds, a career special teamer who has been mediocre in 10 starts over the past 2 seasons, especially struggling in coverage. Pryor is the heavy favorite unless he really struggles to impress his new coaching staff.

Jabrill Peppers will likely be the starter on the other side. Peppers was one of 3 first round picks by the Browns. The Browns picked up an extra first rounder from the Eagles to move down from 2 to 8 in the first round in 2016 and then picked up another extra first rounder when they traded down from Philadelphia’s spot at 12 in 2017 to the Texans’ spot at 25, where they selected Peppers. Tight end David Njoku was then selected 4 spots later after the Browns traded back into the first round from 33 atop the 2nd round. The Browns now have two first round picks in 2018 as well and three second round picks, between their own pick, the pick they got from Houston to take on Brock Osweiler, and a 2nd rounder from the trade with Philadelphia last year. They are rightfully building through the draft.

Peppers fills an obvious hole at safety, but was far from a traditional safety prospect. Peppers played safety and linebacker at the University of Michigan and also returned kicks and played on offense in spots as a running back and slot receiver. The 5-11 213 pounder drew a wide range of evaluations, from teams that liked him best on offense, to teams that liked him best as a sub package linebacker, to teams that wanted to try him outside at cornerback, but the Browns see him as a traditional 3-down safety long-term. Peppers is a great athlete and a great tackler, but lacks ball skills. He could have a solid rookie year and become a good player, but he was a risky selection. He’ll upgrade their return game significantly though, at the very least.

Cornerback was also an issue for the Browns last season and they used a 4th round pick on Houston’s Howard Wilson, but he broke his kneecap this off-season and could miss his entire rookie season. Even if he is able to play by the end of the season, he’s unlikely to play a big role, given all the valuable off-season time he missed. He was only a fourth round pick, but was an NFL ready slot cornerback who likely would have had a role as a rookie. After losing Wilson, the Browns signed veteran Jason McCourty and he’s currently the favorite to man the slot in 3-cornerback sets, though the Browns have talked to him about moving to safety, so he could be an option there if Pryor struggles.

McCourty was solid on 814 snaps with the Titans last season, but is going into his age 30 season and is not the same player he once was. After finishing in the top-20 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons from 2010-2013, excelling against the run and in slot coverage, McCourty has been no better than a league average cornerback over the past 3 seasons and has played in just 34 of 48 games over that time period. He could easily remain a solid slot cornerback for another couple seasons though and he has the skill set to play safety too. His biggest competition for the slot job is Briean Boddy-Calhoun, a 2016 undrafted free agent who played 571 underwhelming snaps as a rookie. Ideally, Calhoun would start the season as the #4 cornerback.

Outside, Joe Haden and Jamar Taylor remain the starting cornerbacks. Haden is their highest paid player, after signing a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar extension 3 off-seasons ago ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2014. The 7th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Haden was a top-20 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but fell to 28th in 2014, was limited to 286 unimpressive snaps in 5 games by injury in 2015, and then fell to 85th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts last season. Only going into his age 28 season, Haden still has bounce back potential, but hasn’t been good since 2014 and has dealt with a lot of injuries over the years, so he’s far from a sure thing.

Taylor, meanwhile, is coming off of a solid season, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but is also far from a sure thing. That’s because he’s a complete one-year wonder, struggling mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career (9 starts), before playing well in the final year of his rookie deal in 14 starts last season. As recently as 2015, he finished 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 712 snaps (6 starts) Pro Football Focus. He is a former 2nd round pick, going #54 overall in 2013, and it’s possible he’s turned a corner as a player, but it’s also very possible he regresses now that he’s been paid. The Browns kept him on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal this off-season. The Browns are improved in the secondary, but still have issues at both cornerback and safety.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Browns are trusting the process in a big way right now. They are improved over last season’s 1-15 team, but still have one of the least talented rosters in the NFL and are likely to be one of the worst teams in the league again this season. The Browns will roll about 53 million in cap space forward to 2018, so they could make some more big splashes in free agency next off-season, and they have 5 picks in the first 2 rounds of next year’s draft, but they have a long way to go to build a contender. 

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals were 12-4 in 2015, but fell to 6-9-1 in 2016, one of the biggest declines in the NFL. What happened? Well, part of it was just bad luck in close games, as they went 1-5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or fewer. Their +10 point differential suggests they should have been about an 8-9 win team, as does their +1.03 first down rate differential (12th in the NFL). The biggest reason for their decline though is simply that they weren’t the same team. The Bengals lost several useful players in free agency last off-season and, after having the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2015, they were without key offensive players like tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver AJ Green, and running back Giovani Bernard for large chunks of the season.

With wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leaving in free agency last off-season, Andy Dalton was left throwing to the likes of Brandon LaFell, a veteran free agent acquisition, Tyler Boyd, a 2nd round rookie, and CJ Osumah, a reserve tight end, down the stretch last season. As a result, his numbers dropped substantially from 2015 to 2016. He went from completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.42 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions to completing 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.

All things considered, Dalton had a solid season, finishing 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-16 in 3 of his last 4 seasons, but needs more talent around him if he’s going to get back to the playoffs. Dalton gets a lot of flack for being 0-4 all-time in the post-season, but it’s unfair to judge his career on 4 playoff games, especially since the Bengals were underdogs in 3 of those games. Dalton was the only real injury the Bengals had in 2015 and, even though backup AJ McCarron was solid in his absence, the Bengals still fell from 10-2 to 12-4 and a first round playoff loss without him. Had Dalton been healthy, they would likely would have had a first round bye and they would have had a better chance to win in the playoffs.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Bengals clearly made upgrading Dalton’s weapons a big priority this off-season. They used their first 2 draft picks on offensive weapons, including using the 9th overall pick on Washington wide receiver John Ross, who will compete with Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell for snaps behind AJ Green on the depth chart. With Green missing the final 6 and a half games of the season with a hamstring injury, Brandon LaFell actually led all Cincinnati wide receivers in snaps played with 1008.

LaFell was coming off of a miserable 2015 season with the Patriots, in which he was Pro Football Focus 118th ranked wide receiver out of 121 eligible on 659 snaps, catching just 37 of 74 targets (50%) for 515 yards and 0 touchdowns in 11 games, despite catching passes from Tom Brady. He bounced back in his first season in Cincinnati though, posting a 64/862/6 slash line and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus for just the 3rd time in 7 seasons in the league (42nd among wide receivers). Going into his age 31 season, last season is probably his ceiling at this point in his career. He could be the #4 receiver by season’s end, depending on the development of their young receivers.

Given that they used the 9th overall pick on him, the Bengals clearly envision John Ross as a long-term complement to AJ Green, with Boyd working as a #3 receiver on the slot. Boyd posted a 54/603/1 slash line on 738 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and finished about average on Pro Football Focus. Ross, meanwhile, was a surprise pick at 9, considering some didn’t even expect him to be a first rounder. He’s arguably the biggest boom or bust prospect that was taken in the top-10. He has record breaking speed, but a history of knee problems and needs to get stronger and become a more refined route runner. Given how deep the Bengals are at wide receiver, Ross could easily open the season as the #4 receiver. Cincinnati has had 4 first round picks since 2012 that did not start as rookies.

AJ Green returns as the #1 receiver, which is obviously huge for this team. Green was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver before going down last season and was on pace for a 117/1714/7 slash line through 9 games before the hamstring tear. With more options in the passing game, he’s unlikely to receive the 11 targets per game he was receiving on average before the injury; that would have led the league in 2016 over a full season. However, prior to the injury, he was a top-17 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 4 seasons, averaging 88 catches for 1274 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over that time period. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, with just 4 games missed due to injury in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season, Green has obvious bounce back potential in 2017.

If Tyler Eifert can stay healthy too, this is a very deep receiving corps. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has finished 4th and 3rd among tight ends over the past 2 seasons respectively. Whether or not he can stay healthy is a big if though, as he’s missed 27 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 8 last season, and now is coming off of off-season back surgery. Eifert has 81 catches for 1009 yards and 18 touchdowns in his last 23 games, which extrapolates to a 56/702/13 slash line over 16 games, but he has never played more than 14 games in a season in 4 years in the league.

Given Eifert’s injury history and the fact that he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, I thought the Bengals would use an early pick on a tight end in the draft, but they didn’t address the position until the 7th round. As a result, CJ Uzomah and Tyler Kroft remain as the top reserves at the position. They both finished below average last season on 411 and 375 snaps respectively, in the first significant action of their careers. Kroft was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and presumably has the higher upside, but Uzomah played ahead of him last season when both were healthy. He’s the early favorite for the #2 tight end job and could easily see a few starts given Eifert’s injury history. This receiving corps has a very high upside and should be better than last season’s regardless.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

After taking John Ross at #9, the Bengals traded down in the 2nd round and selected running back Joe Mixon at 48. Mixon was arguably the most controversial player in the draft because he was suspended for his entire freshman season after assaulting a woman in a confrontation in 2014 when he was 18. In terms of pure talent, he was a first round caliber running back with a huge upside and he doesn’t even turn 21 until July, but the assault took him off most teams’ boards.

Cincinnati is an obvious landing place for him because they’ve always been comfortable bringing in potentially problematic people if they can play and because they had the need for a new lead back, with Jeremy Hill averaging 3.67 yards per carry on 445 carries over the past 2 seasons. Purely as a football player, Mixon is a nice addition to this team and has Offensive Rookie of the Year potential, but it was definitely a risky pick.

Hill will be Mixon’s primary competition for the lead back role and for carries, but he’ll need to run like he did when he was a rookie to have any shot of beating out Mixon. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Hill burst onto the scene by rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries (5.06 YPC) as a rookie, but has not been nearly the same back since. He’s also a liability on passing downs, whereas Mixon can play all 3 downs. The Bengals used Giovani Bernard as a change of pace and passing down back to complement Hill, but it’s easier to disguise whether you’re running or passing with an every down back like Mixon.

Bernard should still have a role, although he’s coming back from a torn ACL suffered last November that cost him the final 6 games of the season. He’s questionable for the start of the season, but the Bengals gave running backs 470 touches last season and 455 touches the season before, so there will be a role for Bernard when he returns, even with Mixon coming in. A 2013 2nd round pick, Bernard has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in his career and has rushed for 2442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 583 carries (4.19 YPC), with 187 catches for an additional 1671 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air. He was missed when he was injured last season. Hill, meanwhile, is likely to be the 3rd back when Bernard is healthy and likely will not have much of a role. This is a deep group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Though the Bengals added some more offensive firepower in the draft, they also lost a pair of starting offensive linemen in free agency, which should really hurt them. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler were not small losses either, finishing last season 2nd and 7th at their respective positions on Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have always been cheap when it comes to signing free agents, including re-signing their own free agents, and that could really hurt them this time around. They enter the season with 18.7 million in unused cap space, 10th most in the NFL.

The Bengals used their first two draft picks in 2015 on offensive linemen, likely with a scenario like this in mind, but they should still have major issues upfront. Cedric Ogbuehi, their first rounder in 2015, will move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Whitworth, but he struggled mightily at right tackle in 2016, in his first starting experience. He finished the season 70th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 12 starts and will have an even tougher task on the blindside this season. Ogbuehi still has upside, but could easily struggle again in 2017.

Jake Fisher was their 2nd round pick in 2015. He has just 4 career starts in 2 seasons in the league, but is expected to start at either right tackle or right guard. Veteran Andre Smith is also in the mix at those 2 positions, while 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman has an outside shot at the right guard job, despite not playing a snap as a rookie last season. Smith was once a solid starter for the Bengals, finishing in the top-28 among offensive tackles in every season from 2011-2013 (45 starts), but he’s struggled mightily over the past 3 seasons, finishing below average in all 3 and playing in just 27 of 48 games due to injury. Smith returns to the Bengals after a season in Minnesota and hopes to find new life at right guard, but, going into his age 30 season, that’s unlikely. This team didn’t come close to adequately replacing Zeitler and Whitworth.

Left guard Clint Boling and center Russell Bodine return. Boling is probably their best offensive lineman now. He finished last season 33rd among guards on Pro Football Focus, but that was his lowest rated season in 5 years as a starter, as he finished 22nd, 18th, 19th, and 21st in 2012-2015 respectively. Boling has made 74 of 80 starts over the last 5 seasons, and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another solid season in 2017.

Bodine, however, is not as good. The 2014 4th round pick has started every game of his career, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, finishing 33rd out of 41 eligible centers in 2014, 30th out of 39 eligible centers in 2015, and then 26th out of 38 eligible centers in 2016. This offensive line is now one of the worst in football after they lost their two best offensive linemen in free agency. Even with as much skill position talent as they have, that will really hurt their offense.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

While the Bengals won significantly fewer games in 2016 than 2015, their defense wasn’t really that much worse, as they finished 11th in first down rate allowed, after finishing 8th the season before. Their offense was the unit that declined most, falling from 5th in first down rate to 16th in 2016, without so many of their offensive playmakers from the season before. After using their first two draft picks on offensive players, the Bengals took a pair of defensive ends in the 3rd and 4th rounds to shore up a need on defense, first taking Kansas State’s Jordan Willis and then taking Auburn’s Carl Lawson. Willis and Lawson were Pro Football Focus’ 15th and 14th ranked overall draft prospects and are NFL ready pass rushers, so they were arguably the two biggest steals of the draft.

The Bengals really need an upgrade over Michael Johnson at the defensive end spot opposite Carlos Dunlap. Johnson has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, including 105th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 832 snaps in 2016. Now going into his age 30 season, Johnson’s best days are behind him and he’s only ever played well in contract years. Johnson may nominally remain the starter in 2017, but Willis and Lawson will eat into his snaps, especially in sub packages. Lawson is also getting some action at linebacker this off-season and could be an option there in base packages. With Johnson owed 5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, it’s possible this is his final season in Cincinnati, opening the door for either Lawson or Willis to take over as the starter next season.

Dunlap is one of the best defensive ends in the league though. He’s been a top-15 defensive end in each of the last 6 seasons on Pro Football Focus and finished last season 8th. Over the past 4 seasons, he’s made 63 starts and has played in all 64 games. A true every down defensive end, capable of rushing the passer and stuffing the run, Dunlap played 840 snaps last season and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season. With Willis and Lawson coming in, they might line Dunlap up inside on passing downs to get their 4 best pass rushers on the field at the same time. Dunlap has the size to do that at 6-6 290.

Another reason why lining Dunlap up inside more often makes sense is because they lack a 2nd interior sub package rusher next to Geno Atkins. Veteran Pat Sims and 2nd year player Andrew Billings will compete for the starting job, but neither is much of a pass rusher, so ideally it would be only a base package job. Sims was a solid run stopper in his prime, but is going into his age 32 season and has finished below average in 3 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Billings has upside, but was just a 4th round pick and missed his entire rookie season with injury. It’s likely to be a position of weakness regardless of who starts.

Regardless of where he lines up, Dunlap forms a dangerous one-two punch on the defensive line with Atkins, who is every down defensive tackle. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in both 2011 and 2012, Atkins’ career was sidetracked by a torn ACL suffered in 2013. He missed 7 games that season and was not the same player in 2014, but he’s returned to form over the past 2 seasons, finishing 3rd and 5th among defensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Outside of the 7 games he missed in 2013, he’s played in every game in 7 seasons in the league. Like Dunlap, Atkins is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season, so they should be a dangerous duo once again. They haven’t had a 3rd player step up over the past 2 seasons, but rookies Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson have potential. The arrow is pointing up on this defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In addition to the offensive playmakers they were missing, the Bengals also were without top linebacker Vontaze Burfict for 5 games last season, which hurt this defense. Three of those games missed were as a result of suspension, following his illegal hit in the playoff loss to the Steelers the previous season. Burfict has had a reputation as a dirty player since college and is always a suspension risk, but injuries are actually a bigger concern for him. Not only did he miss the final 2 games of last season with concussion, but he was limited to 15 games by injuries in 2014 and 2015 combined.

Since playing all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, Burfict has played in just 26 of 48 games since. He finished in the top-4 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and then last season, when he finished 2nd, so he’s a very good player when he’s on the field, but he’s had a lot of trouble staying on the field over the past 3 seasons. Fortunately, he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so he should still have a lot of good seasons left in the tank if he can stay healthy.

With Burfict missing time, veteran Karlos Dansby led this linebacking corps in snaps played with 781 last season and played pretty well, despite his advanced age. He is no longer with the team, but the Bengals brought in 5th year linebacker Kevin Minter from the Cardinals to replace him. Minter will compete for snaps with last year’s 3rd linebacker Vincent Rey and last year’s 3rd round pick Nick Vigil, with Carl Lawson also potentially in the mix for snaps at outside linebacker in base packages.

Minter received 4.25 million on a one-year deal this off-season, so he’s probably the favorite for the every down job inside. Minter was always known as a two-down run stuffer before 2016 and struggled mightily in his first every down role in 2015, when he finished 78th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, especially struggling in coverage. In his contract year in 2016, however, the 2013 2nd round pick put it all together and played well both in coverage and against the run. He finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder, but the Bengals protected themselves by only giving him a one-year deal. He could have another solid season.

If he doesn’t and starts to struggle again, the Bengals could move Vincent Rey inside. Currently, Rey is the favorite for the base package outside linebacker job. He would play about half the snaps and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations. Rey is going into his age 30 season and has some talented young options behind him on the depth chart, but he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career. He finished 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 590 snaps, just the 2nd time in his 7-year career in which he’s finished above average. He’s unlikely to be as good again, but Vigil played just 111 snaps as a rookie and Lawson was just a 4th round pick, so Rey could hold them off. They have options and depth in what is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Bengals used first round picks on cornerbacks in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Dre Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2015. Darqueze Dennard, the 24th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, is now going into his 4th season in the league with just 4 career starts under his belt. William Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral and could have to wait equally long to become a starter, given all the depth the Bengals have at the position.

Not only did Kirkpatrick take until his 4th season to become a starter, but he hasn’t played well in two seasons since becoming the starter, especially struggling in 2015, when he finished 103rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He was better in his contract season in 2016, finishing 52nd, but he hasn’t lived up to his potential as a first round pick. The Bengals didn’t seem to care though, locking him up on a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, while letting their top-2 offensive lineman walk. He’s the 11th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Considering how much depth the Bengals have at cornerback, it’s a move that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Darqueze Dennard, meanwhile, is not even a lock for a starting job in now his 4th season in the league, as Adam Jones is still playing at a pretty high level opposite Kirkpatrick. Jones is also a former first round pick, way back in 2005 with the Titans. Jones is now going into his age 34 season, but has been the Bengals’ best cornerback over the past 5 seasons, despite all of the first round cornerbacks the Bengals have added over that time period. He’s finished above average in all 5 seasons, including 33rd in 2016. His age is a concern, but he’s still probably the favorite for the starting job. At the very least, he’ll continue covering the slot in sub packages, which is where he’s best.

Dennard is not even a lock for the #3 job, with William Jackson returning from injury and Joshua Shaw also in the mix, after playing alright on 618 snaps in 2016. Shaw, a 2015 4th round pick, flashed in limited action as a rookie too and played ahead of Dennard last season when both were healthy. Dennard has a higher upside, but has been nondescript on just 585 career snaps in 3 seasons in the league. It’s possible that Shaw and/or Jackson open the season ahead of him on the depth chart. This is a crowded cornerback group.

Kirkpatrick isn’t the only defensive back this team has given a big contract to recently, as they also re-signed safety George Iloka to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season. Iloka was a much better re-signing than Kirkpatrick, as he finished in the top-20 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2013-2015. The 2012 5th round pick fell to 47th in the first year of his new contract, but he is only going into his age 27 season, so he definitely could bounce back in 2017. He’s at least a solid starting safety regardless and he’s durable, missing just 4 starts in 4 seasons as a starter.

The Bengals did not re-sign fellow safety Reggie Nelson as a free agent last off-season, but they had an obvious internal replacement in Shawn Williams. Williams flashed on 474 snaps in 2015 and then finished 33rd among safeties in 15 starts in 2016, his first full season as a starter. The 2013 3rd round pick was given a 4-year, 20.185 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract in 2016. The Bengals likely saved themselves a significant amount of money by locking him up before his strong 2016, as he would have been a hot commodity on the open market this off-season. The Bengals’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but they are deep at cornerback and have a solid overall secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals probably peaked in 2015. They had next to no injuries until Andy Dalton got hurt late in the season, derailing their playoff chances after a 10-2 start. Last off-season, they lost two significant wide receivers in free agency in Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Then, during the season, they lost several key offensive players to injury in AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard. They added much needed offensive weapons in the draft this year, but they lost their top-2 offensive linemen in free agency, which will hurt this offense immensely.

Green, Eifert, and Bernard should all be back healthy this season, but the Bengals still had the 7th fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury in 2016, as pretty much all of their other starters played all 16 games. They probably won’t be able to count on having fewer games lost in 2017, but those games lost might be by less important players. Defensively, they added needed edge rushers through the draft, but they are likely to have more injuries on that side of the ball, after finishing with the 2nd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season. This team still has enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, but they’re unlikely to come close to what they were in 2015 before Dalton got hurt. 

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC North

Kansas City Chiefs 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chiefs finished last season 12-4, but finished 24th in first down rate differential at -1.04%. They had 37 fewer first downs than their opponents and only had one more offensive touchdown than their opponents. Their record was largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL). Unfortunately, they can’t rely on takeaways and return touchdowns to win them close games because takeaways, return touchdowns, and record in close games tend to have very little week-to-week and year-to-year correlation. This team was only a few snaps away from being an 8-8 or 9-7 team last season. If they want to continue winning at a high rate in 2017, they will need do a better job of winning first down battles.

Even though the Chiefs had a strong record last season, they treated the draft like they were rebuilding. They traded this year’s first round pick and next year’s first round pick to the Bills to move up from 27 to 10 to get Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is unlikely to play as a rookie behind experienced veteran Alex Smith. Because of that, It’s possible that none of their rookies have a significant impact on this team, which hurts their chances of making a deep playoff run in 2017.

Alex Smith isn’t the best quarterback in the world, but he has been solid in 4 seasons as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. He’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.03 YPA, 76 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, while adding 1317 yards and another 9 scores on 257 carries (5.12 YPC). He has finished 20th, 16th, 18th, and 14th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus from in those 4 seasons. He’s only averaged 483 pass attempts per season on a conservative offense though and will be owed 17 million non-guaranteed in an age 34 contract year in 2018, so the move might make long-term sense.

Smith is currently one of 11 Chiefs with a cap number of 7 million or higher for 2018. Those 11 players are set to count for a combined 128.5 million on the cap, or about 72.2% of the projected 178 million dollar cap for next season. Releasing Smith next off-season and going with the much cheaper Mahomes under center would save them 17 million immediately on the cap. The selection doesn’t help the Chiefs in 2017, but could pay off if Mahomes makes good on his high upside and develops into a franchise quarterback long-term.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In an effort to increase their long-term financial flexibility, the Chiefs opted against bringing back wide receiver Jeremy Maclin at his scheduled 10 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was a controversial move because Maclin topped 1000 yards in the first season of a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal in 2015, the only 1000+ yard season by a Chiefs receiver in the past 5 seasons. Maclin was limited to a 44/536/2 slash line in 2015, but injuries were largely the culprit, as he missed 4 games with a groin tear and was limited in several others upon his return. Through 7 games, before getting injured, Maclin was on pace for a solid 69/859/5 slash line and was only going into his age 29 season, but the Chiefs couldn’t financially justify bringing him back.

A big part of the reason why the Chiefs felt comfortable moving on from Maclin is because 2016 5th round pick Tyreek Hill showed promise as a rookie. Hill didn’t really start playing regularly until Maclin got hurt, but ended up leading all Kansas City wide receivers in receiving yards with a 61/593/6 slash line. That’s very impressive, considering he ran just 270 routes. He finished the season 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, he isn’t the traditional wide receiver Maclin was.

Hill’s 2.20 yards per route run average is very impressive, but he was largely utilized on screens and short passes. His average catch came just 5.31 yards from the line of scrimmage and he averaged an underwhelming 7.14 yards per target on 83 targets. Fortunately, he does more than just catch passes, as he also averaged 11.13 yards per carry and scored 3 times on 24 rush attempts and then scored another 3 times on returns. He had a total of 12 touchdowns last season, despite not really playing until midway through the season.

Hill is one of the fastest players in the entire NFL, but he’s very unrefined as a receiver and teams might be better prepared for him this season. He’s more of a “give him the ball in space however possible and hope he makes a play” type player than a true #1 receiver that can win downfield. He may not get the ball as many times on end arounds or be as effective on those plays with defenses now expecting them, and they’ve already said he’ll return only punts and not kickoffs this season, but he should see plenty of balls come his way this season without Maclin. He was targeted on a ridiculous 31% of his routes run last season. Even on a conservative offense, he has a shot at 1000 receiving yards and should go over 1000 in yards from scrimmage.

With Hill not really coming on until midway through the season and Maclin injured, Chris Conley actually led this team in snaps by a wide receiver with 818. The 2015 3rd round pick struggled mightily in his first season as a starter, posting just a 44/530/0 slash line and finishing the season 98th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 25 season, Conley could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it’s possible he never develops into a useful player. He’s not consistent enough to be the true downfield threat this team needs.

Albert Wilson will be the 3rd receiver, but he too struggled mightily last season, finishing 102th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 466 snaps and posting just a 31/279/2 slash line. He averaged just 9.00 yards per catch and 5.47 yards per target. Wilson flashed on 223 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, but has been overmatched in larger roles over the past 2 seasons. It’s possible he could be pushed for snaps down the stretch by 4th round rookie Jehu Chesson, though it’s unlikely he’d really be an upgrade. Last year’s 4th round pick, DeMarcus Robinson, could also be in the mix for snaps in a thin receiving corps.

The Chiefs were actually led in yards per catch last season by running back Spencer Ware (13.5 yards per catch) and tight end Travis Kelce (13.2 yards per catch). Kelce is their best all-around receiver and one of the best tight ends in the league. A 2013 3rd round pick, Kelce didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2013 because of knee problems, but has improved his receiving total in 3 straight seasons, culminating with his first 1000+ yard season in 2016 (85/1125/4). He has finished in the top-4 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 2 of those 3 seasons, including a #1 finish last season. Most importantly, he’s played in 48 of 48 possible games. Also a strong run blocker at 6-5 260, Kelce is one of the best all-around tight ends in the game and should have another strong season.

Demetrius Harris remains as the #2 tight end and has started 20 games over the past 2 seasons, but he’s finished 7th worst and worst among tight ends on Pro Football Focus over those two seasons. The 2013 undrafted free agent caught just 17 passes for 123 yards and 1 touchdowns in 2016 (all of which were career highs) and the former college basketball player is not a blocker at 6-7 230. The Chiefs really lack a 3rd option in the passing game and need to hope that Tyreek Hill can continue developing as a receiver.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, running back Spencer Ware actually led this team in yards per catch, catching 33 passes for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns, a pretty big surprise, considering the 2013 6th round pick had just 6 career catches before last season. Ware had just 3 offensive touches in his first 2 seasons in the league, but flashed on 72 carries in 2015, averaging 5.60 yards per carry and scoring 6 times, and then rushed for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns on 214 carries (4.30 YPC) as the lead back in 2016. He finished the season 16th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Prior to 2015, Jamaal Charles was their feature back, but he tore his ACL early in the 2015 season and managed just 106 touches in 8 games in 2015 and 2016 combined. Going into his age 31 season, the Chiefs made the easy decision to part ways with him this off-season, rather than paying him 6.2 million non-guaranteed. Spencer Ware has taken over as the lead back in his absence, but the Chiefs did need to upgrade backup Charcandrick West this off-season, as he’s averaged just 3.74 yards per carry on 248 carries over the last 2 seasons.

They did so by selecting Kareem Hunt in the 3rd round. Hunt is fully expected to be the #2 back this season, but he also has had an impressive off-season and there’s talk that he could push Ware for touches more than West did, making this more of a two-headed backfield. He was given a 2nd round grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft, making him a steal with the 86th overall pick, and he was one of the best pass catching backs in the draft. Charcandrick West had 116 touches last season, but 150+ touches would not be a surprise for Hunt. He’s a nice addition to this backfield and complements Ware well.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chiefs used to have problems on the offensive line, but they’ve gotten a lot better in recent years. The addition of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency last off-season was a big part of that. A 2012 2nd round pick, Schwartz has made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league, all at right tackle, and has been arguably the best right tackle in the league over that time period. He’s finished 19th, 30th, 11th, 6th, and 27th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the past 5 seasons respectively and should continue playing well, only going into his age 28 season. He was a good value on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal.

It has also helped that left tackle Eric Fisher has been improved over the past 2 seasons. Fisher has not lived up to his potential as the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he has finished 36th and 34th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively, after finishing 70th out of 76 eligible in 2013 and 72nd out of 84 eligible in 2014. The Chiefs gave him a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension last off-season, even though he had two years left on his rookie deal, making him the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and keeping him under contract through 2021. They clearly think he can continuing improving and, still only going into his age 26 season, that’s certainly possible.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is also better than he used to be. The 2014 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie and struggled in the first 13 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 62nd out of 81 eligible guards, but the Chiefs stuck with him and he rewarded them, finishing 27th among guards in 2016. The Chiefs locked him up on a 5-year, 42.363 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final season of his rookie deal. Considering he’s a one-year wonder and the Chiefs have a lot of other expensive players, they might end up regretting that, but he could easily have another solid season in 2017.

The Chiefs also have a young player at center, where Mitch Morse is going into his 3rd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Morse has made 31 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has finished about average in both seasons, ranking 15th among centers in 2015 and 20th among centers in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Morse could take another step forward this season, but, even if he doesn’t, he should remain a capable starter.

Left guard is the only position that is up for grabs. Zach Fulton made 12 starts at the position last season and has been better in the past 2 seasons, after finishing 64th out of 78 eligible guards in 16 starts at right guard as a 6th round rookie in 2014, but still has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be pushed by Parker Ehinger, a 2016 4th round pick who was alright in 4 starts as a rookie, but missed 12 games with injury and ended the season on injured reserve with a torn ACL. He’ll likely be back for week 1, but the injury won’t help him win the job. Also in the mix is Andrew Tiller, a 2012 6th round pick who has been about a league average guard in 14 starts over the past 2 seasons with San Francisco. Left guard is their weakest spot upfront, but they’re solid across the line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Chiefs lost Dontari Poe to the Falcons this off-season, but he was coming off of a down year and the Chiefs signed Bennie Logan from the Eagles to replace him at nose tackle, so he won’t really be missed. Logan finished 85th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen last season, but that was because he wasn’t a good fit for Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense. The 6-2 309 pounder was better as a pure nose tackle in a 3-4 in 2014 and 2015 and has finished above average as a run stopper in each of the last 3 seasons (43 starts), including 10th among defensive tackles in pure run stopping grade in 2015. He isn’t much of a pass rusher, but, only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential in a scheme that is more suited to him.

Unlike Poe, who played every down and finished last season with 821 snaps, most on the defensive line, Logan is only a base package player who will only play about half of the snaps. The good news is they should be healthier on the defensive line, as defensive ends Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard missed 11 games and 8 games respectively with injury in 2016. Bailey has started all 31 games he’s played in the last 3 seasons and figures to be a starter again in 2017, though he has finished below average in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s an underwhelming option.

Jaye Howard is no longer with the team, getting cut this off-season and signing with the Bears, but 2016 2nd round pick Chris Jones played at a high level down the stretch with Howard and Bailey out and will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Bailey. Jones played 574 snaps and finished 5th among eligible 3-4 defensive ends as a rookie. Though he fell to the 2nd round, he was given a top-15 grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and has a huge upside. He’ll turn 23 in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and could have a breakout year in an every down role. He’s the favorite to lead this line in snaps played.

The Chiefs also drafted Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon in the 2nd round of this year’s draft, though he’s very raw and, like their first round pick, might not make much of an impact as a rookie. The 6-7 289 pounder looks the part and has a high upside, but will have to compete for reserve snaps as a rookie. Rakeem Nunez-Roches is also in the mix for reserve snaps, but the 2015 6th round pick struggled mightily on 286 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. The Chiefs lost a couple defensive linemen this off-season, but still are solid upfront.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the emergence of rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones down the stretch in 2016, the Chiefs also got edge defender Justin Houston back from injury, after he missed the first 9 games of the season recovering from off-season knee surgery. As a result, the Chiefs were a better team down the stretch, as compared to earlier in the season. Houston was a top-4 player at the 3-4 outside linebacker position on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 4 seasons from 2012-2015, so he was obviously a big re-addition. He didn’t play quite as well as he’s used to upon his return, but has obvious bounce back potential in still only his age 28 season and is one of the best defensive players in the league when healthy. Injuries are becoming a concern though, as he’s missed 21 games with injury over the past 4 seasons.

Houston and Tamba Hali used to form a dangerous edge rush duo, but Hali is older now, going into his age 34 season, and is on a snap count. He played just 596 snaps last season, despite Houston being injured, and is unlikely to even have that many snaps in 2017. He’s still playing at a high level when he does play though, finishing last season 10th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but his age is becoming a concern and his abilities could drop off a cliff at any point.

With Houston injured and Hali on a snap count, Dee Ford led all Kansas City outside linebackers with 798 snaps last season. A first round pick in 2014, Dee Ford had his best season yet in 2016, but still did not finish above average on Pro Football Focus. He finished above average as a pass rusher and is a good rusher off the edge, but he’s useless against the run, which really hurts him. Going into his age 26 season, Ford still has upside and could continue to improve, but the 6-2 252 pounder has had issues against the run since his collegiate days, so he could be a liability in running situations throughout his career.

Along with Tamba Hali, the Chiefs have another aging former All-Pro at middle linebacker in Derrick Johnson, who is going into his age 35 season. Johnson finished last season 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but that’s a noticeable drop off because he was a top-5 middle linebacker in his previous 4 healthy seasons. His season was also ended in December after 13 games when he tore his achilles tendon. Johnson also tore his other achilles back in 2014, missing all but one game that season, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s falling apart. He should be ready for week 1, but he’s a big unknown for the Chiefs this off-season. He’ll likely be a cap casualty next off-season, owed 8 million non-guaranteed.

In Johnson’s absence, second year middle linebacker Ramik Wilson became an every down player. A 2015 4th round pick, Wilson struggled on 121 snaps as a rookie and was actually let go by the Chiefs ahead of final cuts last season, but he was signed to the practice squad and worked his way up from the practice squad to a base package role to eventually an every down role when Johnson was injured. He played very well, finishing 12th among middle linebackers on 524 snaps.

The Chiefs have traditionally used a box safety like Daniel Sorensen as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages, so the other middle linebacker spot opposite Derrick Johnson has traditionally been only a base package role, but Sorensen isn’t good and Wilson showed well both in coverage and against the run last season. He has potential at the very least and should be given a chance to stay on the field for all 3 downs. This is still one of the more talented linebacking corps in the NFL, but they have some key players who are either injury prone, aging, or both.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Chiefs have talent in the secondary as well, led by safety Eric Berry, who was re-signed to a 6-year, 78 million dollar contract this off-season, making him the highest paid safety in the league. Berry finished last season 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and has finished in the top-8 at his position in 3 of the last 5 seasons. Berry was diagnosed with lymphoma in November of 2014, but returned for the start of the week 1 season in 2015 and has arguably been a better player since. I expect another strong season from him.

Fellow starting safety Ron Parker is also coming off of a good season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Unlike Berry, Parker is not typically this good. In fact, prior to this season, Parker had never finished higher than 40th among safeties. Parker has only been a starter for 3 seasons, but he was a late bloomer and is already going into his age 30 season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he regressed somewhat, but he’s still a capable starter.

At cornerback, Marcus Peters is coming off of a strong season, finishing 10th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2015, Peters has a league leading 14 interceptions over the past 2 seasons, but allowed far too many big plays as a rookie and finished just above average on Pro Football Focus as a result, despite a league leading 8 interceptions. He was improved dramatically from his first to his second season in the league though and has a huge upside going forward. He could easily finish this season as one of the top few cornerbacks in the league.

The rest of the Chiefs’ cornerbacks are much bigger question marks. Steven Nelson made 14 starts opposite Peters last season, the first 14 starts of the 2015 3rd round pick’s career, and wasn’t bad, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll face competition from Phillip Gaines and Terrance Mitchell. Gaines struggled mightily as the 3rd cornerback last season, finishing 109th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 449 snaps in his first season back from a torn ACL. Gaines was better in a similar role as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and could improve in his 2nd season after the injury, but he’s not a strong candidate for the starting job.

Terrance Mitchell actually took over as the #3 cornerback down the stretch last season and flashed on 240 snaps, so he could continue seeing snaps to start the 2017 season, but the 2014 7th round pick is incredibly inexperienced. He has just 2 career starts in 3 seasons in the league and it’s unclear if he can handle a larger role. Eric Murray, the Chiefs’ 4th round pick in 2016, is probably also in the mix for snaps, though he too is inexperienced, after playing just 68 defensive snaps as a rookie. The Chiefs may try different combinations throughout the season to try to patchwork together passable cornerback play behind Peters on the depth chart. This is still a strong secondary nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Chiefs were not as good as their record in 2016, but they did get better as the season went on, with Justin Houston returning from injury and rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones playing at high levels. This looks like another case of a team that will be improved, but that will still win fewer games, as they are unlikely to do as well in close games, in return touchdowns, and in turnover margins. Their roster is talented enough to make the playoffs, but it won’t be as easy for them to make the playoffs as most think, especially since they play in a loaded AFC West and face a first place schedule.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chargers have probably been the unluckiest team in the league over the past 2 seasons. After back-to-back 9-7 seasons to start the Mike McCoy era in 2013 and 2014, the Chargers won just 9 games total over the past 2 seasons. A big part of that is because they’ve won just 4 of 20 games decided by a touchdown or less over those 2 seasons. In terms of first down rate differential, they’ve ranked 14th (-0.88%) and 7th (+1.58%) over the past 2 seasons. They have 55 more first downs and just 3 fewer offensive touchdowns than their opponents over the past 2 seasons.

On top of that, they’ve ranked 26th and 31st in adjusted games lost to injury in 2015 and 2016 respectively, making them arguably the most injury plagued team over the past 2 seasons. Both close losses and injuries tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Chargers could have a lot better luck in 2017. They fired head coach Mike McCoy this off-season and replaced him with another offensive mind, ex-Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Perhaps that will help their play in close games.

One player the Chargers have never really had to worry about getting injured is quarterback Philip Rivers, who hasn’t missed a start since he took over as the starter in 2006, even playing the 2007 AFC Championship despite a partially torn ACL. Because of his durability and toughness, they’ve never really valued the backup quarterback position. The Chargers clearly are still not worried about the possibility of a Rivers injury, not adding a single quarterback in the draft or free agent this off-season, even though many thought they’d invest in a quarterback of the future, with Rivers going into his age 36 season.

The only quarterback added was undrafted free agent Eli Jenkins, who will compete with mediocre backup Kellen Clemens for the #2 job. Clemens has a career 69.4 QB rating on 630 pass attempts in 11 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t made a start since 2013 with the Rams, but should be considered the heavy favorite for the backup job. The Chargers would be in big trouble if Rivers were to get injured or show some signs of decline.

Rivers did finish below average on Pro Football Focus in 2016, for just the second time in 11 seasons as the starter, but he still finished 19th, which isn’t bad. He completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.59 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 314 touchdowns, and 156 interceptions. He’s a gunslinger who has led the NFL in interceptions in 2 of the last 3 seasons, but he pushes this offense forward and has done a solid job over the past two seasons, despite so many injuries around him.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

No injured Charger has been missed more over the past 2 seasons than Keenan Allen. Allen was on pace for a 134/1450/8 slash line in his age 23 season in 2015 through 8 games, but then ruptured his kidney and missed the rest of the season. In 2016, he had a huge first half against the Chiefs week 1, catching 6 passes for 63 yards, but then tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. Injuries have been a problem for him dating back to college, as knee problems dropped him to the 3rd round in 2013. He had a strong rookie season, finishing with a 71/1046/8 slash line and becoming just one of 11 rookie receivers in the last 20 years to top 1000 yards, even though he didn’t become a starter until week 4.

However, his last 3 seasons were all been ended by season ending injuries. Still only going into his age 25 season, Allen still has the upside to be one of the top wide receivers in the league if he can stay healthy, but that’s becoming a very big if at this point. Rivers completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions through the first 8 games of the 2015 season with Allen healthy, so he’s obviously hoping for a bounce back season from him. The Chargers gave him a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension last off-season.

The Chargers’ receiving corps still performed pretty well in Allen’s absence last season, thanks primarily to a breakout season from 2nd year undrafted free agent Tyrell Williams. Williams did his best Keenan Allen impression, catching 69 passes for 1059 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first significant action of his career, despite only starting 12 of 16 games. He finished 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He could see his numbers drop with Allen back, but he figures to be the starter opposite Allen. If both are healthy and at their best, they could be one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

Their complementary receivers also had solid seasons in 2016, as ex-CFL star Dontrelle Inman finished with a 58/810/4 slash line as the #2 receiver and free agent acquisition Travis Benjamin finished with a 47/677/4 slash line as the #3 receiver. Inman finished 33th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, a significant improvement over 2015, when he finished 111th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on 691 snaps in the first significant action of his NFL career. Benjamin, meanwhile, came to the Chargers on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal from the Browns. He has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 seasons in the league and is a one-dimensional deep threat, but he hasn’t been bad over the past 2 seasons.

Despite all this depth at wide receiver and Keenan Allen set to return from injury, the Chargers shocked everyone by selecting Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams 7th overall. Williams was not expected to be a top-10 pick, but was arguably the best receiver in the draft class and is certainly not a bad addition. The issue is how much he’ll actually play. I assume Allen and Williams are locked in as the top-2 receivers, so that leaves Williams to compete with Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin for the #3 receiver job.

As talented as he is, that’s a competition he might not win, especially since he injured his back in off-season practice and could be out until Training Camp, which puts him behind the 8-ball in a tough competition. The Chargers legitimately go 5 deep at wide receiver when they’re healthy, but it’s fair to wonder if the 7th pick could have been put to better use. I know they wanted to get Philip Rivers as much help as possible, but it doesn’t help him if the team’s 7th overall pick is sitting on the bench when they could have drafted a starter at another position. Inman is going into the final year of his rookie deal and Benjamin is owed a non-guaranteed 5.75 million in 2018, and both now look like they are entering their final season with the Chargers. The selection also calls into question whether or not they will extend Tyrell Williams when his time comes (he has two years left on his rookie deal) and how confident they are in Keenan Allen’s long-term durability.

The Chargers are deep at tight end too, as 2016 2nd round pick and future Antonio Gates replacement Hunter Henry showed promise as a rookie, while Gates could have another strong season left in the tank, even in his age 37 season. Henry, who finished 12th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps in 2016, is expected to be the starter with Gates taking on more of a complementary role. Henry posted a 36/478/8 slash line on just 54 targets (6th on the team) and 254 routes run last season and is a capable run blocker at 6-5 250. He could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league. Philip Rivers seems to love throwing to him on the goal line, where he is very tough to defend on jump balls.

Rivers loves throwing to Gates on the goal line too, as he has 23 scores in the past 3 seasons and caught 7 last season, despite playing just 585 total snaps in a crowded receiving corps. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but has finished above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in every season of his career. His age is obviously a concern, but he could still play a role in this receiving corps. He might have his worst statistical season since his rookie season in 2003 (the last season in which he had fewer than 500 receiving yards), but that could be more because of how many other passing options they have, rather than Gates declining in a big way. This is arguably the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Chargers also had a lot of injuries at the running back position, most importantly a torn ACL suffered by Danny Woodhead that cost him the final 14 games of the season. Woodhead caught 75+ passes in his previous 2 healthy seasons as a passing down back and also provided some change of pace on the ground, so he was a big loss. The Chargers also lost Branden Oliver for the year when he tore his achilles before the season even began. Undrafted rookie Kenneth Barrow finished 2nd on the team in carries with 60 and averaged just 3.20 yards per. Melvin Gordon was their feature back for most of the season, but missed the final 3 games with injury and, because all of their other useful backs were injured, the Chargers had to turn to a combination of Farrow and Andre Williams, who was signed mid-season and who has just a 3.30 career YPC on 323 carries.

Danny Woodhead signed in Baltimore this off-season, so Melvin Gordon remains the every down back. The 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, that is what Gordon was drafted for, but it looked like he might be a bust after his disappointing rookie season. He averaged just 3.48 yards per carry on 184 carries, caught just 33 passes for 192 yards, and didn’t score once. He finished the season 65th out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. To make matters worse, he had off-season microfracture surgery on his knees, so a breakout second season in the league seemed unlikely.

However, he surprised all his doubters, finishing the season 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He only averaged 3.93 yards per carry on 254 carries, but that was largely because he didn’t have good blocking all season. He ran with great toughness, pushed through contact, and broke tackles. He also added 41 catches for 419 yards through the air and scored 12 times total. A knee injury cost him essentially the final 4 games of the season, but he averaged 20.92 carries per game through 12 games, which would have been the 3rd highest among all running backs last season, behind only Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. With better blocking, he could have a monster statistical season in 2017. He has a huge upside and is only going into his age 24 season. Durability is a bit of a concern for him though, between last off-season’s knee surgery and the knee injury that ended his season in 2016.

The Chargers didn’t add another back this off-season, so they seem confident in Gordon as an every down back again and think he can stay healthy. Branden Oliver is back from his achilles injury and has the inside track on the #2 back job. Prior to last season’s injury, Oliver averaged just 3.61 yards per carry on 191 career carries, but is a tough runner who runs through contact and contributes in passing situations. The 2014 undrafted free agent is inexperienced and has played just 22 career games in 3 seasons in the league, but finished about average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in both 2014 and 2015. He isn’t a bad backup, but the Chargers will obviously be hoping that Gordon can stay healthy all year and handle 300+ carries. If he can, he could easily finish the season in the top-5 in rushing yards.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Chargers had major problems on the offensive line last season. In response, they changed things up this off-season and will have new starters at 3 of 5 positions upfront. The Chargers released starting left tackle King Dunlap and starting guards Orlando Franklin and DJ Fluker this off-season, saving them 6.75 million, 6 million, and 8.821 million respectively. None of them played well in 2016 or were worth their salary. Dunlap, who retired this off-season, finished 53rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Franklin and Fluker, meanwhile, finished 66th and 54th respectively out of 72 eligible guards. They won’t be missed.

They made a big splash in free agency to replace Dunlap, signing Russell Okung away from the Broncos, for whom he started all 16 games last season. Okung finished last season 38th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and should be an upgrade, but they overpaid him, giving him a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary. Last season was the first season in his career in which he played all 16 games, missing 24 games in his first 6 seasons in the league combined. He’s also only finished above average just 3 times in 7 seasons in the league on Pro Football Focus. Now going into his age 30 season, it shouldn’t be surprising if Okung regresses or gets injured. His backup is Chris Hairston, who has 31 career starts, but has never played well.

The Chargers replaced their guards by drafting a guard in both the 2nd and 3rd rounds, taking Western Kentucky’s Forest Lamp and Indiana’s Dan Feeney, who will likely start at right guard and left guard respectively. Even though they are just rookies, they could have solid rookie seasons, as they were arguably the best two guards in the draft. They may have some growing pains, but it wouldn’t be hard for them to be an upgrade over what they had at guard last season. The Chargers also have the option of shifting Matt Slauson from center back to guard, where he spent the first 7 seasons of his career before moving to center last season. In that scenario, last year’s 3rd round pick Max Tuerk, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie because of knee problems, would start at center.

For now, Slauson is the starting center, after finishing about average in his first season at the position in 2016 (18th out of 38 eligible centers). At guard, Slauson finished above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, including 9th in 2015 with the Bears, but he’s now in his age 31 season, so the Chargers seem to prefer him at center. He could easily have another solid season there though. The 2009 6th round pick took over as a full-time starter in 2010 with the Jets and has made all 16 starts in 6 of 7 seasons since.

Veteran Joe Barksdale rounds out the offensive line at right tackle. Barksdale has made 60 starts at right tackle over the past 4 seasons, 2 seasons with the Rams and the past 2 seasons with the Chargers. He too struggled last season, finishing 58th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts, but he finished above average in the previous 3 seasons and 21st as recently as 2015. Only going into his age 29 season, he could easily have a bounce back season on what looks like an overall improved offensive line.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

With Anthony Lynn coming in to replace Mike McCoy, the Chargers replaced defensive coordinator John Pagano with Gus Bradley, who will transition this defense to a 4-3. Bradley wasn’t good as a head coach with the Jaguars, but was a good defensive coordinator with the Seahawks before that and has some good talent to work with. The player who could benefit most from the scheme change is Joey Bosa, the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Bosa was an odd fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense at 6-5 280, which makes his rookie season even more impressive.

The Defensive Rookie of the Year missed the first 4 games of the season with a stupid holdout and an injury, but finished 2nd among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus and had 10.5 sacks on 563 snaps. Now back in the 4-3 defense in which he dominated in college, he could take another step forward in full first season in the league. Only going into his age 22 season, the sky seems like the limit for his potential right now. He will line up as a defensive end in base packages, but could see a fair amount of snaps on the inside in sub packages. He showed the ability to disrupt the quarterback from multiple spots as a rookie and also plays the run well.

Joey Bosa’s counterpart on the other side of the defensive line, Melvin Ingram, is not as clean of a fit in this new defense. The Chargers don’t seem concerned though, giving him a 4-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season, after franchising tagging him. That deal is risky for a number of reasons. Ingram has 18.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined and has finished 8th and 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively, but the 2012 1st round pick managed just 6 sacks in 29 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, thanks primarily to injuries. He’s played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons, but his injury history makes him risky on a long-term deal.

Ingram is also older than most players with his experience, already going into his age 29 season, so he might only have 2-3 strong seasons left in the tank at best. On top of that, the 6-2 247 pounder is a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’ll rush the passer from more or less the same spot in the new defense, but could struggle against the run as a base defensive end and doesn’t get to utilize his impressive coverage skills either. He could still be a strong pass rusher for them, but he was a risky re-signing on an expensive long-term deal.

In sub packages, when Bosa moves inside, Jeremiah Attaochu and Kyle Emanuel are the top candidates for snaps outside opposite Ingram. Attaochu, a 2014 2nd round pick, finished 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts in 2015, but was limited to 178 disappointing snaps in 8 games in 2016 by ankle problems and an eventual broken leg that ended his season. He didn’t play much as a rookie in 2014, so he’s a one-year wonder, but, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have a bounce back season in a situational role in 2017. He’s also a candidate for the base package outside linebacker job. Emanuel is probably the favorite for that job, with Attaochu more likely to see sub package snaps at defensive end. A 5th round pick in 2015, Emanuel has struggled mightily as a pass rusher in 2 seasons in the league, but played the run pretty well last season.

At defensive tackle, Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane will start. Liuget is an every down player, but Mebane is just a base package run stuffer. Mebane played at a high level last season, not just stopping the run, but also getting some pass rush, but only played 340 snaps in 10 games as a situational player, before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. Mebane has always been a good run stuffer, but is going into his age 32 season and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons, so there’s some uncertainty with him.

In Mebane’s absence last season, Damion Square took over as the nose tackle, making 7 starts in total and playing 364 snaps in 11 games. The 2013 undrafted free agent had started just one career game before last season, but did a solid good against the run and figures to be part of the rotation again in 2017. Tenny Palepoi, a 2014 undrafted free agent who struggled on 378 snaps in 2016 in the first significant action of his career, could also be in the mix for snaps.

Liuget, meanwhile, has 87 starts in 90 games in 6 seasons in the league and played 812 snaps last season, most among Charger defensive linemen. The 2011 1st round pick signed a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, but is not as good as his salary suggests. He’s finished above average just twice in 6 seasons in the league and finished slightly below average in 2016. Still only going into his age 27 season, Liuget is still in his prime, but he’s an overrated and overpaid player. This is still a strong defensive line though, especially on the edges.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As mentioned, either Jeremiah Attaochu or Kyle Emanuel will play the base package outside linebacker job. Going into last season, Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman were their two every down linebackers, but Te’o missed 12 games with injury, while Perryman missed another 4 games. The injuries were actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed couple young linebackers to get a chance and they played pretty well in their opportunity. Jatavis Brown was the biggest beneficiary, as the 5th round rookie finished the season 19th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, playing 600 snaps in 12 games and making 7 starts. He will be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. He’s still a relatively unproven one-year wonder and the fact that he fell all the way to the 5th round a year ago isn’t irrelevant yet, but he could easily have a strong season in his new role.

Korey Toomer also flashed in limited action last season, finishing 16th among middle linebackers on 479 snaps and excelling in coverage. The 5-year veteran made the first 8 starts of his career last season, so he’s still a one-year wonder, but he showed enough to compete for a role in 2017. Manti Te’o is in New Orleans now, but Denzel Perryman returns, so he and Toomer could compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Perryman, a 2015 2nd round pick, has only played 884 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but plays the run well. He and Toomer could platoon, with Toomer coming in for Perryman in base packages obvious passing situations. This is an underrated linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the injury to Keenan Allen was probably their biggest loss last season, a torn ACL suffered by cornerback Jason Verrett was also a huge blow to this team. Verrett was a first round pick in 2014 and has played well whenever he’s been on the field, but has been limited to just 24 games in 3 seasons in the league by injury. In addition to the torn ACL that ended his 2016 season after 4 games, he was limited to 6 games as a rookie by shoulder surgery. He was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback in 2014 when he went down and their 6th ranked cornerback in his one healthy season in 2015, so the sky is still the limit in terms of his upside, only going into his age 25 season, but he’s a major injury risk.

If Verrett is healthy, the Chargers could have one of the best cornerback duos in the league, as free agent acquisition Casey Hayward excelled in Verrett’s absence last season in his first season with the Chargers, making 14 starts and finishing 6th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hayward was an absolute steal on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. Hayward came so cheap because he only started 20 games in 4 seasons with the Packers, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, but he always flashed in limited action, so he’s hardly a one-year wonder. He finished 4th among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2012, 9th among cornerbacks in 2014, and then 16th in 2015. One of the most underrated players in the entire NFL, Hayward is also one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Their depth is very weak at cornerback though, even more reason why they need Verrett to stay healthy. Brandon Flowers started the season as their 3rd cornerback, but he missed 10 games with concussions and is no longer with the team. Instead Craig Mager (408 snaps) and Steve Williams (388 snaps) are their top returning reserves, but they both struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 105th and 99th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks.

Despite that, they didn’t add a single cornerback this off-season. Mager was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has the most upside of the two, so he’s probably the favorite for the #3 job, but he could easily struggle again. Williams, meanwhile, is a 2016 undrafted free agent who was called up from the practice squad as a rookie. He was predictably overwhelmed and doesn’t look like anything more than maybe a #4 cornerback long-term.

Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers were not the only Charger defensive backs to miss significant time with injury last season, as a broken collarbone limited safety Jahleel Addae to 510 snaps in 8 games. Addae had a strong season when on the field, finishing 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so he was definitely missed. Addae finished 76th out of 89 eligible safeties in his first full season as a starter in 2015 and hadn’t finished above average since his rookie season in 2013 (437 snaps), so he’s a one-year wonder, if you can even call him that, considering how much time he missed. However, he’s still only going into his age 27 season and definitely has upside. The Chargers were able to bring him back on a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season, a pretty reasonable deal.

Dwight Lowery returns as the other starter. The 9-year veteran missed 28 games in a 5-year stretch from 2009-2013, but hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since and has finished above average 7 times in 9 seasons in the league. He’s never been a great player and only finished last season 42nd among safeties, but he’s still a capable starter. The one concern is his age, as he goes into his age 31 season. The Chargers drafted a pair of safeties in the mid rounds, 4th rounder Rayshawn Jenkins and 5th rounder Desmond King, as potential long-term options. This is a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Looking through this roster, this does not look like a team that’s gone 9-23 over the past 2 seasons. If they can stay healthy and do better in close games, they could easily compete for a playoff spot in their first season under new head coach Anthony Lynn. Some of their top players, like Jason Verrett and Keenan Allen, are not durable, but this team definitely has upside. My one complaint is that they drafted Mike Williams at 7, even though he didn’t fill an immediate need, when they could have added much more needed players like Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, and Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Given Rivers’ age, it didn’t make sense for this team to not add an immediate starter with that pick. Still, this should be one of the most improved teams in the league in terms of wins.

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West

Oakland Raiders 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Prior to last season, I predicted a breakout season for the Raiders in 2016, expecting them to not just make the post-season for the first time since 2002, but also for them to finish with one of the top-2 seeds in the conference and a first round bye in the playoffs. That didn’t quite happen, but that’s because they lost Derek Carr for the season with a broken leg week 16 and then lost the division on a tiebreaker to the 12-4 Chiefs when they lost to the Broncos without Carr the following week. Carr went 12-3 in his 15 starts, but without him the Raiders couldn’t win in Houston as the #5 seed and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Even though they had a strong record, the Raiders were not as good as I expected them to be in 2016 and likely would not have gone on a deep run in the post-season even with Carr. Eight of their 12 victories came by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less, and their point differential of +31 was just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that they finished with a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnovers tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Raiders won’t be able to count on that again in 2017.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders finished just 19th and had just one more offensive touchdown than their opponents all season. They finished 15th in first down rate and 23rd in first down rate allowed, though their first down rate is a little misleading as they ranked 12th in first down rate through 15 games, before Carr was injured. Still, that’s not all that much better than 2015, when they finished 20th in first down rate, 16th in first down rate allowed, and 17th in first down rate differential. Even though they added several big free agents and won several more games, they weren’t really that improved from 2015 to 2016.

The good news is they have several players who could have bounce back seasons, they added more talent this off-season, without really losing anyone important, and they are still a relatively young team, despite all of their recent veteran free agent additions. They could easily be an improved team from 2016 to 2017, even if it doesn’t show up in the standings. The big concern with this team is how expensive they could become over the next couple of seasons.

They built themselves to where they are now by hitting on draft picks, which gave them cheap young talent, and then signing talented veterans to big money deals in free agency to pair with their young players. However, most of their young players will be up for big extensions in the next two off-seasons. In 2017, they have 8 players with cap hits of 6.4 million or higher. Those 8 take up a combined 66 million on the cap, or about 39.5% of the total cap for this season, and that’s without extensions for young players like Amari Cooper, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, and Khalil Mack, who will need expensive extensions in the next couple of off-seasons.

Quarterback Derek Carr was first in line for an extension, as the Raiders made him the highest paid quarterback in the league this off-season, giving him a 5-year, 125 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. He was set to make just 1.153 million before the extension. Carr isn’t the best quarterback in the league, but most of the top quarterbacks are underpaid compared to what their market value would be, so I don’t have a problem with the Raiders giving Carr as much money as they did. They didn’t really have another choice.

Carr struggled mightily as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and averaging just 5.46 yards per attempt, worst in the NFL. He was the only quarterback in the last decade and a half to average so few yards per attempt and still make all 16 starts. However, he’s completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in the two seasons since and has finished 10th and 8th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. His best attribute is avoiding interceptions, but I would like to see him complete a higher percentage of his passes and average a higher YPA in the future. Still only going into his age 26 season, his best days could still be ahead of him.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why I want to see Carr average a higher YPA and complete a higher percentage of his passes is because he has a strong supporting cast and should be moving the ball downfield more easily. His offensive line is arguably the best in football. Kelechi Osemele was easily their best free agent acquisition from last off-season, as he made 15 starts at left guard and finished 5th among guards on Pro Football Focus in the first season of a 5-year, 58.5 million dollar deal. He is the 2nd highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Kevin Zeitler, who signed with the Browns on a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s finished in the top-13 among guards in each of the last 3 seasons and is still in his prime, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another strong season in 2017.

Osemele is not the only starting offensive lineman that they’ve added in free agency over the years, as left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson, and right tackle Austin Howard all joined the Raiders as free agents. Donald Penn is arguably their 2nd best offensive lineman and he has been a bargain for them, first signing a 2-year, 9.2 million dollar deal before the 2014 season and then signing a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 34 season, his age is a concern and the reason why they’ve been able to get him so inexpensively, but Penn has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons and, though he looked on the decline in Tampa Bay in 2013, his career has found a second life with the Raiders. He has finished 7th, 11th, and 10th among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in Oakland.

Carr’s absence for the playoff game last season obviously hurt them, but Penn being out with a leg injury didn’t help. Fortunately, he is back to full health now and has never missed a regular season game with injury in 10 full seasons in the league. The Raiders are hoping he has one last strong season in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Raiders may have to move on from him as a free agent next off-season to keep some of their younger players, so Kelechi Osemele could end up long-term at left tackle, where he has some experience.

Center Rodney Hudson is also a very good offensive lineman. The Raiders signed him to a then record 5-year, 44.5 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, after the 2011 2nd round pick had a breakout contract year in 2014, finishing 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s lived up to that deal, finishing 8th and 4th respectively among centers in 2 seasons in Oakland. Now the 4th highest paid center in the league in terms of average annual salary, Hudson is a good value and a big part of this offensive line.

Their only weakness upfront is right tackle, where Austin Howard hasn’t quite lived up to the 5-year, 30 million dollar deal the Raiders gave him in free agency 3 off-seasons ago. Howard finished 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but has finished below average in his other 2 seasons in Oakland, including last season, when he finished 54th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s not a bad player and could have a solid season on the right side, but he’s also going into his age 30 season, so his best years could be behind him at this point. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.5 million in 2018, this could easily be his last season in Oakland. The Raiders used a 4th round pick on Florida offensive tackle David Sharpe as insurance.

The only starter on this offensive line that was actually drafted by the Raiders is right guard Gabe Jackson, a 3rd round pick in 2014 who is going into the final year of his rookie deal and will likely become one of the highest paid guards in the league in the next calendar year. A starter from the word go, Jackson has made 44 starts in 3 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 3 of them, including 13th among guards in 2015 and 22nd among guards in 2016. The Raiders have decisions to make on him and Donald Penn next off-season, but, for now, still have one of the best offensive lines in football and return all 5 starters from 2016.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Derek Carr also has a pair of talented wide receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who were one of four wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards in 2016 (Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, Michael Thomas/Brandin Cooks, and DeSean Jackson/Pierre Garcon). Cooper, the 4th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, is one of the Raiders top young players and one of the best young wide receivers in the whole league.

Cooper caught 72 passes for 1070 yards and 6 touchdowns as a rookie, but struggled with drops and wasn’t that efficient on a per target basis (130 targets), so he finished around middle of the pack among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still, that was a very impressive rookie season, as he became one of just 11 rookie receivers to top 1000 receiving yards in the last 20 years, and then he took his game to another level in 2016. He again had a good amount of targets (132), but caught 83 passes for 1,153 yards and 5 touchdowns and finished 23rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 23 season, Cooper’s best days are likely still ahead of him and he could have a huge statistical season in his 3rd season in the league. After finishing 8th in receiving yards last season, Cooper has a good shot at the top-5 in 2017.

If Cooper is more productive in 2017, it would likely be at the expense of Michael Crabtree, who has actually led the team in targets in each of the last 2 seasons, with 146 in 2015 and 145 in 2016. Crabtree looked done in 2013 and 2014, struggling to return to form after tearing his achilles after the 2012 season, but he has bounced back with back-to-back above average seasons in Oakland. A 2009 1st round pick, Crabtree has finished above average in 5 of 6 healthy seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 30 season, so he could have another solid season in 2016. Even if he has fewer targets, he could be more efficient on a per target basis if Cooper breaks out and this offense as a whole improves.

In addition to Cooper’s breakout potential, one reason why this offense could be better in 2016 is because they added an upgrade at tight end in free agency, signing ex-Packer Jared Cook to a 2-year, 10.6 million dollar deal. Cook missed 6 games with an ankle injury last season, but finished the season hot for Green Bay and continued that into the post-season. All in all, he finished last season 11th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, the highest rank of his career.

Cook struggled in 2015, but was a solid tight end before that, also finishing 15th among tight ends in 2014, so he’s a nice addition to this offense, still only going into his age 30 season. He might not post huge receiving numbers as the 3rd option in this passing game, but he’s a good overall tight end and a big upgrade over Clive Walford, who finished 57th out of 63 eligible tight ends in his first season as a starter in 2016, after flashing on 447 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015. Walford will compete with Lee Smith, a veteran blocking tight end, for snaps behind Cook.

The Raiders also upgraded the #3 receiver spot, signing Cordarrelle Patterson from the Vikings to compete with incumbent Seth Roberts, who has been one of the least effective wide receivers in the league over the past 2 seasons. Roberts finished 102th out of 121 eligible wide receivers in 2015 and 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers in 2016. Patterson is most valuable as a return man and never developed into the wide receiver the Vikings envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2013, but had a 52/453/2 slash line as the 3rd receiver in Minnesota last season and would be an upgrade over Roberts. He also has a career 10.74 YPC average on 31 career carries, so he can provide value for them on end arounds as well. Patterson and Cook will eat into Crabtree’s targets, as could Amari Cooper if he has a breakout 3rd season in the league. This is a much deeper and more talented receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Raiders also upgraded the running back position this off-season by signing Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. Latavius Murray has been their lead back over the past 2 seasons and has overall put up good numbers, rushing for 1,854 yards and 18 touchdowns on 461 attempts in the two seasons combined, but his 4.02 YPC average is disappointing given the offense around him and the offensive line blocking for him and he didn’t add any value on passing downs. The Raiders didn’t try too hard to re-sign him this off-season and let him sign a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Vikings.

How much of an upgrade Marshawn Lynch will be remains up in the air. At his best, Lynch was one of the best runners in the league, rushing for 4,153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 attempts from 2012-2014 and finishing in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons. His 4.64 YPC average during those three seasons is even more impressive when you consider the Seahawks were not a good run blocking team.

However, he was limited to 3.76 yards per carry in an injury plagued 2015 season, didn’t play at all last season during his “retirement,” and now is entering his age 31 season, which is around when top running backs using break down. It’s possible he’s fresh after a year off, but it’s really tough to know if the Raiders are getting Beast Mode or not in 2017. At the very least, he’ll run behind the best run blocking offensive line he’s ever had and should be more effective than Murray.

Like Murray, Lynch is not very useful on passing downs, so 2nd year players DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will continue to see action as change of pace and passing down backs. They played 241 and 237 snaps respectively as rookies in 2016 and both were very impressive in limited action. Washington, a 6th round pick, averaged 5.37 yards per carry on 87 carries and added a 17/115/0 slash line through the air, while Richard, an undrafted free agent, averaged 5.92 yards per carry on 83 carries and added a 29/194/2 slash line through the air. This is a deep running back group, but Marshawn Lynch is close to a complete mystery in his first season back from retirement.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As mentioned, the Raiders were actually a little bit worse defensively in 2016, as compared to 2015, despite adding three talented players in free agency, cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, and defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin. Those three players actually all played pretty well. The issue was that, at the positions where the Raiders were bad in 2015, they were really bad in 2016, including defensive tackle.

Second round rookie Jihad Ward led all Raider defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 636, but he struggled mightily, finishing dead last at the defensive tackle position and really hurting this defense. Considered very raw coming out of the University of Illinois, Ward could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he received just a 5th round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft, so there’s no guarantee he ever develops into anything useful. His career is certainly off to about as bad of a start as possible. The Raiders may want him to play fewer snaps this season.

Denico Autry played 690 snaps last season, but he split snaps between defensive tackle and defensive end, playing outside in base packages at 6-5 270. Autry also struggled mightily, finishing 113rd out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t supposed to be in that role, but Mario Edwards missed all but two games with injury and was underwhelming when he did play.

A 2nd round pick in 2015, Edwards played well on 605 snaps as a rookie and, only going into his age 23 season, has obvious upside if he can stay healthy. Considering how badly Autry did in his absence, Edwards is the heavy favorite to get back his old role. The 6-3 280 pounder will play outside in base packages and then shift inside in sub packages, leaving Autry as a pure sub package interior rusher. Ward, Edwards, and Autry will all see snaps inside in sub packages.

In base packages, holdovers Darius Latham and Justin Ellis will compete for snaps with 3rd round rookie Eddie Vanderdoes. Latham struggled on 319 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and is best in a reserve rotational role. Ellis, meanwhile, is a capable run stuffer at 6-2 335. He’s coming off the worst season of his career, but the 2014 4th round pick still finished above average as a run stuffer on 336 snaps. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but is a great fit as a base package run stuffer and could easily see more snaps in 2017. Vanderdoes, meanwhile, is a raw boom or bust prospect and could be thrown into the fire early. All 3 players could see base package snaps, as the Raiders try to patchwork together decent defensive tackle play.

In sub packages, when Edwards moves inside, Bruce Irvin will move from outside linebacker to rush the passer off the edge opposite Khalil Mack. They were arguably the best edge rush duo in the league last season, finishing 1st and 11th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Irvin was a solid addition in the first year of a 4-year, 37 million dollar deal, while Mack is arguably the best defensive player in the league and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has finished #1 at his position in all 3 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season. Expect another monster season from him. He’s one of the talented young players the Raiders will have to lock up in the next couple off-season. He is owed just 16.8 million over the final 2 years of his rookie deal, but could become the highest paid defensive player of all time on his next contract. Like Derek Carr, the Raiders will not let him leave and will pay him whatever it takes to keep him.

While Mack has been a strong pass rusher since entering the league, Bruce Irvin actually finished below average as a pass rusher in the previous 2 seasons before last season. A first round pick in 2012, Irvin finished 10th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively with the Seahawks, but that was mostly because of his run stopping ability and also his ability to drop into coverage when needed. In Oakland, he’s used much more as a pass rusher and a defensive end than he was in Seattle.

The 6-3 250 tweener is versatile and should have another solid overall season in 2017, but might regress a little bit as a pass rusher, especially since he’s already going into his age 30 season. Shilique Calhoun, a 2016 3rd round pick, will likely be the primary reserve edge rusher in sub packages, but won’t see a huge role behind Mack and Irvin, after struggling on 173 snaps as a rookie. The Raiders are deep on the edge, but have serious problems at defensive tackle still.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As mentioned, Bruce Irvin plays outside linebacker in base packages and drops down to the defensive line and rushes the passer off the edge in sub packages, when the Raiders go to two linebackers and bring in a fifth defensive back. The problem is the Raiders got very poor play from those two every down linebackers last season, which really hurt this defense as a whole. They shook things up this off-season by letting outside linebacker Malcolm Smith walk and replacing him with ex-Dolphin Jelani Jenkins.

Smith was one of the worst linebackers in the league last season, finishing 67th out of 87 eligible. Jenkins was even worse, finishing dead last at the position, but knee issues slowed him all season. He made 27 starts in 2014 and 2015 combined and finished above average in both seasons, before being limited to 372 snaps by injuries in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Jenkins has bounce back potential and still has a bright future if he can stay healthy. He could prove to be a steal on a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal.

At middle linebacker, the Raiders didn’t add anything this off-season and did not re-sign veteran Perry Riley, who made 11 starts in 2016. Ben Heeney made the first 2 starts of the season, but the 2015 5th round pick struggled mightily, got benched, and then went down for the season with an ankle injury. He hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league. 6th round rookie Cory James took over for him before they signed Perry Riley and didn’t play much better, struggling mightily on 377 snaps. James and Heeney will compete for the job and 5th round rookie Marquel Lee could push for snaps down the stretch. Middle linebacker figures to be a position of weakness again in 2017, though Jenkins could easily be an upgrade at outside linebacker.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to Irvin, the Raiders also signed cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson to deals worth 38 million over 4 years and 8.5 million over 2 years respectively last off-season. Both players played well. Smith got off to a rough start and was actually benched for poor play in week 1, but went on to make 15 starts and finish 17th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was a little bit better in 2014 (5th) and 2015 (12th), but has finished above average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should have another solid season in 2017.

Reggie Nelson also struggled to start the season, but rebounded and finished above average for the 7th straight season. He ended the season ranked 29th among safeties. That was a decline from 2015, when he finished 8th at the position, and he is now going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he can continue playing at a high level going forward, but the Raiders didn’t pay him all that much on that two-year deal and he could have another capable season. He was a smart signing.

One of the problems on this defense last season was that David Amerson, their other starting cornerback, took a big step back, finishing 59th among cornerbacks (below average) after finishing 14th the season before. That wasn’t a huge surprise, considering the 2013 2nd round pick was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league in his first 2 seasons int he league and was actually cut by the Redskins early in the 2015 season, before going to Oakland and playing well.

Despite the risks, the Raiders bet a lot of money to keep him last off-season, giving him a 4-year, 33.93 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016, so they are obviously hoping he can bounce back. If he doesn’t turn it around, the Raiders can get out of the rest of his deal this off-season, but they will have paid him 12.55 million in new money for one extra season if they do that, so the Raiders definitely want to avoid that.

At the other safety spot, the Raiders will start 2016 1st round pick Karl Joseph who was decent on 590 snaps (9 starts) in an injury plagued rookie season. Injuries have been an issue for him since his collegiate days and he missed most of his final season at West Virginia with a torn ACL, but he has high upside if he can stay healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a breakout second season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Raiders also used a first round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Ohio State’s Gareon Conley at #24 overall. Conley was a top-15 talent, but it was a very risky pick because Conley was accused of rape the week before the draft. Though he was taken off of many teams’ boards, the Raiders did their homework and feel comfortable that he won’t be charged. They clearly love his talent and had to draft him in the first to prevent a team like Dallas from drafting him, but he obviously comes with a lot of risk. He has yet to be charged with anything, but the investigation is still open and that could change at any time.

As of right now, Gareon Conley is expected to take over as the 3rd cornerback and play in sub packages. He has a high upside and should immediately be an upgrade over DJ Hayden, who finished last season 96th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 476 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2016. Hayden is now in Detroit. The Raiders also used their 2nd round pick on a defensive back, taking Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu. At 6-4 224, Melifonwu has the size to play safety, but he also has some experience at cornerback and is an incredible athlete for his size. He’ll start as a versatile dime back, but the Raiders are probably planning on him being Reggie Nelson’s successor at safety long-term. This secondary is deeper than last season because of the draft.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Raiders were not as good as their record suggested last season, but they are still one of the more talented teams on the league on paper. They have made several upgrades on offense and could be one of the best offensive teams in the league, while their defense could easily be improved as well, especially if someone steps up at defensive tackle or linebacker. They might not win as many games as they did last season, but they should be an improved team overall and are probably the favorites to win the tough AFC West. Last year’s winner, Kansas City, is another team that was not as good as their record in 2016.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in AFC West

Denver Broncos 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, despite having one of the worst offenses in the league, as they finished 27th in first down rate (32.77%). They were carried all season by a defense that ranked 2nd in first down rate allowed (30.79%), but they also had tremendous luck in close games. Overall on the season, including playoffs, they went 15-4, but 11 of those 15 wins came by a touchdown or less and their record in games decided by a touchdown or less was 11-3.

In 2016, their defense wasn’t quite as good, but they still finished 2nd in first down rate allowed and only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.04% rate. Their offense, meanwhile, finished 30th in first down rate at 31.47%, just slightly below their 2015 mark. They fell from 8th to 14th in first down rate differential, from 1.98% to 0.43%, but weren’t that much worse of a team in 2016. However, they still fell to 9-7 and didn’t even make the playoffs because they did not win as many close games, going just 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Even though their offense was similar from 2015 to 2016, the faces under center were not. Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler started games for them in 2015, but Manning retired after his defense dragged him to his 2nd Super Bowl win, while Osweiler was foolishly given a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal by the Texans in free agency. The Broncos traded up to draft Memphis’ Paxton Lynch at 26 overall as their quarterback of the future. He was supposed to compete with veteran Mark Sanchez for the week 1 starting job.

However, 2nd year quarterback Trevor Siemian crashed the party and outplayed both of them in the off-season, despite not throwing a pass as a 7th round rookie in 2015. His strong off-season earned him the week 1 starting job, left Lynch as the backup, and got Mark Sanchez released at final cuts. Not only did Siemian start week 1, but he started in all 14 games for which he was healthy enough to play.

Siemian was unspectacular, completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, finishing the season 30th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff, and Blaine Gabbert. However, he still outplayed Lynch, as Lynch looked lost in the 2 ½ games he played in Siemian’s absence, completing just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.99 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception.

Siemian has been a pleasant surprise, but would be best as a backup quarterback long-term. Lynch has the much higher upside and was drafted to be their franchise quarterback, so they need him to develop. Reports this off-season have suggested that Siemian is still ahead of Lynch on the depth chart, which probably says more about how raw Lynch still is than it does about Siemian. Both quarterbacks will battle into training camp and the pre-season, but the Broncos could get poor play from the position for the 3rd straight season.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Quarterback was not the only issue on this offense last season though. In fact, the biggest reason why this team declined a little bit offensively from 2015 to 2016 is because they didn’t run the ball nearly as well. In 2015, they averaged 4.18 yards per carry, 13th in the NFL, but they fell to 3.62 yards per carry in 2016, 28th in the NFL. Lead back CJ Anderson missed 9 games with injury and 4th round rookie Devontae Booker averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 174 carries in his absence. To improve their depth, they took a flier on veteran Jamaal Charles in free agency and used a 6th round pick on Coastal Carolina’s DeAngelo Henderson.

Anderson will still be the lead back. Anderson has averaged 4.55 yards per carry on 441 carries over the past 3 seasons, but injuries have been a recurring problem for him, as he also was limited for most of the first half of the 2015 season with lower leg injuries. He still hasn’t topped 179 carries in a season, though he definitely has the ability to if he can stay healthy. Still only going into his age 26 season, Anderson still has upside and could finally have the breakout season he’s been expected to have for each of the past 2 seasons. That’s far from a guarantee though.

Jamaal Charles is also injury prone as well. He tore one ACL in 2011 and missed the whole season and then he tore the other one in 2015 and has been limited to 83 carries in 8 games over the past 2 seasons. Last season, he was shut down after 3 games and 12 carries and had cleanup surgery on both knees. It was an easy decision for the Chiefs to move on from him and his 6.2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, especially considering he’s going into his age 31 season.

His best days are almost definitely behind him, but Charles has some bounce back potential in Denver if he can stay healthy. His career 5.45 yard per carry average (on 1,332 carries) is the highest all-time by a running back and he’s also a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. He could carve out a change of pace and passing down role behind Anderson. That would leave Booker to compete with Henderson for the #3 back job, but though both could see carries if Anderson and Charles struggle to stay healthy again. They should be better on the ground overall this season, but their best two backs are injury risks.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Broncos also had major problems on the offensive line last season, which hurt both their passing game and their running game. Things got even worse this off-season, when Russell Okung, who played pretty well on the blindside last season, signed with the Chargers. The Broncos signed veteran Menelik Watson in free agency as a potential replacement, but the 2013 2nd round pick is an underwhelming starting option on either side. He’s struggled in just 17 career starts. Donald Stephenson, who finished last season 77th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts at right tackle, is also an underwhelming starting option. He has 33 career starts, but has finished well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league.

With Watson and Stephenson penciled in as the starters going into the draft, offensive tackle was their biggest draft day need and they addressed it right away, taking Utah’s Garett Bolles 20th overall. In an overall very weak offensive line class, Bolles was the first offensive lineman off the board. He has the most left tackle upside of anyone in the draft class, but is very raw and played just one season at the FBS level. Already going into his age 25 season, Bolles is also older than most rookies and received only a late 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, so he’s definitely a risky pick. He could easily struggle as a rookie, but is considered the favorite for the left tackle job, with Watson and Stephenson competing on the right side.

The Broncos did make one big addition in free agency, signing guard Ronald Leary from the Cowboys on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Leary made 31 starts from 2013-2014 and run blocked very well, but left something to be desired in pass protection and was benched in 2015 for rookie La’El Collins. In 2016, he began the season as a backup, but made 12 starts in place of Collins, who was injured, and had the best season of his career, finishing 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus and playing well both as a run blocker and pass protector. He doesn’t fix their issues at offensive tackle, but he’s finished above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and could easily be a strong starter for the Broncos in 2017.

Leary is expected to slot in at left guard and move Max Garcia, a 16-game starter last season, to right guard. A 2015 4th round pick, Garcia has been about a league average starter in 21 career starts, playing both left guard and right guard, and should hold onto his job in 2017. At right guard, he’ll replace Michael Schofield, who was mediocre at 16 starts last season. Schofield could challenge for a job at right tackle, but the 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily at right tackle in 2015 before moving inside. He’s more likely to be a versatile reserve. Ty Sambrailo could also be in the mix at either tackle spot, but the 2015 2nd round pick has also struggled whenever he’s been counted on at tackle in 2 seasons in the league (7 starts). Like Schofield, he’s best as a versatile reserve.

Center Matt Paradis is probably their best offensive lineman, coming off a breakout 2016 season in which he finished #1 among centers on Pro Football Focus. A 6th round pick in 2014, Paradis was about a league average starter in his first season as a starter in 2015, but took it to a completely new level in 2016. He’s a one-year wonder and could regress in 2017, but he looks like one of the best centers in the league. With the addition of Leary, the Broncos have a strong interior of their offensive line, but could easily have big problems at both tackle positions, which hurts their offensive line overall.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Despite the overall struggles of the passing game, both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders went over 1000 yards for the 3rd straight season in 2016. They were one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to both top 1000 yards (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Pierre Garcon/DeSean Jackson, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree) and they are the only wide receiver duo to do so in 2 straight seasons, let alone 3. If you include the 2013 season, when Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both went over 1000 yards, the Broncos have had two wide receivers with at least 1000 yards in each of the past 4 seasons.

Both Thomas and Sanders are going into their age 30 season in 2017 though, which is a bit of a concern. Thomas has showed some signs of age in recent seasons, falling to 49th among wide receivers in 2015 and 27th among wide receivers in 2016, after finishing in the top-5 in all 3 seasons from 2012-2014. The 2010 1st round pick has incredible physical gifts, but has been slowed by injuries in the last 2 seasons. Sanders, however, has not shown any signs of age, finishing in the top-15 among wide receivers in all 3 seasons in Denver, despite being at best a league average receiver in 4 seasons with the Steelers prior to arriving in Denver. The 2010 3rd round pick is a true late bloomer. Both Thomas and Sanders could easily top 1000 yards again in 2017.

Part of the reason why Thomas and Sanders have had 3 straight seasons of 1000+ yards each is because the Broncos haven’t really had anyone else to throw to. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively, those two counted for 53.5%, 51.7%, and 49.8% of the Broncos’ targets, as the Broncos haven’t had anything resembling a #3 receiver over the past 3 seasons. Their last wide receiver other than their top-2 to top 500 yards was Wes Welker in 2013 and they haven’t had another wide receiver even over 250 yards in the last 2 seasons.

Last season, their leading receivers behind Thomas and Sanders were running back Devontae Booker (31/265/1) and Virgil Green (22/237/1). Jordan Norwood was their #3 receiver, but posted just a 21/232/1 slash line and finished 109th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He is no longer with the team, so, behind Thomas and Sanders, their leading returning wide receivers in terms of snaps played last season are Jordan Taylor (277 snaps), Bennie Fowler (242 snaps), and Cody Latimer (217 snaps). Latimer has upside because he was a second round pick in 2014, but he has just 16 catches in 3 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster. Third round rookie Carlos Henderson could easily win the #3 wide receiver job.

Tight end was another position of need for the Broncos this off-season. They used a 5th round pick on Michigan’s Jake Butt and he has 2nd round talent when he’s healthy, but he’s questionable for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in January and would be behind the 8-ball as a rookie after missing the whole off-season. He won’t have a big role in 2017. Virgil Green led the position in snaps played last season with a career high 485 snaps and could easily lead the position in snaps again. His 22 catches in 2016 were also a career high, so he isn’t much of a pass catcher, but he’s a capable run blocker.

Third year players Jeff Heuerman and AJ Derby will compete for snaps behind Green. Both are better pass catching options. A 3rd round and a 6th round pick in 2015 respectively, both missed their entire rookie season with injury and both played limited action last season, 236 and 219 snaps respectively. Heuerman outplayed Derby overall and has the higher upside, but neither one is a proven option. Butt could easily be the starting tight end by 2018. This receiving corps still lacks even a capable 3rd option.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Broncos lost a pair of key defensive starters from 2015 to 2016, with middle linebacker Danny Trevathan signing with the Bears and defensive end Malik Jackson signing with the Jaguars, but still got strong play on the defensive side of the ball. This off-season, they lost just one starter, nose tackle Sylvester Williams, who won’t really be missed. However, did they lose defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was let go when Vance Joseph took over as the new head coach for the retiring Gary Kubiak.

Joseph replaced Phillips with Joe Woods, their defensive backs coach last season. Joseph actually served on Phillips’ defensive coaching staff in Houston from 2011-2013, so both Woods and Joseph have worked under Phillips in the past. It’s a bit strange they wouldn’t want to keep their mentor around, especially since he’s arguably the best defensive coordinator in the league, but they seem to think they’re better off without him. Their 3-4 defensive scheme won’t change much, but their defense could decline a little bit without Phillips.

As mentioned, Williams won’t be missed much. He played 644 snaps for this defense last season, but has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league. A first round pick in 2013, Williams has been a complete bust, hence why the Broncos didn’t pick up his 5th year option for 2017. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar deal by the Titans this off-season. The Broncos will replace him with veteran Domata Peko, though he isn’t an upgrade.

Peko has made all 112 possible starts over the past 7 seasons, but has finished as one of the worst interior defensive linemen in the league on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, including 106th out of 127 eligible in 2016, and is now going into his age 33 season. He’ll be a pure base package run stuffer at nose tackle for them and won’t play as many snaps as Williams did, but he figures to struggle nonetheless. The 6-3 307 pounder isn’t even a good run stopper anymore.

Defensive end Jared Crick actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 939, but he finished 118th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen in 2016, so the Broncos probably want to avoid giving him so many snaps again. The 2012 4th round pick has never once finished above average in 5 seasons in the league and has been one of the worst 3-4 defensive ends in the league for the past 2 seasons, first in Houston in 2015 and then in Denver last season as the replacement for Malik Jackson.

The Broncos are counting on last year’s 2nd round pick, Adam Gotsis, to play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He struggled on 221 snaps as a rookie though and was considered a reach in the 2nd round when the Broncos drafted him, so there are no guarantees he plays well. The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick this year on Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker and he could have an immediate role as an interior rusher in sub packages. The 6-4 280 pounder is a weird fit in a base 3-4 defense, but has some interior pass rush ability.

At the other defensive end position, Derek Wolfe remains as an every down player and has finished 4th and 13th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 and 2016. There are a couple concerns with him though. For one, he finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league before Wade Phillips came in, so he could decline a little bit with Phillips gone, though the Broncos are sticking with the 3-4 defense that Wolfe fits best. The other concern is that he’s had a lot of nagging injuries over the past 2 seasons, including multiple neck injuries. He’s only missed 6 games over those 2 seasons, but his durability is a question mark. Wolfe is their only good veteran defensive lineman, so they need him to continue playing at a high level and they need a young player to step up.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Broncos also lost the retired DeMarcus Ware this off-season, but, while he is a future Hall-of-Famer, he was limited to 315 snaps in 10 games last season by injury and didn’t have much left in the tank, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season in 2017. Ware finished just 4th on the team in snaps played by an edge defender last season and won’t really be missed. In his absence, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett will split snaps on one side, with Von Miller remaining in an every down role on the other side.

Ray, a first round pick in 2015, was drafted with this scenario in mind and he has more sacks over the past 2 seasons than Barrett (12 vs. 7), but Barrett has been the better overall player over the past 2 seasons, excelling against the run, and figures to still have a role even if Ray is nominally the starter. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Barrett finished 20th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 566 snaps in 2015 and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 416 snaps in 2016. Ray, meanwhile, struggled on 341 snaps as a rookie, but finished slightly above average on 664 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, excelling as a pass rusher. Ray has the higher upside, but Barrett is probably the favorite for base package snaps, with Ray coming in as a situational pass rusher. They’re a promising young duo.

On the other side, Von Miller is one of the best defensive players in the league and an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller started his career as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end in a 4-3 defense, but has spent the past 2 seasons as a pure 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s excelled in both schemes, finishing in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including a 2016 season in which he finished #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers. He excels as a pass rusher, but plays the run really well too and can even drop into coverage, though the Broncos obviously would prefer him rushing the passer. Even with Wade Phillips gone, Miller should have a monster season.

At middle linebacker, Brandon Marshall returns as an every down player and will hopefully be healthy this season, after missing 5 games with injury in 2016. After barely playing in his first 2 seasons in the league, Marshall has developed into one of the best all-around linebackers in the league, finishing 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, 8th among middle linebackers in 2015, and 10th among middle linebackers in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Marshall should have another strong season in 2017.

Todd Davis remains the starter at the other middle linebacker spot, after making 15 starts in his first season as a starter in 2016. Davis went undrafted in 2014, but was better than expected in his first starting experience, finishing as around a league average middle linebacker. He plays the run much better than he covers, but fortunately he only really plays in base packages, with box safety TJ Ward frequently dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Davis played just 697 snaps last season and may not even have that many this season, especially if Marshall can stay healthy all season. This is still a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

In addition to Todd Davis’ issues in coverage, another reason why it makes sense for the Broncos to use Ward as a 2nd linebacker in passing situations is simply that the Broncos are much deeper at safety than linebacker. Both Ward and fellow starter Darian Stewart are solid starters, while 2016 3rd round pick Justin Simmons flashed on 296 snaps last season and is likely to see a bigger role in 2017. Simmons and Stewart will be their two safeties in sub packages, while Ward will play linebacker next to Brandon Marshall.

Ward finished below average last season for the first time in his 7-year NFL career, but wasn’t bad, finishing 50th out of 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus. Ward isn’t very big at 5-10 200, but plays much bigger than that, which allows him to stop the run well as a safety and play linebacker in passing situations. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also entering his age 31 season and could be on the decline. Going into the final year of his contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let him walk next off-season and make Simmons an every down starter.

Stewart, meanwhile, would have been a free agent this off-season, but was given a 4-year, 28 million dollar extension late last season. He’s come a long way from his failed first stint as a starter with the Rams in 2011, when he finished 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties. Stewart was an undrafted free agent in 2010 and was overmatched as a starter on a terrible team in his 2nd season in the league, which led to him not playing much in 2012. However, he became a starter again in 2013 with the Ravens has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since (49 starts). His best season came in 2015, when he finished 16th among eligible safeties, but he also finished 33rd last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, Stewart should be a solid starter for at least the next couple of seasons.

As much talent as the Broncos have at safety, they’re significantly more talented at cornerback. In fact, their top-2 cornerbacks, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, finished last season #1 and #2 respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, the first duo to go 1-2 like that in Pro Football Focus’ history. That masked their other issues on defense and kept this as one of the top defenses in the league, even with key players signing elsewhere last off-season.

For Chris Harris, this was nothing new, as he finished 1st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2014 as well. He “fell” to 9th in 2015, but that was his lowest rating since his rookie season in 2011. In the 5 seasons since his rookie season, he has made 74 starts and has played in 79 of a possible 80 games. He was not slowed in the slightest by a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season in the playoffs. One of the most successful undrafted free agents of all time, Harris excels on the slot and outside and is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL.

Talib, however, has never been as good as he was last season. In his 7 previous seasons in the league, Talib had maxed out at 15th among cornerbacks and finished just 28th in 2015. On top of that, he’s going into his age 31 season and has missed 24 games in 8 seasons in the league, including 3 last season. He could easily regress, especially without Wade Phillips around. Owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Broncos may part ways with him this off-season if he does not have a strong season again.

The Broncos have an obvious long-term replacement behind Aqib Talib in Bradley Roby, their 1st round pick in 2014. Roby has made just 10 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but that’s hardly been his fault, given who is ahead of him on the depth chart. Roby fell to 83rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016, but finished 23rd among cornerbacks the season before and has obvious long-term upside, still only going into his age 25 season.  He would start on most teams. The Broncos clearly still believe in him as a long-term starter, picking up his 8.526 million dollar option for 2018, though that is only guaranteed for injury. Next off-season, they will have to make choices because this secondary will get even more expensive to keep together, but, for now, they still have the best secondary in the league

Grade: A

Conclusion

In 2015, the Broncos had the talent level of a 9-7 team, but went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl because of close victories. Last season, they had the talent of a 9-7 team and actually went 9-7. They were a little bit worse last season than 2015 and could be a little bit worse again if the defense declines somewhat in the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but they should be in the mix for a playoff spot again. The big concern is the quarterback position, but if Paxton Lynch can develop in a hurry and give them solid quarterback play, this team has enough supporting talent to be a threat. That’s a big if though, considering how lost he looked in limited action last season. 

Prediction: 8-8, 4th in AFC West